Read an Excerpt
Would you consider yourself stressed?
No. I’m not stressed.
I’m . . . busy. Plenty of people are busy. I have a high-powered job, my career is important to me, and I enjoy it.
OK. So sometimes I do feel a bit tense. But I’m a lawyer in the City, for God’s sake. What do you expect?
My handwriting is pressing so hard into the page, I’ve torn the paper. Dammit. Never mind. Let’s move on to the next question.
On average, how many hours do you spend in the office every day?
Do you exercise regularly?
I regularly go swimming
I occasionally go swim
I am intending to begin a regular regime of swimming. When I have time. Work’s been busy lately, it’s a blip.
Do you drink 8 glasses of water a day?
I put down my pen and clear my throat. Across the room, Maya looks up from where she’s rearranging all her little pots of wax and nail varnish. Maya is my spa beauty therapist for the day and is in her forties, I’d say. Her long dark hair is in a plait with one white streak woven through it, and she has a tiny silver stud in her nose.
“Everything all right with the questionnaire?” she murmurs.
“I did mention that I’m in a bit of a hurry,” I say politely. “Are all these questions absolutely necessary?”
“At the Green Tree Center we like to have as much information as possible to assess your beauty and health needs,” she replies in soothing yet implacable tones.
I glance at my watch. Nine forty-five.
I don’t have time for this. I really do not have the time. But it’s my birthday treat and I promised my best friend, Freya.
To be more accurate, it’s last year’s birthday treat. Freya gave me the gift voucher for an “Ultimate De-stress Experience” just over a year ago. She’s my oldest school friend and is always on at me for working too hard. In the card that came with the voucher she wrote Make Some Time For Yourself, Samantha!!!
Which I did fully intend to do. But we had the Zincon Petrochemical Group restructuring and the Zeus Minerals merger . . . and somehow a year went by without my finding a spare moment. I’m a lawyer with Carter Spink. I work in the corporate department on the finance side, and just at the moment, things are pretty hectic with some big deals on. It’s a blip. It’ll get better. I just have to get through the next couple of weeks.
Anyway, then Freya sent me this year’s birthday card—and I suddenly realized the voucher was about to expire. So here I am, on my twenty-ninth birthday. Sitting on a couch in a white toweling robe and surreal paper knickers. With a half-day window. Max.
Do you smoke?
Do you drink alcohol?
Yes. The odd glass of wine.
Do you eat regular home-cooked meals?
What does that have to do with anything? What makes “home-cooked” meals superior?
I eat a nutritious, varied diet, I write at last.
Which is absolutely true.
Anyway, everyone knows the Chinese live longer than we do—so what could be more healthy than to eat their food? And pizza is Mediterranean. It’s probably more healthy than a home-cooked meal.
Do you feel your life is balanced?
“I’m done,” I announce, and hand the pages back to Maya, who starts reading through my answers. Her finger is traveling down the paper at a snail’s pace. Like we’ve got all the time in the world.
Which she may well have. But I seriously have to be back in the office by one.
Maya looks up, a thoughtful expression on her face. “You’re obviously quite a stressed-out woman.”
What? Where does she get that from? I specifically put on the form, I am not stressed-out.
“No, I’m not.” I hope Maya’s taking in my relaxed, see-how-unstressed-I-am smile. She looks unconvinced.
“Your job is obviously very pressured.”
“I thrive under pressure,” I explain. Which is true. I’ve known that about myself ever since . . .
Well. Ever since my mother told me, when I was about eight. You thrive under pressure, Samantha. Our whole family thrives under pressure. It’s like our family motto or something.
Apart from my brother Peter, of course. He had a nervous breakdown. But the rest of us.
I love my job. I love spotting the loophole in a contract. I love the thrill of negotiation, and arguing my case, and making the sharpest point in the room. I love the adrenaline rush of closing a deal.
I suppose just occasionally I do feel as though someone’s piling heavy weights on me. Like big concrete blocks, one on top of the other, and I have to keep holding them up, no matter how exhausted I am . . .
But then everyone probably feels like that. It’s normal.
“Your skin’s very dehydrated.” Maya is shaking her head. She runs an expert hand across my cheek and rests her fingers underneath my jaw, looking concerned. “Your heart rate’s very high. That’s not healthy. Are you feeling particularly tense?”
