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Fool's Errand

A revised version of an entry in the Literotica "2018 Annual April Fool Contest", so please, please vote on what you think of my little story at the end.

A Fool's errand is an English idiom referring to a foolish undertaking or a task certain to fail.

Chapter 1

"Damn it!" Caroline Lyndsey exclaimed, after clicking 'end' on her phone following her customary weekly call to keep in touch with her mother.

"What's up, Sweetheart?" her friend Josh asked, looking up from his morning newspaper, "Trouble at home?"

"No, not really, it's just that my mum and dad are at it again."

"At it?" Josh asked and self-answered, "well, Sweetheart, you know how it is, once the kiddies have left home...."

"It's not that!" she swatted him across the arm. "My parents aren't normal people, they are jokers. And I am sick of it."


"Practical jokers. April Foolers. Every year about now they try something to trick my brother and me. Last year was the straw that broke the camel's back."

"Last year?"

"When they pretended to split up and get a divorce? Remember?"

"Look, Caroline, I may be your best friend-with-benefits, and always there whenever you're between proper boyfriends, but this time last year, remember, you were still well in with Richard."

"Oh yeah, Richard the Turd, ugh, I am so over him!"

"And since Richard, as you and I are never gonna be officially," here he gestured 'bunny ears' with his fingers, "'boyfriend/girlfriend', I've been reaping the friendship with benefits thing, but you have never said anything before about your parents splitting. So, spill the beans, 'girlfriend'!"

"Huh! If you knew my Mum was available on the market again, you'd be sniffing round there before the ink on the decree was dry."

"You know I would, and as well as your Mum being gorgeous, your Dad ain't far behind."

Caroline looked over Josh again. I mean, why wasn't he her boyfriend? He was always cute, even with his scratchy morning beard and tangled bed hair. He was great company with exactly the wanton sense of fun she needed after Richard had pretty well destroyed her self-confidence. And the sex with Josh was always satisfyingly fresh and out of this world. But they were like comfortable old shoes, they had known each other since they were about six years old and were always the best of friends. And she had always known that Josh's long-term interests still hovered between bi-curiousity and some heterosexual variety, so they both knew that they could never live together exclusively for very long. And Caroline had to admit she was still looking for that elusive Mr Right.

"Right, 'boyfriend', I still can't believe I've never told you about Mum and Dad and all their practical jokes before."

"Maybe we never connected at this time of year before, sweetheart."

"Anyway, they just love to make 'April Fools' of Mason and me."

"Oh, your Mason's so cute, it's a shame that Marilyn burned him so badly while he was in Afghanistan."

"Yeah, we'd all wish he'd snap out of it and get with the programme of producing grandchildren for Mum and Dad and take the pressure off me. Maybe then, Mum would be so busy knitting booties she wouldn't have time to think up the next nonsense project to wind me up with."

"So, what's she plotting for this coming April Fools Day?" Josh asked, folding his newspaper over to give her his full attention, "And I cannot believe you would fall for a scam based on Sofia and Alan splitting, I mean, they are like Tweedledee and Tweedledum, two sides of the same coin!"

"Well, she's devious, my Mum. She plants little ideas and lets them stew. Last year she started early in January, saying that for summer holidays she was thinking of going to Littlehampton —"

"They always go abroad, don't they?"

"Exactly, Spain usually, and she said 'she' rather than 'we' and went on to say she didn't look forward to driving that far."

"She hates driving, your mum."

"Just what I said to her, and she quickly changed it around to 'we' and explained that Dad wasn't getting the overtime, what with cutbacks, so they were cutting down on expenditure. Then the next week she mentioned downsizing the house, the following week she talked of the shocking price of one-bed property locally; then when I asked how Dad was, she retorted that I'd have to ask HIM if I wanted to know. It was relentless, one drip at a time, like water torture."

"Hehe, I do love the devil in your Mum."

"When Richard and I visited them in February, Mum and Dad never spoke to one another the whole time and the atmosphere was frosty. So I thought maybe they really were splitting up."

"What did Mason think?"

"He wasn't worried, at first, until he visited and he noticed that frosty atmosphere towards one another. But even then, he told me not to worry, that Mum was yanking my chain as she always does. I wanted to relax and believe Mason but then they started leaving house and apartment leaflets around the house, all one bedroom places. And, when both my brother and I visited for Easter weekend there was a 'for sale' sign lying down behind the wall in the front garden, like they had just removed it temporarily for our brief visit."


"Yeah, right. Then on the first of April they invited us over for brunch, because they 'had an announcement to make'."

"And what was that?"

"April bloody Fool! Grrrr!

"So, what exactly are they trying on this year?"

"She subtly threw in a comment about a kid living around the corner with cancer."


"I don't know this kid or the parents, I don't even know if they exist. But I'm sure that she's going to act like she's going to go on about shaving her head in solidarity and persuade me and Mason to do likewise, and it'll all be an April Fool."

"Well, two can play at that game." Josh grinned like a Cheshire Cat.

"How? What are you thinking of?"

"How about we introduce your parents to Mason's brand new fiancée?"

"What fiancée?" Caroline exclaimed. "Mason is a confirmed bachelor. He hasn't even had a casual girlfriend since Marilyn did the dirty on him, and that was a dozen or more years ago."

"So, if he suddenly turned up with a beautiful fiancée, wearing a flash thirty grand engagement ring and all...."

"What the?!" Caroline exclaimed, but she hesitated as her mind ticked over, and then she smiled. "OK, smartypants, I see where you are going with this, but ... who would do it and why would they?"

"I'll tell you, girlfriend. Now, listen carefully."


Mason Lyndsey was halfway around his town centre postal route when his sister Caroline called. He knew it was her as she had downloaded a distinctive ring on his phone for her entry when he first showed it to her. He was 8 years older than his half-sister and had always felt protective of her, so he answered it immediately.

After hanging up and continuing his delivery round, he shook his head. His mother only persisted with these April Fool jokes because Caroline rose to the bait every single time. If only she would just shrug it off as a harmless joke like he and his stepfather did, this would die out like it should have done long ago. Now, the revenge that Caroline proposed was preposterous, but, as he hated letting his little Sis down, he agreed to go along with it. All Caroline had to do now was set it all up.

"Honestly," he said out loud for no-one in particular, "a union between a guy called Mason Lyndsey and a chick by the name of Lyndsey Mason? Even Mum'll never be daft enough to fall for that one!"


Gareth Belvedere stretched as he peered at his bedside clock with one eye open. He couldn't see the time clearly, his single open eyeball felt smeary with alcohol induced sleep. He rubbed that eye, not even daring to open the other, and squinted at the clock again. Ten past seven. He groaned, ten past seven on a Saturday.

"Bugger," he thought, "too bloody early to get up and too bloody late to go back to sleep."

He wasn't sure what had woken him up. He usually slept in on Saturdays, until at least nine o'clock. He decided to get up anyway. He had a rugby match this afternoon and they were due to meet up at noon at the Cricketers pub on the bypass, as it was an away match this time around.

He rubbed the other eye, the one that was tightly gummed shut. The eyelid finally released and the sudden pain of rolling his eyeball what seemed like 360 degrees around, hit him, and either some sharp grit or stray stabbing eyelash was in his eye, it watered like mad and he rushed to his en suite bathroom to bathe it.

Once in his apartment's kitchen, he filled the kettle for tea and, as he often did when he was alone with his thoughts, he wondered how he could move onto the next stage in his relationship with Lyndsey. Phew! That was a difficult one. He had bought the ring and approached her father for leave to ask for his daughter's hand, and the old bastard bloody well refused him. That had never occurred to him. Her father held nothing back, giving Gareth full chapter of his failings, how he cheated at school, bought his degree, barely gets by careerwise even though his father, two older brothers and his godfather own the bank, his drinking and his womanising and, this is where the old duffer leaned into him and whispered "as well as your bumming around", was like the coup de grace to his proposal.

Mmm, he wondered, with so much at stake, exactly how much a hitman would charge to clear the way. It would be easy to make it seem like natural causes, as her old man was at least fifty years older than his daughter Lyndsey.

His mobile rang in the jeans he had dropped in the kitchen when he got in last night. By the time he had fumbled it open he saw he has missed two calls, the first of which probably being what woke him up ten minutes before. The caller ID was "Jose", otherwise known as Josh or "Hoss" by some of his friends, like in "hung like a..."

"Hey, Josh, whatyer ringing so early for, we're not meeting the coach until noon."

"No, Gaz, it's not about that. Remember you said something about your Lady's old man?"

'Fuck!' thought Gareth, 'did I get so pissed last night I teed up Josh to do the hit? Or did we arrange something together? If I can't remember who I've told, I'm in shit street.'

"Look, I don't know what I was talking about-"

"Hey, mate, I've got someone who'll do it."

"Fuck! Someone to bump off the old man?"

"No, you idiot, someone who will make you, yes, even you, look like the perfect husband for his one and only, very lovely daughter."


Mason could feel the dread building up within as he and his sister walked down from the town centre car park to the "Station Hotel" to meet the other couple. Madness, he thought, why had he agreed to go along with this crazy scheme to prank their mother?

The pub was packed and uncomfortably hot and stuffy, still sealing in the heat of the early spring day, while outside the clear night held promise of an early frost as the sun vanished from view behind the tall buildings around the railway station. The pub was clearly full of commuters, mostly male and middle aged, who had dropped into the nearest pub after getting off the London train to begin to celebrate Friday night and the coming weekend. The bar counter was three or four customers deep, desperately trying to get in the drinks they had looked forward to throughout their long commute.

It was too noisy even for holding a conversation in there. This girl he was going to meet, Mason thought, picked this place to meet. Just what was this girl like, if this crowded hell was her favourite watering hole? Caroline had informed him earlier that this was the girl's choice of venue. He had been told she was in her twenties, while he was already past his mid-thirties. He was regretting this blind date more and more. Caroline tugged his arm and hissed in his ear.

"Mace, they're over there. Oooh, I say, he looks a bit of a dish!" she said, "even better than he did in his photo."

Mason followed her pointing finger. The other couple must have got here early. They had already grabbed a table and four chairs, the empty ones covered respectively with a leather jacket and a small handbag. The young man was now standing and waving at them. The pint of beer in front of him was three quarters full. The drink next to the lady looked like red wine and had barely been touched. Mason lifted his eyes to see the girl, still sitting, she was looking straight at him.

God! He thought, she was a vision, long wavy blond hair, pale complexion, demure, with her hands apparently resting on her lap, hidden by the table. He must've grinned involuntarily, because her face suddenly lit up in a natural, smiling response, then she dropped her eyes downward momentarily, as if in an act of shyness, not willing to surrender her own reaction to him through her eyes. After just a moment of composure, though, she lifted her head again, still smiling, and then started to stand.

"Hey guys," Gareth spoke first, loudly to overcome the background noise, "you must be Caroline and Mason, we've been watching the door, looking out for you."

"Yes, Gareth, pleasure to meet you," Caroline replied, her face up close to Gareth's ear, "gosh, it's a right crush in here!"

"I'm so sorry I suggested this place," Lyndsey apologised, moving as close to Gareth as Caroline was, "I picked here because my friends and I used to use it when I was at Uni and it was always more than half empty back then and the landlady was happy to let us stay in the warm and nurse a half-pint most of the night."

"We had already decided to check with you if we should go somewhere else," Gareth suggested, "somewhere it would be quiet enough to talk."

"It's too early to go to the restaurant, I think you said we're not booked in until 7.30," Lyndsey said, apologetically, "there are a couple of pubs around the corner, I think."

"The two pubs that were nearby have both closed recently," Mason said, remembering them from an occasional postal round he had walked around this area. "Probably explains why this one's so busy. We could walk rather than drive to the restaurant, that would take twenty minutes or so and we should have for an appetiser before dinner at their bar while we check out what we fancy to eat."

"That's a good idea," Gareth said, picking up his glass and downing his three-quarters of a pint in one go.

Lyndsey picked up her wine glass and sipped a small amount demurely before putting her almost full glass down, put on her light jacket, which was resting on the back of her chair, and picked up her bag from the opposite chair. Gareth stamped down his empty glass and collected his leather jacket. Caroline and Mason turned and they all walked towards the door. Their table and chairs were commandeered immediately they vacated them.

Outside, they briefly reintroduced each other and politely shook hands, although Caroline reached up and kissed Gareth on the cheek and then did the same to Lyndsey.

Mason and Gareth merely shook hands and gave each other a look that could have interpreted as 'You better watch yourself with my sister, if you know what's good for you', replied with, 'and you with my fiancée, buster!'

"We'll leave the cars in the station car park as it's free, rather than try to park up near the restaurant, the streets get really packed in the evening around there and we may have to drive around for ages and still not park any nearer than we are now." Caroline spoke from experience, while the meeting place of the pub was apparently Lyndsey's choice, the restaurant where they would spend most of the evening had been chosen by Caroline.

All it took was the barest of nods between them, that Mason noticed, before Gareth held out the crook of his arm and asked Caroline, "Shall we start walking and talk about whether we are going to agree to do this swap and act accordingly for the next month or two? It's too bloody cold to stand around." And off they went.

Mason looked at Lyndsey, she really looked cold, compared to the hothouse of the hotel bar. He took off his short denim jacket and draped it over her shoulders.

"But you've only got a polo shirt on," she protested.

"Well, I thought you looked cold, are you cold?"

"Yes, I must admit ... well, I wasn't while sitting in that pub but it is definitely chilly out here. I usually have a heavier coat in the boot of my car, but Gareth drove me and it was quite warm and sunny an hour ago when we parked up. But surely, you'll catch a death."

"I'm a postman," he grinned back, "Right now l'm wearing jeans instead of shorts and a long sleeve shirt instead of a tee shirt, and even you're carrying a much heavier bag than I am, so for me, well, I still seem somewhat overdressed. Besides, I really don't feel the cold."

"OK," she said with a smile, and worked her arms into the jacket, so smoothly that she didn't need his help. However, once the coat was on it looked enormous on her and the arms were so long that she couldn't do the zip up.

"Would you mind?" she asked.

"No problem," he replied and zipped the coat up to her chin. They turned towards where Caroline and Gareth were headed, and they had already walked some 100 yards up the lane.

Mason held out the crook of his arm for her to tuck her arm in, and they moved on up the road in pursuit.

As they started to walk away from the pub, Lyndsey wondered why this tall, lean, handsome gentleman Mason was still single. She understood that he was ten or twelve years older than her, and had been led to believe that he had not had a girlfriend for at least a couple of years. He was a lot better looking than she had expected and had impressed her on looks alone at first glance inside the pub. Once they got outside, he wasn't pushy or brash like most of the men in her group of friends, but reserved and quiet, friendly without being aloof. They were walking along briskly but in comfortable silence, which was more relaxing than trying to hold a conversation while walking so fast.

He hadn't even asked her if she was warm enough as soon as they got outside, but he had immediately recognised the signs and simply offered her his coat before she had even admitted to herself that she had felt cold. Then he made a joke about his work, to show that his need for the coat was negligible compared to hers, to assuag any guilt on her part. Now she was walking along and breathing in the light, subtle and warm smell of his cologne from his coat. So, yes, when they they were briefly alone, which could have been awkward, they had gently exchanged pleasantries, so she was left with the impression that he was cute and attractive.

She had always known that she was considered attractive to the opposite sex, and she was used to the rituals of men trying to impress her and act as if she should already be under their spell. But Mason was so much more mature and relaxed in his own being, not trying to pretend to be some kind of alpha male. He didn't try to grab her arm or put his arm around her or even hold hands, he had simply offered the same level of support that her boyfriend had offered his sister, knowing that it was just the right move to make in the circumstances. He seemed to be a natural gentleman and probably an all-round nice guy, who was helping his sister out in her revenge for various family pranks, and willing to do this without any apparent reward other than making his sister feel better.

So, what bitch hurt him so badly in the past, she wondered?

Although Mason could see that the girl was slight of build, she moved smoothly and easily and they closed the gap between the two couples quite quickly, falling in step behind them by about ten or twelve feet, so both pairs of conversations could remain largely private. When they slowed down the pace to match the couple in front, she squeezed in closer to him. He reduced the length of his stride to hers and they moved on harmoniously. He could smell her perfume now and, he realised, he could relax, that this wasn't anything like the ordeal he had anticipated. He had been dreading this evening, thinking he would soon run out of pleasantries to say to someone, but after she had asked him about what post route he worked, he told her amiably about his simple job as a Royal Mail postman, but that conversation soon dried up.
"So," Lyndsey broke the ice again, seeing that Mason was so quiet, "Mason and Lyndsey, eh? What a combination we'd make with a few hyphens added in!"

Mason laughed, "Yeah, I guess the success or otherwise of this whole scheme, or whatever you want to call it, is going to be completely down to the pair of us."

"It does seems that way," she laughed back, "so, why do you need to play this trick on your family?"

"I don't really, I find it all too silly, actually."

"So why do it?"

"It's Sis's call. She's the one who the jokes are played on every year, my Dad and I just roll our eyeballs at Mum's inventions and Caroline's over reaction to them every year. I'm sure that if Caroline didn't take it half so seriously, it would have petered out by now. So, what's in it for you?"

"Nothing really, it's Gareth who wants to ask Daddy for my hand in marriage but he knows he's going to get turned down."

"Why? He seems quite normal ... for a Neanderthal."

Lyndsey giggled, "Actually, he's a banker, works in his family's bank."

"So, Gareth's folks are loaded then? What's your Daddy got against him?"

"He simply doesn't like him and he doesn't do anything to disguise the fact, either."

"I expect that no-one's going to be good enough for his daughter. Are you an only daughter?"

"Afraid so, does it show?"

"No, well not that I could tell, only deduced from your father's protective attitude. Tell me, has he approved of any of your boyfriends before Gareth?"

She laughed, "No, not a single one. I guess I'm destined to be a spinster in my old age. I better learn to knit or crochet or something."

"Ah, not prepared to go against Daddy's wishes then?"

"Oh, he's a force of nature. When Daddy and Gareth are in the same room they set off sparks. Wait until you meet him!"

"And I guess I am supposed to make such a bad impression on him that Gareth appears acceptable as his son-in-law?"

"Something like that. Look, I mean no disrespect to you, Mason, but Caroline told me at the outset that you work as a postman and that you sometimes paint houses?"

"Yes, I do."

"Well, Daddy runs the biggest chemicals industry business in the world, so don't take this the wrong way, but it will take a lot to impress him, if the son likely to inherit a banking institution that has been established in London for almost 200 years can't make much headway with him."

"No offence taken, Lyndsey," he grinned, "I really have no problem with my job status and my future prospects. I am comfortable in my own skin. What about you, what exactly do you do?"

"I'm a paediatric surgeon at the East Green General," she replied. "Or at least I'm learning how to become one."

"Caroline had said you were some kind of doctor, but not that you were training as a surgeon. I am impressed. Is it mainly babies you operate on?"

"Yes, although they do let us loose on young adults as well as children when there are emergencies, but mainly the bulk of the scheduled operations are on babies and small children."

"Wow! That must be brilliant. A lot more challenging than sticking letters through letterboxes."

They chatted amiably as they walked. Lyndsey thought it made a nice change for a man not to drone on about how important their jobs or activities were. Mason had simply described his morning round, which was mostly shops and offices in the town centre and his early afternoon round was residential; he started early in the morning, but was finished by middle of the afternoon. Gareth was always bragging about how much he had made on this deal and that, or eulogising over some tackle he had made at his favourite sport, rugby.

When he asked what was one of the downsides to her work, she said, "I don't know, Mason, sometimes it feels a lot like I'm reaching through a tiny letterbox trying to pull something out to check it out, cut it away or stitch it up. That's not always much fun."

"Ok, we agree then, that your job is a bit more challenging while mine is a whole lot more fun!"

"Fun! In posting letters through a letterbox? Where's the 'fun' in that?"

"Oh, the joys of being a postman. Just think of it Lyndsey, up at the crack of dawn or in that quiet twilight just before the sun comes up. Often the wind drops to a sigh, the air so still and quiet that you could hear a pin drop. And the light in the morning can be stunning. You are so alone on the street that you could be the only one alive, or awake at least. Then the birds sense the dawn's approach and start announcing it to their neighbours. It's wonderful."

"I get the dawn too," Lyndsey insisted, finding herself fighting the corner for her profession, "sometimes we start surgery at 7am and we have to get in an hour or so before that and read through all the patients' notes and scrub up ready."

"Ok," he conceded, "but look at the sacrifices you make in your job. You have to work in a windowless room under artificial light and pumped air con, while I am in the fresh air, taking in the sun from when it leaves off kissing the horizon to well past meridian. Now that is inspirational."

She had noticed in the pub how tanned he was, even this early in the spring, his face and hands were much darker than his sister. She assumed they must've started out with similar natural colouring, but his dark skinned look suited him, made him look healthy, combined with his lean and athletic frame. Her mind wandered to how shapely his legs and buttocks were and couldn't help compare him to Gareth, who worked on weights in the gym, which made his arms and legs a bit too over-muscled, with slightly repulsive prominent blood vessels, that looked so imbalanced somehow, like he was on steroids or something. Encased in the sleeves of his polo shirt, Mason looked slim and lean, with long muscles that seemed so much more appropriate to his natural long-limbed build.

"It may seem like I have to work like a troglodyte most of the time, but at least I am trying to make someone's life better."

"Oh, and you don't think delivering letters from an overseas sister not seen in a twelve month isn't important, or the results of a successful examination, be it educational or ... medical ... making someone's life better?"

'Ooo,' she thought and she looked at him smiling at her with one eyebrow raised, 'he's taunting me now, the rat. I can't let him get away with that!'

"Well, at least under the NHS, I don't have to hand them any nasty bills," she chirped back at him, "I bet you delivery nasty old bills all the time."

