My sister Chloe. Half-sister, I should say, to be accurate. A cold, twisted bitch, in my opinion. Possibly worse. How did one define a psychopath? Would it be too harsh of me to slap such a label on her?
Unable to help myself speculating, I gazed at her bored, petulant expression as she sat opposite my mother. Few people would ever call my sister a nice person, overworked as the word was, although the men she suckered would probably declare her a sex-soaked gift straight from heaven. Initially, anyway. Mum had also blinded herself over the years to her younger daughter's less desirable traits. Chloe certainly exhibited all the cunning manipulative skills associated with psychopaths. Used them to their full extent, too, to get whatever - or whoever- she'd set her mind on.
She didn't look like a psychopath, of course. Not that a prototype existed for how someone should appear when lacking the empathy gene. Such a misused word anyway, dragging forth images of Norman Bates or violent axe-murderers. Psychopathy was more subtle. A spectrum, a line stretching between normal people – me, Mum, the average person in the street – and individuals like Chloe.
My half-sister. My opposite in so many ways. The way we looked, for example. Over the years, I'd grown accustomed to fading into the background once people spotted Chloe. Something about her reached out, hooking people's attention, hoodwinking them into seeing her as an exotic orchid rather than the Venus flytrap she really was. Beside her, I rated as a daisy at best.
Because Chloe was a looker. Petite, a mere five foot two, curved like an archer's bow. She came across as all soft chocolaty-brown, what with her long dark hair and cocoa-rich eyes shooting out I'm-so-vulnerable vibes. Not to mention the pale cappuccino hue of her skin, handed to her by her Spanish father. We were half-sisters only; same mother, different fathers.
Ah, yes. My father. I had no idea who had given me my height, all five feet ten of it, along with my pale skin, blue eyes and brown hair, such a contrast to Chloe. Father unknown, my birth certificate said. Our mother had never enlightened me about him. One thing was for sure; Mum hadn't given me the tall gene. Her height was somewhere in between Chloe's and mine. Same thing with her skin tone. As for her hair, she'd been a dark blonde before it had faded to grey.
Father unknown. It hurt. Rankled, even.
I forced my thoughts away from the ancient thorn of my parentage to glance around. Toby was late, as usual. He'd always found my obsessive punctuality amusing rather than something to emulate. Unease prickled in my stomach. Places like Grapes wine bar made me uncomfortable right down to the tips of my toes. Such a wannabe trendy place, what with its gatherings of earnest business types, suited and booted and gabbling management-speak into their iPhones. The owners had piled old china teapots and rows of dirty hardback books onto shelves to give the place a homely touch. It didn't work; they merely looked what they were, tired and grubby. Out of place, like me.
I glanced over at my sister and my mother, neither of whom took any notice of me, although they'd seen me arrive. Chloe never paid me much attention anyway, unless to goad me. My mother's gaze was fixed on the tall man at the bar getting the drinks. Eight ten, said my watch, although I'd arranged to meet Toby at eight. Not late at all, by his standards.
'Megan! How long has it been?'
I spun around.
Toby Turner stood behind me, grinning, and damn me if he wasn't the same six feet two of sex appeal he'd always been. I melted into his trademark rib-cracking hug. He smelt of Hugo Boss aftershave and laundry powder, and I breathed his scent in deeply, returning his hug before pulling away to poke him in the ribs.
'Too long, that's for sure. You going to enlighten me about this?' I swept my arm in the direction of Chloe and my mother. 'How come I seem to have gate-crashed an evening out for my mother's workplace -' My swinging arm encompassed the tall man from the bar heading towards her table. 'When you said on the phone your new love interest would be here tonight?'
'The two events aren't mutually exclusive, Megan.'
I stiffened. Chloe was my first thought, even though she didn't work at Mum's firm. Jeez. Hadn't Toby been burned enough the last time they got it on together? Had he learned nothing from back then? My sister had the ability to reel men in like a lizard catching flies on its tongue. A few years back Toby Turner had been no exception.
'Don't look so sour, Megan. I'm not planning a walk down Memory Lane with Chloe. Been there, done that. Won't be going there again.'
I didn't share the same conviction. Despite my sister tossing him aside like a soiled nappy once she'd finished with him, I'd never heard Toby say a bad word about her. The excuses got trotted out when her name was mentioned; she'd been too young, he'd rushed her, she hadn't meant to be cruel.
'So what the hell are you doing here? How do you know the people at Mum's office?'
'James invited me.'
