So, this is exciting! Today we’ve got a SNEAK PEEK of I Heart Forever for you – yes, really! I wouldn’t lie about something like that, would I? The prologue and first chapter of Angela’s first adventure in four years is right here and you can rub your eyes all over it, RIGHT NOW.
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I looked up from a swamp of unfinished magazine pages to see my assistant loitering in the doorway.
‘You told me to let you know when it was seven,’ she replied, tossing her icy long blonde hair over her shoulder. ‘Because you can’t use a clock like normal people.’
‘It’s seven already?’ I said with a groan, sweeping all the pages up into a messy pile in front of my computer screen. I ran a hot hand over my forehead, into my own hair. My dirty blonde, very messy, and past-the-help-of-dry-shampoo hair.
‘See how the big hand is on the twelve and the little hand is on the seven?’ Cici replied slowly, pointing to the massive clock on my office wall. ‘That means seven o’clock. Ninety minutes after you stopped paying me, for anyone who might be taking notice of that kind of thing. Not HR, obviously, since they went home hours ago.’
‘Shit,’ I muttered. ‘I’m going to be late.’
Turning off my computer, I grabbed my Marc Jacobs satchel from the new coat stand I’d bought for my office. All that was missing now was a fold-out bed and a potted plant then I’d never need to go home. I paused for a second, wondering whether or not I could fit one in the corner. Maybe if I moved the coat stand . . .
Cici shrugged, her face perfectly even. I couldn’t decide whether she looked so expressionless because she’d had really great Botox, or because she genuinely didn’t give a shit. In my heart, I hoped for the former, but after years of working together, my head assured me it was the latter.
‘You should go home,’ I told her as I stuffed myself into my jacket, the sleeves of the cropped cashmere jumper I’d nicked from the fashion cupboard bunching up around my armpits. ‘Thanks for staying late, I really appreciate it.’
‘Yeah, whatever.’ Cici didn’t do ‘grateful’ unless it came with a hashtag. ‘I’m leaving now, I have a date.’
‘Me too,’ I muttered. Casting a quick look in the mirror on top of my filing cabinet, I grimaced at my wayward eyeliner and sad, sallow skin. Had I been outside at all today? ‘And we’re totally going to miss our reservation.’
‘But – you’re married?’ she replied, looking confused.
‘You can still go on dates when you’re married,’ I explained, licking my ring finger and swiping at my undereyes while Cici gagged in the corner. ‘It’s not forbidden.’
She looked at me, completely scandalized. ‘Does Alex know?’
‘The date is with Alex,’ I sighed as I gave up on my face. I’d fix it on the subway. ‘He’s leaving tomorrow.’
‘Oh.’ She frowned, clearly disappointed at the loss of potential drama. ‘Whatever.’
‘OK, great, see you in the morning,’ I said, flying out the door as fast as my high heels would carry me. Which wasn’t really all that fast, if I was being entirely honest.
‘I’m sorry,’ I shouted, the front door hitting the hallway wall with a bang. ‘We had to pull a feature and I had to write a replacement and I lost track of time. Just let me get changed and we can leave and—’
‘Or we could stay in?’
All the lights were out and my living room glowed with the light of a hundred tiny candles. He must have used an entire bag of the little Ikea tealights. I made a mental note to tell Jenny that yes, one human could need all those candles in one lifetime. The curtains were drawn, music played softly, and in the middle of the room was my husband, Alex, in all his worn jeans, faded Cramps T-shirt and barefoot glory. This was not a man who was dressed for the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare.
‘But it’s your last night,’ I said, dropping my coat and bag to the floor and stepping cautiously across the room towards him. Do not set yourself on fire, do not set yourself on fire, do not set yourself on fire . . . ‘We’ve waited months for this reservation.’
‘That’s true,’ Alex took me in his arms and brushed my messy hair away from my face. ‘So, I guess I could go put on a suit, get on the subway, pay four hundred bucks for some fancy dinner – and come home still hungry – or I could just stay here with you?’
He rested his forehead against mine and smiled. I smiled back. Even now, he still gave me butterflies.
‘Not a tough choice, babe.’
‘But what are we going to eat?’ I whispered, the rumbles in my stomach threatening to eat the butterflies. ‘We haven’t got anything in.’
‘It’s all taken care of,’ he said, nodding across the room. ‘I am a man of many talents.’
Taking my hands in his, he led me over to our little dining table. It had been laid with more care than I thought possible, white linen tablecloth, proper napkins, single red rose in a miniature glass vase I was almost certain he’d borrowed from upstairs, and the classiest touch of all, two chilled bottles of Brooklyn Brewery’s finest lager with the tops already popped. The doorbell rang and I immediately started for the door. It was an old habit I just couldn’t seem to kill – what if it was post? Exciting post?!
‘I got it,’ Alex said, leaping nimbly through the candles and answering the front door.