"Most people pay by direct debit nowadays, with the bigger bills spread monthly over the year, so all I am dropping in are statements, not nasty surprises. In fact, most of the surprises are ones that are full of good news, like birthday cards, baby photos and premium bond wins or letters from far away loved ones."

'Damn,' she thought, 'he really likes his job.'

In front of them, Caroline and Gareth had stopped walking and turned to face them.

"Looks like we're here," Lyndsey said, trying to put on a pout, "we'll continue this conversation later."

Mason grinned. This odd double date that he hadn't looked forward to without several degrees of trepidation all week, was half an hour old and he had pretty well enjoyed every single minute of it so far.

They pushed on into the restaurant. Caroline peeled off to speak to one of the waiters, who embraced her like a long lost friend. Very friendly in here, Lyndsey thought, looking through to the area where the tables were, it looked completely full in there even at this early hour. She looked around, the decor was dark, all blacks, golds and reds, warm and comfortable. It looked like it had been here forever, yet Lyndsey had never heard of it before. It was in the old part of town, up the hill from the station, near the old church. The streets were narrow and what shops there were here, they were small specialist craft and antique shops.

Caroline returned, "Our table will be ready in ten minutes."

"Right," Gareth said, stepping towards a small bar in the corner of a small lounge area, "they've got Peroni Azzuro, bottles all round?" One of the waiters had slipped behind the bar and reacted to Gareth's booming voice by pulling a Peroni off the shelf.

Mason looked at Caroline and Lyndsey, who were in conversation, "Ladies..."

"Yeah, Peroni for me," Caroline said, Lyndsey nodded with a smile, so Mason joined Gareth at the bar and spoke to the waiter, "make that four please, Tony."

The waiter placed the uncapped frosted bottles and shook Mason's hand with a broad grin on his swarthy face, "There you go Mace, enjoy!" before he scooted back to the tables.

"Eat here a lot, Mason?" Gareth asked, then tugged at his beer.

"Yeah, used to once upon a time, but not so much lately," Mason replied reflecting on not having much reason to dine out of late.

"So what's good in here?"

"Honestly?" Mason laughed, "Everything! Trust me, everything in here is special."

They joined the girls and handed over their bottles. The girls were talking about accommodation, Caroline having a small one bed studio flat, while Lyndsey was sharing a three bed flat close to the hospital with two other doctors.

Gareth chipped in with his luxury two bed apartment, which boasted a wide balcony, so he could hold barbecues in the summer.

Mason didn't say anything, and Caroline opened her mouth about to say something on his behalf, but a large lady, in her late fifties or early sixties, wearing an apron, approached them holding out her arms. Caroline leapt up and embraced her, exchanging kisses on both cheeks.

"This is my Aunt Anna," Caroline said, "this is her restaurant. This is Lyndsey, and this is Gareth."

Aunt Anna kissed them both on the cheeks and then turned to the fourth member of the group, whose back had been towards her when she approached the group, "Mason! I didn't expect to see you here tonight, we've not seen you here for ages. Come, kiss your favourite Aunt."

Mason gladly embraced her and kissed both her cheeks. Then they were led through the restaurant to the back right next to the kitchen, before she left them to go into the kitchen.

Gareth noticed first, "There are no menus on the table."

"We are family, so we never get menus, they will bring out the best dishes they can do, a lot of it not even on the standard menu," Mason said with a smile, "Don't worry, everything will be absolutely delicious."

And it all was. Aunt Anna even came and sat with them for a while as Gareth and Lyndsey eulogised about the calamari and other dishes. Aunt Anna spent a lot of time talking to Lyndsey and got out of her that she was a doctor at the hospital. Aunt Anna naturally wanted to know about the massive engagement ring on her finger and, almost on cue, Mason and Lyndsey reached out and held hands, Lyndsey turning to Aunt Anna and saying, "Meet my fiancée, Anna, isn't he wonderful?"

With the congratulations out of the way, Aunt Anna made a quick getaway, no doubt to ring her sister, Mason's mother Sofia. Mason and Caroline exchanged glances and smiled. The April Fool trap was sprung.


The walk back down towards the station car park was full of high spirits. They reverted back to their original couples again as Gareth wanted to reestablish his relationship with Lyndsey, saying "I brought her in my car, so I am taking her home." They stopped at the car park and, for a moment, Gareth revelled in the apparent success of tonight's charade.

"That was a master stroke, booking your Aunt's restaurant, so it all gets straight back to your Mum, Caroline," said Gareth, "I hope that you will keep up the bargain for our side of the trick and get Lyndsey's Dad to reconsider my marriage proposal."

"That's why you insisted I wear my ring," Lyndsey grinned at Caroline, "so your aunt could see it."

"Of course," Caroline said, "and it worked a treat."

"I'm not surprised it made an impression, that ring's worth thirty k!" chipped in Garett.

"For insurance purposes," Lyndsey added.

"I think this'll work," Caroline beamed, "now, are we all agreed to do this for the full eight weeks until the first of April?"

She hesitated while the other three looked at each other and nodded.

"Brilliant! So that all of us can get the right results from this prank, we need the 'partners' to see each other often and get to know each other's history, likes and dislikes. I am sure Mum'll ring Mason and me both in the morning to check up on us, so what plans do we all have for the weekend?"

"I have a home match in the afternoon, but the team usually meets for a bevy in The Carpenters beforehand," said Gareth, "your Josh'll be there, Caroline, so if you wanna tag along...."

"Ooo, please!" gushed Caroline. "That means that Mason and Lyndsey will be free to meet up, too." They moved to one side, comparing their mobile phone calendars.

"Well, I also have a match tomorrow afternoon," Mason said to Lyndsey, "it's an away game, and I always travel in the team bus."

"I didn't know you still played," Lyndsey said, remembering that Caroline had said he was 38 in their conversation during the week.

"No, I don't play." he laughed, "I'm the team photographer and match reporter, for the Herald."

"What team is it?"

"The local football side, Barton United."

"I didn't know we even had a local team," Lyndsey admitted, "and I've lived here for nearly five years."

"Yes, they play at Manor Park, behind the fire station. We're in an intermediate league made up of teams from three counties, none of them with floodlights, so we only play on Saturdays. Tomorrow we are playing in the quarter-finals of our county senior cup ... it's the highest level of competition that we enter and this is the furthest we've ever got in our history."

"I remember the ground now, I often jog in Manor Park, so I have seen the pitch in the corner fenced off but I never really noticed anyone playing there before." She smiled as she got her mobile out of her clutch bag and pressed a button or two to call up her calendar. "So, I should be free after morning rounds about 10.00 to 10.30, so where and when shall we meet?"

"Well," Mason replied hesitating, "it could be a long all day and all evening if the team are successful and insist that the bus stops for a drink on the way home. We have to stay behind at the ground for a short period after the game, as the hosts lay on tea and sandwiches, and it is bad form to disappear too soon."

"That's all right, Mason, I have kept this weekend completely free after my rounds so we can get to know each other better and establish our back story for this April Fool."

"All right, I usually do a short round at work of mostly second class mail, between 6 and 10 on Saturday morning, shower and change at the Post Office and meet up with the team at the Silver Spoon Café on the bypass at 11. I leave my car in the car park there."

"That's perfect. I am popping into the hospital for a couple of hours to check on today's ops, and I'll be in Reception at say quarter to 11?"

"Yes, that will be fine. You will need to wrap up well for the terraces as the shelter at most of the grounds at this level is pretty rudimentary at best, coat, hat, gloves, and stout shoes, too, as not all grounds have proper tarmac paths. The forecast was showers with sunny periods between."

"I have some warm and comfortable walking boots." Lyndsey continued, "So what's the plan for Sunday?"

"Oh, I really hadn't thought about us going anywhere Sunday...." Mason trailed off.

"What do you normally do Sundays?" she laughed, "Don't tell me I'm going to be a golf widow for the next two months' worth of Sundays, will you?"

"No, nothing like that." Mason paused before making up his mind. With a glance at Caroline, who was still engrossed in conversation with Gareth, he pulled Lyndsey a few feet away and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Look, it's a bit embarrassing, but I drive down to the coast late on Saturday night and on Sundays I spend the day visiting an old ... er ... girlfriend—"

"Oh, that's original," she said, arching her eyebrows, "why didn't you get her to agree to be your fiancée?"

"No, it's not like that at all. In fact I never even see my old girlfriend, she won't talk to me, so I only ever see her parents."

Lyndsey frowned, "Why do you bother to go all that way to visit her parents?"

"Keep your voice down, Caroline knows nothing about this, but ... I get to spend every other Sunday with my daughter."

"Daughter? How old is she?"

"She's eleven months." Mason couldn't help but smile at the thought of his daughter. "Maisie's Mum lives with her parents down on the coast. She is still being breast-fed, and the mother is being difficult with me, insisting that Maisie doesn't have formula, nor will she express milk for me to feed her. So I get three or four hours with her in the morning, and another three or four in the afternoon. I tend to drive down on Saturday night, and I have a permanent fortnightly booking for a room at a hotel down there for Saturday night and Sunday night."

Lyndsey's heart lurched at his smile about his daughter. It was a sad, whimsical smile.

She whispered back, "and Caroline doesn't know she's an aunt?"

"No. It's a long and complicated story."

"You can tell me about it tomorrow in the bus."

"OK." He nodded. "Er... My friends don't know either."

"Yet you told me your secret?"

"Well, in a couple of months we'll stop seeing each other permanently." He looked at her eye to eye, "besides, it would be good for me to talk about her and, although I hardly know you, I trust you."

Lyndsey nodded, "Is it OK if I bring an overnight bag with me? I trust you too, Mason."

He nodded, "I'll book another single room at the same hotel for you. I can do that tonight online. There's plenty of room in the winter."

"I'll see you at the hospital in the morning then."

"All right." They turned and joined the other couple. All exchanged hugs and each couple went back to their respective cars.

"What do you think of Lyndsey?" Caroline asked as soon as they sat in Mason's car.

"I like her."

"She's beautiful."

"She is."

"So's Gareth, he's gorgeous."

"Now, Caroline, they are an engaged couple. Don't go splitting them up. Gareth is not fair game and you know it. Behave."

"That Gareth has 'player' written all over him. And if I don't behave, there just might be a beautiful young lady with a broken heart who would need a man's consoling."

"Well, don't count on me, Josh'll have to console you."

"Ha! Are you so iron-hearted, Bro?"

"Stainless steel, Sis." Mason got serious, "Look, Gareth's family owns the bank he works in and Doctor Lyndsey's Daddy runs some international giant chemical or pharmaceutical company. Don't get your hopes up, they are both of them way out of our class."

"I know. But what about you, here and now? Marilyn was over twelve years ago," Caroline said quietly, "surely you are over her by now. Or have you developed an aversion to all women?"

"No, I get on just fine with you and Mum."

"Mmm, I think you need to snap out of it. I really like Lyndsey. Get to know her Mace and I am sure that she could get you back in the saddle again in no time at all."

"We'll see."

He dropped her off at her flat and drove home to his dark and deserted semi-detached house that he had bought all those years ago for Marilyn and then briefly shared with Leone and the baby. The baby had been at the house for only a few hours and never even spent any time in the nursery. He didn't sleep well, his mind full of images of the vision he had spent the evening with. He got up early and attended to his Royal Mail job, where he was busy sorting and posting his round early, returning to shower and change at home, before driving off to the hospital main entrance to meet Lyndsey.
Meanwhile, Lyndsey had a similar restless night. Caroline had mentioned that Mason had been jilted at the church, but that was getting on for a dozen or more years ago. Now it seems that he had been unlucky in love again, much more recently, this time with a baby daughter involved. Why was this a secret, to be kept from his family and friends, yet be prepared to publicise this sham "engagement" just to play a trick on his mother? He seemed so open and honest and gentlemanly in the small things, like offering her his coat for comfort, yet in the bigger picture of relationships he was clammed tightly shut. This arrangement that Gareth was so keen on, to look good in Daddy's eyes, was looking decidedly messy.

Chapter 2

"Alan, it's arrived, the delivery van has just dropped it off!"

"What's arrived Sofe?" Alan looked up from his toast and tangerine marmalade to ask his long-time partner Mrs Sofia Lyndsey as she burst into the kitchen carrying a small parcel. She may have been nearly sixty, while he was ten years younger, but she was always so full of life and fun that she was more like a girl than a woman fast approaching retirement age. "What've you got there?"

"Bald wigs, from that theatrical suppliers I found online," she laughed tore at the wrappings and out emerged two flesh-coloured latex hats. She pulled one on, and her thick black hair disappeared under the strongly elastic hat.

"Actually, Sofe, that looks really good. Go check it out in the cloakroom."

She ran off down the hallway and a moment later he could hear her scream with laughter. She walked back in a little slower, beaming all over her face. "Go on Alan, try yours on."

He did. "It's really tight," he complained.

The phone rang, but the caller ID said 'Anna'.

"It's just Sis, I'll call her back later."

Sofia took a photo of Alan on her mobile and showed him. "All we need is a little foundation cream around the edges to disguise the join and we are set."

Sofia took a selfie of the pair of them and even without the cream, it looked quite convincing.

"So, at the last minute on say 30 or 31 March, after teeing them up for weeks about supporting little Eddie in his fight against cancer, we send this to Caroline and Mason and see if they fall for it!"

"Sofia, you are such a devil, but this could turn out to be your best April Fool ever!"


Mason collected Lyndsey, who was patiently standing under an umbrella at the hospital entrance. She was wearing a warm quilted jacket, grey skinny jeans, emphasising her slim and athletic appearance, and comfortably old well-worn trainers. She welcomed him with a warm smile. As he dropped her bag into the boot of the car, Lyndsey noticed the boot was full of baby stuff, a Moses carry-cot, a folded push-chair and a box of toys, as well as his overnight bag. She also noticed the baby seat fitted in the back, behind the passenger seat. Together they drove out to the bypass café, just a couple of miles away.

The inside of the car was warm, so she pulled down her coat zip and pulled off her scarf and laid it on her lap. Mason noticed it.

"The team's colours are green and white, so where'd you get the scarf?"

"Ah," she grinned, "one of my patients, Luke, is a fan and has six green and white balloons tied to the bottom of his bed. I mentioned I was going to the cup match and he loaned me his scarf."

"Luke Cooper is your patient?"

"Yes. He should have gone home this morning, but he reacted slightly detrimentally to the anaesthetic, so he'll have a 50/50 chance of being released today but even if he is, he won't be fit to go to the match. He said his Dad won't be going either, so was glad his scarf would be attending the game as his proxy. I'll give it back to him on Monday."

Lyndsey looked around the car's interior. It was clean, neat and tidy. She resisted the urge to open the glove compartment to check it out. She had a little smart car that Gareth always laughed at, but it was convenient and easy to park, and she always kept it clinically tidy. Gareth had two relatively new cars, a soft-top Porsche Boxter and a big 4x4, and both were filled with junk: old letters, newspapers, old cups, used parking tickets, just clutter that was rarely tidied and never hoovered out. On the other hand, Mason drove an old, nondescript family saloon, but it was shiny on the outside and clean on the inside. It even smelled nice, of pine cones and polish.

"I like how clean and tidy your car is," she remarked, looking for his reaction and noticing him smile. "Is it always like this or are you pulling out all the stops this weekend?" She noticed his smile grow, and she continued by explanation, "Gareth's cars are tips that I dread to enter sometimes."

He laughed. "I clean the interior of the car every other Saturday, well Friday this week, so that it is squeaky clean for collecting Maisie. And, as she can be smelly, what with nappies and the odd throw-up and dribbling, I clean the car every other Monday afternoon. But even if there was no baby using the car, I still like things clean and orderly."

"Me too. Gareth's a complete slob, I'm afraid."

"You'll have to get him trained before the wedding."

"I'm not sure if he's trainable, he's lived on his own for too long."

"How long is 'too long'?"

"Oh, about five or six years, I think. He's two years younger than me."

"Cradle snatcher, huh?" Mason laughed.

"And what about you? Is Maisie's mother about your age?"

"No, she's 32, six years younger than me."

"I don't want to pry, but I was wondering why you appear to have kept her secret from your family?"

"Ah, well, to start with it was a marriage of convenience ... she was going to be deported and needed to marry someone in order to stay."

"She was an illegal immigrant?"

"No, not to start with, she was here as a student, studying nursing. Her parents are also nurses from Indonesia and now living over here quite legally. She came over before them on a student visa, but never completed her studies. She lived with a boyfriend for a number of years and while they were trying to have a family she had a couple of early miscarriages and, tragically, a full-term stillbirth. Her boyfriend wanted children and the stillbirth was the final straw, thinking she wasn't going to deliver, he simply abandoned her. She hadn't renew her visa and the authorities threatened her with deportation, even though her parents now live here. It was a mess, she was a mess."

"I can imagine. So how did you ..."

"A dating site," he quickly answered her started question. "It's not that I was desperate, but when I was laid off from the Army, I was rudderless and lost ... and rather lonely, I guess. She sounded nice from her profile, although there was no mention of immigration difficulties at the outset, so I arranged to meet up with her for the first of several dates. We got on well and soon we fell in love, or so I thought."

"So she was playing you so that she could stay in the country?"

"Possibly. They do say love is blind, don't they?" Mason paused. "I think she is presently suffering from post partum depression. Because before she had the baby she appeared to be affectionate and loving and I thought everything was going great. When she fell for the baby, after she had told me that she thought she was infertile, she was nervous about the whole thing, expecting another failure. But then she was over the moon once we had passed the first few worrying weeks and she started to show."

"So why did you not tell your parents about the marriage and pregnancy then? Are they prejudiced about her being oriental?"

"No, not at all. I kept quiet about the dates, because, well, computer dating made me feel ashamed, desperate, and I heard that a lot of people do it for reasons of promiscuity, involved in extramarital affairs, and, well you know."

"And you had been this self-contained tough soldier boy that didn't need help to pick up a girl, huh?"

"Yeah, something like that, but then Leone, that's her name, was also ashamed by having to use a dating site. She blamed it on her culture and when I proposed, she stipulated that she didn't want us to meet our families until we had been married for a year and she was certain that it was going to last. She cited her old boyfriend who abandoned her. She had already told me about her failed relationship, the miscarriages and her fears of rejection, so I went along with them. Then, almost immediately after the registry office wedding, she discovered the pregnancy and that added another level of insecurity and worry for her."

"Did you respond positively or negatively to the news of the pregnancy?" Lyndsey bit her lip, wondering if she had gone a question too far.

"I was over the moon, to be honest. Having children before I was 40 was an important milestone for me, knowing I would be 63 by the time the eldest would be 25 and ready to start his or her own family. Of course I understood Leone's fears, her explanation that she wanted to go to full term with the baby before we said anything to our families. Then Maisie was born early, underweight, and with breathing and feeding difficulties. She was in ICU for ten days and Leone was living the stillbirth all over again."

"So you continued to keep it quiet from family?"

Mason nodded. "Leone slept at the hospital all through Maisie being in ICU, and was only home with the baby for one day, not even staying for one night. I could see she wasn't happy but I didn't know what to do. I looked after the baby when she said she needed some fresh air and was gone most of the morning. Here we are," he added as the car pulled into the car park of the Café, and manoeuvred through to a space at the back of the parking area, out of the way of other cars and trucks and switched off the engine.

He turned to face Lyndsey, one arm resting on the steering wheel. "Leone came back to feed Maisie without a word to me about where she had been. She didn't want to talk to me, ignoring my greetings and I didn't want to add to the pressure she was under, of create a scene. I left her feeding the baby while I popped out for groceries for the evening meal that I was going to cook. When I got back they were both was gone. I waited a day or two then I looked for her for days in places we would visit during the months leading up to the birth. Eventually, through some ex-Army pals, I found her at her parents' house about 70-odd miles away. I had still never met her parents and I assume that her turning up with the new baby in tow was a shock to them. Then. Of course, I showed up out of the blue, which was a shock; she had kept her parents a secret from me and me a secret from them. She refused to speak to me that day and has done so ever since, almost 11 months ago, and now my life is basically on hold."

Mason's eyes looked sad, as if he could cry any moment. Lyndsey cradled his head in her hands and, reaching up, kissed him lightly on his cheek. He didn't attempt to hug her, his hands hanging helplessly by his side.

"Let's go meet your friends and have a day thinking about other things, like your football, and we can deal with emotional things tomorrow, together, OK?"


"I'm really looking forward to meeting Maisie, you know."

"And I'm looking forward to showing her off to you," he grinned, "I know you'll just fall in love with her at first sight, everyone does."

Lyndsey was glad that he appeared to be feeling much more upbeat. "How will your wife Leone take you showing up with a new and slightly younger girlfriend?"

"It may just shake her out of her apathy."

"You want to get back together with Leone again?"

"I don't know, it's complicated by other factors that I don't want to go into, but I don't think that's at all possible any more. Besides, the divorce will be official next week anyway."

They got out of the car and fetched their coats and hats from the boot. Lyndsey carried a small shoulder bag big enough for her purse, a phone and her gloves, Mason put his wallet in a side pocket of his camera bag. As they started to walk towards the café, walking side by side, they each naturally sought out and held each other's hands.

"I think we should hug and lip kiss every time we meet, Mason. That way it will become natural and should impress both your parents and my Daddy."

"Well, no complaints from me on that score, Lyndsey," he grinned.

"Ha! So, did your Mum grill you after speaking to your Aunt Anna last night?"

"No, funnily enough, not. But a text from Caroline said that her phone hadn't stopped ringing and she had several conversations with Mum, where she grudgingly failed to give her much information other than it was through us being a couple that had introduced her to Gareth on a blind date and that they were now going to a rugby match as a first date." Mason looked at her. "You are all right with this arrangement aren't you?"

