Copyright ? 2011 by Abby McDonald
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Originally published in the UK by Arrow in 2010.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The liberation of Alice Love / by Abby McDonald.
1. Theatrical agents--Fiction. 2. Identity theft--Fiction. 3. Identity (Psychology)--Fiction.4. London (England)--Fiction. 5. Rome (Italy)--Fiction. 6. Los Angeles (Calif.)--Fiction 7.Psychological fiction. I. Title.
Front Cover Title Page Copyright Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-one Chapter Twenty-two Chapter Twenty-three Chapter Twenty-four Chapter Twenty-five Chapter Twenty-six Chapter Twenty-seven Chapter Twenty-eight Chapter Twenty-nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-one Chapter Thirty-two Chapter Thirty-three Chapter Thirty-four Chapter Thirty-five About the Author Back Cover
For my mother, Ann—for everything.
It began with a vibrator. A smooth, stainless steel, jewel-encrusted vibrator that—accordingto the ribbon-trimmed user manual—cost over seven hundred pounds. Even Alice, who valued herorgasms as much as the next woman, had to wonder what delirious pleasures it could possiblydeliver to justify that kind of expense.
“Yes, is that customer service?” She blinked awake, almost surprised by the sound of a real,human voice. With the soothing hold music and afternoon sunlight spilling through the atticwindows, Alice had been lulled into a daze, tracing the embossed script on the heavy cream box,back and forth, back and forth. She sat up. “There’s been some kind of mistake,” sheexplained. “One of your…products was delivered today, but I didn’t order—No, I don’t…Je
? Parlez-vous anglais?” The bored-sounding French voice on the other endne parle pas…anglais
of the line gave way to another surge of Schubert. Alice let out a long sigh of defeat.
It had arrived that morning: the inconspicuous brown box addressed to her in neat letteringfrom a company in Paris. Already late, Alice had stuffed it into her bag with a handful ofother post; now the box’s luxurious contents sat in the middle of her antique desk, utterlyout of place surrounded by ordered stacks of contracts and her mug of chamomile tea.
It was a mystery.
“What’s that?” A familiar head appeared around her open door, blond hair falling in a floppyfringe over warm blue eyes.
Alice jumped. Sweeping the box into a drawer, she quickly leaped up. “Rupert!” Her voice wasstrangled with embarrassment. “Oh, nothing, just…a mix-up. What are you doing here?”
“I’ve got some things to sign—thought I’d come down in person. Besides,” Rupert added,moving closer to kiss her on both cheeks, “I think I’m due another lunch.”
They shared a rueful smile. Vivienne’s lunches were notorious. Whenever one of her clients hadbeen going through a dry spell—and might otherwise start questioning the wisdom of theirillustrious agent—Alice’s boss would whisk them out for a three-hour session of compliments,champagne, and star-studded visions of international acting success. Alice had seen them wanderback to the old, Soho office a hundred times, dazed and delirious with future promise, theirfaith completely restored.
“No, L’Escargot,” he replied, gloomy, naming an even more expensive restaurant. Alice triednot to wince. Things must really be slow.
“Well, good luck,” she offered. Few clients bothered to acknowledge her, let alone brave theperilous winding staircase to say hello, but Rupert had always been the nice one. Too nice. Hispromising string of period drama parts had slowed to a trickle, and personally, Alice thoughthis gallant enthusiasm was the problem. The ones who made it as leading men came equipped withbrash arrogance, not boyish good looks and a sweet devotion to their wives.
“If you want, your tax declaration is around somewhere,” she suggested, not wanting him tohave ventured up there for nothing. She began to click through her files on the screen. “Areyou all right waiting?” She glanced up. “Do you want tea, or something?”
“Oh, I’m fine.” Rupert moved aside a stack of books and took a seat on the battered leathercouch. “The girl at reception is getting me a coffee. She’s, uh, very eager to help.”
“I’m sure she is,” Alice murmured. Fresh from drama school, the new assistant, Saskia, wasespecially accommodating to clients. The attractive, male ones, that was. “Ah, got it! Let mejust print you a—” The words died on her lips as the computer let out a strangled bleep.Suddenly, her screen began to blur into a sequence of binary code and hieroglyphics.
“No, no…!” Alice cried, but it was no use: her mouse was frozen, her keyboard, dead.
“What’s wrong?” Rupert hurried to look over her shoulder as Alice stared at the angry-looking symbols. “Oh. That doesn’t look good.”
