A Passionate Love Affair with a Total Stranger

Lucy Robinson
 
A PASSIONATE LOVE AFFAIR WITH A TOTAL STRANGER
Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Acknowledgements

Follow Penguin

PENGUIN BOOKS

A PASSIONATE LOVE AFFAIR WITH A TOTAL STRANGER

A Passionate Love Affair with a Total Stranger
is Lucy Robinson's second novel and follows on from her successful debut,
The Greatest Love Story of All Time.
Prior to writing, Lucy earned her crust in theatre production and then factual television, working on documentaries for all of the UK's major broadcasters. Her writing career began when she started a dating blog for
Marie Claire
, where she entertained readers with frank tales from her laughably unsuccessful foray into the world of Internet dating.

Lucy was brought up in Gloucestershire, surrounded by various stupid animals. She studied at Birmingham University and lived in London for many years before disappearing off to South America for eighteen months with hopes of becoming a bohemian novelist. This novel was written entirely on the road as she travelled through Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Ecuador and Colombia – although, fortunately, it does not feature so much as one crusty backpacker.

Lucy lives in South London with her partner, The Man.

www.lucy-robinson.co.uk

For George
Thank you for waiting

Chapter One

Is this it?
I wondered, gazing down at the scene spread out below me.
Is my life perfect?

Suddenly embarrassed I hugged my knees. Only the most foolish of knobs sat around trying to decide whether or not their lives were perfect.

But, as I gazed down at my hand-crafted picnic – with all the bashful pride of Leonardo stepping back to admire his
Last Supper
– I couldn't deny that it did
look
rather good. Not unlike the front cover of a
Visit Edinburgh
brochure, in fact. It was one of the city's rare sunny days and the people drinking champagne below me seemed extremely aspirational and good-looking. When I was an awkward teenager dreaming about Making It, I had fantasized about having friends who looked like this. And now here they were, arranged at tasteful intervals around a large tartan picnic blanket on Salisbury Crags, holding plates of fashionable food from the farmers' market.

I beamed.
I
had done this!
I
'd put together this picnic! I allowed myself a discreet self-hug and wondered how that awkward teenager – Too Tall Charley from East Linton – had become Charlotte Lambert, director of communications at one of the world's largest pharmaceutical companies, owner of a flat off Broughton Street and a woman in possession of sufficient cool friends to be able to organize brochure-worthy picnics at only a few hours' notice. What
more was there, save perhaps a relationship with a handsome man who knew about fine wines and vintage cheeses?

‘Look at this!' I whispered to Malcolm the Labrador. I was dog-sitting for my parents while they Found Themselves in a four-star hotel in India again. Malcolm bestowed upon me a look of great love, inviting me to donate to him my sandwich.

‘Of course, of course,' I muttered, handing it over. ‘Sorry, Malcolm, you must be starving.'

Hailey, my small and bawdy best friend, detached herself from her boyfriend, Matty, and walked up the hill towards me, grinning at the sandwich-gobbling Labrador at my side. ‘Hello, Malcolm!' she shouted. Hailey adored Malcolm.

Malcolm adored Hailey right back but he was too busy to hear her.

‘I said, hello, Malcolm.' She drew level, laughing.

Malcolm finished the sandwich, then gave her his full attention, wagging his tail as if his life depended on it. Hailey hugged him hard, smothering his delighted face with her ample bosom. ‘Well done, Chas,' she said, freeing Malcolm from her chest. ‘This is bloody brilliant!'

I grinned modestly. ‘It's not bad, Hails, I'll warrant you that. Not bad at all.'

She sat down next to me on the grass. ‘You OK?' she asked casually.

‘Of course!'

She raised an eyebrow.

‘What's that face for?' I demanded.

She responded with a knowing look that clarified nothing.

‘I just want to know if you're OK,' she said, in the sort of gentle voice one would normally reserve for a challenging toddler.

‘I'm really happy, Hails! Sam got engaged last night … And here we all are having a great time!'

Hailey shook her head. ‘What I meant, Chas, was did you make it to bed last night?'

Ah.

‘Of course I did,' I answered spiritedly.

I was lying, of course. Sam and Yvonne, newly betrothed and very drunk, had left my flat in search of cocktails at four thirty a.m., dragging Hailey and my twin sister, Ness, with them. Once they'd gone I had compiled a shopping list, a to-do list and my wardrobe for the day, and when I'd finished it was six a.m. and time to drive to the farmers' market. I'd then spent the morning hiring glasses and plates, buying champagne and rugs, and tracking down unnecessary things, such as little potted orchids and plastic ponchos in case it rained. I had felt madly invigorated by the task and had driven around in a craze of adrenalin and coffee, fantasizing wildly about how it would feel to achieve the most perfect engagement picnic in history. It couldn't just be good, it had to be hair-raisingly
amazing.

As with any Challenge Charley, tiredness hadn't so much as crossed my mind.

