All the way home, my excitement levels have been growing—so much so that I practically waltz into the kitchen. It seems like a pretty apt thing to do because Mum is dressed in a full-blown Strictly Come Dancingglitter outfit, twirling as she and Elliot dance a mean salsa across the black-and-white tiles. Elliot’s boyfriend, Alex, is sitting on a stool by the island, shouting out scores in the flamboyant manner of Bruno Tonioli. “Seven!”
Just an average afternoon at the Porters’.
“Penny darling, you’re home!” Mum says, between steps. “You never told me Elliot was such a good dancer.”
“He’s a man of many talents!”
They finish off with an elaborate dip—of Elliot, by Mum.
Alex and I break into spontaneous and enthusiastic applause.
“Upstairs?” I say to Elliot and Alex. They nod in almost perfect synchronization.
Seeing them sends a familiar pang through my heart. Elliot and Alex are the perfect couple—and they don’t have to contend with my and Noah’s long-distance woes. They’re able to be together whenever they want, without having to worry about time zones or whether there’s enough Wi-Fi to Skype properly. They’re completely relaxed in each other’s presence.
In fact, they spend so much time together that my family has even given them their own portmanteau nickname, like Brangelina or Kimye. They’re Alexiot.
“Are Alexiot staying for dinner?” Mum calls to us before we disappear upstairs.
“No, we’re going to grab burgers at GBK before the concert!” I shout back.
“We are?” Elliot asks, raising an eyebrow.
I cringe. “Kira invited us. Is that OK?”
Alexiot exchange a look but seem to come to an agreement. “No problem, Pennylicious,” says Elliot. He reaches back and grabs Alex’s hand, and I smile.
I remember the day they met, not long before Valentine’s Day. Elliot had dragged me to a vintage-clothing store in an obscure part of the Brighton Lanes, even though we’d just been in there the day before and we both knew they weren’t going to have anything different in stock. But then I’d seen a new guy slouched behind the counter. It took me a few seconds, but I recognized him.
“Oh my god, Penny, he is so cute!” Elliot had pulled me behind a rail of clothing and covered himself with an enormous feather boa.
“That’s Alex Shepherd,” I said. “He’s in sixth form at our school.” Of course I knew him, but mostly because Kira had a massive crush on him. I lowered my voice. “Are you sure he’s gay?”
Elliot rolled his eyes at me. “You think I would bring you in here if I wasn’t sure? We’ve been eye-flirting since he started working here two weeks ago.”
“You eye-flirt with everyone,” I said, elbowing him in the ribs.
“Not like this.” He gave me an exaggerated wink that made me giggle.
“So why haven’t you made a move yet?”
“I will. Just . . . give me time.”
Kira would be devastated to find out Alex plays for the other team, but she’d get over it. He was a little more clean-cut than I would have imagined for Elliot, but he had a mischievous glint in his eye that would make anyone melt into a puddle. When I peeked back round the rail to look at him again, he was still staring at us, so I lifted my hand in a little wave.
“Penny, what are you doing?” Elliot’s whisper rose in tone by at least an octave.
Then I grinned. “Speeding up time. Besides, I’m just being polite. He was looking this way. OK, he’s coming over—be cool.”
“He’s doing what ?” Elliot’s face was white with panic, but he smoothed down his hair. “How do I look? I knew I shouldn’t have worn the trilby today! I look too jaunty; I should’ve worn something cooler.”
“Elliot, you’re rambling.” I’d never seen him act so flustered before. I pulled the boa down so that it didn’t sit like a fluffy animal on top of his head. “And, besides, your trilby looks—” But before I could finish my sentence Alex had reached us.
“May I help you?” he asked, with a small smile. He didn’t take his eyes off Elliot for an instant.
“Will you marry me?” Elliot said under his breath.
“What was that?” Alex frowned slightly.
“Oh, nothing . . . I was just wondering if you could help me find a scarf to go with my trilby?” It was like Elliot was a different person. All his nerves seemed to melt away in front of my eyes, and he was back to his normal, confident self.
