“No man is a failure who has friends.”
Annie Marlowe’s sneeze shot through her entire body as the parting words from Guardian Angel Clarence blazed across the screen.
“Pff-ft. What does that say about me, eh, George Bailey?” Annie asked her tufty-haired, toffee-coloured guinea pig named after her favourite movie character. He was the only one she had to talk to, and even that was a one-way conversation, since his defective squeak made him sound like a chewed dog toy.
He snuffled his little nose at the bars of his cage, looking for food, when he heard her opening the box of leftover pastries that Sam, her landlord, had brought her. There were some advantages to living above a coffee shop, even if moving there from her family home of over thirty years had felt like a step back at the time.
Fletchers Café was nestled on the corner of a row of shops that otherwise looked only fit for demolition. Faded advertising signs, cracked windows and graffiti-covered shutters told the story of the crisis-hit local economy. In contrast, the French-style bistro was an oasis of luxury for those busy office workers and people who wanted to catch up over a coffee that didn’t come from a jar. Fletchers was a beacon of hope for future retail development and regeneration of the area.
Even Annie found some comfort there. The aroma of fresh bread and cakes baking in the oven reminded her of her mother, before that bastard cancer had got hold of her. Reliving those memories of her baking up a storm in the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon was as close as she could get to her mother now that she was gone forever.
Sam also kept her fed during the times she couldn’t afford to go grocery shopping…like now.
“I should just paint a giant L for ‘loser’ on my forehead,” she muttered as she took a bite of a pain au chocolat. The buttery layers melted with the chocolate filling on her tongue, every nibble dispensing a trail of flaky crumbs down her front.
George Bailey gave an asthmatic wheeze in agreement before giving a little popcorn kick and scooting sawdust over her bedroom floor. Annie didn’t bother to sweep it up. There’d be a bigger pile to clean up by morning and it wasn’t as though she was expecting any visitors.
She tossed another used tissue onto the growing collection littering the floor along with her clothes. The hard-worn beige carpet was almost completely covered with her mess, but it gave her a sense of ownership in a place she didn’t yet think of as home. The magnolia décor was functional, but there was nothing exciting about it—kind of like her life at present. She needed to put her own stamp on the place. If she had the money or motivation, she’d redecorate—preferably with something far removed from her mother’s predilection towards floral prints. Her festive spirit being in short supply this year, she hadn’t even managed to put up her Christmas decorations.
Sitting there in her fleecy, gingerbread-man onesie, stuffing herself and bawling along to It’s a Wonderful Life, she was the poster girl for loneliness.
She sneezed again and sprayed her pyjamas with a fine mist of chocolate saliva and crumbs. Nice.
“And you wonder why you can’t keep a man? You’re so classy.” She yanked another tissue from the box on her nightstand. Great. Not only had she been dumped and was grieving for her mother, now she had a cold to contend with too.
Annie collapsed back onto the bed as tears threatened once more. She pulled the crocheted blue-and-pink blanket she’d kept from her mother’s bed around her like a woolly cocoon. Her throat was burning with a sorrow she couldn’t seem to shake off.
In a nutshell, her life was shit. Watching a film highlighting the value of friends and family when she had neither hadn’t been the best idea, especially at a time when her mood was already dragging itself by the fingertips across the floor. It merely served as a reminder of how much she’d lost and how little she’d really accomplished with her own life.
Weary of the fight, she closed her eyes. With any luck, her blocked sinuses would suffocate her in her sleep and put her out of this misery.
* * * *
The December sky was so black that it was difficult to see the rain until the car headlights illuminated the kamikaze rain drops attempting to dodge discovery and soaking everything in their path.
“Don’t you think you should slow down?” Flame flipped down the visor mirror on the passenger side of the Lamborghini and painted another coat of scarlet gloss across her lips.
David Reece cast a sideways glance at his date, who was now taking pouting selfies. It had been fun to date the darling of the tabloids for a minute, but there really wasn’t anything behind that stage-managed façade. He didn’t even know her real name, for goodness’ sake. It was doubtful she did either, with her every move scripted for the cameras.
“We want to make an entrance, don’t we? I thought that’s what this was all about—grabbing headlines.”
“Is that really all you think there is between us?” The concern he detected in her voice suggested that she might actually care about him. Impossible. No one did.
“Would it matter? I thought we were both only in this for the publicity? You get to pretend you’ve tamed the playboy millionaire and I get to boost my toy shop empire when customers believe they’ll run into their idol shopping for stuffed animals.” He wasn’t in this charade of a relationship for anything else. Well, the sex had been good…when they’d had it.
