Chapter 1: Turkey Curry Surprise
It all began on New Year's Day…
Or so she thought.
She knew her mum had been trying to set her up with some boring, stodgy barrister for months now. Now that the annual New Year's Day Turkey Curry Buffet celebration was imminent, she had been resigned to her fate, to meeting (and then gently letting down) this total nerd.
Being single, and therefore the never-ending target for her mother's matchmaking efforts, had always been a source of great irritation for her. This year, though, she hadn't minded so much. She smiled to herself, combing her hair in a sedate style to settle it into place after getting dressed. Her suit of armour, the secret she was keeping, protected her ego against even the indignity of this particular setup.
No one knew what was going on, not even her closest friends. She didn't want to face their judgment, their questions, their concerns; she'd been as careful as could be and she did not want to further worry them unnecessarily. Their worry wouldn't have stopped her, though. It had been just the thing she had needed. Every day she could work her job in the city, a face in the crowd amongst other younger, prettier, sexier women. For one evening each week, though, she felt gorgeous. Confident. Sexy. Desirable, and definitely desired. Getting satisfyingly shagged into the wee hours with no strings attached, and then parting with the understanding: same time, next week. It was a perfect arrangement.
She stepped back and took in her reflection in the full length mirror, inspecting herself before she had to make her way down to the party. Hideous, this holiday-appropriate outfit her mother had insisted she wear. "It's festive!" her mother had said, though the outfit looked more like a sofa than anything she would have normally been caught dead wearing, least of all to a holiday party. She felt the opposite of gorgeous and sexy. But it was all right, really. She could have put up a fight, could have insisted on dressing in the outfit she'd brought, but much like resisting the matchmaking, it was not worth the battle. This atrocity of an outfit actually served her well tonight. The sooner she made her appearance at the party, the sooner she repulsed the man with whom her mum was trying to match her, she could get on the train, get back to London, and get on with her night.
She couldn't help the smile that found her lips again. Thinking of that fateful night. Thinking of her secret. Thinking of him.
Approx. two months earlier
If you want to have fun, make your own.
This was her thought as she delicately applied lipstick—a bold cherry red she wouldn't normally have dared to wear, to offset her kohl-darkened blue eyes—then stood back to gauge her overall appearance. Spaghetti-strap top, black miniskirt, tall black boots, hair loose and framing her face. She was ready to have a little too much to drink, to dance until her feet ached, to have a good time for her birthday, even if she had to go it alone. It was all right, though. She always found it easy to get along with people she didn't know, especially after that first cocktail.
The buzzer on her door rang, indicating her minicab had arrived. She grabbed her clutch and her keys, then left her flat.
She'd decided on a new nightclub to which she'd never been before, one for which there had been a lot of buzz. Rather than being sad that none of her friends could spend her birthday evening with her, she was proud of herself for venturing out all on her own like this.
Apparently, giving the minicab driver the name of her destination was good enough; he clearly knew where it was. "Yes, miss."
The brushed metallic façade of the nightclub more than lived up to its name; she paid the cab then made her way to the entrance. To her delight, she was waved in immediately, and within moments she was enveloped by the booming music and the strobing lights. All she needed now was something to drink.
She went to the bar and ordered a Bloody Mary, and stirred the drink with the thin celery stalk before drawing in a sip. Delicious. One of the best she'd had in some time. Best of all, it was quite strong. When she had finished it, she headed directly to the dance floor. Almost immediately she found a dance partner for the high energy club beats. Before long, the bloke she'd danced with had bought her a drink. She then danced some more, pairing up with another man—probably young enough to be her nephew, but who cared? She was having fun. It was just the night she needed after months of feeling completely invisible to members of the opposite sex.
As she took possession of then sipped from her next drink, she happened to glance towards where tired dancers liked to sit to catch their breath. Only then did she notice that there was a man looking directly at her from his seat, his hand around a tumbler that rested on the bar table. She fought the impulse to turn around, to think he was looking beyond her at someone else. She expected him to look away at having been caught so brazenly looking at her, but he didn't; his gaze was intense and unwavering. Intrigued, she met the gaze and didn't look away.
Well, this is fun, she thought. Had he been watching her dance? She offered a smile, tilting her chin up. This triggered a response; he rose from his coveted seat and, drink in hand, approached her.
"Hi," she said, swirling her drink then taking another sip. He was tall, even compared to her own height in the heels she wore, and he was more than just a little bit attractive. His clothing was impeccable, even if his suit was way more appropriate for the financial district than a nightclub. He had strong, classical features; notably, the distinct line of his jaw and cheekbones. His hair—wavy, short around the sides, longer on the top—was as dark as his eyes; the intensity of his gaze was not lessened with his closer proximity. He hadn't spoken yet, so she prompted, "I haven't seen you dancing."
"I don't dance," he said, almost too low to hear.
"That's too bad," she said, then added, emboldened a bit, "I was hoping you did."
She could make out the muscles in his jaw tensing and releasing; his eyes seemed to glitter from the flickering lights of the dance floor. He drained the last of his own drink, set down his empty glass on the bar, then said at last, "I might be persuaded."
Her lips slid into a sly smile. "Oh, good."
She took in the last of her own drink, set down the glass beside his. She took a step back before reaching to grasp his hand, then pulled him along with her to the dance floor. The high-energy song that began just then was evidently a popular one, because the crush of the crowd around them suddenly increased, and she hardly had any room to move.
She felt hands on her waist; her dance partner pulled her closer and began to move with her. She smiled, placing her hands on his upper arms. As other dancers brushed against them and into their space, she felt his arms slide around her and pull her to him. She had to admit, it felt good to be pressed against him as they moved in their own time to the music; he was solid and strong, guiding their movements, and better at dancing than someone who claimed not to do so. She felt his hands splayed against her back. They were no longer keeping time with the beat, but instead, moved slowly together.
"You do dance," she said playfully, though at first it was not clear if he could hear her over the music.
He had; he bowed closer to her so that she in turn might hear: "With the proper motivation, yes." He did not draw away; his fingers pressed gently into her. He spoke again, but the only words she caught was, "Kiss you."
Was he asking if he could? She thought he was. She decided to answer by turning her head, where his lips found hers before hers could find his.
The beat of the music was matched only by the thrum of her heart as the kiss deepened. His hands slid down over her backside and pulled her even closer to him; her fingers were soon raking through the thick waves of his hair. It was an adventure she had wanted, and she'd found one: snogging a total stranger in the middle of a pulsing dance floor.
In very short order, she distinctly felt rather than just sensed that he wanted more than just to dance with her. She felt the same way. As he broke away to nuzzle into her neck, he brushed his fingers along the hem of her miniskirt on the back of her legs and quietly asked, "All right?"; in so many words, she said yes. As he traversed upward on the tender skin of her thigh, a moan escaped her lips; in that moment, it felt a very real possibility that they might just shag right there in the middle of the crowd.
But the song ended, the crowd ebbed, and he drew back, though he claimed her hand. Her cheeks felt hot, her knees were weak, her hair was probably wild; by looking at him, she knew her lipstick was obliterated. She led him to the bar for a paper napkin and with an impish smile, reached up to dab it off.
He still looked so intense, so serious; when she tossed the napkin aside, he stood close to her again. "I don't usually do this sort of thing," he said quietly, "but I'd like to finish what we started."
She knew what he meant by "this sort of thing." She hardly did this sort of thing herself, to snog a stranger in a nightclub, and even rarer did she shag someone she'd only just met. But he was smoulderingly, magnetically compelling, and his touch was stirring things in her that frankly surprised her. She found herself agreeing with a nod.
It was then he offered a small smile.
He led her to the door, then off to a very expensive car parked along the kerb less than a block away. He opened the door for her, then took his place in the driver's seat and engaged the engine.
She knew she was taking a huge risk leaving the nightclub with a man she didn't know. To his credit, he seemed to sense this unease in her. "I know you only have my word to go on," he said quietly as the car crawled down the streets of London proper, "but I promise that I'm no madman or serial killer."
"I suppose that's reassuring," she said; if he were, would he say this? "So where are we going?"
"Somewhere private," he said. "Can't risk being caught in public."
"Oh God, you're not married, are you?"
His chuckle was devoid of mirth. "Not anymore. But it would be enormously embarrassing, possibly career-ending, to be caught in flagrante, say, in the toilets or in the back seat of a car. No offense meant to you, of course."
"Are you a politician or something?" she asked.
"No," he said.
"The public sees me as… a good guy. A 'nice boy.' But I don't want to get into real life."
