Being Ines

Chapter 1-3

Making the right decision hasn’t always been Ines Garcia’s strongest point. 

A dynamic young woman with her finger on the fashion pulse, she’s living the London dream. 

That’s great…or so it should be. Choosing to ignore the fact that her elusive boyfriend is not quite the guy she thought he was, is bad enough, but then ignoring the simmering chemistry between her and her friend, Luke, is frustrating for everyone!

A routine visit to the optician changes her life as she knows it. Will Ines pick herself up and find the happiness she is missing, or let the diagnosis and her relationship, drag her under a rollercoaster of emotions?

Chapter 1

In the hope that she would see the silhouette of Dylan, her asshat of a boyfriend, sauntering across the tree-lined square at any moment, Ines realised that she hadn’t left the kitchen, all night. Hating herself that bit more for checking the phone again—on the off chance that there was a missed call from him, the image of her partying on a beach with friends stared back, a bleak reminder of the life she once had before they met. 

The clock flickered to 03:37 and Ines resigned herself to the fact that she was heading for yet another night on her own. Stubbing out the cigarette, she squeezed it against the odorous pile in the glass ashtray swiped from Fordhams, during a raucous night out celebrating her best friend Sally’s much anticipated divorce. Sealing the contents into a ziplock bag before tossing it into the bin, the young woman watched the pewter grey lid shut with a gentle click before she turned and left the kitchen.

Wriggling under the covers until the soft cotton duvet shrouded her petite frame she took one last glance at her phone; a small part of her still clung on to the vain hope that maybe he would send news of his whereabouts.

Exhausted, her shaky fingers switched the device off, her mind, replaying memories of better and carefree days, as she watched the screen spiral into blackness…

Three years ago, when she’d been handed the property details by the estate agent on a chilly spring morning, Ines knew it would be love at first viewing. Looking across at the elegant white Georgian facade in all its impressive grandeur, Montague Square was in full bloom; the cherry blossom sighing in harmony with the tulips, the chatter between walkers receding into the distance. Clouds of vapour trailed her words. ‘It’s beautiful.’ 

Standing beside his smitten client, the estate agent Luke Benoit was used to the reactions of house-hunters whereupon they lay eyes on the stunning properties shown to them. Hearing his soft French lilt as he uttered the words, ‘Shall we go in?’ Ines’ guard was well and truly weakened. He could have asked her to “Pass the cleaning bucket,” and it would have still had the same effect on her! 

Gawking at the beautiful high ceiling and cornices, a fantasy began to unfurl of how happy she’d be living in such a stunning home, dinner parties and fresh croissants and coffee from the artisanal café across the square, on lazy Sunday mornings. Living la dolce vita!

Interrupting her thoughts, the agent continued with his polished sales pitch. ‘The kitchen is of exquisite quality, designed by Butler and Wright.’ 

Running her hand across the smooth opaque worktop, the surface felt cool against her skin. With a shrewd glint in his eyes, Luke watched his client’s every move. Pretty, he thought. Yes, this lady was very pretty. Her elfin face was unconventional, but it suited her. An imperceptible show of approval, Luke strode across the kitchen for a closer inspection of the ceramic hob — a ruse for a distraction, creating a respectable distance between him and Ines.

Blowing dark curls out of the corner of her mouth, Ines was able to assess the agent for the first time: high cheekbones accentuated by chestnut hair falling around his face, and eyes the colour of artichokes…artichokes? Of all the colours nature can offer, Ines could only liken the agent’s eyes to artichokes! Feeling the blood rush to her face, Ines sensed her cheeks turning a shade that reflected the colour of her crimson coat, spurring the decision that now was not the time to assess the gorgeous guy standing opposite her. With a deft manoeuvre, she found herself at the tall sash window overlooking the square, having developed a fascination with the magnolia tree in the distance. Perceiving this as an indicator that she needed a little personal space before they continued the tour, the estate agent took measured steps towards the door. His discretion had not gone unnoticed.


Looking buoyant for slapping Ines’ bottom, Dylan stood by and watched on with a wicked grin. Irritated and upset at his audacity, she brushed a freckled hand away from the curve of her hip as if he had been a very unwelcome louse. She was emotional and suffering from sleep deprivation. Rubbing tired eyes that stung with the effort of peeling them open, her face crumpled in disdain on seeing the time. Half-past-six! A grand total of two hours sleep. This terrible sleep pattern was playing havoc with her body clock, as well as the dark purple smudges developing under her eyes. Desperate for a decent night’s sleep, she was well aware that she was now becoming an insomniac, thanks to Dylan.

 Sliding off the bed with the willingness of a crotchety old lady and heading for the kitchen, it was hardly worth leaving it in the first place.

Lolling against the kitchen counter, brushing dark auburn curls away, Dylan grinned behind bright and incredulous eyes. ‘What’s your problem?’

‘My problem? Are you for real?’ Spinning round to face him, Ines had begun spooning fresh coffee with vigour, into the coffee machine for a much-needed morning pick-me-up. Leaning forward to turn it on, she shook her thick mane, adopting the “tousled bed hair look” she had seen in a magazine feature about what men find sexy in a woman.

 Observing with irksome amusement, Dylan moved his testy girlfriend away from the close proximity of the knife block (he wasn’t taking chances) and draped a sinewy arm over her shoulder, leaning in for a tentative kiss on pursed lips, the smell of stale beer and cigarettes on his breath, repulsive. Spurning Dylan’s advances, Ines muttered her disgust. ‘Where have you been these last two days?’

Looking through narrow eyes, Dylan scrunched his face. ‘Since when do I answer to you?’ 

Turning back to the coffee machine and switching the button off with a lofty flick, Ines made a show of removing her cup and taking a sip, choosing not to answer him.

Perched on the same acrylic bar stool she had sat on only a couple of hours ago, the discontented young woman lit a cigarette, its tip glimmering as she drew in a long inhale. Blowing out a steady stream of smoke up into the air, she took her time to reply.

‘It’s funny how light can affect your judgement and decisions. Last night I sat in this exact place staring out of the window, hoping to see you making your way back home. I was ready to end it. I still am, if I’m honest. Where do we go from here? Do you have any idea?’ If she was honest, Ines didn’t even know the answer. Swivelling back and forth on the stool, engaged in her thoughts, Ines refused to face Dylan. Piqued, her jaw was set, emphasising the definition of her bone structure. ‘You can’t blame it on your job. It’s just an excuse. You can, however, blame it on your complete disregard for me and our relationship.’

For once, Ines wasn’t the hysterical wreck she usually became in response to Dylan’s misdemeanours. Had she become so immune to his selfishness and womanising, that it no longer stirred despair within her? Sighing louder than she intended, she took a final drag on the cigarette, flicking it with precision into the ashtray. Cradling the glazed cup, Ines found that rolling it between her small hands had a cathartic effect— plus it prevented her from wrapping them around Dylan’s throat.

  Locked in their own thoughts, the mood felt oppressive. Contemplating the rabbit hole of conflicting emotions, she found herself being dragged into, Ines knew that somehow things had to change… but how and when? She’d think about it another day. Right now, work responsibilities were calling her and she had to get ready.

 Dismissing the sudden giddiness as being the result of getting up too quick and a rush of blood to her head, Ines made her way to the bathroom, walking with the rigidity of a tin soldier. The cold and fatigue started having this impact on her body on a regular basis over the last few months. Perplexed at this unpleasant manifestation, she reasoned that it was probably stress related. 

Standing at the kitchen door, Dylan watched the solitary figure disappear into the bathroom.
‘Erm yeah, when your spoiled highness has had her shower, can she at least have the frigging decency to tell me where we go from here? I’ve got people to see and work to go to!’

Pushing the bathroom door with a determined tap, Ines demonstrated to the imperious boyfriend what she thought of his demand, with a one finger salute. It was a minor triumph, but for her it was a huge deal. On this occasion, she stood strong.

‘Morning love.’ The voice was always cheerful, never threatening or leering. Ryan was homeless, and despite his hardship, he always had a smile and a truly admirable air of positivity about him.

‘Hello, you. Are you managing to keep warm and dry in this horrible weather?’ 

Smirking, Ryan sat up, pulling his legs out from inside his sleeping bag and showed Ines his new joggers. ‘Kind of. Some buggers knicked my tent and clothes yesterday, so I’ve raised enough money to buy me some new threads.’ Nodding at his ensemble, he continued. ‘I’m a few quid away from buying a tent as well.’

Shaking her head, Ines huffed her exasperation. ‘I can’t believe the asshats that are out there. Who the hell would do a thing like that?’

Ryan’s small mouth twisted up in one corner, suggesting that he was used to this. But he wasn’t. Ines could see that. He was far from okay. 

 Surrendering to the enticing aroma of warm food, Ines deliberated the options ahead. Hmmmm, I think today’s a sausage and egg toasted baguette day. Reaching in to grab one, a voice close behind startled her into almost dropping the brown paper bag.

‘Too many of those can be lethal. You want more wiggle than wobble on those cheeks,’ teased Luke, the Estate Agent, who had become a good friend to Ines over the years.

‘Ha! Thanks for your concern, funny boy, but it’s not for me.’

Chuckling with self-approval, continued. ‘Don’t lie.’ 

The muscles in her shoulders tightened at Luke’s repartee. Sensing her discontent, he lent a consoling arm around the sullen young woman and kissed her on the cheek.

‘Hey, I’m only joking.’ Somehow, in the three years they had known each other, Luke always made her feel secure although he did drive her insane at times. She felt a warmth that she never experienced with Dylan. 

 Moving across to the self-serve beverages, Luke ushered Ines in the same direction. Reaching for a wooden stirrer as he poured brown sugar into his macchiato, Luke felt distinctly apathetic in what he was about to ask, but he felt the need to know. ‘So, where’s Dildo?’

Ignoring the disparaging nickname he has for Dylan, Ines began dipping a mint teabag in and out of her cup, lost in her own thoughts. Watching with cheerful adoration and fighting the urge to come out with a double entendre, Luke broke into a childish snigger.

