At the Pool
Drowning is not a pleasant way to die. I see the terror in their eyes. The water churns as they claw for the surface. Air billows from their lungs. The drugs in their system are doing their job. Likely they can’t think straight and their limbs aren’t working properly. The bubbles were huge at first and now they’re becoming smaller, almost delicate. Despite the flailing arms, that body is going nowhere but down.
I could help. The pool isn’t so deep and the water is perfectly clear. I could take a breath and dive and reach out my arms. Except I won’t. Would you? Would you save someone who has taken away everything you hold dear?
It’s almost over. As my gaze locks onto theirs I know they have understood. This is the end.
In the final moments their hair wafts gently and there are no more bubbles. I force myself to watch until their eyes glaze over and their hands relax. Only then is the nightmare over.
Shannon nestled into the corner of the sofa and closed her eyes. She sighed, enjoying the quiet of the lounge. It was time to concentrate on the good and push away the bad forever. She didn’t need to dwell on the dark times anymore, she just needed to concentrate on being hopeful and excited. This was a new beginning and nothing and no one could spoil it. She placed her hand over her belly and sent a silent prayer to Heaven. This new life inside her was all that mattered.
A few hours earlier she had broken the news to her boss and he had taken it well, she had to give him that. After all it wasn’t every day your first ever employee, the one who started out with you at the beginning when you were nothing and nobody, suddenly announced she needed a year off. A year to think about things, take it or leave it.
Her boss, Donald, had nodded and swallowed then nodded some more. Then he had wished her well. Donald had been so good to her over the past few months. What had happened had not been his fault, it had been hers, and now it was time to leave it behind.
Shannon leaned back against the cushions. She had loved her job as receptionist at Donald’s Design Agency. She had started at age eighteen when Donald had only one client to produce publicity for. Now he ran a top media agency, and Shannon was queen of the reception as well as organising plush hospitality for their high-profile clients.
Where she used to dash out to get sandwiches from around the corner for Donald’s meetings, she now booked breakfast at The Ritz or dinners at The Savoy, and tickets for Wimbledon finals matches. She was surrounded by staff with strings of qualifications but Donald always made sure she got respected. Everybody knew she was his favourite. Donald had moved up in the world and she had moved up with him.
She had once been friendly and efficient, but the truth was Donald and the entire staff team had been putting up with her mood swings for a long time. Her colleagues had given her a lot of sympathy. They had suffered her sobbing fits, her flights to the restroom, her sudden breakdowns at her desk, and goodness, even some long-term clients had been looking after her and handing out the tissues as she dabbed at her eyes.
Shannon had felt bad walking out but perhaps everyone else had given a sigh of relief. Donald had gone out of his way to be understanding.
‘Let me know what you decide,’ Donald had said, as he ran his hands through his greying hair. ‘I really hope you come back but don’t worry, I understand. The baby is the priority now.’
The baby certainly was.
The desire to become pregnant had dominated her life for at least five years. Over the last three, she had been driven crazy by the doctors, the tests and the procedures. She and her husband, Jared, had been pushed to the edge by rounds of fertility treatments, and their marriage had been cracking at the seams. Damn it, she had been cracking at the seams. After all the failed treatments, adoption had been the only route left. Then it all changed and now she was pregnant at last.
Now she could look forward to welcoming a brand-new precious life. It was all she had ever dreamed of.
She grabbed an apple, took a bite and smiled. No more chocolate or biscuits, only healthy snacks from now on. Selecting an old comedy programme, she put her feet up on the coffee table and laughed her way through several episodes. It wasn’t until sometime later that she realised no dark memories had intruded. That thought almost made her cry but she pushed away the tears. This was her time to be happy.
When Jared came home, Shannon was still relaxing on the sofa.
‘Glad to see you’re taking it easy,’ he said.
He leant over to kiss her and his dark hair flopped into his eyes. At over six foot, with an athletic build, Indian good looks and liquid brown eyes most women would die for, her husband was the sort of man who attracted a lot of female attention. It was more than his looks that people liked. Jared had a warm nature and women tended to instinctively trust him. He still pushed all the right buttons for her, though she knew she had made him suffer with her roller coaster feelings. If she had been on the receiving end of emotions like hers for the last three years, she would have found it hard to stay so devoted.
He topped up her water glass and poured one for himself.
‘I cleared out all the crisps and sugary snacks and put them in the bin,’ she said.
Jared laughed. ‘And what if you get cravings in the middle of the night for, I don’t know, your favourite chocolate-covered biscuits? Am I meant to go get some or refuse?’
‘That’s a good question. I’ve no idea.’
‘Would you like me to bring you anything from the kitchen?’
Here she was, an independent and capable woman. She had not expected Jared to turn out to be hyper-protective but that was what seemed to be happening. In fact, since the world-changing moment, she could hardly lift a goddam paperback novel without Jared rushing to do it for her. She really did not deserve him. ‘I’m fine thanks.’
‘Did you tell Donald the truth?’
Jared’s comment took her by surprise. A wave of anxiety suddenly gripped her. She fought to control it, bunching her fists so Jared wouldn’t see her hands shaking. Perspiration peppered her lip.
‘What truth? I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Huh? I mean did you discuss with him about giving up long-term? You know, beyond maternity leave?’
She took a big breath in and breathed it out long and slow. Get a grip. Don’t let the past suck you down. ‘Sort of. I explained I needed space, and the pregnancy was the absolute priority, and Donald was great. He’s totally fine with me taking as much time out as I want. He’s such a dear.’
‘Sure he is. You can twist that man around your little finger. If he wasn’t almost twice your age, I’d be jealous.’
She wiped the sweat from her lip. ‘Don’t exaggerate. Donald’s not that old and you’re being silly. Anyway, he’s married with a daughter who’s old enough to start driving lessons.’
