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Grace Marlowe and six o'clock in the morning weren't normally on speaking terms. But here she was, standing in the middle of her darkened kitchen, the clock ticking in time with her heartbeat. Pearly light seeped between the slats of the blind, draining all colour from her funky little kitchen. She wrinkled her nose. Everything was grey, even the lime green mugs and the pink toaster. This truly was a repulsive time of day.
What was she doing here? Right about now she should be mumbling incoherently in her sleep, her left foot tucked over the top of the duvet to keep it nice and cool.
In a sudden flurry of movement she turned and headed towards a cupboardany cupboardand opened the door. It didn't matter which one. She just needed to be doing something. Because she refused to think about why her little flat seemed like a gaping black hole this morning.
Bags of dried pasta and tins of tomato soup stared blankly at her from inside the cupboard. She shut the door carefully and tried the next one. Five boxes of breakfast cereal sat in a row, waiting for her to choose one of them. She closed that door too.
The kettle was within easy reach and she absent-mindedly flicked the switch. It roared into life, unnaturally loud in the pre-dawn stillness. She really must get around to de-scaling it some time soon. It boiled so violently when limescale had furred up the insides. The curse of London hard water
Grace blinked. Just for a few seconds she'd forgotten to be miserable and lonely. That was good, wasn't it?
She reached for her favourite mug, the oversized baby-pink one with the words 'Hot Mama' spelled out in crimson glitter. A present from Daisy last Mother'sDay. Daisy shared Grace's love of kitsch and had known her 'hot mama' would appreciate the sentiment of the slogan and the garish colours.
Daisy had given the mug to her with a twinkle in her eye that had made Grace chuckle, pleased to see proof that her daughter had inherited her sarcastic genes. But when the laughter had subsided, she'd mourned. No more pigtails and scraped knees. Daisy was all grown up and ready to fly the nest.
In fact, she'd already flown.
It was Mother's Day again in a couple of weeks and, for the first time ever, she wouldn't spend it doing something totally fabulous with Daisy. Last year they'd gone to the ice rink and had spent the whole afternoon falling on their bottoms. Then they'd eaten a Chinese takeaway so huge it had gone down in family history as 'the one that could never be surpassed'. But this year Daisy would be in Paris or Romania or Prague. She was going to be away for a whole year. And after backpacking there was university
Grace hugged the mug to her chest. She missed her daughter already and she'd only been gone eighteen hours. How completely pathetic.
She dropped the mug to the counter with a clunk and stood there, her arms folded and her brows pinched together. Come on, Grace! You're supposed to be the cool one, remember? The mum that all Daisy's friends wished was theirs. The mum who had once worn fishnets and thigh-high boots to parents' evening. The mum who had dressed up as Santa, complete with beard and pot-belly, when little Joseph Stevenson's dad had been too hungover to play the role. The fact that it had been Grace's tequila that had caused the hangover in the first place was neither here nor there
But Grace didn't feel cool. For the first time in nineteen years she felt old and lonely. And not just wandering-round-not-knowing-what-to-do lonely. There was an ache deep inside her that could only have been caused by someone sneaking into the flat in the middle of the night, carving a huge chunk off her soul and stealing it away. She had a funny feeling that chunk might currently be sleeping in a youth hostel in Montmartre, but she couldn't be entirely sure.
She made the tea and forced herself to turn the light under the cooker hood on. Sitting here in the dark would only give the impression that she was depressed, she thought as she slumped into a chair and lay her head on the table. Steam curled from the mug in front of her and she watched it rise gracefully on unseen currents and drift away. Eventually, she peeled her face from the table top and reached for the mug to take a sip.
Yuck! She stuck the tip of her tongue between her lips and grimaced. What the heck was wrong with her tea this morning? Looking into the mug gave her a pretty big clue. No teabag. Lukewarm water with milk in it was really not her thing.
Sighing, she hauled herself up from the table and crossed to the cupboard where the teabags lived. She reached inside and pulled out the Earl Grey. As she did so, a small pink envelope fell out of the cupboard and fluttered onto the floor.
