Will Lottie and Ben have a wedding night to remember … or one to forget?

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Read an excerpt from Sophie Kinsella’s new book ‘Wedding Night’. Buy the book here Stuff’s Store

Lottie

I’ve bought him an engagement ring. Was that a mistake?

I mean, it’s not a girly ring. It’s a plain band with a tiny diamond in it, which the guy in the shop talked me into. If Richard doesn’t like the diamond, he can always turn it round.

Or not wear it at all. Keep it on his nightstand or in a box or whatever.

Or I could take it back and never mention it. Actually, I’m losing confidence in this ring by the minute, but I just felt bad that he wouldn’t have anything. Men don’t get the greatest deal out of a proposal. They have to set up the occasion, they have to get down on one knee, they have to ask the question and they have to buy a ring. And what do we have to do? Say ‘yes’.

Or ‘no’, obviously.

I wonder what proportion of marriage proposals end in a ‘yes’ and what proportion end in a ‘no’? I open my mouth automatically to share this thought with Richard – then hastily close it again. Idiot.

‘Sorry?’ Richard glances up.

‘Nothing!’ I beam. ‘Just . . . great menu!’

I wonder if he’s bought a ring already. I don’t mind either way. On the one hand, it’s fabulously romantic if he has. On the other hand, it’s fabulously romantic to choose one together.

It’s a win-win.

I sip my water and smile lovingly at Richard. We’re sitting at a corner table overlooking the river. It’s a new restaurant on the Strand, just up from the Savoy. All black and white marble and vintage chandeliers and button-back chairs in pale grey. It’s elegant but not showy. The perfect place for a lunchtime proposal. I’m wearing an understated, bride-to-be white shirt, a print skirt, and have splashed out on stay-up stockings, just in case we decide to cement the engagement later on. I’ve never worn stay-up stockings before. But then I’ve never been proposed to before.

Ooh, maybe he’s booked a room at the Savoy.

No. Richard’s not flash like that. He’d never make a ridiculous, out-of-proportion gesture. Nice lunch, yes; over- priced hotel room, no. Which I respect.

He’s looking nervous. He’s fiddling with his cuffs and checking his phone and swirling the water round in his glass. As he sees me watching him, he smiles too.

‘So.’

‘So.’

It’s as though we’re speaking in code, skirting around the real issue. I fiddle with my napkin and adjust my chair. This waiting is unbearable. Why doesn’t he get it over with?

No, I don’t mean ‘get it over with’. Of course I don’t. It’s not a vaccination. It’s . . . Well, what is it? It’s a beginning. A first step. The pair of us embarking on a great adventure together. Because we want to take on life as a team. Because we can’t think of anyone else we’d rather share that journey with. Because I love him and he loves me.

I’m getting misty-eyed already. This is hopeless. I’ve been like this for days, ever since I realized what he was driving at.

He’s quite heavy-handed, Richard. I mean, in a good, lovable way. He’s direct and to the point and doesn’t play games. (Thank God.) Nor does he land massive surprises on you out of the blue. On my last birthday, he hinted for ages that his present was going to be a surprise trip, which was ideal because I knew to get down my overnight bag and pack a few things.

Although, in the end, he did catch me out, because it wasn’t a weekend away, as I’d predicted. It was a train ticket to Stroud, which he had biked to my desk with no warning, on my midweek birthday. It turned out he’d secretly arranged with my boss for me to have two days off, and when I finally arrived at Stroud, a car whisked me to the most adorable Cotswold cottage, where he was waiting with a fire burning and a sheepskin rug laid out in front of the flames. (Mmm. Let’s just say that sex in front of a roaring fire is the best thing ever. Except when that stupid spark flew out and burned my thigh. But never mind. Tiny detail.)

So this time, when he started dropping hints, again they weren’t exactly subtle indications. They were more like massive signposts, plonked in the road: I will be proposing to you soon. First he set up this date and called it a ‘special lunch’. Then he referred to a ‘big question’ he had to ask me and half winked (to which I feigned ignorance, of course). Then he started teasing me by asking if I like his surname, Finch. (As it happens, I do like it. I don’t mean I won’t miss being Lottie Graveney, but I’ll be very happy to be Mrs Lottie Finch.)

I almost wish he’d been more roundabout and this was going to be more of a surprise. But there again, at least I knew to get a manicure.

‘So, Lottie, have you decided yet?’ Richard looks up at me with that warm smile of his, and my stomach swoops. Just for an instant I thought he was being super-clever and that was his proposal.

‘Um . . .’ I look down to hide my confusion.

Of course the answer will be ‘yes’. A big, joyful ‘yes’. I can still hardly believe we’ve arrived at this place. Marriage. I mean, marriage! In the three years Richard and I have been together, I’ve deliberately avoided the question of marriage, commitment and all associated subjects (children, houses, sofas, herbs in pots). We sort of live together at his place, but I still have my own flat. We’re a couple, but at Christmas we go home to our own families. We’re in that place.

After about a year I knew we were good together. I knew I loved him. I’d seen him at his best (the surprise birthday trip, tied with the time I drove over his foot by mistake and he didn’t shout at me) and his worst (obstinately refusing to ask for directions, all the way to Norfolk, with broken sat nav. It took six hours). And I still wanted to be with him. I got him. He’s not the show-offy kind, Richard. He’s measured and deliberate. Sometimes you think he’s not even listening – but then he’ll come to life so suddenly, you realize he was alert the whole time. Like a lion, half asleep under the tree, but ready for the kill. Whereas I’m a bit more of a gazelle, leaping around. We complement each other. It’s Nature.

(Not in a food-chain sense, obviously. In a metaphorical sense.)

So I knew, after a year, he was The One. But I also knew what would happen if I put a foot wrong. In my experience, the word ‘marriage’ is like an enzyme. It causes all kinds of reactions in a relationship, mostly of the breaking-down kind.

Look at what happened with Jamie, my first long-term boyfriend. We’d been happily together for four years and I just happened to mention that my parents got married at the same age we were (twenty-six and twenty-three). That was it. One mention. Whereupon he freaked out and said we had to take ‘a break’. A break from what? Until that moment we’d been fine. So clearly what he needed a break from was the risk of hearing the word ‘marriage’ again. Clearly this was such a major worry that he couldn’t even face seeing me, for fear that my mouth might start to form the word again.

Before the ‘break’ was over, he was with that red-haired girl. I didn’t mind, because by then I’d met Seamus. Seamus, with his sexy Irish lilting voice. And I don’t even know what went wrong with him. We were besotted for about a year – crazy, all- night-sex, nothing-else-in-life-matters besotted – until all of a sudden we were arguing every night instead. We went from exhilarating to exhausting in about twenty-four hours. It was toxic. Too many state-of-the-nation summits about ‘Where are we heading?’ and ‘What do we want from this relationship?’ and it wore us both out. We limped on for another year, and when I look back, it’s as though that second year is a big black miserable blot in my life.

Then there was Julian. That lasted two years too, but it never really took. It was like a skeleton of a relationship. I suppose both of us were working far too hard. I’d recently moved to Blay Pharmaceuticals and was travelling all over the country. He was trying to get partnership at his accountancy firm. I’m not sure we ever even broke up properly – we just drifted apart. We meet up occasionally, as friends, and it’s the same for both of us – we’re not quite sure where it all went wrong. He even asked me out on a date, a year or so ago, but I had to tell him I was with someone now, and really happy. And that was Richard. The guy I really do love. The guy sitting opposite me with a ring in his pocket (maybe).

Richard is definitely better-looking than any of my other boyfriends. (Maybe I’m biased, but I think he’s gorgeous.) He works hard as a media analyst, but he’s not obsessed. He’s not as rich as Julian, but who cares? He’s energetic and funny and has an uproarious laugh which makes my spirits lift, whatever mood I’m in. He calls me ‘Daisy’ ever since we went on a picnic where I made him a daisy chain. He can lose his temper with people – but that’s OK. No one’s perfect. When I look back over our relationship, I don’t see a black blot, like with Seamus, or a blank space, like with Julian; I see a cheesy music video. A montage, with blue skies and smiles. Happy times. Closeness. Laughter.

And now we’re getting to the climax of the montage. The bit where he kneels down, takes a deep breath . . .

I’m feeling so nervous for him. I want this to go beautifully. I want to be able to tell our children that I fell in love with their father all over again, the day he proposed.

Our children. Our home. Our life. As I let my mind roll around the images, I feel a release inside me. I’m ready for this. I’m thirty-three years old and I’m ready. All my grown-up life, I’ve steered away from the subject of marriage. My friends are the same. It’s as though there’s been a crime-scene cordon around the whole area: NO ENTRY. You just don’t go there, because if you do, you’ve jinxed it and your boyfriend chucks you.

But now there’s nothing to jinx. I can feel the love flowing between us, over the table. I want to grab Richard’s hands. I want to envelop him in my arms. He is such a wonderful, wonderful man. I’m so lucky. In forty years when we’re both wrinkled and grey, perhaps we’ll walk up the Strand hand in hand and remember today and thank God we found each other. I mean, what were the chances, in this teeming world of strangers? Love is so random. So random. It’s a miracle, really . . .

Oh God, I’m blinking . . .

‘Lottie?’ Richard has noticed my damp eyes. ‘Hey, Daisy- doo. Are you OK? What’s up?’

Even though I’ve been more honest with Richard than I have with any other boyfriend, it’s probably not a good idea to reveal my entire thought process to him. Fliss, my big sister, says I think in Hollywood Technicolor and I have to remember that other people can’t hear the swooping violins.

‘Sorry!’ I dab at my eyes. ‘Nothing. I just wish you didn’t have to go.’

Richard is flying off tomorrow to a secondment in San Francisco. It’s three months – could be worse – but I’ll miss him terribly. In fact, it’s only the thought that I’ll have a wedding to plan which is distracting me.

‘Sweetheart, don’t cry. I can’t bear it.’ He reaches out to take my hands. ‘We’ll Skype every day.’