“Of course. I have something that would go with your Great Gatsby vibe over here.” Alex walked across to another rail in the store.
“Did you know F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife wouldn’t marry him until he had a book deal?” said Elliot, following Alex.
“I didn’t, but I did know that he was really bad at spelling,” replied Alex, without missing a beat.
I watched as the two of them walked away, swapping facts about an author I had yet to read (and I hadn’t seen the movie of the book either). It was like they’d known each other their whole lives. I knew then that I needed to leave Elliot to it. I didn’t want to cramp his style.
But, in true Penny fashion, I backed up straight into a coat stand, knocking a pile of vintage fur coats and stoles onto the floor. I blushed bright red and started picking up furs and heavy coats, but it was all a tangled mess. Trust me to have ruined Elliot’s moment.
Alex and Elliot were by my side in a flash. “I’ll clear this up—don’t worry,” said Alex.
“I’ll help,” said Elliot. They both reached down and each picked up one end of the same long fur stole, pulling at it until their hands touched. I could almost feel the spark of electricity in the air. It was their Lady and the Tramp spaghetti-and-meatballs moment—a film I had seen, loads of times, as a kid. I mumbled some excuses and attempted to sneak out of the store once more, but this time neither of them noticed. They’ve been an item ever since. And I like to think that my clumsiness helped just a bit.
Now Alexiot have to help me answer the ultimate question: What do you wear to see your boyfriend in real life for the first time in two months? We rush up the stairs to the top floor, where my bedroom is. Alex takes the steps two at a time with his long legs. He’s much taller than both Elliot and me.
“Uh, Penny—aren’t you supposed to be leaving for the tour tomorrow?” Alex asks when he gets to the top of the stairs and stands in the doorway of my room.
“What do you mean?”
But I know exactly what he means. It’s like there’s been a tornado in my bedroom. Every item of clothing I’ve ever worn—every scarf, belt, and hat—is in a heap on my bed. Stacks of revision notes are piled high on my desk and there are scraps of cardboard discarded on the floor from where I put together my final photography portfolio.
The only place that’s clear in my entire room is the window seat, where I’ve tacked up a cutting from a celeb magazine with a picture of Noah and me, his arm wrapped round my shoulders. The caption reads:Noah Flynn and his girlfriend. It’s the first time I’ve been in a magazine and, even though my hair looks like a mess, I kept it as a memento. There’s also a calendar that’s nearly completely covered in gold stars, and today’s date is circled in red.
Elliot tiptoes through the rubble. “Holy wow. Ocean Strong does not know how to pack.”
“Ocean Strong” was the name Elliot and I had come up with for my alter ego, the one I channelled whenever I was feeling anxious, like how Beyoncé used to use “Sasha Fierce” as a protective presence onstage. Beyoncé doesn’t need Sasha anymore, and one day I hope not to need Ocean Strong. But, for now, I cling to the name like a life jacket that will keep me afloat on the stormy seas of my anxiety.
I gesture to my bed. “Um, take a seat, I guess.” I perch on top of a pile of jumpers on my dressing-table chair.
“I’m kind of worried that you’re hiding Megan’s dead body under here somewhere,” says Elliot, wrinkling his nose.
I stick my tongue out at him. “As if.”
Megan was my best friend when I first started school—but she changed, morphing into this high-maintenance, boy-crazy, selfie-obsessed girl that I no longer recognized. Last year she became jealous about my so-called relationship with Ollie—a guy I had a huge crush on before I met Noah. Nothing had happened between us, but even the hint of it seemed to be enough to drive Megan wild with jealousy. It was Ollie who found out about my then-anonymous blog and recognized Noah Flynn, and he told Megan. In turn, Megan put two and two together and told the media, exposing me to the press and the public.
Still, I got my own back when Elliot and I confronted Megan and Ollie in a café, ending up with our milkshakes being dumped over their heads. I haven’t had much to do with Megan since Milkshakegate. News of the incident—still my single greatest moment of stand-up-for-myself bravery—spread around our school like wildfire.
