An exclusive sneak peek at the first chapter of Kate’s upcoming release
Of all the ways to go into a blind date set up by my well-meaning mum, listening to a list of her all-important rules while trying to look alluring in front of the guy I’m actually in love with is not at the top of the list.
Who am I kidding? It doesn’t even make the list.
I let out a tense sigh. “Mum,” I say into the phone through gritted teeth, while simultaneously flicking my long hair over my shoulder to show Dreamy Matt just how alluring I am—not that he’s looking at me. “Can we talk about this later?”
She ignores my request.
“Are you wearing the outfit I sent you? Because I really think you’d look quite lovely in it. I chose it specially for you.”
I glance down at the frilly, lacy dress Mum posted to me for tonight’s blind date. It starts at the neck in a flouncy pink bow, leading to puff sleeves, a belted waist, and a pleated skirt that hits way south of the knee. As in Antarctica south. Seriously, the only skin I’m flashing other than my face is my hands and ankles, and if Mum had her way, they’d probably be covered, too.
We don’t want to go sending the wrong message to my date, do we? You know, like I’m female.
“Lottie? Please tell me you’re wearing the outfit I sent you,” Mum warns.
“I’m wearing the outfit,” I reply, both relieved and disappointed when Dreamy Matt’s attention is drawn by the arrival of one of our main sponsors, Lady Havelock, who barely gives me the time of day, despite the fact I’m the Development Manager and it’s me she’s meant to deal with.
“Send me a photo. I bet you look just like Kate Middleton in that dress.”
Sure I do, if Kate Middleton had been rolled in glue and had lace and bows thrown randomly at her by a group of overeager toddlers.
“I’ll take a selfie later, Mum. I really should get back to work now.”
Truth be told, in my current allegedly Kate Middleton-esque ensemble, I’ve had more than a few odd glances from both my colleagues and visitors to Pinkerton House, the museum I work at. The worst was from Dreamy Matt, the museum Curator, and the aforementioned guy I’ve secretly been in love with forever.
Well, it’s not that secret. All my friends know, hence his nickname “Dreamy Matt.” Although we’ve been working together for almost three years now and I would love nothing more than to be with him, he doesn’t know I secretly pine away for him.
I heave out a sigh.
Unrequited love is no dance party.
Anyway, I’m getting off track. As the Development Manager at Pinkerton House, I try to look professional and stylish in my daily attire, favouring black jackets over dresses or a pretty blouse with a pair of trousers. Not look like I got into a fight with a lace tablecloth. And lost.
So, when I first saw Dreamy Matt today and his eyes skimmed over my outfit, I told him I was wearing the dress on a dare and stood to win fifty quid. He laughed and told me I was game, which I hope is a good thing in his eyes.
“All right, Lottie love. I’ll let you get back to your wee job,” Mum says.
“Okay.” I press my lips together. Along with my lack of a husband, Mum doesn’t approve of where I work. She thinks Pinkerton House is a waste of my skills, and I should be working at some large multinational corporation in the City, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and making stacks of cash. I didn’t give up everything so you could squander your opportunities, young lady is as commonly used a sentence in my family as Do you fancy a cup of tea? (We Sullivans are big tea drinkers). Even when I explain that I’m passionate about what I do, and preserving Gerald Edward Pinkerton’s historic collection of bugs, bones, and various Victorian artefacts is important, all she does is give me a martyred look as though my career choice is a personal insult to her. Which it clearly isn’t.
“Remember, whatever you do, Lottie, don’t tell him where you work, and definitely don’t tell him your age.”
My age. Another fun family topic.
“But Mum, don’t you think he’s going to find out I’m about to turn thirty when we sign the marriage certificate together?” My tongue is firmly stuck in my cheek.
“Charlotte Jane Sullivan, don’t get smart with me.”
“You know I’m only trying to help my only daughter find love to bring me some happiness in my old age,” she sniffs in her dramatic way.
“Mum, you’re fifty-six.”
