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Authors: Sarra Manning

After the Last Dance

BOOK: After the Last Dance
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Sarra Manning is an author and journalist. She is currently literary editor for
Red
magazine and has written for the
Guardian
,
ELLE
,
Grazia
and
You
magazine. She is the author of several bestselling young adult novels, including
Guitar Girl
, the
Diary of a Crush
trilogy and
Adorkable
.
After the Last Dance
is her fifth adult novel. Sarra lives in North London with her Staffordshire bull terrier, Miss Betsy, and prides herself on her unique ability to accessorise.

Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

Unsticky

It Felt Like a Kiss

COPYRIGHT

 

Published by Sphere

 

978-0-7515-6114-2

 

All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

 

Copyright © Sarra Manning 2015

 

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.

 

The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

 

SPHERE

Little, Brown Book Group

Carmelite House

50 Victoria Embankment

London, EC4Y 0DZ

 

www.littlebrown.co.uk

www.hachette.co.uk

After the Last Dance

To all the men and women who passed through

the doors of Rainbow Corner. Thank you for your

inspiration, your courage and your sacrifice.

I bored so many people stupid talking about Rainbow Corner and how one day, I would write a novel about it. Thank you for bearing the brunt of it, Julie Mayhew, Anna Carey and Sarah Franklin. Sam Baker for our epic pizza and prosecco summits. Sophie Wilson and Sarah Bailey for general all-round loveliness. Lesley Lawson for TransPacific book talk.

A thousand thank yous to my agent Karolina Sutton for getting me there in the end and Norah Perkins, Lucy Morris, Melissa Pimentel and all at Curtis Brown.

Much thanks to my editor Manpreet Grewal for her incisive, tough love editing that really shaped this book into what I wanted it to be. (Let us never talk of the 20,000 words that she made me cut.)

And thank you to Kate Hodges. We'll always have our interest in the chapel.

 

London, September 1943

King's Cross Station was cavernous, bigger than a cathedral, and filled with people.

It was eight o'clock, which probably wasn't that late in London where there were nightclubs and restaurants with fine linen tablecloths and silver champagne buckets where dark-suited men and women in fur stoles had supper after the theatre. In Durham, people didn't roam about at night, because there was nowhere to roam to, apart from pubs and well, she didn't know anyone who'd frequent a pub.

But here in London there were positively
hordes
of people hurrying about, heads down, faces grim and unsmiling. Soldiers. Sailors. Khaki and navy everywhere she looked. An older man with a suitcase lifted his hat as he saw her glance in his direction. A woman juggled assorted luggage, two small children, and a baby on her hip.

Next her attention was caught by two girls not
that
much older than herself in WAAF uniforms; hair rolled impeccably, arms linked as they marched smartly along. The blue serge was almost the same shade as her eyes and she thought that maybe she might join the WAAFs when she was old enough to volunteer, though they weren't allowed to fly planes, which was a shame because learning to fly a plane would be thrilling.

The longer she stood there, the more her eyes sought out the people who lingered, rather than rushed. Saying goodbye with embraces that went on too long: tense hands clutching at shoulders, sobs not quite swallowed up by the distant sound of a brass band and the cacophony of train doors slamming shut. She turned her head away from one young couple, the girl's face almost obscured by her handkerchief as she wept in the arms of her corporal.

She suddenly felt very small and very alone. Too scared to put one foot in front of the other, to choose a direction to go in. She had nowhere to hurry to, no one to linger with and the creeping suspicion that she'd made a terrible mistake. She was always getting scolded for being impetuous, though it was more than impetuosity that had made her jump on the London train with her mother's ‘funeral' fur coat around her shoulders and her sister's two best dresses stuffed in her suitcase.

By now they'd have found the silly, spiteful note she'd stuck behind the clock on the mantelpiece.

I didn't kiss Cedric. He tried to kiss
me.
I think it's beastly that you refused to give me a fair hearing and instead expect me to be happy that I'm being shipped off to the back of beyond to join the Land Girls as soon as I've taken my Highers.

Well, I'm not going. By the time you read this I'll be in London having all sorts of adventures rather than seeing out the war shovelling pig muck, hoeing fields
and
wearing corduroy knickerbockers and horrid, clumpy boots.

It might have been her rashest, most impetuous act. Oh, if only she stopped to think about the consequences of her actions…

‘Hey! Watch where you swing that thing,' exclaimed a loud voice to the left of her.

She whirled round to see two men carrying duffel bags. They were in uniform, but their khakis were crisper, sharper, and they wore their caps at a jaunty angle. One was fair, one was dark, but they were both strapping specimens of masculinity who didn't look the least bit like their raw-skinned, pasty-faced British comrades.

