Love happens when you least expect it…
Emily Atkinson stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago! She’s fed up of dating frogs in order to track down her very own Prince Charming, despite the best efforts of her matchmaking best friend…
But now she’s been invited to the wedding of the year at the enchanting Durban Castle, and perhaps bumping into a knight in shining armour isn’t as far away as she thought!
Will Emily survive the wedding and walk away an unscathed singleton – or finally find her own happily-ever-after?
A cosy and charming romance, perfect for fans of Trisha Ashley and Caroline Roberts.
I’m going to have to dump him, which is a shame as he’s a good-looking guy (not that looks should matter, but there’s no denying the bloke is pretty damn hot). His dark hair is styled (but not overly so), he has the perfect amount of stubble, and deep, expressive eyes beneath defined brows, and – his best asset, in my opinion – a wide, readily available smile. He has good teeth, his fingernails are neatly trimmed, and he always smells divine. He has good manners too. He’s attentive and interesting and never monopolises our conversations. And, most impressive of all, when we spoke about our work (I’m a history teacher at the local secondary school) and he asked about my favourite time period, he didn’t gloss over as I gushed about my passion for all things Tudor. He is, on the surface, the perfect package.
But he has to go, I’m afraid.
‘It’s too soon, isn’t it?’ he asks as I sit staring at him from across the table, my fork suspended between plate and (gaping) mouth. I haven’t said a word since he suggested I meet his parents next weekend, but I manage to pull myself together, snapping my cavernous mouth shut and pushing my lips into what I hope resembles a smile and not the grimace I’m feeling deep inside.
‘No. Of course it isn’t too soon.’
I’m lying. It’s way too soon. This is our third date, for goodness’ sake! I’ve had a longer, more fulfilling relationship with the half-packet of Polos in my handbag. I don’t know him well enough to meet his parents; I don’t know whether he prefers salt and vinegar crisps or cheese and onion, which supermarket he frequents, how many sugars he takes in his tea or coffee (see, I don’t even know his preference of hot beverage!) or how he feels about Brexit. We haven’t even slept together yet! Now, call me crazy, but I’d quite like to know what he’s like in the sack before we start doing full-on couple stuff.
‘So?’ He looks at me with those gorgeous eyes, eyebrows lifted, fingertips meeting above his plate as though half in prayer. ‘What do you think?’
‘It’s… an idea.’
A stupid idea. Ludicrous. Who meets the parents of somebody they’ve been on three measly dates with? We won’t make it to a fourth, that’s for sure. I’d probably find an engagement ring floating in my Chardonnay considering the speed this bloke works at.
‘Great!’ If he senses my discomfort, he doesn’t show it as he flashes his wide smile. ‘What do you want to do?’
Go home? Curl up on the sofa with Carrot (my cat, not a root vegetable) and pretend this date never happened?
‘We could go for a hike?’ he suggests when I don’t respond. My fork is still frozen in the air, the speared stuffed mushroom no longer appetising. ‘We could take a picnic or stop off for a pub lunch? Do you own a pair of hiking boots? We can pick some up on the way if you don’t.’
‘Are you a big fan of hiking?’ I’m enquiring more to avoid answering the question than out of genuine interest, to be honest, but he doesn’t pick up on this.
‘Oh, yes.’ He nods effusively and picks up his cutlery while I place mine down gently on my plate. ‘We love it! The fresh air, the views…’ He sighs happily and starts to saw into his steak. ‘Gets your heart rate going too.’
Do you know what else gets your heart rate going? The prospect of dumping a perfectly nice guy because he’s galloping way ahead of you, moving you on to a new stage of your relationship before you’re even remotely ready. But I have to do this, before I find myself clad in brand-new hiking boots, making polite conversation with Mr and Mrs Nice Guy while dragging my carcass up a hill.
But just look at him. He’s so sweet, chatting away animatedly about the top hiking routes to take on the outskirts of Woodgate, the pubs that serve the best lunches, where to buy my new boots (his treat). I need to let him down – gently, obviously – but I’m not sure how to do it without hurting his feelings.
‘Maybe we can spend the weekend after with your parents.’ His fate is sealed as he pops a forkful of steak into his mouth. I now know, without a doubt, that this three-date relationship will be over before he’s swallowed.
My house is just ahead, a two-bed terrace nestled between the Chelsea Flower Show and a drug den. Okay, so it isn’t the actual Chelsea Flower Show, but our neighbour has filled the tiny strip of yard at the front of her house with enough shrubs, blooms and decorative solar lights to create a mini exhibition. And our other neighbouring property isn’t really a drug den, though the lads who live there do dabble in a bit of weed dealing. The smell is sometimes as overpowering as Mrs Hodgkinson’s primroses.
I’ve lived in this little house with my best friend for a decade, ever since we were students commuting daily into Manchester for uni and the waitressing jobs that helped fund our not-quite-lavish lifestyles. Alice is technically my landlady as she owns the house, but I’m an exemplary lodger so it’s never been a problem. It works for us, anyway. I love living with my best friend and the rent is extremely reasonable, which helps when you’re a teacher at a state school, and Alice likes to wind her family up (especially her annoying stepmother) by still ‘living in squalor like a student’. We don’t live in squalor, but Francelia Monroe (the annoying stepmother) has issues.
