My new novel This Foreign Affair (Pink Bean – Book Four) will be out next Friday (on 12 May 2017). Here’s a preview. Enjoy!
This Foreign Affair
© Harper Bliss
“You’re here bright and early this morning,” Josephine says before I can even place my order.
“Walk of shame?” Micky butts in.
“Christ, ladies. I’ll have a coffee first, we can talk after.”
Micky looks at her watch. “I’ve never seen you here this early.”
Josephine elbows her in the biceps. “A large black coffee for Zoya, please.”
“Coming right up.” Micky gets busy with the coffee machine.
“How are you today, Jo?” I ask.
“Very well, thank you.”
“I suppose it’s out of the question for me to call Caitlin at this ungodly hour and ask her to join me?”
“You can try, but she wasn’t awake when I left.” She quirks up her eyebrows.
I wave my credit card over the terminal to pay for my coffee. “I won’t bother then.” I check my phone in case I missed a text message while ordering. The screen is blank. “Myrtle is sick and there appears to be a bit of a problem in my Airbnb down the street. The new occupant arrived late last night and is complaining the smoke detector is beeping every few seconds. I promised to change the batteries first thing.”
“Here you go.” Micky hands me my coffee.
“If I lived in Darlinghurst, I could have stopped by last night.”
“Such a pity you don’t know anyone in the area.” Micky smirks.
“Very funny. They arrived after midnight. I wasn’t going to rouse any of you because my caretaker was sick, was I?”
“Thank goodness for that,” Micky replies.
Rebecca used to deal with all of this, I want to say but swallow the words, because I don’t want to talk about my ex. It’s too early in the morning for that particular kind of grievance.
“I’ll become your neighbor soon enough.” I sip from the coffee. “Just need to sort out some stuff first.”
A sudden break-up from your partner of sixteen years is emotionally harrowing enough even without all the practical things to arrange: assets to divide, and figure out who gets which souvenir from that trip to Tasmania. As far as I’m concerned, Rebecca can have it all, as long as I never have to see her face again. My lawyer disagrees.
“One of the houses in my street is for sale,” Micky says.
I perk up my ears. “Really?”
“Yeah, I’ll get you the number of the agent. You should check it out.”
“Maybe I will.” My phone buzzes. “Ah, here we go.” I check the message. “Time to go.” I drain my coffee, give Micky and Josephine a wave, and make my way to the apartment I own but haven’t set foot in for months.
* * *
The apartment is above a hair salon, which is still closed. I suppose no one wants to get their hair cut before eight o’clock in the morning. I take the stairs to the first floor and knock gently on the door, shuffling my weight from foot to foot. I never wanted to own a bloody Airbnb. Another thing I resent Rebecca for. Just add it to the pile.
The door flies open and a woman stands in front of me. She’s tall and has cheekbones for days, but what I notice most of all are her eyes. Not the color, but how they sparkle with something. I hope it’s not rage. I think it best to immediately launch into an apology.
“I’m so sorry about this.” I give her my widest TV smile and hold out my hand. “Hi, I’m Zoya. Your smoke detector battery replacer for today.”
The woman looks at my hand for a split second, then takes it in hers and gives it a quick, firm shake, her fingers squeezing tightly. “Camille.” She steps aside to let me in.
I look around. A high-pitched beep startles me.
“It’s been like that all night,” Camille says with a heavy French accent. Her hands are on her hips. “Not exactly conducive to a good night’s sleep.”
“I can imagine. Let me take care of this.” I look up at the fire alarm. A red light blinks. I don’t remember the ceiling being so high. Is there a ladder somewhere in this building? This whole scene is making me feel extremely inadequate. Rebecca was always the handy, super-organized one—a skill that allowed her to organize her affair around our life together for more than a year. I was just the fool who didn’t have a clue.
Just when I think I’m putting the whole sordid ordeal behind me, something like this happens to remind me of it. This apartment was Rebecca’s project from the start. Why it is up to me to deal with it now remains a mystery.
I scan the kitchen for a chair. I step out of my shoes and balance on it precariously. Camille scrutinizes my every move. I raise my hands but I can’t reach the ceiling.
I climb off the chair. “Looks like we’re going to need something higher.”
She gives me a look I can’t decipher. “I’ll try. I’m taller than you.”
“Thanks.” Why don’t we keep spare batteries in this apartment? I’ll have to talk to Myrtle. Or just sell the damn place. Then I wouldn’t be standing here in bare feet in front of a woman who is probably pretty pissed off at me. Although she hides it quite well.
I watch her clamber upon the chair. She does it gracefully, as if balancing on a piece of furniture is all she does in life. She stands on tiptoe and can just reach the outer shell of the smoke detector with her fingertips.
