Confessions of a Shopaholic (by Sophie Kinsella)

 

Extract 1

 

“This high-yield, 60-day access account offers tiered, rates of interest on investments of over £.2,000,” I type onto the screen, copying directly from a press release in front of me. “Long-term savers may also be interested in a new stepped-rate bond which requires a minimum of £5,000.”

I type a full stop, take a sip of coffee, and turn to the second page of the press release.

This is what I do, by the way. I’m a journalist on а financial magazine. I’m paid to tell other people how to organize their money.

Of course, being a financial journalist is not the career I always wanted. No one who writes about personal finance ever meant to do it. People tell you they “fell into” personal finance. They’re lying. What they mean is they couldn’t get a job writing about anything more interesting. They mean they applied for jobs at The Times and The Express and Marie-Claire and Vogue and GQ and all they got back was “Piss off.”

So they started applying to Metalwork Monthly and Cheesemakers Gazette and What Investment Plan? And they were taken on as the crappiest editorial assistant possible on no money whatsoever and were grateful. And they’ve stayed on writing about metal, or cheese, or savings, ever since ­– because that’s all they know. I my­self started on the catchily titled Personal Investment Periodical, I learned how to copy out a press release and nod at press conferences and ask questions that sounded as though I knew what I was talking about. After a year and a half – believe it or not – I was head­hunted to Successful Saving.

Of course, I still know nothing about finance. People at the bus stop know more about finance than me. Schoolchildren know more than me. I’ve been doing this job for three years now, and I’m still expecting someone to catch me out.

That afternoon, Philip, the editor, calls my name, and I jump in fright.

“Rebecca?” he says. “A word.” And he beckons me over to his desk. His voice seems lower all of a sudden, almost conspiratorial, and he’s smiling at me, as though about to give me a piece of good news. Promotion, I think. It must be. He read the piece I wrote on international equity securities last week (in which I likened the hunt for long-term growth to the hunt for the perfect pair of summer mules) and was bowled over by how exciting I made it all sound. He knows it’s unfair I earn less than Clare, so he’s going to promote me to her level. Or even above. And he’s telling me discreetly so Clare won’t get jealous.

A wide smile plasters itself over my face and I get up and walk the three yards or so to his desk, trying to calm but already planning what I’ll buy with my raise. I’ll get that swirly coat in Whistles. And some black high-heeled boots from Pied a Terre. Maybe I’ll go on holiday. And I’ll pay off that blasted VISA bill once and for all. I feel buoyant with relief. I knew everything would be OK...

“Rebecca?” He’s thrusting a card at me. “I can’t make this press conference,” he says. “But it could be quite interesting. Will you go? It’s at Brandon Communications.”

I can feel the elated expression falling off my face like jelly. He’s not promoting me. I’m not getting a raise. I feel betrayed. Why did he smile at me like that? He must have known he was lifting my hopes.

“Something wrong?” inquires Philip.

“No,” I mutter. But I can’t bring myself to smile. In front of me, my new swirly coat and high-heeled boots are disappearing into a puddle, like the Wicked Witch of the West. No promotion. Just a press conference about... I turn over the card. About a new unit trust. How could anyone possibly describe that as interesting?

There’s just one essential purchase I have to make on the way to the press conference – and that’s the Financial Times. The FT is by far the best accessory a girl can have. Its major advantages are:

1. It’s a nice color.

2. It only costs eighty-five pence.

3. If you walk into a room with it tucked under your arm, people take you seriously. With an FT under your arm, you can talk about the most frivolous things in the world, and instead of think­ing you’re an airhead, people think you’re a heavy­-weight intellectual who has broader interests, too.

At my interview for Successful Saving, I went in hold-copies of the Financial Times and the Investor’s Chronicle – and I didn’t get asked about finance once. As I remember it, we spent the whole time talking about holiday villas and gossiping about other editors. So I stop at a newsstand and buy a copy of the FT. There’s some huge headline about Rutland Bank on the front page, and I’m thinking maybe I should at least skim it, when I catch my reflection in the window of Denny and George.

I don’t look bad, I think. I’m wearing my black skirt from French Connection, and a plain white T-shirt from Knickerbox, and a little angora cardigan which I got from M&S but looks like it might be Agnes B. And my new square-toed shoes from Hobbs. Even better, al­though no one can see them, I know that underneath I’m wearing my gorgeous new matching knickers and bra with embroidered yellow rosebuds. They’re the best bit of my entire outfit. In fact, I almost wish I could be run over so that the world would see them.

It’s a habit of mine, itemizing all the clothes I’m wear­ing, as though for a fashion page. I’ve been doing it for years – ever since I used to read Just Seventeen. Every issue, they’d stop a girl on the street, take a picture other, and list all her clothes. “T-Shirt: Chelsea Girl, Jeans: Top Shop, Shoes: borrowed from friend.” I used to read those lists avidly, and to this day, if I buy something from a shop that’s a bit uncool, I cut the label out. So that if I’m ever stopped in the street, I can pretend I don’t know where it’s from.

 

Extract 2

 

As I arrive at Brandon Communications, I can feel myself begin to relax.

There’s a sign up in the foyer saying that the Foreland Exotic Opportunities press conference is happening in the Artemis Suite, and a man in uniform is directing everybody down the corridor. This means it must be quite big. Not television-cameras-CNN-world’s-press-on-tenterhooks big, obviously. But fairly-good-turnout big. A relatively important event in our dull little world. As I enter the room, there’s already a buzz of people milling around, and waitresses circulating with canapes. The journalists are knocking back the champagne as if they’ve never seen it before; the PR girls are looking supercilious and sipping water. A waiter offers me a glass of champagne and I take two. One for now, one to put under my chair for the boring bits.

In the far comer of the room I can see Elly Granger from Investor’s Weekly News. She’s been pinned into a corner by two earnest men in suits and is nodding at them, with a glassy look in her eye. Elly’s great. She’s only been on Investor’s Weekly News for six months, and already she’s applied for forty-three other jobs. What she really wants to be is a beauty editor on a magazine, and I think she’d be really good at it. Every time I see her, she’s got a new lipstick on – and she always wears really interesting clothes. Like today, she’s wearing an orange chiffony shirt over a pair of white cotton trou­sers, espadrilles, and a big wooden necklace, the kind I could never wear in a million years.

What I really want to be is Fiona Phillips on GMTV. I could really see myself, sitting on that sofa, joshing with Eamonn every morning and interviewing lots of soap stars. Sometimes, when we’re very drunk, we make pacts that if we’re not somewhere more exciting in three months, we’ll both leave our jobs. But then the thought of no money – even for a month – is almost more scary than the thought of writing about depository trust com­panies for the rest of my life.

“Rebecca. Glad you could make it.”

I look up, and almost choke on my champagne. It’s Luke Brandon, head honcho of Brandon Communi­cations, staring straight at me as if he knows exactly what I’m thinking. Staring straight down at me, I should say. He must be well over six feet tall with dark hair and dark eyes and… wow. Isn’t that suit nice? An expensive suit like that almost makes you want to be a man. It’s inky blue with a faint purple stripe, single-breasted, with proper horn buttons. As I run my eyes over it I find myself wondering if it’s by Oswald Boateng, and whether the jacket’s got a silk lining in some stunning color. If this were someone else, I might ask – but not Luke Brandon, no way.

I’ve only met him a few times, and I’ve always felt slightly uneasy around him. For a start, he’s got such a scary reputation. Everyone talks all the time about what a genius he is, even Philip, my boss. He started Brandon Communications from nothing, and now it’s the biggest financial PR company in London. A few months ago he was listed in The Mail as one of the cleverest entrepre­neurs of his generation. It said his IQ was phenomenally high and he had a photographic memory.

But it’s not just that. It’s that he always seems to have a frown on his face when he’s talking to me. It’ll proba­bly turn out that the famous Luke Brandon is not only a complete genius but he can read minds, too. He knows it when I’m staring up at some boring graph, nodding intelligently, I’m really thinking about a gorgeous black top I saw in Joseph and whether I can afford the trousers as well.

“You know Alicia, don’t you?” Luke is saying, and he gestures to the immaculate blond girl beside him. I don’t know Alicia, as it happens. But I don’t need to. They’re all the same, the girls at Brandon C, as they call it. They’re well dressed, well spoken, are married to bankers, and have zero sense of humor. Alicia falls into identikit pattern exactly, with her baby-blue suit, silk Hermes scarf, and matching baby-blue shoes, which I’ve seen in Russell and Bromley, and they cost an absolute fortune. (I bet she’s got the bag as well.) She’s also got a suntan, which must mean she’s just come back from Mauritius or somewhere, and suddenly I feel a bit pale and weedy in comparison.

“Rebecca,” she says coolly, grasping my hand. “You’re on Successful Saving, aren’t you?” “That’s right,” I say, equally coolly. “It’s very good of you to come today,” says Alicia. “I know you journalists are terribly busy.”

“No problem,” I say. “We like to attend as many press conferences as we can. Keep up with industry events.” I feel pleased with my response. I’m almost fooling my­self.

Alicia nods seriously, as though everything I say is incredibly important to her.

“So, tell me, Rebecca. What do you think about to­day’s news?” She gestures to the FT under my arm. “Quite a surprise, didn’t you think?”

Oh God. What’s she talking about?

“It’s certainly interesting,” I say, still smiling, playing for time. I glance around the room for a clue, but there’s nothing. What’s she talking about? Have interest rates gone up or something?

“I have to say, I think it’s bad news for the industry,” says Alicia earnestly. “But of course, you must have your own views.”

She’s looking at me, waiting for an answer. I can feel my cheeks flaming bright red. How can I get out of this? After this, I promise myself, I'm going to read the papers every day. I’m never going to be caught out like this again.

“I agree with you,” I say eventually. “I think it’s very bad news.” My voice feels strangled. I take a quick swig of champagne and pray for an earthquake.

“Were you expecting it?” Alicia says. “I know you journalists are always ahead of the game.”

“I... I certainly saw it coming,” I say, and I’m pretty sure I sound convincing.

“And now this rumor about Scottish Prime and Flagstaff Life going the same way!” She looks at me in­tently. “Do you think that’s really on the cards?”

“It’s… it’s difficult to say,” I reply, and take a gulp of champagne. What rumor? Why can’t she leave me alone?

Then I make the mistake of glancing up at Luke Brandon. He’s staring at me, his mouth twitching slightly. Oh shit. He knows I don’t have a clue, doesn’t he?

“Alicia,” he says abruptly, “that’s Maggie Stevens coming in. Could you–”

“Absolutely,” she says, trained like a racehorse, and starts to move smoothly toward the door.

Now we’re on our own. I think I might quickly run away.

“Well,” I say brightly. “I must just go and…” Вut Luke Brandon is leaning toward me. “SBG announced that theyve taken over Rutland Bank this morning,” he says quietly.

And of course, now that he says it, I remember that front-page headline.

“I know they did,” I reply haughtily. “I read it in the FT.” And before he can say anything else, I walk off, to talk to Elly.

 

Extract 3

 

When we get back home, Mum goes straight inside, but I stay in the driveway, carefully transferring my purchases from her car to mine. “Becky! What a surprise!”

Oh God. It’s Martin Webster from next door, leaning over the fence with a rake in his hand and a huge friendly smile on his face. Martin has this way of always making me feel guilty, I don’t know why.

Actually I do know why. It’s because I know he was always hoping I would grow up and marry Tom, his son. And I haven’t. The history of my relationship with Tom is: he asked me out once when we were both about sixteen and I said no, I was going out with Adam Moore. That was the end of it and thank God for that. To be perfectly honest, I would rather marry Martin himself than marry Tom.

“Hi!” I say overenthusiastically. “How are you?”

“Oh, we’re all doing well,” says Martin. “You heard Tom’s bought a house?”

“Yes,” I say. “In Reigate. Fantastic!”

“It’s got two bedrooms, shower room, reception room, and open-plan kitchen,” he recites. “Limed oak units in the kitchen.”

“Gosh,” I say. “How fab.”

“Tom’s thrilled with it,” says Martin. “Janice!” he adds in a yell. “Come and see who’s here!”

A moment later, Janice appears on the front doorstep, wearing her floral apron.

“Becky!” she says. “What a stranger you’ve become! How long is it?”

Now I feel guilty for not visiting my parents more often.

“Well,” I say, trying to give a nonchalant smile. “You know. I’m quite busy with my job and everything.”

“Oh yes,” says Janice, giving an awe-stricken nod. “Your job.”

Somewhere along the line, Janice and Martin have got it into their heads that I’m this high-powered financial whiz kid. I’ve tried telling them that really I’m not – but the more I deny it, the more high powered they think I am. It’s a catch-22. They now think I’m high powered and modest.

Still, who cares? It’s actually quite fun, playing a financial genius.

“Yes, actually we’ve been quite busy lately,” I say coolly. “What with the merger of SBG and Rutland.”

“Of course,” breathes Janice.

“You know, that reminds me,” says Martin suddenly. “Becky, wait there. Back in two ticks.” He disappears before I can say anything, and I’m left awkwardly with Janice.

“So,” I say inanely. “I hear Tom’s got limed oak units in his kitchen!”

This is literally the only thing I can think of to say. I smile at Janice, and wait for her to reply. But instead, she’s beaming at me delightedly. Her face is all lit up – and suddenly I realize I’ve made a huge mistake. I shouldn’t have mentioned Tom’s bloody starter home. I shouldn’t have mentioned the limed oak units. She’ll think 1 suddenly fancy Tom, now he’s got a starter home to his name.

“It’s limed oak and Mediterranean tiles,” she says proudly.

“Lovely,” I say. “And two bedrooms!”

Why can’t I get off the subject of this bloody starter home?

“He wanted two bedrooms,” says Janice. “After all, you never know, do you?” She smiles coyly at me, and ridiculously, I feel myself start to blush. Why am I blushing? This is so stupid. Now she thinks I fancy Tom. She’s picturing us together in the starter home, making supper together in the limed oak kitchen.

I should say something. I should say, “Janice, I don’t fancy Tom. He’s too tall and his breath smells.” But how on earth can I say that?

“Well, do give him my love,” I hear myself saying instead.

“I certainly will,” she says, and pauses. “Does he have your London number?”

Aargh!

“I think so,” I lie, smiling brightly. “And he can always get me here it he wants.” Now everything I say sounds like some saucy double entendre. I can just imagine how this conversation will be reported back to Tom. “She was asking all about your starter home. And she asked you to call her!”

Life would be a lot easier if conversations were rewindable and erasable, like videos. Or if you could instruct people to disregard what you just said, like in a courtroom. Please strike from the record all references to starter homes and limed oak kitchens.

Luckily, at that moment, Martin appears, clutching a piece of paper.

“Thought you might cast your eye over this,” he says. “We’ve had this with-profits fund with Flagstaff Life for fifteen years. Now we’re thinking of transferring to their new unit-linked growth fund. What do you think?”

I don’t know. What’s he talking about, anyway? Some kind of savings plan? Please don’t ask me, I want to say. Please ask someone who knows what they’re talking about. But there’s no way they’ll believe that I’m not a financial genius – so I’ll just have to do the best I can.

I run my eye over the piece of paper in what I hope looks like a knowledgeable fashion and nod several times. It’s a letter making some kind of special offer if investors switch to this new fund. Sounds reasonable enough.

“The company wrote to us, saying we might want a higher return in our retirement years,” says Martin. “There’s a guaranteed sum, too.”

“And they’ll send us a carriage clock,” chimes Janice. “Swiss-made.”

“Mmm,” I say, studying the letterhead intently. “Well, I should think that’s quite a good idea.”

Flagstaff Life, I’m thinking. I’m sure I’ve heard something about them recently. Which ones are Flagstaff Life? Oh yes! They’re the ones who threw a champagne party at Soho Soho. That’s right. And Elly got incredibly pissed and told David Salisbury from The Times that she loved him. It was a bloody good party, come to think of it. One of the best.

Hmm. But wasn’t there something else? Something I’ve heard recently? I wrinkle my nose, trying to remember... but it’s gone. I’ve probably got it wrong, anyway.

“D’you rate them as a company?” says Martin.

“Oh yes,” I say, looking up. “They’re very well regarded among the profession.”

“Well then,” says Martin, looking pleased. “If Becky thinks it’s a good idea...”

“Yes, but, I really wouldn’t just listen to me!” I say quickly. “I mean, a financial adviser or someone would low far more...”

“Listen to her!” says Martin with a little chuckle. “The financial expert herself.”

“You know, Tom sometimes buys your magazine,” puts in Janice. “Not that he’s got much money now, with the mortgage and everything... But he says your articles are very good! Tom says–”

“How nice!” I cut in. “Well, look, I really must go. Lovely to see you. And love to Tom!”

And I turn into the house so quickly, I bump my ice on the door frame. Then I feel a bit bad, and wish I’d said good-bye nicely. But honestly! If I hear one more word about bloody Tom and his bloody kitchen, I’ll go mad.

 

Extract 4

 

This is the answer. It’s easy. I’ll become a high-flying freelance journalist, just like Clare, and earn nine hundred quid a week. What I have to do is start networking and making contacts at events instead of always sitting at the back with Elly. I must shake hands firmly with all the finance editors of the nationals and wear my name badge prominently instead of putting it straight in my bag, and then phone them up with ideas when I back to the office. And then I’ll have £.900 a week. Hah!

So when I arrive at the press conference, I pin my name badge on firmly, take a cup of coffee (no champagne – blast), and head toward Moira Channing of the Daily Herald.

“Hello,” I say, nodding in what I hope is a serious manner. “Becky Bloomwood, Successful Saving.”

“Hello,” she says without interest, and turns back to the other woman in the group. “So we had the second lot of builders back, and really read them the riot act.”

“Oh, Moira, you poor thing,” says the other woman. I squint at her badge and see that she’s Lavinia Bellimore, freelance. Well, there’s no point impressing her – she’s the competition.

Anyway, she doesn’t give me a second glance. The two chat away about extensions and school fees, com­pletely ignoring me – and after a bit I mutter, “Good to meet you,” and creep away. God, I’d forgotten how un­friendly they are. Still, never mind. I’ll just have to find someone else.

So after a bit I sidle up to a very tall guy on his own, and smile at him.

“Becky Bloomwood, Successful Saving,” I say.

“Geoffrey Norris, freelance,” he says, and flashes his badge at me. Oh for God’s sake. The place is crawling with freelancers!

“Who do you write for?” I ask politely, thinking at least I might pick up some tips.

“It depends,” he says shiftily. His eyes keep darting backward and forward, and he’s refusing to meet my eye. “I used to be on Monetary Matters. But they sacked me.”

“Oh dear,” I say.

“They’re bastards over there,” he says, and drains his coffee. “Bastards! Don’t go near them. That’s my ad­vice.”

“OK, I’ll remember that!” I say brightly, edging away. “Actually, I just have to...” And I turn, and walk quickly away. Why do I always find myself talking to weirdos?

Just then, a buzzer goes off, and people start to find their seats. Deliberately, I head for the second row, pick up the glossy brochure that’s waiting for me on my seat, and take out my notebook. I wish I wore glasses, then I’d look even more serious. I’m just writing down Sa­crum Asset Management Pension Fund Launch in capi­tals at the top of the page, when a middle-aged man I’ve never seen before plonks himself down next to me. He’s got disheveled brown hair and smells of cigarettes, and is wearing an old-looking jacket over a dark red shirt with no tie. Plus, I suddenly notice, sneakers on his feet. Sneakers to a press conference? He sits down, leans back comfortably, and looks around with twinkling brown eyes.

“It’s a joke, isn’t it?” he murmurs, then meets my eye. “All this gloss. All this show.” He gestures around. “You don’t fall for it, do you?”

Oh God. Another weirdo.

“Absolutely not,” I say politely, and look for his name badge, but I can’t see one.

“Glad to hear it,” says the man, and shakes his head. “Bloody fat cats.” He gestures to the front, where three men in expensive suits are sitting down behind the table. “You won’t find them surviving on fifty quid will you?”

“Well... no,” I say “More like fifty quid a minute.” The man gives an appreciative laugh.

“That’s a good line. I might use that.” He extends his hand. “Eric Foreman, Daily World.”

Daily World?” I say, impressed in spite of myself. Gosh, The Daily World. I have to confess a little secret here – I really like The Daily World. I know it’s only a tabloid, but it’s so easy to read, especially if you’re on a train. (My arms must be very weak or something, because holding The Times makes them ache for a while. And then all the pages get messed up. It’s a nightmare. And some of the articles in the “Female World” section are actually rather interesting.

But hang on – surely I’ve met The Daily World personal finance editor. Surely it’s that drippy woman called Marjorie? So who’s this guy?

“I haven’t seen you around before,” I say casually. “Are you new?”

Eric Foreman gives a chuckle. “I’ve been on the pa­per for ten years. But this finance stuff isn’t usually my scene.” He lowers his voice. “I’m here to stir up a bit of trouble, as it goes. The editor’s brought me on board for a new campaign we’re running, ‘Can We Trust the Money Men?’ ”

He even talks in a tabloid voice.

“That sounds great,” I say.

“Could be, could be. As long as I can get past all this technical stuff.” He pulls a face. “Never been good at figures.”

“I wouldn’t worry,” I say kindly. “You don’t actually need to know very much. You’ll soon pick up what’s important. Basically, these guys are launching a new pension plan...” I glance at the brochure “...and the gimmick is, there’s a discount for investors under the age of twenty-five. Which makes sense, of course, because the sooner you start retirement planning, the better.”

“Oh absolutely,” echoes Eric Foreman, a tiny smile at his mouth. “May I ask, do you have a pension?”

“Well... no,” I admit. “I don’t at the moment... but I’m absolutely intending to, as soon as I decide which one.”

Which is true. As soon as I clear all my debts, I’m go­ing to start a pension plan, and also invest in a long-term equity-based investment fund. I may even put some spare money into emerging markets. I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it?

“Glad to hear it,” says Eric Foreman, grinning. “Very wise of you.” He peers at my name badge. “And you are...”

“Rebecca Bloomwood, Successful Saving,” I say, in my best networking manner.

“Glad to meet you, Rebecca,” he says, and fishes in his pocket for a business card.

“Oh, thanks,” I say, hastily reaching into my bag for my own business cards. Yes! I think triumphantly as I hand it over. I’m networking with the national newspapers! I’m swapping business cards!

Just then the microphones all come on with a screech of feedback, and a dark-haired girl at the podium clears her throat. Behind her is a lit-up screen, with the words Sacrum Asset Management against a sunset.

I remember this girl now. She was really snotty to me at a press briefing last year. But Philip likes her, because she sends him a bottle of champagne every Christ­mas, so I’ll have to give this new pension plan a nice write-up.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says. “My name is Maria Freeman, and I’m delighted to welcome you all to the launch of the Sacrum Asset Management Pension Series. This is an innovative range of products designed to combine flexibility and security with the powerful per­formance associated with Sacrum.”

A graph appears on the screen before us, with a wiggly red line rising and falling above a thinner black one. “As Graph 1 shows,” says Maria Freeman confidently, pointing to the wiggly red line, “our UK Enterprise Fund has consistently outperformed the rest of its particular sector.”

“Hmm,” murmurs Eric Foreman to me, frowning at this brochure. “So, what’s going on here, then? I heard a tumor that Sacrum Asset Management wasn’t doing too well.” He jabs at the graph. “But look at this. Outperforming the sector.”

“Yeah, right,” I murmur back. “And what sector would that be? The Crap Investments Sector? The Lose All Your Money Sector?”

Eric Foreman looks at me and his mouth twists slightly.

“You think they’ve fiddled their figures?” he whis­pers.

“It’s not exactly fiddling,” I explain. “They just com­pare themselves to whoever’s worse than themselves, and then call themselves the winners.” I point to the graph in the brochure. “Look. They haven’t actually speci­fied what this so-called sector is.”

“Well, blow me,” says Eric Foreman, and looks up at the Sacrum team sitting on the platform. “They’re canny bastards, aren’t they?”

Really, this guy has no idea. I feel almost sorry for him.

Maria Freeman is droning on again, and I stifle a yawn. The trouble with, sitting near the front is you have to pretend to look interested and be writing notes. “Pensions,” I write, and draw a swirly line underneath. Then I make the line into the stem of a vine and start drawing little bunches of grapes and leaves all the way along.

“In a moment I’ll be introducing Mike Dillon, who heads up the investment team, and he’ll be telling you a little about their methods. In the meantime, if there are any questions…”

“Yes,” says Eric Foreman. “I’ve got a question.” I look up from my grapevine, slightly surprised.

“Oh yes?” Maria Freeman smiles sweetly at him. “And you are...”

“Eric Foreman, Daily World. I’d like to know, how much do you all get paid?” He gestures with his hand along the table.

“What?” Maria Freeman turns pink, then regains her composure. “Oh, you mean charges. Well, well be deal­ing with those...”

“I don’t mean charges,” says Eric Foreman. “I mean, how-much-do-you-get-paid? You, Mike Dillon.” He jabs at him with his finger. “What are you on? Six figures, is it? And bearing in mind what a disaster the performance of Sacrum Asset Management was last year – shouldn’t you be out on the streets?”

I’m absolutely stunned. I’ve never seen anything like this at a press conference. Never!

There’s a kerfuffle at the table, and then Mike Dillon leans forward toward his microphone.

“If we could get on with the presentation,” he says, “and... and leave other questions for later.” He’s look­ing decidedly uncomfortable.

“Just one more thing,” says Eric Foreman. “What would you say to one of our readers who invested in your Safe Prospects plan and lost ten grand?” He glances briefly at me and winks. “Show them a nice reassuring graph like that one, would you? Tell them you were ‘top of the sector’?”

Oh, this is fantastic! All the Sacrum people look like they want to die.

“A press release on the subject of Safe Prospects was issued at the time,” says Maria and smiles icily at Eric. “However, this press conference is restricted to the sub­ject of the new Pension Series. If you could just wait un­til the presentation is over...”

“Don’t worry,” says Eric Foreman comfortably. “I won’t be staying to hear the bullshit, I reckon I’ve got everything I need already.” He stands up and grins at me. “Good to meet you, Rebecca,” he says quietly. “And thanks for your expertise.” He extends his hand and I shake it, without quite knowing what I’m doing. And then, as everyone is turning in their seats and whisper­ing, he makes his way along the row and out of the room.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” says Maria Freeman, two bright spots burning on her cheeks. “Due to this... disturbance, we will have a short break before we resume. Please help yourself to tea and coffee. Thank you.” She turns off the microphone, climbs down from the podium, and hurries over to the huddle of Sacrum Asset Manage­ment personnel.

“You should never have let him in!” I hear one of them saying.

“I didn’t know who he was!” replies Maria defen­sively. “He said he was a stringer for The Wall Street Journal!”

Well, this is more like it! I haven’t seen so much ex­citement since Alan Derring from the Daily Investor stood up at a Provident Assurance press conference and told everyone he was becoming a woman and wanted us all to call him Andrea.

I head toward the back to get another cup of coffee, and find Elly standing by the coffee table. Excellent. I haven’t seen Elly for ages.

“Hi,” she grins. “I like your new friend. Very enter­taining.”

“I know!” I say delightedly. “Isn’t he cool?” I reach for a posh chocolate biscuit wrapped in gold foil, and give my cup to the waitress to be refilled. Then I take an­other couple of biscuits and pop them in my bag. (No point wasting them.)

Around us there is an excited buzz of conversation; the Sacrum people are still clustered at the front. This is great. We’ll be able to natter for hours.

“So listen,” I say to Elly. “Have you applied for any jobs recently?” I take a sip of coffee. “Because I saw one for New Woman the other day in the Media Guardian, and I meant to ring you. It said it was essential to have experience on a consumer title, but I thought you could say–”

“Becky,” interrupts Elly in an odd voice, “you know which job I’ve been going for.”

“What?” I stare at her. “Not that fund manager job. But that wasn’t serious. That was just a bargaining tool.”

“I took it,” she says, and I gaze at her in shock.

Suddenly a voice comes from the podium, and we both look up.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Maria is saying. “If you would like to resume your seats…”

I’m sorry, but I can’t go and sit back down there. I have to hear about this.

“Come on,” I say quickly to Elly. “We don’t need to stay. We’ve got our press packs. Let’s go and have lunch.”

There’s a pause – and for an awful moment I think she’s going to say no, she wants to stay and hear about personal pensions. But then she grins and takes my arm – and to the obvious dismay of the girl at the door, we waltz out of the room.

 

Extract 5

 

After lunch I wander out into the garden with one of Mum’s mail-order catalogues, and go and sit on the bench by the apple tree. A moment later, I hear a voice from over the garden fence, and look up. It’s Martin from next door. Hmm. I’m not feeling very well dis­posed toward Martin at the moment.

“Hello, Becky,” he says softly “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, thanks,” I say shortly. And I don’t fancy your son, I feel like adding. “How are you?”

“Oh, we’re both well,” says Martin. “I suppose.” To my surprise there’s a forced cheerfulness to his voice. He glances at Janice, who frowns and shakes her head slightly.

“Anyway, you must be pleased with the news,” I say brightly. “About Flagstaff Life.”

There’s silence.

“Well,” says Martin. “We would have been.”

“No one could have known,” says Janice, giving a little shrug. “It’s just one of those things. Just the luck of the draw.”

“What is?” I say, puzzled. “I thought you were getting some huge great windfall.”

“It appears...” Martin rubs his fate. “H appears not in our case.”

“But... but why?”

“Martin phoned them up this morning,” says Janice.

“To see how much we would be getting. They were saying in the papers that long-term investors would be getting thousands. But–” She glances at Martin.

“But what?” I say, feeling a twinge of alarm.

“Apparently we’re no longer eligible,” says Matin awkwardly. “Since we switched our investment. Our old fund would have qualified, but...” He coughs. “I mean we will get something – but it’ll only be about £.100.”

I stare at him blankly.

“But you only switched–”

“Two weeks ago,” be says. “That’s the irony. If we just held on a little bit longer... Still, what’s done is done. No point whining about it.” He gives a resigned shrug and smiles at Janice, who smiles back.

And I look away and bite my lip.

A nasty cold feeling is creeping over me. They took the decision to switch their money based on my advice, didn’t they? They asked me if they should switch funds, and I said go ahead. But now I come to think of it... hadn’t I already heard a rumor about this takeover? Oh God. Could I have stopped this?

“We could never have known these windfalls would happen,” says Janice, and puts her hand comfortingly on his arm. “They keep these things secret right until the last minute, don’t they, Becky?”

My throat’s too tight to answer. I can remember exactly now. It was Alicia who first mentioned the takeover. The day before I came down here. And then Philip said something about it in the office. Something about with-profits holders doing well. Except... I wasn’t really listening. I think I was doing my nails at the time.

“Twenty thousand pounds, they reckon we would have got if we’d stayed,” says Martin gloomily. “Makes you sick to think about it. Still, Janice is right. We couldn’t have known. Nobody knew.”

Oh God. This is all my fault. It’s all my fault. If I’d used my brain and thought for once...

“Oh, Becky, don’t look so upset!” says Janice. “This isn’t your fault! You didn’t know! Nobody knew! None of us could have–”

“I knew,” I hear myself saying miserably.

There’s a flabbergasted silence.

“What?” says Janice faintly

“I didn’t know, exactly,” I say, staring at the ground. “But I heard a sort of rumor about it a while ago. I should have said something when you asked me. I should have warned you to wait. But I just... didn’t think. I didn’t remember.” I force myself to look up and meet Martin’s astonished gaze. “I... I’m really sorry. It’s all my fault.”

There’s silence, during which Janice and Martin glance at each other and I hunch my shoulders, loathing myself. Inside, I can hear the phone ringing, and footsteps as someone goes to answer it.

“I see,” says Martin eventually “Well... not to worry. These things happen.”

“Don’t blame yourself, Becky,” says Janice kindly. “It was our decision to switch funds, not yours.”

“And remember, you’ve been under a lot of pressure yourself recently,” adds Martin, putting a sympathetic hand on my arm.

Now I really feel like dirt. I don’t deserve these peo­ple’s kindness. I’ve just lost them £20,000, through being too bloody lazy to keep up with events I’m sup­posed to know about. I’m a financial journalist, for God’s sake.

And suddenly, standing there in my parents’ garden on a Monday afternoon, I’m plunged to the lowest ebb of my life. What have I got going for me? Nothing. Not one thing. I can’t control my money, I can’t do my job, and I haven’t got a boyfriend. I’ve hurt my best friend, I’ve lied to my parents – and now I’ve ruined my neigh­bors.

Half an hour later, sitting in my bedroom, I’ve read the letter from Flagstaff Life six times and I’m sure there’s something fishy about it. How many investors must have switched funds after receiving this crappy carriage clock offer – and missed out on their windfall? More to the point, how much money must Flagstaff Life have saved? Suddenly I really want to know. There’s a growing indignation in me; a growing determination to find out exactly what’s been going on and, if it’s what I suspect, to expose it. To print the truth and warn others. For the first time in my life, I’m actually interested in a financial story.

And I don’t just want to write it up for Successful Saving, either. This deserves the widest audience possible. Eric Foreman’s card is still in my purse, with his direct telephone number printed at the top, and I take it out. I go to the phone and quickly punch in the number before I can change my mind.

“Eric Foreman, Daily World,” comes his voice, booming down the line.

Am I really doing this?

“Hi,” I say nervously. “I don’t know if you remember me. Rebecca Bloomwood from Successful Saving. We met at the Sacrum Asset Management press conference.”

“That’s right, so we did,” he says cheerfully. “How are you, my love?”

“I’m fine,” I say, and clench my hand tightly around the receiver. “Absolutely fine. Ahm... I was just wondering, are you still running уоur series on ‘Can We Trust the Money Men?’ ”

“We are, as it goes,” says Eric Foreman. “Why?”

“It’s just...” I swallow. “I think I’ve got a story that might interest you.”

I have never before worked so hard on an article. Never.

Mind you, I’ve never before been asked to write one so quickly. At Successful Saving, we get a whole month to write our articles – and we complain about that. When Eric Foreman said, “Can you do it by tomorrow?” I thought he was joking at first. I jauntily replied, “Of course!” and nearly added, “In fact, I’ll have it with you in five minutes’ time!” Then, just in time, I realized he was serious. Crikey.

So I’m round at Martin and Janice’s first thing the next morning with a Dictaphone, writing down exactly all the information on their investment and trying to get in lots of heart-wrenching details as advised by Eric.

“We need human interest,” he told me over the phone. “None of your dull financial reporting here. Make us feel sorry for them. Make us weep. A hard-working, ordinary couple, who thought they could rely on a few savings to see them through their old age. Ripped off bу the fat cats. What kind of house do these people live in?”

“Ahmm... a four-bedroom detached house in Surrey.”

“Well, for Christ’s sake don’t put that in!” he boomed. “I want honest, poor, and proud. Never demanded, penny off the state, saved to provide for themselves. Trusted a respectable financial institution. And ail it did was kick them in the face.” He paused, and it sound as if he might be picking his teeth. “That kind of thing. Think you can manage it?”

“I... ahm... yes! Of course!” I stuttered.

Oh God, I thought as I put down the phone. What have I got myself into?

But it’s too late to change my mind now. So the next thing is to persuade Janice and Martin that they don’t mind appearing in The Daily World. The trouble is, it’s not exactly The Financial Times, is it? Or even the normal Times. (Still, it could be a lot worse. It could be The Sun – and they’d end up sandwiched between a topless model and a blurred paparazzi shot of Posh Spice.)

Luckily, however, they’re so bowled over that I’m making all this effort on their behalf, they don’t seem to care which newspaper I’m writing for. And when they hear that a photographer’s coming over at midday to take their picture, you’d think the queen was coming to visit.

“My hair!” says Janice in dismay, staring into the mirror. “Have I time to get Maureen in to give me a blow-dry?”

“Not really. And it looks lovely,” I say reassuringly. “Anyway, they want you as natural as possible. Just honest, ordinary people.” I glance around the living room, trying to pick up poignant details to put into my article.

An anniversary card from their son stands proudly on the well-polished mantelpiece. But there will be no celebration this year for Martin and Janice Webster.

“I must phone Phyllis!” says Janice. “She won’t bel­ieve it!”

“You weren’t ever a soldier, or anything?” I say thoughtfully to Martin. “Or a... a fireman? Anything like that. Before you became a travel agent.”

“Not really, love,” says Martin, wrinkling his brow. “Just the Cadets at school.”

“Oh, right,” I say, brightening. “That might do.”

Martin Webster fingers the Cadet badge he was so proud to wear as a youth. His life has been one of hard work and service for others. Now, in his retirement years, he should be enjoying the rewards he deserves.

But the fat cats have conned him out of his nest egg. Daily World asks...

“I’ve photocopied all the documents for you,” says Martin. “All the paperwork. I don’t know if it’ll be any use…”

“Oh thanks,” I say, taking the pile of pages from him. “I’ll have a good read through these.”

When honest Martin Webster received a letter from Flagstaff Life, inviting him to switch investment funds, he trusted the money men to know what was best for him.

Two weeks later he discovered they had tricked him out of a £20,000 windfall.

“My wife is ill as a result of all this,” he said, “I’m so worried.”

Hmm.

“Janice?” I say, looking up casually. “Do you feel all right? Not... unwell, or anything?”

“A bit nervous, to be honest, dear,” she says, looking round from the mirror. “I’m never very good at having my picture taken.”

“My nerves are shot to pieces,” said Mrs. Webster in a ragged voice. “I’ve never felt so betrayed in all my life.”

“Well, I think I’ve got enough now,” I say, getting up and switching off my Dictaphone. “I might have to slightly digress from what’s on the tape – just to make the story work. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course not!” says Janice. “You write what like, Becky! We trust you.”

I look at her soft, friendly face and feel a sudden shot of determination. This time I’ll get it right.

“So what happens now?” says Martin.

“I’ll have to go and talk to Flagstaff Life,” I say. “Get them to give their defense.”

“What defense?” says Martin. “There is no defense for what they did to us!”

I grin at him. “Exactly.”

I’m full of happy adrenaline. All I need to do is get a quote from Flagstaff Life, and I can start writing piece. I haven’t got long: it needs to be finished by two o’clock if it’s going to make tomorrow’s edition. Why has work never seemed so exciting before?

Briskly I reach for the phone and dial Flagstaff number – only to be told by the switchboard operator that all press inquiries are dealt with out of house. She gives me a number, which seems rather familiar, and I frown at it for a moment, then punch it in.

“Hello,” says a smooth voice. “Brandon Communications.”

Of course. Suddenly I feel a bit shaky. The word Brandon has hit me right in the stomach like a punch. I’d forgotten all about Luke Brandon.

But it’s OK – I don’t have to speak to him personally, do I?

“Hi!” I say. “It’s Rebecca Bloomwood here. Ermm... just wanted to talk to somebody about Flagstaff Life.”

“Let me check...” says the voice. “Yes, that’s Luke Brandon’s client. I’ll just put you through to his assis­tant...” And the voice disappears before I can say anything.

Oh God.

I can’t do this. I can’t speak to Luke Brandon. My questions are jotted down on a piece of paper in front of me, but as I stare at them, I’m not reading them.

OK, I can do this, I tell myself firmly. I’ll just be very stern and businesslike and ask my questions, and...

“Rebecca!” comes a voice in my ear. “How are you! It’s Alicia here.”

“Oh,” I say in surprise. “I thought I was going to speak to Luke. It’s about Flagstaff Life.”

“Yes, well,” says Alicia. “Luke Brandon is a very busy man. I’m sure I can answer any questions you have.”

“Oh, right,” I say, and pause. “But they’re not your client, are they?”

“I’m sure that won’t matter in this case,” she says, and gives a little laugh. “What did you want to know?”

“Right,” I say, and look at my list. “Was it a deliberate for Flagstaff Life to invite their investors to move out of with-profits just before they announced windfalls? Some people lost out a lot, you know.”

“Right…” she says. “Thanks, Camilla, I’ll have salmon and lettuce.”

“What?” I say.

“Sorry, yes, I am with you,” she says. “Just jotting it down... I’ll have to get back to you on that, I’m afraid.”

“Well, I need a response soon!” I say, giving her my number. “My deadline’s in a few hours.”

“Got that,” says Alicia. Suddenly her voice goes muffled. “No, smoked salmon. OK then, Chinese chicken. Yes.” The muffle disappears. “So, Rebecca, any other questions? Tell you what, shall I send you our latest press pack? That’s bound to answer any other queries. Or you could fax in your questions.”

“Fine,” I say curtly. “Fine, I’ll do that.” And I put phone down.

For a while I stare straight ahead in brooding silence. Stupid patronizing cow. Can’t even be bothered to take my questions seriously.