“No, it doesn’t.” She swallowed, not wanting to think about all the client data in peril.“I wonder if it’s just me, or”—an angry cry echoed up from downstairs—“not.”
She found everyone crammed into the reception area, arguing loudly. Vivienne refused to let TheGrayson Wells Agency inhabit anything as ordinary as an office block; instead, Alice worked ina narrow, three-story townhouse on a cobbled Soho backstreet. The agents operated out of low-ceilinged nooks, visitors were greeted by a checker-floored cloakroom, and Vivienne herselfheld court from the second-floor drawing room, complete with damask wallpaper and a Georgian-style chaise lounge. After years spent wilting under fluorescent lights in a gray cubicle at acorporate firm in the city, Alice adored her attic hideaway. She could play Radio 3 inuninterrupted calm, grow pansies in the window box, and never be bothered by the daily dramasof everyone else.
Ducking to avoid the low-slung ceiling, Alice edged into the room. Vivienne was fluttering herhands as if she were having a fainting fit, the agents were milling about in panic, and Saskiawas proclaiming her innocence in between dramatic gasps of dismay. Yes, it was business asusual at Grayson Wells.
“What’s happening?” Alice asked. “Are everyone’s computers—?”
“Fucked.” Tyrell answered shortly, folding his arms across a spotless white shirt. A newagent from the States, he sauntered around in designer tailoring and box-fresh Conversesneakers, wooing prospective clients with talk about taking their careers to the next level,touching bases, and leveraging their brand potential. “I’m waiting on an email—”
“My client needs his contracts and—”
“My BlackBerry’s down and I can’t function—”
Alice maneuvered to the front of the room. “I know this is a stupid question,” she said.“But has anyone called the technician yet?”
There was silence.
“And I’m guessing everyone’s turned their computers off at the mains?” she added. “So thisthing can’t do any more damage.”
There was a lurch of motion as Anthony, their aging literary agent, dove toward the powersocket, knocking his glasses askew in his rush to yank the plug out. “There!” He held ittriumphantly aloft, the flickering lamp reflecting on his bald spot.
“Well done.” Alice patted his dandruff-speckled shoulder. “Now, what actually happened?”
All eyes seemed to slide toward Saskia, standing beside the reception computer in a ruffle-necked blouse and pencil skirt. “I didn’t know it would do that!” she protested immediately,blue eyes wide with innocence under flame-red ringlets. “I was just downloading a file. Forresearch!”
“Downloading?” Vivienne finally spoke up. Her face was pale as always beneath a severe dyed-black bob; petite figure swathed in a voluminous black pashmina and trailing ropes of pearls.
“A film.” Saskia’s voice faltered, as if she realized the gravity of the situation for thefirst time. “No Hope…And Then Death. It’s Russian.”
Of course it was.
Alice was about to escape them all and wait for the cavalry of the IT call-out man when she wasgripped by a terrible fear. “You did back up the database though, didn’t you, Saskia? Everynight, like we talked about?”
Alice closed her eyes for a second. “When was the last time?” she looked at the girl,pleading. “Last week? Tell me you backed up before the weekend, at least.”
Saskia bit her lip. “There were just so many new things to learn! I was meaning to asksomeone…”
Alice gulped, as the full extent of the damage finally became clear. Months of records, lost!
“Well, what’s done is done.” Vivienne clapped her hands together, suddenly roused from herfluster. As Alice watched, Vivienne’s gaze slid over the incompetent intern, ruined system,and room full of disgruntled staff as if they didn’t exist. “Ah, Rupert,” she brightened.“Wonderful timing. How about that lunch?”
“Now?” Alice couldn’t help but question.
“Of course, dear. Nothing I can do! You can deal with it, I’m sure. You always do.” Pullinga black cape off the coat stand and tossing it over her shoulders, Vivienne sailed past. Rupertsent Alice an apologetic look, but—like everyone—was powerless in Vivienne’s clutches.“I’ll be back later…” Vivienne looked around. “Perhaps.” Then she was gone, in a cloud ofavoidance and heavy Chanel perfume.
Alice spent the rest of the morning patiently hoisting boxes out of storage. As the companylawyer, she knew it wasn’t exactly in her job description to do anything other than constructdense, watertight contracts for Vivienne (and find imaginative ways to pick apart the dense,watertight contracts of everyone else), but Alice had realized soon after joining the agencythat details were not Vivienne’s strong point. No, too often, it was left to Alice to wranglethings into some semblance of order, but she didn’t mind. She’d always been the one to corralthings into their place, be it her hopelessly impractical father, wayward friends, or a roomfull of old client records. There was a certain satisfaction to it, she found: a quiet momentof calm carved out of the ongoing chaos.
