NINETEEN

IF ONLY I KNEW what time I was being surprised.

It’s eight o’clock the following morning, and I’m dressed and made up and all ready. In the end I went for a pink wrap dress and suede boots. Plus I had my nails done last night, and bought some flowers and tidied the flat up a bit.

Best of all, I rooted through all my old boxes of stuff till I found this gorgeous card I once bought in New York. It has a little crib on it, with tiny presents dotted around — and glittery writing saying: Thanks for Throwing Me a Surprise Baby Shower, Friends! I knew I’d have a need for it one day.

I also found a somber gray one saying, Sorry to Hear of Your Business Troubles, but I ripped that one up. Stupid card.

I haven’t heard anything from Dave Sharpness yet. And I haven’t mentioned it to Luke, even though I’m bursting to. I don’t want to raise his hopes until I know I have the evidence.

Luke’s in the kitchen, drinking a strong black coffee before he leaves for work. I wander in and watch him for a moment. His jawline is tense and he’s stirring sugar into his espresso cup. He does that only when he needs a five-thousand-volt boost of energy.

He notices me and gestures to the bar seat opposite. I heave myself up and rest my elbows on the granite.

“Becky…we need to talk.”

“You’re doing the right thing,” I say at once. “You know you are.”

Luke nods. “You know, I already feel free. They were oppressing me. They were oppressing the whole company.”

“Exactly! You don’t need them, Luke! You don’t need to run around after some arrogant, think-they-own-the-world company….”

Luke lifts a hand. “It’s not as simple as that. There’s something I need to tell you.” He pauses, stirring his coffee round and round, his face intent. “Arcodas haven’t paid us.”

“What?” I stare at him, uncomprehending. “You mean…at all?”

“Once, right at the beginning. But nothing since. They owe us…well, a lot.”

“But they can’t not pay you! People have to pay their bills! I mean, it’s against the—”

I break off, reddening. I’ve just remembered a few store card bills stuffed into my dressing table drawer, which I might not totally have paid yet.

But that’s different. I’m not a huge multinational company, am I?

“They’re notorious for this. We’ve been chasing them, threatening them….” Luke rubs his brow. “While we were still doing business, we were confident we’d get the money. Now, we may have to sue.”

“Well then, sue!” I say defiantly. “They won’t get away with it!”

“But in the meantime…” Luke lifts his cup, then puts it down again. “Becky, to be honest, things aren’t great. We expanded fast. Too fast, in hindsight. I have leases to pay, salaries to pay…we’re hemorrhaging money. Until we manage to get back on our feet again, cash flow is going to be an issue.”

“Right.” I gulp. Hemorrhaging money. That’s about the worst expression I’ve ever heard. I have a sudden horrible vision of money pouring out of a great hole, day after day.

“We’ll need to borrow more than I thought to buy the house.” Luke winces and takes a gulp of coffee. “It may delay things by a few weeks. I’ll call the agent today. I should be able to square it with everyone.”

He drains his cup and I notice a deep stress groove running between his brows which wasn’t there before. Bastards. They gave that to him.

“You still did the right thing, Luke.” I grab his hand and hold it tight. “And if it means losing a bit of money, well…so what?”

Just wait. Just you wait, Iain bloody Wheeler.

On impulse I get down off my stool, go round to Luke’s side of the counter, and put my arms around him as best as I can. The baby’s so huge it doesn’t really have room to jump around anymore, but it’s still squirming every now and then.

Hey, baby, I telegraph it silently. Don’t come out till I’ve had my baby shower, will you?

I read the other day that a lot of mothers experience a genuine communication with their unborn babies, so I’m trying to send it the odd little message of encouragement.

Tomorrow would be fine. Maybe lunchtime?

If you make it out in less than six hours, I’ll give you a prize!

“I should have listened to you, Becky.” Luke’s wry voice takes me by surprise. “You were the one protesting against Arcodas in the first place. And you never liked Iain.”