‘I know.’ I squeeze his hands back. ‘I’ll be ready.’

‘Although you might want to remember that if I’m in my office, everyone can hear what you’re saying. Including my boss.’

Only a tiny flicker of his eyes gives away the fact that he’s teasing me. The last time he was away and we Skyped, I started giving him advice on how to manage his nightmare boss, forgetting that Richard was in an open-plan office and the nightmare boss was liable to walk past at any minute. (Luckily, he didn’t.)

‘Thanks for that tip.’ I shrug, equally deadpan.

‘Also, they can see you. So you might not want to be totally naked.’

‘Not totally,’ I agree. ‘Maybe just a transparent bra and pants. Keep it simple.’

Richard grins and grasps my hands more tightly. ‘I love you.’ His voice is low and warm and melting. I will never, ever get sick of him saying that.

‘Me too.’

‘In fact, Lottie . . .’ He clears his throat. ‘I have something to ask you.’

My insides feel as if they’re going to explode. My face is a rictus of anticipation while my thoughts are spinning wildly. Oh God, he’s doing it . . . My whole life changes here . . . Concentrate, Lottie, savour the moment . . . Shit! What’s wrong with my leg?

I stare down at it in horror.

Whoever made these ‘stay-up stockings’ is a liar and will go to hell, because one of them hasn’t bloody well stayed up. It’s collapsed around my knee and there’s a really gross plastic ‘adhesive’ strip flapping around my calf. This is hideous. I can’t be proposed to like this.

I can’t spend the rest of my life looking back and thinking, It was such a romantic moment, shame about the stocking.

‘Sorry, Richard.’ I cut him off. ‘Just wait a sec.’

Surreptitiously I reach down and yank the stocking up – but the flimsy fabric tears in my hand. Great. Now I have flapping plastic and shreds of nylon decorating my leg. I cannot believe my marriage proposal is being wrecked by hosiery. I should have gone for bare legs.

‘Everything OK?’ Richard looks a little baffled as I emerge from under the table.

‘I have to go to the Ladies,’ I mutter. ‘I’m sorry. Sorry. Can we put things on pause? Just for a nanosecond?’

‘Are you OK?’

‘I’m fine.’ I’m red with embarrassment. ‘I’ve had a . . . a garment mishap. I don’t want you to see. Will you look away?’ Obediently, Richard averts his head. I push my chair back and walk swiftly across the room, ignoring the looks of other lunchtime diners. There’s no point trying to mask it. It’s a flappy stocking.

I bang through the door of the Ladies, wrench off my shoe and the stupid stocking, then stare at myself in the mirror, my heart pounding. I can’t believe I’ve just put my proposal on pause.

I feel as though time is on hold. As though we’re in a sci-fi movie and Richard is in suspended animation and I’ve got all the time in the world to think about whether I want to marry him.

Which, obviously, I don’t need, because the answer is: I do.

A blonde girl with a beaded headband turns to peer at me, lipliner in hand. I guess I do look a bit odd, standing motion- less and holding a shoe and stocking.

‘There’s a bin over there.’ She nods. ‘Do you feel OK?’

‘Fine. Thanks.’ I suddenly have the urge to share the momentousness of this occasion. ‘My boyfriend’s in the middle of proposing to me!’

‘No way.’ All the women at the mirrors turn to stare at me.

‘What do you mean, “in the middle of”?’ demands a thin redhead in pink, her eyebrows narrowed. ‘What’s he said, “Will you . . .”?’

‘He started, but I had a stocking catastrophe.’ I wave the hold-up. ‘So he’s on pause.’

‘On pause?’ says someone incredulously.

‘Well, I’d get back out there quick,’ says the redhead. ‘You don’t want to give him a chance to change his mind.’

‘How exciting!’ says the blonde girl. ‘Can we watch? Can I film you?’

‘We could put it on YouTube!’ says her friend. ‘Has he hired a flashmob or anything?’

‘I don’t think so . . .’

‘How does this work?’ An old woman with metal-grey hair cuts across our discussion imperiously. She’s waving her hands angrily underneath the automatic handwash dispenser.

‘Why do they invent these machines? What’s wrong with a bar of soap?’

‘Look, like this, Aunt Dee,’ says the redhead soothingly. ‘Your hands are too high.’

I pull off my other shoe and stocking, and, since I’m here, reach for the hand lotion to slather on my bare legs. I don’t want to look back and think, It was such a romantic moment, shame about the scaly shins. Then I get out my phone. I have to text Fliss. I quickly type:

He’s doing it!!!

A moment later her reply appears on my screen:

Don’t tell me u r texting me in the middle of a proposal!!!

In Ladies. Taking a moment. V exciting!!! You make a great couple. Give him a kiss from me. xxx

Will do! Talk later xxx

‘Which one is he?’ says the blonde girl as I put away my phone. ‘I’m going to have a look!’ She darts out of the Ladies, then returns a few seconds later. ‘Ooh, I saw him. The dark guy in the corner? He’s fab. Hey, your mascara’s smudged.’ She passes me a make-up eraser pen. ‘Want to do a quick fix?’

‘Thanks.’ I smile companionably at her and start to erase the tiny black marks below my eyes. My wavy chestnut hair is swept up in a chignon, and I suddenly wonder whether to let it down so it tumbles over my shoulders for the big moment.

No. Too cheesy. Instead, I pull some tendrils out and twist them around my face while I assess everything else. Lipstick: nice coral colour. Eyeshadow: shimmery grey to bring out my blue eyes. Blusher: hopefully will not need touch-up as will be flushed with excitement.

‘I wish my boyfriend would propose,’ says a long-haired girl in black, watching me wistfully. ‘What’s the trick?’

‘Dunno,’ I reply, wishing I could be more helpful. ‘I suppose we’ve been together a while, we know we’re compatible, we love each other.’

‘But so do my boyfriend and I! We’ve been living together, the sex is great, it’s all great.’

‘Don’t pressure him,’ says the blonde girl wisely.

‘I mention it, like, once a year.’ The long-haired girl looks thoroughly miserable. ‘And he gets twitchy and we drop it. What am I supposed to do? Move out? It’s been six years now.’

‘Six years?’ The old woman looks up from drying her hands. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ The girl with the long hair flushes.

‘Nothing’s wrong with me,’ she says. ‘I was having a private conversation.’

‘Private, pfft.’ The old woman gestures briskly around the Ladies’ room. ‘Everyone’s listening.’

‘Aunt Dee!’ The redhead looks embarrassed. ‘Shush!’

‘Don’t you shush me, Amy!’ The old woman regards the long-haired girl beadily. ‘Men are like jungle creatures. The minute they’ve found their kill, they eat it and fall asleep. Well, you’ve handed him his kill on a plate, haven’t you?’

‘It’s not as simple as that,’ says the long-haired girl resentfully.

‘In my day, the men got married because they wanted sex. That was motivation all right!’ The old woman gives a brisk laugh. ‘All you girls with your sleeping together and living together and then you want an engagement ring. It’s all back to front.’ She picks up her bag. ‘Come along, Amy! What are you waiting for?’

Amy shoots us all desperate looks of apology, then dis- appears out of the Ladies with her aunt. We all exchange raised eyebrows. What a nutter.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say reassuringly, and squeeze the girl’s arm. ‘I’m sure things will work out for you.’ I want to spread the joy. I want everyone to have the good luck that Richard and I have had: finding the perfect person and knowing it.

‘Yes.’ She makes an obvious effort to gather herself. ‘Let’s hope. Well, I wish you a very happy life together.’

‘Thanks!’ I hand the eraser pen back to the blonde girl. ‘Here I go! Wish me luck!’

I push my way out of the Ladies and survey the bustling restaurant, feeling as though I’ve just pressed ‘play’. There’s Richard, sitting in exactly the same position as when I left him. He’s not even checking his phone. He must be as focused on this moment as I am. The most special moment of our lives.

‘Sorry about that.’ I slide into my chair and give him my most loving, receptive smile. ‘Shall we pick up where we left off?’

Richard smiles back, but I can tell he’s lost a bit of momentum. We might need to work back into things gradually.

‘It’s such a special day,’ I say encouragingly. ‘Don’t you feel that?’

‘Absolutely.’ He nods.

‘This place is so lovely.’ I gesture around. ‘The perfect place for a . . . a big talk.’

I’ve left my hands casually on the table, and, as I intended, Richard takes them between his. He takes a deep breath and frowns.

‘Speaking of that, Lottie, there’s something I wanted to ask.’ As our eyes meet, his crinkle a little. ‘I don’t think this will come as a massive surprise . . .’

Oh God, oh God, here it comes.

‘Yes?’ My voice is a nervous squawk.

‘Bread for the table?’

Richard starts in shock and my head jerks up. A waiter has approached so quietly, neither of us noticed him. Almost before I know it, Richard has dropped my hand and is talking about brown soda bread. I want to whack the whole basket away in frustration. Couldn’t the waiter tell? Don’t they train them in imminent-proposal spotting?

I can tell Richard’s been thrown off track, too. Stupid, stupid waiter. How dare he spoil my boyfriend’s big moment?

‘So,’ I say encouragingly, as soon as the waiter ’s gone. ‘You had a question?’

‘Well. Yes.’ He focuses on me and takes a deep breath – then his face changes shape again. I turn round in surprise, to see that another bloody waiter has loomed up. Well, to be fair, I suppose it’s what you expect in a restaurant.

We both order some food – I’m barely aware of what I’m choosing – and the waiter melts away. But another one will be back, any minute. I feel more sorry for Richard than ever. How’s he supposed to propose in these circumstances? How do men do it?

I can’t help grinning at him wryly.

‘Not your day.’

‘Not really.’

‘The wine waiter will be along in a minute,’ I point out.

‘It’s like Piccadilly Circus here.’ He rolls his eyes ruefully, and I feel a warm sense of collusion. We’re in this together. Who cares when he proposes? Who cares if it’s not some perfect, staged moment? ‘Shall we get some champagne?’ he adds.

I can’t help giving him a knowing smile. ‘Would that be a little . . . premature, do you think?’