"Of course, Gareth can take care of himself," Lyndsey said, giving Mason a sideways glance, "So, you and I, today, I am what, to your friends, a fiancée or just new girlfriend?"

"The truth. A new friend. Imagine that we've just met on a blind date and are out today to learn more about each other and what we can do when we are together," Mason replied with a smile. "I don't want to lie to my friends, but this whole April Fool thing between my sister and mother is ... well, it's just between us and my friends don't need to know the whole story. I'm glad you're not wearing your fiancée's ring today, that would certainly get the tongues wagging, might even put the team off their game!"

"So," she continued, "do you often bring new girlfriends to football matches?"

"No, you're the first, Leone could not be dragged anywhere near a football match," he grinned, "but I rang ahead to my friend Nora and she'll save you a seat at the breakfast table and you're booked on the coach, so prepare yourself for a grilling from Nora and friends."

"And as for my ring—"

"We're here."

He pulled open the café door and ushered her in ahead of him, then steered her towards the far corner of the room.

To Lyndsey's mind, half the dining room was segregated off from the rest of the café and the full section they approached was full of testosterone, a sea of male eyes almost as one turned to look at her as she came in. She was used to this and was unfazed by it. It was like every day in her life since she hit puberty. She let go of Mason's hand for a moment and waved at the room with a brilliant smile, then tucked her arm back into Mason's arm as a possessive gesture.

"Hi, everyone, I'm Lyndsey, a friend of Mason's. Good luck at the match today."

Then she looked at Mason, who smiled back at her while he guided her towards their table. There were two spare chairs at this table. Here sat an upright gentleman who was well into retirement age bearing a grey moustache and a full head of brilliant white hair. Next to him on his right sat a hugely overweight ginger-haired young man with a very red face who was either a teenager or in his early twenties at most. On the left of the white-haired man was a slightly-built woman, also just as old but her hair was dyed to the colour of yellow straw rather than iron grey. The last member was a tall, slim clean-shaven man in his late 50s in a suit and tie. The other three wore varying sizes and styles of the club's green-striped jersey, although the last one wore a suit with a green-striped club tie, their winter coats and thick green-and-white scarves slung over the backs of the chairs.

"Morning all. This is my friend Lyndsey. Meet Greg," Mason said, quietly adding so the lad couldn't hear him, while he introduced her to the ginger-haired boy, "he's autistic but gathers numbers and statistics for me, having a photographic memory."

"You're beautiful!" Greg gasps, his mouth wide open, exposing his protruding yellow teeth with undisguised excitement. "You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen!"

"Well, thank you, kind sir," Lyndsey smiled her brilliant smile, "I like you already, Greg."

"He can't help saying the first thing that comes into his head," Mason whispered, "he recognises your beauty and simply cannot control his willingness to share his appreciation of you. You've nothing to fear, though, he's big and strong but he really wouldn't harm a fly."

"I'm Nora," the straw-haired woman who was in her late 70s said, rising from her seat and holding out her hand for Lyndsey to shake.

"Nora", Mason continued, "is a supporter because her son once played for the team in his youth and her late husband was also a long-time supporter and former team photographer, so she carries on supporting us. Bob," the old boy, in his early 70s, with the shock of white hair, "is a married retired plumber who used to be a past chairman of the club. And finally, this dapper chap here is George, who is the current chairman."

"It's a pleasure to meet you all," Lyndsey smiled, "and thank you so much for inviting me to your table. I am really looking forward to the game."

"We always save a seat at the breakfast table for Mason." Nora said, "we've ordered your breakfast, Mason rang me this morning and told us you were coming."

Greg says she's beautiful several times, which pleases and embarrasses her. Of course they are all curious about her, but Mason tells them that they only met last night and are still getting to know one another, so begs them to please leave the poor girl alone. The heaped breakfast plates arrive for the two late arrivals, full of sausages, eggs, bacon, mushrooms, hash browns and toast.

"I don't eat this fried stuff," Lyndsey leaned over whispered to Mason, "I can feel my arteries hardening just looking at it!"

"That's a good thing that you don't eat fried stuff, because none of this is fried, all of this is grilled or toasted," Mason grinned, "The bacon and handmade sausages come from Bennett's the Butchers, the free-range eggs are poached rather than fried and come from Manor Farm, which is completely organic. Our breakfasts are grilled separately from the other customers' food. The reason is that most of the food is supplied free or heavily subsidised, as all the suppliers are club sponsors, and we make up the small difference by all chipping in a monthly subscription by direct debit which pays for the breakfast, or at least the difference. Our subscription also pays for the coach trips. The team all breakfast together on a Saturday, even when playing at home, we have found it a great way to promote team bonding."

Lyndsey had heard about the famous Bennett's sausages, so she tried a slice of one first. "Wow, it's delicious!" And the bacon, she pronounced a few moments later, was the best she'd ever eaten. She proceeded to finish the breakfast.

After breakfast they piled onto the bus and Lyndsey was guided into a window seat near the front of the bus, while Mason sat next to her in the aisle seat. Most of the team gravitated to the back of the bus. The journey took about an hour and on the way they simply exchanged small talk about what he was going to do as part of his reporting and photography of the game.

At the away ground, they had to sit around in the rather shabby utilitarian clubhouse for half an hour before match started, as the team had to change into their kit and warm up before taking to the field. Then Mason took posed team photos of both clubs and the officials on the field before the game started. Mason had to troll around the pitch taking photos and writing down brief descriptions of the principle actions of the match. Lyndsey followed him around for part of the time, but soon got bored with that and settled down to chat with Nora and Greg in a small and rather dilapidated stand by the side of the pitch.

Just before half-time, Mason warned her that they had to show their faces in the board room.
"What, as visiting fans?"

"No, I am a Vice President of the league committee and, although it is the County FA that organises this cup competition, as a league official I therefore have an open invitation to myself and a guest to join the County FA's officials for half-time tea and biscuits. I am expected to show my face. It's only for ten minutes."

"Caroline said you were away in the Army for most of the last twenty years, so how—"

"Skype, email, all sorts of methods over the years, and some league meetings were even rescheduled to fit my home leave."

"How does someone become a Vice-President of the league?"

"Well, I had to serve on the committee for at least 15 years."

"Doing what?"

"Mostly I served as Fixture Secretary and Press Officer. Now I am just the Press Officer."

The match was closely contested and was still goalless at the end of the 90 minutes and went onto 15 minutes each way extra time. The home side visibly tired as the game went on and the visitors won the match with a late goal. After a brief sojourn in the club bar the team coach began the journey home and stopped at a small market town on the way for a celebration meal and a few drinks.

Mason and Lyndsey went for a walk around the old church and bridge over a small river before returning to the pub, where they were serving meals. The coach left the pub late in the evening, at local closing time, and most of the passengers fell silent and started to drop off as they headed homewards. Lyndsey's eyes soon drooped, after her early start at the hospital that morning and she fell asleep leaning on Mason's comfortable shoulder.


Meanwhile, Caroline, Josh and Gareth had just finished having three-way sex at Gareth's apartment after their rugby game.

"When our mutual friend said you were hot, he should have said sizzling!" Gareth said, pulling Caroline to him, to suck on her succulent breasts

"And you guys," Caroline kissed the top of his head, and then gasped as Josh retuned from the en suite after washing off the evidence of his sexual liaison with Gareth, and began to nibble the back of Caroline's neck, "are something else!"


It was on the coach ride home after the pub closed that Lyndsey sat back after her brief doze and contemplated the events of the last thirty hours. Lyndsey couldn't wait to speak to Mason in his car on the way down to the coast and their meeting tomorrow with his secret daughter. They couldn't talk about it in the coach because none of his friends were acquainted with the secret sides of his life, yet he had, at least in part, confided in her, knowing that she had no connections with his circle of family friends and would soon leave his life altogether come April Fools Day.

Before the date she had assumed this man, Mason, being led to believe he had never married, close to 40 years old, and willing to go on a blind date, was either unpleasant, socially inept, or a serial womanizer. Within a few exchanges of conversation, time spent in his company and a singular act of caring, Lyndsey had reassessed her opinion and concluded that it was probably the actions of some unknown and thoughtless woman in the past who had taken him off the eligibility register. As for any other supposed failings she could have lumbered him with, he turned out to be gentlemanly, charming and had a wide circle of genuine friends. He was committed to performing voluntary roles to his sport over the past twenty years, and reliably met the weekly deadline of his written and photographic report to the local newspaper, even while his friends celebrated their victory. He even brought Greg into reciting the events of key moments in the match, to complete his report, heaping praise where it was due to the beaming Greg and his remarkable photographic memory.

They got back to their home town after midnight, where Mason and Lyndsey were dropped off by his parked car at the café.

They waved goodbye to the players and fans, before Mason and Lyndsey sat in Mason's car and he began the 70 mile drive to the coastal town his daughter lived in. As the night roads were quiet in the early hours of the morning, Mason expected the drive to take between 1 hour 45 minutes and two hours.

As Mason and Lyndsey set out to drive down to the coast, he had to make a quick exit at a junction, apologizing that he must've been driving on auto-pilot and almost missed their turning. Then they settled down onto the correct road, driving at a comfortable speed. After her initial alarm, Lyndsey relaxed to the point of dozing off again and had to be gently shaken awake after Mason parked at the hotel about 2 in the morning. As a regular night-time visitor to the small family-run hotel, Mason had been given a keycode entry and was able to let himself in and collect the old-fashioned metal keys from a cubby hole in reception and made their way to their rooms.

Rising early in the morning, neither being able to sleep much during the night, Lyndsey and Mason walked along the shore before breakfast. There was a stiff cold wind coming off the sea, ladened with salty fine spray, which drove them back inside after they had stretched their limbs.

"I can't pick up baby Maisie until she has been fed," Mason said, "So I tend to go around at 9 and one of her parents generally answers the door. I show them where I am parked and they come and give me a shout when I am able to collect her."

'You poor man,' thought Lyndsey.

Chapter 3

The little hotel had a breakfast room, consisting of one large round table which could accommodate up to ten people, plus a couple of side tables. They only did bed and breakfast, not main meals. They also had a small sunny sitting room that Lyndsey had poked her head into when they got back from their walk. The landlady, a rosy-cheeked old woman, "Call me Betty, everyone else does," sat them down and plied them with a full English breakfast.

Two big breakfasts in two days and this one definitely fried, Lyndsey groaned, and just managed to eat the eggs and bacon.

"Now, Mr Lyndsey, it is far too wet and windy today to keep little Maisie out in the cold, and we only have the Colonel and Mrs Everton staying with us today, so you be sure to bring her into the sitting room rather than stuck up in your room. We all love to see the little angel, don't we Colonel?"

"Harrumph, yes, of course, she's such a pretty wee thing. She adores yon Mason here," The Colonel indicated Mason with a stab of his fork as he addressed the pretty girl sitting between him and Mason. He was a tall, ancient but upright gentleman, with a full head of white hair swept back off his forehead, and a thin grey moustache trimmed to a stubble under his nose, and spoke with an upper-class accent of a bygone age, with just a hint of Scots. "It's a great shame that marriages seem so temporary nowadays. Once upon a time a man and his mem sahib worked out their little difficulties between 'em and got on with it, 'til death us do ... and all that, my dear."

"Yes, Colonel, it is a shame, but some people just don't have the sticking power to go the distance."

"Well, my dear," and here he dipped his head and whispered in her ear, "Young Mason here is the salt of the earth, a military man of resource and courage, a great NCO to have in a crisis and will definitely go the distance, you mark my words."

She smiled and nodded, "I think I understand Colonel, thank you."

Mason drove Lyndsey down to the house where his daughter Maisie lived. It was in a residential area, about twenty minutes' walk from the sea, Mason said, but much too cold for walking with a tiny baby today. Mason pointed out the three-storey town house in the middle of a terrace as they drove past and parked just down the road. Most of the parking around the housing was reserved for residents, each car carried the appropriate licence in the front windscreen.

"Can I come with you, Mason?"

"Sure, I was hoping you would," he grinned. "I'm relying on you being a game changer for me and Maisie."

"Well, I'm happy to help," she smiled back at him.

An elderly Asian man answered the door. Lyndsey thought he was probably well into his sixties, so must have been in his thirties when Leone was born, He was polite in his greeting of the tall Englishman, the father of his granddaughter. Lyndsey looked at him with a smile. He smiled back with intelligent eyes at the pretty girl, then turned his attention back to Mason.

"She not finished, Mr Mason. Where you park?"

"Just down the street about 60 yards, in the second public parking bay." Mason replied politely. "Can I introduce you to my dear friend, Lyndsey, Mr P? She is a child doctor, so she is very good with children ... and their parents."

He stretched out a hand and shook Lyndsey's hand, bowing, "You a paediatric doctor?"

She enclosed his hand with both of hers and bowed slightly to match his bow. "Hello, Mr P. Yes, I am, and training to be a paediatric surgeon, in the children's wing of Barton's East Green General, how are you today?"

"Very well," he replied, then he hesitated. "Er, would you like to come in and wait for Maisie in the warm?"

"Thank you, we would love to," Lyndsey smiled in return.

They were ushered into the front room, the upholstery all reds and golds and clearly oriental in taste.

"Please sit down, I will check on how Maisie is doing. Would you like any tea while you are waiting?"

Lyndsey and Mason looked each other and shook their heads slightly,

"No thank you Mr P," Mason replied, "We have had just had tea with our breakfast at the hotel; we probably won't want another until mid to late morning."

"Very well." And he left them.

Mason sat down on the sofa, which was so soft he sunk right into it. "Well, this is a first, Lynds, I've never been invited into the house before, we normally hand over at the doorstep or either Mr or Mrs P wheels her down to the car."

"He appears to respect you, Mace," as she sat next to him, the softness of the sofa naturally causing her to slip down tight up next to him, her head on his shoulder and a hand on his chest, "the animosity between you and Leone set a pattern against Mr P's normal polite behaviour, his common manners. With me being there, it broke that unnatural pattern and his innate politeness let us and you in. I am sure, even if I am not with you, he will invite you in here each time in future."

"Well, I for one am very grateful to you, Lyndsey, and I am sorry about keep shortening your name, I was so pleased at the result of bringing you that I didn't think."

"I don't think my father would approve," she chuckled, "but I quite like it. No-one else calls me anything but Lyndsey."

"So, providing I watch my Ps, Qs and Lyndsey's, do you think we can make progress with your father?"

"Yes. Let's do it soon. Are you free next Sunday?"

"Yes, all day."

"OK, it's a date. I'll call him and make sure he's home."

"Where's home?"

"It's a village in the next county from ours, about 40 miles away from us, partly on the way here, actually. It's a lovely old Manor House, dating back to medieval times. Lots of creaky floorboards, but full of character. It's where I grew up and I love it there."

"Perhaps he will let me paint it?"

"Probably, it's just like the Forth Bridge, the maintenance on such an old house is —"

Just then a little old Asian woman poked her head around the door.

"Hello," greeted Lyndsey.

"Hello," the Asian woman replied with a smile, "Mr Mason, Leone say Maisie ready in 'bout 30 minutes." She paused while Mason nodded his acceptance of the delay as if it was a common occurrence. "Would you like to change your mind on a cup of tea?"

"Yes, thank you Mrs P, I would love a cup of tea, Lyndsey?"

"If you're having one, then yes, I would like one, thank you Mrs P."

The woman smiled, bowed and her head disappeared.

"We'll have to wait, Lynds. Are you comfortable?"

"Yes, I'm fine, I've got a hot handsome man to lean on. How about you?"

"Actually, this sofa is too soft and my spine feels as though it is being bent in two, but with you on my shoulder, I've never been more comfortable."

With that she leaned into him deeper, kicked off her shoes and pulled her feet up under her. Mason moved his arm down from the back on the sofa to rest his hand on her shoulder.

"I'm so tired after yesterday," she said, "don't let me close my eyes or I'll be gone."

"I'll wake you when the tea arrives, Lynds," he chuckled.


"Hey Boss, it's Alex," said the voice on the mobile phone.

"What you got for me, Alex?" asked Sir Alan Mason.

"Bad news, my guys lost them last night about midnight."

"They were in a car together?"

"Yeah, right at the outset of the journey he accelerated before a turn on the circular bypass, overtook a lorry and did a quick turn off, blindsiding my guys and sending them off to the next junction. Once they tracked back there was no sign and no idea which direction they went."

"Well, she's a big girl now, and she normally rings me about 11 on a Sunday, so I'll wait to see if she calls." Sir Alan was adamant that he wouldn't display his anxiety over his daughter by calling her until she was much later than normal calling him.

"I wouldn't worry too much Boss, about Miss Lyndsey's safety. This guy may be a tough cookie but there's no history of trouble in the military and nothing in his police record, so I think the guy's basically straight up."

"That'll be a refreshing change."

"Yeah, compared to Belvedere."


Lyndsey opened her eyes and looked up at Mason. His breathing had settled into a regular pattern but now he was gently snoring. She could see his head laid back on the soft sofa, his eyes closed and mouth open. She smiled and settled her head back on his shoulder but then noticed that Mrs P was standing there holding a couple of cups of tea. She sat up and stretched out to take one of them from her.

"I leave Mr Mason's on the table. It's shame to wake him until Maisie's ready. You have late night?"

"Yes, we didn't get in until two, and we both had a early start on Saturday. I managed to get a couple of hours sleep between the coach and the car, but Mason, poor lamb, had to write his football report earlier and then did all the driving down."

"Yes, he good man, Mr Mason. Our daughter is blind, but you have your eyes open, I think." She turned to go.

"Thank you for the tea."

"You're welcome, dear."

Lyndsey drank the tea, a fresh herbal infusion that was much to her liking. She thought she would have to ask their host what it was. Between sips, she glanced at Mason, but he slept on. When she finished her tea, she put the cup on the table and settled back down on Mason's shoulder, her hand on his chest. He twitched, but didn't awaken, so Lyndsey smiled and closed her eyes for a few minutes absorbing his warmth and feeling the satisfying rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.

She wasn't sure if she had dropped off or not, but something made her open her eyes. In front of her were Mr and Mrs P and a tall darker-skinned woman holding a baby, who was quiet and appeared to Lyndsey to have that just fed, eyes half-closed look, except that it suddenly looked like the baby had just noticed Mason and was holding out both arms to him. Lyndsey sat up quickly, pushing her hand into Mason's chest, which woke him up.

Mason seemed to become instantly awake and completely aware of where he was.

"Hi Leone," he said pleasantly, "You're looking well."

"You too, are you going to introduce me?" Leone's eyes flicked to the female sitting next to him.

"Yes, course—"

"I'm Lyndsey, a friend of Mason's," Lyndsey beat him to the introduction and extended a hand, which Leone looked at with hesitation, then handed baby Maisie over to Mason before giving Lyndsey's hand the briefest of shakes.

Maisie cuddled Mason, full of smiles and gurgles. He stood up with her on his hip. Lyndsey also got up and stood next to him.

"Miss Lyndsey's orthopaedic surgeon, dear," Mr P said by way of expansion.

"Well, I'm still in training and gaining experience," Lyndsey corrected, "I've been at East Green General for three years, the first two as a houseman, then I got an opportunity to help out with surgery and I'm now on the team learning the ropes."

"You seem very young," Mr P observed.

"I still had to do all the courses, but while some students had to work sabbaticals or work in private hospitals to fund their courses, my family paid my way, leaving me free to get in additional courses and experiences which has helped my progress."

"So you're not married with a family yet?" Leone asked.

"Not yet, I suppose I really want to qualify as a surgeon first." Lyndsey smiled, "but that depends on whether I meet the right man and don't want him to get away."

Leone nodded.

"How long have I got with Maisie this morning, Leone?" Mason asked.

"Can you get her back by 1?"

"Yes, we can," Mason replied, "Come on, Lynds, I want to make the most of the time we have."

The Ps and Leone stood to one side and let them pass, Mr P following them through to the front door. On the steps he spoke with a small bow.

"It a pleasure to meet you Miss Lyndsey, we hope you visit often, and look forward to seeing you in a few hours. Please both of you come together and join Mrs P and me for lunch so you don't waste time you want to spend with Maisie."

Lyndsey turned and bowed in return, although Mason had already sped off to the car as quickly as possible with the cold wet wind.

"I apologise for Mason, but the weather, you know?"

"Of course, we quite used to this and know Mr Mason cares much his daughter. We care about Mr Mason also, he good father, good man."

Lyndsey hurried off to catch up with Mason. At the car he had put a coat, hat and gloves on the baby, before securing her in the car seat.

"Do you want me to sit in the back with her?"

"Would you? I mean, yes please, Lyndsey."

As soon as Mason shut the back door, the baby's smile faded as she thought she was being abandoned, but Lyndsey scooted round to the offside, quickly got in and shut out the wind and rain, before focusing on the baby.

"Hello, Maisie, you're a pretty girl. My name is Lyndsey, and I'm your Daddy's friend. Are you going to be my friend too?" She stroked little circles on the back of the baby's hand and smiled at her, until the baby gurgled in response. Then Lyndsey tickled her knee until the girl giggled. She put her seat belt on and returned her hand in front of Maisie, who gripped a finger firmly and tried to bite it with her sharp baby teeth.

"We're all ready to go, Mason."

"Thank you, Lyndsey. I thought that Carolyn was getting all the benefits from this crazy April Fool she's dreamed up, but from the progress we've made today, I will always be eternally grateful to you."

"Does Leone always hand her over in this state of indoor dress, with no nappies, wipes, weaning food or anything?"

