Veronica.

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4. Like a date?

My twins may be cute, but they have their father’s terrible time keeping skills. At age five, they believe that school is the best place on earth, but they hate waking up for it. Especially James. My son is like myself in that respect. When I was a teenager, I’d do anything I could to stay in bed for longer than was acceptable. Snooze was my best friend. Unfortunately for my son, I’m his alarm clock and there’s no snooze in sight.

Their school is a short walk away and I get the honour of taking them this morning. I got home from the club at three and got five hours of sleep. When I arrived home, Ava was asleep on the sofa and upon me waking her, she told me she felt sick. I told her to take today to herself. Needless to say, I’m shattered. I’m on my fourth cup of coffee and as James and Rowan shuffle down the stairs, I finish it with a large gulp. I smile at both with wide eyes.

“Who’s excited to go to school?”

“Me!” Rowan replies, throwing her Frozen school bag over her shoulder with the enthusiasm of a TV quiz host. The snowman from the movie stares at me with his scary eyes as my daughter bends down to slip her dolly shoes on.

“James?” I wave my hand in front of my son’s face.

“Too. Tired. To. Talk,” he groans and the two of us look down at his feet.

“Wrong feet, baby!”

The three of us leave the house ten minutes later. That is after James rushed upstairs to pee and find his school bag. It also took us a while to get his reluctant feet into the right shoes. When we’re finally on our way, I cling to their hands. I do it to keep them close by, but mostly to hold James’ tired body up.

We arrive at the school grounds seconds before the bell rings. Children are already lined up in the playground, their teachers waiting for them to be quiet. I hug my two and they rush off to join the back of the line. Rowan waves as they reach it, her bright eyes finding mine in the crowd of parents. The children begin to head inside minutes later. I watch the hem of Rowan’s yellow skirt dance around the doorway.

“Veronica! Veronica!”

I turn in time to find Meredith Mills, mother of three and head of the parents’ committee. She approaches me, waving her manicured nails in my direction. She holds a colourful flyer, of which she shoves into my hands seconds later. Her honeycomb, blonde hair is tied back in a tight ponytail and her pinstriped trousers are cropped at the ankle, revealing a pair of baby-pink kitten heels. She flutters her eyelashes, as she moves to shake my free hand.

“I haven’t seen you in a while! I was worried you’d forgotten about the bake sale. You haven’t, have you?” She asks, gesturing towards the flyer that I hold.

It’s hard to think that the two of us are of the same age. If anyone I know is in total control of their lives, it’s Meredith. She’s a single mother of three; ages eight, six and four. The children are incredibly polite, quiet and placid. Their mother owns her own cleaning company, drives a matte, black range rover and they live in a detached house in the city.

“I do remember. I just haven’t had the time to get in touch with you. Life has been hectic,” I begin to explain.

“I told the others that. I knew you wouldn’t just ignore my texts!”

I fold up the flyer and put it in my jeans pocket, ready to put on the pile I already have at home. Meredith smiles, revealing her perfectly straight, white teeth.

“We just need the parents to bake stuff. The money is going towards the school’s new playground! You want that, right?”

I nod my head robotically, as I always do when she speaks to me, “Yes, Meredith. I do.”

I’m staring at the large diamonds that hang from her ears when I spot Max’s unmistakable, messy, sandy hair in the dispersing crowd. I cover up my audible gasp with a weak cough. Meredith eyes me for a second longer before speaking once again,

“I’d like to see you at the meetings too. Your children are a part of the school after all and you should get involved. Text me what you plan on baking, yeah?”

I shuffle sideways to hide my face from Max, “Yes. I will.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, Meredith.”

For the life of me, I can’t not look over her shoulder at Max. Our eyes lock seconds later as he turns towards me. Instantly, I avert my gaze to the woman in front of me, who is now frowning, slightly confused at my odd behaviour.

“I love your earrings. They’re beautiful.”

Meredith smiles, her eyes brightening, “Keep this to yourself, Veronica... I am seeing somebody, and these are a gift from him. They are stunning, right?”

“How exciting for you. Meredith, I’ll text you. I should be going now.”

“Oh. Okay. If you don’t text me, remember I know where you live,” she’s smiling but she isn’t joking. I would not put it past her, at all.

With a tilt of my head, I aim for the busy street to get away from Max quickly. I don’t get that far. He’s stood directly in my path, the small smile on this face telling me that he’s aware of my attempt at avoiding him.

