Meet Me Under the Mistletoe Carla Burgess ‘Some people take baths to feel cosy. I pick up a Carla Burgess novel! Beautiful, enchanting and highly addictive.’ The Writing Garnet*The top 10 digital bestseller!*It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the little flower shop…Florist Rachel Jones might spend every day making beautiful bridal bouquets at her little flower shop, but her own love life is wilting as quickly as a bunch of dead roses.Luckily, the arrival of handsome detective Anthony Bascombe, the new tenant upstairs is the perfect distraction! Although there’s a catch, Anthony isn’t looking for love – he’s looking for her ex-fiancé, Patrick…But as the snow begins to fall and her little shop fills with mistletoe ready for Christmas, will Rachel manage to melt Anthony’s heart?Fans of Debbie Johnson, Holly Martin and Christie Barlow will love this heartwarming read from the bestselling author of Marry Me Tomorrow. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas at the little flower shop… Florist Rachel Jones might spend every day making beautiful bridal bouquets at her little flower shop, but her own love life is wilting as quickly as a bunch of dead roses. Luckily, the arrival of handsome detective Anthony Bascombe, the new tenant upstairs is the perfect distraction! Although there’s a catch, Anthony isn’t looking for love – he’s looking for her ex-fiancé, Patrick… But as the snow begins to fall and her little shop fills with mistletoe ready for Christmas, will Rachel manage to melt Anthony’s heart? Fans of Debbie Johnson, Holly Martin and Christie Barlow will love this heartwarming read from the bestselling author of Marry Me Tomorrow. Meet Me Under the Mistletoe Carla Burgess ONE PLACE. MANY STORIES Contents Cover (#ueb405ac2-eab9-5c34-9947-775987f86ab6) Blurb (#u66d1ff7b-1e5a-5427-8a6e-480b186847ee) Title Page (#u27df87ee-4a15-57cb-95d3-e839b56d97ea) Author Bio (#u9913ef70-928b-59b6-94a1-d3e77cc1fb87) Acknowledgements (#u8cfde7e4-1fd0-57fd-a0a4-318e9f61a0bd) Dedication (#u65a04fb6-c647-593c-852f-774621d4c536) Chapter One (#ub605a03a-84b4-5547-97ee-0cb3f36a6082) Chapter Two (#ud244e59e-2bae-535e-aa4d-1d1375c7c8dd) Chapter Three (#u7c91f7c2-0033-5d7d-8a4e-6e9db6c8efd3) Chapter Four (#u5335ab27-3910-5328-9394-013685bfa861) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo) Excerpt (#litres_trial_promo) Endpages (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) CARLA BURGESS was born in Solihull and now lives in Chester with her husband, three children, dog and bearded dragon. Her love of books was sparked when she borrowed Ghost Ship to Ganymede by Robert Swindells from her primary school library and devoured it in one night. It was just after this that she started writing her own stories and inflicting them on family and friends. She began her working life as an editor on a trade magazine where she dreamed of writing about romance instead of tubing, but still felt privileged to be working with words. She has a degree in English literature and psychology, and loves animals, the countryside and the sea. Carla’s debut novel, Marry Me Tomorrow, released in 2016, became a bestseller. For more information about Carla, you can follow her on Twitter @MsBear123 and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carlaburgesswriter/ (http://www.facebook.com/carlaburgesswriter/) A big thank you to my lovely editor Charlotte Mursell and the HQ Digital team for all of their hard work in the making of this book. Thank you to my family for putting up with me during the writing of this book, and also to all my lovely author friends who are always on hand with advice and support. For Ian, Isobel, Tom and Cassie – with love. Chapter One (#ubfd5aa5b-d344-5dcd-a87b-360f986167ef) Anthony Bascombe walked into my life one Thursday afternoon in the middle of November. The bell above the door tinkled violently and a gust of wind accompanied him into the shop, making the flowers quiver in their buckets and the fairy lights shiver on the shelves. The shifting air carried the scent of his aftershave as it lifted my hair from my shoulders, and I had to place a hand on the sheets of wrapping paper on the counter to stop them flying away. ‘Sorry!’ he said, shutting the door behind him quickly. ‘It’s a bit blustery out there.’ ‘It’s okay.’ I laughed and tried to ignore the fizz of attraction that surged through my veins as he smiled across at me. All kinds of customers came into my flower shop, including plenty of attractive men buying gifts for their loved ones, but it wasn’t often that they were dressed so well or had such lovely, twinkly blue eyes. He wore a beautifully cut navy suit and his short, dark-blond hair was styled into a neat little quiff at the front. Self-consciously, I smoothed down my flowery tea dress and tried to remember if I’d applied my winged eyeliner straight this morning. ‘How can I help you? Are you looking for anything in particular?’ ‘I’m looking for you, actually,’ he said, still smiling as he walked towards me. ‘If you’re Rachel Jones, that is?’ ‘Oh! Yes, that’s me. What can I do for you?’ I cleared my throat, mortified that my voice had gone all squeaky when his was so pleasantly deep. ‘I just came in to introduce myself. My name’s Anthony Bascombe.’ He extended a hand to shake. ‘I’m the new tenant in the apartment upstairs. I believe your parents are my new landlords.’ ‘Oh!’ I gazed at him wide-eyed, delighted that I was going to be seeing him around a lot. He had such a lovely warm smile; it lit up his whole face. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. ‘Of course! You moved in on Sunday, didn’t you? I was wondering when we’d get to meet. Have you settled in okay? Is everything to your liking?’ ‘Yes, everything’s perfectly fine, thank you. The apartment’s lovely.’ ‘It is, isn’t it?’ I said, eager to keep him talking. ‘We had it renovated recently so it’s all fresh and new. I’m quite jealous you’re living there, actually. I felt like moving in myself.’ Raising his eyebrows slightly, he looked at me with interest. ‘Why didn’t you then?’ ‘I have my own house already. It’s only a ten-minute walk down the road and over the river. Close enough.’ Realising I was on the verge of giving him my home address and inviting him round for tea, I shut up and then noticed my fingers were still wrapped around his big, warm hand. Trying to pretend it was normal to hold a handshake for this long, I let go and tucked my hands into the pockets of my cardigan instead. To his credit, Anthony pretended not to notice and turned his attention to the shop. ‘It’s lovely in here. I love the whole vintage vibe.’ He turned around slowly, taking in the shelves of flowers, the display of scented candles on the shabby-chic Welsh dresser in the corner and the floral birdcages hung at different levels from the ceiling. ‘I like the fact you haven’t got any Christmas decorations up yet.’ ‘Oh, they’ll be going up this weekend, don’t worry.’ He glanced back over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow. ‘Still too early.’ I laughed. ‘That’s the way it is in retail, I’m afraid. Some shops put them up as soon as Halloween’s out of the way.’ ‘I know,’ he said, grudgingly. ‘So, why’s this shop called The Birdcage, then? You’re not trapped here, I take it?’ ‘No, it was my Mum’s shop. Her name’s Birdie. I take it you haven’t met her yet. She’s on holiday with her sister at the moment. Dad won’t fly.’ ‘Yes, I’ve only met your dad. Nice man.’ He turned back to face me and smiled. ‘Well, if you’re not trapped here, perhaps you’d like to take pity on the new boy in town and come out to dinner with me?’ ‘I’m sorry?’ I blinked in surprise, thinking I’d misheard him. He smiled. ‘No pressure or anything. I just can’t stand the thought of spending another night sitting in the flat sorting out boxes and I’d quite like to see a bit of Chester. That’s unless you already have plans, and only if your boyfriend wouldn’t object, of course?’ ‘Oh! No, not at all. What time is it now?’ He looked at his watch. ‘Half past five. What time do you close?’ ‘Half past five.’ I smiled, suddenly excited. This was a vast improvement on my original plans for the evening, which involved a microwave meal for one in front of Emmerdale and a bubble bath. ‘Let me bring the flowers in from outside and then I can lock up.’ ‘Oh here, I’ll help you,’ he said, following me out of the shop to where more buckets of flowers stood just outside the door. ‘You don’t have to. It’ll only take a minute,’ I said, bending to lift a container of roses. ‘No, here, pass it to me.’ He held the door open with his back and took the container out of my hands. ‘Do I just put them in front of this shelf?’ ‘Yes, please. That’s perfect,’ I said, passing him another container. There were only half a dozen or so containers of flowers out today. It had been too windy and cold to risk more. Leaves scuttled along the pavement and my skirt flapped around my legs, lifting and billowing ominously as I passed Anthony the last container. I clamped it down with my hand, pink with embarrassment, but Anthony either didn’t or pretended not to see to spare my blushes. ‘Thank you,’ I said, as he stood back to let me through the door. I caught another waft of his aftershave and resisted the urge to sniff him all over like my parents’ spaniel. ‘I’ll just lock the back door and get my coat,’ I said, breathlessly, walking through the archway into the back of the shop where we created the flower arrangements. I’d intended to clear the stalks and leaves from the large wooden table before I left tonight, but it could wait until the morning. Locking the door, I set the alarm and grabbed my blue pea coat from the peg. Anthony turned the sign to closed as I dashed round switching off fairy lights and blowing out candles, and then held the door open for me when we were ready to go. I was seriously impressed by his manners. I wasn’t used to such gentlemanly behaviour. ‘So, where have you come from, Anthony?’ I said, as we walked up the street towards the city centre. I raised my voice over the sound of cars and buses rumbling past, and he bent his head closer so he could hear. ‘I’m originally from Shropshire, but I’ve just moved here from Manchester.’ ‘So, not too far away then.’ ‘No.’ ‘Why Chester? Do you have a new job here?’ ‘No. I just like to move around. See new places’ ‘Really? Blimey, I don’t think I could be bothered with all the hassle of moving my stuff from place to place.’ He shrugged. ‘I choose furnished rental properties and keep my belongings to a minimum.’ ‘Oh, okay.’ I raised my eyebrows, a little surprised by his answer. I couldn’t imagine a life where I moved around from town to town. The only time I’d left Chester was to go to university in Liverpool for three years, then I’d moved straight back home. Presumably, that would seem boring to a man like Anthony. I remembered my dad saying he’d only signed a three-month contract. Dad would have preferred six but Anthony had seemed like the ideal tenant so he’d gone along with it. It was a shame he wouldn’t be sticking around for longer. ‘So, what do you fancy to eat? Anything in particular?’ ‘Mmm, something with potatoes and gravy. Preferably a pie.’ I looked up at him in surprise. He was so posh, I’d half expected him to say venison or something, although to be fair he hadn’t specified what type of pie. It could well be a game pie he was craving. He looked at me and laughed. ‘What?’ he said. ‘I’ve been starving all day! Don’t tell me you’re one of these women that nibbles on lettuce leaves and calls it a meal.’ ‘Not at all. I just… I don’t know.’ I laughed and peeled a strand of hair away from my face. I didn’t know him well enough to start joking about how upper class he was. ‘There’s a pub up here that serves nice food. We’ll go there.’ It was only a few minutes’ walk, which was a relief because the cold wind was making my eyes water and I didn’t want mascara all down my face. I couldn’t believe I felt so nervous and excited about going to dinner with this man I’d met less than half an hour ago. This wasn’t me; I didn’t go all fan-girl crazy over men I’d just met. I was sensible and practical. The fact that I’d got engaged to my last boyfriend rather too quickly was beside the point. That had been a big mistake and one I would not be repeating any time soon. Anyway, this wasn’t a date. I was just being neighbourly, that’s all, and taking care of my parents’ new tenant. It wasn’t nice to be all alone in a new city, especially with Christmas approaching. No matter how much he liked to move around and be in new places, he was bound to get lonely sometimes. And he might even have a girlfriend already. Just because he lived alone didn’t necessarily mean he was single. I breathed the cool night air deep into my lungs as we approached the pub to try and calm my nerves. Anthony opened the door and stood back to let me enter first. The pub was quiet so finding a table was no problem. We sat at a table for two next to the window. He smiled as he passed me a menu and my stomach fluttered. ‘See, they have pie,’ I said, pointing at the menu. ‘Mmm, so they do,’ he smiled. A waitress came over and took our drinks order. I noted that he spoke just as courteously to her as he had to me and it made me like him even more. I found myself watching the way his eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled up at her. At a guess, I’d have said he was about ten years older than me. Probably thirty-five, or thirty-six. The waitress jotted down our order and walked away. ‘So, I take it your boyfriend won’t mind you being out with me tonight?’ he said, turning back to me. ‘I haven’t got a boyfriend.’ ‘You haven’t?’ He raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘I find that hard to believe.’ I narrowed my eyes at him to hide the fact I was flattered. ‘What about you? Will your girlfriend mind that you’re out with another girl?’ ‘I haven’t got a girlfriend.’ He rested his chin on his hand and smiled. I raised my eyebrows. ‘Wife?’ ‘Absolutely not.’ ‘Boyfriend or husband?’ ‘Nope.’ He shook his head, slowly. I sat back and looked at him. ‘I find it hard to believe no one’s snapped you up yet. A handsome, eligible man like you? You must have hordes of women after you.’ ‘Not so far as I’m aware, but thank you. I’ll take that as a compliment.’ His cheeks flushed slightly and he laughed as he fiddled with his menu with his long, elegant fingers. Realising I’d embarrassed him, I blushed and glanced down. Maybe that had been a bit much. I’d have to watch myself; I hadn’t even had a drink and I was showering him with compliments. ‘I’ve been single for quite a while, actually,’ he went on. ‘I’m not very good at relationships.’ ‘Really? Why not?’ He shrugged. ‘I work too much. So, what about you? How long have you been single?’ ‘Four months or so. We broke up in July.’ ‘What went wrong?’ I smiled ruefully. ‘He worked too much.’ Anthony laughed lightly. ‘What did he do?’ ‘For a job, you mean?’ I winced slightly. ‘I was never completely sure, to be honest. He ran an IT company or something. Whatever it was required him being out of the country a lot.’ ‘Where did he go?’ I shrugged. ‘Places with no phone signal, usually.’ Anthony raised a sceptical eyebrow. ‘Surely if he worked in IT he’d be going to towns and cities that had good network coverage?’ ‘Exactly. I’m quite ashamed at how long it took me to realise he was stringing me along, but at least I got there in the end.’ ‘How long were you seeing him?’ ‘Just over seven months, but if you condensed that into the time we actually spent together, it would probably be more like one or two. He lived in London, so even when he was in the country it was difficult.’ He wrinkled his nose. ‘London’s not exactly the end of the earth, is it. There are fairly regular trains, for a start. Did you go and visit him or did he come here?’ ‘He came here.’ ‘Always?’ ‘Yes, apart from when we went to Paris one weekend.’ The waitress appeared with our drinks and took our food orders. He thanked her before turning back to me. ‘You never got to see where he lived? Did that never strike you as odd?’ I shrugged. ‘I was more concerned with when I was going to see him again. If we’d spent more time together, then maybe I would have. I suppose it doesn’t matter now anyway.’ ‘You’re over him, are you?’ ‘Yes.’ I reached for my drink and took a sip. ‘You don’t miss him at all?’ ‘Not really. We didn’t spend enough time together for me to really miss him. I suppose I missed the idea of him at first. The possibility that he would come and visit me. But it didn’t take too long for me to realise that my life was pretty much the same as it had always been. If anything, it was easier because I didn’t have the agony of waiting for the phone to ring or the disappointment when he couldn’t see me, yet again.’ I sighed heavily and shook my head, more at myself than anything else. ‘It’s strange because, at the time, I was mad about him, but he feels like some kind of dream now.’ ‘Dream? Or nightmare?’ I laughed. ‘Oh, he was a dream. When he was around he was lovely. It’s just that he had no substance. He just came and went like some kind of stray cat. Anyway, let’s not talk about Patrick. What about you?’ Anthony’s eyes flickered and he shook his head. ‘Nothing much to say really. I live a very boring, simple life. I run, work, eat and sleep, and that’s the way I like it.’ I cocked my head to one side. ‘What job do you do?’ ‘I’m a detective.’ ‘You are?’ My eyebrows shot up in surprise. ‘Wow! I didn’t expect that.’ ‘What did you expect?’ He laughed as he took a sip of his beer. ‘I don’t know.’ I shrugged. ‘Just not that.’ ‘Does it bother you?’ ‘Of course it doesn’t. Why would it bother me? I just didn’t expect you to work in the police at all, really. I thought you’d be something like… I don’t know… a barrister, or something?’ ‘Why?’ He looked amused. ‘Because of your suit and your manners and how well-spoken you are.’ ‘And detectives can’t wear good suits and have nice manners? What about Inspector Morse and Inspector Linley?’ ‘I was thinking more of Rebus, but okay then.’ He laughed. ‘We come in all shapes and sizes.’ ‘Do you like your job?’ ‘Yes, I love it.’ ‘Does it get you down? Dealing with murderers and paedophiles?’ ‘Of course. I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t. I’m primarily fraud at the moment, though.’ ‘Oh, okay. Presumably that’s less emotionally traumatic to investigate than some other crimes?’ ‘Yes, I suppose it is.’ He drummed his fingers on the table. ‘There’s no such thing as a victimless crime, though.’ I nodded, and waited for him to continue, but he just looked at me. I didn’t know what to say next. I didn’t know much about fraud really. ‘Are you investigating anything at the moment?’ I said at last, slightly bewildered by his silence. ‘Of course. Fraud’s a massive problem.’ ‘I expect you have to work long hours?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Hence why you’re really bad at relationships?’ ‘Absolutely.’ He smiled and took another sip from his glass of beer. ‘Not all detectives are single, though, are they?’ I sat back and moved my cutlery to one side as the waitress appeared with our plates of food. ‘Surely some of them are married and have families?’ I smiled my thanks to the waitress. ‘Thank you. Yes, of course they are. My friend John is very happily married.’ ‘So, I suspect the problem is more you than your job.’ He laughed. ‘That’s true. So, why has your mum gone on holiday without your dad? Are they splitting up?’ ‘Oh no. At least I hope not. She’s gone with her sister to celebrate her birthday. They don’t go every year or anything. Mum and Dad still go on holiday together, but only in this country. Dad won’t go abroad. He’s terrified of flying.’ Anthony laughed. ‘Your poor dad.’ ‘Mmm, I know. I think he’s enjoying having the TV to himself.’ I cut into my salmon and carefully pushed it onto my fork. ‘I’ve been round to keep him company a couple of evenings but I think he’s coping okay. Have you been on holiday this year?’ He shook his head as he chewed his mouthful of food. ‘I had a week off in the summer but I didn’t go away anywhere. I just visited family really. What about you? You mentioned Paris before?’ ‘Yes, I went to Paris with Patrick for a weekend but other than that I haven’t been anywhere. I usually go somewhere with my friend Elena, but she’s bought a house with her fiancé so she couldn’t afford it. Besides, I doubt he’d have let her go anyway. They can’t be apart for more than a few hours before they start pining for each other.’ Anthony wrinkled his nose slightly. ‘That sounds a bit nauseating.’ ‘They’re very sweet, actually. She was obsessed with him at college. It’s lovely that she finally got together with him.’ ‘So, was Paris nice?’ ‘It was lovely, yes. Have you been?’ ‘A couple of times. Where did you stay?’ ‘In a hotel near the Champs Elysees. It was lovely. I’d never been to Paris before so it was lovely to see all the sights I’d read about and seen on TV.’ ‘Did Patrick know Paris well?’ ‘He seemed to, yes.’ I smiled a little sadly. ‘It was very romantic. He proposed to me, actually. He pulled out all the stops: violins, champagne, roses.’ ‘He proposed?’ Anthony’s fork paused on its way to his mouth. ‘But I thought you’d only been together a short time?’ ‘Yes.’ Anthony put his fork down and looked at me. ‘You said no, of course.’ I stared at him, wishing I could agree and say ‘of course I said no!’, but I’d said yes, so I couldn’t. I felt a quiver of shame and regret run through me and decided that, in future, I should just lie, or preferably not discuss Patrick at all. Especially with extremely handsome men who were practically strangers. Anthony raised an eyebrow. ‘You said yes? So, let me get this straight. You hardly saw or spoke to him, but you still thought it would be a good idea to marry him?’ ‘I know, it sounds awful.’ I passed a hand across my face, feeling embarrassed. ‘Hey, it’s not my place to judge.’ Anthony held up his hands and laughed. ‘I’m just wondering how he got away with behaving like that when I’ve never been able to.’ I smiled and rubbed my head, still embarrassed. ‘Well, he was behaving better at the time. When I first met him, which was just before Christmas last year, he was really full-on. He phoned me all the time and showered me with gifts. He made me feel special. And then it seemed like as soon as I started falling for him, it all stopped and he started not being able to see me. We had a big row about it around March time, and he said I wasn’t being fair because he had to make time for his daughter too, which made me feel like a monster. Anyway, we sorted that out and he allowed me to meet his little girl, and I felt like he was letting me into his life at last. It was just after that he took me to Paris and proposed. I must have been mad to say yes, but I thought he’d changed and that he must be serious about me to go to all the effort of organising a proposal that grand. I was swept away by it all. But when I got home, he was worse than ever. I hardly heard from him again at all.’ ‘When did you finish it?’ ‘He was supposed to come to my mum’s sixtieth birthday party but he let me down at the last minute. Said he was stuck at work. It was a big deal because he hadn’t met any of my friends or family.’ ‘Really?’ Anthony looked astounded. ‘I need to talk to this man, get some tips from him.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘He kept you hanging on for months while avoiding spending any quality time with you, and managed to avoid meeting your friends and family. That’s quite a genius manoeuvre. How did he do that? Can I have his number?’ I knew Anthony was joking, or at least I hoped he was, but his words stung and I felt a frisson of anger pulse through me. ‘He has a big personality and he’s hugely generous. But I can’t give you his number because I don’t have it any more. I made a point of deleting it when we split up.’ I put my knife and fork down and reached for my wine. ‘It also requires your girlfriend to be gullible and slightly mad. I mean, I must have been mad, mustn’t I? I even agreed to get married abroad, knowing my dad won’t fly. What was that all about? I have no clue.’ I took another gulp of wine and blinked away the sudden tears from my eyes. ‘It’s funny because I’d never been taken in by men’s bullshit before. Patrick was the first man I ever really cared about and he played me for a fool. People warned me our relationship didn’t make sense but I wouldn’t listen. I suppose I wanted to believe him.’ Anthony reached for my hand with a sympathetic smile. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’ ‘It’s okay.’ I looked at his kind eyes and was unable to imagine him taking advantage of anyone’s trust. ‘Anyway, I can’t believe I’m telling you all this. I feel so ashamed of myself for being taken in by him like that.’ I picked up my knife and fork again as Anthony removed his hand from mine. ‘Suffice to say, it is not a genius manoeuvre to string people along like that and leave them feeling duped.’ ‘Is that how you feel? Duped?’ ‘Pretty much. And used and stupid. When I finished with him he said he didn’t want to leave it like that and that he’d phone me and we’d talk everything through. And guess what? He didn’t phone. So, even though I said the words “It’s over”, I still feel like he had the last laugh by making me wait for a phone call that never came. It’s like he’s play-acting all the time. Everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie.’ I shook my head. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be talking about him. This must be very boring for you.’ ‘Not at all. It’s my fault, after all. I did ask you about him.’ ‘That’s true.’ I smiled at him. ‘What about you then? How did your last relationship end?’ He looked startled for a moment. ‘Oh, err, with me leaving, I expect. That’s usually how they end.’ ‘Were you living together?’ ‘Oh God, no. Nothing like that. Like I said, I just like to move around.’ ‘Does that have to mean leaving everything behind, though? Like you said before about me and Patrick, London isn’t the end of the earth, so if you’re staying in the UK, surely it’s easy enough to carry on seeing someone?’ ‘Not if you work all the time, it isn’t.’ ‘But didn’t we already discuss that your colleague John is happily married?’ He laughed. ‘I suppose I’ve never met anyone I wanted to keep in touch with like that.’ ‘Does that mean you’ve never been in love?’ He cleared his throat and shrugged. ‘Define love.’ I gaped at him. ‘You’ve never been in love? How old are you? Thirty-five?’ He shrugged a shoulder. ‘Thereabouts.’ ‘How have you managed to get to thirty-five and not fall in love? Are you a robot or something?’ Laughing, he put his knife and fork together on his plate before pushing it away. ‘I don’t want to fall in love. I generally leave before it gets to that stage. Love is time-consuming and painful.’ ‘It’s also wonderful and exhilarating and joyful.’ ‘Says the woman who’s had her heart broken.’ ‘But I will love again.’ ‘Wow! You said that like it’s a slogan or something. Have you had that printed on a T-shirt?’ I laughed. ‘Just think about all the women whose hearts you’ve broken in your time.’ ‘Funny, I’m pretty certain I haven’t broken any hearts.’ ‘I bet you have, Anthony.’ ‘No, I haven’t.’ ‘Even if you don’t think you have, I bet you have. Just look at you. On top of being handsome and intelligent, you have beautiful manners and seem really kind too. Not that I know you, of course. But you seem lovely.’ ‘Maybe that’s the problem. Women don’t want a lovely man with beautiful manners. Women want a bad boy in motorcycle leathers.’ ‘Erm, not really.’ I looked up as the waitress came over to take our plates. ‘Do you want another drink?’ he asked. ‘Oh, I shouldn’t.’ ‘Go on. I’ll walk you home.’ ‘You don’t have to do that. It’s only up the road.’ I felt slightly flustered as I looked up at the waitress. ‘I’ll have another wine, please.’ Anthony ordered his drink and then turned back to me. ‘You kind of proved my point with Patrick.’ ‘What point?’ ‘About women preferring bad boys. You said you’d never met anyone you cared about before Patrick. He didn’t exactly treat you well, did he?’ ‘He did when he was with me. And the boys I’d seen before weren’t super nice or particularly horrible, they were just immature. Patrick was older, so maybe I just prefer older men.’ ‘He didn’t treat you well, Rachel. You never knew where you were with him. And he didn’t meet any of your friends and family. I’m pretty sure I’ve met at least some of the friends and family of every girl I’ve ever been in a relationship with. And I’m always upfront about the fact I’m not looking for anything long-term or serious.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Really. I’m not out to mislead anyone or make false promises.’ He scratched his face and looked at me. ‘I wouldn’t like to think I’d broken anybody’s heart. That’s just sad.’ I smiled at him. ‘You’re very sweet. And that’s exactly why I find it so hard to believe that nobody has fallen in love with you.’ He rolled his eyes, looking embarrassed. ‘Anyway, this is getting a bit deep. Let’s change the subject now.’ ‘Okay. What do you want to talk about?’ ‘I don’t know.’ He laughed. ‘Tell me about yourself.’ ‘Me? We’ve talked enough about me. Why don’t you tell me about you? You’re the new boy in town.’ ‘I’m really not that interesting.’ ‘I disagree. I think you’re quite fascinating, actually. You have a very bizarre attitude to relationships and I’d like to know why.’ ‘Ah, but we’re not talking about that any more.’ I leaned my elbows on the table and smiled at him. ‘Let’s start with your family. Are you an only child?’ He hesitated for a moment, a smile playing on his lips as he looked at me through narrowed eyes. ‘No. I have a younger brother.’ ‘How much younger?’ ‘Three years.’ ‘Is he married?’ ‘Yes. And he has two children.’ ‘Aww, so you’re Uncle Anthony. Are they cute?’ ‘Very.’ ‘You like kids?’ ‘I love kids.’ ‘But you don’t want any yourself?’ ‘No. Look, what is this? The Spanish Inquisition?’ ‘I’m just making conversation.’ He laughed and took a sip from his drink. ‘Yes, I love my niece and nephew but I don’t get to see them very much.’ ‘You mentioned your mother before?’ ‘Yes. I have a mother.’ ‘Are your parents divorced?’ ‘Look, I know what you’re doing, you know. You’re trying to find out about my relationship issues by asking about my family. You can save your pseudo-psychological analysis of me for another time, thank you. My family are great. Now, are you an only child?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I thought so.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because you’re bossy and like to get your own way.’ I laughed in disbelief. ‘Oh, really? How would you even know that about me when we’ve only just met? Besides, is that what only children are meant to be like?’ ‘I have no idea, I’m just winding you up.’ He sat back and laughed. ‘What do you like to do in your spare time?’ Shrugging, I ran my finger around the top of my wine glass. ‘I don’t really have that much free time with running the shop, and when I get home I’m tired.’ ‘But you’re only twenty-six. You can’t just work and sleep.’ ‘I don’t. I watch TV in between.’ ‘Don’t you go out dancing?’ ‘No. All my friends are settling down with their boyfriends and can’t afford it. Besides, how did you know I was twenty-six? I didn’t tell you, did I?’ ‘I think your dad mentioned it.’ ‘Oh.’ I frowned. That was odd. Why would my dad be telling the new tenant how old I was? But then I suppose he might have been talking about me running the shop. ‘Anyway, what’s this about dancing? Who says dancing these days? Clubbing is the word.’ ‘Dancing sounds nicer. I like dancing.’ ‘Can you dance?’ ‘Of course I can dance!’ He looked offended at the very notion that he might not be able to. I raised an eyebrow. ‘Do you fancy yourself as a bit of a Fred Astaire? We should call you the dancing detective.’ ‘Ha ha, I like that.’ He looked like he was going to say something else but changed his mind and took a sip of his beer instead. I smiled at him. ‘What’s the time?’ ‘Nearly eight.’ ‘Already? I should go.’ ‘Why? Is your Horlicks calling to you?’ ‘No, but my bed is. I’ve got to be up at five to go to the flower market.’ ‘Five? That’s crazy! I can’t believe you have to go that early. What time does your shop open? Nine?’ ‘Half past eight.’ ‘So, why do you have to be up at five?’ ‘Have a shower, get dressed, put my make-up on, then I drive there, choose the flowers, have a chat, drive back, make up any orders.’ ‘Can’t you get them delivered?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘So, get them delivered.’ ‘I like to go and see what’s there. They always have new things in. It’s exciting.’ Anthony frowned at me. ‘But, do you really need to go tomorrow? Couldn’t you get them delivered? Just this once?’ ‘For a policeman, you’re a really bad influence, you know!’ He grinned. ‘Is that a yes?’ I looked at his smiling face and decided I’d much rather have an evening out with a handsome man than get up at five and start work early. ‘Well, I suppose it’s not essential that I go tomorrow. But I’m not sure about going dancing. How about we just go to another bar?’ ‘Okay.’ He turned and called the waitress over for the bill. I got my purse out of my bag but he waved me away. ‘I’ll get this as a thank you for coming out with me tonight.’ ‘You don’t have to do that. It’s my pleasure, honestly.’ ‘No, let me. Please.’ Chapter Two (#ubfd5aa5b-d344-5dcd-a87b-360f986167ef) We left the bar and walked up the street to find somewhere else. It was too cold to walk far. I shivered in my coat and huddled down. ‘Where did you meet Patrick?’ ‘Here, in Chester.’ ‘In a bar?’ ‘Yes. This one just up here, actually. Do you want to go in? I promise I won’t cry.’ Anthony laughed. ‘Okay. At least it will get us out of this wind.’ The music coming from the bar got louder and louder as we went up the steps, until I could feel it pumping in my chest. It hadn’t been this noisy the night I’d met Patrick. I cast a doubtful look over my shoulder at Anthony but he was just looking around curiously, his eyes flicking over the groups of people standing in huddles near the bar or else sitting together at tables dotted around the edge of the empty dance floor. We ordered drinks from the bar and found a little booth in the corner with a round table and a bench seat. The lighting was dim and blue and we sat close together, almost touching but not quite. ‘It wasn’t like this last time I came here,’ I shouted. ‘Sorry?’ He bent his head and I put my lips close to his ear to repeat what I’d said. He shrugged and shifted closer to me. ‘What was it like then?’ His voice reverberated in my ear, making the tiny hairs on the back of my neck rise. Heat and desire melted my insides and made my legs weak. I turned my head to speak into his ear. The smell of his aftershave made my senses reel and I had to resist the urge to let my lips brush his skin. ‘Quieter.’ He nodded and leaned away slightly to look around the bar again. I wanted to pull him back against me and tell him to look at me, not the other people. I took another sip of wine and then another, realising I felt slightly drunk as I did so. Anthony leaned back against me and spoke into my ear again. ‘You said you met Patrick here?’ I nodded. ‘Were you out with friends?’ ‘No, I was alone.’ I blushed and pulled back to laugh. Leaning in again, I put a hand on his shoulder. ‘I’d been stood up and Patrick happened to be in here.’ Anthony looked surprised. ‘Was he on his own too?’ ‘Yes, he was in Chester on business.’ ‘So, he came to your rescue, did he?’ I shrugged and looked away. I seemed to have talked a lot about Patrick tonight. At this rate, Anthony would think I was still hung up on him and that wasn’t true. The smell of Anthony’s aftershave was giving me a raw hunger in my stomach and I was finding it harder and harder to keep my hands to myself. I looked at the long expanse of his thigh pressed up against mine and wondered if he’d mind if I stroked it. Anthony nudged me, a cheeky look in his eye. ‘So, do you come here often?’ I smiled and shook my head. ‘Not for ages.’ His eyes rested on mine for a moment and then dropped to my lips. My heart pounded with the expectation of a kiss, but instead he leaned forward and reached for his drink. I was instantly disappointed. Maybe I should try kissing him. He was definitely interested; I could tell by the intensity in his eyes. I hadn’t even felt like this on my first date with Patrick. We’d just talked and laughed and then exchanged numbers before he’d left. It hadn’t felt this intimate or sexually charged. I hadn’t had this heat or these chills that were making me fizz and tingle. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was the fact that I’d been quite lonely and sad this past year, or maybe it was simply because he was so damn handsome, but as he put his beer bottle down and turned to talk to me, I couldn’t resist him any more and suddenly I was kissing him. Anthony didn’t react immediately. He just sat there while I stretched up against him, pressing my lips to his. Had I made a huge mistake? Was this about to become the most awkward moment of my life? My eyes flickered open and I pulled away, but he placed a hand on the back of my neck, drawing me back towards him. This time, he lowered his face and kissed me properly. I felt like I was floating, soft and weightless, my head spinning. The bar disappeared and all that existed for me was him. My hand was on his face, my fingers tracing the outline of his high cheekbones, the outer shell of his ear, the hollow beneath. I felt him shiver beneath my touch and it ignited a fire inside of me. I kissed him harder, pressing closer as his hand dropped to my waist and travelled down over my hip and thigh before he pulled my leg across his knee. He kissed my throat, sucking and nipping and licking my sensitive skin until I was a mass of tingles. Tipping my head back, I opened my eyes and was suddenly aware that perhaps we shouldn’t be doing this in such a public place. Even though we were in a booth and a table concealed the fact his hand was up my skirt, caressing the inside of my thigh, it wasn’t the time or the place. Especially with a policeman. I pushed him away, kissing his nose softly when he looked up bewildered. Understanding dawned in his eyes and he sat up and straightened his clothes. We sat for a moment, leaning into each other, and then he looked at me and raised an eyebrow. ‘Shall we go?’ he said. I nodded and got to my feet as he took my hand and led me back outside into the night. I barely registered the icy wind, insulated as I was by lust and wine. Anthony pulled me to him and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. I couldn’t stop smiling and little bubbles of happiness were bursting inside me. How had this happened? How could I be walking home with this gorgeous man I hadn’t known existed this morning? Everything seemed brighter: the moon, the stars, the streetlights. Even the pavement beneath our feet seemed to sparkle, although that was probably frost. We reached the bridge across the river and paused to watch the water rush and burble over the weir. The naked branches of the winter trees swayed in the wind and Anthony wrapped his arms around me and kissed me again. His lips and nose and face were cold now, and I covered his skin with butterfly kisses before hugging him fiercely. He laughed and grabbed my hand to pull me on. My house wasn’t far from the bridge, and we stumbled along, laughing and chatting, and it wasn’t until I reached the end of my road that I suddenly started to question what I was doing and what he was expecting. Was he just walking me home like he’d said he would? He seemed quite keen to get to my house. Was I really going to invite him in? I liked him, but I’d only just met him and I didn’t usually go to bed with men I’d just met. My head was at war with itself, with one side telling me to have a bit of fun, and the other reminding me that tonight hadn’t even started out as a date. The streetlight glowed outside my house and next-door’s cat weaved its way across the small patch of grass in front of my window. ‘Well, here we are,’ I said, slightly hesitant, looking at the white front door of my tiny house. ‘Well, thank you for a lovely evening,’ he said, his blue eyes twinkling as he looked down at me. His fingers were still threaded through mine and I thought how well they fit together, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. I smiled up at him and stood on tiptoe to kiss him. ‘Well, thank you, too. It was certainly unexpected.’ He smiled. ‘The best things usually are.’ With some regret, I let go of his hand and retrieved my key from my bag. ‘Goodnight, Anthony.’ He kissed me again and then stepped away. ‘Goodnight, Rachel.’ Once inside, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down on the sofa to ring Elena. I was impressed that he hadn’t expected to be invited in, considering the mixed signals I must have been sending him. He was obviously a real gentleman. ‘Hi, Rachel,’ Elena said from the other end of the phone. ‘You okay?’ ‘Hi! Yes, I am! More than okay, in fact. I was just phoning to say I met someone. Someone gorgeous and amazing and sweet and amazing. And he’s just amazing!’ ‘Wow! Three amazings? Who is he?’ ‘He’s the new tenant in the flat above the shop. Anthony, his name is. Anthony Bascombe. He came into the shop just before closing tonight and asked me to have dinner with him. He’s so handsome and so polite and he’s like a real-life gentleman. I don’t think I’ve ever met a man with such lovely manners before.’ ‘What about me?’ I heard Daniel say in the background. ‘Is that Daniel? Is he listening in on this? You haven’t put me on speakerphone have you?’ ‘No, but he’s in bed next to me and he overheard.’ ‘Wait, you’re in bed? I didn’t interrupt anything, did I?’ ‘Oh, it’s okay. Daniel can go all night, can’t you, Dan?’ ‘Er, too much information, thanks!’ I shook my head, trying to rid myself of unwelcome images. ‘No wonder the poor lad looks knackered.’ ‘That’s just working on the house. I’ve made him have a night off tonight so we can snuggle.’ She made contented little noises, like she was nuzzling Daniel’s neck, and I rolled my eyes. ‘So, what are you doing talking to me when you’ve met this amazing new man? Why haven’t you set about seducing him? Is he playing hard to get?’ ‘Not really. We kissed in the bar and then he walked me home, but we said goodbye at the door.’ ‘What? Boring!’ ‘Elena, I didn’t even know him five hours ago.’ ‘And? Do I need to remind you what a crap year you’ve had? You could do with a bit of action.’ ‘Ha ha! No, you don’t need to remind me. But I am a lady…’ I paused while I waited for Elena to stop howling with laughter. ‘I just didn’t think it would be a good idea, that’s all,’ I huffed. ‘So, what’s he like then?’ ‘Tall, dark-blond hair that looks curly, but he styles it so it’s all neat, killer cheekbones, blue eyes, nice teeth.’ ‘How old?’ ‘Thirty-fiveish?’ ‘Another older man? Are you sure he isn’t married?’ ‘He says not but you never know, I suppose. He reckons he works too much.’ ‘What does he do?’ ‘He’s a detective.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yeah. Well, I’ll let you two get back to whatever you were doing. I just wanted to share.’ ‘Well, I’m glad you did. Thanks for phoning. Love you.’ ‘Love you, too!’ I hung up and looked around at my empty front room. The heating had gone off for the night and the house was starting to feel cold. Suddenly, I wished I’d asked Anthony in and was snuggling with him under the covers, like Elena was with Daniel now. *** I felt great the next morning and got up early enough to walk to work and go to the flower market before opening the shop. The world felt fresh and new and full of hope. It was still dark when I left the house and the pavement was white with frost. It made me feel Christmassy and I got a surge of excitement thinking about decorating the shop this weekend. I wondered if I’d see Anthony that day and if we could go out again this evening. The scent of his aftershave was still on my coat, and I breathed it in as I walked through the frosty morning. It made me smile and filled me with anticipation and longing. ‘You’re looking very happy today!’ Bobbi said when she came into work later that morning. She’d plaited her silvery lilac hair so she looked about ten years old. She leaned on the counter next to me, her tiny crystal nose stud glinting in the shop lights. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘Nothing! Just excited about Christmas, that’s all!’ ‘Really? Already?’ Her brow creased. ‘Well, we’re decorating the shop this weekend, aren’t we? In fact, I might do the window display today if we’re not too busy.’ ‘Yeah, but…’ Bobbi shrugged and gave me an appraising look. ‘You look happier than that. You’ve got a proper glint in your eye. Have you met someone?’ ‘Me? Who would I meet?’ ‘You have, haven’t you!’ Bobbi pointed her finger in my face and bounced up and down on her cherry-red Doc Marten’s. ‘Who is he? Tell me!’ ‘Shh, no one.’ I looked around furtively to check no one was about. ‘I met the new tenant from upstairs yesterday. We went out for dinner. His name’s Anthony Bascombe and he’s gorgeous!’ ‘Really? Oooh! And you went out for dinner with him? Tell me more.’ Bobbi rested her chin in her hands and looked up at me with huge brown eyes, like a child waiting for her bedtime story. I shook my head. ‘There’s not much to tell really. We ate dinner, he walked me home, end of story.’ ‘Was there a kiss? There was a kiss, wasn’t there? Tell me there was a kiss!’ ‘Yes, there was a kiss.’ Bobbi squealed and clapped. ‘Hurray! A man at last.’ ‘Oh, thanks, Bobbi. Nice to know you have such faith in my love life.’ ‘Well, you know, after Patrick and everything we were all a bit worried.’ I rolled my eyes and walked through into the back room. I’d bought some mistletoe from the market this morning and had planned to make kissing balls to display in the window. We’d been quiet so far today and it would be good to make a start. It would give us something to do between customers anyway and free up some time at the weekend. Plus, it might stop me obsessively looking out of the window, waiting for Anthony to stop by. I kept telling myself he was work, but my stupid head wouldn’t listen. I kept staring at the door hopefully. Bobbi and I chatted as we worked and it didn’t take us long to make the kissing balls and fill crystallised vintage jars with white flowers and red berries. We suspended them from a large rustic branch that was fixed in the window display. It usually had floral birdcages hanging from it, but I’d decided to just have one large birdcage in the base of the window filled with a sprawling display of red and white roses, green foliage and large red sparkly balls. When we’d finished, Bobbi went outside to check what it looked like. I waited for her response, only to find she wasn’t looking at the window display at all; she was staring off up the street instead. Feeling impatient, I rapped on the glass to get her attention. Bobbi jumped at my sharp knock and looked back at me as if she’d been somewhere far, far away. I pointed at the display and rolled my eyes when she turned back to look in the direction she’d been gazing in before, as if in some kind of trance, and offered a half-hearted thumbs-up to placate me. Annoyed, I opened the door and stepped out into the street to have a look myself. ‘Oh, that looks quite good, doesn’t it?’ I said, pleasantly surprised. ‘Maybe we should add a string of fairy lights around the branch. What do you reckon?’ ‘Really good,’ Bobbi said, not looking at me or the display at all. ‘You don’t think it’s too plain, though? I think Mum might think it’s too bare.’ Bobbi didn’t respond. Frowning, I followed her line of sight, only to find Anthony Bascombe standing a few feet away, deep in conversation with a tall, black-haired man. Heat surged through me and my legs turned to jelly. ‘Do you think he’s famous?’ Bobbi whispered. ‘He’s gorgeous.’ I sighed deeply, annoyed that my stomach had gone all fluttery at the sight of him. ‘No, that’s Anthony!’ ‘Really?’ Bobbi’s jaw dropped just as Anthony looked up and saw us watching him. He smiled and raised a hand before returning to his conversation. Realising I was staring in much the same way as Bobbi, I took hold of her sleeve and dragged her back into the shop. ‘Oh my God! You didn’t tell me he looked like that, did you?’ ‘I said he was handsome.’ ‘Not that handsome. Not James Bond handsome!’ ‘James Bond handsome?’ I gave Bobbi a look, starting to laugh. ‘You’re crazy, you know that?’ Bobbi laughed and pushed her fringe from her eyes. ‘What? He looks all smooth and sophisticated and handsome, but also like he could abseil down buildings and fight off baddies.’ ‘And you can tell all that just by looking at him from a distance, can you?’ ‘Well, you said he’s a detective, didn’t you? That’s a sexy job.’ She wiggled her eyebrows at me suggestively. ‘Is it?’ I raised an eyebrow. ‘Not if he works all the time, it isn’t.’ ‘Hey, why are you so negative all of a sudden?’ ‘I’m not negative. I’m just trying to be sensible, that’s all.’ I took a deep breath and hid my shaking hands behind my back. I was quite alarmed by my physical reaction to him. Bobbi rolled her eyes. ‘Do you want a cup of tea? I’m a bit chilly from standing out there.’ ‘Go on then. Thanks.’ She disappeared into the back of the shop just as the front door opened and Anthony walked in. ‘Good morning,’ he said, cheerfully. ‘Hi,’ I beamed at him, feeling my cheeks turn pink. ‘How are you today?’ ‘I’m well, thank you.’ He walked towards the counter, his eyes on mine. He certainly looked very well in his silver-grey suit. Little sparks of electricity were flying around my body. ‘You were up early this morning. I noticed your car had gone when I went to work.’ ‘Yes. I managed to wake up early despite your being such a bad influence on me.’ ‘Ah, ha ha, yes,’ he said, without much humour. He cleared his throat, uncomfortably, and my stomach dropped. Was this where he said it was all a mistake? Just then, Bobbi came out of the back carrying a cup of tea. ‘Hello!’ she said, beaming happily at Anthony. ‘I’m Anthony.’ ‘No, you’re not, you’re Bobbi!’ I hissed. ‘Oh, yes!’ Bobbi jumped at her mistake and slopped tea onto the floor. ‘Sorry! Yes, I’m Bobbi and you’re Anthony. Der. I’ve heard lots about you already from Rachel.’ ‘You have?’ Anthony’s eyebrows shot up. ‘All good, I hope?’ ‘Of course.’ Bobbi beamed at him, skilfully ignoring the pointed look I was giving her. ‘Did you have a nice evening last night?’ ‘Yes, thank you.’ He looked slightly uncomfortable but smiled kindly at her. ‘Listen, Bobbi, it’s lovely to meet you, but would you mind if I was terribly rude and borrowed Rachel for a minute. I just need a quiet word.’ ‘Oh! Okay. Go in the back, I’ll do the shop.’ Bobbi winked at me and I rolled my eyes at her, bracing myself for bad news. He’d warned me he was no good at relationships, but I didn’t expect him to be this bad this soon. I led him through into the back room. ‘Have a seat,’ I said, pulling out a wooden chair from under the table. ‘No, I’ll stand, thank you.’ His eyes flickered across my face and then down to the floor. ‘Rachel, this is slightly awkward, but I’ve been talking to my colleagues at the station and they’ve given me a bit of a bollocking.’ ‘What do you mean?’ Anxiety was zipping through my veins and I felt slightly sick. ‘I’m so sorry, let me explain. You may have noticed I asked quite a few questions about Patrick last night? We’re actually trying to find him at the moment as we’re investigating him on charges of fraud.’ My jaw dropped. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ ‘I wanted to know if you were aware of anything or if you’d been in contact with him recently.’ ‘I don’t know anything and I have no idea where he is.’ ‘No, I believe you, I really do. But I was naïve in thinking that meant we could eliminate you from our enquiries. My chief inspector wants to keep all lines of enquiry open and that means you’re part of a live investigation.’ I crossed my arms in front of me, feeling suddenly cold and uncertain. ‘What does that mean?’ ‘Not a great deal, but I would like to take a statement from you down at the station.’ ‘But why? I don’t know anything.’ ‘I know. You just have to confirm you don’t, that’s all.’ He smiled apologetically. ‘It won’t take long.’ ‘You want me to come now?’ I blinked at him. ‘If possible. Can Bobbi mind the shop?’ ‘Yes.’ I glanced at my watch. ‘I’ll be back before closing, won’t I?’ ‘Of course. Like I said, it won’t take long. I’m parked out front if you’d like to come with me.’ I hesitated. ‘Would I have to sit in the back like a criminal?’ Anthony drew in a deep breath. ‘I’ll meet you down there, shall I? Say, twenty minutes?’ ‘Fine.’ He touched my arm, gently, and gave me a reassuring smile. ‘Don’t worry. It will be okay.’ I nodded and looked at the floor. Tears burned behind my eyes. I felt so let down and disappointed. The realisation that he’d just been trying to gain information about Patrick was like a punch in the stomach. I thought he’d genuinely liked me. I was such a fool. Anthony left and I took a moment to collect my thoughts. Bobbi came and leaned on the doorframe, raising her eyebrows enquiringly. ‘Can you mind the shop until I get back?’ I said, pulling on my coat. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Well, you know Anthony’s a detective? Apparently, he’s investigating Patrick and now he wants me to go to the station and make a statement.’ I pasted on a wry smile and rolled my eyes, trying to front it out. ‘Noooo!’ Bobbi looked outraged. ‘Yes. It seems he took me out last night to see what I knew.’ ‘But he kissed you, didn’t he? He can’t kiss you if you’re part of a case, surely? And what happened to the police taking you to the station to ask questions? You should lodge a complaint against him.’ I sighed as I put my bag over my shoulder. ‘It doesn’t matter. We only had dinner. No big deal. Anyway, I shouldn’t be long. I’ll be back soon.’ I nipped out of the back door to where my car was parked in the courtyard behind. My hands were shaking as I climbed inside and stared at the steering wheel for a few moments, trying to grasp what I was supposed to be doing. I hadn’t even begun to process the fact that Patrick was wanted for fraud. I didn’t know what to think. He might not even be guilty. I hated the thought that I could have been engaged to a criminal. Was I really such a poor judge of character? I supposed I must be to have been taken in so thoroughly by Anthony too. I felt my composure start to crumble and briskly rubbed my face before starting the car. I needed to focus on getting to the police station and answering these questions. There was no way I was going to show up at the station tear-stained and blotchy. No, I was going to keep it together. Any emotional stuff could be dealt with later. Anthony was behind the desk when I walked into the station ten minutes later. He looked up and smiled and indicated for me to follow him down the corridor into one of the interview rooms. I sat down on the plastic chair opposite him and blinked around at the plain white walls and grey carpet. ‘I know, it’s a bit joyless, isn’t it? Still, this won’t take long. Just a few questions, that’s all. My colleague, DC Harper, will be joining us shortly. Can I get you a drink of tea or coffee?’ I shook my head. ‘Water?’ ‘Yes, please.’ He got up and filled a plastic cup from the water dispenser at the side of the room. ‘Thank you,’ I said, averting my gaze as he passed it to me. He was smiling too kindly. Too sympathetically. I didn’t want to get tangled up in his eyes and lose myself again. My defences were up and I needed to keep them that way. I stared at the desk, the fan, the notepad on the desk, anything but his lovely, handsome face. He picked up a pen and tapped it on the paper, and I found myself watching his fingers and remembering how they felt last night when they were wrapped around mine. I looked away. At least I hadn’t slept with him. ‘Do you mind if we take some details down now?’ he asked, picking up the pen. ‘No, of course not.’ He started filling in a form with my personal details and then the door opened and the tall, dark-haired man I’d seen talking to him in the street earlier appeared. He smiled at me and took the seat next to Anthony. They proceeded to ask me most of the questions Anthony had asked last night. It was worse here, though, in this little room, with two of them watching me, judging me. In the months since I’d split from Patrick, I’d come to realise and accept that I’d never really known him, and the questions they were asking me only confirmed this. I felt stupid and clueless and almost wished I had had some idea about Patrick’s illegal dealings, if only to prove I wasn’t a complete idiot. To their credit, neither Anthony nor his colleague were looking particularly judgemental. They just looked a bit disappointed I wouldn’t be able to help them find Patrick. They’d been looking for him for more than a month now and, although they had arrested his associates, he seemed to have disappeared completely. ‘So, you don’t have his phone number any more? Do you have the same phone?’ ‘No, I changed it.’ I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. ‘It’s in a drawer at home, actually. But I doubt it will do you any good. It’s a bit broken.’ I winced slightly, not liking to admit that I’d thrown it against the wall and stamped on it in a fit of anger. ‘Is the sim card still in it?’ Anthony suddenly looked interested. ‘Yes.’ ‘Excellent! Can we have it to see if we can retrieve any useful information?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Why do you still have it?’ DC Harper looked at me curiously. ‘I wasn’t sure what to do with it, really. You can’t just put them in the bin, can you? You have to recycle them and I just hadn’t got round to thinking about it. So, I just put it in a drawer and forgot about it.’ ‘Would I be able to look at the engagement ring, too?’ ‘If you like. Why? Do you think it’s stolen?’ I felt flat and emotionless all of a sudden, like my life was splayed out on the table we were sitting at for them to forensically examine. ‘Did you exchange any emails with Patrick?’ I shook my head. ‘No, it was always phone and text. I might have an email address for him somewhere but I doubt it’s anything you wouldn’t already have. It’s on a business card, I think.’ ‘Have you got anything of his that he left behind?’ ‘Not really. I have some tickets from places we went to.’ I sighed, not really wanting to own up to it, but seeing I didn’t have much choice. It seemed overly sentimental keeping such things, but for some reason, this seemed to interest them immensely. ‘You do? Could we see them? If we have a timeline of where he was and what he was doing, that might help us pin him down.’ I shrugged. ‘It’s a bit of a sporadic timeline, I’m afraid, but yes, you can have them. I might be able to make a list of dates of the weekends we spent together if that’s any use to you?’ ‘Yes, definitely. How soon can you do that?’ ‘I’m not sure. Tomorrow?’ ‘Brilliant.’ Anthony sat back in his seat and smiled at me. ‘I think that’s all for now.’ He reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. ‘Here’s my number if you think of anything else that might help.’ ‘Okay.’ I took the card without looking at it, careful not to touch his fingers as I did so. To my shame, my hand was shaking. ‘Can I go now?’ ‘Yes. Thank you so much for your time, Miss Jones. We really appreciate it.’ ‘You’re welcome.’ I nodded politely and left the room, feeling physically and emotionally drained. Chapter Three (#ubfd5aa5b-d344-5dcd-a87b-360f986167ef) ‘So, let me get this straight,’ Elena said from the other end of the telephone. ‘Your parents’ sexy new tenant, the man you went out with last night and described as completely amazing, is actually a detective looking for Patrick?’ ‘Yes.’ Lying back in the bath, I popped a bubble with my big toe and closed my eyes. Despite the warm water and flickering glow of scented candles, I was feeling far from relaxed. ‘It was a bit of a shock. To think I was so excited this morning. I thought he really liked me and instead he was just pumping me for information. I feel such an idiot, Elena.’ ‘I’m sure he liked you, too. How could he not? I mean, he kissed you, didn’t he?’ I grunted miserably. The fact that I’d kissed him first had been playing on my mind rather a lot. Although he had kissed me back quite enthusiastically. ‘He wants my old phone and the engagement ring and I’m trying to make a timeline of weekends I spent with Patrick.’ ‘Huh! That won’t take you long then.’ ‘I know.’ ‘So, what’s Patrick done?’ ‘Fraud, apparently. I don’t know any more than that. I should have asked more questions, I suppose, but I’m not sure I really want to know. Patrick belongs in the past. I really don’t want to waste any more time on him. He made enough of a fool of me when we were together; I can’t believe it’s still going on four months after we split up.’ ‘Did you ever suspect he might be dodgy?’ ‘Not at all. Why would I?’ ‘Well, I thought he sounded dodgy from what you told me.’ ‘You thought he sounded married.’ ‘That too. But didn’t your dad think he was a gangster?’ ‘Only because of the size of the engagement ring,’ I scoffed. ‘Besides, no one’s saying he’s a gangster. At least, I hope they’re not! I think it’s probably dodgy business deals. Embezzlement and what have you.’ ‘So, he’s not a bank robber or anything?’ ‘I bloody well hope not.’ I sat up, sploshing water, and sighed unhappily. ‘Are you in the bath?’ ‘Yes. What are you doing?’ ‘Just waiting for Daniel to pick me up and take me to the house. It’s still like a building site but I love seeing it and imagining what all the rooms are going to be when it’s finished. Daniel’s been working so hard on it.’ ‘When do you think you’ll be able to move in?’ ‘In the summer, hopefully.’ ‘Ooh, exciting!’ ‘I know. I can’t wait. Oh, that’s him now. I’d better go.’ ‘Okay. Bye.’ I climbed out of the bath and wrapped myself in a warm, fluffy towel before padding through to my bedroom. Sitting down on my bed, I reached for a pad of paper from my bedside table and started to write a list of places I’d been with Patrick. I’d been trying to push him to the back of my mind for the past few months so it was strange to be trying to think in detail about what we’d done together. Tears pricked my eyes as I remembered the good times we’d shared. Although he’d let me down badly in the end, I still had some very special memories of him. He had a huge personality and was funny and generous. Being with him was like walking in the sunshine. He’d made me happy for a short while. Even getting a phone call from him brightened my day. Of course, the flipside was that not receiving a phone call from him plunged me into the depths of despair, and having such a great time when I was with him only served to make me miss him more when he wasn’t around. I still didn’t fully understand what had gone wrong, or why he’d stopped coming to see me. I knew he had to work, but surely no one had to work that much? He’d found the time when we first got together, so why had that changed? He’d even stopped phoning me regularly. I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong or why he’d grown tired of me, but it hurt. It hurt a lot. And why wouldn’t he meet my family? It just didn’t make sense. I’d been furious when he’d phoned at the last minute to say he wouldn’t be able to make it. I’d been waiting for him to arrive at my door, all dressed up and ready to go to my mum’s sixtieth birthday party. It was being held in a function room at a local hotel, and most of our friends and family had been there. Uncles, aunties, cousins – all of them expecting to see my new fiancé. I could still see their faces when I’d walked in alone. Mum’s outraged disbelief, Dad’s quiet anger, Elena’s shock and Daniel’s discomfort. I saw, too, the smug, told-you-so smile of my cousin as she exchanged looks with my aunt. We’d never been particularly close, and I knew they thought I dressed too weirdly to ever get a man. My aunt had had words with my mum on several occasions over the years about my vintage clothes and bright red hair. ‘Why does she dress like she’s living in the 1940s?’ she’d say. ‘Can’t she tone down that hair?’ I’d never let it bother me until I walked into that party alone. I felt like I’d proved them all right. Maybe I was too weird and quirky to keep a man. Was that why Patrick hadn’t turned up to meet my family? Was that why I’d never met any of his friends or family? Was he ashamed of me? Maybe my novelty value had worn off. I’d entertained those negative thoughts for a while before shrugging them off and moving on. I loved my clothes and I didn’t want to be anyone other than myself. If people didn’t like the way I dressed, that was their problem. With a sigh, I wrote down the name of the cinema and a film we’d been to see, and the Disney on Ice show we’d taken his daughter to see back in April. She was such a lovely little girl, and I’d really enjoyed our day out together. I was sad I’d never got to see her again. I had all these plans for being a loving stepmother. It seemed ridiculous now. The doorbell rang, and I groaned. Not again, Jenny! My next-door neighbour was lovely, but she was always forgetting her key when she went out. I kept her spare key so she could knock whenever she needed to get in. This would be the third time this week! Slipping my arms into my robe, I quickly ran downstairs and grabbed the key from the hook by the door. ‘Hiya!’ I said, breathlessly, holding the key out ready for her to take. But it wasn’t Jenny standing on my doorstep. It was Anthony Bascombe. ‘Hello,’ he said, smiling down at me. ‘Oh! It’s you!’ I suddenly felt rather wobbly and breathless. ‘Yes, it’s me.’ His eyes twinkled as they fixed on mine. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you but I thought I’d drop by and pick up the phone.’ I hesitated. ‘But I’ve just got out of the bath. Can’t it wait until tomorrow?’ ‘Well, I’m here now.’ He put his hand on the doorframe, still smiling. ‘And the sooner we have it to analyse, the better, really.’ His eyes dropped to my bathrobe and I glanced down to check it wasn’t gaping. The cold night air was making my nipples hard and I put my hand across my chest self-consciously. ‘I won’t take up much of your time.’ He took a step forward and I stepped back. Apparently taking this as an invitation to come inside, he walked past me with a polite thank you as I flattened myself against the door. Resigned, I shut the front door and followed him along the hall and into my lounge. Feeling the silky fabric of my robe begin to slip, I retied the belt firmly and watched Anthony worriedly. He stood in the centre of the lounge, staring around at my flowery wallpaper and bright-pink sofa. ‘Gosh, it’s bright in here, isn’t it?’ I shrugged. I was used to people looking surprised by how bright my house was and didn’t particularly care if they liked it or not. It was me who had to live here, not them. Plus, I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Anthony. The physical attraction was still there, but I was disappointed in him and sad he’d used me to extract information. ‘The phone’s in the kitchen. I’ll just get it for you.’ Anthony followed me in and stood with his hands in his pockets while I searched the drawer. It was towards the back, its screen cracked and the metal casing chipped and cracked. I handed it to him without looking at him, ashamed I’d behaved so childishly in smashing it up. ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘Listen, about last night…’ ‘Don’t worry about it,’ I interrupted ‘You wanted the engagement ring, didn’t you? I’ll just go and get it.’ ‘Okay, but Rachel…’ I walked past him out of the kitchen and went upstairs. ‘Rachel, I want to apologise…’ he said, following me. ‘I know you’re angry with me.’ ‘No, I’m not.’ I went into my bedroom and picked up the jewellery box from my dressing table. ‘You are. I know you are, and that’s perfectly understandable. I should have told you straight away that I was investigating Patrick.’ ‘Why didn’t you?’ ‘Because I wanted to make sure you were telling the truth about not being with him any more. I wanted to hear what you had to say about him without thinking it was some kind of police interview.’ ‘It was, though, wasn’t it?’ I looked at him accusingly. ‘That’s exactly what it was: a police interview.’ ‘Well, not really.’ He scratched his neck awkwardly. I shook my head. ‘It would have saved a lot of bother to just ask me down to the police station to interview me there. I mean, I wouldn’t have thrown myself at you for a start.’ He tutted and looked down at the carpet. ‘You didn’t throw yourself at me. Don’t be silly.’ ‘Silly? Yes, I suppose that sums me up nicely, doesn’t it?’ I snapped, thrusting the black-velvet box containing the engagement ring into his hand. ‘No, don’t say that. I didn’t mean it like that!’ he said, following me back out of the room and down the stairs. ‘I just meant… listen, Rachel…’ He caught my arm and turned me to look at him. ‘I really enjoyed your company last night and I’m more than a little disappointed you’re still part of this investigation. I would have loved to get to know you better.’ I looked away, unwilling to trust him. ‘Rachel, please… I’m sorry.’ He let go of my arm and sighed. ‘I know I haven’t behaved in the best possible way. If you want to make a formal complaint, I’ll completely understand.’ ‘I don’t want to make a complaint. I’m not that vindictive.’ ‘You’d be within your rights to do so.’ ‘They know anyway, don’t they? I thought you’d told them this morning?’ He winced slightly. ‘Well, I err, kind of left out the bit where I kissed you.’ ‘Technically, I kissed you first,’ I said, then promptly wanted to kick myself for reminding him. I closed my eyes and pushed a hand through my hair, digging my fingers into my scalp. ‘Look, let’s just forget last night happened, shall we? I don’t want it to be awkward between us and I’m sure you’re…’ The warm pressure of his lips on mine cut off the rest of my sentence and made my eyes flicker open. Butterflies swarmed in my belly. ‘Now we’re even,’ he said, his voice husky. He kept his head bent close to mine, our noses almost touching. ‘I wasn’t exactly fighting you off last night, was I? I’m pretty sure I did my fair share of kissing you too. How about we find Patrick so I can take you on a proper date?’ I looked up at him through my lashes, my heart thumping. My instinct was to grab him and kiss him passionately, but I didn’t completely trust that this wasn’t another trap. He seemed like a perfect gentleman, but I couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t be laughing about this tomorrow with his colleagues. I’d already proved myself to be a gullible fool where Patrick was concerned. I didn’t need to do it again with the detective who was investigating him. ‘Anyway,’ he said, clearing his throat and backing away a little. ‘I’ll probably see you tomorrow. Will you have made that list of dates and places by then?’ ‘Yes, I should have.’ I followed him to the front door, knees slightly wobbly from the kiss. ‘Great!’ He turned and smiled. ‘Goodnight, Rachel.’ ‘Goodnight.’ I watched him walk down the dark path to his car. Rain slanted sideways in the glow of the streetlamp, and he pulled up his collar as a gust of wind shook the bushes at the side of my garden. I told myself I was watching him leave out of politeness, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he unlocked his car door and climbed inside. He raised his hand and I shut the door, pressing my back to it and touching my lips, which still tingled from his kiss. Oh God, what was happening to me? What was I doing? I felt like a hormonal teenager with a raging crush. This wasn’t like me at all. Chapter Four (#ubfd5aa5b-d344-5dcd-a87b-360f986167ef) ‘So you’ve had to make a list of all the places you went with Patrick?’ Bobbi said as she arranged a bouquet of pink roses and cream stocks. ‘I bet that didn’t make you feel very happy, did it?’ ‘Not really, but what’s done is done.’ I tapped a pen on the order pad and stared out of the window at the drizzly rain. It was only just after lunchtime, but the cars driving past already had their headlights on. My mood was as gloomy as the weather. ‘I’m really rather proud I’m the only one who got to meet Patrick,’ Bobbi went on, wrapping a cream ribbon around the base of the stems. ‘Only briefly. You didn’t even speak to him, did you?’ ‘I know, but I still got to see him. Your mum was so jealous, do you remember?’ I grunted, feeling guilty again. Patrick had caused a lot of resentment between me and my parents. ‘When was that, anyway? It was quite early on, wasn’t it? Back last winter?’ ‘Yes, January, I think. It was really cold and rainy, and I’d already left to get my bus, but I’d forgotten my bag so I had to come back. He’d parked his big, posh car outside the shop and was holding an umbrella over your head as you locked up. I remember thinking it looked really romantic, like something off one of those old-fashioned romantic postcards.’ I scowled, not wanting to remember details like that. Better to remember him as a selfish bastard who never turned up or called than a romantic hero, protecting me from the rain. All the same, memories of that night bombarded my brain, with Patrick being at his most charming and funny. We’d eaten dinner at a country pub a few miles away and then he’d stayed at mine until Sunday afternoon. It was only one of a handful of times we’d spent the whole weekend together. Usually he’d have to leave the day after, or even the same night on one occasion. I pulled the piece of paper I’d noted down the dates on from my pocket to check it was on the list. The date was there but the details of where we’d been were missing. The trouble was, I’d spent the last few months trying to forget him, so wilfully remembering every detail and writing them down in chronological order was quite an effort. With a sigh, I noted down where we’d been and the fact he’d stayed all weekend. ‘If I tell Anthony I met him, do you think he’d take me for dinner, too?’ Bobbi asked. I laughed. ‘You could give it a try. He’s a bit old for you, though.’ ‘Oh yeah, he’s way too old for me. What is he, like, forty or something?’ ‘He’s thirty-five, I think.’ ‘He’s not too old for you then?’ ‘No, but I’m part of the investigation, depressingly enough, so even if we wanted to be together, which we don’t,’ I lied, ‘we couldn’t anyway.’ Bobbi looked at me in surprise. ‘But you do want to be with him, don’t you?’ I thought about last night’s kiss and tried to remember my reasons for not wanting to be with him. I’d give myself a stern talking to last night, after he left. He’d already mislead to gain information about Patrick and I needed to protect myself. ‘Not since I found out he lied to me.’ ‘He didn’t really lie, did he? He told you he was a detective.’ ‘Yes, but he left out the bit about how he was investigating my ex-boyfriend and then proceeded to ask me questions about him.’ ‘That’s quite clever, though, isn’t it? Because then he’d be able to gauge how you felt about the police and if you had any idea Patrick was up to no good.’ I shot her a look. ‘I don’t think it’s strictly ethical, though.’ ‘Well, no, but I really like him,’ Bobbi said, cheerfully. ‘Not just because he’s handsome, but he has a nice aura about him.’ ‘Aura? What are you talking about?’ ‘You know, the feel you get off him. He’s just so pleasant and nicely spoken. He seems like a real gentleman.’ She leaned on the counter, and looked at me appraisingly. ‘You’d look good together.’ ‘Oh yes? Why’s that then?’ ‘You’re both so old-fashioned.’ ‘Old-fashioned? This is retro, darling. Vintage. It’s not old-fashioned,’ I said, indicating my 1940s-style swing dress. It was one of my favourites, blue with cream birds. I’d worn it to try and cheer myself up. ‘And he’s not exactly old-fashioned. That suit’s probably handmade from some tailor in Savile Row.’ ‘No, but he’s got an old-fashioned charm about him. He’s so polite and well-mannered. Not like most men you meet today. Most men are like “Get your tits out, darlin’”, but I bet he’d be like “I wonder if you might possibly consider showing me your breasts?”’ ‘Bobbi!’ I squeaked, starting to laugh. ‘What kind of men do you know? Besides, it’s probably his work persona. I was thinking before that’s probably how he gets people to confess. Charms it out of them.’ ‘I’m sure he likes you, though,’ Bobbi said. ‘You can tell by the way he looks at you. He’s got a right twinkle in his eye.’ ‘He has not.’ I touched my lips where he’d kissed me last night. ‘Besides, you only saw him yesterday before he dragged me off to the police station, and he looked guilty and uncomfortable.’ ‘He hardly dragged you off, and he couldn’t take his eyes off you.’ ‘He looked shifty.’ I drew in a breath and let it out as a sigh. ‘I’m so fed-up today. I could scream. Why can’t I find a nice, uncomplicated man?’ ‘You’ve been out with nice, uncomplicated men in the past,’ Bobbi pointed out. ‘But then you got bored.’ ‘How about a nice, uncomplicated man who’s not boring then?’ ‘Maybe Anthony is boring.’ ‘Yes, I bet he is,’ I said savagely. ‘I bet he’s really bad in bed, too.’ ‘Bound to be.’ Bobbi nodded in agreement and then gave me a sideways glance that said she didn’t believe a word of it. I didn’t either. My thoughts returned to the kiss in the bar and I sighed longingly before trying to conceal it by turning it into a yawn. I was really tired today. After Anthony had left last night, I’d spent the rest of the evening going through my calendar and trying to pinpoint the dates of the weekends I’d spent with Patrick. I’d found the tickets I’d mentioned at the police station in a hat box in my wardrobe among dried rose petals the colour of old blood. I’d tipped them out, disgusted with myself for keeping them, but kept the box because it had the address of a Parisian florist on the bottom. Patrick had sent me a few bouquets by mail from this particular florist so it was possible he held an account with them. If so, Anthony might be able to trace him through that. It was better than nothing, anyway. I still wasn’t sure why I’d kept all this stuff after we’d broken up; it wasn’t what I usually did. But then Patrick was the first man I’d truly cared about. He seemed so sophisticated and mature compared with the other boys I’d been out with in the past. Patrick was different. He was older and already a successful businessman. I suppose I was a bit in awe of him. He had a big personality and took charge of every situation. He knew about food and wine and wore expensive suits and Rolex watches. Elena had gone mad at me when I’d told her this, ranting on about how superficial it all was and how I should be judging him on how much time he spent with me. I was so mad I didn’t speak to her for a week. Not that she noticed, of course; she was too loved-up with Daniel to realise. But I could never stay mad with her for long, and she’d forgiven me for being suspicious about Daniel when she first got together with him. It was hard to believe now that I’d ever thought he was using her. How wrong could I have been? Still, I was happy to be proven wrong where Elena was concerned. I wasn’t so happy to be proven wrong about Patrick, though. But when I sat and thought about it, I couldn’t think of anything that meant he couldn’t be a criminal. The only thing I could think of was that I couldn’t possibly have dated a criminal. I didn’t do that sort of thing. I’d never been attracted to that whole ‘bad boy’ persona thing girls went for. I liked men who were good and smart and clean-living. Patrick had seemed to be all of those things. The hat box and receipts were in the back of my car now, waiting for Anthony to stop by and collect them. He hadn’t said he would, but I thought it was likely. As a result, I spent the rest of the day watching out of the window for him and jumping every time a customer came into the shop. It made me cross that I wanted to see him again so badly, and it made me even crosser when closing time arrived and he hadn’t made an appearance at all. Bobbi went home and I locked up the shop before going out into the courtyard to drive home. The rain beat down on my head as I crossed to my car, soaking my hair and the shoulders of my coat. Anthony’s car glistened wetly next to mine, and I turned and glanced up at the doorway to his flat. The light was on in his hallway, so presumably he was in. I paused for a second, debating whether I should knock or not, before taking the hat box from the back of my car and going up the stone steps to his front door. There was no answer at first and I was just starting to make my way back down the steps, thinking he wasn’t home, when the door opened and Anthony appeared, framed in the light of his hallway. ‘Oh! It’s you!’ He was wearing dark-rimmed glasses and his shirt collar was open. I stared at him for a moment too long before remembering what I was there to do. Trotting back up the steps, I thrust the box at him and wiped some rainwater out of my eyes. ‘I’ve made the list and there are some receipts and things in there that might help. Also, there’s an address for the florist he used at the bottom of this box and I’m wondering if he had an account. I doubt it will help but you never know.’ My heart was hammering as I turned away to walk back down the steps. Those glasses were just too cute. ‘Don’t go, Rachel. Come in.’ I looked at him in surprise. ‘I don’t want to disturb you. I just thought you’d want that as soon as possible.’ ‘You’re not disturbing me at all. Come in, I’ll make you a drink. You must be freezing standing out there, and you’re soaked through.’ ‘Well, if you’re sure.’ Slowly, I walked back up the steps and into the hall, feeling awkward and uncertain. Should I be here? I could do without feeding my desire for him. Maybe I should make an excuse and leave. But even as I was formulating a reason to go, Anthony was shutting the door behind me and telling me to go upstairs. The apartment was designed with its three bedrooms on the lower floor, and an open-plan living area with kitchen, dining area and living room upstairs. It smelt deliciously of beef casserole. ‘I was just about to have dinner,’ Anthony said, following me upstairs. ‘Your mum made me a casserole.’ ‘My mum?’ I said, incredulously. ‘When did she make you a casserole?’ ‘She called round before. I think it’s a house-warming gift. She even apologised for not making it before. She’s very sweet, isn’t she?’ ‘I haven’t even seen her this week,’ I grumbled, a bit offended she hadn’t made some for me, too. I loved my mum’s casserole. ‘In fact, she hasn’t even phoned to tell me she’s back from holiday!’ ‘She said she only got back last night and was in a mad rush. Please stay and eat it with me. I’ll never eat it all. She’s made me a huge pot.’ He went to the cooker and stirred the contents of the saucepan on the hob. ‘You can always freeze it,’ I suggested, even though I hadn’t eaten since lunchtime and my stomach was rumbling. It smelt gorgeous. ‘There’ll still be loads left even if you have some. I don’t know if she thinks I need fattening up or something. I’ve only warmed half of it up, but there’s more than enough for both of us. Have you eaten already?’ ‘No, I’ve just finished work.’ ‘Well then, take off your coat and sit down.’ He nodded towards the round oak table on the other side of the room. A pile of papers was stacked to one side of an open laptop. ‘Excuse the mess. I’ll move that in a minute.’ Unbuttoning my coat, I moved towards the table as if in slow motion. I couldn’t quite believe this was happening. Anthony placed a plate of steaming casserole in front of me virtually the minute I sat down, and then whisked away his laptop and files. ‘Thank you.’ ‘Don’t thank me. Your mum made it. What would you like to drink?’ ‘Just water, thanks.’ Filling two glasses from the tap, Anthony carried them over before placing a plate of crusty bread in the centre of the table. ‘Mmm,’ he said, tucking into his dinner. ‘This is gorgeous.’ ‘I know, I do love my mum’s stew.’ ‘Can you cook like this?’ I shook my head. ‘Not really. So, when did she bring it round?’ ‘About four o’clock this afternoon. I’d just got in from work.’ I pulled a face. ‘That was sneaky. She could have come and said hello to me. I wonder if I’ve upset her somehow?’ ‘Your dad was waiting with his engine running. I think they had to be somewhere.’ ‘Oh, okay.’ I still felt a little bit miffed but I supposed she had a lot to do and it was sweet of her to make Anthony some food. I knew she’d been disappointed he was moving in when she was away. ‘So, how was your day?’ Anthony asked. ‘Okay. How was yours?’ ‘Frustrating. We keep drawing a blank in finding Patrick. We’ve got everyone else we think is involved, we just can’t find him.’ He blew on his forkful of food and looked at me curiously. His eyes looked bigger behind his glasses. ‘So, you definitely haven’t seen or heard from him since you told him it was over? Despite the fact he said he’d phone?’ I nodded, chewing my food slowly. ‘Definitely. Did you manage to get onto my phone?’ ‘It’s gone to another department. Did he know anyone else in Chester? You said he was here on business? What business was that? Where was his meeting?’ ‘He never said. It was a one-off, I think.’ Anthony frowned. ‘Did he ever mention anyone he knew in Chester? Or did you see him speak to anyone when you went out?’ ‘No. Never.’ ‘When you met him, you were waiting for someone else?’ I felt my cheeks redden. ‘Yes, I was just about to leave when Patrick came over.’ ‘Who were you waiting for?’ ‘Someone I met on an internet dating site.’ I swallowed uncomfortably. My humiliation was complete. ‘You sure it wasn’t Patrick all along? You can be anyone you want on those sites, can’t you?’ I shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Why would he do that? That’s just weird.’ ‘Well, I suppose it means he gets to check you out before you know who he is, and then he looks like a hero for rescuing you when you’ve been let down.’ My jaw dropped. ‘Seriously? People do that?’ Anthony shrugged. ‘He’s not the most honest person in the world. I’d say he’s pretty much capable of anything. I mean, to leave you dangling, waiting for more phone calls after you dumped him for standing you up is pretty rotten. That was why you broke the phone, wasn’t it?’ I sighed heavily and carried on eating. Reaching for the bread, I ripped off a chunk and dipped it into the gravy. ‘I was angry, sure, but in my head it was over anyway and nothing he could say or do was going to change that. It wasn’t like I was hoping we’d repair the relationship. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to marry him any more. I felt like I didn’t even know him. He was so secretive. He never answered any questions I asked him with a straightforward reply. It was all “oh, you know how it is, baby, blah, blah, blah, change the subject”, but I didn’t know how it was at all. I didn’t have a clue. We never even talked about where we’d live once we were married. My life is here in Chester, but he’s based two hundred miles away in London. I was never going to be willing to move to London.’ Anthony glanced up in surprise. ‘Why not? People move all the time. Look at me. I’ve lived all over the place.’ ‘Where have you lived then?’ He shrugged. ‘London, Essex, Hull, Tyneside, Sheffield, Birmingham. All over.’ ‘Doesn’t it get lonely moving about all the time?’ ‘No. It keeps life interesting. Seeing new things, meeting new people.’ I sighed. ‘I suppose I’m just a homebird, really.’ He chuckled. ‘We’re back to the fact that your shop’s called The Birdcage. Did you have any qualms about taking on your mum’s shop?’ ‘Not at all. I always wanted to work there. I love it.’ Anthony’s brow was still creased in disbelief. He pushed his plate away, the food already gone. ‘So you left school and just went straight into working in the shop?’ ‘No, I went to college and then did a business degree at uni.’ ‘Which uni?’ ‘Liverpool.’ He laughed and sucked in air through his teeth. ‘Ooh, don’t go too far now, will you? That must be almost a whole hour away. Did you come home every night for your tea?’ ‘No!’ I said, feeling annoyed with him. ‘I lived in a shared house with some friends. I had a great time.’ ‘And then when you graduated you came home and just worked in the shop?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And you’re happy?’ ‘Yes.’ My voice faltered and Anthony looked at me. ‘You’re not happy?’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Yes, I’m happy. It’s just that…’ I ran a tongue over my teeth, unsure of how to put into words what I’d been feeling lately. ‘Sometimes I feel like I peaked too soon. Does that make sense? I came out of university, moved back home, started working in the shop. Then my gran died and left me her house and Mum retired and now I run the shop. So I’m twenty-six now, and I have my own home and my own shop, pretty much, and it’s wonderful, but it feels like I came by it too easily. Does that make sense?’ Anthony stroked his chin and looked at me thoughtfully. ‘It’s a lot of responsibility.’ ‘Yes, but it’s not the responsibility, really. It’s what comes next. People work for years to achieve what I’ve got, but I’ve got it already. That makes me sound like a spoilt brat, and I don’t mean to sound like that at all. I love it. Most of the time I don’t think like this at all and my head is full of building up the internet side of the business and attracting more clients and offering really different and edgy bouquets. I want the shop to feel like a little boutique that has a really unique signature style. And I’d love to hold more workshop tutorials; you know, floristry classes for beginners, that sort of thing. We had one the other week, just a small one, where Bobbi and I showed people how to make their own Christmas wreaths. It was lovely. We had wine and cheese and it was such a lovely evening. I’d love to do more things like that. But then sometimes, you know, late at night, when it’s dark and I’m lonely, I get to thinking that maybe my life will always be like this. Maybe I won’t meet anyone else ever again. Maybe I won’t get married and have kids. Maybe I’ll always live in my gran’s house and run my mum’s shop. Never growing, just living the same life I’ve always lived for the rest of my days. And that would be fine, really. It’s a nice life. I’d be lucky for that to happen. You know, steady and safe and drama-free. But there’s also the worry that maybe I’ll lose everything my mum’s ever worked to build up. What if I cock it up and the business folds?’ I took a deep breath and looked at him. He was watching me closely, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Either that or he was falling asleep. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve been rambling on for ages. Ignore me. The simple answer to your question is life is good, but I worry a lot.’ I took a sip of water. ‘You must think I’m mad.’ ‘Not at all. I think you’re very brave.’ ‘Brave? Me?’ I laughed incredulously. ‘No, really. You’ve stepped up and taken on your family business, allowing your mum to retire. That’s an honourable thing to do.’ He cleared his throat and shifted position in his chair slightly. ‘I have a family thing. It’s not exactly a business… well, sort of… but when I came of age I ran so far and so fast from it my feet didn’t touch the ground. Taking on that… stuff… tying myself down… it terrified me. Still does now.’ ‘Well, you have your own job now.’ I smiled encouragingly. ‘Your parents must be very proud of you.’ He laughed. ‘Not so you’d notice.’ I frowned slightly. ‘Do you still see them?’ ‘It’s just my mum now. Dad died when I was fourteen.’ ‘Oh no, I’m sorry. That must have been awful.’ ‘Yes.’ He nodded slowly. ‘It was at Christmas time, too. I still don’t celebrate it.’ ‘You don’t celebrate Christmas? Not at all?’ ‘Nope. I hate it. Everything about it pisses me off. The lights, the trees, the decorations. The way people rush about all stressed-out, spending money they haven’t got. The wasted food. The drunk drivers on the roads. That’s how my dad died. Head-on collision with a drunk driver, asleep at the wheel.’ ‘Oh no, that’s horrible! I’m so sorry.’ Covering my mouth with my hands, I looked at him, eyes wide with horror. ‘I expect you love Christmas, don’t you?’ ‘Yes.’ He nodded. ‘My mum and brother celebrate. It’s just me who’s the miserable bastard.’ ‘Well, it’s understandable. How old’s your brother? Does he remember?’ ‘Sort of. He was only nine when it happened. He’s married with two kids now.’ ‘Will you see them on Christmas Day?’ He shook his head. ‘I’ll send presents.’ ‘What about your mum?’ ‘She’ll go to my brother’s.’ ‘So, you’re alone for Christmas?’ He shrugged. ‘Just another day.’ I gave him a sad smile. ‘Has your brother taken on this family business then?’ ‘No. My mum still runs it. Do you want a coffee or anything?’ Leaning over, he picked up my empty plate and put it with his own before taking it to the kitchen. ‘Oh, err, yes, please. Unless you want me to go?’ ‘No, you can take me through your timeline.’ ‘Oh great. I might have known I wouldn’t escape that easily.’ ‘Of course not.’ He chuckled as he placed a coffee pod into the coffee machine on the side and waited while it filled the mug below. Crossing to the breakfast bar, I took the lid off the hat box I’d brought and took out the list. ‘Go and sit on the sofa.’ Anthony pointed towards the big, oyster-coloured squashy sofa in the living-room area. ‘I love this sofa,’ I said, sinking into its soft depths. It was made from a suede material that my dad said was completely impractical for a rental property. He had a point, but I’d managed to convince him by telling him he needed nice furniture to attract the right type of tenant. ‘I helped choose it.’ ‘You did?’ Anthony sounded surprised. ‘The colour’s quite muted for you, isn’t it?’ I laughed. ‘I chose the paint for the walls, too.’ He looked at the pastel green in surprise. ‘Thank God they’re not pink!’ ‘I was under strict instructions from my dad. Thank you,’ I said, accepting the coffee he passed to me. ‘To tell you the truth, I’m a bit fed-up of all the pink myself. Maybe I’ll redecorate at some point.’ Anthony sat down on the sofa next to me and pulled the coffee table nearer so we could put our drinks down. Placing my coffee on the nearest leather coaster, I smoothed out my list and offered it to Anthony. ‘It’s not very interesting. I doubt it will lead anywhere.’ Anthony’s eyes scanned the list. Pressing his lips together, he frowned. ‘Hmm.’ ‘It’s funny really, looking at that list. It shows how little time we actually spent together.’ ‘Hmm,’ Anthony repeated. ‘I must have been mad to agree to marry him.’ ‘Yep.’ Anthony laughed. I looked at him, surprised, and he shrugged. ‘Well, you know… it doesn’t look good on paper, does it?’ There wasn’t much I could say to that really. I’d pointed it out, after all, and it really didn’t look good at all. But then that list didn’t take into account the emotion of those meetings. The laughter and affection we’d shared and the sheer joy of seeing him and spending time with him. Maybe the rarity of our meetings had made them even more exciting. All that longing to see him just fed the passion. Of course, in the early days there had been phone calls and gifts to keep me interested between visits. It was when the phone calls stopped and his visits got rarer that the excitement and passion fizzled out, replaced instead by resentment and sadness. I’d been a fool. But everybody was a fool in love, weren’t they? He pushed his glasses up his nose as he held up two boarding passes from the trip to Paris. ‘So this plane ticket to Paris, it says you flew from Gatwick, but you came back to Liverpool?’ ‘Yes, he had business in Paris so I flew back alone.’ ‘But you went to London and flew to Paris with him?’ ‘Yes. We stayed somewhere in London the night before. A flat in Fulham.’ Anthony’s eyes lit up. ‘Whose flat? His flat?’ ‘He said it was his friend’s flat. There was hardly anything in it. It was really sparse and unlived-in. Nice and trendy but… unlived-in. We were only there overnight anyway. I can’t remember the address. Patrick met me at Euston train station.’ I sorted through the papers until I found the train ticket. Anthony picked it up and looked at it. ‘But you can’t give me an address? Not even the name of a road?’ ‘No. Sorry.’ ‘Can you remember any landmarks? Was it near a tube station?’ He got up from the sofa and went to get his laptop from the dining table. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/carla-burgess/meet-me-under-the-mistletoe/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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