Leaving her dead-end job to pursue a career in event management, Stevie Winfield is determined to prove that she can make it on her own. Life is going to be a ball—and Stevie’s going to organize it. On her first assignment, a charity soirée at a manor in Oxford, she has plenty to think about without Tom Blackwood showing up. The client’s son also happens to be Stevie’s old teenage crush.
These days, Tom is pushing himself to become the success his mother wants. When he learns that a friend’s sister, “poor needy little Stevie,” is in charge of his mother’s event, he dashes home to ward off disaster. But Stevie isn’t so needy anymore. She’s grown into a sexy, self-assured young woman. And while she isn’t about to let anyone get in the way of her dream, she just might have time to plan a party for two . . .
Shortlisted for the 2017 Romantic Comedy Award from the Romantic Novelists’ Association, Girl Having a Ball is the second in Rhoda Baxter’s Smart Girls series.
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Stevie had to knock twice before she heard footsteps approaching. Marsh opened the door, wearing an apron.
'Stevie!' He stepped aside to let her through. 'You're early.'
'I thought I'd come straight here from work. Is that okay?' It felt like ages since she'd last seen him. He seemed older. Peering at him she decided there was a smattering of grey appearing in his thick brown hair. It made him look a bit more like their father.
She thrust the bottle of wine at him. 'I got you this.'
'Thanks.' He took the bottle and gave her a curious look. 'How are you? Are you all right?'
She nodded, no longer sure how to greet her brother. They had once known everything about each other, but since he'd got married things were ... different. At first it had been okay. They had spoken regularly and Stevie visited often, even helping with the redecorating. But lately, Marsh seemed more and more distant. When she did manage to speak to him, he seemed distracted.
'Don't I get a hug?'
Stevie threw her arms around him and squeezed.
'Are you sure you're okay?' Marsh hugged her back. 'You look a little sad.'
She wanted to howl 'I miss you. I miss the flat. I miss being able to call you whenever I want. I miss you being all mine.' But instead, she said, 'I hate my crappy job. That's all.'
'No luck with any of the applications then.' He released her and ushered her towards the kitchen. 'Come through and tell us about it. I've got to check on the oven.'
The kitchen was part of the new extension and was lovely and airy. The summer sun poured in through skylights, giving everything a warm glow. Pans simmered on the Rayburn. At the far end, Jane was arranging a salad. She looked up when Stevie and Marsh entered. 'Hi Stevie.'
Jane's appearance made Stevie do a quick double take. Even though she was a little skinny, Jane had always been beautiful and healthy. Now she looked wan and tired. There were bluish shadows under her eyes and her cheekbones were more prominent. She was wearing a loose cotton shirt, which, Stevie was sure, hid more signs of lost weight.
'Oh my God. Are you okay?' The words were out before Stevie had time to censor them.
Jane cast a quick glance at Marsh. 'I'm fine,' she said. 'I've just been a little ... poorly of late.'
Stevie glanced at Marsh, who was busying himself at the oven. She knew him well enough to know when he was avoiding eye contact. Something was going on. If Jane was ill, that would explain why Marsh was so preoccupied, but then, why hadn't he mentioned it? She turned back to Jane. 'Is it something serious?' she asked, pulling out a chair and sitting down, just in case it was.
Jane looked surprised. 'No, nothing bad.' She laughed. 'Why? Do I really look that awful?'
There was nothing forced about Jane's laugh, which made Stevie relax a little. 'Oh no, you look fine. Just tired. And pale.'
Jane nodded. 'That sounds about right. I'm a little anaemic.' She tapped the side of the salad bowl. 'I think this is done. I'll just take it to the dining room.'
Once Jane had left, Stevie turned her attention to Marsh. 'What's going on?' she whispered. 'Is Jane okay? She really doesn't look well.'
Marsh's eyes darted to the doorway where Jane had disappeared. 'Don't worry. She'll be fine in a few weeks.' He looked as though he wanted to say more, but Jane returned.