Ruffled, she peered up at him. ‘What? ‘What is going through that peanut butter brain of yours?’ Taking the teabag out of the cup and dropping it into the litter basket, it landed with a satisfying squishy “plop”. Luke regarded her with a lopsided smile. Ignoring the puerility, Ines jostled him along. He being six-foot-three and she a mere five-foot-one, it was always a matter of great amusement for everyone who saw them together, especially when she was cross with him. Whatever the reason for her complaint, it was hard to stay peeved at him for long, no matter how determined she was to stay that way.


‘He’s away on business. He left this morning for Manchester.’ Not believing it herself either, she redirected the subject with the expertise of a politician— it’s surprising she didn’t get a cricked- neck. ‘You shouldn’t take sugar in your coffee, it’s not good for you.’

‘I need a little brown sugar in my life. It’s good for my soul.’ Sparkling with mischief, Luke took pleasure in embarrassing Ines.

Dropping her gaze when their eyes met, she lay her hand on her stomach hoping to allay the topsy-turvy churning. ‘Well, we all need a little sugar in our lives, but yes, it is recommended that brown is better for you.’

This had been a reference to his recent dalliances with a flight attendant who had a conflicting love affair with too much makeup and very revealing clothes. So conflicted were the two, that she wore both at the same time, all the time. Happy with her retort, Ines’s heart did a little victory dance as she turned on her tiny kitten heels and made way to leave. Dutifully, Luke followed suit.

‘I got you these.’ Offering the paper bag to Ryan, Ines took pleasure in seeing the smile on his lovely face. And he did have a lovely face. Shaped like a heart with a dusting of tiny freckles under deep-set hazel eyes and an unruly mop of fine rose-blond hair, he resembled a member of a rock band. Leaning down, aware that her skirt fluttering in the wind could flip up, Ines held the hem down against the backs of her legs, ensuring her modesty remained intact. Reaching further into where Ryan was huddled, a mouth-watering whiff drifted through the air as she passed the bag across.

‘Sausage and egg in a toasted baguette, a large tea and some chocolate… and please take this to get yourself a tent.’

Taking hold of the bag and the twenty pound note she had squeezed into his weather beaten palm, Ryan’s grip on Ines’ hand tightened with overwhelming gratitude as he looked into her dark, almond eyes. ‘Thank you.’ Ryan tapped his chest with his free hand. ‘You’re always so kind to me.’

‘It’s nothing, honestly. I wish I could do more.’

Straightening back up, with a broad smile, she bade him goodbye and turned to find Luke still standing in the doorway having watched the whole scene unfold before him. Ines never ceased to amaze him, although he drew the line at her taste in boyfriends. Smiling back at her, Luke nodded towards the direction of the station, a gesture signifying that they should leave.

 In comfortable silence, Ines and Luke walked down the street towards the estate agents’ where he was the manager, and she would then disappear down the steps of the underground and begin her commute to Smythe & Co, a large department store in the heart of the West End, where she worked as a buyer. 

The wind had picked up, and the morning air had become chilly. She could feel her legs becoming as leaden as the clouds above. Struggling to walk in a straight line, Ines staggered towards the ground. Snapping out two long arms, Luke had prevented a stupendous fall. His words puffed in ambiguous tones. ‘How many times have I told you to stay off the rum before work? If you’re going to stack it, at least do it in the comfort of your own home.’ 

Wide eyed and open-mouthed Ines struggled to find her voice. Having her friend make light of the situation was what she needed. He knew how to deal with her, even when she was having moments of low mood.

‘I know right? I’ve a reputation to uphold, my secret life of a lush could be scuppered.’

Dringgg dringgg

‘Someone’s calling you. Give me your tea so you can answer it,’ he offered.

Struggling to hold her cup in one hand and the lemon drizzle flapjack lodged between clenched teeth, Ines hedged herself a bet that the caller would hang up just as she managed to retrieve the phone from the abyss of her oversized handbag. ‘I’m fine…I can manage,’ came the muffled reply. Luke looked on, fascinated at her obstinacy and the chaos that she leaves in her wake.

Trying to juggle a cup and a crumbling flapjack wedged in her mouth, whilst trying (and failing) to look elegant, it was inevitable that this was not going to end well. Thrusting her cup and tilting her chin, Ines was now squealing in desperation. ‘Take my flapjack!’

With military efficiency he took both, allowing Ines to spin her bucket of a bag from her hip to find the offending phone.

Dringgg, dringgg

‘For crying out loud, I’m trying!! Grrr, where’s my phone!?’ Rummaging with desperation through her bag, and now resorting to emptying out some of its contents, Ines finally grabbed a hold of the shrilling phone as though it were a prized sporting trophy. Silence. The caller hung up!

Her eyes on Luke, Ines couldn’t help but think he resembled a cup holder (albeit a very dapper one) carrying the hot beverages… one with remnants of a flapjack placed precariously atop the lid.

Dipping his eyes in the direction of the red lined interior of her bag, Luke broke into a wry smile. ‘See those two pockets? I believe one is for a mobile and the other for stuff that you need to access quickly. From my understanding, they’re very useful.’

Ines glared at him from where she had been crouching, the contents, in a heap on the pavement. ‘I actually don’t know why I even talk to you.’ Hands clawed like an arcade grabber machine, she snatched the items, and without giving any attention, dumped them back into her bag. ‘Missed call from Zara,’ she sighed.

Still in a tizzy with the events of the last twenty minutes, Ines needed to sit down. Her head spinning and her body weak, she began to make headway for the bench near the station. Bumping shoulders with waves of commuters hell-bent on not being late, bustled past. ‘I don’t feel well, Luke. I need to sit down and rest before I get on the train.’

With a protective arm around her, Luke guided Ines across the busy street. Urging her to sit down, he lowered himself alongside Ines.

‘Shall I call work and tell them that you’ll be late because you’re too dumb to even contemplate what an inside pocket of a bucket size bag is made for?’ He patted Ines’s knobbly knee. ‘And that when you discovered what its actual purpose is, you promptly passed out at such a revelation. Hmmm?’ Luke squeezed her knee for good measure.

‘Very funny.’ 

Considering the phone, Ines chewed her lip. As if he could read her mind, with the skill of a pickpocket, Luke swiped the phone out of Ines’ grip and dropped it into the pocket of her bag. Although she watched on agape, she concurred that her friend should take matters into his own hands. Passing the cup, Luke nodded as he watched her take a sip from the fuchsia pink cup. ‘Pink to make the boys wink, heh?’

Smiling at the new expression Luke had picked up after meeting a young woman wearing a pink top, Ines swallowed the hot tea, screwing up her eyes and grimacing like a child. Watching as people began to pick up their pace at the first sign of rain, she turned to face Luke who was looking ahead, deep in thought. With lackadaisical effort, Ines broke the lull. ‘You’re going to be late opening up. You should go…’

Beep beep!

The high-pitched sound resonated from inside Luke’s suit jacket. ‘…and answer that.’

With a deft manoeuvre he removed his phone from the purple lined pocket. ‘See how fast I was when I pulled that out?’ Declaring this with a cockiness that only he could get away with, the bonhomie was short lived. The smile on his face melted like the last snow of winter when his eyes fell upon the name of the caller blinking back at him.

‘A talent like that could be a game changer when it comes to closing the deal on a potential bedding partner,’ came Ines’ sardonic response.

Beeep beep!

In her mind, if the ringtone was humanised, she could sense the caller’s desperation. Rolling his eyes, Luke muttered. ‘Pffffff, what does she want at this time of the morning?’ he groaned.

Judging by his reaction, it was more than likely his clingier than cling film girlfriend, Courtney. ‘You should answer it,’ encouraged Ines.

As thoughts of Dylan whirled around her head, Ines had become lost in her own melancholy: Somehow, without even realising it was happening, she had become an ambivalent half-wit. She knew her boyfriend was a self-entered schmuck but felt trapped in the belief that she would never get anyone better than him. She was a shapeless mess who nobody would ever fancy or want. In the two years they’d been together, Ines had gone from a confident, vivacious young woman to a sceptical introvert, lacking self-belief.

Ines’ negative thoughts were swept aside at the sound of Luke’s irritated voice in the background.

‘Are you serious? Couldn’t you have waited until tonight, and we could have discussed this properly?’ Luke was positively peeved. ‘No, I said it’s a possibility. POSSIBILITY. P-O-double ESSSS-I-B…’ He was flushed with anger. Uh oh. ‘I’m not being patronising, Courtney. I’m being pragmatic.’

With that, he hung up and slipped the phone back into his pocket. Shaking his head, he reached into Ines’s bag and pulled out a box of menthol cigarettes. Popping one into his mouth, with a deft flick of the spark wheel, he lit it and took a long, indulgent drag. Checking the time, Luke calculated how long he had to spare, taking into consideration the time to walk to work, open up and get the day’s schedule in order for the team. He hated this part of the day as much as he hated saying goodbye to Ines. Wonderful Ines, who had no idea of her true worth or beauty. Making a quick mental calculation, he had eight minutes to sit with her before they had to go their separate ways.

‘Well?’ she prompted playfully.

Shaking his head in frustration, Luke took another drag of the cigarette, and leant forward, propping his chin over a dark olive knuckle. ‘She’s made an appointment to view an apartment in Notting Hill,’ he breathed with an air of reluctance. ‘She made it yesterday, without consulting me first. It’s at 3 pm today.’

Sweeping a cursory look, Ines felt it was better to say nothing and instead, forage through her bag for mints, fearful of exposing an iota of her feelings for Luke. Wordless, her distracted friend accepted the sweet. Savouring the sensation as it prickled his taste buds, he looked at his watch again. They had three minutes before going their separate ways.

‘But I thought you liked her.’

Rubbing the whiskers along his jaw with a free hand, Luke looked into the distance as though the answer could be found there; ‘I like coffee, but it doesn’t mean I’d buy a coffee plantation.’ Letting out a soft growl, revealing his umbrage more than what was intended, Luke crushed the cigarette beneath an ox-blood leather brogue. ‘It’s just moving too fast.’ 

‘She could just be afraid to lose you,’ reasoned Ines, trying to sound sympathetic.

Exasperated, Luke leant back. ‘You’ve got Dildo who disappears for days without so much as a message and I’ve got Courtney who has to be with me twenty-four seven.’

