Read the first three chapters of ‘In the Mirror’ by Lise Gold and Madeleine Taylor. Out 26/05/2022!

Chapter 1 – Faith

Wincing against the morning light, I turn on my side and cover my face with a pillow. It’s the intercom, and whoever is at the door just won’t give up. A delivery guy, maybe? That’s unlikely on New Year’s Day. Anything can wait; my head hurts and I feel nauseous. Squeezing my eyes tight shut, I try to ignore the noise, but the buzzer is too loud. Desperate to make it stop, I stumble out of bed and head for the hallway, cursing under my breath as I see a woman on the screen with a smile way too chirpy for this time of the day. She’s wearing a beanie and she’s carrying a gym bag over her shoulder.

“Who is this? Do you have any idea what time it is? I’m trying to sleep.”

“Miss Astor? It’s Silva. We have an appointment at eight.” The woman frowns when I don’t answer, wracking my brain over who she could be. “Personal training?”

“Oh, fuck.” It all comes back to me then. The party, the afterparty, champagne, more champagne, dancing, drunk conversations with my friend Roy about how we’d like to get in shape and look fabulous in the new year and booking a PT at an extortionate last-minute price to kickstart 2022 with a “bang,” as it said on the website. They’re only vague flashes, but I remember last night’s mantra clearly. Everything will be better next year. “Sorry, I forgot. It was a mistake.” I hesitate, then continue in a croaky voice, “I assume it’s too late to cancel?”

Silva shrugs. “Yes, it’s too late for a refund. Can I at least come in for a minute? It’s kind of cold out here.”

“Sorry, of course.” In my groggy state, I barely registered it was still snowing hard, so I buzz her in and fetch my robe. I barely have the chance to tie it before she’s made it upstairs and knocks on the door.

“Good morning and a happy new year,” she says, her beaming smile almost making me laugh. She’s the epitome of health, her cheeks rosy and her eyes sparkling with energy. The opposite of me, I suspect, although I haven’t looked in the mirror yet, and I have no intention to do so.

“Yes, good morning and the same to you.” I clear my throat and take a step back to let her in. “Please call me Faith. Would you like a coffee?”

“Yes, please. And why don’t you make yourself one too?” She takes off her beanie and her coat and hangs them on one of the wall hooks by the door.

“I think I’ll hold off on the coffee. I intend to go back to bed,” I say, hoping she’ll get the hint. She’s welcome to warm up; it’s my fault that she came all the way out here for nothing, but then again, I’ve already paid her, so if I want to sleep in her time, that’s my prerogative.

Silva shakes her head and ruffles a hand through her shaggy, blonde hair. “Hey, let’s not start off like this. You wanted to feel good about yourself again, so why not get the ball rolling right now? You’ve got me for three whole hours, so it’s not too late to wake up and kickstart the new year with a fresh and positive mindset.”

“Feel good about myself?” I walk to the kitchen, and she follows me and drops her bag on the floor.

“Yes, you filled in the questionnaire on my website. It said you wanted to feel good about yourself.” Silva hesitates and arches a brow at me. “Actually, your exact words were that you longed to feel desired again.”

“Oh.” I chuckle uncomfortably and blush. “That was drunk me talking. Drunk Faith tends to say dumb things sometimes. I feel just fine about myself.” Focusing on the coffeemaker, I avoid her gaze. I wonder what she thinks of me. “Milk?”

“No, thank you, I like it black.” Silva takes a seat at my kitchen table, and as I fill two cups and add a shot of soy milk to mine, I feel her eyes on me. She’s judging me, for sure. Silly, impulsive woman. No self-control and no respect for her body. Isn’t that what all health freaks think about people who like to have fun? Looking down at the two mugs, I realize I’ve done exactly the opposite of what I intended. I’ve made myself a coffee and I’m about to sit down and talk to her.

“So, how much did I pay for your visit?” I ask, reaching for the box of aspirin in the fruit bowl. I pop out two pills and wince as I swallow them with the hot coffee. “And how on earth did I manage to get an appointment on January first?”

“You paid five hundred dollars,” Silva says as if it’s nothing. “Purely because of the date. I’m normally only a hundred an hour.”


“It’s a small price to pay for feeling great,” she says, glancing around my modern, open-plan apartment as she sips her coffee, undoubtedly thinking I can easily afford it.

She’s not wrong; I can afford it, but whether I want to work out or not is up to me, not her.

“And to answer your second question,” she continues, not in the least fazed by my look of offense, “the reason I had a free spot is the same reason you’re about to send me away. Someone got drunk and canceled late last night, giving up before they’d even started.”

“And that was not refundable either, I assume?”

“No. I have a forty-eight-hour cancellation policy.”

“Right.” I nod and rub my temple. The throbbing has started now, and it’s radiating toward my eye sockets. “So you’ve just made a thousand dollars? Smart.”

Silva sits back and crosses her arms. “Hey, don’t insult me. You’re making it sound like this is some sort of scam, but I’m actually not doing it for the money. It’s not my fault someone canceled, and it’s not my fault you booked me while you were drunk.”

“I’m sorry, that came out wrong. I don’t think you’re a scammer.” I let out a long sigh and shoot her an apologetic look. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” She leans in to look me in the eyes. “I like helping people and you need help, so please give it a try. Let’s at least talk about what you want to achieve. I see you’re in no state to start the heavy work right away, but we can make a plan together.”

I’m quiet as I consider this. I’m not awake enough to make a decision, so I leave it with her. What’s the worst thing that can happen? It’s only three hours, and when she leaves, I’ll go back to bed where I’ll spend the rest of my day watching Netflix. “Okay.”

“Great.” Silva points to my robe. “Before we start, take ten minutes for a shower while I make you a smoothie. I promise it will make you feel a little better. Now, do you have any fruit or vegetables in the house?”

“I may have some,” I say, my eyes flicking from the sad selection of wilted fruits in the bowl to the fridge, then to the juicer I’ve never used, and back. I quickly get up and open it just far enough to check the contents without giving her a view of the vodka bottles. It annoys me that we haven’t even had a conversation and I feel judged already. Relieved to find half a bag of spinach and two avocados, I place them on the kitchen counter. At least the kitchen is tidy, apart from the empty champagne bottle Roy and I polished off before we went out last night. The living room, on the other hand, is littered with clothes, as I couldn’t decide what to wear, and I cringe as I spot a pile of lingerie on my sofa. “Will this do?” I ask, gesturing to the greens.

“That’s perfect.” Silva gets up and pats me on the arm. “Leave it with me.”

“Okay, I guess I’ll go and have a shower.” Her bouncy energy is annoying me already, but maybe this isn’t such a bad idea after all. I really do want to get in shape, and it’s not like I’ve made plans for today.

Chapter 2 – Silva


I look away and try not to laugh when Faith hastily clears a bunch of lingerie from the sofa on her way to the bathroom. The apartment is beautiful; spacious, open-plan, and all white with luxurious fittings and furniture. She must pay a fortune on rent, or perhaps she owns it? As I throw the spinach into the juicer and scoop out the flesh from the avocados, I wonder what she does for a living. Faith Astor. The name rings a bell, and her face looks familiar. It’s a typical rich girl’s name, and I can’t deny that I was prepared for my morning to go exactly like this. People don’t make rash decisions that involve five hundred dollars in the middle of the night unless they’re wealthy and can afford to pull off a stunt like that. I’ve seen this many times, and although it’s easy money for me, I don’t like it. Still, her answers to the questionnaire seemed brutally honest, and they told me she needs a change in her life. Maybe I can help her.

The juicer still has a sticker on the inside, so I peel it off and throw in the ingredients, then add a shriveled apple and the juice from half an old lemon in the fruit bowl that holds more hangover cures than actual fruits. Aspirin, vitamin C tablets, and Tylenol—I suspect Faith parties a lot. Despite her sorry state this morning, she’s very pretty. No older than thirty-five for sure, she looks like the kind of woman who is used to being pampered. Her nails are pristine, her hair—although a little messy—looks well taken care of, and her skin is flawless. She’s curvy with a figure most people would be envious of, but I’ve learned from my years of experience that self-esteem is sadly often linked to weight, especially in New York.

I pour the smoothie into a tall glass I find in her cupboard, then open my bag and take out my iPad. I like to get an idea of people before we start, but her apartment is devoid of any trinkets or personal pictures, at least as far I can see. She does like art; that much is clear. A huge painting of a woman and a baby is hanging on the wall above the fireplace in her seating area, and she has numerous photographs and sculptures on display. Art dealer, maybe?

Before I have the chance to contemplate any further, Faith appears dressed in yoga pants and a sweatshirt. Her dark hair is wet and brushed back, the mascara stains are gone from underneath her eyes, and her skin is shimmering from the cream she’s just applied. She looks innocent; nothing like the sexy vixen in the red, silk robe who opened the door to me twenty minutes ago.

“Okay, I’m ready.” She eyes the big, green smoothie on the table. “As long as it doesn’t involve anything too strenuous because my head is seriously killing me.”

“Let’s talk for now,” I say, not wanting to put her off the program on her first day. I gesture to the smoothie, and she picks it up and starts sipping it. “So, your primary goal is to lose weight, it says here.” Flicking through her questionnaire on my iPad, I skip past her personal details and get right into the motivational section. “Your secondary goal is to feel des—”

“Forget the desire bullshit,” she interrupts me, clearly embarrassed. “As I said, I was drunk. But I wouldn’t mind losing weight. I’ve gained a couple pounds over Christmas, and it’s all piled on here.” She pats her thighs and behind and sighs. “I want to be back in shape before New York Fashion Week. It’s a big deal, and I need to look my best.”

“Okay. So how long do we have? Four, five weeks?”

“It starts on February nineteenth.”

I nod and make a note of the timeline. “Forty days. That’s good. Are you a model?”

Faith throws her head back and laughs as if that’s a ridiculous question. “No way. I could never get away with being in front of the camera. I’m a fashion photographer.”

“Oh.” My first thought is that she’d look beautiful in front of the camera, but it’s too early for conversations like that, so I smile and glance at a picture on the kitchen wall instead. It’s a photograph of a woman who looks a lot like Faith, except she’s younger, taller, and slimmer. She’s dressed in black, standing in a desert with a crow perched on her arm. It’s dark and a little unsettling but beautiful, nevertheless. “Is that your work?”

“Yes. That’s my sister.” Faith picks at her fingernails. “She’s the pretty one. I’m the creative.”

“Well, I have to disagree on the looks,” I say, then continue when she doesn’t answer, “You must be pretty successful. You have an amazing apartment.”

“I do all right, but my mother bought this apartment for me. She’s a celebrated artist. Mary Astor-Goldstein—you might have heard of her. I carry her last name. I don’t like my stepfather’s last name.” Faith peels off the tip of her thumbnail and flicks it in the ashtray on top of a dozen or so cigarette butts.

“Yes, I’ve heard of her. Well, it’s a beautiful place. You’re lucky.” Faith doesn’t answer and avoids my gaze. She seems uncomfortable talking about her family, so I change the subject. “Tell me about your lifestyle. If you want fast results, we’re going to have to make some changes.”

“My lifestyle…” She shrugs and sits back, then finally meets my eyes again. Hers are big and dark, almost feline. The way she bites her lip while in thought is incredibly sensual, but I don’t think she knows that. “I ehm…” She pauses. “I go out a lot. I’m what some people might call a socialite, and I get invited to a lot of parties and networking events. And because I go out a lot, I probably drink too much. Too much in your opinion, anyway.”

“I don’t judge,” I say, making a note. “How many drinks would you say a week?”

“I’m not sure. Three to four a day, maybe? I rarely get drunk. It just helps me cope with all the socializing. Well, apart from last night. I was definitely drunk then,” she adds with an uncomfortable chuckle. “But it was New Year’s Eve, so I’m not going to beat myself up about that.”

I laugh along and shake my head. “So, in a normal week, would you say you drink every day?”

Faith is quiet for a long moment before she answers. “Six days a week, probably. I have social commitments most days.”

“And you find it hard to be social without drinking?”

“Yes.” Faith crosses her arms in a defensive manner, as if she’s expecting me to tell her off. “I don’t see how anyone can be social without a drink. It’s just awkward.”

I’m not going to argue with her. If she takes a disliking to me, we’ll never get anywhere. “Do you smoke?” I ask, glancing at the ashtray.

“Not much. Only when I’m alone.”


“Not anymore.” She purses her lips and shrugs. “I used to, but I managed to break that habit. It was getting out of hand.”

“Well done,” I say. “That’s something you should be proud of. It’s not easy.”

“How do you know?” Faith shoots me a skeptical look, and I know she’s thinking I can’t possibly relate.

“Because I used to have an addiction problem too,” I say honestly.

“Oh.” Her expression softens. “So you weren’t always a shining beacon of health, huh?”

