When Claire Bixby was nine, she decided that one day she’d like to live in Hollywood, because she wanted to be in movies. Not that she wanted to be an actress. Far from it. No, Claire wanted to actually be in the movies, to live there, a place where the sun always shone, everything was Technicolor® bright and families lived happily ever after together. There would be no more shouting, no more crying. No hearing the front door slam, one parent leaving never to return—even if she’d discovered she could breathe out more easily after he’d left.
However, as all little girls do, Claire grew up, and she came to understand that nothing was what it seemed in Hollywood. The houses weren’t real. The outsides were just false fronts and the insides built on a sound stage, made up of plywood flats that could be wheeled around depending on where the camera needed to go. And while the sun might shine pretty regularly in California, she suspected that once the actors took off their make-up, they probably went home and shouted at the dog, or discovered their wife was cheating on them with her plastic surgeon, or maybe just went back to their mansion to sit there with the curtains drawn, wondering why their fabulous lives weren’t really that fabulous and if even one of the hangers-on who buzzed around them knew what their real name was.
So by the time Claire had turned thirty-four, she’d never once visited Hollywood, preferring to keep it a dim and distant bubble of fantasy she wasn’t quite yet ready to pop. As a travel agent, however, she did plan trips to Tinseltown for others, which was why on one sunny and rather muggy May morning, she hopped off the number fifty-six bus, thinking not only about the work of the day ahead but smiling slightly at the memory of her childhood naïvety.
She’d slowly been growing her business over the last two years and recently she’d taken the plunge and hired proper office space. It was only a couple of miles from where she lived in Highbury, North London. She’d moved into the premises two months ago, but she still loved turning the corner into an alley that led into a forgotten gem of a courtyard. Whilst most of the surrounding area had been levelled by the Blitz and had been reimagined into vast modern estates by some of Britain’s top architects during the sixties and seventies, a few narrow streets had survived and tiny pockets of nineteenth-century buildings nestled amongst the landscape of grey concrete and geometrical shapes.
Evidence of the old workshops and shopfronts still remained in Old Carter’s Yard. A couple of units were boarded up, yet to be renovated, but the others were filled with small businesses, many of which were wedding-related. It had started with a proposal-planning agency, of all things, and had grown from there. Now there was a bakery that did the most amazing five-tiered creations, a photographer’s studio, a stationer’s and even a wedding accessories shop, which did everything from garters and stockings to waterproof mascara for the big day and plastic tiaras for rowdy hen nights.
Claire walked across the cobbles carefully in her heels and smiled to herself as she saw the sign above the window. Far, Far Away. She still thought it was a great name for a travel agent’s, especially for one that specialised in romantic getaways, even though that hadn’t been part of the plan when she’d left her job as an advertising executive at Webster & Templeton and had set up an office in her living room.
She gave the window display the once-over before turning the key in the lock. The old-fashioned bay window of what had once been a fishmonger’s was now backed with a collage of elegant and romantic destinations: Paris, Venice, the Orient Express. A deserted Caribbean beach with a startling turquoise sea. A picture of a couple silhouetted by the sunset on the verge of what promised to be a meaningful kiss.
Knowing that brides-to-be were drawn to anything that hinted of weddings like a kleptomaniac to something shiny, Claire had draped white tulle around the window and had added a bouquet of silk flowers and a couple of wedding invitations. She’d then tossed a handful of rose petal confetti across everything, so it looked as if they’d been blown in by a soft wind. And at the bottom of the window in gold lettering it said, After the perfect wedding, the perfect honeymoon . . . Her post-wedding bookings had doubled since she’d opened up shop here.
She unlocked the door and stepped inside. Like many buildings in the Victorian courtyard, her shop stayed fairly cool in summer, but London was in the grip of a heatwave and this was the stickiest May on record for more than two decades. It had only been a short walk from the bus stop, but the back of her neck was already damp under her blonde bob and she could feel her tailored red shift dress sticking to her skin. Before she headed for her desk, she propped the door open to encourage fresh air to flow into the space.
She’d only just sat down in her office chair when she heard a rap on the glass of the open door. She looked up to find one of her fellow ‘wedding ghetto’ traders leaning against the jamb.
