Authors: Eleanor Prescott
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Contemporary
Life’s more exciting when you let yourself be surprised
First published in Great Britain in 2012 by
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
Copyright © 2012 Eleanor Prescott
The moral right of Eleanor Prescott to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
eBook ISBN 978 0 85738 715 8
Print ISBN 978 0 85738 714 1
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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For Nigel, without whom …
‘Where are all the men?’ Kate whispered as she clutched her orange juice and looked nervously around the room. She tried to stop the disappointment reaching her face.
‘In the pub with the normal human beings,’ Lou snorted loudly. Despite already having a full glass of wine in one hand, Lou lunged at the circulating drinks tray and liberated another. ‘Jesus, Kate, what the hell are we doing here?’
Kate was beginning to wonder. It had seemed such a good idea on paper. But now that she was here, in the overheated function room of the Holly Bush Hotel, she wasn’t so sure.
‘I’m all for doing things for a laugh, but this is beyond a joke,’ Lou observed harshly. ‘They’re freaks, the lot of them!’
‘Shhh! . . . You promised to be nice!’ Kate frantically tried to quieten her. She tried to look on the bright side; after all, she hadn’t expected to actually find a man
. ‘They’re just people,’ she reasoned lightly. ‘Just like us. We’re all in the same boat.’
‘We’re absolutely not in the same boat,’ Lou insisted.
‘We’re luxury yacht kind of girls, Kate: speedboats, catamarans. This lot look like they’re on a menopausal cruise ship with a broken rudder. Christ, it’s no bloody wonder they can’t get laid. Look at the state of
Lou was pointing at one of the room’s few men. Kate hadn’t noticed him before. Tiny and fifty-something, he was clutching his wine like it was the last float on the
. He was totally beige; even his skin was the colour of porridge. His only distinguishing feature was a thin veneer of perspiration on his upper lip. As Kate looked, he turned and held eye contact just long enough to show he’d overheard. Kate’s heart leapt into her mouth and her cheeks tingled with shame. She quickly ushered Lou away into a corner of the room. She should’ve known bringing her would be a bad idea. But these were desperate times, and desperate times called for desperate measures.
As Lou busied herself with draining her glasses of wine, and the discreet tap on the shoulder and polite request that they should leave didn’t materialize, Kate allowed herself to relax into some form of normality again. She ventured another look around the room. What kind of people came to a talk on ‘The Secret to Finding Mr/Miss Right’ anyway? She studied the groups of heads huddling around the nibbles table. Mainly they were late thirty-, early forty-something professional-looking heads, adorned with discreet highlights and the occasional expensive autumn-coloured tint. Then there were the exhausted on-the-point-of-giving-up heads, hair brushed that morning and then forgotten about, at best tucked behind ears or pulled into
lumpy ponytails. And finally there was the hairdo brigade: the grittily determined, heavily lipsticked fifty-ups, with barnets carved from Elnett. Dotted amongst the sea of hair, a couple of shiny bald spots bobbed under the strip lighting, boosting the room’s quota of men to a meagre handful. And steaming through the middle of it all, a red-cheeked woman with a halo of frizzy orange hair was loudly instructing everyone to visit the little boys’ and girls’ rooms ‘toot suite’, because the talk would be starting in five minutes.
Kate’s eyes followed a few apologetic backs as they scuttled to the door in search of the loo. She gazed into the corridor beyond. What did they all look like to the outside world, she wondered? Would a passer-by be able to tell that everyone in the room was incapable of pulling? Was a telltale smell of sexual desperation seeping out, giving their secret away?
‘We’ve got to face facts, Lou,’ she declared matter-of-factly, although she wasn’t sure whether she was trying to rouse her friend or herself. ‘This is the level we’re at. There’s got to be a reason why we never have boyfriends; it can’t all be down to bad luck. Maybe we’re intimidating to approach; maybe we’re giving off the wrong signals, or looking in the wrong places. Whatever, just like him’ – she discreetly inclined her orange juice towards the beige man – ‘there’s something we’re not doing right, and we need to find out what.’
‘Speak for yourself,’ Lou replied drily. ‘I’m only here for the free booze. And if Twinkletoes over there really
level, there isn’t enough booze in the world. I’ll be settling for an intimate acquaintance with my right hand for the rest of my life, and considering it a lucky escape.’
On the other side of the room, Alice hugged her cardigan around her and looked happily at the gaggle of anxiously expectant faces. She loved coming to Audrey’s talks and was always the first (and only) member of staff to volunteer to help out. She’d arrive early to set up the room, unstacking the chairs, pouring the wine and checking that Audrey’s lighting was kind and that her microphone was working. And then she’d open up the packets of biscuits and miniature sausage rolls, and lay out the brochures before greeting every member of the audience with a hello and a smile. She’d reassure them over their worries and give soothing answers to their uptight questions. Despite the regular orders barked in her direction by Audrey – and the fact that she’d never hand back the function room key before ten – Alice always went home with a spring in her step and a giddy, fluttering feeling in her tummy that was a bit like being drunk but a million times better. This was the kind of night she lived for; it was the kind of night that changed everything.
‘The lavatories are in the lobby,’ Audrey chivvied loudly. ‘Chop-chop; you’ve got the rest of your lives to chatter. The talk will be starting at 7.30 prompt. Cupid won’t wait for stragglers.’
Alice’s smile wavered for a moment, but then her mind deliciously drifted. How many faces from tonight’s throng would she see again, she wondered? How many would make
it to the office next week? A lot, she hoped; as many as the books could take without bursting. She suddenly imagined the audience as a queue, starting at her desk, continuing out through the office front door and snaking the whole way around the block: a laughing, chattering ribbon of love-hopefuls, all waiting to be matched with their perfect other halves. Who knew: maybe romance might even blossom whilst they were waiting in line!
As she daydreamed, the melee of people hovering between the nibbles table and the exit shifted, and Alice suddenly caught a glimpse of two young women standing apart in the corner. One was striking, dark-haired and seemed to be drinking two glasses of wine at once, but it was the other woman who caught Alice’s eye. Shorter and softer-looking than her friend, she was dressed in a smart skirt-suit and heels. But her sophisticated clothes were at odds with the expression on her face. Beneath the shiny hair and blunt, obedient fringe, her smile was clenched. Alice knew that smile. She’d seen it many times before, and at least one person always wore it on nights like tonight. Translated, it said
Be positive; breathe deeply; look relaxed
. It was a smile of jumbled-up hope, disappointment and a desperate determination to see things through.