Tuesday 25 October 2022

A new adventure

During lockdown, my husband and I started our own business: Honey Bee Good. We hand-make reusable beeswax food wraps! I'm now covered in wax most of the time and couldn't be happier :-) Please do have a look at us: https://honeybeegood.co.uk/

Monday 24 February 2020

Books I'm loving: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

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🍬Do you loan your books?🍬 ⁠ ⁠ I gleefully pressed this into the hands of a friend, but can't remember who it was, and I've missed it on my shelf ever since. So when I recently ran across it in a charity shop, I snapped up another copy because I loved it so much!⁠ ⁠ From the description: Rosemary's young, just at college, and she's decided not to tell anyone a thing about her family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to find out for yourselves, round about page 77, what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other.⁠ ⁠ Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. There's something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. And it was this decision, made by her parents, to give Rosemary a sister like no other, that began all of Rosemary's trouble.⁠

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Books I'm loving: Ordinary People by Diane Evans

Books I'm loving: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Books I'm loving: If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane

It's US publication day!

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πŸŽ‰πŸΉ HAPPY PUBLICATION DAY TO ME! πŸΉπŸŽ‰⁠ ⁠ The day has finally come, when my little book meets its US readers, and I hope you'll love it πŸ’›πŸ’™πŸ’› ⁠ ⁠ πŸ”—Amazon link is in my bio. ⁠ ⁠ SHE NEEDS A GROOM. HE NEEDS A GREEN CARD...⁠ ⁠ When rising social media star, Nelly Roberts, is left in the lurch with not just a wedding but also the country’s biggest magazine feature on the line, she has no choice but to substitute one groom for another. Luckily, Rafael Moreno Cortes needs a visa, so they make a deal: act the perfect couple for as long as it takes to get them both what they want. The catch? Absolutely nobody can know the truth.⁠ ⁠ With the magazine following their every move, Nelly’s ex re-emerges with a change of heart just as her pretend feelings for Rafael start to be anything but pretend. What could possibly go wrong?⁠ ⁠ πŸ‘€ It's $2.99 for the rest of this month before going back up to the regular price of $9.99. πŸ‘€⁠

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Books I'm loving: The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Books I'm loving: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Books I'm loving: Louis and Louise by Julie Cohen

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❤ Wow, this blew me away! ⁠πŸ’™⁠ ⁠ If the incredibly original and thought-provoking premise of this wasn't enough to keep me turning the pages, then Julie Cohen's wonderfully impacting prose was. ⁠ ⁠ The story of a single baby born but two lives lived, one as a male and one as a female, and the ways their lives were different as a result, or weren't, was so deftly interwoven throughout, and I especially loved the 'spot the difference' element running through the narrative. ⁠ ⁠ It took me a few minutes to grasp why the stories diverged (because of course there are knock-on consequences to every action in one's life), and thinking about the implications of those was one of the many many joys of this book. ⁠ ⁠ I HIGHLY recommend reading this book!⁠

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Thursday 16 August 2018

The Not So Perfect Plan to Save Friendship House: Exclusive exerpt

My next novel will publish globally on August 31st, and you can start reading it now!
Michele aka Lilly xo

The Not So Perfect Plan to Save Friendship House

Lilly Bartlett

Excerpt copyright © 2018 Michele Gorman

Chapter 1

 ‘Well, Mum, I’ve really got to hand it to you this time,’ I tell her, yanking at the snug waistband of my dress. My comment gets carried away, though, by all the chattering going on around us. My parents’ friends can talk a mile a minute. ‘You’ve outdone yourself,’ I admit, louder this time. I am trying, though I sound touchy as touchy can be. On today of all days too. What is wrong with me?!
I guess she shouldn’t really expect me to take the high road now, just because we’re at a funeral. We’ve never let something as trifling as the spectre of death stand in the way of a good snipe. ‘You were right. As usual.’ And nobody in the entire history of angsty mother-daughter dynamics wants to admit that. Which just shows how much I’ve grown recently as a person.
If I’m being honest, Mum does deserve every bit of credit today. Dad would have chucked a few frozen sausage rolls into the oven and maybe ordered some portions of chips from the cheap chippy that’s on his way home from work. ‘It is the party to end all parties,’ I admit, meeting her green eyes. The eyes that I didn’t inherit. I got Dad’s mud-brown ones instead. I missed out on her film-star legs too. My brother got those and her eyes. I’ve got her allergy to grass and dodgy karaoke voice.
‘It’s just a lot of money to spend on one day. A lot,’ I can’t keep from adding.
Not that she’s listening. Which is typical. She’s always been more interested in making sure everyone’s overwhelmed by her generosity.
The house is heaving with people. I’ve never laid eyes on most of them. They’re packed into the dining room and out back where the French doors lead on to the terrace and into the garden, and around the pool that Dad rushed to open early even though it’s freezing out and nobody in their right mind would turn up with their swimsuit on under their clothes. People are huddling together in the living room, or the ‘great room’, as Mum makes us call it. I’ve got no idea what a great room is supposed to be, but I guess having a library full of books and a grand piano that’s never had anything but ‘Chopsticks’ played on it qualifies.
Sighing, I say, ‘I’ll go check that Dad’s all right.’ I leave her grinning over another perfect party.
I don’t mean to make my parents sound like nightmares. It’s just that Mum drives me round the bend. And this is us on our best behaviour. You might have guessed that they throw lavish parties, and maybe you can tell that they live in a big house. But if I say it’s Mum’s mission in life to outshine absolutely everyone – which is totally true – you’ll probably start thinking they’re horrible. They’re not, though. It’s just that they worked really hard to start their own business and build themselves up from nothing. Plus, they’re very generous. So hopefully you’ll forgive them for wanting to flash a bit of their success.
I catch a glimpse of Dad through one of the six-foot-high lilac rose floral arrangements. Mum’s got them all over the house. Lilac and deep green, that’s the colour theme. She’s coordinated everything: the flowers, tablecloths, serviettes, plates, foil-wrapped chocolates by the lorry load, and even the guests.
I tug again at the waist of my lilac gingham dress. I look like fat Dorothy, off to see the Wizard, but it was all I could find at such short notice.
Will wore gingham too. He’s my older brother. He’s also my only brother, unfortunately. We looked ridiculous standing beside each other. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumber. I’m not surprised he’s already scarpered.
Dad’s not happy with his tartan purple shirt, either, but he knows which side his bread is buttered on. If Mum wants everyone to dress like their granny’s kitchen curtains, then everyone is going to turn up in their granny’s kitchen curtains.
He’s deep in conversation with their neighbour. Valentina, I think she’s called. Or Valentine. It’s hard to keep all their friends straight. According to my parents, that’s because I don’t visit enough. I was here more when they first moved away, just after I’d finished school, when the two-hour journey to Essex was worth it to get my laundry done for me.
‘Everyone’s having such a nice time!’ Valen-something says, kissing my cheek. ‘I mean… under the circumstances. I’m so sorry.’ Her face reddens to match her lipstick.
Dad squeezes her arm. ‘It’s exactly what Bev would have wanted, Valerie.’
Valerie, that’s it!
We all stare across the room, over the friends’ and neighbours’ heads, past the OTT floral arrangements and beyond the long dining table, to Mum’s photo leaning against the fireplace. It’s one that Dad took last year on their cruise. She’s smiling right into the camera, looking suntanned and happy. Dad’s right. It’s exactly the kind of send-off she’d have wanted.
Of course it is. She planned every last detail, because that’s the kind of control freak Mum is. Was.

