This sequel to ‘Under The Stars‘ can be read as a standalone novel.
Katherine Dale lives her life according to her daily horoscope forecast. Having recently hit forty, Katherine is living with her partner, James Kingman, and their delightful little six-month-old daughter, Leyla. James is an up-and-coming name in astrology and that’s how they met. At a party to celebrate the publication of Katherine’s first novel, James was about to propose when Katherine announced the news that she was expecting a baby. ‘Ask me later, when I can fit into my dream dress’ she’d told him.
Wind forward thirteen months and while there is an engagement ring on Katherine’s finger, James still can’t mention the ‘m’ word. Leyla suffers from colic and won’t settle into any semblance of a routine. The lack of sleep is taking its toll on them all. James is at his wits’ end trying to cope with his increasing workload, while handling a hormonal woman who feels like an abject failure. And then there’s his boss, who has designs – on him!
With feline help from No. 4, plus a little timely advice from old postman Tom and neighbour Ed, can James and Katherine’s love for each other survive all of the challenges that life is throwing at them? Will there ever be time to plan that dream wedding?
Chapter 1: James – Love, Life And Reality
“I’m a total failure as a mother …” Katherine wails, as I quickly pull the phone away from my left ear. The muffled crying develops into a high-pitched series of squeaks, as she tries to continue talking while sobbing her heart out. I have absolutely no idea what she’s saying, but I know she’s at the end of her tether.
“That’s not true, CK, and you know it. Hang on one moment darling, my work phone is ringing and I have to get this.” I juggle phones, laying Katherine gently down on the desk. I’m surprised water isn’t leaking out everywhere as the sound of huge, wracking sobs fills the room.
“James speaking.” I squint as I try to block out the escalating noise emanating from the mobile on the desk and listen to the caller. It’s Phillipa. Oh, that’s all I need at this precise moment.
“Hi big boy, feeling in the mood to be naughty?”
It’s nine-thirty on a Monday morning and already I’m between a devil and a hard rock.
Ed passes me a mug of coffee and grimaces.
“It’s not therapy you need James, it’s a miracle.”
“So, if I was about to sign up for ten sessions you’d refuse my money?” I challenge, incredulously.
Ed might be a neighbour, but this guy also happens to be a professional counsellor. His regular nine-to-five job is advising people on how to cope with stress. He’s also a life coach and I’m desperate to try anything.
“Too right. You’re simply too nice for your own good James, that’s why you have to learn that some women are best avoided.” He shrugs, apologetically.
“Some friend you are! I’m not sure how much longer I can cope and if you can’t help me, what on earth am I going to do?”
“OK, sit down—no, over here in my client chair. Let’s take it from the very beginning. Give me an overview of your life and your current problems as you see them.” He lowers his voice and suddenly he sounds calm and purposeful, just like a shrink. “James, when did your problems begin?”
I look at him cautiously, wondering if it’s a set-up. Either way, I have nothing to lose, because I’ve nowhere else to turn.
“The guy gets the girl, as they say. Katherine is the one I love and she’s perfect. Of course it didn’t start out that way; in fact I’d say it was hate at first sight.” I settle into the chair and feel the caffeine kicking-in, giving me a little energy boost.
“Really? That surprises me. I sort of assumed you two fell in love the moment you first met. What did I miss?”
Ed shoots me a glance and I realise that he doesn’t really know the full story, why would he? We’ve only been neighbours for six months. He moved into a little terraced cottage a stone’s throw away from where I live with Katherine, after old Jake died. Jake was a war hero and an interesting, though very private, man. My mind is wandering and I pull myself back into the moment. I need Ed’s opinion before things get completely out of hand. He needs to see the bigger picture, but it’s a long story. I like to think I can handle most things; however I’m not talking about one or two problems here. I seem to have a mountain of them.
“We met online. Well, Katherine sent me an abusive email complaining about my forecasts. I thought you knew she was a horoscope fanatic? It’s why I call her CK—crazy Katherine—because she lives her life according to her daily horoscope.”
“I assumed that was because it’s what you do for a living and Katherine was being supportive. You’re the only astrologer I know; it’s not a commonplace occupation. Did she really complain? She’s such a lovely woman. You’re not trying to grab the sympathy vote from me here, are you?”
