Today it is my stop on The Cherry Tree Cafe blog tour which I am thrilled to be a part of as I have been watching Heidi Swain's journey to publication and it was great to finally get to read her first
e-book baby ( I still hope one day it will grace our shelves so don't forget to tweet #paperbackcampaign #TheCherryTreeCafe )
If you missed my review for The Cherry Tree Cafe you can check it out by clicking HERE
I am pleased to be able to share with you now the first two chapters of The Cherry Tree Cafe which I am sure will get you hooked.
When I was growing up I used to hate my birthday. What use was a birthday two weeks after Christmas? But now, bowling headlong towards my early thirties with Mr Right to snuggle up to, it didn’t seem so bad. No, now it wasn’t too bad at all. I sighed and stretched out in the luxuriously large bed, then rolled over to snuggle up to his perfectly toned torso for a few more minutes, only to discover that he wasn’t there.
No matter, I smiled to myself, as I imagined him sauntering back into the bedroom with a laden breakfast tray and wearing little more than his most seductive smile. Just what, I couldn’t help wondering, had he got planned for my birthday, which coincidentally was the same day as our anniversary? Two blissful years since fate had blown him through the doors of the Mermaid pub and into my waiting arms.
Bored with life in Wynbridge, the small East Anglian town where I’d grown up, I was looking for a distraction, anything to stave off the monotony of pulling pints and justifying still living at home, when in breezed Giles Worthington. He introduced himself as a jilted groom, a broken soul in need of a little ‘r and r’, which I was only too willing to offer. I had him back on his feet in no time and in return he swept me off mine and carried me away to his castle, well, penthouse ﬂat actually.
It wasn’t until a few weeks down the line that I discovered that he had actually been the one largely responsible for the jilting, but his ﬁancée was long gone by then, already seeing someone else (so he said) and I was living the life of a princess, not that any of that really mattered to me. All I cared about was love, head over heels, heart slamming against the ribcage love. I was a ﬁrm believer in destiny, fate and all that malarkey and I just knew that Giles Worthington and I were meant to be together, forever.
‘Giles,’ I purred lustfully, ‘hurry up, the bed’s getting cold.’
No response. I sat up, shook my red curls away from my face, wrapped the sheet tightly around me and tiptoed to the door to call again. Still nothing, I shufﬂed back to bed and spotted an envelope propped up against the phone.
My day ran exactly as Giles planned it to. No snuggling up on the sofa guzzling Prosecco and watching old movies for me this year. Instead I was polished and preened at a lavish country house spa and trying my best to enjoy it, despite feeling out of place amongst the glossy, groomed goddesses who, unlike me, were clearly accustomed to such indulgent treatment.
Giles, always so generous, loved to shower me with surprises: lavish bouquets covering my desk at work, exquisite jewellery hidden in boxes of chocolates and last-minute minibreaks, but what I loved best was the time we spent together, just the two of us, snuggled under the duvet with our phones turned off and eyes only for each other. The whole birthday spa experience, although indulgent, just wasn’t me. Mindful of appearing ungrateful, however, I plastered on my best smile and thanked my lucky stars that at least I had a man who actually remembered my birthday.
I spent the entire day wrapped in a soft ﬂuffy robe, my every whim catered for before heading to the salon to have my locks straightened whilst a taxi waited on standby to drive me to my favourite rooftop restaurant for dinner with my dream man.
In the run up to the big day I’d become increasingly convinced that Giles was poised to propose, and my hours of intense pampering only served to satisfy the fantasy that endless clandestine conversations with my best mate, Jemma, had fed. I was so close to securing my happy-ever-after I could almost taste it.
‘Good evening, Miss Dixon.’ The restaurant manager bowed when I arrived.
‘Good evening, James,’ I blushed.
I still wasn’t used to the way people treated me now I was Giles’s girlfriend. Wherever we went, everyone knew my name. I knew my mother would have been in seventh heaven to have people falling over themselves for her, but to me it felt weird. I guess deep down I still felt a bit of a fraud living the city high life.
Before Giles whisked me away I was just a barmaid from a small town with no idea of ‘how the other half lived’ but now I was treated like the Queen of Sheba simply because I happened to grace the arm of Giles Worthington. Talking of whom, where was he?
