FIRST CHAPTER

 

“FINALLY. THE WOMAN OF THE MOMENT. What took you so bloody long?”

Where to start? Today has been an absolute twat of a day. It started badly when my colossally fuckwitted neighbour decided to throw a house party at three a.m., then it got progressively worse. I spilled an entire cup of coffee all over my living room rug, and a power cut meant it took me an hour to towel-dry my hair. The last thing I needed after that was a note through my letterbox from colossally-fuckwitted-neighbour telling me I need to stop spoiling his fun and get a life. Seriously, you’d think he was fifteen not thirty-five. If I hadn’t been futilely attempting to scrub Italian Roast espresso from my hand-tufted wool rug when he shoved his inexplicably unapologetic note through my letterbox, I’d have shoved it where the sun doesn’t shine.

Or maybe, on reflection, I wouldn’t. He smells of wet dog on a dry day and his hair looks like it’s been styled with bird shit. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he once dropped his keys outside his front gate, bent over and gave me very good reason to believe he doesn’t wash his underwear. I imagine shoving the note in his grubby arse-cleavage and a wave of queasiness washes over me. Ew. Why do I do this to myself?

“Dealing with a very long and unpleasant list of domestic disasters took me so long,” I say to my friend Violet as I walk over to the bar and order a very large mojito. Then I do a double take. Åh nej. Allerede? Already? It’s only half past nine and she looks fit to drop. I love her dearly, but she has the drinking stamina of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. This means she rarely sees the end of a good night out. “Violet, how on earth are you hammered already? What time did you get here?”

She tucks her arm around her fiancé Ethan’s as her body sways. “We’ve been out since six thirty and I’m not apologising. I’ve had a bloody awful week.”

With his free arm, Ethan pulls me into a friendly hug. “Huge congrats, Freja. You’ve got Best TV Ad in the bag. I’m calling it now. You’re going to get Tribe our first big win at the AdAg Awards this year. And if it’s any consolation,” he says with a hint of mischief in his lovely Scottish accent, “if Violet had been nominated this year, she’d be in a much worse state tonight.”

Violet’s crystal-blue eyes register the horror. “It’s all true. When I was nominated last year I wanted to kill myself. I ate my way through five tubs of strawberry cheesecake Häagen Dazs in a twenty-four hour period in a vain attempt to cheer myself up. The thought of going on stage with everyone looking at me . . .” She rubs her brow, and I’m not sure whether her grimace is due to her traumatic memory or her alcohol fog. “But I’m so happy for you, Freja. You deserve this so much.”

“Thank you.”

Violet, our agency’s creative director, is a textbook introvert, while her fiancé, Ethan, who is my and Violet’s boss at Tribe advertising agency, loves the limelight. They’re two opposite cosmic forces, yin and yang, different in every way yet totally perfect together. As for me? I haven’t had a proper relationship since my actor-boyfriend decided to bang his co-star five years ago. I caught them half naked in the front seat of his Volkswagen Golf, and what they were doing with the six-speed gear shift knob will be forever etched into my memory. But strangely, that wasn’t really what made me swear off relationships. I realised I didn’t give a shit that Richie was secretly screwing his daytime-soap co-star. In fact, I was relieved. No more domestic drudgery. No more squabbles over whose turn it was to wash the bloody dishes. No more having to watch his god-awful 1970s sitcom DVDs. Åh Gud, the sitcoms. A whole bookshelf in our house was dedicated to the sitcoms, and every Friday night Richie would put one on and pray to the gods of all things racist, sexist and homophobic.

I finish my mojito just as Tribe’s whacky designer, Max Wolf, bounds over to join us.

“Why are you dressed like Ozzy Osbourne?” asks Ethan, taking in Max’s too-tight trousers and burgundy velvet jacket.

“And Dame Edna?” adds Violet, her bright eyes fixed on her friend’s diamanté choker and feathered brooch.

“And Dita von Teese?” I say with a laugh, as I spot his leopard-print corset belt. Where on earth does this man shop? Has he won a trolley dash through a stripper’s closet?

“I don’t have time to explain my style tonight.” Max’s tone is serious and urgent as he wedges his gangly six-foot-four frame between Ethan and Violet, his arms draped around their shoulders. “I need you to settle an argument for me. Will says Stella will instantly promote him to creative director if he wins best ad campaign at the AdAg Awards. I say she won’t seeing as she’s just promoted Harry.”

“No, ah-ah, I’m not touching that.” Worry dulls Ethan’s eyes as he steps out of Max’s hold. He’s been one of Tribe’s junior partners for six months now, but the tightness of his shoulders show that he still feels uneasy managing his former friends. I follow his nervous gaze to the group of guys huddled at the far side of the bar. “Just tell Will that I don’t have any real power and that Stella makes all the important decisions.”

