Laura Foster is a hopeless romantic. Her friends know it, her parents know it—even Laura acknowledges she lives either with her head in the clouds or buried in a romance novel. It’s proved harmless enough, even if it hasn’t delivered her a real-life dashing hero yet. But when her latest relationship ends in a disaster that costs her friendships, her job, and nearly her sanity, Laura swears off men and hopeless romantic fantasies for good.
With her life in tatters around her, Laura agrees to go on vacation with her parents. After a few days of visiting craft shops and touring the stately homes of England, Laura is ready to tear her hair out. And then, while visiting grand Chartley Hall, she crosses paths with Nick, the sexy, rugged estate manager. She finds she shares more than a sense of humor with him—in fact, she starts to think she could fall for him. But is Nick all he seems? Or has Laura got it wrong again? Will she open her heart only to have it broken again?
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Laura Foster was a hopeless romantic. Her best friend, Jo, said it was her greatest flaw, and at the same time her most endearing trait, because it was the thing that most frequently got her into trouble, and yet falling in love was like a drug to her. Having a crush, daydreaming about someone, feeling her heart race when she saw a certain man walk toward her she thrived on all of it, and was disastrously, helplessly, hopelessly incapable of seeing when it was wrong. Everyone has a blind spot. With Laura, it was as if she had a blind heart.
Anyone with a less romantic upbringing would be hard to find. She wasn't a runaway nun, or the daughter of an Italian count, or a mysterious orphan. She was the daughter of George and Angela Foster, of Harrow, in the suburbs of London. She had one younger brother, Simon, who was perfectly normal, not a secret duke, or a spy, or a soldier. George was a computer engineer, and Angela was a part-time translator. As Jo once said to her, about a year after they met at university, "Laura, why do you go around pretending to be Julie Andrews, when you're actually Hyacinth Bucket?"
But Laura never allowed reality to get in the way of fantasy. By the time she was eighteen, she had fallen for: a runny-nosed, milk-bottle-glasses-wearing, primary-school outcast called Kevin (in her mind, Indiana Jones with glasses); her oboe teacher, Mr. Wallace, a thin, spotty youth, over whom she developed a raging obsession and calluses on her fingers, so ferociously did she practice; and about fifteen different boys at the boys' school around the corner from hers in Harrow.
When she went to university, the scope was even greater, the potential for romance limitless. She wasn't interested in a random pickup at a club. No, Laura wanted someone to stand underneath her window and recite poetry to her. She was almost always disappointed. There was Gideon, the budding theater director who hadn't quite come out of the closet. Juan, the Colombian student who spoke no English. And the rowing captain who was much more obsessed with the treadmill at the gym than with her; her dentist, who charged her far too much and then made her pay for dinner; and the lecturer in her humanities seminar whom she never spoke to, and who didn't know her name, whom she wasted two terms staring at in a heartfelt manner.
For all of these, Laura followed the same pattern. She stopped eating, she mooned around, she was acutely conscious of where they were in any room, thought she saw them around every corner was that the back of his curly head going into the newsagents? She became a big, dumb idiot whenever any of them spoke to her; so fairly often they walked away, bemused that this nice girl with dark blond hair, a sweet smile, and a dirty laugh who'd seemed to like them then behaved like a tourist in a strange land, eyes downcast, virtually mute. Or they'd ask her out and then Laura, for her part, usually came tumbling down to earth with a bang when she realized they weren't perfect, weren't this demigod she'd turned them into in her mind. It wasn't that she was particularly picky, either. She was just a really bad picker.
She believed in The One. And every man she met, for the first five minutes, two weeks, four months, had the potential in her eyes to be The One until she reluctantly realized he was gay (Gideon from the Drama Society), psychopathic (Adam, her boyfriend for several months, who eventually gave up on his MA in the Romantic poets and joined the Special Air Service to become a killing machine), against the law (Juan, the illegal immigrant from Colombia), or Josh (her most recent boyfriend, whom she'd met at a volunteer reading program seminar at work she worked for the local council decided was The One after five minutes, and dated for over a year, before realizing that, really, all they had in common was a love of local council literacy initiatives).
