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First pages

ONE

Monday morning, around 10 o’clock

PinkBear87: I love olives and ice cream together and jelly babies lots of them. I’m only 13 weeks gone. God only knows what’s going to happen by the end of this…

TatianaTopBanana: I could eat Caesar salad with croutons and egg for every meal… no chicken tho— and did for weeks until DH suggested I might like to vary my diet. I've never liked melons and now I can't get enough of them! My DM said she was exactly the same with me but with oranges. I'm 16 weeks.

SkinnyMumof2: DC1 I couldn't get enough of tinned tomatoes on toast with salt and vinegar. DC2 I craved radishes and ate coffee granules straight from the jar *blush*

 

This Mumsnet conversation is revolting and mesmerising all at the same time. I can’t stop reading it.

It’s like when Anna, my uni roommate, burned her hand in the second year. She said her pinkie had gone completely taut. The skin would probably peel off. I didn’t want to see, but when she showed it to me, I looked anyway. I still remember it. Like a tiny, shrivelled Frankfurter.

 

SamBigSister: Talking about tinned food. That’s how I knew I was pregnant. Went to Tescos to buy lunch. Had a powerful desire for tinned sardines. And blue cheese (eaten together). Followed by an ice rocket lolly slathered in Dijon mustard. On the way back to work I passed the chemist and thought perhaps a pregnancy test would be a wise move—DD is now 14.

 

OK, that’s just awful.

Ice lolly and Dijon mustard in one! The mere thought of it makes me shudder.

And what’s with the abbreviations? DC1, DC2, DD. I feel like I’m back at school doing Computer Science. All those RAMs, CPUs, USBs, and RTPs used to do my head in. I still don’t know what most of them stand for. It’s not like I’ve ever needed them.

But this is not a sciency chat. This is a mumsy website, on which people are supposed to talk about school morning hacks and how much they lie to their doctors. I was expecting to read about other people’s alcohol units—it took me a while to master those—and to admit I tie my hair with a dirty sock sometimes when I can’t be bothered. Not to require Oxford’s Dictionary of Abbreviations to make my way around.

I put aside my tea and type.

 

AshleyPiccolaMia: Hi, ladies. Sorry to barge in, but what’s DC1? And DM?

SkinnyMumof2: You new here love?

AshleyPiccolaMia: Yeah! Just joined.

PinkBear87: Go to acronyms’ page darling…

AshleyPiccolaMia: Will do.

SkinnyMumof2: And welcome on board AshleyPiccolaMia

AshleyPiccolaMia: Thanks *smile*

SkinnyMumof2: DC = dear child DH = dear husband

AshleyPiccolaMia: Aaah. Now it makes sense *smile* Thanks ladies.

 

They are nice and welcoming. All mums are, I suppose.

I came to Mumsnet a couple of hours ago, because I had to… er… can’t quite remember… Was it the “Find your work/life balance” article? Or the kitten meme? There was this video of a kitten munching on food granules and going “om nom nom nom”. So cute!

Anyway. I can’t remember why I came to Mumsnet. But I’m sure I had valid, work-related reasons. My work involves doing lots of research online. I have my own cookery show. It’s called The Sinking Chef. It’s on YouTube and I started it about six months ago but already have close to 200k subscribers. I'm quite proud of this, actually.

I spend my days recipe-hunting and gloating over food. I have to find new material for the episodes we are about to film this Thursday. Also, I have to keep an eye on the competition. Hence, I’m online a lot.

Sometimes one click leads to another. And I veer away from the strictly-research path of me being on the internet. And before I know it I’m reading some strange ladies’ conversation about pregnancy cravings. It happens. No biggie…

 

TatianaTopBanana: Welcome to the website where BC stands for “before children” LOL

AshleyPiccolaMia: Thanks! *smile*

TatianaTopBanana: Congrats on your pregnancy!

PinkBear87: How far are u gone darling?

AshleyPiccolaMia: Oh, I’m not pregnant!

 

I giggle self-consciously into my fist. Giacomo would die laughing when I tell him that some ladies online thought I was expecting. I mean, we are not even married yet. We are not even trying. First things first, right.

