The shrill buzz of the doorbell roused the elderly cleaner. With her knees clicking like maracas, Lucinda pushed herself up. She paused for a moment, waiting for her breath to crawl back.

“Is anyone answering that?” a snarling voice declared.

Lucinda shuffled out of the spacious living room and down the hall. The postman offered her a lazy nod as she answered the door. He handed over the post with a small grunt, then trudged along the corridor to the next flat. Lucinda eased the door closed, her eyes scanning the various letters and parcels.

“Well?”

The old woman looked up at her employer; a woman with a butcher’s knife for a nose, suspicion-drenched eyes, and lips that seemed stapled into a sneer. She glided down the hall like Dracula, snatching the post from Lucinda’s hands before she’d finished snooping.

Ms Carrion took one glance at the package and released a weary sigh. “Delilah!” she shrieked, her voice skewering Lucinda’s already maligned eardrums.

“Wha’?” a similarly abusive voice returned.

“Delivery!”

Snatching up the letters that caught her attention, Ms Carrion foisted the rest back into Lucinda’s hands.

The razor-featured woman then drifted back towards the kitchen, Lucinda waddling cautiously behind. “Delilah!” Ms Carrion hollered again, blotches of red staining her pointed cheeks.

The cleaning lady went to place the packages down on the counter. “Have you finished in the lounge?” Ms Carrion suddenly inquired.

“Just doing the last bits now,” Lucinda murmured, casting her eyes down.

“Well, hurry up,” her employer demanded. “The bathroom will need doing afterwards, and then there’s my bedroom, of course.”

“Of course.”

Lucinda wrestled the urge to curtsey, mainly because her knees would never forgive her, then turned to scuttle away. She was barred by the almighty figure of Ms Carrion’s eldest. It wasn’t that Delilah was fat – oh no, her mother paid good money to avoid that. It was simply that certain aspects of her figure bulged. Her lips were inflated like a pair of rouge slugs; her eyelashes were long enough to get tangled in her fringe, and as for her bosom – well, her recent trip to the hospital wasn’t to have her appendix removed.

“Wha’?” Delilah demanded, her lips barely touching.

Ms Carrion rolled her eyes. “You have a delivery.”

Lucinda plucked up the hefty box and handed it to Delilah with a warm smile. “Here you are, dear.”

The young woman wordlessly took the package, instantly beginning to tear at it with her manicured talons.

“What do you say?” her mother absently asked.

“Can I have a latte?”

“’Course, luv,” Lucinda said, bobbing in spite of the furious yelling in the back of her mind. “Ms Carrion?” she asked, hurrying towards the intricate machine by the sink.

“You know I don’t drink coffee, Cinda,” was the blunt response. The usual venom, however, was diluted. A certain letter had grabbed her curiosity. She turned the plump, manilla envelope over and studied the wax seal. She turned a critical eye towards her daughter and the mangled box in her hand. “If you insist on ruining those nails I bought,” she hissed, “you can open this as well.”

Silently, but with bile in her eyes, Delilah took the envelope and slid a nail along the top. The tear was crisp and even. She handed it back. As Ms Carrion pulled the contents free, her eyes widened with a glee Lucinda hadn’t seen in many years.

An unfamiliar grin stretched across her lips. “I knew giving to charity would pay off!” She rounded on Delilah, busy extracting a pair of grossly bejewelled slippers from the box. “Where’s Eliza?” Ms Carrion demanded.

“In the solarium, ain’t she?” Delilah answered, her eyes not leaving the glittering footwear.

“Go and get her!”

Lucinda was just shuffling back towards the living room when – “Where’s my Chai tea, Cinda?”

“Oh,” Lucinda murmured, turning to Ms Carrion. “I thought you –?”

The two daughters suddenly reappeared in the doorway. Eliza, though a foot shorter than her sister, was identical in nearly every other way. Her balloon lips shone, and her lashes threatened to gouge passers-by. The only difference was that her mother had yet to fund her trip to the hospital.

“Wha’?” Eliza demanded, cocking one hand on her hip.

“Muvva’s given our money to chari’y,” Delilah announced, matching her sister’s pose.

Ms Carrion rolled her cold eyes. “Your inheritance is perfectly safe,” she drawled. “Lionel assures me that bank account is untouchable.”

“Well, whassis abu’?” Eliza asked. “I was just upda’ing ma profile.”

Even after all these years, Lucinda still found it remarkable how the two girls could wrestle their way around sentences with the most minimal amount of lip movement. Their mother groaned loudly, the cleaner’s cue to deliver the freshly made tea. “Let me guess,” Ms Carrion hissed. “Instagram? Twitter? TikTok?!”

“Acchally,” Eliza said, flicking her platinum-tinted hair, “it was Tinder.”

