Authors: Tilly Bagshawe
For my children: Sefi, Zac, Theo and Summer.
Table of Contents
Catriona Charles sucked in her stomach as hard as she could and yanked on the zip of her burgundy velvet dress. It had fitted her perfectly when she'd bought it in Oxford four weeks ago, but now voluptuous folds of flesh seemed to be creeping out everywhere, like excess pastry flopping over the top of a pie dish. Tomorrow, without fail, she would go on a diet. No more Hobnobs. Or cheese. And she would cut out booze for a month. Well, perhaps not a whole month. Two weeks would probably be enough to make a difference.
âCan I help? Two hands are better than one.'
Ivan Charles, Catriona's husband of fifteen years, walked up behind her. Pulling the two sides of fabric together, he pulled the zip to the top and fastened the hook and eye.
âThere.' He smiled triumphantly. âYou look gorgeous.'
He was right. With her tangle of honey-blonde hair, full, sensual lips and intelligent green eyes, not to mention a pair of breasts that many girls half her age would have given their eye teeth for, at thirty-eight Catriona Charles was still an extremely attractive woman. Admittedly two kids, a fondness for gin and tonic and cheese on toast and a loathing of physical exercise in all its forms had allowed her figure to blossom a little
much in recent years. It would be fair to say Catriona looked better in an evening dress than a bikini. But men had always found her Nigella-esque, just-rolled-out-of-bed look a turn-on, and couldn't understand Catriona's own insecurity about her looks.
âReally?' she sighed. âYou're sure I don't look like a lump of cookie dough squeezed into a wine bottle?'
Ivan laughed, kissing her on the back of her neck. âMmmm. Cookie dough and cabernet. Two of my favourite things. And here are two more.' He squeezed her breasts. âHappy Birthday to me, eh?'
Tonight was Ivan Charles's fortieth birthday party, an event that had consumed every waking hour of his wife's time for the past three months. As co-founder and owner of Jester, a successful music management company, Ivan Charles was one of the most well-connected men in the record business. Ivan's âfriends' were so numerous they could have banded together and formed their own country. Even at Oxford, where he and Catriona had first met, and where Ivan had also met his Jester business partner, Jack Messenger, Ivan was infamous as a
and all-round party animal. With his model good looks (dark hair, blue eyes, toned rower's physique) and immense personal charm, he was also well known as a ladies' man. Hundreds of hearts were broken the day that Ivan Charles walked down the aisle with Catriona Farley. Though the marriage had been stormy at times, they had had two gorgeous kids together and were still going strong the better part of two decades later. Ivan Charles congratulated himself on that. Then again, Ivan Charles congratulated himself on a lot of things for which he was not, in truth, responsible. For all his wit and charisma, beneath the dazzle, Ivan Charles was a deeply arrogant man.
He's so bloody handsome still
, thought Catriona, watching her husband adjust his bow tie and flick a piece of lint from the lapel of his dinner jacket.
How lucky I am to be married to him.
Ivan looked at his vintage Omega watch, a gift from a grateful client. âSix o'clock. Shall we have a sneaky glass of champagne before the locusts descend?'
âAre you joking?' wheezed Catriona. She could barely breathe in the dress. âI still have all the place cards to do, the caterer's having a cow because only half the mixers got delivered and the playroom looks like a bloody bomb's hit it.'
âWho's going to be going in the playroom?' said Ivan reasonably. âCome on, Cat. One drink.'
âMuuuuuuuum!' A wild, animal shriek echoed along the hallway. Catriona recognized it as her twelve-year-old daughter, Rosie. âHector put food colouring in the shampoo bottle. My hair's gone fucking BLUE! It won't come out!'
âDon't fucking swear,' Ivan bellowed back, earning himself a reproving look from Catriona. âWhat? She needs to be told. Both the children swear like bloody truck drivers.'
âI wonder why!'
âMuuuum! I need you! Now!'
Catriona rolled her eyes to heaven. It was going to be a very long night.
Jack Messenger turned his Bentley Continental off the A40 onto the single-track road marked âWidford'. He'd first come to this part of the world in his teens, when he'd won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, and it had always occupied a special place in his heart. To Jack, an American, the Cotswolds were like something out of a theme park or a Disney cartoon. The ancient churches and cottages, the crumbling dry-stone walls, the welcoming pubs and lush meadows dissected by rivers whose names conjured up a romantic, lost England: Leach, Churn, Dun, Windrush, Evenlode; all of them delighted him and inspired a sense of wonder that he'd never lost.
