It’s almost 9 by the time the obligatory drinks party is over and my jaw aches from smiling at people I don’t know while I listen to their self-indulgent self-promotion. I’m a last-minute replacement for Helen, my team leader, who has food poisoning. Allegedly. To be honest, I’m pretty sure salmonella is just an excuse: her way of avoiding yet another tedious conference with endless slides of sales figures and excruciating small talk with people who actually care about data systems.
What makes me really annoyed, though, is the fact that I’m meant to be spending the weekend in Hertfordshire, in a luxury spa resort as part of Megan’s hen do. We’ve been best friends since the age of six – I’m her chief bridesmaid! – but instead of sipping Prosecco in a jacuzzi, I’ve had to contend with some very dodgy cheap wine, a couple of cocktail onions, and some cheese and pineapple on sticks.
It doesn’t improve when I take the lift to the fourth floor, thinking I’ll make an early night of it. The Gatwick hotel’s a budget venue and even my room gives off an air of defeat, as if it too expected something better. There’s the obligatory travel kettle, along with assorted sachets of something that may or may not taste like tea or coffee, but no milk. I think about ringing reception, then decide to head back downstairs and try the bar. A glass or two of decent Sauvignon Blanc, if they have it, might help to send me off to sleep.
There’s some sort of raucous event going on in a corner of the room that masquerades as restaurant by day and a bar by night. Judging by the loud singing and cheering, I estimate they’ve been at it for some time. Rugby fans, perhaps. I know there’s an important match tomorrow, although I don’t have a clue who’s playing. I settle myself on an empty barstool, away from the noise, and try to catch the barman’s attention.
He finally turns to me and I’m just about to ask which white wines he has when a voice behind me cuts in. “Another ten pints, please, mate.”
I swivel my head, ready to protest that I was there first, but one glance at the guy looking back at me makes me forget not just my complaint but how to form actual words. He’s tall and well-muscled, dressed in jeans and a khaki shirt that accentuates the similar colour of his eyes. Dark hair flops over his brow and his designer stubble is just the right length to give him a slightly edgy look. He’s the sexiest man I’ve ever seen. He smiles at me, and my brain turns to jelly.
“I’m sorry. Were you waiting to order? I didn’t realise.” He pulls out a credit card and taps it on the machine the barman’s thrust in front of him. “Let me buy you a drink to apologise.”
I hesitate. This sounds like a pick-up line, but he’s with friends.
His gaze follows mine to the rowdy bunch in the corner. “They won’t miss me for ten minutes.”
“Okay, then,” I say, surprising myself. “I’ll have a Sauvignon Blanc. Thanks.”
He orders two: one for me and one for himself. “Cheers,” he says as our hands raise the glasses.
I’m having a drink with a good-looking stranger. This is not how my Friday evenings usually turn out.
“So, what’s the big event?” I ask, gesturing towards his friends.
“Stag night.” The words seem detached, as if he’s not in a party mood. “You know how it is when you meet up with people you haven’t seen in years – you run out of things to talk about, so you end up just drinking instead.”
“You seem pretty sober,” I say without thinking.
He grins. “Low-alcohol lager. But don’t tell the others. I’ve got a reputation to maintain.” A pause. “I’m Jared, by the way.”
“Lucy,” I say.
“So, Lucy, why are you here in a dump like this?”
I smile. “Work conference – and it’s as boring as hell.” But it’s just got a lot better.
“My evening’s just got better too,” he says.
Damn! I didn’t realise I’d said that thought out loud.
I catch his eye. Ridiculous though it sounds, there’s something between us – some sort of connection which makes me want to spend the rest of the evening sitting in the bar with him instead of in my room, alone, with only my phone for company.
“Do you want to go somewhere else?” he asks, putting down his glass then reaching out his hand to brush the hair from my face. I tingle at his touch.
Tension crackles between us. He’s waiting for an answer.
When I finally nod, he orders a bottle of wine, then takes my hand. “Your room or mine?” he asks, leading me towards the lift.
The lift’s empty, but we don’t jump on each other, tearing off our clothes and combusting in passion. Instead, we’re surprisingly controlled, savouring the waiting, the anticipation.
We reach my floor a moment later and I fish out my key. “402,” I say, as if this is the sort of thing I do every day.
Once inside, I’m suddenly shy. What am I doing? I don’t normally sleep with people I’ve only just met. I don’t know what the rules are. Who’s supposed to make the first move?
“This room’s even worse than mine!” he says, poking the bed doubtfully and wincing at the boing from the mattress.