The steaming cup paused at the woman’s paper-thin lips. “You can delete that right now!”

Both daughters stared at her aghast. Ms Carrion slapped the manilla enveloped down on the kitchen island. “The charity I donated to, out of my own back pocket,” she purred, “belongs to a Mr Gregory Sinclair, and he has kindly invited us to a gala this Thursday.”

Delilah and Eliza shared a blank look. “Oo’s Mr Sinclair?” the latter asked.

“A very, very, very rich man,” Ms Carrion said. Her lips twitched at the corner, the closest she came to smiling. “He is also very, very old. It is my intention that one of you will become his grieving widow. Or, at the very least, a teary-eyed ex-wife.”

“Ugh,” Delilah exclaimed, still hugging her new shoes. “I ain’t getting with no grandad!”

“The amount he’s worth? You damn well will!” Ms Carrion snarled. “It’s about time you two pulled your weight and started earning!” She shook her head and slid two gold-leafed invitations towards her daughters. “We have two days to get ready; that should leave you plenty of time to get yourselves looking decent.”

The sisters shared a horrified glance. “Wha’s wrong with how we are?”

Ms Carrion tilted one carefully plucked eyebrow. “Where do I begin, darling?” She wafted past her daughters, mug in hand, and victorious smirk on her face. “And, Delilah, sweetie, throw away those slippers,” she added. “They look positively hideous.”

The pair watched their mother disappear with stunned expressions. Lucinda shuffled up towards them. “You shouldn’t listen to her,” she murmured, keen not to be overheard.  “I think you both look lovely.”

This time the look of dumb confusion swivelled towards the walnut-faced old lady.

“And, Delilah,” Lucinda went on, “I think the shoes are just beautiful!”

The girl glanced down at her latest purchase with an expression of unfiltered abhorrence. “Ugh!” she exclaimed, “muvva was right!” She threw the slippers onto the kitchen island before fleeing the room.

Her sister watched her go with pitiless eyes. “You finished my room ye’, Cinda?” Eliza demanded, rounding back.

“No, not yet,” Lucinda answered, starting to shuffle back towards the living room. “I’ve still got –”

Eliza’s impatient sighs cut her off. “Why are you so slow?!” she demanded. Without waiting for an answer, she turned and flounced from the room. “I’m takin’ a shower,” she declared.

The little cleaner spared herself a small groan. That added an extra hour, at least, she thought. And that was just how long before she finally left the bathroom. Shaking her head, though not enough to make her neck crack, as it was prone to do these days.

Legs trembling, and one hand on the coffee table for support, Lucinda lowered herself back onto the living room floor. She snatched up the yellow cloth and resumed polishing the hardwood floor. As her arms fell into their routine movements, she let her mind amble away. How long had she been working here now? These days she found it easier to calculate by husbands.

Before Carrion, there was Lithgow, then before Lithgow, there was Holloway, and before Holloway there had been Wiltman. So, in total . . . six years. Half-a-dozen long years of polishing hard wood floors, plucking designer knickers from the washing, and scrubbing the bathroom a minimum of three times because each of the women insisted on using it whilst she was there, then complained about how filthy it looked in there once they were done.

If Rufus was still around, he would have told her to quit after the first day. She paused for a moment. If Rufus was still around, she thought, she wouldn’t have had to even start. She gave her head a shake. It was as her grandmother used to say: if Ifs and Buts were roasted nuts, then it would be Christmas. Like a lot of what her grandmother used to say, it didn’t make much sense.

Finishing the last patch of the floor, Lucinda stared down at her reflection. The small smile froze. Back when she was younger Rufus had described her dimples as mini craters. Now the craters had been drowned by wrinkles like ravines. She gave the finished floor a motherly pat, making sure to cover up her face. With her bones creaking like a ship in a storm, Lucinda heaved herself up. A sharp pain in her hip momentarily immobilised her.

Damn, she thought, grabbing the leather sofa for support. After a few seconds the pain subsided. She gave her red face a quick fan with the duster, then hobbled back towards the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of water and downed it in one greedy gulp. There was still a dull pulse at the base of her spine, but when wasn’t there one?

Ignoring the sobering effects of old age, Lucinda focused on what to do next. The bathroom was a no-go-zone, she decided. The same went for Ms Carrion’s room. Perhaps the solarium, she thought. The cleaner groaned at this prospect. What sort of flat had a solarium? Certainly not the one she was spending her twilight years in, that was for sure. In fact, she thought, placing the cool glass against her throbbing head, what sort of flat had two floors? Hers barely had two rooms!

Perhaps it was time to call it a day, she thought. After all, old age wasn’t exactly being kind to her. She didn’t have Ms Carrion’s luck. That woman seemed to have dodged the bullets of aging with startling ease. That reminded Lucinda, the family was running low on hair-dye.

