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Excerpt

Excerpt

I Owe You One

THREE

I don’t know how many times a heart can be broken, but mine’s been shattered again and again, and every single time by Ryan Chalker.

Not that he’d know it. I’ve been pretty good at concealing my feelings. (I think.) But the truth is, I’ve been in love with Ryan pretty much solidly since I was ten years old and he was fifteen and I came across him and Jake with a group of boys in Burger King. I was instantly fixated by him. How could you not be fixated by him, with that blond hair, that profile, that glow?

By the time I joined secondary school, Ryan and Jake were best friends and Ryan used to hang around our house every weekend, cracking jokes and flirting with Mum. Unlike every other boy in that year, he had flawless skin. He knew how to style his hair. He could make our school uniform look sexy, that’s how hot he was.

He had money, too. Everyone whispered about it. Some relative had left him a small fortune. He always hosted parties and he got a car for his seventeenth. A convertible. I’m twenty-seven years old and I’m sure I’ll never own a convertible. Ryan and Jake used to drive around London in it, roof down, music blaring, like a couple of rock stars. In fact, it was Ryan who introduced Jake to that posh, flash, hard-partying set. The pair of them used to get into the kind of clubs that you read about in tabloids and boast about it at our house the next day. When I was old enough, Mum let me go out with Jake and Ryan sometimes, and I felt like I’d won the Lottery. There was such a buzz around them, and suddenly I was part of it too.

Ryan could be genuinely kind, too. I’ll always remember one evening when we went to the cinema. I’d just broken up with a boy called Jason and a bunch of his friends were behind us. They started to laugh and me and say jeering things, and Ryan whipped round before anyone else could, and lashed into them. People heard about it at school the next day, and everyone was saying, ‘Ryan loves Fixie!’

Of course I laughed along. I treated it like a joke. But inside, I was smitten. I felt as if we were connected now. I kept thinking, ‘Surely we’ll end up together? Surely it’s meant to be?’

There were so many moments over the years when I thought I had a chance. The time in Pizza Express when he kissed me lingeringly on greeting me. The time he pinched my thigh. The time he asked if I was single at the moment. Dad’s funeral, when he sat with me for a while at the reception and let me talk on endlessly about Dad. At my 21st birthday party he sang a karaoke version of ‘Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing’, straight to me, while my heart fluttered like a manic butterfly and I thought. ‘Yes, yes, this is it…’ But that night he got off with a girl called Tamara. Over the years I watched and secretly wept as he dated what seemed like every girl in west London, and never looked my way.

Then, five years ago, he moved to LA to be a movie producer. An actual movie producer. You couldn’t pick a more glamorous or unattainable job. I’ve still got the business card he gave me before he left, with an abstract logo and an address on Wilshire Boulevard.

It would have been easier to forget him if he’d disappeared forever – but he didn’t. He flew back to London all the time and he always came to see Jake, in a blast of light and excitement. His wavy blond hair was permanently sun-bleached. He had endless stories of celebrities. He’d casually say ‘Tom,’ and I’d think, ‘Tom? Who does he mean, Tom?’ And then I’d suddenly realize he meant Tom Cruise and my heart would be gripped and I’d think, ‘Oh my God, I know someone who knows Tom Cruise?’

 Meanwhile, I went out with other guys, of course I did. But Ryan was lodged in my heart. And then last year, a full sixteen years after I first met him, he arrived at Jake’s birthday drinks really drunk and unhappy - I never got the full story but it was something about a studio executive playing him around.

I’m a good listener, so I let him slag off this guy, and nodded and said sympathetic things. At last he ran out of steam, and I could see him looking at me. Like, really looking at me. As though he’d only just realized I was an actual grown-up woman. He said, ‘You know, I’ve always fancied you, Fixie. You’re so genuine. You’re so bloody refreshing.’ Then he added, as though puzzled, ‘Why have we never got it together?’

My heart was hammering, but for once in my life I managed to play it cool. I just looked at him and left it a moment, and then said, ‘Well.’

And he gave me one of his lazy smiles, and said, ‘Well.’

