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The other woman

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Miranda sat cross-legged on her bed, staring at the wall. Nothing too big, maybe 12 or 15 inches wide. Two feet at a push. Getting off the bed, she picked up her handbag and checked the contents – sunglasses, phone, purse, keys. Satisfied, she nodded and headed out in the direction of the art market.

It was a warm, clear morning and Miranda felt her spirits lifting with the sun. The art market was busy with tourists and locals. Miranda was glad she’d made the effort to learn some of the language – she could tell that Spanish-speakers got the best deals.

She was browsing through a box of landscapes when she heard a familiar voice. “Don’t think much of that one.”

She turned to her side with a surprised grin on her face. “Max! What are you doing here?”

“I was at a loose end and remembered you said you’d be here. Thought I’d give you the benefit of my opinions on your artwork.”

“And there was me thinking I’d be able to choose the art going on my own wall all by myself.”

“Can’t have that. You might get it wrong.”

She laughed as she dropped a gentle punch on his elbow and shook her head. Turning back to the box, she flicked through until one caught her eye, a painting of a windmill on a windswept moor. She picked it up and showed it to Max.

“It’s a bit… dark,” he said doubtfully.

Miranda looked at it again and nodded, putting it back in the box. Max started looking in another box and pulled out a horrible painting of a teddy bear in a bow tie sitting next to a clown rag doll. “Maybe more like this?” he said.

She rolled her eyes but couldn’t hold back a chuckle. “If you’re going to be here,” she said, “at least try to help. I want something soothing that won’t give me nightmares or look creepy in the middle of the night.”

They spent the rest of the morning mooching around the market, looking at pictures for Miranda’s wall and laughing at some of the more outlandish artwork. Eventually they landed on a shortlist of three. “What’s it going to be?” said Max. “The seascape, the wheatfield or the cathedral?”

“I like them all,” she said. “Can’t decide. You choose.”

“Me?” Max’s eyebrows rose, but he nodded and thought for a moment. “The seascape. It’s light and fresh. It suits you.”

“Seascape it is.” They walked back to the stall and Miranda handed the painting to the vendor. She reached into her handbag for her purse but Max put his hand on her arm.

“Let me,” he said.

“What? No.”

“Please. I want to. Call it a housewarming gift.”

“I’ve been there six months.”

“A late housewarming gift.” He handed a few notes to the vendor and took back the painting, now wrapped in brown paper. “I’m hungry,” he said, looking down at her. “Shall we get lunch?”

They started walking towards the restaurants lined up on the edge of the market, Max with the painting under his arm. “You’re always hungry,” she said, “and lunch would be lovely, but don’t you have to get back to Carmen?”

“She’s, er, working. Today.”

“That’s a shame,” Miranda said. “But I don’t mind being your second-best lunch date.” She stopped to scan a menu outside one of the restaurants and missed the glance Max sent her. “This place OK?” she asked, and Max nodded, following her in.

Max persuaded Miranda to try some of the island’s specialities and to her surprise she found she liked the way the spices danced on her tongue. “It’s not a cheese and crisp sandwich,” she said, “but it’s better than I expected.”

Max grinned. “That’s my girl. Coffee? Or an aperitif?”

“Coffee please.” Max ordered and they carried on their conversation, chatting about their colleagues, speculating about Ines’s love life, working out the differences between policing in Munich, London and Palma and bickering over which system was better. It was the middle of the afternoon by the time they finished and Max offered to walk her home.

“I feel as though I’ve stolen enough of your Saturday already,” she said.

“Nonsense, it was freely given. Anyway, I’ve got to carry your painting back.”

“Well, if you insist.” They strolled back to hers, chatting easily until they reached her front door. She took the painting from him. “Thank you. For this, and for… I enjoyed today.”

Max looked at her closely. “Me too,” he said, and nodded at the painting. “I hope it looks nice on your bedroom wall.”

“I’ll let you know.” She walked up the steps to her door. “Bye, Max. See you on Monday.”

He nodded and waited until her door was closed before heading for home.

--

Monday morning rolled around and Miranda smiled as Max joined her in the office. They were still working on the hotel fraud and needed to speak to the manager and take statements. Max drove them over and they passed the swimming pool on their way to the offices. Some sort of aerobics class was happening in the pool, with loud music and a toned instructor yelling out the actions. Max laughed as they walked past, smiling at the instructor and joining in with the moves, gaining himself a round of applause from the guests in the pool.

Miranda watched on with a smile on her face. At some point, some time between Max dancing at Niall Taylor’s funeral and him singing on the stage of the opera house, she’d stopped being exasperated by his antics and started looking at them fondly. She knew what it meant but wasn’t going to dwell on it. She also wasn’t going to let Max in on the secret, so when he caught her eye she frowned impatiently and increased her pace. Max shrugged and followed behind, sending a final wave to the instructor as he went.

It took a few more days to wrap up the case, but by Thursday the paperwork had been submitted and the charges filed. Max looked across at Miranda, who was logging off her PC and looking around for her bag. “Good job, partner,” he said, and she smiled.

