OLIVER RUSSELL COULD WRANGLE a wayward balance sheet back into the black, take failing stores apart and breathe new life into them, make difficult calls on staffing and personnel issues, make his shareholders happy and very, very rich. But he had never managed to curb his mother’s meddling in his private life.
Some things were just impossible.
Earth to Oliver. This is your mother asking about your Christmas Day plans. Will I need to set an extra place at the dinner table? Hint, hint. Your mother xx
Sitting on a stool at the bar in the upmarket wine bar The Landing, Oliver groaned as he interpreted the ‘hint’ as yet another badly veiled attempt to discover his relationship status. Great one, Mum. Way to put pressure on a guy.
Could this week get any worse? He threw his mobile phone onto the sticky, beer-stained counter, gripped the tumbler in front of him and took a sip of a much needed fifteen-year-old Scotch. As the honey-coloured syrup oozed down his throat and hit his stomach with a warming buzz he silently counted all the ways things had gone wrong in such a short space of time.
First mistake; allowing his mother to believe he was finally settling down when in reality his love life could only be described as… non-existent. And now having to think up all the ways he could appease his parents over the holidays without going quietly insane.
Whereas other families had jolly traditions of games and church on Christmas Day, his parents’ idea of fun was to corner him in the lounge, pin him down with laser stares and interrogate him for signs of commitment, a potential wife and progeny. A grandchild, or preferably many grandchildren, to spoil and give meaning to their later years, someone to carry on the family name and also an heir to entrust the business to. As an only child Oliver was expected to do so, as his father had done before him.
Trouble was, after his last romantic failure, settling down was not on Oliver’s bucket list. At least, not for a very long time.
Second mistake: in the spirit of keeping the family business afloat he’d agreed to clean up the mess his cousin was making of the new build. Ollie should have let him fall on his sword, but that would have meant his parents suffering too and there was no way he was going to allow that. So, here he was in a rowdy bar in Chelsea at ridiculous o’clock at night – or was it early morning? – having only just finished work, with the prospect of another seventeen-hour day tomorrow and the next day, and the next…
He took another sip of whisky but almost choked as someone bumped into his hip, jolted his arm and sloshed the Scotch, rich but burning, down his throat.
‘Hey, gorgeous.’ A woman old enough to be his mother – and even though deep down he loved his mum, Lord knew he didn’t need two of them – appeared at his shoulder and beamed at him. Her eyes were wine-glazed and the lipstick smudged over her mouth almost up to her nostrils made her look like a startled fish. ‘I’ve got mistletoe, you know what that means, right?’
‘That it’s time I left?’ Scraping his stool back he stood, steadying the woman as she swayed, and then handed her into the waiting arms of her friends who were all dressed as… well, he wasn’t entirely sure, but there were glitter wings and feathery haloes involved, so he imagined they were supposed to be Christmas angels. In November?
As if knowing all about his work stress and family dilemmas even the music in the bar seemed to mock him. Too loud and too cheery and all about being home and in love at Christmas. He shuddered. No thanks.
Which brought him to his third mistake: choosing the bar from hell to drown his sorrows in. It wasn’t even December and yet here they all were screeching Christmas carols at the top of their tone-deaf voices. Christmas was everywhere. In the glittery tinsel that hung in loopy garlands across the ceiling and the fake tree in the corner. The soundtrack to the evening. The clothes people were wearing. Christmas was hurtling fast towards him and he was running out of time. He had so much to do to fix his first mistake before the doors of the new Russell & Co department store opened, way behind schedule, but in time for the busiest, and therefore most lucrative time of the year.
He just needed some kind of miracle to make it happen.
On the counter his phone vibrated. He picked up and grimaced at another text, knowing what was bound to be coming but also knowing if he ignored her it would only get worse:
Oliver? It’s a simple question. Blink once for yes. Twice for no. Are we finally going to meet your new girlfriend? Your mother xx
Uh-oh. She was dropping the veiled interest and taking a more direct approach. This was serious.