Oh my God, it was amazing. We left about three minutes later. He took me back to the flat where he was staying and we spent the night fulfilling every teenage fantasy I’d ever had, and then some. My brain kept screaming, ‘It’s happening! I’m with Ryan! It’s actually happening!’ For ten solid days I was in a trance of delight.

And then he went back to LA.

I mean, of course he went back to LA. What did I expect, that he was going to propose?

(I’m not going to answer that. Not even in my own head. Because I might give away my most pathetic fantasy of all: that we’d be one of those pairs of lovers who were ‘meant to be’ all their lives and finally realized it and never left each other’s sides again.)

As he left for his flight, that grey April morning, he kissed me with what looked like genuine regret, and said, ‘You’ve been so good for me, Fixie.’ As if I was a juice fast, or a series of TED talks.

I said, as lightly as I could, ‘I hope you come and see me again.’ Which wasn’t quite true. I actually hoped he’d suddenly exclaim, ‘Now I realize the truth! Fixie my darling, I can’t live without you and I want you to get on this plane with me, now.’

Anyway. Astonishingly enough, that didn’t happen.

Then I heard from Jake that he’d got a new girlfriend in LA called Ariana and they had rows all the time, but it was pretty serious. I looked at them on Facebook a few times. (OK, all the time.) I wrote casual, friendly texts to him, then deleted them. And all the while I pretended I was fine with it. To Mum, Jake, everybody. Because what other option did I have?

But it was all lies. I never reconciled myself to having lost him. I still secretly, crazily, hoped.

And now he’s back. The words are thudding through my head like a drum beat - he’s back, he’s back - while I stand in Anna’s Accessories like a star-struck 14-year-old, frantically trying out hair clips. As though choosing exactly the right hair decoration will somehow, magically, make Ryan fall in love with me.

I couldn’t cope with going straight home from the shop. What if he was there already, lounging on the sofa, ready to catch me out with his irresistible smile? I needed time. I needed to prepare. So at 5pm I told Greg to close up and headed to the High Street. I bought myself a new lipstick. And now I’m standing in front of a display rack, trying to transform my appearance beyond belief with a £3.99 diamante hair clip. Or maybe I should go for a flower.

Glittery hairband?

I know this is all displacement. I can’t even contemplate the momentousness of seeing Ryan again so instead I’m fixating on an irrelevant detail which nobody else will even notice. Story of my life.

At last, I gather up two beaded hair clips, some diamante hair grips and a pair of dangling gold earrings for good luck. I pay for them and head out to the balmy street. Mum will be laying out the table by now. Stacking the paper cups. Wrapping knives and forks in napkins. But even so, I need more time. I need to get my head straight.

On impulse, I duck into Café Allegro, which is our family’s favourite local cafe. I buy a bag of coffee beans for Mum’s cappuccino machine - we’re always running out and Café Allegro does the best ones - then order a mint tea and go to sit by the window. I’m trying to think exactly how to greet Ryan. What vibe to give off. Not gushy or needy, but self-possessed and alluring.

With a sigh, I retrieve my Anna’s Accessories bag, take out the two beaded clips and hold them up against my hair, squinting into my hand mirror. Neither looks remotely alluring. I try the gold earrings against my ears and wince. Oh God. Terrible. I might take them back.

Suddenly I notice a guy opposite me, watching in slight amusement over his laptop, and at once I flush. What am I doing? I would never normally start trying on hair clips in a coffee shop. I’ve lost all sense of propriety.

As I shove the clips and earrings back in the bag, a drip of water lands on the table, and I look up. Now I think about it, there’s been a steady stream of drips from the ceiling ever since I sat down, only they’ve been landing in a nearby bucket on the floor. No wonder this seat was free.

A barista is nearby, giving a hot sandwich to a customer, and I attract her attention as she turns to go.

‘Hi, the ceiling’s leaking.’ I point upwards and she follows my gaze briefly, then shrugs.

‘Yeah. We put a bucket down.’

‘But it’s dripping on the table, too.

