Annabelle Kathleen Mangle looked herself in the eye and said: “You have got this!” Whether it was true or not was beside the point. What mattered, apparently, was having a positive mindset. It was, according to lifestyle guru Tamara Horwitz, the fundamental rule to having a successful life.

Don’t make the mistake of believing Annie usually buys into all that self-help stuff. She doesn’t. And she certainly wouldn’t normally be reading from a woman whose personal mantra was: “The bravest thing you can be, is yourself.” But Annie is at a point in her life where responsibility needs to be taken. She’ll be damned, however, if she’s the one taking it. So, she thought, who better to lump her problems onto then a forty-something American millionaire whose advice for life improvement was to stand in front of a mirror and simply smile for twenty minutes.

Annie hadn’t had time to do that before she left the flat this morning, so she was making do with a two-minute smirk in the coffee-shop bathroom. Surprise, surprise: it didn’t help. Then again, all the twenty-minute exercises did was make her cheeks hurt. Her eyes flickered down to her phone, rereading the message. At least this smile was genuine. She swept the phone up and then bounced out of the bathroom.

“Done with your strop?” she asked sourly, swiftly dropping herself back into her chair.

Rhys looked up at her, flipping his phone face-down. She tried to ignore this. “I wasn’t the one throwing a strop,” he snapped back. Annie felt her eyes roll. “All I did was ask you to stay out of my business.”

“How can I,” Annie said, leaning forward, “when you keep butting into my business?!”

“Yeah, and you didn’t enjoy it, did you?” Rhys said, also leaning closer.

“Our businesses are very different,” Annie explained, speaking slowly as if to a child.

Rhys went to respond when his phone suddenly buzzed. The pair both looked at it, neither moving. “Is that him?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Rhys said slowly, his eyes never leaving the phone. “I can’t see the screen.”

There was a brief pause as the pair locked eyes. A tumbleweed passing by wouldn’t have been out of place. Rhys was quicker to the phone, but Annie was quicker to his face. The slap sent him rocking back, causing him to lift his hand momentarily away. Just long enough for her to snatch it up with a victorious laugh. The laugh turned to a groan when she saw who the message was from.

“Oh,” she said, “it’s just Baz.”

“What does he want?” Rhys said, rubbing his red cheek. “And will you stop doing that?!”

“Only when it stops working,” Annie said, opening the message. She rolled her eyes. “He just wants to triple-check that we are definitely rehearsing later on today.”

She flicked the phone back across the table with a disgusted tut. “Can you blame him?” Rhys asked, plucking the phone up. “How many times have you cancelled this week?  Just so you can spend time with –”

“I thought we agreed not to talk about it?”

“No,” Rhys said. “I started to talk about it, you sighed, and then walked away.”

“Same thing,” Annie said with a shrug. “Actually,” she went on, “do you think he’d mind us putting the rehearsal back an hour or so?”

“Yes,” Rhys answered, not looking up from his phone. “You know Baz would skin us both if we asked him to postpone, again!”

“Who gives a shit about Baz?”

“Baz.”

“I was only asking because my mum’s coming down for the day,” Annie explained. “I wanted to spend some time with her before the rehearsal.”

“You know that won’t work with Baz,” Rhys said, “even if it was the truth.”

“Fine,” Annie sighed. This time it was her phone that pinged. Rhys looked at her suggestively. She ignored him, and instead glanced down at the notification. A rather colourful word shot out of her lips.

“What is it?”

“My mum’s train has pulled in,” she snapped, jumping back up to her feet. “She told me she was getting the later train!”

“Tell her I said ‘hi’,” Rhys said, with utter indifference. His eyes were back on the screen of his phone. Annie felt a flush of anger in her cheeks. It was as if he hadn’t listened to a word she’d said. Well, of course he hadn’t. Why was she surprised? After all, she didn’t listen to anything he said. They were two brick walls when it came to taking advice. She gave him another look, then turned her back. She didn’t know why she was worrying – that was a lie, she knew exactly why. He was her best friend and she didn’t want him making the same mistakes over and over. But, right now, he shouldn’t be her top concern. The man she should have been worried about was the man behind the counter.

“Hello sweetie!” her dad exclaimed, beaming as if he hadn’t a care in the world. As if he wasn’t a man rocketing through his fifties, about to get divorced, and living on his daughter’s settee. “You off?” he asked, broad grin threatening to pop his ears off.

Annie nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m just off to the station now. To pick up . . . mum.”