“If I had any power, then I’d have promoted Will over Harry bloody Hopkins,” says Violet. She takes another large swig of wine, and my insides churn. Violet knows I’ve had a “friends with benefits” arrangement with Harry for the last couple of years. It’s strictly sex only – no sleepovers, dates or commitment – but I still feel hellishly awkward when she voices how much she can’t stand him.

Violet notices my unease. “I’m sorry, Freja. I know you guys are close, but Harry deliberately ruffles my feathers ten times before breakfast every single day. Actually, he doesn’t just ruffle my feathers; he plucks them – every last one of them – and then he stuffs cushions with them.”

“I don’t understand the duck simile,” says Max. He’s German and he’s lived in the UK longer than I have, but he has a far poorer grasp of British humour. “Anyway you do have power. You’re sleeping with him, aren’t you?” He jerks a thumb in Ethan’s direction.

“It’s a metaphor, not a simile,” Violet says with a hint of schoolteacher in her voice. “And I’d have to be sleeping with Stella to have any power, not him.”

A lascivious smirk creeps over Max’s face. Ethan laughs.

Violet narrows her eyes at both of them. “Max, are you imagining me sleeping with Stella?”

“Yeah.” Max’s grin gets wider. “Thanks for putting it in my head.”

Ethan mirrors Max’s grin. “Oh great, now it’s in my head too.”

“Right, I’ve had enough.” Violet pushes the pair of them in the direction of Will and the other guys. “Shoo! Go away. Go and tell Will he’s not getting a promotion because Tribe only promotes people who annoy the fuck out of me.”

When we’re alone, Violet sidles up to me, rests her head on my shoulder and sighs. “I’ve had the worst work week ever, Freja. I’m a thousand per cent sure Stella hates me. Ever since she made Harry creative director, she’s given him all the best campaigns and totally overlooked me. He got JET Financial, our biggest client by considerable millions of pounds, in his first bloody week, and what did I get? A series of literally painful hernia-awareness ads for the sodding NHS. You couldn’t make it up, could you?”

“Violet, we’ve been through this, honey. This is just your paranoia. And you’re overthinking. And you’re also . . .” I look at her hurt face and my heart sinks. She can’t help who she is, and it isn’t my place to tell her that her feelings aren’t important. “I know Harry getting JET Financial hurt you, but you have to let it go.” I take her over to a quieter corner of the bar and we sit down at a high table. “Harry got JET because he worked on the bid, helped with the pitch and because the client wants to ramp up their digital presence. Harry specialises in digital advertising and you don’t. It really is as simple as that. You must know deep down in that weird little brain of yours that it made perfect sense for Stella to assign Harry to the campaign.”

She bows her head, her gaze concentrated on her wine glass, which is as empty as mine now. “You must think I’m a crackpot.”

“I think you desperately need to embrace some hygge.”

Her dark, perfectly sculpted eyebrows twist into a frown. “I need to embrace my hoo-ha? My vagina has nothing to do with this conversation, Freja.”

Hygge, not hoo-ha, you twit. And I’ve told you about hygge before, the last time being only yesterday. I knew you weren’t listening. It’s my Danish happiness philosophy, remember?” She looks at me with blank eyes, and I resist the urge to pinch her.

“I was listening when you told me,” she says. “It’s all about drinking hot chocolate and having cosy nights by the fire, isn’t it?”

“Something like that.” Normally I’d take Violet to task about her infuriating habit of pretending she’s listening intently to conversations she’s tuned out from, but she can barely stand up, so I change the subject instead.

“Anyway, listen – it’s awesome that Tribe has received three AdAg nominations when we’re only six months old. You were creative director on the Sunta campaign, so you should be really proud. Will and Pinkie are your team, so this is your nomination too.” She smiles a stiff smile that doesn’t reach her cheeks. “Although now I know you’d rather face a game of Russian roulette than walk onto a stage to collect our industry’s top award—”

She grabs my arm tightly. “Oh my god, don’t say that word!”

“What word?”

“Russian.”

I’m confused. “Um, okay . . .”

“I’d almost erased this afternoon’s disastrous Subway pitch from my mind. I’ve been drowning out the sheer terror that was on the client’s face with wine, but . . . oh god, why did you have to remind me? I have to drink more wine now.” She tries to get up from the stool but thinks better of it and sits back down, holding her head in her hands. “God, I can’t even . . .” she says, rubbing at her brow. “This is all Ethan’s fault. He knows me better than anyone, so why on earth did he think assigning Rasputin’s long-lost half-crazed, weed-obsessed great-great-granddaughter to my team was a good idea?”

