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Format:ebook (Digital original) $7.99
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors' imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2009 by Wordright Ltd.
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First eBook Edition: April 2009
We can't pretend to know the first thing about life as a marketing executive—that's why we write novels—so we had to turn to a few people for help. Massive thanks to Caroline Whaley, a very special friend, for all her advice about life in the sportswear fast lane. We couldn't have done it without her. Thanks also to Jill Stanton, Alex Fraser, Anthony King, Lynn Shone and Adrian Mcloughlin. And not forgetting Jane Wood, Sara O'Keefe and all at Orion for their enthusiasm and gentle handling as always, and Emily Griffin at Grand Central Publishing for her delicate and gentle handling.
In my bed! They were at it in my sodding bed!"
"Yup. Right there. Big hairy bum in the air and Manuela's legs . . . Oh God, I don't even want to think about it."
"You must have given her the fright of her life!"
"Well, I think I've probably rendered him impotent for life. Ugly sod. Oh God, Saff . . . I feel so dirty, like I've been violated or something."
"Want to come over?"
"Can I? Will Max mind?"
" 'Course not. He loves ya. Anytime—though I'll have to sort out the kids."
"I'll bring a bottle. I need anesthetic. I'm in shock."
Saffron laughed. "Stay calm."
Alex put down the phone and turned back to the chaos in her room: her cushions strewn everywhere, a bowl of foreign change smashed on the floor, the blanket from the bed hurled into the corner. She wanted to throw up.
She'd heard the strange noises the minute she'd shouldered open the front door, back home earlier than anticipated with an overnight bag in one hand and a laptop in the other. Dumping them in the narrow hallway, she'd thought Manuela might be moving furniture in her bedroom to clean behind it. Though that would be a first. Her Spanish cleaner didn't move anything if she could help it and struggled at the best of times to figure out the workings of a can of Pledge—oh, the irony. Alex had purposely thumped about the flat a bit so as not to give the poor woman a fright, and called her name before opening the bedroom door.
For a moment she hadn't quite been able to work out what was going on, and had said "Sorry" as if two people screwing in her bed at 2:15 on a Wednesday afternoon were normal. Then the horror of the situation dawned on her, not to mention the wobbling nether regions. The man's suit was on the floor—tartan boxers off, shirt and socks still on—and Manuela's red stiletto shoes were discarded. The woman herself appeared to still be fully dressed, and not for cleaning.
"What—the—fuck—are—you—doing?" Alex's screech sounded loud even to Alex and the couple's heads shot around, their expressions freezing for one blissful moment in total disbelief. "Get—out—of—my—bed!"
If it hadn't been so disgusting, the scramble that ensued would have been funny. The man—gray-haired, bearded and overweight—reversed out of Manuela and off the bed, frantically searching for his underpants while holding his shirttails over his genitals in some ridiculous attempt to preserve his remaining dignity. Manuela pulled down her dress and tidied her hair with her hands as she pushed her feet into her shoes. Clearly knickers were not a consideration.
"So sorry . . ." he puffed as he struggled with his trousers. "Didn't know, you know . . . we were . . ."
"Get out," Alex hissed through her teeth.
"Yes, yes of course." Stuffing his feet into shoes—quite smart brogues, Alex noticed—he shrugged on his jacket, his face red and sweaty, his neck thick where it was stuffed into the collar of his shirt. He appeared to be about fifty, perhaps fifty-five, a wedding ring on his pudgy finger. He made towards the door and Alex stood back to let him through. Then he stopped suddenly, putting his hand inside his jacket and fishing out his wallet. He pulled out some notes, and it wasn't until he turned back towards Manuela that Alex understood.
"I think I'll have that, thank you." She snatched the notes from his hand before Manuela could take them. "It'll go towards some new sheets. Now get out!"
He bolted like a rabbit, slamming the front door of the flat behind him. Alex turned to Manuela, so angry now she could hear the blood pounding in her ears. The little woman was straightening the sheets and puffing up the pillow. Lunging forward, Alex grabbed her thin arm. "Get out, you bitch. You whore," she shrieked. "Get out of my flat. Get out." And as Alex wrenched at the bedsheets, Manuela tottered to the door.
