A big happy pub day to my latest book baby, The Never Have I Ever Club! From burlesque dancing to Swedish massage, the villagers of Kettlewick have plenty of bucket list activities they’re keen to tick off. You can read an exclusive extract from the book below, as heroine Robyn discovers how members of her new club have been carpeing their diems in their spare time.
Robyn turned to Cliff and Linda Cockburn. ‘Anything to report, you two? You had some sort of special day out planned, didn’t you?’
‘Ah. Um, yes.’ Cliff had gone a bit pink, and seemed to be avoiding the eye of the Brigadier opposite him. For his part too, the Brigadier was looking anywhere but at Cliff. ‘Well, we went.’
‘And how was it?’
‘It was… fine.’ The corner shop owner ran a finger under his collar. ‘Huh. Very enjoyable.’
Felicity grinned at him. ‘Come on, Cliff, there’s no point getting prudish about it now. Tell them what happened before I do.’
Cliff stared at her. ‘You wouldn’t.’
‘Of course I would. I was laughing for three solid days.’ She looked him up and down. ‘I mean, nothing personal.’
‘It was my fault,’ Linda said. ‘I talked Cliff into it.’
Robyn tried to remember what Linda’s contribution to the group bucket list had been.
Skinny-dipping, that was it. Robyn remembered her waxing lyrical about the excitement of feeling the open air on your skin, the dangerous thrill of potentially getting caught…
‘You didn’t get yourselves arrested for indecency or something, did you?’ she asked, her eyes widening.
‘Oh, no, nothing like that,’ Linda said. ‘No, you see, after the first meeting Cliff and I decided we’d like to do something that would stand for posterity, if you know what I mean. Something to impress the grandchildren.’
‘Okay. Such as?’
‘Well, Cliff wanted to see if we could get a part as extras in a film. That did sound fun, but when we looked into it there weren’t any opportunities coming up. But, er…’ She coughed. ‘There was something happening.’
‘A sort of performance art thing. You know that famous artist who does the, er… the photos of crowds of nudes?’
Freya choked on a snort.
‘What, you mean you and Cliff—’
‘They painted themselves blue and rode up and down an escalator with a load of other stark-naked Smurfs,’ Felicity said matter-of-factly. ‘Definitely one to share with the grandkids. It’ll be like playing Where’s Wally? with Grandpa’s bum.’
‘How do you know so much about it, Fliss?’ Robyn asked.
Felicity grinned. ‘Because Norman and I were there with our bums painted blue too.’ She nudged her bright red fiancé. ‘Weren’t we, dearest?’
The Brigadier cleared his throat. ‘Yes, well. It gets you out of the house, doesn’t it?’
Will shook his head. ‘You think you know someone.’
‘So do you think you’ll be doing any more performance art?’ Robyn asked the Cockburns.
‘No, I think we can tick that one off now,’ Cliff said, still avoiding the Brigadier’s eye. The experience of encountering each other by chance, todgers out and painted blue, had clearly traumatised them. Certainly, their Rotary Club dinners were unlikely to ever be the same.
‘Moving on,’ Robyn said. ‘Winnie. Any progress on your tattoo?’
‘Er, yes. Well, you could say that. I’ve got one now.’
‘Can we see, or is it somewhere you’d rather not show us?’
Winnie sighed. ‘It’s still healing but yeah, you can see.’
He rolled up his sleeve to display the fresh ink on his lower arm.
Will squinted at the artwork. It was very detailed, like a pencil sketch, and looked as if it might have been copied from a photograph. Underneath was a scroll bearing the words: Sleep well, Jarvis, loyol freind: 2004–2019.
‘It’s a dog,’ Will said.
‘I know. A Pomeranian, I think.’
‘Was it your dog, Winnie?’
‘No. No, it was someone else’s dog.’
‘To be honest, I’m not sure.’
Robyn frowned. ‘You mean you got a memorial tattoo for a dog you don’t know?’
‘I didn’t mean to,’ Winnie said in a pained voice. ‘I wanted a lion but the tattooist had muddled his appointments. He thought I was someone else.’
‘Why didn’t you say something?’
‘Well, I didn’t like to be rude. He’d obviously put a lot of time into the design.’ He looked at his arm and grimaced. ‘I wish he’d been a better speller though.’
‘Didn’t he show you it first?’ Freya asked. ‘Normally they do a wipe-off transfer so you can confirm you’re happy with it.’
Winnie pulled a face. ‘He did, but… you remember the old days, when people got tattoos to show how hard they were?’
‘This guy was very old school,’ Winnie said, shuddering. ‘There wasn’t a bit of him that wasn’t inked or pierced, from his bovver boots to the top of his shaven head. He had this sort of menacing look in his eye when he asked if I was happy to go ahead, as if he was defying me to criticise his design, and I…’ He groaned. ‘I just smiled and said yes, that’ll be lovely, thank you.’
‘He must know now though,’ Freya said. ‘I mean, I presume Jarvis’s real dad turned up eventually.’