“Exactly. My twilight years are upon me. And they’re upon your father, too. He’s three months older than me, and that much closer to the grave. The grave, Lottie.”
I roll my eyes. My mother, the thespian. “All right. I won’t tell Spencer my age.”
“Or tell him that you work with a bunch of bugs and old teeth.”
I force out a puff of air. It’s true that the collection at Pinkerton House does include an extensive collection of bugs, all of them preserved in one way or another. But they’re not just bugs. They date back to the late-19th Century when Gerald Pinkerton, a Victorian gentleman with too much time on his hands, was off travelling the world and collecting everything from bugs to chamber pots and animal skeletons. To me, it’s all such a fascinating window into history, and I get to raise money every day of my life to keep this place afloat. It’s an utter privilege.
Mum doesn’t see it that way.
“Lottie? Promise me. Don’t mention the bugs and old teeth.”
I slide my eyes to Dreamy Matt. He’s still talking with Lady Havelock, his brows pulled together in that considering look he gets when he’s being all serious and sexy. “I won’t mention the bugs and old teeth, Mum,” I tell her, wishing I was going on a date with Dreamy Matt tonight rather than some random guy called Spencer my Auntie Doreen’s set me up with.
Finally satisfied, Mum reminds me to take a selfie in the dress before I finally say goodbye and hang up, just as Matt and Lady Havelock vacate the small office.
Located in the house George Pinkerton once called home, there’s three of us staff crammed into the one attic room. With its creaky wooden floorboards, windows overlooking Notting Hill, and pretty fireplace, it’s as charming as the rest of the house, despite the IKEA desks jammed up against the walls.
I glance at the coat stand. His black winter jacket is gone, which must mean he too has gone. I glance at the time on my phone. It’s just gone five, which gives me less than an hour to get to Covent Garden, where I’m meeting Auntie Doreen’s friend’s son. I bet he’s looking forward to this date as much as I am.
I shut my computer down before I slip on the winter coat that makes Mum’s horrid dress look a hundred percent better—because it totally hides it—before I make my way down the stairs to the bedroom floor.
I look around for Stanley, the volunteer tour guide who was rostered on for today, and who’s equally fascinated by this place.
“Stanley?” I call out as I poke my head into each of the bedrooms.
I take the stairs down to the large, imposing drawing room, with its high ceilings and generous windows, stuffed to the gills with jars of bugs and books and a collection of small animal skeletons.
With still no sign of Stanley, and the whole house quiet, I make my way through to the dining room where we house the human skeleton we all call June, for reasons I’ve never unearthed.
I come to a sudden halt when I spot a couple of men, both wearing dark suits with short, cropped hair, looking very corporate and official and not at all like the stream of old people and sneaker-clad tourists we usually get here.
One of the men is standing by the large window that overlooks the street, and the other one has his head lowered as he inspects an old map of London in an oversized atlas on the dining room table.
“Oh, hello. I’m terribly sorry, but the museum is about to close now,” I tell them.
The men turn to look at me, both easily younger than our usual demographic by a good forty years. I know. We’ve surveyed our visitors, and the average age is 76, except in August when the tourists arrive and it lowers to the much sprightlier 72.
The one by the window shoots me a wary look as he takes a step closer to me, hesitates, and then glances at Atlas Man. He gives the man a barely perceptible nod before he turns back to me, his face breaking into a smile. It’s a weird exchange, but we get all types in here, which isn’t surprising considering the collection contains some fairly out-there items. An assortment of one-hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old used dentures, anyone?
“I am sorry. I didn’t realise you were about to close,” Atlas Man says to me in a smooth, cultured voice.
I sweep my gaze over him. He’s a good-looking guy, there’s no denying it. Not my type, of course, what with the fact he looks like he stepped off the cover of some corporate magazine as their CEO pin-up of the month—if that’s a thing, which it’s probably not, of course, because, you know, that would totally objectify CEOs, and I strongly suspect most of them are not pin-up types.
But I’m getting off track again here. It’s a bad habit of mine.