Everyone’s finally gone and I’m dead on my feet. If you’ll pardon the expression. You wouldn’t think people would outstay their welcome at a funeral, but that Valerie just wouldn’t take the hint. I was ready to flick the lights off and bang Mum’s stew pot with the ladle to get her to go. And she and Mum weren’t even that close.
‘That went well,’ Dad says, like he’s just passed his driving test or something.
‘Yeah, except for Mum being… you know.’
‘Yeah. Except for that,’ he says. Then he laughs. Of all things! ‘She’d have loved the look on everyone’s faces when the cake came out.’
The man’s wife is dead and he’s laughing over the cake? I’m no grief counselling expert, but that’s not right. ‘Dad, aren’t you even a little bit upset? I mean, she and I had our differences, but I am sad that she’s gone. Now I’m an orphan.’
His dark eyebrows draw together. They’re only so startling because his hair is nearly white. ‘What about me? Aren’t I still your parent?’
‘I’m half an orphan, then.’
His pat on my shoulder is awkward. Dad’s not a great one for the touchy-feely. ‘Now, now, there’s no use crying over spilt milk, Phoebe. What’s done is done.’
‘It’s not spilt milk, Dad, and Mum’s not done, she’s dead! Will you stop trying to make it sound like no big deal?’
I dash away the tears with my hand. Maybe I’m sad. Maybe I’m frustrated. All I know is that I do feel something. Unlike my father, the Dalek.
I look into his face, trying to remember whether I’ve ever seen him get emotional. He shouts at his football team on TV sometimes. ‘How can you be so cold?’
‘Phoebe, come on,’ he says, running a hand over his five o’clock (yesterday) shadow. If Mum were here, she’d have made him shave this morning. She hates stubble. Hated. ‘Just because I’m not falling to pieces doesn’t mean I don’t feel anything. People show their emotions differently, that’s all.’
‘Yes, but they show them, Dad. You’re acting like you don’t even care.’
‘Let’s not fight,’ he says. ‘Not today. Want a cup of tea?’ Without waiting for an answer, he pulls out three mugs and chucks the teabags in. ‘Oh.’ He hesitates. ‘Silly me.’
As he puts Mum’s favourite spotty mug back in the cabinet, I catch the lost look skittering across his expression. I guess it is there, after all.
‘I’m sorry, Dad.’

He’d rung me just after lunchtime. He never does that during the day unless it’s to tell me I’ve forgotten a birthday or an anniversary or something.
I’d just managed to wrestle four giant packs of chicken thighs out from the overstuffed freezer at work for the next day’s curry. Care home residents might not seem like they’d appreciate food that’s not bland or pureed, but our residents aren’t what you’d call the norm.
‘Who did I forget?’ I answered with my mobile wedged between my cheek and shoulder.
‘Hi, Phoebe. This is your father.’
‘I know it’s you, Dad. You come up on my phone.’ Every conversation started like this.
‘Your mother has gone into hospital.’
I felt my tummy sink to my knees. I clasped the phone to my ear. ‘What’s happened?’ Horrible scenarios flashed through my mind: she’d been in a crash. No, it was a mugging. She’s always marching around with a big expensive bag dangling off her arm. Or a random acid attack or a knifing or she’d lopped her fingers off chopping onions or confused arsenic for sugar in her tea. Though I’m not sure why there’d be arsenic in the cabinet.
‘Heart attack, they think,’ said Dad.
‘Is she... okay?’
‘Oh, yes, she’s fine,’ he said. ‘She didn’t want me to bother you. I just thought you might like to know.’
‘How can she be fine, Dad, when she’s had a heart attack? And, yes, I want to know!’ Only my mother could think that a near-death experience wasn’t even worth a phone call.
‘I mean she’s awake and feeling fine, so don’t worry.’ His voice was as calm as always. Unlike mine.
‘Have you rung Will already?’ I asked.
‘He’ll be busy with work. We don’t want to disturb him.’
Of course, they’d never dream of giving him anything to worry about at work. Like the entire financial system would collapse if he were ever to take a personal call. I looked around my kitchen. In their eyes, Will was the one with the important job, not me. I’m ‘just’ a cook. ‘I’m leaving now,’ I told him. ‘I can be there in two hours depending on traffic. I’ll see you soon, Dad.’
‘I’ll meet you at the hospital in a few hours, then. Text me when you’re off the motorway.’
‘But aren’t you at the hospital now?’
‘Your mum wants me to stay at the office. The sealed bids are coming in today.’ He gave me the hospital’s address. Then he told me not to use the car park there.
‘Parking will be expensive,’ he said. ‘There’ll be spaces further along the main road and you can walk back.’
The drive there is a blur, but I do remember the feeling. It was all I could do not to scream and bash the steering wheel every time I had to slow down for traffic or lights. I just knew I wouldn’t get there in time to see Mum one last time.
I found the closest spot in the car park, sprinted to the critical care unit and blurted my mother’s name to the nurse, who calmly pointed me to her room.
‘God, Phoebe,’ said Mum when I skidded through the door. ‘Where’s the fire? You nearly gave me a heart attack. Ha ha.’
‘Mum, what happened?!’ She was sitting up in bed with a blue hospital gown draped loosely across her front. Wires trailed from under the covers to the machines that beeped and chirped beside her.
She had her mobile to her ear. ‘Sorry about that,’ she told the caller. ‘I’ll have to ring you back.’
She kept her phone clasped in her hand as she waved away my question. ‘It’s a lot of bother over nothing. The doctors aren’t even sure it was a heart attack. They’re making me go through tests to check. Your father didn’t need to bother you.’ She looked me up and down. Then she sighed. ‘Isn’t there something better that you could wear to work?’
I glanced down at my black checked chef trousers and short-sleeved white tunic.
‘And those clogs. I wouldn’t wear them around the house, let alone out of it. Why can’t you try a bit harder, Phoebe? Don’t you care what people think?’
I ignored the jibes. Only because she could be dying. ‘Tell me what happened, Mum. Did you have pain?’
‘Of course I had pain,’ she snapped. ‘It was a heart attack. Or something like it anyway. I feel fine now, though. I need to get back to the office. The sealed bids are coming in today. I can come back after for the tests if they’re so keen on them.’
‘I’m sure the office understands that you’re here.’
‘Pah, I didn’t tell them! And don’t you, either. They think your dad gave me a surprise spa day.’ Then she muttered, ‘As if I’d tell them about something like this.’
What was wrong with my mother? ‘Mum, that’s nuts. You can’t cover up a heart attack with a spa day. You’re ill. You could be here for some time. Everyone at the company cares about you. They’d want to know.’
‘I just bet they would,’ she said. ‘Phoebe, how many times have I told you that people will exploit their advantage. I’m not about to give them an excuse.’
‘These aren’t just people, Mum, they’re your friends. Your employees. You’ve worked with them for years.’
She waved away my protest. ‘You’d hope that friends wouldn’t use something against you, but why would I take the chance when I don’t have to? If you’ve learned anything from me, darling, I hope it’s that.’
Then she pulled off the covers and started to swing her legs to the floor, sending the machines into a meltdown.
‘Mum, don’t!’
A nurse hurried into the room, probably expecting cardiac arrest. What she found was the world’s worst patient peeling off the tape holding the monitors to her chest. ‘What are you doing?’ the nurse demanded. ‘Get back into bed. You’ve got to rest. And keep these on.’ She pulled off another length of tape with a furious tear and stuck it to my mother. ‘If you need the loo, push the button and someone will help you.’ She glared at Mum. ‘Do not leave this bed.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I murmured to the nurse as she left. ‘Mum, why can’t you behave?! You need to stay here until they know what’s wrong. These people are trying to help you.’
‘I know that, Phoebe, but I’ve got things to do. I’m very busy. We didn’t build our business by sitting around on our bums, you know.’
How many times had I heard that over the years? Whenever I didn’t do things the way she thought I should. Which was almost always. ‘Being in hospital with a heart attack is not just sitting around on your bum,’ I reminded her. ‘Besides, you’ve got Dad looking after the bids, so you don’t need to worry about anything.’
She rolled her eyes. Then she zeroed in on my hair which, I remembered too late, was still in its ponytail from work. ‘Couldn’t you have done something with that?’ She patted her own perfectly coiffed gingery head. She looked like she’d had it styled on the way over in the ambulance. ‘You only have one chance to make a first impression. You could look so much better, you know, if you tried at all.’