I vaguely heard a muffled exchange while I stood by the table, unfastening the little buckles on my shoes and taking it all in. Ten weeks. He would be gone for ten weeks. No more kisses or romantic dinners à deux until November. Not that I was mad or sad or anything, other than extremely happy for my beloved husband. Honest. Only, I couldn’t remember the last time things had been so easy. All my friends were happy, my parents were off on a cruise somewhere mobile phones didn’t work, my job was going well, and things between Alex and I were perfect. Well, he was leaving me for months on end to go travelling around South East Asia but hey, what married couple didn’t go through that on your average Wednesday? No siree, no problems here.
‘Dinner is served.’ He opened the door with his foot and then kicked it closed behind him, two huge flat boxes in his arms, still steaming from the cool evening air. ‘Get your ass sat down.’
‘Pizza!’ I clapped, delighted, all my worries about how much I was going to miss him devoured by the growling in my belly. If he wasn’t the best bloody husband of all time.
‘One porkypineapple for me,’ he confirmed, moving the rose from the table to the kitchen top to protect it from the massive pizza boxes. ‘And one disgusting tuna sweetcorn, specially made for m’lady.’
‘You got them to make me a tuna pizza?’ I gasped as I pulled back the lid and inhaled. ‘Alex!’
Truly, this was a tremendous gesture of love. There were approximately fourteen thousand pizza restaurants in New York City and not one of them offered a tuna pizza on their menu. Even the places that sold tuna sandwiches as well, flat out refused to put canned fish on a plain cheese and tomato pizza. I’d been living in this country for six years and I still couldn’t understand why it was the biggest possible transgression a human could make. Buy a rifle in the supermarket? Oh, OK. Empty a can of tuna onto a margarita pizza? No bloody way.
‘I still don’t understand why America refuses to embrace it,’ I said. Who needed a seat at the chef’s table when you had an entire tuna pizza in front of you?
‘Because it’s gross?’ Alex suggested, settling down in front of his own enormous pie. ‘And you should be ashamed of yourself?’
I shook my head, peeling one massive, slightly floppy slice off the bottom of the box, pinching the edges of the crust with my thumb and forefinger then folding it in half. Alex watched approvingly. He’d make a New Yorker out of me yet. As soon as he got me to give up the tuna.
‘Firstly, they have it in Italy, where pizza comes from,’ I said with a mouthful of cheesy goodness. ‘And secondly, you’re defending the eating habits of a country that puts cheese in tins and aerosol cans. You can’t say squirty cheese is an acceptable food and then deny a woman her tuna pizza.’
‘Easy Cheese is a basic American human right,’ he replied, swiping a stray smear of tomato sauce from the side of my mouth with his thumb. ‘I get it, you can’t understand. You were brought up on toads in holes and spotted dicks, it’s practically child abuse.’
‘Ooh, I could go for a bit of spotted dick for pudding,’ I said, still chewing my pizza. ‘Have we got any custard?’
‘You’re disgusting – and I love you,’ Alex replied. The grin on his face turned wistful as he watched me eat across the table. I felt my cheeks blush and wiped the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand.
‘Do you think they have Easy Cheese in Cambodia?’ I asked.
‘I hope not,’ he said. ‘That’s kind of the whole point of going. Get away from the Easy Cheese for a little while, try something new.’
‘But I thought you loved Easy Cheese?’ I said, pulling a piece of sweetcorn off my pizza and popping it into my mouth, avoiding his gaze. ‘I thought Easy Cheese was the best thing ever.’
‘I do love Easy Cheese,’ Alex picked up his chair and moved it around the table until we were side by side, ‘more than anything, but my mind needs a break, though not from Easy Cheese. In a dream world, you know I’d take Easy Cheese with me.’
I paused to chew and swallow.
‘Just to be clear, I was using Easy Cheese as a metaphor for our relationship,’ I said, wiping my fingers on my napkin.
‘Really?’ Alex’s denim-clad leg pressed against mine. ‘I was definitely talking about Easy Cheese.’
I looked over at my husband’s sweet, smiling face and bright green eyes and tried my best to look happy for him. He had been planning this trip for almost a year and I knew he was doing his best not to get too excited in front of me. We’d debated going travelling together but there was just no way. For one, I had what my mother would refer to as ‘a proper job’ and couldn’t just nick off for months at a time and expect said proper job to be waiting for me when I got back. Alex had the time and the desire to spend weeks on end living out of a backpack. He was a musician, a proper one, in a band with a record contract that went on tour and sold records and everything. Well, he used to go on tour and sell records. Stills hadn’t played any big shows in a couple of years and record sales were slowing down at an incredibly alarming rate. Bloody Spotify. He needed this trip and I knew it, I wasn’t going to ruin our last night together by playing the ‘poor me’ card.
‘There’s still time for you to change your mind, you know,’ Alex said, nursing his beer. ‘This time tomorrow we could be on a river beach in Laos. This time next week, we could be checking out temples in Myanmar, next month dancing at a full moon party in Thailand.’