Her eyes suddenly fell on the discarded invitations. Lucinda plucked one up, curiosity overwhelming her. It certainly wasn’t a bog-standard example from The Card Factory. The glossy veneer reflected the light, sending sparks dancing across the gold-leaf edge. The cursive lettering had an almost-handwritten feel to it, giving the text an old-fashioned sense of intimacy. Even though she was far from the intended audience, Lucinda couldn’t fight the flutter of excitement as she read the words: In recognition of your generous donation to the Felicity Maine Foundation, you are graciously invited to a gala celebration, Thursday 27th of March. The event will be hosted at Mr Gregory Sinclair’s private estate –

“Are you still not done, Lucinda?”

“Just finished the living room,” the cleaner answered, rocketing round. She left the invitation tucked behind her back.

Like a phantom, Ms Carrion had appeared in the doorway. She now wore a long, blood-red coat, with matching hat and gloves. A pair of round sunglasses obscured her eyes. Overall, she didn’t look too dissimilar to a large mosquito.

“Me and the girls are going out,” she declared, rifling through her purse. “It will take a miracle,” she went on, “but I’m going to make those two look like wife material.” She shifted the glasses down her nose, staring over the lenses with her piercing eyes. “Make sure the place is done before we get back,” she demanded. She then swept back into the hall, bellowing for her daughters as she went.

Without thinking about it, Lucinda slipped the invite into the pocket of her pinny.

*

“Do you have to do that?” Ms Carrion snapped. “You’re giving me a headache.”

Lucinda stared at the cloth in one hand, and the bleach spray in another. “’Course,” she said, lowering them down gently. Her employer winced as the bottle landed with a soft thunk.

The cleaner didn’t dare ask if anything was the matter. She knew what the problem was. Or rather, the problems. Despite all Ms Carrion’s attempts to instil excitement, the two girls were less than enthralled with her proposed ploy.

“I am not wearin’ this!” Delilah declared, tottering into the kitchen. “I look like a slu’!”

Both Ms Carrion and Lucinda stared at Delilah’s outfit. Lucinda had to turn away before anyone caught a glimpse of the grin. In her opinion, the dress was the most modest thing she’d worn in years. The body-hugging dress was a delicious ruby-red. The long sleeves ended in a pair of slim, black cuffs, and a string of faux-diamonds ran along the seams of the dress. Of course, what Lucinda imagined to be the problem, was probably the dress’s bosom. Or, lack thereof. 

“It’s your best feature,” Ms Carrion said with a shrug. “We need to show it off.”

“Why doesn’t Eliza have to wear somethin’ like this?” Delilah asked, pointing at her sister, busy comparing her different pouts in a mirror.

“Because your sister doesn’t have your assets,” Ms Carrion stated. She gave her second daughter a careful stare. “Can’t say much for her personality, either,” she murmured.

Eliza snapped the compact mirror shut, then fired a wounded look towards her mother. Gifting herself a small smirk, Ms Carrion rose from her seat and snatched up her purse. “Come along, girls,” she purred. “Our appointment is at two, so we don’t have much time.”

Lucinda frowned. “Is – isn’t your do at eight?”

All three women rounded on the cleaner. A look of disdain in each of their eyes.

“Exacklee,” Eliza declared. “Only six ‘ours to get our hair and makeup done!”

“I told you we should’ve got one for this mornin’” Delilah grumbled, trying to pull the front of her dress up to her neck.

Ms Carrion continued to stare at Lucinda, her eyes narrowed. “How do you know what time our . . . do is?” she asked, her voice as delicate as a viper’s bite.

“Oh – well – erm . . .” Lucinda’s face began to burn as her employer’s glare burrowed deeper, and deeper. “It’s all you girls have been talking about!” she exclaimed, anxiously fiddling with the washcloth. “And – and it sounds so exciting! I remember, Rufus took me to a party once – must have been 1987, or was it ’89?”

And, like that, all interest in the cleaner dissolved. “Come along, girls,” Ms Carrion hissed. “If we’re late, Hugo will give us all perms.”

The sisters swapped terrified glances, then scampered from the kitchen. The matriarch turned to Lucinda, the embers of suspicion still burning in her eyes. “Be sure to lock up when you’re done,” she said. “We’ll be staying at a hotel this evening, so we won’t be back until late tomorrow.”

“I hope you have a lovely time,” Lucinda said, avoiding meeting the woman’s icy gaze.

Ms Carrion swept out of the room, her dagger-like voice calling out to her daughters.

Lucinda stood for a moment, in that room, listening to the trio thunder through the flat and bicker their way out, eventually slamming the door shut, and leaving the cleaner alone in silence.