"Yup, if she could get away handing her over naked, I'm sure she would." Mason pulled out into the quiet traffic-free road, while Lyndsey played with the baby. "A month ago it was snowing and I had to wrap her in my coat. I caught a chill and only recovered by the time I had to pick her up again a fortnight later. Because she has just been fed, she often falls asleep by the time I have driven five minutes in any direction. Leone probably enjoys the fact that after morning and lunchtime feeds half my time with Maisie is spent with her sleeping on a full stomach. My only comfort is that hopefully Maisie keeps her awake all night after my Sundays. It's a war of attrition, which is why we will never be together again, that boat has sailed."

They spent the remainder of the morning back at the hotel, with Betty, the Colonel and Mrs Everton making a big fuss of Maisie. It was immediately clear to Lyndsey that the baby was used to the hotel regulars and they were used to her. Chairs were moved out of the way to give her a clear space to crawl around the lounge. That is until she started to smell. Mason noticed immediately and said he'd take her up to change and bring her back to the lounge after lunch. Lyndsey went up with them to his room. It was larger than hers and had two single beds in it.
"I could have stayed here with you, Mace," she said, "you even have a better view than I have."

"I know we are pretending to be together but—"

"I think I know you well enough even in this short a time to trust you, Mason, you've not attacked me—"

"Well I was worried—"

"That I might attack you?"

"No exactly, but I'm an old man, I can go without for ages, but when I was your age...."

"I think I can resist you, Mason, but phew! it's getting fuggy in here."

"Come on, Maisie, let's get you clean, presentable and well wrapped up before we open all the windows in here!" Mason had all the essentials spread on the second bed. "When I first came down, Leone had taken with her all the baby stuff we had bought for the house, so I had no crib, nappies, changing mat, nothing. Leone's parents just gave me this near naked baby that was about three weeks old and I just had to get on with it. I had a baby seat fitted in my car that reclined, and that is all. The fact it was already in my car is the only reason Leone didn't take it. I popped into Boots the Chemist on the way to the hotel and picked up the essentials I needed. She dozed on the second bed surrounded by pillows that first day. I read somewhere that babies are often smothered by sleeping with their mothers."

"Yes, Mace, it's a known fact," Lyndsey admitted.

"Well, Mrs P says Leone sleeps with her in her bed all the time, despite her mother's warnings."

"Maybe I could have a word with her."

Mason rewarded her offer with a smile.

Lyndsey was impressed by how comfortable and capable Mason was in changing, cleaning and putting a new nappy on the wriggling, alternatively angrily resistant or giggling girl, while keeping her hands and feet out of the mess, all the time talking and gurgling back at her and blowing raspberries on her feet and belly. Soon the baby was pinned up and dressed again and still happy, regarding the changing as all part of the game she was playing with her father.

"I see Leone puts her in disposable nappies and you use cloth ones. I thought people stopped using those long ago."

"I use disposable ones when I hand her back now. Unfortunately, Leone never gives the cloth ones back to me to reuse, so I change her out of them first. I use them for comfort, because they are soft and reusable as well as being good for the planet. These ones are made of a cotton and jute mix, I have others that are bamboo and cotton mix, plus a few of the first batch of cotton ones, but they are getting a little small for her now."

"So you wash them at home?"

"Yes, when the weather is like this I allow them to drip dry naturally in the bathroom and then give them a few seconds in the tumble drier just to fluff them up. In the spring they can go back outside on the clothes line as blowing in the sunlight is a great antiseptic. These nappies come out really soft and gentle and even more absorbent than the paper ones filled with gel. I line them with a microfibre liner which collects most of the poo and helps keep the wee off the skin."

"You are a revelation, Mace."

"I just want the best for Maisie."

"Yes, I can see that."


"Hi, Daddy, sorry I'm late, just checking in with you," Lyndsey spoke brightly.

"Where are you, honey, I thought I could hear seagulls in the background."

"Yes, I'm getting some fresh air by the seaside, pretty bracing air actually, there's a forceful and cold wet wind coming off the sea and there are fantastic white horses crashing into the shingle."

"Doesn't seem like Gareth's type of place at all, he likes his comfort, doesn't he?"

"Yes he does. No, I'm down here with another guy, one I just met."

"Oh. You down to the coast for the day or the weekend?"

"We came down late last night and coming back this evening. Don't worry, we've got separate rooms in a sweet little hotel, where the only other residents in mid-winter are a charming but crusty old Colonel and a spinster who was evacuated here during the war and regards it as a second home she enjoys visiting. Nothing grand, the sort of place that normal everyday people stay and enjoy. You'd hate it, I'm sure!"

He laughed. "Well. So long as you're enjoying it."

"Yes, we're just walking back to the car, we've got an errand to run, and visiting new friends for lunch, then we can enjoy the rest of the afternoon and drive back sometime this evening. Look, I would like to bring this guy over next Sunday to meet you, would that be all right?"

"No, sorry honey, but I'm in Bahrain next weekend, flying out Saturday afternoon. What about the following Sunday?"

"No, we have a prior engagement that Sunday. How about the last Sunday in February?"

"Sure, that's good for me. Hey, aren't you going to the Charity Ball on Friday? I could meet the guy there."

"No, damn, I forgot all about that. Gareth got the tickets and I know it was already a sell-out at the time. I'll see if he can find someone else to take at short notice, or I'll have to go with Gareth, I'd hate not attending and let your foundation charity down."

"Well, I can put Julie off and take you to the ball on my ticket, but what's the new guy going to think about that, or even worse if you decide to go to the ball with Gareth?"

"Well, it's complicated, Daddy."

"I see, well don't bite off more than you can chew, honey."

"I'll try not to."

"I'll see you Friday, then, want me to swing round and pick you up in the big car?"

"Go ahead, why not?"


Lyndsey and Mason were welcomed in by Mr and Mrs P immediately they arrived, spot on one o'clock. They were herded down the corridor past the kitchen to the conservatory at the back, where a table had been laid for the meal, but with only four places set. Leone was already standing at the doorway, ready to take Maisie from them, silently carrying her up the stairs to her room.

Mr P had them sit down, "Tea for you both?"

"Yes, please," both replied. And Mr P left with a smile.

"Leone's not right, is she, Lynds?"

"No, but the more normal contact we have ... maybe when the spring gets here you could ask if she'd like to come out with us. It might do her good to get out, to see you with Maisie, perhaps see what normal families do when they go out."

"Ask her to come out with us?"

"With you or with us, if you still want to help her in April?"

Lyndsey noticed a painting of Maisie on the wall. She rose to look.

"This is lovely, it looks just like her." Lyndsey wondered who painted it, as it was clearly in oils on canvas and, to her untried eye, looked as though it had been done confidently and made the subject look quite alive.

"It's OK, I suppose, her smile's a bit wonky, and her eyes aren't quite right." Mason was critical of the piece but did not even bother to get up and look closely at it.

Perhaps, thought Lyndsey, as Mason had never been in the house before or seen the painting, but that nothing that either former partner did could please the other, leaving poor Maisie stuck in the middle of them.


Chapter 4

Sir Alan Mason was always in his office by 7 on Monday mornings, therefore his PA Alicia Kennedy was there some fifteen minutes before him, so he was not surprised to see her there. However, Alex Cowfold was not the usual early visitor waiting for his arrival, unless there was a serious breach in security somewhere in the corporation.

"Good morning Sir Alan," Alicia greeted him, instead of the usual 'Alan'. She was also a little non-plussed by Cowfold's hulking presence in the office.

"Morning Alicia, just my 9 o'clock with the CFO this morning?" he asked, and on her nod, which he thought looked less positive than usual, he continued, "Well, Alex, nice to see you so early in the morning, no panic on, is there?"

"No, Boss," he said, "all clear in the company, just wanted a quiet word before you open your Monday morning security report so I could explain in easier terms than what's written on the page. Should only take five or ten minutes."

"Well, come on through, does Alicia know what you want to drink?" he asked as they entered his office.

"Yeah," he grinned, "we were just waiting for you to arrive."

"Take a seat over there," Sir Alan waved to an alcove with a group of comfy armchairs grouped around a coffee table. He dropped his briefcase on his desk, opened and extracted his tablet and brought it over to the alcove, booting it up as he walked. By the time he sat down he had located the security report file in his Dropbox and clicked it open.

Alicia brought in a tray with two coffee mugs and a plate of assorted biscuits, before moving back to her office.

"Help yourself to biscuits, Alex, I already had breakfast."

"Thanks, Boss," as Cowfold picked up the plate.

"Mmm, no photos?" Sir Alan asked, flicking through the files in the folder.

"No, this guy that Lyndsey is seeing—"

"The double-date guy?"

"Yeah, Boss. We don't know who he is exactly, and he took the photos off of our guys."

"How did he manage that?"

"The two guys who went down on Saturday and Sunday followed Lyndsey and the guy Lyndsey—"

"Lyndsey, the guy's name is Lyndsey?"

"Yeah, and his first name is Mason," Cowfold continued, "he's genuine, we picked up his birth certificate on Friday. He's ten years older than Miss Lyndsey."

"Well, I was twenty years older than Lyndsey's mother. I met her when the playboy life I had led had lost its flavour, or it certainly did the moment I met her. So who is this guy?"

"His full name is Mason Wayne Lyndsey, his mother Sofia Lyndsey and sort of stepfather Alan Burns live nearby. He has a half-sister, Caroline Maria Lyndsey, who is a couple of years older than Miss Lyndsey. She was the one who set up the blind date that I got wind off and ... it turns out she's a lover of Gareth's lover, his fellow teammate Josh."

"That's complicated."

"Even more so, as Josh and Caroline both spent the weekend in Gareth's bed."

"Another reason why I can't stand that creep. He has the morals of a polecat!"

"I don't know why you don't expose him to Miss Lyndsey, Boss."

"Just biding my time, I suppose, better the devil we know. I just got the impression that even though he asked me my permission to ask her to marry him, I told him no because I am as sure that Lyndsey is as lukewarm about Gareth as a husband as I am. So, to save me reading all this report now, tell me what you know."

"The guy is ex-Army, a sergeant with 3 Para for 18 years, only the last eight is closed to me at the moment, got a guy working at it."

"What does that mean?"

"Well, the Paras are specifically trained to operate behind enemy lines, and the best of them end up doing special ops before they return to their units, but eight years out in the field is one long tour, and to finish his career with a series of missions and still be walking, I would think he was some operator."

"So how did he do a number on your guys?"

"He was taking photos of the game and making notes, he was well know to supporters of both sides, a VP of the league and he supplies reports for the local paper in Miss Lyndsey's town. My guys were pretending to take photos of the game as well as snaps of him and his friends. Then Miss Lyndsey and the guy both disappeared into the clubhouse after the game. My guys got together and were preparing to give me a positive report on the guy, when out of nowhere their heads were banged together and they were out of it for a few seconds. By the time they got to their senses, their cameras had the memory cards removed. Nothing damaged, just the cards taken, along with a spare they each had in their bags. They didn't hear or see him coming or going. They managed to follow them in their bus back to the café on the edge of their town but then he managed to lose them on the ring road, as I told you over the phone yesterday."

"So what does he do for a living now that he's out of the Army?"

"He's a postman."

"A Royal Mail postman?"

"Yeah, he delivers letters on a couple of rounds around the town where Miss Lyndsey works. He also paints houses and seems to be making more money from that than his day job."

"Lots of postmen and firemen on shift work do another job, like house decorating, shows he's enterprising."

Cowfold grinned, "No, Boss, he paints paintings of houses and only charges fifty quid a time."

"What, how does he manage to make a living from that?"

"Well, he scouts out houses and offices on his postal rounds and drops in a card directing him to his website. When he gets a bite he goes around and photos the house and then he paints it in miniature, so they can be used for postcards."

"So he's an artist?"

"Yeah Boss, an' he's good, not that I know much about art. I've written down his website on this card for you. Charges £50 for watercolours, £150 for oil on canvas and pro rata depending on size. He works in a summer house in his garden, there's a photo of it on his website. I think he keeps the postman job going because he likes the exercise, the company he meets on the round, and the camaraderie with his colleagues."

"Well, press on with the investigation, Alex. Keep your guys' distance from this dangerous guy and get back to me when you find out what he has been doing for those eight years. Oh, I know that they went to the seaside Saturday night, stayed in a small bed and breakfast hotel somewhere. He must've booked it online as they turned up well after midnight."

"Yeah, I'll hack his accounts and see if it's a one-off or regular. What about Gareth?"

"Ignore him, we know all we need to about him, but this Lyndsey fellow intrigues and worries me."

"I'll get back to you then, Boss."


Lunchtime on Monday, after Lyndsey had completed her rounds and Mason had not only completed his morning mail route but had gone home to shower and change, had agreed to meet at a small sandwich bar near the Hospital, with the idea to find out more about themselves, ready for questioning by family when they came to announce their supposed relationship.

It was grey and overcast, an improvement on Sunday's rain, but at least the wind had died down and it felt half a dozen degrees warmer, so Lyndsey just pulled a thin cardigan over her greens and strode purposefully down to the restaurant. As soon as she opened the door Mason, who had been looking out for her, stood up so she could see him.

"Hi Mace," as they hugged and exchanged a simple kiss before sitting down, a smug smile on her face.

"OK, Lynds," Mason grinned back at her, "I admit, your idea of us getting into the habit of hugging when we meet and separate, isn't so bad. For a start my credibility rating among both single and married men in this restaurant has suddenly shot up, if not completely off the scale, thanks to you."

"Oh, and I saw a few girls' heads turn when you stood up, Mace, and you have certainly smartened up after your morning round."

"I finished early, so thought I'd make myself more presentable," he grinned, "sometimes, after eight or nine hours solid hard slog up and down the Barton town hills, even I can't eat a lunch with me too close!"

"Same here, with surgeons, anaesthetist, nurses and auxiliaries crowded in a tiny theatre. It's the total concentration, I think, it just relaxes and opens up your pores until we all stink to high heaven."

"Well, you smell like a sweet wild flower meadow, now."

"Amazing what a shower and a set of fresh scrubs can do for a girl who wants to make a good impression," she laughed. "Now, all that concentrated rooting about babies' insides makes a girl hungry, where's the menu?"

While they ate, she tried to explain about her father's attitudes.

"My Mum married too young, she was only 20 and not particularly wild, while my Dad was 40 and had played a playboy life for fifteen to twenty years. But then he had to settle down and take over from my granddad the reins of the family business. Well it was just a family business then, but it is wholly international now. Mummy had me straight away, so my father is now 69 but with no thoughts of retiring. My mother had too much energy to stay at home and babysit. She didn't need to work but she wanted to do things, so she virtually took over his charity foundation which Daddy inherited but had put little effort into for years. With her energy input it really took off, putting her into the limelight and eventually taking up a lot of her time. Daddy got jealous of the fact that he was getting less of her time when he was home and suspected that she had a lover. He divorced her, although officially citing irreconcilable differences. Mummy was hurt and devastated. Under the pre-nup arrangements she got nothing and couldn't afford to fight the divorce or any of the conditions in court. I was about 12 at the time. It turned out the "lover" she was supposed to have taken was gay and when he found out that Daddy had named him off the record as his rival in conversation with a mutual friend, he approached Daddy and privately told him that there was no possible truth in the rumour. But it was too late, Mummy was killed in a car accident driving an old clunker car with very little protection for driver or passengers. If she had still been married, she would have been travelling in an armour-plated limo. Daddy has blamed himself ever since for our loss so, instead of remarrying, he has had a series of short-term liaisons with increasingly younger and sillier girls, the latest being Julie, who was a beautician at the Jade Garden in Poulter's Cross.

"Yes, I know it, I think it is a thinly disguised massage parlour."

"Oh dear, I thought it might be something like that, she's not very discrete. How would you know anyway?"

"While I was trying to find a vacant shop in a suitable area for Leone two years ago, I looked at a shop in the same row as the Jade Garden, and thought it made the whole area look seedy, and weren't the kind of crowd to buy hand made greetings cards. In the end I went for a shop in Wendbury."

"I wonder if Daddy knows about the Jade Garden's reputation?"

"He keeps a close eye on you, wants to find out about me, so surely he must know about his girlfriend. And you fear he won't let you marry a respectable banker like Gareth?"

"Yes, it doesn't make much sense does it?"


"Hi Mum, I'm on my morning round at the moment." Mason saw it was his Mum calling on the line and, being Tuesday and not having spoken to her for a week, he thought he better speak to her.

"Oh, just wanted to speak to you and find out when you are next coming around for a visit, we missed both you and Caroline this weekend."

"I've got football on this Saturday, but I could come round Friday evening or for Sunday lunch."

"Caroline tells me she is out on a date Friday, so why not come over for lunch on Sunday?"

"Sure, want me to bring anything, wine, beer?"

"No, we got all that covered. Just bring your new fiancée, the one you introduced your Aunt Anna to last Friday, before we even knew she existed."

"Well, I'll have to ask her if she's available on Sunday."

"I hope she can come, perhaps she will sponsor us for what we hope to do for poor little Jimmy, his cancer, and his desperate need for an operation—"

"Look Mum, I've reached the next address on my round, so I must get these letters delivered so I can meet my fiancée for lunch. Hope to see you Sunday, bye."


"Hi Mum," Caroline answered, "Did you speak to Mason about Sunday?"

"Yes, sweetheart, are you coming?"

"Yeah, sure."

"What about your new man?"

"We just saw each other Friday and Saturday, he's not really 'my man', Mum."

"Well, come over yourself then because we need to talk to you about our neighbour little Jimmy and his cancer."

"Look, Mum, just getting to work now, will talk to you on Sunday, OK? Love you, bye."


Although they had agreed to meet lunchtimes all week, but during the evenings both had work to do or needed to go to bed early because of early starts.

During their lunchtime meetings they found out more and more about each other, that neither drank much, both preferring water with their meals, Mason preferring one beer in the evening, and Lyndsey resorting to an occasional glass of wine. On Tuesday Mason had to finish working on a football programme and get it off to the printers on Wednesday morning; Lyndsey still had to resort to book learning and online exercises to complete the theory side of her surgeon's qualification. Mason suggested a meal at his place for Friday evening, but Lyndsey remembered the Charity Ball.

"Mason, I was originally going to this Charity Ball with Gareth, who bought the tickets, but my father is going to be there because the charity is actually his own foundation, which lots of businesses contribute to. Obviously, with this a April Fool thing, I didn't want to go with Gareth. But all the tickets were sold out long ago, so I'm going as Daddy's guest. You don't mind do you?"

"Of course not. What does the charity do?"

"It provides grants to small children's charities, like local special needs schools that need a new bus or specialist toys, or to parents with disabled children, such as convert the downstairs of a house to be wheelchair friendly, so a disabled child can live at home with their parents, that kind of thing. They have a wonderful record, which has been maintained since my mother gave the Foundation fresh impetus when I was little. This Charity Ball raises thousands and it's the highlight of fundraising through the year."

"Sounds like a worthwhile cause to contribute to. How about coming round to my house for a home-cooked meal on Thursday? I won't keep you late, but you have to eat somewhen, don't you?"

"Yes, I'd love to, so what do you cook?"

"Prepared to tackle pretty well anything, used to have to fall back on all sorts of strange meals in the Army, basically anything we could catch quietly, but my favourite home-cooked meal is Cottage Pie. I can cook enough for four at one time and serve them in individual dishes, covered in grilled cheddar. I can freeze the other two for future meals. Usually I eat one and freeze three. What do you think?"

"My mouth is watering already. Pick me up at 7?"

"Yes. Will do."


"Hi Gareth, glad you called me, I wanted to speak you about Friday."

"Oh, the Ball, yeah right babes, when d'yer want me to pick you up?"

"Gareth, it's my Daddy's charity, so he will be obviously be there and will want to see me working the tables to ginger up the bids and donations. I can't have you take me, if I'm supposed to have a brand new boyfriend, so I'm going to attend as Daddy's guest. You will either have to bring someone else or not come at all. All right, Gareth?"

"Yeah, OK, of course, babes, I'll bring someone else. I was actually hoping to see you one evening this week."

"Not during the week, Gareth, got too much training work on at the hospital, and I'm meeting Mason's parents at the weekend, getting ready to introduce him to Daddy the following weekend."

"How did this last weekend go?"

"Good. We went to a football match on Saturday, met some of Mason's friends, and went to the coast for the day on Sunday. We even bumped into one of his old girlfriends."


"Yes, a little ... Look, I'm just coming up to the sandwich bar where I'm grabbing a quick lunch before starting my afternoon rounds. I'll speak to you before Friday."

"Yeah, babes and we'll make a point of ignoring each other on Friday at the Ball, if our paths happen to cross."

"Sounds a good idea. Bye Gareth."

"Bye babes."


"He's married, Boss, but the decree absolute comes into force on Friday. And they've got a kid together."

"Living in a seaside town, right Alex?" Sir Alan grinned, not often he was one up on his security chief.

"Yeah, Boss. Visits her every two Sundays, religious as clockwork. Pretty thing, the baby is, too. Oriental-looking, but cute. The wife is dark Filipino, while her parents is like more pale Chinese looking, besides they's too old to be her real parents."


"Yeah, that's what I had figured and checked up on it. That's why she and our guy married, she was being deported because her adoption papers were forged. Apparently it happens a lot over there. She managed to get into the country as a young girl with her family, but when she applied for a passport the paperwork couldn't stand up to the scrutiny."

"So our guy started out doing her a good deed?"

"Yeah Boss, but I got the truth out of the horse's mouth. It was all a scam on her part her to have a baby with no strings. She used him because he looked good, with strong genes, but being an old bachelor, she naturally assumed he'd be a pushover. She thought that once she left him he'd fold and let them go, especially as she kept where her parents lived a secret. But this guy is resourceful, smart and won't let go. So he's wearing her down with his persistent desire to be a proper father of the little girl. She never wanted a husband, just her baby which would guarantee that she could stay living here."

