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About the Author
Maddie Please was born in Dorset, brought up in Worcestershire and went to University in Cardiff.
After a career as a dentist Maddie now writes full time, and lives in Devon with her exceptionally handsome and supportive husband.
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Scotch Whisky, Coffee Liqueur, Single Cream, Sugar Syrup
So, it was Friday night. Six-thirty. I'd got in at half past seven that morning and was still working. Everyone else was entitled to a social life, but not me, apparently. India had left at five on the dot as usual, trilling happily about some party she and Jerry had been invited to. Something that necessitated an extended lunch hour so she could get her nails done. Wouldn't that be nice? No such excitement awaited me when I got home.
I started to clear up; Tim was always very good but India thought she had staff. She'd left a half-eaten prawn sandwich on her desk that was curling gently as I swept it into the black bin liner. Mercifully it looked too revolting to eat, otherwise I would probably have been tempted. I had no willpower. As I went round the office, emptying the bins and wiping crumbs off India's desk, I reminded myself of things I had to do.
I was supposed to be losing weight for India's wedding in December.
I was supposed to be organising her hen weekend.
I was supposed to be looking forward to being her bridesmaid.
* * *
Don't get me wrong; usually I loved my job. But I loved it a lot more before my sister started working there.
Dad took over our grandfather's estate agency in 1998 and it was in a glorious old building in the middle of the high street, next door to the baker's, perfect for foot traffic and the odd tourist to wander in and enquire after a little place in the country. Actually, thinking about it, we'd had quite a few of those recently.
In my teens I used to help Dad out in the office at weekends and in the school holidays, learning how to answer the phone (smile, Alexa, smile), draw up floor plans and conduct viewings. It was in my blood. The thrill of waiting for an offer to be accepted, of being able to look around gorgeous houses I couldn't afford, pointing out exciting things, like underfloor heating, ten-inch attic insulation or garden water features, never left me.
It was almost perfect, if only Dad had stopped harking back to the glory times of property when you used to be able to buy a flat in London for buttons and sell it for millions a few years later. Even when we were small he would bang on about getting on the property ladder. It wasn't as though he'd done badly in recent years, despite the property crash in 2008, but he was only too keen to tell stories of the good old days. Perhaps it was because I was three years older than India, but I paid attention and found something I really loved doing.
I started working with Dad straight out of school, never considering doing anything else. Pretty soon, Dad was happy to leave me to run the office while he and Mum took more and more holidays.
India floated off to a polytechnic to do media studies. Heaven only knew what she actually did there. Having never been to uni myself, it seemed her three years away were punctuated with rancid arguments with flatmates, complaints about everything and tearful phone calls for money. The vacations were worse. India spent all her time lounging about the house, eating all the biscuits and having long telephone calls with her friends, which seemed to consist of little more than India saying: 'Yes, no, no. Did he? What did she say? No! No! Honestly?'
India seemed good fun in those days, maybe because she wasn't my responsibility. She knew loads of people, introduced me to her friends and was an unending source of fabulous gossip. I can remember us enjoying girls' nights in, face packs, pizzas, terrible movies and bottles of wine pinched from Dad's collection. We once watched Mamma Mia! while necking back some vintage Dom Pérignon champagne. We got a lot of grief for doing that but at least India took the blame.
I had just accustomed myself to perhaps taking over entirely at the office and reorganising it after Dad retired when India finished uni. She'd failed to get a degree of any sort. This was breezily explained as being down to a 'glitch' in the examinations department that would be sorted out 'eventually'.
She somehow managed to get away with things I never would have – from convincing Mum and Dad that her lack of a degree was the fault of the polytechnic, to having men swanning after her despite showing little to no interest in them.
When India was told in no uncertain terms that she had to get a job, she tried with a very ill grace, which would have been hilarious if only I hadn't been forced to pick up the pieces. There was an internship at the local radio station, which failed because India didn't quite believe there was such a time as seven-thirty in the morning, and if there was it had nothing to do with her. Then came the beauty tester position for the local paper, which unfortunately didn't pan out, as the paper wanted more than 'this stuff is crap' or 'this smells like a farmyard' from her.
Much as I enjoyed my sister's company and hearing about her hilarious escapades, my role in her life gradually changed. Except when she needed cheering up with a good bottle of wine when she was down. Or picking up when her car ran out of petrol.
I'd worked for years learning how to be a good estate agent, getting my qualifications, doing a thorough job and making myself indispensable. But India skimmed the surface of life, getting away with everything, so when she arrived at the office with Dad one Monday morning and flopped down at the desk opposite mine asking for coffee, I shouldn't have been surprised.
Dad patted me on the back and said, 'Look after India, will you, Alexa? Show her the ropes, get her some experience. Mum said you'd be okay with it.'
