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Perfect timing When you meet the man of your dreams on the night before your wedding, it's hardly ...
By Jill Mansell
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2009 Jill Mansell
All right reserved.
Chapter One The thing about going out for your bachelorette party, Poppy Dunbar couldn't help noticing, was that nobody-but nobody-bothered to chat you up.
It possibly had something to do with the three inflated condoms tethered to the top of her hat and the 'Bride-to-Be' sash hung around her neck, sending out the signal: 'Don't bother, boys.' She was about as off-limits as it was possible to get. All of a sudden-as far as men were concerned-she had become invisible. It felt weird, after years of nightclubbing and being chatted up. She'd never actually been unfaithful to Rob, of course, but it was still nice to be noticed.
'Tell me about it.' Dina, when Poppy had passed this observation on earlier, was able to sympathize. 'I'm in the same boat, aren't I?' She pulled a gloomy face. 'Nobody makes a pass at you when you're nine months pregnant. It's like being a nun.'
Not that Dina was in too much danger of being mistaken for a nun right now, not while she was smack in the middle of the dance floor giving it all she'd got. At her request, the club DJ was playing the old Madonna song, 'Like a Virgin.' Dina's white Lycra skirt was edging its way up to mid-thigh and her black patent high heels reflected thefluorescent lights zapping and crisscrossing overhead.
For a pregnant nun, she was doing pretty well, thought Poppy. If her husband Ben could see her now he'd have a fit. Dina's dance style bordered on the frenzied; much more of it and she would go into labor. If that happened she would miss both the wedding and her chance to wear her new pink straw hat. Oh dear, Poppy thought with amusement, what a wicked waste of twenty-two pounds ninety-nine that would be. Ben would be furious.
Poppy left her three fellow 'bachelorettes' to it and made her way to the loo. Determined not to be hungover at her own wedding, she had spent the night on 7-Up, which was going through her like Niagara Falls.
'Don't do it, pet,' said one girl, eyeing the hat and sash and rolling her eyes in mock horror as she squeezed past Poppy.
'Getting married and not even pregnant,' teased another, 'that's class.'
Studying her reflection in the mirror as she washed her hands, Poppy thought: Damn, I look a prat in this hat.
It would be more than her life was worth, though, to take it off. This was the ritual, the way things were done. Out at your bachelorette party you were supposed to look daft and anyone who didn't was a complete killjoy. The girls would never forgive her.
Silly hat intact, Poppy emerged from the loos and began making her way back through the heaving masses. The dance floor, over to the left, was by this time as jam-packed as those Japanese commuter trains where everyone got levered in by merciless guards.
The air was stifling, smoky, and multi-perfumed. Poppy turned right instead and threaded her way between tables. Double doors at the back of the club led down a flight of stone steps and out into a walled garden.
It was a heavenly summer evening. The sky was bright with stars. What she needed, Poppy decided, was five minutes outside before Dina and the girls realized she was missing out on all the fun.
Halfway down the broad stone staircase she passed a couple, arm in arm, heading back inside. With his free hand the boy was lighting a Silk Cut. Just for fun, once the cigarette was lit, he brushed it against Poppy's hat. One after the other, like gunfire, two of the condoms exploded. Poppy, taken by surprise, promptly lost her balance and tumbled down the last few steps. With a squeal she landed in a heap on the grass at the bottom.
It was all highly undignified. Her skirt flew up and her sash seemed to be strangling her. The big toe on her left foot hurt like anything. Only her stupid hat remained intact.
People were staring. At the top of the steps the boy with the cigarette looked aggrieved. 'That's not my fault,' he told his girlfriend. 'I mean, it's not as if I pushed her.'
'Silly sod,' his girlfriend replied in loving tones. 'Come on, your round. I'll have a double rum-and-black.'
'It's okay, I've got you,' said a male voice. Poppy, who was busy cursing under her breath and tugging her skirt down, felt a supporting arm go around her waist. The voice went on, 'I don't think anything's broken. Can you make it over to that bench?'
She found herself being helped to her feet and led across the lawn by someone whose rumpled dark curls gave him the look of a wayward cherub. A cherub with cheekbones. His eyes, so dark they seemed black, were in marked contrast with his white shirt. He was tall, Poppy registered, and thin, and extremely brown. As he lowered her onto the wooden bench she also noticed very white teeth, two of them endearingly crooked, and a quirky infectious smile.
'Thanks.' Grateful to have her dignity at least semi-restored, Poppy straightened her sash. 'As if I wasn't already feeling daft enough.'
'I'm afraid your accessories have had it.' He indicated the burst condoms now dangling limply from the brim of her hat. 'I hope you weren't saving them for a special occasion.' He paused for a second, his dark eyes searching Poppy's face. 'When is it? The wedding?'
It was the weirdest sensation ever. Quite suddenly, Poppy felt as if she'd known him all her life. Her breath caught in her throat.