She must mean her new Russian art director. “Natalia is obsessed with weed?”

“Not that kind of weed. Don’t worry, she’s no competition for Max’s Colombian connection. I mean dill.”

“Dill? As in the plant?”

“It’s a weed, not a plant, and it shouldn’t be food, yet she eats it in everything and on everything. And she grows it. I wouldn’t be surprised if she smokes it. It smells awful. I can’t go near her desk at lunch time and . . . she’s just odd. Very odd. Don’t tell me you don’t think she’s odd.”

I smile because there wouldn’t be much daylight between Violet and Natalia in an oddness contest. “I think she’s interesting.”

She scrunches her beautiful face into a scowl. I’d kill for Violet’s flawless porcelain skin and sparkling blue eyes. Even when she’s drunk and in a bad mood she still manages to look like a fairy-tale princess. “That’s because you don’t have to work with her.”

“But I do have to work with her.”

She yawns and slumps forward onto the table, making it wobble. “I meant manage her. You don’t have to manage her. I do. Every bloody day.”

“Natalia is a free spirit. She says what she thinks and she’s confident in who she is. There’s a lot to be admired in that.” Why am I even attempting to reason with Violet? Her brain fell asleep five minutes ago and her body isn’t far behind.

“There you are, sweetie.” Our friend Georgie totters over to me in sky-high fuchsia-pink heels which look like they were designed with the feet of a Soho drag act in mind. “Sorry I’m late. Mitchell has gone to Switzerland to hook up with his tobogganing team again. He’s only just got back from spending a whole season in the Alps, so I’m not at all pleased about it.” She flings her arms around me and gives me a peck on the cheek. “Congrats on your nom, darling. I am totally beyond excited for you. And sorry for being miserable. I solemnly swear I’m going to try to be more fun.”

“Thanks, George.” She gives me another kiss. “What’s with the shoes? You don’t usually wear heels.”

“They’re Jimmy Choos.” She looks proudly down at her feet. “I’m trying to be more fashionable, but they’re absolutely killing me. How have you spent your entire life wearing these things, Frey? They’re the fashion equivalent of medieval torture devices. I think I’ve left it far too late to start wearing nice shoes. My feet just won’t comply. What’s up with Violet? She doesn’t look good.”

“She’s had too much wine. Which doesn’t have to be very much for Violet.”

Before I finish my sentence, Georgie has enveloped Violet in her arms. She places one hand on Violet’s forehead, looks into her eyes, then starts stroking her hair. “Violet, sweetie. How are you feeling? Do you need anything, hmm? Can you hear me, sweetie? Should I get Ethan?”

Violet rests her head on Georgie’s shoulder. “I’ve had the worst week ever. It’s all down to dill, you know.”

“There, there, darling,” purrs Georgie. “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, and I’m not at all sure you do either, but why don’t we go outside and get some fresh air so you can tell me all about it?” She links Violet’s arm and starts to lead her to the exit. “Are you coming, Frey?”

“No, you’re good. I’ll just get another drink or six.”

Georgie looks disappointed, but I hold strong. I’m always the person everyone talks through their problems with, but tonight I’m allowing myself to be a little bit selfish. It’s Saturday night – I want to celebrate and I want to have fun. I head for the bar and search the crowd for anybody I recognise with a smile on their face. Thankfully the first people I find are Anaïs and Rachel.

“You look like you need a drink, Freja.” Anaïs is Tribe’s public relations manager. She’s a stylish Parisian and one of my oldest friends. “What would you like?”

“Something with a double shot of anything strong. I arrived late so I’m playing catch-up.”

Anaïs gives my arm a squeeze. “Say no more. There’s three for two on cocktails tonight.” She walks over to the bar, giving me a great view of her backless dress. I’ll never understand why Anaïs isn’t a stylist for an incredibly famous person. I need her to dress me. She needs to dress the entire planet.

“Freja, I need to talk shop with you for a moment.” Rachel, a film producer on my team, is my newest recruit and is fast becoming a friend. She’s bright, bold and popular, with a filthy sense of humour, and she brightens up my studio every day. “I can’t stop thinking up ideas for the JET Financial ad. What do you think about filming in a fighter jet?”

Is she serious? “You want to go up in a fighter jet? Rachel, I love you, but you almost passed out when you had to shoot in a cornfield for Miller’s Muesli Bars.”

“There was a huge pile of dung in that cornfield. I’m a London girl. Everything to do with the countryside offends me.” I can’t help laughing as I remember that infamous shoot. Wendy, our post-producer, saved all the best outtakes, which mostly consist of a terrified Rachel yelling a cacophony of four-letter words behind the camera as she struggled not to barf.