“Work’s pretty busy at the moment.” I shrug. “It’s just a blip. I’m fine.” Can we get on with it?
“Well.” Maya gets up. She presses a button set in the wall and gentle pan-pipe music fills the air. “All I can say is, you’ve come to the right place, Samantha. Our aim here is to de-stress, revitalize, and detoxify.”
“Lovely,” I say, only half listening. I’ve just remembered that I never got back to David Elldridge about the Ukrainian oil contract. I meant to call him yesterday. Shit.
“Our aim is to provide a haven of tranquility, away from all your day-to-day worries.” Maya presses another button in the wall, and the light dims to a muted glow. “Before we start,” she says softly, “do you have any questions?”
“Actually, I do.” I lean forward.
“Good!” She beams. “Are you curious about today’s treatments, or is it something more general?”
“Could I possibly send a quick e-mail?”
Maya’s smile freezes on her face.
“Just quickly,” I add. “It won’t take two secs—”
“Samantha, Samantha . . .” Maya shakes her head. “You’re here to relax. To take a moment for yourself. Not to send e-mails. E-mail’s an obsession! An addiction! As evil as alcohol. Or caffeine.”
For goodness sake, I’m not obsessed. I mean, that’s ridiculous. I check my e-mails about once every . . . thirty seconds, maybe.
The thing is, a lot can change in thirty seconds.
“And besides, Samantha,” Maya goes on. “Do you see a computer in this room?”
“No,” I reply, obediently looking around the dim little room, at posters of yoga positions and a wind chime and a row of crystals arranged on the windowsill.
“This is why we ask that you leave all electronic equipment in the safe. No mobile phones are permitted. No little computers.” Maya spreads her arms. “This is a retreat. An escape from the world.”
“Right.” I nod meekly.
Now is probably not the time to reveal that I have a BlackBerry hidden in my paper knickers.
“So, let’s begin.” Maya smiles. “Lie down, please, under a towel. And remove your watch.”
“I need my watch!”
“Another addiction.” She tsks reprovingly. “You don’t need to know the time while you’re here.”
She turns away, and with reluctance I take off my watch. Then, a little awkwardly, I arrange myself on the massage table, trying to avoid squashing my precious BlackBerry.
I did see the rule about no electronic equipment. And I did surrender my Dictaphone. But three hours without a BlackBerry? I mean, what if something came up at the office? What if there was an emergency?
If they really wanted people to relax, they would let them keep their BlackBerrys and mobile phones, not confiscate them.
Anyway, she’ll never see it under my towel.
“I’m going to begin with a relaxing foot rub,” says Maya, and I feel her smoothing some kind of lotion over my feet. “Try to clear your mind.”
I stare dutifully up at the ceiling. Clear mind. My mind is as clear as a transparent . . . glass . . .
What am I going to do about Elldridge? He’ll be waiting for a response. What if he tells the other partners I was lax? What if it affects my chances of partnership?
I feel a clench of alarm. Now is not the time to leave anything to chance.
“Try to let go of all your thoughts. . . .” Maya is chanting. “Feel the release of tension. . . .”
Maybe I could send him a very quick e-mail.
Surreptitiously I reach down and feel the hard corner of my BlackBerry. Gradually I inch it out of my paper knickers. Maya is still massaging my feet, totally oblivious.
“Your body is growing heavy . . . your mind should be emptying . . .”
I edge the BlackBerry up onto my chest until I can just see the screen underneath the towel. Thank goodness this room is so dim. Trying to keep my movements to a minimum, I furtively start typing an e-mail with one hand.
“Relaax . . .” Maya is saying in soothing tones. “Imagine you’re walking along a beach . . .”
“Uh-huh . . .” I murmur.
David, I’m typing. Re ZFN Oil contract. I read through amendments. Feel our response should be
“What are you doing?” says Maya, suddenly alert.
“Nothing!” I say, hastily shoving the BlackBerry back under the towel. “Just . . . er . . . relaxing.”
Maya comes round the couch and looks at the bump in the towel where I’m clutching the BlackBerry.
“Are you hiding something?” she says in disbelief.
From under the towel the BlackBerry emits a little bleep. Damn.
“I think that was a car,” I say, trying to sound casual. “Outside in the street.”
Maya’s eyes narrow.