She continued to stand, wringing the cloth in her hand, and feeling the silence swell around her. Just as it was reaching its peak, Lucinda exclaimed a loud tut and grabbed her phone from her pocket. Pacing through the flat, traipsing from room to room, she managed to navigate her way through the smartphone to find what she was looking for.

On the third ring the face of her goddaughter appeared. The happy smile was blended with a frown of concern. “Aunty Lu!” Faye exclaimed, her face wobbling as she adjusted the camera. “is everything okay?”

“Oh yes, oh yes,” Lucinda said, smiling with relief as she sank into one of the leather armchairs. “Just at work.”

“What about the dragons?” Faye asked, her lip curling up at the corner.

“They’re out. They’re going to that party.”

“The one you stole the invitation to?”

Lucinda felt herself turn a warm shade of post-box red. “I didn’t ‘steal’ it!” she insisted.

Faye laughed, nearly knocking the camera over. “’Course you didn’t,” she chuckled. “It just accidentally fell into your apron!”

“I was going to put it back!”

“And have you?”

The cleaner glanced down at the invite she held. The edges had become frayed, and the corners were bent down, the wounds of having spent a few days in her pocket. “I’m just waiting for the right time,” she mumbled.

Her goddaughter allowed herself a small smirk. “You want to go, don’t you?”

“What?!” Lucinda exclaimed, suddenly sitting up. “Don’t be absurd!” Her eyes darted around, fearful that someone had crept into the empty flat to hear such crazy talk.

“Then why do you still have the invite?” Faye asked, laughing. “It was all you could talk about the other day.”

Lucinda began chewing on her lip, staring at the battered card in her lap. There had been many chances for her to return the offending article back to the Carrions, and without them ever realising it had been missing. In fact, she was certain they still had no idea that it was gone. Of course, the moment they did realise would be when they turned up at the party. Lucinda had been unable to sleep for dread at such an image. The three women being barred entry from the biggest event of the year, just because of her light fingers. They’d surely know it was her fault. Even if they didn’t, they’d still blame her. So . . . why hadn’t she returned it?

Like a little girl, Lucinda cast her eyes down as the blush threatened to scald her cheeks. “It’s exciting, that’s all,” she murmured, picking at the loose threads of her apron.

“Then go!”

“Oh! I couldn’t do that!” she exclaimed.

“Why not?” Faye asked. “You’ve already got an invite.”

“But it’s not mine!”

“And? You already said it doesn’t have a name on it,” her goddaughter pointed out. “Besides, when was the last time you went out?”

“I went bowling with my neighbour, Hilary, just a few nights ago!”

“That doesn’t count, and you know it. You haven’t been out since Uncle Rufus –”

“I’m not going to break that streak by crashing a millionaire’s do!”

“Who’s going to notice?” Faye snapped.

“Mrs Carrion will be there.”

“And? Take off the apron and change your hair, and I bet she wouldn’t recognise you even after a half-hour conversation.”

“I don’t care,” Lucinda said, standing, the phone in her hand. “It’s a risk I can’t afford to take. I need this job!”

“You know you don’t.”

“I have to finish up,” the cleaner said, ignoring the last comment. “There’s still upstairs to be done!”

“Come on, Aunty Lu!”

“I’ll speak later.” Before Faye could argue anymore, Lucinda hung up the call and scurried the phone back into her pocket. She stood in the centre of the room, the dull weight of her mobile in her pinny, the invite in her fist, and the ocean of silence swallowing her. There wasn’t even the ticking of a clock. The Carrions insisted on having everything be digital.

Lucinda was alone with her thoughts.

“Maybe the radio,” she declared, her voice ringing. Stomping back into the kitchen, Lucinda dragged a chair closer to the counter. Muttering under her breath, she clambered up and rescued her radio from its secure hiding spot: behind the calorie-free granola bars. The last place those three would ever look.

With the radio tucked under her armpit, the vacuum in one hand, and a bucket of cleaning supplies in the other, Lucinda traipsed up the clanging, metal stairs.

“Bathroom first,” she declared, dumping down her load, and staring at the mountain ahead. She placed the radio on top of the medicine cabinet, then flicked it on.

“– a lovely tune that,” the disc jockey chirped. “Now, an oldie for our grandfolk out there; Chet Baker’s Time After Time –”

Lucinda slapped the radio silent then stood for a moment, letting her stinging hand recover. “Maybe I’ll hoover, instead,” she announced.

When the thunderous tones of the vacuum were echoing through the flat, Lucinda felt her heartbeat ease, and her mind begin to drift. 

“They played this at Nev’s funeral.”

