Four Bridesmaids and a White Wedding: the laugh-out-loud romantic comedy of the year! Fiona Collins ‘Pure unadulterated fun. A joy to read.’– Rachel’s Random Reads (top 500 Amazon reviewer)Don’t tell the bride!Rose, Sal and JoJo have been looking forward to their best friend Wendy’s hen party for ages. A relaxing spa break is the perfect way to escape their crazy careers, grumpy husbands and stroppy children – even if the groom’s straight-laced sister, Tamsin, is coming too.Until they realise that there’s been a mistake in the booking and instead of sipping prosecco in fluffy white dressing gowns they’re off to bridesmaid bootcamp!Squeezing themselves reluctantly into tiny shorts and sliding through the mud, it’s only a matter of time before secrets emerge that could change everything…Forget about saving the date, these four bridesmaids need to save the day – otherwise will there even be a white wedding at all?The hilariously uplifting new story from Fiona Collins, bestselling author of A Year of Being Single.Perfect for fans of Jane Costello, Helen Fielding and Fiona Gibson.Praise for Four Bridesmaids and a White Wedding:‘Pure unadulterated fun. A joy to read.’ – Rachel’s Random Reads (top 500 Amazon reviewer)‘A fun and fabulous read!’ – Jessica Bell (NetGalley reviewer)‘A sizzling, hilarious, saucy and sexy book. Simply the perfect read for this summer.’ – Sparkly Word‘Funny, light-hearted and fabulous!’ – Karen Whittard (NetGalley reviewer)‘Brilliant and fabulous… this book reminds me of Sex and the City!’ – Rebecca Stacey (NetGalley reviewer) Don’t tell the bride! Rose, Sal and JoJo have been looking forward to their best friend Wendy’s hen party for ages. A relaxing spa break is the perfect way to escape their crazy careers, grumpy husbands and stroppy children – even if the groom’s straight-laced sister, Tamsin, is coming too. Until they realise that there’s been a mistake in the booking and instead of sipping prosecco in fluffy white dressing gowns they’re off to bridesmaid bootcamp! Squeezing themselves reluctantly into tiny shorts and sliding through the mud, it’s only a matter of time before secrets emerge that could change everything… Forget about saving the date, these four bridesmaids need to save the day – otherwise will there even be a white wedding at all? The hilariously uplifting new story from Fiona Collins, bestselling author of A Year of Being Single. Perfect for fans of Jane Costello, Helen Fielding and Fiona Gibson. Also by Fiona Collins (#ulink_25229ccd-e157-5683-b5e6-ca7c5adc5b04) A Year of Being Single Cloudy with a Chance of Love Four Bridesmaids and a White Wedding Fiona Collins FIONA COLLINS lives in the Essex countryside with her husband and three children, but also finds time for a loving relationship with a Kindle. She likes to write feisty, funny novels about slightly (ahem) more mature heroines. Fiona studied Film & Literature at Warwick University and has had many former careers including TV presenting in Hong Kong, talking about roadworks on the M25 as a radio presenter, and being a film and television extra. She has kissed Gerard Butler and once had her hand delightfully close to George Clooney’s bum. When not writing, Fiona enjoys watching old movies and embarrassing her children. You can follow Fiona on Twitter @FionaJaneBooks (https://www.twitter.com/FionaJaneBooks). I would like to once again thank my brilliant editor, Charlotte, without whom this book may well have been always the bridesmaid, never the bride… And Mary Torjussen, always, for your help and support. To Shirley. May the wine flow freely and the music always get us on the dancefloor… Contents Cover (#u1bd18c70-71e0-523c-a7bd-ec9b29011182) Blurb (#u46a41de1-4e5a-5ddf-b29a-bf07a549ca55) Book List (#ulink_a762c51c-eb99-57d6-a6b0-9b8addf2fe48) Title Page (#ue4ecfafa-d1d3-58ef-b08d-b4bdc5dc6672) Author Bio (#u2dc5c8ef-2980-5758-b0d7-456ebc2497a2) Acknowledgements (#ue716f347-9770-5b68-87ce-f63d45eadc40) Dedication (#u90980f87-a043-5da4-ac68-8043996425c1) Chapter One (#ulink_abfbd0ea-2dde-511c-a87d-71ac11adabbd) Chapter Two (#ulink_3ff3ac0b-9e70-51cb-bc0f-82e0a1ebcd9f) Chapter Three (#ulink_56877d3d-c013-5cb6-b6d6-54c05b6179e4) Chapter Four (#ulink_d3956c56-b4b3-5bf0-bb64-803574b391f0) Chapter Five (#ulink_b6cdb020-1c5d-5ad6-9607-5da7fc477689) Chapter Six (#ulink_f693d2af-c079-59ba-9d33-4218d8801bfa) Chapter Seven (#ulink_5457b1f7-3b8e-50be-abf7-d111eb09aed6) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Extract (#litres_trial_promo) Endpages (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) INVITATION You are invited to: Wendy’s hen weekend (yes, I know she said she didn’t want one, but tough!) When: Friday 21st to Monday 24th July Where: The Retreat, Colcombe, Wiltshire – ‘Glamour Pamper Package’ to include ‘Party at the Lake House’ on Sunday 23rdJuly Meet: Paddington Train Station, 6 p.m. (don’t be late – by that I mean you, Sal . . . train departs at 18.21 sharp!) P.S. This is a sophisticated occasion – no tacky hen weekend props please!!! JoJo x Chapter One (#ulink_92cd69bb-5698-515c-b0bf-3b2f29a334fb) Rose Rose folded the massive, pink and gold ‘Bride’ sash into the front pocket of her overnight bag and popped the invitation that had arrived in the post two months ago – JoJo’s swirly handwriting on classy stiff white card – in the top of the main compartment. She fastened the bag and left the house. ‘Mum! Can you take me to the brow bar when you get back?’ hollered Darcie, her eldest – seventeen – from an open upstairs window, as Rose banged the front door until it shut behind her. It still didn’t close first time; perhaps during one of Jason’s fleeting visits home he could actually fix it. ‘Maybe!’ called Rose over her shoulder as she headed down the drive towards the waiting taxi. God knows what more Darcie needed to do with her brows, Rose pondered, as she tripped over her own foot but tried to pretend she hadn’t by turning it into an intentional-looking skip – the jet black, inch-thick caterpillars her daughter sported were beginning to take on a life of their own. Soon they’d need their own rooms. ‘Can you bring me back some products?’ yelled Louisa – fifteen – from somewhere behind Darcie. Rose stopped by the taxi and looked up at the window. Louisa, her head wedged next to Darcie’s, had her hair piled up in a massive bun and was wearing a greeny-brown face mask that made her look like Hannibal Lecter. ‘Please, Mum! Serums, oils, body balms, peels? The more expensive the better? I don’t do cheap, Mum!’ ‘I know!’ yelled Rose. None of them did cheap; they were costing her and Jason a bloody fortune. ‘I’ll do my best!’ She opened the taxi door, flung her bag into the back and proceeded to clamber in after it. There was a frantic rapping on the window. Katie – fourteen, and Rose’s youngest – was grinning wildly behind the glass, her wholly unnecessary orange foundation glowing in the struggling afternoon sun like the surface of Mars. Rose wound down the window. ‘Mum?’ ‘Yes, Katie?’ ‘Can I use your straighteners while you’re gone? Mine are broken again.’ Rose sighed. ‘Yes, all right, if you must.’ Katie had inherited her mother’s bull-in-a-china-shop clumsiness; it left a lot of broken items in its wake. ‘Can I go now?’ ‘Yes, Mum. Hey,’ Katie pointed out accusingly, ‘you’ve got blusher on!’ ‘I have.’ ‘It’s a bit cringe.’ ‘Thank you, Katie,’ replied Rose sarcastically. ‘As ever. See you on Monday.’ Rose wound up the window, pulled her glittery top – saved for ‘best’; finally worn – over the slightly straining waistband of her skinny jeans – too much chocolate this week; the willpower of a slug – and the taxi pulled away from the suburban kerb of Francis Drive, Hinklesworth, Hertfordshire. It dawdled down the street, the driver tunelessly whistling the theme tune to Friends, and Rose realised she hadn’t kissed her husband goodbye. She’d hardly even said goodbye. Jason was in the study, his slightly too long dark hair flopping over his eyes as he tapped away on the laptop – no doubt emailing that bloodySusie in Hong Kong again, the one he worked with and was always banging on about. Rose had sort of called out, ‘I’m going now, bye!’ and he’d sort of called back, ‘OK, see ya!’ and that was it. Rose did an internal shrug about it as the taxi turned onto the main road and the sun disappeared behind a cloud. She and Jason didn’t do that sort of thing any more. Kissing. Holding hands. Saying goodbye properly . . . A matey ‘see ya’ was about as good as it got. In fact, Jason had recently taken to calling her ‘mate’, a rather disconcerting turn of events by anyone’s standards. Rose was really rather jealous of close friend Wendy and her brilliant, whirlwind romance. The Friday rush hour traffic was pretty bad as they headed very slowly to the station, but Rose wasn’t worried by it; she’d allowed plenty of time to get to Paddington, and was almost beside herself with the relief and thrill of getting out of the house. A whole weekend away – she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had one and, boy, she needed a break. Her three teenage daughters were driving her bananas at the moment. Not only were their ‘floordrobe’ bedrooms like bomb-hit branches of Lush – highly perfumed obstacle courses of discarded clothes, strewn toiletries and empty Costa Coffee cups – but their attitudes had been stinking to high heaven, too. There had been a lot of arguing recently, plus an annoying dose this week of what Rose called ‘argy-bargy’: prodding, poking, and mild slapping – mostly over borrowed and unreturned make-up – which had resulted in confiscated phones and ever-escalating fishwife reprimands shouted upstairs. It had been exhausting. Three nights away was going to be absolute bliss, even if it was for a hen weekend. Rose didn’t really do hen weekends – not any more. She’d been to a whole host of them in her late twenties and early thirties, including her own rather disastrous one, where a friend of a friend she didn’t even know had got JoJo and their normally indestructible friend, Sal, so drunk on mysterious cocktails they both had to be sent home incapable in a taxi at 10 p.m., missing half the night . . . and they now just seemed so screechy. All that enforced naughtiness, the silly costumes, the traipsing from bar to bar in crippling heels, the unattractive strippers in unfortunate PVC hot pants threatening to approach and make women do things to them with whipped cream and leather accessories . . . She used to love them but she’d been there, done that: at forty-two she was too old for all that malarkey, and she’d only reluctantly ordered that sash online – plus a cheap veil - because Sal had made her. Yet, Rose reflected, as she stared out of the window, Wendy’s hen weekend was going to be all kinds of different from the traditional hen dos Rose knew and now hated. JoJo had arranged this one, and JoJo could be relied upon to provide class, always – the Glamour Pamper Package for Wendy’s hen weekend sounded amazing. Rose was definitely in line for some serious pampering; she’d barely had time to shave her legs recently and if anyone was up for lying face down on a board for an hour while some hot, preferably Swedish, masseur pummelled bits of their body into blissful submission it was her. She also couldn’t wait to see her old friends. It had been a while. Having met as freshers at Warwick University, back in the day, they had all spread to different parts of the country (well, different Home Counties, anyway, apart from JoJo who lived in central London) and their crazy-busy lives meant they didn’t get together that often these days. Sometimes it was only once a year, for a pre-Christmas meet-up in London, where they stayed in a five star hotel, ate loads, drank far too much Prosecco and giggled and chatted in their pyjamas until 1 a.m. But, when they did meet up, it was like they’d never been apart. Rose, Sal, JoJo and Wendy – the oldest and bestest of friends. And they still had the ability to surprise each other, as proved with the meteoric, fast-track love story of Wendy and Frederick. Remember Frederick? Wendy had group-messaged the girls, one night at the end of January. Of course we do, Sal had replied. The pair of you couldn’t keep your hands off each other all night! The four of them had met, in London, just before Christmas last year and Wendy had brought along her boyfriend of six months, Frederick, for dinner. He hadn’t planned on staying that long – he said he knew their time together was precious – but they had all liked him so much they’d begged him to stay. He was lovely. He had a ready smile, a kind and quiet manner and, despite being absolutely smitten with Wendy, shared his attention between all of them, asking just the right questions and laughing in all the right places. After they’d finally let him go, Wendy had grinned like the Cheshire cat and said he was definitely The One . . . with bells on. And she’d been right. We’re getting married! Wendy had added, on their group chat. On July the 29th!!!!!! Save the date!!!!!!!!!! The date had been saved, of course it had – Rose couldn’t wait – but a hen night had never been on the cards. Wendy had told them that she didn’t want one. There wasn’t really time, she said, what with the whirlwind, six-month wedding preparations for the huge white wedding at a stately home in Norfolk - some family seat of Frederick’s family - and she couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of it all. Hen dos were for the young and overexcited, she’d said, not those long in the tooth who had struggled for the best part of two decades to find someone to love. The girls had all agreed, or at least pretended to, but JoJo immediately set up a secret messaging group called ‘Wendy’s Hen Do’. A wedding required a massive girly celebration; even Rose, long world-weary of the hen do, knew that. They bandied ideas around. Half-serious notions of party boats down the Thames, chocolate-making in a Cornish castle, and paintballing, were all suggested and shot down – Who in their right mind would ever go paintballing at any time? mused Rose – and then finally JoJo had said to leave it to her. Organised JoJo, she would know what to do, they all agreed, and when the immaculate invitation had plopped through her letter box, Rose had felt little champagne bubbles of excitement rise inside her. She was also thrilled to discover Jason was actually going to be home that weekend and she wouldn’t have to arrange for her parents to have the girls. Thank you for the invitation, JoJo, Wendy had messaged on the ‘Wendy’s Hen Do’ chat, the same morning she’d received her invitation in the post and been duly added to the group. Erm . . . didn’t I say I didn’t want a hen do?? She’d added one of those emoji things, the one with the bared-teeth grimace and Rose remembered looking at it and thinking it strange how Wendy hadn’t been up for a ‘hen’: she loved a night out and a good old dance – she was always first on the floor for a bit of Whigfield ‘Saturday Night’ or old school ‘YMCA’ (Wendy was a sucker for those cheesy, formation dance songs) and she also adored their London nights away and any opportunity for them all to get together. Yes, you did, but we couldn’t let such detail stop it from happening, JoJo had replied, embellishing her sentiment with three smiley faces, a thumbs-up, and a martini in a cocktail glass. Wendy had put another grimace. Then the devil’s face. Rose, online at the time whilst taking a lunch break from fumigating the girls’ bedrooms, had pictured Wendy tapping furtively away on her phone whilst at work in her lab. Wendy was a scientist, in Kent, and did something to do with aphids none of them understood. Her massive red curls would have been contained off her face in a hairband and a rainbow scrunchie – Wendy had huge hair: think Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, sans hooker wig, and times her hair by about ten – and her ever-colourful clothes hidden, as usual, under her white coat. Rose had imagined Wendy shaking her head as she leant over the pure white, shiny scientist’s workbench and typed out a response. Do we have to? Oh look, the scream emoji. Always a good one. Yes! Rose had written, plonking herself down on Louisa’s nail varnish-splattered bedroom chair and interrupting their messages. It sounds brilliant! Thanks for organising, JoJo! She’d put three bunches of flowers, the tropical cocktail, the chocolate bar and the dancing lady in the flamenco dress. And, later that night, Sal, no doubt standing at the back door of her pub and enjoying a quick, sneaky shandy between covers, had rsvp’d, too with a whoop, and a woo-hoo, flagged by capitals and lots of those faces that blow a red kiss. Wendy’s hen do was happening and it couldn’t be happening to a nicer person, Rose thought, as her taxi rumbled up Station Road, but, all the same, she allowed herself a huge, envious sigh as it came to a stop outside Hinklesworth Station and she paid the driver. Wendy was so, so lucky. This was all just the beginning for their friend, after all this time. Rose got on the Metropolitan Line, travelled four stops, then got off at Baker Street to change for the Hammersmith & City Line. As she got off the Tube at Paddington, she mentally told herself off for sighing over Wendy and Frederick’s romance; jealousy was not an attractive trait and she was in short supply of those, these days, as it was. ‘Rose! Rose, over here!’ She was at Paddington Station at last and there was Wendy, waiting under the departure board, her curls voluminous and three-feet wide, her tall, willowy body draped in a gorgeous, multi-print maxi dress. Rose felt so happy to see her. Ecstatic even. Those champagne bubbles of excitement filled her again as she walked over to her old friend to give her an enormous hug. Chapter Two (#ulink_c29d236c-84e9-58d2-bd59-4ca20017f466) JoJo JoJo closed the door of Boutique Brides behind her and indulged in a lingering glance at its beautiful window display before she resumed her walk to Paddington Station. Three dresses – the three most beautiful of her collection – were displayed on calico dressmaker’s mannequins: the pale ivory princess-cut gown with the sweetheart neckline and the tiny beads of diamanté hand-sewn into the bodice; the white Grecian column dress with its silky pleats and belt made of intertwined feathers; the long-sleeved, high-necked, intricate lace dress with the magnificent, breath-taking train. Each immaculately pinned and tucked and draped, each shimmering under exceptionally pretty and strategically placed white fairy lights. Even the floor the dresses’ embellished hems tumbled onto was sublime: reams of lace and silk cascaded in elegant folds to form a pretty carpet, which was sprinkled with tiny, gossamer, mother-of-pearl buttons. She knew it was perfection; her staff knew it was perfection; all her prospective brides and their mums and their excited, supportive friends knew it too. It was the kind of shop window to elicit gasps and the occasional excited and happy tear. It was a window that said ‘come on in, sit on a pretty, jacquard silk chaise longue, enjoy a chilled glass of champagne and see all your dreams come true’. It was a display that promised happy-ever-afters. Boutique Brides was a beautiful shop and it was all hers. She’d just been inside to check on a few things before she set off for the weekend. She couldn’t resist – the shop in Little Venice was practically en route from her house in Maida Vale to Paddington – and, while inside, she’d attempted to follow her best friends’ instructions to lock her BlackBerry in the desk at the back of the shop, so she couldn’t take it with her on Wendy’s hen weekend. However, she’d failed spectacularly in her mission. The BlackBerry had stayed in that drawer all of fiveminutes. ‘Not a workaholic, not a workaholic at all.’ Tinks, her eminently capable assistant, had smiled as she’d watched JoJo pull the BlackBerry back out of the drawer and slip it into her embroidered carpet bag. ‘Bang to rights.’ JoJo had grinned. ‘I don’t know what I was thinking. I couldn’t possibly leave this baby behind.’ She’d patted the side of the bag and smiled sheepishly, but not that sheepishly. She didn’t care, actually – the shop was her second baby and babies needed close monitoring, didn’t they? ‘Boutique Brides will be absolutely fine without you for a couple of days, you know,’ Tinks had added, with a warm but business-like shaking of her head. ‘You can trust us.’ ‘I know I can. You’re all amazing. You and Josie and Ayda are all brilliant.’ They were; her assistant and Tinks’ assistants were all fantastic at their jobs. She’d been very, very careful when she’d hired them; the interview process for each of them had gone on for days. JoJo had smiled and pulled the belt of her Burberry raincoat tighter. There had been light summer showers all day, so far, but with any luck they would clear for tonight, at least in Wiltshire – she quite fancied a wander around The Retreat’s boating lake at some point this evening. She’d leave her BlackBerry in the room for that, definitely, of course she would . . . ‘No need to even have your phone on.’ ‘It’s on vibrate.’ She had both a phone and a BlackBerry, which was better for emails. ‘Right. And don’t rush back on Monday.’ ‘I’ll try not to.’ The return train to Paddington was booked for 10.31. JoJo and her friends would be back in London for 11.45 and she was planning on heading straight to the boutique. ‘You didn’t need to come in at all today.’ Tinks straightened up the appointments book and smoothed down the skirt of her navy shift dress. ‘I know,’ said JoJo. She’d settled her sister, Millie, into her Maida Vale mews and had kissed her daughter, Constance, goodbye, several times. She should have gone straight on her way. ‘Have a great time,’ Tinks had said, with a note of finality. It appeared she had been actually ushering JoJo to the door. ‘You deserve it. And try not to think about work. Boutique Brides will still be here when you get back.’ JoJo got it. She needed a break and she should enjoy that break without thinking about work all the time, but Tinks was kidding herself that was going to happen. JoJo was always thinking about work. JoJo loved work; second only to Constance, she lived for work. She was fiercely proud of what she had built up and what she had achieved – what was there not to love? As she stood outside the shop and continued her lingering glance at the window displayand her beautiful dresses, all she could feel was immense pride. The little bell of the shop door rang and Tinks poked her head round it. ‘You still here? The shop really will be fine without you, you know.’ ‘Sorry!’ said JoJo, with a start. ‘I’m going!’ And she set off down the street, her heels clacking on the now-drying pavement. She must try to make a concerted effort to forget all about the shop. She had booked something so lovely for herself and her friends; she should now focus all her energies on the weekend ahead and ignore that BlackBerry already burning a hole in the bottom of her bag. JoJo had browsed and booked the hen weekend one lunchtime, in between brides. She hadn’t had much time, and the phone had kept going, but it hadn’t taken her long to find The Retreat, in the heart of Wiltshire and not far from the historic National Trust village of Laycock, which Constance reliably informed her was where parts of the Harry Potter movies were filmed. The Retreat was quite pricey, but it looked so worth it. Wendy deserved a wonderful hen do. Their wild and crazy Wendy . . . she, the first to kick off her shoes and dance on the tables in restaurants; the one to wear the brightest, clash-iest colours and make Helena Bonham Carter look like a conservative dresser; who danced the longest and laughed the loudest and had the craziest hair . . . It had taken Wendy so long to find Frederick, and they needed to celebrate her upcoming marriage in absolute style. JoJo thought about her good friend as she walked. Wendy had met Frederick at a scientist convention in Maidstone: she was representing the destruction of aphids, or whatever it was she did; he was a corporate lawyer representing one of the big research firms. Wendy had told them that he’d approached her at the Morning Mingle, where they drank coffee and discussed science-y things in white coats, and that he’d ‘had her at molecular phylogenetics’. It made for a lovely story. Then she, Sal and Rose had met him last Christmas, when he’d joined them for dinner on their weekend away before leaving them to it for dancing and more cocktails. They’d all liked him enormously. He was quietly spoken, but with a lovely sense of humour. He was extremely polite. He rocked a very nice white, unbuttoned shirt and smart trouser combo. His build was lean, his face was handsome and he was, undoubtedly, a catch. ‘He’s very straight,’ Sal had observed, as he slipped off politely and quietly into the night and they’d finished their third round of Cosmopolitans. ‘In the old fashioned sense of the word, I mean. Posh, too. I doubt he’s the swinging from the chandelier type,’ she added, winking at Wendy, ‘but he’s straight and steady and polite and really, really nice. I like him.’ ‘Me too,’ Rose had said. ‘Oh, me three!’ chimed in JoJo. ‘He’s gorgeous.’ ‘You’d be surprised, actually . . .’ Wendy had smiled, raising her glass for an impromptu, celebratory chinking of them round the table ‘. . . about the swinging from the chandeliers thing . . .’ This was met with a rather raucous cheer. ‘But thank you for your kind words, all of you. I’m punching way above my weight, I know. He’s far too good for me. But I’m so excited about him! He’s perfect!’ And now Wendy was marrying her perfect man, mused JoJo, walking onto the concourse at Paddington Station and making her way to the departures board, and she didn’t have to wait much longer to do so. The wedding was next Saturday. All that remained was to have the most brilliant weekend, starting now – the perfect girly send-off for their fabulous friend, who deserved the very best before she sailed off into the sunset with Mr Right. JoJo sighed with happiness; she saw so many women off into the sunset with their perfect men, and in the perfect dresses . . . nothing gave her more pleasure, actually. She’d just check her BlackBerry to see if Lucy Stoker, the girl who worked at Hamleys, was still coming in on Monday afternoon for her final fitting. There was a little work yet to be done on that beaded hemline and the darts at the back of the dress might need adjusting slightly . . . ‘Put that down! Right now!’ ‘Step away from the BlackBerry!’ Wendy and Rose were under the departures board, grinning their heads off and holding giant bags. Wendy had one of those wheelie cases, like air hostesses have. She was also wearing a giant pink and gold sash that said ‘Bride’ in big black letters, and a comedy veil. So much for JoJo’s instructions! She could have sworn she’d said no tacky props! Still, Wendy looked like she didn’t mind one bit; she was positively glowing and giving a little twirl for the benefit of passers-by. An old man gave her a bit of a wolf whistle and said, ‘Good luck, darlin’’ and Wendy beamed. ‘All right!’ said JoJo, ‘I’ll step away from the BlackBerry.’ She shoved it back in her bag and approached her two friends for a hug. ‘How are you both?’ she asked, giving them a squeeze. ‘It’s so lovely to see you. It feels like absolute ages . . . And where the hell is Sal?’ Chapter Three (#ulink_fb6a3742-2715-5693-a4b4-cad463f4189a) Sal Sal was late. Novelty hen items were falling left, right and centre out of her badly zipped-up overnight bag and spilling onto the pavement outside her pub. She bent down and scrabbled to retrieve a pink fluffy set of handcuffs, a pair of inflatable penis deely boppers and some glitter L-plates. The MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man in Lycra) she’d just turfed off the premises, sitting astride his orange and black road bike in three-quarter-length socks and what looked like an over-tight, neon-pink mankini, sat back on his razor blade saddle and looked on in amusement. ‘Yes, I have handcuffs and penises,’ muttered Sal, trying to pretend the afternoon drizzle wasn’t ruining her hair and that it was perfectly normal to be grubbing around on the ground for wayward hen props. ‘Have a good look. But you brought a pushbike into a pub! Who does that?’ ‘It’s not a “pushbike”,’ scoffed the man, looking down on Sal as she stuffed the L-plates back into her bag. ‘I told you in there. It’s a Carbon-Fibre Endurance Special Edition Speed Machine with Direct Mount Brakes . . . and I have an extremely high-tech computer attached to Nigel – I can’t get it wet.’ He patted the black box between the handlebars. He’d spent the ten minutes since she’d chucked him out of the pub covering it lovingly with what appeared to be a sandwich bag and an entire roll of Sellotape. ‘Nobody calls their bike “Nigel”!’ exclaimed Sal. ‘And don’t ever try to bring him, it, whatever, into my pub again or I’ll have you barred!’ The man adjusted his tackle indignantly and squeezed a ridiculous cap onto his balding head. ‘It was always all right in the Old Grey Goose,’ he said sniffily, as he taxied off slowly down the road. ‘Well, my pub is the New Grey Goose!’ called Sal after him. ‘So leave the bike outside next time! And maybe have a wash before you come in.’ Nigel’s owner had obviously been on a very long cycle that afternoon, before he felt the need to stop for refreshment, as he had tainted Sal’s pub with horribly smelly armpits. After he’d parked his massive bike against the pub’s newly restored, gorgeous inglenook fireplace, blocking it completely, he’d deposited himself on a nearby armchair and raised both arms in an exaggerated backwards stretch, inflicting said armpits on the room and causing Sal to come rushing over with a can of Febreze and a few choice words. He’d also placed a revolting sports drink on one of her nice new tables and it had spilt sticky, orange hideousness everywhere. What was it with men who liked to dress in restrictive, Day-Glo clothing and pretend they were permanently taking part in the Tour de France? Sal wondered, as she squeezed her bag into a shape that allowed the zip to be yanked up. She really could have done without the time-consuming eviction of man and machine this afternoon; she wasn’t exactly super-fit and had struggled wrestling a carbon-fibre frame with two giant, over-thin wheels – plus an indignant six-foot-four man with his middle-aged spread tucked into his spandex – over the threshold. Still, she hadn’t spent the last two months doing up her precious pub for it to be overrun with muddy wheels and less than savoury armpits. Sighing, Sal hauled her bag over her shoulder and marched off down the pavement in the direction of the bus stop. She really should have got ready earlier, she reflected, as she did have quite a long journey ahead of her. Bus to Woking Station, then a train to Waterloo and then the Underground to Paddington. Sal was cutting it pretty fine now and JoJo was going to be mightily disappointed in her if she was more than her customary ten minutes late. She arrived at the bus stop. The New Grey Goose, still just in view, was looking fabulous, she had to admit. Sal had done a lot of work to the pub: a typical, Tudor English pub with a low-slung roof and wonky beams. When she’d acquired it, parts of the roof were falling off and the white paintwork between the beams was grey and flaking. No more. The roof was now fully tiled and weather-proof; the exterior walls an attractive, soft pistachio green and punctuated by hanging baskets and a shiny black door. Inside, she’d swapped threadbare, flocked 1980s carpet for honeyed oak floors; burgundy, peeling wallpaper for smooth, cream walls; and brasses and horseshoes and dreadful wall-mounted beer towels for tasteful, black and white Surrey pastoral views. The New Grey Goose was now a very nice pub. A bus miraculously arrived, thank goodness, and Sal climbed aboard. As she walked down the central aisle, she spied her biking adversary cruising leisurely back down the street, his bum high in the air atop that painful-looking saddle and his suspiciously smooth calves taut. He raised one hand from the handlebars to give her a cheery wave. Cheeky git, she thought. But she couldn’t worry about him now. Martina, her manager, would have to deal with him if he came back. Sal was escaping for three nights and it felt really good, despite having to leave some good stuff behind. ‘All right, Sal?’ An elderly lady in a red raincoat, sitting at the front of the bus, greeted her with a smile. ‘Yes, good thanks, Mrs Ross. You?’ ‘Very well, thank you. Lovely steak and mushroom pie I had in your place the other night.’ ‘Thank you.’ Grinning to herself, Sal headed for the back of the bus just like she’d always done at school. She was pleased the new menu – and the new chef – was going down such a treat. Sitting down in the middle of the back row of seats, with a bit of a shove she tucked her overnight bag, stuffed with the contraband hen accoutrements, underneath. They were not really her thing, actually – she didn’t especially like the clichéd hen do, the wearing of tutus and pink cowboy hats and the dancing round a pile of handbags in a nightclub – but she was a rebellious sort of person who’d started buying them as soon as JoJo said they were banned. She also hadn’t been to a hen weekend for years, but had been invited to quite a few in her time. Some good, some bad, some hysterical; Rose’s had been quite memorable . . . She was relieved, too, she thought, as the bus pulled away, there was going to be no nightclubs this weekend. Sal was a pub girl, not club, always had been. She’d worked behind the bar at university and had never really left. ‘Is this seat free?’ A young man, holding one of those tiny, ridiculous dogs that celebrities used to carry around, came and sat down beside Sal. Really? There were about forty other seats! The dog immediately started sniffing at Sal’s hand and she swiftly moved it away, bristling. She really hoped she didn’t smell of dog when she got to The Retreat, though it would probably get blasted away with a lemon and saffron infused laser, or something. Glamorous pamper party, the invitation said, or along those lines. It wasn’t really her bag either. She wasn’t into grooming, having her nails done, all that stuff. She was more of a soap and water woman, and she knew she’d feel uncomfortable with strange ladies in white tunics prodding and poking her, and having to lie face down with her face in a hole in a bed, and all that enforced pampering – but she should be looking forward to it. She needed some time off from the pub, everyone had told her so. Even Niall. ‘A break from all this bedroom action,’ he’d said earlier that afternoon and with his customary sexy grin, under that mop of sexy tousled hair and above that impressive set of attractive tattoos. ‘I imagine you in a pink cowboy hat, on one of those bucking bronco things, in a bar,’ he’d added. It had been after a particularly amazing session in Sal’s double bed, in the pretty beamed bedroom above her pub. Always the pink cowboy hats . . . ‘It’s not going to be that sort of thing,’ she’d replied, gazing at his gorgeous head as it lay on one of her pillows. She still couldn’t believe it kept finding its way there. ‘It’s going to be dead classy. If you knew JoJo like I know JoJo, who booked it, then you’d be in no doubt.’ ‘JoJo the wedding dress designer?’ Niall said, propping that gorgeous head up on one elbow and staring at her with those ridiculously sexy green eyes. ‘Well, the thing is, of course, that I don’t know her at all. I’ve never met any of your friends.’ He hadn’t. She and Niall weren’t really at the ‘meeting friends’ stage. They were still at the ‘shag each other senseless’ stage, the ‘we don’t know where this is going but we don’t currently care’ stage. ‘No, you haven’t, not yet.’ ‘And will I?’ He turned to face her, his green eyes, framed by impossibly thick, dark brown lashes, sparkling with merriment and unabashed lust. ‘Yes. Probably. One day.’ Niall meeting her friends would make him real. It would also make it real that she was sleeping with her chef – he of the magnificent pies – and had been for two months. She still wasn’t sure how she felt about that, beyond the sheer, exciting thrill of actually doing it; although she knew, logically, it was certain to go nowhere, once she had discovered what was wrong with him. ‘And Rose, the put-upon mother of three will be there?’ ‘Your words not mine, but yes.’ ‘And you’re meeting Wendy’s sister-in-law-to-be for the first time?’ ‘Tamsin, yes.’ After they’d received their invitations Wendy had said she was Frederick’s only sister and he’d suggested they should invite her. It was fine by Sal. Sal just wanted Wendy – who had once miserably declared she was going to end up spinster of her parish and wandering round with a load of meowing cats – to be happy. Sal glanced back at Niall. He was clearly not thinking about Tamsin, or anyone else. He had that foxy grin on his face again and his left eye was closing into the saucy wink she was beginning to really look forward to, usually at about this time of the day. ‘So,’ he said, ‘have we got time for another go? Another dose of afternoon delight? I can get the playing cards out again, to get you in the mood . . .’ ‘Ha. No!’ she’d protested, but not that strongly, and she definitely didn’t need a round of Chase the Ace to get her in the mood. She’d let him pull her back onto the bed for another, very enjoyable romp. Hence the real reason for her lateness. Hence the fact she was now pelting it from Paddington tube station to Paddington railway station (not that great a distance but possibly a step too far when a woman has to navigate escalators and people who refuse to stand on the right and a pair of new, unaccustomed-to heels, which would inevitably turn out to be a mistake . . .) as fast as she could and a full twenty minutes late. The new ankle boots were already a mistake, actually. They were pinching her toes and she could feel the beginnings of a blister on her left heel. She’d only bought them yesterday, along with a couple of dresses, in the clothing aisles of Sainsbury’s, for those posh evenings at The Retreat’s and that promised party at the lake house on Sunday night. If glam was required, glam could be rustled up. Sal skidded round the corner and came to a stop with a grin. There they were, under the departures board: JoJo, immaculate and fresh in a smart, beige raincoat, shaking her blonde head and tapping her watch in mock consternation; Rose, in jeans, iridescent top and black court shoes, grinning like a loon and trying to re-attach something to the back of Wendy’s head; Wendy, all red curls and swathes of brightly coloured material, laughing as she let a scratchy-looking polyester veil get clamped to her hair. Behind them, Sal spotted a group of Chinese tourists trying to take sneaky photos: the Great British Hen Do was obviously quite a sight. ‘What time do you call this?’ hollered JoJo. ‘Come on, Sal!’ shouted Rose. ‘We’ve been waiting ages.’ ‘We’ve only got a blooming train to catch!’ called Wendy. ‘Leg it, woman!’ So Sal did. She laughed and dashed towards them. Her friends. The friends she adored. She was so happy to see them. Forget the throbbing blister, the fear of pampering, Niall with the green eyes and the sexy tats, even forget the bloody pub, she thought. She was spending three nights with her old, beloved friends and this was going to be a fantastic weekend. Chapter Four (#ulink_9f9b0fd3-e70e-5440-9e8e-8e98071bd946) Rose The whistle blew, the train rumbled slowly out of Paddington and the four women made their unsteady way along carriage ‘D’. JoJo had reserved four seats either side of a table, but it was taking a while to get to them; the train was busy and those without reserved seats were clogging up the aisle looking for spaces. Rose had to squeeze past a loud American couple, with a bird in a cage, who were bellowing something about ‘Cirences-tire’ and trying to persuade a disgruntled-looking teenager in enormous headphones to move so they could sit together. It was hot on that train; all the windows were already open and Rose felt quite stuffy and constricted in her jeans and top. ‘Here we are!’ declared JoJo, checking the numbers on the tickets sticking out the top of the seats. ‘This is us.’ They all started wedging their bags in the overhead racks. Rose, being quite short, had to stand on tiptoes to do hers and on the final shove went careering into a gentleman in a turquoise cagoule who was sitting below her. ‘Sorry!’ she said. ‘No problem,’ said the man, rustling his newspaper in suppressed rage. As Rose took her seat, blushing, the others were all laughing. ‘Short arse!’ said Sal. ‘Clumsy Clots!’ said Wendy. Rose grinned. ‘The longer I know you, the more you never change!’ laughed JoJo, settling in her seat. ‘The first time I met you, you tripped over in the Students’ Union and had to be picked up by that Philosophy lecturer. Do you remember?’ Rose nodded, giggling. ‘None of us really change, do we?’ continued JoJo. ‘Rose is clumsy, Wendy is crazy and Sal is always late.’ She grinned, stood up, reached to the rack, rummaged for her BlackBerry and charger and placed them on the table, before plugging the charger in. Rose looked at Sal, Sal looked at Wendy and the three of them looked pointedly at JoJo. ‘Ha, very good,’ said JoJo, laughing. ‘I’m not going to look at that, by the way. I’m just charging it, for . . . later.’ ‘Yeah, right,’ said Sal. ‘And sorry I was a bit late,’ she added, not looking that sorry at all. ‘It’s fine,’ said JoJo, with a grin. ‘There’s nothing I like more than sprinting towards a departing train like a demented bat out of hell.’ ‘Me too.’ Wendy smiled, getting comfy in her seat and attempting and failing to smooth down her mass of red hair. The veil had fallen off again and was now sitting on the table. ‘I really appreciated leaping onto a moving ton of metal like Bruce Willis in Die Hard,minus the bald head and the vest.’ Rose chuckled at the thought of Wendy without hair and in a white, old man’s vest; she’d probably still look good, though. ‘I actually enjoyed it,’ Rose said. ‘It was fun, but then again I don’t get out that much these days. I’ll take my excitement where I can find it!’ ‘We’ll be making up for that this weekend,’ said Sal. ‘Your lack of excitement.’ She got up to pull some stuff out of her bag and starting chucking things on the table: the penis deely boppers, the handcuffs, the L-plates, plus four miniature bottles of rosé. ‘So much for no hen props,’ said JoJo, shaking her head in mock sorrow. ‘Rose, Sal, you’ve really let me down.’ ‘I know,’ wailed Wendy. ‘How could you?’ She grinned. ‘Will The Retreat even let me in if I turn up in some of this stuff? I can’t see the penises being allowed over the threshold!’ ‘Of course they’ll let penises in,’ said Sal decisively. ‘Now stop whinging and let’s get some of this wine down our necks.’ They opened their tiny bottles and started glugging the wine. The rows of terraced houses outside the window were starting to flash past them quite fast now and the sun was coming out and glancing off NASA-sized satellite dishes. JoJo shrugged off her raincoat; Rose slipped her feet out of her court shoes. It was so hot on here! ‘Lovely,’ said Rose. She seemed to have quite a thirst on her and had drunk almost half her bottle in one gulp. ‘You might have chilled them,’ said JoJo. ‘Joking. They’re great.’ ‘My wine, at the pub, is always chilled,’ said Sal. ‘I got these from the mini-mart at Woking station.’ ‘They’re perfect,’ said Wendy, settling back further into her seat. ‘Thank you, Sal. So, how is everyone? What have you all been up to recently? Any gossip?’ They all fell silent for a second. JoJo shrugged; she hardly ever had gossip, Rose knew, unless it was something salacious about a client. Sal looked . . . what? Guilty, a little bit cheeky? A smile was curling at the corner of her lips in a suspicious manner. And Rose was considering telling them about Jason, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to bring down the buoyant, excited mood just yet. She’d wait for a lull in proceedings, like maybe on the train home again. ‘All the exciting stuff is going on in your world, Wendy,’ Rose said. ‘The wedding . . . next Saturday! I can’t believe it! Are all the preparations done?’ ‘All done!’ declared Wendy. ‘Is Frederick on his stag this weekend?’ ‘Nope. Last weekend,’ Wendy said. ‘He and some of his old schoolmates went fishing for the weekend.’ ‘Wild,’ pronounced Sal. Wendy grinned. ‘It’s just something he likes to do. He always puts the fish back,’ she added. ‘Of course he does,’ said Rose, ‘Frederick’s a nice guy – lovely, in fact. You’re really lucky, Wendy. He’s a catch.’ ‘Just like the fish,’ put in JoJo, to smiles all round. ‘Lucky is the word,’ said Wendy. ‘Bloody, bloody lucky I think you’ll find. Right, so you know all my news – how about yours? Somebody give me something! How are the girls, Rose?’ ‘The Sisters of Sass? Oh, just the same, unfortunately!’ The Sisters of Sass. That’s what she and Jason called their daughters – they would never say it to their faces, it would make them more sassy than they already thought they were. As Rose had packed her bag, all three Sisters of Sass had lolled on her bed. One had her feet under Rose’s pillow; one had a smooth, fake-tanned leg dangling over the end of the bed; the third lay on her front and picked at her nails until glittery bits of polish sprinkled down onto Rose’s pale grey carpet. On principle, she shouldn’t even have allowed them in her bedroom – she wasn’t allowed in theirs, unless it was for essential de-scuzzing, or to bring food . . . They’d spreadeagled themselves – all legs and straightened hair and perfume and nail polish and powdery, foundationed cheeks – and had started criticising her fashion choices. ‘You’re not taking those, are you, Mum? Like, total cringe!’ ‘Eew – those shoes are horrible, Mum!’ ‘Mum! You’re, like, way too old for that top!’ So charming. Rose often wondered whothese alien creatures were and where had they come from. They were so big. They were so loud. They had so much stuff – so many clothes, so much make-up, most of which they were wearing, all at once, layer upon layer of it. And they were so contemptuous. It was a good job she loved them so much, otherwise she might resent being a rather despised and worn part of the furniture – squishy and unkempt and thoroughly sat upon. ‘And how’s Jason?’ asked Sal. As her daughters had lain on her bed and teased her on her sartorial choices, a great snort had come from the spare room and the girls had hung off each other’s shoulders in peals of sisterly laughter. Jason was having a catch-up nap and a bloody good snore. He had a varied repertoire; never steady, rhythmic snoring that could be tolerated by a co-sleeping human, but the spluttering, intermittent kind – a frustrating orchestra of misleading lulls and great, trumpeting trumpets. It was snoring that had seen he and Rose resorting to separate rooms, which was not a great situation as, of course, they were already in separate rooms for most of the year anyway, but Rose got such a terrible night’s sleep if she and Jason slept in the same bed, and she needed to be alert, what with the girls and the house . . . and the girls . . . to deal with that it was the only solution. And he slept better without her prodding him or kneeing him in the back or making random clacking noises with her tongue, like she was giddying up a horse, which she’d heard could stop a bear of a man snoring in his tracks. Disappointingly, she’d heard wrong. They never slept in the same bed because of the Philharmonic Snorechestra . . . Rose had coined that phrase and her daughters, for once, actually thought it quite funny. ‘He’s OK,’ replied Rose. ‘The same. He got back this morning. “Good cop” has returned.’ Jason had arrived home this morning after yet another work trip to Hong Kong – it had been five years of this now; that land reclamation project was taking a really long time. His plane had actually arrived late last night, but sensible Jason never did a Roy Orbison and ‘Drove All Night’ to get home to her, all dishevelled and five o’clock shadow . . . rather he would check into the Novotel at the airport, have a good night’s sleep and a hearty continental buffet breakfast and then cruise on home for a civilised 8 a.m. When he’d stepped into the hall with a weary ‘hello’, she didn’t bother leaving the washing up to come and greet him; he went straight upstairs to sort out his case. It was predictable, non-romantic fare for two pedestrian, rather careworn ships that passed in the night, or rather, the morning. Same old same old. ‘Meaning you’re always bad cop?’ enquired JoJo. ‘Yep!’ said Rose. ‘I’m there at the coal face, in the trenches, doing all the nagging and the telling off. He breezes in now and again, like Prince Charming, to save the day, and to do nice things. They adore him because of it and just tolerate me. I’m so boring compared to him!’ To their girls, Jason’s homecomings were always Prodigal. All three of them had ambushed him on the landing this morning, showering him with kisses and hugs and risking creasing their lovingly ironed (by Mum) cropped tops and leggings. OK, they stopped short of ‘Daddy, my Daddy’ but it was like the bloody Railway Children. ‘Thank God you’re home!’ Darcie had exclaimed. ‘Mum’s been driving us nuts!’ ‘And she took my phone away for being cheeky!’ ‘And she wouldn’t buy me that new top, for Alex’s party!’ It was the same thing every time. He was someone fresh and exciting, hardly ever seen; she was always there, good old Mum, bad old cop, just part of the furniture to be sat on and abused, day after day, because it didn’t really matter if she was there or not. ‘Does he feel that way too?’ asked Sal. A train sped past them in the other direction, with an elongated toot and a flash of people sleeping or raising plastic coffee cups to their mouths. ‘That I’m boring?’ asked Rose. ‘Probably.’ Jason, she was sure, saw her as part of the furniture too. Not a lover, just that terrible and damning ‘mate’. When had he started calling her that? Five years ago, ten years ago? After Katie was born? When he’d been down the ‘business end’ three times in total, for the birth of his daughters, and had seen quite enough? When he’d witnessed her mooching round in her dressing gown of a morning cooking sausages one too many times? Or because he was away for more than half the year, leaving her and the girls to it, and ‘mate’ was the best she could get, in the current circumstances? She daren’t admit it could be way more than that, not yet. ‘Where’s he been?’ asked Wendy. ‘Hong Kong again?’ ‘Always Hong Kong.’ ‘He’s a man in demand.’ ‘He is. Shame me and the girls are at the back of the queue for supply.’ Rose sighed a big, huffy sigh, and not for the first time. She was sure a lot of people thought she was a single mum, and she wouldn’t blame them. That’s what she was, in effect. ‘Ugh. Enough about me and Jason,’ Rose said, wriggling in her seat and slipping a foot in and out of one shoe, under the table. ‘It’s dull. What’s going on with you, Sal? Are you still dating and dumping?’ ‘I like to call it being discerning.’ Sal smiled, as the train clattered heavily down a portion of track and their near-empty rosé miniatures jiggled on the table, threatening to topple over. Rose smiled. Sal was always meeting people then discarding them. Several men in the last three years had been kicked to the kerb. There was Mr Lovely, who Sal was over the moon to discover had a tragically misspelled tattoo, a tiny etching of ‘They think its all over’, with a devastating missing apostrophe; there was Mr Right with the Wrong Attitude, who made the catastrophic error of opening a door for her and steering her through it as ‘one of the fairer sex’; and other men and other non-negotiable traits – an overly dirty laugh, an inability to pluck nostril hairs, a penchant for Travel Scrabble or owning one horrid jumper too many. Sal looked for faults like a bloodhound and was thrilled to uncover them so she could dispatch the man off into the horizon. ‘The Guy Effect,’ said JoJo sagely. ‘Still rumbling on.’ They all nodded. Sal had been in a ten-year relationship with Guy. On a good day he had been charismatic and charming, on a bad, downright awful. He had a lot wrong with him but Sal loved the man and could never see it. She defended him, she made excuses for him. She said he was a ‘poet and a tortured soul’ (he really wasn’t; he was a merely a frustrated copy editor on a lawnmower magazine); Rose and the others just thought he was a grumpy, argumentative loser. During one of their epic fights four years ago, Guy had died. There had been a petty argument in the car involving Sal’s map reading and Guy’s refusal to stop and ask a passer-by for directions. The argument had escalated; the car had accelerated, driven by an increasingly angry Guy. He’d failed to see a Give Way sign and had ploughed them into the base of an electricity pylon. Guy had died instantly; Sal miraculously emerged unscathed, physically, at least, and, although grief-stricken over his death, Sal suddenly saw the relationship and its terrible end for what it was. She had been blind to Guy’s faults and that blindness had caused years of pain and, ultimately, tragedy, which was why she looked for them relentlessly in men now. It was a protection: simply, she only dated people she could never fall in love with. ‘Actually,’ said Sal, hesitantly, ‘I’ve slept with someone.’ Her face broke into a broad grin. ‘Someone I really shouldn’t have slept with.’ ‘Who?’ asked Rose. ‘When?’ asked JoJo. ‘Why shouldn’t you have slept with him?’ asked Wendy. ‘Did he have the Wrong Shoes or call you a “lady” to your face?’ ‘Er, no,’ said Sal, looking quite sheepish, for her. ‘He’s my chef, at the pub.’ ‘Your chef!’ exclaimed Rose, delighted. ‘Oh, naughty, naughty.’ ‘What’s he like?’ queried JoJo. ‘Have you got a photo of him?’ enquired Wendy. ‘No, of course not!’ ‘A one-night stand?’ asked Rose. ‘Yes, of course a one-night stand.’ Sal jumped; a high-speed train coming in the opposite direction shot past them in dramatic fashion, making the windows rattle. Rose automatically breathed in. ‘You don’t think I’d make a habit of it, do you?’ ‘Depends how good he was!’ laughed Wendy. Sal laughed too, but Rose knew she would do everything in her power not to make a habit of anyone. She was OK now, after what had happened to Guy, but she wasn’t ready to let anyone into her heart. Not again. Sal had said more than once that the pain simply wasn’t worth it. The conductor came, punched their tickets; made unnecessary small talk. Rose willed him to hurry up and move on – they were trying to have an in-depth catch-up here! Finally, he shuffled down to the next seats. ‘Wow!’ said Wendy. ‘Your chef. Now that is gossip!’ ‘Yup,’ said Sal. ‘And rather unsavoury, if you excuse the pun. I shouldn’t have gone there. Now,’ she said briskly, ‘let’s move on from my love life. JoJo, any men on the horizon for you?’ ‘Nope.’ JoJo shrugged happily. ‘No men. Not interested, don’t have the time. I’m married to my work, as you know.’ A very apt choice of phrase, decided Rose, and so ironic: JoJo was so busy helping other women have perfect weddings she could never meet someone to provide her with her own. ‘I’ll keep my life plain and simple, thank you.’ She smiled serenely and picked her BlackBerry off the table to give it a composed glance. Yes, that was JoJo, thought Rose. Married to her work and so eternally unruffled. She always had been. Even in university halls, where they first met, JoJo’s bed was always immaculately made, her room spic and span, her shoes – always heels; she wore them at university, when no one else did – lined up neatly against the wall. It would be nice if a man could come along and unruffle JoJo, Rose thought, but she couldn’t see it happening. ‘Speaking of which,’ said Wendy, draining the very last of her miniature. ‘How are my last-minute alterations coming along?’ JoJo had made Wendy’s wedding dress, to Wendy’s very precise specifications: a simple, silk, empire line dress with lace, capped sleeves. No loud, blingy embellishments, none of what Wendy called ‘unnecessary frou-frou’. ‘I know you only do class and sophistication, but nothing too over-the-top please,’ she had reportedly said to JoJo, when it was first mooted. ‘I don’t want to look like a toilet roll holder or a fairy on top of a Christmas tree.’ Wendy had also said she wanted to look like ‘herself’ on her wedding day and that she would do her own hair and make-up as ‘nobody wants a one-off orange fright with ringlets for the day’. But, the dress had to be white; that was a given. Frederick’s family were very conservative and very, very traditional; it was a huge white wedding and it was going to be very, very posh. It was a shame Wendy couldn’t have what she really wanted, thought Rose – a good splash of colour, some zany touches, a more lightened-up, casual approach to the day, but on this momentous occasion she knew Wendy was willing to toe a more conservative line for the man she loved. ‘Coming along swimmingly,’ JoJo said, placing her BlackBerry back on the table and ignoring them all looking at it as though it were kryptonite. ‘Just a few areas of hand-stitched panelling to finish off then all done. Are you still going to let me add the beading? It’ll be subtle, I promise, and slightly vintage. It’ll really make the dress.’ ‘Yes, I trust you,’ said Wendy. ‘Whatever you think. Go for it.’ JoJo wasan incredible seamstress. She’d studied law at university, something her parents had pushed her into, but her first love was sewing, and after having Constance (a baby Rose had been highly jealous to discover slept all the time – her girls had all been nightmares) she took it up again. She made baby clothes, at first, then the most beautiful christening dresses – as her skills and confidence grew – then, with her friends’ excited encouragement, wedding dresses. They would never forget the first one she made: it was a silky, hand-embroidered slip dress she’d sold to a gushingly grateful bride in North Wales and it had been absolutely stunning. ‘You’re going to look wonderful, Wendy,’ said Rose. ‘I can’t wait to see you in it.’ ‘Thank you, Rose,’ said Wendy. ‘And is it still next Wednesday, JoJo, for the final fitting?’ ‘Absolutely,’ said JoJo. ‘I’ll have the champagne waiting.’ ‘Booze,’ said Sal, nodding emphatically. ‘We need more of it now. There’s a bar on this train, right?’ She picked up the veil from the table and stuck it on her head, before standing up. ‘I’m off to track it down.’ Sal ambled up the swaying carriage towards the front of the train, the veil fluttering in the breeze from the open windows. Rose looked out of hers. They were in real patchwork-quilt country now and there was not a cloud in the sky. It was a really beautiful evening. Sal came back with two half-bottles of red wine and some plastic cups. ‘It was all they had,’ she said. ‘Chateau de Plonk, and I got mistaken for the bride, which was quite hilarious. Told some old bloke I was getting married in the south of France and honeymooning on safari in South Africa.’ They all laughed. Sal was a hoot. Rose wondered what this chef of hers was like. She hadn’t even told them his name. Still, if it was a one-night stand, never to be repeated, what did it matter? ‘Hey, what’s your chef’s name?’ she asked. ‘Niall,’ said Sal, ‘and I’m not blushing.’ She handed round the cups. ‘I’m just a bit pissed.’ ‘Ooh,’ they all chorused, ‘Niall,’ and Sal had to shush them and whack them all in turn with her veil until they shut up. By the time they arrived at Chippenham Station they were more than a little bit drunk and very giddy and excited. They’d corralled the poor conductor as he’d made his way back up the carriage and regaled him with how Wendy was getting married and could he make an announcement about it over the tannoy. He’d refused, but wished Wendy lots of luck and chatted to them for a while about Norfolk, where the wedding was being held. He knew it very well, he said. He was from Thetford and knew Sumberley Hall where Wendy was getting married, as well as the Donnington-Blacks, Frederick’s family – he’d described them as almost like Norfolk royalty and Wendy had looked slightly scared. They’d also got chatting to the people on the table the other side of the aisle to them – four quite hilarious ladies off for a hillwalking weekend, who shared stories of being lost on the moors and eating cheese and pickle sandwiches on the sides of mountains, surrounded by hungry goats. They’d got off the train, waving merrily goodbye to their new friends as it pulled away from the platform to continue its journey to Bristol Temple Meads, then crossed the footbridge over to the station building. Rose, now wearing the veil, tripped up one of the steps; Wendy, in the L-plates, hooted with laughter, startling a passing mother and toddler, who started to cry in his pushchair. JoJo had to apologise to them both while Sal picked up the pair of deely boppers that had got dropped in front of one of the wheels, squashing a penis. Spirits were so high by the time they reached their waiting taxi (JoJo, thinking of everything, had pre-booked one) that the driver looked reluctant to take them. ‘Had a bit to drink, have we?’ he commented drily as he manoeuvred out of the car park. ‘Yes, and it’s fabulous!’ replied Rose. It really was. Reunited with her oldest and bestest friends for a whole three nights away, home and Jason and the girls seemed a million miles away and, at this moment in time, that was fine by her. She was ready to let her hair down, swing it around a bit and then have it wrapped in a big white towel while she had her toenails buffed. They drove for half an hour, firstly through the town and then largely in the middle of nowhere. They were on an endless country road, which became single track, and, travelling under a thick canopy of over-lapping trees, it felt like they were in a tunnel. A thick, medieval brick wall flanked them on the left; Rose’s eyes travelled along with it, as it ebbed up and down in her vision. Suddenly, the wall stopped at two huge, wide-open wrought iron gates. A black slate sign, welcoming them with the swirly, engraved words, ‘The Retreat Salon and Spa’ protruded from lush, green grass. And then they were bumping up a long, sweeping, tree-lined gravel drive towards a huge Cotswold stone manor house. Wow. It was stunning. Its pale yellow Georgian frontage, flanked by two impressive wings either side, gleamed in the evening sunshine; its walls dripped with tumbling, late-flowering, pale lilac wisteria. Spread before it was a gorgeous arrangement of ponds and fountains, circled by multicoloured blooms. It was posh, but with a romantic, faded-looking country glamour. It was majestic, but welcoming. Rose couldn’t wait to get inside. They got out of the taxi, marginally stunned, and just stood on the gravel, gawping up at The Retreat. ‘Oh, JoJo!’ said Wendy. She actually had tears in her eyes. ‘It’s breathtaking. If I haven’t already, I completely take it back about not wanting a hen weekend.’ ‘Too right,’ said Sal, her jaw dropping. ‘It’s bloody gorgeous. Look at that flippin’ swimming pool!’ Over to the right of the house, on a diamond-shaped jigsaw of Cotswold slab set into the perfect, emerald lawn, was a huge, outdoor swimming pool surrounded by expensive-looking wooden sunloungers topped with yellow and white striped towels. Swanky white umbrellas fluttered in the breeze; stone steps at one end led down to turquoise, sparkling water. And next to it was a pool house so big and glamorous it could be an estate all of its own. ‘The girl did good,’ said Rose, giving her friend a squeeze round the waist. ‘Well done, JoJo.’ JoJo looked all proud, as well she might, thought Rose. This place looked amazing, like something out of a film, and she knew they all couldn’t wait to sample the treats it promised. Glamour Pamper Package, here they came! ‘You’re welcome,’ said JoJo. ‘I wanted to book something really special for Wendy. She deserves it. And you all deserve it, too.’ ‘And you, as well,’ said Wendy. ‘You deserve a break.’ ‘Yes, I know,’ admitted JoJo, not looking wholly convinced. ‘Turn off the BlackBerry for the duration,’ scolded Sal. ‘Brides will still adore and order your dresses, the shop will still be standing when you get back to London, and the world won’t stop turning because you don’t pick up a needle and thread or a bloody diamanté for the next two and a bit days.’ JoJo laughed. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘And I promise to try. Shall we get inside?’ ‘Yes please,’ said Rose. They laughingly linked arms, like The Monkees, then realised that wouldn’t work as they all had their bags to bring in. Giggling, they picked up their luggage, crossed the gravel and made their way into reception. This was going to be the Best. Weekend. Ever. Chapter Five (#ulink_8313c227-a7f7-5ffe-be3e-42a556d2e405) JoJo ‘What do you mean, I haven’t booked the Glamour Pamper Package?’ They were standing in reception, welcome mocktails of elderflower, red berry and sparkling water in their hands, and leaning against a huge marble desk behind which a prim young woman, her hair in Heidi braids, frowned at a computer screen. ‘That’s what it says here,’ the woman said, looking up, and speaking in a soft Wiltshire lilt. JoJo noticed the name on her badge actually was Heidi. ‘It says you’re booked under the Health and Rejuvenation Package. The Brown party, right?’ ‘Yes, yes, I’m JoJo Brown,’ said JoJo, ‘but no, no, that can’t be right. I definitely booked the Glamour Pamper Package.’ She smoothed her hair with her left hand and tried to dampen down her rising panic. She had, hadn’t she? Booked the Glamour Pamper Package. She remembered doing it. That lunchtime, in between taking calls. She’d ticked the right box, she’d gone through the payment system, she’d received the confirmation email . . . ‘Do you have your confirmation email?’ asked Heidi. JoJo scrambled in her bag for her BlackBerry. She’d never actually looked at the confirmation email – she hadn’t had time – but it would be on her BlackBerry and this would all be cleared up in a jiffy. It was just a simple misunderstanding, that was all. She brought up her emails, typed The Retreat in the search box and scanned down the email that popped up . . . to the bit that said, ‘Thank you for booking the Health and Rejuvenation Package . . .’ ‘Oh dear,’ she said, blushing. Oh no! ‘It appears you’re right. I seem to have booked the wrong package. I’m so sorry, everyone. I don’t know what to say.’ Damn it! Damn and blast it! How could this have happened? She knew she’d been busy that lunchtime, but how difficult was it to tick the right box? Even an idiot could tick the right box! She’d ticked the wrong box, hadn’t she? ‘I’m so, so sorry.’ She quickly looked round the faces of her friends. They were hard to read – they all still looked relatively happy. They didn’t look angry; Wendy wasn’t sobbing into her mocktail or anything, but perhaps the news hadn’t really sunk in, perhaps the alcohol still cavorting round their bodies from the journey was softening the blow. ‘Is it that much different?’ enquired Sal. ‘This other package? This Health and Wotsit? It’s probably just a little less glamorous and a bit more healthy, isn’t it? Could it be we’re massaged with lemon oil rather than cocoa butter, and receive organic seaweed wraps rather than ones laced with double cream and glitter?’ She chuckled at her own wit. ‘Surely they’re all much of a muchness. It’s all relaxing, pampering, whatever, right? It’s all good?’ ‘They must be pretty similar,’ agreed Rose, nodding. ‘I’m sure it’ll be fine.’ ‘Actually, the packages are quite different,’ said Heidi, looking like she was just a little too happy to be the bearer of bad news, JoJo thought. JoJo suddenly remembered. She’d seen the blurb about the Health and Rejuvenation Package, of course she had. And it was exactly why she’d rejected it for the Glamour Pamper Package. Well, wouldn’t anyone? Heidi seemed to relish what she was about to say. She also recited it like a very pleased robot reading from a well-practised script. ‘The Health and Rejuvenation Package is a carefully structured two-day physical and mental rejuvenation plan designed to revive body and soul.’ ‘Uh-oh,’ said Sal. Heidi ignored her and continued. ‘The package will stimulate mental and physical well-being in a co-ordinated and streamlined series of activities.’ ‘Right,’ said Sal, beginning to look mildly irritated. Rose and Wendy were now gawping at each other, wide-eyed. ‘OK. But what do we actually do? What are the activities?’ ‘I can tell you,’ said JoJo slowly. She felt quite sick. ‘I read it all. I’m not sure in what order these come, but these are the activities I read about. We have to do an assault course—’ ‘Physical Stamina Optimiser Challenge,’ interjected Heidi. Sal, Rose and Wendy groaned in horror. Sal gripped the desk theatrically, as though she might faint. ‘Meditation—’ continued JoJo. ‘Mind Gymnastics, we like to call it,’ said Heidi smugly. ‘It’s new.’ ‘Hot Yoga—’ said JoJo. ‘Oh, that’s fabulous,’ said Heidi. ‘Burns off sooooo many calories.’ ‘And rafting.’ ‘I wouldn’t call it rafting,’ protested Heidi, quite huffily. ‘It’s actually High Concept Lake Traversing.’ ‘It’s rafting,’ said JoJo flatly. By this time Sal was barely standing and the others were clasping hands and staring shell-shocked at each other. JoJo felt awful. How could she have done this? How could she have made such a monumental cock-up? ‘And I can’t remember any of the other details. I’m so sorry, everyone. Is there no way we can swap to the other package?’ She looked hopefully at Heidi. They all did. How could this be happening? They were supposed to be spending the next two days padding round in fluffy white dressing gowns while their nails dried, not sitting on a bloody raft! ‘I’m afraid not,’ said Heidi cheerfully. ‘All packages are fully booked this weekend. There’s absolutely no room for manoeuvre.’ She smiled genially and tapped a well-manicured hand on the desk. She’s getting impatient with us, thought JoJo. She wants us checked in and moved along. ‘What about the party?’ asked Wendy quietly. ‘The party at the lake house? On Sunday night.’ JoJo felt sick again. The party! The partyhad been the element of the weekend Wendy had been looking forward to the most. It sounded amazing. They’d talked about it on the train, had discussed their outfits and had reminisced about parties they’d been to in years gone by. They hadn’t gone to a party together for centuries. ‘I’m afraid you won’t be attending the party,’ said Heidi. ‘Wrong package.’ They all looked so disappointed and JoJo couldn’t have felt more terrible. She never took her eye off the ball – never! And doing so had cost them a weekend of glamorous pampering and a party in a lake house . . . and had gained them physical torture including an assault course and a hideous rowing exercise, plus a miserable and bizarre-sounding afternoon putting their minds in the gym. ‘It’s fine,’ Wendy said, after rather a long pause, and gently placed a hand on JoJo’s arm. ‘It’s all absolutely fine. Look where we are!’ She swept her arm round the luxurious, gardenia-scented lobby they were standing in, with its marble and its pillars, its enormous fireplace and its gleaming, polished floor. Through the double doors to outside they could spy the fountain and the flowers and the cute little stone path to that luxurious swimming pool. ‘So we miss a party, so what? It doesn’t matter. And, as for the activities we have to do, surely nothing too bad can happen here, at this gorgeous place! All we have to do is a little physical exercise and sail on a raft for an hour or two! It’s fine. It might even be fun! Don’t be sorry, JoJo – I’m sure it’s going to be absolutely brilliant.’ ‘Yes,’ said Rose hopefully. ‘It’ll be fine. There will be other parties . . . in life. Occasionally. And we know how to make the best of things, don’t we? Remember when we turned up for that Pyjama and Pomagne night at the Students’ Union but we’d got the date wrong and it was actually a heavy metal concert? We just mucked in. We got in that mosh pit and headbanged with the best of them. Robert Plant positively appreciated our nighties and our Mr Blobby slippers! And lots of other people have obviously gone for this package, if it’s fully booked – it must be really good.’ ‘Unless they’re masochists,’ said Sal. ‘I’m kidding,’ she added. ‘Honestly. JoJo – so you ticked the wrong box, so what? We’ve all done that once in a while – I know I have.’ She winked; they all knew what she meant. ‘Let’s go with it and have a laugh. It’ll be fine.’ JoJo was thankful for their efforts at unconcerned cheerfulness, but she still felt gutted and really rather embarrassed. She never ticked the wrong box. She never slipped up. ‘OK,’ she muttered. ‘We’ll go with it.’ ‘That’s the spirit!’ said Sal, ‘come on, group hug!’ She flung open her arms and they all nestled into each other laughing and grinning. Well, JoJo was giggling slightly and raising a small smile – it would take her a while to get over making such a colossal mistake. ‘Excuse me,’ said a voice behind them. ‘I just need to get to the desk.’ The group dispersed to see a very tall, wiry woman, with gym-honed arms and wearing vertiginous heels, struggling with an enormous black suitcase. ‘Sorry,’ said Rose. ‘We’ll get out of your way.’ They stepped back and let the woman past and then Wendy’s face suddenly broke into a huge smile of recognition. ‘Tamsin! It’s you, isn’t it? It is you! Oh, it’s so fabulous to meet you at last!’ Tamsin! JoJo felt shame again. She’d forgotten all about her! Because they weren’t meeting her until they got here (Tamsin was driving down from Islington, she’d told her by text message in the week) and they’d been having such a giggle on the train, JoJo had completely forgotten to message her and confirm their ETA. She really was slipping, she thought. This was not like her at all! Poor Tamsin, what must she think of them? ‘Wendy?’ queried the woman. She sounded very posh, thought JoJo. From the little she’d said, JoJo could tell her accent was old school Received Pronunciation, with bells on. Actually, Frederick’s had been, too, although his was much friendlier. His face was, too. Although it was remarkable how similar Frederick and Tamsin looked, really. Wendy had said Tamsin was a couple of years younger, but both were blonde, both had strong, handsome features . . . both were tall and rangy. ‘Oh, I recognise you from your photo,’ said Tamsin, without too much of a smile, and Wendy self-consciously grabbed the L-plates dangling from her neck and twizzled them round her body until they were shoved way behind her back. ‘It’s wonderful to meet you.’ Something was beeping from somewhere and Tamsin began reaching in the small, quilted handbag slung over her shoulder at the exact moment Wendy decided to launch herself at her future sister-in-law for an enthusiastic hug. Tamsin managed to get her phone free of her bag as Wendy’s arms flung round her, and held it aloft as Wendy subjected her to an almighty squeeze. ‘Sorry,’ she said, into the phone, ‘I’ve been on the road. Yes, yes, absolutely. By nine o’clock, yes. Absolutely no problem.’ Wendy clung on, undeterred, finally releasing Tamsin after a few seconds, but not before her victim appeared to think better of herself and patted Wendy’s back with the kind of absent-minded affection you’d give to a neighbour’s friendly dog. ‘You look so much like Frederick!’ Wendy exclaimed, the hug complete and those L-plates jangling at the back of her as though she were a slightly obscure one-man band. ‘I feel we are going to be the very best of friends!’ Tamsin looked unmoved. ‘I’m delighted you’re marrying my brother,’ she said, distractedly – she was giving her phone another quick glance before she slipped in back into her bag. ‘Have you all checked in?’ ‘Yes,’ said Wendy, her face momentarily falling but then lifting again to a plastered-on smile. ‘I’m afraid we’re not on the Glamour Package any more, as mentioned in the invitation. We’ve been upgraded to something else,’ she said, throwing a wink in JoJo’s direction which her friend caught gratefully. ‘Fine, not a problem,’ said Tamsin stoically and she marched towards the reception desk, dragging her enormous suitcase behind her. ‘Well, she seems nice,’ said Wendy uncertainly. ‘Really?’ questioned Sal. ‘Yes!’ said Wendy. ‘She seemed a bit distant,’ offered Rose. ‘And possibly a bit uptight?’ ‘We’ll reserve judgement,’ said Sal. ‘Thank God you’re not marrying her, though, that’s all I can say,’ she added. ‘Come on, let’s ask Miss Heidi for our room keys and then we can dump our bags and go exploring.’ * Their rooms were absolutely gorgeous and did assuage JoJo’s guilt somewhat about booking the wrong package. Across the corridor from each other – with JoJo and Wendy in one room, Sal and Rose in another – they were more like suites than rooms: each had a bedroom, bathroom, dressing room and sitting room. They were heavenly, but not too over the top. There were no four-poster beds or overzealous drapery, just comfy, bounce-able beds layered with Egyptian cotton and soft, cosy-looking throws; padded, overstuffed armchairs in pale shades of lemon and raspberry; enough occasional tables to be useful rather than silly; and a deep pile, luxurious carpet underfoot, which JoJo was already looking forward to wiggling her toes in. The rooms here hadn’t come cheap, but JoJo had of course run the budget by her friends before she had booked (between them they were covering Wendy’s portion) and they had all agreed a spectacular blowout was what was needed, for all of them – and spectacular these rooms certainly were. Tamsin, who had followed them up the silk-paper lined corridor with the royal blue patterned carpet, was two doors up from JoJo and Wendy and had said stiffly she was going to make some work calls and would see them downstairs for dinner. As she’d closed her door, Sal had made the ‘handbag’ gesture accompanied by the ‘cat’s bum’ face. ‘She’s all right,’ Wendy had insisted, although she looked a little worried. ‘I’m sure she will be. She’s a lawyer, like Frederick, that’s all, and lawyers are serious, aren’t they?’ ‘That’s why I didn’t become one.’ JoJo smiled. ‘A lawyer, eh? Well, I don’t remember Frederick being quite like that!’ Sal said sniffily, as she inserted the key card into the door of her and Rose’s room. ‘He seemed quite good fun.’ ‘Of course he is,’ said Wendy, waiting for the little green light that signalled she had successfully unlocked her and JoJo’s door, ‘and she might be, too. Give her a chance, Sal, and everyone, please. She’s Frederick’s sister. I love him and I’m sure I’m going to love her.’ ‘Of course we will,’ said JoJo, and Rose had nodded. ‘For you, oh glorious bride-to-be,’ Sal had called, disappearing into her room with Rose trailing behind, ‘I’ll do anything.’ ‘She looks a lot like him,’ noted Wendy as they walked across the lawn to have a nose at the swimming pool. Having dumped their stuff and done a spot of light unpacking, they were now exploring The Retreat’s house and grounds in the warm glow of the fading evening sun. JoJo didn’t think she’d ever seen anywhere more beautiful. ‘She really does,’ agreed Rose. They stood by the edge of the swimming pool in a row and looked down at the turquoise, crystal clear water. ‘What sort of lawyer is Tamsin?’ asked JoJo. ‘One in the science field, like Frederick?’ ‘Criminal,’ said Wendy. The others nodded. ‘You know, seeing her, it was almost like seeing Frederick in a dress!’ she added. JoJo looked down the row to where Wendy stood at the end expecting to see her laughing, but Wendy was frowning. ‘He can be serious sometimes. Quite serious. And they are both so posh, aren’t they? Public school, privileged childhood and all that . . . High-flyers . . . and his parents are, too. I’m not sure what Frederick’s doing with me!’ She laughed now, but nervously. ‘How on earth will I fit in? I went to a bog standard comprehensive and don’t know a Barbour from a barber!’ ‘Hey, don’t put yourself down!’ said Sal, bending down to place her fingers in the water. ‘Ooh, that’s lovely . . . You’re successful in your career, and nothing wrong with state school! Rose and I both went to one as well, remember? It was only JoJo that went to some fraightfully well-to-do eighties version of Malory Towers!’ ‘Oi, don’t knock it!’ laughed JoJo, ‘My lacrosse and Latin skills have proved highly useful in later life!’ ‘Ha, ha,’ said Sal. ‘You can’t beat a bit of lacrosse – not that I even know what it is. You use fishing nets to catch a ball or something, right?’ ‘Something like that,’ laughed JoJo. She looked at Wendy and noticed she looked really quite crestfallen. She’d broken from the row and had stepped back a few paces, staring towards The Retreat. ‘Tamsin’s not Frederick, you know, and you’re not marrying his family, you’re marrying him. You don’t really think he’s too posh for you, do you, Wendy? Too good for you in some way?’ ‘No, not really . . .’ said Wendy. ‘Well, sometimes I do, I suppose.’ She curled a flame-coloured ringlet round her finger and gave a gigantic sigh. ‘We’re nothing alike, chalk and cheese . . . He’s all ordered and gentlemanly and goes about everything the right, proper, way; whereas I’m all crazy hair and unladylike and out-there colour combinations and scatterbrained, mad-scientist type.’ She gave an uncertain little giggle. ‘Although, I don’t think he fully knows yet just how crazy I am. It’s all been such a whirlwind . . . I feel there’s so much we still need to know about each other—’ ‘Don’t be silly,’ interrupted JoJo. ‘He must feel he knows you, orhe wouldn’t have asked you to marry him.’ They’d heard all about the proposal. How Frederick had whisked Wendy off to Paris, in a helicopter of all things, and had proposed at the top of the Eiffel Tower, in a sudden rainstorm. How Wendy had taken the ring, held out to her and nestled inside a black velvet box, placed it on her finger and said, ‘Yes,’ whilst tears had run down her face along with the rain. How Wendy couldn’t help but break into a mad few seconds of a spontaneous victory dance – a joyous hybrid of ‘Gangnam Style’ meets the Running Man, apparently – around the top of the tower, which she’d attempted to bring to an embarrassed halt, but an American tourist had taken her hands and enthusiastically tried to join in with her whilst whooping and shouting, ‘Hey! This lady just got engaged!’ in a really loud voice (Wendy was mortified about that part and said she would probably skip it when recounting the story to the grandkids). And how, once the American had finally stopped whooping and had left the tower to get a ‘cup of corfee and some of those swell French pastries’, she and Frederick had stood there, looking out over Paris in the rain, for an hour, just holding each other and kissing and saying how happy they were. It had all sounded ridiculously romantic. ‘I suppose so,’ said Wendy. ‘I can’t believe he did ask me! And a week tomorrow I’ll be marrying him . . . It all seems like an incredible dream – I really hope he’s not making a mistake!’ ‘Of course he isn’t, you silly cow,’ said Sal. ‘What are you like? Now come on,’ she added, taking Wendy’s arm, ‘let’s have a look at this pool house malarkey. I can spy padded sunloungers and a massage chair.’ What must it be like? JoJo wondered, as they stepped through the double doors of the pool house, to have someone ask you to marry them? It was something she’d never experienced. She couldn’t even get a man to stay with her after she got pregnant with his child, let alone make a lifetime commitment, and now she didn’t want anyone to ask her. Ever. It was gorgeous inside the pool house. Sun streamed through the massive windows onto a dazzlingly blue, kidney-shaped indoor pool, punctuated at one end with a very inviting looking Jacuzzi. A handsome, twenty-something pool attendant in yellow and red shorts was crouching by the side of the pool and fiddling with the filter. ‘Good afternoon, ladies.’ ‘Good afternoon,’ trilled Sal and they had to stop themselves from giggling and making a forty-something show of themselves. ‘Wow, amazing,’ said Rose. ‘I think Jason’s got something like this below his building, in Hong Kong. And a squash court.’ ‘His building?’ enquired Wendy. ‘Doesn’t he stay in a hotel when he goes out there?’ ‘No, not now. He goes so often they put him in an apartment. He kind of lives there, really,’ Rose said sadly. She gave a big sigh. ‘Hong Kong is his second home, isn’t it? And now he’s actually got a second home there. I keep asking him for photos of it, but he keeps forgetting to take any.’ ‘But it’s not for ever, right?’ asked JoJo. ‘No,’ said Rose miserably. ‘I expect it’s not for ever.’ She looked so sad, JoJo wanted to give her a cuddle – so she did, but the cuddle took Rose by surprise and she ended up tripping over a pool chair and landing them both in an undignified heap on the ground. Wendy laughingly pulled Rose up by the arms and the pool boy dashed over to help JoJo. ‘Thank you,’ she said, trying to avoid looking at his young, handsome face she was so embarrassed; he must think them a couple of middle-aged lunatics. ‘No worries,’ he said, before wandering back over to the filter. ‘Oh my God, you two,’ Wendy said, giggling like crazy. ‘What are you like? Rose, you’re a disaster area!’ ‘I know!’ agreed Rose, looking bashful. ‘I think I’ve brought you all down with me at one time or another! Sorry, JoJo.’ ‘It’s OK,’ said JoJo. She hadn’t really minded the feel of that young man’s strong arms on hers. And the bruise on her bum would go, in time. ‘Right!’ said Wendy, looking at her watch. ‘What time is dinner, does anyone know?’ ‘Table booked for nine-fifteen,’ said JoJo. ‘We’ve got twenty minutes to have a quick gander at the lake and get changed.’ ‘Perfect,’ said Sal. ‘You got something right then. I’m so glad you factored in the sustenance we’ll need for sodding obstacle courses and white-water rafting . . . I’m kidding!’ she cried, punching JoJo playfully in the side. ‘I had a look at the menu, actually,’ she continued. ‘It was in the room. Wild scallops with coriander and bacon, followed by saddle of beef with seasonal veg and potato dauphinoise and chocolate fondant for pudding. That’s what I’m having, anyway, but it all looks amazing. I might get some good ideas for the pub while I’m here.’ ‘For Niall, you mean,’ teased Rose. ‘Are you going to sleep with him again?’ ‘No,’ said Sal quickly. ‘No, I’m not. What kind of pub owner would that make me? What kind of highly professional pub landlady? A very slutty one with no morals, that’s what. Now, come on . . .a quick look at the treatment rooms we won’t be setting foot anywhere near then it’s grub time.’ Chapter Six (#ulink_3f16ad61-caac-5b4c-924d-2e84878e2057) Sal They knocked for Tamsin before going down for dinner. As she opened the door to them, Sal was surprised to see the bed behind her covered in reams of papers, an open laptop and several heavy-looking textbooks. That explained the massive suitcase, then, she thought. ‘I see you’ve had to bring your work with you this weekend,’ she observed, slightly regretting the cat’s bum and the handbag. ‘I’ve got a lot on.’ Tamsin smiled, as she closed the door. She’d got changed, too. She’d swapped her charcoal shift dress and heels for a long sweeping jersey column dress and bejewelled, expensive-looking flip-flops. ‘Good evening, everyone,’ she said, somewhat formally, looking around at them all. ‘You all look really nice.’ ‘You, too,’ gushed Rose. She was looking excitable in a new dress – red, with kimono sleeves. JoJo was wearing black, flowing linen trousers and a crisp white t-shirt. Wendy had on a beautiful, rainbow-coloured swishy panel dress. And Sal had changed into a clean t-shirt and a pair of jeans, and ditched the new painful ankle boots for Converse. ‘You look lovely,’ added Wendy, ever eager to please. ‘Absolutely smashing.’ Smashing? Had Wendy ever even used that word before? She seemed desperate to be great friends with unknown quantity Tamsin and was now trying to slip an arm through hers. Tamsin looked a little taken aback but eventually let her do it. ‘Thank you,’ replied Tamsin, and Wendy beamed. Although it was obvious why she was being this way with Frederick’s sister, Wendy was always eager to please everyone. She’d always been that way and Sal wished, not for the first time, she would please herself a bit more. Wendy always said ‘yes’, she always ‘went along with it’, she always told people what they wanted to hear without setting too much store on what they said back to her. Sal wondered if the big white wedding was a case in point. When they were younger, Wendy had always said she’d fancy a laid-back and colourful registry office wedding, with a meal afterwards in an Italian restaurant where they would all drink red wine and dance on tables, and that vision couldn’t be further from the massive, conservative affair in the family pile she was about to get swept up into. A family that, so far, seemed to be calling all the shots, and Wendy had only met Tamsin so far: Frederick’s parents, the Donnington-Blacks (how posh?) – a CEO father and a Professor of Sociology mother, no less – lived in the Dordogne and wouldn’t be arriving in the UK until the morning of the wedding. ‘Shall we go?’ said JoJo. They took the lift down to The Retreat’s main restaurant; the manor house also had a bar, elsewhere, where breakfasts and afternoon teas were served, something the five of them would soon find out they were banned from partaking in. The restaurant was beautiful. It had floor-to-ceiling windows, which overlooked the twinkling lake behind it (a pretty amazing lake, they’d thought, when they’d looked at it earlier, with its ducks, its cute wooden bridge and its pretty and rustic lake house), and was festooned with fairy lights and white linen and table centrepieces of pale roses in square glass vases. Sal felt like she’d just stepped into someone’s wedding reception, and the smells that wafted round were delicious. ‘Blimey,’ she said. ‘It’s stunning in here.’ ‘It’s lovely, isn’t it, Tamsin?’ said Wendy. ‘Very nice,’ said Tamsin approvingly. ‘I love the fairy lights.’ ‘You can sit next to me,’ entreated Wendy cheerfully and they all sat down. Tamsin placed her black clutch bag in front of her and pulled her phone out from it, then placed it on the table with a little tap and gave the screen and its many icons a quick swipe from side to side. JoJo, the other side of the table, was delving into her bag for her BlackBerry. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ Sal asked her. ‘What?’ replied JoJo, wide-eyed. ‘I was going to check it quickly, just in case. Tamsin’s got her phone out,’ she added. Sal knew she was resisting a pout. ‘Tamsin’s not banned,’ said Sal. ‘Sorry,’ said Tamsin, looking a little embarrassed and picking up her phone again. ‘I can put it away. It’s just that I’ve got a lot on.’ She placed it back in her clutch bag and set the bag on the floor beside her. Sal gave JoJo a look, which JoJo returned with a shrug. ‘Nothing’s going to be happening at this time of night,’ said Sal. ‘We get emails at all times,’ said JoJo. ‘Oh, for goodness sake!’ She stuffed her BlackBerry back in her bag. A waiter swooped over, smile and notebook at the ready. ‘Can we order some cocktails, please?’ said Sal. She felt she didn’t need to consult the others – they’d all want one, wouldn’t they? When had they not? And Tamsin would just have to have what they were having; a cocktail might stop her from doing whatever lawyerly stuff she felt she ought to be doing. ‘Certainly, what would you like?’ It was the same handsome young man from the pool house, now dressed as a waiter. Very good-looking, noted Sal, looking him up and down, though far too young for any of them. And they were all taken, and not in the market for looking at men anyway, weren’t they? Except JoJo – hell would freeze over before that gorgeous woman would break off from her beads and her taffeta, for even an instant, to go on a date – and possibly Tamsin. Sal couldn’t imagine her with a beau in tow, somehow. Actually, was she, Sal, taken? She had certainly been taken, several times now, by Niall, but were they an actual item, her and Niall, or just a casual thing that could stop at any time? She really wasn’t sure. She liked to think it was a casual thing she could stop at any time. Stop thinking about Niall, Sal told herself, he’s miles away. Concentrate on the job in hand – a fab night of copious food and drink. ‘We’ll all have mojitos, won’t we, girls?’ she said. ‘Tamsin, what’s your poison?’ ‘A pina colada, please.’ Oh, now this was surprising, thought Sal. Tamsin didn’t seem like a pina colada sort of girl. ‘Ooh, I like those, too,’ said Rose. ‘Good choice.’ She grinned at Tamsin who gave her a small smile back. ‘Package?’ asked the waiter. ‘I beg your pardon?’ Was he inviting them to admire his? They couldn’t even see it; he had a black apron wrapped round him. ‘Which package are you on?’ Rose suppressed a giggle. Wendy and JoJo both smirked. Tamsin appeared to not get the joke; her hand was wandering down to her bag again, which was beeping. ‘We’re on the Health and Rejuvenation Package,’ said Sal merrily, ‘thank you – Luke,’ she added, peering at the badge on his black t-shirt. ‘We like to call it the H&R.’ ‘Right,’ said Luke, looking rather embarrassed. ‘I’m really sorry, but I’m afraid in that case you can’t have cocktails.’ ‘I beg your pardon,’ said Sal again, reaching for the drinks menu from the middle of the table. ‘I’m not sure I heard you correctly. Did you just say we can’t have cocktails?’ ‘Yes, I’m afraid that’s correct,’ said Luke, looking hesitantly round the table at them. He was clearly feeling quite uncomfortable; his hands had gone all fidgety. ‘You’re not allowed cocktails on your package. Regenerating, fruit-based, soft drinks, only. You’re supposed to be following a healthy regime . . . for mind and body. It does say. In the literature.’ He smiled uncertainly. ‘Are you telling me what drinks I can and can’t order?’ ‘Yes, madam, I’m afraid I am. I’m so sorry.’ ‘That’s bloody ridiculous!’ Sal would have stood up if it wasn’t farcical to do so. She would have thumped the table in a politician-like strop if it could have got her anywhere. And she wasn’t sure if she was more upset by the outright denial of cocktails or being called ‘madam’ . . . ‘Sal,’ cautioned JoJo, in a calm and measured voice. ‘It’s not his fault. And you can understand the logic, can’t you? If we’re supposed to be getting all cleansed and healthy, we shouldn’t really be chucking a load of alcohol down our throats!’ Wendy nodded. ‘I think we just have to go with it,’ she said, clearly quite disappointed. ‘Doesn’t seem we have much choice,’ agreed Rose. ‘OK, OK,’ said Sal. ‘I’ll toe the bloody line. I’ll sip water and bloody elderflower cordial all night. But I’m not happy.’ A booze-free hen weekend, how could she be? Hen weekends meant booze and lots of it, everyone knew that. She grabbed her fork and rapped the table with it to show just how unhappy she was. Then she thought that looked a bit unhinged so she laid it back down again. ‘I bet you’ve never been to a hen weekend without cocktails before, have you, Tamsin?’ she enquired, mock-pleasantly. ‘I expect this is quite a comedown for you.’ Tamsin looked up from her phone which she was frantically tapping into and met her eye. ‘I’ve never been on a hen weekend before,’ she said. ‘Nooo!’ exclaimed Rose. ‘How about a hen night?’ ‘No, not one of those either,’ said Tamsin simply, and she lowered her eyes to her phone again, which Sal interpreted as ‘subject closed’. There was a pause. Fancy not ever going on a hen night! thought Sal. ‘Not everyone likes hen weekends,’ said Wendy kindly, though she did look surprised. ‘I even tried to avoid having one myself!’ ‘There was no chance of that—’ JoJo smiled ‘—and I’m so sorry, everyone, once again, that I booked the wrong package. I can see I’m never going to live this down,’ she added, with a rueful smile. Then she turned to the waiter. ‘A large jug of water and five elderflower cordials with ginger and ginseng, please’ she said to him sweetly, whilst reading off the menu she had taken from Sal. ‘Thank you.’ * A sober hour passed. Sal was cheesed off, but was trying to suppress her annoyance as she didn’t want to upset Wendy or JoJo. She made do with shooting loaded looks across the table at Rose, who could only grin at her sympathetically in return. Things had gone from bad to worse. After they’d ordered their drinks, Luke had informed them they were on a different food menu to the other packages at The Retreat, too. There was to be no saddle of beef and chocolate fondant. No scallops. No bacon. They had to choose between vegetable and pine nut salad, turnip cassoulet, rissoles of rhubarb in a cauliflower glaze and some other such nonsense. It was bloody awful. Sal could tell it had taken a lot of effort to put these complicated, extremely healthy dishes together, but they weren’t to her taste – the turnip cassoulet she’d made the mistake of ordering because at least it had some carbs in it had almost made her gag. She craved steak and chocolate and double cream, not rabbit’s food. ‘Frederick loves turnips,’ observed Tamsin casually, as the plates were cleared away. She hadn’t been on her phone for at least ten minutes. ‘It must be the Norfolk in him.’ ‘I didn’t know that,’ said Wendy, gathering up the side dishes for the waiter. ‘He hasn’t made you his world-famous turnip gratin yet?’ asked Tamsin. ‘No, not yet.’ Wendy smiled. ‘I guess I’ve got that to look forward to.’ ‘But you have seen his turnip?’ quipped Sal. ‘Of course I have,’ responded Wendy equally cheekily. They all laughed, including Tamsin, but her smile disappeared as her phone started creating again. There had been brief moments, during the meal, of the hilarity they were all so used to, but they couldn’t quite be themselves with the hen-weekend virgin at the table. Wendy’s laugh wasn’t quite as loud as usual; Rose didn’t giggle so much; JoJo was noticeably quiet. It was not relaxing; the whole thing was not relaxing, so far. The food was hard work, the conversation was hard work and they weren’t allowed a drink; Sal wished she was back in her pub with the whisky on tap and a hot man in her bed. She wondered what Niall was doing right now – sweating in the kitchen, no doubt. Chopping like a demon, his lovely, searching fingers flying over shiny, bulbous aubergines and slippery slivers of mixed pepper; stirring velvety, unctuous sauces with a big wooden spoon; pounding a piece of meat with a firm, hard pestle . . . She liked to admire him as he worked. Secretly, usually, pretending she was just checking on something; bustling in with a tea towel or a stray plate, to sneak a look at him at work. He had a lovely bum, with the apron strings tied above it. God, she fancied him. He was delicious. If she could press a button and be back in that kitchen with him, right now, she’d do it. She’d make a pass for him over the pass and, after service, he would service her with her just deserts . . . They were waiting now, for dessert. They’d all given up trying to decipher the complicated, ultra-virtuous pudding menu and had ordered the same thing: raspberry sorbet. At least that was semi-normal. At least that was something rabbits might not enjoy. Sal drummed the edge of the table with her fingers. She was bored. No one was talking. The atmosphere was as dead as a dodo. She had a sudden urge to liven things up quite considerably, and sod Tamsin if she didn’t like it, in fact, all the better if she was downright horrified. ‘I’ve been sleeping with Niall for two months,’ she announced, apropos of nothing, and in a very loud voice. ‘It wasn’t just a one-night stand.’ ‘What?’ said Rose, snapping her head up from idly perusing a flyer about The Retreat’s full body massages they wouldn’t be receiving. ‘Have you?’ ‘Yep,’ said Sal proudly, ‘and it’s been bloody fantastic.’ She swiftly looked round the table for everyone’s reactions. Wendy’s mouth was hanging right open; JoJo was smiling, but her eyes were wide in surprise. Rose looked delighted and Tamsin had placed her phone back in her bag; she was leaning forward with her chin on a right-angled hand and looking amused. ‘Niall’s my chef,’ she said to her, awaiting her reaction. ‘I own a pub. He works for me. It’s really unprofessional.’ ‘But not illegal,’ said Tamsin in a measured voice, but with a big grin threatening at the corners of her mouth. Damn! She wasn’t reaching for the smelling salts or anything. Sal was quite disappointed. ‘No, not illegal!’ repeated Wendy, looking all excited. ‘Tell us more, Sal. When did it first happen? Why did it first happen?’ ‘Yes, come on,’ said JoJo. ‘Spill the beans. All of them.’ Sal smiled to herself, feeling that lovely tingle she always felt when Niall’s face, body, everything came into her mind. It really hadn’t taken long for her and Niall to get it on; in fact, it couldn’t have been quicker. The moment he had appeared for his interview two months ago, looking all swarthy and handsome and brandishing a cute little tote bag of ingredients to cook, to show her what he could do, she was a goner. He’d been wearing jeans, and a Foo Fighters’ t-shirt and he had little turn-ups on the sleeves of his t-shirt, which exposed his biceps, and his hair was all mussed up into a kind of sexy half-Mohican and he had one hand in his back pocket, and if she was the swooning type she would have swooned. Instead, she’d just said, ‘Hello’ and he’d said, ‘Hello’ back and his mouth had crinkled into a smile. He had the most amazing green eyes framed by magnificent eyebrows and . . . well, wow. Just wow. He’d made her a beautiful dish of poached chicken and chargrilled vegetables, with a gorgeous fondant potato, and then they’d sat at one of the pub tables and talked. They’d talked about food and puddings and garnishes and jus and stuff then Sal had asked him if he wanted a drink; they had a new whisky they were selling and it would be good to get a second opinion on it . . . It was a fine whisky. Very nice indeed. They had one glass and then another. Then Niall asked, jokingly, if folks were still allowed to play cards in this new trendy pub of hers, and she’d not only said ‘of course’, but had produced a pack of cards a punter had left from behind the bar and challenged him to a game of Gin Rummy. They’d played three rounds, and drunk the best part of a bottle of the Highlands’ finest. Things had got very quickly drunken, and slurry, and blurry. Within an hour she couldn’t see straight. By 10 p.m., Niall was just about the best-looking man she had ever met. And at quarter past eleven, just after closing time, things had taken on a new, very sexy dimension when Niall had gone to make them both a sobering cup of coffee which neither of them had wanted, or indeed drank. He brought over to the table Sal’s Male Strip mug – one where you pour boiling water in to make the clothes fall off the man on the side, revealing a naked hunk – and, as the mug was full of hot coffee, the hunk’s clothes were off. ‘Interesting,’ Niall had said, his gloriously thick eyebrows raised. ‘Yeah,’ said Sal, ever so drunkenly, and in a purposeful (as purposeful as you can be when blind drunk) way that said ‘seduction’ in big neon letters above her head. At that moment all she could think of was Niall in an apron with nothing on underneath. She then winked at him. Actually winked. ‘I got it in Tenerife one year,’ she said, slurring like an on-heat Mae West – she was Sal, the seductress, her elbow slipping off the table, her morals slipping off the radar. ‘It’s big – the mug, I mean. It holds a lot of coffee.’ ‘I see.’ The air was suddenly charged. Heady. Crackling. Sal felt quite faint. Drunk. Everything. He’d sat down, then he’d looked her right in the eye and asked if he could kiss her. Well, actually, what he’d said, which was far more sexy, was, ‘I want to kiss you,’ and she’d looked right back into his eyes, pissed and unsteady and full of lust and had said, ‘All right.’ It had been bloody marvellous. Sexy. Intense. A quarter-full tumbler of whisky had got knocked over and neither of them had cared. They’d kissed and kissed and kissed, like teenagers. He’d intertwined his fingers in her hair; she’d stroked one of his biceps. She’d been absolutely hammered by then, and she really, really fancied him. Then she’d uttered those magic and un-retractable words, ‘Do you want to come upstairs?’ and, with her heart pounding and her mind exploding with the possibility and sheer excitement of what was about to happen, she’d led him up those stairs by the hand . . . ‘And so we’ve just carried on,’ finished Sal, having summed it up for them in not quite so much wonderful detail. ‘Doing it whenever we can. Doing it wherever we can’ – this, for Tamsin’s benefit. Sal still wasn’t getting the required reaction. In fact, Tamsin was leaning forward, all ears, and didn’t look disgusted in the slightest. ‘So you really like him,’ said Rose, nodding slowly. ‘This is a first, since Guy.’ ‘I didn’t say I really liked him,’ said Sal, ‘I just said I’ve been sleeping with him a lot. There’s a difference.’ ‘Yeah, right,’ said Wendy. She really did enjoy sleeping with him. Right from that first time. And the morning after had been pretty perfect, too. She had been downstairs, wiping some tables, when there had been a creak on the stairs. She’d let Niall sleep in, in her bed. ‘Morning,’ he’d said. A skimpy white towel – one of hers, from the airing cupboard – was tied round his waist. He had tanned skin and a cheeky smile. A mop of tousled, jet black hair, with lovely salt and peppery bits, at the temples. He was gorgeous the night before and the morning after. Sal had actually gulped. ‘Good morning, Niall. I’m guessing you slept OK?’ Her voice sounded weird; she didn’t like it. With an unprecedented breathiness to it, she sounded like a simpering wench who needed to be wearing a mob cap and a frilly apron. She was surprised she hadn’t added, ‘kind sir,’ to her entreaty ‘Wouldn’t anyone?’ he replied. ‘After last night.’ His voice had been so low and rumbling, she almost hadn’t caught what he said, but his words had rendered her speechless and Sal was never speechless. She had stood looking at him, in her imaginary wench’s outfit, her bosom heaving under her imaginary laced-up bodice. Her mouth wouldn’t open, her voice now didn’t work. ‘Sorry,’ he added. ‘I can sleep for England and you have a really comfy bed. Is it all right if I have a shower?’ God, his voice was deep. So manly. Flashes of some of the things he had said in bed to her last night careered around her brain like snippets of songs. She caught scattered refrains of a, ‘You’re gorgeous’, the hint of an, ‘Ooh, yeah, baby,’ and a soupçon of a ‘That’s it, down a bit.’ ‘Go ahead,’ she said, finding her real voice, and in a way that she hoped made her sound alluring . . . hard to pull off when she was wearing her real outfit of an ancient pair of jeans with a hole in each knee, a grubby ‘Purple Rain’ t-shirt and a non-wench-like plastic pinny. ‘I see you’ve found a towel.’ He pinged the waistband. It had looked in glorious danger of falling off. ‘I did, thank you.’ He had turned to head back up the stairs. She’d admired the back of his calves. ‘Care to join me?’ His head whipped back round, his cheeky grin was full wattage and her heart nearly jumped out of her chest and straight into the pocket of her plastic apron, next to the notepad and pen and a couple of dog-eared beer mats. ‘Another time,’ she’d said hopefully, and he’d grinned and gone upstairs. Fifteen minutes later, he’d reappeared. Jeans, boots, Foo Fighters t-shirt; she remembered how she’d relieved him of the lot, last night. He approached her and gave her a kiss, and he smelled deliciously of her raspberry body wash. ‘See you next week,’ he’d said. ‘Next week?’ ‘When I start work. I presume I got the job.’ ‘You cheeky git,’ she’d said and she’d swiped him one with a damp Jeye cloth. Of course he’d got the job! His skills in the kitchen and elsewhere were clearly second to none. ‘And that’s it?’ said Rose, ‘Now you’re just bonking each other, at every opportunity?’ She gave a huge sigh. ‘Well, I don’t mind admitting I’m really jealous. Not much bonking goes on in my house at the moment. Well, none, actually. None whatsoever.’ Sal caught Tamsin giving Rose a sympathetic look. ‘Well, I’m horrified,’ said JoJo, mock seriously. ‘What a tramp!’ ‘You should try it sometime,’ said Sal. ‘You might enjoy it.’ JoJo smiled and shook her head. Sal knew what she was saying: JoJo didn’t have time for anyone in her bed and was more than happy about it. ‘Well, I think it’s fabulous!’ said Wendy, extracting one of her curls from the edge of the dish of sorbet that had just arrived. ‘Well done, Sal! And it’s quite romantic, too. The Landlady and the Chef . . . Let’s just hope you don’t find anything wrong with him, eh?’ She winked. ‘Give it time,’ said Sal. ‘Give it time. Right, I’m going to reception to see if we can’t get this stupid alcohol ban lifted. I’ve had enough of all this elderflower ridiculousness – I’m gasping for an after-dinner aperitif.’ She scraped back her chair and started making her way through the restaurant, pleased and relieved she’d made her little confession. It had been weird, actually, them not knowing everything. It was busy in there: packed. People were laughing, chatting, eating food far nicer than they’d had to endure. The table by the door looked like they were having fun, Sal thought, as she walked past. A circle of twenty-something blondes, all with high ponytails or poker-straight glossy curtains, were screeching over a jug of some neon-green liquid topped with bendy straws, and a huge plate of toppling posh-looking nachos. That should be them, Sal thought – her and the girls – enjoying themselves like that, not chowing down on radishes and sipping cordial. Dinner had been so disappointing. A health-infused, limp washout. Still, at least she’d thrown her little foxy Niall grenade into the mix. As well as being a confession she was glad to have got out there, she was right – it had made things more eventful. Tamsin had perked up over it and it had given her friends something juicy to talk about. They had seemed pleased for her, too. Total nonsense about her really liking him, though, of course – of course she didn’t! They were just sleeping partners, no ‘L’ word, except ‘Lust’. It would be fun, she would find something about Niall that was flawed and then she would dump him, before anyone got hurt. It was the only way. Sal strode into reception feeling pretty great, all in all, following her little disclosure, but then almost turned on her heel and strode right out again. What the hell? It couldn’t be, could it? Surely it couldn’t be. She ducked behind a pillar and had another look. That man, the one behind reception in the smart suit and the curly-ish hair, the one dealing with the woman in the red top and the white sandals, it looked just like him. It really looked just like him. She’d watch for a bit longer; no one would care that a woman was crouching behind a pillar in the middle of a busy reception area, would they? She wished she had a wig and dark glasses; that would give people something to stare at. Meanwhile, shecontinued staring at the man behind the reception desk. Surely it wasn’t him? It had been years, and he wasn’t even supposed to be in this country – I mean, what were the chances? Here and now? It did look like him, though, it really did. She’d just wait for him to turn face on and then she’d know for sure. The man turned his head and smiled at the lady in the red top, handing her something. Then she must have said something funny because he threw back his head and laughed. Shit! Sal knew for sure. It was him. It was definitely him. It was Steve Marsden, that charming, cocky git from the year above them at Warwick University. Self-proclaimed ‘party animal’ (always the worst kind) who worked for the university’s Entertainments Crew and acted as roadie for visiting bands; Phys Ed student and total gym-bunny who always did a really cringe-worthy dance to ‘Thriller’ at the Monday Night Disco; and, most importantly and potentially catastrophically, Wendy’s One That Got Away. What the hell was he doing here? Sal waited for him to turn again and then she scuttled out of the lobby and back to the restaurant, where she took her place at the table with a bright smile. ‘How did you get on?’ asked Wendy. ‘Is the ban lifted? Can we start ordering double vodkas?’ ‘Nah,’ said Sal breezily. ‘There was no one there to ask. We can try again in the morning. In fact, we could go to the bar now and just lie to their faces, say we’re on The Glamour and see if we can get away with it. Wendy,’ she continued, ‘why don’t you go with Tamsin and find us a seat? We’ll just settle the bill here.’ ‘I thought we’d already paid for everything in advance,’ said Wendy, looking baffled. ‘We have, but there’ll be a bit of paper or something to sign, won’t there? Off you go.’ ‘See you there,’ said Tamsin politely, getting up from the table and Wendy got up too and they drifted off, Wendy still looking confused. Once they were safely out of the way Sal leant forward and hissed to Rose and JoJo across the white tablecloth, ‘Ladies, we appear to have ourselves a situation.’ ‘What do you mean?’ asked Rose. ‘Yes, what’s up?’ said JoJo. ‘You’ve gone as white as a sheet. Are you all right?’ ‘I’m fine,’ hissed Sal, ‘but Wendy might not be. You’re not going to bloody believe this, but Steve bloody Marsden is out there!’ ‘Steve Marsden? What? From Warwick?’ exclaimed JoJo, looking absolutely horrified. ‘What?’ cried Rose, her eyes wider that the Channel Tunnel. ‘Steve Marsden? Really? And what do you mean, out there? I thought he lived in Australia!’ ‘Yes, he moved there – what, over twenty years ago?’ added JoJo. ‘Something we can never forget, can we? With how Wendy was.’ ‘I know!’ groaned Sal, putting her head in her hands. ‘But, I’m telling you, he’s out there, in bloody reception.’ She lifted up her face and stared at them mournfully. ‘And I’ve got a bloody feeling he owns this bloody place!’ Chapter Seven (#ulink_4577415f-0bee-595a-a552-5de0146907f1) Rose Rose couldn’t believe it. Steve Marsden. Here, of all places! And now, on Wendy’s hen night. What were the chances? And running The Retreat? Rose remembered he had studied Physical Education or something, at Warwick; he was often wandering round in a tracksuit, his hands in his pockets, and he was always in the gym. But he’d moved Down Under decades ago! He was someone they thought they’d never see again. Rose leant back in her chair and exhaled. ‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘Are you sure it’s him?’ ‘You’ll see for yourself in a minute,’ said Sal. ‘We’ll go via the lobby to the bar. Grey suit, pink shirt – it’s definitely him.’ She grabbed the menu from the centre of the table; inside was a tall thin brochure about The Retreat which she pulled out. ‘And there, look!’ She jabbed at the small print on the back page. ‘“Proprietor: S. Marsden”. We’re screwed.’ JoJo went white. ‘Oh God,’ she muttered, putting her head in her hands. ‘So not only did I book us on the wrong package, but I also inadvertently failed to notice that Wendy’s bloody Lost Love is the bloody owner of her bloody hen weekend! How could I have got it so wrong,’ she groaned. ‘This is a disaster!’ ‘How could you have possibly known?’ consoled Rose, gently rubbing the back of one of JoJo’s hands. ‘It’s not something you double-check, is it? If the ex of the bride owns the hen venue! And the chance of that being the case must be one in a hundred million or something. None of us could ever have predicted this! You’re so not to blame, JoJo.’ ‘I feel like it,’ moaned JoJo. ‘I feel to blame for everything.’ ‘It’s just a hideous coincidence,’ reassured Sal. ‘One of those awful things. So stop that right now, JoJo.’ She stood up. ‘Come on, people, we need to go! We need absolute, one hundred per cent confirmation.’ They hurried from the restaurant, clutching each other’s arms and almost giggling in a near-frenzy of horrified anticipation. Would it really be him, Wendy’s Lost Love? wondered Rose. And if it was, what on earth were they going to do about it? They headed for the lobby. As they rounded a marble pillar near the entrance, Rose bumped smack bang into a man coming in the opposite direction. ‘Oh, so sorry!’ she cried, mortified. She literally headbutted his chest. Her nose collided with soft, petrol blue jersey and expensive aftershave and she ricocheted backwards like an astonished skittle. ‘No, my fault,’ said a deep voice and Rose looked up, panicked, completely forgetting what Sal had said about the grey suit and the pink shirt and expecting to see the forty-something version of Steve Marsden standing there. But it wasn’t him; Steve Marsden had – or used to have – brown, curly-ish hair: this man was blond, very very blond, his hair swept back from his face. He also had a wide mouth, amused-looking lips and piercing blue eyes. ‘I should look where I’m going.’ ‘Me too,’ stuttered Rose, gazing up at those dazzling blue eyes and feeling quite weak in their glare. ‘I have form for being a clumsy twit. I’m so sorry.’ ‘It’s quite all right, I quite like clumsy twits,’ he replied. ‘After you.’ And he stepped back in order to give them room to pass. He was fit, Rose decided, really fit. He was tall and muscular and had amazing biceps; she could see them, saying hello to her, from the rolled-up sleeves of his polo top. He smiled at her, waiting, and for a couple of seconds Rose didn’t move, she just looked, until JoJo poked her in the ribs and Sal did a less than subtle cough. ‘Sorry!’ Rose said again, looking up at him as they scuttled past. And ‘Blimey!’ she uttered, once they were clear. ‘I know!’ said JoJo. ‘What a hunk,’ said Sal. ‘A very fine specimen.’ They all turned back and admired his rear view, as he walked out of the lobby and towards the lifts. ‘Now, down to business,’ she said, whispering like a highly skilled member of MI5. ‘Without making it too obvious, look over at reception.’ They looked. ‘Don’t make it obvious!’ chided Sal. Rose lowered her hand from her forehead, where she’d been using it as a kind of search visor; she couldn’t see well at long distances without her glasses. ‘Sorry,’ she said. She looked again. Behind reception was a man in a grey suit, pink shirt. He was standing up but leaning over a computer screen, his head lowered. Heidi appeared from the office behind and he looked up to say something to her. Oh God, it was definitely him! Steve Marsden. His hair was greying now; his face a little crinkly, from what she could see, at this distance, but it was him all right. ‘It’s him,’ said JoJo, from behind her. ‘I’m afraid so,’ replied Rose and her heart sank. JoJo was right: what an absolute disaster! Steve and Wendy had been inseparable at university. They’d dated for a year and had the easiest, laziest relationship going. Literally, the laziest. They drank all night, they stayed in bed all day – lectures permitting, they ambled off to pub lunches, they cooked Pot Noodles and ate them in front of the telly; the pair of them put on a stone each when they were together, like some happy, relaxed couples do. And they were always together. The girls still saw a lot of Wendy, of course they did, but Steve was usually there too, his hands in his pockets, his ‘Ents Crew’ T-shirt on his back and a beer in his hand. He and Wendy were very well matched, everyone said so; they were always laughing, they were always snogging – it was easy, Wendy always said. Just such a great, easy relationship, and they adored each other, mostly. Shame Steve had dropped a massive bombshell onto Easy Street halfway through the third year when he’d announced he was moving to Australia, with his parents. ‘But you don’t have to go with them!’ Wendy had wailed at him, more than once and often right in the middle of the Students’ Union, pissed-up students all around them. ‘You’re a grown up! You can just stay here.’ ‘I want to go,’ Steve had said, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders raised in a far too casual shrug. ‘It’s such a great life out there. I’m going to do my finals and then I’m off. Sorry, Wendy.’ ‘But what about me?’ Wendy had cried, her red curls wobbling above an outfit of bright blue drainpipes, a hot pink Morrissey t-shirt and a pair of emerald DMs. ‘What about us?’ ‘I love you, Hammy,’ he would say (Wendy Elizabeth Ham was her full name and Steve had lots of ham-related nicknames for her: Hammy, Hamster, Hambelina . . .), taking one hand out of a pocket to try to wipe away her tears, ‘but it was never going to be for ever. We’re only twenty years old. This is not it, for either of us.’ ‘It is for me! Don’t go? Please just don’t go!’ But he was going, and in the end Wendy stubbornly split up with him, after a few weeks of wailing and pleading, saying it was easier to make a clean break there and then when it clearly wasn’t; she spent the remainder of the Third Year mooning after him and crying in the Union when she saw him kissing other girls, and then, disastrously, she slept with him at the end of the summer term, after the Big Ball. A big ball’s up, more like, Sal had remarked at the time, as Wendy was an absolute mess when she and Steve had finally said goodbye, one Saturday morning in June, with her dad waiting outside Halls with all her stuff packed in the car, ready to go home for good. She had cried for weeks. She was utterly devastated. She would never set eyes on him again. Until now. ‘We can’t let her see him,’ insisted Sal, as they walked slowly to the bar. ‘You know what she was like over him.’ ‘It might be all right,’ said Rose, unconvinced. ‘It was over twenty years ago.’ She knew it wouldn’t be; anyone who had known Wendy at that time would have seen how much Steve Marsden meant to her. He was everything to Wendy, once upon a time. ‘Of course it won’t be!’ said Sal. ‘It took her about four years to get over him, didn’t it? She didn’t date anyone again until that biologist with the dodgy shoes.’ ‘It was only you who thought his shoes were dodgy,’ said JoJo. ‘Wendy quite liked them, but I agree – it took her years to get over him and years to find someone she might feel the same way about. She’s getting married next Saturday. We really don’t want Steve Marsden throwing a spanner in the works at this late stage. Especially when Wendy seems to have some . . . well . . . doubts about Frederick – not that she doesn’t love him, but that she thinks he’s too good for her, that he’s too posh to be with her, somehow.’ ‘I’m a little concerned, too,’ admitted Sal, ‘about how she said it’s been such a whirlwind they might not know each other properly, and whether she’ll fit in with his family . . . especially now she’s met Tamsin.’ ‘So what do we do?’ asked Rose. ‘We can’t blindfold Wendy to stop her clapping eyes on Steve. We can’t keep shoving her through doors like we’re in a West End farce!’ ‘We’ll just have to do our best,’ said Sal. ‘If we spot him, we distract her. If he appears on our radar, we walk the other way. He might not even be around much, if he owns the place.’ ‘True,’ said JoJo. Then, ‘Oh God,’ she muttered, stopping in her tracks. They had reached the entrance to the bar. Rose could just about make out Wendy and Tamsin at the far end, sitting on a plush sofa. ‘I’ve just had another horrifying thought. You know what Wendy was saying about Frederick, how they’re chalk and cheese, essentially . . . Well, she and Steve were chalk and chalk. Remember they kept saying they had an affinity because they’d both gone to state school and they both liked revolting food like pies from a tin and Ginsters pasties?’ ‘Oh, that bloody affinity!’ exclaimed Sal. ‘And all that pastry – used to drive me nuts! Yes, I remember. They used to stand on a figurative soap box together, drinking pints of cider and black, and blather on about how marvellous the comprehensive system was. Good God!’ She tucked a short strand of hair contemplatively behind one ear. ‘All the more reason, then, that we try to keep them apart. We don’t want her comparing the two, starting to think Frederick’s not the man for her, if she already feels insecure about him. We’ve met him – he’s perfect Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/fiona-collins/four-bridesmaids-and-a-white-wedding-the-laugh-out-loud-roma/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 224.46 руб.