He made a good point. He pulled up to a building and into its underground car park. From there he led her to the key card-entry lift that whisked them up to a flat far above the city streets. The flat was respectably sized with drawn drapes that revealed a gorgeous view. He did not turn on the main lights, just flicked on a single amber-hued lamp by the door. She asked, "Is this your place?"
"No," he said. "It's… available for my use and I remembered that it's free tonight."
"So mysterious," she said, smirking.
"It's not really," he said, coming near to her, cupping her face in his hand, "but the details are not important. This is."
The electricity from the dance floor sparked back to life.
"You're absolutely right," she said quietly, then got up on her toes to press her lips to his then broke away. "Sorry not to ask first."
"Forgiven," he said, his tone warm. He ran his fingers along her collarbone to her shoulder, along the spaghetti straps of her top. "You know," he said, his gaze meeting hers again, "you need only say so and I'll stop."
"You are nice," she said, though it honestly meant a lot to her to hear him say it. His fingertips burned heat into her shoulder, where they sat waiting. She said, "Yes, by the way."
His gaze moved back to the strap, then he slipped those fingers beneath it and slipped it down over her shoulder
Her mother's shrieking voice ripped into her consciousness and—regrettably—snapped her out of her shag reverie. The memory lingered as she inspected her reflection again.
That birthday night had since kicked off what had since become a weekly assignation. They met at Quicksilver on Thursday night; they danced; they went to that flat and had mad, passionate, consensual, protected sex until the early hours, when she took a minicab back to her flat. He had offered to drive her home, but she preferred that he did not know where her flat was.
She had never learnt his name, nor had he learnt hers. And that had worked out just fine.
"Be right down," she called back. She smoothed her hair down once more, sighed, then went downstairs.
The guests had indeed begun to arrive, and she made her way through the family friends until her gaze alighted on the familiar figure of her dad. They spoke briefly, he typically reassuring to her as they shared a cigarette, until her mum came to pull her away again.
This was it; the meeting with the nerd. Best to get it over with, she supposed. Then she could eat, hop on the train south back to London, and get ready for Quicksilver just to see if he might show, too. She hadn't seen him since before Christmas.
All of her thoughts were focused on this goal, even as her mother brought her nearer to the man to whom she was to be introduced, who was facing away from her and conversing with a pair she presumed were his parents. As he turned around at the sound of the approaching voice of her mom, however, all of the blood rushed from her head; she willed herself to stay upright.
Her mother continued talking, but before her, standing in the most ridiculous Christmas jumper she had ever laid eyes on, she could only see the man with whom she had been secretly having hot, anonymous sex for weeks.
This was Mark Darcy.
Mark Darcy was him.
She could not reconcile these realities. She tried to make small talk but had trouble finding anything innocuous to say, especially in front of their parents. His face was as stoic as anything she'd ever seen; he didn't let anything slip to the surface, not even recognition. He ended the misery of the conversation by walking away to find something to eat, though his brusque departure honestly left her a little stunned. As she filled a plate for herself minutes later, she overheard him saying something rude about her to his own mother, Elaine Darcy.
Had he actually not recognised her in the terrible tapestry outfit and muted makeup? For a moment, she felt a bubble of hope surface, but it was quickly burst. There was no way he didn't recognise her. They had spent far too much time, as he might have said, in flagrante.
Perhaps he had just been embarrassed to find out the truth of who she was: not the glamorous woman that she had projected herself to be at the nightclub, but plain, ordinary old Bridget, who worked a mostly unexciting job in publicity for a book publisher, and who was so pathetically, chronically a singleton that her mother had to try setting her up with her friends' kids friends.
Compounding her sadness was the knowledge that while this affair (for lack of a better term) couldn't have lasted forever, she dearly wished that it could have gone on a bit longer than two months. This meeting had certainly ended it with some finality. Regular casual sex had honestly been so, so good for her, and honestly, she was going to miss it; in a world where sleeping with a strange bloke from a nightclub could be exceedingly risky, she had truly felt safe when she was with him.
And God, he'd been good. She was going to miss that, too.
Well, she thought. That's the end of the Thursday night hook-up, not to mention my self-esteem.
She left the party as soon as was decent; even though she felt rejected, she certainly didn't want to take it out on her parents and make them feel bad. But she didn't want to stay so long that she ran the risk of probing questions from her mum about why they had not hit it off.
She didn't spare him a glance as she left.
"Bridge, we've got to find you a man."
She glanced up from where her attention had focused on her cappuccino, across to her friend Tom. "Why do you say that?"
Tom knew her well. "I don't know if you've noticed, but since the new year, you've been a bit… snappish."
She immediately felt defensive, which sort of proved his point. "And why do you think that means I need a man? Hmm?"
"When you get this way, it's because you've hit a dry spell." He grinned impishly. "You need a good shag."
Tom was of course right. It had been two weeks since the devastating meeting at her parents, and she still hadn't let on to her friends what had happened. When they asked about how she'd spent her birthday on her own, she said she'd gotten a pizza and watched Frasier, and that had been the end of that line of questioning. After all, it was behaviour that was not at all out of character.
She sighed. "I know."
"Too bad things didn't click between you and that barrister that your mother wanted to fix you up with."
She laughed abruptly. She couldn't help herself. She thought Tom might ask why the laughter, but he clearly thought she was laughing at "that barrister" himself, and she wasn't about to disabuse him of the notion. "If only," she said, then smiled. "I don't suppose you know anyone?"
"Not anyone straight, sadly; sorry, darling," Tom said with a pout. He thought a moment, then added, "Didn't you say your boss was a hot thing?"
She groaned. "He is," she lamented. "But that is such a bad idea. You know. Being my boss and all."
"Still…" He mimed something obscene with his hands.
She threw a wadded-up napkin at Tom, but laughed as she did so.
Chapter 2: Book Launch Lift-off
It was still such a bad idea. Very, very, very bad. But a couple of months into the new year, she continued to get distinct signals from her boss, the editor-in-chief, one Daniel Cleaver, given their instant-messaging, his flirtatious bottom-patting in the elevator, and his innuendo-laden tone when he said, "See you tonight at the book launch." She had to admit she was thinking about giving in to her stupidest impulses in a serious way.
So after work, she ran home, put on her cutest little black dress and her support pants, pinned her hair up, and headed for the Underground.
By the time she arrived, the restaurant hosting the book launch party seemed wall to wall with people, many of them the literary elite, but her eyes scanned the crowd with one goal in mind: to find Daniel Cleaver. She tried to make conversation with a group of writers, but the distraction made it too hard to focus. When she went to turn away to make her escape, grabbing a nearby glass of champagne as if it were a life-saver on a sinking ship, she turned and very nearly ran into another person.
A tall person. With intense, dark eyes.
Oh, God, she thought. What is he doing here?
These words spilled out, more or less, from her mouth.
His retort was to wonder the same.
When he asked how she was, she tried to keep her head, volleying back a retort about being disappointed not to see the Christmas jumper again. The fact was, though, that he looked every bit as handsome as he had that first night at Quicksilver, down to the suit he wore now, and her thoughts momentarily wandered….
No, she thought. That ship had sailed.
Bridget was then rescued by the appearance of her work colleague, Perpetua, who demanded an introduction, which she was all too happy to oblige, parroting the words her own mother had said about him many times in the months leading up to the actual meeting. Top barrister. From Grafton Underwood.
When the colleague with whom he'd attended, Natasha, joined Mark again, he offered a reciprocal introduction, one that that more than strained the bounds of politeness: he'd mentioned she used to play naked in his paddling pool. Her mother had also mentioned this to her (during the pre-New Year's litany of Why You Should Date The Barrister, Darling) from when they were children, something she had forgotten. For him to say it here, to Perpetua and to this Natasha woman, could have had no purpose but to embarrass her.
It had done the job.
Natasha and Perpetua peeled away to talk together about house hunting, during which Bridget got the impression that Natasha had her talons sharpened to hook into him (frankly, none of her business). However, when Bridget turned to address Mark again (to tell him off about that paddling pool comment), she noticed he had become distracted by something. Rather, someone.
The same someone for whom she had been searching since her arrival.
Now that was intriguing.
Daniel looked towards them just then, and she couldn't tell if the look from Daniel was meant for her, or, for some reason, for Mark.
Ah well. It seemed clear that Mark Darcy could muster icy civility in public, but wanted to otherwise keep her at arms' length with sharp barbs and insults. She stepped away from Mark (and in the opposite direction of Daniel) towards the stage area. Only then she remembered that the ultimate boss, Mr Fitzherbert, had suggested she say a few words to introduce him, before he came out to introduce the author of the evening.