The man didn’t even flinch. If that didn’t send alarm bells ringing, Annie didn’t know what did. Then again, there wasn’t much she did know these days. Ever since the evening he arrived at her flat, with the news of his impending divorce, Annie’s understanding of the world had shattered. He had to be in the middle of a nervous breakdown, she thought. It was the only thing that would explain his attitude. Not only was he incessantly cheerful, even when hearing his wife mentioned, but he had quit his well-paying job in order to work in a coffee shop. He also seemed perfectly comfortable remaining in his daughter’s flat. All he had left on the bucket list was buy a motorcycle and get a girlfriend six months younger than Annie. In preparation for that eventuality, she already had several care homes ready and willing to offer him a room.

No, she thought, angrily checking herself. There was nothing wrong with her dad. Sure, his wife of twenty-five years had left him for no reason, but, in Annie’s eyes, he was seeing this as an opportunity. Yes, she said to herself, that sounded right. After all, when his divorce papers arrived, he took them off to sign before Annie could even ask to have a look. No, he was going to be fine. Maybe she should tell him about Lucas then?

That thought was kicked out of her head like a drunk at closing time. He may have looked fine on the outside, but who knew what sort of swirling tempest of despair was churning beneath the veneer? No. She would assume the best about his state of mind, but also avoid any topic of conversation that might prove to reveal the opposite as fact. And Lucas was definitely one of those topics. Instead, she opted for giving her dad a quick goodbye and then made a hasty retreat.

*

 

Once she was safely alone in her car, tearing down the road in order to make the five-minute journey to the station even shorter, Annie felt she could breathe properly. Seeing her dad behind that counter, wearing that awful-looking apron, and battling that oversized coffee machine, filled her with a sickening sensation. She hoped it was just pity, but felt it was probably more anger. But at what? At who? One name sprang up.

Did she hate her mother? Probably not. After all, she was too old for those sorts of hysterics. But she certainly didn’t understand why she had done what she had. It was one of – scratch that – the only reason she had invited her mother to tonight’s concert. She wanted answers. Wanted to know why she had to throw away all those years of marriage, why she had to break the family apart, and why Annie now had to have her dad living in her flat! It wasn’t fair, damn it!

Annie swore as she thrust her foot down onto the brake pedal. The car howled to a stop and she was jolted in her seat, the belt cutting across her collar bone. She held up an apologetic hand to the old couple that she had almost run down. Slowly, their pale white faces staring at her, they resumed their journey across the road. “Ever heard of a zebra crossing?” she muttered bitterly, urging her heart back into its natural rhythm.

She almost screamed when the passenger door suddenly swung open. The urge died, however, when her mother’s head appeared in the doorway. “You could have killed that couple!” her mother barked. And that was her hello.

“They’re fine.” Annie murmured back. “Are you getting in?” That was her hello. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and began typing. She ignored the pained grunts as her mum painfully clambered into her seat. After she was sure the message was sent, she looked up. Her mother had a citrus-sharp look on her face, one that told Annie she wasn’t going to get any answers.

“Ready?” Annie asked, staring as her passenger struggled with her always-dodgy safety belt. Once she heard the click, however, she was off. With the lack of pensioners serving as roadblocks, Annie burst into a more comfortable speed.

The silence swept through the car as the questions bubbled through her head. Though they didn’t seem quite as pressing as before she’d picked her mum up. After all, it was one thing to have them in her head and another to say them out loud. She doubted whether she’d like the answers she heard. It also didn’t help that she had Lucas’ most recent text going through her head. He didn’t mind that she had rehearsals. He could wait. He was going to wait. It was just whether she could. That was the thing, wasn’t it? There were so many things she had to wait for these days.

Annie quickly realised there was at least one thing she didn’t have to wait for. The trademarked words of Tamara Horwitz suddenly bubbled up: ‘Never let a chance slip through your fingers.’ Hardly the most inspired words, but they gave Annie enough strength to take a deep breath and start asking questions.

The answers did not please her. They barely qualified as answers. All they did was raise more questions and her hackles. By the end of it both women were red-faced, livid-eyed and as happy to be in the other’s company as the other was. Again, the question bobbed to the surface of Annie’s mind. Do I hate this woman? She gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles blanched. Nothing was making sense. The whole situation was like something off of the television. No, she thought. On television everyone has a reason. They might not always make sense, but they were still ones you could accept. She glanced over at her mum. No reason at all? Maybe in her own head she could justify it, but was that good enough for Annie? Her breath began to quicken and her head felt light and seemed to swirl. It seemed as if a great wave was trying to wash over her and drag her away.

“Oh! Fuck me sideways and slap me silly!”

Annie stared at her with wide eyes, suddenly snapped out of the strange sensation. “Mum!” She hadn’t seen her this panicked since the time her dad left their passports in their hotel room in Majorca.

“I’ve left my fucking divorce papers on the train!”

“You’ve done what?!”

“We have to go back!”

“The train’s not going to still be there!”

“We need to go back!”