“No, I was quite the opposite.” I refocus on the questionnaire because this is not about me. I have no problem being open about my past, but she’s paying for my time, and I want to get to know her so I can help her achieve her goals. “Do you exercise? Walking counts too.”

“Not really. I’ve tried the gym, but I wasn’t motivated enough to actually go there, even though there’s one in the building. It bored me. And no, I don’t walk much either. I usually take a taxi.” Faith winces as if, again, she’s expecting me to tell her off.

“When was the last time you went for a walk by yourself?”

At that, she laughs. “Just a walk for no reason?” She glances at the ceiling like she’ll find an answer there, then shakes her head. “Never, I guess. That’s terrible, isn’t it?”

“Nothing is terrible,” I assure her. “The good thing about bad habits is that you can change them. Do you eat healthy, regular meals? What do you eat in a day?”

“Hmm…” Faith picks up her green juice and finishes it. “Nothing like this, that’s for sure. I only eat real meals when I’m out for lunch or dinner, which I don’t do very often because I don’t really care for food. If I’m home alone, I’ll get a takeout, and sometimes I’ll throw together a salad.”

“You never have breakfast?”

“When I’m off work, I rarely get out of bed before midday, and on the days I work, I usually have to leave so early that I’m not hungry, so I bring protein bars with me.”

“Okay.” I write everything down and notice she’s eyeing my notepad. “Would you like to read what I’ve written? I’m not analyzing you. I’m just jotting down the facts.” The latter isn’t entirely true; I always analyze my clients, but that process takes place in my head, not on my iPad.

“No, it’s fine. You have a lot of questions.”

“And I have many more.” I look outside to check on the weather. It’s not snowing as hard anymore, but I still expect resistance to my next question. “How about we discuss the rest over a walk?”

Faith’s eyes widen as she follows my gaze to the window. “A walk?”

“Yes. The act of physically moving from A to B while putting one foot in front of the other,” I joke. “Do you have walking shoes and a warm coat?”

“But… it’s cold,” she protests.

“We’ll warm up once we start moving.” I get up and wait for her to follow. Miraculously, she agrees and peels herself off her stool. “Come on, and drink a glass of water too. You need to hydrate.”

Chapter 3 – Faith

Walking and talking is an alien concept to me. I always have somewhere to go, somewhere to be, and I never saw the point of walking just for the sake of it. I’d expected to be too hungover to walk, but the fresh air is making me feel better. New York on New Year’s Day makes for a surreal experience. It’s quiet; even most coffee shops are still closed. Last night’s celebrations turned the sidewalks brown and slushy, but now the streets are covered in a beautiful, fresh layer of snow. The city looks so innocent in its virginal white and dormant state, like it’s still waiting for the new year to kick off.

“So, you think you can get me in shape by February nineteenth?” I ask, burying my hands deep in my pockets.

“That depends on you, of course,” Silva says. “But I think you can do it if you’re open and ready for change. You see, this is not just about losing weight or getting fit. That’s only a small part of the work I do. My aim is to make you feel good about yourself. And if you feel good about yourself, you’re more likely to make healthy choices. It’s a vicious circle—a positive one.”

“You sound more like a life coach than a personal trainer.”

Silva shrugs. “It’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned since I started working as a personal trainer. It may sound cliché, but in the end it’s about how you feel inside, not about how you look.” She picks up her pace a little, and I’m struggling to keep up as my feet keep sinking into the snow. I found a pair of snow boots I’d never used, and my big, fake-fur coat is keeping me warm.

“What other lessons have you learned?” I try not to sound skeptical because to be honest, everything she’s said so far does sound like a total cliché.

“That drastic temporary actions may give direct results, but that small, permanent lifestyle changes have a much bigger effect.” She pauses. “And that the process needs to be fun. If you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to stick with it.”

“Sure. That’s what everyone says.” More clichés.

“That’s because it’s true.” Silva looks over her shoulder when I fall behind. “Are we going too fast?”

“Yes,” I say, stopping to catch my breath. “But I have to give it to you. You’re smart. I had no intention of leaving my bed before you arrived, and here I am, plowing through the fucking snow at stupid o’clock.”

Silva laughs. “It’s good to get your heart rate up. You’ll feel the difference when you get home, and you’ll be thankful we did this.” She stops and turns to me. “Are you in a relationship?”

“No,” I say and leave it with that. The last thing I want to talk about is the string of useless men I’ve dated in the past years, or the last one who dumped me just before Christmas.

“Are you recently single?”

I’m not sure why, but the question irritates me. Perhaps because I’ve been trying so hard not to think about that. “Why are you so interested in my love life? I don’t understand what it has to do with getting in shape.”

Silva holds up a hand. “Hey, I’m not hitting on you. I’m just trying to get an idea of your life.”

“I know you weren’t hitting on me.” I frown. “Why would I think that? That’s just—” I swallow my words. Of course. She’s gay. “Oh. Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“That’s okay. The reason I asked is because all of this has to do with mindset. If you’ve recently gone through a breakup, your subconscious revenge system may give you an extra kick of motivation. Simultaneously, it’s important to remember that you’re doing this for you and not for someone else.” She beckons me to start walking again. “But you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”

I nod and look away, embarrassed that I raised my voice at her. We turn into Maddison Square Park and follow the outer path that circles around it. “My last relationship ended ten days ago,” I finally say after a long silence.

“I’m sorry to hear that. It’s very recent.”

“We hadn’t been together for very long,” I say with a sigh. “It wasn’t that serious, so I’m not heartbroken, but I won’t deny that yet another breakup has dented my confidence. I can’t stop wondering what’s wrong with me because I’ve never been in a long-term relationship. It’s New York men, I suppose. They’re all the same, always looking out for someone younger, prettier, richer, and more successful.”

“You sound like my sister. She always complains about New York men. But there are nice men out there. You’re probably just attracted to the wrong kind.”

“It must be a lot easier dating women,” I say.

“I can assure you that dating women is not much different from dating men. Not that I’ve ever tried and tested it with men,” she jokes. “But I believe in faith. Finding a real connection isn’t a given, and it will happen when it happens. I’m not looking or waiting for anything.”

“So you’re single?” I ask.

“Yes. I’ve been single for years.” She winks. “Doesn’t mean I don’t have fun.”

“Oh.” I blush as a vision of Silva kissing another woman flashes before me. She’s very attractive, and I imagine she’s quite popular with the ladies. “I’ve never been into one-night stands.”

“Well, I don’t make a habit of them either, but there’s nothing wrong with the occasional fling.” She speeds up again, and I rush after her. “Now, let’s talk about what you enjoy doing. Because as I said, this has to be fun. Running, yoga, dancing, weightlifting, swimming—it can be anything.”

I take my time to think about that, but nothing comes to mind. “I have no idea. I haven’t tried much, to be honest. Apart from swimming in the ocean, which I love, but that’s kind of challenging in New York.”

Silva laughs and shakes her head. “Wild swimming is about the only thing we can’t do here, but let’s try some different things so you can figure it out as you go along.” She locks her eyes with mine and gives me a beaming smile. “How does that sound?”

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Read the first 3 chapters of Members Only!

Chapter 1 – Olivia

Tonight is quiet for a change, and I needed that after a hectic weekend. The extra shifts are exhausting, but needs must. I’ve just moved into a private studio and had to pay a hefty security deposit. In a few weeks, my bank balance will be in the green again, and I can go back to normal, working five nights a week instead of six or seven.

I miss being on the receiving end of service and never thought I’d be in this position, yet here I am, serving people. Rich people. I used to be one of them, the ones who don’t have to think about how much they spend. I ordered Champagne by the bottle and flew to the Maldives on a whim if I felt like it. Always first class and only the best hotels with butler service. My assistant was at my heel at all times, making anything I wanted happen. Marisa was invaluable, and I didn’t appreciate her enough when she was around. I wonder what she would think of me now.

It’s sad how life can change in a heartbeat, and how money dictates what place we earn in society. I never thought about this before; I took my fortune for granted. Isn’t that what everyone does?

A Middle Eastern man walks in, flanked by two beautiful women. They’re tall, the model kind of tall. He looks entitled and barely notices me as he brushes past me and tries to open the door to no avail. It’s always locked and I’m their key.

“Good evening, sir. Name?” I ask. “Do you have a reservation?” There’s normally a hostess at the door, but she’s off on Mondays and Tuesdays, as it’s generally quiet, so tonight it’s my turn to vet the guests.

“No,” he barks at me. “Don’t you know who I am?”

I’ve heard that sentence more times than I can count, and in the past, I may have even used it once or twice myself.

“I apologize, I don’t,” I say with a polite smile, straightening by back and meeting his eyes. “If you would be so kind as to tell me your name, I’ll have a look in the system.”

“Ahmad.” His body language tells me he’s the impatient kind, so I scroll through my iPad, check his photograph, and confirm he’s a member.

“Of course. Please come in. My colleague will give you a great table, and I’ll be with you shortly.”

He doesn’t answer and sighs when I type in the security code wrong twice, costing him a whopping five seconds of his life. I open the door wide, and he storms in with a huff, giving me a look as to say, I’ll make sure you get fired for being so incompetent.

They won’t fire me, though, I’m too valuable for the club. As someone who used to be wealthy, I know how their members like to be treated, and I’m completely unimpressionable when it comes to celebrities and millionaires. Some I recognize, some I don’t, but my welcome is always the same, and I will never flinch or ask someone for a selfie. Not that I could even if I wanted to. Before I clock in, I hand my phone over to the head of security, who keeps it in a safe until my shift ends. That way, the staff is unable to tip off paparazzi or message their friends if someone of great importance comes in.

It’s the very reason this club is so successful. The VIP members enter through the staff entrance, and the front door is often locked with the “closed” sign turned. The blinds are down, and time is not a concept here. Day or night, the lights are dimmed, and the biggest spender gets the remote for the music system to play whatever they please. It’s the unspoken privilege that shows other members who’s the boss for the night, the holy grail that holds the ultimate power in the most ridiculous of ways.

The smell of shisha hangs thick in the air. Apple, double mint, black mist, and more flavors I can’t quite identify because they all blend into one thick smog of choking sweetness that penetrates my nostrils before I close the all-important door again. Smoking cigarettes is prohibited, but we offer the best of the best cigars and shisha, along with an exclusive selection of cocktails, wines, Champagnes, rare teas and coffees, and strong liquors.

If our members want something, we make it happen, down to the most surreal requests. If a VIP wants to bring in their pet goat, it’s our job to make sure their goat is comfortable and doesn’t disturb other members, no matter what. It can be challenging, but the tips are generous and the only reason I’m able to keep my head above water. The goat incident was a few weeks ago. When I failed to find fresh hay after midnight, I called Mark, my roommate at the time, to bring some over, as he had a house bunny and kept a big bag in the pantry.

Mostly, our clients’ demands are more manageable than that. Requests such as a specific flower on top of a dessert or adorning one of the private lounges with white candles or healing crystals is more common.

I’m just about to head inside the lounge and swap places with my colleague, so I’m on the serving end of the process when the security guard brings in a woman. She’s tall, almost as tall as Sergei, who’s the size of a barn door. Dressed in a pair of joggers and a hoodie, she looks nothing like our usual female members, who tend to rock up in high heels and revealing dresses. Her hood is pulled over her head like she’s either cold or hiding, and her hands are buried deep in her pockets.

“Good evening. Welcome to Annapurna,” I say and smile when she slides down her big shades to greet me back. Her eyes are dark, almost black, with long lashes and a perfectly arched eyeliner. Other than that, she wears no makeup, and her skin is smooth and flawless apart from a beauty mark on her left cheek. “Can I have your name, please?”

“Aisha.” The woman smiles back at me. “Aisha Al Zahid. I haven’t reserved a table; the hostess told me to check with you. I hope that’s not a problem.”

“Not at all. It’s quiet tonight.” I pause when I read the notes in her profile. As a diamond member, she holds the highest status, and it’s unusual for diamond members to show up without entourage. “For one?”

“Yes, please.” Aisha puts her shades back on. If she’s famous, I wouldn’t know, but she doesn’t strike me as a celebrity.

I type in the security code and let her in, then gesture for my colleague to switch with me and take over the door. “In the back?” I ask, sensing she craves privacy.

“Yes, the back would be great, if the table on the right is free.” Aisha follows me and takes a seat on the velvet sofa. She waves a hand when I’m about to pass her the menu. “I don’t want food. Just shisha, a glass of crushed ice, and a teaspoon, please.”

She’s polite, and that’s refreshing, but the crushed ice confuses me. I’ve learned not to second-guess strange requests,though, so I nod. “Of course. Do you know what shisha you want, or would you like me to send over an expert?”

