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Authors: Julia Williams

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Strictly Love

BOOK: Strictly Love
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JULIA WILLIAMS

 

Strictly Love

 

 
Table of Contents
 

Prologue

Part One - Dance Like No One's Looking

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Part Two - Love Like you've Never Been Hurt

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Part Three - Work Like You Don't Have To

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Part Four - Live Like it's Heaven on Earth

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

Chapter Thirty-four

Chapter Thirty-five

Chapter Thirty-six

Chapter Thirty-seven

Chapter Thirty-eight

Chapter Thirty-nine

Chapter Forty

Acknowledgements

E-book Extra

Strictly Love

Praise

By the same author

Copyright

About the Publisher

Prologue
 

Dusk was falling as Emily got off the train at Thurfield. She looked about her and breathed a sigh of relief. Welcome and all as the Christmas break had been, it was good to be home.

Home.
And where exactly was that? Not in Wales any more, that was for sure, where the absence of her father had been a permanent feature of Christmas, during which they had all tried very hard to pretend that things really hadn't changed. But could she yet call Thurfield home? In the year and a half she'd lived here, patiently (foolishly, her sister Sarah maintained) waiting for Callum to make a move to put their relationship on a more even footing, she had seen it more as a holding station – a place for her to temporarily rest while she waited for her life to begin.

But now, looking around her as she emerged from the station onto a snowy High Street, she realised with a jolt that she did feel at home here. Perhaps it was just that she knew her friend Katie was only up the road, or that Callum and his rich parents lived tantalisingly close. Or perhaps it was simply the little country cottage she had fallen in love with the summer before last, despite its desperate need for DIY. Being cramped in her mum's council flat over the Christmas period had made her long for the serenity and peace of the view from her window, looking out onto the common. Not that the rolling foothills of the South Downs compared to the more dramatic Pembrokeshire coastline of her birthplace, but they were hills nonetheless, and Emily was always
comforted by them. Particularly now, as they gleamed and sparkled white in the late winter sunlight. They looked heavenly. And it felt heavenly to be back.

It was good to be here, away from the frantic guilt that accompanied the discovery that her mum had somehow got herself into huge debt thanks to a rather unhealthy addiction to scratch cards, or the feeling that her sisters Mary and Sarah were now more burdened than she was by the care of their mother. And it was a relief to get away from Sarah's nagging strictures about Callum.

‘When are you going to get him to commit to you?’ Sarah had insisted on knowing, but Emily couldn't answer that one. She wasn't even sure she wanted him to anyway. Part of the fun of Callum was the lack of commitment, and his ability to surprise, shinning up her drainpipe late at night, turning up at the office with champagne when she was working late, making her fizz over with pleasure when he made it all too clear how sexy he found her. Who needed commitment when he gave her all that?

Emily pulled her rucksack further onto her shoulders, and made her way down the High Street as snowflakes fell softly. The splendid Christmas tree in front of the imposing Victorian mansion that housed the council offices twinkled with a warm bright light. The grounds of the mansion were thronging with people: children shrieked and whooped as they spun round on a carousel while their parents looked on, and teenage couples straggled their way round the temporary ice rink the council had erected for the festive season. Emily belatedly remembered the leaflet that had been shoved through her door, promising a New Year's Eve Victorian Extravaganza. They were even roasting chestnuts. The smell was delicious, and took Emily back to the cosy warm Christmases of her childhood. So different from the barren coldness of this year.

Emily watched the skating couples, the laughing families, the elderly grandparents, for a few moments, before setting off again.

She walked on down the High Street. Though dusk hadn't yet fallen, the rather tacky decorations were already blinking on and off. Emily smiled at the sight. The beauty of what she'd just witnessed and the tackiness of the decorations summed up the incongruity that was Thurfield.

The long High Street went from posh to poor in almost a hair's breadth. The train station from where Emily had emerged was at the poor end of town – the chavvy part, which Katie cattily referred to as Turdfield. But walking towards the top end of town, the cheap nail bars and pound-saver shops, with their competing gaudy Christmas lights, were soon replaced by upmarket hair salons and chichi shops that would have done Covent Garden proud. By the time you got to the top end you could purchase your groceries from M&S and Waitrose, rather then Lidl. Thurfield even possessed a family department store, which resembled something out of
Are You Being Served
, and in keeping with the Victorian theme was currently displaying a tableau from
A Christmas Carol
in its front window. The staff had all joined in the spirit of the thing and were dressed in Victorian garb, handing out mulled wine and mince pies to anyone who wanted them. Emily was tempted for a moment, but she was cold and tired, and really just wanted to get home.

