If Lucas is doing something, I have to be doing it, too, but better.
This has generally been very good for my career over the last year, but it does mean that right now I am grappling with a fir-tree branch which measures at least twice my height and four times my width.
"Do you need help?" Lucas asks.
"Absolutely not. Do you?"
I swing my branch into position and narrowly avoid smashing one of the many vases around the lobby. I'm always dodging those things. Like much of the furniture at Forest Manor Hotel and Spa, the vases come from the Bartholomew family, who own the estate. Morris Bartholomew (Barty) and his wife, Uma Singh-Bartholomew (Mrs. SB), have turned the grand house into a hotel, and they've repurposed as many of the old family furnishings as possible. I am all for an upcycle-it's kind of my thing-but there's something urn-like about some of these vases. I can't shake the thought that one of them might contain an old Bartholomew.
"Is that whimsical?" Lucas asks me, pausing to examine my fir branch.
I'm tying it to the bottom of my side of the staircase. The Forest Manor staircase is famous-it's one of those gorgeous sweeping ones that splits in two midway and just begs you to walk down it slowly in a wedding dress, or maybe arrange your children up it for an adorable Von Trapp-ish family photograph.
"Is that?" I ask, pointing to the potted tree Lucas has hauled in from the garden and placed at the bottom of his side of the staircase.
"Yes," he says with absolute confidence. "It is an olive tree. Olives are very whimsical."
We are dressing the lobby for tomorrow's wedding-the bride's theme is "winter whimsy." Lucas and I have decided that asymmetry is whimsical, so we are each doing one side of the staircase. The trouble is, if Lucas goes big, I have to go bigger, so now quite a lot of the garden is in the lobby.
"They're also Mediterranean."
Lucas looks at me flatly, like, Your point is?
"We're in the New Forest. It's November."
Lucas frowns. I give up.
"What about my silver fairy lights, then?" I ask, gesturing to the small, sparkling lights woven through the greenery that now runs up my bannister. "Do you think we need some on your side, too?"
"No. They're tacky."
I narrow my eyes. Lucas finds everything about me tacky. He hates my clip-in highlights, my baby-pink trainers, my fondness for supernatural teen dramas. He doesn't get that life is too short for rules about what's cool and what's not cool; life's for living. In full HD. And baby-pink trainers.
"They're cute and twinkly!"
"They're so bright. Like little daggers. No."
He unfolds his arms and places his hands on his hips instead. Lucas likes to take up as much space as possible. This is presumably why he is always at the gym, so that he can claim yet another inch of my airspace with his ever-broadening shoulders and his bulging biceps.
I take a deep, calming breath. Once this wedding is over, Lucas and I can go back to alternating shifts wherever possible. These days, things don't go well if we're at the front desk together for too long. Mrs. SB says it "doesn't seem to create quite the right atmosphere." Arjun, the head chef, says, "When Izzy and Lucas are on shift at the same time, the hotel is about as welcoming as my grandmother's house," and I've met Arjun's grandmother, so I can say with confidence that this was a very rude remark.
But Lucas and I are the most experienced front-of-house staff at the hotel, and we're the ones who manage weddings, which means that for the next two days, I have to endure nonstop Lucasness.
"Come up to the landing," Lucas barks. "See what I am seeing."
He's always so commanding. When I first met Lucas, I thought his Brazilian accent was so sexy-I forgave his rudeness, called it a translation issue, decided he meant well but things didn't quite come out right. But over time, I have learned that Lucas has an excellent grasp of English-he is just an arse.
I traipse up to the central landing, where the staircase splits in two, and take it all in. Our lobby is huge, with a gigantic wooden front desk along the left-hand side, old-fashioned keys dangling on the wall behind it. There's a worn circular rug over the original brown and cream tiles, and a soft-seating area by the tall windows looking out at the lawn. It's gorgeous. And in the last eight years, it's become a home to me-maybe even more so than the little pastel-coloured flat I rent in Fordingbridge.
"This is a classy hotel," Lucas says. "The fairy lights look cheap."
They were cheap. What does he expect? Our budget is-as always-non-existent.