I raise my hand, waving awkwardly, “Hi.”

“I’m trying to think of any other reason you would be running away other than to avoid me, but I can’t find anything.”

“I’m not going to lie to you. I did try and bail but, I was not running!”

He finds this amusing, “I see. I could turn around if you’d like? Pretend I never saw you?”

“No. I don’t want that.”

“Are you sure?” He asks, taking a step towards me.

This morning, he looks extremely attractive. His eyes glistening in the sunlight. He has on a navy, denim jacket; the sleeves of which are rolled up, above a plain, white t-shirt. In order to be able to do his job effectively, I imagine he keeps himself active. That’s clear from the way his t-shirt falls down his chest.

I am speechless for a second.

“You look... different,” Max comments, running his eyes down my outfit.

I too look down at my clothes. I’m wearing a knitted navy jumper and a pair of skinny jeans. I have no make-up on, and my hair falls in its naturally wavy form, down past my shoulders.

“This is Monday morning Veronica. You saw Sunday night Veronica. There’s quite the jump between the two, huh?”

“Mhm, I like them both.”

We stare at each other a little longer than normal before I break the silence, “What are you doing here, Max?”

“Oh... Oh! Don’t go thinking I have children, please! I was dropping my nephew off. His mum is going through some stuff right now and he’s been staying at mine.”

“Ohhh, I see. What’s his name?”

“Zachary Kent.”

“You’re Lou’s brother?” It all makes sense the second I think about it. Lou has a brother called Maxwell who is a firefighter. They have the same eyes and hair colour. I begin to smile wider, “Your name’s Maxwell.”

“On my birth certificate, yes but you can call me Max.”

“What if I want to call you Maxwell?” I smirk.

Max scrunches up his nose, “My mother used to call me Maxwell when I was in trouble. So, I’d rather you not.”

“Were you a bad kid?”

“The worst.”

I laugh, quickly covering my mouth with my palm. A few of the parents who are still around, begin to stare in our direction.

“Should we walk?” I ask.

“After you,” Max gestures for me to walk beside him and I do so.

The two of us head away from the school. Our footsteps the only sound between us until we reach the gates of the nearby park. He opens it for me, and I step through. It is a beautiful, crisp, April morning. The grass ahead of us has been bitten by the frost and as we step onto it, it crackles under our feet. Tall Ash trees are scattered around the field, their branches swaying slightly in the morning breeze.

“I feel stupid asking because it’s kind of a given, but do you have children?” Max breaks the silence.

“Yeah. My twins are five years old.”

He nods, not giving anything away with his facial expressions, “What are their names?”

“I have a boy called James and Rowan is his sister.”

“I hate to be that guy, but I have to ask for my own sanity... Their father? Is he in the picture?” His question doesn’t surprise me. It’s the next obvious one after learning I have children.

I shake my head, “Joel is engaged to marry someone else actually.”

“Idiot.”

“What?” I stare up at his charming smile.

“I don’t know the story, but I do know that he must be an idiot to let you go.”

“Woah, Max, that’s quite the bold statement.”

“I’m sorry if I overstepped-” he begins.

Interrupting him, I begin to wiggle my eyebrows suggestively, “I could be a serial killer for all you know. He might’ve been smart to get away.”

“Woman, you scared me! I thought you were about to tell me off.”

“I’ll warn you by using your full name first,” I nudge his body gently with my own, “Anyway, Joel is an idiot.”

We walk further into the park, before stopping at a bench that sits overlooking the pond. A few ducks swim across the water, leaving ripples in their wake. The place has a relaxing atmosphere about it. I understand completely why it’s always packed during the summer months.

“Max, what did you mean when you said you have to ask about the twins’ dad for your own sanity?” I ask once we’re both seated.

He watches the water and I watch how his jawline moves with each word he says, “Well... I, uh- I think you’re an interesting woman and I’d like to get to know you more,” he stops when he catches me staring, “What are you staring at?”

“Your scar, it’s distinctive.” The truth leaves my lips instantly.

“Really?”

“I wouldn’t lie to you,” the words are barely there.

He’s staring down at me as though if he didn’t, I’d vanish. It’s as though he’s taking in every last detail of my features to store away. Then his gaze drops to my lips. I feel my heart flutter. If he kissed me right now there’d be no way I’d push him away. I blink ever so slowly as his hand reaches across the distance between us. He brings his thumb to the corner of my mouth, running it over my lips seconds later.

