Chapter One

 

It’s only taken three months, two weeks and five days, but here I am – in Stuart Inman’s Notting Hill bedroom, wearing underwear that screams ‘sex goddess’ and a spray tan that shrieks ‘never again!’

Thankfully Stuart is too busy burying his head in my cleavage to notice my tangerine armpits and stripy inner thighs. He’s also groaning and purring and nuzzling and . . . okay, I’m not really sure what he’s doing down there, but I hope he tries another move soon. I can think of much better things I’d like him to do to my boobs than use them as a pair of earmuffs.

Ah, good, he’s heading north now. I look into his deep blue eyes and remind myself why I’m here. Stuart Inman is hot. Think Matt Damon in an action movie: all blonde and ripped and gun-toting. Matt Damon, that is, with the gun-toting. Not Stuart. The only thing Stuart totes is a rather feminine Burberry man-bag.

He backs me up against his bedroom wall and I run my fingers over the taut muscles of his fabulous chest. Then I feel his lips brush against mine, his tongue darting in and . . . oh, sweet Jesus, what the . . . ?

Breathe. Close your eyes, think of England and for heaven’s sake, just breathe . . .

What in the name of all things holy was that? If it was supposed to be a kiss, then please don’t let him kiss me again. Talk about disappointing. Has he been practising his make-out skills with a bathroom sponge? I’ve kissed a few men in my life, and most of them have been far less confident, successful and drop-dead gorgeous than Stuart Inman, so how is it possible that he kisses like a half-starved pufferfish devouring a shrimp? Ugh . . . no. Just no.

I run my fingers over his abs, trying to avoid his hungry mouth. So what if he’s a crap kisser? We can work on the finer details later. The important thing right now is sex is happening – my eight-month-long drought is coming to an end and my velvet-touch, thirty-function, silicone Raunchy Rabbit can hop off into the sunset and do one.

His hands move over my body as he lowers me onto his bed. I look into his eyes, his cheeks dimpling as he smiles seductively. I should be kissing him, feeling him, touching him until we’re both sweaty and panting for more, but my stupid brain decides to torture me instead: Stuart kisses like a pufferfish. Stuart kisses like a pufferfish. Stuart kisses like a pufferfish . . . and . . . oh no, he’s nuzzling my boobs again . . . and oh my god! What the hell was that?

Why are his pants stuck to my stomach? Oh shit, he has, hasn’t he? He’s shot his load. He rolls onto his back with a thump. ‘I’m sorry . . .’ he whimpers.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Where’s my Matt Damon action hero gone? Why does the fittest client I’ve ever worked with have less knob control than a horny teenager who’s just discovered Pornhub? What did I do to piss off the gods of shagging this time? Could life be any more bloody unfair? Come back, my beloved Raunchy Rabbit, I miss you already.

He turns to face me, but I don’t want to look at him. Yes, I’ll admit, I’m a coward. I can’t think of anything good to say, which, given words are my livelihood, is pretty pathetic.

‘You’re just so hot. I’m sorry. I couldn’t help it.’ He removes his sticky pants to reveal an appendage that could accurately be compared to a half-eaten Walnut Whip – sad, shrivelled and hollow. He crosses his legs in an attempt to hide his shame, and sadly, it doesn’t take much to hide it. How on earth didn’t I notice that before? I usually check out a guy’s bulge before I commit, don’t I? Jeez, this must be the most desperate for sex I’ve ever been in my entire life.

‘It’s okay. Maybe next time?’ I say, with the kind of insincere politeness a politician would be proud of.

‘I can still go on. Just give me a minute,’ he says with an enthusiastic tug to his manhood, and my stomach lurches. Do I want to have sex with a Matt Damon lookalike if he’s only packing a chipolata and kisses like a pufferfish sucking on a sponge?

Ten seconds later, he’s sliding his hand into my knickers and frantically rubbing away at what I’m sure he thinks is my clitoris, but of course, it isn’t. The gods of shagging wouldn’t be that merciful. I simulate a few polite moans and consider following through with a fake orgasm, but as he’s jabbing the inside of my leg with the elbow of the hand that’s futilely attempting to transform the chipolata into a frankfurter, I can’t take it anymore.

