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Skinny Dipping

 

 

 

SKINNY DIPPING

 

By Alicia M Kaye

 

Skinny Dipping

By Alicia M Kaye

Copyright © 2014 Alicia M Kaye

Shakespir Edition

 

All rights reserved.

 

The right of Alicia M Kaye to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

 

No part of this publication may be reproduced, or transmitted, in any form of binding or cover other than that it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent publisher, or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the copyright holder.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Highbury Aquatic Centre

Silver Swimming Chain

Silver Family Leisure Group London N5

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Miss Sophie Smart

Junior Executive

Clarks, Clarks and Clarks Advertising Agency

55 Dean Street

London

SW1Y 4JW

 

28 July 2007

 

Dear Miss Smart,

 

I am writing to express my sincere gratitude for your handling of my account while I have been absent on my eighteen-month sabbatical. You operated using initiative, needed little assistance, understood our family vision and created the thoughtful advertising campaign ‘Swimming is for Living’. I was very pleased with the results of the campaign, which led to a two-fold increase in membership, a much greater success than anticipated.

I am now back as the acting director of the ‘Silver Family Leisure Group’ and would be delighted to work with you again on the next commercial to further advertise our swimming centres. Please contact me at my temporary office location at the Highbury Aquatic Centre.

Please find enclosed the draft contract for continuation of services for your perusal.

 

Sincerely,

 

Matthew Silver

Director

 

 

From: [email protected]

Sent: 20 August 2007 10:58

To: [email protected]

Subject: Re Idea Generation Stage – Animation Idea

Dear Sophie,

 

Thank you for welcoming me back. Your assumption is spot on. Getting on top of things after eighteen months away has made me incredibly busy. Yes, I continue to operate from the Highbury Aquatic Centre. The swimming chain is my pet project. Besides, I love the water.

Please don’t worry. Working from an office at the swimming centre will not create a technical barrier. I promise to be technically savvy. I too believe in using technology to create efficiencies in our communications, and confirm my transition from snail mail to email.

There is no need for you to speak with your Information Technology Department. I have received your emails. My inbox backlog included several messages from you, sent over the last month.

If ever you can’t reach me again, contact Eve. She is the resident swimming coach at the Highbury Aquatic Centre and covers reception. For the time being, Eve is acting as my personal assistant. I am still yet to identify a bright, trustworthy individual to help in a full-time capacity.

You rightly suggested my timely feedback is absolutely necessary in the Ideas Generation Stage (the first step in an advertising campaign.)

To comment on your idea, the art sketches you sent are brilliant. However, using real people and real faces may connect better with the local community.

You also asked me a question: what is my favorite sea creature? A dolphin.

Don’t feel any matter is too small for my attention. Now I am back, I insist on being involved in all parts of my business, including this advertising campaign, every step of the way.

 

Warm regards,

 

Matthew Silver

Director

 

From: [email protected]

Sent: 10 September 2007 15:39

To: [email protected]

Subject: Re Idea Generation Stage – Meeting Agenda

 

Dear Sophie,

 

I apologize for cancelling the last few meetings you’ve set up. Regrettably, I’ve been preoccupied with another part of the ‘Silver Family Leisure Group’ – the hotel arm – which is in dire need of energy, revitalisation, and renovation.

The Highbury Aquatic Centre is still my base. Also, the new personal assistant did not work out. Again, Eve has stepped up as my temporary personal assistant. She mentioned she has spoken to you several times this week. Eve encouraged me to reschedule another meeting to help us both get on the same page. She reminded me of your past invitation to join you at the ‘London Annual Advertising Awards’ (in your email you mentioned the event as a gala evening), tomorrow night.

This would be a perfect opportunity to get together and discuss the new campaign. I trust you won’t mind my late acceptance, as I would be most pleased to finally meet face to face.

 

Kind regards,

 

Matthew Silver

Director

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Three months trying. Two letters, fourteen emails, thirty phone messages, but still no connection. Sophie Smart would leave another message, and another, and another… if it came to it. Why couldn’t he answer the phone? Perhaps Sophie would be more successful reaching him if she devoted her life to science and pushing the boundaries of technology. Perhaps creating a mind boggling, innovative method of communication would increase her chances of catching a few seconds of his time. Surely contacting an extraterrestrial would be easier than speaking in real time with Matthew Silver?

If he hadn’t wanted to work together, why bind their relationship with a legal contract? She was now obliged to work with an unwilling and uncooperative client. Lately, the mere mention of his name had created feelings of loathing.

If only she could be as evasive as he was. For now, at the very last minute, Matthew Silver had accepted Sophie’s invitation to meet at the London Annual Advertising Awards, a gala evening and the most prestigious night in the advertising calendar. What kind of person gave such short notice?

Today couldn’t get any worse. She felt low. Melancholy possessed her, making her chest ache. With a crumpled face, she sat in her Volkswagen Beetle on a quiet street in Highbury and dialed Matthew Silver’s number. Was she supposed to dig deep and locate her last shred of patience for Matthew Silver? For today was the worst day of her life.

She exhaled and closed her eyes to summon a spark of her usual perseverance. “Pick up your phone,” Sophie muttered.

A note chimed for Matthew’s voicemail. “Leave it,” his recorded message played. Leave what? Another message? Oh, how she wished she could ‘leave it’ and let him hear her wrath.

“Hello, again,” she started. She remembered to stay calm, vital to her professionalism. Stay composed and polite. Don’t reveal frustration. “This is Sophie Smart from Clarks, Clarks and Clarks Advertising Agency.” She slowly relaxed her coiled fingers from their smothering hold on her phone. “I’m just letting you know I’ll be a fraction late tonight for the awards gala. Why don’t we meet at the table? Please call me back.”

His extensive wealth probably meant he could snap his fingers, and any whim, any wish would be granted as if he were the bearer of Aladdin’s magic lamp. Just one rub and he would be indulged. He was a spoilt kid in an adult’s body and the heir to the Silver Family Leisure Group. He was also clueless enough to operate the multimillion pound corporation from a dinky back office in a swimming centre.

The Silvers owned a chain of swimming centres, hotels, gyms, stadiums, theme parks, theatres, restaurants, and retail shops. Sophie’s world wasn’t quite as gilded. She could only fantasise about the blissful life his wealth could create. She pictured life without the stress of working with people like Matthew Silver… Dream on Sophie.

When it came to marketing, Matthew shared his ‘Silver love’ around. The Silver Group’s massive advertising budget was divvied up between various clawing advertising firms. There was no exclusive agency. The firm Sophie worked for had landed an isolated part of the Silver Family Leisure Group, the chain of swimming centres. It was the least glamorous or profitable unit of the Silver Group. The budget was only a tiny sliver of Matthew’s entire advertising allocation. For this reason, Matthew, despite his riches, was considered ‘small billing’ by her firm.

But there was always opportunity, Sophie reminded herself. She’d read newspaper articles describing Matthew’s hotel business being under extreme pressure. Sophie might be just the girl to help him. Tonight at the gala was her chance to charm him and hopefully drag his hotel advertising over to Clarks.

Ever since she could remember, Sophie had been fascinated by the advertising industry. She’d completed a degree at university and applied for a staggering number of graduate advertising positions in London, but competition was fierce. Application after application was unsuccessful. Sophie was crestfallen when she didn’t secure a single interview. The constant rejection almost left her as bitter as a jilted bride.

Yet with willpower she refuted any feelings of failure. Life wasn’t always easy. She loved advertising and she just needed someone to believe in her. She scoured all possible vacancies at advertising firms, even jobs in administration rather than advertising. Give her one opportunity to stand in front of someone for two minutes and she’d convince them. They would sense her enthusiasm and her eagerness to get in. She’d do anything. Anything.

Somehow she was lucky enough to snag a break at one of the prestigious firms: Clarks, Clarks and Clarks Advertising AgencyClarks for short – with offices in New York and London. Darren Clark was the founder, based in New York, and Bradley Clark was the Managing Director, based in London. The third Clark remained a mystery to Sophie and probably every other employee at Clarks.

She was fortunate enough to win Bradley Clark over in her only interview and she soon found herself employed as his personal secretary. The job was relatively straightforward for Sophie and she often ran out of things to occupy her time. She had perfected the art of moving papers round her desk, trying to appear as busy as possible.

Despite herself, Sophie became bored. A desire smouldered inside her. She felt destined for a career in advertising. Again she became impatient for a chance, wanting to prove herself in a position she was sure she was born for.

She didn’t precisely know what she did to provoke Bradley Clark’s interest in her career. It might have been her organisational prowess, her stapling speed or her upbeat persona. Quite possibly Bradley noticed her constant efforts to volunteer for greater responsibility.

One night Bradley Clark remarked on her spirit. He even told Sophie she possessed a unique personality, a special combination: a cross between an artsy, creative type, and a charmer, a mix often found in used car salesmen.

Bradley finally decided that Sophie had the natural temperament and aptitude for a successful career at Clarks. Hooray! He gave her a chance, a life changing opportunity by promoting her to Junior Executive. Her new role would be to project manage advertising campaigns.

Sophie’s new responsibilities were vastly different from her secretarial duties. Her skills in note taking and flash typing became absolutely irrelevant. She needed the gift of the gab. Bradley himself was a busy man and couldn’t spare the time to mollycoddle or foster her. Rather than Bradley easing her into the new role, he endorsed a ‘sink or swim’ approach. Sophie didn’t like water at the best of times, but she was determined to succeed.

Bradley’s primary concern was associated with the term ‘revenue’. Sophie was not only assigned to project manage, but also to deliver new business, to bring in more money for the Clarks empire. Each month he set mandatory financial targets for her to meet. Her monetary goal always increased and the battle to win new work never ended.

Landing new business was like a black art. Securing new contracts was mystifying, where each client had unknown rules which she was somehow supposed to know. Even so, she found the challenge fascinating and engrossing, often staying on into the night poring over advertising pitches and client research. She didn’t mind the long hours, after all, she finally had the job she’d always wanted. Besides, she wouldn’t dare let Bradley down. Blundering, or worse, failing, in the role would cause him great embarrassment and end her career. She even attended additional sales workshops to finesse her skill set further.

The long hours, the technical courses and the positive attitude were the only way to keep her head above water. For all the demanding situations and stress associated with her position at Clarks, she loved a challenge, and more than that, she loved advertising.

Over the course of a few years, Sophie matured into her role. She adopted a savvy nature and excelled as a Junior Executive. There was no doubt that her role at Clarks was all consuming. She was absorbed. There was little left after work. She had no time, energy or inclination for much else.

She closed her eyes, only for a second, was it all worth it? Was she too devoted to the career which monopolised her time? Sophie tossed her mobile phone inside her hefty handbag. Her thoughts instantly returned to Matthew Silver. Why was she focused on an irritating client when the rest of her life was crashing round her shoulders? Was she losing it? She shoved the doubt away, fearing she’d lost perspective on what was important.

She hunched over the steering wheel, in the only place she could call home: her red Volkswagen Beetle, currently parked on an unfamiliar residential street in Highbury. Sophie was homeless.

Derek. Bloody Derek. He’d given her an ultimatum, to choose between working at Clarks and their relationship. He’d said a letter of resignation would suffice, for this would be the only sign she could give to show she was truly committed to a life together.

His request was too immense. Sophie would lose part of herself if she quit. There had to be another way, a compromise of some kind, for she wouldn’t leave. She loved advertising and dreamed of one day owning her own firm. She was still learning. Her departure from Clarks was out of the question.

A moment of madness must have swept over him; it was the only thing that made sense. Derek had asserted his ownership of their apartment and insisted she move out. He’d stated that if she elected to continue at Clarks, then she needed to find new accommodation – immediately.

After the argument Sophie had packed and loaded her car with boxes. It was only an argument and he’d soon give up his demands. Of course he’d ask her back inside. Yet she had found herself sleeping in the back seat of her car like a vagabond.

When she woke, stiff and sore, she had even gone to work.

Sophie had departed Derek’s place and slept in her car only last night. The fight was less than twenty four hours old. Derek was yet to call and she was barely holding herself together. Clarks still expected Sophie to attend the gala evening, although she didn’t want to get dressed in the back seat of a car. She would find an alternative.

As she ran her hand over the cardboard box on the passenger seat, Sophie sighed at the knowledge that she’d taken only the bare essentials. The boot was crammed full with work clothes, shoes, nail polish, and her collection of Jamie Oliver cook books – only necessary items.

There hadn’t been time to pack everything properly while Derek was so upset. There would be another time when she could return to Derek’s apartment, her old home on her old street, far from the street she was on now. Surely after he calmed down, Derek would miss her wildly. He would want her back. Of course he would.

Sophie thrust the car door open and plastered a grin on her face. Think positive, think winner. Smiles were an important part of the sales process. They were cheap, yet often closed deals. A flat interview was no different. This time, Sophie was selling herself. She was desperate to secure a new home.

Holding a printout of the online advertisement, she checked the address and identified house number 129. The advert stated the room was available immediately. If this flat interview didn’t work out, her only solution would involve another night in her Volkswagen Beetle, or possibly a low budget hotel. She definitely didn’t want to ask her parents or friends for any help. She didn’t want to sit through the humiliation of describing what had happened with Derek, when she herself was still trying to piece it all together. There might be a chance that after further negotiation, they could salvage the relationship.

Besides, she didn’t need help. She was quite capable of sorting out her accommodation situation. Sophie Smart was a solutions kind of girl.

There was a small gate to 129. She walked up the set of steps. A feeling of déjà vu flooded her body at the stairs. This was, after all, the third ascent to an unfamiliar house this evening for a flat interview. Sophie felt panicked. The two previous flats hadn’t worked out. Would this one come through?

Shifting her shoulders back, she inhaled the fresh September air and exhaled a deep breath out. Third time lucky, right?

Reaching the bright blue front door, she rang the buzzer. Her eyes darted around, looking at the leafy street, lined with Victorian houses. Would the girl living here possibly like her? Would they get along? The ad gave the girl’s name as Carol. What if this girl, Carol, was a psychopath? Other than the brief phone call to confirm the time for the flat viewing, Sophie was meeting a stranger.

Her chest tightened and a sudden stab of irrational panic surged through her. No one knew she was there. Was she stupid not to let anyone know about the flat interviews? Why did she always have to be so independent? Not that anything was going to happen. Nothing had happened at the other two interviews, but no one ever really knows. Not really. Doubt crept into the back of her mind.

Sophie felt inside her handbag and found her mobile phone. She released a sigh of relief; as long as she had her mobile phone, she’d be okay. Besides, everything was going to turn out alright. It always did.

She pressed the door buzzer again, brushing down any visible creases from her short black dress. Her killer heels gave her calves that little extra lift, and you never knew when you needed to use your female charms to the best of your advantage. A top tip she’d learnt in her advertising sales course was to dress to impress. Make an impact. Apparently people made an assessment of a person within thirty seconds.

A thin blonde girl opened the door, wearing large false eyelashes and her hair was up in curling rollers. Sophie forced her lips up into a broad smile, and tried desperately not to let her eyes scan the girl’s outfit, nor make a judgment. She was desperate for the room.

“Sorry to keep you. I got the last roller tangled.” The girl fluttered her eyelashes. “You must be Sophie Smart. Here to look at the room?” Her voice sounded pleasant.

“Nice to meet you.” Sophie gave her most winning smile.

The girl’s outfit made an impact, but was definitely aimed at a different target audience than the one she had now. She wore long checkered pantaloons with bright pink leg warmers. Her fingernails sparkled with silver glitter and were about two inches long. Too long to be real, most probably fake. Why would anyone want or need two inch nails, unless she was trying to be Catwoman?

“I’m Carol Cartwright.”

Sophie instantly noticed the girl’s angular features. Her mind whirled, using another technique she’d learnt from her sales course. The girl’s name was Carol and she had a pixie-like face. Images swirled in her imagination. She pictured Carol’s smiling face crowned with a small green pixie hat. An elf-Carol sang Christmas carols. She’d done it: connected the name Carol with Christmas carols. That’s how she’d remember her name. Carol. Carol. Carol.

“Thanks for meeting me so soon, Carol.” She spoke the name aloud, hoping to ingrain it further in her mind.

“Come on in.” Carol escorted her inside the apartment and Sophie exhaled as she stepped over the threshold.

Her head darted around. She noted the décor and looked for something calming. She was determined to stop her imagination from running away with her. Her mobile phone was safely in her bag and Carol was not going to turn out to be a serial killer. Everything was going to be just fine.

Sophie’s gaze steadied and her breathing slowed. Ah, a lovely timber corridor, high vaulted ceilings and a sunroof in the living room, ideal for winter.

Sophie followed Carol outside to examine the garden. More of a courtyard, paving stones and pebbles creating a perimeter near the fence.

“Sometimes we get cats,” Carol mentioned. Definitely not serial killer speech, referring to cats. Still possibly a candidate for Catwoman. “They’re either strays or the neighbour’s cats, but they sit in the sun, just there. Soak it up when they get the chance.” She pointed to a flowerbed where a few flattened herb plants struggled to grow. Death by sleeping cat, Sophie presumed. There were trees forming a leafy canopy over an outdoor table and chairs, and a passion fruit vine wound itself along the fence.

Sophie imagined sitting outside in this garden with a gin and tonic or a cup of tea, depending on the time of day, of course. “It’s lovely out here, and very quiet,” Sophie said.

“Yes, I like it, very peaceful in the summer,” Carol said.

Sophie nodded. She wouldn’t be here for summer; she’d only need the room temporarily. Derek would change his mind. Despite his tantrum, he loved her and she undoubtedly loved him.

Temporary or not, she wanted this flat; the living space was huge and airy and the location was close to trendy Upper Street. Sophie flashed a smile, aiming for a mix of friendly and fun. If she kept this pretence up and stayed strong, she might just get through this and secure a bedroom.

Back inside, Carol directed her up a set of internal stairs. “This is the room.” Carol stood by the doorway as Sophie poked her head in.

“It looks perfect.”

“Go on, have a real look around, get a feel for living here.”

Sophie stepped inside the room and identified the most important feature, the wardrobe. “Do you mind if I open it?”

“There’s not much hanging space,” Carol declared. “My cupboard’s a little bigger but I have to store costumes and things like that.”

Sophie suddenly recalled the details on the advert. She was a dancer. Her outfit made sense now. The pantaloons were covering her tights, so she wouldn’t get holes in them. But the nails….

“Of course,” Sophie murmured, assessing the wardrobe and how many work outfits would fit. If she squashed her clothes in and hung several cardigans on the same hanger, the space would be adequate as an interim solution. Sophie’s chest tightened. What if it wasn’t temporary? Turning abruptly, her knee hit the bed frame.

Carol laughed, a little abashed. “The room is a little cosy.” Her chuckle was light, easy. In fact, Carol seemed a happy-go-lucky kind of person, someone who would be ideal to hang around with in the state Sophie was in, down on love.

“The room’s really great.”

“I did the interior decorating myself. I chose the bed cover.” Gaudy, bright, but Sophie could change that. “The lamp. The hand towels in the bathroom.” The towels were fluorescent yellow, clashing with the purple curtains and completely opposite to Sophie’s conservative tastes. Again, Sophie could add her own touch of personalisation.

“Very bright.”

“I’ve got quite an eye.” Carol nodded. “You’re only sharing the flat with me of course, so this would be your private bathroom. It’s very… intimate.”

Intimate was a positive spin on the bathroom’s description. Sophie looked at Carol, impressed by her optimism. Sophie peered into the tiny boxlike shower. She would barely be able to bend over and shave her legs.

Opposite the shower was a small wash basin and toilet. All amenities were cramped into the narrow room. Such a small space wasn’t quite what Sophie was accustomed to, but she didn’t like her other choices.

She regarded Carol, making her final assessment. So what if Carol had absolutely no taste in clothes and wore fingernails more suitable for a feline? Carol didn’t seem like someone she would ordinarily hang out with, but maybe that was precisely what Sophie needed – someone who was a bit of fun.

Sophie glanced again around the room, taking a deep breath. “When can I move in?” she queried, feeling her chest squeeze. “If you’ll have me of course?”

“You can move in today if you want to.” Carol beamed, and Sophie smiled back. Carol was lovely, really lovely. No serial killer in sight.

“Great, do you think I could move in this evening?” Sophie’s excitement began to mount. She’d done it, almost, reversed a lousy situation. If Carol agreed she could move in, Sophie could unload her car, get dressed for the advertising gala and no one at work would be any the wiser.

“Of course, whatever suits. I’m easy,” Carol said with a smile and a shrug. As Sophie digested the information, Carol fished through her wallet, found a set of keys, and handed them to her. “Sorry but I can’t stay and help you move in. I’ve got to get the hot rollers out of my hair and then dash off to an audition in less than thirty minutes.” She threw her head back and laughed. “Sounds like a lot to do in very little time, but work as a dancer in a recession is tough. I lost my position as lead soloist at my old dance company. There was a new Director of Dance, you see. He had a crush on me but I didn’t know he was married. He took me out. His wife found out. You can guess the rest of the story because here I am looking for work.” She released an exasperated sigh. “Never a good idea to mix business with romance. I’ve learnt my lesson.”

“Good luck with the audition, and don’t let the director fall in love with you this time.” Sophie gave Carol a conspiratorial wink. “Maybe try and look as unattractive as possible?”

“That would be impossible with my curling efforts,” Carol snorted. “Good luck with the move. Now, are you alright on your own?”

“I’ll be fine, thanks. Just letting you know I’m off to an advertising gala later tonight.”

“That sounds cool. Remember not to mix business with romance. Please – this is your house now, so make yourself at home. I’m so sorry to dash off.” Carol gave a slight wave and bounded out of the room. Sophie heard a series of thumps as Carol bounced down the stairs.

She scanned the room. It was modest. The move was temporary.

She could live with temporary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Sophie perched on the bed in her new Highbury residence, almost hyperventilating with relief. The tension and the all-consuming, claustrophobic fear gradually faded. She’d done it. She had succeeded against all odds. Moved from Derek’s, found a home, and no one, no one, was any the wiser.

She waited until Carol had departed for her audition before contemplating her laden car. The entire Volkswagen Beetle was chock-full of boxes. Hoisting items out of the boot, she ferried crates, cartons and suitcases into her new dwelling, up the stairs and into her tiny room. Minuscule or not, this room was her castle. She deposited her things, cluttering the space further by building a labyrinth of boxes. The walls of the cramped area appeared to somehow inch closer.

She ripped open suitcases until she found her bed linen and fixed her bed: her first act of settling in. Feelings of loneliness encased her heart. The deafening silence of the empty house prompted her to dig out and switch on her portable digital radio. She set the station to something up beat. This wasn’t the time to listen to soppy love songs or lyrics of unrequited love. There certainly wouldn’t be any more self-pitying tears. For she had another mission tonight, the clock was ticking toward the gala event.

Sophie composed herself; at this point she should focus on what to wear to the gala.

As she stepped into the only cocktail dress she’d brought from Derek’s house, elation pulsated through her. Everything would work out. The flat. The room. Maybe Derek. Possibly even Matthew Silver.

She stretched a fake fur wrap around her shoulders to complete the outfit. She was prepared. Sophie plucked her handbag from her bedroom floor and dashed out of the apartment.

On the street corner nearby she hailed a taxi. Only then could she relax, for she was right on track to finally meet Matthew Silver.

 

***

The taxi swerved. The seatbelt strangled Sophie’s body, holding her flush against the car seat. The vehicle cut across three lanes of traffic, racing a sleek, black Porsche. “I think it’s just a few more blocks away,” Sophie blurted. “I really don’t mind if we slow down a little.” The driver didn’t seem to hear because the taxi whirled through the city streets, neck and neck with the Porsche. Neither car slowed.

The hotel appeared in the distance. The taxi’s indicator clicked on and off as the driver veered. “Maybe we don’t need to go so fast, since we’re practically there,” she whimpered, looking fearfully out the window. A chill crept up Sophie’s spine as the taxi deviated, interfering with the Porsche’s path. Sophie whispered a final prayer as tyres screeched. The Porsche came to a screeching stop on the main road to avoid the collision. Thank God.

The taxi burst into the hotel driveway, overshot the doorway entrance and parked near the roadside. Sophie would have to walk back to the entrance. Feeling faint, her gaze darted warily around. “We made it.” A grateful sigh escaped her lips, everyone was intact, no crash. The taxi driver panted like he’d run a marathon.

“I got you here in record time.”

Sophie nodded shakily and thrust the door open. Why did every man want to be a racing car driver? One leg and then the other found the safety of the pavement beside the vehicle. She handed the driver twenty pounds, and shut the door. The taxi jerked towards the street.

Sophie saw with a start that the two door Porsche was now positioned directly outside the hotel entrance. The Porsche’s occupant catapulted out. A blond man staggered, his face deathly pale. He raced toward the back of the accelerating taxi as it pulled out into the busy London street.

There was wildness about him. “Learn how to drive,” he shouted.

Sophie brushed her dress down, suddenly desperate to become invisible and disappear into the pavement. Clients could be anywhere; this was no place to cause a scene.

The owner of the Porsche stalked back toward his car. He stopped and glared fiercely at Sophie. “We could all have died. Or someone could have been seriously injured. He’s a maniac. Why didn’t you say something?”

Sophie felt the hairs on the back of her neck bristle. “I tried my best.”

“Your best?” The blond man shook his head vigorously. “Clearly your best isn’t good enough because people die in accidents. Make things happen. Don’t just try to do something.”

“Thanks, Daddio, for the tip. I’ll keep that in mind going for my next promotion.” Sophie felt her lips freeze into a tight smile. Who did this guy think he was? She obviously hadn’t asked the taxi driver to be a maniac. Sophie clutched her handbag almost like a protective shield. Scowling, she ignored the glowering man and stepped toward the hotel entrance.

The man moved at the same time. His feet turned like a mirror image and they faced each other. Sophie stood riveted to the spot. His feet were positioned close to her shoes, the fronts were practically touching. He snorted and examined her patent high heels.

“Unbelievable.” He fixed his shirt which was half hanging out, tucking the fabric into his trousers.

Sophie gawped as he continued to dress, pulling a tie out of his pocket. “Excuse me, I’m trying to get past,” she snapped.

The blond man raised an eyebrow, and continued to fix the tie loosely around his neck. His mouth dropped open as if to speak. Sophie speculated to what his reply might be as he ogled her bulky handbag. She eyeballed him with an element of hostility. As she glared, she hugged her bag closer to her body which had an undesired effect, for now he was looking at her chest.

“Did you lose your clutch?” he needled. “You look like Mary Poppins with that trunk.”

Sophie lifted her chin. “Size does matter. Is that a sore point for you?” She hadn’t had time to locate her clutch, knowing it would be somewhere in one of her many boxes. Quite frankly, Sophie had no desire to explain her personal predicament to a stranger.

The man smirked. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” He raked a hand through his blond hair, as though he belonged in an aftershave commercial. “I’m sorry if I was insulting. I just hate accidents. Someone I know died in an accident, quite recently.”

Sophie’s face crumpled in sympathy. “I’m sorry to hear that.” She took her leave and launched left, and like two awkward dancing partners he moved with her. Again, they faced the other. She inadvertently inhaled his mint cologne.

She looked at him and sighed and glanced fleetingly at the hotel entrance, wondering who should move first. Neither shifted, both too polite, waiting for the other.

“This is stupid, now we’re both being polite,” Sophie said. “Look, I should really apologise about the taxi almost crashing into your car. I really did ask the driver to slow down, but he didn’t listen.”

The man half-grinned, making a dimple appear on his cheek. “It’s not your fault. Have a good evening.” He yanked at his tie, frustration clear from his contorted expression. “I hate these things.”

Sophie put her oversized bag into the man’s arms. He hunched as he bewilderedly held onto her handbag. With a puff of exasperation, Sophie leaned in. “Here, let me help you.” She expertly looped the ends of the tie as though she belonged in a clothing store. The man examined watched her fingers. Threading the tie round, she realised she’d crossed a boundary.

She froze. “I’m a creature of habit,” she mumbled, suddenly aware of her bold actions. “I used to do my dad’s tie when I was little. ‘Rabbit jumps into the hole’ and all that.”

“It’s fine. Continue,” he instructed. “First your taxi tries to kill me and then you look after me. Will I ever understand women?”

“I don’t have high hopes for you. That temper….”

“Really?” He chuckled. “Low hope or no hope?”

Sophie avoided his gaze and knotted the tie around his neck. “There you go. Done.” She grabbed her bag from him and turned away, not bothering with pleasant goodbyes. Warmth crept up the back of her neck as she felt his stare on her back.

A creature of habit? Did she really say that? What crazy inclination caused her to fasten his tie? Who did she think she was? A fool fawning over an over-indulged man with a Porsche? A rude man at that. Sophie must be more tired than she admitted.

She was pulling her fake fur wrap tightly round her shoulders when the distinct tone of her mobile phone sounded. It must be Matthew Silver. His timing was finally right.

Sophie began ascending the stone steps leading to the hotel’s grand entrance. Multitasking as she often did, she fished through her bag as she climbed. She seized the phone, the name screen reading Roger Smart. Her dad. Not Matthew Silver. Typical, he still hadn’t called. The phone stopped ringing.

Her foot caught a step and sliding like a novice acrobat, she thrust her arms out to steady herself. Her fur wrap and bag tumbled to the ground, and with a clattering commotion the contents spilled over the stairs.

“Damn,” she swore under her breath and stooped down. She snatched at the wrap and dusted the dirt off. She clocked the blond man, the owner of the Porsche, swiftly squatting beside to assist.

“If only I had that effect on all women.” His voice was low. “Falling at my feet and all.”

The cheek of him.

Sophie darted a glance in his direction. “You might increase your chances of women falling at your feet if you were… nice.”

His eyes widened. “Nice?” A mocking expression spread across his face. He started gathering her things. “I’m a concerned citizen and I’ve even come to your aid, haven’t I?”

“Not because you’re nice or well mannered. You feel obliged, not concerned.” For the first time she appraised his eyes. They were large…the kind she could lose herself in. She tore her gaze away. Whatever was she getting into, studying this man? Besides, she had somewhere to be.

“I’m letting you off the hook from any obligation here. It’s cool – really. I don’t need help. I’m not the type of girl who always needs help. I’m a competent kind of girl.” Sophie looked anywhere but at him. She focused instead on the ground, grabbing two – three – four chocolate wrappers, and shoving them back where they came from.

“I’m making an extra effort to be nice and well mannered. You might even consider me charming? What do you think about that? Is that okay?” he questioned pointedly as he handed her a bottle of nail polish, his eyes twinkling playfully. God he was irritating.

“I’m okay, thank you,” she muttered. “I can get everything, like I said. I don’t need help.”

“Everyone needs a hand sometimes.” He remained stubbornly crouched next to her. His hands reached, picking up her personal possessions. A mischievous grin crossed his face. “You like chocolate? Yet so slim.”

“They’re for work.”

“Yeah, right. I know women can’t resist chocolate.”

Sophie glared. “You see these wrappers.” She shoved one in her handbag. “They’re all in the name of research for an advertising client.”

“Is that what you call it, ‘advertising research’?”

He was purposely teasing her. Yet she couldn’t help herself. “It’s true,” she said. Sophie saw a fifth chocolate wrapper and held the foil up to him. “This is precisely why you don’t understand women.”

“I’m trying hard.”

“I recently heard something memorable. I’ll quote from a concerned citizen. ‘Make things happen. Don’t just try to do something’.” She repeated his words right back to him.

He chuckled. “Can’t argue with that,” he nodded and handed over her hairbrush, which looked like it had combed a horse’s mane. Her makeup bag. Her perfume. Her synthetic purple wallet, with surf patterns and a Velcro pocket.

He turned the wallet around in his hands and frowned. “A surf wallet?” Sophie almost shuddered, hearing the word “surf”. She couldn’t stand the water, the very thought of it scared her.

He touched the canvas almost tenderly. “I picked you as someone who liked chocolate, fast cars and adventure. I would have expected hand-stitched leather.”

“I do like leather.”

He clutched the wallet. “Then why do you have this?”

“A gift from my niece, Annie,” she explained.

“So you like the beach and swimming? Is that why she bought it for you?”

“I’m not sure why she bought it. She’s twelve and it was a sweet gift.” Sophie tried to yank the wallet from his grip. Bizarrely, it was a moment before he let go. Giving him a sidelong glance, she wondered if he was flirting with her as she finally placed the wallet in her bag.

He held up her apartment keys with the mini tennis ball on the keychain next. “Makes sense,” he said with a smile. His fingers remained hooked around her keys. He was obviously toying with her because once more she had to pry her keys from his fingers, momentarily brushing his fingertips as she did so.

He passed her a colourful cardboard box. A tampon packet. Sophie took the box from him. Her neck felt hot. She wished the company spent more time making the box discreet rather than making such bold packaging. Yet the way the man frowned, as if he was contemplating something else entirely, not even noticing the box, nor what it contained. Thank God.

His whole expression changed and softened. There were tiny creases around his eyes. He shifted as he noticed her surveying him. “I have a proposition,” he volunteered, and a blush touched his cheeks. She was surprised to detect a bead of sweat on his forehead, his whole demeanor transformed. For some reason he wouldn’t quite meet her eye.

“Oh?” Sophie braced herself. “A proposition?” She couldn’t shake her initial impression of him stalking after the taxi. But the change in his behavior reminded her of something else, like he was about to ask a girl out.

Her skin prickled. Surely not. Flirting was one thing but he wasn’t going to ask her out. No man lusts after a klutz.

She pretended to take stock of the contents of her handbag and rearranged items inside. A thrilling sensation soared through her. What if he was going to ask her out? She would refuse. He had made an effort after their confrontation over the taxi by helping her out and if she admitted it, he was charming. But she was still in love with Derek. And there was no doubt that she and Derek would overcome this current hiccup. It was a mere bump in the road.

Sophie waited for the man to speak. He inhaled and stared deeply into her eyes. He scanned her face, searching for something. He wore hope on his face. Her heart twisted in her chest. Oh God. Please don’t ask me out. Not now.

She fumbled with the strap on her bag and contemplated escaping up the stairs, avoiding the inevitable awkwardness. She’d been there before. These situations were particularly tricky. Maybe if she was single for a few years, then maybe she might be interested. Sophie mentally rehearsed the words to say.

He seemed to flounder for a choice of words. “I want to buy your wallet.”

Sophie blanked her face. Her notion of rejecting him was obviously quite off the mark. “What?” Her mind whirled with questions. Was it the tie? Had she gone too far with the tie?

His expression appeared serious. “I want to buy your wallet,” he repeated.

Her cheeks reddened. How could she have ever thought he’d ask her out on a date? Derek dumped her after living together, and Derek really knew her. Like really knew her. Her flaws. Everything.

He scrutinised her intently. She felt flustered and confused by his attention. God she was a dope. “I wouldn’t have anywhere to put my money.” She realised she was pondering the inane request.

“Okay,” he considered her response and his brow furrowed. “How about a trade? My leather wallet for your surf wallet? I’ll also give you a hundred pounds. What do you think?”

Sophie’s thoughts weren’t quite rational because, quite frankly, she didn’t understand, didn’t know how to react. “Gosh, what an interesting offer.” Then clarity slapped her in the face. “Too strange for me, I’m afraid.” She stood up with her bag.

“A hundred quid and a wallet swap. It’s an excellent offer. Come on, live on the edge. Stranger things have happened.” He proceeded to empty the contents of his black leather wallet. He jammed his personal items into his trouser pockets. Sophie half expected to witness the removal of a condom from the inner pocket. There wasn’t one. So he was in a relationship. The flirt!

He held the wallet up and fanned out the compartments, proving each to be empty. He proffered a hundred pounds in cash. “Surely your niece wouldn’t mind? Even a twelve year-old knows the value of a hundred pounds.” After pushing the money inside, he relinquished his wallet and thrust it at her.

Perplexed, Sophie turned the leather over. She focused her attention on the quality and craftsmanship. The wallet was expensive, she could tell. Her mind worked in overdrive, deliberating his strange proposal. What if he called the police, and said she had stolen from him? He was well dressed, in a tuxedo, and had arrived in a Porsche. She didn’t stand a chance. Still with a hundred pounds, she’d be on her way to purchasing a designer handbag.

A voice of caution sounded loudly in her mind. If he really wanted a surf wallet, surely he could buy one? He obviously had the money.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” he insisted. “Take a chance on me. I took a chance on you.” He touched the tie around his neck.

Sophie’s head darted around the hotel driveway. There were probably security cameras monitoring their every activity. There would be camera footage if anything went wrong. “We’re strangers.”

“We’re not really strangers,” he asserted. “After all, I know everything you’ve got in your Mary Poppins bag.”

Sophie finally returned the leather wallet. She didn’t take the money. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Seeing his expression, a burst of sympathy shook her body. Maybe she should just do it? He looked relatively sane and normal. But he could be a thief, a criminal, and she’d end up in handcuffs because the wallet was a piece of evidence from a crime scene. Or something….

“I’ve got to go,” she said. Bag in hand, contents roughly where they should be, she turned and sprinted up the last dozen steps. Of course her coordination was perfectly fine now. She felt him observing her as she rushed away.

“You could make a man very happy, just by doing a simple, profitable trade.”

“Not going to happen.” She reached the hotel entrance and hurled a glance over her shoulder. He shrugged, now appearing amused by the whole incident. He’d recovered from his nutty ideas. He once again displayed the confidence she’d first seen.

“Maybe I’ll see you around,” he called.

“I doubt it.”

He smiled slowly and their eyes connected, but only briefly as she rushed inside the grand hotel.

Following the cardboard arrows to the London Annual Advertising Awards she raced through the corridors, trying to forget the stranger. Strange. Quirky. Unforgettable.

The arrows led her to the hotel ballroom. A familiar tune could be heard from inside. A small table was set up outside and an assistant sat behind tapping her long, manicured fingernails.

“I’m Sophie Smart.”

The assistant pointedly examined her watch. “Smart, Smart, Smart.” Her nail ran down the register. The assistant nodded and finally gave Sophie a nametag. “Table 94.”

“Thanks,” Sophie nodded. “Do you know if Matthew Silver has arrived?”

The assistant scanned the guest list for the second time. Sophie noticed Matthew Silver’s name tag on the table. “It’s okay,” Sophie interjected, “his badge is still here. I guess he’s later than I am.”

She entered the ballroom, instantly recognising a potential client, Tom Johnson from Barney’s Chocolate Bars. Sophie definitely had plenty to discuss with him. All those chocolate wrappers in her bag were there for a reason. She planned to convince Tom Johnson that she was his ultimate advertising consultant.

Sophie inhaled deeply and dived in headfirst. She could do this.

Matthew Silver did not turn up to the gala.

 

***

 

After the London Annual Advertising Awards, Sophie subconsciously jumped in a taxi.

The car stopped outside the apartment, and the taxi driver quoted an exorbitant fare. He’d been a friendly cabbie and, without meaning to, Sophie had shared the difficulties of the past few days. Yet now she rubbed her ears, hoping she’d misheard, maybe he’d misquoted. The taxi parked in the lonely London street. The fare was all the cash she was carrying.

“You’ve got it right I’m afraid.” The cabbie winked, leaning forward. “You have a good night now.”

Sophie stumbled out of the car, dashed up the steps to the front door. But for some reason the key refused to fit the lock. The key Carol had given her was definitely the right one.

The tennis ball swung on her keychain. Realisation hit like a lightning bolt. Sophie was standing outside Derek’s place. She had no cash for another taxi, but despite the situation, there was no way she could ring the doorbell. She fled down the stairs and away from the flat that not so long ago had been her home.

Desperately looking for cash, Sophie turned out the contents of her Velcro wallet. Nothing. No money. That crazy offer of a hundred pounds was certainly sounding attractive now.

She swallowed. She needed to get to her new flat. The only option left was to catch the night bus. The journey would take hours.

In heels and a tiny black dress, alone and with no other solution in sight, Sophie began to walk.

At least it wasn’t raining.

 

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

Waking up exhausted but suddenly hopeful, Sophie instantly checked her messages, feeling slightly pathetic as she scrutinised her mobile. Her heart ached. There was still nothing from Derek.

There was, however, a text from her dad. “Please call me.” Much to Sophie’s envy, her dad would be blissfully asleep; it was too early to buzz him back.

There were no missed calls or texts from Matthew Silver.

Stifling thoughts of Derek, she focused on Matthew Silver’s absence from the gala. She couldn’t fathom his last minute acceptance and then his no show.

As she rolled out of bed, Sophie wondered how to express her annoyance in a satisfying and professional manner. The hour was too early for her to rush to Clarks and arrange a meeting, and emails were often misconstrued.

An idea germinated. It was primetime for sporty types to take a dip in the pool. Sophie’s new home was situated in Highbury, a stone’s throw from Highbury Fields, which was strolling distance to Matthew’s swimming centre.

It was highly likely that Matthew, owner of a swimming chain, would be the type to swim laps before work. Besides, it wasn’t as if he would be curled up in bed, hungover after too many drinks at the gala.

It was an excellent idea. This morning they would meet, and she would finally put a face to the name Matthew Silver.

 

***

 

Sophie marched to the Highbury Aquatic Centre. However, when she arrived she froze as she realised what she was doing. Entering a swimming centre was an inconceivable idea for Sophie. She blamed this ludicrous decision on lack of sleep and breakup stress. Damn Derek.

Her insides were turning over. Her stomach churned. Sophie detested swimming pools or any body of water larger than a hot tub. Despite this somehow she’d convinced herself to visit the swimming centre. That was stupid.

Inhaling and clasping her handbag as she gazed at the rectangular timber and glass building, she reminded herself why she was in the very place she wanted to bolt from. She had come to the Highbury Aquatic Centre for the sole purpose of meeting Matthew Silver. He might not even be there, but since she’d turned up, she’d endeavour to introduce herself. There was absolutely no requirement to make acquaintance and pump his palm while standing next to the pool. She could keep her distance from the water.

Taking a deep breath, Sophie strode inside. Scanning the room she noticed a girl manning the reception counter, poring over a notebook. She placed the girl in her mid-twenties. She was a looker. The girl must be Eve, the girl helping Matthew until he found an appropriate personal assistant. Eve was often the recipient of Sophie’s persistent calls. Now she’d arrived at his work, uninvited, like some type of interloper.

“Hi there,” Sophie volunteered. “I’m here to see Matthew Silver.”

The girl glanced up from where she was leaning over the reception bench. “Really?” She frowned and studied the clock hanging on the wall behind her. “Matthew isn’t scheduled to show for another thirty minutes. What’s your name?”

“Sophie. Sophie Smart.”

The girl’s eyebrows flew to the top of her head. “Hello,” the girl said, recognition in her voice, although they had never physically met. “I’m Eve.”

“Eve,” Sophie answered brightly, analysing her face. Eve’s hair was pulled into a knot on the top of her head. Her hair was ebony, black as night. Eve. Evening. Sophie’s mind whirred, combining a picture of Eve with her charcoal hair, stars shimmering in the evening sky. Forming her mental picture, she’d be able to retrieve Eve’s name. Eve. Eve. Eve. She used imagery to form a memory. She locked the picture in her mind.

“Eve,” Sophie repeated the name. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person. I’m not sure if you recognise my name but we’ve spoken over the phone.”

“So, did Matthew schedule a meeting?” Eve queried, carefully. “Or have you turned up of your own accord? He’s a busy man.”

Sophie folded her arms, lowered her eyelashes and summoned all her methods of persuasion. Start with a smile. Think of a story. Draw her in. Get her on side. The girl was young, what would she relate to?

“Eve, have you ever been stood up?”

“Yes.” Eve’s face flushed.

Sophie visibly sighed. “It feels awful doesn’t it?” She swallowed. “Especially when the other guests keep looking at the empty seat next to you – it’s rather embarrassing. That’s what happened last night. I understand Matthew is busy, but my boss is blaming me for not delivering. I’m desperate to talk with him. Otherwise, I’m afraid I might be fired. They think I’m not being persistent enough.”

Eve chuckled. “That’s definitely not true is it?” Her brow furrowed. “There must be some mistake. Matthew’s not like that. At least he didn’t used to be.”

“I’m sure he has a superb reason. We were scheduled to meet at the gala last night. He didn’t bother to notify me that he wasn’t attending. I left a number of messages.”

“It sounds strange.” Eve chewed her lip. “As a matter of fact I saw him leave the centre in a tuxedo. He leapt in his car and drove away.” Eve was a loyal employee, not about to bag her boss.

“Eve, I’m finding my professional relationship with Matthew hard to establish. He’s completely disengaged.”

“He’s really fragile lately.”

“That doesn’t mean he should disrespect my time.”

“I probably shouldn’t say this but he almost fell off the rails. That’s why he had an eighteen-month sabbatical.”

“Oh?” Sophie leaned over the bench. Drugs? Alcohol? “Is he alright now?”

Eve shrugged. “He’s better, pulling himself together. Do you want to wait?”

Sophie peered round the reception. “I guess I don’t have much choice. I can stay until eight-thirty.”

“I’m terribly sorry about what happened. How much do you know about the pool chain?”

“A bit.”

“I’m helping Matthew out temporarily as his personal assistant, but I’m actually the resident swimming coach here. I’m happy to help explain anything or answer questions.”

“Okay. Sounds great.”

Eve clasped her hands together. “I have an idea. Do you like swimming? I can give you a pool tour.”

Sophie grinned. Eve was the right person for the job; cooperative, available and friendly. She was obviously striving to remedy the strained situation with Matthew. There was one slight problem.

“I’m not really good with water. I don’t want to go much closer.” She released a breath. “But I’m keen to hear more about the coaching here. More information could be useful for the campaign.”

“Well, I’m the primary instructor in this centre. Matthew also coached when he was younger. I’m positive he’d rather teach than run a corporation. Before his sabbatical, when his father ran the empire, Matthew instructed when he probably should have been attending to other parts of the business. The fact is, he loves the water. Matthew was even a serious racer before everything happened. Then he kind of changed. It’s so sad….” Eve’s voice trailed off and her gaze dropped to the counter. She shifted papers. “He doesn’t swim much anymore.”

“I see….” Sophie’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t know he raced.”

“He doesn’t publicise it.” Eve waved her hand. “For a period after the accident, you’d be lucky to see him walk through those doors.” She gestured to the turnstiles which presumably led to the pool.

“Accident?”

Eve leaned conspiratorially over the counter. “Being his consultant I presume you’ve heard about the accident and Matthew vanishing afterward? He simply stopped working and withdrew from his duties. Of course everyone understood. But with his dad getting older and then becoming sick, Matthew had to come back. He really let go of the reigns for far too long. Now the hotel chain is in serious financial trouble and his dad’s too ill to help out. So lately Matthew’s constantly shooting off to Brighton to sort things out.”

“I can see why he’s so busy at Brighton. He mustn’t have time anymore to swim. He must miss it.”

“He’s consumed with the hotel chain. It was probably more to do with Rebecca.”

“Rebecca?” Sophie probed, encouraging elaboration.

“Come and look.” Eve skirted the reception desk, beckoning Sophie to a large, glass trophy cabinet. “These medals are all Matthew’s. He was pretty good. Really good. In fact, people were talking about the Olympics.”

As Sophie inspected the medals Eve gave her a sidelong glance. “You know, Sophie,” Eve started. “I’m qualified to assist people who have a fear. If you just had one lesson with me we could sort some issues out.”

Sophie shot her a look and hunched. “Am I that transparent?”

“I noticed you standing outside the front door for an eternity. I could book you in for a lesson.”

“Ah…nope. No, not really my thing. I just couldn’t get into the water.” Her voice trilled. “No chance of getting me even close to the edge. No way. No thank you.”

“Really?” A shocked voice echoed round the reception room. “Why not?”

Sophie spun round. Her hand flew to her chest. She gasped in shock as she recognised the man standing in reception. Astonished, she blinked, perhaps this was a hallucination. But regarding the tall frame, the slim physique and the blonde hair, there was no mistake. This newcomer was the same person from last night, the Porsche owner.

“What on earth are you doing here?” she stammered. “This is quite a coincidence.”

“I could ask you the same question.” His blue eyes danced. “I thought you adored water, being an avid surf lover and all. If I knew you better, I’d even think you owned a surf wallet. Velcro perhaps?”

Sophie’s heart beat wildly in her chest. “I never actually said I liked the surf. My niece thought I might like the purse.” Sophie darted a bewildered glance at Eve.

“You’ve met.” Eve stalked behind the counter and sighed.

Clarity shot through Sophie’s mind like a bullet train. This man, with the flaring temper and the outrageous propositions was the elusive Matthew Silver.

She struggled to lift her jaw as Eve frowned at Sophie. “You conned me into believing he stood you up,” Eve remarked.

“He did stand me up.” Sophie slanted her eyes toward the man. She diverted her gaze from hovering on the t-shirt, which clung to his athletic frame. His muscular shoulders and arms were now exposed without his tuxedo jacket. “You didn’t come to the gala,” Sophie insisted.

“Ah.” He waggled his finger. “But I did. You saw me there. You even fixed my tie.”

“But….” she stammered.

He extended his hand. “I tried to tell you we weren’t strangers,” he remarked. “I’m pleased to meet you, Sophie Smart.”

She stared at his face. “Matthew Silver.” She didn’t need a memory game to recall his name. Oh no. Last night’s events were stamped into her mind.

Nearby, Eve rolled her eyes and busied herself with some papers.

Sophie glared. “Was it all a game to you? Going all the way to the hotel, running into me and not bothering to introduce yourself?” She placed one hand on her hip and tapped her foot.

“I’m surprised you haven’t looked me up on the internet?”

“Do you want to be my Facebook friend?”

“You should recognise your most important client.” His lip twitched, only slightly, but she saw the tremor. “Miss Smart, I recognised you.”

“I don’t think you did, or you would have said something,” she challenged. “If we became Facebook friends I could check out your profile pictures and develop a deep connection. I could also keep up with your movements by reading your status updates. Then I’d be fully aware if you were leaving me in the lurch.”

“I did meet you outside the hotel and I’ve gotten to know you quite well, don’t you think? After all, I can list the entire contents of your Mary Poppins bag.”

Sophie reddened and inspected her handbag. “It’s my favourite.” Her gaze settled on his.

“The colour matches your shoes perfectly,” he mocked. “There are a few steps around. Do be careful you don’t trip. There’s a step back there, and another one over there.”

Sophie crossed her arms. “Do you realise that it took half a day of manically phoning around to get your gala ticket, especially since you accepted my invitation so late? If you’d changed your mind, you should have said. I have other clients who were dying to go with me.”

“Dying, were they?” His voice was sugary.

“Yes.” She realised he was almost laughing. “You’re enjoying this.”

He widened his eyes in innocence. “Only in the same way that I look forward to your annoying daily messages.”

“Annoying?” she barked. “I’d call my attitude proactive.”

“I meant friendly. Now that you’ve found the centre, maybe we should have a daily meeting instead? You and me, here, at the pool.”

A strong urge soared through her to cuff him behind the ears. “We had a scheduled meeting last night. I moved house right beforehand. You should have called.”

“You make it sound like we’re married.” Matthew grinned, not looking even slightly shamefaced.

“Is that all you’re going to say?” Sophie wiped her forehead in frustration. She inhaled deeply in an attempt to find her sense of calm.

“Something came up.”

She forced a smile. “I’m not happy.” Her lips were tense and tight. Think sales, think winner.

“It won’t happen again. I am really truly sorry for not being more reliable.”

“An apology, at last.” She started slow, keeping her voice even. “It would make me happier still if we could discuss ideas for your campaign so we can start on your project.”

Dimples emerged on each of his cheeks. “Okay, well, I want to make you happy so I think we can do that.”

