Sitting down to a roast dinner with my partner, our two children and his first family, I caught the glint of a ring from the corner of my eye and felt a familiar stab of guilt.
The wedding band that had reflected in the light sits on the left hand of my partner’s ex, Jill — still technically his wife 20 years after he left her to set up home with me.
Jill is the perfect matriarch and hostess, fussing around ensuring we all have plenty to eat and drink, but the circumstances could not be more awkward for me, the cuckoo in the nest. I do not deserve to be made so welcome in this kind, unquestioning woman’s home.
Later, as we left, Jill stood alone on her doorstep and cheerily waved us off. I had to turn my head away. It was just too painful to look. I willingly endured this family occasion last Christmas, as I have so many others, because of the crippling guilt I feel at stealing the only man Jill ever loved.
I also robbed their children, who were already grown up, and their grandchildren of the solid, stable family life I believe everyone deserves. If I hadn’t started an affair with John, who was then my boss, when I was 22 and he was 46, they would still be a family unit today.
So my advice to anyone contemplating stealing another woman’s husband is this: prepare for a lifetime of guilt.
Now aged 42, I am an author as well as co-owning a marketing services company with John, 66, which we run from our home in Nottinghamshire. We have two beautiful children, Sam, 11, and Ruth, seven, and all we could want materially, including the luxury of a couple of foreign holidays a year.
All would be perfect, were it not for my abiding remorse over appropriating another woman’s life.
Jill is in her 60s and, coming from a family of strict Roman Catholics, she is a firm believer in the sanctity of marriage, so I would never ask John to divorce her.
I was never a girly girl who dreamed of a big white wedding and know that divorce would sadden Jill more than being married to the man I love would make a difference to me.
But I’m haunted by the fact that Jill hasn’t had a relationship since she and John split and doesn’t want one: she’s on her own because of me.
John was the boss of a financial services company in the Midlands when I joined aged 20.
Sophisticated and silver-haired, with a sports car and a rugby player’s physique, he was hugely attractive. The 24-year age gap only added to his allure.
I knew he was married and therefore off limits. But I can’t deny feeling an unexpected thrill when in December 1992, two years after I joined the company, John propositioned me at the office Christmas party.
He said he was attracted to me and we could have an affair, but he would never leave his wife of 23 years. I felt flattered and excited by his interest, but reasoned it must be the drink talking.
Two days later, and sober, John told me he’d meant what he said. At 22, I was young and naively believed that, because John didn’t intend to leave his wife, she’d never know, therefore no one would get hurt.
So a few days later I agreed to meet him for a drink. Two weeks later, we slept together in a hotel room. I lived with my parents at the time so hotel liaisons were our only option, until I bought a house a year or two later.
It sounds cold, but I thought I’d be able to keep emotion out of it and, after a tumultuous relationship with my previous boyfriend, a ‘no-strings’ affair seemed pretty ideal.
But, against my better judgement, I fell in love with John, and two years into our affair, he confessed he felt the same. ‘I’d like it to be like this all the time, falling asleep and waking up together, if you want me,’ he said.
I’d always assumed one day I would have to walk away from this man I loved, so the prospect of spending my life with him was exhilarating. That said, it was still another two years before he plucked up the courage to finally leave the family home.
Jill says that was the first she knew of our affair, though John maintains he had told her many times how unhappy he was in the marriage. Although she ranted and raved at him, she was too proud to confront me, for which I was grateful.
Affair: Nicola was 22 when she first became John’s mistress and he eventually left his family for her
Their daughter, Annabel, then also 25, was relatively accepting of the situation but their son, Toby, then 24, barely spoke to his father for a year.
Shockwaves went through John’s company when the news broke — we’d done a good job of hiding our affair from colleagues — and he was tormented by the hurt he’d caused his family. He went on to use money to assuage his guilt, even paying his grandchildren’s private school fees.
I managed to convince myself that, because his family were financially comfortable, they weren’t suffering because of me. He visited them regularly, which eased my conscience. Whenever he left, however, I would sit at home, feeling like the mistress again, and would scan his face on his return, expecting him to announce he was leaving me.
For years, it felt like he was on loan to me. I set eyes on Jill for the first time in 1998, two years after John left her. John and I had taken Annabel’s children, then aged five and seven, on holiday to Majorca for a fortnight.
By chance, Toby and his wife had taken Jill to the same island, so John arranged for Jill to see the children. We came face-to-face in the hotel foyer. I hung back, not knowing where to look or what to do with my hands. We didn’t speak.
I was struck by how different we are: I’m small and blonde, while Jill is tall and dark. She’s always immaculately made-up, well-dressed and keeps her nails manicured, whereas I’m more of a ponytail and quick dab of lipgloss girl.
First love: John with his wife Jill, pictured in 1980, who he remains married to despite now having a family with Nicola
Jill and I didn’t meet again until after my son Sam was born in 2001. Jill had asked John, out of the blue, whether I’d like to bring him along for a visit. It was an incredibly generous thing for her to do.
If I’d been due to meet the Queen I couldn’t have been more nervous. It was a typically British encounter. Jill’s first words to me were: ‘Would you like tea or coffee?’ I politely stood there, watching her pour the tea, all the time feeling wretched and fighting the urge to blurt out how terribly, terribly sorry I was. But a baby is a great icebreaker, and Jill had made a cake, which I told her was ‘delicious’ so often it became embarrassing.
