Despite the cooler evenings emerging in Norfolk, the pub where Gemma and her friends were chilling out had become hot and sticky.
“Listen, I’m going to step outside for a breath of fresh air. I won’t be long,” she told her friends.
Audrey eyed her suspiciously and glanced sideways at the man standing at the bar who’d been studying her best friend with interest all evening. “Hmm… are you sure you two haven’t been using telepathy?”
Gemma screwed up her nose in disgust. “Eww… you’ve got to be winding me up. I’m a married woman.” She flashed her ring at her friend.
“Like that has stopped you in the past,” Audrey ribbed her.
Gemma shook her head, tutted, and picked up her handbag. She knew Audrey was only joking about her being unfaithful to her husband, Mark, in the past, but it didn’t stop her wanting to deck her friend for making her out to be a slapper in front of the rest of the group. Still, that was Audrey to a T. She always spoke first and thought about the destruction her actions caused later. Gemma made a note to have a chat with her loose-tongued friend on the way home. With friends like you, matey!
After nipping to the toilet, Gemma ventured outside to the pub’s family area, which thankfully, was free of screaming kids at this time of night. She sat down on one of the swings and imagined her five-year-old daughter, Samantha, climbing the wooden steps to the little house where the slide began and gliding down to the bottom. She loved that child so much it hurt at times. A smile settled on her face as she smoked her cigarette, finally cooling down under the dark star-filled sky and the subtle evening breeze.
Life was good. At least it would be this time next week. Her smile broadened at the thought of what lay ahead of her; she’d made a life-changing decision that would cause her much elation while disappointing others in her life. But that was the nitty-gritty of the unenviable scenario she’d found herself thrust into—it was her life. Losing one of her friends to breast cancer a few months earlier had made her step back and re-evaluate her life and the miserable direction it was heading in. She deserved better. Samantha deserved better. Melinda had been the strongest person Gemma had ever met in her relatively short life. The way she’d handled her illness with dignity and determination right up until her last breath was an inspiration. Melinda had declined further treatment against the wishes of her doctors after she decided the pain and discomfort were no longer worth fighting. She’d slipped away peacefully when the time presented itself, much earlier than her friends had anticipated.
Gemma’s eyes misted over as Melinda’s beautiful face entered her mind. Gemma had no doubt she would miss her dearly for years to come. That included missing Melinda’s daily telephone calls, enquiring how her goddaughter was getting on at her new school. But most of all, she would miss Melinda’s willingness to listen without ever judging her. Gemma’s other friends seemed to be incapable of doing that. They all had their different qualities and faults, but no one would ever come close to filling Melinda’s patient, wonderfully caring, and astute shoes.
She jumped when someone sat on the bench next to her and coughed. Her hand covered her cleavage. “Gosh, you scared the crap out of me.”
“I’m sorry. You were in a world of your own there.” The man, who had a gentle face, was neither handsome nor ugly, just ordinary looking. His blond hair glinted in the moonlight, creating an ethereal glow around his head.
“I was merely contemplating life. You tend to do that when you lose someone special, I guess.”
“That’s sad. A close relative?”
“No. One of my best friends. We met at primary school. I actually can’t remember a day when I didn’t have any contact with her either in person or over the phone. That’s why it’s so hard.”
“You seem to be enjoying yourself with your friends inside, though. Or is that just a smokescreen?”
“I am. Don’t get me wrong—I’m sad, but I know that life must go on, all the same. Melinda has left a lasting legacy in the lives she touched during her time on this earth.” She held out her hand for the man to shake. “I’m Gemma, by the way.”
He took her hand and shook it lightly. “Pleased to meet you, Gemma. I’m Taylor Hew.”
“Taylor? That’s an unusual name.”
He laughed. “Yeah, don’t ever tell my mother you think that if you ever have the misfortune of meeting her. She loves it, even if I don’t.”
Gemma sniggered. “Makes you wonder what our parents were thinking when they named us, right?”
“Indeed. You seem a wise woman, Gemma.”
“Crikey, not sure anyone has ever laid that trait at my door before. Maybe I am getting a little wiser as I get older. Who knows?”
“What kind of job do you have?” He raised his hand in front of him. “Tell me to mind my own business if you want.”
“No, that’s fine. I’m… well, sort of in between jobs at the moment.”
“That’s a shame. Okay, what career have you had in the past then?”
“Well, before my daughter was born, I was a PA to the director of a local business. I had to give up my job as they couldn’t afford to pay maternity leave and employ someone to fill my position at the same time.”
“Isn’t that illegal? I mean, for them to force you out like that?”
“I didn’t really think about it at the time. They offered me a great package, and I found it hard to turn down, so grabbed it with both hands. It wasn’t until I’d had my daughter and wanted to return to work that I realised what a fool I’d been. Jobs are so much harder to come by now—good jobs, that is.”
“I agree. I’m into property developing—boring, I know, but it pays the mortgage and allows me to drive around in that thing.” He thumbed over his shoulder towards a few cars parked in the car park.
Feeling devilish, Gemma chuckled and widened her eyes. “Wow, I can’t imagine you fitting into that Mini.”
His head snapped around. “Ha, ha! I mean the Porsche.”
“Oops, silly me. I’m not really interested in cars. Mind you, I would say that, driving around in my old banger. One of these days, I think it’s going to let me down badly.”
“To be honest, before I got my hands on that beauty, I felt pretty much the same way as you do about cars. Funny how one’s perception changes once you have the funds to alter things.”
