Chapter 9 – The Plan

"A story to me means a plot where there is some surprise. Because that is how life is - full of surprises." - Isaac Bashevis Singer


Katy enters the room and immediately, her mouth drops into her nursing-home expression. This sentiment is evidently echoed by Dana, who snarls like a street dog calling dibs on a juicy piece of thrown-out hamburger. Katy and Dana have met upon several occasions, and rarely have they ended without the offended party leaving in tears. They're both so bull-headed that they find it impossible to agree about anything.

"What is she doing here?" Katy demands, motioning to Dana with her chin. Dana is deeply offended by this.

My best friend, whose face reminds me of some shrivelled grapes I saw in my mother's fridge once, sneers back at Katy with gusto. "She has a name, skank," she growls. The air crackles with oestrogen.

"Really?" Katy is faux contrite. "I'm sorry, what was it? Hana? Lana?"

"I forgot yours too," Dana returns sweetly. "What was it, 'ho-bag'?"

At this point I decide it's time to intercede. I step between them, smiling so widely that I fear my cheek muscles may spasm. "Hi, guys!"

They both ignore me, still glaring daggers at one another. Hand them the oil and they'll start girding their loins for a snarl-off in a minute. Luckily at this point, a distraction comes in the form of Mick, who has not only escaped his cage, but managed to switch on the television. Noise blares from it and we all jump at the same time, swivelling to stare at the screen.

As luck would have it, Mick has managed to flip to an Indian channel, currently showing some hare-brained Hindi sitcom. This is as good an icebreaker as any. It's ghastly, really, but does prompt sniggers from most people.

For those uneducated in matters of bad television, here is the synopsis of the average Hindi sitcom. Main characters: perpetually disapproving mother-in-law; Son, who without fail is a puffed-up know-it-all and may or may not be sporting some sort of facial hair; several sisters-in-law, all in varying colours of saree and different levels of stupidity/cunning/helplessness and of course, to top it off, an errant daughter-in-law with pitiful doe eyes the size of tortillas and a perpetually browbeaten expression. The plot generally revolves around family dramas where the daughter-in-law is always in the wrong, whether because of her own naiveté or a conniving sister-in-law. This all comes complete with dramatic violin music and shitty special effects while huffy mothers-in-law sulk and daughters-in-law cry their faces off.

I suppose in a way it beats old films where the hero and heroine are required to somehow dance through Europe as they fall in love, but soap operas have something about them that more often than not make me want to bite my TV. In short, they're like B-list thrillers except sans fake blood, 'cos you know, that shit's expensive.

Katy is engrossed (bless you, subtitles). Son in this case is sporting some sort of fungal growth on his upper lip. Errant Wife has a mass of wildly curly hair. I fear for those in the vicinity.

Sniggering into my glass of water, I watch as the screen splits in two, one half showing the sisters-in-law and the other flicking back and forth between the faces of Wife, Son and Mother. Wife bursts into highly theatrical silent sobs and even Katy can't miss the hilarity of this, especially not after Mum over here starts off on a tirade in regards to Wife's inability to provide her with grandchildren. Newsflash! To have kids, you have to have sex, and I don't know about Wife but I sure wouldn't want to ride the wild sausage with Mummy Dear right around the corner.

I glance at Katy, whose jaw is hanging so loosely that a passing toddler might want to use it as a swing. She reminds me of Manjari Aunty, who thinks these shows are the height of cool. She watches them religiously from 11:30 am to 3 pm, armed with her customary fortifications of chai and digestives. The only plus side of this arrangement is that she forgets to check up on me – a small miracle considering I not only live right next door but own a parrot who makes it his business to shout my name (the only word he knows) at the top of his voice.

The jangling of my ringtone interrupts my thought process. I answer it to another round of howling laughter. "Yeah?"

"Didi!" a familiar voice yips, the Hindi name for 'sister'. Immediately, a headache starts up at my temples. Knee-jerk reaction to Aditi's fourteen-year-old, perpetually-squeaky voice.

"Hi, Aditi," I sigh, mooching into my bedroom to talk to her.

"Listen," she says excitedly, "I saw this article on Insatiable - "

"Little punkarse!" I interject indignantly. "I can't believe you sicced the family on me."

There's a pause. Presumably, the little snitch is preparing a suitably grovelling apology. At last, "Are you and Kian Tate really together?"

Nice. Real nice.