‘You made a great first impression with that nurse,’ I said. ‘You’d better be careful or she won’t give you the good biscuits at teatime.’ I heaved a great sigh. ‘Do you need anything? I can run downstairs to the shops.’
I was desperate to get away for a few minutes to catch my breath. Besides, my tummy had been twisting into knots since the drive.
She always did that to me. My mother didn’t get ulcers, she gave them. Which said everything about our relationship, really.

Chapter 2

 By the time I got back with all Mum’s shopping, Dad was there, sopping wet from the squall that had whipped up outside. His dress shirt was stuck to his chest and little rivulets dripped down the sides of his face from his flattened hair. His whole head had gone grey early, but at least he’s still got it, and despite the stress of being an entrepreneur, he doesn’t look his age (fifty-eight). He does look like a builder, which he is, even though he spends more time on email now than on building sites.

‘You really didn’t park in the garage?’ I asked him.
‘You really did?’ he shot back. ‘I told you it was a waste of money.’
That’s pretty much what passes for a friendly greeting in our family.
Dad wasn’t offended because he’s cheap. We’re talking about the man who drives a £60k car. He and Mum went on exotic holidays. He’s not afraid to spend his cash. He just hates feeling ripped off. That’s why he buys own-brand baked beans if the good ones aren’t on sale. Tesco won’t ever put one over on him.
Not Mum, though, aka Spendy McSquillions. She’d never met a purse she couldn’t empty. It was a good thing their business had done well.
‘I’m only supposed to have one visitor at a time,’ Mum said when I gave her the carrier bags from downstairs.
‘I’m sure it’s fine, Bev,’ Dad said. ‘Phoebe’s driven all the way here.’
‘I know, thank you,’ she said to me. ‘But really, you don’t have to stay, now that Dad’s come. I’m fine, don’t worry about me.’
I could tell that she was fine by the way she was just as critical as usual.
‘Mum’s right,’ Dad added, glancing at his phone. ‘You’ve got to get out of that garage,’ he said, like the parking attendant there was holding my car hostage.
‘I don’t care about the money, Dad.’
But I let them convince me to go back to their house. He’d only keep going on about the expense anyway, and clearly Mum wasn’t in any danger.
I couldn’t say I was completely at home at my parents’, but it felt comfortable enough. Like I said, it wasn’t where I grew up. They sold that when they decided to make their fortune a hundred miles south. Still, I flattered myself that the guest bedroom where I always stayed was ‘my room’, and that I’d at least get first dibs over any Tom, Dick or Harry who came to visit.
Dad didn’t stay at the hospital very long after me, but he went back to work and then out for some dinner meeting that couldn’t be moved just because his wife and business partner was dining in Critical Care.

When I got to Mum’s room the next morning, all I saw was a lump in her bed with a sheet pulled over it. Exactly like they did in films when the paramedics had done all they could to save the patient.
She was dead! ‘Mum!’
‘What!’ snapped the voice under the bedding.
‘What are you doing?’
Mum appeared with an angry yank of the sheet. She had her phone to her ear.
‘You’re not supposed to use that in here!’
‘No kidding, Phoebe, so stop shouting about it or the nurse will hear. Shush.’ She waved me away as she continued to talk and scribble in the notebook I’d picked up for her in the shop.
‘That could interfere with the machines, you know,’ I said when she’d hung up.
‘Don’t be such a worrier,’ she grumbled. ‘It’s my machine, so it’s my risk.’
‘There are other patients with machines on the ward, you know. Do you really want to kill one of them with a phone call?’
Mum rolled her eyes. She was a famous eye-roller. ‘Don’t believe everything you read, Miss Health and Safety. If it was such a problem, then they’d block mobiles.’
‘If it’s such a problem, then they’d put up signs.’ I pointed to the warning posted by the door. ‘Oh, look, they have.’
Then, right on cue she said, ‘Are those the same clothes from yesterday?’
‘I was at work when Dad rang,’ I reminded her. ‘I can pick up some things later if it’s so important to you that I dress for the hospital.’ I knew I should have at least borrowed one of Dad’s shirts. Though the checked trousers were still a problem.
I didn’t usually take Mum’s image critiques to heart. I’d never leave my flat if I did that. Instead, I tried not to give her too much to work with. It was easier emptying the gun than trying to keep the bullets from hitting their mark when she spotted an easy target.
‘Standards,’ Mum said. ‘Anyway, did you have a nice breakfast with Dad?’ We’d gone out to the builder’s caff before he left for the office. ‘The food here is vile. They couldn’t make a decent fry-up with guns to their heads. You could teach them something. Maybe you should work for the NHS. I bet it pays better than what you’re getting now.’
Not wanting our possibly last conversation to be an argument, I ignored her career advice. ‘Maybe you shouldn’t be eating fry-ups, Mum,’ I said instead. Although she was generally one of those women who kept fit and ate well-ish. If she started filling out a bit, she just cut back, as she loved to say. Simple as that. The implication was that anyone could do it. But I’m no supermodel and there’s no ‘just’ cutting back. I’m rounded, like any good chef worth her salted butter should be.

