On the morning of the Go Green conference, Evie Stone fell asleep on the train. Lulled into a head-jerking slumber by the rhythmic clatter of wheels on rails, she finally gave in and rested her head against the scratchy fabric backrest. Weak sunlight and dark tunnels flashed across her eyelids. She dreamed of standing ovations and rounds of applause. A smile crept onto her face and the miles rolled past.
The intercity was pulling out of Cardiff station when Evie woke with a start. She pressed her forehead to the cool window and watched helplessly as the station – her destination – slid away. All too quickly the backs of industrial estates and retail parks turned to pockets of gardens and fields. Evie pushed back her hair and tried to calm her breathing. It would be okay. It was only a minor disaster, not a major one. Providing she could get off the train really soon and catch another back to Cardiff it need not be a disaster at all.
She sat to attention, tapping her fingernails on the Formica-covered table. The intercom crackled into life. A man who sounded as though he was underwater said, ‘Next stop, Bridgend.’
Evie’s eyes stretched open in alarm. She looked at her watch and grimaced. If she didn’t get off this train soon there’d be no point even going to the conference.
‘Excuse me!’ Evie noticed the guard at the end of the carriage and waved her hand, bouncing a little in her seat. She watched him approach, hoping he was taking in the blonde hair that bobbed an inch above her shoulders and the tailored lime-green skirt that fitted snugly above her knees. She fixed her most winning smile to her face and looked up as he reached her side.
‘I’m so sorry to bother you, but I’ve made a bit of a blunder. I was supposed to get off at Cardiff but I missed my stop. I need to get back there as soon as possible.’
The guard had the best poker face she’d ever seen. His eyes pulled away from hers and focused on her left cheek. He said, ‘Didn’t you hear the announcement? I made it myself.’
Evie frowned. ‘I’m afraid I didn’t hear anything. Perhaps your intercom system is broken. I don’t think I’ve heard any announcements since Newport.’
The guard smiled, and Evie relaxed.
‘So, because I missed my stop do you think you could pull up at one of these little stations we keep passing’ – she pointed out of the window as yet another station with an unpronounceable name sped past – ‘and let me off?’
The guard started to laugh. Evie hesitated, then joined in. The woman in the seat opposite Evie nodded her head and adjusted her glasses, before returning to her book.
‘So, that’s okay?’ Evie pulled her jacket around her shoulders in readiness.
‘Oh, no. No can do. Sorry, my dear, but this isn’t a bus. We can’t just stop on demand.’
Evie’s shoulders drooped and her jacket slipped off again. ‘But it’s your fault I missed my stop,’ she said. ‘I didn’t hear the announcement.’
‘Probably because you were asleep,’ he answered with a grin.
‘I was not asleep!’ Evie sat back and glared at him. ‘As if I would do something so stupid. I’ll have you know I’m due to give a talk at the very important Go Green conference today. In fact, I’m meant to be going on stage in about’ – she looked at her watch again – ‘an hour and a half. There’s no way I’d fall asleep and miss my stop. Not me.’
‘You have a sleep scar,’ the guard told her, pointing at her cheek.
‘What?’ She reached up and touched her skin, then twisted around to look at her reflection in the window. Outside, the sun had slipped behind the rain clouds, and the lights in the carriage turned the window into a mirror. A mirror in which she could see all too clearly her dishevelled hair, the bags under her eyes, and a crescent-shaped indentation curving from her cheekbone to her mouth. A glance at the headrest solved the mystery of where it had come from.
She considered, just for a moment, brazening it out – pretending this was a real scar left over from some tragic accident that might engender a bit more sympathy, but she didn’t have the energy. She turned back to the guard, who was watching her with amusement.
‘So, when exactly can I get off this train and get back to Cardiff?’ she asked with a shrug and a rueful smile.
‘Next stop, Bridgend.’ He touched his cap and began to walk away along the aisle.
Evie stared at the window and watched the world slip past. She took out her phone, but there was no signal. Typical. Outside, rain made angry patterns on the glass, turning Evie’s reflection into a fragmented, post-modernist portrait. Across the table, the older woman put down her book and leaned over to pat Evie’s hand.
‘I probably should have woken you up in Cardiff,’ she said cheerfully. ‘I thought that was what it said on your ticket. But you were sleeping so soundly, you looked so peaceful, I just didn’t have the heart.’
‘Evie Stone. I’m doing “Cladding For The Cost-Conscious”.’
The woman behind the desk glanced at Evie, then turned her head to face her computer screen. She moved so slowly Evie wanted to scream.
‘You’re late,’ the woman said. She spoke without looking up, her eyes fixed on the screen, her fingers positioned on the keyboard in classic typist mode.
‘I know.’ Evie put her hand on her chest and took a deep breath. ‘I missed my stop. But I’m here now, and if you’ll just give me my pass and let me know where the conference room is, I’ll head on down there straight away.’
‘Need to register you first. Are you staying at the hotel tonight?’
‘You have luggage,’ the receptionist stated blandly. ‘I saw you pulling a suitcase when you came in just now.’
How observant of you, thought Evie. ‘I’m going on somewhere else afterwards,’ she said. ‘I’ll keep it with me.’
The receptionist said nothing. Evie couldn’t believe how slowly she was typing. This was going to take forever.
‘Look, can I just register afterwards? I’m due to start speaking in literally two minutes. Just point me in the right direction and I’ll pop back later to fill out any forms or whatever.’