“I’ll have a blueberry, apple, and mint,” she says, leaning back and making herself comfortable. She props her leg up and rests her elbow on her knee like she’s at home, chilling in front of the TV. “That’s all.”

I linger for a moment, knowing I’ll have to bring up the minimum charge. “It’s three hundred for an hour’s sitting. That’s the minimum charge,” I say. On top of the £18,000 membership fees a year, this can be a ridiculous sum if someone only orders a cup of crushed ice, and understandably, some members don’t agree with that, so it’s better to let them know in case they haven’t read the small print.

“I know. Don’t worry about it…” Her eyes dart down to the name tag on my chest. “Olivia…”

Our eyes meet for a split second, and the contact makes me flinch. Her stare is so intense, almost invading, as if she’s reading my mind. It’s like she senses my fascination with her, and she likes that.

“Okay, Miss Al Zahid. It won’t be long.” I clear my throat. “Apologies. Is it Mrs. Al Zahid?”

Aisha laughs and shakes her head. “Definitely not. Just call me Aisha,” she says with an amused smile.

Chapter 2 – Aisha

It’s good to be back in London. I’ve missed my apartment and this club, which is like a second home to me. I’ve missed the rain, the chill, the crowds, and the grittiness of the city that even extends to the most exclusive neighborhoods. I like that London is unpolished. It’s like a raw diamond, far from perfect but with immense potential. Under the matt surface lies great beauty, and the city is layered and full of surprises. I’ve missed my tracksuits, my trainers, and being anonymous. Blending in gives me a sense of comfort and freedom that I’m unable to find at home. Most of all, though, I’ve missed women. The thrill of the hunt, the feeling of their warm skin and their curves, their cries of pleasure and the blissful high after a conquest.

A few weeks from now, I’ll probably miss my father and my country again, but that’s the way it’s always been, and I’ve accepted that. There’s no such thing as perfection in life, but I’ve managed to get pretty damn close to happiness, and that’s more than I could have hoped for.

The new waitress is stunning, so I try not to stare as she walks around and takes orders. She carries herself well; she’s statuesque without trying, and unlike most other staff members, she’s naturally elegant and poised. Olivia knows her stuff. Pretending to be on my phone, I’ve been listening in, and she’s familiar with all the exclusive products on the menu. New waiters often struggle, but she’s flawless in her communication and didn’t even blink when I asked for my regular order of crushed ice. The combination of shisha and crushed ice is my guilty pleasure, and I savor it like good food. The cold against my tongue alternated by the sensation of sweet smoke is delightful, so why change a winning formula?

I don’t drink alcohol, and I certainly don’t use drugs. It wasn’t part of my upbringing, and I’ve never felt the need to try it, not even now that I’m free to do as I please to a certain extent. From what I’ve seen, it often brings out the worst in people. I’m far from perfect, but at least I won’t fall into that trap. No, my pleasures in life are far more innocent. Shisha, crushed ice, mint tea, and women.

Scanning my dating app that I haven’t used for a while, I’m pleased to see over a hundred gay women signed up since I last looked. It’s a private app for wealthy people like me, and it saves us from filtering out the gold diggers. I have no interest in being someone’s savior, at least not in the romantic sense. I just want to have fun with like-minded women who are discreet and, like me, have a lot to lose if our sexual orientation becomes public knowledge.

Khadija, the first woman to appear on my phone, is cute, but she looks a little too wholesome for me, like she’s got her shit together and is now looking for someone to complete her life and live happily ever after. I may be wrong, but my intuition rarely lets me down. Wholesome generally equals trouble because they have what they want and now they want more. The forever kind of more.

I swipe left and study Cassidy’s profile. Cassidy is a heart surgeon, which tells me she’s just above the minimum yearly income required to qualify for the app. She probably has very little time to socialize, and I suspect this is the only way for her to meet women. Reading her tagline, “married to my job,” I decide she’s safe enough for a casual hookup and give her a heart.

The rest seem uninspiring or they’re simply not my type. I love feminine women; women who like to take care of themselves and wear lingerie and heels. Women like Olivia. She has a sway in her hips when she walks, but I’m sure it’s unintentional. She doesn’t strike me as someone who works here to bag herself a wealthy man. Or woman. The ones who do—even though they’d never admit to that, as they could lose their job—tend to wear more makeup and look like they’re trying harder. They have a subtle, flirty demeanor about them that lies just, but only just, within the acceptable boundaries of interaction between waiter and member. There’s no sign of that with Olivia. Not with me and not with the male guests.

I’m not usually this fascinated with staff, but there’s something about her that draws me in. Not the staff, Aisha. Stick to your app, I remind myselfI don’t even know if she’s gay, but it’s not out of the question. Not that I care all that much. It’s not hard to seduce straight women; the majority are usually open to a fling. They tend to be surprised when I flirt with them, but that surprise often comes with a hint of curiosity. Their first reply will be that they’re straight, followed by a nervous chuckle or a bad joke. But they rarely leave, and that’s when I know their interest is growing and that they’ll be in my bed by the end of the night.

Forcing my gaze away from Olivia and turning back to my phone, I continue to scroll for unavailable women. It’s something I never do back home in Dubai, mainly because I’d worry for the women I’d meet up with. Someone might see us, or their families or husbands may read their messages and find out. That could have lifelong consequences for them, and I don’t want to be responsible for ruining someone’s life over a night that essentially means very little to me.

Jetlag is kicking in and I stifle a yawn. It’s too early to go to bed, but I have no energy to head out, so I guess slouching here for a while is my only option if I want to stay awake for a few more hours. I like Mondays at Annapurna. It’s quiet, and the music isn’t too loud. I notice Darryl, the manager has made some changes to the interior while I’ve been away, and I like the new rack on the wall that’s filled with international newspapers and magazines. There’s a Gulf Today on there too, and I suspect he’s ordered it for me. Darryl’s considerate like that and a good man.

“I like what you’ve done,” I say, pointing to the rack as he comes to greet me.

“Thank you. It’s good to have you back.” He smiles as he runs a hand through his gray, shoulderlength hair that he immaculately straightens like a woman. “It’s been a while.”

“Yes. I see you have a new waitress.”

He nods. “She’s good. I’m very happy with her.” Darryl is about to sit down for a chat with me when his phone rings. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s been going nonstop today. I’ll catch up with you later.”

Chapter 3 – Olivia

Aisha is smoking shisha and eating her crushed ice. She savors it like she genuinely enjoys the combination. I try not to stare at her, but it’s hard not to. When she pulls down her hood, a waterfall of long, black hair falls over her shoulders, and I don’t even think she knows how beautiful she is when she runs a hand through it. She has full, pouty lips, all natural from the looks of it, and the beauty mark on her cheek. Unlike other members, she’s on her phone, minding her own business. She doesn’t scan the premises to establish who is who, and she doesn’t show off. I mean, come on. Crushed ice is hardly Champagne, but she eats it like it’s a delicacy; small bites in between drags from her shisha, and that’s intriguing. I can’t say I’ve ever craved crushed ice before, but after watching Aisha, the idea is growing on me.

Ahmad, who is sitting in the back section close to her, beckons me over. “What is this?” he asks, pointing to the three shot glasses in front of him and the two women at his table.

I’m not sure what he’s referring to, so I look at him quizzically. “Excuse me?”

“Is this Don Julio 1945 tequila? Because it doesn’t taste like it.”

“I can assure you it is,” I say, checking my order in the system. The bartender never makes mistakes, and I trust him blindly. I pick up Ahmad’s shot glass and sniff. It’s not the most conventional way to confirm a tequila brand, but I need to know that I’m right. Members get confused all the time, especially when they’ve had a few drinks and simply feel like being difficult, so I’ve learned not to take anything they say at face value. “Yes, it’s 1945.” This happens to be my favorite tequila, even though I haven’t had the pleasure of drinking it since I had to severely tighten the knot on my spending. The hint of vanilla lingers, and even without tasting it, I know quality when I when I smell it.

“Oh, really? And how would you know the difference between a good tequila and the house equivalent?”

I take a moment to compose myself so I won’t insult him because right now, I really want to. To Ahmad, I’m just a disposable waitress with no class and no intelligence. I’m here to put orders into my iPad and keep my head down. It’s difficult, but I manage. Not once have I been rude to people on the job, and when I feel like punching someone in the face, I go into the shisha kitchen for a few minutes and take a few deep breaths. Months of holding back has taught me a lot of things about myself, and one of them is that I don’t cope well with being disrespected. Incidents often keep me awake at night. I’ve taken a total dislike to people in general, and I often find them disgusting, but I’ve also learned that I’m incredibly resilient, and deep down, I’m secretly proud of myself for coping with my situation the best I can.

“How about we bring out a new bottle and pour you a fresh glass?” I finally suggest, ignoring his snarky comment.

“That will do,” he says with a huff, waving me off as if I’m some kind of beggar blocking his view.

When I send a note to the bartender, I can feel eyes on me, and as I look up for a beat, Aisha, who’s been watching me, quickly turns back to her phone. I have no idea if the commotion bothers her or if she feels sorry for me, but it doesn’t matter. At this point in my life, and for the foreseeable future, we are worlds apart and therefore we don’t mingle. Staff and guests never mingle. It’s the number one rule.

One of the runners comes in with the bottle and a fresh shot glass, and I continue to take orders from the twelve or so other guests while he keeps Ahmad busy. The club is small and intimate compared to other exclusive venues, and on a quiet night, I can easily handle the two lounges by myself. Created with the purpose of ultimate discretion, no one will ever be seen walking in or out of Annapurna unless they want to. The VIP entrance at the back of the building spirals through an office basement. It’s far from glamorous, but I guess passing file cabinets and old printers makes it all the more exciting, and paparazzi will never see guests entering if they prefer to be anonymous.

I order peony tea and milk rose cake for a couple in a corner and a bottle of Chablis, dried fruit and nuts and a bowl of gold-leaf-covered popcorn for three Frenchmen engaged in a business meeting, then turn back to my difficult client who is demanding my attention again.

“Yes?” I force a smile.

“Lamb chops,” he says.

“Sure. How would you like those cooked?”

Ahmad lets out a sigh of exasperation and raises a hand to his forehead. I’m clearly giving him a headache with my terribly complicated question. “Medium rare, of course. How else would I want them cooked? Has anyone ever ordered lamb chops well done?”

It’s a ridiculous statement. Many people like them well done, but I have to bite my tongue. I’m about to answer when Aisha gets up and heads over to his table. She stands tall and meets his eyes with a sharp look, then says something to him in Arabic.

He shoots her a furious glance and answers, and I don’t need to understand the language to know this isn’t a friendly exchange. A long silence follows before Aisha replies. Unlike him, she never raises her voice, but whatever she says is effective because his expression changes and his shoulders drop along with his head as if he’s showing her respect. She nods and walks off, then goes back to her crushed ice and shisha as if nothing has happened.

I stand there awkwardly while I enter the order for lamb chops. The next question is sure to set him off again, but I have to ask. “Would you like anything to go with your lamb chops?”

Expecting an explosion of abuse, I’m surprised when Ahmad remains calm. “A green salad, please. The girls will have the same,” he says. “I’m sorry for my outburst. I’m having a bad day. I hope you can forgive me.”

“No need to apologize. I’ll get that for you.” I look at Aisha, and her eyes hold a humorous twinkle as she shoots me a subtle wink. I’m dying to know what she said to him, but I’m not in a position to ask her. I’m only to speak when I’m taking orders or when directly addressed. Part of me protests when turn away because looking at her feels indulgent. It’s like staring at an intriguing piece of art; she holds my attention beyond the surface, and I can’t help but wonder what her story is. Maybe I’ll find out one day, but it’s unlikely, and right now, I have more pressing things to do than speculate about the beautiful diamond member.

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Read the first three chapters of Paradise Pride!

Chapter 1 – Meghan

“Remind me never to take a shuttle bus again.” Meghan felt clammy and tired from sitting in the stuffy vehicle for over two hours. The hotel wasn’t even that far from the airport, but it had stopped off at fifteen other hotels before they finally arrived at their destination: Paradise Hotel. Waiting for their luggage to be unloaded, she glanced at the entrance of the tall, rather unappealing building and frowned. “What’s with all the rainbows?”

“What?” Her friend Kim was panting as she joined Meghan with their suitcases.

“The rainbows.” Meghan pointed to the rainbow flags in the pineapple palms by the door and over the entrance.

“I don’t know.” Kim sighed. “And I don’t care. I just want to shower, get changed and have a drink by the pool before I meet Andres.” She looked over her shoulder as the shuttle drove off. “Seems like we’re the only ones who got off here.”

“Hmm…” Meghan grabbed her case and followed her friend into the reception area. From previous experience with packaged holidays, she’d expected chaos at check-in, but there was no one. “Hello?” she yelled, only to be answered by the echo of her own voice. “Hello, is anyone there?”