With his brown hair, designer stubble-lined jaw, and dark eyes, his teeth flash white against his olive complexion. I’m not quite sure where the thought comes from, but he looks like the kind of man who’s in control of things. The kind of man who gets what he wants.
But there’s also something familiar about him, something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s probably because he looks like he belongs in a soap opera, gazing at a woman as he tells her he’s in love with both her and her twin sister and is in fact her stepfather, too.
“We close at five,” I tell him, “and it’s only a few minutes to.”
“I see. Well, we won’t hold you up. I was in the neighbourhood for a meeting and I happened to see your sign. I’ve never been here before. This collection is fascinating. I assume Gerald Pinkerton was the collector?” He nods at an old, grainy, black and white photo of Gerald in a frame on the wall. He’s in a top hat and dark coat with wide lapels, a monocle held over his left eye. With his moustache and round face, I always think he bears more than a passing resemblance to the Pringles crisps guy—a point my boss, Mr. Tomlinson, tells me isn’t at all helpful.
“Yes, that’s him. That’s Gerald Edward Pinkerton,” I say, nodding at the photo. “He owned this house and collected everything in it on his grand tours around the world. He wanted it to be preserved, just as he left it, so this room is laid out exactly as it was when he died.”
He arches a dark eyebrow. “Exactly?”
“Well, it’s been vacuumed and dusted in the last 120 years, of course,” I reply with a light laugh that sounds suspiciously like a giggle. This man is most definitely the type women giggle over. He may not be my type, but I am a woman. I’m not made of wood.
“That’s good to know the place has been dusted. Jonty here is allergic to dust. Aren’t you, Jonty?”
The guy at the window pulls his lips into a line and offers us a nod. “I am indeed allergic to dust, sir,” Jonty replies in a gravelly voice.
I narrow my eyes at Atlas Man. Who is this guy?
He moves around the table, and I get a full view of him for the first time. His pinstripe suit, shiny black lace-up shoes, white shirt, and plain blue tie encase what appears to be a tall, athletic physique with wide shoulders and long legs.
Oh, yeah. Total CEO pin-up material.
“Look, I know you’re about to close, but I don’t usually get much time to wander around and look at curiosities. Would it be possible to have a look now? I promise to be quick. Ten minutes. Twelve tops.”
I glance at the carriage clock on the mantlepiece. It tells me it’s now two minutes to closing, which means the clock is quite literally ticking on me getting to my blind date on time. Literally. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, but I’ll need to find the guide for you because I have to get going myself.”
“Oh, my apologies. I thought you were the guide.”
“Me? No, I do the fundraising here. Feel free to drop us a spare thousand quid in the donation box at the door, if you like,” I joke as I offer him my winning smile.
I may be kidding, but truth be told, we really need the money. Although visitor numbers are steady, most of the time we get groups of old-age pensioners who come in on a discount rate and buy next to nothing from the tiny gift shop before they head next door to the tea rooms for a well-earned cup of tea and sandwich.
Atlas Man pats his chest as though searching for something. “Sorry, I must have left my wallet in the car,” he tells me.
“Because you carry a thousand pounds on you every day of the week?” I ask with a laugh. “I was only joking. It’s my ‘Lottie’ sense of humour, as my boss would say.”
“Well, Lottie,” he says, my name sounding odd on his lips, “I thought it was funny, and I do take your point that places like these survive on high visitor numbers and donations.”
“That’s true.” I peer at the tickets in his hands. “I see you purchased tickets, so please take your time looking around. I’m sure we can make an exception for you both.” I glance at Jonty, who’s watching our interaction in stony-faced silence.
“Oh, this isn’t Jonty’s sort of thing. Is it, Jonty?”
The man shakes his head. “Give me a few quid to place on the dogs at the track and I’d be happy, sir.”
Atlas Man looks back at me. “See?” He gestures at June the skeleton in her Perspex case. “Tell me about this skeleton. It seems like an odd thing to have in your dining room. I know I’d be put off knowing it was gazing at me while I was trying to eat my steak.”