She hated public speaking, but she'd show him that she could do it. His attempt at humiliating her was not going to get the better of her.
Of course, self-humiliation was always on the table, and she managed to do that just fine, completely fucking up the introduction. She wanted to leave the party right then and there, but her flub had managed to have an unexpected benefit: Daniel came up to her directly afterwards, swept her out of the party and off to dinner with the seeming sole intent of making her smile and feel sexy.
She managed to tease out of Daniel his connection to Mark Darcy: they had been best friends at Cambridge, and Daniel had actually been Mark's best man… but then Mark had taken Daniel's fiancée to bed, shattering the friendship as well as all associated romantic relationships. Given the way Mark had treated Bridget with such indifference, she was not surprised to hear him capable of the same towards his mate.
After dinner, after a smoking hot snog on the street, they retreated to Daniel's flat, where the very bad idea she had been pondering turned into reality (granny-level support pants notwithstanding). It was exceptionally good at pumping up her self-esteem; he hit all of the right notes, though hardly the best she'd had. Ah well. What was important right now was being back in the saddle and riding again.
They spent a lot of time in bed the first few evenings. A lot. Daniel seemed reluctant to take things public, and she could understand that. He was, after all, her boss; how would that look to her colleagues? But he seemed truly fond of her and even seemed to care about her. A relationship with Daniel beyond the physical could develop, and that thought made her happy.
Chapter 3: Tart Up, Let Down, Move On
Logically, rationally, she knew what had happened was not her fault. Yet she couldn't help wondering if the pressure on Daniel for a weekend minibreak had set everything in motion. Had it been too much to need to prove to her mother that she actually had a boyfriend?
Everyone at the office knew Bridget had been sleeping with Daniel, even if the two of them had never shown any display of affection in the office. Now, in retrospect, she wondered: What else had they known about?
Daniel agreed to the weekend, allowed her to choose the location. She picked a posh country manor close to where she'd grown up and close to where her parents still lived, because occurring the same weekend was a family soiree to which she hoped to bring Daniel.
The weekend started off on the wrong foot from the start. She lost her headscarf, and by the end of the drive in his top-down convertible, her hair looked like a fright wig. Then, like a bad penny, who should turn up on the site of their minibreak but Mark Darcy, looking bloody handsome in a casual jumper? Natasha, who had clearly had succeeded in her efforts, had come with him; they were apparently also attending the so-called "Tarts and Vicars" party on Sunday.
Bridget and Daniel had a lovely Saturday, all around, despite the unexpected co-minibreakers; they spent time having a great time in their boats on the lake, and Bridget had laughed unabashedly when Daniel ended up in the water. The lake—pond?—was shallow, and he was laughing too.
She happened to catch a glimpse of Mark and Natasha, also in a boat on the lake, who were decidedly not having fun. Serves them right, she thought, somewhat vindictively.
Afterwards, they had a lovely dinner in the room—the dining room had been taken over by the wedding that had already taken up the rest of the manor, save for the four minibreakers—and then several rounds of vigorous shagging. She thought he might have even been about to say "I love you," which left her elated as she drifted off to a blissful sleep.
Sunday morning brought the unhappy (though perhaps not entirely surprising) news that Daniel had to get back to London and could not in fact attend the family gathering. He said he had to work; Bridget assumed that he really just did not want to be at the same social event as his former friend. She was disappointed, but deep down, she understood.
The fancy dress party turned out to be a disaster on more than one level. As it was meant to be Tarts and Vicars, she had dressed as a bunny girl when hardly no one else had come in fancy dress (thanks to pervy Uncle Geoffrey failing to inform her that the theme had changed). Almost universally, the women stared at her disapprovingly and the men stared at her lasciviously. Already feeling exceptionally vulnerable in this scanty outfit and with so many creeps around, she then endured a confrontational conversation with Mark in which he was exceedingly rude and patronising about Daniel. The conversation ended prematurely when Natasha came from out of nowhere to interrupt them and pull him away, leaving Bridget doubly irritated at not only the conversation but the lack of resolution.
Sod them both.
Bridget left the party as soon as the car had come for her, one that Daniel had arranged since he couldn't be there himself.
Arriving back to London, feeling dejected and embarrassed, she went straight to Daniel's looking for reassurance and maybe a little cuddling (or more)… only to find he seemed annoyed that she'd done so, and he tried to get her to leave again straight away. Instantly, she went looking for another woman, and felt relieved not to find one.
He told her to let him finish his work, give him an hour; go back to her flat for a hot bath, and he'd take her to supper later. Seemed like a perfect plan. Things had finally taken an upward turn.
It did not last.
If she hadn't been so intent on seeing him on her way in, she might have noticed a huge clue sooner: the pink sweater hanging on the hook by the door, which was neither Daniel's size nor colour. He hadn't been working at all, unless it could be considered "work" to be shagging Lara, the twenty-something brunette from the New York office, whom Bridget had found hiding naked in the bathroom. The one room she hadn't searched. Of course.
Furious, heartbroken, she left.
It only occurred to her later how awful work would be after this split; yet another reason sleeping with the boss had been a completely terrible idea. As the days went on, it became clear to her that she had to find a new job. Bumping into smug Lara in the ladies' loo was the last straw.
Instead of wallowing in self-pity about being dumped for the willowy, young American, Bridget instead focused all of her energies finding that new job. As she continued looking, she noticed that many of the listings to which her eye was drawn again and again were in television. At first she dismissed the idea: she didn't have a degree in journalism or media studies, and she didn't have any experience in television. But the more she thought about it, the more she realised that she had nothing to lose by trying. She had an interest in the work; she loved and was fascinated by pop culture; she had experience in managing advert campaigns and making calls for her current job in publicity. And Shazzer was always complimenting her way with words, saying that she had more writing talent than 80% of the journalists that she worked with. Bridget would tease, "Only 80%?" But she had actually been quite flattered.
After a few demoralising interviews, she landed one of those jobs in television. Her boss-to-be hinted during the interview that he might be a perv, but he also seemed like he was all mouth and no trousers. And she knew there was no way in hell she'd ever think about shagging him.
Best of all, like a cherry on top, Daniel—who was (she admitted with the clarity only granted post-breakup) more than a bit vain—was going to be jealous as hell.
On to bigger and better things, then.
The day that she quit ranked amongst the best days in her life. Realising that the rest of the office had been on her side after how Daniel had treated her was a boon to her self-worth. She was able to walk out of Pemberley Press that last day with her head held quite high.
Chapter 4: Smug Married Hell
Oh, God. Not again.
She thought a night at her married friend Magda's dinner party, even as the token singleton, would have helped get her mind off of the fact that her birthday was five days away, which meant it'd be a year since her first visit to Quicksilver. The longer she went without a shag—almost four months and counting—the more that outing had been on her mind.
She had even considered dressing up to the nines in her miniskirt, with her red lipstick and kohled eyes, and going to Quicksilver again, hoping against hope (and against all reason) that Mark might turn up, too. In the end, she did not go. It would only have been an attempt to punish herself, because there was no way he would have gone there looking for her.
Yet inexplicably, here was Mark at the dinner party, with Natasha, who was nothing if not tenacious.
Through Magda's introductions to all of the couples sitting around the table, she couldn't help noticing that Mark's gaze was trained on her in a way that she hadn't seen in months, not since they would meet in secret at Quicksilver. Frankly, it made her heart race a little.
Magda then explained that Mark worked with Magda's husband. That explained that. What a small world.
During the course of dinner, when it became clear that being single was akin to being a leper to most of these people, Mark had spoken up in her defence more than once. It had caught her quite by surprise. So, too, did his apparent disregard for the presence of his girlfriend. What had sparked this turnaround in attitude?
She would find out soon. She made her excuses to leave the dinner party from hell—not too early, as was decent to do—then went down to wait for her minicab. The group had split into groups, anyway; the marrieds had begun to talk about their progeny, and the lawyers, their cases. For her, the odd person out, it was as boring as fuck.
As she slipped into her coat, she heard footsteps on the staircase behind her, then then heard Mark speak.
"I very much enjoyed your Lewisham fire report, by the way."
If this was meant to be a peace offering (or at least an icebreaker), it was a strange, awkward thing to open with. Her knickers been broadcast all across London televisions as she had gone prematurely down a firehouse pole during a botched interview; he had to know it had humiliated her. So why bring it up? She continued buttoning her coat, facing the door, as she replied with a sarcastic sing-song, "Thank you."