They were drawing level with her now as she stood there, mouth agape, because they were from that magical land of movie stars and Broadway and dancing girls in sparkling costumes and everything that was good and great and in glorious Technicolor.

Then they walked right past her, joking in loud, breezy voices, and the fact that she was alone, without purpose and in the most terrible trouble didn't matter any more. She rushed after them, suitcase banging against her legs. ‘Please! Oh, please!' she cried, catching up so she could tug on a khaki-covered arm. ‘Please! I need you to take me to Rainbow Corner!'

 

London, September 2003

The girl stumbled down from the train at King's Cross station, and stood there, eyes cast down.

Somehow she was in London, though London might just as well be Africa or somewhere to the left of Mars. None of this could be real.

The only thing that was real was the roll of money so thick she could barely clasp her fingers around it. She'd been holding on to it for so long that her hand had cramped up and sweat had reduced the outer notes to pulp. It didn't even feel like money any more. It never had. From the moment she'd picked it up, it had been a ticking time bomb.

There was a noise behind her and she shuffled just far enough that the man in the suit could get off the train too. Her eyes came to rest on the tips of his polished black shoes, holes punched into the leather to make a pattern. They were so shiny that if she looked hard enough she'd be able to see her reflection. She looked away.

‘Do you know where you're going?' She'd never heard anyone talk like that. As if each word mattered, not just things to be screamed or shouted.

Words never worked for her. She stayed silent.

She didn't know what he wanted from her. Him with his beautiful voice and shoes and the suit – nothing good ever came from a man in a suit, she knew that much.

‘Where do you want to go?' This time the words were sharp enough that she took one step away from him. She wrapped an arm round her midriff. Noticed the streaks of blood on her T-shirt, not red any more but dried to a dark, rusty brown. ‘Do you know anyone in London? Do you understand what I'm saying?' There was a pause. ‘Do you speak English?'

She shrugged.

‘God help me,' he muttered. His hand almost came to rest on her shoulder. Almost, but not quite. ‘You'd better come with me, then.'

She hadn't ‘better' do anything. She could take care of herself – except taking care of herself meant keeping as still and quiet as possible.

She'd never thought about what the world might be like. Could hardly think about life outside that house, in that room, under that bed where she'd woken up this morning. But somehow she was in London with no idea of how she'd even got here.

All she had was this man not quite touching her, talking to her like she meant something.

‘We'll get a taxi,' he said, and the hand that wasn't quite on her shoulder flexed and she was moving her feet in time with his, even as her fingers twitched around the roll of notes again.

 

Present Day

Even in Las Vegas, when a girl in a wedding dress walked into a bar, people turned to stare. The bride, minus groom, seemed unaware of the attention. She walked right up to the bar, put down her suitcase and hauled herself up on the stool next to Leo's.

It was then he realised that the gawping was less to do with the big, foofy white dress and everything to do with her beauty. Leo liked to think he was immune to beauty. He'd spent the last year in LA where you couldn't even pick up a carton of milk from the neighbourhood bodega without seeing at least one woman who'd spent thousands of dollars on her appearance. A little nip here, a hell of a lot of tucking there.

But this woman was so breathtaking that he was grateful she'd sat down next to him so he could gaze at each perfect feature on her face and marvel at the way they came together to form an impeccable whole. She'd had some work done, but it was very discreet. A few injectables, just enough Botox that she could still show emotion.

Her honey-blonde hair was swept up in a fancy plaited arrangement and topped with a tiara. Leo could tell by the smug glint of the stones even in the dimly lit bar that the tiara was adorned with proper, honest-to-goodness diamonds.

There were more diamonds sparkling on her ring finger, but no wedding band, which could explain why her cupid-bow mouth drooped at the corners. Though, when Leo caught her eye, she acknowledged his interest with a half-hearted twist of her lips.

‘Hello,' she said in an English accent far more precise than his, as she settled herself more comfortably so the full white skirts of her dress floated around her like petals.

‘Hello,' Leo said and before he could say anything else, the surly bartender who'd taken his sweet time before he served Leo was breaking the land-speed record to stand in front of her and wait expectantly for her to order.

The woman eyed the collection of bottles behind the bar doubtfully.

‘Walked out on your husband already, did you?' the bartender asked and she blinked.

‘I'm not married.' Her voice was so neutral, it was beige. She gestured at the acres of tulle and silk taffeta around her. ‘Appearances can be deceiving.'

‘Runaway bride, then? You got cold feet at the last minute?'

The woman set her shoulders back as if she were about to bristle and shut the man down, but then she smiled.