“Loathed him.” I nod.

No, I’m not telling you what the prize is. Wait and see.

There’s a ring at the buzzer and he lifts the receiver. “Hi, bring it up.” To me he says, “It’s a package.”

I stiffen. “A courier package?”

“Uh-huh.” He shrugs his coat on. “Are you expecting something?”

“Kind of.” I swallow. “Luke…you might want to see this package. It could be important.”

“It’s not more bed linen, is it?” Luke doesn’t look enthusiastic.

“No! It’s not bed linen! It’s—” I break off as the doorbell rings. “You’ll see.” I hurry into the hall.

“Package for you. Please sign here,” mumbles the courier as I open the door. I scribble on his electronic pad, grab the Jiffy bag, and turn to see Luke coming into the hall.

“Luke, I have something pretty major here.” I clear my throat. “Something which could…change things. And you need to be open-minded about where I got it….”

“Shouldn’t you give that to Jess?” Luke is squinting at the Jiffy bag.

“Jess?” I follow his gaze and for the first time see Miss Jessica Bertram typed on the label.

I feel a plunge of disappointment. It isn’t from Dave Sharpness after all, it’s some stupid thing for Jess.

“How come Jess is getting parcels delivered here?” I say, unable to hide my frustration. “She doesn’t live here!”

“Who knows?” Luke shrugs. “Sweetheart, I need to get going.” He runs his eyes over my swollen stomach. “But I’ll have my mobile on, and my pager…. If there are any signs at all…”

“I’ll call.” I nod, turning the Jiffy bag over in my fingers. “So, what am I supposed to do with this?”

“You can give it to Jess—” Luke stops himself. “Sometime. Whenever you see her next.”

Hang on a minute. The overcasual way he said that…

“Luke, you know, don’t you?” I exclaim.

“Know what?” His mouth twitches suspiciously as he picks up his briefcase.

“You know! About the…you know!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Luke looks as though he wants to laugh. “By the way, Becky, on a completely unrelated matter…could you possibly be in at around eleven this morning? We’re expecting the gas man.”

“No, we’re not!” I point at him, half-accusing, half-giggling. “You’re setting me up!”

“Have a wonderful time.” Luke kisses me, and then he’s out the door and I’m left alone.

I linger in the hall for a bit, just looking at the door. I almost wish I’d gone in with Luke today, to show moral support. He looks so stressed. And now he’s got to face all his staff. And his finance people.

Hemorrhaging money. My stomach gives a nasty flip. No. Stop it. Don’t think about it.

There’s still two hours to go before eleven, so I put on a Harry Potter DVD to distract myself, and open a box of chocolate snowmen, just because it’s the festive season. It’s got to the bit where Harry sees his dead parents in the mirror, and I’m reaching for a tissue, when I happen to glance out the window — and see Suze. She’s standing in front of our building, in the little car park next to the landscaped garden, and she’s looking straight up at the window.

Immediately I duck down out of view. I hope she didn’t spot me.

After a few moments I cautiously raise my head again and she’s still standing there. Only she’s been joined by Jess! In slight excitement I glance at my watch. Ten forty. Not long now!

The only thing is, they both seem quite perturbed. Suze is gesturing with a frown, and Jess is nodding. They must have a problem. I wonder what it is. And I can’t even help.

As I’m watching, Suze gets out her phone. She dials, and as the phone in the flat rings, I jump guiltily and move away from the window.

OK. Act casual. I take a deep breath, then lift the receiver.

“Oh, hi, Suze!” I say, in my most natural manner. “How are you doing? You’re probably in Hampshire on your horse or somewhere.”

“How did you know it was me?” says Suze suspiciously.

Shit.

“We’ve got…Caller ID,” I fib. “So, how are you?”

“I’m great!” says Suze, sounding totally stilted. “Actually, Bex, I was just reading this article about pregnant women, and it said you should go for a twenty-minute walk every day for health. So I was thinking maybe you should go on one. Like…now. Just round the block.”