"But señorita." She turned to Alex, her face outraged as if it were she who had been wronged. "What about my pay? I've done the bathroom . . ."
It was all Alex could do not to thump her. "And it looks like you've well and truly done the bedroom too. How dare you! Get out. You're fired!"
As if possessed, Alex continued to pull off the sheets. Bundling them up into a ball, she hurled them with all her might out of the room, followed by the pillows and duvet, then, opening the flat door, kicked them down the communal stairs to the hallway below, narrowly avoiding Manuela as she bolted out the front door. Grabbing her overnight bag to prop open the flat door, Alex turned back to her bedroom and pulled on the mattress, her hands struggling to find a grip and slipping painfully. It was heavy and she had to push hard against it to squeeze it through the door. Her tight jacket didn't help, and she could feel herself sweating. She was aware she was grunting inelegantly, but eventually she managed it and pushed the mattress to join the sheets below. Throwing her jacket back into the flat, she followed her bedding downstairs, clambering over it to open the front door of the building and, in two journeys, dumped it all in the builders' Dumpster outside the house opposite, her duvet cover joining brick rubble and broken plasterboard.
It was then that she'd phoned Saff.
What now? She slowly began to straighten the chaos in the room, picking up the shards from the broken bowl carefully before scooping up the coins and dropping them into a drawer in her dressing table. She must have knocked the bowl over as she struggled with the mattress.
In her room. They'd done it in her room and in her lovely bed that she'd bought the day she'd completed on the flat. The lovely bed with its pretty bedding, where she and Todd made love and read the papers together on a Sunday morning. Well, she read them anyway while he usually did his hundred push-ups before going on a run. She'd have to call the cleaning agency, of course, and get Manuela struck off, but as Alex folded up the bed quilt, piling it up with the cushions on the bare divan, she realized that wouldn't go any way to ridding her of the suspicion that today's liaison was probably not the first.
Changing out of her work clothes, crumpled from the horrendously early start in Stuttgart and the flight, she purposely turned her back on the denuded bed as she slipped into sweatpants and her favorite T-shirt. Comfort clothes. Of course, she'd have to sell the flat; that was obvious. Heaven only knew how many sexually frustrated, overweight married men had been entertained by Manuela over the weeks she'd worked here. No wonder the place was never very clean. The tart was too busy turning tricks.
Gathering up her clothes and stuffing them into the washing machine, Alex could feel her blood pumping loudly again. She tore open the fridge, knowing full well there wouldn't be anything in there to eat—there rarely was—but there wasn't even the measly pint of milk she'd asked Manuela to get. The request had been written on the same note about putting the bedsheets through the machine: clearly another thing that hadn't been done. Alex grabbed her purse, fishing out a few quid, and, locking the flat door behind her, dashed downstairs and to the corner shop.
"Hello there, Alex girl." Rajesh's toothy smile peeked out from behind the counter piled high with displays of chewing gum and chocolate bars on special offer. "Where have you been? Off on your travels again?"
"It's been a bit of a marathon," she sighed, picking up a basket. "Geneva, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Stuttgart. I think." She picked up a few things, including a paper she knew she wouldn't have time to read, but it was a nodding attempt to keep up with world affairs, and handed over the money to Rajesh.
"Oh, it's no good. A lovely girl like you shouldn't be off on a plane every minute. You should be at home with babies."
Alex rolled her eyes. "You are as bad as my mother, Rajesh." Laughing, she left the shop as the little shopkeeper shook his head and went back to reading the local paper.
As she elbowed open her door a few minutes later, a rather tired bunch of daffodils, a warm bottle of Chardonnay and a loaf of sliced white—which had been all that was left on the shelf—under her arm, she could hear her mobile ringing. By the time she'd dumped her shopping it had stopped. The office.
"Yup, Camilla? I'm back now." Alex tucked the phone under her chin as she leaned into a cupboard for a vase. "Sorry I missed your call. I managed an earlier flight so I'm home."
"Oh, that's great," her assistant's soft voice cooed down the phone. It was as pretty as she was, but Alex was grateful that despite her petite frame and doe-like blue eyes, she was awesomely efficient and a rock in Alex's choppy seas. "It's good to have you back. Just a few things to keep you up to speed. Tetril's factory are happy with the samples date you suggest, the twenty-fifth is fine for the ice hockey and the shoe people want to talk to you about the color range."