Lucinda nestled her head against Rufus’ neck, the tang of his aftershave filling her lungs. She felt her hand tucked inside his calloused paw. She allowed herself to be rocked from side to side, in time with him and the music. “Did they?” she murmured, only half-listening.

“Don’t know why,” Rufus said, screwing up his nose. “Nev bloody hated jazz.”

“I like it,” Lucinda said, hoping to silence her husband long enough to savour the mournful-sounding trumpet.

“What would you say if I retired?”

“Can we afford it?”

Rufus shrugged, his usual, playful smile creasing his lined face. “We can move somewhere cheaper.”

“It’s a nice idea,” Lucinda said.

“Then let’s do it!”

The cleaner pulled herself away, using the roar of the vacuum as her tether back to reality. That was one of her favourite memories, and it was one she tried her hardest to avoid. The fear was that, like an old movie reel, repeated viewings would wear it away. Or, worse, she’d end up filling it with what-ifs and should-have-saids. Not wanting either to happen, she kept that cherished memory tucked away on a shelf. But, at times when the silence was deepest, the memory would tumble down and whisk her away.

A trilling began to escape from her pocket. Wiping her eyes with one hand, she snatched up her phone with the other. It was Faye. Not bothering with video this time, Lucinda held the phone to her ear. “Hello?” she said, hoping the slight crack in her voice went unnoticed.

“The Uber’s picking you up at 7:30,” Faye said, her tone of voice daring Lucinda to argue, “so you should get to the party for about 8:20, thereabouts.”

Lucinda was agog. “B-but –”

“And I’ve checked,” Faye said, cutting her off. “The place you’re heading to has four floors. Four! I bet you wouldn’t run into Mrs Carrion even if you went looking for her!”

The old cleaner continued to be stunned. The floor felt as if it was being swept from beneath her feet, and her heart began to drum in her ears. Was this really happening? Could it really be –?

“You haven’t died from the shock, have you?”

“N-no,” Lucinda managed to stammer.

“Good.”

“I – I’ve got – I’ve nothing wear!”

“You’ve got three walk-in closets to choose from,” Faye said sharply.

“But, what about make –?”

“I’ve text you some tutorials I found on Youtube,” her Goddaughter interrupted. “Just nick some foundation and mascara, they’ll never notice.”

The rapid tattoo of her heart against her ribs was almost too much to bear, she felt herself collapse down onto the bed. Was she really going to go?

“You’d better hurry,” Faye said. “You don’t want to be late!”

Her tongue ran across her cracked lips, her eyes darted fearfully around the room. What should she do? It was too late to try and lie, pretend that she didn’t want to go. That illusion was well and truly shattered. She placed her hand against her chest, trying to get her breath back to normal. What would Rufus say?

His voice, one she’d tried to keep locked away where it wouldn’t hurt so much, came back with all its old gruffness. She knew exactly what he’d say.

“All right,” she croaked. “I’ll go.”

*

Horizon Towers felt like something out of a science-fiction film. It loomed above the other city-centre buildings, puncturing the sky and proclaiming its dominance. In the car, peering fearfully upwards, Lucinda hadn’t even been able to make out the peak.

Her driver peered at her from the rear-view mirror. “Your Goddaughter has paid until midnight,” he declared, flashing her a toothy grin. “Now, my beautiful lady, have a wonderful night!” Lucinda felt herself blush and, murmuring her thanks, wrenched the door open. “And don’t forget to leave me a good review!”

The lobby was just as austere and intimidating as the outside. The little cleaner felt like an ant that had stumbled onto a football field. Clutching her handbag to her bosom, and nibbling at her bottom lip, she shuffled closer to the doorman. He peered at her from beneath his cap.

“Evenin’, ma’am,” he growled.

“Erm – hello,” Lucinda said. She quickly grabbed the crumpled invite from the handbag and held it out like a shield. “I’m looking for –”

“Floor thirty-four,” the man declared, not even looking at the invite.

“Oh.”

“Take the lift there,” the doorman said, noticing the woman’s blank look, “then press the button that has the number thirty-four on it.”

“Right, will do.”

Once the doors were closed, and she was alone in the lift, Lucinda let herself collapse back and exhale a ragged breath. Was this what it was like to socialise? Or was it the stolen invitation that was causing her heart to do acrobatics in her rib cage? Once the drumbeat had slowed down, she took in the gleaming interior of the elevator. Her face shone on every surface, and bright music jangled from an unseen source. For all she knew, and considering how expensive the tower was, there was probably a live band stuffed behind the walls.