‘He did. And to be fair to the bloke, he did give me my money back.’
‘So it’s a free misspelt dead dog tattoo. Brilliant.’
Robyn shook her head. ‘Winnie. Are you saying you got a complete stranger’s dog tattooed on your forearm for all eternity out of social embarrassment?’
‘Yeah,’ Winnie muttered. ‘It’s not so bad. I mean, it’s very artistic, don’t you think?’
Robyn noticed Felicity shaking with silent laughter behind her hanky and turned her head slightly.
‘But you can’t go through life pretending you once had a much-loved dog called Jarvis when you didn’t,’ she said. ‘Have you ever had a dog?’
‘No. I’m allergic to the fur.’
‘Sweet baby Jesus,’ Robyn muttered.
‘I could pretend Jarvis was the name of an ex,’ Winnie said, twisting his arm to examine the tattoo.
‘Right. An ex who died this year, aged fifteen, and really liked dogs.’
‘Okay, maybe not,’ he conceded. ‘I’ll just have to go with my back-up plan and wear long sleeves forever. I’ll miss swimming, but that’s a small price to pay.’
‘This is literally the most British thing I’ve ever heard,’ Will said.
‘God help me,’ Robyn heard Eliot mutter. ‘The man I love’s called Winston Prenderghast and he’s got a stranger’s dead Pomeranian tattooed on his arm.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘El, did I just hear you use the L-word?’ she whispered.
‘Never mind that, Rob. I’ve got bigger problems here.’
The rest of the group hadn’t fared much better than poor Winnie with their bucket list tasks. Albert Jeffries was limping for a reason he refused to divulge, although on the plus side, he and his wife had finally decided to call it a day on the DVLA and apply for an allotment instead. Jane Siegfried, the lady who’d wanted to learn to play poker, had managed to lose £800 of her savings in an online casino. And Eliot had been forced to give up the ukulele after developing blisters that made it too painful for him to hold his homework-marking pen, much to the delight of his class.
Robyn rested her chin on one fist as Mr Ansari from the library talked them through the various genealogy archives available online.
This wasn’t how the club was supposed to be. No, this wasn’t right at all.
Meet Me at the Lighthouse, a romantic comedy set on the Yorkshire coast, is due to be published by HarperImpulse on 30th June 2017. Read the first chapter below.
The day I turned 28, I bought a lighthouse and met the love of my life.
I mean, as you do. Get up, have boiled egg, meet love of life, buy lighthouse. We’ve all been there, right?
Of course I didn’t know, when I was right in the fog of it, that I was meeting the love of my life. I didn’t know I was less than an hour from buying my very own lighthouse either. Sometimes these things just jump out at you with a tummy-flopping, life-changing “boo!”.
Cragport’s Victorian lighthouse stuck up out of the chalk cliff that jutted into the North Sea’s foam-crusted swill, rotting itself quietly into the ground just as it had for years. A red-and-white-swirled job like a fairground helter-skelter, half bleached by slashes of seagull guano. It was about 90ft high and indecently phallic, arched windows long denuded of glass at intervals all the way up and a round knob crowning the lantern room on top.
Once upon a time, this beacon-that-was had beamed Cragport’s fishermen safely home. But its light had gone out for good decades ago, and these days all locals saw was an eyesore – if they noticed it at all. Cracked and graffiti-covered, the one-time colossus was just another broken thing in a town full of them.
I passed it every morning walking Monty. Barely noticed it, like everyone else. It was just furniture for a background, marked daily as Monty’s property through the medium of a sly little wee up the side.
That day a man was there, nailing a notice to the half-rotten wooden door at a little distance from us. I put Monty on his lead before he decided both man and lighthouse belonged to him and it was damp trouser time.
“Morning.” The man turned to flash us a bright smile that had no place on any self-respecting person’s face at that time on a damp Saturday. It was like he wasn’t even hungover. Surreal.
“Morning.” I nodded to him as we passed, but something in his smile made me stop.
I hadn’t seen him around Cragport before, though he had the town’s own Yorkshire twang. Squinting at him in the sun’s white glare, I could just about make him out: tall, broad, with longish hair and a rash of stubble, dressed in jeans and a padded jacket to keep out the chill nor’wester.
And he was gorgeous, really bloody gorgeous. I mean, if you went for that chiselled, rough-hewn look. He wasn’t my type, but still, it was hard not to stare. You didn’t see many bodies like that around town, not since Jess had dragged me off to see The Dreamboys last year.
“What’s it say?” I asked him, pointing to the notice. I had to raise my voice a little so he could hear me over the yammerings of an increasingly toothsome clifftop wind. “They’re not pulling the old thing down, are they?”
“They can’t.” He tapped in the last nail and turned to face me. “Listed building.”
“Oh. Good.” I wasn’t quite sure why I said that. Something about the derelict lighthouse disappearing from my skyline rankled. “So what’s the notice for? Is it for sale?”
“Yep.” His face broke into a broad grin. “Why, you want to buy it?”