Before she smiled, she was beautiful. But once she smiled properly so her blue eyes twinkled like her diamonds, she was
absolutely fucking beautiful
. It was all Leo could do not to drool.

‘Oh, darling,' she said to the barman, who'd now stopped pretending to polish the glass he'd been holding. ‘Really, it's too boring to talk about.'

Though she seemed self-possessed as she sat there, her shoulders were so stiff that Leo's ached in sympathy – as if it were a superhuman effort to hold herself upright when all she wanted to do was wilt.

‘So, did you break it off or…'

She held up her hand in protest. ‘Please, no more questions. Not until I've had a drink.'

‘What are you having? On the house,' the barman said as if he really thought he was in with a chance, despite his greasy, sparse hair coaxed into a sad little quiff, quivering chin and the fact that he was polishing glasses and serving drinks in a dive bar. Still, you couldn't blame a guy for trying.

‘A glass of champagne, please.'

He stared at her like she was speaking Martian. ‘We don't serve champagne by the glass. We don't got no champagne.'

‘Really? How extraordinary!' She turned to Leo and shook her head, inviting him to share her disbelief. He shrugged and this time she rewarded him with a conspiratorial grin, before she turned back to the barman. ‘Well, what do you have, then, darling?'

She made do with a dirty martini. She wrinkled her nose as she took the first sip and it was then that the barman realised that he was batting way, way,
way
out of his league because he started fussing over his bowls of tired-looking bar snacks and left her alone.

They sat there, Leo and the woman, in silence and it wasn't until she'd almost finished her drink that she turned to him. ‘I'll be twenty-seven tomorrow,' she said.

He wasn't sure where she was going with this or if he wanted to find out. Women who looked like her, women wearing that calibre of diamond, had to be nothing but trouble, but since when had that ever stopped him? ‘Happy birthday for tomorrow.' He lifted his tumbler of scotch and gently clinked it against the side of her glass.

She leaned in closer so Leo thought he might drown in the warm, sweet-scented nearness of her. ‘The thing is, darling, I made a vow I'd get married before I turned twenty-seven.'

‘Twenty-seven isn't that old,' he said. ‘I managed to survive being twenty-seven without getting married.'

‘It's different for men,' she insisted, glancing down at her engagement ring. ‘For women, twenty-seven is… well, it's hard to explain.'

Leo waited for her to at least try but she was twisting the huge rock on her finger so it shimmered in the spotlight above her and stars clouded his vision. ‘Look, you're obviously having a bad day but…'

‘The baddest of all bad days.' She held her hand in front of her and stared at her engagement ring as if it were responsible for all her current woes. ‘The baddest day since records began.'

He hardly had to think about it at all. ‘You know, I could marry you. If you wanted
?
'

This vision, this goddess, choked on a mouthful of martini. ‘You'd marry me?' she asked once she'd recovered. ‘Why on earth would you do that?'

Leo shrugged. ‘I used to be a boy scout. I still like to do a good deed every day.'

She shifted on her stool so she was facing him, the whipped white froth of her dress brushing against the knee of his jeans. ‘You're not married already, are you?'

‘No.' He smiled at her confusion; tremulously she smiled back and he was starting to like this game he was playing even if he didn't know the rules.

‘Do you have a fiancée or some girl who you have an understanding with?'

‘No.'

‘Are you gay? Not that it really matters but…'

‘No!'

She spread her hands wide. ‘Still, darling, this is all quite sudden. Give me one good reason why I should marry you.'

There were a million and one lousy reasons – except being married was about the only thing he hadn't tried. And this had to be fate – a gorgeous girl walks into a bar all ready to say ‘I do' and the only thing she's missing is the groom. He summoned the bartender with a lazy finger and ordered another whisky and a vodka tonic for her, as the dirty martini hadn't been a great success. ‘Give me one good reason why not?'

She shook her head as the barman placed a fresh drink in front of her. ‘Where to start?'

‘It'll be midnight in a few hours. I thought you were on a clock.'

She pouted a little, her gaze darting round for a more likely candidate. There wasn't one. Only a couple of old men who'd been nursing a bottle of beer apiece for the last hour and a man in the far corner staring disconsolately at his empty glass like he'd just put his life savings on black and red had come up. Still, her eyes narrowed as she considered her options.

‘You don't have to marry me,' Leo said and he had her attention again. ‘But let's have a little drink and a chat and see how we both feel about it in an hour or so. Deal?'

She picked up her glass and gave him another one of those smiles that made Leo want to find a puddle so he could drape his jacket over it for her. ‘Deal.'

BOOK: After the Last Dance
8.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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