Ice Creams at Carrington’s
Ice Creams at Carrington’s
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd
77–85 Fulham Palace Road
Hammersmith, London W6 8JB
First published in Great Britain by Harper 2014
Copyright © Alexandra Brown 2014
Cover illustration © Sarah Gibb
Cover layout design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2014
Alexandra Brown asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.
Source ISBN: 9780007488278
Ebook Edition © June 2014 ISBN: 9780007488285
For my dad, Michael
Table of Contents
It’s Sunday morning in Mulberry-On-Sea and, if the dust-speckled shard of sunshine peeping through the chink in my bedroom curtains is anything to go by, then it’s going to be one of those gloriously uplifting start-of-summer days. Bliss. And if this isn’t reason enough to feel happy, then my boyfriend Tom, aka hottest man alive for sure, is leaning over the bed to kiss my cheek.
‘Mm-mmm. Well, hellooooo, Mr Carrington.’ I grin and run my fingers through his thick curly black hair, drawing in his delicious chocolatey scent and wishing he’d jump right back into bed, but he’s already dressed – jeans and a soft grey T-shirt to nicely accentuate his velvety-brown eyes.
‘I have to go,’ he whispers, tracing a path to my ear with his lips.
‘Stay a little longer. Go on … you know you want to,’ I tease, doing my best to sound sultry and seductive.
‘I’d love to, Georgie, I really would,’ he says with a smile. ‘But I want to squeeze in a swim and then sort out some stuff at home, plus I’ve got a ton of paperwork to plough through before the party later on.’ Tom stands up to pat the leather laptop bag that’s slung diagonally across his magnificently firm body.
‘Hmm, well OK, if you must …’ I stick my bottom lip out and pull a cross-eyed funny face to make him laugh.
‘Pick you up at one o’clock, yes? And, seeing as we’re making plans – can you keep the weekend after your birthday free?’ He tilts his head to one side. I nod, and stretch out like a starfish.
‘Oooh, why’s that then?’ Mmm, curious, my birthday – the big three zero is coming up soon! Friday 15 August, to be exact.
‘If I tell you, then it won’t be a surprise, will it?’ Tom grins mischievously and my stomach does a somersault. God, he’s gorgeous, and I hope this exquisite fluttery butterfly feeling never fades. I can see it now, I’ll be an old woman and still infatuated with him. Oh yes, how wonderful would that be?
‘Already missing you.’ I blow a kiss as he goes to leave.
‘Sweet Jesus, what are you doing to me, woman?’ Tom turns back to the bed and gives me another kiss, his lips hot on mine, one hand in my hair, the other tantalisingly close to my knickers. I open my eyes to sneak a peek at his long dark lashes. I’ll say it again … he is officially gorgeous! The perfect blend of chiselled features and delicious Mediterranean real tan – his mother is Italian. ‘I just can’t resist you. And when are you going to move in with me? All this coming and going just isn’t practical any more.’ He goes to tickle me just as Mr Cheeks, my supersoft black cat, leaps onto the bed and snuggles down beside me.
‘Too slow.’ Laughing, I roll away, almost squashing Mr Cheeks with my left thigh. ‘Aw, poor thing, I’m so sorry.’ I scoop the cat up and bury my face in his silky fur.
‘Don’t avoid the question. It really would make things easier; it doesn’t seem sensible, all this toing and froing. And you can bring this little dude too, if you like.’ Tom lifts Mr Cheeks from the bed and gives him a gentle hug before depositing him on the carpet, much to the cat’s disgust. He likes nestling on the end of my bed; now he slinks off to the kitchen in a huff instead – I can always tell by the way his tail wafts extra-majestically, and I imagine he’d be giving us the finger right now, if he could …
‘Soon. I promise.’ Between you and me, I can’t wait to live with Tom, but it needs to be about more than practicalities. I’ve been in that kind of relationship before – where I was the one who loved just that little bit more. Never again, this time around I’m not messing up. I’m determined to make it work and, if that means waiting longer to be sure, after we’ve chatted it all through, and I don’t mean snatched minutes here and there before Tom has to go again, then so be it. I know he works hard, we both do, and he travels a lot too, meeting suppliers and sourcing new stock lines, so finding time to talk can be tricky, especially as when we are together we can’t keep our hands off each other, but it’ll be worth the wait, I’m convinced of it. Tom is my one, and I couldn’t bear it if something went wrong between us, or if we somehow managed to ruin what we have right now, all because we rushed onto the next stage without planning it properly.
‘Well I hope so. You know that I love you.’ He smiles tenderly, pushing a stray tendril of hair away from my face.
‘And I love you too.’ I prop myself up on a pillow with one elbow.
‘Most women would jump at the chance to move in with me!’ He laughs at his own joke before deftly leaning back as I go to play-punch his arm.
‘Cheeky! And I’m not most women, plus I actually love my little shoebox flat,’ I tease right back. ‘It’s cosy, and it’s been my home for a very long time.’ I scan the room. There’s the triple wardrobe that fills the length of one wall – I remember lugging it all the way home on my own from Ikea, crammed into a rental van. It took me a whole weekend to put it together, but so worth it. And the glorious, enormous Art-Deco-style dressing table; I found it in the YMCA second-hand furniture shop and it only needed sanding down and repainting. I used a metallic bronze spray, which actually works really well now that the shine has faded, giving it a lovely shabby-chic look. It’s authentic, and with the trillion necklaces looped over the sides of the triple mirror and all my lotions and potions lined up, I can just imagine its previous owner, a sophisticated flapper lady, titivating herself ahead of a tea dance, or something.
I like that – reminiscing, the feeling of nostalgia, a sense of history, and when I think about it, I’ve worked blooming hard to make this little shoebox flat my home for so long. First, stashing every penny I earned to buy it in the first place – a lot of extra hours and overtime was involved; and then keeping hold of it over the years – there were plenty of times when I very nearly couldn’t pay the monthly mortgage. This flat holds many memories; it’s my security, and that’s important to me after spending time in foster care as a child. Mum died when I was thirteen – she had multiple sclerosis, which had worn her down so much that when she caught pneumonia she just couldn’t fight any more. So I ended up in care because Dad was in prison for selling secrets from the trading floor of the bank where he worked to fund his gambling addiction, and my only other relative, Uncle Geoffrey, couldn’t – or wouldn’t – take me in. But that’s all in the past now. I’m blissfully happy, financially secure and Dad and I are really close again – his new wife Nancy is lovely, so kind and warm and mumsy; I had missed having a mother figure in my life.
‘Well, you don’t have to sell it or anything, I know how much this place means to you. So just keep it – it can be your bolthole,’ Tom suggests.
‘Will I need one then?’ I raise an eyebrow. My last boyfriend, Brett, cheated on me with a tall beautiful woman with super-big blonde hair and a sylph-like figure, in total contrast to my average height, curves and wispy brunette bob that requires a lot of maintenance (read: copious cans of Batiste Plumping Powder) to resemble anything near swingy. I tried hair extensions for a while, but had to have them removed after shaking my head a little too vigorously on a lunch date one time – a chunk above my left ear winged out and ended up floating in Tom’s butternut squash soup. Eek!
‘No. Only an idea … it could be your girl pad,’ Tom says casually.
‘Did you really just say girl pad?’ I stifle a snerk.
‘Where are those knickers you used to wear? The ones with the cow motif all over them and the words “cheeky cow” emblazoned across the back?’
‘Don’t know.’ I pull a pretend ‘whatevs’ face.
‘Worn out, I bet.’ He slides a hand under the duvet and pings my knicker elastic.
‘Ha ha, you are so hilare! In fact, you crack me up so much I think I’m going to laugh myself into an actual hernia because you’re just too funneee …’ I shoo his hands away.
‘Hmm, well, as much as I’m enjoying our banter, I really must go. Just think about it, please.’ He kisses his left index finger and places it gently on my lips before turning to go.
‘Will do. Promise,’ I call after him.
‘OK. Girl paaaaad,’ he shouts as the front door closes.
And I really will think about it. But first I’m having half an hour in bed to luxuriate inside my new two hundred trillion, or whatever, thread count cotton sheets while I ponder on suitably sensible but witty one-liners to say to Tom’s parents this afternoon – Isabella of the incredibly wealthy Italian Rossi dynasty, and Vaughan Carrington, direct descendent of Harry Carrington, the founder of Carrington’s department store where I work as a personal stylist.
One rainy afternoon, Tom and I were cosied up watching old films, drinking hot chocolate and sharing our respective family stories, and he explained that his father, Vaughan, never showed an interest in Carrington’s, so went ‘off to see the world’ instead. That’s how he met Tom’s mother, Isabella, on safari in Zanzibar. Meanwhile, the majority share in the store was left to Vaughan’s sister, Camille, who later sold it to Tom, which is how he came to be the boss. Mr Carrington.
And this afternoon his parents are hosting a summer soirée on board their super-yacht! Yes, super-yacht. I know! Apparently, it has a cinema, a champagne bar and an actual helipad for, like, when they can’t be bothered driving or taking a train in normal-people style, they can just be mechanically rotated from whichever exotic location they happen to be in, and boom! They’ve arrived. Not that I begrudge them, of course not, and I’ve only met them once before as they tend to spend most of their time travelling the globe, so perhaps I read it wrong. Or maybe I was having an oversensitive moment brought on by nerves from necking one too many jellybeantinis – I knew Tom and I shouldn’t have met up in that cocktail bar beforehand. Big mistake. Huge. You see, I really want his parents to like me, of course I do, he’s my one, my boyfriend, my happy-ever-after. But the slightly awks atmosphere when Tom’s mother, Isabella, turned to me and said, ‘So what do you do, my dear?’ in her very breathy but regal-sounding Italian accent, told me it wasn’t to be. Yet! Let’s just say I’m working on it. Hence the proper preparation this time around. And definitely no jellybeantinis …
‘I work part-time at Carrington’s,’ I had told her, brightly and proudly. And why not? I love my job managing the VIP customer shopping experience where I get to meet Arabian princesses, visiting dignitaries and the like. Since taking over, my role has evolved, and I’m more of a personal stylist now, with a number of well-heeled clients – actresses, celebrities, even royalty. But they’re not all A-listers; some of my regulars are ordinary women who just want honest advice on what suits them best without having to rely on a well-meaning friend to fib – that an outfit looks good when it clearly doesn’t. So they call for my advice on creating the perfect wardrobe. I even had one customer FaceTime me from a boutique in Dubai, wanting to make sure I approved of a pair of neon-green Choo heels she was about to purchase to match the pink shift dress I had selected to be part of her holiday wardrobe. I didn’t. Instead, I couriered a pair of exquisite Miu Miu Mary Janes (exclusive to Carrington’s), which I knew would match perfectly. She called me the very minute they arrived and begged for a pair in every colour to be sent right away, because she loved them that much with the shift dress, which she’s now requested in every colour too. And that’s how it works … my customers trust me, we have a rapport, and this means the world to me.
And the sales commission and other perks are phenomenal. Only last week I was asked to escort a selection of Carrington’s exclusive couture gowns to a Premiership footballer’s daughter celebrating her eighteenth birthday in Paris – they sent a private jet (yes I know, a proper YOLO moment) to collect me, the six dresses, matching accessories (high-end handbags and shoes), in addition to a selection of our finest jewellery collection, all because she wanted my personal advice on which of the exquisite ensembles would suit her best.
Maybe I should also have mentioned the weekly fashion and beauty column I write for Closer magazine, which takes up the rest of my time, where I get to write about international fashion shows, designer dresses at film premieres, and I’ve even interviewed celebrities for one of my special features: What’s In Your Wardrobe? I go to their house, flick through their walk-in dressing rooms selecting outfits, and then explain how readers can source the same look by shopping on the high street, preferably in Carrington’s.