Then gradually it comes to me that this is the way I always get treated when I ring up press offices. No one’s ever in any hurry to answer my questions, are they? People are always putting me on hold, saying they’ll ring me back and not bothering. I’ve never minded before – I’ve rather enjoyed hanging on to a phone, listening to “Greensleeves”. I’ve never cared before whether people took me seriously or not.

But today I do care. Today what I’m doing does seem important, and I do want to be taken seriously. This article isn’t just about a press release and a bunch of numbers. Martin and Janice aren’t hypothetical examples dreamed up by some marketing department. Тhey’re real people with real lives. That money would have made a huge difference to them.

I’ll show Alicia, I think fiercely. I’ll show them all, Luke Brandon included. Show them that I, Rebecca Bloomwood, am not a joke.

With a sudden determination I reach for my dad’s typewriter. I feed in some paper, switch on my Dicta­phone, take a deep breath, and begin to type.

Two hours later, I fax my 950-word article to Eric Foreman.

 

Extract 6

 

When we get home, Mum and Janice are both wait­ing at our front door, desperate to see a copy.

“My hair!” wails Janice as soon as she sees the pic­ture. “It looks terrible! What have they done to it?”

“No, it doesn’t, love!” protests Martin. “You look very nice.”

“Your curtains look lovely, Janice,” says Mum, looking over her shoulder.

“They do, don’t they?” says Martin eagerly, “that’s just what I said.”

I give up. What kind of family have I got, that are more interested in curtains than top financial journalism? Anyway, I don’t care. I’m mesmerized by my byline. “By Rebecca Bloomwood”. “By Rebecca Bloomwood.”

After everyone’s peered at the paper. Mum invites Janice and Martin round to our house for breakfast, and Dad goes and puts on some coffee. There’s a rather festive air to the proceedings, and everyone keeps laugh­ing a lot. I don’t think any of us can quite believe that Janice and Martin are in The Daily World. (And me, of course. “By Rebecca Bloomwood.”)

At ten o’clock, I slope off and ring up Eric Foreman. Just casually, you know. To let him know I’ve seen it.

“Looks good, doesn’t it?” he says cheerfully. “The editor’s really going for this series, so if you come up with any more stories like this just give me a shout. I like your style. Just right for The Daily World.”

“Excellent,” I say, feeling a glow of pleasure.

“Oh, and while I’m at it,” he adds, “you’d better give me your bank details.”

My stomach gives a nasty lurch. Why does Eric Foreman want my bank details? Shit, is he going to check that my own finances are in order or something? Is he going to run a credit check on me?

“Everything’s done by transfer these days,” he’s say­ing. “Four hundred quid. That all right?”

What? What’s he–

Oh my God, he’s going to pay me. But of course he is. Of course he is!

“That’s fine,” I hear myself say. “No problem. I’ll just, ahm... give you my account number, shall I?”

Four hundred quid! I think dazedly as I scrabble for my checkbook. Just like that! I can’t quite believe it.

“Excellent,” says Eric Foreman, writing the details down. “I’ll sort that out for you with Accounts.” Then he pauses, “Tell me, would you be in the market for wilting general features? Human interest stories, that кind of thing?”

Would I be in the market? Is he kidding?

“Sure,” I say, trying not to sound too thrilled. “In fact... I’d probably prefer it to finance.”

“Oh right,” he says. “Well, I’ll keep an eye out for bits that might suit you. As I say, I think you’ve got the right style for us.”

“Great,” I say. “Thanks.”

As I put the phone down, there’s a huge smile on my face. I’ve got the right style for The Daily World! Hah!

The phone rings again, and I pick it up, wondering if it’s Eric Foreman offering me some more work already.

“Hello, Rebecca Bloomwood,” I say in a businesslike voice.

“Rebecca,” says Luke Brandons curt voice – and my heart freezes. “Could you please tell me what is going on?”

Shit.

He sounds really angry. For an instant I’m paralyzed. My throat feels dry, my hand is sweaty round the receiver. Oh God. What am I going to say? What am I going to say to him?

But hang on a minute. I haven’t done anything wrong.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I say, playing for time. Keep calm, I tell myself. Calm and cool.

“Your tawdry effort in The Daily World,” he says scathingly. “Your one-sided, unbalanced, probably libelous little story.”

For a second I’m so shocked I can’t speak. Tawdry? Libelous?

“It’s not tawdry!” I splutter at last. “It’s a good piece! And it’s certainly not libelous. I can prove everything I said.”

“And I suppose getting the other side of the story would have been inconvenient,” he snaps. “I suppose you were too busy writing your purple prose to approach Flagstaff Life and ask for their version of events. You’d rather have a good story than spoil it by trying to give a balanced picture.”

“I tried to get the other side of the story!” I exclaim furiously. “I phoned your PR company yesterday and told them I was writing the piece!”

There’s silence.

“Who did you speak to?” says Luke.

“Alicia,” I reply “I asked her a very clear question about Flagstaff’s policy on switching funds, and she told me she’d get back to me. I told her I had an urgent dead­line.”

Luke gives an impatient sigh. “What were you doing, speaking to Alicia? Flagstaff’s my client, not hers.”

“I know! I said that to her! But she said you were a very busy man and she could deal with me.”

“Did you tell her you were writing for The Daily World?”

“No,” I say, and feel myself blush slightly red. “I didn’t specify who I was writing for. But I would have told her if she’d asked me. She just didn’t bother. She just assumed I couldn’t possibly be doing anything impor­tant.” In spite of myself, my voice is rising in emotion. “Well, she was wrong, wasn’t she? You were all wrong. And maybe now you’ll start treating everybody with respect. Not just the people you think are important.” I break off, panting slightly, and there’s a bemused silence.

“Rebecca,” says Luke at last, “if this is some kind of petty revenge–”

I’m really going to explode now.

“Don’t you bloody insult me!” I yell. “Don’t you bloody try and make this personal! This is about two innocent people being hoodwinked by one of your bigshot clients, nothing else. I told the truth, and if you didn’t have a chance to respond, it’s your own company’s incompetence that’s to blame. I was completely professional, I gave you every opportunity to put out your side of the story. Every opportunity. And if you blew it, that’s not my fault.”

And without giving him the chance to reply, I slam the phone down.

I’m feeling quite shaken as I go back into the kitchen.

“Telephone!” says Mum. “Shall I get it?”

It’ll be him again, won’t it? Ringing back to apologize. Well, he needn’t think I’m that easily won round. I stand by every word I said. And I’ll tell him so. In fact, I’ll add that–

“It’s for you, Becky,” says Mum.

“Fine,” I say coolly, and make my way to the telephone. I don’t hurry, I don’t panic. I feel completely in control.

“Hello?” I say.

“Rebecca? Eric Foreman here.”

“Oh!” I say in surprise. “Hi!”

“Bit of news about your piece.”

“Oh yes?” I say, trying to sound calm. But my stomach’s churning. What if Luke Brandon’s spoken to him? Oh shit, I did check all the facts, didn’t I?

“I’ve just had Morning Coffee on the phone,” he says. “You know, the TV program? Rory and Emma. They’re interested in your story.”

“What?” I say stupidly.

“There’s a new series they’re doing on finance, ‘Managing Your Money.’ They get some financial expert in every week, tell the viewers how to keep tabs on their dosh.” Eric Foreman lowers his voice. “Frankly, they’re running out of stuff to talk about. They’ve done mort­gages, store cards, pensions, all the usual cobblers...”

“Right,” I say, trying to sound focused. But as his words slowly sink in, I’m a bit dazed. Rory and Emma read my article? Rory and Emma themselves? I have a sudden vision of them holding the paper together, jostling for a good view.

But of course, that’s silly, isn’t it? They’d have a copy each.

“So, anyway, they want to have you on the show to­morrow morning,” Eric Foreman’s saying. “Talk about this windfall story, warn their viewers to take care. You interested in dial kind of thing? If not, I can easily tell them you’re too busy.”

“No!” I say quickly. “No. Tell them I’m...” I swallow. “I’m interested.”

As I put down the phone, I feel faint. I’m going to be on television.

 

Extract 7

 

“Been on television before?”

“No,” I admit reluctantly. “No, I haven’t.”

We pull up at some lights and the driver turns round to survey me.

“You’ll be fine,” he says, “just don’t let the nerves get to you.”

“Nerves?” I say, and give a little laugh. “I’m not nervous! I’m just... looking forward to it.”

“Glad to hear it,” says the driver, turning back. “You’ll be OK, then. Some people, they get onto that sofa, thinking they’re fine, relaxed, happy as a clam... then they see that red light, and it hits them that 2,5 million people around the country are all watching them. Makes some people start to panic.”

“Oh,” I say after a slight pause. “Well... I’m nothing like them! I’ll be fine!”

“Good,” says the driver.

“Good,” I echo, a little less certainly, and look out of the window.

I’ll be fine. Of course I will. I’ve never been nervous in my life before, and I’m certainly not going to start…

Two point five million people.

Gosh. When you think about it – that is quite a lot isn’t it? Two point five million people, all sitting at home, staring at the screen. Staring at my face. Wait for what I’m going to say next.

OK, don’t think about it. The important thing is just to keep remembering how well prepared I am. I rehearsed for ages in front of the mirror last night and I know what I’m going to say practically by heart.

It all has to be very basic and simple, Zelda said – because apparently 76 percent of the Morning Coffee audience are housewives looking after toddlers, who have very short attention spans. She kept apologizing for what she called the “dumbing-down effect” and saying a financial expert like myself must feel really frustrated by it – and of course, I agreed with her.

But to be honest, I’m quite relieved. In fact, the more dumbed down the better, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, writing a Daily World article with all my notes at hand was one thing, but answering tricky questions on live TV is quite another.

So anyway, I’m going to start off by saying “If were offered a choice between a carriage clock and £20,000, which would you choose?” Rory or Emma will reply, “Twenty thousand pounds, of course!” and I’ll say, “Exactly. Twenty thousand pounds.” I’ll pause briefly to let that figure sink into the audience’s mind, and then I’ll say, “Unfortunately, when Flagstaff Life offered their customers a carriage clock to transfer their savings, they didn’t tell them that if they did so, they would lose a £20.000 windfall!”

That sounds quite good, don’t you think? Rory and Emma will ask a few very easy questions like “What can people do to protect themselves?” and I’ll give nice simple answers. And right at the end, just to keep it light, we’re going to talk about all the different things you could buy with £20,000.

Actually, that’s the bit I’m looking forward to most of all. I’ve already thought of loads of things. Did you know, with £20,000 you could buy forty Gucci watches, and have enough left over for a bag?

The Morning Coffee studios are in Maida Vale, and as we draw near to the gates, familiar from the opening credits of the show, I feel a dart of excitement. I am actually going to be on television!

The doorman waves us through the barrier, we pull up outside a pair of huge double doors, and the driver opens the door for me. As I get out, my legs are shaking slightly, but I force myself to walk confidently up the steps, into the reception hall, and up to the desk.

“I’m here for Morning Coffee,” I say, and give a little laugh as I realize what I’ve just said. “I mean...”

“I know what you mean,” says the receptionist, kindly but wearily. She looks up my name on a list, jabs a number into her phone, and says, “Jane? Rebecca Bloomwood’s here.” Then she gestures to a row of squashy chairs and says, “Someone will be with you shortly.”

“Rebecca, are you ready?”

“Yes,” I say eagerly, leaping up from my chair. (I have to admit, I feel quite flattered that Zelda’s come down to get me herself. I mean, she obviously doesn’t come down for everyone.)

“Great to meet you,” says Zelda, shaking my hand. “Great to have you on the show. Now, as usual, we’re completely frantic – so if it’s OK by you, I thought we’d just head straight off to hair and makeup and we can talk on the way.”

“Absolutely,” I say, trying not to sound too excited. “Good idea.”

Hair and makeup! This is so cool!

“There’s been a slight change of plan which I need to fill you in on,” says Zelda. “Nothing to worry about… Any word from Bella yet?” she adds to the receptionist.

The receptionist shakes her head, and Zelda mutters something which sounds like “Stupid cow”.

“OK, let’s go,” she says, heading off toward a pair of swing doors. “I’m afraid it’s even more crazy than usual today. One of our regulars has let us down, so we’re searching for a replacement, and there’s been an accident in the kitchen...” She pushes through the swing doors and now we’re striding along a green-carpeted corridor buzzing with people. “Plus, we’ve got Heaven Sent 7 in today,” she adds over her shoulder. “Which means the switchboard gets jammed with fans calling in, and we have to find dressing room space for seven enormous egos.”

“Right,” I say nonchalantly. But underneath I’m jumping with excitement. Heaven Sent 7? But I mean… they’re really famous! And I’m appearing on the same show as them! I mean – I’ll get to meet them and everything, won’t I? Maybe we’ll all go out for a drink afterward and become really good friends. They’re all a bit younger than me, but that won’t matter. I’ll be like their older sister.

Or maybe I’ll go out with one of them! God, yes. This nice one with the dark hair. Nathan. (Or is it Ethan. Whatever he’s called.) He’ll catch my eye after the show and quietly ask me out to dinner without the others. We’ll go to some tiny little restaurant, and at first it’ll be all quiet and discreet, but then the press will find out and we’ll become one of those really famous couples who go to premieres all the time. And I’ll wear…

“OK, here we are,” says Zelda, and I look up dazedly.

We’re standing in the doorway of a room lined with mirrors and spotlights. Three people are sitting in chairs in front of the mirrors, wearing сapes and having makeup applied by trendy-looking girls in jeans; another is having hair blow-dried. Music is playing in the background, there’s a friendly level of chatter, and in the air are the mingled scents of hair spray, face powder, and coffee.

It’s basically my idea of heaven.

“So,” says Zelda, leading me toward a girl with red hair. “Chloe will do your makeup, and then we’ll pop you along to wardrobe. OK?”

“Fine,” I say, my eyes widening as I take in Chloe’s collection of makeup. There’s about a zillion brushes, pots, and tubes littered over the counter in front of us, all really good brands like Chanel and MAC.

“Now about your slot,” continues Zelda as I sit down on a swivel chair. “As I say, we’ve gone for a rather different format from the one we talked about previously…”

“Zelda!” comes a man’s voice from outside. “Bella’s on the line for you!”

“Oh shit,” says Zelda. “Look. Rebecca, I’ve got to go and take this call, but I’ll come back as soon as I can. OK?”

“Fine!” I say happily, as Chloe drapes a cape round me and pulls my hair back into a wide towel band. In the background, the radio’s playing my favorite song by Lenny Kravitz.

“I’ll just cleanse and tone, and then give you a base,” says Chloe. “If you could shut your eyes...”

I close my eyes and, after a few seconds, feel a cool, creamy liquid being massaged into my face. It’s the most delicious sensation in the world. I could sit here all day.

“So,” says Chloe after a while. “What are you on the show for?”

“Errm... finance,” I say vaguely. “A piece on finance.”

To be honest, I’m feeling so relaxed, I can hardly remember what I’m doing here.

“Oh, yeah,” says Chloe, efficiently smoothing foundation over my face. “They were talking earlier about some financial thing.” She reaches for a palette of eyeshadows, blends a couple of colors together, then picks up a brush. “So, are you a financial expert, then?”

“Well,” I say, a little awkwardly. “You know.”

“Wow,” says Chloe, starting to apply eyeshadow to my eyelids. “I don’t understand the first thing about money.”

“Me neither!” chimes in a dark-haired girl from across the room. “My accountant’s given up trying to explain it all to me. As soon he says the word ‘tax-year’ my mind glazes over.”

I’m about to reply sympathetically “Me too!” and launch into a nice girly chat – but then I stop myself. The memory of Janice and Martin is a bit too raw for me to be flippant.

“You probably know quite a lot more about your finances than you realize,” I say instead. “If you really don’t know... then you should take advice from someone who does.”

“You mean a financial expert like you?” says the girl.

I smile back, trying to look confident – but all the talk of my being a “financial expert” is unnerving me. I feel as though any minute now, someone’s going to walk in, ask me an impossible question about South African bond yields, and then denounce me as a fraud. Thank goodness I know exactly what I’m going to say on air.

“Sorry, Rebecca,” says Chloe, “I’m going to have to interrupt. Now, I was thinking a raspberry red for the lips. Is that OK by you?”

What with all this chatting, I haven’t really been paying attention to what she’s been doing to my face. But as I look at my reflection properly, I can’t quite believe it. My eyes are huge; I’ve suddenly got amazing cheek-bones… honestly, I look like a different person. Why on earth don’t I wear makeup like this every day?

“Wow!” I breathe.

“It’s easier because you’re so calm.” observes Chloe, reaching into a black vanity case. “We get some people in here, really trembling with nerves. Even celebrities. We can hardly do their makeup.”

“Really?” I say, and lean forward, ready to hear some gossip. But Zelda’s voice interrupts us.

“Sorry about that, Rebecca!” she exclaims. “Right, how are we doing? Makeup looks good. What about hair?”

“It’s nicely cut,” says Chloe, picking up a few strands of my hair and dropping them back down again, just like Nicky Clarke on a makeover. “I’ll just give it a blow-dry for sheen.”

“Fine,” says Zelda. “And then we’ll get her along to wardrobe.” She glances at something on her clipboard, then sits down on a swivel chair next to me. “OK, so, Rebecca, we need to talk about your item.”

“Excellent,” I say, matching her businesslike tone. “Well, I’ve prepared it all just as you wanted. Really simple and straightforward.”

“Yup,” says Zelda, “Well, that’s the thing. We had a talk at the meeting yesterday, and you’ll be glad to hear, we don’t need it too basic, after all.” She smiles. “You’ll be able to get as technical as you like!”

“Oh, right,” I say, taken aback. “Well... good! That’s great! Although I might still keep it fairly low–”

“We want to avoid talking down to the audience. I mean, they’re not morons!” Zelda lowers her voice slightly. “Plus we had some new audience research in yesterday, and apparently 80 percent of our viewers feel patronized by some or all of the show’s content. Basically, we need to redress that balance. So we’ve had a complete change of plan for your item!” She beams at me. “What we thought is, instead of a simple interview, we’d have more of a high-powered debate.”

“A high-powered debate?” I echo, trying not to sound as alarmed as I feel.

“Absolutely!” says Zelda. “What we want is a really heated discussion! Opinions flying, voices raised. That kind of thing.”

Opinions?

“So is that OK?” says Zelda, frowning at me. “You look a bit–”

“I’m fine!” I force myself to smile brightly. “Just… looking forward to it! A nice high-powered debate. Great!” I clear my throat. “And... and who will I be debating with?”

“A representative from Flagstaff Life,” says Zelda triumphantly. “Head-to-head with the enemy. It’ll make great television!”

“Zelda!” comes a voice from outside the room. “Bella again!”

"Oh, for Christ’s sake!” says Zelda, leaping up. “Rebecca, I’ll be back in a sec.”

“Fine,” I manage. “See you in a minute.”

“OK,” says Chloe cheerfully. “While she’s gone, let me put on that lipstick.”

She reaches for a long brush and begins to paint my lips, and I stare at my reflection, trying to keep calm, trying not to panic. But my throats so tight, I can’t swallow. I’ve never felt so frightened in all my life.

I can’t talk in a high-powered debate!

Why did I ever want to be on television?

“Rebecca, could you try to keep your lips still?” says Chloe with a puzzled frown. “They’re really shaking.”

"Sorry,” I whisper, staring at my reflection like a frozen rabbit. She’s right, I’m trembling all over. Oh God, this is no good. I’ve got to calm down. Think happy thoughts. Think Zen.

In an effort to distract myself, I focus on the reflection in the mirror. In the background I can see Zelda standing in the corridor, talking into a phone with a furious expression on her face.

“Yup,” I can hear her saying curtly. “Yup. But the point is, Bella, we pay you a retainer to be available. What am I supposed to do now?” She looks up, sees someone, and lifts a hand in greeting. “OK, Bella, I do see that…”

A blond woman and two men appear in the corridor, and Zelda nods to them apologetically. I can’t see their faces, but they’re all wearing smart overcoats and holding briefcases, and one of the men is holding a folder bulging with papers. The blond woman’s coat is actually rather nice, I find myself thinking. And she’s got a gorgeous Louis Vuitton bag. I wonder who she is.

“Yup,” Zelda’s saying. “Yup. Well, if you can suggest an alternative phone-in subject...”

She raises her eyebrows at the blond woman, who shrugs and turns away to look at a poster on the wall. And as she does so, my heart nearly stops dead.

Because I recognize her. It’s Alicia. Alicia from Brandon Communications is standing five yards away from me.

I almost want to laugh at the incongruity of it. What’s she doing here? What’s Alicia Bitch Long-legs doing here, for God’s sake?

One of the men turns round to say something to her – and as I see his face, I think I recognize him, too. He’s another one of the Brandon С lot, isn’t he? One of those eager, baby-faced types.

But what on earth are they all doing here? What’s going on? Surely it can’t be–

They can’t all be here because of–

No. Oh no. Suddenly I feel rather cold.

“Luke!” comes Zelda’s voice from the corridor, and I feel a swoop of dismay. “So glad you could make it. We always love having you on the show. You know, I had no idea you represented Flagstaff Life, until Sandy said.”

This isn’t happening. Please tell me this isn’t happening.

“The journalist who wrote the piece is already here,” Zelda’s saying, “and I’ve primed her on what’s happening. I think it’s going to make really great television, the two of you arguing away!”

She starts moving down the corridor, and in the mirror I see Alicia and the eager young man begin to follow her. Then the third overcoated man starts to come in view. And although my stomach’s churning painfully, I can’t stop myself. I slowly turn my head as he passes the door.

I meet Luke Brandon’s grave, dark eyes and he meets mine, and for a few still seconds, we just stare at each other. Then abruptly he looks away and strides down the corridor. And I’m left, gazing helplessly at my painted reflection, feeling sick with panic.

By eleven twenty-five, I’m sitting on a brown upholstered chair in the green room. I’m dressed in a midnight-blue Jasper Conran suit, sheer tights, and a pair of suede high heels. What with my makeup and blown-dry hair, I’ve never looked smarter in my life. But I can’t enjoy any of it. All I can think of is the fact that in fifteen minutes, I’ve got to sit on a sofa and discuss high-powered finance with Luke Brandon on live television.

The very thought of it makes me feel like whimpering. Or laughing wildly. I mean, it’s like some kind of sick joke. Luke Brandon against me. Luke Brandon, with his genius IQ and bloody photographic memory – against me. He’ll walk all over me. He’ll massacre me.

“Darling, have a croissant,” says Elisabeth Plover, who’s silting opposite me, munching a pain аu chocolat. “They’re simply sublime. Every bite like a ray of golden Provençal sun.”

“No thanks,” I say. “I... I’m not really hungry.”

I don’t understand how she can eat. I honestly feel as though I’m about to throw up at any moment. How on earth do people appear on television every day? How does Fiona Phillips do it? No wonder they’re all so thin.

“Coming up!” comes Rory’s voice from the television monitor in the corner of the room, and both our heads automatically swivel round to see the screen filled with a picture of the beach at sunset. “What is it like, to live with a gangster and then, risking everything, betray him? Our next guest has written an explosive novel based on her dark and dangerous background ...”

“…And we introduce a new series of in-depth discussions,” chimes in Emma. The picture changes to one of coins raining onto the floor, and my stomach gives a nasty flip. “Morning Coffee turns the spotlight on the issue of financial scandal, with two leading industry experts coming head-to-head in debate.”

Is that me? Oh God, I don’t want to be a leading industry ­expert. I want to go home and watch reruns of The Simpsons.

“But first!” says Rory cheerily. “Scott Robertson’s getting all fired up in the kitchen.” The picture switches abruptly to a man in a chef’s hat grinning an brandishing a blowtorch. I stare at him for a few moments, then look down again, clenching my hands tightly in my lap. I can’t quite believe that in fifteen minutes it’ll be me up on that screen. Sitting on the sofa. Trying to think of something to say.

To distract myself, I unscrew my crappy piece of pa­per for the thousandth time and read through my paltry notes. Maybe it won’t be so bad, I find myself thinking hopefully, as my eyes circle the same few sentences again and again. Maybe I’m worrying about nothing. We’ll probably keep the whole thing at the level of a casual chat. Keep it simple and friendly. After all...

“Good morning, Rebecca,” comes a voice from the door. Slowly I look up – and as I do so, my heart sinks. Luke Brandon is standing in the doorway. He’s wearing an immaculate dark suit, his hair is shining, and his face is bronze with makeup. There isn’t an ounce of friendliness in his face. His jaw is tight; his eyes are hard and businesslike. As they meet mine, they don’t even flicker.

For a few moments we gaze at each other without speaking. I can hear my pulse beating loudly in my ears; my face feels hot beneath all the makeup. Then, summoning all my inner resources, I force myself to say calmly, “Hello, Luke.”

There’s an interested silence as he walks into the room. Even Elisabeth Plover seems intrigued by him.

“I know that face,” she says, leaning forward. “I know it. You’re an actor, aren’t you? Shakespearean, of course. I believe I saw you in Lear three years ago.”

“I don’t think so,” says Luke curtly.

“You’re right!” says Elisabeth, slapping the table. “It was Hamlet. I remember it well. The desperate pain, the guilt, the final tragedy...” She shakes her head solemnly. “I’ll never forget that voice of yours. Every word was like a stab wound.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” says Luke, and looks at me. “Rebecca–”

“Luke, here are the final figures,” interrupts Alicia, hurrying into the room and handing him a piece of paper. “Hello, Rebecca,” she adds, giving me a snide look. “All prepared?”

“Yes, I am, actually,” I say, crumpling my paper into a ball in my lap. “Very well prepared.”

“Glad to hear it,” says Alicia, raising her eyebrows. “It should be an interesting debate.”

“Yes,” I say defiantly. “Very.”

God, she’s a cow.

“I’ve just had John from Flagstaff on the phone,” adds Alicia to Luke in a lowered voice. “He was very keen that you should mention the new Foresight Savings Series. Obviously, I told him–”

“This is a damage limitation exercise,” says Luke curtly. “Not a bloody plug-fest. He’ll be bloody lucky if he…” He glances at me and I look away as though I’m not remotely interested in what he’s talking about. Casually I glance at my watch and feel a leap of fright as I see the time. Ten minutes. Ten minutes to go.

“OK,” says Zelda, coming into the room. “Elisabeth. We’re ready for you.”

“Marvelous,” says Elisabeth, taking a last mouthful of pain au chocolat. “Now, I do look all right, don’t I?” She stands up and a shower of crumbs falls off her skirt.

“You’ve got a piece of croissant in your hair,” says Zelda, reaching up and removing it. “Other than that – what can I say?” She catches my eye and I have a hysterical desire to giggle.

“Luke!” says the baby-faced guy, rushing in with a mobile phone. “John Bateson on the line for you. And a couple of packages have arrived…”

“Thanks, Tim,” says Alicia, taking the packages and ripping them open. She pulls out a bunch of papers and begins scanning them quickly, marking things every so often with a pencil. Meanwhile, Tim sits down, opens a laptop computer, and starts typing.

“Yes, John, I do see your bloody point,” Luke’s saying in a low, tight voice. “But if you had just kept me better informed–”

“Tim,” says Alicia, looking up. “Can you quickly check the return on the Flagstaff Premium Pension over the last three, five, and ten?”

“Absolutely,” says Tim, and starts tapping at his computer.

“Tim,” says Luke, looking up from the phone. “Can you print out the Flagstaff Foresight press release draft for me ASAP? Thanks.”

I can’t quite believe what I’m seeing. They’ve practically set up an office, here in the Morning Coffee green room. An entire office of Brandon Communications staff complete with computers and modems and phones… pitted against me and my crumpled piece of notebook pареr.

As I watch Tim’s laptop efficiently spewing out pages and Alicia handing sheets of paper to Luke, a resigned feeling starts to creep over me. I mean, let’s face it. I’ll never beat this lot, will I? I haven’t got a chance. I should just give up now. Tell them I’m ill or something. Run home and hide under my duvet.

“OK, everyone?” says Zelda, poking her head round the door. “On in seven minutes.”

“Fine,” says Luke.

“Fine,” I echo in a wobbly voice.

“Oh, and Rebecca, there’s a package for you,” says Zelda. She comes into the room and hands me a large square box. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Thanks, Zelda,” I say in surprise, and, with a sudden lift of spirits, begin to rip the box open. I’ve no idea what it is or who it’s from – but it’s got to be something helpful, hasn’t it? Special last-minute information from Eric Foreman, maybe. A graph, or a series of figures that I can produce at the crucial moment. Or some secret document that Luke doesn’t know about.

Out of the corner of my eye I can see that all the Brandonites have stopped what they’re doing and are watching, too. Well, that’ll show them. They’re not the only ones to get packages delivered to the green room. They’re not the only ones to have resources. Finally I get the sticky tape undone and open the flaps of the box.

And as everyone watches, a big red helium balloon with “good luck” emblazoned across it, floats up to the ceiling. There’s a card attached to the string, and, without looking anyone in the eye, I rip it open.

Immediately I wish I hadn’t.

“Good luck to you, good luck to you, whatever you’re about to do,” sings a tinny electronic voice.

I slam the card shut and feel a surge of embarrassment. From the other side of the room I can hear little sniggers going on, and I look up to see Alicia smirking. She whispers something into Luke’s ear, and an amused expression spreads across his face.

He’s laughing at me. They’re all laughing at Rebecca Bloomwood and her singing balloon. For a few moments I can’t move for mortification. My chest is rising and falling swiftly; I’ve never felt less like a leading industry expert in my life.

Then, on the other side of the room, I hear Alicia murmur some malicious little comment and give a snort of laughter. Deep inside me, something snaps. Sod them, I think suddenly. Sod them all. They’re probably only jealous, anyway. They wish they had balloons, too.

Defiantly I open the card again to read the message.

“No matter if it’s rain or shine, we all know that you’ll be fine,” sings the card’s tinny voice at once. “Hold your head up, keep it high – all that matters is you try.”

To Becky, I read. With love and thanks for all your wonderful help. We’re so proud to know you. From your friends Janice and Martin.

I stare down at the card, reading the words over and over, and feel my eyes grow hot with tears. Janice and Martin have been good friends over the years. They’ve always been kind to me, even when I gave them such disastrous advice. I owe this to them. And I’m bloody well not going to let them down.

I blink a few times, take a deep breath, and look up to see Luke Brandon gazing at me, his eyes dark and expressionless.

“Friends,” I say coolly “Sending me their good wishes.”

Carefully I place the card on the coffee table, making sure it stays open so it’ll keep singing, then pull my balloon down from the ceiling and tie it to the back of my chair.

“OK,” comes Zelda’s voice from the door. “Luke and Rebecca. Are you ready?”

“Couldn’t be readier,” I say calmly, and walk past Luke to the door.

As we stride along the corridors to the set, neither Luke nor I says a word. I dart a glance at him as we turn a corner – and his face is even steelier than it was before.

Well, that’s fine. I can do hard and businesslike, too. Firmly I lift my chin and begin to lake longer strides, pretending to be Alexis Carrington in Dynasty.

“So, do you two already know each other?” says Zelda, who’s walking along between us.

“We do, as it happens,” says Luke shortly.

“In a business context,” I say, equally shortly. “Luke’s always trying to promote some financial product or other. And I’m always trying to avoid his calls.”

Zelda gives an appreciative laugh and I see Luke’s eyes flash angrily. But I really don’t care. I don’t care how angry he gets. In fact, the angrier he gets, the better I feel.

“So – Luke, you must have been quite pissed off at Rebecca’s article in The Daily World,” says Zelda.

“I wasn’t pleased,” says Luke. “By any of it,” he adds in a lower voice.

What does that mean? I turn my head, and to my astonishment, he’s looking at me with a sober expression. Almost apologetic. Hmm. This must be an old PR trick. Soften up your opponent and then go in for the kill. But I’m not going to fall for it.

“He phoned me up to complain,” I say airily to Zelda. “Can’t cope with the truth, eh, Luke? Can’t cope with seeing what’s under the PR gloss?”

There’s silence and I dart another look at him. Now he looks so furious, I think for a terrifying moment that he’s going to hit me. Then his face changes and, in an icily calm voice, he says, “Let’s just get on the set and get this over with, shall we?”

Zelda raises her eyebrows at me and I grin back. This is more like it.

“OK,” says Zelda as we approach a set of double swing doors. “Here we are. Keep your voices down when we go in.”

She pushes open the doors and ushers us in, and for a moment my cool act falters. I feel all shaky and awed, like Laura Dern in Jurassic Park when she sees the dinosaurs for the first time. Because there it is, in real life. The real live Morning Coffee set. With the sofa and all the plants and everything, all lit up by the brightest, most dazzling lights I’ve ever seen in my life.

This is just unreal. How many zillion limes have I sat at home, watching this on the telly? And now I’m actually going to be part of it.

“We’ve got a couple of minutes till the commercial break,” says Zelda, leading us across the floor, across a load of trailing cables. “Rory and Emma are still with Elisabeth in the library set.”

She gestures to us to sit down on opposite sides of the coffee table, and, gingerly, I do so. The sofa’s harder than I was expecting, and kind of… different. Everything’s different. The plants seem bigger than they do on the screen, and the coffee table is smaller. God, this is weird. The lights are so bright on my face, I can hardly see anything, and I’m not quite sure how to sit. A girl comes and threads a microphone cable under my shirt and clips it to my lapel. Awkwardly, I lift my hand tо push back, and immediately Zelda comes hurrying over.

“Try not to move too much. OK, Rebecca?” she says. “We don’t want to hear a load of rustling.”

“Right,” I say “Sorry.”

Suddenly my voice doesn’t seem to be working properly. I feel as though a wad of cottons been stuffed into my throat. I glance up at a nearby camera and, to my horror, see it zooming toward me.

“OK, Rebecca,” says Zelda, hurrying over again, “one more golden rule – don’t look at the camera, all right? Just behave naturally!”

“Fine,” I say huskily.

Behave naturally. Easy-peasy.

“Thirty seconds till the news bulletin,” she says, looking at her watch. “Everything OK, Luke?”

“Fine,” says Luke calmly. He’s sitting on his sofa as though he’s been there all his life. Typical.

I shift on my seat, tug nervously at my skirt, and smooth my jacket down. They always say that television puts ten pounds on you, which means my legs will look really fat. Maybe I should cross them the other way. Or not cross them at all? But then maybe they’ll look even fatter.

“Hello!” comes a high-pitched voice from across the set before I can make up my mind. My head jerks up, and I feel an excited twinge in my stomach. It’s Emma March in the flesh! She’s wearing a pink suit and hurrying toward the sofa, closely followed by Rory, who looks even more square-jawed than usual. God, it’s weird seeing celebrities up close. They don’t look quite real, somehow.

“Hello!” Emma says cheerfully, and sits down on the sofa. “So you’re the finance people, are you? Gosh, I’m dying for a wee.” She frowns into the lights. “How long is this slot, Zelda?”

“Hi there!” says Rory, and shakes my hand. “Roberta.”

“It’s Rebecca!” says Emma, and rolls her eyes at me sympathetically. “Honestly, he’s hopeless.” She wriggles on the sofa. “Gosh, I really need to go.”

“Too late now,” says Rory.

“But isn’t it really unhealthy not to go when you need to?” Emma wrinkles her brow anxiously. “Didn’t we have a phone-in on it once? That weird girl phoned up who only went once a day. And Dr. James said… what did he say?”

“Search me,” says Rory cheerfully. “These phone-ins always go over my head. Now I’m warning Rebecca,” he adds, turning to me, “I can never follow any of this finance stuff. Far too brainy for me.” He gives me a wide grin and I smile weakly back.

“Ten seconds,” calls Zelda from the side of the set, and my stomach gives a tweak of fear. Over the loudspeaker I can hear the Morning Coffee theme music, signaling the end of a commercial break.

“Who starts?” says Emma, squinting at the TelePrompTer. “Oh, me.”

So this is it. I feel almost light-headed with fear. I don’t know where I’m supposed to be looking; I don’t know when I’m supposed to speak. My legs are trembling and my hands are clenched tightly in my lap. The lights are dazzling my eyes; a camera’s zooming in to my left, but I’ve got to try to ignore it.

“Welcome back!” says Emma suddenly to the camera. “Now, which would you rather have? A carriage clock or £20,000?”

What? I think in shock. But that’s my line. That’s what I was going to say.

“The answer’s obvious, isn’t it?” continues Emma blithely. “We’d all prefer the £20,000.”

“Absolutely!” interjects Rory with a cheerful smile.

“But when some Flagstaff Life investors received a letter inviting them to move their savings recently,” says Emma, suddenly putting on a sober face, “they didn’t realize that if they did so, they would lose out on a £20,000 windfall. Rebecca Bloomwood is the journalist who uncovered this story – Rebecca, do you think this kind of deception is commonplace?”

And suddenly everyone’s looking at me, waiting for me to reply. The camera’s trained on my face; the studio’s silent.

Two point five million people, all watching at home. I can’t breathe.

“Do you think investors need to be cautious?” prompts Emma.

“Yes,” I manage in a strange, woolly voice. "Yes, I think they should."

“Luke Brandon, you represent Flagstaff Life,” says Emma turning away. “Do you think–”

Shit, I think miserably. That was pathetic. Pathetic! What happened to my voice, for God’s sake? What’s happened to all my prepared answers?

And now I’m not even listening to Luke’s reply. Come on, Rebecca. Concentrate.

“What you must remember,” Luke’s saying smoothly, “is that nobody’s entitled to a windfall. This isn’t a case of deception!” He smiles at Emma. “This is simply a case of a few investors being a little too greedy for their own good. They believe they’ve missed out – so they’re deliberately stirring up bad publicity for the company. Meanwhile, there are thousands of people who have benefited from Flagstaff Life.”

What? What’s he saying?

“I see,” says Emma, nodding her head. “So, Luke, would you agree that–”

“Wait a minute!” I hear myself interrupting. “Just… just wait a minute. Mr Brandon, did you just call the investors greedy?”

“Not all,” says Luke. “But some, yes.”

I stare at him in disbelief, my skin prickling with outrage. An image of Janice and Martin comes into my mind – the sweetest, least greedy people in the world – and for a few moments I’m so angry, I can’t speak.

“The truth is, the majority of investors with Flagstaff Life have seen record returns over the last five years,” Luke’s continuing to Emma, who’s nodding intelligently. “And that’s what they should be concerned with. Good quality investment. Not flash-in-the-pan windfalls. After all, Flagstaff Life was originally set up to provide–”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Luke,” I cut in, forcing myself to speak calmly. “Correct me if I’m wrong – but I believe Flagstaff Life was originally set up as a mutual company? For the mutual benefit of all its members. Not to benefit some at the expense of others.”

“Absolutely,” replies Luke without flickering. “But that doesn’t entitle every investor to a £20,000 windfall, does it?”

“Maybe not,” I say, my voice rising slightly. “But surely it entitles them to believe they won’t be mislead by a company they’ve put their money with for fifteen years? Janice and Martin Webster trusted Flagstaff Life. They trusted the advice they were given. And look where that trust got them!”

“Investment is a game of luck,” says Luke blandly. “Sometimes you win–”

“It wasn’t luck!” I hear myself crying furiously. “Of course it wasn’t luck! Are you telling me it was complete coincidence that they were advised to switch their funds two weeks before the windfall announcements?”

“My clients were simply making available an offer that they believed would add value to their customers’ portfolios,” says Luke, giving me a tight smile. “They have assured me that they were simply wishing to benefit their customers. They have assured me that–”

“So you’re saying your clients are incompetent, then?” I retort. “You’re saying they had all the best intentions – but cocked it up?”

Luke’s eyes flash in anger and I feel a thrill of exhilaration.

“I fail to see–”

“Well, we could go on debating all day!” says Emma, shifting slightly on her seat. “But moving onto a slightly more–”

“Come on, Luke,” I say, cutting her off. “Come on. You can’t have it both ways.” I lean forward, ticking points off on my hand. “Either Flagstaff Life were incompetent, or they were deliberately trying to save money. Whichever it is, they’re in the wrong. The Websters were loyal customers and they should have gotten that money. In my opinion, Flagstaff Life deliberately encouraged them out of the with-profits fund to stop them receiving the windfall. I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

I look around for support and see Rory gazing blankly at me.

“It all sounds a bit technical for me,” he says with a little laugh. “Bit complicated.”

“OK, let’s put it another way,” I say quickly. “Let’s…” I close my eyes, searching for inspiration. “Let’s… suppose I’m in a clothes shop!” I open my eyes again. “I’m in a clothes shop, and I’ve chosen a wonderful cashmere Nicole Farhi coat. OK?”

“OK,” says Rory cautiously.

“I love Nicole Farhi!” says Emma, perking up. “Beautiful knitwear.”

“Exactly,” I say. “OK, so imagine I’m standing in a checkout queue, minding my own business, when a sales assistant comes up to me and says, ‘Why not buy this other coat instead? It’s better quality – and I’ll throw in a free bottle of perfume.’ I’ve got no reason to distrust the sales assistant, so I think, Wonderful, and I buy the other coat.”

