Authors: Marie Maxwell
Tags: #Sagas, #Fiction, #General
His eventual career path of engineering hadn’t surprised anyone, nor had his excellence at university, but his decision to work abroad in a third-world country had shocked them all and no one had expected him to stick it out in Africa.
His parents especially had thought he would be better suited to working and teaching in the closeted surroundings of a university but instead Edward had gone off to work in Nigeria in West Africa, savouring every moment of his new life on the emerging continent.
He hadn’t been sure what to expect when he’d accepted the job but he knew he had to get away from his crazy family if he was ever to have some normality and Africa had seemed far enough away for them not to be able to interfere. Once there and independent he had quickly become absorbed in the way of life. He relished the feeling that he was doing something worthwhile and it excited him like nothing had ever done before. Until a few days before, he had been champing at the bit to finish his unwanted home leave for his brother’s wedding and to get back there.
But then by chance he’d met Gracie McCabe and his usual common sense had evaporated in an instant. He didn’t understand his feelings, after all she was a total stranger, but as he’d watched her going round repeatedly on that rollercoaster and then falling on the grass laughing loud and hard, and then followed her as she and Ruby strolled along the prom happily eating ice creams, he had instantly changed from staid and sensible Edward and was acting like an unpredictable lovesick teenager who couldn’t concentrate on anything other than his fleeting flirtation with a stranger.
He had had the odd flirtation in the past but suddenly, at age thirty, he was desperately in love for the first time in his life and somehow he’d managed to fall for a girl he didn’t even know, a girl who he’d spent just a few hours with, and who had eventually told him she was about to marry someone else.
It was so completely out of character for him and he couldn’t understand how it had happened.
But it had – and he was besotted to the point of obsessed.
Edward followed the wedding car at a safe distance, and when it pulled up outside the church he parked far enough away not to be noticed but close enough to see what was going on. He had hoped so desperately that she wouldn’t appear, that she would have cancelled the whole thing en route, or at least delayed it, giving them time to get to know each other.
He had a picture in his mind of her shouting ‘stop the car,’ he could see her jumping out and running in the opposite direction to the church, but it hadn’t happened.
Suddenly she was there and was being helped out of the car by a man he assumed was her father. He watched as Ruby came over to her and straightened her dress and he had a lump in his throat, just seeing her looking so beautiful.
Rather than dampening them, as he had hoped, it intensified his feelings for her.
He watched her make her way up the path to the church on her father’s arm, with Ruby and a little girl walking behind them. Instinctively Edward ducked down behind the steering wheel but as he did so he knew it didn’t really matter; from her manner and her happy smile he could see she was oblivious to everything except her wedding to another man, an Irishman called Sean whom she had been courting for a long time.
As the small group disappeared inside the dark porch of the church it finally dawned on him that he really was on a fool’s errand. Gracie McCabe was going to marry someone else and there was nothing he could do about it. She wasn’t going to spot him in the distance and run into his arms, and he realised how foolish he had been to even think she would on the strength of one short meeting.
He waited where he was until the church doors opened and she reappeared but this time on the arm of her new husband, a chubby dark young man wearing an ill-fitting suit and overly shiny shoes, but looking as delighted as if he had won the pools. Which, in Edward’s eyes, he had. In his eyes, Gracie McCabe and her new husband just didn’t belong together.
And then everyone was outside and a cloud of rice and confetti flew through the air showering the laughing couple. The photographer was shouting directions and as a family group gathered together for a pose, Edward knew he had lost.
Dejected, he picked up the envelope that was on the passenger seat. It was a letter he’d carefully penned the day after meeting her and had intended to post. He turned it over in his hands a few times and thought long and hard about delivering it by hand to the hotel but then thought better of it.
Gracie McCabe was now someone else’s wife. He had no right.
He had watched her go into the church and then watched her come out as a married woman, a happily married woman, judging by her body language. There was nothing for him there so, resisting the urge to stay and watch any more of the ritual of the camera and the confetti, he drove straight back to Saffron Walden.
