By Jill Mansell
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2009 Jill Mansell
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-4022-2788-2
The view from where they were sitting was spectacular, but Millie Brady couldn't help wondering why Neil had driven her up here today to Tresanter Point. He wasn't normally the scenery-admiring type.
Next to her, in the driver's seat of his lovingly restored emerald green MG, Neil cleared his throat.
'Right, well, I've had a bit of a think about this, and we've been together for quite a while now.' Clasping her hand suddenly in his, Neil began to stroke it as if it were a nervous puppy.
All of a sudden Millie began to have an inkling as to what this might actually be about. Oh blimey, oh heavens, surely not ... surely he wasn't gearing himself up to ask her to marry him ...
'Not that long,' she put in hastily, 'not really. Only three months.'
'Still, we get on well, don't we? And the landlord's been dead funny about renewing the lease on our place. I think he wants us out of there.'
Since this was the flat Neil shared with four of his friends, Millie wasn't a bit surprised. The place was an indescribable pit.
'So what I thought was, what with the two of us being pretty much an item these days-Millie, hello, are you listening to me?'
'Mm? Oh, sorry.' Millie forced herself to pay attention; she had been distracted for a moment by the arrival at the cliff-top beautyspot of a gleaming burnt orange Mercedes. As it had screeched to a halt, Millie couldn't help noticing that the driver-a woman in dark glasses-had long, riotously curly hair the exact same shade of burnt orange as her car.
She was smoking a cigarette at a rate of knots. And not looking at all happy, Millie observed as the woman removed her dark glasses and began arranging a row of white rectangles along the dashboard, as if she were dealing out playing cards.
Pay attention now. Come on, concentrate. Millie gave herself an admonitory mental shake. If someone's asking you to marry them the very least you can do is listen; it's only polite.
'Okay, so how about if you jack in your place and we get somewhere of our own?'
Neil gazed at her in triumph, his hideous ordeal over. There, he'd done it. Said what he'd come here to say. Now all Millie had to do was swoon with happiness and say yes.
So he wasn't asking her to marry him, Millie realized with a rush of relief. There wasn't going to be any of that romantic down-on-one-knee business, followed by the production of a little velvet jeweler's box containing an engagement ring. No church, no honeymoon, no solemn vows, none of that sloppy malarkey, oh no. Neil was plumping for the cheaper, more down-to-earth option, basically because he was about to be evicted from his current abode and because he'd rather stick red-hot pins in his eyes than iron a shirt or have to do a spot of washing-up.
I'm only twenty-five. There has to be more to life. Anyway, what were those white rectangles on the dashboard of the Mercedes? And shouldn't the woman with the chestnut hair-now out of the car-take a bit more care where she was going? The way she was wandering so close to the edge of the cliff was downright reckless, Millie tut-tutted; didn't she realize that if she slipped and fell on to the rocks two hundred feet below she could be killed?
'You're not saying anything,' Neil complained. 'I thought you'd be over the moon. No more having to share that poky little house with Hester-'
'It's not a poky little house,' Millie replied absently. 'And I like sharing with Hester.'
'But we'd be living together. That means I'm serious about you. We'd be, like, a proper couple.'
The wind was blowing the woman's red-gold curls around her face but when she put up a hand to sweep her hair out of her eyes, Millie saw that she was crying. She also thought there was something familiar about the woman, but from this distance it was impossible to be sure.
Except something wasn't quite right here. The woman was still pacing up and down, smoking furiously, and pausing every now and again to peer over the edge of the cliff. Normally at a beauty spot you sat back on one of the benches thoughtfully supplied for the purpose and admired the stupendous view. This woman, Millie couldn't help thinking, was acting more like an Olympic high-jumper psyching herself up to make her third and final attempt at the world record ...
'Okay, fine, if you don't want us to live together, that's up to you,' snapped Neil, abruptly letting her hand drop. 'Any normal girl would've been thrilled, but not you, oh no, I might have guessed you'd have to play hard to get. I mean, what d'you expect me to do? Beg?'
Oh good grief, she was psyching herself up to jump.
Only not upwards, Millie thought with a surge of horror. Belatedly she remembered that Tresanter Point wasn't just a renowned beauty spot. It also had something of a reputation as a lover's leap.
A haunt for would-be suicides.
This woman was planning on jumping down.
'Any normal girl would be flattered,' Neil was carrying on huffily. 'Any normal girl would have been chuffed to bits, I can tell you. Honestly, I can't believe you're being so ungrateful, what I don't think you realize is what a catch I am-hey! Where are you going? What d'you think you're playing at now?'
Millie was already out of the car, pelting hell for leather across the rough grass. The woman was currently standing with her back to her, engrossed in trying to light a second cigarette from the butt of the first. Her long indigo cotton dress flapped wildly around her legs, which were pale and bare. Her long copper hair, whipped by the brisk breeze, streamed behind her like a banner.