She heard his continued footfalls down the stairs. It would seem there was no escaping an actual conversation. Probably long overdue.
She turned to look at him.
The next thing he said took her slightly aback. Stated, rather than asked. "It didn't work out with Daniel Cleaver."
How had he even known?
"No," she said. "It didn't."
His reply: "I'm delighted to hear it."
Between the likes of pompous windbag Cosmo about when she was going to get "sprogged up," Mark bringing up the mortifying fire report, and now his apparent delight at the end of the relationship with his former best friend, she had reached her boiling point, and she let him have it. "Are you and Cosmo in this together? Because you seem to go out of your way to try to make me feel like a complete idiot every time I see you… and you really needn't bother. I already feel like an idiot most of the time, anyway. With or without the fireman's pole."
He said nothing, his eyes intense as ever, though a very slight smile played at the corners of his mouth. The door buzzer signalling the arrival of her taxi went off just at that moment, saving her from further conversation, and she bade him good night as she turned for the door.
He surprised her yet again by speaking up with uncharacteristic uncertainty.
What more could he possibly want from her? It was already a kind of torture seeing him socially after what they had shared together. His rudeness on New Year's Day and complete disavowal of their passionate sexual relationship still left her feeling bitter and a little bit hateful whenever she saw him now. Neither though could she deny the pull of attraction she still felt for him when he looked at her with that intense gaze of his, when he had stood up for her against the Smug Marrieds. It would serve him right for her to ignore him and just go out to her taxi. Her better nature prevailed, though, and she turned to face him again, to hear him out.
He continued, trailing off: "I'm sorry if I've been…"
She prompted, impatient for her taxi, "What?"
His expression changed so suddenly to one of earnestness that she felt a slight spike of adrenalin.
"I don't think you're an idiot at all," he said. A nice concession, she supposed. Then he went on. "There are… elements of the ridiculous about you. Your mother's pretty interesting. And you really are an… appallingly bad public speaker." If this was his way of apologising, he was terrible at it; he should have stopped while he was ahead. And yet, he went on. "And you tend to let whatever's in your head come out of your mouth—" Here he reiterated the point with a vomit-evoking hand gesture. "—without much consideration of the consequence."
Her impatience must have started to show, because he got to the point.
"I realise that when I met you at the… Turkey Curry Buffet—" He said the term as if it had a foul taste. "—that I was unforgivably rude and… wearing a reindeer jumper that my mother had given me the day before. But the thing is… what I'm trying to say… very inarticulately…" Indeed, she thought. "…is that… um… in fact, perhaps, despite appearances, I like you. Very much."
She couldn't help but to laugh, thinking of his words to his own mother the day of the Turkey Curry Buffet. "Apart from the smoking, and the drinking, and the vulgar mother… and the verbal diarrhoea—"
"No," he interrupted firmly, all seriousness again. "I like you very much. Just as you are."
She wondered if the possibility of being overheard had made him choose more careful words. Liked her? After all of his iciness and insults? And what exactly had he meant by "just as you are"? If she hadn't been so stunned to hear this admission, so absolutely flabbergasted, she might have asked for clarity. If only, too, they'd had more time; if they had not been interrupted by the tall, thin, spanner-in-the-works, her shoes clacking on the same stairs that his had done just a minute or two (an eternity) ago.
Natasha. The girlfriend. Interrupting their private conversation yet again.
"Mark, we really are making progress on the case in here."
She saw his thoughts in the flicker of his eyes: Go away. Your timing couldn't be worse. She felt the same way, as Natasha went on about Jeremy's brilliant idea. However, Bridget suspected that Natasha knew exactly what she was interrupting; the green of envy in which Natasha had cloaked herself was not becoming. This was reinforced by the snapping of her fingers, as if calling a puppy to heel.
"Right," he said with resignation, watching Natasha retreat before turning back to Bridget. "I must go, because…" He indicated where Natasha had just been; that was enough. "Well. Good night."
She watched as he retreated up the stairs, feeling suddenly quite guilty about every nasty thought she'd had about how he deserved everything he got with Natasha.
She continued to mull over this conversation with him all of the way back to her flat. If his words were anything to go by, she had totally misread his reaction, his behaviour, that New Year's Day. Perhaps he'd just been as taken aback as she'd been, to have had their identities suddenly revealed to each other in front of the last people either of them would have wanted to know about their secret.
But apparently, as he'd gotten to know her during these sporadic real-life contacts, he had decided he had liked her. As she was. Flaws and all. His comment about being delighted to hear about things ending with Daniel suddenly made a little more sense. It may well have been an awkward way of projecting his interest.
But oh. They couldn't really start over, or even resume what they'd had, while he had an entanglement he was going to have to get himself out of. She had no qualms about sleeping with a man she didn't know well, as long as they had agreed on the parameters and were safe in every respect. But she was not going to be any man's "other woman."
Chapter 5: Restaurant Confessional
Bridget wondered how much longer she could keep silent on the Mark Darcy situation. She had previously told her friends that she'd met him at the Turkey Curry Buffet, how rude he'd been, and how much she hated him, but nothing about the history before New Year's Day. The night after Magda's dinner party hell, on her way to the latest summit meeting with her single friends at their favourite Moroccan restaurant, she debated how much she wanted to share with them now.
Almost as soon as she'd gotten her cocktail, she'd blurted out what had happened the night before, from her arrival, to "just as you are," to how they might have talked more but for the snapping of Natasha's fingers. All of them looked at her with their mouths slightly open. They then, in turn, voiced their thoughts on the matter:
"'Just as you are'?" Jude asked, incredulous at this unicorn of a concept. "Not thinner, not cleverer, not with slightly bigger breasts or slightly smaller nose?"
Bridget shook her head no.
Shazzer had nothing to say but, "Well. Fuck me."
Tom: "But this is someone you hate, right?"
"Mm. Mm. Yes, yes, I hate him," she said, though was not sure she believed it anymore; her brows scrunched as she thought about it. Had she actually hated him? Or had everything been coloured by the hurt she'd felt by his total brushoff, compounded by his public prickliness, until they'd actually talked a little last night?
She looked up at the sound of Tom's voice again.
He then asked sombrely, "What aren't you telling us?"
The fact that she did not immediately deny that she'd held any details back surely spoke volumes. She looked from Tom to Shaz to Jude, and they all waited for her to speak.
"I… wasn't entirely honest about when I met him," she said at last. "I actually… met him on my birthday last year."
They all three looked confused. "What?" asked Jude.
"I thought you watched telly all night," said Shazzer. "Did he turn up at your flat or something?"
"Little white lie," she said sheepishly. "I decided to go out to a club, on my own, just to have some fun. He was there. We… had fun."
Never had silence been so stunned.
She went on quietly, "And we had fun every Thursday night until the end of December. In total anonymity."
There was a period of absolute silence from them, before:
"Oh. My. God."
"Bridget!" She couldn't tell if Shaz was mortified or jealous.
"I'm sorry," Bridget said, tears gathering in her eyes; they all looked so gobsmacked, maybe even disappointed in her. "It was such an exciting secret to have, and I promise I was going to tell you, but then I was so humiliated by his reaction at the Turkey Curry Buffet…"
"Oh, Bridge!" said Jude, reaching across the table to place a reassuring hand on her forearm. "It's all right, really. I think we might be all a bit jealous!" Bridget sniffed and smiled.
"It sounds bloody amazing!" said Shaz, her eyes and grin wide. "So he was basically apologising at Magda's?"
"That's how it seemed to me."
"Was he good?" Tom asked, because of course Tom would ask that.
Reluctantly, she nodded. "Actually… he was fucking great."
"Definitely jealous," murmured Jude.
"No pun intended," Shaz supplied with a smirk. "And it was all, you know, safe?"
"Of course," Bridget said.
"And he treated you nicely?" Jude asked. "Drove you home, saw you to your door?"
"I took a cab home, but I insisted on that," she said. "But yes, he was nice. Always asking could he do this or that. Reminding me I was free to say 'Stop' at any time."
"Jesus Christ, why are you here with us?" Tom asked, almost hysterically, waving his hands; the girls were nodding along. "Go find him right now!"
"I can't," she said. "He's got a girlfriend now."
"Oh," they said, almost in unison, deflating back into their seats in unison. "Right."
"Well, you said she's a perfect cow, right?" said Shazzer. "Expecting him to jump when she says 'how high'?" Shazzer snapped her fingers in demonstration.
Jude offered, "Surely there can't be much affection there if he comes to find you to tell you he likes you… and she's right there."