“Right.” says Rory, nodding. “With you so far.”

“But when I get outside,” I say carefully, “I discover that this other coat isn’t Nicole Farhi and isn’t real cashmere. I go back in – and the shop won’t give me a refund.”

“You were ripped off!” exclaims Rory, as though he’s just discovered gravity.

“Exactly,” I say. “I was ripped off. And the point is, so were thousands of Flagstaff Life customers. They were persuaded out of their original choice of investment, into a fund which left them £.20,000 worse off.” I pause, marshaling my thoughts. “Perhaps Flagstaff Life didn’t break the law. Perhaps they didn’t contravene any regulations. But there’s a natural justice in this world, and they didn’t just break that, they shattered it. Those customers deserved that windfall. They were loyal, long-standing customers, and they deserved it. And if you’re honest, Luke Brandon, you know they deserved it.”

I finish my speech breathlessly and look at Luke. He’s staring at me with an unreadable expression on his face – and in spite of myself, I feel my stomach clench with nerves. I swallow, and try to shift my vision away from his – but somehow I can’t move my head. It’s as though our eyes are glued together.

“Luke?” says Emma. “Do you have a response to Rebecca’s point?”

Luke doesn’t respond. He’s staring at me, and I’m staring back, feeling my heart thump like a rabbit.

“Luke?” repeats Emma slightly impatiently. “Do you have–”

“Yes,” says Luke. “Yes I do. Rebecca–” He shakes his head, smiling to himself, then looks up again at me. “Rebecca, you’re right.”

There’s a sudden still silence around the studio.

I open my mouth, but I can’t make a sound.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Rory and Emma glancing at each other puzzledly.

“Sorry, Luke,” says Emma. “Do you mean–”

“She’s right,” says Luke, and gives a shrug. “Rebecca’s absolutely right.” He reaches for his glass of water, leans back in his sofa, and takes a sip. “If you want my honest opinion, those customers deserved that windfall. I very much wish they had received it.”

He looks up at me, and he’s wearing that same apologetic expression he had in the corridor. This can’t be happening. Luke’s agreeing with me. How can he be agreeing with me?

“I see,” says Emma, sounding a bit affronted. "So, you’ve changed your position, then?”

There’s a pause, while Luke stares thoughtfully into the glass of water. Then he looks up and says, “My company is employed by Flagstaff Life to maintain their public profile. But that doesn’t mean that I personally agree with everything they do – or even that I know about it.” He pauses. “To tell you the truth, I had no idea any of this was going on until I read about it Rebecca’s article in The Daily World. Which, by the way was а fine piece of investigative journalism,” he adds, nodding to me. “Congratulations.”

I stare back helplessly, unable even to mutter “Thank you.” I’ve never felt so wrong-footed in all my life. I want to stop and bury my head in my hands and think all of this through slowly and carefully – but I can’t, I’m on live television. I’m being watched by 2.5 million people, all around the country.

I hope my legs look OK.

“If I were a Flagstaff customer and this had happened to me, I’d be very angry,” Luke continues. “Тhere is such a thing as customer loyalty; there is such a thing as playing straight. And I would hope that any client of mine whom I represent in public, would abide by both of those principles.”

“I see,” says Emma, and turns to the camera, “Well, this is quite a turnaround! Luke Brandon, here to represent Flagstaff Life, now says that what they did was wrong. Any further comment, Luke?”

“To be honest,” says Luke, with a wry smile, “I’m not sure I’ll be representing Flagstaff Life any more after this.”

“Ah,” says Rory, leaning forward intelligently. “And can you tell us why that is?”

“Oh, honestly, Rory!” says Emma impatiently. She rolls her eyes and Luke gives a little snort of laughter.

And suddenly everyone’s laughing, and I join in too, slightly hysterically. I catch Luke’s eye and feel something flash in my chest, then quickly look away again.

“Right, well, anyway,” says Emma abruptly, pulling herself together and smiling at the camera. “That’s it from the finance experts – but, coming up after the break, the return of hot pants to the catwalk…”

“… and cellulite creams – do they really work?” adds Rory.

“Plus our special guests – Heaven Sent 7 – singing live in the studio.”

The theme music blares out of the loudspeakers and both Emma and Rory leap to their feet.

“Wonderful debate,” says Emma, hurrying off. “Sorry, I’m dying for a wee.”

“Excellent stuff,” adds Rory earnestly. “Didn’t understand a word – but great television.” He slaps Luke on the back, raises his hand to me, and then hurries off the set.

And all at once it’s over. It’s just me and Luke, sitting opposite each other on the sofas, with bright lights still shining in our eyes and microphones still clipped to our lapels. I feel slightly shell-shocked.

Did that really just happen?

“So,” I say eventually, and clear my throat.

“So,” echoes Luke with a tiny smile. “Well done.”

“Thanks,” I say, and bite my lip awkwardly in the silence.

I’m wondering if he’s in big trouble now. If attacking one of your clients on live TV is the PR equivalent of hiding clothes from the customers.

If he really changed his mind because of my article. Because of me.

But I can’t ask that. Can I?

The silence is growing louder and louder and at last I take a deep breath.

“Did you–”

“I was –”

We both speak at once.

“No,” I say, flushing red. “You go. Mine wasn’t… You go.”

“OK,” says Luke, and gives a little shrug. “I was just going to ask if you’d like to have dinner tonight.”

What does he mean, have dinner? Does he mean–

“To discuss a bit of business,” he continues. “I very much liked your idea for a unit trust promotion along the lines of the January sales.”

My what?

What idea? What’s he...

Oh God, that. Is he serious? That was just one of my stupid, speak-aloud, brain-not-engaged moments.

“I think it could be a good promotion for a particular client of ours,” he’s saying, “and I was wondering whether you’d like to consult on the project. On a freelance basis, of course.”

Consult. Freelance. Project.

He’s serious.

“Oh,” I say, and swallow, inexplicably disappointed. “Oh, I see. Well, I... I suppose I might be free tonight.”

“Good,” says Luke. “Shall we say the Ritz?”

“If you like,” I say offhandedly, as though I go there all the time.

“Good,” says Luke again, and his eyes crinkle into a smile. “I look forward to it.”

“Rebecca! Luke!”

Our heads jerk round to see Zelda approaching the set, clipboard in hand.

“Fantastic!” she exclaims. “Just what we wanted. Luke, you were great. And Rebecca...” She comes and sits next to me on the sofa and pats my shoulder. “You were so wonderful, we were thinking – how would you like to stand in as our phone-in expert later in the show?”

“What?” I stare at her. “But... but I can’t! I’m not an expert or anything.”

“Ha-ha-ha, very good!” Zelda gives an appreciative laugh. “The great thing about you, Rebecca, is you’ve got the common touch. We see you as finance guru meets the girl next door. Informative but approachable. Knowledgeable but down-to-earth. The financial expert people really want to talk to. What do you think, Luke?”

“I think Rebecca will do the job perfectly,” says Luke. “I can’t think of anyone better qualified. I also think I’d better get out of your way.” He stands up and smiles at me. “See you later, Rebecca. Bye, Zelda.”

I watch in a daze as he picks his way across the cable strewn floor toward the exit, half wishing he would look back.

“Right,” says Zelda, and squeezes my hand. “Let’s get you sorted.”

 

Extract 8

 

“I can’t go, Suze,” I say, thrusting the letter down. “I’ve... I’ve got plans that night.”

“But what about poor Tarkie?” says Suze, crestfallen. “He’s so keen on you.”

“I know,” I say, and take a deep breath. “But I’m not keen on him. I’m really sorry, Suze... but that’s the truth. If I could change the way I felt...”

There’s a short silence.

“Oh well,” says Suze at last. “Never mind. You can’t help it.” She disappears into the kitchen and emerges a minute later with two mugs of coffee. “So,” she says, handling me one, “what are you up to tonight? Shall we go out together?”

“Sorry, I can’t,” I say, and clear my throat. “I’ve got a business meeting.”

“Really?” Suze pulls a face. “What a bummer!” She sips at her coffee and leans against the door frame. “Who on earth has business meetings in the evening, anyway?”

“It’s... it’s with Luke Brandon,” I say, trying to sound unconcerned. But it’s no good, I can feel myself starting to blush.

“Luke Brandon?” says Suze puzzledly. “But what–” She stares at me, and her expression slowly changes. “Oh no, Bex! Don’t tell me...”

“It’s just a business meeting,” I say, avoiding her eye. “That’s all. Two businesspeople meeting up and talking about business. In a… in a business situation. That’s all.”

And I hurry off to my room.

Business meeting. Clothes for a business meeting. OK, let’s have a look.

I pull all my outfits out of the wardrobe and lay them on the bed. Blue suit, black suit, pink suit. Hopeless. Pin-striped suit? Hmm. Maybe overdoing it. Cream suit… too weddingy. Green suit . . . isn’t that bad luck or something?

It takes me all afternoon to decide on an outfit. There’s a lot of trying on, and mixing and matching, and suddenly remembering things at the back of my wardrobe. (I must wear those purple jeans sometime.) But eventually I go for simple and straightforward. My nicest black suit (Jigsaw sale, two years ago), a white T-shirt (M&S), and knee-high black suede boots (Dolce & Gabbana, but I told Mum they were from BHS. Which was a mistake, because then she wanted to get some for herself, and I had to pretend they'd all sold out). I put it all on, screw my hair up into a knot, and stare at myself in the mirror.

“Very nice,” says Suze admiringly from the door. “Very sexy.”

“Sexy?” I feel a pang of dismay. “I’m not going for sexy! I’m going for businesslike.”

“Can’t you be both at once?” suggests Suze. “Businesslike and sexy?”

“I… no,” I say after a pause, and look away. “No, I don’t want to.”

I don’t want Luke Brandon to think I’ve dressed up for him, is what I really mean. I don’t want to give him the slightest chance to think I’ve misconstrued what this meeting is about.

“I just want to look as serious and businesslike as possible,” I say, and frown sternly at my reflection.

“I know, then,” says Suze. “You need some accessories. Some businesswoman-type accessories.”

“Like what? A Filofax?”

“Like…” Suze pauses thoughtfully. “OK. Wait there–”

I arrive at the Ritz that evening five minutes after our agreed time of seven-thirty, and as I reach the entrance to the restaurant, I see Luke there already, sitting back looking relaxed and sipping something that looks like a gin and tonic. He’s wearing a different suit from the one he was wearing this morning. I can’t help noticing, and he’s put on a fresh, dark green shin. He actually looks... Well. Quite nice. Quite good-looking.

Not that businessy, in fact.

And, come to think of it, this restaurant isn’t very businessy, either. It’s all chandeliers and gold garlands and soft pink chairs, and the most beautiful painted ceiling, all clouds and flowers. The whole place is sparkling with light, and it looks… Well, actually, the word that springs to mind is romantic.

Oh God. My heart starts thumping with nerves, and I glance quickly at my reflection in a gilded mirror. I’m wearing the black jigsaw suit and white T-shirt and black suede boots as originally planned. But now I also have a crisp copy of the Financial Times under one arm, a pair of tortoiseshell glasses (with clear glass) perched on my head, my clunky executive briefcase in one hand and – Suze’s piece de resistance – an AppleMac laptop in the other.

Maybe I overdid it.

I’m about to back away and see if I can quickly deposit the briefcase in the cloakroom (or, to be honest, just put it down on a chair and walk away), when Luke looks up, sees me, and smiles Damn. So I’m forced to go forward over the plushy carpet, trying to look as relaxed as possible, even though one arm is clamped tightly to my side, to stop the FT from falling on the floor.

“Hello,” says Luke as I arrive at the table. He stands up to greet me, and I realize that I can’t shake his hand, because I’m holding the laptop. Flustered, I plunk my briefcase on the floor, transfer the laptop to the other side – nearly dropping the FT as I do so – and, with as much poise as possible, hold out my hand.

A flicker of amusement passes over Luke’s face and he solemnly shakes it. He gestures to a chair, and watches politely as I put the laptop on the tablecloth, all ready for use.

“That’s an impressive machine,” he says. “Very... high-tech.”

“Yes,” I reply, and give him a brief, cool smile. “I often use it to take notes at business meetings.”

“Ah,” says Luke, nodding. “Very organized of you.”

He’s obviously waiting for me to switch it on, so experimentally I press the return key. This, according to Suze, should make the screen spring to life. But nothing happens.

Casually I press the key again – and still nothing. I jab at it, pretending my finger slipped by accident – and still nothing Shit, this is embarrassing. Why do I ever listen to Suze?

“Is there a problem?” says Luke.

“No!” I say at once, and snap the lid shut. “No, I’ve just– On second thought, I won’t use it today.” I reach into my bag for a notebook. “I’ll jot my notes down in here.”

“Good idea,” says Luke mildly. “Would you like some champagne?”

“Oh,” I say, slightly thrown. “Well... OK.”

But I’m not going to smile, or look pleased or anything. I’m going to stay thoroughly cool and professional. In fact, I'm only going to have one glass, before moving on to still water. I need to keep a clear head, after all.

While the waiter fills my champagne flute, I write down “Meeting between Rebecca Bloomwood and Luke Brandon” in my notebook. I look at it appraisingly, then underline it twice. There. That looks very efficient.

“So,” I say, looking up, and raise my glass. “To business.”

“To business,” echoes Luke, and gives a wry smile. “Assuming I’m still in business, that is...”

“Really?” I say anxiously. “You mean – after what you said on Morning Coffee? Has it gotten you into trouble?”

He nods and I feel a pang of sympathy for him.

I mean, Suze is right – Luke is pretty arrogant. But I actually thought it was really good of him to stick out his neck like that and say publicly what he really thought about Flagstaff Life. And now, if he’s going to be ruined as a result... well, it just seems all wrong.

“Have you lost... everything?” I say quietly, and Luke laughs.

“I wouldn’t go that far. But we’ve had to do an awful lot of explaining to our other clients this afternoon.” He grimaces. “It has to be said, insulting one of your major clients on live television isn’t exactly normal PR practice.”

“Well, I think they should respect you!” I retort. “For actuallу saying what you think! I mean, so few people do that these days. It could he like… your company motto: “We tell the truth.”

I take a gulp of champagne and look up into silence. Luke’s gazing at me, a quizzical expression on his face.

“Rebecca, you have the uncanniest knack of hitting the nail right on the head,” he says at last. “That’s exactly what some of our clients have said. It’s as though we’ve given ourselves a seal of integrity.”

“Oh,” I say, feeling rather pleased with myself. “Well, that’s good. So you’re not ruined.”

“I’m not ruined,” agrees Luke, and gives a little smile. “Just slightly dented.”

 

 

Shopaholic Abroad (by Sophie Kinsella)

 

Extract 1

 

OK, don’t panic. Don’t panic. It’s simply a question of being organized and staying calm and deciding what exactly I need to take. And then fitting it all neatly into my suitcase. I mean, just how hard can that be?

I step back from my cluttered bed and close my eyes, half hoping that if I wish hard enough, my clothes might magically arrange themselves into a series of neat folded piles. Like in those magazine articles on packing, which tell you how to go on holiday with one cheap sarong and cleverly turn it into six different outfits. (Which I always think is a complete con, because, OK, the sarong costs ten quid, but then they add loads of clothes which cost hundreds, and we’re not supposed to notice.)

But when I open my eyes again, the clutter is all still there. In fact, there seems to be even more of it, as if while my eyes were shut, my clothes have been secretly jumping out of the drawers and running around on my bed. Everywhere I look, all around my room, there are huge great tangled piles of... well... stuff. Shoes, boots, T-shirts, magazines... a Body Shop gift basket that was on sale... a Linguaphone Italian course which I must start... a facial sauna thingy... And, sitting proudly on my dressing table, a fencing mask and sword which I bought yesterday. Only forty quid from a charity shop!

I pick up the sword and experimentally give a little lunge towards my reflection in the mirror. It was a real coincidence, because I’ve been meaning to take up fencing for ages, ever since I read this article about it in the Daily World. Did you know that fencers have better legs than any other sports people? Plus if you’re an expert you can become a stunt double in a film and earn loads of money! So what I’m planning to do is find some fencing lessons nearby, and get really good, which I should think I’ll do quite quickly.

And then – this is my secret little plan – when I’ve got my gold badge, or whatever it is, I’ll write to Catherine Zeta Jones. Because she must need a stunt double, mustn’t she? And why shouldn’t it be me? In fact she’d probably prefer someone British. Maybe she’ll phone back and say she always watches my television appearances on cable, and she’s always wanted to meet me! God, yes. Wouldn’t that be great? We’ll probably really hit it off, and turn out to have the same sense of humour and everything. And then I’ll fly out to her luxury home, and get to meet Michael Douglas and play with the baby. We’ll be all relaxed together like old friends, and some magazine will do a feature on celebrity best friends and have us in it, and maybe they’ll even ask me to be...

‘Hi Bex!’ With a jolt, the happy pictures of me laughing with Michael and Catherine vanish from my head, and my brain snaps into focus. Suze my flat-­mate is wandering into my room, wearing a pair of ancient paisley pyjamas. ‘What are you doing?’ she asks curiously.

‘Nothing!’ I say, hastily putting the fencing sword back. ‘Just... you know. Keep fit.’

‘Oh right,’ she says vaguely. ‘So – how’s the packing going?’ She wanders over to my mantelpiece, picks up a lipstick and begins to apply it. Suze always does this in my room – just wanders about picking things up and looking at them and putting them down again. She says she loves the way you never know what you might find, like in a junk shop. Which I’m fairly sure she means in a nice way.

‘It’s going really well,’ I say. ‘I’m just deciding which suitcase to take.’

‘Ooh,’ says Suze turning round, her mouth half bright pink. ‘What about that little cream one? Or your red holdhall?’

‘I thought maybe this one,’ I say, hauling my new acid green shell case out from under the bed. I bought it at the weekend, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

‘Wow!’ says Suze, her eyes widening. ‘Bex! That’s fab! Where did you get it?’

‘Fenwicks,’ I say, grinning broadly. ‘Isn’t it amazing?’

‘It’s the coolest case I’ve ever seen!’ says Suze, running her fingers admiringly over it. ‘So... how many suitcases have you got now?’ She glances up at my wardrobe, on which are teetering a brown leather case, a lacquered trunk and three vanity cases.

‘Oh, you know,’ I say, shrugging a little defensively. ‘The normal amount.’

I suppose I have been buying quite a bit of luggage recently. But the thing is, for ages I didn’t have any, just one battered old canvas bag. Then, a few months ago I had an incredible revelation in the middle of Harrods, a bit like St Paul on the road to Mandalay. Luggage. And since then, I’ve been making up for all the lean years.

Besides which, everyone knows good luggage is an investment.

‘I’m just making a cup of tea,’ says Suze. ‘D’you want one?’

‘Ooh, yes please!’ I say. ‘And a KitKat?’ Suze grins.

‘Definitely a KitKat.’

Recently, we had this friend of Suze’s to stay on our sofa – and when he left he gave us this huge box full of a hundred KitKats. Which is such a great thank-you present, but it means all we eat, all day long, is KitKats. Still, as Suze pointed out last night, the quicker we eat them, the quicker they’ll be gone – so in a way, it’s more healthy just to stuff in as many as possible.

Suze ambles out of the room and I turn to my case. Right. Concentrate. Packing. This really shouldn't take long. All I need is a very basic, pared-down capsule wardrobe for a mini-break in Somerset. I’ve even written out a list, which should make things nice and simple.

Jeans: two pairs. Easy. Scruffy and not quite so scruffy.

T-shirts:

Actually, make that three pairs of jeans. I’ve got to take my new Diesel ones, they’re just so cool, even if they are a bit tight. I’ll just wear them for a few hours in the evening or something.

T-shirts:

Oh, and my embroidered cutoffs from Oasis, because I haven’t worn them yet. But they don’t really count because they’re practically shorts. And anyway, jeans hardly take up any room, do they?

OK, that’s probably enough jeans. I can always add some more if I need to.

T-shirts: selection. So let’s see. Plain white, obviously. Grey, ditto. Black cropped, black vest (Calvin Klein), other black vest (Warehouse but actually looks nicer), pink sleeveless, pink sparkly, pink–

I stop, halfway through transferring folded T-shirts into my case. This is stupid. How am I supposed to predict which T-shirts I'm going to want to wear? The whole point about T-shirts is you choose them in the morning according to your mood, like crystals, or aromatherapy oils. Imagine if I woke up in the mood for my ‘Elvis is Groovy’ T-shirt and I didn’t have it with me?

You know, I think I’ll just take them all. I mean, a few T-shirts aren’t going to take up much room, are they? I'll hardly even notice them.

I tip them all into my case and add a couple of cropped bra-tops for luck.

Excellent. This capsule approach is working really well. OK, what’s next?

 

Extract 2

 

…I’m a lot more sensible than I used to be.

For example, I have a completely different attitude to shopping. My new motto is ‘Buy Only What You Need’. I know, it sounds almost too simple – but it really does work. Before each purchase, I ask myself one question: ‘Do I need this?’ And only if the answer is ‘yes’ do I make the purchase. It’s all just a matter of self-discipline.

So for example, when I get to LK Bennett, I’m in­credibly focused and direct. As I walk in, a pair of red boots with high heels catches my eye – but I quickly look away, and head straight for the display of sandals. This is how I shop these days: no pausing, no browsing, no eyeing up other items. Not even that gorgeous new range of sequined pumps over there. I simply go straight to the sandals I want, take them from the rack and say to the assistant,

‘I’d like to have these in a six, please.’

Direct, and to the point. Just buy what you need and nothing else. This is the key to controlled shopping. I’m not even going to glance at those cool pink stilettos, even though they’d match my new Jigsaw cardigan perfectly.

Nor those slingbacks with the glittery heels.

They are nice though, aren’t they? I wonder what they look like on.

Oh God. This is really hard.

What is it about shoes? I mean, I like most kinds of clothes, but a fabulous pair of shoes can just reduce me to jelly. Sometimes, when no-one else is at home, I open my wardrobe and just stare at all my pairs of shoes, like some mad collector. And once I lined them all up on my bed and took a photograph of them. Which might seem a bit weird – but I thought, I’ve got loads of photos of people I don’t really like, so why not take one of something I love?

‘Here you are!’

Thank goodness, the assistant is back with my lilac sandals in a box – and as I see them, my heart gives a little leap. Oh, these are gorgeous. Gorgeous. All delicate and strappy, with a tiny little blackberry by the toe. I fell in love with them as soon as I saw them. They’re a bit expensive – but then, everyone knows you should never skimp on shoes, because you’ll hurt your feet.

I slip my feet into them with a frisson of delight – and oh God, they’re fantastic. My feet suddenly look elegant, and my legs look longer... and OK, it’s a tiny bit difficult to walk in them, but that’s probably be­cause the shop floor is all slippery.

‘I’ll take them, please,’ I say, and beam happily at the assistant.

You see, this is the reward for taking such a controlled approach to shopping. When you buy some­thing, you really feel as though you’ve earned it.

We head towards the checkout and I keep my eyes carefully away from the rack of accessories. In fact, I barely even notice that purple bag with the jet beading.

And I’m just reaching into my bag for my purse, congratulating myself on being so single-minded, when the assistant says conversationally, ‘You know, we’ve got these sandals in Clementine, as well.’

Clementine?

‘Oh... right,’ I say after a pause.

I’m not interested. I’ve got what I came in to buy – and that’s the end of the story. Lilac sandals. Not Clementine ones.

‘They’ve just come in,’ she adds, rooting around on the floor. ‘I think they’re going to be even more popular than the lilac.’

‘Really?’ I say, trying to sound as indifferent as I can. ‘Well, I’ll just take these, I think...’

‘Here it is!’ she exclaims. ‘I knew there was one around here somewhere.’

And I freeze, as she puts the most exquisite sandal I’ve ever seen onto the counter. It’s a pale, creamy orange colour, with the same strappy shape as the lilac one – but instead of the blackberry, there’s a tiny Clementine by the toe.

It’s instant love. I can’t move my eyes away.

‘Would you like to try it?’ says the girl, and I feel a lurch of desire, right to the pit of my stomach.

Just look at it. It’s delicious. It’s the most darling shoe I’ve ever seen. Oh God.

But I don’t need a pair of Clementine shoes, do I? I don’t need them.

Come on, Becky. Just. Say. No.

‘Actually...’ I swallow hard, trying to get control of my voice. ‘Actually...’ God, I can hardly say it. ‘I’ll just take the lilac ones today,’ I manage eventually. ‘Thank you.’

‘OK...’ The girl punches a code into the till. ‘That’ll be £89, then. How would you like to pay?’

‘Er... Visa card, please,’ I say. I sign the slip, take my bag, and leave the shop, feeling slightly numb.

I did it! I did it! I controlled my desires! I only needed one pair of shoes – and I only bought one. In and out of the shop, completely according to plan. You see, this is what I can do when I really want to. This is the new Becky Bloomwood.

 

Extract 3

 

Having been so good, I deserve a little reward, so I go to a coffee shop and sit down outside in the sun with a cappuccino.

I want those Clementine shoes, pops into my head as I take the first sip.

Slop. Stop it. Think about... something else. Luke. The holiday. Our first ever holiday together. God, I can’t wait.

I’ve been wanting to suggest a holiday ever since Luke and I started to go out, but he works so hard, it would be like asking the Prime Minister to give up running the country for a bit. (Except come to think of it, he does that every summer, doesn’t he? So how come Luke can’t?)

Luke’s so busy, he hasn’t even met my parents yet, which I’m a bit upset about. They asked him over for Sunday lunch, a few weeks ago, and Mum spent ages cooking – or at least, she bought apricot-stuffed loin of pork from Sainsbury’s and a really posh chocolate meringue pudding. But at the last minute he had to cancel because there was a crisis with one of his clients in the Sunday papers. So I had to go on my own – and it was all rather miserable, to be honest. You could tell Mum was really disappointed, but she kept saying brightly, ‘Oh well, it was only a casual arrangement’ – which it wasn’t. He sent her a huge bouquet of flowers the next day to apologize (or at least, Mel, his assistant, did), but it’s not the same, is it?

The worst bit was that our next-door neighbours, Janice and Martin, popped in for a glass of sherry and ‘to meet the famous Luke’, as they put it, and when they found out he wasn’t there, they kept giving me all these pitying looks tinged with smugness, because their son Tom is getting married to his girlfriend Lucy next week. And I have a horrible suspicion that they think I have a crush on him. (Which I don’t – in fact, quite the reverse. But once people believe something like that, it’s completely impossible to convince them otherwise. Oh God. Hideous.)

When I got upset with Luke, he pointed out that I’ve never met his parents, either. But that’s not quite true. I have briefly spoken to his dad and step-mum in a restaurant once, even if it wasn’t my most glittering moment. And anyway, they live in Devon, and Luke’s real mum lives in New York. So I mean, they’re not exactly handy, are they?

Still, we made up – and at least he’s making the effort to come on this little holiday. It was Mel, actually, who suggested the weekend idea. She told me Luke hadn’t had a proper holiday for three years, and maybe he had to be weaned gently on to the idea. So I stopped talking about holidays and started talking about weekends away – and that did the trick! All of a sudden Luke told me to set aside this weekend. He booked the hotel himself and everything. I’m so looking forward to it. We’ll just do nothing but relax and take it easy – and spend some time with each other for a change. Lovely.

I want those Clementine shoes.

Stop it. Stop thinking about them.

I take another sip of coffee, lean back and force myself to survey the bustling street. People are striding along, holding bags and chatting, and there’s a girl crossing the road with nice trousers on, which I think come from Nicole Farhi and... Oh God.

A middle-aged man in a dark suit is coming along the road towards me, and I recognize him. It’s Derek Smeath, my bank manager.

Oh, and I think he’s seen me.

OK, don’t panic, I instruct myself firmly. There’s no need to panic. Maybe once upon a time I would have been thrown by seeing him. I might have tried to hide behind a menu, or perhaps even run away. But that’s all in the past. These days, Sweetie Smeathie and I have a very honest and amicable relationship.

Still, I find myself shifting my chair slightly further away from my LK Bennett hag, as though it hasn’t got anything to do with me.

‘Hello, Mr Smeath!’ I say brightly as he approaches. ‘How are you?’

‘Very well,’ says Derek Smeath, smiling. ‘And you?’

‘Oh, I’m fine, thanks. Would you... would you like a coffee?’ I add politely, gesturing to the empty chair opposite me. I’m not really expecting him to say yes, but to my astonishment he sits down and picks up a menu.

How civilized is this? I’m having coffee with my bank manager at a pavement cafe! You know, maybe I’ll find a way to work this into my Morning Coffee slot. ‘I myself prefer the informal approach to personal finance,’ I’ll say, smiling warmly into the camera. ‘My own bank manager and I often share a friendly cappuccino as we discuss my current financial strategies...’

‘As it happens, Rebecca, I’ve just written a letter to you,’ says Derek Smeath, as a waitress puts an espresso down in front of him. Suddenly his voice is more serious and I feel a small lurch of alarm. Oh God, what have I done now? ‘You and all my customers,’ he adds. ‘To tell you that I’m leaving.’

‘What?’ I put my coffee cup down with a little crash. ‘What do you mean, leaving?’

‘I’m leaving Endwich Bank. I’ve decided to take early retirement.’

‘But...’

I stare at him, appalled. Derek Smeath can’t leave Endwich Bank. He can’t leave me in the lurch, just as everything was going so well. I mean, I know we haven’t always exactly seen eye to eye – but recently we’ve developed a really good rapport. He understands me. He understands my overdraft. What am I going to do without him?

‘Aren’t you too young to retire?’ I say, aware of the dismay in my voice. ‘Won’t you get bored?’ He leans back in his chair and takes a sip of espresso.

‘I’m not planning to give up work altogether. But I think there’s a little more to life than looking after people’s bank accounts, don’t you? Fascinating though some of them have been.’

‘Well... yes. Yes of course. And I’m glad for you, honestly.’ I shrug, a little embarrassed. ‘But I’ll... miss you.’

‘Believe it or not,’ he says, smiling slightly, ‘I think I’ll miss you too, Rebecca. Yours has certainly been one of the most... interesting accounts I’ve dealt with.’

He gives me a penetrating look and I feel myself flush slightly. Why does he have to remind me of the past? The point is, that’s all over. I’m a different person now. Surely people should be allowed to turn over new leaves and start again in life?

‘Your career in television seems to be going well,’ he says.

‘I know! It’s so great, isn’t it? And it pays really well,’ I add, a little pointedly.

‘Your income has certainly gone up in recent months,’ he says and puts down his coffee cup. My heart sinks slightly. ‘However...’

I knew it. Why does there always have to be a ‘however’? Why can’t he just be pleased for me?

‘However,’ repeats Derek Smeath. ‘Your outgoings have also risen. Substantially. In fact, your overdraft is now higher than it was at the height of your... shall we say, your excesses.’

Excesses? That is so mean.

‘You really must make more effort to keep within your overdraft limit,’ he’s saying now. ‘Or, even better, pay it off.’

‘I know,’ I say vaguely. ‘I’m planning to.’

I’ve just spotted a girl on the other side of the road, with an LK Bennett bag. She’s holding a great big bag – with two shoe boxes in it.

If she’s allowed to buy two pairs of shoes, then why aren’t I? What’s the rule that says you can only buy one pair of shoes at a time? I mean, it’s so arbitrary.

‘What about your other finances?’ Derek Smeath is asking. ‘Do you have any store card bills, for example?’

‘No,’ I say with a tinge of smugness. ‘I paid them all off months ago.’

‘And you haven’t spent anything since?’

‘Only bits and pieces. Hardly anything.’

Anyway what’s ninety quid, really? In the greater scheme of things?

‘The reason I’m asking these questions,’ says Derek Smeath, ‘is that I feel I should warn you. The bank is restructuring somewhat, and my successor, John Gavin, may not take quite the same relaxed approach as I have towards your account. I’m not sure you’re aware quite how lenient I have been with you.’

‘Really?’ I say, not really listening.

I mean, suppose I took up smoking. I’d easily spend ninety quid on cigarettes without even thinking about it, wouldn’t I?

In fact, think of all the money I’ve saved by not smoking. Easily enough to afford one little pair of shoes.

‘He’s a very capable man,’ Derek Smeath is saying. ‘But also very... rigorous. Not particularly known for his flexibility.’

‘Right,’ I say, nodding absently.

‘I would certainly recommend that you address your overdraft without delay.’ He takes a sip of coffee. ‘And tell me, have you done anything about taking out a pension?’

‘Erm... I went to visit that independent adviser you recommended.’

‘And did you fill in any of the forms?’

Unwillingly, I drag my attention back to him.

‘Well, I’m just considering my options,’ I say, and put on my wise, financial-expert look. ‘There’s nothing worse than rushing into the wrong investment, you know. Particularly when it comes to something as important as a pension.’

‘Very true,’ says Derek Smeath. ‘But don’t spend too long considering, will you? Your money won’t save itself.’

‘I know!’ I say and take a sip of cappuccino.

Oh God, now I feel a bit uncomfortable. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I should put £90 into a pension fund instead of buying another pair of shoes.

But on the other hand – what good is a pension fund of £90? That’s not exactly going to keep me in my old age, is it? Ninety measly quid. And by the time I’m old, the world will probably have blown up, or something.

Whereas a pair of shoes is tangible, it’s there in your hand...

Oh, sod it. I’m going to get them.

‘Mr Smeath, I have to go,’ I say abruptly, putting down my cup. ‘There’s something I have to... do.’

Now I’ve decided, I have to get back there as quickly as possible. I pick up my carrier bag and drop a fiver on the table. ‘Lovely to see you. And good luck in your retirement.’

‘Best of luck to you too, Rebecca,’ says Derek Smeath, smiling kindly at me. ‘But do remember what I’ve said. John Gavin won’t indulge you in the way that I have. So just... watch your step, won’t you?’

‘I will!’ I say brightly.

And without quite running, I’m off down the street, as quick as I can, back to LK Bennett.

 

Extract 4

 

OK, so perhaps strictly speaking I didn’t need to buy a pair of Clementine shoes. They weren’t exactly essential. But what occurred to me while I was trying them on was, I haven’t actually broken my new rule. Because the point is, I will need them.

After all, I will need new shoes at some point, won’t I? Everyone needs shoes. And surely it’s far more prudent to stock up now in a style I really like than to wait until my last pair wears out and then find nothing nice in the shops. It’s only sensible. It’s like... hedging my future position in the shoe market.

As I come out of LK Bennett, happily grasping my two shiny new bags, there’s a warm, happy glow all around me. I’m not in the mood for going home, so I decide to pop across the street to Gifts and Goodies. This is one of the shops that stocks Suze’s frames and I have a little habit of going in whenever I pass, just to see if anyone’s buying one.

I push the door open with a ping, and smile at the assistant, who looks up. This is such a lovely shop. It’s warm and scented, and full of gorgeous things like chrome wire racks and glass etched coasters. I sidle past a shelf of pale mauve leather notebooks, and look up – and there they are! Three purple tweed photo frames, made by Suze! I still get a thrill, every time I see them.

Oh my God! I feel a zing of excitement. There’s a customer standing there – and she’s holding one. She’s actually holding one!

To be perfectly honest, I’ve never actually seen any­one buying one of Suze’s frames. I mean, I know people must buy them, because they keep selling out – but I’ve never seen it happen. God, this is exciting!

I walk quietly forward just as the customer turns the frame over. She frowns at the price, and my heart gives a little flurry.

‘That’s a really beautiful photo frame,’ I say casually. ‘Really unusual.’

‘Yes,’ she says, and puts it back down on the shelf.

No! I think in dismay. Pick it up again!

‘It’s so difficult to find a nice frame these days,’ I say conversationally. ‘Don’t you think? When you find one, you should just... buy it! Before someone else gets it.’

‘I suppose so,’ says the customer, picking up a paper­weight and frowning at that, too.

Now she’s walking away. What can I do?

‘Well, I think I’ll get one,’ I say distinctly, and pick it up. ‘It’ll make a perfect present. For a man, or a woman... I mean, everyone needs photograph frames, don’t they?’

The customer doesn’t seem to be taking any notice. But never mind, when she sees me buying it, maybe she’ll rethink.

I hurry to the checkout, and the woman behind the till smiles at me. I think she’s the shop owner, because I’ve seen her interviewing staff and talking to suppliers. (Not that I come in here very often, it’s just coincidence or something.)

‘Hello again,’ she says. ‘You really like these frames, don’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I say loudly. ‘And such fantastic value!’ But the customer’s looking at a glass decanter, and not even listening.

‘How many of them have you bought, now? It must be about... twenty?’

What? My attention snaps back to the shop owner. What’s she saying?

‘Or even thirty?’

I stare at her in shock. Has she been monitoring me, every time I’ve been in here? Isn’t that against the law?

‘Quite a collection!’ she adds pleasantly, as she wraps it up in tissue paper.

I’ve got to say something, or she’ll get the idea that it’s me buying all Suze’s frames instead of the general public. Which is ridiculous. I ask you, thirty! I’ve only bought about... four. Five, maybe.

‘I haven’t got that many!’ I say hurriedly. ‘I should think you’ve been mixing me up with... other people. And I didn’t just come in to buy a frame!’ I laugh gaily to show what a ludicrous idea that is. ‘I actually wanted some of... these, too.’ I grab randomly at some big carved wooden letters in a nearby basket, and hand them to her. She smiles, and starts laying them out on tissue paper one by one.

‘P... T... R... R.’

She stops, and looks at the letters puzzledly. ‘Were you trying to make “Peter”?’

Oh for God’s sake. Does there always have to be a reason to buy things?

‘Erm... yes,’ I say. ‘For my... my godson. He’s three.’

‘Lovely! Here we are then. Two Es, and take away the R...’

She’s looking at me kindly, as if I’m a complete halfwit. Which I suppose is fair enough, since I can’t spell ‘Peter’ and it’s the name of my own godson.

‘That’ll be... £48,’ she says, as I reach for my purse. ‘You know, if you spend £50, you get a free scented candle.’

‘Really?’ I look up with interest. I could do with a nice scented candle. And for the sake of two pounds...

‘I’m sure I could find something...’ I say, looking vaguely round the shop.

‘Spell out the rest of your godson’s name in wooden letters,’ suggests the shop owner helpfully. ‘What’s his surname?’

‘Um, Wilson,’ I say without thinking.

‘Wilson.’ And to my horror, she begins to root around in the basket. ‘W... L... here’s an О...’

‘Actually,’ I say quickly, ‘actually, better not. Because... because... his parents are divorcing and he might be going to change his surname.’

‘Really?’ says the shop owner, and pulls a sympath­etic face as she drops the letters back in. ‘How awful. Is it an acrimonious split, then?’

‘Yes,’ I say, looking around the shop for something else to buy. ‘Very. His… his mother ran off with the gardener.’

‘Are you serious?’ The shop owner's staring at me, and I suddenly notice a couple nearby listening as well. ‘She ran off with the gardener?’

‘He was... very hunky,’ I improvise, picking up a jewellery box and seeing that it costs £75. ‘She couldn’t keep her hands off him. The husband found them together in the tool shed. Anyway–‘

‘Goodness me!’ says the shop owner. ‘That sounds incredible!’

‘It’s completely true,’ chimes in a voice from across the shop.

What?

My head whips round – and the woman who was looking at Suze’s frames is walking towards me. ‘I assume you’re talking about Jane and Tim?’ she says. ‘Such a terrible scandal, wasn’t it? But I thought the little boy was called Toby.’

I stare at her, unable to speak.

‘Maybe Peter is his baptismal name,’ suggests the shop owner, and gestures to me, ‘This is his god-mother.’

‘Oh you’re the godmother!’ exclaims the woman, ‘Yes, I’ve heard all about you.’

This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.

‘Now, perhaps you can tell me.’ The woman comes forward and lowers her voice confidentially. ‘Did Tim accept Maud’s offer?’

I look around the silent shop. Everyone is waiting for my answer.

‘Yes he did,’ I say carefully. ‘He did accept.’

‘And did it work out?’ she asks, staring at me agog.

‘Um... no. He and Maud actually... they... they had a fight.’

‘Really?’ The woman lifts a hand to her mouth. ‘A fight? What about?’

‘Oh, you know,’ I say desperately. This and that... the washing up... erm, actually, I think I’ll pay by cash.’ I fumble in my purse, and plonk £50 on the counter. ‘Keep the change.’

‘What about your scented candle?’ says the shop owner. ‘You can choose from vanilla, sandalwood–’

‘Never mind,’ I say, hurrying towards the door.

‘Wait!’ calls the woman urgently. ‘What happened to Ivan?’

‘He... emigrated to Australia,’ I say, and slam the door behind me.

God, that was a bit close. I think I’d better go home.

