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Chapter 22: twenty-two
“Why am I doing this?” I muttered, adjusting my collar in the mirror.
“Because you’re whipped,” Freddie mumbled through a mouthful of eggs and bacon; he’d somehow managed to get Mum to cook him breakfast.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she scolded, and smacked him round the head with a tea towel.
“I’m not whipped,” I said indignantly.
“In that case the sex must be good.”
“You have no idea.”
“And there was me thinking you’d learned not to objectify women...”
“I’m not objectifying her! It’s not as though she’s under any illusions that this is going to turn into marriage, you know.”
“You’re meeting her parents. To you that may as well be marriage,” Freddie said.
“Hey, this isn’t anything serious. This is her getting her own back.”
“I like her more and more every day.” Mum smirked. “Just remember to be careful; we don’t need another Statute breach. Rose told me what happened with Carlotta. You were very lucky, you know.”
“I – she told you?” I stared at her incredulously. “The cheeky little – I told her not to tell anyone!”
“You told her not to tell Albus,” Mum corrected. “She only told me the other week, dear, it’s fine.”
“It is not fine,” I muttered, making a mental note to give Rose hell next time I saw her.
“Anyway, what’s this I hear about Brigid having a date with Cato Bagman today?” Mum continued.
“The slimeball,” muttered Freddie, who’d finally heard about the developments from Roxanne.
“Don’t you like him?”
“All girls do is gush about him.”
“Well, he is very good-looking. And he doesn’t ask for it, you know. In fact, I think he finds it a bit daunting at times.”
He didn’t look convinced.
“He’d better not mess her around, or he’ll be answering to me,” he said in a menacing tone that really didn’t suit him.
“It’s alright, Freddo; me and Ryan have already laid the law down on that front,” I reassured him. I was still trying to readjust my collar, which just wouldn’t sit right.
“Shouldn’t you be aiming for unity in the changing room?” Mum suggested.
I stared at her.
“We are! We’re hardly going to achieve unity if Cato’s messing about with Brie’s heart, are we? This way, we’re all on the same page. We’re fine, Mum, really.”
And we were. Truthfully, I didn’t think Cato would do a thing to hurt Brigid; I’d just wanted to make doubly sure of that fact. Despite all I said about him and my moans when women gushed about him, I actually thought him a genuinely nice guy. Mum was right; he was a gentle giant – when he wasn’t trying to keep me away from his sister at any rate.
But I still didn’t like the attention he got from girls.
“What time are you leaving?” Mum asked.
I glanced at my watch.
“About ten minutes,” I said.
“Bit early for lunch, isn’t it?” Freddie frowned.
“Just because you’re only eating breakfast at midday doesn’t mean everybody else wastes away half the day.” Mum smacked him again with the tea towel. It didn’t hurt him, though. Mum wasn’t one to cause her nieces and nephews pain, no matter how old they were. Besides, she had a soft spot for Freddie.
“I was out last night,” he moaned, rubbing the back of his head even though it didn’t hurt.
She rolled her eyes.
“Who with this time?”
“Some Ravenclaw bird, year below us. Mandy or something-”
“Mindy,” I said dully. “One of Allegra Fawcett’s friends.”
“Leggy Allegra was there too. Seen her round lately?”
“I’ve not really been out lately, have I?” I pointed out.
“Oh, yeah. Quidditch.” He rolled his eyes. He didn’t have a problem with me playing Quidditch – he liked the perks it gave him – but he missed me when I was training. He wouldn’t freely admit it, but I could tell. He’d been one of the few people happy that the season had been chopped, because it meant I’d keep my breaks.
Although it had dampened his mood when Brigid pointed out that England used those breaks for their training and I’d probably be included in those.
To be perfectly honest, I felt his pain.
“Just be careful today,” Mum reminded me again.
“I know!” I said indignantly. “I’ll be fine. I’ve got this.”
“You said that when you first starting shagging Carlotta,” Freddie pointed out. I shot a glare at him, and he shied in his seat. “I’m just saying!”
“What kind of a mate are you?” I muttered.
“Hey! I helped you out that time we found her in the street!”
He had a point.
Mum looked at me oddly, as though concerned that Carlotta was more of a drunken mess than I was. To be fair, she had good reason to worry, as I didn’t really have a good track record on that front. Astrid had been a raging alcoholic, and that hadn’t been a good period in my life. It was okay when I was drunk too, but she was always a bit of a problem at Quidditch matches. I’d finally dropped her when she’d started throwing the canapés around at a fancy function.