The column came about on the back of me having been a reluctant reality TV star for a bit, when celebrity retail guru, Kelly Cooper, rocked up instore to film her last series – but that’s another story that I really didn’t want to go into when we were around Tom’s parents’ private dining table at the exclusive restaurant in London’s Mayfair. My YouTube clips still surface from time to time – secret film footage of me twerking, really badly, on the shop floor to Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ tune, and generally showing me in a far from flattering light. The less they know about my past the better, because it’s just too much of a leap from what they’re accustomed to. A whole different world. And one I’m sure they wouldn’t select by choice for their only son and heir to be involved with. So I’m glad I kept it to myself. Of course Tom knows pretty much everything about me, but I just can’t imagine his mother, Isabella, has ever thumbed through a sleb gossip magazine in her life. Oh no no no. I Googled her – this is a woman who speaks seven languages, was businesswoman of the year in her day and even has a Nobel prize for her pioneering work in global economics, for crying out loud. No wonder her expensively tightened face almost rearranged itself into a frown as the hideous realisation dawned – yep, that’s right, that I work in the same Carrington’s department store, the very one her son, aka Tom, aka my gorge, funny, sexy, kind to animals (he rescued Mr Cheeks right at the start), down-to-earth boyfriend actually owns! He’s Tom Carrington, the boss, the managing director – and he’s dating me, a mere employee. And a part-time one at that! Oh no.
To give her due, Isabella did try to mask her disappointment very well, but I spotted it nonetheless – the whitening of the knuckles as she gripped the stem of her champagne flute just that teeny bit tighter while flashing a fleeting sideways glance at her husband. But then it really can’t be easy being the mother of – quite possibly – the hottest and most eligible man on earth.
I roll over. Oh shiiiiiit. Is that the time?
Flinging back the duvet, I bounce out of bed with an uncharacteristically exuberant flourish and immediately stub my toe on the side of an empty Prosecco bottle. Working through the pain, I squeeze my foot and think about last night as a more pleasurable distraction – Tom had just arrived back after a fortnight-long business trip, visiting practically every major city in the hunt for suitable premises in which to open a new store. Carrington’s is expanding! So it was me, him and a large stuffed-crust Hawaiian followed by a bottle of bubbles and an evening of clothes-rippingly glorious sex involving practically every surface in my flat. Two weeks is a long time to be apart, and he’ll be off again soon, no doubt, so you can see why we didn’t waste a second of his R&R just chatting – oh no, there was so much more fun to be had. I still have the friction burns from the carpet on my backside and the stubble sting from his chin on my inner thighs as an exquisite souvenir. Tom may come over all gentlemanly and polite in company, but when we’re alone it’s a whole different thing. Pure filth! And I love it. Anyway, better get a move on, the soirée starts in exactly three hours.
I leg it down the hallway as my mobile buzzes with a text message from Tom, which I press to view while simultaneously kicking the bathroom door open with my good toe.
Sorry I had to dash. Really do need to get this paperwork done
Ha-ha, in a funneee boom-boom way – he does work too hard, though, but then he’s totally focused on building the Carrington’s brand, and has already made some incredible changes since buying the majority share in the store from his aunt Camille – there’s the pet spa, the gourmet food hall down in the basement, a new cocktail bar (installed specifically to attract the glamouratti instore from the new Mulberry Marina), the roof top ice-rink, the glitzy Cartier boutique and there’s even a staff crèche now, so everyone’s a winner, which reminds me, I must call Sam. She’s my best friend and her adorable twin girls; Holly and Ivy (yes they were conceived at Christmas time) play in the crèche while Sam creates truly scrumptious comfort food and bakes delicious cakes in her café, Cupcakes At Carrington’s, up on the fifth floor. Sam also owns the freehold for the Carrington’s building, so she’s invited to the party too. Her wonderful dad, Alfie Palmer, the charismatic and incredibly wealthy owner of Palmer Estates, one of the biggest estate agencies in the country, died last year, leaving his vast fortune to Sam. And we’ve known each other since boarding school days – before I got thrown out because Dad had gambled everything away and couldn’t pay the fees. So I was billeted back home on the first train and then slapped around for talking posh in the local school playground by the following Monday morning.
I promised to call Sam for a pre-soirée briefing before arriving on board. And I never go back on a promise, even if I am tight for time.
‘Hey you. How was last night?’ Sam says after the first ring.
‘Sizzling as always,’ I smile. ‘But how are you?’ I quickly add, knowing how she’s been feeling really jaded recently.
‘Exhausted. Ivy was screeching at three o’clock this morning, which then set Holly off. And then my darling husband, Nathan, couldn’t get back to sleep so started rattling on about a client that he’s been having problems with … Like I’m interested in all his legal work stuff at four in the bloody morning!’ She lets out a big puff of air.
‘Oh dear,’ I reply diplomatically.
‘Never mind. I’m not complaining. Well, I guess I am a bit,’ she quickly adds. ‘But it’s just what babies do. And lawyer husbands, I guess … So, tell me about the sex. Remind me, please, what it’s like to have a whole night of bacchanalian bliss without the tandem wailing of year-old twins as an immediate passion killer, because I can’t even remember my last time.’ She does a feeble laugh. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I’d literally die for my girls, but it would be sooooo nice to have just one whole night off – to drink champagne, share a bath and have wild uninterrupted multiple orgasms courtesy of my own husband. Just like before. You know how much I love sex … does that make me a bad mother?’
‘I don’t think so. I’m not an expert – hell, I’m not even a parent, so what do I know about mummies and their orgasms, but aren’t there places that use sleep deprivation as a preferred method of torture?’
‘Ha! Yes, very good point. Nathan reckons we should get a nanny. A team of six, to work eight-hour shifts ensuring twenty-four-hour cover for each twin.’ She heaves another weary sigh. ‘He’s practically dead on his feet at work each day – me too, I’m so exhausted, I feel like I’m wading through treacle most of the time. And I’m making mistakes – baked a whole batch of lemon drizzle cupcakes yesterday and totally forgot the crucial ingredient, the actual lemon juice!’
‘Oh no!’ Sam’s lemon drizzle cupcakes are legendary; shoppers come from all over Mulberry-On-Sea to devour them. She’s even had phone orders from people who’ve moved away but just can’t live without them.
‘Yep, we’ve tried the whole taking-it-in-turns thing to stagger out of bed, which never works as we both still end up wide awake in the middle of the night, and then start bickering over the duvet and whatever other trivial things our addled brains have suddenly elevated to paramount importance. But an actual nanny? I’m just not sure.’
‘Hmm, well, it just seems so grown up, somehow. And I’d feel a bit guilty, I guess. I’ve overheard the stay-at-home yummy mummies in the café bitching about the “lazy women with help” and, “why did they bother having children if they were just going to give them to someone else to look after?”’
‘Oooh, harsh,’ I tut.
‘But that doesn’t mean you have to be superwoman. Sam, you can’t do it all – run the café, oversee Alfie’s estate with all those meetings up in London, not to mention the management of the Carrington’s freehold, and still find time to be Mary Poppins. For the sake of your orgasms you must say no!’ I laugh to lighten the mood.
‘Don’t you mean yes yes yes?’ Sam laughs too, not missing a beat.
‘Do you think Mary Poppins had orgasms?’
‘Stop it! There’s no place inside my head for that image.’
‘Hmm, on second thoughts, you’re right.’ And Sam makes a bleeeeugh sound down the phone.
‘Besides, you’re already a fantastic mother just the way you are. You really are. So you must do whatever works best for you and ignore the opinions, because everyone has one, but they’re just that … opinions!’ I say gently, wondering where the old Sam went – she would never have been bothered by a bit of gossip; she’s always been so self-assured and confident. Blimey, she’s put me right on many occasions, but now it seems to be the other way around, which is OK – of course I’ll champion her as best I can – but I’d much sooner see Sam happy. And by the sounds of it, this really doesn’t seem to be the case.
‘I know. And you’re right, of course. But then my own mother couldn’t be bothered with me, remember? So I don’t ever want the girls to feel the way I did, and still do sometimes …’ Her voice trails off.
‘Oh Sam, that will never happen. You’re not Christy …’
At boarding school, Sam and I had shared a bedroom, and she’d lie awake at night wondering about her mum, Christy, an interior designer who ran off to LA with a famous rock star client when Sam was only five years old. I used to try to comfort her by sharing sweets and whispering bedtime stories about princesses in castles, and even though Sam hasn’t mentioned Christy for years until now, I think she still struggles to understand why she left. And even more so since becoming a mother herself, but then who can blame her? Christy literally did a moonlight flit. There at bedtime and gone by breakfast, and that’s tough, especially when all you have is a bag of Haribo Strawbs and the vivid imagination of a nine-year-old friend to comfort you.
‘True … but my brain is so addled from lack of sleep, it’s affecting everything, and it’s just sooooo not like me,’ she replies.
‘Of course it isn’t, you’ve always been the most positive, upbeat person I know. Tell you what, why don’t I babysit for a weekend or something? You and Nathan could stay in a hotel overnight, get some rest, chat, have loads of sex – do whatever you like, it would be just like the old days,’ I say impulsively, instantly pushing away the panicky feeling that follows – I’m sure it can’t be that hard to look after two tiny babies for an evening. Heeeelp!
‘Would you really do that?’ Sam perks up.
‘Sure, that’s what best friends are for. I’m just sorry I didn’t think to offer before now.’ I know Nancy will jump at the chance to lend a hand should I need it. She adores children and really cannot wait to be a grandmother; she even asked me one time if Tom and I had chatted about all that yet. I didn’t have the heart to tell her we haven’t – that our time together is spent mostly in bed, or across my kitchen table or in the shower, or the hallway, and my sofa has certainly seen a lot of action too – and that I’m just not interested in having babies, to be honest. No wild urge to procreate. That biological thing I hear so much about hasn’t kicked in for me yet. Maybe it never will.
‘Well, that would be brilliant. I’ll chat to Nathan about it. It might put him off the nanny idea for a while longer.’
‘Are you really that against it, then?’
‘Hmm, I can’t help wondering – what if she tries it on with him and they end up having a steamy affair? I know it’s a cliché, but you hear about that kind of thing all the time, and the way I feel at the moment, I’m not entirely sure I’d have the energy to confront them, let alone slap her before chucking them both out,’ she laughs wryly.
‘Don’t be daft. Nathan adores you, so that would never happen. Besides, you could get a manny …’
‘A male nanny! Yes, now that’s a good idea. Like a fit pool boy … But with childcare qualifications obviously,’ Sam confirms, sounding a whole lot perkier, and more like her old self now.
‘Yes, something like that.’ I smile.
‘You could help me with interviews?’
‘Of course I could.’
‘Wonder if I could get away with issuing a uniform – tiny running shorts, perhaps? Perfectly reasonable, seeing as they would definitely be doing lots of running around, the twins will make sure of it.’ She sighs. ‘Anyway, enough of this manny talk – more importantly, what are you wearing to the soirée? Indulge me with a few minutes of adult chat about frivolous things like dresses and shoes, instead of eco-friendly reusable nappies because, to be honest, I couldn’t give a shit … oops, no pun intended,’ we both snigger, ‘what little Luella wears on her backside.’
‘Oh, just another overheard conversation in the café – a group of eco-mummies were having a nappycino —’
‘A whaaaat?’ I yell, wondering if a bonkers barista somewhere has come up with yet another kind of hot beverage. Hmm, skinny soya nappycinoto go – sure doesn’t sound very appetising.
‘Well, it’s not an actual coffee.’ Oh that’s a relief. ‘But from what I can gather, it’s some kind of get-together to chat about nappies. I didn’t join in or anything – was too busy working.’
‘Of course you were,’ I offer in solidarity.
‘Anyway, it got me all edgy about my seemingly indulgent use of disposables, but I can’t get my head around having buckets full of pooey nappies all over the place, waiting for the recycling van. Maybe I’m just not trying hard enough!’ Sam laughs, but I’m sure I detect an edge in her voice. ‘Sooo, your outfit? I bet it’s gorge.’
‘It is,’ I confirm quickly, sensing she’s keen to change the subject. ‘I’m going with that new butterfly print silk maxi-dress that I bought in the Womenswear sale – beautiful, and such a bargain with my staff discount.’
‘Lovely. And shoes?’
‘I was thinking the silver strappy Laurent sandals.’
‘Oh yes! Divine and very super-yacht yah-yah,’ she says in an exaggerated plummy accent.
‘How about you?’
‘With a bit of luck, something baby-gunge free.’
‘Don’t be daft, you always look amazing.’