“Careful.” I steady the chair for her.
She has already screwed off the outer casing. “Hand me the batteries.”
I try to pull the package open but, as always with these things, it’s hard to find a spot to pierce it and I have to tear at it with all my might. I finally manage to pry out two batteries. Our fingers touch when I hold them up to her.
She drops the old batteries in my palm and, all the while balancing on the tips of her toes, replaces the batteries and screws the lid on again.
I hold out my hand to her for support when she climbs back down and she takes it. At least I’ve done something.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” she says.
I shake my head. “I’m mortified. Really. I will reimburse you for the night. The person who usually takes care of this is indisposed at the moment and, as you’ve clearly noticed, I’m not very good at any of this.”
She waves me off. “Just an idea. Keep some spare batteries in a kitchen drawer, perhaps? I could have done this myself last night if I’d had the necessary equipment.”
“I can’t apologize enough. You must be so tired. How about I take you out for coffee? Show you what’s where in the neighborhood?” My earlobes flush. I don’t even know the area that well. The best I can do is take her to the Pink Bean and hope Kristin is there to tell her all about Darlinghurst’s best spots.
Camille ponders my question. “Okay,” she says. “Give me five minutes.” She heads into the bathroom.
I put the chair back and leave the remaining batteries on the kitchen counter.
Maybe when I see the real estate agent to view the house Micky was talking about, I can ask her to come and take a look at this place. Or maybe I should just move in here. I glance around. No, I couldn’t. Rebecca’s touch is all over the decor. That turquoise contrast wall in the living area. The photograph of an outback road in Queensland to my right. It used to hang in our house, until she redecorated it and relocated it here.
“I’m ready for that coffee.” Camille exits the bathroom with a smile.
The Pink Bean is too busy for Micky and Josephine to ask me prying questions so they have to content themselves with inquisitive stares, which I ignore. I buy coffee and a couple of croissants and Camille and I sit.
“How long are you staying in Sydney?” I ask.
She chuckles. “I’m staying in your rental apartment. You should know.”
I shake my head. “It’s a long story why I don’t have a clue about any of this.”
“So, I can stay as long as I like.” Camille tips her cup back. “You wouldn’t even notice.”
“I probably wouldn’t.” I push the plate with croissants in her direction.
“Thanks. I’m famished.” She picks one up and tears off a corner. Before she puts it in her mouth, she says, “Croissants in Sydney are surprisingly not disappointing.”
“You’re the expert, I guess.” I look at her as she chews. She seems so at ease. So unperturbed by what happened. “Are you here for work or pleasure?”
“Definitely pleasure.” She nods slowly. “I flew in from Brisbane last night. I’ve spent the past two months in your beautiful country. Sydney is my last stop before I go back to France.”
“Ah, that’s why you’re so Zen.”
She slants her head. “Perhaps. Only a week left to relax.” Her cheeks dimple when she grins.
“Where in France are you from?”
“Paris.” She pronounces it the French way. “Born and bred. But as much as I love it, sometimes you just need to get away.”
“If you can, then, yes, I guess.” I wish I could have run away from Sydney after Rebecca told me she was leaving me.
“I believe that if you really want to, you can.” She rips off another piece of croissant. “Are you sick of Sydney?” Her eyes bore into me.
“Not Sydney so much as certain people who live here.”
She purses her lips together and nods. “I think I know exactly what you mean. But let me guess. Your children and your job prevent you from going away for a longer time. And your Airbnb property, of course.” She follows up with a chuckle.
I laugh at her dig. “No children, but my job is pretty demanding.”
“Whose isn’t these days?” She sighs.
It’s refreshing to talk to an interesting woman, who, at first glance, looks like she could be the perfect demographic for my TV show but doesn’t have a clue of who I am. “What do you do?”
“I work for the CNRS, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. I advise the French government on scientific matters.”
“That sounds important.”
“It’s a big responsibility. Of course, my advice gets ignored half the time, but I take my position very seriously.” She curls her lips into a smile. “But one of my mantras for this trip was to talk about work as little as possible. Even though it’s inevitable when you travel alone, meet people and make casual conversation. It’s usually the first thing that comes up.”
“That’s the world we live in. We’re defined not by who we are but what we do.”
“Very true.” She holds up her hands. “So please excuse me for asking, but what is it that you do?”
“I’m a television presenter. I interview people.”
“Like a chat show?” Not even a cool Frenchwoman can resist perking up at finding out she’s sitting across from someone who gets her face on television.
“A bit more in-depth than that. My show is not a promotion vehicle for actors and the like. We have one guest per week and the actual interview takes hours to produce. The research takes weeks.”