Giacomo is my boyfriend of three years. We live together in Belsize Park in this beautiful, stucco house painted mint green. He's Italian, and gorgeous, and I still have to pinch myself every morning I wake up next to him. He has the kindest dark olive eyes I’ve seen. When we had our cookery show back on Parallel TV he used to get more fan mail than me. I honestly don't know what I've done to deserve him.

He owns four restaurants. One of them, Il Luogo, is this capacious and airy eatery at the heart of Canary Warf. It’s the talk of the town. It’s very successful, I think. I don’t know much about restaurant business. Giacomo knows a lot. His family has been restaurant owners for three generations.

Giacomo is originally from Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy. A place I’d never been before I met him. Now we go there quite a lot. We visit his family and holiday on the beach. It’s quite thrilling, actually, for a girl like me. Until three years ago I’d only left England once (Amsterdam. Horrible school trip. Don’t let me start—). Now I go to Europe five times a year. I’ve even sailed on a yacht. It’s not such a big deal in Sardinia. Lots of people sail there. It is an island, after all.

That’s where the name for my cookery show comes from. The Sinking Chef.

I had to cook lunch once, while we were sailing. The boat was so tilted on its side I could see water splashing over the portholes. I ran to the deck and asked Giacomo if we were going to sink. He laughed and said “No. But if we were sinking you’d be a sinking chef.” The name stuck. When we stopped doing our cookery show together—Giacomo had too much going on with his restaurants—I started my own show online and called it The Sinking Chef. It’s been a blast.

I take a sip of my lukewarm tea and suppress a shudder. I need to make a fresh cup. I’m just about to get up when the next line in the chat appears on the screen and takes me unawares.

 

PinkBear87: How old is/are your DCs?

 

DC must be “dear children”. Aw, bless. She thinks I have kids.

Now, when I think of it, it might get a bit awkward if I tell the truth. Which is that I’m not pregnant, don’t intend to be any time soon, and don’t have kids.

Shall I lie?

Make up a kid or two and talk about them as if they were real? It can't be that hard imagining what it'd be like to have children. I’ve read all about it on the internet. That’s the power of being connected to knowledgeable individuals via the World Wide Web. You acquire first-hand knowledge on all sorts of subjects without ever having to get your hands dirty.

For example, I’ve read that looking after kids involves tantrums in supermarkets and poo-faced embarrassment when they start talking. Also, a lot of buttered toast for some reason. I’m not quite sure why.

And it’s not like I haven't thought about baby names. I have. Of course I have. It's one of those things you don't want to be caught unprepared for. That's how kids end up being named Hashtag and Lucifer – all because their parents didn't start thinking of suitable baby names soon enough. That's not going to happen to my kids.

My “son” will be called Gianluca and my “daughter” Vittoria.

Giacomo doesn’t know the names of our kids, yet. I haven't discussed this with him. No point burdening him with needless information. He's quite busy as it is.

I focus my eyes on the screen where PinkBear87 is patiently waiting for my reply.

My fingers are poised over the keyboard but I don’t type anything. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to lie about these things. It’s bad karma, isn’t it?

What if I jinks it? And when we start trying for a baby—which I’m sure we will as soon as Giacomo pops the question—we can’t conceive?

Scenes from Giacomo’s and my barren future play before my eyes on fast forward.

We'd both be heartbroken.

We’d drift apart and eat our pasta at dinnertime in complete silence. No more banter. No more laughter. No more hand-holding.

We’d spend hours in the loo avoiding one another.

We’d be that couple at parties people point at and whisper: “They really tried, bless them. Doctors. IVFs. The lot. Nothing came out of it. Poor sods.”

He’d leave me for somebody younger. I'd be desolate. Probably commit suicide.

All this because I lied. On Mumsnet. Once.

No. Can't do it. This is too important.

I have to tell the truth…

 

AshleyPiccolaMia: We don’t have kids yet. Just… you know… preparing myself for what’s to come *smile*

SkinnyMumof2: Are you struggling to conceive?

PinkBear87: Poor you. I've been there. It’s hard at that stage isn't it. Stop worrying and it’ll happen for you…

SkinnyMumof2: DC2 took us 6 months of trying…

TatianaTopBanana: It’s easier said than done to tell her to stop worrying PinkBear87. It could be very irritating (True tho' it may be!) 

