Authors: Jill Mansell
Copyright Â© 2009 by Jill Mansell
Cover and internal design Â© 2009 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover illustration Â© Nina Chakrabarti
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Originally published in 1997 by Headline Book Publishing, London.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Perfect timing / Jill Mansell.
Originally published: London : Headline Book Pub., 1997.
1. Chick lit. I. Title.
For Lydia and Cory, with my love.
Special thanks as well to Postman Pat and Sooty,
without whose videos this book would have
taken twice as long to write.
Thanks also to Abby, my favorite stepdaughter, for all her help.
The thing about going out for your bachelorette party, Poppy Dunbar couldn't help noticing, was that nobodyâbut nobodyâbothered to chat you up.
It possibly had something to do with the three inflated condoms tethered to the top of her hat and the âBride-to-Be' sash hung around her neck, sending out the signal: âDon't bother, boys.' She was about as off-limits as it was possible to get. All of a suddenâas far as men were concernedâshe had become invisible. It felt weird, after years of nightclubbing and being chatted up. She'd never actually been unfaithful to Rob, of course, but it was still nice to be noticed.
âTell me about it.' Dina, when Poppy had passed this observation on earlier, was able to sympathize. âI'm in the same boat, aren't I?' She pulled a gloomy face. âNobody makes a pass at you when you're nine months pregnant. It's like being a nun.'
Not that Dina was in too much danger of being mistaken for a nun right now, not while she was smack in the middle of the dance floor giving it all she'd got. At her request, the club DJ was playing the old Madonna song, âLike a Virgin.' Dina's white Lycra skirt was edging its way up to mid-thigh and her black patent high heels reflected the fluorescent lights zapping and crisscrossing overhead.
For a pregnant nun, she was doing pretty well, thought Poppy. If her husband Ben could see her now he'd have a fit. Dina's dance style bordered on the frenzied; much more of it and she would go into labor. If that happened she would miss both the wedding and her chance to wear her new pink straw hat. Oh dear, Poppy thought with amusement, what a wicked waste of twenty-two pounds ninety-nine that would be. Ben would be furious.
Poppy left her three fellow âbachelorettes' to it and made her way to the loo. Determined not to be hungover at her own wedding, she had spent the night on 7-Up, which was going through her like Niagara Falls.
âDon't do it, pet,' said one girl, eyeing the hat and sash and rolling her eyes in mock horror as she squeezed past Poppy.
âGetting married and not even pregnant,' teased another, âthat's class.'
Studying her reflection in the mirror as she washed her hands, Poppy thought: Damn, I look a prat in this hat.
It would be more than her life was worth, though, to take it off. This was the ritual, the way things were done. Out at your bachelorette party you were supposed to look daft and anyone who didn't was a complete killjoy. The girls would never forgive her.
Silly hat intact, Poppy emerged from the loos and began making her way back through the heaving masses. The dance floor, over to the left, was by this time as jam-packed as those Japanese commuter trains where everyone got levered in by merciless guards.
The air was stifling, smoky, and multi-perfumed. Poppy turned right instead and threaded her way between tables. Double doors at the back of the club led down a flight of stone steps and out into a walled garden.
It was a heavenly summer evening. The sky was bright with stars. What she needed, Poppy decided, was five minutes outside before Dina and the girls realized she was missing out on all the fun.
Halfway down the broad stone staircase she passed a couple, arm in arm, heading back inside. With his free hand the boy was lighting a Silk Cut. Just for fun, once the cigarette was lit, he brushed it against Poppy's hat. One after the other, like gunfire, two of the condoms exploded. Poppy, taken by surprise, promptly lost her balance and tumbled down the last few steps. With a squeal she landed in a heap on the grass at the bottom.
It was all highly undignified. Her skirt flew up and her sash seemed to be strangling her. The big toe on her left foot hurt like anything. Only her stupid hat remained intact.
People were staring. At the top of the steps the boy with the cigarette looked aggrieved. âThat's not my fault,' he told his girlfriend. âI mean, it's not as if I
âSilly sod,' his girlfriend replied in loving tones. âCome on, your round. I'll have a double rum-and-black.'
âIt's okay, I've got you,' said a male voice. Poppy, who was busy cursing under her breath and tugging her skirt down, felt a supporting arm go around her waist. The voice went on, âI don't think anything's broken. Can you make it over to that bench?'
