Sparkly and charming Natalie Fincher has it all—a handsome new husband, a fixer-upper cottage of her dreams, and the opportunity to tour with the musical she’s spent years writing. But when her husband suddenly dies, all her hopes and dreams instantly disappear.
Two and a half years later, Natalie is still lost. She works, sleeps (well, as much as the sexually frustrated village foxes will allow), and sees friends just often enough to allay their worries, but her life is empty. And she can only bring herself to play music at a London train station’s public piano where she can be anonymous. She’s lost motivation, faith in love, in happiness…in everything.
But when someone begins to mysteriously leave the sheet music for her husband’s favorite songs at the station’s piano, Natalie begins to feel a sense of hope and excitement for the first time. As she investigates just who could be doing this, Natalie finds herself on an unexpected journey toward newfound love for herself, for life, and maybe, for a special someone.
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|Publisher:||Atria/Emily Bestler Books|
|Sold by:||SIMON & SCHUSTER|
|File size:||4 MB|
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I know exactly who Lucy’s going to choose. I’ve known for the last half hour actually—could smell it a bloody mile away. Even before the third round of drinks had been brought wobblily back to the table, and even before Roxanne started waffling, as she always does around two cocktails and an appetizer in, about the different ways she’d assassinate her boss if it were only legal. Because my friends always choose me the same types. Dark haired, because all three of my exes were dark haired. Tall, because almost every crush I’ve ever had since the age of fourteen has been tall and with the height and shoulder combo that promises a decent house-fire rescue should you ever need it—Adam Driver, Vince Vaughn, that massive built-like-a-brick-shithouse bloke who dressed as Lurch at Roxanne’s Halloween party in 2007. “Not facially,” I remember slurring to his blank, prosthetic face, “but your frame, sir. C’est parfait. You’re sturdy. You know. Like a ship. Like a... a Megabus.” And very much alive. That’s the clincher actually. The man they choose must be alive, and with plans to be for many, many years to come (if possible).
“See that guy, Natalie,” Lucy shouts over the music, setting a round, sticky tray down onto the table. Four cocktails on its surface wobble like drunks. “The one with the arms at the bar. Messy hair, white T-shirt...”
“Yep,” I say, and I even throw a faux glance over my shoulder for effect. “Arms, hair, clothes, yep, I see him.”
“Name’s Tom. Single. And has been for eight months.”
Beside me, Roxanne makes a noise in her throat—a “Well, there we are then I suppose,” in a single “hm,” and over a pile of guacamole, Priya adds, “Oh, I would. Well, I would if, you know, I hadn’t just signed my life away to matrimonial monogs.”
“And pregnancy,” adds Roxanne.
“Oh shit, yeah, that too,” says Priya as Lucy slides into the booth beside her and beams over at me. “You should go over there, Natalie,” she says. “He was so chatty and lovely. Nice teeth too. I said I’d send you over!”
And it’s always around this time of the night that I have to squash down the urge to do what I really want to when I find myself on nights out like these with my friends—sprint. Bolt. Stick a rocket up my arse, propel upward, burst through the ceiling. Or at least, grab Lucy by the lapels, drag her across the table, and say, “When are you going to stop this? When are you going to stop looking at me with the eyes of a slimy car salesman who’s sure they’re finally about to flog that van with half a bumper and a dead body in the trunk, and let me fester? I’m not interested in dating. I will never be interested.” And the urge is even stronger tonight. I knew it would be, the second I woke up this morning thinking only about Russ. It was the sheet music from yesterday that did it—that singular, oddly glossy page of comforting symbols and notations, left anonymously, at the piano. For me. Or for someone else. Or of course, for absolutely nobody and for no reason at all. That’s why I haven’t mentioned it. It could be nothing—probably is nothing altogether. Plus, I’m sure if I did mention it, drop a casual “So, someone left me some music at the public piano I secretly play at, and I think it might be from my husband. Yes, that’s right! Russ! The dead one,” over cocktails and tortillas, Lucy would send up an instant smoke signal to alert my parents I was finally full-blown mad. Roxanne would probably start recommending that bereavement therapist again too—the one with the bongo drums.
“Did I tell you I had an orgasm?” asks Priya over the music. “In my sleep again.” Thank God (and Priya) for the clapper-board cut of a subject change. “It must be the hormones. I was dreaming about the scaffolder.”