“A lighthouse?” I laughed and gestured down at my scruffy stonewash jeans and too-big hoodie-with-fashionable-bleach-stain combo, my hungover dog-walking costume of choice. “Don’t let this well-heeled exterior fool you, mate. I don’t start the day with a swim in a Scrooge McDuck money bin, you may be surprised to learn.”
“You don’t need to. Here.” He beckoned me to his side and I skimmed the laminated notice fixed to the door.
LIGHTHOUSE FOR SALE
First offer gets it – NO TIMEWASTERS
Call 01947 482704 to enquire
“A quid?” I said to the man with a puzzled frown. “Oh, and it’s Bobbie, by the way.”
I was hoping he’d tell me his name in return so I could stop thinking of him as “the man”.
“I know,” he said, bending to stash his hammer in a small toolbox on the ground.
I cocked a quizzical eyebrow. “You know what?”
“I know you’re Bobbie.”
Er… what? Unless the extra year I’d added to my age that morning had just shoved me arse-first into a full-on senior moment, I was pretty certain I’d never seen this bloke before in my life. Monty was tugging at his lead, keen to claim the rest of his walk, but I ignored him.
My stomach gave a sudden lurch. Could there have been some drunken hook-up I’d forgotten about? If so it’d have to have been a bloody long time ago: it was getting on for nine months since I’d last seen any action in that department. I mean, yes, it was only six months since the big break-up – but that was a whole other story.
The man straightened to face me. Now the blinding sun had disappeared behind a cloud, I could see him more clearly.
The deep green eyes were flecked silver, lightly sparking as he squinted into the wind. And there was something in his face, a crinkle round the eyes… as if he was enjoying a private joke at someone else’s expense. He reached up to push away the rusty brown hair that was whipping round his forehead.
That face… it did seem familiar. A half-remembered smile…
“Ross?” I said, blinking.
He grinned. “Knew you’d get there eventually.”
“Oh my God!” Impulsively I threw my arms round him, a wave of pleasure sweeping through me. So it was Ross Mason: the boy in the band. What was he doing back here?
I couldn’t believe I hadn’t recognised him – but then he’d beefed up a lot since sixth form. I released him from the hug and drank in the well-built frame, trying to match it up with the beanpole of a lad who’d sat next to me in English. Not that Ross hadn’t always been good-looking in a cheeky, boyish way, but I never thought he’d grow up to be… well, buff was the only word for it.
And… there had been a hook-up, hadn’t there? My first kiss. School disco, Year 9, slow dancing to Angels by Robbie Williams. We’d managed a fair amount of experimental tongue action and some hormone-fuelled top-half groping by the time Mr Madison dived in to separate us, then spent the next two weeks avoiding each other in embarrassment.
He’d still had his braces in back then. Long time ago that it was, I could remember running a tentative tongue-tip over the ridge, tasting them; that same moist, metal flavour you get in your mouth before a rainstorm, made erotic through the thrill of inexperience.
I wondered if he remembered.
“Er – phew. Thanks,” he said when I’d let him go, looking a double dose of windswept from the weather and the unexpected hug.
I turned my face to one side to let the biting wind cool my suddenly overheated cheeks. Had that been a bit much, after ten years? Maybe should’ve gone with a polite handshake…
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “Didn’t mean to launch myself at you. It’s been a long time, that’s all.”
“Don’t apologise. Not every day attractive women throw themselves into my arms, I wasn’t about to start complaining.” He nodded down at Monty. “Your friend doesn’t look impressed though.”
Monty had fixed him with a resentful doggy glare. He was still pulling at his lead, demanding to know why we couldn’t ditch this joker and get off down the beach.
“Yeah, he’s a possessive little bugger,” I said with a smile.
“What do you call the lad?”
“Montgomery. But it’s just Monty to his friends.”
“Oh.” He reached down to tickle Monty’s ears. “Hi, Montgomery.”
“So when did you get back?” I asked.
“Few months ago. I guess my mum told you about me and Claire splitting up a while back. Once we’d put our old flat in Sheffield on the market, it felt like a good time to make a clean break of it back in the old hometown.”
I fumbled in my grey matter, trying to remember what Molly Mason had said about Ross’s life post-school in our various bus-stop chats. Proud mums always sent me into nodding auto-pilot. Claire… that was the girlfriend, wasn’t it? They’d lived together for years.
“Yeah, she did mention something. I’m sorry, Ross.”
I could sympathise: it didn’t seem so very long ago I’d been marking CDs and crying into a pile of unpaired socks myself. A not-so-clean break with the emphasis very much on the broken.
Ross shrugged. “Well, it’s been 18 months now. Onwards and upwards, eh? Can’t force these things if they aren’t meant to be.”
“Won’t dispute that.” I summoned a grin and gestured across the bay with a broad sweep of my arm. “Anyway, allow me to officially welcome you home to Drizzle-on-Sea. Still the finest selection of mucky postcards and adult-themed novelty rock this side of Bridlington.”