"This is a family hotel," I say, just as the Hedgers family walk into the lobby, right on cue. Three kids, all hand in hand, the littlest one toddling along in a snowsuit with his pudgy fingers tucked inside his sister's.
"Wow!" says the oldest, stopping in his tracks to stare at my sparkling bannister. The youngest almost takes a tumble; his sister yanks him upright. "That looks so cool!"
I shine my smuggest smile in Lucas's direction. He continues to glower. The children look slightly disconcerted, and then intrigued.
I have noticed this phenomenon before. Lucas should be terrible with children-he's huge and scowly and doesn't know how to talk to them. But they always seem to find him fascinating. The other day I heard him greet Middle Hedgers (real name: Ruby Hedgers, age six; favourite hobbies include martial arts, ponies, and climbing things that aren't safe) by saying, "Good morning, how did you sleep? I hope well?" It is exactly what he says to adult guests, delivered in the exact same tone. But Ruby loved it. "Oh, I slept all night," she told him with great importance. "When it was seven on my clock, I got up and stood by Mummy and Daddy's bed until they woke up, too, and Daddy didn't think I was there, so he screamed, and it was so funny." To which Lucas nodded, quite serious, and said, "That sounds like a horrible way to be woken," and Ruby descended into fits of giggles.
"The children like the fairy lights," I tell Lucas, spreading my hands.
"The children also like shoes with wheels in them, and Haribo, and they will eat Arjun's ice-cream sundaes until they are sick," Lucas says. "Children cannot be trusted."
I glance at the grown-up Hedgerses to make sure they aren't offended by Lucas's comments, but they're ushering the kids into their room and don't seem to have heard. They're in Sweet Pea, because Mrs. Hedgers is a wheelchair user-the lifts have been broken for over a month now, and it's been a nightmare with only five downstairs bedrooms.
"No fairy lights on my side. We should take those ones down, too."
"Oh my God! Can't you just compromise and say, fine, let's use fairy lights but more sparingly, or something?"
"They hurt my eyes. It's a no."
"When you work with someone you can't just say It's a no and leave it at that."
"You have to meet me halfway."
"Because! It's reasonable!"
"Ah. Reasonable like reorganising the stationery every time you are on shift so that I can never find things?"
"That's not why I do it. I do it because your way is-"
"Crap!" I say, belatedly glancing towards Sweet Pea to make sure the door has closed behind the Hedgerses' children. "Your way is crap. The drawer always gets jammed because you put the hole-puncher in on its side, and the Post-its should be at the front because we use them all the time, but they're right at the back, behind the with-compliments slips, which we never use, so excuse me for saving you time!"
"Is it reasonable to renumber the rooms without telling me?"
"That was Mrs. SB's idea! I was just following orders!"
"Did she order you not to tell me?"
We're squared up now, and somehow I've ended up with my hands on my hips, too, a posture I have only ever adopted when pretending to be a superhero (something you do surprisingly often when you work in a family-friendly hotel).
"I just forgot. I'm a human being. Sue me."
"You didn't forget to tell Poor Mandy."
Mandy is the other permanent member of the front-of-house team. She is not actually poor in the financial sense-she has just become known as "Poor Mandy" here at Forest Manor Hotel and Spa because she's always stuck between me and Lucas when we're arguing about something. Poor Mandy doesn't care about the way the stationery drawer is arranged. She just wants some peace and quiet.
"Well, Poor Mandy didn't specifically tell me never to message her outside of working hours, so I probably WhatsApped her about it."
"I did not say don't message me outside of working hours. I just said that bombarding me with hotel administration at eleven at night on a Sunday is not-"
"Reasonable," I say through gritted teeth. "Right, of course. Well, if you're so keen on reasonable, we'll stick to reasonable un-fairy-lit bannisters, and we'll host a reasonably good wedding, and Barty and Mrs. SB will make the reasonable decision to close the hotel because it's no longer viable. Is that what you want?"
"Are you under the impression that you can save Forest Manor Hotel and Spa with large quantities of twinkly lights?"