‘You know that I would if I could,’ I whispered, staring at his perfect features. His full lips, his sharp cheekbones, his shiny black hair that had obviously seen shampoo in the last forty-eight hours. ‘You know I’d love it more than anything, but asking for two months off at work would basically be the same as handing in my notice.’
It was a complete and utter lie. Two months of nothing but Alex Reid, all to myself? Yes, please. Two months of living out of a backpack in dirty clothes, without telly or online food delivery? I just couldn’t see it. The closest I’d ever come to roughing it was an abbreviated weekend at Reading Festival when I was seventeen and even that ended with my dad picking me up on the Saturday afternoon after I’d caved and tried to use the toilets. I hadn’t seen the inside of a tent since.
‘You could just quit,’ Alex stage-whispered into my hair, one arm snaking around my waist. ‘You could just leave.’
‘I really wish I hated my job,’ I replied, sliding my hand along his cheek. ‘And having a home. And food. And things.’
‘You do love things,’ Alex agreed with a theatrical sigh. He squeezed my hand in his and my engagement and wedding rings pressed sharply against their neighbouring fingers. ‘And I guess someone has to hold down a steady job. Looks like I’m stuck with Graham.’
Just because I would rather perform laser hair removal on myself than spend two months living out of a backpack did not mean I was fully OK with his going on this trip without me. Sure, I could play the supportive wife for a while but I’d seen Eat PrayLove, I knew what happened on these adventures.
‘You’ll barely notice I’m gone,’ he said, picking up a piece of tuna pizza and sniffing it with great suspicion before taking the tiniest of bites. He looked to be struggling far too much for a man who was about to spend several weeks subsisting on flash-fried insects, but whatever, all the more for me.
‘You’re going to be so busy with work and I know Lopez isn’t going to leave you alone for more than two minutes while I’m away. And I’m gonna call you all the time.’
‘You don’t need to convince me,’ I promised and the butterflies fluttered back into life as he ran a finger along my jawline, brushing against my bottom lip. ‘I’m glad you’re doing this. You’ve wanted to go forever, I know.’
‘It kind of feels like now or never,’ he agreed. ‘There’s no tour, no record to promote. And I won’t be able to do a trip like this once you’re barefoot and pregnant.’
I almost bit his finger off.
‘There’s only one of us who’s barefoot, right now, and I really hope neither of us are pregnant,’ I replied, my voice just ever so slightly shrill. ‘Unless there’s something you want to tell me?’
‘I didn’t mean right this second.’ He laughed at the look on my face with all the ease of someone who didn’t have a uterus. ‘I only meant, I won’t be able to take off on a trip when we do decide to have kids. If we decide to have kids.’
‘If,’ I repeated softly. I wanted to commit to a ‘when’ but it still seemed like such a huge leap into adulthood. I still couldn’t time my trips to the toilet properly when I was wearing a romper – how was I supposed to know how to raise a child?
‘I’m glad you’re going,’ I said, forcing certainty into my words. ‘It’s just, you’ve never been away for so long before. I’m going to miss you, that’s all.’
‘I’m going to miss you too,’ he said. Alex grabbed hold of both sides of my chair and turned it around to face him. ‘I’m going to miss you every minute of every day.’
‘That’s clearly an exaggeration,’ I replied as my heart began to beat just a little bit faster. His hands were still holding on to the seat of my chair and he leaned in towards me. He pushed my hair out of the way and pulled gently at the neck of my jumper, kissing my shoulder, my collarbone, my throat. ‘You won’t miss me while you’re asleep.’
‘I will,’ he protested, whispering right into my ear. I shivered all the way down to my toes. ‘I’ll dream about you every night.’
‘Well, that’s just ridiculous,’ I said, gasping as he pulled me out of my seat and into his lap. ‘You can’t control your dreams. You dream about whatever’s in your subconscious.’
‘Then let’s give my subconscious something to remember,’ he said, taking off my jumper and tossing it onto the settee. ‘We’ve got twelve hours.’
‘I’ve never been one to turn down a challenge,’ I replied as I yanked his T-shirt over his head and ran my hands down his tight, taut back. ‘You’d better set an alarm.’
Closing my eyes, I tried to concentrate on being right where I was. What good would it do to worry about what might happen? Alex would go, Alex would come back, and it would be fine. Everything was exactly how it should be, exactly at that moment. Now, all I had to do was keep every single thing in my life exactly the same, forever.
How hard could that be?
No one likes a Monday, especially a Monday that starts with an all-departments senior staff meeting that was scheduled last minute on the Friday before and takes place in the only windowless meeting room in the entire fifty-two-storey building. It looked as though the whole company had been herded in and they hadn’t even provided pastries. Something drastic was definitely about to happen and they didn’t want us to have our mouths full when it did. It was a huge mistake – everyone knew bad news went down better with a croissant.
‘How come we’re in the misery room?’ Mason asked as he slipped into the seat next to me. ‘Are they worried we’re gonna jump?’
‘It would be a nice day to be outside,’ I said, gnawing on the end of my biro. Not nearly as tasty as a Danish. ‘I just want to know what’s going on.’
