Friends With Benefits

Rex/Shutterstock © Lady and man, man whiispering something Illustration: Rex/Shutterstock, Rikki O'Neill


Helping her ex with his CV meant they had slid back into a relationship that couldn’t last…

It was the last thing she’d been expecting but there on her tablet was a message from Mark.

Hi Luce, hope you’re OK. Don’t suppose you could help me tonight with a job application? I might need a CV as well.

Lucy swore aloud. She imagined just what she could write on his application.

Experienced in travelling the world? Useless at staying in touch? Special talent for remaining the eternal teenager? Yes, this would definitely be a challenge.

She clicked “reply”, then thought for a moment. There was no question, she would see him. That was the irritating thing about Mark; he got the best out of everyone. Lucy mentally filed away this positive trait to mention later.

Mark, she typed. I guess you’re in line for that promotion you mentioned? Happy to look at CV and all. Can you bring a Chinese? I won’t have time to cook. See you at eight.

Reply sent, she got in the shower. Water cascaded down her back. Just for a moment Lucy allowed herself to think back to their first weeks together.

No rows, no problems, just love. Healthy, fulfilling love.

They’d dated while they were students, then the time came for him to go travelling and for her to start a job.

The gap year had turned into a natural separation

Yet, if she were honest with herself, she’d never met anyone else like quite him. Unpredictable and exciting – that was Mark. Totally the opposite to her steady nature.

He’d once called her office and spoken to her supervisor, Hazel. It was amazing she even took the call from him. The woman who ran her team with military precision was heard giggling into her phone.

Lucy’s workmate Sarah nudged her.

“Look at her, she’s blushing!”

“No way!” Lucy replied, guessing that Mark was on line one, asking for her to have the rest of the day off. He’d threatened to do it. He’d argued he only had a week before setting off to Canada.

Mark told her later that he’d told her boss that he’d arranged a surprise party. There had been a mistake about the date. He’d apologised, asked if Lucy’s phone could be covered.

Lucy recalled seeing Hazel glance at the monitor on the wall, then flick through her diary. They were understaffed, but she’d smiled amiably.

“Well, I suppose it might be considered a family emergency…”

The conversation had been relayed down the desks to Lucy and Sarah.

“Where did you find him?” Sarah asked, looking towards the door where Mark stood waiting.

“At uni. He’s my ex,” Lucy whispered, closing down her phone line.

As she walked towards him, Mark tapped his watch with a worried expression. He placed a guiding hand on her back, steered her out, waving to Hazel as he closed the door. Lucy remembered climbing into Mark’s car.

“There isn’t a party, is there?”

“Of course there is!” he’d replied, stamping on the accelerator. “If the two of us aren’t enough for one I’ll have to take you back to work!”

They’d agreed they should treat the afternoon as if it were the last date they’d ever have in this lifetime. They’d had coffee and pancakes, then spent the afternoon in bed.

That was before things changed, she recalled, stepping out of the shower. Before they’d gone their separate ways and adult life had intervened.

He was a free spirit; she was too sensible for words. She was the pancake, Mark was the syrup.

She was wary of taking a chance

That’s what happens to a girl when she sells insurance all day, she thought. It made you wary of taking a chance on someone crazy.

Lucy pulled on her clothes then brushed her hair. She’d dated a few guys, but nobody had replaced Mark. Still, she had vowed to avoid the kind of guy who’d risk annoying her supervisor for them to have an afternoon of passion. However pleasant.

He arrived at seven.

“You’re early,” she remarked, relieved she’d had time to put on her make-up.

“Am I? What time did we say? You look gorgeous, by the way.”

“Thanks. Eight, we said eight.”

“Sorry. Want me to come back later?”

“No, no, it’s fine. Did you pick up some food, like I asked?”

“Oh no, I knew there was something. Sorry, I’ll go for it now. Or shall we have a quick nosey at this and eat later?”


“Yes to what?” he asked, with a wink.

“We could look at the application now, make a start.”

“Great. Now don’t pull any punches – tell me what you really think, please.”

“OK then – I will.”

“That’s my girl.”

Lucy raised an eyebrow

“You know what I mean,” he said quietly with a sideways glance.

Sitting on the floor together, surrounded by paper, she could smell his aftershave. His dark hair curled over the edge of his collar. She caught
herself imagining him without the shirt. She wanted to run her hands under his clothes.

“Would you give me the job?” he asked suddenly, a vulnerable expression showing his concern.

“Um, sorry?” she stuttered.

“Come on, Luce! You’re the boss and I’m the nervous applicant. Would you give me the job?”

“Depends on the competition, I guess.”

“Yep, see what you mean.” He nodded, gathering papers together.

No! she screamed inwardly. Don’t go…

“Course, personality would come into it as well,” she murmured.

“How do you mean?”

“Perhaps if you were the candidate I remembered for something in particular, the others would look less appealing.”

Her words echoed.

Just as other men don’t keep my attention like you did, she thought. She smiled encouragingly.

“Isn’t there some myth about people getting the job in the first fifteen seconds? You only have to make a good impression on the interviewers. That should be a walk in the park for you.”

“Hang on a minute. What do you mean, interviewers – plural?” he asked.

