Like with #Forfeit, I had a very specific soundtrack for Libby and Patrick’s love story. The #Forfeit soundtrack I shared with you in story order. The NAS soundtrack will be slightly more haphazard. 🙂 The key band I have on loop as I’m writing is one I refer to in NAS as the folk tribute band, Mumford and Dad. I totes love this track and to me, it is the book’s theme song. I heart it and I hope you do to.
Want to meet Libby & Zoe?
Libby’s job as the assistant to the North West’s most celebrated wedding planner, was to ensure the venue was prepared and the big day ran smoothly. Stupidly expensive Georgian mansion? Tick. Thousands of elegantly arranged deep plum, Schwarzwalder calla lilies? Tick. Groom’s tongue down the chief bridesmaid’s throat? What the hell? Libby texted the bride-to-be, saying she had something to show her in the wedding breakfast room. Moral code getting the better of Libby Wilde? Tick. Pressing send, she went outside to hide.
Ten minutes later, the North West’s most celebrated wedding planner stalked across the terrace towards Libby, who was watching the bride battering the groom over the head with one of the elegant Schwarzwalder calla lily arrangements. The guilty chief bridesmaid hovered on the side-lines, presumably trying to decide if she should step in and rescue the groom or try to apologise to her ex-best friend. The bride shrieked language most lobster fishermen would blush at, while the North West’s most celebrated wedding planner hissed the dreaded phrase, Olivia Wilde, you’re fired. Libby had heard those words three times in the last five months, making a grand total of eleven times in three years.
‘So what if he’s shagging the bridesmaid? It wasn’t your job to tell the bloody bride. It was your job to make sure the flowers looked incredible and they got married. It was your job to make sure I got paid.’
Seeing little point in arguing her case, Libby welcomed the distraction of the bride-not-to-be throwing open one of the French doors.
‘Thank you for saving me from that lying bastard,’ she said. ‘He said last time was a mistake. I should’ve known better. People don’t change.’
No, they don’t.
Libby walked away with her head held high. She might be unemployed again, but morally, she was doing just fine.
The Jumble Bar, a low-key affair tucked away in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, lacked Libby’s usual boho crowd that evening. Instead the outside tables were filled with corporate types. Women with five inch heels perched at the end of their St Tropez’d pins, sipped agave syrup mojitos, frowning with disdain at the pink dip-dyed ends of Libby’s hair. At least a few of the men in striped shirts, all knocking back pints of cutting edge real ale, eyed up her bum as she weaved between their tables.
Inside, another two corporate-type blokes were teaching Zoë, her best friend and flatmate, to play poker. Libby hid her grin as a wide-eyed Zoë flirted blatantly with a guy wearing a Rolex as he explained why a King wasn’t better than four sevens. Sucker.
Ordering a glass of Chablis, Libby perched on a stool at the bar and flicked through the Manchester Evening News until she reached the job ads. Sales, sales, data entry, sales, care home staff, sales, girls wanted… The MEN had sits vac ads for prostitutes? By the time, she’d drained her glass, only three ads were circled. Three. So that was what her life had come to: twenty-four and seriously considering a career in the escort business for lack of other options.
‘Beginners luck,’ Mr Rolex mumbled as Zoë scooped up eighty pounds of his cash.
Luck had nothing to do with it. In between scanning the job ads, Libby discovered he checked his phone every time he bluffed and couldn’t help a little smile into his pint when he had a good hand. And if she knew, Zoë knew.
Taking a fresh Chablis and a Bacardi and soda Libby weaved towards their table, raising her eyebrows at her friend who flashed an innocent smile.
‘Lib, I’ve finally got the hang of poker.’
‘Well, it’s a lot easier than it seems,’ said Mr Rolex, his gaze slowly running over Libby’s body. ‘Especially when you have the right teacher.’
Libby, equally unsubtle, stared at the gold ring on his left hand and leant in to whisper to Zoë. ‘As much fun as it is to watch you hustle this self-satisfied and unfaithful arse, can we bugger off outside?’
Zoë nodded. ‘Fuck, yes. I’ve had a mentally weird day and I could murder a fag.’ She led the way to the last empty table, taking with her two Selfridge bags and a rather lovely looking tan tote.
‘What,’ Libby asked as she lit a cigarette, ‘is that?’
‘A Mulberry Bayswater.’ Zoë caressed the leather handbag before helping herself to a Marlboro.
‘And what are you doing? You haven’t smoked since school.’
‘As I said, weird day. First, the Dick’s texted me to say he’s busy tonight, and second, my mum rang, my great-aunt died.’
‘Oh God, that’s awful. I mean about your great-aunt. Were you close?’
‘Are you taking the piss? She was a right miserable cow. She dropped dead a couple of months ago.’ Zoë leant forwards. ‘But get this. Her and Mum didn’t get on, so Maggie only went and left me her house.’
‘You’ve inherited a house?’
‘Yep. Mum’s totally pissed off. She assumed she’d get it because Mags had no other family. She’s already had the place valued.’