‘At least put on some decent clothes if you’re going to stay,’ she said. ‘I don’t want people thinking my cook is visiting me in hospital.’
‘Sorry I didn’t think to pack a ball gown for your heart attack,’ I said. I’d gone from worried about my mother to rowing with her in less than twenty-four hours. In other words, totally normal.
She glanced at her phone. ‘The shops are open now.’
‘I’ll stop back after lunch, then,’ I told her.
My mobile rang a few hours later. ‘I’m sorry I snapped at you,’ she said, and she meant it. She usually apologised for her outbursts. Not for thinking what she thought, but at least for saying it out loud. ‘You don’t have to bother with new clothes. I’ll be out of here soon anyway, as soon as the doctors tick all their silly little boxes. They’re only covering themselves. I’ve been through most of the tests now, and they’re saying it probably wasn’t even a heart attack. I don’t want you to worry, okay? Honestly, Phoebe, you don’t have to stay. There’s nothing wrong with me. Ask your dad if you don’t believe me.’
‘Well, if you’re sure.’ I didn’t need too much convincing, because everyone knew that my mum was invincible. She’d probably be back at the office bossing everyone around before I got to work on Monday.
My jaw started to unclench as soon as I got onto the motorway toward home. Please don’t get me wrong. I love my parents. It’s just sometimes hard being their daughter. Maybe all driven people are like that, setting the same high bar for everyone else that they do for themselves.
I didn’t strictly have to go past work on my way home, but I drove that way anyway. The care home is a grand old building and would practically be stately if there was anything aristocratic about the residents. It used to be the owner’s family home – also not aristocrats – and there’s a portrait in the entrance of the card-happy ancestor who won it gambling. He lost everything else the same way, though, so it’s never really been looked after beyond the minimum of upkeep.
The house is set back from the road with wide, sloping lawns running on either side. Our boss, Max Greene, had the drive widened a few years ago, but other than that it hasn’t changed since his mother owned it. That’s both a blessing and a curse.
June’s car was parked out front. She wasn’t supposed to be working on a Saturday. We’re the weekday staff. We’ve got night and weekend cover and she promised me no more overtime. She had the nerve to get snappish just because I pressed her on it.
I pulled into the drive behind her car.
‘You didn’t answer your phone,’ my best friend called down the corridor as soon as she saw me come through the side door where the office is. ‘How’s your mum?’
So she wasn’t going to make it easy for me to bollock her about the overtime.
‘As frightful as usual,’ I said, throwing myself down on the extra chair in front of her desk. June’s mind might be ultra-organised, but her office isn’t. There are binders stuffed full of receipts and records teetering all over the top of the cabinets, and her desk looks like she’s been shredding evidence. ‘I was driving when you rang,’ I said. ‘And you were working while I was driving.’
But June didn’t rise to the top of senior management (also the only management) at the Jane Austen Home for Ladies by caving in at the first sniff of trouble. She ignored me. ‘Frightful is good,’ she said. ‘That means Bev’s back to normal. She’s out of hospital now?’ She stretched her arms above her head and leaned back in her office chair, like she hadn’t a care in the world. The hem of her top rode up to flash a few inches of tummy, but she didn’t notice.
‘No, but she’ll be home soon. It doesn’t sound like anything too serious.’ Of course, June knew this already. I rang her from the hospital just after I first saw Mum. Was that only yesterday? ‘She sent me home.’
June nodded. I didn’t have to explain. We’d spent our entire childhood at each other’s houses. She knew all about my parents first-hand.
‘Nick’s gone home,’ she said with a smirk. ‘He only came in to do an hour with Laney.’
‘Hmm? That’s not why I’m here.’
It was exactly why I was there. Even though my dreams about Nick were quite hopeless by then, I couldn’t stop wishing. It’s not easy getting over someone when you’re around him every day at work.
‘I only came in to get you out of the office,’ I lied. ‘You’re not supposed to be working on your day off.’
‘And you’re not supposed to be stalking on your day off.’
TouchΓ©. We should both have been away from work doing better things.
She closed her laptop. ‘Do you want to do something? I told Callum I might meet him later, but it’s not set in stone. We can get a drink if you like.’
‘June, you cannot keep blowing Callum off,’ I said. ‘He’ll get sick of it eventually, and then he’ll dump you.’
But she shook her head. ‘The less I see of him, the more he likes me.’
‘By your logic, he’ll be in love with you if you never see him again. Doesn’t it seem a little bit, I don’t know, unhelpful to your sex life never to see your boyfriend?’
I could never do that. When I’m mad for someone I can’t keep away from him. Well, obviously, because there I was at work on a Saturday, on the off-chance that I might see Nick.
And June was mad for Callum. Mad like I’d never seen her before. It was easy to see why. He was gorgeous and fit and loads of fun, and they were really going for it, hot-and-heavy-wise, when they first got together. But then he made one little joke about her trying to handcuff him when she suggested a weekend break, and she started playing so hard to get that he had more chance of winning the lottery than seeing her.
He was still keen, so far, but for how long?
‘Come on, I’ll walk out with you,’ she said.
I might not have seen Nick, but at least I got her away from work. ‘Go see Callum,’ I urged her when we got to our cars.

Dad rang me around midnight. ‘Phoebe, this is your father.’
‘What’s happened?’
But I knew, even as I asked the question. Mum wasn’t invincible after all.
The doctors were baffled. None of the tests had shown that cardiac arrest was imminent. But then, Mum always did love to surprise people.
She left behind pages and pages of notes in her sprawling handwriting. Like she couldn’t get the words on the page fast enough. That’s what she’d been doing on her mobile all the time. Planning her last hurrah, just in case. She’d probably spent her final hours on earth trying to figure out which canapes would most impress their neighbours.
At twenty-eight, I was half orphaned. I was also stuck with such a confusing mishmash of feelings about Mum that I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with them. All I could do after the funeral was to throw myself back into my life and hope for the best.