He laughed, showing perfect straight, white teeth to prove the childhood braces had done their work. “Cheers love, good to be back in the land of the Kiss-Me-Quick-Shag-Me-Slow hat. So how about you, you get married?”
“No, still muddling along on my own.” For some reason I found my cheeks heating again, despite the bracing air. Monty picked that moment to let rip with an accusing bark, which didn’t help.
“Just the Westie with the Oedipus Complex, is it?” Ross leaned down again to ruffle Monty between the ears. The little chap submitted to the caress with a resentful aloofness that clearly said he could take it or leave it.
“Yep, just us two and our Jess. We’re living in Grandad’s old cottage at the top of town.”
“You still writing? Back in school we all thought we’d see your name in lights one day. Or at least in embossed gold print on an airport paperback.”
I smiled at the image. Somehow Roberta Hannigan didn’t sound like the right sort of name to be emblazoned across pulp fiction. It might just about work for the tweed-clad girls’ school headmistress in an Enid Blyton book.
“Bits and pieces.” With a wince of guilt I remembered the neglected first draft of a novel sitting in the drawer at home and hastily changed the subject. “You still play?”
He flushed. “When I get chance. Surprised you remember.”
“Well, you were pretty good.” I turned to scan the notice again. “So why the bargain bucket price, is the place haunted?”
“Dunno,” he said, sounding relieved the conversation had moved on. “All I know is old Charlie wants rid, soon as he can. Says he can’t be arsed fixing it up at his age and since he’s not allowed to knock it down he just wants someone to take it off his hands. Put a stop to those letters from the council about it making the horizon look untidy and scaring off tourists.”
“Oh.” I subjected the notice to a puzzled stare. Ross’s great uncle had always been eccentric, but a £1 lighthouse sale was a new level of bizarre. Even in its current state, the thing must be worth a fair bit.
“So? You going to go for it?” Ross asked.
“What would I do with a lighthouse?” I said with a laugh.
Monty’s tugs were urgent now. I crouched down next to him to administer an apologetic stroke. “Ok, Monts, let’s get you to the beach for your run.” I stood and threw Ross a parting smile. “See you around, yeah?”
“Hope so.” He bent down to give Monty a goodbye pat. “Bye, pup. Look after her.”
“Oh, and Bobbie!” he called as I walked away.
“What?” I said, turning around.
He flashed me another smile, crinkling those merry eyes. “Happy birthday, love.”
My stream of consciousness as I wandered aimlessly along the beach’s blanched pebbles, Monty splashing happily in the baby waves, ran something like this:
He remembered my birthday!
The lighthouse… who the hell sells a lighthouse for a quid? Charlie Mason must’ve gone off his melon.
I mean, he remembered, after ten years. How cute is that?
God, a lighthouse for a quid… it’ll get snapped up by the first pillock who sees it, won’t it? Probably turn it into a crack den or something.
Wonder if he remembers when we snogged that time. Heh, bet he doesn’t know I got grounded for a week when Mr Madison grassed me up to Mum.
I hope whoever buys it does something good with it. It’d be great as a restaurant. Bit short on floor space maybe, but… oooh, or how about a bookshop? A bookshop in a lighthouse, a gimmick like that could really pull in customers. Or… art gallery?
Hang on. Did he say I was attractive before?
I wonder how much it costs to do up a lighthouse. More than I could ever afford, probably. Still, with a bank loan…
It probably doesn’t mean anything, that he remembered. Sweet though. Wish I could remember when his was. He’s older than me, isn’t he? Autumn baby, start of the school year some time…
I bet it’d be a piece of piss to get investors, if you wanted to renovate a lighthouse for a business venture. Guaranteed success, surely. It’s a bloody lighthouse.
October, that’s it. His birthday’s in October.
Oh my God! I’m totally going to buy a lighthouse!
The next minute I was tearing up the uneven steps cut into the crag. I could see Ross there still, sitting cross-legged against the little outhouse that joined the main building and looking dreamily out to sea.
Monty was at my heels, adding some drama to proceedings by barking his lungs out like the Westie of the bloody Baskervilles. He obviously thought I was treating him to his favourite game of Runny-Chasey-Barky-Catch.
“Ross!” I panted as I reached him, clutching my stomach. The burst of exercise had given me a stitch.
He looked round in surprise, tearing his gaze from the fishing trawler he’d been following.
“Hi again. That was a short walk.”
“Yeah, just wanted… God, I’m out of shape.” I stopped for a minute while I caught my breath. “Just wanted to ask you to… tell… your uncle… I’ll take it.”
To celebrate getting my first reviews this week, I made Seb and Angel’s front page, below with an extract from chapter four. The Honey Trap available to preorder now!
WARNING: some strong language.
Extract from chapter 4
Angel’s heart pumped in her throat as she scanned the front page.
Not one of Steve’s best headline efforts. He’d gone with ‘Unreal Titty’ – a pun on the name of Wilchester’s first film, Unreal City – emblazoned across a woman’s naked back. Hers. She winced deeply. A sub-head read ‘EXCLUSIVE: married director in steamy romp with mystery girl’.