To reach her cottage, Emily had to cut through the park that ran behind the department store. The snow was falling harder now and she couldn't help but stare at the families strolling through the park. Men pushing buggies, couples laughing together, children running with unbridled joy through the snow. It was no good her looking with longing. She knew that was not what Callum was about, and she had never been either till now. Funny how things changed. More and more she looked at pregnant women with an envy she hadn't ever experienced before. Wistfully, she wondered what it would be like to hold a baby of her own in her arms. Her nieces and nephews just didn't count.

While you're with Callum you'll never know,
Sarah admonished her from afar.

Shut up, sis,
said Emily.
It's my life, not yours.
She turned down the tiny lane that led to her cottage, but then took time to stop and watch the families sledging on the lower reaches of the downs. There was one dad with two girls, one dark, one fair, who were all wet and snowy, shrieking with laughter. Emily wondered if she'd ever have fun like that. She envied the man's wife. He looked like such a devoted dad. She tried and failed to picture Callum larking about like that, without worrying about his hair being ruined.

Shaking her head, she made her way down the lane to her house. It was time to take control of things. A new year soon. A new start. The purity of the snow seemed like an omen. Somehow her life seemed to have got bogged down in a way she couldn't have imagined. Perhaps she needed some purity too. She should take Callum in hand, get their relationship on track, and start to plan a future.

First things first, though. She opened the front door, switched on the light and looked at her cosy little lounge with pleasure. She was back. And for the first time since she'd lived here, it felt like she'd come home.

Chapter One
 

‘Remind me what I'm doing here again?’ Emily stared into the mirror with a frown as she applied some lippy.

‘Emily Henderson, what are you like? Because there's free booze, we get to meet famous people and it's a laugh,’ Ffion assured her. ‘Come on, you know you'll enjoy it.’

‘Oh, right,’ said Emily, staring at herself critically. God, she was a mess. Her normally sleek dark bob was uncharacteristic ally unkempt, and she had dark circles under her pale blue eyes. She was looking gaunt. Even her mum had commented on it at Christmas. No wonder, with so many late nights since she'd been back at work. Working hard and playing hard. It was one way of not thinking about things, she supposed.

‘Besides,’ added Ffion, with characteristic thoughtlessness, ‘you've been as miserable as sin since Christmas. You need cheering up.’

And why would that be, I wonder? Emily thought to herself. She really had tried to keep her resolution of looking on the New Year as a new beginning, but the grey cold of January had sapped away all her resolve, and she felt more miserable then ever. And less clear than ever about Callum. Like an idiot, Emily had mistaken the tenderness Callum had shown her briefly as they shared brunch together on New Year's Day for something else. Then she'd further compounded the mistake by mentioning babies. Callum had been pretty elusive since.

Emily followed her friend reluctantly out to the trendy bar, jammed full of Z-listers and their acolytes eager to buy copies of Jasmine Symonds's autobiography,
Jasmine: My Story So Far
. All Ffion cared about, with her endless invites to celebrity functions, launch parties, tickets for the Brits and the like, was hanging out with famous people. As if some of that shiny stuff would rub off on her. It was only a matter of time before she appeared on some crap reality TV programme.

‘Hey, look.’ Ffion dug Emily in the ribs as they picked up their free glass of dubious chardonnay from a bored-looking waiter. Crackers was the trendy bar much beloved of the celebrity set (or zedlebrities, as she and Ffion had taken to calling them. Mind you, such sarcasm didn't stop Ffion from wanting to join their ranks), and the place was heaving.

‘What?’ Emily had a headache and was thinking longingly of a long, hot bath and the Margaret Atwood she'd been given for Christmas. The thought of Jasmine writing anything was risible, let alone such an impossibly thick volume for someone who was a mere twenty-two years old.

‘There's Twinkletoes Tone,’ said Ffion. ‘They must have made it up again.’

As Twinkletoes Tone went over to kiss Jasmine – a small, dumpy, rather cowlike creature – full on the mouth, the fact that they had indeed made up was plain for all to see.

‘Tony babe,’ Jasmine purred. ‘Get me another chardonnay, will you?’

‘Maybe they're just snogging for the cameras,’ said Emily, thinking, ‘
like, do we care?

‘Of course we care,’ Ffion scolded her.

Damn it. Emily's annoying habit of thinking aloud had snuck out again. One day it would get her into serious trouble. Luckily Ffion was too preoccupied with the various permutations of Jasmine's love life to take much notice.

‘But yes, you could be right, they could be just doing it for
the PR.’ Ffion's beady little eyes lit up with excitement. How she got so titillated by all this stuff was beyond Emily. ‘Word on the street is that ever since Tony got ditched from his club, Jasmine's been looking for ways to get rid.’

‘That's a bit rich, isn't it?’ laughed Emily. ‘For someone whose sole claim to fame is being the first person in
Love Shack
ever to have performed live fellatio on TV, she's hardly famous for her own merits. At least Tony has talent.’

