Authors: Fiona Walker
Tags: #Romance, #Chick-Lit
‘That really is some frock.’
‘You’ve never seen it?’
‘I sort of remember seeing it in a picture once, but Mum threw away all the wedding photographs when Dad left us. I bet she looked amazing.’
‘She did. Granny North still has some pictures I think.’
‘Was it a good day?’
She nodded. ‘I was a bridesmaid; we all got to wear red velvet brocade and funny headdresses like nurses’ hats. It was jolly hot, like today. Take my tip and wear the latest Arsenal strip when you get hitched.’
Nico closed one eye. ‘Nah, I’m never going to get married. I don’t like girls much.’
Legs shot him a sympathetic look and he dived back into his room for his high tech camera.
Aside from singing and football, Nico’s greatest talent was photography, something Legs privately guessed he was far more passionate about than the choral practice his mother encouraged him to do each day.
‘I know it’s not quite
she apologised as they trailed downstairs. ‘But it’s a start.’
‘I want to be a sports photographer,’ he reminded her.
‘Sure.’ She smiled encouragingly. ‘Capture the Gunners winning the Treble.’
‘Too right.’ He bounded past and led the way downstairs and out through the open plan kitchen to the pretty walled garden that stretched behind the west London townhouse, currently bursting with its best midsummer finery, the dahlias and zinnias waving vast lollipop heads of red and pink from the borders, buddleia and rambling roses bobbing overhead, lavender and sweetpeas crowding fragrantly around the trunks of the fruit trees.
It might have appeared perfect wedding weather through the window, with the striped green lawns dancing with sunlight, but in fact it was blowing a gale. Stepping onto the decking, Legs almost
took off as her skirts inverted, revealing a skeleton farthingale and her bare thighs.
‘DO NOT take a photograph!’ she ordered from inside several layers of silk and damask as she fought the skirts back down, knowing that the temptation for a ten-year-old to capture the moment would probably be too great. The shot could be used as blackmail for years to come, although she supposed at least her face was covered in pearl-studded cream silk. But those legs would be unmistakeable in the family. They were legend.
Being called Allegra was always going to lead to one nickname, particularly fitting given how distinctive her legs actually were. Yet this nickname hadn’t been bestowed on Legs as a result of her possessing long, slender lower limbs up to her armpits; quite the reverse. From toddlerdom on, her legs had always been like tree-trunks, despite her otherwise slim frame. She did her best to hide them at all times, and had learned all means of cunning tactics to emphasise her good points while playing down the sturdy girders that ran from hip to ankle like two ungainly termite mounds. The maxi dress was her best friend, along with boyfriend jeans and wide-legged trousers. Elizabethan petticoats flying around her head revealing nothing but her M&S tanga, however, was not a good look.
Having fought the skirts back down, Legs adjusted the uncomfortable corset, still fighting to breathe and now ducking through flying clematis petals as she panted her way to some dappled shade.
‘That’s great!’ Nico unhooked the camera strap from his neck and framed the shot. ‘The light is perfect on those butterfly wing things.’
‘Yeah, you do look a bit rough, but it’s OK, I can Photoshop it.’
Legs rolled her eyes and then pouted and posed for a few minutes beneath the apple tree, battling light-headedness and crouching uncomfortably to hide her feet beneath the huge hooped skirt that
billowed like a sail. She would never have cut it as an actress in costume dramas, she decided, despite the obvious appeal of being very famous and maybe getting to kiss Orlando Bloom. The corsetry would kill her, as would all the crouching required to appear shorter than her leading men. She was too tall to be a movie star, and liked her breakfast muffins too much. And she was also a lousy actress. To her great regret, Legs shared none of her sister’s musical talent, nor was she gifted with a creative or literary streak, despite a passionate appreciation of the arts. In her dreams, she might once have imagined herself heralded the new Tracey Emin, Zadie Smith or Emily Watson, but in reality, it was her ability to organise, charm and multi-task that earned her wage.
