Veronica.

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9. You're hard work, Max Argent.

Present day.

With my phone tucked between my ear and shoulder, I continue to pick at the blueberry muffin that sits in my lap. On-hold music plays down the line and as my waiting time moves towards the ten-minute marker, I take comfort in the tasty treat I stuff into my mouth. I’m chewing furiously when a beep reaches my ears.

“Hello, this is Party Madness, how can I help you on this lovely Wednesday morning?” The man’s voice is just as annoying and cheerful as the first one I spoke to.

I swallow what’s left of my food, “Hi. This is Miss Halloway. I recently ordered a bouncy castle for my kids’ sixth birthday party. Yesterday, I received an email telling me that my order would be with me by the eighth of June, but I ordered one for the eighteenth of May.”

“Oh, that doesn’t sound right, does it? Let me have a look for you. What’s your reference number please?” Once I’ve repeated it four times, I hear him tapping away at a keyboard before he replies. “It says you ordered for the eighth of June on our systems, Miss.”

“Why would I order it for the eighth? They are six next week!”

“I’m not sure, maybe you made a mistake whilst ordering?”

I suck in a breath, “I didn’t. Is there any way I could have it delivered next Saturday instead?”

“No. I’m afraid what we have in stock currently has all been hired. It will be available on the eighth of June though.”

“That’s great... But, I don’t need it then! Listen, my children are really looking forward to it. The entertainment has already pulled out, I really need this bouncy castle.”

“I do apologise, Miss but there is nothing we can do as all of our bouncy castles are currently out of stock.”

“Right. What do I need to do get my deposit refunded?” I roll my eyes at my terrible luck.

“So, you do not want the bouncy castle on the eighth of June?”

I sigh, ”No. I really don’t.”

“Okay. Well then, we will refund the full deposit amount to the payment card on the order. Is that all today, Miss Halloway?”

“Yes, that’s all. Thanks for nothing.”

I hang up sharply. My head falls back as I send a silent ‘fuck you’ to the sky. There goes another idea of mine. And whilst everything is falling apart, my twins have no idea. They run around the school’s playground with their friends excited for their sixth birthday. I am sat behind a table that is decorated with all sorts of cakes. The blueberry muffins Max and I made the other day sitting in the centre.

As I’m about to take another one, my phone rings. I answer it believing that it’s Party Madness calling back.

“What do you want? I thought we sorted things out?”

Then I hear Max’s voice.

“Whoa, who pissed you off? Are you okay?”

I can’t deny the smile that edges its way to my lips. With thoughts of our kiss running through my mind, I reply.

“I suddenly feel a lot better actually.”

“What happened?” He asks.

Max’s genuine interest in my life constantly surprises me. I explain the situation to him as he listens intently without interrupting.

“... Then there’s the guy who’s supposed to entertain the kids. He fell down the stairs... onto his dog.” I say.

“Whoa.”

“He’s fine but he broke his dog’s hip. He’s taking it to some specialist out of town on the day of their birthday for surgery.” I can’t quite believe the words that leave my mouth. When did my life become a bad comedy?

Max is silent for a second. “I can help with entertainment if you like?”

“Don’t tell me you’re a children entertainer too?”

“No! But, if your son loves fire engines as much as Zac does, then I could see about bringing one over and a few of the guys who have the day off could come with me. That would keep James entertained for a while at least. He could even get to sit in the beast if he wanted too.”

“The beast?”

“That’s what we call the trucks,” Max laughs as he replies. “What do you say?”

A thought crosses my mind. “You, uh, want to meet the twins?”

Isn’t it too soon for that?

“I’d love to,” he says without any hesitation, but it seems he doesn’t miss the reserve in my voice as seconds later he says, “That’s if you want me to. I also don’t need to meet them as the Max you know... the one who enjoys spending time with their mum. I can meet them as a fireman. You said so yourself that you need entertainment, but I completely understand if you’re not ready to take that step.”

“I honestly don’t know. We should have that conversation face to face,” I tug at my lower lip; a habit I’ve had since I was a child. My parents always knew when something was bothering me. They’d say my tell was the furious biting of my lower lip.

“Okay. Face to face it is then. Look up.”

My heart jumps at his words. I do as he says, frowning once I realise he isn’t actually stood in front of me.

“Max?” I ask softly.

“Kidding,” he replies. “But, seriously, Veronica, I’d like to take you out on a date.”

I imagine the tension that would be showing on his face if he were to be standing in front of me asking me the same question and chuckle softly. He’d be desperate for me to say something... anything in return. With a slight smirk on my face, I sigh loudly.

“Oh, I don’t know... That’s a question that I’d like to be asked in person.”

“Fine. You’re at the bake sale, yes? I’ll be there in an hour.”