‘Aw, thanks, and you always cheer me up.’ A short silence follows. ‘Oh for crying out loud – Jeeeeeeesus. I don’t believe this … Nathaaaaaaan, where the hell are you?’ My stomach tightens. What on earth has happened? Something catastrophic, by the sounds of it. I hold my breath. ‘Gotta go – Ivy has just tipped raspberry yogurt over Holly’s head.’
And the line goes dead. I sigh with relief.
Stowing my mobile on the bathroom shelf above the mirror, I flick the shower on and select my favourite body wash – Soap & Glory Sugar Crush. Sam has always wanted a big family full of children, and I’m thrilled that she has the twins, and she really does do a fantastic job all round, but I’m not sure I’m cut out for all that just yet.
As the warm water saturates my hair and cascades down my back, I can’t help thinking how wonderful my life is right now, just the way it is – why change it? When I have a job that I adore – two, in fact, plus fab friends, money in the bank, and a cosy, secure home of my own. Dad is back in my life, with Nancy now too, and we’re getting on really well – the three of us are close, loving and supportive, like a proper family should be, and I have a brilliant boyfriend who loves me, and I love him. (I make a mental note to make sure we find the time for us to talk about living together; perhaps he could move in with me? Now there’s a thought … My flat may be small but it’s much more of a proper home than his sterile new-build apartment.) And I honestly can’t remember ever having all these wonderful things, together, at the same time … It’s perfect. And I truly hope it stays this way forever because it’s been a long time coming, but so very worth the wait.
Taking Tom’s hand, I carefully step onto the narrow wooden gangway and through a twink-ling fairy-light-studded voile tunnel, arriving in a Maplewood-panelled stateroom swathed in streams of silver satin with opulent mountains of fruit – grapes, plums, pineapples and pears – all piled high in pewter platters set on head-height pillars. There’s even a ceiling curtain cascading from the enormous central chandelier. A string quartet is playing Mozart in one corner, and a group of waiters – who surely must be Ralph Lauren models, they’re that fit – are loading up silver trays with canapés in the other.
The whole yacht looks like an Italian Renaissance painting. On one wall, there’s even a giant mural of Botticelli’s The Birth Of Venus – I know, because I read up when Tom and I first got together. He’s a talented artist in his spare time, and I wanted to appear cultured and educated, show an interest in his passion for painting. And I can see where he gets it from now; I imagine he grew up surrounded by this stuff – a million miles away from the Take That poster I had pinned to the space beside my bed.
‘Ciao, mio bel figlio. Tom, daaahling, you made it!’ It’s Isabella, looking resplendent in a floor-grazing lemon lace Givenchy gown. And blimey, she’s even wearing a jewelled tiara on top of her immaculately coiffed jet-black hair. She loops her arm through Tom’s and immediately steers him away from me. I smile as he glances over his shoulder to mouth ‘sorry’ when Isabella refuses to let him go. She’s definitely not taking no for an answer; even when he tactfully tries to release his arm from her grasp, she grabs his hand instead and practically catapults him towards her guests. Poor Tom. He hates being cantered out like some kind of show pony.
‘What’s she come as? Queen of fucking everything!’
An arm circles my waist. I spin around – I’d recognise that outrageously acerbic voice anywhere.
Oh my God. We chat on the phone and Twitter all the time, but I haven’t actually seen Eddie, physically, in ages, and now he’s here, standing right in front of me and looking more like a superstar than ever. His dapper blond hair is now all messy quiff, and he’s wearing an exquisitely tailored charcoal grey Tom Ford suit. And on closer inspection he’s had a little lifting work around his sparkly blue-green eyes and his brows have definitely been manscaped. He looks fantastic. Flawless. And smells divine, too, of tropical summer holidays – coconut and citrus.
‘What are you doing here?’ I fling my arms around his neck and squeeze him tight. ‘God I’ve missed you. I thought you were in LA.’ Eddie is my other best friend and used to work at Carrington’s as Tom’s BA, or boy assistant – that was before he was ‘discovered’ on Kelly’s TV show and practically became a superstar overnight. He has his own chat show with a Saturday night primetime slot, and a reality series called Eddie: I Do It My Way, and lives between his villa in the Hollywood hills and a penthouse apartment overlooking Mulberry Marina. And he’s actually stayed at Simon Cowell’s house in America, as Simon’s personal guest! Doesn’t get much starrier than that.
‘Tom invited me – as a nice surprise for you,’ Eddie says, as we pull apart.
‘Aw, how lovely. He’s so thoughtful,’ I beam.
‘Ooh, he is – the quintessential gentleman. Delish too. Not as beautiful as my Ciaran, mind you, but still, a very close second.’ He nudges me.
‘How is Ciaran? Is he here?’ I scan the deck.
‘No, he’s looking after Pussy – you know what a diva that dog is, hates travelling and refuses to go in a crate, so Ciaran’s flown straight back to LA with her on his lap after she created the most almighty fuss when Claire dared to go near her.’ I laugh and shake my head. Pussy is Eddie’s fluffy white bichon frise, and thoroughly spoilt, so it’s hardly surprising. Claire is Eddie’s manager, Peter André’s too.
‘Straight back? What do you mean?’
‘Only a fleeting visit, petal. Filming starts on my second series tomorrow. We were in Ireland yesterday, at some windswept tiny town that time forgot …’ He rolls his eyes. ‘For Ciaran’s cousin’s wedding – Sinéad, Shona, Sorcha; something like that, anyway … I forget which one, he has that many … and I wasn’t even drinking.’ He waves a dismissive hand in the air and I smile, thinking, same old Eddie, as grandiose as ever, fame really hasn’t changed him one bit; he must be the only person I know who can go to a wedding and then claim not even to know the bride’s name the very next day. ‘Yes, it was a last-minute decision – we weren’t going to bother after the way his family shunned him when he finally leapt out of the closet. Anyone would think he’d tried to poke the Pope, the way they all carried on.’ Eddie pauses to pull a face while I wonder if perhaps it was just that they were a bit shocked. I mean, Ciaran did actually come out at his own wedding, to a woman, after all. It was all annulled quite swiftly, but still, his mother is practically on first-name terms with the Pope, so I can’t imagine it was easy for her. ‘But you know how Ciaran is for all that family stuff, and then when his Catholic guilt kicked in, I just couldn’t bear watching him perched on the proverbial spike doing all that hand-wringing, so we dashed to the airport and managed to get last-minute flights. Plus I needed to check on the apartment and then remembered Tom’s invite, so I thought, why not pop in and see my most fabulous bestie in the whole wide world. So, surprise surprise!’ Eddie bats a hand in the air. ‘But I haven’t got long, I have to check in for the return flight in like …’ he pulls back a sleeve to glance at his watch, ‘an hour!’
‘Oooh, get you. Jet-setter.’ I nudge him with my elbow.
‘I know. Fabulous, isn’t it? And see the group behind me …’ I glance over his shoulder, and a guy shaped like an American fridge-freezer stuffed into a black suit, with a curly plastic wire hanging from his ear, is lurking ominously nearby. And there’s a woman in leather skinnies and a floaty top who keeps checking her mobile phone and muttering something to a younger guy with an eager look on his face.
‘I see them.’
‘Meet my people!’ Eddie laughs.
‘You have people? Oh my God!’ I ponder for a second before adding, ‘Ed, do you actually need people?’ My forehead creases with curiosity.
‘Vital, darling! You can’t make it in Hollywood without an entourage.’
‘But what do they do?’
‘Well, Ross is security, natch … and a total leather queen! You’d never guess, would you?’ He makes big eyes, and I shake my head. ‘And Carly is my PA – the boy is her assistant.’
‘Wow! Your PA has a BA …’ Blimey, how things have changed. It feels like only yesterday that Eddie was Tom’s BA, bored and desperate to escape Mulberry-On-Sea for a mythical, seemingly unattainable world of stardom – or so it seemed back then. I shake my head, bemused but thrilled that Eddie is living his dream. I give him another hug.
‘So, how are you, sugar?’ he asks, letting me go – Eddie has never been big on prolonged displays of physical affection.
‘I’m very well, thanks. Life is wonderful for me too.’ I take two flutes of champagne from a passing waiter, who looks as if he’s just stepped off the front page of GQ magazine, and hand one to Eddie.
‘Ooh, peachy! And I’m so happy for you, Georgie. Just one pesky fly in the ointment though …’ He raises an eyebrow.
‘What do you mean?’ I frown again.
‘Her highness over there.’ He flicks his eyes to the far end of the deck, where Isabella still has a vice-like grip on Tom’s arm. ‘Did she even acknowledge you from behind that surgically enhanced mask of hers?’
‘I think her gaze may have hovered on me momentarily,’ I smile magnanimously.
‘Darling, it’s called a bitchy resting face!’ Eddie plucks a canapé from another waiter’s tray and takes a big bite. I try not to smirk, just in case Isabella is watching, or Tom – he has no idea how Isabella makes me feel, and that’s the way I’d like to keep it. At least until I feel more relaxed around her … And then there won’t be an issue in any case – we’ll be best friends and everyone will be happy, especially Tom. I hope! Yeayy. Well, that’s the plan.
Sam arrives, looking exquisite in a crimson silk jumpsuit that flatters her tiny size six figure and perfectly frames her natural blonde corkscrew curls. She gives Eddie a hug before turning to me.
‘You look beautiful – no baby gunge in sight,’ I whisper in her ear as she engulfs me in a big Cavalli-fragranced cuddle. ‘How’s Holly doing after Yogurt-gate?’ I grin, hoping calm has now been restored.
Sam steps back to get a proper look at me.
‘Love the maxi-dress. But where’s Tom?’ she replies, swiftly sidestepping the yogurt enquiry. Oh well, maybe she just wants to put it behind her and enjoy the rare afternoon off.
‘Whisked away.’ I motion with my head towards the other end of the deck, where Tom is now getting his arm pumped and his back slapped by an older beer-bellied guy wearing a straw boater, navy blazer and pleated mustard-coloured corduroy trousers.
‘Ew, not up to your standards, honeypie.’ Eddie pulls a face and hands the rest of the canapé to Sam. She hesitates before popping it into her mouth, and then pulling a face too, in between chewing and swallowing as fast as she can.
‘Hmm, they should have come to Cupcakes At Carrington’s – we would have laid on a lavish feast compared to this manufactured mush,’ she manages, after rinsing her mouth with a generous swig of bubbles. ‘I’m going to find out who their supplier is – always good to keep one step ahead of the competition. Although, it does surprise me …’
‘What does?’ Eddie asks.
‘That they didn’t come to Carrington’s for the food! The store their son owns … Strange, isn’t it?’ And Sam heads off towards the catering area with a determined look on her face, leaving me to ponder on what she’s just said, because it’s true, it is strange. I wonder why they wouldn’t want to support him. And it is supposed to be a family store, after all …
‘Uh-oh. Here comes Her Majesty.’ Eddie elbows me. ‘Time for me to mingle.’ Isabella is heading straight towards us, closely followed by an entourage made up of the beer-bellied guy, a couple of men I recognise from the Carrington’s board and a woman with a static helmet hairdo, a sensible skirt suit and a very scary scowl.
‘Hey, don’t leave me to deal with her on my own.’ Panic darts through me.
‘Sorry, flower, I don’t do divas, unless it’s Pussy … or me! Tom will rescue you, I’m sure. Catch you later.’ He kisses my cheek and then disappears too, leaving me all alone. I scan the deck, looking for Tom, but can’t see him in the crowd. I brace myself and wonder what could possibly go wrong. Oh God.
Keen to keep a clear head, I surreptitiously place my flute on a nearby table. Calm with clarity, that’s me. I inhale hard through my nose before exhaling as Isabella and her entourage form a semicircle around me. My resolve withers only slightly.
‘Yes, that’s her.’ The beer-bellied guy pokes a finger at my chest, almost touching the fabric of my dress. Instinctively, I step back and rearrange my face into a smile. How rude!
‘Err, have we met?’
‘Only in my bedroom!’ he sniggers, making his shoulders pump up and down like he’s just told the funniest joke in the history of jokes, ever. And then quickly explains, ‘On the television,’ when the scowly woman gives him an extra-scowly look, if that’s even possible … which, by the looks of it, certainly is. Ooooh, scaareeee.