She found herself being helped to her feet and led across the lawn by someone whose rumpled dark curls gave him the look of a wayward cherub. A cherub with cheekbones. His eyes, so dark they seemed black, were in marked contrast with his white shirt. He was tall, Poppy registered, and thin, and extremely brown. As he lowered her onto the wooden bench she also noticed very white teeth, two of them endearingly crooked, and a quirky infectious smile.
âThanks.' Grateful to have her dignity at least semi-restored, Poppy straightened her sash. âAs if I wasn't already feeling daft enough.'
âI'm afraid your accessories have had it.' He indicated the burst condoms now dangling limply from the brim of her hat. âI hope you weren't saving them for a special occasion.' He paused for a second, his dark eyes searching Poppy's face. âWhen is it? The wedding?'
It was the weirdest sensation ever. Quite suddenly, Poppy felt as if she'd known him all her life. Her breath caught in her throat.
âTomorrow.' This was ridiculous; her heart was doing some kind of frantic can-can in her chest. In an effort to distract herself from the strangeness of what seemed to be going on, she bent down and pulled off one shoe. âLooks like I'll be hopping down the aisle. I must have landed on my big toe. If it swells up I'm sunk.'
âMy name's Tom, by the way.'
âRight. Tom. I'mâ'
âPoppy. I know. I heard your pregnaniend say it earlier.'
Poppy, seldom at a loss for words, could only sit and watch as he reached for her foot, held it in the palm of his hand and carefully inspected her poor bruised toe.
âYou'll live,' he finally pronounced.
âAh, but will I limp?'
He smiled and Poppy's stomach turned over. Ye gods, she thought helplessly, what's
âIt isn't swollen enough to be broken. We could put a cold compress on it if you like. Either that or cancel the wedding.'
âAnd give my future mother-in-law a nervous breakdown,' Poppy joked feebly, wondering when she was going to start feeling normal again. âPlease. Five hundred sausage rolls are baking as we speak.'
Several feet from where they sat was a lily pond with a small fountain. Tom took a dark blue handkerchief from his pocket and held it in the stream of water splashing down from the stone statue of a frog. Returning to the bench, he rested Poppy's bare foot across his knee and wrapped the handkerchief around the injured toe. Without even thinking, Poppy took off her hat and sash.
He glanced sideways at her. âWon't your friends be wondering where you are?'
âProbably.' Poppy no longer cared. âWon't yours?'
âMine have left. I came down from London for the weekend,' Tom explained, âto stay with my brother and his girlfriend. About an hour ago they launched into the most tremendous argument. The thing is with their fights, they're great ones for throwing plates at each other. So when they rushed off home,' he concluded with amusement, âI thought I'd better stay put for a while. Leave them to it.'
He's from London and I've definitely never seen him before, thought Poppy in a daze. How, when I know absolutely nothing about this man, can I feel as if I've known him for years?
Tom slowly massaged her instep as he spoke. âOf course, now I'm glad I stayed.'
âYou are? You mean you have a thing about feet?'
He laughed. âMaybe that too. Damn. Is this seriously bad timing or what?'
Poppy's heart did another ungainly flip-flop. If he meant what she thought he meant it was exactly what had been going through her mind too. Except that this whole thing was ridiculously far-fetched. A spot of instant mutual attraction was one thing, but actually falling in loveâreally in loveâwith a total stranger couldn't possibly exist. Could it?
It's a nervous reaction, she told herself, a subconscious last-minute panic. I'm just grateful someone's paying me a bit of attention at last, even if I did have to mangle my toe to get it.
âI wish you weren't getting married tomorrow,' said Tom.
âCoo-eee! There you are.'
Yelling over the heads of the dozen or so people separating them, Dina clattered down the flight of steps in her ludicrous high heels. Poppy whipped her foot off Tom's lap.
âHiding away,' Dina chided, inspecting Tom with interest. âWhatever are you doing out here? And who are you?'
âYour friend fell down the steps. She thought she might have broken her ankle,' said Tom. âI'm a doctor.'
Poppy stared at him. âYou are?'
âPoppy, you're hopeless.' Dina turned once more to Tom. âWell,
âGood. So I can drag her back onto the dance floor.'
