About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Laura Lake, deputy editor of Society magazine, returned to her desk after the daily features meeting. She felt as if she had done ten rounds with Floyd Mayweather. Glancing round at her colleagues as they slunk back to their workstations, she could tell that they felt the same.
Raisy and Daisy, the interchangeable blonde sisters who shared the job of fashion director, were looking particularly crushed. Their ideas about furry lederhosen had not got past first base, still less their suggestions for directional glittery clogs. Raisy (whose name was actually Rosie, but it had taken Laura some time to realise), was dabbing at her eyes with a sequinned Chanel hanky. The fine dark brows of Thomasella the food editor were angrily drawn as well. Her contention that Bronze Age party food – i.e. Ritz crackers and cheese hedgehogs – was back had been thrown on the same pile as the lederhosen.
Admittedly Carinthia, Society's mercurial editor and Laura's boss, had always been demanding. 'The Gaze', her famous death stare, had always had the power to reduce her staff to rubble. This was all the more remarkable given that none of them could actually see it. The opaque black sunglasses Carinthia habitually wore were, alongside those of Anna Wintour of American Vogue, the most terrifying eyewear in journalism.
But people had respected this ruthlessness. Carinthia, they knew, demanded the best. Only the cleverest ideas made the cut, which was why the magazine was so successful. Those not equal to this quest for perfection could be summarily fired, like the style editor who had said neon-pink- sprayed midges were summer's smart garden accessory.
But of late Carinthia's demands had taken on a new, lunatic edge. Staff had been told to position their chairs exactly eight centimetres from their desk edge whether or not they were sitting in them and never, upon pain of death, hang anything on the backs. Untidy desks were photographed, named and shamed, including Laura's. Especially Laura's, the untidiest in the office.
More bizarrely still, according to Demelza, Carinthia's long-suffering PA, the editor had recently started consulting an astrologer. 'She goes up to her roof and sits under a blue plastic pyramid,' Demelza confided. 'Then she's told which days are to be avoided.'
Demelza had shown Laura the diary. Days to be avoided had been blacked out, and Carinthia didn't come in on them. There had been many black days lately, leaving Laura running the ship. While Laura enjoyed being in charge, and things tended to go more smoothly when she was, it was irritating to have the editor come back and take credit for her efforts. Or, worse, change her arrangements and cancel the features she had commissioned.
But there was one feature Carinthia would not be cancelling. One that had survived the recent meeting unscathed. Laura's coming interview with Savannah Bouche, the vastly famous and stunningly beautiful Hollywood actress and humanitarian.
Laura had set the interview up herself and was hugely proud of having done so. All Society's glossy rivals had been after it too; to secure it was a coup. Laura secretly hoped she had pulled it off thanks to her growing journalistic reputation. The 'Three Weddings and a Scandal' story had shot her into the magazine stratosphere, and the adventures of the 'Luxury Press Trip', in which a billionaire businessman had been unmasked as a charlatan, had only burnished her credentials further. An in-depth report of an encounter with one of the world's most famous women would be the perfect continuation of what was promising to be a stellar career.
Sitting at her desk the regulation eight centimetres from the edge, Laura allowed this delicious daydream to continue. Carinthia's craziness notwithstanding, it was all going so well. Her dead foreign correspondent father would be proudly looking down from whatever heavenly hacks' bar he was currently standing a round in.
Even her on-off boyfriend Harry, a freelance investigative reporter with an amazing track record, would soon have to see her as more than just a glossy-mag hack. He would, Laura determined, regard her with respect instead of teasing her about seaweed wraps and sub-zero facial compression chambers.
Yes, Laura thought, absently playing with a bottle of diamond body soufflé that someone had left on her desk, this interview really was going to make her name all over again. She could hardly wait to meet Savannah, a modern Sphinx who pouted so beautifully from every magazine cover, but whose personality remained an intriguing mystery in spite of all the publicity.
What would she be like? The many interviews Laura had read in preparation had remarked on Savannah's husky voice – 'like slowly ripped velvet,' one besotted male writer had claimed. Other men had raved about her full mouth; pouty bee-stung, crushed-rose and kissable.
The flattery was not unalloyed, however. 'Her back looks like she's slept on wet newspaper,' one female writer had sniped of Savannah's famous tattoos, adding that the celebrated lips looked like 'two slugs having a spasm'.
Arrangements to meet had been complicated. A man calling himself Savannah's 'chief of staff', a nasal American called Brad Plant, had explained to Laura that the actress was 'frustrated by the whole six-star hotel penthouse interview thing'.
Laura was frustrated that Savannah was frustrated. Having never been in one before, she had been looking forward to interviewing someone in a six- star hotel penthouse. She was hoping for a six-star cup of tea.
'Miss Bouche finds it difficult to do something as trivial as chat to journalists when twenty million people live below the poverty line, y'know?' Brad Plant had gone on.
'I guess I can see that,' Laura conceded.
'So she's decided to mix it up.'
