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In all her thirty-two years, Zoe Montgomery had never once entertained a truly violent thought, but if one more person asked her whether she had a husband and children and then tutted in sympathy when she said she had neither she was going to have to hit something hard. Possibly the gin.
Did it matter that she'd been running her own mystery shopping agency for the past five years and was responsible for a two-million-pound turnover? No, it did not. Did anyone care that she'd started off refurbishing a tiny studio flat in an insalubrious part of London, sold it for double what she'd paid and had subsequently leapt up the property ladder to the spacious Hoxton maisonette she lived in now? Of course they didn't. And what about the doctorate she'd toiled over for five long but happy years? Did that have them gasping in awe? Not a bit of it.
All that mattered to the forty or so depressingly tunnel-visioned women gathered in the bar for their fifteen-year school reunion was that she was still single and childless.
Zoe gritted her teeth and knocked back a mouthful of lukewarm Chablis as the conversation about house prices, catchment areas and Tuscany rattled around the little group she'd been dragged into.
How she could ever have imagined her contemporaries would have changed was beyond her. Back in their boarding-school days, despite the best private girls' education the country had to offer and despite a handful of intellects far more formidable than her own, all most of them had ever wanted to achieve in life was marriage to an aristocrat, an estate and a socking great bank balance, and judging by the number of double-barrelled surnames, titles and diamonds being shown off tonight that had been accomplished with dazzling success.
Zoe sighed in despair. All that money spent. All that potential untapped. All that dedication and ambition so badly mis-channelled. What a waste.
As this evening was turning out to be.
She'd been here for fifteen minutes, but it had taken her only five to realise that there was little to no chance of achieving any of the things she'd hoped to achieve by coming.
When the email inviting her to the reunion had popped up in her in-box a month ago her first instinct had been to ignore it. While she appreciated the fantastic academic education she'd had and the sacrifices her parents had made for her to have it, she'd never got on all that well with these girls. She hadn't had anything in common with most of them, and some of themone in particularhad made her life pretty miserable for the best part of seven years. So without a moment's hesitation she'd replied that she was busy, deleted the email and firmly put it from her mind.
She'd gone back to doing what she did bestworkand buried herself in a whole load of statistical analysis for one of her and her sister's biggest clients, and had been so absorbed by the numbers and the implications they might have that that should have been that.
But to her intense frustration that hadn't been that because despite its consignment to the bin the invitation seemed to have opened up a Pandora's box of adolescent angst, hormonal chaos, and brutal and painfully clear memories, and, as a result, over the past couple of weeks she'd found herself dwelling on her school days with annoying regularity.
It didn't matter how hard she tried to shore up her defences and push it all back, or how much she tried to concentrate on something else. Her memory hammered away, and beneath such relentless pressure the sky-high barriers she'd erected to protect her from those hideous years crumbled, leaving it to trip down lanes she'd blocked off long ago, picking at emotional scabs and prodding at the wounds beneath as it did so.
And once that had happened no amount of statistical analysis could stop her remembering the pain and suffering she'd endured.
The bullying had started off trivially enough. Books she'd needed for lessons had strangely disappeared, phone messages and letters hadn't been passed on and there'd been rumours that hinted at lesbian tendencies and had all twelve girls in her dormitory huddling into a group at the far end of the room, eyeing her with suspicion and whispering.
Then there'd been the snide remarks to her face, the ones that targeted her family, mocking her and her sister's need for scholarships and lamenting the fact that they didn't live in a draughty old pile in the middle of nowhere, didn't holiday in Barbados and Verbier, and had never been anywhere near Ascot, Glyndebourne or Henley.
At first Zoe had gritted her teeth and tried to ignore it, telling herself it would stop soon enough if she just knuckled down and got on with things. That they'd soon get bored and move on to easier prey.
But they hadn't got bored and it hadn't stopped, and her indifference had actually made things worse, escalating what had up to that point been bullying of the mental and emotional kind to the physical.