“I know what you’re thinking. However, I have two words for you: Top Gun.”

Top Gun? Rachel, the creative team isn’t going to refocus three months of intense planning with the strategy department just because you want to shoot some fit guys in sexy uniforms.”

She places her hands on her enviably curvy hips. “The fit guys would be a bonus, but focus on the meaning. We can’t do an ad for a company called JET Financial without linking the JET to a jet.”

“JET is an acronym for Jared Eugene Taft, the company’s founder.” The excitement fades from her face. Damn it. I didn’t want to quash her enthusiasm. “So, that’s probably going to be too literal.”

Her lips thin to a pensive line. “I admit that did cross my mind.”

“I’m not saying it wouldn’t work, but you know how creative teams would rather turn out shit than run with a producer’s idea. It’s our job to translate their vision, not push our own.”

“I know, I know.” She turns up the excitement, and the volume, again. “It’s going to be a tough job, but I just told Harry Hopkins about my idea and he thought it was great.”

“You’ve already run this past the creative director?” Again, I don’t want to quash her enthusiasm, but she’s new and she’s young, and I’ll be the one for the high jump if she starts stepping on toes. And since when was Harry here? I scan the bar and find him in deep conversation with a pair of breasts belonging to a blonde with orange skin and drawn-on eyebrows. Typical. “I also don’t know who’s going to be producing the JET Financial ad yet. There’s a lot to consider. I have to consider workloads, the creative brief and our skills base . . . and I’m bracing myself for the client requesting Jadine.”

Rachel’s eyes roll under her heavily made-up eyelids. “Jadine? Why on earth would they request Jadine? JET is Tribe’s top client. They deserve better than Jadine. I’m better than Jadine.”

“You may well be, but you aren’t the part-time shag-buddy of JET’s millionaire CEO.”

She almost drops to the floor just as Anaïs re-joins us with three pina coladas. “You’re kidding me. Why don’t I know this? Did you know about this, Anaïs?”

“Know about what?” Anaïs passes me one of the bright yellow drinks.

“Jared Taft is screwing Jadine Clark.”

“Ew, no I didn’t.” Anaïs’s face twists with disgust. “Freja, you’re absolutely shit at gossiping.”

“That’s because I’m not interested in Jadine Clark’s love life.”

“Why wouldn’t you be interested?” Rachel screws up her nose. “This scenario is absolutely crying out for a bitching session including a generous portion of judgement and bitterness.” She closes her eyes and sucks so much pina colada through her straw that she almost empties the glass. “God, if this is true, it’s such a waste. Jared Taft is far too hot, rich, gorgeous and charming to be with Jadine Clark. Have you felt how hard his thighs are? He accidentally nudged me in the lift and my knickers dropped three inches—”

“Oh my god.” I almost choke on my drink. “Rachel, you really need to stop reading trashy romance books.”

Anaïs nods her head and laughs. She knows what I’m talking about. Rachel’s appetite for almost-but-not-quite-pornographic literature is legendary.

“My expert knowledge of fantasy hot, sexy millionaires means I have expert insight into real-life hot, sexy millionaires. Trust me on this. Jared Taft could have any woman he wanted, so why in the name of Christian Grey’s delicious arse would he pick Jadine Clark? She’s bloody awful. And she doesn’t have any tits.”

Anaïs looks down at her own flat chest and sighs. “Tits aren’t everything.”

“Who says tits aren’t everything?”

Oh, for crying out loud. Could Harry Hopkins choose a worse time to join us? His bright-blue eyes sparkle as his gaze sweeps over me, settling on my boobs. Clearly he had no luck with the orange girl he was drooling over earlier.

“Is this our cue to leave?” Rachel asks me.

“It is my cue,” declares Anaïs. She’s hated Harry for years, and the feeling is mutual.

A flash of mischief lands in Harry’s eyes. “Oh, don’t be like that, Anus.”

Anaïs’s light-brown skin darkens, and she shoots him a glare that would strike fear in the hearts of most men, but not Harry. This is because Harry reaches peak euphoric happiness when he’s tormenting the life out of people who don’t like him. Anaïs tells Harry to go fuck himself, then she turns on her heel and disappears into the crowd.

Rachel stands awkwardly for a moment. Her light-green eyes flit between Harry and the group of colleagues her friend just joined. “I’d best go check on Anaïs.”

“Sure. We can talk about your fighter-jet idea on Monday if you like,” says Harry.

An excited squeal escapes from Rachel’s throat. “Oh my god, do you mean it?”