Knowing that she wasn’t going to listen to sense, Annie had no choice but to head on back. After a short while, and much swearing at other drivers, she pulled up outside the station. Her mum was bolting out before the wheels had finished spinning. Muttering under her breath, Annie leaned over and shut the door left dangling open. Once alone, she plucked out her phone and dialled.

She couldn’t help the smile that appeared when she heard his voice. “Well, if it isn’t my favourite secretary!” Lucas cooed; his voice as smooth as caramel.

“I thought I was your PA?” she laughed back.

“You’re anything you want to be, as long as I can see you later.”

She sat back in her chair, letting his voice ease her tension. “I’ll be there,” she promised. “I just need to do this rehearsal –” She heard him sigh on the other end; a hint of impatience. “– and I’ve got my mother to deal with.”

“If you don’t want to meet,” Lucas suddenly snapped, “then just say. I’ve got plenty else I can be doing.”

“No!” Annie said, suddenly sitting up. “I do! I do want to meet!”

“Good,” he said, his voice back to velvet. “Message me when you’re ready.”

“Will do,” Annie said, spotting her mum leaving the train station, a definite slump to her shoulders. “I love you,” she added. But he’d already hung up.

The door swung open and her mum threw herself into the seat. “It wasn’t there,” she announced.

“You don’t say?” Annie said, pulling the car away. Her mother, adept at ignoring her sarcasm, was busy punching numbers into her mobile. That was good, she thought. She wasn’t in the mood for talking. Her thoughts drifted where they normally did when they weren’t focused on rehearsing, or her parents’ divorce, or the fact that her life currently had no direction: Lucas. The one rock of stability in an ocean of uncertainty.

“Not answering!” her mother suddenly said, breaking the few minutes of blissful silence. She threw her phone back into her purse then propped an elbow onto the windowsill, cupping her chin in her hand. Annie glanced at her. All previous thoughts had been blown out and, now, unfortunately, her mum was quickly replacing them.

How could she lose her divorce papers? Was it on purpose? Had she already thrown them away, but her stubborn pride stopped her from admitting it? Or was it a subconscious decision? Perhaps she had changed her mind. Annie was momentarily shocked to discover a bubbling of excitement at the bottom of her stomach. What? Was she six again? That sort of dreaming belonged in the land of childhood. She was an adult now, as people went to great pains to remind her. The best she could hope for was that her mother was getting senile in her old age. Most likely she had never even had the divorce papers with her on the train. When she got home, she’d find them on the kitchen table, ready and waiting to be signed. And they would be signed, Annie had no doubt about that.

“I’ve got a rehearsal in a bit,” she heard herself saying. “Do you want to come?”

“Hmm? Okay, sure.”

Why had she asked? Why did she say yes? Realising that now she had no choice, Annie gritted her teeth and continued to drive. On the upside, she had an excuse to leave the rehearsal early. On the downside, Rhys would be there, and he would undoubtedly want to probe his unnaturally large nose into her business. Oh well, she thought. She knew how to deal with him. She took a tremendous amount of joy in getting away with slapping him. It was almost as if he enjoyed the punishment.

*

 

They weren’t even in the hall five minutes before the senior Mangle was drifting towards the staff kitchen, murmuring about getting herself a cup of tea. That suited Annie. Her mother had not extended the offer of a drink to her daughter, and that did not suit Annie.

Choosing to ignore this, she strode over to where Baz and Rhys were already standing, prepping their amps and guitars.

Baz looked up and gave her his patented disapproving look. “You’re late,” he growled. Baz was sure he was born to be a world-famous rock musician, whilst Annie was sure he was born to be a chartered accountant.

She gave an unapologetic shrug. “Got stuck in traffic.”

“I thought you were picking up your mum?” Rhys said, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. There was no one quite as suspicious as Rhys.

“She’s in the kitchen making tea.”

“Great,” Baz said with a nod. “I’m gasping for a cuppa.”

“She didn’t offer,” Annie said. “Look, I know you’re going to say no –”

“Then you don’t need to ask.”

“Come on! All I want is to leave half-an-hour early!” Annie whined. This made no mark on Baz.

“No, Annie!” he said, throwing the guitar strap over his head. “You’ve already cancelled on us three times! The show is tonight, and I’m not confident you know half the set-list!”

“I do! Rhys, tell him I do!”

“She says she does.”

“Rhys!”

“Don’t forget, I still haven’t forgotten your cock-up at the printers!”

“That wasn’t my fault! Rhys, tell him it wasn’t my fault.”

“She says it wasn’t her fault.”

“I had to actually go and apologise to the chief rabbi!” Baz exclaimed, slapping a hand against his guitar. A distorted strum burst from the amp.

“How was that my fault? That was the printer’s fault!” Annie argued. “Besides, why would an ‘E’ getting printed instead of an ‘A’ cause that much of a fuss anyway?”