'Mix it up?'
'Yeah, do something at the same time. So you get a more interesting take on her.'
'Right.' Laura waited to hear what the something would be.
But Brad Plant was taking his time before the big reveal. 'The last person to interview Miss Bouche went to the gym with her. The one before went to a dildo show.'
Laura hoped the gym wouldn't be the chosen activity. She hated exercise.
'So where am I going?'
'I'll get back to you on that,' Brad had said, and Laura had had to be content with that even if, so far, Brad hadn't.
The morning went on. Laura applied herself to checking the page proofs of the edition about to go to press. As she did so, doubts about whether Carinthia still retained her infallible instinct for a story began to creep in. This feature here about town and country PJs, for instance. The original concept sprang from a leaden joke about PJs meaning private jets as well as pyjamas. The introduction to the piece teased Society readers with the idea that people had separate jets for rural and urban travel, only to reveal on the next page that the focus was actually nightwear.
'I always buy my husband's pyjamas in sets of two,' someone called Wonky de Launay had told Tatty, the goofy blonde who hoed the hard row of being Society's luxury editor. 'The ones in superfine sky-blue shirting with white piping are for Chelsea, while the giant fuchsia gingham cotton ones are for the country.'
Laura shook her head despairingly. Where did one start? With the so- called joke? With the idea that a wife bought her husband's pyjamas for him? Harry would have a field day with either. To make matters worse, Wonky had been photographed in the doorway of a sleek white private jet. She was wearing the pink checked PJs, her blonde hair cascading over one tanned and narrow shoulder and the buttons undone to reveal a hint of sunkissed bosom. She was, Laura calculated, in her mid-fifties, but looked twenty years less. The country air of wherever it was must be very preserving.
She signed off the proof and picked up the arts page, whose main feature was an exhibition of giant kitchen utensils mounted in a Russian bus garage. What Society reader would bother to go there and see that, Laura was wondering crossly before learning that bus garage, utensils and all had been uprooted and moved to Wimbledon. 'It's a commentary on US imperialism and masculine violence,' the curator was quoted as saying.
About halfway through the morning Carinthia shut herself in her glass- walled office and noisily pulled down all the blinds. When first she had started at Society Laura had assumed all this crashing and swaying presaged the editor taking an important call or pondering a big idea. She knew now that what Carinthia was pondering was a bottle of white wine taken from her office mini-fridge on whose pink door her initials were embossed in Swarovski crystals.
Laura looked at her watch and whistled. Ten forty-five. Carinthia's sessions were getting earlier and earlier. On the other hand this might mean that, with the aid of a vast supply of bottled water, the editor might have vaguely sobered up by lunchtime when she was due to take out the new intern.
Interns were not usually treated to lunch with the editor. But this latest was not the usual kind of intern. The usual type of intern was skinny and drifty with swishy blonde hair that seemed to constitute their entire personality. This new girl, Wyatt, was plump and Gothic; with an all-black wardrobe and an unbrushed blue mane that descended no further than a rounded, spotty chin. Nor did Wyatt drift gracefully; she stumbled around in huge Dr Martens. Whenever she moved one of the fashion rails she sent the metal coat- hangers crashing more violently than Carinthia's blinds.
This was bad enough, causing Society's highly strung staff to shy and start like nervous thoroughbreds. But what was worse was Wyatt's tendency to knock off, in her clumsy manoeuvres, the labels attached to the rails that showed what shoots the clothes were intended for. She then put them back on the wrong ones. That 'Revenge Dresses' were subsequently shot on the 'Re-Imagining the Cardigan' models was only one of the disastrous mistakes resulting. 'My aesthetic has been completely compromised!' Raisy wailed.
Normally, Wyatt would never have got within a thousand miles of Carinthia's office, were it not for the fact that her father had bid for the internship at a charity auction. Laura had not attended this glittering event. But Carinthia had been there with bells on – quite literally, in something from Daisy's shoot on cross-pollinated metallics – along with the flower of rich City bankers.
After a lavish dinner by leading chef Beowulf Borgenberg – beef aged in Himalayan salt caves served with After Eight gravy – an auction had been held. Besides the internship on Society, the lots had included a drawing lesson with Mary Berry, baking with Lewis Hamilton and driving tuition from Tracey Emin. It had been this version of events, heavily laced with alcohol fumes, that confirmed Laura's suspicions all was not well with her boss.
That Wyatt's father had offered more than twice Laura's annual salary for this opportunity for his daughter was something Laura took on the chin. Life wasn't fair, and life on glossy magazines less fair than most. The real question was why Wyatt's father had bothered. His daughter had never, from the moment her solid AirWear(tm) sole had first made contact with the Society carpet, shown the least interest in the workings of a glossy magazine. Perhaps Wyatt was simply shy, Laura thought, glancing over to the fashion department and spotting the intern shoving a rail of gossamer ballgowns marked 'Vietnam Chic – #TravisBickle' into the fashion cupboard.