PinkBear87: I know I know…

SkinnyMumof2: Just hang in there darling…

TatianaTopBanana: A year is the average amount of time it takes to conceive AshleyPiccolaMia… How long have you been trying?

 

Dear God.

They've misunderstood me. And they’re so incredibly kind. I feel terrible for misleading them like this. I need to say something.

Otherwise I’ll be like that woman who told people she had cancer. And conned everyone into giving her money and stuff for months. She had a website, and a donation page, and everything. When she finally came clean she claimed she had been conducting a social experiment.

People were outraged.

I don’t want to be the woman who claims to be trying for a baby when she’s not. What if I’m found out somehow? I’d be mortified.

 

AshleyPiccolaMia: We are not necessarily trying. I mean, we are having sex *smile*— but we're taking it as it comes— we are both young and have plenty of time…

SkinnyMumof2: You know what they say… don’t leave it till it’s too late…

PinkBear87: That's what my DM thought and then tick-tock she was 38 when she had me. It nearly didn't happen for her…

AshleyPiccolaMia: I'm not 38!

PinkBear87: I'm not saying you are but before you know it time is running out faster than you know darling…

TatianaTopBanana: How old are you if you don’t mind me asking?

AshleyPiccolaMia: 29.

TatianaTopBanana: I’m 22 and I’m already pregnant!

SkinnyMumof2: 25 with 2DCs

 

I stare at the screen exasperated.

Am I being pressured by a bunch of women I've never met before into having a baby asap? Isn't that like the most important decision in your life? One that you don't take lightly but think about long and hard? Preferably with your partner. Haven’t these women ever heard of family planning?

Then it dawns on me. I know what’s happening here. This is cyberbullying. It’s when people use social networks in a deliberate manner to harass other people. I’ve read a lot about this on the internet. There’ve been suicides. Jobs had been lost over this.

I just never thought it’d happen to me.

I rub my nose with the back of my hand. I brush against the mug of tea, which I’ve put too close to the edge of the table. It shakes perilously. A few droplets splatter over Giacomo's beige shag pile rug.

‘Shit!’ I jump up and rescue the mug from toppling over. I run to the kitchen for some paper towel and dab the droplets until they dissipate.

‘Phew!’ I plonk back in the chair. Where was I?

I peer at the screen.

 

SkinnyMumof2: But if u are not pregnant and u don’t have kids and u are not necessarily trying what are u doing on mumsnet AshleyPiccolaMia?

 

She has a point.

What exactly am I doing on Mumsnet? On a non-bank holiday Monday. When everyone is hard at work milking the cash cow or saving the world.

I can’t tell the truth. Because… thing is… the reason I’m online so much and spend all this time talking to people on Mumsnet and Gay.com (it only happened once! I was curious…) is because I’m bored.

Ever since I moved my cookery show online I don't get out much. The TV crew I work with comes to the house to do the filming. It’s cheaper that way and Giacomo's kitchen is way more swanky-looking than most of the studios’ ones out there.

I’m terribly, mind-numbingly, tear-jerkingly bored.

I get all my groceries delivered.

I don't have a pet to keep me company. Not even a goldfish—

 

 

AshleyPiccolaMia: Finding new friends I guess *smile*

SkinnyMumof2: On mumsnet of all places…

PinkBear87: How has it come to this? To look for friends online? You should be going out there. You should be meeting with real people…

TatianaTopBanana: Honestly, AshleyPiccolaMia you should get a life.

SkinnyMumof2: Yeah. Why don’t you go out instead of lurking online?

PinkBear87: No offence AshleyPiccolaMia but that sounds a bit weird… like stalking…

 

I gasp. Lurking? Stalking? It’s not like that at all.

 

AshleyPiccolaMia: That’s not what I’m doing!

 

But everyone has left the chatroom.

‘Well, that went well.’ I say to nobody in particular. My voice echoes in the empty room. I put my hands to my face. My cheeks are flaming hot. Whatever. I don’t need to talk to people. There are lots of things I could be doing instead.

Like… I look at the clock at the bottom of the screen. It’s quarter to eleven. I could have an early lunch.

I get up and walk towards the kitchen.

“You should be meeting real people…” suddenly springs into my mind.

