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You Had Me at Merlot by Lisa Dickenson (1)

 

‘I’ve done it!’ I paced around in my little flat in my heels, slowing my breathing. ‘Eight years after it came out, I’ve finally just perfected the “Single Ladies” dance routine.’

‘Congratulations,’ said Laurie down the phone. ‘Does that mean you haven’t left home yet?’

‘I’m not getting a boyfriend now – all this hard work’s not going to waste,’ I warned her.

‘Fine, you don’t have to get a boyfriend today, but you do have to get on the Tube and get down to Wimbledon.’

‘Are you there already?’

‘Not far. Now take off that leotard—’

How did she know?

‘—and get your smelly self into the shower.’

I put down the phone and peeled off my sweaty leotard and heels, chuffed to bits with my achievement. I hummed and danced all the way into my lovely waterfall shower in my lovely turquoise bathroom, surrounded by only beautiful-smelling girl stuff, feeling as happy as ever to be living alone. And after I stepped out, I pulled on a dress and flung open the curtains as if I hadn’t been doing anything weird.

‘Hello out there,’ I said to the brightly dressed people of Notting Hill. ‘How’s the furnace this morning?’

The Tube train shuddered to a stop, allowing another heave of bodies to clamber aboard, while two more rivulets of sweat pole-danced their way down the backs of my legs. It was pretty sexy. London hadn’t been this hot since the great fire in 1666 (possibly), and the residents were dropping like flies and grumbling all the way round the Circle line.

I like London in the heat – the more scorchio the better. I like it when tourists flock in and their preconceived idea of an England gushing with rain is carried away on a warm breeze; cloudy, bruised skies windscreen-wiped to reveal bright, royal blue.

And there’s nothing a Brit loves more than sitting out in the midday sun at the first sign of summer, which was why I was joining hundreds of people on the annual pilgrimage to Wimbledon for the start of the tennis. My friend Laurie is an event photographer, which means she gets coveted seats at amazing stuff, and as I’m the only stable other half in her life I’m often along for the ride.

I lifted the hem of my maxidress off the floor, cooling my ankles. I’d seen Paris Hilton wearing a similar maxi at Coachella this year, and thought it would be perfect for Wimbledon, but looking at my fellow passengers in their Jack Wills and Ralph Lauren I felt a bit silly in my tie-dye tent.

The doors finally dragged open at Southfields, throwing up its contents upon the platform, and I followed the crowd on the fifteen-minute walk to the famed tennis courts.

As I entered the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club Laurie flew at me, an excited bundle of cameras, bags, merchandise and messy black hair. ‘Elle! I just saw Venus Williams coming out of the toilet!’ she shouted as a greeting.

‘Are you sure? I feel like she’d have her own toilet, like in a dressing room.’

Laurie considered this. ‘Well, I took a photo, so we can check later on. If not, I have a photo of a stunning woman coming out of a toilet.’

‘What did you buy?’ Laurie’s house was chock-a-block with memorabilia from everything she goes to – she’s the only one I know who will buy up everything on the overpriced merchandise stalls at a concert, or will actually purchase the robes, flannels and soap dishes from a hotel gift shop rather than just stealing them from her room.

‘Everything. I got us T-shirts, pencils and sweat-bands,’ she said, slipping a fluffy white one on my wrist.

We made a pit stop at a strawberries stand and the bar before hauling all of Laurie’s equipment over to Centre Court and positioning ourselves on the green plastic seats, blobs of cream threatening to fall off our strawberries and land with a splat upon the head of the spectator in front, and plastic beer cups splashing foam on my flip-flopped feet. It was only when I noticed the empty seat next to us that I realised someone was missing.

‘Hang on, where’s Tim?’

‘I can’t believe I forgot to tell you!’ Laurie cried. ‘We split up.’

‘I can’t believe you forgot to tell me as well!’

‘Well … he was kind of forgettable. You just proved that yourself.’

We took a moment to mourn the loss of Tim, who was indeed forgettable, so much so that I regularly forgot his name when we were out and kept calling him m’dear.

‘What happened?’

‘I just couldn’t see myself still with him in a couple of years, let alone growing old. He was very nice and everything, a lovely guy really, and I wish I’d felt more towards him, but it was all just a bit “meh”. So I broke up with him.’

At that point the crowd shushed as the players, glistening men in crisp white shorts, took their places on opposite ends of the court. We chomped on our juicy strawberries and watched the sweating gents on either side of the net, their balls thunking back and forth, so to speak, accompanied by primal grunting, which turned my thoughts back to relationships.

‘Are you sad?’ I whispered.

‘No. Just disappointed that it didn’t work out, again.’

‘The ladies aren’t going to be happy about this setback,’ I reprimanded her. ‘The ladies’ are our group of girlfriends, brought together through university, a mismatched group of opposites who all attracted. All of them, except for Laurie and me, grew up and are now in one or more of the marriage, mortgage or baby club. And they are positively, plague-infestedly itching for us to join.

‘Tell me about it. When Tim and I met Jasmine for drinks a few weeks back she actually started suggesting ideas for our honeymoon. I just …’ Laurie trailed off and sighed heavily into her strawberries and cream. ‘I just don’t want to keep dating and never feeling like I’m actually getting close to anyone.’

‘I know,’ I soothed. I didn’t know. The thought of getting close to someone, having them move into my home, having to make joint decisions on what TV to watch and what to have for dinner, knowing that if I want to work late I should let my ‘other half’ know just all seemed like a lot of effort.

‘I don’t want to feel like I’m putting on a show,’ Laurie said a while later.

‘No.’

‘I don’t want to feel like I’m always the bridesmaid.’

‘But you’ve never been a bridesmaid. It’s actually really fun. You feel super-important.’

‘I just want to feel …’

‘What?’

‘Love.’

‘—LOVE!’ boomed the umpire down on the court.

‘Leave me alone!’ Laurie cried back, then hid behind her camera as about twenty people turned to shush us.

We settled back to watch the game, neon-yellow balls whizzing across the blue sky and getting thwacked back where they came from with a grunt. I was itching to give my attention back to Laurie, worried she was sat there suffering in silence, and eventually there was a break in play and the stands broke into excited chatter.

‘I’m over internet dating, you know,’ said Laurie, turning to me, her tongue wedged into the bottom of her bowl, licking the cream.

‘Really? You’re taking a break from men, joining me as a happily single lady?’

‘Hell no, I’m just going to do things the old-fashioned way, and meet someone face to face.’

‘Well that sounds sensible. Are you going to join a new gym or something?’

‘No, no, we’re not going to do that …’ Laurie smirked at me with her I’ve had an idea face. ‘I’ve had an idea. And it’s a really, really good idea that I really, really want you to join me on. I think we deserve a holiday.’

‘Ooo yes! I love holidays. It’s been too long. Where shall we go? Cancún? Greece? Thailand again?’ I raised my eyebrows at her.

‘Well actually I’ve already chosen the holiday, but I think you’ll love it.’

‘Oh.’

‘Hold this.’ Laurie handed me her empty, saliva-covered strawberry dish and reached down between her legs to her handbag. After some unladylike struggling she picked up her beer and gulped the remainder, handing me the empty cup as well. She then yanked out a thin, glossy brochure and placed it on her lap, laying her hands over it. On the cover, between her fingers, I saw a large, sparkling glass of wine with a sun-drenched background of a vineyard. Interesting – I do like wine and sunshine.

The crowd cheered and Laurie lifted her hands to clap, as if she knew what was going on, and my eyes caught the title of the brochure.

‘“You Had Me at Merlot” Holidays,’ I read. ‘What kind of a holiday is this?’

‘It’s a vineyard holiday, in Italy.’

‘That sounds nice. A little red, a little white, a little siesta in the sun.’

‘A little smoochy smoochy with some full-bodied men?’

‘What?’

‘Nothing, I mean, except it’s, like, a group trip.’

‘Like a tour?’

‘No, more like a get-to-know-you holiday, where you do activities with other people …’

I watched one of the players pour a bottle of water over himself at the side of the court, much to the swooning of one of the women in the Royal Box. ‘So you have to mingle with the other guests?’

‘It’s kind of an essential.’

‘But what kind of a— Is this a singles’ holiday?’ I hissed.

‘Yes, but I really want to go, and I really want you to come with me.’

‘No way.’

‘Please, Elle. It’ll be so much fun.’

‘I really don’t want to do this.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because … You Had Me at Merlot? It just sounds incredibly cringey.’ I took the brochure from her. ‘It’s going to be all greasy Casanovas and titillating drinking games.’ But, flipping through the pages, I saw pictures of sunrises over medieval villages, rolling vine-covered hills, delicious Italian platters and zero bondage-masked men or booze buses.

‘You’re always saying how much you loooove being single, so why wouldn’t you love a singles’ holiday?’

‘Because the whole point of a singles’ holiday is to meet potential partners!’

‘I guess—’

‘Or is it just to have a romp in the sunshine?’

‘No, the first one. Well, maybe a bit of the second. But this isn’t an eighteen-to-thirty holiday, Elle, it’s a really classy affair. Just like you.’ She prodded my sweaty arm and gave me a look that told me she already knew I’d agree.

‘I can’t leave work.’

‘Yes you can. You haven’t taken any holiday yet this year.’

‘Can’t we go to Cancún?’

‘Next year, I promise.’

I sighed. ‘What would I have to do on this holiday? Is there anything to occupy me while you’re off sampling the … selection.’

‘There’s loads to do.’ She opened the brochure at a page that showed a smiling middle-aged couple leaning against a row of Vespas, the immense terracotta frontage of Bella Notte vineyard rising behind them. ‘You can pick grapes, you can go for walks, you can borrow a Vespa and explore the area. Or you can just taste-test all the wines and fall asleep in the sunshine.’