It had been half six.
And she’d caught the head of the Quidditch League in the face.
It had been a good shot, to be fair, and the coach of the Kestrels, who’d been standing next to him at the time, had been impressed. He hadn’t been quite so impressed himself, although I figured that I’d probably have been just as irritated if I’d had caviar smeared all over my face.
I’d decided that I valued my Quidditch licence much more than Astrid, and shelved her. She hadn’t been too happy at first, but from what I’d heard she’d hooked up with some Brazilian Quidditch player and moved to Rio with him, so evidently things hadn’t ended that badly for her. In fact, given that she was living in a far more exotic place than I was, she seemed to have done better for herself than I had.
Not that I’d ever dream of leaving the Falcons, especially not for a club that meant leaving England, but Rio still sounded appealing. I made a mental note to suggest it to Ryan as a short-term option for us at the end of the World Cup, but thinking again, scratched that idea. Proximity to Astrid really wouldn’t end well.
“Oh, just stop faffing and go, James,” Mum sighed, as I readjusted my collar again. “I’ll clean up for you.” Not that she didn’t always do this. “Just remember to be polite and behave yourself.”
“Yes, Mum.” I pulled a face, and headed for the kitchen door. Halfway there, I halted. “Wait – should I take a present? Flowers or something?”
“Is her mother allergic to flowers?”
“I have no idea.”
“Best not to risk it, dear. Just be polite and offer to pay the bill; that always goes down well.”
It sounded like a good option, especially as I knew Carlotta wouldn’t let me foot the bill, not all of it anyway. Though I wondered if I should, given that she knew I wasn’t short of cash, she wasn’t the wealthiest of people. I had no idea how well off her parents were.
I headed out of my flat and round the corner to the Tav. I was quite relieved that we were eating there, as opposed to some fancy restaurant in the posh part of London, as hopefully it meant a more relaxed atmosphere. I really didn’t like meeting parents. I remembered the time Cassie Lynch forced me to go to dinner with her parents, and then hastily forced the memory from my mind. It wasn’t a pleasant one.
The Tav was laid out as it had been the last time I’d been in during the day; all dining tables and chairs. It was a totally different atmosphere to how it was at night time, and I could see why Carlotta enjoyed working here; it was clear that she did a lot in the kitchens during the day.
I looked around for her, then noticed her getting up from a table near the back. I headed towards her, and we met half-way. She looked very pretty in a simple black dress.
“Thank god you’re here,” she breathed, greeting me with a kiss.
I grinned. “Trouble with the family?”
“As always.” She rolled her eyes and looked me up and down. “Oh, my parents will love you.”
“You seriously owe me for this one,” I said in a low voice as she led me back to their table.
“Oh, don’t you worry, I’ll pay you back in full later,” she said, squeezing my hand quickly. I had a sudden urge to grab it and just lead her out of the Tav and back to mine. Although Mum and Freddie were still there. Maybe I could endure this for a little while.
“Mamá, Dad, this is James,” she said as we got to the table.
Her dad got up from the table and held out a hand to shake mine. He was tall, taller than I was, which was quite daunting. At least Aidan Lynch had been shorter than me.
“Nice to meet you, Mr Fortescue,” I said politely, remembering Carlotta’s instructions on how to address her parents. Damn Spanish names. Mr Fortescue’s handshake was firm, and he looked slightly suspicious as he eyed me.
“Call me Oliver,” he instructed me.
First name terms. Phew. That made things slightly easier.
“This is my wife, Evangelina,” he added, gesturing towards the woman to his left.
I’d never thought it especially easy to identify Spanish people, but somehow Carlotta’s mother was as obviously Spanish as it was possible to be. Of course, that may have been because I knew she was from Spain. Her skin was olive coloured and her eyes and hair were dark; Carlotta had clearly inherited her looks.
“Ms Martínez,” I murmured, taking the hand that she extended and kissing it lightly. She didn’t stand for me, or instruct me to call her something else. Behind her, I noticed Carlotta discreetly roll her eyes.
“This is my sister, Juanita,” she added once her irritation with her mother faded, indicating the woman sitting next to her mother. She looked a few years older than Carlotta, but they were unmistakeably related.
