I FEEL LIKE I’LL NEVER be able to sleep again. If I close my eyes now, will he still be here tomorrow? I don’t want tonight to end. I don’t want to find out everything was some very weird drink-and-stress-infused hallucination.
Ethan’s arm lies possessively over my chest as he twirls his fingers around my hair. I love it when he does that. I don’t even mind that it takes a few minutes to brush through the knots the next morning because it reminds me of how much he loves messy – how much he loves messy, chaotic me.
His soft, wispy breaths beat out a rhythm on my neck and I decide to stay awake all night. Tomorrow is the start of my forever with him, so who needs sleep anyway? I can miss one night if it means I get to enjoy as much of this moment as is humanly possible.
He snuggles against my skin. “Are you ever going to go to sleep?” he asks, his voice ragged with exhaustion.
“I’m sorry, I just can’t stop replaying tonight over and over in my head.”
“Which part?” He lifts himself up on his elbow and lightly strokes my cheek. His face lights up with a familiar smile – one that’s been missing from our lives for far too long.
I wrap my arms around his neck. “Every part. All the parts.”
His gorgeous smile turns into a cocky grin. “I’ve done that to you before,” he says, pointing under the duvet.
“You have,” I say, holding in a laugh. “But not for a while. And definitely not when you were my fiancé.”
He puts on a frown. “I’m your fi-what now?”
I playfully bat his arm. “Stop. I’ve already told you I’m having trouble processing what happened tonight. My brain is still firmly stuck in insecure mode.”
His expression softens. “I don’t want you to feel insecure. What can I do?”
“Erase the last few months from my memory?”
His eyes become two twinkling pools of regret. “I wish I could. I wish I could erase them for both of us. Seeing you every day, but not having you . . .” He kisses me slowly, like it’s the first time he’s ever placed his lips on mine. “The last few months have been torture. I was living on autopilot. Just going through the motions like a robot. Losing you meant I lost who I was.”
Tears flood my eyes as his words find a spot in the centre of my heart. My heart doesn’t seem to have a problem processing that I’m in love with someone who wants to spend the rest of his life with me, but my brain is killing the mood. Even as he’s holding me in his arms, telling me words I know are true, my brain is spinning them upside down and having a good ol’ laugh.
His fingers dance against my cheek. “This is it, Violet. You and me, forever. There’s no going back now. I couldn’t live that life again. It would kill me.”
I feel him harden against my hip as we kiss, and my own desire floods my body. It’s only been a few hours since he asked me to marry him, but sex is different when you’re someone’s fiancée. It feels more permanent. More serious. Like we’re signing an everlasting contract with our bodies.
“Wow, you think you’ve got a five-times-in-one-night in you?” I say as his kisses get stronger.
Ethan laughs. “It seems we’re about to find out, and I’m as surprised about that as you are.”
His fingers glide through my hair as he moves on top of me, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as happy. Or as lucky. How is it possible that I deserve this?
Bang. Bang. Bang.
We both freeze. Fuck, the universe heard me. I don’t deserve this and they’ve sent the Fates to let me know.
Dread crawls across Ethan’s face. “Who’s that?”
“No idea. I can’t see through walls. What time is it?”
Ethan reaches over his side of the bed and picks up his phone. “Shit, it’s two thirty a.m.”
“Oh hell. Somebody’s died, haven’t they? That was a very loud policeman-like knock.”
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang.
We both jump in unison. “It sounds very urgent,” agrees Ethan. “Almost emergency urgent. Who could be dead? Do you have Pablo Escobar living next door?”
I untangle my limbs from his and hunt for some underwear. “I don’t know, but he’s already dead, so the police wouldn’t be coming to tell me that. I’m anti-social and I only ever say ‘hi’ to my neighbours when I pass them in the street, so if one of them has been charged with making a bomb or dealing drugs, I have no intel.”
I wrap my dressing gown around me just as Ethan’s phone pings with a text message.
“Oh shit,” he says. His Scottish accent is racked with anxiety and a discernible measure of fear. “It’s worse than the police and it’s worse than death. It’s bloody Stella.”
Something inside me dies at the mention of our boss’s name. “Oh god, no. I hoped we’d have until tomorrow at least.”
“Technically this is tomorrow,” says Ethan. His face has gone a very worrying shade of purple, like a seventy-year-old who’s drunk too much sherry on Boxing Day. “Fuck,” he croaks in Scottish. “Fuck, she’s pissed. She says she knows we’re in here, she’s already been to my place looking for me, and if I don’t open the door, she’s going to stitch my balls onto a Christmas jumper.” He winces, picks up a cushion and covers his groin with it. “Okay, I really don’t like the sound of that.”
“What should we do?” I can feel my blood pumping through my veins. Facing an angry Stella at a normal time of day is terrifying, but at two a.m. it’s the equivalent of facing off against Freddy Krueger in a cornfield.
“You’ll have to go answer the door,” he says, pulling on his pants.
“Me?” I shriek. “Why do I have to answer the door?”
“Because it’s your door and also because of this.” He points to the very visible erection underneath his shorts.
“Jesus Christ, Ethan.” Suddenly my throat is as dry as a summer’s day in the Sahara. “I don’t think I can do this—”
Stella pounds on the door again and I start to worry that the neighbours I don’t know will hate me tomorrow.
“You can do it. I have faith in you.” Ethan’s eyes are filled with tension. “But can you do it quickly, because if she gets any angrier, she’s going to start huffing and puffing, so don’t blame me if she blows your house down.”
I start walking towards the front door. “Luckily I live in a basement flat, so she’s got three storeys to climb before she reaches the chimney, and I don’t think her Christmas party Louboutins can take that kind of workout.”
I leave Ethan to pick his very crinkled shirt and trousers off the bedroom floor and put them on. I open the door just as Stella has raised her hand to give it another pounding.
“Where the fuck is he?” She almost takes me off my feet as she charges through the doorway and into my sitting room. “Didn’t he get my text?”
“I . . . um . . . well, yes—”
“Save it, you middle-aged Lolita. Don’t speak to me.”
My stomach plummets. Shit. It’s worse than I thought. She’s pissed-off angry whilst also being pissed on Christmas party plonk. This can’t end well. And since when is twenty-nine middle-aged?
Ethan opens the bedroom door and sticks his head into the room. “Stella, before you say anything—”
“You’re fired!” she hollers, hands planted firmly on her hips.
I’ve already spent some of the evening battling the sinking dread that this was going to happen, so now that it has happened, I think the relief may have quenched the fear.
Ethan shuffles into the room. Thankfully, the bulge in his groin has shrunk. “After everything we’ve all been through tonight, can’t we just sit down and discuss this amicably?”
Stella totters on her six-inch heels and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so hammered. When she wakes up with a hangover tomorrow, I hope she’s too drunk to remember she’s fired Ethan. She sits down on the sofa.
“There’s nothing to discuss,” she says, slurring her words. “You signed a contract. No fooling around with staff or clients. The last woman you fooled around with ended up in a drug-induced coma, for Christ’s sake! I’m not going through that again.”
Ethan runs his hand through his hair, then sits down in the armchair. I don’t know where to go or where to sit. And this is my flat – and my furniture. Fuck it, who cares. I’ll just stand.
“You know the man Carly Hayes fooled around with after she fooled around with me was responsible for the drugs and the coma,” says Ethan. “I’m not saying I didn’t do something stupid, but—”
“You’re a walking, talking sack of stupid, which is all the evidence I need to boot you from my agency.” She crosses her legs and taps her fingers impatiently on a cushion. “When I made my directors sign a contract banning romantic entanglements, I was very clear on my reasons. Knowing your history, it was the only way I could promote you to a level higher than your experience warrants and not risk looking like a clown’s arse for placing my trust in you. Office romances can ruin a great team when the lower ranks are at it, never mind directors. It’s a fucking minefield that starts with a conflict of interest and ends in a sexual harassment lawsuit.”
“It’s not like that,” says Ethan, buttoning up his shirt sleeves. “We’re not like that.”
A scoffing laugh erupts from Stella’s throat. “You’ve worked for me for eight years. You’re exactly like that.”
My chest starts to ache. It’s as if she has X-ray vision, peeping inside my brain and exploiting my greatest fear. Everyone knows Ethan is crap at relationships. It’s a running gag with everyone who knows him. His is like that. Well, at least, he was like that.
“How long has this been going on?”
Ethan’s eyes lose focus and I know he’s wondering whether he should tell the truth or lie. When will he learn to be a grown-up?
“Are you asking me how long I’ve been in love with Violet or how long we’ve been together?”
“I’m asking you how long you’ve been screwing each other right under my nose.”
“Six months. Since just before Tribe.”
“So you signed the contract while you were screwing her?”
I know there’s more important things to think about than Stella’s vocabulary, especially while she’s drunk, but I really wish she’d stop saying “screw”. I am a human being, not a plank of wood.
Ethan sheepishly nods his head. “I thought as soon as I proved myself to you, I’d be able to talk you around. You manage to work with Phillip Lovett, so you know how these things work.”
Stella looks at him as if he’s just peed on her poinsettia. “I know my marriage to Phillip barely lasted a year. If you want to compare your relationship to one of my marriages, then I’d strongly advise you to reconsider, because that particular doomed relationship is one of the reasons why I made you sign the contract.”