‘You don’t know anything?’ He raised an eyebrow and crossed his massive legs.
‘Nothing at all,’ I replied, entirely innocent for once.
As well as being practically a giant and my best friend Jenny’s boyfriend, Mason Cawston was also a fellow Spencer Media employee. He was the deputy editor of Ghost, the men’s monthly, and I knew why he was asking me if I had any idea what was going on. I’d founded Gloss five years earlier with Delia Spencer. As in Spencer Media, as in our employer. Our friendship meant I was usually pretty good with the goss, but not this time. There had been rumours flying around our twelfth-floor office for weeks and I’d been desperately fishing for details but the only solid thing I’d managed to unearth was a dastardly scheme to get rid of the free donuts in the canteen on a Tuesday. It was definitely upsetting, but I couldn’t imagine losing out on one free Krispy Kreme a week was a good enough reason for Delia to be dodging me – and she definitely was dodging. Alex had been gone for almost two months and I hadn’t managed to pin her down for so much as a happy hour cocktail, not even once. Something was officially up.
‘None of the rumours I’ve heard have been reassuring,’ Mason said, raising his eyebrows. ‘And it’s never a good sign when they drag people in first thing on a Monday. The last time this happened, people went back to their desks and they were gone. Literally gone. They literally removed their desks from the building.’
‘They do tend to do all their best firing on a Monday,’ I agreed, beginning to feel increasingly anxious. All right, so she hadn’t been around for cocktails and gossip, but Delia would have clued me in if the company was planning to fire the entire editorial staff. Wouldn’t she? An image of someone rifling through my office and loading my carefully curated stationery collection and imported packets of Quavers into a cardboard box flashed through my mind.
‘I wish they’d just get on with it.’ I slouched back in my chair and twisted my wedding ring on my finger, glancing nervously around the room. No one looked pleased to be there. ‘McDonald’s only serves breakfast until 10 a.m. and if I’m going to be out of a job, I want to be into an Egg McMuffin as soon as humanly possible.’
Mason let out a half laugh before noticing my entirely serious expression and covering it up with a cough.
‘As long as this isn’t a mass cull,’ he said as the lift doors dinged open and the final lot of editors marched through the door. ‘I was hoping you might be able to help me with something.’
‘If I can,’ I said, hesitant. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be of service to my best friend’s boyfriend but I was ever so lazy and now had a serious hankering for an Egg McMuffin. ‘What’s up?’
He opened his mouth to speak but before he could say a word the door to the meeting room closed with a bang and I looked up to see Delia and her grandfather, Bob Spencer, the president of Spencer Media, followed by a gaggle of harried-looking assistants clutching iPads who quickly lined the walls of the packed room, blocking all the exits.
‘Good morning, everyone.’
I sat up straight and flashed Delia a small wave and a big smile, receiving nothing but a tight nod in return. Not a good sign. Slumping back down in my seat, I noticed she was wearing trousers. Delia never wore trousers to work. She was a woman who strongly believed in the power of a pencil skirt and once told me her very fancy, very old-fashioned grandmother only ever wore trousers during the war and had forbidden her and her sister from donning a pair of trews except if they were up against the same circumstances. Unless Delia and Bob were about to declare war on Anna Wintour and invade Condé Nast, I had a terrible feeling that this was not going to be a positive meeting.
‘I’ll get right to it; I’m sure some of you have heard rumours already so we figured it was best to make our announcements to the entire senior team at once.’
Bob didn’t even wait to get to the lectern, instead delivering his speech as he strode up through the centre of the room. Delia followed before taking her place, standing shoulder to shoulder with her grandfather in her shit-kicking ensemble. They both looked sombre, Bob in his regular charcoal grey suit and white shirt, Delia sporting her smart black trousers and a scarlet silk top. It was perfect, you wouldn’t be able to see the blood. I wracked my brains for the last time I’d seen Bob in the office and came up blank. Not that he hung out in the Gloss office or staff canteen opposite all that often, but there were usually stories of unfortunate encounters in the lifts or the general feel of a haunting whenever he was around. Everyone was terrified of Bob Spencer, except for his wife and his granddaughters. I’d seen salesmen in the fanciest shop on Madison Avenue run and hide when Delia walked through the door, afraid her grandfather might be close behind, but no one was more afraid of him than his employees. Most people said there were two ways to manage people, with a stick or with a carrot, but Bob had found a third: by scaring the living shit out of them. So far, it seemed to be working in his favour.
‘We have some major changes to deal with today,’ he declared, slapping his hands on the lectern and loosening the bladders of everyone in the room. I looked over at Mason and he gave me a tight, supportive smile. I fidgeted in my seat, determined not to break into GCSE science class giggles. I hadn’t been this on edge since the Strictly Christmas Special.
‘So, I’ve been thinking,’ Mason hissed into my ear. ‘It’s about Jenny.’