"I suppose that's true," she said, a slight smile on her face.
"I'm not usually one to encourage poaching another person's boyfriend, but honey, you were there first." Tom grinned. "She sounds perfectly awful, and you're absolutely wonderful, so, you know, it's not like you'd have to feel guilty about giving him an upgrade."
Her smile broadened. "I'll see what I can do, okay?"
Tom raised his drink. "To Bridget's secret shag! Hurrah!"
Chapter 6: Job Pressures
This was it. This was going to be her chance. At last, everyone at work (and beyond) would be talking about something other than her knickers.
Her boss, Richard Finch, had given her an assignment to try to get an interview with a Kurdish man, who, with the support of his English wife, was fighting in court that day against extradition to his home country; if he were to be sent back, he would surely be killed. The plummy assignment was almost like a birthday gift from Finch. It was exactly the kind of hard-hitting journalism she had pictured herself doing shortly after she'd first started the job, not the "sliding down the fire pole" incident that had been revealing in all the wrong ways. As she and the camera crew made their way in the van to Inns of Court, her mind went blank on the best questions to ask. She wrote down a few things that she could imagine Jeremy Paxman asking.
As they arrived, her heart sank a bit; throngs of reporters lined the pavement, waiting to get their chance for the same exclusive for which she hoped.
She needed to quit smoking; this she knew, but that day was not today. She needed a smoke to think about how to move forward, but she'd smoked her last ciggie that morning, so she told her crew that she'd pop across the street and be right back.
She was just asking for a packet (and some drinks and sweets for reinforcements) when a man's voice very rudely interrupted her to place his own order. She turned, preparing to give him a lecture on waiting his turn, but the sight of who it was stole the breath from her lungs.
"Good afternoon," said Mark from where he stood in the doorway in his crisp, pinstriped navy suit, but with the weird little collar thing that she recognised as something barristers wore. Which made sense, as the shop was across the street from the courts.
"Hi," she offered clumsily, then wished she could fall into the earth as she heard herself say, "You like me just the way I am."
Bridget didn't know if he had genuinely not understood—or was pretending not to have heard it just to be polite—but she decided to brush it off with a, "Nothing."
She didn't get a chance to say anything more; her cameraman, Eddie, and sound guy, Ken, burst into the store behind Mark, letting her know that they had fucked up and had missed their chance because the pair at the centre of the court case had already come and gone.
"Oh God, I'll be sacked," she said quietly, morosely; what a shit birthday. She then asked, "Did the others get interviews?"
"I don't know," the cameraman, Eddie, admitted. "I was having a slash."
Mark spoke up. "Actually, nobody got interviews."
She brought her brows together in confusion. "How do you know?"
"Because I was defending him and I told him not to give any interviews."
It was not often she was left totally speechless, but this was one of those times. She could not keep her mouth from dropping open just a little.
"Look," Mark continued. "I have a plan."
"Do you?" she asked, intrigued.
"Mm-hm," Mark said. "Just let me get that packet of Embassy, or Kafir will never go for it." His smile was warm and kind. "If you wouldn't mind finishing your order, that is."
She'd nearly forgotten about her cigarettes, Diet Cokes, sweets, and everything else she'd had rung up. Honestly, she'd never been so grateful for a cigarette craving in her life.
With their respective quarries in hand, Mark led them away from the rest of the press junket and around to his office in chambers, which was lusciously decorated in cherry-hued wood and burgundy fabrics, and was quite possibly larger than her flat.
Waiting there in the office was the couple themselves; Kafir Aghani and Eleanor Heaney, as Mark introduced them to her and her crew. He then indicated Bridget. "And this is Bridget Jones with Sit Up Britain, and…"
"Eddie on camera," Bridget supplied, grateful he had not decided to disclose their paddling-pool past. "Ken with the boom mike on sound."
"Pleasure to meet you," said Eleanor.
"I don't understand," said Kafir. "I thought you said we weren't interviewing. No offence, miss," he added, directed directly to Bridget.
Miss. She liked him already.
"Ms. Jones and I are acquainted," Mark said, "and I can trust her to honestly represent whatever we say here today." He looked to Bridget, met her gaze. Bloody inconvenient time for her knees to go to jelly.
"Yes, of course I will," she said, for lack of anything more intelligent.
"And we trust your judgement," Kafir said. His unease seemed to have lifted.
"Wonderful," Mark said. Taking charge, he said, "Sit here." He indicated a round table in the centre of the office. "Let me get some water while Eddie and Ken get set up, and then we can begin."
She was grateful for the thoughts that she had jotted down en route, because she was able to use them as a springboard for politically related questions. She interspersed the serious questions with a few personal questions that she thought might be nice for human interest. Their names had gotten a lot of press in recent days, but people always seemed to care more when the persons in the public eye were given a human side.
Bridget was quite pleased with how it turned out, all in all; there was a time or two when her eyes locked with Mark's, and she thought she might be in danger of losing all sense. Funnily, he seemed to lose his own train of thought mid-sentence the moment their eyes had finally met during the recording.
As Eddie and Ken packed their equipment, Bridget went over to where Mark stood. "You didn't have to do this, but I'm grateful that you did," she said. "I can't thank you enough."
"My pleasure," he said. These innocuous words were paired with a throaty tone of voice and a fierceness to his gaze.
She reached out a hand to offer a parting handshake, and he accepted it, placing his other hand against the back of hers, cradling it in both of his. The warmth and softness of his hand cast her thoughts back to their last rendezvous…
She gently pulled her hand away with a smile and with slightly pinker cheeks, before offering a goodbye to Kafir and Eleanor then retreating with her crew.
Chapter 7: Dinner and a Dust-up
Birthday dinner with friends was worlds away from a night at Quicksilver, but after the day she'd had down at the courts, editing the interview for broadcast, and then shopping for dinner, she could use a birthday that was a little more laid back and definitely quieter.
As usual, though, chaos claimed her kitchen.
The only twine she could find in house to tie the leeks in bundles for the soup was blue; her food processor had spewed orange puree all over her; the tuna steaks she had bought had gone missing; and to top it all off, her mother phoned, not to wish her only daughter a happy birthday, but to vent about the awful man for whom she had abandoned her decades-long marriage. Bridget had just abruptly disconnected the call—her mother had come way too close to oversharing—when she heard a knock on her flat door.
The friends? So early?
She went down to let them in, but it didn't turn out to be them at all.
It turned out to be him. Mark.
How on earth had he known where to come? Why had he come here? Not that she was complaining; quite the opposite—
"The door was open," he said about the building door as he stepped into her flat's doorway; the stairs meant that for once, she had the height advantage on him. He then explained, as he held up a copy of the Evening Standard, "I came to congratulate the new face of British current affairs." To her surprise and delight, the newspaper featured an entire page—and more!—about her exclusive interview, and about her. "But I see I might have… come at a bad time."
As he said this, he raised his gaze from the mess on her apron up to meet her eyes. Intense, soulful, warm brown eyes that seemed to bore into her very soul.
There went her knees again. Jelly.
"Not at all," she lied; if he was going to show up unbidden, she was not about to turn him away. "Please, come in. Though I warn you, it's utter madness in here."
"So I see."
She took the few steps up into the flat; he was close behind her.
He said nothing about the place settings so obviously laid out for a dinner party. Instead, he said, "My mother."
"I'm sure you're wondering how I knew where you lived. I asked my mother."
She nodded a little. That made sense. "I was wondering."
"I hope that was all right." He took a step closer, within arm's reach. "I would hate to invade your privacy in any way."
Her pulse quickened; had he meant to echo every time he'd asked for consent? "Yes, it's fine."
He held her gaze for a moment more, then looked away, towards the table, as if noticing it at last. "Guests coming for dinner?"
"Yes," she said. "And so far, disaster."
"Why don't I assess the damage, while you take care of… whatever that is all over you that smells like orange." He turned back to her, a smile playing on his lips.
She nodded, hooking a thumb towards the back of her flat. "I'll just be… I'll be right back."
She dashed into her loo, shut the door behind herself, then let out a long breath. Had he really come just to bring a newspaper? He can't have done. Maybe he'd intended to ask her to dinner?
Maybe he wanted something more?
She wondered if he had been disappointed to see her prepping for a dinner party. He would likely not want to intrude on her evening, would make excuses to leave before her friends arrived…
Oh, I hope he doesn't disappoint me and leave.
