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Chapter 23

I PUT MY KEY IN THE LOCK and slowly open the door of the flat. It seems like about a million years since I was here last, and I feel like a completely different person. I’ve grown up. Or changed. Or something.

“Hi,” I say cautiously into the silence, and drop my bag onto the floor. “Is anyone—”

“Bex!” gasps Suze, appearing at the door of the sitting room. She’s wearing tight black leggings and holding a half-made denim photograph frame in one hand. “Oh my God! Where’ve you been? What have you been doing? I saw you onMorning Coffee and I couldn’t believe my eyes! I tried to phone in and speak to you, but they said I had to have a financial problem. So I said, OK, how should I invest half a million? but they said that wasn’t really . . .” She breaks off. “Bex, what happened?”

I don’t reply straight away. My attention has been grabbed by the pile of letters addressed to me on the table. White, official-looking envelopes, brown window envelopes, envelopes marked menacingly “Final Reminder.” The scariest pile of letters you’ve ever seen.

Except somehow . . . they don’t seem quite so scary anymore.

“I was at my parents’ house,” I say, looking up. “And then I was on television.”

“But I phoned your parents! They said they didn’t know where you were!”

“I know,” I say flushing slightly. “They were . . . protecting me from a stalker.” I look up, to see Suze staring at me in utter incomprehension. Which I suppose is fair enough. “Anyway,” I add defensively, “I left you a message on the machine, saying not to worry, I was fine.”

“I know,” wails Suze, “but that’s what they always do in films. And it means the baddies have got you and you’ve got a gun jammed against your head. Honestly, I thought you were dead! I thought you were, like, cut up into a million pieces somewhere.”

I look at her face again. She isn’t kidding, she really was worried. I feel awful. I should never have vanished like that. It was completely thoughtless and irresponsible and selfish.

“Oh, Suze.” On impulse, I hurry forward and hug her tightly. “I’m really sorry. I never meant to worry you.”

“It’s OK,” says Suze, hugging me back. “I was worried for a bit—but then I knew you must be all right when I saw you on the telly. You were fantastic, by the way.”

“Really?” I say, a tiny smile flickering round the corners of my mouth. “Did you really think so?”

“Oh yes!” says Suze. “Much better than whats-his-face. Luke Brandon. God, he’s arrogant.”

“Yes,” I say after a tiny pause. “Yes, I suppose he is. But he was actually quite nice to me afterward.”

“Really?” says Suze indifferently. “Well, you were brilliant, anyway. Do you want some coffee?”

“Love some,” I say, and she disappears into the kitchen.

I pick up my letters and bills and begin slowly to leaf through them. Once upon a time, this lot would have sent me into a blind panic. In fact, they would have gone straight into the bin, unread. But you know what? Today I don’t feel a flicker of fear. Honestly,how could I have been so silly about my financial affairs? How could I have been so cowardly? This time I’m just going to face up to them properly. I’m going to sit down with my checkbook and my latest bank statements, and sort methodically through the whole mess.

Staring at the clutch of envelopes in my hand, I feel suddenly very grown-up and responsible. Farsighted and sensible. I’m going to sort my life out and keep my finances in order from now on. I’ve completely and utterly changed my attitude toward money.

Plus . . .

OK, I wasn’t actually going to tell you this. ButMorning Coffee is paying me absolute loads.Loads. You won’t believe it, but for every single phone-in I do, I’m going to get—

Oh, I’m all embarrassed now. Let’s just say it’s . . . it’s quite a lot!

I just can’t stop smiling about it. I’ve been floating along ever since they told me. So the point is, I’ll easily be able to pay all these bills off now. My VISA bill, and my Octagon bill, and the money I owe Suze—and everything! Finally,finally my life is going to be sorted.

“So, why did you just disappear like that?” asks Suze, coming back out of the kitchen and making me jump. “What was wrong?”

“I don’t really know,” I say with a sigh, putting the letters back down on the hall table. “I just had to get away and think. I was all confused.”

