Chapter One

 

FUCK . . . FUCKITY FUCKING FUCK.

I lie outstretched on the bed, staring up at Ethan’s ice cream–coloured ceiling. Ice cream that’s inexplicably melting and running down the walls. “Give me an hour. I’ll be okay in an hour.”

“Violet, I think that’s going to be kind of impossible.”

“Why?”

“Well, because you’re lying diagonally on my bed, so I can’t get in it. Oh, and you’re also completely stark bollock naked.”

Shit. He’s not wrong; I am. “Okay. Forget about the hour. Give me a minute. If I don’t barf by the time you count to sixty, I’m still in the game.” I squint at him. The zigzag pattern on his shirt draws my brain into a garish, dizzy nightmare, and my stomach turns itself inside out. “Ugh . . . okay, give me two minutes. I’ll be fine in two minutes.” I crack one eye open to find him grinning at me. “Why have you got clothes on anyway? Are you waiting for a formal invitation to come to bed?”

He runs his hand through his short dark hair, and his grin widens. “We only got back ten seconds ago. I’ve been in the bathroom having a piss. The most obvious question, given this scenario, is why are you naked?”

“I don’t know. It just happened.”

He laughs. “Jesus Christ, why did you have to get so wasted? All I’ve thought about all night is getting you home and shagging you. My cock is very unhappy right now.”

“I don’t know what you mean. I feel great. Are you saying I’m not shaggable?”

“Well, you don’t look too up for it from where I’m standing,” he says, his Scottish accent thick with a mix of humour and disappointment. “Aside from your choice of clothing, that is.” He walks over to the bed and sits down next to me, nudging my outstretched arm.

“Stop. Don’t touch me. Don’t make me move.” A wave of nausea rises into my throat and I clasp my hand to my mouth. “I swear if you come any closer, I’ll puke all over you.”

“Not the most enticing invitation I’ve ever had.” He gets off the bed and disappears around the bend of his L-shaped open-plan studio apartment and into the kitchen area. I use the time alone wisely. I concentrate hard on taking deep, medicinal breaths. In, out. In, out. In, out. Wait, why am I having to concentrate so hard on remembering how to breathe? That’s stupid. I open my mouth and attempt to suck in a huge lungful of air, but a Chardonnay-flavoured burp zooms up from my stomach at the exact same time. I inhale the burp instead. Gross. I turn over, cooling my face against the crisp cotton duvet. I practise inhaling and exhaling sideways instead.

“Here you go, Sleeping Beauty.” Ethan plonks a bucket on the floor, places a pint glass of iced water on the side table and shoves a bubble-pack of paracetamol into my hand. “You need to rehydrate. You must have drunk two bottles of wine by your-bloody-self tonight.”

I groan as he offers me his hand and helps me to sit. “Correction: two bottles of wine, two vodka cocktails and an electric-blue shot of something horrible that Max gave me.” I feel dreadful, but he looks impressed at my alcohol roll-call. I pop out two pills and reach for the water, taking a succession of thirsty gulps until the glass is empty.

“Jesus, Vi. For such a small person you can’t half drink.”

I hiccup, and a few drops of water escape out the side of my mouth and land on my bare chest. Ethan watches as I rub my hands over my boobs to dry them.

“Any chance you could accidentally spill some more water and let me do that?” he says, his eyes bright with longing.

I giggle and wrap my arms around his neck. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you let me get in this state on purpose.”

His hands move to my waist and he leans in to kiss me. “Now, why would I do that?” he asks, a soft groan escaping his throat.

I brush a trail of soft kisses down his neck, then whisper into his ear. “Because when I’m like this, you know I’ll let you do anything you want to me.”

“Oh my fucking god, it must be my birthday.”

I stand up and position myself between his legs. A swell of desire builds in the pit of my stomach. For a second I forget that I can’t see straight or stand vertically without lurching like a newborn foal on roller skates. Could I be any less sexy? Probably not, but there’s still something about consuming a vineyard full of wine that makes you believe you have the sex skills of a porn star with debts to pay. He’s fully clothed, I’m not, and I can see from the ravenous look in his eyes, combined with the discernible bulge in his pants, that that fact is making him as horny as hell.