"Okay—can you put something in my diary for a meeting? But, Camilla, tell them I haven't got long or they'll have me there all day and I haven't got time." Their footwear team put as much dedication into the construction of a sneaker as scientists had into the Stealth Bomber and talked with such passion about aerodynamics, cushioning and arch supports it was almost kinky.
"Oh, and your Yankee dreamboat called, by the way. He couldn't get you on your phone—you must have been on the plane—but says he'll be landing at Heathrow after his stop-off in Paris."
Alex felt a tingle of anticipation at the news of Todd's arrival in the country until she remembered she'd have no bed for him to climb into. Not when the mattress was in the Dumpster, and there certainly wouldn't be room for his muscle-bound body in the tiny single in the spare bedroom where she'd have to sleep. It would have to be the Holiday Inn for him. Ending the call, she scanned over her notes quickly. Things were looking good for the next few weeks. Product launches always got her excited: massive buildup, even more massive preparation, then the nail-biting wait to see how the product was received by press and public.
Bread with some cheese she'd found loitering at the back of the fridge in one hand, and laptop on her knee, Alex now scrolled through the plethora of e-mail messages, chewing absentmindedly. Everything seemed to be going smoothly in the office. Camilla had held the fort pretty well while she'd been away and Alex sent her an e-mail saying as much. Then she turned to the pile of mail on the table. All the envelopes had windows, except for one reminding her of the date of her next dentist appointment—which would have to be changed. The only other uncontroversial-looking one turned out to be from her neighbor in the flat below complaining that unless she did something about her leaking shower and the water coming through his ceiling, he'd issue legal proceedings. Alex stuffed the letter behind the microwave, where she filed everything she couldn't handle immediately, and her eye was caught by the flashing light on the front of the washing machine. It was stuck in the middle of the program, and no knob-twiddling would get it to move on. Damn. She scrabbled in the kitchen drawer to try to find the instruction book. Where was it? All she could find were "giblets"—plastic bags of Allen keys and screws, the extras from gadgets and appliances she'd bought when she moved in two years ago. She'd look again later. Then she dialed her mother's number and with shoulder scrunched up, phone to one ear, she pulled out bedding from the tiny airing cupboard and began to make up the single bed.
"Hi, Mum, I'm back."
"Hello, daaarling," her mother's sultry tones came down the line. "Good trip? I don't know how you put up with all that filthy traveling."
Alex sighed silently. " 'Cos I have to. Can't talk for long, how's things?"
"Busy busy, you know. And now I'm about to tackle the ivy on the front of the house. It's gone mad."
Alex sighed audibly this time, stuffing a pillow into a pillowcase. "Oh, Mum, can't you wait? I said I'd do it. I'll come over at the weekend."
"Well, sweetie, you've been saying that for a while. Do you really think you can this time?"
Ignoring the tone of disapproval, Alex did a mental scan. "Er, hang on, actually I'm off to Toronto on Sunday afternoon but—"
"Quite. I'll be fine, darling, up my little ladder."
Alex had a vision of the Bean, as everyone called her, demure little hat on her head and the most elegant and unsuitable of gardening gloves bought through one of her gardening catalogs, teetering on the stepladder clipping at the ivy. "No, Mum, wait. I'll come over on Saturday. I'll have an hour or so then. That ivy needs a serious assault."
"Well, dear . . . I don't know . . ." And the Bean went off on some diversion involving her oldest friend Ursula and some blazered lothario who was wooing her at the Arts Club.
Alex pulled up outside Saffron's an hour later than planned, and it was already dark. Camilla's call, which had come through just after she'd shaken off her mother, had put everything else on the back burner. Apparently Gavin, her boss, could not now get to Toronto before the key presentation meeting next week. Could Alex do the business for him with the clients over there? So, with assurances from Camilla that she'd help out with preparing notes and the audiovisual, Alex dropped everything to begin trawling for information to persuade the skeptical Canadian sales team that the cutting-edge properties of Zencorp's new range were vastly superior to anything the industry had yet been able to offer.