'Stevie, why don't you tell us what's going on with you?' she said. 'Do you want a cup of tea? Or wine?'
'I'll get it,' said Marsh. 'You sit down.'
'Thank you my love.' Jane slipped into a chair. She turned her attention to Stevie. 'So, how's the job hunting?'
Stevie sighed. 'Lousy. It's horrible. There's no one hiring in the events management sector. They're not even offering work experience.'
'I can imagine,' said Jane. 'Most places are cutting back on entertaining at the moment, I guess. Our firm isn't having their usual summer client party thing this year, are they?' she said to Marsh.
'Nope,' he replied, apparently too busy with what he was doing to elaborate.
'Have you spoken to Louise?' asked Jane. 'She might need an assistant. You've worked for her before, haven't you?'
Stevie propped her elbows on the table and put her chin in her hands. 'Yeah. I've asked. She can't afford one.'
Marsh put a glass of wine in front of Stevie.
Stevie took a sip and felt the liquid warm her mouth. 'I'm so fed up, I'd do it for free, to be honest, just to get out of the shitty envelope opening job I'm in.'
Marsh handed a hot drink to Jane and dropped into a chair next to her. 'Is that a good idea? How are you doing for money?' He leaned forward, his forehead furrowed.
Stevie laughed. This was familiar territory. Until last year, Marsh had managed her trust fund. Just her rotten luck that the year that she'd finally turned twenty-one and gained control of her inheritance, the stock market should collapse, leaving her with much less money than she'd been expecting.
'I'm making enough to buy food and pay the council tax,' she said. 'But only just.'
Marsh frowned. 'Perhaps you should think about an alternative career. You know, something that pays a little better. You could —'
Stevie rolled her eyes. 'Marsh, we've been through this. I'm going to spend a year trying to get into the event management thing and then
I'll have a rethink. You agreed that would be no worse than taking a gap year like all my friends did.'
'Besides,' Jane cut in, 'it's nice to give your dreams a chance. You never know where it might take you.' She smiled. 'Life is so much more pleasant if you're doing something you love.'
Marsh smiled at his wife. He picked up her hand and laid a kiss on the back of it. There was such intimacy in the gesture that Stevie had to look away.
'I suppose you're right,' said Marsh. He turned to his sister. 'But only a year, right? You don't want to be drifting for ages and suddenly find you're thirty.'
'Oh Marsh, stop being such a fuddy duddy!' said Stevie. 'I'm not totally stupid.'
'I never said you were,' said Marsh, falling into the pattern of their regular argument. 'But you do —'
He was interrupted by someone rapping on the door. 'Oh no.' He jumped to his feet. 'That'll be Louise and Jim. Dinner's nowhere near ready.'
Jane started to stand, but Stevie beat her to it. 'I'll get it,' she said. She sped for the door, leaving Jane to calm Marsh down.
Dinner was fun. When Marsh had first become Stevie's guardian he had been just twenty-one and at university. For a short time, Stevie had moved into his student house, which he'd shared with some friends, including Jim and Louise. Louise had been particularly kind to Stevie and the two of them remained firm friends, even after Marsh used the money his parents left him to buy a flat where he and Stevie could live.
Louise had left working for a successful event organising company to set up on her own, just before the credit crunch hit. Stevie had worked for her one summer. Inevitably, the conversation turned to work.
'It's so unbelievably boring,' said Stevie. 'I'm folding paper all day. I can feel my brain dying by degrees.' She took a big sip of wine. 'To make things worse, there's this horrible man who's worked there since he was sixteen who keeps asking me out. When he finally got the message that I wasn't playing hard to get and really wasn't interested, he told everyone that I asked him out and he turned me down.'
Louise looked uncomfortable. 'I wish I could help you,' she said. 'I really do. But I really can't afford an assistant right now. All I can offer is a good reference.'
'Mind you,' said Jim. 'You're good enough that you've had to turn people down.' Tall, ginger-haired and jovial, Jim was a patent agent in the same firm as Marsh and Jane.
