Authors: Jill Mansell
Copyright Â© 2013 by Jill Mansell
Cover and internal design Â© 2013 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Dawn Adams/Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover illustrations by Lisa Mallet
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Originally published in 2007 by Headline Review, an imprint of Headline Publishing Group, a division of Hachette Livre UK Ltd.
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To Charlotte Ash
And with many thanks to her husband Ian for generously supporting Bliss.
If it was sympathy she was after, Ginny Holland might have known she'd come to the wrong place. Then again, it was early on a bright but blustery Saturday morning in October and her options were limited.
And it was only over the road from her own house, which was handy.
“I can't describe how I feel.” She clenched a fist, pressed it to her breastbone, and shook her head in frustration. “It's just soâ¦ soâ¦”
“I know exactly what it is. Bird's-nest syndrome,” said Carla.
Ginny pulled a face because it was so screamingly apparent that Carla didn't have children. “Bird's-nest syndrome would be the name for the state of my hair. I have
-nest syndrome. My nest is empty, my baby has flown away, and I just feel all hollow inside likeâ¦ like a cheap Easter egg.”
“Well, I think you're mad.” Carla was busy executing Olympic-level sit-ups, her bare feet tucked under the edge of the cream leather sofa, her hair swinging glossily to and fro. “Jem's gone off to university. You're free again. You should be out there celebrating. Plus,” she added as an afterthought, “Cadbury's Creme Eggs aren't hollow; they're full of goo.”
“Unlike you,” Ginny pointed out. “You're heartless.”
“And you're thirty-eight, not seventy.” Having completed her five millionth sit-up, Carla raised her legs in the air and, without even pausing for breath, began bicycling furiously. “I'm a year older than you and look at me; I'm having a whale of a time! I'm in tip-top condition, men can't resist me, and sex has never been better. I'm a woman in my prime,” she concluded. “And so are you.”
Ginny knew her life wasn't really over, of course she did, but Jem's departure had nevertheless knocked her for six. She'd always been so happy and busy before now, so endlessly occupied, that this was a whole new experience for her. Nor did it help that it was happening as winter approached. Most of the jobs here in Portsilver were seasonal and she'd just spent the last six months being rushed off her feet working in a cafÃ© down on the seafront. But the tourists had gone home now, Jem was in Bristol, and Ginny was finding herself faced with way more spare time than she was used to. To add insult to injury, two other female friends had separately moved in the last month, her favorite wine bar had been bought up and turned into a noisy haven for underage drinkers of alcopops, and the Latin American dance classes she'd so enjoyed attending had come to an abrupt halt when her dance teacher had slipped doing the samba and broken his hip. All in all, it hadn't been the best October on record. And as for Carla telling her she was a woman in her primeâ¦ well, she could end up being sued for false advertising.
Glancing at her reflection in Carla's glitzy over-the-top Venetian mirror, Ginny puffed away a section of overgrown bangs that were falling into her eyes. The aforementioned bird's-nest hair was long, blond, and wavy-with-a-definite-mind-of-its-own. Sometimes it behaved, sometimes it didn't, and she had no control over it either way. Face-wise, it wasn't as if she was a wrinkled old pruneâif anything, Ginny knew she looked young for her ageâbut in glossy magazine world there was still plenty of room for improvement. It would be lovely to be as chic, groomed, and effortlessly femme-fatalish as Carla but, let's face it, she simply couldn't be doing with making all that effort.
“You need to get yourself together.” Carla finished bicycling in the air, miraculously not even puce in the face. “Cheer yourself up; get out there and have an adventure.”
“I'm just saying I miss Jem.” Ginny hated feeling like this. She had never been needy in her life; the idea was as horrifying to her as suddenly developing a penchant for wearing puffball miniskirts.
“She'd want you to have an adventure,” Carla said reasonably.
“I know.” Ginny tugged at a loose thread on her sweater sleeve. “But I really want to
“Fine. Go on then, if that's what you want to do. If you think Jem won't mind.” Rising gracefully to her feet and automatically checking her sleek, serum-fed hair in the Venetian mirrorâyep, still perfectâCarla said, “You've made a hole in that sleeve, by the way.”
Ginny didn't care; it was a manky old sweater anyway. More importantly, she'd got what she'd come for. “Right, I will.”
“Drive up to Bristol to see Jem. It's a great idea!”
“Now? Shouldn't you give her a ring first? She's eighteen,” said Carla. “She could be getting up to any number of naughty things.”
To humor Carla, Ginny said, “OK, I'll call her. You have a lovely weekend and I'll see you tomorrow night when I get back.”
“I always have a lovely weekend.” Carla patted her flat brown stomach. “I'm a woman in my prime, remember?” Smugly she added, “Besides, Robbie's coming round.”