"So he was duped but she's not willing to share the baby?"

"Nah, not willing at all. Makes it as difficult as possible for this Lyndsey fella to get access. Says she's not weaned the baby yet, so he can only have her alternate Sundays, and only then only briefly between feeds."

"That's intolerable for any caring father."

"Sure is Boss. And guess what?"

"Tell me."

"Her parents love Mason more than they love their own adopted daughter, says he's getting a raw deal and deserves better. They reckon he's a good man, a really good man they tell me. They already love Miss Lyndsey, too, tells me she can come down anytime she likes, they'd welcome her with open arms. Same attitude as Betty who owns the hotel he stays at, she adores the Lyndsey guy and thought he and Miss Lyndsey make such a lovely couple. Apparently the local weekend guests look forward to seeing the baby Maisie and are hoping the bad weather continues, that way they have to stay indoors."

"I like this place already. So how does this ex-wife live?"

"Hardly at all. She makes greetings cards by hand, some of the examples look OK but ordinary, you know, nothing special. Lyndsey paid to set up a website for her and that is more impressive than the goods they're selling. It's her only income other than what the guy sends her for Maisie. When they married he also set up a little workshop in a Wendbury High Street shop, employing a handful of staff making her designs. She kept it going for a few months after she left him, by putting a manager in, but without her influence, the work went south and she had to cut her loses and close it down before the staff qualified for redundancy payments. She can hardly cope with the baby and make a living at the same time, looks tired and fat, rapidly losing her looks. The parents showed me a painting of their daughter in a swim suit when she first starting showing with the baby; she had the body of a fashion models. Now she's got the body of two models. They still have a joint account and Mason puts in £600 a month for her, which is more than generous, it's all that's keeping her afloat. Her mum's retired but still does about 20 hours agency nursing work a week, and her dad's got three more years to go with the NHS before he retires; they are basic nurses at the local hospital. The house is rented, so what happens when the old man stops working is anyone's guess."

"Sounds like we could make this woman an offer?"

"Yeah, Boss, maybe, she's pretty mercenary and I did give her £300 to get her to talk and forget all about me, as far as our guy is concerned, but if we show our hand too much we might upset Miss Lyndsey."

"You're right, Alex. So, softly softly, eh?"

"Right-oh, Boss, softly softly it is."

Chapter 5

Lyndsey drove over to Mason's place, 25 Sycamore Gardens, using the Sat Nav in her Smart Car. She was expecting a block of apartments, not a short cul-de-sac of well-spaced out semi-detached family houses. She soon worked out where No 25 was. It had a neat lawn in front and a currently leafless deciduous tree in the middle of the lawn. To the right was a long drive leading up to an attached garage, which presumably contained his car. There were lights outside displaying occupancy inside. So she parked in the drive, got out of the car and, grasping her two bottles of sparkling red grape juice, marched up to the front door.

The door swung open as she approached.

"Come straight on in, it's still pretty cold out there."

"Hi Mason, nice house. Had it long?"

"About twenty years in all, but for most of that time it was rented out. I moved in about two years ago, when I got out of the Army."

"Did you live here with Leone?"

"Not at first." he said, "I better explain. Just let me sprinkle the cheese on top and pop these into the oven, then we can relax for a few minutes."

Lyndsey watched as he placed two oval dishes, each with an individual portion of cottage pie, onto a baking sheet and popped it into a hot oven. Two more similar dishes sat on the side cooling until ready to freeze. The kitchen table was set for two, so she sat down at one of the chairs.

"When Leone and I got to know each other over a series of simple dates, the real reason for her computer dating came up. She was adopted by her parents when she was about six years old and was brought over here with them when she was about eight, so she had been here for about 20 years when we met. However, when she was in her early twenties, she tried to get a passport for a holiday in France, but was turned down because her adoption papers were only photocopies. She didn't worry about it at the time, but just before I met her, she started getting letters from immigration threatening her with deportation."

"So she wanted a marriage of convenience, and you offered to get her out of a fix?"

"I did. I had no-one else in my life and didn't know or care too much about where our relationship was going, but it seemed a solution at the time. So I offered, she accepted, and we had a quick ceremony. I didn't tell my parents otherwise they would have got the wrong idea."

"And the baby?"

'Ha! Right. Do you want some grape juice? The dinner will be ready in ten minutes."

"Thank you."

"Even after we married," he said as he filled the glasses on the table, "the immigration interviews continued and Leone took in the marriage certificate, but they wanted to know more and more about our relationship, especially as, although we said we were cohabiting, she was still renting a flat and working in an office in Wendbury."

"I thought she trained as a nurse?"

"It was her parents' wish to be a nurse, not hers, she started a course when she was about 18 but soon dropped out and worked in general offices, mostly as a temp, so she has no qualifications. She had this idea of opening a shop making craft greetings cards to order, while manufacturing and shrink wrapping generic ones for retail sales. It was something she had been doing privately online for years. I had attended some web-designing classes ready for demob so I designed a new website for her and helped her get her shop underway with a £10k loan. I looked at a lot of shops and thought she needed a High Street presence. She trained up some housewives and young girls to work in the back of the shop and it seemed to take off, at least at first."

"And that still didn't satisfy immigration?"

"No. We had moved into this house, but not sleeping together as or relationship was, well, we didn't have a relationship. But then she mentioned the baby. Which was a big question. I mean she was an attractive woman, but I didn't feel any spark between us. We were going through the motions dating in case she was being followed and some of her clothes were heat in my room. Basically she was a lodger. Being 30, she started to tell me she wanted a baby, so she asked why not have one with her husband? So, we went for it. At first it was fairly mechanical but then I started to develop feelings, difficult not to, especially when she fell pregnant almost immediately and we started going to prenatal classes together. Immigration backed off, she said, we had the baby, Maisie was small and premature and we couldn't get her home at first. Then, within hours of getting home, she disappeared, leaving me to bond with Maisie; she came home, I went shopping for essential supplies and when I got back they had both gone."


"You look gorgeous honey, good enough to eat. How's your new boy taking it, not being able to take his Cinderella to the Ball?" Sir Alan chuckled.

His daughter really did look good in a sky blue and silver shimmery cocktail dress that she looked as though she had been poured into; he thought it brought out the colour of her eyes perfectly, while her blond hair piled up as it was made her neck look poised and graceful, graced with a tiny string of pearls that Sir Alan recognized were once her mother's.

"Oh, he's out running for an hour, then he'll shower and get ready for the weekend; we are visiting his mother for lunch on Sunday. He is also celebrating receiving his Decree absolute on his own by doing some painting."


"Yes, a small cottage he passes on his round, an old farmhouse now surrounded by new developments. Without the summer bedding and bare rose bushes, it looks quite stark, he says, and been working on it for a few days after his afternoon round. It's all about the prep work with painting he said, once that's done, the painting should be complete by Saturday morning.

"So, the romance is blossoming for both of you is it? I think Gareth will be at the Ball tonight, although I had him moved down the tables well away from us."

"Of course you did, Daddy. I think he is bringing Tabitha Cummings with him, she's his cousin who's boyfriend is laid up with a fractured leg ... accident skiing in Austria, I think. I doubt our paths will cross much tonight."

"Good, he's a creep. Interested in meeting your new man, though, honey. What can you tell me about him?"

"What more do you need to know?" Lyndsey said, as her father guided her into his limo, George his driver holding the door open. "He told me about your goons at the football match."

"Ah, just looking after your best interests, my dear," Sir Alan said, as he settled himself in the seat. "I haven't found out if he can ski yet."

"He can, I think, about three months' military training in Lapland, including sled and huskies work, and he spent some time in Switzerland but not sure what season, so not sure if he has much experience on a couple of splinters going down slippery slopes."

"Unlike Gareth then?" Sir Alan said with a twinkle in his eye. "What else can this new wonder boy do?"

"Aside from taking out two of your guys?"

"They'll be better prepared next time."

"There better not be a 'next time', Daddy."

"I don't like to see you go unprotected."

"Perhaps Mason is all the protection I need."

"We will see. Tell me more about him."

"He can cook, I'll say that. I left the girls drooling over left-over individual cottage pies just as I was leaving tonight. So good, they didn't even have the good grace to wait until I left before they heated them up in the oven. They smell as good as they taste. Not sure, from previous experience, if the meal tonight will come even close."

"We did secure the services of a TV celebrity chef for tonight, he has a camera crew in the kitchen so he can demonstrate how he and his team cope with 300 simultaneous covers. The studio are donating a decent fee to the Foundation, plus repeat fees if the programme gets sold on."

"Perhaps Mason could cook for us if you came round for dinner one night. Are you still with Julie?"

"No, her massage parlour was raided two nights ago ... she was working at the time."

Lyndsey laughed, and had to dab her eyes with a tissue to protect her make-up.

"Why are you laughing? Julie could be in serious trouble."

"It's just that we were discussing Julie's shop the Jade Garden, as Mason recently looked at renting a shop nearby and when Julie was mentioned, we both pretty much expressed the dubious nature of her business at the same time."

"Very astute of you both," Sir Alan laughed, "perhaps I should employ your man as an advisor?"

"You couldn't afford him, Daddy."

"Everyone has his price, my dear."

"But Mason has integrity, and that is priceless, Daddy."

"I look forward to seeing him in a couple of Sunday's time. I might ask him to paint the manor house."

"I already mentioned that, but the size of your mansion, Daddy, I can't see how he'd have the time."

The Charity Ball at the City Hall was a sell-out and everyone who were determined to go made every effort that they attended. The meal was excellent, Lyndsey had to admit, simple but delicious, the celebrity chef had obviously done his homework and ensured that the meal was easy to prepare and serve to perfection. There was a charity auction with lots of prizes up for auction, one of which took her eye, it was a large oil painting of a cottage close to where the hospital stood, as she had jogged past it on a regular basis. The cottage had recently had the exterior redecorated with fresh white paint and the timbers repainted. This painting must have been painted when the state of repair had still to be carried out, and captured every flake of missing paint and moss growing up the walls. She idly wondered if Mason had done the repainting.

"You like this painting, Lyndsey?" her father asked, "I could put in a sealed bid for you if you like."

"No, it doesn't look like that any more, the cottage had been sold and the new owners have had it renovated, taking all the old creeper off, repainting the lime render and cleaning off the old painted timbers, taking them back to a natural oak colour. I expect the painting was hanging up inside the house and the new owners didn't want to be reminded of how bad a state it had it had got into."

"Your new guy didn't paint it did he?" her father asked, admitting, "I found out that he painted houses."

"I was just wondering that myself, but I have no idea. He did say he was painting a couple of afternoons and evenings this week, but I didn't ask exactly where."

"Well, the painting was donated anonymously earlier today. I think it's so good, I might even bid for it myself."

Chapter 6

With this Saturday's match being at home, Lyndsey didn't have to rush around during the morning patient rounds as she had the previous week, and was able to meet Mason at his house for warming home-made minestrone soup before Mason drove them to the ground just before the two o'clock kick off.

"Hey, can you guess who I got a call from today inviting me up to spend this Sunday with the whole family?" Mason grinned as he stirred the pot of delicious-smelling soup.

"Leone!" Lyndsey laughed.

"So, Miss Doctor-Surgeon-Psychiatrist, do you want to tell me what's going on?" Mason asked. "All I have had since the birth of my daughter is the cold shoulder from the whole of my ex-wife's family. Two minutes after you appeared on the scene, Mr and Mrs P were all over me and Leone even showed herself twice briefly in the morning and at lunchtime for the first time in ten and a half months since her disappearing act."

"Psychoanalyst, is the correct term for examining Leone's change of attitude."

"OK, I may have got the name of the science wrong, but you don't seem to be at all surprised by this sudden change of attitude."

"No, not really, Mason, because basically Leone has always used you. At times in the past you were valuable, and once she had secured her right to stay in the UK, and helped set up her business, you retained value because she found you were also good fatherhood material. But once those stepping stones in her ambitions were achieved, then you became virtually valueless to her. In fact, when you pursued both her and Maisie, and refused to give up your child, you became a liability that she hoped you'd go away if made everything difficult for her. Now, suddenly she has realised that your stock has gone back up."
"Because I turned up on her doorstep with a beautiful girl?"

"No, because you turned up with any girl, or least any girl to begin with. She wanted to see me, she was curious who it was that you brought, especially as her parents were becoming positive in their attitudes. Remember when she first saw us, we were dozing comfortably together on the sofa, we looked like an established couple. When that girl you appear to have attracted turned out to be a doctor, an orthopaedic doctor and surgeon, just the type of person who her parents respect. So—"

"—I have changed from a sad old ex-husband into a single man that another woman much better qualified than her has seen some value in?"

"Well, as least this change has got her reconsidering your worth. This has been reinforced by her parents, who have already respected you for your reliability, even temperedness, and how obviously Maisie adores you as a father. Mr and Mrs P now seriously doubt what Leone lied, or more probably simply hinted to them, about any troubles in the marriage that caused her to walk out, like you beat her or—"

"—Hold on, I would never do that."

"Of course not, Mason, I would never ever believe that. It is because you have borne all Leone's crap with fortitude and persistence, that Mr and Mrs P have realised this too, and are probably telling Leone that she needs to address the rights you have as a father, otherwise you could force her to give even more reasonable access than the intolerable demands on you that she has been allowing."

"Well, any more time I can spend with Maisie would be great."

"So, does this mean you are changing your plans for tomorrow?"

"Hell, no. I told her that I was taking you, my fiancée, to meet my parents tomorrow, that it was far too important an occasion to think of breaking. Therefore I told her that I would be down on the next scheduled Sunday and every future Sunday and demanded that I have access to Maisie for the whole day. If she insists on feeding Maisie directly at lunchtime, then she can come to us and do it, or we can arrange to meet somewhere with some privacy for her. Or she can simply start weening her onto solids like any normal baby of this age."

"And what did she say to that?"


"Just OK?"

"It was very quiet, I had to ask her to repeat it. And she did."

"Ha! I wish I had been there to hear that. Good for you, Mace. So, what are we all doing next Sunday?"

"Well, if you are up to it, I'd like to take Maisie out for her first swimming lesson. I had looked it up online before, but the timings were impossible then. Now that I have more time to be in the pool with her while she is taught to swim. So, do you want to come?"

"Mmm, if I didn't know you better," she smiled as she dug him in the ribs, "I'd think this was a ruse to see me in a swimsuit."

"I will be honest, the thought did cross my mind, but if you want to sit in the public gallery and watch me in my 'budgie smugglers', you're welcome to."

"What, and miss out on swimming with my favourite baby Maisie. No mister, if only one parent is allowed in the water with her, you can sit on the sidelines, or ... we could take it in turns. How long does it take to teach a baby to swim?"

"Not sure. They recommend starting them before they are one year old and she is almost that. The mother and babies session is at the local baths starting at 9 in the morning for an hour. They warm up the water to 32 degrees in the small children's pool and is booked exclusively for the group for an hour, although babies Maisie's age are best limited to twenty to thirty minutes before gradually building from there, in line with the baby's progress. They book on a term by term basis, so I booked from now until Easter and the summer term after. And they are more than happy for both parents or partners to participate."

"That sounds great. Have you got time to get her in the water, though, before the hour's up?"

"No problem. I rang Leone back and told her my intentions, and that I needed to collect her at 8.30am at the latest and to make sure she was well fed well in advance and was already wearing a Little Swimmer's nappy." He smiled at Lyndsey while he poured the soup into two dishes and took the crisp hot rolls out of the oven.

"So did she agree?"

He nodded, carrying the soup and rolls on a tray to the kitchen table set for two, "And she asked if she could come too, but not to swim."

"She probably wanted to hide the baby fat she hasn't lost yet. ... ouch! Was that as bitchy as it sounded?"

"No, not all all. You didn't know her, but she kept in good shape before and during pregnancy, but even seeing briefly, she has clearly put on weight since, probably a bit of comfort eating and, sleeping with Maisie as she does, she can't be getting much sleep. She definitely looks tired around the eyes, too."

"Hardly surprising, single parenting is just as much a strain for the mother who has her most of the time, as it is for once-a-fortnight fathers."

"Well, change is coming, and it's all down to you. So, when you are ready to face your father, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure he is totally happy with your future choice of husband."

After the warming soup, they wrapped up well, with a new green-and-white scarf that Greg had insisted on buying for his "beautiful angel", and went onto the match.

This time she was able to buy one of Mason's home-produced football programmes, which featured photos from last week's cup match, including a couple of shots that showed Lyndsey in the crowd.

"That's a first for me, appearing in a football programme!"

"Well, I couldn't resist including you, as you stand out so well from the rest of us unfashionable lot."

Greg was pleased to see Lyndsey, who thanked for her scarf with a huge hug, before they sat in the shelter of the stand, where he chattered away to her about the stats of the opposition. Mason did his usual walking around the pitch, following the action back and forth, making notes and taking photos. The home team were a few matches behind the rest of the league due to their excellent cup run, but still had a chance to finish in the top four if they converted a good proportion of the remaining games into points. The game resulted in a 2-0 home win. They had a solitary drink each in the clubhouse at the end of the game.

As they walked out to the cars, Mason wondered if they wanted to go out anywhere for a meal, as it was still early.

"Why don't we get in a takeaway and spend the evening watching movies?" Lyndsey suggested. "I don't think I'm ready to go home yet. I'm still buzzing from the game."

"I've got all Leone's movies at home," Mason grinned, "When she left she abandoned most of her stuff. There's bound to be a chick movie or possibly even a dozen in there somewhere."

"OK. Let's get a Chinese or Indian on the way home then and pig out in front of the TV."

And that is what they did, watching three movies straight, one after the other. It was late, and it was blowing a gale outside, so Mason persuaded her to stay, showing her the fresh sheets as he turned down the spare bed and pointed out the small en-suite toilet and shower and the secure latch bolt on the door. So she stayed the night at Mason's house, sleeping in the spare room. Like the rest of the house, Lyndsey noticed, it was spotless. As had become their habit, they exchanged lip kisses and hugged each other good night.

On Sunday they were due to meet his parents Sofia and Alan, so they drove around to her flat in the morning, so she could could get changed into fresh and smarter clothes than the ones she had worn to football.

"Loved your shepherd's pie, Mason," Angela, one of Lyndsey's flatmates gushed, "it was fantastic and heated up in the oven beautifully with the grated cheese on the top."

Mason grinned and nodded sheepishly at the open praise.

"We had homemade minestrone soup with hot rolls yesterday lunchtime, Ange," Lyndsey boasted, as she headed for her bedroom.

"The rolls were pre-baked from the freezer..." Mason declared.

"But they were still cooked," Angela breathed, "how can we persuade you to move in with us?"

"Hey, hands off!" Lyndsey called out as her bedroom door closed behind her.

Mason sat down in one of the armchairs opposite the sofa where Angela sat, "You and Jennifer are welcome to come round for a meal with your boyfriends, I can sit six straight away and up to eight in my dining room, if I look out the extension piece. Have a word with Lyndsey and sort out a Friday night in the next few weeks."

"Sounds great, but the shifts that Jen and I work, we don't find that decent boyfriends last long. I don't suppose you have two single younger brothers handy?"

"No, but I know a couple of decent, respectable guys, fit young footballers, that would fit the bill. I wouldn't fix you up with anything other than top drawer."

"Mmm, blind dates ... it seemed it worked out well with you and Lyndsey."

"Well, it's early days and all...."

"Huh! Both you guys are the real deal already. I think my ambition of being a bridesmaid's coming true, maybe even as early as this spring."

"You girls love a spring wedding, don't you?"

"Hey! What's not to like?"



"Sir Alan?"

"Yes, speaking."

"Good morning, I hope you are keeping well, Sir. Look, it's John St John Parminter here. You may remember I served as a Trustee on your Mason Charitable Foundation while your late wife was in the chair. That was before I was appointed to the RA in an official capacity and pressure of workload forced me to drop a few posts, including yours."

"The RA?"

"The Royal Academy, of arts, of course. I was attending your Charity Ball last Friday and was somewhat intrigued by the painting you bought."

"Oh, the one of the old cottage?"

"Yes, I bid what I thought it was worth but dropped out once it was obvious that you particularly wanted it for some reason."

"Well it was just the right size to cover an imperfection of one of the walls in our smaller dining room. And the colouring was just right, too."

"Quite. Well, I was hoping you would know who it was that donated the painting?"

"Oh, do you think the painting has some merit, then? Up to RA quality, perhaps?"

"Oh no, of course not. It was rather naive, a primitive piece you know, but to the expert eye it showed a little promise. I run a small gallery and such pictures that contain a sort of modest charm do sell and could provide a supplementary income for an amateur painter, such as painted the cottage. Couldn't make much of the signature, though, just the initials 'ML', and the date as '15', but not sure who that is. He is not in the usual artists' lists, so must be an amateur of sorts."

"Initials 'ML' you say?" Sir Alan said, "I thought it was 'NI', personally, but I could be wrong. Don't exactly know who donated it, was told it came in anonymously, I think."

"Really? So you have no idea who donated the painting?"

"My daughter thought it was possibly donated by the new owners of the actual building depicted."

"Ah, your sweet daughter Lyndsey, I suppose she's all grown up now but she was often around with her mother when the Ball was being organised back while I was involved. Did Lyndsey say where the cottage is?"

"Not exactly, she's working at the East Green General Hospital at Barton. I think the cottage is nearby, as she mentioned regularly jogging past it and seeing the restoration work as it happened."

"I wonder if the new owners know who the artist is."

"Lyndsey thought that since they bought it they have changed the appearance of the cottage out of all recognition, so probably didn't find the painting held any relevance to them any more. I assume the painting was left behind in the building when they bought it. It was generous of them to donate it and there were several buyers present who helped push the price as high as it took to secure it, all the the name of a good cause. So we really have no idea who the artist is."