Life as an overworked assistant to a literary agent was perhaps not as glamorous as the stage and screen, although an office two doors away from a Starbucks proved some compensation. And as far as her nephew was concerned, she had access to the Holy Grail by working for Fellows Howlett alongside Conrad Knight, the only man to have ever knowingly met writer Gordon Lapis in person.
‘Is the new Ptolemy Finch book being printed yet?’ Nico asked now.
‘Nearly,’ she assured him.
Nico was crazy about Gordon’s white-haired little hero, with his magical powers and witty irreverence. Ptolemy was wise and brave and sassy. He was also the ultimate outsider; understood by children and adults alike. Through six bestselling adventures, his thick black hair, prematurely streaked with grey, had turned pure white. Yet he never seemed to age.
Such was his success these days, when Gordon delivered a manuscript, it was a high security operation involving bank vaults and confidentiality contracts. It was the one communication that could not be conducted electronically because of the risk of hacking. His agent Conrad Knight would fetch the disk himself and never let it out of his sight until it was delivered. One hard copy would be printed and kept in the agency safe along with the
master disk. Then a copy on disk was passed to the publisher. However much Nico begged, Legs would never dream of opening the safe. Just one photocopied page in circulation before the book was published would not only cost her job, but she’d probably be litter picking on community service for weeks to come. Even she was not allowed to read the book until its release into the shops at midnight on publication day, and she was Conrad Knight’s lover.
But she had promised her nephew a signed copy on the stroke of that next long-awaited midnight release, and he asked about it daily. Legs now regretted boasting that she could get it signed. It hadn’t occurred to her at the time that Lapis’s obsession with protecting his identity meant acquiring a signed copy on launch day was close to impossible. Conrad had muttered something vague about seeing what he could do. With a ten-year-old super-fan’s huge, excited eyes on her, Legs felt the weight of expectation heavy on her shoulders.
‘Do you really exchange emails with Gordon Lapis?’
‘I really do.’
‘That must be so amazing. You know, he doesn’t ever answer his fans personally any more. He has a load of secretaries that do it. But he emails
That’s so cool.’
Legs thought it was very arrogant that Gordon no longer replied to letters himself, but had no desire to shatter the idol worship. ‘Well he does have a
of fans.’ She knew that, on average, Gordon Lapis received two hundred emails and letters each day.
‘What are his messages like?’
‘Clever.’ Often obstreperous, occasionally flirtatious, she added to herself, fishing in her sleeve to read his most recent message:
Some questions for research: Speaking as a rumpled and feisty west Londoner, do you drink real coffee or instant? What radio station do you listen to? What is your morning routine? GL
A new email had already queued up behind it:
I have now been waiting three hours for a response. Julie hasn’t even got to work yet, and, despite sitting at my desk, neither have I. GL
‘Can I read some of them?’ Nico reeled off a few more shots on his camera.
‘I don’t think you’d be very interested.’ She hedged, imagining star-struck Nico poring over Gordon’s abstruse missives. For a man who wrote such all-consuming, action-packed fiction, he was a very abstract email correspondent, leaving her hanging for days and then expecting a dozen snappy answers on the trot.
Already growing bored of his Mario Testino task, Nico wandered off to snap the family cat, Wenger, who was chasing a bumblebee between chairs on the decking.
Legs perched on a bench and hastily composed a reply.
I am so sorry! I’ve been modelling for a photo shoot
(that should inspire him; Julie should be glamorous).
Lots of shop coffee. Radio 2. Always running late.
Pulling at her corset again, she half watched as Nico pursued Wenger and the bumblebee back into the house, snapping away. She started composing a text to Conrad, then paused when Gordon immediately fired back more questions:
Is Julie vengeful? Does she harbour grudges? Would you be able to work alongside a man who had once been your lover?