“You must know a whole lot about many people then.” She leans back in her chair.
“Too much at times.” I smile at Camille. I like her. There’s something very disarming about her.
“Do you get recognized all the time?”
“Not that much, actually. This is not America. People are still pretty discreet. And my show doesn’t have a big viewership among the selfie generation.”
Camille jots out her lip and nods. “Looks like I have some googling to do.”
“There should be complimentary wi-fi in the apartment,” I say. “I hope it’s working.”
“It is.” She cracks a smile. “Don’t feel too bad about the smoke detector. Your place is really nice. This is coming from someone who has sampled a vast array of accommodation all over the country the past couple of months. I wanted a really nice place to stay for my last stop and I’m not disappointed.”
“Thanks for saying that.” I make eye-contact for a brief moment.
“So please explain to me how a TV personality is sitting here having coffee with me this morning after trying to change the batteries in the smoke detector. Somehow, it doesn’t compute.”
“I’m a very down-to-earth kind of girl who likes to get her hands dirty.” Camille seems like the sort of person who can appreciate a joke.
“Right.” She nods, her face serious. “I could tell as soon as you climbed onto that chair. Such confidence.”
We both chuckle. “The person who usually deals with all of this for me has pneumonia. Poor thing.”
“Good morning, Zoya and friend.” Kristin appears next to our table. “Can I get you anything else?”
I jump at the opportunity to introduce Camille to Kristin, who knows everything there is to know about Darlinghurst—where to drink, where to eat, and where to have coffee, of course.
While they chat, I consider asking Kristin if she wants to buy the flat. She is the kind of person who would have everything in perfect working order all the time. And she and Sheryl only live three feet away. Then my mind wanders to this afternoon’s mediation meeting with Rebecca and our respective lawyers. If only I could send someone else to sort that all out for me as well.
Kristin asks Camille to stop by after the morning rush so she can give her some more information, and says goodbye. We both follow her with our eyes as she heads to the counter. Just then Sheryl appears for her morning coffee before she heads to work. She kisses Kristin fully on the mouth.
“Oh,” Camille says.
“If you hadn’t noticed yet, Darlinghurst is extremely gay friendly.”
“I only arrived late last night.” Camille has suddenly lost some of her easy conversation skills. “I didn’t really get a chance to notice.”
I hope I’m not sitting across from a homophobe. She may look like the nicest woman on the planet, it wouldn’t mean a thing. I’ve heard the vilest things come from the mouths of the most educated, cultured-looking people. Hatred comes in all sorts of disguises.
“You seem to know the owner well. Do you live around here?” Camille has apparently regrouped.
“Not yet, but I plan to. Sheryl, Kristin’s partner”—I nod in the direction of the counter where Sheryl is waiting for her takeaway cup—“and I have a good friend in common, who moved to Darlinghurst six months ago and I’ve been jealous ever since. It’s time for a change of scenery for me, anyway.”
I think of my—our—house in Balmain. How empty and big it feels when I come home these days.
“I can recommend taking a few months off. It does wonders for your perspective,” Camille says. “It helps that Australians are possibly the friendliest people I’ve come across.”
“We do our best.” I give her a wide smile.
“Have you lived in Sydney all your life?”
“I grew up in Perth, where most of my family still live. My great-grandparents immigrated here from India.”
“I went to Perth,” Camille says. “At the beginning of my trip, which feels like two years instead of two months ago.”
My phone starts ringing in my bag. “Sorry, it’s probably work.”
I check the screen and the name of my lawyer comes up.
“Zoya, can we do two instead of three this afternoon?” She’s a matter-of-fact woman who has no time for pleasantries. “I’m asking on behalf of Miss Firth’s lawyer.”
I exhale a deep sigh. “Sure. Let’s get it over with as quickly as possible.”
“Okay. See you then.” She hangs up.
“Typical,” I murmur under my breath.
“Everything okay?” Camille inquires.
“All part of that long story I hinted at earlier. My ex driving me up the wall.” I try to block out the negative thoughts by folding my lips into a big smile. It doesn’t really work, but the story of my separation from Rebecca is not something to impose on my Airbnb guest. “I should probably leave you to it now.” I took the day off so I could mentally prepare for this meeting. I haven’t seen Rebecca in months. “You have my number. Please call me if you need anything at all.”
I rise and so does Camille.
“Thank you for the coffee and croissants. I appreciate the gesture.”
While we shake hands, I say, “Maybe I’ll see you around before you leave. If not, I hope you have a wonderful stay.”
Our hands linger. I glance at her face—so pleasant and relaxed—one more time, then head out the door.
<<End of preview>>
This Foreign Affair will be available on 17 March 2017