The Actuary is based in the English town of Market Harborough in Leicestershire where I spent six very happy years. There's a handsome Russian who isn't what he seems, a feisty Englishwoman with enough spark for a decent fire and a precocious six year old who knows far too much for his age.
Enjoy Chapter 1 with my compliments.
Chapter 1 The Actuary
“Congratulations, Susan!” The dark haired woman leaned in and kissed her friend on the cheek, her pretty skin flushed with the heat of the room. “You look so content at last, I’m pleased for you.”
“Oh, Emma! It’s been a long time coming. I finally feel lucky.”
Emma wrapped her arms around her friend, trying not to get lipstick on the delicate fabric of her ivory wedding dress. Over her shoulder she saw Susan’s new husband, Frederik. He was handsome and sophisticated, his salt and pepper hair suiting his courtly appearance. “He’s pretty fit,” Emma whispered in her friend’s ear, laughing at Susan’s squeal of delight.
“My sister says he is,” she sniggered, covering her mouth with her hand.
Emma felt hot breath on her leg and looked down. She smiled and offered her hand to the fluffy white retriever at Susan’s side. He smiled back, his tongue lolling sideways from his mouth and he sat abruptly on his backside, yanking the harness from his blind mistress’ hand. “Oh Jay!” Susan complained. “I know you’ve had enough but this is my wedding day!”
“He did a good job of escorting you down the aisle,” Emma joked, stroking the soft, downy hair on the top of Jay’s head. She smoothed her thumb down the bridge of his nose and the dog closed his eyes with a dreamy expression on his face. “You’re such a flirt!” she chastised him, ruffling his feathery ears and shaking her head. Dark curls cascaded down her back and bounced with the movement.
“It’s been a beautiful day,” Susan sighed. The strobe lights caught her red hair giving her an ethereal glow. “You’ll stay a bit longer, won’t you?” She couldn’t see the uncomfortable look on Emma’s face as the other woman battled with issues Susan could not contemplate. The borrowed green silk dress bit into Emma’s waist and the rental car outside needed to be back at the hire company by midnight. The three hour drive south in the dark was daunting.
“Just a little while,” Emma promised. “But then I have to get Nicky home. We had an early start this morning.”
“Well come and say goodbye before you go, won’t you?” Susan’s face pleaded with her as Emma nodded and squeezed her hand. “I wanted to talk to you about your work in the school archives. I need to tell you what we’ve been doing with ours. I thought it might help.”
“I’d love to, but I do have to go soon.” Emma winced as the band started up after their intermission, deafening everyone nearby. The guide dog whined and looked like he wanted to stick his paws over his ears. “Would you like me to take you to Frederik?” Emma yelled over the din and Susan nodded.
“Yes please. I think if I ask Jay to take me, I’ll end up at the car.”
Emma laughed. “Oh gosh, yeah. Remember the time you told him to take you to the vets and he walked you around for hours and then took you home?”
“Pardon?” Susan shrieked back and Emma shook her head, leading her friend by the hand towards her tall new husband over at the bar.
The place was crowded with bodies and Emma sighed as she recognised one of them. Her six year old son stood at the side of the buffet table, paper plate towering with food. His blonde wavy hair spilled over a face covered in chocolate. He grinned displaying brown teeth covered in goo and waved, his bright blue eyes sparkling with mischief. His plate tipped and a sausage roll bounced to the floor. Not realising it fell from his plate, he looked up at the ceiling to see where it came from and then back at his mother. She held her free hand up in the air, fingers splayed and mouthed, “Five more minutes.”
The child nodded with enthusiasm and began cramming delicacies into his mouth, making use of the time left to get his fill. Emma cringed. Definitely time to leave. She weaved through the bodies, navigating Susan and Jay towards the landmark of Frederik’s head, standing high above everyone else’s.
As Jay realised he was going back into the throng, his feet ceased their happy padding along the wooden dance floor and he stopped dead. Susan yanked on Emma’s arm in warning but Jay made a valiant rush for the open door, hauling the two women after him. He cut through the dancing crowd like a heat seeking missile, making his bid for freedom with the women as ballast. Susan had no choice with her wrist caught in the strap of his leash and her fingers clamped around the handle of the harness, but Emma held onto her friend’s other hand for dear life, clopping along in the borrowed heels.
From the corner of her eye, Emma saw Susan stop sharply as Frederik’s capable hand seized the harness and halted Jay’s unauthorised kidnapping of his bride. Unable to stop, Emma sped past the knot of man, woman and dog, feeling herself tilt dangerously in the open doorway as Susan let go of her hand. Too late, Emma remembered the stairs down to the entrance. She let out a strangled scream as a body stepped in the way, taking the full brunt of her hasty exit. The male figure grunted and grabbed her upper arms, keeping her upright and allowing Emma the dignity of a few seconds in which to collect herself. “Thank you,” she gulped, spying with horror the awful sight of her buttons undoing themselves over her cleavage.
