Did you know that Princess Diana read Barbara Cartland novels? It was news to me and inspired a scene in my new release, Sex With Strangers.
This story began many moons ago at a romance writer’s retreat, facilitated by Mills and Boon authors Robyn Donald and Daphne Clair. The feedback from these wonderful passionate and experienced writers, and others on the writer’s retreat, was so encouraging:
“I love it!”
“We thoroughly enjoyed it”
“You’ve got the beginnings of a really good, hip, fun book”
“The chapter heads are just lovely”
“It was a riot. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Great fun!”
“I can see the movie now.”
“When are you going to finish it?”
I decided it was time for it to air!
Many of the events are inspired by true stories—both my and others’ experiences. I’ve encountered so many people over the years who are looking for love again, and just don’t know how or where to start.
I hope you giggle and laugh from deep in your belly as you read this story. Like I did, remembering and rewriting some of these scenes (and flashing back to events that were true.)
And my hero Fergus O’Farrell? A few people told me that you can’t have an Irish hero that wears green pants and is called Fergus. The Fergus I met once, told me a different story.
He was so hunky, he could wear anything—or nothing at all! Think Jamie Dornan (better known as Christian Grey), Colin Farrell, and Pierce Bronsan (the only ever Irish James Bond), the alpha Irish sexy men who rock our world.
Talented, hot-looking and super sexy.
I hope you enjoy a wee excerpt.
GET A LIFE COACH
New York, December 2005
People start over all the time. Why can’t I?
My friend Chanel’s a life coach here in New York. She’s one of the best. She even has her own column in The New Yorker. Chanel has generously offered to help me. To be honest I really think I’m beyond help.
11 months ago my husband, Jon, left me for a younger woman. I’m still feeling lost, betrayed and empty. When she turns up at my place unexpectedly, Chanel tells me she thinks I have abandonment issues. No kidding! It’s 3 pm on Sunday and I’m still in my pajamas, sprawled out on the sofa reading romance novels.
“What on earth are you reading, Ruby?” she says, screwing up her nose. She picks up several paperbacks from the stack beside the sofa. “The Virgin Bride? As if! Husband For Hire? Why bother? Why on earth are you feeding your head with this stuff?”
“Princess Diana read Barbara Cartland novels and she married a prince,” I say crossing my arms defensively.
“Yes, and how did that work out for her?” Chanel asks.
With my left foot carefully slip Joan Lust’s recent novella Cuddle Up With A Prince under the sofa. “Besides, they’re not mine,” I lie. “They’re Millie’s. I figured seeing as I’m not getting any romance I may as well read about people who are.”
“These aren’t your daughter’s,” Chanel says tossing the books back on the sofa. “J.K. Rowling is more her bag. You’d be better off reading books about wizards and magic than you would this stuff. People who can—date, and people who can’t—write about it,” she says dismissively. ”Reading these—these fairy tales is not going to help.”
I want to tell her that reading love stories helps hugely. That reading romance makes me feel less lonely. That reading romance lets me escape. That reading romance gives me hope. But I don’t bother.
“The truth is you fear abandonment and this explains your reluctance to start dating again,” Chanel continues. “Think Meghan Markle.”
I stare at her blankly.
“What would her life be like if she clung onto her dead-beat ex?”
“Exactly. It’s time you went looking for a new husband,” Chanel says when I confess I haven’t been out for months.
Well, that’s not strictly true of course. Every weekday I go to my job in a towering office on Fifth Avenue where I work as a trainee public relations adviser for The Miss America Pageant. Believe me, there’s a lot of work to do as we work to rebrand the organization. But I love that finally women are being appraised on more than big boobs and hairspray. And, after, the mass exodus of lewd members of the leadership team, finally, women are running the show.
I have other non-paid jobs too. Like walking my dog Snoutts in Central Park and running Millie, my fifteen-year-old daughter, around.