“That’s June. Or at least, that’s what we call her, and we know she’s a ‘her’ because of the hip size.”
“And the extra rib.”
“That too. She’s been carbon dated to about the 1820s, and according to Gerald Pinkerton’s meticulously kept diaries—which have made our job so much easier, as you can imagine—he bought her from a trader in what was Prussia. Modern day Germany.”
“So, he just bought a human skeleton?” he asks, gazing at June.
“It was a different time. Collecting anything was the thing to do in Victorian England. Gerald Pinkerton amassed quite the collection of skeletons, actually, but June was the only human.”
“Which is why he put her in the dining room, clearly.” His lips lift into a sardonic smile.
“Perhaps George Pinkerton had a dark sense of humour.”
“I bet he did. Where are the other skeletons?”
“They’re dotted around the house. There are a few small animals next door in the drawing room. Did you have a particular interest in bones?”
“Not especially. I would like to see the collection of dentures, though.”
“You know about the dentures?” I ask hopefully.
“It’s on the flyer at the door.”
My hope deflates like a punctured pool floaty. “Right. Of course.”
“You seem disappointed?”
“We’ve been trying to land on the collection that will bring in more visitors here and I was hoping that if you’d heard about the dentures that might be the one. The Grant Museum of Zoology has a jar of moles that are very popular, and a lot of people visit the museum just to see them. They have their own Twitter account, you know.”
“They do? Hmm. Tweeting moles. Dentures could certainly do the same, I’m sure.”
“That’s what I said, but Matt, the Curator, thinks it’s a silly idea and will attract the wrong kinds of visitors. Too mainstream.”
“Forgive me if I’m going down the wrong avenue with this, but wouldn’t dentures like to talk?”
I regard him in surprise. This guy gets it. “My point exactly!” I exclaim in excitement.
We share a smile.
“Now, you do understand that it’s extremely important I see these Tweetable dentures of yours next.”
It’s got to be after closing by now, and I need to leave within the next thirty seconds or I’ll be late for my blind date. I might even miss it altogether. Which would not be a bad thing for me, but I’d never hear the end of it from Mum.
It’s not worth the antagonization.
Atlas Man takes in the look on my face. “I’m so sorry, I forgot. It’s closing time. Jonty? We should leave.” He gestures at the door, and the two men begin to walk out of the room, and I trail after them, feeling guilty that I’m effectively booting paying customers out when we need every one we can get.
As we reach the hallway, I say in a rush, “Oh, it’s not that. It’s just… Look, I’ve got this stupid blind date I promised my mum I’d go on and I’m going to be late for it, otherwise I’d be more than happy to show you the entire collection, no matter what the time of day. Or night, for that matter.”
Atlas Man turns back to look at me and raises his brows in question.
I scrunch up my face in embarrassment. Why do I do this? I’m an over-sharer, particularly when I feel bad about something, and I certainly feel bad about kicking these two men out. “That was TMI, wasn’t it?”
His laugh is deep and soft. “Not at all. I appreciate your candour. It’s…rare in my line of work.”
Phew. And also, intriguing.
“I really love this collection and it’s so fascinating. I love to share it with people,” I tell him.
“I can tell.”
There’s a sudden grunting that sounds alarmingly like a snore coming from down the corridor. I excuse myself and make my way down to the source of the noise. Peering into the library, I spot Stanley, the tour guide. He’s lying on his back on the dark red velvet chaise lounge, his large belly rising and falling with every deep breath, his mouth open, snoring like an old foghorn on a murky day on the River Thames.
I blink at him in surprise. So, that’s where you got to.
“You clearly work your staff too hard,” Atlas Man comments as he materialises at my side.
Embarrassed for the second time in as many minutes, I make a mental note to come back and wake him up so I can close the place, and explain, “Stanley is 82. He gets tired sometimes.”
“82? He deserves a nap then. I assume Stanley is the tour guide?”