As she made her sluggish ascent, Lucinda took another chance to study herself in the polished surface. The dress she’d eventually mustered the courage to – ahem – borrow, was a demure, midnight-blue affair that Mrs Carrion had bought to celebrate her second divorce. The fact she and her employer shared the same dress size was a weapon she’d deploy at only the direst of times. Her make-up was something she still struggled to accept. She had obediently followed Faye’s instructions and watched the video sent over, but her misgivings had blossomed when her tutor for the evening, she had discovered, was a twelve-year-old filming from her mother’s bedroom.

For the forty-seventh time since seeing the result, she wondered if she wouldn’t have been better to stick with the usual lippy-and-a-bit-of-eyeliner routine. It had always impressed Rufus. But the gold-embossed invite beat into her the knowledge that simple was never going to suffice.

Before the panic attack could really begin its next assault, the lift doors swept open and Lucinda was bombarded by the party.

The romping tunes of a jazz band danced through the room, almost drowned out by the hawkish laughter of the drunken wealthy. The heady whiff of expensive champagne swam through the air, mixing with the various perfumes and colognes. In the darkest corner of her mind, Lucinda wondered if this was what a brothel smelt like.

She anxiously sidled out of the lift, the doors clanging shut as soon as she was clear. Now, she thought, I’m trapped. She took another glance around the room. If she felt small downstairs, now she felt positively microscopic.

Her eyes rolled upwards to take in . . . well, she couldn’t quite describe it. She imagined it had to be a light fixture of some sort. But, to her, it simply looked like a tortured spider made out of curved bits of metal and droplet-shaped bulbs. The light danced on the rim of every champagne flute, diamond earring, and pristinely whitened tooth. The sight almost dazzled Lucinda into a trance.

The hypnosis was broken by the passing of a waiter, glaring at the guests with undisguised envy and loathing. She waddled over and caught him by the hem of his waistcoat. He rounded on her; a vicious barb locked between pursed lips.

“Yes?” he managed coldly.

“Do I show you my invite?” Lucinda asked, her eyes still barrelling around the amphitheatre-sized room.

“No,” the waiter retorted. He then handed her a glass that probably cost more than her month’s wages, before ambling back into the crowd.

“Now, that’s the face of someone who doesn’t belong.”

The cleaner hurtled around, a flustered excuse bouncing on her lips. “I have an invitation!” she announced, waving the creased and tattered piece of card.

Her accuser laughed merrily, waving her words away. Staring at the stranger, Lucinda felt herself grow flustered for a whole new reason. He was a tall, round-shouldered man, with a tanned face that was more than just a little easy on the eye. His finely-trimmed beard was a sugary white, dappled at the edges with black, the last dregs of a bygone youth. His hair, in a similar condition, was swept back, with an errant lock bouncing against his left temple. His eyes, however, belonged to a younger man. They sparkled and bounced with a schoolboy glee. The grin that stretched his lips was full of mischief, but it felt to Lucinda that she wasn’t the butt of this particular joke.

“I didn’t mean any offence,” he purred, approaching her, limping slightly as he did. “I simply meant that, finally, I’ve found someone here who looks exactly how I feel.”

“You – you don’t like parties?” the cleaner asked, eyeing the room nervously. So far not a single person had paid her any attention. She was used to that. She was grateful for that.

The handsome man shook his head, his speckled hair bouncing from side to side. “My wife used to deal with this sort of thing,” he said, a sad smile playing on his lips. “But, alas, no more.”

“I’m very sorry,” Lucinda said, placing a comforting hand on his arm. “When did she pass?”

The joyful grin returned in full bloom. “Oh, she’s not dead,” he declared. “Divorced. Ran away with a brick layer from Portsmouth.” His eyes shot towards the gaggle of quaffing guests. “Don’t tell any of this lot though,” he murmured, edging closer. “They all think she ran off with a rich baron from Yugoslavia.”

“It can be our little secret,” Lucinda said, stealing herself a small smile.

“How rude of me,” the man announced, wiping his hand on the trousers of his luxurious blue suit. “The name’s Gregory, Gregory Sinclair.” He held the hand out, his eyes glittering in a way Lucinda hadn’t seen in many years.

Her mouth suddenly crashed open. “G-G-Gregory . . .?!”

“Sinclair, that’s right.”

She glared down at the invite in her hand, by now an almost unrecognisable ball in her pale fist. “But this is your . . .!”

“My party, I know,” Sinclair said with an amused chuckle. “I would rather like to know your name. Oh yes, I know, it’s awful for me, as a host, not to know my guests’ names, but –”

“Lucinda,” she said, wrestling with herself not to curtsey. “Lucinda Clamp.”

“An honour,” the man, wrapping her hand in his. The grip was warm and firm, but the palm was soft, and the fingers free of any callouses. It was nothing like Rufus’ hands. She was glad for that.

Their hands parted, but their fingers lingered for a hesitant moment. “I know this may sound bold, Mrs Clamp –”

“Ms.”

