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Authors: Abby Clements

Tags: #General, #Fiction

Meet Me Under the Mistletoe (2 page)

BOOK: Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
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‘Danny, I know you took a chance on me with the promotion. But I’ve shown my dedication to the company, haven’t I? The last couple of weeks have just been …’

Her sentence fell away, unfinished. The job she’d worked so hard to get was hanging by a thread, but what could she say in her defence – that knowing the man she cared about, maybe even loved, had moved on was breaking her heart? That Jay was in her head the whole time and she couldn’t think straight about logos, or buckles, or anything else for that matter?

‘Laurie,’ Danny said, after a pause. ‘No one’s doubting your commitment, but all the same, I’m going to have to take you off the Navajo line.’

‘No,’ Laurie cried desperately. ‘Seriously, you can’t. Come on, Danny. I know I messed up, but let me fix this. It was a one-off

‘Navajo is our highest-profile product line, Laurie, and we can’t risk any more mistakes.’ His eyes were cast down. ‘We need someone we can rely on one hundred per cent.’

‘You can rely on me,’ she insisted. ‘You know that.’

‘Laurie, look, I’m sorry,’ he said, looking back up at her. ‘I know you’re talented – I’ve seen what you can do – but I’m afraid this isn’t a one-off. While you were away in China our customer services department received a string of complaints.’

Danny’s words hit Laurie with a jolt. Complaints? She worked around the clock to make sure her accessories were perfect. She sourced the finest materials. She oversaw every aspect of the production. She prided herself on the quality of her Seamless designs. She didn’t … her products never got anything but positive feedback.

‘What kind of complaints?’ she said, forcing the words out.

‘The Sinaloa boots – the heels come loose.’ Danny put a hand to his forehead, as if it pained him to go into the details. ‘One customer sprained her ankle wearing them.’

‘Right …’ Laurie stumbled, trying to mentally unpick the production trail. She felt numb. Her mind was blocked. ‘I can find a way …’

This couldn’t be happening. Seamless was her life. Designing was what she did, what she was good at. What would she do if they sacked her?

‘Laurie, Gillian admires your work as much as I do, but she feels the brand is being damaged. I managed to convince her that you need a break, that with two months off to regain your focus you’ll be back to your best.’

‘Two months?’ she said, tears springing to her eyes.

He reached over and put a hand on her arm. ‘Laurie, do me a favour here. A couple of months of rest. What do you say? Please prove me right on this one.’

‘But I don’t need a break,’ she said, emotion weakening her voice.

He glanced back at the door. ‘Listen, I’ll get Jacques to order you a cab,’ he said. ‘Make sure you get home OK.’

‘What, you want me to go home now?’ Laurie said, incredulous.

‘It’s for the best. You don’t want to be running into Gillian today, believe me.’

Laurie picked up her coat in a daze, and Danny opened her office door. As they crossed the office floor together, the familiar buzz quietened and a heavy silence took its place. Designers, interns and assistants glanced over at her, and then back at their computers. With a rush of shame, she realised what had happened. Everyone in the office must have heard Gillian’s tirade. Everyone she worked with knew how badly she’d messed up.

By the time she reached reception, she was wiping away the hot tears falling on to her cheeks.

‘Laurie darling,’ Laurie’s Aunt Clara said, in a heavy Spanish accent, sweeping her niece up in a huge hug and a cloud of Chanel. ‘What a lovely surprise to see you.’

She stood back for a moment, holding Laurie at arm’s length to take in her appearance. ‘But … what’s happened? You look dreadful! Tired – too thin. And you need to wear more colour, sweetheart.’

Laurie was too tired and upset to protest. But even in her weary state, she knew that Aunt Clara, in a leopard-print top and pink jeans, diamanté-studded nails and overstyled dark hair, wasn’t one to be dishing out style advice. At fifty-three, she was two years older than Carolina, Laurie’s mum, but while Carolina had gracefully accepted middle age, her elder sister was fighting it on all fronts.

‘You need a holiday, sweetheart. How about a trip to Spain? You could visit your mother, she’s always saying …’

Laurie tuned out as Clara led her into the hallway, and thought back on how she had come to be here. She had refused Danny’s offer of a cab, and instead had walked straight out of the Seamless offices into the bitterly cold November wind. Pulling her wool coat around her, she’d walked down the Strand until she got to Charing Cross, then found herself standing in the middle of the train station gazing at the departure board.