‘Mr Worthington will be arriving shortly,’ James the manager said, as I glanced around apprehensively. ‘Would you care to follow me to your table?’
I had barely sat down when I saw Giles arrive. I smiled to myself as I watched every woman in the restaurant discreetly shifting in their seats to ensure they secured the best view of the thick dark hair, mahogany eyes and impeccably cut suit that was heading towards my table.
‘Lizzie,’ he said, bending down and brushing my cheek with the briefest kiss. ‘You look gorgeous. How was your day?’
He took the seat opposite mine and dutifully acknowledged the female diners who were still panting for a word from him. I breathed in the lingering scent of his aftershave and tried to draw my mind away from thoughts of getting him back to the ﬂat, loosening his tie and recklessly tearing open the buttons on his designer shirt.
‘My day has been utterly sublime,’ I breathed, ‘but I think tonight is going to surpass it.’
Ordinarily when I made a comment like that Giles would wink or caress my leg under the table and I would know there was no way he was going to wait until we got back to the ﬂat before he would ravish me, but he simply threw me a ﬂeeting smile and picked up his menu.
‘Is everything all right?’ I ventured.
It wasn’t like him not to play along.
‘Yes, sorry. It’s just been one of those days, you know?’
‘Actually I can’t say I do,’ I tried again, ‘because thanks to you I’ve had the best possible day ever.’
I knew I was pushing the truth a bit too far and that Jemma would shake her head at such gratuitous lying, but I wanted Giles to know how much I appreciated the day he had arranged for me. However, he just nodded vaguely and clicked his ﬁngers to catch the attention of the maître d’.
Two courses later and I was struggling to steady my nerves and keep my frustration in check.
‘Can’t you just leave it this time,’ I begged.
It was the third time Giles’s mobile phone had disturbed our meal and it seemed less and less likely with every passing mouthful that he was going to propose and even if he did, I wasn’t sure I’d have the good grace to accept, given the ﬁlthy mood I’d fallen into as a result of the constant interruptions.
‘Surely whatever it is can wait until we’ve ﬁnished our afters.’ I whispered.
‘It isn’t “afters”,’ Giles snapped, standing up and noisily dropping his spoon, ‘this is sweet or pudding or dessert, but not “afters” and no, I can’t just leave it.’
Sudden tears stung my eyes as I watched him march across the restaurant. I furiously tried to blink them away and ignore the pang of embarrassment I felt as a result of his harsh words. He’d never corrected anything I’d said before. The Brothers Grimm, as Jemma had named them, Giles’s brothers Edward and Charlie, might have done, but not Giles. In the two years I’d known him he’d never been cruel.
I thought back to all the times he’d sat around my parents’ dining table enjoying his ‘afters’. What the hell was wrong with him? I couldn’t believe that he would have gone to all the trouble of arranging the spa and sumptuous meal for my birthday, our anniversary, only to have it all sabotaged with phone calls from work.
‘We need to talk,’ he said quietly when he ﬁnally came back to the table, his expression grave.
‘What is it?’ I asked, reaching for his hand and feeling determined to make everything better. ‘I know there’s something wrong, Giles. We’ve never argued like this before and today of all days.’
I willed myself to forgive his waspish comment and smooth over the cracks in what was supposed to be the happiest moment of my life but there was something in his expression that suggested that today was just another day to him, nothing special at all. Surely he hadn’t really forgotten?
‘I’m sorry, Lizzie,’ he stammered, ‘I’m just not feeling myself. It’s been a very long day.’
‘It’s OK,’ I soothed.
He looked at me for a second then withdrew his hand and took a deep breath.
‘Look,’ he said, ‘there’s something I have to tell you.’
I sat back in my chair, ran a pristinely manicured hand over my sleek, straightened curls and tried to return his gaze. This was it. This was the moment he was ﬁnally going to ask me. He was just nervous and annoyed that we’d been interrupted.
‘So, what is it?’ I smiled. ‘I’m sure whatever it is can’t be that bad.’