She slipped the orange-pureed apron over her head and into the laundry basket, washed the sticky goop out of her hair and off of her face, and returned to the kitchen as quickly as she could, patting her hair dry with a clean towel. He was standing at the range, tending to the soup pot.
"How's it look?" she asked.
"Great," he said. "It's, um, blue."
She gasped, drawing closer to see the now-uncovered pot. "Blue?!"
"No, but blue is good," he said, in an obvious effort to make her feel better. "If you ask me, there isn't enough blue food."
The tied leeks had betrayed her. "Oh, shit," she said. "It must have been the string."
"Oh, it's string soup," he said.
It was such a ridiculous thing to say that all she could do is laugh. Flavour-enhancing leeks? Try flavour-enhancing string. She caught a glimpse of the time and felt panicked. "Oh, God, they're going to be here any minute."
"Don't worry, he said, walking away, "I'm sure they've come to see you, not orange parfait in sugar cages." She turned; he had perused her cookbook. He now held a drink he must have poured for himself, and was pouring another. "Have a drink."
She momentarily gave up on the hob thanks to his voice-of-reason suggestion, and turned towards him at the table to pick up the drink.
He raised his glass and met her gaze once again. "Happy birthday."
"Thank you," she said, beaming a smile. She didn't care how he'd found out it was her birthday. "Did I really run 'round your lawn naked?"
"Oh yes," he said in all seriousness. "You were four, and I was… eight."
"That's a pretty big age difference," she said, smiling. "That's quite pervy, really."
"Yes, I like to think so," he said.
She tried desperately to interpret what he'd said, the way that he said it, why he'd said it—was this some subtle hint that he was still interested in her somehow?—and too late he seemed to realise the comment might have wildly misfired on her. She decided to throw him a lifeline. "What are we going to do about this dinner, then?"
He turned his attention back to the hob. "Well… you have blue soup to start, orange pudding to end, and for the main course you have…" He tried to stir it. "…congealed green gunge."
"That is caper berry gravy, actually," she informed him, then smiled; his description was spot on.
"Do you have eggs?"
Not only did he help her to salvage her dinner—or at least try to salvage it—but he didn't leave before her friends arrived. The friends even asked her if he was staying, perhaps a bit too eagerly. She knew they were curious about him. She said of course he was, and he did stay.
Her friends had known immediately that Mark had been the one with whom she'd had the shag fling. They seemed to be testing him, even asking why his wife had left him, but all in all he'd seemed to emerge unscathed in their opinion. Even Daniel's story about Mark—about the shagged fiancée, which of course they knew all about—had seemed more an aberration to them than a true reflection of his character.
Tom, though. Tom and his big mouth.
By Tom's slipping a little "just as she is" into his birthday toast to Bridget, echoing the seminal line of Mark's speech to her at Magda's, Mark must have instantly known that she had talked to her friends about him; a less clever man might not have picked up on it. She had hoped he would never know that they knew, but to her surprise, at making this obvious deduction, he had begun to look at her with something akin to fondness. Longing.
Like he no longer needed to hide the past they'd shared, or hide how he might have felt.
She suddenly wished her friends would leave.
But then, Daniel ruined everything, as he was wont to do.
A knock on the door—which Jude really should not have opened—revealed her ex-boss and ex-boyfriend, who had showed up bearing wine and an air of desperation. When he saw Mark, he began insinuating that he and Bridget were on the verge of reconciliation, which naturally could not have been further than the truth. She wondered why. To rile Mark up? But why? Revenge against the fiancée betrayal?
Everything between Mark and Daniel seemed to escalate way too quickly. Mark decided to leave, but then came back in order to ask Daniel to step outside. This surprised Bridget. Mark did not strike her as a man who resorted to violence, but he was very clearly seething with anger. Daniel seemed more amused than anything, and accepted the challenge, almost as if he was humouring his former mate.
Within seconds, Bridget and her friends were all racing down to the street in time to see the two of them parrying and throwing punches at each other. Struggling with each other. Diving through a Greek restaurant's plate glass window together and landing with a heap on the pavement.
Slowly the men got to their feet, breathless and dishevelled. However, just as they both seemed agree to end the fight, just when it seemed to be over, Mark unexpectedly reared back and landed one more unprovoked blow on Daniel, knocking him to the ground and out like a light. Bridget had had quite enough. In that moment, she felt far more kindly towards Daniel, who, being unconscious, was incapable of defending himself further.
"What is your problem?" she demanded, crouched at Daniel's side.
"My problem?" Mark asked, panting from the effort of the brawl, but clearly surprised.
"Yes!" she said. "You give the impression of being all moral and noble, and normal! And helpful in the kitchen. But you're just as bad as the rest of them."
All of the warmth and fondness that she had seen earlier was now gone; his face was as emotionless as stone. "Well. I can see that I've been labouring under a misapprehension. A very, very foolish mistake." He paused, then added, "Forgive me."
Mark then walked away.
Bridget turned towards Daniel again where he was still laid out in the street. As she did, Daniel just happened to rouse at that moment. Suspicious. She realised very quickly that his unconsciousness had been feigned and he had heard the entire conversation with Mark. Daniel then used this opportunity to beg her to take him back.
On this she was firm: no.
She was better off with no man than with a total fuckwit.
She rose to her full height again, turned her back on him, and strode back into her flat, leaving him on his backside on the ground. Her friends, the loyal army that they were, filed in line behind her. They told her to sit and relax while they cleared the table, and washed, dried, and stowed her dishes for her. They talked while they worked, and they hadn't meant Bridget to hear, but she had.
"I think he said something there, at the end," confided Tom.
"Who did?" asked Shaz.
"Daniel. Right before Mark punched him that last time."
"What did he say?"
"I didn't quite hear it. Might have been 'Wanker'."
So perhaps it wasn't totally unprovoked, Bridget thought. But Mark still took the bait.
Only after her friends left did she allow herself the emotional release of crying. All she'd wanted was a quiet, peaceful birthday, and had instead gotten an emotional rollercoaster ride. She poured the remaining wine from the bottle into a glass, then wantonly glugged it down.
Finally, she decided to give up on the day altogether. As she reached for the light switch in the sitting room of her flat to turn off the lights, she spotted the Evening Standard where Mark had set it down. She swiped it up and headed towards the balcony with every intention to petulantly tossing it out onto the street to blow away in the wind. At the last moment, though, she decided not to. After all, how often does one get a multiple page story about oneself in a major, reputable newspaper?
Chapter 8: Aftermath
After the exclusive interview with Kafir Aghani, Bridget could do no wrong at work. When she showed up to the studio Monday morning (late as usual), her colleagues actually burst into spontaneous applause. She had never felt less like an imposter in a grown-up world.
Nor could she do wrong with her mother, who had gone out to purchase every copy of the 10 November edition of the Evening Standard that she could find, and had the article framed. Bridget had fully expected her mother to interrogate her with regards to Mark, but blessedly, she had not. Her mum hadn't even asked how the interview had come to be. Probably Pam Jones had been too distracted by the situation with the horrible television presenter that she called her boyfriend, Julian. Bridget suspected that her mum really just wanted to forget the whole affair, and return to her cosy home in Grafton Underwood and to Bridget's father, Colin, the man who was in every way the opposite of the vile Julian. Bridget wished she could wave a magic wand and make that happen.
She did just fine without a man in her life. She'd had extended singleton periods before, but had always spent most of the time pining for a boyfriend. Not this time. Even though she couldn't get having sex out of her mind—not atypical during dry spells—for once she didn't feel like a failure as a woman to not have a boyfriend. A partner.
The desire for sex was so strong that she briefly considered whether lightning could strike twice at Quicksilver, but then thought better of it. She didn't know how she would have handled it if she'd seen Mark there. So she and Shazzer giggled their way through the Harmony Store and came away with purchases relevant to quenching that thirst. It helped, but to Bridget, it wasn't quite the same.
Chapter 9: And At Christmas, You Tell the Truth
The most emotionally fraught and financially devastating time of the year was upon Bridget again, whether she liked it or not. Christmas. She packed a bag and headed north to spend the holiday with her dad at her childhood home. She certainly didn't want her dad to be alone for the holidays, and truth be told, she looked forward to spending time with him.
On Christmas night, as Bridget and her dad sat on Christmas night with their paper crowns on, her mother turned back up at the house with her luggage in hand, as if a bona fide Christmas miracle had graced their household. She left them to talk, but couldn't help eavesdropping. She was beyond happy to see that they were actually talking about what had happened, and why. She'd felt he had not been giving her the attention and affection she craved. He scared Bridget a bit, thinking he might actually not forgive Pam… but then he revealed he was joking, and totally and utterly welcoming her home.