‘Well, that depends.’ He raises his eyebrows. ‘You tell me.’

The subtext is so obvious, I don’t know whether I want to laugh or hug him.

‘Well in that case . . .’ I pause a delicious length of time, eking it out for both of us. ‘Yes. My answer would be yes.’

His brow relaxes and I can see the tension flood out of him. Did he really think I might say no? He’s so unassuming. He’s such a darling man. Oh God. We’re getting married!

‘With all my heart, Richard, yes,’ I add for emphasis, my voice suddenly wobbling. ‘You have to know how much this means to me. It’s . . . I don’t know what to say.’

His fingers squeeze mine and it’s as though we have our own private code. I almost feel sorry for other couples who have to spell things out. They don’t have the connection we do.

For a moment we’re just silent. I can feel a cloud of happi- ness surrounding us. I want that cloud to stay there for ever. I can see us now in the future, painting a house, wheeling a pram, decorating a Christmas tree with our little toddlers . . . His parents might want to come and stay for Christmas and that’s fine, because I love his parents. In fact, the first thing I’ll do when this is all announced is go and see his mother in Sussex. She’ll adore helping with the wedding, and it’s not as though I’ve got a mother of my own to do it.

So many possibilities. So many plans. So much glorious life to live together.

‘So,’ I say at last, gently rubbing his fingers. ‘Pleased? Happy?’

‘Couldn’t be more happy.’ He caresses my hand.

‘I’ve thought about this for ages.’ I sigh contentedly. ‘But I never thought . . . You just don’t, do you? It’s like . . . what will it be like? What will it feel like?’

‘I know what you mean.’ He nods.

‘I’ll always remember this room. I’ll always remember the way you’re looking right now.’ I squeeze his hand even harder.

‘Me too,’ he says simply.

What I love about Richard is, he can convey so much simply with a sidelong look or a tilt of his head. He doesn’t need to say much, because I can read him so easily.

I can see the long-haired girl watching us from across the room, and I can’t help smiling at her. (Not a triumphant smile, because that would be insensitive. A humble, grateful smile.)

‘Some wine for the table, sir? Mademoiselle?’ The sommelier approaches and I beam up at him.

‘I think we need some champagne.’

‘Absolument.’ He smiles back at me. ‘The house champagne? Or we have a very nice Ruinart for a special occasion.’

‘I think the Ruinart.’ I can’t resist sharing our joy. ‘It’s a very special day! We’ve just got engaged!’

‘Mademoiselle!’ The sommelier ’s face creases into a smile. ‘Félicitations! Sir, many congratulations!’ We both turn to Richard – but to my surprise he’s not entering into the spirit of the moment. He’s staring at me as though I’m some sort of spectre. Why does he look so spooked? What’s wrong?

‘What—’ His voice is strangled. ‘What do you mean?’

I suddenly realize why he’s upset. Of course. Trust me to spoil everything by jumping in.

‘Richard, I’m so sorry. Did you want to tell your parents first?’ I squeeze his hand. ‘I completely understand. We won’t tell anyone else, promise.’

‘Tell them what?’ He’s wide-eyed and starey. ‘Lottie, we’re not engaged.’

‘But . . .’ I look at him uncertainly. ‘You just proposed to me. And I said yes.’

‘No I didn’t!’ He yanks his hand out of mine.

OK, one of us is going mad here. The sommelier has retreated tactfully, and I can see him shooing away the waiter with the bread basket, who was approaching again.

‘Lottie, I’m sorry but I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ Richard thrusts his hands through his hair. ‘I haven’t mentioned marriage or engagement, or anything.’

‘But . . . but that’s what you meant! When you ordered the champagne, and you said, “You tell me,” and I said, “With all my heart, yes.” It was subtle! It was beautiful!’

I’m gazing at him, longing for him to agree; longing for him to feel what I feel. But he just looks baffled and I feel a sudden pang of dread.

‘That’s . . . not what you meant?’ My throat is so tight I can barely speak. I can’t believe this is happening. ‘You didn’t mean to propose?’

‘Lottie, I didn’t propose!’ he says forcefully. ‘Full stop!’

Does he have to exclaim so loudly? Heads are popping up with interest everywhere.

‘OK! I get it!’ I rub my nose with my napkin. ‘You don’t need to tell the whole restaurant.’

Waves of humiliation are washing over me. I’m rigid with misery. How can I have got this so wrong?

And if he wasn’t proposing, then why wasn’t he proposing?

‘I don’t understand.’ Richard is talking almost to himself. ‘I’ve never said anything, we’ve never discussed it—’

‘You’ve said plenty!’ Hurt and indignation are erupting out of me. ‘You said you were organizing a “special lunch”.’

‘It is special!’ he says defensively. ‘I’m going to San Francisco tomorrow.’ ‘And you asked me if I liked your surname! Your surname, Richard!’

‘We were doing a jokey straw poll at the office!’ Richard looks bewildered. ‘It was just chit-chat.’

‘And you said you had to ask me a “big question”.’

‘Not a big question.’ He shakes his head. ‘A question.’

‘I heard “big question”.’

There’s a wretched silence between us. The cloud of happiness has gone. The Hollywood Technicolor and swoop- ing violins have gone. The sommelier tactfully slides a wine list on to the corner of the table and retreats quickly.

‘What is it, then?’ I say at last. ‘This really important, medium-sized question?’

Richard looks trapped. ‘It’s not important. Forget it.’

‘Come on, tell me!’

‘Well, OK,’ he says finally. ‘I was going to ask you what I should do with my airmiles. I thought maybe we could plan a trip.’

‘Airmiles?’ I can’t help lashing out. ‘You booked a special table and ordered champagne to talk about airmiles?’

‘No! I mean . . .’ Richard winces. ‘Lottie, I feel terrible about all this. I had absolutely zero idea . . .’

‘But we just had a whole bloody conversation about being engaged!’ I can feel tears rising again. ‘I was stroking your hand and saying how happy I was and how I’d thought about this moment for ages. And you were agreeing with me! What did you think I was talking about?’

Richard’s eyes are swivelling as though searching for an escape. ‘I thought you were . . . you know. Going on about stuff.’

‘ “Going on about stuff” ?’ I stare at him. ‘What do you mean, “Going on about stuff”?’

Richard looks even more desperate.

‘The truth is, I don’t always know what you’re on about,’ he says in a sudden confessional rush. ‘So sometimes I just . . . nod along.’

Nod along?

I stare back at him, stricken. I thought we had a special, unique silent bond of understanding. I thought we had a private code. And all the time he was just nodding along. Two waiters put our salads in front of us, and quickly move away as though sensing we’re not in any mood to talk. I pick up my fork and put it down again. Richard doesn’t seem even to have noticed his plate.

‘I bought you an engagement ring,’ I say, breaking the silence.

‘Oh God.’ He buries his head in his hands.

‘It’s fine. I’ll take it back.’

‘Lottie.’ He looks tortured. ‘Do we have to . . . I’m going away tomorrow. Couldn’t we just move away from the whole subject?’

‘So, do you ever want to get married?’ As I ask the question I feel a deep anguish inside. A minute ago I thought I was engaged. I’d run the marathon. I was bursting through the finishing tape, arms up in elation . . . Now I’m back at the start- ing line, lacing up my shoes, wondering if the race is even on.

‘I . . . God, Lottie. I dunno.’ He sounds beleaguered. ‘I mean, yes. I suppose so.’ His eyes are swivelling more and more wildly. ‘Maybe. You know. Eventually.’

Well. You couldn’t get a much clearer signal. Maybe he wants to get married to someone else, one day. But not to me.

And suddenly a bleak despair comes over me. I believed with all my heart that he was The One. How could I have got it so wrong? I feel as though I can’t trust myself on anything any more.

‘Right.’ I stare down at my salad for a few moments, running my eyes over leaves and slices of avocado and pomegranate seeds, trying to get my thoughts together. ‘The thing is, Richard, I do want to get married. I want marriage, kids, a house . . . the whole bit. And I wanted them with you. But marriage is kind of a two-way thing.’ I pause, breathing hard but determined to keep my composure. ‘So I guess it’s good that I know the truth sooner rather than later. Thanks for that, anyway.’

‘Lottie!’ says Richard in alarm. ‘Wait! This doesn’t change anything—’

‘It changes everything. I’m too old to be on a waiting list. If it’s not going to happen with us, then I’d rather know now and move on. You know?’ I try to smile, but my happy muscles have stopped working. ‘Have fun in San Francisco. I think I’d better go.’ Tears are edging past my lashes. I need to leave, quickly. I’ll go back to work and check on my presentation for tomorrow. I’d taken the afternoon off, but what’s the point? I won’t be phoning all my friends with the joyful news after all.

As I’m making my way out, I feel a hand grabbing my arm. I turn in shock to see the blonde girl with the beaded headband looking up at me.

‘What happened?’ she demands excitedly. ‘Did he give you a ring?’

Her question is like a knife stabbing at my heart. He didn’t give me a ring and he isn’t even my boyfriend any more. But I’d rather die than admit it. ‘Actually . . .’ I lift my chin proudly.

‘Actually, he proposed but I said “no”.’ ‘Oh.’ Her hand shoots to her mouth.

‘That’s right.’ I catch the eye of the long-haired girl, who’s eavesdropping blatantly at the next table. ‘I said “no”.’

‘You said “no”?’ She looks so incredulous I feel a pang of indignation.

‘Yes!’ I glare at her defiantly. ‘I said “no”. We weren’t right for each other after all, so I took the decision to end it. Even though he really wanted to marry me and have kids and a dog and everything.’

I can feel curious eyes on my back, and swivel round to confront yet more people, listening agog. Is the whole bloody restaurant in on this now?

‘I said “no”!’ My voice is rising in distress. ‘I said “no”. No!’ I call over loudly to Richard, who is still sitting at the table, looking dumbfounded. ‘I’m sorry, Richard. I know you’re in love with me and I know I’m breaking your heart right now. But the answer ’s “no”!’