“I know why you made me sign that contract, and you have every right to kick my arse for this, but this isn’t just a fling. This is serious. I’ve never been more serious about anything in my entire life. I love Violet and I want to spend the rest of my life with her. She owns me. Totally and completely.” He gives up trying to button up one of his sleeves and rolls it up instead. I don’t know whether he’s more frustrated with his Stella or his shirt. “I know I’m great at talking the talk, but the guy hiding behind the bravado also knows I’ve been given far more than a leg up the ladder. You own me too. I get that. I get I’ll never be able to repay you for having far more faith in me than I deserve. I would be loyal to you forever, but . . .” His breath hitches in his throat, making the angry lines on Stella’s face start to fade. “Tribe is my dream, but Violet is the real thing. Don’t make me choose. Please.”
Stella stands abruptly, and I have to stop myself backing out of the room to leave them both to it. Should I say something? Social etiquette is never my friend, but I have zero clue what to do here. I doubt there’s any social etiquette for having your boss and your fiancé yelling at each other in your home.
Stella’s expression hardens again. “I’m sorry, but there’s no wiggle room in your contract, and I’m immune to sweet talk.”
Ethan looks like he’s going to be sick. “Stella, please.”
She folds her arms, picks up her bag and inputs her location into the Uber app, and every organ in my body sighs in relief. Thank god she’s going home and not planning to kip on my sofa.
“A car will be here in ten,” she says, popping her phone back into her silver Prada clutch. “Just so you don’t think I’m a total bitch, I have a possible solution for you.”
Ethan’s head snaps to attention. “Go on.”
“I get that you can’t pick and choose who you fall in love with. Four divorces, two court settlements and an intolerance for men who can’t handle a woman with ambition has taught me everything I need to know about hopeless relationships.”
Ethan glances at me and shrugs. No doubt he’s wondering what I’m wondering. Does Stella think we’re hopeless? Or is she letting her own failures colour her judgement? It might be both. I’m not sure if it matters what Stella thinks, but she definitely isn’t helping me battle my insecurities.
“If you want to keep your position at Tribe, then she has to go.” She jerks her thumb in my direction, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt more humiliated or less valued.
“That’s not fair, Stella,” says Ethan. The tremble in his voice makes my heart sag. “Violet saved your skin tonight.”
She gives me the once-over. As if she’s only just noticed I’ve been standing in the corner of my own living room looking and feeling very stupid for the last ten minutes. “I’m grateful to you for weeding out Lucas Bartle as the bad apple in my boardroom, but that doesn’t alter the fact that Lover Boy broke his contract. You have until the end of the week to decide.”
A burning, red-hot rage fires through my veins. “The end of the week is Christmas Day.”
“Do I look like I take Christmas Day off?”
A terrifying Ebenezer Scrooge vision zooms into my brain. Here’s hoping Marley’s fricking ghost plays her a visit tonight and teaches her how to be human. “Why should I lose my job because Ethan broke his contract? I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Technically, you haven’t done anything wrong,” says Stella, moving towards the door. “But let’s face it, your ads haven’t set the world alight since Tribe launched. Your Belle Oaks campaign was an unmitigated disaster. All things considered, Ethan is better than you; however, at this point I don’t care if he goes or you do. But I’m definitely not keeping both of you.” She walks through my hallway, trips on the edge of my rug and slams into the wall. “Fuck! You live in a death trap.” She slides on one heel towards the front door, and I consider helping her out for a very brief second but decide the odds of her thumping me are far too high. She grapples with my door handle, then bursts into the icy winter night. “I’ll wait for my Uber out here. I need some fresh air.”
Ethan appears behind me just as she practically crawls up the steps from my basement flat to the pavement on her hands and knees. If she makes it home without a broken hip, I’ll be amazed. “Do you think we should wait outside with her? It’s freezing cold and it’s the middle of the night.”
“I don’t give a fuck if she slips on the frost or gets abducted by aliens. She’s the one who decided to show up here uninvited. We got engaged tonight and she’s done everything she can to ruin it.”
Damn. He’s more cut up about this than I am. Which is bad news considering Stella’s just swapped his arse for mine on the firing line. “Maybe she’ll feel different about us working together after she sobers up.”
“She won’t, believe me. The woman has never changed her mind about anything.”
I hear a car pull up and I think the universe would be a happier place if Stella had been abducted by aliens tonight after all.
“She didn’t even give us her congratulations.”
I follow him back to the bedroom. “Did you want congratulations from her?”
“It’s just good manners, Vi. It’s what people do.” He pulls off his shirt and trousers and climbs back into bed.
“We got enough congratulations from our friends. Stella isn’t our friend, she’s our boss.” I get into bed beside him. I can feel the tension radiating off his body. “Well, after tonight, I guess she’s just your boss.”
“Don’t say that,” he says. His jaw is stiff with anger.
“I think Stella made it perfectly clear which one of us she wants to leave. She’s already tried to ship me to New York on an apprenticeship. She doesn’t like me, and I care less about Tribe than you do. There’s no argument here.”
He wraps his arms around my middle and tucks his knees against mine. “This isn’t over yet. You’ve worked your arse off to get your position. I’m not letting Stella force you out. I mean it, Vi. You’re not leaving. If she wants a head, she can have mine.”
As if I’d ever let him give up on his dream. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
“Aye, we will,” he says, kissing my neck. “The Ethan Fraser School of Charm hasn’t closed for the Christmas break yet. Let me work on her.”
Oh god. I hope Ethan’s charm school teaches that you need more than a bit of Scottish wit and a cocky smile to fight a fire-breathing dragon.
I KEEP HAVING TO REMIND myself that this isn’t our first Christmas together. It took me three years from meeting Violet to pluck up the courage to tell her how I felt about her, but in that time, I crammed every single day full of so many brilliant “friend” moments that I knew I was the luckiest guy in the world. Even if I was a monumental eejit.
Violet has always hated Christmas. When she first told me that she’d spent practically all of her adult Christmases alone, I might have felt actual pain. She’s too beautiful, too funny and just too bloody wonderful to spend even a second of an ordinary day alone, never mind Christmas Day. I later found out that her sister had died when she was a kid, so big events like Christmases and birthdays reminded her of what she’d lost, and my pain for her worsened. Violet is a fixer. She always does whatever she can to fix other people’s problems, but all too often she neglects her own. I wish I could fix the parts of her that are dark and raw and tangled up in a complex mix of joy and sadness. I hate feeling so useless. I want to do more.
Our first Christmas together happened twelve months ago. I unceremoniously turned up on her doorstep, fresh from a break-up with one of the far too many girls I tried to love but couldn’t. Zoe wasn’t Violet. None of them were. I knew it back then, and by god I know it now. And heck, pinch me, because if I knew back then that I’d be engaged to Violet by the end of this year, I think I’d have spontaneously combusted with joy.
Anyone would think Stella’s ultimatum would send me freefalling into self-pity, but nah. I fucking know what’s important in life. If I lost my job and had to sweep the streets, I’d still be the luckiest guy in London. And, yeah, I know how completely vomit-y that sounds, but it’s true. I’m where I’m supposed to be. Who gives a crap what my day job is?
And that’s what I’m going to tell her.
It’s eight p.m. and the office lights have dimmed, with only a small number of creative staff still busy at their desks. Will Thornton, Violet’s senior art director, is blasting Christmas music out of his iPhone as he finishes some work. I’d be a twat if I told him to switch it off, but there’s only a certain number of times you can listen to “All I Want for Christmas” without attempting to saw your own head off your neck.
I cross the floor to Violet’s office. “Didn’t know you were a Mariah Carey fan, Will.”
He shrugs. “It’s Christmas, innit?”
Fair point, I suppose. “You off home soon?”
“Yeah, just finishing up that Easter ad for Cadbury’s. The bastards want it ready before the Christmas break – probably want to launch the damn thing from Boxing Day.”
“You know the unofficial Tribe motto, mate: as long as we have their money.”
He closes his laptop down. “I want that on my tombstone. Here lies Will Thornton. He earned a ton of money selling shit people didn’t want.”
“I’m sure everyone wants chocolate eggs on Boxing Day,” I tell him just as I reach Violet’s door. Will packs up and pulls on his coat. “Happy Christmas, Will. Have a great week off.”
“I’m spending the weekend with my parents, so I probably won’t, but thanks all the same. Happy Christmas to you too. And happy Easter to Cadbury’s.”
I gently tap on Violet’s door. This is good manners, despite our offices having glass walls and a glass door. She looks up from her desk and smiles. “You look tired,” I tell her, piling as much sympathy as I can muster into my voice.
“That’s because I am tired,” she says with a grin.
“It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow. I’ve bought all the stuff and everything’s prepared, just like you asked. Are you absolutely sure you want to do this?”
Her forehead crumples. “You know I’m sure.”
“It’s just you’ve always hated Christmas.” I think back to last year. Zoe, my ex, decorated her flat from top to bottom with silver, gold and red. Everything was perfectly co-ordinated, from ornaments and tableware to pyjamas and duvet set. It was like Santa’s grotto if Santa shopped at John Lewis. By comparison, Violet had one single solitary miniature pine tree sitting in a pot outside her front door that she swore blind wasn’t a Christmas decoration.