‘Can we talk about it after?’ I asked. I very much wanted to be paying attention if we were all about to be made redundant. It would be extremely embarrassing to have to ask HR to explain it over again while I was being removed from the building. He shuffled around for a second before shaking his head and leaning over to whisper in my ear, ‘I’m going to ask Jenny to marry me.’
‘Oh my god!’ I shouted, spinning around in my seat to grab hold of his hand. ‘That’s amazing!’
Every single member of the Spencer Media family turned to look at me at the exact same second.
‘I mean . . . ’
Opening and closing my mouth like an awkward English goldfish, I couldn’t quite manage to find my words. Instead, I thrust Mason’s hand into the air, clasped in my own, and cheered.
‘Yay, change!’ I said happily. ‘Change is good! I mean, choose change or stagnate and die!’
Mason yanked his hand out of mine and clamped it over his face.
‘I choose the sweet release of death,’ he whispered behind his hand, shuffling his seat away from mine.
‘Of course . . . ’ Bob cleared his throat at the front of the room while Delia tried not to smile. I sat back in my seat, doing my best to ignore the hundred or so pairs of eyes burning into the back of my head. ‘Thank you for your support, Angela.’
We had a complicated relationship, me and Bob.
‘The media landscape is not what it was ten years ago. Not even what it was just three years ago,’ the big boss stated to a crowd of unsettled faces. ‘We know this. It may be a little premature to declare print is dead, but it certainly isn’t in rude health, and if we want to succeed, we need to be at the forefront of the media industry, not playing catch-up. I will not stand by and watch our publications flail and die like fish out of water. We should be setting the standard, not waiting to see what happens next.’
I bit my lip as I nodded in agreement, along with everyone else in the room. Mason was going to propose! Jenny was getting married! Flailing and dying! And something about fish?
‘The new Spencer Media begins today. Right after this meeting, a press release will go out detailing our new corporate structure, starting with changes at the very top of our leadership team. With that in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to announce my official retirement and the appointment of my successor, effective immediately. Please welcome the new president of Spencer Media, Delia Spencer.’
An en masse gasp was hastily drowned out by polite but enthusiastic applause as everyone in the room rose to their feet and clapped. I couldn’t believe it. Jenny was getting engaged, Delia was taking over the entire company, fish were flailing and dying. Not even two minutes ago, I’d been planning to drown my feelings in reconstituted egg and now this was officially one of the best Mondays on record ever, narrowly beaten into second place only by the Monday I’d seen Jake Gyllenhaal on the subway. He was eating a sandwich.
Bob gave Delia a brief, workplace-appropriate mini-hug and stepped off to the side, gesturing for her to take centre stage. My heart swelled and it was all I could do not to jump on my chair and whoop. As far as scary announcements went, this was one of the best. I was so proud of her, I could have wept. As Delia stepped up to speak, I watched ten years slide right off Bob’s shoulders. And was he smiling? Truly this was a day for the ages.
‘Thank you.’ Delia inclined her head graciously and silenced the clapping without even trying. The woman was an enigma. How could someone be just as comfortable standing in front of a hundred people to casually announce she was taking over a multimedia empire as she was singing karaoke in front of four very drunk Chinese gentlemen on the Lower East Side on a Tuesday night? Although to be fair, there couldn’t be that many people who regularly did both of those things. I flicked at my eyelashes to fight off a stray tear; she was my very own Wonder Woman.
‘My grandfather started this company with one newspaper almost forty years ago and now we are home to over one hundred magazines, eighty websites and twenty-five podcasts that are part of twenty global brands, reaching consumers all over the world.’ She broke off to smile and at least fifteen of the men in the room got a semi. ‘To stay at the top of the global media market, we must not be afraid to make changes. It’s not enough to maintain, we must always be developing, always looking forward. And that often means making difficult choices.’
Huh? I looked around at the fading smiles on my colleagues’ faces. That last bit didn’t sound nearly as fun as the part about the podcasts.
‘Beginning today, I will be restructuring our divisions to foster more progressive and creative brand development,’ Delia said, still smiling.
I pulled my sleeves down over my fingers and chewed the inside of my cheek. No big deal, it was just a lot of management speak, nothing to be worried about. Delia wasn’t Bob, Delia cared about people, not just money. Although she did like success. And it wasn’t as though she hated money. Hmm.
‘Instead of separating our brands by print, online and broadcast, we’ll be working in streamlined brand groups. Our women’s brands will all work together, our lifestyle brands, our men’s brands. We will streamline our business models and foster a new sense of synergy through content creation to create new opportunities to reach our readers wherever they are.’
‘Content creation?’ Mason whispered. ‘Synergy?’
‘Isn’t that the name of the computer in Jem and the Holograms?’ I whispered back.
‘After this meeting, we’ll be separating you into your brand groups and your HR manager will go over the new structure.’ Delia spoke with unquestionable authority. This was not a request, this was an order. ‘And I’ll be scheduling some time with all our editors individually over the next couple of days, to talk through any questions you might have and hopefully hear some great ideas about how we take Spencer Media forward.’