She eyed him carefully, wondering whether she’d heard right. Matthew Silver had cooperated, with her. This must be some kind of breakthrough. “Great,” she said.

“Ready?” He grinned. Matthew led Sophie away from the counter and gestured expansively. “Here goes. Welcome to the centre. As you know, this is the flagship pool for the swimming chain, and our head office. I hope you’ll enjoy being here. Is there a swimsuit in your Mary Poppins bag by any chance, Sophie?”

“Um…no.” Why on earth would she bring a swimsuit to a business meeting? “I’m here to talk about your campaign, to complete the Ideas Generation Stage.”

Matthew rubbed his chin. “My first idea is for you to get a pool membership.”

“That’s not necessary.”

“That way, we can see much more of each other and talk about the campaign. Eve, can you possibly create a complimentary membership for Sophie?”

Eve glanced up from the reception counter and a curious expression crossed her face. “Sure, Matthew, I’ll make one up now,” she responded.

Sophie wrung her hands. “Matthew, thanks,” she started, frantically searching her mind for the right phraseology. “I won’t need a membership. I’m here to discuss ideas. Strictly ideas. I won’t be swimming.”

“But this is what the advertising campaign is all about. Did you know our membership doubled after your last campaign, ‘Swimming is for Living’?”

“Fantastic,” she said. “Let’s double memberships again. This time we’ll need a fresh, new campaign.”

“Should we do something with surfing or the beach?”

Sophie narrowed her eyes, was this about the surf wallet? “If you would like to. I can definitely sit with my team and whip up a campaign with a beach theme.”

“Maybe something with a beach, though of course we’ll need to show the pool, after all we are selling the idea of swimming at the pool chain. Have you been here before? If not, I’ll give you the pool tour.”

“It’s okay, I’m fine,” Sophie dissembled. “We’re doing really well discussing the project right here. Let’s just continue this back and forth.”

“I insist. We can continue while I show you the pool.” Matthew beckoned her to the turnstile.

Sophie ambled to the gate and froze. Panic crawled up her spine and sweat formed on her brow. She was losing control of the situation, losing control of the client. “I’m not sure this is absolutely necessary,” she said.

She was yet to push the turnstile and Matthew’s forehead creased as he observed her. He reached for her bag. “Let me take that for you. Eve can watch it while she prepares your membership.”

There was almost a tug-of-war moment between the pair. The strap crushed between her fingers as she gripped the bag like a safety blanket. Matthew awkwardly released her bag, Sophie’s fingers refused to uncoil.

“I’ve got it. It’s okay,” Sophie said. Her voice was shrill from her position at the turnstile; the pool was now in view. Eerie splashing sounds tinkered in her ears. She jumped as she heard a whistle blow.

Sophie closed her eyes momentarily, blocking the sight of a handsome lifeguard. Think of the lifeguard’s six-pack. “I can do this,” Sophie whispered. She accelerated through the turnstile, heading for the large glass doors that led to the pool area.

Sophie ignored the sight of rippling water. Instead she focused on Matthew’s tapering back, seeking security in the reassuring flex of his muscles. Her legs wobbled as she trudged. If she fell in, she could at least look forward to a dreamy rescue. No. No. She wasn’t getting close enough for that to happen. Not an option. Chlorine assaulted her nostrils, and she wrinkled her nose, stopping only a few strides from the turnstile.

She scanned the area wildly. The dreaded pool had eight enormous lanes already trafficked with swimmers churning the water. People of all shapes and sizes swam back and forth. Sophie assessed the large concrete perimeter surrounding the pool. She was far enough from the water – just.

“Nice place,” she called to Matthew who was standing at least ten paces ahead. Sophie lingered in her position of safety.

Eventually Matthew turned back and strode to join her. She looked up and away from his gaze, squinting as sunlight streamed inside. The roof was constructed from glass panels, peaking into an apex to create an impressive vaulted canopy over the entire building.

Matthew followed her gaze. “The pool is heated. We use a heat pump and up there you’ll see solar panels are installed to assist energy consumption. They help us be more energy conscious….” He gestured around. “We’re really proud of the Highbury Aquatic Centre. As you know, the swimming chain is the least profitable part of the Silver group. But this centre in Highbury has an important function in the community, teaching children and adults how to swim.” Matthew indicated the kids diving into the water from starting blocks.

Her heart thumped as she watched. She shuddered with terror yet she couldn’t look away. “Great,” Sophie replied, mustering effort to sound enthusiastic.

“The pool’s fifty metres long and the water is deepest at the other side. You and I are now near the shallow end. Can you swim?” Matthew scrutinised her, waiting for a reaction.

Sophie’s chest constricted. “It’s not important, is it?” She floundered for the appropriate answer.

“Can you swim?” He reiterated his query.

Sophie expelled a large breath. “I splash,” she admitted.

Matthew folded his arms. “At no stage when you’ve been on my advertising account did you mention you couldn’t swim. I don’t usually miss a trick, especially one like that.”

“I guess you were abroad for eighteen months so we haven’t had too many opportunities to talk.” Sophie talked rapidly now, barely pausing for a beat. “I reveal campaign strategies for your business, not my personal life experiences – my life is absolutely irrelevant to generating sales. So the question of whether I swim or like the water never really came up. Besides, I like the water. I just don’t like being in it; there’s a subtle difference.”

“What do you like about the water?”

“I like pictures and photographs. The sound of a flowing waterfall is relaxing. It’s mesmerising to hear waves crashing on the beach. My concern is more related to choking in the water.” Sophie drew a shaky breath. “Even a bathtub, in my mind, is enough to drown in.”

Matthew shook his head. “What do you do in hot weather?” His blue eyes twinkled.

“A shower’s perfectly acceptable – or a sprinkler sometimes helps me cool down.”

Matthew ran his hand through his hair, his dimpled smile fading. “Your last campaign was so good. Your conviction about the campaign, so believable….”

“I believed in the campaign.”

“I see,” he sighed. “Tell me again, what’s the motto you came up with?”

She stared at him. He knew the motto by heart. They both did. “‘Swimming is for Living’,” Sophie said slowly.

“It doesn’t seem like you really believe that? Not truly.”

“I do. I genuinely believe people should learn how to swim, at the very least so they don’t drown. That’s the campaign that worked to sell to your target market.”

Matthew raised his finger, making a point. “Yet, since that campaign you haven’t started learning. So it wasn’t really effective. A zero percent success rate with someone who supposedly believes people should learn how to swim.”

Sophie felt a surge of panic. Was he backing her into a corner? “I personally don’t fit into the same category as the average person. I can’t learn, you see. I’ve got a phobia. I have different circumstances from most ordinary people,” she said, speaking quickly to smooth the conversation.

“Well knowing how to swim is a pretty important professional requirement for me, considering what happened eighteen months ago.” Matthew’s attitude jolted. His voice was now harsh.

Sophie bit her lip. “What happened eighteen months ago?”

He paused. “How old are you?” He didn’t answer the question, she noted.

“Does it matter…? How old are you?”

“Twenty-eight. Now you?” Matthew persisted.

Sophie blew out a breath. “Twenty-five.”

“When’s your birthday?”

“Next June.”

“So that’s our goal.” His voice was soft but filled with conviction. “You’ll master swimming before you turn twenty six.”

“Our goal?” Sophie squeaked. “Matthew, I don’t have the time to fit in swimming lessons. I can’t do it.”

“You can’t, or won’t?”

Sophie folded her arms and constructed her next argument. “I’m very good at my job. Swimming is absolutely no reflection on my ability.”

“You must have suffered from some kind of trauma to be so afraid of water….”

She gulped and looked at the ground, Eve had guessed she had a fear of water and now Matthew Silver was right on the money. Sophie cursed herself for being so transparent. “I had an accident when I was young. I drowned. I was down so long I actually died. Fortunately, I was resuscitated and there was no brain damage. I’m lucky to be alive.” Regret formed in the pit of her stomach. What moment of madness had possessed her to visit the swimming centre?

“I see.”

“How long have you known how to swim?”

“I can’t remember not swimming. I love everything about swimming and the feel of the water against my skin. It’s like I was born the wrong animal.”

“So, you’re a natural. You’ve never had any kind of trauma or fear. You also said your favorite animal is a dolphin.” Sophie smiled. “Well my favorite animal is a lion. A lioness, if I’m going to get gender-specific.”

“Man eater.”

“Possibly,” she managed a smile. Her fear was absolutely real. People did have true phobias. Fear of spiders. Arachnophobia. Fear of small spaces. Claustrophobia. Fear of being tickled by feathers. Pteronophobia. Seriously, there were people out there scared of being tickled by feathers, yet Matthew and the rest of the swimming community thought she had problems? People became scared of all sorts of things. Drowning and choking to death in water was a real fear, her phobia.

“Sophie. You’re good at what you do, it’s obvious. To answer your earlier question about what happened eighteen months ago… Well, someone I loved died in the water. I lost that person forever. It completely changed my life.”

Sophie bit her lip, uncertain of what to say. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Eve mentioned a girl called Rebecca. It must have been Rebecca who drowned.

“Now that I know you can’t swim, I would feel responsible if anything happened to you. The risk is to your life. I want you to consider learning. I have a proposition.”

She internally groaned. “No more wacky propositions,” she begged.

“This is hardly off the wall. I’m offering to personally teach you. I’ve had trauma clients before. I take things slowly. We would brave your fear together so you can live a long and happy life.”

“I don’t know….”

“I’ll do it for free. You’d get something out of it. A lifelong skill.”

Sophie was usually a persistent girl, ready to learn about anything. She would generally learn anything new if she needed to. But in the world of traumas, there were two specific phobias which applied to her specific situation. Fear of drowning: aquaphobia. Fear of water (and rabies apparently): hydrophobia.

“I don’t know if I can…. ” Sophie realised she was gnawing at her fingernails. Stalling, she articulated another legitimate concern. “I don’t own a swimsuit.” She didn’t explain her fear of parading a white body in the pool. Exposed flabophobia.

Matthew released a low chuckle. “Women!” He raised an eyebrow.

Buying a swimsuit was another nightmare. Her worst kind of shopping experience. “This sounds ridiculous – me in the pool with you. You’re my client. It’s completely unprofessional.”

“We’ll keep it professional. You’ll be my client in the pool, and I’ll be your client out of the pool.

“I’ve already thought about it.”

“It’s your choice, but think about it further,” he insisted. Oh God, but did she really have a choice? “As a start, you can just get in and we’ll take it from there.”

“We’ll see,” Sophie said, shuddering at the thought.

“I’ll get Eve to call you, or I’ll call you and we can discuss this more later,” he said, very gently. “I think it would be a good idea for our professional relationship.”

Did he realise what he was expecting of her? He wanted her to spend her evenings with him, half clothed, scared, and wet.

She wouldn’t, couldn’t do it.

Chapter 4

 

The memory was crystal clear. She gasped in terror as it flashed through her mind. A young, five year old Sophie fell from the edge of her uncle’s pool. Her legs circled the air as though she rode a bicycle. The sensation of her toes, hitting and shooting through the water was unfamiliar. She sank heavily like a stone. Down. Down. Down. With horrifying speed the water trapped her as though she were stuck in quick sand.

Her body was swallowed, like being pulled into the mouth of some horrible gigantic creature. She struggled and clawed at the transparent water prison. She longed to escape and rise to the surface.

Try as she might, she couldn’t climb. When she opened her mouth to scream, her throat formed a funnel. The water flowed in fast waves, filling her lungs and flooding her chest. Her nose hurt, the feeling like choking on the bubbles of a fizzy drink. Water sloshed in her ears and panic screamed through her body. Her eyes felt like they were popping out of their sockets. She needed air. The pain was hard and intense. The need became urgent. Air. Glorious air. All she could think about was her inability to breathe.

She felt herself fade and the world blacked out. She was drowning… no, she was dying. Too young to know she was dying, but certainly dying.

She died for three minutes.

Her uncle saw her in the pool and hauled her out. He clumsily resuscitated her and she was taken to hospital. Her body healed, but the memory stayed, etched so deeply into the back of her brain that she never got into the water again.

Now Sophie was in Oxford Street where shopping was war, looking for a Godforsaken swimsuit. She still hadn’t made up her mind, but it was better to be prepared. Clenching her fists, sticking her elbows out slightly for protection, she walked; the crowd bustled in both directions giving her no chance to stop. Sophie pushed into the thick of it, amongst those seriously committed to shopping, caught in a group snaking forward along the pavement. Sophie sidestepped, blindly moving off the Oxford Street pavement into the road. A deafening horn blasted and tyres screeched from a red, double-decker bus skidding as it avoided meandering pedestrians.

Beside her, Carol panted hard. Her hair was combed back into a perfect bun. Her makeup was flawless, with an eyeliner stroke extended to create the illusion of an extra eyelash. Her foundation covered a sprinkling of freckles, and blusher accentuated her cheekbones.

“Maybe we should call it quits?”

“No.” Sophie’s voice quavered, determined. Resolve and persistence kept her going. Learning how to swim could be her big opportunity to build stronger ties with the Silver Leisure Group. She just needed to get in.

“We’ve been to at least ten shops. I don’t think you’re going to find a swimsuit in October. You should have bought one in summer,” Carol stated.

“I need one now,” Sophie said firmly. “I’m not going to go to come away empty-handed.”

Carol put her hand on her hip, eyeing Sophie carefully. “Okay, the department stores must have a few in stock. Maybe we just haven’t looked hard enough. Selfridges is the biggest, we should go back there.”

“You’re right, let’s go back.” Sophie said. As they turned around, she touched Carol’s arm. “Thanks for coming with me. I know you have your call back audition later on.” Another dance company was interested in Carol.

“Happy to help. I’ve only got another hour before I need to go though. I need to go to the studio to warm up beforehand.”

“Are you ready for it?” Sophie asked, looking out onto the street, analysing the traffic. A red light shone at the intersection. Traffic came to a halt, signalling a perfect time to cross.

“Yeah, I’m ready, though they haven’t said anything about me dancing as a principal or even a soloist. But an audition is still an audition.” Carol followed Sophie.

The pair entered Selfridges, squinting from the bright lights. They weaved around the different perfume counters, rebuffing sales clerks. Carol stopped at a cosmetics counter, selected a tester sample and sprayed herself. The sweet smell of perfume mingled with the other scents in the huge hall. Sophie tugged Carol’s coat and urged her through the maze of accessories and up the escalators to the women’s department.

“You’ve only got one hour, and since you know the intricacies concerning lycra, I need you. We’ve got to focus.”

Carol nodded. “Okay. But honestly, do you think you’ll go through with the lessons?”

Sophie swallowed. “I really don’t want to, but I might have no choice,” she admitted.

“Didn’t your parents try and get you to learn when you were young?”

“By the time they’d organised a few private lessons, I was so terrified of water that I refused to get into the pool, did everything I could not to get in.”

“Your hotty instructor should help reduce your fears, Soph. You’ve got a one-track mind when you want something… like a swimsuit. You’ll do it, and you’ll be fine. ”

Out of the corner of her eye Sophie noticed a woman with wrinkled skin and orange fake tan, holding a glittering piece of lycra. A swimsuit. Sophie squealed in delight and ran over to the rack. The woman flattened a floral print one piece swimsuit against her body.

The rack was bursting with clearance summer items: sarongs, towels, and bikinis. Sophie eyed a bikini and picked it up. She touched the flimsy material and shuddered. She might as well wear her underwear in the pool. She would be practically naked in a bikini. But bikinis were fashionable, and Sophie liked to make an impact with clothing.

She looked down at her legs, hoping they were in proportion. Everyone would notice her knobbly knees. What a nightmare: Matthew Silver seeing her creamy white thighs that hadn’t seen light in years. She would probably blind people with the whiteness of her body. Embarrassing. No one she worked with got to see that.

“Now since you’re a dancer and you know everything about leotards and skimpy things. I need your help. I need to make my legs look longer.”

“It’s a swimming lesson not a hot bod contest. Maybe something practical, that you’ll feel comfortable in? Have you had a wax yet?”

Sophie felt her cheeks go hot as the other shopper’s head darted up and her eyes settled on both of them. “Of course.” No. Carol didn’t need to know about the state of her pubes that was for sure. Some things just didn’t need to be spoken about. Sophie mentally decided she’d better get a Brazilian. She didn’t need hair sticking out in the wrong places. She also needed to take care of herself, there was always the possibility of getting back together with Derek. He wouldn’t be overly excited if she looked like an orangutan down there.

“Should I get a spray tan, too? Would that help my wobbly bits look better?” she said, facing the rack of swimsuits. “Maybe something padded will look good?”

Carol scowled at Sophie. “Let’s just focus.” She pulled a red swimsuit from the rack and Sophie wrinkled her nose.

“It’s very red,” Sophie commented. Her eyes fell on a black number and she reached for it. “Now black is slimming.” Her fingers tightened on the garment to show it to Carol, but she felt a pull in the opposite direction.

Sophie’s eyes narrowed. The other woman held the bottom piece of the swimsuit. The woman tugged at the garment but Sophie’s grip tightened. “I’ve got this, and you’ve already got three pieces tucked under your arm,” Sophie said, trying to sound reasonable.

“I don’t have black,” the woman said through clenched teeth. “Besides, you’re too fat to wear a size eight.”

Sophie’s heart constricted at the words and her eyes narrowed. “I’m not fat. I’m a perfect size eight, a nice normal size.”

The woman let out a cackle as her eyes scanned Sophie’s frame haughtily. “Whatever you think.”

Sophie glowered. How the hell did this woman know what size she was? It wasn’t as if she did Sophie’s washing. Okay, so she was pushing size eight, more of a size ten, but that was Sophie’s decision. She believed that once you bought the larger size, you gave up, and Sophie did not give up.

“Let’s work this out rationally. Flip a coin or something, or we’ll tear it,” Sophie suggested, forcing a smile, trying to use words and charm to resolve the situation.

The woman shrugged. “Sure,” she said. Sophie’s eye darted at Carol and then back at the woman. She relaxed her grip. The fabric was suddenly yanked out of her fingertips. The woman snatched the swimsuit away.

“In your dreams darling,” the woman snarled, holding her prize. “I told you it was mine.” She dashed through the racks.

“Bitch,” Sophie breathed, desperately wanting to chase after the woman. A security guard watched the scene. Sophie threw her hands up in the air, hating the feeling of being taken. Carol reached over and rubbed Sophie’s shoulder.

“Did you see that?” Sophie gasped.

“Remember, you’re the more mature person. Whatever we get today, we can get you something else online. Remember, you’re just getting something for your first lesson and not for eternity.”

“I can’t believe that just happened.”

“This one’s all they have in a one piece that will fit you. And Sophie? For the record, you look like a size eight to me.” Carol smiled and lifted up the swimsuit.

Sophie eyes smarted. “It’s not black. It’s bright, bloody red. I’m going to look foolish enough in the pool without anyone looking at colour.”

“Keep your chin up.”

“I’d rather keep my fists up. What law says I can’t get into shopping wars?”

“It’s a temporary solution,” Carol continued.

Sophie snatched the swimsuit from Carol. “Okay, fine. This will do.” She stopped with a gasp as she saw someone familiar.

“Sophie?” Carol responded.

Sophie felt the colour drain from her face. Her mind whirred. She manoeuvred through the racks, weaving through them to get closer. The man appeared to be the same height and have the same slim build. He stepped onto the escalators, descending down to the next level. She could only see his back, his dark hair – looking like none other than Derek.

She took a deep breath and ran a hand through her hair. They hadn’t spoken since she’d moved out.

Sophie headed trance-like to the escalator, her feet jumping on. She stood five people behind the black haired head and tried to compose her thoughts as the escalator descended. She opened and closed her mouth, then firmly shut it. She didn’t dare call out.

“Sophie,” Carol hissed from the escalator step behind her.

Sophie pointed to the man walking off the bottom and disappearing into the perfume section. By the time she’d reached the ground floor, Derek stood at a perfume counter.

“Derek’s here,” Sophie whispered. “Should I say hi…or should I pretend to run into him? I haven’t seen him since we broke up – which, to be honest, was only a few days ago.”

Carol took the swimsuit from Sophie. “Go on…you don’t want to look like a stalker though.”

“If I run into him, I won’t have to call him. I can just talk to him. See what happens, see if he misses me.” See if he wants me back.

Derek spoke to the assistant and Sophie lingered on the spot, wondering what her next move should be. “It’s the Chanel counter,” Sophie murmured. A hand came up to her chest, a smile to her lips. Holy hell. She loved Chanel. Her favourite. This was good news. The best news she’d had all week. Chanel was the first perfume that Derek ever gave her

“He looks good,” Carol said.

He was cute, with his taut jaw line, perfect nose, and inquiring eyes. Derek paid for the perfume and slipped the package into his suit pocket. Sophie hovered by the makeup counter, picking up a lip gloss, gazing at him. Should she just let him give her the Chanel, pretend she didn’t know he wanted to get back together? Or should she face the music and see him? The sooner she got back together with him, the better, she supposed.

“Go on, speak to him,” Carol urged.

Sophie brushed down her skirt and lifted her head high. “Wish me luck.”

As she approached she saw a broad smile spread across his face, the one where his lips twitched and moved into a perfect smile. She swallowed, lowering her lashes, not wanting to get lost looking into his handsome face, his coal-dark eyes. Her chest tightened, constricted, and she felt like she couldn’t breathe. She lifted her lashes and took a step forward.

“Derek,” Sophie called.

He looked up, his eyes growing wide like a deer caught in the headlights when he saw her. He froze. “What are you doing here?” he barked.

“Just shopping.”

“Since when aren’t you working on the weekend?”

Sophie frowned. “I don’t work all the time.”

He laughed bitterly. “Yeah, you only worked when I wanted to see you.”

She swallowed. “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing just fine,” Derek replied. A woman waltzed up next to him.

Sophie froze, her eyes narrowed at the girl.

“Hello,” the blonde said. Beautiful and tall, she stood comfortably next to Derek. Sophie had never seen this girl in her life. She racked her brain – no, she wasn’t one of their mutual friends.

Sophie’s gaze darted between Derek and the blonde. “Hello,” Sophie said, unable to think of anything witty or clever to say.

“I’m Georgina. Nice to meet you.” She smiled down at Sophie from atop her incredibly long legs.

Sophie felt her breath quicken, a hand flying to her face. How was she going to remember a name like Georgina? But how could she forget it? She could be Derek’s new woman, and what if she was? Sophie could already hear herself cursing the name Georgina, and could feel herself screaming the name countless times in her sleep.

“Um…, hi, I’m Sophie,” she said tearing her gaze away from the girl’s beautiful face, her clear skin and green eyes.

“Georgina.” The name rhymed with arena, ballerina. Carol was the ballerina, so if she used an image of a ballerina, she’d surely get confused. The girl was particularly memorable with striking beauty. Hyena. Yes. What a great rhyming word, perfect with a disgusting, house-wrecking name like Georgina. Narrowing her eyes, Sophie couldn’t match ‘hyena’ to any aspect of her physical appearance. Pity. Semolina. The image of the girl’s face mashed into a bowl filled with thick semolina was almost enough to make Sophie smile. Almost.

“Well. It was very nice to see you,” Sophie continued, as both Derek and Georgina stood awkwardly. “Gosh, I’d better go,” Sophie said, and she fled.

Her feet flew in the opposite direction, away from Derek and past Carol who stood with a lipstick held tightly in her fingers. “Let’s get out of here,” Sophie hissed as she passed her.

It had been days. Days! He’d got over her pretty quickly, that was for sure. Or had he been cheating on her? Sophie’s chest constricted. He’d been cheating on her. There was no other explanation. You don’t just go and buy Chanel perfume for a new girlfriend. You buy Chanel for someone you know, someone you love.

Cheating. Cheating. Cheating. Cheating. Cheating. Cheating. Lying bastard.

Sophie’s pulse was racing, her breathing was fast.

“Is that a friend or his new squeeze? She’s f’ugly.”

“F’ugly,” Sophie agreed, feeling her heart beat quickly, knowing the girl had been drop dead gorgeous.

“She’s just shopping with him. She could be anyone… a friend, anyone,” Carol murmured, although Sophie could hear the uncertainty in her voice.

Sophie dared a look over her shoulder. Of course they were together. The pair remained huddled over the Chanel counter. The least Derek could do was go out with someone with different taste to her.

“If he felt anything for me, he would have explained to me what was going on there.” But why did she deserve that right? They had broken up. She just thought he might care, might respect her enough to explain, to try and reduce the pain throbbing in her chest.

Sophie continued to rush towards the doors of the department store, swimsuit clutched in a grip of death. Carol looked concerned but stayed silent.

“I think… well… I think he cheated on me,” Sophie finally gasped. “How did I ever trust him? How can I trust anyone ever again? He used my work as an excuse.” She cast another look in Derek’s direction – he was holding the girl’s hand. She felt physically sick.

“He probably didn’t. He wouldn’t do that.”

Their fingers were entwined, interlaced, together. “He did.”

“He’s a dick,” Carol said.

“Yeah. A dick.”

“Let’s go buy this,” Carol muttered. In a zombie-like trance Sophie walked back to the swimsuit counter and paid. She didn’t even bother to try it on. What was the point in all the effort, when a guy just dumped you? Cheated on you? Who needed men anyway? How could you trust them with your heart? With your life? With your dreams, when they hurt you? That’s why they had artificial insemination; scorned women didn’t need men. Women needed to stick together.

Sophie was shaking, thoughts racing through her mind. “Do you think I work too much?” she asked, clutching the bag with the new swimsuit. Was it her fault he cheated?

“Yes,” Carol said softly, glancing at the bag. “And I’ve only known you a few days.”

Sophie swallowed. “I love my job. That’s okay isn’t it?”

“It depends on what the other person wants and how much time they want with you and visa-versa.”

“Hmmm. Is it worth it do you think? Would you give up dancing?”

Carol shrugged. “Depends on what you miss out on. Or who. But I probably wouldn’t. I’d probably try to find a partner more willing to compromise.”

Sophie furrowed her brow. What exactly was the price of losing Derek? Her heart? But he’d ripped that out. So was it really her work that had ruined their relationship?

She grasped the bag containing the red swimsuit. Her job couldn’t hurt her, not like the sensation now rippling through her. All the times he’d told her he loved her. Lies.

“I do love my work,” Sophie muttered, mostly to herself, and as she walked with Carol to the tube she focused her thoughts, deciding to immediately email Matthew Silver. She was focusing on work, trying to think of anything other than Derek.

A lump formed in her throat as she thought of the pretty girl next to him. Georgina. Fucking Georgina, fucking Derek. She’d left some of her things at Derek’s place. The mistake of an innocent, naïve woman. Not anymore.

She felt dizzy, and clutching the swimsuit she asked Carol to hold on for a second and began to type into her smart phone. She needed to clear her head, to change somehow. Forget Derek.

Maybe swimming lessons could help her.

 

From: [email protected]

Sent: 05 October 2007 13:31

To: [email protected]

Subject: Swimming Proposition

 

Hi Matthew,

 

Just a quick note to say I have been thinking about the swimming proposition. I’ve shopped and if you’re serious then I’m good to go for the swimming lesson, although I’m absolutely petrified as I type this.

 

Looking forward to hearing from you.

 

Warm regards,

 

Sophie Smart

 

***

 

At the Highbury flat Sophie was alone: Carol was at her audition. There was a clattering on the front steps as Mickey arrived. Mickey was short for Michelle. Michelle Vermont. Mickey grew up idolising her brother Jack, who’d saddled her with the nickname ‘Mickey’. If someone dared call her Michelle, she’d clobber him or her with a mighty fist. She was feisty and not afraid to go after something she wanted. Once she’d made up her mind about something, it was very difficult to change her point of view. She knew exactly who she was and decided to open her very own coffee shop. Rather than taking the traditional route of work after university, she’d taken her business degree in one hand and started pulling cappuccinos with the other.

“Are you okay?” Mickey asked as she hugged Sophie.

Sophie struggled to disentangle herself from Mickey’s embrace. “Of course,” she snapped. “Come and look around.” Sophie knew that would be exactly what Mickey, always curious, would want.

“You’ve been crying.” Mickey was direct as only she could be, her rich voice resonating around the house like she should have worked in theatre instead of making coffee.

“I probably look awful.”

“Ah, but you advertising gals all look like crap – it’s common knowledge,” Mickey teased. Her friend ran up the stairs, taking them two at the time, and yanked open Sophie’s bedroom door as Sophie chased her up. “Oh my God, how long have you been here again? You haven’t even unpacked.” Mickey shot Sophie a sharp stare, cutting through all her defences.

“Only a few days really. Derek and I split.” It was time to face some truths.

“I’ve brought wine.”

“Wine would be good.”

“Soph, why didn’t you call me? I could have helped you move. I could be more supportive if you felt you could tell me things like this. This is big, breaking up and moving out from your boyfriend’s place. You don’t have to do it alone. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“This isn’t about you. It’s about me, and I can tell people whenever I’m ready.”

“Okay,” Mickey said carefully. “You must have been stressed out of your mind. You do know Soph, that I’m here to help. I’ve known you forever.”

“I’m fine, I’m always fine. We weren’t meant to last anyway.” Sophie couldn’t bear to tell Mickey the humiliating truth that not only had they broken up, but that Derek had cheated and she hadn’t even known until afterwards.

At that exact moment Carol returned from her audition, entering the flat and bounding up the stairs with her endless energy. “Sophie?” she called, stopping at the doorway to Sophie’s bedroom, lowering her sunglasses as she saw Mickey.

“Hello.” Carol extended her hand, becoming quite formal. “I’m Carol. Sophie’s flat mate. Pleased to meet you.”

“Mickey.” They shook hands. “Nice to meet you too.”

Sophie’s head darted between the two. Would they get along? They were distinct opposites. Carol was dressed in her flamboyant colours and Mickey in the designer clothes she always wore. Mickey had a passion for quality, evident from her store and the lengths she went to. She’d even gone to South America and distinguished herself from the average barista. She’d got right into coffee buying and even sourced coffee beans directly from the farm. She didn’t settle for second best and her position on quality didn’t falter when it came to clothing.

Mickey wore black: velvet skinny jeans and a trendy frayed t-shirt. Everything was expensive and well made. Mickey’s red hair was tucked under a branded black baseball cap, and her pretty green eyes shone with amusement as she sized up Carol.

Sophie ended the silence. “How’d the audition go, Carol?”

“My car broke down and I missed it. I’m still unemployed, but there’s another audition next week,” Carol said.

“That sucks.”

Carol nodded. “Bloody cars.”

“You’ll get something,” Sophie said. “Fingers crossed for next week.”

“I suppose you’re here to help Sophie finally move in, and get over Derek the douche bag.”

“Douche bag,” Mickey laughed. “Love it. He is a douche bag. I like you, Carol. Let’s both help Sophie settle in and get over him.”

“Did she tell you about seeing Derek at the shops with his new super skinny blonde?”

Mickey’s eyes settled on Sophie. “No.” Her voice changed, stern like steel.

Sophie felt her face freeze, suddenly unable to meet her friend’s gaze. “It’s nothing. We don’t really know anything yet. He was buying Chanel perfume.”

“Your favourite,” Mickey pointed out.

“They were holding hands,” Carol insisted.

The reality gripped her heart. “Yes.” Sophie admitted, refusing to cry. “They were holding hands. But we don’t really know if she… Georgina… was…. ” She couldn’t complete the sentence.

“He was practically canoodling with the girl as soon as we turned our backs, the bastard,” Carol hissed.

“There’s a lot Sophie doesn’t say.” Mickey said, and she and Carol both folded their arms, suddenly united. “Sophie, we’re here to help.”

“But how can you help? You can’t undo it,” Sophie said. “Let’s not unpack.”

“Let’s just get drunk,” Mickey suggested.

Chapter 5

 

A weekend of heavy drinking ended. Monday rolled into Tuesday, then Wednesday. Each day Sophie felt light-headed from lack of sleep. Dreams of Derek continued, but there was one significant change, a humiliating reminder. In her dreams Derek was accompanied by the gorgeous Georgina.

Each morning a fresh surge of hope fuelled her. Her daily arrival at work would involve Sophie bolting through the office corridor with the red splattering motifs (Sophie thought they looked like psychiatrist’s ink blots) and past the kitchen. Her desk was near the ‘think tank’ of ideas: a whiteboard covered with coloured flash cards. She collapsed in her chair and opened her email. All week, there had been nothing from Derek.

This morning, again, her inbox was empty.

She was still expecting to have Georgina explained so that it all made sense. Maybe he’d just met her and hadn’t actually cheated….

Today, it was hump day, Wednesday, and Jessica was the next to arrive in the office. She was a capable woman, not only was she Bradley Clark’s personal assistant, but had stepped up as the group secretary for no extra pay, being in the midst of a recession and all. Jessica was in her mid-twenties, and had recently started studying full time at London Metropolitan University. Although she was now a mature student, she was sharp as a knife, with intelligent, warm, brown eyes.

Jessica’s enthusiasm reminded Sophie of herself when she had started at Clarks. She often assaulted Sophie with technical questions, asking for loads of help with her assignments to complete her degree. Usually Sophie didn’t mind.

Today the student in Jessica was satisfied. Instead she was eager to impress and she started her own pitch.

“I’m an advertising student and I could help you out.”

Sophie nodded. “I have a client meeting in about an hour which I’ve got to prepare for. But after that, I promise to consider it.” She’d heard Jessica’s words before.

“I can help you free up time,” Jessica reiterated.

Jessica desperately wanted experience on campaigns. But Sophie would have to teach her, and time was important. Sophie was having a tough enough job holding onto her own career. “And Sophie you need my help so you can find some work-life balance. You need to find some time for that man of yours.”

“I’m single now.”

“Oh, sorry,” Jessica said and hurried back to her desk. Jessica was the group secretary and her desk sat outside Bradley’s doorway, with a view of the rest of the office. She began making personal phone calls and babbled like she usually did, which would continue throughout the day. Even over the sound of the whirring printer, Sophie could hear Jessica chatting idly. “Francine, you’ll never guess what she wore to the wedding….” Jessica was anything but discreet, her voice loud and strident.

A mailman arrived and stood at Jessica’s desk, stacking packages like Santa Claus would under a tree. Jessica signed for the special deliveries and team post. She then flicked through the parcels, shaking envelopes and packages for simple amusement. Jessica swept her gaze over Sophie, in slow motion, shaking a large, rectangular-shaped box.

Bradley’s door burst open.

Jessica dropped the receiver in her hand and catapulted from her chair, a stack of papers in her arms as the rest of the office snapped into life with dramatic energy like actors performing on stage. Everyone was all too aware of Bradley and his dominating presence.

Staff shouted across the office with great intensity. A girl burst into tears about something.

Bradley scanned the floor and scowled. He was undeniably handsome; a little too handsome for his own good. His combination of super good looks, charm, and the fact he was the boss, ensured he wasn’t the easiest person to work with. He was incredibly moody, with a temper much like a grizzly bear.

He then leaned over Jessica and her mountain of papers. He signed a document and then looked up; his broody gaze settling on Sophie.

Their eyes locked before he barked a general order. “Progress meeting. Every manager to the boardroom, in five.” Everyone stopped what they were doing and the managers exchanged glances.

Bradley stalked down the corridor toward the boardroom. Sophie shot off like an arrow, following Bradley, her heart pounded rapidly. “Excuse me Bradley?” she called out.

Bradley tossed a look over his shoulder. He stopped in the corridor, pausing for Sophie to catch up.

“How are you?” he growled.

“I’m well,” she countered. “I need to talk to you about the Silver account.”

“That can wait. Silver is small billing. I saw you at the gala night deep in conversation with Tom Johnson from Barney’s Chocolate Bars.” He tilted his head. “Did you make any progress with signing him up?”

“Tom Johnson and I get along spectacularly.”

“I’m hoping to see big things from you on that account.” Bradley swept into the boardroom with Sophie close behind, struggling to get her question in. He settled himself at the head of the almond shaped, conference table. He brushed down his suit jacket. Finding her composure, Sophie trailed after him and gave up on explaining that Matthew Silver had found out she couldn’t swim. She slid into one of the ten chairs set up for the management meeting.

Desmond from the Art Department arrived next and settled into a chair opposite her. He was a little overweight, wore crisp suits and always managed to look suave. Sophie concealed her surprise by closing her gaping mouth. Desmond was notoriously unreliable and for him to even attend a last-minute management discussion was almost unheard of. When he regarded her with his intelligent eyes, Sophie glimpsed the genius which must have secured his position at Clarks in the first place. She wished she could access his talent more often. If only he was more dependable, then more campaigns could tap into his ideas. In her position as a project manager, Sophie invariably found herself micromanaging Desmond to ensure he stuck to budgets, or bothered to show up to meetings she’d set. It was like a game of cat and mouse with Desmond, but with persistence she generally tracked him down.

Desmond beamed. “I’ve got artwork for you to look at when you get a chance.” Desmond tipped forward in his chair and his gaze dropped to her cleavage.

“You’re a star, Desmond. What would I do without you?” The trick with Desmond was to bolster his artistic ego. “Remember, the casting’s next week.”

Desmond practically licked his lips. “Yeah, I’ll find the right model, um I mean actress.” Desmond was a ladies’ man and tried to have it off with every girl in the office, as well as the girls he auditioned. It was not a problem for Sophie, as he generally left her alone. At casting calls Desmond busied himself collecting phone numbers for his own personal use rather than doing anything productive. Sophie would be left deserted, saddled with the burden of finding the right model or actress while he disappeared.

A few other advertising colleagues entered the boardroom, until the table was half full. Bradley rapped the long wooden table. “Morning.” His smile skimmed the room, lingering on each person’s face. His acknowledgement created a Mexican wave effect where each person lit up under his gaze, hoping he’d throw a scrap of appreciation in their direction.

Sophie tore her eyes from Bradley and inspected the empty seats in the boardroom. “Where’s everyone else?” she asked brightly.

“We’re a small firm, Sophie,” Bradley grunted. A deep line etched itself into Bradley’s forehead. “Where’s Jessica?” he barked as he examined the vacant chair beside him.

A low snigger came from the doorway as a new comer arrived. Kelly. “I think Jessica’s finding gossiping on the phone much more exciting than a management meeting.” A smug smile transformed Kelly’s face. She met Sophie’s gaze and winked before entering and closing the door behind her.

Everyone averted their gaze, looking down at the table as Kelly found her place. An odd silence circled the room, as each person pondered the truth of Kelly’s remark. Jessica’s constant chatter on the phone hadn’t gone unnoticed. Sophie needed to warn Jessica; it was becoming a problem.

“Let’s start,” Bradley said.

“Where is everyone else?” Sophie repeated her query, head darting around the half empty board room, scrutinising the faces.

Bradley adjusted his tie, then rubbed his hands together. “As you all know, Clarks is a small firm. Although we have a presence in New York and London, I like to call us a boutique operation with all hands on deck. There have been a few changes recently, and the purpose of this meeting is to remind you all that we’re in a recession.”

Sophie nodded, feeling suddenly wary of where this conversation was going.

Bradley continued. “Some of you have probably heard about Joey Symonds, Katie Stevens and Julia Brown all being made redundant last night. I took them all to The Dorchester. We celebrated their successes and their time with the firm.”

Sophie recalled a comment whispered by Desmond when she’d first started. “The Dorchester is the place Bradley takes people to celebrate or commiserate,” Desmond had revealed. “If he ever asks you to lunch, be very wary.”

Sophie paled. She now knew why everyone was so zesty this morning. Sophie hadn’t heard about the redundancies, she’d been too busy worrying about her pending swimming lesson and her breakup with Derek.

“A recession doesn’t stop at a few redundancies.” Bradley sprang out of his chair and paced around at the end of the table. Silence filtered around the room. “We’ve come on hard times. This isn’t meant to scare you, but I’m going to task each and every one of you with business development. We need to win new work. I’ll be looking at all the teams, trimming the fat.”

Not knowing what else to do, Sophie scribbled on her notepad, shivering at the words, ‘trimming the fat’. After the financial crisis had hit the capital, the country and the world almost overnight, there were many companies in London ‘restructuring’.

“You’ve probably already heard rumours from other advertising agencies. Whole floors of staff are being given redundancy packages. A solid business development strategy will help us keep ahead of the pack, but we need to start now.”

The door burst open and Jessica stood there. “I’m sorry I’m late,” she announced. “Sophie, I know you have a meeting next so I brought this along with me. You’ve got a package.” She jiggled a box in her hands.

“Jessica, this is a management meeting,” Bradley barked. “You’re not the postman nor are you Sophie’s personal secretary.”

“I know everyone’s really busy.” Jessica’s cheeks flamed. “I’m just trying to help the team out. It could be important, it’s mighty big.”

Bradley shot Sophie an accusatory look. “You all know my policy on internet shopping,” he scowled.

Jessica looked down at the package and then at Sophie. Jessica mouthed, “I’m sorry.”

“I haven’t bought anything,” Sophie insisted.

“Well there’s something here. So you must have bought something,” Kelly chided.

Sophie scuttled round the table to scrutinize the package. She scanned it for clues. The postmark, United Kingdom, didn’t give her anything. The package was addressed in unfamiliar blue handwriting. She reached out to test the weight of the package, but Bradley slapped her hand like a parent scolding a child, and Sophie reared back.

“From now on, all mail, including packages, will be opened by Jessica and recorded in a list for me. That should prevent people internet shopping while at work and hogging our mail room resources. This is a business not a post office.”

“Fine. But I didn’t buy anything.” Sophie picked up the package and tried to change the subject. “I have no idea what it could be.”

“Bradley, should I open it up so I can record it?” Jessica asked and her lip trembled as she stifled a grin.

“We really should use Sophie as an example,” Kelly insisted.

“Bradley, that’s hardly fair. The package is marked personal,” Sophie stated. “Your spur of the moment policy is a complete invasion of my privacy.”

“Well if you didn’t buy anything, then why are you so worried?” Bradley insisted.

“It’s probably from a client,” Sophie replied. “But that’s not the point.”

“Maybe Sophie has some type of fetish we don’t know about? Is it something exciting, X-rated, like edible underwear?” Kelly laughed.

Sophie sighed. “Go on, if you’re so eager to make an example of me, open it.”

Jessica’s hands worked nimbly, like she was an expert in knitting, fingers flying, slashing open the package. Jessica pushed the flaps of the box down, peered inside. “Oh.”

Kelly shot over to Jessica’s side. “Oh my, God.”

“What? What is it?” Sophie asked.

“You totally need this,” Kelly howled. “We all know you’re newly single.”

“What?” Sophie begged. “What is it?”

“A vibrator,” Kelly giggled, her voice carried loudly to each corner of the room, and probably broke ice out in the Arctic as well.

Sophie cringed. “Give me that.” She reached over the table and snatched the cardboard box. There was an item, wrapped in tissue paper, long, flat, rectangular, but the shape of a chopping board. Clearly not a vibrator. She picked it up, feeling the weight. Very light. She hurriedly peeled back the tissue paper, her curiosity mounting. She extracted a yellow, plastic kickboard.

Sophie held the kickboard with shaking hands, watching as Jessica extracted more items.

“A bathing cap?” Kelly asked incredulously. Kelly snatched the items from Jessica, holding them held by the tips of her fingers, displaying them like dirty laundry, for the entire room to see. “Goggles? Really, Sophie? What’s all this for?”

Jessica darted a glance toward Bradley. “What did you want me to write in the mail register?”

Bradley’s face was quite blank. “Describe it as Sophie’s internet purchases.”

“It’s not,” Sophie exclaimed. “I…err… I have a swimming lesson booked for the Silver account. The client obviously sent this stuff.”

“Swimming lesson?” Kelly glowered. “You have time to take swimming lessons while we’re all run off our feet? Bradley, aren’t you trimming the fat?”

Sophie’s cheeks became hot. “The Silver account has potential as you all know. We only have a slither of the company – the swimming pool chain, the smallest part of the group,” she replied.

“Yes, yes,” Bradley interrupted. “Is that what the swimming lessons are all about, living and breathing your work?”

“Um…sort of…I had a swimming trauma when I was five and Matthew Silver believes I should get in the pool and learn to swim.”

“The client found out you can’t swim! Jesus!” Bradley’s eyes glinted. “What a royal fuck up, Sophie. You’re lucky the firm didn’t get fired.”

“I’m getting in the water,” she retorted. “It will be hard that’s all…it’s a phobia which has impacted my whole life. I’ve struggled…struggled for quite some time. It’s quite difficult for me to even talk about because… I actually died in a pool.”

Silence descended on the room and Bradley shot up from his chair and paced. “‘Swimming is for Living’ – your motto remember?” He shook his head violently. “How come you didn’t volunteer to learn earlier? Worse, you let him find out.”

“I wanted to bring this up with you privately. I thought it would help us win more work because I’d be in the pool with Matthew at least once per week. There’s the possibility of gaining more advertising projects from Matthew, like the hotel chain.”

“Bloody hell, Sophie, maybe it’s best if we took you off the account.”

“I’m happy to get in the pool.” Kelly practically jumped out of her seat. “I can sort of swim. I’d love to improve, to learn properly.”

Bradley scowled. “You can’t swim either? Incredible. Did we touch anyone with that advertising campaign? Do I have no suitable employee to work on the Silver account?”

“Matthew understands,” Sophie blurted. “Is it so fascinating that I can’t swim?”

“Our firm did a ‘Swimming is for Living’ campaign,” Bradley growled. “Didn’t you both learn anything?”

“Apparently about thirty percent of British adults can’t swim,” Kelly quoted. “I learnt that from the campaign. And I can swim. Sort of. Sophie can’t do anything. She’s got a phobia.” The way Kelly said phobia, it was like she’d said a dirty word.

“Well Kelly, maybe you’re a more suitable fit. I’d have to have an emergency meeting with Matthew,” Bradley started.

“I’ve worked it out with Matthew. He’s happy with what I do. He’s expecting me to turn up. You can see that he’s sent me this swimming gear.” Sophie exhaled, controlling her anger. “I’m taking the bloody lessons and it will help develop the relationship and a new business development opportunity – end of story.” She glared at Bradley, struggling to stay in the seat rather than jump up, throw the account at Kelly and run from the boardroom.

“So you’ll impress me.” Bradley smiled. “You’ll make me think you’re worth not being on the firing squad list.”

Sophie froze, that wasn’t even funny. Firing squad list. Firing squad list. Firing squad list? What did that mean? “I’ll certainly try.”

“You’d better do more than try.”

 

***

 

After the meetings, Sophie carried the box with the swimming accessories to her desk. Sitting behind the computer, she looked at the cardboard box with disdain. She noticed an envelope in the package and, wrinkling her nose at the new plastic smell from the kickboard, she removed the handwritten note:

 

Dear Miss Sophie Mermaid Smart,

 

Just a quick note to wish you well. Good luck for your pending introduction to the water. You may want to have a go at trying these things on before the lesson.

 

Cheers,

 

Mr. Matthew Dolphin Silver.”

 

“Mr. Matthew Dolphin Silver? How old is he?” Sophie muttered. Her words were barely audible as she read the note. “A dolphin. Really? A dolphin?” Yes, he’d mentioned his favorite animal was a dolphin. A dolphin made sense. Dolphins were friendly to humans. But maybe dolphin was wrong. He was more like a sea anemone, attractive and pleasing to the eye, but get too close and he’d sting you with a lovely but scary offer of swimming lessons. Would she regret agreeing?

Perhaps he was more like a dangerous barracuda: a long, lean hunting machine. Hunting every poor person with a fear of the water. Didn’t he get it? She was traumatized!

Or maybe he was a moray eel, pouncing and snaring prey with toothy jaws. He was slippery in the water and only then could he satisfy his own freakish desires. That was always a possibility. After all, Sophie now knew she couldn’t trust guys. Couldn’t take them at their word.

Sophie tried convincing herself that the gift from Matthew was not cute, or nice. Yet the more Sophie thought about the gift, the sweeter he seemed, like he’d given her an olive branch, knowing she would secretly hate him because he’d kindly offered her a way to learn how to save her own life, and save herself from the water. The olive branch was in the shape of a kick board, swimming cap and goggles. But Sophie was allergic to olives.

She opened her email. Manners were important in life. Grinding her teeth, she didn’t feel at all thankful, nor did she want to be polite.

 

 

From: [email protected]

Sent: 15 October 2007 09:35

To: [email protected]

Subject: Thanks

 

Dear Dangerous Sea Urchin,

 

They say to beware of your species, and that I should be scared, very scared. And I am.

The kickboard, bathing cap, and goggles have all been packaged up into a very thoughtful gesture.

Perhaps I should avoid seafood to help with my constantly churning stomach whenever I go near water? I must confess I feel caught in a rip. But thank you, all the same.

I’m not sure what I can do with all this apparatus unless I’m in the pool?

 

Your Land Loving Creature

 

After sending the email she picked up the phone, thinking about whether to call her dad. She’d been avoiding his phone calls since the split with Derek. She needed to be honest with her parents, to at least give them a heads up.

With the phone in her hand Sophie remembered that even her mother had tried to call her over the weekend when she was shopping.

“Sophie,” her mum said, picking up on the first ring. “I knew you would call when you had a chance.”

“What’s going on?”

“Well, nothing. It’s just nice to hear from you every now and then.”

“Thanks Mum. Um…there’s something I need to talk to you about.” This was it, time to face the truth, tell them she and Derek were over.

Her mother shrieked on the other side of the phone. “It’s happened hasn’t it? It’s finally happened. You’re engaged. To Derek.”

Sophie gasped. “No.” She had the direct opposite news to tell.

“Oh honey, what else could it be? You’re not… um, pregnant dear?”

Sophie sighed. “No, Mum.” She already felt irritated. “There is no engagement, and no pregnancy. It will never happen between me and Derek.”

“Why’s that? You two are perfect for each other and… worse things could happen than getting pregnant.”

“Because.” Should Sophie tell her, explain about what he had asked of her? Her heart constricted. “It was all over working too hard.” Even as she said the words, Sophie wondered whether Derek had cheated on her. Maybe the blame didn’t lie just with her.

“Working too hard? Whatever are you talking about? The solution to these things is to try to make your partner happy. Maybe you could try a little harder in your relationship.”

“It’s not like that. Oh, just forget it.”

“Couples fight. Did you want me to talk to him, sweetie? Put in a word for you? I know all your best attributes.”

“Mum,” Sophie exclaimed. Her mother probably preferred talking to Derek than to her.

“I’ve got his number. I’ll call him now.”

“No.” Could she be any clearer? “No. Definitely not. Do not call him. I’ve got enough issues with Derek.”

“Oh Sophie, well whatever is going on with the two of you, patch it up. He’s a handsome one, that one. A keeper.”

Obviously not enough of a keeper to wait a millisecond before he got together with gorgeous fucking Georgina.

“Oh Mum, got to go, got something important from a client.” It was true, a message flicked onto her screen. The sea urchin had responded to her email. Very quickly, too. That was interesting. She was finally getting timely responses from Matthew Silver. Ha-ha! Progress with at least someone in the male population.

 

From: [email protected]

Sent: 15 October 2007 10:39

To: [email protected]

Subject: Re: Thanks

 

Dear Miss Sophie Mermaid Smart,

 

There are very few mermaids who are land-loving creatures, and you must clearly be the rare kind with no problems finding your feet. Together, we’ll help you find your tail, so you can splash around in the water without a care in the world.

Before any attempt in finding your mermaid tail, like visiting the pool for a tail-finding swimming lesson with a dolphin, I would recommend you sit in your bathtub (in your brand new swimsuit if it helps.)

Fill the tub halfway up with water, wearing both bathing cap and goggles.

Once you feel comfortable in this position, place your head face down in the water and blow a series of bubbles out of your mouth (still while wearing all this apparatus).

