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“Char,” was his only greeting, before he kissed her full on the mouth, forcing her body backwards into a slant. He tasted like malt and cigarettes – when had he taken up smoking? – his hand sure on the small of her back. “You’re so tanned,” he grinned as righted her, brushing her loose hair back into place behind her ear like he still had the right to. “You look so great.”
“You too,” Charlotte managed, forcing herself to take a step back from him. “It’s so good to see you.” And it wasn’t a lie. It was good to see him. Charlotte felt excitement curling in her stomach, like there had been once upon a time, way back when.
And then she had appeared, hovering at Dan’s elbow, looking expectantly at him for an introduction. Willowy, all honey and cream colouring, dressed in the jewel tones she herself favoured, she was a dead-ringer for Charlotte, enough to startle, to draw comment.
“This is my girlfriend, Jennifer,” Daniel introduced smoothly, slipping one hand around the woman’s slender middle and drawing her in. “Jen, this is Charlotte.” Charlotte apparently needed no further introduction, as recognition immediately dawned on Jennifer’s face.
“Oh, the Charlotte!” she said, beaming warmly at her predecessor like she didn’t realise this was meant to be horribly awkward. “It’s so nice to meet you!”
“When did you get back to old Blighty?” Daniel asked.
“October,” Charlotte answered.
“Bet this weather is a bit of a shock to the system,” he grinned.
“You must have had the most amazing time,” Jennifer sighed. “I love living vicariously through hearing my friends’ travelling tales. I’d love to do it, but I’m too much of a fairy to go without hair straighteners or a power shower, to be honest.”
“Well, how about I go grab you ladies a bottle of wine and then you can tell us all the juicy backpacking gossip, hey Char?”
Daniel was already halfway to the bar, her acceptance a given to him, as always. “You still prefer rosé?” he asked her. Feeling slightly railroaded, Charlotte just nodded, and let the smiling girlfriend of her ex lead her over to a booth area.
And that was that. They were suddenly all mates. Charlotte would go round to Dan and Jenny’s for dinner parties, film nights. Before she knew it twelve months had whizzed past and suddenly Charlotte found herself casually doing things like lingerie shopping with Jennifer, comfortable enough to point out that Dan had never really been a thong man – maybe the balcony bra and French knickers set would go down a bit better? When Daniel had popped the question last Christmas, Charlotte was one of a select group of friends who heard about it via excited text message as opposed to when their Facebook relationship status changed.
And then. “I just know you’re the right person for the job,” Jenny had gushed, cheeks flushed the same delicate pink as the rosé they were sharing. Her long-time bestie lived up north and couldn’t possibly be expected to provide the full-on physical support that Jenny obviously required from a chief bridesmaid. What with Dan’s self-made riches and Jenny’s parents being Sloane-y busybodies, it was set to be the C-List Society wedding of the winter and for the past twelve months it had been like a part-time job to be involved in it.
But every so often there’d be one of those moments. It had happened when she was sat opposite Dan, Jenny and Jenny’s fat-pearled mother at their food tasting, watching Jenny giggle as Dan finger-fed her a selection of pretentiously tiny canapés. It had happened again as she’d helped them choose a first dance song from their shortlist of 25 crooning power ballads, and when she went shopping with Jen for the perfect pair of bridal Jimmy Choos. If she hadn’t made the decisions she made during that quarter-life crisis, hadn’t taken the road more travelled, so to speak, would this be her now? Would it be her with the nearly-limitless wedding budget, her size sixes inside those designer ivory slingbacks, her sharing the perfect city penthouse with a twice-weekly maid service to remove any fingerprints from all the glass-topped furniture. It seemed like a mad dream, but it easily could have been her life.
Daniel was different now, too. Now his firm was comfortably established he wasn’t so distractible, so much of a workaholic. He had a new-found confidence that translated into a sex-appeal he certainly hadn’t had before. Charlotte didn’t think she’d have left this Dan for a year of sweaty hostels and sandy sex on beaches with strangers. Or maybe 28-year-old her would have; she wasn’t sure.
Of course, it was all a moot point now. Because as much as she’d started off little more than a Chelsea annoyance, and as laughable as it was that she’d picked her fiancé’s ex-girlfriend to be her Maid of Honour, Jenny had, for better or worse, actually become the friend to Charlotte she’d spent every minute since they’d met unfathomably trying to be.
Which was why, as Charlotte stepped off the bus into the wintery dark beyond, hunching her shoulders against the impending cold walk home, she started drafting what she was going to say once again. Sometimes when she did this, she imagined it being done face to face, and scripted delicate, thoughtful deliverance even though she knew she’d never remember it off the cuff. Then she chickened out and thought an email would be better – but how to even open something so devastating? The usual “Hey, Jen…” seemed almost deceptive in its normalcy. And then the doubts started to circle again. Did Dan even mean it the way that she took it? Was this some sort of mental Maid of Honour test that the two of them had cooked up together, one that she was failing a little more each day she didn’t fess up to Jenny?
It wasn’t often that Charlotte and Daniel were completely alone, but they’d never lost their easy familiarity with one another, so it had never really factored. Jenny had been sent away last-minute for work – it wasn’t a common occurrence, but it happened – and he’d simply busied himself with the snacks and corkscrew in the kitchen whilst Charlotte stretched out on their buttery-soft leather sofa and watched the slanting sleet beating against the penthouse’s 360 degree windows.
She’d had news for him, news about Graham, and maybe that was what had triggered it? Or maybe it was too much good wine, or the ghosts of so many past Christmases sat across from one another like that; or perhaps it was always going to happen. And in the instant heat of so many maybes, Charlotte hadn’t overthought anything, hadn’t made eye contact with all the little Jennys that smiled out at her from so many picture frames. It was only afterwards, as the sweat cooled on her body and stuck her skin to the cream leather that she remembered Jenny selecting so carefully after she moved in, that Charlotte began to think. What the fuck was wrong with her? Why did she feel the need to bulldoze her life, over and over?
Want Parts 3 and 4, the final half of Charlotte’s story? Well, you’ll have to remember to pick up the CHRISTMAS BY THE FIRE free eBook when it comes out later this year! And don’t forget to check out what the other Harper Impulse authors have done with the same opening paragraph about Charlotte and her festive worries – all through August!