But girls like Megan never stay uncool for long. It’s as though her inner confidence always shines through and bad or embarrassing stuff slides off her like water off a duck’s back. She even makes jokes about how ice cream is the key to her milky complexion. And now she’s got an acceptance letter from the top drama school in London. She’s back to being untouchable and on top of the world.
Even Ollie is leaving our school. His whole family decided to relocate to help his brother take his tennis to the next level. I feel bad for him. Even after what he did to me I don’t believe he’s a bad guy. And now he’s trapped in his brother’s shadow. My two “nemeses” gone like that. The only challenge I have left to overcome is myself.
Elliot claps his hands together. He’s in full-blown Monica-from-Friends organizer mode now. “OK, where’s your suitcase?”
“Uh, I think Alex is sitting on it.”
Alex jumps up and shifts a pile of clothes from underneath him. The sides of my bright pink suitcase finally become visible underneath the wreckage of my belongings.
“How long are you going away, again?” Alex says, appraising the bulging nature of my suitcase.
“She’s gone for fourteen days, three hours, and twenty-one minutes,” says Elliot. “I’m going to count every second!”
“I think my parents are too,” I say with a sheepish grin.
“Did it take them a lot of time to come around to the idea?” asks Alex.
“Oh, only the two months since Noah suggested it at Easter! To be honest I wasn’t sure if I could do it either.” Going on tour with Noah was a huge deal. It was the first time I was really, properly, going to go away on my own. And, even though every detail had been raked over with a fine-toothed comb, I was still nervous about going.
“Of course you can. This is going to be an incredible experience and I am so jealous. Now, Penny, unzip and show us what you have.”
I follow his instructions and cringe at the first thing in my case. Elliot reaches inside and pulls out the biggest woollen cardigan you’ve ever seen, with wide, comfy sleeves I can wrap round myself almost twice. It belongs to my mum, who wore it—as she says—only when she was pregnant, and not before or since.
Elliot takes it out and holds it in front of him. It hangs down past his knees. “You do know it’s going to be the height of summer while you’re on tour, right? Why do you need to bring an entire flock of sheep with you?”
I snatch it out of his hands. “It’s my comfort sweater.” I hug it to my face and breathe in the scent of my mum’s signature perfume. It smells like home. “It’s to help with my anxiety. Miss Mills said that if I was worried about being anxious and homesick on tour I should bring with me the one thing that will always make me feel safe. That will remind me of home. Packing my entire duvet didn’t seem like the most practical option, so the second choice was this cardie.”
He takes it from me, folding it up neatly and putting it back in my suitcase. “OK, you can have that one. But this you can’t have!” He pulls out a baby-pink button-down with ruched fabric roses on the pockets. “You’re going to be on tour, not heading to afternoon tea with your nan!”
“OK, that one can go.” I laugh. “I’m no good at this!”
Elliot dramatically rubs his temples. “Sometimes I think you’re a lost cause, Penny! We’ll have to deal with this later. But back to business: What are you going to wear tonight ?”
Now it’s my turn to be dramatic. “I’ve literally tried on everything I own! I can’t find a single thing. Do you think I can get away with just throwing a black tank top on with my jeans?”
Elliot pulls a disapproving face. “No way. That’s not nearly dressy enough.”
“How about this?” Alex holds up a black skater dress I forgot I owned. It’s got a little daisy print on it in white and yellow. I bought it from ASOS one day while I was supposed to be revising with Kira and Amara but have never worn it.
“That is just perfect!” says Elliot. “My boyfriend, ladies and gentlemen: stylist extraordinaire.”
Alex shrugs. “Hey, you work in retail long enough, you pick up a few pointers.”
I take the dress from Alex’s outstretched hands and nip into the bathroom. I change into the skater dress, and face myself in the mirror.