“I think it’s one of the cheaper ones,” I say, my mind casting around for topics of conversation. “The firm I work for doesn’t like spending money. The budget…”
But his lips are on mine and I forget all about budgets and substandard rooms as I allow the heady feeling to overpower me. His kisses are more intoxicating than the wine I’d drunk downstairs and I stagger slightly, no longer in control of my faculties. Almost before I know what’s happening, we’re lying on the lumpy mattress, his hands roaming my body as his kisses explore my mouth.
This is all moving a little too fast. I pull away with reluctance and sit up.
“No?” He gives me a questioning look.
“I don’t know. Can we… slow things down a little?”
He moves off the bed and crosses to the desk that’s welded to the wall and the tray of tea and coffee facilities. Grabbing two teacups, he opens the wine and pours us both a generous measure. “I’m not plying you with alcohol to make you say yes,” he adds. “I just thought another drink might relax you.”
I take a deep sip of wine. It tastes different from a teacup: slightly sour and almost apologetic.
“Before things go any further,” I say, “I need to tell you something. I’ve never done this before.” In case he thinks I mean it’s my first time, I clarify. “I mean, I’ve slept with people before, but only when we’ve been in a relationship. I don’t do one-night stands.”
“I don’t do one-night stands either,” he says, his eyes boring into mine. The silence stretches between us. “But I need to tell you something too. I’m involved with someone right now.”
I’m surprised by how much his honesty hurts.
“I’ve never cheated before,” he says. “I’ve never wanted to.”
I know I should tell him to leave, to walk away and go back to his girlfriend, but I can still feel that undefinable ache of attraction and I know he feels it too.
“So, what do we do?” I ask at last.
“I don’t know.”
Only inches separate us on the bed, but there’s a gulf of longing between us.
Slowly, tentatively, he closes the gap, putting his arms around me and holding me. I want him so much – but not while he’s someone else’s.
“We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” he says, stroking my hair. “We could just sit here all night and talk – get to know each other.”
I turn my head and kiss him, pulling away when it gets too interesting. “If I let you… make love to me…” I can’t look at him while I say it, “then it wouldn’t mean anything, would it?”
It feels like a hundred years before he gives his answer. “Maybe not in the long run – but it might be pretty special at the time.”
That’s when I realise that lies hurt less than the truth.
In the end, we talk and we kiss and we eventually fall asleep together, fully clothed. He’s still holding me when I wake up, and my heart aches at the knowledge I won’t see him again.
I’m lying there, trying to take a mental snapshot of him, when he opens his eyes a moment later. “Morning, Beautiful,” he says, kissing me gently.
I feel like crying.
“For what it’s worth,” he says as he puts on his shoes and prepares to leave, “that was the best night I’ve ever spent with anyone.”
I can feel a tear forming. I try to blink it away.
“Maybe in another life…” I say softly.
“Maybe in another life,” he agrees, opening the door and walking away forever.
I somehow get through the rest of the conference – it finishes at 4 but there’s a curry night later this evening. I’m not going: if I leave now, I can be at the spa resort by 7 and have tonight and the whole of Sunday with Megan and the others. It’s a couple of years since I’ve seen her: she moved to Chislehurst when she got a teaching job in Tunbridge Wells, and the closeness we’d had fizzled out a little. That’s why I felt touched that she still wanted me as her chief bridesmaid. I haven’t met her fiancé yet or even seen pictures of him. Meg’s school’s very strict on keeping low profiles on social media. Apparently, they had a bit of a problem a year ago when kids were trawling Facebook and Instagram for photos of teachers and posting hybrid-videos they’d made themselves on TikTok.
I arrive just in time to get changed and go to dinner with Megan and the other hens in the resort’s restaurant. This place couldn’t be more different to the sad little hotel at Gatwick. I attack mushrooms in a creamy wine and garlic sauce, listening to the conversation of the others as they fill me in on what I’ve missed so far. This morning, they all had seaweed wraps, followed by saunas, facials and mani-pedis this afternoon, but it seems like Megan’s been having a few extra ‘treatments’ as well.
“See that waiter over there?” Jacinta murmurs. “The one with blond hair and tight trousers? Well, last night, he and Megan…” She drops her voice to a whisper as she details what Megan told her she’d got up to.
“Is it true?” I ask Meg as dessert arrives. “Did you really sleep with that waiter.”
She lowers her gaze as if embarrassed, then gives a rather forced laugh. “What Ged doesn’t know won’t hurt him. Hen dos are all about having one last fling before you settle down. Anyway,” she smiles ruefully, “I’m sure he’s having the time of his life on his stag weekend. I won’t be surprised if I find out he’s had sex with a stripper or something worse.”
Her casual attitude bothers me. It sounds like they have a fairly open relationship. I know some people don’t mind their partners seeing other people, but it’s not something I’d want to do myself. The image of Jared appears unbidden in my mind and I push it away. He’s someone else’s. No point in wanting what I can’t have.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” I say at last. “The idea of him being with someone else?”