“Are you all right, Emma?” Susan’s voice sounded concerned and Emma nodded as she fumbled with the fiddly pearl buttons, failing miserably to get them closed.
“Yep, yep. I’m fine thanks. Just catching my breath.” She heard Susan behind her, admonishing her furry companion.
“You made it!” came Frederik’s voice and his hand appeared next to Emma, shaking her saviour’s with enthusiasm. “Awesome! I’ll just sit my wife down and then we’ll catch up.”
“Oh, bloody hell!” Emma breathed as another button sidled out of its hole as soon as she put the one above it back in. A male snort made Emma’s head whip up as familiar fingers brushed her shaking hands away.
“Here, let me, dorogaya.”
Emma gulped and closed her eyes. If she didn’t look up, then it couldn’t be true. It’s not him, she told herself. It can’t be. It’s someone else with a Russian accent. You’re tired and imagining things. An unexpected flare of disappointment took her by surprise and her cheeks flamed with embarrassment. “I’m fine. I’m leaving anyway.” She pushed the fingers away as their buttoning action brushed the soft flesh of her exposed breasts. Emma dared to look up with indignation in her eyes and her heart bounced in her chest.
The tall blonde man in front of her was every bit as striking as she remembered, a strand of the disobedient blonde fringe flipping over his left eye, bumped sexily by the action of his long eyelashes. Vibrant blue eyes stared at her with question, bright like azure diamonds. “Hi, Em,” he said, his voice seeming to touch the deeper, buried parts of her soul.
“I don’t think we know each other,” Emma ventured, drawing her shoulders back and looking sideways at possible escape routes. To her irritation, the blonde man threw his head back and laughed.
“I think I know you better than you know yourself.” He smiled but the expression failed to reach his eyes.
“I need to go!” Emma stated firmly and stepped sideways, desperately looking for help. Frederik and a disgraced Jay were busily settling a shaken Susan on an armchair in a seating area. Susan wagged her finger at the wilful dog who looked around the room and purposely ignored her.
Emma took another step sideways and the blonde man blocked her. “If you want to dance, we need to be over there.” He pointed at the dance floor. Foolishly Emma looked and while she was distracted, he seized her wrist in a vice-like grip and led her to the throng of gyrating couples. Emma groaned as the music dropped to a slow dance and the man smiled, settling his hands either side of Emma’s neat waist. He fixed his penetrating blue eyes on her face and pulled her in close. Emma stood in front of him like a log and he sighed and grasped one of her hands in each of his, placing them carefully around his neck.
“Just like old times.” He smiled. “So, how have you been?” His voice was raised against the music, his mouth very close to her ear and Emma closed her eyes against the rising flood of emotions which fought for dominance in her heart.
“Good,” she lied. “Lovely to see you, Rohan, but I really should be going.”
“Stay.” He fingered a lock of her hair, watching in fascination as it wound round and round his finger and then plummeted down her back. He selected another one and repeated the exercise. Emma whipped her head from side to side, trying to locate her son. She didn’t have to search far. He sat on a chair next to the deserted buffet table with a half-eaten mountain on his plate. He looked sick. Fantastic. A three hour drive with a vomiting child.
“I really need to go.” Emma withdrew her hands from around the man’s neck and turned her body to block the amazing sensation of his groin so close to hers.
“Ok.” He sounded sad and resigned and Emma’s breath caught in her chest. He gave her a tiny smile, revealing the dent from a scar above his lip and another under his eye. Emma’s brown eyes made the mistake of straying from his brilliant blue ones, to his full lips and back again. His smirk was instant. He caught her up in one easy movement and put his hand at the back of Emma’s neck. His lips on hers were gentle and paralysing. Emma opened her mouth and his tongue slid in like it was only yesterday, , familiar and dangerous. She reached up and put her arms either side of his chest, feeling the rippling muscles under her hand. He felt taller, stronger, older and definitely different. But then so was she. With a huge act of will, Emma broke the connection, inhaling sharply as she put the back of her hand to lips swollen by the familiar kiss.
“Em!” she heard him shout at she fled the dance floor. She gripped her son by his wrist and ran for the toilets, remembering another exit at the end of that corridor.
“Night, miss,” the doorman said and she nodded in acknowledgement and ran, dragging the small boy after her.
“Mum!” the child complained. “Don’t bounce me. I’m gonna puke!”
“I’ve got a bag,” Emma insisted, hurling her stiletto shoes onto the back seat of the car. “Get in the front and you won’t feel so bad. I’ll put the cold air on.”
“But my booster seat’s in the back!” he grumbled and Emma uncharacteristically snapped.
“As soon as we get away from here, I’ll pull over and sort everything out,” she promised. “Please, Nicky, just do as I ask.”
“Ok then!” he complained. “But if a policeman tells you off, it’s coming out of your pocket money, not mine! I was havin’ fun talking to Harley Man before you ruined it!”