He flicked a text back:
When your message flashes onto my screen it identifies you as my mother. There is also a little photo of you smiling at me at the top of your texts. You don’t need to tell me who you are.
He added two kisses, because, well, she was his mother: Ollie xx
A pause while he watched three grey dots dance on his screen and then:
Not a single blink. How do I interpret that? We just want to see you happy. Your mother xxx
By happy, she meant married. As if you couldn’t be otherwise. Although he knew just as many people who were married and miserable as married and happy.
How was he even meant to send a blink by text anyway? He rolled his eyes instead. Nothing confirmed as yet.
Before he could say ‘Baa Humbug’ her reply flashed on his screen:
When will you know? Your mother xx
I don’t know.
If he told her the delightful Clarissa had moved on to a more malleable boyfriend his mum would be trying to arrange dates for him.
As if on cue another text arrived:
Is there something you’re not telling us? Is it over? So soon? Again? Oh, Oliver.
He could feel the disappointment coming through the airwaves as her next text quickly followed:
Perhaps I should invite the Henleys over on Christmas Day. I heard Arabella’s back from her Indian ashram trip and SINGLE. And stop rolling your eyes at me. Your mother xx
He couldn’t help but laugh at that, despite his growing frustration. He tried to stay noncommittal. Apparently, according to his ex, noncommittal was a strength of his:
Do NOT set any more dates up for me. Nothing’s confirmed re Xmas. I’ll let you know when I know.
At the new store opening then?
Just a matter of weeks away. She clearly wasn’t giving up. She never gave up. She wouldn’t give up until she was holding his first child. Or maybe his second – his second set of triplets.
That was the problem; she wasn’t giving up. He just needed to appease her. Or ignore her. So, he chose the latter.
Realizing he hadn’t finished his drink and grateful that the bar staff were now shuffling the off-tune singers outside he sat back down and resumed his contemplation of the whisky in front of him. At some point the staff would shuffle him out too, but for now he craved this brief peace and quiet, save for his mother’s infuriating but well-meaning texts and a muted conversation between the servers coming from a little room off to the side of the bar.
He could hear Paul, the guy who’d served him earlier say, ‘Hey, Vicki, are you OK to close up tonight? I promised Amanda I’d get home early. It’s our anniversary.’
‘Of course,’ a soft voice filtered through. ‘You helped me out by taking the early shift so I could teach my class, so I’m more than happy to hang around here for the stragglers. Sara said she’d stay on and help me clear up.’
Stragglers? Is that what he was now? Ollie looked around the bar at the three other solo drinkers – all male, all staring hopelessly into glasses of alcohol. He laughed to himself. Yeah, damned right he fitted that description; moving slowly. He didn’t want to hurry because the sooner he went home, the sooner tomorrow would arrive bringing with it all his problems.
‘So how did class go today?’ he heard Paul ask the owner of the soft voice. ‘Any more visits from the local cops?’
Police? Interesting. Ollie leaned forward to hear mystery woman’s answer.
‘Oh, that was all just a misunderstanding. Her brother gave her the iPad, Jasmine didn’t know it was stolen.’ A pause. ‘Um. By her brother.’ A rumble of soft laughter that sounded so free and bright had Ollie straining to see who the voice belonged to. It wasn’t the other woman who worked here because she was now collecting glasses from empty tables and her accent was Cockney through and through. This Vicki woman was from somewhere else. South-west maybe, a tiny hint of something he recognized from holidays down in Cornwall. Laughter threaded through her intonation. ‘We sorted it out. The police dropped the charges against her.’
‘So, one of the kids you’re teaching is harbouring stolen goods. Great. You really need to stay away from trouble like that, Vicki.’ Paul came back into the bar and started to wipe down the counter with a dishcloth.
The woman followed. ‘If I stayed away there’d be even more trouble for her, I’m sure. She’s so talented. You should see her designs, they’re stunning. Really fresh ideas. She could go a long way with the right guidance. I’m pulling out all the stops.’
