Read an Excerpt
Daniel always grumbled that his mobile phone rang at the most inconvenient of moments, and it didn't disappoint him now. Just as he was lifting a delicate Venus flytrap out of its pot, his hands full of roots and compost, his trouser pocket buzzed. Since he refused to assign fancy ringtones to everyone in his contact list the double ring of an old-fashioned phone told him precisely nothing about the caller's identity.
Once upon a time, he'd have ignored ithis hands being full of an uprooted Dionaea muscipula and allbut these days he could never quite push the thought from his mind that it might be his younger sister, telling him she was ill again. Or worse, a stranger telling him she'd collapsed and was in Accident and Emergency, and casually requesting he pick her kids up from pre-school.
Reluctantly, he shook the earth off his right hand, cupped the clump of roots and foliage in his left and fumbled in the thigh pocket of his cargo trousers for his phone. He balanced the handset on his shoulder and squeezed his cheek onto it to keep it in place as he attempted to brush more of the compost that caked his fingers off on the back of his trousers. 'Yup.'
The phone started to slide and he quickly grabbed for it with his still-dirty hand.
'Daniel Bradford?' a deep yet annoyingly upbeat male voice asked.
'Yup,' he repeated, more focused on trying to replace the prize specimen in its pot with the use of only one hand. It wasn't going well. He wasn't planning on dividing this one for propagation yet but it was threatening to do just that.
'Well, Daniel, this is Doug Harley and you're live on Radio EROS, London's most romantic radio station!'
Daniel stood up straight, then twisted round, scanning the tropical nursery at London's famous Kew Gardens, expecting to see a group of snickering underlings hiding behind a palm in an adjacent room of the sprawling greenhouse. This had to be a prank, right? And, if there was one advantage of working in a place where ninety per cent of the buildings were made of glass, it was that there was nowhere to hide. He'd find them and make their lives hell for this.
But all he could see was a lone horticultural student, wheeling a trolley of seedlings past the door, plugged into his music and oblivious to the world. The rest of the multi-roomed greenhouse was unusually quiet.
'Daniel?' the silky smooth voice crooned in his ear.
He pulled the phone away from his head and stared at the display, seriously considering just hanging up. He didn't have time for this.
'What do you want?' he barked at the man as he put the phone back up to his ear. 'I'm busy.'
There was an equally smoothand equally irritatingchuckle on the other end of the line. 'Not too busy for this, Daniel. I promise you.'
He clenched his jaw. The over-familiar manner in which the DJ kept inserting his name into every sentence was getting on his nerves.
'Convince me,' he said.
The chuckle again. As if the man was the insider to some joke that Daniel didn't know about. His eyes narrowed.
'I'm sure you know what day it is today, Daniel?' Confusion wrinkled his brow further. It was Tuesday. So what?
He swore inside his head, remembering the collection of red and pink envelopes that had been sitting on his desk when he'd arrived for work this morning. He'd shaken his head, pushed them to one side unopened and had done his best to forget about them. Not just any Tuesday, but one slap-bang in the middle of February.
'Or what year it is ' the voice added.
Daniel let out a huff. He'd been right all along. A half-baked radio contest run by some sappy station he'd never heard of. He was pretty sure he didn't want whatever prize this idiot was offering. Seriously, couldn't they come up with a better question than what year it was? Even his four-year-old nephew could answer that one. He was just about to tell Mr Silky Smooth that when he was interrupted.
'Of course, leap years have their perks,' the man said, and a rumble of perfectly pitched deep laughter followed. 'We know it's a couple of weeks until the twenty-ninth, but we've got a Valentine's surprise for you, Daniel. There's a young lady who'd like to ask you something.'
Daniel looked down at the plant in his hand. Even in its current uprooted state, a fly was attracted to the sweet nectar oozing from the glands in its trap. It darted around, weaving in and out of the leaves, looking for somewhere to land.
'Dan?' This voice was soft and feminine. One he recognised instantly.
He froze. His brain told him what was coming, but he refused to believe it.
That hadn't come out right. He'd sounded grumpy and defensive, not pleasantly surprised, at hearing his girlfriend's voice. He tried again. 'What are you doing?'
Nope. That hadn't been any better.
He heard her swallow in a great gulp of air. 'Daniel. I know you've had a tough time recently, and I've been happy to be there for you but things are looking up now and I really believe we could be good together.'
Daniel's mouth moved but no wordsnot even any soundscame out.