Count ten seconds and lift your head back up out of the water. Repeat this exercise a few times.

If you find the idea of a bathtub quite off-putting, consider wearing the apparatus in the shower.

 

Yours truly,

 

Mr. Mathew Dolphin Silver

 

P.S. Did you know that the clown fish is a close friend of the sea anemone, and is able to swim close without getting stung?

Chapter 6

 

 

Sophie arrived at Highbury Aquatic Centre feeling as if someone was sitting on her chest. Each breath was a struggle. Her heart felt constantly constricted. This was what it must feel like to have a heart attack.

She stood inside the locker room changing cubicle not quite understanding why men went crazy for girls in swimsuits. She pulled the lycra swimsuit over her body. She hated the slimy feeling of the fabric, stretching over her like she’d been devoured by a snake and was stuck in its scaly skin. This skimpy, tight outfit was not a man magnet, no matter how she looked at it.

The suit pulled over her chest, flattening her breasts, taking away any womanly charm. The fabric was tight and unforgiving on her thighs.

On her head, she wore a bathing cap, the gift from Matthew, who thought he was a dolphin. Hell… she was having lessons with a man who thought he was a dolphin. Who was more crazy, the girl with the phobia, or the guy who thought he was an animal?

With her long brown hair stuffed under the swimming cap, she’d now created a smooth cone shape on her head – not an overly attractive appearance. The goggles he’d given her were the clincher, the buggy glasses pulling focus from her brown eyes. Yet she pulled the strap tighter, certain to create a nice red ring around her eye socket. There was no way any chlorine was getting into her eyes during this dreaded lesson. And she didn’t care if she looked half alien. Nope, this was the outfit.

Sophie patted down all the necessary protective accessories. All parts were required to face her fear.

There was one more item. She picked up the plastic kickboard, holding onto it as if it were her own secret weapon, her life raft, the only thing saving her from the possibility of drowning.

She pushed her shoulders back, opening the changing room door. Exiting, she wondered what scared her more: being seen in the bright red swimsuit or flapping helplessly in the pool as the water choked her.

A surge of panic gripped her, striking out with absolute clarity. What on earth was she doing here, standing in this ridiculous outfit, looking out onto a swimming pool?

The water glittered, light shimmering on the surface, inviting her in.

Matthew was already in the water, leaning against the edge on the far side, at the deep end. Of course, being as gorgeous as he was, women of all ages surrounded him, legs dangling in the water, all hanging off every word he said. Not one lady looked as ridiculous as she did, Sophie noted. They looked like they’d made a special effort to go to the local pool, faces plastered with make-up. There were no bathing caps, no goggles, and no one-pieces. They all wore bikinis.

Sophie’s heart constricted and a thought flew into her mind. She was the pool geek. The awkward girl. She’d never been in this position before. Everyone here would feel sorry for her, pity her. There was no chance of being glamorous or stylish. She shivered, she couldn’t… no she wouldn’t take the accessories off. As much as she would like to strut around, she needed her equipment in order to survive.

As though Matthew sensed her anxiety, he turned round, flashing his come-hither, dimpled smile. Sophie felt her knees buckle slightly, momentarily unsteady, as she gazed at him. He was devastatingly handsome. But that wasn’t enough to get her into the water.

His head of blond hair sank beneath the surface, his figure propelling through the water, torpedoing straight for her.

“Holy crap,” Sophie whispered. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

Matthew’s head broke through the surface, shaking droplets from his hair as he emerged in front of her, where she stood with trepidation, overlooking the pool.

He looked at her, raising an eyebrow questioningly. “Sophie, come on in.”

She let out a long low whistle. “I guess this is it,” she said. Desperately trying not to think too hard about what she was about to do, Sophie tossed her towel onto a bench and stepped over to the ladder.

She stood on the top rung, facing the water as she prepared to get in. She grimaced as her toes scrunched the edge. She looked to the other side of the pool, trying to focus on the children splashing in the distance rather than the large, overwhelming body of water, waiting to swallow her whole.

Sophie’s body froze, and for her, this was a normal, natural reaction. She looked down. Matthew smiled, probably thinking he was encouraging her. Hardly. She felt even more nervous, quite possibly because he was so damn good looking. If only she had an ordinary looking bloke giving her swimming lessons. That might be better.

This was it, she was taking the plunge. Sophie shut her eyes, and she gripped the kickboard, ready to leap.

“Don’t close your eyes,” Matthew interjected.

She flicked them open, her hands coiling round the kickboard. “I’m working myself up. This is my method.”

“Why don’t you try something a little bit different to work yourself up? Maybe say something positive. Using positive reinforcement can be very effective in times like this.”

“What do you mean?”

“Speak to yourself, talk out loud and say positive thoughts. Look for something, anything you can see that is positive in this situation. Or, maybe just say, you like swimming. Simple. Effective. That’s probably the easiest, and that’s the overall goal, isn’t it, for you to like swimming?”

“I thought survival was the main goal and major objective here?” She sighed. “Not being choked to death by water.”

Mathew laughed. “True, survival is definitely a goal here in the pool. But if you keep telling yourself that you like swimming, and you say the phrase often enough, you’ll eventually believe it. You’ll have created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your own mantra.”

Sophie looked at Matthew, her voice loaded with scepticism. “Really?” She raised her eyebrows, not that he’d see under her goggles and cap. She made a face anyway. He was crazy.

“Come on, give it a go. Give it a chance. Just say you like swimming. Say the phrase three times as you get into the pool. Positive thinking works wonders. You’ll see.”

She narrowed her eyes, looking for signs of madness. His gaze was straight, serious. He didn’t seem to have any gouges, bite marks, or grazes from rabid dogs on his bare skin – and Sophie could see quite a lot of bare skin. Matthew was wearing only swimming trunks.

The words stuck in the back of her throat, so unfamiliar, so unnatural to her normal thinking.

“I like swimming.” Sophie almost choked on the phrase, lifting one foot in the air, ready to jump.

Matthew held his hand up, indicating she should stop.

She halted and didn’t enter the water, instead furrowing her brow in confusion. Wasn’t this the point of the exercise, to enter the harrowing depths? To get wet?

“Rather than simply jump into the pool, why don’t you face the ladder? You don’t need the kickboard quite yet either, rest that on the edge of the pool. We’ll use that another day.”

Sophie placed the kickboard by the side of the pool, feeling her stomach lurch, feeling like she’d cut her own umbilical cord and now was as helpless as a newborn baby.

“Facing the ladder will control your descent and help prevent water getting up your nose.”

Sophie swivelled, faced the ladder, and was suddenly aware of Matthew’s view. Her bottom and thighs would be at head height for him, the perfect position for him to gaze on them, if he so desired. She didn’t want to rearrange her swimsuit now, didn’t want to draw attention to herself. Could she feel the suit sliding up? Possibly. It was probably riding up, right up her bottom. Oh God, she needed to get into the water, fast.

She took a step down the ladder. Her priority became clear: thighs and bottom must get into the water to find coverage – now. Hesitation was not going to help in this instance, it was best to blank the fears from her mind.

“Say you like swimming.”

“I like swimming.” The words almost blended together, she spoke fast and dropped another rung. She winced, flinched, feeling the water splash her toes, surprised by the cool temperature.

“You’ll warm up, I promise you. It’s not cold once you get moving around.”

She didn’t have time to focus on the temperature because her thighs and bottom were still hovering in the air, too close for Matthew’s inspection.

Sophie stepped down onto the next rung, that much closer to her thighs being submerged and safely covered. Then another rung. Thighs were safe! Phew! Her excitement mounted. She could do it.

“For the third and final time, you know what you need to say,” Matthew continued, prattling along like he thought she cared about his positive thinking, positive speaking mantra.

She’d say the words; speak any phrase at this point, as long as she could hide herself within the water. “I like swimming,” she said with a burst he no doubt mistook for enthusiasm as she reached the last rung, lowering her body into the depths. “Hoorah,” she said. She was covered, safe and secure.

“You’re in,” Mathew said, his exuberance matching hers.

“I’m in.” There was an element of pride in Sophie’s words mixed with a splash of hope. Surely getting in was enough, more than enough, for the first lesson.

Then she realised she was in. Actually in the water. Her eyes roamed wildly, children screamed, possibly joyously. Other kids dived into the depths. Some enthusiasts were even swimming laps.

Sophie held onto the ladder rail, fingers gripping tightly. This was a very safe spot, she should just stay here. Her heart beat rapidly in her chest. Now that she was in the water, the fear shot back through her body. She had bigger issues than her body to contend with – the pool, the water, and of course, drowning.

“I need you to turn around from the rail. I’ve got a pool noodle for you to hang on to. They float and can support you if you like.”

It felt like an eternity before Sophie turned around from the pool ladder, but, like he’d promised, Matthew stood in front of her, holding onto a cylindrical length of thin green foam.

“As a start, you’re going to have to let go of the rail. Here take the noodle.” He held it out to her.

Sophie flattened her back against the ladder. The rail felt solid. Safe. “Now that’s a crazy idea.” She smiled brightly at him, the cool water making her feel somewhat more alert.

“We’re going to move a fraction to the side, to the wall. Not too far, but just so other people can get into the pool. So when you let go of the rail, hold onto the noodle. It floats and you’ll be perfectly safe.”

“No kickboard. No rail. It feels very unsafe.” She absorbed the idea; not particularly tempting for a land creature like herself.

“I’ll be here if anything happens.”

She scrunched her eyes shut, took a deep breath, and felt feverish. One finger released the rail, then the next and, courageously, she dropped her arm. Sophie finally planted two feet on the tiled floor of the pool, water coming to her armpits. She felt unbalanced, as if she were dancing on a ship caught in rough seas. She could feel her breath coming faster and tried not to panic. She grabbed the noodle from him, clutching it to her, her new piece of safety equipment.

“I want us to walk toward the far wall. You’ll have the noodle, and I’ve got the side of the pool. The water’s very shallow.”

Sophie scrunched her toes on the tiles, not sure if she wanted to move from the spot.

“Unfortunately, standing isn’t considered swimming. You’re doing fine standing, but have a go at some movement.”

“I can do this,” Sophie said enthusiastically, trying to appear more confident than she really felt.

“Yes, you can,” said Matthew with a warm smile. “Now, I want you to take your first step forward. A baby step. But a huge step forward into becoming a great swimmer.” His eyes twinkled as he spoke.

“This is a true Neil Armstrong moment,” Sophie muttered. “One small step for Sophie Smart. Yet one giant leap for the world of advertising.”

“Very clever Miss Smart,” Matthew said. “You can moonwalk towards me, if that imagery helps, as long as we get to the wall.”

“When I think of moonwalking,” she panted, trying to distract herself with words rather than focus on the way she moved. She wiggled her foot, moved it no further than an inch. Her toes slipped on the tiles, trying desperately to grip the ground. “I think of Michael Jackson.”

“Try to uncoil your toes.”

“You know MJ’s dead.”

“Not from swimming.”

“You sure?”

“Trust me.”

“You sure I can uncoil my toes?” she said, unable to distract herself any further.

“Trust me.”

“Trust you?” Sophie felt like laughing, how could she trust any man, especially after Derek-who-supposedly-loved-her had hurt her so much?

Matthew gave her a hurt look, and she suddenly felt her cheeks redden as a sense of shame rippled through her. Maybe Matthew was a different type of man, at least in the water, and she was, after all, putting her life in his hands.

“Sorry, I’ll try,” she said, not able to say the actual word. The big ‘T’ for trust. Trust was compacted somewhere inside her being, reserved, blocked off, in case she got hurt. Nobody, including this seemingly lovely man, was going to win her trust without some type of trial period. Matthew was on probation. Yes, probation, and his true colours would come out soon enough.

Sophie flattened her feet on the ground. She took a second step, moving closer to where Matthew was leading her to the wall. She noticed his washboard stomach, flat of course, not an ounce of fat. She diverted her eyes back to his face, concentrating on his words. That was what she needed to do in the water, concentrate, not check out her swimming coach. She took a few steps and got to the far wall. A thrill went up her spine, and she realised her breathing was hard.

She flashed him a smile. “We got here.”

He nodded. “I told you you could do it, didn’t I?”

Sophie bit her lip. “Yes. This is a very safe spot.” She felt an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. She was safe.

“How do you feel about getting your head underwater?”

“I don’t really like that.” There was no point pretending. “If I go underwater I’ll just drown.” One of her hands came to her bathing cap, checking it was still pulled over her ears, and she felt her goggles, still pulled tight.

“What we’re going to do next is learn how to relax in the shallow water, and practice breath control. So with two arms holding onto the wall we’re going to both do a series of bobs.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ll show you.” He held the wall with both his hands. “Watch my demonstration. I take a deep breath through my mouth, while holding onto the wall and I try and become as relaxed as possible.” She could hear him sucking in air. “With the air in my lungs, I find a sense of calm, and holding my breath, I bob under.” He dropped suddenly into the water, his arms still holding the wall, but his head was underneath the surface. After a few seconds he shot back up and blew out a big breath. “Did you see that I blew a breath out?”

Sophie nodding, feeling her arms begin to tighten. “But what if I run out of breath? What if I need the air before I come up?”

“If you only go down for a few seconds, you won’t run out of breath.”

She felt her chest tighten, apprehension flooding her being.

“When you go underwater, you get lots of water around you, on your face, on your arms, on your forehead, on your hair. When you bob up, the water spills over you. So if you breathe in as soon as you come up, what do you think happens to all of this water?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I suck it in?”

He nodded. “That’s right. Breathing in through your nose or mouth will encourage water to go up your nose.”

“Oh. I don’t like that thought at all.” Flashing images rushed through Sophie’s mind, drowning, struggling and water funneling up her nose.

“But if you breathe out, what do you think will happen?”

“Water goes in the opposite direction?”

“That’s right. It makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re actually forcing the water to spill off your face, out of your nose and away from your mouth faster. Sounds logical, doesn’t it?”

“I suppose so.” Her heart raced. She hoped this was just a demonstration and they’d stay holding the wall today.

“You couldn’t see what I was doing but I had my eyes open under the water. I looked at the wall, and took a look around the pool.”

Sophie shivered; the very idea of bobbing under the water seemed quite extraordinary.

“You’ve got goggles on, right?”

“Yes.” She swallowed. What, he couldn’t see them?

“The goggles will help keep water out of your eyes. So you should feel absolutely comfortable looking around. Why don’t we give it a try?”

Sophie shook her head violently. “I’ll get water up my nose.” She also knew the bathing cap was not as waterproof as a person might think. Water would stream into the sides, flowing into her ears and quite possibly wetting her hair.

“On the count of three we’re going to go under. Remember, you’re holding onto the wall. You can stand up immediately if you feel uncomfortable.”

Sophie could feel the sound of her heart beating and hear Matthew’s breathing. She felt nauseous. “What if I mess it up? What if I drown?”

“You won’t. Besides, you have this solid wall right here. It’s strong and you can definitely pull yourself up.”

Using every piece of courage she possessed, Sophie opened her mouth and inhaled. She was in control now, in charge of her descent into the depths.

“Take a deep breath before you go under,” Matthew said. “Relax, and if you feel comfortable, when I count to three, duck down, then look around when you’re under, bob back up, and blow the air out of your mouth. I’ll go down with you.”

“One,” he started. Sophie once more inhaled. “Two.” Air filled every space of her lungs, and her body inflated like a balloon. “Three.” He concluded the count.

Sophie’s legs folded beneath her. Water was on her chest, neck, mouth, and head. She submerged.

She had shut her eyes, and it took all of her effort to open the lids, eyes darting around. Her heart raced and she felt her temples pulse. She saw Matthew’s face beside her, amplified by her goggles, his large male head with hair sticking up like reeds or wet straw. He loomed, like a drowned scarecrow, and held two thumbs up. He thrust himself up, and Sophie couldn’t be quicker to follow.

She thrust out of the water, ecstatic to once more have the security of the wall, and for her head to be out.

“Breathe out of your mouth,” Matthew instructed. Sophie exhaled loudly. She then inhaled and gasped, sucking in a quick succession of breaths, almost hyperventilating in the process.

“Well done. You did that perfectly. Now breathe calmly, normally.”

She wiped her nose, not wanting any drips to choke her. Sophie found her chest starting to normalise, as the realisation dawned on her that she was against the wall, standing and not choking to death.

“It’s a miracle,” she said in a low voice. He was smiling like she had done something absolutely extraordinary. Sophie’s feet were firm on the tiles.

“Breathe and find your calm. You’re doing great.”

Everything was fine, and she was safe.

“We’ll wait for you to get your heart rate back to normal. But you did really great.”

A shiver of pleasure ran up her spine. She’d done great. Her… in the water.

She felt a sense of calm settle upon her, and she looked up at him and smiled.

“Do you think you’re up for another bob? Think you’ve got more in you?”

Sophie bit her lip, her heart starting again. “Okay,” she murmured, feeling she could do it again. “Thanks, for not pushing me too far. I appreciate that,” she spoke softly.

She gazed at him and became violently aware of his male presence and his near nakedness in only his swimming trunks. She swallowed, faced the wall, ready to do another bob, focusing on her breathing, and finding her sense of calm. Relax. She needed to relax. Staring starry-eyed at Matthew wasn’t helping, nor would getting preoccupied, and all heady. She was the pool nerd, proving that with her Neil Armstrong comment, and not the pool flirt.

But if she was very lucky she might get to be the teacher’s pet.

 

Chapter 7

 

 

Sophie stood poised with one hand on the whiteboard. Creative juices flew round and she hurriedly wrote down everything that was said. She loved this part of the job! She’d been leading the creative team in brainstorming ideas for the new Silver campaign and she could sense they were almost there. It was just a matter of time….

But Jessica interrupted, her arms flapping with agitation. “Sophie you’ve an urgent call,” Jessica said. “It’s your dad.”

Sophie dropped the whiteboard pen and hurried to take the phone call. Her dad insisted she meet him outside the office building immediately. Then he hung up without further explanation.

She looked at the telephone receiver wondering if she’d heard right. Her father never visited her workplace because his job was on the other side of town. She hurried towards the lift and stepped inside.

The lift dropped to the ground floor. She dashed to the building exit.

Reaching the pavement outside, Sophie’s eyes darted, searching for her dad. Her eyes clamped onto the recognisable figure. Mr. Roger Smart stood hunched, dressed in a tattered shirt. With a thin hand he raked his wispy, grey hair. Relief washed over Sophie as she sprinted to him. She threw her arms around his body, gathering him into an all-encompassing hug.

“Dad,” she said smiling. “It’s good to see you.”

“You, too,” he grunted.

He felt bony. Sophie released him and stepped back. His jaw line was sharp and the fabric of his shirt swum over his slight frame. She noticed his belt was frayed. Why hadn’t her mum taken him shopping?

“You look lean.”

His skin was dry and sallow, like he needed to lather up with a whole tub of moisturiser. “Hmmmm. I hadn’t noticed,” he replied, his gaze directed somewhere else, past her shoulder.

“What’s up?” she asked, but he simply shrugged.

She frowned at his explanation and examined her watch. He’d just asked her to meet him downstairs at her office and the day had only just begun.

“Is there something going on?”

Her father shook his head and his lips creased upwards stiffly, reminding her of an estate agent. There was nothing genuine about his smile.

Sophie tapped her foot in slight irritation. “Shall we share a slice of cake then, while you’re here?” Sophie suggested, wondering whether he needed a sweetener to explain his unpredictable behaviour.

Yet he avoided making eye contact.

“The café here has a wonderful chocolate cake,” she teased, searching for some kind of reaction. “Your favourite. Remember?”

He licked his lips but didn’t speak.

“Dad?” He didn’t answer, or move. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he grumbled.

Sophie placed a hand on her hip and regarded him. There it was again. He glanced over her shoulder. Sophie swivelled on her heels and turned around, trying to figure out the subject of his attention.

“Sophie,” her father squeaked and tugged at her arm. An overweight man stood a few feet away, monitoring the scene. The man wore a radio on his upper lapel and gripped a black hat with a white checkerboard band. He was a bobby, a law enforcement man.

“Officer.” Sophie nodded with a stiff smile, hoping the policeman would move along and focus on catching criminals.

“Sorry to disturb you, Miss Smart,” the rotund policeman said hesitantly.

Sophie’s mouth dropped open, slightly agog. “Um…, yes,” she replied with almost hostile politeness. “How do you know I’m Miss Smart?”

“You should take a seat.” The officer indicated a nearby bench.

She looked around. “Me?” she faltered, her hand came to her chest. She obediently sat down. What in the devil did he want?

“I haven’t done anything wrong.” She stared at the policeman. “Have I? Dad?” Her gaze flicked over towards her father. His face was as white as chalk. Something was wrong. She stood up from where the policeman had indicated she should sit.

“Dad?” Her voice ascended a few decibels. With haste she returned to his side to inspect his expression. His face was tight and pinched. A thought dawned on her.

“Oh my God, it’s Mum. What’s happened?” She stepped backward, her body crumbled, dropping down onto the bench.

She felt too anxious to sit still for even a second. She leapt back to her feet like a jack-in-the-box. Her heart raced. Blood rushed to her head and she felt light headed. Her knees buckled. She clutched at the seat, holding the bench for support to sit back down.

Breathing hard, thoughts of her mum flew through her mind: all the birthday parties she’d insisted on throwing, the time they went on a holiday to Rome together. There was an incident when they’d argued over the price of patent blue shoes. Her mother wanted her to get married (even if it was to Derek). Sophie had always imagined her mum would one day help her buy a wedding dress.

Sophie hunched. The leaping up and down had stopped. She was almost hyperventilating in distress. “She’s dead isn’t she? Oh my God. I forgot to call her on her birthday this year.” Hot tears fell down her face. Her mother was dead. Her own mother was dead.

“Sophie, stop.” Her dad placed a strong hand on her shoulder. “Stop. Your mum’s just fine.”

A large lump formed in her throat and her eyes felt rather watery. “Then what is it?” Sophie’s voice trembled and her gaze slid toward the policeman. “Why is he here? I mean no disrespect.” She shot a tight smile to the policeman and used every effort to refrain from scowling in his direction.

“Look, I just lost my way for a bit.” Her dad’s eyes pleaded, flicking to the policeman.

Sophie swallowed. “Is it drugs? Is that why you’ve lost all the weight?” Her neck craned forward. Without a doubt, he was much thinner than when she’d last seen him. “Have you got into drugs? Amphetamines? Crack? Heroin? We can work with this, together, get you clean. There are lots of support programmes. I’ve read all about them.” She grabbed his forearm, wanting to roll up his sleeves, the only way she would know if he was a…user. She shuddered.

“Are you going to tell her the truth, or should I?” the policeman continued.

Her dad shifted on his feet. “Everything’s fine now, officer, surely? I’m in capable hands. My daughter and I can work through this.” His voice was barely audible, a whisper caught in a windstorm.

“The truth?” Sophie’s eyes shifted from her father to the policeman. She sniffed, folded her arms. “What’s going on? First I think Mum’s dead, then I think you’re a….” She swallowed. “User. That’s not the problem, is it?”

The policeman cleared his throat. “It’s a criminal offence not to pay a train fare.”

“Is that what all this is about?” Clarity washed over her. She rustled through her bag and removed her Velcro surf wallet. “You didn’t pay your train ticket? Let’s sort this out.” Sophie felt dizzy with relief. A train ticket, that was easy to pay, with an even easier solution. Easier than death or drugs or anything else.

“Look, Miss Smart, I monitor Paddington Station. Your dad, he rushed past the turnstiles, practically hurdled over them in a frenzy. He caused quite a scene, yelling and screaming at the ticket collector. He didn’t have a ticket and almost turned violent to avoid paying the fare. It’s a criminal offence, you know. I had to get involved and pull him away from the attendant, flapping away like he was.”

“I don’t believe this,” Sophie said shaking her head. “Not my dad.” The words ‘criminal offence’ played in her mind. She couldn’t imagine her dad yelling at anyone, gently spoken as he always was, not to mention refusing to pay the fare. He didn’t live on the edge; he was always straight laced, did everything by the book, with his strong code of ethics and conduct.

“We have it on the security tapes, if you want to see them.”

Sophie gaped, waiting for her dad to speak, to refute the words and plead that this was an incredible mistake.

“Security tapes?” She glanced at her father and her resolve faltered. “I see.” She met the officer’s gaze. “You didn’t charge him?”

“Your father, well, he broke down, had an anxiety attack. I’ve been with him for about an hour, waiting until he calmed down. He told me everything about his job. We decided it was better to work this problem out with support from his family. A penalty isn’t going to resolve this situation, especially if he can’t afford to pay it.”

“Anxiety attack?” Sophie’s brows knitted together. “What specifically happened?”

“He was clutching his chest, kneeling on the ground at the station. Crying. I would strongly advise you to take him to see a doctor. My deeper concern, Miss Smart, is that he’s depressed. Suicidal even.” A vision of her father on his knees at Paddington station, blubbering like a small child with tears rolling down his cheeks, flew into Sophie’s mind.

“No, you’ve got the wrong man. My dad’s perfectly happy.” The word suicide kept revolving round Sophie’s head like she was stuck in a spin cycle.

The officer shook his head. “This is surprisingly common when people are made redundant after serving for a long period of time.”

“Dad, is this true? Have you been made redundant? Are you…?” She couldn’t bring herself to say the word suicidal.

Her dad stayed tight-lipped with a face like stone.

“Dad, say something,” Sophie begged. “He’s got it all wrong, hasn’t he? The facts. You’re okay. You’ve still got a job. You’re hardly…suicidal.”

The policeman sighed. “He lost his job a month ago. With the recession, we’ve seen a few cases like this. We’re seeing more and more jumpers on the tube. People become depressed and can’t see a way out. I don’t want you to lose your dad….”

Sophie ran her hands through her hair, absorbing the information. “Lose my dad? I’m not going to lose my dad.” She’d just lost Derek. She couldn’t lose her dad! No way. “You never said anything, Dad?”

“Soph, I got laid off. I thought I would find another job pretty quickly and no one had to know. No one needs to be worried. I’ll sort it all out,” he murmured.

His revelation was shocking and Sophie’s heart beat furiously even though the officer had just listed the same facts. A new concern formed in the back of her mind. “Mum doesn’t know?” Sophie knew the answer as soon as she’d asked it.

“No.”

“Oh.” She released a sigh, the problem was bigger than she’d imagined. Mum, her mum, Gloria Smart, didn’t know about her dad losing his job. “So where does she think you’re going every day?”

“To work.”

“So you’re not going to the office then but you’re still coming into London?” Sophie’s voice rose and she struggled to control her own panic. What was he doing each day? No wonder he’d lost so much weight, he was probably strolling the streets, losing calories by the second.

“There was a redundancy programme that I attended. I was just trying to find a job, anything really. But I’m too old they say, they don’t want me behind a bar or labouring.”

“You need to tell her.”

“I can’t,” he said flatly.

“Dad, you need to tell her. A problem shared is a problem halved.”

“I am sharing it,” he insisted.

“With me and not with Mum!”

“Your mother doesn’t need to concern herself with things like this,” he said.

“I see,” Sophie whispered. Her dad had a strong delineation of roles and responsibilities. “But you still need to tell her; she’d understand.”

“She’d only be upset. What would she think of me if she knew I was unemployed? She’d think I couldn’t provide. I have a small redundancy payment due. Everything will be fine. What happened at the station and not paying the fare was an anomaly, a momentary over reaction to my credit card being declined. It was a slight hiccup and unlikely to happen again.”

“Oh, Dad. Let me give you some money.”

“I don’t want to take money from my daughter,” his voice grew firmer.

“Your card has been declined, it might help.”

“You’re my daughter.”

They stared at each other, eyes blazing. Sophie knew she was proud like her dad and wouldn’t want help or handouts. She herself had moved out of Derek’s place and refused to tell anyone. Even so, when she’d finally told Mickey, Sophie had felt better.

“What about a small loan?”

He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shook his head.

“Dad, you’ve supported me my whole life. It’s only a small loan, just for a little while.”

He became paler by the minute, and anxiety crawled over her body. What if he had another attack? Fear clenched at her heart and for a moment she couldn’t breathe.

The United Kingdom was in the midst of a banking crisis. The worst of the rippling effect hadn’t yet started and, according to the papers, darker times were still to come. Jobs weren’t exactly growing on trees.

“Mr. Smart, I’m sure you’ll find a job soon,” the policeman had come forward. Sophie didn’t know how true the words actually were. “Your father explained he’s worked for the Ministry of Defence for the last twenty years. He’s got so much knowledge. Someone’s going to want to tap into that.”

“I can’t get an interview. It’s been a month, Sophie, one month.” There was real pain in his face. His stony expression was beginning to crack. The policeman was right, he seemed… unstable… his eyes glistened.

Sophie took charge of the situation and set her jaw with determination. “I’ll help, Dad.” She tried to sound reassuring. “Are you coming into London tomorrow?”

He swallowed. “Yes, Soph. That’s the routine. That’s what your mother expects. So I’ll catch the train into London.” He finally met her gaze and his shoulders squared back a fraction. How did he do it? He didn’t shed a tear. A pang ripped at her guts. She knew how, she did the exact same thing.

“We’ll put together a strategy. I’ll help with your resume and applying for jobs. We’ll do this together.”

“Miss Smart, I’d advise you to not only complete a work strategy, but get him some professional help. Jumpers do happen in this city. Don’t make your dad a statistic.” The policeman tipped his hat and left them on the pavement.

“Can I trust you, Sophie? Trust you not to tell your mother? Please, promise me you won’t tell her.”

Chapter 8

 

 

 

That night after work, Sophie went to the Highbury Aquatic Centre. Her thoughts were crowded: her father’s unemployment, the possibility of his being suicidal, and the choice of whether to tell her mum or not. As she signed the book at reception, she didn’t even notice Matthew’s figure lingering behind the counter.

Eventually she put the pen down and caught Matthew’s eye. He smiled and winked. His gaze deliberately drifted up at the clock. “You’re thirty minutes early. If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think you were excited to see me.” He grinned.

“You’re hoping.” She laughed, tension eased away from her chest.

“Here’s to hoping,” he chuckled.

“It has been a hell of a day.” Sophie sighed.

His face was full of concern. “Is everything okay?” he asked.

Before realising what she was doing, Sophie sat down at the little seat near the reception desk.

Feeling the same safety as in a confessional booth, Sophie began. “This is kind of personal,” she started. “Someone I know might be depressed. Do you think swimming might help?”

He paused. “I’m not a doctor or anything, but they say depression is a cycle people fall into.” A curious expression flittered over his gaze.

“I’ve heard that, too.”

“Getting active, apparently, gives people positive benefits and can help break the cycle. Don’t take that as medical advice or anything because I have absolutely no medical background.”

“Yes, I’ve heard sport’s supposed to be good for depression.” Sophie released a breath. “Thanks for listening.”

Matthew reached out and squeezed her palm. “Are you okay?” He squeezed again. “Are you depressed?”

“No.” Sophie snatched her hand away. “It’s not me. I promise.”

“You sure?” A line furrowed his brow. “The lead up to winter can be quite tough for a lot of people, with less and less light.”

“I promise I’m fine.” With another sigh, Sophie revealed her problem. “I’m worried about my dad.”

“Your dad?”

“He lost his job about a month ago… didn’t tell anyone.” She swallowed. “He’s been acting strangely, coming into London every day. I only found out because….”

“Because….”

A lump formed in her throat. “He broke down at the train station. A policeman came to visit me at work and told me about his anxiety attack.”

“Really?” Matthew’s jaw dropped, but recovering quickly, he pulled it back up. He smiled, but there was no mistaking the worry in his eyes. “Sport can be good for anxiety, stress relief, too.”

She nodded. “Apparently since he lost his job he’s still commuting into London every day. God knows what he’s doing. I want to find an activity to help him. I’m terrified he’ll become a… jumper.” Her head spun with the thought.

“A jumper?”

“Yeah, one of those people who jumps in front of trains.” Sophie’s stomach twisted and she tasted bile in her mouth. “It’s odd behaviour and I’m extremely concerned. The policeman suggested seeking professional help. My dad doesn’t seem keen on that option. Mum has to know if it’s going to continue. I mean, she’ll find out eventually. When is it the right time to break someone’s trust? Should I tell my mum?”

“I don’t know,” Matthew replied. “Are you honest with him? I mean, do you tell him the truth about things, even when it’s hard?”

Sophie thought about her move. “I don’t know.” She shrugged.

He shot her a strange expression. “Either you do or you don’t.”

It wasn’t an easy answer. There was the slight issue of her break up with Derek. She hadn’t yet mentioned that.

“Bring him to the pool and let’s see if swimming helps. You can show him how you’re getting on. You have mentioned swimming to your parents, haven’t you?” Matthew’s face was a complete question mark but when she didn’t answer, he shook his head. “On that note, are you going to get into the pool today? You’ll be late if you don’t go and get changed.”

She saluted. “Yes boss… and thanks for the chat.” She went to the changing room feeling slightly better.

Maybe she could trust Matthew… she was, after all, each time she got in the water, trusting him with her life.

 

***

 

On Thursday, a few evenings after the conversation with Matthew, Sophie was again at the Highbury Aquatic Centre. She’d persuaded Roger to meet, after she finished work. He’d been flabbergasted by her suggestion. Yet he wanted to witness Sophie in the act of getting into the water, at her swimming lesson. There was an element of hype concerning Sophie actually plunging into the water.

Sophie assessed Roger standing outside the Highbury Aquatic Centre. He wore faded trousers and held a briefcase in his hand.

“Did you bring any swimming gear?” Sophie asked as there was an obvious lack of sports bag.

“Your mother would have a coronary if she saw me take my swimming trunks. Next time.”

“You were supposed to tell her that you’re getting into shape?”

“That would be the first time in our marriage that I’ve ever had such a desire.” Roger patted his flat midsection. He blew out a breath, pushing his almost nonexistent belly into a barrel shape. “Your mother’s going to start jumping to conclusions. Believe me.”

“There’s nothing wrong with working out for general health, fitness and endurance. It’s not all about body fat,” Sophie insisted. “You’ve come all this way and you should have brought your swimming trunks. What a waste of time.”

“I’ve a train to catch in one hour and don’t worry about me,” Roger mused. “I’ll come back to the pool but I currently have more time during the day. That will minimise your mother’s suspicions.”

Sophie sighed elaborately. “You promise.”

“I promise,” Roger said. “I’m more curious to watch your swimming lesson.”

Sophie snorted. “My swimming lesson can’t become a spectator sport. You can’t just come to the swimming centre to simply watch me. You’ve got to participate in your own activity. For if there’s too much pressure on me, how will I perform in the water?”

“Come on then.” Roger laughed. “Let’s go inside. After all, I can’t stay long because I have a train to catch.”

“One thing dad,” Sophie stalled. “I’ve been thinking, you might need somewhere to go each day?”

“You want me to hang about, at the pool?”

“Not exactly,” Sophie said and smiled, using willpower to hide her bowel-clenching worry. She desperately wanted to help him find an activity to fight any possibility of depression.

“I have been attending a few training courses set up by the Ministry of Defence.” He shrugged. “I’m not exactly sure what’s next.”

“You could go to my house during the day, if you like?” Sophie suggested. “I’ve moved.”

Roger reacted with the swiftness of a soldier. He swivelled abruptly on the balls of his feet and folded his arms. His skinny frame faced her, and Roger effectively blocked the entrance to the swimming centre. “You’ve moved?” Roger cocked his head to the side.

“Yeeess, I moved.” Sophie waved her hand with nonchalance. “It’s no big deal. I’ll text you the address, there’s loads of space.” She stepped toward the doorway but in a snap reaction, Roger’s arm thrust in front of her, blocking her entrance.

Roger squared his shoulders. “When did this happen?” His wiry frame appeared more ominous as the seconds passed.

“The move was a spur of the moment thing. It might have been temporary. I didn’t want to worry you over a temporary situation.” Sophie looked fleetingly over Roger’s shoulder and through the glass doors. Matthew swaggered into the swimming pool reception.

“What do you mean by temporary? Is everything okay?” Roger asked.

“Yes, everything’s fine.” Sophie gripped both her father’s hands and squeezed firmly. “I promise.”

“But you said temporary?”

“Sorry, you know me, I was being melodramatic. I didn’t mean to cause a fuss. That was silly, wasn’t it?” Sophie rolled her eyes. “Tomorrow morning, why don’t you come over before work? I promise to explain the drama over a nice cup of tea or coffee. Alright?”

“Okay….” Tiny little lines etched into her father’s forehead. “Or you could explain the drama right now?”

She refused to meet her father’s intense gaze. Instead Sophie delved into the depths of her bag. Extracting her mobile phone she adeptly punched letters, forming a text message. “There. I’ve sent you the address. Let’s talk further tomorrow because now I have a swimming lesson and you need to catch a train.” Seizing her opportunity Sophie charged past her father’s skinny frame and opened the swimming centre’s door.

She streamed inside as if the building were a sanctuary from her questioning father. Darting a few glances around, she inhaled. Never in her wildest dreams did Sophie consider the swimming centre to be a place of refuge. But here she was, relieved to be inside the building. Yet stranger things had happened.

Sophie dumped her bag onto the reception counter where Matthew conveniently stood hunched, making notes on sheets of paper. He jumped as Sophie’s bag landed, knocking documents in several directions. She scrambled to collect the array of papers, her face reddening as she handed them to Matthew.

“Quite an entrance,” he said, and a broad smile spread across Matthew’s handsome face. “Sophie, it’s good to see you.”

She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead. “Yes,” she trilled. “Good evening.”

“Dad,” Sophie started and gestured toward Matthew. “This is Matthew Silver. Matthew, this is my dad, Roger Smart.”

Matthew beamed. “Sophie’s told me all about you.”

“Really?” Roger said, slightly taken aback. He glanced in Sophie’s direction. “All good things I hope.”

“She’s daddy’s little girl. The very first time I met Sophie, she told me how she used to help knot your tie. It’s a skill she hasn’t forgotten.” There was amusement in Matthew’s expression.

Roger laughed and his frown transformed into a proud smile. Thank God, her house moving saga was now momentarily forgotten. “That’s the type of girl Sophie is. She’s always doing something for someone else.” Roger’s eyes glittered as he assessed Matthew, his attention completely absorbed. “Are you the man who got Sophie into the pool?”

“It was Sophie’s choice to tackle her swimming phobia,” Matthew started, shooting a smile in her direction. “I’m only her instructor.”

“For years I tried to persuade her. She wouldn’t have gone in without some type of encouragement.” Roger assessed Sophie. “It must have taken guts.”

“She’s a hell of a girl, your daughter,” Matthew said.

As Matthew continued to speak to her father, his attention drifted back to Sophie at various points in the conversation. Every time he grinned at her, her stomach filled with butterflies.

“I think I’m late for my lesson.” Sophie looked between her father and Matthew. She took her leave and hurried to the change rooms.

Once Sophie was swimsuit ready, she waited for Matthew by sitting on the pool step. Eventually Matthew appeared and sat beside her. He sat close. The hairs from his legs brushed against hers.

“How’s my dad?” She grinned. “I’m sure I heard him laughing when I was in the changing rooms.”

“He’s a top bloke,” Matthew replied, struggling to keep the amusement from his expression. “Eve’s helping him complete the membership application. After the chat with you, a few nights ago, I thought a freebie might entice him to come regularly. There’s nothing like a support network when you’re having a low period.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Sophie insisted. “Give me the bill and I’ll fix it up.”

“It’s fine,” Matthew said. “But today you’re going to have to impress him. He’s excited to see you in the pool.”

“Great.” Sophie sighed. “This whole experience feels like a parent and teacher night.”

“Do I get to tell your dad about your performance, whether you’ve been naughty or nice?”

“Maybe around Christmas….” Sophie smiled. “I have an idea. Why don’t you make me look as good as possible in the pool? If I appear confident, then you’ll shine as an instructor.”

“You don’t think I’m a good instructor?”

“You’re the best instructor, haven’t I told you that?”

“Ah, but aren’t I your only swimming instructor?” Matthew scratched the side of his head.

Sophie elbowed him playfully in the ribs. “You’re my only instructor. But you’re the best there is.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere.”

“I mean it,” she insisted. “Thanks heaps for helping me.”

Matthew chuckled. “I’ll be easier on you tonight, not because of the flattery but because I’m nice.” He gestured toward the pool.

“You being nice, huh? The jury’s still out on that one.”

“Is that so?” Matthew skimmed his fingertips over the water’s surface and splashed Sophie. Droplets sprayed and hit her dry body.

Sophie howled with laughter. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about.” She wiped the chlorine from her eyelashes.

“Just get in Miss Smart.” Matthew’s thigh nudged her own in an attempt to urge her into the pool. His touch sent a series of tiny little shivers up and down her leg.

With a stomach filled with butterflies, Sophie followed Matthew into the pool. Instead of entering via the ladder, they entered from where they currently sat, at the pool step. The calm descent into the pool allowed Sophie to spot her father. Roger had settled himself in one of the plastic seats in the pool grandstand. Maybe the heart fluttering she felt was just the same as when a professional athlete raced in the Olympics? Even though it was her third lesson in bobbing, she didn’t quite qualify as a water expert.

She sprung into the water with ferocity, ignoring her burning thighs. The lesson continued with a revision of everything she’d learnt to date. The situation suited Sophie entirely.

“Okay Soph, the pressure’s on,” Matthew whispered as they stopped for a short break.

Her legs shook like she’d completed a strenuous aqua aerobics class. “Why’s there pressure? I thought we had a deal.”

A wicked grin crossed Matthew’s face. “I want you to wow Roger further.”

“We don’t have to wow anyone further. Roger doesn’t need you to show how you teach me new skills, this whole situation is about him believing that I’m in the water. I’m in. I’m in.” She leaned closer to Matthew. “With luck, he might be satisfied with that and go and catch his train.”

Matthew grinned. “Every lesson you have needs to further your skills fractionally. Otherwise you’ll never progress towards actually swimming laps. So tonight we’re progressing to floating.”

Sophie scowled as her father sat fixedly in the grandstand seat. She finally realised what performance anxiety was all about, as she fretted over Matthew’s ghastly floating instructions. “Face first in the water,” Matthew said, as he explained how Sophie should lie like an alphabet letter, with arms outstretched. She’d stretch into an “X” or a “T” shape. From there, later he’d teach her to roll on her back.

“If I lift my feet off the bottom of the pool I’ll lose control,” she said between clenched teeth.

“How does it sound if we practice floating above the step? If you feel out of control, just grab the step. That way, you’ll feel safe.”

She nodded. Feel safe? Was he some kind of comedian? Sophie slid toward the step.

“Now watch.” Matthew demonstrated, holding the step with his arms in a plank position. “See I’m holding my upper body like this.” Matthew’s biceps bulged as he continued with his commentary. Sophie averted her gaze from his buff physique and focused on his technique.

There was one notable and major concern in his demonstration: his legs. His feet were off the bottom of the pool, stretched horizontal on the surface.

Finally he demonstrated the exercise without commentary. In slow motion he put his head in the water. He released the step. His body hovered above the water. He floated. She counted the seconds he floated, wishing he’d stay there longer. For as soon as Matthew lifted his head up, Sophie knew exactly what was going to happen next.

It was her turn. She couldn’t object, for her father was looking proudly at her. Oh the pressure!

Sophie clasped the step and extended her body behind her. Her feet remained firmly rooted like a tree to the bottom of the pool. Her two arms were solid in the push up position. She continued to hold her head and shoulders above the water.

She grinned. “Do I really have to lift my legs?”

He nodded, his eyes twinkling. “While holding tight, raise your legs. Then release.”

Sophie tensed. Then with a rush of adrenaline she plopped her head face first into the water. Please don’t drown. Please don’t die. Please survive. Please impress dad!

Her legs stretched out. Her stomach somersaulted and flipped. An unearthly sensation funnelled through her body, like she was falling or flying. She was performing a Superman trick. No – Supergirl. She was Supergirl finding her powers as her legs rose to the water’s surface with a will of their own.

As her legs floated behind, she sensed her body would topple over. Butterflies rippled up and down her body, as she struggled to find equilibrium in this position. Her body felt determined to drift away.

Sophie still gripped. The last instruction of this floating business was to release. She hated the pressing feeling of being pushed from her comfort zone. A gnawing fear crept through her mind.

This was it. Her moment of judgment. She didn’t care who was watching anymore, whether it was her dad or Matthew. This was the time to face her fear. To face herself. She was not going to die. Not this time.

Let go. Let go. Jesus Christ. Let go Sophie.

It was time to float. She released the step.

 

 

***

 

Sophie survived the floating saga. Not just in the physical sense. Roger jumped up from his seat in the grandstand and cheered. People in the swimming centre, glanced at Sophie, curious expressions on their faces. Matthew finished the lesson there with a grin.

“You might miss your train,” she said to Roger as he approached the edge of the pool.

Roger beamed from ear to ear. “It was worth it,” he mused and darted a glance over his shoulder toward the exit. “Though, I’d better go, before I miss the next train. See you tomorrow morning.”

Sophie walked her father as far as possible out of the building, before she darted toward the changing rooms. She dressed, feeling an overwhelming sense of pride and also gratitude toward Matthew.

She needed to thank Matthew. But how should she thank him? Eventually she dressed and went to reception. He wasn’t there, not behind the counter, or bashing numbers in his calculator or writing in his ledger.

Sophie asked Eve to call a taxi, booking one headed for Clarks. Sophie pulled her coat tight round her shoulders as she stood outside the swimming centre. Despite the cold temperature, Sophie waited there for the cab. The time alone enabled her to focus and list exactly what she’d do when she arrived at the office.

First she’d review the pitch prepared for Barney’s Chocolate Bars. Then she’d work on the Silver campaign. Her team was a whisper away from identifying a brilliant campaign idea. There was a niggling thought in the back of her mind. They were so close! If Sophie dug deep, searched and reached, then maybe she could strike gold. Working tonight, she’d try for that extra mile and surely she’d identify a winning idea.

Sophie closed her eyes. All she had to do was believe. Images of the pool flashed through her mind, the glistening water, children splashing and the trusty step. Faces of spectators, her father watching and, of course, Matthew instructing. Matthew practically came alive in her mind.

His deep laugh echoed in her ears. She remembered the creases in Matthew’s smile. His positive demeanour practically stood on the pavement next to her.

Sophie squeezed her eyelashes against her cheeks, trying to centre her roving thoughts. She was supposed to be brainstorming for the swimming centre campaign. Her intelligence was wandering away. For she was acting in a completely dizzy way, fantasising about Matthew.

Soon she’d be imagining his toned physique and his muscular shoulders. Sophie almost salivated at the thought of stroking her hand against his rippling abdomen.

Sophie released a breath. She panted. Soon she’d be drooling, dribble falling to the pavement. This dream needed to stop.

Focus. Sophie, focus. Reel back those thoughts. Think of the campaign and not of the divine Matthew.

“I’ve cancelled your taxi,” a voice interrupted her thoughts.

Sophie’s eyes flew open. By God, she’d conjured him. She swivelled round.

There he stood, Matthew, in the flesh. Her heart beat fast and eyes widened as she scanned him. Matthew wore jeans and a t-shirt. Where was his coat? No, he wasn’t dressed in swimming trunks, so the figure in front of her clearly wasn’t an apparition. She wasn’t quite losing her head.

“What was that, sorry?” Sophie spluttered, trying to find composure. “You’ve cancelled my taxi?”

“It’s eight o’clock. Eve mentioned you were going back to the office.”

“I just want to do a few things. Or I might pick up a few things to do at home.”

“It’s late to be going back to work,” he said. “I’ll drive you.”

She averted her gaze and shifted on her feet. “I don’t want to put you out,” she replied. “You’ve helped me enough tonight. I really appreciate everything.”

“Come on, what harm can it do? The centre shuts in an hour, at nine, and Eve’s already agreed to lock up.”

Sophie glanced up into Matthew’s dreamy eyes. His offer of driving her to work became increasingly more attractive. Almost as attractive as looking at him….

Chapter 9

 

 

 

He drove like lightning in his black Porsche. When they arrived at her office building, Matthew insisted that, as a client, he should receive a personal office tour. “You see where I work each day. I should know more about you, don’t you think?”

“If you really are interested, sure… I’ll show you the office and the floor.”

He grinned. “Excellent. I’m looking forward to knowing a little more about whom I’m paying.”

“You actually share your work with loads of different agencies. We only work on the Silver Swimming Chain.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“So have you met all the consultants from the other firms?”

“Possibly.”

“Do you get night time tours of their offices?”

“Possibly.”

“Do you teach them how to swim, too?”

“Possibly.”

“You’re not giving me much to work with here.”

“No,” he agreed and they rode the lift up to Sophie’s office in silence.

“You ask me to trust you, yet you don’t trust me?” She raised her eyebrows pointedly as she swiped her security badge to open the doors to her office floor. Matthew followed close at her heels.

They entered the grand foyer of Clarks, Clarks and Clarks Advertising Firm. Sophie held her breath, listening to the unnatural quiet of the office at night.

The foyer was, of course, empty. Sophie proudly gestured to the walls, showing Matthew the art displays. Even though she’d been here so many times before, as always, she was captivated by the gallery of advertisements.

“I just love this place,” she said, turning and pointing to another framed advertisement staring back at them. “It’s the firm’s showcase. Our best work.”

“Is any of your stuff up there?”

“I wish. But not yet.” Sophie shook her head. “I love her. She’s grand.” She pointed to a picture of a red-haired woman holding a lip liner, smiling seductively with puckered lips. “That campaign increased sales by three hundred percent.”

Excitedly, she tugged Matthew’s arm. “Look at this advertisement – the toddler crouched under the wooden kitchen table. You wouldn’t believe how his cute, chubby face increased brand awareness.”

“He looks fat.”

“Well he increased sales of kitchen cleaning products tenfold.”

She stopped, her feet in front of the only empty feature wall, waiting to be decorated like a blank canvas.

“This is the only wall empty,” Matthew said.

“Yes,” she mused. “One day, if the powers above favour me, one of my adverts will be displayed there.”

Matthew looked at her oddly. “You really love this, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she said dreamily. “But I’m also trying to change a little bit. Find more work-life balance and all that. Apparently I work too hard, but I can’t help it. I’m consumed by my job.”

“It’s hard to find balance if work is your passion.”

“You might find it the same with swimming?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Still, I seem to be finding that perhaps I’m missing out on other things. Come this way.” Sophie swiped her security pass, leading him past the foyer to the open plan office where all the advertising magic happened.

The place felt eerily empty with not a soul there. “Sometimes there are teams here all night. Brainstorming until we hit the jackpot.”

“There’s no one here at the moment.”

“It’s often like this. Here’s my desk. I’ll just quickly check Bradley’s office to make sure no one’s around.” She tiptoed to Bradley’s door and poked her head in. There was no sign of Bradley lurking in his office, which was empty.

Sophie turned round, and Matthew was right behind her. She gasped, her hand coming to her chest. “You scared me. I thought you were back there.” She’d been too absorbed, spying on Bradley’s office, to realise he’d followed her.

“Just curious.” He stepped backwards and paced back to her desk, a huge smile on his face.

Matthew stood waiting like a Greek god, every feature perfect, like he’d been carved from marble and sculpted to perfection. His stance was wide, his head tilted to the side, blond hair hanging loosely over his forehead with every strand in the right spot. “Is here okay? I won’t touch anything.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t apologise.”

“I’m just skittish when the office is dark. I hate being here on my own, but if I absorb myself in a project I seem to forget.”

“So why exactly are you coming here late?”

“Just to get a few things.” She met him by her desk. “I need to get some files I’m pitching for a chocolate bar account and I was planning to do a little bit of work from home.” She eyed him cautiously and wondered whether she should raise his campaign, she did have his undivided attention at this point.