‘You’re too good to those kids.’ Paul frowned. ‘Instead of focusing on your own career you’re spending all your energy on a bunch of no-hope teenagers who probably have never even heard the word gratitude.’
The Vicki woman turned and put her hands on her hips, giving Ollie full view of her face. Wow.
She was wearing a dress that looked like it had come straight out of the nineteen fifties; all slash neck and cinched waist in a fabric of cream and scarlet flowers. Her glossy, dark hair was loosely tied into a ponytail that was pulled forward over one shoulder. She had bright red lipstick on full lips – not smudged in the slightest, and the most intense dark eyes he’d ever seen.
In stark contrast her skin was pale, he wasn’t sure whether it was make-up or natural and he didn’t care. Oliver Russell had known a lot of beautiful women in his time, but she was next level. Quite simply, she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
That gorgeous red mouth curled into a smile, but a little frown appeared over her eyes. ‘Paul, honestly, they’re struggling in so many ways. They have so much hope and potential and no one else seems to care. If I don’t help them then who will?’
‘I’m just saying, be careful, that’s all. Your heart’s too soft, Vicki, you’re going to get hurt.’
‘It’s a fashion design class for underprivileged kids, Paul. Not target practice in the ’hood. Trouble is, we’re fast running out of opportunities for them to showcase their work. All the design schools have organized shows already and we’re lagging behind. I’m going to have to be creative with my thinking.’ Her eyes wandered over the bar and settled on Oliver, just for a moment.
Instinctively, he smiled. She gave him the faintest of smiles back and didn’t look away immediately. A look of surprise flickered behind her eyes. Even from here he could see the flush of her cheeks as their gazes met and, as if someone had flicked a switch, a rush of heat hit him too. Interest. The flicker of awareness. Brief. So brief he checked himself; maybe he’d imagined it?
All too soon she dragged her eyes away. Swallowed. She turned to her workmate and took the cloth from his hands. ‘Right. Well. Things to do. Off you go, Paul, we’ve got this. See you tomorrow.’
With that she bent to stack more bottles into a small fridge behind the bar, giving Ollie a front-row view of her graceful, slender neck, the gentle slope of her shoulders, the pearls of her spine trailing into that curve-enhancing vintage dress. Even the back of her was more interesting, more alluring than anything he’d seen in weeks. Months. Ever.
In his peripheral vision he sensed movement. As Sara put a fistful of dirty glasses next to him on the counter, she caught him looking at Vicki and grinned. Her eyes widened in something he could only interpret as mischief and he could almost read what she was thinking. Yeah, he was checking this Vicki out. So sue me.
But damn, the last thing he wanted was to make anyone uncomfortable. He drew his eyes away but there was something about her that made him want to take a second glance and keep on looking. She was stunning, had a gentle confidence about her, and was helping poor kids in her spare time… his kind of perfect.
Not that he was interested in perfect. Or anyone at all right now. He had far too much to do to save the family business to be distracted by a woman. Still, a guy could look, right?
Vicki was oblivious. Vicki? She was more a Victoria, he thought. Victoria smacked of gravitas and class and she had both in spades.
Sara was still grinning. She opened her mouth, no doubt to say some smart-ass comment, but right on cue his phone vibrated again. Phew. Saved by the ringtone. But sadly, saved by his mother was way more of a crush to his ego than being caught admiring a beautiful woman.
How about Jecca Forsythe? She’s lovely. Just come out of a messy divorce, so I imagine she’s keen to get dating again.
Your mother xx
The latest in the line of single women his mother kept parading in front of him. They were all perfectly nice women, all fitting his parents’ ideal of what a Russell wife should be like; preferably the daughter of business associates to strengthen the Russell brand, clever, pretty but not showy, happy to support him in his business, keen for a family. But none of them made him feel… whatever it was he was supposed to feel. The kind of thing his grandparents had had. The laugh together, play together, grow together love. That wasn’t something they shared in his Russell household. Loyalty, yes. Proximity… if necessary. Closeness, not so much.