Aware of time ticking away, Ines made to stand up and head for the underground. ‘Come on, we’ll both be late if we don’t get our shimmy on. Let’s meet after work if you can get away.’

Luke nodded his approval. ‘Okay, cool. I’ll message you later. And yeah, I can get away. I’m not a pet.’ Feeling recharged, Ines turned on her heels and began to walk in the direction of Earl’s Court station. Feeling better and more positive, she reached out and rubbed his arm. ‘Go, have a nice day and don’t stress. What will be, will be.’ Lifting an expectant face, Luke leant in to kiss her goodbye. ‘Bonne journée, ma belle,’ Luke uttered.

À bientôt,’ waved Ines, as they parted. Waving back with a boyish smile, Luke continued with his walk to work.

Chapter 2

The sparkling glass doors slid open onto the lobby of Ines’ workplace. She never took for granted how lucky she was to be working as a senior buyer for Smythe & Co. at such a young age, and she would often gaze up in admiration of the company signage, with its simple classic logo, eponymous with style and trends. ‘Morning, Miss Garcia,’ crooned the voice from behind the reception desk.

‘Morning, Michael,’ she beamed. ‘How are you this morning?’

‘I’m not bad, thanks. Spring seems to have lost its way but as always you fill the dullest days with rays of sunshine.’ A smile as broad as his face crept into the creases of his eyes. Reddening at the compliment, Ines smiled to herself. The simplest appraisalwas like a much hankered after hug.

‘Well, we’ve only just left winter. Maybe give it a chance, eh?’ reasoned

Ines as she continued walking to the elevator.

Sitting at her desk, Ines booted up the computer and began to look through the list of things she had to do for the day. Meeting at 11:00 a.m with Bridget Nyman, the Head of Buying.

She considered rescheduling, but in her experience, it was better to just get it over with rather than prolonging the tortuous experience. Sighing her discontent, she tapped her pen on the desk to the rhythm of the song she was humming, pondering legitimate excuses that could get her out of the meeting. Owing to Bridget’s Nordic stature and personality, Ines found herself unable to warm to her boss. They were polar opposites in every way possible. Bridget was like an exquisite marble statue with hair the colour of pearls and eyes of cornflower blue. Her personality, Ines found, was as opaque as her skin. She was model material without a doubt. Ines, on the other hand, who always felt like the dumpy, unglamorous sidekick in a comedy duo, the Costello to the Abbott, was petite and curvy with tourmaline brown eyes and a warm demeanour.

Ping. Ping. Ping.

Three texts from Zara— or “Me Me” as Luke called her in secret, came through at once. Ines jabbed the glowing home button. Three consecutive messages creating one very short sentence for added effect: -Call mewhen you canneed to talk xx

Oh the drama, it’s all too muchthought Inesher fingers flying across the touchscreen keyboard. Checking it didn’t “sound” as it looked, she clicked “send”.

Feeling accomplished and ready for work, Ines began to look at the analytics of the recent week’s takings for the womenswear department. Without even looking up from the screen in front of her, she was well aware that the buying assistants were looking over at her, no doubt talking tripe and creating elaborate stories stemming from something very insignificant. It’s how they functioned through the day— a small compensation for not being able to stand at the school gates with all the Lycra-clad gym mummies and gossiping about non-Lycra-clad gym mummies.

Ines examined all the data before her, working through each recent purchase and what order was next in line to be placed. It was the cusp of spring 2019, but she was thinking of the autumn/winter 2019 collection. What would be trending and what to purchase, to ensure successful commercial yield with little profit loss. 

Massaging the bridge of her freckled nose she looked down at her phone and realised that her meeting with Bridget was in half an hour. Had she been so engrossed in her work? Taking a deep breath she pushed back her chair, enjoying the feeling as it glided away on its chrome castors, refraining from squealing “Wheee!” Her flask of lemon and ginger water was almost finished. Feeling self-righteous, Ines thought that a well-deserved trip to the coffee machine for an espresso and some chocolate was very much in order. Sauntering past the buying assistants, she could feel their eyes boring into her. Smiling straight at them, Ines couldn’t help but think of the Pendle Witches. Reaching for her cup, she programmed the machine to double espresso mode. The lack of sleep was taking its toll and beginning to affect her physical and emotional well-being.

‘Oh hiiii, Ines,’ drawled Echo, one of the assistant buyers. She was named Echo as a result of being born during the Echo Boomer generation. She also revelled in the fact that Echo was, in Ancient Greek mythology a mountain nymph cursed by Hera, so that she would never speak again other than to repeat someone’s last words. She had fallen in love with Narcissus, but her infatuation was unrequited. Following Narcissus’ death, Echo had faded away and all that was left was the sound of her voice repeating last words spoken by someone. This Echo, however, was here for the foreseeable future, talking about her sideline work as a “life coach” — a Vlogger on YouTube. She was a self-proclaimed “Yummy Mummy” who wanted women to feel empowered. What she doesn’t tell her viewers, however, was that she has a Thai housekeeper who cooks, cleans, does the grocery shopping and deals with Balthasar and Titus, her two little boys. Ines wouldn’t be surprised if the housekeeper was also fulfilling her husband Conrad’s conjugal rights. This cheered Ines up every time she looked at Echo wittering on about her #blessedlife.

‘Hello, Echo. Are you and Martha up to speed with the deadline for next week’s store promotion?’ Ines pressed the start button and listened as the machine gurgled and belched into life.

Nettled by Ines’s lack of interest in small talk, she confirmed that yes indeed, they were up to speed.

‘Good. When the story board is ready, can you leave it on my desk so that I can authorise it please?’ Ines mustered the broadest smile possible, looking over at the rest of the small group, who were by now, surveying everything.

‘Yes, of course. We’re halfway through. The rest of the team are deciding on directions for the visual merchandisers,’ came Echo’s hurried reply.

‘Excellent, thank you, Echo.’ With a curt nod and a flourishing departure, Ines returned to her desk with the coffee, recapping on the conversation. A sense of self-loathing grappled at her conscience; her amenable character was waning, and Ines was well aware of the changes which were now affecting her everyday life and it was something only she could resolve.

Looking up from the screen, Ines gazed across the open-plan office where the buying assistants were huddled around their desks discussing “moods”, slapping magazine cuttings, quick illustrations and visuals on a large board, all the while whispering their thoughts amongst each other.


Zara. Her timing was incredible. Now what?

-Can you talk?

-No, I’ll call you later. Have a meeting to go to x 

Whoosh. Message sent.


‘Ines, Bridget is ready to see you,’ a cheery voice called down the phone.

‘Thanks, Marie.’

Replacing the receiver, she gathered the printouts to discuss analytics with her boss. 

Waving through the frosted window, it appeared that Bridget was in an upbeat mood.

‘Morning Ines, please, sit down. Can I get you something to eat or drink?’

Remembering that she never did eat her chocolate with the espresso, and aware of the strong coffee taste in her mouth, Ines promptly accepted.

‘Can I have a peppermint tea, please?’ Looking over at the Patisserie Lydia box with its pretty pink ribbon hanging loose, she realised how hungry she felt. ‘And an almond croissant please,’ smiling into the box of delights.

Dylan, being a fitness fanatic, had always been quick to criticise or comment on Ines’s curves and her refusal to torment herself about not having abs and a thigh gap. Her lack of interest in looking honed and living by the hallowed guidelines of social media, rendered her open to his snarky jibes. Ines wasn’t overweight in the slightest, and nor had she any intention of starving herself. However, regardless of how happy she was with her shape, Dylan often made her feel that she was a bulging lump. Being told ‘you know babe, you’d be perfect if your hips were smaller,’ had become an unwelcome ear-worm that often wriggled from within.

Shutting down that memory, Ines grasped the warm pastry and took an indulgent bite, almond paste oozing out the sides. Bridget followed, and for a minute, there was silence as both women luxuriated in their pastries.

Brushing her hands clear of crumbs and wiping them with a pink embellished napkin, the older woman began to speak, gingerly taking a sip of her matcha tea. ‘So, what are the figures saying?’ …

Noticing it was lunchtime, Ines gathered her bag and phone, making a conscious effort to place it in the inside pocket, as per Luke’s advice. She could see him now, standing before her, looking pleased with himself.

Lunch was a solitary event for Ines. In an occupation that involves talking to people, this was the only opportunity she hadto catch her breath and regain some form of sanity. Having made her way to Violets, the eatery every employee of Smythe & Co. headed for, Ines was not feeling hungry after devouring half of the patisserie box during the meeting. Standing in front of the hot food cabinet and staring at the options, Ines decided with indifference on a broth. Grabbing a tall cup of the liquid lunch and a carton of coconut water, she paid before heading to the eating area where she could sit amongst others who also wanted peace and quiet.

Opting for a corner and removing herself from queuing customers and chatter, Ines gave the tacky rubber wood table a quick spritz of sanitiser with disapproving strokes before taking a seat. Deliberating whether anyone would notice if she took off her shoes, she decided it would be okay to slide her petite feet out, as long as she was discreet. Wiggling her liberated toes was a lovely feeling.

  Distracted with reading the newspaper, Ines took a large gulp of the steaming broth. A searing fire pit tore through the roof of her mouth. Wincing her way in the course of the ordeal, hot coals flushed down her throat. Conscious that her nose was mutating into a fierce red beacon and her eyes watering, the calamitous young woman knew that this was not a great look to be sporting. Gasping short, sharp intakes of breath, desperate for the sensation to vanish, she blew her streaming nose into a napkin with such gusto her brain was sure to follow.

Beseeching her Guardian Angel of Calamity that nobody from work was present, Ines was relieved to see, albeit through blurred vision, that apart from the barista who had looked on with twisted amusement, diners seemed oblivious. Phew. Concluding that it would be wise to allow the soup to cool down, she moved the tall cup away from her clumsy reach, noticing the ‘WARNING: CONTAINS HOT LIQUID’ label. Twit. Ines’s scatty ways never ceased to impress her— or anyone else for that matter. 