And, feeling a tiny bit better, I stride out of the restaurant.

I get back to work to find my desk littered with new Post-Its. The phone must have been busy while I was out. I slump down at my desk and heave a long, shuddering sigh. Then I hear a cough. Kayla, my intern, is hovering at the door of my tiny office. Kayla hovers a lot round my door. She’s the keenest intern I’ve ever met. She wrote me a two-side Christmas card about how inspir- ing I was as a role model, and how she would never have come to intern at Blay Pharmaceuticals if it weren’t for the talk I gave at Bristol University. (It was a pretty good talk, I must admit. As recruitment speeches for pharmaceutical companies go.)

‘How was lunch?’ Her eyes are sparkling.

My heart plummets. Why did I tell her Richard was going to propose? I was just so confident. It gave me a kick, seeing her excitement. I felt like an all-round superwoman.

‘It was fine. Fine. Nice restaurant.’ I start to riffle through the papers on my desk, as though searching for some vital piece of information.

‘So, are you engaged?’

Her words are like lemon juice sprinkled on sore skin. Has she no finesse? You don’t ask your boss straight out, ‘Are you engaged?’ Especially if she’s not wearing a huge, brand-new ring, which clearly I’m not. I might refer to this in my appraisal of her. Kayla has some trouble working within appropriate boundaries.

‘Well.’ I brush down my jacket, playing for time, and swallowing the lump in my throat. ‘Actually, no. Actually, I decided against it.’

‘Really?’ She sounds confused.

‘Yes.’ I nod several times. ‘Absolutely. I concluded that for me at my time of life, at my career point, this wasn’t a smart move.’

Kayla seems poleaxed. ‘But . . . you guys were so great together.’

‘Well, these things aren’t as simple as they appear, Kayla.’ I riffle the papers more quickly.

‘He must have been devastated.’

‘Pretty much,’ I say after a pause. ‘Yup. Pretty crushed. In fact . . . he cried.’

I can say what I like. She’ll never see Richard again. I’ll probably never see him again. And like a bludgeon to the stomach, the enormity of the truth hits me again. It’s all over. Gone. All of it. I’ll never have sex with him again. I’ll never wake up with him again. I’ll never hug him again. Somehow that fact, above all others, makes me want to bawl.

‘God, Lottie, you’re so inspiring.’ Kayla’s eyes are shining. ‘To know that something is wrong for your career, and to have the courage to make that stand, to say, “No! I won’t do what everyone expects.” ’

‘Exactly.’ I nod desperately. ‘I was making a stand for women everywhere.’

My jaw is trembling. I have to conclude this conversation right now, before things go horribly wrong in the bursting- into-tears-in-front-of-your-intern department.

‘So, any vital messages?’ I scan the Post-Its without seeing them. ‘One from Steve about the presentation tomorrow, and some guy named Ben called.’

‘Ben who?’

‘Just Ben. He said you’d know.’

No one calls himself ‘Just Ben’. It’ll be some cheeky student I met at a milk-round talk, trying to get a foot in the door. I’m really not in the mood for it.

‘OK. Well. I’m going to go over my presentation. So.’ I click busily and randomly at my mouse till she leaves. Deep breath. Firm jaw. Move on. Move on, move on, move on.

The phone rings and I pick it up with a sweeping, authoritative gesture.

‘Charlotte Graveney.’

‘Lottie! It’s me!’

I fight an instinct to put the receiver straight back down again.

‘Oh, hi, Fliss.’ I swallow. ‘Hi.’

‘So, how are you?’

I can hear the teasing note in her voice and curse myself bitterly. I should never have texted her from the restaurant.

It’s pressure. All hideous pressure. Why did I ever share my love life with my sister? Why did I ever even tell her I was dating Richard? Let alone introduce them. Let alone start talk- ing about proposals.

Next time I meet a man, I’m saying nothing to anybody. Nada. Zip. Not until we’ve been blissfully married for a decade and have three kids and have just renewed our wedding vows. Then, and only then, will I send a text to Fliss saying: ‘Guess what? I met someone! He seems nice!’

‘Oh, I’m fine.’ I muster a breezy, matter-of-fact tone. ‘How about you?’

‘All good this end. So . . . ?’

She leaves the question dangling. I know exactly what she means. She means, So, are you wearing a massive diamond ring and toasting yourself with Bollinger as Richard sucks your toes in some amazing hotel suite?

I feel a fresh, raw pang. I can’t bear to talk about it. I can’t bear her sympathy gushing over me. Find another topic. Any topic. Quick.

‘So. Anyway.’ I try to sound bright and nonchalant. ‘Anyway. Um. I was just thinking, actually. I really should get round to doing that Masters on business theory. You know I’ve always meant to do it. I mean, what am I waiting for? I could apply to Birkbeck, do it in my spare time. What do you think?’

Fliss

Oh God. I want to weep. It went wrong. I don’t know how, but it went wrong.

Every time one of Lottie’s relationships ends, she immediately talks about doing a Masters degree. It’s like a Pavlovian reaction.

‘Maybe I could even go on to do a PhD, you know?’ she’s saying, with only the tiniest shake in her voice. ‘Maybe do some research abroad?’

She might fool the average person – but not me. Not her sister. She’s in a bad way.

‘Right,’ I say. ‘Yes. A PhD abroad. Good idea!’

There’s no point in pressing her for details or asking bluntly what happened. Lottie has her own distinct process for dealing with break-ups. You can’t hurry her and you must not express any sympathy. I’ve learned this the hard way.

There was the time she split up from Seamus. She arrived on my doorstep with a carton of Phish Food and bloodshot eyes and I made the elementary error of asking ‘What happened?’, whereupon she exploded like a grenade. ‘Jesus, Fliss! Can’t I just come and share ice cream with my sister without getting the third bloody degree? Maybe I just want to hang out with my own sister. Maybe life isn’t just about boyfriends. Maybe I just want to . . . to reassess my life. Do a Masters degree.’

Then there was the time Jamie dumped her and I made the mistake of saying, ‘Oh God, Lottie, poor you.’

She eviscerated me. ‘Poor me? What do you mean, poor me? What, Fliss, you’re pitying me because I don’t have a man? I thought you were a feminist.’ She vented all her hurt on me in one long tirade and by the end I practically needed an ear transplant.

So now I listen in silence as she talks about how she’s been meaning to explore the more academic side of herself for ages, and a lot of people don’t appreciate how cerebral she is, and her tutor entered her for a university prize, did I know that? (Yes, I did: she mentioned it straight after she broke up with Jamie.)

At last she tapers off into silence. I don’t breathe. I think we might be getting to the nub of things.

‘So, by the way, Richard and I aren’t together any more,’ she says in a careless, dropping-something-from-the-tips-of-her- fingers manner.

‘Oh, really?’ I match her tone. We could be talking about a minor subplot in EastEnders.

‘Yeah, we split up.’

‘I see.’

‘Wasn’t right.’

‘Ah. Well. That’s a real . . .’ I’m running out of anodyne one- syllable words. ‘I mean, that’s . . .’

‘Yes. It’s a shame.’ She pauses. ‘In one way.’

‘Right. So, was he . . .’ I’m treading on eggshells here. ‘I mean, weren’t you . . .’

What the fuck went wrong when an hour ago he was in the middle of a bloody proposal? is what I want to demand.

I don’t always trust Lottie’s version of events. She can be a little starry-eyed. She can see what she wants to see. But hand on heart, I believed as firmly as she did that Richard was planning to propose to her.

And now, not only are they not engaged but they’re over? I can’t help feeling profoundly shocked. I’ve got to know Richard pretty well, and he’s a good’un. The best she’s ever dated, if you ask me. (Which she has, many times, often at midnight when she’s pissed and interrupts before I’ve finished to announce she loves him whatever I think.) He’s sturdy, kind, successful. No chippiness, no baggage. Handsome, but not vain. And in love with her. That’s the main point. In fact, the only point. They’ve got that vibe of successful couples. They’ve got that connection. The way they talk, the way they joke, the way they sit together, always with his arm hooked gently around her shoulders, his fingers playing with her hair. The way they seem to be heading for the same things – whether it’s take-out sushi or a holiday in Canada. They have togetherness. You can just see it. At least, I can.

Correction: I could. So why couldn’t he?

Bastard, stupid man. What exactly is he hoping to find in a partner? What exactly is wrong with my sister? Does he think she’s holding him back from some great romance with a six- foot supermodel?

I let off steam by chucking a balled-up piece of paper aggressively into my bin. A moment later I realize I actually need that paper. Bugger.

The phone is still silent. I can feel Lottie’s misery emanating down the line. Oh God, I can’t bear this. I don’t care how prickly she is, I have to know a bit more. It’s insane. One minute they’re getting married, the next we’re on Stage One of Lottie’s Break-up Process, do not pass Go.

‘I thought you said he had a “big question”?’ I say as tactfully as I can.

‘Yes. Well. He changed his story,’ she says in a determinedly nonchalant voice. ‘He said it wasn’t a “big question”. It was a “question”.’

I wince. That’s bad. A big question isn’t a variety of question. It’s not even a subset.

‘So what was the question?’

‘It was about airmiles, as it happens,’ she says, her voice flat.

Airmiles? Ouch. I can imagine how that went down. Ian Aylward is at my office window, I suddenly notice. He’s gesticulating energetically. I know what he wants. It’s the speech for the awards ceremony tonight. ‘Done,’ I mouth, in a blatant lie, and point at my computer, trying to imply that mere technology is holding up its arrival.

‘I’ll email it. Email. It.’

At last he walks away. I glance at my watch and my heart ups its pace a little. I have precisely ten minutes to listen supportively to Lottie, write the rest of my speech and touch up my make-up.

No, nine and a half minutes.

I feel yet another stab of resentment, directed straight at Richard. If he really had to break my sister ’s heart, could he not have chosen a day which wasn’t my most insanely busy of the whole year? I hurriedly pull up the speech document on my screen and start typing.