No, Mum. Not Jecca. Or Arabella. Or anyone else for that matter. I can sort out my own love life, thanks.
Another ping on his phone. He didn’t want to look, but he had to, because ignoring her wasn’t working.
Well, from where I’m sitting you obviously can’t. You need an intervention. I’m worried about you, Oliver. It’s not good to be alone. Your father is so invested in your future, we both are. We miss you. Your mother xx
Oliver read it twice and cursed while his heart crushed at the mention of his father. The reason for this most recent intense interest in his love life suddenly crystallized: his parents had so much to worry about – too much – that they were looking for a distraction. And why the hell not? They didn’t have much else to look forward to, so a marriage and babies and a rosy future for their son was all they could hope for.
Annoyed at himself for his surly replies, and rightfully humbled, Oliver flicked another text to his mum:
How is Dad?
A couple of moments passed, during which guilt shivered through Oliver’s gut. Then:
Oh, you know. The same. But his doctor says there’s some experimental treatment he wants to try.
That was where they’d got to, experimental treatment when everything else had failed so far.
Give him my love.
His mother was trying, he knew, to forge a better relationship between them all at this difficult time and he welcomed that, but sometimes it could be suffocating. He’d tried I’m fine on my own. He’d tried I’m not ready to settle down and none of it convinced her he was OK. But now she wanted to meet this special woman. Who didn’t exist. Who’d got bored of waiting for commitment.
He didn’t want to let his parents feel that bitter tang of disappointment, not again when they had so much to battle already, but he didn’t want his mother setting up surreptitious dates over Christmas either, inviting the very nice but not for him Arabella or Jecca or any other woman she believed would be a perfect match.
He wanted them to have something to look forward to.
What to do?
Oliver? We’re so looking forward to meeting her. Your father in particular.
So without thinking too much about the ramifications Oliver sent a text straight back:
OK. OK, Mum. I’ll bring her to the opening day.
Oh! Ollie! Love. Ollie! Finally! See, that wasn’t too hard, was it? I’m so excited. Your mother xx
He stared at the screen for a minute and let his actions sink in. Hell. He’d just lied to his mother about a non-existent girlfriend. Great stuff.
He took another gulp of whisky. He had time. Time to find a new girlfriend. Or time to think up another excuse to tell his mother on opening day.
Damn. Because if he didn’t come up with a plan his mum would be hounding him then too. If only he could find someone who was open to a mutually beneficial arrangement of pretend girlfriend then he could get Mummy Dearest off his back.
‘It’s last orders.’ That voice again. Vicki was close enough he could smell her perfume. A playful, flowery mix that made him want to lean closer and breathe her in. As she spoke her hands moved, fluttering over the glasses. ‘Is there anything you want before I close the till?’
So many things but none of them would be found here in this bar.
Unless… Kind. Beautiful. Perfect. The germ of an idea started to form in his head. He looked across the bar into dark caramel eyes that swirled with fun and, if he wasn’t mistaken, a little heat. ‘Actually, yes. There is something.’
She smiled, holding his gaze in a way that made his gut curl in desire. ‘Sure?’
‘Will you marry me?’
‘Absolutely not.’ Victoria tried to hide her smile as Mr Tall, Dark and Dangerous’ hopeful grin withered under her death stare. Too often – because she was petite and kind of pretty – she’d been underestimated as being a push-over, but she had a backbone made of steel. She’d had to, just to survive. It served her well dealing politely yet firmly with alcohol-soaked guys. But this one was different, definitely a level higher than the usual punters.
‘If I had a pound for every marriage proposal I got at the end of a boozy night I’d be a rich girl indeed. But a word of advice, mate – as proposals go it needs work. Next time, maybe do some sort of grand romantic gesture like… oh, I don’t know, find out the woman’s name before you ask her to spend the rest of her life with you?’