He wanted to close his eyes, as if doing so could block out the sound of her voice, but he was transfixed by the sight of the fly settling on the fleshy pad of one of the plant's open traps. He shook his head, warning the insect off.
Fly away. Escape while you still can.
'So, what I'm doing, Daniel.' She paused, gave a little nervous laugh. 'What I'm saying is is that I'd like you to marry me.'
In one swift, smooth motion the flytrap closed over the fly. Not so much a snapping as an elegant but relentless squeezing. Daniel could hear the creature's frantic buzzing, see it struggling in the trap as the teeth-like cilia closed tighter and tighter over its head.
Don't. Struggling only makes it worse.
A terrible silence settled around him. All sound disappeared. Even the visitors to the botanical gardens, who could often still be heard from the private nurseries, had hushed. It seemed the whole of London was holding its breath, waiting for his answer.
'Is this a joke, George?' he croaked, a horrible pleading tone in his voice.
This wasn't the Georgia he knew. The nice, uncomplicated, undemanding woman he'd been seeing for almost a year. His Georgia knew he didn't have the emotional space for a proper relationship right now, let alone a marriage. His Georgia understood that and accepted that. So who was this, borrowing her voice and asking him out-of-the-blue questionson the radio, for heaven's sake? Not even person to person, face to face.
Who proposed in public, anyway? It should be done privately and quietly. Preferably to someone other than him.
He squeezed his teeth together to stop himself from demanding an explanation, right here, right now. He was suddenly furious with her for springing this on him, for changing the rules and moving the goalposts of their relationship while he hadn't been looking. This wasn't what they were about and she knew that.
At least, he'd thought she'd known that.
Silky Smooth chuckled again. 'Well, Georgia, you seem to have rendered the poor man speechless! What do you say, Daniel? Are you going to put this gorgeous girl out of her misery or what?'
That doused his billowing temper quick smart.
What was he going to say?
He could imagine Georgia sitting there at the radio station, a fixed smile on her face and fear in her eyes, bravely trying to pretend it was all right, when really her heart was pounding and her eyes filling.
It wasn't that Georgia wasn't a lovely woman. She was determined and intelligent and sensible. Any man would be lucky to have her. He should want to say yes.
But he didn't. He really didn't.
He wasn't ever going to go down that road again, no matter how lovely the woman in question.
There was a crackle on the line and noise started filtering through againthe hiss of the automatic misting system in the nursery next door, the squeak of a door farther down the corridor, a plane flying low overhead on its way to Heathrow. And Daniel was suddenly very aware that more than a hundred thousand pairs of ears might be listening to this conversation, of just how public and complete his girlfriend's humiliation would be if he gave her the wrong answer.
Unfortunately, where he and Georgia were concerned, the wrong answer was the right answer.
He didn't love her. He wasn't sure he ever would, and she deserved better than that. Gently, he balanced his phone on his shoulder again and carefully put the now-satisfied Venus flytrap plant back down in its pot.
He should have known their relationship wouldn't stay in wonderful, comfortable stasis they'd created. In this world, things moved on, grew, or they decayed.
He'd first met Georgia when Kelly had been halfway through her chemo. She'd been easy to be around. She'd helped him forget that his little sister might not see another Christmas, to forget that his rat of a brother-in-law had run off with his personal trainer and left his shell-shocked wife to deal with a cancer diagnosisand two under-fivesall on her own. Without Georgia, he'd have hunted Tim down and fed him, bit by bit, to the largest and ugliest Nepenthes in his collection.
Daniel shook his head. The Venus flytap was completely closed now; he couldn't even see the squirming fly inside.
He should have known that, eventually, Georgia would get ideas. The awful situation they were in now was as much his fault as it was hers. She wasn't really asking anything horrendous of him, was she? But she was asking for something he wasn't capable of. Not any more. And he'd been very clear about that.
'I'm sorry ' he said, more for not paying attention to what had been growing right under his nose than for what he was about to say. 'We weren't heading for marriage, I thought you knew that.That's what made our thing so perfect.'
Our thing Subtle, Daniel.
He could hear her breathing on the other end of the line, and he wished he could see her face to face, explain, without listening ears hanging on every syllable.
'It's okay,' she said, and he could hear the artificial brightness in her tone, could almost see the sheen in her eyes. He felt as if he'd been kicked in the chest by a horse.