‘I’m only kidding. Here, take a look at this.’ Jared shot her a boyish grin.
He edged up close and took out his phone and as he swept his hair out of his eyes, his gaze fell to her stomach and he gave a quick laugh. Jared’s shoulder nudged hers and he showed her his phone screen.
‘What are you so pleased about?’ she asked.
‘Apart from being an expectant father? Nothing much.’
She snuggled closer. On the screen was a photograph of a stately home with a grand façade. The sort of place a lord or a duchess might live in.
‘Ooh, that looks lovely,’ she said. ‘Is it the place they used to film Downton Abbey?’
‘Looks a bit like it, doesn’t it. Guess what, I’ve booked us a luxury break.’
Wow. Jared wasn’t usually so romantic. She raised an eyebrow.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Nothing, it’s just unexpected but very, very nice. Looks expensive.’
‘I know you didn’t want to fly but I wanted us to go somewhere amazing and unforgettable to celebrate the start of our new family.’
Gosh, it had been easy to forget Jared had been just as desperate as she was. She could see his lip quivering.
He scrolled through the pictures. ‘They’ve only got forty rooms and it’s rarely open to the public. It’s in the middle of the Sussex countryside. They’ve got spacious grounds and outside and inside pools. It’s perfect because it’s going to be a heatwave and with our pool out of order it will be great to get out of the city.’
It definitely would be. Their house had a private spa and just when they needed it most, the pool had a maintenance problem.
‘Their chef comes from a five-star restaurant in Paris. They say the cuisine is meant to be one of the highlights,’ Jared said.
‘I love the name, Sussex Abbey.’
‘Believe it or not, it used to belong to a lord and lady. And guess what? I asked for our room to be your lucky number.’
Nineteen. The date of her mother’s birthday. Cuddling up to her husband, she breathed in the musky scent of his cologne. Sussex Abbey seemed perfect for a fresh start.
‘It sounds wonderful, darling.’
Natasha laughed as the wind whipped through her hair. It was exhilarating, speeding along a country road with Harry’s car open to the sun. Harry loved sports cars and this one was a beauty.
‘I could do with a cold beer,’ Harry said. ‘Better still if it’s served to me poolside.’
He was in a great mood and so magnetic when he was like this – carefree, with his blond curls wild and tossing in the breeze. He turned to her and she got a full hit of his eyes which were as blue as the sky and as sparkling as sapphires. When Harry turned those eyes on women, it made them lose their reason. He had had exactly that effect on her. When she’d first met him she had been young and impressionable and she had fallen madly in love. Knowing the other side to Harry’s nature hadn’t taken the edge off his appeal, even when it should have, and she had remained in love with him for years.
Cutting him a smile, she wriggled her hips.
‘Ooh Natasha, are you teasing me?’
Of course she was. Harry was gorgeous to look at though his real power came from the way he oozed charisma and masculinity. He could have any woman he wanted. Men too, if that were his thing, because when Harry turned on the charm people threw themselves at his feet. It’s what attracted her to him in the first place because who can resist that kind of power?
Harry turned up the music and started singing at the top of his voice.
She took off her shiny red stilettoes, careful not to scratch them, and stretched her toes. The car, the expensive shoes and dress, and Harry’s casual attire which cost a fortune, had all been picked for a reason – to make an impact. To say they were the couple who were making it. To show they were the ones with an effortless lifestyle and a bank account to match. It was all about creating the right image. She and Harry were good at it and they could carry it off with style. That was why people liked them and it was what helped them get close to their targets.
Harry turned the volume up another notch. Of course, he was going through his favourite playlist and it was one which she pretended to like. She even knew the words to most of the songs and could sing along as if she loved rock and roll. Living with a man like Harry, you got to learn tricks like that.
When the hotel came into view she let out a gasp. ‘I can’t believe it, it’s absolutely gorgeous.’
‘Isn’t it. Welcome to the majestic and historical Sussex Abbey.’ Harry pulled into the parking area. ‘A paradise fit for my darling.’
They took a few moments to appreciate their surroundings and to be seen by anyone who happened to be watching. She leaned in to give Harry a luscious kiss.
Sussex Abbey had once been the home of a British family who had made their fortune by riding to war at the side of the king. The days of the knights were long gone. It now belonged to a leisure company who had kept the charm of the white stone building and ornamental gardens, right down to the hedges clipped into the shape of animals and the marble steps leading to the entrance. There was a grand conservatory attached to one wing of the house and a modern extension at the back which housed an indoor spa. On the website there had been pictures of the other side of the Abbey with its raised decking area and an outdoor pool overlooking the grounds.
This was where lords and ladies had ridden out on their hunting and shooting parties. They had been entertained at fine banquets, waited on hand and foot by a small army of servants. Looking at the grandeur made Natasha giddy, as if she could pretend to be a real lady. Here, she would be able to eat and drink whatever wonderful offerings came from the chef and she would be pampered by staff who would behave as if she and her comfort were all that mattered to them.
‘Are you ready for it?’ Harry said.
The adrenalin ran through her veins. It wasn’t just the thrill of the job they were there to do which got to her. It was also the poverty-stricken little girl inside who was excited because she still couldn’t believe who she had grown up to be.
‘Then let’s go, babe,’ Harry said.
Shaking her hair and arranging the dark tresses over her shoulders, she let out a laugh as he took her hand and they headed for the entrance.
This was almost her favourite part. Full of possibilities, of not yet knowing who they would pick and what they would be like.
As they crossed the reception area, she felt the humble gaze of the staff and their appreciative, ready-to-serve expressions. This was class. This was what it felt like to succeed, to be part of the elite. Her past was far behind her and she and Harry were unbeatable.