‘I take it that’s a no, then?’
He grinned and she had to admit that, in another life where she wasn’t jaded and burnt by relationship failure, she might have found him a teeny-weeny bit attractive. There was something about his grey-blue eyes that made her want to keep looking at him, despite his ridiculous question. Something about the scruff of his messy hair that made her want to slide her fingers in and smooth it. She wasn’t even going to think about his strong jaw and stubble. He was dressed in the usual uniform for people working in offices in the Chelsea area – dark suit, white shirt, brown leather boots. He’d hung his suit jacket on the hook under the bar, and sat with his shirt neck open, no tie, and sleeves rolled up. Dressed down for Friday-night drinks.
The linen shirt caressed well-honed muscles. Broad shoulders. A fine body. He had a crystal-cut voice that was as deep as the trouble he’d just got himself into. So OK, maybe he was extraordinary compared to the usual suited and booted or trendy wannabe King’s Road hipster guys that came in after work.
Oh, and then there’d been that deep, low burn she’d felt as her gaze had clashed with his. Something totally elemental and primal. A prickling awareness over her skin. Something she hadn’t felt in a long time, and she had to admit it was happening again as he smiled.
She shook her head. ‘A definite no. Sorry, not sorry.’
‘Way to break a man’s heart.’ He shrugged.
‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll survive. There are plenty of women looking for what you’re offering.’ Ignoring the tingles zipping through her, Victoria printed his bill and put it on onto a saucer. She pushed it towards him. ‘Here’s your tab. Sara will ring it up for you.’
Then she turned away and busied herself with wiping down the optics. But out of the corner of her eye she watched him scrape back his stool and take out his platinum credit card, pay, then stride confidently towards the door. She pretended not to be gaping when he turned and gave her a woefully sad smile and playfully tapped his ‘broken’ heart before he disappeared into the night.
When the door closed she felt her body sag on a sigh, as if she’d been holding her breath through the whole interaction. Wow. That connection when they first saw each other had been… weird.
Her friend Sara, standing next to her, gave her a nudge. ‘Whoa. Victoria Scott, he is one hell of a hot dude.’
Yes, he is. ‘Says the woman with the uber hot girlfriend.’
Sara laughed and raised her palms. ‘Sweetheart, just because I don’t work that way doesn’t mean I don’t know talent when I see it.’
Victoria allowed herself to enjoy the fizzy feelings inside her, just for a moment. Because it had been fun and playful but that’s all it was. Then reality – fuelled by her doomed romantic history – slid into her brain, so she put those feelings in a box and closed the lid. ‘Gorgeous, but drunk. He must be to propose to a stranger.’
‘Hmmm.’ Sara’s mouth twisted. ‘He nursed one Macallan the whole time he was here.’
‘A cheap drunk, then.’ Victoria laughed. ‘That’s even worse. What a blow to my ego.’
‘Not at all. He seemed entirely in possession of all faculties, as you would agree, having not taken your eyes off him for the whole time it took him to pay and walk out the door. Maybe you should have taken him up on his offer?’
Victoria whirled round to look at her friend. ‘What? Seriously?’
‘Hypothetically speaking. At least, you could have chatted a bit more and seen where it could have gone… drinks, dinner? Bed?’ She grinned and Victoria wasn’t sure whether she was being serious or not.
Sara was relatively new to the bar and they’d started to develop a friendship that was fresh and fun, but with new friendships there was always that lag time of developing a bond, learning to trust, knowing what to say and what to keep secret.
With her tight group of old friends from Devon, Victoria always knew exactly what they meant, what they were thinking, what they were about to say even before they said it. They’d shared years of closeness, had been there for each other during amazing times, bad times and worse, and although they were all spread across the world now – and she missed them so much it made her heart hurt – they still talked as often as they could on group chats. They’d talk her off the ledge or encourage her to take the next step in anything she was considering, even dating, if ever she felt ready to do it again. Sara was great but Victoria knew it was going to take a little more time before she felt as close to her as she did to Zoe, Lily and Malie.