Unable to face going home alone to her flat in Brixton, staring at her four walls and waiting for her neighbour Siobhan to get back from work, she’d decided to go and see her aunt and cousin instead. Acting quickly, so she wouldn’t be able to change her mind, she’d dried her tears and caught a train to Bromley.

‘Laurie!’ Andrea dashed towards the door and offered a warm embrace. Laurie hugged her back.

‘I didn’t know if you’d be here,’ Laurie said.

‘Night shift last night,’ Andrea explained, pointing to her discarded nurse’s uniform in the laundry basket.

Andrea was more like a sister than a cousin to Laurie. They were both in their mid-thirties now and had grown up together. They’d both inherited dark hair and olive skin from their Spanish mothers, but the resemblance between Andrea and Aunt Clara ended there – everything about Andrea was natural, from her womanly curves to her make-up-free dark eyes.

‘Come and sit down,’ Andrea said, clearing a place for Laurie to sit on the sofa – there were so many fluffy cushions that the floral-print furniture underneath was barely visible.

‘So what’s up? What brings you here, at –’ she checked her watch – ‘ten-thirty in the morning? I thought I was the one working weird hours.’

Laurie leaned back into the squishy floral sofa and the morning’s events flooded back. ‘I did a terrible thing at work.’

‘But I thought things were going really well?’

‘So did I,’ Laurie said, biting her lip. ‘But they aren’t.’ The sting of humiliation was still fresh. Four years Laurie had worked at Seamless, steadily building her reputation, and now, because of a couple of foolish mistakes, it all seemed to be crumbling.

‘What happened?’ Andrea asked, with a concerned look in her eyes.

‘I messed up, big time,’ Laurie said. When Andrea put a comforting arm around her, the tears she’d been fighting to hold back came and she started to sob.

‘It’s OK,’ Andrea said comfortingly. ‘It’ll be OK.’ In the warmth of her cousin’s arms she cried until her throat was raw. Finally, she pulled back.

‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Andrea asked.

‘I don’t know,’ Laurie said. ‘Not yet. It’s horrible.’

Andrea nodded. ‘Of course. Whatever you want. You’re with family now. Why don’t you stay over tonight?’

‘Thanks,’ Laurie said, sitting up straighter and wiping her eyes. ‘I might take you up on that, just this once.’ She forced a smile and tried to lighten the atmosphere. ‘What about you, how have you been?’

‘Ha, well this will make you feel better,’ Andrea said, with a laugh. ‘Back living here again, saving for a flat deposit. All day, every day: Mum.’ She nodded to the kitchen, where Clara was preparing tea, and feigned exhaustion. ‘Can you imagine? Dad’s snuck out to walk the dog – for the second time today – really can’t blame him.’

Laurie smiled, then looked around the room. Photos lined the shelves and mantelpiece – she could even see one of Andrea and Laurie together up there, posing as pop stars when they were kids. It was so different to her own stylish, minimal flat.

Clara came back into the room with tea and biscuits, then placed them on the table. ‘I spoke to your mother at the weekend,’ she said.

‘Oh yes?’ Laurie responded, realising it had been a couple of weeks, at least, since she and her mother had last been in touch. ‘How’s she doing?’

‘Oh, Laurie, these men she chooses,’ Clara said, her voice despairing. ‘I mean, your father – he was bad enough, with his big exit. What that man put your mother through, it’s a miracle she’s still here – but now it’s getting even worse, darling.’

‘Don’t exaggerate, Mum,’ Andrea said, taking a biscuit from the plate and then looking at Laurie. ‘She sounded fine when I talked to her.’

‘Fine?’ Clara said. ‘She obviously didn’t give you the full story, Andrea. Believe me, she’s far from fine. She and Javier broke up, she’s very lonely.’

‘Javier?’ Laurie asked.

‘Yes – an old flame. They’d only been together a few months. But you know, for your mother – another heartbreak, for the collection,’ Clara said, lifting her hands into the air and shaking her head.

Andrea caught Laurie’s eye, mouthing ‘Ignore her’.

