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Silk Queen

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Silk Queen

The Wishes Series, Book 1

G.J. Walker-Smith

Contents

Other Books by G.J. Walker-Smith

Contact the author

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Coming Soon

Copyright © 2017 G.J. Walker-Smith.

All Rights Reserved

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any other information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. This book is a work of fiction, all names, characters, places, and events are the products of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locations is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968.

***

Editing by Tiny Tiger Edits

Formatting by Irish Ink – Formatting and Graphics

Cover design by The Book Design House

Other Books by G.J. Walker-Smith

Saving Wishes (Book One, The Wishes Series)

Second Hearts (Book Two, The Wishes Series)

Sand Jewels (Book 2.5, The Wishes Series)

Storm Shells (Book Three, The Wishes Series)

Secret North (Book Four, The Wishes Series)

Silver Dawn (Book 4.5, The Wishes Series)

Star Promise (Book Five, The Wishes Series)

Shiloh (Book Six, The Wishes Series)

Shadow Lily (Book Seven, The Wishes Series)

Stone Roses (Book Eight, The Wishes Series)

Contact the author

https://www.facebook.com/gjwalkersmith

mailto:[email protected]

http://www.gjwalkersmith.com

Chapter One

I was practically raised in my mother’s haberdashery shop. As a result, I know far too much about needles, thread and buttons, but not much about anything else.

Nellie’s Needle is a tiny shop that is overstocked and disorganised, but the location is decent, on a main road crammed between a tobacconist and a baker. It wasn’t exactly Harrods, but what would I know? I’d never been to Harrods. I’d never left Manchester. Life in my hometown of Denton wasn’t exactly charmed. I helped out in my mother’s shop and did a bit of house cleaning in nearby Stockport in a bid to earn extra money.

Weddings are expensive and I wanted mine to be perfect, just like Princess Di’s. In fairness, mine probably wasn’t going to be anywhere near as grand as hers. A beautiful gown with a twenty-five-foot train was out of the question – no amount of saving would stretch the budget that far.

My vision of flowy silk gave way to stiff taffeta, and my resourceful mother fashioned a floor length veil out of a pair of lace curtains off the shop floor. The end result was a simple white dress with fake pearl buttons and a puffy skirt.

“Wait until Andrew sees it,” exclaimed my mother. “He’ll fall in love with you all over again.”

I couldn’t actually remember Andrew falling in love with me the first time around. Sparks didn’t fly when our eyes met across a crowded dance floor – there was no meeting. I’d known him my whole life, and now we were getting married. To me, it sounded more like the end of the story rather than the beginning but my mother wouldn’t hear of it.

“You need to stop reading those romance novels, my girl,” she scolded. “They’re ruining your mind.”

Romance novels didn’t ruin me. They were my escape, and the biggest lesson I was ever likely to get on how it felt to fall fiercely and blindly in love.

Today I sold Mrs Wimbush a set of curtains that were exactly the same as my veil. Surely Princess Di’s veil cost more than £8?

I’m going out with the girls tomorrow. Charlene’s going to pick up a couple of bottles at the off-license after work. Gill’s closer, but she’s been banned from going in there until she apologises.

Andrew’s going to Stretford with a mate but wouldn’t say who or why. I bet it’s Trevor. He knows I hate that knob.

Book of the week: My Darling Lover

Honeymoon fund: £64.

Chapter Two

My friend Charlene is the poshest girl I’ve ever known. Her father is a bank manager and her mother has a genuine Liz Claiborne handbag. We first met when my mam enrolled me in Brownies when I was six. Once a week we’d meet up at the school hall and do our best to pretend that we were upstanding and conscientious girls. The Brownie phase was over by the time I turned ten, but my friendship with Charlene endured.

I wish I was more like her, and almost always tried to be. It wasn’t just her fancy clothes or stylish perm that made her classy. Her accent was dead posh too, and that was the thing I tried hardest to emulate. I was never going to live at Buckingham Palace, but I could at least pretend that I did.

My friend Gill didn’t give a hoot about sounding posh. Accents didn’t matter in reform school, and Gill would know. She’d been sent down twice before – once for joyriding in a stolen car and again for shoplifting a few months later.

To her credit, she’s stayed out of trouble for a while now. Once we turned eighteen, the threat of a stint in Borstal no longer applied. Riding in stolen cars with boys would now earn her a stint in proper jail, and not even Gill was that tough.

She pulled her head in and signed up for a secretarial course at the local college, and after failing twice, she was finally gearing up to graduate. That was the reason for tonight’s celebration. The three of us met up at one of our usual haunts – the playground at the nursery school on Grove Road.

Gill was there when I arrived, dragging her Doc Martins through the dirt as she slowly spun on the roundabout.

“Hiya. You alright?”

She lifted her head and smiled. “Better than alright.” She waved something at me. “I just found 50p in the sand. Rich little bastards at this school.”

I giggled my way over to the swing. “Keep digging. I have a honeymoon to pay for.”

Gill grimaced at the reminder. “A waste of time and money,” she muttered.

To her, getting married at twenty was the most ridiculous idea on earth. No matter how many times I defended the decision, I never managed to convince her otherwise. There wasn’t time to try today. Charlene appeared, tottering across the yard in her white stilettos carrying a big green bottle.

“About bloody time,” said Gill, jumping to her feet. “A girl could die of thirst.”

“You each owe me 30p,” replied Charlene, handing it to her.

Green Totty Cider was hardly top shelf, but we were skint and it was cheap.

The bottle hissed as Gill twisted the lid. “Last of the big spenders, aren’t we?”

Spending Saturday nights drinking in the playground in summer was nothing out of the ordinary for us. As far as behaviour went, it was as top shelf as our drink of choice, but old habits are hard to break.

“Do you think we’ll still come here when I’m married?” I asked. “It’s probably not the done thing, right?”

I directed the question at Charlene, but Gill jumped in. “As if Andrew will care,” she scoffed. “Where is he tonight anyway?”

“Stretford,” I replied. “With Trevor.”

She handed me the bottle. “Ugh! Bloody Trevor.”

“Have you seen him lately?” asked Charlene. “He has a moustache now. It looks like a giant bat flew up his nose.”

“It’s his Magnum P.I. look,” said Gill, cackling.

Trevor Hillman – and blokes like him – were the main reason we stayed out of the pubs on a Saturday night. He was a creep. He also happened to be my fiancé’s best mate.

“He’s going to be best man at my wedding.” I pulled a face, slightly horrified by the prospect.

Charlene sat down next to Gill on the roundabout, seemingly oblivious that her pristine white stilettos were digging into the sand. “Make sure he gets rid of the ‘tache.”

Gill leaned, taking the bottle from my grasp. “Just call it all off.” She threw her head back and took a giant gulp before speaking again. “Getting married is stupid.”

More than once, I’d wondered if her negativity stemmed from jealousy. I had a lot to be envious of, and for the first time ever, I called her out on it.

“You think I’m jealous?” she asked, eyes wide. “I think you’re a knob for even considering it. You’re throwing your whole life away.”

“I love him, Gill.”

“Love is overrated,” she shot back.

“Maybe you’ve just never been in love,” suggested Charlene.

Gill handed her the bottle of cider. “Tell me what it’s like then,” she demanded. “What’s the big fuss about?”

Charlene looked across at me, rapidly blinking as if she had sand in her eye. “I don’t know what it’s like,” she admitted. “I’ve never been in love either.”

I wasn’t good with words, but I liked them. I grabbed my bag and reached for the tatty Mills and Boon novel that I kept hidden in the side pocket.

I thumbed through to the chapter I was looking for and geared up to enlighten them both. “At that moment, Perdita knew that Mario was the only man she’d want for the rest of her life,” I read out loud. “As she looked into his chestnut brown eyes, her heart began thumping. Her body trembled, overcome with pure wanton desire.”

“What the flippin’ ’eck is wanton desire?” interrupted Gill. “And Perdita is a naff name.”

Charlene bumped her with her shoulder. “Shut up and let her read.”

I cleared my throat and continued. “Mario leaned closer, touching his warm lips to Perdita’s ear. ‘I must go,’ he breathed. ‘But when you hear the cold wind howling in the distance, know that it is I, whispering your name.’”

Gill groaned as if her belly hurt. Charlene stretched the bottom of her grey knitted dress to cover her knees. “That was lovely, Fi,” she praised, almost sincerely. “Is that how you feel about Andrew?”

I felt my shoulders sag as I silently answered her question. The only thing that ever made my body tremble was cheap Green Totty Cider. But I was a realist. My mother had told me a hundred times that life is not a fairy-tale.

I wasn’t Princess Di. There was no Prince Charles on my horizon. My prince was an apprentice bricklayer from Denton.

Andrew was no wind-whispering Mario, but he was real and he was good and he loved me. That had to be enough.

Never drinking again. Cider is poison. Threw up in the pot plant near the door on the way in.

Charl is in worse shape. Gill asked her if she felt ok and Charl told her to sod off. Charlene never says sod off.

Book of the week: My Darling Lover

Honeymoon fund: £63.20

Chapter Three

I first met Mrs Crichton-Percy when she visited my mother’s shop. Mam told her that I was getting married (because Mam tells everybody), then mentioned that I was on the scrounge for extra work.

In a stroke of pure luck, Mrs Crichton-Percy was looking for a part time house cleaner.

It was the perfect arrangement. Three afternoons a week, I caught the 372 bus out to Bramhall and spent a few hours cleaning an already spotless house.

The rest of the time was usually spent daydreaming that I lived there. The big Tudor home was magnificent. Each of the five bedrooms had its own private bathroom, and there was a games room with a pool table just like the one in the Gloucester Arms Pub.

Mrs Crichton-Percy was a kind lady, which was a good thing because I took a few liberties. I often sneaked a squirt of the Chloé perfume on her dresser and was constantly checking out her shoe collection. When she walked in on me in her bedroom that day, I was parading in front of the mirror wearing a pink pillbox hat that I’d found at the top of her wardrobe.

“I wore that to the races at Aintree last year,” she told me.

“I’m sorry,” I stammered, snatching it off my head. “I couldn’t resist trying it on.”

Mrs Crichton-Percy slid open the mirrored wardrobe door and began raking hangers across the rail. “I wore it with this.” She turned, holding a dead lovely drop-waisted pink dress.

“It’s beautiful.” I practically moaned out the compliment. “I really like the sequined bow.”

She smiled at me. “We all deserve a bit of glamour in our lives, don’t you think?”

I was nodding before she even got the question out.

There was a rueful tinge to Mrs Crichton-Percy’s smile. Perhaps she knew that gawking at her race day outfit was as close to glitz as I was likely to get.

“I have something you might like,” she suggested, walking over to the big chest of drawers near the window.

I stood firm, holding my breath in anticipation, and when she turned around and presented me with a small sequined clutch bag I nearly squealed. “It’s gorgeous!”

“Your first piece of designer glitz,” she announced. “The first of many, I’m sure.”

I thanked her a hundred times, painfully aware of how stupid I sounded.

“And something to put in it,” she added, handing me five quid.

My weekly housecleaning wage felt a like highway robbery at times. I worked far harder in Mam’s shop for much less reward, but I was always grateful to receive it. It brought us one step closer to our dream honeymoon. And if we ever did make the bright lights of Blackpool, I’d have a dead posh handbag to take with me.

I stood at the end of the Crichton-Percys’ driveway and waited for Andrew to pick me up, grasping my new little bag with both hands. I squared my shoulders and held my head high as if I was the lady of the manor waiting on her driver. As expected, the daydream quickly slipped.

I heard Andrew’s car before I saw it. There was no mistaking the sound of a souped-up Ford Cortina with a dodgy exhaust. It was downright embarrassing, especially in this neighbourhood.

He leaned over and threw open the passenger door. “Hiya, lass.”

After clearing a pile of junk off the seat, I got in the car. “I thought you were going to get that noise fixed.”

“I am.”

“When?”

He took my hand and kissed it. “One day.”

Everything was going to happen one day. My mam called Andrew grounded. “That lad’s good for you,” she constantly assured me. “He keeps your head out of the clouds.”

I looked down at the sequined bag in my lap, glinting in the afternoon sun. “See what I got today?” I asked. “It’s a Mel Lazar bag. She’s a famous designer.”

Andrew reached over and swept his hand through my hair. “You’re turning into a right posh lass,” he teased. “I can’t keep up with you.”

His eyes never left the road as I gazed at him. Twenty-one-year-old Andrew was boyishly handsome with a devilish smile.

I loved him, but he was right. I didn’t think he could keep up with me either, and it sometimes scared me.

I wonder how posh people like Mrs Crichton-Percy end up with double-barrelled surnames. Maybe they make it up themselves.

I could never do that.

Andrew’s last name is bad enough. I certainly don’t want to make it worse by being Fiona Black-Pidgeon.

Mam found the puke in the pot plant. I blamed the cat from next door. She said someone needs to find the cat and put it out of its misery.

Book of the week: My Darling Lover

Honeymoon fund: £68.20

Chapter Four

There’s a reason why people like Mrs Crichton-Percy shopped for fabric at Nellie’s Needle. My mother stocked some of the finest dress fabrics this side of London. How she managed to get hold of them was anyone’s guess, but mine was that they fell off the back of a truck.

Her latest acquisition was two bolts of beautiful black dupioni silk. I noticed them instantly, sticking out like a sore thumb against the cheap voile and taffeta.

