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SO MUCH for the paperless office, Amanda thought as she hefted the two enormous briefcases off the tube. But this was probably giving her arms as much of a workout as she'd have got at the gym. And she didn't have time for the gym tonight anyway; if she wanted to get these schedules signed off, she needed to get home, grab a ready meal from the freezer, and eat it while she worked on the files.
The moment she walked in to the flat and sniffed the air, she knew she didn't stand much chance. Dee was clearly entertaining this evening. And her flatmate's friends, being an arty lot, were loud. With the amount of red wine that was bound to be consumed tonight, she'd need to add another item to her mental to-do list: insert earplugs.
'Hey, Mand! I was beginning to wonder if you were planning to sleep at the office tonight,'Dee teased, coming out of the kitchen.
'No.' Though perhaps she should've doneat least then she could've avoided having to be nice to people she knew didn't really like her. Dee was a sweetheart, but Amanda knew only too well that she didn't fit in with the rest of Dee's crowd. She was too quiet, too serious, not someone who made the room sparkle with her witty conversation. 'Sorry, I didn't realise you had people round tonight.' She gave Dee an apologetic smile. 'Let me nuke something in the microwave and I'll be out of your way in less than ten minutes.'
'No, no and no,' Dee said.
Amanda frowned. 'What?'
'No, I don't have anyone coming round. No, you're not eating your usual rubbishyou're having a decent meal, for once. And, no, you're not holing up in your room all evening with a pile of work.' Dee ticked the points off on her fingers. 'Especially not on a Friday night.'
Amanda stared at her flatmate. 'You've cooked for me?' They'd agreed the ground rules ages ago: they shared all the chores except cooking. Half the time Amanda ate out, and she was a hopeless cook, so she didn't think it fair to subject her flatmate to burnt offerings.
Then she had a nasty thought. 'Dee, is this your way of telling me that you're going to move out with Josh and I'm going to need a new flatmate?'
'Don't be so paranoid!' Dee smiled. 'It's nothing.'
It didn't feel like 'nothing'. It didn't look like it, either, from the expression on Dee's face.
'I just thought you deserved a treat. You've had a rubbish couple of weeks and you work too hard,' Dee said.
That was a sore point. Amanda was still stinging from last week's appraisal, and right now she could do without the work-life balance lecture she normally got from Dee.
'So I'm cooking you dinner tonight to give you a break. A girly chat'll do you good.'
Amanda wasn't so sure about that. She'd never been much good at girly chats. Numbers and percentages were so much easier to deal with than people were.
'I've made us Cajun chicken with sweet potato mash, green beans and roasted peppers,' Dee tempted.
It sounded almost as good as it smelled, and Amanda knew from experience that it would taste even betterDee's cooking was legendary.
'Oh, and panna cotta with raspberries. Home-made.' Pudding to die forAmanda's big weakness. 'OK, I'm sold,'she said with a smile. 'But you've gone to a lot of trouble, Dee. It hasn't made you late with a deadline or anything, has it?'
Was it her imagination, or did Dee sound slightly guilty? She found out, the second after she'd taken the first delectable bite. 'I, um, need a favour,'Dee said, wriggling on her seat. 'The thing is, you know I want to work in TV, produce programmes?'
Amanda nodded. 'You know my friend is a PA to a TV producerwell, she talked to her boss about one of my ideas. He says if I can give him some kind of pilot tape to back up my treatment, he might be able to get me a break of some sort.'
'That's brilliant news.' Though Amanda still didn't see why Dee needed her to do a favour. 'So what's it all about?'
Dee filled their wine glasses. 'I'm pitching a series called Lifeswap. About two people with opposite lifestyles spending a week with each other and learning from each other's lives.'
Reality TV. Just the kind of thing Amanda loathed. 'Sounds interesting,' she said politely, not wanting to hurt her friend.
'And you'd be perfect for the pilot.'
'Me?' Amanda frowned. 'How do you make that out?'
'City girl, works hard in high finance, never gets time to smell the roses.' Dee spread her hands. 'You're an extreme case.'
'Case?' She wasn't anyone's case, thank you very much! Dee ignored Amanda's indignation. 'You'd be great to pair with someone else who does actually take time to smell the roses.'
'I don't need to smell the roses.' Amanda folded her arms. So this was the favourDee wanted her to be in the pilot. Swap lives with someone who was her complete opposite. 'You can't seriously want me to swap places with someone who spends all day in a beauty salon or messing about on a games console.'
Dee laughed. 'You'd go bananas in seconds! No, it's sort of
' She frowned, as if thinking about the best way to put it. 'Think of it as job enrichment. What different businesses can learn from each other.'