Mission abort! Mission abort!

‘Okay, stop. Just stop,’ I say as I squirm out of his grasp.

He removes his hand from inside my underwear and frowns at me. ‘What’s up?’

‘Um. . . that’s not really doing much for me. Sorry.’

‘What do you mean? What’s wrong with you? I always get girls off doing that.’

I feel my eyes pop. ‘Really?’

‘Yeah, really,’ he replies with an eye roll and way too much attitude. All of a sudden I have too many words, but as none of them are kind, I swallow them down and start putting my clothes back on.

Stuart tuts, gets up and pulls on a robe. I leave his apartment as fast as I can and head towards Holland Park Tube, flagging the first taxi I see on the way.

***

At times like these, a girl needs her best friend, so I direct the taxi driver to the heart of the West End and make my way to Ethan’s Soho penthouse. I check my watch – it’s 1:15 a.m., but it’s Friday and he said he was hosting a get-together with the lads tonight, so he might still be up. If he is, I hope he’s alone.

I say hi to Gus, the doorman of Ethan’s building, before taking the lift to the top floor. I listen at the door – silence, thank goodness – and ring the buzzer. And then I ring again. And again . . . until finally the door opens to reveal a bare-chested Ethan clad only in tartan pyjama bottoms, his usually perfectly styled dark hair sticking up in a hundred different directions and the aroma of beer lingering on his skin.

‘Vi?’ He rubs at his eyes. ‘What time is it?’

‘Um. . . late—’

‘Are you okay?’ he interrupts, panic rising in his voice.

‘Yes, of course. I just . . . I’m sorry. I didn’t think you’d be in bed yet. I’ll go. We can talk tomorrow.’ I turn on my heel, feeling stupid for coming over in the middle of the night.

‘Wait,’ he says, his voice still gravelly with sleep and his Scottish accent more pronounced than usual.

I turn around. He’s looking at me as if I’ve grown an extra head. ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’

‘Just wondering what you’ve done this time.’

I scowl at him, and he beckons me into his apartment with a knowing grin. I head straight for the open-plan sitting/eating/sleeping room to find his very stylish bachelor pad has morphed into a students’ union den – empty beer bottles, pizza boxes, lad mags, overflowing ashtrays, women’s underwear . . . Woah! What?

‘Do you have a woman in here?’

‘No, of course not,’ he says pulling a t-shirt on over his head.

He looks confused. I don’t want to ask, but the question is begging. ‘Have you had a stripper in here?’

‘Eh? What are you talking about?’ He looks absently around the room until his gaze finally settles on the skimpy fuchsia-pink pair of knickers sitting proudly on the coffee table. ‘Ah. Those are here courtesy of Max.’

I dread to think. Max is my other best friend, and he was Ethan’s roommate in halls at UCL. We’ve all worked together at Barrett McAllan Gray, one of London’s largest ad agencies, for the last three years. Max is a designer; Ethan and I are a creative team – he’s the art director, and I’m the copywriter. Max is a certifiable lunatic, and we’re cursed with the unenviable task of covering his arse 24/7.

‘Did Max have a woman in here?’

Ethan laughs. ‘Yeah, sure. Max had sex with a woman in my apartment and we all sat around and watched. Actually, now I think about it, that sounds like a fun night.’

I stifle a giggle. ‘You want to watch Max having sex?’

‘Ew, what? No. I didn’t say that. In my mind there would be two women . . . and we’d all be naked . . . you know. And I’d get to do stuff too.’

I stare at him open-mouthed, wondering why my life is plagued with teenage men.

He exhales in defeat. ‘Okay, I did say that, didn’t I?’

I tumble onto his grey sofa in a fit of giggles, hugging his favourite Beatles Yellow Submarine cushion. ‘Yep, you did. But I know what you meant.’

He slumps down next to me. ‘The knickers are Ruby’s.’