In conclusion, I would like to thank everyone here tonight. Both those who have won awards and those who are gnashing their teeth furiously. I can see you! (Pause for laughter.)

‘Lottie, you know it’s our big awards event tonight,’ I say guiltily. ‘I’m going to have to go in five. If I could come round, you know I would in a heartbeat.’

Too late I realize I’ve made a heinous error. I’ve expressed sympathy. Sure enough, she turns on me.

‘Come round?’ she spits scathingly. ‘You don’t need to come round! What, you think I’m upset about Richard? You think my whole life revolves around one man? I wasn’t even thinking about him. I only called to tell you about my plans for a Masters degree. That was the only reason.’

‘I know,’ I backtrack. ‘Of course it was.’

‘Maybe I’ll see if there’s an exchange programme in the States. Maybe I’ll look at Stanford . . .’

She carries on talking, and I type faster and faster. I’ve given this speech six times before. It’s just the same old words, every year, in a different order.

The hotel industry continues to innovate and inspire. I am awed at the accomplishments and innovations that we see in our industry.

No. Crap. I press Delete and try again.

I am awed at the accomplishments and advances that my team of reviewers and I have witnessed around the world.

Yes. ‘Witnessed’ adds a nice touch of gravitas to the occasion. One could almost think we’ve spent the year engaging with a series of holy prophets, rather than with tanned PR girls in stilettos showing us the latest technology in poolside towel chilling.

My thanks are due to Bradley Rose, as ever . . .

Do I thank Brad first? Or Megan? Or Michael?

I’ll leave someone out. I know it. This is the law of the thank- you speech. You miss out some vital person, then grab the microphone again and call out their name in a shrill voice but no one’s listening. Then you have to find them and spend a hideous half-hour thanking them personally while you both smile but above their head in a thought bubble are floating the words: ‘You forgot I exist.’

My thanks are due to everyone who put this awards ceremony together, everyone who didn’t put this awards ceremony together, my entire staff, all your staffs, all our families, all seven billion people on this planet, God/Allah/Other . . . ‘

. . . I actually see this as a positive. I really do, Fliss. This is my chance to reconfigure my life, you know? I mean, I needed this.’

I drag my attention back to the phone. Lottie’s refusal to admit that anything is wrong is one of her most endearing qualities. Her resolute bravery is so heartbreaking, it makes me want to hug her.

But it also slightly makes me want to tear my hair out. It makes me want to yell, Stop talking about bloody Masters degrees! Just admit you’re hurt!

Because I know how this goes. I’ve been here before. Every break-up is the same. She starts off all brave and positive. She refuses to admit anything is wrong. She goes days, maybe weeks, without cracking, a smile lodged on her face, and people who don’t know her say, ‘Wow, Lottie coped with the break-up really well.’

Until the delayed reaction happens. Which it does, every time. In the form of some impulsive, outrageous, total fuckwit gesture which makes her feel euphoric for about five minutes. Each time, it’s something different. A tattoo on her ankle; an extreme haircut; an overpriced flat in Borough which she then had to sell at a loss. Membership of a cult. An ‘intimate’ piercing which went septic. That was the worst.

No, I take it back, the cult was the worst. They got six hundred pounds of her money and she was still talking about ‘enlightenment’. Evil, preying bastards. I think they circle London, sniffing out the newly dumped.

It’s only after the euphoric period that Lottie finally, properly cracks. And then it’s into the weeping and the days off work and ‘Fliss, why didn’t you stop me?’ And ‘Fliss, I hate this tattoo!’ And ‘Fliss, how can I go to my GP? I’m so embarrassed! What will I dooooo?’

I privately call these post-break-up fuckwit actions her Unfortunate Choices, which is a phrase our mother used a lot while she was alive. It covered anything from a dodgy pair of shoes worn by a dinner-party guest, to my father ’s eventual decision to shack up with a South African beauty queen. ‘Unfortunate choice,’ she would murmur with that glacial stare and we children would shiver, thanking our lucky stars it wasn’t us who had made Unfortunate Choices.

I don’t often miss my mother. But just sometimes I wish there was another family member I could call on to help pick up the pieces of Lottie’s life. My dad doesn’t count. First of all, he lives in Johannesburg. And second, if it’s not a horse, or offering him a glass of whisky, he’s not interested in it.

Now, listening to Lottie babble on about sabbatical pro- grammes, my heart is sinking. I can sense another Unfortunate Choice looming. It’s out there, somewhere. I feel as though I’m scanning the horizon, my hand shading my eyes, wondering where the shark will surface and grab her foot.

I wish she would just curse and rant and throw things. Then I could relax; the madness would be out of her system. When I broke up with Daniel, I swore obscenely for two solid weeks. It wasn’t pretty. But at least I didn’t join a cult.

‘Lottie . . .’ I rub my head. ‘You know I’m off on holiday tomorrow for two weeks?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘You’ll be OK?’

‘Of course I’ll be OK.’ Her scathing tones return. ‘I’m going to have a pizza and a nice bottle of wine tonight. I’ve been meaning to do that for ages, actually.’

‘Well, have a good one. Just don’t drown the pain.’

That’s another of our mother ’s sayings. I have a sudden memory of her in her pencil-slim white trouser suit and green glittery eyeshadow. ‘Drowning the pain, darlings.’ She’d be sitting at the bar in that house we had in Hong Kong, cradling a Martini while Lottie and I watched, in our matching pink dressing gowns flown out from England.

After she’d gone out, we would intone the phrase to each other like some kind of religion. I thought it was a general toast like ‘Down the hatch’ and shocked a schoolfriend many years later, at a family lunch, by raising my glass and saying, ‘Well, drown the pain, everyone.’

Now we use it as shorthand for ‘getting totally trashed in an embarrassing manner ’.

‘I will not be drowning the pain, thank you,’ retorts Lottie, sounding offended. ‘And anyway, you can talk, Fliss.’

I may have drunk a few too many vodkas, after Daniel and I split up, and I may have made a long speech to an audience of curry-house diners. It’s a fair point.

‘Yes, well.’ I sigh. ‘Talk soon.’

I put the phone down, close my eyes and give my brain about ten seconds to reboot and focus. I have to forget Lottie’s love life. I have to concentrate on the awards ceremony. I have to finish my speech. Now. Go.

I open my eyes and swiftly type a list of people to thank. It goes on for ten lines, but better safe than sorry. I email it to Ian headlined ‘Speech! Urgent!’ and leap up from my desk.

‘Fliss!’ As I leave my office, Celia pounces on me. She’s one of our most prolific freelancers and has the trademark crow’s feet of the professional spa reviewer. You’d think that the spa treatments would cancel out the sun damage, but I find it tends to be the other way round. They really should stop putting spas in Thailand. They should situate them in northern wintry countries with no daylight at all.

Hmm. Is there a piece in that?

I quickly type into my BlackBerry: Zero daylight spa? then look up. ‘Everything OK?’

‘The Gruffalo is here. He looks livid.’ She swallows. ‘Maybe I should leave.’

The Gruffalo is the industry nickname for Gunter Bachmeier. He owns a chain of ten luxury hotels and lives in Switzerland and has a forty-inch waist. I knew he was invited tonight but I assumed he wouldn’t turn up. Not after our review of his new spa hotel in Dubai, the Palm Stellar.

‘It’s fine. Don’t worry.’

‘Don’t tell him it was me.’ Celia’s voice is actually trembling.

‘Celia.’ I grip her by both shoulders. ‘You stand by your review, yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well then.’ I’m willing some strength into her, but she looks terrified. It’s amazing how someone who writes such savage, excoriating, witty prose can be so gentle and sensitive in the flesh.

Hmm. Is there a piece in that?

I type: Meet our reviewers in the flesh?? Profiles??

Then I delete it. Our readers don’t want to meet the reviewers. They don’t want to know that ‘CBD’ lives in Hackney and is an accomplished poet on the side. They simply want to know that their massive slice of cash is going to buy them all the sunshine/snow, white beach/mountains, solitude/beautiful people, Egyptian cotton/hammocks, haute cuisine/expensive club sandwiches that they require of a five-star holiday.

‘No one knows who “CBD” is. You’re safe.’ I pat her arm. ‘I have to run.’ I’m already striding down the corridor again. I head into the central atrium and look around. It’s a large, airy, double-height hall – the only impressive space at Pincher International – and every year our overcrowded sub-editors suggest that it’s converted into office space. But it comes into its own for the awards party. I scan the space, ticking off items in my head. Massive iced cake in shape of magazine cover which no one will eat: check. Caterers setting out glasses: check. Table of trophies: check. Ian from IT is crouching by the podium, fiddling with the auto reader.

‘All OK?’ I hurry over.

‘Grand.’ He jumps up. ‘I’ve loaded the speech. Want a sound check?’

I step on to the stage, switch on the microphone and peer at the reader.

‘Good evening!’ I raise my voice. ‘I’m Felicity Graveney, editor of Pincher Travel Review, and I would like to welcome you to our twenty-third annual awards ceremony. And what a year it’s been.’

I can see from Ian’s sardonic eyebrow that I’m going to have to sound a bit more excited than that.

‘Shut up,’ I say, and he grins. ‘I have eighteen awards to present . . .’

Which is far too many. Every year we have a stand-up battle over which ones to get rid of, and then get rid of none.

‘Blah, blah . . . OK, fine.’ I switch off the mic. ‘See you later.’

As I hurry back down the corridor, I see Gavin, our publisher, at the far end. He’s ushering an unmistakable forty-inch waist into the lift. As I’m watching, the Gruffalo turns and flashes a menacing anti-smile at me. He holds up four stubby fingers, and is still doing so as the doors close.

I know what that means, and I’m not going to be intimi- dated. So his new hotel got four stars from us instead of five. He should have created a better hotel. He should have invested in slightly more sand to lay on the concrete base of his ‘award- winning, man-created beach’ and tried hiring slightly less pretentious staff.