So I snort in an unladylike fashion and hang up. That tells me all I need to know – if she's seen it, her brother's seen it, which means her mother has seen it – and by extension, my mother, which effectively puts an end to the relative peace I've been experiencing. Oddly enough, there's been a suspicious lack of paparazzi skulking around, but I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. But I digress – if my mother has seen it, then her friends will have rallied around to find out all possible info regarding Mr Tate. They're probably consulting the astrologer as I fume and gnash my teeth.

My phone rings again. "Hey, hubby," I say glumly, checking the ID and answering.

There's a long pause. "That's new," Kian says at last, sounding wary. "I haven't even bought a ring yet."

"I take it you've seen the article?" I mutter, tugging at a strand of my hair and chewing my lip.

"The one that has us shagging under Nick Shannon's innocent nose? Yep. I hate lying to the masses, though. I mean, if they're saying we're shagging maybe we should - "

"I'm not going to sleep with you!" I screech. "You do not understand the repercussions of that article. My mother is probably comparing our star signs as we speak!"

He is unconvinced. "I think you're overreacting."

I pull a face that would have any self-respecting matchmaking aunty running for the hills. "Meet my mother and then tell me I'm overreacting."

There's a male voice in the background, and Kian murmurs something unintelligible in reply. "Listen," he begins, and I am immediately wary. Nothing good ever comes after 'listen'. "Can you come to the studio? Now? There are things we really need to talk about."

"Yeah, you're telling me," I return glumly. "I can't come now. Dana and Katy are at my house."

"Are they friends with each other?" Kian asks, veering off-topic.

"Yeah, just like I'm friends with Justin Bieber," I drawl. "They're probably ripping each others' throats out right now."

"So why'd you invite them over at the same time?" he asks, sounding genuinely confused.

I cackle with laughter. "My friends don't get invited, they just show up."

I can almost hear his eyes rolling, but he wisely avoids digging deeper into the topic and encourages me to bring them with me to the studio.

"Al…right…" I say haltingly.

"Excellent. I can set one of them up with Dom." I shudder involuntarily. I have had enough of set-ups.

"One's married and the other's dating," I tell him before he gets too excited. "Don't worry, I have other hot friends," I reassure him, pawing through my closet for a suitable shirt to wear to the studio. Focusing on extracting a white button-down from the bottom of the pile, I completely miss what he says next, cursing as the entire pile tips over. "Sodding clothes!"

"If you've got a problem with clothes, I don't mind if you show up in your birthday suit," Kian informs me.

"Good to know," I mutter, switching the phone to the other ear as I shove my arm through the sleeve. "Lecherous pig bastar- ACK!" This last part because I lose my balance while stepping into a pair of pumps. I tumble onto my bed and have to dive into a pile of clothes in search of my missing phone.

"Hello?" I ask breathlessly.

"Still here," Kian says, sounding bored. "I'll see you in ten?"

I nod even though he can't see and hang up. Too bad.


It takes very little effort to convince Dana and Katy to accompany me to Centro, especially when they find out who's going to be meeting us there. In fact, it's the first time they've ever agreed on anything, and they actually beat me to the car, downstairs a full five minutes before my lazy arse. In my defence though, I had to stuff Mick back into his cage and double padlock it. I leave the house to a volley of indignant screeches emanating from the bird cage, and wave sweetly before locking the door.

The drive to Centro takes only five minutes, and Katy and Dana, true to form, bicker the entire way. I've half a mind to lock them inside the car but then I remember that a) they could get out easily enough – door locks are on the inside, dumbo and b) they might rip apart my car, which would be bad.

Needless to say, by the time I enter the recording room, my heels click-clacking across tile, I'm not in a good temper. I accept Kian's hug with ill grace, even going so far as to frown at Shanks, who is not bothered in the slightest, of course. Kian looks perturbed by my mood, but spins me around to bring my face to face with a man who looks vaguely familiar.

"Nadine, meet Terrence Philipps, our manager. Terrence, this is Nadine."

He chuckles, shaking my hand. "I've heard lots about you, Ms Campbell," he says with a smile.

"All good, I hope," I say without much hope.

"Unfortunately, no," he confirms what I'm thinking. "Now, we have business matters to discuss to if you would just step over here…?" He opens the door to the conference room – a narrow room, painted in crème and beige, with a large oval table in the centre of it.

Confused, I follow him. Kian is right behind me, shutting the door gently after us.

"You may as well sit next to her," Terrence tells Kian as he takes a seat across from me. "You're supposed to be a couple, after all."

I choke on air. "What?"

Terrence gives me an incredulous look. "Surely you knew what this meeting was about?" He shoots an accusing look at Kian.

"I wasn't going to tell her over the phone!" he says exasperatedly.