"Pam," Colin said tenderly as they embraced, "I just don't work without you."
Bridget smiled and went off to bed, bittersweet thoughts in her head. As she tried to fall asleep, staring at the ceiling in the dark, she couldn't stop thinking about her parents and about her mother's transgression. She was glad they had reunited, as her dad had hoped all along; angry with her mum for being the source of so much drama; annoyed with her dad for taking her mum for granted. Thankfully all had turned out all right. In considering the dynamics of the situation, Bridget came to a horrifying conclusion: Julian was like the womanising Daniel; she was like her flighty mum; and her dad was… well, whoever her perfect match was meant to be.
Truly disturbing parallels, she said. Should I be looking for a man like my dad? Yeuch. Just call me Electra.
To tell the truth, she could do worse than to find a man for herself that shared her dad's qualities: dependable, honest, kind, loyal to a fault.
When she awoke the next morning, she noticed another dress hanging on the bedroom's outside doorknob, another hideous vision from decades past undoubtedly chosen by her mother. She pulled it in and tossed it on the bed. Bit late for this, she thought; Christmas had passed, and she had no plans for Boxing Day. As she staggered out to use the loo, to her surprise, she saw her parents downstairs, dressed up as if planning to attend a party, as if the whole Julian disaster had never occurred.
When her mother admonished her to get dressed, she asked what for.
"The Darcys' Ruby Wedding party. 'What for', indeed!"
Shit, she thought. The Darcy Ruby Wedding celebration was today. She recalled her dad asking her a couple of days ago to attend with him for moral support.
"Mark'll be there!" Pam tapped the side of her nose. "Still divorced!"
"He's also—" Bridget tapped her nose too. "—still deranged. I'm not going."
She turned the corner to head for the toilet as her mum kept talking and adjusting her hat.
"Poor Mark. It's always a bad time of year for him. Do you know his Japanese wife left him on Christmas Day?"
"Yes, but I'm not quite sure he didn't deserve it, actually."
Pam seemed shocked at her daughter's words, reflected in her tone: "She ran off with his best friend from Cambridge."
She halted in her tracks. Best friend? Cambridge?
Pam continued, "Total scoundrel apparently. Best man at his wedding."
Her stomach suddenly felt like it had been plunged into ice water. She retraced her steps and looked around the corner in astonishment to where her mother stood on the first floor, still talking.
"Then Christmas Eve, Mark comes home early from work, finds the pair of them in a most unorthodox position, stark naked, at it like rabbits."
Her mother was clearly waiting for a response.
Bridget could only stare. How had it never occurred to her that Daniel had lied?
Labouring under a misapprehension, indeed. Now she understood why Daniel so got under his skin. Now she understood that there had been no character aberration.
Now she could right the wrong she'd done to him.
"Just give me five minutes," she said, then flew back upstairs to clean her teeth, brush and tame her hair with a barrette, and make herself up to the best of her ability in the limited time available.
There was no way she was wearing the dress her mother had selected (for it seemed obvious now that this was why it had been hung on her door); fortunately she had her own dress, a black one that she could get away with wearing to a party like this without it seeming funereal. She put on a bit of lip gloss, then raced back downstairs.
"Come on! Let's go!"
They raced through the snowy country roads to the Darcys' home—well, they raced after she had taken over the wheel—and arrived to see the party was in full swing. She frantically scanned the crowds for Mark, and spotted him at last as he stood, faced away from her, talking to an older couple at a table. The scene strangely echoed their encounter from last New Year's Day. As she walked closer, he suddenly turned around, almost as if sensing her presence. He seemed genuinely surprised to see her, but he quickly recovered his composure.
She couldn't help noticing the snowman-print tie.
"Thank you for inviting me."
"I didn't," Mark said coolly. "It must've been my parents."
This awkward budding conversation was made more awkward by the fact that Natasha came crashing in from out of nowhere, the forgotten girlfriend acting the bossy-britches as usual, wanting Mark to come and help with some party arrangement in the kitchen, an obvious excuse to Bridget to keep them from talking. Natasha walked away, expecting Mark to follow. Almost looking embarrassed, Mark said, "Well, I'd better…"
She was not going to let Natasha's figurative finger-snapping take away this moment. "Listen, uh… I owe you an apology about Daniel. He said that you ran off with his fiancée and left him broken-hearted, he said."
"Ah," he said; suddenly, he seemed incrementally warmer. "No, it was the other way around. It was my wife… my heart."
She nodded. She got that now. "Sorry. That's why you always acted so strangely around him and beat him to a pulp, quite rightly. Well done."
He cast a glance over his shoulder, as if Natasha might be standing there with an actual bullwhip. "Well," he said. "Um…"
If she let him go back to Natasha, the woman wouldn't let him out of her sight again for a second… and she did not want to stop now that she was being so honest. "Can we just, um… pop out there for a moment?"
They found a little corner of privacy, an alcove where everyone's coats were being hung. She then launched into what she wanted to say, though it sounded better in her head than spoken aloud. She returned the sentiment he had once offered, that despite the stupid things his mum bought him, despite his haughtiness, despite saying the wrong thing in every social situation in their real lives, despite the unfashionably long sideburns—
"But you're a nice man… and I like you," she said softly. Now for the hard part. "So if you wanted to pop by sometime… that might be nice." After a beat, she added softly, "More than nice."
He seemed to be staring at nothing, deep in thought. Surely he understood that the invitation meant more than just cooking together in the kitchen. Surely. "Right," he said, then looked up at last to meet her gaze. "Crikey."
Not really what she'd hoped to hear.
The sound of silverware on crystal echoed throughout the house, and this sound seemed to snap Mark out of a reverie and back to full attention. She could hear his father's commanding voice call everyone to attention; he took in a deep, almost steadying breath, and looked at her again.
It became quite obvious, quite quickly, exactly why he'd said 'Crikey': Mark was leaving London for New York. Mark was taking Natasha with him. Mark was going to marry Natasha.
"No!" Bridget said, and at that, words just came pouring out of her mouth, nonsense about losing one of England's top people and needing to rush off to another party, before she fled the room.
She found and slipped into her coat, and stood in a daze in the foyer, wondering what to do next, when footfalls pulled her attention away. She looked up, hopeful for a moment that it was Mark coming after her, to see that it was only her dad approaching.
"You all right, poppet?" he asked gently, coming close to her, placing his hand on her shoulder.
She shrugged a little, then looked up. She didn't yet trust her voice enough to speak. She was certain her expression, her teary eyes, said it all.
"Your mother suggested you might want to get back home. To London," he amended. "I can't take you all the way there…"
She sniffed, then managed a smile. "Train station's fine, Dad. Thanks."
They stopped by the house to get her bag then continued on to the station.
"I don't know what's going on," he said, his attention fully on the snowy road, "but I'm sorry."
She let out a small mirthless laugh. As best she could tell, the meaningless, anonymous shag fling that she'd picked up in a nightclub might very well have been her perfect match… but given that Mark had stayed at the party, by Natasha's side, she knew where he stood.
But there was no way she was going to tell her father about it all. "I don't exactly know what's going on either," she explained. "Thanks, though."
Bridget had the entire week between Christmas and New Year's Day off of work, and she spent most of it in front of the telly, picking through her Christmas chocolates and updating her diary. She actually could have used the distraction of working, to take her mind off of What Would Never Be.
By the time Friday night rolled around, she figured maybe she'd add in a little excitement by doing some laundry, too. Her friends were off with their own families or partners, and while she had filled them all in about what had happened, she had no expectations of actually seeing them until perhaps New Year's Eve. Her weekend seemed laid out before her: domestic, unexciting, as close as a human being could get to hibernation.
So when her entryphone went off, no one could have been more surprised than she was. A brief flare of hope welled up in her; maybe it was Mark taking her up on her offer? But no, he was gone; left for New York the day after the Ruby Wedding party (as reported by her mum). Moved on with his life.
When she brought the entryphone receiver to her ear, she was glad to hear her friends' voices. She wasn't even too disappointed it wasn't Mark; that had never been a realistic expectation, anyway.
Tom wasted no time. "Have we got the most fantastic surprise for you!"
"Oh no," she said with a grin. "You're not going to sing…"
"Not that fantastic, sadly, no, but still pretty good," said Tom, who did look very pleased with himself. "We've decided we're taking you to Paris for the weekend. Forget everything—particularly, forget about Mark Darcy."