Chapter 3

Three months later…
We’ve lost Laney at work. That’s no euphemism, though I can see why you might think so, what with me recently ‘losing’ my mother, plus us being in a care home and all. I’m sorry, madam, we did everything we could, but we’ve lost Laney.
We actually can’t find her.
It’s not the first time, but it is the longest that she’s been missing. Even June is starting to get nervous. Not that anyone but me would be able to tell. She’s the most famously unflappable person here. The worse things are, the calmer she gets. That’s how I know she’s worried, when she starts speaking like she’s convincing someone to put down the knife. But I would never let on. Everyone’s got their coping mechanisms.
Laney was last seen at breakfast, sitting with her usual friends at their usual table. Not the one directly next to the big sash windows in the dining room, because Laney doesn’t like to squint when it’s sunny, and besides, Sophie thinks the light fades her hair colour. Which is already the colour of wholemeal bread, so I don’t know why she’s so worried. Sophie says she and Laney were going to do Zumba together, but Laney didn’t turn up for it.
That wouldn’t normally raise any alarm bells, since Laney isn’t much of an exerciser. She is a joiner-inner, though, who doesn’t like to disappoint people. Plus, she doesn’t usually go off on her own, so we’re getting worried.

If we weren’t so chronically understaffed and overworked, we might not have lost Laney. It’s a wonder we don’t lose more residents. Max will be furious. He’s edgy about his business as it is.
Nobody would call him a good boss, except in the sense that he’s not generally around to bother us. When he does visit, he always rings first as a warning. That’s because he knows he’s not popular.
Not like his mother, the founder and previous owner of the Jane Austen Home for Ladies. That’s its official name now, though everyone in the village calls it Friendship House, because of the plaque beside the front door, from when people named their houses instead of numbering them. That must have been a nightmare for the postie.
We all call it the Happy Home for Ladies though. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It was Max who made his mother drop the Happy, in case anyone ever sued us for false or misleading advertising. It’s not, though, because the residents are happy. Plus, they’re women. Max was just being his usual miserable self.
‘He’s here,’ June calls out, speaking of the devil as she glances out the window. ‘Everyone, act normal. It’s not like he’s about to do a headcount.’
But this is the biggest kerfuffle the residents have seen since Dot fell out her bedroom window. They’re all gathered in the dining room making plans for Laney’s rescue, wherever she may be. Fat chance of acting normal.
‘Has anyone checked the greenhouse?’ Nick wonders. ‘I could go look.’
Nick is the only one who ever goes in there, and then only to get out the lawnmower. I can’t see Laney suddenly wanting to become a garden expert, but you never know with her. Any throwaway comment can send her mind skittering off on some obscure trail. Then, down the rabbit hole she goes.
‘Let me go with you,’ I tell Nick. ‘I mean, if she’s there, she could be hurt. There should be two of us.’
That sends the residents into another flap. I should know better than to mention getting hurt to residents in a care home. Now I feel bad for upsetting them for my own selfish ends.
And they are totally selfish. I’ll latch onto any excuse to be with Nick, even if it’s only in a draughty old greenhouse that stinks of fertiliser.
I’m sure my feelings would be easier to ignore if we didn’t have so much fun together. If only he’d get grumpy once in a while, or develop an annoying habit or at least a bad case of halitosis. But he remains stubbornly fanciable. There isn’t even any hint now of the awful weirdness that almost ruined our friendship. Those were terrible weeks, but at least if they’d gone on then I wouldn’t still be pining for him. Maybe I’d be satisfied with never sharing anything more than a friendly laugh in the shed together.
She waves away my protest, sending her bracelets tinkling merrily. ‘It’s all right. There’s no need to fuss over me.’