I picked up a roll and held it close as I waltzed down the narrow aisle. “All of my dresses will be made of silk like this one day,” I wistfully declared.

“At ten quid a yard?” scoffed my mother. “You’re marrying the wrong Andrew. Head to the palace and set your sights on the prince instead.”

I leaned the roll of fabric against the wall. “I don’t fancy Prince Andrew, Mam,” I muttered. “He’s not the marrying kind.”

My mother chuckled her way to the front of the store, flipped over the sign on the door and declared Nellie’s Needle open for the day.

The promise I made of working the entire day only held until eleven. Andrew appeared at the front window, calling me outside with a wave of his hand and a cheeky smile.

I quickly glanced across at my mother, who was at the counter explaining her no-refund policy to Mrs Boorman.

“There’s nowt wrong with them, Missus,” she gruffly insisted.

“They hang crooked,” came the fast reply.

My mother pushed the folded curtains back across the counter. “You go home and tell your Fred to put the rail up straight,” she ordered. “He hung it on a lean.”

It was entirely possible. Mr Boorman only had one eye.

As riveting as the conversation was, I wanted to get out of there. Asking permission to leave was pointless, so I didn’t. While Mam was occupied, I slipped out the door.

Nellie Black was not to be underestimated. If she’d wanted to chase me down and drag me back by the hair, she would’ve. Andrew knew it too, which is why he grabbed my hand and took off running down the road.

“Run, Fi!” he ordered. I could barely breathe for laughing. “If she catches us, there’s no telling what she’ll do.”

If Mam did give chase, she wasn’t quick enough. The beaten up white Cortina with the red stripe along the side was parked around the corner, idling at the ready. We jumped in and Andrew floored it, and in a plume of choking white smoke, we took off down the road.

“Where to, lass?” he asked.

I ducked my head, looking up through the cracked windscreen at the bright sky above. It was a glorious day, and I could think of no better way to spend it than in the sunshine with my fiancé.

The park is where we ended up – not too far from home, but far enough away to feel like we’d truly escaped. We ran through the gates as if there was still a chance that Mam was chasing us, bolting across the lawn until our breath ran out. I finally tumbled onto the grass in a heap and Andrew flopped down beside me.

Keeping my focus on the sky above, I reached for his hand. “Why aren’t you at work today?” I asked.

I didn’t need to look at him to know he was smiling. I could hear it in his voice. “I’m dead poorly,” he claimed. “Too hungover to cart bricks.”

Andrew wasn’t the most conscientious apprentice that ever lived. In fact, he skived work more often than he turned up. The reason why he was never sacked was simple – he worked for his uncle Ed, who was just as slack as him.

“We’re supposed to be saving for Blackpool,” I grumbled. “Lazy git.”

There’s a fine line between procrastinating and being bone-idle. I was wound far too tightly to tolerate either – and it didn’t seem to bother Andrew in the slightest.

“I have something for you.” He reached into his jeans pocket, pulled out a crisp ten-pound note and tucked it down the front of my top. “Put it away for a rainy Blackpool day.”

As far as romantic gestures go, it was as grand as Andrew’s get. I was thrilled – so thrilled that I threw myself on top of him.

His arms slipped around me. “I’ll always do the best I can for you, Fi,” he quietly promised.

I dropped my head and softly kissed him. “I know,” I murmured.

Over time, I’d come to realise that no matter how hard I wished for it, life wasn’t going to imitate the pages of my romance novels.

Andrew wasn’t perfect, but he made me happy and that was enough. When the need for perfection hit me, I’d always have my books.

Mam usually puts my tea in the oven if I’m out late. She’s mad so she didn’t do that tonight. I don’t care. I made a bacon butty.

I wonder if the royals eat bacon? I’m sure the queen does, and if she doesn’t I’ll bet the corgis do.

Bingo with the girls tomorrow night. Hope Gill behaves. Mr Taylor said if he has to speak to her one more time, she’s banned.

Book of the week: My Darling Lover

Honeymoon fund: £78.20

Chapter Five

Wednesday night bingo with the girls was usually a fun night out. A hundred people crammed into the town hall at 7PM sharp to see Betty Shepherd draw numbered ping-pong balls out of a wire barrel.

Despite the fact that she already had a voice like a foghorn, Mr Taylor, the bingo boss, came up with the bright idea of arming her with a microphone. When amplified, Mrs Shepherd could probably be heard in Liverpool.

Bingo was serious business. Giggling or talking while the numbers were being drawn was enough to get you lynched, and we were the worst offenders.

Charlene never broke bingo rules. If anything, she enforced them. We’d only been seated a few minutes when she started laying down the law.

“Just be quiet and play.” She pointed her lucky pink bingo dabber pen at Gill. “If you can’t keep up, I’ll help you.”

“Shut up, yer mad cow,” snapped Gill. “I can count.”

Math skills weren’t the issue. Bad behaviour was. Gill was notoriously disruptive and too easily riled, but she wasn’t totally out of control. Getting kicked out tonight wasn’t an option. There was a hundred quid main prize up for grabs and Gill wanted to win it as much as everybody else in the room.

None of us even came close to winning that night, but we had a good laugh. It was impossible not to giggle when Mrs Shepherd called out “Dirty Gertie, number thirty.” And when the old lady sitting next to Charlene jumped out of her wheelchair to shout bingo and claim her prize, we completely lost the plot.

“Nice one, missus,” praised Gill.

Mr Taylor approached and handed the lady her prize money. “Congratulations, love,” he said. “It’s good to see a regular have a win.”

“We’re here every week too,” Gill interjected. “When are we going to have a win?”

Mr Taylor pointed his finger at her. “Behave yourself,” he warned.

Unwilling to give him reason to follow through with his weekly threat of banning her, she didn’t answer back. In fact, Gill didn’t say much for a while. We were half way to the bus stop before she spoke again. “What would you do with a hundred quid?”

Charlene had obviously put some thought into it. “I’d go on tour with Duran Duran,” she answered in a flash.

I wasn’t sure why she needed a hundred pounds to do it, but I was impressed by her answer.

Gill wasn’t buying it for a second. “What for?” she asked. “You wouldn’t know what to do with Simon Le Bon.”

Even Charlene’s wicked giggle was demure. “I’d figure it out eventually.”

The pointless conversation continued all the way to the bus stop. Gill revealed that she’d bet it all on the horses. “Double or nothing,” she exclaimed.

“Wouldn’t you be worried about losing it?” asked Charl.

“Had nowt to begin with, right?” Gill shrugged. “You’ve got to take a chance in life some time.”

“I’ll remember that next time Simon Le Bon rings me,” replied Charlene displaying smart-arse wit that I didn’t know she had.

Still laughing, Gill turned to me. “And what about you, princess? What would you do with it?”

I didn’t get a chance to answer her. The bus pulled up and we staggered aboard like a group of giggly drunks, which was ironic considering we hadn’t had a drop all night. The bus was nearly empty and spirits were high, but all that changed the second we caught sight of the girl sprawled out along the back seat smoking a cigarette. I’d never liked Sharon Smedley. When we were kids, she was a vicious little brute who liked to pull hair and kick people. Now we were grown, not much had changed.

Sharon cut a menacing form. Her black tracksuit was practically her uniform, and the harsh look was topped off with rows of silver hoop earrings and a fierce mono-brow.

Keeping a safe distance wasn’t going to save us. The only thing she enjoyed more than her filthy Benson & Hedges addiction was her even filthier habit of winding Gill up. Sharon sat up, giving us her full attention. “Big night out at bingo?” she taunted.

We knew that bingo wasn’t a hip pastime for twenty-year-old women. That’s why we loved it so much.

“Ignore her,” murmured Charlene.

That wasn’t going to happen. Gill turned around. “Big night out on the bus, Sharon?” she fired back.

The dirty cow stubbed her smoke out on the floor. “I’ve been for a night out in Stretford,” she explained, directing her comment at me. “Mandy was there,” she added with a sly grin.

Mandy Brewer was even dirtier than Sharon. She had a penchant for off the shoulder crop tops and liked to tease her blonde hair to within an inch of its life. She also had a fondness for other people’s boyfriends, which is why the next words out of Sharon’s mouth made me feel ill.

“Andrew was there too, Fiona,” she said. “Getting dead close with Mandy over a pint.”

Ever protective, Gill jumped out of her seat, probably with the intent of collaring her. I wasn’t going to let it get that far. Sharon was beastly, and Gill didn’t stand a chance. “Stop it,” I demanded, pulling her back down beside me. “She’s just trying to wind us up.”

The bus crawled to a stop and Sharon rose to her feet. “You might want to ask him what he’s been up to.” She squeezed down the narrow aisle to get to the door. “Andy’s been a bad, bad lad,” she gibed.

“Are you getting off or not?” called the driver.

Sharon stepped off the bus and continued her taunts from the footpath. “Mandy and Andy sitting in a tree,” she sang. “K-I-S-I-N-G.”

In the biggest surprise of the night, Charlene slid her window open. As the bus pulled away, she hurled a parting shot at Sharon. “You spelt it wrong, dozy bitch!”

Andrew’s been to Stretford twice this week and I want to know why.

Tomorrow I’m going to ask him.

Mandy Brewer is a slapper.

Finished reading ‘My Darling Lover’.

The ending was stupid.

Book of the week: A Recipe For Romance

Honeymoon fund: £76.00

Chapter Six

Andrew lives with his father, Dennis, in a flat above the local chippy. For that reason alone, I hate visiting. The whole place stinks of cooking oil, and it’s at its worst in summer, but nothing was going to deter me from going there today. After our run in with Sharon, I wanted answers.

Andrew met me at the door, quickly greeting me with a kiss. “Alright, lass?”

I wasn’t sure, but I answered with a smile. “Yeah, I just want to talk to you about something.”

He nudged me out of the way and closed the door. “Not more wedding talk, Fi.” He groaned. “You know I don’t care about that stuff.”

“How about Mandy Brewer?” I asked. “Do you care about her?”

The flash of panic that glinted in his blue eyes was brief, but I saw it. “No,” he replied, outraged. “Why would I?”

“I saw Sharon on the bus last night,” I said flatly. “She told me you were hanging out with Mandy in Stretford.”

Andrew took a step closer, cautiously weaving his arm around my waist. “Trevor has the hots for her,” he quietly explained. “I was just there as his wingman.” He kissed my cheek. “You believe me, don’t you?”

More than anything in the world, I wanted to. But doubt was gnawing at me so I dodged the question. “I don’t want you anywhere near her, Andrew,” I demanded. “She’s no good.”

“Alright,” he agreed. “I’ll steer clear of her.”

I could feel the tension spreading across my chest, but Andrew was his usual unaffected self. As much as I wanted to continue laying down the law, the conversation was over because he’d left me with nowhere to go.

“I’ll make you a brew,” he offered. “And then I want to show you something special.”

I wasn’t in the mood for tea, but coming from Andrew, the gesture was too grand to refuse. “Thank you.” I smoothed down the back of my skirt and sat down on the settee. “What do you want to show me?”

Already in the kitchen, he called out to me. “You’ll have to wait and see.”

I knew better than to get my hopes up, and I was right to keep my excitement in check. Andrew’s idea of something special was anything but. When he returned to the room, he handed me a cup of tea and pointed to a black box on the floor near the TV stand.

“It’s an Atari game station,” he explained. “We can play arcade games at home now.” The excitement in his voice was unfathomable. “It’s dead technical. I’ve wanted one for ages.”

“Where did you get it from?” I asked.

“Trevor knows a bloke,” he said vaguely. “He hangs out at the Gloucester Arms. He got me a good deal.”

I set my tea down on the coffee table. “Bloody Trevor,” I grumbled.

Andrew flopped down beside me. “Don’t be like that, lass,” he said, patting my knee. “It was a steal at eighty quid.”

“Eighty flippin’ quid?” The words came out in an angry squeak. “We’re supposed to be saving our money!”

Andrew took my hand, probably to lessen the risk of me beating him to a pulp. “That doesn’t mean we can’t treat ourselves occasionally, Fiona,” he said. “While we still can.”

I snatched my hand free. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, once we’re married it’s all over, right?” he asked. “We’ll have to start saving for a house of our own, and then kids will come along. There won’t be money for treats.”

The picture he painted was bleak, and by the sound of it, he was already mourning the loss of his freedom and youth.

“Are you sure you want to marry me?” My eyes narrowed, perhaps bracing for a painful answer. “It’s not too late to change your mind.”

That was a lie. Every last detail of the wedding had been finalised. Backing out now would break my heart and embarrass both of our families beyond measure.

Andrew dropped to his knees in front of me, taking both of my hands in his. “We’re going to get married, Fi,” he insisted. “And it’s going to be a grand wedding, just like you want.”

“It’s not just about the wedding,” I told him. “You have to think long term. We’re going to be married for the rest of our lives. You understand that, don’t you?”

He smiled impishly, a grin that made adult conversation practically impossible. “It’s going to be ace.”

The juvenile response summed up Andrew Pidgeon to a T. As much as I tried to convince myself that he was a grown man who was ready for the commitment we were about to jump headlong into; he was a lad and probably always would be.

Andrew hardly spoke to me all night. Hopefully the novelty of playing arcade games on the TV wears off soon. If not, he’s going to end up with square eyes.

I wonder if Prince Charles has an Atari.

Probably not.