Terrence gives him another look. He turns to me, sighing. "Yes, well. Since our man here has neglected to inform you, we've decided that - "

"We nothing," a brusque female voice snaps, and the door at the other end of the room closes with a snap. "Kian's doing this because he obviously got a little touched in the head somewhere along the road – if any of you had taken my opinion into consideration, this meeting wouldn't be necessary."

She's dressed in a grey skirt-suit with equally business-like pumps. I would have hated her anyway for her pointy shoes, but her words and condescending attitude give me sudden urges to lunge across the table and stab her with her own stiletto.

Kian, who has at some point moved to sit next to me, lays a cautionary hand on my arm. His warm touch, searing through the layers of cloth, calms me down a little.

"Nadine, meet Gladys," he introduces warily, He's obviously afraid that I'll kill his... I don't know what she is, but I'm guessing PA.

And oh God, what a name. I'd be sour too if my name were Gladys.

"She's our agent," he adds. Oh.

"And a damn good one, too," she snaps, slamming a file down on the table. She glares at me. "You, girl, are causing me a hell of a lot of trouble. For some reason, this idiot's got it in his head that he needs to help you out of this situation you've got yourself into."

I didn't get myself into anything, I want to say, but I know this will get me nowhere with this woman, not to mention it's likely to make Kian feel bad. For the first time, I notice that he looks tired. Really tired. I study his face, the dark rings around his eyes and the frown tugging at the corners of his lips.

"You could listen while I'm talking, you know. Or pretend to." Gladys's voice breaks into my scrutiny of Kian.

I turn to her, a pleasant smile on my face. "I could, yeah, but where's the fun in that?"

Her lips tighten. "I'm doing you a favour, here, girl - "

"Drop the condescending attitude," I drawl nonchalantly, scratching at the table with my index fingernail. "It doesn't make your face look any better." I shouldn't be riling her up, but the way she keeps calling me 'girl' is grating on my last nerves.

Her face slowly turns pink. "Thanks, but I didn't need your assessment of my appearance."

"But I gave it to you, free of charge!" I exclaim mockingly. "Aren't I nice?"

"Christ, you're even worse than I thought," she mutters, running a hand through smooth dark locks.

"Christ," I mock, "I'll be nice to you if you're nice to me, girl."

"Cool it, both of you," Terrence snaps. I jump in surprise; I'd almost forgotten his presence. "Your arguing isn't helping any."

I lean back in my chair with a sigh. "Okay. Tell me about this plan."

"Simply put," Kian cuts in, "You and I are as of right now a real fake couple."

I blink. "That made about as much sense as Rebecca Black's record deal," I say at last. Terrence stifles a smile before expanding on Kian's statement.

"We've talked it over – several times, actually – and as disapproving as you may be of the idea, we think that masquerading as Kian's girlfriend is the only course of action here."

I frown. "Why, though?"

"Excuse me?"

I elaborate, "Why is it beneficial? I mean, wouldn't it be simpler to just let the media get bored and find some other scandal?"

"That could take months," Gladys tells me. "You have a steady job that I'm sure you'd like to keep. Not to mention, this whole scandal is shedding a terrible light on Under the Eaves."

This I could understand. "Right, then how are you planning on rectifying things by doing – this?"

"Tell the papers the original photo of you and Shannon was a fake," Kian says with a shrug. "Accuse the manager of Shadowstone of pulling publicity stunts with that interview."

"I frown doubtfully," I tell them, frowning doubtfully. "Can you actually do that without them taking legal action?"

Terrence smiles slyly. "Ah, we've got a wild card, you see," he says. "Show her." He nudges Gladys, who opens the folder and extracts a newspaper clipping. It's the familiar old photo of me and Nick Shannon. My cheeks burn and I chew on my lip in embarrassment. Without the slightest change in expression, Gladys points to a spot just where the floor meets the wall. A faint ripple betrays the presence of photo manipulation.

"That's the floor, though," I say dumbly.

Gladys seems to have the same opinion of my intellect as I do. "If they've messed with the floor, it's enough evidence to say that the entire photo was tampered with," she says slowly, as if talking to a child.

I inhale deeply, considering the pros and cons of this decision. "If the media bugs me even more?" I ask at last.

Terrence, Kian and Gladys exchange a look. "About that," Terrence begins. "There's a fair chance that you'll be hounded wherever you go, so we've come up with a solution – that is, if you are amenable."

"Go ahead," I quaver, sounding decidedly like an elderly woman requesting cucumber sandwiches to go with the tea.

"You'll be going with Under the Eaves when they start off on their Europe tour next month."