Yanking her bag with zeal she plopped it into her lap and delved deep. Rummaging, the heady scent of vanilla and amber floated into the air, a stark reminder of what happens if you don’t close the lid on your perfume bottle. Baring a string of perfect teeth beneath a jubilant smile, her hands curled over the phone. Aha! Gotcha. Where’s Luke when she wants to gloat?

Lowering her head, Ines saw that she’d missed calls from Zara, Sally and Luke. Nothing from Dylan. Feeling optimistic that her boyfriend had at least deigned to send her a message, her stomach flipped when her eyes caught sight of Luke’s surprise texts…but— oh look, Dylan had sent one too! Opening this message first, eager eyes studied the words he’d taken the time to write in his busy schedule!

-You ok babe? Hope all’s good. Business trip’s boring but people up here are cool. Have to stay in Manchester two more days to seal the deal. See you soon. Ciao x

‘Seal the deal. Ciao.’ Ines shook her head. Dylan’s promotion from Sales Manager to Regional Operations Manager for a pharmaceutical company turned him into an even bigger nob than he already was, according to Luke and her brother, Marco.

Not wanting to sound disappointed or bitter, Ines replied with a genial:-

Hey, yes all is good, thanks. At least everyone is nice there. See you when you get back xx

Luke’s messages were short and sweet:-

-Hello, how’s your day going? Are you feeling better?

Half an hour later:-

-I assume you’re doing important buying stuff like looking at male models in underwear 😉

Ten minutes afterwards…

-SoMiss Garcia, do you still want to meet after work?

Smiling to herself Ines began to type her reply. Of course she still wanted to meet after work. She’d been looking forward to it all day.

-Oi, Mr Benoit. How’s YOUR day going? I’m feeling better, thank you. No male models in underwear I’m sad to say. Yes, of course I want to still meet after work. Shall we say 6 pm at Fordhams?

Message sent, delivered and read.

-Perfect, see you later. Ciao ;D

‘Cheeky sausage,’ muttered Ines.  ‘Ciao’ was in reference to Dylan’s pretentious diction.

-See you x

  Now to call Sally. Thankful that her friend was easy going, Ines enjoyed her quick catch-up call to slag off Dylan, discuss Sally’s current man drought and deliberate whether it’s possible for your virginity to grow back. It was always a pleasure to speak to Sally. They bounced off each other and had a bond like sisters. Zara, on the other hand, was also a good friend but the dynamics could be very unequal at times. Although she had a heart of gold, it was often very one-sided when it came to chatting. Speed dialling her friend’s number, Ines changed her seating position in preparation for a long conversation, while she drank her broth. Ringing for what seemed like an eternity, Zara answered.

‘Bloody hell, you took your time. You’re always stuck to your phone,’ laughed Ines.

‘Ooh I know but I’m playing hard to get. Nick’s been showing signs of interest.’ Zara was almost singing. Nick. Nick the Prick. The invest banker. Great. ‘Right, I need your advice. I have a plan,’ announced Zara in a conspiratorial tone, as she began to divulge her idea. She prattled on for a little while and all Ines could do was sit there in silence, gobsmacked by her friend’s absurdity.

‘So?’ Zara said after a few minutes. ‘What do you think?’

Not sure whether Zara had lost the plot, Ines took a moment to process the proposal. Placing the lid back on the empty cup, she pushed it away. ‘Do you not think that this is borderline obsession? Is it even legal?’

Squealing, Zara continued to hatch her plan whilst Ines listened with lukewarm interest. ‘…and then I’ll ask Sal.’

Wait, what? Zara’s sordid plan involved dear, sweet Sally?!

‘You can’t be doing that. Sally shouldn’t be dragged into your madcap ideas,’ protested Ines. The line went silent. A pangof guilt from Zara perhaps? ‘Are you still there?’

‘Yup, sorry. I’m just thinking about what you said while I was texting Coco Beauty. I’m going for lip fillers and a top up.’ Judging by the long, drawn-out reply, Ines could tell that Zara was now focused on her reflection on selfie mode.

With a jaded air to her words, Ines broke the silence. ‘I don’t think that using our friend as honey-bait for Nick is fair on her. If you don’t trust him, then don’t date him. It’s quite simple, but you can’t bring others into it. It’s your look out and nobody else’s. Maybe if you’re that set on doing this, why don’t you hire someone?’ Tracing the broth stains down the side of the cup with a fingernail, she coughed her conclusion.

Feeling slighted by Ines’s response, Zara sulked down the line. Ines knew what her friend would be doing because it’s what she always did. Pout. ‘Fine. I’ll work something out myself. It was just an idea.’ Zara conceded. ‘Anyway, how are you? Is Dylan still being a dickhead? What about your health?’

Caught off guard by Zara’s question, Ines found herself scrambling for a plausible reply. ‘Oh you know Dylan, busy as usual. He’s in Manchester on business, at the moment.’

‘Is he now?’

Ines chose to ignore Zara’s sly dig. ‘Yep, he is. He’s travelling a lot now that he’s been promoted.’ Feeling Zara’s seething disapproval, Ines continued. ‘So, at the moment we’re like passing ships in the night while he gets used to the role.’ Feeling obligated to fill the silence, Ines changed the subject. ‘I had a wobbly moment earlier this morning but thank goodness Luke was with me to help.’

‘Lovely Luke,’ swooned Zara. ‘Well, I’m glad he was there for you which says more for your man. As long as you feel better now that’s the main thing.’ Sympathy didn’t come naturally to Zara, Ines knew this. But she also knew that the conversation was about to be redirected back to Zara. ‘So, I’ll send you a photo when I’m done. I might even get my eyelashes permed. I’m going to confront old age kicking and screaming. Sod growing old with grace.’

‘You’re 27 years old!’

‘Even more reason to look after myself. Ooh, have to go, Nick’s messaged me again!’ 

‘Another X-rated pic?’ predicted Ines.

Giggling like a naughty school-girl, Zara needn’t say anything more. ‘Gotta go. Love you, Ini Panini ! Speak soon darling, byeee.’ And just like that, she disappeared like a cosmic genie into the telecommunications ether.

Checking the time, Ines was relieved to see that her working day was done. It also signalled that it wouldn’t be long before she would be sharing some time with Luke, bouncing witticisms off each other and indulging in relaxed conversation. These meetings occasioned themselves as a welcome relief from her personal strife. Thinking about their rapport consumed her with exhilaration. Cheerfully swiping her coat off the hook, she made her way towards the lifts.

Breezing past the small cluster of buying assistants, Ines knew full well that every step, every sway of her hips was being scrutinised. Watching Echo in an exaggerated response to Martha’s hushed dialogue was like witnessing a sexually frustrated woman in a bar vying for the attention of a potential shag, knocking back a glass of sweet Prosecco, and laughing for all to hear. Shuddering at the scenario, Ines continued sashaying down the aisle, passing the inquisitive group and the gregarious merchandising team.

‘Have a good evening, Ines,’ called out Stevie, the head of the merchandising team. Quietly strong and confident, Stevie remained humble about his endearing qualities and good looks, which made him desirable to most of the staff in the office.

‘Bye Stevie, you too. See you tomorrow!’ Ines flashed a huge smile at him, and followed with a deliberate turn towards the huddle of women, their eyes fixed in her direction. Unable to resist obstructing their view of Stevie, Ines’s smiling mouth transformed into a knowing smirk. Watching them struggle to appear unaffected always tickled her; it somehow gave her a sense of warped satisfaction, leaving these women with the look of having bitten into a rotten apple.

Stepping out onto the street, Ines looked at the clock tower across the plaza.

Hmmm quarter-past-five. I’ve got loads of time.  I could pop to Violets. Unable to determine what she should do, Ines launched a mental calculation of distance and timing needed to reach the bar. Her brain felt it was going to explode. Furrowing her brow with the effort, she came to her own conclusion. Sod it, I’ll get to Knightsbridge— at least I’ll be in the area.’ Happy with her idea and giving herself a congratulatory pat on the back for being so decisive, Ines made her way down the imposing escalators at Bond Street tube station, headed for the Central line.

Standing on Knightsbridge, Ines could see Harvey Nichols in the distance. Tempted by the allure of another purchase, she opted with reluctance not to enter the divine realm for fashionistas for a spot of browsing, positive that her magpie tendencies and all her self-control would be left at the shiny, sparkling doors. Instead, she would go for a meander down Sloane Street.

The street was a bustling hive of eager tourists, laden with boutique bags bearing the world- renowned logos of Harrods and a plethora of haute-couture designers. In the throng of what seemed like a siege of denim jeans and trainers, Ines caught a glimpse of a pair of beautiful black tall stilettos exposing the trademark red sole of Louboutin. The owner, whose legs were as long as her stride, negotiated the cracks and obstacles on the pavement with expert ease, and disappeared into the crowd, her golden mane, shimmering in the weakening sunlight. Watching this ethereal vision, an overwhelming sense of insecurity grabbed her like an invisible cloak of broken glass.  Catching her reflection in the windows of the double-decker bus edging forward in the slow-moving traffic, the image looking back at her didn’t do much to allay her anxiety. All she could see were deep jowls, dark hollow eyes and a short stumpy body. How can a pair of long legs in skinny jeans with red bottomed heels on their feet stir such self-deprecation? Vexed at how morose she felt, Ines turned away from the bus and decided that she may as well head to Fordhams and get a seat somewhere discreet where she could chat with Luke. Her self-doubt would be brushed away. He always made her feel better.

Unusual for the time of year, the evening was mild, even though it had rained at sporadic intervals during the day. Watching the offending bus trundle ahead, its wheels sloshing through small puddles, Ines began to make her way across the busy road, weaving between prestigious cars humming in the congestion, the tail of her beige mac sweeping and swirling in the springtime breeze, as she edged ahead.

Taking a jaunty step over the kerb, Ines took quick confident strides, her Jimmy Choo kitten heels click clacking on the dull, grey pavement towards the bar, she was half an hour away from Luke’s company! 

Entering Fordhams was always a mission of personal accomplishment for Ines. The entrance was a set of imposing double oak doors, a fastidious written black logo descending along each frosted glass inlay. The burly doorman standing ramrod in his black suit, with a meticulous shaped goatee, reminded Ines of a Lego man. His eyes flickered as he scanned her from head to toe before deciding that she could go in.