Matthew scanned her desk. He examined the wall between hers and the other desks, eyes running over an animated swimming pool and female racer. The pool spanned horizontally across the wall. The swimming woman was pinned on top of the pool.

“How does this work?”

“Well, when I complete a milestone, I move the racer along the pool, representing how far she’s got towards achieving her goal of finishing the project. This animation helps me with my motivation, helps me keep my project management, creativity and stuff on track.”

“You certainly live your job don’t you?”

“Well you should know. ‘Swimming is for Living’ was one of my campaigns, right? So what about your workplace? Do you work like this?”

A grin spread across Matthew’s face. “As you probably already known I’ve taken over from my father and I have huge shoes to fill. I’ve been using the office at the swimming centre because, to be honest, I love swimming and I have loads of friends there. Working at the swimming centre makes me feel more ‘normal’. When your dad is as rich and as powerful as mine, sometimes people forget who you actually are, if that makes sense? All they see is the suit and the pound signs. That’s why I try and dress down and I like to wear the swimming centre uniform. I don’t like to take myself too seriously. I like to base my office there, but there is a little bit of pressure from the board to move me into a more central location. They keep telling me that I need to act ‘more appropriately’. You know the Silver Group doesn’t just own swimming centres, we own shops, theme parks, hotels and the list goes on. My dad was a busy man. So although the swimming centre is my pet project, the board has given me the task of turning around the hotel group too. So I’ve been looking at the hotel chain at the moment. I tend to take a notebook around with me everywhere to see what areas I can improve.”

Sophie’s ears latched onto the term ‘hotel’. This was her chance to softly pitch Clarks’ services. She needed to be subtle. Gentle in her approach. Not the hard sell.

Clarks has actually helped quite a few conglomerates in similar positions. We’ve helped revitalise brands. If you wanted, I could spend a little bit of time with the team to generate a few ideas and see if we could assist you. Only if you wanted us to, of course. I don’t want to be that type of girl who sees pound signs whenever I see you. I kind of like you in your blue shorts.”

Matthew laughed. “I don’t know.” He paused. Sophie understood; there was something more going on here. Their relationship was getting complicated. She saw him so regularly at the pool, was one of his clients essentially, and they were also building a friendship. “What’s your idea for the swimming centres?”

“We’re working on a few different approaches.” She laughed because as she looked at him sitting there, ideas whirred in her brain. For the briefest of moments an image flashed through her mind of Matthew in his swimming trunks. She looked at the carpet. Hadn’t she already steadied her heady thoughts? Then another image of Matthew, without swimming trunks, flew into her thoughts.

She blanked her expression, struggling not to gasp. She swallowed. She couldn’t reveal her dreamy thought of him being naked in a swimming pool.

She’d change the subject, get her head together. Stay professional. “I’m really sorry to have to ask about the hotel chain – it seems to be all you talk about at the moment. It’s stressing you out.” She bit down on her lip, hoping he’d take the hint and change the subject.

“Yeah, a little. But that’s the name of the game.” He shrugged and straightened the collar of his polo t-shirt. His whole demeanour changed and his shoulders shifted back. “So tell me, Miss Smart, what’s your latest campaign idea for the Silver account?” His face became as readable as stone; his gaze was blank. It must be a business trick he’d learnt somewhere, perhaps why the Silvers were multimillionaires.

She flashed her most winsome smile, although she swore in her mind. There were a few ideas that her team had come up with. She wasn’t one hundred percent happy. With a little bit more time thinking, dreaming, they’d get there….

She met his stare with confidence. She grinned, that was another advertising trick she’d learnt – fake it, until you make it.

“I’d rather do a formal pitch with a full art presentation and everything.”

Matthew remained perched on the edge of her desk. “Nah. Just shoot. Tell me what you’ve got.” His gaze still locked with hers. “Like I said, I want to be involved every step of the way. I want to know every idea your team comes up with, just in case you discard it and I love it.”

“Come this way,” she said, her mind whirring fast. Could she do this? Could she come up with a spur of the moment idea on the spot? She knew the team was close. But were they that close?

Playing for time Sophie led Matthew to the white board in the ‘think tank’ space. Her fingers tightened around a blue marker pen as she wrote large capital letters on the whiteboard reading: DINKYs.

“Double Income No Kids Yet. That’s who we’re targeting,” Sophie explained. “Since we’re in the recession, these young professionals still have deep pockets, while everyone else has had to tighten their belts.”

“That seems reasonable….” He followed her into the area and sat down in one of the brightly upholstered sofas, facing the whiteboard. He looked expectantly.

“We know you wanted to use real people and not animation.”

“That’s right.”

“What sells is risqué.”

“Fair enough.”

“We know you like challenges too.”

“Indeed I do,” he said.

Ideas were shooting through her brain. Again, the image of Matthew racing round the pool without swimming trunks, stormed her thoughts. “Have you ever been skinny dipping?” she tried.

“Sorry?”

Excitement funnelled through her veins, she was on the brink of an idea. He had suggested wanting to hear all ideas. He might like this one. “The idea is ‘Skinny Dipping’. Dare to get skinny by ‘dipping’. Since you like challenges, this idea will become the Silver Swimming Centre challenge. It’ll be a competition, using a dare to encourage people to increase their fitness by getting in the water.” She spoke very quickly. “This is only one of the ideas. Of course the rest of our creative team has loads of other creative genius ideas.”

He nodded his head. “Hmmm…..”

“So imagine a girl on the beach. The last frame of the commercial is where a girl throws her bikini top at the camera. Of course we don’t have nudity in the shot and instead a shadow runs into the water. It’s not exactly X-rated and the public won’t object.’”

Matthew’s expression remained deadpan. “You ever skinny dipped before?” He didn’t even blink.

“Pardon?” A quiver coursed through her and she folded her hands.

“Well you did ask me.”

“That’s true,” she said.

“Have you ever taken your kit off? Skinny dipped?”

She bit her lip. “Um…,” she whispered, hoping he didn’t hate the idea. She frowned. “I didn’t expect that reaction to be honest.”

He tilted his head. “I see.” He nodded. “A bit of a prude?”

Sophie gave a shaky laugh. “I’m not a prude. I’m just learning to swim, remember? And I was kind of hoping for other feedback: a slight curve of your lips we sometimes call a smile. Gushing, maybe?” She exhaled.

“Well, I guess I’m enjoying making you suffer.”

She closed her eyes, only for a moment. “You hate it.” She ran her hands through her long brown hair. This was a disaster.

“I love it.” He grinned.

“You love it!” Sophie clapped her hands in excitement. “You scared the hell out of me. You had me a bit worried. I think it’s one of my best ideas.”

“But as to my instant reaction.” He shot her a sidelong glance. “I wanted to find out whether you had skinny dipped. I’m assuming not?”

“I’m the girl who’s taking swimming lessons and you’re asking me whether I’ve skinny dipped?” She arched her eyebrows questioningly. “I told you, so now you tell me.”

Sophie noticed his lips twitching. He was definitely flirting with her.

“I didn’t notice any photos of anyone on your desk?” he said, evading her question. “No pictures of family… surprising for daddy’s little girl. I would have thought there’d at least be a picture of him here.”

“Nope, no picture of Dad.”

“Nothing of Mum?”

“Nope.”

“You’re not a photo type of girl then, are you, because there’s nothing of your boyfriend?” Matthew looked down at her hand, examined it for a moment. “Boyfriend is correct, isn’t it? You’re not married are you? Or maybe you swing the other way? I mean, it’s okay whatever your situation is but when it comes to you, I have been known to miss important facts,” he grinned, “like you not being able to swim while working on my own ‘learn to swim’ campaign.”

Sophie shot him a glance. “No, no pictures.”

“No pictures because….”

“Long story. I broke up with someone a little while ago. A man.” She caught Matthew’s expression and laughed. “I can’t believe that I’m clarifying my sexuality which is really quite irrelevant.”

He howled with laughter. “You never know these days.”

“I really don’t know whether that’s a compliment or not.”

“You’re been quite elusive when it comes to some facts.”

She stared at him. “You’ve been quite evasive when it comes to getting into contact.”

“Fair enough.” His gaze twinkled. “So about the boyfriend, what happened?”

“He didn’t like my promotion at Clarks… apparently I work too hard.”

“You do seem to work too hard, considering we’re the only ones here and you’re planning to take more work home. You want to win a chocolate account do you?”

“Yes. Barney’s Chocolate Bars.” A thought occurred to her; why was she telling him all this? Just because he’d asked, it didn’t mean she had to reveal anything about her private life. Yet she knew nothing about him.

“So that was a real explanation about all those chocolate wrappers in your Mary Poppins bag.”

She swivelled to face him directly. “I had to taste each bar. It’s all part of the job.”

“That must have been quite a task for you. Easier than swimming?” Matthew raised an eyebrow. “So how long has your boyfriend been out of the picture?”

“That’s a little tricky – half my stuff is still at his house. But he is seeing someone else.” Sophie’s stomach suddenly tied itself in knots. “I ran into him two days after I’d moved out. I was out buying the dreaded swimsuit and he was with someone else. Possibly an overlap there.”

“Oh,” he murmured. “That sucks.”

“It’s fine. I mean, it’s not fine. You know what I mean. It wasn’t meant to be. My trust in the male population isn’t high at the moment.”

“I understand.”

Sophie’s heart beat rapidly. She looked down at her hands as they twisted in front of her. She threw a glance back in his direction. “What about you? What’s your story now that I’ve revealed all my deep dark secrets?”

He gave a small laugh. “I’m single, I suppose. But my heart is kind of attached.”

“Really? That sounds complicated. Why did you want the surfing wallet so much, was it about that?”

“I suppose I’ll have to tell you at some stage. The surf wallet, your surf wallet, as funny as it sounds, it was the exact same wallet that my girlfriend, Rebecca, had when she was fifteen. When I saw yours the memory really took me back and I couldn’t help but think of her. That’s why I wanted the wallet. My girlfriend – fiancée really – Rebecca… she died about eighteen months ago. It was a boating accident.”

Sophie paled. “Oh, God. I’m so sorry.”

“She would have liked you,” he said, after a while.

“Oh,” Sophie said awkwardly.

“We’d been together for so long, since high school, that the oddest thing is that every place I go has a memory of her. Whether it’s something she did or something she said. The memories used to flood back in waves. I was literally afraid to go anywhere because a memory would appear. A memory of being together at the pool, or racing around the supermarket, or the time I taught her how to drive. Every place would stir reminders and I’d be back with her. It hurt so much knowing she’d never come back and there was nothing I could do about it.”

Sophie swallowed. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be.”

“I was so angry when she died. How could she leave me? We were supposed to be together, forever. And I know it wasn’t her fault, but she’d gone somewhere I couldn’t follow. So, I decided to do different things so I wouldn’t reminisce anymore. That’s when everything changed….”

She gave him a curious look. “How so?”

“Just small things. I started driving different routes, even if it was an hour out of my way, because I remembered all the roads to her house. I sold my car. Got rid of the bed linen and bought masculine black silk sheets. I was trying to be manlier since I didn’t have to compromise anymore.” He chuckled. “I quit swimming. I moved house.” He paused. “I now go to different coffee shops and restaurants. But doing things differently doesn’t change the fact that she’s not around, that she’s gone. I finally realised that I couldn’t forget her, couldn’t just change everything in my life and erase her memory.”

“Definitely.”

“I couldn’t avoid some things forever, like swimming – and if she ever found out I’d quit swimming she’d be so angry at me. So, I got back in the water, for her really. And I started coaching again. To be honest I only started coaching again when I met you. She’d have been mad at me if I hadn’t tried to help.” Matthew grabbed Sophie’s hand and gave it a squeeze. Electricity pulsed between them. “Thanks to you, I met someone who made me think getting in the water was still important.”

Sophie now knew why, despite having hotels to worry about, Matthew had set up his headquarters at the Highbury pool. It was for Rebecca.

“I’m mad at myself for trying to forget her. That’s why I wanted your wallet. I would have paid thousands of pounds for it because of all the memories the wallet brought back for me. I was so stupid trying to forget her, because now when I close my eyes I can’t really remember how her voice sounded or how tall she was. My memory’s fading, and I feel so stupid for trying to forget her when I should have been trying to hold onto the small part I had left.”

“You must miss her so much.”

“I do, I did. I thought she would be mad at me for living normally and being happy, but then I realised she’d want me to be happy.”

“Of course she would.”

“I try not to think about her, but I guess moving on will come in time. It wasn’t meant to be.”

“I’m sorry.” Sophie’s mind was whirling. “It’s okay. You’ll be alright in time.”

“So, I’m in this strange position, single and out of the game for a long, long time. I’m not sure if I’m actually ready to dive back in yet. I don’t know.” He shoved his hands in his pockets.

“The heart’s complicated.”

“Miss Smart, I have a proposition for you.”

“The last time you had a proposition for me, you wanted my wallet. Then you offered me swimming lessons. I’m not sure if I want to hear it.”

“Come on. Take a risk on me. Trust me.”

Sophie blushed as he gazed at her intently. “Why don’t we go for a drink? Let’s get you out of this office. Forget about things we can’t control. I need to dig myself out of self-pity. Besides, I think it’s time for you to further develop your work-life balance, because quite frankly, there’s no one else here. Why should you be here? And after this chat, I feel like getting really drunk.”

She paused for a moment. Assessed him. He was a client after all. “Okay,” she said slowly. “Sure, it’ll be fun.” Her knees felt all wobbly, like they weren’t her own, and she wondered if he’d call friends to join them or whether it would just be the two of them.

Almost as if he’d read her mind, he spoke, “I have a few friends from the pool. They’re always up for a drink or two.”

Sophie didn’t know whether to feel relieved or put out. They wouldn’t be going together, alone. “I could call my flat mate Carol and my best friend Mickey.”

With a grin and a gesture, Matthew indicated the way out of the office.

Chapter 10

 

 

Sophie stood next to a tanned lifeguard she’d seen at the Highbury Aquatic Centre. The lifeguard loomed over her. He looked like a triathlete – even in the midst of winter he wore a sleeveless shirt emphasizing his large biceps and angular back. Sophie clutched a glass of vodka and lime with soda, resisting the urge to run her hand over his muscles.

“It’s nice to go out midweek,” the lifeguard said. “Matthew mentioned your friends might be coming later on?” He seemed to ignore everyone else in the bar as he spoke to her. Was he chatting her up? Possibly, from the way he studied her, although he did ask about her friends.

Sophie blushed beneath his scrutiny. “Yeah, my flat mate and my best friend,” she replied. She sipped her drink, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Matthew, deep in conversation with the attractive female bartender, shoot her a look. Matthew had mentioned something about buying tequila shots but he was surely discussing more than just his order. Sophie smiled and focused on the lifeguard.

“Typical for Matthew, all the girls love him. He’s always surrounded by women. But you’re the only one who got him back into coaching.” The lifeguard chuckled. “What’s your name?” He stood extremely close to her.

“Sophie,” she answered. “Yours?”

“Josh.”

“So, do you like tequila shots, too?”

“Ha!” Josh threw his head back and laughed. “Do I ever?”

“Sophie,” a voice shrieked. She turned and Carol threw her arms around her neck. “Guess what?” she said, her face radiating joy and excitement.

“What?” Sophie leaned forward.

“I’m in a new dance company. And, I’m the understudy for the principal dancer in Swan Lake!” Carol jigged on the spot. “The show is on through Christmas and for three months after the New Year. I’m going to be the most diligent understudy ever – so much so that they’ll wish they’d picked me for the Swan Queen. I have a huge future, they’re even touring next year, all the way round Europe.”

Sophie whooped for joy. “Congratulations!” she grabbed her friend’s hands, jumping up and down with her on the spot. “This calls for a massive celebration. Let me get some champagne!”

“Congratulations,” Josh interjected, his gaze scanning Carol’s slim physique. “Sorry, I didn’t get your name.”

She extended her hand. “Call me Carol.” She winked at him conspiratorially. “Who are you handsome?”

“I’m Josh.” He held Carol’s hand, shaking it for longer than was necessary. “I’m a lifeguard at the pool where Sophie has lessons.”

“Are you the swimming instructor?” Carol asked sweetly.

Josh’s focus had shifted, of course. Sophie felt envy ripple through her but shrugged it off. How could she have forgotten… men and their short attention spans, they’d cheat as soon as they were bored.

Matthew raced over, setting down a tray of tequila shots studded with lemon wedges. “Carol or Mickey?” He examined Carol with interest.

“Matthew this is Carol. She’s my wonderful flat mate, the one I was telling you about. Guess what? She just got into a new dance company and is dancing in Swan Lake.”

Carol beamed. “I was a little worried when I couldn’t get work but this fantastic dance company heard I was on the market. I got in as the lead’s understudy so I still might get my chance at stardom. Phew!”

“You should also try out for the camera,” Josh said. “You’d be pretty good.”

Carol was pretty and slim. She would look marvellous on camera, Sophie thought. She decided to try to convince Carol to audition for advertising campaigns; Clarks held loads of auditions for all sorts of clients.

“I love the stage. I just love to perform in any capacity though,” Carol sighed dramatically. “Anyway, if you’d like to, come and see me in Swan Lake. The understudy dances in the ensemble, a minor role for regular performances. Please, won’t you, Soph?”

“Of course,” Sophie smiled. “I’d love to.”

Carol eyed Josh and Matthew pointedly. “What about you two?”

“Um… Okay.” Matthew nodded.

“Okay Sophie,” Carol directed. “I’m trusting you to make sure he sees the performance. It’s amazing how men back out of things.”

“I won’t back out.” Matthew looked slightly offended. “I’ll even take Sophie to see your show. Give me all the details.”

“Good, good,” Carol insisted. “I’ll hound Sophie until she buys you both tickets.”

Josh interjected. “I’d love to see more of you.”

Carol smiled. “Now you,” she said, a manicured nail landing softly on Josh’s chest, “are welcome to see more of me.” She looked around the bar. “So where’s Mickey? I’m sure she’ll definitely come to my show. You guys can all go as a group.”

“I just got a text from her, something about an emergency at the coffee shop – she can’t make it tonight,” Sophie said. “But she’ll come to see you perform. I’m positive.”

Carol turned to Matthew. “So you’re Mr. Swimming Coach.”

“Is that what she calls me?” Matthew enquired curiously. “People also call me Matthew.” He turned to face Sophie and she suddenly felt embarrassed under his gaze.

“It’s true. You are my swimming coach.” Sophie grinned. “At home, I call you the ‘taskmaster’.”

“I see.”

“Well, Matthew, you must be truly amazing if you’ve got her out of work and finally having fun. I never get a chance to see her out any night,” Carol said.

“She doesn’t go out?” Matthew shot Sophie a grin. “I’ll bet she chains herself to her laptop.”

“If she was an environmentalist, she’d be out tree hugging and camped in front of bull dozers. That’s how passionate she is about her job,” Carol drawled. “The way she goes on and on about her different campaigns at home….”

Josh was surly. “She needs to get a life. No one likes their job that much.”

“I do,” Sophie said, lifting her chin.

There was a chorus of laugher. Carol chuckled at Sophie’s discomfort. “I agree with you, Josh, she needs to get a life.”

“Let’s all help with that.” Matthew winked pointedly at Sophie. “Let’s insist that tonight Sophie gets a life.”

“I’m here. Right in front of you all.” Sophie lifted her chin indignantly. “I wouldn’t say I’d do tree hugging.”

“If you were a vet, you’d be sleeping in the cages with the animals. You’d probably even have cats sleeping on your cardigans,” Carol teased. Although, Sophie thought, Carol could hardly talk from the look of her long feline fingernails.

“There’s nothing wrong with liking your job. You love dancing,” Sophie pointed out.

“I also live a bit. Matthew, let’s take bets. I bet she won’t stay out long. Work you see… too important.” Carol arched an eyebrow and Sophie could have hit her.

“I’m still here,” Sophie said flatly.

“She gets terribly cranky sometimes. All that work.” Carol shook her head knowingly.

Josh hadn’t taken his eyes off Carol. “Let’s start up those tequila shots.”

“Up for the challenge, Soph?” Matthew raised a lemon slice to Sophie. “How long will you stay out on a Thursday night to have fun?”

“I have fun and I do stay out. And I like a challenge.” Sophie raised her shot glass as a signal that she wouldn’t back down. This could get dangerous, two handsome men at the bar with tequila shots to start and a bottle of champagne on the way.

Matthew lifted a shot of tequila in acknowledgement. “You’re on.” He tipped the drink down and Sophie followed suit, pouring the amber liquid into her mouth. The tequila tasted ghastly and instantly warmed her from the inside.

“I have a nickname for you too,” Matthew said. “If I’m Mr. Swimming Coach, well, you’re Miss Fun-Time.”

“Miss Fun-Time?” Sophie half smiled. “You make me sound like a Thai hooker.”

Matthew shrugged. “How would I know what Miss Fun-Time gets up to in her spare time?”

“She’s not having fun with you,” Josh joined in.

“Tequila time, Sophie? Rinse and repeat,” Matthew said, pulling the tray of shots closer.

Sophie had no choice but to participate. She was surprised to find it felt good to let go.

 

***

 

After the pub closed, the four decided the night was still young. The guys bought two more bottles of champagne and the girls invited them to their flat. Even though it was November, they went outside to stand in the overgrown garden, wearing coats, mainly because Carol smoked. The outdoor table was soon filled with champagne flutes and empty bottles. Carol filled an entire ashtray with cigarette butts.

Carol played the Spice Girls and Michael Bublé. Every now and then one of the neighbours yelled over the back fence, telling them to be quiet.

“I always wanted to be a Spice Girl when I was young,” Sophie pretended to whisper to Carol.

“What a great Spice Girl you would have been,” Carol said. “I’d be Sporty Spice because I’m a dancer. Baby Spice with her blonde hair just doesn’t fit me.”

“I’d be Posh Spice and if Mickey was here, with all her red hair, she’d have to be Ginger Spice.”

“Can we stop all this talk about the Spice Girls?” Josh laughed.

“Not manly enough? Let’s do something else. I know, we’ll have a piggy back race,” Matthew said. “Sophie, you’re in my team.”

“You’ll probably drop me.”

“You’ll just have to trust that I won’t. Besides, I think we already successfully work together.”

He had a point. With all their bobbing at the pool, they looked like synchronised swimmers. Sophie leapt from her seat, springing onto Matthew’s back. Her legs wrapped round his slim waist. She ran her hands over his muscular back, appreciating his square shoulders.

Carol was suddenly clutching Josh, legs around his waist, grappling to find her balance.

“They’re going to win. She’s so light and thin,” Sophie whispered in Matthew’s ear.

“I’ve got a plan.” His voice was low.

She leaned closer toward his neck. “What is it?”

“Let’s just have fun.”

“Fun and not winning?”

He nodded. “It’s not always about the winning, it’s the journey.”

“Okay,” Sophie agreed. “Let’s do this for fun then.”

On the count of three, they raced the length of the garden, sidestepping weeds and bushes. Matthew steamed ahead for two strides, carrying Sophie as if she were light as a feather. Then the inevitable happened, and he stumbled on some bricks, falling onto a bush. As they tumbled to the ground Sophie laughed until her stomach hurt.

“Victory!” Josh cried as he reached the far end of the garden, before carrying Carol all the way back to the door.

“You okay?” Matthew asked.

“Grand,” Sophie said, touching her knee, feeling a bruise. “You?”

“Perfect,” he stood up, grabbing her hand.

As Matthew pulled Sophie up, she glanced back at the flat. Carol and Josh had disappeared inside, looking for warmth and a heater.

Matthew still held onto her hand, and desire took over. Sophie shook herself.

This was Matthew, her client. She shouldn’t mix business and pleasure. Besides, he’d told her not long ago about his ex-girlfriend. Sophie knew she wasn’t ready to get involved with anyone yet, not after Derek, so how could he be?

“So,” she said, feeling her body stiffen a little, all men were the same weren’t they? Sophie extracted herself, removing her hands from his by brushing down her coat. “It’s kind of cold isn’t it? Want to go inside?”

“Yeah.” He said turning away immediately, taking a few empty bottles from the garden table. “Do you still want to go and see Carol’s show with me? I mean, I don’t want to break a promise but I don’t want to make you do something you don’t want to do.”

“Like the swimming?” she said as they walked into the kitchen. Sophie placed the glass bottles in the trash.

“You’ll grow to love the swimming,” he replied. “So how about it? Should we go, or should we give it a miss?”

She noticed Carol and Josh, making out intensely on the couch. The girlfriend code was to give them space, and she found herself alone in the kitchen with Matthew.

“Sure, we should totally go to the ballet. Um…you know I just recently broke up with Derek.”

“It’s just the ballet.” He shrugged. “Anyway Carol was saying it would be a group thing with your friend, Mickey, going too. There’s no pressure. It’s just a night out with a group of people to support Carol.”

“We should go. I’ll talk to Mickey. But the reason I brought up Derek is because you see, half my stuff is still at his place.”

He nodded a few times as if deep in thought. “I think you need to go and get your things.” His eyes locked with hers.

It felt like thousands of tiny shivers ran through her body. “I think you’re right,” she said, pulling her eyes away from his.

“Do you need some help?” He thrust his hands in his pockets. “I mean, I’ve got a car and can help and all that. You can’t move on with your life while your stuff is still at his place.”

Sophie nodded. She had an idea. “I know. I’m going to ring him and arrange it for this weekend. Saturday. I’m going to pick everything up on Saturday. There’s no time like the present.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep. I’m going to call him and arrange it all.”

Matthew’s face looked suddenly stricken. “You don’t mean now. Sophie? It’s late. It’s not a good idea.”

Sophie felt confident, with alcohol whirling through her body. “No, I’m going to ring him.”

“You’ve had quite a few drinks. Trust me. You’ll regret it.” He looked intensely at her.

“No, this is perfect.”

“You could always send a text if you feel like you must. A text is not so in-your-face as a 2 a.m. wake-up call.”

“I’m doing it.”

“I want you to ask Carol first. Ask Josh, even ask Mickey, but it’s not a good idea to drink and dial.”

“Don’t you want to help me?” She glanced quickly at him. “I thought you’d to be on my side.”

“Trust me when I tell you this: It’s not a good idea. And you can trust me to help you, but I think you’ll feel much better in the morning. Even though you’ll probably be all hung over and stuff. Sleep on it, okay,” he urged.

“Okay, but just so I know, you’re free this Saturday, the day after tomorrow which is Friday? Is that correct?”

He nodded his head vigorously. “Yes, tomorrow is Friday and I’m free on Saturday.”

“So you’ll be helping me move my things out of Derek’s?” Sophie found her mobile phone, and started running down the numbers, searching for his name. A for Adam. B for Ben. C for Catherine, Claire, Clyde.

“Yes, we’re on, but don’t call now.” He snatched the mobile phone from her hands.

“We’re not on if I can’t call, we’re only on for Saturday if you… if you….”

“If I what?” Matthew asked and his eyes twinkled. “If I what, Sophie?”

“We’re only on for the move if I can make this call!” Sophie thrust her hand out.

Matthew shoved the mobile phone deeper into his front jeans pocket. “You’ll have to get into my jeans if you want to call him. Trust me. You’ll thank me in the morning.”

“Do all girls thank you in the morning?”

He threw his head back and roared with laughter. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” His voice was playful. “But I guess you’ll have to move your stuff from your ex’s place first.”

Sophie’s eyes darted from his face, to his jeans where the mobile phone bulged, and then back to his dancing eyes. “Is that a challenge?”

A dimple formed on his cheek. “I dare you,” he said, nodding coyly. “You’re the girl who likes challenges, Miss Skinny Dipping.”

Sophie lunged at him. He was on.

***

Sophie woke up. Matthew was sprawled on the timber floor beside the couch. She jolted, lifting her body into an upright position. Her head spun round like she’d been riding a carousel for hours. Nausea rippled through her body. Her frenzied hands patted down her body like an airport security guard.

T-shirt, on. Jeans, on. She was fully clothed. Matthew’s shirt rode up showing his flat stomach, but despite the absence of his shoes and socks, he was also completely dressed.

She closed her eyes briefly, she was lucky this time; in the past she’d been known to make a drunken move. She rolled her eyes as images flashed through her mind. They’d flirted outrageously, she knew that.

Matthew slept on the floor. There was no one else in the room, just Matthew groaning. Sophie ran her hands through her hair, imagining the state it must be in, and like a burglar she quietly lifted herself up from the couch. Her stomach revolted at the movement.

She crept upstairs and past the bathroom, seeing Carol leaning over the sink, removing her makeup from the night before. Sunlight streamed into the bathroom: That was not a good sign. In November, it was always dark in London in the morning. Sophie’s throat felt like she’d swallowed ten razor blades. She could see Carol’s wide grin, from ear to ear.

“Do you know what time it is? I’m going to be so late for work.”

“Eight I think?”

“Shit. Oh my God, my dad’s coming round here. Remember, he’s lost his job and I was going to explain to him how I’d moved out.”

“Sure, sure. No worries. I’ve got rehearsal all day anyway. I won’t be around.”

“What happened last night? I have the strangest memories,” Sophie said.

Carol’s face shone, radiating happiness. She threw a dirty cotton ball into the sink and grabbed Sophie by the hands. Carol suddenly swung Sophie around the bathroom. Wisps of hair floated around Carol’s forehead, her hair tumbling around her shoulders.

“I think I’m in love,” Carol said.

Sophie stopped, clutching her stomach. “What?” The spinning wasn’t helping her hangover.

“Josh… he’s so amazing,” Carol said. “He left a few hours ago. Matthew was passed out… we couldn’t wake either of you.”

“I’m really happy for you.” As Sophie spoke Carol beamed. “Carol… Can you tell me what else happened?” She paused. “Did I do anything with Matthew? I can’t remember a thing.”

“Well,” Carol started. “He saved you from yourself. You were insistent on drinking and dialling, but he stopped you.”

A slight memory flicked in Sophie’s mind. “Oh God, that’s right. Why would he do that for me?”

“So you didn’t come across as a complete desperado, calling your ex in the middle of the night. So you could do it when you were sober.”

“Oh. That was nice.”

“Yes, it was nice of him. But,” Carol continued, “you forced him to ring Mickey, and she’s arranging for you to get your things on Saturday.”

“No, no….” Sophie’s chest constricted. “If I do that, it’s really over. Really and truly over. Not temporary.”

Carol sighed. “Derek’s seeing someone else, Soph. He cheated on you and he hasn’t even tried to apologise to you about it. Besides, Matthew’s agreed to help you. He insisted, offering to help you move from your old apartment. He’ll be a hunk of a mover and you’re both going to my show. I can’t figure out whether it’s a date or just as friends. How did that even get into the bargain?”

“I have no idea. What the hell am I going to do? I can’t move my stuff.”

“You need to. Even if Matthew’s just a friend, he’ll help you get your things. You need to move on.”

“Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“Just run with it. Go with the flow. Matthew’s a nice guy. Harmless – and hot.”

Chapter 11

 

 

Sophie ran down the stairs, to where Matthew lay on the floor, comatose. She needed to get him up off the floor. Using a slim finger she prodded him.

“Morning Matt,” she said.

He opened a bleary eye. “Matt?” he said, shutting his eyes. “Am I already saddled with a new nickname? What happened to Mr. Swimming Coach? Taskmaster?”

“You’ve got to get up.”

“Little Miss Persistent.” He rolled over. “That’s what I’ll call you.”

“No, I don’t like that.” But it was better than Miss Fun-Time. Thank God he’d forgotten about that nickname.

“Miss Pest.” He cackled and rolled around on the floor. God, he was still drunk.

“Nope.” Sophie bit her lip. She had to stop seeing any humour in his responses or she’d never get him out of there.

“Oh, right. You preferred Miss Mermaid. Pardon me, I forgot.”

“My dad’s going to be here any minute. You need to get up and go.”

“What is the time now? I’ll call a car, a taxi… how about we find that same driver that almost killed me that night?” He barked with laughter.

“Or you could walk to the pool; it’s not far.” Sophie offered a solution. She was a solutions type of girl.

“Now there’s a possibility.”

“Here, have something for the headache.” She handed him a tablet and a glass of water, and he took them both, sitting up and groaning. “How about I help you stand up. My dad really is going to be here soon. Remember he’s seeing my new place for the first time.”

“Oh God.” Matthew held onto the coffee table. “Am I going to throw up?”

“If you need to, please let me know first so I can grab a bucket.” Sophie’s voice was filled with mock seriousness. What was she going to do if he vomited all over the floor? Should she open a window to let in fresh air?

“I’ve met your dad. He’s cool. Maybe I should just stay… we could chat a bit. We really got along Soph.” Matthew collapsed back down onto the floor, closing his eyes.

“He won’t like you if he sees you now. He’ll think….”

Matthew opened his eyes. “Would that be so bad? After all, you were trying to get into my jeans all night.”

Sophie couldn’t help but laugh. Then she stopped, adopting a serious expression. “Dad would get the wrong idea about me and you. He’d think there was more to us, considering….”

“Considering….”

“I work for you. He’d think I was sleeping around with my clients to get a promotion and the fact is we’re. We’re, um…” She stopped. What exactly were they? Client and consultant? Swimming instructor and aquaphobe?

“We’re what?” he persisted, his eyes settling on hers.

“Um….”

“I’ll tell you what, we’re going to the ballet together as a group of friends,” he declared as a dimple formed on each cheek. “Whatever that means, but we both agreed and you want to go with me.” He pointed at her.

“Carol did ask you.”

“Come on Soph, admit you want me to come, and maybe you might even like being in my company and might stop hating me because of all the swimming lessons. So for the moment I suppose we’re friends, aren’t we?”

He was still drunk. How did she answer a question like that? “Yes,” she said slowly. “So, I guess, we’re friends,” she said, carefully. “Yes, just friends… that settles it, doesn’t it? And now you’ve got to go.” Sophie was beginning to panic. This wasn’t the time to get into a deep conversation.

“Yeah, yeah.” He nodded, closing his eyes again. “It’s hard being daddy’s little girl. You’ve to keep up appearances and that must get tiring.”

“You need to get up.” Sophie reached for his hand as the door buzzer rang. “Get up quick,” she urged, grabbing his arm. As muscular as he was, his body flopped like a rag doll. He stood and wobbled, barely able to take a step. Why was he the only one still plastered? These athletic types can never hold their alcohol. “It’s got to be Dad.”

Carol stared from the hallway, looking deeply concerned. “What are you going to do with him?”

“I’ll put him in my room while you answer the door.”

Carol raised her eyebrows. “All right.”

“Matthew, upstairs,” Sophie instructed him in a serious tone.

“I’ve met him before,” Matthew insisted. “It will be fine. Remember, at the pool? We’re buddies.”

“No. No. No. It won’t be fine.” She pulled Matthew’s hand and practically dragged him up the stairs and along the corridor to her doorway. “Here, this is my room.” Sophie pushed the door open.

“Well I’ve been waiting for this invitation… you left it so long.” He swayed slightly on the spot. “So do you really consider us friends?”

“Yes, of course.” She tapped her foot on the carpet.

He studied Sophie’s bedroom for the first time. “Holy crap,” he breathed, freezing at the doorway, his eyes darting around wildly.

“Get in,” she hissed.

“How?” His eyes were round as he looked at the boxes everywhere.

“Shimmy.”

“Shimmy?”

“Yeah, shimmy. They’re just boxes. Hide under the covers.”

Doubt flickered across his face. “Is it safe?”

“Yes.”

“You really haven’t moved in yet, have you?” His voice was filled with concern. “Are we still on for tomorrow, our Saturday move?” How did he remember that, considering how drunk he was – how drunk he still seemed to be – how did he remember the move on Saturday?

“Just get in.”

He finally slid past the boxes, toward the covers and into her bed. “Your bed’s comfortable.”

Sophie was intrigued by his thought processes. “I’ll see you later. Thanks for going out last night. It was fun.”

“So tomorrow morning, I’ll meet you here. Mickey’s arranging an appropriate time for you and me to collect your stuff. She’s a nice girl at two in the morning.” Matthew mumbled from under the covers.

Sophie swallowed. “Yes, that’s right, you spoke to Mickey. Okay, I’ll be in contact. Thanks for your help. Bye.”

“Um, Soph, if your dad’s never been here before, won’t he want to see the rest of the house? And your room?”

Sophie swallowed. “Er, right….” Sophie slammed the door and panted. He was right.

Sophie noticed Carol at the entrance, the front door was open. “Hello,” Carol said, as Sophie raced down the stairs.

Roger stifled his astonishment as he scanned Carol’s loud outfit. Sophie quickly introduced them.

“Mr. Smart, I can see now where Sophie gets her good looks from,” Carol beamed.

Roger’s face turned slightly pink. “What a lovely thing to say.” A smile spread across his face.

“Well, it was nice to meet you.” Carol abruptly embraced Roger, pulling him into a hug.

“Nice to meet you, too, Carol.” Roger stiffly patted Carol on the back. “It’s a pleasure, and I can see my daughter is in great hands.”

Carol released Roger from her clutches. “I’d better be off. Have a great day.” With a slight wave she bounded out of the front door, closing it behind her.

“This is the flat.” Sophie motioned. “I haven’t quite unpacked yet. So I won’t show you my room today.” Especially with Matthew in her bed.

“I don’t mind seeing a few boxes,” Roger said.

Sophie laughed shrilly. “We’ll do the downstairs first.” She led her father into the flat. His gaze darted around, taking in the features of the place.

“This is the lounge.” Sophie indicated, as they walked into the sitting room.

“It’s nice and airy.” Roger examined the skylight in the middle of the room. “It will be lovely in summer.”

Sophie’s heart constricted. “Just to be clear, Derek and I…we’ve broken up.”

His face crumpled in sympathy. “I thought as much. Did you leave him?”

“He asked me to choose between him and my job,” she admitted. “He’s met someone else. There may have been an overlap. I can’t be sure yet.”

“Arse.” Roger spoke through clenched teeth. “I’m so sorry, Soph. You don’t need a guy like that. Are you okay?”

She gave him a quick little nod, keeping her spirits up; there would be no wallowing in misery.

“You’re a survivor aren’t you?” He shook his head. “I can’t break this news to your mother. You know she loved Derek and will have a million questions. You should tell her.”

“It’s fine Dad,” Sophie agreed. “I’ll tell her.”

“When did you…move?”

Sophie hated to say it. “A few weeks ago,” she admitted, realising her dad must have lost his job even earlier than she’d broken up with Derek.

“Let’s check out, upstairs.”

“You know what,” Sophie said gesturing around. “Mickey insisted that I take you to visit her coffee shop before rush hour. I’m not sure if you’ve ever been there. It’s close by and Mickey’s determined to have you visit her.”

“You told her that I’d been made redundant?”

“I told her that you were in the area.” She led her father outside the apartment and released a breath she didn’t know she had been holding. “If I have to be truthful, then so do you. You can practice on Mickey. It will help you learn the right phrases to explain the situation to Mum.”

Chapter 12

 

 

Mickey’s face was a picture of surprise when Sophie and Roger arrived at Beans. The café was already heaving, with customers queuing outside, while Mickey rushed round the counter preparing orders. The café was famous for Mickey’s skinny cappuccino.

The café was efficiently run, orders whipped through at flying speed. The décor was trendy, with wooden tables. Large armchairs circled a fireplace in the corner which currently burned wood; warmth flowed round the café. The chairs were soft enough to sink into, but Mickey had found the perfect balance, ensuring they weren’t too comfortable for customers to fall asleep in. There was also a courtyard with a small garden at the back of the café, which was used mostly in the summer, or for smokers.

Mickey brewed their drinks and left her post to join Sophie and Roger. She charmed Roger, even commented on how well he looked and asked him polite questions.

Roger felt overwhelmed by the attention from Mickey and even explained his redundancy situation. This was quite a development, admitting he’d lost his job.

Although, behind Mickey’s cool, green eyed gaze and her polite questions, there were hundreds of questions she hadn’t asked. Mickey scanned Sophie’s dishevelled appearance and her outfit, and raised her eyebrows when she noticed Sophie’s mismatched shoes. She discreetly offered her own makeup case.

Roger eventually excused himself to go to the toilet.

“Hung over at all?” Mickey asked.

“No. But I’m in a mess. Matthew’s in my bed and –”

“Matthew, the guy on the phone, he’s in your bed?” Mickey gasped and her mouth dropped. “Don’t worry, I’ve spoken to Derek and it’s all sorted for Saturday. No wonder you wanted to call Derek last night. It’s all making sense with Matthew in the picture.”

Sophie felt a sinking sensation, like a stone falling to the pit of her stomach. “So you’ve already been in touch with Derek?”

Mickey nodded. “You’re to collect your belongings while Derek plays football. That way you won’t have to talk to him or see him, unless you want to, of course. Derek didn’t seem to think you’d want to.”

Sophie twisted her hands. “Whatever, I don’t mind.” She wasn’t sure how she felt about completely avoiding Derek. She still had unresolved questions.

Mickey eyed her curiously. “You do mind. You do want to see him. Oh Soph, what can I do?” She slung an arm around Sophie’s shoulders and squeezed. “I’m so sorry. If I’d known you’d wanted to chat to him I’d have made different plans. But at two in the morning, I gathered there was some urgency…I can call Derek up and change things.”

Sophie waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter. I mean what more can he say? He cheated.”

Mickey bit down on her lip. “Soph, not only did Derek cheat, but he still hasn’t bothered to call you, not even once since you left.”

Sophie tried to smile brightly, her lips trembling as she tried to force them into position. “Well onwards and upwards. I’d better not get too emotional about it as I’m off to work this morning.”

“There’s also Matthew in your bed. So it is indeed onward and upward. You go girl!”

Sophie shook her head. “It’s not what you think. I don’t have time to explain.”

“You don’t have to explain anything to me. It’s about time you started seeing other people. Derek treated you badly.”

Sophie ran her hands through her hair. “It’s not that. You see, Matthew’s still in my flat. Well I presume he’s still there. Dad’s been made redundant and he’s spending the day at my flat. I’ve got to make sure Matthew’s out of my room.”

“…and you don’t want your dad to run into Matthew. Otherwise he’ll know you’ve been shagging him all night.”

“It’s not like that. But we’re to go to the ballet together and watch Carol. You’re invited too.”

“The ballet? Most men don’t like the ballet. How did that happen?”

“It’s a long story. Carol’s got a job in Swan Lake and she wants us to go, you too….”

Mickey shrugged. “Are you sure you want me to go?”

“Yes,” Sophie said.

“I’ll have to bring someone along.” She scratched her chin in contemplation. “I mean I don’t want to be a third wheel.”

“Look Mickey, I need a favour. Could you possibly look after dad for about an hour? Keep him busy while I get Matthew out of my house?”

“I’ll do my best but there’s only so much we can do at a café. Perhaps we’ll do some latte art together.”

“I’ll appreciate whatever you guys do together. I’d better go as soon as dad gets back.”

 

***

 

Sophie eventually arrived at Clarks and almost immediately Bradley waved her into his office. As Bradley closed the door, leaving them alone, a nightmarish realisation swept over her. Something was wrong, very wrong.

His tall figure prowled, circling round the room. She felt like she’d walked into a lion’s den. His gaze flicked up and down until he stopped still. He stood close, too close. She felt goose bumps rushing up her arms as his mint breath touched her cheek; she could hear his breathing. This was one of his intimidation techniques. She’d learned it herself in a sales course he’d sent her on.

“You’re not on your game.” He rubbed the bottom of his chiselled face, a lazy grin appearing. “Kelly’s sealed a new deal. Joey’s Crisps. Signed for the entire chip range.”

She glanced from beneath her lashes. “That’s excellent news.”

“What’s happening with you? Tom Johnson from Barney’s Chocolate Bars. I thought they were practically in the bag?”

“We’ve a date set for a presentation.”

“I might have been wrong about you.”

Sophie shifted uncomfortably on her feet, folding her arms in front of her. “I don’t think that’s the case and I don’t see any reason for that remark.” Bradley’s comment kept revolving through her mind like she was stuck on a carousel. He might have been wrong about her. Might have been wrong? What did that mean? One thing was for sure, she needed to prove herself further. But how? She worked every spare moment she could. She was even attending the swimming lessons.

“You know you’re the same level as Kelly, a Junior Executive.”

“Oh,” she said, a pang hitting her guts as she processed the information. “I’ve increased my billing by fifty percent.”

He scowled and ran a hand through his hair. “The firm’s under immense pressure now. I’ve just agreed that Kelly….”

“Kelly?” Sophie shut her eyes, willing the words not to be true.

“Yes, Kelly, she’s got the killer instinct. She will give the pitch to Barney’s Chocolate Bars. Then maybe she’ll move onto the Silver account. We’ll reshuffle the management team around I think. It will be the best option for everyone.”

“What?” She flicked her eyes open. “You’re ripping me out at this stage? That’s insane. You know I have the relationship with Tom Johnson. We get along like a house on fire.” Sophie stepped back, her thoughts wild and unfocused.

“I’ve made my mind up. I’m sending an email out to the appropriate accounts people at Barney’s Chocolate Bars, letting them know Kelly’s going to lead the pitch. Then after her pitch to Tom Johnson, we’ll discuss how you will proceed in this firm, and on the Silver account.”

Sophie stared at him, speechless. He knew she’d put the hours in just for the chance of pitching to Barney’s Chocolate Bars. Now that she’d been given the go-ahead, he was taking it away from her.

“Please reconsider.” She pinched herself, feeling her nails dig deep into her thumbs. She needed to pull herself together, form an argument, and stop this from happening.

“It’s done. I just don’t know whether I can trust you with Barney’s.”

Sophie left Bradley’s office. An obstinate feeling surged through her body and she tried to push it down. She suddenly felt extremely hardly done by. She’d always put work in front of everything. How long would she keep doing that for? Especially since Bradley obviously didn’t appreciate her.

Her desk phone rang and she picked up the receiver, plastering a smile on her face.

“Hi Sophie, it’s your father. I’ve just got back from Beans and I’m at your place and wanted to ask you about your internet connection. Is that okay? I know you’re often very busy in the office….”

“Call me anytime dad, you know I’m always happy to help,” Sophie said. She explained all the intricacies of wifi. “I forgot to tell you that I’ve set up three recruitment interviews for you if you’re keen? If you can, one of the recruiters can see you this afternoon. Can you make it? I thought with Christmas nearing, it might be good to lock this one in?”

“Of course I can make it Sophie.”

She looked at the receiver. “Dad, do you want to go over the questions they might ask you? We can run through some answers over the phone.”

“If you have time. I know how busy you get there.”

“Of course I have time for you.”

For the first time in ages Sophie decided to prioritise her family. After all, her dad really needed her. He’d lost his job and the police officer had called him a possible jumper. The situation with her dad was serious. Her dad needed her now. Not later. Bradley obviously didn’t have difficulty finding people to support him.

Sophie exhaled, asking questions about Roger’s resume. Her dad wouldn’t turn on her, not like Bradley. Her dad was her priority now and she couldn’t believe he hadn’t been in the first place.

As she coached Roger, a question wound around the back of her brain. What would happen if, God forbid, she was made redundant too?

Chapter 13

 

 

Early on Saturday morning Sophie crouched over the toilet bowl. Even hungover she felt better than she did now as her stomach performed internal gymnastics. Her guts jerked and the mere thought of collecting her things from Derek’s place made her head spin. She uncoiled her fingers from the white porcelain and raked her fingers through her hair.

Get a grip, Sophie.

Matthew was scheduled to arrive at any moment. She was sure to have pale skin, unkempt hair and bloodshot eyes from lack of sleep. She must look much like the resident vampire.

The last time she’d seen Matthew was when she’d been dragging him of her house, when he’d been still quite drunk. Drunk or not, he’d latched onto the fact that he was picking her up for the big move.

She stood up from the toilet bowl, unsteadily at first, and then strode to the bathroom sink. She grabbed her toothbrush and vigorously scrubbed her teeth. She scraped her tongue. She might look like a zombie but no one would accuse her of having rank breath.

Her hands shook as she applied makeup, drawing strokes of eyeliner. She perched between the cartons and suitcases. As she curved on lipstick, her gaze darted around the room. For the first time she acknowledged the half unpacked boxes. Temporary had become permanent. She’d better start getting used to the situation.

She feverishly brushed her long, brown hair. When was the last time she had had a cut? Her hair hung long and straight, to the middle of her back. Not one strand was frizzy. Yet she’d sported the same look for ages. Admittedly her style was conservative, though she wasn’t completely old fashioned. It had been years since she’d last worn a scrunchie or considered hair crimping.

The doorbell rang. Sophie rushed from her room and opened the front door. Matthew stood on the landing, as gorgeous as ever. Her stomach instantly tied itself into knots and she shook off the anxiety that urged her to rush back to the loo.

Matthew wore jeans. The same sexy jeans from the other night when she’d flirted outrageously with him.

“Morning,” he said.

She closed the front door and scanned the street outside. “Where’s the Porsche?” she asked, looking round for his hot car. She hadn’t spoken to him about the practicalities of moving with a Porsche. Every girl loved to ride around in a Porsche, didn’t they? Sophie was no different. Who cared if they had to take a few trips backwards and forwards?

“I have a car habit,” he said and he gestured to a huge black Range Rover.

“That’s such a man thing to say.” She laughed and he laughed back. She nodded, remembering he was a multimillionaire. Matthew probably had six rare vehicles in his mansion’s garage. A Lamborghini was probably sitting there right now. “I drive a Beetle myself.”

“We can drive your Beetle if you like? I don’t mind.” Matthew replied. “Although, I might have more space in my car.”

“Sounds like a plan.” She surveyed Matthew’s manly, four wheel drive vehicle. “I’d be thrilled if you drove. Thanks.”

He opened the passenger door and indicated that she should climb in. He then went round the other side and leapt in himself.

Sophie buckled in and suddenly felt a stab of concern. She swallowed.

“You feeling alright?” he asked, searching her face.

Sophie’s cheeks turned pink with embarrassment. “Sure.” Yet her voice quavered as she replied.

The car accelerated and they were on their way to Derek’s place. Sophie watched as he shifted the gear stick.

Panic suddenly gripped her as the car careered down the empty streets. “We’re going to be early,” Sophie murmured. “He won’t have left for football practice yet.”

“There’s no traffic,” Matthew answered.

“Should we ride around the block or something?” Sophie asked.

“I’ve got a better idea. I’ll take you out for the best coffee in town.”

 

 

***

 

Matthew parked his car on Upper Street in Angel. “Come this way,” he instructed.

They hurried past the bike store, the boutique butcher and the Italian deli. “You know we’re near Mickey’s café.” Sophie guiltily charged past the dry cleaners, recalling she’d left a pair of boots to be repaired there and not picked them up. Sophie knew Angel well, considering she lived in Highbury, the neighbouring suburb.

“I’m taking you to a place that makes the best coffee in town.”

“Wait a second,” she called to Matthew and rifled through her large handbag. She extracted odd items. Of course she had everything else, except the shoe repair docket.

Sophie eyed the little man behind the counter in the dry cleaning store. She hoped he was one of those understanding blokes; surely everyone lost their dry cleaning receipts at some stage? She couldn’t be the only one.

Besides, the shoes had been waiting for collection for at least six months. It wasn’t as if people were breaking the door down, trying to steal them. If the man behind the counter didn’t believe her, then they’d reenact the Cinderella story. Sophie’s foot would glide into her boot and she wouldn’t turn into a pumpkin.

There was a slight tug on her arm. “Sophie what are you doing?” Matthew stared at her, and gestured further along the street. “We’re almost there, shall we continue….”

With a fleeting look at the dry cleaners, she turned to face him. “Just got distracted.” Sophie nodded and followed him further down Upper Street.