A roaring fills my ears, a pressure like a tidal wave gathering at the edge of a beach. I grip onto the table with white-knuckled fingers. "C-come again?" I stammer.

"You're going on tour with us," Kian tells me flatly. "Er, if you want to," he amends.

It's all too much. A tangled mass of voices are shouting at each other in my head – possibly a sign that I'm a schizo, but more likely a sign that I need out of this room and into somewhere I can think. I shove away from the table, jumping to my feet. "Give me a minute?" I request, but I've barely finished talking before I'm out of the door.

I sink down onto my elbows in the Ladies', staring morosely at my reflection. How many girls would jump at the chance to go on tour with a group of delicious guys? Probably most of the female population.

And yet.

I mentally compartmentalise, splitting my confused thoughts into pros and cons.

Cons: No way Skins will let me keep my job. No more privacy. Impending lecture to end all lectures from mum.

Pros: Going on tour. Situation with Nick Shannon fixed. Going on tour. Travelling. Going on tour. Unlimited time with Kian. Going on –

What.

Where does Kian fit into this? I realise with a shock that I've pretty much omitted him from the equation – and now that he's come into play, I'm looking at it from a whole other angle. The thought of spending months on end with Kian is almost painful… in a disturbingly good way. It sends my synapses zinging zestily all down my spine. Evidently this is a crush the likes of which were last seen in eighth grade.

But I can't shake the logic of what they're saying. Media attention does take forever to die down, and frankly, this is an easier way to get rid of it. Fake date Kian, go on tour, stage a breakup, end of story. They'll be raving about the breakup for a couple of weeks, but a perfectly-timed new single from the band will take the attention from the relationship to the music once again. Sounds simple.

Who am I kidding? It's terrifying.

It's also the only logical option for me.

I shake my hair back from my face and glare at myself. "You can do this," I say sternly to my reflection. "You can."

My reflection smirks back at me, but it's only a shadow of the confidence I want to feel.

Confidence thus boosted, I sail out of the bathroom and back into the conference room. "Right!" I say with verve. "I've decided."

Everyone looks up expectantly. "Yeah?" Kian asks, a little of the tension in his face relaxing. For a minute, I feel violently queasy. The same feeling I got when I was bungee jumping in New Zealand and I was about to jump off the bridge.

"I'll do it." The words come out of my mouth in a rush, even before I consciously allow myself to say them. They're out now, though, and I can't take them back.

There's a mass sigh of relief. Gladys packs up her file, Terrence shakes my hand and opens the door to the recording studio. "Hold his hand," he mutters out of the corner of his mouth.

"Why?" I hiss back. "Don't make us pretend in private, among friends." I look to Kian for support but he says nothing, his lips drawn into a tight line. The lip ring glints in the light of a lamp and again I get the weird urge to kiss him, to see how the lip ring feels.

Perhaps he's hurt by how openly opposed I am to the idea of dating him – fake or not.

I have no time to dwell on it, though, because Dana has decided that she wants to go home. She tucks a piece of paper with a phone number on it into her pocket with a decidedly smug look. Dom is wearing an identical cat-ate-the-canary expression. Katy is nowhere to be seen.

The entire gang of people follows us to the door. Kian's hand has somehow found mine and I clutch it as we stumble out.

Then something pings in my tiny brain. I latch onto his arm, pulling him to a stop. "What?" he asks, reaching up to brush some stray hairs from my face.

"Does this mean I have to kiss you?" I hiss.

His answering smirk is decidedly dangerous. Dana shoves at me again, though, and I trip over the threshold, closing my eyes as I wait for the impact of the hard ground…

And feel, instead, the sharp jerk of a hand around my wrist stopping my fall. It's no Mills and Boon rescue and it definitely hurts, but it's better than the spectacular faceplant into the concrete I was going for. I'm dragged up, into a warm, strong expanse of chest and cotton t-shirt, my lips hovering centimetres from Kian's. His arms encircle me, one over my shoulders and another around my waist; his lip ring glints in the sunlight again and again as he says something I can't make out over the –

Clicking.

As soon as I hear it, it's impossible to miss. The snap snap snap of dozens of camera shutters, capturing this moment, my unplanned moment with my official fake boyfriend. He's shielding me, I realise as he lifts his arm to cover my face on one side. He hasn't moved beyond that, and his cool breath whispers against my lips. I am rooted to the spot, frozen in place by his arms, his heat, his cologne, that stupid lip ring…

Then someone yelps, shoves him from behind, and before he can stop himself, he jerks forward…

And kisses me.

Copyright © Nayantara Bhat 2012. Any manipulation, duplication or theft of plot or characters is prohibited. All rights reserved.