I can’t believe I’m finally getting to see Noah in concert. It feels like I’ve been both waiting for and dreading this moment ever since he got the call that he was going to be supporting The Sketch on tour. I pull my long red hair out of its bun, and it falls in waves around my face. Mum has shown me a little trick with eyeliner, which I try now, flicking the line up past the outer corner of my eye. Instantly my eyes look more alluring and catlike. Maybe I can pull this off. My new tagline: Girlfriend of Noah Flynn.
I think I’m going mad as the first few beats of Noah’s album start playing in my head, but when I open the bathroom door I realize that Elliot and Alex are playing “Elements,” one of the eight songs on Autumn Girl. Each song Noah has written is better than the last—but the title track, “Autumn Girl,” which was written for me, is still my favourite, of course.
Alexiot have linked hands, and Elliot leans his head on Alex’s shoulder. They’re just way too adorable and I don’t want to intrude. But Elliot must hear me because he looks over his shoulder at me. His jaw drops. “You’re killing it, Ocean Strong!”
“Why, thanks,” I say, doing a little curtsey.
“All right, kids—let’s blow this popsicle stand,” says Elliot in a low drawl.
Both Alex and I look at him, frowning.
“What, don’t you like my new Americanisms? I thought I’d practise before seeing Noah again. Now, accessories.” He pushes a handful of bangles onto my wrist and puts a long, dangling necklace round my neck. He smiles at me. “You just need your Converse, and then you’re ready.”
I look in the full-length mirror.
“You look great, Pen. That outfit is perfect,” says Elliot. “Leah Brown, you may be the hottest pop star on the planet but you’ve got nothing on my girl.”
I allow myself to smile, and tell myself I look good. And I do. I feel confident. But I still pick up a jacket to go over top. Elliot grimaces.
“What?” I say. “It might be cold in the restaurant.”
“Speaking of, we better get a move on!” Elliot looks down at his watch.
“Tom!” I yell down the stairs to my brother. “Will you drive us?”
I hear a grunt in response that I’m going to take as a “yes.”
But, when we get outside, Alex doesn’t join us in the car. He shoves his hands in his pockets. “Sorry, guys, I have to head home to do something first. I’ll meet you at the concert, OK?”
Elliot’s happy mood deflates, his shoulders slumping.
“Are you sure?” I say. “I know it must be really boring to have to hang out with a bunch of Year Elevens but most of them are all right.”
“It’s not that,” he says. “I just have stuff to do.”
He leans over and gives Elliot a quick kiss, but Elliot’s heart isn’t in it. Then, once Alex is gone, he shrugs his shoulders and is instantly back to his normal self. “Let’s go!”
• • •
A few minutes later, we pull up in front of GBK, courtesy of chauffeur Tom. Elliot jumps out of the car, but just as I’m about to follow him Tom reaches over and grabs my arm. “If you get into trouble, or need any help, call me straightaway, got it, Pen-pen?”
I pull him into a hug, which he accepts with stiff shoulders. But I know he loves me really.
On a Friday night, Brighton is packed with commuters returning from work in London and revellers heading for a night out. There’s a boy who looks younger than me playing guitar on the pavement. He sings softly, but he has an amazing voice. No one else stops to look—not even Elliot, who is so wrapped up in his own world he could walk past the London Symphony Orchestra and not notice—but I find myself lingering. I’m rooted to the spot by the boy’s beautiful music.
“May I take a picture?” I ask him when he strums a final chord.
“Sure,” he says. I snap a few shots, and then take a pound out of my purse and put it in his guitar case. He grins gratefully at me and I make a dash for the restaurant as the heavens open and it starts to pour with rain. Typical British summer.
Inside, everyone is waiting. Elliot rushes up to me and pulls me to a stop. “Don’t freak out,” he says.
“What do you mean?” I frown. But then he steps to one side.
Megan is standing behind him.
And she’s wearing the exact same dress as me.
I wrap my jacket even tighter round my body, covering my dress. Megan smiles serenely, looking surprisingly cool about it, but that’s probably because I’ve already turned tomato red with embarrassment. I almost turn round and walk out of the restaurant right there and then, but Elliot grabs my hand and gives it a squeeze.