“Again?” I laugh.
“Yup. The one next door. Clive. And I wouldn’t mind but he isn’t even hot. He has really spiteful features actually, poor soul. I mean, it can’t be helped, can it? The features you’re dealt. Anyway, in this dream, gosh, you should’ve seen him. He was so—”
“Natalie, are you going?” barges in Lucy.
“Going. Are you going over there, to the bar?”
“To Tom,” adds Roxanne.
“Oh. Right. Um...”
They stare at me, my friends. Six eyes, round and hopeful. And I throw them a smile. A bone to three hungry dogs. A big, bright, wholly convincing, “what a great idea” smile. “Well, I suppose I could just go over and order another drink...”
“Yes,” says Lucy.
“Say hi, suss him out...”
And in one go, I stand and down my cocktail, my friends looking up at me proudly, like I just got called up onstage to accept a Brit Award. International Breakthrough Act. Best British Single.
“Bloody hell, he’s looking over.” Priya giggles as I slide out of the booth, stumble a little. The downed margarita is already tasering my brain cells.
“Oh my god, look at him. He actually is,” cheeps Lucy, and I flash them yet another smile that drops off my face and hits the floor the second I turn my back to them.
I don’t want to go over there. I really don’t want to go over to that sticky, busy bar and talk to some tall bloke called bloody Tom who probably opens dating app comms at two a.m. with “hi babe, got any kinks lol.” I can think of nothing worse. Well, I can actually. Lots of things. Some I’m on first-name terms with these days. But the thing is, the alternative is worse—so much worse. Because if I don’t go over to this earmarked guy with the hair and the arms and the steady pulse, they’ll give me that look again. That look they give me sometimes, my friends, like I’m a new gazebo that just keeps slowly and sadly sagging at a garden party and leaking rain all over the cheese scones. That “Oh, Natalie. What are we going to do with you?” look. The one that is wordless but so obviously “We all loved Russ, we really did, but it’s been over two years. He’s gone. And we’re worried about you. We’re all very worried.” And that look—that look is something I hate far more than listening to single pervs waffle at me at the sticky, busy bars of tacky Mexican restaurants. And so, tonight, I choose the lesser of two evils. I choose Tom.
I make my way through too-close-together tables, through flustered waitstaff, and gaggles of diners, perfume-skinned and garlic-breathed, my head swirling a bit now. That’ll be the three margaritas, definitely, without a doubt. But it’s also too hot, and far too jubilant, if you ask me, for somewhere that charges fifteen quid for a bowl of guacamole served in the ceramic stomach cavity of a smiling cartoon avocado. Ugh. I shouldn’t have come tonight. I should have canceled instead—made up some disgusting sounding stomach flu. (Or licked a few shoe soles and purposely contracted one.)
“Sorry.” A waiter steps aside, makes way for me, and I nod a thank-you and pass him, and the huge platter that balances on his open palm. A single, mutilated, eaten chicken carcass sits on it. I feel you, knackered, little pecked-at carcass. I feel exactly the same.
“Why is it you bother going out with them if you dislike it so much?” my sister Jodie asked a few weeks ago, and I’d brushed it off, said, “Oh, don’t listen to me, Jode, I do enjoy it sometimes.” But the true answer to that question is the same as why I’m approaching this stranger at the bar. The alternative is worse. The alternative is those looks of pity I avoid like cracks in the pavement and crisps made of anything that isn’t a potato. The alternative is sitting at home with the cat, drinking frozen cocktails to numb the repetitive doom of “I am alone” that churns over and over in my tummy. It’s wasting entire evenings watching re-runs of TV shows I’ve already seen so I don’t have to concentrate, and wondering whether the cat would miss me if I suddenly just vaporized from beneath his chubby, furry body.
A gap parts in the crowd at the bar, and I slide in, right next to Tom with the hair and the arms and T-shirt, and like an actor on cue, he looks at me and smiles.
“Hi,” he says, stooping a little as the music volume increases. Lucy’s right, although annoyingly, she mostly always is. He is good-looking, this poor targeted man chosen to heal my squashed, run-over crab apple of a heart. And the teeth—Colgate-ad levels of nice. Lucky him. “Natalie, right?”
“Cool.” He extends a large hand, and I take it. Strong, smooth, not dirty, not sweaty like a bag of damp turnips. That’s something at least. “I’m Tom.”
