Disclaimer: I, of course, do not own these characters. I didn’t create them. If I did, I’m pretty sure I would be sitting on a pile of money right now, as opposed to my crappy plaid couch that sinks in the middle.
“Mom, I’m going to have to call you back. Ow!”
I clench the phone to my ear as I hobble around the mahogany coffee table.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, nothing, I just —stubbed my toe.”
“Well, as I was saying, I was thinking of visiting London in the next few weeks. What do you think?”
“Mom, I don’t really have time for this. I have an appointment.”
I give up trying to hop around the room and sink into the sofa, rubbing my toe. That damn mahogany really hurt.
“Have you found a job?
“No, well, sort of. Betty said something—“
“Oh, did she?”
“Yeah, but I really don’t have time for this, I’m supposed to be meeting her in—“
“Her? You mean Betty,”
“Yes! And I’m running late. I’ll call you back later OK?”
“Alright. Give Betty my love. And yours.”
“Fine, fine. Hanging up now.”
I slip the phone into my pocket and turn to face the mirror running the length of the living room wall. Hair? Fine. Shirt? No creases. Suit? No visible lint. I glance at the tie rack in the corner. No, no tie. This isn’t formal. Or should it be? I try red, purple, black, and blue before deciding against a tie. I don’t want to look as though I’m trying too hard. Open collar, that’ll be fine. I run my hand over the slight stubble on my chin. I’ll leave that as well. A more relaxed Daniel Meade. Or almost anyway. The constant self-criticism and self-doubt don’t leave much room for relaxation.
The tinny sound of the phone ends my inner monologue.
“Mr Meade, a Ms Suarez is here asking for you.”
“Thank you. I’ll be right down.”
I quickly rifle through my suitcase and, among the scrunched silk and mish-mash of labels, I find the glossy paper, stuffed under a pile of socks. Dusting off the suitcase residue, I read the letter one last time. Vague enough for the readers but pointed enough for her. Hopefully. I fold the letter into a shaky square and push it down into the recesses of my jacket pocket. I grab the overcoat from the back of my door and, with a final check in the mirror, stride out of the room.
“Daniel, over here!”
I look over to the cluster of armchairs in the lobby and see her there, waving enthusiastically, not particularly caring that she’s wrinkling her bright yellow Dolce and Gabbana trench coat. Four years in fashion; I s’pose we both had to learn something. I grin and wave back. And in three, two, one steps I’m in front of her and there’s no going back now. As surreptitiously as I can, I touch the hidden letter before she barrels into me with her usual enthusiasm.
“Hey there, is that anyway for a prestigious editor-in-chief to act?”
“Oh, shut up. I’ve seen you do much worse.”
I laugh. “Can’t argue with that. Shall we?” I offer her my arm, feeling only slightly idiotic.
I can feel the paper burning a hole through my pocket. No, it’s not time yet. We step out into the icy London air, and I pull her ever-so-slightly closer towards me.
“So, how’s the new job?” I ask.
And she’s off. Talking a mile a minute about interviews, photo shoots, approvals, Lindsay Dunn, Christina, and a million other things, with a massive grin plastered all over her face. I smile too. I’ve missed that grin.
“So not missing Mode much then?” I ask when she finally takes a breath.
“Of course I am!”
I look at her.
“OK well no, not really. All the scheming and backstabbing and the no eating,” she shudders, “but I can say that, because we don’t work there anymore!”
She grips my arm excitedly. “How’s the job-hunting going anyway?”
I shrug. “I haven’t really applied anywhere.”
“What do you mean, apply? You’re Daniel Meade, you could work anywhere.”
“But that’s the point. That’s why I left New York,” Well, part of the reason, I think, “I want to earn my position. Like you have. I don’t want to get somewhere just because of my last name.”
“You could always change your last name.”
“I know. But seriously, Daniel, what are you talking about? You achieved so much at Mode. And that was on your own. Cut yourself some slack. And besides, there’s still that assistant’s job with me.”
“I don’t know if I can do that.”
Damn, she looks so disappointed.
“No, I mean, it’s the same thing isn’t it? I’d only be getting the job because I’m your…friend. And I don’t want that.”
She stops in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, not particularly caring that a tidal wave of people is trying to push her out of the way. I grab onto her coat so she isn’t swept away by the tide as she considers me thoughtfully.
“Well, how ‘bout this? Give me your résumé. Make a list of everything you accomplished at Mode and I’ll give it to HR. If yours isn’t the résumé they choose, then they’re obviously stupid.”
“Fine, I’ll bring it to your offices tomorrow, Ms Suarez.”
“Good,” then she smiles that smile and we’re walking again.
“So where are we going exactly?”
“Just wait and see, OK?”