“Samantha,” she says ominously. “Do you have a piece of electronic equipment under there?”
I have the feeling that if I don’t confess she’ll rip my towel off anyway.
“I was just sending an e-mail,” I say at last, and sheepishly produce the BlackBerry.
“You workaholics!” She grabs it out of my hand in exasperation. “E-mails can wait. It can all wait. You just don’t know how to relax!”
“I’m not a workaholic!” I retort indignantly. “I’m a lawyer! It’s different!”
“You’re in denial.” She shakes her head.
“I’m not! Look, we’ve got some big deals on at the firm. I can’t just switch off! Especially not right now. I’m . . . well, I’m up for partnership at the moment.”
As I say the words aloud I feel the familiar stabbing of nerves. Partner of one of the biggest law firms in the country. The only thing I’ve ever wanted, ever.
“I’m up for partnership,” I repeat, more calmly. “They make the decision tomorrow. If it happens, I’ll be the youngest partner in the history of the firm. Do you know how big a deal that is? Do you have any idea—”
“Anyone can take a couple of hours out,” interrupts Maya. She puts her hands on my shoulders. “Samantha, you’re incredibly nervy. Your shoulders are rigid, your heart’s racing . . . it seems to me you’re right on the edge.”
“You’re a bundle of jitters!”
“You have to decide to slow down, Samantha.” She looks at me earnestly. “Only you can decide to change your life. Are you going to do that?”
“Er . . . well . . .”
I stop with a squeak of surprise, as from inside my paper knickers there comes a judder.
My mobile phone. I shoved it in there along with the BlackBerry and turned it onto vibrate so it wouldn’t make a noise.
“What’s that?” Maya is gaping at my twitching towel. “What on earth is that . . . quivering?”
I can’t admit it’s a phone. Not after the BlackBerry.
“Erm . . .” I clear my throat. “It’s my special . . . er . . . love toy.”
“Your what?” Maya looks taken aback.
The phone judders inside my pants again. I have to answer. It might be the office.
“Um . . . you know, I’m reaching a bit of an intimate moment right now.” I give Maya a significant look. “Maybe you could . . . uh . . . leave the room?”
Suspicion snaps into Maya’s eyes.
“Wait a moment!” She peers again. “Is that a phone under there? You smuggled in a mobile phone as well?”
Oh, God. She looks furious.
“Look,” I say, trying to sound apologetic. “I know you’ve got your rules and everything, which I do respect, but the thing is, I need my mobile.” I reach under the towel for the phone.
“Leave it!” Maya’s cry takes me by surprise. “Samantha,” she says, making an obvious effort to keep calm. “If you’ve listened to a single word I’ve said . . . you’ll switch the phone off right now.”
The phone vibrates again in my hand. I look at the caller ID and feel a twist in my stomach. “It’s the office.”
“They can leave a message. They can wait.”
“This is your own time.” She leans forward and clasps my hands earnestly. “Your own time.”
She really doesn’t get it, does she? I almost want to laugh.
“I’m an associate at Carter Spink,” I explain. “I don’t have my own time.” I flip the phone open and an angry male voice bites down the line.
“Samantha, where the hell are you?”
It’s Ketterman. The head of our corporate department. He’s in his late forties and his first name is John, but no one ever calls him anything except Ketterman. He has black hair and steel glasses and gray gimlet eyes, and when I first arrived at Carter Spink I actually used to have nightmares about him.
“The Fallons deal is back on. Get back here now. Meeting at ten-thirty.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can.” I snap the phone shut and look ruefully at Maya. “Sorry.”
I’m not addicted to my watch.
But obviously I rely on it. You would too, if your time was measured in six-minute segments. For every six minutes of my working life, I’m supposed to bill a client. It all goes on a computerized time sheet, in itemized chunks.
11:00–11:06 drafted contract for Project A
11:06–11:12 amended documentation for Client B
11:12–11:18 consulted on point for Agreement C
When I first started at Carter Spink it freaked me out slightly, the idea that I had to write down what I was working on, every minute of the day. I used to think: What if I do nothing for six minutes? What am I supposed to write down then?