She wants to get me out of the way! Right. What I’ll do is play along but not make it look too obvious.

“A twenty-minute walk,” I say in thoughtful tones. “That sounds like a good idea. Maybe I will.”

“Not any more than twenty minutes,” Suze adds hurriedly. “Just twenty minutes exactly.”

“OK!” I say. “I’ll go right now.”

“Cool!” Suze sounds relieved. “Er…see you…sometime!”

“See you!”

I hurry to the hall, put on my coat, and head downstairs in the lift. When I step outside, Suze and Jess have disappeared. They must be hiding!

Trying to look just like any normal pregnant woman having a twenty-minute walk, I head toward the gates, my eyes swiveling from left to right.

Oh my God, I just saw Suze behind that car! And there’s Jess crouching behind the low wall!

I can’t let them know I can see them. I can’t giggle. Keeping my composure, I reach the gates — and spot a familiar spring of curly brown hair behind a rhododendron bush.

No. I don’t believe it. Is that Mum?

I get past the gates and burst into laughter, muffling the sound with my hands. I hurry along the pavement, find a bench in the next street, and flick through Heat magazine, which I hid inside my coat so Suze wouldn’t see. Then, on the dot of twenty minutes, I get up and turn my steps back toward home.

As I walk through the gates again there’s no sign of anyone. I let myself in and take the lift to the top floor, feeling bubbles of anticipation. I head to our apartment, put my key in the lock, and turn.

“Surprise!” A chorus of voices greets me as I swing the door back wide. And the weird thing is, even though I was expecting it, I feel a genuine shock to see so many friendly faces clustered together. Suze, Jess, Mum, Janice, Danny…and is that Kelly?

“Wow!” I drop Heat without even meaning to. “What on earth—”

“It’s your shower!” Suze is glowing pink with pleasure. “Surprise! We fooled you! Come in, have a glass of Buck’s Fizz….”

She ushers me into the sitting room, and I can’t believe the transformation. There are pink and blue helium balloons everywhere, and a huge cake sitting on a silver stand, and a pile of presents, and bottles of champagne on ice….

“This is just…” My voice suddenly wobbles. “It’s just…”

“Don’t cry, Bex!” says Suze.

“Have a drink, love!” Mum thrusts a glass into my hand.

“I knew we shouldn’t surprise her!” Janice looks alarmed. “I said it would be too much of a shock for her system!”

“Surprised to see me?” Kelly has bounded up to me, her face shining with excitement and Stila shimmer makeup.

“Kelly!” I fling my drink-free arm around her. I met Kelly in Cumbria, when I was looking for Jess. I was only just pregnant then, and didn’t even know it yet. It seems years ago now.

“Were you really surprised, Bex?” Suze looks at me, her face full of suppressed glee.

“Totally!”

And it’s true. OK, I knew it was happening. But I had no idea anyone would make so much effort! Every time I look around, I notice something else, like the silver “baby” confetti sprinkled over the table, or the little booties hanging from all the pictures….

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” says Danny, taking a swig of champagne. “OK, everyone, line up, unbutton your jackets, on the count of three…”

I watch, bemused, as they scramble into place, like some kind of motley chorus line.

“One…two…three!”

Everyone, from Mum to Jess to Kelly, flings open their jackets. And underneath they’re all wearing matching Danny Kovitz Tshirts, just like the one he designed for The Look. Except the picture is of a little doll-like pregnant girl. And underneath is the slogan:

SHE’S a YuMMY MuMMY and WE LOVE HER

I can’t speak.

“She’s overwhelmed!” Mum comes bustling up. “Take a seat, love. Have a snack.” She thrusts a platter of tiny Chinese duck pancakes at me. “Waitrose’s own brand. They’re very good!”

