The Valentine gift

A financier’s “office wife” keeps buying prescient presents for his real wife on his behalf, but are they sending the right message?

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"Darling,” said Bridget, putting the wrapping paper to one side and tilting her head up to kiss Robin, “you’re so clever.” She turned away and fiddled with her ear, then turned back. The new earring gleamed. She put the other one in and shook her hair down, preening.  

“Happy Valentine’s Day, darling,” said Robin. “Shall we go? I think our cab’s waiting.” Every year – even after 17 years of marriage – he remembered Valentine’s Day. Every year he produced gifts of such thoughtfulness and good taste: these earrings; that demure lingerie; the hard-to-find but exquisite limited-edition scent.

What Robin did not tell Bridget was that he hadn’t bought her a Valentine’s present since 2002. Appropriately for someone who had made his considerable fortune from government PFI contracts, it was a task he outsourced – in this case to his secretary Amy. His office wife, as he joked, might be 10 years younger than Bridget, but she had an innate sense of the right thing to buy her. And he found, in an odd way, that he liked the idea of Amy making a clandestine intervention in his married life. It was a secret between the two of them, something a little more than professional and a little less than intimate.

Robin had never betrayed Bridget with another woman. But he flattered himself that marriage and middle age hadn’t entirely kiboshed his sex appeal: those tufts of grey above his ears were the mark of a silver fox. If you’d pressed him, he’d have admitted that there was a certain flirtatious charge to his relationship with Amy. She had, he suspected, a bit of a crush on him. Why else, when occasionally he took a paternal interest in her mysterious love life, would she simply cast her eyes down with that sexy little half smile? And for his part, it was hard not to cast a wistful glance at Amy’s haunches (Robin found this word “haunches” carried an unaccountable erotic frisson) when she was wearing that pencil skirt. He was only human, and he didn’t doubt she knew what she was doing.

He wondered sometimes if Bridget suspected him of having an affair with Amy. It flattered him to think that she might – though in fact, and to his relief, the two seemed to get on terrifically well. At that deathly business dinner a few years back, for instance, when Amy had been forced to be another director’s “date” and Bridget had come under sufferance, the two girls had shared a bottle of wine and got on like a house on fire – while Robin schmoozed that boorish account manager with the brandy breath.

And so when, one Valentine’s Day, Robin noticed a card on Amy’s desk he felt a little abstract twinge of jealousy: was that Dave Millican’s familiar writing on the card? Dave with the goatee in business development? Dear oh dear, he thought. Dream on, Dave.

“Who’s that from?” he asked. “Mystery admirer,” she replied, letting the silence hang. Then she reached into her desk drawer and pulled out a flattish square box wrapped in tissue paper and prettily tied with a ribbon.

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“Here you go,” she said.

“Thanks, lifesaver,” he answered. He rattled it. “So… is this going to get Bridget, ah, in the mood?” The face Amy pulled seemed more genuine than Robin would have liked, but he supposed he’d gone a bit near the line. She passed him the receipt. “Hermès scarf,” he said.

“It’s pronounced Er-mez,” corrected Amy, closing the office door and taking something else out of her desk drawer: a white envelope with his name on it. There was a serious look on her face and he felt a momentary sense of vertigo.

“A Valentine?” he asked. “My notice,” she replied. “Oh,” he said.

That night, as Bridget unwrapped her present – the cab idling, the usual table at Nobu waiting – Robin shared his news. “Bit of a mixed Valentine’s Day,” he said. “My office wife is leaving me. Amy says she’s met someone and wants to go away with them. I feel” – he traced his wife’s ear with his finger – “a little cuckolded.”

Bridget looked at the scarf spread on her lap a little sadly. “Actually, darling,” she replied, “Amy and I…”

At that moment, Robin recalled where he’d seen the writing on the card before. And it wasn’t Dave Millican’s.

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