He dips his head in a nod.
“So, er, your friend said you’re here because your mate got married?”
“Yep,” I say, as someone squeezes past, jamming my ribs into the side of the wooden bar. “Yep, that’s—that’s right. Priya. She got married a couple of months ago, then buggered off on the longest honeymoon on earth. It was a Christmas wedding. All the bells and whistles.”
“Interesting.” Tom gives a twitch of a smile. “Any snow?”
“Faux snow. Loads of it.”
“Blimey.” He blows out a breath between his lips. “I was expecting a no, but—faux snow. They meant business then, these friends.”
“Yeah,” I say. “They definitely did. Even made a honeymoon baby.”
A woman behind the bar leans across the counter, tips her chin at me. Two giant acrylic pineapples for earrings swing like pendulums at the side of her head. “Margarita, please,” I order loudly, and she nods, as another ridiculous out-of-place dance song strikes up to actual diners’ cheers—weirdly out of place for a restaurant with a crayon station and a sunbathing spatchcocked chicken embellishment on the window. “I don’t understand this place,” I’d said to Lucy when we arrived, and she’d replied, “Well, why do restaurants even need to be understood, Natalie?”
I turn to Tom with the teeth. “So, who are you here with?”
“Couple of mates,” he says, swirling the drink in his glass. His eyes are blue, and his dark lashes are curly in the way they only are for people who don’t care for them. Teeth. Lashes. Lucky him times two. “One of them, Si, he’s back from traveling. Got divorced and went all Eat Pray Love on us. Hadn’t seen him in—maybe two years, until tonight?”
“Oh. That’s nice.”
“Sort of,” he says with a wince.
“Yeah, well, he’s come back a bit Russell Brand. You know? Full of wisdom. Grown a beard. Rocked up wearing a carpet.”
I laugh. Well, at least he’s funny. The last time I found myself at a bar like this, the guy produced a piece of paper from his wallet that listed a treatment plan for his ingrowing toenail. “Ah, well, it happens to us all, I’m afraid, Tom. I lost my mate Lucy for a while—to wisdom and carpets.”
“Yep. She went traveling for six months. Came back obsessed with essential oils and enemas. Kept meditating. Hollowed out an alarming amount of roasted sweet potatoes.”
Tom laughs, and it’s a laugh I know Priya would say made her vagina explode, if she were sitting here instead of me. It’s deep, warm, a slight rasp. He smells nice too. Fresh, like showers, warm, lemony aftershave.
“Six ninety-nine.” The bartender with the earrings places a drink down on the bar, on top of a tiny, black napkin. She holds out a card reader, unsmiling.
“Ah, shit, let me—” Tom dives a hand into his back pocket, and I scan my debit card on the luminous screen before he can grab the bill.
“It’s fine,” I say, taking a huge mouthful, then another, and he looks at me like he’s witnessing someone go to town on a whole Peking duck with their bare hands beside him. “I’ve got it.”
“O-kay, but I was actually going to—”
“Look. Tom.” I duck now, as if to level with this poor soul lumbered with me. “I’m sorry—and thanks. But I don’t want you to buy me a drink. Honestly. It’s very sweet. But no.”
Tom the Target stares at me.
“But I’d really appreciate it if you could just—you know, carry on doing this? Talk to me for ten minutes, laugh a bit, and then I don’t know, you can say you got bored or something—”
Tom laughs then, a surprised flick of a raised eyebrow, and pulls his phone out of his back pocket, holding it in front of me, like a sommelier presenting a bottle of wine. “My uh—my phone was ringing.” He grimaces. “I wasn’t... buying you a drink.”
“Ah. Well. Right. I see.” Fuck.
“But look, I’ll happily talk to you for a bit.” He ruffles a hand through his dark hair, shrugs. “Laugh a bit. I can be your... I don’t know. What would you call it? Puppet? Pawn? Stand-in?”
“Sorry,” I say, and I can’t figure out whether it’s shame or alcohol turning my cheeks to hot, sizzling lamb chops. “I’m sorry—for jumping in there like that. I’m just—”
“Ah.” Tom waves me away and says, “Seriously, no worries, forget about it,” and I don’t finish my sentence. I drink instead. Mostly because I don’t really know how to finish it. I’m just—what? What am I? Jaded at thirty-two? A mess? Not in the game anymore for meeting people? New people. Old. For falling in like, or in lust, let alone actual love, again? And sad enough to be preoccupied by a piece of mystery sheet music left at a train station piano, like those people who hunt aliens when they find a bit of flattened wheat in a field off the A12? I don’t know. That’s the thing. Since Russ died, I don’t know anything. How I feel, who I am, what’s fun anymore, what I want. My life is nothing but a tangle of unfinished sentences. I am a tangle of unfinished sentences.
