Authors: Lucy Diamond
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Alice was half expecting to wake the next morning with a huge spot on her nose, or for Iris to have bellowed the whole night through, doubling Alice’s eye bags to suitcase size. But no. Fortune was smiling upon her. Her skin looked dewy and fresh. Her eyes were sparkling with anticipation. Her hair fell just how she wanted it to as she blow-dried it and she didn’t get a single breakfast splatter on her favourite pink top.
Perfect, perfect. Everything looked perfect. Even Iris didn’t complain as Alice brushed her soft tuft of hair and put her into a cutie-pie peach-coloured dress with matching over-nappy knickers. This was an omen. It was all meant to be. Daddy’s Homecoming . . . Jake’s knock on the door . . . his eyes would light up at the sight of Alice and Iris waiting there for him . . .
God, the tension was almost unbearable. When would he arrive? He had been vague on the phone last night, said something about his manager, Jed, helping him get down here incognito. Alice wasn’t keen on Jed, whose real name was actually Jeremy, and who’d been born with a whole canteen’s worth of silver spoons in his mouth. Jed was flash and shouty, all macho backslapping and braying haw-haws. But hey. If Jed was the means to the happy ending, then let the backslapping begin.
There was a knock at the door just after nine and Alice’s heart went into overdrive at the sound. Oh my God. He was here. This was it. Make or break. She had to get it right.
A bloom of sweat prickled up on her back and she grimaced. Sweaty patches was not a good look. She stared at herself anxiously in the mirror. How did she look? Was this a face Jake could fall in love with all over again?
Hmmmm. She looked petrified.
She practised a smile. She looked crazy.
The knocking came again. Shit, he would give up and go away again if she didn’t answer soon. ‘Just coming!’ she carolled, then hastily wet a finger and teased her eyebrows flat (the plucking hadn’t been too successful after all), glanced over at Iris, who was playing the part of Ideal Baby like a pro, sitting on the living-room floor and patting experimentally at a Baby Music Centre, and . . .
And opened the door. She hadn’t realized she was holding her breath until it all rushed out of her in the anticlimax. ‘Oh. Hi Cathy,’ she said, unable to prevent her shoulders slumping. ‘Everything all right?’
‘Yeah – but are you? Dom told me your ex is on his way back! I just wanted to . . .’ She blushed. ‘Sorry, is this really nosy of me? I’m chuffed for you, that’s all. I just wanted to see how you’re doing.’
Alice smiled. ‘I’m good. No – better than good. Cathy, I’m so excited! This is what I’ve been dreaming about! I just can’t wait to see him. I’ve really missed him, you know. Really, really missed him. And now . . .’
‘So what did he say? I mean, did he just contact you out of the blue?’
A car drove by just then and Alice’s heart jumped at the sight. She froze as it passed – was it going to slow down, stop? – then relaxed as it went by. ‘Sorry. What? I can’t think straight. I’d ask you in but . . . but he might turn up at any moment, and . . .’
Cathy patted her arm. ‘It’s all right, I won’t stop. I want to hear everything later though, okay? And if there’s anything I can do – if you two want to go out this evening or something, I can babysit Iris, or . . .’
Alice couldn’t concentrate. Was that another car engine she could hear in the distance?
Cathy laughed. ‘I’ll leave you to it,’ she said. ‘Good luck, Alice. I hope it all works out for you.’
‘Thanks,’ Alice said, her ears almost on stalks as she tried to follow the sound of the car. ‘Me too.’
Hours went by and Alice began to feel as if she were a prisoner in the cottage. She didn’t dare go anywhere in case she missed his call. Even the back garden seemed perilous. She might not hear his knock, or him phoning, perhaps asking for directions. And to go out in the small front garden, even on the pretence of weeding, would appear desperate, as if she were waiting to pounce on him. No. She mustn’t go all bunny-boiler-esque.
The phone was still ringing – the Sunday papers all trying to get a quote from her now. She didn’t pick up the calls, but the messages on the answerphone seemed to rub salt in her wounds. ‘Alice, have you heard from Jake?’ ‘Alice, do you know where he is?’
No. She didn’t know where he was. She hoped he was on his way, but was starting to wonder if she’d made up the phone call the night before in a fit of madness. Or had it been some kind of a trick, orchestrated by Georgia and her rotten newspaper? A cruel wind-up, to get her going all over again?