“Couldn’t have done it without you.” She looked around the office. “Do you think anyone fancies a drink?” She felt like celebrating but the case was small – only she and Max had worked on it – and Max shook his head.

“Looks like it’s just you and me,” he said. He looked at his desk and then up again. “Shall we get dinner?”

“OK, sure. Joan’s?”

Max paused. “I feel like steak. Joan only has burgers.”

Shrugging, Miranda said. “OK. But I’m not really dressed for a restaurant that does steak.”

He ran his eyes along the length of her, in a way that made her body tighten. “You look fine to me,” he said. “But if you want, you could go home and change? I’ll pick you up at eight.”

“OK, sure.” Miranda shouldered her bag and kept her head down as she left.

--

Half a dozen outfits lay on Miranda’s bed, and she stared at them with irritation. What did you wear to a restaurant that did steak? And more importantly, what did you wear when you wanted to look good but absolutely did not want to give the impression that you thought you were on a date?

The wide-legged trousers were a no. She wore trousers and flat shoes every day for work. For an evening meal, even one with just a colleague, she’d find heels and a skirt.

Nothing too short though. For all she knew, Carmen might join them and she wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression. So that ruled out the green dress. And the black one was just a bit too smart for a Thursday night dinner.

She finally settled on a long, tiered skirt that fitted close around the hips, a wide belt and a slim halter-neck top. Her denim jacket stopped the outfit looking too dressy, even with the heeled ankle boots.

Max arrived a few minutes early, parking outside hers and waving up at her as she stood on her balcony. “Down in a minute,” she called, retreating to her bedroom and locking the glass door. She took a last look in the mirror, sternly reminding herself that it was just Max and it really didn’t matter what she wore. She hung the discarded outfits back in her wardrobe, rolling her eyes at herself, and made her way out.

“It’s not far. I thought we could walk,” he said, and they began to stroll back towards the centre of town. Miranda flicked her eyes to the side as they walked, quickly looking him up and down. If she wasn’t mistaken, he’d made an effort too, swapping his usual crumpled linen for indigo denim and a crisp white shirt. He rarely looked bad, but she cursed her luck that he should seem quite so attractive this evening.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

He named a restaurant that even she had heard of. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They do chips. You won’t starve.”

She smiled. “I’m sure I’ll find something to suit my cautious Welsh palate.”

He looked down at her. “A few months ago you wouldn’t have said that. You’d have said, ‘Of course I won’t starve, why would I starve, are you saying I’m difficult Detective Winter?’”

“I wouldn’t have said Detective Winter.” He raised an eyebrow. “All right, maybe I have softened up a bit. I’m still not going to eat any sobrasada.”

Max held his hands up in surrender, a smile on his face. They turned a corner. “We’re here.”

The restaurant had indoor tables dressed with white linen, crystal glasses and silverware. The outdoor tables were more casual and she pointed at one. Max caught the eye of a waiter and said quietly that he’d booked for indoors but they’d prefer to be outside. They followed the waiter to one of the free tables and took their seats.

Max picked up a menu and scanned through it, closing it after a moment. Miranda’s perusal was more thorough, and when the waiter came over she asked for a dish of roasted cod and tomatoes. True to his word, Max went for a fillet stake, served rare. He asked the waiter’s advice on a bottle of wine; he suggested a rose that would complement both meals.

“You shouldn’t do that,” Miranda said after the waiter left. “They always recommend the most expensive bottle they think they can get away with.”

Max shrugged. “My treat. Anyway, we’re celebrating.”

“I thought you had a wedding to save for.”

There was a pause. Max leaned forward and opened his mouth to speak, but the waiter returned with the wine and Max sat back. Miranda took a sip from her glass. “Not bad,” she said.

“It’s delicious. Admit it.”

Miranda waved her hand. “It will do.” The smile on her face gave her away. “Okay, okay, fine. It’s very nice. Thank you.”

Max pulled his notebook from his pocket. “Got to write this down,” he said, miming holding a pen. “Miranda… admitted… Max… was… right.”

Miranda narrowed her eyes. “The reason I so rarely admit you’re right is because you’re so very rarely right.”

Max clutched his hand to his heart. “Miranda! So cruel!”

Laughing, Miranda flicked her napkin at him and he picked up his water glass, angling it as if to spill the contents on her. “Shall I?” he said.

“Just try it.” She picked up her wine glass in retaliation, but he was saved by the arrival of their meals. As the waiter put the plates in front of them she became conscious of the smile that was still on her face, and that for a moment she’d let go of her usual inhibitions. Max was good at bringing people out of their shell, but she’d always been able to maintain her guard against him. She didn’t want to lose that skill.

The fish was succulent and full of flavour. Miranda cleared her plate, watching as Max devoured his steak, and she finished a second glass of rose. Max pointed at a man and a woman sitting at a nearby table. “You think they’re on a date?”