“Ah. Is he . . .?”

“Passed on nearly seven years ago,” Lucinda said, turning away as she felt the usual iron ball in her throat.

“I’m very sorry,” Gregory said. He shifted awkwardly. “I hope this doesn’t sound too caddish,” he went on. “But would you care to dance?”

The iron ball plummeted down and hit her gullet full-force. Only now was she grateful for the thick layer of makeup the twelve-year-old had advised her to apply. It covered up her now burning cheeks. The word was on her lips, she could feel herself ready to walk away, back to the lift, perhaps. A stupid idea, she thought to herself. But, without realising it, her hand had found its way back into his.

“I suppose one can’t hurt,” Lucinda murmured.

With a gracious, if stiff bow, Gregory led her through the gaggle of cavorting elites, and onto a wide, brightly lit dance floor. Several couples were already waltzing to the dulcet tunes of the band, though one couple seemed to be dancing to the tunes of Jack Daniels, if the empty bourbon glasses were anything to go by.

“Honestly,” Sinclair said, placing a hand on Lucinda’s waist, “I have to thank you.”

“Thank me?”

“Here I’m safe,” he said with a nod. “There’s a dreadful woman been hounding me all night. I’m adamant she’s trying to set me up with one of her equally awful daughters.”

She felt the tips of her ears begin to smoulder. “And . . . that’s not something you want?”

Gregory threw back his head and hooted with laughter. Lucinda looked around, alarmed. The laugh echoed through the room, but no one seemed to take any notice. “I’m an old man,” he said, once the outburst had ended. “I’ve no time for romance.”

Lucinda nodded, barely noticing her body grow closer to the man. “I know how you feel,” she admitted. “Since Rufus passed, I can’t imagine myself being with anyone else.”

“He must have been a fine man.”

The woman smiled, her eyes staring off to a dozen years ago. “He was.” Her eyes suddenly dimmed as she returned to the present. “But . . . it does get lonely.”

“I know what you mean.”

“I can’t stand being in the flat most days.” Without noticing, she had let the waves roll past the barrier she had, for so long, kept up. “I don’t need to work; I know I don’t. I’d saved up a fair bit, and Rufus made sure I was well-looked after. But, well, it’s the company.” She laughed humourlessly. “Not a problem you have, I imagine.”

Gregory gave her a curious look. “These people?” he murmured. “I don’t know the names of half of them, and the other half I only know because they keep asking for my money! Just because one is surrounded by people, doesn’t mean one isn’t lonely.” He heaved a long sigh, then his gaze too drifted off. “Say what you will about my former wife, but she was company. And we did have some good times, at the beginning.”

“It’s the walks in the park I miss the most,” Lucinda murmured.

“I haven’t had a simple walk in the park in . . . oh, I haven’t a clue!”

The band drifted through the end of the song, barely acknowledging the smattering of applause spared them by the guests. The trumpet player stepped forward, licked his lips, then began to play. Lucinda felt her grip tighten around Gregory’s fingers and her breath fell short in her throat.

“I adore this song,” Gregory said, a wistful smile overtaking his lips.

“You know Chet Baker?” Lucinda asked, allowing him to start slow dancing the pair between the other couples. The grin broadened. “I used to have an idle fantasy of becoming a jazz musician,” he admitted. “Unfortunately, becoming rich got in the way.”

“Must have been a real problem.”

The wealthy man tittered awkwardly. “Well, maybe that was poorly phrased . . .” She glanced up at him. It wasn’t far, he wasn’t much taller than she was. That was another thing she wasn’t used to. But it was also another thing she was glad for. Lucinda wasn’t sure what she felt at that moment. It wasn’t happiness as such, but it was the closest she’d been in quite some time.

For the next few minutes, they were silent, swaying across the dance floor, heedless of the gaggle surrounding them. It was just them and the mournful serenade of the trumpet. Perhaps, Lucinda thought, it is time.

Finally, the music ended, and the pair reluctantly drew away from one another. “I’m curious,” Gregory murmured, studying Lucinda with a new gleam in his eyes. “You said earlier that you were still working. What is it that you do?”

She didn’t even have time to fumble through a lie.

“Mr Sinclair!” a familiar voice cawed. “This is where you ran off to!”

Gregory turned to better face Ms Carrion, currently wearing the grin of a starved shark. Behind her, hovering like petulant peacocks, were Eliza and Delilah. They offered Gregory their most affectionate smiles. The man himself may not have interested the girls, but his wealth attracted them like a magnet.

“I didn’t introduce my –” Then Ms Carrion’s eyes fell on Lucinda. For a microsecond, she thought she could get away with it. To start there wasn’t even a shred of recognition at seeing her cleaner’s face. But then her eyes fell on the dress. The dress Lucinda had snatched from the back of her second walk-in closet. Then realisation flared like a nuclear explosion.