As I study the ceiling, I can see two sources of drips and a patch of damp. That whole area of ceiling looks very unhealthy. I glance at the guy opposite to see if he’s noticed, but he’s on his mobile phone and seems totally preoccupied.

‘Yes,’ he’s saying, in a voice which crackles with education and polish. ‘I know, Bill, but-‘

Nice suit, I notice. Glossy, expensive shoes.

‘They’re doing building work on the floor above.’ The barista seems supremely unconcerned. ‘We’ve called them. You can move seats if you like.’

I should have wondered why this window seat was empty, when the rest of the coffee shop is full. I look around to see if there’s another available seat, but there isn’t.

Well, I’m not fussy. I can put up with a few drips. I’ll be leaving soon, anyway.

‘It’s OK,’ I say, ‘Just thought I’d let you know. You might need to get another bucket.’

The barista shrugs with a look I recognize - it’s the famous I’m going off shift so what do I care?  look - and heads back to the counter.

‘Strewth!’ the guy opposite suddenly exclaims. His voice has risen and he’s making exasperated gestures with his hand.

The word strewth makes me smile inside. That’s a word Dad used to use. I don’t often hear it, any more.

‘You know what?’ he’s saying now, ‘I’m sick of these intellectual types with their six degrees from Cambridge.’ He listens for a bit, then says, ‘It should not be this hard to fill a junior-level position. It should not. But everyone Chloe finds for me… I know. You’d think. But all they want to do is tell me their clever theories that they learned at uni. They don’t want to work.’

He leans forward, takes his cup for a gulp of coffee and meets eyes with me briefly. I can’t help smiling back, because even though he doesn’t know it, I’m hearing my dad again.

On the face of it, this man is nothing like my dad. My dad was a weather-beaten, former market trader. This guy is a 30-something professional in a posh tie. But I’m hearing exactly the same note of energy; the same pragmatism; the same impatience with clever-clever know-it-alls. Dad had no time for theories either. Get on and do it, he’d say.

‘All I want is to hire someone bright and savvy and tough who knows how the world works,’ the guy is saying now, thrusting a hand through his hair. ‘Someone who’s been in the world, hasn’t just written a dissertation about it. They don’t even need a bloody degree! They need some sense! Sense!’

He’s lean and energetic-looking, with an end-of-summer tan. Deep brown hair, lighter where the sun’s caught it. As he reaches for his coffee again, the fronds cast shadows over his face. His cheekbones are two long, strong planes. His eyes are… can’t quite tell. Mid-brown or hazel, I think, peering surreptitiously at him.  Then the evening light catches them and I see a sudden tinge of green. They’re woodland eyes.

It’s a thing of mine, classifying eyes. Mine are double espresso. Ryan’s are Californian sky. Mum’s are deep-sea-blue. And this guy’s are woodland eyes.

‘I know,’ he says more calmly, his ire apparently vanished. ‘So I’m having another meeting with Chloe next week. I’m sure she’s really looking forward to it.’ His mouth curves into a sudden, infectious smile.

He can laugh at himself. That’s one up on Dad, who was the sweetest, most soft-hearted person in the world, but didn’t really get the concept of banter, or laughing at yourself. You could never have sent Dad an irreverent, jokey birthday card. He would have just been hurt or offended.

‘Oh. That.’ The guy shifts on his chair. ‘Look, I’m sorry.’ He thrusts a hand through his hair again, but this time he doesn’t look dynamic, he looks upset. ‘I’m just… It’s not happening. You know Briony, she gets ahead of herself, so… no. No home gym, not for now. Tanya’s designs were great, she’s very talented, but… Yeah. I’ll pay her for her time, of course... Not, not with dinner,’ he adds firmly. ‘With a proper invoice. I insist.’ He nods a few times. ‘OK. I’ll see you soon. Cheers.’

The wry blade of humour is back in his voice - but as he puts his phone away he stares out of the window as though trying to rebalance himself. It’s weird, but I feel like I know this guy. Like, I get him. If we weren’t two uptight British people in a London coffee shop, maybe I’d strike up conversation with him.

But we are. And that’s just not what you do.