“Hi, can I help you?” A man came out from the office behind the reception desk and stared at their suitcases. “I’m afraid we’re not open. We’re preparing for an event, so if you have tickets, you can come back tomorrow.”

“No, that can’t be right,” Kim said in an irritated tone. “We’ve booked an all-inclusive holiday with you. I have the confirmation right here.”

“Maybe you got the date wrong?” The man took the confirmation Kim had printed and furrowed his brow as he looked it over. “Did you not get a follow-up email from us, offering you an upgrade in one of our other hotels?”

“No, we never got anything,” Kim said, sounding like she was close to panicking. She was here to see her Spanish boyfriend, Andres, whom she’d met on holiday last year, and she’d asked Meghan to tag along so she wouldn’t be alone during the day, when Andres was working. She’d been unbearable for weeks, talking non-stop about him and speculating whether he would introduce her to his family. Because Kim was only here with one goal in mind: she wanted a ring.

“Okay, my apologies.” The man backed away. “Please give me a moment. I need to start the system so I can check the facts. Take a seat. I’ll be right back.”

Meghan dragged her case along to the reception seating area and slumped in a chair. “I didn’t get anything,” she mumbled as she scrolled through her emails. “I’m sure of it.”

“Me neither. If anyone’s been double and triple checking the facts, it’s me.” Kim groaned and covered her face with her hands. “Oh God, this is a disaster. He’s not lying. It looks closed, and even if they offer us an alternative, we won’t be as near to Andres’ bar as we are now. I only booked this place because it was walking distance.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll come up with a solution. They have to.” Meghan couldn’t have cared less where they were staying as long as there was a pool and the drinks were included. Being thirty-four and single, it was hard enough to find people who wanted to go on holiday with her. Most of her friends were married with kids, and the few single friends she had were too wild for her to spend more than a night with. When Kim had suggested going to Spain together, she’d immediately said yes because it seemed like the perfect solution. During the day, they would sunbathe, gossip and have cocktails by the poolside, and at night, Kim would see her boyfriend, which would give Meghan space to go out, explore and maybe meet new people. After all, what was the point of being single if she didn’t chase opportunities?

“Now I’m going to be late, and I’ll look like shit,” Kim said. “And my ankles are still swollen from the flight. I need to put my feet up ASAP. I was hoping I could do that by the pool.”

“I’m sure Andres will understand if you’re a little late.” Meghan turned to her friend, who was about to lose her temper. “He loves you, and he’ll be happy to see you. He won’t care if your ankles are swollen.”

“He says he loves me,” Kim corrected her. “I’m here to find out if he really does, or if he’s just some lothario who still sleeps with tourists on a regular basis. But if he does love me… If he really does love me, then I want to look my best for him, so he’ll realise we should be together forever and—”

“Ever and ever,” Meghan interrupted her. She’d heard this so many times before, and although she was happy for Kim, it was getting old, especially after a ten-hour journey during which Kim had talked about Andres non-stop. “There he is,” she said, relieved to see the man come out of his office. He was clearly not on official duty, as he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but at least he seemed helpful.

“Apologies for the wait, ladies. There was a glitch in our system. We sent an email to everyone who had booked for this week, but for some reason, yours wasn’t sent, and it’s still pending.”

“Great.” Kim tilted her head as she looked him over. “So, how are you planning on solving this? I have somewhere to be in two hours, and I’d really like to get ready.”

“Of course. My name is Robert, by the way, and I normally work behind reception—when the hotel is open,” he added with an apologetic smile. “I’ve just called my manager. The good news is I’ll be able to give you an upgrade and check you in, and we’ll give you a refund for tonight. The bad news is that we can’t provide food for tonight, but there will be a member of staff behind the pool bar to serve you.” He hesitated. “Unless you’d rather go to one of our sister hotels? I can find out which ones have availability.”

“No, that works for me,” Kim said, getting up. “A room is all I need. Are you okay with that, Megs?”

“Fine with me.” Meghan was surprised at how quickly the problem had been solved, and she, too, was dying to get changed.

“Oh, one more thing.” Robert slipped back behind the reception desk and picked up a flyer. “As I said, there will be an event here this weekend. It’s a Pride event. Women only,” he added, holding it up for them to see. “I just need to check you don’t have a problem with that.”

“No problem at all.” Meghan smiled. “As long as the bar is open.”

Chapter 2 – Florence

“You want me to work the bar tonight?” Florence stared from the pool bar to Robert and frowned.

“Only until midnight—if you don’t mind,” he said. “I’ll stay on reception. I can sleep in the back.” He sighed. “We screwed up with their reservation, so it’s the least we can do, but I understand if you can’t at such short notice. I can ask someone else.”

“No, it’s fine. I could actually do with the overtime, and with only two guests it’s easy money.” Florence picked up a rainbow garland that had fallen off one of the palm trees and reattached it.

The preparations for the women’s Pride festival were finally done, and most of her colleagues, including Stella, her manager, had left. A few were still hanging around, smoking a cigarette before heading into town for a drink.

“Hey, guys. Just go without me,” she yelled at them. “There was a fuck-up with a reservation, and a couple of people just arrived, so I’m staying here tonight.” Her announcement was met with some protests, but the boys would be secretly relieved she wasn’t coming. They loved hitting on the ladies, and even though she did too, people always assumed she was dating one of them.

She waved them off and turned back to Robert. “So, how does this work? Do I turn the music on? The lights?”

Robert shrugged. “Honestly, this is a first. I have no idea, but I don’t want to bug Stella again. I just called her, and she was already in bed. I’d say do what you would normally do, apart from the announcements over the speakers.”

“Yeah, that would be weird.” Florence chuckled as she imagined her voice blasting through the silence, aimed at only herself if these guests didn’t come down to the poolside tonight. “Well, I’ll get the bar ready. Do you want a beer?”

“No, I’m good,” Robert said. “I’m technically on duty, so I’d better not.” He gave her a pat on her shoulder before he headed back into the building. “And no drinking for you either. Thanks, Flo. This should be an easy one.”

“Sure. Easy-peasy,” Florence muttered to herself as she turned on the pool lights and the string lights that adorned the tiki bars and the plants around the pool. Paradise Hotel wasn’t the best or the prettiest hotel in Benidorm, but with the rainbow decorations and the lights, it looked pretty charming tonight. She connected her phone to the speakers and put on her own playlist instead of the standard corporate one. If she was going to be here all night, she might as well enjoy herself, but first, she needed something to wake herself up. The hotel’s new coffee machines that had replaced the old, noisy ones were a blessing.

As she made herself a cappuccino, she heard one of the balcony doors above her open and looked up to see two women staring down at her. Unable to resist, she turned on the microphone. “Hey, there! The bar is open, ladies. Special one-on-one service, tonight only.” She smiled when she heard them laugh.

“Thank you!” one of them yelled back at her. “I’ll be down in a bit!”

Florence leaned on the bar and scrolled through her dating app, grimacing at most of the men and women who had ‘liked’ her. With the local dating scene being limited, she usually looked out for tourists, but there wasn’t much choice this week. She was excited for tomorrow, though: working at a women’s only weekend was right up her street. Personal relationships with guests were off-limits, but a little flirting was innocent and just what she needed.


Florence jumped and almost dropped her phone in the sink. “Oh, hey! Welcome to Paradise.”

“Welcome to Paradise? Is that what they make you say?” The woman laughed. “It looks pretty cute out here, but I can assure you, our room is far from paradise, even though your boss gave us an upgrade.”

“Robert?” Florence chuckled. “He’s not my boss. He just happened to be here when you guys showed up, so they put him in charge.” She winked. “I don’t think it’s gone to his head yet, but let’s see what the night brings. And as far as the rooms are concerned, I agree with you. They’re not great.”

“It’s fine. I’ll be outside most of the time anyway.” The woman took a seat at the bar. “Are you here just for me?”

“For you and your girlfriend,” Florence said. “My name is Florence.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Meghan. It’s just me tonight, and Kim is not my girlfriend.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have assumed. I just thought you were here for the Pride event and—”

“No, no, no,” Megan interrupted, waving a hand. “My friend is here to see her boyfriend, who’s a local, and I’m tagging along. Neither of us is gay, nor are we here for the event.” She leaned closer and lowered her voice, even though there was no one else around. “Are we going to be the only straight women here over the weekend?”

“I’m afraid so.” Florence shot her an amused smile. There was something adorably innocent about this woman. “But it’ll be fun. There’s live music and a DJ, and everyone will dress up.”

“I don’t have anything to wear,” Meghan said.

“No problem. Just grab one of those garlands. They’re everywhere.” Florence pointed to the cocktail menu. “By the way, what can I get you?”

Meghan shook her head. “I can go somewhere else. I’m sure you’d like to go home.”

“Now that we officially have occupancy, even if it’s just one room, someone has to be here, so you might as well stay.” Florence shrugged. “The drinks are free, and I can be good company. I’d love to have someone to talk to while I sit out my shift, and besides the drinks on that menu, I can make you anything you like.”

Meghan ran a hand through her long, dark hair and smiled. “Okay. But only if you have a drink with me.”

“I’m not supposed to drink on duty.” Florence glanced at the building. Robert always took naps on his nightshifts, and with hardly any guests in the hotel, he was sure to be fast asleep by now.

“There’s no one here.” Meghan pointed to the empty poolside. “It’s just you and me. If there was ever a time to have a cheeky drink at work, it’s now.”

“You’re right,” Florence said after a moment’s hesitation. “As long as you don’t tell anyone.”

“My lips are sealed.” Meghan’s smile widened, and she tapped the bar. “So, what are we having?”

Chapter 3 – Meghan

“It’s good,” Meghan said as she sipped her margarita. She studied the attractive bartender, who was a little younger than her.

“Thanks.” Florence was petite, but she seemed to have a big personality. Her wild, dark, curly hair was loosely pinned up, framing her heart-shaped face. She had a deep tan from working in the sun and big, hazel eyes that sparkled in the dim light of the bar. Wearing nothing but a slinky, grey vest top, a pair of tiny jersey shorts and flip-flops, she looked like she’d jumped straight out of bed onto the job, and as the hotel was closed, Meghan suspected that might have been the case.

“It could be a lot better. Our tequila is not of the best quality, but it does the job.” Florence smiled widely and clinked her glass against Meghan’s. “So, you’re third-wheeling? Is that what’s happening this week?”

Meghan laughed. “Yeah, something like that. I don’t mind, though. I can entertain myself, and Kim will be here during the day while Andres, her boyfriend, is working.”

“Well, you have me tonight.” Florence pulled a chair behind the bar, propped her feet on the edge of the sink and sat back. “And tomorrow, you’ll have two hundred women fighting over you, so you won’t be short of company then either.”

“I don’t mind making new friends, but as I said I’m not—”

“I know, you’re not into women. I was only joking. Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No, I’m single. What about you?”

“Me too. Single and ready to mingle. I’m excited for the festival.”

“Oh, you like women?” Meghan blushed and felt silly for it. She often ended up in gay clubs on Saturday nights, and she’d even kissed a girl on a drunken occasion when she was younger, so her reaction made no sense.

“I’ve dated men too, but I prefer women.” Florence locked her eyes with Meghan’s as she sipped her cocktail. “Physically, I mean.”

Meghan nodded, a little uncomfortable under her intense stare. “Are you allowed to personally engage with guests?”

“No. I’m not allowed to drink on the job either.” Florence suppressed a smirk as she held up her glass. “What can I say? I’m easily tempted.”

“Then you must get in trouble a lot,” Meghan joked. Florence had a permanently mischievous look on her face, and that amused her.

“Not really. I keep myself entertained, but I know my limits, so I tend to get away with a lot. Where are you from?”

“London. It’s good to get out of the city for a bit, and we haven’t had much of a summer. It’s rained non-stop for weeks.” Meghan looked at her arms, which, like the rest of her, were terribly pale compared to Florence. “What about you? Do you live in Benidorm?”

“For now. I’m a seasonal employee. I’m here in the summer. In the winter, I work for a hospitality employment agency in London. It’s restaurant bar work, mainly, but they occasionally put me on events and weddings too.”

“That sounds fun.”

“It can be. What do you do, Meghan?”

“I manage a casino. A small one in Southwest London.”

“Cool.” Florence looked her over and frowned. “I find it hard to imagine you as a casino boss. You look so innocent.”

Meghan threw her head back and laughed. “You’ve been watching too many movies. I’m not a gangster. I just manage the day-to-day and the staff.”

“But you wear a black suit?” Florence asked with a chuckle.

“At work, yes.”

“Do you smoke cigars and drink whisky in your office?”

Meghan laughed even harder now. “No, I don’t smoke, and like you, I’m not allowed to drink on the job.” She shrugged. “But unlike you, play by the rules.”