I didn't quite believe it ... but now, now ... well, to say I was irritated didn't do the word justice. Particularly after Laura's party, when India had apparently been cosying up to my boyfriend. I still hadn't forgiven her for that. Or found out exactly what she was up to.
And then it got worse, because not only did India not do any work, refuse to turn up on time, leave early and expect me to sort out all of her mistakes, she also met Jerry, fell in love and got engaged. Suddenly my younger sister, who, irritating though she was, had probably been my closest friend in the last few years, became a complete nightmare.
From the moment India said yes to Jerry, her phone was filled with Pinterest pictures of wedding place settings, colour schemes, bouquets and sparkly shoes. These days India couldn't be in a room for longer than five minutes without saying, 'Of course, when I'm married ...' And I was struggling to handle being around her when all she talked about was her wedding day, or Jerry, or both.
Because, like the gilded child she'd always been, India was the one with the wedding coming up and the respectable fiancé and the trendy lifestyle in the cool, loft-style apartment near the river. Conversely, my attempts at independence had failed so spectacularly that when my flatmate had an early midlife crisis and decided to go travelling for a year, I couldn't afford to live on my own any longer. I had to move back home to the end of my parents' garden to 'stay' in their granny annexe. It was supposed to be a short-term thing. So far it'd been over six months.
As I dumped the rubbish into the bin I got a text from Mum.
'India wants pale blue for the tablecloths and pink for the bridesmaid's dress. Do you think you could get into a size twelve by December? The one she especially likes is on sale right now but there's limited stock. And the big sizes have sold out.'
The wedding. Again. I didn't bother replying (They'd changed the colour scheme and dress colour at least three times in the last week. Big sizes? Bloody cheek.) and decided to throw the towel in. It was time for a long bath and a big glass of wine. And maybe an hour without being asked about the stupid wedding ... Was that too much to ask?
* * *
'Do you know we're known as SKI-ers?' Dad said proudly over Sunday lunch that weekend. 'I read about it in The Oldie. We are Spending our Kids' Inheritance – get it?'
'Yes, we get it,' India said, opening the drinks cabinet and pulling out a new bottle of Sipsmith gin. 'Can I take this?'
India and Jerry were visiting for Sunday lunch and we had all enjoyed one of my mother's justly famous roast dinners, but I knew it was only a matter of time before India started raiding the fridge. Old habits are hard to break.
Mum sighed. 'Well, yes, India, but why don't you just buy your own gin?'
'I keep getting ID'd,' India said with a pout that fooled no one.
'Oh, don't be ridiculous – you're twenty-six,' Mum said, before her butterfly mind darted off to a more enjoyable subject. 'And getting married in four months!'
'Seventeen weeks yesterday,' India said, beaming from ear to ear.
Next they'd be back on the colour scheme and place settings.
India sent a fond smile across to where her fiancé, Jerry, was sitting happily working his way through a slab of brie.
He looked up and winked. 'Well, I for one can't wait!'
'Poor deluded fool,' Dad said, noticing India trying to slip a bottle of Angostura bitters in her bag. 'India, are you going to leave us any alcohol, or are you planning on stealing all of it?'
India went and dropped a kiss on top of his bald head.
'Oh, Daddy, you can always restock in duty free,' she said, 'when you go to Australia.'
'That's not for a while,' he said, taking the Angostura bitters back.
'So how are the August figures looking, Alexa?' Mum said.
Right. That just about summed up my life at the moment.
My younger sister had infuriated me all week with her untidiness, her inability to use spellchecker and her cavalier attitude to the appointment book, and now here she was again, dominating the occasion, raiding the drinks cabinet and probably the freezer. We'd spend the rest of the day discussing her wedding dress fitting, the flowers, the cake, the bloody flower girls; but I got asked about the sales figures for the family business.
I felt a noble pang of self-pity. Mum had to talk to me about something, I suppose, and at the moment it certainly wasn't going to be my boyfriend or dazzling social life. I had neither. I had loads of friends but in the last few years they'd all been getting engaged or married; now they were busy having children.
'Oh, you know, okay,' I said, feeling a little proud despite myself. 'The three properties on the Bainbridge estate have gone and there's an asking price offer in on Walton House.'
'Excellent, well done, it's been a good year despite all the doom-mongers. I was talking to John Thingy at the golf club yesterday. You know, the tall, thin chap from Countryside Property, and he said they're doing awfully well. He was asking after you. Don't you think you could fancy him just a bit?' Mum said airily. 'You don't want to be living at the end of our garden for ever, do you?'
I thought of John Foster with his damp hands and the irritating way he wound his legs around like pipe cleaners when he sat down.
'No,' I said, 'I couldn't.'
'Well, it's a shame. India will be off in no time,' she said, 'and then who will introduce you to people?'