 

Extract 5

 

Maybe Luke’s right. Maybe I won’t cope with the pace of New York. Maybe it’s a stupid idea, me moving here with him.

A group of sightseers has already assembled – mostly much older than me – and they’re all listening to a young, enthusiastic man who’s saying something about the Statue of Liberty.

‘Hi there!’ he says, breaking off as I approach. ‘Are you here for the tour?’

‘Yes please,’ I say.

‘And your name?’

‘Rebecca Bloomwood,’ I say, flushing a little as all the others turn to look at me. ‘I paid at the desk, earlier.’

‘Well, hi Rebecca!’ says the man, ticking something off on his list. ‘I’m Christoph. Welcome to our group. Got your walking shoes on?’ He looks down at my boots (bright purple, kitten heel, last year’s Bertie sale) and his cheery smile falters. ‘You realize this is a three-hour tour? All on foot?’

‘Absolutely,’ I say in surprise. ‘That’s why I put these boots on.’

‘Right,’ says Christoph after a pause. ‘Well – OK.’ He looks around. ‘I think that’s it, so let’s start our tour!’

He leads the way out of the hotel, onto the street, and as everyone else follows him briskly along the pave­ment, I find myself walking slowly, staring upwards. It’s an amazingly clear, fresh day with almost blinding sunlight bouncing off the pavements and buildings. I look around, completely filled with awe. God, this city is an incredible place. I mean, obviously I knew that New York would be full of tall skyscrapers. But it’s only when you’re actually standing in the street, staring up at them, that you realize how... well, how huge they are. I gaze up at the tops of the buildings against the sky, until my neck is aching and I’m starting to feel dizzy. Then slowly my eyes wander down, floor by floor to shop-window level. And I find myself staring at two words. ‘Prada’ and ‘Shoes’.

Ooh.

Prada shoes. Right in front of me.

I’ll just have a really quick look.

As the others march on, I hurry up to the window and stare at a pair of deep brown pumps. God those are divine. I wonder how much they are? You know, maybe Prada is really cheap over here. Maybe I should just pop in and–

‘Rebecca?’

With a start I come to and look round – to see the tour group twenty yards down the street, all staring at me.

‘Sorry,’ I say, and reluctantly pull myself away from the window. ‘I’m coming.’

‘There’ll be time for shopping later,’ says Christoph cheerfully.

‘I know,’ I say, and give a relaxed laugh. ‘Sorry about that.’

‘Don’t worry about it!’

Of course, he’s quite right. There’ll be plenty of time to go shopping. Plenty of time.

Right. I’m really going to concentrate on the tour.

‘So Rebecca,’ says Christoph brightly, as I rejoin the group. ‘I was just telling the others that we’re heading down East 57th Street to Fifth Avenue, the most famous avenue of New York City.’

‘Great!’ I say. ‘That sounds really good!’

‘Fifth Avenue serves as a dividing line between the “East Side” and the “West Side”,’ continues Christoph. ‘Anyone interested in history will like to know that...’

I’m nodding intelligently as he speaks, and trying to look interested. But as we walk down the street, my head keeps swivelling from left to right, like some­one watching a tennis game. Christian Dior, Hermes, Chanel... This street is incredible. If only we could just slow down a bit, and have a proper look – but Christoph is marching on ahead like a hike leader, and everybody else in the group is following him happily, not even glancing at the amazing sights around them. Don’t they have eyes in their heads?

‘... where we’re going to take in two well-known landmarks: the Rockefeller Center, which many of you will associate with ice skating...’

We swing round a corner – and my heart gives a swoop of excitement. Tiffany’s. It’s Tiffany’s, right in front of me! I must just have a quick peek. I mean, this is what New York is all about, isn’t it? Little blue boxes, and while ribbon, and those gorgeous silver beans... I sidle up to the window and stare longingly at the beautiful display. Wow. That necklace is absolutely stunning. Oh God, and look at that watch. I wonder how much something like that would–

‘Hey, everybody, wait up!’ rings out Christoph’s voice. I look up – and they’re all bloody miles ahead again. How come they walk so fast, anyway? ‘Are you OK there, Rebecca?’ he calls, with a slightly forced cheeriness. ‘You’re going to have to try to keep up. We have a lot of ground to cover!’

‘Sorry,’ I say, and scuttle towards the group. ‘Just having a quick little look at Tiffany’s.’ I grin at the woman next to me, expecting her to smile back. But she looks at me blankly and pulls her hood more tightly over her head.

‘As I was saying,’ he says as we stride off again, ‘the grid system of Manhattan means that…’

And for a while I really try to concentrate. But it’s no good. I can’t listen. I mean, come on. This is Fifth Avenue! Everywhere I look, there are fabulous shops. There's Gucci – and that’s the hugest Gap I’ve ever seen in my life... and oh God, look at that window display over there! And we’re just walking straight past Armani Exchange and no-one’s even pausing...

I mean, what is wrong with these people? Are they complete philistines?

We walk on a bit further, and I’m trying my best to catch a glimpse inside a window full of amazing-looking hats when... oh my God. Just... just look there. It’s Saks Fifth Avenue. Right there, a matter of yards away. One of the most famous department stores in the world. Floors and floors of clothes and shoes and bags... And thank God, at last, Christoph is coming to his senses, and stopping.

‘This is one of New York’s most famous landmarks,’ he’s saying, with a gesture. ‘Many New Yorkers regularly visit this magnificent place of worship – once a week or even more often. Some even make it here daily! We don’t have time to do more than have a quick look inside – hut those that are interested can always make a return trip.’

‘Is it very old?’ asks a man with a Scandinavian accent.

‘The building dates from 1879,’ says Christoph, ‘and was designed by James Renwick.’

Come on, I think impatiently, as someone else asks a question about the architecture. Come on. Who cares who designed it? Who cares about the stonework? It’s what’s inside that matters.

‘Shall we go in?’ says Christoph at last.

‘Absolutely!’ I say joyfully, and hurry off towards the entrance.

It’s only as my hand is actually on the door that I realize no-one else is with me. Where’ve they all gone? Puzzled, I look back – and the rest of the group is processing into a big stone church, outside which there’s a board reading ‘St Patrick’s Cathedral’.

Oh.

Oh, I see. When he said ‘magnificent place of worship’ he meant...

Right. Of course.

I hesitate, hand on the door, feeling torn. Oh God, maybe I should go into the cathedral. Maybe I should take in some culture and come back to Saks later.

But then – is that going to help me get to know whether I want to live in New York or not? Looking around some boring old cathedral?

Put it like this: how many millions of cathedrals do we have in England? And how many branches of Saks Fifth Avenue?

‘Are you going in?’ says an impatient voice behind me.

‘Yes!’ I say, coming to a decision. ‘Absolutely. I’m going in.’

I push my way through the heavy wooden doors and into the store, feeling almost sick with anticipation. I haven’t felt this excited since Octagon relaunched their designer floor and I was invited to the cardholders’ champagne reception.

I mean, visiting any shop for the first time is exciting. There’s always that buzz as you push open the door; that hope; that belief – that this is going to be the shop of all shops, which will bring you everything you ever wanted, at magically low prices. But this is a thousand times better. A million times. Because this isn’t just any old shop, is it? This is a world-famous shop. I’m actually here. I’m in Saks on Fifth Avenue in New York. As I walk slowly into the store – forcing myself not to rush – I feel as though I’m setting off for a date with a Hollywood movie star.

I wander through the perfumery, gazing around at the elegant art deco panelling; the high, airy ceilings; the foliage everywhere. God, this has to be one of the most beautiful shops I’ve ever been in. At the back are old-fashioned lifts which make you feel you’re in a film with Cary Grant, and on a little table is a pile of store directories. I pick one up, just to get my bearings... and I don’t quite believe it. There are ten floors to this store.

Ten floors. Ten.

I stare at the list, transfixed. I feel like a child trying to choose a sweetie in a chocolate factory. Where am I going to start? How should I do this? Start at the top? Start at the bottom? Oh God, all these names, jumping out at me, calling to me. Anna Sui. Calvin Klein. Kate Spade. Kiehl’s. I think I’m going to hyperventilate.

‘Excuse me?’ A voice interrupts my thoughts and I turn to see a girl with a Saks name badge smiling at me. ‘Can I help you?’

‘Um... yes,’ I say, still staring at the directory. ‘I’m just trying to work out where to start, really.’

‘Were you interested in clothes? Or accessories? Or shoes?’

‘Yes,’ I say dazedly. ‘Both. All. Everything. Erm... a bag,’ I say randomly. ‘I need a new bag!’

Which is true. I mean, I’ve brought bags with me – but you can always do with a new bag, can’t you? Plus, I’ve been noticing that all the women in Manhattan seem to have very smart designer bags – so this is a very good way of acclimatizing myself to the city.

The girl gives me a friendly smile.

‘Bags and accessories are through there,’ she says, pointing. ‘You might want to start there and work your way up?’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘That’s what I’ll do. Thanks!’

 

Extract 6

 

God, I adore shopping abroad. I mean, shopping any­where is always great – but the advantages of doing it abroad are:

1. You can buy things you can’t get in Britain.

2. You can name-drop when you get back home. (‘Actually, I picked this up in New York.’)

3. Foreign money doesn’t count, so you can spend as much as you like.

OK, I know that last one isn’t entirely true. Some­where in my head I know that dollars are proper money, with a real value. But I mean, look at them. I just can’t take them seriously. I’ve got a whole wodge of them in my purse, and I feel as though I’m carrying around the bank from a Monopoly set. Yesterday I went and bought some magazines from a newsstand, and as I handed over a $20 bill, it was just like playing shop. It’s like some weird form of jet-lag – you move into another currency and suddenly feel as though you’re spending nothing.

So as I walk around the bag department, trying out gorgeous bag after gorgeous bag, I’m not taking too much notice of the prices. Occasionally I lift a price tag and make a feeble attempt to work out how much that is in real money – but I have to confess, I can’t remember the exact exchange rate. And even if I could, I’ve never been very good at sums.

But the point is, it doesn’t matter. I don’t need to worry, because this is America, and everyone knows that prices in America are really low. It’s common knowledge, isn’t it? So basically, I’m working on the principle that everything’s a bargain. I mean, look at all these gorgeous designer handbags. They’re probably half what they’d cost in England, if not less!

Eventually I choose a beautiful Kate Spade bag in tan leather, and take it up to the counter. It costs $500, which sounds quite a lot – but then, ‘a million lire’ sounds a lot too, doesn’t it? And that’s, only about 50p.

As the assistant hands me my receipt, she even says something about it being ‘a gift’ – and I beam in agreement.

‘A complete gift! I mean, in London, it would probably cost–’

‘Gina, are you going upstairs?’ interrupts the woman, turning to a colleague. ‘Gina will show you to the seventh floor,’ she says, and smiles at me.

‘Right,’ I say, in slight confusion. ‘Well... OK.’

Gina beckons me briskly and, after a moment’s hesi­tation, I follow her, wondering what’s on the seventh floor. Maybe some complimentary lounge for Kate Spade customers, with free champagne or something!

It’s only as we're approaching a department entitled ‘Gift Wrapping’ that I realize what’s going on. When I said ‘gift’, she must have thought I meant it was an actual–

‘Here we are,’ says Gina brightly. ‘The Saks signature box is complimentary – or choose from a range of quality wrap.’

‘Right!’ I say. ‘Well... thanks very much! Although actually, I wasn’t really planning to–’

But Gina has already gone, and the two ladies behind the gift wrap counter are smiling encouragingly at me.

Oh God, this is a bit embarrassing. What am I going to do?

‘Have you decided which paper you’d like?’ says the elder of the two ladies, beaming at me. ‘We also have a choice of ribbons and adornments.’

Oh sod it. Ill get it wrapped. I mean, it only costs $7.50 – and it’ll be nice to have something to open when I get back to the hotel room, won’t it?

‘Yes!’ I say, and beam back. ‘I’d like that silver paper, please, and some purple ribbon... and one of those clusters of silver berries.’

The lady reaches for the paper and deftly begins to wrap up my bag – more neatly than I’ve ever wrapped anything in my life. And you know, this is quite fun! Maybe I should always get my shopping gift-wrapped.

‘Who’s it to?’ says the lady, opening a card and taking out a silver pen.

‘Um... to Becky,’ I say vaguely. Some girls have come into the gift wrap room, and I’m slightly intrigued by their conversation.

‘...fifty per cent off...’

‘...sample sale...’

‘...Earl jeans...’

‘And who is it from?’ says the gift wrap lady pleas­antly.

‘Um... from Becky,’ I say without thinking. The gift wrap lady gives me a rather strange look and I suddenly realize what I’ve said. ‘A... a different Becky,’ I add awkwardly.

‘...sample sale...’

‘...Alexander McQueen, pale blue, 80 per cent off...’

‘...sample sale...’

‘...sample sale...’

Oh, I can’t bear this any longer.

‘Excuse me,’ I say, turning round. ‘I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on your conversation – but I just have to know one thing. What is a sample sale?’

The whole gift wrap area goes quiet. Everyone is staring at me, even the lady with the silver pen.

‘You don’t know what a sample sale is?’ says a girl in a leather jacket eventually, as though I’ve said I don’t know my alphabet.

‘Erm... no,’ I say, feeling myself flush red. ‘No, I... I don’t.’ The girl raises her eyebrows, reaches in her bag, rummages around, and finally pulls out a card. ‘Honey, this is a sample sale.’

I take the card from her, and as I read, my skin starts to prickle with excitement.

SAMPLE SALE

Designer clothes, 50–70% off

Ralph Lauren, Comme des Garcons, Gucci

Bags, shoes, hosiery, 40–60% off

Prada, Fendi, Lagerfeld

‘Is this for real?’ I breathe at last, looking up. ‘I mean, could... could I go to it?’

‘Oh yuh,’ says the girl. ‘It’s for real. But it’ll only last a day.’

‘A day?’ My heart starts to thump in panic. ‘Just one day?’

‘One day,’ affirms the girl solemnly. I glance at the other girls, and they’re nodding in agreement.

‘Sample sales come without much warning,’ explains one.

‘They can be anywhere. They just appear overnight.’

‘Then they’re gone. Vanished.’

‘And you just have to wait for the next one.’

I look from face to face, utterly mesmerized. I feel like an explorer learning about some mysterious nomadic tribe.

‘So you wanna catch this one today,’ says the girl in the leather jacket, tapping the card and bringing me back to life, ‘you’d better hurry.’

I have never moved as fast as I do out of that shop. Clutching my Saks Fifth Avenue carrier, I hail a taxi, breathlessly read out the address on the card, and sink back into my seat.

I have no idea where we’re heading or what famous landmarks we’re passing – but I don’t care. As long as there are designer clothes on sale, then that’s all I need to know.

We come to a stop, and I pay the driver, making sure I tip him about 50 per cent so he doesn’t think I’m some stingy English tourist – and, heart thumping, I get out. And I have to admit, on first impressions, things are not promising. I’m in a street full of rather uninspiring shop fronts and office blocks. On the card it said the sample sale was at 405, but when I follow the numbers along the road, 405 turns out to be just another office building. Am I in the wrong place altogether? I walk along the pavement for a little bit, peering up at the buildings – but there are no clues. I don’t even know which district I’m in.

Suddenly I feel deflated and rather stupid. I was supposed to be going on a nice organized walking tour today – and what have I done instead? I’ve gone rushing off to some strange part of the city, where I’ll probably get mugged any minute. In fact, the whole thing was probably a scam, I think morosely. I mean, honestly. Designer clothes at 70 per cent discount? I should have realized it was far too good to be–

Hang on. Just... hang on a minute.

Another taxi is pulling up, and a girl in a Miu Miu dress is getting out. She consults a piece of paper, walks briskly along the pavement, and disappears inside the door of 405. A moment later, two more girls appear along the street – and as I watch, they go inside, too.

Maybe this is the right place.

I push open the glass doors, walk into a shabby foyer furnished with plastic chairs, and nod nervously at the concierge sitting at the desk.

‘Erm... excuse me,’ I say politely. ‘I was looking for the–’

‘Twelfth floor,’ he says in a bored voice. ‘Elevators are in the rear.’

I hurry towards the back of the foyer, summon one of the rather elderly lifts and press 12. Slowly and creakily the lift rises – and I begin to hear a kind of faint babble, rising in volume as I get nearer. The lift pings and the doors open and... Oh my God. Is this the queue?

A line of girls is snaking back from a door at the end of the corridor. They’re pressing forwards, and all have the same urgent look in their eyes. Every so often somebody pushes their way out of the door, holding a carrier bag – and about three girls push their way in. Then, just as I join the end of the line, there’s a rattling sound, and a woman opens up a door, a few yards behind me.

‘Another entrance this way,’ she calls. ‘Come this way!’

In front of me, a whole line of heads whips round. There’s a collective intake of breath – and then it’s like a tidal wave of girls, all heading towards me. I find myself running towards the door, just to avoid being knocked down – and suddenly I’m in the middle of the room, slightly shaken, as everybody else peels off and heads for the rails.

I look around, trying to get my bearings. There are rails and rails of clothes, tables covered in bags and shoes and scarves and girls sorting through them. I can spot Ralph Lauren knitwear... a rail full of fabulous coats... there’s a stack of Prada bags... I mean, this is like a dream come true!

Conversation is high-pitched and excited, and as I look around, I can hear snippets floating around.

‘I have to have it,’ a girl is saying, holding up a coat against herself. ‘I just have to have it.’

‘OK, what I’m going to do is, I’m just going to put the $450 I spent today on to my mortgage,’ another girl is saying to her friend as they walk out, laden with bags. ‘I mean, what’s $450 over thirty years?’

‘One hundred per cent cashmere!’ someone else is exclaiming. ‘Did you see this? It’s only $50! I’m going to take three.’

I look around the bright, buzzing room, at the girls milling about, grabbing at merchandise, trying on scarves, piling their arms full of glossy new stuff. And I feel a sudden warmth; an overwhelming realization. These are my people. This is where I belong. I’ve found my homeland.

Several hours later, I arrive back at the Four Seasons on a complete high. I’m laden with carrier bags, and I can’t tell you what unbelievable bargains I picked up. A fantastic buttermilk leather coat, which is a teeny bit tight but I’m sure I’ll soon lose a couple of pounds. (And anyway, leather stretches.) Plus a really gorgeous printed chiffon top, and some silver shoes, and a purse! And the whole lot only came to $500!

 

Extract 7

 

…I’ll go to the Guggenheim right now. Right this minute. Just as soon as I’ve bought my makeup and got my free gift.

I stuff my basket full of beauty goodies, hurry up to the checkout, and sign the credit slip without even looking at it, then go out to the crowded street. Right. It’s 3.30, which gives me plenty of time to get up there and immerse myself in some culture. Excellent, I’m really looking forward to it, actually.

I’m standing on the edge of the pavement, holding out my hand for a taxi, when I spot a gorgeous, glowing shop called Kate’s Paperie. Without quite meaning to, I let my hand drop, and start edging slowly towards the window. Just look at that. Look at that display of marbled wrapping paper. And that decoupage box. And that amazing beaded ribbon.

OK, what I’ll do is, I’ll just pop in and have a quick look. Just for five minutes. And then I’ll go to the Guggenheim.

I push the door open and walk slowly around, marvelling at the arrangements of beautiful wrapping paper adorned with dried flowers, raffia and bows, the photograph albums, the boxes of exquisite writing paper... And oh God, just look at the greetings cards!

You see, this is it. This is why New York is so great. They don’t just have boring old cards saying Happy Birthday. They have handmade creations with twinkly flowers and witty collages, saying things like ‘Con­gratulations on adopting twins!’ and ‘So sad to hear you broke up!’

I walk up and down, utterly dazzled by the array. I just have to have some of these. Like this fantastic pop-up castle, with the flag reading ‘I love your re­modeled home!’ I mean, I don’t actually know anyone who’s remodelling their home, but I can always keep it until Mum decides to repaper the hall. And this one covered in fake grass, saying ‘To a smashing tennis coach with thanks’. Because I’m planning to have some tennis lessons next summer, and I’ll want to thank my coach, won’t I?

I scoop up a few more, and then move on to the invitation rack. And they’re even better! Instead of just saying ‘Party’ they say things like ‘We’re meeting at the club for brunch!’ and ‘Come join us for an informal pizza!’

You know, I think I should buy some of those. It would be short-sighted not to. I mean, Suze and I might easily hold a pizza party, mightn’t we? And we’ll never find invitations like this in Britain. They’re so sweet, with glittery little pizza slices all the way down the sides. I carefully put ten boxes of invitations in my basket, along with all my lovely cards, and a few sheets of candy-striped wrapping paper, which I just can’t resist, then head to the checkout. As the assistant scans everything through, I look around the shop again, wondering if I’ve missed anything – and it’s only when she announces the total that I look up in slight shock. That much? Just for a few cards?

For a moment I wonder whether I really do need them all. Like the card saying ‘Happy Hanukkah, Boss!’

But then – they’re bound to come in useful one day, aren’t they? And if I’m to live in New York, I’m going to have to get used to sending expensive cards the whole time, so really, this is a form of acclimatization.

Plus, what’s the point of having a nice new credit card limit and not using it? Exactly. And I can put it all down on my budget as ‘unavoidable business expenses’.

As I sign my slip, I notice a girl in jeans and a hat hovering behind a display of business cards, who looks strangely familiar. I peer at her curiously – and then realize where I recognize her from.

‘Hello,’ I say, giving her a friendly smile. ‘Didn’t I see you at the sample sale yesterday? Did you find any bargains?’

But instead of replying, she quickly turns away. Hurrying out of the shop, she bumps into someone and mutters ‘Sorry’. And to my astonishment, she’s got a British accent. Well, that’s bloody unfriendly, isn’t it? Ignoring a compatriot on foreign soil. God, no wonder people say the British are aloof.

Right. I really am going to go to the Guggenheim now. As I come out of Kate’s Paperie, I realize I don’t know which way I should be facing to catch a cab, and I stand still for a moment, wondering which way is north. Something flashes brightly across the street, and I screw up my face, wondering if it’s going to rain. But the sky is clear, and nobody else seems to have noticed it. Maybe it’s one of those New York things, like steam coming up from the pavement.

Anyway. Concentrate. Guggenheim.

‘Excuse me?’ I say to a woman walking past. ‘Which way is the Guggenheim?’

‘Down the street,’ she says, jerking her thumb.

‘Right,’ I say, confused. ‘Thanks.'’

That can’t be right. I thought the Guggenheim was miles away from here, by Central Park. How can it be down the street? She must be a foreigner. I’ll ask somebody else.

Except they all walk so bloody fast, it’s hard to get anyone’s attention.

‘Hey,’ I say, practically grabbing the arm of a man in a suit. ‘For the Guggenheim–’

‘Right there,’ he says, nodding his head, and hurries off.

What on earth are they all talking about? I’m sure Kent said that the Guggenheim was right up near the... near the...

Hang on a minute.

I stop dead in the street, staring in astonishment.

I don’t believe it. There it is! There’s a sign hanging up ahead of me – and it says GUGGENHEIM SOHO, as large as life.

What’s going on? Has the Guggenheim moved? Are there two Guggenheims?

As I walk towards the doors, I see that this place looks quite small for a museum – so maybe it’s not the main Guggenheim. Maybe it’s some trendy SoHo offshoot! Yes! I mean, if London can have the Tate Britain and Tate Modern, why can’t New York have the Guggenheim and Guggenheim SoHo?

Guggenheim SoHo. That sounds so cool!

Cautiously I push the door open – and sure enough, it’s all white and spacious, with modern art on pedestals and places to sit down and people wandering around quietly, whispering to one another.

You know, this is what all museums should be like. Nice and small, for a start, so you don’t feel exhausted as soon as you walk in. I mean, you could probably do this lot in about half an hour. Plus, all the things look really interesting. Like, look at those amazing red cubes in that glass cabinet! And this fantastic abstract print, hanging on the wall.

As I’m gazing admiringly at the print, a couple come over and look at it too, and start murmuring to each other about how nice it is. Then the girl says casually,

‘How much is it?’

I’m about to turn to her with a friendly smile and say, ‘That’s what I always want to know, too!’ when to my astonishment the man reaches for it, and turns it over. And there’s a price label fixed onto the back!

A price label in a museum! This place is perfect! Finally, some forward-thinking person has agreed with me that people don’t want to just look at art – they want to know how much it is, too. I'm going to write to the people at the Victoria and Albert about this.

You know, now that I look around properly, all the exhibits seem to have a price on them. Those red cubes in the cabinet have got a price label, and so has that chair, and so has that... that box of pencils.

How weird, having a box of pencils in a museum. Still, maybe it’s installation art, like thingummy girl’s bed. I walk over to have a closer look – and there’s something printed on each pencil. Probably some really meaningful message about art, or life... I lean close and find myself reading the words ‘Guggenheim Museum Store’.

What?

Is this a–

I lift my head and look around, bewildered.

Am I in a shop?

Now I start noticing things I hadn’t seen before. Like a pair of cash registers on the other side of the room.

And there’s somebody walking out with a couple of carrier bags.

Oh God.

Now I feel really stupid. How could I have not recognized a shop? But... this makes less and less and less sense. Is it just a shop on its own? With no museum attached?

‘Excuse me,’ I say, to a fair-haired boy wearing a name-badge. ‘Can I just check – this is a shop?’

‘Yes, ma’am,’ says the boy politely. ‘This is the Guggenheim Museum Store.’

‘And where’s the actual Guggenheim Museum?’

‘Way up by the park.’

‘Right. OK.’ I look at him in confusion. ‘So let me just get this straight. You can come here and buy loads of stuff – and no-one minds whether you’ve been to the museum or not? I mean, you don’t have to show your ticket or anything?’

‘No, ma’am.’

‘So you don’t have to look at the art at all? You can just shop?’ My voice rises in delight. ‘This city just gets better and better! It’s perfect!’ I see the boy’s shocked expression and quickly add, ‘I mean, obviously I do want to look at the art. Very much so. I was just... you know. Checking.’

‘If you’re interested in visiting the museum,’ says the boy, ‘I can call you a cab. Did you want to pay a visit?’

‘Erm...’

Now, let’s just think for a moment. Let’s not make any hasty decisions.

‘Erm... I’m not sure,’ I say carefully. ‘Could you just give me a minute?’

‘Sure,’ says the boy, giving me a slightly odd look, and I sit down on a white seat, thinking hard.

OK, here’s the thing. I mean, obviously I could go to the Guggenheim. I could get in a cab, and whiz up to wherever it is, and spend all afternoon looking at pieces of art.

Or else... I could just buy a book about the Guggenheim... and spend the rest of the afternoon shopping.

Because the thing is, do you actually need to see a piece of art in the flesh to appreciate it? Of course you don’t. And in a way, flicking through a book would be better than trekking round lots of galleries – because I’m bound to cover more ground more quickly and actually learn far more.

Besides, what they have in this shop is art, isn’t it? I mean, I’ve taken in some pretty good culture already. Exactly.

And it’s not as if I rush out of the shop. I stay there for at least ten minutes, browsing through the literature and soaking up the cultured atmosphere. In the end I buy a big heavy book which I will give to Luke, plus a really cool mug for Suze, some pencils and a calendar for my mum.

Excellent. Now I can really go shopping! As I walk off, I feel all liberated and happy, as though I’ve been given a surprise day off school. I head down Broadway and turn off on one of the side roads, stepping past stalls selling fake handbags and colourful hair accessories, and a guy playing the guitar not very well. Soon I find myself wandering down a gorgeous little cobbled street, and then down another. On either side there are big old red buildings with fire escapes running up and down them, and trees planted in the pavements, and the atmosphere is suddenly a lot more laid back than it was on Broadway. You know, I could definitely get used to living here. No problem.

And oh God, the shops! Each one is more inviting than the next. One is full of painted velvet dresses hanging on pieces of antique furniture. Another has walls painted to look like clouds, racks of fluffy frou-frou party dresses and bowls of sweets every­where. Another is all black and while and art deco, like a Fred Astaire movie. And just look at this one!

I stop on the pavement and stare open-mouthed at a mannequin wearing nothing but a transparent plastic shirt, which has a goldfish swimming about in the pocket. That has to be the most amazing piece of clothing I’ve ever seen.

You know – I’ve always secretly wanted to wear a piece of real avant-garde fashion. I mean, God, how cool would it be to have some cutting edge piece of clothing and telling everyone you bought it in SoHo. At least... Am I still in SoHo? Maybe this is NoLita. Or... NoHo? SoLita? To be honest, I’m not sure where I am by now, and I don’t want to look at my map in case everyone thinks I’m a tourist.

Anyway, wherever it is, I don’t care. I’m going in.

I push open the heavy door and walk into the shop, which is completely empty apart from a smell of incense and some strange, booming music. I walk up to a rail and, trying to look nonchalant, begin to finger the clothes. God, this stuff is way out. There’s a pair of trousers about ten feet long, and a plain white shirt with a plastic hood, and a skirt made out of corduroy and newspaper, which is quite nice – but what happens when it rains?

‘Hello,’ says a guy coming up. He’s wearing a black T-shirt and very tight trousers – completely silver apart from the crotch, which is denim, and very... Well. Prominent.

‘Hi,’ I say, trying to sound as cool as possible and not look at his crotch.

‘How are you today?’

‘Fine, thanks!’

‘Would you like to try anything?’

Come on, Becky. Don’t be a wimp. Choose some­thing.

‘Erm… yes. This!’ I say, and grab for a purple jumper with a funnel neck which seems quite nice. ‘This one, please.’ And I follow him to the back, where the fitting cubicle is made out of sheets of zinc.

It’s only as I’m taking the jumper off the hangers that I see it has two funnel necks. In fact, it looks a bit like the jumper my granny once gave Dad for Christmas.

‘Excuse me?’ I say, poking my head out of the cubicle. ‘This jumper’s got... it’s got two neck-holes.’ I give a little laugh, and the guy stares at me blankly, as though I’m subnormal.

‘It’s supposed to,’ he says. ‘That’s the look.’

‘Oh, right!’ I say at once. ‘Of course.’ And I dive back into the cubicle.

I don’t dare ask him which neck-hole you’re supposed to put your head in, so I struggle into the first one – and that looks terrible. I try the other one – and that looks terrible, too.

‘Are you OK?’ says the guy from outside the cubicle, and I feel my cheeks flame with colour. I can’t admit I don’t know how to put it on.

‘I’m... fine,’ I say in a strangled voice.

‘Would you like to have a look out here?’

‘OK!’ I say, my voice a squeak.

Oh God. My cheeks are all flushed, and my hair’s standing on end from pushing my head through funnel necks. Hesitantly I push open the door of the cubicle, and look at myself in the big mirror opposite. And I’ve never looked more stupid in my life.

‘It’s a fantastic piece of knitwear,’ says the guy, folding his arms and staring at me. ‘Quite unique.’

‘Erm... absolutely,’ I say after a pause. ‘It’s very interesting.’ I tug awkwardly at my sleeve and try to ignore the fact that I look as though I’m missing a head.

‘You look fabulous in it,’ says the guy. ‘Completely fabulous.’

He sounds so convinced, I peer at my reflection again. And you know – maybe he’s right. Maybe I don’t look so bad.

‘Madonna has it in three colours,’ says the guy, and lowers his voice. ‘But between you and me, she can’t quite pull it off.’

I stare at him, agog.

‘Madonna has this jumper? This exact one?’

‘Oh yuh. But you wear it so much better.’ He leans against a mirrored pillar and examines a fingernail. ‘So – did you want to take it?’

God, I love this city. Where else could you get invi­tations with twinkly pizza slices, free mascara, and the same jumper that Madonna’s got, all in one afternoon? As I arrive at the Royalton, there’s a huge, exhilarated grin on my face. I haven’t had such a successful shopping trip since... well, since yesterday.

 

 

Shopaholic Ties the Knot (by Sophie Kinsella)

 

Extract 1

 

As I reach the second floor, there’s music coming from the door of our apartment, and I feel a little fizz of anticipation inside. That’ll be Danny, working away. He’ll probably have finished by now! My dress will be ready!

Danny Kovitz lives upstairs from us, in his brother’s apartment, and he’s become one of my best friends since I’ve been living in New York. He’s a fabulous designer, really talented – but he’s not all that success­ful yet.

Well, to be honest, he’s not successful at all. Five years after leaving fashion school, he’s still waiting for his big break to come along. But, like he always says, making it as a designer is even harder than making it as an actor. If you don’t know the right people or have an ex-Beatle as a father, you might as well forget it. I feel so sorry for him, because he really does deserve to succeed. So as soon as Suze asked me to be her bridesmaid, I asked him to make my dress. The great thing is, Suze’s wedding is going to be stuffed full of rich, important guests. So hopefully loads of people will ask me who my dress is by, and then a whole word-of-mouth buzz will start, and Danny will be made!

I just can’t wait to see what he’s done. All the sketches he’s shown me have been amazing – and of course, a hand-made dress will have far more workmanship and detail than you’d get off the peg. Like, the bodice is going to be a boned, hand-embroidered corset – and Danny suggested putting in a tiny beaded love-knot using the birthstones of all the bridal party, which is just so original.

My only slight worry – tiny niggle – is the wedding’s in two days’ time, and I haven’t actually tried it on yet. Or even seen it. This morning I rang his doorbell to remind him I was leaving for England today, and after he’d eventually staggered to the door, he promised me he’d have it finished by lunchtime. He told me he always lets his ideas ferment until the very last minute – then he gets a surge of adrenalin and inspiration, and works incredibly quickly. It’s just the way he works, he assured me, and he’s never missed a deadline yet.

I open the door, and call ‘Hello!’ cheerfully. There’s no response, so I push open the door to our all-purpose living room. The radio is blaring Madonna, the tele­vision is playing MTV, and Danny’s novelty robot dog is trying to walk up the side of the sofa.

And Danny is slumped over his sewing machine in a cloud of gold silk, fast asleep.

‘Danny?’ I say in dismay. ‘Hey, wake up!’

With a start, Danny sits up and rubs his thin face. His curly hair is rumpled, and his pale blue eyes are even more bloodshot than they were when he answered the door this morning. His skinny frame is clad in an old grey T-shirt and a bony knee is poking out of his ripped jeans, complete with a scab which he got rollerblading at the weekend. He looks like a ten-year-old with stubble.

‘Becky!’ he says blearily. ‘Hi! What are you doing here?’

‘This is my apartment. Remember? You were work­ing down here because your electricity fused.’

‘Oh. Yeah.’ He looks around dazedly. ‘Right.’

‘Are you OK?’ I peer at him anxiously. ‘I got some coffee.’

I hand him a cup and he takes a couple of deep gulps. Then his eyes land on the pile of post in my hand and for the first time, he seems to wake up.

‘Hey, is that British Vogue?’

‘Er... yes,’ I say, putting it down where he can’t reach it. ‘So – how’s the dress doing?’

‘It’s going great! Totally under control.’

‘Can I try it on yet?’

There’s a pause. Danny looks at the mound of gold silk in front of him as though he’s never seen it before in his life.

‘Not yet, no,’ he says at last.

‘But it will be ready in time?’

‘Of course! Absolutely.’ He puts his foot down and the sewing machine starts whirring busily. ‘You know what?’ he says over the noise. ‘I could really do with a glass of water.’

‘Coming up!’

I hurry into the kitchen, turn on the tap, and wait for the cold to come through. The plumbing in this building is a little bit eccentric, and we’re always on at Mrs Watts, the owner, to fix it. But she lives miles away in Florida, and doesn’t really seem interested. And other than that, the place is completely wonderful. Our apartment is huge by New York standards, with wooden floors and a fireplace, and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows.

(Of course, Mum and Dad weren’t at all impressed when they came over. First they couldn’t understand why we didn’t live in a house. Then they couldn’t understand why the kitchen was so small. Then they started saying wasn’t it a shame we didn’t have a garden, and did I know that Tom next door had moved into a house with a quarter of an acre? Honestly. If you had a quarter of an acre in New York, someone would just put up ten office blocks on it.)

‘OK! So how’s it–’ I walk back into the living room and break off. The sewing machine has stopped, and Danny’s reading my copy of Vogue.

‘Danny!’ I wail. ‘What about my dress?’

‘Did you see this?’ says Danny, jabbing at the page. “Hamish Fargle’s collection demonstrated his customary flair and wit,” he reads aloud. ‘Give me a break! He has zero talent. Zero. You know, he was at school with me. Totally ripped off one of my ideas.’ He looks up at me, eyes narrowed. ‘Is he stocked at Barneys?’

‘Erm... I don’t know,’ I lie.

Danny is completely obsessed with being stocked at Barneys. It’s the only thing he wants in the world. And just because I work there as a personal shopper, he seems to think I should be able to arrange meetings with the head buyer for him.

In fact, I have arranged meetings with the head buyer for him. The first time, he arrived a week late for the appointment and she’d gone to Milan. The second time, he was showing her a jacket and as she tried it on, all the buttons fell off.

Oh God. What was I thinking of, asking him to make my dress?

‘Danny, just tell me. Is my dress going to be ready?’

There’s a long pause.

‘Does it actually have to be ready for today?’ says Danny at last. ‘Like literally today?’

‘I’m catching a plane in six hours!’ My voice rises to a squeak. ‘I’ve got to walk down the aisle in less than...’ I break off and shake my head. ‘Look, don’t worry. I’ll wear something else.’

‘Something else?’ Danny puts down Vogue and stares at me blankly. ‘What do you mean, something else?’

‘Well...’

‘Are you firing me?’ He looks as though I’ve told him our ten-year marriage is over. ‘Just because I’ve run a tad over schedule?’

‘I’m not firing you! But I mean, I can’t be a brides­maid without a dress, can I?’

‘But what else would you wear?’

‘Well...’ I twist my fingers awkwardly. ‘I do have this one little reserve dress in my wardrobe...’

I can’t tell him I’ve actually got three. And two on hold at Barneys.

‘By whom?’

‘Er... Donna Karan,’ I say guiltily.

‘Donna Karan?’ His voice cracks with betrayal. ‘You prefer Donna Karan to me?’

‘Of course not! But I mean, at least it’s there, the seams are actually sewn...’

‘Wear my dress.’

‘Danny–’

‘Wear my dress! Please!’ He throws himself down on the floor and walks towards me on his knees. ‘It’ll be ready. I’ll work all day and all night.’

‘We haven’t got all day and all night! We’ve got about... three hours.’

‘Then I’ll work all three hours. I’ll do it!’

‘You can really make a boned embroidered corset from scratch in three hours?’ I say incredulously.

Danny looks abashed.

‘So... um... we may have to rethink the design very slightly.’

‘In what way?’

He drums his fingers for a few moments, then looks up. ‘Do you have a plain white T-shirt?’

‘A T-shirt?’ I can’t hide my dismay.

‘It’ll be great. I promise.’ There’s the sound of a van pulling up outside and he glances out of the window. ‘Hey, did you buy another antique?’

An hour later I stare at myself in the mirror. I’m wearing a full sweeping skirt made of gold silk – topped by my white T-shirt, which is now completely un­recognizable. Danny’s ripped off the sleeves, sewn on sequins, gathered hems, created lines where there were none – and basically turned it into the most fantastic top I’ve ever seen.

‘I love it.’ I beam at Danny. ‘I love it! I’ll be the coolest bridesmaid in the world!’

‘It’s pretty good, isn’t it?’ Danny gives a casual shrug, but I can see he’s pleased with himself.

I take another gulp of my cocktail, draining the glass. ‘Delicious. Shall we have another one?’

‘What was in that?’

‘Erm...’ I squint vaguely at the bottles lined up on the cocktail cabinet. ‘I’m not sure.’

It took a while to get the cocktail cabinet up the stairs and into our apartment. To be honest, it’s a bit bigger than I remembered, and I’m not sure it’ll fit into that little alcove behind the sofa, where I’d planned to put it. But still, it looks fantastic! It’s standing proudly in the middle of the room, and we’ve already put it to good use. As soon as it arrived, Danny went upstairs and raided his brother Randall’s drinks cupboard, and I got all the booze I could find in the kitchen. We’ve had a Margarita each and a Gimlet, and my invention called the Bloomwood, which consists of vodka, orange and M&Ms, which you scoop out with a spoon.

‘Give me the top again. I want to pull in that shoulder tighter.’

I peel off the top, hand it to him, and reach for my jumper, not bothering about trying to be modest. I mean, this is Danny. He threads a needle and starts expertly gathering along the hem of the T-shirt. ‘So, these weird cousin-marrying friends of yours,’ he says. ‘What’s that about?’

‘They’re not weird!’ I hesitate for a moment. ‘Well, OK, Tarquin is a tiny bit weird. But Suze isn’t at all weird. She’s my best friend!’ Danny raises an eyebrow.

‘So – couldn’t they find anyone else to marry except from their own family? Was it like, “OK, Mom’s taken... my sister, too fat... the dog... mm, don’t like the hair.’

