The voyage of discovery took longer than expected and by the time Mark and Rachel were about to leave the house, Sally had already been on the phone declaring that she was starving to death.
“Just one thing,” said Mark as they got into the car. “How did you get the complaints dropped?”
“Me?” said Sally innocently.
“Yes, you. Total honesty, remember?”
“When I went to get dressed there was a message from Tony on my phone. He wanted to know why Sam was in the office looking smug. I texted him about the complaint, and I may have reminded him about the clause in our contracts that threatens dire consequences if an employee is found to have brought the company into disrepute. Whatever way you look at it, Sam and Adele both did that by breaking the law. Sam’s latest piece openly acknowledged that he drove without insurance, and that Adele’s car had originally been taken without consent. Although she changed her mind, she had to admit all the parking and congestion charges that hadn’t been paid. Tony spiked Sam’s piece as a consequence because it was a clear admission of guilt and did not reflect well on the company. He was told to go away and write more objectively about the way the locals helped to rescue the car that his girlfriend had lent him. That’s all.”
“All! You should have been a lawyer. No, that’s wrong. You are what you are and you are brilliant. Thank you.”
He kissed Rachel very soundly before starting the car, and having to concentrate on the short ride to Lou’s house, where Sally was standing in the front door and rubbing her stomach in agony.
“Over-dramatic Sal. Have you all decided what you want to eat?” said Mark, picking Sally up and whirling her around.
“Chinese! We all want Chinese, don’t we Mum?”
“We do,” said Lou, hugging Rachel and whispering in her ear, “Jenny and I have been making up excuses for you two. I have no intention of asking what took you so long.”
Jenny had already identified the required dishes for everyone bar Mark and Rachel; once they’d added their choices to the list, Mark rang up and ordered the food. “Twenty minutes. Whose coming with me? If you smile and ask nicely, I’ve heard that they add extra prawn crackers to the bag.”
“Me, me, me.” said Sally as she jumped up and down hanging on to Mark’s arm.
“And me too.” said Sarah.
“You can stay here Pluto. We’ll make sure that there are enough prawn crackers for everyone.”
“Do dogs eat prawn crackers?” asked Sarah.
Mark kissed Rachel and hugged Lou before being dragged out to the car by his nieces.
Lou looked suspiciously at Rachel. “In the kitchen. There’s something worrying you and we need to sort it.”
Rachel followed meekly and sat down on her favourite kitchen stool. Lou knew her too well. “Thing is Lou, I was on the pill all the time that Sam and I were together. He wanted children even less than he wanted commitment. I just went along with it. One of my final acts of rebellion when he left was to throw the pills in the bin. I haven’t bothered to do anything about it since and well…”
“You and my big brother have been at it like a pair of rabbits. Sorry to be so crude, but the two of you can barely keep your hands off each other.”
Blushing, Rachel nodded but had to admit the truth of Lou’s assertion. “Neither of us felt this way before. One thing we are agreed on, is that sex with our previous partners was just that and nothing more. Making love with Mark is incredible, and wonderful, and you are right, we cannot keep our hands off each other.”
“And now you are worried that all this bonking is going to result in a baby? Have you talked to Mark about this?”
“Not yet. It only really occurred to me just then, watching him with Sally and Sarah. I don’t even know if I can have children. I’m getting on a bit, and they say that being on the pill for a long time reduces your fertility. He may not even want children.”
“Rubbish. One thing I remember Mark saying in the days after Sorrel left, was that he would have loved to have children, but that she was incapable of caring for anyone but herself. You on the other hand, are a brilliant auntie and would make a wonderful mother. Talk to him tonight when you get home?”
“I will. Things are looking up workwise for both of us. All the complaints have been dropped so Mark can go back to work when his leave is over, and Tony has definitely got the book deal for me – and the paper. We are going to talk about my working from home permanently. Mark and I are going out to buy me a proper desk and office chair so that I can work more comfortably. Oh, and paint. We both hate Mark’s dark brown wardrobes so we’re going to paint them in a more soothing colour.”
“You two certainly move fast when you get going. Though I have to admit that there have been times over the past six months that I’ve wanted to give you both a good kick up the bum to get you going.”
“It was me that needed a kick, not Mark. He’s known right from the moment we met, but he also knew that he had to give me the space to make my own decisions and not pressure me. It’s another of the things that I love about him Lou. It wasn’t until I came here, spent time with you and the girls, and then met Mark, that I realised how much of myself had been lost while I was living with Sam.”
“I know. I also knew that that for as long as we’ve been friends, you’ve always had to make your own mind up. I suppose that not having proper parents made you allow Sam to take charge. Mark will never do that – unless he’s being a policeman of course. Talking of which, here comes the cavalry with our dinner. Don’t be upset if Sally and Sarah prevent you from sitting next to your intended. They might take a while to get used to the situation.”
There was enough food for several banquets, and as Lou predicted, Mark was commandeered by two of his nieces. Jenny consented to come down and join the feast for a while, but found the whole engagement business a bit boring – or so she said. Lou had a feeling that Jenny was just as torn between Mark and Rachel as her little sisters were. Food settled everyone down however, and gave Mark the opportunity to talk about the funeral arrangements. “We need to know what you would like before we speak to the funeral directors, girls,” he said. “I know that your Dad went away, and that makes you feel sad, but he was a very popular man once. Your Auntie Rachel and your Mum knew him best in those days, and so did most of the older people in the Village. Whatever happened when things went wrong with him and he went away to Portugal, he loved your Mum once, and he has always loved you girls. What we want to do is to give him a proper send off, a proper goodbye from all of us and from the Village. What do you think?”
“Will we have a party?” asked Sally.
Lou raised her eyebrows. “It’s called a ‘wake’ darling. It’s a kind of party, but once it’s over we can have a proper party to celebrate Auntie Rachel and Uncle Mark’s engagement.”
“Can we have new dresses for the funeral?”
“Of course. Nothing black though. Your Dad wouldn’t have wanted you dressed like little old ladies.”
“Can we have new dresses for the engagement party too?”
“Definitely.” Mark smiled at Rachel across the table.
“If you are going to get married as well, does that mean you’re going to have bridesmaids and a big white dress like a meringue?”
“Bridesmaids yes.” Said Rachel. “White meringue no. I’m relying on you and your Mum to help choose something that is more me than a big white dress. Perhaps Ben’s friend will have some ideas?”
“That was something else I forgot to tell you Rachel.” said Mark. “When we were talking about wedding rings, he also mentioned that he had some antique wedding dresses in the back of the shop, but he wouldn’t let me look at them because it was bad luck apparently. I picked something else up in the shop though.”
He handed her the blue velvet box he’d put in his jacket pocket. Rachel opened it up; a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings that matched her ring, and shone in the lamplight.
“Oh Mark!” she said. “I didn’t even see you buy these. They are beautiful!”
Lou admired the earrings and gave Rachel a hug. “Bruv, you are full of surprises. We could spend hours browsing in that shop, Rachel, but between the tea room, cooking and feeding this lot, I don’t have much of a social life anymore, and nothing to dress up for.”
“That will change. Trust me.” Rachel winked at Lou and mouthed ‘Doctor H?”
Lou blushed and threw a napkin at her before taking plates and cutlery out to the kitchen.
“You entertain these young ladies Mark, Lou and I will clear up.” said Rachel. “There are still some prawn crackers left and Pluto has his eye on them.”