‘Hey,’ Peggy said, smiling. Today she was in all her vintage glory. Her platinum blonde hair was curled to resemble Marilyn Monroe’s and she wore a fitted pale pink dress covered with small white polka dots. The look was finished off with matching pink stilettos with spotty bows at the toes.
Claire had been friends with Peggy even before she’d rented the office in Old Carter’s Yard. It was through Peggy, who worked two doors down at Hopes & Dreams as a proposal planner, that Claire had discovered the shop space had been available to rent.
Claire smiled back. ‘Hi. Need help with a proposal?’
Peggy nodded and came and sat down in the chair opposite Claire. ‘Nicole asked me to pop down. We have a client who wants to pop the question—sunset at the top of the Eiffel Tower. That bit we can manage, but we’d like you to handle the first-class Eurostar tickets, and give us suggestions of half a dozen romantic hotels in Paris. He hasn’t got a five-star budget, but he’d like it if his fiancée-to-be didn’t guess that.’
Claire smiled. ‘I know some great little boutique hotels on the Left Bank, where you get a bit more pizazz for your euro. What sort of timescale are we looking at?’
‘Their anniversary is on the fourteenth of July. He’d like to do it then.’
‘No problem.’ Claire opened her browser and clicked through a couple of hotel websites. ‘I’ll have preliminary details to you by the beginning of next week.’
Peggy clapped her hands together and grinned. ‘You’re a star! And I’m so glad you took this office over. It’s so much more fun coming down for a visit than sending off a boring old email.’
‘I’m glad too.’ Carving a name for herself in the travel business had been hard. She needed a niche, she’d realised, and thanks to Peggy and Hopes & Dreams she’d found one. Six months after she’d started doing bookings for them she’d moved from general travel planning to concentrating on romantic trips of all kinds—proposals, honeymoons, special anniversaries.
She’d even planned a couple of holidays to help couples conceive. Okay, well, she didn’t actually help them conceive—that was up to them and God—but giving them some much-needed time together where they could relax and let nature take its course, that she could manage.
‘How about a Frappuccino?’ Peggy asked, nodding towards Sweet Nothings, the organic café and bakery just at the entrance to the yard.
Claire frowned. ‘It’s only ten past nine and you’re having a break? I thought you were supposed to be just “popping down”.’
Peggy’s smile didn’t fade one iota. ‘I’m still working,’ she said sweetly. ‘We’ll discuss the Paris trip while we slurp.’
Claire shook her head gently and considered Peggy’s temping offer. When she arrived for work in the mornings, she usually dived straight in and didn’t surface again until her stomach started to rumble, but this morning her throat was dry and a fine bead of sweat was tickling its way down between her shoulder blades. ‘Oh, go on then,’ she muttered.
Peggy sprung up from the chair, grinning harder. Then she held out her hand. It took Claire a couple of moments before she worked out what was going on. Rolling her eyes, she fumbled through her purse then dropped a ten pound note into Peggy’s hand. ‘I want change!’ she yelled after the polka-dotted figure that practically skipped out of the shop.
There can’t have been much of a queue in Sweet Nothings, she thought, because less than a minute later she sensed a presence in the doorway, hardly enough time to blend the ice, let alone dowse it in ice-cold milk and espresso. ‘I need to talk to you about the film club meeting tonight,’ she said, still looking at her computer screen. ‘How do you feel about being our new treasurer?’
A dark silhouette strode into the shop. ‘You know I’d do anything for you,’ a smooth deep voice said.
Claire’s head snapped up.
‘Treasurer of what?’ Doug Martin asked.
Claire shook her head. ‘Nothing you’d be interested in,’ she said, laughing. She saw enough of Mr Martin as it was. ‘Sorry, I thought you were someone else.’
He took a couple of steps into the office. ‘A boyfriend kind of someone else?’
Claire fought hard to keep her denial unspoken. She pasted on her best professional smile. ‘How can I help you, Mr Martin?’
He smiled at her indulgently. ‘Doug. I thought we agreed you were going to call me Doug.’
They had. And it did feel rather old-fashioned to be talking to a customer that way. He was a nice enough man, maybe a little closer to forty than she was, with an unthreatening, slightly boyish face.