'Tomorrow.' This was ridiculous; her heart was doing some kind of frantic can-can in her chest. In an effort to distract herself from the strangeness of what seemed to be going on, she bent down and pulled off one shoe. 'Looks like I'll be hopping down the aisle. I must have landed on my big toe. If it swells up I'm sunk.'
'My name's Tom, by the way.'
'Right. Tom. I'm-'
'Poppy. I know. I heard your pregnant friend say it earlier.'
Poppy, seldom at a loss for words, could only sit and watch as he reached for her foot, held it in the palm of his hand and carefully inspected her poor bruised toe.
'You'll live,' he finally pronounced.
'Ah, but will I limp?'
He smiled and Poppy's stomach turned over. Ye gods, she thought helplessly, what's happening here?
'It isn't swollen enough to be broken. We could put a cold compress on it if you like. Either that or cancel the wedding.'
'And give my future mother-in-law a nervous breakdown,' Poppy joked feebly, wondering when she was going to start feeling normal again. 'Please. Five hundred sausage rolls are baking as we speak.'
Several feet from where they sat was a lily pond with a small fountain. Tom took a dark blue handkerchief from his pocket and held it in the stream of water splashing down from the stone statue of a frog. Returning to the bench, he rested Poppy's bare foot across his knee and wrapped the handkerchief around the injured toe. Without even thinking, Poppy took off her hat and sash.
He glanced sideways at her. 'Won't your friends be wondering where you are?'
'Probably.' Poppy no longer cared. 'Won't yours?'
'Mine have left. I came down from London for the weekend,' Tom explained, 'to stay with my brother and his girlfriend. About an hour ago they launched into the most tremendous argument. The thing is with their fights, they're great ones for throwing plates at each other. So when they rushed off home,' he concluded with amusement, 'I thought I'd better stay put for a while. Leave them to it.'
He's from London and I've definitely never seen him before, thought Poppy in a daze. How, when I know absolutely nothing about this man, can I feel as if I've known him for years?
Tom slowly massaged her instep as he spoke. 'Of course, now I'm glad I stayed.'
'You are? You mean you have a thing about feet?'
He laughed. 'Maybe that too. Damn. Is this seriously bad timing or what?'
Poppy's heart did another ungainly flip-flop. If he meant what she thought he meant it was exactly what had been going through her mind too. Except that this whole thing was ridiculously far-fetched. A spot of instant mutual attraction was one thing, but actually falling in love-really in love-with a total stranger couldn't possibly exist. Could it?
It's a nervous reaction, she told herself, a subconscious last-minute panic. I'm just grateful someone's paying me a bit of attention at last, even if I did have to mangle my toe to get it.
'I wish you weren't getting married tomorrow,' said Tom.
'Coo-eee! There you are.'
Yelling over the heads of the dozen or so people separating them, Dina clattered down the flight of steps in her ludicrous high heels. Poppy whipped her foot off Tom's lap.
'Hiding away,' Dina chided, inspecting Tom with interest. 'Whatever are you doing out here? And who are you?'
'Your friend fell down the steps. She thought she might have broken her ankle,' said Tom. 'I'm a doctor.'
Poppy stared at him. 'You are?'
'Poppy, you're hopeless.' Dina turned once more to Tom. 'Well, is it broken?'
'Good. So I can drag her back onto the dance floor.'
Dismayed, Poppy said, 'Oh but-'
'Come on now, no excuses.' Dina had her by the arm. She smirked. 'You don't have a leg to stand on.'
'But my toe,' wailed Poppy, who more than anything else in the world wanted to stay outside. 'It hurts.'
Dina rolled her eyes. 'If you think that hurts, try having a baby.'
'Maybe you should,' Tom said quietly. He was no longer smiling. 'Go back inside, I mean. I'm sorry about ... you know, just now. I shouldn't have said it.'
'Said what?' Dina demanded.
'He told me I looked a prat in a hat,' lied Poppy, standing up at last and realizing he was right. She had to go inside and pretend this encounter had never taken place. She had to look as if she was having heaps of fun. And tomorrow she had to marry Rob McBride.
'Go on.' Tom's coal-black eyes hadn't left her face. His smile was bleak. 'Happy wedding and all that.'
"Bye.' Poppy bit her lip.
'Quick!' screeched Dina, almost yanking her arm out of its socket as a change of music filtered out through the double doors. 'Gary Glitter, my favorite.'
Her big toe still hurt like crazy but Poppy no longer cared. She had danced nonstop for the past hour, forcing herself not to think of Tom. He had gone anyway. She had seen him leave. It had just been one of those mad moments and now it was over. She was going to concentrate on real life instead.
By ten to two the DJ was winding up for the night. The last three or four records were always slow ones. Susie and Jen were dancing with two brothers who claimed, somewhat dodgily, to be airline pilots. Dina was massaging her aching ankles under cover of their table. She gave Poppy a hefty nudge. Poppy, who was hunting in the bottom of her bag for money for the taxi, didn't look up.
'Oh doctor, I'm in trouble,' sang Dina. She didn't sound a bit like Sophia Loren.