At quarter to one, Laura shot a look at the still-drawn blinds of the editor's office. Would Carinthia be sober enough to take Wyatt out? Normally she would offer to lunch the intern herself, especially as, according to Demelza, the booking had been made at L'Esprit, an extremely smart and chic restaurant much frequented by the rich and famous.
But Laura was having lunch with her best friend Lulu, who was getting married and for whom she was being a bridesmaid. Lulu had chosen to meet at Umbra, a restaurant Laura had not heard of before.
'Ees last thing!' Lulu had enthused on the phone. 'Latest thing,' Laura effortlessly translated, accustomed by now to her friend's mispronunciations. Lulu's mixed international accent – a little bit Russian, a little bit French, perhaps with something Arabic in there too – had once been unflatteringly compared to the well-trodden carpet of a first-class airport lounge. Laura knew that beneath the glittering outer shell of the designer- clad heiress beat a warm and loyal heart. But that didn't stop the world from trying to exploit her and her wealth. This restaurant would doubtless be some dreadful new place that the kindly Lulu had been persuaded to book by a desperate PR. As she stood up to leave and positioned her chair according to the rules, Laura wondered what the place would be like.CHAPTER 2
Umbra, the fashionable new restaurant where Lulu had chosen to meet, seemed to have had a power cut. Or so Laura assumed, entering from the brightly sunlit street into an interior of intense black. As the door behind her clicked shut, the last slice of daylight disappeared. Darkness pressed in all around. It was like being in the deepest of caves; nothing at all was visible. There were sounds, however; the murmur of conversation, the clink of cutlery on china, the occasional tinkle of laughter.
'Hello?' Laura called, disconcerted.
A small point of light now came towards her, like a torch beam. It was a torch beam, and above it was a face. The face was young, male and smiling as if the situation could not have been more natural. 'Madam has booked?'
'My friend has,' Laura told him. 'But she won't be here yet.' Lulu was always half an hour late for everything. 'And hopefully when she is the lights will be back on.'
'Lights?' The smiling face above the torch beam looked puzzled. 'But, madam, Umbra does not have lights. That is the point. It is dark on purpose.'
Laura laughed. There was surprise in her laughter; London waiters, in her experience, were not great exponents of irony. But as the torchlit face changed from puzzled to irritated, she realised the assertion was serious. Her own amusement gave way to astonishment. 'Dark? But why?'
'To heighten our clients' sense of taste, madam. To give them the ultimate flavour experience.'
'You serve people in the pitch blackness and that makes the food taste better?'
'And the wine, madam.'
'I suppose,' Laura allowed, 'it brings a whole new meaning to "blind tastings".'
The waiter did not bat an eyelid. Not so far as Laura could see, anyway. 'Absolutely, madam. Shall I show you to your table?'
Laura followed the torch beam as it shone along a length of hideous swirled carpet. But of course there was no need to decorate a blacked-out restaurant in the latest expensive designer style. The proprietors of Umbra could well be on to something. She groped her way to her seat. The invisible chair and table seemed light and plastic, like very cheap garden furniture.
She sat there for what seemed like a very long time. Behind her and around her, the conversation flowed as it might in any high-end Mayfair eaterie at lunchtime.
'Everyone who's anyone lives there,' a woman behind her was saying. 'But no one's ever heard of it.'
Laura was instantly on the alert. She was desperate to find a new lead for Selina the travel editor, who, encouraged by the new, crazed Carinthia, was currently putting together a piece about trekking in the Arctic whilst living on reindeer blubber and lining your clothes with tinfoil. This luxury enclave being discussed was far more the thing. Where was it? Connecticut? Puglia?
The woman's companion was speaking. 'They say Great Hording's the most expensive village in the UK.'
Village? The UK? Laura was so surprised she wobbled the table and a number of unseen things fell to the floor where, fortunately, the briefly glimpsed hideous carpet cushioned the impact. She was memorising the name of this fortunate place – Great Hording, Great Hording – as a small point of light flashed on her accompanied by an excitable voice with a strong foreign accent.
'Laura! Is so lovely to see you!'
Lulu obviously had night-vision glasses. Or else ate a lot of carrots.
Laura reached out to give her friend a hug but felt her lips, in the dark, make contact with an unshaved and bristly cheek. In the meantime, Lulu's 'mwah, mwah' could be heard being bestowed some distance away.
'Is you I kiss, Laura, yes?' Lulu sounded doubtful.
'I wouldn't worry about it.'
Laura wondered who she had kissed herself. The waiter? One of the women behind them? They could now be heard receiving the bill. 'Shall we go Dutch? I'll just get my bag, I put it down here ...'
'You like this restaurant? Is original, no?' Across the flimsy table, Lulu sounded to be shuffling off something squeaky, possibly leather or crocodile.
'It's definitely that,' Laura had to agree.
'Is where comes everyone to see and be seen,' Lulu asserted.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Last of the Summer Moët"
Copyright © 2018 Wendy Holden.
Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.