Nodding in approval, his well-oiled head glistened under the lights of the doorway and watched on as Ines made her way in, smiling as she walked past.

The entrance to the bar was a long runway, lined with dim lighting and not for the partially sighted. Her fast walking had abated to an idle pace, the music getting louder as she grew ever closer to the main area. The Bauhaus style bar was a welcome sight, as was the handsome bar tender. Watching him creating cocktails and interacting with the two coquettish girls sitting in front of him, it was an impressive performance worthy of an Oscar nomination. 

Approaching the vacant bar stool, with the stealth of a gazelle, Ines climbed up with ease, and made herself comfortable as she gave the girls a tight little smile.

‘I’ll be with you in a minute,’ the bartender winked.

Raising her hands in a ‘no problem’ gesture, Ines delved into her cavernous handbag, retrieving her mobile with ease from the designated pocket. Luke would feel righteous that his advice proved to be of great benefit today.

Looking down at the floor, Ines noticed that the crossed legs donning stilettos beside her, bore red soles. Frowning, curiosity got the better of her as she cast a discreet sideways glance. Ines’s suspicion wasn’t unfounded. The cascading blonde hair, the long legs shrink wrapped in denim and the winged eyeliner was unmistakable. It was her! Red Sole Girl, with her friend.

Taking advantage of being incognito, Ines was at liberty to eavesdrop while she waited for Luke to arrive. Maybe she could seek out a private table later— she was early after all. Ines loved to people-watch and listen to the various conversations around her. Marco called it being nosy. 

Enveloping a hand around the thick, solid tumbler of dark rum and enjoying the sounds of Ibiza lounge music, Ines took a tiny sip of the amber liquid and decided that up close, Red Sole Girl was not all she had perceived her to be.

‘So, are you gonna call him or not?’ squawked Annie, the wide-eyed excitable friend; her lash extensions looking more drag queen than sex siren as she looked on. Stirring her cocktail with the mixer, the Red Sole Girl raised two slender shoulders.

‘Well, that’s not a bloody answer!’ 

Admiring herself in the mirrored wall behind the bar, the Red Sole Girl watched her reflection, pouting her filled lips as she sipped through a straw. The Red Sole Girl gave the answer careful consideration.

 ‘Are you talking about Dylan?’

‘Well yeah, Jenna, who else is determined to get into your size 6 Agent P panties?’

Hearing Dylan’s name made Ines’s heart skip a beat. Swallowing hard and reasoning with her thoughts, Ines concluded that Dylan wasn’t an unusual name, and they may be referring to a Dillon, not a Dylan and not her Dylan. This, however, didn’t stop her from listening in. ‘Well,’ Jenna, drew out her words. ‘We’ve been messaging each other while he’s been away and it’s getting hotter. He’s already asked me to send nudes.’ By now, Jenna had shuffled her bottom closer to the edge of her stool, leaning towards her eager listener. ‘So, he started it by sending me a pic.’ Miming an indicator of how well-endowed Dylan/Dillon is, she revelled at the excitement on her friend’s face. Jenna’s delight was infectious.

‘Oh. My. God!’ Clapping in euphoric glee, Annie friend looked as though she was going to combust. ‘And? Did you send one back?’

Just like a cat that’s got the cream, Jenna’s face broke into a crooked smile. ‘Of course I did. He’s seen enough to keep him busy until he gets back from Manchester. Then, we’ll meet up again, but this time I don’t think we’ll be so restrained. I can’t play hard to get any longer, he’s driving me wild.’

Like sunburned gravel, Ines’ mouth began to dry up, her heart rising to her throat. She took a swift mouthful of her drink. Like an addict who can’t quit she remained on her stool, not daring to move.

‘When’s he back?’

‘Tomorrow afternoon, so we’re meeting when I’ve finished work.’

Feeling confident that it wasn’t her Dylan they were talking about, Ines’ anxiety began to ease; after all, he wasn’t going to be back in London for a couple of days or more.

Alerted by the words ‘Earl’s Court’, Ines reeled her thoughts back to reality. Inching closer to her excitable neighbours, her world began to fall apart as she heard the conversation unravel like twine, right before her.

‘He’s got a flat in Montague Square… ’

I believe you’ll find it’s my flat…IF it is him.

‘But it’s being renovated, so he’s staying at The Selby in Marble Arch. I won’t lie, I am excited about seeing him tomorrow.’ Swooning, Jenna fanned her face with a tanned hand.

‘Try and get a photo,’ suggested, Annie, who by now was fit to burst at the thrilling idea. Slapping her rounded thighs in delight, she felt the moment necessitated another round of cocktails. Leaning her large silicone bosom over the bar to attract the bar tender, Annie began to giggle as she ordered their drinks. ‘Can I have a Screaming Orgasm and a Leg Spreader please?’

Ooff. Enough said.

Ines’ legs weakened more-so than they had been all day, and she felt sick. Sick and giddy enough to pass out from the overwhelming anxiety pumping through her body. The man they were talking about was too familiar to be a coincidence. How many good looking, fit- bodied Dylans living in Montague Square were there hanging around? Feeling like a rabbit caught in headlights, Ines looked around, desperately searching for an answer on what she should do next. The world appeared to be moving in slow motion. What to do, what to do? Should she burst into a furious tirade of abusive accusations at Jenna? Stay calm and think it through? Or go to the loos and cry? A metal blade sliced at her thumping heart, threatening to wrench it out. Never had she needed Luke by her side more than she did right now.

‘Well, hello there hottie,’ leered Annie.

Inquisitive, Jenna spun around to see what had rudely distracted her friend from the incessant prattle about her new stud. Realising why Annie had suddenly steered her attention from their conversation, a hush descended upon the two women. Heavily lined eyes and canopied eyelids were all a flitter as both girls watched on in appreciative unison. Annie’s vulgar tones rang through Ines’ ears like stone grinding against stone. ‘Christ, he’s fit. Seriously, can anyone really be that gorgeous?’

The two amorous young women preened themselves as they looked at their reflection in the mirror behind the bar. ‘You’re a taken woman,’ her shameless friend pointed out. ‘You don’t need to check yourself.’ 

‘I’ve not even had sex with Dylan yet, so I can do what I want.’

Pondering for a moment, Annie’s face lit up as her face broke into a mischievous snicker. ‘We can always share, I won’t tell.’ Pleased with the idea, Annie fluttered her eyelashes for good measure. ‘We’re friends, right? Sharing is caring.’

Ines felt like she was going to be violently ill.

‘Oh my God, oh my God. Oh. My. God, he’s coming our way!’ flapped the half-witted friend. ‘Pretend we haven’t noticed him.’

Apprehension welled inside Ines, her stomach, a mass of clenched knots. Hanging her head low in utter despair, unable to fathom what it was that she should do, she had never felt this desolate.

Turmoil weighed heavy on her shoulders, so much so, that as anxiety gripped like ivy, Ines, who had been engrossed in weaving her hands, hadn’t noticed somebody was standing close behind. Two strong arms wrapped themselves around her small waist and a pair of hands clasped themselves upon her stomach. Her woes were suddenly lifted when she heard a whisper in her ear. ‘Honey I’m home.’

The wan face he was greeted by was tainted with anguish behind a forced smile. Luke’s expression had transformed from cheeky rogue to grave concern as his eyes searched Ines in an attempt to decipher what had happened to upset her so. No matter, he had seen enough to know that being here right now was not helping the situation. Making a snap decision, he grabbed her coat and bag, taking a masterful hold of a clammy hand into his and made a swift manoeuvre through the throng of drinkers, steering her to safety. 

The two vixens had remained open-mouthed during the entire spectacle, watching agog as it unfolded before their eyes … how the gorgeous guy, loaded with worry for the petite mixed-race girl, led her away, as though she were precious cargo. Jenna couldn’t help but let out an audible gasp. ‘Wow. Just wow. If I had a man who could treat me like I was the only thing thatmattered in his world…’ 

Before she could end her sentence, her phone rang a chirpy little tune, breaking the illusion. Dylan’s name flashed across her phone screen… 

Chapter 3

Shreds of lilac bridged across the sky as dusk began to emerge from a slow setting sun, for the final minutes of the day. But for Ines, the world around her had faded to black and her head filled with senseless noise. Luke took control of the situation without effort and she, drained and trembling as the adrenaline began to subside, accepted the support. The chaos of rush hour in Knightsbridge melted into the background as they stood, locked in a tight embrace. 

Caressing her hair with tentative reassurances, he made the conscious decision to leave words unspoken until Ines was ready to talk about whatever had shaken her. 

Scanning their surroundings, Luke spotted a little Italian restaurant further down the road. Sometimes, being six-foot-three had its advantages. ‘Come on, I think I’ve found your perfect food haven.’ Ines approved of the suggestion and took comfort being in Luke’s capable hands. 

The restaurant was a perfect setting for a quiet meal, away from the hubbub of London life. Settled in a discreet corner, the two companions eyed the menu with frayed enthusiasm. 

A steaming bowl of spaghetti alle vongole for Ines and a risotto frutti di mare for Luke, reminded Ines of how much she missed Italy. It had been three years since she last visited Capri. Her last holiday before she met Dylan. 

‘Bon appétit.’ Hungry, Luke swept the glutinous rice and a rather large clam away from the centre of the generous portion. Smiling demurely, Ines reciprocated the salutation with a nod and a softly spoken ‘Bon Appétit,’ and she began to twist spaghetti around her fork.

Feeling more and more relaxed as time passed, she had almost forgotten the reason why they had found themselves in a quaint Italian restaurant instead of drinking rum and chatting in Fordhams. Eating in relaxed silence, they stayed this way, small talk immaterial to their mood.

Unwelcome recollections of what she had experienced earlier, began to covertly seep to the front of her mind. Ines could feel herself sink into a dark melancholy, the deep cavity of her chest tugging at conflicting emotions.

Noticing her changing mood, Luke began bobbing his head in pigeon-like motion for humorous effect. Fanning the palm of a large hand ostentatiously across his plate, mimicking a shopping channel salesman, he was now laughing at his own comedic ingenuity. ‘Look at us. Anyone watching would be having a field day. There’s you trying to eat spaghetti and picking at these pesky clams with finesse and here’s me wrestling the head off of a langoustine with a knife!’ Luke threw back his head, his infectious laughter booming across the restaurant.