My friend is annoying. It’s like she has a built-in algorithm that targets my weak points and knows exactly what to hard-sell them with. And the thought of sleep and sun and endless wine had me considering her proposal. In a way, you could say she had me at ‘Merlot’. Dear God, what was I getting myself into?

It was late the following week and the office was having an early-closing day due to a need for fumigation following a fruit-fly invasion (thanks to some over-zealous juice dieters in Accounts). I was meeting the ladies – Jasmine, Helen, Emma and Laurie – for drinks by the water in Greenwich, and the ice was already melting in the first round by the time our final femme, Marie, arrived with squidgy little baby Daisy.

‘It is so hot; my nipples will not stop lactating.’

I put down my White Russian.

‘They lactate when you’re hot? Is that even a thing? What about the women who live in countries like Tunisia?’ asked Laurie, holding her beer bottle to her hot forehead.

‘I think my body’s just trying to find any possible way to cool me down. I actually had to stand in the paddling pool at midday yesterday because they were just flowing like Timotei waterfalls.’ She stared at my cocktail. ‘I want your alcohol.’

‘By all means.’ I slid the milky drink across the table.

‘No!’ Jasmine smacked my hand with a you don’t know ANYTHING about being a new mum glare. ‘You’re doing so well; not long now.’

‘I just want some wine, just four big glasses of wine.’ She grappled around for her orange juice, unable to see the table thanks to her ginormous breasts. ‘Gah – these things are ridiculous!’

‘I think your boobs look amazing,’ said Laurie jealously.

‘You’ll have them soon; Tim is going to baby you up in no time.’

I grabbed the White Russian back again. Here we go.

‘No, Tim and I split up.’

There was a chorus of ‘Oh-no’s and all four heads tilted to the right. ‘Why?’ demanded Jasmine, personally offended. ‘He was The One.’

‘No he wasn’t,’ I said. ‘She wasn’t that into him.’

‘But I thought you were going to get married.’

‘We really hadn’t been together very long.’

‘He would have made a great dad, though,’ Emma sighed, and the others nodded in sorrow.

‘It’s okay, because Elle and I have a new plan.’ Laurie shuffled in her handbag and pulled out the brochure. ‘We’re going on a singles’ holiday.’

Squeals of delight.

‘A posh singles’ holiday,’ I clarified. ‘To a vineyard in Tuscany, to do wine tasting and suchlike.’

‘The company’s called You Had Me at Merlot!’ said Laurie with pride. The ladies sniggered.

‘Can I have a little less cheese with that wine?’ asked Jasmine, and Marie guffawed so hard she started spouting again and had to hand Daisy over to Emma.

‘The vineyard itself is called Bella Notte.’ I was aware I was bristling, which was ridiculous, as I’d had exactly the same thoughts. But hearing them bash my first holiday in for ever smarted.

‘That’s pretty,’ said Marie. ‘I envisage you both gazing at the stars, mambo Italiano-ing with signors, utterly happy-drunk on wine. Are you gonna snog someone?’ Her eyes glazed over as she transported herself into our heady, single world.

‘I am.’ Laurie put her hand up.

‘Really? With tongues?’ Helen breathed.

‘Who doesn’t use tongues? Isn’t that standard? Do people kiss differently these days?’ asked Jasmine, turning to us for answers.

‘I’m not kissing anyone,’ I said.

You have to.’ Helen slammed her wine on the table. ‘I mean, wouldn’t it be rude not to on a singles’ holiday? What else will you have to do?’

‘I don’t think it’s a tally-sheet, notches-on-the-bedpost type of singles’ holiday. I think it’s probably going to be older single people, not your eighteen-to-thirty crowd. We might be the youngest there.’

‘Older men can be very hot,’ said Helen, she of the younger husband. ‘Think of George Clooney.’

‘Hold on,’ said Emma. ‘George Clooney lives in Italy, and he’s often single, and he’s older – maybe he’ll be there.’

‘He’s so going to be there!’ cried Helen. ‘You’re going to marry George Clooney!’

‘Nope, George is hitched now. But even if he wasn’t, although I’d be willing to have a summer fling if he wanted one, I don’t think either Laurie or I are going to be getting married off the back of one holiday.’

‘There’s something about holidays though – being in a new place and not having to do dishes—’

‘And drinking carafe after carafe of wine,’ added Marie.

‘—it just puts you in the mood for romance. Brian proposed to me after five too many Bahama Mamas in Barbados.’

‘Ellie proposed to me at the bottom of Snowdon,’ said Emma.

‘At the bottom?’

‘We couldn’t be bothered to climb it, when it came down to it. But we were still on holiday. My friend Claudia’s taking Nick to New Zealand next week; they’re bound to come back engaged.’

‘But these are all established relationships. I have no plans to walk down the aisle any time soon.’ Jasmine and Marie exchanged raised eyebrows, which irked me even more. I know myself better than they know me, and why did they think I could only be happy if I was like them? I wasn’t single because no one loved me, nor because I surely must give out too many desperate vibes, nor because I won’t find a man unless I stop looking, and no (Dad), not because I’m a lesbian. It’s because I like my life, I like being able to come home to my own flat and be by myself and learn dance routines, and I’ve chosen to be single. And I was getting pretty fed up with having to justify myself to everyone. Of course, that little speech didn’t come out as planned, and instead I grumbled like a sullen teenager: ‘I’m not swapping my life for anyone else’s idea of my Mr Perfect. So there.’

‘I’m just glad I don’t have to go on singles’ holidays any more,’ sighed Jasmine.

‘It’s not that we have to, we want to.’ Laurie grinned, opening the brochure to a page with a large photograph of a girl riding on the back of a Vespa, sunglasses reflecting the Italian sunshine. ‘How could you not want to go here?’

‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘Sometimes it’s nice to go on holidays without kids and couples all over the place.’

‘Talking about kids’ holidays,’ said Jasmine, ‘does anyone know where I can buy good, organic travel nappies? As you might have seen on Facebook, Max used his potty for the first time last night, and it was just the most adorable thing ever, but we’re going …’

I’m a horrible friend, but I faded out. I looked beyond the ladies to the baroque white architecture of the Old Royal Naval College and wondered if I’d ever fancy going back to university. Or joining the navy. Then I thought about the YouTube clip of the cat dressed as a shark, rolling around someone’s house on a Roomba. That is the most adorable thing ever, surely? I just don’t think a child weeing into a bowl compares.

The week before my holiday, work seemed even busier than usual, if that were possible. There were a million loose ends I wanted to tie up, and a million more ‘little things’ people wanted me to do for them before I left. I hated saying I couldn’t do something, so I always said yes. But tears tickled the backs of my eyes sometimes. Not coping wasn’t an option.

I’m one of three marketing managers at a PR agency in the City, and I’d been at work since seven fifteen that Thursday morning. By two thirty I needed to stretch my legs, having only gone as far as the loos and the coffee machine since I arrived. I decided to go and wander about by Donna.

Donna is our managing director, and kind of my idol, though I’ve never said more than a ‘Hello’ and a ‘Yes, I love working here’ and an ‘Actually, it’s Elle’ to her. But she’s a woman – the only woman – near the top of the company, and one day I want to be up there near her, so I need to make myself known.

I smoothed my hair, grabbed a ringbinder (no idea what was inside) and headed downstairs to her floor with a plan to pass her office.

Here’s how I was hoping it would go:

I stride past Donna’s office, confident and professional, and she looks up.

‘Elle?’

‘Oh hi,’ I say, going in. ‘How’s your daughter?’

‘She’s great, thanks for asking. I’ve been meaning to run something by you. You’re in this for the long haul, right?’

‘Absolutely, I’m not going anywhere.’

‘That’s fantastic. You have such an admirable work ethic. I’ve noticed the extra hours you put in, the passion you show for the company, your drive to achieve results. Oh, and everyone absolutely loves you. There’s a position opening up that you’d be perfect for. It’s very high up and important, and you’d have your own office and a company credit card and a six-figure salary, and people will add you to their LinkedIn accounts.’

‘Donna, how nice of you to think of me! I’d love to!’

Here’s what actually happened:

I walked past her office five times; eventually Donna got up and closed the door. I had a mild panic attack that she’d think I was useless if I had enough time on my hands to be wandering about all day, and decided to put in an extra couple of hours before home-time this evening.

Ah well, I’ll try the same routine tomorrow.

The rest of the day flew by in the usual blur of conference calls, marketing plans, PowerPoints and problems until my stomach let out a large growl and I glanced at the clock in the corner of my screen, which read 19:25. I looked up and there was no one else on my floor. No one at all.

Turning my chair, I used my feet to drag it and myself to the window, where I leant my forehead against the glass and gazed down at the street below. Colleagues and suited strangers spilled out of the bars and restaurants, enjoying the warm evening air that I couldn’t feel now the sun had dropped below the building opposite, and the lack of life made the air-con seem all the colder.

Why did I try so much, when those people seemed to be actually having all the fun?

I decided I’d leave early for a change, and treat myself to dinner out, somewhere in the last of the sun. I rolled my chair back to my desk and went to shut down my computer when an email came through from Donna. I replied instantly, unashamedly hoping for brownie points, and then sat back and waited.

I waited fifteen minutes, just in case a message pinged back, commending me for still being at my desk, but nothing. And then the cleaner switched out the light and I was forgotten, invisible.

For a moment I just sat there, staring at the pod after pod of empty desks, which looked eerily dead in only the shaded light from outside the tinted windows. I was important to this company, wasn’t I? I was needed, an asset. I was one of their best workers. Maybe they didn’t always notice when I was here, but I was sure they’d notice next week when I wasn’t here. Wouldn’t they?

Fine, I’d bloody go home then. I’d be back in less than twelve hours anyway.

The following day I was indeed back at work, my last day before my holiday, and I was slouched in the boardroom with fifteen other people, waiting for a meeting to begin.

I wondered how soon this meeting could be finished with, so I could get back to the never-ending to-do list upstairs.