Juanita laughed at the look on my face when Carlotta pronounced her name – there was no chance I was going to be able to say that without making a fool out of myself or causing injury.
“Call me Nita,” she volunteered. “Everyone else does. Nice to finally meet you.” She looked me up and down and grinned slightly. “Carla was right, you are a looker.”
“Eyes off,” Carlotta said sharply, though she was smiling too. “And this is my brother Antonio. We call him Toni for short.”
Antonio seemed to have inherited a mixture of his parents’ looks, although he was just as good-looking as his sisters. He seemed as enthusiastic as his mother about meeting me, giving me a curt nod.
“Take a seat, son.” Mr Fortescue pulled out the chair next to him. “I’ve gotten you a pint in already. You’re not driving, are you?”
I liked him already.
“Thanks.” I sat down and took the pint of lager he slid towards me. I didn’t drink it much but as it was a standard Muggle drink for men, I’d come across it a few times, and it was nice enough. “I’m not driving, no. I live just round the corner, so I walked.”
“I’ve told you this already, Daddy,” Carlotta spoke up, sitting down the other side of me. “Here, James, have a menu. The fish is nice, but I’d avoid the sausages if I were you. Bonnie’s in charge of those dishes today, and she just doesn’t cook them right-”
“You only think that because you cook those dishes when you work,” Antonio cut in, grinning slightly.
“Yes, and? I cook them better, I know that for a fact. She doesn’t let the skins get crispy enough and really, who wants soggy, chewy sausage skins?”
“Carla, you let them go black. You burn them-”
“It’s not burnt, it’s well done,” she retorted. “There’s a difference.”
Given that my mother rarely served up sausages that were any lighter than jet black, I had to agree with Carlotta. I didn’t voice this opinion, though, deciding to stay quiet at least for the moment.
“What about the steak and kidney pie?” Juanita chipped in. “Will that be good today?”
“Yeah, you’ll be pretty safe with that.”
“Make that two,” Mr Fortescue said, throwing his own menu down onto the middle of the table. “I expect it won’t be as nice as yours, Carly, but we’ll give it a go.”
“Fish and chips,” Antonio grunted, following suit.
Ms Martínez was still perusing her own menu. She didn’t look particularly appeased by any of the options. I wondered if she liked eating here at all.
“They have taken the paella off the menu,” she sighed. She had a strong Spanish accent, though her pronunciation was good; clearly, like my Aunt Fleur, she had spent enough time in Britain for her accent to soften.
“I told you, Mamá, there wasn’t enough demand for it,” Carlotta replied apologetically. “They do noodles, though, you like those. Or you could have a curry?”
“I will have a toasted sandwich,” she announced, not sounding very enthusiastic about the idea.
“Cheese and ham?”
“Yes, yes, that is fine.” She glanced at her wine glass. “And another glass of wine.”
“Get a bottle, petal,” Mr Fortescue added as Carlotta stood up. “You and Nita can have a glass.”
I winced, really hoping they weren’t expecting me to pay.
Carlotta trailed a hand across my shoulder as she headed off to order food at the bar. I felt a shiver down my spine at her touch. I took a large swig of lager, as though the more I drank, the faster the afternoon would go.
To be fair, it would probably make it more bearable, although I doubted Carlotta’s mother would approve.
Then again, I wasn’t sure that she would approve of anything this afternoon.
“So, James, Carlotta says you play football,” Mr Fortescue said, turning to face me.
Bugger. I’d been hoping that this topic of conversation wouldn’t come up too early, and especially not while Carlotta wasn’t around.
“Er, yeah, just lower leagues though, nothing big.”
“Ah, right.” He didn’t sound convinced. “So, is this a secure thing? Or is it just something to pass the time?”
I was having second thoughts about him.
“Well, I guess it’s secure enough,” I shrugged.
“Aren’t the lower leagues only semi-professional, though?”
I hesitated. Kit hadn’t covered this bit.
“I could get picked up by a pro team...” I said.
“It’s a competitive business, son, don’t get your hopes up too much. Best to have other options, if you know what I mean.”
I fought back the urge to tell him that I was one of the best-paid players in my league and that I was being courted by England. I didn’t think they’d believe me, and telling them about Quidditch certainly wasn’t a good idea.
Ms Martínez tutted.
“Really, Oliver, surely it is good to have ambitions? Surely that is better than settling for less?”