‘Geoooorgie,’ Isabella says in an extra-breathy voice as she steps forward to stand proprietorially by my side. ‘My dear, why did you lie?’
My heart immediately clamours inside my chest. Loudly – so loud I’m surprised someone hasn’t grabbed the crash kit that’s mounted neatly on the wall nearby. I rack my brain, desperate to fathom what she’s going on about. Lie? Sweet Jesus, I may have been economical with the details of my past, but an actual outright lie to my boyfriend’s mother who I’ve only met once before? I don’t think so. Or perhaps the jellybeantinis mushed my memory? Hmm … I swallow hard and smile, keen to ride it out.
‘Lie?’ I manage to squeak, suddenly wishing the Maplewood deck below my sandals would part and plunge me into the deep dark sea below – cold and wet, but definitely preferable to standing here while they all stare at the liar! And suddenly a ridiculous tune pops into my head – Liar liar, pants on fire. Oh God. Where the fuuuuuuck is Tom?
‘That’s right, my dear. Why didn’t you tell me you were famous?’
‘Um, well, I’m not exactly famous, not really, that happened quite a while ago now,’ I manage, practically shuddering with relief. Cringe. Maybe I should have mentioned Kelly’s TV show after all, but you’d have thought Isabella would have known all about it in any case. Kelly is her friend from university days. Isabella manages a half-smile and then actually loops her arm through mine before doing a weird kind of cuddly thing into me. Heeeelp. She’s being nice now, so why then do I still feel so edgy? I scan again … where is Tom?
‘Nonsense! Mr Dunwoody here says that you’re the nation’s sweetheart, and a columnist too; I’d say that’s a little more than being just a part-time shop girl. Sooo modest. You really should have told me, my dear.’ I open my mouth to speak, but Mr Dunwoody leaps in first.
‘Please. I may be the Member of Parliament for Mulberry-On-Sea, but no need to stand on ceremony.’ He puffs his beer-belly out a little further. ‘You can call me Dougie,’ he states, with an eager glint in his eye. Oh goody. After wiping a fleshy paw down the side of his cords, he offers it to me. Isabella drops my arm so I can shake Dougie’s hand. ‘And I was just saying that I need you.’
‘You do?’ I ask, raising one eyebrow while trying not to sound too sardonic.
‘That’s right. The town needs a high-profile person, someone in the public eye – I’d do it myself, but I’m not sure my constituents would thank me for it.’ He chuckles while I resist the urge to smirk. ‘No, my work is in Westminster! In London.’ Oh really. Like I didn’t know that already. I smile tightly. ‘But you would be perfect.’
‘Well I’m always happy to help if I can – what is it you’d like me to do?’ I ask tentatively, making sure I keep the smile in place while silently praying it isn’t something cringy or embarrassing: been there, done that, and on national television!
‘Help organise the Mulberry-On-Sea summer regatta, of course.’ It’s the scowly woman. ‘I’m Mr Dunwoody’s personal secretary,’ she says, fixing her beady eyes on me. Hmm, so you don’t have an actual name then …
‘Nice to meet you.’ I smile, but she doesn’t reciprocate.
One of the Carrington’s directors explains instead. ‘Georgie, Carrington’s are going to be sponsoring the summer regatta, in conjunction with the town council, the Mulberry Marina management company and the local radio station, Mulberry FM. It will be organised collaboratively by a number of retailers and community workers, together with the sponsors. Dougie asked if you could be involved, seeing as you grew up here, and you’re such a popular and well-known face in the town.’
‘Um, sure … and thank you.’ I feel flattered, and it sounds as if it might be fun.
‘We hoped you might help organise it on our behalf, be the face of Carrington’s? It’s such a fantastic opportunity for the whole community – to bring the town together, to have some fun, and for all of us retailers and local suppliers to make a bit of money too. It will really put Mulberry on the map if we can pull this off.’ He smiles and nods eagerly. ‘So, what do you say? Are you up for it? And it really would help with our expansion programme – to open a new store; help us to show how “community-spirited” the Carrington’s company is—’
‘What a fantastic idea.’ As if by magic, Tom appears with his dad, Vaughan, following close behind – a tall, robust, bear of man, with a crumpled cream linen suit and a weather-beaten face. ‘Georgie is an excellent organiser, a good team player, and she certainly knows how to look after people. She’s an expert when it comes to customer service. And all our regular customers adore her,’ Tom says, smiling proudly before taking my hand in his and giving it a big squeeze. Vaughan nods heartily in agreement. My heart melts, but the feeling quickly evaporates when I spot Isabella in my peripheral vision – she’s pursing her lips and gazing majestically into the middle distance. What is her problem? One minute she’s schmoozing me, the next she clearly hates me.
‘Wow, well, after that glowing recommendation, how can I refuse?’ I say, feeling thrilled. This could be really exciting – I’ll get to do something new and I love Mulberry, I’ve lived here my whole life, so what a fantastic opportunity to show what this wonderful, pretty, seaside-postcard of a town is made of. ‘When do I start?’ I grin.
‘Bravo!’ shouts Dougie.
‘Thank you. We really need Dunwoody on board if we’re to open another store, he’s heavily involved in planning and building regulations so could make it very difficult for us if he wanted to,’ Tom whispers in my ear as he leans in to give me a hug.
‘I wish you had mentioned it, though,’ I smile and whisper back.
‘Thought it would be a nice surprise, besides, we were kind of busy last night,’ he laughs sexily, standing next to me now and swinging an arm around my shoulders.
‘But Georgie, darling, you really shouldn’t make a snap decision, or feel pressured into helping out – it’s such a huge undertaking,’ Isabella starts, placing a hand on my arm and surreptitiously pulling me away from Tom. ‘Why don’t you have a think about it first? If it’s a little too much for you, then I could always get my events man, Sebastian, involved instead. See what a marvellous job he’s done with today’s spectacular soirée.’ Isabella gestures around the overly opulent deck as if to prove her point. But I’m not sure Mozart and plates of weird-looking canapés will cut it with the residents of Mulberry. Mrs Godfrey, one of Carrington’s regular customers, and a stalwart of the local WI, would definitely complain – ‘far too fussy’, I can hear her now. Oh no no no!
Ideas immediately buzz inside my head. I’m thinking ice cream in cones; donkey rides on the beach (if they’re still allowed, I make a mental note to put it on my ‘regatta things to do’ list and find out). Yes, I’m going to need a massive ‘to do’ list – a bumper pad, in fact. And it’s been years since I went on a donkey; the EU could have put a stop to it, for all I know, and what about a funfair? Everyone loves a carousel. And food! We could have stalls and marquees selling artisan breads – there’s that great new bakery just opened on Bay Street, I bet they’d love to get involved. Exotic cheeses from the local farm shop over in West Mulberry, I know they’d be up for it, and they do assorted olives too. And maybe a special ‘around the world’ tasting experience – the customers loved it when a Japanese chef came instore one time to do a Teppanyaki cooking demonstration. It was amazing – razor-sharp blades slicing and dicing slivers of garlic-infused lamb and vegetable accompaniments before sizzling them on a hot griddle right there on the counter. And Sam could sell her delish cupcakes, macaroons and éclairs. We’d need a live band, of course, and even a mini-film festival, perhaps – something for everyone. I have loads of ideas already and my regular customers are going to love it. It’s so exciting. Isabella pipes up again.
‘Yes, Sebastian is far more accustomed to these things. You know, he was very involved in Elton’s last black-and-white ball.’ This prompts Dougie to let out a long whistle and do big ‘I’m impressed’ eyes.
‘Well, I say we give Georgie a chance. I’m convinced she’ll bring her magic touch to the event,’ Tom steps in.
‘Superb,’ Vaughan interjects, clearly bored by the conversation already. ‘Now that’s settled, I’m off to purloin more refreshments. Anyone for a top-up?’ Vaughan waves his glass in the air and flashes me a cheery smile before wandering off in search of a waiter. Dougie and the directors follow suit while the scowly woman hovers awkwardly.
‘I wonder, Mr Carrington, if you have a moment perhaps to give a quote for Mr Dunwoody’s website. He’s keen to provide a platform for local businesses; might be useful for you, considering your expansion plans,’ she says tightly to Tom, who glances at me. I nod and smile, wondering why she’s being so hostile. It’s clear she doesn’t share Dougie’s enthusiasm for Carrington’s.
‘Sure, why not?’ he says, before steering the woman towards a quieter part of the deck. I turn to Isabella.
‘It’s going to be so amazing,’ I beam, my head still buzzing with all the ideas.
‘I truly hope so, my dear.’ Isabella leans into me and lowers her voice until it’s almost inaudible. ‘Especially after all the effort my son has made for the store. He has worked wonders with Carrington’s, after all, not to mention his plans for expansion. It would be such a shame if you somehow managed to ruin it!’
And with that parting low blow, she sweeps away, leaving me to reunite my jaw with my face.
‘Shut uuup, you are.’ It’s Wednesday morning. I’m at work in the VIP shopping suite and Eddie is calling on the staff wall phone from LA.
‘Stop laughing. I really am. And it will be fun. If you hadn’t abandoned me on board the yacht, then you would have heard all about it,’ I say quietly, just in case a customer wanders in unannounced. Highly unlikely, as my assistant, Lauren, who used to work in the cash office but fancied doing something different when her little boy, Jack, started school, usually escorts them up, but you never know. And I’m guessing Lauren is already here, as the magazines have been fanned nicely on the gold marbled rococo coffee table, pink lilies placed on the matching side cabinet and the plum brocade cushions plumped and artfully arranged on the oversized chaise in the centre of the room.
‘Yes, sorry, it was a bit mean of me,’ Eddie apologises.
‘And then disappearing without even saying goodbye.’
‘Well, I tried to find you but the deck was heaving by then, and I was in serious danger of missing the flight. Carly was practically growling at me to get a move on.’
‘Hmm … Well OK, I’ll let you off. But only because she did look super-scaareeee!’
‘So, what do you know about boats?’ he sniffs.
‘Nothing. But the regatta isn’t about the boats.’ Silence. ‘Well, I guess it is a bit about the boats,’ I quickly add. ‘I’m guessing someone from the marina will be in charge of all the actual sailing stuff – the races, that kind of thing. My job is to make sure Mulberry puts on the show of its life, that Carrington’s is represented well and we utilise the opportunity to attract more high-end customers instore. The first committee meeting is tomorrow.’
‘Have you finished?’
‘You sound like some soulless corporate brochure.’
‘Oh, go away, don’t be calling me from exotic locations just to wind me up, what do you want?’ I pretend to be cross, but I’m well used to his teasing by now.
‘Charming!’ Eddie laughs. ‘Listen, petal, I didn’t get a chance at the yacht party to tell you I’m going to be back in Mulberry for the summer and thought it might be nice if we all do something together – the three of us: you, me and Sam. Can we pencil something in?’
‘Of course – we can hang out like we always have for years and years; it’ll be just like old times. Can’t wait. We can watch TV and eat cake, but since when did we need to “pencil something in”?’ I laugh – this summer is going to be brilliant. Even the weather is getting involved; the sun is still shining and I managed without a jacket this morning. A bit chilly, but once the clouds had cleared it was gloriously warm.
‘Since Carly lectured me on forward planning, that’s when! You know, she even had the cheek to reel me off a list on what makes an efficient PA. Like I never existed before I became famous. Honestly, she really thinks she’s the boss of me. Anyway, how’s that delicious boyfriend of yours? I didn’t even get a chance to talk to him at the soirée.’
‘Ah, Tom is brilliant as always.’
‘Although he’s hardly a boy now, is he? Oh no, all man. I clocked those beautifully built biceps.’
‘You know, he’s asked me to move in with him.’
‘Awesome. Next you’ll be getting married, sugar. Oh, promise I can be your best man. Sam will be bridesmaid, of course, but I’m in charge of your hair and makeup. And shoes! Oh yes, the shoes. How many pairs do you think you’ll need for the day?’ He pauses to let out a long sigh.
‘Err, one?’ I say, playing along with his fantasy wedding.
‘Don’t be daft. Three pairs at least!’ He sounds outraged. ‘And you’ll need a proper planner. Me, of course.’