‘Stop it!’ I can’t help giggling. ‘They just suddenly realized they were meant for each other.’

‘Like When Harry Met Sally.’ He puts on a film-trailer voice. ‘They were friends. They came from the same gene pool.’

‘Danny...’

‘OK.’ He relents, and snips off the thread. ‘So, what about you and Luke?’

‘What about us?’

‘D’you think you’ll get married?’

‘I... I have no idea!’ I say, feeling a slight colour coming to my cheeks. ‘I can’t say it’s ever crossed my mind.’

Which is completely true.

 

Extract 2

 

The vicar begins his ‘Dearly beloved’ speech, and I feel myself relax with pleasure. I’m going to relish every single, familiar word. This is like watching the start of a favourite movie, with my two best friends playing the main parts.

‘Susan, wilt thou take this man to thy wedded husband?’ The vicar’s got huge bushy eyebrows, which he raises at every question, as though he’s afraid the answer might be ‘no’. ‘Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, keep thee only unto him, so long as ye both shall live?’

There’s a pause – then Suze says, ‘I will,’ in a voice as clear as a bell.

I wish bridesmaids got to say something. It wouldn’t have to be anything very much. Just a quick ‘Yes’ or ‘I do’.

When we come to the bit where Suze and Tarquin have to hold hands, Suze gives me her bouquet, and I take the opportunity to turn round and have a quick peek at the congregation. The place is crammed to the gills, in fact there isn’t even room for everyone to sit down. There are lots of strapping men in kilts and women in velvet suits, and there’s Fenny and a whole crowd of her London friends, all wearing Philip Treacy hats, it looks like. And there’s Mum squashed up against Dad, with a tissue pressed to her eyes, too. She looks up and sees me and I smile – but all she does is give another sob.

I turn back and Suze and Tarquin are kneeling down, and the vicar is intoning severely, ‘Those whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’

I look at Suze as she beams radiantly at Tarquin. She’s completely lost in him. She belongs to him now. And, to my surprise, I suddenly feel slightly hollow inside. Suze is married. It’s all changed.

It’s a year since I went off to live in New York, and I’ve loved every minute of it. Of course I have. But subconsciously, I realize, I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that if everything went wrong, I could always come back to Fulham and have my old life with Suze. And now ... I can’t.

Suze doesn’t need me any more. She’s got someone else, who will always come first in her life. I watch as the vicar places his hands on Suze’s and Tarquin’s heads to bless them – and my throat feels a little tight as I remember all the times we’ve had together. The time I cooked a horrible curry to save money and she kept saying how delicious it was even while her mouth was burning. The time she tried to seduce my bank manager so he would extend my overdraft. Every time I’ve got myself into trouble, she’s been there for me.

And now it’s all over.

Suddenly I feel in need of a little reassurance. I turn round and quickly scan the rows of guests, looking for Luke’s face. For a few moments I can’t spot him, and although I keep wearing my confident smile, I feel a ridiculous panic rising inside me, like a child realizing it's been left behind at school; that everyone else has been collected but them.

Until suddenly I see him. Standing behind a pillar towards the back, tall and dark and solid, his eyes fixed on mine. Looking at me and no-one else. And as I gaze back at him, I feel restored. I’ve been collected, too; it’s OK.

We emerge into the churchyard, the sound of bells behind us, and a crowd of people who have gathered outside on the road start to cheer.

‘Congratulations!’ I cry, giving Suze a huge hug. ‘And to you, Tarquin!’

I’ve always been a teeny bit awkward around Tarquin. But now I see him with Suze – married to Suze – the awkwardness seems to melt away.

‘I know you’ll be really happy,’ I say warmly, and give him a kiss on the cheek, and we both laugh as someone throws confetti at us. Guests are already piling out of the church like sweets out of a jar, talking and laughing and calling to each other in loud con­fident voices. They swarm around Suze and Tarquin, kissing and hugging and shaking hands, and I move away a little, wondering where Luke is.

The whole churchyard is filling up with people, and I can’t help staring at some of Suze’s relations. Her granny is coming out of the church very slowly and regally, holding a stick, and is being followed by a dutiful-looking young man in morning dress. A thin, pale girl with huge eyes is wearing an enormous black hat, holding a pug and chain-smoking. There’s a whole army of almost identical brothers in kilts standing by the church gate, and I remember Suze telling me about her aunt who had six boys before finally getting twin girls.

‘Here. Put this on.’ Luke’s voice is suddenly in my ear, and I turn round, to see him holding out the sheepskin jacket. ‘You must be freezing.’

‘Don’t worry. I’m fine!’

‘Becky, there’s snow on the ground,’ says Luke firmly, and drapes the coat round my shoulders. ‘Very good wedding,’ he adds.

‘Yes.’ I look up at him carefully, wondering if by any chance we can work the conversation back to what we were talking about before the service. But Luke’s gazing at Suze and Tarquin, who are now being photographed under the oak tree. Suze looks absolutely radiant, but Tarquin might as well be facing gunfire.

‘He’s a very nice chap,’ he says, nodding towards Tarquin. ‘Bit odd, but nice.’

‘Yes. He is. Luke–’

‘Would you like a glass of hot whisky?’ interrupts a waiter, coming up with a tray. ‘Or champagne?’

‘Hot whisky,’ I say gratefully. ‘Thanks.’ I take a few sips and close my eyes as the warmth spreads through my body. If only it could get down to my feet, which, to be honest, are completely freezing.

‘Bridesmaid!’ cries Suze suddenly. ‘Where’s Bex? We need you for a photograph!’

My eyes open.

‘Here!’ I shout, slipping the sheepskin coat off my shoulders. ‘Luke, hold my drink–’

I hurry through the melee and join Suze and Tarquin. And it’s funny, but now all these people are looking at me, I don’t feel cold any more. I smile my most radiant smile, and hold my flowers nicely, and link arms with Suze when the photographer tells me to, and, in be­tween shots, wave at Mum and Dad, who have pushed their way to the front of the crowd.

‘We’ll head back to the house soon,’ says Mrs Gearing, coming up to kiss Suze. ‘People are getting chilly. You can finish the pictures there.’

‘OK,’ says Suze. ‘But let’s just take some of me and Bex together.’

‘Good idea!’ says Tarquin at once, and heads off in obvious relief to talk to his father, who looks exactly like him but forty years older. The photographer takes a few shots of me and Suze beaming at each other, then pauses to reload his camera. Suze accepts a glass of whisky from a waiter and I reach surreptitiously be­hind me to see how much of my dress has unravelled.

‘Bex, listen,’ comes a voice in my ear. I look round, and Suze is gazing at me earnestly. She’s so close I can see each individual speck of glitter in her eyeshadow. ‘I need to ask you something. You don’t really want to wait ten years before you get married, do you?’

‘Well... no,’ I admit. ‘Not really.’

‘And you do think Luke’s the one? Just... honestly. Between ourselves.’

There’s a long pause. Behind me I can hear someone saying, ‘Of course, our house is fairly modern. Eighteen fifty-three, I think it was built–’

‘Yes,’ I say eventually, feeling a deep pink rising through my cheeks. ‘Yes. I think he is.’

Suze looks at me searchingly for a few moments longer – then abruptly seems to come to a decision. ‘Right!’ she says, putting down her whisky. ‘I’m going to throw my bouquet.’

‘What?’ I stare at her in bewilderment. ‘Suze, don’t be stupid. You can’t throw your bouquet yet!’

‘Yes I can! I can throw it when I like.’

‘But you’re supposed to throw it when you leave for your honeymoon!’

‘I don’t care,’ says Suze obstinately. ‘I can’t wait any longer. I’m going to throw it now.’

‘But you’re supposed to do it at the end!’

‘Who’s the bride? You or me? If I wait till the end it won’t be any fun! Now, stand over there.’ She points with an imperious hand to a small mound of snowy grass. ‘And put your flowers down. You’ll never catch it if you’re holding things! Tarkie?’ She raises her voice. ‘I’m going to throw my bouquet now, OK?’

‘OK!’ Tarquin calls back cheerfully. ‘Good idea.’

‘Go on, Bex!’

‘Honestly! I don’t even want to catch it!’ I say, slightly grumpily.

But I suppose I am the only bridesmaid – so I put my flowers down on the grass, and go and stand on the mound as instructed.

‘I want a picture of this,’ Suze is saying to the photographer. ‘And where’s Luke?’

The slightly weird thing is, no-one else is coming with me. Everyone else has melted away. Suddenly I notice that Tarquin and his best man are going around murmuring in people’s ears, and gradually all the guests are turning to me with bright, expectant faces.

‘Ready, Bex?’ calls Suze.

‘Wait!’ I cry. ‘You haven’t got enough people! There should be lots of us, all standing together...’

I feel so stupid, up here on my own. Honestly, Suze is doing this all wrong. Hasn’t she been to any weddings?

‘Wait, Suze!’ I cry again, but it’s too late.

‘Catch, Bex!’ she yells. ‘Caaatch!’

The bouquet comes looping high through the air, and I have to jump slightly to catch it. It’s bigger and heavier than I expected, and for a moment I just stare dazedly at it, half secretly delighted, and half com­pletely furious with Suze.

And then my eyes focus. And I see the little envelope. To Becky.

An envelope addressed to me in Suze’s bouquet?

I look up bewilderedly at Suze, and with a shining face she nods towards the envelope.

With trembling fingers, I open the card. There's something lumpy inside. It’s... It’s a ring, all wrapped up in cotton wool. There’s a message, in Luke’s handwriting. And it says...

It says Will You...

I stare at it in disbelief, trying to keep control of myself, but the world is shimmering, and blood is pounding through my head.

I look up dazedly, and there’s Luke, coming forward through the people, his face serious but his eyes warm.

‘Becky–’ he begins, and there’s a tiny intake of breath around the churchyard. ‘Will you–’

‘Yes! Yeeeesssss!’ I hear the joyful sound ripping through the air before I even realize I’ve opened my mouth. God, I’m so charged up with emotion, my voice doesn’t even sound like mine. In fact, it sounds more like...

Mum.

I don’t believe it.

As I whip round, she claps a hand over her mouth in horror. ‘Sorry!’ she whispers, and a ripple of laughter runs round the crowd.

‘Mrs Bloomwood, I’d be honoured,’ says Luke, his eyes crinkling into a smile. ‘But I believe you’re already taken.’

Then he looks at me again.

‘Becky, if I had to wait five years, then I would. Or eight – or even ten.’ He pauses, and there’s complete silence except for a tiny gust of wind, blowing confetti about the churchyard. ‘But I hope that one day – preferably rather sooner than that – you’ll do me the honour of marrying me?’

My throat’s so tight, I can’t speak. I give a tiny nod, and Luke takes my hand. He unfolds my fingers and takes out the ring. My heart is hammering. Luke wants to marry me. He must have been planning this all along. Without saying a thing.

I look at the ring, and feel my eyes start to blur. It’s an antique diamond ring, set in gold, with tiny curved claws. I’ve never seen another quite like it. It’s perfect.

‘May I?’

‘Yes,’ I whisper, and watch as he slides it onto my finger. He looks at me again, his eyes more tender than I’ve ever seen them, and kisses me, and the cheering starts.

I don’t believe it. I’m engaged.

 

Extract 3

 

OK. Now, I may be engaged, but I’m not going to get carried away.

No way.

I know some girls go mad, planning the biggest wedding in the universe and thinking about nothing else... but that’s not going to be me. I’m not going to let this take over my life. I mean, let’s get our priorities right here. The most important thing is not the dress, or the shoes, or what kind of flowers we have, is it? It’s making the promise of lifelong commitment. It’s pledging our troth to one another.

I pause, halfway through putting on my moisturizer, and gaze at my reflection in my old bedroom mirror. ‘I, Becky,’ I murmur solemnly. ‘I, Rebecca. Take thee, Luke.’

Those ancient words just send a shiver up your spine, don’t they?

‘To be thine... mine... husband. For better, for richer...’

I break off with a puzzled frown. That doesn’t sound quite right. Still, I can learn it properly nearer the time. The point is, the vows are what matters, nothing else. We don’t have to go over the top. Just a simple, elegant ceremony. No fuss, no hoopla. I mean, Romeo and Juliet didn’t need a big wedding with sugared almonds and vol au vents, did they?

Maybe we should even get married in secret, like they did! Suddenly I’m gripped by a vision of Luke and me kneeling before an Italian priest in the dead of night, in some tiny stone chapel. God, that would be romantic. And then somehow Luke would think I was dead, and he’d commit suicide, and so would I, and it would be incredibly tragic, and everyone would say we did it for love and the whole world should learn from our example...

‘Karaoke?’ Luke’s voice outside the bedroom door brings me back to reality. ‘Well, it’s certainly a possi­bility...’

The door opens and he holds out a cup of coffee to me. He and I have been staying here at my parents’ house since Suze’s wedding, and when I left the breakfast table he was refereeing my parents as they argued over whether or not the moon landings actually happened.

‘Your mother’s already found a possible date for the wedding,’ he says. ‘What do you think about the–’

‘Luke!’ I put up a hand to stop him. ‘Luke. Let’s just take this one step at a time, shall we?’ I give him a kind smile. ‘I mean, we’ve only just got engaged. Let’s just get our heads round that first. There’s no need to dash into setting dates.’

I glance into the mirror, feeling quite grown-up and proud of myself. For once in my life I’m not rushing. I’m not getting overexcited.

‘You’re right,’ says Luke after a pause. ‘No, you are right. And the date your mother suggested would be a terrible hurry.’

‘Really?’ I take a thoughtful sip of coffee. ‘So... just out of interest... when was it?’

‘June 22nd. This year.’ He shakes his head. ‘Crazy, really. It’s only a few months away.’

‘Madness!’ I say, rolling my eyes. ‘I mean, there’s no hurry, is there?’

June 22nd. Honestly! What is Mum like?

Although... I suppose a summer wedding would be nice in theory.

There’s nothing actually stopping us getting married this year.

And if we did make it June, I could start looking at wedding dresses straight away. I could start trying on tiaras. I could start reading Brides! Yes!

‘On the other hand,’ I add casually, ‘there’s no real reason to delay, is there? I mean, now we’ve decided, in one sense, we might as well just... do it. Why hang around?’

‘Are you sure? Becky, I don’t want you to feel pressured–’

‘It’s OK. I’m quite sure. Let’s get married in June!’

We’re getting married! Soon! Hooray! I catch sight of myself in the mirror again – and a huge, exhilarated beam has spread itself over my face.

‘So I’ll tell my mother the 22nd.’ Luke interrupts my thoughts. ‘I know she’ll be delighted.’ He glances at his watch. ‘In fact, I must get going.’

‘Oh yes,’ I say, trying to muster some enthusiasm. ‘Yes, you don’t want to be late for her, do you?’

Luke’s spending the day with his mother Elinor, who is over in London on her way to Switzerland. The official version is that she’s going there to stay with some old friends and ‘enjoy the mountain air’. Of course everyone knows she’s really going to have her face lifted for the zillionth time.

Then this afternoon, Mum, Dad and I are going up to meet them for tea at Claridges. Everyone has been exclaiming about what a lucky coincidence it is that Elinor’s over here, so the two families will be able to meet. But every time I think about it, my stomach turns over. I wouldn’t mind if it was Luke’s real parents – his dad and stepmum, who are really lovely and live in Devon. But they’ve just gone out to Australia, where Luke’s half-sister has moved, and they probably won’t be back until just before the wedding. So all we’re left with to represent Luke is Elinor.

Elinor Sherman. My future mother-in-law.

OK... let’s not think about that. Let’s just get through today.

‘Luke...’ I pause, trying to find the right words. ‘How do you think it’ll be? Our parents meeting for the first time? You know – your mother... and my mother... I mean, they’re not exactly similar, are they?’

‘It’ll be fine! They’ll get on wonderfully, I’m sure.’

He honestly hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about.

I know it’s a good thing that Luke adores his mother. I know sons should love their mothers. And I know he hardly ever saw her when he was tiny, and he’s trying to make up for lost time... but still. How can he be so devoted to Elinor?

As I arrive downstairs in the kitchen, Mum’s tidying up the breakfast things with one hand and holding the portable phone in the other.

‘Yes,’ she’s saying. ‘That’s right. Bloomwood, B-l-o-o-m-w-o-o-d. Of Oxshott, Surrey, And you’ll fax that over? Thank you. Good.’ She puts away the phone and beams at me. ‘That’s the announcement gone in the Surrey Post.’

‘Another announcement? Mum, how many have you done?’

‘Just the standard number!’ she says defensively. ‘The Times, the Telegraph, the Oxshott Herald and the Esher Gazette.’

‘And the Surrey Post.’

‘Yes. So only... five.’

‘Five!’

‘Becky, you only get married once!’ says Mum.

‘I know. But honestly...’

‘Now, listen.’ Mum is rather pink in the face. ‘You’re our only daughter, Becky, and we’re not going to spare any expense. We want you to have the wedding of your dreams. Whether it’s the announcements, or the flowers or a horse and carriage like Suzie had... we want you to have it.’

‘Mum, I wanted to talk to you about that,’ I say awkwardly. ‘Luke and I will contribute to the cost–’

‘Nonsense!’ says Mum briskly. ‘We wouldn’t hear of it.’

‘But–’

‘We’ve always hoped we'd be paying for a wedding one day. We’ve been putting money aside especially, for a few years now.’

‘Really?’ I stare at her, feeling a sudden swell of emotion. Mum and Dad have been saving all this time, and they never said a word. ‘I... I had no idea.’

‘Yes, well. We weren’t going to tell you, were we? Now!’ Mum snaps back into businesslike mode. ‘Did Luke tell you we’ve found a date? You know, it wasn’t easy! Everywhere’s booked up. But I’ve spoken to Peter at the church, he’s had a cancellation, and he can fit us in at three on that Saturday. Otherwise it would be a question of waiting until November.’

‘November?’ I pull a face. ‘That’s not very weddingy.’

‘Exactly. So I told him to pencil it in. I’ve put it on the calendar, look.’

I reach for the fridge calendar, which has a different recipe using Nescafe for each month. And sure enough, as I flip over to June, there’s a big felt-tipped ‘BECKY’S WEDDING’.

I stare at it, feeling slightly weird. It really is happen­ing. I really am going to get married. It’s not just pretend.

‘And I’ve been having a few ideas about the marquee,’ adds Mum. ‘I saw a beautiful striped one in a magazine somewhere, and I thought, “I must show that to Becky” ’.

She reaches behind her and hauls out a stack of glossy magazines. Brides. Modern Bride. Wedding and Home. All shiny and succulent and inviting, like a plate of sticky doughnuts.

‘Gosh!’ I say, forcing myself not to reach greedily for one. ‘I haven’t read any of those bridal things yet. I don’t even know what they’re like!’

‘Neither have I,’ says Mum at once, as she flicks expertly through an issue of Wedding and Home. ‘Not properly. I’ve just glanced through for the odd idea. I mean, they’re really just adverts mainly...’

I hesitate, my fingers running over the cover of You and Your Wedding. I can hardly believe I’m actually allowed to read these now. Openly! I don’t have to sidle up to the rack and take tiny, guilty peeks, like stuffing a biscuit into my mouth and all the time wondering if someone will see me.

The habit’s so ingrained I almost can’t break it. Even though I’ve got an engagement ring on my finger now, I find myself pretending I’m not interested.

‘I suppose it makes sense to have a very brief look,’ I say casually. ‘You know, just for basic information... just to be aware what’s available...’

Oh sod it. Mum’s not even listening, anyway, so I might as well give up pretending I’m not going to read every single one of these magazines avidly from cover to cover. Happily I sink into a chair and reach for Brides, and for the next ten minutes we’re both completely silent, gorging on pictures.

‘There!’ says Mum suddenly. She turns her magazine round so I can see a photograph of a billowing white and silver striped marquee. ‘Isn’t that nice?’

‘Very pretty.’ I run my gaze down interestedly to the picture of the bridesmaids’ dresses, and the bride’s bouquet... and then my eye comes to rest on the dateline.

‘Mum!’ I exclaim. ‘This is from last year! How come you were looking at wedding magazines last year!’

‘I’ve no idea!’ says Mum shiftily. ‘I must have... picked it up in a doctor’s waiting room or something. Anyway. Are you getting any ideas?’

‘Well... I don’t know,’ I say vaguely. ‘I suppose I just want something simple.’

A vision of myself in a big white dress and sparkly tiara suddenly pops into my head... my handsome prince waiting for me... cheering crowds...

OK, stop. I’m not going to go over the top. I’ve already decided that.

‘I agree,’ Mum is saying. ‘You want something elegant and tasteful. Oh look, grapes covered with gold leaf. We could do that!’ She turns a page. ‘Look, identical twin bridesmaids! Don’t they look pretty? Do you know anyone with twins, love?’

‘No,’ I say regretfully. ‘I don’t think so. Ooh, you can buy a special wedding countdown alarm clock! And a wedding organizer with matching bridal diary for those special memories. Do you think I should get one of those?’

‘Definitely,’ says Mum. ‘If you don’t, you’ll only wish you had.’ She puts down her magazine. ‘You know, Becky, one thing I will say to you is, don’t do this by half-measures. Remember, you only do it once–’

‘Hellooo?’ We both look up as there’s a tap on the back door. ‘It’s only me!’ Janice’s bright eyes look through the glass, and she gives a little wave. Janice is our next-door neighbour and I’ve known her for ever. She’s wearing a floral shirtwaister in a virulent shade of turquoise, and eyeshadow to match, and there’s a folder under her arm.

‘Janice!’ cries Mum. ‘Come on in and have a coffee.’

‘I’d love one,’ says Janice. ‘I’ve brought my Canderel.’ She comes in and gives me a hug. ‘And here’s the special girl! Becky love, congratulations!’

‘Thanks,’ I say, with a bashful grin.

‘Just look at that ring!’

‘Two carats,’ says Mum at once. ‘Antique. It’s a family heirloom.’

‘A family heirloom!’ echoes Janice breathlessly. ‘Oh Becky!’ She picks up a copy of Modern Bride and gives a wistful little sigh. ‘But how are you going to organize the wedding, living in New York?’

‘Becky doesn’t have to worry about a thing,’ says Mum firmly. ‘I can do it all. It’s traditional, anyway.’

‘Well, you know where I am if you want any help,’ says Janice. ‘Have you set a date yet?’

‘June 22nd,’ says Mum over the shriek of the coffee grinder. ‘Three o’clock at St Mary’s.’

‘Three o’clock!’ says Janice. ‘Lovely.’ She puts down the magazine and gives me a suddenly earnest look. ‘Now Becky, there’s something I want to say. To both of you.’

‘Oh yes?’ I say, slightly apprehensively, and Mum puts down the cafetiere. Janice takes a deep breath.

‘It would give me great pleasure to do your wedding make-up. You and the whole bridal party.’

‘Janice!’ exclaims my mother in delight. ‘What a kind thought! Think of that, Becky. Professional make-up!’

‘Er... fantastic!’

‘I’ve learned such a lot on my course, all the tricks of the trade. I’ve got a whole book full of photographs you can browse through, to choose your style. In fact I’ve brought it with me, look!’ Janice opens the folder and begins to flip over laminated cards of women who look as though they had their make-up applied during the Seventies. ‘This look is called Prom Princess, for the younger face,’ she says breathlessly. ‘Now, here we have Radiant Spring Bride, with extra-waterproof mascara... Or Cleopatra, if you wanted something more dramatic?’

‘Great!’ I say feebly. ‘Perhaps I’ll have a look nearer the time...’

There is no way in a million years I’m letting Janice near my face.

‘And you’ll be getting Wendy to do the cake, will you?’ asks Janice as Mum puts a cup of coffee in front of her.

‘Oh, no question,’ says Mum. ‘Wendy Prince, who lives on Maybury Avenue,’ she adds to me. ‘You remember, she did Dad’s retirement cake with the lawnmower on it? The things that woman can do with a nozzle!’

I remember that cake. The icing was lurid green and the lawnmower was made out of a painted matchbox. You could still see ‘Swan’ through the green.

‘You know, there are some really amazing wedding cakes in here,’ I say, tentatively holding out an issue of Brides. ‘From this special place in London. Maybe we could go and have a look.’

‘Oh, but love, we have to ask Wendy!’ says Mum in surprise. ‘She’d be devastated if we didn’t. You know her husband's just had a stroke? Those sugar roses are what’s keeping her going.’

‘Oh, right,’ I say, putting down the magazine guiltily. ‘I didn’t know. Well... OK then. I’m sure it’ll be lovely.’

‘We were very pleased with Tom and Lucy’s wedding cake.’ Janice sighs. ‘We’ve saved the top tier for the first christening. You know, they’re with us at the moment. They’ll be round to offer their congratulations, I’m sure. Can you believe, they’ve been married a year and a half, already!’

‘Have they?’ Mum takes a sip of coffee and gives a brief smile.

Tom and Lucy’s wedding is still a very slightly sore point in our family. I mean, we love Janice and Martin to bits so we never say anything, but, to be honest, we’re none of us very keen on Lucy.

‘Are there any signs of them...’ Mum makes a vague, euphemistic gesture. ‘Starting a family,’ she adds in a whisper.

‘Not yet.’ Janice’s smile flickers for a moment. ‘Martin and I think they probably want to enjoy each other first. They’re such a happy young couple. They just dote on each other! And of course, Lucy’s got her career–’

‘I suppose so,’ says Mum consideringly. ‘Although it doesn’t do to wait too long–’

‘Well, I know,’ agrees Janice. They both turn to look at me – and suddenly I realize what they’re driving at.

For God’s sake, I’ve only been engaged a day! Give me a chance!

***

I hurry back into the kitchen, dying to tell Mum what I just heard, but it’s empty.

‘Hey, Mum!’ I call. ‘I just saw Tom and Lucy!’

I run up the stairs, and Mum is halfway down the loft ladder, pulling a big white squashy bundle all wrapped up in plastic.

‘What’s that?’ I ask, helping her to get it down.

‘Don’t say anything,’ she says, with suppressed excitement. ‘Just...’ Her hands are trembling as she unzips the plastic cover. ‘Just... look!’

‘It’s your wedding dress!’ I say in astonishment as she pulls out the white frothy lace. ‘I didn’t know you still had that!’

‘Of course I’ve still got it!’ She brushes away some sheets of tissue paper. ‘Thirty years old, but still as good as new. Now Becky, it’s only a thought...’

‘What’s a thought?’ I say, helping her to shake out the train.

‘It might not even fit you…’

Slowly I look up at her. Oh my God. She’s serious.

‘Actually, I don’t think it will,’ I say, trying to sound casual. ‘I’m sure you were much thinner than me! And... shorter.’

‘But we’re the same height!’ says Mum in puzzle­ment. ‘Oh go on, try it, Becky!’

Five minutes later I stare at myself in the mirror in Mum’s bedroom. I look like a sausage roll in layered frills. The bodice is tight and lacy, with ruffled sleeves and a ruffled neckline. It’s tight down to my hips where there are more ruffles, and then it fans out into a tiered train.

I have never worn anything less flattering in my life.

‘Oh Becky!’ I look up – and, to my horror, Mum’s in tears. ‘I'm so silly!’ she says, laughing and brushing at her eyes. ‘It’s just... my little girl, in the dress I wore...’

‘Oh Mum...’ Impulsively I give her a hug. ‘It’s a... a really lovely dress...’

How exactly do I add, but I’m not wearing it?

‘And it fits you perfectly,’ gulps Mum, and rummages for a tissue. ‘But it’s your decision.’ She blows her nose. ‘If you don’t think it suits you... just say so. I won’t mind.’

‘I... well...’

Oh God.

‘I’ll think about it,’ I manage at last, and give Mum a lame smile.

We put the wedding dress back in its bag, and have some sandwiches for lunch, and watch an old episode of Changing Rooms on the new cable telly Mum and Dad have had installed. And then, although it’s a bit early, I go upstairs and start getting ready to see Elinor. Luke’s mother is one of those Manhattan women who always look completely and utterly immaculate, and today of all days I want to match her in the smartness stakes.

I put on the DKNY suit I bought myself for Christ­mas, brand new tights and my new Prada sample sale shoes. Then I survey my appearance carefully, looking all over for specks or creases. I’m not going to be caught out this time. I’m not going to have a single stray thread or crumpled bit which her beady X-ray eyes can zoom in on.

I’ve just about decided that I look OK, when Mum comes bustling into my bedroom. She’s dressed smartly in a purple Windsmoor suit and her face is glowing with anticipation.

‘How do I look?’ she says with a little laugh. ‘Smart enough for Claridges?’

‘You look lovely, Mum! That colour really suits you. Let me just...’

I reach for a tissue, dampen it under the tap and wipe at her cheeks where she’s copied Janice’s badger-look approach to blusher.

‘There. Perfect.’

‘Thank you, darling!’ Mum peers at herself in the wardrobe mirror. ‘Well, this will be nice. Meeting Luke’s mother at last.’

‘Mmm,’ I say non-committally.

‘I expect we’ll get to be quite good friends! What with getting together over the wedding preparations...’

 

Extract 4

 

I arrive at La Goulue at one o’clock on the dot, but Elinor isn’t there yet. I’m shown to a table and sip my mineral water while I wait for her. The place is busy, as it always is at this time, mostly with smartly dressed women. All around me is chatter and the gleam of expensive teeth and jewels, and I take the opportunity to eavesdrop shamelessly. At the next table to mine, a woman wearing heavy eyeliner and an enormous brooch is saying emphatically, ‘You simply cannot furnish an apartment these days under one hundred thousand dollars.’

‘So I said to Edgar, “I am a human being,” ’ says a red-haired girl on my other side. Her friend chews on a celery stick and looks at her with bright, avid eyes.

‘So what did he say?’

‘One room, you’re talking thirty thousand.’

‘He said, “Hilary–” ’

‘Rebecca?’

I look up, a bit annoyed to miss what Edgar said, to see Elinor approaching the table, wearing a cream jacket with large black buttons, and carrying a match­ing clutch bag. To my surprise she’s not alone. A woman with a shiny chestnut bob, wearing a navy blue suit and holding a large Coach bag, is with her.

‘Rebecca, may I present Robyn de Bendern,’ says Elinor. ‘One of New York’s finest wedding planners.’

‘Oh,’ I say, taken aback. ‘Well... Hello!’

‘Rebecca,’ says Robyn, taking both my hands and gazing intently into my eyes. ‘We meet at last. I’m so delighted to meet you. So delighted!’

‘Me too!’ I say, trying to match her tone while simultaneously racking my brain. Did Elinor mention meeting a wedding planner? Am I supposed to know about this?

‘Such a pretty face!’ says Robyn, without letting go of my hands. She’s taking in every inch of me, and I find myself reciprocating. She looks in her forties, immaculately made up with bright hazel eyes, sharp cheekbones, and a wide smile exposing a row of perfect teeth. Her air of enthusiasm is infectious, but her eyes are appraising as she takes a step back and sweeps over the rest of me.

‘Such a young, fresh look. My dear, you’ll make a stunning bride. Do you know yet what you’ll be wearing on the day?’

‘Er... a wedding dress?’ I say stupidly, and Robyn bursts into peals of laughter.

‘That humour!’ she cries. ‘You British girls! You were quite right,’ she adds to Elinor, who gives a gracious nod.

Elinor was right? What about?

Have they been talking about me?

‘Thanks!’ I say, trying to take an unobtrusive step backwards. ‘Shall we...’ I nod towards the table.

‘Let’s!’ says Robyn, as though I’ve made the most genius suggestion she’s ever heard. ‘Let’s do that.’ As she sits down I notice she’s wearing a brooch of two intertwined wedding rings, encrusted with diamonds.

‘You like this?’ says Robyn. ‘The Gilbrooks gave it to me after I planned their daughter’s wedding. Now that was a drama! Poor Bitty Gilbrook’s nail broke at the last minute and we had to fly her manicurist in by helicopter…’ She pauses as though lost in memories, then snaps to. ‘So you’re the lucky girl!’ She beams at me and I can’t help beaming back. ‘Lucky, lucky girl. Tell me, are you enjoying every moment?’

‘Well–’

‘What I always say is, the first week after you’re aged is the most precious time of all. You have to savour it.’

‘Actually, it s been a couple or weeks now–’

‘Savour it,’ says Robyn, lifting a finger. ‘Wallow in it. What I always say is, no-one else can have those memories for you.’

‘Well, OK!’ I say with a grin. ‘I’ll... wallow in it!’

‘Before we start,’ says Elinor, ‘I must give you one of these.’ She reaches into her bag and puts an invitation down on the table. What’s this?

Mrs Elinor Sherman requests the pleasure of your company…

Wow. Elinor’s holding an engagement party! For us!

‘Gosh!’ I look up. ‘Well... thanks. I didn’t know we were having an engagement party!’

‘I discussed the matter with Luke.’

‘Really? He never mentioned it to me.’

‘It must have slipped his mind.’ Elinor gives me a cold, gracious smile. ‘I will have a stack of these delivered to your apartment and you can invite some friends of your own. Say... ten.’

‘Well... er... thanks.’

‘Now, shall we have some champagne, to celebrate?’

‘What a lovely idea!’ says Robyn. ‘What I always say is, if you can’t celebrate a wedding, what can you celebrate?’ She gives me a twinkling smile and I smile back. I’m warming to this woman. But I still don’t know what she’s doing here.

‘Erm... I was just wondering, Robyn,’ I say hesi­tantly. ‘Are you here in a... professional capacity?’

‘Oh no. No, no, nooooo.’ Robyn shakes her head. ‘It’s not a profession. It’s a calling. The hours I put in... the sheer love I put into my job...’

‘Right.’ I glance uncertainly at Elinor. ‘Well, the thing is – I’m not sure I’m going to need any help. Although it’s very kind of you–’

‘No help?’ Robyn throws back her head and peals with laughter. ‘You’re not going to need any help? Please! Do you know how much organization a wed­ding takes?’

‘Well–’

‘Have you ever done it before?’

‘No, but–’

‘A lot of girls think your way,’ says Robyn, nodding. ‘Do you know who those girls are?’

‘Um–’

‘They’re the girls who end up weeping into their wedding cake, because they’re too stressed out to enjoy the fun! Do you want to be those girls?’

‘No!’ I say in alarm.

‘Right! Of course you don’t!’ She sits back, looking like a teacher whose class has finally cracked two plus two. ‘Rebecca, I will take that strain off you. I will take on the headaches, the hard work, the sheer stress of the situation... Ah, here’s the champagne!’

Maybe she has got a point, I think, as a waiter pours champagne into three flutes. Maybe it would be a good idea to get a little extra help. Although how exactly she’ll co-ordinate with Mum...

‘I will become your best friend, Becky,’ Robyn’s saying, beaming at me. ‘By the time of your wedding, I’ll know you better than your best friend does. People call my methods unorthodox. But when they see the results...’

‘Robyn is unparalleled in this city,’ says Elinor, taking a sip of champagne, and Robyn gives a modest smile.

‘So let’s start with the basics,’ she says, and takes out a large, leather-bound notebook. ‘The wedding’s on June 22nd...’

‘Yes.’

‘Rebecca and Luke.’

‘Yes.’

‘At the Plaza Hotel...’

‘What?’ I stare at her. ‘No, that’s not–’

‘I’m assuming that both the ceremony and reception will take place there?’ She looks up at Elinor.

‘I think so,’ says Elinor, nodding. ‘Much easier that way.’

‘Excuse me–’

‘So – the ceremony in the Terrace Room?’ She scribbles for a moment. ‘And then the reception in the Ballroom. Lovely. And how many?’

‘Wait a minute!’ I say, planting a hand on her note­book. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Your wedding,’ says Elinor. ‘To my son.’

‘At the Plaza Hotel,’ says Robyn with a beam. ‘I don’t need to tell you how lucky you are, getting the date you wanted! Luckily it was a client of mine who made the cancellation, so I was able to snap it right up for you then and there...’

‘I’m not getting married at the Plaza Hotel!’

Robyn looks sharply at Elinor, concern creasing her brow.

‘I thought you’d spoken to John Ferguson?’

‘I have,’ replies Elinor crisply. ‘I spoke with him yesterday.’

‘Good! Because as you know, we’re on a very tight timescale. A Plaza wedding in less than five months? There are some wedding planners who would simply say, impossible! I am not that wedding planner. I did a wedding once in three days. Three days! Of course, that was on a beach, so it was a little different–’

‘What do you mean, the Plaza’s booked?’ I turn in my chair. ‘Elinor, we’re getting married in Oxshott. You know we are.’

‘Oxshott?’ Robyn wrinkles her brow. ‘I don’t know it. Is it upstate?’

‘Some provisional arrangements have been made,’ says Elinor dismissively. ‘They can easily be cancelled.’

‘They’re not provisional!’ I stare at Elinor in fury. ‘And they can’t be cancelled!’

‘You know, I sense some tension here,’ says Robyn brightly. ‘So I’ll just go make a few calls...’ She picks up her mobile and moves off to the side of the restaurant, and Elinor and I are left glaring at each other. I take a deep breath, trying to stay calm.

‘Elinor, I’m not getting married in New York. I’m getting married at home. Mum’s already started organizing it. You know she has!’

‘You are not getting married in some unknown back­yard in England,’ says Elinor crisply. ‘Do you know who Luke is? Do you know who I am?’

‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

‘For someone with a modicum of intelligence, you’re very naive.’ Elinor takes a sip of champagne. ‘This is the most important social event in all our lives. It must be done properly. Lavishly. The Plaza is unsurpassed for weddings. You must be aware of that.’

‘But Mum’s already started planning!’

‘Then she can stop planning. Rebecca, your mother will be grateful to have the wedding taken off her hands. It goes without saying, I will fund the entire event. She can attend as a guest.’

‘She won’t want to attend as some guest! It’s her daughter’s wedding! She wants to be the hostess! She wants to organize it!’

‘So!’ A cheerful voice interrupts us. ‘Are we re­solved?’ Robyn appears back at the table, putting her mobile phone away.

‘I’ve booked an appointment for us to see the Terrace Room after lunch,’ says Elinor frostily. ‘I would be glad if you would at least be courteous enough to come and view it with us?’

I stare at her mutinously, tempted to throw down my napkin and say no way. I can’t believe Luke knows anything about this. In fact, I feel like ringing him up right now, and telling him exactly what I think.

But then I remember he’s at a board lunch... and I also remember him asking me to give his mother a chance. Well, fine. I’ll give her a chance. I’ll go along and see the room, and walk around and nod politely and say nothing. And then tonight I’ll tell her equally politely that I’m still getting married in Oxshott.

‘All right,’ I say at last.

‘Good.’ Elinors mouth moves a few millimetres. ‘Shall we order?’

 

Extract 5

 

Let’s get serious here. Of course I’m not going to get married in New York. Of course I’m not. It’s un­thinkable. I’m going to get married at home, just like I planned, with a nice marquee in the garden. There’s absolutely no reason to change my plans. None at all.

Except...

Oh God. Maybe, just maybe, Elinor has a point.

I mean, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, isn’t it? It’s not like a birthday, or Christmas. You only have one wedding day. So if you have the chance to have it somewhere really amazing, maybe you should just grab it.

And it would be amazing. Walking down that aisle in front of four hundred people, to the sound of a string orchestra, with fantastic flower arrangements everywhere. And then sitting down to some incredible dinner. Robyn gave me some sample dinner menus, and I mean, the food! Rosace of Maine Lobster... Fowl Consomme with Quenelles of Pheasant... Wild Rice with Pignoli Nuts...

I mean, I know Oxshott and Ashtead Quality Caterers are good – but I’m not sure they even know what a Pignoli nut is. (To be honest, I don’t either. But that’s not the point.)

And maybe Elinor’s right, Mum would be grateful if we took the whole thing off her hands. Yes. Maybe she s finding the organization more of a strain than she’s letting on. Maybe she’s already wishing she hadn’t volunteered to do it all. Whereas if we get married at the Plaza, she won’t have to do anything, just turn up. Plus Mum and Dad wouldn’t have to pay for a thing... I mean, it would be doing them a favour!

So, as I’m walking back to Barneys, I take out my cellphone and dial my parents’ number. As Mum answers I can hear the closing music of Crimewatch in the background, and I suddenly feel a wave of nostalgia for home. I can just imagine Mum and Dad sitting there, with the curtains drawn and the gas-effect fire flickering cosily.

‘Hi, Mum?’

‘Becky!’ exclaims Mum. ‘I’m so glad you’ve phoned! I’ve been trying to fax you through some menus from the catering company, but your machine won’t work. Dad says have you checked your paper roll recently?’

‘Urn... I don’t know. Listen, Mum–’

‘And listen to this! Janice’s sister-in-law knows some­one who works at a balloon-printing company! She says if we order two hundred or more balloons we can have the helium for free!’