Pagh! She should try meeting “real people” in London. Where nobody even looks at you. Where everyone is glib and rushed and brushes you off in a jiffy. And even if you manage to make friends with someone it turns out they live in Sidcup or Baxley. An hour’s drive away. And practically never come to London except for work.

I march from the dining table to the kitchen in an increasing strop. It’s easy to talk when…

Then I stop in my tracks. I turn towards the front door and stare at it for a few seconds. There, caught in the flap and hanging for dear life, is a letter. It’s a handsome letter, in a silky cream envelope with a fancy stamp at the top right corner. I can clearly see my name written on it in blue ink. In really elaborate handwriting.

A surge of excitement jabs me in the ribs. Somebody has taken the time to write my name on a letter. By hand!

It’s not that I don’t get letters. I get tons of them. Bills, and brochures, and the occasional reminder from the tax man to cough up my annual contribution to the bigger pot. But they are ugly letters. With printed stickers with my name on them. In nothing-special envelopes.

This letter is pretty… I like pretty.

I rush to get it so fast I trip over my own feet.

I plummet forward.

My forehead nearly misses the edge of the side table.

My right knee gives an alarming crack as it meets with the floor.

‘Bugger!’ I stay on all fours panting, until the pain subsides. I know that the blinding pain of the first few seconds never lasts. A moment later it’ll turn into something akin to toothache – throbbing and dull. And if there is no permanent damage that pain will disappear soon, too.

That kind of knowledge comes with experience. I’ve had a lot of experience of falling down, bumping into furniture, cutting myself and even slapping myself with a fish across the face. I’ve only done that once. I was cooking in one of Giacomo’s restaurants’ kitchens and I was trying to take the skin off a poor piece of salmon. Who knew fish was so slippery, right? Not me.

I massage my knee with my fingers. It’s sore but nothing seems to be broken.

‘That was close.’ I slowly heave myself up grabbing the edge of the side table.

I brush a strand of hair off my face. I’m fine. I’ll be fine. I have a handwritten letter to look forward to.

Limping forward, I get to the front door and yank the plush envelope out of the flap. Up close the letter is even more luxurious. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited about a letter.

Was it when I got my first book reminder from the library? I was nine and for a while I thought that was the first letter I’d ever received. Mum said I’ve had doctors’ appointments from way before that, so that was a bit of a damper.

Or was it when I got my GCSE results? Mum had opened them before I got home, though. She told me the results as soon as I was through the door so it wasn't like I got to tear open an envelope and be surprised or something. I got an A in English, A in Media/Film/TV studies and C in Home Economics. I only did Home Economics because I thought it was going to be easy. Epic fail.

The bottom line is: it’s been a long time since I had a letter I was excited about. And this one looks very exciting.

I tear the flap open with my index finger. I pull a card out.

 

To Ms Ashley Burke

SALONE DEL MOBILE ZinHome

An Unexpected Welcome

 

We have the pleasure of inviting you

To our annual SOFA SALE

 

14 Gees Court

London W1U

 

I blink.

A sofa sale.

I've got excited over a circular. In a posh envelope. For a sofa sale.

Could I get any more desperate?

In a daze, I walk out into the garden. The short and stubby grass pricks at my feet through the sides of my slippers. I hardly feel it. It’s a beautiful day outside – clear and warm. Buzzing with life. I see none of this as I stumble out. My brain is buzzing with life all of its own.

“Honestly… you should get a life.”

“How has it come to this? To look for friends online?”

I know the ladies on Mumsnet can’t judge me. They don’t know me at all. But they are right: something has gone terribly wrong. I feel tangled. In my perfect life, of all places.

I stagger towards the gazebo at the bottom of the garden. It’s visible through the branches of an old oak. The air is so fresh out here it makes me light-headed and giddy. The scent of damp earth assaults my senses as I take a few deep breaths.

I’m fine. I’ll be fine. It’s just one of those mornings. It will pass.

I have a beautiful life. A boyfriend who loves me and a gorgeous house people would kill to live in. I’m not even exaggerating. I read in the MailOnline that it's a housing hysteria out there. Eight buyers are chasing after every home for sale. The property market is reaching new levels of insanity.