“Because, Annie,” Baz said, slowly explaining as if she were a child. “We were advertising that the town hall was going to be playing host to a group calling themselves ‘The Mengellers’! People thought we were some sort of Neo Nazi sympathisers!”

“Everything got blown out of proportion,” Annie said, folding her arms sulkily.

“You’re not leaving early,” Baz declared. “We may be named after you, but this certainly isn’t your band!”

“Who got us this gig in the first place?”

“Who’s the one threatening to lose it for us?!”

“Ahem.”

The flustered trio span round. Mrs Mangle stood a way off, a foldable chair in one hand and a steaming mug in the other. “Whilst I’m enjoying the show,” she said, setting up the chair with a practised flick. “Aren’t you supposed to be playing music?”

Annie shot Baz a final angry look, which he more than happily fired back, and then clambered onto the stage. As she shuffled into place, desperately trying to remember just what songs they had decided to play, Rhys took a cautious step closer.

“What?” she hissed, one eye kept on Baz and the other on her mother.

“Can – can we talk later?”

That’s all he wanted to do these days; talk. Annie didn’t mind, she wanted to talk as well. The problem was, however, that the pair of them wanted to talk about different things and would, inevitably resort to arguing.

“No,” Annie said, barely opening her lips. “I’m meeting Lucas straight after this.”

Rhys gave her one on his signature frowns. It only made her want to slap him all the more. Ignoring this instinctive urge, she adjusted the microphone stand. Baz and Rhys obediently took their places some steps behind her.

Her mum sat in the centre of the hall; one leg crossed over the other, her arms folded, and a deep expression on her face. Even after all these years Annie still didn’t know if that look meant she was concentrating on the here-and-now, or on something a million miles away. Staring, Annie was struck by how lonely her mother looked.

A cough from behind brought her back. That’s right, she thought. She was the one who ought to be concentrating. Concentrating on doing the best job she could. Anything to rob Baz of the chance of practicing the same song thirty times in a row. Of course, seeing Lucas was also another reason. Her thoughts suddenly switched back to Rhys. She felt herself grow annoyed as she remembered his attempts at taking the moral high ground. As if he could talk. Calling her cliched? Had he looked at himself recently? In the stereotype tier, she was sure sleeping with your boss was better than being hung up on an ex. Besides, what was between her and Lucas was more than just casual hook-ups on the office desk. Though they were fun and frequent.

What about her? A flicker of annoyance dashed across Annie’s face. Rhys’ whining voice really had a way of worming into your head.

Yes, Lucas was engaged, and that complicated things, and in Annie’s head, that was okay. Rhys just didn’t see it that way. To him things like love should be simple. There’s nothing simple about it all. It’s a challenge that only a few people can face. Annie and Lucas, they could face it. Was she happy that he still hadn’t left Molly? Of course not. But what good could her being upset do? He was going to leave her, he had promised, and she trusted him. That’s all there was to it. Her eyes fell on her mother. You didn’t walk away when things got hard, she knew that much.

Her head flicked quickly back, taking in Rhys. There was a faraway look on his face as well. Maybe he was thinking about her and Lucas, maybe he was furiously concentrating on staying in time, an act in which he was currently failing. Or perhaps he was too concerned with his own problems. That’s what she needed to do. Once more she thought of that Botox-pumped guru and one of her many sayings: ‘Focus on what’s within, not without.’ Annie hadn’t decided whether it made entire sense, but the essence was easy to understand. It was time to dedicate herself to herself. No more worrying about Rhys, her dad and her mum; just focus on her, and Lucas.

That made her smile a little.

In this self-centred daze, Annie swam through the rehearsal. By the end she was even able to coax a couple of positive words from her mother. That was good enough for her and, by definition, it was also good enough for Baz. She wished the would-be-rocker farewell, avoided Rhys’ imploring glare, and hurried over to where her mum sat.

Donna was squirming in a way Annie found strange and alien, fiddling awkwardly with the clasp of her handbag. “Look,” she said. “There’s still a few hours before this show –”

Annie bristled at this. “It’s not a show!” she snapped. No, she thought. A show she might actually get paid for. She glanced guiltily towards her bandmates. The fact of their never-to-appear pay-cheque was something she still hadn’t raised with the pair. Maybe she still had time to change Lucas’ mind . . .

She became aware that her mother was still talking.

“We could grab something to eat?”

“I can’t,” Annie said quickly. “I have to go to work.”

“I thought you had the day off?”

“Yeah, well, Lucas called me in for a couple of hours.” Not entirely a lie; she just hoped her mum’s sixth sense wouldn’t detect that it also wasn’t entirely true. Fortunately, Annie wasn’t the only one focusing on herself. Donna shrugged. “No helping that then,” she declared. “I might try that new café we passed.”