‘Oh my god, no. Ruby and Max? My Ruby? My trainee and therefore my responsibility? Please tell me he hasn’t.’ Ethan shakes his head, but I’m still questioning Ruby’s sanity.

‘No, it’s not like that. It was Will.’

‘Will? That’s not much better. He’s horrible with women.’

‘No, you don’t understand. It was a dare. She doesn’t know we have them.’

I stop laughing. We’ve been here before and it doesn’t end well. The last time Max and Will pranked each other it ended up with a written warning from the CEO. ‘Ethan Archibald Fraser, confess your sins now. Have you and your merry band of fuckwits done anything gross, cruel or in any way misogynistic to poor Ruby?’

He nods his head and burps. A cloud of rotten-beer belch fills the air. ‘I would have to plead guilty on all three counts.’

‘Oh my god, you’re such a dick.’

‘I know, and don’t call me that.’

‘What? A dick? I could call you a lot worse.’

 ‘No, don’t call me Archibald. I know I’m a dick.’

I prop the giant cushion behind my back and make myself comfortable. ‘Just get on with the story.’

Ethan contorts his face into an aggravated scowl and moves closer to me. I smile inwardly because I can tell he’s trying not to laugh. He also has an unmistakeable glint of mischief in his eye, reminding me why we’ve been inseparable since the day we met: we get each other, trust each other, laugh at the same things and, as a result, we’re the best advertising creative team in the city.

‘Max has a thing for Ruby, apparently. He heard she needed help decorating her bedroom, so he volunteered. Will found out and teased the shit out of him. Mohammed joined in, it escalated, and the guys ended up betting Max he couldn’t steal an item of clothing from her bedroom drawers.’ He points at the pair of knickers and chuckles. ‘Max won, so Mohammed owes him fifty quid.’

‘Let me get this straight – Max stole Ruby’s knickers to win a bet? That is so disrespectful. I’m disappointed in Mohammed. You, Max and Will are a trio of shits, but Mohammed has always been a gentleman. Was he here tonight?’

‘No, he’s left.’

‘Left what?’ I ask in confusion.

‘Barrett McAllan Gray. Didn’t anybody text you tonight? He pissed off a client – nothing major – but Will had a real go at him after you left work this afternoon, and he walked. Said he wasn’t working with a sociopathic megalomaniac any more. It turns out Mohammed’s flatmate works for the Daily Mail and he’s landed a great copywriting job there already.’

‘Oh my god!’

‘I know. I’m going to miss Mohammed. He was a good laugh.’

‘No, I mean, oh my god, the Daily Mail hired someone called Mohammed? What’s up with that?’

He laughs and runs his fingers through his short, feathery hair. ‘So, I take it things didn’t go too well with Stuart.’

‘It was a disaster,’ I reply, not meeting his gaze. ‘No, it was worse than a disaster.’

Ethan raises an eyebrow and his smile fades. ‘Worse than your date with Eugene from Public Relations?’

Oh flip, I’d forgotten about him. After an unbelievably great evening – at The Ivy, no less – Eugene somehow slipped in the gents’ toilets, cracked his head open on a urinal and had to be stretchered out. ‘Yes, it was worse than that. Much worse.’

‘Oh shit,’ he says. ‘Well, I always thought Stuart was a tube.’

‘A what?’ I twist my face in confusion. ‘You thought he was an underground train?’

‘No, a tube’s an idiot – Scottish slang.’

‘You haven’t been anywhere near Scotland for sixteen years. Speak the Queen’s English, for goodness sake.’

‘Hey, I’ll always be a proud Scotsman. Now, are you going to tell me what Stuart did, or are you just going to insult my vocabulary?’

I inhale deeply for courage. ‘You have to promise not to tell anybody.’

‘Of course,’ he says, and being a good Catholic boy who never goes to church and doesn’t believe in God, he crosses himself for good measure.

‘I don’t know where to start, so I’m just going to blurt it out, okay?’

‘Um. . . okay.’