“I don’t have time,” I lie. “Besides I’m quite happy sitting here at home. Honestly,” I protest, picking the anchovies off last night’s pizza.
“Nonsense,” she snaps as she brushes the dog hair from her expensive skirt. “Every woman needs a man. Especially you, Ruby.”
I mumble through a mouthful of cold pizza, “But I’m enjoying my spare time—reading books, doing what I want, not having to race to get my make-up on before my husband got up and saw the real me. You don’t care what I look like though do you, Snoutts?” I say, reaching down and patting the Dalmatian-cross I rescued from death-row.
Snoutts looks up at me adoringly.
I’m lying of course. The truth is I’m miserable. I miss my husband. I shouldn’t after what he did, but I do. I miss being married. I miss having someone make decisions with me and dealing with things I don’t want to, like taking the rubbish out and doing our accounts.
Actually, I miss sex the most. We had great sex, even after 18 years and 13 days. What if I never have sex again! That’s my greatest fear. I don’t know how I would even begin to meet a man, let alone have sex with a stranger.
“It’s easy when you know-how,” Chanel says. “Not only am I the queen of dating but in my professional role I’ve helped masses of women reclaim their sexual freedom.”
I wish I had her self-esteem I think as I look at her. Chanel isn’t the world’s greatest beauty. She’s got a prominent Jewish nose that would give Barbara Streisand a run for her money. But she has charisma like Jeff Bezos has money. She only has to walk into a room and men practically trip over themselves.
I’ve always admired the carefree way she flicks her vibrant orange hair, smiles demurely, and regales men with a mix of witty banter and sexual innuendo. I don’t think self-consciousness even exists in her vocabulary. She wears clothes that leave little to the imagination, though she’s not exactly Twiggy.
“I’m voluptuous, darling. Voluptuous. Men love women with curves,” she says proudly.
I know her real secret, though, it’s her confidence. I’d do anything just to have a smidgen of it. It’s hard to feel confident when your husband’s done a runner.
Chanel’s also an expert when it comes to breaking up. From what I can remember she’s never dated any man for longer than three weeks, and women pay her hundreds of dollars just for an hour of her time, eagerly drinking the wisdom she dispenses and coming back for seconds.
She’s promised to give me her top get-over-a-break-up-quick tips. I tell her plenty of people have been giving me dating advice. It’s just left me confused.
“A guy at work told me ‘the best way to get over a woman is to get under another,’” I tell her.
Chanel rolls her eyes and groans. “Men have a different way of working through their grief, darling.”
I tend to agree. For starters, everything I’ve gleaned from scanning men’s magazines suggests they don’t have an issue having sex with strangers.
“I can’t imagine stripping off and being naked with anyone other than my husband,” I confide. “Maybe the reason men are so untroubled is because there’s a worldwide shortage of eligible men.”
“Don’t let statistics scare you,” she says, when I tell her that in New York, women outnumber men three-to-one.
“That’s not what scares me,” I say. “For over 18 years my husband was the only man to see me naked. We always had sex with the light off. What if I meet someone who’s into. . . well, you know, kinky stuff like doing it with the light on, or in car parks in broad daylight? I’ve read about things like that.”
Fear clamps my stomach. “God, I couldn’t bear it. They’d only have to see my stretch marks and my rolled-up tummy and they’ll do a runner, too. My belly still hadn’t bounced back,” I say, pressing my palms firmly on my stomach. “In fact, the only thing it does is bounce.”
Chanel’s finger rests on her lips as though she is savoring diplomacy. “Breaking up is hard to do, Ruby. Everyone knows that but crying over spilled milk isn’t going to bring him back,” she says, her voice thick with intensity.
“I think 18 years of marriage is a bit more than a puddle of milk, Chanel.”
“It’s a figure of speech, Ruby. Of course, I am sensitive to the fact that you’ve been together a long time, but to be honest, you are rather dragging out the healing process.”
She crosses to the shelf over the fireplace and picks up several framed pictures of Jonathon and me on our wedding day.
