Christmas at Claridge’s by Karen Swan – Extract

Christmas at Claridge's

Prologue

April 2003

She awoke with a start. Her dream had been greedy, sucking her into a deep, motionless sleep, and her heart pounded heavily within her chest at the sudden fright. Above her head, the thin blue paisley curtain fluttered wildly like a trapped bird at the open window, the room falling into sporadic darkness as battle-fresh storm clouds surged across the sky, blocking the moon’s earthly gaze. She blinked and lay perfectly still, watching the curtain flap and flail and listening to the ghostly sounds outside as the gusting wind skimmed the sea’s skin and sprayed droplets through the air, misting the sheet so that it clung to her body like a shroud.

The bang came again and she jumped – not because it was particularly loud, but because it was out of place. The storm had been forecast and everything was tethered. That gate had been locked. She had done it herself.

In one move she was up on her knees, her face scrunched against the wind as it found her in the narrow window and whipped her long dark hair around her like Medusa’s snakes. She saw the dark green trellised gate bang against its metal post again before sweeping back on its hinges, ready for the next attack. Her eyes lifted to the frothing surf behind it as rearing white horses stampeded the inlet, throwing themselves against the basalt rocks, while the gate crashed closed again and again and again – the drummer boy to the sea’s cavalry charge. If she was going to get any sleep . . .

Her bare feet touched the cold tiled floor as she pulled on the white dotted cotton nightdress it had been too muggy to wear before the storm had broken. She opened her door soundlessly and looked down the long hall. Shadows played in silence, interrupted only by the caprices of the clouds, and downstairs a Viennese wall clock ticked. She ran lightly, the pads of her feet making a tiny sticky patter only the mice could hear.

She moved like a ghost through the kitchen, automatically reaching high for the back door keys that were stored safely on a hook. But they weren’t there. Tentatively she put her hand to the handle and pushed down. It was unlocked.

She hesitated, listening for further sounds that would indicate activity or reasons to be outside in the storm, but everything around her seemingly slept on. But . . . she looked at the handle again; someone was up. With a deep breath, she stepped outside, immediately hunching herself into a stoop as the hot wind lunged at her in snappy gusts. Her hair flew across her face, and she had to release one hand from clutching her nightie to pin her hair back behind her ear as she looked across the gardens for signs of life. She was alone. The chickens were nestled together in the furthest corner of their coop, the tree branches empty and there was no sign of the black and white stray cat with ginger tail and eyebrows either. She hobbled over the cobbled-mosaic path, as above her, the olive and cypress trees bent low as if in greeting, the wild daisies in the stone walls nodding their heads in frantic unison.

She reached the gate mid-swing, only just stopping it from slamming again. Replacing it on the catch, she reached down to re-attach the chain that she knew she had secured earlier. Padlocks didn’t just unlock themselves and there certainly wasn’t enough power – even in these winds – for the gate to force it. To open it required a key that was left on the same hook with the back door keys. Who was out here?

She looked across the small, narrow road that divided the property from the rocky shore, searching for an untethered boat on the savage swell or an uprooted tree – anything that might explain why anyone would come out in this weather. But the moon was eclipsed by buffeting clouds suddenly and the garden plunged into darkness. Shadows were swallowed whole and the wind howled as it victory-lapped the lone villa.

That was why she saw it, the barest flicker of a candle further down the shore path, the only light out there. Her eyes focused with pinpoint accuracy as she keened into the headwind, trying to see the dot of light in the distance. No one would willingly choose to step outdoors during a storm like this. Something had to be wrong.

Letting the chain drop heavily from her hand, she opened the gate again and crossed the narrow road, darting straight into the protection of the fig-tree-lined tunnel on the other side that would take her down to the stepped terraces and the bar area, and then beyond that, swirling down in a vortex of cobble steps towards the beach and boat stores.

The ground was wet beneath her feet as spray – all that was left of the waves pounding the rocks and tors and walls –  fell like mist, making her hair and nightie cling defiantly to her skin in spite of the wind’s assaults. Her hands smacked against the jagged walls for blind guidance as she headed towards the solitary flicker that she could see now was coming from the tall, round folly on the small bay’s furthest promontory. With relief, she knew the dark path she was on would lead directly to steps that descended to the headland; the door was only locked at the bottom, where it opened onto a small concrete bathing platform a metre above the sea.