“I haven’t always hated Christmas,” she says with sadness in her tone. “I loved Christmas before Laurel died. After she was gone, being festive – being happy – just didn’t feel right.”
I sit down in the chair opposite her desk. “And now it does feel right.”
She nods. “Yes. Now is as perfect as my life is ever going to get, so I want us to have a perfect Christmas. Just the two of us.”
My stomach dips. “Um, about that . . .”
“Oh no, what?”
“Okay, don’t get mad, but my mam was really cut up she wasn’t seeing us on Christmas Day, so I said we’d go to her annual Boxing Day supper party instead. You can say no if you don’t want to—”
“That sounds great,” she says without hesitation. Thank Christ for that. I’ve been crapping myself for days at the thought of telling her. She was very clear that her idea of “perfect” was just me and her. “I’ve told you before – I love your mum. I can make setting time aside for a family part of my perfect Christmas.”
“Just my family?”
She anxiously clears her throat. Even now, after everything we’ve been through, she still hates talking about her family. I don’t blame her. Her dad makes Lord Voldemort seem as terrifying as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. Not that I’ve ever met him. If I did, I don’t think much would stop me giving him a swift kick to the bawbag.
“I always give my grandma a call over Christmas, but yes, I’m more than happy to be spending time just with your family.”
She gives me a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes and I get that feeling again. Will I ever have what it takes to fix the cracks in her armour? Maybe I won’t, but I do have what it takes to put her career before my own.
“So, two days to go before we find out if Stella has had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment and realised making me choose between you and my job makes her a massive shitbag.”
Violet leans back on her cream office chair. “You know she isn’t going to change her mind. Stella follows Margaret Thatcher’s style of female leadership to the letter. This means she acts like a conservative white man and her decisions are completely devoid of empathy. In a world where you can model yourself on Angela Merkel, why would any woman choose to be a cut-price version of Margaret Thatcher?”
“Cut-price?” I ask, trying not to pee myself laughing. “As if Margaret Thatcher could have afforded a pair of Stella’s shoes.”
“True story,” she says with a chuckle. Hey, we may be on the career equivalent of death row, but at least we still have our sense of humour.
I take a deep breath and hope she can find some humour in what I’m about to tell her. “I’m giving up Tribe.”
She tips her head to one side, compassion flooding her beautiful blue eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous, Ethan. Do you expect me to just sit back and watch you throw your life away?”
“I’m deadly serious about this.” She lets out an exasperated gasp of air. “I couldn’t live with myself if you lost your job because of me. You’ve done nothing wrong here. I’ve broken a clause in a contract I signed. If it’s me or you, then it’s going to be me.”
“I never wanted you to fall on your sword for me.”
“I’m falling on my sword for me just as much as for you. We’re going to be together forever, Violet. What kind of Stone Age arsehole would I be if I let you lose your job because of something I’ve done? Your career is just as important as mine.”
She rolls her eyes and I get the feeling I’m playing catch-up in this conversation. “What was that?”
She shrugs and fixes her gaze on the ceiling.
“Violet? What aren’t you telling me here?”
She sucks in her cheeks until her mouth becomes a straight, angry line. “I can’t work here without you.”
There’s a small tremble in her voice that batters my chest. “What do you mean?”
She shakes her head and rolls her eyes again. I don’t know whether she’s frustrated with me or with herself. “You know how people are. People in this department, on my own team, as well as others in the agency, think I got to be a creative director because I was your friend. Now that everyone knows we’re more than friends . . .” She almost chokes on her words and I already want to draw blood from whoever it is that’s upset her. “It’s only been five days since we got engaged in front of the entire agency, and I’ve already heard enough whispering and sniggering to last a lifetime. I caught Jadine gossiping with Ruby about me in the loos, Will and Pinky have been acting like I’ve no right to be their line manager, and don’t even get me started on Harry Hopkins.”
My teeth are set on edge by the mention of our digital creative director’s name. Harry Hopkins is a straight-talking Aussie who never shies away from saying exactly what he thinks. “What did he say?”
“He said what everybody is thinking, Ethan.” Her eyes come alive with rage. “Just straight up told me to my face that I got the job he wanted because I’m sleeping with you.”
My teeth set on edge. “I’m going to knock seven bells out of him for saying that to you. Who does he think he is?”
“He thinks he’s the guy who lost out on being a creative director because you’re sleeping with me. And I don’t want to hear any fighting talk. Harry could rock a baby elephant to sleep on his biceps. He’d kick your arse.”
I lighten the mood by flexing my muscles. “I may have smaller biceps, but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t fight him.”
She chews on a grin. “Ethan, he would kill you. You’re not leaving me here alone with him – with them.”
“You’re stronger than you think, Violet.” She draws in a shaky breath and I wish she believed me. “You wouldn’t be alone anyway. You’d have Freja, Max and Georgie. And, to be perfectly honest, having Freja in your corner is probably worth ten of me. Tell her what Harry said to you and see what happens.”
A smile warms her face at the mention of her film director best friend. “I know I have friends, but it wouldn’t be the same without you here. I’d planned to show everyone that my ability to do this job isn’t dependent on you helping me out every five seconds. We’ve worked together for almost four years now. Three of those years we were inseparable – the best creative team in the city – but let’s face it, I was always the B side in the partnership.”
“I’ve never thought that, and you know you don’t need to prove yourself to anyone.”
“I do,” she says forcefully. “I need to prove I can love you, live with you, work with you and still be successful in my own right.”
“It would be easier to prove most of those things if I didn’t work here.”
“Not if everyone blames me for you being gone.” Tears well in her eyes and I start to panic that the perfect Christmas I vowed to give her will never happen. We’re both wound up with so much fucking unnecessary stress that the second we let go, we’ll spin out of control. “You’re infinitely more popular than I am. If Stella fires you, I couldn’t stay behind. Everyone would hate me.”
A thought pops into my head and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. “Why don’t we both leave? We can set up our own agency or we can be freelancers.”
“You’d hate that,” she says, screwing up her nose. “Freelancing is for mums or the semi-retired, or for people who are sick of a six-hour commute.”
“I wouldn’t hate it. It would be fun. Just think about it – the best creative team in the city for rent. What could go wrong?”
“We could be poor.”
“We’d probably be poorer than we are right now to begin with, but so what?”
“You’d have to move out of your cupboard-sized apartment in Soho.”
Yikes. Not a happy thought. I’m officially a grown-up. “I think upsizing might be on the cards anyway. We’d have to sell all of your books for both of us to live in my cupboard.”
Her eyes light up and my muscles finally start to relax. We can make this work. “Yeah, that’s totally not happening.”
“So, we have a deal then?” I lean over and gently stroke her cheek. Her skin feels like marble. “If Stella insists one of us has to go, we’re both going.”
She nods. “Deal.”
“Okay, let’s get home. We have a big couple of days ahead of us, starting with ice skating at the V&A.”
Terror creeps over her face. “No. We’ve done that. I fell head first into a Christmas tree and got pine needles stuck in my hair. I can’t go through that again.”
“Don’t be such a jessy. First time in skates is always tough. You’ll be a pro tomorrow.”
“Ethan . . .”
“Trust me. We’re going to be okay.” I stand up and she takes hold of my hand. “We’re partners, remember?”
AS IF BY MAGIC, THE SNOW started falling at half past two this afternoon. And as if by even more magic, it stopped snowing by three fifteen. There’s a very light but very pretty sprinkle of icy white in my courtyard and in the corners of my windows. I haven’t experienced a white Christmas in all of my adult lifetime, so I’m taking it as some kind of “perfect Christmas” omen. My new pyjamas, thick woolly socks and yummy mug of hot chocolate, complete with marshmallows and chunks of fudge, are adding even more perfect.
Ethan sits down on the sofa beside me. “So, what time tomorrow do you think Stella, otherwise known as Satan’s fucking death knell, will arrive?” he asks. I snuggle into him and he wraps his arm around me.
“I honestly haven’t thought about it, and I honestly don’t care.” I blow into my mug. I’m a massive hater of hot drinks, but I make an exception for Hotel Chocolat’s chilli dark hot chocolate. It tastes like liquid cosiness. “I feel like leaving her on the doorstep and yelling ‘we both quit’ through the letterbox. Why on earth would she want to come here to fire one of us on Christmas Day anyway? What kind of fucked-up reverse Scrooge narrative is that?”
Ethan sighs. “Let’s try to be optimistic. Maybe she won’t do Scrooge in reverse. Maybe she’ll do proper Scrooge.”
“Fat chance unless Sir Arthur Lovett, has croaked in the night. As Tribe’s Chairman and Stella’s ex father-in-law, he’s definitely totted up more than a few chain links in his lifetime. He could easily pull off the Jacob Marley role.” I rest my head against his chest. I plan on not moving from this sofa for the rest of Christmas Eve. The absolute last person in the world I want to sound like is Mariah bloody Carey; however, all I want for Christmas is him. “Who is Stella spending Christmas Day with? Does she see her family?”
He shakes his head. “Her parents live in France and I’m not sure she’s on good terms with her sister. I heard she’s spending the day with Tim Collins.”
I’m confused. “A drink? You mean she’s going to be home alone drinking gin-based cocktails all day?”