Now on a roll, he gulped his wine, and proceeded with anecdotes. ‘I mean don’t tell me that if you were at home now, you wouldn’t be winding spaghetti on your fork to the size of a salami and sucking the clams out with gusto! Me? I would be twisting and tearing the heads off these crustaceans with my bare hands like a Neanderthal. Grrr haaar yaaa!’ Taking his impression of a caveman a little too far, Ines puckered her mouth, making shushing noises. Her prim demeanour was futile when Luke projected the kind of face that can only be seen in front of a carnival mirror, prompting a burst of appreciative laughter, squeaking with each deep inhale. Resting the spoon and fork in the bowl, a prudish hand smacked her mouth frightened of spitting out her food across the table.

‘Let’s be honest huh chérie? You’re part Latina, part Caribbean. Eating is a pleasure for you, it’s not all about etiquette—unlike with us Frenchies.’

Accentuating his native vernacular, Luke mimicked a French sophisticate declaring a challenge. ‘WE do not use our hands, my dear. WE do not eat like peasants. WE will challenge anyone to eat a chicken wing with a knife and fork— even if it means certain death by starvation. Vive la France!’ He ended his campaign speech with a haughty sniff of a twisted nostril, a patriotic salute and the rippling of a thick eyebrow. Ines, his sole adoring fan, giggled with delight. Content with the fact that he had lifted her spirits, he recommenced grappling with the langoustine, blissfully unaware of the effect his comical sketch had on the amused diners watching on.

‘So, how did the viewing go? Are you and the charming Courtney going to be residents of W11?’ asked Ines, in between chewing an over cooked clam. Watching Luke squirm gave her the impression that he wasn’t enamoured by the question.

Waiting for an answer, she began the task of dislodging a bothersome mollusc which had somehow embedded itself between her two back teeth. With discretion, she tried to remove the offending piece of food with her tongue, inadvertently depicting the wrong impression.

Mystified at her behaviour, Luke tried so very hard not to get distracted. ‘I’m not interested in moving in with her, let alone moving out of my flat. She’s too eager to settle down, and we barely know each other.’

Safe in the knowledge that although the mollusc was still stuck between her teeth, it wasn’t on show, Ines began to speak. ‘Well, she may just be Miss Right and you’re not open to it. You should maybe be a little less guarded about it.’

Feeling a pang of jealousy as she said this, Ines knew it was the correct way to behave, regardless. However, the idea of Luke being cosy with another woman was still not one she embraced. Rolling her tongue over her teeth, Ines was oblivious that she had once again begun trying to dig this clam out. Leaning in closer, Luke spoke in theatrical whispers across the table. ‘What’s with the tongue thing you’re doing?’

 Two eyebrows merged into a deep notch in response to Luke’s bizarre comment. ‘What are you going on about? What tongue thing?’ Discombobulated, Ines wasn’t aware of what she had been doing, making her naiveté more endearing than she already was.

‘That thing when your tongue goes in and out from under your cheek…like this…’ Luke gave a demonstration of Ines’ tongue action.

Suddenly grasping the implication, she returned her tongue to its rightful place, mortified at how she appeared to onlookers.

Beaming back at her from under his nose, Luke raised his eyebrows, thanked her for the show and continued with their conversation. ‘Anyway, Courtney is more “Miss for the Moment”. I’m not interested in settling down with anyone. I’m too young.’

‘You’re twenty-eight.’


Taking another mouthful of his now lukewarm dinner, he changed the subject, defying his initial plan to say nothing. ‘So. Want to talk about what happened in Fordhams earlier?’

Touched that Luke had managed to refrain from asking the question for so long, she began her dialogue. At first, it was an “in a nutshell” synopsis outlining the upshot of it all, but as her feelings spilled over like a boiling pan of water, she elaborated with more detail and her eyes began to sting.

Luke searched for a tissue inside his jacket pocket and handed it to a now very tearful Ines. She looked at the tissue with distaste as he held out the tattered white rag. ‘It’s clean,’ he encouraged, waving it in front of her face. Not entirely convinced that it was, but not caring at this point, Ines wiped her eyes and blew her nose, before electing to tell him everything. Listening with an intensity that fuelled his anger, Luke’s hands balled into fists every few seconds as Ines relayed her story.

‘He’s a tool through and through, my little butterfly. Do you want unbiased straight talk?’ Intense eyes darted from side to side and then focused on Ines’s face, which was now etched with misery. She looked so helpless, and it saddened him to see her this way. Ines nodded with acquiesce in response to his question.

‘He’s taking the piss out of you,’ Luke stressed. ‘He lives in a flat in the heart of Earl’s Court and makes pitiful contributions like he’s shacked up in the YMCA. He comes and goes as he pleases and screws around. He has no respect for you. But…’ Luke was prodding the air with a wilful finger towards his friend. ‘If you’re allowing him to behave like this, then he will continue. He’s like a feral cat.’ Pausing for breath, he was about to go on ranting, but had suddenly become aware of something more pressing he had to address. ‘You have a little fleck of bogey on your nostril.’

‘Are you serious!?’ Delivering a nervous laugh, Ines blushed. ‘That just tops it all off, about me. ‘It’s not surprising he’s looking elsewhere.’

Impassioned by Ines’ self-deprecating outburst, Luke blurted his words. ‘Hey, listen! You are beautiful, inside and out. You have class, sometimes a little scatty but you have many qualities that people admire. Him? He’s insecure. Passive aggressive. A sociopath. A bully. These sorts of cretins need to make people feel like shit about themselves in order to live.’

Pinching the young woman’s nostril clean and ignoring her wincing like a five-year old, Luke continued wiping her nose with diligence. ‘People like him thrive on being adored, but without making it a two-way thing.’ He felt bad for being so blunt but it needed to be said. ‘It’s your life and I can’t tell you how to live it, but I understand the hurt and anger that you feel every day. Y’know, it’s like holding a scorching piece of charcoal. The only person you’re hurting is yourself. You’re lost. You’re not the girl I met three years ago, with dreams of happiness in her new home. You’re existing, not living.’

Ines nodded, and nodded some more. It made sense and he was right. Deep down she knew this. But what to do? Dylan had succeeded in sapping all her self-confidence. She believed without a doubt that she didn’t deserve better than him, that nobody would ever want her.

‘One more thing. Has he suggested that you see a doctor?’ 

‘What for? I’m fine.’

‘Really? You truly feel fine? Really truly, Ines?’ Luke was now challenging her in a way she’d never seen him do before. Waggling two fingers at his eyes, he concluded his observation. ‘Because I see everything, and I can tell that you need to see someone soon.’

A little perplexed by his ambiguous remark, Ines pushed the subject further. ‘What do you mean? See what?’

‘Your clumsiness, walking like you’ve had a few too many drinks at times. This isn’t normal.’

Squinting as daylight struggled to stream through the shuttered white slats, Ines began to wake up, opening one bleary eye first, the other lazily following suit. Groggy, she rolled over towards the walnut ‘30s nightstand, reaching for her phone. One message from Zara and two from Luke sent in the middle of the night. What was Luke doing awake at 03:23 am?

She didn’t want to know. Sometimes it was better to be in blissful ignorance.

There was still nothing from Dylan. Hardly surprising seeing as he was ‘sealing the deal in Manchester’ and ‘working so hard, babe’, she mocked with bitterness.

Considering the possibility that her “beloved” could be waking up to Jenna, proving to him that her mouth wasn’t just for pouting or incessant chatter, left an acidic feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Throwing back the duvet, Ines grunted with the awkward effort it required to pull herself up to the edge of the bed. With outstretched arms, she scrambled for yesterday’s discarded garments. Lurching like a zombie, the young woman cradled the bundle of clothes and shuffled across the checker tiled hall, dropping the pile into the laundry bin without ceremony, as she passed the bathroom. 

Sitting on the bar stool in the kitchen, nursing a steaming mug of black coffee, Ines looked out of the window, admiring the tranquillity of the square outside as a new day emerged. It looked so pretty— an example of quintessential privileged London life, the lawns, littered with petals plucked away in the breeze from blossom trees and spring flowers.

Numb with exhaustion, Ines was unable to think straight. Her sense of dejection had now turned to anger. Taking one last drag of her cigarette, she snatched up the phone and dialled Dylan’s number. She didn’t see why she should be the only one who couldn’t rest, and even if he wasn’t going to answer, she could at least keep calling and disturbing him from whatever he was doing. Ines knew deep down that Dylan’s phone was likely to be on silent, but conceded he would eventually see how many missed calls there were, and hoped that it would prick his conscience. It seemed to be that her brain was in a perpetual battle between logic and her heart.

‘Who’s calling you all the time?’ groaned Jenna, trailing the contours on Dylan’s taut abs with a long-manicured finger. ‘It’s too bloody early!’

‘Ah ignore it, babe,’ mumbled Dylan, pulling her on top of him.

Doing exactly that, Jenna set about enticing a reaction from Dylan, resting her fingers gently over his chest, and slowly kissed her way down, lazily tweaking the trail of tiny copper red hairs to his naval.

Dylan murmured, succumbing into blissful stupor as he sunk his head back onto the pillow. ‘I could get used to this.’

With a knowing smirk, his latest mistress began to snake her way back up. Sweeping her long locks over a bony shoulder, she began to kiss his mouth in short, hard bursts.

Dylan’s phone began vibrating across the bedside table, a tinny screech pulsating through their ears.

‘Ugh, just tell them you’re busy!’ she whined, throwing her hands up in frustration.

In an act of sheer insolence, Dylan switched the phone off and threw it across the room. ‘They can wait. Now. Where were we?’

Lying helpless on the bathroom floor, bewildered by what had just happened, Ines battled to remain calm as she tried to figure out what to do next. Try as she might, her leg was being held down by a force so strong that panic and confusion engulfed her like a tidal wave.

