I Owe You One: A Novel

“Well,” I say, “these things happen. Lucky I was there.”

“Lucky for me,” he says slowly, closing the laptop and surveying me properly. The late sun is full on his face now. His eyes are so green and woodlandy, I find myself thinking briefly of deer in dappled forest glades; leafy branches; peaty scents. Then I blink—and I’m back in the coffee shop. “It wasn’t lucky for you,” the guy is saying. “You’re a mess and your hair’s wet. All on my account. I feel terrible.”

“It wasn’t on your account,” I say, embarrassed under his gaze. My T-shirt feels wet, I suddenly register. But how wet?

Wet-T-shirt-contest-level wet? Is that why the whole coffee shop was staring at me? Because my T-shirt is, in fact, transparent?

“The ceiling fell in,” I continue, folding my arms casually across my chest. “I got wet. Nothing to do with you.”

“But would you have dived in that direction if you hadn’t promised to look after my laptop?” he counters at once. “Of course not. You obviously have very quick reactions. You would have dived out of harm’s way.”

“Well, whatever.” I shrug it off.

“Not whatever.” He shakes his head firmly. “I’m indebted to you. Can I … I don’t know. Buy you a coffee?”

“No, thanks.”

“A muffin?” He squints at the display. “The double chocolate chip one looks good.”

“No!” I laugh. “Really.”

“What about … can I buy you dinner?”

“I’m not sure Briony would appreciate it,” I can’t resist saying. “Sorry, I overheard you talking.”

A wry smile comes across his face and he says, “Touché.”

“Anyway, it was nice to meet you,” I say, taking my mint tea from the barista. “But I’d better get going.”

“There must be something I can do to thank you,” he insists.

“No, really, nothing,” I say, equally firmly. “I’m fine.”

I smile politely, then turn and head toward the door. And I’m nearly there when I hear him shout, “Wait!” so loudly that I swivel back. “Don’t go,” he adds. “Please. Just … hold on. I have something for you.”

I’m so intrigued, I take a few steps back into the coffee shop. He’s standing at the counter with a cardboard coffee sleeve and a pen, and he’s writing something.

“I always pay off my debts,” he says at last, coming toward me. “Always.” He holds out the sleeve and I see that he’s written on it:

I owe you one.

Redeemable in perpetuity.

As I watch, he signs it underneath—a scribbly signature I can’t quite make out—and puts the date.

“If you ever want a favor,” he says, looking up. “Something I can do for you. Anything at all.” He reaches in his pocket, pulls out a business card, and then looks around, frowning. “I need a paper clip … or any kind of clip …”

“Here.” I put down my cup, reach into my Anna’s Accessories bag, and pull out a diamanté hair grip.

“Perfect.” He affixes the business card to the coffee sleeve with the hair grip. “This is me. Sebastian Marlowe.”

“I’m Fixie Farr,” I reply.

“Fixie.” He nods gravely and extends a hand. “How do you do?” We shake hands, then Sebastian proffers the coffee-sleeve IOU.

“Please take it. I’m serious.”

“I can see.” My mouth can’t help twitching. “Well, if I need any ‘forward-looking investment opportunities,’ I’ll let you know.”

My tone is a little mocking, but he doesn’t pick up on it—in fact, his green eyes light up.

“Yes! Please do! If that’s the case, we can set up a meeting; I’d be delighted to give you some advice—”

“It’s not the case,” I cut him off. “Far from it. But I appreciate the offer.”

Belatedly, he seems to realize I was teasing him, and his face flickers with a smile.

“Something you actually need, then.” He’s still holding the coffee sleeve out to me, and at last I take it.

“OK. Thank you.”

To humor him, I put the coffee sleeve into my bag and pat it. “There we are. Safe and sound. And now I really must be going. I have a family party I need to get back for.”

“You think I’m joking,” he says, watching as I pick up my cup. “But I’m not. I owe you one, Fixie Farr. Remember that.”

“Oh, I will!” I say, and flash him a last, cheerful smile, not meaning a word of it. “Absolutely. I really will.”


Ryan isn’t at the house yet. Nor Jake.