Then I wondered if Dan from Accounts knew how much he looked like Anneka Rice.

Damn it, my new work shirt was gaping open at the boobs again.

As the clock ticked around to ten past the time the meeting was supposed to start, I let out a ginormous sigh with an accidental audible ‘Uuurrrggghhhhhhh.’

‘Bet you can’t wait to get out of here and start your holiday,’ murmured Kath, one of my executives, who was sitting next to me, polishing off her third tepid coffee.

‘There’s just something so annoying about us all waiting for one person when we’re all busy. Who are we even waiting for?’

‘Chill out, think of all the gelato you’ll be eating this time next week.’

My team knew I was going to Italy, but no more than that. I really didn’t need them on my case about my single status too. Or, worse, asking me when I got back if I’d met anyone ‘nice’. ‘Will you be okay while I’m gone? Are you happy with everything that needs to be done on the Lush Hair account?’

‘Of course, just go and have fun and stop being such a worry-arse.’

The door opened and in strode Donna, and immediately I pulled myself up, tugged my shirt closed and nearly toppled off my chair trying to look like the most professional person in the room. There was something about Donna which always made me feel I should be on my best behaviour.

‘Morning all, let’s begin,’ she said, no nonsense. The meeting started and I tried my hardest to look interested, confident, to ask insightful questions, which I only fudged once when I said, ‘And did you want the full title, Prime Minister Boris Johnson?’

‘No, Ellen,’ said Donna, ‘let’s go with Mayor Boris Johnson.’

‘That’s what I meant – ha ha ha, silly me – oh, and it’s Elle, just so …’ My voice was swallowed up by Dan starting his Excel presentation.

Kath leaned over to me. ‘Don’t worry, I get them mixed up all the time. Just remember this: Mayor Mayor blondie hair.’

I’d decided to take a quick trip down to the Devon seaside to visit my parents and eat a cream tea before my Tuesday-morning flight to Italy. Although the holiday was only for ten days, last year I got into trouble for not taking all of my holiday allowance, so I took two full weeks this time. I was already on edge, thinking they’d realise they got on fine without me, didn’t need me at all and I’d be fired before I could say arrivederci.

So, late at night on the Friday, when I finally left the office, I leapt on the train to Exeter where my mum picked me up and drove me home, putting me to snoozeville in my teenage bedroom, complete with purple walls, a blow-up chair and a big faded poster of Craig McLachlan that I won’t let her take down.

I woke up to seagulls thumping on the roof, squawking loudly about the appalling lack of chips at six in the morning, and our cat, Breakaway, standing all four heavy paws on my stomach as if to say You see how much my feet sink into you? LOSE WEIGHT.

Mum was already up, because whereas I can’t start my day without a handful of crisps and checking my work emails before I’ve taken off my PJs, she can’t start the day without a walk along the seafront. I had a cheeky dip into a tube of Pringles and scuttled off to join her.

The sea was calm, but a cool breeze was hanging out with the clouds that had scattered themselves over the pink skies.

‘Cold, isn’t it?’ I yawned, curling my arm around Mum’s.

‘These clouds’ll blow away by lunchtime, I’m sure. It never rains down here, in the Fiji of England. I expect it’ll be lovely and warm in Italy, won’t it?’

‘I hope so. My aim is to leave Laurie to it and just lie back in the sunshine with some vino, and eat every scrap of Italiano food that passes by.’

‘It sounds blissful. I love Italy; I could eat antipasti for every meal of the day.’

‘Then you should! Yolo, Mum.’

‘Yellow?’

‘Yolo. It means “you only live once”.’

‘So if I was at a funeral I’d say, “Well … yolo”?’

‘Probably not – it’s more of live-for-the-moment saying. Not a ha-ha-you’re-dead saying. It’s what us hashtag-cool-kids say.’

‘Are you drunk now?’

‘No, hashtagging is … never mind. Yes, antipasto is delizioso.’

‘Did you know my first holiday with a boy was to Italy?’

‘Urgh, a boy that wasn’t Dad?’

Mum threw her head back and laughed. Is there anything better in the world than someone laughing? Seeing that spontaneous burst of joy take over their face, and knowing that it’s the most wonderfully infectious disease in the world? ‘I’m afraid so! He took me there with the intention of proposing to me at the Trevi Fountain, but just as he was about to do it I looked down at my strawberry gelato and realised I loved that more than I loved him, and that was the end of that.’

‘Blimey, Mum, you heart-breaker.’

‘We’d only been together a couple of months. I think his mummy was just wanting him to find a bride.’

‘You’ve never been to Tuscany, have you? With or without potential dads from the past?’

‘No, but it looks absolutely beautiful. One day I’d like to go for a month or two, and just paint pictures and—’

‘Eat antipasti?’

‘Eat antipasti.’

‘I wish you could come on this holiday with me.’

‘I’m not sure a singles’ holiday’s quite up my street. Plus it would be a bit mean to your dad.’

‘It’s not up my street either.’

We stopped to lean over the railing and watch the rolling waves, the wind blowing our hair about. Half-asleep dog walkers and early-risers with metal detectors were the only others out at this time.

Mum put her arm around me and I shuffled closer. ‘Just don’t be closed off, sweetheart. There’s more to life than work.’

‘Antipasti?’

‘You know what I mean. It won’t do you any harm to experience some of the other lovely things in life. Hashtag yolo.’

Late that afternoon Mum was making a cake, so I was poised at the breakfast bar with a spoon ready to eat the raw mixture. I watched her tip a pan full of melted butter and golden syrup in with the flour, sugar and eggs, and then furiously beat them together while I leant in closer and closer.

Sweet, warm, spicy smells filled the kitchen and I couldn’t resist any longer, plopping my finger straight into the batter and causing her to gently thwack my hand with her wooden spoon.

‘Mmmm, Mum, you should be a professional cake baker. A caker.’

‘I think the Food Standards Agency might have a problem with all the sticky fingers that keep going into my bakes.’

I grinned and prodded my finger back in and out, quick as lightning. ‘It’s your own fault for making such yummy things.’

‘This is a very easy cake.’ She shook in some ginger powder. ‘Do you want the recipe to take back with you?’

‘I don’t really ever have time to bake.’

‘Maybe you should try leaving the office at a normal time at least once a week. I feel like we only ever speak when you’re making the commute home in the middle of the night.’

‘It’s not the middle of the night.’ I stuck the spoon in this time. The mixture was so delicious; all buttery and smooth. ‘I never stay past nine. Besides, when I’m marketing director I’ll probably just swan in and out when I please, and won’t have to do any work at all.’ Actually, that wasn’t true. My boss, the current marketing director, was always busy, always tired-looking. ‘Maybe when I’m CEO.’

To my utter heartbreak, Mum poured the mixture into the cake tin and I watched it being led away to its oven of death. Then she started making buttercream icing. Score! Spoon and I were poised.

‘How is everything with your job? Is it all going well?’ Mum looked at me closely.

‘Yeah, it’s brilliant. I really like my position, I really like the company …’

‘But?’

‘But nothing.’ Mum shuffled about with the scales while she waited. ‘It’s just … I’m kind of ready for them to give me a bloomin’ promotion already!’ I chuckled and stole a blob of icing.

‘You do seem to give them an awful lot of blood, sweat and tears.’

‘Yeah, and it’s tiring, but my manager does seem to be pretty happy with me so it’s all helping the goal in the end.’

‘The goal to run the world?’

‘Yep.’

‘Okay. Well, as long as you’re happy. Remember they don’t own you. You’re always on about not wanting a boyfriend to mess up your “you” time, so don’t let a job either.’

‘Yes, Mum.’ We both knew that was going in one ear and straight out the other. ‘How’s everything with you? How’s the abbey?’ Mum volunteered several times a week at a National Trust property.

She lit up. ‘It’s just marvellous. I’m outdoors all day, with the trees and plants. A school group came in last week and all the little children were giving the ducks individual names; it was the sweetest thing.’

‘That sounds so nice. Not regretting retirement yet, then?’

‘Not even a tiny bit. I get to organise my own time, go where I want when I want, have cream teas left, right and centre, and bake a cake in the middle of the day. How jealous are you?’

‘Feel free to come up to London and bake cakes in the middle of the day at my house.’

‘Will you come home from work early?’

‘Will you leave me some bowl to lick?’

‘Deal.’

At that point, Dad ambled in, Breakaway in his arms, both nosing about for a snack. ‘What are you two hatching?’

‘Mum’s coming up to London to be my personal chef.’

‘Why don’t you just come and live back down here, then she can be chef to both of us?’ Dad was always trying to lure me back from the grip of London. He regularly sent me links to stories on the BBC News website about crime in the capital, or Tube strikes, or even weather forecasts when it looked bad.

I tried to give him and Breakaway a hug, but the cat leapt from his arms and legged it under the table. Dad slung an arm around me and poked a finger into the mixing bowl. ‘Mmm. What shall we have for dinner?’

Mum dusted off her hands. ‘Elle, you decide. What would you like?’

‘Would you like fish and chips?’ asked Dad with hope.

‘Would you like fish and chips, Dad?’

‘I would quite like fish and chips. I’ll pay.’

‘Crikey!’ said Mum, whipping off her apron. ‘Quick, Elle!’

Mum and I did a frantic dash about the house, grabbing handbags, shoes, glasses, the cat, putting the cat back down, turning the oven down low. It wasn’t often Dad’s wallet opened and the moths were allowed to fly out, so we had to grab this opportunity before it snapped shut again for another hundred years.

Monday came too quickly, and though I was excited about Italy I was always sad to leave home. I bid farewell to Craig McLachlan and took my weekend bag downstairs. Mum and Dad waited by the door, Breakaway blocking it with a scowl.

‘Look, Breakers doesn’t want me to go!’ I sat on the floor and scooped him up. I knew he loved me. He wriggled and flailed his paws, a soft grey mess. ‘No, don’t leave me, please, I love you.’ I pushed my face into his fur and he leapt from my clutches. I looked up at my parents. ‘See, consider that a sign telling me I shouldn’t have a boyfriend.’