You could see Seb’s face, contorted with passion, over her shoulder as she straddled him on the bed. She felt a zing through her body, remembering the thrill of sitting astride him and guiding him down into the crisp white sheets, panting and wet after their bath together –
‘Shit! Shit shit shit!’
‘Oh come on, it’s not as bad as all that –’ Emily began.
‘No, you don’t get it!’ Angel groaned. ‘That shot – how did he get that? I hung a towel over the mirror! It must have fallen – that perve!’
Emily’s eyes widened as she caught on.
‘Jesus, you don’t mean Steve watched it all!’
Angel bunched her fists into her eyes and moaned. As if anything was needed to make her humiliation more complete. Not only did she have one stonking bastard of a hangover. Not only was her bare backside splashed across the front page of a national newspaper for all to see. Not only had she, Angel Blackthorne, spent her Friday night having oral sex with a married stranger in a hotel room. But now it turned out her letchy old boss had watched the whole thing!
‘Oh God. I feel like I’m going to be sick.’
Emily patted her hair, putting on her best comforting tone. ‘Look, sweetie, it might seem like you want the earth to open right now, but give it a week and this’ll all be forgotten, I promise. Just tomorrow’s chip paper, right? And as for Steve, he’s sleazy, but he’s professionally sleazy. I’m sure it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before, if that makes you feel any better.’
‘How the hell is that supposed to make me feel better?’ Angel gave another long, muffled groan, hiding her face in her hands. ‘Just leave me, Em, leave me to die…’
‘Oh come on. I didn’t spend my hard-earned wine drowning your sorrows just so you could have a relapse next day. Look, I’ll get some coffee on. That at least might help deal with the hangover part of your symptoms.’
Fighting the surge of nausea, Angel pulled the paper towards her and began to read with kamikaze resignation:
Film-making wunderkind Sebastian Wilchester – husband of top actress and former child star Carole Beaumont, best known for her role as little Caroline in ’90s sitcom Something About Sally – was last night caught on the other side of the cameras, romping with an unidentified redhead, possibly a vice girl, in a swanky London hotel suite.
The pair spent the evening glugging champagne and indulging in a marathon sex session in the hotel bath, while Beaumont was at home alone in the Wilchesters’ Kensington mansion.
Angel felt her cheeks blazing with anger and mortification. If she’d been in any doubt Steve had stayed for the whole show, it was now utterly squashed.
A red flash in the corner promised ‘MORE SAUCY PICS INSIDE! Continued on p26 and 27’.
She flicked in panic to the double-page spread and experienced a surge of relief when she saw that none of the photos showed her face or anything that could identify her. Steve may be a scumbag, but he had principles of sorts, and an absolute commitment to protecting his sources was foremost among them. Thank Christ she’d wimped out of getting that tattoo on her bum at uni, though.
Inset was a photo of Seb and his wife Carole on their wedding day, the bride glowing in a creamy silk and Seb beaming as he curled a protective arm around her. Angel felt a twinge of shame and guilt when she took in the couple’s bright, happy faces.
The article continued:
The Palme D’Or-winning screenwriter and director, pioneer of the East End Noir genre, has been dubbed the saviour of the British film industry and a modern-day Orson Welles since his breakthrough film, Unreal City, was released to critical acclaim when he was just 22.
Neither he nor his wife of six years, former childhood sweethearts, were available to comment when contacted by our reporter. However, their lawyer has issued a statement asking for the couple’s privacy to be respected at this difficult time.
Wilchester, 30, and Beaumont, 28, had just completed work on their forthcoming film, The Milkman Cometh – a rare foray into black comedy for the director and his wife/leading lady.
‘I didn’t realise who he was when he ordered a drink at the hotel bar,’ said our source, a hotel employee who witnessed the encounter between Wilchester and his flame-haired temptress. ‘But I saw him meet up with this girl and they couldn’t seem to keep their hands off each other. I don’t know but it looked like it had been arranged in advance, and I noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. He bought her a drink and they were flirting for a bit, then he went upstairs to her suite. The maid said he left looking dishevelled the next morning.’
Et tu, Brad the barman?
Angel sank down against the arm of the sofa and moaned softly. What an almighty mess she’d managed to make of her life, her love life and her career, and all in the space of one weekend! God only knew what the next day at work would bring, but a massive bollocking piece of her mind was definitely on an unstoppable collision course with Steve’s face.
The Honey Trap, a contemporary romance set in London, is MJ’s debut novel. It’s due to be published by HarperImpulse on 19th August 2016. Read the first chapter below.
WARNING: some strong language.
Angel Blackthorne’s dream job wasn’t turning out quite how she’d pictured it.
She lurked behind a Corinthian column in the ornate gilt-and-ivory lobby of the Hotel D’Azur, tugging at the barely buttock-covering Little Black Dress her boss Steve had made her wear. Don’t forget, love, tits and teeth. And then… whatever it takes. She could smell the mint and nicotine breath lacing the gruff Yorkshire accent, gravelled with old fags, as he leaned towards her and spat out lesson one of Entrapment for Dummies.