11:00–11:06 stared aimlessly out of window
11:06–11:12 daydreamed about bumping into George Clooney in street
11:12–11:18 attempted to touch nose with tongue
But if you’re a lawyer at Carter Spink, you don’t sit around. Not when every six minutes of your time is worth money. If I let six minutes of time tick away, I’ve lost the firm £50. Twelve minutes, £100. Eighteen minutes, £150. And the truth is, you get used to measuring your life in little chunks. And you get used to working. All the time.
As I arrive at the office, Ketterman is standing by my desk, looking with an expression of distaste at the mess of papers and files strewn everywhere.
Truthfully, I don’t have the most pristine desk in the world. In fact . . . it’s a bit of a shambles. But I am intending to tidy it up and sort out all the piles of old contracts on the floor. As soon as I have a moment.
“Meeting in ten minutes,” he says. “I want the draft financing documentation ready.”
“Absolutely,” I reply. Ketterman is unnerving at the best of times. He just emanates scary, brainy power. But today is a million times worse, because Ketterman is on the decision panel. Tomorrow morning at nine a.m., he and thirteen other partners are holding a big meeting to decide on which associates will become partners this year. All the candidates gave presentations last week to the panel, outlining what qualities and ideas we would bring to the firm. As I finished mine, I had no idea whether I’d impressed or not. Tomorrow, I’ll find out.
“The draft documentation is right here. . . .” I reach into a pile of folders and pull out what feels like a box file with an efficient flourish.
It’s the wrong one.
Hastily I put it down. “It’s definitely here somewhere. . . .” I scrabble frantically and locate the correct file. Thank God. “Here!”
“I don’t know how you can work in this shambles, Samantha.” Ketterman’s voice is thin and sarcastic.
“At least everything’s to hand!” I attempt a little joke, but Ketterman remains stony-faced. Flustered, I pull out my chair, and a pile of articles and old drafts falls in a shower to the floor.
“You know, the old rule was that desks were completely cleared every night by six.” Ketterman’s voice is steely. “Perhaps we should reintroduce it.”
“Samantha!” A genial voice interrupts us and I look round in relief to see Arnold Saville approaching along the corridor.
Arnold is my favorite of the senior partners. He’s got woolly gray hair that always seems a bit wild for a lawyer, and flamboyant taste in ties. Today he’s wearing a bright red paisley affair, with a matching handkerchief in his top pocket. He greets me with a broad smile, and at once I feel myself relax.
I’m sure Arnold’s the one who’s rooting for me to be made partner. Just as I’m equally sure Ketterman will be opposing it. I’ve already overheard Ketterman saying I’m very young to be made a partner, that there’s no rush. He’d probably have me pegging away as an associate for five more years. But Arnold’s always been on my side. He’s the maverick of the firm, the one who breaks the rules. For years he had a labrador, Stan, who lived under his desk, despite the complaints of the health and safety department. If anyone can lighten the atmosphere in a tricky meeting, it’s Arnold.
“Letter of appreciation about you, Samantha.” Arnold beams and holds out a sheet of paper. “From the chairman of Gleiman Brothers, no less.”
I take the cream vellum sheet in surprise and glance down at the handwritten note: . . . great esteem . . . her services always professional . . .
“I gather you saved him a few million pounds he wasn’t expecting.” Arnold twinkles. “He’s delighted.”
“Oh, yes.” I color slightly. “Well, it was nothing. I just noticed an anomaly in the way they were structuring their finances.”
“You obviously made a great impression on him.” Arnold raises his bushy eyebrows. “He wants you to work on all his deals from now. Excellent, Samantha! Very well done.”
“Er . . . thanks.” I glance at Ketterman, just to see if by any remote chance he might look impressed. But he’s still frowning impatiently.
“I also want you to deal with this.” Ketterman puts a file on my desk. “Marlowe and Co. are acquiring a retail park. I need a due diligence review in forty-eight hours.”
Oh, bloody hell. My heart sinks as I look at the heavy folder. It’ll take me hours to do this.
Ketterman’s always giving me extra bits of mundane work he can’t be bothered to do himself. In fact, all the partners do it. Even Arnold. Half the time they don’t even tell me, just dump the file on my desk with some illegible memo and expect me to get on with it.
And of course I do. In fact I always try to get it done just a bit faster than they were expecting.
“Of course not,” I say in a brisk, can-do, potential-partner voice. “See you at the meeting.”