But now that I came to think of it, I was tired. Devastatingly so, in fact. Looking at the people below me, I felt suddenly alarmed about today. As the housemate of Dirty Samuel Bowes (who had stunned the world by sustaining a three-month relationship with Yvonne and then
proposing
to her last night), I had an unquestionable duty to be
a sparkly and capable hostess until the celebrations ended, probably no earlier than three a.m. And tomorrow – Sunday – I had an early-morning Mandarin class, then personal training, and I needed to compose a work letter, which would be picked up by a courier at one p.m. I would spend the afternoon volunteering at the dog sanctuary, then have tea with my cousin and do at least four hours' prepping for an eight a.m. presentation at work on Monday morning. Ideally I needed to give the flat a good clean, too, and try to get to John Lewis for a baking tray. And shave my legs. Do my monthly accounting. Do my … I stopped, deflated. How the feck was I ever going to sleep with a to-do list this long?

A vision of my bed sprang into my head – all clean and square and fragrant – and I felt weak with desire. But I batted it away. Even people with perfect lives suffered sleep deprivation at times.

‘How did this happen?' Hailey asked, breaking into my thoughts. She was looking at Sam, who, in spite of my efforts to provide a tasteful feast, was wandering around with a loaf of value bread and a jar of Nutella tucked under one arm. Periodically he would absent himself from conversation to remove a slice of bread and dunk it in the jar, all the while looking madly, uncontrollably happy. I shook my head, as bemused as Hailey by last night's turn of events.

‘I don't get it, Chas,' she continued. ‘I mean,
Sam
? How on earth did he get engaged before us? It's … it's …' She trailed off, utterly confused.

‘Mental,' I said. She nodded.

It
was
mental. Sam was a dog! Every Saturday morning
since the dawn of time a different young woman with a Friday-night outfit and sex hair had snuck out of Sam's bedroom and disappeared silently out of the flat. An hour or two later, Sam would shuffle into the sitting room in his dressing-gown, ready to spend the day eating bread and Nutella. He would sometimes call for a pizza; occasionally he'd disappear for a long bath, but he would never reply to the ‘I had a GREAT time last night' messages that invariably arrived on his phone a few hours later. Girls went wild for Sam: he was a knockout and a charmer. And also a dirty shagging shagger.

Sam's loose women had been as integral a part of Saturday morning as my ten-K run round Holyrood Park and the wholegrain teacake I had afterwards. But then Yvonne had arrived and everything had changed.

I didn't much like change or uncertainty. Yvonne, with her little floral skirts that would have made me look like a hulking transvestite, brought with her a distinct whiff of both change and uncertainty. She also brought with her a distinct whiff of Miss Dior and something Sam-related that I didn't want to think about, but that was beside the point. The point was that I appeared to have lost my reliably lazy, womanizing housemate and had instead been given a thoroughly unpredictable puppy, who did things like proposing while we were in the middle of my finest fusion risotto.

Below us, Sam's friend Nelson grabbed a baguette from the rug and tried to roger Sam with it. Sam ignored him, his eyes instead seeking out Yvonne, who gave him a little wave from across the rug. He broke into a mushy smile, and Hailey and I burst out laughing simultaneously.

‘Look at him!' she cried.

‘I know. How will we ever get over this, Hailey?'

‘We probably won't. So when's he going to move out?'

I shrugged. ‘No idea. I haven't actually talked to him since they went scampering off into the night.'

But it was inevitable that he'd go, I thought, not without a twinge of sadness. When I'd first rented the room to him we'd agreed that if either of us Met Someone then Sam would move out. But it had never happened. In the last eight years I had had only one doomed relationship, and Sam had got through most of the women in Edinburgh without returning a single phone call. We'd become a sort of dysfunctional couple, me with my high-powered job and obsession with healthy eating and exercise, Sam a perpetually resting actor with filthy standards of nutrition and a great love of inactivity.

But in spite of his slovenly ways I knew I'd really miss him.

‘What will you do?' Hailey asked me.

‘Eh?' My BlackBerry started to vibrate in my pocket.

‘Will you get another lodger?' Hailey watched my hand irritably as it reached into my pocket and, for a split second, I considered not answering the phone.

But the thought lasted only a second. Things at work were absolutely critical at the moment; for me to become unavailable suddenly would be unacceptable. Sackable, probably. A flash of exasperation crossed Hailey's face as I answered: ‘Charlotte Lambert.'

‘Charlotte, hi, it is Birgitte from the German office.'

‘Hi, Birgitte,' I muttered, hunching away from Hailey in a futile attempt to disguise what I was doing.

Hailey, clearly, was not fooled – it was the sixth work call I'd taken since the picnic began – but, to my relief, she let it go. If nothing else, she was used to the insane demands of my job.

When I finished the call, a few minutes later, she merely carried on where she'd left off, a resigned expression on her face. ‘Will you get another lodger?'

