Today's Reading

Picking up the coffee, I faced my blank screen. Now all I had to do was write about what just happened in agonizing detail, which was, after all, why I'd done it in the first place.

As I started to type, I felt the peculiar itch of someone staring at me.

The little girl. She appeared to be waiting for me to say something. I pushed my hair over my shoulder and leaned toward my laptop, hoping she'd get bored. She inched closer.

"Well?" she said, impatiently. "How did we do?"

"I'm sorry?" I asked her, baffled.

"Anette," the man cautioned distractedly, gently tugging his daughter to his side. "Leave the young lady alone." Young lady! Something about the way he said this made me prickle. As if he were the only adult at the table.

She pulled away from him and he moved his hands in quick succession—sign language, I realized, spotting her hearing aids. His daughter ignored him. "We pretended we didn't see what happened," she told me. Adding, presumably for clarity, "With the vomiting."

Her dad appeared riveted by the travel section.

"It was all his idea," she continued. "He said you'd be embarrassed enough." The man turned his page. "So? Did we do well?" It took me a moment to respond. I knew I should feel mortified—especially when her dad clearly thought I was an idiot—but her earnestness was touching.

"You did," I assured her. "Thank you." She beamed, though her dad remained focused on his paper. He was probably sympathetic toward the families I'd just traumatized. "But as bad as it was for me, it was worse for them. Those poor children, and their mothers—"

She was already shaking her head, the ends of her pigtails hitting her glasses. "They are literally our mortal enemies. We've been trying to think of ways to get them to stop coming here for weeks."

"I bet you didn't think of that one," I said wryly.

She grinned. "I'm Anette," she said. "This is my dad." She elbowed him.

After a slight pause, he held out his hand. "Ben," he said stiffly.

"Evie," I replied, giving him my best "I'm completely normal" smile. My hand was briefly swallowed by his before he returned to his paper.

Anette leaned forward, peering at me as if I was the most interesting thing in the room.

"You've been the best thing to happen in here in ages," she declared.

"That's very sweet," I replied, deciding to take this as a compliment.

Somehow I didn't think her dad agreed. "But today was a complete one-off, I promise. I never do things like that."

For whatever reason, this earned me Ben's full attention. He looked at me, hooded brown eyes flashing with something like amusement. "Really?" he said. "Then why was that the second time we've seen you spill your drink on someone in this café?"


CHAPTER 1

Code Red

INT: A BASEMENT BAR IN SOHO—FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 10 P.M.

EVIE stands in a small crowd of well-dressed twentysomethings, holding a scuffed plastic "glass" of house white wine, nodding in time to the conversation happening around her. She checks her phone, too tipsy to be anywhere near as surreptitious as she thinks she's being.


TWO WEEKS EARLIER

SARAH: I'm going to email the presentation to you all to help your planning session next weekend. Check your inboxes!

MARIA: we really don't mind planning your hen do ourselves

JEREMY: which isn't to say that we don't mind planning your hen do

SARAH: but this way you'll KNOW I'll love it. While we're on my wedding, can we talk about your plus-one situation, Evie?



I slipped my phone back into my bag. Sarah had been trying to get me to talk about my "plus-one situation" since she got engaged. As if I had some sort of condition that I'd been ignoring.

As I turned my attention back to the two achingly trendy young women with me in the bar, I noticed two things: 1) Their beautiful, pristine, untouched-by-worry baby skin. And 2) That I was much tipsier than I realized, despite sticking to my strict three-drink rule.

That was the curse of the assistant drinks. Once a month, every assistant working in TV and film talent agencies met in a different yet equally terrible bar in Central London to "network" (i.e., gossip). There was never any food available at these events, though there was always an abundance of a very particular type of white wine (the cheapest). I could only assume everyone else here was too young to have experienced hangovers as adults, and were therefore blissfully unaware of what it's like to wake up feeling like every single one of your twenty-nine years has smacked you in the face.

This excerpt ends on page 12 of the paperback edition.

Monday we begin the book Once a Spy by Mary Jo Putney.
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