Screeching to a halt next to the Mercedes, Millie saw that she had been right. The white rectangles propped up on the dashboard were indeed envelopes, each one bearing a different name.
Either the woman was sending out invitations to a party or they were suicide notes.
Right, okay, mustn't panic, thought Millie. Panicking.
Startled, the woman at the edge of the cliff twisted round. So did Millie.
'What the hell do you think you're doing?' Neil yelled bad-temperedly at her from the MG.
'It's okay! I'm just, um, asking for a ... light.'
Millie said the first words that sprang into her head. As Neil thumped the MG's steering wheel in exasperation, she turned her back on him and for the first time came face to face with the woman who was about to End It All.
Some instinct told Millie that if she stopped to wonder exactly what she should say, and whether whatever she was saying was right or wrong, she'd end up completely tongue-tied and too scared to say anything at all.
The only way to go, therefore, was to plunge right in.
'Well?' Millie gazed steadily into the other woman's puffy, sea green eyes. 'Have you?'
The puffy sea green eyes surveyed her as if she were mad.
'Have I what?'
'Got a light?'
'Of course I've got a light.' The woman inhaled irritably on her Marlboro and blew out a stream of smoke that was whipped into oblivion by the wind.
'So? Could I have a light?' Millie persisted.
'You could. But you don't appear to have a cigarette.'
'You have, though. Okay, so could I have a light and a cigarette?' Millie didn't dare wonder if she was sounding as completely ridiculous as she suspected she did.
The other woman sighed and flicked the Marlboro casually over the edge of the cliff. It sailed through the air, executing lazy somersaults as it went. Millie imagined a body doing likewise before crashing hideously on to the black, wave-lashed rocks below.
Oh help, she felt sick just thinking about it.
'Look, I know what you're trying to do here,' the woman sighed, 'and I appreciate the gesture, darling, really I do, but there's absolutely no need.' As she spoke, her green eyes filled with fresh tears. Her trembling fingers scrabbled with the flip-top lid of the Marlboro packet, and as she clumsily extracted another cigarette, the rest slithered out, bouncing to the ground around her feet like spillikins.
Millie helped her pick them up. The puffy eyelids and lack of make-up had effectively disguised the woman at first, but she recognized her now. Masses of red-gold hair, greeny-gold eyes, the Cartier watch, and that distinctive breathy voice ... She was Orla Hart, one of the country's best-selling novelists. Now in her late thirties, she had been successfully churning out popular fiction of the glitzy kind for the last fifteen years, and earning herself a fortune in the process.
Click, went the lighter as Orla lit her third cigarette in seven minutes. Now probably wasn't the time, Millie tactfully decided, to warn her that smoking could seriously damage your health and cause those unattractive little vertical wrinkles above your upper lip.
'Look,' Orla gestured in despair over her shoulder, 'I was standing here, minding my own business, waiting for you and your husband to drive off. Couldn't you just go now?' she asked hopefully. 'I'd be grateful, really I would.'
'Oh brilliant,' said Millie, 'and where do you suppose that would leave me? In psychiatric care for the rest of my life, that's where. I mean, how would you feel if you left me here to jump off the edge of this cliff?' She raised her eyebrows inquiringly at Orla Hart.
Anguished, Orla shook her head.
'It's no good. You don't understand.'
'Okay, so you may as well tell me. Because I'm not going anywhere until you do.' Sinking to the ground cross-legged, Millie gave the grass next to her an encouraging pat. As she did so, they both heard the sound of an engine being started up and bad-temperedly revved behind them. Next moment, the MG had reversed sharply, turned back on to the road in an explosion of gravel, and roared off.
'God, I'm so sorry,' Orla groaned.
'Now I'm definitely not going anywhere.' Millie shrugged and patted the grass again.
'I feel dreadful.'
'Don't. He isn't my husband anyway. Just my boyfriend. Well,' Millie amended, 'probably ex-boyfriend by now.'
'And it's all my fault. Here, have a cigarette.'
Mortified, Orla knelt down next to her, opened the crumpled packet, and all but thrust a handful of Marlboros into her mouth.
'No thanks, I don't smoke. And I don't mind about him being an ex.' Realizing she couldn't let Orla Hart shoulder the burden of responsibility for what had happened, Millie smiled. 'Actually, you've done me a favor. It's quite a relief.'
'Lucky you. Not minding.' Orla pressed her lips together, her chin beginning to wobble.
Feeling suddenly brave-and prepared to rugby-tackle her to the ground if all of a sudden she tried to launch herself over the cliff edge-Millie said, 'So that's what this is all about, is it? Some man?'
'Some man,' Orla agreed wearily. 'Huh, that just about describes him. Oh Lord, what must I look like? I don't suppose you've got such a thing as a hanky?'
