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I Owe You One: A Novel
Author:Sophie Kinsella

“Jakey!” she says, in her version of a reproving tone. (Basically still an adoring simper.) “Haven’t you told her?”

“Oh, that. Right.” Jake rolls his eyes and glances at me. “Ryan’s back.”

What?

I stare at him, frozen. I can’t speak, because my lungs have seized up, but my brain has already started analyzing the word back like a relentless computer program. Back. What does back mean? Back to the UK? Back home? Back to me?

No, not back to me, obviously not back to me—

“He’s back in the country,” elaborates Leila, her eyes soft with empathy. “It never worked out with that American girl. He’s coming to the party. And he was asking after you.”





Three




I don’t know how many times a heart can be broken, but mine’s been shattered again and again, and every single time by Ryan Chalker.

Not that he’d know it. I’ve been pretty good at concealing my feelings (I think). But the truth is, I’ve been in love with Ryan pretty much solidly since I was ten years old and he was fifteen and I came across him and Jake with a group of boys in Burger King. I was instantly fixated on him. How could you not be fixated on him, with that blond hair, that profile, that glow?

By the time I joined secondary school, Ryan and Jake were best friends and Ryan used to hang around our house every weekend, cracking jokes and flirting with Mum. Unlike every other boy in that year, he had flawless skin. He knew how to style his hair. He could make our school uniform look sexy—that’s how hot he was.

He had money too. Everyone whispered about it. Some relative had left him a small fortune. He always hosted parties and he got a car for his seventeenth. A convertible. I’m twenty-seven years old and I’m sure I’ll never own a convertible. Ryan and Jake used to drive around London in it, roof down, music blaring, like a couple of rock stars. In fact, it was Ryan who introduced Jake to that posh, flash, hard-partying set. The pair of them used to get into the kind of clubs that you read about in tabloids, and they’d boast about it at our house the next day. When I was old enough, Mum let me go out with Jake and Ryan sometimes, and I felt like I’d won the lottery. There was such a buzz around them, and suddenly I was part of it too.

Ryan could be genuinely kind too. I’ll always remember one evening when we went to the cinema. I’d just broken up with a boy called Jason, and a bunch of his friends were behind us. They started to laugh at me and jeer, and Ryan whipped round before anyone else could and lashed into them. People heard about it at school the next day, and everyone was saying, “Ryan loves Fixie!”

Of course I laughed along. I treated it like a joke. But inside, I was smitten. I felt as if we were connected now. I kept thinking, Surely we’ll end up together? Surely it’s meant to be?

There were so many moments over the years when I thought I had a chance. The time in Pizza Express when he kissed me lingeringly on greeting me. The time he squeezed my thigh. The time he asked if I was single at the moment. Dad’s funeral, when he sat with me for a while at the reception and let me talk on endlessly about Dad. At my twenty-first birthday party he sang a karaoke version of “Don’t Want to Miss a Thing,” straight to me, while my heart fluttered like a manic butterfly and I thought, Yes, yes, this is it … But that night he went off with a girl called Tamara. Over the years I watched and secretly wept as he dated what seemed like every girl in West London and never looked my way.

Then, five years ago, he moved to L.A. to be a movie producer. An actual movie producer. You couldn’t pick a more glamorous or unattainable job. I’ve still got the business card he gave me before he left, with an abstract logo and an address on Wilshire Boulevard.

It would have been easier to forget him if he’d disappeared forever—but he didn’t. He flew back to London all the time and he always came to see Jake, in a blast of light and excitement. His wavy blond hair was permanently sun-bleached. He had endless stories of celebrities. He’d casually say “Tom,” and I’d think, Tom? Who does he mean, Tom? And then I’d suddenly realize he meant Tom Cruise and my heart would be gripped and I’d think, Oh my God, I know someone who knows Tom Cruise?