‘Great! Look, I was just thinking about the wedding, actually...’

Why do I suddenly feel nervous?

‘Oh yes? Graham, turn the television down.’

‘It was just occurring to me... just as a possi­bility...’ I give a shrill laugh, ‘that Luke and I could get married in America!’

‘America?’ There’s a long pause. ‘What do you mean, America?’

‘It was just a thought! You know, since Luke and I live here already...’

‘You’ve lived there for one year, Becky!’ Mum sounds quite shocked. ‘This is your home!’

‘Well yes... but I was just thinking...’ I say feebly.

Somehow I was hoping that Mum would say, ‘What a fantastic idea!’ and make it really easy.

‘How would we organize a wedding in America?’

‘I don’t know!’ I swallow. ‘Maybe we could have it at a... a big hotel.’

‘A hotel?’ Mum sounds as though I’ve gone mad.

‘And maybe Elinor would help...’ I plough on. ‘I’m sure she’d contribute... you know, if it was more expensive...’

There’s a sharp intake of breath at the other end of the phone and I wince. Damn. I should never have mentioned Elinor.

‘Yes, well. We don’t want her contributions, thank you. We can manage very well by ourselves. Is this Elinor’s idea, then, a hotel? Does she think we can’t put on a nice wedding?’

‘No!’ I say hastily. ‘It’s just... it’s nothing! I was just...’

‘Dad says if she’s so keen on hotels, she can stay at one instead of with us.’

Oh God. I’m just making everything worse.

‘Look... forget it. It was a silly idea.’ I rub my face. ‘So – how are the plans going?’

We chat for a few minutes more, and I hear all about the nice man from the marquee company and how his quote was very reasonable, and how his son was at school with Cousin Alex, isn’t it a small world? By the end of our conversation Mum sounds completely mollified and all talk of American hotels has been forgotten.

I say goodbye, turn off the phone and exhale sharply. Right. Well, that’s decided. I might as well call Elinor and tell her. No point in hanging around.

I turn on my mobile again, dial two digits and then stop.

On the other hand – is there any point in rushing straight into a decision?

I mean, you never know. Maybe Mum and Dad will talk it over this evening and change their minds. Maybe they’ll come out to have a look. Maybe if they actually saw the Plaza... if they saw how magical it was all going to be... how luxurious... how glamorous...

 

Extract 6

 

‘Hey, guess what,’ I say, suddenly remember­ing. ‘Suze and I are going to choose a wedding dress tomorrow!’

Luke looks at me in surprise.

‘I thought you were going to wear your mother’s wedding dress.’

‘Yes. Well.’ I pull a sorrowful face. ‘The thing is, there was this awful accident...’

And all I can say is thank God. Thank God for Suze and her well-aimed cup of coffee.

As we approach the window of Dream Dress on Madison Avenue the next morning, I suddenly realize what Mum was asking me to do. How could she want me to wear her frilly monstrosity, instead of one of these gorgeous, amazing, Oscar-winner creations? We open the door and silently look around the hushed showroom, with its champagne-coloured carpet and painted trompe l’oeil clouds on the ceiling – and hang­ing in gleaming, glittery, sheeny rows on two sides of the room, wedding dresses. I can feel overexcitement rising through me like a fountain. Any minute I might giggle out loud.

‘Rebecca!’ Cynthia has spotted us and is coming forward. ‘I’m so glad you came. Welcome to Dream Dress, where our motto is–’

‘Ooh, I bet I know!’ interrupts Suze. ‘Is it “Live out your dream at Dream Dress”?’

‘No. It’s not.’ Cynthia smiles.

‘Is it “Dreams come true at Dream Dress”?’

‘No.’ Cynthia’s smile tightens slightly. ‘It’s “We’ll find your Dream Dress”.’

‘Oh, lovely!’ Suze nods politely. ‘I thought mine were better,’ she whispers in my ear.

Cynthia ushers us into the hushed room and seats us on a cream sofa. ‘I’ll be with you in a moment,’ she says pleasantly. ‘Have a browse through some magazines meanwhile.’ Suze and I grin excitedly at each other – then she reaches for Contemporary Bride, and I pick up Martha Stewart Weddings.

God, I adore Martha Stewart Weddings.

Secretly, I want to BE Martha Stewart Weddings. I just want to crawl inside the pages with all those beautiful people getting married in Nantucket and South Carolina and riding to the chapel on horses and making their own place-card holders out of frosted russet apples.

I stare at a picture of a wholesome-looking couple standing in a poppy field against a staggeringly beautiful backdrop of mountains. You know, maybe we should get married in a poppy field too, and I could have barley twined round my hair and Luke could make us a loving seat with his own bare hands because his family has worked in woodcrafting for six gener­ations. Then we’d ride back to the house in an old country wagon–

‘What’s “French white-glove service”?’ says Suze, peering puzzledly at an ad.

‘I dunno.’ I glance up dazedly. ‘Hey Suze, look at this. Shall I make my own bouquet?’

‘Do what?’

‘Look!’ I point to the page. ‘You can make your own flowers out of crepe paper for an imaginative and individual bouquet.’

‘You? Make paper flowers?’

‘I could do!’ I say, slightly nettled by her tone. ‘I’m a very creative person, you know.’

‘And what if it rains?’

‘It won’t rain–’ I stop myself abruptly.

I was about to say, ‘It won’t rain in the Plaza.’

‘I just… know it won’t rain,’ I say instead, and quickly turn a page. ‘Ooh, look at those shoes!’

‘Ladies! Let’s begin.’ Cynthia has reappeared, a clip­board in her hand. She sits down on a small gilt chair and we both look at her attentively.

‘Nothing in your life,’ she says, ‘can prepare you for the experience of buying your wedding dress. You may think you know about buying clothes.’ Cynthia gives a little smile and shakes her head. ‘Buying a wedding dress is different. We at Dream Dress like to say, you don’t choose your dress...’

‘Your dress chooses you?’ suggests Suze.

‘No,’ says Cynthia with a flash of annoyance. ‘You don’t choose your dress,’ she repeats, turning to me, ‘you meet your dress. You’ve met your man... now it’s time to meet your dress. And let me assure you, there is a dress waiting for you. It might be the first dress you try on.’ Cynthia gestures to a halter-neck sheath hanging up nearby. ‘It might be the twentieth. But when you put on the right dress... it’ll hit you here.’ She clasps her solar plexus. ‘It’s like falling in love. You’ll know.’

‘Really?’ I look around, feeling tentacles of excite­ment. ‘How will I know?’

‘Let’s just say... you’ll know.’ She gives me a wise smile. ‘Have you had any ideas at all yet?’

‘Well, obviously I’ve had a few thoughts...’

‘Good! It’s always helpful if we can narrow the search down a little. So before we start, let me ask you a few basic questions.’ She unscrews her pen. ‘Were you after something simple?’

‘Absolutely,’ I say, nodding my head. ‘Really simple and elegant. Or else quite elaborate,’ I add, catching sight of an amazing dress with roses cascading down the back.

‘Right. So... simple or elaborate...’ She scribbles on her clipboard. ‘Did you want beading or em­broidery?’

‘Maybe.’

‘OK... Now, sleeves or strapless?’

‘Possibly strapless,’ I say thoughtfully. ‘Or else sleeves.’

‘Did you want a train?’

‘Ooh yes!’

‘But you wouldn’t mind if you didn’t have a train, would you?’ puts in Suze, who is leafing through Wedding Hair. ‘I mean, you could always have one of those really long veils for the procession.’

‘That’s true. But I do like the idea of a train...’ I stare at her, gripped by a sudden thought. ‘Hey Suze, if I waited a couple of years to get married, your baby would be two – and it could hold my train up!’

‘Oh!’ Suze claps her hand over her mouth. ‘That would be so sweet! Except, what if it fell over? Or screamed?’

‘I wouldn’t mind! And we could get it a really gorgeous little outfit...’

‘If we could just get back to the subject...’ Cynthia smiles at us and surveys her clipboard. ‘So we’re after something either simple or elaborate, with sleeves or strapless, possibly with beading and/or embroidery and either with a train or without.’

‘Exactly!’ My eye follows hers around the shop. ‘But you know, I’m quite flexible.’

‘Right.’ Cynthia stares at her notes silently for a few moments. ‘Right,’ she says again. ‘Well, the only way you can know is by trying a few dresses on... so let’s get started!’

Why have I never done this before? Trying on wedding dresses is simply the most fun I’ve had ever, in my whole life. Cynthia shows me into a large fitting room with a gold and white cherub wallpaper and a big mirror and gives me a lacy basque and high satin shoes to out on – and then her assistant brings in dresses in lots of five. I try on silk chiffon sheaths with low backs, ballerina dresses with tight bodices and layers of tulle, dresses made from duchesse satin and lace, starkly plain dresses with dramatic trains, simple dresses, glittery dresses...

‘When you see the right one, you’ll know,’ Cynthia keeps saying as the assistant heaves the hangers up onto the hooks. ‘Just... keep trying.’

‘I will!’ I say happily, as I step into a strapless dress with beaded lace and a swooshy skirt. I come outside and parade around in front of Suze.

‘That’s fantastic!’ she says. ‘Even better than the one with the little straps.’

‘I know! But I still quite like that one with the lace sleeves off the shoulder...’ I stare critically at myself. ‘How many have I tried on now?’

‘That takes us up to... thirty-five,’ says Cynthia, looking at her list.

‘And how many have I marked so far as possibles?’

‘Thirty-two.’

‘Really?’ I look up in surprise. ‘Which ones didn’t I like?’

‘The two pink dresses and the coat dress.’

‘Oh no, I still quite like the coat dress. Put it down as a possible.’ I parade a bit more, then glance around the shop, trying to see if there’s anything I haven’t looked at yet. I stop in front of a rail of baby flower-girls’ dresses and sigh, slightly more heavily than I meant to. ‘God, it’s tricky, isn’t it? I mean... one dress. One.’

‘I don’t think Becky’s ever bought one thing before,’ says Suze to Cynthia. ‘It’s a bit of a culture shock.’

‘I don’t see why you can’t wear more than one. I mean, it’s supposed to be the happiest day of your life isn’t it? You should be allowed five dresses.’

‘That would be cool!’ says Suze. ‘You could have a really sweet romantic one for walking in, then a more elegant one to walk out... then one for cocktails...’

‘And a really sexy one for dancing... and another one for...’

‘For Luke to rip off you,’ says Suze, her eyes gleam­ing.

‘Ladies,’ says Cynthia, giving a little laugh. ‘Rebecca. I know it’s hard... but you are going to have to choose sometime! For a June wedding, you’re already leaving it very late.’

‘How can I be leaving it late?’ I say in astonishment. ‘I’ve only just got engaged!’

Cynthia shakes her head.

‘In wedding-dress terms, that’s late. What we recommend is that if brides think they may have a short engagement, they begin to look for a dress before they get engaged.’

‘Oh God.’ I give a gusty sigh. ‘I had no idea it was all going to be so difficult.’

‘Try on that one at the end,’ suggests Suze. ‘The one with the chiffon trumpet sleeves. You haven’t tried that, have you?’

‘Oh,’ I say, looking at it in surprise. ‘No, I haven’t.’

I carry the dress back to the fitting room, clamber out of the swooshy skirt, and step into it.

It hugs my waist, skims sleekly over my hips, and falls to the floor in a tiny, rippling train. The neckline flatters my face, and the colour is just right against my skin. It feels good. It looks good.

‘Hey,’ says Suze, sitting up as I come out. ‘Now, that’s nice.’

‘It is, isn’t it?’ I say, stepping up onto the podium.

I stare at my reflection and feel a little glow of pleasure. It’s a simple dress – but I look fantastic in it. It makes me look really thin! It makes my skin look radiant and... God, maybe this is the one!

There’s silence in the shop.

‘Do you feel it here?’ says Cynthia, clutching her stomach. ‘I don’t know! I think so!’ I give an excited laugh.

‘I think I might do!’

‘I knew it. You see? When you find the right dress, it just hits you. You can’t plan for it, you can’t work it out on paper. You just know when it’s right.’

‘I’ve found my wedding dress!’ I beam at Suze. ‘I’ve found it!’

‘At last!’ There’s a ring of relief to Cynthia’s voice. ‘Let’s all have a glass of champagne to celebrate!’

As she disappears I admire myself again. It just shows, you can’t tell. Who would have thought I’d go for trumpet sleeves?

An assistant carries past another dress and I catch sight of an embroidered silk corset bodice, tied up with ribbons.

‘Hey, that looks nice,’ I say. ‘What’s that?’

‘Never mind what that is!’ says Cynthia, returning and handing me a glass of champagne. ‘You’ve found your dress!’ She lifts her glass, but I’m still looking at the ribboned bodice.

‘Maybe I should just try that one on. Just quickly.’

‘You know what I was thinking?’ says Suze, looking up from Brides. ‘Maybe you should have a dress which isn’t a wedding dress. Like a colour!’

‘Wow!’ I stare at Suze, my imagination gripped. ‘Like red or something.’

‘Or a trouser suit!’ suggests Suze, showing me a magazine picture. ‘Don’t those look cool!’

‘But you’ve found your dress!’ chips in Cynthia, her voice slightly shrill. ‘You don’t need to look any further! This is The One!’

‘Mmm...’ I pull a tiny face. ‘You know... I’m not so sure it is.’

Cynthia stares at me and for an awful moment I think she’s going to throw the champagne at me. ‘I thought this was the dress of your dreams!’

‘It’s the dress of some of my dreams,’ I explain. ‘I have a lot of dreams. Could we put it down as another possible?’

‘Right,’ she says at last. ‘Another possible. I’ll just write that down.’

As she walks off, Suze leans back on the sofa and beams at me. ‘Oh Bex, it’s going to be so romantic! Tarkie and I went to look at the church you’re getting married in. It’s beautiful!’

‘It is nice,’ I agree, quelling an automatic wave of guilt.

Although why should I feel guilty? Nothing’s been decided yet. I haven’t definitely chosen the Plaza. We still might get married in Oxshott.

Maybe.

‘Your mum’s planning to put this gorgeous arch of roses over the gate, and bunches of roses on all the pews... and then everyone will get a rose buttonhole. She thought maybe yellow, but it depends on the other colours...’

‘Oh, right. Well, I’m not really sure yet...’ I tail off as I see the shop door opening behind me.

Robyn is coming in, dressed in a mauve suit and clutching her Coach bag. She catches my eye in the mirror and gives a little wave.

What’s Robyn doing here?

‘And then on the tables, maybe some tiny posies...’

Robyn’s heading towards us. I’m not sure I like this.

‘Hey, Suze!’ I turn with what I hope is a natural smile. ‘Why don’t you go and look at those... um... ring cushions over there?’

‘What?’ Suze stares at me as though I’ve gone mad. ‘You’re not having a ring cushion, are you? Please don’t tell me you’ve turned into an American.’

‘Well then... the tiaras. I might have one of those!’

‘Bex, what’s wrong?’

‘Nothing!’ I say brightly. ‘I just thought you might want to... oh, hi Robyn!’ As she approaches, I force myself to give her a friendly smile.

‘Becky!’ says Robyn, clasping her hands. ‘Isn’t that own beautiful? Don’t you look adorable? Is that the one, do you think?’

‘I’m not sure yet.’ My smile is so fixed, it s hurting. ‘So Robyn, how on earth did you know I’d be here? You must be telepathic!’

‘Cynthia told me you’d be coming in. She’s an old friend.’ Robyn turns to Suze. ‘And is this your chum from England?’

‘Oh… yes. Suze, Robyn, Robyn, Suze.’

‘Suze? The maid of honour herself? Oh, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Suze! You’ll look simply wonderful in–’ She stops abruptly as her gaze takes in Suze’s stomach. ‘Dear, are you expecting?’

‘I’ll have had the baby by then,’ Suze assures her.

‘Good!’ Robyn’s face relaxes. ‘As I say, you’ll look wonderful in violet!’

‘Violet?’ Suze looks confused. ‘I thought I was wear­ing blue.’

‘No, definitely violet!’

‘Bex, I’m sure your mum said–’

‘Well, anyway!’ I interrupt hurriedly. ‘Robyn, I’m a bit tied up here–’

‘I know, and I don’t want to get in your way. But since I’m here, there’s just a couple of things... Two seconds, I promise!’ She reaches into her bag and pulls out her notebook. ‘First of all, we’ve confirmed the band, and they’ll be sending over a list of numbers for you to approve. Now, what else...’ She consults her notebook.

‘Great!’ I dart a quick glance at Suze, who’s staring at Robyn with a puzzled frown. ‘You know, maybe you should just give me a call sometime, and we can talk about all this...’

‘It won’t take long! So the other thing was... we’ve scheduled in a tasting at the Plaza on the 23rd in the chef s dining room. I passed on your views on monk­ish, so they’re having a rethink on that...’ Robyn flips a Page. ‘Oh, and I still really need that guest list from you!’ She looks up and wags her finger in mock reproof ‘We’ll be needing to think about invitations before we know it! Especially for the overseas guests!’

‘OK. I’ll... I’ll get onto it,’ I mumble.

I don’t dare look at Suze.

‘Great! And I’m meeting you at Antoine’s on Monday, ten o’clock. Those cakes... you are going to swoon. Now I have to run.’ She closes her notebook and smiles at Suze. ‘Nice to meet you, Suze. See you at the wedding!’

‘See you there!’ says Suze in a too-cheerful voice. ‘Absolutely.’

The door closes behind Robyn and I swallow hard, my face still tingling.

‘So, ahm... I might as well get changed.’

I head to the fitting room without meeting Suze’s eye. A moment later, she’s in there with me. ‘Who was that?’ she says lightly, as I unzip the dress.

‘That was... Robyn! She’s nice, isn’t she?’

‘And what was she talking about?’

‘Just... wedding chit-chat... you know... Can you help me out of this corset?’

‘Why does she think you’re getting married at the Plaza?’

‘I... um... I don’t know!’

‘Yes you do! And that woman at the party!’ Suddenly Suze’s voice is as severe as she can manage. ‘Bex, what’s going on?’

‘Nothing!’

Suze grabs my shoulder.

‘Bex, stop it! You’re not getting married at the Plaza, are you?’

I stare at her, feeling my face grow hotter and hotter.

‘It’s... an option,’ I say at last.

‘What do you mean, it’s an option?’ Suze stares at me, her grip on me loosening. ‘How can it be an option?’

I adjust the dress on the hanger, playing for time, trying to stifle the guilt rising inside me. If I behave as though this is a completely normal situation, then maybe it will be.

‘It’s just that... well, Elinor’s offered to throw this really spectacular wedding for me and Luke. And I haven’t quite decided whether or not to take it up.’ I see Suze’s expression. ‘What?’

‘What do you mean “what?” ’ expostulates Suze. ‘What about a) your mum’s already organizing you a wedding? What about b) Elinor is a complete cow? What about c) you’ve gone off your head? Why on earth would you want to get married at the Plaza?’

‘Because... because...’ I close my eyes briefly. ‘Suze, you have to see it. We’re going to have a great big string orchestra, and caviar, and an oyster bar... and Tiffany frames for everyone on the tables... and Cristal champagne... and the whole place will be this magical enchanted forest, and we’re going to have real birch trees and songbirds...’

‘Real birch trees?’ Suze pulls a face. ‘What do you want those for?’

‘It’s going to be like the Sleeping Beauty! And I’m going to be the princess, and Luke’s going to be the...’ I tail off feebly to see Suze staring at me reproachfully.

‘What about your mum?’

There’s silence, and I pretend to be preoccupied unhooking my basque. I don’t want to have to think about Mum right at the moment.

‘Bex! What about your mum?’

‘I’ll just have to... talk her round,’ I say at last.

‘Talk her round.’

‘She said herself I shouldn’t do the wedding by halves!’ I say defensively. ‘If she came and saw the Plaza, and saw all the plans–’

But she’s done such a lot of preparation already! When we were there she could talk about nothing else. Her and – what’s your neighbour called?’

‘Janice.’

That’s right. They’re calling your kitchen the control centre. There’s about six pinboards up, and lists, and bits of material everywhere... And they’re so happy doing it.’ Suze stares at me earnestly. ‘Becky, you can’t just tell them it’s all off. You can’t.’

‘Elinor would fly them over!’ There’s a guilty edge to my voice which I pretend I can’t hear. ‘They’d have a fantastic time! It would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them, too! They could stay in the Plaza, and dance all night, and see New York... They’d have the most fabulous holiday ever!’

‘Have you said this to your mum?’

‘No. I... I haven’t told her anything about it. Not yet. There’s no point bringing it up until I’m a hundred per cent sure.’ There’s a pause while Suze’s eyes narrow.

‘Bex, you are going to do something about this soon, aren’t you?’ she says suddenly. ‘You’re not just going to bury your head in the sand and pretend it isn’t happen­ing.’

‘Honestly! I wouldn’t do that!’ I say indignantly.

‘This is me, remember!’ exclaims Suze. ‘Bex, I know what you’re like! You used to throw all your bank statements into a skip and hope a complete stranger would pay off your bills!’

This is what happens. You tell your friends your most personal secrets, and they use them against you.

‘I’ve grown up a lot since then,’ I say, trying to sound dignified. ‘And I will sort it out. I just need to... to think it through.’

There’s a long silence. Outside, I can hear Cynthia saying, ‘Here at Dream Dress, our motto is, you don’t choose your dress...’

‘Look, Bex,’ says Suze at last. ‘I can’t make this decision for you. No-one can. All I can say is, if you’re going to pull out of your mum’s wedding, you’re going to have to do it quickly.’

 

The Pines

43 Elton Koad

Oxshott

Surrey

FAX MESSAGE

TO BECKY BLOOMWOOD

FROM MUM

 

20 March 2002

 

Becky, darling! Wonderful news!

You might have heard that Suzie spilt her coffee all over the wedding dress. She was devastated, poor thing.

But I took the dress to the cleaners... and they worked miracles! It’s as white as snow again and you’ll be able to wear it after all!

Much love and talk soon Mum xxxxxxxxx

 

OK. Suze is right. I can’t dither any more. I have to decide.

The day after she’s left to go home I sit down in my fitting room at lunchtime with a piece of paper and a pen. I’m just going to have to do this logically. Work out the pros and cons, weigh them all up – and make a rational decision. Right. Let’s go.

 

For Oxshott

1. Mum will be happy.

2. Dad will be happy.

3. It’ll be a lovely wedding.

I stare at the list for a few seconds – then make a new heading.

 

For New York

1. I get to have the most amazing wedding in the world.

 

Oh God. I bury my head in my hands. It isn’t any easier on paper.

In fact it’s harder, because it’s thrusting the dilemma right in my face, instead of where I want it – which is in a little box at the back of my mind where I don’t have to look at it.

 

Extract 7

 

I’ve taken the morning off work for the cake-tasting meeting with Robyn, but our appointment’s not until ten. So after Luke’s gone I slowly pad around the apartment, making myself some breakfast and thinking about what I’m going to say to Elinor.

The thing is to be direct. Firm and direct but pleasant. Grown-up and professional, like business people who have to fire other business people. Stay calm and use phrases like ‘we chose to go another way’.

‘Hello, Elinor,’ I say to my reflection. ‘I have some­thing I need to say to you. I have chosen to go another way.’

No. She’ll think I’m becoming a lesbian.

‘Hello Elinor,’ I try again. ‘I’ve been bouncing around your wedding-scenario proposal. And while it has many merits...’

OK, come on. Just do it.

Ignoring my butterflies, I pick up the phone and dial Elinor’s number.

‘Elinor Sherman is unable to take your call...’

She’s out.

I can’t just leave her a message saying the wedding’s off. Can I?

Could I?

No.

I put the phone down hurriedly, before the bleep sounds. OK. What shall I do now?

Well, it’s obvious. I’ll call Robyn. The important thing is that I tell someone, before anything else gets done.

I gather my thoughts for a moment, then dial Robyn’s number.

‘Hello! Do I hear wedding bells? I hope so, because this is Robyn de Bendern, the answer to your wedding-planning prayers. I’m afraid I'm unavailable at present, but your call is so important to me...’

Robyn’s probably already on her way to meet me at the cake-maker’s studio, it occurs to me. I could call her there. Or I could leave a message.

But as I hear her bright, chirruping voice, I suddenly feel a pang of guilt. Robyn’s already put so much into this. In fact, I’ve become quite fond of her. I just can’t tell her it’s all off over the phone. Feeling suddenly firm, I put down the phone and reach for my bag.

I’ll be a grown-up, go along to the cake studio and break the news to her face to face.

And I’ll deal with Elinor later.

To be honest, I don’t really like wedding cake. I always take a piece because it’s bad luck or something if you don’t, but actually all that fruit cake and marzipan and icing like blocks of chalk makes me feel a bit sick. And I’m so nervous at the thought of telling Robyn it’s all off, that I can’t imagine eating anything.

Even so, my mouth can’t help watering as I arrive at the cake studio. It’s big and light, with huge windows and the sweetest, most delicious, sugary-buttery smell wafting through the air. There are huge mounted cakes on display, and rows of flower decorations in trans­parent boxes, and people at marble tables, carefully making roses out of icing and painting strands of sugar ivy.

As I hover at the entrance, a skinny girl in jeans and strappy high heels is being led out by her mother, and they’re in the middle of a row.

‘You only had to taste it,’ the mother is saying furiously. ‘How many calories could that be?’

‘I don’t care,’ retorts the girl tearfully. ‘I’m going to be a size 2 on my wedding day if it kills me.’

Size 2!

God. I’ve been here long enough, but I still get freaked out by American sizes. What is that in real life? Size 6

Size 6.

Well, that makes me feel a whole lot better.

‘Becky!’ I look up to see Robyn, who seems a little flustered. ‘Hello! You made it.’

‘Robyn.’ I feel my stomach clench with apprehen­sion. ‘Listen. I need to talk to you. I tried calling Elinor but she was... Anyway. There’s something I need to... tell you.’

‘Absolutely,’ says Robyn distractedly. ‘Antoine and I will be with you in a moment, but we have a slight crisis on our hands.’ She lowers her voice. ‘There was an accident with one of the cakes. Very unfortunate.’

‘Miss Bloomwood?’ I look up to see a man with grey hair and twinkling eyes in a white chefs outfit. ‘I am Antoine Montignac. The cake-maker of cake-makers. Perhaps you have seen me in my television show?’

‘Antoine, I don’t think we’ve quite resolved the probem with the... other client...’ says Robyn anxiously.

‘I come in a moment.’ He dismisses her with his hand. ‘Miss Bloomwood. Sit down.’

‘Actually, I’m not sure I really want to...’ I begin. But before I know what I’m doing, I’ve been seated on a plushy chair at a polished table, and Antoine is spread­ing glossy portfolios in front of me.

‘I can create for you the cake which will surpass all your dreams,’ he announces modestly. ‘No image is beyond my powers of creativity.’

‘Really?’ I look at a photograph of a spectacular six-tier cake decorated with sugar tulips, then turn the page to see one in the shape of five different butterflies. These are the hugest cakes I’ve ever seen in my life. And the decorations!

‘So, are these all fruit cakes inside?’

‘Fruit cake? Non, non, non!’ Antoine laughs. ‘This is very English notion, the fruit cake at the wedding. This particular cake...’ He points to the butterfly cake. ‘It was a light angel sponge, each tier layered with three different fillings: burnt orange caramel, passion fruit-mango, and hazelnut souffle.’

‘If you like chocolate, we can construct a cake purely different varieties of chocolate.’ He turns to another page. ‘This was a dark chocolate sponge layered with chocolate fondant, white chocolate cream and a Grand Marnier truffle filling.’

I had no idea wedding cakes could be anything like this. I flip through, slightly dazedly, looking at cake after spectacular cake.

‘If you do not want the traditional tiers, I can make for you a cake to represent something you love. A favourite painting... or a sculpture...’ He looks at me again. ‘A Louis Vuitton trunk, perhaps...’

A Louis Vuitton trunk wedding cake! How cool would that be?

Antoine? If you could just come here a moment? Robyn pokes her head out of a small meeting room to the right – and although she’s smiling, she sounds pretty harassed.

‘Excuse me, Miss Bloomwood,’ says Antoine apolo­getically. ‘Davina. Some cake for Miss Bloomwood to taste.’

A smiling assistant disappears through a pair of double doors – then returns with a glass of champagne, a china plate holding two slices of cake and a sugar lily. She hands me a fork and says, ‘This one is passionfruit – mango, strawberry and tangerine mousseline, and this is caramel creme with pistachio and mocha truffle. Enjoy!’

Wow. Each slice is a light sponge, with three different pastel-coloured fillings. I don’t know where to start!

OK... let’s go for mocha truffle.

I put a piece in my mouth and nearly swoon. Now this is what wedding cakes should all be like. Why don’t we have these in England?

I take a few sips of cnampagne, and nibble the sugar lily, which is all yummy and lemony – then take a second piece and munch blissfully, watching a girl nearby as she painstakingly makes a spray of lilies of the valley.

You know, maybe I should get Suze a nice cake for her baby’s christening. I mean, I’ll get a present as well – but I could always buy a cake as a little extra.

‘Do you know how much these cakes are?’ I ask the girl as I polish off the second slice.

‘Well... it really varies,’ she says, looking up. ‘But I guess they start at about a thousand dollars.’

I nearly choke on my champagne. A thousand dollars? They start at a thousand dollars?

For a cake?

I mean, how much have I eaten, just now? That must have been at least fifty dollars’ worth of cake on my plate!

‘Would you like another slice?’ says the girl, and glances at the meeting room. ‘It looks like Antoine is still held up.’

‘Ooh well... why not! And could I try one of those sugar tulips? You know. Just for research purposes.’

‘Sure,’ says the girl pleasantly. ‘Whatever you like.’

She gives me a tulip and a spray of tiny white flowers, and I crunch through them happily, washing them down with champagne.

Then I look idly around, and spy a huge, elaborate flower, yellow and white with minute drops of dew. Wow. That looks yummy. I reach over a display of sugar hearts, pick it up, and it’s almost in my mouth when I hear a yell.

‘Stooooop!’ A guy in whites is pounding across the studio towards me. ‘Don’t eat the jonquil!’

‘Oops!’ I say, stopping just in time. ‘Sorry. I didn’t realize. Is it very special?’

‘It took me three hours to make,’ he says, taking it gently from my hand. ‘No harm done, though.’ He smiles at me, but I notice there’s sweat on his forehead.

Hmm. Maybe I should just stick to the champagne from now on. I take another sip, and am looking around for the bottle, when raised voices start coming from the side room where Robyn and Antoine are closeted.

‘I deed not do this deliberately! Mademoiselle, I do not have a vendetta!’

‘You do! You bloody hate me, don’t you?’ comes a muffled voice.

I can hear Robyn saying something soothing which I can’t make out.

‘It’s just one thing after another!’ The girl’s voice is raised now – and as I hear it clearly, I freeze, glass halfway to my mouth.

I don’t believe it.

It can’t be.

‘This bloody wedding is jinxed!’ she’s exclaiming. ‘Right from the word go, everything’s gone wrong.’

The door swings open and now I can hear her properly.

It is. It’s Alicia.

I feel my whole body stiffen.

‘First the Plaza couldn’t fit us in! Now this fiasco with the cake! And do you know what I just heard?’

‘What?’ says Robyn fearfully.

‘My maid of honour dyed her hair red! She won’t match the others! Of all the bloody inconsiderate, selfish...’

The door is flung open and out stalks Alicia, her stilettos echoing like gunfire on the wooden floor. When she sees me, she stops dead and I look at her, my heart thumping hard.

‘Hi, Alicia,’ I say, forcing myself to sound relaxed. ‘Sorry to hear about your cake. That was delicious, by the way, Antoine.’

‘What?’ says Alicia blankly. Her eyes flash to my engagement ring, to my face, back to my ring, to my shoes, to my bag – taking in my skirt on the way – and finally back to my ring. It’s like the Manhattan Once-over in a hall of mirrors.

‘You're getting married?’ she says at last. ‘To Luke?’

‘Yes.’ I glance nonchalantly at the diamond on my left hand, then smile innocently up at her.

I’m starting to relax now. I’m starting to enjoy this.

(Also, I just gave Alicia the Manhattan Once-over myself. And my ring is a teeny bit bigger than hers. Not that I’m comparing or anything.)

‘How come you didn’t say?’

You didn’t ask, I want to reply, but instead I just give a little shrug.

‘So where are you getting married?’ Alicia’s old supercilious expression is returning and I can see her preparing to pounce.

‘Well... as it happens...’ I clear my throat.

OK, this is the moment. This is the time to make the big announcement. To tell Robyn I’ve changed my mind. I’m going to get married in Oxshott.

‘Actually...’

I take a deep breath. Come on. It’s like Elastoplast. The quicker I do it, the quicker it’ll be over. Just say it.

And I really am on the brink of it – when I make the fatal mistake of glancing up. Alicia’s looking as patronizing and smug as she ever did towards me. Years of feeling stupid and small well up in me like a volcano – and I just can’t help it, I hear my voice saying, ‘Actually, we’re getting married at the Plaza.’

Alicia’s face snaps in shock, like an elastic band.

‘The Plaza? Really?’

‘It should be rather lovely,’ I add casually. ‘Such a beautiful venue, the Plaza. Is that where you’re getting married?’

‘No,’ says Alicia, her chin rather tight. ‘They couldn’t fit us in at such short notice. When did you book?’

‘Oh... a week or two ago,’ I say, and give a vague shrug.

Yes! Yes! Her expression!

‘It’s going to be wonderful,’ puts in Robyn enthusi­astically. ‘I spoke to the designer this morning, by the way. He’s ordered two hundred birch trees, and they’re going to send over some samples of pine needles…’

I can see Alicia’s brain working hard.

‘You’re the one having the enchanted forest in the Plaza,’ she says at last. ‘I’ve heard about that. It’s going to cost a fortune. And you’re having violinists flown in from the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Is that true?’

‘The New York Philharmonic was on tour,’ says Robyn regretfully. ‘But apparently these Viennese people are very good–’

‘I’m sure they’ll be great,’ I say, and smile at Robyn, who beams back as though I’m an old ally.

‘Mees Bloomwood.’ Antoine appears from nowhere and presses my hand to his lips. ‘I am now completely at your service. I apologize for the delay. One of these irritating little matters...’

Alicia’s face goes rigid.

‘Well,’ she says. ‘I’ll be off then.’

‘Au revoir,’ says Antoine, without even looking up.

'Bye Alicia,' I say innocently. ‘Have a lovely wedding.’

As she stalks out, I subside back in my seat, heart still pumping with exhilaration. That was one of the best moments of my life. Finally getting the better of Alicia Bitch Long-legs. Finally! I mean, how often has she been horrible to me? Answer: approximately one thousand times. And how often have I had the perfect put-down at my lips? Answer: never.

Until today!

I can see Robyn and Antoine exchanging looks, and I’m dying to ask them what they think of Alicia. But... it wouldn’t be becoming in a bride-to-be.

Plus if they bitch about her, they might bitch about me, too.

‘Now!’ says Robyn. ‘On to something more pleasant. You’ve seen the details of Becky’s wedding, Antoine.’

‘Indeed,’ says Antoine, beaming at me. ‘Eet will be a most beautiful event.’

‘I know,’ I hear myself saying happily. ‘I’m so looking forward to it!’

‘So... We discuss the cake... I must fetch some Pictures for you... meanwhile, can I offer you some more champagne, perhaps?’

‘Yes please,’ I say and hold out my glass. ‘That would be lovely!’

The champagne fizzes, pale and delicious, into my glass. Then Antoine disappears again and I take a sip, smiling to hide the fact that, inside, I’m feeling a slight unease.

Now that Alicia’s gone, there’s no need to pretend any more. What I should do is put my glass down, take Robyn aside, apologize for having wasted her time – and inform her that the wedding is off and I’m getting married in Oxshott. Quite simple and straight­forward.

That’s what I should do.

But... something very strange has happened since this morning. I can’t quite explain it – but somehow, sitting here, drinking champagne and eating thousand-dollar cake, I just don’t feel like someone who’s going to get married in a garden in Oxshott.

If I’m really honest, hand on heart – I feel exactly like someone who’s going to have a huge, luxurious wedding at the Plaza.

More than that, I want to be someone who’s going to have a huge, luxurious wedding at the Plaza. I want to be that girl who swans around expensive cake shops, and has people running after her and gets treated like a princess. If I call off the wedding, then it’ll all stop. Everyone will stop making a fuss. I’ll stop being that special, glossy person.

Oh God, what’s happened to me? I was so resolved this morning.

Determinedly I close my eyes and force myself to think back to Mum and her flowering cherry tree. But even that doesn’t work. Perhaps it’s the champagne – but instead of being overcome with emotion, and think­ing: ‘I must get married at home,’ I find myself thinking: ‘Maybe we can incorporate the cherry tree into the enchanted forest.’

‘All right, Becky?’ says Robyn, beaming at me. ‘Penny for them!’

‘Oh!’ I say, my head jerking up guiltily. ‘I was just thinking that... the urn... wedding will be fantastic.’

What am I going to do? Am I going to say something?

Am I not going to say anything?

Come on Becky. Decide.

‘So – you want to see what I have in my bag?’ says Robyn brightly.

‘Er… yes please.’

‘Ta-daah!’ She pulls out a thick, embossed card, covered in swirly writing, and hands it to me.

Mrs Elinor Sherman requests the honour of your presence at the marriage of Rebecca Bloomwood to her son Luke Brandon...

I stare at it, my heart thumping hard.

This is real. This is really real. Here it is, in black and white.

Or, at least, bronze and taupe.

I take the stiff card from her and turn it over and over in my fingers.

‘What do you think?’ Robyn beams. ‘It’s exquisite, isn’t it? The card is eighty per cent linen.’

‘It’s... lovely.’ I swallow. ‘It seems very soon to be sending out invitations, though.’

‘We aren’t sending them out yet! But I always like to get the invitations done early. What I always say is, you can’t proof-read too many times. We don’t want to be asking our guests to wear ‘evening press’, like one bride I could mention...’ She trills with laughter.

‘Right.’ I stare down at the words again.

Saturday 22nd June at seven o’clock

at the Plaza Hotel

New York City

This is serious. If I’m going to say anything, I have to say it now. If I’m going to call this wedding off, I have to do it now. Right this minute.

But my mouth remains closed.

Does this really mean I’m choosing the Plaza after all? That I’m selling out? That I’m choosing the gloss and glitter? That I’m going with Elinor instead of Mum and Dad?

‘I thought you’d like to send one to your mother!’ says Robyn.

My head jerks up sharply – but Robyn’s face is blithely innocent. ‘Such a shame she isn’t here to get involved with the preparations. But she’ll love to see this, won’t she?’

‘Yes,’ I say after a long pause. ‘Yes, she’ll... love it.’

I put the invitation into my bag and snap the clasp shut, feeling slightly sick.

So this is it. New York it is.

Mum will understand. When I tell her all about it properly, she’ll come round. She has to.

Antoine’s new mandarin and lychee cake is fabulous. But somehow, as I nibble at it, my appetite’s gone.

After I’ve tried several more flavours and am no nearer a decision, Antoine and Robyn exchange looks and suggest I probably need time to think. So with one last sugar rose for my purse, I say goodbye and head to Barneys, where I deal with all my clients perfectly pleasantly, as though nothing’s on my mind.

But all the time I’m thinking about the call I’ve got to make. About how I’m going to break the news to Mum. About how I’m going to explain to Mum.

I won’t say anything as strong as I definitely want to get married in the Plaza. Not initially. I’ll just tell her that it’s there as a possibility, if we both want it. That’s the key phrase. If we both want it.

The truth is, I didn’t present it properly to her before. She’ll probably leap at the chance once I explain it all to her fully. Once I tell her about the enchanted forest and the string orchestra, and the dance band and the thousand-dollar cake. A lovely luxury wedding, all expenses paid! I mean, who wouldn’t leap at it?

But I feel sick with nerves as I climb the stairs to our apartment. I know I’m not being honest with myself. I know what Mum really wants.

I also know that if I make enough fuss, she’ll do anything I ask her.

I close the door behind me and take a deep breath. Two seconds later, the doorbell rings and I jump with fright. God, I’m on edge at the moment.

‘Hi,’ I say, opening the door. ‘Oh, Danny, it’s you. Listen, I need to make quite an important phone call. So if you wouldn’t mind–’

‘OK, I have to ask you a favour,’ he says, coming into the apartment and completely ignoring what I’ve just said.

‘What is it?’

‘Randall’s been giving me some pressure. He’s like, where exactly do you sell your clothes? Who exactly are your customers? Do you have a business plan? So I’m like, of course I have a business plan, Randall. I’m planning to buy up Coca-Cola next year, what do you think?’

‘Danny–’

‘So then he starts saying if I don’t have any genuine client base I should give up and he’s not going to subsidize me any more. He used the word subsidize! Can you believe it?’