I’m sure he’s much too sensible to fork out £80 on a passing fad.

I spent the night reading an old copy of Women’s Own that I found stuffed between the sofa cushions and then walked home. Two cats followed me. I’m sure it’s because I smelt like fish and chips.

Book of the week: A Recipe for Romance

Honeymoon Fund: £76.00

Chapter Seven

Every now and then I stumble across a book that does my head in. It’s hard to concentrate on anything else, and it drives my mother spare.

“Put the blasted book down and do something productive,” she scolded.

I lowered my book and took a long look around the busy shop floor. Reality wasn’t looking too special at that point. Two ladies were quibbling over the last set of daisy print sheets in stock and Mrs Wimbush was sizing up crocheting needles while her longsuffering husband waited outside.

Hanging out inside the pages of A Recipe for Romance seemed like a much better idea. I was completely taken by the story of a tall, dark and handsome restaurateur from New York. When the girl of his dreams walked in off the street and fell in love with his food, he fell in love with her. It was instant, crushing and left him feeling euphoric and incapable of lucid thoughts.

Those were his words, not mine. The only time I ever felt that was after a skinful of Green Totty cider.

“Do you think men like this really exist, Mam?” I waved the book at her.

“Men like what?” she asked, dumping a bolt of red seersucker down on the counter.

I lifted the dog-eared corner of the page and read out loud. “When he glanced at her and smiled, a magical waterfall of sensations flooded her heart with invigorating delight.”

My mother chuckled heartily. “Sounds like a medical condition,” she teased. “She should see a doctor.”

“Be serious,” I whined. “That kind of love must be real if people write about it.”

“Total fiction, my girl,” she said sternly. “And if it was real, it’s not likely to be found in downtown Denton.”

“You’re right,” I agreed with a heavy sigh.

Mam grabbed the end of the roll of fabric and spread it across the counter. “You have Andrew,” she reminded me. “He’s all you’ll ever need – a hardworking man who’s good to you.”

After measuring the fabric, she instructed me to cut it. “Just once, Mam,” I muttered, slicing the razor sharp scissors through the fabric. “I just want to know what it feels like.”

She tapped the side of her temple. “Get your head out of the clouds and be thankful for what you have.”

I had plenty to be thankful for, and later that afternoon, I was most thankful for my ace bartering skills. In exchange for babysitting Becky Cox’s ratbag kids four Saturdays in a row, she agreed to style my hair.

Finally, the day had come. Charlene agreed to come with me for moral support. No one doubted Becky’s hairdressing skills, but she was pushy and rarely followed her customer’s instructions. When Gill last visited her salon, she had grand ideas of a gorgeous Princess Di bob. Unfortunately, Becky didn’t share her vision. After chopping, teasing and dyeing her hair to death, poor Gill was left looking more like Rod Stewart after a hard night on the town.

Months later, she was still threatening to firebomb the salon so Charlene and I were going it alone.

There are heaps of salons in Denton, but none as classy as Becky’s. It had a faux marble linoleum floor, macramé plant holders hanging from the ceiling, and bright vanity lighting around the mirrors. Even Charlene was impressed.

“This is a bit flash, isn’t it?” she asked.

Becky was a bit flash too. Her pinstriped denim jumpsuit was straight out of the pages of a fashion mag. She wheeled her plastic cart of tools and brushes over to the mirrors and told us to take a seat.

“So what did you have in mind?” she asked, raking her fingers through my hair from behind.

“Something ace,” I told her. “We’re hitting the town tonight.”

“Oooh,” she crowed. “Somewhere special?”

I smiled but didn’t answer. Flamingo Harry’s could hardly be described as special, but it was the only place to be on a Friday night. We could dance until our legs gave way and make the most of happy hour, which confusingly ran from six until nine.

The problem was, we weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the music and cheap drinks. The rest of the Denton crew made the most of it too, including Mandy Brewer and her henchman, Sharon.

“The club should be bursting tonight,” said Charlene. “I heard they’re having a live band.”

I grinned at her through the mirror. “Duran Duran?”

“At Flamingo Harry’s?” she choked. “I flippin’ doubt it.”

“You need colour,” interjected Becky. “Then we’ll put it up – maybe a French roll with some curls on top.” She twisted my long hair and piled it on top of my head.

Nerves got the better of me then as flashbacks of Gill’s Rod Stewart do flooded my mind. “What colour?” I asked. “Nothing crazy.”

Becky grabbed a colour chart from her trolley and dropped it onto my lap. “Pick one,” she said. “A lovely burgundy tint would suit you.”

“Fi, you can’t,” hissed Charlene from the corner of her mouth. “Your mam will kill you.”

She was right. Despite the tight budget, I was expected to do my mother proud as an elegant and sophisticated bride, which meant a hip dye job would never fly. The only burgundy at my wedding would be the cheap box wine.

“How about this one?” I asked, pointing at a shade of brown that was very similar to my natural colour. “Chestnut Victory.”

Becky snatched the colour chart. “Not much of a flippin’ victory if you ask me,” she replied. “But it’s your head.”

Becky Cox could talk the hind leg off a donkey. The woman was a waif – so tiny that her chic denim jumpsuit might well have come from the Marks and Spencer’s children’s catalogue. Too curious for my own good, I once asked her how she stayed so thin.

“Simple,” she replied with a casual shrug. “I haven’t had a meal since 1978.”

As small as she was, her mouth was huge. She talked as she worked, barely pausing for breath as she brought us up to speed on the local gossip. I didn’t know most of the people she was talking about, but it didn’t make it any less fascinating.

“I heard that Bruce was shagging the bird from the off-license weeks ago,” she said, roughly dabbing at my scalp with the dye-laden brush. “But Elaine refused to believe it.” She smirked at me through the mirror. “She does now, though.”

“What changed her mind?” asked Charlene.

“A nasty case of the clap,” Becky revealed with a giggle. “The fire in her heart is out, but her lady parts are still burning.”

I cracked up laughing, but poor Charlene looked mortified. “Oh dear,” she mumbled.

The stories only got more sordid from that point on. By the time the dye was rinsed from my hair, we had dirt on half the town. As Becky led me back to my chair from the sink, she swore us both to secrecy. “You mustn’t repeat a word,” she warned. “I don’t want people thinking I’m a gossip.”

Becky Cox wasn’t merely a gossip. She was an educator. The circle that I moved in was insular and tame – a world away from the likes of Elaine and her itchy crotch. It highlighted just how naïve and sheltered we were, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

Another thing that wasn’t particularly good was Becky’s listening skills. As soon as I caught a glimpse of my wet hair in the mirror, I knew she’d ignored my Chestnut Victory request.

“Flippin’ hellfire,” gasped Charlene.

For her, it was a crass outburst, but nothing compared with the slew of curse words that tumbled out of my mouth.

My mother was going to murder me.

Long, wet, claret coloured strands flew in every direction as Becky towelled my hair. “Grape Delight,” she announced. “Much more lively than boring old brown.”

“I’m getting married in a few weeks, Becky!” I shrieked. “You have to change it back before my mam sees it.”

Completely ignoring my desperate demand, she reached for the hairdryer. “It’s edgy,” she insisted. “Like a popstar.”

Nothing could be heard over the sound of the roaring hairdryer so the next ten minutes were spent staring helplessly at my reflection, trying to imagine how I’d look as a popstar bride.

Hideous, I concluded.

Based on the fact that she could barely look at me, Charlene obviously agreed. Words weren’t forthcoming either. We’d long escaped the salon and almost made it to the bus stop before she finally spoke.

“At least you don’t look like Rod Stewart.”

I grinded to a halt and turned to face her. “What do I look like, Charlene?”

“Awful.” Her shoulders lifted – and stayed there. “But we’ll sort it. Gill will know what to do.”

“And if she doesn’t?” I asked.

“Run away to London,” Charlene suggested. “Pierce your ears with safety pins and join the punk scene.” Ever the optimist, she followed up with a dreamy sigh. “London would be so exciting,” she breathed.

I almost laughed at the absurdity. “My hair is as red as a radish and my wedding is going to be ruined because of it,” I reminded her. “I don’t need any more excitement.”

Somehow, we made it all the way to Charlene’s house without running into anyone we knew. The shock of seeing my garish new do was reserved entirely for Gill, who showed up at a little after six.

“Bloody hell, Fi,” she gasped. “That’s a bit out there, isn’t it?”

“Shush,” warned Charlene, pushing her bedroom door closed. “Keep your voice down.”

I didn’t think there was any need to speak quietly. The four million stuffed animals taking up space in her bedroom had to provide soundproofing.

“How do we fix it?” I asked.

Gill shrugged. “Shave it off?”

“That’s the best you’ve got?”

“I actually quite like it,” she replied, raising her arm to deflect the Smurf I’d just hurled at her. “It’s dead contemporary.”

I wasn’t a fan of contemporary. I was a royalist who favoured tradition and elegance. I had a Mel Lazar clutch bag to prove it for crying out loud.

I slumped down on the edge of the bed and put my hands to my face. “It’s hopeless.”

“It’ll be okay, Fi,” soothed Charlene.

Gill’s attempt at placating me was a little less orthodox, but far more effective. She reached into her bag and pulled out a bottle of Green Totty Cider.

“Get this into yer.” The bottle hissed as she twisted the lid. “You’ll feel better in no time.”

We passed the Totty around until the bottle was empty, and like magic, I did begin to feel better.

“Sod my hair,” I grumbled. “Let’s go to Flamingo Harry’s and dance.”

Maybe the dull lighting in the club worked in my favour.

One bloke at the bar said my new do reminded him of the pretty girl from Bucks Fizz. I was quite chuffed until Charlene reminded me that they’re both blonde.

It was all downhill from there.

Trevor spent the whole night showing off his break dancing moves. The DJ came over the mic and called him talented. Gill called him a wanker, which was closer to the mark.

He looked like a skinny giraffe in tight pants having a seizure.

Andrew never showed up at all. Worse than that, Mandy Brewer was a no-show too.

Book of The Week: A Recipe for Romance

Honeymoon fund: £69.00

Chapter Eight

Gill and I both spent the night at Charlene’s. Bedding down on a half inflated air mattress and a dozen stuffed teddy bears is never comfortable, but it was a darn sight less painful than dealing with my mother.

Charlene woke first, and had used the time alone to research. She waved a magazine at me. “I’m glad you’re awake.” Her tone was much too chipper for someone who’d consumed a whole jug of Blue Lagoon cocktails by herself the night before. “I found an article in Glam Girl. It says laundry powder will strip the colour from your hair.”

I wasn’t convinced, but Gill piped up in agreement. “You need the good stuff, though,” she said mid yawn. “Cheap-arse Daz won’t cut it, you need Persil.”

Charlene threw back the covers and leapt out of bed. “We use Persil!”

“Of course you do,” mumbled Gill. “Only the best for Lady Charlene.”

“Shut up, Gill,” snapped Charlene. “Your mam uses Persil too.”

It was an argument that I wasn’t prepared to weigh in on. My head was pounding. “I just want to get it sorted,” I said, struggling to sit up. “Then I’m going home.”

Charlene slipped out of the room, presumably to raid her mother’s laundry supplies. I made a start on folding up the bedding, but Gill was more intent on mischief. She threw open the wardrobe doors and made a grab for the empty cider bottle that Charlene had hidden the night before. “Besides the hair, what’s wrong?” she asked.

I was almost impressed that she noticed I was out of sorts. Gill wasn’t renowned for her caring and sensitive side. She was more of a crack-skulls-and-apologise-later kind of gal.

“Andrew never showed up last night,” I muttered. “Where do you suppose he was?”

Setting her sights on a dopey looking plush panda sitting on the bookshelf, Gill wrapped its paws around the cider bottle. “Do you want me to lie and make you feel better or do you want the truth?”

The panda slumped to the side, but I remained steady. “The truth,” I said bravely.

“I think he was probably up to no good,” she said, straightening the toy up. “I’ve never known him to miss Friday night happy hour before.”

Nor had I, and Mandy Brewer certainly never missed an opportunity to dance all night and drink on the cheap.

“Do you think he’s stepping out on me, Gill?”

She pointed at the defiled panda. “If it walks like a drunk panda, and talks like a drunk panda, it’s a drunk panda.”

“Very insightful, thank you,” I grumbled.

“Look,” she continued, slightly penitently. “I think you should at least find out one way or another before you follow the numbskull down the aisle.”

“I’m scared to find out,” I admitted. “I’d be so humiliated if I had to call it all off.”

“Listen to yourself, Fi,” she urged. “You’re more worried about losing your wedding day than your groom.”

Gill’s no-nonsense opinions were notoriously hard to listen to, usually because she was right. I’d spent months planning the perfect wedding day, but it had always been a solo pursuit. Andrew Pidgeon didn’t give a damn about any of it, and maybe that meant he didn’t give a damn about the marriage either.

According to Glam Girl magazine, the answer to my hair problems was a thick paste made of washing powder and water.

But Glam Magazine was shaping up to be a crock.

An hour later, my hair felt like wet straw and was still a hideous shade of claret. On the plus side, I smelled like freshly washed sheets.

“I’m destined to be a ginger forever,” I wailed, studying my reflection in the dressing table mirror.

Charlene was undeterred. She sat down on her bed and re-read the article, looking for further instruction. “It says you might have to repeat the process three or four times.”