Stevie raised her eyebrows.
'It was a charity job in Oxford,' Louise explained, giving her husband an annoyed glance. 'It was too far away and not enough money.'
Stevie nodded. No sense in working for nothing. 'I'll keep looking until my year is up and then I'll take whatever boring job I can get.' She fixed her eyes on Louise. 'I've got a good chance of making it work, Lou, haven't I?'
Louise nodded. 'It's a very competitive environment at the moment. It's hard to make a name for yourself.'
There was a pause. Marsh frowned.
'Shall we have dessert?' Jane asked.
'I'll get it.' Marsh laid a hand on his wife's arm. 'You sit down.'
'Why don't you get another bottle of wine?' Jane nodded towards Jim's empty glass. She herself had been drinking fruit juice all evening. They disappeared into the kitchen together. Everyone else watched them leave.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Stevie leaned towards Louise. 'Do you think something's wrong with Jane? She looks awful.'
'She does,' said Louise. 'And, she was drinking fruit juice all evening ...'
'It's not anything serious, like cancer. I asked Marsh.' Louise stared at her. 'Cancer?'
'It's not that. Marsh said ...' Stevie stopped. Louise was grinning at her. 'What?'
'There might be another explanation,' said Louise. 'She's looking ill, she's not drinking ...' She nodded expectantly at Stevie, prompting her to make a connection.
Before Stevie could answer, Jane and Marsh returned. Jane carrying a bottle of champagne and Marsh a large dish of crumble.
'We were just commenting,' said Louise, giving Stevie a meaningful glance, 'that Jane's looking a bit pale. Is everything okay?'
Marsh put the crumble down and went over to stand next to his wife. 'Actually,' he said. 'We've got something to tell you.'
Jane grinned. 'We're having a baby.'
Louise and Jim were on their feet at once, hugging and kissing the expectant parents. For a moment, Stevie was unable to move. Marsh was going to be a father. It had been hard enough when he'd found a wife. She already felt the space between them growing as he became more and more a husband, and less and less her brother. How much worse would it be with a child? Looking up, she saw Marsh watching her. She forced a smile and stood up. 'Congratulations.' She gave him a hug. She struggled for something more to say, but couldn't think of anything. So she gave Jane a gentle hug and a kiss instead and returned to her seat.
'How far along are you?' asked Louise. She was a mother of three and expert on pregnancy.
'Twelve weeks,' said Jane. 'We had our scan yesterday.' Twelve weeks. The words clanged into Stevie's heart. Three months. Marsh had known about this huge change in their lives for three whole months and not told her. There was once a time when she would have been the first to know about anything that went on in his life, just as he would of hers. Three whole months. No wonder he'd sounded like he was avoiding her. It was because he had been.
Stevie gulped down a mouthful of wine. She knew she would lose her brother to other people eventually. But she hadn't been prepared for it to happen so quickly or for the separation to feel so complete.
Eventually, they got round to eating the crumble, but Stevie didn't really taste it. Inside her, long buried feelings were clawing their way to the surface. She couldn't bring herself to look at Marsh. She focused on her wine glass instead, drinking far more than she should.
As everyone helped clear up, Stevie found Marsh taking her elbow and steering her into the living room.
'Stevie,' he said.
She forced her head up to meet his eyes. 'Marsh.'
'Are you okay?'
'Never better,' she said, flatly. 'My brother's going to be a daddy ...' She tried to beam at him, but her face wouldn't obey. She rubbed her forehead and sighed. 'Although, I'd have expected to know about it a little sooner.'
For a moment Marsh didn't say anything. 'I'm sorry. It's been really difficult. Jane's been so ill and she had a lot of bleeding and we weren't sure the pregnancy was going to hold.'
'And you thought it was better not to tell me? And what if something had gone wrong? Didn't you think I might want to know what was upsetting you? I know I'm not the world's most brilliant person, but I'm family. We used to tell each other everything,
Marsh gave her a small smile. 'Well, not everything.'