I push him back on the bed, kneel between his legs and start grappling with shirt buttons that won’t open and a belt that refuses to budge. I force my eyes to work, but the ridiculously small golden buttons must have been sewn onto his shirt by Rumpelstiltskin’s wicked stepmother. Did he even have a stepmother? Oh, who cares? I try to forget the room-spin and focus on the task at hand, but I soon get lost in a psychedelic kaleidoscope of pulsating blue zigzags that are now glowing, jiggling and blurring against the liquefied ice-cream walls. Not only has the room been designed to make me puke everything I’ve eaten and drunk today but it also wants me to hurl my stomach, liver and large intestine up too.

I try to hold it all back by sheer willpower, but when the bed starts spinning off the earth my insides heave.

“Vi? Oh fuck. Get that bloody bucket now!”

He shoves me up and I drop to the floor with a clatter, landing on my knees with excellent timing. I hunch over the bucket, and my stomach promptly expels all that seemed good earlier in the evening. I hate being sick. It has to be the worst, most out-of-control feeling in the world. My skin, suddenly aware of the October chill, is hot and cold at the same time. I barf up the last remaining chunks of my pan-fried scallops, then I let out a sob as my outer head bangs angrily against my inner head. “I think I’m going to die.”

He hunkers down next to me and cuddles me into his chest. “You’re not going to die, but I might. Did you know cock-blocks could be fatal?” My body checks my stomach is evacuated by forcing me to dry-heave up oxygen. I feel disgusting and stupid, but he just wraps his arms back around me and smooths my hair from my face.

“You think you’re done?” he asks, and I nod. I know I don’t deserve him. How can he still love me when I look and smell like I’ve been dragged out of a wino’s dustbin? He reaches over to pick a t-shirt off his bedroom floor and helps me put it on. “Sorry, this isn’t clean. I’ll get you something from your drawer in a minute.”

“Given I stink of regurgitated seafood, I wouldn’t worry about that,” I say. He laughs and pulls me close to him as we sit on the floor, our backs resting against the bed. “I’m sorry. I was just so happy you won the Belle Oaks account. I got a bit carried away.”

“Ya reckon?” A flash of lamplight catches the silver in his blue eyes, and my heart flutters. His eyes are my favourite thing about him.

“Was I a disgrace?”

He takes my hand and gives it a squeeze. “No, you were funny, and gorgeous, and totally, wonderfully, amazingly captivating.”

I smile as I think back to the evening. I always dread work dos. Making myself interesting to people, and interested in people, is not my area of expertise. It comes effortlessly to Ethan, but not so to me – Miss Overthinker of everything. I spend so much time worrying I’ll say the wrong thing and look stupid that I end up saying nothing at all. That’s how I got into this mess. I was seeking false confidence from Belle Oaks’s unlimited supply of free celebratory wine.

I snuggle closer to Ethan, trying to ignore the smell of scallops and wine that’s still coming off me in waves. “Hey, now that Belle Oaks is our client, do you think I could get a discount? I love her handbags. I have two already, but they cost the best part of a month’s salary.”

“Don’t ask me. I always thought Belle Oaks was just the name of a shop. I’m still a bit weirded-out that she’s a real-life living and breathing person. All last week I half expected Stella to tell me she’d arranged a meeting for me with Dorothy Perkins.”

“Well,” I say, yawning. “I’m really excited to work on Belle’s campaign.”

“You should be excited. It’s your first job as creative director.”

I smile at the mention of my new and extremely important job title. “And it’s the first client you’ve signed up as managing partner.”

He grins. “I still can’t believe I won it. It helped that Belle is Stella’s mate from way back, of course, but jeez, it was a tough sales pitch. The woman’s a dragon. She definitely signed up to the Stella Judd School of Ball-Breaking Badassery.”

“Oh god, that’s the part that scares me. I’m going to have to work closely with her. I’m bound to make a fool of myself. Stella thinks I’m an idiot, so she will too.” I shuffle onto my knees, pulling down the hem of Ethan’s snug-fit Kasabian t-shirt in a vague attempt to cover my arse.

“Stella doesn’t think you’re an idiot, and you’ll be fine with Belle as long as you remember to flatter her. You like her bags, so you’re halfway there.”

I try to stand up. “Ugh . . . I am going to die. If I don’t see tomorrow, you’re my sole beneficiary. Except for my books. Max can have my books.”