I mean look at this place. It’s stunning. That brick wall over there covered in creepers and vine. This gazebo with its mossy wooden benches. The thing over there, that I suspect is an old rotting door, but is now covered in ivy and looks quite charming.

I'm so grateful for all this beauty and peace. I’m so happy to be living here in this magnificent house with this fabulous garden. And with the person I love.

I’m the luckiest person alive.

 

 

Monday, just before noon

 

Oh, for Christ's sake! Who am I kidding?

I don’t feel grateful or lucky at all.

I feel lonely, and lost, and hopeless. And bored out of my mind. I feel like everyone else is having the time of their lives, working hard and having babies. Everyone except me.

My life is passing me by as I sit in this house that feels more like a prison to me. I need to do something.

I need a challenge!

Perhaps, I could repaint the gazebo? I flick a speck of green paint that’s peeled so badly there is hardly anything left of it. I could get dressed and go to Home Base on Finchley Road. Home Base is always fun. Last time I was there I got…

The pocket of my dressing gown starts vibrating. It’s my mobile phone! Someone’s calling me. I take it out and look at the little screen.

That can’t be right. It’s James. James Boone.

I haven’t spoken to him in years – not since I snogged him in the toilet at work and his fiancée caught us at it. I got fired. They got married.

What on Earth does he want now?

TWO

A long time ago—a lifetime ago, actually—James and I had a fling.

It was before I met Giacomo and before a bunch of stuff happened that changed my life.

I haven't thought of James in ages. Apart from that weird dream a couple of months ago where James and I were together in a rowing boat in Chichester ship canal. It was spring. I had my hand dipped in the warming waters. He was telling me how pretty I looked in my blue dress. Like Lady Macbeth, he said, at the beginning of the play. Silly dream. I have no idea why I had it.

The point is that last time we spoke was in the corridors of Parallel TV. Giacomo and I were filming Pot Love there. And that was it.

Meanwhile James got married to Amanda. I wish them all the best. They were made for each other. They had the ceremony at his parents’ high-windowed period Regency home in South East Sussex. I heard Amanda looked like a cream puff in her dress and the wedding cake tasted as if it’d been made in China and shipped over in a freight container.

Vedhika told me all this. She was doing Amanda’s make-up and hair. Vedhika is a professional make-up artist and one of my best friends. She’s half-Indian, half-Swedish, completely crazy and absolutely gorgeous. I love her to bits. She also said that Amanda had turned into the worst Bridezilla there ever was and cried when James and she cut the wrong tier of the wedding cake. Whatever that means.

Good job Giacomo and I weren’t invited to the wedding. I don’t particularly like it when people disgrace themselves in public. It’s cringe-worthy. There’s never a good enough reason to do it.

I know Amanda still works at Parallel TV, but James is no longer a programming director there. He works for his dad now, in his publishing business.

It's not that I'm keeping tabs or anything. Vedhika does the odd make-up job for Parallel, so she told me.

‘Ashley.’ A posh male voice gurgles in my ear as soon as I pick up the phone.

‘Hi, James.’

‘What a pleasant surprise to hear your voice.’

‘Sure.’ I say unconvinced. James has always been a flatterer. I expect that this call has a purpose, which I’ll find out in due course.

‘Just a sec. Let me make it cosier in here—’ I hear footsteps on the other end of the line and the creaking of a door. ‘Jolly good. It’s just the two of us now. How have you been my little unobtainable bottle of Lucozade? My melting snow cap of a faraway elusive Earth pole?’

‘What?’ Banter has never been my strong point. Banter is all James does.

‘I’ve been thinking about you. Have you been thinking about me?’

‘I don’t think so.’ I say trying not to sound apologetic. James does this thing where he makes people feel guilty if they don’t succumb to his will. Even now, after he’s done so many horrible things to me, I’d rather not say anything that’d hurt his feelings.

‘Never mind. You can tell me in person. I’m taking you out to lunch.’

‘What?’ I take the phone away and look at the screen. As if I could find answers there. There is just the calm, red button staring back at me.

‘Have you anything else planned? I hope not.’

‘You mean now?’ Is it just me or is it a bit strange to call somebody out of the blue and ask them to lunch in a couple of hours?