“Nicky!” Emma exclaimed, panic making her cruel. “Harley Man isn’t real! He’s just a character you’ve seen in a comic or on TV. He can’t talk to you.”
“He can, Mum. My friends have seen ‘im. He stops and talks to me back home and he was here tonight!”
“Ok, Nick, ok.” Emma fumbled with the car key and ignition in the darkness, banishing talk of her son’s imaginary friend to the back of her mind as she dealt with the more immediate issue of escape. She started the engine on the rented saloon car and spun the wheels. The lights glared on at the last minute as she sped by the front doors of the hotel, blinding the doorman. The handsome blonde Russian emerged from the doors at a run, his suit jacket hanging open and his tie flapping in the breeze. His face was ashen and distraught.
“That’s your friend what you was kissin’,” Nicky informed his mother as they careened past. “Harley Man saw him kissin’ ya and he said, ‘Uh oh, that’s not gonna end well.’ Funny hey?” The child lifted his tiny hand and waved at the blonde man, who stopped and gaped. His face was a mask of agony at the sight of the small carbon copy of himself on the front seat.
Bile leaped into Emma’s throat as she navigated the minor roads until the motorway, feeling sicker than she thought possible. Her hands shook on the steering wheel and she gripped it until her knuckles shone white against the lights of oncoming cars. Emma glanced sideways at her small son, hoping he didn’t notice her anxiety. “There he is!” Nicky squealed and dipped forward in his seat, craning his neck to look in the side mirror. Emma swerved and swore.
“Don’t do that!”
“But he’s behind us, Mummy, look.”
“Who is, Nicky, who?” Please, not Rohan?
“Harley Man! Who else?”Emma peered in the rear view mirror at the motorcyclist two vehicles behind. He kept a steady pace, his visor blocking out any facial features. He stayed where he was, keeping a neat line in the centre of his lane, unconcerned with passing either vehicle. Emma kept an eye on him, cursing herself for buying into Nicky’s overactive imaginary world, but then the bike took off at the next roundabout, taking the outside lane and moving off ahead. Nicky sat back in his seat looking disappointed. “You scared ‘im off! Coz you kept starin’. It’s rude to stare!”
Emma sighed as her petulant son sulked in the oversize seatbelt next to her. Thoughts of the blonde man overrode any feelings about Nicky’s grumpy mood and she battled with images of his soft hands caressing her skin. Stifling an involuntary sob, Emma pressed her fingers either side of the bridge of her nose and Nicky was instantly contrite. “Sorry, Mummy. I’m sorry. S’not your fault. Harley Man will come back, he always does.”
“Yeah, he certainly seems to.” Emma kept the sarcasm out of her voice as she fought the inner tide of misery, focussing on the road and grateful for the tiny hand which stretched over and gently rubbed her thigh.
At the first service station they stopped and used the bathrooms. “I can go in the big boy ones,” Nicky insisted, veering off towards the men’s toilets.
“Er, I don’t think so, buddy!” Emma grabbed the back of his shirt and pushed him towards the door adorned with a female silhouette.
Nicky turned to face the door while Emma used the facilities, disgusted with his demotion to child status. “It’s oomiliatin’,” he complained.
“It’s life!” Emma retorted. “Did you really think I was gonna let you go into a gents’ toilets in the back end of nowhere in a service station, with every nomad weirdo passing through?”
“I can take care of myself,” Nicky said, his voice filled with touching sincerity. “When Big Jason jumped me last week, I kicked him in the jewels.” He turned around as Emma flushed, his blue eyes alight with victory.
Emma righted her dress and looked down on her son. “Big Jason is a forty year old midget!” she said. “I could defend myself against him!”
“He’s not a midget!” Nicky insisted with indignation. “He’s just got delicate bones.”
Emma bought Nicky a bottle of mineral water to help him look a little less green around the gills, although much of his sickness had passed. She topped up the car with petrol and prayed it would still look full when she dropped it off at the rental place. More excitement ensued at the counter, as Nicky spotted a leather clad motorcyclist in the other queue. He smiled and waved and Emma looked away, embarrassed.
The male had a neat physique and looked as though he was poured into his protective leather gear. He stood at the till with his legs slightly splayed and Emma found herself staring at the outline of his pert backside. He kept his helmet on but the visor raised and Emma looked guiltily away as he turned.
“See ya later,” Nicky intoned with a beautiful smile and a wave.
Emma cringed, ignoring the tugging on her skirt from the small boy. “He ruffled my hair,” Nicky said confidentially and Emma smiled and nodded, her mortification complete. Her son’s fixation with Harley Man was bordering on the need for a psychologist, not that his underfunded, forgotten primary school had access to such professionals.
Emma fixed Nicky’s booster seat into the front of the vehicle, settled him in and left, heading south to Lincoln and the government owned house on the notorious Greyfriars Estate.
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