“He is, but he’s usually more…conscious than that.” I glance quickly at the sleeping Stanley before I pull the door closed. The man doesn’t need an audience, even if he is sleeping on the job.
“You mean he’s usually more awake?” Atlas Man questions.
“Uh, yes. That.”
He leans a touch closer to me and I catch his scent, a mixture of sandalwood and fresh-cut grass, with a hint of the woods near my childhood home. It’s fresh and pleasant, and surprisingly alluring.
Not that I’m allured, of course, but I can imagine some women would be.
“I won’t mention a word about your sleeping guide,” he tells me.
I let out a relieved puff of air. “Thank you. He’s usually very good and so passionate about the house.”
“Does he understand the need for a dentures Twitter account, too?”
“I’m quite sure Stanley would think a Twitter account is something to do with chickens,” I reply with a smile. “Anyway, thanks for stopping by. Sorry again for having to ask you to leave.”
“I understand completely,” he replies, before we walk down the hall towards the entrance. “And you know, I wouldn’t want to go on a blind date my mum set me up on, either. It sounds terrible.”
At the risk of oversharing again, I reply, “She even sent me this outfit to wear.” I pull my coat open so he can see the full glory of my ensemble.
His dark eyes skim over me, and I find myself wishing I could magically change right out of them. No wait, that would mean I’d be standing here in front of him in undies. Not that. Just not in this horribly twee outfit that makes me look like I’m going to a Women’s Auxiliary meeting, circa 1982.
“I think she has extremely good taste, your mum.” His eyes are shining in mischief, the edges of his mouth curved up.
I snort-giggle and immediately cover my mouth with my hand.
We exchange another smile, and I find myself warming to this guy. He might look like an uptight stiff who weirdly gets called sir by the oddly lurking Jonty, but he’s easy-going and funny. And he’s interested in the collection. All good things in my eyes.
“You know, I think we might have meddling mothers in common, Lottie,” he tells me as we reach the door. “Mine tried to set me up with the daughter of a friend a few weeks ago.”
I sweep my eyes over him once more. He really doesn’t look like the kind of man who needs his mum to find him dates. In fact, he looks like the kind of man who has women swooning over him on a daily basis.
As I said, I’m not made of wood.
“Did you go out with her?” I ask.
“No. I flatly refused.”
“But what if you’d gone and she was gorgeous and clever and you fell in love?”
“Is that what you’re expecting to happen tonight on your blind date?”
I think of my date, Spencer. By the looks of his social media, he’s a nice enough man, if a little on the dull side.
But Spencer’s irrelevant. He could look like a young Brad Pitt, make the best jokes, and be the sweetest man on the face of the planet and I still wouldn’t have an interest in him. My heart wants one man and one man only.
All I’ve got to do is get him to finally notice me.
“I’m not expecting a whole lot from my blind date, actually,” I reply. “Look, how about you come back at another time and I will personally take you on a full tour of the house.”
“But I thought you did the fundraising here.”
“I’ll make the exception in your case.”
“Well, I might just take you up on that.” He gestures towards the door and Jonty immediately walks across the room and out through it, like a well-trained dog.
I shoot Atlas Man a questioning look. He’s got to be a foreign prince or dignitary or something because Jonty is clearly his bodyguard.
Atlas Man extends his hand and I take it in mine. “It was a pleasure meeting you. I hope you get your Twitter account for those dentures.”
“I do, too.”
“I’ll be back in touch for that tour.”
“Just call the main number.”
“I’ll do that.” He flashes me his smile, then turns away and walks towards the door. In the doorway he stops, looks back at me, and says, “My name is James Brody, by the way. See you soon, Lottie.”
I smile back at him. “See you soon, James.”
I watch as he walks away, and that’s when the penny drops with a loud clang. Of course! That’s who he is. The bodyguard, the suits, the good looks.
He’s James Brody.
Deputy Mayor of London.
Want to read more? Get Never Fall for Your Fake Fiancé (especially not on Valentine’s Day) here.