It's fine for girls to grow up believing in something like The One; but the generally received wisdom by the time Laura was out of university, as she moved into her midtwenties, as her friends started to settle down, was that it didn't really exist well, it did, but with variations. Not for Laura. She was going to wait till she found him. To her flatmate and childhood friend Yorky's complaints that he was sick of sharing his flat with a lovesick teenager all the time, as well as a succession of totally disparate, odd men, Laura said firmly that he was being mean and judgmental. To Jo's pragmatic suggestions that she should join a dating agency, or simply ask out that bloke over there, Laura said no. It would happen the way she wanted it to happen, she said you couldn't force it. And that would be it until five minutes later when a waiter in a restaurant would smile at her, and Laura would gaze happily up at him, imagining herself and him moving back to Italy, opening a small café in a market square, having lots of beautiful babies called Francesca and Giacomo. Jo could only shake her head at this, as Laura laughed with her, aware of how hopeless she was, compared to her pragmatic, realistic best friend.
Until, one evening about eighteen months ago, Jo came round to supper at Yorky and Laura's flat. She was very quiet; Laura often worried that Jo worked too hard. As Laura was trying to digest a mouthful of chickpeas that Yorky had marvelously undercooked, trying not to choke on them, Jo wiped her mouth with a piece of paper towel and looked up.
Laura looked at her suspiciously. Jo's eyes were sparkling, her heart-shaped little face was flushed, and she leaned across the table and said, "I've met someone."
"Where?" Yorky had said stupidly.
But Laura understood what that statement meant, of course she did, and she said, "Who is he?"
"He's called Chris," Jo said, and she smiled, rather girlishly, which was even more unusual for her. "I met him at work." Jo was a real estate solicitor. "He was buying a house. He yelled at me."
And then and this was when Laura realized it was serious Jo twisted a tendril of her hair and then put it in her mouth. Since this was a breach of social behavior in Jo's eyes tantamount to not sending a thank-you card after a dinner party, Laura put her hand out across the table and said, "Wow! How exciting."
"I know," said Jo, unable to stop herself smiling. "I know!"
Laura knew, as she looked at Jo, she just knew, she didn't know why. Here was someone in love, who had found The One, and that was all there was to it.
Chris and Jo moved into the house she'd helped him buy after six months; four months after that, he proposed. The following December, a couple of weeks before Christmas, he and Jo were to be married, in a London hotel. Jo had eschewed grown-up bridesmaids, saying they were deeply, humiliatingly tacky, much to Laura's disappointment she was rather looking forward to donning a nice dress, and sharing with her best friend the happiest day of her life. Instead, she was going to be best woman, and Yorky an usher.
It seemed as if Jo and Chris had been together forever, and Laura could barely remember when he hadn't been on the scene. He fitted right in, with his North London pub ways, his easy, uncomplicated personality, so laid-back and friendly compared to Jo's dry, rather controlled outlook on life. He had friends who lived nearby some lovely friends. They were all a gang now, him and Jo, his friends, Yorky and Laura, sometimes Laura's brother, Simon, when he wasn't off somewhere being worthy and making girls swoon (where Laura was always falling in love, Simon was always falling into bed with a complete stranger, usually by dint of lulling her into a false sense of security by telling her he worked for a charity). And Hilary, also from university and christened Scary Hilary because she was and her brother, Hamish, their other friends from work or university, and so on. Laura's easy, happy, uncomplicated life went on its way. She had a brief, intense affair with a playwright she thought was very possibly the new John Osborne, until Yorky pointed out that he was, in fact, just an idiot who liked shouting a lot. Yorky grew a mustache for the autumn. Laura got a raise at work. They bought a PlayStation to celebrate games for him, karaoke for her. Yes, everything was well within its usual frame, except that Laura began to feel, more and more, as she looked at Jo and Chris so in love and looked at the landscape of her own dull life, that she was taking the path of least resistance, that her world was small and pathetic compared to Jo's. That she was missing out on what she most wanted in the world.
Under these circumstances, it was hardly surprising that the next time Laura fell, she fell hard. Because one day, quite without meaning to, she woke up, got dressed, and went to work, and everything was normal, and by the next day, she had fallen in love again. But this time, she knew it was for real. And that was when everything started to go wrong.
Copyright © 2006 by Harriet Evans