I let out a loud sigh; this could take a bit of explaining.
“When you propose to the quintessential Gemini, you can’t be sure what’s coming next. She never fails to surprise me and that’s a big part of the attraction. However, that was before you and I met, so I guess you missed the fun and games. Seriously though, I did ask her to marry me.”
“I didn’t think the two of you were actually married.”
“We aren’t. I was on bended knee, but she never answered the question.” I take a mouthful of coffee.
Ed shifts uncomfortably in his seat.
“It’s clear you’re madly in love with each other and now you have little Leyla. Are you trying to tell me that Katherine is a commitment-phobe?” He looks shocked, his frown tempered with a look of disbelief.
“No, you see I had no idea CK was expecting Leyla. Most women dream of a wonderful wedding and that usually means fitting into the perfect dress. I understood that of course. I did try to convince her that she would look beautiful no matter what size, or shape, she was, but to no avail. Anyway, being a gentleman, I agreed to wait until after Leyla was born and then ask her again. The problem is that since the birth Katherine has fallen apart. Leyla cries a lot and Katherine stresses about that. The lack of sleep is taking a toll on both of them; heck, who am I kidding? It’s exhausting us all. I do what I can, but if I succeed in calming Leyla down, then Katherine interprets that as a failure on her part. It’s a vicious circle and it isn’t easy handling a hormonal woman who feels like an abject failure, and a three-month old baby with colic.
“CK isn’t a failure of course; she’s a wonderful and caring mum, but she’s used to being able to control a situation. I’m afraid babies sort of do their own thing. Plus her second book hasn’t been anywhere near as successful as her first one. It has knocked her confidence at the worst possible time, I’m afraid. She’s at a very low point.” I shrug, not really sure whether a bachelor can understand the upheaval of having a newborn baby in the house. Add into the mix a woman whose hormones are akin to a lethal cocktail and you begin to see the picture. It’s not exactly pretty.
“Oh, I thought this was all about sexual harassment,” Ed comments, frowning. I assume he’s disappointed at the mundane detail, rather than the titillating exposé he was expecting.
“It’s only one part of it. I’m juggling balls—coping with an exhausted partner, a fretful baby, and trying to avoid a boss who is desperate to get laid.”
“By you, it would seem,” he adds.
“I can appreciate that it can’t be easy coping with things at home. I presume there’s nothing … um … between you and Phillipa.” He peers at me, as if trying to decide whether or not this is a problem I’ve created and I’m too ashamed to admit the truth.
“I need an affair like I need a hole in the head. A good night’s sleep is way more appealing than a gratuitous romp between the sheets. I’m actually offended by the way Phillipa regards me as being someone who is up for it. Short of telling her ‘back off lady, I’m a family man’, I’m running out of excuses. I feel like such a wimp, to be honest. You know how most guys would look at it.”
Ed is trying his best not to laugh and almost chokes on his coffee.
“You aren’t even a little bit flattered that she fancies you?”
I wonder if he thinks I’m exaggerating.
“Ed, it’s out of order. I have no interest in Phillipa whatsoever. I only wish she wasn’t my boss, because that makes it awkward. Dealing with Katherine and Leyla is exhausting at times and difficult when I have a tight work schedule. Because of the way Phillipa is, I daren’t talk about anything personal, or ask for an extension to a deadline. However, there are times when that’s a real problem, but it’s not the only issue I have. She keeps insisting I accompany her on silly little trips away when there’s absolutely no need for me to attend. It puts extra pressure on Katherine if I’m not around to help out. Goodness knows what CK would think if she knew Phillipa’s real motive. I feel like a fly caught in a spider’s web, only to find there are two spiders. Who will eat me first? The one I love, or the one I don’t?”
Having survived on less than five hours sleep each night for the last three months, it’s seriously affecting my brain. I grimace at the sad and slightly pathetic tone in my voice. Ed sits and shakes his head.
“Mate, you are in a fix. Professionally I’d advise you to begin by sitting down with Phillipa and explaining how you feel. I’d also advise you to seek help for Katherine. There’s a chance she might be suffering from post-natal depression. You really are stuck in the middle of an impossible situation. If it’s any consolation, I feel sorry for you.”