‘Okay, Doug . . . What can I help you with?’
He didn’t have a chance to answer, because Peggy swept back in the door, a giant Frappuccino in each hand. She took one look at Doug and stopped in her tracks. ‘Oh, sorry . . . Didn’t realise you had company.’
Claire shot her a ‘save me’ look. Peggy just trotted over to the desk, popped Claire’s drink down two inches to the left of a coaster and whispered so Doug couldn’t hear. ‘Not a chance. Both you and I could do with a few more Y chromosomes in our lives.’
Claire’s brow lowered. You have him then, she mouthed.
Peggy gave her a dazzling smile and headed for the door. ‘I couldn’t possibly poach a client, but you never know . . .’ She blew a kiss at Doug, who received it gratefully. ‘If things go well, he might be knocking on my door soon anyway.’
Claire resisted the urge to throw the fountain pen sitting on her desk at Peggy and impale her to the doorpost with it. She did not need more Y chromosomes in her life. She’d only recently got free of one man and she wasn’t about to fill his space either quickly or indiscriminately.
And, as harmless as Doug was, he just didn’t float her boat. ‘So . . .’ she said, turning her attention back to him, hoping he hadn’t heard their muttered conversation. ‘Where do you want to go this time?’
Doug dropped into the chair Peggy had recently vacated and looked intently at her. ‘I think an island in the South Pacific.’
Claire looked over her shoulder at the world map that sat behind her desk. ‘Any bit of the South Pacific in particular? It’s a pretty big place, and there are thousands of islands.’
When she turned back, Doug looked deep into her eyes. ‘Somewhere secluded . . . romantic.’
‘Uh-uh.’ Claire nodded, but her eyes narrowed. She had a funny feeling she knew where this was going. She winced as she asked the crucial question. ‘How many travellers?’
He leaned even further forward and gave her a meaningful look. ‘I’d like it to be two. How about adding a wedding on a secluded white sandy beach beneath the palm trees?’
‘Doug,’ Claire said wearily ‘we’ve been through this before.’
He shrugged and shifted his weight so he was sitting firmly back in the chair. ‘You can’t blame a man in love for being hopeful, can you?’
Claire sighed. She’d like to, but the truth was she needed to build a customer base with more Dougs. Well, not exactly like him. She could do without the shameless flirting and the twice-weekly proposals, but she needed more repeat customers who kept coming back because she’d done such a good job the last time they couldn’t imagine booking a holiday without her. It was happening, but slowly.
‘No,’ she said, finally answering his question. ‘But I’ve told you before that I don’t love you, Doug. I hardly even know you.’ No matter how many hours he spent emailing or phoning each month. The downside of having a brand-new shiny office was that he now had the opportunity to moon over her in person.
‘Well, you could always make time to try to get to know me, ‘ Doug said. He brightened. ‘I know . . . Let’s forget the wedding and just do the honeymoon!’
Claire couldn’t help but laugh. There was something about Doug’s irrepressible optimism, at least, that was attractive. ‘Now, do you really want me to book this trip for you, or are you just wasting my time?’
His face fell and he sighed. ‘I really want you to book me the trip. Mother says the Cook Islands are on her bucket list and since her time in this mortal realm is coming to a close, I’d better take her there before the year is out.’
Claire smothered a smile. From what she’d gleaned about Doug’s mother, she suspected the old lady would outlive them all. ‘The Cook Islands . . . Now we’re getting somewhere.’ She stood up, walked over to a rack full of brochures, pulled one out and flicked to a page that showed the kind of luxury resort Doug’s mother would appreciate, then handed it to him as she sat down again. ‘What you need is to find a nice girl who likes to travel.’
And doesn’t mind a twenty stone chaperone with a blue rinse, she added silently.
Doug, to his credit, was already bouncing back from her refusal. ‘But you’re a nice girl. And you must like to travel, otherwise why become a travel agent?’
Well, he’d hit the nail on the head there, and there were more than a few destinations on her own bucket list that were still unticked.
‘I do like to travel. And I will . . . But I’ve been very busy getting the new premises up and running and all my time and energy has gone into that.’ And money, she added silently, but he didn’t need to know that, did he?