“He can have your music too. There’s no place for opera and show tunes in my life.”

“Fine.” I’d usually protest my superior musical taste, but I don’t have the energy.

Ethan helps me crawl into bed, then he tucks the duvet around me and kisses my clammy cheek. “I love you,” he says.

“I love you too.”

* * *

Sleep is broken by a familiar “ping”, followed by an irritating tip-tapping sound.

I slowly peel one eye open and I’m blinded by sunlight. My brain whirrs, then cracks as I remember that today is Wednesday, I have a ten-hour workday ahead of me and I must have seen every hour of the night whilst either on the loo or groaning in self-inflicted agony.

I stir slowly, craning my neck to peek at the clock – 6 a.m. – thank Christ for that. At least we haven’t overslept.

Ping.

“Is that you or me?” I ask, scanning the room to see where I flung my iPhone last night.

“Morning, beautiful.” Ethan bends down and gently plants a kiss on my forehead. I don’t blame him for steering clear of my lips. My mouth tastes like I’ve been gargling with rotten eggs and dog shit.

I watch him type, then reality hits. “Ethan, is that my bloody phone?”

“Yeah,” he says, giggling. “Max texted you last night.”

My weary, poisoned-by-alcohol stomach falls flat. “Oh, no. What have you done?”

“Shush. Don’t interrupt me. I’m trying to save your skin. Max is pissed off you left early last night. He wanted you to help him woo Belle Oaks’s assistant – you know, the pretty French girl with the cute freckles and the . . .”

I shoot him a glare and he promptly shuts up. We’re coming up to our five-month dating anniversary, which follows three of the absolute best years of strictly platonic friendship. He knows I know there’s a good chance the cute French assistant would be lying on my side of the bed this morning if present-day Ethan was swapped for five-months-ago Ethan.

“She was called Emily, right?”

He clears his throat and affects a French accent. “Amélie.”

“Ah, very Audrey Tautou. Poor Max.”

“What do you mean ‘poor Max?’”

I prop myself up on one elbow. “I love him. We both love him. But he’s punching above his weight a little bit, isn’t he? She’s kind of ridiculously beautiful . . . and perfect . . . and young . . . and sane.”

He raises his eyebrows. “You’d have gone for my throat if I’d said something like that.”

“True, but I’m saying this with kindness. I don’t want him to get hurt.” I force myself to sit up, find the packet of paracetamol from last night and pop out another two pills. “I am never drinking again.”

“Hmm?” he says, continuing to type.

“Ethan, what the hell are you texting?”

“You mean what are you texting? He thinks I’m you.”

“Oh no, don’t you dare. The last time you got your hands on my technology you arranged a date for me with Daniel Noble.”

“Don’t worry. Trust me.” He finishes what he’s typing then settles down in the bed. “He sent you six messages last night. The first one . . . Here it is . . . ‘Where the hell have you gone? Is Ethan with you? If he is, tell him I’m pissed off and I’ve killed both of you five times over in my head. You’re a pair of bastards.’” Ethan laughs, but my blood pressure is already raised. “That pinged through at two a.m. when you were dead to the world, so see why I had to reply? You made Max lose his shit, and you know what happens when Max loses his shit.” He makes his balled-up fists “explode” and says, “Boom!”

And I know precisely what he means. It isn’t unusual for Max to need days to crash back down to earth after he’s got himself wound up over something. He didn’t speak to us for three days last year because we selected Penny Piper’s illustrations for a bran cereal promo instead of his. He’d convinced himself we’d done it to teach him a lesson for missing a deadline.

Ping.

I snatch my phone out of his hands and find the new message. I click on Max’s name, and it’s as I feared. “Oh shit, he’s texting me in all caps. Well, half of it is in all caps; he must have realised he was shouting part way through . . . Oh, what the hell? Why is he so angry with me?”

“Because you gave him really bad advice, you dipshit.”

“Ethan, I swear to any god who will listen, if I have to spend all day fixing an epic Max-sized clusterfuck you created, I’m going to bitch-slap you into next week.”

He winces and narrows his eyes. “Have you ever considered changing your name to Violent?”

“Ooh, I like it. Violent Violet would be a really cool supervillain name, wouldn’t it?”

