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Anna felt a moment of panic. What if she'd already had the last time ever, and couldn't remember it? It wasn't like smoking, where you ceremonially flushed the rest of the packet down the loo at ten past midnight on New Year's Eve. You wouldn't know that it had been the last time. Had it been any good? Probably not. If it had been good, Richard wouldn't have left. She could feel the skin contract across her cheekbones, tight with remembered pain.
She stared out the sitting room window at the rain-blurred garden, then turned back to flicking through the Sunday supplement, where everything was about sex. Dossiers were sexed up, buildings were orgasmic, even dishwashers, which had once been plain old white goods, were now transformed into sexy desirables in gorgeous finger-lickin' hues. Then there were all the things that were better than sex. Chocolate. Yoga. Football. Gardening was the new sex, and history was the new sex, even newer than gardening. Anna sighed. If that was true, as a garden historian she ought to be awash in sex, whereas here she was, sitting in her parents' house watching the rain dribble down the window, not even able to remember the last time she'd done it.
"Can you see them?" Anna's mother, Valerie, bustled into the sitting room, wiping her hands on her apron, the flowery, frilly retro sort that was popular at the moment with young women playing housewife. Anna knew it was original '50s and worn without irony. "We'll eat as soon as they arrive. I do hope they come soon, or the roast potatoes will be like mash."
"Clare's always late for everything, you ought to know that by now," Anna said, as Valerie crossed the room and peered out the window into a rainy Sunday. Valerie's hair, neatly set at the hairdressers', had escaped in the warmth of the kitchen, giving her the look of a startled cockatoo. "It used to drive me mad at school, having to hang around at the end of the day for her. We were always missing the bus."
"You were the eldest, it was up to you to help her." Valerie's tone was as sharp as lemon juice.
Anna clasped her hands together, knuckles whitening. You're twenty-nine, not fifteen anymore. There's no point. But still her teenage self howled in her head: why do I have to help Clare organize her homework, why do I have to wait when she's got detention, why why why? Just because I'm two years older than her. Adult Anna reasserted herself. "The thing is, Mum-"
Valerie's face lit up. "Is that Steve's new car? It's very smart."
Anna looked out as a sleek silver-gray sedan drew up next to her own insignificant hatchback. "Yes, that's them."
Valerie rushed out of the sitting room but Anna stayed behind, counting raindrops, letting her mother enjoy greeting her sister and boyfriend on her own. As Clare shared Anna's house in Bath, seeing each other was not a novelty. She heard Clare bounce through the front door. "We're not late, are we?"
"Darling, not at all." A pause for kisses all round, Anna guessed. "It's so good to see you, you're looking so well. And Steve too! Come on in out of the wet." Valerie bustled into the sitting room, beaming in a way that Anna couldn't remember from her own arrival. "I expect you're starving."
"We've got something to tell you," Clare said, dragging Steve into the room. The freckles scattered across the bridge of her nose added a deeper toffee shade to her tanned face, and her curly hair was streaked gold. She lifted her left hand and waggled it so the ring on her finger caught the light. "We're getting married!"
"Darling!" Valerie's voice shot up the scale. "I'm so thrilled for you." She rushed to embrace Clare, then Steve. "Gordon, Gordon," she called up the stairs. "Oh, my goodness, I can hardly speak. Clare, darling, you must tell me all about it. When did you decide? Gordon, do come down, Clare and Steve are here. Drinks! Oh, darling, you should have told me before, I'd have got some Champagne in. I'm not sure we have any."
"I'll go to the shop and get some," Anna said, getting up. "Congratulations, both of you." She kissed Steve, then her sister, feeling the soft warmth of Clare's ribbon-trimmed cardigan against her hands, smelling her familiar flowery scent. Of course Valerie and Gordon would be pleased, this was what girls were supposed to do: get married and have children, not become academics with letters after their names.
Anna slipped through the front door, escaping from the ecstatic scene in the sitting room redolent of the Second Coming, and walked up the muddy lane that led to the village, rain trickling down her neck. She was pleased for Clare, of course she was. And Steve. They were a great couple. Nine out of ten people would say they were made for each other. They were young, good-looking, fresh, dynamic. She was thrilled for them. The rain trickled down the back of her coat, left soggy patches on her thighs. It was just that it was hard to be thrilled when only ten days ago her divorce had come through. Such an ordinary piece of paper to sum up the failure of one's life.
Anna bought the best-the only-bottle of Champagne the local shop had to offer and returned to her parents' house. "Sundowners" was the sort of pebble-dashed, half-timbered house you could find in any town or village, anywhere in the United Kingdom perhaps, with cherry trees lining the street and privet hedges around the neat front gardens. Comfortable, not too large, not too small, and utterly conventional. It didn't feel like home.
