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Free Extract: Rescue Me by Sarra Manning

Margot doesn’t have time for love.

Will is afraid to love.

And neither of them are expecting to all in love with Blossom: a gentle Staffy with a tragic past, a belly made for rubbing and a head the size of a football.

 

After their first meeting at the rescue centre, both Margot and Will want to adopt Blossom so reluctantly agree to share custody. But Will’s obsession for micro-managing and clear-cut boundaries and Margot’s need to smother Blossom with affection, means that soon they have a very confused and badly behaved dog on their hands.

Can they put their differences aside to become successful “co-pawrents” and maybe even friends?

And meanwhile, does Blossom have plans of her own?

 

 

1

Margot

 

Margot Millwood was a cat person. Unfortunately, no one had explained this to Percy, her cat.

It also seemed that no one had explained to Margot’s ex-boyfriend George that after two months apart, they were getting back together.

George had asked to meet for early drinks after work. Margot had imagined that early drinks would lead to dinner then a declaration that, like her, George had seen what was on offer on the dating apps and realised that what they’d had together hadn’t been so bad.

Wrong!

‘I found a few of your things knocking about my place,’ George said, handing over a bulging bag for life, before Margot could take even one sip of her gin and tonic. ‘I can only stay for a quick drink. I have plans.’

‘Plans?’ Margot echoed as she cast a cursory glance inside the bag and saw an almost empty tube of bb cream and a pair of red lacy knickers that absolutely did not belong to her. She was tempted to hand them back to George with a scathing remark, but she didn’t know if they’d been washed or not. ‘These knic—’

‘Yeah, sorry this is so rushed, but I’m sure neither of us want to rehash the details of why we broke up,’ George continued, then downed half his bottle of fancy, locally brewed lager with almost indecent haste.

Margot could never back down from a challenge. ‘We broke up because, after two years together, you decided that you weren’t ready to even have a conversation about when we were going to start a family and you decided to break this to me on my thirty- sixth birthday.’ Nope, she still wasn’t over it.

‘Only because when I took you out for your birthday meal, you told me, no, demanded, that we start trying for a baby that very night. I hadn’t even looked at the menu,’ George recalled with an aggrieved tone as Margot’s phone rang. She ignored it.

‘I didn’t demand that you impregnate me that very night, I just pointed out that at thirty-six, I couldn’t continue to take my fertility for granted,’ Margot reminded George. Her phone beeped with a voicemail message at the same time as George sighed long and loud.

‘Anyway, it’s water under the bridge now. We’ve both moved on,’ he said. ‘Really, there’s no use in holding a post-mortem, Margs.’

There really wasn’t. Margot steepled her hands together so she wouldn’t make any threatening gestures. She didn’t want a post-mortem either, but still, George could benefit from a little advice.

‘Talking of moving on, can I just say that the next woman you get involved with . . . well, it would be better to tell her right from the start that you’re categorically not interested in having kids. Better to be up front than stringing her along for two years on false promises and maybes,’ Margot said coolly and not at all bitterly as, once more, her phone started to ring.

Again, she ignored it, because she was far more interested in the way that suddenly George wouldn’t meet her gaze.

‘You’re already in another relationship.’ It wasn’t a question. Didn’t need to be.

George nodded. ‘There’s no law says that I can’t be,’ he said a little defensively. ‘Are you going to answer your phone?’

‘Never mind my phone,’ Margot said. ‘Like I said, please don’t lead her on if you’re not serious. By the time a woman is thirty-five, her . . .’

‘. . . fertility could be halved,’ George finished for her. ‘Yeah, you did mention that about a few hundred times when we were together.’

But still, it hadn’t been enough to spur George into action apart from vague platitudes about how Margot would make a great mother. Or how it would be best to wait a year or so and a couple of promotions down the line, so they could buy a house for this hypothetical family that it turned out George hadn’t really wanted.

‘I’m just saying. For the sake of your new girlfriend.’ No one could ever accuse Margot of being unsisterly.

‘Not something you need to worry about and neither does Cassie,’ George said, probably not even realising that he was puffing out his chest, proud as the plumpest pigeon.

‘I take it that Cassie isn’t in her thirties.’ It was obvious that she wasn’t, but George’s faux bashful smile confirmed it.

‘She’s twenty-six,’ George confirmed. He didn’t look even a little embarrassed to be dating a woman fifteen years younger than him. On the contrary, he looked pretty bloody chipper about it.

Margot’s phone started ringing for the third time. By now it was a welcome relief. ‘I really must get this, it sounds like someone is trying to contact me urgently,’ Margot said, getting to her feet and quickly gathering up cardigan, handbag and the bag for life full of mouldy crap that probably wasn’t hers. ‘Lovely to catch up. Must go!’