Her spirits were sinking. Iris had pooed through her lovely peachy pants and had to be wrestled into a different outfit. And now the cottage would probably stink, and Jake might wrinkle his nose in horror and dash off again without staying very long, and . . .
It was half past four in the afternoon. Alice’s hair had gone a bit frizzy in the heat, her face was shiny and her pink top had got a splodge on it from lunch. Oh, and the place stank of poo now, knowing her luck. Damn, damn, damn. Still, chances were, it wouldn’t even be Jake yet. Maybe he’d sent Jed to take a few photos of Iris on his behalf. Or it would be Mags or Jen, coming to see how she was doing.
She wiped her damp hands on her trousers, feeling queasy, and opened the door.
It was him, Jake, with an enormous fragrant bouquet of pink roses. He was smiling at her, his eyes soft and warm. ‘Hello Alice,’ he said.
She felt dizzy. Light-headed. She could smell his aftershave, clean and fresh. ‘Hi Jake,’ she managed to say. He was still as gorgeous as ever. Maybe even more gorgeous.
Stop staring, Alice. Act normally.
‘Come in,’ she said, even though she felt as if she were going to stop breathing any second. ‘What lovely flowers, thank you. Come on in.’
You Are The One
Friday, 20 June 2008
Katie was feeling defeated. Typical, wasn’t it, that she hadn’t seen Steve’s note until right at the dog-end of the working week. She’d got on the phone to his office straight away but his department all seemed to have cleared off early. Or were they at this mysterious conference with him? Either way, the receptionist couldn’t find a single person who could help.
She’d read his letter through until she knew it off by heart, had analysed each and every legible word. He’d gone to get a train for the conference . . . well, that meant it was in the UK, surely? Otherwise he’d have been getting a taxi to Bristol airport. Unless, of course, it was a train for Heathrow because he was actually bound for New York, or Washington . . . The telecommunications firm where Steve worked had offices all over the globe. He could be anywhere. Shit.
His mobile didn’t seem to be working when she’d called that. Ironic, really, given his line of work. She’d called his mum, asked if Steve had been in touch, had told a tiny lie about losing the hotel number and did Steve’s mum have it? No. ‘Where is he, then?’ his mum had asked, sounding slightly anxious. ‘First I’ve heard of this.’
‘Oh, you know what Steve’s like,’ Katie had said uncomfortably. ‘Always off somewhere! Thanks anyway, hopefully we’ll see you soon . . .’
She’d got away with that one at least, but she knew Steve’s friends wouldn’t be fobbed off so easily. They were nice enough blokes, but she didn’t have the sort of relationship with them where she could just ring up out of the blue for a chat. And what if they took Steve’s side and closed ranks against her, refused to tell her anything? What if it was already too late?
If I don’t hear from you, then I’ll assume you feel differently
, he’d written. So was there some kind of deadline going on here? Had he already written her off, assumed the worst?
Well, she hasn’t phoned, so clearly she doesn’t care . . .
Her heart ached at the thought. She couldn’t think about that now. Mustn’t let the idea of it put her off. She just had to keep trying until she managed to get hold of Steve.
She scrolled through the names in her phone. She had the numbers of Rich, Andy and Dan, his three best mates. Had he stayed with one of them, that Saturday when he’d left her in the hotel restaurant alone, she wondered? Maybe he’d slagged her off to them, called her ‘cold’ just as Neil had done all those years ago.
No. She was getting paranoid now. He’d called her ‘sweetheart’ in the letter, hadn’t he? And he wanted to make things work between them . . .
Come on, Kate! Stop dithering!
She tried Andy first, but there was no answer, and she hung up without leaving a message. Damn it. Why hadn’t she done this before, swallowed her pride and tried to reach Steve earlier in the week? But she’d been so angry when she thought he’d walked out on her, and the mixture of anger and self-preservation had stopped her picking up the phone.
Now, though . . . oh God, she’d lose every last remnant of pride, she didn’t care about embarrassing herself in front of Steve’s friends, if it meant she could get hold of him, patch up the wounds.
Dan was next. Bit of a lad was Dan. Friday night, six o’clock, he’d probably be in the pub already, shouting, drinking, making everyone laugh. She felt apprehensive as she waited for him to pick up. But again it went through to voicemail and she didn’t leave a message.
Third time lucky – Rich actually answered, but he seemed rather distracted. ‘Steve? I’ve not heard from him,’ he told her. ‘Isn’t he in Birmingham this week?’
