“How do I look?” Floria executed a pirouette in front of her bedroom mirror.
“Beautiful,” smiled Lucy, her best friend and hairdresser, who’d been summoned to help Floria get ready for her big date.
“Beautiful enough to be proposed to?” asked Floria, striking a model pose. Tonight was the night her long-term boyfriend, James Nielson-Barnes MP was going to ask her to marry him. She was convinced of it! He’d been hinting for some time that they needed to discuss their future and tonight he’d reserved a table at his favourite restaurant. What else could it be but a proposal?
She’d dressed appropriately in a pale blue off-the-shoulder top and a tailored black skirt, which fell to just below the knee. Given that she had a voluptuous figure, she avoided trousers which made her bottom look big. Her earlobes were adorned with a lovely set of sapphires set in gold, given to her by her father on her sixteenth birthday.
“Absolutely! I can’t believe it’s really happening. You must be so excited.”
“I am. I never thought this day would come. But since James won the Ashdale seat last month and has become an MP, he’s suddenly much more serious.” She lowered her voice to mimic his. “It’s an honour and a privilege to be a member of parliament, you know. One has to be very responsible and sensible.” She sighed happily… luckily James is both those things.
“You’ll make the perfect MP’s wife,” Lucy said, loyally.
“I know. James is very motivated, so I’ll have to behave myself from now on. I might even be First Lady one day.” She grinned and flicked her wavy, pale blonde hair over her shoulder. “No more dancing on bar counters or falling out of cabs for me.”
“I can just picture it,” laughed Lucy, packing up the styling tongs. “And I’ll be your personal stylist.”
“Definitely.” Floria hugged her friend. “Thanks so much for your help tonight. I couldn’t have done it without you.” She gazed at her reflection in the mirror. “I want it to be just perfect.”
“I’m sure it will be,” replied Lucy as she packed up her bits and bobs. “You’ll have to call me tomorrow and tell me how he did it. Do you think he’ll get down on one knee?”
“Probably,” she mused. “James is very traditional. Everything will be done by the book. His family will insist on it.” James came from a very old, established English family, most of the men had been involved in politics to some degree.
“I thought you said you didn’t get on with them,” remarked Lucy, twisting the cord around her industrial-strength hairdryer.
Floria paused to apply a layer of pink lip gloss to her generous lips. “They’re alright, just a bit old fashioned. James is an only child, after all. They’re bound to be protective over him. I’m sure they’ll warm to me once we’re married.”
“I can’t imagine anyone not warming to you,” smiled Lucy. The girls had been friends ever since Floria had flounced into Lucy’s hair boutique four years ago without an appointment, brandishing a bottle of chardonnay, to get her hair done for Ascot. Lucy, who was the manager at the time, had polished off the bottle with Floria and promptly taken the rest of the day off to accompany her to the races.
“I’m ready, you know,” Floria whispered, her expression sincere. “I realise people think I’m just a socialite but this is what I’ve always wanted – to settle down and get married. I want a big family, with a messy house and at least two dogs running around the place, and perhaps a couple of hamsters or guinea pigs too. Things I never had when I was growing up.” But she mustn’t get reflective. She laughed it off… “I think James will make an excellent husband. Don’t you?”
“Well, he’s very well respected,” said Lucy, who was a bit in awe of James. “I’m sure he’s more than capable of being a dad. And I can’t see him running off to the pub with his mates during the week. He’ll be far too busy for that, besides, he’ll have his reputation to uphold.” Her friend couldn’t prevent a shadow of worry from flashing across her face. Lucy was having terrible issues with her boyfriend, Simon, who kept disappearing to the pub after work and coming home drunk.
“Yes. That he is. I know I’ll be able to rely on him.”
“And you wouldn’t have to work,” her friend pointed out.
“True, I could quite easily give up my job to raise James’s children.” What a lovely idea. It was all turning out perfectly. After tonight, she’d be engaged to the wonderful James Neilson-Barnes. Her future was all panning out the way she’d hoped. Floria could hardly suppress the happiness that bubbled up inside of her. All her dreams were about to come true.
The doorbell rang – double chimes. Floria’s heart fluttered. “He’s here,” she whispered.
Lucy jumped up off the bed where she’d spread out with a glass of champagne. “I’ll get it, then you can make a grand entrance.”
“Perfect.” Floria dabbed some perfume on her wrists and picked up her handbag. It was pale blue leather with a delicate chain-metal strap, and she’d bought it specially to go with this outfit.
“Floria!” called Lucy from downstairs.
Her future was waiting.
Posticino’s was packed, which wasn’t unusual for a Friday night. An Italian waiter in a crisp tuxedo showed them to their table. It was in the corner, near the window, just where James liked it. Floria knew he sat here so he could observe his constituents who came in the door, and determine if he knew them, before they spotted him. James was always looking for opportunities to network. He was ambitious; it was part of what she liked about him.
Floria knew the menu by heart. She ordered a Caesar’s salad to start, and then the leg of lamb which was so tender it practically fell off the bone. James ordered the salmon starter and then the seafood pasta, which she also knew to be delicious.
The waiter poured them a glass of wine from a very expensive bottle, also one of James’s favourites. While Floria appreciated fine wine, she didn’t necessarily need it. If it was wet and came from a grape, she’d probably drink it. Easy to please, she’d told James once.
Floria could hardly sit still. Her heart was hammering away in her chest like the magpie that had been knocking at her window all morning. When would he do it?
She studied him speculatively as she picked at her salad. He didn’t look particularly nervous, but then James was used to speaking in front of an audience, so a mere proposal wasn’t going to frighten him. He looked confident and self-assured. She wondered where he’d hidden the ring.