“Oh my god, Penny, we’re wearing identical dresses!” Megan says, tossing her long chestnut hair. “Did you find this on ASOS too? Better make sure Noah doesn’t see me first or else he might get confused and giveme the backstage pass.” She gives me an exaggerated wink that turns my stomach. I can’t help thinking she looks way better in the dress than I do.
“Grow up, Megan. It’s just a dress—not a brain transplant to make you a nicer person,” snaps Elliot.
Kira is sitting at the table behind Megan. She gives me an apologetic smile and a shrug. A sharp pain jabs my heart as I wonder if Kira told Megan about the dress I ordered. But then I tell myself not to be so paranoid.
“Glad you could make it, Penny!” says Kira. “Is Noah going to join us?”
I can sense everyone turn to look at me, even from the other tables. I laugh nervously. “Oh, I don’t think so. Noah is too busy prepping for the show. I’ll meet him after.”
Elliot pulls me through the restaurant and into a booth as far away from them as we can be without seeming rude. It feels like my entire school and half of Elliot’s is coming to watch the concert. Of course they are all excited to see Noah Flynn, but the main band, The Sketch, are massive at the moment. They’re a group of four boys from the US who exploded onto the scene last year with their song “There’s Only One.” They’ve already done gigs in Manchester and Birmingham, but this is the first one that Noah is joining. He’s then heading off with The Sketch to Europe, and I get to go with him.
My stomach flutters with nervous but excited butterflies.
I slide into the booth and Elliot sits down opposite me. “Ugh, I can’t believe we have to be in the same room as Mega-Nasty,” says Elliot. “Why did you agree to meet everyone here again?”
“Kira invited me and I couldn’t think of a way out of it. They’re all coming to the concert so it made sense for us to go together. Besides, it’s the Brighton Centre. It’s so big that hopefully we won’t even see them,” I say.
“Did you know the Brighton Centre can seat four and a half thousand people, and was the last venue Bing Crosby performed in before he died?”
“Is that the guy who sang ‘White Christmas’? How do you know all this stuff, Wiki?” I say with a laugh.
“I know everything, Miss Penny P. You know that. At least we’ll be sitting in the VIP box,” says Elliot, flashing his ticket and grinning. “First class, here we come!” He bum-dances on the bench. “Wow, if we’re this excited, how is Noah feeling?”
“Oh, Noah never gets nervous!” Though, as I’m saying it, I don’t know if it’s true. I’ve never seen him perform properly before—not in front of an audience this big. “I know he’s super excited. This is his chance to really make it big in Europe.”
“Yeah, there’s no way people won’t know his name after he’s played with The Sketch. Even someone like you would know who he was!”
I smile, but Elliot’s words have disconcerted me. It’s strange to think that only six months ago I had no idea who Noah Flynn was, and now everyone is about to know him. I almost lost myself to the media storm before. Will I be able to hold on to Noah throughout the whirlwind that’s to come?
“Have you met the rest of his band?” Elliot asks.
I shake my head. “Not yet, but I know he’s got some of his best friends with him.”
“I really wish I could come with you,” says Elliot, his eyes downcast.
“I wish you could come too! But you’re going to have an amazing time at CHIC,” I remind him. Elliot’s been looking forward to his internship since he found out at the start of the year that he got it.
“Did you know CHIC was started in 1895?”
I reach over the table and put my hand over Elliot’s. I know when he’s spouting facts out of nerves rather than for fun. “You’re going to be brilliant,” I say, reassuring him.
The waitress comes by and asks for our order, but I feel so nervous I can’t bear to eat. I bury my face in my menu and we ask for a few more minutes, but almost instantly I wish that she’d stayed. Behind her is the person I dread.
I lower my menu slowly. “Uh, hi, Megan.”
Elliot is throwing daggers at her with his eyes, but Megan ignores him. Instead, she focuses on me. “I’m sorry we’re wearing the same dress—do you want me to change? I can run home before the concert.”