'It's a great idea, Deefor someone else,' Amanda said. 'I don't need job enrichment. I'm perfectly happy as I am.'
'No, you're not. It's been over a week since your appraisal and you're still brooding about it.'
'Of course I'm not,' Amanda lied. 'You said your boss told you they want you to be more flexible. Doing this pilot would prove just how flexible you are,' Dee said, 'because you'll be able to show that you can do someone else's job for a week. A job in a totally different area than yours. Which means you can bring your skills to it to improve the other person's life, and learn some new ones that you can take back to your job and wave in your boss's face.'
'Maybe.' Right now, Amanda wasn't sure anything would convince her boss. Her face didn't fitit was as simple as that.
'I think this'd work really well. You're photogenic, you have a clear voice with no obvious accent, and you're a complete professional at everything you do. That's why I'm asking you.'
'Flannelling me, more like.' Amanda laughed wryly. 'I'm no supermodel. And I've never done any acting in my life. I wouldn't know where to start.'
'This isn't acting. It's reality TV, so all you have to do is be yourself,' Dee reminded her. 'This could be good for both of us, Mand. You get to showcase your talents and prove to your boss that you're ready for promotion to the next level. And I make a superb pilot and get my chance to prove I can do the job. We both win. You're doing me a favour, yesbut you'd get something back from it, too.' She gave Amanda a mischievous smile. 'And I could make sure that whoever you swap lives with is a great cook and would make you panna cotta or some kind of lemony pudding every single day.'
Amanda raised an eyebrow. 'If I want panna cotta, I can buy it at the deli on the way home.'
'The deli's normally shut by the time you leave work,' Dee pointed out. 'And this would be home-made.'
And Dee had been talking opposites. 'You're not thinking of making me be a chef for a week, are you?' Amanda asked, horrified at the idea of being stuck in a hot kitchen with some temperamental chef who'd rant and rave at her.
Dee chuckled. 'I don't think anyone could teach you to cook in a year, let alone a week!'
'And I don't want to learn, either. Food's just fuel.' Amanda made a dismissive gesture with her hand. 'I'm not wasting time in the kitchen'
'That you could spend working,'Dee said, rolling her eyes. 'Yeah, yeah. I've heard that a million times and I still don't agree with you.'
'So we agree to disagree.' Amanda leaned back in her chair. 'Have you got someone in mind?'
'I'm working on him. It,' Dee corrected herself swiftly. 'Him?' Amanda felt her eyes narrowing. Oh, no. 'This isn't some elaborate set-up for a blind date, is it?'
'No, no, no.' Dee crossed her splayed hands rapidly in the air. 'I'm not fixing you up with anyone.'
Ha. That made a change. 'Good. Because I'm perfectly happy being single. If I want to be the youngest partner ever in the firm, I don't have time for distractions,'Amanda reminded her flatmate. Especially as it seemed she was going to have to work twice as hard to prove herself worthy; it still rankled that the bloke in the office who'd failed his exams when she'd got distinctions had been promoted ahead of her. His face fitted, but she had to work twice as hard to make up for the fact that hers didn't.
'I was just thinking about you swapping lives with a blokeshowing the difference between the sexes, that sort of thing.'
'And he's going to be my complete opposite.'
'Relax. You just have different lifestyles.'
It sounded as if Dee really did have someone in mind. 'What does he do?'
'Not finance.' Dee sighed. 'Look, I know you're an über-planner, and it's probably driving you mad that I'm not giving you the full details, but until I've got both of you to agree to do the pilot I can't give you a proper brief.'
Both of you. So it was definitely someone Dee knew. One of her arty mates, then. 'Musician? Painter? Photographer?' Amanda guessed.
'I'll tell you as soon as I can. Just trust me on this,' Dee said firmly. 'Think of it as an opportunity to be flexible.'
Back to her appraisal again. 'Hmm. How long are we talking about, exactly?'
'Two weeks.You shadow this person for a week, and the person shadows you. You film some of the things that happen and talk to the camera about what you've learned from each other.'
'If I do itand I mean ifI'd have to clear the shadowing side with my boss. And there'd have to be something built in about client confidentiality,' Amanda said thoughtfully. 'I'd probably need to take some leave to do my side of the shadowing.'
'You've got loads of time in lieu stacked up that you never takeand you didn't take all your holiday entitlement last year,'
Dee pointed out. 'They owe you. Mand, it'll be fun. Trust me. All you have to do is keep a video diary for a week and analyse the situation at the end, work out which bits of your life would make the other person's better and which bits of theirs would be good for you. What have you got to lose?'