I struggled to my feet and Mum gave me a big, warm, lavendery hug. ‘Have a lovely time, sweetheart.’

‘Thanks, Mum, I’ll text you when I get there and I’ll bring you something back.’

‘Ooo, thank you. Just something small. I hope this rain lets up soon and there’s no problem with your flight in the morning.’

‘Hey, how bad can a British summer be?’ I chuckled at the sky.

‘Don’t let Laurie drink too much.’

‘I won’t.’

Mum pulled back and looked me in the eye. ‘Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.’

‘I won’t.’

‘Do you have the pill, or whatever?’ she whispered as Dad went off to put my bag in the car, since he was dropping me at the station.

‘Yes.’ I blushed.

‘Okay then. Remember to do whatever makes you happy. Maybe take a little time on this break to really think about what that is.’

The trouble with mums is that they are pretty much always right, which left me in limbo on how to take that advice. With a last hug, and a pang for her to come too, off I went.

When I’d first turned up at the airport I was feeling ever so Cameron Diaz. I’d copied a flight outfit I’d seen her wear, right down to the big sunglasses and trilby, despite the rather crap turn the weather had taken. But after my third cappuccino I removed both hat and sunglasses, and looked anxiously at my watch. Where the hell was Laurie?

I tried to call her again. Ring-ring, ring-ring.

She could not be ditching me to go on a stupid singles’ holiday alone, when I didn’t even want to go in the first place.

Ring-ring, ring-ring.

It went to answerphone. Again. Rain pounded against the terminal windows with ferocity, as if it were hungry zombies trying to get in and infect us all. The sky was utterly grey, and inside little red ‘cancelled’ lights peppered the departures board. It was as though someone up there was reminding us not to get too comfy in our shorts: we were still in England.

The Tube is notorious for grinding to a halt at the hint of a change in the weather – be it too much wind, too much heat, too much cold, too many leaves, too much rain. I pictured Laurie stuck halfway down the Piccadilly line in a total flap, heart pounding, and eventually having a meltdown with her fellow passengers about how she was destined never to find Mr Right and would have to marry her cousin after all.

If only I knew she was even on the Tube, and therefore on her way. Check-in would close in twenty minutes, and we were seriously cutting into our duty-free time. Would I go without her, assuming she’d be on the next flight? Or would I wait at the airport, sitting on my suitcase like a forlorn loner from a Richard Curtis movie montage?

‘Elle.’

I spun around, yet couldn’t see Laurie.

‘I’m sorry.’

Now that was definitely her voice. Had she got into some terrible accident on the way here and now her ghost was talking to me?

Psst. It’s me,’ said a figure dressed head to toe in baggy clothing, face wrapped in a scarf, with sunglasses and a pink trucker cap.

‘Laurie?’

‘Yes,’ she whimpered.

‘Why are you dressed like a member of TLC?’

You’re dressed like a member of TLC.’ She jumped to her own defence. Laurie lifted her sunglasses slightly to reveal bruised, puffy eyes.

‘What happened to you?’

‘My face went wrong.’

‘Show me.’

Laurie unravelled the scarf as slowly and tenderly as she could, and it was like watching a really awkward burlesque dance. ‘I did a Botox.’

Her face was blotchy and swollen, her lips huge and her forehead frozen solid.

There are times in your life when you shouldn’t laugh, when you don’t even want to laugh, but the very knowledge that you don’t want to laugh makes your body pull its cruellest practical joke and set you off into a hysterical giggling fit, peppered with apologies. For me, these moments include funerals, people falling over and, evidently, when my best friend has a botched Botox job.

‘I must have been allergic. Will you stop bloody laughing?’

‘I’m not laughing at your face.’ Yes I was. ‘I’m laughing at … your reaction. It’s funny that you’re so worried that it looks bad because it really doesn’t.’ Yes it does. ‘Does it hurt?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why did you get Botox? You don’t have any wrinkles.’

‘Because I wanted to look fabulous on our holiday.’

That brought a fresh peal of laughter, which I smothered with a cough and shuffled Laurie over to the check-in desk. They seemed to ask her very carefully if she had anything sharp or flammable in her hand luggage.

‘The thing is,’ Laurie was saying as we eventually got through security with little more than a pat-down and an explanation of the now-inflated face from the passport photo. ‘Celebrities have Botox all the time and they look fine.’

‘You look fine too; maybe it just needs a couple more days to relax.’

‘But we don’t have a couple of days, we’re meeting everyone tonight.’

‘Maybe being at altitude on the plane will help it. Don’t flights do something to the water inside your body and make it—’ I stopped myself as I remembered that flights make your ankles swell, not shrink.

‘I don’t want deep-vein thrombosis in my face!’

We hit the free samples at the duty-free hard, and then Laurie gently slicked some bright red lip gloss from the Elizabeth Arden counter onto her massive mouth. ‘It looks awful,’ she declared. ‘But at least it might distract from the rest of my face.’

We stocked up with three giant Toblerones and went to hang about the gate and pray to Cupid that our flight wasn’t cancelled. When they called us to board, Laurie, gutted, stuffed two pieces of chocolate in her mouth at once – she had seen any kind of delay as bonus time for her face to deflate before Italy.

Laurie curled in next to the window, hiding herself away from the other passengers as much as she could, while I sat in the middle seat with a male model on my right, which obviously meant I was going to throw up or chuck wine down myself.

‘Hello,’ I said. Let’s get the awkwardness out of the way now.

‘They’re not really going to fly this thing, are they?’ he answered, panic in his eyes.

‘I think they are.’

‘But it’s raining.’

‘Maybe it’s got a waterproof coat on.’

Mr Model didn’t know what to make of that and stared straight ahead, tugging his seat belt tighter. The wind howled and our plane started to slowly circle the airport, on the prowl for somewhere to make a dash for it, while the flight attendants showed off their life vests and synchronised signalling. Thunder crackled overhead.

The plane came to a brief stop, took a breath and then hurtled off down the runway, bumping and grinding like a nineties backing dancer before lifting off with a whoosh and an almighty wobble that left the flight attendants with rictus grins and Mr Model clutching my chiffon scarf.

Now, I might have no desire to share my lemon-yellow boudoir with anyone’s stinky man socks, but I’m not numb to the odd lusty hormone. When a total hunk is inches from my face, hands wringing my scarf and leaning against me for protection, it’s not unnatural that I’d put my arms around him, surely?

‘Shhh,’ I comforted.

‘Have you seen those clouds?’ he stage-whispered. ‘We’re about to go right in them and probably never come out.’

Underneath us, England’s soggy fields faded away as we thumped our way into the dense layer of dark grey cloud, which enveloped the plane and made me feel eerily like we might never be seen again. Turbulence shook us from side to side; the cabin remained silent, until the lights flickered off.

Holy crap! What was that? What was that?’ Mr Model yelped.

The lights came back on, and somehow he was now wearing my scarf on top of his head, gripping its flamingo-covered ends as his breathing slowed along with the turbulence. We reached our cruising altitude and I managed to prise my scarf back. At lightning speed the flight attendants served our snack lunch and then raced back to grab the teas and coffees, and finally ice lollies for everyone. It was as we were tucking into the lollies that we hit the really bad weather.

Ding went the fasten-seatbelt sign (as if anyone had unfastened), which of course meant that a woman near the front immediately had to get up for a wee.

‘Madam? Madam? Madam? You need to take your seat now, madam, because the captain’s switched on the fasten-seatbelt sign. Madam?’

‘But I need to go to the toilet.’

The plane shuddered horribly and the woman wobbled in the aisle. Mr Model was back under my scarf. ‘Why don’t you just wee in the sea once we’ve crashed?’ he cried out.

‘Madam, please take a seat right now.’

Who knows how, but Laurie, though she hadn’t left her seat, nor made eye contact with any attendant, had stocked up on miniatures and was glugging whisky.

‘London Gin or Bombay Sapphire?’ she offered. ‘The Southern Comfort’s mine.’

‘London, please, and can I take one for my hunky wet-wipe?’

I offered Mr Model the Bombay Sapphire, which he downed in one. The plane lurched again, causing gasps around the cabin. Laurie clutched my hand. Mr Model clutched my hair. He looked over and started, as if noticing Laurie for the first time. ‘Why are you wearing that?’

‘Why are you wearing that?’ she retorted.

A long, groaning rattle began, and suddenly the plane dropped several feet. My stomach heaved. I’m a good flier, but for the first time I actually felt scared. This couldn’t be it. I’d never loved anyone. Don’t let this be it.

A violent lurch to the left squashed me into Laurie, whose eyes I met through her sunglasses, her fear mirroring mine. Oxygen masks dropped from the ceiling.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention?’ yelled an attendant over the intercom. ‘Do not put the oxygen masks on – we’re not losing cabin pressure, this is just because of the panels becoming loose in the turbulence. I repeat, there is no need to put your masks on.’

I yanked the mask off Mr Model’s face as the plane rumbled on and I tried not to throw up, or cry.

‘This is YOUR fault,’ he screamed past me at Laurie.

Why?

‘Because there’s something very dodgy-looking about you! You’re dressed like a gang member!’

‘That’s right, pretty boy. My gang are out there kicking the shit out of this plane – it’s not turbulence at all. Idiot. Now, how about you apologise and we make out?’

‘No!’

‘Fine, if we die, don’t say I didn’t offer you one final moment of pleasure.’

‘We’ll shortly be making our descent into Pisa International Airport, ladies and gentlemen. We hope you enjoyed your flight with us today,’ said a shaky-voiced captain.

A bright burst of lightning illuminated the cabin, and the plane jerked away from the storm once and for all. Several rows ahead, a plentifully licked ice lolly took flight and spun back down the plane, splatting itself onto my Cameron Diaz-styled lap.