Gill snatched the magazine from her grasp. “She won’t have any flippin’ hair left at this rate,” she grumbled. “You should leave it alone for a few days, Fi.”

As much as it pained me, I tended to agree. Being a stop-light redhead is one thing, but being bald would be a whole new level of horror.

“I’ll try it again tomorrow,” I said wanly. “Thanks for trying.”

Gill grinned at me through the mirror. “We’re always here for you, Ginge.”

Charlene let out a squeal that made me jump, but it had nothing to do with Gill’s wise crack. “What have you done to my panda?” She ripped the cider bottle from its grasp and thrust it at Gill. “I didn’t invite you over here to besmirch my animals.”

I tried not to laugh but it was impossible. Gill didn’t even try. She howled with laughter. “Besmirched?” she asked, mid cackle. “Who even says that?”

“I bet Princess Di does,” I replied.

“Yes,” agreed Charlene. “So there.”

“Bloody ancient royalists.” Gill handed the cider back to Charlene. “In case you haven’t noticed, it’s 1983. Get with the times.”

My mam doesn’t use Persil. She doesn’t use tact or discretion either.

“Bleedin’ hellfire, Fiona!” She screamed. “What have you done?”

Showing up at the shop probably wasn’t the best idea, but I figured there would be safety in numbers.

Clearly, I was wrong.

She didn’t give a damn about making a scene in front of her customers. When one quietly asked her to calm down, Mam turned on her in an instant. “You bloody calm down, Vera!” she snapped. “It’s not your daughter who’s traipsing around town looking like a dog’s dinner.”

That wasn’t entirely true. Vera Smedley was Sharon’s mother. More often than not, her daughter traipsed around town looking like the dog that ate the dog’s dinner.

“It’s just hair, Mam,” I said flatly.

With an expression of pure thunder, she ordered me out of the shop. “I’ll deal with you later.”

“There’s nothing to deal with.” I spoke strongly, mainly for Vera’s benefit. “I’m a ginger now.”

I was a twenty-year-old woman on the verge of getting married. Any plan my mam had of banishing me to my room and giving me a good hiding wasn’t likely to happen, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t scared of her.

Backchat wasn’t my forte so the loud bang I heard as I trudged toward the door could’ve been her collapsing to the floor, but I didn’t look back and check. I headed straight home, grabbed a box of washing powder and locked myself in the bathroom.

There’s merit in being persistent. Ignoring the threat of baldness, I slapped another round of washing powder paste on my head, left it on as long as I could stand and was rewarded with a good result. Dark burgundy locks weren’t exactly ideal, but it was acceptable.

Mam wasn’t so easily pacified. When I finally opened the bathroom door, she was standing in the hall waiting for me. “I’ll book you in at Becky Cox’s tomorrow,” she snapped. “She’ll get it sorted in no time.”

I inched past her and let out a growl. “Becky’s the one who dyed it, Mam.”

She was hot on my heels as I took the few short steps across the hall to my bedroom. “I’ll bloody strangle her!”

I grabbed the small mirror off my dressing table and checked my reflection for the umpteenth time. “It’s not too bad now,” I replied, fluffing my hair.

Mam sat down on the edge of my bed. “It’s not suitable for a bride,” she insisted. “You look like a trollop.”

The name calling didn’t reduce me to tears. It was the mention of the wedding that made me unravel. My poor mother didn’t know what to make of it. She reached for my hand and pulled me close, awkwardly hugging my head as I sat beside her on the bed.

“What on earth is wrong?” she asked quietly.

I didn’t know where to start. Bringing her up to speed with a disjointed ramble was the best I could do.

“Don’t believe everything you hear,” she uttered. “Andrew would never be unfaithful.”

“But what if it’s true, Mam?”

She smoothed her hand through my tortured hair. “You’re a Black, my girl,” she said with reverence. “We’re dignified in times of trouble. You hold your head high and carry on.”

“I’d be gutted if I have to call the wedding off,” I cried.

“You’ll do no such thing.” Her voice was quiet but stern. “Weather the storm, Fiona. No matter what happens.”

As horrified as I was by her attitude, I wasn’t surprised. To my mother, appearances are everything.

“I can’t go through with it if – ”

“Go and wash your face,” she said, cutting me off. “You’ll feel much better.”

The conversation was over, but at least I knew where I stood. The invitations had gone out and the flowers had been ordered. Despite the fact that my fiancé might be a cheating scumbag, a deal is a deal. I was getting married whether I wanted to or not.

Charles and Diana are touring Canada. It was the leading story on the news tonight.

Charles didn’t crack a smile, but I could tell he was happy. How could he not be? The queen lent him the royal yacht.

Di looked dead lovely, dressed in yellow from head to toe.

Imagine how ace her life must be!

True love, riches and a tiara for every day of the week.

I’d be happy with true love and one tiara but most days, both seem out of reach.

Book of the week: A Recipe for Romance

Honeymoon Fund: £63.00

Chapter Nine

Private phone calls are practically impossible in our tiny flat, especially if they’re taking place between nine and ten on a Saturday night when Mam is watching Dynasty. She refused to leave the room when Andrew called so the conversation was short.

He made no apology for being a no-show the night before, nor did he offer an explanation. Instead, he offered to take me out to lunch the next day. It wasn’t likely to be a grand affair, but I still wanted to look nice.

When I caught sight of myself in the mirror, I realised that meant I needed to rethink my choice of outfit. My favourite green dress clashed horribly with my hair, making me look like a dead ringer for a Christmas elf. Thankfully, my second favourite dress looked much less festive. I teamed it with a wide silver belt, slipped on some strappy sandals and headed out the door.

Andrew was already waiting, revving the engine of the junky Cortina to keep it running. When I slipped into the passenger seat he greeted me with wide eyes and a look of alarm.

I held off pulling the door closed. If the next words out of his mouth were as grave as his expression, I was ready to leg it back to the house.

“What happened to your hair?” he asked, aghast.

I wound my super chic side pony tail around my hand. “I dyed it,” I uttered. “Do you like it?”

“No,” he replied. “Was it supposed to turn out like that?”

“Not really,” I replied coolly. “But you can’t always get what you want, can you?”

The Bridge End café wasn’t exactly the flashiest place in town. It was nowhere near a bridge either. It was located on a busy street right in the middle of the shopping precinct.

It had been there forever, and its longevity was reflected by the tired décor. The gingham tablecloths were mismatched and ratty, the vinyl floor tiles were lifting and the lace curtains were discoloured, but the food was good. It was also cheap, which explained why it was one of our favourite haunts.

Before we even sat down, Andrew ordered two Cokes. I chose a spot near the window, discreetly brushed some crumbs off the table and gave the cutlery a quick wipe with a serviette.

“This is posh,” Andrew said, squaring up the small vase in the centre of the table.

A dusty plastic carnation could never be posh, but I agreed with him anyway. “Flamingo Harry’s was good the other night,” I said, changing the subject. “They had a live band.”

His smile was strained. “I’m sorry I missed it.”

“Where were you?”

“Playing my Atari, mostly,” he replied. “I got up to level eight. It’s dead addictive.”

Feigning apathy, I reached for a menu. “By yourself?” I quizzed. “Mandy wasn’t there either.”

Andrew let out a pissed off groan. “Not this again, Fiona,” he complained. “I told you before, I’ve had nowt to do with Mandy bleedin’ Brewer.”

My first instinct was to apologise for jumping to conclusions, but I managed to hold back. It didn’t matter whether I’d lost out to arcade games or another woman, he’d still blown me off.

“You could’ve called,” I mumbled.

Andrew’s shoulders slumped. “I just needed some time away, Fi,” he confessed.

“From me?”

I had to wait for an answer. An unenthusiastic waitress made her way over to our table, scuffing her feet as she walked. “Ready to order?” she asked, offloading two bottles of Coke onto the table.

“Not yet.” Andrew’s eyes never left mine. “Give us a minute.”

She moseyed away without another word paving the way for the tense conversation to continue.

“You’re doing my head in,” he told me. “I’m sick of wedding talk all the time.”

The annoyance I felt was overshadowed by confusion. I purposefully kept the wedding talk to a minimum around Andrew. He had no interest in bridesmaid dresses or bouquet designs so sharing those details with him would have been an aggravating waste of breath.

Then it hit me.

The subject of the wedding wasn’t the irritant. Marriage was the topic of conversation that had sent him running. I hounded him every chance I got, desperately seeking assurance that he was on board with our plans.

I wanted a loving marriage, a pretty home and a handful of kids. It was a set of goals that made Gill and other likeminded modern women cringe, but they were my dreams and they were valid.

“We have to want the same things,” I said for the umpteenth time. “It’s important.”

Andrew reached for my hand and gave my fingers a light squeeze. “You’re like a broken record. Just tone it down a notch, Fi.”

I pulled away, but he didn’t seem to notice. He picked up a menu and called out to the waitress.

I used the time it took for her to scuff her way over to pull myself together, refusing to show the hurt I was feeling.

She pulled a notebook out of the pocket of her apron. “What’ll it be?”

“Two chips and eggs,” replied Andrew ordering for both of us.

“I don’t want chips and eggs,” I protested.

He frowned. “But that’s what you always order.”

“Maybe it’s time I tried something new.”

Andrew picked up the menu and studied it again. “Maybe we should both try something new.”

Clearly, we weren’t talking about chips and eggs any more but I didn’t ask for clarification. Marrying this Atari addicted man-child who may or may not be cheating on me would be the biggest mistake of my short life, but I took my mother’s advice and battened down to weather the storm.

I hate it when he orders food for me.

I hate the ugly blue jacket he always wears.

I hate his ugly car.

His friends are idiots.

Book of the week: A Recipe for Romance

Honeymoon Fund: £63.00

Chapter Ten

With just a few weeks to go before the wedding, my life was in shambles. Andrew had basically checked out. I hadn’t heard from him in two days, and if I was being honest, I’d admit that I didn’t really care.

Cleaning house for Mrs Crichton-Percy was fast becoming the highlight of my week.

The lady of the manor met me at the door with a wide smile and a vague set of instructions. “Just flitter around and give things a good spruce.” She handed me a bucket of cleaning supplies. “You can start in the bedrooms.”

I dutifully followed her upstairs, dusting a cloth along the rail of the bannister as I went.

“My friend Judith is here.” She spoke as if I knew who Judith was. “We’re sorting through clothes to sell at the charity auction.”

Philanthropic ventures seemed to be a common pastime for privileged women like Mrs Crichton-Percy. Charlene’s mother was also a fixture on the charity scene.

“Do you like doing charity work?” I asked, taking the last step up onto the landing.

“It serves a purpose.” She turned back, smiling wryly. “It’s a good way of keeping designer gowns out of thrift shops.”

I was secretly appalled, but probably just looked confused. I’d come to know Mrs Crichton-Percy as a generous person; constantly overpaying me and gifting me lovely things. But she was showing a new side that I wasn’t sure I liked.

I gave the bucket a shake. “I should make a start.”

Before she could reply, a posh voice called out from the bedroom. “Are these the best coat hangers you’ve got, darling?” she asked. “They’re frightfully tatty.”

I would’ve told her to sod off, but Mrs Crichton-Percy turned and dashed into the bedroom as if she’d been beckoned by the queen herself. I stayed put, electing to eavesdrop from the doorway.

“I have some lovely crocheted hangers,” she offered.

The woman let out a strange groan. “Crochet – how delightful.”

She didn’t mean it, and Mrs Crichton-Percy knew it. Within seconds, she volunteered to buy some new ones. “Perhaps padded velvet?”

I don’t know what possessed me to round the doorway and put my two cents in, but I did it. “My mam sells velvet hangers in her shop,” I volunteered. “They’re dead lovely.”

When Judith spun around to face me, the first thing I noticed was her earrings. The huge glittery baubles looked heavy as heck. Perhaps that explained her stiff posture.

“And who might you be, darling?” she asked, looking me up and down.

“Nobody.” I raised the bucket of cleaning supplies. “I’m just here to clean.”

Her heavily made up eyes bored right through me. “The notion of a pretty young girl introducing herself as a nobody is troubling. Don’t ever do it again.”

Clearly, the woman was rude, but she was also fascinating and had gorgeous shoes so I corrected the faux pas by telling her my name.

“Her mother owns the haberdashery shop in Denton,” added Mrs Crichton-Percy.

The unnecessary footnote was annoying, and it riled Judith too. “I didn’t ask about her mother,” she snapped.

Perhaps feeling suitably chastised, Mrs Crichton-Percy quickly changed the subject. “I think it’s time for a spot of tea.”

“That’s a lovely idea, darling,” praised Judith. “Fiona can join us.”

Judging by her sucking-lemon expression, that wasn’t my boss’ plan. “Wonderful,” she muttered, heading for the door.

Within seconds of being alone in the room, Judith dropped the prickly attitude. “I cannot stand her,” she whispered.

“Why?” I whispered back.

Her ensuing smile was as harsh as her ruby lipstick. “Nina Crichton-Percy simply tries too hard.” She scooped a long blue dress off the bed and held it up. “New with tags,” she noted. “The woman is so determined to pack a punch on the charity scene that she resorts to donating new gowns.”

It might’ve been the most beautiful dress in the world, but I paid no attention to it. My focus was solely on the three hundred quid price tag dangling from the sleeve.

“What a waste,” I muttered, mainly to myself.

“Frivolous to say the least.” Judith dropped the dress onto the bed in a messy heap. “But it’s not her fault. Money can’t buy class.”

