“May I come in then?”
She buried her face in the flowers. “I guess you’d better, because I’ll ever be able to eat all I cooked on my own.”
A smile awoke the crows feet at the corners of his eyes. “I’m all about helping damsels in distress.”
“Eejit. Come in and sit quietly while I find a vase for my flowers.”
He followed obediently, although she got the distinct impression he was right on the edge of the giggles. In the kitchen she put her flowers on the worktop and turned to face him with her hands on her hips.
“Okay, buster, what’s so funny?”
“Me being bossed about by a woman who barely reaches my chin. And liking it.”
“Do you actually like it, Mike? Or are you humouring me?”
“Oh I like it right enough. I love the sass about you when you are putting me in my place. Besides which, I’d never patronise you by pretending.”
Jenny felt as if another corner of her frozen heart melted but she occupied herself putting the flowers in water rather than think about that.
When she was satisfied she carried the vase into her sunny sitting room. Mike made no attempt to follow her. Instead he stood at the french doors looking out at her tiny, chaotic garden.
“I like that,” he said as she came back into the kitchen.
“That lovely little bit of jungle in the city.”
She went to stand beside him. “When I moved in here it was a perfectly respectable lawn with regimented flower beds around the edges. Took me most of the time I’ve been here, but now I can fancy myself out in the fields when I sit out here of any evening. And the wildlife loves it. It’s a good job my landlord’s amenable.”
“No conditions about mowing the lawn every Sunday then?”
“No. But there wouldn’t be. It’s my dad. Or, to be more accurate, it’s Ford Farm.” He said nothing, so she ploughed on. “I came out of my marriage with bugger all, and the need to escape from all the nasty rumours my ex engineered. Dad and Mum bought this house and renovated it for me. Then I got a job with a firm in the city. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Mike smiled down at her. “The layout of the house is really good. How much did you have to do to get it like this?”
Jenny was silently grateful that he chose not to pick her up on coming out of her marriage with nothing, and delighted to be able to talk about the house and the work it had taken to get it to her liking. She grabbed his hand and dragged him all around the downstairs, pointing out where walls had come down and how the thing had evolved. He was obviously fascinated and when she had run out of steam he had a lot of very sensible questions.
“Come and eat. We can carry on talking while we stuff our faces.”
Maybe they didn’t quite stuff themselves, but between talking and laughing, and squabbling about house layouts they managed to get outside of a pretty impressive pile of roast chicken.
Jenny was just making noises about pavlova when there came a thunderous knocking on the front door, accompanied by what sounded like someone kicking the stout wood.
“Who the heck?”
Just as she was about to go see who was responsible for this rude intrusion, a voice made itself heard.
“Open the door you filthy whore. I know you’re in there.”
Immediately, Jenny was back in the place where nothing she ever did was good enough, and the pain was all but physical. Mike must have noticed her suddenly pinched features because he spoke with careful neutrality.
Jenny managed to nod her head, and the concern on Mike’s face enabled her to force a rusty whisper from her mouth.
“I knew he was out of prison, on licence, but I never dreamed.” For a second she could say no more for the constriction in her throat, but some reserve of courage she didn’t even know she possessed came to her aid. “He shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t know I live here. And even if he managed to find out there’s a restraining order. He isn’t allowed within five miles of me.”
Mike walked around the table and stood behind her. He was close enough for her to lean into his strength if she wanted, but not so close as to crowd her. He handed her his phone.
“Call triple nine love. He sounds like a bloody maniac.”
Jenny called, grateful to have someone else do the thinking for her. A police presence was promised immediately and she could relax a little.
“May I come in then?”