"That's a shame. I thought the chap—"

"—Or lady, of course."


"A lady could easily have painted the picture, don't you think? 'NI' might be Norma Inskip or Naomi Ironsides, for example, and the '15' may simply be the number of paintings she has painted this far."

"Yes, yes, of course. Oh well, I will check out artists with the 'NI' initials and see what I can come up with."

"Well, good luck with that. If you find out who the artist is, please let me know, I have several imperfect walls that need covering and I quite liked the style and subject matter. As you say, it has a certain primitive charm. I might even get him or her to paint my house, if the price is reasonable."

"Of course, I will let you know immediately I find him ... or her. Thank you, Sir Alan, for your assistance."

"You're very welcome. Goodbye."


"Come on Caroline, be a sport, you've taken on me and Josh in one session, when we've each gone three rounds, that's six full condoms and you were chirpy as a canary. Just adding a couple more stallions from the rugger club, a sweet babe like you could handle it no probs."

"I dunno, Gareth. I've never...."

"Look, we'll have a safe word, like 'stop!' and we'll stop."

"Oh, I know I'm going to regret this, but OK."

"Good, that's my girl. OK guys, we're on!"


"I see you are wearing your ring again. Not sure how I will be able to explain to my parents how I could manage purchasing that. Gareth indicated that it cost him thirty thousand?"

"He said it was valued for insurance at that amount. He's obsessed with the cost of everything and the real value of nothing. This is so much more valuable to me than can ever be priced in pounds and pence. This was my mother's engagement ring, which she left to me in her will. Daddy had thought she had sold or pawned it, because she got nothing out of the divorce due to the pre-nup, but I knew that she would never do that."

"I don't know anything at all about what happened to your mother," Mason said as he reached out and took her hand to comfort her, "how old were you when you lost her?"

"Twelve. It all happened so quick, we hadn't even had a chance to sort out visitation arrangements or anything before she was gone. I really miss her, sometimes more than others. Taking someone home to meet my parents is one of those times. I will tell you all about her. Not now, of course, as we need to be all smiles today. But I would like to talk to you about her, it is difficult unloading all my emotions on my friends. Tell your mother that this is my late mother's ring so it is naturally important to me that she is a part not only of my wedding day but throughout my married life to come. Tell her that you will buy both the matching wedding rings."

"Sounds fair," he agreed. "So, let's get our professional actors' faces on and go do this thing."

"Yeah, break a leg!" she laughed. "It'll be great practice for meeting my Daddy in a couple of Sundays, we will probably need Oscar nomination level acting to get anything past him."

"For my parents, you really only need to be yourself and you'll win them over with no problem."

"Well, hold my hand and here we go!"

The Lyndsey household was quiet, to start with.


Sir Alan was getting dressed up for a business lunch, with Sunday being a normal business day in Bahrain when a sweating Alex Cowfold appeared at his suite.

"Sit down Alex, at this time in the day it is really hot out. Coffee?"

"Yeah, thanks Boss, lots of cream and three sugars, please."

"So, what couldn't you talk about on the phone?"

"I found out all about Miss Lyndsey's dangerous boyfriend." Alex said, nodding his thanks at the coffee. "No wonder he made short work of my guys. I only wish I had him on my team."

"So, what he's been involved in that you cannot speak about on the phone? Nothing unlawful, I hope?"

"No, not exactly unlawful Boss, just outside the law enough to be virtually above the law." Alex sipped the hot liquid and continued, "A lot of the top guys from the Paras go onto special forces and do the odd tour or two. They are trained to work behind enemy lines, to hide, gather intelligence, identify targets and then hit them hard before organizing extraction."

"And this Mason guy was hand-picked for special ops?"

Alex nodded, "And not only by our guys but by a whole new ball game that doesn't exist, or isn't supposed to. That's why I couldn't mention it on the phone — any key words would be picked up and I could get into a lot of trouble knowing what I now know."

"I'm intrigued," Sir Alan said, pulling his half-tied tie undone, sitting down and pouring himself a coffee.

"They call themselves 'Le Beret Bleu', because they have no official name, just three battalions of a hundred men and women in each, then further divided into five or six squads of twenty or so. They usually do a two year tour of duty and up to a year of off-duty recovery in a specialised post-op rehab facility, but all the while they are serving in the unit they are still shown as being mustered with their original regiments, absent doing training courses or just plain recording that they are present and correct when they are not. Any casualties are listed as training accidents and fully evidenced, even though the evidence is made up. These secret squads are made up of soldiers, mostly NCOs, from armies all over the world."

"Hence the blue berets, the symbol of UN peace-keeping forces."

"Yeah, Boss, but this isn't officially run by the UN, but by some other military organisation supported by the richest nations in the world. It started with a joint Russian-US squad after Russian ministers were concerned about the rise of terrorist camps in the Middle East and North Africa, but they didn't want to be seen to be involved in shutting them down. Since those early beginnings, it has been open to the best of the best from counties all round the world. You don't volunteer, you are just sent for. I spoke to this chap Michael, not his real name, who was in a different battalion to Sergeant Lyndsey, but during his time in the BBS, he worked under our guy on two missions, one in Iraq and one in Libya."

"Was he impressed or disappointed?"

"He was real impressed, Boss. Sergeant Mason was 2IC on the first mission but it all went wrong when the OIC was badly wounded and the mission, to close down an Islamic State training camp, was in serious jeopardy, with high casualties likely whether the mission continued or was aborted. Mason was a Pathfinder on most of the missions they do. They get in first, make the scene safe for the asset strippers to come in and gather intelligence and then rearguard their way out again. The IOC usually goes in with the Pathfinders or is already there as one of the undercover guys who have been scouting out the camp. This particular OIC was on the flank of the first wave and he hesitated when he surprised a group of women and children. It turned out they were armed to the teeth and cut him down in the opening bursts." He hesitated.

"So what happened?"

"Mason and his men simply shot the five armed women in the head as calm as you like, killed them with one shot each. Then they wounded the children who were armed and any that attempted to pick up weapons, leaving the dead where they lay and locked the survivors in a room. He and his crew plus the fresh guys just coming in, mopped up the armed terrorists and trainers, but by now everyone in the camp was armed and aware that they were under attack. It was pretty sticky and some of the good guys got hurt before the Blue Berets managed to wipe them all out. He called the asset strippers in, to gather what intelligence they could, then got everyone out, along with the three casualties, who all were taken to safety, but the OIC died of his wounds on the way back to the carrier."
"So our Mason is resourceful as well as ruthless. I could do with him on my team, too."

"They like to keep as many of the terrorists in the camps alive so they can be dragged back for interrogation, and use the intelligence to find out about other camps, chains of command, etc. The unit has other assets that stay out in the field for long periods, who stay behind the lines until there are no more missions in their sector, often staying out for months on end. Mason started out doing that kind of tour, but then he was found to be more than useful on the strike forces."

"He did this for the whole of the eight years that you found he was outside of his official unit?"

"The usual tours are two years and they rarely do a second tour as the stress is too much for some people. Sergeant Mason Lyndsey ended up doing seven years straight, a mixture of field work, planning and execution. The last year he spent in Switzerland, going through debriefing, psych analyses and prep for civvies life again. The guy I was speaking to said they all spend a few weeks there recovering at this world-class centre. Sergeant Lyndsey was there for a whole year chilling out. They don't let them go from there until they have a clean bill of mental health."

"So he must've seen and done some terrible things."

"I guess so. They take a few prisoners, for questioning, but the rest ... well, these guys are told that they are above the Geneva Convention, but then so are the terrorists and suicide bombers. These Berets Bleu fight fire with fire, no trials, no witnesses, instant justice. It's an old adage, 'don't do the crime if you can't do the time', has been changed 'don't see Allah with strangers, but with friends'."

"Do you reckon he's stable now?"

"Hell, Boss, these guys don't even take you on unless you are properly grounded to start with. They don't entertain psychos at all and they certainly don't aim to turn anyone into one. This is why they are so international, every stable country recognise that terrorism is disruptive to all nations, which is why they are funding the costs of this drastic action. Then they make sure when these soldiers finish their tour that they accept and come to terms with all the crazy things they had to do, so they sleep easy and lead normal lives again. These guys are both as ordinary as they come and as extraordinary you can possibly find."

"As you said earlier, Alex, I could do with him on my team."


The Sunday lunch went well, even if it had been an emotional rollercoaster ride, Lyndsey thought, as she sat down in the lounge after bringing the tray of tea cups and full teapot, while Sofia brought in cakes and sandwiches, as if the lunch hadn't been substantial enough. Sofia sat down and smiled at the sight of her partner and son talking in the garden, so Lyndsey turned away to look.

Sofia was a beautiful woman, even in her sixties, so she could see why her younger partner, the slightly built and unassuming Alan had remained in partnership with her for thirty years or so. She could now see Alan and Mason standing just outside the french doors, probably talking over Alan's plans for the garden this year, maybe even talking about her. They were laughing and comfortable with each other, stepfather and stepson, as if they were naturally and closely related. The wind and overnight rain had just stopped and the sun was peeping from the parting clouds.

Caroline had turned up late, just as lunch was being served up, and disappeared shortly after, but not until her mother insisted she help with the clean up. She was quiet and barely said a word.

Everyone had been relaxed during the meal. Lyndsey didn't even have to say anything about the ring, Sofia sensed straight away, even as Lyndsey was invited to help with the food preparation, that the ring was well beyond Mason's means and asked Lyndsey outright if it was her mother's engagement ring. Of course Sofia was emotional and burst into tears when she heard that her mother died so tragically when she was only 12 and wanted to hold Lyndsey tight, which caused Lyndsey to cry as well.

Sofia shooed the menfolk out of the kitchen so that Lyndsey and she could share their grief. So for most of the pre-meal preparation, Lyndsey was on an emotional ride with Mason's mother talking about her family, how they struggled in Italy after the war, how they moved here when she was a little girl, the youngest of two girls, followed by two boys and the baby sister who were born over here. How her father had struggled to start the first Italian restaurant that the town had ever seen, now run by her eldest sister Anna. How they all used to help in the restaurant. How she married young when she fell for Mason's dashing and handsome father, and how her husband abandoned her before the baby was even born. Then she explained how Alan had come into their lives, and had straightened out things with Mason, who had resented Alan at first. She told Lyndsey how she was all excitable and emotional and Alan was the opposite, full of patience and calm, that they were perfect together, but never married because of her bad experience with her first husband.

In between, Lyndsey spoke about her mother and it seemed so natural to do so with this lovely empathetic woman, who seemed so swept up in the emotions created and coped with them by spilling tears and handing out comfort. Lyndsey was able to talk to her in ways that were impossible with her father and difficult with anyone else she had ever met. Losing a mother at a time when she was about to enter puberty had left her completely rudderless, especially when her father had thrown himself even deeper into his world of work, to cover his guilt over his ex-wife's death.

Sofia was incensed. "Why should your father feel guilty? Sad and regretful, yes, but guilt? All the guilt was on her side. The courts found she had broken her vows and she was cut off without a penny, it is what she should have expected."

"No, it was not like that at all. As my father was so much older than her and tied up in work, my mother decided to do more charity work. Daddy thought that she was spending too much time on the charity work, without any consideration that he was the one who was too busy all the time, so he had her investigated. The investigator's report came back that my mother was being particularly friendly with this tall, blond, extremely handsome man, a famous society fashion photographer, who happily gave up his time to do all the photography shoots that the charity foundation needed for fundraising publicity campaigns. In fact, looking at this man I think Daddy suspected that I was not his daughter."

"But you are sure you are?"

"Oh yes, he told me he that he checked our DNA, but that was at a time when such tests were expensive and took weeks to arrive. He became insane with jealousy and didn't wait, he divorced Mum for having an affair. He had evidence of photos of them meeting, touching over dinner meetings, the phone records showed that they spoke virtually every day. He got the best team of lawyers together and they got him his divorce in record time. She could only get a less experienced lawyer and lost heavily, was left without a penny, with no job, and no reputation."

"So how did she die so young?"

"She had to find work to live on and the only job she could get she needed to drive to. She bought a cheap car that was side-swiped by a truck in the ice and she died instantly without feeling a thing. My father felt guilty because he had jumped to a wrong conclusion; the photographer who he thought she was having an affair with was gay, but he was not actually out at the time, he was just a nervous touchy-feely person. As soon as he heard about the divorce, he contacted Daddy and, angry as Daddy was with him, he agreed to the meeting. Apparently, Mummy quietly accepted the divorce as she didn't want to embarrass the named man, who was innocent all along. When he quizzed the investigator and they looked through her phone records in details, it turned out she spoke to pretty well all the charity organizers every day, some more than others. Daddy had just become fixated on this one man and destroyed his wife, my mother, almost on a whim."

"And your Momma died before he could tell her that he knew she was innocent?"

"Yes. He also felt guilty about her death, because my father never drives anywhere, he uses his chauffeur driven car, and it was always available for Mummy to use, so she would have been safe inside a limousine, even if it was hit by a truck."

As soon as Caroline showed up, Sofia mentioned the issue of the sick boy neighbour, and his expensive cancer treatment, although when questioned by Lyndsey as to what type of cancer and what expensive treatment was needed, she admitted that she only knew the scantiest of details. Caroline was getting agitated by it all, especially when her mother kept saying that, with her lovely long blond locks, how much she could raise for the charity by having it cut off to make into wigs. Sofia even had two donation forms handy, which she handed to Mason and Caroline to at least think about it and fill in at home.

Alan was funny during the meal, as it was obvious he was playing full part in his partner's set up for the April Fool. Lyndsey wasn't sure if Alan was genuinely taken in by the joke, but he made full potential over the humourous element of a Mason Lyndsey marrying a Lyndsey Mason.

"So, Mason," he said, after swallowing the first mouthful of lunch and sipping his red wine, "once the happy event has taken place, are you still going to be plain 'Mr Mason Lyndsey', or 'Mr Mason Mason-hyphen-Lyndsey' or 'Mr Mason Lyndsey-hyphen-Mason'?"

Mason and Lyndsey exchanged glances before he replied. "Actually, although we have been all too aware of the unusual combination of our names, we have not discussed the final outcome, have we dear?"

"No, we haven't honey," Lyndsey cheerfully announced, "I'm not sure if I am totally in favour of double-barrelled names, although being called 'Lyndsey Lyndsey' does sound a little ridiculous. What do you think Sofia?"

"What does your father think about your engagement?"

Once again Lyndsey and Mason exchanged glances.

"Mason has yet to meet my father, he is in the Middle East for this weekend and part of next week, so we are going over to see him next Sunday week."

"So, what does he do, Lyndsey, that takes him to the Middle East?" Alan asked.

"He's chairman of a chemicals company. Not sure why he's in Bahrain, to be honest, but he's always flying here and there, though more recently the trips are mostly to the Far East, like China, South Korea and Japan."

"It must be a big company," commented Alan, "what's the company called?"

"It's ICC, International Chemicals Corporation, Daddy's worked there all his life, as it was originally a family firm."

"Of course, Sir Alan Mason's your father?"

"Yes, and while we are on the subject of shared names, you are both Alans."

"Well, whoever he is, Lyndsey, dear, we look forward to meet up with him to discuss the wedding plans, it takes so long to get these things in place. We must talk to Anna about catering, and the church, they are usually booked up months in advance," Sofia said, "Do you have a date in mind?"

"Well," Mason replied, "although we haven't seriously discussed it, but I was told by one of Lyndsey's flatmates only today, that you can't beat a spring wedding, and if it's going to be within the football season, then a Saturday's out. What do you think, sweetheart?"

"Mmm, I know that there's still a lot of planning to do, but the parish church in the village at home in part of the Manor house estate, so we can always book the first Sunday in spring, if that's not too soon, sweetheart."

"Great! I know the perfect date," Alan said.

"When's that, Alan?" Sofia pouted, "spring's only a couple of months away, no time to organise anything, let alone our family's very first wedding."

"I was just thinking, dear,' Alan smiled sweetly and with perfect innocence painted on his face, "doesn't the first of April fall on a Sunday this year?"

Chapter 7

Meeting up with Lyndsey on Monday for their now regular shared lunchtimes was a pleasure, Mason thought as he rushed from the depot to the café they had selected for today. It was a raw day, drier but much colder than Sunday, with possible snow forecast for Wednesday night and Thursday morning, with a bitter wind coming in from Siberia. He was a couple of minutes late and she was already sitting at a table, but she greeted him with smile and got up to exchange the kiss and hug that had now become second nature between them.

"Sorry, Mason, but I saw this table by the radiator and grabbed it before anyone else did, and I am sitting with my back to it, while you get the full benefit of a cold blast every time that door opens."

"That's all right, Lynds, it was even colder this morning at 6, when I started my round. I told you I don't feel the cold. Anyway, if the snow comes in and it is half as bad as they say, even if it manages to thaw by Saturday, it is likely that all the games in my league will be called off." Mason said, after they ordered their lunch.

"So, what do you generally do when there's no football?"

"Often, I just go find another game to watch, like the reserves, A or B team, as I pretty well know all the players," grinned Mason, "but this time around they'll all be postponed, so we could go visit your father, if he's free, and start working on your side of the April Fool."

"Do you think you are ready to face him so soon?"

"Well, we've been meeting up daily now for nine days. You have picked up most of my likes, dislikes and curious habits, plus pretty well all of my secrets, and I know much more about you than I did before."

"You're right, we're almost buddies. We seem to feel comfortable with each other, to the point where to strangers we look like a real genuine couple. Yes, if we are determined enough, I'm sure we could pull this off. Now, do we concentrate on how relatively poor your ambitions are—"

"—Compared to Gareth, you mean?"

"Well, he did go to the same type of school and university as my father did and is likely to have a well-paid job for life and will be groomed to take over the bank in time, he can provide opportunities for his children and he will inherit a fortune when his father goes."

"You mean, like you will?"

"Not quite, Daddy's shares in the company are obviously worth a lot, but I couldn't simply sell them, they are the basis for whatever family control of the business we still have, so I will only have them on trust until I can hand them onto the next generation." Lyndsey was defiant in the statement of her so-called fortune and had her eyes fixed on Mason's, who returned her challenging glare with eyes crinkled in amusement, "I do have some money of my own, in a trust fund, which I have never actually touched, or even have any idea what's in there." After a pause in which Mason merely nodded, she continued, "All right, Daddy paid all my tuition fees, he bought me my car and he pays my share of the flat rent, but other than that..." and she couldn't maintain eye contact with the laughing Mason, without laughing herself, "...I pay my way."

"Hey, I'm not criticising, if I had a rich father, then I wouldn't stand in his way over what he wants to pay for either. We both know how much he cares about you, that much is clear when he provides enough back-up to make sure you're safe. That concern about your protection is probably why he doesn't like Gareth."

"Why, do you think?"

"Because Gareth's bank may not be the ancient, trustworthy and robust mercantile bank that it pretends to be."

"And how would you know that?"

"Probably the same way your father did, by hacking into their files."

"You did that?" she gasped.

"Not personally, no. Like your father, I found someone to do that for me. Your father paid someone, or already employs someone to do it, while I just called in a favour from a mate from my military days who owed me one."

"So what did he find out?"

"She, actually, my pal, hacked into the bank's files for the latest financial reports, and the figures don't add up."

"In what way?"

"Their listed customers are like other small mercantile banks, partly out of the old school network, mostly family, family friends or friends from school or college. Most of the income is small beer, yet they maintain offices in the City of London and pay out inflated salaries to the directors and family members, plus buying their properties, cars, etc."

"Which means?"

"They either have a secret goldmine hidden away, or they have a second set of books showing who the real customers are, a set of accounts that's not accessible online."

"And these are bad guys?"

"Yeah, either money laundering for organised crime, prostitution, protection money, online gambling, rogue heads of states who want to deposit their bribes abroad, terrorist organisations ... there's a long potential list."

"So Gareth's boasting about his wealth is all hot air?"

"Oh, he has money, for now, but is it sustainable? He's highly paid, but he spends high, his flat was bought by the company, supposedly on a mortgage, but in the two years since he moved in he has not paid back a penny on the mortgage, but the deeds were mailed to him, according to the files. So it looks like a gift, a company perk, but not declared. So he is open to tax evasion on benefits paid, I make that a cool £112,500 in unpaid taxes from 2014/15, plus interest since. His cars were bought for him, but are still owned by the company, so I am not sure if he'll have much in way of assets after his lawyer had kept him out of gaol. I'm sure your father has all this info on Gareth."

"I am sure you're right. Perhaps that is why I couldn't trust him that far. He didn't seem real."

"So why do you want me to meet your father, if you are now feeling lukewarm about marrying Gareth?"

"Why, don't you want to meet my father?"

"Sure I do, he sounds like an interesting guy to meet. But how do you want me to play this if I no longer need to emphasize my inferiority to Gareth?"

"Just be yourself, Mason. He'll smell a rat otherwise."

"Mmm, OK." Mason agreed, "but I am still unsure of why you still want me to pitch a joke engagement on your father.

"I suppose I want him to accept that whoever I want to marry in the future will be my choice not his."

"OK, I guess I owe you that much at least, for all that you have managed for me."


Tuesday, Mason had to work on the next home football programme and have it ready for the printer Wednesday morning, just in case the weather warning was a false alarm.

By Wednesday lunchtime the forecast came into force with ice overnight and freezing rain so Mason confirmed with the league chairman that for safety's sake all matches were off on Saturday and Mason was able to stop the print run before it started.

"I was going to hold off until the end of the day anyway Mace," the printer said, "possibly even tomorrow morning, as the weather has already turned for the worse, so when's your next scheduled game?"

"Week after next."

