Chapter 1- It's a Party (and I'll go if I have to)
I shook my head slightly at the tortured shriek. Experience told me it was probably completely uncalled for, but I took a deep breath and set my book aside obligingly, even though it felt like I was doing so for about the hundredth time that hour.
"Yes, Bridget?" I asked, keeping my voice polite and low even though my cousin's squeals were beginning to hurt my brain.
Bridget bounded out of her tiny bedroom and into the lounge room, tossing her long mane of fire-engine red (or so the packet had said) hair over her shoulder as she came.
"This outfit!" She posed flamboyantly, showing off her itsy-bitsy denim miniskirt and black top that looked like it had been shrink-wrapped onto her. "Do you think it says 'I'm totally up for sleeping with you tonight,' or 'I'm totally up for sleeping with you not only tonight but for all the nights to come for the rest of our lives as we smother each other with our undying love'?"
I bit back a smile at her theatrics and tilted my head to one side as I considered her clothes, trying to think of something to say that wouldn't make me sound prudish. "Um, you might want to consider a jacket, if you were after the second option," I said diplomatically and Bridget snorted.
"No jacket it is then!" She laughed her deep, gravely laugh and added, "God, look at your disapproving face."
"I'm sorry," I said quickly. "I'm not trying to be judgey, I know sex is fun and everything, I just don't understand why you won't let some guy sweep you off your feet."
"As this is coming from someone who's currently camped on my couch in the aftermath of a truly hideous break-up, you'll understand why I'm not setting too much store on your opinion." Bridget began to dig around in her little sparkly handbag for something, missing the little wince her words had elicited from me.
"Robert wasn't trying to sweep me off my feet," I agreed wryly after a moment, "more like sweep me under the carpet."
"As all men eventually try to do." Bridget brandished the lip-gloss she'd just unearthed to punctuate her statement. "I'm just cutting out the middle man. We can't all be romantics like you, Bella. The world would collapse into gooey mushiness. There need to be cold bitches like me around to hold everything up."
She flounced over to the ornate gold mirror hanging on the wall, proceeding to apply a thick sheen of cherry red gloss to her pout while I considered whether I should be offended that she'd basically just called me a wet blanket. As always, I decided against it. It was pointless trying to be offended at anything Bridget said, she'd just shoot you one of her cheeky grins and you couldn't help forgiving her.
"Mwah!" She blew herself a kiss in the mirror and then looked back at me in the reflection. "What do you think?"
I appreciated that she at least made it sound like she partly cared about my response.
"It looks like you've just dipped your lips into a big vat of red goo," I informed her truthfully and she winked outrageously.
"Thank you, darling," she said sarcastically. "That was, in fact, exactly the look I was going for."
As she swept back off to her bedroom, muttering something about matching earrings, I picked my book up once more, although I didn't hold out much hope for getting very far before being interrupted again.
It wasn't as if I could begrudge Bridget the way she flung herself around her small flat, seemingly everywhere at once and with her voice permanently set on high volume. It was, after all, her flat and she'd been so unbelievably kind to let me stay here after my boyfriend of five years had informed me that my presence in his life was no longer necessary.
I stared unseeingly at the words on the page before me as I unwillingly felt my mind stray back to that afternoon two weeks ago when my beautifully created, structured world just sort of went 'bleh' and fell apart.
'You're holding me back,' Robert had said, admiring his reflection in the restaurant windows for moment before focusing back on me. 'You must realise that. My sport is so important, Isobel, I can't let anything get in the way.'
By 'anything' he'd meant me. Apparently, unnoticeable, adoring, obedient little me had been standing between him and the thousands of scouts who were desperately on the hunt for the hidden genius that was his fancy footwork on the field. I hadn't pointed out to him that, at the age of 22, he was getting a bit old for draft selection, and that if no one had found his football skills indispensable to their team yet, it was unlikely they ever would. I'm not catty like that and, anyway, maybe he was right. Maybe nobody in our small town really could appreciate his talent, and one day someone from the city would fall to their knees and beg him to sign up with their club.
'You don't have to move out or anything,' he'd continued smoothly. 'You can keep on living with me if you like, pottering about and doing all those things you like to do.' By which he'd meant cleaning up after him and doing his laundry which, for the record, I didn't particularly like doing, I just didn't like living in a pigsty either.
'But I don't think we should be together as much as we are. What I'm trying to say,' and he'd reached across the table at this point to clasp my hand in his, 'is that I'm not in love with you anymore.'
It had been the pitying, condescending way that he'd looked at me then that had seen me nod, stand up, and quietly make my exit from the restaurant. Robert had come running after me, of course, visions of having to do his own vacuuming no doubt dancing through his head.