Thanks to Judith’s loose but cutting tongue, I learned a lot about the inner workings of high society over the next few minutes – and alarmingly, Mrs Crichton-Percy didn’t pass muster.

“She’ll never be part of the fold,” she said pityingly. “But enough about New-Money-Nina. I want to know more about you.” Judith turned back to face me, looking me up and down again. “Why are you housecleaning in Bramhall?”

“Because I’m No-Money-Fiona,” I cheekily replied. “I need this job.”

“I don’t believe that’s the only reason, darling,” she accused. “I think you’re a curious girl.”

She was right. I was curious about a million things. For example, why did she tack the word ‘darling’ onto the end of every sentence? And how the heck did she manage to glue her false lashes on so straight? The few times I had tried had ended in disaster.

Those were the sorts of things I wondered about when in the company of high society women. I studied them in the same way I pored over fashion magazines, and Judith had called me out on it.

“I like to see how the other half lives,” I confessed.

“Do you think the grass is greener on this side of the fence, Fiona?”

“Yes,” I replied simply. My life was a slippery slope of disappointment and uncertainty, but I still believed in the fairy-tale ending. “One day I’m going to have the greenest grass of all.”

It sounded strong and plausible only for a second, and then Mrs Crichton-Percy killed it. The cups on the tray rattled beneath her grasp as she cackled her way into the room. “You’re marrying an apprentice bricklayer, Fiona,” she said. “Perhaps you should’ve set your sights on a landscaper instead.”

Before embarrassment could take hold, Judith swooped in. “You were right about the hangers, Nina.” She pointed at the dresses laid out on the bed. “Velvet would be suitable. We’ll need at least twenty.”

“Now?” Mrs Crichton-Percy’s eyes widened. “We have work to do.”

“Fiona can help me,” Judith suggested. “You run along.”

Doing little to disguise her disdain, my boss snatched her handbag off the dresser and headed for the door. It wasn’t the half hour drive to Denton that pissed her off. I’d inadvertently muscled in on her playdate, and that would’ve infuriated anyone.

“Maybe I should get back to the cleaning,” I said as soon as she was gone. “She’s cross with me.”

“Nonsense,” Judith scoffed. “She’s cross with me.”

And from what I could tell, the most glamorous, cutting woman I’d ever met didn’t care one iota.

“Are you the leader of your friends?”

The crass question tumbled out of my mouth, but rather than take offense, she threw back her head and laughed.

“The leader?” She giggled. “Explain what you mean, darling.”

Desperate to avoid eye contact, I scooped a gown off the bed and clumsily tried folding it. “Well, in my group of friends, Gill is the leader. She’s dead smart and tough as nails.” She was also crooked as heck, but I left that part out. “Whenever there’s drama, she always handles it.”

“I don’t handle drama, darling,” she replied. “I like to nip it in the bud before it takes hold.” Judith took the dress from my grasp and laid it back on the bed. “Do you have drama in your life Fiona?”

I dragged my ponytail over my shoulder and picked at the dry ends. “Only my hair colour,” I replied half-jokingly. “That was a drama and a half.”

“Experimentation is a rite of passage.” She smiled brightly. “You’ll make a hundred more mistakes along the way, and they won’t all be beauty related.”

“I’m getting married in a few weeks.” The random comment was delivered in a dismal tone. “That’s a mistake I’d like to nip in the bud.”

It was a terrible admission to make, but the relief that came with saying it out loud felt wonderful.

“You mustn’t go through with it if you’re unhappy, darling.” Judith sat down on the edge of the bed and patted the empty space beside her. “Call it off at once.”

She made backing out of my wedding sound as simple as cancelling a lunch date. I knew differently, and wasted no time in telling her so.

I sat beside her. “My mam will skin me alive.”

“Your mother isn’t marrying him,” she shot back.

“No, but she’s been planning the wedding for a long time.”

Judith let out a hard, humourless laugh. “Oh, dear girl.”

The only thing worse than feeling inferior is feeling pitied. It immediately got my back up. “Andrew’s not a bad guy,” I defended. “He just doesn’t make me giddy.”

“Giddy?”

Her confused expression left me wondering if giddy was even a real word.

I leaned, dragging my latest tattered read out of the back pocket of my jeans. As I thumbed through the pages of A Recipe for Romance, Judith asked an incredulous question.

“Do you often carry books in your back pocket, darling?”

“Always,” I replied. “That’s why I love Mills and Boons. They’re only thin so they don’t make my bum look big.”

Finally, her laugh sounded genuine. “Quite.”

Without asking permission, I cleared my throat and began to read out loud. “Giddy with lust, Angelica felt a tidal wave of molten lava burn her heart to a cinder.”

“Gosh,” said Judith. “That’s frightfully dramatic.”

“Is it real?” My hopeful tone reeked of desperation. “I need it to be real.”

“What does your mother say about it?”

My shoulders sagged as I loosened my grip on the book. “She tells me that I need to get my head out of the clouds and start living in the real world.”

“I see.”

“I’m just a hopeful romantic.”

“Hopeless romantic, Fiona,” she corrected, patting my knee.

“No, hopeful is the right term,” I insisted. “Hopefully I’ll get burned by lava one day soon.”

“Are we talking about sex now, darling?”

“I don’t know. Are we?”

The naïve question highlighted just how clueless I was. I was saving myself for marriage – at least that was the official line – but lately I wondered if I was just saving myself for someone worthy.

Judith looked as confused as I felt. “You mean you’ve never…”

I shook my head, killing the need for her to finish the awkward question.

“We’ve fooled around.” I tried to sound confident and experienced, but failed. “But I want it to be special.”

And the back seat of the Cortina could never be special.

Judith’s smile had a rueful tinge. “I’m no expert, darling,” she said gently. “But I will tell you this. If there’s no spark now, there will never be lava.”

I wished my mother could be as frank, but by her own admission, she knew nothing about passion. Her ‘lie back and think of England attitude’ served her well for ten long years – and then my father left her for a barmaid from the Gloucester Arms and moved to Skegness. As far as I knew, she’d never been with another man since, and that seemed to suit her just fine.

“You need a man who can make your toes curl,” added Judith. “Surely you talk about this with your friends.”

“None of us are very worldly,” I confessed. “The last bloke who tried to kiss Gill ended up with a split lip for his troubles, and Charlene is still saving herself for Simon Le Bon. I guess we still have some growing up to do.”

In a motherly move that I wasn’t expecting, Judith reached out and tucked a long strand of burgundy hair behind my ear. “You’ll get there, darling.” She spoke with absolute certainty. “And when you do, you’ll see just how green the grass can be.”

I met a lady called Judith Wiltshire, and I’m pretty sure she has the whole world worked out. She’s dead elegant, very posh and says ‘darling’ every two seconds.

My life goals are changing.

1. Get my hair back to a nice shade of normal.

2. Find a prince who makes my toes curl.

3. Be like Judith.

I guess that means the wedding is off. How am I going to get out of this one?

Book of the week: Sky High Lovers

Honeymoon Fund: £68.00

Chapter Eleven

Bingo Bonanza is one of Denton’s biggest events of the year. People come from far and wide for a chance to win the thousand quid main prize, and Gill, Charlene and I were usually first in the door.

This year’s event was sponsored by the local butcher, and Mr Cooper of Cooper’s Cuts went all out to make sure it was a grand affair.

We were out to win the money, but Mam was more interested in the raffle prizes that were up for grabs. I was under strict instruction not to come home without a meat tray.

“I’ll settle for a few pounds of sausages,” she called as I pulled the front door shut.

Winning a meat tray wasn’t a given, but the odds were good. Mr Cooper was a generous man, which was evident from the second we walked into the bingo hall. Cardboard lamb chops hung from the ceiling, and the huge cache of meat prizes were artfully displayed on bales of hay near the stage.

“Bleedin’ hellfire,” muttered Gill.

I thought the blow-up cow near the front door was a nice touch, but she saw fit to punch it as she passed.

“Give over!” Mr Taylor yelled from the far side of the hall. “Any more of that and you’re out!”

Gill must’ve really had her eye on the prize; she apologised and promised to behave.

We took our usual seats by the stage. Charlene spent the next few minutes getting her coloured markers in order and lining them up neatly on the table while Gill and I rifled through our bags looking for loose change.

When Mrs Shepherd wandered past flapping her raffle books in our faces, we snapped up as many as we could afford.

“We’re going to win big tonight, girls,” shrieked Charlene, neatening the tickets into a pile. “I’m feeling lucky.”

I felt lucky too. We were together, we had gallons of Green Totty cider hidden in our handbags and best of all, once the balls started dropping there would be no time for talking.

I didn’t know how I was going to break it to them that the wedding was off. Heck, I didn’t even know how I was going to tell Andrew.

Thankfully, it was a problem for another day. Mrs Shepherd took the mic and ordered everyone to sit. The hall suddenly became a flurry of activity as people rushed to their chairs, bingo dabbers at the ready.

Sharon Smedley wasn’t exactly rushing. She stalked past the back of our chairs at a snail’s pace. Never one to pass up an opportunity to rattle her cage, Gill piped up.

“Ace tracksuit, Shaz,” she taunted. “Are you flying solo tonight or is Mandy hiding somewhere under all that crushed velvet?”

“Mandy’s not here,” she sneered.

“Where is she?” asked Charlene. I swung my leg under the table, trying to silence her with a kick – but I missed and she kept talking. “No one misses Bingo Bonanza.”

Sharon’s snarky glare was reserved entirely for me. “I could lie and say she’s at home if you like,” she goaded. “Do you want me to lie, Fiona?”

Gill answered for me. “I want you to lie,” she snapped. “Preferably in front of oncoming traffic.”

The three of us dissolved into a fit of derisive giggles, which wound Sharon up to the point of detonation.

Thankfully Mrs Shepherd intervened, picking up the mic and yelling as if she needed the amplification. “You’re the last man standing, Sharon,” she barked. “Find a seat.”

A low rumbling of laughter filled the packed hall, but we didn’t even try to be discreet. We cackled like witches as Sharon skulked away, and when she parked her ample bum on her seat, Mrs Shepherd got the ball rolling by calling the first number. “Knock at the door, twenty-four.”

Some bloke from Yorkshire won the thousand quid. The locals were outraged, but we couldn’t have cared less. We were winners in our own right, which made for an interesting walk to the bus stop. I had two frozen chickens in my bag, Gill was cradling a leg of pork like a baby, and Charlene awkwardly held her package at arm’s length.

“What do you think it is?” she asked, waving it in Gill’s face.

The brown paper parcel was a mystery, but we knew it was meat; blood was leaking through the wrapping.

“Gross!” she yelled, whacking her hand away.

I laughed, partly because it was funny, and partly because I had a skinful of Green Totty. We all did, and were walking incredibly slowly because of it.

It was a little after ten when we finally made it to the bus stop, and after half an hour of waiting, it finally dawned on us that we’d missed the last bus.

Even after pooling our money, we were still a long way short of cab fare.

“We shouldn’t have spent it all on raffle tickets,” Charlene lamented.

Gill patted her lump of pork. “No regrets, girlies.”

“None,” I agreed with a tipsy giggle.

The prospect of walking home didn’t bother me. It was a fine night and I was with my best friends. As far as I was concerned life didn’t get much better, despite Charlene’s drunken rambling.

“What’s a male ballerina called?” she asked out of the blue. It wasn’t a trick question. The girl was deadly serious. “I’ve always wondered.”

“A ballerino,” replied Gill, hitching her pork higher on her hip.

After a long moment of thinking things through, Charlene accepted her answer. “I guess that makes sense.”

“Unlike you,” muttered Gill. “Yer dozy cow.”

I laughed until my sides ached, and it was the best kind of pain I’d ever felt. For a moment, I had no worries. I felt free, young and untroubled – and then we turned the corner.

I would’ve recognised Andrew’s trashy Cortina anywhere, but I wasn’t expecting to see it parked on Darnley Road. It was a long way from home, especially at eleven o’clock at night.

“Maybe it broke down,” suggested Charlene.

I was shaking my head before she’d finished the sentence. “If it breaks, he fixes it,” I told her. “The damn car just won’t die.”

“Fi, you should probably know something.” Gill’s grave tone sobered me up in an instant. Something terrible was on its way.

“What is it?”

“Mandy Brewer lives here.” She motioned with an upward nod. “They moved in a few weeks ago.”

I leaned to the side, checking out the modest terraced house behind her. Other than the blue front door, it was fairly nondescript, which was almost odd considering that the shenanigans taking place inside were probably extraordinary.

Strangely, I wasn’t feeling upset or angry so I don’t know what possessed me to yell Andrew’s name. After repeating the obnoxious shriek a few times, the upstairs window finally slid open. A light came on and my cad of a fiancé appeared, flustered and tangled up in the lace curtain. “Fi, it’s not what you think,” he blundered.

I was certain it was. He was dragging on his T-shirt as he spoke.

“So what is it, Andrew?” I threw my arms wide. “Tea and toast?”

The curtain shifted and he disappeared from view, probably looking to his mistress for answers. I was prepared to give them a minute to get their story straight. Whatever they came up with was bound to be good.

“We should go.” Charlene tugged on my sleeve. “Deal with it in the morning.”

I shrugged her off, mainly because her hands were covered in bloody meat juice. “No,” I grumbled. “I want to deal with it now.”