A cannonball landed in Annie’s gullet as she realised what café her mum meant. The one where her dad – Donna’s potential ex – was currently toiling away as a mediocre barista. Despite all his objections, Annie knew that he was mentally standing on the edge. Having his wife see him reduced to serving coffee would be just the thing to kick him off the precipice. Then who would be expected to clean up the mess?

Using a well-placed threat of Ska music, Annie was able to divert her mother towards a Pret. With that, and a hurried glance at her watch, Annie made her escape from the hall.

*

 

Whilst driving, sometimes making sure she was matching the speed limit, Annie received another text from Lucas. “You on your way???”

She didn’t smile at this one. The man had no patience. She pulled into the carpark, snatching the phone up as she unbuckled and left the message as unread.

She stepped out of the car, glancing either side, as if she were about to commit a crime. In a way, a small voice pointed out, you are. This thought was amplified as she turned and nearly crashed into Molly.

“Oh,” Lucas’ oblivious fiancé exclaimed. “Annie! I – Lucas said you had the day off?”

“I did,” Annie said, finding it hard to meet Molly’s studious gaze. “But he called me in to help with some paperwork.”

Molly rolled her eyes. “Thanks for telling me,” she murmured to herself. “Just make a note of your hours,” she added, hurrying over to her own beaten-up Mini.

It always amazed Annie how rarely she thought about Molly. She was engaged to Lucas: the man Annie was sleeping with, yet Annie always managed to push that fact back, until it was nothing more than a guilty shadow in the corner of her conscience.

In moments like that one, however, the guilt came thundering to the front. Molly obviously loved Lucas, but as much as Annie? She saw the way Molly sometimes looked at him, as if he was just a stranger she’d been dropped next to. Sometimes, deep into the night, Annie found herself wondering what would happen when she finally discovered the truth. How would she take it? How would she get back at Lucas? As those thoughts began to take a chilly grip around her heart, Annie had to remind herself that was the thing about love; there were always casualties. She’d raised it with him, once. He had shrugged and said it was a worry for another day.

Annie was sure that Tamara Horwitz would have something to say on the subject, but for now no words sprang up.

She made her way through the emporium, nodded absently at Nick and Pete, Lucas’ proteges, then slipped quietly into his office. He was hunched over his laptop, completely ignorant of the company. Annie, leaning against the door, took the moment to yet again study him. There were deep lines cutting across his brow as he frowned at the screen. His hair, a russet brown – except for the patches where he had forgotten to dye – was in a wind-swept style, an effect he spent hours achieving each morning. His green eyes were narrowed to a pair of sharp points, and he was absently gnawing on the little finger of his left-hand. Molly was always calling him up on it, but Annie found it weirdly comforting.

Lucas’ head snapped up at the sound of the blinds being drawn. The lines faded and his eyes warmed as he saw her. His smile almost glowed in the darkened room. “Well,” he said, closing the laptop and leaning back. “You finally showed up.” She shrugged playfully. “You know I don’t like people being late,” he purred, pushing his chair away from his desk, “even if they are drop-dead-gorgeous.”

Annie took a small step towards the desk. “I guess,” she said, leaning over him, “I’d best make up for those lost hours.”

*

 

As his eyes kept flicking to the clock, Lucas buttoned up his shirt. Annie zipped up her jeans before perching on the edge of his desk.

“We had some right prick come in earlier,” Lucas said, wrapping his tie around his neck. “Wanted to rent a car. Can you believe that? Then he got all pissy because we told him we only sell our stock.”

“Lucas,” Annie said, cutting him off. “Can we talk?”

“I was,” he said moodily.

“It’s . . . it’s about tonight.”

He glanced cautiously towards her. “There’s not a problem, is there? Because I’ve been planning this thing for months! The last thing I need is for there to be a problem!”

“There’s not a problem,” Annie said, quickly trying to settle him. She could see his right eye beginning to twitch, a sure sign that danger was ahead. “It’s just – well, remember how we talked the other week about maybe . . . paying me and the guys?”

Lucas looked away; his face stonily impassive. “We agreed that you’d be doing it for free,” he stated.

“I know,” Annie said, trying to get him to meet her eye. “We’re not asking for much, but it is our first gig, and I promised –”

“Tonight’s not about you,” Lucas said tartly. He turned to her, a comforting smile only just stopping beneath his eyes. “If it goes well for me, it goes well for you. Okay?”

Annie nodded. “It’s just . . . this is really important for me,” she said quietly.

He frowned. “It is?” he asked. “I thought it was just . . .”

“Just what?” she snapped.

Lucas shrugged. “A hobby,” he said.

Annie fell back down onto the desk. A . . . hobby? The horror of it all struck her like a punch to the gut. “What . . . what did you think was important?” she asked, barely able to raise her voice above a whisper.

“This,” Lucas said, opening the blinds again and nodding at his collection of over-priced, second-hand cars. “Us,” he added.