'James Matthews? Her boss?' I looked over towards the tall man from the bar placing a lemonade and lime before my mother. A man with whom I was already familiar, although not overly so. I noticed how both Mum and my sister fixated their gazes on him. Not surprising. Not my type, but definitely attractive, well preserved for a man who'd recently come smack up against the Big Five-0. A gym body, hard and muscular, demonstrated by his tight polo shirt and well-fitting jeans. The glow from the candles on the tables highlighted the grey creeping into his brown hair. His grin was as lopsided as Toby's, but on the opposite side. His eyes struck me every time I met him. Pale blue, they made an unusual combination with his dark hair. A looker all right.
'So which one of them do you reckon is my new love interest?'
I looked around at the women from James's firm. A couple of twenty-somethings, all spiky heels and fishnet stockings, talking too loudly in an effort to impress. Two older women, looking every bit as uncomfortable as I had earlier, staring into their wine glasses. My mother and my sister, the latter with her hand on James Matthews's arm, smiling, aiming her honeyed darts straight at him. I'd often thought flirting with men came more naturally to my sister than breathing.
'Hell, Tobes, I've no idea. You say it's not Chloe - thankfully - and my mother's obviously off limits. One of them, I suppose.' My hand waved in the direction of the giggling fish-netted pair. Toby laughed.
'Give me a break, Megan. As if.'
'You've changed. Time was, you'd shag anything female and breathing.' Including me. Once. Such a long time ago.
'Yep. OK, so my new love interest isn't my usual type, but my tastes have altered since we last ran into each other.' He winked at me.
'You going for tall, dark and intellectual these days?' The words 'so do I stand a chance with you after all?' never made it out of my mouth. I'd fancied Toby like crazy at school, for one mad summer, always knowing I was way out of his league. All the girls were wild about him. He could take his pick, and he did. One night, during the final week of school, he chose me. Why, I was never sure. On my down days, I told myself he'd been working his way through the girls in our year and having me squashed underneath him in the back of his car, jubilant at losing my virginity at last, was necessary to complete the set. We never spoke of it. To my surprise, he remembered me when we bumped into each other five years after leaving school.
'I've left London. Back in Bristol now,' he'd said. 'Working here.'
We went for a drink that night to catch up, Toby telling me about his life with me providing an edited version of mine. We'd stayed friends ever since, sharing a curry or a bottle of wine together on a regular basis. Before tonight, though, we'd not run into each other for a good six months or so.
He laughed. 'Yeah, I suppose. Definitely tall and intellectual. As for the dark – mostly, but there's a bit of grey creeping in.' What the hell was he talking about? Toby had never gone for cougars, preferring to be the predator, not the prey. I looked back at the two older women on the table beside Mum. Both of them had pewter-toned hair, carefully sculpted into regulation middle-aged waves. I didn't even attempt to picture Toby getting down and dirty with either of them; the idea was absurd.
He saw my puzzled look and laughed again. 'You haven't a clue what I'm talking about, have you?'
'No. Enlighten me. You found yourself a sugar mummy? Am I treading on your toes by being here? If so, why ask me along tonight?'
'Two reasons. Not seen you for ages; I reckoned we should catch up. As well as having someone to talk to, if things get a bit weird here. It's all been flirting and innuendo so far. Nothing's happened with -' He shrugged. 'Not even got to first base yet.'
'Not like you to be slow off the mark. Is she married, Toby?'
Surprise hit me. Toby had never gone for married women before. Too many complications, he'd always said. As well as all the single females needing his attention.
Messy, I thought.
Toby wasn't looking at me anymore. His gaze rested over my shoulder. I turned and saw James Matthews making conversation with Chloe. I glanced back at Toby, confused.
Then I twigged.
It seemed Toby's tastes were rather broader than he'd been letting on.
I decided to play it cool. Despite the fact that what I'd discovered bothered me. Badly.
'Get you, Toby Turner! Never would have pegged you as liking a serving of meat and two veg.' He laughed.
'It's an age thing,' he said. 'Quite common, apparently, for people to believe they're straighter than the proverbial arrow, then in their late twenties they start fancying a walk on the wild side. Been walking that way myself for a while now, testing the waters. The odd man here and there. Let's say my arrow isn't as straight as it used to be.'
'The fact he's married doesn't bother you?'
'Not just married, Toby. His wife's a friend of mine.'
'Charlotte? Yeah. We did art classes together for a couple of years, a while back. Right up until the time when she lost the use of her legs.'
Toby drew in a breath. 'Shit, Megan. She's crippled? I didn't realise.'
'Been in a wheelchair for the last five years. Car accident.'
Silence from Toby. I decided to steer the conversation away from Charlotte Matthews. 'How did you meet James, anyway?'