I had no clue how it was going to play out. I expected a rambling monologue laced with apologies, but when Andrew reappeared at the window, his expression confused me. He didn’t look contrite and remorseful – he looked determined.

“It’s over, Fiona,” he coolly stated. “The wedding is off.”

I was completely off the hook, which is exactly what I wanted. So why did I feel so blindsided by the announcement? I couldn’t think of a single thing to say. Instead of cutting him down with a furious reply, I stood there, slack jawed and silent.

“Nothing is ever good enough for you,” he spat. “And I’ve flippin’ had enough.”

I couldn’t make sense of what was happening. Not only was Andrew unremorseful, he had the gall to be angry with me.

Gill was obviously struggling with the notion too. She took a few steps forward and yelled like only Gill could. “You’re the cheater, dickhead!” she reminded him. “You don’t get to be pissed.”

The loathing between my fiancé and best friend was mutual, and it had been that way since nursery school.

Charlene was a little more tolerant of him, but even she had a limit. “You’re a knob, Andrew!” Even her angry tone was sweet. “You’ll never do better than Fi!”

When he leaned out the window and replied with a middle finger, something inside me snapped. Andrew wasn’t the knob, I was. I’d hitched every hope and dream I’d had since childhood to his wagon – and his wagon was a 1974 Ford Cortina for crying out loud.

Rage was the prime emotion at that point. When I looked across at his pride and joy parked crookedly on the street I lost all control, reached into my bag and grabbed a frozen chicken.

“I hate you, Andrew Pidgeon,” I declared, raising it above my head. “And your stupid car!”

If that hateful outburst didn’t make my feelings known, my next move certainly did. I hurled the chicken as hard as I could, then took a step back and watched as it smashed through the windscreen of Andrew’s beloved car.

Gill was the first to speak. “Bloody hell, Fiona,” she muttered. “You’ve really done it this time.”

Even in my cider haze, I knew I’d crossed the line. I also knew I’d gone too far to back down so I continued with the false bravado. “Hopefully it’ll teach him a lesson,” I replied, dusting my hands together.

“Well it taught me a lesson,” said Charlene, still gripping her mystery meat for grim death. “Who knew chickens could fly?”

There wasn’t time to enjoy the joke because Andrew disappeared from the window. We could still hear him though, screaming obscenities and calling me names as he made his way downstairs.

We listened to the furious tirade until the front door swung open, and then we did what any self-respecting young hoodlums would do.

We kicked off our shoes and legged it.

The playground at the nursery school on Grove Road was no place for three young women in the dead of night, but that’s where we ended up.

I dropped my bag and shoes in the sand, and headed straight for the swing. “Someone give me a push,” I called.

My two friends wandered over, both looking knackered and breathless. “You don’t need a push,” panted Gill. “You need an alibi.”

Gill was the authority when it came to deviant acts. She’d been in enough scrapes of her own to know that trashing someone’s car could end in a whole world of trouble, but I wasn’t bothered in the least.

“He won’t do anything about it.” I kick-started the swing, slowly gaining height by swinging my legs. “Andrew’s the one in the wrong, not me.”

Charlene sat down on the end of the slide. “You poor thing,” she said sadly. “You must be devastated.”

When the swing glided forward I threw my head back, enjoying the cool breeze on my face. I felt far from devastated. The night was quiet, the stars were bright, and all I felt was free.

“I’m really not,” I replied. “I feel wonderful.”

Gill didn’t seem to be listening. “We won’t tell anyone what happened,” she offered. “No one needs to know.”

I dug my feet into the sand, bringing the swing to an abrupt halt. “Tell everyone. I don’t care.”

Finally giving up on her attempt at saving the mystery meat package from harm, Charlene unceremoniously dumped it in the sand. “I thought you loved him.”

“I thought I did too,” I replied. “But I know now that I don’t.”

“Because he’s a cheater?”

“No,” interjected Gill. “Because he’s a dickhead.”

Even after all that had happened, I couldn’t bring myself to agree with her. He was spineless and weak, but I was too.

“We just want different things.”

I wanted toe-curling passion and love and children. He wanted Mandy Brewer.

Charlene stood up and brushed herself off. “I think you’re in denial, Fi,” she said matter-of-factly. “Getting married was your dream, and it’s just disappeared in a puff of smoke and chicken. You won’t know what to do with yourself now.”

It was a perfect time to confess that I’d been wanting to call it off for days, but I didn’t. I was too focused on Charlene’s concern that my life was all but over.

“Do you really think I’m that one track?” I asked, slightly miffed.

She shrugged but didn’t speak, paving the way for Gill to put her two cents in. “You don’t talk about much else these days, Fi.”

The sprint to the playground must’ve sobered me up. When I leapt off the swing, I managed to land on my feet. “Maybe it’s time to reinvent myself then.”

“Well, you went ginger,” Gill reminded me. “That didn’t work out so well.”

Charlene dropped her head, directing her laugh at the sand. My baleful glare only lasted until Gill cracked, and two seconds later we were all in a fit of hysterics.

I was sure the worst was over, but when I arrived home to find Mam waiting for me at the foot of the stairs, I knew it wasn’t. Her expression was doleful, and in that instant, I knew the bad news had beaten me home.

“Alright, Mam?” I asked.

“Mrs Roberts has been on the phone,” she said flatly. “She said my daughter was out raising hell on Darnley Road.”

“Nosy old cow,” I muttered under my breath.

Mam jumped to her feet quicker than I thought possible. “You know the neighbours are vigilant,” she snapped.

“Not always, Mam,” I said bravely. “No one called to tell you that Andrew was shagging Mandy Brewer.”

Ordinarily, use of that kind of language would’ve come with the threat of a slap, but my mother didn’t say a word. Instead, she began fussing with the curlers in her hair as if she was passing time until I spoke again.

“Just so we’re clear,” I muttered, manoeuvring past her to get to the stairs. “The wedding is off.”

“Don’t be so hasty,” she urged, grabbing my elbow. “Cooler heads will prevail in the morning. Just weather the storm.”

Her archaic advice was maddening, but not unexpected. The older I got, the clearer it became that my father had deserted us of his own volition. God knows my mother wouldn’t have kicked him out. She would’ve turned a blind eye and ignored his affair with the Gloucester Arms barmaid because in her mind, that’s what a good wife does.

“Andrew ended it, Mam.” I shrugged my arm free. “There is no storm to weather.”

Too exasperated to continue the conversation, I stomped up the stairs. When I reached the landing, Mam called up to me. “Well, what are you going to do now, Fiona?”

My reply came at warp speed. “I’m going to stop wasting my time with idiots and find the boy who loves me.”

Tonight I lost my fiancé, and not even the sight of my wedding dress hanging on the back of my bedroom door makes me feel sad about it.

It’s a pretty dress, but not the one I dreamed about. I don’t want plastic pearls and cheap lace. I want dupioni silk and diamantes.

Perhaps that’s why I’m not sad.

Andrew Pidgeon is plastic pearls and cheap lace.

Book of the week: Sky High Lovers

Honeymoon Fund: £65.00

Chapter Twelve

The next few days were terrible for my mother. It was left to her to notify the guests that the wedding was off, and she did it with the cool disposition of a funeral director.

When one of my aunts dared to ask for details, Mam shot her down in flames. “The girl came to her senses,” she snapped. “And that’s all I’m going to say on the matter.”

I flinched as she slammed the phone down, but Mam remained steadfast. “No one asked questions when her Ruby took off with that Tony fella from the key cutters,” she said.

“That’s because Toni was a girl, Mam,” I reminded her. “Everyone was too confused to ask questions.”

I’d always considered the reason behind my cousin’s broken engagement fascinating, but my mother was far too old-school to talk about it.

“The whole world’s gone bleedin’ mad.” She snatched her address book off the table and marched out of the room, leaving me chuckling to myself.

I hadn’t seen or heard from Andrew since the chicken debacle. I once thought I heard his car passing along our street, but when I peeked out the window, I realised the high pitched engine noise was coming from Mr Kershaw’s lawnmower.

Sooner or later, he was going to have to deal with me. I didn’t expect an apology, and I certainly didn’t want him back. But what I did want was the Duran Duran record I’d left at his house.

My mother was appalled. “For goodness sake, girl,” she growled. “Have some dignity. If you start badgering him he’s going to think you want him back.”

“My dignity is perfectly intact, Mam,” I insisted. “And I’ll make it perfectly clear to Andrew that I want Simon Le Bon, not him.”

Confidence was at an all-time high as I rapped on Andrew’s door. I was wearing my best dress, my makeup was dead perfect, and after spending the night before locked in the bathroom with a box of L’Oréal, my hair was now a lovely shade of brown called Royal Suede.

The plan was simple; ask for my record, wish him well and get the hell out of there.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. When his front door opened, my steely resolve went out the window. To make matters worse, time hadn’t healed any of Andrew’s wounds. He was just as hostile as the last time I saw him. “What do you want, Fi?” he grumbled.

“I just want to talk.”

After a long moment of deliberation, he opened the door wide and ushered me inside. “Five minutes,” he permitted. “I’ve got stuff to do.”

“By stuff, you mean Mandy?”

We were not off to a good start. My big, rejected mouth was getting the better of me and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to reign it in.

“There’s no point even talking about this,” he said dully. “I’ve made my choice.”

Your choice?” I kept my tone calm by biting the side of my cheek. “Why is it your choice?”

“Because you chose everything else,” he snapped. “I never wanted any of this wedding malarkey, Fiona. It was a runaway train from the get-go.”

I wanted to slap him with my Mel Lazar bag, but managed to hold off by taking a step back. “You proposed to me, you idiot,” I reminded him. “Why would you do that?”

I thought back to exact second in time that he asked for my hand in marriage. He had no ring, but as he got down on one knee in front of the guests at my nineteenth birthday party, he promised to buy me one.

After hitting his dad up for a small loan, he presented me with a modest but pretty gold ring a few days later. I loved it, but I loved the sentiment behind it even more. He’d chosen me above all others, and that meant everything.

I held up my left hand and wiggled my fingers. The small diamond twinkled in the light just as it always did, but the meaning behind it was long gone.

“I didn’t bring a present,” Andrew muttered.

Utterly confused, I dropped my hand and looked up at him. “What do you mean?”

His hands settled in his pockets and his shoulders lifted. “It was your birthday and when I got to your party, I realised I didn’t have a present,” he explained. “So I proposed instead.”

Andrew spoke casually as if the words didn’t matter, but it was a confession that wrecked me. We’d known each other our whole lives, and had been together since we were fourteen, and all of a sudden that counted for nothing.

“How could you be so cruel?” I whimpered the question. “I loved you.”

He turned away from me and let out a pissed off growl. “No you flippin’ didn’t. I was never good enough for you. You still think you’re going to end up living in a castle with servants and butlers,” he said roughly. “You’re not bloody royalty, Fiona.”

“I know that.” Acknowledging my lack of pedigree didn’t put an end to the conversation. He wasn’t done venting yet.

“You’re a control freak,” he continued. “Everything has to be in line with your master plan or all hell breaks loose. I can’t live like that.”

“Am I that awful?” I wondered out loud.

“No.” A flash of remorse ghosted across his face. “You’re dead pretty, and we’ve had some laughs. You’re just a pushy little cow, that’s all.”

It was a statement that could’ve done with some serious tweaking, but I let it go in favour of asking another question. “When were you going to call the wedding off?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if I hadn’t caught you at Mandy’s, I’d be none the wiser.”

His confused expression gave way to one of shame. “I wasn’t going to call it off.”

My eyes widened. “So you were going to go through with it?”

Andrew shook his head, telling me no. “I wasn’t going to show up,” he confessed. “Mandy and me were going to take off to Blackpool instead.”

I wasn’t being hit with the truth, I was being battered. Not only had she stolen my fiancé, she’d stolen my honeymoon too. My whole chest ached as my heart splintered, but Andrew was faring much better. Leaving me standing near the door, he slumped down on the sofa. “It’s such a relief to get the truth out,” he breathed. “Don’t you feel better now?”

“Blackpool was our dream place,” I muttered, leaving his dumb question unanswered.

“I know,” he casually replied. “Mandy loves it there too.”

His lack of concern for my feelings had nothing to do with laddish naivety. A truer picture was coming together before my very eyes.

“I have to go.” I reached for the door handle. “I shouldn’t have come here.”

Andrew jumped up and rushed over, wedging himself between me and the door. “Not so fast.”

For the briefest of moments, I was hoping for the bittersweet, heartfelt farewell that I’d read a million times over in my novels. On paper, they were cliché and overdone, but I would’ve killed to hear him say something romantic and maudlin to wrap things up.

I will never forget the love we shared.

Our stars just burn too brightly together.

You will forever remain in my heart.

Any of those sentiments would’ve been gratefully accepted, but Andrew’s words weren’t anywhere near as sweet.

“What about my car, Fi?” he asked. “It’s going to cost a packet to get my windscreen replaced.”

I spent a long moment carefully studying the face of the boy I nearly married. For the first time since I walked in, I could see hope in his blue eyes – but it had nothing to do with me, which was perfect.

It afforded me the common sense to realise that not only did this man not love me, he never had. Andrew Pidgeon loved his car, and he loved Mandy Brewer.

I was flying solo, but gaining height by the second.

I slipped my engagement ring off and handed it to him. “Sell this,” I instructed, pushing him out of the way of the door.