Gemma couldn’t have put it better herself. She had been telling herself the same thing for months, hoping to find a way of changing her mundane life, constantly carrying out her daily chores, uttering the words “If only…”
He clicked his fingers to gain her attention. “Hello, Gemma. You’ve drifted off again.”
She shook her head and smiled. “Sorry. Look, it’s been lovely talking to you.” She rubbed her bare arms. “It’s getting a little nippy out here now, and my friends will be thinking I’ve deserted them. I better rejoin them. It was lovely meeting you.” She rose from the bench.
He stood up too and held out his hand for her to shake. He gripped her dainty hand with both of his and held on to it longer than was necessary. “It’s been a pleasure getting to know you, Gemma.”
She blushed, swiftly withdrew her hand, and hurried inside the pub again. Shivering slightly as she reached the door, she turned to look over her shoulder to see the man still watching her. Idiot! He could have been a serial killer for all I know. I’m too bloody trusting at times.
“Here she is! I thought you’d gone home,” Audrey complained when Gemma sat down at the table surrounded by four of her friends.
“Sorry, I got chatting to someone and forgot the time. What have I missed?”
Audrey’s eyes widened in expectation. “Never mind about that. Chatting to whom?” She looked over at the bar then tapped the side of her nose. “I think I have an inkling.”
Gemma’s brow furrowed. “You do?”
Audrey pointed. “There was a chap standing at the bar. He’s been eyeing you up all evening. I hadn’t noticed, but he’s gone now. Did he follow you out to the beer garden?”
“I’m not sure. I was sitting in the children’s play area, and a man joined me. I can’t say I’d taken much notice of him before I laid eyes on him outside. He seemed nice enough.”
“What did you chat about?” Audrey asked.
“This and that, nothing special. Although I did get a little maudlin when he caught me thinking about Melinda, it’s hard not to.”
Audrey reached out and squeezed her hand. “We’re all missing her, sweetheart. Granted, probably not as much as you. However, tonight is about celebrating Melinda’s life and all that she stood for, right?”
The group of girls raised their glasses and clinked them together over the middle of the table.
“To Melinda. May her soul rest in peace, and may her spirit live long in our minds and our hearts,” Gemma said before her throat closed over and her eyes welled up with tears once more.
Audrey nudged her elbow. “She wouldn’t appreciate you getting upset, love. Come on, think of all the happy times we’ve shared over the years.”
They spent the next half an hour giggling while sharing affectionate anecdotes about their dear friend, until the last-orders bell rang. Gemma finished her orange juice, hugged all her friends goodbye, then headed for her car. Something made her search the car park for Taylor’s Porsche, but it was nowhere to be seen. Her heart sank a little, and she chastised herself for being so disappointed.
On her way home, she contemplated picking up the hitchhiker hoping for a lift, but she knew how foolish that would be, given the time of night. A fast car overtook her and sped past before she could get a glimpse of the driver. A few more cars passed her on the opposite side of the road, almost blinding her when they forgot to dip their headlights as they loomed closer. Damn idiots! Obviously, people forget about their highway code and the courtesy it teaches once they’ve passed their bloody driving test. A car approached from behind and stayed annoyingly close to her rear bumper until she indicated and turned right into the lane that led to her home. She glanced in the rear-view mirror, willing the vehicle to carry on the main road, but her heart sank when the car remained within a few feet of hers.
She swallowed hard. “Please, go away. You’re too close to me. If a fox ran out in front of the car, forcing me to slam on the brakes, you’d be up my arse in an instant. Back off, buster.”
Her protest proved pointless. The car continued to follow her down the twisty lane. She actually closed her eyes, preparing herself for the impact. When she reopened them to look in her rear-view mirror and saw the headlights of the car following her disappear, meaning they were probably only inches from the rear of her car, she yelled, “Back off!”
Gemma rounded the next corner, fearful of what the next two miles held for her until she reached the ultimate safety of her home. That’s when the driver made his move. She grunted as the car shunted her old banger up the rear. “Leave me alone, damn you. Are you that eager to get past on the narrow lane?” She decided to brake and pulled into the hedge as far as she could, willing to risk the damage the bramble thorns would do to her paintwork, to let the vehicle pass. When the car stopped behind her, her heart skipped several beats, and she grated through the gears in her haste to get some distance between the two vehicles.
The second she pulled away, she realised the other car had damaged the rear of her banger when the exhaust spewed a puff of smoke. “Damn and blast,” she shouted as the car limped along. Another shunt from behind forced her back into the hedgerow. “That’s it, buster! Now you’re going to get a mouthful. You can’t treat people like this.” Gemma yanked on the handbrake. She left the car running and hopped out of the vehicle to give the driver a piece of her mind. Another large plume of smoke erupted from her sad car as she reached the rear. She saw the outline of a figure leave the other car and come at her with something raised in the air. The first blow from the metal bar struck her across the face; she fell against her car, dazed. She had the presence of mind to raise a hand to cover her face from yet another strike. But the second blow struck her legs instead of her upper body as she’d expected. Her thin legs crumpled beneath her. Pain surged through every muscle in her body as she lay on the ground, bathed in the headlights of the attacker’s car. She stared up at the person striking her. “Please, please don’t do this. I have a child I need to care for. If it’s money you need, I think I have a tenner in my purse—take it.” The blows rained down on her, increasing in intensity the more she screamed out. She was powerless to avoid them. Every blow sucked another inch of her life into a black abyss. Blood ran from her wounds, hot and sticky. Why? What have I ever done to deserve this? I have everything to live for. My life should be just beginning, not ending…
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