‘Steady on. Haven’t you got a career being famous and fabulous to keep you busy?’
‘I’m deadly serious. Darling, you need to plan ahead, especially if you want a venue that’s anywhere near wonderful. You don’t want to have to settle for some draughty village hall in boring old Mulberry-On-Sea, all because you didn’t bother to get organised already. What would Queen Isabella say?’ He makes a tut-tutting sound.
‘Stop it. Anyway, Mulberry isn’t boring.’
‘Well, it is compared to Vegas, or … how about Necker? Oh my God, you could get married on Necker Island and we could film it as part of my show. I bet Her Madge could swing that for you – she’ll want the best for her son, and Tom’s bound to have the money stashed in his trust fund or whatever—’
‘Please, Eddie. When I get married, it will be here in Mulberry, with Dad giving me away and Nancy helping out with the arrangements: small and intimate and magical. You know how I hate being in the spotlight, especially when it comes to TV cameras.’
‘Spoilsport. I’ve always fancied myself as a bridal stylist. It’ll be just like dress up, but with an actual real audience. And I could be your very own David Tutera.’
‘Oh, you won’t know him – he’s the dreamy host of My Fair Wedding – it’s a TV show on over here,’ he says in an extra-blasé voice.
‘Then I’ll bear you in mind should I ever need a wedding stylist,’ I laugh.
‘Well, what are you waiting for? Men like Tom don’t come along twice in a lifetime.’
‘True. But don’t you think you might be getting a little bit carried away? We haven’t even talked about any of that.’
‘Well do. Talk. Try it; you might like it, instead of just having sex all the time. You must be the only couple I know who still have that all going on. Everyone else settles into twice-weekly sessions after a while – if they’re unlucky: sex is so overrated!’ I laugh, thinking: typical Eddie. ‘Not twice-nightly!’
‘Ha-ha! But we’re not like normal couples who can see each other whenever they like. You know how busy Tom is building the Carrington’s brand. I’m lucky if I get to see him twice in any one week! Besides, it’s just living together …’
‘But we all know what that really means,’ he states authoritatively.
‘Of course. It’s man-speak for “I might want to marry you. Just not right now, but in a year or so when I’m really sure you’re not some kind of crazeee control freak who won’t let me leave wet towels on the bathroom floor, etc., etc.” It’s down to you to convert the offer of living together into your very own happy-ever-after. Go on, get that rock on your finger, darling – you know you want to.’
‘Eddie! Must you be so clichéd about everything? These days couples do actually discuss important things like marriage, you know – and I’m not some feeble female eagerly waiting for a man to sweep me off my feet. I make decisions.’
‘True. But you just said yourself that you don’t have time to discuss things. And there’s nothing wrong with helping things along a little, if it’s what you really want.’ Silence follows. ‘It is what you want, isn’t it?’
‘It is! Oh God, yes, it sooooo is,’ I say, suddenly realising that it actually really is – I think I’ve focused so much on the physical aspect of our relationship until now – enjoyed it, no, scrap that, adored it – that I’ve somehow forgotten about the emotional side. Tom and I have both neglected it. Well, that needs to be fixed, right away, or just as soon as we next see each other.
‘Brilliant. Then get a venue booked. Or, if you can’t decide, then at least put a selection on retainer … it’s the norm over here. My executive producer has had the Terrace Room at the New York Plaza booked since her Sweet Sixteen. It’s the only way, she said.’
‘Oh, Ed, there’s someone here.’ I can hear voices in the little anteroom outside. I pop my head around the door and see Lauren taking care of our guests. They’re enjoying a welcome glass of buck’s fizz, and so I reckon I’m OK for ten minutes or so. Give them a chance to relax – there’s nothing worse for a customer than feeling rushed.
‘OK, honeypie. But think about it. A year! Mark my words! I’ll even put a wager on it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘That Tom will propose within a year of you living together.’
‘You’re on,’ I say, impulsively.
‘Well, now you’re talking – let’s go for it: a hundred quid says he proposes within six months of you officially living together. You can go for between six months and a year, seeing as you’re being Miss Evasive today, but if it’s within the first six months, then you pay me a hundred, and if it’s after six months but less than a year … then, well … you still pay me a hundred.’ He laughs.
‘But,’ I start, feeling totally confused, then quickly realise it’s pointless: Eddie has made up his mind. And besides, from what I can gather, if Tom doesn’t propose within either timescale, then I stand to win £200. Hmmm, but on second thoughts – at what cost? And I suddenly feel really disappointed. Damn you, Eddie, I now want Tom to propose to me more than anything … I realise that I actually don’t want the £200. And to think I was blissfully and obliviously happy before we started this conversation.
‘No buts! Right, I’m off to film a scene in a swim-up suite at a luxury hotel, with Carly tapping her watch every five seconds no doubt,’ he puffs, pretending to be put out.
‘Oh, you’re just jel! But you’re welcome here any time, you know that,’ he laughs.
‘I’m not jel at all!’ I feign swagger, because secretly I am a bit jealous. Yes, I love my job, I love Tom, I love Mulberry-On-Sea, but it would be so nice to travel too, to see more of the world. I’ve spent my whole life here in Mulberry and it can be stifling at times. Of course I’ve been to other places – Spain, Sam surprised me once with a weekend away for my birthday, and there was Lake Como for her wedding. Oh, and I’ve been to London loads of times, it’s only an hour away on the train and great for nights out and exclusive West End shopping. Mum and Dad used to take me there too as a child to shop and see the sights. We’d make a day of it, first visiting an old-fashioned, posh little department store – it only had three floors but Mum loved it, and it sold my boarding school uniform (which I had to have before I got turfed out, of course), plus it made a change from Carrington’s. But it closed down years ago. Then on to Big Ben, Trafalgar Square to feed the pigeons, Buckingham Palace and not forgetting the museums, a boat trip along the Thames, followed by fish and chips smothered with salt and vinegar straight from the paper, sitting on a bench beside the Cutty Sark. Ah, I cherish those memories of me, Mum and Dad, all happy together – this was years before Dad got into trouble and everything changed.
There was the private jet trip to Paris as well, but that doesn’t really count as I only got to see the road through the taxi window from the airport to the hotel, and then back again. Eddie and Ciaran’s wedding in Vegas was pretty spectacular, but I’m not sure the big glitzy bubble that is Vegas really counts as ‘travelling’, not when there’s an actual escalator to perambulate you to the other side of the street. Mind you, I did manage to sit in a gondola and be serenaded along a pretend Venice waterway while I was there … hmm, on second thoughts, nope, not as good as the real thing. I’d love a proper Venetian experience. I promptly make myself a promise to travel more – take Eddie up on his offer and visit him in California, perhaps. Now that would be very exciting indeed. I’ll be thirty in August, so I don’t want to be heading for forty and to have never really travelled. And I reckon Tom could do with a holiday too. We could go to Venice for real, I could treat him just as soon as the summer regatta is over. It would certainly give us a proper opportunity to talk and move our relationship on in preparation for living together.
‘Be good. Laters,’ Eddie says to end the call.
I smooth down my duck-egg blue fit and flare dress. A signature piece – because when Carrington’s staff wear Carrington’s clothes, our customers see it, want it, buy it! True fact! And there’s a duplicate dress just like this one currently being displayed on a podium in the main Carrington’s window, which directly fronts the high street with its white colonnaded walkway of olde-worlde streetlamps and pretty hanging baskets bursting with sunny bright orange nasturtiums. It’s the most prominent spot in the store and right next to Women’s Accessories, which is where I used to work before I took over up here.
And I loved that job too – selling high-end handbags all day long: who wouldn’t? I may not have been able to afford to own one back then, even with my staff discount, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t appreciate an exquisite piece of arm candy when I saw it. And there isn’t anything I don’t know about handbags – they’re my passion – and it’s even better now that I’m up here, as my customers always want the perfect bag to complement their new outfit. You know, I even met Anya Hindmarch one time. I’m a big fan of her designs.
My counter was next to the floor-to-ceiling window display, giving me a panoramic view of the bandstand opposite. During quiet times, I used to love watching all the people milling up and down outside, or relaxing in a deckchair enjoying a musical performance on the bandstand opposite. On a clear early morning, when the town was still empty, I could see as far as the peppermint-green railings down by the harbour and out to the glistening sea beyond.
Mulberry-On-Sea is the perfect location to host a summer regatta. I bet people will come from miles around; we may even get tourists travelling down from London, not forgetting the visiting glamouratti berthing in the marina for a few days. I can’t wait to get involved, and show Isabella what a good job I can do – there’s no way I’d ever let Tom down – or Carrington’s, for that matter.
Smiling, I bouf up my hair in the mirror as I pass by and head towards the anteroom to greet my customers – mother and daughter, by the looks of it, and they’ve just finished their drinks, so perfect timing to bring them through.
‘Ohmigod, I want that dress,’ the teenage girl yells to her mother the very minute they emerge through the chrome swing doors, simultaneously giving me an up-and-down look. See, works every time.
See it. Want it. Buy it.
‘Shall I whizz down to Womenswear – what do you reckon? A size twelve?’ Lauren whispers, as the girl and her mother get comfortable on the chaise.
‘No need, but thank you. The dress is already in the changing room – one in every size, so we have all options covered.’
‘Now why doesn’t that surprise me? Because those that try it—’
‘Buy it!’ I join in. ‘You know it.’ Lauren laughs and shakes her head. ‘I’ll make a start on the refreshments in that case.’ She gives my arm a squeeze before placing a cake stand on a table and piling it high with miniature lemon drizzle cupcakes and pretty pastel-coloured fondant fancies from Sam’s café.
Two hours later and the mother/daughter duo have each selected whole new summer wardrobes – floaty sundresses, strappy sandals, maxi-dresses, linen trousers, cruise wear and party gear: they’ve got the lot. All they need now are accessories, so I’m in the rickety old and incredibly slow staff lift on my way downstairs while they enjoy complimentary beauty treatments for the next hour or so in the specially installed pedi-chairs that line one wall of the VIP shopping suite. Sally and her team from the instore spa will look after them while Lauren makes a start on cocooning their mountain of merch in a puff of our signature powder-blue tissue, parcelling it all up with navy satin ribbons and popping it into big striped Carrington’s carrier bags. The concierge will then send someone up with a stock trolley to transport the bags to their car in the designated VIP parking area in the Carrington’s car park adjacent to the store. We provide the complete shopping experience.
After pulling back the metal concertina cage door, I make my way along the narrow, winding staff corridor; it’s like a time warp with its original 1920s faded floral wallpaper. I have to step around a couple of stock trollies piled high with flattened cardboard boxes, to push through the double security doors that lead out to the shop floor.
The display team has done a brilliant job with this year’s summer interior – the shop floor has been transformed into a nostalgic, halcyon, vintage beach scene. I love it! There is real sand mixed with gold glitter scattered on the display podiums, and each one has its own theme – mini-mannequins in floral retro-style swimwear courtesy of the Cath Kidston concession, fluffy towel bales from Homeware, a candy-striped deckchair decorated with a pair of Fifties sunglasses and a tartan blanket. A glorious red Decca record player and an old-fashioned picnic hamper complete with post-war utility-style plates, cutlery and a Thermos flask are strategically placed next to a modern funky range of Orla Kiely outdoor living items – flowery patterned radios, melamine plates and divinely scented candles.
There is even a row of Neapolitan-ice-cream-coloured wooden beach huts lining one of the cherry-wood panelled walls. Strawberry. Vanilla. Chocolate. I peep inside the vanilla beach hut and immediately feel transported – there’s a speaker in the ceiling through which I can hear the sound of the seaside on a busy summer’s day. The swooshing of waves back and forward over pebbles, seagulls caw-cawing overhead and the sound of children laughing as they play in the sun. What a genius idea. It’s just like being on an actual beach. And I swear I just got a whiff of sun cream – almond and coconut. It’s so evocative of long lazy hazy summer days on holiday. It makes me want to race upstairs to the special pop-up beachwear shop in Womenswear to find the perfect bikini with matching sarong, big floppy sunhat, beach tote, flip-flops and shades, which I guess is the whole point. Ducking out, I dip into the strawberry beach hut and I’m at a fairground now, I can hear the music from the carousel and a sweet sticky aroma fills the air. Mm-mmm. Sugar doughnuts. Candy floss. It reminds me of going to Mulberry funfair in the school holidays, and I absolutely love it! This is summer right here. Brilliant.