This surprised me, but then I remembered Carlotta saying that her mother supported her own ambitions more than her father did.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having ambitions. I just think it’s always good to have a backup plan,” he said gruffly. “Especially with such a lofty goal.”
Luckily, Carlotta came back at that point and saved me from a continuation of the conversation.
“Drink up, Mamá,” she said, handing her mother a bottle of wine. She handed a wine glass to Juanita, and set the other one down at her own place.
“It is a screw cap,” Ms Martínez bemoaned as she undid the lid. “Why do wine bottles not have corks these days?”
“It’s easier,” Carlotta supplied. “Can you imagine if we had to uncork every bottle we sold? Plus it’s too easy for the cork to disintegrate, or for the wine to cork...”
“It is not the same though,” her mother sighed, pouring herself a generous glass. “Here you are, dear.” She handed the bottle to Juanita.
Things got better after that point. Apart from disapproving of my supposed career, her father seemed friendly enough and Juanita also seemed fairly easy-going. Their mother’s mood seemed to brighten slightly, though she still didn’t seem massively impressed with anything, including her toasted sandwich. I got the funny feeling Antonio didn’t like me, but I was used to that. The Lynch brothers were about as hostile as it was possible to be. In comparison, Antonio was nothing. It was hard to be more threatening than a pair of twins who were generally armed with clubs for hitting flying iron balls.
Once we’d all finished eating, Mr Fortescue went back to the topic of careers. This time it was Carlotta in the firing line.
“Have they given you a raise yet?”
She sighed with irritation.
“No, they haven’t.”
“Don’t you think they should? After all, you work all day, four days a week, and you’re one of their best chefs-”
“They won’t give me a raise, Dad. They don’t need to. If I walk, they’ll just find someone else. I’m not that special that they’ll pay me more to keep me on.”
I could tell it was a common subject topic. I caught Carlotta’s mum’s eye across the table, and she shot me an exasperated look that confirmed my suspicions. She drained her glass and reached for the bottle to refill it.
I hid a grin, beginning to warm towards Ms Martínez. Maybe the wine had loosened her up a bit.
Or maybe this was just something else that displeased her.
“Oliver, now is not the time for this discussion,” she said in clipped tones, interrupting him mid-flow.
He fell silent, and I presumed she wore the trousers in their relationship. Not that I could imagine her ever wearing trousers.
He then got up to take care of the bill.
“Oh, I can pay-” I began, my hand going to my pocket.
He smiled at me. I wasn’t sure if he meant to be patronising, but it felt like it, given the remark that followed.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it. I can’t imagine you earn too much, so you keep your money. My treat.”
“Can your ego not take this?” Carlotta giggled into my ear.
“Shut up,” I muttered back.
My hand found her leg under the table and squeezed hard. She cleared her throat and sat upright, grabbed her wine glass and downed the dregs.
Mr Fortescue shook my hand again as we left.
“It was nice to meet you, James,” he said. “Make sure you treat my girl well, she’s precious.”
“Dad,” Carlotta moaned, rolling her eyes. “I don’t need you to threaten guys for me. Especially not James.”
He grinned, and ruffled her hair.
“You coming back with us?” he asked her.
“Na, I’ll pop back to James’ for a bit. It was good to see you again, Daddy.”
After she’d said her goodbyes, we headed off round the corner to my flat.
“See, that wasn’t so bad,” she said teasingly.
“No, I only had to deal with your dad disapproving of my lowly-paid job; there wasn’t a problem at all,” I retorted.
“He wasn’t that bad and you know it!”
“I don’t think your mum liked me, though,” I added.
“Oh, that’s just Mamá for you. She didn’t have an issue with you at all, she’s just ... not the most upbeat of characters.”
So my assumptions hadn’t been wrong. However, I was still slightly dubious as to her opinion of me.
“Your brother definitely didn’t like me,” I continued.
“Toni takes after Mamá,” she conceded. “Nita ... she’s much more like Dad. Much more of a people person. See, they were fine with you.”
“Until it came to my profession.”
“Yes, well, that was funny.”
“I’m glad you found it funny! I was too busy trying to keep the Statute intact.”
She had the decency to look slightly sheepish, as I let us into my flat, which was luckily devoid of family members.
“Well, you managed admirably-” she began, before squealing as I threw her over my shoulder.
“And now you’re about to find out what happens to people who encourage me to break the Statute...”