He eventually stopped outside a trendy café with large glass panels. An array of pastries and meringues beckoned to customers from the window. Sophie licked her lips from the memory of tasting the chocolate mud cake. She had tasted it several times, for she knew this coffee shop intimately. They stood outside none other than Beans, Mickey’s coffee shop.

Sophie raised her eyebrows. “This is a surprise.” Her fingers coiled into fists.

Matthew beamed. “You wait until you taste the famous skinny cappuccino.” A bell jingled as he pushed open the shop door. The aroma of coffee immediately filled Sophie’s nostrils as she stood in the doorway.

Mickey stood behind the coffee counter, vigorously polishing her coffee machine.

Sophie hesitated stepping inside, her heart beat somewhat louder. She was unsure what was happening here. She felt set up, for this couldn’t be a coincidence. Did the pair arrange this meeting? Was this something to do with Derek?

Sophie turned immediately to face the cake display. Her breathing was fast and she pretended to examine the produce. Her brain worked in overdrive because she felt somewhat betrayed. This was Mickey, the girl she’d known since she was a kid.

The pair of them had arranged an intervention. How dare they interfere?

With hands on her hip Sophie turned round from her position examining the cakes. It was time to give them both a piece of her mind.

She strode to Matthew who already stood at the counter, grinning at the menu. Mickey looked up from polishing her coffee machine. A slight scream escaped Mickey’s lips and she dropped her cloth. Mickey raced round the counter and flung her arms around Matthew’s neck. She hugged him hard.

Sophie’s heart beat fast in her chest as she watched Mickey hold Matthew. Finally Mickey released him and Sophie realised she was invisible, standing behind Matthew. His broad shoulders practically blocked her from Mickey’s view.

“I haven’t seen you for an eternity,” Mickey scolded Matthew playfully. Her green eyes glittered. “Where have you been for the last year? I’ve missed you and our chats.”

Sophie swallowed. Was this coincidence simply that: a coincidence? Her chest tightened, as Mickey threw her head of long red hair back and laughed.

Matthew shrugged. “I’ve been away travelling,” he said. “But I couldn’t stay away from Beans for much longer.”

Mickey laughed and tilted her head flirtatiously up at Matthew. He looked extremely pleased to see her too and ran a hand through his blond hair.

Sophie opened her mouth to speak, yet words failed to form.

“Where’s Rebecca?” Mickey asked and raised a manicured eyebrow.

Matthew flinched at the sound of Rebecca’s name and momentarily avoided meeting Mickey’s eyes.

Realisation struck Sophie and she felt a little light headed. Of course. Matthew and Rebecca must have been customers of Beans.

Matthew gulped. “Michelle, I want you to meet someone.”

“Please call me Mickey.”

“Mickey,” he paused. “This is my good friend Sophie.” He looked back over his shoulder and stepped aside to push Sophie forward. “As I said Soph, this is my favorite cafe in the world. I’ve been coming here since Beans opened.”

Mickey’s jaw dropped. An ear-to-ear grin reached every corner of Mickey’s face. She released a howl of delight.

“Easy tiger,” Matthew muttered as Mickey launched at Sophie and embraced her.

“What are you doing here? Both of you? Together? How do you even know each other?” Mickey’s gaze flittered between the pair.

Matthew stared at Mickey, taking in her long red hair. “You know each other?”

“We certainly do,” Sophie said. “This is Mickey, my best friend. She was supposed to come out that night we had drinks….”

“So you’re not just my fabulous customer Matthew. You’re Matthew Silver, the swimming coach,” Mickey said. “It’s nice to formally meet you.” She extended her hand and the pair grinned moronically and pumped palms.

“Yeah, we spoke on the phone only a few nights ago to organise the big move,” Matthew said wearing a sheepish expression on his face. “Such a small world.”

The light in Mickey’s smile faded. “Um….” A line etched in her forehead.

Mickey grabbed Sophie by the arm and dragged her to the rear of the café, leaving Matthew standing alone by the counter. Mickey gestured madly at the wall. “Recognise anyone?” she said. “There’s a picture of Matthew about five years ago when Beans opened.” She shot a glance over her shoulder, toward him and then looked at Sophie.

“Oh wow, he hasn’t changed a bit.” Sophie touched the picture in the newspaper cutting. A younger Matthew stood next to an attractive girl with long auburn hair and lovely eyes; it could only be Rebecca.

“This is hard to say but….”

“I can’t believe you already know each other,” Sophie interjected.

“This picture was taken when the shop opened,” Mickey whispered. “What I’m trying to say is that … well…I’m not sure if you realise, but Matthew has a long term girlfriend.”

“I know all about Rebecca.”

“So you know they’re together?”

“Pardon?” Sophie cocked her head toward Mickey, focusing her attention on her friend. She wasn’t quite sure how to answer the statement tactfully.

“Or did they break up?”

“I don’t think they broke up but….” Sophie swallowed. “It’s more complex than that.”

“So you know about Rebecca? Sophie how could you….” Mickey hissed, suddenly taking the moral high ground. “What are you going to do? What about the ballet?”

“What’s that?” Matthew said, approaching slowly. “So did Sophie already speak to you about the ballet?”

“Yes.” Mickey’s face was set like stone. “Will Rebecca be coming too? I haven’t seen her for a while.”

Matthew’s face twisted. “I can’t imagine you have.” He swallowed and thrust his hands into his pockets.

“Did you want your usual table?” Mickey’s voice trilled. “The table you and Rebecca always sit at?”

Sophie wiped away a bead of sweat from her forehead as Mickey glared. Her best friend tapped her foot, anger brewed in every part of her body. Mickey wasn’t afraid of a little bit of confrontation. Someone needed to stop her. Everyone knew the temperament of a redhead and Mickey was no different.

Matthew’s face paled and he turned round the room. “How about this table overlooking the garden?” He gestured toward the window and strolled quickly to it. “We’ll try something different for today.”

“Typical.” Mickey’s face was practically red. “Men can never just stick to one thing.” Her words were loaded with meaning.

“This table’s grand,” Sophie said quickly. “Mickey, we can’t stay long. A big move today.”

“Right?” Mickey growled. “So Sophie, you take a skinny cappuccino. Matthew, are you drinking a latte today? Or was your drink the soy chai tea latte….” She paused, obviously floored by the whole interaction with Matthew. “Or was the soy chai tea latte Rebecca’s drink? Does anyone here remember Rebecca?”

“I do remember Rebecca, but that’s not the issue here, or is it?” Matthew asked icily, avoiding Mickey’s glare. “I might order something different. I’ll just have a look at the menu.”

“Unbelievable. So we all know about Rebecca, yet we ignore her. I can’t be a party to this.” Mickey folded her arms. “Did you know Sophie’s last boyfriend cheated on her? You were in Sophie’s bed, she told me. You can’t cheat on Rebecca! Sophie, I’m appalled that you would….”

“Mickey, that’s enough.” Sophie’s whole face turned pink. “Matthew was in my bed but we didn’t have sex. I mean, nothing happened. He’s not cheating on Rebecca.”

“He was in your bed still. What did happen then?” Mickey exploded, her face darted between them both. “Why wasn’t Rebecca there? Did she just shoot off? Just leave the planet? They’re engaged.” Mickey’s face was covered in tiny red spots.

“Mickey it’s all very innocent. Matthew came over and nothing happened….” Sophie ran a hand through her hair.

“Sophie, I know you’re not in your right mind with Derek cheating, but I saw the ring. I heard about the wedding plans. I know they were getting married. You can’t become the other woman. He shouldn’t even have been in your bed.”

“Mickey, could you just listen for a second….” Sophie said, feeling heat flush down her neck. Sophie turned toward Matthew, whose jaw had almost dropped to the table. “Matthew? Could you please explain…”

“Rebecca…She’s…” Matthew blinked. “She’s…”

Sophie’s breathing was hard. She stared at Matthew, flabbergasted at his lack of response. Mickey’s stony expression hadn’t faltered.

“Unbelievable. I’m so disappointed in both of you.” Mickey flicked her mane of hair like an angry lion. She swivelled on her feet and rushed behind the counter.

Sophie plucked a menu from the table carefully. Matthew’s brow furrowed, he appeared absolutely engrossed in his own menu.

“So you used to come here with Rebecca?”

“Yes.” The word was barely recognisable; the vowels sounded choked in the back of his throat. “I can’t avoid all the places I’ve been to for the last ten years of my life. Yet I somehow can’t bear to find the words to explain what happened.” A kaleidoscope of emotions glittered behind his eyes.

“Mickey will keep probing. You’ve got to tell her or she’ll hate you.”

“I don’t care if Mickey hates me.”

Sophie scanned the restaurant and glanced toward the photo of Rebecca hanging up on the wall. It was too much of a reminder for him.

“You need to tell her or she’ll do something rash. She’ll probably spit in your coffee. That’s the type of girl Mickey is. She’s feisty, opinionated and a little overprotective of everyone.”

Matthew snorted and darted a glance at Mickey who shot them a frosty glare. Matthew looked down at the menu and took a few moments before he spoke. His face was contorted. “I’ll sort it out,” he whispered.

“Mickey was obviously very fond of Rebecca and of you. I could tell Mickey if you wanted?” Sophie leaned over the table and gripped Matthew’s hand in encouragement. “She deserves to know, or she might ban you from Beans and that would defeat the purpose of your coming here. Look how irate she is.”

Matthew’s glistening gaze rose to meet Sophie’s. Her heart clenched and she smiled as brightly as possible, trying to pass him some encouragement as she rose from her chair. “I’ll just pop to the loo. I need to do my makeup,” she lied. His gaze flew across her face and he frowned. “I need about fifteen minutes to fix my makeup because I’m a girl, and that’s what we do.”

Sophie left the table and headed to the toilet. What was she going to do down here in the dingy room? She had, of course, already done her makeup – she’d spent hours finishing her hair and makeup this morning. What if he thought she was spending too much time? How mortifying, but she’d take the risk. She needed to give him space.

She examined her watch as she paced the room. She might as well use her time productively. She checked her reflection in the mirror and then speed dialled her dad.

If she was in the toilet, she’d at least give Matthew privacy, and she’d use the time to check in on her father.

“Sophie, how are you?” he said.

“I’m good,” she said. “I’m moving the remainder of my stuff from Derek’s place. I’m severing all remaining ties.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m coping. Please don’t tell Mum yet. I don’t want to speak to her about it until it’s finalised. I don’t want her convincing me that he was the best thing since sliced bread, especially as he cheated.”

“Oh, okay,” Roger replied. “But you will eventually have to mention it.”

“So how did the recruitment interview go, the one I set up for you yesterday?”

“Oh Jeffery, yeah, the interview… He was an absolute arse.”

“What happened? Was he rude?”

“Oh no, he’s pretty clued up as to what people want in the job market. They want intelligent, young people.”

“Great, so he’ll help you.”

“No, I’m serious, sweetheart. He told me to take a long hard look at my options. He said it would be next to impossible in this type of market going against young guns.”

“They won’t have the practical experience you’ve got.”

“He said I was stale. I’ve been at the same job far too long.”

“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Don’t let it get you down. So you’ll see another recruiter. Remember there’s another one set up for next week. It’s good to see a cross section; they’re all different you know. Want me to come with you?”

“I thought I might just circle round London, walk about in the rain on a daily basis.”

“Don’t be like that, you’ll be all right.”

“I can only do my best,” he rasped and his voice trembled.

Sophie stiffened hearing him cry. “Dad,” she started. “I can come with you. Give you moral support.”

“I’ll be fine. I don’t need my little girl running after me all the time.”

“So what time is it again? Next Thursday.”

“I can’t remember.”

“I’ll send you an email reminder.” Sophie paused. “Are we still on for lunch on Monday?”

“We’ll see,” he said. “Look I’ve got to go. I’ll call you if we’re still on for lunch.”

He hung up the phone and Sophie stared into the receiver, feeling awful. She’d upset her dad.

Sophie made a few more phone calls then checked her email on her smart phone. Finally the fifteen minutes was up and she walked up the stairs.

Matthew furrowed his brow. “Did you touch up your lipstick? I like the colour,” he commented.

“Thanks,” she said, although she hadn’t put any more on.

Mickey’s large green eyes were watery as she served their cups of coffee. As they both left, Mickey hugged Matthew hard. “Good luck with the move,” Mickey said and she looked directly at Sophie. “I’m sorry if I overreacted before. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. I’ll see you at Carol’s ballet. I’m thinking of bringing a friend along.”

Sophie raised an eyebrow, about to ask who, but Matthew was already heading out the door.

Back in the car Sophie dared at glance at Matthew, who’d been awfully quiet since leaving the café. “You okay?” she said.

Matthew nodded but remained focused on the road. “That was hard. You were right, it had to be done.” He choked on the words.

“How did Mickey take the news?”

“Mickey’s naming a coffee after her…a specialty coffee to help people always remember her. That’s the way it should be.”

 

***

 

They drove towards the place she used to live in with Derek in the West End. Even after driving around the block about ten times, they must have been early, because as the car drove up, the flat’s front door burst open. Sophie gasped and lurched forward in the car seat. The seatbelt’s strangling force kept her trapped against the chair. Despite her wiggling, there was no choice but to observe the scene in front of her.

Derek lingered outside the Victorian apartment. Tiny goose bumps covered her arms and her whole body shook as if in a cold sweat. She couldn’t quite see Derek’s face because he was turned towards the door. Presumably he was about to deadlock the apartment.

She couldn’t stand watching him any longer and her mind snapped into action. She reached down and released her seatbelt.

Sophie panted and gulped for breath as if she’d run to Derek’s place instead of being driven. “Get down,” Sophie hissed.

Matthew shot a bewildered glance in her direction as she slouched deep into the seat. They’d arrived only moments earlier and parked in a space opposite the apartment. He’d been removing his keys from the ignition. Now his gaze flickered towards the pavement and then back to her.

He lowered his body below the steering wheel and stared oddly at her. “I thought he would have left by now,” he whispered. “Doesn’t he play football religiously every Saturday morning?”

“He does, he’s obsessive about it,” Sophie muttered. “Kind of like how you are with swimming.”

Matthew jolted up in his seat. “Please don’t compare me to your cheating ex-boyfriend.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t comparing. You’re nothing like each other.” She tugged at his sleeve. “I was just saying he likes football a lot. Please come down.”

“So what if he sees me, London’s a big city. He doesn’t even know me.”

“Do you think he was waiting to speak to me? That’s why he hasn’t left?”

“I have no idea.” Matthew sighed. “I’m going to sit here and check him out.”

“What for?” Sophie asked. “He wasn’t your boyfriend. What do you care?”

“I just want to see the type of guy you go for. He’s blonde. Do you call him good looking?”

“Stop it.” Sophie grabbed his arm. “Don’t make fun of me in this situation. I wouldn’t make you confront your ex if you didn’t want to.”

His gaze remained riveted on Derek.

“Gee,” she said finally. “I’d better go and talk to him. Otherwise he’ll think I’m some sort of stalker.” Sophie slid up a fraction and craned her neck to catch a glimpse of Derek. She swallowed at the sight of his handsome face with no dark circles round his eyes. He hadn’t lost weight nor had he put any on. He appeared to be exactly the same.

“What are you waiting for?” Matthew asked.

“I’ll just take a few deep breaths.” Sophie shuddered. “I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.” Her hand shook as her fingers twirled round the door handle.

Sophie closed her eyes. She counted to ten and opened the car door and her eyes at the same time.

Her pulse raced wildly as she jumped onto the pavement. Her gaze darted around the street. “Did he go back inside?”

“He’s gone,” Matthew said and he opened his own door. “You missed your chance.”

Sophie sighed and fought off a combination of embarrassment and disappointment. “Doesn’t matter, he didn’t want to see me anyway. Let’s grab the boxes and move!”

“The question will be, Miss Smart, where ever will you put them all?”

Chapter 14

 

 

With less than one month to go, Christmas was practically on the doorstep. Lights hung in Regent Street, dazzling crowds, creating a festive, frenzied spirit over London shoppers. Hitting the shops wasn’t something Sophie had time to do; she was putting in extra hours trying to finish her projects before the silly season started.

Sophie’s creative team was thrilled about the skinny dipping concept for the Silver account. Desmond, the art director, was particularly excited about the commercial. He was quick to find an actress to star in the national commercial. On paper, his actress was quite green but she had a smile that would sell pool memberships.

Desmond also had the responsibility to find a suitable filming location in Brighton. But he hadn’t yet made the time. With Christmas fast approaching, Sophie would probably need to lend a hand and travel the hour to help him out.

Even Bradley seemed impressed with how the team was operating on the Silver account. He hadn’t taken Sophie off the account – not yet.

Kelly smirked around the office, boasting how she was responsible for juggling too many accounts. She also couldn’t help rubbing in the fact that she was working on the Barney’s Chocolates pitch. Sophie tried to ignore Kelly’s competitive barbs, where Kelly insinuated Sophie was on the firing squad list.

The truth would win out in the end.

There was also a notable absence in her routine: Roger. His recruiter interviews had gone badly. They’d told him that his skills weren’t transferable because he’d stayed at the same place of employment for so long. He’d refused to take anymore of Sophie’s calls, have lunch with her or even visit her flat.

Sophie was still quite worried about her father’s unemployment situation. When her mother, Gloria Smart rang, Sophie oscillated between telling and not telling. What was right and what was wrong? A question haunted her, was there ever a right time to break someone’s trust? She might be hurting her dad more by not letting her mum know about his dire unemployment situation.

“Sweetheart.” Gloria’s voice wobbled. “I don’t know how to say this.” There was a pause. Sophie could hear Gloria hesitating. She imagined Gloria twisting her hands.

“What?” Sophie urged.

“It’s your father.”

“Yes?” Sophie felt herself clutching the phone tightly, almost as if she was strangling the receiver.

“He’s been acting strangely lately.”

Sophie felt overwhelming frustration. “Oh?” She sighed. No shit. He’d lost his job, and not told his wife for months. “So what’s he been doing that’s so strange?”

“Swimming,” Gloria answered, and a slight smile came to Sophie’s lips. At least he was still being active. That was positive. “He says he’s swimming.”

“I see.” Sophie was elated. Her father wasn’t considering jumping in front of a train at least. “What’s wrong with that?”

“He’s never been a swimmer.” Her voice was shrill. “People don’t just wake up one day and start hanging out at the local pool.”

Guilt washed over her. This was the opportunity to speak up, to tell the truth. “Maybe he just wants to get into shape? Mid-life crisis?” It was true, to a point.

“Mid-life crisis?”

Sophie could hear her mother’s mind ticking over. “It’s possible,” Sophie insisted.

“Yes…, yes…, a mid-life crisis,” Gloria gushed. There was hope in her voice. “He’s also being so tight fisted about everything I buy. It’s like he’s counting every penny.”

“He’s probably worried about retirement. You should bring this all up with him.”

“You think I should simply talk to him?”

“Yes.”

“I might. We’ll see.” There was a pause. “I was beginning to think there was something seriously wrong, that he was having an affair and that’s why he’s getting into shape.”

“Oh,” Sophie squeaked.

“There’s something else as well. Do you think you can speak to your dad about Christmas? Your father is insisting that we keep it all low key. No turkey. No pudding. No big expenses. But your sister, she’s so excited. She’s already booked a cottage for us all. I had all of these ideas….”

Sophie’s chest tightened, anxious about the cost of the cottage. Who was going to pay for this? She started gently. “Maybe Christmas at home would be easier.” Her voice remained flat.

“I love Christmas, and a cottage would be such fun. Something different, you know.”

“Yes, but if Dad has an objection….”

“Please Sophie, chat with him.” There was desperation in Gloria’s voice. “You two are alike.”

Sophie felt a lump in her throat. The jobless state, the secret was eating them. “I’ll do my best. But I can’t promise anything,” she said stiffly.

“You’re not in cahoots with him, are you?”

“No,” Sophie said, quickly. Too quickly.

“Any word from Derek?” Her mother asked. “Any sign of an engagement ring? Do you think he’ll come up and visit for Christmas? We all love Derek.” Yeah, they all loved Derek more than her.

“Ah Mum, about that.” Notions of trust, honesty and communication circled round in her head. She needed to come clean; it wasn’t like she’d done something awful. She hadn’t told anyone about Derek initially because she’d thought they would get back together and wanted to save them temporary pain. “Derek and I have broken up. I’ve moved out into a new flat.”

Silence followed and continued for so long that Sophie almost thought she’d been disconnected. Then she heard a wailing sound. “What happened? He was so lovely. I’ve already bought him a Christmas present.” It was too much for Gloria. She erupted down the phone. “You should have told me, because I don’t have a receipt and you’re father’s practically checking them,” Gloria shouted down the phone.

Then the dialling tone sounded – the end of the call.

 

***

 

One week later Gloria rang back and apologised for hanging up. “I’ve booked a cruise for your father and me,” she said suddenly.

Sophie’s eyes widened. “Is the cruise expensive? And where’s the money coming from?” she gasped, unable to conceal her shock. “Mum, are you sure that’s something he’s going to want to do?”

“I’ve secured an astonishing deal so I’ve put down a deposit,” Gloria said.

“What is with both you and your father talking about money all the time?”

“Have you spoken to him about your finances…?” She couldn’t help but hint.

“I didn’t raise you to be miserly Sophie! Are you telling me I can’t splash out for our anniversary?” Gloria snapped. “It’s for our anniversary, but I’ve bought it as a Christmas present. See, I’m killing two birds with one stone.” How clever. The way to bankrupt the family was to avoid discussing extravagant purchases and label the transaction ‘a present’.

“You know we’re in a recession,” Sophie insisted. “You should talk to him.”

“Your father and I don’t have an arrangement where I beg for money. We both share everything.” Her tone was hard. “He hasn’t said anything to you about money, has he? Why? Should I be worried?”

Sophie fumbled with the phone cord. Her thoughts seesawed back and forth. Gloria was entitled to know about their household income and the current strain on expenses. Perhaps if Gloria knew, she could help take the burden from her father. But it wasn’t her secret to tell.

“You must have read about it in the papers. People are losing their jobs without any warning. It pays to be prudent.”

Gloria grunted. “What an excuse. Consider the person you want to be. Not some cheapskate I’d bet,” Gloria said, the words stinging. “Of course your father would like a cruise. We can afford it, and we’ve got plenty in savings. And besides, I think it’s important for your father and me….” Her mother’s voice shook.

“How do you mean it’s important?”

“I’ve already told you,” Gloria said. “He’s been acting so strangely. He comes home either smelling of chlorine or milk….”

“Milk?” Sophie interjected and furrowed her brow.

“Yes, milk,” Gloria said irritably. “Last night he insisted he wanted to discuss something of crucial importance that affects me. You know how he gets, so melodramatic sometimes. I told him to calm down. I practically bolted out of the house.”

“Why did you bolt out of the house?” Sophie chided. “It could be important.”

“I had to devise a plan to win him back.”

“What?”

“I can’t listen to him telling me about another woman.”

“What are you talking about?”

“All the swimming, Sophie. And he constantly smells like burned milk.”

“I just don’t understand the milk.”

“What can it be other than someone else? A woman with a baby? Who’s always heating milk, or maybe he’s doing that.”

“Er…I don’t think so.”

“So I’m trying to win him back. That’s why it’s so important about the cruise. I went out this morning and bought some sexy lingerie.”

Sophie shut her eyes. “You don’t have to go into that.”

“I’ve even booked a waxing appointment. Apparently it’s what all you young girls do. I’m getting the full Hollywood.”

“Mum – stop it,” Sophie gasped not wanting to hear.

“Sophie, wouldn’t you do anything to save your marriage? A little bit of hot wax might be the very thing.”

“Mum!” Sophie cried and tried to compose herself. “Dad obviously wants to talk to you about something important. You must listen to him. It could be anything. Anything. It could be about his health, about his job, about money. You’re the one being melodramatic. I doubt he’s even thought of ever having an affair. That’s preposterous.”

“Stop calling me melodramatic. I’m your mother.”

“It’s the recession Mum, he’s probably worried. Everyone has more pressure to perform these days. You should talk to him. You need to listen to him. You must,” Sophie insisted.

“You really don’t think he’s having an affair and he’s trying to come clean?” Gloria whimpered.

“Of course not.” Sophie blew out a breath. “Ask him what’s wrong.”

“I don’t want him to leave me. Soph, I’m petrified.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Sophie noticed Bradley approaching her desk. She stopped doodling on a company notepad with a black pen.

“Sophie, are you there?” Gloria continued. “You’ve gone awfully quiet.”

“Talk to him. It’s probably very important. I know he’s not a man of many words but just do it,” she said. Then, “I’ve got to go.” She didn’t wait for goodbyes as she hung up the phone. She smiled up at her boss who was now by her chair snooping around her desk. “Bradley, what can I do for you?”

“I’m hearing good feedback from the rest of the team about the Silver account. Apparently you did another all-nighter.”

Sophie shrugged. “No big deal Bradley.” What was an all-nighter in comparison to getting in the pool?

Chapter 15

 

 

Sophie needed to stay afloat both in her job and in the water. Of course, her next lesson started with her face first in the water. After the floating exercise, Matthew’s face transformed and his eyes lit up. This was one expression that filled her with dread.

“I’m going to teach you the flutter kick.” He brought the trusty kickboard from the edge of the pool. “I would like you to watch my legs. This is what we’re aiming for.”

He thrust himself off the edge, his muscular arms extended forward as he held the kickboard. He put his face in the water and began kicking, churning up the water with his feet.

He stopped and stood up in the middle of the pool, about ten feet away. “Are you paying attention?” he barked.

She jolted. “Yes.” He’d caught her focused on his dreamy body.

He swam back and she concentrated on his precise movements and not entirely on his physique.

“Did you see what I just did?” He wasn’t even breathless when he returned to where she sat on the step.

“Yes,” she said slowly.

“Think of how quickly a butterfly flutters its wings. I need you to do short, quick little kicks, churning up the water. Fluttering.”

“I see.”

“Kick from the hip and not from the knee. It’s a whole leg exercise.”

She swallowed. “There is one issue. You kicked to the middle of the blooming pool.” Like a show reel, memories of drowning slid into her mind. “I’m not a middle-of-the-pool kind of girl yet.”

“We’re aiming to reach the middle of the pool. But today is your lucky day.”

“Lucky?” Sophie roared with laughter so loudly, that children splashing on the other side of the pool stopped to watch her. “Then why don’t I feel at all lucky?”

“It’s a lucky day for you because you’re going to use the kickboard, but again you’ll do the exercise over the step.”

A feeling of immense gratitude filled her. Oh trusty step! How close they’d become. First the floating and now flutter kicking.

Matthew issued his hideous instructions of how to flutter kick and then it was her turn.

She face-planted into the water and left no time to think about her actions. Her body hovered over the step with the kickboard in front of her. The sensation of suffocating was overwhelming. Her legs sailed up and her stomach somersaulted like she was on a rollercoaster. The kickboard was an animal, and she was the trainer.

She fought to gain control of the board as it wobbled and wriggled in her grip. She threw off a surge of panic. I can do this. I will be the kickboard’s master. I will be in control.

There was a slight weight placed on the board. It was Matthew, steadying the board to help. As she struggled with the kickboard, a thought sprang into her mind.

She wanted to thank him. Give him a Christmas present. As she thrashed and churned the water, her mind worked simultaneously. He liked cars. He liked tequila. He liked dolphins. He loved swimming. What else, what could she get him?

 

***

On her way out of the swimming centre, Matthew was already at reception. His face broke out into a smile which extended from ear to ear. “So I’ll see you tomorrow night for Carol’s performance?” he said. A ripple of excitement went through her body when his eyes locked with hers.

She dropped her Mary Poppins bag on the counter, settling in for a chat with him. “Yes, it should be fun.”

His gaze flicked to her work bag. “You’re not going back to work again, are you?”

She sighed. “It’s busy right before Christmas. Talking about work, have you read the fabulous script for your commercial?”

“Yes, I’ve read it. I’m excited.”

“You’re not working late tonight?”

“No, I’m off to Brighton actually. I’m going to the hotel to meet my publicist. She’s insisting on a New Year’s Eve party to help get people inside the doors.”

“Wow that sounds exciting.”

“It sounds very last minute but we’ve got to somehow convince the public that my hotel isn’t as bad as the reviews on the internet.” He sighed and met her gaze. Tiny shivers of delight run up and down her arms. “I’ll be back for tomorrow night.”

She broke his gaze when her phone rang shrill. “Look, I’d better go, see you tomorrow.” She waved to Matthew, as she opened the door to leave.

Sophie answered her phone as she left the Highbury Aquatic Centre and she began to walk home. “Hello,” she said. All Sophie could hear was a muffled sobbing.

“Sophie, you knew,” the tone was accusatory.

Apprehension crawled up Sophie’s spine. “What did I know?” she asked, but she was pretty sure she knew what was coming.

“About your father.”

“What about my father?” Sophie’s body stiffened like a string ready to snap. “He’s not having an affair is he?”

“His redundancy.”

“I see.” Relief washed over her; the secret was out. Now they could at least discuss the problem.

“You knew!”

She swallowed hard. “And what did Dad say when you spoke to him about it?”

“I asked him what he had been doing for the last few months.” Gloria laughed shrilly. “He’s doing very well. He’s been swimming, as you know, with your bloody client.”

“Yeessss.”

“And he’s been going to your place, during the day.”

“Yes, that’s true,” Sophie admitted in the smallest voice.

“But Sophie, if he had been going to your place, why didn’t you tell me?” Gloria said crossly. “I’m your mother; you should tell me these things.”

“I’m sorry,” Sophie said as the familiar surge of guilt returned. There were two sides to every story. Why was she the one getting in trouble about this? But then she knew why. She’d covered up one of those secrets that need to be shared. It was too big a secret to have kept.

“It’s true. He’s been coming to my place and I’ve been helping him look for a job. Honestly, he’s been trying to find the right timing to tell you. He didn’t want to worry you. But, Mum, you wouldn’t listen to him.”

“As you know I’ve been extremely concerned.” Gloria’s voice was steely. “And don’t talk to me about honesty, Sophie. I thought I’d raised you better. Thanks a bloody lot. I was dead certain he was having an affair and I even signed up to a pole dancing class.”

“Pole dancing is great exercise,” Sophie muttered.

“I was the oldest person there and I’ve almost pulled every muscle in my thighs and arms. I hobble as I walk. So tell me how I’m supposed to explain that to your father?”

“The truth,” Sophie squeaked.

“Only if he tells me about the milk,” Gloria hissed down the phone. “Why does he smell like milk?”

Chapter 16

 

 

Feeling overwhelmed with guilt, Sophie poured a glass of wine and rang Mickey. Apparently Roger had quite a talent for making foam, a surprising revelation for everyone, and had been working in Beans cafe. Although from what Sophie could gather, Roger might have admitted to his redundancy but he hadn’t mentioned anything about working in the café. That was the mystery of the milk solved.

“Okay, something’s up,” Sophie finally said. “You’re usually much chattier, you who can’t stop talking. You didn’t even comment on Matthew and the ballet tickets for tomorrow. I’ve been waiting for it.”

“What do you mean? I thought you didn’t want me to say anything more about the topic.”

“So you’re brining a friend tomorrow night,” Sophie probed. “Who is he?”

But Mickey practically hung up the phone there and then, it was most perplexing.

After talking to Mickey, she took an even larger glass of wine into Carol’s room. She told her all about the situation with her parents.

“At least it’s out in the open,” Carol said with a shrug.

“Yes, thankfully,” she sighed elaborately, and then almost as if the wine was talking she continued to confide in Carol. “Tomorrow night. Matthew. Maybe I should cancel him coming. I think he thinks it’s a date. A double date of sorts because Mickey is bringing a friend. A male I presume.”

Carol was extracting outfits for Sophie to try on. Clothes sailed through the room like sea spray off the ocean. Carol’s head was thrust between hanging clothes, searching the depths of her wardrobe. Carol discarded items over her shoulder.

“I can’t believe you didn’t guess this earlier.” Carol’s voice was muffled, but the exasperation rang through.

Sophie looked down at the new, black pinafore she’d worn to work, a little shorter than usual.

“The thing is, how can it be a date when we’ve had all these swimming lessons in between? I guess it’ll only be the second evening outing we’ve had together. Besides, you invited him, so I don’t think it’s a date. I thought we’d go just as friends, it would be a group social thing,” Sophie finished.

“Boring, boring, boring. Would it be so bad if it was a date?” Carol sang from the depths of her wardrobe. “Thank God I’m home to give you fashion advice. You need to look gorgeous – gorgeous enough to snog.”

Sophie sat on Carol’s bed, the sole human amongst a mountain of clothes. If she stayed here any longer, someone would have to send a rescue party to find her.

A pair of black jeans flew through the room and Sophie’s hand moved like lightning, snatching the garment. Holding the jeans up, she quickly determined that there was no possibility of her fitting into them. They were just too small.

“Matthew’s very good looking, and he’s meeting you after work tomorrow, to watch my show. You don’t have time to do emergency shopping, and don’t you dare run late. No time to come home and change. You’ve got to be seated by seven. And you might as well give him a go. He’s a nice guy. What’s wrong with you?”

Sophie shrugged. “I dunno.”

“He’s not like Derek, the cheating bastard. You can see it. We’ve seen him drunk, he’s always swarmed by girls, but he’s not a player. He’s reliable.”

“I don’t trust men – any men – to be honest.”

“You should trust Matthew; he makes sure you survive each swimming lesson. Have you drowned yet?”

“No.”

“So… give him a chance.”

“We’ll see.” Sophie jumped off the bed, picking a pair of dirty stockings up off the floor and throwing them into the laundry basket. “I didn’t think I’d have to buy anything new for the event, because his fiancée died and he’s still dealing with it. We’re just friends –we work together. It would be way too complicated if we started dating. Didn’t you give me that advice, never mix business and pleasure?”

Sophie looked around the cluttered room for something else to occupy herself with besides dating Matthew. Carol got in late each night, tired from her show, and her dressing table was covered in makeup, lipsticks, handbags, sequined leotards, and hats – every type of hat a person could possibly ever have worn: bowler, sun, sombrero, fireman and police hats, – as well as a large collection of wigs piled up. Maybe she should spruce up Carol’s room, just a little bit, not too much for her to take offence, or to even notice. There was no harm in that.

“Bollocks, take a risk. Just because I offer advice, doesn’t mean I take it,” said Carol’s muffled voice from the wardrobe. “This is the most exciting thing that’s happened in this house. A date!”

“We’re just friends,” Sophie said.

“Yes, okay, friends. If and only if, guys and girls can be, ‘just friends’,” Carol murmured sceptically. Suddenly she shrieked, “Sophie, I’ve got it!” Carol emerged from the wardrobe a smile spanning from ear to ear, her face shone. She shook an orange dress with excitement. “This will fit and look amazing. I’ve even got wonderful shoes to match.”

Sophie took the dress from Carol, holding it steady, resting the garment in front of her. The dress looked like fairy floss, all layered ruffles and tulle. She frowned, considering a tactful response.

“Repeat after me, ‘It’s not a date’,” Sophie ordered.

“It’s not a date,” Carol muttered. “He’s on the mend sweetheart, and you’re getting him on the rebound. You can trust this one. He’s a good guy.”

“I’m not out to seduce him, and I’m not getting him on the rebound. It’s been too long a gap for it to be a rebound.” Sophie tried to control a stricken look as she examined the dress. “Do you think this dress is quite right?”

“Matthew’s the most exciting thing that’s happened to you in quite a while. The dress is perfect! Go on, try it on.”

She looked at the dress for a second time, seeing the excitement on Carol’s face, sighing, she slipped the garment on.

Carol gasped with pride. “I knew it would look amazing,” she enthused. Placing her hands on Sophie’s shoulders, she turned her to the mirror.

Sophie pushed aside a yellow feather boa and a collection of wigs that were hanging over the dressing table mirror and glimpsed her reflection, holding off a shudder.

“Okay, the purpose of this dress is to make him notice you,” insisted Carol. “You’re not just at work, or at the swimming pool, you’re dressing up – you want him to see the woman in you.”

“Don’t you think it’s a little bit too much?” She was a life sized piece of meringue; someone just had to dare take a bite.

“Not at all.” Carol dug a small box out of her handbag. “Men like women with confidence. You’re in advertising. Work it girl, work it! You love it, don’t you?”

Sophie caught Carol’s eye, and nodded. “Of course, it looks fab. Thanks for helping.”

“But first, Soph, look what I picked up? The very thing for your hair, Matthew won’t be able to take his eyes off you.”

Sophie paled as she examined the packet. Hair dye. “You know this will bleach my hair.”

“Change your look a little bit. Take a risk for a first date. Let me do it for you, I did some of the girls at the studio. Now take off the dress for tomorrow and I’ll grab a towel for over your shoulders so you don’t mess the floor up.” Carol then instructed Sophie to sit in a chair, pushing her in, undoing the packet with speed.

“What’s wrong with just straightening it? This all seems like such last-minute effort. Not really thought out.”

“We’ll do it right now. You’ve got to see Matthew looking sensational. Besides you’re clearly getting over Derek, so we need a new you.” Carol opened the hair dye box and put plastic gloves on her hands, then combed Sophie’s hair.

“Matthew won’t even recognise me if I turn blonde.” Sophie closed her eyes, her lip wobbling a little. “The dye might totally ruin it, the bleach and everything. My hair is dark brown you know.”

“Look it’ll go a little Aztec. Look at the box. Don’t you think the colour looks fantastic?”

Sophie read the box; turning blonde could be different. The smiling blonde on the packet stared back at Sophie – weren’t blondes supposed to have more fun? Blonde hair could be the start of something new, problems solved with a bottle of hair dye.

“It will be the best thing to pick yourself up out of the hole you’re hiding in. Move on from Derek. There are decent guys out there. This one is teaching you how to swim. He’s a good fish.”

Maybe Carol was right, maybe hair dye would change her life. She looked at Carol; her sparkling gaze met Sophie’s in the mirror. Sophie’s excitement mounted, Superhero Sophie, she liked the sound of that. Confident, sexy, better.

“Go on. Do it.” This was not a world of fear she lived in, it was only hair dye after all.

Carol rubbed her hands together. She opened the hair dye, combing it through Sophie’s hair. “This is going to look absolutely amazing.”

Carol’s mobile phone rang.

“It’s my director,” she shrieked, then answered the call. She fled to the next room, her voice loud and animated. She ran back into the room, grabbing her handbag.

“Oh God, Sophie. I’ve been called in. My director wants to see me immediately. He won’t say why. I’m so worried, I might lose my job. Are you okay to leave the dye in and just wash it out? Follow the instructions on the back of the box. It should be easy. I’ll see you in the morning.” Carol darted out of the room, not even waiting for a response.

“I’ll be fine.” Following directions for lustrous hair shouldn’t be that hard.

Half an hour later, she washed the dye out in the shower, forcing herself to towel-dry it without peeking. She cast her fingers through to smooth out the tangles, and then ran to the mirror, apprehension filling her as she approached, ready to gaze at the new, changed, dynamic Sophie. This was truly a step to moving on with her life. But as she stared at her reflection, her heart pounded. She froze.

Her hair was orange. Not Aztec blonde, not golden, but orange. Shaking her curls, shades of bright carrot and soft pumpkin shone back at her instead of blonde or brown. If she wore the fairy floss dress, she’d be truly edible. Come on boys, just eat up.

Sophie paced the room, head darting back and forth to the mirror. Her hands ran through strands of wet, orange hair, wanting desperately to call Carol, knowing she couldn’t. Carol was dealing with something urgent, and she couldn’t possibly come back to fix it.

Sophie grabbed one of Carol’s wigs, a short black bob, there was an idea. She twisted her hair into a French roll to tuck it under the wig. The roots shone bright like the sun praising a glorious new day.

She sighed. It was only orange. She could deal with that. Hair colour was nothing to get overly excited about; and after all, she was only seeing Matthew Silver… and it wasn’t a date.

Oh God, what if he thought it was a date?

 

*****

Sophie ran to the tube station, darting through the heavy traffic of Highbury. She glanced at her watch; time was of the essence. Then a force jolted her to a stop, pulling her shoulder back. Sophie whirled round, clenching her fists. A fairy floss dress thrust at her face. Sophie stepped back with caution as the coat hanger almost poked her in the nose.

“You forgot it. You can’t be late tonight, and I know how caught up you get.”

Sophie grappled to hold the garment steady, away from her body. Peeking over the ruffles, Carol stood in her bright pink pig slippers, a silk pink nightgown wrapped round her shoulders and last night’s mascara smudged over her face. A glow of triumph exuded from her face, but her grin slowly faded, as she tugged a wisp of Sophie’s carrot hair from under the baseball cap.

“Oh Jeeeeezzzee,” Carol hissed.

Sophie shrugged Carol’s hand away. “It’s fine. What are you doing awake? I heard you come home after four.” Sophie noticed circles under her friend’s eyes and wondered whether Carol had gone to visit Josh, or whether something urgent had come up at the theatre.

“Oh Soph, I had no idea it would turn orange.” Guilt spread across her friend’s face. “Keep the dress. Please keep it.”

“No. It’s fine.”

“What are you going to do? Did you want me to dye it again?”

“No, no, I’ve got a plan. Why are you awake so early, running around the street like this?” Sophie indicated the dressing gown, noting that the silk hung only to her mid-thigh.

“What’s wrong with this? No one cares about me. I live in London, millions of people come to this tube station every day.” Carol put her hand on her hip, tapping her slippers on the pavement, the fluffy, pink pig’s head nodding in agreement as Carol’s foot went up and down. “Besides, you’re the one in my cap and sunglasses.” It was true. Sophie had borrowed one of Carol’s many hats – a black baseball cap – the most understated one in Carol’s collection.

“Well, can I borrow it?” Sophie shifted the dark sunglasses over her face feeling somewhat like a celebrity hiding from the masses, large oval circles covering half her face, lenses coming down to the middle of her cheeks.

“’Course you can borrow them. I think the glasses look better on you anyway.”

“Thanks.” Sophie supposed that was a compliment. She wrinkled her nose. The circular, goggled frames, although fashionable, made her feel like a fly. But if she took her cap off and left the sunglasses on, she supposed she’d look like a bee. It was a pity it wasn’t closer to Halloween, as she had the perfect headgear. At least no one would recognise her.

“Why didn’t you tell me? You should have rung or texted. I could have asked some of my friends to come over after the show and help.”

“I’m going to my hairdresser, she’ll sort me out.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

Sophie shifted on her feet, thanking the shade of the lenses, almost black, to hide her expression. “No.” She hoped her hairdresser could help her, but it had been too late to make an appointment last night.

“What if you can’t get one?”

“Someone will do it.”

“You’re not going to race into work are you? This is an emergency; you’ve got a date tonight.”

“It’s not a date. I’m considering cancelling anyway, if I can’t fix this.” Sophie tucked a wisp of stray hair back into her cap.

“You can’t cancel.”

“Why not?” Of course she could cancel. This was a disaster.

A sparkle flashed across Carol’s face, her lips twitched, slowly extended from ear to ear. “That’s why I raced out to tell you.” Carol swept up the ends of her dressing gown into the tips of her fingers with a graceful motion, and bent into a deep curtsey.

“What is it?”

Carol leapt and twirled, pig-slippered, she performed a pirouette on the sidewalk without a care in the world, even when tube passengers stopped and stared. Sophie was waiting for someone to throw a coin in her direction.

“What is it?” Sophie pulled her hand to her chest, her heart beat rapidly.

“You are looking at….” Carol paused for effect.

“What? Tell me, damn it.”

Carol’s voice came out dramatically, loudly, like she was centre stage at the theatre. “For one night only, you’re looking at the Swan Queen! You’ll even get a chance to see me! You have to come tonight. You have to!”

“Oh my God! That’s amazing!” Sophie shrieked, leaning over to hug Carol. She pulled back and stared into her friend’s face. “How did this happen?”

“The lead is sick! Frightfully ill, the doctor says – she hasn’t been eating, mind you, but we won’t tell the doctor that. You know how dancers get when they’re in the spotlight. Anyway, she collapsed – that’s why I had to go in last night, perfect all the moves because I’m front and centre tonight. I rehearsed, dancing my little butt off for hours last night, making sure that I’ve got all the moves down.”

“I don’t want you to get sick too. So go home and rest before the performance.”

“I’m too excited to rest. Can I help you at all?”

Sophie frowned, realising the dark circles were larger than she’d seen before on her friend. Carol always did this, hyped herself up when she got over excited. She took her friend’s hands, patted them gently. “Run yourself a warm bath, I have some salts in my room. You need to calm down, get some sleep, so you can do your best tonight. Don’t you worry about me, I’ll be fine. Matthew and I will see you tonight. Good luck.”

“Don’t say that. It’s bad luck.”

“What am I supposed to say? Break a leg? Not very good for a dancer is it?”

“Well ‘break a leg’ is the act, one foot behind the other.” Carol bowed down. “Get it? It’s an archaic expression for bowing or curtseying. But if you want, say ‘merde.’ That’s what we all say; it’s French.”

Sophie scratched her head. Is that the right slang? Sophie asked, her brain working in overdrive. “I’ve heard a different meaning for that word.”

“No, no, it’s French for ‘break a leg’. We all use it. I’m more than just a pretty face.” Carol leapt in the air, floating on her personal high. “Ciao, ciao.” She waved, dashing across the hectic road.

Sophie frowned. The only French translation she knew for merde was a profanity, a curse uttered more likely when a dancer broke their own leg. Sophie sighed, she’d probably misheard. It wasn’t like she was fluent in French. Besides, Sophie probably had had about as much sleep as her friend, worrying about her hair. Who cared if the ballet dancers were shouting ‘shit’ for encouragement rather than ‘good-luck’?

 

***

 

Sophie stared at the receptionist, her voice shaking. “What do you mean she’s not in? She’s always in.” The girl stood behind the reception counter of the hairdressing salon. Thick tiger stripes coloured her brown hair, creating an alternate, edgy look. The girl shook her head, widening her innocent eyes. “She’s just not in. She’s sick today, I’m afraid. You’re just too early on a Friday morning. We could do something with a Senior Stylist later this afternoon.” The girl ran her perfectly manicured nail down her notepad. “Around four o’clock we have space. Or you’ve got me? I’m free right now. I could help.” The girl moved the broom awkwardly from the reception area. She’d been sweeping up cut hair. “Why don’t you let me see?” The girl reached over and took the cap from Sophie’s head.

The girl fondled a strand of hair. “Do you think you can fix it?” Sophie asked and her chest tightened.

The girl nodded, her head bobbing up and down slowly. “I’m only an apprentice. But I can fix it.” The girl’s voice was strong, unwavering, and confident.

How many people, Sophie wondered, came into the hairdresser to get a colour correction? How much experience would an apprentice have with colour correction?

Sophie groaned, shutting her eyes. She might not make Carol’s show if she waited for an appointment with a Senior Stylist. “I’ve got to go to work,” Sophie said. “I’d better get it fixed now.” She followed the apprentice to a chair inside the salon.

She sat down, examining the hairdresser’s reflection in the mirror as she brought over a colour chart and began matching the strands of carrot. This could possibly be an even bigger mistake.

“So you wanted blonde, right?”

“That was the idea.”

“I won’t be able to take you too light.”

“Okay.” Sophie nodded and furrowed her brow as she watched the girl mixing the dye into a bowl. What more could possibly go wrong? Surely there wouldn’t be much to it – a colour chart, chemicals – hairdressing wasn’t rocket science was it? Although, she’d gotten it wrong.

Hours later, she ran a hand through the finished hair. It looked natural, like she’d been visiting the beach every weekend for the past decade. She just needed the tan to go along with it. “You’re going to need some new makeup. Some softer colours, otherwise you’ll feel washed out.” The apprentice lifted a strand of hair. “And you know it’s going to break. The strands are damaged from so much processing. I would recommend I cut a bit of it while we’re here.”

Sophie shrugged looking at her wrist watch. “Do we have time?”

“Don’t you want to look fabulous for Carol’s performance?” The girl had been so easy to talk to. Sophie had found herself telling her about Derek, Bradley, Kelly and even the possible – yet unlikely – date with Matthew. What a hairdresser!

Sophie nodded. “Let’s get you a new look.” The apprentice said, reaching for the scissors.

 

Chapter 17

 

 

Sophie eventually arrived at Clarks and work was chaotic. Sophie fought fires throughout the day, negotiating contracts with agents. The price for their chosen actress to perform in the skinny dipping commercial was a particular point that she’d tried to get people to agree on the whole day. To think England was in a recession, yet the actress had the audacity to question the amount of money Sophie offered for the job.

“Take it or leave it,” Sophie trilled down the phone to the agent. “This is a national commercial. She could become a national star.”

There was a pause down the line and Sophie looked at her watch. “Look, if she doesn’t like the pay then I’ll have to find someone else. We’re in a recession and that’s the budget. Take the offer to your client and call me tomorrow with your answer. There is no wriggle room. I repeat, no wriggle room.” Sophie hung up feeling slightly tense about the conversation.

Trying to forget it, Sophie rushed to the office toilet cubicles and changed into the fairy floss dress. She checked her appearance in the mirror. A stranger looked back at her. Her eyes widened as she stared.

She raked a hand through the short blonde bob, fingers stopping at the ends where the length of her long brown hair used to continue. She lowered her lashes, the eyelids painted with pastel pink eye shadow. Her heart fluttered, possibly with nerves; she felt different. A good different.

Finally leaving the office, Sophie bought a bunch of flowers and walked to the theatre, and grabbed a programme. Feeling nervous and excited, she arrived at the stage door, and pounded. She held the flowers on her hip. She’d bought lilies, carnations and roses.

Sophie pounded the stage door again. The rose scent mingled with the garbage she was standing beside. Casting a quick look at the dustbin, Sophie decided that backstage in London’s West End was not as glamorous as she’d imagined. The backstage entrance was away from the bustling crowds, located on a tiny cobbled street in Piccadilly Circus.

“Hello, anyone there?” The door burst open. “Thank you!” Her jaw dropped and she blinked, struggling to blank her expression as she looked at the man standing in front of her. He was pale like an albino giant dressed in black. He loomed in the doorway and his mass of muscles spread across the entry. The figure hugging fairy floss dress, made Sophie feel tiny in comparison.

She purposefully closed her jaw, trying to seem unaffected by his astonishing size. “I’m here to see Carol.”

He folded his arms, muscles bulging in his skin-tight, black t-shirt. “No chance.” This was not the kind of man she would want to meet in a narrow alleyway, which, she realised, she was currently doing.

“But have you asked her?” she said in a strong voice.

The man scratched his bald head and shrugged. “You’re too late, I’m afraid.” He turned, closing the door.

“Wait.” Sophie lodged her foot between the door and the frame. “I won’t stay long.” She manoeuvred her head, looking through the curtains, past the bulk of the security guard. Black sheets hung from the ceiling and dancers ran past.

He looked at his watch. Sophie took advantage of his distraction. She plunged her body forward, through the narrow gap between the door and his brick body. But not only was he big, he was also quick. She hadn’t expected the albino to be quick. She felt her body bounce back from his as he blocked her. She groaned as the wind was taken from her.

The man shook his head. “Carol is the new leading lady and doesn’t need disturbances. Now move along.”

“Let’s try this again.” Sophie rubbed her head, feeling like she was slightly spinning. “Carol’s my flat mate and we hang out a bit. Wouldn’t you want to wish your friend well if they were dancing the lead role? She’s the principal dancer tonight, isn’t she? Could you please just ask her whether she has two minutes to see me?”

He sighed but he finally opened the door. “I’ll take you in. But no upsetting the leading lady, and don’t stay longer than two minutes.”