“That won’t cover it,” he complained. “The ring is hardly worth anything.”

I let out a hard laugh. “Exactly,” I agreed. “It means nothing and it’s worth nothing.”

I didn’t get my Duran Duran record back, but it wasn’t a wasted trip.

I got myself back instead.

To celebrate, I stopped in at Woolworths and bought a new one.

The sound quality is much better than the one I left at Andrew’s. Ever since Gill spilled cider on it, the needle skips over Planet Earth.

I need a new adventure. Lucky for me, I’ve got £61 saved up to make it happen.

Book of the week: Sky High Lovers

Adventure Fund: £61.00

Chapter Thirteen

I dealt with the ending of more than one relationship that week. Mrs Crichton-Percy phoned on Sunday night to tell me that my services were no longer needed.

“Don’t take it personally,” she began. “We have different standards when it comes to cleanliness. Even with instruction, yours are not up to par.”

It was impossible not to take offense, mainly because she was lying. I wanted to remind her of the time I found dog poop in her walk-in closet but didn’t. Instead, I asked if she wanted me to return the Lazar handbag she’d given me.

Her condescending cackle filtered through the phone. “No, dear, it’s last season’s,” she replied. “Besides, it’s probably as close as you’ll get to haute couture.”

If my mouth had planned a snarky comeback, my brain was too slow. Before I managed to utter a word, she hung up. Unsure of what my next move should be, I called Mam into the room and broke the news.

“The pompous cow mentioned nowt about standards when I was discounting velvet hangers for her.” She spoke with absolute contempt, which was precisely the show of support that I needed. “Who does she think she is?”

Nina Crichton-Percy thought she was the queen of Bramhall, but after meeting Judith Wiltshire I knew differently. I suspect that might’ve had something to do with my dismissal. Keen to set the record straight, I quickly brought my mother up to speed.

“Judith is dead posh, Mam,” I said, still awed. “And she’s dripping with diamonds the size of ice blocks.”

I followed up with a childish twirl that made my skirt flare and my mother chuckle. “Stay in your lane, my girl,” she urged. “There’s none of that nonsense in your future.”

No one could burst my fairy-tale bubble quicker than my mother. It made me wonder what she thought my future held now that marriage and housecleaning in Bramhall were off the agenda. She gave little away but her face was etched with worry.

“I have plenty of ace things coming my way, Mam,” I reassured her. “Just you wait and see.”

Something amazing happened!

Judith found out that New-Money-Nina gave me the sack so she called me at Mam’s shop and offered me a job!!

Things are definitely on the up.

Book of the week: Sky High Lovers

Adventure Fund: £61.00

Chapter Fourteen

The Wiltshire’s house was twice the size of Mrs Crichton-Percy’s. As I walked up the long cobbled driveway, I counted nine windows at the front, and that didn’t include the double bevelled glass doors.

Matching flower pots lined the front steps, and the basket of petunias hanging from the gabled porch was so flippin’ manicured that it didn’t look real.

Cleaning this house was going to be hard slog, but I felt nothing but excitement as I tapped the huge brass knocker against the door.

Finally, Judith answered. “Fiona, darling,” she crowed. “Right on time.”

I couldn’t have killed my goofy smile if I tried. “I was so happy to hear from you,” I babbled. “I’m excited to be here.”

“You don’t appear excited.” She looked me up and down. “Frankly darling, you look downright dowdy and drab.”

Instantly regretting my decision to wear jeans and a T-shirt, I self-consciously folded my arms. “I always wear this when I’m working.”

Her disapproving frown quickly gave way to a demure giggle. “Oh, dear girl,” she snorted. “You’ve misread the situation. I don’t need another cleaner, I have three already.”

Not asking for a thorough job description was an embarrassing oversight that Judith was keen to rectify. With a wave of her hand, she ushered me inside and led me into her huge front room.

“Sit down, darling,” she instructed.

I was nervous for a few reasons. First, it was the most opulent room I had ever set foot in. Everything looked sparkly, precious and expensive. Second, I had no idea of the etiquette involved when it comes to sitting on a pristine white sofa.

When she repeated the command, I parked my butt, crossed my legs at the ankles and hoped for the best.

Judith sat opposite me. “I’ve taken on an incredible amount of charity work in the past few months,” she said, readjusting the small cushion behind her back. “I’m in need of assistance. I think you’d be perfect.”

“It sounds dead important,” I replied. “What would I have to do?”

“Well, first of all, I want you to lose the word ‘dead’ from your vocabulary,” she chided. “Unless something is actually dead, refrain from saying it.”

It was a demand that would’ve cut most girls to the quick, but I took no offense. “I will never say it again,” I promised, hand on heart.

“Wonderful,” she replied. “For the most part I just need someone to run a few errands and make phone calls. Do you think you can handle that?”

The real question was; could I handle her? Judith Wiltshire was the most intimidating, woman I had ever met. She spoke bluntly and honestly, ignoring any threat of hurt feelings along the way. Perhaps that’s why I agreed to give it my best shot.

Her ruby smile was blinding. “You’ll do well darling,” she assured me. “I have every faith in you.”

Working for Judith was going to be nothing like my time with Mrs Crichton-Percy. She was a far more interesting study, and the curiosity was mutual. Once the formalities were out of the way, conversation turned to my broken engagement.

I tried to gloss over the ugly parts, but Judith was a stickler for details.

Over tea and cake, I served up the whole sorry saga beginning with frozen poultry and ending with the return of my trinket ring.

“No one shed a tear, and no hearts got broken,” I said.

“Oh, Fiona.” Judith set her cup and saucer down on the coffee table. “It sounds like you both dodged a bullet.”

I couldn’t deny that she was right. As much as I wished Andrew was pining the loss, I’m sure he felt as relieved as I did.

“I’m just glad it’s over.” Trying to avoid her pitying stare, I took a tiny sip of tea. “Now we can both move on and make new plans.”

In truth, I had nothing planned beyond Wednesday night bingo but the instant her housekeeper bustled into the room waving a cordless phone in the air, that changed.

“It’s the lady from the Sunkiss Foundation, Mrs Wiltshire,” she announced. “Calling from London.”

Judith extended the long aerial and put the dead modern phone to her ear. “Hello, Valeria,” she crowed. “It’s so lovely to hear from you.”

Valeria might’ve been the poshest name I’d ever heard, but when I silently chanted it in my head I realised it sounded like a venereal disease. In a bid to stop myself laughing out loud, I focused more on the one-sided phone conversation and less on VD.

From what I could gather, Valeria worked for the same charity as Judith and New-Money-Nina. She was waiting to take delivery of the dresses they were donating, and judging by Judith’s incessant apologies, she was running out of patience.

“I can have them to you as early as tomorrow afternoon, Valeria,” she assured her. “My girl will hand deliver them.” Judith stopped pacing and turned to me. “Fiona is very reliable,” she said. “And she knows London like the back of her hand.”

My first instinct was to jump up and slap her for telling such wicked lies. I’d never been to London in my whole life.

But before panic could take hold, I forced myself to calm down and consider the bigger picture. The single life wasn’t likely to be packed with excitement. I needed something new and adventurous, and it didn’t take a genius to know that a whirlwind jaunt to London might be it.

I know I promised never to say it again, but I’m dead excited!!

I’m catching the early morning train to London.

Charlene said I’ll be a new woman when I get back but Gill isn’t as positive. She said that if the rape and murder statistics are true, I might not come back at all.

To be on the safe side, I changed my choice of shoes. My pink heels are dead stylish, but I can run faster in my flat jellies.

I’m going to deliver Judith’s dresses to the VD lady in Notting Hill and then the day is mine.

Buckingham Palace, here I come!

Book of the week: Sky High Lovers

Adventure Fund: £61.00

Chapter Fifteen

I’ve seen [_Murder on The Orient Express _]three times. Perhaps that’s why my views on train travel are so jaded.

In my mind, I was going to dress to the nines, board a lovely train and spend three hours looking and feeling as glamorous as Jaqueline Bisset.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Looking glam is hard to do when you’re dragging a suitcase full of cocktail dresses along a crowded train platform. Not one person offered to help and I soon realised that was because it was every man and woman for themselves.

It was hard to understand the reason behind the rush to board. The seats weren’t luxurious leather like the Orient Express. They were stain riddled heavy brown upholstery that reminded me of the floor mats in Andrew’s Cortina.

The white broderie anglaise dress I was wearing had never been more impractical, but I wasn’t deterred. Nothing was going to put a dampener on this day, even the wad of gum that was stuck to the wheel of my suitcase.

I laid a hanky across the seat, parked my butt and steeled myself for the three-hour journey ahead.

Euston Station was a madhouse. London was a madhouse. Everywhere I looked, people were rushing around as if they were late for an appointment. The only people who seemed to be travelling at a normal pace were the tourists, and they were flippin’ everywhere.

Negotiating the Tube was one of the more complicated tasks I’d dealt with in my lifetime, but I somehow pulled it off. I arrived in Notting Hill just after ten and made my way to Valeria’s house.

The narrow white frontage gave little away, but I knew the inside would be just as grand as Judith’s. I would’ve killed for a peek inside, but I didn’t make it past the front door.

I was greeted by a portly man in a suit who took the suitcase from my grasp, thanked me for coming and sent me on my way.

I was only miffed for a moment. The instant I stepped back onto the street and breathed in the warm London air, I realised my work was done. The rest of the day was mine, and I was determined to make the most of it.

Of all the tourist attractions in London, Buckingham Palace was the one that rated highest on my list. The instructions given by the clerk at the information desk at Victoria Station were perfectly clear: exit onto Buckingham Palace Road, turn right and keep walking. It was impossible to get it wrong, but after a twenty-minute walk with no palace in sight, I realised I’d somehow ballsed it up.

Studying the small map for the umpteenth time, I tried to figure out where I’d gone wrong.

“Are you lost, Mademoiselle?”

The smooth foreign voice in my ear was so flippin’ exotic that I thought I’d imagined it. And when I lifted my head and looked at him, I was sure of it.

No one real could look that good. The only thing more perfect than his dashing looks, dark hair and broad shoulders was his dress sense.

He wore a blue Pierre Cardin shirt, and I was ninety-nine percent sure it was the real deal.

“Mademoiselle,” he repeated. “Are you alright?”

Was he kidding me? Meeting a drop-dead gorgeous French man on the streets of London was a storyline straight out of one of my romance novels.

I was flippin’ perfect!

Luckily, my actual reply was a little more subdued. “I’m fine, thank you.”

“Are you looking for something?” he asked.

Buckingham Palace was the answer, but the words came out wrong. “A wonderful new adventure that I’ll remember forever.”

Most people would’ve turned on their heels and legged it, but the dreamy French guy didn’t look too perturbed. If anything, he seemed amused.

He smiled, and it was as flawless as the rest of him. “How long do you have?”

The rest of my life, I didn’t reply.

“I have to be back at Euston Station by four.”

“It’ll be a short adventure, Mademoiselle,” he replied, checking the time on his watch. “What do you have in mind?”

This was an all or nothing moment. I had nothing to gain by holding back and nothing to lose by being forward. At four o’clock, I’d board my train back to Manchester and the handsome French man would slip into the same vault of memories that I kept all my favourite stories.

“Do you know any really posh restaurants?” I asked hopefully.

I had sixty quid burning a hole in my pocket. A fancy lunch seemed like the perfect way to spend some of it.

He dropped his head, smiling down at the ground. “I might know a few.”

Really posh?” I quizzed. “I’m talking silver trays and crystal glasses. The whole kit and caboodle.”

He straightened up and folded his arms. “Are you always this forthright and direct?”

I was, and I suddenly felt very foolish because of it. I was acting like a half-wit, and wasn’t sure how to rein myself in.

“What’s your name?” I quietly asked.

“Jean-Luc Décarie,” he replied. “And you are?”

“A pushy little cow from Denton,” I mumbled.

His deep laugh was wonderful. “What’s your name, mademoiselle?”

To prove I wasn’t totally void of manners, I extended my hand. “Fiona Black.”

I would never have predicted his next move. Jean-Luc kissed the back of my hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Fiona,” he said. “It would be my pleasure to take you to lunch.”

He couldn’t possibly have been telling the truth, but I wasn’t about to argue the point. I was too busy trying to remember how to breathe, which was a wonderful turn of events. It meant that for the first time in my life, I was giddy.

Getting into cars with strangers is never a good idea, but when Jean-Luc flagged down a passing cab, I didn’t hesitate to get in. Perhaps it was because he held the door open for me – a chivalrous gesture that I’d never experienced before.

“The Grand Chancellor restaurant please, driver,” he instructed.

When we arrived just a few minutes later, he handed the cabbie a tenner and told him to keep the change. I’d never experienced that before either.

Just as we got to the door, I grabbed Jean-Luc’s arm and pulled him aside. “Do you think I’m underdressed?” It seemed like a fair question. The woman who walked in ahead of us was wearing four inch heels and a lace blouse. “I don’t want people to stare.”

“People will stare, Fiona,” he smoothly replied. “But it will be for the right reasons.”

“Right, then.” I sucked in my stomach and smoothed my hands over my hips. “Let’s do this.”

When Jean-Luc offered his arm, I gratefully accepted, hooking my arm through his as if I needed the support.

I frequented places like the Grand Chancellor Restaurant all the time while reading, but being there in real life was something else. I wasn’t sure how to carry myself, but Jean-Luc didn’t seem to share my nervousness.