Meanwhile, I went out with other guys; of course I did. But Ryan was lodged in my heart. And then last year, a full sixteen years after I first met him, he arrived at Jake’s birthday drinks really drunk and unhappy—I never got the full story, but it was something about a studio executive playing him around.

I’m a good listener, so I let him slag off this guy and nodded and said sympathetic things. At last he ran out of steam, and I could see him looking at me. Like, really looking at me. As though he’d only just realized I was an actual grown-up woman. He said, “You know, I’ve always fancied you, Fixie. You’re so genuine. You’re so bloody refreshing.” Then he added, as though puzzled, “Why have we never got it together?”

My heart was hammering, but for once in my life I managed to play it cool. I just looked at him and left it a moment, and then said, “Well.”

And he gave me one of his lazy smiles, and said, “Well.”

Oh my God, it was amazing. We left about three minutes later. He took me back to the flat where he was staying and we spent the night fulfilling every teenage fantasy I’d ever had, and then some. My brain kept screaming, It’s happening! I’m with Ryan! It’s actually happening! For ten solid days I was in a trance of delight.

And then he went back to L.A.

I mean, of course he went back to L.A. What did I expect, that he was going to propose?

(I’m not going to answer that. Not even in my own head. Because I might give away my most pathetic fantasy of all: that we’d be one of those pairs of lovers who were “meant to be” all their lives and finally realized it and never left each other’s sides again.)

As he left for his flight that gray April morning, he kissed me with what looked like genuine regret and said, “You’ve been so good for me, Fixie.” As if I were a juice fast or a series of TED Talks.

I said, as lightly as I could, “I hope you come and see me again.” Which wasn’t quite true. I actually hoped he’d suddenly exclaim, “Now I realize the truth! Fixie my darling, I can’t live without you and I want you to get on this plane with me now.”

Anyway. Astonishingly enough, that didn’t happen.

Then I heard from Jake that he’d got a new girlfriend in L.A. called Ariana and they had rows all the time, but it was pretty serious. I looked at them on Facebook a few times. (OK, all the time.) I wrote casual, friendly texts to him, then deleted them. And all the while I pretended I was fine with it. To Mum, Jake, everybody. Because what other option did I have?

But it was all lies. I never reconciled myself to having lost him. I still secretly, crazily, hoped.

And now he’s back. The words are thudding through my head like a drumbeat—he’s back, he’s back—while I stand in Anna’s Accessories like a starstruck fourteen-year-old, frantically trying out hair clips. As though choosing exactly the right hair decoration will somehow magically make Ryan fall in love with me.

I couldn’t cope with going straight home from the shop. What if he was there already, lounging on the sofa, ready to catch me out with his irresistible smile? I needed time. I needed to prepare. So at 5:00 P.M. I told Greg to close up and headed to the High Street. I bought myself a new lipstick. And now I’m standing in front of a display rack, trying to transform my appearance beyond belief with a £3.99 diamanté hair clip. Or maybe I should go for a flower.

Glittery hairband?

I know this is all displacement. I can’t even contemplate the momentousness of seeing Ryan again, so instead I’m fixating on an irrelevant detail which nobody else will even notice. Story of my life.

At last I gather up two beaded hair clips, some diamanté hair grips, and a pair of dangling gold earrings for good luck. I pay for them and head out to the balmy street. Mum will be laying out the table by now. Stacking the paper cups. Wrapping knives and forks in napkins. But even so, I need more time. I need to get my head straight.

On impulse, I duck into Café Allegro, which is our family’s favorite local café. I buy a bag of coffee beans for Mum’s cappuccino machine—we’re always running out, and Café Allegro does the best ones—then order a mint tea and go sit by the window. I’m trying to think exactly how to greet Ryan. What vibe to give off. Not gushy or needy, but self-possessed and alluring.

With a sigh, I retrieve my Anna’s Accessories bag, take out the two beaded clips, and hold them up against my hair, squinting into my hand mirror. Neither looks remotely alluring. I try the gold earrings against my ears and wince. Oh God. Terrible. I might take them back.