Max opened the door. "Hello, stranger. Glad to see you've dressed up as usual." Alex playfully punched his shoulder. "How vos der trip, ja?"
"Oh tedious." She returned his warm hug. "Those Germans have no sense of irony and every hotel looks exactly the same."
"I get it." He led her through to the bright, warm kitchen. "If it's Tuesday and the bathroom's on the right, must be in Baden-Baden."
"Something like that."
Max took the bottle of mini-mart Chardonnay from her, looking suspiciously at the label, and, clearly revolted, put it away in a cupboard to join her other dodgy offerings from the past. "God, I hope you know more about sportswear than you do about wine," he'd teased her once, and she now took perverse pleasure in finding a bottle guaranteed to make the affable TV executive wince. He put a glass of something dark and red in front of her at the kitchen table and she took a deep gulp, comforted now by the flavor as it ran over her tongue. There was a delicious smell wafting out of the oven. Max's and Saffron's kitchen was like a security blanket to her—the bright, hand-painted mugs on the dresser, the apron on the back of the door, the children's pictures on the fridge. To Alex it felt like the home she'd never managed to achieve, the only normality in her mad world.
"Saff 's just turning off Oscar's light. There's been a homework drama but she's soothing frayed tempers," said Max. They then chatted briefly about work; they were both absorbed by the totally different but equally challenging worlds they moved in—media and marketing from two opposing directions.
Eventually footsteps came down the stairs and Saffron entered the room, her neat little frame in a white linen shirt, green checked capri pants and pumps. Alex felt herself beginning to relax from the day.
"Hi, good to see you, sweetie." Saffron kissed her friend warmly on the cheek. "Have you got a drink? How's the Spanish scrubber?"
"Oh Gawd, Saff." Alex put her head in her hands. "It's so vile! I've chucked all the bedding into the Dumpster. The nasty little creep who was giving her one even pulled out some cash to pay her! In front of me! Can you imagine?"
Saffron looked suitably shocked as she bustled about putting on her apron and preparing the green beans to cook. She placed a bowl of chips in front of Alex. Max, already informed about the day's outrage and suspecting shrieked outpourings of grief, scooped up a handful and escaped the room for his study.
"You have to admire the woman's business acumen," Saffron said, tying her wavy blonde hair into a ponytail on top of her head. "With you away so much, she didn't let the grass grow under her feet, did she?"
"Little slapper," Alex replied through a mouthful of chips, realizing how hungry she was. "And now I've got to get a new mattress or I'll never see Todd. Not that we have time to see each other anyway. And my neighbor downstairs is getting nasty about the leak in my shower. But I just don't have time to get someone in to sort it. I can't take a day off, and I've got a pile of stuff to get to the cleaners or I'll have nothing to wear in Toronto. Oh, and the sodding washing machine is on the blink, again, and then there's the little matter of work. Bloody Gavin can't make Toronto, so rather than spending the time I should be to consolidate all the information from the last few days and preparing for the launch, I've got to put together a huge presentation, which is critical—it's critical, Saff. If I get this wrong, it's going to affect how we are perceived in Canada and then—"
Saff put her hand on Alex's arm. "Hey! Calm down, love. Stressing isn't going to help."
"But it's all stress. There's just no time to do anything, even to buy milk, for heaven's sake. And I haven't managed to see Mum for ages. And now she's threatening to—" Alex was cut off by her mobile buzzing in her bag. "Hello?"
"Alex? It's Letitia, dear. From next door to your mother."
Alex could feel her anxiety rising.
"Sorry to bother you, dear, but it's your mother. I think she fell off her ladder. Anyway, I'm here at the hospital with her."
"Oh, bloody hell. Oh no, is she all right?"
"Don't fret. It's not too serious but they think it's her arm. The thing is, she won't be able to go home tonight. They said something about having to reset it, and I'm afraid I'm off on a cruise to the fjords tomorrow first thing or I'd gladly help."
"Oh, thank you, Letitia. Please don't worry. You've done more than enough. I'll be right there." Finding out exactly where her mother had been taken and thanking her again profusely, Alex clicked off her phone and looked across at Saffron's concerned face.
"Is she okay?" she asked cautiously. "What do the doctors say?"
