It was three days before Ella had the energy to try and walk down the stairs. She could hear music and the chatter of voices and felt like she had to get up and check on the kids. Moving barefoot she padded slowly down the stairs feeling like they went on forever. Her breath coming out in pants as she struggled with the sudden exercise after four days in bed, at least that was what she told herself ignoring the seriousness of a chest infection.
Pausing at the bottom of the stairs she heard an older girls’ voice murmuring something and realised that this was Nicole, Roman’s elder daughter and cursed the impulse that had led her downstairs because the last thing she wanted was for Nicole to see her like this. Too late to change her mind she smoothed down her nightdress and tugged on the belt of her silky wrap. Her eyes scanned the layout of the room and she frowned at seeing a scattering of children’s toys in a box in the corner and the bits and bobs on the various selves around the room. There were obvious gaps in amongst them like pictures and ornaments had been hastily removed. Turning away from that she stepped past the long sofas and into the kitchen.
“Mum!” Gabby cried shooting up from her seat and over to her side.
“Hello babes,” Ella said softly kissing the top of her daughters head as she placed her arms around her.
“Mum, sit down,” Mike also shot up from the table and held out his chair for her.
Ella met his gaze and gave him a smile.
“I’m fine son, lots better,” she said her voice urging him to believe her. She knew that he had issues about her being ill and she wanted to reassure him. Giving him a smile she moved over to the table and sat in the chair like he wanted, Gabby still next to her. “Hello, you must be Nicole,” she said giving the other girl a look for the first time.
She was struck by the very blue eyes and the blonde hair, both of which were inherited from Roman. Similar traits were present in Toby and Gabby and she smiled at seeing them. Her smile was returned with a frosty look and she almost flinched at the hostility in the other girls’ gaze.
“Yes, and you are Ella.”
There seemed to be an entire unspoken sentence within those few words and Ella felt a need to defend herself, forcing herself to remain quiet. Turning her head to look at Toby she gave her suddenly silent son a smile before asking, “So what have you all been up to?”
“Dad took us to the beach, we tried out body boards,” Toby murmured excitedly unaware that her mother flinched when he’d called Roman ‘Dad’ so easily.
“Yeah, even me,” Gabby said softly with a shrug, “Mike….” She trailed off looking at her brother before sighing.
“What is it babes?” Ella asked reaching up to stroke Gabby’s hair back from her face unaware that Nicole was watching her carefully.
“I was about to say that Mike should get you a drink,” Gabby said quietly her face suffusing with colour as she flashed a look at Nicole.
Ella picked up on the look. Something had obviously been said by Nicole that Gabby had overheard. Her daughter was a precious soul, and despite the fact that she could deal with two brothers, on occasion she was brittle when it came to dealing with others and what they said.
“Sure Mike, get your Mother a drink,” Nicole spoke.
Mike nodded ignoring the note in Nicole’s voice as he moved to the fridge and took out the bottle of orange juice. He moved confidently around the small space of the kitchen as he retrieved a glass and poured out the liquid before placing it in front of her.
“Do you want some toast or something?” Toby asked his eyes shooting to look at Nicole.
Ella caught the sudden undercurrent of tension between them and pinned a smile on her face.
“No, this is great,” she said indicating the glass of juice. “Nicole, why don’t you tell me something about yourself?” she suggested to the other girl smiling innocently when Nicole glared at her.
“Nothing much to tell,” Nic said folding her arms across herself.
Ella wondered if the girl knew that was what Roman did when he felt uncomfortable about something and hid her smile at the telling gesture on the other girl. Her eyes strayed to her sons and then to Gabby and she did smile then, having missed them the past few days. Having missed their chatter and energy.
“She’s a police officer,” Gabby supplied before gasping as Nic shot her a hostile look.
“Is she?” Ella asked and leaned over to kiss her daughter, “Why don’t you let her tell me babes?” she whispered to her before tugging Gabby down to sit on her knee.
“Yes I am,” Nicole confirmed.
“How did you get into that?” Ella asked and then cursed the unoriginal question not to mention the slightly insulting slant to it but seriously, Nicole had up-to-the-minute styled hair and a full French Manicure.
“I just liked the uniform,” Nic said without even glancing at the other woman.
Ella took the unspoken rebuke in the words. From the clothes the other girl was wearing, her top was a designer label; there was no way that she was satisfied by wearing the utilitarian cops’ uniform. She met Nicole’s gaze evenly as she sipped juice from the glass, the cool liquid easing her throat and refreshing her.
“Ok, so what else have you been doing?” Ella asked eventually sensing a return of the uncomfortable atmosphere. She’d be having words with Roman for taking them to the beach and letting them use Body boards without checking with her first.
“Dad, I mean Roman,” Gabby stopped and flushed as Nicole shot her a look. She remained silent her head down.
“Yeah babes?” Ella prompted softly.
“He well,” Gabby shifted uncomfortably.
“He gave us a cooking lesson,” Mike finished for his sister before shooting Nicole a look.
“Really?” Ella smiled at them before meeting Gabby’s shy gaze. “Did he happen to teach you to make pizza?”
Her daughter looked at her for a moment with her mouth open before giggling
“Oh mother…” Mike rolled his eyes before he too giggled along with Toby.
“So cooking and surfing, anything else I should know about?”
Gabby shook her head quickly, too quickly earning a look from everyone. She tried to smile but her face fell and she looked miserable.
“Mike?” Ella questioned turning attention away from her daughter, knowing that she would have a quiet word with her later out of earshot of the others, and especially Nicole. Not that she expected that Nicole had done anything deliberately, unaware perhaps of Gabby’s gentleness.
“I don’t think there was anything else,” Mike shrugged, before his face changed. “Oh we did some of those workbooks you got us.”
“Oh that is good, maybe you should go and fetch them so I can have a look,” Ella murmured softly. She grinned as her kids shot up and out of the room leaving her alone with Nicole. She waited a moment before standing up and looking at the other woman.
“I’m sure you have a lot to say to me but I’d like to be clear upfront, Gabby is not me, you want to say something and get stuff of your chest you come and see me. You hurt my daughter again and you will see my bad side.”
Nicole looked affronted for a second, her mouth opening and closing before she glared at her.
“You know, there are a lot of women in my father’s life, you weren’t the first and you certainly won’t be the last!”
“Is that the best you can do, Princess? Did you give Martha that nice little speech? I’m not in a relationship with your father and I have no intention of resuming one. What I do have are three kids who are innocent of whatever crimes you seem to want accuse them off, and you know, two of them are related to you by blood, seems to be a waste of your emotion hating them when you could actually have a relationship with them. I’ll leave you to think about it.”
Ella shot a last look at the other woman before she walked carefully into the lounge and sat on one of the sofas and waited for her kids to come back.