Sitting in front of her computer, her spreadsheet blurring in front of her eyes as the memories kept coming, Zoe had sworn she could still feel the tiny bruises from the sneaky pinches and the sharp pain from the surreptitious kicks she'd received on an almost daily basis. She'd thought she could still hear the snip of the scissors as one afternoon, while she'd been working head down at her desk concentrating so hard she'd been oblivious to anything else, they'd cut through the long shiny pony-tail she'd had since she was six.
Mostly, though, she kept reliving the awful night following the one and only time she'd dared to retaliate, when she'd been pinned down and had had ouzo poured down her throat. She'd been found by the caretaker stumbling around the grounds at midnight, singingbadlyat the top of her voice, and taken straight to the headmistress, and as a result had been suspended a month before her A levels.
It had not been a good time, and even though she'd got over it all years ago the last thing she needed was an evening spent with fifty-odd reminders of what had definitely not been the happiest days of her life.
But then at some point during the last week or so, her previously rock-solid conviction that she was right not to attend the reunion had begun to wobble. The more she'd dwelled on what had happened, the more she'd begun to regret the fact that she'd done so little to stop it. OK, so it wasn't as if she were going home to her parents every evening and had been able to confide in them, but with hindsight she could have told someone.
Why she hadn't had started to bother her. What it said about her she wasn't sure she wanted to know. And as if the tendrils of doubt, self-recrimination and denial that were winding through her weren't enough, she'd begun to be hassled by an image of her sixteen-year-old self, standing there with her hands on her hips and pointing out that now would be the perfect opportunity to redress a balance that should have never been allowed to become so skewed in the first place.
Go and show them, the little voice inside her head had demanded with increasing insistence. Go and show them how well you've done, that despite their best efforts to batter your confidence and destroy your self-belief they couldn't. Go and show them they didn't win.
She'd tried to resist because she'd risen above what had happened long ago, she really had, and besides, she loathed conflict, hated having to make conversation and avoided social occasions like the plague and the combination of all three might well finish her off. But that little voice wouldn't shut up, and in the end she'd come to the conclusion that she owed it to her teenage self at the very least to try and make amends because, quite apart from anything else, if she didn't she wouldn't have a moment's peace.
So she'd emailed the girl organising the reunion to tell her she'd changed her mind, and that was why, fizzing with adrenalin, buzzing with fighting spirit and brimming with a confidence she rarely felt when confronted with the idea of people, she'd wriggled into a little black dress and heels and then trekked across the city to the gastro-pub in Chelsea on this late September Thursday night instead of spending the evening at home snuggling up to her laptop in her pyjamas as usual.
But if she'd known things weren't going to work out as she'd anticipated, if she'd known she was going to wind up drinking disgustingly warm wine while having to endure a whole load of 'do you remember when's and being made to feel inadequate, as if somehow she'd failed simply because she hadn't procreated, then she wouldn't have bothered.
Zoe drained what was left of the wine in her glass and set her jaw. She knew she hadn't failed. She'd achieved way more than many other women of her age and she was proud of the success she'd made of her life.
And so what if she wasn't married and didn't have children? And who cared if she had abysmal luck on the boyfriend front? She had a career she adored, supportive and loving parents and a great sister. While she wasn't averse to the odd date or two and possibly a relationship at some stage, she didn't need a man to complete her life, and she certainly wasn't sure she wanted the chaos and mess and general disruption that children caused.
No, she was perfectly content with the way things were and therefore she had no need to feel insignificant. No need to feel inferior or inadequate. No need to let herself be affected by the opinions of a bunch of women who shouldn'tno, didn'tmatter.
As the conversation drifted on around her, once again casually dismissing her achievements as of no consequence and instead turning to the stellar accomplishments of husbands and children, Zoe felt what was left of the adrenalin and confidence drain away, leaving a kind of desperate despair she hadn't experienced for fifteen years.
All she'd wanted to do tonight was exact retribution for everything she'd had to go through. All she'd wanted to do was impress the girls who'd tried so hard to stamp her out, stun them with her success and make them jealous of her for a change, but she hadn't even been able to do that. The only kind of success anyone here would be impressed by was the marital kind, and that she didn't have.