So I do that traditional London thing of pretending I didn’t hear a word of his phone call, and staring carefully into mid-air in a way that won’t attract his gaze. The guy starts typing at his laptop and I glance at my watch. 5.45pm. I should go soon.

My phone buzzes with a text and I reach for it, madly hoping it’s Jake saying ‘Ryan’s here.’ Or even better, Ryan texting me himself. But it’s not, of course, it’s Hannah, replying to the text I sent her earlier. I quickly scan her words:

Ryan’s back? I thought he was in LA.

Unable to stop smiling,I type a quick reply:

He was!!! But he’s here and he’s unattached and he was asking about me!!!!

I press Send, then instantly realize my error. I’ve put too many exclamation marks. Hannah will see them as warning signs. She’ll be on the phone within half a minute.

I’ve been friends with Hannah since we were eleven and both elected as class monitors. At once we knew we’d found kindred spirits. We’re both organized. We both love lists. We both get things done. Although, to be fair, Hannah gets things done even more efficiently than I do. She never procrastinates or finds an excuse. Whatever the task is, she does it straightaway, whether it’s her tax form or cleaning out her fridge or telling a guy she didn’t like the way he kissed, on their very first date. (Fair play to him, he took it on the chin. He said ‘How do you like to be kissed, then?’ And she showed him. And now they’re married.)

She’s the most level-headed, straight-talking person I know. She works as an actuary and she starts Christmas shopping in July and… here we go. Her name’s popping up on my screen. Knew it.

‘Hi, Hannah.’ I answer my phone casually, as though I don’t know why she’s calling. ‘How are you?’

‘Ryan, huh?’ she say, ignoring my greeting. ‘What happened to that girl in LA?’

‘Apparently it’s over.’  I try to speak calmly, although a voice inside me is singing, It’s over! It’s over!

‘Hmm.’ She doesn’t sound convinced. ‘Fixie, I thought you were over him. Finally.’

I don’t blame her for that emphasis on finally. I’ve been spilling my heart to Hannah about Ryan pretty much since the first day we met. When we were 18 I used to drag her around endless London pubs, just in the hope of bumping into him.  She used to call it the Ryan Route. And last summer, after he went back to Hollywood, it would be fair to say that every other conversation we had was about Ryan.

OK, every conversation.

 ‘I am!’ I lower my voice so the whole coffee shop doesn’t hear. ‘But apparently he was asking after me.’ Just the thought of Ryan asking after me makes me feel giddy, but I force myself to sound matter-of-fact.  ‘So that’s interesting. That’s all. Just interesting.’

 ‘Hmm,’ says Hannah again. ‘Has he texted you himself or anything?’

‘No. But maybe he wants to surprise me.’

‘Hmm,’ says Hannah for a third time. ‘Fixie, you do remember that he lives in LA?’

‘I know,’ I say.

‘And your whole life is your family shop.’

‘I know.’

 ‘So there’s no prospect of you actually getting together.’ Hannah carries on relentlessly. ‘Like having a relationship or anything. It’s not going to happen.’

‘Stop spelling stuff out!’ I hiss crossly, turning towards the window for extra privacy. ‘You always have to spell things out!’

Not for the first time, I wish I had a flaky romantic best friend, who would say, ‘Oh wow, Ryan’s back! You two are meant for each other!’ and help me choose what outfit to wear.

Nicole’s quite flaky and romantic, I suppose. But then she’s not really interested in my life.

‘I’m spelling things out because I know you,’ says Hannah. ‘And what I worry is that deep down you’re still hoping for some sort of miracle.’

There’s silence. I’m not going to say ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ because there’s no point lying to your best friend.

‘It’s like… a ten percent hope,’ I say at last, watching a traffic warden on the prowl. ‘It’s harmless.’

‘It’s not harmless.’ Hannah contradicts me with energy. ‘It means you don’t even look at any other men. There are nice men out there, you know, Fixie. Good men.’

I know why she’s saying that. It’s because she tried to set me up with this actuary mate of hers last month, and I wasn’t into him. I mean, he was nice. He was just so earnest.