Just as I think he’s going to move towards me, he pulls his hand away. Clearing his throat, he speaks, “I want to. Don’t think I don’t. It’s just-”

Not wanting to hear his reasons, I interrupt him once more, “I understand. Hey, tell me, how did the rest of your birthday go?” To say I’m disappointed is an understatement but I choose to forget about how I felt seconds earlier.

Max grins, “Well, the first half of the night was brilliant. This beautiful, sexy, alluring woman allowed me to see her true self...” I’m taken aback by his kind words, “We went to a bar afterwards and had a few drinks. I couldn’t stay out late because I had Zak to look after.”

“He’s ten, isn’t he?”

“Yeah.”

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what’s wrong with his mother?”

“Oh, it’s fine,” he sighs, “My sister is going through a divorce. She isn’t having the best month.”

I grimace, “That’s terrible. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“She’ll be okay. She’s the strongest member of the Argent family.”

“Maxwell Argent. That’s quite a name. Do you have a cool middle name I should know about?”

“Sean.”

“Nice. Mine’s Emily. Veronica Emily Halloway.”

“How pretty,” he chuckles, “Look at us sharing middle names. Next thing you know we’ll be having sleepovers.”

I can’t help the smile that grows on my face, “You never know. Maybe we should share mobile numbers first? See where that takes us?”

“Sure.”

Max hands me his phone and I punch in my mobile number. Once I’ve returned it, he texts me almost immediately.

“Gosh, we’ve been talking for half an hour!”

“We have?” Max asks, not looking surprised in the slightest.

“Yes. Time definitely got away from us.”

“Veronica, before I lose my bottle, I have something to ask.”

“Shoot!”

He puffs his cheeks out before speaking, “There’s this party at the station next Tuesday. It’s sort of like a Valentine’s day thing, like buy a fireman for the evening kind of deal. The money goes to charity. I was hoping you’d come as my plus one?”

“Like a date?” I ask, my stomach beginning to somersault once more.

“Yes. If you’re not sold by the free pizza and cheap, boxed wine then maybe you will be once I tell you that us guys have to perform whilst people bid on us.”

“Perform? Like a dance?”

“Yeah. I regret signing up for it.”

“I’m definitely in, just so I can see you dance!”

“You’ll come?” He asks, his eyes widening.

“Of course! Next Tuesday evening?”

“Yes! I will text you the details as I learn them.”

✖✖✖

I rush through the doors of the club around an hour later. A few girls are already dancing but the one I want is stood behind the bar. Her curly hair is tied into a bun atop her head, her bright eyes meeting mine. Her plump lips form a smile. Dressed in a plum, bodycon dress, she looks as beautiful as always.

“Darcy! You have got to help me!” I lean against the bar, my forearms resting against it.

“Sure. What’s the matter?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Lydia is up on stage. She is walking around the pole, swinging her hips to the soft rhythm of the music. She took my advice obviously; the corset she wears accentuates her small breasts and gives her the appearance of a curved waist.

I comment, “She’s doing better.”

“Yeah! And I know what she did to you, but she seems like a nice girl,” Darcy has always been able to see the good in people despite everything.

“Too late for that now,” I wave my hand. “I have a date, Darcy! A date. With that firefighter. You know the one with the messy hair and the scar that-”

“I know which firefighter. The one you couldn’t take your eyes off the other night?” I nod my head slowly. “You’re smitten, aren’t you? What can I help you with?”

“Fancy going on a shopping trip?”

“Yes! Of course! I finish at half past,” the two of us look up at the clock on the wall. She has twenty minutes left.

“Okay! Brilliant. I’ll wait.”

✖✖✖

I received a text from Max minutes after the two of us went our separate ways. I must wear red to the party. That being the reason why Darcy and I are now stood in front of five red outfits. We’re in the changing rooms, the outfits hanging on the back of the door. It takes me twenty minutes to try on four of the five. One dress reaches my ankles, the other mid-calf. One has a halter neckline that drapes down to my navel, leaving very little to the imagination. The other is too tight on my curves.

“One left,” I am slowly being defeated by red dresses.

The final dress slips over my head easily. I stare at myself in the mirror, my eyes trailing over the silk fabric. It’s not too revealing and fits me perfectly. I run my hands down my waist and begin smiling,

“This is the one!” I squeal happily.

Darcy eyes up my outfit before agreeing, “Yes! That is definitely the one.”

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