“Two on the panel, plus someone from Human Resources – that’s the usual line-up.”

“Lucy, please. I don’t like the sound of this. I’ve only ever been to one interview ’till now.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks. For having faith in me.”

He leaned over, without warning, and kissed her.

When he pulled away, she couldn’t think of a word to say. Conscious thought evaded her. Instead, she nodded, kissed him again – mouth, then his face, then neck. She slid her hands under his shirt; and her fingers remembered his body, inch by wonderful inch.

It was amazing to see such a change in Mark, Lucy thought, as she drove to work. Two months revamping his CV, four interviews and he’d become the perfect job candidate.

He’d also become the perfect visitor. Each time he called, he brought food, wine and pleasure, not necessarily in that order. Sometimes she’d open the door and he’d take her hand and lead her upstairs before they’d even glanced at the latest job application.

Shame it couldn’t be a permanent arrangement, she concluded, parking her car. When they’d dated as students, things had been so fluid. Maybe that eliminated the risk of hurting each other. It was a chancy business after all, making an adult commitment.

Though, she admitted, aside from the task of finding Mark a job, their discussions focused on which takeaway, how much they enjoyed each other and when they’d get together next. She hoped they might see more of each other. Or was it less of each other? What was the protocol about falling for the ex you’d been meeting for sex?

She felt hollow, she dared to admit. While she’d never been so physically satisfied, she felt emotionally empty. There had to be more than this. Though it seemed fate may intervene anyway.

Sarah gave her a quizzical look.

“Had a lie-in, have we?” she asked.

Lucy felt her neck redden

“Overslept,” she muttered, putting on her headset.

“So I see – you’ve still got pillow creases on your cheek!”

“No!” Lucy rubbed her face furiously.

“So when do you see lover-boy next?”

The uncomfortable feeling in the pit of her stomach returned.

“Not sure – he’s gone to Manchester for an interview. I think he’ll get this one.”

“Manchester! But that’s, what, two hundred miles away?”

“Two hundred and thirty-one. I looked it up on route planner. So that will be that, I’m afraid.”

As the first call buzzed through her headphones, Lucy acknowledged her reaction to Mark’s latest quest. Since he’d been turned down for that promotion, each job application seemed more ambitious than the last. If he got this job, he would sever that last link with her. It hurt. Hurt very much, if she was honest.

She’d been her own worst enemy. All that time they’d spent on his interview presentation… and now she might lose him completely.

She’d avoided talking about the interview before he’d left that morning.

“Thanks for your help on this one, Luce,” he’d said breezily. “I’ll call you, let you know how I get on.”

“See you, then,” she’d said casually as she longed to call him back. To tell him she had never really stopped loving him.

“Wish me luck?”

“Course,” she’d said. “Bad luck,” she murmured, closing the door and running back upstairs to dress.

The day dragged, until the last few minutes of her shift, when Hazel put through another call.

“Customer asking for you personally.”

She recognised Mark’s voice.

“Hi. Can you help me with a policy?”

“What do you want to insure?” she asked as calmly as she could.

“I believe I have a critical illness.”

“Really? What’s wrong with you?”

“I’ve been offered that job, but I’m dithering. I can’t make a decision. Now that’s not like me. I think it’s a symptom of something serious.”

“Go on,” she prompted.

“It’s more money than I’ve ever earned, but I’m obsessed with a woman. I can’t accept the job unless she agrees to move to Manchester with me.”

Lucy’s throat felt dry

“This isn’t a standard policy I’m after, Luce. I guess you’ll have to draw up a special contract.”

She noticed Hazel’s head bobbing up from behind her screen, her frosty glance over the rim of her glasses. Lucy guessed she was listening in, as she often did, in the name of quality control.

“Lucy, talk to me,” Mark continued. “I need you to make sure I don’t make a stupid mistake again. Can you help me?”

“The premiums would be extortionate, given your past history.”

“You’re right, but the stakes are high. She’s everything to me – she’s clever, funny, and gorgeous – and I didn’t realise what I’d got ’till I travelled home and thought about reality. Please don’t let me lose her. I want to be with her every day, every night – right now.”

Sarah prodded her and pointed. Mark stood at the window, still wearing his suit, mobile in one hand, waving.

Lucy blinked back tears

“We’d be closer to your parents and there’ll be jobs for you in Manchester, Luce. They sell insurance there too.”

She stared through the window at him. Something was missing. Something she couldn’t live without.

Then, as if he sensed her thoughts, he dropped the play act, and whispered, “I love you, Lucy. I never stopped. You must know that.”

Somehow, the prospect of being without him felt unimaginably tedious.

“I might be letting my heart rule,” she replied. “But you’ve got a deal.”

Lucy marvelled at the weightless feeling of freedom that her decision brought. She switched off her computer and smiled at Sarah as she locked her desk. “I’ll be late in the morning,” she laughed. “But I’m giving my notice in a moment. Who plays by the rules when you’ve found true love?”

Also in the series:

Karen Byrom

My coffee mug says "professional bookworm" which sums me up really! As commissioning fiction editor on the magazine, I love sharing my reading experience of the latest books, debut authors and more with you all, and would like to hear from you about your favourite books and authors! Email me