Amanda didn't have an answer for that. She ate another spoonful of panna cotta and thought about it. 'I'll talk to my boss on Monday. If it's okay with work, I'll do it.'
'You,' Dee said, 'are a complete star.'
'And how's my best brother?' Fliss asked as she opened the front door.
'Your only brother,' Will corrected with a smile. 'And usually you insist on calling me your baby brother.' Though nowadays he was more likely to look after Fliss than the other way round.
'You're still my best brother.' Fliss hugged him. 'Thanks for coming round. I know your schedule's a bit mad right now.'
He ruffled her hair. 'That's this time of year for you. A never-ending round of sowing, potting, weeding
'And you love every second of it. Watching new life spring forth, caring for your plants, working a little magic in people's lives to change the space they hated into the space they'd always dreamed of.'
He grinned. 'You've finally learned my spiel, then.'
'Not spiel. It's how you are.' She smiled back. 'I appreciate it that you've shoehorned me in.'
'Hey. I've always got time for you.You know that.' Family was important. It was just a pity that their parents didn't feel the same way. He pushed the thought aside. 'So, what was so desperately important that you needed to see me rather than talk over the phone?'
'Come and sit down.' Fliss led the way into her kitchen, where the pile of exercise books told Will he'd found his sister halfway through marking her class's homework, and switched the kettle on.
'There isn't anything wrong with the baby?' Sudden fear for his sister clenched in his gut.
'No.' She smiled at him. 'Nothing like that. And Cal and I still want you to be godfather. I just need a bit of a favour, that's all.And I thought it'd be easier to explain face to face than over the phone.'
'What sort of favour?'Will asked, shepherding her into a chair and taking over the tea-making. 'Something to do with the school's sensory garden?'He'd helped them plan a workable layout, earlier in the springplants with textures and scent and colour. 'If you want me to come and do another session on the lifecycle of plants and plant some sunflower seeds with the kids, give me a list of dates and I'll fit one of them in for you.'
'No-o. The favour's not exactly for me.'
He frowned. 'Who, then?'
'She's doing some article about gardening and health and wants some quotes? Sure.' He'd given Dee 'expert' comments before now. 'Tell her to email me with what she wants and the deadline.'
'It's a bit more complicated than that.'
He brought two mugs of tea over to the kitchen table and set one in front of her. 'Hit me with it, then, sis.'
'She needs you to swap lives with someone.'
Fliss pulled a face. 'Stop looking at me as if I've got two heads.'
'Strictly speaking, you have,' Will said, gesturing to her bump. She flapped a hand at him. 'Be serious, for once. This is important. It's my best friend's big chance to break into TV. If Dee can put together a pilot of her idea, she's found someone who might be interested.' Fliss looked animated. 'The idea is, two people with opposite lifestyles swap over for a week and see what they can learn from each other.'
'So you want me to leave my clients in the hands of someone who doesn't even know how or when to water a plant, let alone understand soil types or putting the right plant in the right aspect?' Will shook his head. 'Sorry, Fliss. I like Dee a lotbut I'm not putting my business on the line for her.' He'd spent too long building it up.
'She's not going to take over from youjust shadow you for a week. Do what you do, under your direction,' Fliss explained.
'She?' His eyes narrowed. 'Well, you need to be oppositesthat's why it's going to be called Lifeswap. You'll be perfect: country boy and city chick.'
Will laughed. 'Small problem. Last time I looked, I lived in a city.' Though his laughter was hollow. City chick? No, thanks. He'd spent too many years of his life already with a woman who was so wedded to her career, she'd stuck her children into boarding school at the first opportunityand palmed them off on to any relative who'd have them in the holidays. Thank God for Martin, their father's elder brother.
'We could get round that for the film, if you stayed at Martin and Helen's holiday cottage in the middle of the Fens and did some work for the garden centre. It'd be good publicity for you.'
He reached out and ruffled his sister's hair. 'Fliss, it's sweet of you to think of me, but I'm doing fine. I don't need publicity. I've got a six-month waiting list of people wanting me to give their gardens a makeover. And, yes, I know I could expand the business and take on some staff, but I like being hands on. I like seeing my clients personallyI like being the one who gives them that corner of magic in their life.'
'You're a control freak,' Fliss grumbled. 'No, I'm not. But people come to me because they want me to design their garden. It wouldn't be fair to palm them off on someone else. And if I expand, I'll spend half my life shuffling paperwork and the only plants I'll see will be stuck in pots in my office. Stuck in one place, like me.' He grimaced. 'No, thanks.'