Of course her handbag strap was caught on the arm of her chair, so in the time it took to extricate herself, her phone stopped ringing and George had the chance to not only have the last word but deliver a pretty damning character assessment while he was at it.

‘The thing is, Margs, I always hoped we might go the distance, but you’re just too much.’

Margot was completely blindsided. Also completely furious. A younger Margot might have sworn that in the future she wouldn’t be so much. But older Margot refused to make herself something less than she was.

‘No, you’re just too much,’ she hissed under her breath, as she fled the chichi little bar in Kings Cross, her hand digging into her bag for her phone, which was ringing and vibrating yet again. When Richard Burton had met Elizabeth Burton for the first time, he’d said that she was ‘just too bloody much’, but that was because Elizabeth Taylor was too much of all the good things that womanhood had to offer: wit, intelligence, killer curves and a pair of violet eyes. But when George, who had a very weak chin and a weak grasp of current affairs to match (there! She could finally admit it), said that Margot was too much he meant that she was needy, demanding and desperate. Margot didn’t think that she was any of those things, but she was thirty-six and time was marching on even if her prospects of being in a committed relationship weren’t.

‘Yes?’ she snapped as she answered the phone to a withheld number – probably someone in a call centre on another continent wanting to know if she’d recently been in an accident.

‘Hello?’ the caller, a woman, queried back uncertainly. ‘I’ve been trying to get hold of you for the last half hour. I’m calling about your cat. I believe you call him Percy.’

‘I call him Percy because that’s his name,’ Margot said evenly, though she felt very far from even. ‘Are you the person who’s stolen him?’

Margot was used to Percy keeping his distance. In fact, he barely tolerated her presence. After a long night of catting, he’d come home and scream at Margot until she fed him. How she longed for an occasional dead bird or half-alive mouse – the tokens of love that her friends received from their cats. But just because loving someone, or a cat, was difficult, it didn’t mean that one should just give up. He was still her Percy. Though Margot’s friends called him Shitbag on account of his habit of luring Margot in with big eyes and floppy limbs as if he wanted to snuggle. He’d even begin to purr as she tickled him under his chin. Then, just as Margot dared to relax, he’d either scratch or bite her. If she were really unlucky, he’d do both.To love Percy was to always make sure that your tetanus shots were up to date.

Over the last few months, Percy’s absences had been getting longer and longer and he was getting fatter and fatter. It was obvious that Percy was tarting himself around the neighbourhood, and Margot had had to resort to desperate measures. She’d been dripping with blood by the time she’d managed to secure a note around Percy’s collar.

To whom it may concern,

Percy is a very well loved, well-fed cat. Do NOT let him come into your house and do not feed him.

My number is on his collar tag, if you need me to come and fetch him.

‘We haven’t stolen him, he happens to prefer it round here,’ the woman now said indignantly. Then she must have realised that technically she had catnapped him if he was on her premises, because she sighed. ‘Look, I don’t suppose you could come round?’

Margot would have liked nothing more than to go home, change into her cosies and brood over what had gone wrong with George. She might even have cried. Not for George and his ripely fertile twenty-six-year-old new girlfriend, but because finding a man, just an average, ordinary man without commitment issues, continued to elude her.

Not tonight, Satan. Tonight, Margot was only home long enough to grab Percy’s pet carrier, a pouch of Dreamies and a thick towel so she could retrieve her sociopathic cat from one of the beautiful big Victorian villas that Highgate was famous for.

Margot was ushered into a double-aspect, open-plan living room with not one but two wood-burning stoves, a Warhol print of Chairman Mao on the wall above one of them, and a huge sectional sofa, which would have taken up her entire flat. On that sectional sofa were two little girls – they couldn’t be more than four and six and should absolutely have been in bed at eight o’clock on a school night – and nestled in between them, wearing a baby bonnet was Percy. He pointedly ignored her.

‘The thing is, you have to stop letting him in,’ Margot said to the harassed-looking woman who had answered the door and said her name was Fay and her equally harassed-looking husband, Benji. As Margot had entered, their nanny was just leaving for the day, so Margot didn’t know why either of them was quite so harassed looking. ‘He’s a cat. He’s an opportunist. But Percy is my cat and my opportunist.’

‘His name isn’t Percy, it’s Pudding,’ the smaller of the two girls piped up. Her chubby arm held Percy/Pudding round the neck in a vice-like grip. Soon there would be bloodshed.

‘If he was happy with you, then he wouldn’t keep coming here,’ her older sister said with an opaque stare, which was similar to the venomous expression on Percy’s face as he now gave Margot the full weight of his attention.

Margot’s boss, Tansy, had told her not to get a tortoiseshell cat. ‘All cats have a tendency to be bastards but torties are the worst,’ she’d advised when Margot had been scanning cat rescue websites during kitten season a few years before.