“You?!” she snarled.

“’Ere!” Delilah exclaimed; her eyes having drifted down. “Are they ma slippas?”

“You?!” Ms Carrion repeated, a flurrying array of expressions dashed across her pinched face. She was struggling to reconcile what she saw with what she understood about reality. She was about thirty seconds away from popping a blood vessel.

“I have to . . .” Lucinda didn’t finish. Ignoring Gregory’s protests, and the Carrion trio’s snarls, the cleaner dashed through the mocking, red-faced crowd and pounced on the elevator, hammering the button until the doors finally slid open. She managed to retreat into its depths before the first tears started to roll from her chin. The last thing she heard before the doors closed was the band break into another Chet Baker song.

*

The doorbell had to ring five times before Lucinda found the noise too much to ignore. Peeling herself out of the knackered armchair, she made her way towards the front door. She stopped in the hall.

What if it was Ms Carrion? Or worse, her lawyer? Why would it be either? She’d done nothing wrong – well, she had, but she’d made up for it! The dress and the shoes were both back at their flat, without a scratch or a mark on either. Besides, was Ms Carrion the sort of woman to seek vengeance? Again, Lucinda had to correct herself. Yes, the woman was. But was Lucinda worthy of Ms Carrion’s fury? No, of that the cleaner was sure. Someone of her class was wasn’t even worth the effort of having her name remembered.

Seeing that Lucinda hadn’t turned up for her shift this morning, the matriarch would have erased her from her memory. By now there was probably a new cleaner scrubbing their bathroom tiles. Lucinda almost felt sorry for this new woman.

The bell rang yet again, causing her to jolt back to reality. With a slightly unsteady gait, Lucinda took the extra step and carefully opened the door. It only opened a crack. If it was Ms Carrion, she wanted the flimsy bit of chain to help protect her.

“Hello.”

Lucinda felt her eyes widen and her heart begin to rumba against her chest. Gregory offered her a weak, out-of-place smile. “I hope you don’t mind me popping round,” he said.

The old cleaner wrenched the door open, the chain as efficient as a wet piece of toilet paper in a thunderstorm. There he was: Gregory Sinclair standing in the hallway of her fourth-rate block of flats. His immaculate pinstripe suit only served to enhance the grubbiness surrounding him. A sight Lucinda had managed to blind herself to over the years. She felt her cheeks begin to burn and her eyes drift down towards the floor.

“How did you find me?” she asked, quietly.

“The woman last night,” he said, “Ms Carrion? I understand that you work for her?”

“Worked, actually,” Lucinda said. “I doubt I’ll be going back.”

“Well, I asked her for your address.”

“And she gave it to you?”

“Erm – yes, but I did have to – well, she’d only give it to me if I agreed to . . . go on a date with one of her daughters.”

“Oh,” Lucinda murmured. “Which one did you choose?”

“I think it was . . . Delilah?”

She considered it for a moment, then nodded. “That was probably wise.” The two glanced at one another before sharing a smile. Gregory shifted awkwardly again. From behind his back he drew the biggest bouquet Lucinda had seen in her life. Not quite knowing what to say, she took the garden centre’s worth of plants out of his hand. “Oh – oh my!” she exclaimed. It was the best she could do.

“I – I hope you like them,” he said, tugging at his tie and watching her face carefully. Well, watching the portion of her face he could see from between the leaves. “The boy in the shop said these were the best!”

“Oh – oh my!” Lucinda said, still struggling for words, and for breath. The collective aroma from the flowers was making her dizzy. Tottering slightly, she managed to turn in the doorway and place the bouquet down on a small table. She couldn’t leave them for long, she thought. The weight might break the table entirely. She turned back to Gregory, wiping her hands on the back of her dress. “They’re lovely,” she said, finally able to find some words.

“Oh, good,” he said, beaming.

“But,” Lucinda said, causing the smile to freeze. “I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, Gregory.”

“Wrong . . . idea?”

She nodded. “I know it’s been seven years, but I’m not ready to move on from Rufus just yet. I’m not sure I ever will. So . . . I don’t think I can give you what you’re looking for. I’m sorry.”

Gregory nodded. “I understand,” he said, a mournful chuckle escaping his lips. “I don’t want to ask anything you’re not comfortable with, Lucinda.” He took a slight step back, as if to walk away. “But,” he went on, stopping her from closing the door. “perhaps just a walk? In the park?”

For the briefest of idiotic moments, Lucinda considered saying no. But the moment was just that. Brief. A smile that hadn’t graced her lips in a long time suddenly burst into life.

“I’ll just grab my coat.”

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