“I’ve been called into the office, but won’t be long. Breakfast things are laid out for you in the kitchen. See you soon. S x.”
Nicola read and re-read the note with a relieved smile; on waking to find Stamford absent from the bed and a post-it on the pillow she had expected the worst. On closer inspection, she found that the post-it was in fact a cream-coloured card with “Staveley-Wadham and Watkins Solicitors Ltd” printed in dark blue ink at the bottom.
Returning the note to the pillow and slowly rising from the bed, Nicola was confronted with the debris of clothes that littered the floor. She had just begun a root for her underwear when she heard a clang resounding from somewhere in the apartment. Nicola stopped and listened. Now she thought about it, she was sure she had been woken by a similar clatter; Stamford must have returned from the office sooner than expected.
Hastily slipping into her underwear, and retrieving and clipping on her bra, Nicola reached for her jeans, then stopped. With a sly smile she stepped over the mess of clothing to the door and pulled Stamford’s dark red, paisley dressing gown from its hook. Slipping it on over her shoulders and leaving it open, the cord undone, she pondered whether the colour clashed too much with her fiery hair. There was more clanging from what she assumed would be the kitchen, and she decided now was not the time to be overly fashion conscious; she had bigger things to worry about.
Opening the bedroom door and stepping into the hallway, Nicola peered around, searching out the source of the noise. Scraping to her right. She turned her head to follow the sound and saw a door left ajar at the end of the hall, squinting her eyes she could just make out a figure in black moving about inside. She crept down the hallway and approached the door. “Stamford?” Nicola pushed it open and froze.
A boy in a black school blazer stared back at her, eyes bulging, with half a toasted bagel held aloft –the other half presumably in his mouth, as he gulped before stuttering: “Oh... I’m sorry... I’m so sorry... I didn’t... didn’t...”
His eyes travelled the length of Nicola’s lithe body, and she quickly pulled Stamford’s dressing gown around her, hastily tying the cord, muttering a “Jesus Christ” as she did. She studied the boy, eyes narrowed, blushing furiously. He couldn’t be more than five or six years younger than her.
Feeling her eyes burning into him, the boy quickly offered her his bagel-free hand. “I’m Milton... Milton Staveley-Wadham.”
With a stab of panic Nicola recognised the pale skin and high cheek bones, the dark hair and darker eyes. Oh God, she thought, is this an illegitimate son he didn’t warn me about?
“Stamford’s brother,” Milton offered when Nicola didn’t respond.
“Brother?” Nicola repeated, arching her eyebrows.
“Much younger brother,” Milton added, grinning at Nicola’s confusion. “Stamford likes to call me ‘The Immaculate Accident’... He was fifteen when I was born.”
“Oh,” Nicola murmured, taking a step into the kitchen. “So you’re –?”
“Seventeen,” Milton finished. He turned to the kitchen table where Stamford had laid out quite an impressive spread; toasted bagels, cream cheese, a stack of American pancakes, maple syrup, orange juice and a cafetière with a milk jug and sugar pot. “I take it this is all for you?” Milton asked, depositing his half-eaten bagel onto a plate next to the maple syrup.
Nicola peered over Milton’s shoulder with a smile, a warm giddy feeling spreading in her stomach. “Yes... I spent six months in New York after I graduated. I was telling Stamford that the thing I miss most about America is the breakfast.” She couldn’t believe the trouble Stamford had gone to; she had to stifle a chuckle when picturing him in an apron mixing pancake batter.
“Please... Have a seat,” Milton said, breaking Nicola from her reverie. To her surprise, he had pulled out a chair at the table and was gesturing for her to sit.
Nicola expected him to move away as she approached the chair, but instead he waited until she was standing in front of it before pushing it in behind her as she sat down. I’ve fallen into a Jane Austen novel, Nicola mused as Milton took a seat at the table opposite her. Mrs Staveley-Wadham must be quite a character to call her two sons Milton and Stamford.
“Do you mind if I ask you name?” Milton asked pleasantly, retrieving his bagel.
“Do I get a second name?”
Nicola eyed Milton with a small smirk; she suspected he was the type to begin the Facebook stalking the instant he got internet access. “I don’t think so.”
“You’re quite a long way from Liverpool,” Milton said quietly, undeterred by her last comment, as Nicola reached for the cafetière.
“Yes, I am,” Nicola replied, raising an eyebrow, and carefully pouring herself a cup of coffee. “But I’m actually from South Shields... Newcastle.”
Milton’s pale cheeks coloured considerably. “Oh, I’m sorry... I’m terrible with Northern accents... I always get them mixed up!”
“That’s quite alright,” Nicola smiled, taking a tactical sip of her coffee. She inspected the red and blue crest embroidered on Milton’s blazer pocket. The Latin slogan below it was stitched in gold: “Scientia Est Potentia”. Nicola hazarded a vague translation, but thought with a sigh, my school couldn’t afford to teach a dead language as most of its students couldn’t get a GCSE in English.
“That’s quite a scrape you’ve got on your knee,” Milton said, looking away from Nicola and inspecting his bagel. He appeared to be feigning innocence.
Nicola stared at him, trying to keep the look of mortification from her face. She had gained the graze on her right knee when she had fallen in front of Stamford’s cab the previous evening. Stamford had been horrified, had insisted on taking Nicola to dinner, and then to the theatre, and then eventually to bed. It had been a surreal twenty-four hours, and was made all the more surreal by the presence of her one night stand’s teenage brother enquiring about the state of her knees.
