Chapter Nineteen

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       Like many women, at one time or another in their lives, Connie had been forced to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that she was simply better off without a man in her life. As the autumn weather turned colder and the days drew in, she was increasingly grateful for Deelie’s discretion and loyalty, even if her efforts to fill Connie’s every spare moment with largely unnecessary activity were less than subtle. As it happened, the ball preparations provided the perfect vehicle for Deelie’s strategy. She and Connie had visited an upper crust florist who specialised in ‘decor for elite events’. Connie, who knew little about flower arrangement and was happy to allow Deelie and Barnaby to get on with it without her intervention, nevertheless savoured the opportunity to inhale the fresh, aromatic fragrances of the exotic blooms, just nodding and making approving noises at appropriate moments to keep Deelie and Barnaby happy. The previous week, they’d road-tested the ball menu one evening at Oakham Hall where the two of them had sat in faintly ridiculous splendour in the grand dining hall with the best china, silverware and crystal whilst a uniformed representative of their event caterer served up sample sized portions of every item on the menu. Even eating for two, Connie had been unable to face the petit-fours that were served with coffee at the end of the meal, however delicious they looked although, her morning sickness now a rapidly fading memory, her appetite had returned with a vengeance, if slightly awry of her regular palette.

       Two weeks before the ball, which was to be held on the Saturday after St. George’s broke up for the Christmas holiday, Deelie arrived at Poacher’s Cottage early. Connie was only just out of the shower following her morning jog around the wood. At first, she had been nervous about continuing to work out during pregnancy and, to be honest, had felt too appalling in the first few weeks to want to do anything more than survive the school day and sleep all evening and weekend, but now, at just over four months pregnant, she felt bursting with energy. Her skin glowed, her hair was strong and shiny, if rather overgrown, and she felt ready to take on the world. Although she didn’t yet have a ‘bump’, she had been forced to wear her skinniest jeans with the top button undone but, apart from that, she felt better than ever, physically at least.

“Hello, Sweetie? I’ve let myself in. You really should lock your front door, you know,” Deelie called up the stairs. “Anyone could come in.”

Connie laughed to herself.

“Coz there are loads of randoms walking around at the end of this long, private farm track, aren’t there?” she replied, pulling a loose fitting sweatshirt over her jeans so the straining waistband was concealed. She slipped her feet into her favourite pair of ginger brown, nubuck Jodhpur boots and made her way down to the kitchen where Deelie had helped herself to a coffee and was cuddling a smug-looking Fleabags.

She kissed Connie on each cheek, Connie holding her breath so she didn’t smell the coffee, which still had the ability to make her stomach perform a nauseous flip.

“Sorry, Sweetie,” apologised Deelie, “forgot. So are you ready for our big day?”

“I’m ready but I’m not sure there’s much point,” said Connie.

“Don’t start,” scolded Deelie with a stern frown.

“We are both having hair and make-up and then we are going to find dresses for the ball. Honestly, Sweetie, you’re going to look sexy as hell. Your breasts are, frankly, magnificent at the moment and your legs are, as ever, to die for. There won’t be a straight man there without a hard-on for you!”

“Yeah,” laughed Connie, “who could resist a single, pregnant school teacher living in the middle of a field and proud owner of a clapped out, twenty-year-old Fiesta? I’m a catch!”

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