After they’d finished their starters and the waiter had cleared the table, James reached over and took her hand. His was surprisingly cool.
“Here we go,” thought Floria, scarcely able to contain her excitement.
“Floria,” began James, his voice lower than usual. “I brought you here tonight because there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Yes James?” She made her eyes wide and fluttered her eyelashes attractively.
“Well, this isn’t easy for me to say, but…”
“Yes?” She took a deep breath. This was it!
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”
There was a stark silence as his words sunk in. Floria felt like she was suddenly underwater. The thick clunking sounds of the waiter putting their main course down in front of them seemed to be coming from miles away. Everything was muted.
She shook her head to clear it. She couldn’t have heard him correctly.
James waited patiently for the waiter to clear off, before he said, “I’ve been thinking very long and hard about our relationship, and I just don’t think it’s right for me anymore.”
Floria leaned forward in her chair and squeaked, “What do you mean it’s not right for you? I thought you loved me?” She didn’t bother to lower her voice.
James nodded, suddenly looking nervous. His eyes darted around the room hoping no one had overheard them.
“I thought you were going to suggest taking our relationship to the next level?” she whispered, her words sounding foolish now. All the signs had been there. They were spending more and more time together. The sex was great. He’d just been promoted. How could she have made such a catastrophic error of judgment?
“The next level?” He looked quizzical. “You mean as in a proposal?” He even had the gall to chuckle. “Why on earth would you think that? Haven’t you seen the papers?”
Floria bit her lip. There had been that piece in The Sun with the picture of her frolicking in Bradley Melville’s Jacuzzi, but surely that couldn’t be what was bothering him?
“Yes, but I don’t understand…”
She was confused. What on earth did he mean? They’d been in the papers before. Their set was constantly being photographed at the polo, or the races, or some party or another. What was the big deal?
James sighed. “Floria. I’m an MP now. I can’t have my girlfriend creating a scandal. You were photographed naked and drunk in a Jacuzzi. It’s not good for my reputation. It makes me look wild and irresponsible. Think of my constituents, the other members of parliament. What must they think of me?”
Floria was silent as she mulled this over. So he was worried about his reputation as an MP. Of course. They must have said something to him. Cautioned him, perhaps? That’s what all this was about.
She took a deep breath. “That’s easily rectified, James. If we got married and settled down, that sort of thing wouldn’t happen anymore. That’s what I thought you were going to suggest.”
James shook his head. “Darling, I’m nowhere near ready to get married. No offense, but your diva of a mother is constantly in the tabloids, and you seem to be following in her footsteps. Yes, you are fun and vivacious and we have a great time, but you’re not the right girl for me. Not anymore. You’re not a politician’s wife. You’re too much of a liability.”
The world was spinning. She wasn’t the right girl for him? She wasn’t a politician’s wife? And what did her mother have to do with it?
He patted her hand. “We’ve had good times together, I don’t deny that, but it’s time for me to move on. I’m an MP. I need someone with a similar vision to help me get to where I want to go.”
Talk about patronizing. Floria whipped her hand back and put them both between her legs to stop them shaking.
“I can’t believe you,” she hissed, not caring that the neighbouring table could overhear every word. Her heart was breaking. “You are such a snob. I thought you loved me. I thought we had a future together.”
“Love?” he shrugged, “I’ve never put much stake in that word.”
As her face fell he said more softly, “Look, I’m sorry I have to do this, but I had a meeting with some senior members of parliament yesterday – they seem to have taken me under their wing.”
Floria barely resisted rolling her eyes.
“In light of the article in The Sun and your reputation as a… well, as a party-girl, they advised me to terminate our relationship immediately.”
It was as if their relationship was a clause in a contract.
“Really? They said that?”
He nodded. “It could be very damaging to my career. Being an MP brings with it a level of scrutiny unlike many other careers. You’re a part-time PA, so it doesn’t matter what you do in your spare time. For me, however, that kind of behaviour is unacceptable. I can’t get pictured stumbling out of a club or drunk in a Jacuzzi. It would be the end of my career.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that. I’d be a good wife to you.” Her voice broke. “Didn’t you stand up for me at all?”
“Actually, they were a little blunter than that, but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
Floria squeezed her eyes shut. Obviously he hadn’t. This couldn’t be happening. She’d been so looking forward to tonight, and now everything was ruined. Her future was ruined. All her hopes and dreams were dashed – and before they’d even had their main course. In fact, the smell of the lamb sitting in its juices in front of her was making her nauseous.
“What exactly did they say?” she rasped. “You may as well tell me.”
James hesitated as he picked a prawn out of his pasta. Finally, he looked up and said, “They told me if I wanted a career in politics, then I should get rid of the bimbo.”
Floria felt the colour drain from her face. She curled the table cloth in her fist, pulling her plate dangerously close to the edge. How could they be so mean?
“Look, I’m sorry Floria, it’s their words, not mine… But you are a liability. Even you must see that?”
Floria jumped up, letting her chair fall backwards onto the carpet, much to the surprise of her fellow diners. She held up a hand and said in a crystal clear voice, “Save it, James. Don’t worry, I get the message loud and clear. I don’t think we need to discuss this any further. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
And she did her second pirouette of the evening before waltzing out of the restaurant, her head held high, trying desperately to keep it together. It was only in the darkened interior of the black cab that she gave in to her plummeting emotions and wept.
PREORDER FLORIA HERE and discover how she pieces her life together, meets her half-sisters, builds a successful career – and of course finds love in the most unlikely place.