“Hey, that’s not fair! You were the one who insisted I have a drink with you.” Florence’s eyes widened in amusement. “So, you never get up to anything naughty at work?”

“Never. I’m not involved with money laundering or blackmail, I’m afraid, and I don’t go around breaking people’s legs. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Bummer.” Florence slapped her thigh with a comical grin. “What about office affairs? A bit of fun on your desk after hours?”

“Nope. I share an office with the head of payroll and the head of HR, and they’re both old enough to be my parents.” Meghan held up her hands in defeat. “I’m basically super boring.”

“We’ll see about that.” Florence pointed to her glass. “How about another margarita?”

Finishing her cocktail, Meghan already felt it going to her head. She hadn’t eaten anything yet, but she was enjoying having a drink with Florence and didn’t feel like venturing out in search of food. “I’d love another, but I need to eat. Do you know a good place that delivers?” She opened one of the international delivery apps on her phone and handed it to Florence. “Are you hungry? Please order whatever you like.”

“I do know of a place, but I don’t want you to buy me dinner. Let’s split it.”

“Please. It’s the least I can do when you’re keeping me company,” Meghan insisted. “And I’m a big casino boss, remember? You’re just going to have to do as I say.”

Florence arched a brow and chuckled. “Okay, big shot. How about tapas?”

Did you enjoy this sample? Paradise Pride, book 3 in The Resort Series, is available through the link below!

Read the first three chapters of Christmas in Heaven!

Chapter 1 – Helen

“Helen, your one-thirty is here.” Bette, Helen’s assistant stuck her head around the door and smiled. “It’s Matilda Braga.”

“Matilda?” Helen looked up from her laptop and frowned. “That must be someone else’s client, I don’t have a—”

“Matilda Braga from Braga Events,” Bette interrupted her. “She’s here to talk through some stuff for the Christmas party.”

“Oh.” Helen rubbed her temple and sighed. Why had she volunteered to organise the Christmas party again? At the time, it had seemed like a great idea, but now it was just causing her stress on top of her already existing mountain of stress. Being a matchmaker, this was the busiest time of the year. Christmas was nearing and people were desperate for a date. Wealthy people who paid Heaven, the company Helen worked for, up to twelve thousand pounds to find them The One. That was great in terms of commission but not so great for her time management. She hadn’t had a day off in three weeks, and working around the clock, even at home on weekends, she was getting more tired by the day.

“Send her in,” she said but then held her hand up as Bette was about to leave. “Wait. Was I supposed to prepare something?”

Bette stared at her and shrugged. “I have no idea. I haven’t been involved in the Christmas party, and you didn’t brief me on anything.”

“Sure. Of course.” Helen cleared her throat, cursing herself for taking this on. More to the point, why had she put off doing anything about it until her colleagues started asking questions? Where is it? Will there be a theme? What about the food? On top of all that, her boss had decided that this year’s Christmas party would double as a matchmaking event, during which they’d match up hundred people from their database who hadn’t found love this year. In a panic, Helen had called tons of venues, but they were all fully booked. Her last resort was to spend part of the budget on a party planner—the only one who was willing to take on the job last minute—and that was where she was up to.

Straightening her navy blazer, Helen stood to greet the extravagantly dressed, petite, dark-haired women who walked in.

“Hi! You’re Matilda, right? Thank you so much for coming in. I’ve been really looking forward to meeting you.”

Helen made it sound like she’d been waiting for the woman all morning, but it was part of her skill set. She was highly trained in making people feel special; that was a big part of what made her so good at her job. If her clients felt welcome and understood, they signed on, and if they signed on, Helen usually found their match. Perhaps not a forever match, but her ninety-two percent success rate alongside rave reviews told her they were happy with her work.

“Hi. Yes, it’s so nice to meet you too.” Matilda accepted Helen’s offer to sit in the chair opposite her, placed her handbag on her lap and pulled out an iPad. “I know you’re very busy, and so am I, so we can keep this short and sweet if you prefer.”

“Thank you, that would be great,” Helen said, subtly regarding her. Matilda was her age, she guessed. Dressed in red, thigh-high suede boots, a short, frilly, red skirt and a green, oversized Christmas jumper, Matilda reminded her of an elf. Her dark hair was long and framed by a hairpiece with baubles and tinsel that put Helen’s mother’s Christmas tree to shame, and she almost passed comment on Matilda’s outfit, but something told her it wasn’t meant as a joke, so she wisely kept her thoughts to herself. “What do we need to discuss?”

Matilda scrolled through her iPad. “I have a list we need to work through. Let me find it.”

“Anything. Just ask away.”

Still scrolling, Matilda crossed her legs, flashing a hint of black lace from underneath the hem of her skirt.

Hold-ups. Helen’s smile widened, with genuine enthusiasm this time. She was amused that someone who dressed like an elf bothered with sexy lingerie. It wasn’t just the lace that put her in a better mood, though. She liked Matilda’s to-the-point, no-nonsense approach; there was a good chance this meeting would be over in no time and Helen could get back to her clients.

Matilda typed something and swiped a couple of times. “Special dietary requirements.” She looked up to meet Helen’s eyes. “Did you get my email last week? I think I sent a reminder too.”

“I saw it,” Helen lied, shifting uncomfortably on her chair. She’d forgotten all about it and made a mental note to ask Bette to compile a document. “It’s not quite there yet, but if you give me a couple of days, I’ll get that to you.”

“That’s fine, but please make it a priority,” Matilda said, scrolling again. “After Wednesday, we’re not able to change the menu much, as the venue has to plan their order in this busy time of year. We were lucky to get the venue in the first place after they had a cancellation, so I don’t want to mess them about.” She looked up briefly before she continued. “Which brings me to my second point. What’s your final number on guests? The venue needs to arrange heaters, as they’ll open up their roof terrace so people can have drinks outside if they wish. As you know, the building is high and central, so I imagine most will want to enjoy the romantic view after dinner.” She paused and narrowed her eyes at her screen. “The entertainment is a priority too. There are currently only two available bands left in my portfolio, I’m afraid. But if you have any ideas, I’m happy to look into them.”

Fuck. Helen held her breath, then blew out her cheeks. She had a rough idea of the numbers, but not everyone had responded to the invite yet, and she hadn’t listened to the samples of the bands Matilda had sent either. “When do you need to know all of this at the latest?”

“Today, ideally.” Matilda arched a brow, but her polite smile remained. “Helen, I want to organise a fantastic party for you and your colleagues and clients, but I can only do that if we’re able to sign things off together. So far, I’ve had no replies to the twenty-three emails I’ve sent you, and frankly, I’m a little stuck here. The party is just over a week away.”

Helen felt a tinge of panic bubbling in the back of her mind. Why hadn’t she acted sooner? She’d never been bad at a job, ever, but this Christmas nonsense was getting the better of her. Sure, she’d seen the emails, but there were always more pressing matters to take care of, and working seven days a week, she had no idea where to find the time. This Christmas party was important too, though; it wasn’t just any old work-do. It had to be nothing short of spectacular, and clearly money alone wasn’t enough to make that happen. It needed consideration and time. Her time. Many of their clients would be there, her boss would be there, and some of her colleagues who were jealous of her success and would love to see her fail were watching her like a hawk, secretly hoping the Christmas party would be a total and utter failure.

“Fuck.” She buried her face in her hands. “I apologise. I’ve just been so busy, and I have no idea when to do all this, or even how to get the information as quickly as you need it.” To her surprise, her eyes welled up, and she turned away for a moment, composing herself. She never cried, and she wasn’t going to start now. Swallowing hard, she tapped her desk, all too aware that she looked vulnerable, no matter how hard she tried to hide it. When she finally looked up, Matilda was staring at her. Helen didn’t know what that stare meant, and she didn’t want to.

“Okay.” Matilda sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Do you have all the phone numbers for the guests?”


“Can you clear your schedule this afternoon?”

Helen hesitated. She was in over her head with open cases, but at least she didn’t have client meetings. “I suppose I could if, I take my work home tonight—”

“Good, then let’s get this sorted.” Matilda glanced over her shoulder through the glass doors. “And your assistant? Is she available?”

“I could ask her to help.” Helen felt a spark of hope at Matilda’s assertiveness. She hadn’t involved Bette, as everyone would’ve assumed she’d bummed the party planning off on her assistant. Which I’m about to do. But she had no choice because Matilda was right. With the party being next week, they had to get on with it. Everything else would have to wait today, and maybe, just maybe, the Heaven Christmas party wouldn’t be a total disaster. 

“Call her in,” Matilda said. “I can see you’re about to have a breakdown, so please leave me in charge.”

Chapter 2 – Matilda

Six hours in and Matilda felt a little calmer. Helen was making phone calls, and Bette, who had left an hour ago, had been very helpful, so she was able to tick things off her list. Ticking things off was good; it meant she could start planning the next stage of the party. Last-minute bookings were a challenge on their own, let alone one for three hundred people in Central London.

The security guard did his rounds, turned off the lights in the reception area and mumbled something through the open door about waiting for them downstairs.

“Sorry about this, Weston, we’re almost done,” Helen called after him. “I’ll bring you cake tomorrow, promise.”

“Should we leave?” Matilda asked. To her, the late hour didn’t matter. She’d just bill her time, and from their initial conversation, she had a feeling Helen was used to pulling long days too.

“Yes, we probably should. He’s been waiting for over an hour.” Helen collected the document from the printer and handed it to Matilda. “I think we have everything you need for now. RSVPs, plus-ones and dietary requirements. Well, not all. Seventeen people didn’t pick up or reply, but it’s close enough, right?”

“Out of three hundred, yes, that’s definitely close enough.” Matilda glanced over the paperwork and gave her an approving smile. “Excellent. I can work with this. Do you have energy left to talk music and decorations?” Noting she felt hungry, she added, “Maybe over food somewhere?”

“That sounds good. There’s a small Japanese restaurant on street level. They have sockets under the tables, and they don’t mind people working there.” Helen closed her laptop and slipped it into her handbag. “Shall we?”


“I sense you’re a regular here,” Matilda said as she wedged a piece of sushi between her chopsticks and dipped it in soy sauce. Helen knew the staff members by name and hadn’t needed to look at the menu before she ordered. “Do you always eat and work?”

“Not if I can help it, but it seems to be the norm lately, to be honest with you.” Helen shrugged. “Everyone wants a date for Christmas. They want someone to take home to their family, or sometimes they’re just lonely this time of year.”

“And you? Your plus-one isn’t on here.” Matilda picked up the guest list to double-check. “Do you want me to take it off?”

“No, leave it on. I’ll find someone.” Helen rolled her eyes and groaned. “Yet another time-consuming project to worry about before the Christmas break.” When she straightened herself to meet Matilda’s eyes again, she looked even more deflated and tired than she had this afternoon.

“So, you’re single?” Matilda asked, studying her. Helen had big, blue eyes, sharp, dark brows, and her blonde hair fell over her shoulders in waves. She wore little make-up and was naturally pretty, in a girl-next-door kind of way, but her presentation was all business, from the stylish black suit that hugged her in all the right places to her black, leather designer handbag, neither of which were cheap. Evidently, she received a nice salary in return for her hard work.

“Isn’t that ironic?” Helen chuckled. “I’m the best matchmaker in the UK and I can’t even find a date for the Christmas party. I’ve been single for four years.”

“I imagine it’s not easy meeting people when you work such long hours,” Matilda said. “Would it be so bad if you went alone?”

“Not necessarily, but as a matchmaker, that doesn’t look good.” Helen chewed her lip as she stirred a piece of sashimi through her soy sauce. “Also, I may have told my colleagues I was seeing someone,” she added, shrugging when Matilda’s eyes widened. “I know. It was an incredibly stupid move, but I am where I am, and now I must find a way out of this hole I dug for myself. Please don’t tell anyone.”

Matilda laughed. “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me. I know a few single guys. Maybe I can help. What’s your type?”

“Anything but a guy,” Helen said dryly as the corners of her mouth pulled into a small smile.

“Oh.” Matilda cringed at her voice when it went up a notch. “Women. Okay. So what kind of woman are you looking for?”

“I don’t think I have a type, but since we’re talking about the Christmas party, they have to be presentable. I like women who dress well and hold their own in social situations.”

“Right…” Matilda frowned, wondering why on earth she hadn’t sensed Helen was gay. Her gaydar was rarely off, but she hadn’t seen this one coming. “In that case, I might have some single female friends for you.”

Helen, who had just taken a bite of sashimi, stopped chewing. “Wait. Are you…?”

“Yes, I’m gay too.” Matilda waved her hands with a grin. “Surprise.”

“Wow.” Helen laughed out loud for the first time that day, and she looked even prettier with a huge smile on her face. “I’m usually so good at reading people. I mean, it’s my job. How could I not…?” She shook her head. “I’m clearly in need of a break.”