We exited the airport and entered a hot, still Italy. Laurie took a breath and leant against me. ‘Thank Vodka it’s not raining. I’m so over storms. I literally thought the Botox was going to fall right out of my face.’

I couldn’t quite talk yet, my stomach still queasy, which wasn’t helped by the thought of globules of Botox plopping out of Laurie’s nose.

‘I feel sick,’ I mumbled and grabbed a Toblerone out of my bag, stuffing a triangle into my mouth before it melted all over my hands. Laurie was watching me. ‘But sugar helps. Maybe. Well, chocolate helps anything. Want some?’

She shook her head, and then reached for it anyway. Within five minutes we’d hailed a taxi, devoured the whole Toblerone and were feeling much brighter – thoughts of turbulence, storms and that half-eaten ice lolly landing in my lap far away.

The sun was high in the sky as the taxi took us out of Pisa and into the burnt green of the Tuscan countryside. Tall, thin cypresses rushed past, and fields scattered with red roofed buildings filled the landscape. Next to me, Laurie was wincing as she dabbed Touche Éclat on the purple bruises under her eyes.

‘You know what’ll help you stop worrying?’

‘If one of the other guests is a really short-sighted hunk.’

‘A glass of wine.’

‘You know, that would help.’

The taxi turned on to a long, dusty track that curled around an olive grove, fat green olives hanging from the trees. It climbed a hill and the trees turned to row upon row of neat, but rustic vines.

‘I could just get out and eat those right now,’ I said, pointing at dusty blue grapes dangling in bunches.

‘No, don’t do that, seeds very bitter to eat,’ said the driver. I squinted against the sun and saw the shape of someone hunched over in the distance, halfway down one of the rows, a brown fuzzy blob of a dog leaping about beside them. I felt a huge need to climb out of the car and join them, pick some grapes, lie back among the vines and while away the summer.

We came to a stop outside a building that felt so Italian, so removed from everything I knew in London, that the worries and stresses I hadn’t even known were there dripped away from me like olive oil.

Before us was a large house of peach-pink stone, with a typically Tuscan red-tiled roof and burnt-red shutters. Bella Notte was carefully scribed in large, black calligraphy over the doorway, and stone steps led off from the side into the expanse of vineyard above and below. The rosy walls and emerald fields gave everything such a warm glow in the sunlight it was like I was looking through the Valencia filter on Instagram.

‘Italia …’ I breathed, smelling wine and tranquillity in the air. Laurie and I stood by the car, hot sunshine stroking our skin, crunchy pale yellow dust beneath our feet, and the sounds of birds and distant farm machinery music to our ears.

Buongiorno!’ Out of the doors leapt a man, oak-barrel aged with suntanned skin and curly brown hair. Joyful wrinkles encircled his dark eyes and a voluptuous woman with lustrous black hair and the same happy wrinkles bounded out from behind him. ‘Welcome to Bella Notte!’

He was Australian! ‘You’re Australian! I mean, hello.’

Si, I’m Sebastian, and this is my beautiful bella bella bella wife, Sofia.’

‘I’m Laurie,’ stepped forward my oddly dressed friend.

‘Lorry? Like, broom-broom?’ Sofia mimed driving and honking a horn.

‘No, more law – like a court of law – ree.’

‘Lawyer-y?’

‘Um, let’s stick to Lorry, that’s close enough.’

‘I’m Elle.’

Bella Ella: beautiful name, beautiful girl. Mamma mia, what is it about English girls? Sofia, I married the wrong nationality – it’s over between us,’ he teased.

Bene! You think I started You Had Me at Merlot Holidays to help other women find a new man?’

They smiled at each other and Sebastian grabbed my hand. ‘There you have it, bella, we have my wife’s blessing. Just two minutes here and you have found love, and we will be together for ever.’

I laughed. ‘Actually, I’m not here to find love. I’m just here for the wine. My friend’s the one ready for romance.’

Sebastian tilted his head at me. ‘You’re human, you’re always ready for romance. It’s in your genes, bella.’ Something about the way he said it made a blush creep over my face. He turned to Laurie. ‘I’m sure you’re beautiful too, Laurie, underneath all that scarf.’

‘You are not hot? Or are you saving your beauty for this evening? Keeping the men guessing,’ Sofia said.

‘I’m just a little sensitive to the sun, and I don’t have any lotion on yet. Are there many men booked in?’

‘Oh yes, we always make sure there are roughly the same number of men and women.’

‘Are the men …’

‘Yes?’

‘Tasty?’

‘Tasty?’

‘Yummy. Delicious, like good wine.’

‘Well, much like wine, there’s a different flavour to suit everyone.’

Laurie gave me a thumbs-up. I turned back to Sebastian. ‘How long have you lived in Italy?’ I asked with jealousy.

‘I came here in my early twenties, straight from my folks’ vineyard in Margaret River. Cockily thought I’d teach the Italians how it’s done. But they hit me straight with their best weapon – this one – and I surrendered. Been here ever since. You guys are from England right, guv’nor?’

‘Yep, on a very important mission from the Queen to make sure you don’t steal all our eligible bachelors.’

Sebastian guffawed. ‘Fair play, Her Maj!’

‘Ladies,’ beckoned Sofia. ‘Follow me and I’ll show you your rooms.’ Our rooms, plural? How lovely! Then a thought occurred to me: Ew, is that so we can have sex with people? Well no one’s having sex with me; joke’s on them.

Sofia led us through the large oak doors, past a communal lounge with huge wooden furniture that she called the wine-tasting room, and up a staircase completely covered in bright blue, green and red mosaic tiles.

‘If you wear heels here, hold the banister – especially after you’ve had wine. Otherwise, whoosh!’ Sofia tinkled with laughter, presumably at memories of past guests sloshed and splatted at the bottom of the stairs. We were in adjoining rooms, and Sofia left us outside with our keys, great chunky ironmongery.

‘Everything’s just lovely and rustic, isn’t it?’ I grinned happily at Laurie, and then we went into our respective rooms.

My bedroom was beautiful – wide and whitewashed, with low ceilings and big red shutters that opened out to a spectacular view across the stripes of the sun-drenched vineyard. I was leaning my head out of the window, breathing in the fresh Italian air, when I glanced sideways to see Laurie doing the same.

Ciao!’ I called.

Ciao, Bella Ella!

‘Is that going to be my name this whole trip, do you think?’

‘And back home. I think it has a lovely ring. Better than Laurie the Lorry.’

‘Broom-broom. Hey, did you see we have free wine in our rooms? Three bottles.’

‘What? Favouritism!’ Laurie ducked back inside for a moment, then popped back out. ‘Don’t panic, I found mine.’

We turned back to the view and I closed my eyes behind my sunglasses. It was nice to shut my eyes for a reason other than just because it was finally bedtime. After a while I found enough energy to open my mouth again. ‘Can we just forget London and move out here and own a vineyard and live happily ever after?’

‘That escalated quickly, considering you didn’t even want to meet anyone on this holiday.’

‘I’m not saying we have to find men; why don’t we do it? Me and you.’

‘Okay, darling,’ said Laurie, basking in the sunshine. ‘But I think if I made wine I’d drink all the stock.’

‘Maybe you could take stunning photos of gorgeous Tuscan scenery and sell them for thousands of pounds, and I’ll make the wine.’

‘I think you’d drink the stock too.’

‘But how happy we would be … My tummy is growling, I hope there’s food at the meet-and-greet tonight.’

‘Urgh, don’t remind me,’ groaned Laurie.

‘How am I more excited about this than you?’

‘Because my face is massive.’

There was no arguing with that. I leant my head against the window frame and considered having a nap standing up.

Laurie ruined my peace and quiet by shouting, ‘Do you want to stop ruining the peace and quiet with our shouting, and come to my room and get one of these bottles open?’

‘I’ll be right there.’ I discarded my flip-flops and pulled my hair back into a high ponytail. I never wear my hair up at home. It was nice being out of London, not caring about having perfect tresses or fancy shoes.

I padded barefoot down the hall, past a large mural of fat purple grapes, and walked straight into Laurie’s nearly identical room. She was standing in the cool of the inside, in front of the mirror, her sunglasses and scarf finally discarded.

She turned to me, and for the first time I saw the full extent of her pains: big bruised bags under her eyes, a bumpy forehead, swollen cheeks and red blotches down her neck. She looked so sad. ‘My face hurts.’

‘I know,’ I soothed, giving her a gentle hug. She let out a huge, shaky sigh.

‘I’m such an idiot.’

‘No, you’re not; you didn’t know this would happen.’

‘I just wanted to look amazing, like a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, and then have an amazing holiday.’

‘This’ll pass in no time; we’ll still have an amazing time.’

‘But now I’m going to be known here as “the girl with the botched Botox”, and everyone will think I’m some shallow princess who does this kind of thing all the time, and I don’t, I just—’ She sobbed, and tried to squeeze her eyes closed. I grabbed the bottle of white wine from the ice-filled cooler and held the cold glass up to her face. Laurie tried to steady her breathing, leaning her hot cheeks against the bottle. But she was too far gone, and with a sharp intake of Italian air choked out a sob. ‘I’m just tired of being lonely.’

‘Oh, Laurie.’ My heart broke for her. ‘This is nothing. We’ll fix your face up and no one will even notice. And don’t you realise you’re always one of the most stunning women in the room? Not just because of your bloody lovely face, but because you’re like human sunshine.’

‘Then why doesn’t anyone love me enough to marry me and start a family with me?’

‘But lots of men want to, they just haven’t been the right ones, and you’ve broken up with them.’

‘I’m so stupid.’

‘No, that’s not what I meant. This is just the beginning of our “start a family” era – there’s plenty of time. I know some of our friends are already there, but don’t you think the grass is always greener? You want to be in their position, with love and security and babies, and they want to be in yours, with freedom and less responsibility.’