“Max! Whoa, hold your horses. The twins are here and Joel should be arriving soon!” I quickly reply.

“Fine. Meet me in the car park in an hour? No one will see us.”

“Are you being serious?”

“Deadly.” His tone calls for no argument.

“You’re hard work, Max Argent,” I give in.

Something tells me he’s smiling on the other side of the line, “I will see you in an hour, Miss Halloway. I’ll be wearing red.”

With that, he hangs up. I stare at the table ahead of me with the flutter of butterflies in my stomach becoming apparent instantly. Max who entered my life no more than two weeks ago has stirred something inside of me. Something I thought died when Joel broke my heart.

When Joel hurt me, I swore off men. My children became the most important things in my life when they were born and I hated how weak Joel made me feel. I swore I’d never let another man hurt me as he did. But, now there’s Max.

My thoughts are disrupted when a voice I hate to recognise cuts through the silence.

“What are you smiling over, Roni?” Joel appears in front of me as I look up. Today he’s wearing a long-sleeve, navy jumper and black jeans. His sunglasses push the hair on top of his backward and as he reaches the table, he pulls them off before hanging them over the jumper’s collar.

“Joel. That really is none of your business, is it?” I say, my eyes trailing away from his to the woman stood at his side.

Chloe’s arm is wrapped around his, her coffin-shaped nails like red danger signs. She hasn’t removed her sunglasses, so I can’t be sure that the smile she plasters on reaches her entire face. I can’t be sure of anything when it comes to her. Joel is handsome, yes. He lives off his family’s money but I get the sense that Chloe herself is a wealthy lady. Therefore why is she with him? He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, and he most definitely isn’t romantic. My eyebrows furrow. What is it that a woman like her sees in him?

“Veronica. Lovely to see you again. Where are the twins?” She asks, her melodic voice shattering any happiness I felt earlier.

I point over her shoulder, “They are running around here somewhere. Can I interest you in a cake? Any donation you can spare for the school’s new playground will be appreciated!”

“Oh, no. I don’t eat cake.”

“At all?” I ask, my mouth falling open.

She shakes her head, “No, my personal trainer has me on a strict diet this month. I will be happy to write a cheque for the playground of course.”

Of course.

Once she’s dug through the giant purse that hangs over her shoulder, she bends forward to lean on the table. I gasp as she hands me the cheque.

“£300?” I ask without even trying to hide my shock.

“Chloe is really giving, Roni. You should thank her.”

I snap, not giving him the satisfaction of meeting his eye, “I was about to. Thanks, Chloe.”

“You’re welcome! I’m going in search of the children, are you coming, baby?” She purrs.

Baby?

If someone were to hand me her expensive purse, I’d throw up in it.

“I am. Let’s go find my children.” My ex replies, his hand sliding down to cup her ass as they turn away.

I want to do nothing more than yell at him that they are our children but I hold it in for the sake of the many youngsters running around. As I watch them walk away, a hand falls onto my shoulder.

“She does realise that this is a bake sale, not the Grand National right?”

I tilt my head up to find Meredith is stood behind me. Her hand on my shoulder is gentle and I hate to say it, comforting. The two of us stare then at Chloe. Her plum, lace dress reaches her knees; the sleeves her elbows. She’s paired it with a pair of strappy, white heels.

“I honestly don’t know,” I reply, grateful to have someone on my side even if it is Meredith Mills.

“Well, let’s hope that she doesn’t bend down to play with the children. The fathers would get an eyeful!” She laughs lightly.

To say I’m surprised at her humour is an understatement. Maybe the new man in her life is bringing out the best of her personality?

“She gave us this,” I take a hold of Chloe’s donation.

Meredith takes the cheque from my fingers, “Show off much?”

“Don’t take this as an insult, Meredith, but don’t you have enough money to pay for a perfect playground yourself?” Her eyes meet mine.

“I do, but my children are what I chose to spend my money on and in my opinion, a playground is lower on the list of what they need. Hey, who would’ve known that you could bake?” She picks up a muffin and begins to pull the case away.

“I won’t take that as a backhanded insult.”

“Oh! Please don’t! These are lovely, by the way! I’ve already eaten two. Paid for them, of course!”

When she shoves a quarter of the muffin past her painted lips, I can’t stop myself from smiling.

“You eat cake?” I ask.

“A woman must eat cake, Veronica. After all, my body has pushed out three babies. It deserves sugar.”

Her words come from a genuine place and that is what makes me shuffle from the middle of the bench I’m sat on. She sits then by my side. As we make small talk, I keep an eye on James who is swinging from the old, monkey bars. He’s going good for a few minutes until his fingers slip. Seconds later his body comes down hard on the wood chips beneath him. His scream cuts through the playground.

I’m on my feet and rushing towards him within the second. As I reach him, he lifts his face out of the ground and I see the many tears that fall down his red face.