Not for the first time that night, she wished she was wearing proper underwear. The thin, lacy strips of silken fabric covering her breasts and nether regions seemed far from up to the job of keeping everything in – which was the whole point, of course. How exactly was it she’d let Emily convince her to buy them?
The receptionist behind the white marble front desk, crisp and professional in her gas-blue two-piece and bobbed hair, was starting to eyeball Angel with suspicion. Probably wondering if I’m a ‘working girl’, she thought with a sour half-smile. She pulled again at the hemline of her almost-there cocktail dress and shook a mental fist at Steve, the source of all her woes.
Christ, Angel, grow a pair. Remember, you signed up for this. To the breach…
Steeling herself, she walked over to the heavy mahogany door leading to the hotel bar, gripped the brass rail and leaned her weight against it. It swung open noiselessly. Thank God for the unknown caretaker and his can of WD40!
Angel slipped through and ducked into one of the huge, high-backed armchairs immediately to her left. She noted with relief that not one of the handful of punters had looked up from their drinks.
The chair was vast enough for her to get lost in: a highly polished Chesterfield in quilted red leather that would really require a smoking jacket and fat cigar to be truly enjoyed. Not to mention a penis… The whole bar reeked of a very masculine, gentlemen’s club-style opulence, all carved walnut panelling, cut-glass chandeliers and plush red damask.
Glancing around the room, Angel sought her prey.
She soon spied her man seated at the bar, watching some sort of sporting event on a wall-mounted plasma screen; the one modern touch in the place. She’d only seen one photo, but yes, she was certain that was him: notoriously private Sebastian Wilchester, film-making wunderkind.
The editor of The Daily Investigator had waited a long time to corner Wilchester in a public place so he could spring a honey trap. Tonight was the night – and Angel was the bait.
‘I really don’t know what you’re worrying about,’ Emily had said earlier that day while they shopped through their lunch break. Trust her flatmate, Miss Hump-’em-and-dump-’em, to completely miss the point. For Em, sexual hang-ups were something that only happened to other people.
Emily held up a pair of sheer red knickers and eyed them critically. ‘Honestly, Ange, only you could fret yourself to death over an all-expenses-paid night out with a sexy man in a swanky hotel. Lighten up and enjoy yourself. I mean, this is your first big assignment in six months. Isn’t this what you wanted?’
‘I’m not sure what I wanted, except to write,’ Angel admitted. ‘Bedding married strangers certainly wasn’t top of my list, world-famous directors or otherwise. I thought they’d have me on WI flower show write-ups and tea-making for the foreseeable, if I’m honest. I’m only an intern, Em, even if I am a good five years older than the other foetuses on the programme. Honey trapping just doesn’t seem… right, somehow.’
‘Well, if he goes along with it then the sleaze has got it coming. It’s a public service,’ Emily said, brandishing the red knickers like a victory flag from the peak of Mount Moral High Ground. ‘You’ll be doing his missus a favour, Ange, trust me. No one can make a cheater cheat if he doesn’t want to. And if he doesn’t take the bait, then his oh-so-perfect wife’s a lucky mare and we can all hate her in peace. Anyway, it’s not like you’ve got to sleep with him, is it? I thought you were just supposed to get him down to his birthday suit and go.’
‘And yet here I am in a lingerie shop, buying pants that look like a Dairylea triangle attached to a bit of string…’
‘That’s just to give you confidence. You can’t honey trap in granny’s bloomers, sweetie.’
Angel let out a little snort of a giggle. She loved her lunch breaks with Emily, bringing back memories of their days at university. This one was certainly taking the edge off the ordeal ahead. Well, almost.
With her friend’s persuasion she settled on a lace-patterned black satin thong and matching push-up bra, consisting of not more than about five square centimetres of material and carrying the hefty price tag of £32.95. ‘I think we’re both in the wrong business,’ Angel muttered to Emily, watching the shop assistant fold her tiny purchases inside layers of silvery paper before placing them carefully in a glossy black bag bearing the store logo in embossed gold. ‘If we’d gone in for textiles at uni we could be multi-millionaire knicker tycoons by now.’ Her friend snorted appreciatively.
Back at the office, Angel stashed her purchases discreetly under her desk and wiggled the mouse to wake up her Mac. The brushed aluminium screen flashed twenty-three new emails, all face-achingly dull corporate press releases passed on to her to filter by ‘real’ journalists who had better things to do. Rock and roll…
‘Good lunch break?’ Savannah, her fellow intern, beamed at Angel from her desk in the semi-enclosed corner of the office they both occupied. She was tucking into a princely meal of what looked like two pieces of lettuce and a cube of feta. Angel thought about the eight-inch meatball sub she’d just eaten.
‘Nothing special, Sav. Just a bit of shopping and a sandwich, that’s all.’