He laughs, accidentally nudges my arm, and I almost lose the contents of my mug. “That’s ‘Tom Collins’, you eejit,” he says. “Tim Collins is Stella’s ex-husband number four. He’s a Tory MP for some town in Shropshire. Or is it Staffordshire?”
The image of a fair-haired oily man with a plummy accent leaps into my memory. “Oh, right. Isn’t he a pal of Georgie’s brother-in-law?”
“I think so,” says Ethan, recoiling slightly at the mention of the Right Honourable Sebastian Pruitt-Fox MP. Seb’s a backbench former Etonian whose most recent claim to fame was suggesting his constituency of Buckingham East ban the burqa and reinstate fox hunting. Our friend and colleague, Georgie, hates him.
“I imagine she’ll open her presents, go out to eat somewhere expensive, then be glad of an excuse to dump oily Tim and get over here to fire one of us.” Ethan sips his drink. Then he pauses for far too long. “Are you okay?” I ask him.
“Yeah,” he says; however, his tone is flat and unconvincing.
“Having second thoughts about our resignation pact?”
“No, absolutely not. We’re a team. Wherever you go, I go.”
I turn around in his arms. He looks much sadder than he sounds. My stomach starts to churn. “What is it?”
“I meant what I said, Violet. You’re not leaving Tribe without me, and I’m not leaving without you. I’ve totally made peace with that. It’s just, I regret signing that damned contract in the first place. I should have told Stella how I felt about you six months ago. I didn’t because I was a coward. I thought I could blag my way through to the agency’s launch, then make myself so fucking shit hot and indispensable that she wouldn’t dream of letting me go when she found out about us. What the hell was I thinking?” He places his mug on the coffee table, then turns away from me. “I almost lost you because of that contract. I put the agency first, and I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself.”
“We should make a pledge never to talk about our oh-so-complicated break-up ever again.” I take hold of his hand until his gaze returns to meet mine. “I was just as responsible for that colossal fuck-up as you were. In fact, all things considered, I was far more responsible.”
“You weren’t. The contract started it all. Keeping our relationship secret from the world was the worst decision I’ve ever made.”
I stroke his face and he catches my hand, placing a soft kiss on my knuckles. “If we’d come clean six months ago, we’d have been in the exact same position then as we are now – unemployed.”
We both laugh, then we pause, as if we’re sharing a moment of clarity. “That’s true,” he says.
“And we mightn’t be engaged.”
He fakes a gasp. “We totally would.”
“Yep, I’ve had ‘marrying you’ on my to-do list since the first day we met.”
Now it’s my turn to do a fake gasp. “Do you have babies on your to-do list too?”
I swear he’s just turned green. “Um . . . er . . .”
“How many? I’ve always thought four was a good number. Knock them out as quickly as possible with small age gaps so they can all grow up together. We should probably start trying today.”
“Um, okay, I’m totally up for the trying part of that, and I admit I did think we’d have one baby someday, but not straight away, and definitely not four babies, and even more definitely not while we’re unemployed. That wouldn’t be a good idea. Universal Credit would barely cover the Pampers bill.”
He looks far more worried about the baby revelation than I’d expected. “You do know I’m joking about the babies, right?” I snuggle back into his arms.
“I’m not,” he says.
He picks his cup back up and drinks while I get bombarded by all the feels. I’ve always wanted to be a mum, but after Laurel died, that wish became tangled up in a desire to replace my shambolic family with a new one that belonged to me and loved me. “Just so I don’t get the wrong idea, what exactly do you mean?”
“I mean we’re going to have babies.” He says it with so much confidence that my eyes start to well up. “We can even have four if you want four, but just not yet. I have a lot of growing up to do first.”
I lean over, run my hand along his jaw and kiss him. “I agree we should wait a few years, but I think we should get in all the practice we need until then.”
His hands are in my hair as his lips brush against mine. “You won’t get any arguments from me on that front.”
I run my hands down his body, loving the fact he bought himself pyjamas that match mine. Could my fiancé be any cuter? His hands creep under my top, skimming the sides of my breasts, and I moan into his mouth. God, if practising means we do this every day for the next few years, where do I sign up?
Bang. Bang. Bang.
We both freeze. Is the world fricking taking the piss out of me right now? Why the hell does this keep happening?
“Who the fuck’s that?” Ethan’s words are muffled between rapid breaths.
“I still can’t see through walls, but the last time someone knocked at my door while we were getting it on, it was Stella. Shit, she’s getting our firing over tonight so we can all enjoy tomorrow, isn’t she?”
He sits up, grabs a cushion and places it over his noticeably excited groin area. “I can’t go through this again. Nobody deserves this many cock blocks at Christmas. Just ignore her. Pretend we’re not in.”
“The lights are on. She won’t buy it.”
I tiptoe over to the window. Lord knows why I’m tiptoeing, because it’s blowing a gale outside and she wouldn’t be able to hear my kettle boiling, never mind my footsteps.
I cautiously tweak the curtains and peer out into the darkness. And I get the fright of my life. “Oh my god, it’s Georgie,” I say, opening the living room door and running into the hallway. “Something’s wrong and I have a very bad feeling about it.”
I fumble with my key for what seems like half an hour, then I open the front door by practically yanking it off its hinges. My friend is standing outside, soaking wet and sobbing, with an angry red mark on one side of her beautiful face. “Georgie, my god, what’s happened?”
She falls into my arms, then quickly remembers she’s soaked to the skin and lets me go. Weirdly, she reeks of coffee. “I’m so sorry, sweetie. I don’t want to ruin your day, but I have nowhere else to go.” Her words are punctuated by heart-wrenching sobs. “I got into a taxi as quickly as I could. I wasn’t thinking straight, I just had to get out of there. I’m homeless, you see. Homeless! On Christmas Eve. My bloody selfish tenant wouldn’t get out of my flat. Says he has squatters’ rights or something. Answer me this, sweetie. How does he have squatters’ rights if he’s been paying me rent for three bloody years, hmm? He’s not a bloody squatter, he’s an arsehole, and I’m tired of renting out of the city because he won’t get out of my flat.” She walks into the living room, where Ethan is still sitting with a cushion hiding his knob. I feel heartily sorry for him. “I’m sorry, Ethan, darling. I was just saying to Violet that I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. I’ll go back to Bromley as soon as I get myself sorted out.”
She turns around and it’s only then that I notice that the red mark on her face surrounds a streak of purple on her cheekbone. “Georgie, has someone hurt you?”
Her hand goes to her cheek and she winces. “Me and Freja are finished. She’s dead to me. I will never speak to her again as long as I live.” She throws her bag down on the floor and kicks off her shoes. “I need a shower. I’ve got to get out of these clothes.”
My brain is spinning as I take her through to the bathroom, give her a towel and go to find some pyjamas for her. When I go back to the living room, Ethan is busying himself with tidying. “What the hell happened?” he asks.
“No idea, but she was spending Christmas with Freja, so if they’ve fallen out, I guess Georgie is spending the day with us now.”
Ethan’s jaw drops. “No. Na-hah. No way. I’ve put too much effort into tomorrow, and then there’s the Stella thing . . .” He runs his hand through his hair, ruffling it. He does that when he’s stressed out. “Why can’t she go to her parents’ enormous mansion? And doesn’t she have a boyfriend?”
“Her useless boyfriend is tobogganing in Austria and her family’s enormous mansion is in Buckinghamshire.”
His jaw drops even wider. “Buckinghamshire is only an hour up the road.”
“She doesn’t have a car.”
“I’ll drive her my bloody self!” He flops down on the sofa and I’m touched by how invested he is in my perfect Christmas idea. In fact, I’m starting to feel a bit selfish. It should be our Christmas, not just mine. “What on earth could have happened to her face? She said Freja was dead to her. Do you think Freja punched her or something?”
I shake my head. Freja can be as fiery as hell when she needs to be, but no way would she ever hit anybody. “Let’s just give Georgie five minutes to sort herself out, then we’ll get the full story from her.”
An unbearably long five minutes later, Georgie appears in the room, all wet hair, fluffy dressing gown and a very angry-looking bruise on her face. Ethan moves to the armchair so she can sit down next to me. But Christ, what do I say? Talking to friends about sensitive matters isn’t really my area. Heck, even Ethan’s better at this stuff than I am. “Erm, Georgie, do you want to tell us what happened?”
She starts to cry again, so I give her arm a rub. “It’s just Freja being Freja as bloody usual.”
Freja being Freja is usually everyone’s ideal kind of Freja. She’s insightful, talented, empathic and brave. She’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a friend, so this turn of events with Georgie is getting more and more worrying by the second. “What happened to your face? Did somebody do that to you?”
She shakes her head, then nods, then shakes it again. The dread in my stomach sloshes to the beat. “The wife of some guy Freja’s been banging turned up at our house, assumed I was her, yelled abuse at me, then threw a flask of coffee over my head. When she left, me and Freja got into an almighty argument. We said awful things to each other . . .” She starts crying again. “But mostly I said awful things. Terribly awful. I was utterly grotesque and I’m not proud of myself . . . but I was humiliated and angry. I wasn’t staying at her house for a second longer, so I called a taxi and left. But then I slipped on a pool of cold coffee on the way out and whacked my cheek on the doorframe. Do I look awful?”