As he stalks off I check my watch. Ten twenty-two. I have precisely eight minutes to make sure the draft documentation for the Fallons deal is all in order. Fallons is our client, a big multinational tourism company, and is acquiring the Smithleaf Hotel Group. I open the file and scan the pages swiftly, checking for errors, searching for gaps. I’ve learned to read a lot faster since I’ve been at Carter Spink.
In fact, I do everything faster. I walk faster, talk faster, eat faster . . . have sex faster . . .
Not that I’ve had much of that lately. But two years ago I dated a senior partner from Berry Forbes. His name was Jacob and he worked on huge international mergers, and he had even less time than I did. By the end, we’d honed our routine to about six minutes, which would have been quite handy if we were billing each other. (Obviously we weren’t.) He would make me come—and I would make him come. And then we’d check our e-mails.
Which is practically simultaneous orgasms. So no one can say that’s not good sex. I’ve read Cosmo; I know these things.
Anyway, then Jacob was made a huge offer and moved to Boston, so that was the end of it. I didn’t mind very much.
To be totally honest, I didn’t really fancy him.
“Samantha?” It’s my secretary, Maggie. She only started three weeks ago and I don’t know her very well yet. “You had a message while you were out. From Joanne?”
“Joanne from Clifford Chance?” I look up, my attention grabbed. “OK. Tell her I got the e-mail about clause four, and I’ll call her about it after lunch—”
“Not that Joanne,” Maggie interrupts. “Joanne your new cleaner. She wants to know where you keep your vacuum-cleaner bags.”
I look at her blankly. “My what?”
“Vacuum-cleaner bags,” repeats Maggie patiently. “She can’t find them.”
“Why does the vacuum cleaner need to go in a bag?” I say, puzzled. “Is she taking it somewhere?”
Maggie peers at me as though she thinks I must be joking. “The bags that go inside your vacuum cleaner,” she says carefully. “To collect the dust? Do you have any of those?”
“Oh!” I say quickly. “Oh, those bags. Er . . .”
I frown thoughtfully, as though the solution is on the tip of my tongue. The truth is, I can’t even visualize my vacuum cleaner. Where did I put it? I know it was delivered, because the porter signed for it.
“Maybe it’s a Dyson,” suggests Maggie. “They don’t take bags. Is it a cylinder or an upright?” She looks at me expectantly.
“I’ll sort it,” I say in a businesslike manner, and start gathering my papers together. “Thanks, Maggie.”
“She had another question.” Maggie consults her pad. “How do you switch on your oven?”
For a moment I continue gathering my papers. “Well. You turn the . . . er . . . knob,” I say at last, trying to sound nonchalant. “It’s pretty clear, really. . . .”
“She said it has some weird timer lock.” Maggie frowns. “Is it gas or electric?”
OK, I think I should terminate this conversation right now.
“Maggie, I really need to prepare for this meeting,” I say. “It’s in three minutes.”
“So what shall I tell your cleaner?” Maggie persists. “She’s waiting for me to call back.”
“Tell her to . . . leave it for today. I’ll sort it out.”
As Maggie leaves my office I reach for a pen and memo pad.
1. How switch on oven?
2. Vacuum-cleaner bags—buy
I put the pen down and massage my forehead. I really don’t have time for this. I mean, vacuum bags. I don’t even know what they look like, for God’s sake, let alone where to buy them—
A sudden brain wave hits me. I’ll order a new vacuum cleaner. That’ll come with a bag already installed, surely.
“What? What is it?” I give a startled jump and open my eyes. Guy Ashby is standing at my door.
Guy is my best friend in the firm. He’s six foot three with olive skin and dark eyes, and normally he looks every inch the smooth, polished lawyer. But this morning his dark hair is rumpled and there are shadows under his eyes.
“Relax.” Guy smiles. “Only me. Coming to the meeting?”
He has the most devastating smile. It’s not just me; everyone noticed it the minute he arrived at the firm.
“Oh. Er . . . yes, I am.” I pick up my papers, then add carelessly, “Are you OK, Guy? You look a bit rough.”
He broke up with his girlfriend. They had bitter rows all night and she’s walked off for good. . . .
No, she’s emigrated to New Zealand. . . .
“All-nighter,” he says, wincing. “Fucking Ketterman. He’s inhuman.” He yawns widely, showing the perfect white teeth he had fixed when he was at Harvard Law School.