Sophie nodded, smiling to herself as the security guard escorted her through the backstage corridor. He had let her in! She followed him obediently through a series of doors.

As she paced through the first corridor, she passed a series of clothing racks on wheels, loaded with elaborate flowing dresses for the show. Through a second door were dancers, who appeared like they’d only just finished school, fresh faced and pubescent. They paraded white-corseted leotards, the laces threaded up at the back with long tutu skirts. Their hair was oily and slicked back, showing their unlined faces and the workings of a can of hairspray. Many wore feather ear muffs, pinned on. They were all so youthful. Sophie wondered how long Carol could keep dancing, being the same age as Sophie. Surely, these girls would be scratching to be principal dancers.

Sophie excused herself as she stepped over girls stretching on the floor, legs horizontal. Sophie and her escort weaved through the corridors until the security guard stopped protectively in front of a grey door with a single gold star painted on the front.

He knocked.

“Come in,” Carol called from inside.

“Two minutes only,” the security guard instructed.

Sophie gave him the most winsome smile. “Thank you.” He opened the dressing room door, a floral scent escaping as Sophie entered, the door closing automatically behind her.

The room was so large, Sophie could have cart-wheeled the length. At least ten mirrors bordered with light bulbs extended across the room. Carol sat at the last dressing table, surrounded by large bouquets of flowers and majestic floral arrangements.

Sophie approached Carol. “Hey, I brought these,” she muttered, placing her small flowers next to the others. They seemed to pale in significance.

Carol barely turned her head from the mirror as she held black eyeliner. “Thanks, Soph.” Her lips pursed tight like a string on a guitar.

Sophie picked up one of the cards, scanning the signature, wondering who it was from. “Wow, look at all these. You’re a star now!”

“They’re not for me.” Carol applied more makeup. Her bench was cluttered with boxes of hair pins and canisters of hair spray. “They’re for the sick leading lady. I’m temporarily using her dressing room, so the director knows where to find me, if and when the need arrives.”

“Well, you’ve got this room for tonight, anyway. That’s exciting!”

Carol dropped her eyeliner pencil. “Oh, I’m a mess….” A hand came to her chest. “I can’t believe this is happening. Sophie, what if I can’t do this? All the girls keep whispering that I’m too old. They don’t think I can hear them, but I can, even though the average ballet dancer stays with a dance company until they’re at least thirty-five, maybe even until forty. I’m ten years off that, at least.” She swivelled in her chair, wearing the same silk dressing gown Sophie had seen earlier that day, although it now hung over a white ornate leotard and tutu.

Sophie sat on the stool next to her. “Come on, your director gave you this opportunity for a reason: because you can do it. He wouldn’t have if he didn’t think you could.” Her words were positive and she realised she was sounding like Matthew, at the pool.

“It’s only one night, I suppose. He knows I’ve been dancing forever, I’m quick to learn new steps and it is only one night, so he doesn’t care if I’m old.”

“Why are you thinking about being old now? He picked you, didn’t he? You just said ballet dancers are still part of a dance company up to forty. You’re way off being forty. Focus on why you’re doing this, not your insecurities. This is your dream. You can do this.” Sophie picked up the eyeliner pencil and passed it to Carol.

“I can’t get the eyes right tonight. They’ve got to be perfect.”

“Let me.” Sophie noticed Carol’s hands shaking and she extracted the eyeliner from her fingers. “I won’t stay long, I know you need to prepare.”

“I’ve done one eye already. Oh…I love the new hair. You look hot in that outfit tonight.”

Sophie laughed. “Thanks.” Sophie looked intently at the made-up eye with dark black coal pencil drawn in thick, dramatic strokes. Sophie copied the expertly applied make-up as Carol sat quietly.

“What if I can’t do it, Soph? What if I run out of stamina? What if I can’t get my breath?”

“What nonsense. You’re the fittest girl I know. You’ll be great! Remember, you’re the best understudy there ever was.”

“Yes, but I’m not the understudy tonight, I’m the principal dancer.”

“You’ve been practicing these steps in the flat on a daily basis. I’ve seen you rehearse so many times that even I know the dance moves. You have boundless energy, like a bouncing kangaroo, you never stop,” Sophie said, her voice encouraging. “You told me that you’ve danced in front of audiences over three hundred times. You’re a natural.”

Carol shrugged. “Yeah, I love the audiences. I do get nervous though.”

“Nerves are healthy. Use them. Remember that you can do this in your sleep. Don’t let any bitchy girls get in your way.”

“Okay, Soph.”

“So remember, this is what you’ve been waiting for.”

“Yes.” Carol’s voice was firmer.

“Now visualise yourself on stage.”

“Come on, Soph, do I have to do this?”

“Visualise it, ’cos whenever I see you dance, you’re so graceful and I wish I could be you. You’re a star.”

“I’m hardly a star,” Carol said, modestly.

“You are in the star dressing room. Darling, you were born to be a star. You love dancing. You love this.”

“I do love performing.”

“Well don’t forget it. That’s why you’re here, to perform.”

I can do this!”

Sophie finished the eyeliner and inspected her work on Carol’s thin face. “A perfect Swan Queen,” she mused. Sophie couldn’t help feeling proud to see her friend in the lead costume.

Carol’s breathing began to regulate properly. “Sorry for being stupid.”

“Don’t be silly. Now have you warmed up?”

“Pretty much.”

“Well make sure you do it again. Now I want you to start acting like a star.”

Carol frowned, her shoulders shifting back. “Okay.”

“Do me the honour and sign my programme. I want to be able to sell it for a million pounds one day.”

Carol grinned, taking a pen from Sophie’s hand. She signed a large signature on the front of the programme cover.

There was a soft knock on the door. The security guard poked his head into the room. Sophie gave Carol’s shoulder a squeeze. “You’ll be great; see you after the show,” Sophie said.

Carol revealed a cheeky smile. “If I didn’t emphasise the fact before, you are looking hot tonight. Blonde hair, lovely. Gorgeous makeup, and that dress looks amazing. Whoever owns that has impeccable taste. Now go get him. I want to hear some interesting details later on.” Carol winked and Sophie almost cried with happiness hearing her words. Carol was better. She’d be fine.

“I’ll see you after the show. Now… merde!”

Carol laughed, and Sophie found herself laughing, too. “And remember it’s not a date!”

“Isn’t it?” Carol mused, back to her normal self.

Sophie left the dressing room, feeling relieved as the door closed. Date or not, she’d better go and find Matthew.

Chapter 18

 

 

Sophie stood on the steps outside the theatre waiting for the group to arrive. She hated being the first person at an event, so she felt relieved when she noticed Mickey walking towards the theatre. She looked tall and confident, walking close to an extremely drop dead gorgeous man who must be none other than the mysterious date.

Mickey talked and laughed animatedly. She wore high heels and a designer dress. This was a stark change from her work flats and trousers. Her red hair hung softly around her shoulders. Her face was slightly flushed as she gazed up at the man. He slung an arm around her shoulders, and Mickey gazed adoringly at him.

Sophie caught up with them. “Hey guys,” she said, feeling awkward, like she was interrupting an intimate moment.

“My God, I didn’t recognise you!” Mickey enthused, stepping back to study Sophie, her expression curious. “You look totally wow. I love this look.”

“Same to you,” Sophie said, scanning Mickey’s dress which showed off her friend’s excellent figure.

“This is Clive Banks, my business partner.”

“Great seeing you again.” Then, realising the time, she wondered where Matthew was, as the theatre was becoming busier by the minute. “You go on inside. I’m going to wait here for Matthew.”

Mickey and Clive went inside. Sophie hovered to one side of the doorway, watching people stroll through the crowd as she searched for Matthew. As she waited, she continued to brush down the fabric of her fairy floss dress.

Then she saw him, and was about to call his name when the lady selling ‘Swan Lake’ programmes propelled a booklet into his face. Forgetting the price, the sales girl became tongue-tied when faced with him. He was undeniably handsome, as he flashed a grin.

Sophie threw her hand above her head, waving frantically, realising her voice was caught in her throat. Did she like him? Did she want this to be a date? She suddenly felt nervous.

She finally caught his attention and his face lit up. He rushed forward to meet her as she raced down the staircase, hoping she wouldn’t fall flat in front of him.

Matthew reached her, leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. “Sorry if I’ve kept you waiting.” He ran his hand through his blond hair. “You look fantastic. I almost didn’t recognise your new look. Stunning.” Her skin tingled from where he’d rested his lips. She touched her cheek, which still burnt.

“You look great too.” He’d always looked dashing in suits, since the first time she’d seen him outside the hotel for the gala night. “I already have a programme.”

“Great,” he said, smiling in admiration.

She extracted an item from her bag. “This is for you. I wanted to give it to you now, not in front of the others.” She felt the tips of her ears going pink as she placed a small package in his hands.

“What is it?” He asked and cocked his head to the side.

“It’s a Christmas gift and a thank you, all bunched into one.” She didn’t dare look at his face, feeling completely embarrassed.

“Really?”

“I just wanted to thank you for the swimming lessons and everything. But you’re not to open it until Christmas.”

“Is that right?” He was curious.

“Yup, so you can put it in your pocket.”

He turned the package over in his hands, and slipped it into his lapel pocket. “You’re so mysterious. Thank you. Thank you very much.” He gazed at her and an odd expression crossed his face.

“We’d better find the others.” She led him towards where Mickey and Clive waited in the foyer.

“Matthew Silver,” she introduced. “This is Clive, and of course you’ve met Mickey.”

“Hi.” Matthew pecked Mickey’s cheek and shook Clive’s hand.

“I’ve ordered some champagne to be delivered to our seats,” Clive informed. “It appears the girls have been pretty awesome by securing us our own box.”

“That was a courtesy from Carol,” Mickey admitted.

“A drink would be great,” Matthew agreed.

“A drink might help fight off the boredom,” Clive suggested.

“You’re such a boy.” Mickey shot Clive a glare. “It’s Carol’s night, so behave.”

“Michelle,” Clive replied sharply and Mickey shot him a glance, hearing ‘Michelle’.

“Clive you know I don’t like that,” Mickey insisted.

He roared with laughter and she slapped him playfully on the arm. Matthew and Sophie exchanged glances as Clive looked down at Mickey.

Clive nodded and turned to Matthew. “How did you get roped into this?” he asked Matthew pointedly.

“How would you tell Carol you’re not seeing her show?” Matthew replied.

“I’ve never met this formidable Carol,” Clive joked. “I’m curious too. She sounds like a hoot.”

“Sophie.” Mickey suddenly went stiff. “Don’t turn around.”

“Why not?” Sophie asked. Since Mickey instructed her not to turn around, that was exactly what she wanted to do.

“Why don’t we go to our seats?” Mickey continued.

Sophie saw Matthew’s gaze follow Mickey’s. A deep frown disturbed his smile.

“What is it?” Sophie asked.

Matthew met Mickey’s gaze and they both frowned. He then turned to Sophie. “Do you trust me?” he said softly.

“Yes,” Sophie answered bewilderedly.

“You can turn around if you want to, but you might ruin your night,” Matthew muttered.

“Oh but what could possibly go wrong? Don’t tell me Bradley’s here. He’ll think I’m sloping off from work too early. Don’t worry about me, I can face Bradley. Besides, you all keep telling me to always face things,” Sophie replied.

Matthew shook his head in annoyance as she turned around.

Derek, tall and handsome, was in the middle of the foyer. He held the hand of a girl who could only be Georgina from the shopping centre.

“What’s he doing here?” Blood raced through Sophie’s veins. Panic rose within her body. “He’s coming this way.” She wanted to run, exit the building. Her heart galloped, like a horse race was happening in her chest. “I haven’t spoken to him for ages.” She looked for the exits, but knew she couldn’t leave; Carol’s performance was one night only; that she did know.

“Matthew, Mickey, what am I going to do?” Run. She should run. But if she did, he’d be sure to see her darting away, and she’d look like a coward.

“I’ve got it, I have a proposition, one you might not like,” Matthew volunteered. “Would it help if you had a boyfriend at your side? I could pretend.”

“Yes. Yes. That would help.” This was an excellent idea. A boyfriend. That would make Derek wildly jealous. “Great idea. Your best proposal yet!”

She was already facing him; Matthew put his arm around her.

“Keep talking to me. He’s coming this way; I think he’s seen Mickey,” Matthew whispered, monitoring Derek’s movements as he watched over her shoulders. Matthew brought his arms around her neck, his chin rested on her forehead.

She could feel his breath. Behind her, she heard the familiar voice.

“Mickey,” Derek’s voice exclaimed. “I can’t believe that’s you. What are the chances?”

“Yeah,” Mickey muttered.

“Swine,” Sophie blurted under her breath.

“Have you met Clive Jefferies?” Mickey continued.

Sophie whispered to Matthew, her words inaudible. “You know girls don’t ever make the first move.”

“No, I didn’t realise that.”

“In a situation of fake boyfriends….”

“You want me to become more of an actor? I’m a pretty impressive actor,” he insisted.

That settled it for Sophie. “Kiss me?” She asked. “That’s what boyfriends do, isn’t it?” He stared deeply into her eyes, contemplating his next move. His lips suddenly touched hers, and for a moment, she lost all sense of time. She felt a tingly sensation, her breathing quickened as his tongue probed gently.

She didn’t know how long the kiss went on for. It eventually stopped; after all they were at the theatre. Pashing at the theatre – she’d lost all class! Her heart beat impossibly fast. Maybe the drumming was because Derek was there, right behind her, and hadn’t even noticed it. Or possibly because since she’d broken the kiss, they’d stared at each other, like she’d never seen Matthew clearly before. There was a strong possibility, that behind his gaze there was an unmistakable longing, and this night, maybe, just maybe, was a date.

“See, I told you, one day I’d have you falling at my feet,” he muttered under his breath.

She couldn’t help but smile and gently swatted him with her palm. “Cheeky,” she said, turning around.

Derek was in mid-conversation with Mickey, and glanced in her direction. He did a double take and froze.

“Oh my God,” Sophie said, with fake surprise. “Derek?”

“Sophie?” His voice was stiff. “I didn’t recognise you. The blonde hair, that’s new. The dress. I’ve never seen it before.” Why would you, when you have a new girlfriend? Sophie wanted to reply sarcastically, but she managed to remain calm.

Sophie smiled. “This is Matthew.” She introduced him.

Derek’s gaze filtered up and down Matthew. “Your boyfriend?” Derek asked casually. Almost too casually.

“We’re ….” She glanced at Matthew, how did she answer that?

“Dating,” Matthew piped up, beaming, like he’d won some sort of prize.

“Exclusively?” Derek persisted, as if he wasn’t able to help himself.

“Derek. Don’t be rude,” Georgina interjected.

“Yeah, exclusively, I’d say,” Matthew continued, sliding his arm around Sophie’s waist. He kissed the top of her head, very naturally, like he did it all the time.

“This is Georgina. Georgina, this is Sophie and Matthew.” Derek made the introductions.

Sophie smiled tightly at the girl next to Derek, extending her hand politely. Manners were important.

“It’s great to meet some of Derek’s friends,” Georgina gushed. She was nice and Sophie wanted to hate her, to say something spiteful, but she couldn’t. “Haven’t we met before?”

“Yes, I think so, at Selfridges’s, shopping,” Sophie replied. “I’m not sure if you remember but I ran into the two of you. Derek bought you Chanel perfume. Had you two started dating then? I didn’t want to intrude.” Sophie probed for facts.

Derek looked stricken.

“No, we’ve been together for well over a year,” Georgina smiled.

“Oh, I see.” Something inside her wanted to scream that she had been living with Derek during that same year. She glared at Derek and her eyes narrowed. “I’m so happy that Derek’s found someone he obviously loves.”

Georgina smiled. “We’re still in the honeymoon stage. He keeps asking me to move in.”

“Fantastic,” Sophie replied as something sharp stabbed at her heart. A strong hand squeezed her waist. It must have been Matthew’s. She couldn’t talk about Derek and Georgina any further. “My flat mate, Carol, is the lead in the show tonight,” Sophie continued, as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “She would be thrilled that more people she knows will watch her. You met her, too, I think.”

“We’d better go to our seats,” Mickey said, eyes darting between the frozen Derek and Sophie’s icy glare. “Don’t want to miss anything.”

“Well we might see you at the interval,” Georgina said with enthusiasm. “Maybe I should get your phone number just in case I arrange the housewarming. I can’t see Derek doing that. I’ve met some of the boys and I’d really like it if you came too.”

Sophie blanked her expression. “Sure, okay. Call me anytime,” Sophie replied. “We could have a nice long chat.”

Derek almost choked and his face turned purple. “I’ve got Sophie’s details,” Derek interjected. “We’d better get going.”

 

***

It took some time for Sophie’s breathing to calm, and for her to feel more normal. She focused on Carol and became mesmerised by the music. Carol floated effortlessly over the stage. She was sensational.

There was a standing ovation at the end of the show, and Sophie couldn’t help the tears welling in her eyes as the crowd applauded Carol.

“She was absolutely brilliant,” Sophie gushed to Matthew as they walked out of the theatre. Oddly, as if they were actually together, his fingers entwined with hers.

“She was phenomenal,” Mickey admitted as they all exited the theatre, caught in the crowd. They were all suddenly ballet experts, commenting on what she’d done and how she done it. Even though none of them really know what they were talking about, they all agreed Carol was magnificent. And surely, she was much better than the usual principal dancer.

“Do you think she’d be good on camera, like in a commercial? She’s slim and very pretty.”

“God, I wish she would be in my commercial; she’s so graceful,” Matthew agreed.

“Why don’t we see her after the show?” Mickey insisted. “We’ve come all this way and I want to see the star!”

 

***

 

After the show there were no issues with security. Sophie freely led the entourage backstage which was heaving with activity. Ballerinas scooted down the halls, appearing much more dishevelled then they were minutes ago, prancing on stage.

Sophie rapped on Carol’s dressing room door. “Is the superstar inside?” she called. They huddled outside, waiting in anticipation for Carol to answer.

A musical voice resonated through the door. “She’s here. Come on in,” Carol hollered. Sophie pushed the door open and the group bounded inside.

Turning from the dressing table and extensive mirror, Carol swivelled in her chair to face her guests. She’d already swapped her costume for a stylish, short, chic dress emphasizing her muscular frame. “Welcome, welcome,” she breathed and blew kisses to each person, the effect stopping Matthew and Clive in their tracks.

A wide smile crept across Carol’s face as she hurriedly extracted pins, disassembling her bun which had sat rigidly in place for her whole performance. Her hair was soon loose and lengths of blonde trailed down her back. Wisps of hair created a halo around her face.

“You were amazing,” Sophie shrieked. “Just incredible.”

Carol shrugged and stood up. She folded over, bending from the waist into an elaborate bow. “Thank you very much. Autographs later folks,” she joked. Carol’s eyes settled on Matthew, waiting for some type of reaction.

“You were captivating,” Matthew encouraged.

“Thank you. And thank you so much for coming,” Carol whispered. She clutched Matthew’s hands and kissed both his cheeks. “I know men don’t often like the ballet.”

“All those women in leotards,” Matthew teased. “Guys should be queuing for each performance.”

Carol faced Mickey, her eyes widened in question. She swallowed, a microscopic gulp most people wouldn’t notice, betraying her bravado, and proof of her total lack of confidence in her performance.

“Did you hear the applause?” Mickey said. “They loved you. I thought you were sensational.”

Relief flooded Carol’s face and her esteem seemed to recover. Her face radiated, with her lips turning into a firm grin. “Thank you darling.” Carol turned expectantly to Clive who remained by the doorway. “You must be Clive Jefferies. I’m so thrilled to meet you.” She extended a graceful hand.

He was absolutely mesmerised and wiped his palm on his shirt before he shook her hand. “Wonderful, you were just wonderful,” Clive gushed.

“What a lovely thing to say, thank you.” Carol glanced at both men, revelling in the attention.

Josh cleared his throat, he was already in the dressing room and completely overlooked, sitting on a bench amidst the flower arrangements. “Hello everyone,” he said with a slight wave. “I told her she was fabulous.” His enthralled smile followed Carol hungrily round the room. Carol dashed to the other side of her dressing room in her ultra-high platform shoes, which emphasised her lean legs.

“I feel like a celebrity with so many people here,” she gushed as she strode to pick up a champagne glass. “As my first fans, would you like to have a cheeky celebration with me?” She indicated to a bottle next to Josh.

He leapt up to search for flutes. “I don’t believe there are any more glasses.” Josh darted a glance at Carol, who shrugged apologetically. “Maybe swig out of the bottle?”

“As long as our saliva doesn’t ruffle the Swan Queen’s feathers,” Mickey laughed. “Are you right for a top up?”

Carol nodded. Her movie star smile remained undisturbed.

“Who needs glasses? We can all share.” Sophie reached for the champagne bottle but her fingers slipped. The bottle crashed onto the floor and glass splintered over the tiles.

Everyone froze.

Sophie dropped to the floor and scrambled to clear up the mess. “I’m so sorry,” she trilled. “That was your special champagne. I’ll buy you a new one.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Carol said. “There will be plenty more performances.”

Bodies crouched around the spill, helping to collect fragments.

“Since I’ve clearly made the place dry, I have a proposition,” Sophie said. “I’m a solutions type of girl.”

“What’s your proposition?” Mathew raised his eyebrows pointedly at the word. “I didn’t think you liked propositions.” He’d located tissue to mop up the liquid.

“I managed to pull some strings at work. We work for this client, Tonteria. It’s an exclusive bar, apparently the royal hot spot for Prince Harry. It’s quite a big deal.” The shattered champagne bottle was cleaned up, almost like it had never existed. “I’ve got all our names on the door. Only if you’re interested, of course. There’s no obligation to show up.”

“I’m so much on a high,” Carol admitted. “So I’m definitely in.”

“Me, too,” Mickey stated firmly.

She widened her eyes questioningly at Matthew. “You interested?”

There was a flicker behind his gaze. “Of course.” He nodded. His expression was blank and unreadable. “So Carol, are you front and centre again tomorrow?” Matthew asked.

“I’m not sure. It’s Saturday night tomorrow. My director said he’ll see how the lead is feeling; if she’s feeling up to it, she’ll dance the Swan Queen. The life of an understudy is a bit complicated. Remember, I’m almost twenty-six, ten years older than most of the brats who dance here.” There was bitterness in Carol’s tone.

Matthew’s smile stiffened. “You certainly don’t look old,” Matthew stated. “Or act old. I’m older than you. So you can’t be old.”

“Besides, it’s the experience that counts. Right?” Mickey chimed in, approaching Carol and rubbing her soothingly on her back.

“You’ve danced the lead in Swan Lake and no one can take that from you,” Sophie said brightly.

“No, I suppose they can’t,” Carol admitted. “Except one of those little backstabbing bitches will certainly try and get the spot tomorrow night if the lead’s not back.”

“Forget them,” Josh said softly. “They’ll ruin your night if you keep thinking about them.

Carol acquiesced and plastered a smile back on her face. “Yeah you’re right.” She shrugged, acting nonchalantly. “We better make the most of it. I guess I’ll never know when I’ll be chucked out into the back with the ensemble again. So we should simply go and make the most of it?”

Everyone agreed unanimously.

Chapter 19

 

 

Sophie felt flat as she loaded her red Volkswagen Beetle with presents for Christmas at the cottage. Things had been very tense every time she’d spoken to her mother since the discovery of Roger’s redundancy and Sophie’s involvement in the cover up.

The only consolation was, at least the news was now out in the open. The family could move on.

Sophie had left driving to the cottage for Christmas until the last minute. Carol’s departure to her parents’ place the night before had left Sophie feeling alone.

Sophie felt quite single at twenty-five without a boyfriend on the horizon. Christmas festivities would be tiring, with her single status the subject of much contemplation.

She felt even worse because she hadn’t expected one night out with Matthew to cause a complete deterioration in their relationship. She’d evidently offended him greatly. Although she wasn’t sure how. But after that night, he hadn’t called or texted her. She didn’t understand quite what she’d done. All she could think about was the kiss. He must have hated it.

Sophie slammed down the boot of her car. She leapt inside, set to drive to the cottage for Christmas. On the bright side, at least she would be able to talk to her dad – they hadn’t spoken for about a month.

She turned her key in the ignition. The car lurched and failed. She chanced another attempt to start the vehicle. The engine spat, then stopped. She hunched over the steering wheel, willing the car to move.

A rapping on her car window startled her. She jolted in her seat. She sighed gratefully as she noticed Matthew on the pavement. “Merry Christmas,” he mouthed.

She catapulted out of the Volkswagen Beetle, stopping mere inches from him. She smiled warily. He grinned. His smile was enough encouragement for Sophie, an implied invitation. She flung both arms around his neck and gathered him into an embrace. She clamped her eyes shut. She gripped him tight and realisation swooped over her. She was scared to have almost lost him.

She felt his warm body move as he laughed. Pulling her closer, his arms circled her waist. He’d been so good to her. As she held him she couldn’t help but wonder why he was at her place, on Christmas Day.

“I was wondering how you were,” she said into his neck, recalling the kiss in the middle of the theatre.

His breath was warm on her neck. “Sorry but I’ve been super busy,” he whispered. “Just wrapping things up at Brighton for Christmas.”

Jubilation danced through her body, and she felt a thrill of excitement. “I’m going down to Brighton after Christmas,” she enthused.

“Are you?” he exclaimed.

“To work on your job.” She released Matthew from her grip, suddenly awkward at her enthusiasm. “It’s good to see you,” she mumbled, trying desperately to shake her feelings of embarrassment.

He wore a sheepish expression on his face. “I tried to call your phone earlier this morning, but you weren’t picking up.”

“I’ve been packing. I must have missed it,” she said.

“I wanted to catch you before you took off. You said the other night you were leaving this morning. So I just came by….”

“Yeah. Almost ready to go. Got to get this baby running. It doesn’t seem to want to cooperate this morning.” She tapped the Beetle’s bonnet lovingly. She adored her car. If her car had been reliable, she’d have left already and missed his visit.

“Want me to take a look?”

Sophie was impressed. “Do you know anything about cars?”

“A little. I have a car habit, remember.”

“Okay, would you mind? I don’t know what I’ll do if it won’t start.”

“I could drive you, if you wanted?”

She cocked her head to the side, running a hand through her hair. “I don’t want you to have to do that. You’d be late for your own Christmas dinner. Your mum would hate me.”

“I’m sure she’d be absolutely charmed by you, if she met you. Although, you’re right. She is touchy about people being late for her roast dinner, including me. We couldn’t have that.” His eyes twinkled playfully.

“Let’s think positive, the car will start,” she said with a serious note in her voice.

“Yes, positive thoughts.” He nodded and jumped into the car, his muscular body a little too large for her small car. “Can you hold this please?” He handed her a package, meticulously wrapped.

He focused on the ignition, turned the key. The engine spluttered. He tried again and Sophie twisted her hands. What was she going to do? On the third attempt the car buzzed into life and he turned his head toward her.

“Magic touch,” Sophie enthused. “What talents you have magical Matthew.”

“The engine was probably just cold, I think….” He got out of the driver’s seat and stepped back onto the pavement.

She sighed with relief. “Thanks,” she exclaimed. “Thanks so much,” she said, handing him the present back. He waved his hand, he wouldn’t take it.

“It’s for you. Merry Christmas. That’s why I’m here.”

She looked down at the gift, her heart racing. “You didn’t have to. Did you like my gift? Have you opened it yet?”

“I haven’t opened it.” He shook his head. “Besides, you told me not to open it until Christmas.”

“But it is Christmas – today,” she said pointedly.

“Well, then, I’ll report back to you as soon as possible,” he said. “Open this here, if you want, in front of me.”

With shaking hands she undid the ribbon. She tore the wrapping with the excitement of a child, to reveal a rectangular Ted Baker box. “Wow,” she gasped. Ted Baker was an extremely expensive brand and not one Sophie ordinarily splashed out on.

Amusement flashed across his face. “Do you like it?” he questioned.

“I like anything from Ted Baker.” With an element of showmanship she shook the box. Unable to resist much longer, Sophie peeled the lid from the box. Her eyes widened. “Ah, a wallet.”

“I know you like leather.”

“I do. Thank you.” Overwhelmed with emotion she leaned over and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you so much. You have an impressive memory. I mentioned it when we first met.”

“How could I forget?” He shrugged. “Look inside.”

“Should I be expecting a hundred quid too?” she questioned, and they both roared with laughter. He twinkled as she peeled the purse open to expose a folded piece of paper. She shook the page out and scanned the writing.

“It’s bad luck to give someone an empty wallet,” he explained, observing her curiously. “Instead of cash I thought you might like this instead.”

“Vouchers to use at the swimming centre.” She laughed. “Thank you.”

“A bit of a joke….” He shifted on his feet. “I was going to ask…, since you said you were possibly going to Brighton?”

“Yeah, I’m driving down for work, to complete the script for the shoot.”

“Ah.” He shuffled awkwardly on the pavement. “I think I mentioned beforehand that the publicist for my hotel chain was thinking about throwing a New Year’s Eve party at our Brighton hotel to generate a buzz. Well it’s happening because most of my Brighton hotel is empty. So my publicist is pulling out all the stops as a last effort to generate bookings. Of course they’re inviting about two hundred people in the travel industry and the press. I’ve agreed to the event but have insisted upon inviting some of my own friends. Eve and Josh are going, and some mates from school and university. It’ll be fun. You should come too.”

“It sounds fun.”

“Carol and Mickey of course are invited and Clive can come, too. Just let me know because of the catering.”

“I’ll ask them.”

“You must,” Matthew encouraged. “There will be fireworks down by the water. Quite a few of the suites are empty and I’m reserving a few for mates. Why don’t the three of you girls take one? No cost to you, of course. You can have some drinks, relax, and then join the party when you’re ready.” He grinned. “No pressure.”

“It sounds like fun. I’ll talk to them. I’m sure they’ll agree.” Anticipation ran up her spine. “If I’m up in Brighton, I might work beforehand while I’m there and check out the sites.”

“Really Soph? Don’t you ever take a break?” he frowned. “It’s a holiday.”

“Well I’ll already be there. There’s no point going twice,” she insisted.

“Fair enough.” He shook his head. “Since the work’s for my commercial, why don’t I meet you there and help.”

“Sure, if you want to. You don’t have to. I’ve got it all under control.”

“I’d like to.”

“Okay,” she paused. “If it’s okay, with you?”

He nodded. “Very okay.” He smiled and she couldn’t help but smile back. “We’ll organise the time to go over all the professional work stuff later. But it would be nice to try and separate the personal and the professional.”

“Great.”

“Great. I’ll call you to work out the details.” Matthew leaned over, and she held her breath as he kissed her softly on the cheek. “Merry Christmas, Sophie.” His eyes were round, his gaze intense.

“Merry Christmas, Matthew.”

At that moment she longed for mistletoe hanging over their heads.

***

Sophie drove to the cottage in a blissful, dreamlike state, unaware of the traffic and honking horns, oblivious to any congestion. The Christmas Day traffic was bumper to bumper. She’d arrive soon enough. Matthew Silver had asked her, Sophie Smart, to his party in Brighton. The very thought sent shivers flying up her spine.

He was extremely good-looking and there was a definite chemistry. Did it matter that they were professionally involved as well? Matthew seemed keen on finding a happy balance.

Finally she reached the cottage and Sophie parked her Volkswagen Beetle. She collected an armful of presents from the boot. The first person she saw was Roger pacing outside the front of the cottage. He stalked up and down the pavement, clutching a red Santa cap. He didn’t even notice Sophie.

“Dad?”

He turned, his face was red. “A cruise,” he spat the words out. He ran his hands from the top of his forehead through his hair, and repeated the words, again and again. He scratched at his scalp like his hair was nit infested. “She bought me a God-damn cruise for Christmas. Hallelujah.” The sarcasm was thick in his voice.

“It’s supposed to be partially for your anniversary,” Sophie said in a small voice.

“After all the conversations we’ve had since she’s learnt I’ve lost my job and she buys me a cruise. I mean, doesn’t she get it? We can’t really afford it. I know she’s only paid the deposit, but the timing feels totally off. I need to get a job pronto.”

He gasped for breath and leaned over, resting his palms on his knees. He inhaled sharply, like he’d run some type of marathon and was trying desperately to suck in air.

“Dad, are you okay?” Sophie quickly set down her packages and put her arm around his shoulder. “How are you feeling?”

He stood up abruptly, shrugging her off. “I’m fine.” He was too thin; his face was knitted with stress lines.

“Are you sure? You don’t look well.”

He shot her a glare, and held his chest. “What am I going to do?” His face was contorted. “It’s been months. I need to get full-time employment or we’re going to have to do something drastic.”

“Like sell the house or something?”

“Maybe move in with you.”

Sophie didn’t know whether he was joking. “It won’t come to moving,” she muttered. “So you’ve discussed an employment action plan with Mum?”

“Yes, but she’s so hopeful.” He shook his head. “She’s so hopeful because I had an interview and she got incredibly excited. We thought all our prayers were answered.”

“How did it go?”

He was shaking. “I don’t know. I thought it went well. They said they liked me. Then I didn’t hear anything back. I just don’t know what happened.” He visibly swallowed and then put his Santa hat back on his head. “I’ve had enough of this conversation today. We won’t speak any more of this Sophie. Today is Christmas. Okay? Christmas. Let’s both get into the spirit.”

“What are you supposed to be doing out here?” she asked.

“Collecting firewood for the blooming fireplace.”

“I see…well we’d better get some.”

Chapter 20

 

 

Sophie spent the week at the country cottage with her family until the much anticipated day of New Year’s Eve arrived. This was also the day of Matthew’s party in Brighton.

They’d written text messages back and forth for the whole Christmas period. He’d opened her Christmas present, a surf wallet, like the one he’d tried to buy off her at their first encounter. Even though the wallet reminded her of Rebecca, Sophie thought it was probably quite important for him to remember her.

Sophie had arranged to drive Carol to Brighton, Mickey would meet them there. Sophie’s phone beeped again with another text message from Matthew. Carol snatched the phone and read the message. “Matthew says in his text, ‘Meet in thirty minutes. Looking forward to seeing you.’ Kiss, kiss, hug, hug.” She shot Sophie a conspiratorial look.

“He did not kiss, kiss, hug, hug.” Sophie’s stomach twisted into knots of excitement as they arrived in Brighton.

“You’ll never know,” Carol smirked. “Do I have to come with you as I’m going to be the third wheel?” she continued as Sophie pulled up at the designated spot.

“Yes, I need you here.”

“Why can’t your Art Director just do this?”

“Because he’s lazy, yet talented.”

“Did you ever think maybe you’re teaching him to be lazy?” Carol insisted. “Doing all his work for him? And why are you working on New Year’s Eve?”

“It is not a public holiday today. It’s still a work day.” Sophie left her car and sauntered onto the promenade.

“So…the Art Director should be doing this rather than you?” Carol insisted as she followed Sophie agitatedly.

“You’ve got a point. Maybe I’m a control freak or I get stuck into the detail. But I love the details when it comes to advertising. Maybe that’s why I work so hard. I like to know everything about what’s going on in a campaign. Since the commercial is part of the campaign, I want to make sure the client gets exactly what we’ve promised. I need to make sure the director, the camera man, and everyone else involved knows exactly what we’re after. So when they read the shooting script, everyone in my team understands what’s expected.”

“What’s a shooting script?” Carol asked. “Sorry, I only do stage, really. I’d love to do a commercial though, I think.”

Sophie regarded Carol standing on Brighton beach. She’d be keen, and they were having so much trouble with that girl Samantha. “A shooting script has all the detail of the shots: The camera moves, the dialogue, instructions about any voice-overs or anything else that will be featured in the commercial. It even includes information about the costumes and specifics about the props we’ll use. Having a shooting script means that all the people involved will be on the same page. It’s like a reference document, to make sure we achieve the right message when shooting the commercial.”

Carol, bored with all the details, gave a shrill scream. “Matthew?” He was one hundred metres away, ambling toward them.

Matthew waved. “Girls.”

Sophie watched as Carol rushed to accost him. Sophie toyed with her camera, releasing her nerves. There was nothing to worry about. She’d seen him so many times before. He was so attractive, his blond hair, blowing wildly in the wind. She could tell from the bounce in his walk that he was in an exceptionally good mood.

“Happy New Year, Matthew. Is Josh going to be at your party tonight?” Carol asked.

“He’s already at the hotel sitting at the lobby bar.”

She looked over and past his shoulder, hoping Josh might miraculously appear. “Excellent!” Carol shrieked.

Then, like it was the most natural thing in the world, Matthew reached for Sophie. He picked her up, and spun her around. She screamed in delight.

“Welcome to Brighton,” he whispered in her ear. He shot her a dangerous grin and seemed thrilled to see her. He gently put her down.

Feeling flustered, Sophie turned to Carol. “Let’s make the most of the daylight. I need to take shots from different angles. This won’t take more than an hour,” she commented, and she urged both Carol and Matthew out onto the beach.

“Do I have to be here?” Carol asked.

“You’re my model.” She directed Carol to walk out onto the pebbled beach. “Matthew’s the client, so he can just watch.”

“Really? I’m your model, excellent.” Carol seemed thrilled, jumping into action, clapping her hands excitedly. There was only a flicker of uncertainty in Carol’s gaze. It was almost unnoticeable, but Sophie recognised it.

Swallowing, Carol soon regained her composure. She pushed her shoulders back. She stood tall, straight and held her head high as though nothing fazed her. After all, Carol revelled at being the centre of attention.

“I need phenomenal shots to show Desmond,” Sophie said stubbornly. “Matthew, scan the area and consider whether you’re happy with this location because this is where we plan to film.”

“Okay.” He blanked his face and adopted an exceptionally serious expression. But his lips twitched, in a sexy type of way. Sophie wondered what it would be like to kiss them again, not pretending to be his girlfriend.

It was her turn to frown, trying not to get carried away thinking about Matthew’s lips. “Of course. Let’s get this over and done with so we can enjoy the festivities. Carol, just stand there and I’ll take photos of every angle.”

Carol froze like a statue and held herself with grace and elegance from her ballet training. She stood smiling, showing her long, slender neck, and expressive, elfin face. She was a natural. She really could model or be the girl for the commercial, the way her lips curved into a mischievous smile.

Sophie photographed Carol with the famous Brighton pier in the background. She snapped the horizon, with the water lapping the pebbles. After taking almost thirty different photos, she revised what she’d caught on camera, and her handiwork. Desmond would definitely have something to work with.

“Matthew, come and look,” she instructed, pointing to a frame on the camera screen where Carol looked radiant. The photograph showed Carol’s mass of gleaming blonde hair blowing in the wind. Her large eyes would hold anyone’s attention.

“She looks brilliant. She’s not the girl we’re using though, is she?” Matthew said in a low voice, quietly so Carol couldn’t overhear.

“No….” Sophie said slowly.

“Pity.”

Sophie nodded. “Very nicely done, thank you Carol,” she said. “It’s a wrap.”

Carol relaxed after her posing. She glanced nervously at Sophie. “Are the pictures okay?” She ran a hand through her mass of blonde hair.

“Terrific,” Sophie assured her. “You’re quite a natural.”

Carol sighed visibly, and her eyes glittered at the compliment.

“They really look fabulous,” Matthew confirmed.

“Thanks.” Carol squeezed Sophie’s hand. “If they’re not, we can stay longer. I was so worried I might be tense.”

“You were perfect.”

Carol seemed to shake herself, and the worry away from her body. “Well that was fun,” she enthused. “We should go back. I’ve got a party to get ready for. And I’ve got to see Josh.”

 

***

The girls got ready in the penthouse suite. Matthew was staying somewhere else in the hotel, with a group of his university friends. Sophie didn’t know the room number. All she knew was that they planned to meet at the party which was downstairs in one of the reception rooms. Sophie dressed in a short red dress and Carol wore a sleek, flashy number.

Mickey arrived, dumping a backpack on the floor as she walked into the penthouse. Her jaw dropped to the floor as she looked around. “So we’re all staying here the night?” Mickey raced around the suite, suddenly hyper, like she’d consumed too much sugar. She jumped on one of the beds. “Nice spring?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Yeah. I guess,” Sophie said.

“So this has to be a date,” Carol insisted, “It is a date, isn’t it?”

Sophie shrugged. “I dunno. He just asked us all to the party. All of us.”

“You are in mass denial,” Mickey said. “Tell us what’s going on. We’re all in Brighton in the bloody penthouse suite.” She flopped onto a bed.

“There’s not much to tell. Nothing has happened.”

“You should have the master bedroom,” Carol said, her eyes wide, innocent and rounded.

“Nope, that wouldn’t be fair. Besides, I couldn’t take him back to my room. That would be a promise of….”

“Ah ha. So you’ve thought about it. You’ve thought about having sex with him.” Mickey prodded Sophie’s shoulder. “Why not? He’s gorgeous, nice, and rich.”

“It’s not about him being gorgeous, nice, and rich. You make me sound like a gold digger.”

“Lighten up Soph, have a little bit of fun,” Carol chided. “He’s a good bloke.”

“If it’s going to work with Matthew, you’d better start by taking a risk,” Mickey mused. “The situation isn’t ideal, with Matthew being your client. You can’t control everything and if you like him, you’ve wasted enough time pretending you don’t.”

 

***

By the time they got to the party, it was in full swing, with a DJ playing music. There were about one hundred people, all with drinks in their hands. Carol and Mickey practically fled to find a waiter, leaving Sophie alone. She wondered how she would find Matthew amongst the crowd.

Working her way through, she eventually found him – surrounded by women, of course. They seemed dazzled by him, with their heads tilted toward him. He wore casual black jeans, and an expensive-looking, crisp, white shirt.

Sophie’s knees wobbled like jelly as she approached, and she wondered whether Carol or Mickey might be right, and if she would see him with no clothes on.

He caught her eye, and shot her a lazy, sexy smile. He excused himself and broke from his conversation to approach her. Almost echoing her thoughts, he spoke. “It’s good to see you.” He offered her a glass to drink, the tips of his fingers somehow innocently brushing hers.

“Yes,” she smiled. “You look great.” She was acutely aware of her body responding to him, her neck arching up toward his tall frame, all her attention on him.

He shrugged. “And you look beautiful, as always.” His tone was very casual, but closely followed by a devilish grin.

“The party’s in full swing. And it’s still quite early in the evening,” she said, pushing a hand through her hair. There was a group of people sucking jelly shooters. “Everyone arrived yet?”

“Not quite, we’re expecting another hundred people.”

“Awesome place, awesome party. Oh, there’s Eve.” Sophie recognised Eve from the swimming centre and waved her over.

“Yes, Eve’s here,” Matthew sighed. “Talk to everyone, or do whatever you want to. But I’m hoping you won’t talk to anyone else for too long. I would like to spend some time just with you, later on if it’s possible?” He gave her a confident stare and then took his leave as Eve approached.

It wasn’t as easy a task as he might have requested; as the volume of people increased, it was almost impossible to talk to Matthew. Everyone at the party wanted a second of his time.

At eleven thirty, Matthew made an announcement. The fireworks would be soon and anyone brave enough should go outside onto the terrace, because there would be a stunning view.

The party became chaotic as guests searched for coats and hoarded outside onto the terrace. In true English style, a crowd huddled to wait for the countdown.

Sophie shivered at the thought. “Want to join me outside?” Matthew asked, suddenly at her side.

“I have to get a wrap or a coat, or my cardigan. Otherwise, I’ll freeze.”

“Do you want my coat?”

“No, I’ll only be one minute. I’ll just run upstairs.”

“Do you want me to come upstairs?” Matthew asked, flashing a dangerous smile. “I could keep you company?” The words were loaded with meaning. His expression gave her a distinct feeling that if he came upstairs, the equilibrium between them would certainly change.

She nodded.

He escorted her in silence, toward the lift. They entered, and she realised they rode alone together. She found safety, standing on the other side, keeping a distance from him.

The lift travelled up. Level three. Level four. Level five. They travelled without speaking, their eyes meeting in the door’s reflection.

The lift doors opened and Sophie used every ounce of effort not to rush out and fling the door to the suite open. With painstaking effort they both entered the penthouse calmly and she hurried into the master bedroom to find her cardigan.

Half-frenzied, she searched for the garment. She tried to focus on finding her warm item of clothing but her head was full of thoughts of him. She could imagine Matthew peeling her clothes off and having his way with her, right there, in the master bedroom.

She tried to regulate her breathing. “Thanks for the suite, it’s grand,” she sang out, even though he stood casually by the master bedroom doorway. He watched her hungrily as she smiled at finding the cardigan. She pulled it on and fumbled with the buttons, finding it difficult to concentrate on anything other than the way he stood so very sexily by the doorway.

“Later, if you want, I could give you a tour of the rest of the hotel?”

“Sure,” she agreed, exiting the room with speed.

“What do you think?” he asked, stopping by the large glass doors in the penthouse lounge. He gave her a sidelong glance. “This room has an excellent view.”

“Yes, it’s lovely,” she approached him, and looked at the sea.

“I wanted to say something to you,” he said, turning to face her. “I know it’s early. But… Happy New Year.” His voice was intense, and he reached to remove a strand of hair from her face.

“Happy New Year,” she answered, feeling heat from where he touched her.

“You’ve missed one.” He fumbled with her cardigan buttons. “You’ve got them all out of synch. I’ll help you put this on properly. No need for you to be cold.”

She laughed. “Thanks, I didn’t realise.” The pressure of his hands sent a shiver of anticipation through her body.

Their eyes locked. His arm circled her waist, and hauled her toward him. Any fear about them complicating their professional relationship vanished from her mind. She was lost in his handsome face and the intensity of his expression. His large blue eyes searched for any type of resistance.

She felt an urgent, sharp need for him to kiss her. Quickly. Otherwise she might lean in and be bold by making the first move, and she didn’t want to do that.

He pressed his lips against hers. They were soft and the kiss was tender. Electricity soared between them and the intensity became harder and more passionate. He practically ripped off her cardigan. But he suddenly stopped, and pulled back.

“Sorry, Soph,” he panted. “I don’t want to rush anything between us if you don’t want to. I mean if you’re still in love with Derek.”

She swallowed, feeling weak with wanting. “He’s the last thing on my mind. I’m here with you, now,” she whispered. Her hands affirmed her words, tugging gently at his belt buckle. She yanked his shirt from his jeans.

Her phone rang. The piercing sound broke through the energy surrounding them. “I’m sorry,” she said, laughing nervously, her stomach flipping with butterflies. She wiped her tingling lips. “It’s probably Mickey or Carol, wondering where I am. I’ll just turn it on silent.” With shaking hands she snatched her phone. She frowned seeing the caller identification screen: Gloria Smart.

“Hello?” she answered, taking the call. Her Mum wouldn’t call her on New Year’s Eve, unless there was something important.

“Sit down, Sophie.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know how to say this.”

“Spit it out.”

“It’s your father.”

“He’s not having an affair Mum. I promise you.”

“He’s in hospital.”

She gasped. “What hospital?” Panic gripped her and she felt the blood drain from her face. “Is he okay?”

“He’s in casualty.”

Sophie dropped the phone as her knees buckled, and Matthew somehow caught her, stopping her from falling. “I’ve been drinking. It’s New Year’s Eve. I’ve got to get there.” She spoke mostly to herself, her eyes round, wild, conjuring a plan.

Matthew grabbed the phone.

“Hello. Hello, this is Matthew Silver. I’m with Sophie at a New Year’s party. I heard you say ‘hospital.’ What’s going on and what hospital?”

Chapter 21

 

 

The hospital became Sophie’s home from home. It wasn’t long until both Sophie and Gloria were on first name terms with the various doctors treating Roger. Sophie’s dad had had a heart attack and he was still in recovery.

The upside, if there could be one, came in the form of hunky medics. Throughout her father’s recovery, they diligently alleviated Sophie’s worries. The practitioner’s clean scrubs provoked memories. A whiff of bleach or detergent reminded her of chlorine. She couldn’t help but think of Matthew, for he always smelt like chlorine. He’d fit right in at a hospital, especially with his experience helping people. Being a swimming coach, he probably already knew cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, or in abbreviated medical terms, CPR. Of course he would, since he was into saving lives and all that. Although, Sophie didn’t suppose doctor’s had the same type of passion with water or sea creatures. And Matthew did have a particular interest in wanting to be a dolphin.

Nurses strode around the hospital. If they heard her chatting on her mobile phone discussing something frivolous like a dolphin, then they’d probably confiscate it, so when she received messages from work saying Matthew had rung, she didn’t call him back. In fact, they hadn’t spoken since New Year’s. With the hospital’s limited mobile phone reception making the line crackle, phone calls really were almost impossible. It was difficult to prioritise much else other than focus on her dad and his recovery.

Sophie was overwhelmed juggling her time to support her father and of course her responsibilities back at the office. Whenever she was at Clarks, Bradley constantly shouted at her, urging her to exceed his expectations. To avoid his constant reprimands, Sophie had to do one thing she had never quite done, trust her colleagues to step up. Although Sophie didn’t dare trust Kelly – that would be naive.

Sophie made small incremental steps forward in the process of delegation. Being at the hospital, she wasn’t doing all-nighters. She couldn’t. She trusted Jessica completely to do exactly what her job title read, administrative support. This meant Jessica was able to help a little bit when Sophie was missing in action, at the hospital. Jessica was also able to help arrange the wrap party for the Silver account; since the campaign was running to schedule.

Matthew had called Sophie’s office a few times. He’d left her messages. Sophie either saw them at the most inconvenient time, when the janitor’s vacuum was hoovering next to her late in the evening, or when Bradley was chastising her. By the time Sophie noticed the messages, it was too late to call and she would often just send him an email back.

Matthew hadn’t called her personal mobile phone. Sophie didn’t want to appear desperate. When Sophie’s father was released from hospital, she was determined to find some normality.

One month had passed without actually speaking to or seeing Matthew. If she left it any longer Sophie feared she’d lose her nerve to drop by the pool casually. So Sophie arranged a swimming lesson, just like before. There was nothing wrong with using a swimming lesson as an excuse.

In the pool, Matthew behaved exactly the same as he’d done before. He was friendly and supportive. There was one distinct difference. He seemed more distant, like he’d erected an invisible boundary between them.

In the pool Sophie tried to ignore the disappointment stabbing at her chest. Matthew had just instructed Sophie to complete two full laps with a kickboard.

“Keep going,” he urged as Sophie attempted to stand up in the middle of the pool. After six laps her legs felt like jelly and she was ready to get out.

“We’re not done,” Matthew insisted, glancing at the clock on the other side of the pool.

Sophie frowned. “Oh but it’s almost time….”

Matthew took the board from her. “This can’t become a crutch. It’s excellent for building confidence, stamina, and learning positions. You can’t rely on always having a floatation device. All the balance work you’ve done, you’ve got to use it in the water and swim.”

Sophie shivered. “I see.”

“You’re going to swim.”

She shuddered and watched the demonstration given by Matthew. He started with arm motions without the kickboard. After he completed his instructions, he heartlessly indicated the empty pool lane. He put the kickboard on the edge of the pool and he motioned her forward.

It was her turn.

Sophie’s arms quivered as she extended them in front. Fear rattled inside as she attempted to follow his teaching. She checked her arms and ensured the tips of her fingers touched each other. She couldn’t stop her teeth chattering and she clamped her mouth shut.

With her arms out, she plunged forward to swim.

Taking her first stroke, one arm wound round. The movement felt encumbered and almost jerky like a Thai rickshaw riding on rusted wheels. She kicked hard. Her thrashing legs might not have had the same pressure as an Olympian but excitement funnelled through her body. She was swimming. Dear God, she was swimming and she was sure to create a trail of foam behind.