Disorientated by the dancing, whirling darkness, she reached the first steps before she expected to, almost falling headlong down them and having to grapple with the wall for support, grazing the skin on her forearms. She closed her eyes as the sting smarted, her hands clasping the cuts as her heart pounded from the near miss. A shiver shot over her skin; she was shielded from the warmth of the Saharan-sourced wind here and the chill of her damp hair and skin began to creep.

A sudden noise – a sob? – beneath her made her catch her breath. She strained to hear more and made out the dull sweep of skin on stone, as if something or someone was being dragged, and then a sharp scraping as though furniture was being moved. She waited, her breath held, one hand slapped over her mouth as an insurance policy. There came the sounds of hurried breathing, of panting.

She froze, suddenly certain that whoever was down there, and whatever they were doing, it had nothing to do with the storm. Although the small windows on the stairwell were open to the elements, with only iron bars at them, the steps themselves ran down a central spine, blocking the floor below from sight and protecting everything in there from the weather. Whatever was happening down there, in the dead of night, amidst the storm, it was happening in secret.

She looked behind her into the enveloping blackness, knowing she should turn back; knowing that whatever was going on, it had nothing to do with her; she wasn’t supposed to see this. She was eighteen. Her whole life was spread before her like a beautifully laid picnic.

The breathing around the next corner grew more ragged and desperate, building . . . She turned to go. She had to get out.

‘Help . . . me.’ The whisper reached out to her – only her in the darkness.

She spun round, her eyes wide and black with fright.

Had they heard her? Had she heard correctly? Above the wind, she didn’t know if she could trust her ears. But she could trust her eyes. Every instinct was telling her to turn and run, to leap over the steps three at a time and escape back to the safety of the storm. There was fear here. She could feel it reaching up the stairs like ivy and entwining her.

She was unseen, but already a part of this. Even as her head screamed at her to run, her feet began to move, spiriting her forwards and downwards in silence as the storm raged above. Shaking palpably, instinctively sensing that each step she took was a step away from her own path, she turned the corner.

Two pairs of eyes met hers. And she stepped out of the shadows.

NEW YEAR’S EVE, 2013

Chapter One

The red leather-clad phone on the table buzzed waspishly, jolting Clem out of her meditation on the rain. She read it with a sigh.

‘Where ARE you? If you’re not here in five minutes, I’m coming to get you.’

The sender hadn’t signed off, but then, she didn’t need to. Stella and she practically maintained an open line to each other. Her hand fell back onto the silk pouch resting on her lap and she looked out into the slippery, gleaming night. It was just gone nine thirty and she’d made a solemn pinky-promise to get there soon after eight, but for all her hard-partying reputation, she loathed New Year’s Eve. It was the second worst night of the year in her book.

‘Wardrobe crisis,’ she texted back.

The reply was instantaneous. ‘Bollocks! We decided on the sequin skirt and mohair jumper. Move it!’

Clem’s eyes fell down to her copper sequinned mini skirt – which flashed her extra-long still-brown legs – and the winter-white sweater that slipped off one still-brown shoulder. Stella always knew when she was lying.

‘Shoe crisis,’ she half-heartedly tried again whilst sliding her feet into the metallic bronze python stilettos lying abandoned beside the sofa and pushing herself to standing. At 5 foot 9 inches in socks, the shoes took her above 6 foot and her gaze drifted out the windows onto the reflections in the puddles on the pavements outside. It really was raining very hard she noticed for the first time. Stella’s flat was only a couple of streets away, but she’d be soaked if she walked there, and what were the chances of catching a cab on the Portobello Road on New Year’s Eve?

The phone buzzed again. ‘Pythons. And FYFI Josh just arrived and been ambushed by bosomy blonde in red.’

‘What?’ Clem screeched to the empty room. With sudden focus and impressive speed, she raced into her bedroom, digging beneath the piles of dirty clothes for her bag and a coat. Her hands found the rabbit-fur jacket (or ‘lapin’ as Stella insisted on saying, making it sound like an exotic tea) and she held it up questioningly. She’d bought it on a whim in the market last week and worn it home in the rain so that now the fur looked like it came from a rabbit that had died of myxomatosis. Hmm.

