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Jilly Cooper

OCTAVIA

For Emma Renton

with Love

Author’s Note

The idea for OCTAVIA first came to me in 1968. I wrote it as a long short story called OCTOBER BRENNEN and it appeared in serial form in Petticoat. I then took the story and completely rewrote it, and the result is OCTAVIA.

Chapter One

The moment I set eyes on Jeremy West I knew I had to have him. I was sitting in Arabella’s, watching a crowd of debs and other phonies undulating round the floor and thinking they were dancing, when suddenly the bamboo curtain was pushed aside and a blond man walked in and stood looking around for a waitress.

Even in the gloom with which Arabella’s conceals its decor I could see that he had class — tall and lean, with one of those beautiful high cheek-boned faces with long, dreamy eyes like Rudolph Nureyev.

As the waitress came up to him, I watched to see if he’d leer down her exposed jacked-up bosom. He didn’t. She led him to a table next but one to ours. He was obviously waiting for someone. Then a plump girl came through the bamboo curtains and stood blinking round with short-sighted eyes. He stood up and waved to her, and her face broke into a smile that was faintly familiar. Then I recognized her. It was Gussie Forbes; we’d been at school together. How on earth had she managed to land a havoc-maker like that?

‘Look,’ I said, nudging Charlie. ‘That’s Gussie Forbes, we were at school together.’

Charlie peered over his very dark glasses, which he only wears to emphasize his Mafia-like appearance.

‘She doesn’t seem to have recovered from it as well as you have,’ he said. ‘She obviously skips the features on slimming, when she reads women’s magazines, and concentrates on the ones about “three dimensional charm”. I suppose you want to rush over and reminisce about the “dorm” and the French mistress’s beard?’

But I wasn’t listening any longer.

‘Do look,’ I said. ‘He’s ordering champagne. Do you suppose they’re celebrating?’

‘Can’t be much to celebrate, getting lumbered with a bird that looks like that,’ said Charlie, beckoning the waitress and ordering more whisky.

Charlie is immensely successful, newly rich, young and, like me, rootless. He is not interested in anyone unless they’re likely to advance his career or improve his image. At that time, just as I was getting bored with him, he was beginning to fall in love with me. This irked rather than worried me. I was used to men falling in love with me. When I gave Charlie the push, he would nurse his hurt pride for a fortnight, change the colour of his Ferrari and move on to the next affaire.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the man who was buying champagne for Gussie Forbes. She was raising her glass to him now, and he was holding her hand and smiling at her. He had a beautiful smile, gentle and creasing his face in all the right places. Now he was running a hand down her cheek. It was really most mystifying.

Charlie was rabbiting on about the chic men’s clothes shop he owns, who had been in, how difficult it was to get the right staff. Gussie and her man were getting up to dance. He moved easily, with the grace of some jungle cat. Gussie bounced around, wiggling her arms and her large bottom. She resembled a baby elephant taking a dip in the pool. Charlie took out a gold cigarette case, lit two cigarettes and handed one to me. He is full of these self- consciously sexy gestures which only work if you’re Cary Grant.

Gussie was now writhing and pushing her hair about in utter abandon.

‘They never taught your girlfriend to dance at school,’ Charlie said, watching her in appalled amusement.

‘She was taller than most of us then, so she always had to dance man.’

The floor had filled up now and Gussie and her man were dancing close together. He pressed his cheek against her hair, but his eyes wandered lazily around the room. Her eyes were closed in ecstasy and she had a fatuous smile on her face. God, she was just as wet as she had been at school!

Charlie put his hand on my thigh and drained his glass. ‘Shall we go?’ he said.

‘In a minute. Let’s have one more drink.’

The music had stopped, and they were coming off the floor right past our table. I ran my hand through my hair to loosen it and pulled the front piece over one eye.

‘Hullo Gussie,’ I said loudly.

‘For God’s sake,’ whispered Charlie.

Gussie peered through the gloom, blinking.

‘Over here,’ I said.

Suddenly she saw me and gave a shriek of schoolgirl excitement.

‘Goodness, it can’t be, Octavia! Is it really you?’

‘Yes, really me. Come and have a drink.’

Gussie pushed through the tables, pink face shining with excitement, bosom heaving from her exertions.

‘How lovely to see you.’ She kissed my proffered cheek. ‘And looking so stunning too!’

She dragged the blond man forward. ‘This is Jeremy West. It’s a very special evening for us, we’ve just got engaged!’

Engaged! Hence the champagne. At least they weren’t married yet!

‘Congratulations,’ I said, and gave Jeremy West one of my long, hard, smouldering looks. ‘How very exciting.’

He smiled back at me. ‘Yes, isn’t it?’

‘Jeremy darling,’ said Gussie. ‘This is Octavia Brennen. We were at school together, in the same form, but not for very long. Octavia did something perfectly dreadful like eating one of the harvest festival apples in church, so they sent her away. Life was very dull after that.’

‘I can imagine it was,’ said Jeremy West. Oh, how heartbreaking that smile was.

‘This is Charles Mancini,’ I said.

Charlie nodded enigmatically. With his Mexican bandit’s face, pink suede suit and dark grey shirt, he looked both sinister and glamorous. No girl could be ashamed of being seen with Charlie.

‘Why don’t we all have a drink?’ I said, ignoring a vicious kick on the ankles from Charlie.

Gussie looked up at Jeremy. ‘Why not?’ she said.

He nodded. ‘Charlie, get the waitress to bring some more chairs,’ I said.

‘What were you drinking?’ said Charlie sulkily.

‘Champagne,’ I said. ‘It’s a celebration.’

‘I’ve had quite enough to drink, I’m already getting giggly,’ said Gussie. ‘Can I have some orange squash?’

I told you she was wet.

‘But you’ll have champagne?’ Charlie said to Jeremy.

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