“Open your presents,” instructs Suze, clapping her hands. “Then we’ve got party games. Hey, everyone sit down, Bex is going to open her presents….” She heaves all the gift-wrapped parcels into a pile in front of me, then tinkles a fork in her glass. “Now, I have a little speech to make about the presents. Attention!”

Everyone turns expectantly toward Suze and she makes a little bow.

“Thank you! Now, when I was planning this baby shower, I asked Jess what she thought we should buy Becky. And Jess said, ‘There’s nothing left, she’s bought all of London already.’”

There’s the hugest roar of laughter around the room, and I feel my cheeks turn beet-red. OK, maybe I did go a tad overboard. But the point is I had to. I mean, I’ll be far too busy to go shopping after the baby’s born. I probably won’t go near a shop for a year.

“So!” resumes Suze, her eyes sparkling. “Jess suggested we should make things. And that’s what we’ve done.”

They’ve made things?

Oh God, they haven’t all made baby wipes, have they?

“We’ll start with mine.” Suze hands me a rectangular package and I start ripping off the silver paper in slight apprehension.

“Oh, wow,” I breathe as I see what it is. “Wow.”

It’s not baby wipes. It’s an exquisite photo frame, made out of creamy painted wood, with tiny little mirrors and mother-of-pearl set into it. Inside, instead of a photograph, is a cartoon of a stick girl holding a baby in front of a house.

“You can put a picture of the baby in it,” Suze is explaining. “But for now, I’ve drawn a picture of you in front of your new house.”

I look at the picture more closely and can’t help bursting into laughter. The cartoon house has been divided up into rooms and each one given a label. “Pram Room.” “Nappy Room.” “Lipstick Room.” “Visa Bill Room” (in the cellar). “Antiques of the Future Room.”

An Antiques of the Future Room! That’s actually a brilliant idea.

As I open my other presents I’m totally overwhelmed. Kelly’s is a tiny patchwork quilt, with patches contributed by all the lovely friends I made in Scully. Janice’s is a tiny red hand-knitted jumper with Baby’s First Christmas embroidered on the front. Mum’s is the matching Father Christmas hat and booties. Danny’s is the coolest designer distressed romper suit ever.

“Now mine,” says Jess, placing the largest present of the lot in front of me. It’s wrapped in a patchwork of old, crumpled wrapping papers, one of which is printed with the words Happy 2000!

“Be careful taking the paper off!” says Jess as I start to unwrap it. “I can use it again.”

“Er…OK!” Gently I peel the paper away and fold it up. There’s a layer of tissue paper underneath, and I pull it away to see a box about two feet high, made of pale, polished wood. Puzzled, I turn it around to face me — and it’s not a box after all. It’s a little cupboard with double doors and tiny porcelain handles. And Baby’s Shoes carved into the front.

“What—” I look up.

“Open it up.” Jess’s face is shining. “Go on!”

I tug it open, and there are little shelves, sloped and lined with white suede. On one of them is resting the smallest pair of red baseball boots I’ve ever seen.

It’s a little tiny Shoe Room.

“Jess…” I can feel tears welling up. “You made this?”

“Tom helped.” She gives a self-deprecating shrug. “We did it together.”

“But it was Jess’s idea,” chips in Suze. “Isn’t it brilliant? I wish I’d thought of it….”

“It’s perfect.” I’m totally bowled over. “Look at the way the doors fit…and the way the shelves are carved….”

“Tom always was good with his hands.” Janice clamps a hanky to her eyes. “This can be his memorial. We’ll probably never have a tombstone.”

I exchange looks with Mum, who pulls a familiar Janice-has-lost-it expression.

“Janice, I’m sure he’s not dead—” Jess begins.

“We can engrave his dates on the back,” Janice continues. “If you don’t mind, Becky, love.”

“Er…well no,” I say uncertainly. “Of course not.”

“He’s not dead, Janice!” Jess almost yells. “I know he’s not!”