Normally he would have felt exhilarated as the open-top sports car that he loved swallowed up the miles on a beautiful summer’s day. The sun was shining and the wind in his hair was cool and gentle but Edward was unaware of it all. He was in turmoil and he felt really stupid. His actions were so out of character and he felt as if he had had a bit of a brainstorm over the previous few days.
Throughout the drive back he decided to get his head back in order; he thought about the extravagant preparations he was going back to and wondered if he could come up with some excuse to get out of Harry and Louisa’s wedding and his best man duties. All he wanted was to be on the aeroplane or mail-boat back to Nigeria as soon as possible. Edward just wanted to get back to his old life and get the now-married Gracie McCabe right out of his system.
It was on the final bend of the narrow country road that his concentration lapsed and he veered off at speed, wrapping the front of his sports car around the trunk of a long-standing oak tree and then tumbling into a ditch. It was a quiet road with little traffic and he was trapped for nearly two hours before he was found and pulled from the wreckage, with devastating injuries.
From the moment Sean had turned, looked her in the eye and smiled at her, Gracie was sure she was doing the right thing and, with her reservations gone, her wedding day went on to pass in a happy blur. The ceremony itself seemed to be over before it had begun and she and Sean exited the church as Mr and Mrs Donnelly, followed by their guests.
Everyone posed patiently for the pernickety photographer who was waiting in the grounds with his camera set up, and an assistant on hand to make sure they did exactly as they were told. While this was going on, the guests grouped into their familiar cliques as inevitably occurred at family gatherings; Sean’s family and friends on one side, and Gracie’s on the other.
The respective mothers glared across the divide, two equally competitive and assertive women who each wanted to be seen as the senior mother-in-law of the occasion. But although they both pursed their lips with disapproval a few times, neither said anything out of the way.
But all in all, everything about the day was as perfect as Gracie had hoped for. Despite a few showers the sun shone down at all the right moments, everyone turned up and the day went off without even a minor hitch. George Wheaton and Fred McCabe got on like the proverbial house on fire, as did Gracie and Sean’s respective sisters.
The twins were accompanied by their fiancés, with Jeanette being in a bit of a huff because she and her twin sister weren’t invited to be bridesmaids. Being polar opposite in personality Jennifer, ever the silent observer, didn’t seem to mind at all. She stayed in the background all day, quietly watching and absorbing the proceedings rather than actually joining in.
And then it was all over. It was just one day in their lives but it was a life-changing day for Gracie McCabe, who was no longer sitting on the shelf contemplating spinsterhood. After a few words in church she was Mrs Sean Donnelly, wife and respectable woman.
That night, together for the first time in their new flat near the Palace hotel, Gracie determined she would not give the man called Edward Woodfield another thought. Ever.
As they lay entwined together in the marital bed, she listened to Sean snoring peacefully and forced from her mind all thoughts of Edward, and the twinge of regret she had at not meeting him at another time in her life.
She looked at the ceiling and determined to focus only on Sean, her new husband and the father of her future children.
Bright and early the next morning, Ruby and Johnnie drove them to the station to see them off on the honeymoon Sean’s parents had unexpectedly given them.
They were both excited as they headed off for a week in a boarding house in Great Yarmouth, and by the time they came back, happy and relaxed, Gracie was totally focused on her new husband and their future together.
Edward Woodfield, meanwhile, had been forcibly tucked away in the back of her mind as a moment of pre-marital madness, and the signet ring and the piece of paper were in the hands of Ruby, who had been charged with posting the ring back to him as soon as possible.
A new chapter in the life of Gracie McCabe, now Donnelly, was about to begin.
‘Guess what, Sean?’ Gracie said, pausing for effect. ‘I’m expecting. I went to see the doctor this morning and in about six months’ time you’re going to be a father!’