'I said you didn't have to move out,' he'd reiterated as he reached me. 'You'd just, you know, have to make yourself scarce when I invited girls around. I wouldn't want it to be awkward for them.'
My teeth had clenched together as I continued across the restaurant's car park, the clacking of my heels echoing loudly in the quiet evening. Rob followed along after me.
'Are you angry?' He'd asked as I kept my silence. For a moment I'd considered screaming at him that of course I was angry! I was furious that my boyfriend of five years, my first and only boyfriend in fact, had so unceremoniously dumped me. Like I had done so many times before, however, I had swallowed the hurt and shook my head.
'No, of course not,' I'd said brightly, glad that the street lights weren't bright enough to illuminate the glossy look of unshed tears in my eyes. 'I understand how important footy is to you, but I'll move out tomorrow. Thanks, anyway.'
'Do you want help moving back into your parents' place?' He'd asked, overly graciously and, in that moment, a sudden, mad, impulse had overtaken me.
I didn't want to go back to my parents' house. I didn't want to live in that staid, boring environment ever again. Getting out of that house had been one of the major reasons I had moved in with Robert in the first place, and there was no way I was going back. So, no, I hadn't wanted help moving back into their place. I wanted something new, something a bit daring, something nobody would ever expect Isobel Saunders to do.
'Actually, I think I'll go and stay with Bridget,' I'd declared rashly, secretly enjoying the look of complete astonishment Robert shot me.
Bridget was something of a legend in our little town. She was the daughter of my father's brother, but she was about as far removed from the rest of my family as it was possible to be. While the rest of the Saunders were quiet and content with their lot in life, Bridget was loud, brash and determined to seek out bigger and better things beyond our small town's limits. At seventeen she had announced that she was quitting high school and going to the city to see what she could find. What she'd found, as far as anyone could tell, was numerous sexual partners and a party every night.
I'd always adored Bridget, even though we were so different, and had been heartbroken when the gloriously colourful butterfly that she was flitted off to another flower. My, then, sixteen-year-old self had coped with this loss by seeking some excitement and comradeship in Robert's arms, a terrible idea as it'd turned out five years later.
My cousin and I had stayed in touch with emails and phone calls, but I was long overdue for a visit. And, after my break-up, I'd wanted to experience for myself the wonders of the big city, to see what they'd done for Bridget, and, maybe, what they could do for me. When I'd turned up on her doorstep a couple of weeks ago, homeless and heartbroken, she had been fantastic about it, immediately inviting me to stay as long as I liked.
A shrill ringing jerked me out of my reverie and I looked up from my book in time to see Bridget fly out of her bedroom once more and snatch up her snazzy little phone.
"Bridget Saunders, a guaranteed good time," she purred seductively and I shook my head, hoping fervently that she knew the other person on the line. There was a gap presumably as the other person spoke and then, the purr suddenly gone from her voice, Bridget snapped, "What?"
I looked up in surprise, wondering what had ruined her pre party buzz, and saw that she'd started to pace around her small lounge-room.
"No, no, no." She waved her free hand back and forth, adding emphasis to her words. "You can't back out now. I'm dressed up like a scrumptious piece of football candy; I can't not go to this party." There was a short pause and then she yelled, "Did you not hear me a second ago? Scrumptious pieces of football candy do not go out alone after dark. They get…" she stopped and looked at me before adding slowly "…disrespected."
I raised my eyebrows slightly at her attempt to protect me from the reality of her life. It was a fairly futile gesture, I knew she was a football groupie, and I'd seen enough movies and TV to get the gist of what that entailed.
There was another pause and then she rolled her heavily made up eyes dramatically. "And who exactly am I going to find to go out with me at this late stage? What kind of loser would just be sitting at home on a Friday night without anything pla-?"
Bridget stopped abruptly, and then slowly turned to face me. She gave my pink polka-dotted pyjamas, messy hair and unmade face a once over and a calculating smile spread across her lips in a way that made me highly nervous.
"Actually, never mind," she said, her voice becoming quite chipper. "I think I've just found myself another escort." She clicked her phone shut and advanced upon me in all her toothy, predatory glory. I shrank back against the couch.
"Isobel, you know how you're my favourite cousin?" Her sing-song tone did nothing to fool me; there was an edge behind her words.
"I'm your only cousin," I said in a pathetic attempt to find myself a loophole for what I knew she was going to ask me.
"Yes, and therefore, obviously, my favourite. How would you feel about doing your stunning, fabulous cousin a massive favour and introducing yourself to the exciting ways of the city all in one go?"
"Slightly sick to the stomach," I replied honestly.