“Hanging on to happy-couple photos is definitely not the way to go. Never let yesterday consume today, Ruby.” Chanel strides to the mahogany sideboard at the end of the room and throws the photos in the bottom drawer.
As she closes the drawer I fight back tears. Perhaps Chanel is right, hanging onto memories only pulls me back into a past that is no longer my future.
“If you can help me get over the humiliating fact that my husband abandoned me for another woman and got his PA to send me a text confirming my marriage was over, you’re a miracle worker. I just can’t let go. I just can’t move on. I just—“
“You just want your old life back,” Chanel says, finishing my sentence. “Never gonna happen.”
The truth knifes through me, jolting me to a stop.
“The text thing was pretty low. I know. I feel it. But don’t worry. Have faith. Life is about to get a whole lot better. I am a miracle worker,” she says confidently. I hear that from my clients all the time. Trust me, darling. Before long you’ll be thanking that vixen for taking him off your plate.”
“Somehow I doubt that.” I gaze nostalgically at the mahogany sideboard, then turn to her and force a smile. “Still I’m willing to be convinced.”
“I’m going to share a few of my miracle cures with you. Are you ready for number one of my hot tips? “
I nod enthusiastically. Chanel’s passion for her work and life is infectious. I’ve never, ever seen her down despite the fact that life has dealt her some pretty tough cards. I knew her when she was Zelda Abromovich. She changed her name to Chanel Zest when she was twenty. Chanel after her muse Coco Chanel, she told me, and Zest to better reflect her personality.
It all sounded plausible at the time but I knew the real reason was that she wanted to emancipate herself from her past. I wouldn’t mind being able to liberate myself from my entire family—but we’ll get to that later.
Chanel’s come a long way since those troubled days. I figure if she can reinvent her life after all she’s been through then she can help me too.
“Start keeping a journal. It’s a wonderful way to start your day,” she continues enthusiastically. “Early each morning pour out your feelings onto the page. Empty the horrible stuff out of your head onto paper, then write some positive intentions about how you want to feel. This will free you up and allow you to enjoy the rest of the day. I promise you.”
“Hmm, sounds wonderful,” I say, nibbling my nails. “I’d love to stop going over and over and over all the things that I must have done wrong to make Jon leave, and wondering about all the ways I could’ve have tried to make him stay. Things like if only I’d dressed more sexily, given him blow jobs—”
Chanel thrusts her hands in the air. “Stop! Blow jobs don’t determine a happy marriage.”
“According to Barbara Cartland they do,” I say glumly. “She says that’s why Charles left Diana.”
“Camilla is why Charles left his marriage,” Cheryl says firmly. “Cheating spouses are why marriages end.”
“Perhaps if I hadn’t been crabby when I had my period or been more understanding when his favorite team got thrown out of the World Cup. Or if, let’s be really honest, Chanel, I’d be younger.”
“You’ve got to stop with the terrible self-talk Ruby. Do you have any idea what power your words and thoughts have over you? What are you feeling in your body right now?”
“In my body?” I look down at my chest and then my feet. All I can see is Mickey Mouse running up and down my flannel pajamas. “I’ve got no idea. It’s not saying anything to me. Should it be?”
“Your body is your temple, Ruby. It speaks to you all the time. You just haven’t been tuned into it before now. Notice what your body barometer does when you start going on and on and beating yourself up like that. It makes you feel depressed, doesn’t it? No wonder when you start affirming that kind of rubbish.If only. If only. Start saying some kind, loving thoughts about yourself and see what happens. Getting rid of that processed food would help too.” Screwing up her nose Chanel picks up the remaining pizza and gives it to Snoutts who looks at it with disinterest.
“It’s not even really suitable for the dogs,” she says turning back to face me. “Now, tell me right now five things that are great about you.”
“Um. . .er . . .” I trawl through my memory bank and draw a blank. “Gosh, you’ll probably think I’m a real sad-sack but I can’t even think of one. You don’t think I’m a lost cause, do you?”