She didn’t know what to say. Yes, her relationship with Lucas was important, but her life as his PA? That . . . that had always been a means-to-an-end. Something to keep her going until she was able to earn as a musician. She had thought he’d understood that.

“Did you think I was going to do this forever?” she asked.

He shrugged. “No,” he said simply. “Once this place hits the big-time, and I’m able to end things with Molly, I was thinking we’d expand the business, move out of this dump of a town, and you could – I don’t know – stay at home or something.”

Annie’s eyes widened and her mouth seemed to be riveted open. “A housewife?” she managed to utter.

“No, no, no,” Lucas said, waving dismissively. “But when we start making real money, what’s the point in the both of us working? And if working with Molly has taught me anything, it’s that partners should never work in the same office.” He glanced over at her, a troubled look on his face. “Isn’t that what you want?”

Was it? She didn’t know anymore. She wanted to be with Lucas, yes, more than anything. But with him in that way? As if they were some stereotype plucked straight from a 50’s sitcom?

“You don’t want that with Molly?”

Lucas shot out a small laugh then tickled Annie under the chin. “I don’t want anything with Molly,” he said, laying both hands on her shoulders. “It’s you that I want.”

“Then leave her.” Annie was pained to see the cold look that passed across Lucas’ features. His grip tightened ever so slightly. “We’ve talked about this,” he said quietly. “I’ll end things when the time is right.”

“You keep saying that! But when is the right time?”

“Not now.” He removed his hands, flashed her a smile, then glanced again at the clock. “You’re stressed,” he announced. “Let’s get the gala out of the way tonight, then, when you’ve calmed down, we’ll talk some more.” He gave her a pat on the back before sitting back behind his desk. “You’d best get going. You don’t want to be late.” He gave her a wink, and that was that. The discussion was over, the sale was made. Annie felt herself walk out of the office, back across the showroom floor, and then out of the door.

When she was back in her car, she realised that she was trembling. Rage? Fear? Despair? What was she thinking? Everything was a storm in her head. Her tongue tasted of iron and her eyes began to prickle. She looked up at the rear-view mirror. Positive mindset? Tamara Horwitz could shove it up her Californian arse.

*

 

How did it get like this?

Stupid question, she thought. The better question is when did it get like this? That was another moronic question. When had it ever not been like this? She’d been so focused on Rhys, and her mum, and her dad, and Lucas and Molly, and everyone whose lives were off the rails that she’d failed to realise that her life hadn’t even left the station.

A musician. It had been her dream since . . . well, she couldn’t exactly remember since when. But that was good, wasn’t it? It was a bedrock inside her; something to cling to whenever she doubted herself.

“A hobby.”

The words sliced through her thoughts like a pair of shears.

Just what had he meant by that? He had to know how important her music was. More important than him? How many rehearsals had she skipped? How many times had she brushed Baz off for a quickie? No wonder he was surprised by her sudden swell of passion.

Christ, she suddenly thought, what am I doing?!

She was twenty-six and . . . what? What was she doing with her life? Half-heartedly chasing a dream that she only believed in when she remembered? Working a crappy-paying job she only kept because she was sleeping with the boss? Living in a cramped flat she could only afford thanks to the help of her dad currently sleeping on her sofa? Was that adulthood? Suddenly realising one day that you’d put off making all the important decisions in life?

She tried to calm herself; told herself that there was nothing to worry about. Lots of people her age didn’t know what they were doing. No, she thought angrily. It was that sort of thinking that had driven her here. Annie stared at herself in the mirror, making sure the pointless twittering of an American millionaire was nowhere in sight.

“Time to choose,” she said to herself. “Make up your mind.”

“I’m sorry?”

Annie span around, her face flushing red hot. “What?”

“Did you say something?” The voice was coming from behind a cubicle door. A polite, slightly puzzled voice. Only now did Annie realise that the toilets of the town hall might not be as secluded as she had thought.

“No,” Annie said, “just . . . talking to myself.”

“Oh,” the woman in the toilet said. “I thought you were talking to me.”

“Nope,” Annie replied. She turned back to her reflection, rolled her eyes, and then tried to collect her thoughts. Now, she thought, making sure not to let it leave her lips. Where was I?

“Is everything all right?” the woman asked, her voice quivering with well-mannered curiosity.

“Yes,” Annie shouted back. “Everything’s fine.”

“Okay,” the stranger said. “It’s just,” she went on, fortunately blind to the sour look on Annie’s face, “whenever someone talks to themselves in a public restroom, it’s usually a sign that things are not okay.”

Oh God, Annie thought, her face paling. I really have become a cliché. She steeled herself, gritting her teeth and folding her fingers into fists. Time to make a choice. Something had to change.

The job? Did she honestly enjoy being a secretary at a used-car shop? No. And the pay was crap. But, if she left, what excuse would she have to see Lucas?