Jill was equally welcoming when our daughter Ruth came along four years later, and never forgets to send our children Christmas and birthday gifts.
They call her ‘Nanny’, some-thing they’ve picked up from being around Jill and John’s grandchildren, and, astonishing as though it may seem, she’s happy to answer to that moniker.
Over the past decade, Jill and I have developed an amicable relationship, which has enabled us all to attend family occasions without feeling too awkward. Eight years ago, we even joined Annabel, her children and Jill on holiday in France — living on top of each other in a poky apartment touring the Riviera crammed into a people carrier.
One evening, Annabel even offered to babysit Sam, who was three, so that John and I could go out for dinner alone. ‘I feel like a scarlet woman being whisked off by Jill’s husband while she stays home like Cinderella,’ I hissed at John as he straightened his tie in our bedroom mirror before we headed out. He couldn’t understand why I still felt like a brazen interloper.
We met up again on holiday in Cyprus in 2008. I can still recall the sting of shame as I overheard Jill say to a waiter: ‘This is my husband and his family.’ The waiter looked bemused, as my cheeks flushed and I looked down at my feet.
I’m sure other holidaymakers were equally puzzled by our family structure, but I’m willing to put up with a few funny looks to ensure that John doesn’t miss out on precious time with his children and grandchildren.
At the beach one afternoon, as Sam and Ruth were filling their buckets with seawater, I overheard Jill ask John: ‘Can you remember our two doing that?’ and again the guilt welled up in me like bile.
It obviously hasn’t all been plain sailing. The most challenging occasion was Annabel’s second wedding seven years ago, at a country hotel in the Midlands.
I didn’t really fit in anywhere and Annabel made sure I wasn’t in any of the photographs. Then, in 2008, when John suffered financial catastrophe at the start of the recession, I discovered that underneath the sticking plaster was still a very raw wound. John was no longer able to afford school fees for his grandchildren and also had to reduce the generous financial support he was giving Jill, forcing her to downsize her home.
She’d already moved from the six-bedroomed detached marital home into a large four-bedroomed detached. Now she had to move again, this time into a smaller four-bedroomed detached, where she still lives.
Showing me around for the first time, Jill said: ‘John left me no choice but to move when he cut my maintenance payments, you know.’ I winced as her words hung in the air between us. In our large detached house in a beautiful little village just outside Nottingham, I can’t help feeling I am leading the life that Jill had expected, and deserves, in her twilight years.
In fact, there seems to be no escaping my remorse, even when John and I are enjoying time at home with our children.
Still the other woman: Nicola isn’t John’s wife but they have been together 20 years and have two children – she says remaining unmarried is a small price to pay for stealing another woman’s husband
This Christmas, as in previous years, my parents will arrive at our house laden with toys and gifts for Sam and Ruth and then spend hours playing with them.
So it hits me hard that John’s exchange of Christmas gifts with his grandchildren lasts barely an hour.
Despite my efforts, a gulf has widened between John and his first family as he has become increasingly busy with the demands of our own children. We call to see them at Jill’s on Christmas morning, but I’m always conscious of us keeping an eye on the clock and rushing off to get home for my family.
His children and grandchildren have lost a large part of John and that would not have happened had I refused to allow him to leave his wife.
John reassures me that I didn’t entice him away, that he chose to leave, but I know that if I had refused to make a life with him he would probably still be there, playing happy families.
It was only three years ago, around the time Jill and John should have been celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, I admitted how guilty I feel to John. John said he shared my feelings of culpability but told me: ‘Nicola, what’s done is done. I loved Jill but I’m in love with you. We were meant to be together so let’s not waste any more energy feeling bad about it.’
However, now I’m at the age Jill was when I started dating John, I look at twentysomething women and see how pretty and youthful they are compared with how I feel in my 40s, and it makes me feel dreadful. My youth must have added an extra twist of the knife for Jill.
When John mentioned I was writing this article, Jill told him bluntly: ‘I’m glad she feels guilty.’ And who can blame her?
The parents of one of Sam’s friends recently went through a messy divorce, prompting him to ask me: ‘You and Daddy won’t split up, will you?’ and ‘Why aren’t you married?’
I explained that it’s not marriage that keeps parents together but love, and that his daddy and I love each other very much.
But a part of me is aware that, despite two decades together, John still isn’t wholly mine.
If I could go back and speak to my 22-year-old self I would tell her to steer clear of married men, particularly if they already have a family. Affairs cause too much heartache for everyone.
But if I hadn’t met John I wouldn’t have my beautiful children, who are more than worth the emotional price I’ve paid.
Jill is an incredible woman who has shown so much dignity and grace towards me. I have huge respect for her and hope one day to apologise to her personally. Writing this article is a first step.
And, odd though it may sound, I think there’s something rather beautiful about the wedding band on Jill’s finger. She made a promise on her special day back in 1969 and she, at least, has never broken those vows.
For me, being unable to wear the ring of the man I love feels like a small price to pay for stealing another woman’s husband.
Interview by Helen Carroll and Sadie Nicholas
Credit: Daily Mail