“Well, where is he?” Janice pulls her hanky from her eyes, which are smudgy with mauve eye shadow. “You broke that boy’s heart!”

“Wait!” I suddenly remember. “Jess, I got a package for you this morning. Maybe it’s from him.”

I hurry to the hall and bring back the parcel. Jess rips it open and a CD falls out. On it is written simply “From Tom.”

We all stare at it for a moment.

“It’s a DVD,” says Danny, picking it up. “Put it on.”

“It’s his last will and testament!” cries Janice hysterically. “It’s a message from beyond the grave!”

“It’s not from beyond the grave,” Jess snaps, but as she heads to the DVD player I can see that she’s gone pale.

She presses Play and crouches down on the floor. We all wait in silence as the screen flickers. Then suddenly there’s Tom, facing the camera, against a blue sky. He’s wearing an old green polo shirt and looks pretty disheveled.

“Hi, Jess,” he says momentously. “By the time you see this, I’ll be in Chile. Because…that’s where I am now.”

Jess stiffens. “Chile?”

“Chile?” Janice shrieks. “What’s he doing in Chile?”

“I love you,” Tom’s saying. “And I’ll move to the other side of the world if that’s what it takes. Or farther.”

“Oh, that’s so romantic,” sighs Kelly.

“He’s such a stupid prat,” Jess says, knocking a fist against her forehead. “I’m not going out there for three months!”

But her eyes are glistening, I notice.

“Look what I’ve found you.” Tom is holding a chunk of some black shiny rock up to the camera. “You’ll love this country, Jess.”

“He’ll get cholera!” Janice is saying in agitation. “Or malaria! Tom’s always had a weak system—”

“I can get work as a carpenter,” Tom is saying. “I can write my book. We’ll be happy here. And if Mum gives you any grief, just remember what I told you about her.”

“Told you?” Janice looks up sharply. “What did he tell you?”

“Er…nothing.” Jess hastily presses Stop and whips the DVD out of the machine. “I’ll watch the rest later.”

“So!” says Mum cheerily. “He’s alive, Janice love. That’s good news!”

“Alive?” Janice is still in a state of hysteria. “What’s the use of being alive in Chile?”

“At least he’s out in the world!” says Jess with sudden passion. “At least he’s doing something with his life! You know, he’s been really depressed, Janice. This is just what he needs.”

“I know what my son needs!” Janice retorts indignantly as the doorbell rings. I heave myself to my feet, glad of an excuse to get out of the line of fire.

“I’ll just get this….” I head into the hall and pick up the entry phone. “Hello?”

“I have a delivery for you,” comes a crackly voice.

My heart skips a beat. A delivery. This has to be it. It has to be. As I press the buzzer I can hardly breathe. I’m telling myself firmly not to hope, it’ll be another package for Jess, or a catalog, or a computer part for Luke….

But when I open the door, there’s a motorbike courier standing in his leathers, holding a big padded envelope, and I already recognize Dave Sharpness’s writing in bold black marker pen.

I lock myself in the cloakroom and feverishly rip the envelope open. There’s a manila folder inside, marked “Brandon.” On the front is stuck a Post-it note, with a scribbled message: Hope this helps. Any further assistance required, do not hesitate. Yours, Dave S.

I open it up, and it’s all there. Copies of all the notes, transcripts of conversations, photos…I leaf through, my heart thumping. I’d forgotten quite how much stuff they had collected on Iain Wheeler. For a crappy private detective agency in West Ruislip, they actually did a great job.

I quickly bundle it all up again and head into the cool, empty kitchen. I’m about to pick up the phone to call Luke, when it rings, making me jump.

“Hello?”

“Hello, Mrs. Brandon,” comes an unfamiliar male voice. “Mike Enwright from the Press Association here.”

“Oh, right.” I stare at the phone, puzzled.

“I just wondered if you could comment on rumors that your husband’s company is going down?”

I feel a shiver of shock.