'Like I've got a cat's chance in hell of getting away with not telling you the full story. I met him through work; he owns his own financial consultancy - well, you'd know that anyway, what with your mother working for him. My boss, in his wisdom, arranged for James to give us sales guys a presentation on pensions.'
'Can't imagine you showing up at something like that. What did your boss have to do? Threaten to tie into a pretzel the testicles of anyone who didn't show up?'
'More or less. Anyway, there I was, prepared to be bored witless and then James walked in. He had something about him, Megan.'
'Yeah, he's easy on the eye, all right. Not my type, before you go all jealous on me. Never gone for older men. Since when have you targeted mature and sophisticated, though? Whether it's male or female.'
Toby grinned. 'Maybe the rules change when you switch teams. The other men have been older too. Yeah, go on. Tell me I've got a father fixation.'
'Armchair psychology's not my style, Tobes.' Ironic, considering my earlier musings about Chloe.
He shook his head. 'Who gives a fuck, anyway? Does anyone know what attracts one person to another? I'm telling you, Megan, he got to me, right from when I first saw him. I've seen him a few times since, always for professional reasons. That is, until now. He invited me, out of the blue, to come along tonight. Some leaving do for one of the secretaries, he said. Probably the one over there in the skirt doubling as a belt.' He grinned again. 'I've started flirting with him. Subtly, of course.'
I laughed; subtlety had never figured large in Toby's game plans for getting laid.
'Although I'm not sure whether I'm getting anywhere, Megan. He definitely has all the hallmarks of being ramrod straight; wedding ring on the finger, occasional mentions of his wife. Despite all the warning signs, though, I reckon he's interested. Call it a gut feeling. And then he asked me here tonight.'
'Doesn't have to mean he's set his sights on you. Perhaps he's being friendly, nothing more.' I hoped so, for Charlotte's sake.
I squashed that particular thought.
'He's interested all right. No idea what the set-up is, what with him being married, but it sure as hell isn't a one-sided thing.'
'So let's say you've caught his eye. Doesn't mean he'll want to take it further.'
Toby shrugged. 'You might be right. Time will tell. Let's go join them.'
Shit. That meant risking Chloe's sour tongue. My mother - well, I'd long ago resigned myself to her lack of interest in me. Acceptance of Chloe and her barbed comments didn't come so easily.
Her eyes scratched over me as we approached, her hand dropping from James Matthews's arm. I braced myself. Whatever she said, it wouldn't be pretty.
My mother spoke first, though. 'Didn't expect you to be here tonight, Megan. Oh, I get it, you're with Toby. Nice to see you again, young man.'
'You too.' Toby returned Mum's smile briefly, but his eyes stayed fixed on James.
Something in the way James Matthews gazed back told me Toby was right in his assessment of the situation between them. What that meant for Charlotte, I had no idea. Nothing she'd ever said had made me consider James as anything other than straight, though. I'd seen her less often recently, the age difference between us coupled with her gradual withdrawal of interest in life creating barriers I didn't know how to breach.
James smiled briefly at me, but it didn't reach his eyes.
'It's good to see you again, Megan.' His tone was polite, but his eyes seemed wary. My trusty intuition waved a white flag at me; although I wasn't in any sense competition, this man viewed me as such. Definitely not as straight as he made out, then.
'You are one of Toby's friends?'
'We were at school together,' I said, unsure what else to say. Fortunately, Toby did, obviously keen to dispel any suggestion I might be his girlfriend. I should be so lucky, I thought.
'Megan and I go way back. She's a good mate.' The emphasis increased ever so slightly on the word mate. The smile I got from James then seemed more genuine.
'Thought I'd ask her along as I don't know anyone else here,' Toby said. 'Call her backup. Or my wingman.'
'Always thought you'd make a good man, Megan.' Chloe's voice, laced with equal amounts of cruelty and amusement, gave me warning me what to expect. 'That flat chest of yours could double up as an ironing board.'
I'd heard that particular jibe from my half-sister so often it barely even registered. Toby laughed; the word traitor danced through my brain, my feelings suddenly wounded by his careless endorsement of her cruelty.
Apparently, I wasn't worth any more of Chloe's attention. My sister turned her gaze to James, replacing her hand on his arm, her smile all sweetness and sugar. 'So James, tell me more about your dog. What did you say his name was - Sienna?' The smile grew wider, the interest more faked and pronounced. 'I've always adored dogs. Especially German Shepherds.'
Liar, I thought. You wouldn't know a German Shepherd from a Chihuahua and if you've ever mentioned dogs, it's to comment on how disgusting and smelly they are. Like all animals, you'd usually add, disdain distorting your face.