'That chap who couldn't keep his hands off your foot.' Triumphantly, she watched Poppy's head jerk up. 'Hmm. Looks like he can't keep away either.'
'You're having me on.'
'If you want to dance, dance.' Dina looked smug. 'Don't mind me.'
The last record of the night was 'Lady in Red.'
'Thank God you aren't wearing something red,' said Tom. 'That really would have been too kitsch for words.'
Poppy, whose heart was going nineteen to the dozen, didn't tell him she had red knickers on.
She said, 'I thought you'd left.'
'I did. Then I came back. I had to.' Tilting his head he murmured into her ear, 'I want you to know I don't make a habit of this. It isn't some kind of bizarre hobby of mine, in case you were wondering.'
Over his shoulder Poppy saw Jen and one of the airline pilots cruising at low altitude towards them. Jen winked.
'Watch what you're doing with my future cousin-in-law,' she instructed Tom. 'By this time tomorrow she'll be an old married woman. We're under instruction to keep our eye on her tonight.'
This is awful, thought Poppy, beginning to panic as the song moved into its final chorus. Any minute now the night will be over, it'll be time to leave. How can this be happening to me? I need more time-
In a low voice Tom said, 'Will your friends miss you if we sneak out now?'
'Of course they will.' Close to despair Poppy felt her fingers dig helplessly into his arms. 'Dina's already phoned for a cab to take us home.'
'Okay, I'll leave it up to you.' He shook back a lock of curling dark hair, studying her face intently for a second. 'Delgado's, that all-night café on Milton Street. You know the one, directly opposite the university?'
Poppy nodded, unable to speak.
'I'll wait there. Until three o'clock. If you want to see me, that's where I'll be. If you don't ... well, you won't turn up.'
'This isn't funny.' Poppy realized she was trembling. 'I'm not enjoying this. I'm hating it.'
'You mean you wish you hadn't met me?' Just for a second Tom traced a finger lightly down the side of her quivering face. 'Fine, if that's how you feel. If it's how you really feel. Go home. Get a good night's sleep. Carry on as if tonight never happened. Get married-'
'Our taxi,' Susie declared with a melodramatic flourish, 'is waiting.' She passed Poppy her handbag and began to steer her in the direction of the door. Glancing from Poppy to Tom and back again she chanted, 'Ladies and gentlemen, your time is up. No more flirting, no more smoochy dances with handsome strangers, no more scribbling your phone number in Biro on the back of his hand and praying it doesn't rain on the way home. The girl is no longer available. Tomorrow, she gets hitched.'
Chapter Two The journey from the center of Bristol back to Henbury at two in the morning normally took ten minutes. This time the trip was punctuated with a whole series of stops and starts.
It's worse than musical bloody chairs, thought Poppy, willing herself not to scream as Jen, spotting a still-open burger joint, begged the driver to pull up outside. Susie had already sent him on a convoluted tour of local cash dispensers in search of one that worked. If Dina announced that she needed to find yet another public loo, Poppy knew she would have a complete nervous breakdown. At this rate, it would be four o'clock before they even arrived home.
But they made it, finally. Dina, with her stressed bladder, was dropped off first. Then Susie, then Jen. Kissing each of them goodbye in turn, Poppy wondered how they would react if they knew what was racing through her mind. Jen was Rob's cousin, Dina his sister-in-law. Only an hour or so ago Susie had confided tipsily, 'If I could meet and marry someone even half as nice as your Rob I'd be so happy.'
'Edgerton Close is it, love?' asked the taxi driver over his shoulder when only Poppy was left in the car.
Poppy looked at her watch for the fiftieth time. Quarter to three. She took a deep breath.
'Delgado's, Milton Street. Opposite the university. Hurry, please.'
* * *
Delgado's was a trendy post-nightclub hangout popular with students and diehard clubbers alike. Poppy, who had visited it a few times in the past, knew its atmosphere to be far more of a draw than the food.
But with its white painted exterior and glossy dark blue shutters it certainly looked the part. On a night like tonight, Poppy knew it would be even busier than usual, packed with people showing off their tans, making the most of the perfect weather while it lasted and pretending they weren't in Bristol but in the south of France.
As her taxi drew up outside Poppy wondered just how stupid she would feel if she went inside and he wasn't there. She looked again at her watch. One minute to three.
Then she saw him, sitting alone at one of the sought-after tables in the window. He was lounging back on his chair idly stirring sugar into an espresso and smoking a cigarette.
Poppy's pulse began to race. Twelve hours from now she was due to walk down the aisle of St Mary's church on her father's arm. Twelve and a bit hours from now she would become Poppy McBride, wife of Robert and mother-in due course-to three, maybe four little McBrides. It was all planned, right down to the middle names and the color of the wallpaper in the nursery. Rob was a great one for thinking ahead.
Excerpted from Perfect timing by Jill Mansell Copyright © 2009 by Jill Mansell. Excerpted by permission.
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