Just for a second I was panicked by his unfathomable expression and looked down at the table, then I realised he was fumbling in his pocket for what I presumed was a ring box. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves and looked back up. He was pushing something across the table towards me. Tentatively I stretched out my hand to take it, but it wasn’t a ring box or a ring. It was a key. It was Giles’s ﬂat door key. I dropped it clumsily back onto the table as if its touch had seared my skin.
‘Lizzie, I’m so sorry.’ He frowned, his words barely audible.
‘But I have to tell you, I’ve decided I’m going to marry Natasha after all.’
I don’t really remember the ﬁner details of what happened after that. I sat and stared, dumbstruck, as Giles’s mouth opened and closed and snatches of some of what he said reached me from what felt like light years away.
‘I’ve never really stopped loving her,’ I heard him say, ‘I know now that when I met you I was just scared of the commitment she and I were about to make.’
‘But what about me, Giles?’ I stammered, bile rising as I refused to acknowledge the voice in my head warning me that the universe was gearing itself up to play an exceptionally cruel hand. ‘When we ﬁrst got together you told me that you and Natasha weren’t meant to be. You said that you felt lucky that you got out when you did and that what you felt for me was nothing like what you felt for her. You said you were in love with me!’
‘No,’ he shrugged, ‘I thought I was, but I wasn’t. Looking back, I think I just got scared of the thought of being with one person for the rest of my life and I panicked. I should never have split up with Natasha, let alone asked you to move in with me. I just got carried away, and if we’re being honest, Lizzie, even you’ll admit our relationship has never really worked, has it? I mean, you’ve never really settled into life here, have you?’
I sat open-mouthed, too stunned to move and too shocked to respond. I had left my job, my family and all my friends in Wynbridge to move to London so I could be with this man. I was crazy about him, would walk through ﬁre for him and I had thought he felt the same about me. Countless times he told me that he loved me, that I was a breath of fresh air, that he’d never met anyone else like me . . .
‘Excuse me,’ I murmured, pushing back my chair and praying that I’d make it to the ladies before off-loading the contents of my stomach.
I stared at my reﬂection in the mirrored wall but didn’t recognise the person looking back at me. Where had Lizzie Dixon gone? I teased a few of the tortured and tamed curls free and felt heavy tears gathering. I swallowed hard, took a deep breath and splashed my face with cold water to try and temper some of the heat in my ﬂushed cheeks.
‘I know this must be one hell of a shock,’ Giles whispered, as I rejoined him after a wobbly walk back to our table, ‘but I couldn’t let it drag on any longer. When I spotted you looking at rings before Christmas, I said to Natasha . . . What?’
‘Exactly how long have you been back with her?’ I gasped, horriﬁed.
Giles shook his head. ‘I don’t know, a few months maybe.’
I couldn’t bear to hear another word. Jemma’s voice was screaming at me to tip his drink over his head and dump his ‘afters’ in his lap, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I suddenly realised that this whole meal was a charade and that Giles had pinned all his hopes on me going quietly and not making a fuss and apparently I was going to, but only because I was too shocked to do anything else.
‘Can we go please?’ I said, standing back up again and clumsily pushing my chair away, ‘we’ll talk about this at the ﬂat.’
‘I’m not coming back to the ﬂat, Lizzie.’
‘I moved my stuff out today.’
‘You sneaky bastard,’ I choked, anger threatening to race ahead of shock.
‘I just thought it would save a scene. You can stay on there as long as you want. I can even have the lease changed to your name if you want.’
‘Oh thanks,’ I laughed, sitting back down with a thud, ‘you really are all heart!’
‘Don’t be like that. I’m trying my best to make this as painless as possible.’
‘For who, Giles? You know I won’t be able to pay the rent on my own. I’ll have to move out, and what about work? You set me up with that job. Do you really expect me to be able to walk back into that ofﬁce and carry on as if nothing has happened? I thought you loved me.’
‘So am I. I’m sorry I ever set eyes on you, but credit where it’s due, this is certainly one birthday I’ll never forget!’
And apparently neither would Giles. One ﬂeeting glance at his handsome face conﬁrmed that he hadn’t remembered it was my birthday or our anniversary at all.
Jemma began ringing soon after eight the following morning. Giles allegedly played squash with a colleague around that time and she knew I’d be home alone. I lay and listened to her breezy answerphone messages which to me, her oldest friend, belied the desperation she felt because I hadn’t picked up. I could all too easily imagine the texts backing up on my mobile would be nowhere near as polite.