Miranda took a sideways glance at the pair. “I think they’re a couple,” she said, “but they’ve been together for ages.”

“Nah. First date. You can tell, they’re both nervous, hardly speaking.”

Miranda shook her head. “They’re not on a first date because they haven’t made enough of an effort. Look, they’re still in their work clothes.” Without thinking, her eyes flicked Max up and down. She coughed and continued. “And they’re not speaking because they’re bored with each other. One of them is trying to decide whether to dump the other now, or have one last sleepover and do it in the morning.”

“Such cynicism.”

“Realism. Not everyone gets to live happily ever after, Max.”

Max regarded her. “I guess not.”

The waiter arrived to clear their plates and offer the dessert menu. “I shouldn’t really,” said Miranda.

“Share one with me.”

“I couldn’t.”

“OK.” He took a menu from the waiter. “Just me then.”

“No. Wait.” He looked at her. “You twisted my arm.”

Smiling, Max glanced down the menu and ordered a pudding based on a traditional Portuguese custard tart and asked for two spoons. “You’ll love it,” he said.

Miranda poured out the last of the wine and turned to look out at people mingling on the square outside the restaurant. “That pair, though,” she said, pointing at a pair of twenty-somethings strolling on the pavement opposite. “First date.”

“You think?” Max turned to look at them.

“Absolutely. He keeps going to touch her arm but pulling back before he makes contact. And she keeps looking up at him and smiling, then looking away quickly, like she’s worried she’ll give herself away.”

The couple reached the taxi rank on the edge of the square. They stood together awkwardly for a moment before the woman reached up to peck his cheek then get into the back of a cab. “Shame,” said Max, looking at the man who was smiling at the woman as she strapped herself into the car.

“Just wait,” said Miranda. The man was about to close the taxi door on his date when she slid back out of the car. She looked up at him shyly then put her arms around his neck and pulled his lips down to hers. He responded immediately, catching her around the waist and deepening the kiss. After a moment she pulled back with a smile and said something Miranda couldn’t catch. He grinned and nodded, and they both got into the back of the cab. Miranda watched with a wistful expression as the taxi pulled away.

Max looked at her. “You’re not so cynical really, I guess,” he said softly.

She gave herself a small shake. “Don’t know what you mean.” She was saved from further interrogation by the arrival of their dessert.

The plate was a picture, a small custard tart with a sorbet and a shard of praline on the side. “Looks delicious,” said Miranda. Max handed her one of the spoons and set about dividing the tart in two.

There was something intimate about sharing the plate, their heads bent close together as they ate. The tart was only a few mouthfuls, rich and creamy, and perfectly offset by the freshness of the sorbet. “Delicious,” Miranda said, putting down her spoon. Max picked up the shard of praline and held it towards her.

“Want a bite?” She laughed and shook her head. He moved it closer to her mouth. “You sure? It looks amazing.”

Miranda rolled her eyes and was about to refuse again, but for a moment her natural reserve fell away. She took hold of Max’s hand and bit the end of the praline. Letting go, she straightened up and rolled the praline around in her mouth. “You’re right,” she said, “It’s divine.”

Max was staring at her lips. He blinked and looked down at the praline in his hand, then grinned and took a bite of his own.

The desert finished, Max sat back in his chair, arms outstretched, his face turned towards the people walking to and fro in the square. Miranda allowed her eyes to stray over him, taking in the strength of his shoulders, his large hands as they curled over the back of a chair, his familiar, handsome features. She looked down into her empty wineglass with a frown.

When she looked up again Max was staring at her. “Another?”

She shook her head. “Work in the morning. We should really make a move.”

The corner of his mouth turned down. “Guess so.” He signalled for the bill while she pulled on her jacket.

When the bill arrived Miranda picked it up but Max snatched it out of her hand. “Told you, my treat.”

“I want to go halves, at least.” She took out a few notes and put them on the table. Max looked at her with exasperation, but she just shrugged and started walking in the direction of her flat. Max quickly pulled out a few notes of his own and left them with hers, pointing to them as he passed the waiter, hurrying to catch up with Miranda.

As he drew alongside her, she said, “Thank you for tonight. I would never have gone there on my own.”

“Glad you enjoyed it.” They walked in silence for a moment then he said, “I worry that you’re on your own so much.”

“You don’t have to worry about me. I’m fine on my own.”

“You always say that.”

“It’s always true.” She sensed his eyes on her and pulled her jacket a little tighter around her body. “Look, we’ve had a really nice evening. Do we have to spoil it by arguing about my social life?”

She felt the warmth of his hand on her shoulder for a moment. “Fine. We don’t have to talk about it, but you can’t stop me worrying about it.”

Her brows drew together. She didn’t want Max’s pity. She slowed as they reached her flat. “You really don’t need to,” she said, coming to a halt. “I’m happy in my own company.”

Max looked at her, smiling while giving a small shake of his head. He tilted his head in the direction of her front door. “Got any coffee yet?”