‘I get it,’ Hannah continues. ‘Ryan’s good-looking and glamorous and whatever. But are you going to give up on finding a proper guy just for ten minutes with Mr Hollywood?’

‘No, of course not,’ I say after a pause, even though the phrase ten minutes with Mr Hollywood has instantly flashed me back to me and Ryan in bed last year, and just the memory is making me damp behind the knees.

‘I think you need to draw a line and move on,’ says Hannah. I imagine her at her desk, briskly drawing a line under a column of numbers with a ruler, and then turning the page, no problem.

But then, Hannah was always immune to Ryan’s charms. In the sixth form she dated all the guys in the A-Level physics set, one by one, and ended up with Tim, the second cleverest one. (She was the cleverest.) They were together all through sixth form, broke up, went to uni and dated other people, then got back together again and married. His kissing has improved a lot since that first date, apparently. They both have good jobs and they’re trying for a baby and they’re basically sorted.

‘So what am I supposed to do?’ I say, a bit snippily, because I know she has a point and I resent it, even though I love her for caring enough to call me up and lecture me. ‘What if he’s there tonight, and…?’

I break off. I don’t want to say it out loud because I’ll jinx it.

‘You mean, what if he’s all hot and sexy and wants to carry on where you left off last year?’

‘I guess.’

‘Well.’ Hannah is silent for a few moments. ‘Here’s the thing. Can you sleep with him and not get upset when he goes back to LA? Be honest.’

‘Yes,’ I say robustly. ‘Of course. Sex is just sex.’

‘No it’s not!’ says Hannah with an incredulous laugh. ‘Not for you. Not with Ryan. He’ll mess you up somehow, I know it. You’ll end up weeping on my shoulder.’

‘Well maybe I don’t care,’ I say defiantly.

‘You’re saying the sex is so good, it’s worth it even if you do end up weeping on my shoulder?’ says Hannah, who always likes to analyse everything into equations.

‘Pretty much.’ I have a sudden memory of Ryan’s LA-tanned body entwined with mine. ‘Yes.’

‘Fine,’ says Hannah, and I can hear the rueful eye-roll in her voice. ‘Well, I’ll buy the tissues.’

‘He might not even come,’ I point out. ‘This whole conversation might have been for nothing.’

‘Well, I’ll see you later,’ says Hannah. ‘With or without Ryan.’

I ring off and stare morosely out of the window. Now I’ve said it, I realize of course that’s the most likely scenario. Ryan must have a million more glamorous events to be at tonight than Mum’s party. He won’t turn up at all. I’ll have bought all these hair clips for nothing.

‘Hi Briony.’ The guy across the table is answering his phone and I glance round. ‘Oh, you’ve spoken to Tanya. Right. So- No, that’s not what-’ He seems to be trying to get a word in.  ‘Listen, Briony-‘ He breaks off, looking beleaguered. ‘Sweetheart, I’m not trying to ruin- No, we did not agree anything.’

Ha.  Well, at least it’s not just me with the messed-up love life.

‘Is that what you think?’ he’s exclaiming now. ‘Can I remind you that this is my flat, for me to -’ He lifts his eyes and suddenly seems to become aware that I’m listening. I quickly look away, but even so, he gets to his feet.

‘Excuse me,’ he says politely to me. ‘I’m just stepping out to take a phone call. Could you watch my laptop?’

‘Sure.’ I nod, and watch him threading his way between the tables, already back on the phone, saying,

‘I never promised anything! It was your idea-’

I sip my mint tea and glance at the laptop a couple of times. It’s an Apple Mac. He’s left it closed, with a stack of glossy folders next to it. I tilt my head slightly and read the top one. ESIM: Forward-looking Investment Opportunities. I’ve never heard of ESIM – not really my thing – but then, investment funds aren’t really my thing, either.

People who invest money in funds and shares and all that are like a foreign country to me. In the Farr family there are three things you do with money. You spend it, you put it back into the business or you start another business. You don’t trust a guy in a suit and a posh tie with a glossy folder that probably cost a tenner to produce.