‘Hi guys! It’s me again. I guess you aren’t in because if you were, you would have picked up by now, wouldn’t you?’
If it wasn’t all so tragic, I would have laughed. As the morning wore on her tone became increasingly frustrated, but I still couldn’t muster the courage to answer.
‘Anyway, I’m just popping out to take Ella to her ballet lesson and check on things at the Café,’ she gushed airily. ‘I’ll try and reach you later on your mobile, Lizzie. Hope you’re both OK and had a fab evening. Lots of love . . . OK, bye.’
I slumped back down under the duvet, determined not to have to face the real world for a little while longer and thought about the exciting times Jemma and her husband Tom were enjoying. Unlike me they had never felt any desire to leave Wynbridge. The place was their past, their present and now their future. They had recently bought a business, the Cherry Tree Café, and were deep in renovation and repair mode.
The Café had been an absolute bargain, according to Jemma. The council were in the throes of regenerating the town centre and consequently willing to let some of the smaller shops go for a song. They were pulling out all the stops to tempt the locals away from the out of town retail park, (which had seemed like such a good idea a few years ago), and back to the market square before the place lost its charm and became overrun with pound stores. According to Jemma, ‘shop local’ were the new buzz-words on everyone’s lips.
The Café had been the place to be seen when we were growing up and now it was poised to ﬂourish again and provide Jemma with the perfect space to expand her baking empire.
I wrapped myself a little tighter in the covers feeling thoroughly ashamed of the pang of jealousy I felt when thinking about Jemma’s perfect life and good fortune. She had a husband who loved her, an adorable daughter and now her dream business; the Café was going to be the cherry on her cupcake.
I managed to get through the rest of the torturous weekend with the comfort of my other two best friends, Ben and Jerry, and I can honestly say it was no sickie that I was planning to pull the following week. My ice cream consumption had reached epic proportions and I was in danger of succumbing to a severe sugar overdose.
Jemma had eventually stopped ringing, probably on the assumption that Giles and I were engaged and consequently otherwise engaged in a marathon weekend shag fest. Which unfortunately we weren’t, well, he probably was but with the perfectly pristine Natasha, rather than the frayed around the edges me.
Disconcertingly my mother had also rung a couple of times. Her messages were left in the voice she saved especially for Giles and his family, painstakingly pronouncing every syllable, and along with her nauseating tone there was the added concern that she hardly ever called. Her life was a blur of Wynbridge WI meetings and coffee mornings for orphaned orangutans. I hoped Jemma hadn’t bumped into her and said anything about not being able to get hold of me, but that was highly unlikely. The pair hardly moved in the same social circles.
I ﬁnally managed to get to sleep on Sunday night and unfortunately I stayed asleep. The cunning but face-saving Ferris Bueller style message I’d spent hours devising didn’t quite pan out. Blagging myself a few sick days would have given me enough time to compose myself and return to work looking conﬁdent, over Giles and with the world at my feet but unfortunately, fate it seemed, wasn’t quite ﬁnished with me yet.
‘It wasn’t all me,’ I groaned, increasingly convinced that this torturous hell was my comeuppance for so readily forgiving Giles when I discovered that he had been the one who left Natasha at the altar, not the other way round.
‘Elizabeth Dixon!’ I cringed under the duvet as the voice of my usually calm and kind-hearted boss Henry Glover echoed around the walls of the ﬂat. ‘Where the hell are you? In case you’ve forgotten, you are supposed to be heading up the sales meeting this morning! You have all the data on your computer and no one else can access it! Hurry the fuck up will you, everyone’s waiting!’
Reluctantly I shufﬂed out of bed, knowing I couldn’t put it off any longer.
‘Sally,’ I sniffed into the receiver, trying to sound more ﬂuridden than heartbroken. ‘Hi, I’m not going to make it in for a few days. Can you tell Henry for me? I don’t think the message I left yesterday got picked up.’
OK, so it was a lie, but given the circumstances, surely I was allowed just one?
‘Oh Lizzie, bless your heart. I was hoping you’d ring.’