Fliss took a sip of tea. 'See. You're opposites. She's wedded to her office. You're wedded to the outdoors.'
Wedded. He didn't like the sound of that word. Or the gleam in his sister's eye. 'Fliss, this isn't one of your hare-brained schemes to set me up with someone, is it?' His sister, being happily married and pregnant, wanted him to feel just as settled and was for ever introducing him to potential Misses Right. It drove him crazy because she refused to see that, right now, his career took up all his time. 'Because if it is, let me tell you yet again that I'm not ready to settle down with anyone. If and when I decide that I am, I'm quite capable of choosing Miss Right for myself.'
Fliss gave him a wicked grin. 'The last six have been
'Not Miss Right. Which I knew when I dated them. It was for fun, not for ever, and they knew from the start I wasn't planning to settle down with them.' He coughed. 'And if you're going to mention Nina, don't. Even you didn't see that one comingand my solicitor's letter sorted it out.'
'But you haven't dated anyone since. You've let her get to you and ruin your life.'
Will laughed. 'Stop fussing. My life isn't ruined at all. I just haven't met anyone lately who interests me enough to want to date them. And if this is your idea of setting me up with someone, then you'll just have to explain to her that you made a mistake, because your little brother is a grown-up who knows his own mind.'
'Point taken. And this isn't a set-upthis really is for Dee's pilot programme.' Fliss sighed. 'Look, if you don't want to do it for your business, you could do it for Martin's. You know he's struggling to compete with the garden-centre chains.'
'I put as much business as I can his way,' Will reminded her. 'My clients like the unusual plants he grows.'
But it wasn't enough, and they both knew it. 'Publicity like this would be good for him,' Fliss said gently. 'Yes. And I know how much I owe him,' Will said, equally softly. 'Not just for all the school holidays when the parents dumped us on him. He's taught me so much about plants. And he backed me all the way when I decided to study horticultureeven gave me somewhere to live.' Not that their parents had actually thrown Will out. He just hadn't been able to live with the constant comments about how there was no money in gardening and the City was crying out for high flyerspeople who were expected to get straight As at A-level and had been offered an unconditional place at Oxford. 'And he recommended me to customers at the garden centre when I started up on my own. Doing this would bewellmy chance to pay some of that back.'
'Your decision, bro.' Fliss held up her hands. 'As you said, you're a big boy now. And you have the right to say no.'
He smiled at her. 'I'm glad you realise that. But okay, I'll do it. Assuming the holiday cottage is available.'
'I've already checked. It's available in a fortnight's time.'
'And if Martin's happy for me to do this,' he warned. 'You might be interfering in his plans.'
Fliss grinned. 'No, I'm not. And of course he'll say yes to his favourite nephew. Not to mention the fact that it's a brilliant excuse for Helen to make him take a week's holiday.'
Will ignored her. 'And if,' he emphasised, 'my clients give permission.'
She smiled. 'Nobody ever says no to you, Will.' Not quite true. The two people he'd always wanted to say 'yes' had usually said 'not now'
but there never had been a time for 'now'. He looked at his sister, unsmiling for once. 'So, what do you know about this woman I'm supposed to be swapping lives with?'
'Lives in London. Accountant. Knows nothing about plants.' Fliss ticked off the points on her fingers.
Accountant? Ouch. Still, it could've been worseit could've been banking. Though something in his sister's expression tipped him off. 'Do you actually know her, Fliss?'
She winced. 'Sort of.'
'Let's just leave it that she's your opposite, Will.'
He shook his head. 'I've got a bad feeling about this. Look, I can ask around and see if anyone else could help Dee.'
'But then Martin would lose out,' Fliss put in quietly. 'Which isn't fair.'
Will stared at her. 'That's manipulative, Fliss. Worthy of our mother.' That was the biggest insult he could throw at her.
Fliss ignored the barb. 'Dee's desperate to get this right, Will. She needs a real flora-and-fauna guy, someone who knows birdsong and wildlife and the countryside.'
He sighed. 'I'm an urban landscape gardener. My clients all live in a city. So do I.'
'But you know about birdsong and wildlife and the countryside. Look, you got the highest mark in the history of your degree course. You know exactly what you're doing.' Fliss rolled her eyes. 'And you'd be perfect on screen.'
'I'm not looking to be a TV gardener,' he warned. 'It might,' Fliss pointed out, 'force our dear parents into acknowledging what you do for a living. They might even admit that you're a raging success and you made the right choice in turning down that place at Oxford.'