‘Please just help me make the most of this holiday, Elle. I don’t know where to go after here.’

‘Okay, I will be your wing-woman. This won’t be a wasted trip. Well’ – I smiled, picking up the white wine and pouring two large glasses – ‘maybe a little wasted. Now come on, the meet-and-greet is in two hours, so let’s sort out your face. Come with me.’

I grabbed the wine cooler and marched into the ensuite bathroom, dumping all of the ice into the bidet. ‘Put your face in there.’

‘In the bidet?’

‘Yes.’

‘Um …’

‘Put your face in the bidet.’

Laurie knelt on the floor and timidly pushed her face into the pile of ice.

‘Hang on, let’s add some water.’ I nudged her aside and we watched silently as the upward-facing hose spurted a cool fountain of water over the ice. We tried not to think where that water usually went. When a mini ice bath had been created, Laurie dunked her face back in. I sat on the toilet (with the seat down, we’re not that close) while she repeated the face-dunking several times and admired the bathroom. A large roll-top freestanding bath with cast iron feet sat under a window offering a panoramic of the vineyard, and opposite was a vanity table with soft lighting and scented candles. The walls were light peach, with vines hand-painted along the tops.

After a while, Laurie looked up at me between dunks. ‘This does feel good, you’re a genius. Just please don’t tell anyone here I did this. I don’t want to be the botched-Botox-bidet-facial girl.’

‘Of course I won’t.’ I sipped my wine. Oh my, it was delicious. I’m not a big fan of white wine – I think it often tastes like sick – but with one sip I realised I’d just been drinking the wrong kind. This one was icy cool and nearly transparent, with just a honey-gold hue. It had a tiny dash of sweetness and – perhaps this was also influenced by my view of a vineyard and being in Italy – it immediately made me want to eat a large plate of pasta, al fresco, and clink my glass with a lovely man. Now, where did that come from?

At that moment Laurie came up for air again and asked, ‘Do you ever feel lonely?’

‘No,’ I said, not meaning for a hint of defensiveness to come out. But Laurie was baring her soul for me, even putting her face in a bottom-cleaner for me, so she deserved a more rounded answer. ‘I mean, I’ve never been in love. Maybe I just don’t know what I’m missing, but when I think about meeting someone and having to move in together and share space, not being able to decorate exactly how I want, or watch what I want on TV, that freaks me out a bit. And I’m busy all the time anyway, with work.’

‘You’re always busy with work.’

‘It’s going to pay off in the long run: I’m doing well there.’

‘But you’re never lonely?’

Was I lonely? No, I was fine. I had plenty of time to meet someone when I’m done having ‘me’ time, if that’s even what I want to happen. I can’t be the only thirty-year-old out there who doesn’t know what they want to do with their life.

‘Well … I have a double bed which I only ever sleep on one side of. And sometimes I stand in the doorways of my house just looking into the room and wishing I had someone to talk to. So yeah, I guess I get lonely too.’ I took another big gulp of wine; we didn’t need me starting waterworks too. Laurie put a soggy hand on my knee.

‘What a great conversation to start ten days in Italia. Shall we try to get out of this funk and find a way to fix my face? That should provide some laughs.’

‘I have an idea. How tender is your skin? Can you put make-up on?’

‘Yeah, that’ll be fine, though we might use up all our make-up with one application, since my face is the size of a beach ball.’

‘Okay, back in a mo.’ I stepped out of Laurie’s door and turned to head down the corridor back to my room when I smacked nose-first into a rather hard chest. Oof. I looked up at a tall man with dark hair and familiar dark eyes. He steadied me with his hands on my arms.

‘Hello,’ he said. ‘Ciao, hola, konnichiwa, g’day.’

‘Hello,’ I laughed.

‘Hello.’

‘Hello. I’m so sorry – scusi.’

‘It’s okay, are you hurt?’ He smiled at me, concerned yet amused, speaking in English but with a local accent. He reached up to touch my face at the exact moment I glanced down to check my boobs hadn’t leapt out of my dress and my nose got another thwack. ‘Oh, I’m sorry!’ He cupped my face in horror, and my eyes trailed his bare forearms and the neck of his crumpled pale blue shirt. ‘Benvenuti in Italia, please don’t sue me.’ He gave me a melting grin, like a schoolboy who’d been caught eating your Mini Eggs.

‘I’m fine, completely fine. Did my nose hurt your, um, chest?’

‘No.’

‘Or your hand?’

‘These old things? No, they’re quite … how do you say it …?’

‘Manly?’ Idiot.

‘I was going to say drawable.’

‘Drawable? Well yes, I guess they are.’

‘You know, they are tough from working hard.’

‘Oh, durable!’

‘Durable – gah! But thank you for saying they’re manly.’ He dropped his hands from my face and we stepped back from one another.

‘You’re welcome.’ Um. ‘Are you—’

‘Can I—’ he started at the same time. We chuckled and paused.

‘I’m—’

‘Did—’ The old chuckle and pause repeated itself.

‘Well, I must dash,’ I said formally, as if I was some kind of lady-in-waiting. Then followed the excruciating awkward dance, where you shuffle from side to side to pass the other person, always moving to the same direction they’re moving to. Eventually I yelped ‘Bye’ and raced past, my head ducked, and into my room. Well that was strange. Obviously I’m just feeling a bit fluttery because of our conversation and the wine, I’m not that easily won over, You Had Me at Merlot.

I grabbed my make-up bag and my iPad, but before leaving my room stopped to look at myself in the mirror. Loose dress, hair up, flushed cheeks – I looked kind of pretty. I looked carefree. Which was strange for me, because usually I think I look a little frazzled. Maybe I really did need this holiday, and maybe I should keep a bit more of an open mind.

‘You’re so drunk,’ I scolded myself.

Back in Laurie’s room I laid the entire contents of both of our make-up bags out on the writing table by the window. I then scrolled through YouTube.

‘My idea is this: one of the things I like to do as a happy singleton is experiment with YouTube beauty tutorials for hours on end, and I’ve seen one on contouring. I think I could do this on your face using your darker foundation and concealer and my lighter ones. I think it’ll make a huge difference to the appearance of the puffiness and will add your cheekbones back in. Look.’ I showed her before and after images of a pretty girl whose face had been transformed by some simple contouring tricks with make-up.

‘Let’s do it,’ said Laurie, leaning back in her chair. ‘Let me know if you need me to put down my wine.’

I started the video tutorial, and using Laurie’s concealer stick started to draw lines on her cheeks, nose and forehead. She winced a little, but was very brave. I then scribbled my lighter concealer under her eyes and at the top of her cheeks, between her brows and down the centre of her nose.

‘Finished!’ I said, and Laurie opened her eyes in surprise.

‘How do I look?’

‘Perfect.’

Laurie tottered to the bathroom and giggled. ‘I’ve never looked better. It’s like I’m going into a very girly war.’

She resumed her position and I picked up her foundation brush to start blending all the stripes together. ‘How are you feeling now?’

‘Better, thank you. Can I just marry you instead?’

‘Sure.’

‘I’m a little nervous about the meet-and-greet. Are you?’

‘A bit. I don’t really like talking to new people.’

‘Ah-ha! That’s why you’re single.’

I laughed. ‘Maybe you’re right – it’s a deep, psychological fear, and it’s a lot easier to just watch the Twilight movies over and over again and pretend Jacob Black is my boyfriend. You know what’s good about this holiday, though?’

‘The wine?’

‘Yes, but unlike when you go on a date with someone at work, or a friend of a friend, no one knows us here.’

‘You’re right! We can be whoever we want!’

‘Remember, you want someone to know you afterwards, so best not to lie and say you’re Victoria Beckham’s sister or anything. But you can be whatever version of you you want to present.’

‘That’s true. No one needs to know that I think my stomach is too big or that I pick my toenails.’

‘I don’t have to talk about work, which is what I talk about almost all day every day, unless it’s the weekend or if I’m on the phone to Mum when I get home late.’

‘No one needs to know that I’m jealous of people with babies.’

‘Or that I pee with my bathroom door open so I don’t miss any of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.’

‘But hang on, isn’t this hiding the real us?’

‘Not at all, I’m not saying we keep it secret, I’m just saying it’s going to be nice that we’re starting with a clean slate and can get to know people at our own pace. Well, you can.’

‘As can you. Don’t be closed off.’

I smiled, but didn’t answer. Wasn’t that the advice of the moment? First Mum, now Laurie. I’d never thought of myself as closed off – quite the opposite. Without a partner or babies I was always willing to socialise and to be the one who travelled about to visit others. When I had time and wasn’t working, of course. I finished blending and stepped back to admire my work. Not bad. Laurie definitely looked like a woman who liked to wear a lot of make-up, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and you couldn’t see any blotchiness or swelling now, and the darkness under her eyes was almost entirely gone – you wouldn’t even notice in low evening light.

Laurie looked at herself in the mirror for a long time, tilting her head this way and that. I sat back, my face to the sun, and let out the most enormous sigh.

‘Are you okay?’

‘I was just thinking about how far away from the office I am now.’

‘You’re not missing work are you?’

‘Not at all. I mean, you know I love it – I love all the craziness and business, I love knowing I’m getting better and better at something and that I’m respected, I love knowing I’m building a career, but my oh my, it’s nice to step away.’

‘That’s the spirit!’

‘I think I could sit on the veranda looking at the view for the whole holiday and be perfectly content.’

‘You’re going to join in with all the activities though, aren’t you?’

‘Absolutely, I’m going to do everything. I just mean it’s a refreshing feeling not having to be “on” or “professional” or having anyone watching my every move. And I don’t think I realised I needed refreshing until I got here.’

We sat side by side, reclining in the sunshine, for some time, eyes closed and listening to the silence. Eventually, I put down my empty glass and stood up. ‘We’ve had some very third-glass-of-wine conversations already this holiday, and we’re only on our first one. I’m going to leave you to get dressed now and I’ll come back and get you just before the meet-and-greet. Don’t go down without me.’