"Yes!" I shout. "No! I mean, it's not about the decorations per se, it's about going the extra mile. Forest Manor is so perfect for this time of year, and if this wedding goes well, then every single guest will go away thinking the hotel is gorgeous and they should minibreak here, or have their engagement party here, and that means we're that little bit closer to staying afloat in 2023."
"Izzy, the hotel cannot be saved by a few minibreaks or engagement parties. We need investment."
I don't respond to this. It's not because I agree with him, or because-God forbid-I'm letting Lucas have the last word. It's because the ceiling has just fallen in on our heads.
One moment Izzy is glaring up at me, fierce and spiky, with her hands planted on her hips. And the next, she is on top of me, small and soft and smelling of cinnamon sugar, with half the ceiling on top of her.
I have no understanding of how we got from A to B here.
"Oh my God," Izzy says, rolling off me in a cloud of plaster. "Did I just save your life?"
"No," I say. It is best to say no when Izzy asks you a question. "What?"
"The ceiling fell in," she says, pointing at the ceiling. Helpful, as ever. "And I threw myself over you to save you."
I lie there beside her. We are both on our backs on the landing. High above us, the ceiling gapes open. I can see the old wall lamps in the first-floor hallway.
This is not good.
I turn my head to look at Izzy. Her cheeks are flushed and her pink-striped hair is all over the place, but she appears unharmed. There is a chunk of plaster behind her head, large enough to have killed one of us. I suddenly feel very cold.
"Thank you, then, I suppose," I say.
Her expression sours and she stands, brushing her legs down.
"You're welcome," she says. When Izzy says this to me, it translates as Go to hell, arsehole. If she were speaking to anybody else, it would no doubt be entirely sincere. But when it comes to me, whatever Izzy's saying, the subtext is essentially always Vai à merda, cuzão.
Nobody but me seems to notice this. Everyone else thinks Izzy is "nice" and "fun" and "sweet." Even Arjun treats her like a princess, and Arjun treats our customers in the way that a famous musician might treat his fans-with a sort of fond contempt. But then, Arjun didn't have Izzy yelling You're not good enough for her anyway, you cold-hearted, shiny-shoed robot-man! at him across the hotel gardens last Christmas.
Izzy does appear to have just saved my life, though, so I try to be polite.
"I am very grateful," I say. "And I apologise that I did not throw myself over you first. I had assumed you would be able to look after yourself."
This doesn't go down well. She glowers at me. Izzy has a whole range of glowers and glares. She has big green eyes and very long eyelashes, and always draws little black flicks on the edges of her eyelids. When I think about Izzy, which is as rarely as possible, I see those eyes narrowed at me. Catlike and bright.
"I can look after myself," she says.
"Yes," I say. "I know. That's why I didn't save you."
"Hello?" someone calls from upstairs.
"Shit," Izzy mutters, craning her neck to look up at the hole in the ceiling. "Mrs. Muller?"
For all her faults, Izzy has an exceptional memory for our guests. If you've stayed with us once, Izzy will know your son's name, your breakfast order, and your star sign. Though even I remember Mrs. Muller: she stays here often, always upsetting the cleaning team by getting splodges of paint everywhere while she works on her art. She's in her seventies, half-German, half-Jamaican, with an accent that I find frustratingly challenging, and a tendency to tip the hotel staff as though we're in America, which I don't mind at all.
"Call the fire brigade," Izzy hisses at me before returning her attention to Mrs. Muller. "Mrs. Muller, please be very careful! There's been a-slight-umm-"
"Accident," I suggest.
"Issue," Izzy says. "There's been a slight issue with the floor! But we're getting it sorted right away."
We both try to peer through the hole. We need to do something before any of the other fifty guests currently staying at Forest Manor happen to step out of their bedrooms and risk falling down a storey or two.
"Mrs. Muller, please step back!" I say, then head down the steps to the lobby-it is just as dangerous for us as it is for her. "You should move, too," I tell Izzy over my shoulder.
She ignores me. Well, I tried. I eye the damage to the staircase and get my phone out to dial 190, then remember it's not that in the UK, it's . . .
Copyright © 2023 by Beth O'Leary. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.