By a complete fluke, Millie had a clean tissue in her jeans pocket. Feeling braver still as Orla took the tissue and noisily blew her nose, she said, 'Husband?'
Orla had decimated the flimsy tissue in one go. Wiping her eyes on the hem of her indigo dress, she nodded.
'Not being funny, darling, but do you know who I am?'
For a brief moment Millie considered shaking her head. She would have done if she hadn't been the world's most hopeless fibber.
'Well, I didn't recognize you at first,' she admitted, 'but I do now.'
Orla summoned up a sad little smile.
'So you probably remember all that awful stuff in the press a few months ago about my husband having an affair.'
Cautiously, Millie said, 'Well ... kind of.'
'With a younger woman, surprise, surprise. By the name of Martine Drew. She's twenty-seven.' Orla drew so hard on her cigarette she almost inhaled it whole. 'But I love my husband so I forgave him. I did everything I could to save our marriage, including moving out of London and buying the house down here. And Giles was happy to move. He said it was just a silly blip and she didn't mean a thing to him. He s-swore it w-was all over.'
'And it isn't,' Millie guessed.
'And it isn't,' Orla echoed, rubbing her pale, salt-stained cheeks. 'I was chatting away on the phone this morning to one of my old London friends and she told me she'd heard that Martine was living in Cornwall now.' The tears slid down Orla's face as she bit the knuckle of her right forefinger like a child. 'Well, that speaks for itself, doesn't it? Giles never did stop seeing her. It's obviously been going on the whole time. He's brought her down here, set her up in some sweet little cottage.' She spat the word out like a bullet. 'Oh yes, and you can bet your bottom dollar he's paying the rent with my money.'
Millie was so outraged on Orla's behalf that for once in her life she was speechless.
Noticing this, Orla sniffed and gave her another crooked, tinged-with-bitterness smile.
'I know, ironic, isn't it? Orla Hart, queen of the romantic blockbuster. I spend my life creating glorious love affairs and fabulously happy endings, and all the time my own marriage is a complete pig's b-b-bottom. Oh God, it's no good, I can't carry on any more. I'm so miserable I JUST WANT TO DIE.'
'Right,' said Millie, floundering a bit. 'Well, I can see why. So, um, have you made a will?'
Orla stared at her.
'A will. You know, I hereby bequeath my worldly goods to the local monkey sanctuary and fifty thousand a year to my pet gerbil.'
'Of course I haven't made a will.' Orla shuddered. 'They're just morbid.'
'Oh well, that's handy then,' said Millie. 'So if you jump off this cliff now, your husband inherits all your money and your house, and he gets to keep his mistress in the lap of luxury for the rest of her life. I tell you what, why don't you just run over there,' she jerked her thumb over her shoulder, indicating the gleaming, burnt orange Mercedes, 'and tie a big shiny gold ribbon round that expensive car of yours, because your husband's girlfriend's going to have her sweaty little hands on that steering wheel faster than you can say Rest in Peace. She'll probably go with him to your funeral,' Millie rattled on, picturing it all in her mind, 'and the next thing you know, they'll be getting married!'
'Noooo!' howled Orla Hart, clutching her stomach and rocking to and fro in despair. 'He can't marry her, he can't.'
'You won't be around to stop him.' Millie shrugged. 'They'll be able to do whatever they like, because you'll be dead. And don't look at me like that,' she went on, 'because all I'm doing is being honest, stating the facts. Personally, I wouldn't kill myself, I wouldn't give the pair of them the satisfaction. I'd stick around and concentrate on making their lives hell!'
Miserably, Orla shook her head.
'You don't understand. I love Giles more than anything. I don't want to lose him.'
'Well you will,' said Millie, 'if you're dead.'
'God, you're brutal.' Heaving a sigh, Orla closed her eyes.
'Look, you've got a choice here. You can stay and fight for your marriage if that's what you want.' Privately, Millie thought she'd be mad to want to hang on to such a horrible-sounding man. 'Or you can kick your husband out and find yourself another one-bigger, better, and nicer in every way. That would really be having the last laugh.'
'Ho, ho,' Orla mimicked with a spectacular lack of enthusiasm. 'That is so likely to happen.'
'But it might.'
'You know what your trouble is? You've been reading too many trashy novels.'
'Oh come on, your novels aren't that trashy,' Millie protested.
'Thanks.' Miraculously, Orla's mouth began to twitch. 'But I wasn't actually talking about mine.'
Embarrassed, Millie flapped her hands in apology. The faux pas had always been a specialty of hers.
'Okay, sorry, but let's not change the subject. I still need you to promise that you aren't going to kill yourself. And you really mustn't, because all you'd be doing would be cutting off your nose to spite your face.'
Excerpted from Millie's fling by Jill Mansell Copyright © 2009 by Jill Mansell . Excerpted by permission.
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