"Oh, come on." She flopped down beside me and took my hands in hers. "It's a pre-season party for all the young, super-hot footballers and it's going to be fantastic. It's in the swanky new part of town that's so swanky it's still derelict. There'll be models and TV stars and all sorts of really cool people there and apparently the champagne is going to be free for the women so that we'll lose our inhibitions faster." She considered this for a moment and then added, "Not that the girls who are going to be there are going to have much trouble losing their inhibitions anyway, but I guess it doesn't hurt to make extra sure."
Bridget's smile fell slightly as she saw my slightly horrified expression and realised she'd been selling the wrong version of the night to me.
"OK, fine!" She huffed. "How about this? I'll stick by your side to make sure that no guy fondles you or girl claws your eyes out because you're prettier than she is. I'll be on my best behaviour and, if you're not having fun by the time the late bus swings by that area, then we'll go home together, safe and sound. Now will you please come with me?"
I didn't want to go, I really, truly didn't, but Bridget had been so kind letting me stay with her rent-free and on no notice, and I'd always been terrible at denying her. It was for these reasons that I found myself swallowing my insecurities and nodding. "OK, I'll go with you."
As she squealed loudly and threw her arms around my neck I added, "But only if you promise that if I want to leave you'll let me without making a huge scene."
"As you wish, Cinders." She jumped to her feet and, grabbing my hands again, hauled me to mine. "Now," she said, suddenly back on task, "What are you going to wear?"
I felt my nerves multiply tenfold at the slightly crazed look in her eyes. "Nothing that says 'I'll sleep with you tonight,'" I begged, as she dragged me into her bedroom. As always, everything in her room was covered in a mountain of clothes as if a cyclone had hit her wardrobe.
"But, darling!" She objected, holding what looked like a handkerchief up to my chest, "I don't own anything that says 'nice to meet you, I'll be catching the bus home in a couple of hours,' and I'm fresh out of nun habits as well so you're just going to have to trust me."
In answer I sank down onto her bed and bit my lip anxiously, wondering what on earth I'd let myself in for.
"This is a disaster! This is the bloody meltdown situation! This is where someone presses the big, red button that says SELF DESTRUCT and all the little scientists in their white coats run for cover! Don't just sit there with that smug little look on your face! That evil cow set you up and now you're public enemy number one! You're hated, reviled! Children will start to cry when they see you on the streets! Housewives will chase after you with brooms! Teenage girls across the country will rip down their posters of you and cast them into the fire!"
As my manager continued to rant and rave, I amused myself by imagining lots of little exclamation marks popping up in the air around his head like they would if he was in a cartoon. He would make a fantastic cartoon character, I thought. All red and puffed up like an angry tomato. Yes, Gary was definitely a tomato, one that has just passed its prime so that, unless you have a really sharp knife it is almost impossible to slice because it just bends and slides away from your blade.
"Are you even listening to me, Goodspeed?"
His voice was so loud on my name that even my high threshold for ignoring him was broken through. I looked up at him, one eyebrow raised. "To be honest with you, no," I replied flatly, "because you're not telling me anything that I don't already know."
Gary deflated slightly, but I knew better than to know that he was backing down.
"Now take a deep breath, for God's sake," I added. "Your wife'll kill me if you have a heart attack. Your yelling I can take, Maureen's a whole other matter."
Gary wiped away the sweat beads that had formed across his brow with the back of his hand and then threw the huge wad of tabloid newspapers and magazines he'd been holding down onto his desk. The desk was huge, one of those enormous, gleaming, mahogany numbers that have to be assembled on site because no way would it fit through the door. If desk-size were indicative of penis size in the way I suspected some businessmen thought they were, Gary sure seemed to think he was phallic-ly blessed.
"This gets any worse," Gary was continuing, thankfully unaware of my musings, "and you won't have to worry about Maureen anymore because I'll quit. It might take me a while to find myself a new useless pretty boy footballer to represent, but I'll be sure to pick one who isn't so much Goddamn trouble."
I laughed and popped a grape from Gary's fruit bowl into my mouth. "Did you just call me pretty?"
"This is nothing to joke about!" Gary pushed the remaining grapes out of my reach and folded his arms across his barrel chest. "What the hell did you do to our darling Miss Jones to make her say all this crap?"
Unwillingly, I flicked my eyes down to the stack of papers on his desk and read the top headline as it blared out at me. Goodspeed Goodbye: Our beloved Zarah Jones tells all in this exclusive interview. The lying, the cheating, the emotional abuse – how Zarah suffered at the hands of top footballer, Lucas Goodspeed.
It couldn't have been that exclusive, I thought objectively, if all these tabloids were running the same story. I could just catch a couple of words from the other headlines and they were pretty much the same. 'Scumbag' featured a couple of times, along with 'Love Rat' which at least made me smile slightly. Zarah and her team had done their work well; there wasn't a trashy publication in the country that hadn't vilified me. Just call me 'Mr Popular'.