Her heart hammered as she propelled her body. She felt overwhelmed at what she was actually doing. There was so much technique to remember and everything swirled through her mind.

Her legs needed to flutter kick. Her arms had to rotate. Of course there was buoyancy; that simply had to continue through the length of her stroking through the pool. Panic stabbed. She tried to focus on Matthew’s instructions.

Flutter kick. Stroke. Keep afloat. Flutter kick. Stroke. Keep afloat. Flutter kick. Stroke. Keep afloat.

On her third stroke, her arm felt as if it was whizzing through the water. She felt zealous as she flittered along the surface. Suddenly Sophie became aware she’d missed a step.

She’d missed her breath.

She needed to breathe. Breathing was the integral component of this swimming experience. Unless she’d developed a set of gills for Sophie knew what happened if she didn’t breathe. Matthew, half dolphin and half human, still needed air. He wouldn’t mind if she grabbed a cheeky breath out of the normal swimming sequence. He’d understand.

As she swam, she thrust her head to the side. Her mouth tilted above the water’s surface. Greedily she slurped air. She’d done it, she’d taken a breath!

Sophie wasn’t exactly graceful or gliding over the surface like a swan. Her body rotated and twisted like she was rocking and rolling in the water. The loss of the kickboard hampered her buoyancy, yet she pressed on, following the instructions.

Flutter kick. Stroke. Keep afloat. Flutter kick. Stroke. Keep afloat.

She started her fifth stroke. Again her arms wound round and again she missed her chance to breathe. She snatched her next breath which derailed her body’s buoyancy.

Fretting, she tried to correct her body position. She felt like a drunken llama, seesawing giddily as she moved forward in the water.

Flutter kick. Half stroke. Breathe. Finish stroke.

Despite her efforts, her torso sank and she felt like she was struggling to complete the final step.

Please stay afloat. Please stay afloat.

Sinking wasn’t supposed to be part of the whole swimming shenanigans. Her body submerged further until her feet seemed to drag on the bottom of the pool. This was hopeless. A combination of confusion and disappointment swirled around her as she stood up. She’d only completed six strokes.

Matthew clapped and the sound echoed round the pool. “Well done. You’ve swum. How do you feel?” he smiled.

Suddenly Sophie felt quite annoyed. “I’ve barely left the edge. I only went six and a bit strokes. Then I sank.” Sophie’s cheeks turned pink. “I’m a huge failure.”

“No, no,” Matthew insisted. “Remember there’s a lot going on when you’re swimming. Of course there’s buoyancy without the kick board. And the arms and legs need to learn to work together.”

Sophie frowned. “I just don’t think I’m cut out to do this. I actually sank.” She pulled her goggles off her head.

“No, no, keep on doing what you’re doing. Next time, you’ll aim for ten breaths. You’ll get there. I promise you.”

“So how long is it going to take to do one simple lap of the pool?” she said, her voice trembling. “I mean, I’m not asking for much, just one simple lap.”

“Well it’s not that simple is it?” he replied.

“I’ve a body like the Titanic, a sinking ship.”

“It will come with time and perseverance.” He sighed dramatically. “You’ll have to practice.” He paused and without meeting her eye, he continued. “You can practice without me, you know?”

“I realise that,” she snapped. She pulled off her bathing cap. “I’m quite capable of practicing.”

“One lesson a week isn’t enough. You can’t expect to be zipping through the water in just a few sessions. The more you get in, the better you’ll get. So practice, practice, practice.”

She moved towards the step. “Fine, I’ll practice on my own then.” Without waiting for him to tell her the lesson was over, she exited the pool. “I mean, no one can have swimming lessons for eternity. I’ll have to develop some type of competency without your expert guidance.”

His gaze followed her as she collected her kickboard from the water’s edge. “You’re right, you can’t have lessons forever,” he called. “Maybe we’re all better off going it alone.”

She pulled a towel around her body and wondered whether there was any hidden context behind his words. Did he not want to teach her anymore, was that what this was all about?

She sighed. “Thanks for all your help. I mean it, I really appreciate all this so far,” she whispered hoarsely. “But from now on, I won’t want to waste your time.”

She headed for the changing room knowing she couldn’t get angry but her breathing was quite hard.

Of course she should have seen it. He was bound to want to stop the lessons at some stage. He was a busy man. He was the owner of a business conglomerate. The last thing he needed to do was teach someone elementary swimming skills. He had much better things to do.

Matthew wasn’t even at the reception counter when she left the swimming centre. He was completely avoiding her. God, this was the worst thing that could have happened. He’d ended the darn swimming partnership. If he could opt out, then so could she, surely? But she still had a job to do.

 

***

 

Two weeks later, Eve contacted Sophie and insisted she return to the pool. “But Matthew told me all I needed to do was practice,” she heard herself say. “He said I could do that alone.”

“But I haven’t seen you here, have you gone somewhere else?”

“No, but….” Sophie found multiple excuses not to go to the centre. She started her excuses by using the ‘w’ word. Work. She was working late, working early, working at the weekend, working out of town.

Then her creativity kicked in. Not surprising really because Sophie did live and breathe the world of advertising. A high school friend who she’d reconnected with (most probably on Facebook) was in town for one night and she had to see her (or “him”). She was talking to the Lost Dog’s Home about how they could possibly implement a rescue adoption programme (she really did like animals). She was thinking about entering the London Marathon and needed to find the right shoes because her instep had been quite painful lately. She’d run into an old college professor and was speaking with her old university about a research project.

“I have an idea for you, Sophie,” Eve replied.

“What’s that?” Sophie answered.

“You mentioned that you wanted to practice on your own. Well, Matthew will be away for a few days. So that should be exactly what you wanted to achieve for your solo sessions?

Sophie paused. “It doesn’t matter whether Matthew’s there or not. I just need to practice on my own. That’s what the taskmaster said.”

Eve was Matthew’s personal assistant. She probably knew everything about him. What he ate for breakfast. How he liked to do his laundry. Who he had sex with….

“That’s so good to hear because you’ve come so far Sophie. You know I’m not just Matthew’s personal assistant. I’m also a swimming coach. I wouldn’t want to see you stop. You’re at the point now where you’ve practically got it and just getting in will really help you. Swimming is a life long skill. It can save you in the direst of situations. There are a few skills you haven’t learnt yet. Why don’t you come in and maybe you and I could work something out? You can of course practice on your own but I could offer you a few tips in regard to treading water and show you how to jump off the blocks. That way you’ll be covered with anything to do with deep water.”

“I suppose we could work something out.”

“So, just come to the pool and practice. We don’t have to do anything further, but it would be such a shame to waste all the time you’ve invested. Think about it, okay?”

Sophie sighed. “Fine.” She knew Eve was right, she had progressed and might as well complete the lessons.

Taking on board Eve and Matthew’s words about practicing, Sophie went several times per week. The pool closed at nine and more often than not, only one staff member was left in the hour before closing to lock up the centre. So Sophie chose this particular hour to practice. It was a perfect technique for avoiding Matthew.

Practicing alone in the pool, Sophie felt like she was trying to do some type of underwater dance where she didn’t know the moves. Coordination wasn’t natural for Sophie, she got muddled in the water, trying to stroke and kick at the same time. It was her persistence that kept her going. Without any type of grace she managed to swim one lap and reach the end of the pool. Finally she had achieved it, one full lap without stopping.

Reaching the end of the pool increased Sophie’s confidence. The one lap without stopping soon became two laps. Then three. Then five. Then ten.

One practice session, Sophie reached the end of the pool and noticed Matthew sitting on the pool step. She was so flustered she stopped her practice session and practically ripped off her bathing cap, and hoped her hair wasn’t sticking out in freakish directions. She removed her goggles and met his gaze, goggle free.

His large blue eyes settled on her. “Congratulations, Soph. I think you can safely say you can swim.”

“We all know why I can swim.” She ran a hand through her wet hair. “Thanks for helping and teaching me. I can only do ten laps in a row, but thanks again.”

“Swimming is just inertia, isn’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re creating a habit that keeps you going in a straight line. So you’ll do seven laps today and ten tomorrow. You’re truly on your way to becoming completely comfortable in the water. Now that I’ve got you here, did you want to have any more lessons? I was hoping to teach you how to jump in from the blocks, face your fear of deep water.”

“Thanks for offering, but it’s okay, I’m fine,” she said and shook her head. “I’m going it alone now.”

“Are you sure?” he asked. “It would finish off the essential basic skills.”

Sophie swallowed. “Eve showed me how to tread water and jump off the blocks. It’s probably best if Eve helps me out. After all, with Eve teaching me, it helps our relationship to remain truly professional.” She could barely meet his eye.

A hurt look flashed across Matthew’s face. “You’re right, it keeps us much more professional.” He gave her a tight smile and then strode to the reception counter without saying goodbye.

Chapter 22

 

Day one of filming the ‘Skinny Dipping’ commercial was scheduled at the Highbury Aquatic Centre. Sophie’s nerves were threadbare. Communication with Matthew had been scarce since the last time she’d seen him at the pool.

Sophie arrived at the centre at four in the morning. She pushed open the reception doors and Matthew yawned behind the counter.

His face crinkled as he stretched. “Morning,” he smiled, looking devastatingly handsome. He wore a dapper suit with a white shirt rather than his normal pool uniform of white t-shirt and navy shorts.

“Morning,” she responded brightly. “You look corporate.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I was wondering whether I should with all the advertising executives here.”

“You’re the client, you can wear whatever you want,” she replied.

He ran his eyes over her and something lurched inside. “You look quite nice yourself, Miss Smart.” His gaze followed her every movement: the way she put her handbag down and when she bent to adjust the straps on her high-heels. “You’re the first from your team to arrive.”

She couldn’t help but smile back at him. “The others will be here soon.” She looked at the clock behind the counter.

“So how are you doing? With your dad and everything?”

“Fine,” she replied. “He’s been released from hospital.”

“We haven’t had a chance for a real chat with you being so busy with work and everything.” He paused. “I called your office a few times.”

“Oh yeah, sorry, Jessica gave me the messages. I emailed back, I’m sure. Did you have any questions about today?”

“It’s not that. I called you, Sophie.” He frowned and ran his hands through his hair. “Are you going to address the issue or should I?”

Sophie shifted uncomfortably and darted a glance toward the doorway, praying a colleague wouldn’t enter. “There’s no issue, is there?”

“Did I do something wrong, because it’s like you’re avoiding me?” His eyes bore into hers. “Are we okay?”

Her heart thumped in her chest. “Of course we’re okay. We’re just the same.” She shrugged.

“What do you mean by that?” he insisted. “Just the same? I don’t know what that means.”

“We’re both professionals. I work for you and nothing has changed otherwise.”

“Other than you stopping swimming lessons with me but starting them with Eve.”

“You told me to practice on my own,” she replied.

“Okay. I did mention you should practice, but I didn’t mean….” His voice trailed off and he rubbed beneath his chin. “Is the account the problem then?”

“No,” she shook her head.

“The advertising campaign is almost over,” he said. “All that’s left is for your team to shoot and edit the commercial – or at least that’s what Jessica tells me when I try and reach you at the office. The website looks fantastic. The radio ad sounds amazing. You’re doing laps now in the pool. You’re basically done with me.”

“What do you mean? Done with you?” she frowned. “Are you happy or not happy with the work? Is the account a problem with you?”

“No, I mean, yes I’m happy with the work, but you don’t need me anymore. Not really. I just thought it wouldn’t be so complicated – us I mean – if we didn’t have a professional relationship. If we moved away from that. Kept things simple.”

Sophie felt a dart of panic. “What are you saying? You know I’ll lose my job if I lose this account.” It was a fact. They were in a recession.

“I’m really confused.” Colour drained from Matthew’s face. “Are you only worried about losing the account?”

“Well?” she said, with one hand on her hip and thoughts whirling through her mind. “Am I going to lose the account?”

“My God, you’re good.” His voice was like steel. “It’s just like you not being able to swim.”

“What?”

“Another sales trick. That’s what this was all about. Sales.”

“That’s completely not true.”

“Come on Sophie, just admit it. All you wanted was more of my business. All you spoke about was work and the possibility of getting the hotel chain advertising work. Just admit that you were never interested in me. I mean you even got Eve to finish off the swimming lessons. You couldn’t stand to be in the water with me.”

They stared at each other with blazing eyes. “That’s totally unfair,” she gasped. “You’re the one who told me to go it alone, to practice without you.”

“You’re in sales. It’s what you do. I get it. I’m in business too. It was just business.” He folded his arms protectively. “But you should have just said you weren’t interested, especially after Brighton. I might have been out of the game for ages, but don’t treat me as completely stupid. I can’t believe I fell for you and it was all an intensive sales pitch.”

“How dare you. Of course we met through a business arrangement. I work for your company, it makes sense meeting through work,” Sophie whispered hoarsely. Her whole body shook. “But I thought we were friends and I never said I wasn’t interested. I was at the hospital. And now you stand here accusing me of what…doing my job? What are you saying, I’m a fake? Thanks a lot. You always talk about trust. Yet you don’t trust me. Well I fell for that, didn’t I?”

He stared hard and a minute passed as they both glared at each other. “I guess you’d say anything,” he whispered.

Before she could answer, the reception door opened and Desmond walked inside the centre.

Sophie gathered her handbag from the floor. “Desmond let’s go and look at the pool before the shoot. We’ve got to finish filming before customers arrive.”

 

***

 

“How many times have we gone over this, Soph?” Desmond asked, the frustration clear in his tone as Sophie stormed around the pool. She couldn’t help thinking about the conversation with Matthew, who stubbornly watched her as she argued with Desmond.

“I just have to make sure you get it right.” She felt Matthew’s glare on her back as she debated the camera panning.

Desmond threw his hands in the air. “Of course I’ll get it right. How many times do we have to do this?” Desmond tapped his foot angrily.

“A zillion,” she stated. “Or at least until I’m absolutely sure that we understand each other. So I know the client will get what he wants.”

“The client’s not exactly happy with you is he?” Desmond muttered. “Why don’t you sort that out and just believe in my experience?”

“The client relationship is just fine,” Sophie barked, her gaze settled on Matthew who was now storming around the pool. “Don’t you dare talk to me about experience and trust when you’re constantly late for things.”

“I’m not late today, am I? Don’t you know me by now? I always deliver,” he said. “When have I let you down on shooting a project? Just think about it Sophie, I’m good at what I do.”

The words echoed in Sophie’s head. She felt cornered and defeated by the male population. “What does it matter?” she gasped and ran her hands through her hair. She was probably going to lose her job at Clarks anyway if she lost the Silver account. It would be all over. She’d tried. She’d really tried. “Fine,” she said. “Remember to set up the lighting before the actress arrives.”

“I know that Soph,” Desmond sighed. “I’ve done this zillions of times.”

“You’re right.” Sophie wandered away, wondering what to do if she wasn’t micromanaging her staff. What should she do?

Sophie noticed the makeup artist standing around, but hadn’t yet seen the actress, the new face for the national commercial. Sophie would find the actress and that would possibly help her relax.

“How are things going with makeup?” she asked the artist. “I just wanted to speak to the actress; double check that she’s calm and feeling okay before we start.”

“She hasn’t turned up yet.” The makeup lady shrugged. “I’m just going out for a smoke.”

A nightmarish realisation hit her. If they were going to stick to the shooting schedule and not go over budget, then filming needed to start in about thirty minutes.

“Why didn’t you say something?” Sophie narrowed her gaze at the makeup artist. “We’re practically ready to start – the pool opens in two hours.”

“It’s not my job to make sure the leading lady turns up.”

“You’re right.” Sophie glared and fear pricked her skin as the realisation hit her – she was the project manager. She was the one ultimately responsible for everyone’s attendance and for shooting to schedule. She would be blamed if the project went well over budget.

Nothing like this had happened before. Actresses were like dogs, always sniffing around for work. They always turned up!

Sophie pulled out her mobile phone with lightning speed and called the girl’s agent. The agent hadn’t heard any news and couldn’t help with whether she was turning up, on time or not at all.

Sophie’s logical side snapped into action and calmness flooded her body. She was ironically serene even as questions passed angrily through her head. There was no time to second guess, and grabbing the shooting script, she marched to Desmond. “What do you think about the girl in these photographs?”

“Gorgeous.”

“She is, isn’t she? Perfect looking, would come out beautifully on camera.”

“I can’t say for sure because we haven’t done a screen test.”

“If I, an amateur, can take photographs like this, then you can definitely make her look good on film,” Sophie replied.

“What do you mean Sophie?”

Without waiting to explain, Sophie rushed out of the Highbury Aquatic Centre.

 

***

At four thirty in the morning, the streets of London were practically deserted. The lamps lit the way for her to race home. Sophie opened her front door frantically. She raced up the stairs and knocked furiously on Carol’s door. Sophie didn’t have time to wait for a response and she burst into Carol’s room.

A scream resonated through the house.

“Calm down. It’s me, Sophie.”

Carol breathed heavily. “You scared the shit out of me.” Her voice quavered in the darkness.

“Josh isn’t with you is he? You’re not having sex are you?”

“No,” Carol snapped and Sophie turned on the light, causing Carol to squint. “Josh isn’t here, as you can see.” Carol’s eyes were like slits and she shielded her gaze.

“It’s time for your big break. Now get up,” Sophie demanded.

“What?” Carol sat up, a hand on her chest. “I’m not a morning person.”

“You don’t have time to think, breathe or go to the toilet. Get dressed. It’s time for you to become a national star.”

“Fuck off, Sophie, are you drunk or something? I’m going back to sleep, so turn off the light.”

Sophie frowned. Carol’s response was reasonable she supposed. She was acting like a madwoman.

She ran her hands through her hair, trying to calm herself. “Let’s start again. I’ll introduce myself. I’m Sophie Smart, and I’m not just your flat mate, I’m also a project manager for Clarks, Clarks and Clarks Advertising Agency. We’re shooting a commercial this morning at the Highbury Aquatic Centre, just down the road. I’m not sure if you remember when we took shots of Brighton beach. Well our actress has not turned up this morning. I’m here to give you an opportunity of a lifetime. You’ll be the face of the brand. The face of a national commercial which has the probability to rocket you to fame and possibly even fortune.”

“Sophie,” Carol said. “You’re talking all intensely.”

“You don’t have time to think about it. Every second I stand here, it’s costing me money or my client money; I need you to agree right now.”

“Will I get paid?”

“Of course.”

“What if I’m no good?”

“Carol, stop it. This is not the time to talk about nerves. This is what you’re born to do. I’ve woken you up and you might as well get up and just do the commercial,” Sophie replied heartlessly. “You dyed my hair blonde and I trusted you. It’s time for you to trust me.”

“I know Sophie, but this is a little different. You’ve gone all demanding and crazy.”

Sophie threw a silk dressing gown at Carol. “Trust me. It’s time for you to be a star.”

Chapter 23

 

 

“I saw the edited version of the pool shoot.” Matthew stood in the Clarks reception and his hands were thrust deep in his pockets. He’d come to the office unannounced and insisted upon seeing her.

“We’ve only got the Brighton shoot to go,” Sophie answered. She noticed the effort he’d made, wearing a navy suit, and even a loose tie. By the way he pulled at his neck, he hated wearing the garment. The tie reminded her of the very first time she’d seen him jump out of his Porsche and she couldn’t help but smile.

Encouraged, Matthew smiled back. “The Brighton shoot is scheduled for next week, isn’t it?” he confirmed.

“All booked,” she nodded. “We’ve got the permits and everyone’s ready to go. Did Jessica not tell you all this? She said she was calling you to discuss the wrap party.”

“Yes, she did. But it’s seemed rather difficult to actually speak to you lately. I thought I would come in myself.”

“Fair enough,” she said running her hands through her hair. She felt flustered, pretending she didn’t know what he was talking about. Yes, she’d had Jessica take on quite a lot of the communication about the Silver account, but not all of it. “Of course you can still talk to me, I’m your consultant.”

“Great.” He looked at her square in the eye. “I wanted to apologise for the other day.”

“What for?”

“For saying you were all salesy and only wanted to know me to get more work.”

“You know it’s not true then. Well of course I’d love more work, but I thought we were friends too and I wouldn’t jeopardise that.”

“I was beginning to think it was all in my head.”

They both stood awkwardly in silence. “Well if everything’s okay. I’d better get back to it.”

“I also wanted to thank you.”

Sophie folded her arms. “What for?” She tapped her foot and wondered where he was going with this.

“For all your hard work.”

“That’s very kind of you.”

“Maybe you and I, we could somehow celebrate?”

“Didn’t Jessica tell you?” Sophie knitted her eyebrows in concern. The wrap party was for the client and Matthew was the pivotal person to be invited. “The team’s organising a fabulous wrap party for when all the work is finished. Can you come? Did you get an invitation because the party’s for you, and can’t really go on without you?”

“Yes, of course Jessica’s told me about everything. I’m going. She seems very keen to do the right thing,” he said quickly. Matthew’s mouth opened and then closed as he struggled to find the right words. “But I wanted to thank you, as my consultant, personally. What would you say?”

“I’d say, you’re welcome,” Sophie responded, a bit too quickly.

Matthew roared with laughter. “Come to dinner with me tonight.”

“I’m in the office until very, very late…,” she stammered. “I’m quite busy you know. A workaholic.” Although that wasn’t quite true, not over the last few weeks.

“I see. So you’ll be working late tonight? I’d better let you get back to it.”

“Yes, I better go.”

“Finish up around nine?”

“Yes.” Sophie nodded. “I tend to finish around nine o’clock, about then.”

“You’ll be absolutely starving.”

“I suppose I will.”

“So will I, since the centre shuts at nine.”

“Isn’t that interesting?”

“You live in Highbury, right near the swimming centre.”

“You know I do.”

“I propose that since it will be nine in the evening and we will both be hungry, that you catch a taxi straight to the pool. I’d estimate that you’ll be there around nine-fifteen. I’ll have finished locking up by the time you arrive, and we can to go straight for dinner.”

“It’s an interesting idea.”

“I want to take you out, Sophie. So what do you think?”

“Well….” she started, and a dramatic sigh escaped from her lips. Her mind whirled as she looked for some type of excuse. She’d complicated the relationship once before and maybe it wasn’t the best idea to go out to dinner with Matthew. For whenever they met up casually, things between them got intense. “I haven’t gone to the pool lately. Not since Eve showed me how to tread water.”

“Yes, Eve mentioned you can tread water for about three minutes. But you’re changing the subject.”

“Usually if a guy wants to take a girl out then he picks her up….”

“I can do that. It’s just that you’ll be on your way to Highbury….” He paused. “Are you just stalling, thinking of an excuse just so you can turn me down?”

She grinned. She had thought about telling him that she was attending a charity function. “I was thinking about turning you down after our argument and everything,” she admitted with a guilty shrug.

“But we’re okay now?”

“I’ve forgiven you now.”

He howled with laughter, his dimples appeared as he smiled. “Okay then, after everything began to get interesting in Brighton and you blatantly avoided me, I guess I can forgive you too.”

“I wasn’t avoiding you.”

“You were.” He gave her a stern look. “Admit it, you avoided me.”

Sophie lifted her chin. “I can’t admit it.”

“Go on,” he insisted. “Give it a try.”

“I won’t,” Sophie said. But, the twinkle in Matthew’s gaze caused Sophie to double up with laughter, and tears sprung to her eyes. “The hospital didn’t have any phone reception. I would have called but it was always too late. Then it felt too awkward.”

“So it was the hospital’s fault?” he gasped for a breath. “No texting was possible.”

“I did intend to call.”

“If what you’re saying is true then please redeem yourself by having dinner with me.”

His gaze was intense and her heart beat madly in her chest. She realised they’d made such a scene, both in fits of giggles that colleagues who were walking through the foyer hallway had stopping to watch. Sophie even noticed Bradley cast a glance in their direction while he talked to his own client.

She shifted her shoulders back. “I’d better start acting professionally.”

“So are you going to have dinner with me or not?”

She swallowed. “Of course. Dinner sounds great.” She wondered whether she should come clean about her availability. Since Sophie had started delegating work, she’d be available earlier than nine. She’d be ravenous if she waited to eat.

“Excellent, I’ll see you at nine-fifteen. Don’t be late.” He swivelled abruptly on his heels, not waiting for confirmation.

Sophie gazed at Matthew’s broad shoulders as he entered the lift and left the building. In a dreamlike state she turned, almost bumping into Bradley who narrowed his gaze. “Any news on the hotels?”

“He hates it when people are pushy. He’s not that type of client. For the moment, I don’t think we’ll get it. He knows we want it, so our best strategy is to give him space.”

“I pay you to be smooth and not pushy.” He sighed loudly. “Can you please arrange a meeting with me within the next few days? Get Jessica to set it up when we’re both free. Jessica can book somewhere nice.”

 

 

***

 

Despite herself, Sophie rushed home and changed before arriving at the Highbury Aquatic Centre. She spent an age putting on her makeup, and a new flowing dress that Matthew hadn’t seen before, pale pink in colour.

She arrived at the swimming centre early and walked around the block twice, trying not to seem too eager. Finally hunger forced her to push the door open. What did it matter if she was early? She was hungry. Why should she stroll around in the dark waiting for him to finish up?

She pushed the reception door open. Matthew looked up from the counter.

“You’re early.” His eyes twinkled. “I thought you were incredibly busy? I haven’t yet shut up shop.”

“I’m starving.” She stood by the doorway, leaving it slightly ajar, not wanting to seem too keen or too desperate. “I can wait outside it you like?”

“No come in, I don’t mind at all,” he said, his eyes scanning her outfit. “You’ve even had time to go home and get changed.”

“Look, if you’re going to tease me, I’ll just wait outside. I’ll leave this door open.”

He nodded. “It’s been quiet tonight. You’re in luck – since the pool is deserted I will just shut the centre now. Want to help me ‘lock up’ so we can get out of here?”

“Sure,” she said, slowly and, looking down at her high heels, wondered what the ‘lock up’ of a swimming centre consisted of. “So you lured me to your pool to work for you….” She supposed locking up only included shutting the door firmly behind them when they left. Her stomach growled.

He shot her a mischievous look, a smile reaching every corner of his face. “Just because you look utterly beautiful tonight doesn’t mean you can’t help me turn the lights off. What do you say, princess?”

“Oh, well,” she said, feeling quite flustered at the compliment. “You shouldn’t say things like that. Of course I can help you turn lights off.”

“Say things like what?” he asked, his voice loaded with innocence.

“You know what I mean,” she said.

“I don’t believe I do.” He skirted around the reception, and walked through the turnstiles and into the pool centre.

Sophie glanced fleetingly at the open door. They’d be out soon. She left her post and followed him into the centre.

Matthew was already gathering up the floating lane dividers. The pool was eerily silent. He proceeded to pack the pool equipment into a cupboard. He strode to the male changing room. She hovered outside wondering what her role was in this ‘lock up’. She poked her head inside and watched him by the doorway. He collected towels which had been left by forgetful members. As Matthew turned off the lights in the male changing room, Sophie thought of a way she could help out.

“I’ll switch off the lights in the women’s changing room.” She raced from the male changing room to the female changing rooms. Amazingly, Matthew followed her inside the ladies area.

“What?” he said, responding to her shocked expression as he collected a single shoe from the floor.

“Guys aren’t supposed to be in here.”

“It’s a clean up. No one’s actually using the changing room. My, my, my.” He stared at her. “You are definitely a princess. Look how flushed you’ve become.”

“I’m not flushed.”

“Sophie, are you a prude? I wouldn’t have picked that,” he teased.

She switched the light off and left him chuckling to himself in the darkness. She felt her cheeks grow hot as she moved toward the swimming pool grandstand.

“Princess, are you afraid of being a prude?” He yelled from somewhere in the centre.

She sat down on one of the grandstand seats, suddenly agitated. She certainly wasn’t a prude. “I’m daring,” she called out in response. She stood up then sat back down, looking at the pool glittering below the vaulted skylight.

He appeared from the women’s changing rooms. She stood up, leaning quite coolly on the grandstand chairs. “I’m daring and I’m certainly not a prude,” she insisted.

“We’ll see,” he said with a dangerous glint in his smile. He turned around. “I’m pretty much done, I just need to put these items in lost property and we can go. You never know when someone’s going to come to claim their things – especially the kids. They lose things all the time. It’s very annoying.”

She nodded her head. “Take all the time you want and I’ll just sit here being prudish, twiddling my thumbs, waiting for you,” she continued. “Though you must admit, I helped create a definitely non-prudish campaign for your swimming centre. It was very daring I’ll have you know.”

He shot her another one of his dangerous smiles. “Okay,” he said and disappeared into one of the back rooms.

“Where are we going tonight?” Her voice echoed round the complex.

A hissing sound filtered around the centre like a generator was switched off. All of the lights in the auditorium went out.

Sophie stood up abruptly. It was dark. Pitch black. After a moment, her eyes adjusted to the moonlight streaming in through the vaulted skylight, casting everything in dim shadows.

“You all right princess?” he chuckled, his voice echoing in the darkness. “You knew I was shutting the shop. That includes turning off the lights. I did mention that.”

“I’m fine,” she said, sliding along the grandstand seating.

She heard his footsteps first. His figure moved in the blackness like an assassin. At first, only his outline was visible. Her eyes struggled to adjust as he appeared directly in front of her. He must have done the same thing thousands of time, roamed round the pool, because he found her standing by the grandstand quite easily.

A silence grew between them. “I have a few ideas of where we can go tonight, did you want to hear them?” he finally said.

“Sure.” She took a step forward, hoping to follow him out of the pool centre. Matthew could be her guide. But she had stepped right into him because he hadn’t moved anywhere. He remained still.

Without saying a word Matthew pulled her close. Her breathing was quite fast. Then she felt his lips on hers. He began to kiss her intensely and she couldn’t help but respond.

She pulled away, panting. “Is this like a date?” She asked him point blank. “I mean after New Year’s Eve you called my office but not me directly.”

He gently kissed her forehead, then her nose, and her eyebrows. “I didn’t want you to think I was taking advantage of you when you were vulnerable with your dad in the hospital. I wanted us to be, you know, special. The timing right and everything. You didn’t ever call me back though. I thought I would at least get a chance to chat to you.”

That made sense she supposed, and then his mouth was on hers again. His tongue probed, soft and gentle. She pulled away; this was moving very fast. Possibly too fast.

“I thought you were taking me out, to thank me for my hard work?” she said, even though her arms were firmly round his shoulders, and then sliding over his tapering back and down to his exquisite torso – one she’d seen in swimming trunks many, many times. Her eyes were beginning to adjust to the dim light. He was so incredibly handsome.

His eyes flashed a brilliant blue. “I thought we were having quite a lot of fun here. You were showing me that you weren’t a prude.” He kissed the nape of her neck, sending shivers running up and down her spine. She felt his hardness press against her.

She laughed. “Well, well. I think you might need to find a way to cool down if we’re going to go out somewhere.”

“Really?” he chuckled.

“Really.”

“Okay then,” he said suddenly, and through the darkness, she noticed he was starting to unbutton his shirt. “Let’s cool down.”

“That’s not cooling things down, is it?”

“Come on, give it a go.”

“Here? No chance.”

“Or….” He ran a hand over her breasts. “I could help you? I dare you. Dare you to shed your prudish ways,” he breathed. Then he stopped and took a step back away from her. She could see him unbuttoning his trousers. “Come on. Take the Silver Swimming Centre challenge. Dip with me.”

“I’m scared of the water.”

“What baloney. You used to be scared of the water. I’ll be very close to you in the water. You won’t be able to get me away, I promise you that.”

“I think it’s easier if you just kiss me out here.”

“Come on. I dare you.” Matthew removed one sock with an element of showmanship. “It’s a physical challenge, Sophie. You asked me to cool down and I will. But will you dare to step up? Show me your true colours.”

A fear grew. If she jumped in the water, would anything go wrong? No. She’d jumped in the water like Eve had shown her many times. She could tread water now, find the bottom. She was shivering just at the thought of jumping in.

“A challenge is a challenge,” Matthew mused.

Sophie moved silently and quickly. She slid her dress off over her head, then removed her high heels. The question came about whether she should jump into the pool in her underwear or not. She slid them to her ankles and discarded them on the floor. He could only see the silhouette of her bottom anyway and at least he wouldn’t see her moon tan.

She breathed heavily as she ran to the edge of the pool. Excitement and fear rippled through her body. Her stomach flipped, somersaulted, practically gyrated inside. She had to fight the fear and trust herself. And of course, trust Matthew because he’d be there. He said he’d be there.

Sophie jumped. A thrill rushed through her. A scream escaped from her lips. She almost laughed hysterically as Matthew’s positive chant rushed through her thoughts as her body plunged into the water. I love swimming. I love swimming. I love swimming!

Water enveloped her body. Instantly she found her feet. Trying to keep calm, she fought off the darkness, the scary water. She stood up. She was in control. Her feet were on the ground, her nose above water. She was safe.

She heard a splash from the other side of the pool as Matthew dived in. Through the dimness, she identified his figure torpedoing toward her.

His head broke through the surface, only inches away. He shook droplets from his hair. There was a strange stillness between them. Neither of them moved.

She felt a sense of danger and it wasn’t just because she was fighting off visions of choking on the water in the dark. The greater danger seemed to be all about Matthew. Danger of getting caught naked with him in a public pool (it didn’t matter if he owned it). Danger of being almost one hundred percent at his mercy because she wasn’t completely on the same level of comfort here in the water. Danger of succumbing to the excitement building in her body and wanting him – badly.

She felt an intense hunger soar through her as his head bobbed in the water, centimetres from hers. Danger forgotten, their lips connected with ferocity and their bodies responded with urgent longing.

He stopped kissing her and picked her body up like she was weightless. He carried her, gliding her over the surface. He took her to the step. Oh the trusty step. The step which kept her safe for so long against the demands of Matthew’s swimming lessons. Here she was again….

Placing her on the stairs, he lay her down like an offering.

“You’re beautiful,” he whispered.

She returned his kisses, grasping at him greedily. And then things became quite out of control. In a frenzied manner they groped for the other, but through the darkness, a light flashed on, bouncing around the centre.

They both froze.

The illumination wasn’t on in the pool itself, but Sophie knew it was somewhere close because they could see the light. There was a distinct crash in the foyer.

“What the hell was that?” Matthew muttered. “No one’s supposed to be here.”

“Matthew?” A male voice called.

“Damn,” Matthew cursed. “Get out of here.” He quietly leapt out of the pool and helped Sophie up the steps.

“Righto,” she mumbled.

“I’m just doing lost property,” Matthew yelled, gathering his clothing.

Sophie scooped up her clothes, and streaked toward the women’s changing room. A realisation hit her, she was naked in the public pool and they were about to get caught. Flinging a glance over her shoulder, she saw Matthew was manically pulling on his shorts, and practically tearing his t-shirt over his head at the same time. “I’m just packing up the lanes,” he called. His voice did not betray him. He stayed absolutely calm.

Sophie reached the changing room and dressed with shaking hands. Her heart beat wildly as she struggled to pull her dress over her damp body. She didn’t have a towel.

There were voices in the swimming centre reception. Matthew’s was overly loud, laughing oddly about how busy it had been that night. Listening to the conversation, Sophie realised he was talking to the security guard.

The security guard had noticed the front door ajar and investigated because the lights were turned off in the centre. Funny that.

Sophie cursed as she combed her fingers through her wet hair realising it was her fault that the doors had been left open. She’d left the door open thinking they were simply going to leave the centre after lock up.

Why was it that at that moment, when they were finally getting it together, that the security guard decided to make his rounds? Of all the luck. She paced the changing room awkwardly in the darkness, not daring to turn the light on. She wondered whether she should simply just go to the reception.

“Sophie?” Matthew was suddenly outside the ladies changing room, a large grin stretched across his face. “The coast is clear. It was just security.”

Sophie smiled. Their skinny dipping adventure, their skinny dipping secret, was safe.

He stood close to her, and she found herself convulsing with laugher. He was so close and his mouth found its way on hers. But he pulled away, and adopted a serious tone. “Why don’t we get out of here?” he said. “Security is still around, and I’m going to go mad if they interrupt us again.”

He grabbed her hand and very quickly guided her through the swimming centre, locking the front door with haste. He led her to his car and drove in silence. Occasionally Matthew’s hand fell off the Porsche’s gear stick and found its way to her leg.

They reached his apartment and suddenly he became very quiet as he let her inside and showed her around. “Would you like to have a shower or something?” he asked. “Yes, have a shower and I’ll get us something to drink,” he insisted, directing her to a large bathroom where he closed the door behind her.

Sophie showered and anticipation bubbled around her. She was quick and dried herself off with one of the thick, white fluffy towels in his bathroom.

She tried to stop her hands shaking, probably from anticipation, as she put her dress back on. Sophie looked endlessly round the bathroom for some type of hairbrush. Of course, there wasn’t one. Matthew was a male. He probably didn’t need to worry about having tangle free hair. She used her fingers to comb the strands, almost scratching at her scalp, hoping not to look like a raggedy cat. Finally she finished and assessed her appearance in the mirror. She looked as good as possible without a hairdryer and a case of makeup. Inhaling to slow her racing pulse, she left the bathroom.

She wandered cautiously down the corridor. The apartment was huge, and she noticed soft lights coming from what could only be the large living room. There were shadows flickering on the wall and she realised he’d lit candles while she was getting ready. A silver ice bucket stood in the middle of the room. Matthew wasn’t anywhere in sight.

“Wow,” she murmured, taking in his apartment. The living area was nothing like she’d expected, with brightly coloured walls. She could barely concentrate as she examined the paintings, and of course he had sculptures. What millionaire wouldn’t have collectable pieces of art? She picked up a figurine of a woman and almost dropped it when she heard a noise behind her.

Clumsily she put the figurine back on the mantelpiece and swivelled around.

Matthew sat on a black leather couch. He leaned almost lazily, his hand hanging over the armrest. He watched her intently with a hungry expression on his face. A smell of shampoo floated round the room. He must have showered as well.

“How long have you been there?” she asked.

“Not long,” he replied, rising from the suite. He walked to the ice bucket, popped the cork and poured her a glass of champagne. He handed the glass to her and indicated she should sit.

She sat on the sofa and crossed her legs, then uncrossed them. Then she crossed them again.

He turned from the ice bucket, stopped with the bottle poised midair, from where he poured his own glass. “I didn’t say, but you look lovely, much better than the dirty pool rat.”

“Dirty pool rat? I don’t think so,” she exclaimed, and he howled again with laughter.

“Yep, dirty pool rat, or should I say sexy sea minx? Your curls are bouncing everywhere, in all directions.”

She ran a hand through her hair. “What about you?”

“What about me?” Matthew approached.

“You looked like a ….”

“Come on Miss Magic with Words. What did I look like?”

Frightfully sexy was the first term which came through her mind. “Like a…starfish.”

“Nope. Not hairy enough, so I can’t be a starfish.”

“Coral, then. You looked like a piece of coral.”

“Too spiky,” he shook his head. “At least I know my underwater creatures. We should go diving some time.”

“Jellyfish.”

He laughed. “What am I going to do with you?” He raised his glass to her. Their gaze locked. She practically inhaled the drink.

“You’ve finished that.” He reached out, taking the empty champagne glass from her, setting it on the small side table next to the couch.

He sat down next to her. He was close, dangerously close. His fingers tucked a strand of hair behind her ears. His thumb glided along her chin, and over her lips. He leaned in, and kissed her. His mouth was hard on her lips, electricity coursing through her body like lightning hitting a tree.

In response, she leaned in very close, sliding her arms behind his neck, pulling him close. She kissed him, using her nerves to her advantage. Their kissing became very urgent and her hands were almost frantic as they ran down his back, feeling every sexy muscular vertebra. She nibbled his ear, kissing the lobe and his gorgeous neck. Then slowly, very provocatively, she kissed his neck, just above his shirt collar.

She ran her hands across his chest, unable to resist playing with the buttons. Tingles flew up her spine as he played with her dress, sliding the hem higher up her thigh. He kissed her harder, their mouths locking together as a firm hand circled her back.

He pulled her hips to face him, sliding her body on top of his lap.

She felt suddenly confident, caught in the moment, letting one thigh slide, slow, seductively over his legs. Her body faced him inwardly, where she straddled him, both legs astride as if riding him. She stared into his dazzling blue eyes. She leaned into his chest, feeling his groin solid against her.

With a shaking hand, she slowly undid the top button of his shirt. It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen him shirtless before. She began to explore his chest, and resisted ripping the shirt off him immediately.

He sat straight in the sofa, arms encircling her waist, pulling her close to his hardness, moaning slightly as she pressed against him.

The hem of her dress slid to the top of her thighs. His fingertips traced the curve of her leg, to the top of her knee. He pushed her dress up, exposing her underwear. He traced the elastic band, following it around her thigh and ran a finger between her legs. Only the thin fabric of her underwear separated their skin from touching. She was so thankful she was wearing silk knickers rather than her usual old cotton ones.

“Did you want to go into the other room?” he whispered.

She nodded, almost unable to speak, and he lifted her up and onto her feet.

He took her hand, guiding her round his apartment, from the lounge down the hall to his big master bedroom. She couldn’t focus on the surroundings, only him as he urged her toward the bed in the middle of the room.

She felt his strong hands on her shoulders, spinning her around to face him. He became focused on her dress, pushing the straps from her shoulders. Letting them fall. He kissed her bare shoulders and then in one swoop he pulled the dress over her head.

She lay there, almost bare, almost naked. Her chest suddenly felt tight. He crawled above her, looking down from all fours, staring into her face.

“Sophie,” he murmured. She could hear his breathing, see his chest rising and falling. His hand ran up and down her body and she arched her back, aching for him, reaching for his trousers, undoing the button, sliding down the fly. Her hand touched the fabric of his underwear, finding his hardness.

She wanted him desperately. More than anything now.

“I haven’t been with anyone since….” He gulped, not finishing the sentence.

Since Rebecca. With sudden clarity, Sophie wondered whether he was still too wounded, whether this was all a mistake, whether she should stop.

“Are you alright? Are you okay with this?” he asked, pausing for her to respond, his fingers circling a curl in her hair, finding the back of her neck.

She kissed him in response, her hands suddenly urgently pulling his trousers off. She wanted him in his underwear too. No. She wanted him naked, making love to her.

She cast the trousers to the ground. He straddled her, pressing his groin against her.

Excitement seared through her as he dropped his head to kiss the elastic band of her knickers.

His mouth climbed up her stomach, a ladder of kisses finishing between her breasts. His mouth came down, circling over her nipples. “You’re so beautiful.”

Sophie let out a gasp, her hand running over his back, pulling him tight against her, loving the effect she had on him.

She slid her hands down over his back. There was not an ounce of fat on his toned body. Her hand moved lower, lower, beneath his underwear, peeling them off, feeling his exquisite body.

“I’ve liked you for such a long time,” he said as he kissed her. Urgently he pulled her underwear off. They were both naked, and he was panting hard as she began to guide him to where she wanted him.

 

***

 

Afterwards Sophie lay trembling in Matthew’s arms. He stroked her hair and Sophie felt like she was in some sort of dream. She was in bed with the most amazing man, and she felt her emotions coursing through her body. She liked him, she really liked him, and her chest tightened at the thought that it could be more.

“You okay?” he asked. He must have noticed her frown, as she had thought of how their relationship might play out in a professional way, but she nodded and smiled. The slight knitting of his eyebrows relaxed and he kissed her again.

The kiss heightened every part of her body, and she knew that the professional relationship didn’t matter. He’d asked her on a date and they’d barely been able to control themselves because of their mutual liking of the other. Surely he was just as breathless as she was from everything that had happened. The way his eyes stayed firmly on her after the kiss, the way he kept running his hand over her cheek and over her lips, he must be feeling the same thing.

“So are you hungry?” he asked. Sophie laughed, for she’d forgotten all about food. It was the last thing on her mind. “A little,” she said, wondering whether he’d read her mind, because his eyes stared hungrily at her.

“My God you’re amazing,” he whispered. “I think…I think…”

She wanted him to finish what he was saying, and her emotions were so high that she didn’t dare say anything. Every part of her wanted him to finish the sentence. Was he going to tell her he loved her? Sophie could barely move. A lump formed in her throat. Everything felt so right between them. All she could do was stare back at him as he played with wisps of her hair.

“You’re so beautiful, Rebecca,” he said.

Sophie blinked and then flinched. Rebecca? Rebecca. She sat up quickly, clarity washing over her like a splash of cold water. Did he just call her Rebecca? God, did he even realise he’d done it?

She couldn’t get involved with someone who called her by his deceased girlfriend’s name. He was still grieving. He was still in love with someone. Someone else. He was not even close to being ready.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, pulling her close.

She gulped, wishing it was her that he wanted and not Rebecca. The disappointment washed over her body. Should she tell him what he had just called her?

“I think we’re going a little bit fast,” she said, putting a firm hand on his chest, pushing him away. She felt her heart constrict. Sadness found every corner of her body. Disappointment stifled her. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

He was breathing quickly. “Oh God, I thought that…”

“Um…are you ready for this?” she said in the quietest voice. “I know you were engaged beforehand.”

“I did something wrong, didn’t I?” Her heart lurched at the pain in his voice. “I really like you,” he said, his hand brushing a strand of her hair from her forehead.

“I really like you, too, but…” She wiped the sweat from her brow. She had to explain, provide him with a reason. “But my name’s Sophie.”

“I know,” he said, kissing her forehead, her nose, and her lips. Her body betrayed her, as she felt her lips part. With an effort she pushed him away. “You called me Rebecca.”

There was a long pause as he looked at her and a dark expression crossed over his gaze. A minute passed and Sophie didn’t know what to do. His expression was so black that Sophie had the answer she needed. She started glancing round the room. She needed to leave. This had been a big mistake. He was in love with another, still tortured over her, and she could never compete.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to,” he eventually said, his eyes widening as he sat up. “I wasn’t thinking of her.”

She swallowed. The name had come to him so automatically. What did it mean? Would it happen again? Would he never forget his ex-girlfriend? Whenever he made love, would he subconsciously be re-enacting his life with Rebecca ?

Despair tumbled round her mind. He wasn’t ready. Because of calling her Rebecca, he wasn’t ready. She released a breath. “Maybe it’s better to keep our relationship simple. Friends. I mean, we could really complicate things professionally and things.”

She jumped out of the bed, practically flinging herself off the mattress. With haste she pulled her clothes on. Hot, silent tears raced down her face. She wiped them away. He didn’t need to see that. He was the one who was grieving. She didn’t need to lump her disappointment onto him too. Thankfully there were no lights on and it was dark. He wouldn’t see her cry.

She heard him move off the bed.

“Look, I think maybe I should go,” she said, not daring a glance at him. She ran from his bedroom and through his apartment, hoping he wouldn’t follow.

She was lucky. He didn’t.

But one thing was certain: She could never compete with a ghost.

Chapter 24

 

 

Sophie didn’t know how to handle a client with whom she’d almost slept with. How should she act now that he’d seen her naked after an adventurous skinny dipping session? And in his bedroom where she’d been naked and so had he?

He’d seen everything. So had she. Matthew, of course, was quite well endowed in that department.

What could she say since fleeing his apartment? He was still in love with someone else. She couldn’t possibly ever compete with a ghost, a girl he obviously had loved and still loved. She felt sorry for him, she really did, but Sophie also needed to protect herself, her heart, because she was the only one who was going to get hurt.

He’d thought she was Rebecca.

He was never going to fall in love with her, never see her for who she was, for when he was with her he’d imagined someone else.

Now, how did she communicate professionally? Be polite? Take his calls? Pretend nothing had happened? Pretend the barrier between consultant and client had always existed? How could she forget his passionate kissing, his sweating body, and the way his kisses made her tingle?

Then there was the series of text messages she needed to respond to. She could, however, try to stop imagining how he would profess his love to her if she didn’t speak to him or hear from him. She knew it wasn’t possible for him. She wouldn’t push it. She wouldn’t set herself up to be hurt. She didn’t know if she could stand it.

Sophie’s mobile phone kept beeping to signify a new message. With each beep her heart would lurch and practically fly out of her chest. What did he want from her? Panic consumed her. Oh God, Matthew Silver practically had her heart already; she had been ready to give him her whole heart. But she knew now that she’d just been foolish, so terribly foolish. After all, she’d known all along that he’d had a long-term girlfriend who had died tragically. How utterly stupid of her to think he could reciprocate so quickly after her death.

So what was the point? What could he possibly want from her now? He loved someone else and he would never love her. Not yet. And after Derek, Sophie couldn’t let herself get hurt so badly again.

Besides, if there had been any hope, he would have chased after her. He would have talked further about Rebecca and how she was the past. But he hadn’t, so obviously Sophie’s instincts were spot on. She had done the right thing by leaving. Matthew, beautiful, glorious, amazing Matthew, could never love her.

She could only imagine his texts, filled with words in his taunting, joking manner. He would try to smooth things over, but she couldn’t read the messages. She’d surely imagine the sound of his voice. Without looking at any of his text messages, Sophie turned her phone off: a temporary solution and certainly not a solution that would last forever.

And what should she do about the emails? He’d sent five. Perhaps she should consider opening them? Although she was trying to let the mortification settle. Were the emails incriminating in content? What if the man from the Information Technology department was able to read them?

Now all Matthew’s emails would need her personal screening. She couldn’t simply forward his emails, unopened and unchecked, straight to Jessica to deal with. And Jessica was only admin support anyway, so it wasn’t like she could answer all his queries. There was no possible way to explain to Jessica that she’d had a minor indiscretion with her major client. Okay, a major body-quivering, leg-shaking, mind-blowing indiscretion.

One thing was certain: She couldn’t ignore him professionally—not forever. Maybe she could leave the emails for a few days, until the vivid thoughts and romantic dreams settled down, but someone would have to finish off the work left on the Silver account. That person couldn’t be Sophie.

There was still one full day scheduled for the Brighton filming to finish the dreaded ‘Skinny Dipping’ commercial. God, how could she even bear to watch the making of the ‘Skinny Dipping’ commercial or even look at any of the material from the campaign when all she could think of was skinny dipping with Matthew?

The owner of the Silver Swimming Centre certainly wasn’t afraid to live up to his promises, she now knew, first-hand. And she obviously wasn’t afraid to stand behind her campaigns, as that had been proved twice, first with the ‘Swimming is for Living’ campaign and now with the ‘Skinny Dipping’ concept. But if anyone found out, she’d become a professional joke.

She looked at Jessica, reliable, keen Jessica. She would help. Jessica certainly had the capability to be the point of contact for Matthew. Sophie could push the client relationship to the side—to help Jessica grow in the career she very much wanted. That was what she would do. That was how she’d deal with Matthew for the moment.

“It would be excellent experience in project management. You’ll get one day of running the whole show when you’re in Brighton.”

“Are you sure, Sophie?” Jessica asked. “I mean, you’ve done the rest of the work. We’re almost finished. Why now?”

“The real question is why not now? You’ve met the client already. You know the team because you were at the filming at the Highbury Aquatic Centre. That went very well, wouldn’t you say? You even know what we’re trying to achieve for the entire campaign. You’ve never been in a better position to gain some real practical experience in project management and client relations.”

“Only if you’re sure,” Jessica said. “I’ll try my best to keep the client happy.”

“Bradley keeps insisting that my time is better spent developing new business, and this project is almost complete. I can’t possibly go to Brighton and do everything I need to do while bringing in new work. Besides, I’ve got that meeting with Bradley, that one you set up with the weird subject…Chanel?” Sophie was a little perplexed as she examined her electronic calendar.

Jessica’s face flushed a deep scarlet. “Chanel. The perfume. Whoops. You weren’t supposed to see that. That was a reminder for me. I’ve been so busy lately that I must have made a mistake.”

