Parents and Teachers by Sara Madderson

1

ASTRID

It was the first hockey fixture of the school year, and her carefully crafted facade shattered with a single turn of her ankle.

One minute, she was decorously cheering Tabby’s goal as the Year 3s threw a summer’s-worth of energy into their match against Chelsea Prep, and the next she found herself thrown to the astroturf, shouting in pain. She grabbed her ankle and grimaced. Shit, that hurt. She edged her four-inch-heeled pump off her foot.

The other mothers were beside her in a flash, some doing a better impression of genuine concern than others.

‘Astrid, darling, are you ok?’ asked Serena Woodhouse, schadenfreude oozing from every pore. ‘What a tumble—that looked nasty.’

‘Let me fetch Mr Pearce,’ Natalia Beneventi said, ever-practical.

‘Who’s Mr Pearce?’ Astrid looked around in a fog of pain.

‘The head of PE! He’s helping with the girls’ tennis party next week, remember?’

She did not remember. Natalia had organised that element of the party; she had far more time on her hands than Astrid did. Now she was jumping up and down and waving across the pitch. ‘Mr Pearce! We have a situation!’

Astrid tried to hold her ankle. It was beginning to swell already.

She raised her head to find someone standing in front of her. White trainers and socks. Tanned, tanned legs. Powerful thighs—Jesus Christ, he must be a rugby player. Navy running shorts. A white Chiltern House polo shirt. Holy shit—a seriously gorgeous face, wearing a concerned smile. Liquid brown eyes, and dark hair falling over them.

‘What have we here?’ he said. Mmm. Irish. She loved that accent. ‘Is it ok if I take a look?’

She leant on her left hand and tried to extend her right leg around to the front gracefully. Her habitual mask—the one that portrayed assurance and self-sufficiency and concealed all of her anxious and fearful demons—fell back into place. ‘I went over on it,’ she explained. ‘I shouldn’t have been jumping about in heels.’

‘Looks like it’s just a sprain. I can wrap it for you. If I help you, do you think you can come into the sports centre with me?’

Astrid wasn’t sure she could do that at all, at least not with the acceptable level of aplomb. However, she had no intention of exposing her inner feebleness in front of this heavenly young man or the other mothers. She nodded.

‘Ok. Take my hands and pull yourself up using your left leg.’

She removed her other shoe and did so as elegantly as she could.

‘Well done.’

He was speaking to her as if she were an eight-year-old who’d scraped her knee. Bizarrely, she quite liked it. She’d felt like an eight-year-old just then, her anxiety bubbling perilously close to the surface. Her eyes had pricked with the twin injuries to ankle and pride when she’d fallen.

‘Put your arm around my shoulder and let me take as much of your weight as you can.’

It was surprisingly enjoyable to have this divine creature attending to her. She slipped her arm around his neck and noted with a touch of satisfaction the daggers Serena was shooting her.

‘Right. Let’s do this.’ He held her right hand in place over his shoulder and gripped her waist with his left. ‘Miss Oliver! Back in five!’ he shouted to his colleague.

It was painful to put weight on the ankle. She overrode her instincts to bear as much of the weight as she could and leant into him. He seemed to be able to handle it; his back and shoulder muscles flexed under her bare arm. His hand, on hers, was warm. He smelt of sweat, sunshine on skin, and some kind of deodorant. She was glad she’d topped up with lashings of her Sana Jardin perfume before she’d left the office. This was the closest physical contact she’d had with a fellow adult in weeks. Pathetic.

* * *

She saton a hard plastic chair in the sports centre. He returned with a first-aid box and icepack and pulled another chair round to face her. Sitting down, he gestured towards her foot. ‘May I?’

She nodded and swung her leg slowly and painfully upwards. He took it gently by the heel and rested it on his thighs.

‘We haven’t met before. Callum Pearce.’ He held out his hand.

‘Astrid Carmichael. Tabby Carmichael’s mother. How come we haven’t crossed paths before?’

‘I only teach the middle school. Mr Kelly’s in charge of PE for the lower school.’

‘Ah, I see.’ She winced as he probed her ankle.

He rummaged in the first-aid box and pulled out a roll of bandage. ‘Before I strap you up, have a go at rotating your ankle so I can see your range of motion, please.’

She obliged gingerly, clenching her teeth at the discomfort. The hairs on his thigh were soft under her heel as she moved it.

‘That looks pretty good to me.’ He smiled at her. ‘I’m sure you’ll be right as rain in a few days.’ He unwound a section of the bandage roll and started to wrap it deftly around her foot.

‘I’d better be. It’s London Fashion Week next week. Crutches are not a good look at Fashion Week.’

‘Going to a few shows, are you?’ He worked fast; the bandage was tight and the compression effect a relief. She was enjoying the sight of his slim, tanned fingers working and the sensation of their warmth against her skin.

His assumption amused her. Through his eyes, she likely resembled a lady of leisure, unnecessarily dolled up for the school gates and entertaining herself by taking in a few fashion shows here and there.

‘I’ll be working,’ she explained. ‘I have a fashion label. It’s a huge week in our calendar—we’ll show our Spring/Summer collection, but there’s also a lot of networking to do, and events all week. So trainers and crutches won’t cut it.’

‘That does sound like a big week.’ He pinned the bandage above her ankle and patted it like a child admiring its handiwork. ‘Well, by all means get a doctor to take a proper look at this, but it looks like a minor sprain to me. Keep it wrapped and elevated; lots of ice.’

‘Thank you so much.’ She squirmed. ‘I’m sorry to have taken you away from the match.’

‘It’s my absolute pleasure.’ He held her gaze with those brown eyes.  ‘It’s a nice break for my ears. Seven-year-old girls are seriously noisy. Now, can you bear to stay here till the match is over? Twenty minutes of this icepack will do your ankle the world of good.’ Gently holding her bandaged foot in place, he stood up and eased it back onto his chair.

‘I believe you’re helping at Tabby’s party next week?’ she asked, mainly to keep him there a moment longer.

He looked blank.

She clarified. ‘Tabby’s having a joint party with Ilaria Beneventi next weekend—at the Holland Park Lawn Tennis Club? Ilaria’s mum mentioned you were going to run the tennis side of it.’

‘Oh!’ His face cleared. It was delightful, how close to the surface he held each tiny shift of emotion. ‘Yeah, she asked me last term. Sorry—I haven’t quite got all the Year 3 girls’ names squared in my head yet. I’ll see you next week, then, Mrs Carmichael.’ He shot her a megawatt smile and raked his hand through his dark hair. Turning, he jogged back to the pitch.

She watched him go, gazing idly at that perfect backside in those snug navy shorts, his calf muscles contracting as he jogged. God, he was gorgeous. Tabby’s birthday party was looking up.