With Leila positioned in the back seat of the car and Spencer to my immediate left, I drove us all towards Windsor, seeing as today was Clive’s day off. The ride was pleasant and took all of twenty minutes, consisting of a Little Mix sing-along.
As usual, the Michaels mansion was elegant and no less extravagant were the couple residing in it. James and Catherine looked positively glowing as they waited for us by the front door.
“Leila, baby! Come give grandma a big hug!” she commanded, meeting us over by the car.
Leila did as she instructed and squeezed the poor woman with all her might.
“I’m having a sleepover with Daddy and Jess tonight,” she explained, unable to hide her grin.
Catherine offered her a wide grin and proceeded to gush about how lucky she was.
“I bet you’ll have great fun,” she respinded, kissing Leila on both cheeks before repeating the action on her son. “Didn’t I tell you it would all work out?” she whispered, slyly looking to me afterwards. “Jessica, darling. My eldest has been miserable without you.”
She encouraged my body close to hers and pressed her full lips to my forehead.
“I’ve been the same without him,” I admitted, aware of listening ears.
Six-year-old listening ears, to be exact.
“Well, I’m glad you’ve both come to your senses.” She pulled away just an inch and regarded me closely. “I’m sorry to hear about your mum. If there is anything I can do for you…”
“Thanks. I really appreciate that.”
Her sweet smile matched her cheery outfit which consisted of an emerald green body warmer, black trousers and leather boots. She looked every inch the hiker in her attire and it had me wondering whether or not a walk was on the agenda for this afternoon’s visit.
“Grandad!” yelled Leila, alerting us all of James’s sudden presence by the car.
“Come here,8 poppet!” he delighted, lifting her tiny body up.
There, he took to spinning her around and only let up one her squeals of delight turned into shrieks of joy.
“Goodness! The neighbours will think a cat is being murdered.”
James and Catherine owned acres upon acers of land around their Victorian mansion and as far as I could see, their only neighbour was a field full of sheep.
“Let’s get inside. It’s freezing out here,” suggested Catherine, linking her arm through mine.
Once indoors, we went straight to their conservatory and drank tea like the civilised bunch we weren’t.
“What have you been doing at school, Leila?” asked James, focusing his efforts on his grandchild.
“We’ve been doing addition. I know what three add two is,” she boasted, sipping her juice. “It’s five!”
“Wow! What a clever clogs!” he smirked, truly impressed.
She went on to do more sums and once bored, asked if she could grab a snack from their kitchen. It was still a bit off lunch but not enough that Spencer wanted her eating too much, so decided to accompany on her mission. He offered my shoulder a loving squeeze on his way past and I took that to mean he’d keep Leila occupied long enough for me to detail my past to his mum and dad.
“Jessica, I just want to say how truly sorry I am,” expressed James, having not had the chance to say so beforehand. “I can’t imagine the pain you’re experiencing.”
“Thank you. I’ll admit, I’ve been keeping things bottled up. I think it’s only just starting to sink in now.”
“That’s completely normal,” insisted Catherine, offering my arm a gentle touch. “I’m glad you and Spencer are back together. We were worried about him, weren’t we James?”
“We were,” he admitted, clasping his hands together on his lap. “When he and Isabelle first separated, he didn’t cope well. He was adjusting to a new life without sight and then, out of the blue, she decided to leave him. He was angry and frustrated. However, with you he was just…lost. I’ve never seen him so out of whack. Thank goodness he’s had Leila to focus on because without her, I don’t know what he would’ve done.”
This insight into Spencer’s life without me very much mirrored my own. I, too, had been lost without him and in hindsight, it was rather pathetic. But what could I do? No matter how hard I tried, controlling my feelings was impossible.
“We realised splitting up was a mistake,” I revealed, voice weak. “It has brought to life something unexpected and I do have things I want to share with you both.”
Catherine and James perked up a little, clearly intrigued.
“As you know, Alister uncovered something about my past that puts Spencer’s rights in jeopardy.”
Both of them nodded. Spencer must’ve told them the bare minimum.
“It’s regarding something I’ve done. Something in my past,” I continued, feeling the sudden strain.
My palms began to sweat and long gone was my calm persona. Nausea crippled my body and just when I thought my condition couldn’t deteriorate, my ability to breath lessened.
“Sweetheart, it’s okay,” soothed Catherine, sensing my panic. “James, could you get her some water, please?”
Getting straight to it, James flew from his chair and returned seconds later with a glass of the good stuff.
“Thanks,” I gasped, taking long sips. “Sorry, this is just hard for me.”
I willed the image of my dead mother to leave my mind, yet found the task impossible. The mental picture plagued my sleep and followed me around in consciousness. Somehow, out of nowhere, the memory of Charlotte’s sleeping form came into view and strangely enough, offered me the courage to carry on.