I couldn't remember the last time India had introduced me to anyone significant.
'I'm quite able to look after myself, you know,' I said, 'and I don't need to be palmed off on John Foster just to tidy things up.'
'No, I suppose not. What about that nice Ben with the curly hair? You don't think he might do? Oh well.' Evidently the subject had begun to bore her and she waved a hand at my father to attract his attention. 'Do you know, Simon, I think I fancy a cherry brandy with my cheese.'
'They make a liqueur in Australia from liquorice and chocolate,' Dad said as he went to find some clean glasses. 'I was reading about it earlier.'
'Sounds vile,' Mum said. 'We must try it.'
A mobile phone rang somewhere and we all patted our pockets and looked under things on the dining table to find out whose it was.
'Oooh, it's me,' Mum said and prodded at her phone, standing up to take the call and get away from the noise we were all making. 'Really? Really? Well, that's fantastic! When? When? Really?'
She wandered off through the patio doors into the garden, still talking, and we went back to the cheeseboard on the table. India wrestled the biscuits away from Jerry and loaded one up with a pyramid of Boursin, which she then pushed on to his nose. Honestly, they were like a couple of babies.
I tutted and rolled my eyes at Dad but he was busy reading the Angostura bitters label and didn't notice.
'There's a flat coming up on the Park you would like,' I said to my father. He might have nearly retired from the estate agency but he still liked to keep a finger on the pulse.
Dad looked blank. 'I'm not thinking of moving. Am I?'
'You could always downsize, have a nice simple place to look after,' I said. 'Less housework for Mum.'
Not that she seemed to do any; the kitchen floor was really sticky. But then who was I to talk? I hadn't looked at a cleaning product since moving into the garden flat.
Down the other end of the long table, India and Jerry were squabbling over the box of chocolates I had brought for my parents as a gift, ripping off the cellophane with glee, India's dark curls slipping out of the messy chignon she had recently adopted and falling over her face. She had some idea that it might be nice for me to do the same thing when she got married, but my hair – while the same colour as hers – was straight as a poker and unlikely to co-operate.
They looked up as Mum came back in from the garden, her face bright with shock.
She took her cherry brandy and downed it in one.
'You'll never guess,' she said. 'That was someone called Stephen McKenzie about the raffle.'
We all looked at her blankly, waiting for more details. On these occasions Mum was inclined to spin things out as long as possible.
I cracked first. 'What raffle?'
'He had some news; I mean some really unbelievable news that I think is going to make life a bit difficult. I'll have to check my dates.'
'God, Manda, you're not pregnant, are you?' Dad said, a hazelnut whirl halfway to his mouth.
India pulled a face at me across the table.
'Don't be ridiculous, Simon. I mean our holiday dates,' Mum said. 'I'll get my diary.'
Dad grabbed her arm. 'Later. Tell me what's going on first.'
'Well, do you remember the golf club dinner we went to in January? The Founders Day Dinner Dance and Fundraising Extravaganza? Bel Goodwin was doing the tombola and you won a bottle of Liebfraumilch?'
'It was corked,' Dad said.
'Yes, but do you remember Jeff Bosbury-Wallace was selling raffle tickets in aid of Cancer Research? It was a nationwide thing, not just for the golf club. Ten quid each or a book of ten for a hundred?'
'No,' Dad said, pulling the chocolates towards him as his attention waned. 'I don't remember and I hate to break it to you but that's still ten quid each, by the way.'
'Well, I bought a book.'
'What? A hundred quid! You spent a hundred quid on raffle tickets? It's not as though that club fundraiser doesn't cost me an arm and a leg already! Jeff Bosbury-Wallace is a bloody bandit! They should have given them to us for nothing.'
'Have you won something?' Jerry said, being the perfect potential son-in-law and breaking the tension.
'I have!' Mum said triumphantly, sitting back in her chair and sending him a fond look.
Behind her I saw India wander up to the wine cabinet and pick out a couple of bottles. Things like this had started to annoy me over the last few months. I mean, why did she still have to behave like a pigging student? Jerry earned a packet and Dad paid India almost as much as I got. Which was so grossly unfair it was almost litigious.
'So? Well? Are you going to tell us? For God's sake, please tell me it's not more disgusting wine?' Dad said.
'It's not!' Mum said.
We sat in confused silence for a moment until Dad gave her a wide-eyed look.
'So? For the love of God, what?'
'A holiday!' Mum said. 'We've won a holiday.'
'Have we? How marvellous!'
'The first prize was a trip to see Santa in Finland with up to four children. Thank God we didn't win that. Second prize was probably a trip to see Santa in Finland with eight children. Now I'll go and find my diary.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Come Away With Me"
Copyright © 2018 Maddie Please.
Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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