“Of course I don’t, darling. No judgment, Ruby. It’s quite, quite normal. You wouldn’t believe how often people struggle to think of anything nice to say about themselves. You do know there’s a global self-esteem virus. Why else would so many people be popping Prozac?”
I avoid Chanel’s gaze and wonder if I should be canceling my prescription of antidepressants.
“Well, there’s your first bit of homework,” Chanel says. “Keep two journals. One for recording all the sad-sack stuff—things like how you’re feeling, times when you feel blue, angry, etc. Then get yourself a fun, funky journal. We’ll call it the passion journal. Start collecting positive things people say about you, and record things that inspire you or make you feel good.”
Chanel reaches into her bag and pulls out a small spiral-bound notebook. “Here’s your first bit of feedback.”
She rips out a page, and hands it to me, along with her favorite citrus-orange Shaeffer fountain pen. “Write down what I am about to say and then transfer it to your passion journal. You are a kind, generous, loyal, intelligent and resilient woman.”
The pen crawls across the page. I feel like such a fraud. Tears bleed across my eyes as I write each word. But then I start to feel better. I hadn’t realized how much I needed to hear someone say something nice about me.
I stand up and give her a hug. “I don’t think anybody has said anything quite so nice to me in a very long time.”
“I’m sure they have, darling But words are like photos—unless we record positive memories we forget them. It’s amazing how memorable criticism is though. Which leads me to my next top tip for getting over a break-up fast. Learn how to meditate. Meditation is the biggest thing since gluten-free bread.”
“I don’t know, Chanel. I really don’t think I could handle shaving my head and I can’t see myself wearing a yellow robe any time soon either.”
“Don’t be silly, Ruby. You don’t have to go all weird and new age to meditate. Just saying some simple things over and over is enough.”
“Like what?” I ask her.
“Like baaaa, lamb, sheep. . .”
“Sounds pretty weird to me, Chanel.”
“I’m joking, silly. But the truth isn’t too far away. Any word can be a mantra. Mastering the art of meditation is simply disciplining yourself to repeat the same word over and over again. By concentrating on only one thing you can gradually silence the thousands of random thoughts that are spinning around and around in your head.”
Saying one thing over and over sounds easy enough. I decide to try meditation tomorrow. I’m keen to start feeling better and Chanel must know what she’s doing because she’s the life coach and has qualifications coming out her ears.
“The next tip is fabulous. I know you’re going to love it. Eat loads of chocolate ice-cream,” she suddenly looks serious. “The ice-cream has to be Mövenpick.”
I’m starting to wonder about Chanel. Her advice doesn’t sound very normal. But then Chanel is quite possibly the zaniest person I know. I do like ice-cream, and Mövenpick is exquisite.
“The next tip is in the same box as getting rid of photos,” Chanel says.
I brace myself.
“Delete lovey-dovey emails, bin the heart-wrenching texts and burn old love letters.”
I bite my lip pensively. I’m a romantic at heart and asking me to throw away my love letters is like asking Linus or Baby Bop to throw away their comfort blanket.
I’m not sure if I’m ready for this.
“Hanging onto old emails is seriously bad relationship feng shui,” Chanel insists. “Change the energy flow in your home. Change your life.”
“It sure would be great if all I had to do to get over Jonathon was press delete, and whammo he would be gone,” I say.
“Believe me it is,” Chanel says. “. . . that and dating and time. Of which, might I say, I think you’ve had quite enough. Grieve any longer than 11 months and you’ll head down the slippery slopes of depression. Believe me, that’s the last thing you want. It’s a steep climb once you’ve plummeted. Besides, you don’t want Jonathon to think he’s dated you, do you?”
I shake my head.
“Good. I can tell you, both as your friend and life coach, that there is no way I’m going to let that cheat come out of this break-up better than you.”
I suddenly feel self-conscious sitting around in my pajamas. Perhaps I am sliding toward the icy slopes of depression.