‘I . . . is he?’
She could hear the sound of traffic whizzing by. Oh God. Health and Safety nightmare. ‘Rich, are you driving?’ she asked sharply. Was she technically breaking the law, speaking to him as he drove?
‘It’s all right, I’m on the hands-free,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I think it’s Birmingham. Wait . . . how come you’re asking me that though?’
‘Um . . .’ She stalled, squeezing her eyes shut. ‘I can’t find the bit of paper with his number on, I’ve not been able to get through on his mobile and . . .’
‘Oh yeah, Dan said something about him losing it. His mobile, I mean. He’s had to borrow a new one for work, or . . . Hang on, roundabout coming up . . .’
‘Rich, I’ll let you go,’ she said, wincing at the sound of squealing brakes. Time to get off the phone before she caused a pile-up, hands-free or not. ‘Cheers, mate. Bye.’
She clicked off the call, her brain spinning with all this new information. Steve was in Birmingham, at a conference, he’d lost his mobile – typical Steve! She should have guessed that from the start – and . . . and suddenly she was energized. She could track him down, she could find him. All she had to do now was find out exactly where in Birmingham this conference was taking place.
She switched on the PC, poised for some major Googling. And while she waited for the computer to load, she called Laura. ‘Hi, it’s me,’ she said. ‘I know it’s Friday night, but I’m ringing for a favour . . .’
A whoop came down the line. ‘Yay! I knew you’d change your mind about the speed dating tomorrow. So you’re ringing to beg me for a spare ticket, are you?’
Katie smiled faintly. ‘Not exactly. It’s complicated. Would you mind coming over to help me with something?’
They worked well together, Katie and Laura. Between the two of them, Google and their phones, they went through a comprehensive list of hotels in the Birmingham area, one by one. ‘I’m ringing on behalf of GeoComm, I gather you’ve been hosting our conference this week?’ was their opening gambit. Unfortunately though, ‘Oh – you haven’t? I do apologize. Must have got the wrong number’ tended be their closing line.
‘Maybe the conference isn’t at a hotel after all,’ Katie said despairingly when they’d notched up twenty-seven misses between them. ‘You know how flash GeoComm are, they might have hired a room at one of the football grounds, or . . . I don’t know, the town hall, or . . . or maybe Rich got it wrong altogether about Birmingham. Maybe they’re in Brighton, or Bournemouth, or . . . I don’t know. Bahrain!’
‘Well, we’ll try hotels in the Middle East once we’ve exhausted the West Midlands,’ Laura told her bossily. ‘Come on, let’s make it a nice round thirty, then we’ll dial out for pizza.’ She punched in another number. ‘Oh hi, I’m ringing on behalf of GeoComm . . .’
Laura was right. They had to keep plugging away. But what if the conference had finished that afternoon? What if all the delegates were already streaming homewards, striding to their cars or taxis, being ferried to the train station . . . ? Katie sighed, feeling despair at the not-knowing.
Where would Steve head for?
she wondered. From what she could make out of his letter, it sounded as if he were leaving the ball in her court, expecting
What would he be thinking now that the week was almost through and she hadn’t?
Bollocks. This was what happened when you let the control slip from your hands, she thought bitterly, dialling the number of her next hotel. This is what happened when—
Laura clutched her arm suddenly. ‘Oh, right, yes, thank you,’ she was saying. ‘I was just ringing to find out how things had gone today and . . . Actually, could you put me through to the conference room now, please?’
She was grinning like a kid at Katie but Katie couldn’t grin back. She felt too tense, too wired up with nerves to respond. ‘Oh, of course, silly me,’ Laura went on smoothly, crossing her eyes. ‘And so after dinner, it’s the evening do, is it?’
She was guessing wildly, Katie knew, but God, Laura was doing well. If it had been Katie who’d struck gold with the right hotel, she’d have got in a flap straight away and blown her cover within seconds.
‘Yes, thank you, and so . . . let’s see what I’ve got here,’ Laura went on, rustling some papers for a sound effect. ‘Can I just confirm what time check-out is tomorrow? Eleven, thank you. Well, that all sounds fine. Thanks for your help. Goodbye.’
She put down the phone and rubbed her hands together. ‘We’ve got him,’ she said.
‘This is actually really exciting,’ Laura said half an hour later, accelerating down the slip road. She twiddled with the radio buttons, flicking through news and classical music to find a bouncy dance track. ‘Don’t you think?’