How thoughtless can I be, when Dot’s only been off crutches for a few weeks?
We thought we’d lost her a few months ago. And I do mean that in the scary sense of the phrase.
Thank goodness for the rhododendrons that cushioned Dot’s landing when she tumbled from her window. Otherwise she might have broken a lot more than her leg and her arm.
I still don’t know what made her think she should try washing her own windows. Granted, we’ve had storms lately and they’re not as crystal clear as they might be. But she could have asked for someone to give them a wipe. Nick would have been the first one up that ladder.
Dot’s independent streak is a mile wide, though. Plus, she’s super polite and hates to put anybody out. Which was why she climbed out her window with a roll of kitchen towel and a squirty bottle of Windex.
‘I didn’t think anything of it,’ she’d said, once the plaster casts had set and she was safely back from A&E, resting at ground level in one of the wing-backed chairs in the living room. ‘I’ve always washed my own windows. Though I did live in a bungalow then.’
She bought that bungalow herself by saving every bit possible from her teacher’s salary – whatever was left over after paying the rent and the bills and single-handedly raising her two sons.
This place is full of very capable women like Dot, there’s no doubt about that. But some aren’t as agile as they once were. If Dot – who’s got all her marbles and then some – thinks nothing of freestyle window cleaning, then I’m afraid to think where Laney might be right now.
‘I’m sure Laney’s not hurt!’ I tell everyone again.
‘We’ll just check the greenhouse,’ Nick adds, flashing me a smile that sends my downstairs aflutter. ‘Meanwhile, maybe someone could check out front? Look at that sun. She might have put her bikini on to work on her tan.’
This launches the women into hysterics, but Nick manages to keep a straight face. That’s more than I can say for myself. I’m such an easy audience.
‘That’ll keep them occupied for a few minutes,’ he says as the entire room clears. He holds open one of the French doors leading off the living room. ‘After you,’ he says as I step onto the wide patio that runs along the entire back of the house.
It’s a big house, with nearly thirty bedrooms. Proper Downton Abbey proportions. It rambles off on both sides from a three-storey central building where the grand entrance, dining room and two living rooms are. There’s even room in the middle of the entrance hall for a pedestal table with a giant urn of lilies or sunflowers or that curly bamboo. A wide oak staircase winds up one side of the hall to the bedrooms upstairs and further on into the eaves, where the staff would have lived in olden times. More bedrooms pack the wing on one side, with my kitchen on the ground floor of the other and bedrooms above.
Max, our boss, didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in his mouth, despite living in this place. His father, Terrible Terence, worked in accounting and his mum, Mrs Greene, was the town’s librarian. It was her family who passed down the house from days of yore, but she moved herself, Max and Terence out to the cottage at the back – which is still the size of a normal house – when she opened the care home.
That was nearly two decades ago. June says that applications have been pretty sporadic these past few years, and that’s got Max worried. He has tried advertising outside the area but, unless their parents are like Terence, most people want to keep their family nearby.
I glance over at Terence’s cottage as Nick and I walk towards the greenhouse. There’s no sign of him. Good. The residents are worried enough without him stirring the pot.
Nick is walking slightly ahead of me. Not because he’s rude. He’s just worried about Laney being out here, though I doubt she is. Laney might be daft most of the time, but she knows what she likes, and she likes her creature comforts. She wouldn’t sit in a draughty greenhouse full of spiders. She’s in the house. Somewhere.
Nick’s keenness gives me the chance to watch him as he strides across the lawn. I haven’t passed up that chance once since he started work here six months ago. You’d think I’d have him memorised by now.
Who am I kidding? I do.
I’m still amazed that Nick is working here. June would normally handle all our hiring, but Max was the one who found Nick for us. Our old occupational therapist left when her husband got sent to Germany for work. Unsurprisingly, June didn’t get a huge queue of candidates looking to work for a care home in a little market town in Suffolk.
That’s where we are, in Framlingham. We’re not that far from Norwich or Ipswich, but it feels a million miles away. It’s pretty and it’s home, but it doesn’t exactly scream ‘career opportunity’ to many people.
Also, because Max never passes up the chance to stretch his staff’s duties where he can, the job wasn’t strictly related to occupational therapy. You should have seen the brief June had to work with. The job description read like a holiday camp brochure. Our boss reasoned that OT wasn’t miles different from physical therapy (it is), and physical therapy includes exercising and stretching – which may as well be aerobics and yoga – as well as brain-sharpening activities. Scrabble uses the brain, so he wanted his new hire to run games nights too.
June didn’t waste any time ringing Nick for an interview when Max gave her his CV.
‘Wow, he’s fit,’ I’d whispered when he turned up. I was glad June was doing the interview. I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate. My unprofessionalism was boundless from day one.
‘Plus, he’s got a first,’ she answered. ‘Plus, the perfect qualifications.’
Plus, look at him, I’d thought.
You know those adverts where the tanned, shirtless guy tantalisingly licks the yogurt pot lid and makes you want to eat Bifidus activertium, or whatever it’s called, every day? That. Only he didn’t need any props to lick.
He’d strode right up to us. Blimey, what confidence he seemed to have. It was a bluff. Best foot forward for an interview and all that. He’s no peacock, but a shy bird like me. ‘I’m Nick Parsons. I have an eleven o’clock interview?’ He glanced at the clock on the wall. ‘Sorry, I’m early. That’s annoying, isn’t it. I did wait outside for a bit, but it started raining.’
When he smiled apologetically, I wanted to hug him.
‘How long have you been out there?’ June asked. Nick’s hair was soaked. Even so, it was a thick wavy mop.
‘About an hour. Hour and a half, tops.’ Then he laughed at himself. ‘I nearly camped overnight in your garden. My own sad little Glastonbury, without the music.’
‘And not even Portaloos,’ I said. ‘I’m glad it didn’t come to that.’
‘I wanted to make sure I wasn’t late. I’m… keen for this job.’
June hired him in the interview. She got her perfect employee, and I got a blinding crush that I still haven’t recovered from.
Within about a week it seemed like Nick had always been here. He’s so easy-going that he’s doing everything in Max’s unreasonable job description, and then some. Aside from being the occupational therapist, Scrabble organiser, exercise and yoga instructor, he’s also the part-time gardener, driver and handyman. No matter what Max asks him to do, Nick throws himself into it without a grumble.
This is great for me, since we haven’t got a dedicated games table, therapy room or exercise studio. There are TVs in each of the two living rooms, and woe betide anyone who disrupts the viewing schedules, so Nick uses the large dining room that’s just off my kitchen. Which means we spend most of our days together. Or at least separated by only a wall.
To say we don’t get much eye candy around here would be an understatement. Aside from our boss, Max (mid-fifties, not bad-looking if paunchy baldness turns you on), and his horrid father who lives in the cottage at the back of the property, and Davey, the Morrison’s delivery bloke, we’re all women here. Even the half-dozen carers who are on hand to help everyone with their day-to-day needs. The residents like it that way. That is why they live in a women-only home.
Just perfect to me.
What I wouldn’t give to run my fingers through his silky-looking nearly black hair, preferably while we’re in a passionate clinch and he’s telling me how gorgeous I am.
If only he were dim, or mean or boring. Then my life would be loads easier.
But he’s not, and it isn’t. Nick hit me like a triple shot of ouzo, with all the fire in my tummy but none of the nasty after-effects… well, at least not right away. Let’s just say it was a delayed hangover.
The sad fact is, I love him and there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about that.
‘You don’t really think she’s out here, do you?’ Nick says accusingly as he slows down for me to catch up.
Of course he knows this is just another attempt to be near him. ‘She could be.’
‘Uh-huh. When was the last time Laney went outside for anything other than tea on the lawn? Admit it, this is just an excuse.’
I’m admitting nothing. ‘Mmm?’ I should have expected this. I’ve been about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
‘It’s too nice to be inside,’ he goes on with a sly smile. ‘Look at that sky. How can we not want to enjoy it? You’ve got spring fever.’
‘This is August.’
‘It’s overdue, then. This is my favourite month.’
‘You said that in March when the clocks went forward. And in June when the roses came out.’
He shrugs. ‘I’m easy when it comes to my calendar affections. Let’s get outside for lunch today. Even for half an hour or so. It’s supposed to rain all weekend. What do you say? I don’t have yoga till two.’
I nearly laugh with the relief. ‘Right, yes, great idea. I’ll put together some bits. There’s leftover quiche, and I can do that smoked aubergine dip. It doesn’t take long. And the sourdough will be out of the oven in half an hour.’
When he grins, the laugh lines crinkle from the corners of his eyes. ‘You know the way to a man’s heart.’
If only that were true.
‘I’m sure Laney will turn up,’ I tell him as we near the greenhouse. ‘If she’s not in there, we can have another look through the house together.’
I told you I was shameless.
And just to show that no evil deed goes unpunished, my tummy twists as Nick opens the glass door.
‘Ooh.’ That hurts.
He turns back to me. ‘Are you okay?’
‘Just my tummy. I’ll be fine.’
Leave it to my ulcer to ruin the moment. Not that standing around in a dirty shed is much of a moment, but I’m working with what I can get. ‘She’s not in here,’ I say, peering at the compost bags like she could be hiding in one. ‘I think we should check inside again.’
