Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered
I was completely out of my comfort zone. I perched on the high bar stool, legs swinging like a toddler in a high chair, and cursed Harry for insisting on meeting me here.
‘Seven o’clock, Esme, Cara Mia at Canary Wharf,’ she’d said in her message. ‘Don’t be late. It’s important.’
She was passing through town, she’d said, flying into Heathrow from the States and back to Scotland from City. Bad planning on her part. And even worse planning on mine to work spitting distance from the bar she’d chosen. I’d briefly considered changing jobs to get out of meeting her, but even I could see that was a bit extreme.
And so, here I was. With my legs uncomfortably wrapped around the chrome legs of a shiny stool, and my elbow in a puddle of something, in a bar full of the City types I spent a lot of time avoiding. And – I squinted at my watch in the dim light – it was now 7.25 and there was still no sign of Harry.
I shifted awkwardly on my perch and tried once more to get the barman’s attention. He’d been ignoring me since I arrived, despite my best attempts at eye contact.
Finally, I thought, as his gaze shifted in my direction. But no, instead he served the woman standing behind me, who had glossy hair and the kind of honey-coloured skin that comes from a lifetime of winters spent abroad.
That did it. I moved my arm out of the puddle, rested my wrist on the cold bar and waggled my fingers, gently, in the direction of the barman. A small shower of pink sparks – nothing anyone would notice – wafted from my fingertips. The barman looked puzzled for a moment, then he picked a bottle of Pinot Grigio from the fridge, dropped it into an ice bucket and presented it to me, along with two glasses, with a flourish.
‘Nice,’ said a voice in my ear. ‘And you didn’t even have to ask.’
‘Hello, Harry,’ I said. Of course she would choose that moment to arrive. She didn’t kiss me. Instead she leaned over, scooped up the wine bucket and tilted her head in the direction of a booth.
I was expected to follow, clearly. I picked up the glasses, then had to put them down again so I could slide off the barstool without mishap. I resisted the temptation to turn around and descend backwards, but only just. Then I picked up the glasses again and trotted after my cousin, just like I’d been trotting after her my whole life.
As I approached the table she’d chosen, I noticed her normally immaculately made-up face was pale, with dark rings under her eyes. And her slouchy cashmere sweater hung off her. She grabbed the glass I offered, glugged wine into it and drained it. I felt slightly uneasy. Harry being in control was one of the constants in my life.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked as I shuffled sideways along the seat into the booth.
Harry waited for me to sit, then pushed a glass in my direction.
‘It’s Mum,’ she said in her typically forthright way. ‘She’s got breast cancer.’
I put my hand to my mouth in shock.
‘Oh God,’ I said. ‘Poor Auntie Suky.’
Harry took another swig of her wine.
‘She should be OK because they seem to have caught it early enough. But she’s in for a rough few months.’
She looked at me.‘You have to go,’ she said.
I was already shaking my head.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Absolutely not.’
‘My mum needs you,’ Harry said.
‘You go.’ I tipped my wine into my mouth and poured another glass. ‘She’s your mum.’
Harry looked away. I thought for a moment she had tears in her eyes, but perhaps it was just the light in the bar.
‘I’ve got some stuff going on at the moment, Esme,’ she said. ‘I just can’t leave work just now. I’ll come as soon as I can.’
‘I don’t care. I’m not going.’
I was annoyed she’d even asked. Going to see Suky meant seeing my own mum and Harry knew how shaky my relationship was with her.
‘I know you’re annoyed I even asked,’ she said.
‘Don’t do that.’ I scowled at her. I hated when she poked about in my head and read my mind.
‘What?’ she said, her pretty face full of innocence.
Infuriated I shook my head again. Harry ignored me.
‘I spoke to your mum,’ she said. I felt a flash of anger that she’d spoken to Mum when I hadn’t. ‘She says there’s been a bit of trouble.’
‘What kind of trouble?’
‘A few things have gone wrong at the café.’
‘There’s nothing I can do about that.’ My career as a lawyer was far away from my family’s quaint tearoom.
Harry caught my fingers and squeezed them.
‘You can help,’ she said. ‘You have to help. You know I’d be there if I could – it’s just really tricky for me at the moment.’
‘I don’t do witch stuff any more,’ I said.
Harry arched her perfectly plucked eyebrows.
‘Then what was that at the bar?’
She had a point. What I’d done at the bar –and what she’d done when she echoed my thoughts back to me – was witchcraft. Because, though I deny it and ignore it, I am a witch. So is Harry. And our mums. And our gran before them. You know how it goes.
But a long time ago, I’d turned my back on my mum and witchcraft, and now I only ever used it secretly, quietly and – often pretty badly – to make everyday life a bit easier. If I needed a parking space, one would appear. A mess in my kitchen? No problem. Couldn’t find the remote control? It would just appear like – well, like magic. Anything more complicated though, and it didn’t always go as smoothly as I’d liked so I tended to avoid pushing my luck when it came to spells. It was a strategy that worked for me and I had no intention of that changing any time soon.
‘I’ll come up as soon as I can,’ Harry was saying. ‘Next week, probably. Your mum needs you, Ez. My mum needs you. I…’
There was a pause. I looked at her in expectation. But apparently she’d finished.
I pushed my glass of wine away and picked up my bag.
‘Sorry,’ I said, shuffling back along the bench. ‘I have to go back to the office. Don’t you have a plane to catch?’