Unable to feel anything, she pinched her legs, desperate to find even the lightest sensation. Whimpering, she dropped her head back onto the cold tiles, overcome by a terrifying thought—was she paralysed? Had she lost her balance and knocked herself out on the floor, causing irreversible damage? Questions about the absurd situation she found herself to be in, bombarded her foggy brain as she struggled to retrace her steps.

Horrified as she looked down at her ankles, Ines had noticed that they were bleeding. Swinging her head around, searching the bathroom for an answer to the cause of her affliction, she decided to undertake the mammoth task of dragging herself towards the door, using her elbows as props. The effort, too onerous for her feeble body, forced her to opt for the closest wall instead. Resting against the harshness of cold ceramic tiles, she was unable to see anything which could explain the alarming situation she found herself in.

With an iron grip clutching at her lungs, breathing came in short wheezes. Giddiness whipped her brain with ruthless vigour. This was all too much to fathom and to add insult to injury, Dylan hadn’t answered the numerous voicemails she had left him, begging for his help. Feeling trepidation rise from the pit of her stomach, tears of angst threatened to escape. Ines began to tremble, knowing she had to take stock through the woozy haze of vertigo and find a way out of this situation. Gosh, she felt ragged.

Taking long breaths, the panic began to dissipate. Ines was now able to get a closer look at her wounded ankles. Appalled to see that they were in fact nail lacerations sent shivers down her spine, concluding that she had scratched herself hard enough to bleed and had done so unwittingly! Unnerved by a sensation that an army of ants were crawling under her skin, Ines began to claw at her flesh, first in long hard strokes and then with manic intention. It was like scratching a mosquito bite getting itchier with every scrape.

Looking through fuzzy eyes, Ines began to scan the space around her. Aha! There on the dark wood vanity unit, she spotted her phone, and after quick deliberation of ‘do I? don’t I?’, with determination, she began to pull her frail body along the floor like a caterpillar, fighting the nausea and drunken sensation with what little strength she had.

Spaghetti arms extended, Ines puffed a heavy moan with all the exertion it took, uttering chastising words of discourse.‘Ugh. I need to get fit! As of tomorrow? I’m signing up for some weight training or something,’ although she was about as interested in doing these classes as an arachnophobe would be in sharing a room with spiders. Realising the absurdity, Ines stopped with the nonsensical talk.

Even though she knew deep down it was pointless calling, Ines nonetheless phoned Dylan, on the off chance that he might do the decent thing for once and pick up. Predictably, it went to voicemail, his rumbling voice, promising that he will get back to the caller.


Shaking from head to toe with anger and anxiety, she hung up, took a momentary pause and pressed redial. Recognising that it was a useless deed, there was still the sliver of a chance that he would come running to be by her side. With a tiny voice, she left Dylan a heartfelt message imploring him to call because of what had happened. Dropping the phone down by her side andfeeling utterly spent, Ines wept. At first small sobs eased their way out, but the tiny drops of emotion rapidly evolved into a soul-destroying outpouring.

The phone rang! In one mad and encouraging split-second, Ines stopped crying and flipped it over to see if Dylan cared enough to call as soon as he heard her pain.

‘Bonjour, my little butterfly. Did you manage to sleep last night?’ Luke. Always there.

Hearing his genuine concern for her wellbeing, Ines burst into uncontrollable tears once more, unable to articulate her words. All that Luke could deduce between the long, sharp gasps of her forcible dialogue, was that she had fallen and was in the bathroom. ‘Ok, I’m coming now.’

Her tears had eased and now she was breathing in short rapid breaths, sticky ropes of mucus hung from her crimson nose. Disgusted at the sight of the grotesque figure slumped against the wooden unit, scabby legs set apart, her shining eyes now listless and streaks of snot smeared across her face, Ines snarled in despair at the crude vision staring back at her from the mirror.

Luke couldn’t see her like this. She still had some dignity, as fleeting as it might be. The mottled flesh on her thighs under the starkness of halogen lighting added to the shame of it all. No, there wasn’t a hope in hell that Luke was coming over. Whatever the quandary, she was certain it would pass.

‘Luke, I’m okay, I’m just having a bad morning. Honestly, I’m fine.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. You are hurt and you need help.’ Luke’s tone was assertive and composed. ‘I’ll be with you as soon as I can.’

Resigned to the fact that she did indeed need help and it didn’t matter how she looked, Ines finally agreed. ‘You have a spare key. Remember I gave it to you after I locked myself out a few months ago?’

Luke mumbled something about a booty call at Courtney’s, and he had to go back home and find them. Perturbed and wondering if everyone was at it apart from her, Ines assured her pal that she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Her limbs began to feel rigid as the cold crept through her body. Shivering, the goosebumps emerged beneath her skin, spreading rampantly along her slim arms. Feeling a gentle brush against the nape of her neck, Ines looked up to find a towel strewn over the sink.

With a pincer grasp, she began tugging at the unfurling bath sheet. Admonishing herself for not thinking of it in the first instance, she wrapped herself in the thick, plush towel, revelling in the immediate warmth it gave her. ‘God bless John Lewis for their high-quality products.’ Snuggled down, she waited for Luke’s arrival— which could be a long while yet given that he has to travel from Putney to Earls Court before even getting to her. ‘All in the name of a booty call,’ muttered Ines, tightening the towel around her body, cursing.

‘Good morning, my little butterfly! Tis moi!’ A voice bellowed through the hallway, way too cheerily for Ines’s liking. Luke had arrived. Hearing the squeaking footsteps his Converse sneakers were making down the hallway, Ines suddenly began to feel an overwhelming sense of emotion. She was relieved that he’d arrived before her anticipated time but sad it hadn’t been her supposed boyfriend who’d come to her aid.

‘Knock knock’ he called as he rapped the wall outside the bathroom and eased the door open a crack. Unsettled at the sight of a broken Ines slouched against the unit as he stepped across the threshold, Luke masked his shock.

‘You could have made an effort if you knew I was coming.’ Chiding with affection, he kneeled down beside her and stroked clumps of damp hair away from her clammy cheeks.

‘I didn’t have enough time. You came too quick,’ smiled Ines.

‘Not a complaint I’m accustomed to hearing, my little butterfly,’ replied Luke evenly as he assessed the situation Ines was in. ‘Right then, I’m going to lift you and your bum, and deposit you both in your bedroom,’ decided Luke.

Alarmed that she was going to be carried, in what was essentially all her naked glory, by Luke to her bedroom, she began to speak in quick succession.

‘No, no it’s fine. Just help me up,’ she insisted, pulling her bath sheet back around her, preserving her modesty.

Grinning, Luke replied, mocking her reluctance. ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Anyway, I don’t see that you have much choice in the matter, do you, hmmm? Your prick of a boyfriend is probably getting blown by his mistress as you sit here struggling, so he won’t be returning anytime soon which means you are not going anywhere. Or you can suck it up and allow me to carry you to safety.’

The words stung like salt in a freshly open wound, but Luke was right and nodded with reluctance. ‘Shut up and help me, and this is not the time to be quoting Hamlet,’ she ordered, reaching for his waiting hand.

Now lying on her bed in a pretty embroidered chemise (Luke chose well) with a soft, red blanket draped over her legs, Luke sat himself beside his ailing friend. Watching him drink his coffee made her feel content and grateful that he was in her life. As if reading her mind, Luke responded by sticking his tongue out and going boss eyed.

‘There’s no need for all this fuss,’ protested Ines, at the smiling trio. She was being ganged up on by Luke, Zara and Sally standing in the kitchen with a look behind their smug grins that would brook no argument. Luke had called the girls when she had been taking a much-needed nap, and they had arrived as soon as they heard the news.

Pouring them all a glass of Crozes-Hermitage, Zara smiled with satisfaction as she watched the velvety red liquid, fill glasses that had been spaced out in symmetrical perfection. Being conscious about her appearance wasn’t the only thing in her life she was O.C.D about; it spilled over to daily matters. After she performed the ritual in self-indulgent delight, Zara flashed a toothy smile. She loved the silent tension she was creating with her elaborate execution of pouring out wine. All her friends wanted, was a drink.

‘Here’s to good health and good friends,’ toasted Sally.

‘Santé,’ countered Luke, Ines and Zara, clinking their glasses together.

‘So, where’s that idiot boyfriend of yours? Any news from him?’ asked Zara with such hostility, it even surprised Luke.

‘Probably doing the same shit as Nick,’ Luke piped up.

Blushing, Zara’s mouth clattered shut in an instant. Noticing her embarrassment, Sally frowned at Luke for being so tactless.

‘That was uncalled-for,’ she admonished, looking at Zara’s saddened demeanour and scolding Luke. ‘We can’t help who we fall for.’

Empathising wholeheartedly with Zara’s predicament, Sally curled her fingers over her friend’s plump hand in a show of solidarity.

Knowing it was a fruitless endeavour trying to argue his case when he was outnumbered 3-1, Luke said nothing more.

Distracted, Ines began scratching at her shredded ankle and squeezing her right eye intermittently, unaware she was being watched by all three friends.

Willing her vision to focus clearly on Sally who was by now speaking about Ryan’s potential as a rehabilitated citizen, Ines tried to catch up with the topic.

‘ … you have got to be shitting me,’ snorted Zara, wiping a rogue drop of wine from her chin.

Luke, torn between watching Zara and Sally discussing Ryan and studying Ines’s peculiar behaviour, he settled on watching the entire spectacle before him from a distance. Taking another sip of wine and looking on in bewilderment, he likened the scenario to being in a scene on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and wondered how he found himself to be caught up in the throng of it all. Right now, he could be swaddled in Courtney’s doughy bosom. But he wasn’t. Instead, he was sitting in Ines’ kitchen watching her like a hawk as she continued to cast her eyes at every angle periodically and scratching her leg.

By now, Zara and Sally were in full discussion about the homeless situation in the city, folk who are less fortunate than them, who do and don’t deserve a second chance. The kitchen had suddenly turned into a political arena and Luke found himself making a mental list of all the places he would rather be, right now, as he gazed at the bars of peach and coral stream through the tall kitchen windows.

‘So, what are you saying? Give Ryan a job and then ask him out?’ Tipsy, Zara’s voice was now reaching a high pitch, at some points breaking into a gargle, as she became more incredulous at Sally’s idea that Ryan should join the rat race and could become a potential love interest for her. Zara could be a tactless snob, sometimes.