‘Hmm, tell that to his team mates,’ said Ffion. ‘Wasn't it his
lack
of talent that caused them to go crashing out of the FA Cup?’ Twinkletoes Tone had earned his moniker by scoring an own goal in last year's FA Cup final, thereby earning the never-to-be-forgotten
Sun
headline: ‘
IT'S ALL GONE TITS UP FOR TWINKLETOES TONE!

‘Well, I feel sorry for him,’ said Emily. ‘I mean, what has Jasmine got that is so wonderful?’

They watched as Jasmine scrawled her illegible signature across the front of an adoring fan's book.

‘Ooh, Jasmine, I want to be just like you,’ the girl, a spotty fifteen-year-old, gushed.

‘It's easy,’ said Jasmine with a lascivious wink, ‘all you need to do is get your tits out on TV and you can do anything.’

‘Jeez, there's an ambition,’ muttered Emily.

‘I dunno,’ said Ffion. ‘Jasmine's just signed a mega-deal with that cosmetic dental chain
Smile, Please!
’ Ffion's PR firm, A-Listers, represented Jasmine so she knew these things. ‘
Smile, Please!
are going to be huge, you know. Everyone wants cosmetic surgery these days. And if that works out, who knows? According to
OK!
magazine, her aim is to be the face of L'Oréal.’

‘Jasmine?’ Emily snorted into her glass. ‘I didn't know they were planning to put heifers in their ads.’ ‘Okay,’ admitted Ffion, ‘her looks are more bovine then elfin. But you don't know how she'll look after
Smile, Please
! have
finished with her. And you've got to admit, those teeth … now
they
do look fantastic.’

They watched as Jasmine flashed her brilliant smile at another sappy group of fans.

‘Well, I think without the smile she wouldn't be the face of anything,’ replied Emily. ‘God, the world's gone mad!’

‘Maybe so,’ said Ffion, ‘but it sure as hell beats going to work for a living. If I had a chance to appear on
Love Shack
, I'd bite your hand off.’

‘I'm sure you would,’ answered Emily. ‘Listen, I'm knackered, I think I'm going to call it a day.’

‘Don't you want to come to Macy's?’ Ffion looked disappointed. Up until relatively recently, a night like this would always end up with them visiting Macy's. But Emily was tiring of sitting bored in the roped-off VIP area, drinking tasteless cocktails for exorbitant prices. She'd blown Ffion out several times recently, and she had a feeling her friend was none too pleased with her.

‘Not tonight,’ said Emily, ‘I've got an early start tomorrow.’

Despite Ffion's efforts to make her change her mind, Emily refused to back down. Once, the thought of a night out on the tiles would have appealed, but recently, even as a means to drown her sorrows, it was losing its allure. Besides, Callum had hinted he might call. She hated being so in thrall to him, but sometimes she missed him with an intensity that was nearly physical.

Indeed, as she sat on the train, making the long journey home, watching London racing away from her in the dark, Emily realised that she had at least made progress in one area of her life. More and more, Thurfield was feeling like a refuge from the nightmarish world she seemed to be trapped in. Katie had been telling her for years she needed to get out of her job. Emily wished it were that simple. If only her mortgage wasn't so big, the cottage didn't need so much work, her mum didn't owe so much money, and her firm didn't pay quite so well. If only.

Her mobile bleeped and she saw a message from Callum.

Where r u babe? Hope yr hot & waiting fr me.

In yr dreams
, she texted back, experiencing the familiar feelings of lust coupled with irritation that Callum always engendered in her. She hoped he wasn't drunk. Or high. Though he had a penthouse flat in town, he had grown up in the town next to Thurfield, and his best mates still lived nearby. There'd been a football match on this evening. No doubt he'd spent the evening tanked up with them, and was now looking for a bed for the night. She leaned against the window and stared into the dark as the countryside flitted past her. She should probably teach him a lesson and not let him into her bed. But knowing what she should do and actually doing it were two very different things. Two very different things indeed …

Rob checked the steps again as they were laid out on the website he'd brought up on his laptop. Then he went to stand in front of the full-length mirror in the lounge, secure in the knowledge that Mark wouldn't be home for at least an hour. He flicked the button on the CD remote and the sound of South American music filled the room.

‘One,’ Rob counted under his breath, ‘remember those snake-hips, two …’

He took a small step forward. What was it Isabella had said last week? Step forward on the ball of your foot, take the weight onto the flat foot, and swing your hips to the left. Easier said than done, of course, but he'd just about got the hang of it by the end of the lesson. And he had his silly little diagrams to refer to.

‘… three, right foot remains in place, transfer weight onto it,’ Rob muttered. ‘… four – then one, left foot to side, swing hips to left. Fuck this is difficult.’