The flat? Move out, find somewhere nicer? In this town? Not too likely. That meant she’d have to move away, making it more difficult to get into work, and by extension, to Lucas.

Then Lucas? Even after all this time he was still with Molly, and despite all his promises, looked to be with her for some time in the future. Even though that was true, and even though he wanted her to fill some idealised fantasy-woman he had, she still loved him.

The music? What about that? But without the band we’d – she gave herself a look that silenced the thought. Being a musician was an idea she’d had after seeing a second-hand guitar in a shop window when she was eleven. If she’d had any intention of pursuing it with real fervour, she’d have done it by now. But . . . it’s our rock, we cling to it!

Sometimes we have to let go of the rock and learn to swim, Annie thought.

Her more critical side suddenly decided to chime in; Are we swimming, or are we on a train? Pick a metaphor already. If she gave up the music, hung up the guitar, then it would give her more time to focus on what was important. She could spend more time with Lucas; pester him until he finally ends things with Molly. Or, she thinks, she could use the time to do some studying. She’s sure her dad was always upset she never went to university. She knows for a fact her mum was furious about it. But it was never too late. Of course, that would mean she’d need to decide what to study. She shook her head. That was a conundrum for Annie in the future. Right now, she had just enough motivation to make this small step, she didn’t want to waste it.

“Is everything all right?” the woman asked timidly.

Annie glanced up at her reflection and felt the corners of her mouth twitch up. “Yeah,” she said, smiling. “Everything’s fine.”

*

 

With a spring she’d thought had snapped long ago, Annie bounced into the cupboard that was serving as the band’s dressing room. Both Baz and Rhys looked up as she swept in. Amazingly, Rhys’s phone didn’t appear to be in his hands.

“Everything ready?” she asked, rubbing her hands together eagerly. She noticed the glum air drowning the pair and hastily scribbled it off as nerves. Best not break the news just yet, she thought wisely.

“You’re late,” Baz murmured, though she was surprised to detect a lack of enthusiasm in the criticism.

“Didn’t have a car,” she responded, fiddling with her guitar.

The two men shared a glance. “What happened to it?” Rhys asked.

“Long story,” Annie said. Rhys was still looking at her with his signature blend of confusion and concern. She sighed, making a move to explain, when Baz cut her off with a cough. She shot him a glare, then noticed that his eyes were fixed on Rhys. She gave them both a pointed look. “What’s going on?” she asked, her heart beginning to beat quicker.

“Baz . . . erm . . . I mean we – think we need to talk,” Rhys said, nervously plucking at his tie, his single attempt at appearing formal.

Annie felt her mouth turn dry. Can they know she’d lied about the pay? No, she thought. Baz wouldn’t keep quiet about that. He’d have made comments so cutting she’d have needed half-a-dozen plasters by now.

Judging by the way Rhys was fidgeting, it had to be something else. Something worse.

“Well?” she said, her temper flaring up in anticipation. “Spit it out!”

“We’re breaking the band up,” Baz announced, not meeting Annie’s eye. “We don’t want to do it anymore.”

It felt as if the bottom of her stomach had been scooped out. The skin up and down her arms went cold and prickly, whilst her tongue gained a metallic taste. What the hell? What were these idiots thinking?

“It was fun,” Rhys said, chewing his lips anxiously. “It was, back when we were eighteen. But – well, I just don’t think we have time anymore.”

“That’s right,” Baz said with a nod. “You’ve got to admit that’s true, what with how much you’re at work! Besides, dad’s offered me a position at his firm.”

“Let me guess,” Annie said through gritted teeth. “An accountancy firm?”

Baz frowned. “No,” he said. “He’s a locksmith.”

“I – I – I don’t – I don’t get it!” Annie suddenly exclaimed. “Where has this come from?”

“It simply makes sense,” Rhys said with a careless shrug.

“Don’t worry,” Baz said trying to force on a smile, “we’re still going ahead with tonight.” He stood up, strengthening his grin. “We can just treat it like a farewell tour!”

Rhys nodded wordlessly, not even a shadow of a smile on his face. Baz looked at him, then at Annie. “To be honest,” he said, “I thought you were going to pack it in months ago!” He gave a shrug then sloped out of the room. A moment passed; Rhys kept glancing awkwardly up at a stunned Annie. It wasn’t long before he made his excuses and scurried from the room.

The thoughts swirled around her head like a thunderstorm. Those bastards! How could they decide that without talking to her first? Sure, she’d decided to give up the band anyway, but that was her decision. She wanted to make it, not someone else. She felt her fingers curl, then released them with a sigh. What was the point in getting angry? Just another thing she’d fooled herself into thinking she could control.