Our house looks so inviting as I approach, the lamp inside the living room casting a warm glow now it’s just starting to turn dark, but I don’t ask the taxi driver to stop just yet. There’s plenty of space to park, but we carry on up the road, stopping several doors away so the rumbling engine doesn’t alert Alice to my arrival. My plan is to sneak, as quiet as a mouse wearing cotton-wool slippers, into the house and up the stairs without Alice hearing a thing. I know she’ll want to dissect the date – What did we talk about? Did we kiss (or get up to anything more saucy)? Wouldn’t he make a fabulous husband and father one day? – and I simply don’t have the energy or inclination to discuss any of it. Not tonight. Alice will be so disappointed I’ve let another good guy slip through my fingers, so I’ll let her down gently in the morning (or shout it over my shoulder as I leg it from the house with a piece of toast clutched in hand so I don’t have to go into detail). Alice has been trying to find my perfect match for the past year. She’s always had herself pegged as a bit of a Cupid, but three things happened a year ago to propel her nagging about my love life to actual meddling. The first was the introduction of Alice and Kevin, one of the music teachers at my school. Alice had been a bit mopey since her sister announced her engagement, so when a group of us got together to celebrate the end of the school year, to toast our surviving yet another set of GCSEs and kick off the summer holidays in style, I invited Alice to join us. She hit it off with Kevin and, one year on, they’re proper loved up, and Alice thinks it’s all down to me. She’s determined to repay the favour, even if I’d rather she didn’t. I’m happy being single. It’s less complicated. Less stressful. Ending my relationship with Edward – the second thing that happened a year ago – was the right decision, no matter how much Alice tells me otherwise.
I pull my keys out of my handbag as I scurry past the row of houses, making an emergency stop as I reach the Chelsea Flower Show. From here, I tiptoe (yes, really – I look like a flipping cartoon character) past the shrubs and flowers until I reach our wall. I pause while I consider – briefly – whether I should drop down to the pavement and army-crawl past the window. The blinds are still open and, although my view is obscured by their angle from the outside, Alice will be able to see me clearly if she happens to look outside. But no, even I’m not that irrational.
With extreme care, I inch my key up to the lock, holding my breath as metal reaches metal. Growing up, I had lots of practice at sneaking into houses – non-burglar-like – as I often stayed with my great aunt, who was strict about curfews (screw it, let’s call a spade a spade – the woman was a mean old cow), so I manage to slot the key into place almost silently, turning it ever so gently until the door starts to give. This is the easy bit done with. The hardest part is removing the key without alerting the occupant inside.
With one hand against the door, I ease the key from the lock, breath held and face scrunched up in concentration. I’m nearly there. The key is coming loose. A little bit more and it’ll be free. I’ll creep inside, closing the door with as little noise as possible, before slinking up the stairs. Once I’ve made it up there, I’m golden. If Alice finds me in bed, I’ll just pretend to be asleep.
The key slips from the lock and I give the door a gentle nudge, almost jumping out of my skin as I come face to face with Alice, looming on the doormat like Great Aunt Dorothy.
‘Holy humus, Alice!’ I’ve somehow managed to swallow the gasp of surprise as I take a step back, one hand pressed against my chest. ‘What are you doing? You scared the crap out of me.’
‘Ssh!’ Alice’s eyes are wide, a finger vertical across her lips. When she speaks, she’s whispering. ‘I thought you were Kevin.’
‘Do you usually hide behind the door to scare the living daylights out of your boyfriend?’ I, too, am whispering, though I’m not sure why.
‘No, of course not.’ Alice grabs me and pulls me inside, her finger going back up to her lips once my feet are firmly on the ground again. She nods towards the living room. ‘Francelia is here.’
‘What?’ I manage to groan while whispering. ‘Why? What have we done to deserve this?’
‘Something bad, obviously.’ Alice narrows her eyes at me. ‘Why are you home so early?’
I concentrate on shoving my keys into my handbag so I don’t have to look at Alice when I reply. ‘The date didn’t go too well.’
I sneak a peek up at Alice. She’s folded her arms across her chest and an eyebrow is quirked at me. ‘What do you mean? What happened?’
This is why I was so keen to avoid Alice tonight. She’s affronted every time a date goes awry, as though I’ve insulted her by not falling head over heels with the guy. I look down at the doormat beneath my feet. This really is like getting collared sneaking into Great Aunt Dorothy’s house and I’m lost for words as she awaits an explanation.
I sneak another peek at her. Poor Alice. There is such hope in her eyes. It’s going to be such a shame to squish it.
‘I ended it.’
‘You ended it?’ Alice’s voice comes out all high and squeaky, and she clamps a hand to her mouth, her eyes swivelling towards the closed living room door. When she speaks again, the whisper is back. ‘What happened?’ Her eyebrow quirks again, as though adding ‘this time’ to the end of her question.