He stopped, switched off the music and then peered myopic ally at the computer screen again. He really ought to get glasses,
but Rob knew he was way too vain for them. And too lazy to keep changing contacts.

‘Okay, so it's forward, rest, side, back, rest, side. Swing those hips. Right, I get it … I think,’ Rob said. He switched the music back on and started again. This time it seemed to work, and before long he actually felt he was getting the hang of those ‘ssssnake-hips’ that Carlo, the hilariously camp Latin American dance teacher he'd found in an online dancing video, had talked about.

‘I am the
man
!’ Rob declared proudly as he pirouetted round the room. He even felt he'd got the hold right, left hand held high, holding the lady's hand, right hand (the bit that Rob particularly liked) snaked round the lady's back.

He had to crack the rumba. Since he'd started learning to dance, the tally on his bedpost had been the highest since his student days. He felt sure the rumba would only add to his allure.

‘John Travolta eat your heart out,’ he said, before spinning rather madly out of control and crashing headlong into Mark's oak dresser. Getting up, he rubbed his hip ruefully. ‘On the other hand, maybe not.’

‘I don't know how you do it,’ Mark Davies laughed at his flatmate later that evening, as Rob bustled into the kitchen to provide drinks for his latest conquest. ‘Here you are, thirty-five, plump, those famous curly locks receding faster than the tide, and still you pull them. I can't think what's sadder – the thought of you practising the waltz, or the stupidity of the women prepared to fall for your lines.’

Mark had been on his way to bed, but Rob couldn't resist showing off his prize, an over-made-up girl whom he had picked up at his ballroom dancing.

‘Well, you either have it or you don't, mate,’ Rob winked knowingly.

‘Mind you,’ continued Mark, loading the last of the dirty plates
into the dishwasher – living with Rob was like revisiting their student days, only more depressing; at least they had a dishwasher now – ‘it's always been a mystery how you do it. I've never known what women see in you.’

‘Treat 'em mean, keep them keen,’ said Rob with a wink.

‘Yeah, right,’ said Mark. ‘That explains why they never last more than a week.’

‘Well, have you got a hot babe waiting next door for you?’

‘No,’ said Mark.

‘And, of course, there's my natural charm,’ continued Rob.

‘Of course,’ snorted Mark. Rob's mop of unruly curly hair and cute grin seemed to be what got the girls hooked, but his love 'em and leave 'em reputation should have been enough for them to run a mile. But somehow it never was. Presumably, each and every one of his hapless victims thought they would be the one to change him. And of course they never were.

‘You should watch and learn from the master,’ continued Rob.

‘You know there's only one woman for me,’ said Mark miserably.

‘Yes, but she's nobbing a lawyer,’ Rob reminded him.

Mark pulled a face.

‘I'm going to bed,’ he said. ‘Don't do anything I wouldn't.’

‘Now that I
can
guarantee,’ smirked Rob.

As Mark climbed into bed minutes later, he could hear the telltale sounds of Rob getting his rocks off. Great, that was all he needed. Mark sighed and put Whitesnake on his iPod and turned it up loud. Heavy metal always made him think of Sam, the most unlikely headbanger in the world. Mark lay in the dark, trying to drown out thoughts of Sam. Pictures of Sam. Wishing things had turned out differently.

What had happened to his life? One minute he was happily married to the woman of his dreams, with two beautiful children, and now here he was: thirty-five, a single dad, living in a grotty
three-bed semi with his best friend from uni. While undoubtedly there were advantages in rediscovering a bachelor lifestyle after so many years of domestic bliss (not having anyone nagging about leaving the toilet seat up was a real plus), they didn't outweigh the disadvantages, or the vast gaping chasm that Sam had left behind when she had dumped him unceremoniously for Kevin.

And, to add to the ignominy, he'd been left for a lawyer. Mark had never been keen on lawyers. He'd encountered a fair few smarmy law students when he was at dental school, but his hatred for them had been cemented when he'd watched Spike Sutcliffe, a close friend from dental school, being crucified by a patient who claimed Spike had been inappropriate with her. He hadn't, and eventually he was cleared, but not before he'd been dragged through a bruising court case in which the lawyers had dragged up all sorts of insalubrious details about Spike's rather colourful past, or before Spike had spent vast sums of money on his own defence. The costs that he was awarded just about covered the legal expenses, but they didn't make up for the stress of it all. Sam falling for Kevin had just given Mark another excuse to hate lawyers, only now his hatred was so passionate he knew it wasn't entirely rational.

‘What the bloody hell does Kevin have that I don't?’ Mark spoke aloud into the darkness. It wasn't the first time he'd asked that question and it wouldn't be the last.

‘You never listen to a word I say,’ had been Sam's constant refrain during their marriage.

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