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After Eight

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“There we go.” Mike handed Miranda a mug of tea and pressed a kiss to her forehead as she took a sip. Two sugars and milk, just the way she liked it. He’d been staying over whenever he could, and even though it had only been a few weeks, they had already established a Saturday routine of lazy drawn-out breakfasts that stretched into lunch. It was never brunch, for that meant skipping either breakfast or lunch, and that would be sacrilege.

While it might have seemed mundane to others, Miranda savoured each domestic moment shared with him with relish. After her heartache over Gary, a relationship that progressed with relative ease was a most effective tonic. No romantic milestone was taken for granted, and when it came to milestones, they had passed a significant one last night. (And no, she wasn't referring to that one -  minds out of the gutter please.)

Mike, her beautiful sweet Marple, had told her he loved her. It may have been in the midst of a meltdown, but she had been fully herself and he still loved her the way she was. Her heart had bloomed upon hearing the words she'd yearned for, and she couldn’t have asked for more.

So why couldn’t she say it back?

The realisation that she was unable to return the sentiment yet had been haunting her since. And she did not know it yet, but the seeds of another revelation were being sown.

She had successfully suppressed the most mortifying moments of the dinner party, but fragments of the evening were still racing through her mind, replaying themselves until she had scrutinised every moment to oblivion.

Fourteen hours earlier...

 “Foam fight!”

Mike swatted some foam at Miranda while her back was turned. “Not fair!” she cried, scooping up a handful of suds and flinging them back in his direction. He ducked behind the kitchen counter, and Gary, who was caught in the crossfire, copped a face full of bubbles.

“Brilliant,” she heard him mumble.

At the end of the evening, Stevie and an increasingly sullen Gary hung back to help clean up the kitchen. A less obliging Penny was bundled into a cab with an espresso.  “I am, call I what, sompletely cober,” she’d slurred. With luck, she wouldn’t remember the night at all.

Mike wiped up the last of the foam around the sink and put his arm around Miranda. “Well, I think that went rather well,” he said cheerfully, before pulling her towards him and planting a kiss on her cheek.

“It did for some,” Gary muttered under his breath.

“Look at the time!” Stevie interjected with alarm. “Why, it’s almost nine-thirty... Gary, you said you’d give me a lift home, remember? We’d best be taking our leave,” she declared, grabbing Gary by his sleeve and dragging him towards the door.

“What?!” he protested. “But your car is outsi-“

Outside the mechanics, I know. Bloody hybrids. It’s not easy being an eco-warrior, you know.”

As coats and bags were gathered, Stevie squeezed Miranda’s shoulders and yanked her down to her own height. “You’re welcome!” she’d whispered. Miranda could only hug her back, grateful for her friend’s intervention. Mike and Gary managed to exchange civil goodbyes, and she thanked him for standing up for her. She neglected to mention the blob of foam that remained on his ear, because she decided it was rather endearing.

After Stevie and Gary had left, she thought she heard them arguing outside, but they were gone before she could be sure.

***

Each time her thoughts returned to Gary this morning, she remembered his breakup with Rose with a growing sense of guilt. A tiny part of her was glad, and that only made her feel worse.

As Mike pottered around the kitchen cracking eggs and foraging through the fridge, she contemplated texting Gary and checking in with him. When she picked up her phone, there was a message from her mother. dREADFUL HANGOOVER. NOT FUN1! SEND HELP.

She typed out a message to Gary, but as her thumb hovered over the send button, she hesitated. Perhaps it’s too impersonal. I’ll mention it in person. What if I make it worse? She sighed and deleted the text with a heavy heart.

It was difficult to admit, but a distance had crept into their friendship lately. It was hardly unexpected with them seeing new people, but it unsettled her all the same. When she’d hugged him goodbye last night, his embrace was warm and familiar, and she’d been left longing for their friendship from a simpler time, if such a time had ever existed. Mike had been a pleasant distraction when Gary was with Rose, but now that Rose was gone and Mike was drawing ever closer, the delicate balance of their friendship had become more precarious than ever.

She was jolted out of her brooding by Mike, who joined on her on the sofa.

 “You looked a million miles away there,” he said, settling down next to her, their knees touching. He set down two identical plates. “I made use of the leftovers. It’s penis pasta frittata, I’m afraid,” he said sheepishly.

 She burst out laughing before taking a bite. “Not bad. It’s certainly better than what our guests had,” she said, cringing at the memory. Her eye was drawn to the ceiling, where a stubborn piece of crepe remained. “Will your dad be alright? He’s going to hate me forever now,” she lamented.

“Oh, don’t worry about him. Dad’s a tough cookie, he’ll get over it,” he reassured her. “What about your mum?”

“Please. Getting drunk and insulting everyone is a typical Friday night for her.”

They were tucking into their food when Mike broached the subject she was dreading.

“So I didn’t know you and Gary had a thing,” he teased. “Were you ever going to tell me?”

Miranda knew he was trying to be jovial, but there was tension there too. She gulped down a mouthful of tea and played with her cup. “I'm sorry. I didn't want you to find out like that." Bloody Stevie and mum couldn't keep their mouths shut. “Are you upset?”

“It’s fine,” he said. “I just wasn’t expecting that conversation over dinner is all.” He cocked his head. “How long have you guys known each other anyway?” he asked.

“Well, we met at uni, so that would be... five years, seeing as I’m in my twenties, of course,” she said with a grin. “After graduation he went off travelling and I didn't see him for ages. He came back a few years ago and started working at the restaurant, around the time Stevie and I opened the shop.” She paused, unsure of how deep she should go into their murky history. “We ended up going on a few dates to see if anything could happen... it didn’t work out.”

“How long did it go on for? Stevie said you guys were on and off.”

She squirmed in her seat. Damn, she’d forgotten he was a journalist. “I don’t know. A while, I guess,” she admitted, not knowing the answer herself. Had it started from when she’d first run into him at the restaurant, or from their “date” shortly after? Was it from when Stevie and Clive sent them on their ill-fated evening at Wilson’s? Did it go back to when he’d first left Surrey and she’d wondered whether she'd ever see him again?

“It sounds complicated,” he said.

“No! I mean it was on and off, but it’s not like we were actually together most of the time. It was literally two or three dates. Nothing came of it. It all went tits up and we decided we were better off as friends.” She winced at her choice of words. Her face warmed and she tried to turn away surreptitiously.

He gave her an inquiring look. "Do you wish it had worked out?"

"No, of course not,” she snapped. It came out harsher than she intended. She composed herself and looked him in the eye. “He’s a friend,” she said firmly.

He nodded, seemingly satisfied with her answers. “Okay.”

Her agitation was soothed when she saw the earnest devotion in his eyes. “Mike, you’ve made me happier than I’ve been in a long time.”

His lips grew into a smile and he took her hand. “Likewise,” he murmured. “You know what I said last night… I know it hasn’t been long, but I meant every word.”

She laced their fingers together in response. “I know you did,” she said, resting her head on his shoulder. She’d been gradually falling for him, and a glimmer of a future she’d never expected had been emerging. It was there, beckoning, if she wanted it.  “It meant a lot to me too.”

It wasn’t what he’d wanted to hear, but she hoped it was enough for the present. It’ll come with time, she reassured herself. How could it not?