Grinning from ear to ear, I head over to Women’s Accessories and spot Annie behind my old counter.
‘Hello stranger! What are you doing here?’ I ask, giving her a hug. Last I heard of Annie she had left to get married, the whole works – a big-fat-gypsy-type wedding. Annie is a Traveller who lives in a caravan on the permanent site up near Mulberry Common, and when she first came to work here, she was the only girl in her family to ever have a paid job.
‘Couldn’t keep away.’ She twiddles her nose stud and smiles wryly.
‘And the wedding?’ I ask, spotting her bare ring finger.
‘Oh, he turned into a complete knobber – started mouthing off about how after the wedding my place would be at home cooking and scrubbing up after him, so I dumped him. I’m nobody’s chalice.’
‘Whatevs. If that’s another word for slave, then that too,’ Annie says, placing her left hand on her hip, and making me smile. I’ve really missed her. ‘So, I got on the phone to HR and got my old job back. Well, your old job, to be exact.’ She rolls her eyes. ‘Anyway, I’m the supervisor now. My first day, too, and it’s going really well. I’ve already shifted two Marc Jacobs top handles and a Juicy Couture crossbody bag. And I remembered all the little tricks you taught me, like surreptitiously sweeping the cheaper bag along to the end of the counter so as to focus the customer’s attention on the more expensive piece of merch.’ Standing tall, she puffs out her impressive cleavage while flicking her frosted hair extensions back over her shoulder.
‘Good for you.’ I wink, remembering when Mrs Grace, Carrington’s oldest employee, taught me that trick on my first day as a Saturday girl all those years ago – Mrs Grace rocked Women’s Accessories for fifty years before handing the mantle to me. She’s retired from Carrington’s now, after landing a book deal for a good five-figure sum to write her autobiography on the back of being in the reality TV show. It’s going to be a trilogy, starting right from the beginning and detailing the history of Carrington’s – the underground maze of tunnels that practically run the length and breadth of Mulberry town. There’s even one that goes all the way to the old music hall at the other end of Lovelace Walk, a few streets away. Rumour has it that the original Mr H. Carrington, aka Dirty Harry (Tom’s grandfather on Vaughan’s side), had the tunnels built especially as a discreet way to ‘visit’ showgirls, then pay them in kind by inviting them back for secret late-night shopping sprees. Sort of like a free trolley dash in return for sex, I suppose. Mrs Grace told me all about it one time over a cream horn and a steamy hot chocolate in Sam’s café. The books are going to cover the war years, too, when the underground tunnels were opened up to the residents of Mulberry-On-Sea to use as bunkers during the Blitz. Which gives me an idea – we could do a tour as part of the regatta! Apparently it’s going to be a two-day event over the August bank holiday weekend (I got an email ahead of the first committee meeting tomorrow), so plenty of time for people to see ‘behind the scenes’ of the iconic Carrington’s building. I’ll add the idea to my list and be sure to bring it up tomorrow. Mrs Grace might even come out of retirement to be the tour guide. I bet she’d love that.
‘And I’ve positioned the long mirror right here, see,’ Annie points an index finger, ‘becaaaaaause …’
‘Those who try it, buy it,’ we both sing in unison, grinning.
Annie puts on a serious work face. ‘Sooo, what can I help you with? I take it you’re after some designer bags for your VIPs?’
‘Sure am. I need top handle day bags, evening – a clutch or two, some totes and a couple of those big stripy beach bags over there.’ I point towards the special ‘summer fun’ shelf that Annie has artfully created. A pile of bonkbusters, presumably for reading by the pool, are stacked at one end, and she’s even snaffled some of the glittery gold sand and sprinkled it in between the bags on display.
‘Blimey. Sounds as if they’re splashing the cash then … Anyone famous?’
‘I don’t think so – didn’t recognise them. A mother-and-daughter day, treating themselves,’ I say, as an image of me as a child, shopping with Mum, pops into my head.
‘Ah, that’s lovely. Right then, jump behind my counter in case a customer comes—’
‘Oh, you don’t have to pick out the bags for me,’ I say quickly.
‘Babes, it’s no trouble. Besides, I want to – this is my kingdom now,’ she pauses to gesture around the floor. ‘And I really want to make this work. I want to be amazing at something. Just like you.’ She gives me a quick hug.
‘And you already are.’ I squeeze her back, thinking how much she reminds me of myself when I first started out in Women’s Accessories, full of ideas and enthusiasm. ‘But thank you, honey.’
‘No worries, leave it to me and I’ll sort out a nice selection for you, starting with the exquisite Cambridge satchel in fluoro lime, yes? New in, and totes amazeballs!’ She gasps, fluttering her eyelids and waving a palm in the air as if experiencing her very own bag nirvana.
Once she’s come to, Annie races around the shop floor picking out the best bags, while I stand behind my old counter reminiscing – I must have only been a little girl when I first came to Carrington’s with Mum; we would shop and eat fairy cakes in the old-fashioned tearoom and be happy together. Of course, this was years before Sam took over and turned it into a cosy café where the cakes are now éclairs and miniature pastel-coloured macaroons, and a good old-fashioned Victoria sponge is a magnificent six-tiered tower of rainbow-coloured layers decorated with blueberries and fresh lemon-infused cream frosting. Those Saturdays and school holidays were probably the best times of my life, although meeting Tom is right up there too. And I so wish Tom could have met Mum; I think she would definitely have approved, especially with him being the majority shareholder – Mum was always a little in awe of anyone out of the ordinary. It was my thirteenth birthday not long before she died, and the nurses in the hospital organised a little party. They even invited someone from the local football team to turn up and give me a teddy bear – Mum went all fan-girl. And she would have loved the VIP suite, feeling special for a day, pampered … Such a shame she’s gone, and I would have loved treating her to a selection of gorgeous new outfits.
I used to miss her so much, I still do sometimes, but having Dad back in my life has made a massive difference, especially as we’ve reached the stage now where we can talk about Mum together and remember the happy times. I make a mental note to call Dad later, see how he is and suggest a trip to Mum’s grave as we haven’t been since Christmas. I’d like to take some flowers – maybe Nancy will come too. Last time she made a beautiful Christmassy arrangement of pinecones, miniature ferns and cinnamon sticks, set around a gorgeous red poinsettia plant, for me to put next to Mum’s headstone. Nancy’s kindness and generosity made me well up with emotion. She’s such a kind, warm woman – and she really knows what it feels like to lose someone so close; her daughter, Natalie, died in a motorbike accident years ago, so she wears her necklace, with a gold letter N on, to keep her close always. I run an index finger over the silver locket that Nancy gave me as a Christmas present. It’s on a chain around my neck, which I never take off. Inside is a picture of Mum (Nancy got it from Dad) when she was young and vibrant; hair fanned around her smiling face and cornflower-blue bright eyes. In the other side is a picture of me, with a brunette bob and the same blue eyes, a similar image to the one Mum would have seen of me just before she died. I love that Nancy did this; it’s as if Mum’s memory of me is crystallised for ever and ever.
‘Here!’ Annie says, catching her breath and breaking my reverie. She holds out her arms to show off the bags that are looped all the way from her wrists up to her armpits. ‘Take your pick.’
‘Can I have all of them?’ I ask, scanning the floor for a stock trolley. Reading my mind, Annie nods towards the little alcove behind the counter.
‘Yep – you will bring back any unsold merch, though, won’t you?’
‘Of course. But I plan on flogging the lot,’ I beam, wheeling out the trolley.
‘Good. And remember to scan each piece they purch,’ Annie instructs, wagging an index finger in my face as we carefully load the bags so as not to damage the leather.
‘Yes, Annie. I know,’ I say in a singsong voice over my shoulder as I head back towards the lift with my stash.
‘Just checking,’ she calls out after me. ‘I don’t do shrinkage in my section. I can account for all of the merch … just so’s you know.’ She laughs.
Cheeky! I laugh too. I’m so proud of Annie – she started at Carrington’s straight from school, just like I did. I gave her a chance, trained her, just like Mrs Grace trained me. And now she is indeed ruling her kingdom. Well, good for her … I hope she loves it as much as I did.
I wheel the trolley into the staff lift and reach the third floor when it shudders to a halt.
‘Hello, lovey. How are you?’ It’s Betty, our mumsy switchboard supervisor. She steps into the lift. Her glasses, which are swinging on a chain around her neck, narrowly miss getting caught in the metalwork as she leans across to close the cage door.
‘Very well, thank you. And how are you?’
‘Not so bad now the sweats are easing off,’ she replies, wiping her top lip with a cotton hanky while I nod sympathetically. ‘Ooh, and I heard about the regatta,’ she swiftly adds, changing topic.
‘Yes. My friend, Joyce, works at the council, so she knows everything that goes on here in Mulberry.’ Blimey, news sure does travel fast. ‘You know, I organised a village fete many years ago, so if you need a hand with anything … you just let me know.’
‘Oh thanks Betty, I shall definitely bear that in mind,’ I smile politely, not wanting to offend her, but really hoping the regatta will be a much bigger event than a village fete – more like a festival. And you never know – if we pull it off, then perhaps it could become an annual thing, with camping too, or special all-inclusive packages at the exclusive Mulberry Grand Hotel. It could be huge, like Glastonbury, only without the mud!
‘Yes, do. Hashtag Team Carrington’s!’ she says, cheerfully. ‘Isn’t that what they say on the Twitters?’ Betty looks at me for confirmation and I nod. ‘My Luke is on there all the time. I reckon he’s addicted – that, or he’s got himself a girl at last. Good thing, too, she can take him off my hands. He really should have left home by now – thirty-five is no age to be still sleeping in a box room with me doing his ironing and washing up after him. He has it too good, that’s what my husband says. Georgie, do yourself a favour, lovey, and bypass the whole kid thing. I love my Luke, but he’s so damn lazy. I suppose it serves me right in a way, I’ve spoilt him.’ She stashes the hanky inside the sleeve of her hand-knitted cardy. ‘And that MP’s assistant certainly needs taking down a peg or two. Apparently she’s got herself on the regatta committee, and Joyce was telling me that she’s forever calling the council to lodge complaints – she’s just a secretary, for crying out loud. Not a flaming Secretary of State, the way she carries on. You know, she was instrumental in campaigning against the new marina, so it’s a bit rich that she now wants to muscle in on the regatta, the one to be held at the very marina that she tried to block!’
‘Really?’ I ask, shocked. The new marina has made a massive difference to Carrington’s turnover, and to the whole of Mulberry, in fact, it’s helped attract loads more customers to the area, especially those with money to spend after mooring their yachts. Who knows where Carrington’s would be without the marina. Not so long ago, before the reality TV show instore, there was a very real possibility of Carrington’s spiralling into a terminal decline, but things are on the up now. Carrington’s is in the pink!
‘Yes, that’s right. But then she’s never been a fan of the store. Well, not since she was asked to leave, that is …’
‘She used to work here … Years ago! She was secretary for a time to your Tom’s predecessor, old Walter, aka the Heff, as in Hugh Heffner, on account of his numerous dalliances with women half his age,’ she huffs. ‘Anyway, she and Walter were caught at it in the boardroom, which was all hushed up at the time, but then Walter’s wife, Camille, your Tom’s aunty …’ Betty looks for confirmation that she’s got the Carrington family tree correct. I nod. ‘Well, Camille found out and insisted she be sacked. So watch your back with her … I reckon she’d love nothing more than to exact a bit of revenge by ruining things for Carrington’s if she can.’