Teabags forgotten, she bent to retrieve it and stood for a long moment looking at the familiar rounded scrawl that simply read 'Mum'. She smiled. Ever since she'd been able to write, Daisy had had a habit of making her cards and notes, leaving them in unexpected places. Over the years the indecipherable crayon drawings had been gradually replaced by scribbled messages in a neat, even hand, but the flush of joy Grace felt at seeing each one had remained the same. She greedily tore open the envelope and began to read.
Please, please, please don'tbe angry with me for this
Grace frowned. She knew it! Daisy had borrowed her favourite David Bowie T-shirt last week, and she'd warned her daughter not to get any thoughts about 'accidentally' packing it in her rucksack. Little rascal. A smile turned up one corner of her mouth and she carried on reading.
but I've got you a little going-away present. I know how much you sacrificed to bring me up on your own, and now it's time for you to have some fun.
Grace stopped reading. A burning sensation tickled her nose and the backs of her eyes. She took another sip of hot water, shuddered and pulled herself together.
No one could have asked for a better daughter. And, somehow, Grace felt that God had blessed her with Daisy to make up for Rob being snatched away from her after such a short time together. Killed by a landmine on active duty in Iraq at the age of twenty-three. Where was the justice in that? He hadn't even lived to see Daisy take her first steps or hear her say 'Dadda'.
Grace sucked in a breath, overcome by the sudden urge to cry, but she shook her head, refusing to give in. She had Daisy. She had to focus on Daisy. Because Daisy had been the reason the sun had kept rising and setting for the last eighteen years.
She looked round the kitchen. Although she knew it was stupid to think so, it was easy to imagine the sun just wouldn't bother to put in an appearance today.
Come on, Grace! Stop wallowing!
She looked again at the letter in her hands. Daisy didn't have to thank her for everything she'd done. It had been her job and her joy. Being a widow at twenty-two had been hard, yes, but every time she looked into those beautiful brown eyes she'd known a big piece of Rob had lived on.
But I know you, Mum. I know you'll talk about moving on or getting a hobby or finally buying your own coffee shop so you can boss everyone else around instead of being bossed Ialso know you'll do absolutely nothing about it. So I've taken the liberty of giving you a little nudge and I make no apologies for what I've done. You need this, Mum. Don't you dare try and wriggle out of it!
Grace's colourful language as she read the rest of the letter shattered the greyness of the pre-dawn kitchen once and for all.
'She did what?'
She stared in disbelief at the pink sheets clutched in her hands. 'You did what?' she yelled in the direction of Daisy's bedroom, even though her daughter had had the good sense to put a few hundred miles and a large body of water between them before she'd dropped the bombshell. Very good thinking. Because, right at this moment, Daisy would have been lucky to see another sunrise if she'd been within strangling distance.
Grace stared at the letter once again, then threw it down on the kitchen table. Despite what Daisy said, there had to be some way to get out of this.
Noah padded across the cream rug in his study, absent-mindedly rubbing his damp spiky hair with a towel. Even though he had already had his morning run it was still dark outside. And quiet. But he didn't mind quiet. This was his favourite time of day. The time where ideas could brew and grow and take shape.
He turned his computer on. While he'd been running he'd worked out how to make the villain of his current novel even more dastardly. His editor would be pleased. The latest in his series of psychological spy thrillers was doing so well, the publishers were pushing to have the next one in as soon as possible.
He carefully folded the towel and hung it over the back of a chair before sitting at his desk and checking his emails. His inbox rapidly filled but, instead of clicking on the top message, he took a little detour, clicking an email link and arriving at a web page he was very careful not to visit when his PA was around. He logged into the site and opened up a page he had marked as a 'favourite' last Monday.
Grace hit the switch in Daisy's room and blinked and squinted in the harsh yellow light. Maybe purple hadn't been the way to go with the colour scheme. It was giving her a headache.