Blonde, flawless, clever, twenty-one-year-old, cloyingly sweet Savannah: film studies graduate, hotly tipped to be a future high flyer. Now here was a girl who could spring a decent honey trap. Why would Steve give Angel this assignment when he had the perfect candidate right under his nose?
‘What do you know about Sebastian Wilchester, Savannah?’ Angel asked. ‘Have you seen many of his films?’
‘God, yes, I’ve seen them all! He’s incredible.’ Savannah’s reply was breathy and gushing with reverence. ‘A genius, I think. I chose my dissertation topic after I saw his first film, Unreal City. “Sin and redemption in the British Gangster genre.” Wish I could meet him.’
Don’t I wish you could too…
‘Oi, sugar tits!’ came a rasping voice from behind her. Angel spun in her chair to see Steve at the door of his glass-fronted office, jerking a thumb over one shoulder to indicate her presence was required. ‘In here for a briefing.’
‘Ever the charmer,’ she mumbled to herself, following him in and taking a seat at his curved IKEA desk. He sat down on the other side and swung his chair around to face her.
‘Right, my little honey trap, plans for tonight.’ Steve Clifton, editor of The Daily Investigator, didn’t do small talk. Now, as ever, it was straight to business. ‘Here’s a pic of Wilchester. Memorise it, but don’t take it with you. That could blow the whole gig.’
Angel squinted at the photo he’d handed her. It showed a tall, lean young man, good looking but apparently shy and nervous as he faced photographers on a red carpet.
She raised a quizzical eyebrow at Steve. ‘This is him? I thought he was in his thirties.’
‘That’s at the premiere of Unreal City eight years ago, couple of years before he married Beaumont. Man’s a bugger to get on camera, hates the press. Anyway, it should be good enough for you to identify him.’
‘If you say so, boss…’
‘We’ve booked you a suite at the Hotel D’Azur. I’ve emailed you the address and your reservation number. Classy place so tart yourself up a bit, Blackthorne.’ Steve took in her stone-washed jeans and yellow v-neck top combo with a sneer. ‘You can finish early and take your stuff over there to get changed. Don’t forget to chuck a few pairs of your undies around the room, make it look lived in. We don’t want him getting suspicious.’
‘Nothing sexier than a total slob, eh, Steve?’
He ignored her. ‘He’s flying back from filming in New Zealand today. Based on what we know about his habits he should be in the hotel bar some time between 7 and 8pm. Now, I don’t care how you do it or what you tell him, but whatever it takes you have to get him back to your suite.’
Angel wondered if she should be taking notes. Seduction techniques for absolute beginners.
A thought occurred to her. ‘Why’s he staying in a hotel anyway? He lives in Kensington, doesn’t he? Why not just go home to his wife?’
Steve shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me, love. All we know is, he always spends the night at a hotel when he flies back from filming. Trouble in paradise, maybe.’
The editor rifled around the pile of papers on his desk, pulled one out and thrust it towards her.
‘Here. Plan of the suite. When you get him back there, the most important thing to remember is there’s a hidden video camera behind this two-way mirror in the bedroom’s cupboard door. I’ll be watching the camera feed from the computer in my home office. No mikes so I won’t be eavesdropping.’
She cast a suspicious eye over the room plan in her hand. ‘And this is all legal, is it?’
‘Don’t be daft, it’s breaking every privacy law in the book. No need for you to worry though, it’s my sexy little carcass on the line, not yours.’ He broke into a wide, leering grin. ‘Now, before you leave that room, I want a couple of compromising shots and a solid full frontal to the camera I can montage on a front page. From him, not you, although if you fancy joining the peep show I won’t complain. When I’ve got what I need, I’ll send a text. It’ll just say ‘Done’. Then you’re free to make up an excuse and leave – or not, eh?’ He winked at her unpleasantly.
‘Do you really think I’d have sex while you’re perving at me through a hidden camera?’ Angel wrinkled her nose in disgust. ‘Bloody hell, it’s staggering the respect I get in here.’
‘Don’t know, don’t care. You do what you like, love. It’s no skin off my todger: just so long as you get me my story. Whatever it takes, remember.’ He reached under his desk, pulled out a parcel wrapped up in brown paper and handed it to her. ‘And while we’re on the subject, you’ll be wearing this. It’s your size, I checked with Leo.’
Angel tore open the parcel and pulled out something flimsy, black and slinky. One eyebrow jumped up as she unfolded the dress and held it against her.
‘This is a top, right?’
‘It’s a dress. Make sure you fill it. Remember, Princess, tits and teeth. And give him plenty of leg while you’re at it: I’m told he’s a leg man.’
Angel was seething now. She knew Steve was callous, misogynistic, morally bankrupt and generally a scumbag of the first order, but even by his standards this was skimming a new low.
‘Christ, Steve! Dressing me, seriously? What are you now, my editor or my pimp?’ She glowered across the cluttered desk at the smirking, overweight Yorkshireman, quivering with anger while she faced off against him. ‘And there’s one thing you don’t seem to have considered here, by the way: he might not fancy me! I’m no Carole Beaumont. She’s been voted sexiest woman in the world – twice. Why don’t you ask Savannah? She’d be perfect. She’s gorgeous, she’s bright, she’s ambitious, and she was just telling me what a big fan of Wilchester’s work she is. She wrote her dissertation on him.’