Another heartbreak, Laurie thought. All her life she’d strived to be different from her mum – more independent, successful, resilient. She would never rely on men for her happiness. But now, single at thirty-five, heartbroken and struggling to hang on to her job, Laurie wondered if the two of them had more in common than she’d been willing to admit.

CHAPTER
2

 

Tuesday 21st November

Rachel stirred awake as the front door of the cottage clicked shut. Her bedroom was in pitch darkness, only a slim shaft of moonlight on the carpet breaking the gloom. Her mobile phone was beside her on the pillow, the space next to her in bed empty, as it had been when she’d nodded off. She checked her phone for messages – none – then the time, half-past twelve. She got up and pulled on her dressing gown, opened the bedroom door and listened out for sounds – she heard the hum of the fridge downstairs, the clatter of crockery as someone got a plate out.

Her teenage daughter Milly’s bedroom was next to hers. She gently pushed the door to look inside, then put her hand to her heart, relieved. Milly was asleep there, dark-red hair splayed out on her pillow, her breathing heavy enough to hear. Milly was home. Milly was safe. How silly to have worried, Rachel thought.

She stepped down the winding, uneven wooden steps of the seventeenth-century cottage, ducking under the beam at the bottom. In the kitchen, with a plate of food in his hand, was her husband Aiden, in jeans and a checked shirt, his usual outfit when he was managing one of his barn conversions. Her heart warmed at the sight of him.

‘Caught you,’ she whispered, with a smile.

‘Rumbled,’ he said, raising one hand with a wry smile. ‘I was trying to be quiet. Just got back. Having a midnight feast. Again.’

He put his plate down on the counter and gave her a hug. ‘It’s good to see you,’ he said, pulling her close and stroking back her dark-blonde hair. She stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the mouth, running a hand gently over his stubbled jaw.

‘You too,’ Rachel said, pressing her cheek against his chest.

She led him over to the living room, and made space on the sofa. ‘So, how did it go today?’ she asked, keeping her voice low so that they wouldn’t wake Milly or her little brother Zak.

‘Busy. But you know how it is, every day’s busy at the moment,’ Aiden said, the strain evident on his face. ‘Who knows when we’re going to get the Westley barn finished – the twentieth of December is what we promised, but that’s only a few weeks away and there’s a lot still to do. There was that rain in the autumn that set us back, and this week we’ve had some issues with the interiors too … I should never have sourced so much from abroad, all the deliveries are running late. But enough about work,’ he said, waving his hand, and his face relaxing a little. ‘I get so little time with you at the moment I don’t want to waste it talking about that. How was your day, how are the kids doing?’

Rachel curled up on the sofa and tucked her pyjamaclad legs under her. ‘Oh, fine,’ she said. ‘Your mum was over earlier, she’s helping with a Christmas charity collection this year, she said.’

Aiden raised an eyebrow. ‘More volunteering? I thought people were supposed to do less when they retired?’

‘Bea’s not other people,’ Rachel smiled. ‘She’s unstoppable. But we always knew that. She picked Zak up from football practice too, while I was getting dinner ready. Godsend.’

‘And Milly?’

‘She’s fine. She’s been over at Kate’s, studying.’ Rachel went quiet for a moment.

‘What is it?’ Aiden asked.

‘Nothing. It’s just – when you came home just now, I thought it was her.’

‘At past midnight?’

‘Yes. She wasn’t home by eleven, which is when we agreed she’d be back. I called her twice, but her phone was off. I was waiting up for her, but … I don’t know how, I must have fallen asleep.’

‘And now … ?’ Aiden asked, concerned.

‘Oh, she’s fine,’ Rachel said, hurriedly, with a smile. ‘She’s upstairs, asleep.’

‘Well, that’s OK then, isn’t it?’ Aiden said, finishing off his sandwich.

‘Yes. Of course.’

‘But …?’

‘It’s not like her, is it? Coming home late,’ Rachel said. ‘It’s not like her not to call.’

‘Kate’s is only round the corner, they probably just lost track of time. You know what those two are like when they get together. And Milly’s been saying that she doesn’t get to see Kate as much now she’s changed school.’

BOOK: Meet Me Under the Mistletoe
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