“It’s not going down,” I say robustly. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“News is, he’s lost the Arcodas account. And the latest rumor is Foreland Investment is going the same way.”

“He has not lost Arcodas!” I exclaim, furious. “They have parted ways for reasons which I cannot discuss. And for your information, my husband’s company is as strong as ever. Stronger! Luke Brandon has been courted by high-caliber clients all his career, and he always will be. He is a man of immense integrity, talent, intelligence, good looks, and…and dress sense.”

I break off, breathing hard.

“OK then!” Mike Enwright is chuckling. “I get the picture.”

“Are you going to quote all that?”

“I doubt it.” He chuckles again. “But I like your attitude. Thanks for your time, Mrs. Brandon.”

He rings off and, flustered, I run water into a glass. I have to talk to Luke. I dial his direct line and get through on the third ring.

“Becky!” Luke sounds alert. “Has anything—”

“No, it’s not that.” I check outside the kitchen door and lower my voice. “Luke, the Press Association just rang. They wanted a quote about you”—I swallow—“going down. They said Foreland were leaving you.”

“That is bullshit!” Luke’s voice erupts in anger. “Those Arcodas fuckers are feeding stories to the press.”

“They couldn’t really damage you, could they?” I say fearfully.

“Not if I have anything to do with it.” Luke sounds resolute. “The gloves are off. If they want to fight, we’ll fight. We’ll take them to court if it comes to it. Charge them with harassment. Expose the whole bloody lot of them.”

I feel a huge surge of pride as I hear him speak. He sounds like the Luke Brandon I first met. Assured and in charge of the situation. Not running around after Iain Wheeler like some lackey.

“Luke, I’ve got something for you.” My words spill out. “I have…material on Iain Wheeler.”

“What did you say?” says Luke after a pause.

“There were some old cases of harassment and office bullying that were hushed up. I’ve got a whole dossier on him, right here in my hands.”

“You’ve got what?” Luke sounds flabbergasted. “Becky…what are you talking about?”

Maybe I won’t get into the whole private-detective-in-West-Ruislip story just now.

“Don’t ask me how,” I say hurriedly. “I just do.”

“But how—”

“I said don’t ask! But it’s true. I’ll have it all biked round to the office. You should probably have your lawyers ready to take a look. There are photos, notes, all kinds of evidence…. Honestly, Luke. If this all comes out…he’s finished.”

“Photos? You’ve been taking photos of Iain?”

“Er…not me, exactly…”

“Becky, what is this?” he demands. “What the hell have you been up to?”

“I’ll explain later. Just trust me, Luke, please. This is going to help you, I promise.”

“Becky…” Luke’s voice is incredulous. “You constantly amaze me.”

“I love you,” I say impulsively. “Cream them.” I put the phone down and push my hair back with sweaty hands. I take a few gulps of water, then speed-dial Luke’s regular courier firm and order a bike.

In half an hour or so, the folder will be with Luke. I just wish I could see his face when he opens it.

“Hi, Bex!” I jump as Suze comes sauntering into the kitchen. Her expression changes as she sees me. “Bex…are you OK?”

“I’m…fine!” I put on a hasty smile. “Just taking some time out.”

“We’re going to play games next!” Suze opens the fridge and gets out a carton of orange juice. “Guess the baby food…hunt the nappy pin…celebrities’ babies names…”

I can’t believe the trouble she’s gone to, organizing all this.

“Suze…thanks so much,” I say. “It’s all amazing. And my photo frame!”

“It came out well, didn’t it?” Suze looks pleased. “You know, it really inspired me. I’m thinking of starting the frame business again.”

“You should!” I say with enthusiasm. Suze used to make brilliant photo frames till she had the children. They were stocked in Liberty’s and everything!

“I mean, the children are getting older now,” Suze is saying. “And if Lulu can write cookery books, why can’t I make frames? It won’t kill the kids if I work a few hours a day, will it? I’ll still be a good mother.”