“Of course,” Harry says.

Rachel’s round cheeks turn into bright shiny apples, then she squeals again and heads off in the direction of her friend.

When we’re alone, Harry sweeps his hand around my back and grips my hip firmly. “I haven’t had the chance to congratulate you on your nomination yet.” He’s standing so close to me that his beard rubs softly against my neck. He suits his beard. Together with his biker clothes, floppy blonde hair and infamous attitude, it fits with his bad-boy image.

“Why do you have to be so rude to Anaïs?”

“She’s a moron and she hates me, so—”

“So, she’s my friend, Harry.” I pull out of his hold and spin around to face him.

“I’m your friend too.”

“Seriously? You sound like you’re jealous that I have other friends.”

“I’m the only friend you sleep with, so I’m not jealous.”

“Maybe you are, or maybe you’re not.” I say it teasingly, but if he thinks he’s sleeping with me tonight, he’s got another thing coming. I hate it when he’s presumptuous. I drain my glass and head over to the bar to order another cocktail. But Harry doesn’t take the hint and follows me.

“Do you remember my friend Lola?”

A surge of desire swirls low in my belly. What a night that was. “How could I forget?”

Harry’s eyes sparkle and he leans in close to me again, his hand returning to my hip. “She’s attending a banking conference in Frankfurt next week and has a stopover in London tomorrow, for one night only. What do you say we all get together again?”

The bartender passes me a red wine spritzer and I immediately take a huge, nervous drink. “Lola was a one-time thing, Harry. I try everything once, not twice.”

“But if you enjoyed it once, you’ll enjoy it twice.” His Aussie accent makes his voice growl with a sexy purr. “Do you think about that night as much as I do? Watching you with Lola is my brain’s top-rated download whenever I fancy a wristy.”

“You did more than watch, if I remember correctly.” With a rush of excitement, my mind takes me back to that night. Despite spending my student years in the company of liberated, free-thinking acting types, Lola and Harry was my first threesome. And it was pretty spectacular. “Lola is an amazing kisser.”

Harry frowns. “Better than me?”

“Well, she doesn’t have a beard.”

Harry smoothes his hands over his wiry chin. “You told me my beard heightened your pleasure.”

“Yeah, I did,” I say flirtatiously. “But I wasn’t talking about pleasuring my mouth when I said that.”

Harry’s skin flushes pink. “Fuck. You have no idea how much I need this again. You have to come over tomorrow night. Can I call you in the morning when I find out when Lola’s plane lands?”

Do I want to go there again? I think back to Lola’s kisses, and I figure why the hell not. “Yeah, you can call me.”

At that moment, the door swings open and Violet reappears, slumped around Georgie’s shoulder. She looks like she took a bath in the river of the dead. Ethan immediately rushes to her side, his brow pleated in a concerned frown.

“Looks like Violet’s had a gutful of piss again,” says Harry.

I give his arm a sharp nudge. “Leave her be. She’s had a tough week.”

“Every week’s a tough week for her.” He glares at her with barely contained contempt, and I fight an overwhelming urge to knee him in the balls. Harry’s my friend, but I’m here for my girls first, and I’ll protect them with claws if necessary. Harry drains his beer bottle and plonks it down on the bar. “If Stella assigns Klein & Co to Violet, then she’s an even bigger mug than Ethan Fraser is.”

My heart skips a beat.

I must have heard wrong.

“If she assigns who?”

“We signed Klein & Co last night. I doubt Stella will give me another multi-million-pound campaign, but she fucking should. I can easily handle JET Financial and Klein & Co. Violet’s skills are better suited to smaller, less important clients.”

For a second I can’t hear anything but the sound of my own pulse sloshing around in my ears. I spent January worrying and praying this wouldn’t happen. Then I spent February trying to find a secondment somewhere . . . anywhere. Then, a few weeks ago, I got my reprieve. I thought I was out of the woods.

“What’s up?”

“Erm . . . nothing . . . I . . .” The tremble in my voice elicits a look of concern on Harry’s face. I take a deep breath and try to focus. “I just thought Klein & Co had signed with BMG.”

“They almost did, but then the chairman of our board got himself knighted in the New Year’s Honours and he’s suddenly best pals with Lord Klein. They sealed the deal with cognac, cigars and a handshake in some poncey Mayfair gentlemen’s club.”

A sickly swirl of nausea rises into my throat. It tastes of bile mixed with alcohol and fear. I need to get out of here. I need to breathe different air. I need to feel safe. I need to clear my mind and plan what the hell I’m going to do.

I wait until Harry goes to the toilet. I don’t say goodbye. I just leave.