I looked down at the grinning T-Rex on my chest and for the first time since I’d bought it, regretted the decision to wear a bright red dinosaur jumper to work.
‘Now, I’m going to hand over to Peter, our vice president of HR and he’ll detail the breakout groups.’ She looked over at her grandfather, who gave her a nod and, against all laws of gods and men, flashed her the finger guns. Bob Spencer, doing the finger guns? Was it possible I’d fallen over and banged my head on the way into work? ‘Thank you, everyone, I’m very excited about the future of our company and that future begins right now.’
Considerably less enthused applause clattered around the room, spurred on by the iPad-clutching assistants who quickly opened the exits for Delia and Bob and immediately locked us back in the second they were gone. As soon as the doors closed, the sound of applause was drowned out by panicked whispers and the clacking of acrylic fingernails against smartphone screens.
‘Holy shit,’ Mason exhaled. ‘Restructuring and streamlining? This is not good.’
‘But Ghost is doing fine,’ I said, chomping down on the end of my pen until there was nothing left but a chewed mess. ‘And Gloss too. We’ll be OK.’
‘Yeah, but what about Belle?’ He nodded across the room to where the editor of Spencer Media’s flagship monthly fashion magazine was sat staring at the wall, ashen-faced. ‘Their circulation has been dropping for months. What if streamlining actually means folding?’
‘Delia loves Belle,’ I said, certain it was safe. ‘There’s no way she’d fold it. She started at Belle.’
‘Not to make myself unpopular, but this is Delia Spencer, the new company president, not Delia Spencer, your friend,’ he replied with an uncomfortable smile under his gingery beard. He had an excellent beard. ‘So many magazines have gone in the last few years. And Ghost isn’t doing that well.’
‘So, you were saying something about proposing?’ There was nothing like forcing a change in subject when you didn’t want to deal with reality. ‘Mason, this is so exciting.’
All the tension washed off his face and his eyes glazed over as he dug his phone out of his pocket.
‘I’ve been thinking about it for a while but this is Jenny we’re talking about, I want to get it exactly right,’ he explained as I clapped along in delight. ‘It’s almost the anniversary of when we met so I was going to ask Erin if we could go back up to her house upstate, the place we met? I want to do it there. You know Jen better than anyone else. What do you think about this ring?’
Flicking around at the screen for a second, he pulled up a picture of a beautiful ring. Yellow-gold band with a cushion-cut diamond nestled between two baguette-cut sapphires. Very sophisticated, very elegant. Completely wrong.
‘It’s stunning,’ I said, twisting my own emerald engagement ring around on my finger. ‘But no.’
‘No?’ Mason looked down at the phone as the smile fell off his face. ‘What do you mean no?’
Switching on my own phone, I opened my emails and tapped in Jenny’s name.
‘It’s in here somewhere,’ I muttered, poking my tongue out the corner of my mouth as I searched. ‘Wait, yep, this is it.’
Clicking on a link, I held up the phone triumphantly.
‘She sends me this about every three months,’ I said as Mason blinked at the Tiffany Embrace engagement ring and took the phone out of my hands. ‘And she’s been sending it every three months for the last five years. This is the ring. This is Jenny’s ring.’
Underneath his beard, I could see he’d gone awfully green. It was a diamond-studded platinum band with a huge brilliant cut diamond, surrounded by a halo of yet more diamonds. There were so many diamonds involved, it looked fake but according to the price tag, it most definitely was not. I figured I’d wait a while to email him the cost. From the look on Mason’s face, he wasn’t ready to learn how much Jenny’s eternal love went for. Or the matching wedding ring she wanted to go with it.
‘For real?’ he asked.
‘For really real,’ I promised.
‘If that’s the one she wants, that’s the one she’ll get,’ he said, recovering himself slightly. ‘You don’t happen to know her ring size?’
‘Five and a half.’ I slowly removed my phone from his vicelike grip. ‘That is also included on her email. I’ll forward you the details.’
He paused and took a deep breath. ‘She is going to say yes, right?’
I bit my lip to stop my smile. He looked so nervous, I could hardly stand it.
‘Of course she’s going to say yes!’ I leaned across my chair to wrap him up in a hug. ‘But just to make sure, let’s definitely get that ring.’
‘So then, they got a ten for their samba but I really didn’t think it was as good as the American smooth.’ I screwed up my nose as I tossed two Sour Patch kids into my gob. ‘Sometimes I don’t even know how they work out the scoring, I really don’t.’
‘Yeah, that’s a drag.’
‘It’s just not fair, you know? When everyone else is working so hard, he’s so obviously the judges’ favourite. I get annoyed.’
‘I know you do, I know you do.’ On a grainy Skype feed, Alex looked over his shoulder at the bustling marketplace behind him. ‘So now I’m all caught up on Dancing with the Stars, you want to tell me what’s really going on over there?’
‘How’s Myanmar?’ I asked, cheerfully popping another handful of sweets. ‘That’s where you are, isn’t it? Looks beautiful. When was the last time you had a shave?’