It was still chucking it down, so she ran back into the sitting room and grabbed the tobacco unlined leather jacket off the hook on the back of the door. It had cost a bomb and she couldn’t quite remember whether she’d actually got round to waterproofing it yet, but there wasn’t time to worry about that now. Josh was at the party. He was there and she was not, and a woman with a bosom was making a move – Clem was damned if she was going to let that wench undo her two months and nineteen days of hard graft getting him to believe that there really was more to her than just a good-time girl.

Grabbing her keys and phone, she dashed out of the door, slamming it behind her. A minute later, she was letting herself back in again and running – she was surprisingly fast in 4-inch heels – to the fridge. The Billecart-Salmon was nicely chilled. At least the bitter night air temperatures were going to work with her on that. Shame the rain would make her mascara run, her jumper pill and her hair flat.

Ooh. Hair flat. Hat! She bolted into Tom’s room and grabbed the Akubra hat he kept on top of his wardrobe, her eyes falling on the bike in the far corner as she checked herself in the mirror. She stopped and stared at it, her mind racing with the sudden possibility. No. She couldn’t. It was a spectacularly bad idea, even by her standards. And Tom would kill her. Completely hang her up by her earrings and . . .

‘. . . Hair flick followed by bosom thrust.’

Clem gave another small scream that made Shambles, their pet parrot, fall off her perch, and crossed the room in record time. To hell with Tom. This was an emergency.

The streets were quiet, the shops and cafés long since shut and all the residents safely ensconced in raucous house parties or the pubs, out of the rain. The roads gleamed in their wet skins beneath the street lights and Clem allowed herself a laugh of delight as she sliced through a deep puddle, her feet off the pedals as the spray dived cleanly to her left and right.

The bike – even though it was a man’s model – fitted her well, her famously long legs stretched fully on the downward rotations, and it felt responsive and light to manoeuvre, even riding one-handed. She’d have to see whether she could get herself one of these. It’d be a dream for getting through the market, and she could be in Hyde Park in minutes. Maybe she should give up running and take up cycling instead?

Turning right onto Ladbroke Grove and third left into Oxford Gardens, she mounted the pavement, almost taking out a man striding towards her. He began swearing at her in French, but Clem didn’t have time to stop and even less inclination to apologize. ‘And you nearly made me drop my bottle!’ she hollered indignantly over her shoulder. ‘What you doing out here anyway? Got no mates?’

She pulled up at Stella’s flat minutes later, swinging her leg off the bike as if she was dismounting a horse, and grabbed the mirror from her bag to check herself over. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold night air and her eyeliner had smudged a little in the damp, but she decided she rather liked that. She always preferred to look a little ‘undone’, and anyway, it picked out the aquamarine tints in her blue-green eyes, which usually only appeared when she cried. And she wasn’t going to be crying tonight. Oh no.

The door was on the latch, but she had to push it with some force to get past the revellers drinking, dancing and talking in the hall. There wasn’t enough room to lean the bike against the wall, but she noticed the looped metal demi-chandelier wall-lights . . .

‘Hey!’ she shouted over the music to a guy in a gunmetal-grey shirt, allowing her signature husky voice to become even more gravelled. ‘Would you mind . . .?’ She indicated from the bike to the wall light. From the look on his face, just the sight of her with her jumper slowly slipping off her shoulder, would have made him lift a tractor up there had she asked.

Clem flashed him a teasingly grateful smile and pushed her way past the bodies to the party’s hub in the long, tall living room. It was so crowded that there wasn’t enough room to swing her hair, much less a cat, but people moved aside for her anyway, their stares slow and interested at the sight of her looking soggy and dripping raindrops from the brim of her hat, while still somehow managing to be the most arresting woman in the room. Stella was standing near the fireplace, drunkenly pouring vodka into a row of shot glasses.

‘Where is he?’ Clem asked, grabbing one of the vodka shots and downing it.

Stella, unperturbed, did the same and they each picked up a fresh glass, ready to go again. ‘Kitchen. You took your time.’ Concern posing as suspicion danced in her glassgreen eyes.

Clem ignored her. ‘Any idea who the dolly is?’

‘Nope, but she dances like she’s been tranquillized and she’s got all the subtlety of a claw hammer.’ They clinked glasses and dispatched them without missing a beat.

‘Hmm. How do I look?’

Stella gave her the quick once-over – she was, after all, the designer of Clem’s outfit that evening. As the two of them always said, she was the one with the eye, Clem was the one with the legs.

‘Hatefully gorgeous, and keep the hat. Bonus points for styling,’ she replied, arranging Clem’s nut-brown hair so it curled softly like sleeping kittens around her shoulders.