“Are you having a break?”

“Yes, the office is closed for two weeks after the Christmas party, so I’ll have some time to recharge.” Helen tilted her head as she looked Matilda over, and Matilda was dying to know what she was thinking. “And you? Are you having time off?”

“Your party is my last event before Christmas. After that, we’re closed until New Year’s Eve, but I’ll probably do some work in the days leading up to that, as we have a huge event. So, all in all, I probably won’t get that much time to myself.”

“I’m sorry I’ve kept you today. I should have been prepared for our meeting, and instead I’ve wasted your precious time.”

“It’s fine, it happens all the time.” Matilda shot her a smile. “Really, don’t worry about it. I’m glad we have everything sorted now. Apart from the music, the decorations and the seating plan, but the seating plan can wait.”

“Would it be okay if I left you in charge of the decorations and music?” Helen asked. “You have a better idea of what works than me. I’m a novice when it comes to Christmas.”

“No problem.” Matilda unlocked her iPad, loaded a presentation and handed it over. “I’ve already put a proposal together. I just need you to approve it. Companies usually like to have their logo colours incorporated in the decorations, but since yours is black, I’ve kept it neutral, using white and gold for a cosy, wintry feel, and I’ve added hints of black to reflect your company identity. We could put your logo on the napkins and project it on the wall both inside and outside, but apart from that, I don’t want to over-brand the event, as this will be an elegant occasion.” She paused while Helen scrolled through the mood boards she’d created. “As your budget allows it, I’ve reserved crystal glasses, black velvet table runners, white China and nice silverware, and I suggest we go with the blues band.”

“I love it,” Helen said, her shoulders visibly dropping in relief as she sat back. “This party has been haunting me for months. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am to know it’s under control and that it will look spectacular.”

“Everything will be great, don’t worry about a thing. Despite a little setback this afternoon, you’ve actually made it easy for me too. You have no idea how many of my clients get involved in the details and keep changing their minds.”

“Hey, the less I know the better.” Helen pointed to her head. “It’s getting crowded up here and I need my storage for work.”

“Then that’s settled.” Matilda was pleased with their progress. She could move on to the fun part now, the part when everything came together. “Do you have time to meet up soon to go through the table plan? That’s the only thing I really can’t do for you, I’m afraid.”

“Sure. Could we do it over dinner?” Helen asked. “If you’re busy too, we might as well save ourselves some precious office hours. You pick the place though. I’ll come your way.”

“Okay, I’ll reserve a table.” Matilda hesitated. “Can I ask you something?” She continued when Helen nodded. “Why are youin charge of the party?”

“I’ve been asking myself the same question.” Helen shot her a comical grin. “Frankly, it was a silly idea to volunteer, but I honestly didn’t think it would be so much work. I guess I wanted to show off. I’m the golden child at work. I bring in the most clients and have the highest success rate in matching. Deep down, I guess I wanted a spectacular party to celebrate my achievements and prove I could throw a better party than last year’s, which was underwhelming in my opinion.” She paused. “But if it wasn’t for you, there wouldn’t have been a party at all. I’m so glad you said yes. I must have called over twenty party planners and they were all fully booked.”

“I’m not surprised. I was only available because I had a cancellation myself.” Matilda put her iPad back in her bag and zipped it closed. “Anyway, enough work for today.” She pointed to the pot of tea on their table. “Would you like some more tea? Or I could order some sake while we discuss the last thing on the agenda.”

I’m always up for sake,” Helen said, gesturing the waiter over. “But what’s left to discuss?”

Matilda shot her a mischievous look and held up her phone. “My single friends, AKA your potential dates for the party.”

Chapter 3 – Helen

“You’re so picky. Beggars can’t be choosers, Helen,” Matilda joked as she showed Helen the fifth and final picture, which was of her friend, Sedi. “Sedi is thirty-six, she works in finance, and she has a lovely apartment in Belsize Park. She plays golf on weekends, and she loves to go to live music gigs. Do you like music?”

“Yes, but who doesn’t?” Helen was trying to be open about Matilda’s suggestions, but she wasn’t feeling it. Sedi was good-looking, and she had a cute smile, but Helen couldn’t imagine dating her, even if it was just for one night. “She sounds great, but she’s not for me.”

“Then I’m afraid I’m out of options.” Matilda topped up their sake. “Tell me, how do you approach this in your job? How do you find a match for your clients?”

“I interview them face-to-face and make sure I know absolutely everything about them. The questionnaire holds over three hundred questions. I ask questions that may seem irrelevant, but they give me a better picture of who my clients really are and what their values, aspirations and dreams are. Then I enter all the information into a programme that was developed especially for our company, the Heaven Databank. Based on this information, I usually get between twenty and forty hits on matching profiles, and I spend hours going through them one by one.” She sipped her sake, savouring the warm liquid that relaxed her after a long and stressful day. “This is where my psychology background comes into play.”

“You’re a psychologist?” Matilda arched a brow. “I thought…”

“You thought we were just a bunch of hopeless romantics playing with people’s hearts?” Helen winked. “Trust me, I’m far from romantic. There’s an actual science to this, believe it or not.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know why that took me by surprise.”

“It’s okay. You’re not the first to think that, so you’re forgiven.” Matilda’s embarrassed expression amused Helen. It was kind of cute, and she decided she liked this woman.

“Anyway, I interrupted you, so please continue,” Matilda said, eager to move on.

“Sure.” Helen grinned. “After I’ve vetted all the profiles, I select three matches and interview these people before my psychologist’s gut tells me which one is most suitable, then I call them and discuss the match, and if they agree to meet, Bette sets up a date for them on neutral territory.”

“And how much will your matchmaking set them back?”

“The membership fees are twelve thousand pounds a year. If they haven’t been on a date within a year of signing up, we’ll refund them or roll the fees over to the next year.”

Matilda whistled through her teeth. “That’s a hefty price to pay for a date.”

“Would you consider it a hefty price if you found The One?” Helen shot back at her. She smiled when Matilda remained silent. “See? You can’t put a price on love.”

“Hmm…” From the look on her face, Matilda wasn’t convinced. “How many people do you have in your database?”

“Thousands. We operate internationally, but we try to match people who live reasonably close to one another. I generally don’t have to travel much, my clients come to me, but if they’re celebrities, I may meet them in their home if they don’t want to be seen walking into Heaven.”

“Wow. That’s very cool.” Matilda narrowed her eyes. “So, why don’t you just pick someone from your own client base? Find yourself a match?”

Helen laughed and shook her head. “The membership requires proof of income. We only work with very wealthy people, and I don’t fall into that category quite yet. Even if my income was in seven figures, it would still be unethical as I’m an employee.” She was enjoying talking to Matilda and realised it had been a long time since she’d had a stimulating conversation over dinner. “What about you? Are you in a relationship?”

“No, I’m single,” Matilda said. “Like you, I don’t have time to date and I’m happy by myself.”

“Then maybe I have single friends for you.” Helen winked. Truth be told, she had only a handful of friends, and she didn’t think they’d be interested in dating someone who embraced Christmas with as much enthusiasm as Matilda, especially in the looks department. The woman was lovely, and Helen enjoyed her company, but she wasn’t into Christmas jumpers or bauble tiaras.

“Oh, you’re turning the tables on me now, are you?” Matilda had a humorous twinkle in her eyes. “Bring it on. Show me why you’re the most successful matchmaker in London.”

“I’d need to interview you first.”

Matilda crossed her arms on the table and leaned in. “Fire away.”

“Are you sure?”

“Come on. How bad can it be?”

For some reason, Helen couldn’t stop smiling. “Very well. Let’s start with a simple question. What’s your star sign?”

“Virgo.” Matilda chuckled. “Please don’t tell me star signs influence your matchmaking. That’s just—”

“Everything is important, including star signs,” Helen interrupted her. “Tell me about your family and the family dynamics.”

“Okay, let’s see… I was born and raised in London, and my parents divorced when I was four. I grew up with my mum, and I’m very close to her. Mum’s from Brazil, and most of my family from her side live there, including my grandparents. My father’s roots are Brazilian too, but he grew up in Ireland and moved back there after the divorce. I visited him a few times a year when I was younger, and nowadays we see each other even less. We’re not close, but we’re okay. I’m much closer to my mum—I think I still blame him for hurting her.” Matilda bit her lip as she sank into deep thought. “Our family’s small. I’m an only child, and I have an aunt, an uncle, three cousins and my grandparents in Rio, whom I visit once a year. I don’t know my family in Ireland that well because I’ve never spent much time with them.”

“What role did money play growing up?” Helen asked.

“It wasn’t easy. Although Dad paid some child support, Mum still struggled being a single mother and she worked long days at a dry cleaner’s Monday to Friday, so I learnt from an early age to be independent. I had my first part-time job doing dishes at a restaurant when I was sixteen, and I worked my way through university while I studied hospitality management. After I graduated, I worked in hospitality in London for a while. Then I got a job as crew manager on a charter yacht and spent seven years sailing around the world. The tips were generous, so I managed to save up a lot of money, and when I came back because I missed London, I started Braga Events.”

“Interesting,” Helen said, genuinely intrigued by Matilda’s life story. She’d struck her as ambitious from the moment they’d met, and knowing she’d done all that by herself was admirable. “Do you miss travelling?”

“Yes, but my time is limited, and when I take time off, I tend to go to Brazil with Mum to visit family.”

“Okay. And do you like your job?”

“I love my job,” Matilda said without hesitation. “I’m proud of what I’ve built. That moment when my client walks in and sees the venue is so rewarding. I always come in for the first half hour to make sure they’re one hundred percent happy.”

“You don’t stay during the event?” Helen asked.

“No, I leave it to my event managers to handle the event. I used to be a control freak and micromanage, but over the years I’ve learnt to trust my staff. If I worked nights too, I wouldn’t have a life at all.”

“Of course.” Helen poured them the last of the sake from the ceramic jug and sipped it. “What about relationships? Your dating history? Sexuality?”

“There’s not much to tell, really. I came out when I was sixteen and my parents never made a fuss of it. I’ve only ever dated women over the years and was in two short-term relationships, but they didn’t work out.”

“Why didn’t they work out?”

“I think because I always put my business first.”

Helen nodded and noted talking to Matilda was like holding up a mirror. She saw so much of herself in her, it was almost scary. “Do you want love? Do you want children? A family?”

Matilda hesitated and focused on her sake cup, running a finger over its uneven surface before she answered. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “I don’t know if I want love. I think I do, but something’s holding me back. And as far as children are concerned…I’m honestly not sure. I’m thirty-five and I don’t feel an itch, if you know what I mean.” She downed the rest of her drink and sat back, subconsciously telling Helen she was getting too close and that she was done answering questions. “So? What’s the verdict, Helen from Heaven? Do you have a match for me in your circle of friends? Or do you need another hour of interrogation?”

Helen smiled. “I didn’t even touch on the sex questions yet, but I think I can do this, as you’re pretty easy to analyse. How honest do you want me to be?”


“Very well.” Helen took a deep breath before she fired away. “I think you’re single because you’re afraid of commitment, and before you tell me that’s a cliché, hear me out. You’ve worked hard to get your company off the ground, and you’re worried a relationship will stand in the way of work, not the other way around. Therefore, you use work as an excuse not to date. You tell yourself you don’t have time, and it would never cross your mind to make time.

“Your parents’ divorce caused you to be sceptical about love, and I think it’s safe to say you’re not a romantic at heart. You’re also a Virgo, and Virgos tend to be pragmatic, detail-oriented perfectionists—traits I feel are very much in your character from the short time I’ve known you—so if someone isn’t close to perfect for you, you will discard the idea of a relationship before you’ve even tried. Simultaneously, if someone is perfect for you, you’ll panic and pull away.”

Helen waited for Matilda to protest or burst out in laughter; it was often the initial reaction when she went through this with her clients. There was no reaction, though. Matilda simply stared at her stoically, so she continued.

“Your ideal partner would be the opposite to you. A homemaker, or someone whose life does not evolve around work. They have to be safe and reliable, and always be willing to fight for you when you start expressing your doubts about the relationship. Someone who is emotionally intelligent and will understand why you feel the way you feel when you become distant at times because of that internal panic related to commitment. My guess is that you tend to go for the opposite because then you already know it’s not going to work out and you feel more comfortable with the idea of short-term. Short-term means you can keep your lovers at a distance. Short-term relationships are mostly physical, and something tells me you’re not shy in the bedroom.” She chuckled when Matilda let out an exasperated gasp. “Wait, wait, let me finish. You confuse sex with intimacy. Deep down, you do want to commit, and you do long for a deeper connection. You just haven’t figured that out yet.”