"I'll keep a weather eye out for it. By the way, that other little job of downloaded files you wanted printing, I shipped it out this morning, a little post box miles from anywhere, completely untraceable."

"Thanks Graham, appreciate it."

"No problem, us BBs like to do the right thing, just keep your head down, buddy."

"Will do."

That Wednesday lunchtime was still cold and wet, and Lyndsey had to cry off their lunch appointment. Mason got a text from her early in the day to say that there had been several motorway crashes because of the ice overnight and they were expecting to operate for most of the day.
"Will call U pm," she texted.

By the early evening the first of the forecast heavy snow showers had fallen and settled, Lyndsey called Mason to say she was exhausted and was going straight home to the flat.

"Have you eaten?" he asked.

"No, we didn't get a chance all day, I'm really exhausted. I'll probably just open a can of soup and make do with that."

"I left a roast chicken on a low gas this morning and after work I took all the meat off and made a stock from the bones. I just happen to have turned that stock into a fresh batch of rich and tasty chicken and vegetable soup this afternoon. It's still hot, Lynds, want me to bring some round to your flat?"

"You're a lifesaver, Mason, Yes, that would be great."

"No, you're the lifesaver, I'm just a small and grateful part of your support system."

"You're brilliant. I'll be home in 15 minutes, I didn't bring the car because it was so icy out his morning, which is just as well. It normally only takes ten minutes to walk but it's blowing a blizzard out there."

"Well, hang on there at the hospital entrance and I'll come pick you up."

"Oh, OK. At least it's warm in here. I'll see you soon."

"I'll be ten minutes."

She didn't recognise the big four-wheel-drive SUV with huge tractor-sized tyres, that he pulled up in at the hospital entrance, Mason had to wind down the window and call to her. She climbed up inside.

"When did you get the new car?"

"It's not new, and it's not mine, I called in a favour from a friend who has a garage full of second hand cars just sitting there."

"You have a lot of really good friends, Mace."

"Yeah, and I like doing favours for them, so I do end up getting some benefits."

"Like bringing round hot soup? Mmm, I can smell it in here."

"Yes, it's in the boot, it's so roomy, I had to wedge it in the corner to stop it rolling about."

"Well, this car's perfect for this weather, it's coming down so thick that I'm sure it is going to settle. How long are you borrowing the car for?"

"As long as I need it, with the snow forecast, the matches on Saturday were called off today and so I am available all day Saturday if your father is free. And I can use this four-wheel drive to get down to the coast to see Maisie on Sunday, regardless of what the elements throw at us."

"I was going to tell you lunchtime, Mace, I called Daddy last night and he is home from Bahrain and will be home all Saturday, so we are invited over for mid-morning coffee, lunch and even an evening meal if we can stomach his company long enough. Actually, his cook Bettina is fabulous. I told him that our visit was dependent on the weather cancelling the football matches. He offered to send the limo over to pick us up, but now that you have this car, we can come and go under our own steam."

"Great, well ring him and confirm that we are coming. Are you still coming with me to see Maisie on Sunday? I've already told Leone that I'll pick her and Maisie up for swimming."

"I wouldn't miss it. So you managed to book an extra lesson?"

"No, I had to pay for the whole term from the New Year last week, that's how they price it up, term by term. I've spoken to the organiser and she confirmed that despite the weather she will still run the class."

"That's great, it'll be just what we need after Saturday's ordeal."

"Well, as the hotel room is booked for Saturday and Sunday, we could go straight down from your father's house, it's already partly on the way, unless you had anything planned for Saturday night?"

"No, nothing at all, so why not? I'll pack a bag and stay with you on Friday night. The leading paediatric consultant is talking about cancelling all the Friday operations because the forecast is for snow through to Friday, so there won't be any morning rounds on Saturday. He'll decide tomorrow, but I think the weather has already decided that for him already."

"Sounds good. OK, we're here at your place."

"Hope you've got enough for four, I think Jen and Ange won't want to go out at all tonight." She bit her lower lip as she asked, "and we never have any food in other than a few crackers."

"Good job I brought four part-baked rolls and rang Angela to get the oven on ready then, isn't it?"


Friday night Lyndsey stayed at Mason's house in his spare room. She brought a second case with her, unpacking a few of her own clothes and repacking the case with the clothes Leone had left there.

"It's pointless them staying here, Mace, your divorce is final and she doesn't live here anymore. Some of these are maternity dresses so the early ones will still fit her. Besides, if she still insists on accompanying us on Sunday visits, you never know, you two guys may may get back together again and—"

"—No way. Look, I get it that now we're friends you'd love to fix me up, but that particular train has left the station and there's no reverse gear."

"I'm just thinking of the best result for Maisie, and I know she'd love to see you every day."

"My future is here, in this town, not on the coast where I know no-one."

Chapter 8

Saturday morning Mason and Lyndsey were able to set out early. Although about four inches of snow had fallen on top of the two inches that fell on Wednesday night, it had first started to melt on Friday, then froze solid as the night came and the temperature fell. The SUV made light work of leaving the untreated housing estate road and down to the main road.

The baby seat was already installed and Mason had transferred all the usual baby paraphernalia from his old car. He also bought a pack of baby swim nappies in case Leone tried to sabotage their day out by failing to dress her properly. They packed slippers too, Lyndsey explaining that the Manor House floor was mostly stone or tile downstairs with loose rugs on top.

"Whatever happens today, Lynds, we're going to have a fantastic Sunday, and it's all thanks to you."

The lane from the village to the Manor House was tough going, as the wind had piled drifts across the left side of the road, and Lyndsey warned him of the hidden ditch between the hedge and the road. When the house came in view, beautifully snow covered, it was breathtaking, it looked perfect in its setting, with only the bright red helicopter just seen behind a screen of trees to spoil the view.

Mason stopped the car to get his camera out of the back, explaining, "A photographer always has his camera with him. I'm hoping to get some great ones of Maisie swimming tomorrow."

They made it safely to the gate, which swung open as they approached. Someone had cleared the snow enough to give the gate ground clearance. Lyndsey directed him where to park, "We always go in through the back way, via the boot room, then the kitchen."

Bettina was a large lady in her 50s, who greeted first Lyndsey with a squeeze, then gave Mason a squeeze, before shooing them out of the kitchen to go and see Sir Alan.

There was a roaring fire going in the main living room where Mason met Sir Alan. He got up out of an antique leather chair, wearing a formal suit and tie, to greet his daughter with a hug and kisses.

Sir Alan was almost as tall as Mason, but rather thin, with a shock of almost white hair and a grey moustache. He appeared sprightly and full of vigour for a man a year away from his three score years and ten.

"Well, young man," Sir Alan started, holding onto Mason's hand long after giving it a firm handshake, "I have been looking forward to meeting you for a over a week now, although my daughter has told me virtually nothing about you."

"I have been looking forward to meeting you too, Sir Alan," Mason replied with a relaxed smile, "although Lyndsey has mentioned you several times and I've met or seen from a distance a number of your employees, or should I call them informants?"

"Well, I do like to keep an eye on my daughter, she is special to me."

"Of course she is, I think she's special too."

"Special enough to accompany me to my study to ask me for her hand in marriage, young man?"

"Any man with a heartbeat, and possible even one without, would brave your inner sanctum to ask that question, but perhaps you'd like to know me better, other than through a written report, to see whether I measure up enough to your standards before we venture down those paths?"

"Come to my study now young man and we can have a frank and honest conversation."

Mason nodded his acquiescence.

Sir Alan turned to Lyndsey. "Mr Lyndsey and I are retiring to my study, honey. Could you ask Bettina to bring our coffee through whenever she's ready?"

Lyndsey looked at Mason, thinking 'Is this too soon? Can Mason survive her father's scrutiny, who has been negotiating with billionaires and heads of state almost all his life?' Mason nodded, as if he had read her thoughts, and smiled back at her. His apparent confidence gave her a lift. She turned confidently back to her father.

"I'll see if Bettina needs help with luncheon, then, Daddy."

"She's expecting you, dear, I am sure she will keep you busy until lunchtime."

With that, Sir Alan released Mason's hand, which had resisted ramping up the pressure he had opened with, and waved the younger man in the direction of a door leading deeper into the house, the opposite direction to that which Lyndsey headed towards without a backwards glance.

"I'm sure we won't be long, Lynds." Mason called.

"OK, see you later, Mace."

The corridor had a stone floor and Mason's carpet slippers hardly made a sound, while Sir Alan's leather soles slapped loudly against the ancient flagstones, worn smooth by the occupants and their guests over the last nine hundred years or so.

The house had been built to impress and make visitors humbled, but Mason's eyes were everywhere. He was interested in how the exposed beams connected, noticed the odd redundant joint where doorways or windows had been blocked up and this fascinating house had expanded over the centuries.

They walked silently side by side and, even when they reached the door that Sir Alan stopped at and held open, he merely waved his visitor inside with an arm gesture, before closing the door behind them.

Inside a roaring fire warmed the small room, with two vast armchairs close by and either side of the fireplace, with a bucket of seasoned logs next to the fire and a small low coffee table between the armchairs. Over the fire, in pride of place, Mason noticed that his painting of Rose Rent Cottage was hanging, the one he donated to Lyndsey's family charitable foundation.

"Sit in either chair, young man," Sir Alan said, "I have no particular favourite and subconsciously try to even out the wear between them."

"Thank you, Sir Alan, a very cosy and comfortable room."

"Yes, it is blessedly free of draughts, being a Grade I* listed building, we are not allowed to replace the Tudor windows with triple glazing."

"A beautiful building, as wondrous inside as out, so maybe there is a penalty for the privilege of living here."

"Yes, it is a privilege to live in this old house. But it takes a lot to keep it in fine condition and to continue to beautify it. I see your eye is taken by my latest painting. I was hoping to commission something similar to which depicts this house."

"Why not approach the artist of this painting?"

"Ahh, I bought it at a charity auction last week, it was donated anonymously. What do you think of it?"

"I think the hint of pink in the render goes well in this room, I like the treatment of the ivy, but the sky kinda sucks. I think the artist was a little rusty in that area."

"Possibly," Sir Alan peered more closely, "but not enough to put off a member of the Royal Academy, who chased me up to two thousand in bidding for it, and then rang me back later to find out who the artist is. I told him I didn't know, as I said, it was donated anonymously."

"Still, a man as resourceful as you, Sir Alan..."

"Oh, I think you can call me Alan. Is it all right for me to address you simply as Mason?"

"Yes, of course."

"Well, please take a seat and we can get down to brass tacks."

"Fair enough." Mason sat on the right side of the fireplace and Sir Alan took the other seat.

"So, what are your intentions towards my daughter, honourable I hope?"

"Of course. I wouldn't do anything to hurt her. She's a very lovely person, I know you are both very proud and very protective of her. She is a credit to you."

"Well, her mother started her off on the right track, and I think she has probably turned out well despite her father."

Mason smiled, "Actually, she talks about you with clear affection and is proud of who you are and your achievements. She is determined to ensure that the family retains a degree of interest in the company you've built up."

"I am not sure how she will do that, what with her career."

"She intends to marry and have children, but she wants to marry someone of her choosing, not yours, and that you happily accept her choice, without interference, when she feels free and able to make it."

"And that choice would be you, Mason?"

"No," Mason shook his head, "I think we are becoming good friends, even though we have only known each other for a short while. But regardless of who she chooses, you need to accept that her husband has to be her choice."

"So, you have been sent in so I can look at your career and prospects and weigh you up against someone like Gareth Belvedere?" Sir Alan leaned forward and raised his eyebrows.

"No, not Belvedere or even like him, but someone as classy as she is, then yes," Mason smiled and relaxed back in his chair, "I think we both know that Belvedere is completely out of the picture, now that Lyndsey's aware of his financial ... shall we say ... arrangements. I think you are equally aware and probably formed your opinion of him long ago. Lyndsey is now coming around to form a similar position to you. I don't think she ever seriously regarded him as marriage material, but was happy to allow him to believe differently for a while."

Sir Alan nodded, and relaxed back into his chair. "So, Mason, my boy, tell me about you, in your own words. The reports I have had of you and others tend to lack the means of fleshing out people, and I would like to take this opportunity to get to know you."

"I am not sure how much I need to say. You haven't bothered to ask how I know about Belvedere, for example."

"I know about Le Beret Bleu. I know you have resources at your fingertips that I have to pay people through the nose to find out information for me. So tell me about yourself."

Just then there was a knock on the door.

"Come!" called Sir Alan.

Bettina came in carrying a tray containing a pair of cups and saucers, a coffee pot, a jug of cream and bowl of sugar. Immediately behind Bettina stepped in Lyndsey, with a worried look on her face. Her eyes sought out Mason and saw him relaxed and smiling and instantly looked relieved. Then she looked at her father, just as Bettina put the tray onto a coffee table in front of the fire, and noticed that he too was sitting in a relaxed position, and flashed him a smile, which he returned. Bettina stood upright and turned to leave, taking Lyndsey's arm. Just as she was being turned, she exchanged a smile with Mason, and then they were gone.

"Lovely, isn't she, Mason?" Sir Alan asked.

"She is, Alan, very lovely," Mason agreed.

"We appear to be in concourse, my boy. So, now that we have an understanding, do tell me about yourself."

"Do you want me to tell you from the beginning, or work my way back from this point here?" Mason smiled.

"Why not in reverse? I am more interested in who you are now rather than your youth."

"OK. You know I was recently divorced?" Mason noted Sir Alan's nod, and continued. "I know I was naive. I started out simply doing a girl a favour but then made the mistake of getting too close and became involved, heavily involved. I fell in love, which didn't last long, and now we have a child who suffers from being in the middle of a broken family."

"I know broken families. It happened to me too, but I lost control of mine. You seem to be keeping yourself together."

"I have to, there's a baby girl involved."

"Yes, baby girls have a way of getting under your skin."

They both laughed.

"Yeah, she's the biggest thing in my life at the moment, and Lynds has been simply brilliant, making such a difference to my access to Maisie. And I think my daughter and Lyndsey love each other already."

"And what about your career, why the Post Office?"

"You probably know I spent time in Switzerland, getting my head straight. It was a frustrating time, especially finding out I was on the list of people the Army were letting go. I've no realistic career path, except being a mercenary, which would be a desperate occupation after what I had experienced and relied on, with worse conditions, poorer weapons, uncertain leadership and support to the standard soldiers with my experience are accustomed to. The mercenary business is basically a long drawn out attempted suicide with reducing returns and even less satisfaction in a job well done. Being a postman keeps me active and on the move, and every day I get satisfaction in completing each round. I don't intend doing it for the rest of my life, but it'll do for now."

"And your painting? Bearing in mind that a slippery Royal Academy man wants to exploit you, means that you are probably well qualified to get RA membership yourself and the price tags that go with it."

"So, the guy from the RA is a slime ball?"

"Yes, he was actually a trustee of my charity at one time. I am sure he was invited on when I was more involved with business than the Foundation. My wife certainly didn't trust him and I think he was made to feel uncomfortable in the role, to encourage him to look elsewhere. He was once an artist, John St John Parminter, now an art dealer and high ranking operator in the RA, but he is generally looking out for his own benefit as agent and dealer."

"Painting is my hobby, Alan, like my football activities. I do it for relaxation and if I made either activity my main job, what would I do for relaxation?"

"Raise babies into fine young men and women, maybe?"

"Sounds like harder work than work!"

"But rewarding."

"Yes, but with a broken family..."

"Families can be mended."

"This one is finished, Alan. There are only the pieces to pick up and I must do everything I can to protect Maisie from the fallout. Lyndsey thinks that Leone has changed her mind and wants to mend bridges between us, but I think she is still looking for that meal ticket, and that I will not be that for her."

"Quite right, Leone is a selfish bitch who notices that first my daughter and then I have some interest in you, and she sees you increase in worth, while she is increasing looking like bargain basement."

"Exactly the conclusion Lynds came to."

"Her mother and I didn't raise a dummy, Mason," he chuckled.

"No sir, you sure didn't."

"So, after your 18 years in the military, home and abroad, in and out of the strictly legal, do you miss it?"

"No, not really. At first I resented the way it ended for a couple of months but the Army is shrinking and we had too many soldiers at the two top ends, too many red tops among the officers and too many NCOs among the troops. To make room for fresh blood, some of us at our respective top ends had to go. I was angry but accepted it. But what can a guy trained to take no prisoners do in civvy street?"

"Take no prisoners in the business world, maybe?"

"So, you think I could work in an office?"

"Not just an office. All right, there is some sit down stuff, research, reading up the enemy, working out scenarios, tactics, a safe withdrawal if it all goes pear-shaped. But then, with that work behind you, you fly in, do the deal, burn the opposition and carry off the prize. It's what you've been trained for, it's at the very core of what you have always done. All you need is some more training in how business works and experience working as part of a team of bankers, contract lawyers, personnel experts in worldwide employment laws, and you'd be the one to lead the going in and the getting out if it looks sticky, or press on to the victory."
"Are you offering me a job, Alan, and not just painting this house?"

"Do you think you could work with me, Mason?"

"I'd have to think about it."

"Of course. The ball is in your court. I would like you on board but you determine your future my boy. Now, as we are working back through your story, tell me about your family. We'll start with your sister Caroline, because she's a walking disaster, isn't she?"

"She is a submissive by nature. She's bright but wants love and needs protection, but turns away from Mum and Dad, who haven't really helped by their happy-go-lucky attitude, but even when she turns to me she rarely follows my advice, but since I have been around more I can see how our parents have become increasingly impatient with her."

"She's being used by her friend Josh and Gareth."

"Yeah, I warned her about Gareth, but she never listens. If he or that rat Josh ever hurt her, well, they will rue the day."

'Yes, let's hope she comes through this undamaged, poor girl." Sir Alan leaned forward, "Coffee?"

"Please, just black no sugar."


"No, I'll wait for lunch, Lynds tells me that a meal by Bettina is a treat."

"It is."

Sir Alan poured two cups, handed one with a saucer to Mason, who stretched across to accept it, then he poured cream and one sugar cube in his own cup and leaned back, stirring his cup. He sipped his coffee and looked up at Mason.

"So, your stepfather is 'Dad' to you, is he?"

"Yes, he earned it. I was a bit of a monster when he moved in, a young man of 20, I was 8 and considered myself the main man in the family. I wanted to protect my Mum from him and yet he was making inroads with her and I did everything I could to sabotage him, but to no avail. I was so desperate that, after hearing at school about bogeymen who touch young boys are supposed to bring out the protective anger in mothers, I accused Alan of touching me inappropriately."

"And that was a lie that didn't bring the result you thought?"

"Nowhere near. I had miscalculated. My Mum, an older woman, had fallen in love with Alan, who was this scrawny kid, and he had fallen in love with her. They were both on the same wavelength and I was the one who was out of the loop. I, I was so blinded by my own insecurities, so intent on getting rid of this unwanted interloper, that I hadn't seen that he had already become a part of the family, my family. I was no longer at the centre of Mum's universe. I made my Mum angry all right, but she was angry and disappointed in me, for lying, for trying to break up my Mum's new family. I was the bogeyman to her."

Mason wiped a tear from his eye.

"So how did Alan react to your accusation, with anger or pain?"

"Ha!" Mason tried to smile, thinking about his stepfather with affection, but remembering his embarrassment and the anguish of his mother, the pain of that memory brought more tears to his eyes, ones he couldn't stop even though he wanted to. He put the coffee cup down, that was now rattling in the saucer.

"No, not at all. I think he was disappointed that I could consider upsetting my Mum so much just to get rid of him. He calmly told Mum to go to the kitchen and put the cocoa on for some comfort drinks all round. Then he sat next to me where I wallowed in my misery. He took both my shaking hands, which were wet with my tears. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. He asked me if I loved my Mum and I nodded, I couldn't actually speak. He asked me if I thought my Mum loved me. I shook my head because, at that moment, even I hated myself. 'She loves you, Mace, you are the most important person in her life, you are now and you always will be.' 'I know,' I said. 'Well,' he said, 'she loves me a little too, and I love her a lot, honestly as much as you do, and I love her for the same reasons you do, because she's passionate, funny, and has an infinite amount of love for her family. I am family now, Mace, and soon you are going to have a brother or sister, actually in less than six months.' 'You are?' I asked. 'Yes, we both thought you were too young and too angry to tell yet, it's the sort of news that only the adults in this family can share between them. You used to be the man of this family, Mace, and you did the job well for a long time, but now you need to be the older brother of a baby to come instead, and I am going to have to do your old job as the man of the family for the rest of my life. Understand, Mace?' 'Yes, I understand, Dad,' I said. And we both cried and hugged each other, so when Mum came in with the cocoas, we all hugged and cried together. I never knew my biological father, he lit out before I was born, so he was never my dad. Alan's my real Dad, I love him and, it has just occurred to me that in all these years that we have been father and son, I have never actually told him as much."

"Calling him 'Dad' is enough, son. More than enough for Alan, I think." Sir Alan said. "You know, I loved my wife so much, that I lied to myself about her. I was jealous and threw her away and, short of putting a gun to her head, I killed her. I wasn't able to say 'I love you' before she died, and now I miss her every day."

"Hey, Alan, a hug works for me, how about you?"

Sir Alan put his coffee cup down, and rose. Mason was up and hugging him. Both were crying and slapping each other on the back.

Just then, the door opened silently and Lyndsey, impatient to find out what was going on between her father and Mason, had sneaked away from the kitchen with the pretext of collecting the coffee things. She was open-mouthed at seeing the two men, openly sobbing and comforting each other like they were family. Unsummoned tears welled up in her own eyes as she absorbed the emotion-charged atmosphere.

Sir Alan lifted an index finger from the hand rubbing Mason's back and wagged it back and forth, meaning 'No, do not interfere.'