Clem let her gaze drift around the room. She knew most of the faces there. Fifteen feet away she could see Tom and Clover chatting to his rugby mates, Tom leaning against the back of the sofa, a beer on the go and his ever-ready grin plastered all over his handsome face, as Clover winsomely stroked the back of his neck with her hand. Clem slunk down a little. It was usually Clover she avoided, but she really didn’t want to deal with her big brother right now.

Stella handed her another shot of Grey Goose. ‘You’ve got to play catch-up,’ she ordered bossily, as Clem wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and watched a silky brunette move in for the kill on Freddie Haywood, her ex, three times removed.

‘Regrets?’ Stella asked, watching as Freddie’s eyes flickered towards Clem.

‘Who? Freddie? Don’t be daft,’ Clem murmured, looking away.

‘I still don’t get why you two broke up. You made a great couple.’

Clem threw her an annoyed look. ‘Uh, because we’d been together for three weeks past my official relationship expiry date, he texts with his middle finger and he wears the same pants three days running.’

‘So do you most of the time,’ Stella said.

‘Tch, do not,’ Clem replied, even though she was famous for either going commando or wearing the first pair of knickers she could find in the mess on the floor that passed for her laundry basket. Tom kept muttering that he’d never be able to move out until she worked out how to work the washing machine.

‘Well I think it’s a shame, that’s all.’ Stella shrugged, reaching down into a bowl of Pringles. ‘You seemed happy with him and he’s obviously still mad about you.’

‘Moving on,’ Clem snapped, closing the conversation down once and for all. ‘Josh is much more my thing now: mature, considerate, enlightened. He could teach me things. Make me a better person.’

Stella choked on her crisp. ‘Bollocks. You’re only going after him because he’s the first man you’ve ever met who hasn’t fallen at your feet.’

‘Not true.’

‘Bang on, more like. Yes, he’s good-looking, but quite frankly I don’t trust any man who jacks in a good career in Private Equity to man the phones for The Samaritans. And as for giving up booze to compete in triathlons every week- end, well . . . you should be very, very wary, that’s all I’m saying.’

‘But I could grow with him.’

A pulse of disbelief followed this statement and Clem was forced to give a tiny shrug in acknowledgement of the ridiculous words coming from her mouth.

‘Grow bored more like. You might be able to convince him that you volunteered at the cat sanctuary in your gap year, and that you only listen to chamber music on your iPod, but you and I both know that “danger” is your middle name. You’re pretending to be someone you’re not when you’re with him. It won’t last.’

‘It doesn’t have to,’ Clem replied, flashing her friend a sarcastic smile. ‘I’m not looking for a husband.’

‘Well then, you’re the only single twenty-nine-year-old female in London who isn’t,’ Stella said, pouring herself another drink, her eyes tracking someone over Clem’s bare shoulder. ‘Anyway, I don’t have time to stand here chatting about your self-imposed problems. I still haven’t got myself a date for midnight, so if you’re so convinced Josh is your Mr Right Now, then go get him, Tiger,’ Stella said, slapping her hard on the bottom and wandering off in pursuit of a guy in skinny jeans and a trilby.

Clem watched her go. If she had the legs and eyes combo to take out most men, her diminutive firecracker friend had the E-cup cleavage and handspan waist. Clem smiled as she watched Stella almost immediately hypnotize the guy into stunned submission, his mouth falling open like a guppy – she knew one of them was sorted for the night. It was time to get her groove on: the first buzz of vodka was mixing with her bloodstream and there was a code red in the kitchen.

The party was ascending to a riotous peak, the floorboards vibrating to the pounding dance-floor beat, as she turned into the crowd, began to sway and let herself go. If there was one thing she could do – really do – it was party. No W11 party was complete without her. She moved deeper into the melee of smiling mouths and loud laughs, the glassy eyes and lecherous stares, the flushed cheeks and glossy hair tosses that she called ‘home’, everyone dancing and swaying around her, singing drunkenly and punching the air. Except for one.

His stillness jarred against the throb of the crowd and she lifted her chin fractionally to get a better look at him from under her hat while flashing him a glimpse of her stunning eyes. He was leaning against the wall, watching her with notably glacial-blue eyes of his own. He was a predator, like her. Her gaze didn’t move from his but she peripherally registered the pale blue shirt worn over Swimmer’s shoulders, the offbeat grey marled jacket with black revers that was classic, yet subversive too – and clearly expensive. She noted heavy straight brows, a square chin, dark blond hair that would look brown when wet, planed cheekbones that would stretch the skin thin when – if – he smiled.