What has Conrad told you?
she tapped back in a panic before hastily resuming her text to the man himself, now paranoid that he had told Gordon Lapis that he was going to dump her. Misspelling in her haste, she demanded to know whether they were getting together that weekend or not.
As soon as she sent it off, she stared at the phone face in alarm, already uncertain whether she’d sent the right messages to writer and lover or got them muddled up as she kept doing. Yesterday she’d sent a text intended for her friend Daisy to her sister and vice versa, only realising when Ros asked what LABATYD meant. (She had quickly improvised ‘love all babies and trust your dog’ for ‘life’s a bitch and then you die’.)
Thankfully Gordon was quick to respond with reassuring directness.
Why should Conrad say anything?
He doesn’t know Conrad’s my lover, she realised with relief. Be professional, she reminded herself.
My mistake. Saturday brain not in gear. Probably couldn’t work alongside my ex, no. Especially not if he’d become grizzled and hard-drinking.
Young, edgy, haunted by the past,
lives on a house boat, plays the fiddle and has a tame badger. Intense, witty, intelligent.
Not sure about the badger, but I could definitely work with Jimmy so far.
He’s also a gambler,
on; mildly epileptic, undergoing anger management and unable to commit to any relationship.
I can feel sexual chemistry already.
That will do for now. Thank you for your input. GL
She tucked the phone back into her sleeve with satisfaction, envisaging him cracking his rickety knuckles over a battered PC keyboard ready to commence upon five thousand words of action-packed crime thriller. Somehow she always imagined Gordon working in a dusty, book-lined office akin to an academic’s, although she really had no idea. Conrad never gave anything away about his most reclusive and successful client. For all she knew, Lapis could be their wet-lipped, bald-headed neighbour here in Ealing, working on the other side of the garden wall in the pastel blue summer-house that Ros had complained to the local conservation officer about. She could see its cedar shingles through the wind-buffeted buddleia, and imagined Gordon inside typing a description of Julie at the start of another baffling case for her and Jimmy. She hastily dismissed the notion in favour of the old wizard in an ivory tower.
The garden was full of windblown insect life that had lost grip from flowers and leaves; butterflies whizzed left while ladybirds swirled to the right.
Legs straightened up and batted away a wind-tunnelling wasp with one huge puff sleeve, making her phone fly out from its hiding place and hit her on the nose before dropping into a prickly Japanese Barberry, from which it predictably started to ring.
‘Ow … ow … ow!’ She managed to extract it just in time to field the call, heart beating hard because she could see it was Conrad.
‘Pick you up at eleven forty-five. Wear a dress. It’s smart.’ He rang off, leaving her reeling.
She was thrilled. As phone conversations went, that was long for Conrad. And she was getting to see him on a Saturday, such a rarity these days. She’d given him a hard time only this week about the fact he was neglecting her; he’d obviously listened for once.
When they’d first got together, he’d thought nothing of whisking her away every weekend, wrapped up in the first throes of passion, but now his children took precedence. While Legs didn’t object – she knew how important Nico’s fortnightly visits with his father were to them both, after all – she missed Conrad’s company, and longed for the time when she would get introduced as ‘Daddy’s friend’. But as far as the four Knight teenagers were concerned, she still didn’t exist.
The gossip about Conrad Knight and his comely assistant Allegra ‘Legs’ North was already well worn in publishing circles, but the story was always told wrongly. It was said that Conrad’s rock solid marriage had ended when he took up with young Legs, whereas he’d been separated several months and already living alone before anything had ever happened between them. In fact it had been Legs’ long-term relationship which had collapsed, her engagement to childhood sweetheart Francis smashed against the rocks of the affair.
Thinking about Francis yet again she felt a pinch on her heart, those familiar fingers of regret and guilt squeezing together.
Betraying her first, and greatest, love, had been the most painful thing she’d done in her life. Since those heady teenage days together, she’d always believed they would marry and raise a family
of blond-haired, blue-eyed children; falling in love with another man had come as a complete shock.