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Alice Ford opened the top drawer of the spare desk in the office, searched for a pen and found a bombshell.
With her temper tested because her entire team was late back from lunch, she was relegated to answering the telephone when she should at this very moment be leading a meeting on how to move forward with the biggest account Innova Brand Management had yet won.
Add to that the absence of her own work station with its colour-coordinated filing system, pen pot, To-Do list and diary managing every moment of her day. This desk was a paper-strewn, disorganised mess from hell, used as a dumping ground for filing by everyone else in the place. Not a pen in sight, hence the need to claw through goodness knew what in the rubbish-filled drawers just so she could note down a phone message. There were crumbs under her fingernails. Bleurgh. And then exasperation spilled over as she looked in disbelief at the crumpled sheet of paper in her hands.
An innocent-at-first-glance grid. Columns filled out with the names of colleagues, amounts of money. Understanding kicked in, swiftly followed by irritation. Why was she even surprised?
Yet another office betting ring.
Seriously, what was it going to take to instil a proper work ethic into these people? Leading by example clearly wasn't enough. She ran a sensibly short and neutrally lacquered nail down the list of names. The whole office wasn't here, not by a long stretch, but all the usual suspects were. Exclusively male. Obviously feeling the need to confirm their masculinity by indulging in this kind of primitive-caveman pastime.
She wondered what it was this time. Maybe something to do with Roger from Accountsshe'd heard he was giving up smoking again. Too much to hope that it might be in aid of a charitable cause.
Then she caught sight of the few sentences at the top of the page and sudden cold horror flushed through her, accompanied by the disorienting sick sensation of sliding backwards in time. The heat of humiliation rose in her cheeks.
'Who can land Ice-Queen Ford? Proof required. In event of a tie, cash prize to be split equally.'
Alice swallowed hard and dug her nails hard into her palms until the prick of furious tears at the back of her throat subsided. Two things were clear:
Her male colleagues were betting on the dismal state of her love life, staking money on who could successfully have a crack at her.
The reputation she'd thought she held here was nonexistent.
Far from being perceived as someone to look up to, she was apparently viewed as a dried-up frigid old spinster, enough of a challenge to wager money on, the perfect butt of a joke. Proof required? What the hell would that consist of? An item of underwear?
Humiliation had been long dead and resigned to the past, so she'd thought. But after three years of self-inflicted singledom, during which she'd taken control of every tiny facet of her life and had reinvented herself as career-woman-extraordinaire with no room on her list of priorities for a man, it seemed humiliation was alive and well and living in London.
Alice Ford was gossip-central.
Harry Stephens glanced around the bar, having just bought a round of drinks for the entire team. Correction. Almost the entire team. Despite the graft she'd put in to win the prestigious new contract, Alice Ford was a no-show yet again.
He finished his drink quickly and made his way across the bar, nodding at colleagues along the way. Fortunately Arabella had chosen to sit at a table close to the door. Perfect for the swift exit he intended to make the instant he finished speaking.
'Harry!' she said with real pleasure as he approached, loudly enough to draw glances from adjacent tables. The three other junior assistants sitting with her looked his way with interest. He was dimly aware that the redhead to Arabella's left must be new. Worth a second look, just not today. He filed her away in his mind for future consideration.
Arabella ran her fingers through her long blonde hair, twirling the ends lightly as she smiled at him. He kept his eyes on her face. The expression of adoration wasn't the only thing putting him on edge. The half-dozen texts she'd sent him so far today also needed to be considered along with the following facts:
1. she'd only left his bed at seven a.m.,
2. it was still only lunchtime, and
3. they worked in the same building.
The increasingly urgent texts along with the smile told him all he needed to know. It might have only been one night, but it was still time to jump ship.
Best to do it quick. Short, clean break before she had the chance to big it up in her mind into more than it was. Just sex. Just fun. No letting it run on too longthat led to all kinds of trouble as he'd recently discovered. And he was having none of it.
Keeping his voice deliberately detached, he reached into his inside jacket pocket.
'Sorry to interrupt,' he said. 'You left your earrings at my place.'
He held them out, found this morning in his bathroom. She didn't take them, a light frown touching the perfectly arched eyebrows.
'I know,' she said. 'I realised when I got to work.
I just thought I'd pick them up next time I saw you. Maybe tonightdid you get my texts ?'
She trailed off, eyes fixed on his face, and he literally saw the click, saw her face begin to redden as she caught on. She wouldn't be visiting his place again. Her time there was done.
Smile gone now, she stood up, pushed past the redhead and joined him a few feet away by the door.
He held out the earrings again and this time she took them. She looked back up at him with a confident smile that was a bit too small to be pulled off.
'What's going on, Harry?'
He made his voice light, surprised.
'Nothing's going on. Last night was fun but I told you, I'm not interested in anything serious right now. I think it's best if we just call it quits, go back to being workmates.' He paused. 'Friends.'
He could tell from her face that 'friends' was going to be a bit of a big ask. All smiles had gone.
'You're dumping me? After one night?'
He heard the crack in her voice. He was so right to get out now.
'We both knew it was just a laugh,' he said.
Her gutted expression told him that he might have known that, but she'd had much bigger plans. She opened her mouth, undoubtedly to argue the point further and he cut in quickly. Getting into a debate was a bad move; he knew that from experience.
He gave her upper arm a friendly squeeze, making sure he was well clear of her personal space.