And then everything went black.

‘Hey! Who said you could wear that? It’s an heirloom remember?’ a distinctive male voice boomed next to her.

Clem pushed the hat back up off her eyes hurriedly. Talk about ruining the mystique! ‘Just because it was Dad’s doesn’t make it valuable, Tom,’ she said irritably, looking past her brother to find the stranger still staring, but with less heat and more laughter in his expression now. Something about him was familiar . . .

‘The concept of emotional significance really is lost on you, isn’t it?’ Her brother tutted as Clover drifted over – obvs – looking clean and meadowy amidst the gritty urban party animals seeing out another year in Notting Hill. She gave Clem a tight smile.

‘Sentimental tosh more like. A hat is a hat is a hat. And it’s raining out there, you know.’

‘And God forbid Josh should see you looking anything other than perfect, right?’ Tom teased.

‘That’s right.’

‘Well, he should be doubly pleased tonight then,’ Tom said meaningfully, unable to keep the laughter out of his voice.

Clem shifted her weight uneasily. ‘What does that mean?’

‘Only that your intended tucked into the punch with some gusto when he got here.’

‘The punch?’ Clem echoed. Stella’s Bacardi-vodka-tequila punch was the stuff of legend.

‘Yep. Someone might have told him it was a non-alcoholic option.’

Clem felt a kernel of dread harden in the pit of her stomach. ‘But there’s no such thing at Stella’s place. She’s never drunk juice in her life. Not without vodka in it.’

‘Well, we know that . . .’ Tom grinned, his twinkly eyes glassy with booze. ‘Oh, talk of the devil! Josh, how’s it going, mate?’

Clem watched in horror as Josh bowled towards her, holding onto walls, sofas and nearby shoulders for support. He stopped in front of Clem, standing on her toes and swaying with a rhythm that had nothing to do with the music.

‘Ah shit, Clem . . .’ he slurred, his eyes running up and down her like scales. ‘I’ve had enough of this. You’ve been messing with my head too bloody long,’ he said, swooping down to kiss her, unfortunately forgetting to account for the rigid brim of her hat, so that his lips were kept, pursed, away from hers for several, agonizing moments before the hat suddenly bowed under the pressure and his mouth quite literally fell upon hers in a clash of teeth.

Clem staggered back under his weight, aware of Tom and Clover’s laughter as Josh stumbled to remain joined to her. Talk about bad to worse. First her brother humiliates her in front of the stranger and now—

But a sudden intake of breath, horrified and aghast, stopped her short. She pushed Josh off and looked up at Tom in panic. He had gone sheet-white and his generous smile completely vanished. He was holding his breath, his knuckles white around the beer bottle in his hand, so that Clem worried it would shatter from the force of his fist.

‘What have you done?’ he managed, his voice choked.

Clem didn’t need to follow his line of sight to know that he was looking at the bike hanging on the wall.

‘It was raining,’ she whispered. She’d known he’d be cross, but the devastation in his face was more cutting than the fiercest anger. Her eyes followed the track of his like a cursor as they ran over the bicycle’s rosy, twinkling, caramel leather-clad frame, now soaked dark with rain, stained with beer, graffiti’d with biro and speckled grey with cigarette ash that was smouldering slowly through to the glossy golden skeleton beneath.

A turgid silence ballooned between them and when he finally spoke, his voice was more of a rumble, like a bomb going off several miles away. ‘I suppose it completely passed over your head that that prototype cost a hundred and thirty-five grand to make.’

Clem’s jaw dropped open.

‘One hundred – and thirty – five – thousand,’ Tom repeated. ‘It’s plated in rose gold and has real fucking diamonds studded in it! It was never designed to be used! I left it in the flat in order to protect it over the holidays because our insurers won’t cover it in the studio without . . . without a bloody security guard. And you’re telling me you brought it to a mosh-pit party because it was raining?’

‘I panicked. Josh was chatting up another girl.’

Tom’s usually benevolent gaze drifted from her to the husk of a man leaning on her, so far gone he couldn’t even focus, much less keep up with the conversation.