As we approached the man standing behind the tall wooden podium near the door, he asked for a table for two. “Something quiet,” he requested.

“Of course, sir.” The man grabbed two menus. “Right this way.”

My accidental date couldn’t have been much older than me. Referring to him as ‘sir’ seemed awfully strange, but nothing about the last hour had been normal.

I paid little attention to where I was walking as we were shown to our table. I was too busy checking the place out. No detail was too small or insignificant. I’d likely never set foot in there again and I wanted to remember everything.

The dark wood panelling, emerald coloured drapes and low hanging chandeliers gave it an old world feel. Every immaculately set table had a lit candle in the centre, and the mood lighting made it impossible to tell whether it was day or night outside.

I got through the formality of having the waiter pull my chair out for me, and bluffed my way through the process of having a napkin laid across my lap. But when he handed me a wine list and started prattling off his list of recommendations, my bravado began to slip.

Lunch at the Grand Chancellor was shaping up to be an ordeal, and something in my expression alerted Jean-Luc to the fact that I wasn’t handling it well.

“A bottle of Pinot Grigio, please,” he announced, snapping the wine list shut.

The waiter dipped his head. “Very good, sir.”

Jean-Luc barely acknowledged him as he backed away from the table. His warm brown eyes were fixed firmly on me. “Do you like wine, Fiona?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’m more of a cider kind of girl.”

“Perhaps I shouldn’t have ordered for both of us.” He smiled, but I detected no hint of condescension behind it. “Would you like me to order something different?”

“Not at all.” My eyes drifted down to the open menu in front of me. “I’d like you to order my food for me too. I have no flippin’ idea what any of this is.”

I was used to chips and eggs. From what I could tell, chips weren’t even on the menu.

Jean-Luc let out a quiet chuckle. “I can do that,” he offered. “Tell me what you like.”

Most of it was gobbledygook, but something caught my eye. I’d eaten cod a million times – never with a honey reduction or a courgette flower beignet – but I was prepared to give it a try. “The fish looks okay.”

He closed his menu and placed it on the table. “I hope it’s wonderful,” he said.

I lifted my head, studying his handsome face for much too long. “You must think I’m very strange,” I mused. “Why did you agree to this?”

A bright smile swept his face. “I find you beguiling,” he said. “In a good way, of course.”

Perhaps beguiling was French for strange, but I wasn’t sure so I didn’t pass comment. Instead, I hit him with more questions.

“What do you do, Jean-Luc?”

“I’m a struggling law student,” he replied. “I’m in my second year at King’s College.”

Clearly the struggle wasn’t financial. Even I knew that King’s is a very exclusive school. Attending students drink Pinot Grigio and wear designer shirts.

“Are you failing?”

It was a bold question to ask, but there’s a certain level of confidence that comes with knowing that you’re never going to see someone again. There was no need to be coy and reserved, and based on Jean-Luc’s ensuing reply, I could only assume that he felt the same way.

“Almost,” he admitted. “My English leaves a lot to be desired, and my written essays are suffering because of it.”

I huffed out a sharp laugh. “Your English is better than mine.”

He shook his head. “Not when I write.”

I could see his frustration, and felt the sudden need to offer some encouragement. “That doesn’t mean you’re thick, Jean-Luc,” I assured him. “I know plenty of thickos so I’m qualified to judge.”

He laughed, and his whole demeanour changed. “I’m not thick, I’m just French,” he said. “That’s the crux of the problem.”

I didn’t consider it to be a problem at all. He had a dead gorgeous accent that matched his dead gorgeous face.

“I was supposed to meet with a tutor today,” he revealed, pinning me with a thoughtful stare. “But I was presented with a better offer.”

I smiled down at the tablecloth. “Well, I was supposed to be meeting with the Queen today,” I embellished. “She’s probably wondering where I am.”

When the waiter returned to our table, he was armed with a bottle of wine and a fancy silver bucket filled with ice. He poured our glasses, took note of our food orders and slipped away as quietly as he’d arrived.

Jean-Luc charged his glass. “What shall we drink to?” he asked.

I barely needed time to think about it. “Short but memorable adventures,” I announced, clinking my glass against his.

It should’ve been a prelude to wonderful conversation, but after taking a slow sip of wine, silence set in. I didn’t take it to heart. We were complete strangers, and changing that would take much more time than we had.

“Do you like to read?” I asked extraneously. “Reading will improve your grammar no end. I read all the time – romance mostly.” I was babbling now and couldn’t seem to stop. “My grammar is ace.”

I wasn’t offended by his doubtful expression. My rough vocabulary gave no hint of the talent I possessed when it came to the written word. I’d been an A student all through school, but the prospect of furthering my education with college or university had never appealed.

“Perhaps you should tutor me,” Jean-Luc suggested. “It could be the perfect arrangement.”

I grinned. “And what would you do for me in return?”

In a move as smooth as he was, he rolled the stem of his glass between his fingers. “I’m sure I’d find a way to make it up to you.”

I sat up straight, smoothing the napkin on my lap with both hands. “Well, if you’re stuck for ideas, I love diamonds and perfume and champagne.”

His lovely smile was bright. “You like champagne? We can order champagne.”

I was shaking my head before he finished his sentence. “I don’t know nowt about champagne,” I confessed. “It’d be wasted on me.”

Jean-Luc brought his glass to his lips. “Some people deserve to experience the finer things in life, Fiona,” he said. “Don’t sell yourself short.”

It was hard to believe that his syntax skills were lacking. The bloke looked young, but spoke like a middle-aged English professor.

“How old are you?” I quizzed.

“I just turned twenty-three.”

“Do you live with your parents?”

He shook his head, telling me no. “My mother passed away when I was young but my father is around,” he replied.

“I’m so sorry,” I uttered, mentally kicking myself for asking the intrusive question.

He let me off the foot-in-mouth hook with a bright smile. “Don’t be,” he replied. “Over the years, I’ve had three stepmothers to bridge the gap.”

His light tone led me to believe that it wasn’t a sore subject, but the embarrassment I felt was a sharp reminder that prying is never a good idea. In a bid to stop any more accidental brain snaps, I took a long sip of wine.

Jean-Luc must’ve realised that I’d reined myself in, and that it was left to him to continue the conversation. He volunteered an extraordinary amount of information in a short space of time – and I soaked in every word as if he was a real life novel.

Even though he was struggling, he enjoyed the intense workload that came with studying for a law degree.

“I’m also on the rowing team,” he revealed. “We’re doing quite well this year.”

“I can tell.”

He frowned. “How?”

Yet again, my refined brain lost out to my blunt mouth. “You have lovely broad shoulders.”

His skin flushed pink all the way down to his neck, but he artfully escaped the chagrin by changing the subject.

I kept my eyes locked on his, doing little to hide the fact that I was hanging on every word.

During the university semesters, Jean-Luc lived in Holburn, in a place called Lincoln Fields. From what I could tell, it was a very posh area, but his flat, and the two roommates he lived with were not.

“They’re odd fellows,” he explained. “But beggars can’t be choosers.”

I set my glass down on the table. “I don’t think you’re a beggar,” I noted. “Beggars don’t wear Pierre Cardin.”

He dropped his head and looked down at his shirt. “You might be right,” he conceded with a smile. “But money can’t buy you decent flatmates.”

It can, however, buy you honey glazed cod.

I could hardly tear my eyes from my plate as the waiter set it down in front of me. The elaborate presentation made the humble fillet of fish look like a gallery exhibit.

“Is something wrong?” asked Jean-Luc.

Maybe I looked as confused as I felt. “I’m not sure,” I mumbled. “It looks like they’ve battered the flower instead of the fish.”

A low chuckle escaped him. “Beignet de fleur de courgette,” he announced. “Fried zucchini flowers.”

I swallowed hard, trying to quash the giddiness that was threatening to overtake me. This man was storybook perfect, and I couldn’t have conjured up a dreamier bloke if I’d written him myself.

“I bet you say that to all the girls,” I teased.

He gifted me a crooked grin. “I don’t believe I’ve ever said that to anyone.”

I put my hand to my heart in an exaggerated show of excitement. “You mean, I’m your first?”

“Yes, my darling,” he replied, hamming it up. “You are my first fried zucchini flower.”

I speculated that the easy conversation could’ve continued indefinitely, but it was an impossible theory to test because time wasn’t on our side.

When it was time to leave, Jean-Luc insisted on accompanying me to Euston station.

I spent the cab ride solemnly gazing out the window, catching a final view of London as I racked my brain for something to say. Jean-Luc didn’t have much to say either.

“I wish you had let me pay for lunch,” I said finally.

“Stay for dinner and I’ll let you pay.”

His demeanour didn’t match the bold suggestion. His voice was weak and his frown was strong.

“Are you worried that I’ll say yes or no?”

“I’m not an impulsive person, Fiona,” he replied. “I’m usually far more controlled when it comes to making life altering decisions.”

“Life altering? Wow, Jean- Luc.” It was impossible not to smile. “The dinner you’re planning must really be something.”

“It could be,” he hinted. “The company alone would be phenomenal.”

I had no experience when it came to accepting compliments. Flirty innuendo was new to me too – but at least I recognised it.

I held his gaze. “I’d miss the last train.”

“You could stay with me,” he shot back.

In a tell-tale sign that highlighted my inexperience, my cheeks flushed with heat. “That would definitely be a life altering decision,” I mumbled.

Jean-Luc had no idea he was flirting with a career virgin, and that wasn’t his fault. I’d purposefully steered most of the conversation, making sure that the focus stayed on him.

He was worldly, confident and posh. Ordinarily, a man like that wouldn’t give me the time of day, and I wasn’t going to embarrass myself by pretending otherwise.

Jean-Luc reached for my hand. “I’d like to get to know you better, Fiona.”

His face fell as I gently broke his hold. “I think you’d be disappointed,” I replied.

As if on cue, the taxi pulled into the parking bay outside the station. Dreading an awkward goodbye, I threw open the door and scrambled out. Jean-Luc tossed some money to the driver and quickly followed suit.

“Don’t you think I should decide for myself?” He stepped in front of me, blocking my path. “I like to think I’m a good judge of character.”

I couldn’t deny that his persistent streak was good for morale. I’d never been pursued before (except by the cats that lurk near the fish and chip shop) but still, I couldn’t give in.

A week ago, I had been engaged to be married, and it had all ended in a hail of frozen poultry. There was just no way of explaining it without looking a fool.

I reached, lightly touching his arm. “I’ll remember this day forever, Jean-Luc,” I told him. “Good luck with law school.”

To my own ears it sounded banal and inadequate, but he was even more unimpressed.

“I am French, Fiona.” I could hear the smile in his voice. “Is that the best you’ve got?”

I must be crazy, I thought.

Jean-Luc Décarie ticked boxes that I didn’t even know existed before now. In a few short minutes, he’d be gone forever – and my parting gesture was a pat on the arm.

Drawing on the only experience I had, I ripped off the plot of every romance novel I’ve ever read. I lurched forward, threw my arms around his neck and kissed him for all I was worth.

If it caught him by surprise, Jean-Luc didn’t let on. He reciprocated, wrapping his arms tightly around me and holding me close.

Until then, I had no idea that a kiss could feel that flippin’ tremendous.

Just like Angelica in A Recipe for Romance, a tidal wave of molten lava had burnt my heart to a cinder.

I was content to kiss him until I passed out, but Jean-Luc eventually called time. He took a step back, but his hold on me never wavered. “Are you sure you’re not French, Mademoiselle?” he teased.

At that moment, I realised that I could be whoever I wanted to be. In my heart, I was royalty, and I’d finally met a boy who was treating me accordingly.

“Oh, sod it,” I muttered, breaking free.

Jean-Luc looked as anxious as I felt, but he patiently waited while I rummaged around in my bag. My nerves were so shot that my hands shook, but I managed to find what I was looking for – my beloved diary.

I thumped it against his chest. “I want you to read this – every last word.”

Ignoring my obnoxious tone, he asked what it was.

I couldn’t blame him for being clueless. The tattered, dog-eared notebook gave no hint of the secrets it held.

“It’s the last two years of my life,” I nervously explained. “If you read it, you’ll know everything about me. Good, bad and ugly, it’s all there.”

He smiled down at the book in his hands, slowly running his finger along the edge of the worn binding. “And if I like what I read?”

I dipped my head, chasing his brown eyes. “Come and find me,” I told him. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

***

The End

Coming Soon

Silk Queen – Book Two

Available April 30, 2017

Pre-order now!


Silk Queen

In 1983, life for Fiona Black was simple. She loved fashion, nights out at Bingo, and Duran Duran. Her days were spent working in her mother’s haberdashery shop or hanging out with her two best friends. She was also planning her wedding. Unlike her idol Princess Di, Fiona hadn’t landed a prince. Her fiancé Andrew wasn’t perfect, but royalty was hard to come by in her small town in Manchester. Her princess aspirations were closeted, but perfection could always be found in the pages of the romance novels she loved so much. What she didn’t realise was that a real life fairy-tale was waiting for her in London, and it would be more epic than the twenty-five foot train on Princess Di’s wedding dress. All she had to do was find it.

  • ISBN: 9780994376084
  • Author: GJ Walker-Smith
  • Published: 2017-03-07 19:35:19
  • Words: 21546
Silk Queen Silk Queen