He says it wasn’t his choice. Apparently they don’t let you graduate until you’ve been OK’d by the cosmetic surgeon.
“Bummer.” I grin in sympathy, then push back my chair. “Let’s go.”
I’ve known Guy for a year, ever since he joined the corporate department as a partner. He’s intelligent and funny, and works the same way I do, and we just somehow . . . click.
And yes. It’s possible that some kind of romance would have happened between us if things had been different. But there was a stupid misunderstanding, and . . .
Anyway. It didn’t. The details aren’t important. It’s not something I dwell on. We’re friends—and that’s fine by me.
OK, this is exactly what happened.
Apparently Guy noticed me his first day at the firm, just like I noticed him. And he was interested. He asked Nigel MacDermot, who had the next-door office to him, if I was single. Which I was.
This is the crucial part: I was single. I’d just split up with Jacob. But Nigel MacDermot—who is a stupid, stupid, thoughtless behind-the-times moron—told Guy I was attached to a senior partner at Berry Forbes.
Even though I was single.
If you ask me, the system is majorly flawed. It should be clearer. People should have engaged signs, like toilets. Taken. Not-Taken. There should be no ambiguity about these things.
Anyway, I didn’t have a sign. Or if I did, it was the wrong one. There were a slightly embarrassing few weeks where I smiled a lot at Guy—and he looked awkward and started avoiding me, because he didn’t want to a) break up a relationship or b) have a threesome with me and Jacob.
I didn’t understand what was going on, so I backed off. Then I heard through the grapevine he’d started going out with a girl called Charlotte who he’d met at some weekend party. They live together now. A month or two later we worked together on a deal, and got to know each other as friends—and that’s pretty much the whole story.
I mean, it’s fine. Really. That’s the way it goes. Some things happen—and some things don’t. This one obviously just wasn’t meant to be.
Except deep down . . . I still believe it was.
“So,” says Guy as we walk along the corridor to the meeting room. “What was Ketterman in your room for earlier?”
“Oh, the usual. A due diligence report. Have it back by yesterday, that kind of thing. Like I’m not snowed under already.”
“Everyone wants you to do their work for them, that’s why,” says Guy. He shoots me a concerned look. “You want to delegate anything? I could speak to Ketterman—”
“No, thanks,” I reply at once. “I can do it.”
“You don’t want anyone to help.” He sounds amused. “You’d rather die, smothered by a heap of due diligence files.”
“Like you’re not the same!” I retort.
Guy hates admitting defeat or asking for help as much as I do. Last year he sprained his leg in a skiing accident and point-blank refused to use the crutch that the firm’s doctor gave him. His secretary kept running after him with it down corridors, but he’d just tell her to take it away and use it as a coat stand.
“Well, you’ll be calling the shots soon. When you’re a partner.” He cocks an eyebrow.
“Don’t say that!” I hiss in horror. He’ll jinx it.
“Come on. You know you’ve made it.”
“I don’t know anything.”
“Samantha, you’re the brightest lawyer in your year. And you work the hardest. What’s your IQ again, six hundred?”
Guy laughs. “What’s one twenty-four times seventy-five?”
“Nine thousand, three hundred,” I say grudgingly.
Since I was about ten years old, I’ve been able to do big sums in my head. God knows why, I just can. And everyone else just goes, “Oh cool,” and then forgets about it.
But Guy keeps on about it, pitching sums at me like I’m a circus performer. This is the one thing that irritates me about him. He thinks it’s funny, but it actually gets a bit annoying. I still haven’t quite worked out how to get him to stop.
Once I told him the wrong number on purpose—but that time it turned out he actually needed the answer, and he put it in a contract and the deal nearly got wrecked as a result. So I haven’t done that again.
“You haven’t practiced in the mirror for the firm’s Web site?” Guy adopts a pose with his finger poised thoughtfully at his chin. “Ms. Samantha Sweeting, Partner.”
“I haven’t even thought about it,” I say, feigning indifference.
This is a slight lie. I’ve already planned how to do my hair for the photo. And which of my black suits to wear.
“I heard your presentation blew their socks off,” says Guy more seriously.
My indifference vanishes in a second. “Really?” I say, trying not to sound too eager for praise. “You heard that?”
“And you put William Griffiths right on a point of law in front of everybody.” Guy folds his arms and regards me humorously. “Do you ever make a mistake, Samantha Sweeting?”