‘And was it worth it?’ His contempt was withering, though whether it was reserved for her or Josh wasn’t clear.

Clem shook her head. ‘I’m so sorry, Tom. I didn’t know it was that mu . . . I’ll make it up to you. I promise.’

‘How, exactly?’

She shrank back from the disdain in his voice. They both knew there was no rescue remedy to this, her latest, disaster.

‘We’re supposed to unveil it at the Expo in Berlin next week. It’s the lead exhibit. There are companies coming from China just to see it. ’

‘I’ll work without pay,’ she offered desperately.

‘That’ll simply mean I have to pay your rent and food for you, too.’ His hand reached out for Clover’s and she grasped it keenly, her thumb rubbing reassuringly – proprietorially – over the back of his hand. He shook his head. ‘I don’t know what it is with you, Clem. You’ve got it all going for you, and yet for some reason, everything you touch turns to shit. I’m up to here with you acting like a spoilt child and never thinking about anyone but yourself. When are you going to get your act together and just grow up?’

‘Tom, I . . .’ she faltered, but he thrust his half-drunk beer roughly into her hand and stormed off, pulling Clover behind him like a kite.

Clem bit her lip, tears stinging her eyes as she watched him stride over to the hall, pushing people out of the way and unhooking the priceless bike from the wall sconces. Beside her, Josh fell over his own feet and landed face first on a Moroccan pouffe. Clem looked down at him in despair before remembering the enigmatic stranger, the Swimmer. But, like her brother and the prospect of ringing in a happy new year, he was long gone.

Chapter Two

The rain had fallen even harder on the way home. Not that Clem remembered this. Finishing off the bottle of Grey Goose had been so effective at staunching the hurt of Tom’s contempt, it was almost as if their fight hadn’t happened at all. Rather, it was the sodden leather jacket – untreated, as it turned out – bleeding tannin into the pale maple floor that showed just how wild the weather had become. That, or she’d had a bath in it, which frankly couldn’t be discounted as an option either. She’d done worse in her time.

She groaned as the room moved around her prostrate form on the sofa, her hands automatically stroking the curly tufts of the sheepskin sofa that soothed her like a teddy bear. The silk envelope had fallen to the floor, its precious contents still pristine, thankfully, and she knew she had to hide it again before Tom came back. It had been reckless to—

Tom. She swivelled one mascara-clotted eye around, looking for him. Usually he woke her nose-first, cooking up one of his famous fried-egg sandwiches, which always settled her stomach and enabled her to move to a vertical position. But the flat was quiet and still, yesterday’s dirty dishes were where she’d left them on the worktop and the eggs were keeping their healing properties a secret in the fridge.

It was too early for him to come back from Clover’s, she reasoned. It was still dark outside. She should go back to sleep and try to slumber through the worst of this. But water. She needed water.

Shambles, watching from her perch in Tom’s room, squawked loudly at the sight of Clem’s jerky, hesitant movements. ‘Sexanddrugsandrocknrollsexanddrugsandrocknroll.’ Clem nodded feebly in acknowledgement and slowly sat up, smoothing a hand through her matted hair and seeing, with damped horror, Tom’s flattened Akubra hat, which she’d used as a pillow.

‘Oh, Shambles,’ she mumbled, trying to punch it back into shape. ‘Why didn’t you warn me?’

Where’s the remote?’ the parrot squawked.

‘Mmmgh.’

Grabbing a handful of seeds from the bowl on the small round kitchen table, she opened the door to Shambles’ cage and scattered them in. She left the door open so that Sham- bles could come out to stretch her wings, and staggered over to the sink.

The sound of keys in the door made her turn apprehensively, but the first glimpse of giant blue Ikea bags told her it was Stella following after, not Tom. She was over so often, she had honorary housemate status with her own set of keys.

‘Hey!’ Stella panted, throwing the bags ahead of her like a ball at skittles, and stopping short at the sight of Clem standing dazed and confused in just last night’s jumper and knickers. At least she was wearing knickers. ‘Oh dear. You look baaaad.’

‘I feeeeel bad,’ Clem groaned, sagging against the worktop. ‘Thank God you’re here. You can do that egg thing that makes me feel better.’

‘What, eggnog?’

Clem retched. ‘God no. That always makes me throw up.’

‘Oh, Tom’s hangover special, you mean?’