‘It’s amazing, and probably two weeks ago, and now seriously, tell me what’s going on,’ he ordered.
‘Just some changes at work.’ I tried to sound as casual as possible but I’d never been good at putting on a brave face. ‘They’re shifting some stuff around and I’m getting a new boss. Instead of a print division and a digital division, they’re putting us all into brand streams. Which I’m sure I’ll understand by the time I meet with Jo tomorrow.’
‘Jo?’ Alex scratched at his new scruff.
‘Jo Herman. She’s the new director of women’s brands,’ I recited through a mouthful of chewy sugary goodness. ‘Gloss is in good shape, I’m not worried.’
‘I see,’ he said calmly. ‘Is that your first bag of Sour Patch Kids today?’
‘No,’ I replied. ‘No, it is not.’
‘I can come home.’ Alex held his hand up to the screen of his phone until I could trace the concentric circles of his fingerprint on my laptop. ‘There’s only a couple of weeks left and I think it’s very clear I could use a shower and a shave.’
A good wife would have immediately told him not to be so silly. A good wife would have thought about how excited he was the morning he left, how happy he was every time I spoke to him and the undeniable joy in each and every one of his postcards. But I did want him home. I hated that he’d been away for so long, I hated waking up in a big empty bed every day then tripping over his slippers every single morning because he wasn’t there to wear them. I hated cooking alone, eating alone, and then doing one person’s dishes. But that was more to do with the fact Alex always did the dishes.
‘No, don’t be silly. You’ll be home soon anyway,’ I made myself say. I might have been imagining it but I could have sworn he looked relieved. ‘Where are you off to next?’
‘Thailand,’ he replied. ‘Shawna’s friend told us about this amazing beach called Koh Kradan. No ATMs, no roads even. They shut it down half the year but it just opened, so we should be some of the first people to visit this season. We’re going to head out there tomorrow, kind of a last fling, you know? Before we’re back to a New York winter. And then you know it’ll be spring and we’ll be off touring the festivals. Did I tell you? We got an email from the label and they want us to play like, thirty dates across Europe. Graham is so psyched.’
‘Not even home and you’re already planning to leave me again,’ I smiled. It was good to hear him excited about getting back to reality, even if that reality was nicking off on tour all summer. ‘Good riddance, that’s what I say. Why even bother coming home in the first place?’
He laughed, knowing I was teasing. I would never tell him, but really, I was relieved. You’d think being married to a boy in a band would bring in the big bucks but over the last couple of years, the money had really started to fade away. Alex had always been good with his finances so things weren’t exactly hard, but between streaming services and general piracy, the only way for Stills to make real cash was by touring and flogging T-shirts. Drunk people at festivals bought lots of T-shirts. Drunk people at festivals were my favourites.
‘The place we’re going is literally deserted, so don’t freak out if I can’t call for a week or so,’ Alex added, immediately making me freak out. ‘I’ll email if I can, but if not I’ll shout when I’m back in Bangkok and let you know my flight details.’
‘That’s fine,’ I replied, overcompensating by adding about fourteen syllables to the word ‘fine’. ‘You’ll be back before you know it, just go and enjoy yourself. Don’t worry about me.’
I sounded more like my mother every single day.
‘I like worrying about you,’ Alex said. His lopsided smile shone through the screen. ‘That’s my job.’
‘Your other job is to get me a present,’ I informed him, returning his happy expression. ‘A really nice one.’
He laughed and scraped his hair back from his face, showing off the tan line around his forehead. ‘Consider it done.’
‘And it’s probably best you’re not around anyway,’ I said. ‘Mason is going to propose to Jenny and I don’t know if New York is ready for the attack of that bridezilla.’
‘Ahh, man, that’s so great!’ He looked truly pleased to hear the news. ‘I’m so pleased for them. Tell them congratulations from me.’
I loved how much he loved my friend. Honestly, he was such an amazing human being, he made me want to throw up. That, or I’d finally found my limit on eating Sour Patch Kids, and that seemed unlikely.
A brisk knock on the door of my office made me look up. It was Cici, tapping at her Cartier Tank watch.
‘I have to go,’ I said with a sad sigh, reluctant to say goodbye. ‘Meeting time.’
We tried to talk as often as we could but between the time difference and Alex insisting on travelling to countries where WiFi was not their strongest suit, it had already been five days since I’d last heard his voice and now I wasn’t going to hear from him in over a week? I felt another pang of pukiness as he resigned himself to me signing off with a nod. I loved him so much, I wanted to vom.
‘I’ll try to call you again before we leave for the beach,’ he promised. ‘And I’ll be home before you know it.’
‘I love you,’ I said, ignoring an impatient Cici who was busy sticking her fingers down her throat. ‘Have you got plenty of snacks?’
‘I ate crickets yesterday,’ he said with a completely straight face. ‘And Graham ate a boiled baby chicken still in the egg.’