There were many times that Margot had wished that she’d listened to Tansy but now, she wasn’t giving up on her cat without a fight.

There was bloodshed. Margot’s blood that Percy shed as she tried to herd him into his carrier, an exercise that necessitated throwing the thick towel over Percy to incapacitate him which also ensured that he couldn’t do much harm. Unfortunately, he managed to work a paw free and inflict considerable damage on Margot’s right hand, which already bore many Percy-inflicted scars.

The little girls were crying. Fay had disappeared with the words, ‘God, I need a drink’ and Benji kept saying, ‘Are you sure he’s your cat?’

Oh yes, he was Margot’s cat all right. The latest in a long line of men who thought that the grass was much, much greener somewhere else.

‘Fine,’ Margot said, when Fay returned with a first aid box. ‘Fine.You know what? You can have him.’

Fay and Benji were very gracious in victory and the youngest girl, Elise, came over to give Margot a consolatory hug as Fay carefully dabbed antiseptic cream on Margot’s hand while Benji wondered aloud if she needed stitches.

They kept calling her Marge until at last Margot pointed out that it was ‘Margot, Mar-go. Marge is a butter substitute and I’m not a substitute’, even though her substitution status had been a recurring theme that evening.

Benji gave Margot a lift home, but that was only so he could pick up Percy’s things. The cat scratching tower, the countless toys, the very expensive cat food which was all he would eat. Margot boxed it all up, refused to take payment for any of it and came to a momentous decision after she’d shut the door.

‘That is it! From now on, I’m a dog person.’

2

Will

 

Roland wore black turtlenecks, cream chinos and horn- rimmed glasses. Come winter, come summer, come the in-between seasons, his black turtlenecks, chinos and specs were absolute and his face impassive.

For a whole year Will had been coming, once a week, to Roland’s consulting room just off Kilburn Park Road, and yet Will was sure that without the turtlenecks and the horn- rimmed glasses, he’d never be able to pick Roland out of a police line-up.

Maybe that was the point.
‘So, you’re quite sure that you want to pause our sessions?’ Will realised that while his own mind had been wandering,

Roland’s gaze had been fixed on him.
‘Not pause, stop,’ Will said firmly, though there was always something about Roland’s expressionless expression that made him want to squirm. ‘I said right at the beginning that I was going to give myself a year of therapy to fix myself.’

As soon as he said it, Will wished he hadn’t. Roland adjusted his spectacles so he could peer over the top of them. ‘Fix?’ he queried mildly. ‘I seem to recall that at the beginning of our very first session we also discussed that this wasn’t a fix but a process. An ongoing process.’

‘Yes, but I only wanted to ongo it for a year,’ Will reminded him. Thanks to Roland, he no longer felt uncomfortable about confrontation. ‘To favour a goal-orientated approach. Well, I’ve hit my targets, so now is a good time, a great time, to move on. When I lived in New York, there were people who’d been in therapy for years, decades, with no end in sight.’

Will didn’t add that most of them were completely dysfunctional because the therapy had invaded every aspect of their lives, instead of improving it.

‘Well, you have made a lot of progress,’ Roland conceded. ‘Put a lot of work in, and I don’t say that lightly because it’s been challenging at times, accessing memories that have been buried for so long.’

Which was another reason why Will deserved time off for good behaviour. A year ago, he’d been a shell, a husk. Burned out. Not fit for purpose. And now? Now, he might be on a fact-finding mission to discover who he was, but he certainly wasn’t any of the things that he used to be. ‘I have come a long way.’

‘And the panic attacks have abated?’
‘Haven’t had one for months.’
‘And your GP agreed that you could come off the antidepressants?’
Will nodded. ‘I started reducing the dose about five months ago, stopped taking them completely three months ago.’

‘And you’re ready to make the emotional connections that have been missing in your life?’
Of course Roland saved the most difficult question for last.

‘Making emotional connections really isn’t a priority for me right now.’

‘But I thought the lack of emotional connections, your inability to connect with people in a deep, meaningful way, is what we’ve spent the last year working on?’ Roland glanced down at his pad and the copious notes that he’d been scribbling.

‘I’ve emotionally reconnected with my family over the last year. That has to count for something,’ Will insisted. He’d left home over twenty years ago and hadn’t felt the need to return that often. After three years at Manchester University and a first-class degree in international finance, economics and business, Will had been headhunted by a global investment bank.

They’d funded an MBA at Wharton Business School in Boston and after that there’d been five years working in their Berlin office, three years in Paris and a brief stint in Hong Kong before he’d been transferred to New York then subsequently poached by New York’s largest privately owned investment bank.

It had been a glittering career by anyone’s standards. There’d been performance-related bonuses and corner apartments with iconic views, each one bigger than the last. It was a world away from the family home and the family florist in Muswell Hill.