Dismayed, Poppy said, âOh butâ'
âCome on now, no excuses.' Dina had her by the arm. She smirked. âYou don't have a leg to stand on.'
âBut my toe,' wailed Poppy, who more than anything else in the world wanted to stay outside. âIt
Dina rolled her eyes. âIf you think that hurts, try having a baby.'
âMaybe you should,' Tom said quietly. He was no longer smiling. âGo back inside, I mean. I'm sorry aboutâ¦ you know, just now. I shouldn't have said it.'
âSaid what?' Dina demanded.
âHe told me I looked a prat in a hat,' lied Poppy, standing up at last and realizing he was right. She had to go inside and pretend this encounter had never taken place. She had to look as if she was having heaps of fun. And tomorrow she had to marry Rob McBride.
âGo on.' Tom's coal-black eyes hadn't left her face. His smile was bleak. âHappy wedding and all that.'
â'Bye.' Poppy bit her lip.
âQuick!' screeched Dina, almost yanking her arm out of its socket as a change of music filtered out through the double doors. âGary Glitter, my
Her big toe still hurt like crazy but Poppy no longer cared. She had danced nonstop for the past hour, forcing herself not to think of Tom. He had gone anyway. She had seen him leave. It had just been one of those mad moments and now it was over. She was going to concentrate on real life instead.
By ten to two the DJ was winding up for the night. The last three or four records were always slow ones. Susie and Jen were dancing with two brothers who claimed, somewhat dodgily, to be airline pilots. Dina was massaging her aching ankles under cover of their table. She gave Poppy a hefty nudge. Poppy, who was hunting in the bottom of her bag for money for the taxi, didn't look up.
âOh doctor, I'm in trouble,' sang Dina. She didn't sound a bit like Sophia Loren.
âThat chap who couldn't keep his hands off your foot.' Triumphantly, she watched Poppy's head jerk up. âHmm. Looks like he can't keep away either.'
âYou're having me on.'
âIf you want to dance, dance.' Dina looked smug. âDon't mind me.'
The last record of the night was âLady in Red.'
âThank God you aren't wearing something red,' said Tom. âThat really would have been too kitsch for words.'
Poppy, whose heart was going nineteen to the dozen, didn't tell him she had red knickers on.
She said, âI thought you'd left.'
âI did. Then I came back. I had to.' Tilting his head he murmured into her ear, âI want you to know I don't make a habit of this. It isn't some kind of bizarre hobby of mine, in case you were wondering.'
Over his shoulder Poppy saw Jen and one of the airline pilots cruising at low altitude towards them. Jen winked.
âWatch what you're doing with my future cousin-in-law,' she instructed Tom. âBy this time tomorrow she'll be an old married woman. We're under instruction to keep our eye on her tonight.'
This is awful, thought Poppy, beginning to panic as the song moved into its final chorus. Any minute now the night will be over, it'll be time to leave. How can this be happening to me? I need more
In a low voice Tom said, âWill your friends miss you if we sneak out now?'
they will.' Close to despair Poppy felt her fingers dig helplessly into his arms. âDina's already phoned for a cab to take us home.'
âOkay, I'll leave it up to you.' He shook back a lock of curling dark hair, studying her face intently for a second. âDelgado's, that all-night cafÃ© on Milton Street. You know the one, directly opposite the university?'
Poppy nodded, unable to speak.
âI'll wait there. Until three o'clock. If you want to see me, that's where I'll be. If you don'tâ¦ well, you won't turn up.'
âThis isn't funny.' Poppy realized she was trembling. âI'm not enjoying this. I'm hating it.'
âYou mean you wish you hadn't met me?' Just for a second Tom traced a finger lightly down the side of her quivering face. âFine, if that's how you feel. If it's how you
feel. Go home. Get a good night's sleep. Carry on as if tonight never happened. Get marriedâ'
âOur taxi,' Susie declared with a melodramatic flourish, âis waiting.' She passed Poppy her handbag and began to steer her in the direction of the door. Glancing from Poppy to Tom and back again she chanted, âLadies and gentlemen, your time is up. No more flirting, no more smoochy dances with handsome strangers, no more scribbling your phone number in Biro on the back of his hand and praying it doesn't rain on the way home. The girl is no longer available. Tomorrow, she gets hitched.'