‘I’m working from the London office this week and it seems nobody here understands the carpe diem. Everyone has everything planned down to a T. Such bores. What is a spontaneous chap like me to do?’ He sounds gruff. Like a little boy not getting the toy he wants. I bet his bottom lip is protruding slightly forward as well. I remember that James. I almost want to laugh.

‘Thing is—’

‘Or we could do dinner?’ James cuts across me. ‘I know this hampered little place on Sloane Square called The Botanist.’

I doubt that any restaurant James knows is “hampered” and “little”. And if we’re talking about Sloane Square it’d certainly be some capacious and noisy space full of slick-combed people clad in Gucci and bathed in Moschino.

‘I’m dying for the Steak Tartare they do there. They hand-chop the beef and serve it with capers and a runny egg yolk. I’m salivating as we speak. It’s absolutely gorge—’ James is totally oblivious to my silence. ‘And if you’re not a strict meat and heavy carbs person they have Italian buratta with figs and—’

‘James—’ I give up.

‘—and truffle honey for starters—’

‘James—’ I’ve forgotten how James could listen to his own voice all day long.

‘Or crab linguini—’

‘James!’ I raise my voice. ‘Lunch is fine.’

‘Jolly good. I shall take you to The Forest Restaurant. It’s on the roof of Selfridges. They do the meanest Welsh lamb ribs—’

And he’s off again.

I use James’s chinwag to ponder over what this call could be really about. Three years of frosty silence and then “BAM!” – let me take you to lunch. There's got to be something in this.

I feel a surge of excitement. I haven’t been taken out to lunch in ages. Even if it is just by silly, old James.

 

 

The restaurant James has chosen is as posh as they get. I don't think I've ever been in one of Selfridge's restaurants before. Looking around I know why. What do I have in common with suburban well-kept wives who’ve left their Range Rovers at carparks in NW3 and taken the tube for a fun day out? Or rich tourists who have come to London hoping to bump into the Queen, Bill Nighy or similar? Nothing. I don’t fit in here. Why would I ever want to come?

I walk past the table of a Deborah Meaden lookalike. She claps a jewel-studied hand over her pearl necklace in genuine outrage when she's told she cannot smoke under the awning. It's still considered indoors.

At the next table is a young couple taking selfies with a dessert. He has his Fuchsia jumper wrapped around his shoulders. Her Burberry plaid poncho is casually flung over the chair opposite. She's got the thinnest wrists and ankles I've ever seen. They babble in a melodic language I can’t quite identify. I hope they have a wonderful time in London.

I’m glad I put on my Diane von Furstenberg dress and that I slapped on a bit of make-up. My dress is duck-yellow flecked with diagonal black dots and apparently makes me look like a beautiful sunflower. Or so Giacomo tells me. Nobody here needs to know that my DVF comes from eBay and not the shelves of the swanky department store below my feet. That’s strictly between me and buythebestbuy52, who sold it to me for thirty quid plus postage and packing. I won’t tell anyone about our deal if she doesn’t. And I’m pretty sure she won’t.

I scan the room for James. I see him right at the end of a long row of tables. He’s taken a seat on the bisque-coloured banquette running along one of the walls. The wall itself is lined up with real birch tree trunks.

As I walk towards James I notice that the table next to him is taken by a mousy-looking woman nibbling on avocado slices on toast and sipping a glass of white wine. The floor around her is peppered with Selfridges’ signature bright yellow bags of all shapes and sizes.

‘Ashley!’ James gets up to greet me and pulls me into a tight embrace. ‘Look at you. You look radiant!’

I frantically search for something nice to say back to him. James’s appearance is a bit of a shocker. His body has swelled up significantly in size since the last time I saw him. His face looks haggard, like that of a man who’s hitting the wine a little too much.

‘You don’t look too bad yourself.’ I manage with a smile.

By the way his face relaxes I get it that I've done the right thing not mentioning his weight-gain. I reckon he gets a lot of grief about it from Amanda and his parents without me jumping on the bandwagon as well.

‘You are too kind. Please, sit, sit.’

‘Thanks.’ I pull out a chair and smooth my skirt before sitting down.

‘So glad you could make it. It reminds me of the good old days before all that marriage malarkey we got ourselves into. Remember?’