I head into the Ladies, survey my reflection and wince. Sometimes I’m genuinely shocked at the version of me in the mirror. Do I look so unlike Angelina Jolie? When did those shadows appear under my eyes? Everything about me is too dark, I abruptly decide. My hair, my brows, my sallow skin. I need to get something bleached. Or maybe everything, all at once. There must surely be a spa somewhere that has an all-in- one bleaching tank. One quick dip, keep your mouth open for the teeth-whitening option.

Hmm. Is there a piece in that? I type Bleach? into my BlackBerry, then attack everything I can with brushes. Finally I apply a generous amount of Nars Red Lizard. One thing: I can damn well wear lipstick. Perhaps they’ll put it on my grave. Felicity Graveney lies here. She could damn well wear lipstick.

I head out, glance at my watch and press ‘Daniel’ on speed- dial as I walk. He’ll know I’m phoning now, we discussed the timing, he’ll pick up, he has to pick up. Go on, Daniel, pick up . . . Where are you?

Voicemail.

Bastard. With Daniel, I am quite capable of going from calm to seething in 0–60.

The beep sounds and I draw breath.

‘You’re not there,’ I say with elaborate calmness, walking towards my office. ‘That’s a shame, because I have to be at this event soon, which you knew, because we discussed it. Several times.’

My voice is shaking. I cannot allow him to get to me. Let it go, Fliss. Divorce is a process and this is a process and we’re all part of the Tao. Or the Zen. Whatever. The thing in all those books I was given with the word ‘Divorce’ on the cover above a circle or picture of a tree.

‘Anyway.’ I take a deep breath. ‘Maybe you can let Noah listen to this message? Thank you.’

I close my eyes briefly and remind myself I’m not talking to Daniel any more. I have to shift his repulsive face out of my mind. I’m talking to the little face that lights up my life. The face that – against pretty tall odds – keeps the world making sense. I picture his shaggy fringe; his huge grey eyes; his school socks wrinkled around his ankles. Curled up on the sofa at Daniel’s place, with Monkey under his arm.

‘Sweetheart, I hope you’re having a lovely time with Daddy. I’ll see you soon, OK? I’ll try calling later, but if I don’t manage it, then night night and I love you.’

I’m nearly at my office door now. I have stuff to do. But I can’t help talking for as long as possible, till the beep tells me to go and get a life.

‘Night night, sweetheart.’ I press the phone up against my cheek. ‘Have lovely dreams, OK? Night night.’

‘Night night,’ answers a familiar little voice, and I nearly trip over my party Manolos.

What was that? Am I hallucinating? Has he overridden the voicemail? I peer at my phone to make sure, give it a quick bash against my palm, and listen again.

‘Hello?’ I say cautiously.

‘Hello! Hello-hello-hello . . .’

Oh my God. That voice isn’t coming from the phone. It’s coming from—

I hurry round the corner into my office and there he is. My seven-year-old son. Sitting on the armchair I give to visitors. ‘Mummy!’ he yells in delight.

‘Wow.’ I’m almost speechless. ‘Noah. You’re here. At my office. That’s just . . . Daniel?’ I turn to my ex-husband, who is standing by the window, flicking through a past issue of the magazine. ‘What’s going on? I thought Noah would be having tea by now? At your place?’ I add with bright emphasis. ‘As we planned?’

‘But I’m not,’ puts in Noah triumphantly.

‘Yes! I can see that, darling! So . . . Daniel?’ My smile has spread right across my face. Generally the rule is: the more I smile at Daniel, the more I’m feeling like stabbing him.

I can’t help surveying his features with a critical eye, even though he has nothing to do with me any more. He’s gained a couple of pounds. New, fine-stripe shirt. No hair product. That’s a mistake, his hair looks too floppy and wispy now. Maybe Trudy likes it that way.

‘Daniel?’ I try again.

Daniel says nothing, just shrugs easily, as though everything is obvious and words are superfluous. That shrug of his is new. It’s a post-me shrug. When we were together his shoulders were permanently hunched. Now he shrugs. He wears a Kabbalah bracelet under his suit. He bounces confrontation back like he’s made of rubber. His sense of humour has been replaced by a sense of righteousness. He doesn’t joke any more: he pronounces.

I can’t believe we used to have sex. I can’t believe we produced Noah together. Maybe I’m in The Matrix and I’ll wake up to something which makes far more sense, like all this time I’ve been lying in a tank attached to electrodes.

‘Daniel?’ My smile is fixed.

‘We agreed Noah would spend tonight with you.’ He shrugs again.

‘What?’ I stare at him, dumbfounded. ‘No we didn’t. It’s your night.’

‘I have to go to Frankfurt tonight. I sent you an email.’

‘No you didn’t.’

‘I did.’

‘You didn’t! You did not send me any email.’

‘We agreed I’d drop Noah here.’

He’s totally calm, as only Daniel can be. I, on the other hand, am about to have a nervous breakdown.

‘Daniel.’ My voice is trembling with the effort of not smashing his head in. ‘Why would I have agreed to have Noah here tonight when I’m hosting an awards ceremony? Why would I have done that?’

Daniel shrugs again. ‘I’m about to go to the airport. He’s had something to eat. Here’s his overnight bag.’ He dumps Noah’s rucksack on the floor. ‘All right, Noah? Mummy’s going to have you tonight, lucky thing.’

There is no way out of this.

‘Great!’ I smile at Noah, who is eyeing the two of us anx- iously. It breaks my heart to see worry in his huge eyes. No child of his age should ever worry about anything. ‘What a treat for me!’ I ruffle his hair reassuringly. ‘Excuse me, I’ll just be a moment . . .’

I walk along the corridor to the Ladies. It’s empty, which is a good thing because I cannot contain myself any longer.

‘HE DID NOT SEND ME A FUCKING EMAIL!’ My voice rockets round the cubicles. I’m panting as I meet my own eyes in the mirror. I feel about 10 per cent better. Enough to get through the evening.

I walk calmly back to the office, to see Daniel putting on his coat.

‘Well, have a good trip or whatever.’ I sit down, unscrew my fountain pen and write Congratulations! on the card for the bouquet which will be presented to the overall winner (that new spa resort in Marrakech). With best wishes from Felicity Graveney and all the team.

Daniel is still in my office. I can sense him lurking. He has something to say.

‘You still here?’ I lift my eyes.

‘Just one other thing.’ He surveys me with that righteous expression again. ‘I’ve got a couple more points to raise over the settlement.’

For a moment I’m so stunned I can’t react.

‘Wh-at?’ I manage to utter at last.

He cannot raise more points. We’ve finished raising points. We’re about to sign off. It’s done. After a court case and two appeals and a million lawyers’ letters. It’s finished.

‘I was talking it over with Trudy.’ He does his hand- spreading again. ‘She raised some interesting issues.’

No way. I want to thwack him. He does not get to talk about our divorce with Trudy. It’s ours. If Trudy wants a divorce, she can marry him first. See how she likes that.

‘Just a couple of points.’ He puts a wad of papers down on the desk. ‘Have a read.’

Have a read. As though he’s recommending a good whodunnit.

‘Daniel.’ I feel like a kettle coming to the boil. ‘You can’t start laying new stuff on me now. The divorce is done. We’ve thrashed everything out already.’

‘Surely it’s more important to get it right?’

He sounds reproving, as though I’m suggesting we go for a shoddy, ill-prepared divorce. One with no workmanship in it. Botched together with a glue gun instead of hand-sewn.

‘I’m happy with what we’ve agreed,’ I say tightly, although ‘happy’ is hardly the right word. ‘Happy’ would have been not finding his draft love letters to another woman stuffed in his briefcase, where anyone searching for chewing gum might stumble on them.

Love letters. I mean, love letters! I still can’t believe he wrote love letters to another woman and not to his own wife. I can’t believe he wrote explicit sexual poetry, illustrated by cartoons. I was genuinely shocked. If he’d written those poems to me, maybe everything would have been different. Maybe I would have realized what a self-obsessed weirdo he was before we got married.

‘Well.’ He shrugs again. ‘Perhaps I have more of a long-term view. Maybe you’re too close.’

Too close? How can I be too close to my own divorce? Who is this rubber-faced, emotionally stunted idiot and how did he get into my life? I’m breathing so fast with frustration, I feel like if I rose from my desk now I could give Usain Bolt a run for his money.

And then it happens. I don’t exactly mean for it to happen. My wrist moves sharply and it’s done and there are six little ink spots in a trail on his shirt and a bubble of happiness inside my chest.

‘What was that?’ Daniel looks down at his shirt and then up, his face aghast. ‘Is that ink? Did you just flick your pen at me?’

I glance at Noah to see if he witnessed his mother ’s descent into infantile behaviour. But he’s lost in the far more mature world of Captain Underpants.

‘It slipped,’ I say innocently.

‘It slipped. Are you five years old?’ His face crumples into a scowl and he dabs at his shirt, smearing one of the ink spots. ‘I could call my lawyer about this.’

‘You could discuss parental responsibility, your favourite subject.’

‘Funny.’

‘It’s not.’ My mood suddenly sobers. I’m tired of playing tit-for-tat. ‘It’s really not.’ I look at our son, who is bent over his book, shaking with laughter at something. His shorts are rucked up and on his knee is a face drawn in biro with an arrow pointing to it and I AM A SUPERHERO printed in wobbly letters. How can Daniel bail out on him like this? He hasn’t seen him for a fortnight; he never calls to chat with him. It’s as if Noah is a hobby that he bought all the equipment for and reached an elementary level – but then decided he’s just not that into after all and maybe he should have gone for wall-climbing instead.

‘It’s really not,’ I repeat. ‘I think you should go.’

I don’t even look up as he departs. I draw his stupid pile of papers to me, flick through them, too angry to read a word, then open a document on my computer and type furiously:

D arrives at office, leaving N with me with no notice, contravening agreement. Unhelpful manner. Wishes to raise more points regarding divorce settlement. Refuses to discuss reasonably.

I unclip my memory stick from its place on a chain round my neck and save the updated file to it. My memory stick is my comfort blanket. The whole dossier is on there: the whole sorry Daniel story. I replace it round my neck, then speed-dial Barnaby, my lawyer.