What did I expect to happen here, anyway? That overcome with emotion and the smell of damp, Nick would leap over the strimmer and declare his love?
That ship sailed months ago.
June catches my eye as I hurtle down the hall towards the kitchen and my medicine. Her look is pure sympathy.
When it first started happening, I assumed it was just indigestion. That can be an occupational hazard as a cook. But eventually, when the pain went on and on, I had to look for another diagnosis.
I found it, but not before I’d humiliated myself in front of Nick and ruined any chance of him ever asking me out again.
‘Feeling better?’ June asks when I get back to find that Laney still hasn’t turned up. ‘Max left. He didn’t notice anything amiss.’
‘Fine, thanks.’ Or at least I will be in a few minutes, once the pain relief kicks in. To be fair to Mum, she didn’t really give me an ulcer, as much as I like to claim otherwise. Doctors used to think that stress and hot food cause them, but they don’t. They just aggravate ones that are already there thanks to too many anti-inflammatory drugs or, in my case, a weasely little bugger of a bacteria. Helicobacter pylori, to give it its official name. It’s supposed to clear up now that I’m on antibiotics.
‘Have we checked everyone’s room?’ I ask June. ‘Maybe Laney is upstairs.’
She nods. ‘I sent everyone back to their room to look for her. They’ve all come back now and still no sign.’
Nick had set up the Scrabble boards before we noticed Laney’s disappearance, and some of the residents have started their games.
As we scan the large dining room, June says, ‘What about Maggie?!’
Of course. Maggie’s not down here. Hers is the only room that hasn’t been checked. ‘I don’t suppose you want to go look?’ I ask June.
When she shakes her head, her blonde curls bob around her face. Growing up, I wanted her corkscrews. Unlike the rest of us, she never played the I-hate-my-hair-I’ll-trade-for-yours game. She knew she got lucky there.
‘Draw straws for it?’ I offer.
‘I was the one who brought up her bill yesterday.’ She rubs her bicep like she’s been punched.
As if Maggie would deign to actually touch another person. ‘Fine. Coward. I’ll go.’
‘Nick?’ June calls over, innocent as you please. ‘We think Laney might be in Maggie’s room. Do you want to go with Phoebe to check?’
She flashes me a smile as the residents fall in behind us. No one wants to miss an excuse to see Maggie.
She’s going to love this.
Maggie lives in the only occupied room at the top of the house. None of the others want to trudge up all those stairs every day.
There is a lift – Max’s mother had it installed – but it’s tiny, slow and makes a worrying jolt when it stops, so nobody goes in it unless they have to.
‘Maggie won’t like the invasion,’ I murmur to Nick as we head the senior parade up the stairs. ‘I wish she’d use her mobile like everyone else.’ It’s no use ringing ahead to warn her.
We try to keep everyone connected by mobile. Most of the residents love their phones and a few of them are better at text-speak LOLs and LMFAOs than I am. They’re no substitute for face-to-face friendships, but they do mean that no one has to be isolated if she’s not feeling well enough to be downstairs with everyone else.
Maggie’s not interested in being with everyone else. She lives in her room. Which is why the women are creeping towards it like they’re about to spot a unicorn.
Nick knocks gently on the door. ‘Maggie? It’s only Nick. May I come in?’
When he puts a steadying hand on my shoulder, I want to lean into him. Of course, I don’t do that. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind. It’s just not appropriate anymore.
‘Come!’ Maggie orders.
With the ladies so keen to get a good look at Maggie, we all nearly fall through the door.
‘To what do I owe this… visit?’ she asks from her deep blue velvet sofa. Though her voice isn’t loud, it won’t be ignored. She holds herself so upright that she could be wearing a back brace. Her narrow, regal face barely moves when she speaks. It’s unnerving, like suddenly having a marble statue demand what you think you’re doing in its museum.
She’s dressed as usual in swingy black wide-legged trousers, like they used to wear in the seventies. As a rare fashion concession to Mum, I once tried on a pair of M&S ones. I looked like an extra-wide loft board standing on end, but Maggie has the tall, slender figure to pull them off. They swirl around her legs as she re-crosses them. Her blouse is perfectly pressed, white and stiff. Much like the woman herself. Everything about Maggie seems metallic, from her short iron-grey hair to her steely blue eyes to her cold, imperious voice that can cut you in half.
The only hint that she might have a softer side – possibly only seen under a microscope – is the selection of long, flowy brightly patterned silk cardigans that she always wears over her trousers and top, with the most gorgeous floral lapis lazuli brooch pinned on. It’s always the same blue one.
Laney is sitting in the stiff reading chair facing the sofa. ‘Oh, hello,’ she says. When she smiles, a few of the women wave back at her.
‘Maybe you should wait outside?’ I suggest, gently pushing them back over the threshold. Maggie’s fridge face has turned to deep freeze. ‘We were just looking for Laney,’ I say to Maggie.
‘I’m here!’ Laney sings, grinning and squeezing her shoulders to her ears. Her tawny brown eyes are creased in a smile, as usual, as if she’s eager to hear the most hilarious punchline. She and Maggie couldn’t be more opposite. Where Maggie is sharp-edged, Laney is soft, though she’s not fat. Everything about her oozes warmth, from the top of her head – she wears her hair in short wavy golden-brown layers – to the tips of her toes, poking out from the bottoms of her frayed jeans and shod in shiny blue Converse high-tops.
‘You’ve got your mobile off, Laney,’ says Nick. ‘We were getting worried. We thought you might have run away.’
Her smile disappears. ‘Oh, is my phone off? I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to worry anyone. I’d never run away from here! Not in a million years.’
The women behind us, who are still jostling in the doorway for a good look, all start murmuring.
‘Run away from here? Who’d want to do that?’
‘All my friends… Love you—’
‘I can’t imagine—’
‘They’ll take me away from here in a box—’
‘I was just…’ Laney’s eyes search the ceiling for the answer. ‘I guess I got distracted. I am sorry.’
‘But why would you…’ want to be with Maggie? I start to ask. I can’t keep the surprise out of my voice, but Maggie is tetchy enough without hinting that it would take wild horses to drag me to her room, so I don’t finish. ‘As long as you’re okay,’ I say instead. ‘We’ll leave you to your visit.’
‘I’m quite tired, actually,’ Maggie says, as something catches her eye out the tall sash window beside her. ‘That man! You!’ She raps on the window. ‘You there, stop it!’
I go to see what’s wrong, even though I think I know. ‘Terence!’ I fling open the window. ‘Terence, we see you.’
‘Not again,’ Nick says.
‘In the rhododendron bushes this time,’ I say. ‘We’ve warned you, Terence. I’m telling Max! That’s not hygienic.’
‘I was going to give those a trim today too,’ Nick grumps.
Terence flips me two fingers from where he’s standing in the border. He doesn’t even bother doing up his fly first. Then, relieved, he saunters back to his cottage. His thick, beige button-up cardigan hangs loose from his shoulders and goes nearly to his knees. I often wonder whether it originally belonged to his wife. He’s always in rumpled beige cotton trousers, one of those checked shooting shirts and scruffy trainers. A casual observer (who hadn’t just seen him wee into the bushes) might mistake him for a kindly grandad.
‘That man needs to be put down,’ Maggie says. ‘It would be the kindest thing.’ Then she rubs her temples. ‘Laney can go back downstairs with you now.’
Just like that. I’d like to tell Maggie where to get off, dismissing Laney like the dog she just called Terence. But Laney isn’t offended, so I keep my mouth shut. ‘Oh, right, well, Maggie, I’ll see you later.’
‘Cook,’ Maggie says as I turn to leave. She knows my name perfectly well. But no, I’m just the domestic help to her. She calls June ‘Manageress’ and Nick is simply ‘you’. ‘Don’t bother with supper tonight,’ she continues. ‘I won’t be hungry. I’ll have breakfast as usual tomorrow. One hard-boiled egg, please.’
I bob my usual curtsy. It’s completely ironic, but it doesn’t faze her.
Everyone sucks up to Maggie around here. That’s because she’s the only resident who pays full price. That also means she gets the biggest room, since the servants’ quarters were turned into suites before I started work here. Although in an old house like this, all the bedrooms are spacious enough for a bed and a little seating area. Maggie also gets to have her meals in her room instead of down in the dining room with everyone else. We’d kick up a fuss about it, but that would only backfire. Then we’d have to spend more time with her. This way, everyone is reasonably happy. Max gets his money, Maggie remains a recluse, and the residents don’t have the Ice Queen with them at mealtimes.
We might never know what made Laney want to go see Maggie when, for everyone else, facing her means drawing the short straw. Laney’s mind works in very mysterious ways.
It’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s. Otherwise Laney might have to go to a nursing home, where they’ve got specialist medical care. We’re more of a tea-and-sympathy type set-up around here. There is round-the-clock help with cleaning, dressing and that sort of thing for those who need it, and the carers keep track of everyone’s medication. Though personal care assistants aren’t exactly sought-after well-paid jobs, so there’s a high turnover amongst the staff. It’s June, Nick and I who really try to make it feel stable and homely here.
At first glance we probably look like an ordinary care home. We’ve got handrails, call buttons and shower seats, but the residents don’t all need care in the traditional, council-approved sense of the word. The women range in age between a sprightly sixty-eight (Laney) to around ninety. I’m pretty sure that’s how old Maggie is, though she wouldn’t let June put her age in her file. Some, like Dot and Sophie, moved in because they wanted the company. That’s a big reason that Mrs Greene, the founder, set up the home. She understood that some women, having raised their children and buried or divorced their spouses, or not having had children or spouses (buried or otherwise), might get lonely as they got older.
It’s much more fun being here as part of a community. Plus, they don’t have to cook or clean.