‘That’s the one,’ Clem sighed, giving up the fight against gravity and collapsing onto a kitchen chair. ‘How come you’re up so bright and early anyway?’ Clem moaned, her head in her hands, as Stella crossed the room and got busy in the kitchen. She was wearing an outfit only an official designer could get away with – a vintage kimono coat over silk pyjama bottoms and a metre-long scarf – and looked dispiritingly healthy, even though she had drunk Clem and most of Tom’s rugby club under the table. Quite where she put the alcohol in her 5-foot-2-inch frame, no one knew.

‘It’s hardly early, babes. It’s almost five.’

‘In the afternoon?’

Stella grinned at her, delighted. ‘It was a great party, wasn’t it?’ Stella always gauged the success of her parties by the severity of Clem’s hangovers and the number of bodies unconscious in her flat the morning after. ‘There were seven still sleeping it off at mine this morning. Last one only just left, although he had rather more reason to stay than the others.’ She winked joyously as she cracked the eggs, accounting for the flush in her cheeks and the brightness in her green eyes.

‘Well at least one of us got lucky.’ Clem frowned. ‘What . . . what happened with Josh?’

‘He passed out at ten and slept in the bath. I got Tom’s mates to move him out of the way for me. He was hogging the sofa. Gone by the time I surfaced this morning, though. He’s no doubt cycling up Snowdon as we speak.’ She pulled a sympathetic face. ‘Hate to say it, but I did tell you not to trust a man who doesn’t drink.’

The eggs hissed as they splashed into the hot oil.

‘From now on I shall stick to married men and public school boys with recreational drug habits. At least you know where you are with them.’

Shambles flew out of the cage and swooped above Stella in the kitchen, enjoying the hot thermal current coming off the frying pan, before settling on the windowsill. Clem watched despondently, distracted. Five o’clock? Tom would definitely be back by now ordinarily. This was no mere spat.

‘What’s wrong with me, Stell? Why do I always mess things up? I’m a one-woman disaster zone.’

‘No you’re not. You’re just one of life’s energy force fields. You attract everything to you and sometimes things just spin a little bit out of control, that’s all,’ Stella murmured, her hands moving quickly so that in a few moments more, she placed a steaming, oozing toasted sandwich in front of her beleaguered friend. ‘Now get that down you. I need your body.’

Clem sighed appreciatively and tucked in. Stella always knew how to rally her. A shoot-from-the-hip Finchley girl, she’d been raised by her father after her mother died when she was four, and she had a bustling, maternal nature that soothed Clem and brought her down from her more outrageous antics. Their friendship had been instantaneous and intense since the day they’d met at St Martin’s College, where Stella was studying Fashion Design and Clem was doing the Fashion Journalism and Marketing course. Clem had been hired as a model by one of the more pretentious design students, Taylor Dart, who had put on a still-life fashion installation in a mechanics’ workshop. Stella had been helping Taylor with the fittings as he had all the technical dressmaking ability of a goat, and she and Clem had bonded for life over the armless dress he had reserved for her.

Unlike Taylor, Stella had an unerring instinct for what women wanted to wear – and more importantly how they wanted to feel – and her graduation show had been one of the standout presentations that year, with editors and buyers keeping close tabs on her as she apprenticed with Topshop and then the Burberry Brit division. But Stella had quickly grown restless with giving her best ideas to others so they could profit from them, and when Clem mentioned in passing that her florist friend Katy had told her a stall on Portobello was coming up, the deal had been done. It might not be the glossy shop front she dreamed of on Westbourne Grove, but at least everything had her name on the label, and as one of the most famous markets in the world, it was a fashion mecca.

Stella wandered over to the capacious bags she had bundled in with, and pulled out various bolts of fabric. She was genuinely gifted and her stall in the market was always thronging at the weekends. Clem had worked on the stall for her for a while, but after the third successive theft, in which half of Stella’s collection was lifted while Clem either flirted with the guys in the betting shop or slept behind the changing-room curtain, they had agreed it was better if she simply donated her body to fashion and left it at that.

Clem stood up and took off her jumper, standing in the middle of her flat in just her knickers, as Stella began to wind a length of dusky pink butterfly-print silk-chiffon around her lean frame.

‘Ooh, I like that,’ Clem murmured, looking down as Stella moved nimbly round her, pleating, tucking and folding. ‘What are you going to make with it?’

‘Not sure yet. Let’s see,’ Stella mumbled with pins clenched between her teeth, lifting up Clem’s arms.