Oh great. So not only do I have Isabella waiting for me to mess up, but also now it seems the scowly-woman-with-no-name could be out to sabotage things. Well, in that case, I’ll just have to make sure I pull out all the stops because I’m determined to make this the best regatta Mulberry has ever seen. There’s no way I’m letting the scowly-woman-with-no-name ruin it, and I’m definitely, definitely not showing Tom up in front of his mother, or jeopardising his chances to open another store. It means the world to him to demonstrate his business acumen. He really wants to take Carrington’s to the next level, grow the business, and I don’t want anything to spoil that, especially if we really are to have a proper future together. Isabella would be my mother-in-law, which means as her daughter-in-law I would want to be the best one she ever did have. I love Tom, I adore him, so I’d want Isabella to adore me, for us to get on brilliantly, have shopping days and spa weekends together, that kind of thing – be the daughter she never had. I could even call her mum, if she liked. Not that she’d ever replace Mum, but you know what I mean. It could be lovely. Mmm, I mull it all over. I’d be a part of something magical, a proper family, an Italian dynasty – Tom has loads of aunts, uncles and cousins. And family friends, too, who he’s known for years. I’ve never really had that – when Dad went to prison, everyone faded away, apart from Sam and her dad Alfie.
Georgie Carrington! Mrs Georgina Carrington. Oooh, it has a nice ring to it, or would I keep my own name? Lots of women do, so how about Georgina Hart-Carrington? Hmm, or perhaps Tom could change his name – some men do. Mr Tom Hart … anyway, whatever happens, I have to say the thought of actually being Tom’s wife is a pretty spectacular prospect, something wonderful to look forward to. I just need to show Isabella what a brilliant match I am for her son because, let’s face it, having a mother-in-law who has ‘issues’ with you is bound to ruin things in the long term. And it’s not like I could ever talk to Tom about it, I’m not even sure I’d want to put him in that position, stuck in the middle, and from what I’ve seen so far, they’re very close – they chat on the phone practically every day. I couldn’t expect him to choose between us, or anything silly like that. No, the sooner Isabella gets to know me properly and see what I’m capable of, the better. And where better to start than by organising a magnificent regatta, which in turn will show my support, not only to the Carrington business, but to the Carrington family too.
I make it to the town hall with just five minutes to spare after getting caught up on a Skype call with the editor from the magazine – she wanted to chat a bit more about my new idea for a What’s In Your Handbag piece for next week. It’s Nicole Scherzinger and it’s going to be shamazing for sure. Her people were very generous in supplying a list detailing the contents of her designer bag.
‘If you’re here for the regatta meeting then you’d better get a move on.’ There’s an enormous desk just inside the door with two security men in black uniforms lounging behind it. The older one with the bushy grey hair and the lovely Corrie accent stands up. ‘You’re the last one, duck,’ he says with a smile. ‘Second on the right.’ I head in the direction of his pointing finger.
‘Thank you,’ I breathe, pulling my scarf off as I go – it’s like a sauna in here. I find the room and push through the double doors.
‘Ahh, here she is, the famous Georgie Hart from Carrington’s department store.’ Oh God, it’s the scowly-woman-with-no-name standing on a stage with a pen poised. She snaps up a clipboard and gives it a big firm tick before treating me to an extra-special scowl.
‘Hello,’ I mouth, giving her my best eyes-and-teeth grin, figuring it best to kill her with kindness – Mum swore by it, and that old adage that you ‘catch more flies with honey than vinegar’. She pretends not to have noticed, so I scan the room instead. There must be at least twenty people in here, sitting on plastic chairs in rows, and they’re all staring at me.
‘Um, hi. Hello.’ I do a feeble little wave but nobody reciprocates, so for some ridiculous reason, I quickly add, ‘Sorry I’m late.’ I glance over at the wall clock opposite and there are still five minutes to go before the meeting officially starts, so why on earth am I apologising? But they all look so serious.
I spot an empty seat, right in the front row and opposite the stage. I dive into it, grateful to be out of the spotlight, but conscious of the scowly woman’s beady eye boring down into me.
‘Right, so where were we?’ she huffs, rustling her papers excessively, as if to labour the point of my perceived lateness.
‘You were saying how important punctuality is, given that we don’t have an awful lot of time left to organise the event. Every second counts!’ someone behind me pipes up.
‘Yes, that’s right, and if you could all pay attention too. We really do have our work cut out if we’re to pull this off within just a few months. To be honest, it’s more or less going to be impossible, but then, what could we do?’ The scowly woman sighs and shakes her head, clearly exasperated. ‘We only got the go-ahead last week – one of the biggest sponsors did keep us waiting rather a long time …’ She harrumphs a bit more before shooting me another look.
‘Carrington’s,’ someone mutters. Oh, this just gets better. So I’m the reason the pressure is on. I make a mental note to talk to Tom later to find out exactly what’s been going on.
‘Right, let’s get on with it. We’ve done the introductions – Georgie, I’m Meredith, Mr Dunwoody’s personal secretary, as you already know. You’ll have to catch up with everyone else later.’ Cue another sniffy look, this time accompanied by a pointy finger. Hmm, so who made her the boss of us? ‘So, quick recap, we know Mulberry Yacht Club is in charge of all the sailing events and races; they’ll be organising the entry forms, legalities and brochures too, detailing the programme of events. Now, as a quick aside – if any of you would like to place a business advert in the brochure, then please speak to Bob, the harbour master.’ Meredith points to a rosy-cheeked guy in a chunky-knit Aran sweater who leaps up and waves both hands above his head like he’s air traffic control marshalling a jumbo jet into landing. Steady on! ‘But in your own time, please!’ She coughs. ‘This leaves us to sort out the stalls and fun events, which will take place around the marina’s perimeter and on either side of Wayfarer Way, the main road from the town centre, taking in the market square and leading on to the marina.’
‘But what about the new industrial estate?’ a guy behind me heckles.
‘What about it?’ Meredith says, officiously.
‘Seems all the action is in town, so none of the regatta visitors are going to bother with us and I’m only here to see about drumming up more business,’ the guy huffs, before muttering something about his new indoor amusement arcade that’s ‘right next door to Asda so you’d think it’d be heaving’, but is ridiculously quiet. He stands up, causing his chair to make a hideous scraping sound across the floor, before shoving his hands in his pockets and lumbering off.
‘So, any more ideas?’ Meredith dismisses, seemingly unfazed as the arcade guy lets the door slam behind him. A few people stick up their hands, but Meredith just keeps on talking. ‘The various youth groups – Brownies, Guides, Scouts, Sea Cadets, etc., are already busy organising floats for the carnival procession, which will parade through town ahead of the official opening of the regatta. And in addition to this marvellous event, we’ve come up with …’ She pauses to refer to her clipboard, ‘Yes, that’s right – beer tent, tombola, welly throwing, lucky dip, wet sponge throwing at the mayor, guess the name of the teddy bear …’
Oh, God help us.
‘Donkey rides?’ someone at the back shouts out.
OK, a bit better. I make a mental note to cross that idea off my list.
‘Don’t forget the mini-music festival.’ This is much more like it. I glance along my row to see who is speaking – it’s a guy with a Bob Marley T-shirt and a big boffin beard.
‘Hmm, a bit ambitious …’ Meredith shakes her head and actually sucks in air, like a plumber denouncing the state of a broken washing machine – I half expect her to launch into a long, boring explanation of what actually constitutes ‘ambitious’ too! But luckily, Bob Marley jumps in instead.
‘Not at all. The radio station has all the equipment and we’ve already got confirmation from a few local bands. But what we really need is a big name to headline …’ Ah, I bet he’s from Mulberry FM. How exciting.
‘Well, let’s not get too hasty, I’m not sure everyone wants—’ Meredith starts, before she’s interrupted by the woman sitting next to me, wearing a leopard-print bomber jacket and denim skinnies, who has the biggest treacle-coloured beehive I’ve ever seen.
‘Oooh, I don’t know, I reckon people love a good knees-up, and we’re always rammed on band night,’ she says in a cracking cockney accent.
‘That may be the case in the …’ Meredith pauses again to check her notes.
‘The Hook, Line and Sinker,’ the beehive woman prompts. ‘It’s a new pub, and we’re right at the entrance to the marina. Oooh, I’ve got an idea!’ A short silence follows.
‘Do enlighten us, dear, we’re not exactly time rich,’ Meredith says in a monotone voice as she glances at the wall clock.
‘Weeeell,’ the woman starts, sounding really excited. ‘We’d be perfect to host the mini-music festival. Our beer garden backs out directly onto the beach, and we could rope off a section and install a stage.’ Fab, this is much more like it. ‘Music and beer on tap, what’s not to love?’ She claps her hands together, seemingly pleased with the plan.
‘Yes, err, Beryl is it?’ Meredith purses her lips.
‘Cheryl, love. But you can call me Cher, everyone does. I’m the landlady.’
‘Hmm, well, OK, err … Cher. But it’s not as simple as just roping off a bit of the beach. You do need to have a proper public performance licence, not to mention that there are all kinds of health and safety laws to adhere to – it really could get quite tricky to manage,’ Meredith continues, tilting her head to one side, and talking as if she’s placating a toddler.
‘No problem, I have that all in place,’ Cher beams, twiddling a finger around the inside of her massive gold hoop earring.
‘And any rubber-stamping will be made a priority, of course.’ A guy in a suit sitting at the end of my row jumps in. ‘Plus I’d like to take this opportunity to assure you all that parking will be free across all of the town’s car parks for the duration of the regatta, and we’ll be liaising with the police, St John Ambulance, etc., and setting up the usual services – mobility scooter hire, children’s security wristbands, etc. And I’m personally in charge of sorting out the Red Arrows – they always go down a treat.’ He pauses. ‘Well, err, not literally of course, because that would be catastrophic. No, a crash landing really wouldn’t do … eek!’ He pulls a face and shrugs apologetically before sitting back down.
‘That’s Matt from the council – he’s all right though,’ Cher whispers, leaning into me. I smile – she seems really nice. Glancing along the row, I catch Matt’s eye and he gives me a welcoming nod. Perhaps this will still be fun, after all.
‘Just need a proper pop star now,’ the Mulberry FM guy says.
‘I might be able to help with that,’ I suggest, eager to do my bit.
‘Oh?’ Meredith quips.
‘He’s not really a mainstream pop star, though.’ Silence follows. I’m sensing they’re not impressed, but hold on, there’s more. ‘Yes, the person I have in mind is a Mulberry local too. He’s a country singer and mega-famous. I’m sure he’ll help out if he can,’ I add, sensing a bit of excitement in the room now – people behind me are whispering and fidgeting.
‘Is it Dan Kilby by any chance?’ the Mulberry FM guy asks hopefully, and the whispering gets louder.
‘Yes, that’s him, do you know him too?’ I ask, leaning forward.
‘No, not personally. I’m Jared, by the way,’ he smiles.
‘Nice to meet you, Jared,’ I grin back.
‘I’ve tried to get him into the station a few times for a live on-air interview, but never quite managed to bring it all together. He’s definitely a crowd-puller, though; everyone loves him. It would be awesome, and real kudos for Mulberry, and Carrington’s too, if you really could pull it off and get him to agree to a live set.’
‘I’d better make the call right away then – probably best to give him as much notice as possible.’ I pull a pad and pen from my bag – once I had finished with my clients in the VIP suite earlier today, I popped downstairs to Stationery and bought four A4 notepads, a box file, a gorgeous soft brown leather pencil case, a bumper pack of multicoloured Post-it notes and a selection of different-coloured pens. I love stationery – who doesn’t? Plus, I thought it best to be properly organised in any case. Taking a red pen from my pencil case, I add ‘Call Dan’ to my ‘Immediate things to do’ list, and then do a squiggle around it with a turquoise mini-highlighter – I’ve got a combination of colour codes for all my tasks, ranging from green to red, depending on urgency and level of importance to Carrington’s.
‘The budget is limited, though – we can only cover travel and refreshments, I’m afraid,’ Matt says, making a sorry face.
‘But the radio station would be happy to cover modest additional expenses for someone as high profile as Dan,’ Jared adds.
‘And I reckon I could get budget from the Carrington’s board – they really are keen for this to be a huge success,’ I say, knowing how important it is for Carrington’s to foster good relationships within the community. I’m sure I can get Tom to organise a bit of extra money if necessary. I make a mental note to call Dan first thing tomorrow morning. If I can get him involved, then that will get me off to a flying start, not only with the rest of the committee, but with Isabella too. She’s bound to be impressed by my A-list connection – I bet her fancy-pants party planner, Sebastian, doesn’t know Dan Kilby personally. Oh no!