Nick’s carrying a couple of yoga mats under one arm when he comes into the kitchen to get me for lunch. His other hand is behind his back. ‘These are just in case the grass is wet,’ he says, hoisting the mats.
‘Why, sir, you are so gallant,’ I say in an atrocious southern belle accent, ‘to think of my comfort.’
He laughs. ‘But of course, madam, that’s what gentlemen are for. I’d even strip off and throw my shirt over a puddle to keep your delicate feet dry, should the need arise.’
‘… or you could just use the yoga mats and save your shirt,’ I say, distracted by the idea of Nick stripping off.
‘Oh, right.’
Way to kill a flirty mood, Phoebe.
Then he hands me the three huge white pompom hydrangeas he’s been hiding behind his back. ‘Thanks for doing this. I know I’ve made more work for you. Though I did cut these off the bush out back, so technically I’m thanking you with stolen property.’
‘It’s very pretty stolen property, though, I’ll take it!’ I squeak. I know he’s not trying to be romantic and I’d love to sound calm, like I get flowers from gorgeous blokes every day. I’m not so sad that I’ll save them forever. I am thinking ahead to how I can dry them so they don’t turn brown when they die, though. I’ll probably keep them for a little while – a year or two, definitely not longer than a decade – and then toss them when they’ve all but turned to dust.
‘Get a tall vase from the cabinet, will you please?’ I say. There’s a full cupboard to choose from. Our residents usually get celebration flowers for their birthdays and Mother’s Day, and sometimes guilty ones when their children skip a visit. ‘No worries about the lunch. It is what I do.’
Grabbing the bag that’s already packed with the food and plates – I’ve been ready for an hour –we start for the back garden. It was thoughtful of Nick to bring the yoga mats for the grass, but I’ve got my eye on the wooden bench right at the far edge of the lawn. Not only will it save my legs going numb from sitting cross-legged, it’s not too close to Terence’s cottage, and it’s tucked away from the house down a gentle hill.
Not that we need seclusion to have lunch. I know this isn’t a date. I’d just like to pretend, so I’ll have a double helping of delusion with my quiche, thank you very much.
‘This was a great idea,’ he says, following me towards the bench.
I laugh. ‘You’re not supposed to compliment your own idea!’
‘Then let’s say it was your great idea. I do appreciate it. I know you don’t usually cook extra for your lunchtime. If there’s anything I can do in return…’
I catch his eye, but I can’t tell if he means anything by that. He’s not so much as cracking a smile or raising an eyebrow to give me a clue.
I can’t take the chance. It would be too mortifying to proposition him when he’s only being nice. Instead, I say, ‘If I ever want to brush up on my professional yoga certification, then I know who to ask. That’s right, kill yourself laughing.’ Just because Nick could run a marathon before breakfast and not even break a sweat.
‘Sorry. Sorry. You could exercise if you wanted to,’ he says.
That’s a big if.
He notices my look. ‘I only mean for health reasons.’ He knows how annoying it is to come off as fit and preachy. ‘You look great.’
The sun peeks out from behind a fluffy cloud just as we get to the bench. ‘I very much appreciate your compliment.’
‘No, Phoebe, I’m completely serious. You shouldn’t put yourself down. You do look great.’
My face goes warm. He’s mistaking my comment. I think I look just fine. Do I not? ‘I wasn’t putting myself down. I’m saying thank you. Some people might be built for speed. Some are built for endurance. I’m built for comfort.’
‘And beauty,’ he adds.
How am I supposed to get over him when he keeps saying nice things like that?

We hope you’ve loved getting to know the women of Friendship House! The novel publishes globally on August 31st.

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