Lucy McIntosh is a city girl through and through. She works in an advertising agency in Edinburgh with her boyfriend Jake, and her life is a whirl of deadlines, corporate parties, and coffee shops.
Then Lucy learns that she is to inherit a hotel in the Highlands from her long-lost Uncle Calum. At first insistent that she will sell it to fund her and Jake’s move to London, she arrives in her uncle’s village to find The Mormaer Inn, a huge, tumbledown place perpetually on the brink of failure – and falls in love with it.
Lucy is determined to restore the hotel to former glories. But her dream is blocked at every turn by obstacles. Rooms that need complete renovation, staff members who need personality transplants … and Graham Sutherland. His family have been local landowners for generations, and he wants the Inn for himself. Graham wants to demolish the hotel to build a holiday park, and is so confident Lucy will sell to him that he has already applied for planning permission. He is furious to think that naïve newcomer Lucy might have her own plans for the hotel – and adamant he’ll get what he wants …
But five hours later it’s my head that’s pounding. I’m back at the flat. I have no idea how I got here. I’m lying on the sofa in the living area. Fortunately, it’s one of those wide ones from Sofa LifeStyle, one of our latest clients, that looks pretty much like a bed – only right now the flaming orange with lime green trim is making my eyes hurt. I roll onto my side and see the stainless steel bowl that has been left for me. ‘Jake,’ I croak, but my mouth is too dry for the words to come out properly. He’s left the gas fire on. One of those flueless ones that looks like a picture painted in flame. Not only is it drying me out even further, but the little licks of orange, yellow, and blue dance dizzily and nauseously in front of my eyes. My mouth floods with saliva and I know what’s coming. I lean over the sofa, my stomach constricts violently, and I vomit into the bowl. I swear I will never give in to peer pressure again. The only time I ever get drunk is at SBP Christmas parties. Drinking is part of the ethos there. Work hard, play hard. I duck out of all the other celebrations, but I can’t dodge Christmas. I’d lose my bonus. No, seriously, I would.
An hour later I’m lying on my back, gasping and ready to sell my liver for a glass of water. There’s no way my body is ever getting above the horizontal ever again. My ribs ache like I’ve been crushed in a vice. It seems that after the luge I must have eaten my bodyweight in Christmas goodies. I have no memory of them going in, but their leaving me will remain etched on my memory for a long time. I am never, repeat, never going under a vodka luge again. I don’t care if all the data in the world tells me it is the only way to survive, I’d rather die than go through that again.
I doze off into a fitful sleep, waking every half hour or so, to add to my bowl. At least I haven’t woken Jake.
Our big clock, embedded in the wall, no face, is showing 11 a.m. when I hear him in the shower. Half an hour later he appears, bright-eyed, smiling, gorgeous, and smelling of cologne, but I only have eyes for the elixir he is carrying, a large glass of water.
‘Oh, thank you, God,’ I say as I snatch the glass, drag myself up against a cushion, and start drinking from it.
‘Hey, slowly, Luce, or you’ll make yourself sick.’
‘Nothing left in me,’ I say between gulps. Jake registers the sick bucket with a look of disgust. He edges it across the polished laminate floor to the balcony window. A blast of winter escapes into the room and I yelp in protest.
Jake manoeuvres the bucket outside and closes the balcony door. He gives me a wicked grin.
‘Thought it might wake you up,’ he says. ‘We’ve got to be at my parents’ in an hour.’
I place one hand against my sweaty head like a heroine in an old-fashioned movie, though by now I reckon I must look like something out of Trainspotting. ‘I can’t,’ I say. ‘I just can’t.’
Jake frowns. He rarely frowns. He doesn’t want Botox and he doesn’t want wrinkles. ‘Honey, they’re expecting us.’
‘I know. I know.’ I’m remembering now that this is one of his big family parties. Jake has hordes of cousins, uncles, aunts, and twice-removed whatevers, and this year a whole load of them have come over from Australia for a festive get-together. I don’t think I’ll be missed by most of them, especially the ones that have never met me, but Jake is acutely aware if he has a space on his arm. It’s important to be a couple at Christmas. Jake says that people automatically feel both sorry for and superior to those on their own at Christmas. That’s not a very nice thought, but I thought about it and I do. I’m horrible! He’s absolutely right though. Being a couple at Christmas is a sign of success.
I try a final gambit. ‘Do you really want me there looking like this?’
Concern registers across his face as he realises maybe I won’t be able to look as gleaming and healthy as him in the next half hour. Personally, I doubt I’ll ever leave the sofa again. ‘But what will I say?’
‘Say I took a shift at a soup kitchen when someone unexpectedly dropped out,’ I joke.
Jake makes a little humpfff noise. ‘And you didn’t want me to miss seeing my long-lost Aussie relatives, so you insisted I still went. That might work.’
‘I was kidding. You can’t lie about something like that.’
‘Luce, a lie’s a lie. You don’t want me to say you got so drunk at the office party you were dancing topless on the tables last night, do you?’
My stomach shifts in an alarming way. ‘You’re kidding,’ I repeat weakly.
‘Are you wearing a bra?’ He asks. ‘You never could hold your drink, Luce.’
I feel under my top. Nothing. ‘Oh God, why didn’t you stop me?’
‘Hey Luce, I don’t control you. You’re a modern, independent woman.’
‘But you know I’d never do something like that normally. How will I face the office again?’
‘Everyone seemed to like it. You got lots of cheers.’
‘Oh God,’ I say again, imagining the scene. I can’t even remember if I was wearing one of my good bras or one of my ever-expanding collection of grey ones.
Jake pulls something out of his back pocket. ‘This came for you by special delivery,’ he says. ‘Good thing too. I’d slept through the alarm.’
And he hands me the letter that will change my life.