Robbie was the latest in a series of interchangeable pretty young boys Carla favored for their fit bodies, floppy hair, andâ¦ well, un-floppy other bits. The last thing she was looking for was commitment.
“Right, I'm off.” Ginny gave her a hug.
“Give Jem my love. And drive carefully on the motorway.”
As Ginny let herself out of the house, Carla said, “And don't forget to phone first. She might not be pleased to see you.”
God, best friends could be brutal. If Ginny hadn't been so excited, she might have taken offense.
But that was Carla for you; she wasn't a mother so how could she possibly understand?
“Mum! I don't believe itâhow fantastic that you're here!” Jem's face lit up as she launched herself like a missile into her mother's arms, hugging her so tightly she could hardly breathe.
Oh yes, that was a good one.
Or: “Mummy, oh my God, this is the best surprise everâ¦ you don't know how much I've
Whoops, mustn't make herself cry. Deliberately banishing the happy scenarios her imagination had been busily conjuring up, Ginny blinked hard in order to concentrate on the road ahead. The journey from Portsilver in north Cornwall up to Bristol took three and a half hours and so far they were on schedule to arrive at one o'clock. Luckily, Bellamy enjoyed nothing more than a nice long ride in the car and was lolling contentedly across the backseat with his eyes shut and his tongue out. Every time Ginny said in her excited voice, “Who are we going to see, Bellamy? Hey? We're going to see Jem!” he opened one eye and lazily wagged his tail.
If Ginny had owned one, she'd have been wagging hers too.
It was three weeks since Jem had left home. Ginny had braced herself for the worst but hadn't braced nearly hard enough; the aching void where Jem had once been was a million times worse than she'd envisaged. Her daughter was the most important person in her life; it was as simple as that.
As she drove toward Bristol, Ginny scrolled through some of her happiest memories. Marrying Gavin Holland on her eighteenth birthdayâ¦ well, it may have been a mistake, but how could she possibly regret it when between them they had produced Jem?
Giving birthâgasping her way through ever more agonizing contractions and threatening to knock Gavin's teeth down his throat when he said plaintively, “Ouch, could you not squeeze my hand so hard? It hurts.”
Holding Jem at long last and sobbing uncontrollably because the rush of love was so much more overwhelming than she'd imagined, particularly when you considered that the squalling creature you were cradling in your arms was covered in blood and gunk and slime.
Then later, tiny starfish fingers grasping the airâ¦ the first magical smileâ¦ the first day at school (“Mummy, don't leeeeave meeeee!”)â¦ and that look of blind panic on Jem's face after posting her letter to Father Christmas because what if he got her muddled up with the other Jemima, the one with sticky-out ears and glasses in Miss Carter's class?
Oh yes, there were so many perfect moments. Ginny's smile broadened as each one in turn popped into her mind. She and Gavin had separated when Jem was nine and that had been sad, of course it was, but it truly hadn't been the end of the world. Gavin had turned out not to be the settling-down-and-staying-faithful kind. Nevertheless, he'd always been a loving father and had never once let Jem down. And Jem had come through her parents' separation and subsequent divorce wonderfully well, taking the inevitable changes in her stride.
From that time on, Ginny and Jem had become truly inseparable, as close as any mother and daughter could be. Even the dreaded puberty hadn't managed to spoil their relationship and Ginny knew she'd got off lightly there; while other teenagers grew rebellious and sulky and slammed doors off their hinges, Jem had retained the ability to laugh at herself and hadn't lost her sparky, sunny nature. It had always been the two of them against the world.
At that moment a wet nose touched Ginny's left arm, and Bellamy, his head poked between the front seats, licked her elbow.
“Oh, sorry, sweetheart, I wasn't thinking.” Concentrating on the road ahead, Ginny gave his ears an apologetic rub. “How could I forget you, hmm? The
of us against the world.”
The traffic on the motorway was light, and by ten to one, Ginny was on the outskirts of Bristol. Jem hadn't been keen on moving into the halls of residence. Instead, she'd got on the phone to local property agents, arranged a day of viewing back in September, and decided on a flat-share in Clifton with two other students. This was where Ginny had helped her to unload her belongings from the car three weeks earlier, prior to the arrival of the other flatmates.
Now she was crossing the Downs heading for Whiteladies Road, the location of Jem's flat on Pembroke Road indelibly printed in her mind and drawing her toward it like an invisible umbilical cord.
Actually, that conjured up a bit of a yucky image. Maybe not. Ooh, now that looked like an interesting Mexican restaurant over there on the left; maybe she and Jem could try it out this evening. And if Jem's flatmates wanted to join them, well, the more the merrier. As she indicated right and turned into Apsley Road, Ginny imagined them in the buzzy restaurant, all sitting and laughing together around a table bristling with plates and bottles of ice-cold beer, the others exclaiming, “You're so lucky, Jem. I wish my mum was as much fun as yours!”
Whoops, mind that bus.