Retribution, it seemed, was no more within reach than it had been fifteen years ago. There was no redressing of any balance and there were no looks of envy being cast her way, and just like that she sank into deep despondency.
These women hadn't changed, and nor, it appeared, had she, because despite managing to convince herself otherwise, despite all her professional achievements and industry accolades and the self-assurance she'd gained through them, she still cared what a bunch of over-privileged and underachieving housewives thought of her. They still had the ability to demolish her self-esteem, which was pretty shaky at the best of times, with nothing more than the curl of a lip and the arch of an eyebrow, and they could still make a mockery of her confidence.
That she wasn't as over her school experiences as she'd so blithely assumed was a pretty devastating discovery and Zoe felt her chest tighten with something that felt a lot like panic as the questions began to ricochet around her head.
Why hadn't she changed? Why did it still matter what they thought? Would she ever not? Above all, was there anything she could do to fight back?
The talk turned to biological clocks, career women and what their lives must be lacking by being singleaccompanied by several pointed looks in her direction. And whether it was a great tangle of fifteen-year-old emotion that was churning around inside her or the confusion or the panic at the thought that she wasn't nearly as in control as she'd envisaged she didn't know, but adrenalin was suddenly pounding through her once again. The blood was rushing in her ears and her heart was thundering, and unable to stop, unable even to think about what she was doing, she found herself raising her eyebrows and saying in a cool voice that didn't sound anything like hers, 'Who said anything about being single?'
* * *
If he'd known his usually fairly quiet and staid local pub was going to be taken over by a gaggle of expensively turned out but very loud and loquacious women Dan would have suggested somewhere else to meet Pete because the sickly combination of scents that filled the air was making his stomach churn, the noise level was making his head throb and none of it was conducive to a catch-up over a few drinks and a bite to eat with a friend he hadn't seen for months.
As it was, however, Pete had texted him to say he was running late and had then gone incommunicado, so unfortunately he didn't have any choice but to arm himself with a pint, find a table on the other side of the pub and if possible block out the racket and the toxicity of the air until Pete arrived and they could make their escape.
With that aim in mind, Dan shrugged off his jacket and pushed up the sleeves of his shirt and then, bracing himself, began to make his way to the far and marginally less crowded end of the bar.
He was so focused on his destination, so intent on ignoring the women and the noise that he didn't notice one of their party clap eyes on him and suddenly smile. Nor did he see her put down her drink, extricate herself from the melee and make a beeline for him.
In fact he didn't notice anything about her at all until she was standing right in front of him, stopping him in his tracks and flashing him a dazzling smile, and then it was pretty impossible not to notice her.
Dan didn't have a chance to mutter an 'excuse me' and step to one side. He didn't have time to wonder why she was standing so close nor why her smile was so bright. He didn't even have a chance to check her out properly.
All he got was a fleeting impression of blonde hair, dark eyes and an overall sense of attractiveness before she flung her arms round his neck, plastered herself against him and gave him the kind of kiss that he'd have considered more appropriate if they were naked and in private.
But he couldn't think because on impact shock reeled through him, blowing his mind and obliterating almost every neuron he possessed. For a second it rendered him immobile too, but then his body dimly registered the fact that the woman arching herself against him was soft and warm and pliant, the hand on the back of his neck was singeing his skin like a brand and the mouth moving over his was hot and lush, and the whole bizarrely passionate package sent every one of his senses into overdrive.
For one crazy split second he wanted to whip his arms round her and pull her closer. He wanted to cave in to his instincts and the desire that was beginning to spark through him and open his mouth on hers so that they could kiss properly and he could find out what she tasted like.
With his surroundings disintegrating, his brain dissolving and his hands automatically moving to her waist, Dan was on the point of doing just that when something flashed in his peripheral vision. It seared through the haze in his head, lodged in his brain with the force of a blow dart, and he froze. The heat racing through him vanished as if doused with a bucket of iced water and desire evaporated, leaving him numb and stunned.