Since founding Jester with Ivan Charles, his best friend from those halcyon undergraduate days, Jack Messenger had lived most of his adult life in Los Angeles. Jack ran Jester's LA office, managing primarily pop acts, while Ivan oversaw the London operation. Ivan's clients were mostly classical artists, although in the last three years he'd made a concerted effort to diversify his list. Back in the early days, when they were still building the business, Jack made regular trips back to Blighty to see his old friend. With his wife, Sonya, he'd enjoyed countless boozy suppers at the Charleses' London house â Ivan and Catriona had lived in Battersea at the time. Jack remembered those evenings fondly: Catriona the ever-welcoming hostess, Ivan rattling off anecdote after anecdote until Sonya had literally collapsed with laughter at the table.
They felt a long way away now.
Sonya Messenger, Jack's adored wife, had died three years ago of breast cancer. For Jack, the laughter had died with her. After three months spent sobbing in bed, he had finally got up one morning and gone into work. The joke at Jester was that he had been at his desk ever since. The president of the United States had more downtime than Jack Messenger, whose workaholic habits were famed throughout the business; in stark contrast to those of his business partner Ivan Charles.
The conventional wisdom was that Jack and Ivan had grown apart, but in fact the two men had always been very different, the most unlikely of friends. Even as a young man, Jack Messenger had come across as earnest and serious. His nickname at Balliol had been âSam Eagle' after the pompous, all-American character from
The Muppet Show
. Despite his good looks (Jack was blond and tall with long legs and a straight, almost military bearing), he had never enjoyed Ivan's success with girls, most of whom thought him arrogant and aloof. In fact, Jack was neither of these things. He was shy; something that only a few close friends, like Catriona and Ivan, fully recognized. And Sonya, of course. Jack's wife had done wonders for his confidence, coaxing out his wry sense of humour, encouraging him to be more open in public, more relaxed. Marriage suited Jack Messenger. When Sonya was alive he had flourished like a sapling in the sunshine. But her death had blighted everything. Annihilated by grief, Jack retreated further into his shell than ever. Even old friends struggled to reach him, though Catriona kept trying, inviting him on family holidays (Jack was godfather to her and Ivan's son, Hector) and to stay with them at Christmas.
Meanwhile, after a few months of genuine sympathy, Ivan started to grow tired of his partner's mood swings. âI understand him being sad,' he complained to Catriona. âI know how much he loved Sonya. But he's so bloody self-righteous at work, it's driving me crazy. He's always breathing down my neck about the accounts or new business or how I need to put more “face time” in at the office. It's my bloody office! And what the fuck is “face time” anyway? I ask you. Just because he uses work as a crutch doesn't give him the right to preach to the rest of us.'
In fact this was a heavily edited version of Jack's professional battles with Ivan. As Jester became more and more successful, so Ivan grew more arrogant, lazy and entitled. He often told friends that the London office âran itself'. The truth was that Jester's underpaid junior staff ended up carrying ninety per cent of the workload while Ivan swanned around the South of France ânetworking'. And that wasn't the worst of it. Now that he was rich, Ivan had sold the villa in Battersea and bought The Rookery, an idyllic Elizabethan manor house in the Windrush Valley, complete with stables, dovecotes, peacocks and a four-hundred-year-old maze. It was Catriona's dream house, and she and the children lived there full time while Ivan commuted to a smart bachelor flat in Belgravia, where he proceeded to bed a string of Jester's young, female interns, along with a fair number of the prettier clients. Jack was livid.
âNonsense,' quipped Ivan. âI'm committed to closer client liaison, that's all. And it's important to stay on top of one's staff.'
âIt's not funny,' snapped Jack. âWhat about poor Catriona? She'd be heartbroken if she knew.'
Ivan's voice hardened. âYes, well, she doesn't know. And as long as you keep your mouth shut, there's no reason she ever should. Look,' he added, âI love Catriona, OK? But it's complicated. She knew I wasn't a saint when she married me. There are a lot of temptations in our line of work.'
âHorseshit,' said Jack succinctly. âI'm not banging every secretary or starlet that walks through the door in LA.'
âWell maybe you should be,' said Ivan, irritated. âA good fuck might lighten you up a bit, you miserable sod. Just because you're gunning for a sainthood, doesn't mean the rest of us have to. If I want marriage guidance, I'll ask for it.'
That conversation had been over a year ago now. Since then, Ivan's midlife crisis, if that's what it was, seemed to have cooled. He and Jack had repaired their working relationship, but the easy friendship of old was gone for good. Catriona had invited Jack to numerous parties and events but he'd managed to wriggle out of almost all of them, using work and the long LAâLondon flight as an excuse. But Ivan Charles's fortieth birthday party would be the biggest music industry bash in England for almost a decade. There was no way Jack could skip it without raising serious eyebrows as to the state of the union at Jester. That was the last thing Jack wanted.