‘He wanted me to meet his parents.’ I wait for a reaction, but Alice doesn’t bat an eyelid. ‘His parents, Alice. We’ve been on three dates. That isn’t normal!’
Alice opens her mouth to argue, but closes it again with a sigh. ‘I suppose you’re right. It is a bit soon.’
‘A bit soon?’ I give a hoot, which earns me a death glare from Alice, who thrusts a thumb at the living room. I dutifully lower my voice even further. ‘Three dates, Alice. I’ve known the man for approximately six hours. You’ve been with Kevin for a year and…’ I yelp as Alice grabs me by the arm, her grip so tight it pinches.
‘Will you shush?’ Her eyes are back on the living room door again.
‘Sorry.’ I try to extricate myself from Alice’s grasp, but the woman’s fingers are like a vice. ‘But you know what I mean. Also, you’re really hurting me.’
‘What?’ Alice looks down, suddenly realising I’m trying to squirm from her grip. ‘Oh. Sorry.’ She releases my arm and I start to inch towards the stairs.
‘Anyway, I’m exhausted. I’m going to go up to bed.’
‘No, you are not.’ Alice’s fingers are clutching my arm again before I can make any attempt to shuffle off upstairs. ‘You are not leaving me with that woman. She’s been here for twenty minutes and I already feel like jumping off a very tall building. She’s mocked my career choice, my living arrangements, my so-called weight gain.’ Alice looks down at her tiny frame. ‘Pur-lease. Bitch knows I look smokin’ hot.’ She tightens her grip on my arm, and her eyebrows press down low. ‘Any minute now we’re going to start on my love life. I need you, Emily.’
‘Wouldn’t it be easier if you just told them about Kevin?’
Despite their one-year relationship, Alice hasn’t told her family about her boyfriend. They’ve never met him or even heard his name. As far as they’re aware, Alice is still very much single (and doesn’t Francelia like to goad Alice about that).
‘Are you kidding me?’ Alice jabs her free hand at the living room door. ‘That woman in there would make our relationship hell until she’d crushed it if she knew about me and Kevin. You’ve met her. She’s evil. There’s not a chance in hell she’d accept Kevin.’
‘Not even if she knew you were totally in lurve with him?’ I make a silly kissy face, but it doesn’t make Alice smile. In fact, it makes her face and shoulders droop.
‘Especially if she knew I was totally in love with him. She’s done it before and she’ll do it again. She doesn’t want me to be happy.’
‘You have to tell them the truth one day,’ I point out.
‘I know.’ Alice nods, though with little enthusiasm. ‘And I will. Just not now when Carolyn’s about to get married. The wedding is the only thing that’s put Francelia in a good mood – I don’t want to ruin it. Now isn’t a good time.’
‘Will there ever be a good time?’ I ask, but Alice doesn’t get the chance to answer as the living room door swings open. I almost recoil in horror as evil stepmother Francelia appears in the doorway. She’s actually beautiful (on the outside) – though this is more down to her highly paid surgeon than Mother Nature. Francelia is forty-seven (and not thirty-five as she tells everyone) but she doesn’t have a single crease on her face or grey hair in her glossy, chin-length bob.
‘What’s going on out here?’ she asks, eyes narrowed (no crow’s feet) and one hand planted on a slender hip. ‘And why have I been left to fend for myself? This is not how we treat guests, Alice. You are a very rude young lady at times. Your father would be shocked at your behaviour.’
‘Papa Monroe not here today then?’ I pop my head past Francelia into what I know will be an empty living room. Alice’s father hasn’t been to the house in the ten years I’ve lived here, and I think I’d die of shock if he rocked up now.
‘Mr Monroe is very busy this evening.’ Francelia has an icy glare when she’s irritated. It’s actually quite scary. It makes me wonder what would happen if I chanted ‘Francelia Monroe’ three times in front of a mirror.
‘He is a very busy man,’ I say, which is clear, as he never has time for his daughter. Alice flashes me a pleading look, silently begging me to leave it. Alice is a strong and feisty woman, but she wilts whenever she’s in Francelia’s presence.
‘He is indeed.’ The corners of Francelia’s mouth pull upwards, hinting at a smile. ‘Now, are we going to stand out here all evening?’
‘No. Of course not.’ Alice finally releases my arm and follows Francelia back into the living room. She glances over her shoulder, eyes wide and pleading. It’s been a very trying evening and I want nothing more than to drag myself up the stairs and crawl into bed, but I can’t do that to Alice. Taking a fortifying breath, I step into the living room and prepare for battle.
JENNIFER JOYCE is a writer of romantic comedies who lives in Manchester with her husband and their two daughters. She’s been scribbling down bits of stories for as long as she can remember, graduating from a pen to a typewriter and then an electronic typewriter. And she felt like the bee’s knees typing on THAT. She now writes her books on a laptop (which has a proper delete button and everything).
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