“It would be a shit name. Violent Violet sounds like she’s been created by Roald Dahl. She might be able to knock out Willy Wonka, but Batman would kick the crap out of her.”

I don’t bother engaging. I’m too pissed off with him. I stare at the text message, shaking my head: WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU? I KNOW YOU’RE NOT AT HOME. I SWEAR IF YOU’RE WITH HIM I’M GOING TO HUNT YOU DOWN AND KILL YOU. I SUPPOSE YOU THINK ME WASTING A FORTune on a room at the fucking Birch Royal is funny? I know this is down to him. Tell him he’s a piece of shit and tell him to fuck off. All the way off – to hell and back again! Actually no, not to fucking hell and back again. A one-way ticket to hell! I hope he fucking stays in hell. With the devil’s pitchfork sticking right up his fucking arse.

Given that English is Max’s second language, I’ve been impressed by his creative use of expletives for quite some time, but here he surpasses himself. Is he trying to win a “how many fucks can you place in a text message” award?

I slump back on the pillows. “Just tell me what you did.”

“Okay, but it isn’t that bad. I just told him to book a room at a five-star hotel then make sure he got to escort Amélie home safely in a cab. The plan was to slip her the hotel address and room number once he’s halfway there.”

“What the hell were you thinking? You made Max into a creepy stalker. She’ll have him for sexual harassment!”

A fleeting worried look crawls across his face, but then he shakes his head. “Well, it should have worked. This very same move was tried and tested by me with Erin from Sunta Motors two years ago.” I roll my eyes at him, but he continues. “Anyway, Max thinks you sent him the tip. You told him a London Symphony Orchestra cellist called Dirk took you to the Ritz for a steamy night of passion.”

“What the actual hell? Max is going to think I’m an even sluttier version of you! You could have at least given me a hot-sounding made-up fuck buddy. Why would I have a one-night stand with a stranger called Dirk? I actually feel sick at the thought. Dirk is making me feel sick. If I had anything left in my stomach right now, you’d be wearing it.”

“You’re saying that now, but you weren’t when Dirk brought out the massage oils and handcuffs.”

My jaw drops. “Ethan, this is serious. Max is going to hate me for this. And think I’m a slut.”

“Leave it to me, I’ll set him straight. I’m great at sweet-talking him. All it takes is a bottle of that weird fruity beer he likes. He’s like a puppy after you throw him a bone – friends for life.”

I climb out of bed and walk over to Ethan’s huge wall-length closet. I take out a dress, then retrieve my make-up bag and bundle of toiletries from the drawer he gave me. This drawer is the only tangible evidence of our relationship. I was so happy when Ethan gave me my drawer, but recently I’ve found myself yearning for more.

“What’s the matter?” he asks, catching me lost in thought. He gets out of bed and walks around to where I’m standing. “Look, I’m sorry about Max. I promise I’ll set him straight, but I was trying to get him laid. It’s been a while for the poor bastard.”

I close my drawer and let out a sigh. “Max has been great about us being together, and he’s the only person who knows. This isn’t a good way to repay him.” I try, but totally fail, to stop a note of bitterness creeping into my tone at the reminder that I can’t share my happiness with anyone else.

“Hey, I know it’s tough. I want nothing more than to tell the world how I feel about you too, but you know the score – no work relationships. Stella put that clause in my partnership contract because of my past, and I need to earn her trust back. My getting involved with a client played a huge part in BMG losing the Quest account. I promised you I’d work on Stella when the time’s right, but that time isn’t now. Tribe hasn’t even launched, so I daren’t approach her yet. I know it’s hard, but please . . . just a little longer.”

I force a smile. “I’m sorry, I’m being selfish. I just can’t help thinking back to the summer, in Santorini. We had a great time doing that impromptu campaign for Kenneth Ives. I wish we could go back to how we were then.”

He lets his thumb smooth over my jaw as one hand moves to softly touch my hair. “What matters is we know we’re together. I’ve wanted to be with you for so long, and I’m so sorry I can’t make it perfect for you. This isn’t the way I want things either, but the most important thing is we love each other, isn’t it?”

I nod. After spending my entire life believing I was unlovable, the fact that I have the most amazing boyfriend in the world is all the perfect I need.