‘Barnaby, you won’t believe it,’ I say as soon as his voicemail answers. ‘Daniel wants to revisit the settlement again. Can you call me back?’

Then I glance anxiously at Noah to see if he heard me. But he’s chortling over something in his book. I’ll have to hand him over to my PA; she’s helped me out with emergency childcare before.

‘Come on.’ I stand up and ruffle his hair. ‘Let’s find Elise.’

The thing about avoiding people at parties is, it’s quite easy if you’re hosting. You always have an excuse to move away from the conversation just as you see a forty-inch pink-striped shirt bearing down on you. (‘So sorry, I must greet the marketing manager of the Mandarin Oriental, back in a moment . . .’) The party has been going for half an hour and I’ve managed to avoid the Gruffalo completely. It helps that he’s so massive and the atrium is so crowded. I’ve managed to make it appear totally natural that every time he gets within three feet I’m striding away in the opposite direction, or out of the room completely, or, in desperation, into the Ladies.

Damn. As I emerge from the Ladies, he’s waiting for me. Gunter Bachmeier is actually standing in the corridor, staking out the door of the Ladies.

‘Oh, hello, Gunter,’ I say smoothly. ‘How delightful to see you. I’ve been meaning to catch up with you—’

‘You hef been avoiding me,’ he says in severe, guttural tones.

‘Nonsense! Are you enjoying the party?’ I force myself to put a hand on his meaty forearm.

‘You hef traduced my new hotel.’ He pronounces ‘traduced’ with a rich, rolling sound. ‘Trrrraduced.’ I’m quite impressed that he knows the word. I certainly wouldn’t know the equivalent for ‘traduced’ in German. My German extends to ‘Taxi, bitte?’

‘Gunter, you’re overreacting.’ I smile pleasantly. ‘A four-star review is hardly . . . traducement.’ Traduction? Traducedom? ‘I’m sorry that my reviewer found herself unable to award you five stars—’

‘You hef not reviewed my hotel yourself.’ He’s bristling with anger. ‘You hef sent an amateur. You hef treated me with disrrrrespect!’

‘No, I hef not!’ I retort before I can stop myself. ‘I mean . . . hev. Have.’ My face is flaming. ‘Have not.’ I didn’t mean to do that, I just have a terrible parrot habit. I mimic voices and accents without intending to. Now Gunter is glaring at me even more viciously.

‘Everything all right, Felicity?’ Gavin, our publisher, comes bustling up. I can see his radar twitching and I know why. Last year, the Gruffalo shelled out on twenty-four double-page spreads. The Gruffalo is keeping us in business. But I can’t give his hotel a five-star review simply because he bought some ads. A five-star review in Pincher Travel Review is a very big deal.

‘I was just explaining to Gunter that I sent one of our top freelancers to review his hotel,’ I say. ‘I’m sorry he wasn’t happy, but—’

‘You should hef gone yourrrself.’ Gunter spits the words dis- missively. ‘Wherrrre is your crrrredibility, Felicity? Wherrre is your rrrreputation?’

As he stalks off, I secretly feel a bit shaken. I lift my eyes to Gavin, my heart pumping. ‘Well!’ I try to sound light-hearted. ‘What an overreaction.’

‘Why didn’t you cover the Palm Stellar?’ Gavin is frowning. ‘You review all major launches. That’s always been the deal.’

‘I decided to send Celia Davidson,’ I say brightly, avoiding the question. ‘She’s a great writer.’

‘Why didn’t you cover the Palm Stellar?’ he repeats, as though he hasn’t heard me.

‘I had some stuff going on with . . . with . . .’ I clear my throat, unwilling to say the word. ‘Some personal stuff.’ I watch as Gavin suddenly comprehends.

‘Your divorce?’

I can’t bring myself to answer. I twist my watch round my wrist, as though suddenly interested in the mechanism.

‘Your divorce?’ His voice sharpens ominously. ‘Again?’ My cheeks are burning with embarrassment. I know my divorce has taken on epic, Lord of the Rings-style proportions. I know it’s taken up more of my working time than it should have. I know I keep promising Gavin that it’s all done and dusted.

But it’s not like I have a choice. And it’s not like it’s fun.

‘I was talking to a specialist barrister based in Edinburgh,’ I admit at last. ‘I had to fly up there, his schedule was really busy.’

‘Felicity.’ Gavin beckons me to one side of the corridor, and at the sight of his tight-lipped smile, my stomach turns over. That’s the smile he wears to cut salaries and budgets and tell people their magazine is unfortunately being axed, could they please leave the building? ‘Felicity, no one could be more sympathetic to your plight than me. You know that.’

He’s such a liar. What does he know about divorce? He has a wife and a mistress and neither of them seems to mind about the other.

‘Thank you, Gavin,’ I feel obliged to say.

‘But you cannot let your divorce get in the way of your job or the reputation of Pincher International,’ he raps out. ‘Understand?’ Suddenly, for the first time, I feel genuinely nervous. I know from experience that Gavin starts invoking ‘the reputation of Pincher International’ when he’s thinking of firing someone. It’s a warning. I also know from experience the only way to deal with him is to refuse to admit anything.

‘Gavin.’ I draw myself up as tall as possible and affect a dignified air. ‘Let me make one thing quite clear.’ I pause, as though I’m David Cameron at Prime Minister ’s Questions. ‘Quite clear. If there’s one thing I never, ever do, it’s let my personal life compromise my job. In fact—’

‘Pow!’ An ear-splitting shriek interrupts me. ‘Laser attack!’

My blood freezes. That can’t be—

Oh no.

A familiar rat-tat-tat sound assaults my ears. Orange plastic bullets are shooting through the air, hitting people in the face and landing in glasses of champagne. Noah is running down the corridor towards the atrium, laughing uproariously and firing all around him with his automatic Nerf gun. Fuck. Why didn’t I check his backpack?

‘Stop!’ I launch myself at Noah, grab him by the collar and snatch the plastic gun out of his hands. ‘Stop that! Gavin, I’m so sorry,’ I add breathlessly. ‘Daniel was supposed to look after Noah tonight, but he left me in the lurch, and . . . Shit! Argh!’

In my agitation, I’ve pressed some button on the Nerf gun and it’s spraying more bullets, like something out of Reservoir Dogs, hitting Gavin in the chest. I’m massacring my boss with an automatic weapon flashes through my mind. This won’t look good in my appraisal. The stream of bullets rises to his face and he splutters in horror.

‘Sorry!’ I drop the gun on the floor. ‘I didn’t mean to shoot . . .’

With a shudder, I notice Gunter, ten feet away. There are three orange Nerf bullets lodged in his tufty white hair and one in his drink. ‘Gavin.’ I swallow.

‘Gavin. I don’t know what to say—’

‘It was my fault,’ Elise interrupts me hastily. ‘I was looking after Noah.’

‘But he shouldn’t have been at the office,’ I point out. ‘So it’s my fault.’

We turn to Gavin as though waiting for his verdict. He’s just staring at the scene, shaking his head.

‘Personal life. Job.’ He meshes his hands together. ‘Fliss, you need to sort yourself out.’

My face is hot with mortification as I frogmarch a protesting Noah to my office.

‘But I was winning!’ he keeps complaining.

‘I’m sorry.’ Elise is clutching her head. ‘He said it was his favourite game.’

‘No problem.’ I shoot her a smile. ‘Noah, we don’t play with Nerf guns at Mummy’s office. Ever.’

‘I’ll go and find him something to eat,’ says Elise. ‘Fliss, you need to get back to the party, quick. Go. Now. It’ll be fine. C’mon, Noah.’

She hustles Noah out of the room and I feel every cell of my body sag.

She’s right. I need to hurry back, sweep in, gather up the Nerf bullets, apologize, charm and turn this evening back into the slick, professional affair it always is.

But I’m so tired. I feel like I could go to sleep right now. The carpet under my desk looks like the perfect place for me to curl up.

I sink down on my chair, just as the phone rings. I’ll take this one call. Maybe it will be some uplifting piece of news.

‘Hello?’ ‘Felicity? Barnaby here.’

‘Oh, Barnaby.’ I sit up, feeling freshly galvanized. ‘Thanks for ringing back. You won’t believe what Daniel just did. He’d agreed to have Noah tonight, but then he left me in the lurch. And now he says he wants to revisit the settlement! We might end up back in court!’

‘Fliss, calm down. Chill out.’ Barnaby’s unhurried Man- cunian tones greet me. I do often wish Barnaby spoke a bit more quickly. Especially as I’m paying him by the hour. ‘We’ll sort it. Don’t worry.’

‘He’s so frustrating.’

‘I hear you. But you mustn’t stress. Try to forget about it.’

Is he kidding?

‘I’ve written the incident up. I can email it to you.’ I finger my memory stick on its chain. ‘Shall I do that now?’

‘Fliss, I’ve told you, you don’t need to keep a dossier of every single incident.’

‘But I want to! I mean, talk about “unreasonable behaviour”. If we put all this into the case, if the judge knew what he was like—’

‘The judge does know what he’s like.’

‘But—’

‘Fliss, you’re having the Divorce Fantasy,’ says Barnaby tranquilly. ‘What have I told you about the Divorce Fantasy?’

There’s silence. I hate the way Barnaby can read my mind. I’ve known him since college, and although he costs a bomb even on mates’ rates, I never considered going to anyone else. Now he’s waiting for me to answer, like a teacher in class.

‘The Divorce Fantasy will never happen,’ I mumble finally, staring at my fingernails.

‘The Divorce Fantasy will never happen,’ he repeats with emphasis. ‘The judge will never read a two-hundred-page dossier on Daniel’s shortcomings aloud in court, while a crowd jeers at your ex-husband. He will never start his summing up, “Ms Graveney, you are a saint to have put up with such an evil scumbag and I thus award you everything you want.” ’

I can’t help colouring. That is pretty much my Divorce Fantasy. Except in my version, the crowd throws bottles at Daniel too.

