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Ellie's tongue was glued to the roof of her mouth. This was such a mistake. She wasn't a 'lady'. She shouldn't be here. She should own up right now
"I apologise for keeping you waiting," Jennifer Cochrane continued, 'but there was a crisis at the printers I had to deal with."
Unable to speak, Ellie attempted an answer- ing smile. Even in her borrowed clothes, hair swirled up in a sophisticated style and wearing more make-up than she'd normally wear in a month, she'd been expecting someone to point a finger at her, shout 'impostor' the moment she'd stepped within the hushed portals of the offices of Milady magazine.
She'd never meant to take it this far.
Never expected to get this far. Wouldn't be here if the idea of her contribut- ing saleable copy to a magazine aimed directly at ladies who, in between chauffeuring their off- spring about in top-of-the-range 4x4s, lunched, gossiped and shopped hadn't produced such howls of mirth at her writers' group.
She'd set out to show themshow herself, maybethat while she might miss the magazine's target audience by a mile, she was professional enough to write whatever was required.
And she'd done it.
She'd read a dozen or so back copies of the magazine, looked for a gap that she could fill, and 'Lady Gabriella's Journal' had been the result.
Written in the crisp, upper-class style of the magazine, she'd offered the jottings of the 'perfect' reader. Highlights in the life of a woman with three children, several well-bred and perfectly behaved dogs, and all the time in the world to devote to interior design, her garden, entertaining andsitting on worthy com- mittees. "Lady Gabriella' was, of course, married to a man with the means to pay for it all.
She'd actually enjoyed writing it, vicari- ously living a completely different life if only on paper. Having no trouble at all imagining herself the 'lady of the house' rather than simply caretaking the place during the owner's absence.
Then, since she'd done the work, she'd sub- mitted it to the magazine, enclosing some of her doodly drawings as an afterthoughtan im- pression of the gothic turret that adorned one end of the house, the cat sitting in the deep em- brasure of an arched window, a toddler (Lady G's youngest)expecting a swift thanks-but- no-thanks return in the self-addressed envelope provided for the purpose. She'd had enough of them to know the form. But if you didn't try, if you didn't pursue a dream, hunt it down until there was no breath left in your body, let chances slip by, then what was the point?
The letter, addressed to Lady Gabriella March, inviting her for a 'chat', should have been enough. She would show it to the writers' group and take a bow, point proved. Except it wasn't.
This was a never-to-be-repeated chance to talk to the editor of a famous, if fading, magazine which was why she was here, in the office of Jennifer Cochrane, a woman of advanced years but formidable character, who had the style, diction and classic wardrobeincluding the mandatory double row of pearlsof one of the minor royals. One of the seriously scary ones.
Transformed by her disapproving sister, Stacey, into Lady Gabriella March for the day, it took all her concentration to put down the cup she was holding without spilling the contents over the designer suit that Staceyanother for- midable womanhad lent her for the occasion. To then stand up and cross the inches-deep carpet in precariously high heelsalso her sister'swithout falling flat on her face.
Having left it too late to cut and run, she had no choice but follow through. Breathe Con- centrate, she told herself. One foot in front of the other, the walk functional rather than flirty. Sedate duchess rather than saucy domestic
Having managed to negotiate the coffee cup and carpet without disaster, she offered her hand and said, 'How D'you do, Mrs Cochrane?"
She was convinced she looked, and sounded, exactly like Eliza Doolittle at Ascotjust before she let slip the expletive
Mrs Cochrane, however, appeared to notice nothing amiss in this performance, and offered her an unexpectedly warm smile, waving her away from the desk towards the more informal sofa.
"We're both busy women, Lady March, so I'm not going to waste time. I enjoyed the diary pieces you sent me. And the drawings you used to illustrate them."
"Really?" Oh, that wasn't cool. But she'd never been face to face with an editor before, let alone had a 'chat' with one. She tried to restrain the idiotic grin, slow the heart-rate to something more stately. "Thank you."
"The drawings have a delightful spontaneity, as if you'd just doodled your thoughts."
"Oh, I did," she exclaimed, then inwardly groaned as Mrs Cochrane smiled. This was definitely not the way to do it Then, in an effort to recover the situation, 'I did plan to go to art school"
Which was true. But common sense ran like a seam of iron ore through her family genes, and she'd seen the value of a good solid degree and a teaching qualification. Something prac- tical that she could use all her life. Would fit around married life, children.
She shruggedthen wondered if a 'Lady', one with a capital L, would shrugand left Mrs Cochrane to draw her own conclusions.
"Clearly you chose marriage and children instead," Mrs Cochrane filled in for her, nodding and smiling with obvious approval. "Most young women seem to be leaving it so late these days."
Fortunately she was looking at the drawings, spread across the low table in front of them, giving Ellie a moment to recover.
She picked one that was no more than a few lines suggesting the upraised bottom, the chubby legs of an infant almost ready to stand up and take her first steps.
"This is Chloe? Your youngest child?" Ellie looked at the picture. It was the daughter of one of the women she worked for in her 'day' job, drawn from memory without a thought.
How could she have done that?
"Charming," Mrs Cochrane said, without waiting for an answer. Then, 'I'm going to be frank with you, Lady March"
"Gabriella. I've been looking for someone who can write a regular lifestyle column for some time. It has been extraordinarily difficult to find a writer capable of finding just the tone our readers appreciate."
Ellie was not entirely surprised to hear that; no one born since 1950 wrote that way.
"There was always just a suggestion of the pastiche. A lack of sincerity." She smiled. "Sin- cerity is essential." 'Absolutely," she managed, wishing the floor would open up and swallow her. Right now.
"Of course I'm not interested in the rather dated diary format."
Which was the sole reason she'd chosen it. And, from a point where she had been praying to whatever saint was supposed to be looking after the interests of neophyte writers to get on with sorting out that hole for her to disappear into, she was suddenly indignant. Why bring her all the way up to London for a 'chat' about her work, then tell her that it wasn't what was wanted?
"I'm looking for something less formal something that will appeal to the younger gen- eration of women we need to attract. Your writing has a lively freshness, a touch of irrev- erence that is quite striking."
All the things she'd done her absolute best to suppress
"What I'd like to suggest to you is a regular contribution based on your own experiences of entertaining, household management, the small oddities of family life. Not a diary as such, more a conversation with the reader. A chat over coffee, or lunch with a friend."
Everything about that sounded perfectif she ignored the fact that she didn't have a partner, let alone a husband and the charmingly precocious children she'd invented were an amalgam of those she'd encountered in her 'day' jobor at least their mothers' sadly mistaken assessment of them. As for entertain- ing, the only effort she put into that was to call out for a pizza.
And what the heck was 'household manage- ment' when it was at home?
"My proposal is this. An initial contract for six months at our usual rate, and then, if the readers respond as favourably as I anticipate, we'll talk again. Does that interest you?"
This, Ellie decided, was about as close to her worst nightmare as it was possible to get. She'd finally got her first breakthrough, her first real rec- ognition as a writer, and it was all based on lies.
She couldn't do it. "I expect you'd like a little time to consider it?" Mrs Cochrane said, when she didn't imme- diately answer.
"Maybe you'd like to talk it over with your husband?" she pressed.
"My husband?" To hear the words, spoken so casually, left her momentarily floundering. "No," she finally managed. "That won't be necessary."