“Don’t be sorry, darling,” encouraged Catherine, taking hold of my free hand. “Whatever you say, we’re not here to judge. You’re our family, Jessica. Rosalie came to us lost and we took her in. We’ll do the same for you.”
I wanted to delve more into Rosalie’s situation but decided I couldn’t hide anymore. This was my way of putting things right and their kindness was really all the incentive I needed to carry on. They were great people and deserved to hear the truth from me. And part of me wanted to tell them. I had been without a mother for so long and something about the way in which Catherine and James accepted me into their lives made me think of them as someone I could grow to love. Really love.
“I had a child when I was seventeen,” I whispered, forcing air into my lungs. “I was too young to be a mum so I gave her to a couple who couldn’t have kids of their own.”
I paused, allowing them both some thinking space.
“It was hard for me but I don’t regret my decision. I knew she’d have a better life with them.”
Soundlessly, Catherine squeezed my hand.
“At two weeks old, she passed away. They told me it was cot death and I felt somehow responsible.” I struggled on through. “It’s not that I didn’t love her, I just couldn’t look after her in the way she deserved. Of course, I blamed myself and in a moment of haste, I attempted to take my own life. I instantly regretted it and afterwards, made a promise to myself that I’d do better. I left school with good exam results and went to university. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t a failure, I wanted Charlotte to know her mum wasn’t a complete waste of space.”
James had an expression similar to that of heartbreak written across his face and as he left his seat to embrace me, I shot him an appreciative smile. His force was entirely encouraging and proved to be the perfect cure against my anxiety.
“I just want you both to know that I love Leila with all my heart. I know she’s not mine and I’d never attempt to take her away from Isy. But I do love her.”
“We know,” cried Catherine, waiting for James to step back before hugging me herself. “And we really commend you for telling us. That was incredibly brave of you.”
“Alister will likely use it as his defence. I wanted to be the one who told you both,” I explained, still shaking.
James grew visibly angry upon my mention of that name and had to take a few deep breaths to calm himself down.
“I’d like to throttle the bastard!” he revealed, looking to his wife afterwards. “The pain he has caused my son and now you.”
“He’ll get what’s coming to him,” ensured Catherine, likely only doing so to appease James. “Men like him always do.”
I was counting on it.
“Could you do me a favour?” I asked, aiming my enquiry more so at Catherine. “The next time you see Mary, could you fill her in. I’m not sure when I’ll next see her and I don’t want her finding out from him.”
Spencer’s beloved housekeeper was currently sunning it up on some resort in Spain. She often vacated alone and once a year during the bleak winter months, would jet off and enjoy an all-inclusive trip away.
“Of course I will.”
Just as Catherine said this, Leila’s sweet voice came hurdling through and forced us all to re-apply our happy smiles. She bounced in with as much enthusiasm as, well…a six-year-old and took to showing us all her first position which was the latest dance move she had learned in ballet class. Apparently, she was going to be a part-time ballerina when she grew up, as well as a singer whilst also managing the hotel chain. I, myself, struggled to see how she would balance such a hectic working-life but if anyone could do it, it was our Leila.
“Grandma, Grandad! I have a ballet concert in the summer. You have to come!” she pleaded, almost tripping over herself when she attempted a pirouette. “You too, Jess!” Her excitement dwindled for a second but she didn’t dare let it show for long. “Daddy, you won’t be able to see me but I’d still love for you to come. You could listen to the music and imagine it. I’ll shout what moves I’m doing,” she expressed, thinking fast on her feet as far as her dad was concerned.
“Sounds perfect, bambina. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
Her huge grin said it all and with barely any notice, she jumped straight into his arms. “It’s probably better that you can’t see,” she giggled, kissing his cheeks. “I’m not very good at it yet.”
“Nonsense, in my imagination, you’re the best!” he exclaimed, making a show of spinning her around and dancing along to the non-existent music.
“Daddy! Maybe you could dance with me on the stage!” she yelled, still spinning from Spencer’s insistence to twirl her.
I couldn’t help but watch in awe as the two pranced around like the world’s worst ballerinas. A herd of elephants would better describe their movements but still, it was a sight to behold. Spencer looked so carefree as he flung Leila around the conservatory and better yet, completely abled. It didn’t matter that he had no way of telling where he was when his six-year-old daughter had the sense to direct him herself. Every now and then she’d instruct him on where to turn next or warn him if they were about to hit a wall. They were a team and worked well with one another. They had a special bond like no other and any judge would be an idiot to not take that into consideration. If only they saw what I saw, they’d know without a doubt he would die protecting his little girl. We both would. It was natural for kids to go through life with a few bumps and bruises along the way. We’d never intentionally let anything bad happen to Leila and the sooner we proved that to the court, the better.