“And would you mind?” I say instead. “Being my... shall we say, stand-in? Just for a minute.”
Tom smirks, gives another shrug, and lifts the short whiskey glass to his lips. “Works for me.” He swallows. “Plus, Si’s pulled some weird, stare-y stranger, and Phan—he’s on the phone to his wife outside. She doesn’t trust him an iota.”
“Fuck, no. I don’t.” He swigs back another mouthful and grins at me. “So, I’m all yours. Come on. What’s my first job? As Natalie’s stand-in.”
I laugh—and thank God. Thank God Tom the Target seems normal and laid-back and very much without that look in his eyes where he thinks I’m nothing but a tough nut to crack. I’m used to that look. That “ha-ha, she says she’s not interested, but a few drinks, a few silly little compliments, and she’ll soon change her mind and be putty, mate” look.
“Just stand there really,” I answer, “and as I said, just laugh a bit, chat a bit...”
“... nod here and there.”
“All right. And you’ll...”
“Oh, I’ll pretend I’m having a nice time. As payment.”
“Make that a really nice time,” Tom adds. “You never know who’s watching.”
“Deal. And I’ll give off the air that I’m really glad we met, if you like? That every hour feels like a minute because it’s just so easy to talk to you—”
“So much chemistry—”
“And I’ll pretend I really, really, really beyond-belief fan—” I freeze then, lips parted, like a haunted portrait. The fourth margarita has already done its thing—pushed me that teensy bit too far. My guard and my filter a little pile of rubble at our feet. I don’t fancy him. Because I don’t fancy anyone anymore, apparently, but saying “I’ll have to pretend to fancy you” to a cool and kind stranger at a bar is not exactly something that would be endorsed by the Good Samaritan, is it?
Tom arches a dark eyebrow. “That you...?”
“Nothing,” he says, amused, with a smile that’s almost a burst of laughter, and this time, it’s Tom who ducks. “If I’m going to be nothing but a puppet—sorry, a stand-in—I reckon it’s only fair you finish that sentence.”
I grimace behind my glass. “Ugh. Fine. I—I was going to say... fancy you,” I admit, shamefully, then I rush out with barely a space between each word, “but what I mean is, I don’t fancy anyone these days. Seriously, I don’t. And you could be—you could be like, Adam Driver, or Vince Vaughn, or—” I stop myself when I find the words “that Lurch guy with the shoulders at Roxanne’s party” gathering in my throat. “I just... it’s just something I don’t really do. Not anymore. That ship—sailed. Bombed. Shipwrecked at the bottom of the sea. Covered in... moss.”
For a moment Tom looks at me, then a smile breaks out on his handsome face. “Well, that’s—that’s good.” Then he leans in and says, “Because I don’t really fancy you either.”
“Bit mossy myself, actually...”
Tom laughs, throwing a glance over his shoulder. “OK, so—what’s the first subject? Your friends are looking over, by the way.”
“Of course they are,” I say, and I feel a weird bloom of affection toward Tom the Target for being a good sport, for aiding and abetting me, for being on my side. “And I dunno. How about... ramble about your job? For say, ten minutes. That should do it.”
“OK, that’s easy. Photographer.”
“Interesting.” Tom groans, pulls his mouth into a grimace. “Jesus, Natalie, go easy on me—”
“I mean it!” I laugh. “It is interesting. Seriously.”
“Oh, shit, you were being sincere.”
Tom laughs, moves in closer, a warm, taut, shirted arm touching mine, and I know the girls will be watching from afar, feeling victorious, nudging one other, hopeful that this is it, and the thought makes me want to dive over the bar and drown myself in a keg, to be found months later, like an oversize tequila worm. “Shall I start with photography equipment? Or shall I go for tricky and cool celebrity encounters or—”
“Oh, definitely cool celebs.”
“I’ve got an Adam Driver story actually.”
Tom grins. “They chose wisely with me, your mates, eh?”