The forbidden, p.1
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       The Forbidden, p.1
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  Chapter 1

  I kick my way through the piles of mail on the wooden floor, balancing a box in my hands as the door slams shut behind me. The vibrations dislodge two years’ worth of dust from the picture rails in the empty hallway, the fine particles bursting into the dim light before me and finding their way to my nose. I sneeze—once, twice, three times—dropping the box at my feet to rub away the tickle.

  “Damn it.” I sniff, kicking the box to the side and heading down the hall in search of some tissue.

  Entering the lounge, I weave through the haphazard boxes in search of the one labeled BATHROOM. I don’t fancy my chances. Boxes piled five high surround me, all waiting to be unpacked. I don’t know where to start.

  Circling slowly, I take in my new place—a ground-floor apartment in an old converted Georgian house on a tree-lined street in West London. The window in the lounge is huge, the ceilings high, the floors original. I wander through to the kitchen, grimacing at the stale smell and the layer of grime on every surface. The place has been empty for two years, and it shows. But it’s nothing a day with a pair of rubber gloves and a bottle of cleaner can’t sort.

  Suddenly excited, envisioning how everything will sparkle after I’ve attacked it with a bucket load of cleaning detergents, I throw the double doors open into the courtyard garden to let in some air, then head to the master bedroom. It’s a massive space, with a huge en suite and an original ornate fireplace. I smile, backing up into the corridor, and enter the second bedroom, though I have other ideas for this space. I picture my desk beneath the window looking out onto the cute courtyard, and my workbench spanning the back wall scattered with technical drawings and files. It’s mine. All mine.

  It’s taken me a year to find the perfect apartment in my price range, but I’m finally here. I finally have my own place, as well as my own studio to work from. I always told myself I’d have my own business and my own home by the time I’m thirty. I beat my target by a whole year. And now I have this weekend to make it feel like home.

  As if on cue, there’s a banging on the front door. I dash through my apartment—my apartment—and fling the door open, coming face-to-face with a bottle of Prosecco being thrust at me.

  “Welcome home!” Lizzy sings, producing two glasses, too.

  “Oh my God, you’re a saint!” I lunge forward, seize the goods, and open the path to her, welcoming her into my new home. I have the biggest grin on my face.

  She beams right back and charges in, her short black hair brushing her chin, her dark eyes gleaming with happiness—happiness for me. “First we toast, then we clean.”

  I agree as I close the door behind her, following her into the cluttered lounge.

  “Holy shit, Annie!” she gasps, coming to a stop at the doorway when she spies the mountains of boxes. “Where did all this stuff come from?”

  I push past her and place the glasses on a box, starting to peel back the foil from the bottle of fizz. “Most of it is work stuff,” I say, popping the cork and starting to pour.

  “How many books and pens does one architect need?” she asks, pointing to the opposite side of the lounge, where there’s a line of plastic boxes running the length of one wall, all stuffed with various files, textbooks, and stationery.

  “Most of the books are from Uni. Micky’s stopping by tomorrow with a van to take the stuff I don’t want to the charity shop.” I hand Lizzy a glass and chink it with mine.

  “Cheers,” she says, sipping as she gazes around. “Where do we start?”

  I join her, sipping while looking around at the mess that is my new home. “I need to get my bedroom sorted so I have somewhere to sleep. I’ll tackle the rest over the weekend.”

  “Ooh, your boudoir!” She waggles suggestive eyebrows at me, and I roll my eyes.

  “This is a man-free zone.” Knocking back another glug of Prosecco, I make tracks to my bedroom. “Except for Micky,” I add, arriving in the huge space, mentally moving my bed, my wardrobes, and my dressing table—which have all been dumped in the middle of the room. I hope Lizzy has stretched in preparation to shift all this hefty stuff.

  “Your life is a man-free zone.”

  “I’m too busy with work,” I point out, smiling a satisfied smile. I love it. My new business has gone from strength to strength. There’s no better feeling than watching the vision in your head come to life, seeing a drawing turn into an actual building. From the age of twelve, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Dad bought me a rabbit for my birthday, and quite unimpressed with the hutch that he came with, I’d nagged my father into extending it to make better accommodation for my new friend. He’d laughed and told me to draw what I wanted. So, I did. I’ve never looked back. After two years acing my A-levels, four years at Bath University, and seven years working at a commercial firm while powering through my three architect exams, I’m now where I always planned on being. Working for myself. Making people’s dream projects come to life.

  I hold up my glass of fizz. “How’s your job, anyway?”

  “I work to live, Annie. I don’t live to work. I only think of pedicures, skin, and nails when I’m at the salon.” Lizzy joins me on the threshold of my new bedroom. “And don’t change the subject. It’s been one year, two months and one week since you got laid.”

  “That’s very accurate of you.”

  Lizzy shrugs. “It was my twenty-eighth.”

  I remember the night all too well, though his name escapes me.