Clem looked out and into the flats opposite. Old Mrs Crouch, who’d lived in Portbello all her life, so for well over seventy years, was picking some basil from her window box. Clem gave her a wave. The old lady was used to seeing Clem half-dressed and didn’t bat an eyelid at the goings-on over the road.

‘Do you think we should have some resolutions this year?’ Clem asked as Stella pinned a dart and the fabric moulded beneath her bust.

‘What for? Our lives are perfect the way they are.’

‘Mmm.’

Stella rotated her ninety degrees so that she was looking at the wall and the series of framed black and white photos Clem had taken of her and Tom during the phase when she’d fancied being a photographer. She studied her brother’s floppy brown hair, which always fell over his left eye, and the slight gap between his teeth, which gave him the endearing, scampish look girls fells for time and again. Not that he ever noticed. He had been with Clover for five years now and was as loyal as a puppy. The only reason he hadn’t proposed to Clover yet, Clem knew, was because he worried about her and wanted to see her more settled first.

‘I’m just wondering whether I need to make some changes. Tom’s really pissed off this time. I messed up big style.’

‘He’ll have forgiven you already, you know he will. He hasn’t got a resentful bone in his body, that one.’

‘He says I have to grow up.’

‘But you are grown up,’ Stella pouted prettily, as though the slight was as directed at her as at Clem. ‘You live in this great flat—’

‘With him – which he bought off Mum and Dad. Paying him rent is like giving back my pocket money.’

‘You have a cracking job.’ ‘At his company.’

Stella pulled back from her position on the floor and looked up at her, as though she was trying to be difficult.

‘See what I mean? I can’t cook. You and Tom make everything or else I get a take-out.’

‘Or go without,’ Stella reproved, knowing that Clem’s lack of interest in food was one of the reasons for her spectacular figure.

‘And I can’t drive. I get buses and cabs everywhere.’ ‘Yeah, but what d’you need to drive for in London? Parking’s a nightmare and we both know your car would be permanently clamped. Or you’d forget where you left it.’

‘But what if I want to go into the countryside?’

Stella shot her such a pained look that for a moment Clem wondered whether she’d accidentally swallowed a pin.

‘Yeah OK, so not that. But you know, I might want to go to . . . Clapham, one day.’

‘You never go south of Hyde Park, east of Ladbroke Grove, west of Westbourne Grove or North of North Ken. This is your patch. Why go anywhere else?’

Clem sighed. ‘I just think I should have some resolutions this year. For Tom’s sake. Be a better sister, flatmate, employee, person.’

‘Like what then?’

‘I dunno.’ Clem stared across into Mrs Crouch’s cluttered flat, where the lampshades were draped with fringed scarves and her china figurine collection adorned every surface. ‘I could promise to clean the flat once a week.’ Her eyes scanned the stacked up dirty dishes, the fashion and gossip magazines thrown like scatter cushions across the sofa, the leather jacket still weeping quietly in the middle of the floor, her clothes overflowing from her bedroom . . .

‘Well, get a cleaner at least,’ Stella grimaced. ‘No need to go overboard.’

‘Yes, you’re right,’ Clem agreed gratefully. ‘I’ll hire a cleaner. And I’ll learn to cook.’

Stella arched one finely plucked eyebrow.

Clem held up her index finger. ‘One thing. I’ll learn to cook one thing really well.’ An idea came to her. ‘Like lasagne. That’s Tom’s favourite, and besides, I’m fed up of people talking about béchamel like it’s a private club.’

‘All right. I’ll join you in that if you can find a hot Italian to teach you. What else?’

‘And I’ll learn to drive. I should have done it years ago.’

Stella pulled a face, as if she was sucking on a lemon. ‘Well, if it’ll make you happy.’

‘I just want to make it up to him, that’s all. I’m fed up with being everyone’s favourite disappointment.’

‘Hey!’ Stella protested, flicking a length of material against her leg. ‘Enough of that. You are deeply lovable and we wouldn’t have you any other way. Tom most of all. He’s a total softie where you’re concerned.’

‘I know, but he shouldn’t have to be. I should be making him proud and helping him, not holding him back. I’m the pelican around his neck.’

‘Albatross,’ Stella murmured, going back to her pinning.

‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what I said.’

 


Excerpted from Christmas at Claridge’s by Karen Swan. Copyright © 2013 by Karen Swan.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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