Sophie eyed Jessica curiously. “Thanks so much for handling so much admin support while my dad’s been ill. I really appreciate it.”

“Soph, it’s the least we can do. You always help me out.”

“So what do you know about Chanel?” Sophie demanded.

Jessica leaned over, very close to Sophie, so no one else in the office could hear. “I don’t want to lose my job, but Bradley asked me to buy you some Chanel Number 5 perfume. It’s got to mean something. Maybe he’s sorry for taking you off Barney’s Chocolate Bars? Everyone knows how upset you were, especially after all the work you’d done and how good your campaign was to start with. Then Kelly went and botched it all up anyway. I’m guessing you heard about her absolutely disastrous pitch. He’s probably scared of losing you. So, Bradley asked me to make a Dorchester booking and buy you a bottle of Chanel. I guess he’s trying to patch things up with his favourite girl…”

Sophie examined Jessica’s earnest face. Yes, maybe that was it. Bradley was feeling uncomfortable about having taken her off the pitch she’d worked so hard on. Then they’d lost the client completely. Tom Johnson hadn’t liked Kelly’s idea at all. He’d wanted what he’d discussed with Sophie and was furious at the firm for taking Sophie off the account.

“Okay. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. But it is odd.” Sophie sighed. “Jess, let’s just focus on Brighton. You’re the person who’s got to be one hundred percent in control. You’ve got to keep Desmond in line and everyone on schedule. You’re the boss when you’re out there.”

“Yes,” Jessica said brightly and puffed out her chest. “I like the sound of that.”

“What will you do if someone doesn’t turn up?”

“Ask you?” Jessica replied.

“But I’m not going to be there,” Sophie reminded.

“I’ll use my initiative. Think of a solution. Check it with the client, if deemed necessary.”

“Good. You can handle it, and since my expertise is better used somewhere else rather than micromanaging, I’m positive you’ll handle it. I trust you, I trust Carol to perform, and I trust Desmond to make an excellent commercial. You’re like the dream team for a day of shooting.”

Jessica laughed. “Thanks, Soph. That’s quite a compliment coming from you. I’m part of the ‘dream team’. I love it.”

“And you’ve got all the plans worked out for the wrap party. Everyone’s been invited then?”

“ Yes. The boat’s booked. I double- and triple-checked. By the way, thanks. Thanks, Soph, for this chance. I’m just the group secretary and a personal assistant. This experience means so much to me.”

“I’ll put in a recommendation if you ever need it. You’ve almost finished university, and Clarks shouldn’t lose you to another firm. You’re much more valuable than a group secretary.”

***

The next day while Jessica led the Brighton filming to complete the ‘Skinny Dipping’ commercial, Sophie jumped into a taxi to The Dorchester. The conversation with Jessica kept revolving in her head. Something didn’t quite make sense. Bradley wasn’t the type of boss who bought his staff their favorite perfume.

Think, Sophie, think.

She jumped out of the taxi. There was something in the back of her mind. Something felt unsettling. But what? The doorman practically genuflected as she entered the hotel. The scent of fresh flowers floated around the room, a sickly sweet sent which made her feel even more uneasy. Something is wrong.

The receptionist glided over to her, recognising the awe on her face as she looked at the patterned carpet, the grand sweeping staircase, and the glamorous women wearing jaw-dropping jewels. She was escorted to the main restaurant and introduced to the maître d’.

“I have a reservation under the name of Bradley Clark. Has he arrived yet?”

“Yes. There’s a table booked for two.” A table for two. When was the last time Bradley had asked her to lunch? Or asked any of his staff to lunch…

“Yes. That’s right.” Taking a large breath, trying to settle her apprehension, Sophie followed the maître d’.

She was suddenly very nervous, the type of nervousness which formed in her chest and made her legs feel like they wouldn’t respond. Why did Bradley want to see her for lunch? Was it really because he thought she did amazing work? Was it really to make amends because he’d thrown her off the pitch for Barney’s Chocolate Bars? Would Bradley really ever appreciate her efforts? Her long hours? The way she loved her job?

Sophie was led to a table with a spectacular view overlooking the garden.

Bradley was already seated and smiled upon noticing her. “Sophie, glad you came. I was getting worried.”

A different waiter, wearing black and white, appeared almost like an apparition. He pulled a seat out from the table and helped her sit down. Then just as he’d appeared, he disappeared somewhere into the folds of the restaurant, as if by magic.

Sophie settled herself into her seat and then noticed something sitting on the empty plate in front of her: a bag of Chanel, just like Jessica had mentioned. “I wouldn’t miss coming to lunch at The Dorchester.” She noticed Bradley eyeing her carefully, and he nodded that she should open the bag. A look of amusement flashed across his face as she opened the package up in haste.

“You know this is my favorite perfume,” she said, feigning surprise.

“Well I have known you for years—over three years— working at Clarks, isn’t it?”

“Yes. That’s right,” she said, taking the bottle out of the package and sniffing. “Thanks so much for this. Is there some special reason?”

He leaned back in his chair and grinned. “You’ve worked so hard you see. Today the ad campaign for the Silver account is pretty much completed.” Bradley smiled his slow, greasy smile.

“Yes,” Sophie started, not quite trusting Bradley’s explanation. “Desmond’s getting the last lot of footage, and of course then there’s the editing left, but otherwise we’re done. We’ve hit a home run, I think. We’ve billed the client a hell of a lot, but so far the work looks amazing.”

“You heard that we didn’t get the account for Barney’s Chocolate Bars? That fell through. It’s really hurt our projections. Clarks’ revenue is in a dire situation.”

Sophie suddenly felt a stab of discomfort. Why was it now her problem that they hadn’t won the account for Barney’s Chocolate Bars?

“That’s such a shame. I’d have thought it was in the bag.”

“Tell me how the swimming lessons are going with Matthew Silver; I saw him in the foyer the other day.”

“The lessons are brilliant. Matthew Silver was my teacher, you know. He never pushed me. I’ve had this phobia of swimming since I was a kid, so he started by tackling the phobia first and simply helping me get into the water. Then we moved onto basic water survival skills. I can swim now; I’m not an Olympic swimmer, but I can swim.”

“Excellent.” Bradley nodded. Again he gave her an almost shark grin, bearing his pearly white teeth. “Good work, Soph, good work. Wrap party soon then? Where did Jessica arrange it?”

“On a boat. You are coming aren’t you? I’m sure you were invited, being our boss and everything,” Sophie questioned.

“Yes, I’m coming. Shall we have some champagne?”

A glass of champagne would cost a fortune at The Dorchester, and Sophie eyed the porcelain plate and the silver cutlery.

“Which client does this one get expensed to?” Sophie joked.

“Well.” Bradley’s gaze was suddenly quite serious. “We’ve spoken a little about the Silver account.”

“No chance.” Sophie eyed Bradley carefully. “This is not being billed to my account. You invited me and the subject was clearly Chanel, but I’m guessing we don’t have a prospect on that one. Or maybe that’s why I’m here,” she teased, trying to lighten up the mood.

“I wanted to talk to you about that.”

“Bradley!” a voice echoed through the restaurant, high-pitched and familiar. Sophie turned toward the sound, her stomach dropping as she saw a figure striding to the table, a waiter trailing behind.

“Kelly?” Bradley said. His eyes were wide with astonishment. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing here more like it? With Sophie?” Kelly’s eyes narrowed and her expression was dark. “Sophie, you always say we should work as a team, and then look what you do. You exclude people.”

“I didn’t think we were excluding you, so to speak, and this meeting doesn’t seem to involve the team. Not that I know of…” Sophie said, and then paused, unsure how to continue.

“And you, Bradley, you should have at least let me run ideas by you before you make a decision on which consultant to use.” Kelly turned to the waiter who stood politely, watching the exchange with interest. “Well, aren’t you going to set another place at this side of the table?”

The waiter jumped to action and disappeared. Kelly produced a sheet of cardboard and clicked her fingers. Another waiter appeared by her side. “Hold this for a few minutes,” she instructed. “This could be my big break.” She thrust the cardboard into the waiter’s hands.

“Kelly, you don’t have to do this.” Bradley stood from his chair. “Please don’t cause a scene.”

“I’m not causing a scene. Just hear me out,” Kelly insisted, and Bradley slumped back into his chair, a deep frown forming on his face.

A waiter filled Sophie’s glass of champagne and then turned to Kelly. “Shall I bring another glass for the madame? Will you be joining the celebration?”

“Yes.” Kelly’s head darted between the pair, and Sophie gulped down her champagne.

“So, did you pitch yet?” Kelly demanded, her green eyes looking at Bradley and then at Sophie for confirmation. Sophie suddenly felt confused. What was Kelly on about?

“Not exactly.” Bradley’s voice was smooth.

“Keep holding that cardboard,” Kelly ordered the waiter, and then she picked up a knife, using it as a pointer. “These are some quick ideas I sketched up on Chanel, as I’m not privy to what they have asked for as a potential client. However, I’ve worked on it all morning, since I overheard Jessica making arrangements for a Chanel meeting between the two of you. I can’t believe you wouldn’t think I might be interested. So anyway, I’ve reviewed each product line. I’m presuming it’s makeup or perfume?”

“Shouldn’t you be working on…something else? One of your own projects?” Sophie muttered, looking at Bradley in bewilderment, not knowing what to do.

“Okay, my perfume tag lines are like so…”

Sophie felt her body stiffen, rigid with anxiety as she listened to Kelly. Kelly the rattlesnake who’d strangle her if she could. They’d never work as a team. There really wasn’t room at Clarks for both of them. There just wasn’t enough work. She looked at Kelly, who smiled brightly like a door-to-door salesman.

Bradley didn’t try to stop her, nodding his head politely. “You’re such a hard worker,” he commented. “I like the line you said about the ‘power in a flower’. Maybe work to develop that idea a little more.”

Sophie felt irritation crawl up her back.

“Great. So maybe Sophie and I could work on this pitch together? What are they looking for? Magazine? Television? The works? What type of advertising campaign? Will one of you start speaking? I need to know.”

“There’s no account, no client, no pitch. Jessica merely typed the word ‘Chanel’ into the subject box because Bradley gave me a bottle as a gift for all my hard work. It was a reminder for Jessica, a mistake.”

“But…”

“I think he wants to make amends since he kicked me off the account for Barney’s Chocolate Bars.”

“Is that true?” Kelly hissed. “I worked extremely hard on that account, very hard indeed.”

“But you didn’t win the account.” Bradley sighed and shrugged his shoulders. “I’m starving,” he said, ignoring the veins protruding out of Kelly’s neck. A waiter brought forward three menus. “Food seems like a jolly good idea,” Bradley continued.

Kelly couldn’t seem to comprehend what was going on, and she almost fell into her seat. “What? That’s it? That’s all you’re going to say?” Kelly asked, looking quite dizzy.

“Kelly, there’s no account. There is no Chanel account. She’s right. The perfume is a gift for Sophie.”

“Are you sleeping together?” Kelly demanded.

Bradley shook his head furiously. “No. We’re not together, or sleeping together, or anything.”

“Then why are you at the Dorchester with Sophie? We’re in a recession, remember? Clarks is barely afloat, or so you keep saying, and you’ve given her a bottle of Chanel. It doesn’t make sense.” Kelly turned to look at Sophie.

Sophie nodded. At least the two of them were on the same page on that. “I agree. It doesn’t make sense.” Sophie’s feeling of unease returned. None of this scene made sense.

Kelly flashed a smug smile. “It’s so bloody expensive here. Oh that’s right,” she said slowly. “This is the place you go for celebrations or commiserations…” Kelly froze and stopped talking. She eyed the Chanel packet and quickly picked up the Dorchester menu.

Comprehension washed over Sophie. This wasn’t a meeting to thank her for her hard work. “I remember,” Sophie said slowly. “The Dorchester is where you celebrate something or…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Is Sophie getting a promotion?” Kelly asked in the smallest voice. “I mean just because Barney’s Chocolate Bars isn’t quite happening this month? Is Sophie getting the promotion?”

Bradley scratched the bottom of his chin and showed a gleaming, white-toothed smile. “I haven’t been entirely truthful,” Bradley started, and then fiddled with the napkin on his lap.

“You don’t say,” both girls said in unison, and then looked at each other. They were suddenly on the same side.

“Maybe it’s good that you’re both here. I was going to chat with each of you separately. I have something to talk to you both about.”

 

***

 

Sophie called in sick for the next three days. “But what’s wrong with you?” Jessica brayed over the phone line. “Do you know how many times Matthew Silver has called you? He’s refusing to talk to anyone else.”

“Tell him I’m anywhere but there. I’m at the hospital, in accident and emergency. Tell him that.” She coughed into the phone. They couldn’t prove anything. For all they knew she’d had a car accident or broken her arm. Accident and emergency was the place to go when something got too serious for a doctor. Besides, no one could prove she wasn’t in the hospital suffering from something dreadful. She supposed she was suffering from something, humiliation.

“The Silver account, the ‘Skinny Dipping’ campaign, is finished. Desmond edited and finalised the commercial and Bradley took the final product over to Matthew Silver. That’s your job. What’s going on, Sophie…?”

“I’ve already told you. I’m sick.”

“Matthew loved it. He even spoke to Bradley about how excellent you were and how he’s giving you, and only you, the ad work for the entire Silver Family Leisure Group! Bradley almost fainted when he told us.”

“Great,” Sophie said with little enthusiasm. Was that the only reason Matthew was calling her?

“Just great? That’s brilliant! Are you okay, Sophie? Clarks is saved.”

“Who cares?” Sophie had been made redundant. Bradley had fired her. He’d also fired Kelly and let them both go after the meal at The Dorchester.

“You clearly must be ill, clearly at accident and emergency. The hospital atmosphere must have tamed you, because you should be jumping out of your bloody chair with happiness,” Jessica said in a very quiet voice. “Well, to continue, the wrap party is all scheduled for tonight. Are you sure you don’t want to review any of the plans?”

“Where is it?”

“The Embankment, on a boat, just like we discussed.” Jessica paused. “You’re okay with boats. It’s just swimming and the trauma, right?”

“I’m good with swimming. I did a deep water jump the other day. I can handle the water.”

“I know you’re sick, but do you think you can still make it? I mean, Bradley would flip if you didn’t come; getting the rest of the Silver’s business, you’re expected to schmooze.”

“I don’t think Bradley cares too much about me. It’s a shame, but I might be too sick to go.”

“I thought hospitals didn’t have mobile phone reception.” There was a long pause. “You know it’s strange. Kelly’s sick, too.”

“Must be going around the office.”

“You’ve both been sick for three days. The same three days. Isn’t that interesting?”

“Very interesting.”

“But I just spoke to Kelly, and she’s turning up to the wrap party.”

“Oh really? Why? Matthew’s not her client.” Sophie suddenly felt a sense of proprietary. Matthew Silver was her client, and so was the new business. And if she had even a sliver of a chance of getting her job back, then she’d have to talk to Bradley about it.

“Bradley called her. Barney’s Chocolate Bars is reconsidering, and they have asked Kelly to come in. There’s this rumour going around that he made Kelly redundant but then asked her back.”

“Hmm…” Sophie said. Bradley hadn’t called her to give her job back. “What’s she supposed to be sick with?”

“She’s lucky to have a job, so she’s sucking it up, like you should.”

“Well she can’t be too sick if she’s going to the party.”

“I don’t know. She just called in sick, like you,” Jessica said.

“So she’s not really sick.”

“Like you, you mean?” Jessica insisted. “Not really sick.”

Sophie hung up the phone and wandered around the flat in her pajamas. She slumped onto the leather lounge next to Carol, who sat sprawled on the sofa, eating ice cream.

“What are you doing?” Sophie asked, looking pointedly at the ice cream. Carol didn’t eat much, and she certainly didn’t eat ice cream.

“Josh…” Carol dipped her spoon back into the container and ate another mouthful. “He’s off to Australia.”

“Oh my God.”

“Want some?”

“Why?”

“Because it’s delicious.”

“No.” Sophie shook her head in frustration. “Why is he going to Australia?”

Carol sighed. “He’s a lifeguard and he doesn’t want to waste his life at a pool. He wants surf, sand, wind in his hair, all that kind of stuff.”

“I see. Are you going with him then?”

“My agent called.” Carol made a face. “I’ve got another job.”

“That’s wonderful news in a recession. Yet I don’t know if I should be saying congratulations, because you don’t look ecstatic.”

“I’m not crying. I’m really happy with the new job.” Yet Carol wiped a tear from her eye. “There’s no possible way I can go to Australia when my career’s just started to take off. Thanks for the help with that, by the way.”

“No problem.”

“Josh says he understands, and I guess we’ll break up when he goes abroad.” Carol sniffed. “What are you wearing to the wrap party tonight?”

“I’m not going.”

Carol shot Sophie a long, hard look. “You’re not going? No way. You can’t drag me out of bed at four o’clock in the morning, convince me to become a national star, and then decide not to show up for the wrap party.”

“I’m sick.”

“No way you’re sick, you big fraud,” Carol hollered. “Don’t think I’m not onto you. I’m your flat mate.”

“I can’t go. I got made redundant, so I’m taking all the sick days I can. I called in sick today, so I can’t possibly go to the wrap party tonight. It would be too obvious.”

“It’s not like they can fire you.”

“I suppose, but I’m not going.”

“What’s going on with you? What’s happened to that persistent, positive, go-getter attitude? Are you sure there isn’t any way to save your job?”

“There might be.” Sophie shrugged. “But it doesn’t mean much anymore, does it? I mean, if Bradley made me redundant, even if he reinstated me…well, I’m not worth very much to Clarks, am I? They don’t really want me.”

“But you love that job.”

“I love advertising, maybe not that job,” Sophie said in a very soft voice. “Besides, I don’t want to see Matthew ever again. It’s too embarrassing.”

“He didn’t cheat on you. He’s left you about one hundred messages. He really likes you, Soph. It was just a slip of the tongue, a compliment really.”

“I can’t possibly compete with the ghost of a dead girlfriend. He loved her so much. I feel for him, I really do. He’s not ready. It feels like everyone’s going to get hurt, including me.”

Carol sighed. “Love’s a risk. He might never forget her, but that’s the same as you never forgetting Derek. Rebecca is his dead girlfriend. It’s different. He’s associated you with a woman he loved—the only woman he loved from what I can gather. It’s been almost two years, and she will come up in conversation from time to time, but she’s gone, Sophie. She’s never coming back. I hate to say this, but she’s dead, which for you has to be so much better than having an ex to bump into. So other than a banshee haunting you, you’ve got absolutely nothing to be worried about.”

The doorbell rang, interrupting their conversation. “If it’s Matthew, I’m not seeing him.”

Carol nodded and went to the door. “Sophie, it’s for you.”

Sophie glared at her flat mate and trudged to the front door. She ran her hands through her unwashed hair. She was, of course, still dressed in her robe and slippers. She pulled her robe tightly round her waist, wishing she looked much better. Why hadn’t she bought a silk robe?

At the doorway, Sophie’s heart lurched. It wasn’t Matthew. It was her mother.

“Hi, Soph,” Gloria said brightly. Then Roger pushed past. Roger looked much stronger than he’d been in hospital.

“Hi, Mum. Hi, Dad. What are you both doing here? I thought you were both going off on your cruise.”

“We are,” they said in unison, and looked at each other, a secret smile shared between the two of them.

“You wouldn’t take my calls at work, but then Jessica said you were sick, so I didn’t take it personally—you not getting my messages and not calling me back. So I thought I would just invite myself over.” Gloria handed Sophie an ice cream container as she wandered into the apartment and started looking around.

“What’s this?” Sophie asked.

“Carrot and coriander soup, because you are supposed to be sick.” Gloria gave Sophie a knowing look and then wandered into the kitchen, making all the right sounds as she opened the cupboards, the pantry, and examined the stove. She placed a plastic bag on the bench and then opened the back door. Gloria looked around the garden. “I love your place,” she enthused.

“Thanks. I love your soup. It’s my favorite.”

“Your father made it. He’s been helping out a lot more, and he’s even got this fine knack for making frothy cappuccinos. I’ve told him he should open up a coffee shop.”

Sophie almost choked. “Right.” She shot her father a look. “Who would have thought he’d be so talented at cappuccino making?”

“Anyway, that won’t be possible, because he’s helping a bit around the house before he…” Gloria shot Roger a sharp look.

“Before I start work,” Roger said, a grin on his face. “I got a job.”

Sophie threw her arms around his neck. “You got a job,” she shrieked, jumping up and down on the spot. “You got a job!”

“I got a job! Starting the week after we come back from the cruise. There’s only one hitch.”

“What’s that?”

“Sign-off. I’m the man for the job if they get the final sign-off.”

“It will come through,” Gloria insisted.

“Yeah, Dad, it will come through.”

“Well I can’t do anything about it if it doesn’t, so I’d better make the most of my redundancy time. Your mother and I are going to have an amazing cruise.” He grabbed the plastic bag Gloria had placed on the table and searched for something inside.

“Thanks for not dumping things all over the place,” Sophie murmured.

Roger held a cheque book in his hand and scribbled. “Now please don’t bank this yet. Wait until next month. But I wanted to pay you back. Thanks, Soph.”

She looked at the cheque. The money she’d loaned him. “It’s okay. You don’t have to pay me back.”

“I insist,” Roger said.

She shrugged and took the cheque. She supposed she did need it now since she was the redundant one.

Her parents left, heading off for their cruise, looking so happy together.

Everyone was so happy. Sophie could choose to be happy, too. She should probably try to be happy or at least do something rather than mope around. She should go to the wrap party. Might as well. And maybe, while she was there, she might just try to get her job back.

Chapter 25

 

 

“I was so worried you weren’t going to come,” Jessica said when Sophie and Carol arrived at the party. “You look absolutely fabulous, considering you’ve been sick for the last three days,” Jessica mused.

Sophie shot Jessica a steely look. “Makeup works wonders. You remember Carol, don’t you?” Sophie pushed Carol forward, closer to Jessica.

“Oh yes,” Jessica said. “I was at the filming with Carol. Everyone was so great down in Brighton,” Jessica gushed. A man hovered behind Jessica. “Oh, Sophie, I want you to meet someone,” Jessica said, suddenly shy. She stepped back, revealing the tall, dark, and incredibly handsome man. “This is John, my fiancé.”

“Pleased to meet you, John,” Sophie said, and shook his hand firmly.

“I’ve heard all about you, Sophie. I hear you’re very talented and have really been great about showing Jessica the ropes. She’s so thankful.”

Sophie beamed. “Jessica’s a natural.”

“Yes, and she’s passed all her exams.”

“Shhh…” Jessica hissed. “This isn’t my night.”

“Congratulations, Jess!” Sophie gushed, taking her into a hug. “You should have said something. This is a team party and should include everyone’s success, right?”

“You’re so sweet, Soph, but it’s a wrap party—your big project,” Jessica said.

Then out of the corner of her eye Sophie saw Matthew, in a tuxedo, looking incredibly handsome. Kelly was hanging off his sleeve, holding a glass of champagne.

“Did you hear we got Barney’s Chocolate Bars?” Sophie commented, watching Kelly pull Matthew away.

“Yes, I did. I told you that,” Jessica said. “Are you sure you’re feeling okay?”

Sophie nodded, but Matthew was flirting with Kelly. Suddenly she felt physically, painfully sick. “I got made redundant.”

“No! You didn’t! Did you really, Soph? You couldn’t have, because you’ve brought in the Silver Chain, the whole lot, not just the hotels.”

Sophie shrugged. “It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? That’s why Bradley took me to The Dorchester, to give me the boot.”

“Oh, Soph, I’m sure he’ll change his mind,” Jessica said with concern on her face. “We all know how he growls every once in a while. He’s temperamental.”

“I’m going to get a drink.” Sophie excused herself. She couldn’t talk about being made redundant, thinking this was her last wrap party. She loved the job so much. What was she going to do for work? “I’ll catch you both in a bit.”

Getting a drink from the bar, she decided to look round the boat. She walked to the back and past Desmond and Bradley. Bradley waved in her direction, but she turned in the opposite direction. Why on earth would she want to talk to Bradley? He’d fired her and rehired Kelly. Bastard. Slimy, untrustworthy bastard.

She sighed. She might actually have to be nice to Bradley, hold her tongue for a moment if she was going to get her job back. It was a recession. Look how long it had taken her dad to get a job. She might have to swallow her pride. But something inside Sophie made her not want to take the job even if he gave it back to her. Sophie tossed back her drink, forcing the alcohol down. If she could find a bit of false confidence, then she’d be all right.

The boat’s engine roared into life, and Sophie brought a hand to her ear to block the noise. Her head throbbed, and she wondered why she’d come. Maybe she really was sick and needed a break from advertising?

Bradley hollered her name. Sophie grinned tightly and swiveled on her feet to walk in the opposite direction. She paced the vessel. Again she found herself at the rear. Hearing her name being called, probably by Bradley, she noticed a set of steps to the lower deck and took them.

Sophie descended the steps, holding tightly to the rail. There were voices below, but she couldn’t quite hear the conversation.

A blond figure leant over the side of the boat. Female laughter echoed loudly, and the figure pointed with animation into the water. Someone else leant over the rail beside her. There were loud snorts, identifiable laughter, which could only be Kelly’s laughter. Sophie swiveled again, about to race back up the steps, when Kelly’s voice shouted something else. Did Kelly call the word dolphin? There wouldn’t be a dolphin in the Thames.

Sophie’s chest tightened. Matthew always called himself a dolphin. Kelly wasn’t still with Matthew, was she?

Sophie turned back round and once again descended the steps.

Kelly stood up from her position hanging over the boat and talked animatedly to someone. The second person flung their body back up from over the rail. Sophie recognized all the features. Yes, it was Matthew.

Kelly moved in towards him, positioned both arms around his neck, and flirtatiously played with the lapels of his tuxedo.

He simply tittered, didn’t seem to mind at all as Kelly leaned close to him. God, Kelly was going to kiss him. This girl got everything, didn’t she? Although Sophie didn’t want to watch, she was unable to look away.

Kelly tilted her head and noticed Sophie standing backstage, in the wings of the Kelly show. A slow, sly smile spread across Kelly’s face.

“Hi, Sophie,” Kelly drawled. “I’m assuming you’ve met Matthew before?” Of course she had; he was her bloody client. “We’ve become very close. He swims like a dolphin apparently.” Kelly raised her eyebrows knowingly.

Sophie felt her knees go out from under her like they were someone else’s. She grabbed the stair rail, almost collapsing on the steps. What a fool she’d been, first with Derek and now Matthew… She had really trusted Matthew too. She had thought he was in love with his ex. Not for one instant had she thought he was a player. But she supposed he was, because after he’d called her Rebecca and she’d fled his apartment, he hadn’t chased her. Although he’d sent her emails and text messages, words were cheap. Actions spoke louder than words, and he’d let her race from him, after they’d had sex, after she’d thought he might love her. But now she could see that all his efforts with the text messages were obviously just to smooth things over professionally. He had had her and now he was after someone else. For after all, he was with Kelly, so soon too. Of course their night together had meant absolutely nothing to him.

“Ah, Sophie,” Matthew said, alarm in his voice. “We were just talking about the water. You know I love the water.”

“Showing her a dolphin trick, were you?”

Matthew raced to the steps and crouched down in front where she sat. “Sophie.” He laughed lightly. “Honestly, it was just a bit of fun.” His face searched hers, eyes wide and smiling. Her stomach turned. All handsome men were such salesmen, weren’t they?

“You dared to call me a saleswoman, but I’m hardly like you.” She wiped a wisp of hair from her face and desperately struggled to control her expression. “Would you mind leaving? As this is a work function and I need to keep it together.”

“Sophie, please listen, just for a second.” He reached for her wrist.

She flicked him off like an insect. “Spare me the details. All men are the same, just looking for a bit of fun. I thought you were different, but of course you’re not.” Her voice was savage.

Matthew stood up. “Is that what you really think? I’m just looking for a bit of fun?”

“I don’t know what to think.”

He pushed past with his shoulders pressed back, not bothering with a final glance. His sandalwood aftershave lingered behind after he’d ascended the steps, away from her.

Sophie felt overwhelmed with sadness, because surely if nothing had happened with Kelly he would have insisted on explaining, insisted that she listened? But he had just walked away, hadn’t even put up too much of a fight. He couldn’t have cared about her that much. Not really. But then again, she’d seen it before, when he’d let her run out of his apartment. At least everything was clear now.

She swallowed, clutching her hands tightly, pressing them together. She wouldn’t cry. Matthew had never been hers to cry over.

With a puzzled expression on her face, Kelly turned from the scene and faced the river. She continued to sip her drink. “Kill joy,” she said.

Sophie folded her arms. “Kill joy?” She bit her lip. “Why do you always have to rub it in? You got the guy. You’ve been reinstated in your job. Isn’t that enough?

Kelly laughed, and her snorting was even heard over the engine revving. Kelly dropped her glass and whooped with joy, making Sophie’s stomach turn. How could Kelly simply laugh when her heart felt like it had just been ripped out? Kelly reached for the glass, stupid girl. She climbed over the boat rail and stood on the edge of the boat.

“What are you doing?” Sophie asked, calling out to her.

“I’m doing the scene out of Titanic.”

“Don’t, Kelly. It’s not safe,” Sophie urged.

Kelly stepped out up onto the rail at the end of the boat, extending her arms. “Just because you’re a big scaredy-cat doesn’t mean I am. I got my job back. Did you, Sophie?” She thrust her hands out like she was flying. “I’m the king of the world, the queen of advertising. I take chances in life. The way you’re going, I’ll even get the guy.”

Kelly teetered on her toes, and Sophie noticed she was extremely drunk. “Kelly, you should come back from there. Besides, I’m not sure I wanted to beg for my job back after Bradley fired me. I mean I’ve got more pride than to just take it.”

“Your choice, but I know where I’m going in this world.” Kelly shrugged, standing with her back straight, looking straight into the Thames.

“Come on, Kelly, come back from there.”

“I’m having fun.” Her hair flew in the wind like a golden-headed goddess. She looked mesmerising, beautiful. No wonder Matthew had gone for her. Any guy surely would.

The boat lurched.

The force pushed Kelly. She lost her footing, falling forwards. Stupid girl. She wasn’t even holding the rail.

It happened so suddenly. Kelly flew off the edge and into the water. Sophie jumped up from the steps. Did that seriously happen? Did Kelly really tumble off, or was she hallucinating? Yet the boat still moved. Sophie raced to the rail and dared a look over the edge.

“Girl overboard!” Sophie pointed at Kelly bobbing in the water.

No one seemed to have heard her. The engine was now in full force, much too loud to shout about passengers being thrown overboard. Kelly’s figure was getting farther away as the boat sped farther away along the Thames.

“Help! Someone’s overboard!” Sophie shrieked. She couldn’t just leave Kelly there. She needed to get someone, find some help; but by the time she did, Kelly might be miles away in the water.

Sophie frantically looked around. Where was Matthew? Where was the team of lifeguards and expert swimmers who had all been invited to the bloody wrap party? Where were they now when they were needed, for an emergency?

Swimming was for living, wasn’t it, and she could actually swim. “Jeezzzzzzzuss,” she whispered, snapping into action, throwing off her heels.

She grabbed the rubber ring from the side of the deck and ran to the edge of the boat, contemplating her next move. She couldn’t exactly just jump in and rescue Kelly, could she? She really wasn’t a deep sea swimmer, or even a Thames river swimmer. She was merely a beginner, intermediate if she stretched it.

“Girl overboard,” she screamed at the top of her lungs. She stood on the edge of the boat, still hopeful someone else would come as she clutched the ring. There was no one else. Sophie closed her eyes. “Girl overboard,” she hollered again. How many times did she have to shout before someone else came?

Sophie’s heart beat rapidly. Could she do this, plunge into the murky black depths of the Thames? Could she, Sophie Smart, conjure enough magic, be brave and courageous like someone else? Anything was possible. She couldn’t let Kelly drown.

She exhaled. She jumped. “Girls overboard,” she screamed, hoping someone, anyone, would hear. Otherwise, they’d both be wading in their finery up the muddy bank of the Thames.

The water was cold. Icy. Sophie felt her ribcage contract, and for a moment she couldn’t breathe. As her head bobbed in the water, she exhaled like she’d been instructed. She tried to shake off the fear, and the next breath seemed to come quite quickly, quite naturally. Holding the life ring in front of her like she’d practiced with her kickboard, she eyed Kelly, thrashing toward her.

Bloody Kelly. If she was going to get hyperthermia or Weil’s disease from the dirty river water of the Thames, couldn’t she at least be rescuing someone else, someone she liked? What if there were sharks lurking beneath this water? Goodness, death by shark, or eel. Quite an unexpected turn of events.

Sophie pushed the thoughts from her mind. “Positive thoughts. Positive thoughts,” she said to herself. Do not think about the frightfully low water temperature, the possible drop in body heat, the low circulation.

“Kick,” she whispered. Her legs were not going to cramp, not here and not now. “Kick harder.” Sophie and her red life ring reached Kelly. “You okay?” Sophie panted as Kelly’s manicured hand clutched at the ring. Kelly’s eyes shone wide with fear, her lips blue, and her hair hung bedraggled. “Kick your legs. Keep warm.”

A speedboat flew past, waves rising, coming in their direction. “Hold tight,” Sophie said, trying to sound calm and in control. What had possessed her to think she could be the heroine in a crisis? And why wasn’t the bloody speedboat stopping to pick them up instead of sailing on past? She was waving after all.

Terror filled Sophie’s body as the waves from the speedboat approached. Sophie thrashed her legs, remembering the safety skills she’d been taught. She needed to relax and feel the rhythm of the waves. Rise and fall. Rise and fall.

Kelly clutched at the life belt, pulling the ring with a jolt. The ring suddenly slipped from Sophie’s grasp.

Sophie screamed. Water splashed into her mouth and choked her. Lifting her body with all her might, she thrust her body out of the water, her nails scratching the side of the ring. She missed. She wasn’t made to be a bloody lifeguard. She had a real water phobia, a fear. What the hell was she doing saving someone’s life? She fell back into the depths, sinking into the Thames.

Sophie’s head sank below the surface and she swallowed a mouthful of water. She clamped her mouth shut; she didn’t want to swallow any more. She’d die from drinking the polluted river water, probably filled with rat urine or something equally disgusting. She needed to spit it out, or else she’d get some type of infection, or virus, and she’d end up in critical condition in the hospital. Not from drowning, but from the filthy, stinking Thames. Dying. Oh God. She was probably already dying, because she was surely sinking, struggling in the Thames.

Surely someone would rescue them? This wasn’t it, was it? The place she would drown? She wasn’t going to die with her greatest achievement being Kelly’s rescuer. And how could she be the rescuer if she didn’t actually finish the job?

She was still alive, and she would have a long and lovely life ahead of her. She propelled herself up, her head thrusting itself above the surface. She spluttered, spat, feeling cold and very anti-river. A polluted river was not the place for recreational swimming.

Suddenly a large hand grabbed and steadied her. “Just breathe. Sophie, just breathe.” She turned to see her lifesaver. Matthew. “I went back to talk to you and saw you jump off the boat. It’s okay. The boat will rescue us. I’m here if you need me.” He squeezed her hand for reassurance.

Sophie felt a surge of anger, her gaze darting between Matthew and Kelly. “I don’t need you to rescue me. You know perfectly well I can swim, because you forced me to learn.” She felt her eyes blaze, her anger suddenly warming her body, moving from the depths where she had hidden her feisty rage that first day when she’d struck the swimming lesson bargain with Matthew.

“I gave you a choice. I didn’t force you,” he muttered.

Her anger rose from the depths of her thrashing feet and bubbled out in her voice. “Just because I was the consultant and you were the client didn’t mean you could simply demand that I face my fear of the water. That was your position of power and you used it against me.”

Matthew looked pale. “So in times like this, you could survive—and you’re doing really well. I thought you’d forgive me after you’d learned.”

She swallowed, realising she was sounding very ungrateful, and looking around she saw she was indeed safe, with her head above water. She bit her lip. “Thank you for teaching me. You have saved my life, and I will be eternally grateful.” She lifted her chin. “Obviously I no longer feel the same amount of fear in the water. As you can see, I’m dealing with it.”

“Well,” he said slowly, “I’m here to help anyway, just in case.”

“Oh, no.” She shook her head vigorously. “No, thank you. I’m absolutely fine to make my own way back to the boat now that it’s stopped, thank you very much,” Sophie stated, still treading water.

“Sophie, you don’t have to swim back. The boat will turn to find us.”

“I’m not a cause just because one day I might need rescuing.” She felt her face, hot tears springing from the corner of her eyes, rolling down her cheeks. “I’m not someone to convert, someone who needs to love the water just like you do. I’ll never be a mermaid. I’m not a princess. I’m not a bloody prude, either. I’m just a girl, and I like the land and everything that goes with it. If you liked me, at all, you would have respected me for that, and you would have taken me for what I was, for what I am. What does it matter anyway? I was wrong, so terribly wrong. I thought you felt the same way I felt about you, but people make mistakes.” Sophie stretched her arms forward and swam, hiding her face, which was hot from tears streaming down into the cold water, as she did her very best freestyle, heading toward the boat, which hadn’t turned around yet.

She didn’t need Matthew. She would be fine to get back on board. She’d be fine without him.

 

Chapter 26

 

 

The three water adventurers were rescued and safely on board the wrap party vessel, warmed by emergency blankets. Each of them dealt with the Thames swimming experience quite differently. Kelly couldn’t stop talking, thanking both Matthew and Sophie for saving her. Matthew nodded, smiled. Sophie sat in angry silence.

She refused to look at him. The party had only just started, and would continue for several hours, but Sophie was leaving the vessel. She needed to go home, return to the safety of the shore and escape from Matthew.

Sophie sipped champagne as the boat turned around, suddenly wanting to get ridiculously drunk.

“Soph, congratulations on being the heroine tonight.” Bradley rushed over to her. “You certainly know how to live your work, don’t you?” How many drinks had he had?

“I’ve always had a passion for…” She paused. She was going to say the water, but who was she kidding? “For adventure.”

He slid onto the bench next to her, draping his arm around her shoulders. “Look, Soph, I’m really sorry about all the pressure this year. I made a hasty decision making you redundant. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? I want you back. I should have trusted you to get on with your job, with Barney’s Chocolate Bars and with the Silver account.” She could smell the alcohol on his breath.

“It’s fine. Honestly, it’s fine.”

“Shall we talk about you being reinstated on Monday?”

“Sure.” She nodded.

Kelly approached, and Sophie’s stomach lurched with thoughts of Matthew floating through her mind.

“Soph,” Kelly started. Her lips were more normal in colour, though still slightly tinged with blue from the chilly water. “I wanted to thank you for jumping overboard and saving me. I was scared out there.” Bradley looked on in approval and then took his leave, wandering over to a bunch of women at the other side of the boat.

Sophie nodded. “No problem. You’d have done it, too, if you were in the same position.”

“You are quite a girl.”

Sophie shrugged and looked down at the ground.

“I know this might be a little too late, but I wanted to say I’m sorry.”

“What for?” Sophie’s chest tightened. “Sorry for Matthew liking you? You go, girl. Don’t worry about me.” She shot a glance in Matthew’s direction, met his gaze, and turned immediately away.

Kelly frowned. “I don’t know what you think happened. Matthew’s a client. He gave me a brilliant idea for my next campaign, and…well, he’s pretty cute, so I thought I’d make a move. Story over. I didn’t realise you two had a thing going. So, you go, girl.”

Sophie smiled tightly, realising she’d already given away far too much to Kelly, the girl who’d use anything to sabotage her. She shot another glance in Matthew’s direction. His gaze was still on them. No, on her.

“Look,” Kelly continued, “what I’m trying to say is…no one in advertising is ever nice. People are ruthless, stepping on people’s throats if someone gets in the way. That’s the motto I got taught. I guess you’re not like that, and besides, we’re on the same side. So, I’m sorry.”

Sophie swallowed. “It’s all good. Advertising is hard. Don’t worry about it.”

“I overheard Bradley giving you your job back. You will come back, right? So we’ll be working together possibly for quite a long time. Maybe we could start again, and…maybe you could forgive me and give me a chance?”

Sophie looked at Kelly and nodded. “Truce?” She extended her hand. What did she have to lose? Kelly was already an enemy. But she was also extremely talented, and if the truce held and they became allies, they’d win loads of work.

“Truce,” Kelly replied, and they shook hands firmly.

The boat arrived at the dock and Sophie disembarked. Matthew followed her onto shore, but she walked quickly, trying to outpace him.

“Soph,” he called. “Wait.”

She wouldn’t; she couldn’t. She didn’t feel ready to face him. But his legs were longer and he caught up. He stepped in front of her. He blocked her path, taking her hand like he’d done so many times in the pool.

“Soph, I care a lot about you, really, and I don’t think you’re a charity case. I just liked you and wanted to spend some time with you.” He stared deep into her eyes. “I’m sorry if it came out as blackmail. I want to be with you. I don’t love anyone else.”

Sophie’s heart thumped in her chest.

“Soph, say something, please.”

“I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions.” Her mouth felt dry and her tongue felt fat. Had he just said he loved her in an indirect way? She watched him run a hand through his blond hair, the hair she desperately loved.

His gaze fell to the ground. “When you were in the water, swimming away from the boat, swimming to save Kelly—swimming really well, mind you—I knew you didn’t need me to rescue you.”

Sophie swallowed. “I probably did; I was just too angry to admit it. But I did mean what I said out there. I will forever be thankful for you teaching me. Your lessons saved my life.”

“When I saw you out there, I couldn’t not go after you. I hope I feel exactly the same way as you do. The other night with you was so prefect until…well…until it ended. I’m sorry for not going after you, but I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you again, Soph. I can’t let you run away from me now because…well it’s quite simple really… I love you.”

He’d said it again. He loved her.

Emotions soared through her body and she flung her arms around his neck. Her pulse raced and she buried her face in his chest. She knew the right words to say. “I love you, too.” She breathed words of truth.

He tilted her face toward him and his lips were immediately on hers. He kissed her, gently at first, but a surge of electricity charged through them. With a swift move he pulled her hard against his body. She felt tingly and didn’t want him to stop.

Sophie heard laughter in the background and pulled away from Matthew. “Shall we get out of here?” she panted, hearing a wolf whistle. Matthew looked over his shoulder at a crowd huddled over the boat railing. Of course her whole office had watched the scene, Jessica and Carol both grinning like crazy. Sophie felt her ears burn, but she was also somewhat lucky, for at least there was no public groping.

“Let’s go now,” Matthew said, putting his arm around her shoulders and directing her toward the pavement.

“We can’t leave soon enough.”

“Miss Mermaid Sophie Smart, I’m coming home with you. Or you’re coming home with me.”

Sophie smiled. There was absolutely no doubt about that.

“I don’t have to call you a mermaid,” he said, “if you would like me to call you something else. A lioness or something?”

Sophie laughed. “Mermaid is just fine, thank you, Mr. Matthew Dolphin Silver, and here I was thinking you only liked me in the water.”

“Did you know dolphins, like humans, can participate in lengthy foreplay?”

“To think if I’d known that before, I would have started swimming earlier.”

 

***

 

Sophie found she liked learning further dolphin facts, first-hand. She was especially delighted to discover that her incredible Mr. Matthew Dolphin Silver was friendly, attentive, and extremely good in bed. He was even better than their first night together. There was no choice when he asked her, nuzzling into her neck, no feasible option but to simply agree: of course she would move in with him. The sooner, the better.

***

 

Sophie looked round the flat, walking through the rooms, saying goodbye to each one. Her bedroom floor was lined with packed cardboard boxes, just like when she first moved in. A triple tower of tea cartons contained books and the suitcases were filled with shoes. The boxes all waited to be carried into her little red Volkswagen Beetle.

Her breathing quickened. She hoped she was doing the right thing, leaving Carol whilst her friend was riding the wave of stardom. Sophie traced her steps back to the kitchen, taking the recent postcard she’d received from her parents in the Mediterranean. Placing the postcard in her cluttered handbag, she knew it was only a matter of time. They would come out of the recession just fine.

The doorbell rang. She took one last look around the house, feeling incredible warmth. She ran to the front door and pulled it open.

“I can’t wait to move out…” she began, and then stopped talking, seeing the same portly policeman she had met once before, although in very different circumstances. Her back stiffened, and she held her breath, wondering what he would say.

“Miss Sophie Smart?”

Oh no. She closed her eyes. “Yes. That’s me.” She opened her eyes, supporting herself on the doorframe, wondering what his news was this time, hoping it wouldn’t be something chaotic.

“I thought it was you. You look a lot different from the last time I saw you. You’re blond now.”

She ran a hand through her hair and then quickly flattened the front of her dress. The fabric flowed down beneath her breasts, so much so that she could have a Marilyn Monroe moment if a gust of wind blew by. She gave the policeman a sidelong glance, wondering why he stood on her doorstep.

“I thought I would drop by as soon as I heard. I saw some excellent news pass my desk.”

Her hands gripped the doorframe. “What’s the news?”

“I heard your dad got a job. I saw the official paperwork. He got the sign-off. I came to tell you just in case, you know, he was holding out on the truth.”

A smile lit up her face, and she leapt from the step and hugged the policeman. “Yes, I know. Thank you. I thought you were going to tell me something bad like last time.” She stepped back, realising she’d overstepped a boundary, again.

The policeman’s cheeks reddened. Then, tipping his hat and waving slightly, he stepped backwards toward the street. “Well, good luck with the move, Miss Smart.”

“Thanks again,” she said, watching the policeman walk to his car. “Good day to you.”

Standing on the street, she knew she would miss this house in Highbury.

A figure approached from the very end of the street. Matthew. She wondered how long it would take to get her boxes packed and then unpacked in their new house. His car was probably parked a mile up the street.

She ran to meet him, waving to get his attention, and then saw she already had it. His gaze was fixed on her and his brilliant blue eyes shone. She threw her arms around his neck. She’d miss the house, but she’d miss Matthew more if she didn’t go.

Hugging him, she kissed his face, knowing they’d already shared one adventure together, learning to swim. Holding his hand, she was ready to start something new, together, and wondered whether she could possibly teach him something. She furrowed her brow, contemplating the possibilities. Anything was possible with Matthew. She’d even learned that trusting a man was possible.

“Ever been trekking in the jungle, Soph?” he asked.

She gazed into his face, seeing a mischievous glint in his eyes.

No, she’d never been trekking in the jungle, and her chest constricted as she thought of tarantulas falling off fronds and spiders’ webs caught in her hair. God. She also had arachnophobia—a fear of spiders. And she’d just faced her fear of drowning. When did a girl get a break?

Was it possible that she was one of those scaredy-cat type of girls? Scared of life and living? But Matthew didn’t seem scared of anything at all, and she trusted him. She’d take him up on his challenge because she was safe with him. And her heart was safe with him.

With trust, they’d do something she would never have dreamed of, something exciting, something memorable, or something unimaginable. They’d do something. Together. Daring and non-prudish. Something like skinny dipping.

 

 

ACKNOWLEGEMENTS

 

There have been many special people who have helped and shown enthusiasm when writing this book. If I have forgotten anyone, I am sincerely sorry and please accept my gratitude.

Thank you to Lyn Worthen from Camden Park Press for your words of encouragement and your support.

Thank you to Peach and Julie, for sticking with me and reading iterations and more iterations of this book. It has been a journey. Thanks for listening to my concerns and continually providing support, enthusiasm, and friendship.

Thanks to Margaret for your advice and words of wisdom when writing this novel.

Thanks to Victoria for helping me make this novel as polished as possible.

Thanks to Nelly at PixBeeDesign.Com for creating such a wonderful book cover.

Thanks to wonderful Dana. You’re a true star! I am appreciative of all your help. You are one of my oldest friends and supporters (since high school). You are always absolutely encouraging. Your honest, reliable feedback has helped me make this the best book possible.

Thanks to Mum for being a true cheerleader. I feel incredibly lucky to have a Mum like you. Thank you a million times for your encouragement, support and lending me a hand in whatever way you can. Thank you for your patience and for being so gentle with your feedback. You have provided invaluable suggestions, and comments throughout the iterations of this book.

Thanks to Ginny Harrison at Swimming for Life.Com for your invaluable help. You generously gave me your time and knowledge explaining the intricate details about adults learning how to swim. I wish you all the best in setting up a foundation to provide swimming assistance for the underprivileged, including swimming scholarships for both adults and children, teaching them water safety and of course, how to swim. Your commitment to helping people is so inspirational.

Thanks to the most wonderful man in the world, James, to whom this book is dedicated. You have been there all the way through, from the conceptualization to publication. Thank you for being there with me on the journey; and it truly has been a rollercoaster. I couldn’t have done it without your support. Thank you for believing in me, encouraging me and seeing the positive in every situation. I am thrilled to have found you, my greatest companion. I’m so blessed to be on the seat right next to you, and how lucky to be on such an amazing adventure together with you. I love how we roll.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Alicia M Kaye is a writer of romantic fiction. She grew up in Australia, in sunny Queensland on a canal side property with her family. She also lived walking distance from Surfers Paradise, and the nearby beautiful beaches of the Gold Coast. Although Alicia is most probably and most certainly biased, she makes no secret in her belief that the Gold Coast is one the most breathtaking places in the world.

When she was twenty-four, Alicia realised she was curious about the world, so she jumped on a plane and relocated to London. The move was only supposed to be for two years, but seven and a half years later, she still lived there with her husband. Together they explored England, Europe and the world as much as possible.

Although writing has always been a passion for Alicia, it was in London where she began to write furiously. Writing is indeed a lonely occupation but luckily, Alicia is not just a writer, she is also an animal lover. She desperately would love a pet but her nomad life will not permit one.

Alicia wrote this book with the company of a fostered cat (from the RSPCA) named Buttons (who is now called Clarence by his new adopted owners). When Buttons found his new parents, she tried to encourage and attempt the stray cats of Highbury to take his place – to no avail. They would not join the party.

Over the last two years, Alicia and her husband have started on their journey back home to Australia. They have side-tracked with both the beach and the snow beckoning from different parts of the world. Together they have explored and lived in amazing countries including Thailand, Mexico, Austria and Malta.

For more about the author please visit www.aliciamkaye.com and look out for her new books.

Next in the Skinny companion adventures is a story about Michelle Vermont (her nickname Mickey), in the novel Skinny Cappuccino. Please email Alicia or look out for its release in the Kindle store.

 

 

 


Skinny Dipping

*** Second-place winner in Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award *** Everyone has a fear. Fear of spiders is arachnophobia. Fear of small spaces is claustrophobia. Of course the fear of being tickled by feathers is Pteronophobia. Sophie Smart’s fear is of drowning. Her fear isn’t an over reaction or paranoia or some made up malarkey like exposedflabophobia (acute paranoia of wearing a swimsuit and baring pasty thighs and a round bottom). Sophie drowned as a child. She died for three minutes. Her childhood trauma is real. Yet Sophie, hot-shot advertising executive, isn't a child anymore. Now Sophie's most important client, handsome Matthew Silver, is insisting she learn how to swim. She can't blame him really - he's the owner of a chain of swimming centers, and Sophie's in charge of his new advertising campaign. The last thing Sophie wants to do is get in the water, in a clingy swimsuit, with a client she’s trying to impress. She's not going to win him over flapping around like an idiot, is she? But with a broken heart from her last relationship, maybe getting into the pool is just what Sophie needs? Maybe Sophie can trust Matthew with her fears. Maybe she can let go. Maybe it's time for Sophie to forget about her past and take the plunge?

  • ISBN: 9781311113450
  • Author: Alicia M Kaye
  • Published: 2016-06-08 16:20:23
  • Words: 83193
Skinny Dipping Skinny Dipping