There’s nothing else interesting about the guy’s laptop, so I sip my drink and run my mind over my clothes options for tonight. And I’m just wondering where my blue lace top has got to, when something in my mind tweaks. Alarm bells have started to ring.  Something’s wrong.

Something’s happening.

Or something’s about to happen.

My brain can’t even articulate what it is, properly, but my sixth sense is kicking in. I have to act. Now.

Quick, Fixie. Go.

Before I’ve even thought clearly what’s happening, I’m diving across the table, like a rugby champion scoring a try, cradling the guy’s laptop. And, a split second later, a whole section of the ceiling crashes down on top of me, in a gush of plaster and water.

‘Argh!’

‘Oh my God!’

‘Help!’

‘Is it an attack?’

 ‘Help that girl!’

The screams around me are a din in my head. I can feel someone pulling at me, saying, ‘Get away from there!’ But I’m so worried about the laptop getting wet that I won’t move from my rigid protective position, until I feel paper towels being thrust at me. The water has finally stopped cascading, but plaster is still falling in bits from above, and as I raise my head at last, I see a freaked-out audience of customers watching me.

‘I thought you were dead!’ says a teenage girl so tearfully I can’t help laughing - and this seem to set off everyone else:

‘I saw that water dripping! I knew this would happen.’

‘You could have been killed, innit!’

‘You need to sue. That’s not right, ceilings falling down.’

A moment ago we were all strangers in a coffee shop, studiously ignoring each other. Now it’s as though we’re best friends. An elderly guy holds out his hand and says,

‘I’ll hold your computer while you get dry, dear.’ But I don’t want to give it up, so I awkwardly mop myself with one hand, thinking, of all the days, of all the days…

‘What the hell?’

It’s the guy. He’s come back into the coffee shop, and he’s staring at me, his mouth open. Gradually the excited comments die down and the coffee shop falls silent. Everyone’s watching the pair of us expectantly.

‘Oh, hi,’ I say, speaking for the first time since I was drenched. ‘Here’s your laptop. I hope it isn’t wet.’

I hold it out – it isn’t wet at all - and the guy steps forward to take it. He’s looking from me to the ravaged ceiling to the puddles of water and plaster, with increasing disbelief. ‘What happened?’

‘There was a slight ceiling incident,’ I say, trying to downplay it. But like a Greek chorus, all the other customers eagerly start filling him in.

‘The ceiling fell in.’

‘She dived across the table. Like lightning!’

‘She saved your computer. No question. It would have been ruined.’

‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ A barista raps on the counter to gain our attention. ‘Apologies. Due to a health and safety incident, we are closing the coffee shop. Please come to the counter for a takeaway cup and complimentary cookie.’

There’s a surge towards the counter and the most senior-looking barista of them all comes up to me, her brow crumpled.

‘Madam, we would like to apologise for your discomfort,’ she says. ‘We would like to present you with this £50 voucher and hope that you will not…’ She clears her throat. ‘We will be glad to pay for the dry-cleaning of your clothes.’

She’s looking at me beseechingly and I suddenly realize what she’s driving at.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say, rolling my eyes. ‘I’m not going to sue. But I wouldn’t mind another mint tea.’

The barista visibly relaxes and hurries off to make it. Meanwhile, the guy in the suit has been scrolling through his laptop. Now he looks up at me with a stricken expression. ‘I don’t know how to thank you. You’ve saved my life.’

‘Not your life.’

‘OK, you’ve saved my bacon. It’s not just the computer, that would have been bad enough. But the stuff on the computer. Stuff I should have backed up.’ He closes his eyes briefly, shaking his head as though in disbelief. ‘What a lesson.’

‘Well,’ I say again. ‘These things happen. Lucky I was there.’

‘Lucky for me,’ he says slowly, closing the laptop and surveying me properly. The late sun is full on his face now. His eyes are so green and woodlandy, I find myself thinking briefly of deer in dappled forest glades; leafy branches; peaty scents. Then I blink - and I’m back in the coffee shop. ‘It wasn’t lucky for you,’ the guy is saying. ‘You’re a mess and your hair’s wet. All on my account. I feel terrible.’