Gracie smiled at her husband across the dining table, looking forward to his reaction. He’d made no secret of how much he wanted them to start a family just as soon as possible.
‘Oh, that’s wonderful …’ Sean rocked forward in his chair and smiled widely. ‘I’ve been waiting so long for that news. When did you know? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’
‘I didn’t want to say until the doctor confirmed it, just in case I was wrong, but it looks like we’ve struck lucky …’ Gracie smiled.
‘Not lucky at all, Gracie darling; it was just a matter of time. The Donnellys are a fertile family, and this just proves it with another Donnelly baby to add to the collection. Hopefully I’ll have a son. We need a boy to carry down the family name.’ Sean stood up and went over to hug his wife. ‘I can’t wait to tell me Mam, she’ll be so happy.’
‘Well, I was thinking about it this afternoon after I got back from the doctors, and I reckon it will be either a boy or a girl, one or the other. That’s worth putting a couple of bob on down the betting shop,’ Gracie said seriously.
It was a moment before Sean realised exactly what she’d said.
‘You are such a joker, Mrs Donnelly! You fooled me there.’ He laughed. ‘Wait till I tell me Mam what you just said … definitely a boy or a girl … I don’t know!’
Gracie smiled but said nothing. One of her biggest reliefs was that Sean’s family, especially his mother, lived so far away. He had always talked of them all affectionately but it had only been when they went to Ireland before the wedding to meet them that Gracie had realised how idolised Sean was in his family; in fact, he could do no wrong in their eyes. And Gracie herself was an interloper who could do no right. For some reason his mother seemed to blame her for her precious boy living in England, even though he’d already been there for years before they even got together.
The days she spent with his family were difficult because it seemed that every five minutes someone else popped up to ask Gracie questions about herself and about their relationship. At first she’d thought it was all rather sweet and that they were simply looking out for Sean, the family baby, but as time passed and the questions became more probing she started to wonder if there was something they weren’t telling her.
His sisters especially wanted to know every single thing about Gracie herself. When the questioning had first started she’d thought they were really interested in her but by the end of the stay she felt they really wanted to find something out of the ordinary so they could all shrug over the dinner table and say ‘we always knew she wasn’t right for our baby boy.’
The only time she felt comfortable in the conversation was when Sean’s father was around. He was a genial man and she could see he had given up the fight in much the same way as her father always had. Surrounded by women at home, he never got involved in the family arguments, but simply let everything wash over him and disappeared off to his local pub at the first opportunity.
But after they arrived back home Gracie had brushed all her concerns about the family away and got into the swing of arranging the wedding. She decided that so long as there was a distance between herself and Sean’s family it wouldn’t be a problem, that back in Southend it would just be the two of them in their new life together. But then there had been the visit for the wedding.
The time his mother had spent in Ruby’s hotel before and after the big day had been excruciatingly embarrassing and Gracie still cringed when she thought back to it. Because her son was marrying Gracie who was Ruby’s friend, she seemed to think it gave her some authority, and she had tried her best to assert herself as the matriarch of the property. To Gracie’s horror and Ruby’s amusement Sean’s mother had constantly aired her complaints about the hotel and everyone in it.
Despite the fact that he had moved away from home so many years before, Sean’s doting mother still thought she knew him best. As well as lots of lectures on housekeeping generally, she had given Gracie a carefully written list of all his likes and dislikes, his food preferences and how best to launder and care for his clothes; she had also criticised the flat that was to be their new home.
It had been at that point that Ruby had taken her friend to one side and made Gracie realise that none of it was personal, that the woman had never got over her precious baby boy leaving home and moving to another country and she would never be happy until he was back home with her.
Now, she could easily imagine how the woman would react to news of the pregnancy and she had frightening visions of her turning up on the doorstop and overseeing the birth and care of her beloved son’s firstborn.
But nothing could dampen the mood for Gracie, not even the thought of her mother-in-law. She had looked forward to telling Sean so much because she had known it was what he wanted to hear and that he would be pleased.