“Oh, I make plenty of mistakes,” I say lightly. “Believe me.”
Like not grabbing you and telling you I was single, the very first day we met.
“A mistake isn’t a mistake.” Guy pauses. “Unless it can’t be put right.” As he says the words, his eyes seem to hold an extra significance.
Or else they’re just squiffy after his night of no sleep. I was never any good at reading the signs.
I should have done a degree in mutual attraction, instead of law. It would have been a lot more useful. Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Knowing When Men Fancy You And When They’re Just Being Friendly.
“Ready?” Ketterman’s whiplash voice behind us makes us both jump, and we turn to see a whole phalanx of soberly suited men, together with a pair of even more soberly suited women.
“Absolutely.” Guy nods at Ketterman, then turns back and winks at me.
Nine hours later we’re all still in the meeting.
The huge mahogany table is strewn with photocopied draft contracts, financial reports, notepads covered in scribbles, polystyrene coffee cups, and Post-its. Take-out boxes from lunch are littering the floor. A secretary is distributing fresh copies of the draft agreement. Two of the lawyers from the opposition have got up from the table and are murmuring intently in the breakout room. Every meeting room has one of these: a little side area where you go for private conversations, or when you feel like breaking something.
The intensity of the afternoon has passed. It’s like an ebb in the tide. Faces are flushed, tempers are still high, but no one’s shouting anymore. The Fallons and Smithleaf people have gone. They reached agreement on various points at about four o’clock, shook hands, and sailed off in their shiny limos.
Now it’s up to us, the lawyers, to work out what they said and what they actually meant (and if you think it’s the same thing, you might as well give up law now) and put it all into a draft contract in time for more negotiations.
When they’ll probably begin shouting some more.
I rub my dry face and take a gulp of cappuccino before realizing I’ve picked up the wrong cup—the stone-cold cup from four hours ago. Yuck. Yuck. And I can’t exactly spit it out all over the table.
I swallow the revolting mouthful with an inward shudder. The fluorescent lights are flickering in my eyes and I feel drained. My role in all of these megadeals is on the finance side—so it was me who negotiated the loan agreement between Fallons and PGNI Bank. It was me who rescued the situation when a £10-million black hole of debt turned up in a subsidiary company. And it was me who spent about three hours this afternoon arguing one single, stupid term in the contract.
The term was best endeavors. The other side wanted to use reasonable efforts. In the end we won the point—but I can’t feel my usual triumph. All I know is, it’s seven-nineteen, and in eleven minutes I’m supposed to be halfway across town, sitting down to dinner at Maxim’s with my mother and brother Daniel.
I’ll have to cancel. My own birthday dinner.
Even as I think the thought, I can hear the outraged voice of Freya ringing in my mind.
They can’t make you stay at work on your birthday!
I canceled on her too, last week, when we were supposed to be going to a comedy club. A company sell-off was due to complete the next morning and I didn’t have any choice.
What she doesn’t understand is, the deadline comes first, end of story. Prior engagements don’t count; birthdays don’t count. Vacations are canceled every week. Across the table from me is Clive Sutherland from the corporate department. His wife had twins this morning and he was back at the table by lunchtime.
“All right, people.” Ketterman’s voice commands immediate attention.
Ketterman is the only one here who isn’t red-faced or weary-looking or even jaded. He looks as machinelike as ever, as polished as he did this morning. When he gets angry, he just exudes a silent, steely fury.
“We have to adjourn.”
What? My head pops up.
Other heads have popped up too; I can detect the hope around the table. We’re like schoolkids sensing a disturbance during the math test, not daring to move in case we land a double detention.
“Until we have the due diligence documentation from Fallons, we can’t proceed. I’ll see you all tomorrow, here at nine a.m.” He sweeps out, and as the door closes, I exhale. I was holding my breath, I realize.
Clive has already bolted for the door. People are on their mobile phones all over the room, discussing dinner, films, uncanceling previous arrangements. There’s a joyful lift to the proceedings. I have a sudden urge to yell “Yay!”
But that wouldn’t be partnerlike.
I gather up my papers, stuff them into my briefcase, and push back my chair.
“Samantha. I forgot.” Guy is making his way across the room. “I have something for you.”
From the Hardcover edition.