With the sleeves of her pale silk blouse rolled up, and a particularly rousing Prokofiev sonataplaying, Alice had almost finished restoring order when her mobile began to ring. She scoopedit from the depths of her handbag, smiling as she saw the caller ID.
“Let me guess, the dragon lady has gone?” Alice shoved a box out of the way and sank down onher threadbare rug.
“Just left for a meeting. Can’t you hear the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus?” Ella laughed. “Or
The Wizard of Oz? ‘Ding, dong, the witch is dead!’” she hummedshould it be that song from
happily. “So, sneak out and meet me for a late lunch? I’ve got a couple of hours, at least.”
Alice sighed. “I don’t think so. I have to wait for the IT guy.”
“But you have darling Saskia for that stuff! Come on,” Ella wheedled. “Help me enjoy myprecious freedom. We could go to that Italian place, the one with the cream cakes…”
“Well…” Alice wavered.
“And didn’t you say you need an outfit for Flora’s anniversary?” Ella reminded her. “Wecould do both. There—efficient enough for you?”
Alice grinned. “OK, OK. Meet you in twenty minutes?”
They ate virtuous salads to balance out the indulgencies of dessert, squeezed into a corner ofthe tiny restaurant with the waiters yelling orders over their heads—and flirting shamelesslyat every opportunity.
“That kid was in love with you,” Alice teased, as they emerged into the sunshine. “How manywater refills did you need?”
“He was just trying to stare down my top, little pervert.” Ella grinned. “But I scored withthe guy at the register, see?” She tried to pass a handful of complimentary chocolates, butAlice waved them away, groaning.
“How can you manage anymore? That cake was enough to feed four, at least!”
“Lightweight.” Ella popped one in her mouth. “It’s in my genes, I think. My mum’s familywere Italian, way back,” she mused. “So I inherited the ability to eat my body weight in
pasta. I would have preferred to look like Sophia Loren, though.”
Alice laughed. “I know, the exotic genes passed me by, too. My dad practically came out of thewomb in tweed and Wellington boots. And my mother…” She paused, suddenly remembering theflash of red lipstick, the hair set in perfect curls, even to go to the village post office.“She was American. Is, I guess.” A group of teenage shoppers pushed between them, so Alicewaited before continuing. “But Dad and Jasmine, they’re practically poster children for thejoys of rural life right now. He spent twenty minutes on the phone the other day, telling meabout his plans for the greenhouse.”
“Are they coming up for Flora’s party?”
“I’m not sure.” Alice sighed at the mention of her wisp of a stepsister.
Ella looked over. “Aw, I’m sorry I can’t be there for backup. Save you from the sight ofthem swooning all over each other.”
“It’s fine. Or, at least, it will be, when I figure out what on earth to wear,” Alice added,linking her arm through Ella’s. “You know how much I hate shopping.”
“Then you’re lucky it’s my specialist subject.” Ella steered her into the shop.
Ella wasn’t exaggerating. Somehow, she’d been blessed with the skills Alice sorely lacked,and under her watchful eye, outfits were assembled as if they’d been pulled from the pages ofa glossy magazine. She never wore anything daring herself, Alice noticed, but there was alwaysa statement necklace or pair of swooping earrings that lifted Ella’s conservative wardrobe andmid-length brown hair to something fashion-worthy. Alice flicked through the style pages, yetsomehow never quite managed to translate those spurious commandments that tribal (orfuturistic, or biker chic) were “in” to her own reassuringly neutral wardrobe.
“So how is Flora?” Ella asked, as Alice tugged at the hem of a sundress in yet anotherdressing room. “Still deep in wedded bliss?”
“I think so. We haven’t talked in a while.”
anyone’sElla shook her head. “I can’t believe she’s married. God, I can’t believe
married. Or buying property.” She gave Alice a good-natured nudge.
“I’m only thinking about it!” Alice protested. “And just because some of us feel it’s timeto start acting grown-up…”
“Don’t!” Ella put a hand to her forehead, feigning a swoon. “You’re all the same. Thirtycomes looming on the horizon, and suddenly, it’s all mortgages and savings accounts andpanicking because you haven’t signed your unborn children up for kindergarten yet.”