I swallowed hard but couldn’t rid myself of the lump that had recently taken up residence in my throat. Sally, Henry’s secretary, knew everything. I could hear it in her voice. If I’d been genuinely ill she would have been sympathetic but brisk. I couldn’t stand it. If she knew, then so did everyone else. All the people it had taken months to win over when I ﬁrst moved in with Giles would now switch allegiance again, wouldn’t they? I couldn’t say we were ever bosom buddies, but I hated the thought of going back to work and not having anyone to talk to.
‘Can you tell Henry that I’m sorry? I think it’s just a bug,’ I lied, struggling to stop my voice cracking. ‘I think I must have picked it up over the weekend.’
‘If it’s any consolation, love, no one blames you. It’s Giles, the little shit; he’s always wanted what he shouldn’t have.’
The tension in my shoulders had only just begun to loosen its vice-like grip, when the phone rang again. This time it was Jemma, and I knew I couldn’t put off talking to her any longer. It wasn’t fair. I took a deep breath, braced myself for the impending storm and answered.
‘Finally!’ she laughed. ‘I was beginning to think you’d left the country! Now, don’t tell me, Giles whisked you away to some boutique hotel for the weekend, spoilt you rotten and now you’re wearing a princess cut diamond as big as your hand!’
‘Not exactly,’ I murmured.
‘Oh, it’s a Lady Di sapphire, is it?’
‘Look Jemma, if you’d just shut up for two seconds.’
‘What is it? Oh god, don’t tell me you eloped! Ella will never forgive you if she’s missed the chance to be a bridesmaid! Give me all the details, quick!’
‘Well,’ I winced, ‘the day began with a trip to a country house spa.’
‘A country house spa!’ Jemma scoffed. ‘What was he thinking? You hate that kind of thing! Then what?’
‘Then back to the city for dinner.’
‘Yes,’ she snapped impatiently, ‘I guessed there would be food at some point. Jesus, Lizzie, just cut to the good stuff, will you?’
I took a deep breath and forced the three little words I’d been dreading saying aloud out of my mouth and into the world.
‘And then . . . he dumped me.’
‘He moved out while I was at the spa and he’s gone back to Natasha. They’re getting married.’
Silence, then quiet sobbing ﬁlled the space that had only seconds before been occupied by my best mate crooning about my future prospects.
‘Oh god, don’t cry!’ I begged. ‘I haven’t got the energy to try and make you feel better.’
‘I’m not. I’m sorry. It’s just so horrible.’
‘I know. I almost threw up all over the table when he told me.’
I don’t know why I was trying to make it sound funny. It certainly didn’t lessen the pain or the embarrassment. For weeks Jemma and I had been fantasising about the moment Giles would propose and now I had to explain that what I assumed were nerves about popping the question were actually mass desertion tactics.
‘You’re not seriously telling me the bastard told you over dinner?’ Jemma seethed.
‘Yep,’ I nodded, unable to stop now I was on a roll, ‘but in his defence, it was a very nice dinner even though I did almost end up seeing it in reverse!’
‘How can you be making jokes, Lizzie? This is awful!’
‘Because if I don’t, I think I’ll go under completely,’ I admitted, ‘and I can’t do that. I won’t give him the satisfaction of knowing how much I’m hurting.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you can’t stay there, can you? Have you any idea how excruciating work is going to be?’
‘Yes, it had crossed my mind.’
‘And what about the rent? You can’t possibly manage it on your own.’
‘Yes, OK thanks, Jemma,’ I grumbled.
Ever since I’d planned to phone in sick, my thoughts had been of little else but I didn’t need someone, especially someone I loved, telling me what a struggle my life was going to be from now on. I needed Jemma’s support as well as her sympathy.
‘I’m sorry,’ she sniffed, sounding more like her practical old self. ‘It’s just such a shock, that’s all. Maybe you should come home to Wynbridge for a bit.’
‘Just for a break, until you get your head straight. Come to us if you can’t face your mum . . . oh . . . ’
‘Don’t lie to me, Jemma. What is it?’
‘Well, I kind of ran into your mum in town last Friday.’
I slumped down on the sofa, the last of my spirit heading for the door.
‘So?’ I asked, trying to sound unconcerned.
