EVEN FROM a distance, Marcus could tell Tina had a hangover. Few women he knew lurched. All in black with a scarlet-tinted fringe of wild black hair poking out from beneath a charcoal woolen hat, she resembled a pallbearer rather than a business partner. Three weeks before, on their flight back from JFK, for this trip they had arranged for him to park the car at her apartment block before walking the short distance to the mainline station. He’d have been happy to drive, but Tina was not a good passenger and regularly suffered from travel sickness. On top of that, she had cautioned him about Sunday, about her birthday and her hunch that Mel had planned something special—which would entail copious amounts of alcohol. Marcus smiled. On the positive side, Tina plus hangover equaled no-nonsense negotiations. Straight to the point. No conjecture, no pleasantries or procrastination—no bullshit. Plenty of coffee and aspirin. And the asshole landlord in Birmingham whose property they were in negotiations to rent, to open the first of his restaurants in the Midlands, needed some tough talk. Prime location aside, they would need to spend at least another hundred and fifty thousand to bring the place up to code.
“Before you even think about lecturing me, I need fast-food ballast,” she croaked in confirmation, not even slowing as she caught up with him. “The stodgier and greasier, the better. And lots of it. And nuclear-strength coffee. Triple shot espresso bare-bones minimum.”
“Do we have time?” he asked.
“There’s a 9:20 fast train to Victoria. Delays aside, we’ll be in Birmingham before midday. Plenty of time.”
“All for a one-hour meeting. We should have done this by video con.”
“You know that’s not an option. I need to see the whites of this dickhead’s eyes before I nail the bastard to the table. But I need bulk and a train nap before I do battle.”
Marcus chuckled. “Then lead the way.”
Since Raine’s death, Tina had, by default, become his go-to female friend for matters of the heart. Marcus had grown up with Raine, and her guidance had been gentle, measured, and above all, feminine. Tina’s business advice was usually brutally sound, and using the same approach for emotional counsel, especially with her short-fuse patience, rarely left him entirely satisfied.
So rather than engage Tina in any meaningful conversation, Marcus strode alongside in respectful silence. When they reached the garishly decorated fast-food outlet and Marcus pushed the door inward, he was met with a wall of noise. “What the hell…?”
“Oh shit, yes,” said Tina, next to him. “Local teachers in the borough are on strike over school funding, something organized by the teacher’s union. A couple of schools have had to close their doors for the day. Poor parents have to keep their little cherubs occupied somehow. So what else are you going to do with them? Don’t worry, I’ll get takeout. You wait here.”
As he stood there amid the squealing, swirling cattle roundup of youngsters, one of them broke from the pack and collided with his leg. When he peered down, a powder-pink-tutu-clad girl with familiar wild brown hair stared up at him, full of a wide-eyed innocence that only kids could pull off. As he hiked in a breath, a pang of sadness crept over him, and he realized how much she resembled her late mother: the cuteness when she leaned her head to one side to produce a smile that could stop traffic, the absent way she placed a tiny finger across her lips. It dawned on him how much he missed his goddaughters.
“Uncle Marc, Uncle Marc,” called Charlotte, holding her hands up to him as though she had fully expected him to be there. “Look at me. I’m a princess today.”
“Hello, Charlie,” said Marcus, putting his case on the floor and lifting Charlotte into the crest of his right arm. She had grown a little in the intervening months but was still manageable. “To me you’re a princess every day.”
“Not yesterday. Yesterday I was girl pirate. Because it was Ranjit’s birthday party and he got to choose. I had a big brown hat with three corners,” she said, pointing to her head. “And a white feather. But we had to lose and get taken prisoner because Ranjit said pirates always lose and get taken prisoner. They wanted to tie us up together round the tree in Ranjit’s garden, but his mummy said it was too cold, and they didn’t have any rope anyway. Stupid soldiers.”
“If I’d been there, nobody would have tried to tie my little princess up.”
“Where have you been, Uncle Marc?”
Out of the mouths of babes. Trust the little one to make him feel instantly guilty. Marcus scanned the restaurant to find who had brought his goddaughter with them.
“Uncle Marc has been really busy, princess. Who are you here with? Grandma?”
“No. Daddy and Katie,” she said, wriggling out of his grasp and, once back on the ground, grabbing his hand. “Come say hello.”
Marcus felt the ice-cold sting of angst in his stomach. At the funeral, Tom had asked for a time-out, time to be left alone to get the family back on their feet. And Marcus had agreed—what else could he do?—and had waited for a call from Tom to say that things had settled. A call that never came. Marcus interpreted the silence to mean they didn’t need him.
Then again, seeing Charlotte had lifted his spirits. And realistically, the funeral had been just over a year ago. Absently, he wondered how they’d all coped over Christmas, the first without Raine. He’d sent presents but had heard nothing in return. Maybe Tom would be more at peace this time. At least they were in a public place and he had Tina in his corner. What harm could it do to pop over and say hello? Before he knew what was happening, Charlie had dragged him to a small booth at the corner of the restaurant.