I can see the anxiety in her eyes. I totally blame that cow Lulu. Suze never worried about being a good mother till she met her.

OK. Payback time.

“Suze…I’ve got something for you,” I say, reaching into the kitchen drawer. “But you can’t show Lulu, ever. Or tell her. Or tell anybody.”

“I won’t!” Suze looks intrigued. “What is it?”

“Here.”

I hand Suze the long-lens photograph — the only thing I saved from the original folder. It’s of Lulu in the street with her children. She looks pretty frazzled — in fact, she seems to be yelling at one of them. In her hands are four Mars Bars, which she’s doling out. She’s holding a couple of cans of Coke too, and under her arm is a jumbo packet of chips.

“No.” Suze appears almost too staggered to speak. “No. Are those—”

“Mars Bars.” I nod. “And Cheesy Wotsits.”

“And Coke!” Suze gives a gurgle of laughter and claps a hand over her mouth. “Bex, that has made my day. How on earth…”

“Don’t ask.” I can’t help giggling too.

“What a hypocritical…cow!” Suze is still peering at the picture in disbelief. “You know, she really got to me. I used to feel so inferior.”

“I think you should go on her TV show after all,” I say. “You could take that photo with you. Show the producer.”

“Bex!” Suze giggles. “You’re evil! I’m just going to keep it in a drawer and look at it when I need cheering up.”

The phone suddenly shrills through the kitchen and my smile tightens. What if this is the press again? What if it’s Luke with more news?

“Hey, Suze,” I say casually. “Why don’t you go and make sure everyone’s OK? I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Sure.” Suze nods, and picks up her juice, her eyes still fixed on the photo. “I’ll just put this somewhere safe….”

I wait until she’s gone and the door is firmly closed, then steel myself and pick up the phone. “Hello?”

“Hi, Becky.” The familiar drifty voice comes down the line. “It’s Fabia.”

“Fabia!” I subside in relief. “How are you? Thanks so much for letting us use the house the other day. The Vogue people thought it was amazing! Did you get my flowers?”

“Oh, wonderful,” Fabia says vaguely. “Yeah, we got the flowers. Listen, Becky, we’ve just heard you can’t pay cash for the house.”

Luke must have called the agent and told him. News travels fast. “That’s right.” I nod, trying to stay upbeat. “There’s been a slight change in our circumstances, but it should only delay us by a couple of weeks….”

“Yeah…” Fabia sounds distracted. “The thing is, we’ve decided to exchange with the other buyers.”

For a moment I think I’ve hallucinated. “Other buyers?”

“Did we not mention the other buyers? The Americans. They made the same offer as you. Before you, in fact, so strictly speaking…” She trails off.

“But…but you took our offer! You said the house was ours.”

“Yeah, well. The other buyers can move faster, so…”

I’m light-headed with shock. We’ve been screwed.

“Were you just stringing us along the whole time?” I’m trying to keep control of myself.

“It wasn’t my idea.” Fabia sounds regretful. “It was my husband. He likes to have a fallback position. Anyway, good luck with the house hunt….”

No. She can’t really be doing this. She can’t be leaving us in the lurch.

“Fabia, listen.” I wipe my clammy face. “Please. We’re having a baby any day. We don’t have anywhere to go. Our flat is sold—”

“Mmm…yeah. I hope it all goes well. Bye, Becky….”

“But what about the Archie Swann boots?” I’m almost crying in anger. “We did a deal! You owe me a boot!” I realize I’m talking into silence. She’s rung off. She doesn’t care.

I switch the phone off. Slowly I walk over to the fridge and lean my head against the cool steel, feeling dizzy. We don’t have our dream house anymore. We don’t have any house anymore.

I lift the phone to call Luke, then stop. He’s got enough on his plate as it is right now.

In a few weeks we have to move out of our flat. Where are we going to go?