Her father was having a man-to-man chat with Steve, the pair of them leaning against the mantelpiece as if propping up the golf club bar, while Valerie and Clare were busy discussing the wedding plans-dresses, bridesmaids, flowers, cake, cars, dates, churches, venues-skipping from one subject to another like a swirl of confetti in a whirlwind. Steve, a stocky young man who played rugby for the Old Boys and would have been excessively butch if it weren't for a preposterously small button nose that Anna was secretly amazed he could breathe through, was nodding at everything Gordon was saying. He fitted right in. Anna caught sight of herself in the mirror above the fireplace, dark wet hair straggling around a thin white face, unlike any of them. She started opening the Champagne bottle, carefully twisting the cork and easing it up with her thumbs.
"Get Steve to do that for you," her father said, frowning, born into a world where women didn't open bottles and squeaked girlishly when the cork exploded with a pop.
"I can manage," Anna said, just as the cork came out with a suppressed sigh that couldn't have been bettered by the sommelier at the Ritz. She poured, then distributed the glasses among them.
"To Steve and Clare," her father said, raising his glass. Anna and Valerie echoed his words and gesture. Steve was pink with embarrassment, and Clare could hardly stand with excitement.
"My turn," she squealed. "To my family and to Steve, who puts up with me." She took a swig. "Aw, Mum, don't say you're going to cry!" Clare said, sounding hugely pleased at the thought.
"I'm sorry, darling, it's just, it's just ... my little girl's leaving home." Valerie blinked furiously. "Oh, dear, the apple crumble's going to be ruined."
But the crumble survived, and Clare's wedding was the only topic discussed throughout the meal. She was intent on a summer wedding, ultratraditional. At this point she looked sideways at her father, who was obviously going to be expected to pick up the bill, but he was too busy concentrating on his lamb to notice.
Valerie did notice, because she said, in a slightly higher-pitched voice than usual, "You must have whatever you want, darling."
Anna looked across at Valerie and Clare, sitting next to each other, their postures and expressions identical. The same way of sitting, one small foot curled round a neat ankle. The same plump hands, both glittering with rings, and the same nails under the layers of polish. The same tilt of the head, the same restroussé nose, the same slightly protruding lower lip. Soft, plump, girlish women, stamped from the same mold. Anna realized that whatever she did, she would never be part of their inner circle. Perhaps she would feel differently if it was her own wedding they were discussing, but she doubted it. She and Richard had been so wrapped up in each other, they hadn't felt the need for ceremony. Instead they'd slipped away on their own, with their respective best friends from university as witnesses, and not for the first time, Anna had disappointed her mother.
But it didn't look as if Clare was going to disappoint. No, Clare was going the full meringue, by the sound of it. Steve looked mildly surprised at the elaborate wedding plans, not dissimilar in expression to a Hereford bull suppressing hiccups.
Anna leaned across to him. "Have you decided yet if you and your best man are going to have matching or toning cravats?"
He grinned at her. "Jury's still out on that one."
She'd spoken quietly, not intending her voice to travel, but Valerie's radar ears picked it up. "There's no need to poke fun," she said sharply. "Just because you didn't want a lovely wedding-"
"I had the wedding I wanted," Anna said, keeping her voice level.
"And look where it got you!"
Under the table Anna squeezed her hands into fists so her fingernails dug into the soft flesh. Don't cry. It's only because she's upset about the divorce. She managed a smile. "I don't think a big wedding would have made any difference," she said quietly, although her mind boiled with all the things she wanted to say.
"Not that you gave it a chance," Valerie said. "Poor Richard. Having to go abroad, and you too busy rushing about with your career to go with him. A man needs looking after, he needs support from his wife. Hardly surprising he-"
"Now, Valerie," Gordon said, glancing at Anna, reprising his role as ineffectual peacemaker. "We've talked this all through many times before, and now isn't the time to start again."
Valerie's mouth was set in deep lines of disappointment, as if the muscles involved with smiling had atrophied. "It's her own fault. She had a perfectly good husband and she threw it all away for the sake of her career. Career! In my day ..."
"So I walked out," Anna said to Bronwen at the bar the next evening, tucked away at the back at their usual table. "Childish, I know, but ..." She hugged herself tightly, as if she was a badly wrapped parcel that might disintegrate if she let go her grip.
Bronwen patted Anna's hand, the bar spotlights catching on the big resin rings in the vibrant rainbow shades she liked to wear. "She does know what happened, doesn't she?"
"That Richard left me for someone else? Oh, sure. But she's always seen my career as a criticism of her life, and now she's been vindicated. She's convinced that if only I had been a better wife he wouldn't have gone off, and she wouldn't have had a divorce in the family," Anna said, swirling a cocktail stick round in her glass to create a vortex of orange juice and ice. "According to her, if only I'd had babies it would all have been okay." Perhaps her mother had been right. Perhaps she should have given everything up and followed Richard. Perhaps she should have been more like Valerie.
"Babies aren't the answer to everything," Bronwen said, smoothing the red velvet dress that stretched over her bump. No discreet pussycat bows and floral prints for Bronwen. Instead she had pink streaks in her hennaed hair, and a cleavage like the Great Rift Valley. She might have been an unlikely candidate for earth mother when Anna had met her as a paint-splattered student ten years before, but now she looked like the fertility goddess personified. Her bump was enormous, large enough to house a small cetacean rather than a baby.