Chloe clearly wanted to impress James Matthews, not that he appeared game for her machinations. Amusement stirred in me. Score a first for him, I thought. A man not falling for Chloe's flirting. I'd seen openly gay men react when she turned on the charm, all fake sweetness and feigned interest, and I'd come to assume that was simply how it worked.
James Matthews was probably too old to fall for her crap. Turning fifty might well render him immune to a woman half his age coming on to him.
'Senna, not Sienna. Famous racing driver.' Irritation laced its way through James's tone like writing in a stick of rock. His eyes had already slithered away from Chloe back onto Toby. Chloe's hand fell off his arm as James turned towards him. 'Glad you made it, Toby. Can I get you a drink?'
'Pint of Doom Bar'll do me. I'll come with you.' I'd seen the uncomfortable expression on Toby's face as he exchanged glances with Chloe. How long had it been since she'd dumped him? Since I myself had made the beast with two backs with him? Now he was trying to get laid with my friend's husband. No wonder he seized his chance to escape. Faced with my mother and half-sister, I almost joined him.
My mother. I followed her gaze as James headed for the bar. She has a thing for him, I thought. Such a clichéd situation, fancying her boss, although she didn't stand a chance. Too old, too grey in both hair and character, beaten down by years of pills and psychiatric wards. She'd languish well beneath the radar of a man whose arse at the age of fifty still looked good in tight jeans. He was too married, too out of her league, to notice her as anything other than an employee, if he noticed her at all.
Now it seemed he was too bisexual as well, for Christ's sake.
Shit. What a frigging mess.
And Chloe also wanted to sink her carefully manicured nails into Mum's boss. Not hard to guess the reason, not with my half-sister. She'd know about his financial consultancy business from my mother, as well as the BMW Z4 he drove, a car over which I'd often drooled.
No doubt she also knew he had a wife who'd never walk again.
Not that Chloe would care about Charlotte Matthews. My half-sister was targeting James Matthews's money, figuring she'd bat her eyelashes and jiggle her tits into getting her hands on it. His marriage wouldn't mean anything to her. Neither would our mother's feelings for him. Odds were Chloe had clocked my mother having a middle-aged crush on her boss and she didn't give a damn. Knowing my sister, it would make landing James Matthews and his money even sweeter.
The only thing she'd like better, I thought, would be if I fancied him too. Yeah. She'd love it if she could shaft me as well.
Money. Chloe's driving force. She'd never been worried about working for it either. Why should she, when she lived with our mother, always the willing cash cow?
I shrugged. Toby seemed to stand more chance with James Matthews than Chloe or Mum did.
The rest of the evening passed quickly. Toby, as always, proved good company, and I was curious about this new thing he had about men. I kept tabs on him and James, noticing the way he frequently touched James's arm, making it seem oh so casual. Along with the fact that James didn't pull away.
I wondered how things would pan out. Mum's boss was hotter than a backyard barbecue, but married. Although with many men having a wife didn't make much difference. He probably wanted a little casual fun dabbling on the wild side of life, and with Toby's past as a player, I couldn't see that being too much of a problem. They'd probably have a brief fling and end up going their separate ways. None of my business. Apart from Charlotte getting hurt, but she'd almost certainly never find out anyway.
'Definitely got the vibe from him tonight.'
Toby's voice cut across my thoughts towards the end of the evening. James had just left, brushing Chloe aside as she tried to engage him in conversation, my mother's eyes practically stapled to his back as he moved through the bar. Toby's voice was too low to reach Chloe. She wouldn't like her former boyfriend having a thing for James Matthews, although Toby and Chloe hadn't been together long enough to be considered a couple. A few weeks didn't constitute a relationship in my view.
'Just a vibe? Nothing more concrete?'
'Not sure what his game is, to be honest, Megan. You might be right. Perhaps he doesn't want to take things any further.'
Chloe's voice sounded behind me. Obviously, now James had gone, Grapes held nothing of interest for her. 'Let's go, for God's sake, Mum. Isn't it bad enough you dragged me here in the first place? If you drove like every other normal person does, I wouldn't need to chauffeur you everywhere.'
About all you do to earn the money she keeps slipping your way, I thought. My sister seemed incapable of holding down a job for more than a couple of months. Either she ended up sacked or else she walked out, claiming she deserved something more suited to her talents. Prostitution came to mind whenever I heard her trot out that line.
I was glad to leave. Much as I'd loved catching up with Toby again, I needed space to sort out my head. The man I'd always had a thing for wanted to get it on with my mother's boss, who also had my mother and half-sister competing for him.
Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever competed for me.
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