‘Okay.’ I take another deep breath. ‘So, despite being blessed with the body and looks of a demi-god, Stuart Inman is a crap kisser, he’s hung like a gerbil in a blizzard and he shot his load before I even got my knickers off.’

Ethan covers his mouth with both hands and starts to turn purple.

‘Don’t you dare bloody laugh!’

He laughs. Actually, he doesn’t just laugh. He wheezes, shrieks, coughs, splutters, almost chokes and then runs to the bathroom saying he needs a piss. It takes a solid five minutes for him to compose himself and I can hear him laughing the whole time he’s in there. When he finally emerges he apologises, whilst trying not to laugh, and then he sits down and proceeds to start laughing again.

‘It isn’t funny. I’m totally mortified, and we still have to work with Stuart. I pretty much told him he was a shit shag and ran away. Does that make me awful?’

‘Um. . . yeah, a little bit,’ he says between giggles. ‘I’m sorry, but who’d have thought it? Now I know why he drives that ridiculous Porsche.’

‘I won’t be able to look at him ever again without replaying it. And seeing, you know, it . . . oh, crap. Life is teaching me a lesson here. Can you remember when I passed that law last year after Eugene? ‘Never screw around with people you have to work with.’ Why didn’t I stick to it? We have to see Stuart tomorrow night at that blasted awards show. Or rather you do. I’m not going. I can’t face it.’

‘Oh no you don’t. No way are you getting out of the AdAg Awards. You’ve been trying to find an excuse not to go for months. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you orchestrated this whole Stuart thing deliberately.’

‘You think I shrank Stuart Inman’s penis to get out of the going to the AdAg Awards?’

‘Stranger things have happened.’

‘Have they? Where was that then? In darkest voodoo-magic land?’

He shrugs, but his expression changes back to pity again. ‘Do you want to sleep here tonight?’

The mention of sleep suddenly makes me feel exhausted. I shuffle down on the sofa, curl up into a ball and nuzzle my cheek into Ethan’s super-comfy Beatles cushion. ‘Thank you that would be nice.’

‘You can have my bed if you want.’

‘That’s okay. I’ll be fine here.’

‘Okay, I’ll get you a blanket.’

He disappears over to his bedroom, which is around the corner of his L-shaped open-plan studio. He returns with a dark-orange knitted throw and drapes it over me. Then he perches at my feet and rests his hand on my curled-up knee. ‘I am sorry about tonight,’ he says softly.

‘Even if Stuart’s a tube?’

‘Yeah, sure. I mean, you can do much better than him, but I want you to be happy.’

‘Thanks, Ethan. I just hope I haven’t screwed things up for you at work.’

‘Well, if you need advice from an expert, just pretend it didn’t happen and go on as normal. That’s what I do. And I have a lot of experience sleeping with clients, and co-workers, and—’

‘And the models we hire. And actresses. And the woman who scrubs the office toilets.’

‘That only happened once, and Kiki is a very lovely girl.’

‘She doesn’t speak a word of English.’

‘She speaks the language of love.’

I groan and turn over as he laughs and pats my knee.

‘Look at it this way, Vi. The fact Stuart shot his load before the main event means you must be pretty damn hot in bed.’

I play along. ‘Maybe I am, but you’ll never find out.’

‘Why not?’ he teases.

‘Because I have to start obeying my law, so I’m not just swearing off dating men I work with, I’m swearing off all men, everywhere. I’m going to enjoy being single until I’m at least thirty.’

‘Well, that’s a shame,’ he says with a chuckle, tucking the blanket around me. ‘And just for the record, you are hot. You’re the hottest woman I’ve ever met.’

What the hell? My stomach flips and I have no idea why it’s flipping because Ethan and I joke like this all the time. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of his feet padding over to his bed, followed by the creak of his mattress as he climbs in and gets comfortable. And just for a very brief fraction of a moment I imagine joining him.

My eyes fly open in surprise. I must be really bloody hard up if my brain is thinking about my best friend in this way. Thanks a lot for breaking my brain, Stuart Inman!

I push it out of my mind and fall asleep to the strangely comforting sound of traffic mixed with summer rain falling on the windows.