“I... I fell yesterday,” Nicola whispered, aware of how lame a response it was.
“Were you running away from someone?”
Nicola surveyed Milton in awed surprise. This seventeen-year-old was far more astute than she had supposed. Though he wasn’t quite right in the literal sense; Jake hadn’t followed her to London, and was probably on a plane back to New York by now. “In a way, I suppose I was,” she answered finally.
Milton was beginning to question her further when they heard the door. “Nicola?” Stamford called out as he entered the apartment. They heard him shut the door, and dispose of his coat and briefcase in the hall.
“I’m in the kitchen,” Nicola replied, ignoring Milton’s look of horror.
Milton’s eyes once again bulged from his head and he appeared to be searching for a place to hide; his gaze flickered under the table, and then to the pantry. But before he could move, Stamford appeared in the doorway. Milton tensed, not daring to look behind him.
“Out!” Stamford barked, not moving from the doorway.
“Hey, Stam, I just—”
“I mean it, Milton, get out!”
Milton looked pleadingly at Nicola, and she turned to Stamford with a wry smile. “Milton and I were just having a lovely chat. Will you at least let him finish his bagel?”
Stamford’s glare softened as he strolled to the table and took a seat next to Nicola. He kissed her lightly on the forehead as he lowered himself into a chair. “This colour suits you,” he said quietly, touching her shoulder.
Slightly taken back by Stamford’s outward show of affection, it took a few moments for Nicola to reply with a mumbled word of thanks. Stamford turned to his brother, “Finish your breakfast,” he said, his tone not completely free of disapproval.
Milton had been watching the proceedings with an amused smirk. “She’s got you whipped, bro!” he said gleefully, imitating the sound of a whip with a generous hand gesture.
“Don’t call me ‘bro’,” Stamford snapped. “You’re not from the ghetto, Milton. You’re from Kensington... And why aren’t you at school?”
“I have free periods on Thursday mornings,” Milton shrugged, taking a bite of his bagel, smearing cream cheese across his top lip.
“You mean General Studies?” Stamford retorted with a sigh.
“Same thing.” Milton wiped the cheese from his lip with his thumb and sucked it.
“I’m sorry you had to let him in,” Stamford said to Nicola, eyeing his brother distastefully.
“Oh, I didn’t have to—” Nicola stopped herself, but she had not caught Milton’s look of panic in time. She had unintentionally turned him in.
Stamford looked from Nicola to Milton, thunderstruck. “How on earth did you get in?”
“OK... Stam... Don’t be mad... But, I, erm, got myself a key cut... That weekend you let me house-sit.”
“You did what?!” Stamford snarled. He looked like he was about to bludgeon Milton’s face in with the cafetière. “You mean you’ve been sneaking into my apartment since then?”
“Only once or twice... Like when Mummy changed the WiFi password because I got a D in Physics.”
“But my WiFi has a—” Stamford stopped. “You know my password?”
“Well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that it’s—”
“Milton, will you pass the milk?” Nicola, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the fraternal domestic, had said the first thing that came to her mind.
Milton and Stamford froze. After a few moments, Milton, ever the gentleman, hesitantly handed Nicola the milk jug. She poured herself a dash and turned to Stamford. “This coffee is excellent, just a bit too strong for my taste.”
“I hope you like the spread,” Stamford said, smiling a little bashfully, as his gaze flitted from Milton to Nicola. “I thought I’d bring you a slice of New York.”
“It’s lovely,” Nicola replied, aware that she was positively cooing. “Everything alright in the office?”
“Oh yes, just a damned mix up with—” Stamford was interrupted by the sound of avid tapping.
They both looked up to find Milton had produced a shiny, new Blackberry and was typing intently.
“What are you doing?” Stamford asked irritably.
“Messaging Mummy to let her know you’re not actually gay,” Milton replied, without his eyes leaving the screen.
Stamford’s cheeks were almost purple. “Milton!”
“Don’t worry, she’ll be thrilled... She’ll probably want to throw a party... And change her will...”
Nicola had to hand it to Milton; he was an absolute artist when it came to pissing off his brother. Before Milton had time to react, Stamford leapt up and leant across the table, swiftly snatching the Blackberry from his grasp.
“Stamford! Give it back!” Milton cried, but his words of protest fell on deaf ears.
“Either you leave my apartment this instant or it goes out the window.”
“Oh, really?” Stamford took a step towards the kitchen window.
“OK, OK, I’m going!” Milton huffed. “But please just give it back?”
Stamford reluctantly handed the Blackberry back to his brother, and Milton quickly returned it to the inside pocket of his blazer. He took a moment to regain himself and straighten his school-tie, and then turned to Nicola. “It was lovely meeting you, Nicola,” he said, offering her his hand once again.
Nicola shook it, trying not to laugh. “You too, Milton.”
Milton attempted to linger, but appeared to be scared off by his brother’s thunderous expression. Without another word, he scuttled out of the kitchen, into the hall. Stamford didn’t return to his seat until he heard the door slam.
“I’m so sorry about that,” he said, with a tired smile.
“Well, there hasn’t been a dull moment,” Nicola grinned, placing a hand on Stamford’s neck, teasingly toying with his shirt collar. “You do realise your brother got to see almost all of me?”
“Bastard,” Stamford replied, leaning in closer. “Would you mind if I had another look?”