‘Daniel will never admit to being wrong,’ Barnaby presses on relentlessly. ‘He’ll never stand in front of the judge, weep- ing and saying, “Fliss, please forgive me.” The papers will never report your divorce with the headline Total Shit Admits Full Shittiness in Court.’

I can’t help half snorting with laughter. ‘I do know that.’

‘Do you, Fliss?’ Barnaby sounds sceptical. ‘Are you sure about that? Or are you still expecting him to wake up one day and realize all the bad things he’s done? Because you have to understand, Daniel will never realize anything. He’ll never confess to being a terrible human being. I could spend a thousand hours on this case, it would still never happen.’

‘But it’s so unfair.’ I can feel a ball of frustration in the pit of my stomach. ‘He is a terrible human being.’

‘I know. He’s a shit. So don’t dwell on him. Flush him out of your life. Gone.’

‘It’s not as easy as that,’ I mutter after a pause. ‘He is the father of my child.’

‘I know,’ says Barnaby more gently. ‘I didn’t say it was easy.’

There’s silence for a while. I stare at my office clock, watch- ing the crappy plastic hand tick round. At last I slump right down, resting my head in the crook of my elbow.

‘God, divorce.’

‘Divorce, eh,’ says Barnaby. ‘Man’s greatest invention.’

‘I wish I could just . . . I dunno.’ I sigh heavily. ‘Wave a magic wand and our marriage never happened. Except Noah. I’d keep Noah and the rest would all be a bad dream.’

‘You want an annulment, that’s what you want,’ says Barnaby cheerfully.

‘An annulment?’ I stare at the phone suspiciously. ‘Is that a real thing?’

‘Real enough. It means the contract is null and void. The marriage never existed. You’d be amazed how many clients ask for one.’

‘Could I get one?’

I’m seized by this idea. Maybe there’s some cheap, easy way round this I haven’t seen before. Annulment. Null and void. I like the sound of that a lot. Why didn’t Barnaby mention this before?

‘Not unless Daniel was a bigamist,’ says Barnaby. ‘Or forced you into marriage. Or you never consummated it. Or one of you was mentally unfit at the time.’

‘Me!’ I say at once. ‘I was crazy to even think of marrying him.’

‘That’s what they all say.’ He laughs. ‘Won’t wash, I’m afraid.’

My spark of hope slowly dies away. Damn. I wish Daniel had been a bigamist, now. I wish some original wife in a Mormon bonnet would pop up and say, ‘I got there first!’ and save me all this trouble.

‘I guess we’ll have to stick with the divorce,’ I say at last. ‘Thanks, Barnaby. I’d better go before you charge me another thirty thousand pounds just for saying hi.’

‘Quite right.’ Barnaby never sounds remotely offended, whatever I say. ‘But before you do, you’re still going to France, right?’

‘Yes, tomorrow.’ Noah and I are heading off for two weeks on the Côte d’Azur. As far as he’s concerned, it’s our Easter holiday. As far as I’m concerned, I’m reviewing three hotels, six restaurants and a theme park. I’ll be working on my laptop every night till late, but I can’t complain.

‘I contacted my old mate Nathan Forrester. The one I told you about? Based in Antibes? You two should meet up while you’re there, have a drink.’

‘Oh.’ I feel my spirits lift. ‘OK. That sounds fun.’

‘I’ll email you the details. He’s a nice guy. Plays too much poker but don’t hold that against him.’

A poker-playing resident of the South of France. Sounds intriguing. ‘I won’t. Thanks, Barnaby.’

‘My pleasure. Bye, Fliss.’

I put the phone down and it immediately rings again. Barnaby must have forgotten some point or other.

‘Hi, Barnaby?’

There’s silence, except for some rather fast, rather heavy breathing. Hmm. Has Barnaby inadvertently pressed Redial while snogging his secretary? But even as I’m thinking this, I know who it is really. I recognize that breathing. And I can hear Macy Gray’s ‘I Try’ faintly in the background: a classic Lottie break-up soundtrack.

‘Hello?’ I try again. ‘Lottie? Is that you?’

There’s more heavy breathing, this time raspy.

‘Lottie? Lotts?’

‘Oh Fliss . . .’ She erupts into a massive sob. ‘I really, really thought he was going to propooooooose . . .’

‘Oh God. Oh, Lottie.’ I cradle the phone, wishing it was her. ‘Lottie, sweetheart.’

‘I spent three whole years with him and I thought he loved me and wanted babeeeeees . . . But he didn’t! He didn’t!’ She’s crying as bitterly as Noah does when he scrapes his knee. ‘And what am I going to do now? I’m thirty-threeeee.’ Now she’s hiccuping.

‘Thirty-three is nothing,’ I say quickly. ‘Nothing! And you’re beautiful and a lovely person.’

‘I even bought him a riiiiiing . . .’

She bought him a ring? I stare at the phone. Did I hear that right? She bought him a ring?

‘What kind of ring?’ I can’t help asking. I imagine her presenting Richard with some sparkly sapphire in a box.

Please don’t say she presented him with a sparkly sapphire in a box.

‘Just, you know.’ She sniffs defensively. ‘A ring. A manly engagement ring.’

A manly engagement ring? No. Uh-uh. Doesn’t exist.

‘Lotts,’ I begin tactfully. ‘Are you sure Richard is the engagement-ring type? I mean, could that have put him off?’

‘It was nothing to do with the ring!’ She erupts into sobs again. ‘He never even saw the ring! I wish I’d never bought the bloody thing! But I thought it would be fair! Because I thought he’d bought one for meeeeeeee!’

‘OK!’ I say hastily. ‘Sorry!’

‘It’s fine.’ She calms down a little. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t mean to have a meltdown . . .’

‘Don’t be silly. What else am I here for?’

It’s awful to hear her so upset. Of course it is. Ghastly. But secretly I can’t help feeling a bit relieved, too. The façade is down. Her denial has cracked. This is good. This is progress.

‘Anyway, I’ve decided what to do, and I feel so much better. It’s all fallen into place, Fliss.’ She blows her nose noisily. ‘I feel like I have a purpose. A plan. A goal.’

My ears twitch. Uh-oh. A ‘goal’. That’s one of my post- break-up alarm-bell terms. Along with ‘project’, ‘change of direction’ and ‘amazing new friend’.

‘Right,’ I say cautiously. ‘Great! So, um, what’s your goal?’

My mind is already scurrying around the possibilities. Please not another piercing. Or another crazy property purchase. I’ve talked her out of quitting her job so many times, it can’t be that again, surely?

Please not move to Australia.

Please not lose a stone. Because 1) she’s skinny already, and 2) last time she went on a diet she made me be her ‘buddy’ and instructed me to phone up every half-hour and say, ‘Keep to the plan, you fat bitch,’ then complained when I refused.

‘So, what is it?’ I press her as lightly as I can, my entire body screwed up with dread.

‘I’m going to fly to San Francisco on the first flight I can get and surprise Richard and propose!’

‘What?’ I nearly drop the phone. ‘No! Bad idea!’

What’s she planning to do, burst into his office? Wait on his doorstep? Kneel down and present him with the so-called ‘manly’ engagement ring? I can’t let this happen. She’ll be utterly humiliated and devastated and I’ll have to pick up the pieces afterwards.

‘But I love him!’ She sounds totally hyper. ‘I love him so much! And if he can’t see that we’re meant to be together, then surely I have to show him! Surely it has to be me that makes the move? I’m on the Virgin Atlantic website right now. Should I get Premier Economy? Can you get me a discount?’

‘No! Do not book a flight to San Francisco,’ I say in the firmest, most authoritative tones I can muster. ‘Close down your computer. Step away from the internet.’

‘But—‘

‘Lottie, face it,’ I say more gently. ‘Richard had his chance. If he’d wanted to get married, it would be happening.’

I know what I’m saying sounds harsh. But it’s true. Men who want to get married propose. You don’t need to read the signs. They propose and that’s the sign.

‘But he just doesn’t realize he wants to get married!’ she says eagerly. ‘He just needs persuading. If I just gave him a little nudge . . .’

Little nudge? Bloody great elbow in the ribs, more like.

I have a sudden vision of Lottie dragging Richard up the aisle by his hair, and wince. I know exactly where that story ends up. It ends up in the office of Barnaby Rees, Family Lawyer, at five hundred quid for the first consultation.

‘Lottie, listen,’ I say severely. ‘And listen hard. You don’t want to go into a marriage anything less than two hundred per cent sure it’s going to work out. No, make that six hundred per cent.’ I eye Daniel’s latest divorce demands morosely. ‘Believe me. It’s not worth it. I’ve been there and it’s . . . Well, it’s hideous.’

There’s silence at the other end of the phone. I know Lottie so well. I can practically see her hearts-and-flowers image of proposing to Richard on the Golden Gate Bridge melting away.

‘Think about it first, at least,’ I say. ‘Don’t jump in. A few weeks won’t make any difference.’

I’m holding my breath, crossing my fingers.

‘OK,’ says Lottie at last, sounding forlorn. ‘I’ll think about it.’

I blink in astonishment. I’ve done it. I’ve actually done it! For the first time in my life, I’ve headed off one of Lottie’s Unfortunate Choices before it even happened. I’ve stamped out the infection before it could take hold.

Maybe she’s getting more rational in her old age.

‘Let’s go out to lunch,’ I suggest, to cheer her up. ‘My treat. As soon as I get back from holiday.’

‘Yes, that would be nice,’ says Lottie in a small voice. ‘Thanks, Fliss.’

‘Take care. Talk soon.’

She rings off and I exhale my frustration in a groan – although I’m not sure who I’m most frustrated with. Richard? Daniel? Gavin? Gunter? All men? No, not all men. Maybe all men except various honourable exceptions, viz: Barnaby; my lovely milkman Neville; the Dalai Lama, obviously—

My eyes suddenly focus on my reflection in my computer screen and I lean forward in horror. I have a Nerf bullet stuck in my hair.

Great.

sophiekinsella.co.uk

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