Katie looked well enough except for her outfit: a mini jean jacket over a red frilly top with the seams on the outside—put on back to front—and bright green leggings. Raine would have been horrified, but apparently Tom let the girls wear whatever they wanted. Ketchup blotches on her hand, she had been in the process of eating a french fry when she looked up and caught sight of Marcus. Another thing Raine had forbidden: fast food. Even though he could not make out the flyby of emotions that crossed seven-year-old Katie’s face, somewhere in there was relief. And then, when her gaze flicked to the man on her left, he saw why.
Tom sat at the table, hunched forward. Had they been on the street, Marcus might well have walked past without recognizing him. Unshaven and a little rumpled were minor things. The gauntness of his usually strong features spoke of undernourishment, and his fixed gaze focused somewhere outside the front window, somewhere beyond the horizon.
Eight years ago Marcus had been introduced to Tom Bradford, right wing for a Sunday soccer team. At the game’s end, handsome Tom had moved toward them like a weary warrior leaving the battlefield. Signs of the hard-fought encounter had clung to him, slick mud glistening down one side of his body from where he had made a sliding tackle, the muddied sock of one hairy leg rolled down to the ankle, dark hair damp with rain and sweat plastered to his forehead and cheeks. Fists bunched at his hips, his heavy breaths producing steamy plumes, his large chest rising and falling…. Marcus had been instantly smitten.
Sitting hunched there today, Tom Bradford bore little resemblance to the Tom Bradford of yesteryear.
Hypnotized by whatever had caught his attention out beyond the window, the man continued staring into the distance.
“Daddy,” chastised Charlotte, squeezing in next to her father. “Uncle Marcus is here.”
Somehow the voice of his youngest daughter pulled his attention away, and he turned to peer down at her, puzzled, until her words sank in and he raised his eyes to Marcus. The tiredness in that first glassy stare broke Marcus’s heart. But like his older daughter, Tom recovered quickly and looked genuinely happy.
“Marcus,” he said, sitting up in his seat. “Nice to see you. How are things?”
“I’m—I’m well. How are you?”
Tom grinned brightly then, and the old attraction that Marcus had harbored throughout the years resurfaced. “We’re fine. Well, work is pretty full-on. But we’re doing fine, aren’t we, girls? Coping, you know? Grab a seat.”
When Tom indicated the bench seat opposite, Marcus thought he noticed his hand shaking slightly. “Tom, I’d love to, but I’m about to catch the train to Birmingham. My colleague is just getting her breakfast fix.”
Tom’s stoic grin and nod of resignation cut Marcus to the bone. After a quick glance over his shoulder to see if Tina loomed nearby and catching sight of her hat in a long queue two from the front, he sat down.
“What the hell,” said Marcus. “Five minutes can’t hurt.”
The problem was that after twelve months, apart from the usual pleasantries, Marcus had no idea what to say or ask. Fortunately Charlotte provided a commentary.
“Uncle Marcus has been very busy, Daddy. He’s been in the newspaper and all. Grandma showed us.”
Marcus chuckled. So he hadn’t been completely written off by the remaining Bradford clan. Without thinking, he picked up a clean paper napkin and offered it to Katie, pointing out the spill on the back of her hand. “That’s right, Charlie. We’re looking to open a restaurant in New York City. Do you know where that is, Katie?”
“Duh,” she replied, swiping at the stains before giving him the world-weary look so reminiscent of her late mother. “Everybody knows where New York City is. Even Charlie.”
“Ah, but on which coast of America?”
Katie narrowed her eyes at him then, remembering an old game they used to play, when he helped her to revise for one or another of her school tests.
“I’ll give you a clue. Strictly speaking, America doesn’t have a north or south coast.”
“South coast,” shouted Charlie.
“No, Charlie,” said Katie, grimacing at her sister. “It’s either east or west.”
“West,” guessed Charlie.
“East Coast,” said Katie, and then to show she hadn’t just guessed, added, “same as Washington and Boston.”
“Well done, Katie,” said Marcus, nodding and smiling. “Maybe one day in the future Uncle Marcus can—”
He stopped short then when a sudden wave of sad realization overcame him. Tom had made things clear between them. There would be no more direct contact with either Tom or his goddaughters. His smile slipped and instead he peered down at his hands.
“The girls miss you, Marcus,” said Tom, as though reading his thoughts.
“I miss you all too. But I wasn’t sure if you were ready….”
He didn’t know how to finish the sentence, and Tom gave no sign that he understood what he was trying to say.
“I wasn’t sure I was welcome yet.”
But Tom didn’t hear, his attention drawn from the table to take in someone hovering over them all. When Marcus turned, Tina stood there, as daunting as ever, curiously studying the group. Marcus stood and quickly introduced her. After an all too hasty farewell to Tom and the girls, they left.
All the way to the station, the guilty feeling inside him grew. He had a duty, he reminded himself, as godfather to Raine’s children. Both she and Tom had persuaded him to take on the role, even though he had balked at the idea when first suggested. And one thing Marcus Vine never did was shy from duty. Nobody in this world was perfect—he had his fair share of faults, but turning from duty was not one of them. By the time he reached the station, he knew exactly what to do.