“James, it’s okay, kiddo. Let me see you.” I drop onto the floor by his side.

He hasn’t broken anything because he climbs into my lap with strong arms. His head sinks against the crook of my neck, his tears no doubt staining my cream blouse. I rub at his back gently as he weeps.

“Let’s take you inside, come on.”

I lift us both off the ground and carry him in my arms towards the school building. Once inside, I sit him down on the edge of a sink. I’m about to pull up his trouser leg when Chloe appears in the doorway.

“Can I help?” She approaches my son.

I watch as she rests herself on the desk, wrapping one arm around James’ shoulders. He doesn’t complain, instead, he nods his head slowly and rubs at his eyes. I inspect the bloody graze on his knee. When I begin wiping at it with a wet wad of cotton wool his little fingers wrap around Chloe’s. For a split second my jealousy freezes me to the spot. I stop and stare as my son begins to trust someone else but me. Whether it makes me a terrible mother, I can’t help but hate Joel for bringing the woman who is now comforting my son into our lives.

“There you go. That’s okay, isn’t it?” Chloe asks him once I’ve laid the plaster over his knee.

“Yes, it feels bit better,” he replies.

“A bit, honey. It feels a bit better.” I correct him.

James smiles softly, “Can I go find daddy?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“I’ll take him,” Chloe’s eyes meet mine as if asking for permission.

I nod silently.

And after the two of them leave, I brace myself against the same desk they were sat on. My senses tell me that my children will fall in love with Chloe quickly. She’s kind and gentle with them and children eat that shit up. A shaky breath escapes me. I am not ready to share my twins, especially with someone who can offer them a hell of a lot more than I can.

That thought crushes me.

I clench my jaw and square my shoulders. My defence mechanism has always been to show strength over anything else. Chloe may be perfect but she isn’t their mother... I just hope that’s enough to stop the irrational thoughts in my head.

Once I’ve gathered my emotions, I return to the playground and that’s when my phone bleeps. Max has text me that he has arrived early. With a glance at my children who play happily with their father, I head off towards the car park.

He’s sat in his car and the window is wound all the way down. I approach and as our eyes meet I instantly feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

“Hey!” He greets me with a brief wave.

“Hi.”

I bend down to rest my forearms on the driver side door, looking in at him. His casual attire catches my attention first. The red t-shirt he has on is too big for him and leads down to a pair of grey shorts. Then there are the sunglasses that are perched on his nose. With an audible hum, I pull them away from his face before gently throwing them onto the passenger seat. Then I trail my eyes across his features. His masculine jaw and nose are overpowered by the scar that cuts through his tanned skin, but I can’t imagine him any other way.

“Veronica, are you okay?” I stop staring then, realising how close we’ve become.

“Yeah, James took a fall, so I’m a little shaken up.”

“Is he alright?” Max asks, worry filling his face.

“Yeah. He’s fine. Chloe helped me clean up his knee. He’s with her now. They both are...” The picture-perfect family I saw seconds ago fills my mind.

A soft sigh reaches my ears and Max takes a hold of my hands. “I really wish I could come in there and be by your side. She really gets to you, doesn’t she?” He says this all the while grazing the pad of his thumb across my knuckles. The action wrecks my nerves.

I nod my head reluctantly.

“Hey, it’s alright to be upset, you know? You’re not the first ex-wife to feel this way about a new woman.” I’m about to correct him but he interrupts me. “And I know you don’t feel like this because of Joel or even Chloe, really. You don’t want to miss out on the twins, do you?”

“No. I have brought them up, Max. They’re mine.”

He blinks briefly, “They are.”

“Sorry! You don’t need to see me like this. I’m usually a lot less upset. I promise,” I smile faintly.

“There’s the smile I adore.”

“I’m glad you’re here, Max. Even if it is a secret visit.”

“Me too. Oh! I forgot to tell you that Darla and Henry’s son has been given the clear to leave the hospital. They took him home yesterday,” he says.

“That’s great! What’s his name?”

“Maddox.”

“How cute.”

“Yeah. I’m heading over to meet him actually after I-”

“You what, huh?” I squeeze his fingers between my own gently. “I’m ready for the question, Max!”

“Veronica, would you go out on a date with me?”

I break into a full on grin, “Maybe...”

“What would it take for you to say yes?” His lips curve upwards, as he wiggles his eyebrows suggestively.

“Come to my children’s birthday party.”

“Are you sure?” He’s shocked, to say the least.

“Deadly,” I reply with a wink.

“Of course. And you, what’s your answer?”

I take a deep breath, replying with a soft nod of my head, “I want nothing more than to go on a date with you.”

And as simple as that, Max and I confirm our attraction to one another. And just like that, I’m as excited as a teenager for the first time in a long while.

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