‘Hold on. How do you even know Mr Kilby?’ Meredith says in an incredulous voice.
‘Well, he and I, err …’ I pause, wondering just how much I should divulge – things were shaky between Tom and me at the time. It was right at the start, we hadn’t been seeing each other properly for very long, and then Tom disappeared to Paris. I thought he had dumped me and was getting engaged to an old flame – and then with my two-and-two-makes-five thing thrown into the mix … well, luckily it all turned out to be a massive misunderstanding, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, Kelly the retail guru set it up – a showmance, if you like. ‘Dan was involved in the TV show too,’ I finish lamely, not really wanting to talk about my convoluted love life in this very public forum. I had enough of being in the media spotlight when I was a reluctant reality TV star, with my ‘highlights’ plastered all over YouTube every week.
‘Oh, that’s right. I remember the episode – loved it! You were dressed up proper classy, and that Dan is a real dish,’ Cher says, swivelling in her seat so the people in the back rows can hear her too. I hold my breath, wishing I’d kept my mouth shut now; and I can already see Meredith pursing her lips disapprovingly. ‘He snogged you on the bandstand, a proper Hollywood film kiss it was too. Sooo romantic.’ I open my mouth, but before I can explain that the kiss was just for show (Dan had spotted a pap lurking nearby with a long-lens camera), Cher continues, ‘You must pop into the pub one night and have a drink on me.’
‘Oooh, yes please, I’d love to,’ I smile, feeling relieved to be chatting about something else. Not that anything ever happened between Dan and me. He’s a really lovely guy, hot and cool in a cowboy-kind-of-way. All leather jeans, checked shirt and guitar slung casually over his shoulder. Very Gunnar Scott in Nashville. We just had a bit of fun; it was never going to be anything more. I was already in love with Tom by then … even if we weren’t properly together.
‘That’s sorted then—’ Cher starts, before Meredith coughs impatiently.
‘Err, excuse me, ladies! We do have a very tight schedule to get through, so if you can organise drinking sessions in your own time, please.’ Meredith does a sarcastic smile. I inhale sharply and let out a long breath, as if to clear my head, thinking, what is her problem? She clearly hates Carrington’s, and me, but what I want to know is, why? She got sacked years ago and has obviously moved on into a good job, so why is she still so bitter? ‘So, before we wrap up, are there any more ideas?’
‘Yes, I have a few.’ After grabbing another notepad from my bag, I flick open the cover. ‘I made a list,’ I explain, waving the pad around like a looper and wondering if I should quickly power up my iPad mini – I’ve made a Pinterest board too, titled ‘Carrington’s Regatta’, and found loads of brilliant nautical-slash-festival-slash-summer-slash-ice cream-slash-carousel-slash-cake-themed pictures to really get us in the mood. I could pass the iPad around so everyone can see … But on clocking Meredith’s glazed look, I push the iPad back inside my bag and will my cheeks to stop flaming. I get on with just reading out the ideas instead. I’ll save Pinterest for another time – doesn’t hurt to have a ‘double debut’, as it were.
‘OK, here goes.’ I clear my throat and Cher nudges me gently with encouragement. ‘We could have food stalls selling a variety of delicious delights.’ I pause to see if I’m on the right lines, but nobody says a word. I’m just about to carry on when someone pipes up, ‘As long as the fancy stuff is well away from my burger vans.’ It’s a man with a bandana around his head.
‘Err …’ I start.
‘Yes, don’t worry. We’ll draw up a map of who goes where,’ Meredith huffs impatiently, and then motions for me to continue.
‘And a selection of cakes from Cupcakes At Carrington’s. My best friend Sam owns the café and her cakes are legendary – people travel from all over for them, so they’re bound to be a huge hit.’ Silence follows. Perhaps I’ve got it wrong, and they’d prefer more of a ‘village fete’ event after all – guess the weight of the homemade cake, that kind of thing, to go with the welly throwing. Only, I’m not sure my customers will get excited by that, and I have to do my best for Carrington’s. It’s the reason I’m here, after all, plus I can’t imagine Isabella being impressed by a small-town fete, not when she’s used to commissioning Botticelli murals just for an afternoon soirée. Tom told me later that the yacht is usually adorned in framed watercolours, but Isabella fancied a change, so a team of interior designers were flown in from Milan to carry out the temporary transformation. Botticelli has since been whitewashed over and the framed prints put back in place. So, no no no! We must up our game.
‘I had afternoon tea in the Carrington’s café,’ someone eventually says. ‘And it was actually very nice.’ Fab. I beam. ‘A bit on the pricey side, though!’ Hmm, and my smile fades.
‘But worth it if the cakes are as good as Georgie says,’ Cher chips in, and I want to hug her.
‘Exactly. And we can have lots of cake stalls dotted around town to suit all budgets,’ I say, ‘and there are loads of cafés and cake places in Mulberry, so everyone will have a chance to get involved if they want to.’
‘It’s a good idea, but don’t canopies cost a fortune to hire? Being a start-up, we just don’t have the money, and it’ll be sweltering without any shade.’ Ahh, it’s the woman from the new bakery. I smile and she smiles back.
‘Carrington’s can help – provide canopies, or how about a number of food marquees big enough for several stallholders to share? I’m sure the visitors and tourists on the day will welcome the shade, too, while they peruse all the delicious food on offer,’ I grin, remembering the email I got earlier from the board saying that they’ve already done a deal with a local marquee hire company for this exact reason. So everyone wins – the hire company, the local food suppliers and Carrington’s – which in return for covering the hire cost will have the store logo on a select few canopies (having it on all of them would just be ridiculous and defeat the purpose of this being a whole community endeavour – something Carrington’s is keen to be seen to be supporting). And it wasn’t that long ago that Carrington’s was struggling and very nearly went under. If it hadn’t been for the loyalty of the local community – coming in store to buy school uniforms, a special birthday present, treating themselves to afternoon tea in Sam’s café or a pedicure in the spa, then we most definitely wouldn’t have made it. It all adds up. It’s thanks to them that we’re now in a position to support others who might still be struggling in this economical climate.
‘I’m definitely in,’ the woman from the bakery beams, and a few other people all smile and nod in agreement.
‘Fab. And I thought perhaps a mini-film festival,’ I move on. Meredith sniffs with disapproval – I take a deep breath; I can sort of understand why she might be a bit down on Carrington’s, but it’s not my fault she got caught out, in flagrante as it were, with the Heff. ‘And old-fashioned pop-up ice-cream vendors.’
‘Ooh, that sounds lovely. I can picture it now, all candy-striped awnings and swirly Mr Whippy cones with sprinkles on top,’ Cher says, nudging me again.
‘Yes, that would be brilliant, and we could even have a special limited-edition Mulberry Regatta ice-cream flavour made – you know, like …’ I pause to catch my breath. ‘Of course, this is just off the top of my head – cinnamon, mulberries and cream for example,’ I say, feeling excited now, and if I’m not mistaken, a little buzz reverberates around the room. ‘And I was thinking a fleet of ice-cream vans would be good – the old-fashioned ones that chime tunes like “Greensleeves”.’ Cher nods and, feeling more relaxed, I add, ‘You know, my mum used to say the chime meant they’d run out of lollies …’
‘Mine too!’ Cher laughs. ‘Not for our regatta though, eh? We’ll make sure of it.’ She winks at me conspiratorially. Grinning, I carry on.
‘We could have them dotted all around Mulberry, and lining the route to the marina perhaps, like a welcoming party so people can buy an ice cream plus pick up a programme,’ I say, getting into the swing of things now.
‘Yes, good idea.’ It’s Matt from the council. ‘And that would save us having to draft in students from Mulberry College to stand around trying to flog the programmes. That’s what we usually do for our other major event – the switching on of the Christmas lights – but it’s not ideal as last time one of the environmental health officers found a big pile of programmes dumped in the bushes up on Mulberry Common.’ A tutting sound reverberates around the room, but at least they’re all getting involved now. I keep going.
‘And in line with the retro theme, I thought a carousel would be cool, like the ones you get at the funfair. And, last but not least, a guided tour of Carrington’s underground tunnels.’ An ultra-ominous silence follows this time. Oh God, I’ve lost them now.
‘Well, that’s quite a list. Is anyone interested in working with Georgie?’ Meredith asks the room, and I’m sure I spot a glint in her eye.
‘I would, love, but I reckon I’ll have my hands full with the music festival,’ Cher says, apologetically.
‘Me too. Sorry Georgie,’ Jared chips in.
‘And I’d like to do the donkey rides,’ someone else adds, and then, in turn, they each allocate themselves to the various ideas, all except mine.
‘Oh dear, looks like you’re on your own in that case,’ Meredith says. I gulp. Whaaaat? Surely she doesn’t think I can do everything by myself? I swivel around, desperate for volunteers.
‘We’ll do the film festival.’ A man in full combat gear stands up. ‘My staff will assume responsibility for this one,’ he adds, practically clicking his heels to attention.
‘Oh that would be fab, thanks so much.’ Relieved, I grin at the guy, and he nods as if to formally seal the deal.
‘Well, I guess it makes sense, seeing as you own the television shop,’ Meredith says quickly, desperate to claw back control.
‘That’s right. Mulberry Sound and Vision. We sell everything from home cinema systems to car audio equipment, and we have a specialist covert and surveillance department on the first floor,’ commando man corrects, and there’s definitely a hint of frostiness in his voice. Ha! So he’s got the cut of Meredith then. Good, maybe he can hunt her down when he’s next out on manoeuvres – or whatever it is he does dressed up in that gear. He even has a pouch on his belt, which I’m guessing real soldiers use for storing grenades – his has a mobile phone inside.
‘Yes, yes of course,’ Meredith mutters. ‘So, that’s settled then. Everyone know what they’ve taken responsibility for?’ She does a cursory glance around the room before snapping her clipboard shut. ‘Good, because I for one am parched. See you all next time – details will be emailed out. And do come with project plans – supplier names, costs and itineraries, that kind of thing, so we can go through them and get everything approved with the various authorities.’
Matt jumps up and turns to face us all. ‘Before you all go – I’ve invited representatives from the emergency services, health and safety, traffic control, etc., to join our next meeting, so if you have any queries you’ll have a chance to ask questions or get clarification. And then we can all get cracking on making Mulberry’s first regatta a resounding success.’
‘Right you are – no time to waste. Cheerio!’ And with that, Meredith leaves the stage, pulls on her plum-coloured fleece and marches from the room with her clipboard tucked firmly under her arm.
Blimey, so it looks like I’m organising the Carrington’s tunnel tour, the ice-cream vans, and the food stalls then! Well, I’m going to need some help if I’m to pull this off – the regatta will be here in no time at all. I wonder if some of the other staff would like to help out – we could be hashtag Team Carrington’s, as Betty would say. She’ll help out, of course, and I reckon Annie will be interested, especially when she hears that Dan Kilby is headlining, and he’s bound to say yes, I just know he will. I could put a notice up in the staff room, asking for volunteers. I’ll head it up with #TeamCarringtons Needs You – it sounds more professional, and it has to be worth a go. But, hold on, what about the carousel? Oh my God, where on earth does one get a carousel? I quickly pull out a pad, write ‘CAROUSEL’ in big red capital letters, and underline it four times, before rummaging around inside my bag for the turquoise highlighter.
The fresh zest of orange mingled with warm sweet honey greets me as I push open the door to Sam’s café, on the fifth floor of Carrington’s. It’s my day off, so I thought I’d pop in to see how she is before meeting up with Tom later for lunch.
‘Hey, this is a nice surprise, how are you?’ Sam pops her head out from inside the kitchen. After wiping her hands on a navy-striped apron, she lifts the hatch in the counter and dashes through to give me a huge hug.
‘I’m fine thanks, getting busy with the regatta plans – but, more importantly, how are you?’
‘Knackered, for a change.’ She shrugs. ‘But come on, let’s get a booth; I could do with a break and a bit of a gossip. I’ve got half an hour before I have to collect the girls from the crèche and then take them to a play date before their baby ballet class later on … it’s a full-time job in itself trying to keep up with their hectic social life.’
Конец ознакомительного фрагмента.