‘Sara, he asked me to marry him, not go on a date. No drinks, dinner or bed. Just cut straight to the ’til death us do part stuff. No thanks.’
‘He looked more like the for richer not for poorer type, though and he might have been fun, which is just what you need right now.’ Sara appeared to be more excited than Victoria was over this. Which was strange, given that proposals did indeed come thick and fast at the end of a drunken night and normally Sara rolled her eyes and bit her tongue. ‘You never know, he might even be The One.’
‘I do know. He isn’t.’ There wasn’t such a thing.
‘Your loss.’ Sara shrugged. ‘All I’m saying is—’
‘It’s time to mop the floors and then we can go home?’ Victoria closed off this conversation about her hapless love life and looked at her watch. Her feet hurt from standing all day and her brain hurt from teaching lovely but demanding teenagers and then managing the bar into the small hours.
‘On it, boss lady.’ While Sara filled the bucket with hot soapy water Victoria looked at the empty seat where the hot guy had been sitting and something in her belly kind of imploded at the thought of him. Which was irritating, because even though her head could rationalize how someone good-looking could have a physical effect that was purely instinctive, her body was going along with it as if he was the answer to her recent sex drought. He wasn’t.
‘I’m not interested in The One who proposes to a random stranger in a random bar on a random Friday night in November. I’m not interested in anyone, you know that. I’m off men. Off relationships. Off getting my heart stamped on. For good. Right now, all I’m interested in is keeping this job so I can fund my design business and the night classes for the kids. Accepting marriage proposals or dating is lower on my to-do list than getting a root canal.’ She hit the reconcile button on the till and frowned. ‘And we’re twelve pounds seventy-five pence down.’
She felt Sara’s eyes on her. ‘Ah, yes, what?’
Her friend nodded and her eyes grew sad as she leaned on the mop handle. ‘Peter.’
‘Oh, and here I was thinking you were going to give me a rational explanation as to why we’re over twelve quid short’ – Victoria shuddered at the mention of her ex’s name – ‘not bring him up. What about him?’
Sara’s hand was now on Victoria’s back, gentle. Supportive. ‘He did a number on you, sure, but why you let that sleazebag have such an influence over you even now I don’t know.’
‘Er… because he taught me a very good life lesson: never trust anyone.’ And never tell them your innermost secrets and doubts, because they’ll use them against you when you least expect it.
‘You were hurt, love. But you have to forget him and move on.’
‘I am well and truly over him. To be honest, I don’t think I ever really loved him, but just when I think I’m over all that – the expectation and the lost time – he parades his new fiancée in front of me as if he’s just won the lottery and all I was to him was some sort of temporary booby prize.’
‘Sleazebag. Although you do have a damned fine rack, girlfriend.’ Sara laughed. ‘And that is something I do know a lot about.’
‘OK, enough already.’ Laughing, Victoria caught a quick look of herself in the mirror behind the bar. Hair smooth, shiny and still in place. Lipstick also still in place. Cat eyeliner… perfect. Boobs enhanced by the dress she’d finished making this morning. Yes, she was looking good today. But she tried to look her best every day in the clothes she fashioned for herself – as a kind of walking showcase of her design talents. She wanted people to look at her clothes, to enquire about her dresses, maybe commission some vintage-inspired pieces.
And he’d been looking. She should probably take a proposal from a gorgeous man as a compliment, right? Just a compliment. ‘I’m done talking about men. Past or present.’
‘What about future?’ Sara winked then laughed at Victoria’s warning scowl. ‘OK, OK, I get the message. No more men talk.’
Although, as Victoria finished closing up, her mind kept flashing back to the stranger’s smile. The confidence in his stance. The way the linen shirt clung to his well-toned biceps…
And it occurred to her that she may be done talking about him, but she sure as heck wasn’t done thinking about him.