An angry buzz from Rhys’ abandoned coat dragged her back. She knew what that meant. She hesitated for a second. It might not be what she thought it was. She glanced over her shoulder, making sure the corridor was clear. Quickly, Annie strode over and slipped her hand into the jacket pocket, pulling out his phone.

She tapped on the notification and felt the veins in her neck begin to throb. She knew Rhys was still talking to him, but a part of her wanted to believe otherwise. She grabbed hold of the fury cascading through her and, with an intent look in her eyes, poured it all through her fingers and into the phone. If Rhys was unwilling to let the past go, unwilling to cut ties with someone that had hurt him so much, then Annie would have to do it for him.

She didn’t bother to re-read the message. If she was too cruel, good. She needed to direct the anger somewhere, and she couldn’t think of anyone more deserving.

“Hey, have you seen –?”

Annie span round, alarmed. Rhys was standing in the doorway, his eyes fixed on the phone in her hand. “That’s – that’s my phone?” he murmured. His eyes suddenly widened with panic. “Annie, what are you doing?”

She drew herself up, ignoring the rapid dance of her heart. “I’m doing you a favour,” she announced, placing the phone in his waiting hand. “What you’re doing,” she went on, trying to fill up the silence, “it’s not healthy.”

Rhys just stared at his phone; his eyes were wide and his face paler than Annie had ever seen. “What have you done?” he murmured, barely the strength to raise his voice. She didn’t have time, nor the desire to start regretting what she did. She simply gave him another look before striding out.

She didn’t know where she was going; she marched through the corridors and up some stairs, only stopping when she heard the sound of Lucas’ raised voice. She paused, retraced her steps, and then stepped into the main auditorium.

He was standing in the centre of the room, a phone to his ear, an eye on the caterers setting up, and an angry word for anyone who entered his range. His eyes mellowed only a fraction as he noticed Annie.

“Aren’t you getting ready?” he asked dismissively.

“It won’t take a minute,” she said. “What’s going on?”

“I can’t get hold of Molly.”

Annie felt herself grow cold. “Why do you need her?”

“Because,” Lucas said angrily, “she’s the one supposed to be organising all this shit!” He gave an angry wave of the arm, encompassing the hall. “Now the caterers have turned up late, the first guests will be arriving in half an hour, I haven’t got a bar set up, and my band isn’t on stage preparing!”

Her hackles rose at this barb. “It’ll take five minutes to get ready,” she lied.

“Could you get those five minutes out of the way then?”

“We need to talk,” Annie said, the words out before she could stop them.

Lucas stared at her coldly. “I don’t need any more problems, Annie.”

“I’m fed up with sneaking around!” Annie exclaimed. One or two of the caterers popped their head up at her raised voice. Lucas noticed this with alarm. He pocketed his phone and took a hold of Annie’s arm. “We’ve already talked about this!” he hissed. “I thought we’d decided to wait?”

“No, you decided that!”

His right eye twitched angrily. “Don’t be difficult,” he growled. “I’m doing this for you! What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?”

He looked so wounded at this idea that Annie couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt. “No,” she murmured, avoiding his gaze. “It’s just . . . it’s so frustrating!”

“For me as well,” he said, lightly brushing the back of her neck, careful to make sure no one was watching. “Just a bit longer, that’s all.”

“Okay,” she said, barely louder than a whisper.

“Good girl,” Lucas said with a smile. He quickly turned and marched towards a hapless caterer, already barking out orders and making her jump. Her body numb, Annie obediently made her way towards the stage. Baz was already there, positioning the amps and avoiding meeting Annie’s gaze. Absently, she began to fiddle with some wires he had just put down. Inside her head was just static. She looked up as Rhys passed her by. His eyes were red and his lips were slightly parted. She opened her mouth to ask what was wrong, then realised there was no point. Whatever was wrong had been brought about because of her. She looked back down as he turned his head. The cables had become a tangled mess between her fingers. She threw them down and marched off the stage. No one called after her.

Was this it? Was this her life now? Having decisions made for her, because whatever she chose for herself blew up in her face? Her breath began to quicken and she felt her head start to swim. She leant against the wall, trying to get back some control. She gave a short, ragged laugh at this thought. She’d let go of the rock and trusted herself to the tide, now she was struggling to fight against the waves.

She looked back towards the hall. No one was running for her, wondering where she was, trying to call her back. She looked the other way, towards the fire doors at the end of the corridor. What was stopping her? She took a step.

A buzz against her thigh made her pause. Her eyes still on the escape, Annie eased the phone out of her pocket. It was a text from her dad: “Break a leg tonight, I’m so proud of you! XXXX” Annie stared at the message and felt her eyes begin to burn. She wedged her eyes shut, forced the tears back and cleared her throat. She switched the phone off, shoved it back in her pocket, then turned back around. Releasing a small sigh, Annie allowed the waves to carry her forward.

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