“I need this, David.”
The soft, unconfident voice sounded so unlike her. Does she really think we’re still in a relationship? Since his divorce three years before, he hadn’t been in the market for another long-term commitment. He was happy with his bachelor life. It was much less painful than being married to someone who’d loved his money more than him.
“Flame, this was only ever supposed to have been a bit of fun, and it was in the beginning, before we knew the press were interested. Now everything is a business transaction. There’s no spontaneity, no intimacy anymore. We don’t even see each other now, outside of these high-profile functions.” These days, their simple want of each other’s company had been traded for photo ops and press exposure. Suddenly it was no longer enough to keep him satisfied.
“Are you saying you want to end this?” She tightened her lips into a jammy red line as she primped her atomic red curls around her bare, perma-tanned shoulders. David couldn’t help but wonder what she’d looked like pre-celebrity, before she’d succumbed to changing her appearance to suit society’s version of beauty.
“I mean, I hadn’t planned to—at least, not tonight—but yeah. It’s been a fun ride, but I think it’s run its course.” Now the novelty of the relationship with Flame had worn off, like every other one he’d had since his divorce, and it was time to get out, especially if she was beginning to take it seriously.
“I thought we were both benefitting from this arrangement.”
“We were, but we can’t keep faking this forever. We’ll meet other people…then things will get messy.” Or worse, she’d expect some sort of commitment from him.
“I can’t believe you’re actually doing this when we’re on our way to my movie premiere.” Flame took several deep breaths, her pneumatic breasts rising perilously from the red velvet sweetheart line of her dress. One wrong move and there’d be a serious wardrobe malfunction hitting the front pages the next day. That would be an incident to devastate her, he was sure.
“There’s no point in getting upset about it. I’m not going to do anything to spoil your big night.”
“Except dump me.”
“You can dump me, if you’d prefer. We can make a show of it. A public break-up would get you the headlines you want.” The sympathy vote had worked in his favour when a cheating wife had brought record numbers of shoppers to his stores. Although, the reality of that particular betrayal had been painful at the time and too raw for him to enjoy the profits of his despair. He’d learned his lessons since then, though. These days he didn’t let anyone get close enough to do that kind of damage again, and he appreciated the value of pre-nups. Now he made sure to take care of number one.
“You really don’t know me at all, do you?”
“What do you mean?” David didn’t have to turn his head to know those ice-blue eyes were trained on him, laden with disappointment.
“I’ll bet you don’t know anything about my career, never mind my personal circumstances.”
“I know you did some reality dating show, and, er…had a pop career after that. To be fair, Flame, we never did go in for a lot of talking.”
She sighed and gave him a wobbly smile. “I guess not. I want you to know I’m not just some fame-hungry wannabe. I don’t care about any of that. This is just a job like any other to me. I’m simply waiting for that big payday so I can leave all this behind.”
This was a brief glimpse of the real Flame. It was a shame she’d been hidden for so long. She was right. He didn’t know the woman beside him at all.
“I go back to my real life, as plain old Beverley Smith. By that time, I hope to have enough money to buy a place for me and my daughter.”
David swerved the car as she dropped that bombshell on him. “You have a daughter?’
Flame nodded. “Selena, and before you ask, no, the dad isn’t on the scene. We’ve been living with my mum.”
“You did all this to give your daughter a better life.” David reiterated what she’d told him, trying to come to terms with the fact that he’d been dating a single mum. If he’d known that from the beginning, he’d have run a mile.
“I’m with you because I like you, David. Don’t worry. I’d never expect, or want, you to play daddy to my daughter. You’re far too selfish.” Her laugh cut him deep, only because he knew it was true. He was no role model for a child and not any more reliable than his own parents.
“That takes me back to my original point. I don’t think we have a future together.”
“Okay, but can we talk about it later? Let me get this premiere over with first.”
Stunned by the revelations tonight, he agreed to put the big talk on hold until they had time and privacy for a proper conversation.
“The rain’s getting heavier out there.” Flame sounded far away as he pondered over these past months together and the reasons behind them, none of which were particularly flattering.
His other shiny red status symbol picked up speed as he pushed down on the accelerator, keen to get tonight’s charade over with as soon as possible.
The city lights streaked by until he felt as though he were flying. Then he was.
Flame’s shout came too late. The car skidded across the greasy road, leaving him powerless as they hurtled towards the steel barriers edging the hard shoulder.
The windscreen shattered around him and the deployed air bag buffeted his body.
The last sound he heard was the ticking of the engine punctuating the eerie silence. Then the world around him descended into blackness.