They filed in to sit on her sofa and chairs. Jude came up to her, took hold of her face, pecked her cheek affectionately, and said, "I can't believe you said what you said you said."
"I know," Bridget said, adding with heavy sarcasm, "There goes my invite to the Darcys' next year."
"If he didn't leap over the family heirlooms and whip you up in his arms, then sod him," said Tom.
"Yes," agreed Jude. "He's clearly the most dreadful cold fish."
Her friends were clearly trying to make her feel better by trash-talking Mark. Bridget wasn't sure it was working. He was certainly no cold fish.
"Exactly," Shazzer said, waving her cigarette around for emphasis: "I mean, there's been all these bloody hints and stuff, but has he ever actually stuck his fucking tongue down your fucking throat?"
Since that hideous New Year's Day when he'd learned her name? Since their talk at Magda's? Since her last birthday?
"No," Bridget said. "Not once."
"I think we should pack, shouldn't we?"
Hurriedly she threw together an overnight bag—at the very least making sure to grab clean pants and her passport—before they headed downstairs. She stood at the front door, digging furiously through her purse to make sure that she had her keys. Granted, she probably should have checked before getting to the street, but it would have made her mental not to know before they set off.
"Come the fuck on, Bridget!" Tom shouted from the driver's seat, just as she located the keys, which she raised and shook in her triumph.
She whipped her head around to see the impossible: Mark striding through the falling snow towards her. Was she imagining things?
"What are you doing here?" she asked the mirage.
"I just wanted to know if you were available for bar mitzvahs and christenings as well as ruby weddings," he said, apparently serious, and apparently all too real. "Excellent speech."
"I thought that you were in America."
"Well, yes, I was, but, um… I realised I'd forgotten something back home."
Adrenalin shot through her. "Which was?" she asked, stepping forward; she stood on the stoop of her building, and he, on the street, rendering them nearly eye to eye.
"Well, I realised I'd forgotten to, um… kiss you good-bye. Do you mind?"
She pretended to think about it, but her heart raced in anticipation. "Um… not really, no." He bent towards her, but she asked, halting his progress, "So… you're not going to America, then?"
He smiled. "No."
"No," she repeated.
"Not," he reiterated.
"Oh… oh. You're staying here?"
He smiled, moving in close again. "So it would seem."
Just as their lips were about to meet, the car behind them suddenly erupted in cheers and horn honking in celebration.
Needless to say, Bridget chose not head for Paris, after all. They retreated to her flat, and he stayed close to her the entire time, so evidently eager for that kiss that he came up behind her to nuzzle into her neck without so much as asking first. She needed, though, to prepare to properly embark on what she hoped might be an actual relationship with him. She slipped away—and oh, was it ever difficult to pull away with his magnetic gaze trained upon her—to trade her clothes and granny pants for something more suitable.
Then she heard her flat door slam shut. She froze.
She called his name. No answer. In her camisole and pants, she tiptoed out into the flat, only to see that she was indeed alone. She went to the window, threw it open, saw him retreating the way he had come. She called after him, but he vanished around the same corner from which he had appeared.
What the hell had just happened?
And then she saw it. Her diary. Right where she'd left it open as her friends had arrived. And it was now open to a page that was less than kind to him, perhaps even overcompensatingly so. Of course, she had never recorded their surreptitious trysts in her diary; she didn't want anyone who might have read it think less of her for such behaviour, even amongst the drinking and relationship woes. But she had recorded her thoughts about him after the Turkey Curry Buffet, and after other ill-fated encounters. Obviously she never expected or thought that Mark himself would see the words.
"Shit," she said. "Double shit."
There was only one thing left to be done about it.
She threw on a cardigan and a pair of trainers, and flew out the door in the direction in which she had seen him go. She caught sight of him, running almost blindly against the falling snow after him, realising only belatedly that the cardigan was not enough against the winter temperatures. In that moment, she didn't care.
And then he was gone. She didn't see him at all anymore, had no idea to where he had disappeared. Now she was blocks away from home, half naked, no money…. Shit. No keys.
In frustration, she dropped her hands violently down against the cold night air, cursing lightly to herself. She turned around and unexpectedly found herself locking eyes with Mark, who happened to at that moment be emerging from a stationery store.
For the second time that night, she couldn't believe her eyes.
She walked briskly towards him, still slightly winded from running. "I am so sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it. I mean, I meant it… but… I was so stupid that I didn't mean what I meant." He looked slightly puzzled, then distracted by her outfit. She pulled her cardigan closed. "Oh, for Christ's sakes. It's only a diary. Everyone knows diaries are just full of crap."
Her pulse pounded waiting for his response.
At last, he said, "I know that. I was just buying you a new one." He held it up as proof. "Time to make a new start, perhaps."
And then he smiled.
And then she ran into his arms.
Regardless of the presence of the old lady passers-by, he dropped his head just as she raised hers, and they kissed.
God, she never wanted it to end, even though her knees were ready to buckle beneath her at the desire that coursed between them, the promise of what was to come.
As they pulled apart, she teased him a bit, thinking back to their first night of hot shagging. "Wait a minute. Nice boys don't kiss like that."
Without missing a beat, he replied, "Oh, yes, they fucking do."
He drew his open overcoat around her as they kissed again. She suddenly wished they were back in her flat, because she could feel how badly he wished they were back in her flat…
Gently, she drew away. "Maybe we should… you know," she said. "It might be enormously embarrassing, possibly career-ending, if you were to be caught snogging a half-naked woman on the street."
He smiled, then laughed. "You make an excellent point." He slipped out of his coat, then draped it around her. As they walked, he put his arm around her shoulders, almost protectively. She was thrumming with anticipation, though she remembered—
"I left my keys in the flat," she said sadly. "We'll have to break in."
"Actually, you didn't, and we won't," he said. "I took them to let myself back in after getting your gift. I'd hoped to return before you were finished, none the wiser."
She smiled as her face flushed red. His arm tightened around her shoulders almost reassuringly.
Due to the stupidity of leaving her window wide open in her earlier search for Mark, her flat was now nearly as cold as the outside. He strode over and shut the window, then went over to the fireplace, peering at it for a moment before lighting it.
"Thanks," she said.
"Come here," he said, quiet, commanding. She had heard this tone before, and a thrill zinged through her. She took a step, but he added, "You won't need my coat over here." She slipped out of it, draped it over the chair. "Or the cardigan."
She offered an anticipatory smile, then took that off as well before going over to where he was stood at the fireplace. He placed one hand on her shoulder, and one palm against her face to cup it. "Feeling better?"
"Mmm," she said, closing her eyes, leaning into the caress.
"You know," he said, drawing the hand from her cheek. "I still owe you an apology for the…" He still seemed to hate saying the phrase. "Turkey Curry Buffet."
"No," she said, looking to him again. "You don't. You were just as surprised as I was. I was really hurt at the time, but after I had a chance to think about it, I realised what had happened."
"I was surprised," he said. "I was shocked. I didn't know what to say. And… I admit that I was a bit worried that somehow everyone would know about what I'd done. And not because I'm inherently ashamed of it. But…"
She nodded, remembering what he'd said. "Not only the public sees you as nice," she said. "Your parents…"
"Christ, I'd never want my parents to know I went to a nightclub in the hopes of finding someone to spend the night with," he said; it amused her to hear him use such a euphemistic term for hooking up. "I'd never done it before. I was getting a bit desperate, and most of the women I work with want the status. Like Natasha."
"Oh my God! I forgot about her!" said Bridget, her hand flying to cover her mouth. "Is she going to barge in and interrupt this, too?"
He chuckled low in his throat. "She stayed in New York. Onward and upward the social ladder."
"Were you really engaged?"
He looked down for a moment as he spoke, clearly embarrassed. "There was never a ring, no. We talked about it as a possibility in the future, as a… merger of our interests, which, yes, sounds as awful as it is. She must have told my father; I think she suspected my interest in you, and knew full well I'd never contradict him in front of all of those people." He brushed her hair away from her eyes, tucking the loose strands behind her ear. "But enough about her, about my bloody parents. It's been more than a year since our last rendezvous at Quicksilver. I'm a bit keen to make up for lost time."
He slipped his hands to her hips, pulled her close, then pressed his cheek to her temple. "Is it all right if I kiss you?"
"More than all right," she murmured.
I should have placed these at the end of their respective chapters, but... *shrug* Ah well.
- Bridget's birthday would have fallen on Thursday the year before the start of BJD (same as 2005 calendar).
- Nightclub name generator.
- Jabot: the weird little collar thing that barristers wear.
- The Harmony Store. (tee hee)