I put my arm around her. Georgie never deals with conflict very well. “Do you really want Freja to be dead to you over this? She would have thrown herself under a bus to stop that woman’s coffee hitting you if she’d know it was going to happen.”
“That’s what she said – more or less.” She wipes her face on her sleeve.
“What do you want to do, Georgie?” Ethan asks.
She looks at him and I watch as some of the colour drains from her face. “Oh god, I’m so sorry. I’m such a goose, aren’t I? This is your first Christmas together – you can’t have me sitting here blubbing like a baby and ruining it all for you. I should go.”
I half expect Ethan to jump up and get his car keys, so I’m relieved when he asks her another question instead. “Where will you go?”
“Bromley. Back to my flat.”
I share Ethan’s gaze and I can tell he’s thinking the same thoughts as me. “You can’t be all alone and upset and angry on Christmas Eve,” he tells her. “Can I drive you to your parents’?”
She vigorously shakes her head and screws up her nose. Georgie is lively and animated and always fun to be around, but she also has a childlike innocence that would make anyone want to care for her. “Not likely. I fought with Andromeda last week. Her stupid Tory husband is putting a bill together in parliament that would see the worst-off families in this country lose money if they’ve dared to have more than two children whilst being poor. I can’t stand him. He’s a heartless, cruel beast of a man. Clem isn’t seeing the family tomorrow either, so of the four of us sisters there’s only Andromeda and Phee going home this year. Ugh, the thought of sitting around the Christmas dinner table with Sebastian makes me want to puke. I can’t trust myself. I’d projectile barf my Brussels sprouts all over his obnoxious head.”
We both say it at the same time. “You can stay with us.”
“I can’t. I’d feel terrible. You two have been through so much these last weeks. You deserve to have a Christmas all to yourselves.”
“Don’t be silly,” says Ethan. “We couldn’t enjoy our day knowing you were all alone.”
“Stay here tonight at least,” I tell her. She doesn’t look very convinced. “It’ll be fine, honestly. I have a spare room and we’ve bought enough food to last us to New Year. You can’t spend Christmas alone.”
“What about Freja?” Ethan asks. “What will she be doing now?”
Georgie’s bottom lip starts to quiver. “I don’t know. Now that she’s got me out of the house, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s screwing that angry coffee woman’s husband.”
We get our answer a minute later when Freja arrives at my door.
“WHERE IS SHE?”
Freja barges past me. Her face is almost as red as her hair. “She’s in the spare room with Violet. She’s upset and she’s not ready to talk to you. Just give her a few minutes.”
She strides into the living room, hands planted squarely on her hips. “Did she tell you what she called me?” Tension builds in my bones as I watch Freja attempt to compose herself. I’ve never seen her like this before. Admittedly, I’ve only known her a few months, but she’s an outgoing, gregarious party girl. Seeing her visibly shaken is unsettling.
I sit down on the sofa and gesture for Freja to join me. “Like I said, she’s really cut up about what happened. She’s been doused in coffee and she’s slipped and hit her face. She’s bruised in more ways than one. She needs a bit of space to pull herself together.”
She leans forward and puts her head in her hands. At work, Freja is the epitome of cool professionalism. Her make-up is always flawless, her hair is always pristine and her clothes are tailored to perfection. Seeing her in a zip-up hoody and joggers with her hair scraped up into a messy ponytail is just as unsettling as seeing her upset. “He told me he was separated,” she says, shaking her head in disbelief. “Can you believe I fell for that?”
“Hey, it isn’t your fault,” I tell her honestly. As if I haven’t been in the same position myself – on more occasions than I care to mention.
“Except it is my fault.” She sighs and turns to face me. Her light brown eyes are filled with tears. “I wanted him. That’s the truth. From the second I saw Joe Reardon, I wanted him. He’s the guy from that ad I shot for Jet2 Holidays.” She rolls her eyes, clearly frustrated with herself. “He was ridiculously hot and totally into me. I wouldn’t have cared if he’d told me the truth. I’d still have slept with him.”
“You don’t know what you would have done. This is all on him, not you. He cheated. You did nothing wrong.” It’s the same story I’ve told myself in the past. Violet says Freja is essentially a female version of me. I assumed she meant we’re both outgoing and popular, but I guess we’re also totally hopeless when it comes to falling into bed with the wrong people.
Freja wipes her face with her sleeve. “Georgie’s been my best friend for six years.”
She doesn’t have to say another word. I can see how she’s feeling written on every line of her face. She’s gutted and she’s guilty. “I bet you’ll both be laughing about it in the next few days.” She shoots me a glare that tells me I’m an eejit. “Okay, maybe not.”
“She said I was a slut.”
Ouch. Do I have to choose a side here? I’m sure getting a flask of coffee thrown in your face constitutes common assault, so Georgie clearly gets more victim points. But I’ve been around women long enough to know there are some words they should never use against one another. That word is one of them. “She was in shock. And she doesn’t always think before she speaks. Her working relationship with Max is perpetually on a knife edge. You know who she is.”
“She also called me a strumpet. What does that even mean?” Her tone of voice, coupled with her accent, accentuates her confusion.
“It’s a less offensive word for slut.”
“She’ll get over it.”
She nods. “Maybe, but I don’t think I will.” We sit in silence for a while. I feel like I’m missing layers of context here. Probably because I’m a guy and the world views guys who get a lot of no-strings sex very differently. “I don’t know why I came here. I’ve ruined my friendship and I’ve ruined a family. He has kids too, you know? Imagine finding out your dad’s been cheating on your mum on Christmas Eve with some random woman he got a job with. I’m literally the fricking Grinch here, Ethan. I’m ruining lives.”
Okay, time to be a great boss. “This isn’t on you. Don’t apologise for who you are.”
“And who exactly am I?”
“Someone who believed a liar. That’s all.”
She laughs, but there’s so much self-doubt locked inside her that it comes out as a splutter. “I was lucky enough to be raised in the most sexually liberated country on earth. As long as we’re not harming anybody, then pretty much anything goes. At least that’s what I always told myself. The truth is, sexually liberated Danish women may suffer less of a stigma, but scratch away at the surface and the judgement is still there. Centuries of living with religion’s definition of female purity have made it that way. Women are taught to save themselves for the right man, then they’re told to give themselves away to him. Sex is always a giveaway, but for men it’s a takeaway. They take and we give.”
Jeez, this is getting a bit deep. There was me thinking calming Georgie down in the spare room was the tough end of the deal. Is it too late to swap places with Violet? “I get what you’re saying. It’s no secret that I lived the same kind of life as you before I met Violet, but without the stigma. It’s wrong and it’s shitty that expectations are different, but we can’t change the world. We can only change how we react to it.”
“I don’t want to change the world, Ethan,” she says between gritted teeth. “I just don’t want to be called a slut or a strumpet by my best friend for taking pleasure when I want it instead of saving myself for someone who wants to take pleasure from me.”
“You’re living the life you want. Who you sleep with is nobody’s business but yours.” I catch a glimmer of something in her eyes and a nerve in her jaw twitches. “Are you living the life you want?”
She lets out a heavy breath. “I don’t know. I guess I’m living the life I think I deserve. No commitment, no mess, no tedium . . . no love.”
It’s like looking in a mirror. I move closer to her and place my hand on her knee. “Hey, I know all too well what that life looks like. I took what I thought I wanted for years. I thought I was having fun, and most of the time I was, but putting myself out there, being the life and soul of every party, getting whatever girl I wanted . . . turns out that was me running away because what I really, truly wanted terrified the life out of me.”
A smile warms her freckled skin. “Violet?”
“I was scared of telling her how I felt. Hell, I was scared to even tell myself. I didn’t want to lose her as a friend, and I thought I couldn’t be who she needed me to be.”
Freja’s smile fades and she looks away from me. “I loved someone once. Briefly.”
“Violet told me you’d been married.”
She laughs softly. “That was a lifetime ago. I’m not even sure I loved Per. But I did love someone else. He was . . .” Her voice breaks under the weight of her emotions. “Let’s just say he was a million times more special than anyone. But he was a long time ago too.”
She wipes a stray tear from her face and my brain starts to race. I wonder who her guy was. He clearly broke her heart, so he must have been an arse. “You’ll find someone else.”
“Maybe,” she says. “But until then, I need to live my life.”
The spare room door creaks open and Georgie walks out, followed by Violet. “I’m sorry, Frey,” she says, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I couldn’t help overhearing. I’m just so sorry about everything. I was just so . . . so humiliated.”
Freja turns around and looks at her friend. Her own emotions are locked behind a steely expression. “I know you’re sorry, George, and I said I was sorry too. You know I’d have thrown myself in front of you if I knew Joe’s wife was at the door, or that he still had a damned wife in the first place.”
Georgie nods her head. “The poor woman thought I was you. I hate that my face is now embedded in her mind as the person who wrecked her family and her kids’ Christmas.”
“Joe did all of that, Georgie!” shouts Freja defiantly. I’m relieved her spark has returned. And her confidence. “It wasn’t my fault.”
My gaze locks with Violet’s. She looks just as sad as I’m feeling. Freja and Georgie have become an important part of both our lives over the past few months, but Freja in particular has been very special to Violet. She helped her through our break-up. She was there for her when I was being a jerk.
Georgie sits down in the armchair as Violet perches on the edge of the sofa next to me. “Stuff like this always happens to you, Freja. You need to make better choices.”