"How many weeks have you got to go?" Anna asked. It looked as if it might pop out at any minute. That'd give the jostling throng at the bar something to talk about, although judging from the noise bouncing off the steel surfaces, they weren't short of things to say. I ought to find somewhere quieter to hang out, she thought.
"It's supposed to be pitching up in six weeks," Bronwen said. "Though as Toby was late, I'm expecting to be pregnant forever this time round."
"Perhaps this one'll be early-do you know what it is yet?"
Bronwen shook her multicolored head. "No, we decided we'd rather have a surprise. You mustn't let your mum upset you," she added. "At least you got married. My mum's still dropping hints about Nick making me an honest woman."
"No wonder we've always got on-you're living in sin, and I'm damaged goods," Anna tried to joke. She sent the vortex in the other direction.
Bronwen squeezed her hand. "You're still the same lovely person I met on my first day at uni."
Anna leaned back against the wall, determined not to cry. Why was it so much harder when people were nice? "I was terrified of you," she said, smiling at Bronwen. "You seemed to know everything and everyone. I was sure you were a third year."
"All a front. I was scared of you too, you were so cool and calm. And it was obvious from the first tutorial that you were going to get a first. I don't know why the rest of us bothered."
"Much good it's done me." Anna stretched out her hands and looked at her fingers. Long and thin, bare of any rings or adornment, nails short. Clare's ring had been a traditional solitaire, the diamond huge. Anna rubbed her left hand, feeling the waisting on her fourth finger that still remained from where her wedding ring had embedded itself into her flesh, a permanent reminder of her marriage. She turned her hands over, the creases red on her pale palms.
Bronwen took her hand. "I foresee a shining future," she said in a singsong voice. "With fourteen children."
"No, thanks." Anna took her hand back. "I'll leave that to you."
Bronwen gave her famous laugh, dirty enough to plow. "I'm never having sex again after this one."
"Join the club," Anna said.
"Oh, Anna, sex is something you give up when you're married, not when you're single."
"Yes, I remember that. Trouble is, I seem to have got stuck in married mode." It was hard not to think of herself as Richard's partner. He'd been so much part of the person she'd become, even if the feeling wasn't reciprocal.
"Well, find someone else."
"Jeez, Bron, I've only just got divorced. It's been two weeks."
"You've been separated forever. The divorce was just the paperwork." Bronwen dismissed two grand of legal bills with an airy wave, then stabbed at the dish of stuffed green olives, managing to get two on her cocktail stick. "I love being pregnant, you can eat like a pig and no one raises an eyebrow." She popped the olives in her mouth. "Let's face it, you separated years ago. Getting divorced wasn't exactly unexpected, was it?"
"I suppose not." She and Richard had pulled away from each other slowly, like Velcro coming apart. Richard had decided to chuck in his Ph.D. after two years and go into business management, of all the unexpected things, but they'd carried on as usual. Or rather, she'd thought they were carrying on as usual, but the cracks were forming, tiny, divisive, inevitable. She went freelance, setting up work, writing her thesis. Then he was transferred to the Zurich office. Richard not being around had seemed a blessing, to be honest. She'd been away a lot that summer, garden tours and lectures, willing to travel anywhere just to get established, and every spare moment she was frantically finishing her Ph.D. The phone calls got fewer, his weekends were spent skiing-well, you had to take advantage of the opportunities when you were out there. And how. Opportunities in the shape of one of his co-VPs or whatever they were called. Anna massaged the back of her neck. No, she had to be fair. Richard's affair was a symptom, not a cause.
"You ought to be going out more. Get back in the swing of things," Bronwen said with the confidence of someone who had never been out of the swing of things. "I mean, you haven't been out with anyone since Richard."
"I don't meet people. Men."
"You don't meet men hiding away with your books. Look, let's go and talk to those guys at the bar." Bronwen started to slide out from behind their table, no easy matter.
Anna panicked, knowing that her friend was more than capable of accosting any number of strange men on her behalf. "Don't you dare." She tugged Bronwen's sleeve. "Sit down. Please."
To Anna's relief Bronwen settled back down. "You're pathetic," she said, shaking her head.
"Yes, one hundred percent pathetic. It's stamped through me like a stick of rock."
"What about the Internet? Or speed dating?" Anna looked at her. Bronwen obviously read her mind. "Well, what about someone at work-how about a nice gardener?"
"I don't want to go out with anyone involved in gardens. Or an academic. But that's all I meet. I want ... I want someone who'll whisk me off in his helicopter for a weekend in the Bahamas." Anna gave a snort. She might as well say she'd like to go out with a Martian. Still, it'd stop Bron from threatening to drag her to meet someone at the bar.
Excerpted from Nice Girls Do by Sarah Duncan Copyright © 2007 by Sarah Duncan. Excerpted by permission.
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