'I'd better get back to the office,' he said. 'Thanks for a great night.'
He left quickly, secure in the knowledge that he'd been honest. He was not responsible for Arabella's feelings. He'd been up front with her from the start, made no promises, had made it crystal clear at all times where they both stood.
The fact she'd read more into the situation was nothing to do with him.
The outside line began ringing on various phones across the deserted office, but Alice was oblivious to the noise. Her eyes slipped to the bottom of the paper and her stomach gave another sickening lurch.
There's more than one page?
She turned the paper over. Blank on the reverse. Next moment she was scrabbling through the desk, pulling out armfuls of papers, food wrappers, a half-eaten decaying sandwich. Her stomach gave a sickening lazy roll as she threw it on the floor. If there was a second page, if there were more people involved, she would damn well know about it.
Perspiration laced her forehead and upper lip as she stood back, out of breath, hands on hips. The desk drawers were empty, their contents strewn over the floor.
Nothing. Maybe this was it. As if it were enough.
She reread the list, and the wave of upset that she had managed to control until now crested with full force. Names that she dealt with on a daily basis, people she'd believed she had a friendly, trustworthy, albeit working relationship with. People she'd thought liked and respected her. She'd come all this way, put the past behind her, rebuilt herself from the inside out, and now she was a laughing stock again.
The bitterness that flooded her mouth tasted just the same. Back then it had been her own image, plastered on the internet, bandied about between so-called friends. This time she was the subject of a bet. Same difference. Three years ago or present day, she was the butt of other people's amusement.
The names blurred as tears came in a rush of uncontrollable sobs.
Across the open-plan room, the lift suddenly rumbled into life.
She snapped her head back up mid-sob, heart thundering in panic. In that brief moment it seemed entirely possible that the whole team, some thirty-odd people, were about to pour back in and find Alice a blubbering wreck with her head in her hands and a face full of snot, crumpled in the middle of the office.
The mortification of moments before stepped up to even dizzier heights.
She needed to get out of here. She did not need to be seen having an emotional meltdown by her colleagues. She needed a quiet space to think, calm down, get her head together. She stared madly around the room and finally made a manic dash for the only option of refuge within sprinting distance.
Sad cliche that it was, Alice Ford, top-class ambitious professional, was about to be reduced to crying in the Ladies.
Stumbling blindly between desks, knocking her thigh agonisingly hard against the corner of the printer table and upending a bin as she went, she sprinted in her high-heeled court shoes towards the door of the restroom, actually had it in her sights as the ping of the lift signalled its arrival and the doors slid smoothly apart.
She almost made it. A second or two faster and all Harry Stephens would have known about it would have been the slamming of the door behind her. Instead what he got was a full-on glimpse of her face as she shoved past him. Since the first thing she saw as she made it into the Ladies was her own reflection in the mirror, she knew that, humiliatingly, he'd just been treated to her beetroot-red face running with a combination of tears and snot and her always-sleek chignon looking like a rat's nest where she'd been clutching in anguish at her hair.
A loud knock on the door made her jump.
She ignored him.
'Alice?' Louder this time. 'Are you OK?'
Another knock. Perhaps if she kept quiet he'd give up. She clutched the side of the sink in frustration.
'Sandra's downstairs in Reception. I'll go and get her,' he said.
Sandra. The resentful marketing assistant who'd been passed over when Alice got her promotion to Account Manager and who would probably like to see her buried under a patio. No, thanks. She could envisage the ill-hidden glee and fake concern on Sandra's face right now and it was enough to galvanise her into action.
'I am fine!' she snapped, hearing the nasal tone in her voice from all the crying and hating it. 'I don't need Sandra or anyone else. I'm perfectly all right.'
He totally ignored her.
'No, you're not. What's up? Maybe I can help?'
The idea that she might want an emotional chat about her love life, or lack of it, with the man who was sleeping his way through the office actually raised a crazy bubble of laughter.
'Go away,' she snapped.
'I'm not going anywhere until I know you're OK.'
The concern that softened the deep voice was, of course, not genuine. Harry Stephens didn't do concern. As Head of Graphic Design he did creative brilliance in the office and short-term devastation in his personal life. Emotions like concern need not apply. Anyone with a pulse and a pretty face in this building had probably at some point looked into his deep blue eyes and thought he would be different with her. So far, he never had been.
She was just trying to come up with an adequately cutting response that would get him off her case once and for all when he opened the door. She hadn't considered for one second that he'd actually have the arrogance to follow her into the ladies' room. She caught a glimpse of her own gobsmacked expression in the mirror as she dashed into one of the cubicles and twisted the lock.
'You can't come in here!' she squawked.
'I'm already in here,' he said. A pause. 'And I'm not going anywhere until I know you're OK, so you might as well just come out with it.'
She heard the squeak of the wicker chair in the corner as he made himself comfortable. Despair rushed in and buried her. She'd let her guard down; let the mess she'd been in the past show through. And he'd seen it. The real Alice Fordbehind the iron-solid professional glossy persona she'd worked so hard to perfect.
The surge of grief swelled back up, too big to squash down or bat aside, and in her misery her guard slipped a little.
She sat down on the toilet, clutched her hot forehead in her hands, and closed her eyes against her wet palms. She had the beginnings of a headache.
'It's nothing,' she mumbled. 'Work stuff.'