Laurie stood and wrapped me in a hug, tilting her work-of-art face away from mine. ‘Thanks, Elle, you’re brilliant.’

‘No problem, it’s nice to play make-up artist on someone else’s face for a change.’

‘But thanks also for coming to Tuscany with me. I know it wouldn’t have been your first choice.’

‘You’re my first choice, you big weirdo.’

‘Love you too.’

I left her room with a smile and dawdled in the corridor for a while, looking up and down at the doors. I wondered which room that man was in … I walked slowly, in the hope of another encounter, but then I realised the doors had spy holes and became paranoid that everyone was peering at me and thinking I was a pervert, so I scampered inside my room.

I wasn’t dressing to impress that evening (no I wasn’t, I told the part of my brain that immediately thought of yummy hallway man) but it was still baking at six o’clock, and because of that I was putting on a dress. Just a floaty turquoise number that was a little less travel-crumpled and sweat-smelling than the one I’d been wearing since leaving the UK. Very casual. And the thirty minutes I took pulling my hair back, taking it down, pulling it back, teasing out tendrils – that was all so I looked super-casual as well.

I knocked on Laurie’s door and was greeted by a bombshell. She’d done her eye make-up with dramatic smokiness, which balanced out the heavy face paint quite well. Her hair was in big, loose waves and her maxidress was violet ombré, the colour of unpicked grapes, with a plunging neckline.

‘Okay, I’ve tried all the wines,’ she said, grabbing my hand and pulling me inside. ‘And I think I’m now just merry enough to be an absolute charmball at the meet-and-greet. Do I look like an extra from Dallas?’

‘Do you … want to look like an extra from Dallas?’ I asked carefully, not sure of the right answer.

‘No. I’m going for fabulous, exotic, intriguing English rose.’

‘Then you look perfect.’

‘Thank you! You look stunning too; how are you so naturally delish? You look like you should be in an Abercrombie and Fitch advert.’

I laughed. She really was a bit tipsy. We linked arms and headed down towards the wine-tasting room, which was where the do was taking place. As we reached the bottom of the stairs faint chatter got louder, indicating the party was already beginning to grow. Laurie stopped me to take a breath and then, head held high, plunged us around the corner.

Everyone turned to look when we entered – not because we were the most beautiful creatures to grace the room with our presence but because, if we’re honest, everyone wanted to see everyone as quickly as possible to see if they should be on their radar. Although conversations didn’t stop I felt exposed, like when I have to give a presentation at work. The women, who on first glance ranged from a couple of girls in their mid-twenties through to a rosy-cheeked grey-haired lady, smiled and nodded as we caught their eyes. We saw each of them casting a quick eye over us, like opponents in battle, looking for our weaknesses and our flaws. But there was also a sense of stoic camaraderie. The men (I’d say mid-thirties and up) looked surprisingly bashful. I’d been expecting bravado and cockiness – maybe that would come later – because right now they all seemed amusingly out of their depth.

My mistake: the bravado and cockiness had just been sucked out of the room and into one man, who marched straight up to me, all chinos and tan, crinkled his eyes and said, ‘Missy, missy, missy – what a dress!’ He grabbed my hand and tried to twirl me, but I’ve never been twirled before and didn’t know what he was doing so our arms just went up in the air and bent awkwardly before we dropped them.

Laurie handed me a glass of red that she’d acquired from somewhere, and with a wink waltzed off.

‘Hello,’ I said to the man. He was looking me up and down and nodding.

‘You are beautiful. Badabing, badaboom!’

I can be pretty in good lighting, and I have an okay body, and okay hair, but let’s not pretend I’m ‘badabing, badaboom’ material. This man’s falseness was already putting me off. But he was trying to be nice, and I’d made nice with annoying corporate weirdos at work before, so I could handle this ageing Lothario.

‘Thank you. Where are you from?’

‘The Sunshine State – Florida, USA. Have you ever been?’

‘Not really. I’ve connected flights in Miami and I’ve done some East Coast but never got as far down as Florida to do it properly. I’d love to go.’

‘Oh, it’s beautiful, you’d fit right in.’ He was smooth. ‘That settles it then. Let’s end this holiday here and you come back with me. I don’t need to meet any other girls now I’ve seen you, baby.’

‘You don’t know anything about me yet. I might be a total psychopath.’

‘So might I.’

‘Well that wouldn’t surprise me all that much.’

‘You gotta take risks in life, baby.’ He tried to hold my hand again but I grabbed a passing appetiser, which turned out to be such a delicious mini bruschetta, with sweet, olive oil-soaked sun-blushed tomatoes and fresh basil leaves, that I nearly believed You Had Me at Merlot’s claim to be able to make people fall in love. Me + bruschetta 4EVA.

Oh yes, the American. ‘Let’s just move past the “baby” thing to begin with; would you like to know my name?’

‘Your name, your number, your breakfast of choice …’

‘Oh my God.’

‘I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I’m George; what do you go by?’

‘This is Bella Ella!’ cried Sebastian, appearing behind me and topping up my wine from a dark, dust-covered bottle that I imagined had sat in the Bella Notte wine cellar for years, ageing to perfection.

‘It’s actually Elle,’ I told George, before he also limpeted on to the nickname. I turned to Sebastian, thankful for the distraction. ‘This place is beautiful, I love the bedrooms.’

‘That’s good to hear. All decorated by my son.’

‘Your son?’

‘Yep, it’s a proper family business. Excuse me, Bella, I’d better just get the intros started.’ He walked to the centre of the room and tapped the side of his glass. A hush fell over everyone, and Sofia appeared in the doorway and danced her way over, slotting in under his arm like they were two parts of a puzzle.

‘Welcome, everyone,’ he grinned, ‘to Bella Notte vineyard, and your You Had Me at Merlot vacation. Everyone ready for romance?’ There were some awkward titters and one ‘woo-hoooo’ from one of the younger girls. Sebastian continued, ‘Glad to hear it. Now, the whole point of these holidays is for you to relax, drink some great wine – if we do say so ourselves – get to know some like-minded people and to open your hearts. For most of you I expect this’ll be your first vineyard stay, and for that reason we hope the setting, the activities and the booze will loosen you up and help new experiences become shared experiences. Bloody hell, that should have gone in the brochure.’ Sofia smiled up at him. ‘We think it’s too easy to get bogged down in real life, and work, and the closed little circle of people you meet up with to moan about work. And that’s why we wanted to bring people together in this beautiful slice of the Chianti countryside, to have some bloody fun!’

‘Stop saying “bloody”,’ scolded Sofia.

‘My potty-mouthed wife here is the one to blame for the activities she’s going to make you do over the next ten days. I’ll hand you over to her.’

‘Hello, everyone.’ Sofia’s beautiful face showed little sign of age, and though she was quieter than Sebastian one immediately warmed to her. I wanted to walk over and squeeze her, but that might have been the wine. ‘We have lots of fun things planned for the next ten days, but also lots of free time for you to spend on your own, or getting to know people. There are plenty of walks near by, and you are welcome to roam free around the vineyard. The building near the gate has a range of Vespas you may borrow, and our son Jamie can give you a lesson if needs be. We’ll put on cold breakfast and lunch buffets every day – you can come and go as you please – and a nightly dinner. Tomorrow morning we’ll all take a walking tour of the vineyard and cellars, and I’ll tell you a little more of what you’ll be drinking while you’re here, then we’ll have a wine tasting in the afternoon.’

There were murmurs of appreciation, and across the room Laurie caught my eye and raised her glass.

‘But it has a difference,’ said Sofia. The wine tasting will be blindfolded.’

This caused giggles, but all I could think was I’m not standing anywhere near George with a blindfold on.

‘Every night at dinner we’ll give you the plan for the next day, and you can decide if you want to take part or not. The things we have planned are romantic and sultry and heady and we hope to create many happy couples.’

‘Oh yeah!’ cried George, looking directly at me.

Sebastian boomed with laughter. ‘Steady there, Sofia love, these lot have already sloshed half the wine in their rooms – they won’t need much encouragement from you. Shall we go around, and everyone can say their name and a little about themselves?’

Communal groan.

George stepped forward, full on confidence. ‘I’m George, I’m from Florida, USA, and I came here because I wanted to know what European women were really like. And boy oh boy, am I impressed so far!’

The twenty-somethings linked arms and stepped into the middle next, giggling and conferring in hushed Bristolian accents.

‘I’m Vicky.’

‘And I’m Jane.’

‘And we’re here because we love wine.’

‘And we hate English boys.’

‘They’re all so stupid.’

‘And they all go on eighteen-to-thirty holidays to Ibiza, so we didn’t want to go there.’

‘And I like older men.’

‘And I like continental men. Is that the right word? Continental?’

‘Yeah, like continental breakfast.’

‘Cool.’

They scuttled off, and the older woman came into the centre of the room. ‘I’m Bridget, and I’m from Scotland, and I just wanted some sunshine where everyone wasn’t already couples, or there weren’t children around. I just want to talk to people when I go on holiday.’

She and I were going to be friends.

A shy-looking man of about our age went next. I noticed Laurie snap to attention, as if she’d spotted him across the room but hadn’t had a chance to meet him yet and was curious who he was. I liked her like this: hopeful, energetic, optimistic.

Buonasera, I’m Marco.’ He did a little bow and then looked embarrassed. ‘I am actually a journalist for a travel magazine here in Italy and my editor wanted to do a piece on these, um, singles’ holidays. I won’t write about any of you, don’t worry. But also, I am single, and I don’t want to be any more, so I put my hand up and said, “Pick me, pick me!”’

Laurie was melting, utterly ready to pick Marco. She swooped in to the centre after him.