Somehow him trying to make a joke of it, made it worse. The anger that she had been trying to keep at bay boiled up. Stevie shook her arm free from his grip. 'Three months! And I had to find out the same time as Louise and Jim. Three. Months.'
'Stevie, we didn't tell anyone. You're the first people we told.'
'What about Jane's family? I bet you told her mother.'
His silence told her everything she needed to know.
'Congratulations, Marsh. I'm sure you'll make a great dad.' She turned and headed towards the hallway.
'Stevie, where are you going?'
He took hold of her arm and looked as if he was about to object, but changed his mind. 'Let me call you a taxi. You're too drunk to walk home alone.'
'I don't need a taxi.' She picked up her jacket. 'I can look after myself.' She tried to put her arm into a sleeve and missed.
Marsh shook his head. 'You're overreacting.' He held the jacket for her so that she could shrug it on.
Stevie spun round and nearly fell over. 'Am I? I don't think I am. You think about it. If it had been the other way around, how would you feel?'
'I said I was sorry, Stevie. It's ...'
Stevie stopped him with an upraised hand. 'Save it for someone who cares.' She opened the door and lurched out.
'Stevie.' He followed her out and took her arm. With his free hand he used his phone to order a taxi. 'Sit.'
Stevie sank onto the concrete steps. Marsh sat beside her. She turned her back to him.
'I'm not going to try and reason with you when you're in this sort of mood,' said Marsh, speaking to the back of her head. 'I'll come see you tomorrow, when you're sober.' Stevie said nothing. They sat there in silence until the taxi arrived.
Stevie slit open another envelope with the letter opener. Her eyes scanned for the name of the client and she stapled and tossed the papers into the correct pile without engaging her brain. She'd been at work for four hours and had lost the will to live about three hours and fifty-five minutes ago. Her head hurt from the night before and her anger with Marsh was simmering away inside her. How could he keep something so important from her? Okay, Marsh loved his wife and wanted to spend time with her, but he would never keep secrets from Stevie. Not without prompting. At least, he wouldn't have before. The world was different now. She gutted another envelope and wrenched the letter out.
A movement at the edge of her vision made her jump. She turned to find Gloria, the line supervisor, standing just behind her shoulder. Gloria reached across, hooked the last letter with a red painted nail and checked that it was in the correct pile. It was. There was a slight tightening of the over-glossed lips.
Stevie pulled her earphones out. 'Can I help you?' she said, as sweetly as she could manage.
Gloria's eyes narrowed while she tried to figure out if Stevie was insulting her. 'Lunch break.'
'That's great. Thank you.' Stevie smiled an insincere smile and popped the finger protectors off. 'I appreciate the personal service.'
The line manager tapped her clipboard. 'One hour,' she said.
In a bid to cheer herself up, Stevie splashed out cash she didn't have on sushi and a magazine. When she returned to the lunchroom there was already a group having their lunch, discussing Dragon's Den. Stevie sat at the other end of the table, where the Formica had chipped off in a large triangle, and turned her music up to drown out the conversation. She loved Dragon's Den. She and Marsh used to watch it together.
She squeezed the lemon over her sushi and gasped as the lemon juice stung a paper cut on her finger. That would teach her to take her thimble off in a fit of misguided rebellion. She stuck the fingertip in her mouth to suck the lemon off. There was a collective snigger from the men at the other end of the room. She rolled her eyes. This job was beyond awful. If only she had something else to go to, she'd walk out of there in a minute.
Something chimed in the back of her mind. She tried to think back to the conversation before Marsh's announcement. There had been something else. Something Louise had said about a job in Oxford that she'd turned down. If she could just get one job, it would be a start. She picked up her phone and sent off an email.
Excerpted from "Girl Having a Ball"
Copyright © 2016 Rhoda Baxter.
Excerpted by permission of Choc Lit Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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