  “Tom,” she prompts, as if reading my mind, turning to me. “Cute rugby player dude. Jason’s friend of a friend.”

  Cute rugby player dude’s thighs invade my mind. I smile, remembering the night I met Lizzy’s boyfriend’s friend of a friend, Tom. “He was quite cute, wasn’t he?”

  “Very! So why didn’t you see him again?”

  “I don’t know.” I shrug. “There wasn’t anything there.”

  “There were thighs!”

  I laugh. “You know what I mean. Sparks. Chemistry.”

  She scoffs. “Annie, there’s never been sparks for you in the whole time I’ve known you.”

  She’s right. When will a man appear and sweep me off my feet? Bamboozle me? Make me think of something other than my career? The only thing that gets my pulse racing is my job.

  “Have you sworn off men forever?” Lizzy breaks into my thoughts. “Because Jason has plenty of friends with friends.”

  “I got bored of it all. Dating. The stress. The expectations. Nothing ever…clicked for me,” I say dismissively. “Anyway, I’m too in love with my job and my freedom right now.”

  Lizzy laughs, genuinely amused as she wanders into the room, peeking into the en suite. “Your freedom is being seriously hampered by an eighty-hour working week.”

  “Ninety,” I reply, and she frowns. “I worked ninety hours last week. And I have the freedom to do that.”

  “But what about fun stuff?”

  “My job is fun,” I retort indignantly. “I get to design beautiful buildings and watch them come to life.”

  “I’ve hardly seen you recently,” she grumbles.

  “I know. It’s been crazy.”

  “Yes, that posh couple in Chelsea have stolen all your time. How’s it going, by the way?”

  “Great,” I reply, because it is. But it’s one of the toughest projects I’ve undertaken. It took months of designs and negotiating to finally come to a compromise with the local authorities to build an ultra-modern, eco-efficient home. The hard work was worth every bit of effort. The cube house on the edge of the common has helped me toward the ridiculous deposit I needed for my new home.

  “They moved in last Friday.” I make my way to the double doors that lead into the courtyard garden, picturing the small space bursti
ng with green, a cast-iron table and a couple of chairs outside where I can enjoy my morning coffee. “Isn’t this perfect?”

  “It’s great,” Lizzy says, following. “Me and Jason seriously need to think about buying rather than renting.”

  “Or building.” I waggle a cheeky eyebrow at her. “I know an amazing architect.”

  Lizzy scoffs. “We couldn’t afford you.”

  I laugh and make my way inside. “Are you going to help me make my bed or not?”

  “I’m coming!” she singsongs, shutting the doors behind her.

  * * *

  Three hours later, after a trip to the shop to restock on Prosecco, we’ve cleaned, polished, and washed everything in sight, attacking the bathroom, too. The old claw-foot bath is sparkling, and Lizzy unpacked all of my toiletries and cosmetics while I made up my bed. It already feels like home. I peek in the mirror as I pass, seeing my dark hair is a knotted mess atop my head. I yank the hair-tie out and let it tumble over my shoulders, combing my fingers through to rid it of knots. I blink my pale green eyes a few times, something irritating me, as I lean into the mirror to remove a few specks of dust from my lashes.

  “Don’t forget we’re out next Saturday,” Lizzy reminds me, tying a black sack as she emerges from the bathroom. “Jason’s on a work thing, Nat is escaping John as he’s got his kid that night, and Micky is…well, he’s always free. So I want no excuses that you have to work.”

  I wander to my bed and plump my pillows, pulling back the duvet, ready to fall into it once Lizzy has left. “No excuses,” I confirm.

  “Great!” She drops the black sack with the pile of others by the door, brushing off her hands. “And what about your housewarming? We need to christen this place.”

  “It’s the Saturday after. I’ve invited a few new clients, too.”

  “Does that mean no orgy?”

  I laugh. “No orgy.”

  “Oh, okay. I’ll take care of snacks. You take care of cocktails.”

  “Deal.”

  She squeals and throws her arms around me. “It’s perfect, Annie. You’ve worked hard for it.”

  “Thanks.” I return her hug, breathing in the scent of the millions of candles we’ve lit.

  “How long have you given yourself off work?” she asks, releasing me and collecting her bag from the floor.

  “Just the weekend.”

  “Wow, you’re pushing the boat out, aren’t you?”

  I ignore her sarcasm. “I have to get some drawings finalized for my client’s new art gallery. No rest for the wicked.”

  “And no play, either,” Lizzy remarks, grinning a little as she pulls her mobile from her bag. “Great,” she mumbles, looking down at the screen.

  “What?”

  She shoves it back in her bag and forces a smile. “Jason’s working late again. He was supposed to be picking me up”—she glances down at her watch—“like, now.”

  “You can stay, if you like.”

  “Nah, I’ll get the Tube. You get to bed.”

  She leaves me with a kiss on the cheek and an order to sleep well. I’ve no doubt I will. In my brand-new bed, with brand-new sheets and brand-new duvet, I’m asleep before my head hits the brand-new pillow.