After leaving a dramatic pause, Zoë’s sloe-black eyes glinted. ‘The estate agent, some bloke called Jonathan rang me this afternoon. It’s only worth two hundred bloody grand.’ The two friends squealed. ‘Which I reckon totally justifies treating the old MasterCard to a Mulberry handbag.’ Zoë tipped her head, looking over Libby’s clothes. ‘Nice outfit by the way, bee-atch.’
The purple mini-dress and denim jacket were both swiped from Zoë’s wardrobe. In fact the bangles jangling on both Libby’s wrists, the diamante drops in her ears and the aubergine polish were all Zoë’s too. Only the black sequin ballet flats were Libby’s own.
‘Just don’t lose those earrings,’ Zoë replied. ‘They’re the only present the Dick’s ever given me.’
‘And what did Rich text you?’
Zoë pulled out her iPhone. ‘Having a drink with our boss. Can’t do tonight. He’s sulking because I got headhunted today.’
Libby wanted to throttle Rich for treating Zoë like crap and slap Zoë for putting up with it. Zoë was a five ten, beautiful brunette who cooked like Nigella and earned silly commission from house sales. Which was half the problem; Rich resented Zoë for being better at selling houses than him. But then none of the nine male agents in Zoë’s office seemed to appreciate the only female agent regularly pipping their sales targets.
‘Headhunted, who by?’
‘The estate agent who valued my new house. He basically offered me a senior sales manager’s role. I’m not taking it, but there’s no reason to let the buggers at Testosterone Hell know that yet, right?’ Zoë picked at a beer mat. ‘Why are you here, anyway? Don’t you have a pre-wedding dinner tonight?’
Reluctantly, Libby nodded.
‘For God’s sake…’ Zoë leant forwards and gently, but repeatedly, banged her forehead on the table. ‘What for this time?’
Libby explained and handed her the paper. ‘But see, I’ve already lined up the next disastrous employment opportunity.’
‘Dental receptionist? I can buy into that because you have immaculate teeth, but youth worker? Really? They’ll take one look at your hair and assume you’ll sell crack to the kids.’
‘And travel agent? After what happened with the cruise company?’ Zoë tossed the paper onto the table. ‘You’ll be lucky to get another job in this climate. A hundred and fifty people applied for our last admin post, but you could always try–’
‘Something will come up. It always does.’
Zoë’s forehead creased into a frown. ‘Paolo’s heading this way. Coincidence?’
Libby took a long drag on her cigarette, determined not to look. ‘Yes.’
‘Liar. For fuck’s sake, Lib. It’s been four months. That’s the longest you’ve gone without shagging him.’
‘He messaged me, saying hi, but it was just after I’d been sacked.’ It was a pathetic excuse. ‘I might’ve messaged him back.’
Standing on the pavement, scanning the outside tables, Paolo de Luca raked his dark hair out of his eyes, seemingly oblivious to the lascivious glances he attracted from the girls at the nearest table.
‘Tell him to piss off and take some other idiot home,’ Zoë said. ‘Move on.’
Zoë’s theory, validated by a psychology degree, maintained that a girl only got over a man when she had a new one to distract her. Move on. Libby knew she should but Paolo had the sexy, struggling artist act down to perfection and despite being raised near Inverness, he was practically Italian. He stood in front of her, holding out his hand and she stubbed out her cigarette, letting him pull her to her feet.
Not that she’d expected a polite, haven’t-seen-you-in-four-months peck on the cheek, that wasn’t Paolo’s style, but when he hooked his hand behind her neck and kissed her, Libby’s knees buckled. Move on. Who was she kidding? She couldn’t move on while he still had the ability to decimate her defences – it’d be tantamount to infidelity. Resigning herself to the inevitable, short-lived fling she wrapped her arms around his neck. They could never be anything more, not until he saw her as a girlfriend instead of his elusive bloody muse. It might seem like an easy occupation to some, but for Libby, sitting motionless while Paolo sketched her every day was akin to sticking pins in her eyes.
‘Don’t mind me,’ Zoë said, standing up. ‘While ‘dile.’
Libby dragged her lips from Paolo’s, vaguely aware of Zoë heading back into the bar. ‘Later, ’gator.’
Paolo rested his forehead against Libby’s. ‘We need to talk.’
* * *
Zoë came back to her apartment at around two in the morning to hear the familiar strains of Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Cygnets tinkling down the hallway. This wasn’t a good sign. If Libby was watching the DVD, it was okay. If she were sitting on the sofa with her feet twitching, desperate to copy her onscreen self, then it was bad.
But it wasn’t bad – it was worse than bad. Not only was Libby mirroring her younger self on the TV, but she was doing it en pointe. Zoë stared. Wearing ballet shoes, a black leotard and long black legwarmers, Libby used every inch of the wooden floorboards as only a professional dancer knew how.
This was worse than Zoë had ever seen.
‘It always kills me that I got this bit wrong,’ Libby said, adding a smile.