“Understood. Yep, guess I knew that was coming and I’ve tried warning Phillipa off, but she doesn’t listen. I can’t quit the job because it pays too well, and now CK’s income has dropped it’s more important than ever. Let’s be honest, there aren’t many openings for an astrologer these days. I’ve suggested to CK several times that she should have a chat with her doctor, but she’s very fragile at the moment. I’m walking on eggshells trying not to upset her, or add to her stress levels.”
“Talk to Katherine’s sister, let her know what’s happening and see what she suggests,” he offers. I stand up and shake his hand.
“Yes, thanks. Useful. I was rather worried you’d say ‘grow a pair’.”
“Relationships aren’t easy, but life isn’t easy either. If the solutions were simple I wouldn’t have a job. You need help, but it’s a different sort of help to that which I can offer. I counsel people who can’t organise their lives, or motivate themselves and that isn’t your problem at all. Wish I could be of more use.”
“No, it’s fine and thanks for listening.” We do our usual man-shake, ending with a high-five. Ed pulls a face, and then breaks into a smile.
“Cheer up mate, nothing lasts forever,” he adds.
I walk away from Ed’s office feeling at an all-time low. The mobile in my pocket starts to buzz and I yank it out. Phillipa’s name comes up on the caller ID. I roll my eyes as I press the button, wondering what hoops she’s going to have me jumping through next.
“I hope you’re free this weekend,” she coos, seductively. “There’s a conference we need to attend and Mark will be there too.”
I feel too dejected to argue, so I make a non-committal sound and press the end call button. Phillipa knows she has me where she wants me—and from where I’m standing that’s backed into a corner. I have to earn a living and I need this job to survive. I am forever in Mark Ainsley-Thomas’ debt for taking me on, trusting that I was good enough to make the grade.
Phillipa replaced Chad about five months ago. Would I have taken the job if I had met her first? No. I knew she was going to be trouble from the moment we first met. She’s a scary woman; beautiful, knowledgeable, a total control freak, and she knows how to get her own way.
I can fully appreciate why Mark employed her. The website is built around Mark’s successful career, which spans nearly three decades. He’s one of the foremost astrologers in the world, well-respected and with an enormous following. The fact that he’s now an A-list celebrity is the reason why I was taken on. He spends his life promoting the website and giving lectures on astrology and astronomy. Flying around the world as an international guest speaker keeps him busy. At the moment he still does the monthly, and annual, forecasts. I work on the daily and weekly ones, as well as answering all of the questions from our website members.
The less time Mark spends close to the business, the more reliant he becomes upon Phillipa to ensure everything runs smoothly. Because I do a good job, all she has to do is make sure the team back in the office run the admin and IT side of things without a hitch. I’m sure a part of her problem is boredom. If she had actual problems to sort out, at least it would keep her busy. Instead she has become the bane of my life.
My other pocket begins to buzz and I know it’s going to be CK. Before I hear her voice, the sound of Leyla wailing in the background fills the silence.
“Are you coming home soon?” It’s a tearful plea. I can imagine Katherine’s bottom lip wavering: her forehead crinkled-up in frustration as she tries hard to remain calm.
“On my way,” I reassure her, trying to sound upbeat. “When I get back I’ll have Leyla for a few hours and you can try to get a little sleep. You must be shattered.”
“I am. Can you pick up some more baby milk on the way home? Oh, and we don’t have anything for dinner … sorry James, I will pull myself together very soon. I know how busy you are at the moment.”
Now she’s crying softly and trying very hard to hide it from me. I visualise her standing there, knuckles white as she grips the phone too tightly, with tears running down those lovely cheeks. How I long to be able to kiss them away and make life as sweet as it should be. We have so much for which to be grateful and yet it feels as if nothing is working out. I’m worried sick that it will all become too much and that Katherine will stop loving me. My heart chills at the thought of her feeling so miserable.
I have to find a way of making it all work, while dodging Phillipa. I can’t add to CK’s problems and it’s something I have to fix by myself. But first there’s a dash around the supermarket for two ready-made meals that don’t taste as bland as baby food…