‘Hi, everyone, pleasure to meet you. I’m Laurie, and I’m here with my gorgeous best friend Elle, and back in London I’m an event photographer.’ She caught Marco’s eye and grinned, forming a media-types bond with him. ‘And I’m here because I’ve tried all sorts of dating – I’ve tried them all – and I’m just tired of it and ready to be finally swept off my feet.’

I was impressed – that was surprisingly honest. It was nice to feel you could be somewhere where you could actually lay your cards out and say what you wanted, rather than have to act cool.

‘I mean,’ continued Laurie, ‘I don’t mean to sound like I’ve been out with millions of guys, I’m not a lady of the night or anything HAHAHA – Elle, your turn.’

‘Okay. Um, I’m Elle, I’m also from the UK, of course …’ What to say, what to say? I nearly explained my job, but I stopped – I didn’t want to think about work. I didn’t want anyone to ask me about work. ‘I’m actually more here for the wine and the sunshine, and because I’ve never been to Italy before.’ I crinkled my nose and began to back out of the circle.

‘But she is single,’ declared Sebastian with a grin.

‘Yes I am, but I’m okay with that right now.’

When I got back to the edge of the circle, Sebastian leaned over and whispered in my ear, ‘I need to talk to you at the end. I’ve had the most fantastic idea.’

One by one, the remaining people went up and introduced themselves, while the rest of us watched, nodded, smiled, laughed and grazed on crostini and pâté, and tiny Italian chocolates. There were probably twenty to thirty of us altogether, which must mean the bedrooms spilt away from the main house and into the outbuildings that dotted the vineyard.

Where was my man?

My man! What a cheek! First of all, we didn’t even know each other’s names, and second of all I am not here to find a man.

There, that was me told off.

The group broke up, and immediately the atmosphere relaxed, people moving around to get to know those they thought sounded interesting a little better. I was about to make a beeline for Bridget when Sebastian jumped in front of me.

‘Bella Ella.’

‘Sebastian. Thank you for saving me from George earlier.’

‘No problem. You just tell me to back off if you change your mind about him and don’t want saving.’

‘Ha ha, unlikely.’

‘I don’t know; I didn’t believe his “I want to see what European chicks are like” act. I think something else made him make the decision to come here.’ He leant in close. ‘And I’m going to find out. But first, I’ve been thinking about you and what you said. And I don’t think these men are right for you.’

‘You don’t?’ Good.

‘Well, they’re all looking for romance, but you’re not.’

‘Nope.’

‘You’re happily single.’

‘Yep.’

‘Miss Independent.’

‘That’s me.’

‘So if you won’t have them, and you won’t have me, I think you need to be introduced to someone else who claims to be happily single and seems to find being in love such a chore. My son.’

‘How’s that going to help anything?’

‘Because you’re both so bloody-minded that maybe stars will collide against your thick heads – JAMIE!

And then my man – I mean the man – from the hallway slunk around the corner from the kitchen, glaring at his dad, wearing the same blue shirt and with a tea towel thrown over his shoulder. The other women turned like they’d heard a bang and gave him lusty stares, which he seemed to edge away from. I couldn’t keep the smile from my face, and when he saw me his scowl finally changed to a smile.

‘Hello again,’ he said.

‘Hellumunum.’ I’m not sure what I replied with.

‘You’ve met?’ asked Sebastian.

‘Briefly, in the hallway,’ said Jamie. ‘How’s your nose?’

‘Fine, thank you. How’s your hand and your, um …’ I waved at his pecs.

‘Look at this, you guys are like a house on fire.’ Sebastian took the tea towel from Jamie’s shoulder and ushered us closer together.

‘Dad.’ A slight blush tinted his olive skin.

‘Relax – she’s not here for romance. She doesn’t want you, she’s being wing-woman to her friend. You can both be grumps together.’ His eyes twinkled at me – dark eyes that were the same as his son’s – and off he scampered.

Jamie wasn’t here to try to find a girlfriend. It dawned on me that this was a good thing. Talking to anyone else would always feel laced with an agenda, whereas neither of us had one. Though my heart had protested with a little flap when Sebastian had told Jamie I didn’t want him.

‘I will try and introduce myself without causing you an injury. I’m Jamie,’ he said, in his light accent.

‘I’m Elle.’

‘Ahh, the “Bella Ella” my dad’s been talking about.’

‘Your dad is lovely, but kind of embarrassing!’ What had he been saying about me?

Jamie laughed and held up his hands. ‘You are preaching to the chair, sister.’ I smothered a chuckle. No one likes to be corrected all the time. And at the risk of sounding like a patronising idiot, his little mistakes were just a smidge attractive.

‘Listen, I’m sorry about earlier, with the corridor and the bashing.’ I placed my hand on his warm, hard chest briefly – just to demonstrate – and my heart lurched with a bloody hell, you fancy him! ‘It’s so quiet here you forget there are even other people around. I should watch where I’m going. No more zooming out of doors like I’m queen of the castle!’ I babbled.

‘It’s okay, I really didn’t mind. I shouldn’t really have been wandering about in the guest corridor anyway, I just remembered a bit of paintwork that had become chipped and was checking to see if it was very noticeable.’

‘Your dad said you decorated all the rooms; does that include the murals in the bathrooms and the corridors?’

‘Yep, do you like them?’

‘Yeah, they’re gorgeous, you’re like Michelangelo.’ And I was like a teenager swooning over a boyband member. But he looked really, genuinely pleased – maybe the guests are normally too enamoured with each other to notice his artwork – so I saw no harm in throwing a few compliments. ‘So you work here?’

‘Yes. Bella Notte will always be a family business. And while those two are matchmaking, I’m getting on with the wine.’

‘Ah, the important bit.’

He broke out into the biggest grin. ‘I think so. I can’t wait for you to try more of the selection.’

‘It was you I saw down in the vineyard when our taxi arrived earlier?’

‘Yes, that would have been me. I like your voice, where are you from?’

I like your face. ‘I live in London, have you been?’

‘No. One day.’

‘Well it’s amazing, but it’s also crowded and fumy and no one quite has the time to just relax. Being here is like being in a different world.’

‘Dad said you weren’t here for romance. You came on a singles’ holiday but you’re not single?’

‘No, I am single, really, really single. I’ve been single for years. It’s gone too far now, I don’t need someone coming in and learning all about my nasty habits, like—’ No, please shut up. ‘And how about you?’

‘No, no girlfriend.’

‘I guess you must have a lot of women to choose from working here.’ He shot me a strange look, sort of weariness mixed with confusion. Well, I did just basically call him an opportunistic man-whore. Stupid Elle. ‘Not to suggest—’

‘No, I don’t actually have all that much to do with the guests. You won’t see me very much.’ He ran his hand through his hair, and I felt mighty jealous of that hand. ‘I have to go. Good luck while you’re here, I hope you get whatever you want out of it. It was really nice meeting you.’

He touched my arm lightly as he left and I wasn’t sure what had happened. I was convinced we’d had a connection, but he suddenly seemed sad. Hmm.

I wandered back over towards Laurie, feeling a little unsure of myself, but not really in the mood to meet anyone else that night and just wanting Jamie to come back so we could chat some more. But he was long gone down the dark corridor and probably back to his room, where he’d change into loose cotton pyjamas and no top, and lie on his bed alone, staring out through his open bedroom window at the stars, wondering what I was doing and whether I too had gone to bed to look at the stars …

‘Elle! Gentlemen, this is Elle.’ Laurie pulled me in close to her and glanced around the room. I could tell she was itching to find Marco before someone else got their claws into him. I was pulled out of my strange, very un-Elle-like fantasy. My aim was now to nod and smile and listen to Laurie and the two suitors who were clamouring for her attention, and big her up at opportune moments with vast quantities of ‘Laurie’s an expert this,’ and ‘Laurie is the best person to talk to about that.’ ‘Elle, this is Pierre and Jon. I was just telling them about my exhibition at the Portrait Gallery last year.’

I spluttered into my wine and she widened her eyes at me. The not-actually-lying plan was evidently out the window, then.

‘You say Victoria Beckham bought one of your photos?’ asked Pierre, entranced. Laurie side-eyed me.

‘Yes she did,’ I jumped in. ‘Well you know Vic – Spice Girls, Girl Power, et cetera. She’s very supportive of strong females and their work.’ The men were nodding with respect, and Laurie squeezed my hand.

All of a sudden the tranquillity, polite chatter and gentle sounds of teeth clanking against wine glasses were interrupted by a car skidding to a stop outside, and the door slamming.

A woman’s piercing voice shattered the air as she hurled a slew of abuse at the driver, who was reeling off apologies in Italian.

‘I told you the flight was delayed, I called ahead, I did everything to make sure I could get off that awful plane and immediately be brought here. It was a shambles. A shambles. An hour and a half I was waiting at the airport.’

‘I think you said Florence airport, not Pisa.’

I knew which airport I was flying into. Do you have any idea what I’ve been through? Have you ever travelled in a storm? Have you ever thought you were going to die a horrible death in the middle of the sea, if lightning doesn’t get you first in a cataclysmic fireball? And then – then – you drive like a maniac and nearly kill us both. Why don’t you look both ways? Why did you want me dead? Because I’m a strong woman?’

‘No – no – mi dispiace, signora.’

‘I just want to go to my room and have a bath, is that too much to ask? Why’s it so dark out here? Could you not install a light? Why does it smell all musty? HOW DO I OPEN THIS BASTARD DOOR?’

There was thunderous rattling; Sofia’s hostess instinct suddenly kicked in and she ran to open it. In burst a woman, hair like rats’ tails, cheeks as red as Merlot, tights torn and a bitter snarl on her face. She was beyond the stage of needing a stiff drink – she looked like if she was given one she’d hurl it into the poor bugger’s face.

Bueno-shitting-sera everybody,’ she screeched. ‘Your dream date has arrived!’

And with that, my break from work, my peace and quiet, my relaxation and not having to put on a show was poured down the sink. Because stood before me was the woman in charge of my future, my managing director, Donna.

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