Libby’s fake smile – the smile that said I’m fine. It was a lie. Libby wasn’t fine. Zoë sank into the sofa wondering how to handle the situation. Every morning, Libby would lock herself in the bathroom and perform ritualistic barre exercises using the towel rail. Zoë pretended not to know, they were both happier that way, but when Libby brought her misery into the living room, how could she ignore it?
‘You know I’ve always thought you got it right,’ Zoë said. ‘It’s the other three that have their timing just wrong.’
But they both knew that wasn’t the point. Zoë watched in silence as Libby finished the piece and collapsed on the sofa, hugging her knees to her chest.
‘Lib, it’s been three years. You really need to get back in a class or something. You can’t keep doing this.’ When Libby leaned down and started undoing her shoes, Zoë knew they weren’t going to talk about it. They never did. ‘Paolo still here?’
Libby lit a cigarette and nodded. ‘I know it’s tragic, but he’s moving to London. A friend of his has a gallery and he wants to show Paolo’s paintings. I know we’re not a proper couple but he’s leaving, never going to see him again kind of leaving.’ Libby flexed her ankles. ‘I’ve not actually lost the plot. He asked me to tell him something, something about me I’ve never told him before so I… danced for him.’ Libby looked at the ceiling trying not to cry, but huge drops tumbled down her cheeks.
‘And? Did he draw you?’ Zoë asked, suppressing a giggle.
Libby wiped her eyes, smiling as she nodded. A real smile. ‘While I danced. He called me his broken ballerina.’
Zoë feigned a swoon. ‘He really ought to be in Paris, living the perpetually tortured dream. Why don’t you run off with him? He might make you happy.’
‘He can’t replace ballet and he drives me potty.’
‘At least he loves you.’ Which is more than I’ve got. Zoë picked at her nail polish.
Libby nudged her. ‘My life’s a mess. I’m jobless, fairly unemployable and my not-boyfriend is abandoning me but right now, you, young lady, look more depressed. Where’ve you been ’til now?’
‘Rich rang about twenty minutes after you left.’
‘A booty call,’ Libby said, not hiding her disgust. ‘He just wanted a shag.’
‘He’s certainly a dick.’ Zoë poured the remainder of the wine into the two glasses. ‘I’ve told him we’re over.’
‘About time. So now what?’
Zoë took a deep breath. Was she really going to say this? ‘How do you fancy moving to the Lakes, to Great-aunt Maggie’s cottage?’
Libby’s eyes widened. ‘You want to leave the city?’
‘It makes financial sense. If I live in the cottage for over six months, I avoid a ton of tax.’
‘What would I do up there?’
‘Well, you’d be rent-free. You could do what you liked. Just think about what you really want to do.’
‘Where is this cottage of Great-aunt Maggie’s? I’m not sure I can do living in the countryside. I haven’t lived anywhere remotely green since I was eight.’
‘This is the good bit. It’s in a place called Gosthwaite.’ Zoë opened her laptop. ‘It’s a village on the east side of the Lakes so handy for the M6.’ Zoë panned around the Google Streetview of a village green. ‘There’s the King Alfred pub and that’s the war memorial in the middle of the green, and that’s my new cottage tucked in the corner.’
In a cobbled green mostly edged with smart Georgian places, Maggie’s house was the last in a row of small houses. Libby’s mouth gaped.
‘That’s not a cottage. Cottages are cute. That has grey pebble dashing and it’s at the end of a terrace. Look at it, it could have been built in the sixties.’
‘It’s a double-fronted nineteenth century workers cottage and it’s directly across from the pub.’ Zoë elbowed Libby. ‘Well?’
‘I can’t picture you in the countryside.’
‘Me neither, but think how amazing it’ll be. Big fish, little pond. We’ll be the most fabulous things the village has ever seen.’
‘How medieval are we looking? Emmerdale in the Eighties?’
‘Gosthwaite’s quite cool. There are five pubs, a post office, greengrocer, butcher, baker, arts and craft candlestick maker, two cafés and a couple of restaurants.’
Zoë flicked through Google Images, flashing over pictures of walkers, mountains, and pub interiors. Libby stopped her at a photo of a young girl and pony clearing a jump.
‘You know I hate the stinky creatures, but I think there’s a livery yard in Gosthwaite and a riding school in Haverton, that’s the nearest town.’ Zoë tempered her smile. ‘What do you think, ready for a change?’
‘I have BHS stage two, but I might need stage three to get a decent job. For the first time I’m actually glad Mum made me go to Pony Club Camp every summer.’ Libby didn’t take her eyes off the pony. ‘That’s what I can do next. I’m going to live in the countryside and work with horses. Awesome.’
* * *
The next morning Libby woke to find Paolo gone. On the pillow lay a sketch of her smiling as she stood en pointe with her hands on her hips. In his beautifully expressive handwriting, he’d written a dedication: To my Broken Ballerina, I’ll love you forever. Px.
It was going to take some man to distract her from Paolo.