The receptionist raised her eyes and regarded Evie with an incredulous expression. ‘I can’t let you into the conference until you’ve been registered.’ She spoke slowly, enunciating every word with calm deliberation. Evie thought she might explode with frustration.
‘No, okay, but–’
‘And if you are late for your event then perhaps you should have allowed more time. All the other delegates arrived two hours ago.’
Evie dug her nails into her palms, stifling the urge to slam her fists on the counter. Be calm, she told herself. Think happy thoughts. As if talking to a bunch of architects and industry experts wasn’t stressful enough, now she had this to contend with on top of the journey from hell. Happy thoughts. Your talk is prepared, you know the topic inside out, you look great. Well, apart from the remnants of a sleep scar and rain-soaked clothes and hair that looks like you’ve just come out of the shower, that is. She’d managed to redo her make-up in the toilet on the way back from Bridgend, grateful for the thick, well-cut hair that bounced back into place no matter what. But she hadn’t allowed for the sleet that had battered her the moment she stepped outside the station.
She was supposed to be glamorous and efficient today, not windswept and soaked through and stressed to breaking point.
She was supposed to be standing on stage and starting to speak right now.
‘Look, Martha,’ Evie said, reading the name off the receptionist’s badge, ‘I’m sorry I’m inconveniencing you. I appreciate you’ve got a job to do and you want to do it properly, but I’ve come all the way from Manchester this morning. I missed my stop and had to get here via Bridgend. I’ve been laughed at, rained on, and then the taxi driver had never even heard of this hotel. So I’m very sorry that I’m a few minutes late but please will you tell me where I’m supposed to be going and stop being so bloody–’
Evie spun around. The voice belonged to a tall, dark-haired man who was dazzling the receptionist with a disarming smile. Evie looked from one to the other, amazed at the transformation that had come over the woman behind the desk. Her eyes, so unforgiving a moment ago, now positively glowed, and gone were the thin lips and the pinched nose, replaced by a warm grin and a flush to her cheeks.
‘I’ll make sure she comes back down before lunch, don’t worry,’ he told Martha, then he slipped his hand under Evie’s elbow and began to guide her towards the lift. She couldn’t resist a triumphant glance in the receptionist’s direction, but the older woman wasn’t paying her any attention at all. Evie pulled her suitcase along behind her, trying not to let it bash into the back of the man’s legs. When they reached the lobby he pressed the call button, then stepped back and held out his hand.
‘I’m Michael. Sorry, I don’t know your name. Martha doesn’t appear to have given you your badge yet,’ he added with a mischievous grin.
Despite her anxiety, Evie found herself returning his smile. She took a step back and smoothed her hands down her skirt, dropping her eyes to the white plastic badge pinned to the man’s chest. Under “Michael”, which was printed in the same jaunty font as the Go Green logo, was the company name DMC. She turned and looked back at the receptionist.
‘I think it would have taken another hour at least. Martha didn’t seem particularly enamoured with me.’ Not like she was with you, Evie thought. And it’s not too hard to see why. ‘I’m Evie. Evie Stone. Are you a delegate? I thought for a moment there you worked for the hotel.’
‘No, just another bored delegate, waiting to be entertained.’ His eyes were dark brown, crinkled at the corners, and his smile was easy, slightly dimpling both cheeks. She watched him, waiting for him to say something else. It was a full minute before she realised she was standing there like an idiot with her mouth practically hanging open.
She looked away and pulled her shoulders back, trying to prepare herself for the challenge to come. The lobby was deathly quiet; the brushed steel doors of the lift reflected nothing. She said, ‘This lift is taking ages. Perhaps it’s broken.’
The man stepped forward and pressed the call button again. ‘Maybe someone’s holding it on another floor.’ He gave the button three or four presses in quick succession. ‘Come on, come on.’ He looked genuinely concerned.
Evie had to fight off the urge to hug him. It was exactly the kind of thing she did herself when faced with a lazy lift.
‘I hope room 513 isn’t right at the other end of the hotel.’
‘It’s just down the corridor on the left. Not far. They’re waiting for you.’
‘Oh.’ Evie was taken aback. ‘You know who I am?’
‘I’m assuming you’re the E. Stone who’s talking to us about the environmental benefits of wooden cladding. They sent me to see where you’d got to.’
So he hadn’t simply happened upon her and jumped to her rescue after all. Evie pushed away a faint nugget of disappointment and ran her fingers through her hair, dismayed to find it still sopping wet. The lift doors opened with a ping and Evie stepped in. Michael joined her and pressed the lit-up button for floor five. Evie registered the knot of anxiety in her stomach. Grateful though she was for this handsome stranger’s help, she really could have done with a few minutes alone to prepare. This was the first time she’d spoken to more than ten people at one time, and usually that was only around a table in the Lee, Lee and Meredith offices back home. She clutched her green leather bag close to her side, feeling the corner of her folder press into her arm. She had her slides, she had her notes. Surely everything that could go wrong already had gone wrong? In no time at all it would be over, and she could relax and feel proud of herself. And it wouldn’t do any harm if word got back to her boss that she’d done a great job here today, either.
‘Do you do a lot of public speaking?’ Michael said, leaning against the mirrored wall with one shoulder.
‘Oh, tons,’ Evie lied.
‘Good.’ He smiled and shook his head. ‘You’re braver than me. They’re a tough crowd in there. Made mincemeat of the last speaker. I just hope they’re not too annoyed to have been kept waiting for so long.’