“I guess I can store my letters at my parent’s and retrieve the emails back from the trashcan if I don’t feel better,” I whisper tentatively.
Chanel’s brows furrow into a scary frown. “What’s the point of holding onto them?” Chanel says impatiently. “They’re only words. Words from the scum that left you for another woman.”
Ouch, that hurts. But it’s true. I resolve to push delete as soon as I get to work.
“The next tip is a no-brainer but you’d be surprised how frequently people don’t realize how unhelpful some of their friends can be. To really move forward it’s important to surround yourself with friends who make you laugh – and who will introduce you to other single men.”
“Other than you, Chanel, I can’t think of anyone. Most of my friends were Jonathon’s friends and those who have stuck with me don’t laugh anymore. They’re working ninety-hour weeks and are so stressed out that all they do is come home and blob out in front of the telly. Gosh, now that I think of it that’s why so many of my girlfriends are like me—shagless and single. As for my married friends— well, it turns out they weren’t really my friends at all.”
“It’s incredible how invitations to dinner parties dry up when you’re single and dateless,” Chanel says.
“I know. And when I did go to a few I got the distinct impression some of the women thought I was threatening. As if! To be honest,” I say, “I just end up feeling miserable. They’re married and I’m not.”
“Which brings me to the next rule. Stay away from married friends.” Chanel wags a manicured finger at me. “And stay well away from anyone who looks even the teeniest bit like they might get married.”
“Okay,” I mumble.
“Definitely don’t go to any weddings. You’ll only get stuck on the singles table, and believe me,” she says solemnly, “that’s dating suicide.”
“Really? I thought that would be a great way to meet someone.”
Chanel lowers her chin and looks at me over the bridge of her nose, “Are you kidding me? Only the desperate go to weddings on their own. Far better to buy a date rather than go it alone. Desired people are desirable, “ she says. “Which leads nicely into tip seven: Be glad that you were loved and that you had that person in your life. Some people live their whole lives never being loved.”
I sniffle as tears loom again. “I was glad. Really glad. I was happy loving my husband. I thought he’d be in my life forever.”
“Don’t be sill, Ruby. That’s irrational,” she says, handing me a tissue. “Nothing lasts forever. But,” she says, her voice softening, “tip eight is relevant here: give it time. Grief does have its own sense of timing.”
This doesn’t sound like Chanel. “Are you sure?” I ask uncertainly, wiping my eyes.
“Just don’t grieve too long. No one likes a sad-sack.”
That sounds more like Chanel.
“On that note, and concluding today’s lesson, is tip nine: find some fun! Book a holiday. Have a makeover. Spoil yourself rotten. Have something to look forward to or do whatever gives you a buzz. Which leads me to the next point,” she says, reaching into her bag. “I’ve got just the cure. Do you remember my cousin Julie?”
“The pretty one who left her husband and ran off with a surf instructor from Malibu?”
“She did? Oh yes. . .that was ages ago. A year at least. She’s been single since then and having a fantastic time. But we’re keen to take our loving offshore and have some European fun. We’re already booked,” she says, passing me a travel brochure, “and the best part is, there’s room for you!”
I take the brochure tentatively and thumb through it before returning to the cover page and reading, Contiki for 18-35s. European Inspiration Tour: 19 days from London to Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Munich, Venice, Rome, Florence, Lucerne, Paris and more. “I’ve always wanted to go to Europe. But Contiki? Don’t you think we’re getting a little old for this?”
“Don’t be silly, Ruby. We’re the perfect age. We’re 35 -“
“We’re over forty, Chanel.”
“Don’t say the “f” word, Ruby, it’s not polite. Besides, we don’t look a day over thirty. With our wisdom, experience and mature outlook on life, we know who we are and what we want. We’re an asset to the young.”
“Yes, we are! Men love confidence, and confidence comes with experience. Which Julie and I have. . . and you will soon. We’ve got it all mapped out, and Contiki is just the company to help us realize our dreams.”