"I didn't do anything," I sighed. "She obviously just decided that the benefits of our relationship no longer outweighed the benefits she could get if she sold a story like this to the press."
"Well, Jesus, Goodspeed!" Gary exploded. "I have a copy of the Kama Sutra you could've borrowed if you needed to give Zarah some benefit."
I was glad that his office door flew open at that moment to distract me from following the line of thought that questioned why my hideous manager would ever have need for a copy of the Kama Sutra. Julia, Gary's normally mild-mannered secretary, stomped in through the open door and banged down a tea and biscuit tray before shooting me a filthy look and storming out again.
I raised my eyebrows questioningly at Gary as the door slammed behind her so violently the mugs rattled on the tray, and he shrugged. "Looks like Julia's a Zarah Jones fan."
I rolled my eyes. What did I care if people like Julia had turned against me? Maybe, this way, I would finally get some peace.
"I know what you're thinking," Gary said, collecting the plate of biscuits and one of the mugs and seating himself in his big, plush leather chair. "And you should care. The whole point of dating Zarah was to draw media attention away from you and your family and onto you and her as a couple. You think these vultures," he gestured to the papers on the desk, "are going to back off now? You think they're going to say, 'oh he just broke up with his girlfriend, we should give him some space'?" He snorted, spraying some of his milky tea onto his shirt.
"Come on, one thing you've never been is naïve. They're going to go to any lengths, pay any price, pry into the lives of anyone close to you to get a better story. You know what happened the last time the media whipped themselves up into this kind of frenzy."
"I'm hardly likely to forget," I said coldly, feeling the familiar swell of guilt and anger as I thought back to the last time I had unwittingly created a media furore. To cover the awkward moment, I reached for the other tea, but thought better of it when I remembered Julia's furious expression.
"Well, then." Gary took a deep slurp of his tea and regarded me through his bushy eyebrows. "I guess you'd better get rid of that attitude and pay attention to me, as I'm the only one who can get you through this without another full-scale PR disaster."
"Point taken." And how I hated admitting he was right. "What exactly do you want me to do?"
Gary seemed to relax minutely and a small smile played around his lips. Yeah, he knew he'd won our little battle of the wits, and he wanted to savour my retreat.
"First things first," he said when he'd apparently got over his little power trip. "The pre-season party tonight, you should go."
When I opened my mouth to protest that there was no way in hell I was attending that hotbed of angst, drama and sex, Gary held up one hand to forestall me.
"You have to show that you're not hiding away from this. Go out with your teammates, have fun, drink, laugh, just, for God's sake, don't sleep with anyone."
I raised my eyebrows at the last condition, but nodded to show that I understood. This easy acceptance of his terms, however, didn't seem to be enough, and he fixed me with a hard stare.
"I mean no-one, Goodspeed. Try not to interact with any women at all, just stay the hell away from them. I'm thinking we'll go for the whole 'focusing on your sport' angle and portray you as a reformed man, but that won't work if the papers tomorrow are full of photos with you draped across two half naked girls. Do you understand me?"
Honestly, the draped across two half naked women thing had only happened once and the photo had been taken out of context anyway as I'd been too drunk that night to do anything with those women even if I'd wanted to. Still, as much as it pained me to admit it, Gary really did know his stuff and so, as I got to my feet, I leaned down and looked him squarely in the eyes.
"You have my word. No women."
He held my gaze for a couple of seconds more and then nodded, apparently satisfied. "Good." He stood up as well and shook my hand firmly. "I'll call you tomorrow and we'll discuss phase two."
As I left his office, sending a winning smile in reply to Julia's glare, I pulled out my mobile and called Xavier, my teammate and just plain best mate.
"Well, if it isn't the cheating, scumbag," he answered cheerfully. "Taking a rest from sending inappropriate text messages to hordes of girls?"
"Yeah, well, you know how it is," I said flatly to Xavier. "Even perverts have to take a break sometimes. Hey, are you on your way to that party?"
"The pre-season thing?" Xavier asked as I entered the lift.
"That's the one," I confirmed.
"Yeah, I thought I might show my face briefly. Why? You thinking of going?"
"Apparently I have to," I growled, pressing the button for the car park and feeling that brief weightless sensation as the carriage began to descend.
"Gary riding you to start a new public image campaign?" Xavier knew all about my previous run-ins with the press and was occasionally sympathetic when he wasn't laughing himself stupid over my media persona.
"Isn't he always? Look I'll see you there, mate."
I hung up and, as the lift doors opened, I stupidly let myself think for a couple of seconds that, maybe, things weren't going to be so bad this time.