  * * *

  I wake the next morning to hard, relentless banging on my front door. Sitting up, I spend a few disorientated moments blinking sleepily as I look around my unfamiliar surroundings.

  Bang, bang, bang!

  Then my phone starts screeching from under my pillow, followed by more banging, backed up by someone shouting my name. My palms come up to my face and scrub at my cheeks before I feel for my phone and pull it from under the pillows. Micky’s name flashes up at me. Then I register the time. “Oh, shit!” I scramble from under my covers, stumbling my way out of my bedroom.

  Bang, bang, bang!

  “Okay, okay!” I yell, leaping over a box and crashing into the door. Swinging it open, I come face-to-face with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Micky. “Seriously!” I yell, my head drumming with bangs, rings, and shouts.

  “Morning, treacle!” He lands a kiss on my cheek and pushes his way past me, oohing and swooning as he starts to explore my new abode. “Nice place!”

  I shut the front door and follow him in, frowning at the man-bun he’s sporting. “What’s happened to your hair?” I ask, watching as he inspects every nook and cranny.

  “You like?” he asks, reaching behind and feeling at the dark blond bundle. “It’s starting to get in my way when I’m at work.” He kicks a box out of the way and takes a slurp from his Starbucks as he hands me one.

  I accept gratefully and head for my bedroom. He’s in his work uniform, namely shorts and a T-shirt. He’s a personal trainer. A very popular personal trainer. His waiting list consists of women. All women. “You working today?” I ask, setting my coffee on my bedside table.

  Micky follows me in and plonks himself on the edge of my bed. “Two sessions this afternoon.” He squeezes my thigh as I pass him, and I yelp. “When are you gonna let me at you?”

  “Never!” I laugh. “I’d rather shove hot pokers in my eyes.”

  “A few squats will do you good.”

  I scoff at his suggestion and pull on some jeans. “You have plenty of squatting arses to admire without torturing mine.”

  He grins wickedly. “Speaking of which, I just took on a new client.”

  I fasten my jeans. “Married?” I ask, pulling off my tank top and throwing a U2 T-shirt over my head.

  “Nope.” He grins. “You know I limit married clients to five at any one time. That’s an hour a day that I have to be professional. Five whole hours a week!”

  I laugh out loud. The man is an outrageous flirt, but he’s also one of the best PTs in London. Women are lining up to be bent, stretched, and manipulated into position by my oldest friend. For more reasons than achieving physical fitness. “Must be exhausting.”

  “It is when they’re tempting you constantly through each session. An innocent brush of my thigh here, an arse thrust in my face there.”

  “If it’s that challenging to keep your mind and eyes from wandering, you should just take on single women. Or men.”

  “I need a balance of clients. Besides, the married ones try harder,” he says, and my eyebrows jump up. Micky rolls his eyes. “In training,” he clarifies.

  “So you’ve never been tempted?”

  “Never!” He shakes his head furiously. “I love my legs too much to risk an angry husband breaking them, thanks.”

  Dragging my dark hair into a high ponytail, I chuckle and slip on my flip-flops. I’ve known Micky for centuries. We grew up together. Played mummies and daddies together. Romped naked in the paddling pool together. He even hammered a few nails into the rabbit hutch extension when we were twelve. Our parents were, and still are, best friends.

  “So how was your first night?” he asks, patting down my bedcovers.

  “I don’t think I’ve ever slept for so long.” It’s a good sign. “C’mon. Let’s get rid of some of this shit so I can start figuring out where everything’s going to go.”

  We head into the lounge and I start slapping yellow Post-it notes on everything that I don’t want to keep while Micky follows me around, placing it all to one side of the room. “Hey, I’ll have that.” Micky swipes the Post-it off a miniature set of drawers that used to sit on my dressing table in my old bedroom. “I need somewhere to put my hair-ties.”

  I laugh and carry on slapping Post-its on what needs to go. “Your man-bun looks cute,” I say as Micky fondles his new friend with a smile. Truth be told, Micky could shave his hair off and look cute. The man is just cute full stop. His light brown eyes are constantly laughing and his jaw is constantly peppered with stubble. He’s hot, but he’s just Micky to me.

  “Thanks.” He bats his lashes.

  “Hey, we’re going out next Saturday for drinks. You coming?”

  “Of course,” he replies quickly. “Lizzy and Nat coming?” He
waggles a suggestive eyebrow.

  “Don’t even dare. Both know you’re a tart.” He just can’t help himself. Me, Nat, and Lizzy are the only women in London who are immune to Micky’s charm.

  “Ouchy!” he sniggers, getting me in a headlock.

  “Get off, you twat!” I wrestle out of his hold and straighten myself out, batting him away when he starts dancing around me, fists held up in front of his face.

  “Yoo-hoo!” My mother’s voice sails into the room, followed by the sound of her heels clicking on the wooden floor.

 
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