Freja’s back stiffens and my heart plummets in my chest. Please don’t start fighting again. Nobody needs this much heartache on Christmas Eve.
“I’m not like you, George,” says Freja. “I have no interest in giving myself to one guy who cares far more about tobogganing than being with me.”
Georgie sucks in a breath, her eyes firing with outrage. “Mitchell is a tobogganer,” she says sadly. “That’s his job and he can only do it in the winter. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about me.”
“It means he’s never here for you,” Freja replies in a softer tone. “You deserve better.”
“And you deserve better than repeatedly giving yourself to dozens of random guys all at the same time!” yells Georgie sharply. “I’m sorry, Frey, but it’s true. When we were working in Paris last month, you slept with the French cameraman within hours of meeting him and nobody was shocked. Then you have some kind of weird sex arrangement going on with Harry Hopkins, who is horrid and hairy and totally undeserving of you. As far as Joe Reardon is concerned, I knew you’d end up shagging him the second I saw you two together, and I don’t know how you didn’t pick up on him being a lying, shady charlatan because it was obvious to everyone else, wasn’t it, Violet?”
Violet looks like she’s been hit in the face with a wet flannel. “Erm, well, I wouldn’t say it was obvious, but there was something—”
“Exactly!” says Georgie. “There was a deadness behind his eyes and his jaw was impossibly square. He was clearly hiding something.”
Freja narrows her eyes. “Well, excuse me for not being as astute as you two.”
“That’s the thing,” Georgie replies sharply. “You’re the one who is attuned to people’s thoughts and emotions as if you’re telepathic. If you didn’t know Joe was still married, it’s because you didn’t want to know.”
Freja stands and picks her bag up off the coffee table. “Okay, I’ve had enough of this now. I fucked some guy I shouldn’t have. Big deal. I’ve said I’m sorry too many times now, so if you’re not coming back to my place for Christmas, I’ll see you at work after Boxing Day.”
“Wait.” I shoot to my feet just as Freja crosses the living room and opens the door. “This is ridiculous. You’re both being ridiculous. You’ve been friends for too long to let something like this come between you. Georgie, she said she was sorry for what happened. You know she’s sorry. Now you need to close the gap you created when you called her terrible names. Freja, you need to calm the hell down and understand that she’s angry and she needs to vent. It’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake. Stop tearing each other apart.”
Freja stands at the door, resting her back against the frame. She looks me up and down, as if she’s reading every thought in my head. “Okay, what’s going on here?”
“Nothing, except I’m responsible for both of you. You’re both on my team, and this is senseless. Hoes before bros, right?”
Fuck. Hoes before bros. Could I have said anything stupider? Judging by the look on Violet’s face, I absolutely, definitely could not.
Freja switches her telepathic gaze to Violet. “No, there’s something else. Something is wrong, very wrong.”
“Oh no, please don’t tell me you guys are breaking up again,” Georgie wails. “Please, I couldn’t bear it. Both of you are so perfect for each other. It was wrong when you weren’t together. Cosmically wrong.”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” I say quickly. “It’s . . . just . . . it’s fine. We’re fine.”
“We may as well tell them,” Violet says.
Georgie slumps in the armchair. “Oh god, I feel like I’m going to be sick.”
Will a spot of drama in other people’s lives stop Freja and Georgie ripping into each other? “Okay, there’s no easy way to say this, but me and Violet are leaving Tribe.”
Freja closes the door with a thud. “You’re what?”
“We’re both leaving Tribe, and before you say anything, we have no choice.” Violet gives me a supportive smile and I’m reminded that the decision we’ve made is the right one for both of us. “I signed a contract preventing me from having a relationship with a client or employee. I’ve obviously breached my contract, so Stella is coming here tomorrow to fire me.”
“Wait a minute,” says Freja, holding her hands up. “Let’s rewind. You broke a contract. I got that bit, although I have to say you were an arsehole for agreeing to sign something like that in the first place. But why does Violet have to leave?”
“I don’t have to, but I choose to,” says Violet. “I can’t stay behind knowing Ethan has been fired because of me.”
“It isn’t your fault, it’s his,” Freja replies, landing a furious glare upon me. “You broke a contract, Ethan. I’m sorry, but what kind of bullshit is this? You’ve just lectured me for ten solid minutes because I was feeling guilty for breaking the rules of the fucking patriarchy. Are you really going to let Violet lose everything she’s worked for because she fell in love with you?”
Okay, so now I feel shit. “I don’t want her to leave.”
“It’s my choice, Freja,” interrupts Violet. “Stella said Ethan could keep his junior partner position in Tribe if I quit, or I could stay and he could go. She won’t allow both of us to work there now, and neither of us wants to stay without the other. Tribe was Ethan’s dream. I can’t work there every day without him.”
“God, this sucks,” proclaims Georgie. She’s all wrapped up in Violet’s fluffy purple dressing gown, and she’s sunk so far into the corner of the armchair that she looks like an enormous cushion.
“We’ve made our peace over it. We’re going to set out on our own – be a team again. It’ll be hard work, but we can do it. We were the best creative team in the city once, and we can do it again.”
Freja looks through me again. “We’ve barely started building the best ad agency in the city. Aren’t you going to fight?”
For a fleeting moment I wonder if I’m letting everybody down, including myself. “You don’t know Stella like I do.”
“But I know you,” she says. “And I know us. We’ll help you.”
Georgie stands shoulder to shoulder with Freja. “Yes, we’ll tell her what we think. What time is she coming tomorrow?”
“She didn’t say. We assumed after lunch.”
Violet walks over to where we’re all standing. “Spend Christmas with us,” she says.
Freja shares a confused look with Georgie. “Shouldn’t you talk that through with Ethan?”
Violet giggles and I think it’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. “I thought your idea of a perfect Christmas was a quiet Christmas?”
She shakes her head. “No, I think the most perfect Christmas is one spent with friends.”
“Are you sure, Violet?” says Georgie. “We’ve been so much trouble tonight. I don’t want to spoil your first Christmas together.”
“It isn’t our first Christmas together, it’s just our first Christmas together whilst being together,” Violet says. “Trust me, I got this. We have enough food and, well, who knows what news tomorrow is going to bring. If me and Ethan have to leave you, then at least we’ll have had a great day.”
I can’t say I disagree. And I can’t say I don’t have the most amazing fiancée in the world. “Then it’s settled. We’re cooking turkey for four tomorrow.”
Freja’s and Georgie’s faces light up. “Count us in,” they say.
HAVING A FULL HOUSE TODAY is going to make a better Christmas than I could ever have imagined. Which is why I’m up, showered and dressed by eight a.m., preparing an almighty breakfast for Ethan, Freja and Georgie.
Cooking is not my forte. I’m far better at heating up food purchased from supermarkets, and I can make an absolutely fantastic sandwich; however, the spirit of Christmas has compelled me to enter my kitchen, take ingredients from my fridge and start prepping. I soon discover that although we bought more than enough food for dinner, we don’t have enough breakfast things. So I improvise.
I’ve had a bag of frozen half-baked croissants at the back of my freezer for the best part of a year. Is that too long? I ask Google. It says six to eight months for bread; however, is it referring to bread that wasn’t originally frozen? I imagine dough-based products that are half-baked and have always been in a frozen state should last longer. It’ll be fine as long as I warn everyone. I take them out of the freezer, then I take the bacon out of the fridge and stare at it. I guess I need to fry it. Twelve slices should be enough. I also have cheese, crumpets and satsumas and – I mentally high-five myself at this stroke of genius – I also have smoked salmon that I impulsively purchased from Waitrose. I hate the stuff, as it has the texture of a blood clot, but being unabashedly Scottish, Ethan loves it.
I’m laying the croissants on a baking tray when Ethan’s arms circle my waist. “Merry Christmas, beautiful,” he says, breathing into my hair. “How long have you been up? My plans for this morning included waking up with you in my arms.”
He kisses my neck and memories of last night swirl in my mind. I wonder if sex when you’re engaged to someone who wants to spend the rest of his life with you is the best it’s ever going to get. “I was too excited to sleep. Merry Christmas to you too.”
He spins me around in his arms. His hair is ruffled and gorgeous and even though he hasn’t showered yet, he smells divine. “Looks like you’re about to attempt to cook some food.”
“Really?” I ask. “What gave you that idea?”
“The food,” he says between soft, breathless kisses.
“It’s all true . . . and it could be dangerous . . . so why don’t you get showered and help me?”
He pushes me against the kitchen counter and deepens his kiss. “I’m a bit busy at the moment.”
The door opens with a loud swish. “Jeez, you two, get a room,” says Freja. She plops four carrier bags onto the kitchen floor. “And merry Christmas!”
We share a three-way hug, then she starts unpacking Christmas-based groceries. “I thought you were still in bed?”
“I’ve been up since six,” she says with an exaggerated yawn. “I left a note on the coffee table to say I’d borrowed your car to go back to my place and pick up a few things. Didn’t sleep too great following yesterday’s events. In fact, I spent the entire night thinking up ways to save your sorry asses from getting fired.”
Ethan pokes his hands in his pyjama pockets. “Erm, did you come up with anything?”
“No,” she says, tilting her head to one side. “Sorry.”