“Because of Tarquin?” says Suze at once, and I feel myself stiffen apprehensively.

“Partly,” I say after a pause, and swallow. “Why? Has he—”

“I know you’re not that keen on Tarkie,” says Suze wistfully, “but I think he still really likes you. He came round a couple of nights ago and left you this letter.”

She gestures to a cream envelope stuck in the mirror. With slightly trembling hands I take it. Oh God, what’s he going to say? I hesitate, then rip it open, and a ticket falls onto the floor.

“The opera!” says Suze, picking it up. “Day after tomorrow.” She looks up. “God, it’s lucky you came back, Bex.”


My dear Rebecca,I’m reading incredulously.Forgive my reticence in contacting you before. But the more I think about it, the more I realize how much I enjoyed our evening together and how much I would like to repeat it.

I enclose a ticket forDie Meistersingerat the Opera House. I shall be attending in any case and if you were able to join me, I would be delighted.

Yours very sincerely,


Tarquin Cleath-Stuart.


“Oh, Bex, you must go!” says Suze, reading over my shoulder. “You’ve got to go. He’ll be devastated if you don’t. I really think he likes you.”

I look at the ticket, for two nights’ time. “Gala Performance,” it says, and I feel a sudden excitement. I’ve never been to an opera gala! I could wear that divine Ghost dress which I’ve never had a chance to wear, and I could put my hair up, and meet lots of amazing people . . .

And then, abruptly, I stop. However much fun it would be—it wouldn’t be fair or honest to go. I’ve hurt Tarquin enough.

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

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

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

There’s a short silence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I hurry off to my room.

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

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

“So what are you going to wear?” says Suze, looking in through my open bedroom door. “Are you going to buy something new?” Her face lights up. “Hey, shall we go shopping?”

“Shopping?” I say distractedly. “Ahm . . . maybe.”

Somehow today . . . Oh, I don’t know. I almost feel too tense to go shopping. Too keyed up. I don’t think I’d be able to give it my full attention.

“Bex, did you hear me?” says Suze in surprise. “I said, shall we go shopping?”

“Yes, I know.” I glance up at her, then reach for a black top and look at it critically. “Actually, I think I’ll take a rain check.”

“You mean . . .” Suze pauses. “You mean youdon’t want to go shopping?”


There’s silence, and I look up, to see Suze staring at me.

“I don’t understand,” she says, and she sounds quite upset. “Why are you being all weird?”

“I’m not being weird!” I give a little shrug. “I just don’t feel like shopping.”

“Oh God, there’s something wrong, isn’t there?” wails Suze. “I knew it. Maybe you’re really ill.” She hurries into the room and reaches for my head. “Have you got a temperature? Does anything hurt?”

“No!” I say, laughing. “Of course not!”

“Have you had a bump on the head?” She wiggles her hand in front of my face. “How many fingers?”

“Suze, I’m fine,” I say, thrusting her hand aside. “Honestly. I’m just . . . not in a shopping mood.” I hold a gray suit up against myself. “What do you think of this?”

“Honestly, Bex, I’m worried about you,” says Suze, shaking her head. “I think you should get yourself checked out. You’re so . . . different. It’s frightening.”

“Yes, well.” I reach for a white shirt and smile at her. “Maybe I’ve changed.”



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

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

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

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

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

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

With no warning, a surge of fresh humiliation goes through my body as I remember that awful moment in Harvey Nichols. I shake my head hard, trying to clear it; trying to calm myself. Why the hell did I agree to this bloody dinner, anyway?

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

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

“Like what? A Filofax?”

“Like . . .” Suze pauses thoughtfully. “OK. Wait there—”



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

Not that businessy, in fact.

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

Well, actually, the word that springs to mind isromantic.

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

Maybe I overdid it.

I’m about to back away and see if I can quickly deposit the briefcase in the cloakroom (or, to be honest, just put it down on a chair and walk away), when Luke looks up, sees me, and smiles. Damn. So I’m forced to go forward over the plushy ............

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