Alex relayed what Letitia had said, her heart sinking at the implications. "Oh, Saff! What the hell was she doing cutting back the ivy at this time of night? She was bound to fall! I told her I'd do it. I should have been more insistent. Oh God, what am I going to do?" Alex rubbed her eyes, smearing the remaining mascara over her cheeks. "Who's going to look after her? I can't have her come and stay with me. I mean, how can I? I'm never there . . ."
"Well, it might not be for long. She might be able to go home again by the time you go to Canada. At least you'll be there at night and she can watch TV—"
Alex sat bolt upright. "But there's no bed for her!"
"I've got a camp bed." Saff tried to look helpful.
Alex stood up. "Bless you. Can I let you know? Oh, why couldn't she have waited for me?"
Saff looked up at her friend and laughed ruefully. "Come on, Alex, you know how stubborn she can be. She's always done exactly what she wants. Why don't you have some food before you leave?"
"Thanks, Saff, but I'd better go and see her straightaway— much as I'd love your yummy supper. I seem to have had nothing but airline meals and packet soups lately. Soon I won't be able to cope with anything that doesn't come on a plastic tray. All I wanted to do was talk to you." She suddenly felt very weary.
"What you need," said Saffron, standing up and rubbing Alex's arm comfortingly, "is someone to take away your worries, someone to cook you lovely meals and deal with all the boring details of life."
"But I've got a bloke already," protested Alex. "When he's in the country at least."
"No, no!" replied Saffron. "I mean, what you need is a wife."
Saffron climbed down from the ladder and admired her morning's work. The turquoise-blue paint had definitely been the right choice. She glanced at the swatch of purple-blue floral fabric draped over the chair, the result of a wonderful hour and a half at the interiors shop trawling through the sample books—her favorite pastime second only to having her nose in a cookbook. Millie would love it. What nine-year-old girl couldn't? How excited she'd be when she came home from school.
Absently pushing away the hair that was tickling her nose, she wiped the excess paint from her brush onto the edge of the tin. Slipping off her flip-flops on the dust sheet so as not to risk walking paint over the new landing carpet, she carried the brush downstairs, careful not to touch the newly stenciled walls. She looked at them with immense pride as she passed. Who needed Jocasta Innes when, with a two-week course and the right kit, she could do it herself?
She'd washed the brush and was putting on the kettle and thinking about what she could do for the next few hours, and what to make for the children and Max for supper, with half an eye on the dramatic purple tulips in the tubs outside the back door bobbing about in the brisk wind, when the phone rang.
"Saff?" Alex sounded breathless. "Look, I'm about to go into a meeting but—"
"And hello to you too!" Saff smiled.
"Yeah, sorry. I'm a bit rushed." Wasn't she always? "I've been thinking about what you said last night—you know that wife thing you mentioned? We didn't really expand on it. Did you mean like a housekeeper?"
"Well, I don't know really. I was sort of joking." In Alex's haste to leave to see her mother, Saff had thought her ridiculous remark would have been forgotten. "It just seems to me that you needed someone like—well, me, really. Someone who does all the things Max doesn't have time to do. Making dentist appointments, letting in the washing machine man, taking clothes to the cleaners, cleaning the loo. Oh, I don't know." The more she thought about it, the more stupid an idea it sounded. "I don't suppose there's really enough that you need doing to keep one person busy. Not when you are away such a lot of the time."
"No." Alex paused. "The thing is, when I was at the hospital . . ."
"Yes, of course. How is she? Is she out yet?"
"No, not yet. They had to reset her arm under anesthetic. It's not a very nice break, and she's going to take a while to recover but she's the same old Bean." Alex paused. "She even told me off for not having any makeup on! Oh, Saff, I hate to sound uncaring and I want to make sure she's okay, but this is when being an only child is so difficult. I've never been so busy at work and I just can't get away. The point is, the doctors don't think she should be at home on her own at the moment."
"Oh." Saffron didn't need the issue spelled out. "Well, sweetheart, I can't have her here—much as I love her. We're off skiing next week, don't forget, though I suppose we could have her when we get back. I have to say, though, Max's mother staying for that week here last autumn nearly precipitated a divorce."
- On Sale
- Apr 29, 2009
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- 5 Spot