‘It wasn’t on your account,’ I say, embarrassed under his gaze. My T shirt feels wet, I suddenly register. But how wet?

Wet-T-shirt-contest-level wet?  Is that why the whole coffee shop was staring at me? Because my T-shirt is, in fact, transparent?

‘The ceiling fell in,’ I continue, folding my arms casually across my chest. ‘I got wet. Nothing to do with you.’

‘But would you have dived in that direction if you hadn’t promised to look after my laptop?’ he counters at once. ‘Of course not. You obviously have very quick reactions. You would have dived out of harm’s way.’

 ‘Well, whatever.’ I shrug it off.

‘Not whatever.’ He shakes his head firmly. ‘I’m indebted to you. Can I… I don’t know. Buy you a coffee?’

‘No thanks.’

‘A muffin?’ He squints at the display. ‘The double chocolate chip one looks good.’

‘No!’ I laugh. ‘Really.’

‘What about… can I buy you dinner?’

‘I’m not sure Briony would appreciate it,’ I can’t resist saying. ‘Sorry, I overheard you talking.’

A wry smile comes across his face and he says, ‘Touche.’

‘Anyway, it was nice to meet you,’ I say, taking my mint tea from the barista. ‘But I’d better get going.’

‘There must be something I can do to thank you,’ he insists.

‘No, really, nothing,’ I say, equally firmly. ‘I’m fine.’

I smile politely then turn and head towards the door. And I’m nearly there when I hear him shout, ‘Wait!’ so loudly that I swivel back. ‘Don’t go,’ he adds. ‘Please. Just… hold on. I have something for you.’

I’m so intrigued, I take a few steps back into the coffee shop. He’s standing at the counter with a cardboard coffee sleeve and a pen and he’s writing something.

‘I always pay off my debts,’ he says at last, coming towards me. ‘Always.’ He holds out the sleeve and I see that he’s written on it:

 

I owe you one

Redeemable in perpetuity.

 

As I watch, he signs it underneath – a scribbly signature I can’t quite make out, and puts the date.

‘If you ever want a favour,’ he says, looking up. ‘Something I can do for you. Anything at all.’ He reaches in his pocket, pulls out a business card and then looks around, frowning. ‘I need a paper clip… or any kind of clip…’

‘Here.’ I put down my cup, reach into my Anna’s Accessories bag and pull out a diamante hair grip.

‘Perfect.’ He fixes the business card to the coffee sleeve with the hair grip. ‘This is me. Sebastian Marlowe.’

‘I’m Fixie Farr,’ I reply.

‘Fixie.’ He nods gravely and extends a hand. ‘How do you do?’ We shake hands, then Sebastian proffers the coffee sleeve IOU.

‘Please take it. I’m serious.’

‘I can see.’ My mouth can’t help twitching. ‘Well, if I need any “forward-looking investment opportunities”, I’ll let you know.’

My tone is a little mocking but he doesn’t pick up on it, in fact his green eyes light up.

‘Yes! Please do! If that’s the case, we can set up a meeting, I’d be delighted to give you some advice-‘

‘It’s not the case.’ I cut him off. ‘Far from it. But I appreciate the offer.’

Belatedly he seems to realize I was teasing him, and his face flickers with a smile.

‘Something you actually need, then.’ He’s still holding the coffee sleeve out to me, and at last I take it.

‘OK. Thank you.’

To humour him, I put the coffee sleeve into my bag and pat it. ‘There we are. Safe and sound. And now I really must be going. I have a family party I need to get back for.’

‘You think I’m joking,’ he says, watching as I pick up my cup. ‘But I’m not. I owe you one, Fixie Farr. Remember that.’

 ‘Oh, I will!’ I say, and flash him a last, cheerful smile, not meaning a word of it. ‘Absolutely. I really will.’

I Owe You One
by by Sophie Kinsella

  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: The Dial Press
  • ISBN-10: 1524799017
  • ISBN-13: 9781524799014