‘Jemma, you didn’t mention anything about Friday night, did you?’ I already knew the answer, courtesy of the answerphone messages.
‘I might have mentioned that you were having a birthday treat and that Giles had something special up his sleeve.’
‘Oh god,’ I groaned.
‘I’m so sorry.’ Jemma started to cry again.
‘Look,’ I shrugged, ‘don’t worry about it, at least you didn’t lie.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, he did have something up his sleeve, didn’t he? Just not what we were expecting, that’s all.’
I hung up, knowing I couldn’t hold back the tide any longer. I was going to have to telephone home and keep everything crossed that Dad, not Mum would pick up. I forced myself to eat a bowl of cereal, then had a shower and washed my hair. There was no point going into battle halfarsed. Where my mother was concerned, you needed all your armour intact before advancing.
‘Hello, darling . . . oh hang on, your mother wants to talk.’
‘No, Dad, wait!’
The sheer relief I had momentarily felt at hearing Dad’s voice evaporated as I heard Mum snatching the phone from his grasp and installing herself on the sofa for a cosy chat.
‘Lizzie!’ she gushed, ‘where on earth have you been? I’ve been trying to get hold of you for days!’
‘Now, tell me. Where did that gorgeous man take you for your birthday? I bumped into Jemma in town and she told me he had something special planned, that’s why I didn’t ring on the day. Do you know, she had Ella with her and her behaviour was quite appalling?’
I blessed my goddaughter and her ability to shock my mother. I was grateful for anything that would distract her from her current course of interrogation.
‘Anywho,’ she laughed, ‘that’s all by the by. When are you both coming home? Can we expect a big announcement?’
I could hear Dad frantically trying to shut her up in the background and the way her voice started cutting in and out suggested that she was wafting him away with a duster much the same as she would a ﬂy.
‘We’re not,’ I said ﬁrmly, drawing myself up for the moment of impact, ‘and no.’
‘Pardon?’ She stalled.
‘We’re not coming home and no, there is no announcement, well, other than that Giles and I are no longer a couple.’
‘Sorry, Lizzie,’ she murmured faintly, ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Then let me spell it out for you,’ I sighed. ‘On my birthday Giles moved all his stuff out of the ﬂat while I was at a spa and then in the evening, he took me out to dinner and told me that he didn’t love me and that he was getting back with Natasha, his former ﬁancée and marrying her.’
I stopped to draw breath. It was the ﬁrst time I’d said the whole thing so plainly and the words tore my heart in two. I still didn’t want to believe it had happened.
‘Oh, Lizzie!’ Mum sobbed. ‘Are you absolutely sure?’
I took another deep breath.
‘How on earth has this happened?’ She sniffed.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, had you been ﬁghting? Had you fallen out with his mother or one of the brothers?’
Sometimes I thought, as I tuned out my mother’s disapproving prattle, it would be cool to have a brother or sister. Someone else to conspire with, share the heat and hassle. But then I realised that knowing my luck I’d end up playing second ﬁddle; I’d be Monica Geller not Ross and that would be undoubtedly worse, wouldn’t it? Constant comparison to a saintly sibling was not a comforting thought. Perhaps I should start pinning my hopes on Dad trading in who I’d ended up with for a mother for a kinder, less sharply edged model.
‘What? I mean, pardon?’
‘I said, are you listening?’
‘Of course I’m listening!’
‘Then tell me, what did you do?’
‘What do you mean, what did I do?’
‘Well, you must have done something? Giles wouldn’t have just decided this was his only course of action if your relationship was all tickety-boo, would he?’
‘Why is everything always my fault?’ I retaliated.
‘And who is this Natasha person? I had no idea Giles had been engaged before!’
Ah, I’d forgotten about that. Dad and I had decided it would be better all-round if Mum was kept in the dark about that one. When Giles and I ﬁrst got together we considered it all best left unsaid; shame I hadn’t remembered our little plan before I phoned home, really. To be honest, it was a shame that I’d gone along with his little plan at all. My grandmother had always maintained that we reaped what we sowed in life and I was just beginning to understand what she meant.
The Cherry Tree Cafe is available in ebook now
The Cherry Tree Cafe is available in ebook now
Be sure yo follow the tour, tomorrow's stop will be with the lovely Alba