‘Well,’ I say distractedly. ‘He does pay your rent. And he bought you all those rolls of pink suede you wanted...’

‘OK,’ says Danny after a pause. ‘OK. So the pink suede was a mistake. But Jesus! He just wouldn’t leave it alone. I told him about your dress – but he was like, Daniel, you can’t base a commercial enterprise on one customer who lives downstairs.’ Danny chews the skin on his thumb nervously. ‘So I told him I just had a big order from a department store.’

‘Really? Which one?’

‘Barneys.’

I look at him, my attention finally caught.

‘Barneys? Danny, why did you say Barneys?’

‘So you can back me up! If he asks you, you stock me, OK? And all your clients are falling over themselves to buy my stuff, you’ve never known anything like it in the history of the store.’

‘You’re mad. He’ll never fall for it. And what will you say when he wants some money?’

‘I’ll have money by then!’

‘What if he checks up? What if he goes to Barneys to look?’

‘He won’t check up,’ says Danny scornfully. ‘He only has time to talk to me once a month, let alone make unscheduled visits to Barneys. But if he meets you on the stairs, go along with my story. That’s all I’m asking.’

‘Well... all right,’ I say at last.

Honestly. As if I haven’t got enough to worry about already.

‘Danny, I really must make this call...’ I say helplessly.

‘So did you find somewhere else to live yet?’ he says, flopping down into an armchair.

‘We haven’t had time.’

‘You haven’t even thought about it?’

‘Elinor wants us to move to her building and I’ve said no. That’s as far as we’ve got.’

‘Really?’ Danny stares at me. ‘But don’t you want to stay in the Village?’

‘Of course I do! There’s no way I’m moving there.’

‘So what are you going to do?’

‘I... don’t know! I’ve just got too many other things to think about at the moment. Speaking of which–’

‘Pre-wedding stress,’ says Danny knowingly. ‘The solution is a double Martini.’ He opens up the cocktail cabinet and a sheaf of wedding-list brochures falls out onto the floor.

‘Hey!’ he says reproachfully, picking them up. ‘Did you register without me? I cannot believe that! I have been dying to register my entire life! Did you ask for a cappuccino maker?’

‘Er… yes. I tnink so–’

‘Big mistake. They’re never as good as the real thing. Listen if you ever want me to take delivery of any presents, you know I’m right upstairs...’

‘Yeah right.’ I give him a look. ‘After Christmas.’

Christmas is still a slightly sore point with me. I thought I’d be really clever and order a load of presents off the Internet. But they never arrived, so I spent Christmas Eve rushing round the shops buying replace­ments. Then on Christmas morning we went upstairs to have a drink with Danny and Randall – to find Danny sitting in the silk robe I’d bought for Elinor, eating the chocolates that were meant for Samantha at work.

‘Hey, what was I supposed to think?’ he says de­fensively. ‘It was Christmas, they were gift-wrapped... it was like, yes Daniel, there is a Santa Claus–’He reaches for the Martini bottle and sloshes some into the cocktail shaker. ‘Strong? Extra strong?’

‘Danny, I really have to make this phone call. I’ll be back in a minute.’

 

Extract 8

 

…I consult my schedule for the rest of the day. I’ve got an hour before my next client, so I decide to wander up to the bridal department and look at my dress again. It’s definitely between this one and the Vera Wang. Or maybe the Tracy Connop.

Definitely one of those three, anyway.

As I walk out onto the sales floor again, I stop in surprise. There’s Danny, standing by a rack of tops, fingering one casually. What on earth is he still doing here? I’m about to call out to him, and say does he want to come and see my dress and then go for a quick cappuccino? But then, to my astonishment, he glances around, surreptitiously bends down and reaches for something in his canvas bag. It’s a T-shirt with glittery sleeves, on a hanger. He shoves it onto the rail, looks around again, and reaches for another one.

I stare at him in utter stupefaction. What does he think he’s doing?

He looks around again – then reaches into his bag and pulls out a small laminated sign, which he props up at the end of the display.

What the hell is he up to?

‘Danny!’ I say, heading towards him.

‘What?’ He gives a startled jump, then turns and sees me. ‘Sssh! Jesus, Becky!’

‘What are you doing with those T-shirts?’ I hiss.

‘I’m stocking myself.’

‘What do you mean, stocking yourself?’

He jerks his head towards the laminated sign and I read it in disbelief.

THE DANNY KOVITZ COLLECTION. AN EXCITING NEW TALENT AT BARNEYS

‘They’re not all on Barneys hangers,’ says Danny, thrusting another two T-shirts on the rack. ‘But I figure that won’t matter.’

‘Danny... you can’t do this! You can’t just... put your stuff on the rails!’

‘I’m doing it.’

‘But–’

‘I have no choice, OK?’ says Danny, turning his head. ‘Randall’s on his way here right now, expecting to see a Danny Kovitz line at Barneys.’

I stare at him in horror.

‘I thought you said he would never check!’

‘He wouldn’t have!’ Danny shoves another hanger onto the rail. ‘But his stupid girlfriend has to poke her nose in. She never showed any interest in me before, but as soon as she hears the word Barneys, it’s like, oh Randall, you should support your brother! Go to Barneys tomorrow and buy one of his pieces! So I’m saying, you really don’t have to do that. But now Randall’s got the idea in his head, he’s like, well, maybe I will pop in and take a look. So I’m up sewing all night.’

‘You made all of these last night?’ I say incredu­lously, and reach for one of the T-shirts. A piece of leather braid falls off, onto the floor.

‘So maybe the finish isn’t quite up to my usual standards,’ says Danny defensively. ‘Just don’t man­handle them, OK?’ He starts to count the hangers. ‘Two… four... six... eight... ten. That should be enough.’

‘Danny…’ I glance around the sales floor, to see Carla one of the assistants, giving us an odd look. ‘Hi!’ I call brightly. ‘Just... helping one of my clients... for his girlfriend…’ Carla gives us another suspicious look then moves away. ‘This isn’t going to work!’ I mutter as soon as she’s out of earshot. ‘You’re going to have to take these down. You wouldn’t even be stocked on this floor!’

‘I need two minutes,’ he says. ‘That’s all. Two minutes for him to come in, see the sign, then go. Come on, Becky. No-one’s even going to...’ He freezes. ‘Here he is.’

I follow his gaze, and see Danny’s brother Randall walking across the floor towards us.

For the millionth time I wonder how on earth Randall and Danny can have come from the same parents. While Danny is wiry and constantly on the move, Randall fills his double-breasted suit com­fortably, and always wears the same disapproving frown.

‘Hello Daniel,’ he says, and nods to me. ‘Becky.’

‘Hi Randall,’ I say, and give what I hope is a natural smile. ‘How are you?’

‘So here they are!’ says Danny triumphantly, moving away from the rail and gesturing to the T-shirts. ‘My collection. In Barneys. Just like I said.’

‘So I see,’ says Randall, and carefully scrutinizes the rail of clothes. There’s a tense silence, and I feel sure he’s about to look up and say what on earth are you playing at? But he says nothing – and with a slight dart of shock I realize that he’s been completely taken in.

There again, why is that such a surprise? Danny’s clothes don’t look so out of place, up there on the rail.

‘Well, congratulations,’ says Randall at last. ‘This is quite an achievement.’ He pats Danny awkwardly on the shoulder, then turns to me. ‘Are they selling well?’

‘Er… yes!’ I say. ‘Very popular, I believe.’

‘So, how much do they retail at?’ He reaches for a T-shirt, and both Danny and I involuntarily draw breath. We watch, frozen, while he searches for the label, then looks up with a deep frown. ‘These have no price tickets.’

‘That’s because... they’re only just out,’ I hear myself saying hurriedly. ‘But I think they’re priced at... erm... eighty-nine dollars.’

‘I see,’ Randall shakes his head. ‘Well, I never was one for high fashion–’

‘Telling me,’ Danny whispers in my ear.

‘But if they’re selling, they must have something. Daniel, I take my hat off to you.’ He reaches for another one, with rivets round the neck, and looks at it with fastidious dismay. ‘Now, which one shall I buy?’

‘Don’t buy one!’ says Danny at once. ‘I’ll... make you one. As a gift.’

‘I insist,’ says Randall. ‘If I can’t support my own brother–’

‘Randall, please.’ Danny’s voice crackles with sincerity. ‘Allow me to make a gift to you. It’s the least I can do after all your kindness to me over the years. Really.’

‘Well, if you’re sure,’ says Randall at last, with a shrug. He looks at his watch. ‘I must go. Good to see you, Becky.’

‘I’ll walk to the elevator with you,’ says Danny, and darts me a jubilant look.

As they move off, I feel a giggle of relief rising in me. God, that was close. I can’t quite believe we got away with it so easily.

‘Hey!’ comes a voice behind me suddenly. ‘Look at these! They’re new, aren’t they?’ A manicured hand appears over my shoulder and plucks one of Danny’s T-shirts off the rail before I can stop it. My head whips round and I feel a plunge of dismay. It’s Lisa Farley, a sweet but completely dippy client of Erin. She’s about twenty-two, doesn’t seem to have a job, and always says whatever pops into her head, never mind whether someone might be offended. (She once asked Erin in all innocence, ‘Doesn’t it bother you, having such a weird-shaped mouth?’)

Now she’s holding the T-shirt up against her, looking down at it appraisingly.

Damn it. I should have snatched them down off the rail straight away.

‘Hi Becky!’ she says cheerily. ‘Hey, this is cute! I haven’t seen these before.’

‘Actually,’ I say quickly, ‘these aren’t for sale yet. In fact I need to... um... take them back to the stock room.’ I try to grab for the T-shirt, but she moves away.

‘I’ll just take a look in the mirror. Hey, Tracy! What do you think?’

Another girl, wearing the new Dior print jacket, is coming towards us.

‘Of what?’

‘These new T-shirts. They’re cool, aren’t they?’ She reaches for another one and hands it to Tracy.

‘If you could just give them back to me–’ I say helplessly.

‘This one’s nice!’

Now they’re both searching through the hangers with brisk fingers, and the poor T-shirts just can’t take the strain. Hems are unravelling, bits of glitter and strings of diamante are coming loose, and sequins are shedding all over the floor.

‘Oops, this seam just came apart.’ Lisa looks up in dismay. ‘Becky, it just fell apart. I didn’t pull it.’

‘That’s OK,’ I say weakly.

‘Is everything supposed to fall off like this? Hey Christina!’ Lisa suddenly calls out. ‘This new line is so fun!’

Christina?

I wheel round and feel a lurch of horror. Christina is standing at the entrance to the personal shopping department, in conversation with the head of personnel.

‘What new line?’ she says, looking up. ‘Oh, hi Becky.’

I have to stop this conversation right now.

‘Lisa–’ I say desperately. ‘Come and see the new Marc Jacobs coats we’ve got in!’

Lisa ignores me.

‘This new... what’s it called...’ She squints at the label. ‘Danny Kovitz! I can’t believe Erin didn’t tell me these were coming in! Naughty naughty!’ She wags a finger in mock reproach.

I watch in dismay as Christina looks up, alert There’s nothing to galvanize her like someone suggest­ing her department is less than perfect.

‘Excuse me a minute,’ she says to the head of person­nel, and comes across the floor towards us.

‘What didn’t Erin tell you about?’ she says pleasantly.

‘This new designer!’ says Lisa. ‘I never even heard of him before.’

‘Ow!’ says Tracy suddenly, and draws her hand away from the T-shirt. ‘That was a pin!’

‘A pin?’ echoes Christina. ‘Give me that.’

She takes the ragged T-shirt and stares at it bewilderedly. Then she catches sight of Danny’s laminated sign.

Oh, I’m so stupid. Why didn’t I take that down, at least?

As she reads it, her expression changes. She looks up and meets my eye, and I feel my whole body prickle with fear. I’ve never been in trouble with Christina before. But I’ve heard her telling people off over the phone, and I know she can be pretty fierce.

‘Do you know anything about this, Becky?’ she asks pleasantly.

‘I...’ I clear my throat. ‘The thing is ...’

‘I see. Lisa, I’m afraid there’s been a little confusion.’ She gives Lisa a professional smile. ‘These items are not for sale. Becky – I think I’d better see you in my office.’

‘Christina, I’m... sorry,’ I say, feeling my face flush beetroot. ‘I really am...’

‘What happened?’ says Tracy. ‘Why aren’t they for sale?’

‘Is Becky in trouble?’ says Lisa in dismay. ‘Will she be fired? Don’t fire Becky! We like her better than Erin… Oh.’ She claps her hand over her mouth. ‘Sorry, Erin I didn’t see you there.’

‘That’s all right,’ says Erin, giving a rather pinched smile.

This really doesn’t get any better.

‘Christina, all I can do is apologize,’ I say humbly. ‘I never meant to cause any trouble. I never meant to mislead the customers...’

‘In my office,’ says Christina, lifting a hand to silence me. ‘If you have anything to say, Becky, then you can say it–’

‘Stop!’ comes a melodramatic voice behind us, and we all whip round, to see Danny heading towards us, his eyes even wilder than usual. ‘Just stop right there! Don’t blame Becky for this!’ he says, placing himself in front of me. ‘She had nothing to do with it. If you’re going to fire anyone – fire me!’

‘Danny, she can’t fire you,’ I mutter. ‘You’re not employed by Barneys.’

‘And you would be?’ enquires Christina.

‘Danny Kovitz.’

‘Danny Kovitz. Ah.’ Light dawns on Christina’s face. ‘So it was you who... assembled these garments. And planted them on our rails.’

‘What? He’s not a real designer?’ says Tracy in horror. ‘I knew it! I wasn’t fooled.’ She thrusts the hanger she’s holding back onto the rail as though she’s been contaminated.

‘Isn’t that breaking the law?’ says Lisa, wide-eyed.

‘It may well be,’ says Danny defensively. ‘But shall I tell you why I’m reduced to criminal measures? Do you know the impossibillty of getting a break in this so-called business of fashion?’ He glances around to make sure his audience is listening. ‘All I want is to bring my ideas to people who will love them. I put every ounce of my life force into my work. I weep, I cry out in pain, squeeze myself dry of creative blood. But the fashion establishment aren’t interested in new talent! They aren’t interested in nurturing the newcomer who dares to be a little different!’ His voice rises impassionedly ‘If I have to take desperate measures, can you blame me? If you cut me, do I not bleed?’

‘Wow,’ breathes Lisa. ‘I had no idea it was so tough out there.’

‘You did cut me,’ puts in Tracy, who looks far less impressed by Danny’s speech. ‘With your stupid pin.’

‘Christina, you have to give him a chance!’ exclaims Lisa. ‘Look! He’s so dedicated!’

‘I just want to bring my ideas to people who will love them,’ begins Danny again. ‘My only desire is that someone, some day, will wear one of my garments and feel themselves transformed. But as I crawl towards them on my hands and knees, the doors keep being slammed in my face–’

‘Enough already!’ says Christina, half-exasperated, half-amused. ‘You want your big break? Let me have a look at these clothes.’

There’s a sudden intrigued quiet. I glance quickly at Danny. Perhaps this is going to be it! Christina will spot his genius and Barneys will buy his entire collection and he’ll be made! Then Gwyneth Paltrow will wear one of his T-shirts on Leno, and there’ll be a rush for them, and suddenly he’ll be famous and have his own boutique!

Christina reaches for a T-shirt with spattered dye and rhinestones on the front and as she runs her eye up and down it, I hold my breath. Lisa and Tracy raise their eyebrows at each other, and although Danny is motionless, I can see his face tightening with hope. There’s dead silence as she puts it down – and as she reaches for a second T-shirt we all give an intake of breath, as though the Russian judge’s hand has hovered over the perfect six scorecard. With a critical frown, she stretches it out to look at it properly... and as she does so, one of the sleeves comes off in her hand, leaving a ragged seam behind.

Everyone stares at it speechlessly.

‘That’s the look,’ says Danny, a little too late. ‘It’s a… a deconstructive approach to design...’

Christina is shaking her head and putting the T-shirt back.

‘Young man. You certainly have flair. You may even have talent. Unfortunately these are not enough. Until you can finish off your work properly, you’re not going to get very far.’

‘My designs are usually immaculately finished!’ says Danny at once. ‘Perhaps this particular collection was a little hurried...’

‘I suggest you go back to the beginning, make a few pieces, very carefully...’

‘Are you saying I’m careless?’

‘I’m saying you need to learn how to follow a project through to the end.’ Christina smiles kindly at him. ‘Then we’ll see.’

‘I can follow a project through!’ says Danny in­dignantly. ‘It’s one of my strengths! It’s one of my– Would I be making Becky’s wedding dress otherwise?’ He grabs me, as though we’re about to sing a duet. ‘The most important outfit of her whole life? She believes in me, even if nobody else does. When Becky Bloomwood walks down the aisle at the Plaza Hotel in a Danny Kovitz creation, you won’t be calling me careless then. And when the phones start ringing off their hooks–’

‘What?’ I say stupidly. ‘Danny–’

‘You’re making Becky’s wedding dress?’ Christina turns to me. ‘I thought you were wearing Richard Tyler?’

‘Richard Tyler?’ echoes Danny blankly.

‘I thought you were wearing Vera Wang,’ says Erin, who wandered over to the little scene two minutes ago and has been staring agog ever since.

‘I heard you were wearing your mother’s dress,’ chips in Lisa.

‘I’m making your dress!’ says Danny, his eyes wide with shock. ‘Aren’t I? You promised me, Becky! We had an agreement!’

‘The Vera Wang sounds perfect,’ says Erin. ‘You have to have that.’

‘I’d go for Richard Tyler,’ says Tracy.

‘What about the dress your mother was married in though?’ says Lisa. ‘Wouldn’t that be so romantic?’

‘The Vera Wang would be divine,’ says Erin deter­minedly.

‘But how can you pass up your own mother’s wedding dress?’ demands Lisa. ‘How can you set aside a whole family tradition like that? Becky, don’t you agree?’

‘The point is to look good!’ says Erin.

‘The point is to be romantic!’ retorts Lisa.

‘But what about my dress?’ comes Danny’s plaintive voice. ‘What about loyalty to your best friend? What about that, Becky?’

Their voices seem to be drilling into my head, and they’re all staring at me avidly, waiting for an answer... and with no warning I feel myself snap.

‘I don’t know, OK?’ I cry desperately. I just... don’t know what I’m going to do!’

Suddenly I feel almost tearful – which is completely ridiculous. I mean, it’s not like I won’t have a dress.

‘Becky, I think we need to have a little chat,’ says Christina, giving me a shrewd look. ‘Erin, clear all this up, please, and apologize to Carla, would you? Becky, come with me.’

 

Extract 9

 

Robyn’s offices are in a plushy building, right up on 96th Street. As I knock on the door I can hear her gurgling laugh, and as I cautiously open the door I see her sitting at her desk, champagne glass in one hand, telephone in the other, and an open box of chocolates on the desk. In the corner, tapping at a computer, is a girl with bobbles in her hair, who must be Kirsten.

‘Becky!’ says Robyn. ‘Come in! I won’t be a second! Jennifer, I think we should go with the devore satin. Yes? OK. See you soon.’ She puts down the phone and beams at me. ‘Becky, sweetheart. How are you? How was England?’

‘Fine thanks. Robyn–’

‘I have just been to a delightful thank-you lunch given to me by Mrs Herman Winkler at the Carlton. Now, that was a fabulous wedding. The groom gave the bride a schnauzer puppy at the altar! So adorable...’ Her brow wrinkles. ‘Where was I going with this? Oh yes! You know what? Her daughter and new son-in-law just left for England on their honeymoon! I said to her, perhaps they’ll bump into Becky Bloomwood!’

‘Robyn, I need to talk to you.’

‘Absolutely. And if it’s about the dessert flatware, I’ve spoken to the Plaza–’

‘It’s not about the flatware!’ I cry. ‘Robyn, listen! While I was in England, I cancelled the wedding. I left a message! But you didn’t get it.’

There’s silence in the plushy room. Then Robyn’s face creases up into laughter.

‘Hahaha! Becky, you’re priceless! Isn’t she priceless, Kirsten?’

‘Robyn, I’m serious. I want to call the whole thing off. I want to get married in England. My mum’s organizing a wedding, it’s all arranged–’

‘Can you imagine if you did that?’ says Robyn, with a gurgle. ‘Well, of course, you couldn’t, because of the prenup. If you cancelled now, you’d be in for a lot of money!’ She laughs gaily. ‘Would you like some champagne?’

I stare at her, momentarily halted.

‘What do you mean, the prenup?’

‘The contract you signed, sweetheart.’ She hands me a glass of champagne, and my fingers automatically close round it.

‘But... but Luke didn’t sign it. He said it wasn’t valid if he didn’t sign–’

‘Not between you and Luke! Between you and me! Or, rather, Wedding Events Inc.’

‘What?’ I swallow. ‘Robyn, what are you talking about? I never signed anything.’

‘Of course you did! All my brides do! I gave it to Elinor to pass along to you, and she returned it to me... I have a copy of it somewhere!’ She takes a sip of champagne, swivels on her chair and reaches into an elegant wooden filing cabinet.

‘Here we are!’ She hands me a photocopy of a docu­ment. ‘Of course, the original is with my lawyer...’

I stare at the page, my heart pounding. It’s a typed sheet, headed TERMS OF AGREEMENT. I look straight down to the dotted line at the bottom – and there’s my signature.

My mind zooms back to that dark, rainy night. Sitting in Elinor’s apartment. Indignantly signing every single sheet in front of me. Not bothering to read the words above.

Oh God. What have I done?

What have I signed?

Feverishly I start to scan the contract, only half taking in the legal phrases.

The Organizer shall prepare full plans... time frame to be mutually agreed... the Client shall be consulted on all matters... liaise with service providers... budget shall be agreed... final decisions shall rest with the Client... any breach or cancellation for any reason whatsoever... reimbursement... 30 days... full and final payment... Furthermore...’

As I read the next words, slugs are crawling up and down my back.

‘Furthermore, in the case of cancellation, should the Client marry within one year of the date of cancellation, the Client will be liable to a penalty of a hundred thousand dollars, payable to Wedding Events Inc.’

A hundred-thousand-dollar penalty.

And I’ve signed it.

‘A hundred thousand dollars?’ I say at last. ‘That... that seems a lot.’

‘That’s only for the silly girls who pretend to cancel and then get married anyway,’ says Robyn cheerily.

‘But why–’

‘Becky, if I plan a wedding, then I want that wedding to happen. We’ve had girls pull out before.’ Her voice suddenly hardens. ‘Girls who decided to go their own way. Girls who decided to use my ideas, my contacts. Girls who thought they could exploit my expertise and get away with it.’ She leans forward with glittering eyes, and I shrink back fearfully. ‘Becky, you don’t want to be those girls.’

She’s mad. The wedding planner’s mad.

‘G-good idea,’ I say quickly. ‘You have to protect yourself!’

‘Of course, Elinor could have signed it herself – but we agreed, this way, she’s protecting her investment, too!’ Robyn beams at me. ‘It’s a neat arrangement.’

‘Very clever!’ I give a shrill laugh and take a gulp of champagne.

What am I going to do? There must be some way out of this. There must be. People can’t force other people to get married. It’s not ethical.

***

OK. The really vital thing is to keep a sense of proportion. I mean, let’s face it, every wedding has the odd glitch, doesn’t it? You can’t expect the whole process to go smoothly. I’ve just bought a new book, called The Realistic Bride, which I’m finding very comforting at the moment. It has a huge chapter all about wedding hitches, and it says: ‘No matter how insurmountable the problem seems, there will always be a solution! So don’t worry!’

So the example they give is of a bride who loses her satin shoe on the way to the reception. Not a bride who has arranged two different weddings on the same day in different continents, is hiding half the invitations in a cocktail cabinet and has discovered her wedding planner is a litigious nutcase.

But you know. I’m sure the principle’s broadly the same.

The other thing which is keeping me sane is an invaluable tip which I would recommend to all brides-to-be. In fact, I’m surprised they don’t mention it in any of the bridal magazines. It’s to keep a small bottle of vodka in your bag, and take a sip whenever anyone mentions the wedding.

I’ve been back in New York for a week now, and during that time I’ve been to see about seventeen different lawyers about Robyn’s contract. All of them have looked at it carefully, told me they’re afraid it’s watertight, and advised me in future to read all docu­mentation before signing it.

Actually, that’s not quite true. One lawyer just said, ‘Sorry Miss, there’s nothing we can do,’ as soon as I mentioned that the contract was with Robyn de Bendern. Another said, ‘Girl, you’re in trouble,’ and put the phone down.

I can’t believe there isn’t a way out, though. As a last resort, I’ve sent it off to Garson Low, the most expensive lawyer in Manhattan. I read about him in People magazine, and it said he has the sharpest mind in the legal world. It said he can find a loophole in a piece of concrete, and is revered by all. So I’m kind of pinning all my hopes on him – and, meanwhile, trying very hard to act normally and not crumple into a gibbering wreck.

‘I’m having lunch with Michael today,’ says Luke, coming into the kitchen with a couple of boxes in his arms. ‘He seems to have settled into his new place well.’

Michael’s taken the plunge and moved to New York, which is fantastic for us. He’s working part-time as a consultant at Brandon Communications, and the rest of the time, as he put it, he’s ‘reclaiming his life’. He’s taken up painting, and has joined a group which power-walks in Central Park, and last time we saw him he was talking about taking a course in Italian cookery.

‘That’s great!’ I say.

‘He said we must come over soon...’ He peers at me. ‘Becky, are you all right?’

Abruptly I realize I’m drumming a pencil so hard it’s making indentations in the kitchen table.

‘I’m absolutely fine,’ I say, with an over-bright smile. ‘Why wouldn’t I be?’

I haven’t said a word about anything to Luke. In The Realistic Bride it says the way to stop your fiance getting bored with wedding details is to feed them to him on a need-to-know basis.

And, on balance, I don’t feel Luke needs to know anything just yet.

***

‘I received your letter yesterday,’ says Garson Low. ‘And I was intrigued by your dilemma. That’s quite a bind you’ve got yourself in.’

‘I know it is,’ I say. ‘That’s why I came to you.’

‘Is your fiance aware of the situation?’

‘Not yet.’ I lower my voice. ‘I’m hoping I’ll be able to find a solution first – and then tell him. You under­stand, Mr Low.’

‘I certainly do.’

This is great. We’ve got rapport and everything.

‘In that case,’ says Garson Low, ‘let’s get down to business.’

‘Absolutely!’ I feel a swell of relief. You see, this is what you get when you consult the most expensive lawyer in Manhattan. You get quick results.

‘First of all, the contract has been very cleverly drawn up,’ says Garson Low.

‘Right.’ I nod.

‘There are several extremely ingenious clauses, covering all eventualities.’

‘I see.’

‘I’ve examined it thoroughly. And as far as I can see, there is no way you can get married in Britain without incurring the penalty.’

‘Right.’ I nod expectantly.

There’s a short silence.

‘So... what’s the loophole?’ I ask eventually.

‘There is no loophole. Those are the facts.’

‘What?’ I stare confusedly at the phone. ‘But... that’s why you rang, isn’t it? To tell me you’d found a loophole. To tell me we could win!’

‘No, Miss Bloomwood. I rang to tell you that if I were you, I would start making arrangements to cancel your British wedding.’

I feel a stab of shock.

‘But... but I can’t. That’s the whole point. My mum’s had the house done up, and everything. It would kill her.’

‘Then I’m afraid you will have to pay Wedding Events Inc. the full penalty.’

‘But...’ My throat is tight. ‘I can't do that either. I haven’t got a hundred thousand dollars! There must be another way!’

‘I’m afraid–’

‘There must be some brilliant solution!’ I push back my hair, trying not to panic. ‘Come on! You’re supposed to be the cleverest person in America or something! You must be able to think of some way out!’

‘Miss Bloomwood, let me assure you. I have looked at this from all angles and there is no brilliant solution. There is no way out.’ Garson Low sighs. ‘May I give you three small pieces of advice?’

‘What are they?’ I say, with a flicker of hope.

‘The first is, never sign any document before reading it first.’

‘I know that!’ I cry, before I can stop myself. ‘What’s the good of everyone telling me that now?’

‘The second is – and I strongly recommend this – tell your fiance.’

‘And what’s the third?’

‘Hope for the best.’

 

Extract 10

 

OK. Don’t panic. This is going to work. If I just keep my head and remain calm, it’ll work.

‘It’ll never work,’ says Suze’s voice in my ear.

‘Shut up!’ I say crossly.

‘It’ll never work in a million years. I’m just warning you.’

‘You’re not supposed to be warning me! You’re supposed to be encouraging me!’ I lower my voice. ‘And as long as everyone does what they’re supposed to, it will work. It has to.’

I’m standing at the window of a twelfth-floor suite at the Plaza, staring out of the window at Plaza Square below. Outside, it's a hot sunny day. People are milling around in T-shirts and shorts, doing normal things like hiring horse carriages to go round the park, and tossing coins into the fountain.

And here am I, dressed in a towel, with my hair teased beyond recognition into a ‘Sleeping Beauty’ style, and make-up an inch thick, walking around in the highest white satin shoes I’ve ever come across in my life. (Christian Louboutin, from Barneys. I get a discount.)

‘What are you doing now?’ comes Suze’s voice again.

‘I’m looking out of the window.’

‘What are you doing that for?’

‘I don’t know.’ I gaze at a woman in denim shorts sitting down on a bench and snapping open a can of Coke, completely unaware she's being watched. ‘To try to get a grip on normality, I suppose.’

‘Normality?’ I hear Suze splutter down the phone. ‘Bex, it’s a bit late for normality!’

‘That’s not fair!’

‘If normality is planet Earth, do you know where you are right now?’

‘Er… the moon?’ I hazard.

‘You’re fifty million light years away. You’re... in another galaxy. A long long time ago.’

‘I do feel a bit like I’m in a different world,’ I admit, and turn to survey the palatial suite behind me.

The atmosphere is hushed and heavy with scent and hairspray and expectation. Everywhere I look there are lavish flower arrangements, baskets of fruit and chocolates, and bottles of champagne on ice. Over by the dressing table the hairdresser and make-up girl are chatting to one another while they work on Erin. Meanwhile the reportage photographer is changing his film, his assistant is watching Madonna on MTV and a room-service waiter is clearing away yet another round of cups and glasses.

It’s all so glamorous, so expensive. But, at the same time, what I’m reminded of most of all is getting ready for the summer school play. The windows would be covered in black material, and we’d all crowd round a mirror getting overexcited, and out the front we’d hear the parents filing in, but we wouldn’t be allowed to peek out and see them...

‘What are you doing now?’ comes Suze’s voice again.

‘Still looking out of the window.’

‘Well, stop looking out of the window! You’ve got less than an hour and a half to go!’

‘Suze, relax.’

‘How can I relax?’ It’s all fine. It’s all under control.’ And you haven’t told anyone,’ she says, for the millionth time. ‘You haven’t told Danny.’

‘Of course not! I’m not that stupid!’ I edge casually into a corner where no-one can hear me. ‘Only Michael knows. And Laurel. That’s it.’

‘And no-one suspects anything?’

‘Not a thing,’ I say, just as Robyn comes into the room. ‘Hi, Robyn! Suze, I’ll talk to you later, OK–’

I put the phone down and smile at Robyn, who’s wearing a bright pink suit and a headset and carrying a walkie-talkie.

‘OK, Becky,’ she says, in a serious, businesslike way. ‘Stage One is complete. Stage Two is under way. But we have a problem.’

‘Really?’ I swallow. ‘What’s that?’

‘None of Luke’s family have arrived yet. His father, his stepmother, some cousins who are on the list... You told me they’d spoken to you?’

‘Yes, they did.’ I clear my throat. ‘Actually... they just called again. I’m afraid there’s a problem with their plane. They said to seat other people in their places.’

‘Really?’ Robyn’s face falls. ‘This is too bad! I’ve never known a wedding have so many last-minute alterations! A new maid of honor... a new best man... a new officiant... it seems like everything’s changed!’

‘I know,’ I say apologetically. ‘I’m really sorry, and I know it’s meant a lot of work. It just suddenly seemed so obvious that Michael should marry us, rather than some stranger. I mean, since he’s such an old friend and he’s qualified to do it and everything. So then Luke had to have a new best man...’

‘But to change your minds three weeks before the wedding! And you know, Father Simon was quite upset to be rejected. He wondered if it was something to do with his hair.’

‘No! Of course not! It’s nothing to do with him, honestly–’

‘And then your parents both catching the measles. I mean, what kind of odds is that?’

‘I know!’ I pull a rueful face. ‘Sheer bad luck.’

There’s a crackle from the walkie-talkie and Robyn turns away.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘What’s that? No! I said radiant yellow light! Not blue! OK, I’m coming...’ As she reaches the door she looks back.

‘Becky, I have to go. I just needed to say, it’s been so hectic, what with all the changes, there are a couple of tiny additional details we didn’t have time to discuss. So I just went ahead with them. OK?’

‘Whatever,’ I say. ‘I trust your judgement. Thanks, Robyn.’

As Robyn leaves, there’s a tapping on the door and in comes Christina, looking absolutely amazing in pale gold Issey Miyake and holding a champagne glass.

‘How’s the bride?’ she says with a smile. ‘Feeling nervous?’

‘Not really!’ I say.

Which is kind of true.

In fact, it’s completely true. I’m beyond nervous. Either everything goes to plan and this all works out. Or it doesn’t and it’s a complete disaster. There’s not much I can do about it.

‘I just spoke to Laurel,’ she says, taking a sip of champagne. ‘I didn’t know she was so involved with the wedding.’

‘Oh, she’s not really,’ I say. ‘There’s just this tiny little favour she’s doing for me–’

‘So I understand.’ Christina eyes me over her glass, and I suddenly wonder how much Laurel has said to her.

‘Did she tell you... what the favour was?’ I say casually.

‘She gave me the gist. Becky, if you pull this off...’ says Christina. She shakes her head. ‘If you pull this off, you deserve the Nobel Prize for chutzpah.’ She raises her glass. ‘Here’s to you. And good luck.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Hey, Christina!’ We both look round to see Erin coming towards us. She’s already in her long violet maid-of-honor dress, her hair up in a medieval knot, eyes lit up with excitement. ‘Isn’t this Sleeping Beauty theme cool? Have you seen Becky’s wedding dress yet? I can’t believe I’m the maid of honor! I was never a maid of honor before!’

I think Erin’s a tad excited about her promotion. When I told her my best friend Suze couldn’t make it, and would she like to be maid of honor, she actually burst into tears.

‘I haven’t seen Becky’s wedding dress yet,’ says Christina. ‘I hardly dare to.’

‘It’s really nice!’ I protest. ‘Come and look.’

I lead her into the sumptuous dressing area, where Danny’s dress is hanging up.

‘It’s all in one piece,’ observes Christina laconically. ‘That’s a good start.’

‘Christina,’ I say, ‘this isn’t like the T-shirts. This is in a different league. Take a look!’

I just can’t believe what a fantastic job Danny has done. Although I’d never admit it to Christina, I wasn’t exactly counting on wearing his dress. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I was having secret Vera Wang fittings right up until a week ago.

But then one night Danny knocked on the door, his whole face lit up with excitement. He dragged me upstairs to his apartment, pulled me down the corridor and flung open the door to his room. And I was speechless.

From a distance it looks like a traditional white wedding dress, with a tight bodice, full, romantic skirt and long train. But the closer you get, the more you start spotting the fantastic customized details every­where. The white denim ruffles at the back. The trademark Danny little pleats and gatherings at the waistline. The white sequins and diamante and glitter scattered all over the train, like someone’s emptied a sweetie box over it.

I’ve never seen a wedding dress like it. It’s a work of art.

‘Well,’ says Christina. ‘I’ll be honest. When you told me you were wearing a creation by young Mr Kovitz, I was a little worried. But this...’ she touches a tiny bead. ‘I’m impressed. Assuming the train doesn’t fall off as you walk down the aisle.’

‘It won’t,’ I assure her. ‘I walked around our apart­ment in it for half an hour. Not one sequin fell off!’

‘You’re going to look amazing,’ says Erin dreamily. ‘Just like a princess. And in that room...’

‘The room is spectacular,’ says Christina. ‘I think a lot of jaws are going to be dropping.’

‘I haven’t seen it yet,’ I say. ‘Robyn didn’t want me going in.’

‘Oh, you should take a look,’ says Erin. ‘Just have a peek. Before it gets filled up with people.’

‘I can’t! What if someone sees me?’

‘Go on,’ says Erin. ‘Put on a scarf. No-one’ll know it’s you.’

***

I can’t believe I’ve made it to this moment. I honestly can’t believe it’s really happening. I’m wearing a wedding dress. I’m wearing a sparkly tiara in my hair.

I’m a bride.

As I’m led by Robyn down the empty, silent Plaza corridors, I feel a bit like the President in a Hollywood movie. ‘The Beauty is on the move,’ she’s muttering into her headset as we walk along the plushy red carpet. ‘The Beauty is approaching.’

We turn a corner and I catch a glimpse of myself in a huge antique mirror, and feel a dart of shock. Of course I know what I look like. I've just spent half an hour staring at myself in the suite upstairs, for goodness’ sake. But still, catching myself unawares, I can’t quite believe that girl in the veil is me. It’s me.

I’m about to walk up the aisle at the Plaza. Four hundred people watching every move. Oh God.

Oh God. What am I doing?

As I see the doors of the Terrace Room, I feel a shot of panic, and my fingers tighten around my bouquet. This is never going to work. I must be mad. I can’t do it. I want to run away.

But there’s nowhere to run. There’s nothing else to do but go forward.

Erin and the other bridesmaids are waiting, and, as we draw near, they all begin to coo over my dress. I’ve no idea what they’re all called. They’re daughters of Elinor’s friends. After today I’ll probably never see them again.

‘String orchestra. Stand by for Beauty,’ Robyn is saying into her headset.

‘Becky!’ I look up, and, thank God, it’s Danny, wear­ing a brocade frock coat over leather trousers, and carrying a taupe and bronze Ceremony Programme. ‘You look amazing.’

‘Really? Do I look OK?’

‘Spectacular,’ says Danny firmly. He adjusts the train, stands back for a look, then takes out a pair of scissors, and snips at a piece of ribbon.

‘Ready?’ says Robyn.

‘I guess,’ I say, feeling slightly sick.

The double doors swing open, and I hear the rustle of four hundred people turning in their seats. The string orchestra starts to play the theme from Sleeping Beauty, and the bridesmaids begin to process up the aisle.

And suddenly I’m walking forward. I’m walking into the enchanted forest, carried on the swell of the music. Little lights are twinkling overhead. Pine needles are giving off their scent under my feet. There’s the smell of fresh earth and the sound of birds chirruping, and the trickle of a tiny waterfall. Flowers are magically blooming as I take each step, and leaves are unfurling, and people are gasping as they look up. And I can see Luke up ahead, my handsome prince, waiting for me.

And now, finally, I start to relax. To savour it.

As I take each step, I feel as though I’m a prima ballerina doing the perfect arabesque at Covent Garden. Or a movie star arriving at the Oscars. Music playing, everyone looking at me, jewels in my hair and the most beautiful dress I’ve ever worn. I know I will never experience anything like this again in my life. Never. As I reach the top of the aisle, I slow my pace right down, breathing in the atmosphere, taking in the trees and the flowers and the wonderful scent. Trying to impress every detail on my mind. Relishing every magical second.

OK. I’ll admit it.

Elinor was right. When I tried to save this wedding, I wasn’t being completely altruistic. I wasn’t only doing it to salvage Luke’s relationship with his mother.

I wanted this for myself. I wanted to be a fairy princess for a day.

I reach Luke’s side and hand my bouquet to Erin. I smile warmly at Gary, Luke’s new best man – then take Luke’s hand. He gives it a little squeeze, and I squeeze it back.

And here’s Michael stepping forward, wearing a dark, vaguely clerical-looking suit.

He gives me a tiny, conspiratorial smile, then takes a deep breath and addresses the congregation.

‘Dearly beloved. We are gathered here together to witness the love between two people. We are here to watch them pledging their love for each other. And to join with them in celebrating the joy of their sharing of that love. God blesses all who love, and God will certainly bless Luke and Becky today as they exchange their vows.’

He turns to me, and I can hear the rustling behind me as people try to get a good view.

‘Do you, Rebecca, love Luke?’ he says. ‘Do you pledge yourself to him for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health? Do you put your trust in him now and for ever?’

‘I do,’ I say, unable to stop a tiny tremor in my voice.

‘Do you, Luke, love Rebecca? Do you pledge yourself to her for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health? Do you put your trust in her now and for ever?’

‘Yes,’ says Luke firmly. ‘I do.’

‘May God bless Luke and Becky and may they have happiness always.