Looking over the edge of their wine glasses at each other, Ines squeezed her eyes in mock exasperation at Luke. Responding with a long stare and an imperceptible smile, he understood what Ines was implying. He liked the fact that they didn’t need to speak to know what the other was thinking.

Ines’s vision began to blur, and the sensation of ants crawling beneath her skin was relentless. Scratching at her lacerated calves, her inebriated friends watched with curiosity as their friend seemed to regress from being mildly fidgety to behaving like a restless toddler. Sally correlated Ines’ strange behaviour to the days when as a little girl, her mum would make her wear “itchy” tights and was expected to sit still and behave, when in public. With an involuntary shudder at the recollection, Sally reverted to the present. She moved her glass away, taking Ines’ hand into her baby-soft palm. ‘Sweetie, what are going to do about this?’ her eyes, as light as the first mist of a winter’s day glistened with sisterly concern. Circling a pale finger over Ines’ legs, to highlight the point, she waited for an explanation.

‘Huh? Oh, um, well …’ Lost for words, the truth was that not even Ines knew what she was doing. Releasing her hand from Sally’s gentle hold, she mused aloud while she squeezed each eye, comparing the sight out of both. ‘I think I’m going to make an appointment to see the optician.’ 

Zara placed her wine glass on the counter. ‘Maybe it’s time to make that appointment at the doctor as well, heh?’

Staring into her glass, Ines nodded the slightest affirmation. The room fell silent as all eyes settled upon the feisty pint size Latina who was now looking vulnerable. Reaching down, she began to scratch again. 

‘Stop it! You’re tearing up your skin!’ Sally had now leapt to the other side of the island and was batting Ines’s hand away from her red raw leg. The look of alarm on Luke’s face was enough to make her stop. ‘I think, my little butterfly, that maybe you should go tomorrow, no?’

Just as she opened her mouth to reply, her mobile pinged an alert. Looking expectantly down at the screen, Ines unlocked the phone and read. Then again. And again.

‘W…what’s happened?’ Asking with a rare show of empathy, Zara bit her lip. 

Rolling her shoulders and throwing her head back in vexation, Ines remained wordless.

Always on hand for support and important tasks such as lighting a cigarette or pouring the drink, Luke passed Ines the cigarette he had subsequently lit for himself as well as his coffee. ‘I bet your fancy barista doesn’t do this for you,’ he teased, watching the cup slide from his grip towards quiet hands. Grateful, she also took the lighted smoke from an outstretched hand, a gradual crescent forming beneath her nose, before taking an indulgent drag. Twisting her head, Ines exhaled a steady stream of smoke. ‘That was Dylan. He’s working away all of next week. Some bullshit about needing to meet target.’ Entranced by the glowing embers dwindling in the Fordhams ashtray, Ines let out a long sigh.

‘Prick. He doesn’t exist in my eyes,’ proclaimed Sally. ‘We all know what he’s doing, just not who with,’ she continued, her flat blonde hair swishing with every impassioned word. ‘You need to focus on your health and your well-being and just forget about him. Kick him out. Move on. He’s using you, sweetie. He only wants the exclusivity of this address and your money.’ Pausing for a moment to consider whether or not she’d gone too far, Sally decided that what she’d said was not inappropriate, given that nobody was interrupting her. This gave her even more confidence to say what she thought. ‘He’s a chancer, Ini. He couldn’t afford to live in a place like this or in the area –— unless he shacked up with Ryan in the doorway of the café. He’s got no respect for you, but why would he?’

Realising she was teetering on fragile territory, Sally softened her countenance. ‘I know you love him, but do you really? Can you really love a man who you have allowed to take the piss, to walk all over you and treat you like a doormat? Huh? He should be here by your side, supporting you. But no. Where’s the slimy git? You let shit that matters slide. Like you’re accepting of his behaviour.’

Thrusting both hands out to express the conviction of her words, Sally was to all intents and purposes, unstoppable. ‘You know what I think? I think you hope he will change, like BOOM!! You’re hoping he’ll have some kind of epiphany and stop his no-good, cheating ways.’ Sally was now knocking her temple. ‘But in reality, he never will, and he knows that you’ll never kick him out. He’s arrogant enough to believe this … and you are letting him get away with it!’

Sally was now on a roll, hot and upset. Her bottled-up feelings of her best friend’s boyfriend spewed out like lava, leaving her friends speechless.

Ines’s mind flicked through the catalogue of events over the last two years of her relationship with Dylan, and felt her stomach ache with sadness, whilst Sally gathered herself together after her rousing speech.

‘Go Sally!’ Zara caught her breath, stunned at Sally’s outburst. ‘I didn’t think you had it in you, girl!’ applauding Sally with enthusiasm, Zara’s cheeks glowed with the combination of delight and the warming sensation of the wine. ‘Crikey, don’t hold back will you, love?’

Flushed and fanning her eyes by way of stopping herself from crying, Sally began to apologise. ‘I’m so sorry.’

‘It’s fine, honestly… Oh no, don’t get upset, Sal,’ Ines croaked, morose that her friend thought of the situation this way. ‘What you’re saying is the truth and it needs to be said. I just didn’t know that you felt like this. I hadn’t realised that it was so obvious I was in the wrong situation in your eyes.’

‘Babe, everyone feels that way,’ added Zara curtly. ‘Although … ’ She eyed Luke through narrow eyes and tight lips. ‘Luke, would you like a cushion, because it can’t be very comfortable sitting on that fence?’

Stubbing his cigarette in slow deliberate measures into the ashtray, Luke watched the remnants smouldering, without answering. Unnerved by his silence and the heavy atmosphere, Zara reached for the open packet of Marlboro and pulled one out with her mouth. Ines and Sally exchanged skittish glances at each other, unsure of what to say or do next. Ines knew Luke well enough to know that when he’s quiet, it’s either because he’s analysing a situation or he’s using every bit of self- control to stop himself from losing it. His poker face is something nobody could read. After a pause of what seemed like an age, Luke spoke. ‘I’m quite fine as I am thanks, Zara. From my view up on the fence, I see two sad and lonely young ladies. Both of whom have men they have to share with other women, even though they kid themselves into believing that they’re in an exclusive relationship.’ Coolly taking a drink of his freshly brewed coffee, his eyes searched out Ines who was by now rubbing her legs with her hand wrapped in a mitten fashioned out of a microfibre dishcloth.

Rattled, by the sense that she was under Luke’s scrutiny, Ines felt like she’d been caught pinching from the sweet jar. Responding with a guilty smile, she tucked her hands under her bottom, away from view. Conscious of Zara’s livid glare aimed at Luke, the go-between supposed that if Zara’s eyes were laser beams, he’d be a pile of cinders by now.

Feigning a cheery disposition, Ines climbed down from the bar stool and clumsily sauntered over to the window-sill where the lifeless Bluetooth speaker sat. ‘Time for some music I reckon,’ Scrolling through the music library on her phone, ‘any preferences, name it now.’

In unison, everyone shrugged, impassive to the prospect of making playlist decisions. ‘Something mellow. Chill out music,’ suggested Sally.

‘Yeah, something to lighten the mood … and I’ll cook something for us all. It’s getting late,’ declared Luke as he opened the American style fridge and speculated what to make with the fare available.

Zara sat nursing her bruised ego, seething at Luke as he spoke. His candour was often cutting for a sensitive soul like Zara. ‘I don’t want anything to eat,’ she said, folding her arms across her chest. ‘I’m waiting for Nick to get in contact. We’re going out.’ This occasioned a sheepish tone, knowing full well what everyone thought of her love interest.

Shaking his head slowly at her childish behaviour, Luke began to speak from within the safety of the fridge, avoiding Zara’s death stare— although fleeting, the thought that he was a perfect target for a knife to be flung into his back, had crossed his mind. Feeling brave enough to open dialogue with her, his voice resonated from the hollow space inside. ‘Nick? Aha. The elusive Nick. How the devil is he? Will he be picking you up from Chez Garcia? I must say it would be great to have a drink with him before you head out.’

Dumbfounded at the audacity, Zara’s face contorted into what looked like a snarling beast ‘Fuck off,’ she mouthed, striking her arm out and flipping him off.

Sally’s eyes widened like saucers at the spunky attitude of her friend who was a bit of an air-head at times, albeit a well-meaning one. However, Sally had secretly hoped to see him too, given that the only time they met was when Nick had been intoxicated on alcohol and cocaine.   Piqued at how the events between Luke and Zara in the last hour had culminated into this ill feeling between them, Ines attempted to walk over to the butcher’s console on the other side of the kitchen, where Luke was now standing, having had, by this time, removed his head from the security of the fridge and was chopping and slicing an aubergine and cloves of garlic with expertise.

A stilted conversation carried on between the three friends, but Ines was too distracted by the tingling sensation in her legs to pay much attention. Frustrated and determined to regain normal feeling, she took cautious steps, looking pained as she spoke. ‘Can you both just be nice to each other? For goodness sake Zara, Luke included me as one of the sad and lonely women in his talk as well you know!’ By now, Ines’ leg was dragging with the sluggish steps of having a ball and chain clasped around her ankle. Clinging onto the central island for support, she fought to stay upright, her leg now buckling.

Horrified at the sight of their friend struggling to stand, Zara, Sally and Luke simultaneously demanded that she sit down. Not being left with much scope for argument, she sat on a chair that Sally had snatched from the bistro table nearby, gingerly placing it behind her.

‘I’ll definitely make an appointment with the doctor tomorrow morning,’ she promised, looking around at her frightened audience, as if reading their minds.

Zara’s phone started buzzing, bringing a smile to her face. Trying to conceal her delight upon reading the message, she began gathering her belongings with haste, bidding a breezy farewell to everyone.

‘I’ll see you all tomorrow. Don’t wait up.’ Winking as she scooted between Sally and Ines, Zara planted sticky lip-gloss kisses on their bemused faces. As quickly as she had received the green light, Zara shimmered out of sight, the tick-ticking of her stilettos fading down the hallway. ‘More food for us then,’ gloated Luke as he began to sauté the ingredients.

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