‘Jesus, no! I've not needed a lodger for years. I just love Sam, that's all.' I yawned, leaden with tiredness.

Hailey smiled. ‘He's a stinker. But it's very hard not to love him.'

Sam, below us, loped over to Yvonne, putting his arms round her tiny waist and kissing her all over her face. Yvonne responded by jumping up and down and making little screaming noises.

‘Fucking hell,' Hailey said, shaking her head.

‘You next, Hailey,' I said. As if he could hear us, Matty blew her a kiss and I giggled. Matty was more enslaved to Hailey even than Sam was to Yvonne. He was a chirpy, Gore-texed, ruddy-cheeked man who was not much taller than her, and they were mad about each other. He worshipped every inch of her, right down to her strange little hammer toes.

‘Stop it!' She blushed, suddenly girly. ‘But fuck me, Chas, I'd love that,' she added, lowering her voice. ‘Can you imagine? Me as a bride? You as my bridesmaid?'

I could imagine it. Hailey would march down the aisle like a little powerhouse, knocking out anyone who got in her way with her gigantic stiff white bosom. Even on a normal day it was big enough to set up a chessboard on; I could only imagine what a bit of corsetry would do to it.

‘God, Charley, I'm so grateful,' she said suddenly. ‘Without you I'd never have got so much as a date out of Matty.'

‘Don't be silly. It was you he liked. I just did the admin.'

‘Not true,' Hailey replied, as Matty beckoned her down the hill. ‘You worked absolute wonders, Chasman. I'm in your debt.'

I enjoyed doing things for my friends, and reeling Matty in for Hailey had not been hard. He'd been keen as mustard.

‘Ah, now, Chas,' she said, getting up to return to her boyfriend. ‘I nearly forgot. There was a cracking article in the paper yesterday about an American dude who set up a business doing what you did for me and Matty.' She scrabbled around in her handbag, which was so large that she could probably have zipped herself into it. ‘Here you go.' She handed me a folded-up newspaper page. ‘I think you should set up the UK arm of this guy's company.'

She brushed herself off, then leaned down and kissed me on the cheek. ‘Well done, Charleypops,' she said. ‘Today is another triumph. You are super-amazing and capable … so now please give yourself a break. The party can run itself from here.'

I nodded obediently, knowing that it could do no such thing. It was all very well enjoying a party but
someone
had to work behind the scenes or it would turn into a big wet fart. It was my job, plain and simple. I bit my thumb, wondering if I should top up everyone's glass. But, after a warning glance from Hailey as she made her way back down the hill, I decided a few minutes' relaxing was reasonable.

Yawning again, I unfolded the newspaper.

The Blindest Date

Romance Blossoms as the Busy and Inept
Subcontract Their Love Lives to Witty Strangers

Gilly, 29, is an A&R assistant for EMI Records in New York. Having recently got engaged to Aldo, 37, a men's fashion buyer – whom she met online in 2009 – Gilly is saving for her dream wedding in the Hamptons. She's cut back her monthly expenditure by 20 per cent, opened a CD account and taken on extra work.

Her additional income is, in many respects, a classic twenty-first-century income booster – she works remotely from her home in Brooklyn and dictates her own hours.

But Gilly isn't in data entry or cosmetics sales.

Gilly is flirting with other men.

While fiancé Aldo cooks their dinner in the evening, Gilly drives strange men wild with flirty emails and then closes the deal with the promise of a date.

Welcome to the fascinating world of the Cyber Love Assistant, a new breed of digital writer who is bringing hope – and often love – to America's most incapable daters.

Cyber Love Assistants – the brainchild of Steve Sampson, originally from Boston, MA – hires Internet dating ghost-writers to secure dates for those with insufficient time or talent for online dating. The writers, paid at roughly $15 per message, write on behalf of men and women of all ages who are united in one thing: a chronic inability to write the language of love.

Peter, 46, from Hoboken, is the director of a multimillion-dollar software development consultancy. Widowed ten years ago by his childhood sweetheart, Peter has finally begun to seek a new partner. But, he says, ‘I just don't have it in me. I look at profiles of all of these ballsy women and have no idea what to say to them.'

Peter has a date on Friday with Lindsey, a marketing director from the West Village. Lindsey has no idea that the warm and witty emails that have persuaded her to spend Friday night with Peter have in fact been written by a faceless stranger hired by Cyber Love Assistants.

‘Of course I wish I'd written the emails myself. But I can't just sit there and let life and opportunity pass me by,' he says. ‘If I didn't farm this stage of the courtship out to someone else I'd be on my own for ever.'

Will he 'fess up to Lindsey if romance should strike up between them?

‘I don't know. It's pretty shameful to contract out your love life.'

Gilly disagrees. ‘It's a wonderful idea! The girls who I write for are really grateful!' she enthuses. ‘Why should people lose out on the chance of love just because they're not cut out for written banter?'

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