She sighs. “I’m twenty-eight. If I want to have kids, I need to start thinking about it soon – before I get too old to cope with sleepless nights. Ged seemed like someone who’d be a good father – that’s why I proposed to him.”
I’d known she’d asked him, but not the reason why. Megan’s own parents divorced when she was eight, and I get the impression that she wants to create the family life she didn’t have herself growing up.
“So as long as he’s a good dad to any kids you have together, you don’t care if he’s faithful?” I ask bluntly.
“Well, I’d rather he didn’t cheat on me, but it wouldn’t be a deal-breaker,” she says. “Financial security, getting on with each other, liking the same TV shows – those are the things that hold a marriage together these days.”
I think she’s wrong, but that’s because I still believe in the fairy tale, the happy ever after.
And when I see her disappearing again with the blond waiter, I can’t help feeling sad.
The next three weeks pass in a blur as I take on a new client at work and find myself staying at the office much later than I’m used to. Once I’ve finished for the evening, there’s barely time to travel home and blast a frozen meal in the microwave before I crawl into bed, ready to be up at 5 the next morning and start all over again.
I’m not working weekends, but my hours disappear catching up on sleep and laundry, so as Megan’s wedding day approaches, I find myself wondering if I’ll be able to stay awake for the after-dinner speeches and the evening do.
We’re meeting up at the Bull’s Head the night before. It’s an early wedding – 11am – so lots of guests are travelling there on the Friday and staying an extra night. I think the pub’s glad of the extra business, although with the cost of the ballroom and cocktail bar, plus the room for the ceremony, and all the people who’ve booked rooms for the Saturday evening, they’re making quite a lot of money out of Meg’s big day anyway.
I check the time: almost 6. The venue’s a 30 minutes train ride from central London, so I’m going straight from work. There’s no point travelling home and then back out again. I’m still in my work clothes, but there’ll be time to change before we meet up.
The train is crowded, as you’d expect on a Friday evening. To begin with, I can’t get a seat, but once a few people have got off, I manage to squeeze into the portion of space that’s left next to a gigantic rucksack that’s taking up twice as much room as it should. I don’t say anything, glad to have somewhere to sit.
Gazing round, I spot a head of dark hair and a khaki shirt, and my heart skips a beat. Jared. It isn’t, of course – for all I know, he lives at the other end of the country, but that doesn’t stop me thinking I’ve seen him every day for the past 3 weeks: on the train, in my local supermarket, even selling ‘The Big Issue’ on a street corner… ‘The heart wants what it wants,’ as Emily Dickinson once said.
By 7.30, I’m freshly showered and drying my hair in the comfortable room in the Bull’s Head hotel. It costs three times as much as the room at Gatwick, but I don’t care: this weekend is going to be about me. (Well, obviously it’s Meg’s wedding, but you know what I mean.) I’m going to forget Jared and what might have been, and enjoy myself partying. Isn’t it supposed to be a tradition for the bridesmaid to get cosy with the best man?
“Luce!” Meg greets me with a hug as I enter the room. “Ged and his best man are already here,” she gabbles, leading me towards a knot of people swigging drinks by the bar. Two of them look up as we approach: a curly-haired guy with an infectious smile and… The shirt’s a different colour, but everything else is the same. Jared is Ged’s best man.
“This is Tom,” Megan says, gesturing at the guy who isn’t Jared, “and this is Gerard – Ged – my fiancé.”
Gerard, not Jared. I must have misheard him in the noisy bar in Gatwick. I almost slept with this man, and tomorrow he’s marrying my best friend.
He’s looking at me almost apologetically, as if trying to find something to say that will make all of this better. What was it Megan said? “I’d rather he didn’t cheat on me, but it wouldn’t be a deal-breaker.” But would she still feel the same way if she knew he’d cheated on her with her best friend? “I’ve never cheated before,” he’d said, but nothing had happened – not really. It wasn’t like Megan and the waiter.
Megan and the waiter. Would Ged still want to marry her if he knew what she’d done? My mind’s already taking me to places I don’t want to go: me telling Ged about the hen do; him calling off the wedding; Megan in tears; me comforting Ged… The attraction’s still there and I know he feels it too.
We’re still looking at each other. I can feel his arms around me; taste his kisses on my mouth. I push the memory away. He’s not mine: he’s Megan’s.
“Have you two met before?” Megan’s eying us warily. Does she suspect?
“Maybe in another life,” Ged says, grinning and holding out his hand.
I shake it automatically, my mind sifting memories. And this time, his lie hurts more than the truth.