Anyway, she didn’t like to travel alone—not that she was about to take Doug up on his offer to be his Girl Friday on a deserted tropical island. She wasn’t that desperate. But the last time she’d been away was that horrible trip to Prague with Philip, the last-ditch attempt to do something romantic as their marriage had been falling apart. For some reason, hearing the rumble of case wheels in the pre-dawn quiet just didn’t seem as thrilling any more.
And she wasn’t about to fill the space he’d left behind just because she wanted someone to talk to on a long plane journey. She was enjoying her freedom too much. A few years of staying put in London was a small price to pay for being able to do what she wanted, to fly as high as she could, without those little comments, sharp and penetrating as sniper’s bullets, bringing her smashing back down to earth again.
‘Well, if you won’t come to Rarotonga with me, how about an evening out in the West End?’
Claire blinked and refocused on Doug. She sighed. ‘We’ve talked about dating too.’
‘Oh, it’s not a date,’ he said with a surprisingly straight face. Only the glitter in his eyes gave him away. ‘It’s a party.’
Claire opened her mouth to ask what the difference was, but he barrelled on.
‘Jayce Rider, the guy who took over the Hamilton Hotel and turned its fortunes around is a friend of mine. He likes to throw parties for people in the travel industry and he’s planning one a week tomorrow. I thought you might like to come with me. For purely business reasons, of course.’
She hesitated. Actually, she’d been looking to develop relationships with a couple of high-end London hotels, hoping to be able to give her treasured clients a little bit of luxury at a discount. The Hamilton would be perfect.
She kept her expression neutral as she looked at Doug. ‘I’ll think about it.’
He grinned back at her, reminding her of a puppy who’d been scolded only moments before, but was now wagging its tail, transgression already half forgotten. ‘I’ll pick you up at eight,’ he said, as he rose from his chair and saluted her farewell.
Claire half stood in her chair as he disappeared out of the door. ‘There’ll be ground rules!’ she yelled after him. He didn’t shout anything back, so she wasn’t sure he’d heard her, but, even if he had, she suspected he might find a way to circumvent them.
She let her bottom bump back down into her office chair and then slumped face first onto her desk. The morning was already so clammy that her cheek instantly stuck to the polished surface.
Was that what Doug’s little visit had been all about?
Had he used her guilt at saying no to an all-expenses paid honeymoon to manoeuvre her into saying yes to the party? Which she hadn’t actually done, she reminded herself, even though it felt as if she had.
She peeled her face off the desk and sat up, then stared at her computer screen, thinking she ought to book the whole blooming trip anyway—two tickets, first class but non-refundable, and twin rooms all the way so he had to share with his Gorgon of a mother. Hah! The cancellation fees alone would make him think twice before he pulled another stunt like that on her, before he started messing with her head—
She inhaled sharply.
Claire, you’re being paranoid.
Not every man she met was out to use her as a pawn in his twisted little games. She had to remember that.
She scrubbed her face with her hands and stared out through the open door across the courtyard to Sweet Nothings, and suddenly remembered her Frappuccino perched on the edge of the desk. Half the ice had melted and one side of the swirl of cream had sunk into the liquid, making it look like a rapidly fading iceberg. She took a sip anyway. It was warmer than she would have liked, but at least she wasn’t in danger of brain freeze.
After a couple of slurps of the cool liquid she began to feel a bit more normal again. She laughed softly at herself.
Stupid woman. Of course Doug wasn’t manipulating her. Everything he felt and thought was instantly written all over his face. He didn’t have it in him to scheme and push and lie. Doug Martin had that going for him at least.
The gravity of this revelation hit her. Her eyes opened wide as she reached the bottom of the Frappuccino and it made a loud vacuum-like sound. That meant Doug had one up on almost every other man who’d played a significant role in her life, which made him a much better prospect than she’d given him credit for.
Yikes. That was a seriously sad state of affairs.
She laughed again and shook herself as she aimed the empty Frappuccino cup towards the bin and scored a mental point for getting it in first time. She stood up and reached for her purse. Maybe she should go and get herself a fresh one. If she was starting to consider Doug Martin as prime boyfriend material, the heat of this sticky May morning was definitely getting to her.