Coming from New York is obviously a big advantage for the both of us. Every so often we see tourists looking terrified as they try to find a path amid the crush of humanity, while we breeze straight past. Well, I say breeze. Betty keeps trying to stop and help them all. After the fifth family, of that family only one person spoke reasonable English, I have to say something.
“Betty, we have reservations.”
She looks sympathetically in the direction of a young couple with backpackers’ luggage strapped to their backs.
“They’re here for the adventure. If you help them, you’re robbing them of a classic ‘I got lost in London and met Daniel Radcliffe’ story.”
“But if we help them it could be a ‘Daniel Meade gave us directions in London’ story.”
“Oh wow, is that Emma Watson?”
As she whips her head from side to side, grazing my face with the ends of her hair, I grab her arm and pull her forward. We continue to fight through the crowds until we turn onto a side street and step into open space for the first time in about twenty minutes. There are still a few people running around, checking watches and phones, yelling to each other in their British accents, but I can see the sidewalk under my feet. And that eases the tension in my shoulders, just a little.
We cross the street and find ourselves in front of a slightly ramshackle place, with peeling red and blue paint on the door and a burnished brass sign swinging from the wall that says ‘Union Jack’s’.
“This is where we’re going?” Betty asks, perplexed, “I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have needed a reservation.”
“If I hadn’t said we had reservations, we’d still be back there, helping all the lost tourists. Anyway, I feel like a drink. They have the most amazing lager here.”
“You know, like beer, only British. How do you not know this? You’ve been here longer than I have. Besides,” I take this opportunity to lean in and whisper in her ear, “no one knows who I am here.”
I keep the view a surprise.
As we walk in, the smell of stale alcohol and sweaty men punches me in the nose. But it’s familiar. Betty looks around at the strings of British flags, wax busts of the Queen and Elton John, the replica of a palace guard standing beside the front door, and the bright red double decker bus painted along the far wall and says “Is there anything in here that’s not a cliché?”
“But that’s what makes it fun.”
I look towards the back corner, where there’s the secluded table for two and the huge window overlooking the breath-taking view of London that I found earlier this week.
Unfortunately, someone’s already sitting there.
“Hey, why don’t you head to the bar and get us some menus?” I ask, pointing her in the direction of a sticky-looking bar and a tired-looking man in a huge British flag top hat.
“Trust me, their fish and chips are brilliant.”
She raises an eyebrow and walks away. I don’t think she realises that those heels make her walk…sexily. I watch as a few of the men around the place follow her with hungry eyes. With one hand curling into a pre-emptive fist in my pocket, I turn to the couple behind me.
“Hi, listen, see that girl over there?”
I point to the back of Betty’s bright yellow coat. For a second I watch as she tries to translate the menu into plain English. I chuckle and shake myself before looking back at the middle aged husband and wife.
“She’s a friend of mine from New York and we’ve just happened to run into each other in this huge city. I’m in the middle of trying to make up for the horrible way I said goodbye to her and I wanted to start with the best view of London I’ve seen since I’ve been here.”
“But, we were here first! It’s our fifteenth wedding anniversary,” the husband looks scared. The wife looks intrigued.
“What’s it worth to you?” she asks, crossing her arms.
“Look at him, John,” she whispers, and not very quietly, “he’s loaded.”
I exhale noisily and look over my shoulder. Betty is now on the phone, laughing and looking in my direction. The barman looks crestfallen and moves away, wiping the bench with a dingy looking cloth.
“Yes, you’re right. My name is Daniel Meade, of Meade Publications in New York City. Here, take these,” I throw a few fifty pound notes on the table, “and head over to Launceston Place in Kensington. Tell them Daniel Meade sent you. If you don’t get five-star treatment, I can have them shut down with a call back to head office in New York.”
Petunia and John looked at the money on the table and back at me, eyes wide. Petunia snatches the notes up with a scarlet-taloned hand.
“But that’s all the way across town. I’m not walking all the way over there in these shoes.”
She gestures to her garish lime green pumps that are at least six inches tall. I risk a glance at Betty. She’s still on the phone. The barman is still wiping the same square foot of pine he was last time I looked over.
“Fine. Here,” I throw another fifty down, “that should take care of cab fare.”
Petunia looks satisfied.
“Come on John. Let’s give this bloke his table.”
John looks relieved. He tips his plaid flat cap in my direction whispering, “I think you just saved my marriage,” and hurries after his impudent wife.
I take his place at the table and wipe over the rough surface with one of the napkins from the dispenser. I use the dispenser to cover a sticky patch near the window and sit back, resting my hands behind my head. Watching Betty, laughing and speaking rapid Spanish, I tense up a little. Which feels weird. Daniel Meade, famous womaniser, is freaking out about talking to a woman. For a moment I feel a warm pressure on my shoulder and look up. There’s no one there. But a familiar voice in my head starts laughing quietly.