“Are you done?” Matilda asked. The little elf looked adorable when she was annoyed, but from the nervous tapping of her fingers on the table, Helen knew that she was on to something.

“Yes. And now is the moment you tell me I’m wrong and that it’s all bullshit. But over time, you’ll remember what I told you and you’ll realise I was right.” Helen shot her a cheeky grin. “Also, if you’re pissed off with me, that’s okay, but please don’t quit as my party planner because I really need you.”

Matilda’s expression softened a little, and she met Helen’s gaze with a smirk. Her walls were up; that much was clear. “Well, I’ll need some time to digest this, but you were right about one thing,” she said, never breaking eye contact. “I’m definitely not shy in the bedroom.”

“At least you’re giving me something. Something’s better than nothing.” Helen remained calm and indifferent on the surface, but inside she was burning because now she was picturing Matilda in bed, naked, and that was ridiculous. The woman sitting opposite her couldn’t be further from her type. The way she dressed for one, was far from attractive to her—apart from the hold-ups, of course. Those were always welcome in Helen’s world. Christmas jumpers and silly hairpieces, however, were things she steered clear of.

An amused twinkle flashed in Matilda’s eyes as she leaned in again, much closer this time. “I need to know one thing, though. Why did you think I was so easy to read?”

Helen’s palms went sweaty hard as multiple plausible answers ran through her head. “Because you’re like me,” she said, baffled by her honesty. Why had she said that? Did she feel like she owed Matilda after bombarding her with all those personal questions?”

Matilda’s smile widened. “How so? Tell me.”

“My parents divorced when I was young, and I grew up with my mother, who remarried twice and she’s currently single. I never knew my father, and we struggled financially. I paid my way through university by working several jobs. I studied psychology, but I never really enjoyed working in the field until one day, I was approached by a headhunter who was looking for psychologists to join a new matchmaking company. I love this job, but the road leading here wasn’t easy. I got to where I am with sheer determination and a one-track mind. Creating a better life for myself was always at the forefront of every step I took, and love was never a part of the bigger plan.” Helen shrugged. “And believe it or not, I’m a Virgo too.”

“Huh.” Matilda’s eyes were fixated on her as she picked up her cup and brought it to her lips. Realising it was empty, she put it back down, then continued to stare at Helen. “That’s some really good self-reflection right there, even for a psychologist. Did you work that out all by yourself?”

Again, Helen’s first reaction was to come up with a lie, but she found herself blurting out the truth again. “No,” she said with a chuckle. “My therapist did.”

Like this sample? Get Christmas in Heaven here!

The Little Black Book by Lise Gold

“Will this take long?” Beth Spencer fidgeted with her wedding ring while Arnold Snow, the attorney, checked her passport. His office on the top floor of a seven-story building in Downtown Brooklyn was basic at best and nothing like she’d imagined. The brown carpet smelled moldy, the white walls showed cracks and damp stains, and the furniture had seen better days. “It’s uncomfortable for me to be here since…” Her eyes darted around the room before she finally met his gaze. Arnold reminded her of a toad, the way his fat head seemed to be attached directly to his shoulders, rather than his neck, and his bulgy, almost yellowish eyes peered at her from behind round, black-rimmed reading glasses. “Well, since you were the last person to see her alive,” she finally said.

“I was, and I’m very sorry for your loss.” Arnold’s voice sounded croaky. “I can assure you that your wife did not seem suicidal when she was here. If I felt she appeared distressed, I would have alerted the police as it’s not uncommon for people to make a will when they’re planning on taking their own life.” He gave her back her passport along with a form to fill in. “As her sole beneficiary, you will receive the sum of $20,000.” Sliding another form across the desk, he added: “And you’ll need this when you go to the police station. The items found on Mrs. Spencer’s body are ready for you to pick up.”

“Twenty-thousand?” As she sat back, Beth needed a moment to process the information. “But as far as I was aware, Sammy didn’t have any savings.”

“This amount represents the latest royalties from her crime novels,” Arnold clarified. “We may need to arrange a follow-up meeting to make sure these go directly to you from now on.”

“Right.” Beth was feeling an array of emotions, torn between relief and a deep inconsolable sadness. Coming into an unexpected large sum of money was a welcome surprise as she’d been struggling to keep up with the rent since Sammy had jumped off the roof of Mr. Snow’s building, four months ago. How had she not known how unhappy she was? She’d been on mild anti-depressants and she’d suffered from writer’s block from time to time, but not once had she seen her low enough to worry about her mental health. In fact, Sammy had seemed inspired in the weeks leading up to her death, often writing until the early hours. She signed the form and sighed, knowing it was unlikely she’d ever find the answers she was looking for.

“I think that concludes our business. The money will be in your account shortly.” Arnold stood up to shake her hand. “Chablis and sushi tonight?” he called after her as she left.

“What did you just say?” Beth stalled and turned in the doorway, meeting his grin. It gave her chills; not just because the question felt inappropriate, but also because he had appeared to read her mind.

“Chablis and sushi. Isn’t that what all New York women have on Friday night?”

“Oh…” She managed a smile and shrugged. “Yes, I might. Thank you and I’ll give you a call to set up that meeting.” Even after she’d closed the door behind her, she could still feel his eyes on her.


Later that night, Beth slumped down on her couch with a bottle of Chablis and two California rolls. Arnold Snow was right; she was pretty predictable when it came to take-out. On the couch next to her was the envelope she’d picked up from the police station after work, containing Sammy’s wedding ring and her leather wallet. The one thing that was missing though, was her little black notebook. Being a writer, Sammy always carried one around in the back pocket of her jeans, and Beth had desperately hoped there might be something in there that could help her understand why she’d killed herself.

Her notebooks not only contained ideas for her novels, but also her most private thoughts, and Beth had gone through all of them with a fine-tooth comb. It had felt like a betrayal at first, but she was looking for clues as to what she’d been feeling and thinking so she could stop blaming herself. If Sammy hadn’t carried it with her on the day she died, then where was it?

Something drew her attention to the bookshelves. An indistinct flash of light moving so fast she’d barely registered it. She’d seen it a couple of times recently, but it was always when she was drinking wine by herself in the dark, so she’d put it down to the alcohol. Narrowing her eyes, Beth continued to stare but it had disappeared. Could it be the sign from Sammy she’d so desperately hoped for? Was she trying to reach out to her? She’d never believed in the afterlife but her desperation for answers had caused her to act out of character lately, so she turned on the reading lamp and walked over to the spot where she’d first observed the light.

Beth gasped when she saw Sammy’s missing notebook. Sitting on the second shelf, it had been there all along in plain sight, folded open with its black Moleskine cover facing her. The edge of the cover was tucked under the shelf above, as if she’d strategically placed it there for her to see. But she hadn’t seen it. Looking at Sammy’s precious books had been too hard, and she’d ignored the layer of dust that had settled over them in the past months.

“Sammy are you there?” she whispered, then waited while her heart thumped violently in her chest.

The room remained silent, and Beth internally scolded herself for her irrational behavior that was bordering on insanity. After long moments, she hesitantly picked up the notebook, terrified of what she might discover. Sitting back down, she randomly opened pages to read Sammy’s notes and look at her sketches. Sammy had always been a talented artist. A couple of years ago, she’d asked Beth to take art classes with her, but Beth had laughed it off, knowing she’d hate it. What she wouldn’t give to take one of those stupid classes with her now. 

Just like the other notebooks, this one not only contained ideas for storylines, but also short diary entries, and once again, she felt like an intruder.

‘Had a fight with Beth. She wants a baby but I’m not ready. How can I support a child if I barely make enough money to pay the rent? Feel like a failure sometimes.’

Tears rolled over Beth’s cheeks as she held onto her stomach. It had never been her intention to make her feel like a failure; she’d simply suggested she think about getting a part-time job to substitute her meagre income from writing as they’d talked about starting a family. Caressing the pages one by one, she traced Sammy’s messy handwriting while she cried. Title suggestions, plot ideas and chapter numbers with key words followed, but she didn’t take much in until a character drawing made her pause. The man looked familiar, and as she studied the sketch, a sense of foreboding coursed through her. ‘Reptile neighbor’, it said. Beth frowned, taking in the bald, neckless figure with intense bulgy eyes that Sammy had colored in yellow, then read her notes next to it.

‘Our neighbor, The Reptile, as I like to call him, is a strange man. I saw him for the first time outside the apartment block today when the fire alarm went off.  He told me he was an attorney, then asked me if I had a will. After a short chat he offered me his services for free, which seemed crazy. Who works for free these days? He also asked me how Beth was, but Beth has never mentioned meeting him. I’ll keep an eye on him as he made me feel uncomfortable and I got the impression he’d been watching us. Won’t tell Beth about it as it will only worry her. He’s great material for a character though, and I’m suddenly feeling very inspired.’

Reading the paragraph once more, Beth told herself she was being paranoid, but the coincidence was too haunting to ignore. On the next page was something about a murder weapon and a couple of scribbles about a crime scene, the text boxed and connected with arrows. Although they were clearly just a figment of Sammy’s vivid imagination, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was terribly wrong, and her hand trembled as she flipped to the next page.

‘I visited The Reptile today while Beth was at work, using the excuse that I wanted to take up his offer regarding a will. It was slightly awkward, and he didn’t invite me in, but we talked in the doorway for quite some time. He asked me about my writing, and even though I don’t recall telling him my profession, I found myself opening up to him. I’m not sure why I felt the need to see him again. Perhaps because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about those strange eyes. He’s inspired me to write, and that feeling is addictive. There’s something evil about him that fills me with dread, yet words and ideas flow when I picture him in my mind. I told him I’d drop by his office on Thursday afternoon, so I’ll have another chance to observe him up close. The Reptile is going to make an excellent killer in my new novel.’

Beth slammed a hand in front of her mouth, her mind spinning with contradictory thoughts. Their neighbor had never been mentioned in the suicide investigation and as far as the police was aware, Sammy did not personally know the attorney who last saw her alive. But then again, neither her, nor the police knew they were the same person. Her first thought was that Arnold Snow should have mentioned living next door, her second was the fact that he hadn’t, and that made her fearful. Why keep quiet about something so significant?

Shaking on her legs, Beth got up, closed the curtains facing the street, then glanced into the hallway and around the living room. Lingering in a corner of the room, as far from the window as possible, she fought to stay calm. There was only one more entry in the little black book before the pages turned blank.

‘I found a hole in the wall behind one of the books when I was looking for something to read, and when I looked through it, I could see right into The Reptile’s living room. It was definitely not there before we moved in. Time to go to the police. Or perhaps I should confront him about it tomorrow?’

Even before Sammy’s death, Beth had never looked closely at the bookshelves that were mounted on the wall. She didn’t have many books herself and just saw them as clutter. But now, she held her breath as she studied the shelves closely, noticing every detail, every screw, every mark on the timber. There was a significant gap between the books on the second and the third shelf where smaller paperbacks were stored; a gaping mouth warning her off. Kneeling in front of the shelves, Beth spotted the hole even before she’d swept the books to the floor. It was big enough to see through from a short distance, and despite fear twisting in her gut, she leaned in. What she saw made her freeze in horror. Staring back at her, was a bloodshot, yellow eye. She recognized his croaky voice too.

“Hello, Beth.”

Read the first three chapters of ‘Cupid is a Cat’ by Lise Gold

Chapter 1 – Nora

“Are you sure this is the right bar?” Melanie grimaced as she scanned the camp tiki bar that was adorned with phallic, rainbow-colored Christmas decorations. “I definitely sense a gay energy in here, but not of the female kind.”

Nora checked the address on her phone again and nodded, her eyes darting to the sign above the bar that said I love anal. “Hmm.” She chuckled. “Yes, it’s here, according to my email, but it does seem like a strange choice of venue.” A man in a cowboy hat was sleeping on a stool, his head resting on the bar next to an empty glass. A group of men clad in sparkly purple tank tops were crammed into one of the booths, and male couples were scattered around the standing tables. Apart from them, she counted three women who all looked equally lost. “Women-only speed-dating event. Seven-thirty p.m.,” she read out loud. Jumping at the excuse to get out of it, she turned back to the door. “It looks like there’s not much happening. Shall we go for a drink somewhere else?”

Melanie took her wrist when she turned to the door. “No. You promised me speed dating and I want speed dating. This was your idea, not mine. You got me all excited and now you want to leave?”

“But I don’t see any women, and anyway, I’m not feeling it anymore.” Nora groaned. “I should never have told you about the invitation. It was a stupid idea.”

“Nonsense. You need the distraction, not me. It’s Thanksgiving, after all, so what better way to say fuck you to your ex than go speed dating on the night you were supposed to meet her family?” Melanie clapped her hands together when four women entered the bar. “See? Women. We were just early.”

