Janet Pywell ellie BravoYou’d never have thought Maria was capable of a little sneaky blackmail…until now…

Several days later we are in Simon’s car driving back from a client in Fermanagh.

“I’m going away with Louise this weekend. I’m taking her to America for a week but I’ve had a word with John and he won’t say anything to anyone, you know, about Kat and things…” Simon’s grey eyes are firmly on the road.

“He just wanted to get even with me. He’s vile!”

It was a long weekend and I’ve been mulling over the events of last week. I haven’t seen Maria since Friday’s revelation.

“John is the way he is,” Simon responds calmly. “It’s unfortunate but you’re going to have to deal with it.”

“How could Kat confide in John, of all people?” I wonder aloud.

“It’s not a big deal. Just do your work and don’t take any rubbish from him,” Simon insists. “No one else has to know. I’ll support you, but you must speak to Maria. She’s your friend. She wouldn’t say anything to me and she’s refused to speak to John. She’s very upset.”

“She doesn’t want to speak to me either,” I mumble.

“Try again to speak to her. Perhaps this afternoon at the celebration you will have the opportunity.”

At five o’clock we are all gathered in the tekkie lab downstairs.

Simon has bought a few crates of beer and some wine and we are toasting, at his insistence, the new contracts we have recently signed.

It will ease his conscience, I think, while he swans off to America for a week.

The tekkie geeks look like scientists in white lab coats.

Liam, John, and the new guy Mark Bowman is drinking from designer beer bottles and Adam, Steve and Mike have boy-band hairstyles so I’ve nicknamed them Boys Aloud, wave me over and pour wine.

It’s only Ray, the quiet one who stands to one side not participating.

Stuart stands laughing with Siobhan and Maria.

Simon clears his throat. He makes a fine speech about the company, its growth, its potential and of course the hardworking team, which gets an enthusiastic cheer.

“And we will be celebrating with the company’s sixth-anniversary party on the twenty-first of June,” he announces. “It seems that dinner in the new Jazz restaurant is the most popular choice for our celebration this year.”

This creates a spontaneous burst of applause and a few piercing whistles.

My smile is fake. I am thinking I’ll be back in London by then. Perhaps I’ll leave this weekend. I won’t be here for the party in June.

After Simon’s speech, John takes Maria’s elbow and leads her toward his office. Their heads are bent in animated discussion and her face darkens into a scowl. She glances in my direction and I turn quickly away.

Stuart stands with his arm casually draped over Siobhan’s shoulder and I think of how we saw them together in the Odyssey. How Maria linked my arm in hers and leaned affectionately against me.

When I look up she is staring at me and my face freezes.

Liam tops up my wine but I feel nauseous.

My stomach is like an empty pit. I glance at my watch and place my untouched glass on the desk. I have nearly reached the door when Maria’s fingers begin lightly tugging on my arm.

“Where did you go on Friday,” she whispers, “after work?”

Self consciously she flattens her short hair with the palm of her hand.

“I went for a ride on the Harley”

“I waited for you! I went to your Aunt’s house. I wanted to speak to you.” She glances over her shoulder. “I left Lily at Mum’s but you weren’t home.”

“You came to my home?”

I had been out for hours. Staring at the sea. Thinking. Worrying.

“I thought we should speak but then Michael came home and I couldn’t get away.”

“It was almost nine when I got home,” I say.

“I waited as long as I could.” Her pupils are large and she looks tired.

I swallow hard.

Her long lashes blink quickly and she looks to where John is talking with Simon. “He’s trying to cause trouble,” she says.

“Maria, I…”

She holds up the palm of her hand. “I told him not to mention it again. Not to me or to anyone else. I told him I will tell Simon he was moonlighting last year when Simon was away. He worked for an Engineering Company for a few weeks and he knows that was wrong.”

I cannot suppress a small giggle. “My goodness, Maria. That’s blackmail! I’d never had thought you had it in you. I’m very impressed.”

“You would be very surprised,” she replies, “at what I have inside.”