“Look at you all nervous. Just be you. No tricks or one-liners. Be the man who married me, knowing I would die. The man who has seen past the glasses and blue braces to know that that girl is one of a kind. You’ll be happy with her, Daniel. Trust me. I know everything now.”
With another laugh and almost-squeeze of my shoulder, Molly leaves. God, I miss her.
“Hey, what’s up?” Betty asks, actually squeezing my shoulder.
I look at her and smile. “Talking to Molly.”
“I do that too. With my mom, I mean,” Betty says as she sits down, menus in hand, “are you OK?”
She squeezes my hand and sits down, her eyes travelling to the window behind me. Or, I should say, to the view of the Thames, Big Ben, and the London Eye all under a canopy of fiery reds and oranges.
“Oh wow,” she breathes, “it’s beautiful.”
“This is why I come here. There’s no other view like it. Believe me, I checked.”
She’s still staring out the window, so I risk covering her hand with mine. She absent-mindedly squeezes my hand again, but doesn’t look at me. Which is fine. There’s always been something about the way Betty views the world. Like everything’s a miracle. It’s refreshing after jaded old New York, with its politics and heartache. Yeah, I said it: heartache. I turn and stare with her, until the fire in the sky is muted by the oncoming indigo of twilight, and tiny pinpricks of starlight try to shine from behind the clouds. A cough comes from in front of us and it’s the barman, looking annoyed.
“You lot gonna order?”
“Oh, right,” I say, feeling flustered, “two orders of fish and chips, thanks.”
“Coming right up.”
The guy takes our menus and trudges off, glaring at me as he walks into the kitchen.
“What’s his problem?”
“Nothing,” I say, “so how’s everyone back home?”
We close the place. One minute we’re sitting there, eating our food, laughing as Betty describes the new rainbow outfit Hilda wears to support Justin, and the next we’re being chased out by the irate barman. We pay and then, laughing, we hurry out the door.
“Oh wow, it’s getting kinda late. I have an early meeting with Mr. Dunn tomorrow about layout, or features, or something. I should probably get going.”
My chest tightens. She can’t leave yet. The letter in my pocket is scorching me through the fabric, just begging to be read.
“No! I mean,” I clear my throat, “no. Come on, I haven’t seen you properly in ages. Let’s just walk for a bit. I bet you haven’t seen the Thames at night yet, Miss Editor-in-Chief.”
“Then let’s do it. We’re in London, for God’s sake.”
The wind has picked up. The main streets are quieter, now that the temperature has dropped about twenty degrees. I can feel Betty shiver.
I shrug off my overcoat, while sneaking out the square of glossy paper, and slide the coat around her shoulders.
“But you’ll freeze!”
“Nah, I used to work with Wilhelmina. Nothing could be colder than that.”
Betty laughs and we start exchanging war stories, comparing notes, and shaking our heads at some of the more outrageous things that went on in those offices. With Molly’s words ringing in my ears, and past memories floating in front of my eyes, I stop walking and reach for that damn letter. Here goes nothing.
“Speaking of Mode, you never did get to read my final Letter from the Editor. I had to trust someone else to proof it, seeing as my usual proof-reader was whisked away to London.”
“I’ll bet it was great, Daniel.”
She takes the letter and we wander over to a streetlight where she stands and reads the hardest words I have ever had to write. The moments stretch on and I move closer to Betty. Partly because I’m freezing my ass off, but mostly because I want to be near her. And I have to be near her in order to—
“That was so beautiful Daniel, but who do you know in London?”
Now or never.
Three, move in closer.
Two, my hand on her waist.
One, I lean down and meet her lips with mine.
Her lips are soft. And salty from the chips. She makes a surprised noise somewhere in the back of her throat, but she doesn’t pull away. Thank God. I tighten my arm around her and gently slip my tongue past those amazing lips. And then she’s kissing me back and her arms are around my neck. There’s nothing; no cold or wind or starlight or stress or schemes or people. Just this woman in my arms like it should have been years ago. Then all too soon, or maybe just in time, she’s pulling away and searching my eyes with her huge, beautiful brown ones.
“And that’s why I can’t be your assistant.” I say.
“M-more than just friends?” she whispers.
I lean down again and kiss her, briefly, on the lips.
“If you’ll have me.”
“But…” she’s still searching my eyes, “love?”
I take a deep breath before I say the words that I should have said so long ago.
“I love you, Betty. I need you. We’ll always be a team, you and me.”
Then she’s kissing me again, and it’s like oxygen after being underwater for way too long. And, maybe it’s the wind over the ripples in the Thames, or maybe it’s Betty, but I think I hear the words “I love you too, Daniel,” being whispered in my ear.