He shook his head. No, it wasn't okay. He was hurting her horribly, but that didn't mean he could say yes and condemn them to a lie that would ultimately make them both unhappy. He had to do what was best for Georgia, for both of them. He had to set her free for someone who could give her what she wanted.
'I can't, Georgia. You know why I can't say yes.'
There was a moment of ghastly silence and then the DJ began talking again, laughing nervously, trying to smooth things over. Daniel didn't hear any of his words. He didn't even notice when music started to play in his ear.
He felt like a worm.
No, worse than that, because worms were useful, at least, and they didn't harm anything.
He picked up the unearthed flytrap, plastic pot and all, and flung it against the wall of the carnivorous plants nursery. It hit the glass with a resounding bang that echoed over half the gardens. The cracked pot fell away, and the frail plant followed, landing with an almost soundless thump on the floor. Compost that had smeared against the glass began to crumble away and rain down on top of it.
That was when the disadvantages of working in a greenhouse made themselves apparent. Half a dozen curious pairs of eyes stared at him from various parts of the nursery. They must have thought the Head of Tropical Plants had lost his mind.
Or worse. They might have been listening to the radio.
Daniel closed his eyes, ran his hand through his hair, then swore loudly when he realised his fingers had still been covered in peat and perlite.
He opened his lids to find no one had moved. He glared at each and every pair of staring eyes in turn. 'What?' he yelled and, as one mass, the underlings scurried away back into their holes.
All he wanted was for this awful, consumer-fuelled excuse of a day to be over, so he could get back to normal, live his life without anyone listening to what he was saying or spying on what he was doing.
God, he hated Valentine's Day.
Daniel froze as he was crouched down, his hand on the papery flute of a Sarracenia. Sunlight streamed through the glass roof, warming his back, and around him visitors milled, casually inspecting the exotic plants of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, one of Kew's modern glasshouses. All in all, it seemed like a normal March day.
Except that, as he worked, the fine hairs on his arms and the back of his neck lifted.
He stood up and glanced around. He was in a vast greenhouse with ten climate-controlled zones, so it would be stupid not to expect people to see him, but it was more than that. It felt as if someone was watching him.
Georgia's flopped Valentine's proposal had produced a flurry of unexpected media attention. More than once in the last month he'd found himself staring at the business end of a paparazzo's lens as he was trying to work. But that hadn't been the only unwanted side-effect of publicly humiliating his ex-girlfriend. Now there seemed to be eyes on him everywhere, watching him, judging him.
Until his sister's illness had forced him to come back to England, he'd loved his job working from Kew's base in Madagascar. He'd loved being a seed huntersearching out rare plants to collect their treasure, tracking down nearly extinct species. But this bizarre media interest made him feel much more like the prey than a hunter, and he didn't like that one bit. No, not a role reversal he was comfortable with.
He finished checking the fine white and green patterned flutes of the pitcher plant and pushed open the door of the small Temperate Carnivorous Plants area and entered the much larger Wet Tropics zone. Here the heat-and-moisture-loving tropical varieties grew, including a large draping display of green and warm purple hanging pitchers. He worked methodically through the twisting tendrils, looking for dried out pitchers that needed to be dead-headed, checking for disease and parasites.
That was when he heard them.
'Do you think he looks like Harrison Ford?' a feminine voice said in a not-so-quiet whisper. 'I'm not sure. He's more like that one from the spy series on BBC.'
Daniel froze and imagined a horrible, jungle-related death for the reporter who'd jokingly compared him to the film legend. While the journalist had obviously been quite pleased with his 'Indiana Jones with secateurs' crack, Daniel hadn't heard the end of it from his mates.
'Not sure,' a second voice said thoughtfully, and just as loudly. 'But he's definitely got that brooding, intelligent-but-dangerous thing going on. Have you seen those arm muscles.?'
There was a muffled snort from the first speaker. 'Arms? I was too busy checking out his nice, tight little'
Right. That was it.
He was fed up of being treated like a piece of meat, something to be stalked and discussed and ogled. Perhaps he should just jump up on one of the earthy beds and sit there with the plants, because as far as he could see he'd stopped being one of the staff and had morphed into a prime attraction.
When would this end? It was bad enough that the London press had picked up on his and Georgia's story and run with it like a greyhound on amphetamines. They'd been the subject of countless column inches, magazine features and chat show discussionsnot that either of them had fuelled it in any way by agreeing to speak or be interviewed. It seemed the whole of the city had been split down the middle, divided into two camps, one supporting him and one supporting her.
But the whole situation had a nasty little side effect, too.