Lyndsey nodded and left the room, carefully closing the door quietly behind her. Her mind was in turmoil, full of emotion. In the room behind her, she realised, were the two men she loved in all the world. One her father, who she had loved all her life, even the death of her mother hadn't affected her love for him. The other was a man she'd known only a week or so, but at every meeting her initial attraction had just taken her deeper and deeper into evaluating him as the one man who could fulfil all her aspirations in a man. Yes, she loved him and she couldn't share that news with her father, he probably knew already.

She needed to talk to her Mum.

She ran almost silently down the corridor, the tears streaming down her face, the only sound being her slippers slapping on her soles as she hurried towards the only place where her troubled mind might find peace. As she burst into the hot kitchen, clearly in distress, she held her hand up to Bettina to fend off any enquiries. Then she ran through into the boot room, pulled on her boots and shrugged into her coat. Still with her coat unbuttoned, she burst out of the boot room into the outside and marched off around the snow-covered gravel path to the formal garden out the back. Towards the back of the garden, cross-crossed with paths enclosing triangular lawns and shrub beds, she unerringly made her way to the far terrace, where a breathtaking view over a valley, covered in snow, one corner of which was illuminated by a crack in the clouds enabling a watery winter sun to peep through and reflect off the gleaming ice.

"What am I going to do, Mum?" she implored to the elements.

"This was supposed to be just an April Fool, a joke, to shake off my father's disapproval of all my boyfriends, but it's not funny any more, Mum, it hurts. Love hurts. Just like love hurt you to death, I hurt inside. I love a man that my father could never approve off, yet there they were embracing and crying together like old friends, like family, over I know not what."

She shuddered with the cold and started to do her buttons up one by one.

"What am I going to do, Mum?" She yelled out to the deserted wilderness. "I love him, but does he love me? Could he possibly love me, a poor little rich girl?"

She waited for an answer, but nothing came, just the wind ,,, and the sound of Daddy's chopper starting and the engine warming up. She frowned. The pilot was Bettina's husband, was she sending him to fetch something she had forgotten for the meal? No, Daddy was adamant that the chopper was not a tool to use frivolously, but for necessity. It was never normally left here, but was clearly used to get home through the snow and will be used o get to the office on Monday.

"Hey, Lynds, you cold?" Mason stood behind her, as she turned, he held out his arms and she fell into them. She put her arms around his waist.

"You're not wearing a coat, Mace."

"I don't feel the cold, Lynds, I told you that just five minutes after we met."

She laughed and squeezed him harder. They have hugged and kissed before, at every meeting and parting, but this didn't feel quite right. He seemed shorter than usual.

"Are you still wearing your slippers, Mace?"

"Yeah, I didn't want to waste a second finding you."

"Are your feet cold?"

"Bloody freezing."

"Idiot!" she laughed, "let's get back indoors."

"All in good time. I need to do something first."

"What's that?"

"I just asked your father for your hand in marriage, Lynds."

"Oh. What did he say?"

"You have my blessing, son, go get her."

"Oh, so what are you going to do?"


Mason got down on one knee, which sank four or five inches into the freezing snow. He barely noticed.

"Lyndsey Alice Mason, I know we barely know each other but I do know this, and of this I am certain. I declare my love for you and want to share the rest of my days and nights with you. Will you consent to be my partner for life and marry me?"

"Yes, darling, get up out of that snow and hold me. I will marry you." She took her mother's ring out of her shirt, hanging on a thin gold chain. With fingers suddenly warm and calm, she undid the fiddly catch first time and pressed the released ring into Mason's hand.

"I freely give you my mother's ring, Mason, my most treasured item in my life up to now. I want you to put it on my finger. I believe, in the peace which has descended on me, that Mummy approves of my choice, that I will marry the man I love."

Mason slipped the ring onto her finger and and pulled Lyndsey to him and pressed his lips against hers. Together they kissed, not their innocent lip kisses that they had practised up to now, but with passion, melting into each other, both oblivious of the cold. Until they heard the helicopter take off.

"Where's Daddy going?"

"Dad's going to fetch my Mum and Dad. I left him my phone to ring them and he will pick them up in the Manor Park. Nora lives nearest the football ground, which is the safest place to land, and she has keys to the ground for when the alarms go off; her number is on my phone, too. Mum and Dad are being invited to join us for lunch to discuss the wedding. While her husband is piloting the helicopter, Bettina is somehow working her miracles and coming up with enough food for the five of us to celebrate our engagement."

"So, 'Dad' now, is it?" she smiled.

"That's what he asked me to call him. He called me 'son'. He even offered me a job."

"To paint this house?"

"Yes, he did actually mention that."

"Well, it will be our house one day. So this makes us one big happy family, right?"

"Are you happy right now, Lynds?"

"As happy as I have ever been, Mace. Let's get inside before we freeze, though. Hey, how'd you know where I was?"

"Dad said that this place was where you went to talk to your mother whenever you needed to speak to her. You've come here from time to time ever since you were twelve. He doesn't always have to use outside contractors to know what's going on, when it's something or someone he cares about. Besides, I followed your tracks, the paths in that garden look complicated!"


When Sunday dawned, Mason was first of the pair to wake up. He looked at the angel still sleeping in his embrace. His fiancée, for real. It just didn't seem possible to be true, but here she was. Lying there, wearing her mother's ring, she was squeezed into his single bed at the hotel on the coast, resting her lovely head on his chest. Soon they would have to get up as it was going to be a busy day.

Firstly, they had to fetch Maisie, and take her for her first swimming lesson. He smiled at the thought of helping his daughter learn to swim, taking another little step in her learning and developing progress. Her progress would be watched from the viewing gallery by her proud grandparents. He couldn't wait to see her smile as she swims for the first time, and finds out she had a second Mum and an enlarged family to dote on her.

He smiled as he recalled yesterday, his proposal and acceptance by the woman by his side, the warm welcome by Sir Alan, a second 'Dad' for him too, the acceptance of a job learning the business of running an international company from the bottom up, and it was a pleasure seeing how well the two Alans got on and how Mum became a second 'Mum' to his future bride.

And who would guess that his youngest and most attractive Aunt, Maria, widowed five years ago would be over ready to lunch with his parents when the call from Sir Alan came through about the helicopter coming to fetch them? Or that, even as beautiful as any dark-eyed and passionate Italian woman could expect to be in her late 50s, that she would make such a big impression on Sir Alan?

Lyndsey's breathing changed. He looked down. Her eyes were open and she was looking up at him with adoring eyes, eyes that he hoped to see with the same look every day for the rest of his life.

"Hi sweetheart," she said huskily, "is it time to get up yet?"

"Almost, Lynds, we've got a hell of a day ahead of us, so just rest a few more minutes."

She sighed and closed her eyes. "Wake me up in a few minutes then, thank you, darling."

"I will, hon, I will."


"What's all this in aid of?" Gareth exploded as he read the letter from the Inland Revenue informing him that his bank account and credit cards were frozen while they investigate accusations of deliberate tax avoidance on his part, backed up by damning evidence.

Almost immediately he got a call on his mobile. He saw who was calling and rolled his eyes skyward before answering.

"Yes, Pops, I know I'm going to be late into work this morning. After all, it is Monday and I did have a bit of a 'sesh' over the weekend with my mates, just to remind myself that I still had a life outside the boring banking business. Got to make the most of it while I'm still a single young man."

"Well, looks like you're going to remain single for the foreseeable future, boy, but I am not ringing you about that. What's all this crap from Jennings at the bank saying that the Inland Revenue are sniffing around your mortgage deal with the bank? He tells me he's in receipt of a court order to freeze all your accounts. Who have you pissed off now? It better not be Sir Alan, we had hoped to be getting a lot more of his business in future, but I suppose we could still try."

"Not had any recent dealings with Sir Alan, but I still irons in that fire. As for pissing somebody off, yes I have, but nobody of any consequence, just this bird who got upset at a party at my place Saturday night, nothing I can't patch up once she calms down. But this accounts freezing pisses me off, I've just opened a letter from the tax johnnies telling me my accounts are frozen. So Jennings says it's something to do with my mortgage? I didn't think I had any mortgage."

"Yes, Gareth, you have a mortgage with the bank, to buy your house, after your house was bought by the bank. We are supposed to be selling it back to you. We do that to turn cash into property, an asset, that the bank gives to you; we then open an internal mortgage account into which the bank transfers money over, say five years, from our surplus cash income, so it looks like the mortgage is being paid off by you in cash. We do this for houses, office blocks, hotels, hell, we do it for buildings we don't even own, just so the cash appears to be coming in to pay off old mortgages with interest, allowing us to buy new assets, to do the same thing all over again with. You did something to break the cycle, my boy. Jennings says you demanded your deeds and some fool in Property Services sent you the bloody thing! Where have you put it?"

"In my safe deposit box."

"Next to the South African diamonds you are not supposed to have, I suppose, you idiot! That deposit box account's frozen too. The bank'll have to make out to the Inland Revenue that sending you the house deeds was a human error mistake at our end, sack someone in Property Services, and send you a letter demanding the return of the deeds. I'll get Jennings to create a new account with records of you paying the mortgage in the name of something like 'Garett Belvedere' and make out that this account was not notified to the Inland Revenue because of another minor clerical error. So, wake your ideas up boy, and make sure there are no loose ends. Oh, and look up the personal announcements in today's Times, while you are at it."

"Yes, Pops." He ended the call, muttering, "I bet it's that bitch Caroline, if so I'll bloody well get her for this!"

He picked up the times and soon found what his father was referring to in the Engagements announcements:

"Sir Alan Clifford Mallory Mason is delighted to announce the engagement of his wonderful daughter Dr Lyndsey Alice Mason to Mr Mason Wayne Lyndsey this Saturday just past. Lots of love to them both from Sir Alan, Mrs Sofia Maria Lyndsey and Mr Alan Patrick Burns, the parents of the happy couple."

"Bugger!" Gareth shouted, throwing his phone at the kitchen wall, but missing by a yard and seeing it crash through his triple-glazed window. "I'll fuckin' kill them both for this, that Mason and his meddlesome sister. It was all that silly bitch's idea sold to me by that idiot Josh. I'll fuckin' kill all three of 'em!"

Chapter 9

30th March, somewhere hot, very hot.

When Gareth Belvedere came to, he couldn't even imagine where he was. Lisbon wasn't anywhere near this hot yesterday, where the cruise was docking for two days before heading home to Blighty. It was pleasant spring weather, half a dozen degrees better than London, not so bloody hot that the mercury in the thermometer was bubbling. Nor did he remember being strapped face down to a table and in a mainly darkened room, well not since he was a fag at public school, anyway.

There were just a few shafts of light coming through holes in the damaged ceiling overhead to partly illuminate the dingy basement where he appeared to be.

"What's going on?" he yelled to no-one in particular, his voice dry and croaky from whatever Mickey Finn he must've taken in that final Lisbon bar.

"Ah, you're awake. Good." The man speaking stepped out of the dark into one of the shafts of light.

"Mason? Mason Lyndsey, that you?"

"Yeah, it's me."

"Look, about your sister, I didn't mean to slap her about, but it was your own bloody fault. It was all supposed to be an April Fool joke thought up by that idiot Josh and your slu— er your sister. You were just supposed to soften up Lyndsey's old man so he would be glad to have me as a son-in-law, not for you to end up marrying the silly bitch."

"Hey, that's my fiancée you are insulting, and that lovely person will be my wife in two days' time. You be careful what you say about her."

"OK. She's a very pretty girl and she's worth a fortune, what's not to like about her?" Gareth wheedled. "Do you know where we are? It doesn't feel like Lisbon. Far too hot for a start, although you look as cool as a cucumber."
"I don't really feel the heat. No, you're right, this is definitely not Lisbon. You are in the desert somewhere in that indeterminable area between Algeria, Mali, Libya and Niger. You are some 200 miles from any other town in any direction you choose to walk. This settlement is rather temporary as there are mining corporations who are sounding this area out for any traces of underground oil, gas, water or minerals worth mining. The drilling rig crews and mining gangs are tough, primitive men who need to spent some of their mining dollars satisfying their cravings, and I don't mean alcohol, that's strictly not available anywhere around here."

"So where exactly am I, and why am I strapped to a table?"

"Funnily enough, I found out about this place while operating in this general area looking for terrorists. It seems that even jihadis have sexual appetites and some extend that desire to preferring men to women. This is one of those establishments that provide men to pleasure other men."

"What the —! So why am I tied down like this?"

"The owners are grateful to have supplies of fresh meat from time to time and past experience tells them that subdued first timers take it better when they can't actively participate and realise that they cannot escape the attentions they are about to receive. And, some clients like to pay substantially extra for virgin arse. Don't worry, Gareth, although you're soon to be a sex slave, with little option but do what you're told, you will get paid, well, sort of. I'm told you will on average serve between 7 to 10 clients a day, usually close together over say a 4 or 5 hour session, and you will be paid the equivalent of about 4 cents a client, that's up to 40 cents a day, say 3 dollars a week with tips, an annual salary of 150 dollars. However you do have to pay for food, water and rent out of that income."

"You bastard!" Gareth tried to struggle to get free, but to no avail. "How'd you manage this, Mason, you're just a postman."

"That must be why I managed to parcel you up so effectively, then. Actually, I have friends, ones who care for each other and suddenly even more grateful when I found access to resources that has opened up enormous possibilities for them."

"I suppose it was you who put the Inland Revenue onto me, and you must have supplied the tickets supposedly won in an England Rugby raffle draw, to get me and Josh out of England so you could kidnap me?"

"Yes, I admit guilty as charged. You fell for the lottery ticket easily enough, but then I suppose you buy raffle tickets at rugby clubs all the time?" Mason noticed Gareth nod slightly, "Odd that you didn't find it suspicious that Josh won a trip on the same cruise, or that four of your teammates coincidentally won the lesser prizes of a weekend skiing in Aviemore?"

"No, I didn't really connect the dots."

"Oh well, I think your rugby team may be relegated this year, with your mysterious disappearance and four players with broken limbs from skiiing accidents."

"Look, you didn't have to do this."

"I did. I swore to always look out for Caroline. You shouldn't have hurt my sister."

"I'm sorry, OK?" he snarled, "So can we stop this April Fool joke now?"

"Oh, it's no joke. Just a couple of tips for you. If you get any tips from clients, declare them immediately as you have to split them 50/50 with your boss. Don't drink the water, in ice or on salads, in fact don't touch anything uncooked, eat only hot food. Drink bottled water, but it's going to be expensive, so just buy a couple of bottles on credit today and, when you've finished drinking, use the empty bottles to piss in. You can drink your own piss, it is generally safe, it has slightly antiseptic qualities and will keep for a couple of days. Buy a bottle of water every few days, you will be able to afford it and still have a few cents to save. Once you've got a grub stack, say a hundred dollars, you might be able to persuade one of the drilling men or truck drivers to give you a lift to the nearest town. I reckon you should make enough in a couple of years, just pay your dues, share your tips and work on what pleases the clients and you'll be all right."

"What about Josh? He beat Caroline just as much as I did. He shouldn't get away scot free."

"He's not, he's at the other male knocking shop at the other end of Main Street. Actually as this is the only street in town, I guess it should just be called Street. If I left you both at the same man-whore house, then there would have been war between them. This way everyone's even."

"So, if I am going to be stuck in here for two years, once I get out of here I'll be coming after you."

"No you won't. Without any money from the bank, you'll be too busy working your butt off keeping your head above water while the Inland Revenue and Banking watchdogs hunt you down. Your old man and older brother are being charged with fraud and there's an arrest warrant for tax evasion out for you. It will only get worse once the money laundering evidence is passed to the authorities. You'll be convicted in absentia, so even if you make it to the nearest British Consulate in Timbuctoo, they'll discover you owe the Inland Revenue back taxes adding up to six figures before interest and they'll have you on the next plane to Heathrow before you can change your underpants."

"But my bank—"

"It's not your bank any more, it's mine, or it was mine yesterday. That's where I have been while you've been on your little Mediterranean cruise for the last six days, negotiating to take over your bank before it collapses in the scandal. Even better, while you were being kidnapped by some friends of mine in Lisbon, I was in an all-nighter negotiation with your Uncle Henry, a couple of lawyers and other representatives from the bank and my team loaned to me by Sir Alan. You've lost the house, your credit cards, all your privileges and your job."

"What are going to do with the bank?"

"Clean up its act, pass on any evidence we have of money laundering to the agencies concerned and see to it that the bank and its considerable legally-held assets are used to finance projects around the world. In fact I have sold it for exactly what Sir Alan bankrolled me for plus a dollar, to a consortium of which I am also a member. The good news is that Belvedere Bank will still retain its initials, as it's now BB Bank Limited."

"You bastard!"

"Well, I must go, my new Dad has put his jet at my disposal for a job well done, but I really must get back soon, Lyndsey and I are going to the opera tonight, as it is high time I broadened my horizons. Goodbye Gareth, have a nice life."

His phone buzzed.

As Mason reached into his pocket for the instrument, Gareth asked, "How the hell do mobile phones work all the way out here in the middle of nowhere?"

"Ah, they only work if you have a communications drone hovering above you, Gareth. Even in the best laid special operations, some military equipment goes missing or gets reassigned."

He looked at his phone screen and started laughing, wiping a tear from one eye.

"What's so funny?"

"My Mum and Dad, they are so hilarious. I am sure this will cheer up Caroline no end."

He turned the phone round for Gareth to see the image sent.

"Those bald guys, they are your parents?"

"Yeah, they'll never fool anyone with those latex wigs but hey, you just gotta love them for trying. Now, for the last time, goodbye."

He closed the phone, stepped out of the light and was gone, as quietly as he came.


"Damn, I'm late, I'm late!" She banged on the steering as she tried to find a parking space. The kerb around the tiny green in from of the ancient church was fully parked with cars, bumper to bumper, nobody wanted to miss this wedding.

Caroline managed to find a parking spot a long way down the narrow Church Lane and it was on the wrong side of the road. She had to climb over onto the passenger side to get out, the steep camber of the lane making it difficult to throw the door open and get out before the door closed again on her. She had noticed the distant car coming up the lane and tried to time her exit without inconveniencing the car or risking getting squashed.

The girls at the hairdressers had kept her there for an hour longer than the time she had booked for completing her appointment. They decided that they wanted the press to come and take photos. In the end she had to make her escape through the fire escape by the loos and was forced to do her own make up in the car using just the rear view mirror.

"Bloody men!" she muttered, "never one around when you need one, so I've had to drive myself here. If Josh or Gareth had answered their bloody mobile messages, one or both could have dropped me off at the church. But no, the buggers seem to have completely disappeared on me, the bastards!"

She started to stride quickly up the steep hill towards the church, but the tightness of her dress across her thighs didn't help much in this task, nor the extremely high heels she had elected to wear to show off her freshly waxed calves. Although the sun was high in the cloudless sky and shining brightly, and it was finally the first of April and Spring was with us at long last. All right, she thought, the north wind howling up that lane was still full of winter vigour, chilling the sun's warmth and then some, but it was still the perfect day for a wedding, one she had not possibly envisaged a few weeks earlier'

Caroline felt that cold wind acutely about her bare ears, creeping under the wedding hat that had a wide and, hopefully, she thought, concealing brim, but it still made her ears numb with cold. Another reason for Caroline to curse, this time targeting her mother and her bloody annual shenanigans.

A car horn sounded loudly behind her, so she moved to one side as the white ribboned and highly polished limousine edged past her in the tight lane, with cars parked nose to boot on both sides of the road. Recognising Lyndsey and her father Sir Alan, Caroline briefly raised a hand in a wave, before the car passed at a stately pace and Caroline wobbled rather less serenely up the hill behind it.

Two minutes later she reached the church entrance, just as the bride emerged gracefully from the car, helped by her proud and dutiful father. She was beautiful. Caroline glanced at the tiny watch on her wrist, almost bringing it to the tip of her nose to read it.

"Three minutes to 12," she muttered, "that girl is so keen to marry my brother that she has absolutely no concept of being fashionably late!"

As she clattered on her heels up the long stone-flagged aisle of the ancient church, she felt every eye was turned and focused upon her, arriving so late that even the ushers had already taken their seats after one of their number must've informed the groom of his lovely bride-to-be's arrival outside the church.

'No repeat of history for him,' Caroline thought, although she was only about 12 when her half-brother was left waiting at the altar by that bitch Marilyn who had damaged his heart so severely that Caroline had once thought it beyond repair.

'There he is again, waiting patiently, smiling at the altar, just like before, but this is nothing like before. Wait! He still has a full head of hair! Damn! Well that's his lookout, being the odd one out in the family!'

They smiled at each other in greeting as usual, with Mason's smile being even huger than usual, but that was only to be expected on the day he gets himself married to the Honorable Miss Lyndsey Alice Mason.

Caroline had to admit she liked Lyndsey, liked her a lot, but how dare she spoil the April Fool joke by insisting on taking her husband's surname upon marriage and reverting to her middle name, her mother's first name, so she would henceforth be known as Dr Alice Lyndsey. Where was the April Fool joke in that?

She reached the end of the front pew on the groom's side of the aisle and looked past her aunts, the happily married restauranter Aunt Anna and the glamorously svelte widow Aunt Maria, and saw her father and mother, both sitting there in their finest, and both had beaming smiles on their faces and, unlike the email photo attachments she had received of her bald parents, both were wearing full bloody heads of hair!

"Bugger!" Caroline exclaimed to all and to nobody in particular, as she stood in the aisle with her hands on her hips.

Her smiling mother initially put her hand up to her smiling lips when her eyes met her daughters but then, just as the organist was preparing to play the Wedding March, she joined in the rest of the congregation's chorus:

"April Fool!"

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