“Becky?” Kelly bursts into the kitchen, giggling. “We’ve put candles on your cake. I know it’s not your birthday, but you should blow them out anyway.”

“Yes!” I jolt into life. “I’m coming!”

Somehow I manage to hold myself together as I follow Kelly back to the sitting room. Inside, Danny and Janice are playing guess the baby food and writing down their answers on sheets. Mum and Jess are perusing pictures of celebrity babies.

“It’s Lourdes!” Mum is saying. “Jess, love, you should be more aware of the world.”

“Pureed beet,” says Danny knowledgeably as he tastes a spoonful of purple goo. “All it needs is a shot of vodka.”

“Becky!” Mum looks up. “Everything all right, love? You keep running off to answer the phone!”

“Yes, Bex, what’s up?” Suze’s brow wrinkles.

“It’s…”

I wipe my damp upper lip, trying to keep steady. I don’t even know where I’d start.

Luke’s fighting to save his company. He’s hemorrhaging money. We’ve lost the house.

I can’t tell them. I can’t spoil the party — everyone’s having such a good time.

I’ll tell them later. Tomorrow.

“Everything’s fine!” I force my brightest, best, happiest smile. “Couldn’t be better!” And I blow out my candles.

At last the tea and champagne are all drunk and all the guests gradually leave. It was such a great baby shower. And everyone got on so well! Janice and Jess made up in the end, and Jess promised she’d look after Tom in Chile and not let any guerrilla bandits get him. Suze and Kelly had a long conversation while they played guess the baby food, ending up with Suze offering Kelly a job as au pair during her year off. But the really amazing thing is, Jess and Danny have hit it off! Danny started talking to her about some new collection he wants to do using shards of rocks — and she’s going to take him to a museum to see some specimens.

The bike arrived while everyone was eating cake, and the package went off OK. I haven’t heard back from Luke, though. I guess he’s in talks with his lawyers or whoever it is. So he doesn’t know about the house yet, either.

“Are you all right, Becky?” says Mum, giving me a hug at the front door. “Would you like me to stay with you till Luke arrives home?”

“No, it’s OK. Don’t worry.”

“Well, have a nice afternoon rest. Save your energy, love.”

“I will.” I nod. “Bye, Mum.”

The place feels silent and flat with everyone gone. It’s just me and all the stuff. I wander into the nursery, gently touching the handcrafted crib and the little white rocking cradle. And the Moses basket with its gorgeous linen canopy. (I wanted to give the baby a choice of sleeping accommodations.)

It’s like a stage set. We’re just waiting for the lead character to appear.

I prod my tummy, wondering if it’s awake. Maybe I’ll play it a tune and it can be a musical genius when it’s born! I wind up the mobile I ordered from the Intelligent Baby catalog and press it against my tummy.

Baby, listen to that! That’s Mozart.

I think…. Or Beethoven or someone.

God, now I’ve confused it. I’m just looking on the box to see if the tune is by Mozart, when there’s a small crash from the hall.

Christmas cards. That’ll make me feel better. Abandoning the Intelligent Baby mobile, I head to the front door, pick up the huge pile of post lying on the doormat, and waddle back to the sofa, leafing through the envelopes.

And then I stop. There’s a small package, labeled in distinctive, flowing writing.

Venetia’s.

It’s addressed to Luke, but I don’t care. With trembling hands I rip it open, to find a tiny leather Duchamp box. I wrench it open, and there’s a pair of silver and enamel cuff links. What is she doing sending him cuff links?

A small cream card falls out, with a message written in the same script.

L

Long time no see. “Nunc est bibendum?”

V

I stare at the note, the blood rushing through my head. All the stresses of the day seem to be focusing in a laser of fury. I’ve had it. I’ve just had it. I’m going to send this package straight back, return of post—

No. I’m going to give it back to her myself.

In a daze, I find myself getting to my feet and reaching for my coat. I’m going to find Venetia and I’m going to finish this. Once and for all.

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