“What dreams, Chanel?” I ask nervously.
“We want sex,” she replies matter of factly, “and lots of it.”
“Absolutely. I read an article in The New York Times the other day that said one of the biggest regrets people had was not having enough sex. That and not marrying the right person. And you know about that already. I for one don’t want to die with regrets. Do you, Ruby?”
“I guess not.”
“You guess not? How many lives are you planning to have, Ruby?”
“Don’t be silly, Chanel. Everyone knows you only get one.”
“Not everybody believes that,” she corrects me. “But for simplicity’s sake let’s assume it’s true. Do you really want to use yours up crying over a disloyal prick of a husband or are you going to join our race?”
“Our race to conquer Europe. Julie and I have set each other a dare. We’ve got to bonk a guy in every city we go to. The winner gets to have fabulous sex with a bevy of European lovers.
“And the loser?”
“The loser gets to have sex—only with less strangers.”
“I don’t know, Chanel. This sounds a bit desperate and dangerous. I mean, gosh, we’re middle-aged, and you already have a head start when it comes to picking up strange men. To be honest, it’s not really my thing.”
“Come on, it’ll be good for you. A fresh start. A chance to sample some of the stuff you’ve been missing. Maybe have a fling with a younger man. Haven’t you heard that old Chinese proverb about being as old as the last guy you screwed?”
“I can’t say I have, Chanel. I think we must read different books.”
“Yes, darling, we do,” Chanel says, glaring at Roberta Lust’s novel stuffed under the couch. “Think of it as sexual healing, Ruby. The point is to have fun flings, not full-on relationships. Besides, having one night stands has been scientifically proven to boost your chances of finding love again. Not only do they broaden your sexual repertoire, but they also boost your self-esteem. And let’s face it, darling, yours is pretty deflated. So what’s to lose?”
“Absolutely! 100 per cent guaranteed. Knowing you may never see your conquest again allows you to practice the one thing that will stand you in good sexual stead forever.”
“Saying what you want in bed.”
For a moment I’m sure my breathing has stopped
“I know what you’re thinking. You’re mortified right?”
“Have I gone a pale shade of white?” I hope my laugh sounds less self-conscious and more, ‘this is going to be so much fun.’
“Grinding your teeth together kind of gave you away,” she says putting her arm affectionately around me. “Relax! Believe me—I know. Asking for what you want is the key to a happier life. One-night stands are the perfect way to practice. Oh and news flash. Sex outside of marriage is not a cardinal sin. This is the new millennium, the era of female empowerment, freedom, and choice. Don’t waste your life making the wrong ones my sweet. Life’s too short and too precious for that.”
I do like the idea of getting away, and coming from a family of seven sisters has instilled a competitive streak in me. But racing to take European men to bed isn’t exactly the same as grabbing the last potato at dinner. And everyone knows that European men are a lot less uninhibited. They’re bound to want to do it with the light on.
I clench my hands over the cushions on the couch. “It’s a bit of a stretch, Chanel. I mean, it’s all right for the two of you—you’re experienced. I wouldn’t know where to start. Gosh, I think I’d fall over if any man other than Jonathon looked at me in an amorous way.”
I twist my gold wedding band. The divorce isn’t finalized yet and wearing his ring still gave me comfort. It was like a neon sign telling the world someone had picked me. I was wanted.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get you up to speed. I’m a life coach after all. Helping people with relationship issues is my specialty.”
Suddenly I’m more nervous than when Millie tricked me into going on the world’s biggest, oldest, and most rickety rollercoaster. I’m half excited and half out of my mind with fear. Mostly it’s fear I feel as I say, “It all sounds great. When do we start?”
Feel the fear and go dating anyway, right? Although in Chanel’s hands at least I won’t die.
DID YOU ENJOY THIS EXCERPT?
Sex With Strangers—available for Valentine’s Day pre-order now!
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