There’s something amiss in this exchange. “Wait a minute,” I say to Ethan. “I’m confused. You seem totally fine that Freja just drove your Jaguar XR8 to Greenwich and back.”
His eyes lose focus. “Errrr . . .”
“Okay, what’s going on?” Freja asks as she plonks a huge tray of smoked salmon onto the kitchen counter. Great. Just what we needed. More congealed blood products.
“Ethan can get very precious over who drives his car,” I tell her.
“Whoops,” says Freja. “Why didn’t that occur to me? It should have. Christmas must have knocked my spidey-senses out of kilter.”
“It’s totally fine,” Ethan replies in a nonchalant tone.
I bat his chest. “You wanted to fit the car with a tracking device when I needed it to drive up to Essex for a job.”
He glances at Freja and smirks a definitely twattish smirk. “That was different,” he says. “You drive like Driving Miss Daisy on meds for narcolepsy.”
“I’ve only ever fallen asleep at the wheel once, and it was after a nine-hour flight,” I proclaim proudly, then realise how completely and utterly irresponsible I sound.
“Violet, I love you, but this time my value for human life is forcing me to side with Ethan.” Freja rams a load of meat and fresh vegetables into my overstocked fridge. She wedges a suspicious packet of fresh fish into a free corner, then stands up, scratching her head. “Damn, the alcohol isn’t here. That’s the most important part of the day.” She rummages through another bag, pulling out neatly wrapped presents tied up with golden bows. “I’m sure I brought everything . . . oh, I remember – I didn’t put the bag with the bottles in the boot, I wedged them up against the back seat.”
“I’ll get them,” says Ethan, making a dash for the door.
“Don’t be daft,” I say, dragging him back. “You’re still in your pyjamas. I’ll get it.”
I slip on my shoes, pull on my puffer jacket, and look up and down my street for Ethan’s car. As with most streets in London, Princess Road was built at a time when cars barely existed, but now each four-storey terraced house is split into four separate living spaces and, theoretically, each occupant could be a car owner. Parking directly outside your property is a rare treat that only happens once a month if you’re lucky, and it’s one of the many reasons why I don’t own a car.
I find Ethan’s Jag about twenty houses up the road, and I find Freja’s booze exactly where she said it would be. The street is already alive with people packing up their cars for journeys to friends’ and relatives’ houses. On the way back home, three people wish me a merry Christmas and I smile because I’m happy. I’d be happier if the sky wasn’t cloudless and full of sunshine. But we had snow in Paris, and we had a little more yesterday, so I shouldn’t be greedy.
I’m just about to open my gate when I hear footsteps thudding on the pavement in the distance. The sun is so bright and low in the sky that I have to squint to see what it is. There’s a flash of orange billowing from behind the pink figure as it runs towards me, limbs jerking awkwardly. Is that a cape flying behind him? Is he naked? My pulse starts to race.
I use my hand as a visor and squint harder. And then it hits me. It’s Max. And he is naked aside from a pair of skimpy pink boxers, a pair of oversized trainers and a Sainsbury’s carrier bag. He holds tightly on to his extra-large Bag for Life superhero cape as if he’s a very cheap kids’ party rent-a-Superman who forgot to put on his suit.
By the time he catches up to me, his face is purple. He stops running and bends over to catch his breath. “Violet . . . thank god . . . you’re here!”
“Of course I’m here,” I tell him. “This is where I live. The obvious questions, however, are ‘why are you here?’ and ‘why are you naked?’”
He breathes a number of short rapid breaths. I can practically see his heart beating under the thin skin of his bare chest. “I have pants,” he says.
“You barely have pants,” I reply, diverting my gaze from his rose-pink jersey shorts that leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. “Why and how?”
“I managed to grab a lift from Brixton to Swiss Cottage from a Sikh gentleman who was taking the day off to work in a soup kitchen. Since then, I’ve been running for half a fucking hour. Can we finish the interrogation inside, please?”
I usher him into the house and, before I can warn anybody, he trots into the living room and collapses face down on my sofa. Georgie screams, Freja grimaces, and it’s at this point that I notice a giant hole in the back of his shorts. I place a cushion over his arse.
“Good god, why?” shrieks Georgie. “Why does he look like that? Are Sainsbury’s taking on skinny, balding mascots to pack up old ladies’ shopping?”
“I can hear you, you know,” Max says, his voice completely muffled by the sofa.
“Can we get you anything?” Freja asks. “We’re just starting to cook breakfast. We have croissants, bacon, smoked salmon—”
“I need hoppel poppel,” he squeaks.
“Hop-in what now?” I ask.
He pushes himself up until he’s in a sitting position. Thank god his literal arsehole is covered. “Hoppel poppel! Please tell me you have some hoppel poppel. My mother made it every Sunday back home. It’s an egg casserole made with leftovers from the fridge – anything you can find. I would give everything I own for some hoppel poppel right now.”
“It seems everything you own is a Sainsbury’s carrier bag and a pair of pink undercrackers with a gigantic hole in the arse.” I sit down on the sofa next to him. Freja and Georgie excuse themselves and return to the kitchen. It seems they’ve usurped my breakfast responsibilities and I don’t mind one bit. “So why are you half naked on Christmas morning?”
“It’s that idiot Marek’s fault,” he says with a full-on pet lip. “You always said he was an idiot, and you were right.”
This is true. Marek, Max’s fairydust-snorting Slovakian friend, has spent his entire life being a prize walloper. Max met him via their mutual appreciation of hypnotically intense, dance-y trance-y Euro dance clubs. “What has he done now? Is this worse than the time he stole your coat and Panama hat, then snuck out of Tanzen at three in the morning to meet his dealer?”
“Much worse,” he says, nodding his head. “At least the club’s CCTV eventually proved that the stupid imposter Max was a foot shorter and much hairier than the real Max.”
Ethan bursts into the room dressed for the day in a tartan Christmas jumper. He looks festively hot. He also looks a little bit like my grandfather from the nineties. I shake that particular image out of my brain; however, Shakin’ Stevens seems to be singing “Merry Christmas Everyone” in my head.
“Jesus Christ, Max,” Ethan says. “Why are you dressed like you’ve slept all night in a manger?”
I stifle a laugh, but Max isn’t seeing the funny side. “Is that all you’ve got? Seriously? A fucking manger? Do you think Mary and Joseph would have parked their donkey outside Sainsbury’s to do a bit of last-minute shopping before the holy saviour of the fucking universe was born?”
Ethan inhales sharply. “All right, Max. Calm down. You’re the one who looks ridiculous here.”
“Have you seen yourself, huh?” Max says with a snap that ends in a squeak. He mustn’t have thawed out yet. “You look like Alan Partridge.”
Ethan gazes down at his jumper. “Hmm, fair enough, but you look a lot worse. What’s the deal with the costume?”
Max rips the carrier bag from around his neck. “It isn’t a costume, it’s my underwear.”
He sighs deeply, pulls a cushion onto his lap and hugs his knees. “Marek was supposed to be spending Christmas with me. He didn’t come home from Tanzen last night, so I didn’t know where the hell he was. I heard a kerfuffle downstairs this morning, so I went to investigate. Marek was as high as a fucking kite, and he was stood arguing with Mrs Gordon, who owns the fried chicken shop downstairs, about whether her chicken burgers were actually made out of otters.”
It’s like a completely different world. “Otters?” I ask incredulously. “That’s a bit random.”
Max shrugs. “Marek says his family used to catch otters on the banks of the Danube when he was a kid and roast them on spitfires.”
Ethan wearily runs his hand through his hair. “Go on.”
“So, Mrs Gordon called him a crazy man and I called him a bullshitter, so he stormed outside in a rage and deliberately tossed his spare key to my flat down the drain. I couldn’t get it out.” Max rubs his bright red Rudolph-esque nose. “I will never speak to him again.”
“But you have your key, right?” asks Ethan.
“Yes, but it’s inside my flat.”
Ethan just stares blankly at him.
“And I was in Captain Cluck’s Fried Chicken shop!”
“So you’re locked out?”
“Dressed in your pants?”
He nods again.
“And you ran here via Sainsbury’s.”
He shakes his head. “Mrs Gordon from Captain Cluck’s is also my landlady. She said she’d evict me if I kicked the door to my flat in, so I told Marek to go fuck himself and I made my way here. I found the carrier bag floating meaningfully along Brixton High Street. I thought it was a metaphor.”
Empathy rushes through me. I feel so sorry for him. “A metaphor for what?” I ask him.
“My life,” he says with a sniff. “I’m just one empty carrier bag away from destitution, aren’t I?”
I place my hand on his freezing cold knee. “No, you’re not, because you’re with real friends now and you’re going to spend the day here with us.”
“I couldn’t do that,” Max says, a glimmer of life finally returning to his green eyes. “You said you were going to have a perfect Christmas with Ethan . . . but wait . . . why are Freja and Georgie here?”
“They had a fight yesterday, but it’s all sorted now. I decided yesterday that ‘perfect’ meant spending Christmas with everybody who loves me, not just Alan Partridge. Now, how would you like a nice bubble bath before breakfast? I need to warm you up.”
His eyes glisten. “This is the true meaning of Christmas. Love and kindness. I thought I’d have to go to the soup kitchen.”
He starts to get up and I remember the very large hole in the back of his underpants. “Stay there and I’ll get you a towel. Ethan will get you some clean pants.”
Ethan’s face changes. “I’m sharing my underwear now?” he asks as I bring Max a clean towel from the bathroom.
“Yes, you are, and you’re sharing your clothes too.”
Max takes the towel from me and wraps it around his waist. “If Ethan doesn’t want to loan me some underwear, I can wear yours.”
I give him a hard stare. “Are you out of your mind?”
He huffs. “Just a thought.”
* * *
“You simply cannot have ‘octopi’,” says Georgie as we settle into our fifth minute of Scrabble.
Looking around the room, I don’t think any of us have much energy for this. Our Christmas dinner took three hours to cook and what seemed like three hours to eat. Max has already had a snooze, and the amount of beer and wine we’ve all drunk means we’ll be lucky if we make it past eight p.m. without collapsing into a coma-like sleep. Nevertheless, Georgie decided to bestow a traditional Christmas on us all, so we were forced into teams and we’ve been arguing ever since. Brits against foreigners – a battle with so many Brexit undertones, I half expect her to nip out for a Daily Mail and join UKIP. Ethan’s Scottishness has somehow rendered him foreign in Georgie’s eyes, which I’m finding particularly funny.
“Why can’t I have ‘octopi’?” asks Ethan, downing a third beer from the gift set I bought him from Selfridges. “It’s a word. Tell her, Violet.”
I don’t need to check the dictionary on this. “Sorry, Georgie. Technically, ‘octopi’ is the plural of octopus.”
Georgie plasters some mock outrage onto her face. “You always side with him. You’re supposed to be on my team!”
“I most definitely don’t always side with him,” I tell her. “However, this time the Oxford English Dictionary is siding with him.” I plonk the enormous book on her lap. “I said he was correct; however, only a complete twat would use the word ‘octopi’ instead of ‘octopuses’.”
“Hey!” Ethan protests as Max and Freja erupt into laughter. “That’s offensive.”
“So you can’t have it, then,” says Georgie.
“I am totally having it,” Ethan replies. “I don’t care if that makes me a twat.”
Georgie pulls out her phone. “Google says that both are correct, but ‘octopuses’ is the most commonly used. I don’t think you can have it.”
Ethan scowls at her. “I shouldn’t have to introduce you to the rules of Scrabble at this point.”
“Come on, George,” says Freja. “If Violet says it’s a word, then it’s a word.”
“Yeah,” chips in Max. “You’ll be telling us ‘cacti’ isn’t a word next.”
“How would you know?” Georgie narrows her eyes at her art department colleague. “You can’t spell most English words. You’re even more twattish than Ethan.”
Ethan grabs the dictionary and starts leafing through the pages.
“What are you searching for?” asks Freja.
“Twattish,” replies Ethan. “I don’t think it’s a word.”
“Ugh. You’re insufferable,” says Georgie, dramatically throwing her arms up in the air. She grabs our tray of plastic letters and stares hard at them. Without conferring with me, she starts laying down pieces. “P-E-N-I.” Oh god.
“That definitely isn’t a word,” says Max.
“Don’t you mean P-E-N-N-E?” Freja asks. “Little tubes made from pasta?”
“No,” says Georgie proudly. “Peni is the plural of penis: as in a ‘crowd of peni’, or is it a ‘family of peni’, or maybe even a ‘bunch of peni’?”
Freja almost chokes on her mulled wine. “When have you ever had a bunch of ‘peni’?”
Georgie clacks her tongue like a disapproving hen. “I haven’t.”
“Really?” Freja replies. “You seem highly knowledgeable on the subject.”
“I just figured that if ‘octopi’ is a word, then ‘peni’ would be,” says Georgie.
Do I dare curb her enthusiasm? “Erm, actually, Georgie, the plural of penis is either penises or penes.”
“Again, whose side are you on?” asks Georgie, indignation rising in her voice.
I remove the pieces from the board. “Again, I’m on the side of the Oxford English Dictionary.”
“Should have asked me,” Ethan says teasingly. “I’m very knowledgeable in this area. I work with a bunch of dicks every day.”
As if on cue, there’s a loud knock on the door. Ethan and I share a gaze filled with fear. We knew this was going to happen. Today, whenever I laughed at Freja and Georgie’s squabbles or Max’s ridiculous comments, or when I found myself appreciating how totally lucky I am to have Ethan in my life, this – the sound of that knock on my door and what it means for our future – leaped into my brain and threw knives at all of my happy thoughts, killing every single one of them.
“I guess this is it, then,” says Georgie. “The thirteenth hour.”
A shiver rattles down my spine. “We could just leave her outside,” I say, folding my arms petulantly at the prospect of my day being ruined.
“Erm, what’s going on?” asks an oblivious Max. Crap, there’s no time to fill him in.
“Shall we go into the spare bedroom?” asks Freja. “Give you both some privacy?”
Ethan’s expression changes. The fear I saw in his eyes seconds ago gives way to a quiet acceptance. There’s even a trace of a smile pulling at his mouth. “No, stay here. You’re our guests.” He stands up and starts walking to the door. “I’ll let her in.”
Ethan returns an agonising minute later with Stella. I can barely look at her.
“I didn’t realise you were having guests today,” she says with no trace of empathy in her voice.
“It was an impromptu thing,” says Ethan.
I don’t know what to do again. Do I stand up? Give her my spot on the sofa? Suggest we go to a different room? The best course of action would be strapping her to a space shuttle and blasting her out of my life.
“I’m on my way home, so I have a cab waiting outside and I don’t have long. Have you made a decision?”
“We have,” he says, glancing in my direction. “Either we both stay at Tribe, or we both leave.”
Stella stares at him in silence. All I can hear is the blood gushing rhythmically in my ears. Until I hear a very small and frightened voice belonging to Max Wolf. “I don’t understand,” he says. “What’s going on?”
“Ethan broke a contract that forbade him to have a romantic or sexual relationship with an employee,” says Stella. She turns back to Ethan. “Very well. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not disappointed in your decision – both of your decisions – because I am. We could have done wonderful things together.” She holds out her hand and Ethan shakes it.
“Wait a minute!” Freja rises to her feet with such force that the Scrabble board bounces off the coffee table. “If Ethan and Violet have to leave, then I’m leaving too.”
Oh hell. How much drink has she had? “Freja, you don’t have to do that,” I tell her.
“I do have to do that,” she replies. Her voice is calm, steady and determined. She inhales a lungful of air. “I don’t want to work in an advertising agency that fires two brilliant, talented and extraordinary people just because they fell in love with each other.”
Stella’s lips thin and her jaw tightens. “Are you sure about this, Miss Larsen?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” replies Freja. “This isn’t fair.”
“I’m sure too!” shouts Georgie. She stands shoulder to shoulder with Freja. “I’m not staying either.”
“Me too!” says Max.
Stella glares at him. “Your resignation isn’t going to make me review my position.”
An expression filled with hurt sweeps fleetingly across his face. He takes a swig of his beer, then hoists it up in the air. “Merry Christmas!” he shouts triumphantly.
I expect Stella to be furious, but when my eyes meet hers, I see an odd combination of peace and acceptance. “Okay, if you’re all finished playing ‘I’m Spartacus’, I’ve got to go before someone steals my cab.” She walks to the door, places her hand on the handle, but then stops and turns around. “I’ll see all five of you in the office on Tuesday.”
Ethan looks like he’s had all the air punched out of him. “Erm . . . do you mean . . . what exactly do you mean?”
“We’ll give this a go. Get married if that’s what you want, but let me be perfectly clear that if you fuck up – and everyone in this room knows that you will fuck up – then the only arse getting fired is yours.”
He stares at her open mouthed while my brain tries to process how she’s so certain that he’s going to fuck up our relationship. It’s as if she’s peered into my brain, discovered all my insecurities are dying, and has decided to breathe new life back into them.
Stella wishes us all a merry Christmas, and then she’s gone.
“What in the fucking hell was that all about?” asks Max, rubbing his creased forehead.
I sit back down on the sofa. “We’re sorry. We tried to forget about Stella so we could enjoy the day. We didn’t get a chance to tell you.”
Max’s eyes well with tears. “You were going to leave without telling me?”
Ethan returns to his seat. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, mate. We hoped Stella would do an about face, but we were prepared to stick together if she was determined to fire one of us.”
A tidal wave of emotion rushes through me. “I guess the possibility of losing five of us in one night is what swung it. Guys, you have no idea how grateful we are.”
Freja waves off my thanks. “I was bluffing. I wouldn’t have left my job for you.”
Ethan laughs. “Really?”
Freja smiles so widely that all her freckles converge. “Nah, I’m kidding. Of course I would. We’re a team, right?”
Max nods his head. “Right. I’m never working anywhere without you guys.”
“I’d have left too,” says Georgie. She looks like she’s about to cry. “I’ve only known you two lovebirds for a couple of months, but I adore you. Ethan, you’re the best boss and you’re a great guy – even if you’re crap at Scrabble. And Violet . . .” She chokes on a sob. “I just really love you, darling.”
“I love you too,” I say swallowing her up in a huge hug.
“Here’s to a lifetime of more,” says Ethan, raising an empty beer bottle.
We all refill our glasses, then we drink, play games and laugh until our sides split.
I wanted a perfect Christmas. I got better than that.