‘So I told her, there was absolutely no way I was going,’ I said to Dom, my sort-of-boyfriend later that evening. I’d bumped into him when I’d gone back to the office to pick up my things, and persuaded him to come back to mine, which hardly ever happened. He looked out of place in my tiny flat; too big and too male as he lounged against my Cath Kidston cushions and smiled at me as I ranted and paced the floor in front of him.
‘Absolutely no way,’ I repeated.
Dom looked at me, a glint of mischief in his brown eyes.
‘So when are you leaving?
I screwed up my nose.
‘Tomorrow,’ I said miserably. ‘Straight after work.’
He chuckled, but to give him his due, he didn’t labour the point. Instead he patted the cushion next to him and pulled me down on to the sofa. I cuddled into him, enjoying the rare pleasure of having him all to myself.
‘I’m in court all day tomorrow,’ he said. ‘So I won’t get to see you before you go.’
‘Well, we’d better make tonight count then,’ I said, looking up at him in what I hoped was a coquettish, flirty manner.
Dom leaned down to kiss me, when suddenly his phone rang making me jump and ruining the moment. I glared at him as he answered and motioned for me to be quiet.
‘Hello, Rebecca,’ he said. ‘Yep, got stuck in the office, but I’m just finishing up here.’
I pulled my legs away from Dom, stood up and flounced into my tiny kitchen where I slumped against the work surface. Rebecca was the reason Dom was only my ‘sort-of boyfriend’. Because she was sort of his wife. Well, if I was being honest, there was no sort of about it. She was his actual wife. Which made me his actual mistress.
I wasn’t proud of myself. I knew what I was doing was wrong. But Dom had charmed me and I felt as though I had no control over my actions. He’d broken through all my defences. And actually, the secrecy and the subterfuge suited me quite well.
Dom and I had been working together for two years. We’d been sleeping together for nearly a year. The first time it happened I’d been working late in the office, desperate to make my mark in a company full of overachievers. As I pored over files and wrote reams of notes, Dom appeared at my office door.
‘Come for a drink,’ he said.
‘I can’t,’ I replied, not even looking up. Dom had been circling me for weeks, months even, flirting and going out of his way to pay me attention. I wasn’t interested. I avoided relationships and preferred to spend all my spare time working.
‘You work too hard.’ He walked towards my desk and sat down on the chair in front of me.
‘So do you.’ I turned a page in the folder I was reading and carried on making notes in the margin.
‘Pleeeease,’ Dom whined like a little boy. ‘I’m sooooo bored.’
In spite of myself I laughed and finally looked up. His wide, brown eyes with a hint of mischief met mine, and a tiny bud of lust curled in my stomach. How could I resist?
‘I can’t go for a drink,’ I said firmly. ‘But if you go and get me a coffee, I’ll take a break and we can chat for five minutes.’
Dom had brought me a coffee – and a bottle of wine – and we chatted for hours that night. And the next night, when we both worked late again. And after a few ‘dates’ in the office, we went out for dinner. Just an above-board business dinner between colleagues at a restaurant near work.
Except the restaurant was expensive and softly lit and we didn’t talk about business.
When we finally staggered out into the street, dizzy with red wine, good food and lust, I raised my arm to hail a cab. Dom caught my hand and pulled me to face him.
‘What now?’ he asked. His face was close to mine and I could feel his breath on my lips. My legs were like jelly and although I knew I should pull away, I couldn’t.
‘You’re married,’ I whispered.
Dom nodded. A flicker of something – guilt? – crossed his eyes.
‘The ball’s in your court, Esme,’ he said, pulling me closer.
I opened my mouth to tell him to go home to his wife. But instead I found myself leaning forward to kiss him. He tasted of garlic and coffee and fun and I was bewitched.
So when a taxi pulled up beside us and Dom got in with me, and gave the cabbie my address, I didn’t protest. And that was that.
A year of snatched meetings and illicit evenings later I still felt terrible whenever I thought of Dom’s wife. And I still hated it if she called when I was with him.
I didn’t want Dom to leave her, I told myself. I was happy working long hours and spending time alone in my flat or at the gym. Having a full-time boyfriend would cramp my style. Plus, it suited me to have some distance between us. I may not have been an enthusiastic user of magic, but all my family were. Just the thought of inviting a boyfriend home and watching his face as Mum made Sunday dinner in her own special way gave me chills. And my family’s track record when it came to my love life was not good. But still my heart ached when Dom slipped out of my bed at night and went home to his wife.
I ignored the nagging voice inside me that told me what I was doing was wrong. I ignored my guilt about Rebecca, and, most of all, I ignored the feeling that despite my fabulous, well-paid job, my gorgeous flat and my handsome, sophisticated sort-of boyfriend, I was lonely.
‘I’m going to miss you.’ Dom interrupted my thoughts. He had finished his phone call and come to find me in the kitchen. He snaked his arms round my waist and planted a kiss on my neck.
‘No you won’t,’ I said, pulling his arms off me. ‘You won’t even notice I’m not here.’
Dom winked at me. ‘Of course I will. I love you,’ he said. I gaped at him. He’d never said that before. Ignoring my silence, Dom picked up his car keys.
‘Bye,’ he called from the hall, as he blew me a kiss.
I pretended to catch it. ‘Bye then,’ I whispered.
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