As soon as I get inside, I sidle to the sitting room and glance through the door crack, ready to dart away. If they were anywhere they’d be there, sitting on the sofa, swigging beers. But they’re not. I’m safe.

I head toward the kitchen at the back, passing Nicole en route. She’s photographing a paper garland hanging from the wall. I guess it’s a party decoration, although our house barely needs any more embellishment. Over the years, Mum has covered every wall with family photos, collages, and box frames full of mementos. She’s really artistic, Mum, and so is Nicole, but that gene totally missed me out, just like the supermodel-looks gene. Both Jake and I inherited Dad’s dark-hair dark-eyes combo, which I guess you could call “striking.” But Nicole is heart-stoppingly beautiful, even if she never did quite make it as a model. The line of her jaw, the turquoise of her eyes, her slanty eyebrows … it all adds up to something magical. Even I want to stare at her all day, and I’m her sister.

“Hi, Nicole,” I greet her, and Nicole nods, squinting at her phone. Although she’s married, she’s living here for a few months, because her husband, Drew, has gone to work in Abu Dhabi for six months, setting up a computer system for some multinational, and Nicole refused to go.

“Abu Dhabi?” she said, as though that was all the reason she needed. “Abu Dhabi?” Then she added, as the clincher: “What about my yoga?”

So Drew left for Abu Dhabi and they’ve sublet their flat and Nicole is back in the family house for a bit. The fridge is full of probiotic yogurt, and her strandy ethnic necklaces are all over the place where she leaves them, and every morning I hear her podcast telling her soothingly not to judge herself, while pipe music plays.

I know Nicole’s finding it tougher than she thought, Drew being away, because she sighs a lot and peers at her phone and tells everyone she meets how she’s got separation anxiety. I feel sorry for Drew too. He phones us on the landline whenever he can’t reach Nicole on her mobile and often ends up talking to Mum or me. I’ve heard all about the vicious heat and his insomnia and the in-office battles he’s having with someone called Baz. The last time he phoned he sounded quite poorly, so Mum and I ended up googling illnesses and sending him links.

He and Nicole were only together for a year before they got married, and he works pretty hard in IT, so I didn’t know Drew that well at the wedding last year. But I’ve spoken to him so much on the phone since he’s been away, I’ve got to know him far better. He’s got a great sense of humor and I can see why Nicole married him. Although I can’t see why she hasn’t gone to Abu Dhabi with him. They must have yoga courses there, surely?

“Oh, Nicole, did you get my message?” I say, remembering. “I spoke to Drew last night and apparently it’s not malaria.”

“Oh, good,” says Nicole absently. “Isn’t this great?” she says with more animation, holding up her garland. “I’m putting it on Pinterest. It’s like, it’s …”

I wait for her to finish—then realize that she has. Nicole quite often drifts away into blankness while you wait there politely.

“Amazing,” I say. “Where’s Jake?”

“Haven’t seen him.”

“But he said he was on his way to the house to help Mum, what, two hours ago?”

Nicole shrugs and takes another photo of her garland.

“So who has been helping Mum?” I know I sound accusing, although the truth is, I feel defensive. I should have come home to help Mum, not gone shopping, let alone stopped at a coffee shop.

“I have!” says Nicole, sounding injured. “I’ve been doing decorations!”

“Right,” I say carefully. “But I meant the food and tidying up and everything?”

“I need an artistic outlet, OK? I’m coping with a lot of stress right now, Fixie.” Nicole shoots me a baleful look. “My husband’s on the other side of the world, in case you’d forgotten. I’m experiencing separation anxiety. I need to look after myself.”

“Well, I know, but—”

“My yoga teacher says if I don’t find ways to self-care, I might end up with mental-health issues.” She throws the phrase out like a trump card.

“Right,” I say after a pause. “OK. Er … sorry.”

I hurry on to the kitchen and push the door open to find Mum bent over the kitchen work top, just as I guessed she would be. She’s still in her apron and jeans, her graying hair pulled into a scrunchie, laboring over a sheet of pink sugar paste with a plastic cutter. She has a smear of icing on her earlobe and her usual daytime makeup look—i.e., none.

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