Now this is a side of Megan that I’m not expecting: the sweet, friendly side. For a moment I get a glimpse of the girl I used to know. But I find it hard to separate that girl from the one who tried to destroy my life earlier this year—like two photographs overlaid on top of each other, a real-life double exposure. I still don’t know which one is the real Megan.
“No, it’s OK. It’s kind of funny, actually,” I say.
She smiles at me, and it seems genuine. “So, I was wondering . . .” she says, and suddenly her smile has become sharklike—all teeth—and it’s clear she’s got an ulterior motive for coming over. “Do you think you could get me, Kira, and Amara backstage later? I would absolutely die if I got to meet The Sketch.”
I frown. Elliot tuts out loud and rolls his eyes. “Oh, I don’t know . . . I’d have to ask Noah,” I say.
“Well, why don’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
She raises an eyebrow. “Why don’t you text him and ask? You do have your boyfriend’s number, don’t you?”
“Penny doesn’t have to do any favours for you,” says Elliot.
“I wasn’t asking you, Elliot,” she snaps back. “I’m asking my friend.”
“Um, OK . . .” I start to take my phone out of my pocket, but Elliot stops me with a glare. I take several deep breaths and then I look back up at Megan. “I’ll ask Noah later, but I can’t make any promises,” I tell her. My phone remains firmly out of sight.
Megan hesitates. When she sees that I’m not going to change my mind, she shrugs, trying to act as if it’s not a big deal. “Well, thanks—hopefully see you later, Penny.” She flounces off, still smiling at me. But the way she snapped at Elliot makes me realize that she hasn’t changed at all.
Now I do get my phone out of my pocket, and I read my latest text conversation with Noah.
Can’t wait to see you tonight! N
Me neither! It’s been way too long xxxx
Almost as if Noah knows I’m reading his texts, a new message from him pops up on my phone.
How are you getting to the concert?
I quickly type in a reply.
I’m walking to the Brighton Centre with Elliot and some friends from school xxxx
No you’re not. N
I frown at his message.
“What’s up?” asks Elliot, spotting my confused expression.
I show him the screen. “What does he mean, ‘No you’re not’? How else does he expect me to get to the concert?”
Elliot shrugs, but then his mouth forms an O of surprise. His eyes widen as he stares past me towards the front of the restaurant.
“What is it?” I ask.
Even before I’ve finished asking the question, shrieks and squeals of delight surround us. I hear Kira scream, “NOAH FLYNN!” and I sit up straight in my seat and spin round.
There he is: my boyfriend, Noah Flynn. Rock god extraordinaire. He’s wearing his trademark black T-shirt, ripped jeans, and a big smile. Seeing him makes the rest of the world—the restaurant, my schoolmates, even Elliot—just melt away. Like a camera pulling focus, suddenly the rest of the world looks blurry while he stands out, clear and sharp.
He spots me and grins even wider. He saunters over to the booth, ignoring the squeals and slack-jawed stares of the girls at the other tables, grabs both of my hands, and pulls me up from the bench. “Penny Porter, do you mind if I steal you away?”
“Not at all!” I say, wanting nothing more than to disappear with him. But then I quickly remember and turn back to Elliot. “Wait, do you mind?”
Elliot laughs. “Go ahead, Pennylicious! I don’t really want a burger anyway—I’m thinking about going vegan.” He lowers his voice. “I’ll go find Alex. I’ve been apart from him for about half an hour and already I think I might die.” He steps out of the booth too, and Noah gives him a big hug.
“Elliot, my man! Good to see you.”
“Good to see you too, Noah! You’re going to kill it tonight.” Elliot turns to me. “Don’t forget me when you’re off with the rich and famous, OK, Penny?”
“Never! I’ll see you at the concert.” I grin, then grab Noah’s outstretched hand. Followed by the gawping looks of all my friends, we walk out of the restaurant and over to a waiting car. It’s concert time.