Nora regarded the women with little interest. She wasn’t in a place to date yet, she knew that, but Melanie was right. She did need the distraction tonight. Two months ago, Barbara, her ex in Seattle, had ended their long-distance relationship. Apart from the fact that they were living on separate continents, she’d used just about every excuse under the sun to break up with her. Difference in interests, age, life stages… Nora didn’t blame her, but that didn’t make it any less painful. Some days were filled with hurt and regret, and she so desperately wanted to feel normal again. After she’d cancelled her flight to the US, Thanksgiving felt like a cursed date looming before her, so when she had gotten the invite for a speed-dating event taking place on that very same day, she’d taken it as a sign, even if it was only to stop her from thinking about her ex for a couple of hours.

“These guys seem to know where they’re going.” Melanie took Nora’s hand and followed the women to the back of the bar, where a semi-closed-off area sloped down into a cozy, long, and narrow makeshift living room with a fireplace, a big sofa, and small tables and stools scattered around. “Come on.”

“Hi, guys. Are you here for the speed-dating event?” A woman with a flipchart walked up to them. “I’m Sally. Sorry about the last-minute change in venue. The original bar flooded, so we had to find an alternative.” She pointed to the huge, wooden penis statue next to the fireplace. “Just ignore all the dicks. This is a men’s bar, and we didn’t have time to redecorate our little nook.”

Despite her sudden change of mood, Nora couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s okay. I didn’t even know there was a change in venue. Is this the Cupid event?”

“You could call it that if you like.” Sally smiled widely. “What’s your name?”

“Nora. Nora Bloom. And I’ve brought a plus-one. Melanie McDermott.”

“Nora Bloom…” Sally frowned as she scanned the list of names. “I don’t have you on the list. Can I see the confirmation email, please?”

Nora opened the email and handed her phone to the woman. “I received this yesterday.”

“Hmmm. The Cupid Event? I thought you were joking when you said that. That’s definitely not from us. We’re called LGBTQ Speed Dating London.” Sally shrugged. “It looks like a mix-up, but since we’re a little low on numbers tonight, we’d be delighted if you both joined. We’re expecting about twenty women, and we generally like to have a few more than that.”

“Sounds good to me,” Melanie said, taking the clipboard the woman handed her before Nora had time to change her mind again.

“Perfect. I just need your name, number, and email.” Sally pulled a sheet of blank labels out of her shoulder bag and scribbled their names on them. “You’re number twenty-one,” she said, sticking one of the labels onto the chest of Melanie’s top. “And last but not least…Nora, you are number twenty-two. Are you ready to find love?”

Nora let out a sarcastic chuckle as she stuck the label onto her shoulder. “Sure.”

“Hey, you need to take this seriously,” Melanie whispered when it was Nora’s turn to fill in her details. “Who knows, you might meet The One.”

Nora stopped what she was doing for a moment and stared at her friend. “Mel, I’m not here to find love. I’m done with that. I’m here to have a drink and talk to strangers so I can stop my mind from churning. We might as well go bowling or see a movie, it’s all the same to me.”

“Whatever. But we’re not going bowling and we’re not watching a movie. Tonight, we’re going to flirt.” Melanie’s eyes darted to a woman by the bar. “See that blonde over there? She’s totally my type. A little tough, natural, good smile, nice teeth… What about you?”

“I don’t have a type,” Nora said.

“I know that, but isn’t there anyone here you find attractive?”

Nora looked around and shook her head. “No. But as I said, that’s not the point. I’m sure we’ll have a good time.”

“That’s the spirit.” Melanie tapped her purse. “Now, first things first. I’ll get a round of drinks if you grab that couch by the fireplace.”

Chapter 2 – Cupid

Cupid observed the crowd, amused by the ignorance of the women in the pub. If only they knew what was coming. Were they ready? Some were, but others would need more time. For them, this was just the initial encounter, the catalyst of many encounters that would lead them to the right person eventually, because like love, heartache was part of life. The mistakes people made, and their failed relationships taught them valuable lessons and prepared them for meeting The One. Happily ever after wasn’t meant to be easy; it had to be earned, and Cupid’s interference was the ultimate reward.

Ranking directly under The Almighty—the maker of the universe and holder of higher powers that controlled destiny—Cupid followed orders and spread the love. Cupid wasn’t a cherub with a bow and arrow, and they weren’t male nor female. They didn’t have any physical form for that matter, but they were able to infinitely multiply and morph into any creature to help earthlings find love. They manifested in many ways, and tonight, in this obscure bar in South London, they were a chubby, ginger cat called Toby. The name was engraved on a silver tag attached to their sparkling, blue collar, and they looked too comfortable and well fed for anyone to worry about them just yet. The guests assumed Toby belonged to the pub owners, and the staff, who had never seen them before, was delighted to have some furry company. They’d discussed finding the owner but there was no phone number on Toby’s tag, so they’d left them to it for now. By the time the event was over, they would probably try to find their rightful owner, but by that time, Cupid—or Toby as they knew him—would be gone.

Cupid liked being a cat, and they were having fun with it. Out of all creatures, cats were the most comfortable skin to live in. They’d tried them all—dogs, insects, birds, and reptiles—but more often than not, they came back as a cat. Cats were able to adapt and blend in, so they could get close to people. They didn’t need to be in the presence of an “owner,” like dogs, and they were fast, agile, and experts at climbing trees and jumping walls.

Toby was purring, delighted with the premium spot on the sofa by the fireplace, and the petting was nice too, especially the scratching behind their ears. Cupid didn’t need to take on a form: they could simply be nothing; but earthlings needed help, and apart from being excellent conversation starters, animals tended to make them feel comfortable. Besides that, the old cliché was true. Lesbians loved cats, and this was a women-only speed-dating event.

“Oh, look at you. You are so cute,” a blonde woman cooed as she sat next to them. She leaned in to read their name on the tag. “Toby. You’re such a pretty boy. Yes, you are a very, very handsome boy.”

And you are about to have a very, very meaningful encounter, Nora. Toby purred louder, thoroughly enjoying the soft strokes of her hand. It was funny how women always put on high-pitched voices when talking to animals. They were perfectly able to understand them without the drama.

Nora was wearing jeans, a black sweater, and white Nikes, and her long hair was pulled into a messy top knot. People didn’t tend to “dress up” for speed-dating events, but they did spend hours in front of the mirror attempting to look like they’d made no effort at all. Earthlings were strange creatures; no one dared admit this was important to them, but Nora was an exception. She’d come straight from work to meet her friend here, and looking her best genuinely wasn’t important tonight because she had no desire to find love. None of that mattered, though, because The Almighty had spoken, and free will was debatable. So here she was, unknowingly ready for someone to leave a lasting impression on her.

Toby turned to the door as Yael walked in. As expected, she didn’t look too keen either. Tall, lean, dark-haired, with striking, almost black eyes, many heads turned her way, but she was on her phone and had no idea all attention was upon her. Following her friend to the registration table, she was still on the call as she scribbled down her details. Nora looked up at her but only for a second. She was too busy fussing over Toby to really notice her, and that was fine. They would soon have their three minutes of conversation; the catalyst that would change their lives forever.

“Have you made a new friend?” Nora’s friend Melanie, put two large gin and tonics on the table and joined them on the couch. “Oh my God, you’re so fluffy.” Again, the high-pitched voice, but Melanie was a good scratcher, so she was forgiven.

“His name is Toby,” Nora said.

“Toby, you are a chubby little boy. I just want to eat you.”

Please don’t. Your friend needs me. Toby licked her, then stopped themselves when they tasted the bitter liquid Melanie had spilt over her hand. Yuck. Gin. Why do people like alcohol? Their attention turned to the bar, where two men shared a portion of chicken wings. That would be nice, though. Or a bit of cream or some steamed salmon.

“What a good boy. Yes, you are the best, best, bestest boy,” Melanie continued, stroking Toby’s tummy when they turned on their side.

You have no idea how good I’ll be to you, Melanie. But your time has not come yet.

“It’s strange…” Melanie furrowed her brows as she studied Toby. “From the way he looks at me, I’d almost think he understands me.”

Nora chuckled. “Have you already downed one of those by the bar by any chance?” She pointed to their drinks. “They’re huge.”

“Animals understand more than you think, and no, I didn’t. But I did order a triple shot for liquid courage.” Melanie picked up her glass and took a sip. “Better have some before the first round starts.”

Chapter 3 – Yael

“We received your down payment, I’ll get back to you tomorrow with a delivery date.” Yael hung up on her client, then glanced at the women around her as she ordered beers at the bar. Her friend Jess had gone to the bathroom to check her hair for the second time since they’d arrived, and Yael suspected she was more nervous than she was letting on. But that was why she was here; for moral support. She’d practically dragged Jess along, insisting it was time she put herself out there after being single for three years.

“There you are,” she said when Jess reappeared. “Stop hiding and smile at people. Make eye contact.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re just my wing woman.” Jess looked terrified as she took a sip from her beer and followed Yael down into the lion’s den, as she called it. “I think I’ve forgotten how to look women in the eyes.”

“How about those two on the couch by the fireplace? They look friendly and approachable. And they’re fussing over a cat. You like cats, so that’s already one thing you have in common.” As if she could feel Yael’s eyes on her, the blonde looked in her direction, and so did the cat. The two heads turning simultaneously was such a comical sight it made Yael chuckle, and the blonde, who assumed she was smiling at her, smiled back.

“Everyone likes cats. It hardly classes as common ground.” Jess pursed her lips, then let out a long sigh. “Fuck, I’m so nervous.”

“Don’t be. You’re the most interesting person I know, Jess, so just be yourself,” Yael said. Again, the blonde’s attention turned to her, and their eyes locked. Hers were light, almost icy gray.

“Hey, the buzzer just went.” Jess nudged her.

“What?” Yael turned to her friend. “Oh. So, what do we do now?”

“We go to our allocated starting table, and we circle around. Three minutes each.” Jess looked at the list on the wall. “You’re number four, so you start by talking to number five, over there at that table.” She took a long sip of her drink and squared her shoulders. “Okay, wish me luck.”

“You can do it, charmer.” Yael grabbed her drink, stood up, and patted Jess’s shoulder, then went to her table to meet a petite woman with shoulder-length gray hair. Although the woman was already sitting down, Yael guessed she’d probably reach up to her chest with their difference in height. She was also the only one wearing a mask, and it was hard to read people’s expression when their mouths were covered. Not that it mattered; Yael wasn’t here to find a date, but perhaps she’d make some new friends. She didn’t feel like she was doing anything wrong by being here. A lot of people went to speed-dating events to support their friends, and the woman she was currently seeing knew where she was tonight.

“Hi, I’m Yael,” she said, reaching out to shake the woman’s hand as she took a seat.

“Sorry, I don’t touch,” the woman said in a strong German accent, leaning back before she adjusted her mask over her mouth. “Emma.”

“Hi, Emma. Sorry about that. How are you tonight?”

“I’m good.”

Yael waited for Emma to elaborate, but she remained silent. Okay. This is a bit of a rusty start. “Where are you from?”

“I live in London,” Emma said, staring at her stoically.

If she’s trying to be charming, she’s not going to have much luck tonight. “I mean your accent,” Yael said. “Are you German?”


“Okay. I’m from Israel, but I’ve lived in London for twelve years. What about you?”

Emma mumbled something Yael couldn’t understand. It wasn’t her accent but rather her whispering way of speaking that made it close to impossible to work out what she was saying, and with the mask, she couldn’t lip read either.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?”

Again, something vague, but Yael was pretty sure Emma was asking about her age.

“Oh, okay,” she said. “I’m thirty-four. How old are you?”

“Does it matter how old I am?” Emma said, loud enough for Yael to hear her this time, and she sounded irritated. “Because it shouldn’t matter.”

Oh boy, this isn’t going well. Yael braced herself for a long night, and she was relieved when the buzzer went. “Well, it was lovely to meet you, Emma. Have a good night.” She slid off her stool without waiting for a reply and headed for the next table, where a butch-looking woman was waiting for her. Eyeing her hungrily, the woman introduced herself, and Yael felt mildly uncomfortable as she held on to her hand for way longer than necessary.

“I’m Jackson.” She looked Yael up and down. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes? I think we’re going to get along.”

“Uhm…I’m sure we will,” Yael said, shifting on her stool. “So, tell me about yourself.”

“Why don’t you start?” Jackson suggested. “That way, I’ll know where to find you in case I blabber on too much and our three minutes run out. Where do you live? Where do you work? Where do you hang out?”

“Oh, I’m actually quite private, so I’d rather not go into specifics, but I live in London and I’m in the jewelry business,” Yael said, trying to keep her information as vague as possible. Already regretting coming here, she reminded herself that she was here for Jess, and that she would just have to suck it up.

Did you enjoy this sample? Cupid is a Cat is out on 25/09/2022 and available for pre-order: