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One in a Million: The no 1 bestseller and the perfect romance for autumn 2018 Lindsey Kelk ‘A corker…hilarious!’ Giovanna Fletcher'Full of heart and very, very funny' Paige ToonEveryone wants that special someone….Annie Higgins has one goal this year: to get her tiny business off the ground. But – infuriated by the advertising agency across the hall making fun of her job – Annie is goaded into accepting their crazy challenge: to make a random stranger Instagram-famous in just thirty days.And even when they choose Dr Samuel Page PhD, historian and hater of social media, as her target, Annie’s determined to win the bet – whether Sam likes it or not.But getting to know Sam means getting to know more about herself. And before the thirty days are out, Annie has to make a decision about what’s really important…Funny, real and heart-meltingly romantic, Annie and Sam’s story is My Fair Lady for the social media age – and the perfect feel-good read. Copyright (#u4fc9d46a-57e4-567a-99f2-187485cc299b) Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF www.harpercollins.co.uk (http://www.harpercollins.co.uk) First published in Great Britain by Harper 2018 Copyright © Lindsey Kelk 2018 Cover design © Holly Macdonald Cover illustration © Shutterstock.com (http://Shutterstock.com) Cover layout design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2018 Lindsey Kelk asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Source ISBN: 9780007582457 Ebook Edition © July 2018 ISBN: 9780007582464 Version 2018-09-18 Dedication (#u4fc9d46a-57e4-567a-99f2-187485cc299b) For Rowan & Kit One in a Billion Table of Contents Cover (#u781e009b-fb9f-56fc-8e44-e2d45920e935) Title Page (#ua888c310-1d45-5c7e-ab5b-31f9d48f4aec) Copyright (#uf04edfd5-92fb-5cdc-b7eb-64853900cf9e) Dedication (#uba6e35ca-f6e3-511a-858f-5db527e9b107) Chapter One (#u922f6dd6-011d-504e-8078-3d58db137f79) Chapter Two (#u1aaf2678-3065-5fae-9e4d-f92a47e7e6c5) Chapter Three (#u65e279f8-ef56-5f7c-bb79-8e6e04636a50) Chapter Four (#udbe8b786-9f6a-5a17-9173-83985c9ef242) Chapter Five (#ue563cf0b-d792-5eb2-87eb-86d04ad551df) Chapter Six (#ue25cd621-ba54-5e28-a8a8-b34bb14dab34) Chapter Seven (#u9dc63bc8-da92-5c9e-8b74-3c4338847e77) Chapter Eight (#ue0eab6ba-01cd-5211-9fdc-85a11c67207d) 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) Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Three (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Four (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-One (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirty-Two (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue (#litres_trial_promo) A Q&A With Lindsey Kelk! (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) Keep Reading … (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Also by Lindsey Kelk (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ONE (#u4fc9d46a-57e4-567a-99f2-187485cc299b) Every once in a while, everything comes together and for a single day, your life is amazing. ‘Hands up if you think Annie Higgins is the most wonderful human being in the whole wide world?’ Miranda yelled, lining up an armful of champagne bottles on her desk. Well, leftover Marks & Sparks cava. It was cold and it was fizzy and it would do. Brian immediately raised his hand in the air. Modesty kept mine down but it was a challenge. ‘And hands up if you’re excited that we’re up for not one, not two, but three very important and exciting awards?’ This time, my hand shot right up. That was an actual stone-cold, verifiable fact. They’d already tweeted it and you could not take back a tweet. Ask literally anyone. ‘Our first award ceremony,’ Mir said, with eyes so dreamy you’d think she was preparing for the Oscars. ‘Our first mandatory fancy-frock professional event for Content. You know they hold it in the ballroom at the Haighton Hotel and everyone wears black tie and—’ ‘And everyone does coke in the toilets,’ Brian interrupted. ‘Don’t you pop that cork, I want to make a Boomerang.’ Miranda wrestled with the bottle of fizz, her tongue sticking out the side of her mouth as I counted down. ‘One, two, three …’ The bottle opened and a shower of champagne arced high into the air, dousing the office floor to wild applause. There was a reason Rodney the cleaner didn’t like us. Actually, that wasn’t true – there were lots of reasons. ‘Such a waste,’ I said, holding out my plastic cup for a pour from the already half-empty bottle. ‘But it looks so cool,’ Brian said as he uploaded the loop to Instagram. The cork went in, the cork came out, the cork went in, the cork came out. He had a point. ‘To Annie, a verifiable goddess,’ Miranda said as she filled my glass before passing on pouring duties. ‘This is going to make us, you know.’ ‘Is it going to make us rich?’ I asked, bracing my face for her big, sloppy kiss. ‘In fact, I’d settle for financially solvent. Do any of the awards come with a cheque?’ She held up a finger to shut me up, knowing full well if anyone else had done that, I’d have bitten it off. ‘Not interested in hearing about real life right now,’ she replied. ‘Today is for celebrating, so shut up and let me tell you how amazing you are. This is the start of it all for us, Annie. It’s all upwards and onwards from here on in. Our little company just put on its big boy pants.’ ‘Big girl pants, I can’t stand boy shorts,’ I corrected, rereading the confirmation email from TechBubble on my phone. Content London has received nominations in the following categories: best social media campaign, best boutique agency and best new agency. ‘Do you know what? I don’t even care if we win.’ Mir said nothing. Instead she slowly raised one eyebrow. ‘I already feel like a winner,’ I insisted. ‘I don’t need some industry prize or shiny trophy to validate me.’ Up went the other eyebrow. ‘Just being nominated is an honour in itself?’ My best friend shook her head. ‘Yeah, the problem is, I still remember when you didn’t win the three-legged race at school and decked Marie Brown with a tennis racket.’ ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I mumbled into my drink. ‘It was a hockey stick.’ ‘It was brutal,’ she assured me. ‘Very Tonya Harding.’ Somewhere along the line, I’d missed the memo about not being competitive. ‘Shall we go up to the roof and celebrate properly?’ Miranda suggested, gathering up the unopened bottles. ‘It’s such a gorgeous evening and the weather’s been awful all week.’ ‘Mir, it’s only Tuesday,’ I reminded her as she walked away. ‘And the first five days after Sunday are always the worst,’ she called over her shoulder. ‘Can you tell the boss I’ll be late in the morning?’ ‘You just did,’ I replied, chasing after her. Just over a year ago, Miranda and I pooled every penny we had and moved Content London, our ‘two girls, one laptop’ digital marketing agency, from the settees in the back of Costa Coffee to a tiny corner of a very trendy new co-working space in East London called The Ginnel. The manager sold the building on stories of its ‘history’ and ‘character’, a description that roughly translated to ‘people used to get mugged outside, but not any more’. Exactly the kind of place that would fascinate your father and worry your mother. Of course, that meant that after the cheap deal he used to lure us in expired, the rent was extortionate. But Miranda insisted it was worth it, for the location and the connections we could make and because you never knew who you were going to bump into at the barista station. Because of course there was a barista station. The best part of the entire building was the honest-to-goodness actual roof terrace. It wasn’t fancy – we didn’t have a bar or a sophisticated sound system or sexy, lounging furniture – but we did have a load of waterproof beanbags, someone’s second-hand settee and the most beautiful view of the London skyline I had ever called my own. It was all very DIY chic but I loved it. I’d even brought in a few potted plants to hide the electrical boxes. Nothing I could do about the man across the road who liked to parade around naked of an evening, but Miranda assured me he added to the rooftop’s character. A few months after moving to The Ginnel, we expanded our work family to make room for Brian, another of our oldest friends who both happened to know his way around a website and was prepared to take a chance on a fledging company. I still wasn’t sure if it was because he had so much faith in me and Mir or because we never complained about him rolling into work after ten a.m. every morning but either way, I wasn’t going to complain. Our budgets were still tighter than a tight thing but we were making it work, just about. Only puffing very slightly from the last set of stairs – I was determined to make my ten thousand steps – I put my glass down on a wooden box-slash-makeshift table and straightened up to admire the view, digging my fingers into my lower back. Even though we were right in the heart of London, and The Ginnel wasn’t a very tall building, it always felt peaceful up here. I looked down, watching the tops of the red buses sail by, the tops of people’s heads bobbing along to whatever was coming out of their earphones. Even the swell of competing sirens seemed softened by a few floors’ distance. Plus it made for fantastic sunset skyline pics and who didn’t love a sunset skyline pic? Monsters, only monsters. Whenever the weather allowed, I was up here, soaking in the Vitamin D and willing my skin to tan. But for all The Ginnel’s Brooklyn hipster aspirations, we were still very much in England and I remained the same shade as your average sheet of A4 year round. ‘Starting without us?’ I was settling myself down on the sofa when Charlie Wilder emerged from the doorway, his ever-present shadow, Martin Green, close behind. Charlie was one of the original tenants of the building and generally liked to swank around as though he owned the place. Martin, however, did own the place. Would that I’d had the presence of mind to mortgage myself to the hilt and buy a ramshackle, East London teardown when I was twenty-two. Fifteen years later, he must have made his money back on this place a thousand times over. I was fairly certain our monthly rent alone was more than the cost of his original mortgage payments and there were dozens more tenants in the building. He was so rich, it made me want to do a little cry. ‘Start without you?’ I looked at Charlie, slightly flustered on the inside but cool, calm and collected on the outside. Sort of. I could already feel myself turning red. ‘As if we would.’ ‘What’s the occasion?’ Martin asked, eyeing the bottles of fizz. ‘We,’ Mir said, handing him a freshly filled glass. ‘Are celebrating.’ Martin – commonly referred to as Miranda’s Work Husband, although never to his face – took the drink with a shy smile. Yes, he could be obnoxious and yes, he wore one too many ironic T-shirts but he was also too cute when it came to his very obvious crush on my friend. ‘Celebrating what?’ asked Charlie. ‘Did Taylor Swift like one of your tweets?’ Martin asked, much to Charlie’s delight. ‘Tay-Tay did like one of my tweets once,’ Brian said, talking into his champagne glass. ‘And it was a magical day.’ ‘We’ve been nominated for a couple of awards,’ I replied, tucking my light brown hair behind my ear in an attempt to look as casual as possible. ‘But well done, you’re very funny.’ ‘She’s being polite – you’re not funny at all,’ Miranda said in a stage whisper, flashing her middle finger at the pair and dropping down onto the sofa beside me. Behind them, what looked like the entire population of The Ginnel streamed out of the staircase and onto the roof. ‘What’s going on? Why are you all up here?’ ‘We’re watching the game,’ Charlie answered, as though it was obvious. ‘Kick off is in five minutes.’ ‘Oh Christ, it’s the England game,’ Mir groaned. ‘Kill me now.’ ‘We’re in the second round of the World Cup,’ Martin replied with mock shock. ‘Where’s your national pride?’ ‘The same place as your sense of style,’ she said, sipping her drink and staring straight ahead. ‘We were having a nice time, do you have to ruin it with football?’ As much as she might protest, the bickering was part of the flirting. Until recently, it was all back-and-forth banter, sliding into each other’s DMs and cow eyes across the coffee shop, but that was before the fateful Friday night two weeks ago when Miranda had one too many cheeky Vimtos and Martin had inhaled god only knows what and I walked in on the pair of them, snogging like a pair of teenagers in our office. But since then, nothing. Rather than give Miranda a satisfactory answer, Martin and Charlie gravitated over towards the projector screen set-up, joining the other half-dozen men who were all stood around, observing the process, rubbing their chins and nodding. ‘What’s going on with you two?’ I asked. ‘Has he declared his undying love yet?’ ‘No, because he’s an idiot,’ she replied with a resigned sigh. ‘Whatever, it’s not like it’s a big deal, is it?’ ‘Of course it isn’t.’ I patted her knee and passed my champagne to an empty-handed Brian as he walked by. ‘You’re a kick-arse queen who is the master of her own destiny and you’ve got better things to worry about than Martin Green.’ ‘Please don’t call me a queen,’ she said, fluffing out her amber afro. ‘You can’t pull it off.’ ‘Dope,’ I replied with a nod. ‘No, Annie, just no.’ Everyone on the rooftop cheered as a bright green field appeared on the giant projector screen and I felt my heart sink. There was no way I was spending the rest of the evening watching football; we were supposed to be celebrating, not punishing ourselves. Across the way, I saw Brian press his fingers to his temple and pull the trigger before cocking his head towards the exit. But before I could make my escape, Charlie and Martin leapt over the back of the sofa, Charlie pressed up against my left side and Martin glued to Miranda’s right, squishing us into the very finest BFF sandwich. Charlie flashed me a grin and I blushed from head to toe. It wasn’t my fault, I was a nervous blusher and no matter how many times I saw him, talked to him, awkwardly shared a lift with him, I couldn’t seem to make it through a conversation with Charlie without saying something idiotic. I always talked utter shit when I was nervous and six feet something of blond hair, big brown eyes and an annoyingly adorable lopsided smile definitely made me nervous. He looked as though he should be in an advert for outward bounds holidays in Iceland, not running his own advertising agency. And while I wouldn’t necessarily say I had a crush on him per se, I could admit to having lost the odd half hour imagining the two of us stranded on a desert island with nothing but a bottle of tequila, a never-ending supply of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and some baby oil. ‘Not a big football fan then?’ Charlie asked, spreading out across the sofa and forcing me into Miranda’s armpit. Fantasy Charlie would never manspread. Fantasy Charlie would have got down on the floor and given me a foot rub. Fantasy Charlie was the best. ‘I used to go out with someone who worked for the FA,’ I explained, snapping a hair band off my wrist and bundling up my hair. I hated the feeling of hot hair stuck to my neck in the summer. ‘We went to a lot of games, I think I’m just footballed out.’ ‘Congrats on your award thingies, we were only joking with you before,’ he said, leaning towards me as the players streamed out onto the pitch and everyone on the roof began to cheer. ‘Do you think you’ll win?’ ‘We’d better,’ I replied readily, a proximity shiver running down my back. ‘I mean, I’d like to think we’re in with a shot to win something.’ And when I said something, I meant everything. ‘I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you,’ he promised. ‘I’ve seen so many people go in and out of that end office, really glad you’re managing to make it work.’ ‘Thanks?’ I said, folding my arms over my boobs, shrinking down into the sofa. ‘We’re trying.’ Charlie did not need to know about our cash-flow problemette. As soon as last month’s invoices were paid, it would all be solved; the last thing we needed was word getting around that we were struggling. ‘You know, I’m always here if you need any help,’ Charlie offered, flexing the manly bicep that peeked out from the short sleeve of his England shirt. ‘I only started up a couple of years ago and I know it isn’t easy.’ I smiled, melting just a fraction. ‘Actually, that’s really helpful, thank you.’ I turned my attention back to the TV before I could ruin the moment. The camera zoomed along a long line of men with expensive tattoos and identical haircuts as they sang the national anthem. If I wanted to make a getaway, now was the time. It wasn’t that I actively disliked football, it was more a Pavlovian response to having spent every weekend travelling from stadium to stadium for five long years with my ex. There wasn’t another woman on this planet who knew how to find the cleanest ladies’ loos at any given premier league team’s home ground as quickly as I did. But it was a lovely evening and we did have all that fizz and there would be no convincing Miranda to leave now Martin had made an appearance. And then there was Charlie. Maybe it was worth sticking around, at least until half-time. On screen, the national anthem ended but instead of the clapping and jogging shenanigans that usually followed, the camera panned around the stands. An entire section of the stadium had taken off their England shirts to reveal bright pink T-shirts and when the camera pulled out, they formed a massive heart in the middle of the all-white-wearing crowd. All at once, the same section held up their phones until they joined together in one enormous high-tech jigsaw that read MARRY ME KARINE. ‘Oh god, it’s a flashmob,’ I heard Miranda mutter at the side of me. ‘I’d murder someone if they did this to me.’ ‘Point taken,’ Martin whispered back. But I was too busy staring at the screen to comment. The words were replaced with an image of a couple on the big screen pitchside. He had dark hair and olive skin and she was tiny and blonde and beautiful. She was so delicately pretty, it looked as though her features had been carved out by unicorns. So that’s what their horns were for. Eventually, the cameraman found the couple themselves and zoomed in on their corporate box. They needn’t have zoomed in quite so close, you could have seen the ring from space, it was enormous. And of course, Karine said yes. Suddenly, I seemed not to be breathing and my hands were clamped over my mouth. I leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees, completely mute. ‘Mortifying,’ Martin scoffed. ‘Who proposes at a World Cup game?’ ‘Someone romantic?’ suggested a random voice behind me. ‘Someone with a massive pair,’ Charlie commented. I exhaled for the first time in what felt like minutes. I happened to know first-hand that they were both wrong because it was Matthew, my ex-boyfriend. Like I said, every once in a while, everything comes together and for a single day, your life is amazing. Unfortunately, this was not going to be one of those days. CHAPTER TWO (#u4fc9d46a-57e4-567a-99f2-187485cc299b) ‘Did she see it? Did she see it?’ Brian sprinted across the roof, knocking several people out of the way as he lunged in front of the big screen. ‘Annie, close your eyes. Take out your contact lenses. No, you don’t wear lenses, poke out your eyes.’ I opened my mouth to say it was fine but nothing came out. ‘Are you all right?’ Miranda asked while Brian began unfastening his button-down shirt in order to cover the screen where the happy couple were busily waving to their thousands of new friends. ‘Annie, talk to me.’ ‘I’m missing something here,’ Charlie said, shielding his eyes from Brian’s pasty torso. ‘And I’m missing the game,’ Martin shouted. ‘Get out the way, dickhead.’ ‘This is bigger than twenty millionaires kicking a ball around,’ he shouted back. ‘That’s Annie’s ex. Show some respect, man.’ ‘Twenty-two!’ Martin gasped in horror at the idea of someone not knowing how many players made up a football team. Charlie, Miranda and Brian all stared, waiting for me to say something. ‘I’m fine,’ I insisted. ‘Really.’ There were at least three dozen people on the roof terrace, some I knew, most I didn’t, but every single one of them was looking at me. If you took off my clothes, threw in a couple of murderous clowns and a box full of spiders, it was my worst nightmare come true. ‘Yes, Matthew’s my ex-boyfriend,’ I confirmed to Charlie with a breezy smile. ‘But very ex. Long time ago. Not a big deal.’ ‘Well, it’s not quite been a year, has it?’ Miranda corrected helpfully. ‘Feels like much longer,’ I said, pinching her thigh tightly as I stood. ‘You know, I’m not really in the mood for football. I think I might head home after all.’ ‘We’re coming with you,’ Brian declared, shirt still open and streaming out behind him like a factory seconds Backstreet Boy. ‘Come on, Miranda.’ Mir paused for a split second, glancing at her work boyfriend who kept his eyes on the football. ‘Come on, Miranda,’ Brian barked. ‘I don’t mind if you want to stay,’ I told her, lying through my teeth. ‘Honest.’ I would literally never forgive her. ‘I’m coming,’ she replied, leaping to her feet and wrapping an arm around my shoulders. ‘We’re out of champagne anyway.’ I noticed Martin watching out of the corner of his eye but he didn’t say anything to try to stop her. ‘I really am OK,’ I said, sending a silent prayer up to the patron saint of friends for my bests. ‘It’s just the surprise. It’s been ages since we broke up, sorry, since I broke up with him.’ ‘Really?’ Brian scrunched up uncertain features as he hustled us across the rooftop, down the staircase to the fourth floor and buzzed for the lift. ‘I thought you were the dumpee.’ I pursed my lips tightly. ‘No, I wasn’t. I ended it.’ Brian looked to Miranda for confirmation. ‘Technically, yes,’ Mir said, rubbing little circles in the middle of my back. ‘She broke up with him.’ He still didn’t look convinced. ‘But wasn’t he already—’ ‘Shut up, Brian.’ ‘And didn’t you walk in on them—’ ‘Shut up, Brian.’ ‘The official record shows I did the dumping,’ I insisted as the lift pinged open. ‘And that’s what matters.’ Out of the huge floor-to-ceiling windows of the fourth floor, I could see a glorious sunset breaking across the sky. It was such a beautiful evening and I didn’t want to ruin it for them. ‘You two should stay,’ I said, slipping one foot between the lift door and the wall. ‘I’m going to go for a walk.’ ‘No way,’ Brian said. ‘We’re not leaving you alone.’ ‘I don’t need a babysitter,’ I insisted, putting on my resolved face. ‘That was admittedly very weird, but I’m fine, I promise. Just not in the mood to go over it all night long.’ Did anyone really like rehashing their break-ups? It felt like a lifetime since Matthew and I had ended things, but seeing him on the big screen had been a shock. I’d done such a good job of wiping him out of my life, such a dramatic re-entry felt like a punch to the gut. ‘As if I’m going to let you go home on your own and be upset over that tosser,’ Miranda said as my resolved face faltered. ‘Matthew was a wanksock, you are the best. It’s like you, then Chrissy Teigen and then Beyoncé.’ ‘No way am I better than Chrissy Teigen,’ I argued. ‘Maybe Beyoncé on a good day, but never Saint Chrissy.’ She stared at me with a thoughtful pout and I offered her a genuine, if watery smile in return. ‘Fine, you can go,’ she said, finally. ‘But you have to promise me you’re not going to spend all night stalking their Instagram accounts.’ ‘I’m not a sadist,’ I replied, stepping into the lift. ‘I’m going to watch the proposal once or twice, find something he bought me and burn it, have a cry in the bath and then watch QVC Beauty until I pass out in front of the TV.’ ‘We can’t argue with that plan,’ Brian said, blowing me a kiss as the lift door slid shut. ‘We’ll see you tomorrow, love.’ My flat was only a five-minute walk from work – if you took the shortest route. But I was in no rush and the long way was calling me. Beautiful weather had been in short supply all summer and it felt good to feel the last rays of sun on my skin as I trotted out into the empty street. Everyone was watching the game, I realised as I peeled off my denim jacket and straightened the sleeves of my pink T-shirt, and the city was mine. Winter had overstayed its welcome well into spring and I couldn’t even count the number of nights I’d stayed late at the office to keep my central heating bill down at home. Such was the glamorous life of a London gal. There was something reassuring about a warm summer’s evening in the city. People slowed down, they smiled, they forgot their problems and lingered a little longer, another drink, a chat outside the tube station. It was hard to be social when you were running away from the rain or hiding under your hood from an angry gust of wind. But this was perfect wandering weather. A whiff of the chip shop, the clean soapy smell of the laundrette, I could even find a soft spot for City Best Kebabs on a night like this. Or, let’s be honest, any night. I held my phone in my hand, as I almost always did, and as I turned off the main street it began to ring. I’d been avoiding checking my messages since I left the office. A cursory glance at my inbox on the way down in the lift had revealed more puke-face emojis than I’d had the privilege to see in my entire life. My friends were good people. But this was a call, not a text or a What’s App, and no one called me, save my sister or my mother. This time, it was my mum. ‘Annie.’ ‘Mum.’ ‘I just saw the news.’ I sighed internally and looked longingly at the fried chicken place across the street. ‘You know I don’t watch the news,’ I replied, keeping my head down and walking on by. I had half a packet of perfectly delicious, three-day-old scones at home that weren’t going to eat themselves. ‘What’s wrong, has the world ended?’ ‘Not the news-news,’ she said, sighing externally. ‘The news about Matthew. At the football thing.’ ‘Oh, that news,’ I replied, blasé as could be. ‘I saw that. I must drop him a text.’ Mum seemed surprised. ‘Oh.’ It took a moment to choose her next words. ‘I thought you might be a bit upset.’ ‘I’m fine.’ How many more times would I have to sing this song before everyone believed me? ‘Me and Matthew broke up forever ago,’ I recited. ‘I’m really happy for him.’ ‘Doesn’t feel like it was that long ago to me,’ she replied. Helpful as ever. ‘But that’s age for you. If it wasn’t twenty years ago, it was last week.’ ‘Mum, you’re only fifty-eight,’ I reminded her. ‘We’re not carting you off to the knacker’s yard just yet.’ ‘You might as well,’ she muttered as I hopped down off the pavement to dodge two tired-looking mothers pushing two double pushchairs. I smiled politely at the women and skipped on quickly. Miranda and Brian were all the children I could cope with for now. ‘Honestly, Annie, I’m falling apart at the seams.’ It was utter nonsense, I’d never seen a midlife crisis go so well. Ever since she’d left London and moved up north, my mother had been through a complete renaissance. My dad left when I was little and Mum hadn’t dealt with it terribly well, then out of the blue, she was thriving. My sister was worried she’d taken herself off to Yorkshire to die but as it turned out, we’d had quite the incorrect impression of Yorkshire. Mum had transformed from a depressed divorcée into a lean, mean needle-wielding machine. One day she was a practice nurse at our local surgery, the next she was opening the first medispa in Hebden Bridge and bringing Botox to the masses. I hadn’t seen my mother’s forehead move in more than two years. ‘You’re sure you’re not even a little bit sad about Matthew getting engaged?’ Mum wheedled. ‘No good can come from bottling up your feelings. You’ll block your chakras, and then I can’t begin to tell you what kind of a mess you’ll get yourself into.’ ‘My chakras are absolutely brilliant,’ I assured her. ‘All properly aligned and shiny and fresh and whatever else they’re supposed to be.’ ‘Why don’t you take a few days off?’ she suggested. ‘I’m going to Portugal on a yoga retreat tomorrow, with Karen? From the library? We’re adding a studio onto the back of the clinic so I can teach once I’ve got my five hundred hours.’ The image of my mother administering lip filler while in Warrior III tickled me. ‘I can’t take any time off at the minute,’ I said, forcing a little extra regret to my voice. ‘We’re so busy at work and we’ve been nominated for some awards, big ones, so I need to be around. I’m totally gutted though, I’m sure it would be fun.’ ‘You’ve really thrown yourself into work since you and Matthew separated,’ she replied with a soft warning in her voice. ‘But you must remember to look after yourself. We work to live, we don’t live to work.’ ‘That’s not it at all, I love my job,’ I reminded her. ‘And like I said, everything’s fine.’ ‘That’s your theme song,’ Mum said before breaking into song. ‘Everything’s fine, everything’s fine, my name is Annie and everything’s fine.’ ‘Mum, you’re breaking up,’ I said, holding the phone at arm’s length. ‘I can’t hear you.’ ‘Phone calls don’t break up any more,’ she shouted out of my tinny speakers. ‘Annie?’ ‘Sorry, didn’t get all that.’ I held my finger over the end call button. ‘I’ll call you when I get home.’ A grumpy, fat pug grimaced up at me from outside the newsagent’s on the corner. ‘I’m not going to call,’ I confessed. ‘I’m going to go to bed.’ The pug judged me silently. They say home is where the heart is but I kept most of my other essential organs at the office. My flat was so small, you could walk from the front door to the back wall in five big steps and if I was being entirely honest, I wasn’t the most house-proud of humans. Piles of ironing, piles of mail, piles of books, piles of absolutely anything that could be stacked on top of each other were dotted around the living room, creating an obstacle course of little leaning towers. Every ounce of energy I had went into my job. Home was supposed to be the place where I could switch off. Not literally, of course, that would be insane. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually seen my phone with less than 43% battery. Even though it was small, the flat was mine and I did love it. Little bathroom, little bedroom and a tiny open-plan living room and kitchen that might be a bit more inviting if I ever got around to buying a new settee. It turned out getting hold of an entire flat’s worth of furniture after a break-up was expensive – who knew towels could cost so much? And so, instead of the beautiful mid-century modern West Elm sofa of my dreams, I made do with my sister’s hand-me-down Ikea loveseat. It was too small for two people to sit down at the same time and painfully uncomfortable if you ever tried to lie down on it. Once upon a time, I think it had been white but now it was … well, white it definitely was not. Carefully placing my laptop bag on top of the second-hand dresser I’d wedged in the space by the front door, I turned on the kettle before taking one giant leap from the kitchen into the bedroom and stripping off my clothes. More wine would not make me feel better. This was a night for tea. Besides, I told myself, I had nothing to feel bad about, other than the bag full of dry cleaning I’d been meaning to drop off for almost six months. The front of my built-in wardrobe was mirrored from floor to ceiling, meaning at least once a day I had to give myself an all-over once-over. No matter how many body positivity videos I watched, I still preferred not to stare at my backside for too long. Objectively, I knew this was not a worst-case scenario situation; I liked my hair when it didn’t frizz, I liked my legs and thanks to a thirty-day plank challenge, I felt strong in the middle, if not especially skinny. And who wanted to be skinny these days, anyway? Being able to see your ribs was so 2015. ‘I’m happy for him,’ I told Mirror Annie. ‘Because I am a whole and complete person who only wishes joy for everyone in the universe.’ Mirror Annie frowned. ‘Fuck it,’ I muttered. ‘I hope he trips down the stairs and breaks both his legs.’ Yep, that was better. Sometimes I wondered what would happen if my flat ever made it on to Through the Keyhole. Who would live in a house like this? A smart, small newbuild on the outside, the hoarder-like tendencies of a Deliveroo addict on the inside. The many devices covering every available surface suggested it could be the kind of professional troll who thought Piers Morgan talked a lot of sense. The endless polystyrene cartons and pizza boxes suggested someone who didn’t know how to turn on an oven. So far, so slightly worrying; very single middle-aged shut-in. But the lack of porn and huge stack of online shopping packages to be dropped off at the post office was a real curve ball. I’d lost count of the number of times I’d ordered something from ASOS only to realize, when it arrived twenty-four hours later, that I’d already ordered and returned the exact same thing a month earlier. I plugged my phone into its charging dock, turned on the tiny TV in the bedroom and fired up my iPad, all while the kettle boiled. Time for one last circle around the socials to make sure everything was good and well with our clients. The influencers, the style vloggers, Fitspo and BoPo specialists, gamers and the mummy, travel and beauty bloggers, we worked with all of them. I’d learned more about different walks of life in this job than I could have ever come across in any other profession, whether it was how to apply perfect winged liner, where to stay on the island of Vanuatu or how to improve your vertical reach in Street Fighter V. Not all of my newly acquired knowledge had proved helpful yet, but who was to say when I might find myself invited to a formal video game competition in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? As far as I could tell, all was right with the world of social media. Or at least, as all right as it ever would be, I was good at my job but I wasn’t a miracle worker. I carefully avoided my own pages. Even with all the filters and blocks and mutes I’d put on Matthew’s name, there was still too great a chance of seeing their happy, shining faces, and I didn’t want to give myself nightmares. With a fresh mug of tea and the last three broken Hobnobs in the packet, I retreated to my bedroom. My safe, beautiful, man-free bedroom. It was wonderful, not having to explain my every move to someone the way I had when I was with Matthew. I loved not having to justify another late night at work or an after-hours cocktail. I loved eating biscuits for dinner, scheduling my own weekends and never finding softcore porn in my Netflix queue. I loved my life. Would it be nice to occasionally have someone to snuggle up to while I yelled at the TV during Question Time? Maybe. Would it be nice to have a second pair of hands to help bring the shopping back from the supermarket? Of course it would. And yes, perhaps an actual living, breathing man might beat creating a nest of pillows in the middle of the night once in a while, but I was very much of the opinion what was meant to be would be. My life was full and fun and I was happy. Something I couldn’t always say when I was with Matthew. Munching the last of my crumbly dinner, I turned off the TV and turned on my podcast app. Behind the Scenes had an interview with Mark Ruffalo. Maybe if I listened to it as I fell asleep, I could trick my brain into dreaming he was my boyfriend. Because that was the behaviour of a perfectly happy, single thirty-one-year-old. Wasn’t it? CHAPTER THREE (#u4fc9d46a-57e4-567a-99f2-187485cc299b) ‘It’s shit, Annie,’ Miranda growled, blinking into the bright morning sunshine. ‘I feel like I just got told off by my dad for spending all my pocket money.’ We’d been to see the bank manager. It had not gone well. ‘Can we just go back to the office and talk about it there?’ I asked. Yesterday’s beautiful weather had turned into a sweltering, sticky day and all the things I loved about London in the summertime had been washed away by the sea of sweaty bodies pressed against me on the Northern Line. ‘I can’t be angry and outside at the same time, Mir, it’s making me feel stabby.’ There were many difficult factors in running a real business but far and away the hardest part was money. There was never enough. Every single month we had to find rent, we had to find wages and for some reason, clients kept expecting us to do things for them before they paid us. It made literally no sense. I didn’t walk into Topshop, pick up a frock and flash the girl on the till a peace sign with a vague promise to get her the money within thirty days. Also, no one ever paid within thirty days. Ever. Even though I was insanely proud of owning our own business there were other downsides too. I couldn’t call in sick and take to my (non-existent) settee with a Terry’s Chocolate Orange and watch an entire season of RuPaul’s Drag Race when I was having a particularly bad day. Like today, for example. Miranda and I started Content because we were out of other options. After spending the best part of ten years in miserable marketing and advertising jobs, me withering away at a giant agency, nursing a sense of integrity that just wasn’t welcome, in a dark corner – literally a dark corner, I couldn’t even see a window from where they’d shoved me – and Miranda bouncing between every company in London, we decided it was time to become masters of our own destiny. And so we pooled our meagre resources and decided to live the dream. With hindsight, I did sometimes wonder if we mightn’t have been better off just going to Disneyland for a fortnight then getting jobs at McDonalds when we came home but, you know what they say, you live and learn. ‘I’m so pissed off,’ Mir said, rolling up the sleeves of her oversized white shirt only for them to flap back down by her sides like an angry penguin. ‘He talked to us like we were children.’ ‘He wasn’t angry, he was just disappointed,’ I agreed, wiping a film of city sweat from my forehead. ‘But not nearly as disappointed as Brian’s going to be when he finds out we can’t pay him at the end of the month.’ ‘We’ll work it out, we always do,’ she muttered before automatically checking her phone. ‘All we need is breathing room. Maybe we could get another company credit card? Or we could sell something.’ I looked at her while she angrily swiped at her screen. ‘Like what? A kidney?’ ‘Not helping,’ she replied. ‘You’re right,’ I said, unable to stop myself from bending down and picking up the Starbucks cup and depositing it in the closest bin. ‘We need our kidneys. We drink too much.’ ‘Didn’t we start our company because we didn’t want to spend the rest of our careers listening to sanctimonious old men telling us what to do?’ Mir was still lost in rantland while I melted into an Annie-shaped puddle on the side of the road. ‘I want to march back in there and show him just how badly I have overextended myself.’ ‘We don’t give up and we don’t give in,’ I reminded her, blocking her path. I was fairly certain she wouldn’t really walk into Barclay’s and deck the business manager but there really was no telling with Miranda Johansson. ‘That’s our motto, isn’t it?’ She frowned and shook her head. ‘I thought it was “Yes, I will have another”?’ ‘We can’t afford the first one, let alone another,’ I said. ‘Come on, let’s go back.’ ‘Fine,’ she sighed, opening up a rideshare app on her phone. ‘We can work this out without the bank. I believe in us.’ ‘I believe I’d rather not be bankrupt by Christmas,’ I told her, covering her screen with my hand. ‘We should get the tube back.’ Mir threw her head back and howled out loud, attracting the attention of more than a few confused onlookers. ‘But it’s so hot,’ she whined. ‘And the station is miles away.’ ‘Mir.’ I hated it when she made me sound like my mother. ‘Fine,’ she said, grudgingly cancelling the car. ‘I’ll just sweat through my shirt and look like a skank all day.’ ‘That’s my girl,’ I replied, patting her on her sweaty back. ‘One day we’ll have drivers at our beck and call, hot and cold running drivers, ready to ferry us here, there and everywhere.’ ‘Hot, cold, moderate, I don’t care,’ Miranda said, rolling up her sleeves once more and putting her best foot forward. ‘I just want to actually make some money for a change.’ It was always nice to have a dream. ‘Morning.’ Just what I needed. I looked up from my important tea-making activities to see Martin and Charlie flanking either side of the office kitchen. Rather than reply, I offered a tight smile and kept my eyes on the kettle hoping it was politely rude enough to send them on their way. On the walk back to work, I’d made a deal with myself. If I managed to call in at least one invoice and made it through the entire day without brutally murdering the first person to mention Matthew’s proposal, I was ordering Domino’s for dinner. ‘How are you feeling this morning?’ Martin asked in a sympathetic tone of voice I assumed he usually reserved for his grandmother’s best friend. ‘Amazing,’ I replied without looking at him. ‘Thank you for asking.’ Keep your eyes on the prize, I told myself. There’s pizza at stake, don’t murder them. If only they hadn’t approached me in the kitchen with all its bright and shiny sharp things. ‘Everyone’s been talking about last night,’ Martin said while Charlie hovered at his elbow, monitoring my expression. ‘Must have been weird for you?’ ‘You don’t really expect to turn on the game and see your ex getting engaged in 4K HD, do you?’ I replied. Deep, calm breaths. Think of the garlic dipping sauce. ‘Seems like more of a Facebook thing.’ ‘Seems like you’re well out of it to me,’ Charlie said, passing me the milk from the fridge. ‘What a cock.’ They mean well, the voice in my brain whispered, let them live and you can have garlic bread as well. ‘The only thing that’s getting to me is having to talk about it, to be honest,’ I said as I aggressively dunked my teabag. ‘It’s really not a big deal.’ ‘My mate Will just got dumped. I could set you up with him if you’d like?’ Martin offered helpfully. ‘I‘ll give him your number.’ They’re only trying to help, do not disembowel them with a Nespresso pod. ‘Recently dumped Will sounds lovely,’ I said with as much grace as I could muster. ‘But just because my ex got engaged, it doesn’t mean I’m desperate for a boyfriend.’ The two of them exchanged a glance and I knew what they were thinking. It was the same thing I was thinking, lying in bed, wide awake at three o’clock that morning and scrolling through Bumble, Tinder, Happn, Hinge, Huggle and god help me, even Farmers Only. As soon as you ended a relationship you were in a game of snakes and ladders with your ex, there was always someone keeping score and, right now, Matthew was winning. Any points I’d earned from technically doing the dumping had been wiped off the board by his proposing to his supposed soulmate twelve months after we called it quits. ‘I’m dying of thirst, Higgins. Where’s my tea?’ Miranda strolled into the kitchen, having traded her oversized shirt for a cropped neon yellow T-shirt. She was the best, all faux leather trousers and fuck-you attitude. It was something I needed more of. The attitude, not the trousers. I got thrush from just looking at them. ‘Martin offered to set me up with his friend,’ I told her, handing over her My Little Pony mug. It didn’t really go with the rest of her look but when it came to a cup of tea, Mir would have drunk it out of a lightly rinsed bedpan if it was the only option. ‘Because I’m a sad and lonely spinster.’ ‘Are you joking?’ she asked, looking astounded. ‘Have you seen this woman? Annie’s amazing. Any man alive would jump at the chance to go out with her. She’s funny, she’s clever, she’s generous, she doesn’t mess about and have you seen those getaway sticks? Annie, pull up your jeans, show them your legs.’ ‘Get off,’ I muttered, slapping Miranda’s hands away from my knees. ‘Can I go back to my desk now please?’ ‘Obviously, Annie is amazing,’ Charlie spoke extra loudly to make sure we knew he really meant it. ‘And if it’s all right for me to say so, you have got a cracking pair of legs there, Higgins.’ ’It isn’t,’ I assured him. ‘But thank you.’ ‘You’re looking at the empress of social media,’ Miranda was really on a roll. ‘She’s a kingmaker, best in the world at what she does. The fact you even get to stand in the same room as this woman is mindblowing to me. She’s the Meryl Streep of socials. In fact, I’m fairly certain you should bow whenever you see her.’ ‘Yeah, yeah, she turns in a good tweet,’ Martin said, looking at the door and clearly wondering how his morning had taken such a wrong turn. ‘We’re all very impressed.’ ‘What did you just say?’ Miranda slammed her cup down on the table, hot tea spilling everywhere. ‘She turns in a good tweet?’ I winced as I sipped my tea. What an idiot. Martin paused and looked at Charlie. Charlie shook his head. Martin did not take the hint. ‘That’s what you do, isn’t it?’ he replied. ‘Twitter?’ ‘Do you even know what we do?’ Miranda asked. ‘Do either of you have any clue?’ Martin shook his head. Charlie apparently knew better than to react. Mir sighed sadly and gave me the look. I shrugged apologetically and leaned back against the counter to watch the show. This wasn’t the first time we’d had to explain our actual jobs and I very much doubted it would be the last. ‘OK, so, Charlie, say you’re trying to think of a clever tagline to go on your thirty-second advert for a chicken cooking sauce?’ Mir began, gesticulating wildly as she went. ‘And you’re dead excited because the advert is going on in the middle of Coronation Street.’ He nodded. ‘You’re wasting your time,’ she said, clapping her hands right in front of his face. ‘No one watches the adverts any more. They’re all on their phone, interacting with content we created instead.’ ‘There are twenty million Instagram accounts in the UK,’ I said, picking up where she left off. ‘Our influencers alone have more than a hundred million followers between them. You couldn’t even dream of getting close to that many people with an advert these days.’ ‘I know social media is important, but you don’t really think what you do is more powerful than what I do?’ Charlie said, his hackles somewhat raised. ‘I’m sure you’re very good at arsing about on the internet, but we all know real advertising, real marketing is still what matters most. Everyone knows social media is the paid-for opinions of kids.’ ‘Arsing about on the internet?’ I repeated, almost sure he must be joking. ‘Paid-for opinions of kids? Is that really what you think we do?’ Charlie picked up a pink wafer biscuit and bit into it while responding to me with a very, very brave shrug. ‘Annie is a goddess,’ Miranda hurled a tea towel in Charlie’s general direction as Martin winced. ‘She could take any old man or woman off the street and turn them into a superstar. Or any tiny brand or business. She can get a million eyes on you without even trying, you write bad jingles and rip off movies to make shitty adverts for crap cars.’ Ooh, that one had to hurt. Fired-up Miranda wasn’t always very kind and throwing a hangover and a bad bank manager meeting into the mix, was just asking for trouble. ‘We had the idea for the talking raccoon first and you know it!’ Charlie said, turning beetroot red. ‘The only people who get famous online are either rich, fit or related to someone else who is rich and fit. Bonus points if you’re rich and fit and can afford to have lots of photos taken on sandy beaches while standing in a yoga pose so people can crank one out over your feed at bedtime.’ Miranda gagged as I wrinkled my nose. ‘Good to know what we’ll find when the police go through your search history,’ I muttered. ‘Tell me you clear it every single night, please.’ Charlie looked unimpressed, Martin looked as though he would like to be literally anywhere else on earth and Miranda was ready to draw blood. I couldn’t quite work out how things had escalated so quickly. ‘You can make anyone famous, can you?’ Charlie asked, steely eyed. ‘Yes,’ I said with all the confidence in the world. ‘We can.’ ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Prove it. Make me famous.’ ‘I could,’ I replied. ‘But even the internet doesn’t deserve that.’ ’Yeah, yeah, whatever,’ he answered with a not-so-friendly chuckle. ‘You talk a good game, I’ll give you that.’ I pressed my lips into a tight thin line and planted my hands on my hips, fighting the urge to knock him out of the window. Charlie leaned against the fridge, a cocky smile on his handsome face that was seemingly designed to get me worked up in all the wrong ways. ‘Is it me,’ Martin muttered, breaking the silence, ‘or did things just get very tense in here?’ ‘Oh, Annie, ignore them,’ Miranda said, tugging on my shirt sleeve. ‘Come on, you’re going to be late.’ ‘I’m not done with this,’ I warned them as I abandoned my cup of tea. ‘Just so you know.’ Charlie threw me a thumbs-up as we left and my heart pounded in my chest. I couldn’t work out if I felt more insulted, furiously angry, incredibly turned on, or all three. Life could be so confusing. ‘I know, I’m sorry, I’m late. I’ve had the most ridiculous day,’ I said, barrelling through the door without knocking. It was already ten past one, I’d lost ten minutes of my time, we could manage without the usual pleasantries. Rebecca held out her arms for my jacket as I threw myself on her chaise longue. ‘We’ll get it out of the way,’ I said as I stretched out. ‘You’ve heard about Matthew, obviously.’ She nodded. ‘Of course I’m happy for him,’ I said, lying back and focusing on the same crack in the ceiling as always. One day, I was going to have to bring some Polyfilla with me. ‘For both of them. Not that I know Karine at all, but she seems nice enough and Matthew is a good person. An OK person.’ I glanced over at Rebecca, who looked back in her steady, measured way with her notebook in her lap. ‘Matthew is a person,’ I said. She pulled the cap from her pen and scribbled something down. ‘I’m not jealous,’ I insisted, running the pendant of my necklace up and down its chain. ‘Just because she’s younger than me and littler than me and she’s got the most perfect nose I’ve ever seen in my life. It doesn’t mean anything, my life is going brilliantly. I own my own company, I have amazing friends, I’m up for three big awards and what’s she? She’s engaged. Bravo, Karine.’ I rubbed the bare third finger on my left hand, I gave a very heavy sigh and counted all the framed certificates on the wall. Bachelor’s degrees, master’s degree, certificate of this, certificate of that. Everything you’d want to see on the wall of a therapist’s office. ‘Did I tell you we’ve been nominated for three awards? Three! I think it’s a record for a new company. I’m definitely doing so much better than when I was with Matthew. Don’t you think?’ Rebecca made a non-committal sound across the room. ‘Well? You’re the therapist.’ I sat up so I could see the expression on her face. ‘What do you think? In your professional opinion?’ ‘In my professional opinion,’ Rebecca replied. ‘I thought you were bringing me lunch.’ I blinked at my sister before pulling two Prêt a Manger sandwiches out of my handbag. ‘They were out of hoisin duck, sorry,’ I said, chucking one of them in her general direction and unwrapping my own cheese-and-pickle baguette. ‘Got you this instead.’ ‘They were out of duck so you got tuna?’ my big sister wrinkled her nose and abandoned the sandwich. ‘I can’t eat that, you dickhead. I’ve got patients all afternoon and no one wants to share their innermost thoughts and feelings with a woman who smells like Flipper.’ ‘Sorry,’ I replied, trading her for my cheese and pickle. ‘I know you like tuna, I just didn’t think.’ ‘Colour me shocked.’ She unwrapped the sandwich and took a big bite. ‘How many times do I have to tell you I am a therapist, not your therapist. You can’t treat your little sister, no matter how big a nutcase she’s turning out to be.’ ‘But you’re so good at giving advice,’ I said, covering my mouth with my hand. A courtesy not extended by my elder sister, who I knew for a fact was not raised in a barn. ‘You’re trained in it. You’re a professional advice-giver. Advise me, please.’ ‘That’s a lovely way to describe an agonizing five-year psychology degree,’ Rebecca muttered. ‘But since you asked, my professional opinion would be a diagnosis of FOMO. Get over yourself immediately.’ I swallowed and shook my head slowly. Becks loved to remind me her degree was far more advanced than mine. Me and my piffling BA in Psychology and English. Her with her fabulous doctorate. ‘Six years at uni and the best you can come up with is FOMO?’ I said, grinning when she finally cracked a smile. ‘Becks, you’re not even trying.’ ‘I don’t even have to,’ she reminded me. ‘You’re not my patient.’ ‘No, but I am your little sister and you’re stuck with me, so help.’ I gave her my best attempt at eyelash fluttering as I finished my sandwich. ‘Why do you think no one has ever delayed the start of a massive sporting event to propose to me?’ ‘Oh dear god.’ She picked a fleck of mascara from her cheek and sighed. As big sisters went, Rebecca was far from the worst. Too clever for her own good, obviously, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. She was five when I was born and she did not take the news of a little sister well. Apparently, she’d expressly requested a guinea pig. Instead, I came along to ruin everything. According to her. ‘I haven’t had sex in so long, I no longer own nice underwear,’ I said. ‘Shaving my legs above the knee does not occur to me. If I was confronted with a penis, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.’ ‘If you are confronted with a penis, you should call the police,’ Rebecca advised. ‘And for your information, I have sex and I don’t shave my legs above the knee.’ I pulled a face and spared a thought for her poor husband. ‘Annie, if you really wanted to be in a relationship, you’d be out looking for one,’ she said. ‘I have never known you to fail at anything you set your mind to. Which isn’t necessarily a compliment, by the way.’ I looked at her, my puzzled cheeks full of tuna. ‘How is it not?’ I did not understand. ‘Are you still coming on Saturday?’ she asked, throwing me a paper napkin. ‘I’ll have wine on Saturday. This would be a much easier conversation if I had wine.’ ‘I don’t know, I might have to work over the weekend,’ I replied quickly. ‘I’ve got an event with one of our vloggers next week and I’ve a feeling it’s going to take a fair bit of time.’ ‘And an event with a vlogger is more important than dinner with your family?’ Rebecca asked, head cocked to one side. Definitely something she learned in therapist school. ‘Please don’t make me lie,’ I said. ‘Because you know the answer I’m going to give is not the one you want to hear.’ ‘There’s something wrong with you,’ she replied. ‘You know that, don’t you?’ ‘Is that your professional opinion?’ I enquired. ‘Because if it is, it’s a shit diagnosis. I’m going to kill you on Yelp. My work is important to me. This event is important to me.’ ‘Of course it is, but work shouldn’t be more important than spending time with actual humans who love you.’ Sometimes I wondered if we were even related at all. ‘It would be brilliant if you could be supportive right now,’ I told her. ‘I’ve literally just walked out of an argument with two idiots in the office making fun of what I do. Making the company a success is very important to me and you know that.’ ‘As it should be,’ Becks said kindly. ‘But you need to find a balance. We both know how competitive you can be.’ ‘Don’t exaggerate,’ I said with a theatrical sigh. ‘I’m no more competitive than anyone else.’ ‘Annie. You were banned from the school sports day for trying to take out that other girl in the sack race.’ I chomped into my sandwich and grimaced. ‘It was the three-legged race, and why do people keep bringing that up?’ ‘You get it from Dad, you know,’ she said, nodding confidently. ‘This is classic Higgins behaviour through and through.’ There were some buttons that only family knew exactly how to push. ‘I ought to be getting back,’ I said, fishing for my phone in my handbag. Thirty-two unread emails in the last half hour. ‘I’ll text you about dinner.’ ‘Have you heard from Mum this week? I need to give her a call.’ ’I talked to her yesterday, she’s gone on that yoga teacher-training course,’ I reminded her. ‘No phones allowed.’ ‘Your worst nightmare,’ Becks smiled. ‘Please try to make dinner on Saturday. The girls would love to see you and you know Dad always brings amazing booze.’ ‘Dad also always brings Gina,’ I replied. ‘Which is why you need the booze.’ ‘You need to be nicer to her,’ my sister said, shaking her head. ‘I think he’s sticking with this one.’ Only time would tell. I stood up, stretched and looked out the window. Fantastic. It was raining. It had been blazing sunshine when I left the office, not a cloud in the sky. Now it looked like I’d be treating London to a solo wet T-shirt contest on the way back to work. ‘There’s an umbrella by the door,’ Becks said, finishing her sandwich. ‘Take it.’ ‘Thank you,’ I kissed the top of her head, ignoring her protests. ‘You’re a good sister. Terrible therapist but a good sister.’ ‘That’s because I’m not your therapist,’ she insisted. ‘And please don’t tell anyone that I am. I don’t want to be considered responsible for what goes on inside your brain.’ ‘Love you too,’ I called as I left. ‘I’ll text you about dinner.’ ‘You’ll see me Saturday,’ she corrected as I closed the door. ‘You knob.’ I knew she loved me really. When I walked back into the building, Miranda, Martin and Charlie were sitting together in the coffee shop, finishing their respective lunches. I’d managed to convince myself, as I power-walked through the rain, to let go of our argument earlier on. They’d caught me at a bad moment. I was upset about Matthew, I was stressed about our financial situation, I wanted a pizza and I was ready and waiting for something to set me off. There was no point in letting a man’s ego get in the way of a little light flirting, was there? Besides, if everyone who got annoyed with the opposite sex stopped getting it on, the human race would be extinct within two generations. I knew how good I was at my job and I knew how hard I worked. I didn’t need Charlie bloody Wilder or Martin dickhead Green to tell me so. ‘Oh look, it’s the Meryl Streep of social media,’ Charlie said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Afternoon, Professor Higgins. Been out racking up the likes?’ And then everything went red. I dropped my sopping wet umbrella on the ground, splashing everyone in a ten-foot radius, and slapped both my hands on the table. Martin and Charlie looked up at me with wide eyes while Miranda just cleared her throat as she swept droplets of rain off her leather trousers. ‘Pick anyone in this room,’ I declared. ‘And I will make them Instagram famous in thirty days.’ CHAPTER FOUR (#u4fc9d46a-57e4-567a-99f2-187485cc299b) ‘Are you sure about this?’ Miranda asked as Martin got up to drag an extra chair over to our table. ‘You’re already working yourself to the bone.’ ‘It’s nothing,’ I said with steely determination. ‘I could do this in my sleep.’ ‘If you’re sure,’ she replied, pulling a pen out of her pocket and grabbing a fresh napkin from the dispenser on the table. ‘We’ll need measurables,’ Miranda said, scribbling down some numbers. ‘There are roughly twenty million Instagram accounts in the UK and the average user over the age of twenty has three hundred followers.’ ‘That doesn’t sound like a lot,’ Charlie said as he pulled up the app on his own phone. ‘Even I’ve got over nine hundred.’ ‘And you own an advertising agency,’ she replied shortly. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself. Are you even verified?’ Shamefaced, he put his phone away. ‘Then to win the bet, you need to what?’ Martin asked. ‘Get them a million followers?’ ‘That’s not possible,’ I replied. ‘Unless you’re going to knock up Beyoncé while starring in a new Star Wars movie, that is an impossible number. Generally speaking, twenty thousand followers makes you an influencer, meaning you can start making money off your feed. A hundred thousand, you can make a living from it, but that can’t be done in thirty days.’ ‘Sounds like you’re doubting yourself, Meryl,’ Charlie clucked. ‘Twenty thousand is nothing.’ ‘Says the man with fewer than one thousand,’ I argued. ‘All you’re doing is proving you’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.’ ‘Before we agree to anything,’ Miranda interrupted, snapping her fingers in front of Charlie’s face. ‘Other than wiping the smiles off your smug faces, what’s in this for us, exactly?’ There was a reason she was in charge of driving the business. ‘In it for you?’ Charlie looked completely nonplussed. ‘I don’t know. When you lose, you buy me a pizza?’ ‘Or, when we win, we get a month’s free rent?’ Miranda suggested. ‘Since you’re so certain we can’t do it.’ ‘A month’s rent and a pizza,’ I added. I wasn’t about to turn down food. ‘Agreed,’ Charlie said, holding out a hand to shake on the deal. ‘And when you lose, I get pizza and you have to do a month of social media for Wilder.’ ‘Hang on a minute, I’m the bloody landlord here, what’s in this for me?’ Martin yelped. ‘Who’s going to pay their rent if they win? I didn’t sign up to free rent.’ ‘Keep your knickers on,’ Charlie said with confidence, never once taking his eyes off me. ‘They won’t. And you can have some of the pizza.’ I narrowed my eyes and glared back. ‘I’m not sharing it with you though,’ he said to me. ‘Ten thousand followers in thirty days?’ I replied. ‘Easy.’ ‘Fifty,’ he countered. ‘Fifteen.’ Charlie stared me out for as long as his contact lenses would allow. ‘Thirty.’ ‘Twenty,’ I said. ‘We’ll get twenty thousand.’ ’Annie,’ Mir whispered. ‘Are you sure you’re sure?’ ‘Positive,’ I replied, even though underneath the table, my legs were shaking. ‘Done,’ Charlie declared. ‘And I know you’d never do anything so underhanded, but for clarity’s sake: no bots, no promoted posts and no paid-for followers.’ ‘As if I would,’ I agreed, blood thumping through my veins. Either I was very excited or I was having a stroke, I really couldn’t tell. ‘Now we get to pick the victim.’ Martin clapped Charlie on the back and the pair of them turned their attention to the world outside our table. The Ginnel’s coffee shop, cleverly named ‘Coffee Shop’, was packed. Everyone was hungover after last night’s game and stuffing themselves with tepid sausage sandwiches and floppy bacon butties. None of them looked as though they’d be a special treat to work with. ‘What about Jeremiah, my graphic designer?’ Charlie suggested, pointing at a small, angular man who was lining up sugar cubes along the counter and arranging them by size. ‘He’s … interesting.’ ‘No one from your office,’ I said. ‘It has to be someone who is an actual tenant but no one who works for you. That’s cheating.’ ‘Fine, no one from Wilder.’ He sulked and looked back out over the unsuspecting contenders. ‘Carl, the bloke on the ground floor who makes those weird cartoon things?’ ‘Oh, the gorgeous Welsh artist guy?’ Miranda said, mooning at the dark-haired man in the corner. ‘Amazing pick.’ ‘No, not him,’ Martin insisted, a flash of jealousy in his eyes. ‘Who else?’ ‘I haven’t got all day for this,’ Mir said with an agitated sigh. ’We’re doing it with the next person who walks through the front door. Agreed?’ Everyone sat up a bit straighter. Miranda could be pretty intense when she wanted to be. Charlie and I locked eyes for a moment, each daring the other to protest. ‘Fine with me,’ I said. ‘Fine with me,’ he echoed. We all turned to stare at the door. I reached for Miranda’s hand underneath the table but instead I got Martin’s thigh. ‘Sorry,’ I whispered, wiping my palm on my jeans. ‘Never apologize,’ he insisted as the door flew open. All four of us sucked in our breath at the same time. It was Dave the Postman. ‘Oh, bloody hell,’ I grumbled, breathing out. ‘Get out the way, Dave.’ ‘I think Dave could have a fascinating YouTube channel,’ Charlie reasoned. His brown eyes were laughing. ‘The Life and Loves of a London Postie. I might watch that. I bet he gets up to all sorts.’ Just as I was about to reply, Dave held the door open to let someone in. A strangely tall, skinny someone with an enormous beard and long blond hair, wearing baggy jeans and a grey T-shirt with a faded blue Jansport rucksack on his back. He paused next to our table as he passed, old-fashioned flip-phone in one hand, thermos in the other, then pushed his wire-framed glasses up his nose and kept on walking. I opened my mouth then shut it again. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy,’ Charlie said, crossing his hands behind his head and leaning his chair back on two legs. ‘Game on, ladies. May the best man win.’ The room at the end of the hallway on the first floor had been empty for as long as we had been at The Ginnel. It was a tiny, awkward sort of space with a glass front and only one small, square window to the outside slightly above head height. It was too little to be a meeting room and too dark to be an office and, so far, no one who had been to look around had been interested in setting up shop. Until today. The first things I noticed as I approached the working home of my newest client were the panels of white paper that had been sticky-taped to the glass wall, effectively closing out the rest of his co-workers and pretty much defeating the object of being in a co-working space in the first place. The second was the sign on the door. It was a nameplate that appeared to have been pilfered from a 1970s polytechnic. Everyone else had identical signs in the same, slightly retro serif font but Dr S. E. Page MPhil PhD had got ahead of the game and glued a narrow blackboard with block white lettering onto the door himself. Charlie and Martin had been positively joyous when our subject selected himself but what could they know from one look? There was no reason to think, just because he wasn’t some kind of Adonis he wouldn’t be interesting. For all they knew he could be an amazing photographer or he might have a dancing dog or any number of incredible, Instagram-worthy skills. He already had more letters after his name than anyone I’d ever met and my sister knew some truly insufferable academic types who seemed to have been put on this earth solely to rack up qualifications. ‘There could be any number of reasons he’s covered up the windows,’ I told myself, tracing the edges of the white paper through the glass. ‘This space would make a decent dark room. Or he could be super light-sensitive.’ Inside the office, I heard papers rustling. I knocked, stepped back and waited. The rustling stopped but he made no attempt to answer the door. ‘Or he’s an actual serial killer,’ I suggested to myself. ‘Making himself a nice skin suit for the autumn.’ I knocked again. Louder. Still nothing. ‘Once more for luck,’ I said under my breath, rapping as hard as I could for as long as I could. My hand was still mid-air when the door opened. The tall, skinny man had tied back his long hair in a man bun. His beard was still enormous, and not in a cool, hipster way and though it was huge, it completely failed to disguise the annoyance on his face. ‘Dr Page?’ I enquired with a forced, friendly smile. ‘Is something wrong?’ he asked, looking me up and down. ‘No,’ I replied. ‘At least, it wasn’t the last time I checked.’ ‘Right, you can go away then?’ He phrased it as a question but it definitely felt more like an instruction. ‘I’m sorry, I’m Annie,’ I said quickly before he could close the door again. ‘We’re office neighbours. I work upstairs? I came to say hello, welcome you to the building.’ He pushed his smudged spectacles up his nose with a long, slender finger. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Hello.’ And then he slammed the door so hard, I felt it rattle my fillings. ‘Bugger,’ I whispered, the door a fraction of an inch from my nose. There was the slightest of chances this was going to be more difficult than I had hoped. ‘That was quick?’ Miranda looked surprised to see me back in the office so soon. ‘How’d it go?’ ‘He only answered the door after I cut up my knuckles knocking for half an hour, asked if anything was wrong and then told me to piss off,’ I replied. ‘So not great.’ ‘So, he isn’t a natural conversationalist,’ Mir shrugged. ‘How did he look?’ ‘Think Tom Hanks in act two of Castaway, only without the social graces necessary to make friends with a volleyball,’ I said, punching the call button for the lift. ‘He’s the least likeable human I’ve ever met – and I’ve met Jeremy Kyle, Katie Hopkins and the man who plays the Fox in the Foxy Bingo adverts.’ Miranda grimaced. ‘We’ll work it out,’ she promised. ‘Or we’ll call it off. It doesn’t matter, it’s only a stupid bet.’ ‘Oh, absolutely not,’ I replied. ‘There’s no way we’re not winning this. I’m not giving them the satisfaction.’ ‘You know you could just shag Charlie and get this out of your system,’ she said, holding her hands up in front of her to create a human shield. ‘Not saying you have to; just putting it out there as an idea.’ ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ I said primly, tossing my long ponytail over my shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, Mir; one way or another, we’re going to win this.’ I walked over to the huge whiteboard in the corner of the room and uncapped a bright blue marker. On one side of the board, I wrote the word ‘followers’ and added a big fat zero underneath. On the other, I put down the number thirty. Thirty days to make this man the internet’s latest leading attraction. Taking a step back, I folded my arms and stared at the board as though it might have the answers I needed. ‘This is going to be a piece of piss for you,’ Miranda said. ‘A month is practically forever. You’ve got this.’ ‘Yeah,’ I replied. Now I had the numbers literally staring me in the face, I was suddenly not quite as sure as she was. Zero to twenty thousand with nothing to go on. Inside thirty days. ‘I’ve got this.’ Hopefully, the more times I said it, the more likely I was to believe it. CHAPTER FIVE (#u4fc9d46a-57e4-567a-99f2-187485cc299b) Thursday, 5 July: Twenty-Nine Days to Go. 0 followers ‘Are you planning on sleeping here?’ Brian asked. ‘Because, if you are, I’ll get you a sleeping bag.’ It was late, again. I looked up from my laptop to see him stood in front of my desk, messenger bag slung over his shoulder, clearly ready to leave. ‘I want to stay and finish this, my brain isn’t working today,’ I said, pointing to a half-edited vlog on my computer screen. ‘You are allowed to leave and finish it tomorrow,’ he replied. ‘It’s almost nine.’ I blinked at the time on my watch. So it was. The day had completely got away from me. I’d had a breakfast meeting with one of our mummy bloggers who was writing a book about her first year as a single mother then I’d run straight over to meet Miranda at Apple to discuss a possible TV show they were interested in developing with one of our podcasters. By the time I got back to the office, I had fifty-seven emails to read, three videos to edit and a whole host of Twitter and Instagram posts that had to be checked and scheduled to make sure they came out at just the right time. Running Content meant wearing so many different hats at once, I really could have used an extra head. ‘There’s just a few bits and pieces I want to get finished,’ I assured him, yawning bigger than Bagpuss. ‘I’ve got that event with Lily Lashgasm in a couple of days and I need everything to be perfect.’ Brian gagged at the mention of our least favourite client. ‘The joy of being the boss, amirite?’ he replied, rubbing the top of his closely shaved head. ‘Just don’t stay all night. I’ll be in The Cross Keys with Rob if you want to join us for a pint.’ I did want to join them. Brian’s boyfriend Rob had once been in the chorus for Cats and I had not spent a single night in his company that did not end in someone singing Memory. Admittedly, that someone was usually me and it was possible Rob didn’t like me nearly as much I as I liked him, but still. I held up my own hand in a Brownie Guide salute. ‘If I get this done, I’ll be there with bells on,’ I promised. Brian gave me a wave as he closed the door behind him, leaving me all alone in the office. Once I was sure he was gone, I closed up my laptop and sighed. While I did have a date with Lily in the diary, I also had another challenging situation demanding my attention … I leaned back in my chair and pressed my fingers into my temples, staring up at the accusatory whiteboard that stared back at me across the office. One of the reasons my brain was broken was because I just couldn’t seem to concentrate. In between every single one of my tasks, I had run downstairs and knocked on Dr Page’s door. I must have done it at least ten times over the course of the day and I was sure he was there. The light was on inside and I was certain I’d heard more than one tut and sigh combo, but he refused to acknowledge me. It was going to be very difficult to make him a social media superstar if I couldn’t even get him to give me the time of day. I literally knew nothing about him. I couldn’t find anything solid online. There had to be a hundred different Dr S. Pages in the world and, even with my advanced slightly stalky cyber techniques, I could not seem to narrow them down. But there was one way I knew would definitely work and now that I was alone, I couldn’t ignore the idea that had been prodding me all afternoon. Right at the back of my desk drawer was a small, simple, silver key. A few months ago, I’d locked myself out of our office and needed to come in on a Saturday afternoon. Miranda was away and Brian was incommunicado, so the weekend security guard had let me use the master key to get in. He also said I could hold on to it until Monday because he wanted to nick off early and watch the FA Cup Final. Bloody football, causing problems for people, as per usual. I didn’t have a specific evil plan in mind when I ran out to Timpson’s to get a copy of the key made, it just felt as though a master key for the building in which I spent 75 per cent of my time could be a useful thing to have. And right now, as devious as it seemed, I needed a helping hand. Was it wrong to break into a very antisocial person’s office and have a little poke around to see what you could see? Well, yes, of course it was, but desperate times called for desperate measures and a quick peep around Dr Page’s office might give me some pointers on who he was and how we could work together. And, it had also occurred to me that he might only be using the office as storage space, which would mean he wasn’t really a tenant at The Ginnel which would mean I could probably convince Martin and Charlie to let me trade him for someone else. Anyone else, really, I wasn’t fussy at this point. The first floor was already empty when I stepped out of the lift. The strip lighting in the hallway buzzed quietly but the darkened offices were silent. Even though there was absolutely no need for stealth, something about the deathly quiet building demanded it and I tiptoed along, ignoring my racing pulse and screeching conscience. Once outside the doctor’s office, I stopped in front of his papered-over windows and pressed my ear against the plywood door. Silence. Sliding the key into the lock, I opened the door very, very, very slowly. He seemed just the sort to booby-trap his office with some Home Alone-style shenanigans and the last thing I needed was a night in A&E. Even though the sun was only just setting outside, down here on the first floor with only one tiny window that faced our infamous alley, I couldn’t see a blind thing. As dark as his office had been in daylight, it was pitch-black now. Until something moved. ‘Fuck!’ I shrieked, grabbing for something heavy from the desk and hurling it in the general direction of the noise. ‘Ow!’ a voice grunted as my missile struck its target. I fumbled frantically against the wall until I felt a click and the overhead light sparked into life. In front of me stood Dr Page, naked apart from a pair of boxer shorts, holding a heavy hardback awkwardly in front of his crotch. ‘Sorry!’ I cried, clapping my hand over my eyes and turning around. ‘I’m sorry, I’m leaving.’ Before he could reply, I turned quickly, bumping into his desk and then his bookshelf, like a human pinball machine. I reached out to make a grab for the door and the bright lights of the corridor, but before I could make my escape, I stepped on a stray piece of cardboard and felt my right foot go skidding along the carpet while the left one stayed firmly planted. I was certain I could catch myself as I swayed back and forth on the spot, but the yoga class I’d taken that one time had done nothing to improve my centre of balance. Grasping at absolutely nothing, my legs went out underneath me and before I could right myself, I fell flat on my back in the middle of the room. ‘Christ almighty,’ I heard Dr Page gasp. ‘She’s dead.’ ‘Not yet,’ I choked out, winded. ‘But give me a minute.’ I wasn’t dead but I was in quite a lot of pain. My backside throbbed and, as hard as I tried, I didn’t seem to be able to sit up under my own steam. I turned my head to watch as Dr Page’s feet padded towards me and spotted a blow-up mattress and accompanying tartan blanket wedged in behind his desk. ‘Do you know what day it is?’ he asked as he knelt down beside me and slid a hand underneath my head. A shiver ran down my spine as his fingers caught in my hair. ‘Can you taste pennies? Do you know who is prime minister?’ ‘It’s Thursday,’ I said, forcing myself on to my side and shuffling into an uncomfortable sitting position, shaking his hands away from my head. ‘No, I can’t taste pennies and honestly, I’d rather not talk about politics.’ Dr Page stared into my eyes but all I could see was beard. ‘I’m calling an ambulance,’ he decided. ‘Do not move.’ ‘I’m fine,’ I told him, sitting fully upright with a gasp and not at all enjoying the shooting pain in the bottom of my bum. ‘Winded and bruised but fine.’ ‘Your pupils look normal and you didn’t crack anything open, but you could have a concussion.’ He stood up and took a noticeably big step backwards as I heaved myself up to standing. I pressed a hand against my bum and winced. ‘You should go to the hospital.’ ‘I think a bag of frozen peas taped to my arse will do it,’ I mumbled, unsure where to look. He seemed to have forgotten he was wearing nothing but a pair of Bart Simpson boxer shorts and some very elaborate red-and-green striped socks that looked as though they’d been knitted by someone’s blind nan. Until he saw me staring. ‘Sorry to bother you, I’ll be off.’ ‘How did you get in?’ He fumbled for an enormous V-neck jumper and pulled it on quickly over what looked like a surprisingly buff pair of pecs, a deep crimson blush growing in his cheeks. ‘I’m sure I locked the door.’ We both looked down at the floor at the same time. A shaft of light from the hallway shone through the door, lighting up my ill-gotten key like a diamond. ‘I heard a noise and I had to come and investigate,’ I replied, reaching down on unsteady legs to pick it up and tuck it away in the pocket of my jeans. ‘Because I am the fire marshal.’ I was a quick thinker but a terrible liar. ‘You’re the fire marshal?’ ‘A responsibility I take very seriously,’ I confirmed in a grave voice. ‘I was afraid there was a fire. Or a burglar.’ He did not look convinced. ‘And you decided the best course of action would be to assault me with my own book?’ ‘What if someone had been stealing all your …’ I looked around his office. Wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Nothing but books. More books than you could shake a stick at. ‘Well. What if someone had been breaking in?’ He looked around at his mini library as we both tried to work out what anyone might want to break in for. ‘Imagine,’ he said, attempting to yank his jumper down over his boxer-short region in a casual fashion. ‘We haven’t been properly introduced,’ I said, holding out a hand. ‘I’m Annie Higgins, I work upstairs.’ ‘As you mentioned yesterday,’ he replied, looking down at my hand as though I’d just offered him a turd on a stick. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, gingerly poking at my lower back. ‘I didn’t catch your first name?’ ‘Because I didn’t tell you,’ he replied brusquely. ‘In the event of a fire, where are we supposed to meet?’ ‘Down the road and under the arches,’ I replied, absently waving a hand towards the door. It was almost as if he didn’t believe I was really the fire marshal. ‘I work at Content on the second floor. Co-own it, actually.’ He continued to stare at me. Red jumper, Bart Simpson undies, nana socks and a man bun. It was like a Fashion Wheel gone very, very wrong. ‘We’re a digital marketing agency, work with social media influencers mostly,’ I said, trying desperately to start a conversation. ‘Pair them up with brands, help them develop their content, that sort of thing.’ Nothing. ‘And what do you do?’ I asked in an encouraging tone of voice I usually reserved for actual children. ‘I’m writing a book,’ he replied with great reluctance. ‘Ooh, that’s exciting!’ I exclaimed. He was a writer! Maybe there was something we could do with that. ‘About a politician.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘In the eighteenth century.’ ‘Christ.’ ‘He’s a fascinating chap, actually.’ For the first time, something sparkled in Dr Page’s eyes as he scanned across the assorted books, filled with bookmarks, that covered his desk. ‘George Nugent-Temple-Grenville, the first Marquess of Buckingham. He was foreign secretary for four days in 1783. It’s a hell of a story.’ ‘Sounds like it,’ I said, feigning as much enthusiasm as possible. ‘And what brought you to The Ginnel? Was he from around here?’ ‘Grenville?’ he pushed his fist into his lower back as he spoke and squinted up towards the splinter of street light that snuck in from the window. ‘His father was prime minister, so he certainly spent some of his youth in London, but he was educated at Eton and then Oxford, of course.’ ‘Oh, of course,’ I agreed readily. Who wasn’t educated at Eton and Oxford? Apart from everyone I’d personally ever met. ‘Then what brought you to this particular office?’ He pushed his glasses up his nose. ‘The man who showed me round promised me it would be quiet,’ he replied. ‘And that I wouldn’t be disturbed.’ ‘Oh really?’ I replied innocently. ‘My aunt wrote a book.’ I picked up one of the hardbacks from his desk which he promptly pulled from my hands, only to put it right back where it came from. ‘But she worked from home. It wasn’t the same as yours, mind, more of a Fifty Shades of Grey type thing. Really wish she hadn’t given me a copy for Christmas.’ ‘I can’t write at home, the last time was a disaster, too many distractions. Plus I’m preparing a lecture on Grenville for a PhD research symposium at my old university and I needed more space,’ he said, finally giving up and taking a seat behind his desk. In his pants. ‘We only have one bedroom and my books take up too much room. My girlfriend doesn’t like the clutter. Or me talking to myself all night.’ He had a girlfriend? Knock me down with a red stripy sock. ‘Then this isn’t your first book?’ I asked, wondering what she made of the man bun–Simpsons undies combo. It really would be quite the specialized fetish. ‘You’re already a published author?’ Dr Page half nodded, half shook his head and, if I wasn’t mistaken, he was blushing. ‘I self-published,’ he replied, pulling a heavy hardback book with a beige jacket from the shelf behind him and holding it up so I could see the cover: Lord Lieutenants of Ireland 1171–1922. ‘It hasn’t exactly been a blockbuster bestseller.’ ‘I don’t know, I think it looks fascinating,’ I lied. ‘My grandad was from Dublin, on my dad’s side. I bet he would have loved this.’ ‘Probably not,’ Dr Page replied. ‘The role was usually seen as a stepping stone to a more prominent position in British government, or a sort of punishment. And the Irish mostly detested whoever was in power as the people appointed to the position tended to abuse their role to control parliament. In 1777, when Lord Buckinghamshire was lord lieutenant, he promoted five viscounts to earls, seven barons to viscounts and then created eighteen new barons, all in one day.’ ‘I used to love Viscounts,’ I sighed. ‘The little chocolate biscuits, not the members of the aristocracy.’ Dr Page slowly placed the book down on his desk and picked up his glasses, unfolding them carefully and sliding them onto his face. ‘You still haven’t told me your name,’ I reminded him. With a very heavy sigh, he turned back to face me, pushing his glasses up his nose. ‘Samuel. Dr Samuel Page,’ he said. Samuel. Sam. Sammy Boy. Doctor Sam. Hmm. I’d need to work on that. ‘Do you go by Sam or Samuel?’ I asked. ‘I’ll add you on Facebook.’ ‘Samuel. And I don’t use Facebook,’ he said, pulling a face. ‘I don’t use any of that, it’s too distracting. Who cares what some random person they went to secondary school with is eating for lunch? No one, not really.’ I heard myself actually gasp out loud. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking …’ I peered around him at the airbed on the floor. The blankets were all upset and, given his ensemble, I was almost certain he’d been sleeping when I walked in. ‘But why is there a bed in here?’ ‘Because, ah, as a writer …’ Samuel replied, eyes shifting from side to side as he spoke. ‘Sometimes, for me, as a writer, it’s easier for me, as a writer, to think like this.’ I sucked in my bottom lip and nodded slowly. ‘In your office?’ I asked. ‘In your pants?’ He nodded, clutching at the edge of his jumper. ‘On an air mattress?’ Another nod. ‘Right,’ I said, folding my arms in front of me. ‘I thought maybe you were working late and it was easier than going home.’ ‘That would have made a lot more sense, wouldn’t it?’ he said with a low moan. ‘This is what she’s talking about, I make things too difficult.’ ‘She?’ ‘My girlfriend,’ Samuel clarified. ‘Ex-girlfriend now, I suppose.’ ‘Oh,’ I replied, sucking the air in through my teeth. ‘Bugger.’ ‘Yes, quite,’ he said. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ I asked. ‘Absolutely not,’ he said. I couldn’t say I was entirely surprised. He folded his arms and stared at me. ‘Can you go now please?’ he said bluntly. ‘There’s no fire as you can see and no one is breaking in, other than you.’ ‘I should probably get off home,’ I said, gently massaging the sore spot above my bottom. ‘Let you go back to …’ I gave his blow-up bed a half-hearted wave. ‘Thank you very much for popping in,’ Samuel said, picking up seemingly random books and stacking them on his shelves, as though it was exactly what he’d been planning to do before a complete stranger let themselves into his office in the middle of the night when he was fast asleep on the floor. ‘And please don’t be offended if I don’t answer the door next time you knock.’ ‘Well, you don’t always hear people, do you?’ I said, still struggling with the idea of a man with no online footprint. ‘When you’re concentrating or if you’ve got headphones in, you can be off in your own little world.’ ‘No, I just don’t answer the door,’ he said, still busying himself with his shelves. ‘Wouldn’t waste your time.’ ‘So you were here all afternoon when I was knocking?’ I asked, for some reason, surprised. He turned and gave me a look as though I was the odd one. ‘What if the building really was burning down?’ I asked. ‘You still wouldn’t answer?’ ‘Perhaps you could push a little note under the door,’ he suggested. ‘And what if you don’t see it?’ I asked. ‘And you die and the newspapers are all, Ooh, if only the fire marshal had tried harder to get him out?’ ‘I shall make an addendum to my will,’ Samuel replied, turning his back to me. ‘Goodnight, Ms Higgins.’ ‘Goodnight, Dr Page,’ I said, quietly picking up his book from the desk and letting myself out of the office. ‘So nice to meet you.’ He was possibly the rudest, most insufferable man I’d ever met. And somehow, I had to find a way to make him famous. CHAPTER SIX (#ulink_be2f397f-38f0-5799-8539-be9c73c3a45c) Friday, 6 July: Twenty-Eight Days to Go ‘I still can’t believe you agreed to this.’ Brian leaned back in his chair, pointing an accusatory pencil at Miranda. ‘The two of you made a bet with the idiot twins and now we have to find a way to make this creature popular? We’ve already got more work than we know what to do with, are you planning on adding a couple of extra hours into the day or something?’ My gaze wandered over to the picture on the back of Dr Page’s book. A small black-and-white photo of the man himself squinted out at me from the back cover, a constipated expression on his face. ‘It’ll be a good exercise for us,’ Miranda said. She was the queen of putting a positive spin on things. ‘We’ve never had to work with someone so … social media averse.’ ‘In that we’ve literally only ever worked with people who are prepared to cut off a leg to be successful,’ I agreed. ‘Where’s the fun in that? This is a challenge, it’ll be great.’ An instant message popped up in the corner of my laptop screen. It was a gif of a dancing Leprechaun holding a pot of luck from Charlie. A second message popped up underneath it: ‘Thought you might need this’. I closed the app and turned my attention back to the meeting. ‘Whoever he is, all his accounts must be set to private,’ Brian said, scratching his armpit. Boys were gross. ‘I couldn’t find him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Not even LinkedIn. I hope he’s hiding something good.’ ‘He’s not hiding,’ I replied, turning Samuel’s book over in my hands. ‘He’s not on there. Or rather he’s not using his account. At all.’ ‘This is ridonkulous,’ he protested. ‘Even my nana has Facebook and Twitter and she’s eighty-nine.’ ‘I know, I follow her,’ I told him with a regretful grimace. ‘And I want to believe she doesn’t understand what she’s posting, Brian.’ ‘Oh, no,’ he said, sadly shaking his head. ‘She does.’ ‘I suppose he’s not the only human being in the world who hates the idea of posting his entire life online.’ I pressed my palms against my face, careful to cup my hands away from my mascara. We’d only just started and I was already exhausted. ‘You don’t see David Attenborough on Snapchat very often, do you?’ ‘I’ve heard he’s got a secret Instagram account dedicated to snacks that look like Jesus,’ Brian said confidentially. ‘But you’ll never prove it.’ ‘I think the social aspect of this is going to be a bigger challenge than the media bit.’ I ran my hands over the dull beige dust-jacket of Sam’s book. ‘He’d rather be with his books than posting on Instagram. Or brushing his hair. Or talking to humans. Or possibly anything else in the entire universe.’ ‘This is truly all we have to go on?’ Mir asked, taking the big, heavy book from me and flipping through the pages. ‘“The official residence of the Lord Lieutenant was the Viceregal apartments in Dublin Castle where the Viceregal—” Oh my god, I’m so bored I just went blind.’ ‘Maybe it’s a horcrux?’ I suggested. ‘It definitely feels evil.’ ‘That photo is evil,’ Brian agreed. ‘Who took it?’ ‘Someone who really hates him.’ Mir squinted at the unfortunate portrait. ‘It’s the most unflattering picture I’ve ever seen. Brian’s racist nan could have done a better one with her phone. Photo copyright Elaine Gibson?’ I tapped Elaine Gibson, photographer, into Google and came up with nothing. ‘Let me try Facebook,’ Brian said, swiping up on his iPad. Immediately, FB produced seven results for Elaine Gibsons in London. Four were considerably older than our new neighbour and none of the remaining profile pictures really screamed photographer. One was a cartoon of a flying pink elephant and one was an actual baby. Which just left the slightly artsy, half-face photo of what looked like a thirty-ish woman but could just as easily have been the Turin shroud for all the filters she’d applied. ‘Info is private but her photos aren’t,’ Brian said, clicking through. ‘Schoolboy error.’ Two seconds later we were seven years deep in carefully framed selfies and Snapchat filters. There was no way this woman was a professional photographer. ‘Open that one,’ I said, pointing at an album labelled ‘The Worst Christmas Ever’. And there he was, tagged as Dr S. Page, frowning with a too small Santa hat perched on the top of his seemingly giant head. And there he was again, sat around the dinner table, still not able to crack a smile. And again, sulking under the mistletoe. This time wearing what was supposed to be an ugly Christmas jumper but in Samuel’s case it looked to be much more stylish than the rest of his clothes. If only it were closer to Christmas. These were comedy gold and I’d have made him a meme in five seconds flat. I tapped on the tag but it went to a private page with literally zero content. Eurgh. ‘His girlfriend took his headshot,’ Brian said. ‘Red flag, red flag.’ ‘Even she can’t make him look good and she loves him,’ Mir said, pressing her fingertips into her temples. ‘Annie, this is giving me stomach ache. What are we even going to do with him?’ ‘Fitness blogger?’ I suggested, fully aware of the straws I was clutching at. ‘Body positivity?’ ‘I’m positive I don’t want anything to do with his body,’ she replied. ‘Geek appreciation? Like body positivity but for nerds.’ ‘Maybe he’s a gamer?’ I said. ‘That would be great.’ ‘Yeah, if that game is pontoon with your grandma,’ Mir said. ‘We saw him walk past the other day with a flip-phone.’ ‘How about a travel blogger?’ Bri ventured. ‘Long-distance, far-away-from-here travel?’ ‘We’re not losing this bet, so we’d better come up with something,’ I told them, setting my shoulders. ‘What makes Sam aspirational and relatable?’ ‘He’s certainly winning the ‘Don’t Give a Fuck Olympics’, so that’s something,’ Miranda replied. ‘It’s the rest of the historians out there I feel sorry for,’ I said. ‘They can’t all look like this.’ ‘He really leaned into the stereotype,’ Brian said, pressing his hands against his face as he stared at a photo of Samuel posing next to a Christmas tree while the family dog beside him licked its own bum. ‘He’s more like a historical artefact than a historian. All we need to do is take a half a dozen photos of him and tag them #ICantEven. It’ll be a million hits overnight.’ Miranda’s eyes lit up in agreement. ‘We only use our powers for good, remember?’ I replied, pinching the coin pendant on my favourite necklace tightly between my thumb and forefinger. ‘Content always takes the high road and that doesn’t sound very high.’ ‘You’re high,’ Brian said, screengrabbing the shots of Sam from his girlfriend’s Facebook page. I wasn’t sure how it was possible, but each photo looked worse than the last. ‘Bet’s off, right? There’s nothing we can do with this man, Annie.’ But I couldn’t call off the bet. That would mean admitting defeat. Yes, I liked the sound of a month’s free rent, but I liked the idea of rubbing Charlie Wilder’s nose in our victory forever more even better. ‘There’s always something we can do,’ I argued. ‘All right, so he probably isn’t going to be everyone’s must-watch YouTuber by Monday morning, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for what he does. And don’t worry about the girlfriend, they’ve broken up.’ Brian let out a sad ‘pfft’. ‘Can’t imagine why it didn’t work out. Is the man bun on purpose?’ ‘I think not.’ I searched for the right words to describe Sam’s aesthetic. ‘He’s definitely a fixie short of a full hipster.’ ‘What’s his message?’ Mir stuck out her tongue as she delved into The Lord Lieutenants of Ireland with renewed commitment. ‘What does he want people to know?’ I flicked through my own Instagram feed and pondered the question. What did I want people to know about me? My Instagram feed was full of pictures of me, Mir and Brian, my favourite views and a few carefully framed flat lays displaying my prized possessions, colour-coordinated, of course. That was the version of me I put out there. ‘We need to find out,’ I told them. ‘Everyone wants something and we can help him get it.’ ‘So how do we lure him into social media?’ Brian asked. ‘What does he want?’ A bed, a proper pair of pyjamas, a sense of humour and some social graces. ‘I think he needs a friend,’ I said. ‘I would have said a haircut and a good meal,’ Miranda sighed. ‘But a friend might be a good start.’ ‘Shall we go and talk to him then?’ I closed my laptop with a happy click. ‘Maybe we could all go for dinner. Isn’t it two for ten pounds at the King’s Head on a Friday?’ Brian and Miranda both looked at me. ‘We?’ Brian replied. ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘From what you’ve told us, I think this is going to take a gentler touch,’ Mir agreed. ‘One at a time. Me and Bri would only overwhelm him.’ ‘Just so you know, I hate you both,’ I grumbled as they gathered their things and retreated to their desks. ‘We believe in you, Annie!’ Miranda cheered while simultaneously ripping into a packet of Quavers. ‘You can do this.’ ‘Bet you she can’t,’ Brian whispered loudly, a puckish smile on his face. ‘Twenty quid says he tells her to do one again.’ ‘You’re on.’ Mir mimed shaking hands across the office. ‘Money’s as good as mine.’ ‘Have you already forgotten how we got into this mess in the first place?’ I groaned. ‘It’s like you’ve literally learned nothing.’ ‘If I win the twenty quid, I’ll buy you dinner,’ she called after me. ‘Fine,’ I said, rubbing my grumbling stomach. ‘The bet stands.’ ‘That’s my girl,’ Mir said with a grin. ‘Go get him, tiger.’ ‘Knock knock.’ Just as I’d hoped and fully expected, Dr Page was hard at work behind his desk, all traces of his campout vanished. ‘Did you unlock the door again?’ he asked. ‘Hello, Sam,’ I said, slipping the key back in my pocket and ignoring the question. ‘I brought you something.’ ‘No one calls me Sam.’ His hair was back up in its man bun but his beard was running free and wild. He wore jeans at least four sizes too big for him and if I ever found out where he was getting all those awful shirts, I would have them in The Hague on crimes against humanity faster than you could say ‘Nehru collar’. Thankfully, I had no way of knowing whether or not he was still wearing the Bart Simpson boxers. ‘I like Sam,’ I said. ‘It’s a good name. Solid. Friendly. Who wouldn’t like a Sam?’ ‘No one calls me Sam,’ he said again. ‘They call me Samuel or Dr Page. Or in your case, that man down the hallway who is considering a restraining order.’ ‘I was in the coffee shop, trying to justify buying pastries and I thought, I wonder if Sam fancies a croissant.’ I took a seat before he could ask me to leave and placed a small, white cardboard box and huge, steaming cardboard coffee cup in front of him. ‘I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to try the almond croissants yet but they are amazing. Life-changing, in fact. You can’t have one every day because you’ll get diabetes and die, but oh my god, what a way to go.’ I pushed the box towards him but he didn’t move. ‘Go on,’ I kept pushing it with the tip of my finger until it was butting right up against his keyboard. ‘You know you want to.’ ‘I’m allergic to almonds,’ he replied. ‘Please take it away before it kills me.’ ‘Noted,’ I said, grabbing the box back and nursing it on my knee. ‘You probably don’t want the almond milk latte either then.’ I reached for the coffee cup with an apologetic smile. Sam did not smile back. Sam looked really quite annoyed. ‘I have a fire marshal question,’ I said. ‘How many books do you think you have in here?’ ‘Three hundred and seventeen,’ he answered without hesitation. ‘Why is that a fire marshal question?’ ‘Fire hazard,’ I replied. ‘All those books, no second exit. It’s important for me to know all this stuff.’ ‘I’ve got some very rare texts in here,’ he said, taking off his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. ‘Very old, very fragile. I can’t even touch them without gloves. If there’s a fire risk, I need to know.’ ‘Should be fine.’ I turned to take in the sheets of paper stuck to the glass. They had been taped up with such care. ‘Is that what the paper is for? To keep the light off the books?’ ‘What?’ Sam looked puzzled. ‘Oh no. That’s to keep people out. I didn’t realize the building would be quite so … social.’ ‘Did anyone explain to you what a co-working space was before you signed up?’ I asked. He shrugged, unaware or unconcerned, it didn’t matter. ‘Most people here are pretty chummy.’ ‘I’m not most people,’ he said bluntly. ‘Now, is there anything else I can help you with? I’m quite busy.’ ‘Just trying to be neighbourly, given your situation,’ I slipped the pastry box back in my tote bag, not entirely upset about the idea of eating them all myself. ‘Where’s your blow-up bed gone?’ ‘I’d rather not talk about it,’ he said, tapping on his keyboard and refusing to make eye contact. ‘And I’m really very busy, so if you’re done—’ ‘When I broke up with my ex, I didn’t really deal with it that well at first,’ I said before he could finish. Sometimes the best course of action was to just keep talking until they gave in. Not often but sometimes. ‘It wasn’t until a few days after it really hit that we were over. It’s the little things, isn’t it? No one to go to the pictures with, no one to laugh at your in-jokes. Whenever we drove anywhere, whoever was in the passenger seat would always put their hand on the person who was driving’s thigh and I remember the first time I went out in the car after he left, I got halfway to Tesco and had to pull over because I was sobbing like a baby.’ I pulled my fingers through the ends of my ponytail, combing out a stray knot, wishing he would do the same. ‘That sounds terrible and I’m very sorry,’ he said robotically. ‘And now you’ve unburdened yourself, do you think you might let me get on with my day?’ I should have known he wasn’t going to make this easy. ‘I truly think you’d feel better if you talk about it,’ I told Sam, taking a sip of the coffee I’d brought for him. ‘Whenever me or Miranda are going through a tough time, we always feel better after we’ve talked it through.’ ‘Two questions I will surely regret,’ Sam replied, taking off his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. ‘Who is Miranda and why should I talk to you about my personal life?’ ‘Miranda is my business partner,’ I said with a patient smile. ‘And my best friend. Since forever. Well, since we were eleven, which is a very long time these days. And you should talk to me because I’m here and I’m nice and because spending twenty-four hours a day in your office is unquestionably unhealthy behaviour. I don’t want to have to be the person on the Ten O’Clock News six months from now, saying “We’re all so surprised, he was always so quiet and polite …”’ ‘I shall try to make a point of scheduling my rampage on a day when you’re out of the office,’ Sam said, ‘Thank you for your concern, but I don’t think it qualifies you to act as my relationship counsellor.’ ‘My sister is a proper psychologist!’ I exclaimed, making him jump. ‘Totally qualified and everything, she’s very good.’ ‘And my brother is a brain surgeon, but that doesn’t mean you want me rootling around inside your skull, does it?’ ‘Is he really?’ I asked with suspicious eyes. ‘No,’ Sam replied coolly. ‘He isn’t.’ ‘That would be good though, wouldn’t it?’ I said, taking another sip of too hot coffee. Should have got it iced. ‘Very Grey’s Anatomy.’ He pressed his hands hard against his head and let out a surprisingly shrill shriek for a grown man. ‘You’re not going to leave, are you?’ He peered out at me from between his fingers, without moving his hands away from his face. I offered him a winning smile and a thumbs up. Sam threw his hands up in the air and took a deep breath and I could sense victory. ‘Get your coat,’ I ordered. ‘Let’s go and get a coffee that won’t kill you.’ He picked up a red-and-black plaid donkey jacket. ‘Actually, leave your coat,’ I said. ‘Let’s just go.’ In the bright, unforgiving light of a summer’s day, Sam looked downright sickly, his baggy clothes hanging off his tall frame, giving the impression of a consumptive tramp. Blinking into the sun behind his glasses, he followed me through the streets, muttering, huffing and generally making noises you might expect to hear from your grandad’s odd neighbour. ‘It can’t be a lot of fun, sleeping in the office,’ I said as we turned onto the sun-speckled street. ‘Couldn’t you stay with a friend? Family?’ I tilted my head upwards to bask in the blessed rays as Sam shirked away, immediately moving into the shade. ‘I don’t want to be a burden to anyone,’ he replied. ‘My brother is away at the moment. When he gets home next week, I’ll go and stay with him.’ ‘You haven’t got a key to your brother’s house?’ Sam shook his head. ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I haven’t. My brother and I are very private people,’ he said. ‘As you might have noticed. But probably haven’t.’ ‘I still think it’s weird,’ I said, checking the back pocket of my jeans for my debit card. ‘I’ve always had a key to my sister’s house.’ ‘He moved last month and he hasn’t had a spare key made yet,’ Sam said. ‘He’s recently divorced.’ ‘Oh, well that’s good!’ I said brightly, before immediately correcting myself. ‘I mean, oh, that’s terrible, I’m sorry. I only meant you could help each other through these difficult times. Or something.’ ‘Yes, perhaps you could send him a murderous pastry when he gets back from Japan,’ he replied, pausing on the edge of the pavement to look both ways before he crossed. ‘We’re both allergic to penicillin as well, in case you really wanted to do us in.’ I wasn’t entirely sure where we were walking but this was Shoreditch, we’d run into a coffee shop sooner or later, it seemed as if every other building was churning out caffeinated beverages these days. Bike shop slash coffee shop, Pilates studio slash coffee shop, gynaecologist slash coffee shop. You couldn’t move around these streets for coconut milk flat whites. But my plan had more to do with getting him out of his office and seeing if I could loosen him up a bit than it was to caffeinate the shit out of him. ‘Tell me what happened with your girlfriend,’ I said, attempting to drag the conversation back on track. We were still some distance away from matching BFF tattoos. ‘Can I help at all?’ Sam closed his eyes and opened them again as though he half-expected me to have disappeared. ‘I shouldn’t think so,’ he said. ‘I’m really not comfortable talking about these things with someone I don’t even know.’ ‘Me?’ I threw my arms out into the air, accidentally slapping a passing bike courier. ‘Open book. My name is Annie, I’m thirty-one, I grew up in South-West London with my mum and my sister. Child of divorce, dad’s remarried, not keen on the new wife. I’m a Libra, favourite colour is blue, trainers over heels but boots over trainers. Sweet over savoury except when it comes to cheese, slightly short-sighted in my left eye but I don’t need glasses unless I get really tired and, yes, this is my natural hair colour.’ He gave me a hard look. ‘Perhaps you can explain to me,’ he said, ‘how any of that helps the fire-marshal sister of a psychologist help me with my relationship predicament?’ Well, at least he’d bought the bit about me being a fire marshal. ‘Firstly, I am a girl,’ I said, gesturing towards the front of my general T-shirt area. Sam looked away in mock or real distaste, I wasn’t sure. ‘And sometimes it helps to get another girl’s perspective. Secondly, I also have half a psychology degree of my very own and I am prepared to put it to good use on your behalf.’ ‘How does someone get half a degree?’ Sam asked. ‘Because you do half psychology and half English and then graduate realizing you’re not qualified for anything,’ I replied swiftly. ‘Now, spill: what happened with you two crazy kids?’ He walked on for a moment, taking long strides that spurred me into a half-skip to try to catch up. ‘She said I was boring,’ he replied, without looking at me. ‘She said we don’t have anything in common any more and that I care more about my books than I care about her.’ The easiest thing to do would have been to tell him what he wanted to hear but in this instance, I wasn’t sure it would help. He did seem awfully fond of a lot of dead white men and a man who cared more about the lord lieutenants of Ireland than getting the bone was indeed a conundrum. ‘How long have you been together?’ I asked, treading softly. Press, don’t poke. Sam pulled his dimmed features into an almost smile. ‘Six years,’ he said. ‘Almost six. We met when I was starting my PhD, she was doing her masters.’ ‘She’s a historian too?’ ‘No.’ He looked almost disappointed. ‘She got a job in the finance department at the university to help pay for her programme and ended up dropping the degree to do that instead.’ He untethered the man bun, unleashing long, wavy blond hair that any self-respecting mermaid would have been proud of. A thirty-something-year-old man, maybe not so much. ’Your hair is very long,’ I said as a statement of fact. ‘So is yours,’ he countered, caressing his ratty ends. ‘And no one complains about that. It’s double standards.’ ‘Yes, but my hair is long on purpose,’ I pointed out. ‘And I spend actual money to have someone style it. Your hair is just … there.’ He snapped the elastic band from around his wrist and twisted the whole thing back up behind his head. ‘Elaine hates it,’ he replied, scratching his beard. ‘She says I don’t care about the way I look.’ I blew out my cheeks, searching for the most tactful way to ask my next question. ‘Not to be rude,’ I said. ‘But do you?’ ‘I’m clean,’ he replied, sitting up straight. ‘My clothes are ironed, I don’t smell. Just because I don’t want to waste money on expensive clothes I don’t need doesn’t mean I don’t take pride in my appearance.’ A plan began to come together in my brain as we walked on in silence. Maybe I was going to be a sad, old spinster with many odd pets, but that didn’t mean everyone had to die alone. ‘You’re so quiet,’ I said, dodging a tag team of charity volunteers in neon tabards waving clipboards in our direction. I was already supporting every single charity you could possibly think of thanks to my crippling middle class guilt. Couldn’t afford a settee but two quid a month to help ex-circus elephants readjust to life in Africa? Where do I sign? ‘Not everyone has to talk all the time,’ Sam said. ‘I’m thinking.’ ‘What about?’ ‘Do we have to be out here?’ He wrapped his jacket tightly around him as I led the way across the street to the square. Even though I’d told him to leave it. Even though it was boiling hot outside. ‘Because I’d really rather not be.’ ‘Why not? It’s grass, it’s trees, it’s flowers,’ I replied, adopting a cheery tone. ‘And hating on Hoxton is very 2007. Can you just go with it for now? It’s nice to be outside.’ ‘Not for me, it isn’t,’ he grumbled. ‘My hay fever is killing me. Car exhausts don’t help. Everyone smoking those ridiculous electronic cigarettes.’ He crossed his arms over his hideous jacket and sniffed. I watched a ridiculously attractive man I vaguely recognized from The Ginnel walking a Boston Terrier through the gates of the square, and sighed. Why couldn’t he have walked through the front door behind Dave the Postman? Cheekbones that you could slice bread on that one. And an Insta-friendly dog! There was no justice in this world. ’So how did you leave things with your girlfriend?’ I asked, deliberately slowing my pace now we were inside the square and forcing him to follow suit. ‘Elaine, isn’t it?’ ‘She said she needed time to think about things,’ he replied tersely. ‘And that she would be able to think more clearly if I wasn’t in the flat.’ ‘But you don’t want to break up?’ He inclined his head once in agreement. ‘Correct.’ ‘So why aren’t you banging her door down with a bunch of flowers the size of China and begging her to take you back?’ ‘Firstly, because I still have a shred of self-respect,’ Sam replied, picking a speck of lint from his shoulder. ‘And secondly because she isn’t home. She texted me this morning to say she’s gone away with her friends, on a …’ he paused, looked around and then cleared his throat. ‘A bitch trip.’ The very idea of this man being involved with a woman who would go away on a bitch trip was blowing my mind. ‘If she’s away, why don’t you go home?’ I asked, settling myself down on my favourite bench. He shook his head stiffly and reluctantly took a seat beside me. ‘One of her friends is flatsitting,’ he replied. ‘Besides, she asked me to leave, I can’t let myself back in while she’s in another country. It wouldn’t be right.’ Some men were too honourable for their own good. Not many, but at least one. ‘On your own blow-up bed be it,’ I said. ‘Do you know when she’ll be back?’ He pulled out his phone, an actual Motorola Razr that I couldn’t quite believe still worked, and scanned his texts. ‘She’ll be gone for at least two weeks,’ he replied. ‘And she says not to call because she won’t answer.’ Classic. ‘Which means she wants you to call,’ I said, holding out my hand for his phone. Rather than pass it over, he looked at me oddly, snapped it shut and slipped it back into his coat pocket. ‘That doesn’t make any sense,’ Sam said, untying and retying his abundant ponytail. ‘Why would she tell me not to call if really what she wanted was the opposite?’ ‘Don’t ask me, I don’t make the rules,’ I replied. ‘But if she really didn’t want to talk to you, she’d just block your number or end your call when you tried to ring. This is a test, Sam. And you’re failing.’ ‘I think you’re wrong,’ he said. ‘And can you stop calling me Sam?’ I looked at him, sitting there on the bench in his baggy jeans, worn-out polo shirt and hideous, hideous donkey jacket, such a supremely sad look on his face. I hadn’t just been given an opportunity to win a bet. I’d been given an opportunity to perform an act of extreme kindness, to do something good for another person, for the whole planet. The universe had dropped Sam in my lap for a reason and that reason had to help him back onto the path of true love. And possibly to set fire to that bloody awful coat while I was at it. ‘She’s away for at least two weeks, that gives us lots of time,’ I said, running the pendant of my necklace back and forth as my brain ticked over. ‘When was the last time you and Elaine went on holiday?’ ‘Four years ago,’ he said. ‘We spent a weekend in Dorset in her aunt’s caravan. It was dreadful.’ ‘Have you ever taken her for brunch?’ ‘It’s a made-up meal,’ he replied. ‘And I won’t waste money on it.’ ‘And when was the last time you bought her flowers?’ ‘No flowers. I have hay fever.’ Anyone else would have given up then and there. Anyone else would have washed their hands of this ridiculous situation, marched straight back into Charlie Wilder’s office and admitted defeat. But I could not. At least, not without a fight. ‘Dr Samuel Page, today is your lucky day. I am going to help you,’ I said. ‘As of right now, you are enrolled in the Annie Higgins School of Better Boyfriends,’ I announced with a flourish. ‘Boyfriend Bootcamp, if you will. I’m going to teach you how to be the best bloody boyfriend on the face of the earth. By the time we’re finished, Elaine will be back from her holiday and you will be the living embodiment of her perfect man.’ His face looked … Well, who knew what his face looked like under the beard, but his eyes were not nearly as grateful as I’d have hoped. ‘How are you qualified to run a boyfriend bootcamp, exactly?’ he asked. ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ ‘Moving on,’ I replied with a slap on the knee. ‘We’ll go through all the basics. Listening, doing nice things without being asked, planning ahead for special occasions, making the bed, putting the toilet seat down, accepting that sometimes it’s nice to have throw pillows on the bed for absolutely no reason and you don’t have to make a massive fuss about it.’ ‘And what’s in this for you?’ Sam looked extremely dubious about my plan. ‘Other than some sort of sadistic pleasure, clearly. You don’t even know me.’ ‘What makes you think I’m not offering out of the goodness of my own heart?’ I asked, pulling on my coin pendant. ‘Of course,’ he nodded. ‘How silly of me. What a wonderful, generous person you are. Do they still have the Pride of Britain awards? Let’s get you one of those. Or perhaps we go all out and nominate you for a knighthood.’ I had a feeling he was being sarcastic. ‘I did always want a Blue Peter badge,’ I replied. ‘Any chance you know anyone at the BBC?’ Sam ignored me. ‘What’s the catch?’ I truly was a terrible liar so there wasn’t any point trying to pretend. ‘Do you know Martin? Who owns The Ginnel?’ He curled up his bottom lip to make a not especially impressed face and nodded. ‘What about Charlie from the advertising agency upstairs?’ ‘Haven’t come across him as far as I’m aware,’ he replied. ‘But who knows who else has been letting themselves in my office without my knowledge?’ ‘Well, Charlie and Martin were being rude about my job and my company and so, we made a bet that I couldn’t make a random person famous on Instagram inside thirty days,’ I explained, holding out my hand to shush him when his mouth flew open. ‘Before you say no, I won’t ask you to do anything you don’t want to, your involvement will be super-minimal and we won’t post anything without your approval.’ ‘Absolutely not,’ he said, getting up with a face like thunder. I didn’t need to get to know him better to understand how completely averse he was to this plan. ‘I hate Facebook and I can’t even claim to understand Twitter. Why would I even consider this, just to help someone I don’t even know win a bet?’ ‘Good news, this isn’t Facebook or Twitter,’ I said with accompanying jazz hands. ‘It’s Instagram.’ From the look on his face, that was not an improvement on the other two platforms. ‘And before you say no, I reckon we can sell at least a thousand copies of your book in the first month,’ I added quickly. ‘If not more.’ That caught his attention. He stopped pacing next to the bench and held onto the back to steady himself. ‘But I’ve only sold forty-seven copies of it,’ he said, sitting down again. ‘And it’s been out for two years.’ ‘Really?’ I asked, perplexed. ‘And you’re still writing another one?’ He nodded, then rested his forearms on his knees, folding his limbs as though he were trying to pack himself away. ‘I could come up with any number of inspirational quotes right now,’ I told him, shuffling closer but still keeping a safe distance. ‘But the best thing I can do is exactly what I do every single day: get you online and sell the shit out of your book. And I’ll help you get your girlfriend back at the same time. Doesn’t sound like too bad of a bargain, does it?’ Sam considered the deal while I watched the handsome man from the office pretend not to see his dog taking a dump. Fine, they were all as bad as each other. ‘How exactly was I selected for this bet?’ he asked. I smiled and pinched my shoulders together. ‘You walked through the door at the right time.’ ‘Or the wrong time,’ he said, rubbing his palms along his long legs. ‘Fine. What would I have to do? To help you?’ ‘Practically nothing,’ I replied, although the truth was I had yet to work that part out. ‘Couple of photos maybe, nothing too sexy, no dick-pics.’ His eyes snapped open behind his glasses. I saw for the first time, they were a beautiful shade of almost cornflower blue. He looked lovely when he was terrified. ‘I’m joking. Obviously.’ It was possible I’d gone too far too fast. It was also possible he had no sense of humour. ‘I take what I do very seriously. I have to give lectures, I have to collaborate with other academics. I don’t want to be turned into a joke and plastered all over the internet,’ he said, breathing out heavily. ‘The logic of social media is something that escapes me entirely.’ ‘You absolutely, one hundred per cent will not be a joke of any kind,’ I told him, adding a conditional ‘probably’ in my head. ‘We don’t even have to put you in the pictures if you don’t want to be.’ ‘I wouldn’t have to be in any of the pictures?’ he asked, interest piqued. An unforeseen wrinkle but hardly a dealbreaker. There were lots of successful accounts that didn’t show their creators. ‘You won’t have to be in any of the pictures,’ I promised. ‘I can work around that.’ ‘And if I agree to this, you won’t be letting yourself into my office morning, noon and night, demanding I do this, that and the other? I do still have a book to write.’ ‘All right, Dad.’ I hid my smile at his negotiation tactics. ‘But I am going to need some time and effort from you. Otherwise boyfriend bootcamp is going to be a bust, isn’t it?’ He fell silent for what felt like hours. Point number one in his training programme was going to be easy. When someone says something to you, they usually want you to say something back in a timely fashion. It was called a conversation. ‘This all feels like a terrible mistake,’ he said finally as my phone vibrated. It was a text from Miranda, she needed me back at the office. ‘Maybe Elaine was right. Maybe I should crawl back into my hole and stay there.’ I sucked the sticky summer air in through my teeth, suddenly wondering which part of this deal was going to be the most difficult. ‘Crawling back into your hole is rarely the best solution to a problem,’ I said. ‘Trust me, I’ve done it loads. You can do better, Sam. Now, who wants to sell some books and get their girlfriend back?’ I thrust my arm high into the air. ‘Hmm,’ he said, standing up and shoving his hands deep into his baggy pockets. ‘We’ll see. I’m trying to get through my footnotes for the last chapter before the end of the week and they’re hardly going to write themselves.’ ‘Sam?’ I lowered my arm slowly to my side as he walked away. ‘Don’t leave a girl hanging. Do we have a deal?’ ‘I need to think about it,’ he said, glancing back and then turning around and setting off without me. ‘I’ll give you my answer on Monday.’ I sank back onto the bench and watched him walk hurriedly out of the square onto the street, rapid-fire sneezes soundtracking him on his way. CHAPTER SEVEN (#ulink_09cf62eb-9747-597e-8099-3f23fdbcfd70) Saturday, 7 July: Twenty-Seven Days to Go East London was a strange place. When Rebecca and I were younger, it felt so dangerous to venture out past Old Street. When she was a student and I was still in secondary school, this was where we’d come to do things we couldn’t tell our mum about. Gigs at the Macbeth, dancing at 93 Feet East, never-ending dumplings at the Drunken Monkey. But now the area was just a giant bundle of contradiction. Old and new, shitty and expensive. You want a bit of genuine exposed brick with your macchiato? That’ll be five pounds, please, and yes we can do a babyccino, will that be with cow, goat, almond or oat milk? Where me and Becks had run full throttle down the dark streets just in time to catch the night bus, mums and babies strolled happily with their three-wheeler pushchairs on their way back from the gym. I could hardly remember a time when Shoreditch felt dangerous. But West London … now there was a case for concern. I clambered up the steps at St Margaret’s station, turning my head to avoid making eye contact with the Tesco Express in the corner. Too much temptation to fill my pockets with Haribo like I would on my way home from school. In East London, people were at pains to tell you everything about themselves from the very first time you laid eyes on them. Here, everything was camouflaged with matching sofas from Heals, Le Creuset cookware and the very finest ensembles Boden had to offer. I didn’t even know where my top was from. I’d borrowed it from Miranda which meant it could be anything from haute couture or handmade. Hopefully no one would ask. When we were kids, Becks was the rebel. She was the one who bleached her hair, the one who stayed out all night, got caught shoplifting, stole a full bottle of Malibu from the drinks cabinet, and yet here we were, twenty years later and she was living in a lovely three-bedroom semi, two roads over from where we grew up. Complete with a perfectly trimmed privet hedge, glossy red front door and a battered Cozy Coupe parked outside. She was living the suburban dream, just like the house next door and the house next door and the house next door and the house next door. And she claimed I was the one who had never dealt with our parents’ divorce. ‘Annie!’ Alan, Rebecca’s perfect husband, opened the front door before I could knock and pulled me inside the dark hallway with a slightly manic look on his face. ‘The baby is sleeping,’ he whispered loudly, pushing me through the tastefully decorated house. ‘Rebecca is in the back garden with your dad and Gina.’ I was twenty minutes early and I was still late. Brilliant. ‘There she is,’ my dad called from behind his giant Ray-Bans as I blinked, blinded, back out into the sunshine. ‘What time do you call this?’ ‘Twenty to one,’ I replied, leaning down for a half-hug and kiss on the cheek before smiling politely at my latest stepmother. She did not get the kiss or the half-hug. It had only been two years, I liked to wait until he’d made it past three years of marriage before I committed. I’d learned my lesson. ‘Aren’t I early?’ ‘Dinner was supposed to be at one,’ Rebecca called from the outdoor dining table she’d set up at the end of the garden. ‘I thought you’d be here earlier.’ My carefully set little sister smile did not budge. ‘I brought wine.’ I held up two bottles, one white, one red, both of which I’d nicked from the office. ‘Shall I put it in the kitchen?’ Becks frowned, tucking her curly hair behind her ears. A morning slaving over the stove had left it frizzy, but this didn’t seem like an opportune moment to mention the bottle of fancy hair serum I’d left in her bathroom last month. Before anyone else could make me regret my decision to get up and drag myself across London on a Saturday morning, Alice, my wonderful niece and one of the top five people in the world, stuck her head out of her Wendy house and hit me with a massive, toothless grin. ‘Auntie Annie!’ she squealed, barrelling across the garden and spearing me into the grass. ‘Mummy said you weren’t coming.’ ‘I said you might not come,’ Becks corrected on her way back into the kitchen. ‘Not that you definitely weren’t coming.’ ‘We were almost late ourselves,’ Gina said, all confessional and apologetic when there was no need. ‘There was a nasty accident on the A3. Sat there for half an hour, didn’t we, Mal?’ My dad nodded his agreement from his fancy wooden lawn chair. My sister’s garden furniture was nicer than anything I had in my actual living room, I realised with shame. ‘At least we’re all here now,’ I replied, forcing my smile out wider from my prone position on the grass. I’d promised Becks I’d try harder with Gina but, really, she didn’t make it easy. You’d never seen a woman so basted with fake tan. You might think you had but it wasn’t possible. In fact, I wasn’t even sure there was any fake tan left in the world because Gina appeared to be wearing all of it. ‘Is the baby still asleep?’ she asked, dropping her voice an octave and over-enunciating each word, the way people do when they’re talking about babies. ‘I’m desperate to see him. We haven’t been over since before Kefalonia, have we, Mal?’ My dad shook his head. Worryingly, next to my dad, Gina looked quite pale only his tan wasn’t fake. It had been a long time since I’d touched his face but I had to assume it had transcended skin and become hide some time ago. ‘He’s asleep,’ Alice replied, still lying on top of me. ‘He’s always asleep. I’m not allowed to sleep as much as him, ever.’ ‘That’s because you’re a big girl,’ Gina said, shifting registers to her high-pitched, little-girl voice. Incidentally, the same one she used with me. ‘And Basil is still a baby.’ Basil. Thirteen months ago, my sister had given birth and seen fit to name her baby Basil. Yes, I knew it was Alan’s favourite grandad’s name, but I had to assume if there was a heaven, somewhere above us, there was a kindly old man throwing his hands up in despair at the fact my nephew’s life had already been ruined before he could even string together a sentence. Basil the Baby. ‘Have you told Dad about the TechBubble awards?’ Becks asked, hurrying back from the kitchen with a bowl full of freshly sliced baguettes. ‘Annie’s been nominated for an award.’ ‘Three awards,’ I said quickly, sitting up as Alice scampered off down the garden. ‘Best new agency, best boutique agency and best campaign. It’s kind of a big deal to be nominated for best boutique agency the same year you’re nominated for best new agency.’ ‘All I hear about these days is start-ups going under,’ he said without removing his sunglasses. ‘Would have been a better idea to stay at that big place you were at. Work your way up, think about your pension, get early retirement. That’s what I did, and look at me.’ You couldn’t not look at him really. He was positively radioactive. He was the most tanned man I had ever seen. In fact, was George Hamilton still alive? It was possible my dad was now the most tanned man on earth. ‘But then I wouldn’t have been nominated for three awards, would I?’ I asked while googling the health and well-being of George Hamilton. ‘When will you find out if you’ve won?’ he asked. ‘Start of next month,’ I replied, brushing blades of grass off the arse of my jeans as I stood. ‘The awards are on the second.’ ‘Shame you won’t know earlier.’ Dad pushed his sunglasses onto the top of his polished mahogany head. ‘I could have included it in the club newsletter.’ ‘Surely the tennis club newsletter should be about news from the tennis club,’ I said. Gina took Dad’s glasses, pulled a case out of her handbag, cleaned them with a little cloth and them popped them away. ‘You could mention the nominations, if you liked?’ ‘But what if you don’t win?’ he asked. ‘But what if we do?’ I replied. ‘But what if you don’t?’ he said again. ‘And then I’m out with your Uncle Norman and he says, how did Annie do in those awards? And I have to say, she didn’t actually win any of them, Norman, and then we’re all going to feel foolish, aren’t we?’ I pursed my lips and ran my tongue over my teeth. In for one, out for six. ‘I love your top, Annie,’ Gina said. ‘Where’s it from?’ Dinner was a blissfully swift affair. Lasagne, Dad’s favourite; trifle, Alan’s favourite; and wine, my favourite. ‘Doing anything exciting tonight?’ Rebecca asked, absently stroking Alice’s hair as her daughter scraped a spoon against the bottom of her bowl. ‘Seeing Mir?’ ‘She’s got a date,’ I replied. If that was what you could call her plan to ‘maybe kind of probably get a drink with Martin if he’s around or whatever’. Date was quicker. ‘I have a load of work to catch up, I’ll probably just do that.’ The vague thought of Sam’s unInstagrammed life gave me a small lurch in my stomach. ‘No date for you?’ Alan bounced Baby Basil on his knee, without even the decency to make eye contact while opening Pandora’s box. ‘Annie’s too busy for boys,’ Dad said, laughing as though he had just made the funniest joke in the world. ‘Aren’t you, darling?’ ‘Just busy in general.’ I stared longingly at the sweaty bottle of white, still half full in the middle of the table, and briefly wondering what Charlie might be up to. ‘You know me.’ ‘What about Matthew and that bloody stunt at the World Cup,’ he said, looking across the table to Alan for support. ‘Can’t believe you let that one get away. Me and Alan could have been at the quarter finals right now if you’d played your cards right there.’ ‘I feel just terrible about the whole thing,’ I replied, reaching for the wine bottle. ‘Apologies, Dad.’ ‘Alice, have you shown Auntie Annie your new tree house?’ Rebecca asked, taking the bottle out of my hand before I could fill my glass to the brim. ‘I’m sure she’d like to see it.’ Alice stood and obediently held out her hand. ‘It’s at the bottom of the garden,’ she informed me while her mother changed the subject. ‘Up a tree.’ ‘Controversial,’ I replied, throwing my sister a grateful glance as we skipped off down the garden. ‘They make me go away when they want to talk about me,’ Alice explained as I heaved myself up the steps and into her really rather nice tree house. Two chairs, an iPad and some lovely Cath Kidston curtains. If she could find her way to adding a mini fridge and corkscrew, I’d have been tempted to move in. ‘I think they’re probably too busy talking about me,’ I told her, holding out my hand to accept a tiny plastic teacup that she filled with non-existent tea. ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Alice considered this and decided it was probably right as she poured herself a drink and made herself comfy on the second wooden chair. ‘Now we can have a proper chinwag,’ she said, a conspiratorial wink in her eye. ‘Did Mummy tell you I put Persil in the fish tank?’ ‘No,’ I replied, not sure what to be more afraid of, her use of ‘chinwag’ or the fact that I was alone in a tree house with a tiny sociopath. ‘Why would you do that?’ She shrugged and sipped her fake tea. ‘I was trying to clean it,’ she said, as though it were obvious. ‘But it didn’t work and then we had to get new fish.’ Clever Alice, skipping over the part where they all died. ‘Why haven’t you got a husband?’ she asked, opening an empty Quality Street tin and offering me an imaginary biscuit. ‘Not everyone has a husband,’ I said, taking care to select the right one. She’d tell me off if I took the imaginary Orange Club. ‘Granny hasn’t got a husband.’ ‘That’s because Granny is too old,’ she assured me. ‘Daddy said so. And she used to be married to Grandad Mal, didn’t you know?’ As my mum liked to say, Alice was six going on sixteen. I couldn’t remember being quite so precocious when I was her age but, to be fair, the only thing I really remembered about being six was wetting myself on the way home from Alton Towers and my parents’ divorce. Hardly a banner year for me. ‘I did know that,’ I replied, following her lead and nibbling on my fantasy biscuit. ‘I don’t have a husband because I haven’t found anyone I want to marry yet.’ ‘That makes sense,’ she said. ‘I’m going to marry Kofi from my gymnastics class. He can do four somersaults in a row.’ I’d definitely dated people for less. ‘I’ll find someone when I’m ready,’ I said, watching my niece cross and uncross her legs until she felt she’d found a suitably grown-up position. It would have been more effective if her dress hadn’t ridden up in the process, revealing her pants to the whole world. ‘There’s no rush.’ ‘Daddy says you’re getting old too,’ she replied. ‘And that you’d better get a move on because you’re not getting any younger.’ ‘Did he now.’ I pulled back the curtains and shot Alan a death stare across the garden. ‘And what else did your daddy have to say?’ ‘He said everything started to go downhill for Mummy after thirty-five and that you ought to try to get a ring on it well before then.’ Note to self. Literally never open your mouth in front of a child over the age of one. ‘Well, I know this is probably going to be a strange thing to say, but your daddy doesn’t know everything,’ I said. ‘Especially about girls.’ ‘Oh no, I know,’ Alice assured me. ‘Mummy tells him that all the time.’ ‘Good,’ I said, sipping my tea. ‘Mummy is really very clever.’ ‘I know,’ she replied happily. ‘She tells me that too.’ She went back to her play kitchen for a moment, faffing around with pots and pans, making all the prerequisite not-quite-swears she’d heard from her own parents as she prepared our second course. ‘I’ve done some sandwiches,’ she announced, turning around with a plate full of Matchbox cars. ‘But you’re not to have too many in case it makes you fat.’ ‘You shouldn’t be worrying about things like that,’ I said, the blood draining from my face at the thought of someone destroying my six-year-old niece’s body image with one wrong word. ‘Fat isn’t a bad thing, you know. Some people are fat and some people aren’t.’ ‘Yes, but you don’t have a husband,’ Alice repeated, in case I wasn’t already aware. ‘And getting fat certainly won’t make finding one any easier.’ ‘Thank god your mother is a therapist,’ I muttered, accepting a single red Hot Rod from the platter. ‘You’re definitely going to need it.’ Dad and Gina had to leave earlier than Rebecca had hoped. Lesley from badminton was having her retirement do at the club and they absolutely had to show their face, Dad explained, otherwise they might be a no-show at the end-of-summer party and she’d done the catering on exact numbers. It took me longer to make my escape and before I knew it, I’d sat through bathtime, bedtime and bedtime story time. Alan was already flicking through Netflix by the time I started faking yawns. ‘Stay,’ Rebecca insisted. ‘I’ll make up the spare bed.’ ‘Yes,’ Alan echoed with zero enthusiasm. ‘Stay.’ ‘I’d love to but I can’t,’ I said, picking up my handbag, tote bag and refillable water bottle. The holy triumvirate of Modern Women’s Things. ‘I’ve got a really early yoga class in the morning and it’ll be a nightmare to get across town at that time on a Sunday.’ ‘Oh, good for you,’ Becks said, bundling me into a hug and a borrowed cardigan. It had turned cold after the sun had set. ‘Do you need Alan to run you to the station?’ ‘I’ll get the bus,’ I said, much to Alan’s relief. ‘Or maybe I’ll walk, burn off that trifle. Wouldn’t want me getting fat, would we?’ He didn’t even look away from the TV. ‘I can’t do lunch this week,’ my sister said, buttoning up the cardi for me. ‘But we’ll see you at Dad’s party next week.’ Of course. Dad’s surprise sixtieth birthday party. So that was why Mum had nicked off to Portugal and gone completely incommunicado. We’d had quite the performance over his fiftieth birthday celebrations. She’d shown up at my halls of residence and refused to leave for a week. She spent most of it half-cut on Taboo and lemonades and in all honesty, I didn’t even know they made Taboo anymore but it was amazing what a woman could find in a provincial off-licence if she was truly committed. ‘Don’t give me that look,’ Becks warned. ‘You’re coming, end of.’ ‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ I promised, patting myself down for my Oyster card and earphones. ‘Talk to you later.’ ‘Text me when you’re in,’ Becks called as I headed out for the bus stop. ‘And don’t you dare think about missing that party.’ As if I would do such a thing. CHAPTER EIGHT (#ulink_d7f4d5f2-5b54-5efa-85b3-aa36da5e2ed8) Monday, 9 July: Twenty-Five Days to Go ‘Are you ready?’ I popped out an earbud to see Miranda standing in the doorway. I’d been so busy editing an unboxing video, I hadn’t even noticed her leave the room. ‘Ready for what?’ I asked. ‘The ritual sacrifices are here,’ she said. ‘Waiting in the meeting room.’ ‘Then I’m ready,’ I replied, grabbing my phone and following her down the hallway. I thought about leaving a note on my door to let Sam know where to find me but decided playing it cool was probably the safer option, I didn’t want to scare him off with any more blatant enthusiasm. Miranda had come up with a solution to our workflow problem. Even though we had more clients than we knew what to do with, we were still owed so much money, we could barely afford to pay the staff we had – namely Brian – and so we had turned to the only option available to us. The most feared staffing solution this side of dragging people in off the streets. We were going to hire an intern. ‘Are you sure about this?’ I asked as we trotted down the staircase. ‘We can barely manage ourselves.’ ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ Miranda said, practically begging me to push her down the stairs. ‘I remember doing work experience, it was brilliant. It’s not like we’re asking them to run entire campaigns for us, we just need someone who will make the tea, open the post and tell us how great we are. It’s like a dream come true for these kids.’ ‘A dream where we pay them next to nothing,’ I replied. Mir paused on the stairs for dramatic effect. Mir did a lot of things for dramatic effect. ‘We’re paying them in opportunities,’ she explained, sweeping her arm along the horizon. ‘They will be rich in experience.’ I looked back, stony faced. ‘And travel and living expenses and all the beauty products and computer games their little hands can carry,’ she shrugged, opening the door to the ground-floor hallway. ‘Lots of people don’t pay anything, at least we’re making sure they’re not being taken advantage of. They’re just kids, Annie. Enthusiastic kids who are dying to help. Nothing for you to be afraid of.’ Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/lindsey-kelk/one-in-a-million-the-no-1-bestseller-and-the-perfect-romance/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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