He grabs a handful of tiny pretzels from the ceramic bowl between us and shoves them in his mouth.

‘Yeah.’ I say evasively. I don't necessarily see our times together as “good”. More like… transforming. ‘How is Amanda?’

James looks a tad deflated by my question. He takes his time chewing the pretzels and swallowing them hard.

‘Good, good.’ He nods. ‘She’s… a bit distracted these days. Lots to do. You know how it is.’

I flash him the quickest of smiles. I haven’t the faintest idea what he means – I haven’t been any kind of busy in the last six months.

I pick up the lunch menu from the table and study it. Amanda is—was—my archenemy. That time I thought James wanted hook up with me he was going out with Amanda. I thought he had broken up with her and we were about to go to a mini-break as, you know, a girlfriend and boyfriend. It turned out none of it was true. Amanda and he were still very much an item. That's when the whole snog-in-the-loo-and-caught-by-his-fiancée thing happened. Smoochgate I call it. I lost my job. Broke up with Simon. Had to move to London.

Meanwhile the repercussions for James were none.

Anyway. All turned out well. I met Giacomo. Learned to cook. I’m happier now than I ever was back in Chichester.

‘Nice dress.’ James points me up and down with his index finger. Then turns the finger on himself. ‘I’m a bit of a polka-dot lover myself.’

‘Yeah?’ Looking at his tightly-stretched shirt with polka-dot smiley faces printed all over it, I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing. ‘I suppose you are.’

‘Us polka-dot lovers should stick together.’ He scoops another handful of pretzels into his mouth and chews them fast. ‘Although, I love stripes and plaids as well. And I’ve been even known to wear the odd paisley-patterned shirt in my nappy years. Yeah.’

‘Right.’ I smile politely.

‘Anyway. Bollocks to me. It’s all about you today.’ He leans forward and clasps my hand in his, peering sincerely into my eyes. ‘How have you been? How is life in the metropolis treating you?’

I’m lost for words for a second. I feel distinctly uncomfortable having my hand in James’s. I did not expect any form of physical contact when I accepted this invitation to lunch.

James carries on. ‘I’ll grab us a bottle of wine, shall I? Then we can have a nice chat. Fancy Barolo? Barolo here is good. 2008 or 2009, I think. Excellent stuff.’

He lets go of my hand and waves in the air to a waiter passing by. ‘Hello, old chap!’ The waiter doesn’t see him at first so James stands up full length to attract his attention. ‘A bottle of Barolo, please. Two glasses. Thanks!’

‘Coming right away, sir.’ The waiter hands us a menu card each and retreats.

James plonks back on the banquette, delighted with the prospect of wine coming his way. The weight of his body catapults in the air the petite woman sitting next to him. She nearly drops an avocado slice down the front of her taupe dress. She gives James a fierce sidelong glance to no avail.

‘God, I've forgotten how lovely you are.’ James stares at me. ‘You are so sexy in that dress.’

OK, what’s going on? James has never paid me that many compliments before. And now it’s more inappropriate than ever. I mean, he’s married. I’m with Giacomo.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Sylvia Ashby is fond of the written word: books, blog posts, recipes, even an explanation to the HM Revenue & Customs as to why she thinks skirts should be exempt from VAT - she's written it all! She likes travelling and has lived all over Europe - London, Brussels, Amsterdam and Sofia, Bulgaria. Currently, she lives in Leuven, Belgium with her husband, daughter, son and a sparrow called Jack, who comes occasionally to peck the seeds she leaves for him on top of the garden shed.

Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
"Pot Love" 1 & 2 are books about Ashley Burke - a clumsy, brave and endearing girl who is somehow always in trouble. In the first book, Ashley has to learn to cook within a month to get a new job. In the second, she has to solve a mystery to save Giacomo - the love of her life - from financial ruin.
Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
A.
Writing takes me everywhere. One minute I'm browsing Mumsnet for pregnancy cravings, next I'm researching photographic equipment or the bars around Paddington station, where Ashley would meet her stepdad. It's a thrilling, constant journey and I'm loving it!
Q. Why do you write?
A.
I've read somewhere that "a non-writing writer is a writer courting insanity". Writing is a way of giving my overactive imagination a release. Otherwise, the stories inside my head will drive me nuts.

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