They were silent for a moment, Alice staring at her reflection. Thirty. God, she had beentrying not to think about that, but Ella was right. There was nothing like the big three zerohanging over them to make every choice seem so much more…urgent. She had always thought she’dbe settled by now, with a partner and a home and a solid, fulfilling career. If Alice wasentirely honest, it was the reason she’d spent the past five years scrupulously saving for herdeposit, as that birthday hurried ever closer. She needed something to show for her life, afterall.
Alice looked up to find Ella watching her. She shrugged, reaching for a belt to try with thedress. “Oh, nothing. I’m just wondering what to do about work.” Pausing for a moment, Alicefinally admitted what had been itching in the back of her mind for months now. “I’ve beenfeeling sort of…restless.”
“The dull monotony, you mean?” Ella adjusted the belt, then added a silk scarf at Alice’sneck so that she looked like she’d strolled out of La Dolce Vita. “I still don’t see why you
don’t make the switch to agenting. After all, you can manage all the contract stuff already,
to do,” she addedand you must know exactly what to do from watching Vivienne. And what not
with a grin.
Alice exhaled. “I don’t know…I’ve talked about it a few times with Vi, but she’s notconvinced. Besides, agents need to be ruthless. Hustlers, you know?”
“Alice Love can be a hustler!” Ella protested. Alice fixed her with a dubious look. “OK, somaybe you’re not slick and insincere like that Tyrell guy, but that should be a good thing.
with me. Ugh.” Ella shuddered.connectingWhat was it he said to me that time? He’d enjoyed
“I’m not a bloody power socket!”
Alice laughed. “No, it’s fine. I’m OK doing what I am right now. Besides, I could always seeabout moving to a bigger agency, doing contracts at one of the corporate places.”
“You mean processing twice the paperwork for half the satisfaction?”
“But three times the money.” Alice grinned.
Ella tutted at her. “There’s more to life than cold, hard cash, my dear.”
Alice tutted right back. “Tell that to my mortgage adviser.” She looked at her reflectionagain, trying to see past the black bra straps peeping over the neckline and her boring Frenchbraid. “All right,” she decided, realizing her lunch hour was dangerously close to beingover. “This is the one.”
She quickly changed back into her work clothes, Ella waiting with her at the front counterwhile the saleswoman packed her purchases in tissue paper and a crisp paper bag. “What aboutyou—anything thrilling planned for the weekend?”
“Hmm…There’s always yoga.” Ella met Alice’s eye for a moment, and they both laughed.
They’d met in the polished exercise space of a local gym, suffering through the strenuouscontortions of a beginner’s class. By the time the goateed instructor decided to turn the heatup another five degrees “to really let them sweat it out,” Ella and Alice had sufferedenough. They made their escape when he went to change the CD, dashing from the room to thestrains of Peruvian panpipes.
“And…” Ella added, looking hesitant. “I might have a date.”
“Ella! You didn’t say.”
Ella blushed. “I know, a rare and momentous event. It’s a setup, though, so bound to end indisaster.” She sighed. “A friend of a friend of Julie’s, at the office.”
“Ah, the wonderful Julie.” Alice had heard plenty of stories about Ella’s co-worker’s needto fix up everyone in sight. “What do you think, will you—?” She stopped midsentence. Thesaleswoman was waiting with an impatient expression.
“It’s been declined.” She dropped Alice’s card on the counter with a sneer.
Alice frowned. “That’s impossible, I just…Never mind, use this one.” She found her walletagain and passed her backup credit card.
“Anything wrong?” Ella asked.
“No, it’s fine.” Alice shook her head, while the woman ran up the sale again, this timekeeping a suspicious eye on them, as if they were about to bolt. “Probably just a mix-up withmy bank. They’ve canceled that card three times this year. Last time, they said they sent methe wrong color, can you believe? Like it makes a difference.”
“Ugh,” Ella agreed. “Mine’s not too bad, if you need to switch. Except I have to spendabout an hour on hold every time I want to reach an actual human being!”
It wasn’t quite an hour, but after being shuffled between three different departments thatafternoon—all of them with a tenuous understanding of the words “I didn’t orderthis”—Alice finally gave up on the mystery of the jewel-encrusted vibrator. As far as shecould tell, she hadn’t been billed for it, so wrapping the box in a fresh layer of packingpaper, she printed up the return address and reached to add it to her stack of post. There wasa moment when she wavered, looking curiously at the dull gleam of the metal and its strangecurves, full of promise. Turning the box over in her hands, she wondered, could it really be