‘Yeah, yeah. She’s a fan, I’m a fan, my missus is a fan: the world and his bloody dog’s a fan. Of course they are, the man’s brilliant.’ Steve turned away from her, spinning his chair around to face the large window that looked out across the grey London cityscape. A recent fall of rain had mingled with the grease and oil of the metropolis, giving the streets a pearlescent sheen. ‘You know why I need it to be you, Blackthorne? Because you’re not a fan. Wake up, love. Sebastian Wilchester lives in a world where everyone’s blonde, everyone’s beautiful, everyone’s a fawning sycophant or yes-man just dying to hump his leg. I picked you because you’ve got a nice arse and a good pair, and because you’re not a part of his world. Trust me, I know people: that’s why I shift papers. And my hunch tells me you’re our best shot.’
It was true, Angel had never seen a Wilchester film. She knew she must be one of the only remaining people in the world who hadn’t. He’d been notching up awards and critical acclaim ever since Unreal City, but he only made gangster movies. She hated gangster movies. Snuggling up with something vintage and classic was much more to her taste.
Still she resisted. ‘Flattered as I am you put such faith in my sex appeal, boss, aren’t there professionals who do this sort of thing? Private investigators? Escort girls?’
He shook his head. ‘It needs to be a journalist, one I can trust. I need a report to go with the pics, and I need someone with a keen eye for detail who knows what’s worth reporting.’
Even through the red mist of her anger, she felt a twinge of pride. So he did rate her journalism skills – and whatever else he was, he knew his stuff there.
‘Why are you so desperate to set Wilchester up? Just out of curiosity. Is this a personal vendetta or what?’
Steve grinned, showing stained, yellowing teeth through his grizzled beard. ‘I’ve been a newspaper man a long time, pet, and I know what the public wants,’ he said with a touch of triumph, rubbing the overspilling belly under his striped shirt. ‘I started in newspapers as an office boy, fifteen and straight out of a secondary modern in Bradford. Twelve years later I was deputy editor of this rag – youngest ever. I’ve been thirty years in the editor’s chair now. I doubt anyone knows what sells a paper better than me.’
Angel wondered where he was going with this extended pat on the back. He was clearly building up to a big finish.
‘You know what people love even more than a rags-to-riches success story, Blackthorne?’
‘I’ve got a feeling you’re about to tell me.’
‘A riches-to-rags plummet. A failure, and a spectacular, crashing failure at that. They adore seeing someone built up only to be torn down.’
Angel curled her lip, appalled. ‘Lovely picture you paint of human nature, boss.’
‘Not just my opinion, love, the stark truth. And you know it. That’s why we have the highest circulation of any national daily. I sell to the darkness in people – their schadenfreude. And this scoop is going to sell me a lot of papers.’
‘God, you’re a piece of work, aren’t you?’
‘I’ve had my eye on Sebastian Wilchester and Carole Beaumont for a long time,’ he went on, ignoring her. ‘The so-called saviour of the British film industry and his beautiful A-lister wife, childhood sweethearts, six years married with never a whiff of scandal? I mean, come on. No one’s life is that perfect. And I’d bet my right bollock there isn’t a man alive who can keep his trousers on when sex is offered up on a plate by any half-attractive bird.’
Seeing her shocked expression, Steve manoeuvred his bulky frame to where she was sat and put a plump, sweaty arm around her shoulders, leaning in close in a manner he probably thought was reassuring.
‘Relax, love, just be a professional about it. Look, we all had to start somewhere in this business and it wasn’t pretty for any of us, believe me. Enjoy yourself tonight. Have a few drinks, let your hair down. You’re not doing anything wrong. If he doesn’t want to betray his wife, he won’t. And if he does then he deserves all he gets, and Beaumont’s better off for knowing the truth while there’s still time for her to chuck him out on his arse and move on.’
Angel remembered Emily’s words in the lingerie shop: no one can make a cheater cheat if he doesn’t want to…
‘Do a good job on this and I’ll see if I can get you some decent assignments in the next couple of weeks, a few byline pieces for your portfolio.’ Steve massaged her shoulder, sensing she was weakening. ‘And next time a staff job comes up, you can be sure your name will be top of the shortlist. For someone with next to no experience, that’s not something to be sniffed at.’
She heaved a resigned sigh. ‘Okay, Clifton, you pervy old bastard. This once, I’ll do it. But this is the last time. Next time you can do your own dirty work.’
‘Not got the legs for it, love. The tits, maybe,’ he said with a grin. ‘Just remember, Blackthorne: relax, have fun and give it all you’ve got. You’ve all the makings of a great reporter. I know you won’t let me down.’
But the editor’s words couldn’t quite calm the sickening feeling in her stomach as she left his office.