Daisy's baby-pink laptop was on the desk and Grace picked it up and sat on the bed, one foot hooked underneath the other thigh, and settled the machine in the triangle of her legs. The ancient laptop chugged and whirred when she pressed the power button. While she waited for it to boot up, Grace inspected her fingernails and resisted the temptation to pick off some of the electric blue polish. Finally, she opened the web browser and typed in the address Daisy had printed carefully in the PS of her letter.
Blinddatebrides.com! What had her daughter been thinking? The thought of going on a date, blind or otherwise, was bad enoughbut marriage? Been there, done that, worn the black veil
A companionable coffee or dinner would be okay. She could probably live through that. While the page loaded, Grace's mind wandered. Blind-date brides? How did that work? You turned up at the restaurant and what?
Random images stampeded through her mindwedding dresses made out of co-ordinating tablecloth linen gold rings as napkin holders waiters who were really undercover ministers, waiting to pounce at any hint of an 'I do'
Goose pimples broke out on her legs and worked their way up her body until the fine hairs on her arms raised. She shook her head. Okay, Daisy had undeniably inherited her impulsive genes, but even she wouldn't subject her own mother to that kind of humiliation. Not unless she was present and in the possession of a video camera.
She winced as she typed in the username Daisy had invented to create an account. Frankly, it just added insult to injury. Englishcrumpet? Classy. Hadn't Daisy seen enough old Carry On films to know that crumpet would attract all the wrong sorts of guys? The sort who always seemed slightly sweaty and tried to peer down your cleavage when they thought you weren't looking. Grace practically had to force her fingers to punch it out on the keyboard.
She logged on to the site and headed straight for the customer service section, bypassing minimalist cartoons of hearts, confetti and kissing stick figures. There had to be a number she could call and yell at someone about identity theft and being made to go on dates you really didn't want to go on. It all looked deceptively easy. She clicked on a friendly-looking button that said 'Contact us'.
Great. 'Customer service teams are available to help you from nine a.m. to six p.m., Monday to Friday,' she read aloud. 'What good is that at' she checked the display on Daisy's alarm clock 'six twenty-five on a Saturday morning? Most normal people go on dates at the weekend! Fat lot of good you are!' she said to the smiley-face cartoon on the web page, obviously designed to calm and reassure distressed customers. All it made Grace want to do was frisbee the stupid laptop across the room.
Then she spotted another button: 'Email us'.
She stopped scowling and rubbed her finger across the mouse pad to click on the link. Email would work. Not as direct as yelling, but she could use lots of capitals instead. A new window popped up: 'Thank you for spending time letting us know how we can make Blinddatebrides.com better. A customer service representative will respond to your message within twenty-four hours '
But the date was in less than fourteen hours! Grace was sorely tempted to revisit the whole 'frisbee' idea.
It was far too early in the day to start reading any kind of small print they might have stashed away in the deep recesses of this website. She needed help. Now. She dragged the mouse pointer to a sidebar button that read: 'Chatrooms,' spied a chat headed up 'New to Blinddatebrides.com' and typed, 'HELP!' Might as well not beat about the bush.
For an instant, her little plea for salvation blinked alone on the page. It was six-thirty in the morning, for goodness' sake! Who in their right mind was going to be trawling for dates at this time of day? Only the utterly desperatewhich summed her up quite nicely at the moment, actually.
Then a miracle happened.
Sanfrandani: What's up?
Grace looked around the room. Was this person talking erm, typingto her? There was only one thing for it. Grace flexed her fingers and began to type.
Englishcrumpet: I'm new to this. Kangagirl: Hi, Englishcrumpet! Don't worry, we're all new in this chatroom! How can we help? Englishcrumpet: Oh! There's two of you! Are you up at the crack of dawn panicking about a date too?
Sanfrandani: LOL! It's almost my bedtime! The 'Sanfran' in Sanfrandani stands for San Francisco.
Kangagirl: And I'm just about to head home from work here in Sydney.
Kangagirl: That's right! Didn't you know this was a global site when you signed up?