 

Extract 11

 

I can’t quite believe we’re getting away with it. No-one’s said anything. No-one’s questioned a thing. A couple of people have asked to see the ring, and I’ve just flashed them the band of my engagement ring, turned round.

We’ve eaten sushi and caviar. We’ve had an amazing four-course dinner. We’ve drunk toasts. It’s all gone according to plan. We cut the cake with a huge silver sword and everybody cheered, and then the band started to play ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and Luke led me onto the dance floor and we started dancing. And that was one of those moments I’ll keep in my scrapbook for ever. A whirl of white and gold and glitter and music, and Luke’s arms around me, and my head giddy from champagne, and the knowledge that this was it, this was the high, and soon it would be over.

And now the party’s in full swing. The band’s play­ing a jazzy number I don’t recognize, and the dance floor’s full. Amid the throng of well-dressed strangers, I can pick out a few familiar faces. Christina’s dancing with her date, and Erin is chatting to one of the groomsmen. And there’s Laurel, dancing very energeti­cally with... Michael!

Well now. That’s a thought.

‘So. Guess how many people have asked for my card?’ says a voice in my ear. I turn round, to see Danny looking triumphant, a glass of champagne in each hand and a cigarette in his mouth. ‘Twenty! At least! One wanted me to measure her up, right then and there. They all think the dress is to die for. And when I told them I’d worked with John Galliano...’

‘Danny, you’ve never worked with John Galliano!’

‘I passed him a cup of coffee once,’ he says defens­ively. ‘And he thanked me. That was, in its way, an artistic communication...’

‘If you say so.’ I grin at him happily. ‘I’m so pleased for you.’

‘So are you enjoying yourself?’

‘Of course!’

‘Your mother-in-law is in her element.’

We both turn to survey Elinor, who is sitting at the top table, surrounded by smart ladies. There’s a slight glow to her cheek and she looks about as animated as I’ve ever seen her. She’s wearing a long sweeping pale green dress, and huge quantities of diamonds, and looks like the belle of the ball. Which, in a way, she is. These are her friends. This is really her party, not Luke’s or mine. It’s a wonderful spectacle. It’s a wonderful occasion to be a guest at.

And that’s kind of what I feel I am.

A group of women go by, chattering loudly, and I hear snatches of conversation.

‘Spectacular...’

‘So imaginative...’

They smile at me and Danny, and I smile back. But my mouth is feeling a bit stiff. I’m tired of smiling at people I don’t know.

‘It’s a great wedding,’ says Danny, looking around the glittering room. ‘Really spectacular. Although it’s less you than I would have thought.’

‘Really? What makes you say that?’

‘I’m not saying it’s not fantastic. It’s very slick, very lavish. It’s just... not like I imagined you’d have your wedding. But I was wrong,’ he adds hastily as he sees my expression. ‘Obviously.’

I look at his wiry, comical, unsuspecting face. Oh God. I have to tell him. I can’t not tell Danny.

‘Danny, there’s something you should know,’ I say in an undertone.

‘What?’

‘About this wedding–’

‘Hi kids!’

I break off guiltily and turn around – but it’s only Laurel, all flushed and happy from dancing.

‘Great party, Becky,’ she says. ‘Great band. Christ, I’d forgotten how much I love to dance.’

I survey her appearance in slight dismay.

‘Laurel,’ I say. ‘You don’t roll up the sleeves of a $1,000 Yves St Laurent dress.’

‘I was hot,’ she says with a cheerful shrug. ‘Now Becky, I hate to tell you.’ She lowers her voice. ‘But you’re going to have to get going pretty soon.’

‘Already?’ I look instinctively at my wrist, but I’m not wearing a watch.

‘The car’s waiting outside,’ says Laurel. ‘The driver has all the details, and he’ll show you where to go at JFK. It’s a different procedure for private planes, but it should be straightforward. Any problems, you call me.’ She lowers her voice to a whisper, and I glance at Danny, who’s pretending not to be listening. ‘You should be in England in plenty of time. I really hope it all works out.’

I reach out and hug her tightly.

‘Laurel... you’re a star,’ I mutter. ‘I don’t know what to say.’

‘Becky, believe me. This is nothing. After what you did for me, you could have had ten planes.’ She hugs me back, then looks at her watch. ‘You’d better find Luke. I’ll see you in a bit.’

After she’s gone there’s a short, interested silence.

‘Becky, did I just catch the words “private plane”?’ says Danny.

‘Er... yes. Yes, you did.’

‘You’re flying on a private plane?’

‘Yes.’ I try to sound nonchalant. ‘We are. It’s Laurel’s wedding present to us.’

‘She snapped up the private jet?’ Danny shakes his head. ‘Damn. You know, I was planning to get you that myself. It was between that and the egg beater...’

‘Idiot! She’s president of a plane company.’

‘Jesus. A private plane. So... where are you heading? Or is it still a big secret?’ I watch as he takes a drag from his cigarette, and feel a sudden huge wave of affection for him.

I don’t just want to tell Danny what’s going on.

I want him to be a part of this.

‘Danny,’ I say. ‘Do you have your passport on you?’

It takes me a while to find Luke. He’s been trapped in a corner by two corporate financiers, and leaps up grate­fully as soon as I appear. We go around the huge crowded room, saying goodbye and thank you for coming to all the guests that we know. To be honest, it doesn’t take that long.

Last of all, we approach the top table and interrupt Elinor as discreetly as we can.

‘Mother, we’re going now,’ says Luke.

‘Now?’ Elinor frowns. ‘It’s too early.’

‘Well... we’re going.’

‘Thank you for a wonderful wedding,’ I say sincerely. ‘It was really amazing. Everyone’s been saying how wonderful it is.’ I bend to kiss her. ‘Goodbye.’

Why do I have the strongest feeling I’m never going to see Elinor again?

‘Goodbye Becky,’ she says, in that formal way of hers. ‘Goodbye Luke.’

‘Goodbye Mother.’

They gaze at each other – and for a moment I think Elinor’s going to say something else. But instead she leans forward rather stiffly and kisses Luke on the cheek.

‘Becky!’ I feel someone poking me on the shoulder. ‘Becky, you’re not going yet!’ I turn round to see Robyn looking perturbed.

‘Er... yes. We’re off. Thank you so much for everything you’ve–’

‘You can’t go yet!’

‘No-one will notice,’ I say, glancing around the party.

‘They have to notice! We have an exit planned, remember? The rose petals? The music?’

‘Well... maybe we could forget the exit–’

‘Forget the exit?’ Robyn stares at me. ‘Are you joking? Orchestra!’ she says urgently into her headpiece. ‘Segue to “Some Day” Do you copy? Segue to “Some Day”.’

She lifts the walkie-talkie. ‘Lighting crew, stand by with rose petals.’

‘Robyn,’ I say helplessly. ‘Honestly, we just wanted to slip away quietly...’

‘My brides do not slip away quietly! Cue fanfare,’ she mutters into her headpiece. ‘Lighting crew, prepare exit spotlight.’

There’s a sudden loud fanfare of trumpets, and the guests on the dance floor all jump. The lighting changes from disco beat to a radiant pink glow, and the band starts to play ‘Some Day my Prince Will Come’.

‘Go Beauty and Prince,’ says Robyn, giving me a little shove. ‘Go! One two three, one two three...’

Exchanging looks, Luke and I make it onto the dance floor, where the guests part to let us through. The music is all around us, a spotlight is following our path, and, all of a sudden, rose petals start falling gently from the ceiling.

This is rather lovely, actually. Everyone’s beaming benevolently, and I can hear some ‘Aahs’ as we go by. The glow of pink light is like being inside a rainbow, and the rose petals smell wonderful as they land on our heads and arms and drift to the floor. Luke and I are smiling at each other, and there’s a petal in his hair–

‘Stop!’

As I hear the voice, I feel a sudden horrible lurch.

The double doors have opened, and there she is, standing in the doorway. Wearing a black suit and the highest, pointiest black boots I’ve ever seen.

The evil fairy herself.

Everyone turns to look, and the orchestra peters out uncertainly.

‘Alicia?’ says Luke in astonishment. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Having a good wedding, Luke?’ she says, with a malicious little smirk.

She takes a few steps into the room, and I see the guests shrinking away as she passes.

‘Come in,’ I say quickly. ‘Come on in and join the party. We would have invited you...’

‘I know what you’re doing, Becky.’

‘We’re getting married!’ I say, trying to sound light-hearted. ‘No prizes for guessing that!’

‘I know exactly what you’re doing. I’ve got friends in Surrey. They’ve been checking things out.’ She meets my eyes triumphantly and I feel a coldness around my spine.

No.

Please, no.

Not after we’ve got so far.

‘I think you have a teeny little secret you’re not sharing with the rest of your guests.’ Alicia pulls a mock-concerned face. ‘That’s not very polite, is it?’

I can't move. I can't breathe. I need my fairy god­mothers, quick.

Laurel shoots me a horrified look.

Christina puts down her champagne glass.

‘Code red. Code red,’ I hear Robyn’s voice crackling from the bouquet. ‘Urgent. Code red.’

Now Alicia’s walking around the dance floor, taking her time, relishing the attention.

‘The truth is,’ she says pleasantly, ‘this is all a bit of a sham. Isn’t it, Becky?’

My eye flickers behind her. Two burly minders in DJs are approaching the dance floor. But they’re not going to get there in time. It’s all going to be ruined.

‘It all looks so lovely. It all looks so romantic.’ Her voice suddenly hardens. ‘But what people might like to know is that this so-called perfect Plaza wedding is actually a complete and utter... arrrgh!’ Her voice rises to a scream. ‘Put me down!’

I don’t believe it. It’s Luke.

He’s calmly walked up to her and hoisted her up onto his shoulder. And now he’s carrying her out, like a naughty toddler.

‘Put me down!’ she cries. ‘Someone bloody well help me!’

But the guests are starting to laugh. She kicks Luke with her pointy boots, and he raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t stop striding.

‘It’s a fake!’ she shrieks as they reach the door. ‘It’s a fake! They’re not really–’

The door slams, cutting her off, and there's a silent, shocked moment. No-one moves, not even Robyn. Then, slowly, the door opens again, and Luke re­appears, brushing his hands.

‘I don’t like gatecrashers,’ he says dryly.

‘Bravo,’ shouts a woman I don’t recognize. Luke gives a little bow, and there’s a huge, relieved laugh, and soon the whole room is applauding.

My heart is thumping so hard I’m not sure I can keep standing. As Luke rejoins me, I reach for his hand and he squeezes mine tightly. I just want to go now. I want to get away.

There’s an interested babble around the room, and, thank God, I can hear people murmuring things like ‘deranged’ and ‘must be jealous’. A woman in head-to-toe Prada is even saying brightly, ‘You know, exactly the same thing happened at our wedding–’

Oh God, and now here come Elinor and Robyn, side by side like the two queens in Alice in Wonderland.

‘I’m so sorry!’ says Robyn as soon as she gets near. ‘Don’t let it upset you, sweetheart. She’s just a sad girl with a grudge.’

‘Who was that?’ says Elinor, with a frown. ‘Did you know her?’

‘A disgruntled ex-client,’ says Robyn. ‘Some of these girls become very bitter. I’ve no idea what happens to them! One minute they’re sweet young things, the next minute they’re throwing lawsuits around! Don’t worry, Becky. We’ll do the exit again. Attention, orchestra,’ she says urgently. ‘Reprise “Some Day”, at the signal. Lighting crew, stand by with emergency rose petals.’

‘You have emergency rose petals?’ I say in disbelief. Sweetheart, I have every eventuality covered.’ She twinkles at me. ‘This is why you hire a wedding planner!’

‘Robyn,’ I say honestly. ‘I think you’re worth every penny.’ I put an arm round her and give her a kiss. ‘Bye. And bye again, Elinor.’

The music swells through the air again, we start processing again, and more rose petals start cascading from the ceiling. I really have to hand it to Robyn. People are crowding around and applauding – and is it my imagination, or do they look a bit friendlier, following the Alicia incident? At the end of the line I spot Erin leaning eagerly forward, and I toss my bouquet into her outstretched hands.

And then we’re out.

The heavy double doors close behind us and we’re in the silent, plushy corridor, empty but for the two bouncers, who stare studiously ahead.

‘We did it,’ I say, half-laughing in relief; in exhilar­ation. ‘Luke, we did it!’

‘So I gather,’ says Luke, nodding. ‘Well done us. Now, do you mind telling me what is going on?’

 

Extract 12

 

Laurel has arranged it all perfectly. The plane is ready for us at JFK, and we arrive at Gatwick at about eight in the morning, where another car is waiting for us. And now we’re speeding through Surrey towards Oxshott. We’ll be there soon! I can’t quite believe how seamless it’s all been.

‘Of course, you know your big mistake,’ says Danny, stretching luxuriously back in the leather Mercedes seat.

‘What’s that?’ I say, looking up from the phone.

‘Sticking to two weddings. I mean, as long as you’re going to do it more than once, why not three times? Why not six times? Six parties...’

‘Six dresses...’ puts in Luke.

‘Six cakes...’

‘Look, shut up!’ I say indignantly. ‘I didn’t do all this intentionally, you know! It just... happened.’

‘Just happened,’ echoes Danny scoffingly. ‘Becky, you needn’t pretend to us. You wanted to wear two dresses. There’s no shame in it.’

‘Danny, I’m on the phone–’ I look out of the window. ‘OK, Suze, I think we’re about ten minutes away.’

‘I just can’t believe you’ve made it,’ says Suze down the line. ‘I can’t believe it all worked out! I feel like rushing around, telling everyone!’

‘Well don’t!’

‘But it’s so incredible! To think last night you were at the Plaza, and now–’ She stops in sudden alarm ‘Hey, you’re not still wearing your wedding dress are you?’

‘Of course not!’ I giggle. ‘I’m not a complete moron. We changed on the plane.’

‘And what was that like?’

‘It was so cool. Honestly, Suze, I’m only ever travel­ling by Lear jet from now on.’

It’s a bright sunny day, and, as I look out of the window at the passing fields, I feel a swell of happi­ness. I can’t quite believe it’s all fallen into place. After all these months of worry and trouble. We’re here in England. The sun is shining. And we’re going to get married.

‘You know, I’m a tad concerned,’ says Danny, peering out of the window. ‘Where are all the castles?’

‘This is Surrey,’ I explain. ‘We don’t have castles.’

‘And where are the soldiers with bearskins on their heads?’ He narrows his eyes. ‘Becky, you’re sure this is England? You’re sure that pilot knew where he was going?’

‘Pretty sure,’ I say, getting out my lipstick.

‘I don’t know,’ he says doubtfully. ‘This looks a lot more like France to me.’

We pull up at a traffic light and he winds down the window.

‘Bonjour,’ he says to a startled woman. ‘Comment allez-vous?’

‘I... I wouldn’t know,’ says the woman, and hurries across the road.

‘I knew it,’ says Danny. ‘Becky, I hate to break it to you... but this is France.’

‘It’s Oxshott, you idiot,’ I retort. ‘And... oh God. Here’s our road.’

I feel a huge spasm of nerves as I see the familiar sign. We’re nearly there.

‘OK,’ says the driver. ‘Elton Road. Which number?’

‘Number 43. The house over there,’ I say. ‘The one with the balloons and the bunting… and the silver stramers in the trees...’

Blimey. The whole place looks like a fairground.

There’s a man up in the horse-chestnut tree at the front, threading light bulbs through the branches, and a white an parked in the drive, and women in green and white stripy uniforms bustling in and out of the house.

‘Looks like they’re expecting you, anyway,’ says Danny. ‘You OK?’

‘Fine,’ I say – and it’s ridiculous, but my voice is shaking.

The car comes to a halt, and so does the other car behind, which is carrying all our luggage.

‘What I don’t understand,’ says Luke, staring out at all the activity, ‘is how you managed to shift an entire wedding by a day. At three weeks’ notice. I mean, you’re talking the caterers, you’re talking the band, you’re talking a million different very busy profes­sionals...’

‘Luke, this isn’t Manhattan,’ I say, opening the car door. ‘You’ll see.’

As we get out, the front door swings open, and there’s Mum, wearing tartan trousers and a sweatshirt reading MOTHER OF THE BRIDE.

‘Becky!’ she cries, and runs over to give me a hug. ‘Mum.’ I hug her back. ‘Is everything OK?’ ‘Everything’s under control, I think!’ she says a little flusteredly. ‘We had a problem with the table posies, but fingers crossed, they should be on their way... Luke! How are you? How was the financial conference?’

‘It went er... very well,’ he says. ‘Very well indeed, thank you. I’m just sorry it’s caused so much trouble with the wedding arrangements–’

‘Oh, that’s all right!’ says Mum. ‘I’ll admit I was a bit taken aback when Becky phoned. But in the event, it didn’t take much doing! Most of the guests were staying over for Sunday brunch, anyway. And Peter at the church was most understanding, and said he didn’t usually conduct weddings on a Sunday, but in this case he’d make an exception–’

‘But what about... the catering, for instance? Wasn’t that all booked for yesterday?’

‘Oh, Lulu didn’t mind! Did you, Lulu?’ she says to one of the women in green and white stripes.

‘No!’ says Lulu brightly. ‘Of course not. Hello, Becky! How are you?’

Oh my God! It’s Lulu who used to take me for Brownies.

‘Hi!’ I say, ‘I didn’t know you did catering!’

‘Oh well.’ She makes a self-deprecating little gesture. ‘It’s just to keep me busy, really. Now the children are older...’

‘You know, Lulu’s son Aaron is in the band!’ says Mum proudly. ‘He plays the keyboards! And you know, they’re very good! They’ve been practising up “Unchained Melody” especially–’

‘Now, just taste this!’ says Lulu, reaching into a foil-covered tray and producing a canape. ‘It’s our new Thai filo parcels. We’re rather pleased with them. You know, filo pastry is very in now.’

‘Really?’

‘Oh yes.’ Lulu nods knowledgeably. ‘No-one has shortcrust tartlets any more. And as for vol au vents...’ She pulls a little face. ‘Over.’

‘You are so right,’ says Danny, his eyes bright. ‘The vol au vent is dead. The vol au vent is toast, if you will. May I ask where you stand on the asparagus roll?’

‘Mum, this is Danny,’ I put in quickly. ‘My neigh­bour, remember?’

‘Mrs B, it’s an honour to meet you,’ says Danny, kissing Mum’s hand. ‘You don’t mind my tagging along with Becky?’

‘Of course not!’ says Mum. ‘The more the merrier! Now, come and see the marquee!’

As we walk round to the garden, my jaw drops open. A huge silver and white striped marquee is billowing on the lawn. All the flower beds read ‘Becky and Luke’ in pansies. There are fairy lights strung up in every available bush and shrub. A uniformed gardener is polishing a new granite water feature, someone else is sweeping the patio, and inside the marquee I can see lots of middle-aged women sitting in a semicircle, holding notebooks.

‘Janice is just giving the girls the team briefing,’ says Mum in an undertone. ‘She’s really got into this wedding-organizing lark now. She wants to start doing it professionally!’

‘Now,’ I hear Janice saying, as we approach. ‘The emergency rose petals will be in a silver basket by Pillar A. Could you all please mark that on your floorplans–’

‘You know, I think she’ll be a success,’ I say thought­fully.

‘Betty and Margot, if you could be in charge of button­holes. Annabel, if you could please take care of–’

‘Mum?’ says Luke, peering into the marquee in­credulously.

Oh my God. It’s Annabel! It’s Luke’s stepmum, sitting there along with everyone else.

‘Luke!’ Annabel looks round and her entire face lights up. ‘Janice, excuse me for a moment–’

She hurries towards us and envelops Luke in a tight hug.

‘You’re here. I’m so glad to see you.’ She peers anxiously into his face. ‘Are you all right, darling?’

‘I’m fine,’ says Luke. ‘I think. A lot’s been going on...’

‘So I understand,’ says Annabel, and gives me a sharp look. ‘Becky.’ She reaches out with one arm and hugs me, too. ‘I’m going to have a long chat with you later,’ she says into my ear.

‘So... you’re helping with the wedding?’ says Luke to his mother.

‘Oh, it’s all hands to the deck around here,’ says Mum gaily. ‘Annabel’s one of us now!’

‘And where’s Dad?’ says Luke, looking around.

‘He’s gone to get some extra glasses with Graham,’ says Mum. ‘Those two have really hit it off. Now, who’s for a cup of coffee?’

‘You’re getting on well with Luke’s parents!’ I say, following Mum towards the kitchen.

‘Oh, they’re super!’ she says happily. ‘Really charm­ing. They’ve already invited us down to stay in Devon. Nice, normal, down-to-earth people. Not like... that woman.’

‘No. They’re quite different from Elinor.’

‘She didn’t seem at all interested in the wedding,’ says Mum, her voice prickling slightly. ‘You know, she never even replied to her invitation!’

‘Didn’t she?’

Damn. I thought I’d done a reply from Elinor.

‘Have you seen much of her recently?’ says Mum.

‘Er... no,’ I say. ‘Not much.’

We carry a tray of coffee upstairs to Mum’s bedroom, and open the door to find Suze and Danny sitting on the bed, with Ernie lying between them, kicking his little pink feet. And, hanging on the wardrobe door opposite, Mum’s wedding dress, as white and frilly as ever.

‘Suze!’ I exclaim, giving her a hug. ‘And gorgeous Ernie! He’s got so big–’ I bend down to kiss his cheek, and he gives me an enormous gummy smile.

‘You made it.’ Suze grins at me. ‘Well done, Bex.’

‘Suze has just been showing me your family heirloom wedding dress, Mrs B,’ says Danny, raising his eye­brows at me. ‘It’s... quite unique.’

‘This dress is a real survivor!’ says Mum delightedly. ‘We thought it was ruined, but all the coffee came out!’

‘What a miracle!’ says Danny.

‘And even just this morning, little Ernie tried to throw apple puree over it–’

‘Oh really?’ I say, glancing at Suze, who flushes slightly.

‘But luckily I’d covered it in protective plastic!’ says Mum. She reaches for the dress and shakes out the frills, slightly pink about the eyes. ‘This is a moment I’ve been dreaming about for so long. Becky wearing my wedding dress. I am a silly, aren’t I?’

‘It’s not silly,’ I say and give her a hug. ‘It’s what weddings are all about.’

‘Mrs Bloomwood, Becky described the dress to me,’ says Danny. ‘And I can honestly say she didn’t do it justice. But you won’t mind if I make a couple of teeny tiny alterations?’

‘Not at all!’ says Mum, and glances at her watch. ‘Well, I must get on. I’ve still got to chase these posies!’

As the door closes behind her, Danny and Suze exchange glances.

‘OK,’ says Danny. ‘What are we going to do with this?’

‘You could cut the sleeves off, for a start,’ says Suze. ‘And all those frills on the bodice.’

‘I mean, how much of it do we actually need to keep?’ Danny looks up. ‘Becky, what do you think?’

I don’t reply. I’m staring out of the window. I can see Luke and Annabel walking round the garden, their heads close together, talking. And there’s Mum talking to Janice, and gesturing to the flowering cherry tree.

‘Becky?’ says Danny again.

‘Don’t touch it,’ I say, turning round.

‘What?’

‘Don’t do anything to it,’ I smile at Danny’s appalled face. ‘Just leave it as it is.’

At ten to three I’m ready. I’m wearing the sausage-roll dress. My face has been made up by Janice as Radiant Spring Bride, only slightly toned down with a tissue and water. I’ve got a garland of bright pink carnations and gypsophila in my hair, which Mum ordered along with my bouquet. The only remotely stylish thing about me is my Christian Louboutin shoes, which you can’t even see.

And I don’t care. I look exactly how I want to look.

We’ve had our photos taken by the flowering cherry tree, and Mum has wept all down her ‘Summer Elegance’ make-up and had to be retouched. And now everyone has gone off to the church. It’s me and Dad, waiting to go.

‘Ready?’ he says, as a white Rolls-Royce purrs into the drive.

‘I think so,’ I say, a slight wobble to my voice.

I’m getting married. I’m really getting married.

‘Do you think I’m doing the right thing?’ I say, only half-joking.

‘Oh, I think so.’ Dad looks into the hallstand mirror, and adjusts his silk tie. ‘I remember saying to your mother, the very first day I met Luke, “This one will keep up with Becky.” ’ He meets my eye in the mirror. ‘Was I right, love? Does he keep up with you?’

‘Not quite.’ I grin at him. ‘But... he’s getting there.’

‘Good.’ Dad smiles back. ‘That’s probably all he can hope for.’

The driver is ringing the doorbell, and, as I open the door, I peer at the face under the peaked cap. I don’t believe it. It’s my old driving instructor, Clive.

‘Clive! Hi! How are you?’

‘Becky Bloomwood!’ he exclaims. ‘Well I never! Becky Bloomwood, getting married! Did you ever pass your test, then?’

‘Er... yes. Eventually.’

‘Who would have thought it?’ He shakes his head, marvelling. ‘I used to go home to the wife and say, “If that girl passes her test, I’m a fried egg.” And then of course, when it came to it–’

‘Yes, well, anyway–’

‘That examiner said he’d never known anything like it. Has your husband-to-be seen you drive?’

‘Yes.’

‘And he still wants to marry you?’

‘Yes!’ I say crossly.

Honestly. This is my wedding day. I shouldn’t have to be reminded about stupid driving tests that happened years ago.

‘Shall we get in?’ says Dad tactfully. ‘Hello, Clive. Nice to see you again.’

We walk out into the drive, and as we reach the car I look back at the house. When I see it again I’ll be a married woman. I take a deep breath and step into the car.

‘Stooooop!’ comes a voice. ‘Becky! Stop!’

I freeze in terror, one foot inside the car. What’s happened? Who’s found out? What do they know?

‘I can’t let you go through with this!’

What? This doesn’t make any sense. Tom Webster from next door is pelting towards us in his morning suit. What does he think he’s doing? He’s supposed to be ushing at the church.

‘Becky, I can’t stand by and watch,’ he says breath­lessly, planting a hand on the Rolls-Royce. This could be the biggest mistake of your life. You haven’t thought it through.’

Oh, for God’s sake.

‘Yes, I have,’ I say, and try to elbow him out of the way. But he grabs my shoulder.

‘It hit me last night. We belong together. You and me. Think about it, Becky. We’ve known each other all our lives. We’ve grown up together. Maybe it’s taken us a while to discover our true feelings for each other... but don’t we deserve to give them a chance?’

‘Tom, I haven’t got any feelings for you,’ I say. ‘And I’m getting married in two minutes. So can you get out of my way?’

‘You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for! You have no idea of the reality of marriage! Becky, tell me honestly. Do you really envisage yourself spending the rest of your days with Luke? Day after day, night after night? Hour after endless hour?’

‘Yes!’ I say, losing my temper. ‘I do! I love Luke very much and I do want to spend the rest of my days with him! Tom, it has taken a lot of time and effort and trouble for me to get to this moment. More than you can possibly imagine. And if you don’t get out of my way right now and let me go to my wedding... I’ll kill you.’

‘Tom,’ puts in Dad. ‘I think the answer’s no.’

‘Oh.’ Tom is silent for a moment. ‘Well... OK.’ He gives an abashed shrug. ‘Sorry.’

‘You never did have any sense of timing, Tom Web­ster,’ says Clive scornfully. ‘I remember the first time you ever pulled out into a roundabout. Nearly killed us both, you did!’

‘It’s OK. No harm done. Can we go now?’ I step into the car, arranging my dress around me, and Dad gets in beside me.

‘I’ll see you there, then, shall I?’ says Tom mourn­fully, and I raise my eyes heavenwards.

‘Tom, do you want a lift to the church?’

‘Oh, thanks. That’d be great. Hi Graham,’ he says awkwardly to my father as he clambers in. ‘Sorry about that.’

‘That’s quite all right, Tom,’ says my father, patting him on the back. ‘We all have our little moments.’ He pulls a face at me over Tom’s head and I quell a giggle.

‘So. Are we all set?’ says Clive, turning in his seat. ‘Any sudden changes of heart? Any more last-minute protestations of love? Any three-point turns?’

‘No!’ I say. ‘There’s nothing else. Let’s go already!’

As we arrive at the church, the bells are ringing, the sun is shining and a couple of last-minute guests are hurrying in. Tom opens the car door and dashes down the path without a backward glance, while I fluff out my train to the admiring glances of passers-by.

God, it is fun being a bride. I’m going to miss it.

‘All set?’ says Dad, handing me my bouquet.

‘I think so.’ I grin at him and take his outstretched arm.

‘Good luck,’ says Clive, then nods ahead. ‘You’ve got a couple of late ones here.’

A black taxi is pulling up in front of the church, and both passenger doors are flung open. I stare ahead incredulously, wondering if I’m dreaming, as Michael gets out, still in his evening dress from the Plaza. He extends a hand back into the taxi, and the next moment Laurel appears, still in her Yves St Laurent with the sleeves rolled up.

‘Don’t let us put you off!’ she says. ‘We’ll just sneak in somewhere–’

‘But... but what the hell are you doing here?’

‘Language,’ says Clive reprovingly.

‘What’s the point of being in control of a hundred private jets if you can’t fly wherever you want?’ says Laurel, as she comes over to hug me. ‘We suddenly decided we wanted to see you get married.’

‘For real,’ says Michael into my ear. ‘Hats off to you, Becky.’

When they’ve disappeared into the church, Dad and I make our way down the path to the porch where Suze is excitedly waiting. She’s wearing a silvery blue dress, and carrying Ernie, who’s wearing a matching romper suit. As I peep inside the church, I can see the gathered faces of all my family; all my old friends; all Luke’s friends and relations. Sitting side by side, all lit up, happy and expectant.

The organ stops playing, and I feel a stab of nerves.

It’s finally happening. I’m finally getting married. For real.

Then the Bridal March starts and Dad gives my arm a squeeze, and we start to process up the aisle.

***

We’re married.

We’re really married.

I look down at the shiny wedding band which Luke slid onto my finger in the church. Then I look around at the scene before me. The marquee is glowing in the summer dusk, and the band is playing a ropy version of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, and people are dancing. And maybe the music isn’t as smooth as it was at the Plaza. And maybe the guests aren’t all as well dressed. But they’re ours. They’re all ours.

We had a lovely dinner of watercress soup, rack of lamb and summer pudding, and we drank lots of champagne and the wine which Mum and Dad got in France. And then Dad rattled his fork in a glass and made a speech about me and Luke. He said that he and Mum had often talked about the kind of man I would marry, and they’d always disagreed on every­thing except one thing – ‘he’ll have to be on his toes’. Then he looked at Luke, who obligingly got up and turned a pirouette, and everyone roared with laughter. Dad said he’d become very fond of Luke and his parents, and that this was more than just a marriage, it was a joining of families. And then he said he knew I would be a very loyal and supportive wife, and told the story of how when I was eight I wrote to Downing Street and proposed my father as prime minister – and then a week later wrote again to ask why they hadn’t replied – and everyone laughed again.

Then Luke made a speech about how we met in London when I was a financial journalist, and how he noticed me at my very first press conference, when I asked the PR director of Barclays Bank why they didn’t make fashion cheque-book covers like they have for mobile phones. And then he confessed that he’d started sending me invitations to PR events even when they weren’t relevant to my magazine, just because I always livened up proceedings.

(He’s never told me that before. But now it all makes sense! That’s why I kept being invited to all those weird conferences on commodity broking and the state of the steel industry.)

Last of all, Michael stood up, and introduced himself in his warm, gravelly voice, and spoke about Luke. About how fantastically successful he is but how he needs someone by his side, someone who really loves him for the person he is and will stop him taking life too seriously. Then he said it was an honour to meet my parents, and they’d been so friendly and welcoming to a pair of complete strangers, he could see where I got what he called the ‘Bloomwood bloom’ of good-hearted happiness. And he said that I’d really grown up recently. That he’d watched me cope with some very tricky situations, and he wouldn’t go into details, but I’d had quite a few challenges to deal with and some­how I’d managed to solve them all.

Without using a Visa card, he added, and there was the hugest roar of laughter, all around the marquee.

And then he said he’d attended many weddings in his time, but he’d never felt the contentment he was feeling right now. He knew Luke and I were meant to be with each other, and he was extremely fond of us both, and we didn’t know how lucky we were. And if we were blessed with children, they wouldn’t know how lucky they were, either.

Michael’s speech nearly made me cry, actually.

And now I’m sitting with Luke on the grass. Just the two of us, away from everyone else for a moment. My Christian Louboutins are all smeared with grass stains, and Ernie’s strawberry-covered fingers have left their mark on my bodice. I should think I look a complete mess. But I’m happy.

I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.

‘So,’ says Luke. He leans back on his elbows and stares up at the darkening blue sky. ‘We made it.’

‘We made it.’ My garland of flowers is starting to fall down over one eye, so I carefully unpin it and place it on the grass. ‘And no casualties.’

‘You know... I feel as though the past few weeks have been a weird dream,’ says Luke. ‘I’ve been in my own, preoccupied world, with no idea what was happening in real life.’ He shakes his head. ‘I think I nearly went off the rails back then.’

‘Nearly?’

‘OK, then. I did go off the rails.’ He turns to look at me, his dark eyes glowing in the light from the marquee. ‘I owe a lot to you, Becky.’

‘You don’t owe me anything,’ I say in surprise. ‘We’re married now. It’s like... everything’s a joint account.’

There’s a rumbling sound from the side of the house, and I look up to see Dad loading our suitcases into the car. All ready for us to go.

‘So,’ says Luke, following my gaze. ‘Our famous honeymoon. Am I allowed to know where we’re going yet? Or is it still a secret?’

I feel a spasm of nerves inside. Here it comes. The last bit of my plan. The very last cherry on top of the cake.

‘OK,’ I say, and take a deep breath. ‘Here goes. I’ve been thinking a lot about us, recently, Luke. About being married, about where we should live. Whether we should stay in New York or not. What we should do...’ I pause, carefully marshalling my words. ‘And what I’ve realized is... I’m not ready to settle down. Tom and Lucy tried to settle down too early, and just look what happened to them. And I adore little Ernie, but seeing what it was like for Suze... It made me realize I’m not ready for a baby, either. Not yet.’ I look up apprehensively. ‘Luke, there are so many things I’ve never done. I’ve never really travelled. I’ve never seen the world. Neither have you.’

‘You’ve lived in New York,’ points out Luke.

‘New York is a great city and I do love it. But there are other great cities, all over the world. I want to see those, too. Sydney. Hong Kong... and not just cities!’ I spread my arms. ‘Rivers... mountains... all the sights of the world...’

‘Right,’ says Luke amusedly. ‘So, narrowing all this down to one honeymoon...’

‘OK.’ I swallow hard. ‘Here’s what I’ve done. I’ve cashed in all the wedding presents we got in New York. Stupid silver candlesticks and teapots and stuff. And I’ve... I’ve bought us two first-class tickets round the world.’

‘Round the world?’ Luke looks genuinely taken aback. ‘Are you serious?’

‘Yes! Round the world!’ I plait my fingers together tightly. ‘We can take as long as we like. As little as three weeks, or as long as...’ I look at him, tense with hope. ‘A year.’

‘A year?’ Luke stares back at me. ‘You’re joking.’

‘I’m not joking. I’ve told Christina I may or may not come back to work at Barneys. She’s fine about it. Danny will clear out our apartment for us and put it all in storage–’

‘Becky!’ says Luke, shaking his head. ‘It’s a nice idea. But I can’t possibly just up sticks and–’

‘You can. You can! It’s all set up. Michael will keep an eye on the New York office. The London office is running itself, anyway. Luke, you can do it. Everyone thinks you should.’

 

 

Simply Divine (by W. Holden)

 

Extract 1

 

Jane tried to pin down the exact moment when she realised Nick didn’t fancy her any more. If she was honest, it was about six months ago. Around the time she had moved into his flat in Clapham.

‘Are you sure it’s a good idea?’ Tally had cautiously asked at the time.

‘Of course!’ Offended, Jane had rebuffed her best friend’s obvious conviction that it wasn’t with all the brio she could muster. ‘Nick needs me,’ she had explained. Tally looked unconvinced.

‘Are you sure he doesn’t just need you to pay half the mortgage?’ she asked gently.

Jane winced. Nick was not exactly famous for his generosity. Tighter than a gnat’s arse, if she was to be frank. Last Christmas she had bought him a Ralph Lauren bathrobe and a Versace shirt. Nick had reciprocated with a twig pencil and a teddy bear which had been a free gift from the petrol station.

‘Honestly, Jane,’ Tally went on, exasperated, her big grey eyes wide with sincerity, ‘you’ve got so much going for you. You’re so pretty, and funny, and clever. I just don’t understand why you’re throwing yourself away on him. He’s so rude.’

Tally was right. Nick was rude, especially after a few drinks, and especially to Tally. The fact that she was grand and had grown up in a stately home brought Nick out in a positive rash of social inferiority.

But it was all very well for Tally to be censorious, she thought defensively as she burrowed yet further beneath the duvet. It was just fine for Tally to declare she was holding out for Mr Right. Or Lord Right probably, in her case. She didn’t understand that relationships simply weren’t that straightforward. They didn’t just happen. You had to work with what you had, particularly if you were twenty-four and didn’t want to be a spinster at thirty.

‘You’ll be saying you want to marry him next,’ Tally had almost wailed. Jane judged it injudicious to confess that this was die whole point of her moving in. Not that it had worked. On the contrary, judging by present form, Nick’s plighting his troth looked more unlikely than ever. Plighting his sloth, however, had been the work of seconds.

Once Jane was on site, Nick had seen no further point in squandering both time and money on trendy restaurants when there was a perfectly good TV at home to eat Pot Noodles in front of. Similarly, all trips to cinemas, bars, concerts and parties had come to an abrupt end now that they no longer needed to leave the flat to meet each other.

Jane’s evenings consequently divided themselves between working out how to fit her clothes into the minute amount of wardrobe space Nick had allocated her and scenting and oiling herself in the grubby little bath that no amount of Mr Muscle made the faintest impression on. She, at least, was determined to keep up her standards.

 

Extract 2

 

The last of all the staff to arrive was Lulu the fashion editor, who had never seen a morning meeting yet. As always, despite being over an hour late, she gave an impression of great speed and industry, bustling in as quickly as her combination of tight black leather skin, impenetrable dark glasses and vertiginous heels would allow.

As Lulu sashayed past her desk. Jane noticed she was dragging something odd behind her. And this time it wasn’t one of her exotic collection of photographer’s assistants. ‘What’s that?’ asked Jane, staring at something long, black and rubbery trailing in Lulu’s wake.

‘It’s a symbol of Life,’ declared Lulu theatrically. ‘It represents woman’s struggle on earth.’

‘It’s an inner tube, isn’t it?’ asked Jane.

‘No,’ said Lulu emphatically. ‘Only if you insist on perceiving it that way. The circle is also a representation of the cyclical nature of Womanhood and the fact it is made of rubber refers to the eternal need to be flexible. Woman’s inheritance, in short.’ She sighed and rolled her eyes. ‘All that juggling of priorities.’

Jane snorted quietly. The only juggling of priorities Lulu did was forcing her breasts into an Alexander McQueen leather bustier.

‘Women should think themselves lucky then,’ drawled Josh’s voice from his office where he was, as usual, listening. ‘All I’m going to inherit is Parkinson’s.’

Jane grimaced. It wasn’t as if Josh needed to inherit anything. His salary, she suspected, ran well into six figures, he received more designer suits than he could wear and was courted by so many PRs he probably hadn’t paid for his own lunch for years.

‘Fancy a cup of tea, Lulu?’ Josh’s light, sarcastic tones floated across the room.

‘Josh, darling, I’d just die for one,’ breathed Lulu with her usual understatement.

‘Off you go and get one then,’ said Josh. ‘And get me one while you’re at it.’

Lulu grinned. ‘Oh, you really are ghastly, Josh.’ She always took his jibes in good part. Jane was unsure whether Lulu simply didn’t get half of them or tolerated them because she realised she had an ally in Josh. Did Lulu, after all, know what side her sushi was wasabi’d on?

‘She’s a few gilt chairs short of a Dior front row, that one,’ muttered Jane to Valentine, who had by now returned from the lawyers, as Lulu wobbled out of the office.

Josh overheard. ‘It’s so wonderful to have someone round here who knows about clothes,’ he purred, shooting a loaded look at Jane. ‘They’re a very important part of Features.’

‘Look,’ said Jane, exasperated, ‘I admit fashion’s not my area but I pull my weight, you know.’

‘Considerable weight it is too,’ said Josh, who prided himself on his lack of political correctness.

‘You could have Kim for sexual harassment, you know,’ murmured Valentine in an undertone.

Josh’s sharp ears twitched once more. ‘I assure you,’ he said silkily, taking his monocle out and polishing it, ‘there’s nothing sexual in it.’