‘OK, I’ve changed my mind, you need to come home,’ I ordered as he started laughing. ‘I love you, Alex Reid.’
‘I love you too, Angela Clark,’ he said, his face relaxing into a smile. ‘I’ll talk to you later if you haven’t overdosed on candy.’
I blew him a kiss, logging off my computer with one hand and emptying the sour sweets into my mouth with the other before beckoning Cici into the office.
‘Sorry,’ I said, holding a hand over my full mouth. ‘Alex.’
‘He’s still on his gap-year adventure?’ she sniffed and brushed non-existent crumbs off the chair on the opposite side of the desk before sitting down. ‘I hope you got him vaccinated against Ebola and HPV before he left.’
‘Didn’t you go on a spiritual journey around India a few years ago?’ I reminded her, trying to remember which vaccinations he’d had before he left. ‘And HPV is an STD, I don’t think you can catch that from travelling around South East Asia.’
‘No, you catch that from boning skanks,’ she replied, studying her glossy pink fingernails. ‘But I’m sure he’s definitely not doing that.’
‘Did you want something?’ I asked.
‘I did, I do.’ Cici combed her long blonde hair over her shoulder, the mirror image of her twin sister, Delia. It still unnerved me, how two genetically identical humans could be so different. On one hand, you had Delia, superhuman media mogul and now president of the company. As generous and gracious as she was ambitious, Delia always put the people she loved first. And on the other, you had Cici, a woman so concerned about the wellbeing of others, she once convinced an intern to take her new sleep medication for a whole week because she was worried it was making her gain weight. It turned out it wasn’t but it did give the intern night terrors so that was something fun to report back to her doctor.
‘I’ve been your assistant for, like, ever,’ she began and I bit my lip before I could reply. As if I needed reminding of that.
‘And I know I only got the job because my grandpa owns the company and my sister basically forced you into taking me on . . . ’ She waved away the facts as though everyone found their jobs in the same way. ‘But I’m good, and you know I am.’
‘Yeah, I mean apart from the constant abuse and borderline bullying of the entire team,’ I said with a nod, ‘you’re the best assistant I’ve ever had.’
I didn’t bother mentioning the times she’d had my luggage blown up, sabotaged a press trip to Paris, fired our managing editor on press day (despite the fact she didn’t have the authority to fire anyone), semi-kidnapped my goddaughter or even the fact she was the only assistant I’d ever had.
Didn’t seem necessary.
‘I know there are going to be changes with the new company structure and I want to be considered for something new,’ she announced with the indisputable confidence of someone whose twin sister now ran the company her grandfather owned. ‘I want a bigger role, Angela, I’m ready.’
Sometimes, her born-and-bred Manhattanite assertiveness still made my meek British skin itch.
‘I’m not entirely sure what you’ve heard about the new structure,’ I replied, scanning my inbox to see if a company-wide announcement had gone out since this morning’s meeting but there was nothing. I was sure it wasn’t due to be announced until the end of the day, Bob always liked to avoid distracting the worker bees while there was honey to be made. Cici was getting insider information and it didn’t take a genius to work out where it was coming from (which was a relief, since the last IQ test I’d taken on Facebook had yielded less than impressive results). ‘Nothing’s been confirmed yet and I don’t think there are going to be any staffing changes, to be honest, at least not at Gloss.’
‘Yeah, I guess you should probably talk to Dee Dee. Or Jo,’ she said as she pushed up out of her seat, flicking her eyes around my office. ‘I’ve done my time here, Angela, it’s only fair.’
‘You work at a fashion magazine in Manhattan, Cici,’ I pointed out, trying not to sweat over her little name drop. ‘You’re not doing twenty-five to life at Rikers.’
Even through my concern, I took a moment to congratulate myself on my knowledge of New York’s prison system. And to think Alex said watching all those Law & Order marathons was a waste of time.
‘Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference,’ she replied. ‘I really feel like my assisting days are behind me and I’d appreciate your support. I’d hate for us to be working against each other on this.’
‘Well, I’ve enjoyed our talk.’ I stood up behind my desk while Cici picked up the giant neon Troll doll on top of my filing cabinet and turned it over in her hands before setting it right back down and wiping her hands off on her wine-coloured midi skirt. It was Prada. I knew because she had told me. ‘And I’ll think about it. Like I said, I don’t think there will be any roles opening up soon and we don’t have the budget to create anything. Do you think you’d want to work at any of the other magazines?’
The audacity of hope.
She looked back at me as though I was mad.
‘I feel like Gloss is my baby,’ she said with a shrug as she walked towards the door. ‘I wouldn’t feel right anywhere else. I’m sure you, me and Jo will figure it out.’
I stared after her as she closed the door gently and tried my hardest to work out why everything she said always sounded like a threat.
‘Gloss is my baby,’ I muttered, opening a drawer and pulling out an emergency bag of Monster Munch. ‘Why don’t you go and tell Jo that?’
That was me, Angela Clark, super-mature, adult-extraordinaire, and absolutely, 100 per cent, winning at life.