Of course, Will had dutifully phoned his mother, Mary, every Sunday morning. And he’d been back for hatches, matches and, more recently and tragically, despatches. More infrequently, they’d come to visit him. So, yes, he had a family. He liked them. But it turned out that he liked them a lot more when there was a wide expanse of sea and several time zones between them.

But this last year, Will had seen his family on a daily basis. And although he was meant to be on a career sabbatical, he’d somehow ended up working in the family business. Roland should give him props for that, and also for managing not to kill his half-sister, Sage, who hadn’t even been thought of when Will had first left home, and who made being annoying into an art form.

‘Of course, family ties are important, defining, as are the family ties we break.’ Roland folded his arms, but Will wasn’t going to wander down that particular path again. He folded his arms too and made sure to maintain eye contact with Roland until his therapist sighed. ‘So, Will, remind me of your last romantic relationship? The woman who hit you with her shoe?’

Roland had many admirable qualities, but his total recall of some of the more humiliating moments of Will’s life wasn’t one of them. ‘Dovinda? She didn’t hit me with her shoe, she threw her shoe at me,’ he clarified. ‘And we weren’t in a relationship. We were just seeing each other. Dating. That’s what you do in NewYork.’

They’d been through this. Several times.

‘So, no one in New York is in a relationship? How . . . odd.’ Roland, face still stuck in neutral, shook his head. ‘Remind me why Dovinda threw her shoe at you?’

Will had walked right into this one. ‘Because she wanted to transition towards being in a relationship and I thought we both understood that although we enjoyed hanging out together, and yes, having sex with each other, that was as far as it went.’

‘This has been a recurring pattern in your relationships with women,’ Roland noted, writing something in his pad.

‘Again, they weren’t relationships.’

They’d been through a lot in this room. Between 6 p.m. and 6.50 p.m. every Thursday evening, Will had confronted hidden truths, long-buried secrets, voiced things that he never thought he would.There’d been pain, raw emotion, even tears, but breaking up with Roland might be the hardest thing yet.

Also, Roland was wrong. Will’s avoidance of deep, emotional connections with other people had nothing to do with the defining moment of his life, which had brought him to Roland’s consulting room. When he’d lain on a trolley in an ER cubicle at New York Presbyterian Hospital, convinced that he was having a heart attack. And OK, he’d lived in NewYork for over five years and there wasn’t a single person that Will had felt he could call, but that hadn’t been the issue.The issue had been that he had a glittering career, a fancy Tribeca apartment, lots of money in the bank, all the latest tech, gadgets and expensive trainers, but suddenly the most important thing in his life was a gnawing, stabbing, desolate pain in his chest. The dynamic, successful, driven person he’d forced himself to become no longer existed and he’d reverted back to being a terrified, powerless twelve-year-old that—

Roland cleared his throat and Will was back in the room, back in his present, which was so much better than his recent past. ‘You’ve come back from a very difficult set of personal circumstances and bedded down with your family this last year, so obviously you can make and need emotional connections, despite your claims to the contrary. But outside of family, I want you, off the top of your head, to name one other person in your life who you’ve ever felt a connection with,’ Roland suddenly demanded, and immediately Will could feel panic rising in him, like bile. ‘Someone who you weren’t afraid to be vulnerable with. Someone you loved unconditionally.’

There wasn’t one. But even so, there was an answer that immediately came to mind. ‘Muttley,’ he said without hesitation. ‘Dogs count too, right?’

Just thinking of his childhood dog, a Jack Russell crossed with god knows what, put a smile on his face. Muttley had been his constant companion. He’d walk Will to school then be waiting when he got out. They’d spent hours playing endless games of fetch. And there’d been other hours, in the dark, when Will had whispered his secret worries and fears to the dog and pressed his face into his warm, dank fur when he could feel the tears starting.

That was love. That had to be love. But . . . ‘I’m not getting a dog!’Will stated very firmly.

Roland raised his eyebrows by a couple of millimetres. ‘No one’s suggesting that you get a dog.’

‘Getting a dog, even fostering a dog is a huge commitment. Huge.’

‘No one’s telling you to foster a dog either.’ Roland sighed again.

The clock was showing that it was fifty minutes past the hour and it was time for Will to say his final goodbyes.

But he didn’t want to leave things unresolved, which only went to show how much he’d grown as a person. ‘Maybe I could take a dog for a walk sometimes. Volunteer at a rescue?’ Will frowned. ‘What would be the harm in that?’

Given the solemnity of the moment, Roland frowned too. It was the most animated that Will had ever seen him. He waited for Roland’s goodbye speech, which, as ever, would be insightful and thought-provoking.

Roland put down his pen all the better to give Will one last incisive look. ‘I’m sure I’ll be able to find you a slot when you want to resume our sessions,’ he said with a slightly wistful smile. ‘Until then, good luck.’

 

 

 

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