Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘New Beginnings at Seaside Blooms’ by Jessica Redland.
New Beginnings At Seaside Blooms
Welcome to Whitsborough Bay
ONE YEAR AGO
‘Come on, Jason. Ring.’ I frowned at my iPhone as I paced up and down in the lounge, my stiletto heels echoing on the wooden floorboards. ‘Or text. I don’t care which. Just make contact. Please.’
My heart leapt as the phone beeped, but the text was from one of my best friends instead.
* From Elise
Happy birthday Sarah! Last year in your twenties so make the most of it. Wish you weren’t so far away so I could give you a birthday hug so sending one by text instead. I’ve hopefully timed your present to arrive today. Hope Jason’s got you a fab gift… proposal maybe? Have a great evening xxxxxxx
I stretched out my arm to admire the sparkly silver bracelet she’d sent.
* To Elise
Just got home and your parcel was waiting. Way too generous as usual… but absolutely gorgeous! Thank you so much. Not sure where he’s taking me but hopefully it’s somewhere nice this time. I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go! Would be lying if I said a proposal hadn’t crossed my mind. EEEEEEKKKK!!!! You’ll be first to know if he does xxx
My hands shook slightly and I felt a flutter in my stomach as I typed in the words. Could tonight really be the night? Maybe. The timing felt about right and he’d been talking about making plans for the future. We’d been together for two years and two months and had lived together for most of that time. Aside from occasional bouts of thoughtlessness on his part and a tendency to drag me to the gym or on a twenty-mile hike way more often than a person should have to endure in a lifetime, we were very happy together and I assumed that a proposal wouldn’t be too far away.
Another text arrived but it still wasn’t Jason.
* From Clare
Sorry for not texting earlier. Dim Daz borrowed my phone then drove to Essex with it. Bloody muppet. Anyway, better late than never… happy birthday you old fart. Can’t believe you want to spend the evening with your eejit flatmate rather than me. Hope it’s not McDonalds this time! Maybe he’ll really treat you & do Pizza Hut?! Keep Saturday night free if you want your card & gift or I’m keeping them xx
She’d added several laughing emojis to the end of the text.
‘Your Auntie Clare is being very rude, as usual,’ I said to one of our kittens, Kat, who’d appeared to demand a fuss. ‘Flatmate indeed.’ But I couldn’t help smiling. Only Clare could get away with a comment like that.
* To Clare
Thanks. Was beginning to think you’d forgotten me! I promise to keep Saturday free for you. Dread to know what sort of abuse I’d get if I don’t. Not sure where MY BOYFRIEND is taking me. Still waiting to hear. McDonalds was a misunderstanding and you know it! Laters xx
* From Clare
Misunderstanding my arse! My final guess of the evening… The Griffin
I shook my head. So our two-year anniversary hadn’t gone quite to plan, but it was my fault really. I should have known that saying, ‘I’d love to go out for a meal to celebrate; how about The Kam Po? I could meet you in The Griffin after work,’ was far too vague for Jason. I ended up nursing the same glass of Pinot Grigio for ninety minutes before finally accepting he wasn’t coming. Trudging home, I found him in his gym kit playing on his Xbox. ‘You been working late?’ he asked. ‘You should’ve texted me. I got you a McDonalds on the way home, but it’ll be cold now and there’s nothing else to eat.’ He returned to his game and I went to bed hungry. I kept hoping he’d realise his mistake but he never did and, by then, it felt too late to say anything.
I checked my phone again now. Nothing. It couldn’t happen twice, could it? No. It had been his idea this time. Some of my friends from work had suggested a birthday meal, but Jason had insisted on taking me out himself. I’d gently reminded him a couple of days ago and he’d assured me it was in hand and I wasn’t to quiz him any further or I’d spoil the surprise. He said he’d contact me last minute with a location to meet him so I could enjoy the excitement of speculating about where we were going. This was certainly last minute and excitement wasn’t quite the feeling I’d describe.
It was now after half six. Sod it! I couldn’t do this anymore.
* To Jason
This is killing me! Where are you taking me? I’m all ready and awaiting my instructions! Please tell me you haven’t forgotten xx
I hoped that reading my birthday cards again would distract me. It didn’t. A little voice in my head kept telling me he had forgotten and Clare’s joke about McDonalds or my local might not be far from the truth. Perhaps he was frantically phoning round restaurants right now and that’s why he hadn’t been in touch. Another text arrived and, finally, it was from him. Please don’t say McDonalds…
* From Jason
South Kensington Tube Station. 1915hrs. Table booked for 1930hrs xx
Butterflies stirred in my stomach. Oh my God! South Kensington. Could it be…?
I hastily shoved my phone in my bag, pulled on my coat and left the flat, legs shaking as I strode towards the tube station. It was just a coincidence. There were hundreds of restaurants in South Kensington and we could be going to any of them. With Jason’s track record, it could be McDonald’s. But what if…?
He’d taken me to Luigi’s to celebrate me moving down to London shortly after we started seeing each other. During dessert, the man on the table next to us proposed to his girlfriend. It was such a moving and romantic moment and, on the way home, Jason said that he could imagine proposing there too. But that didn’t mean he’d booked a table there tonight to propose to me, did it?
When I reached South Kensington tube station, it took all my willpower to stand still on the escalator when all I wanted to do was to shove past the travellers, run up the steps, and skip across the concourse screaming, ‘Yes, Jason, I will marry you.’
I spotted him by one of the exits. My breath caught as I saw what he was wearing. Classically tall, dark, and handsome, he looked particularly hot in the three-piece suit he’d bought for his brother’s wedding last summer. After his firefighter uniform, it was my favourite outfit on him. Although, to be perfectly honest, with a toned body like his, I preferred no clothes at all.
‘Happy birthday.’ He bent down and gave me a soft kiss. I breathed in his musky scent and those butterflies went crazy. ‘You look good.’
‘Thank you.’ I whipped open my coat like a flasher, revealing the LBD I’d agonised over wearing for fear I’d be over-dressed.
He wolf-whistled and I flushed from head to toe. ‘I approve. Although you may be a little over-dressed for what I have planned later tonight.’
I flushed again and Jason laughed as he took my hand in his. ‘Shall we?’
‘Where are we going?’ I tried to sound casual but failed abysmally. Please say Luigi’s. Please.
He winked at me, grinning widely. ‘It’s a surprise.’
Oh my God!
It could only have been three minutes, but I swear that walk felt like an hour. My sweaty hand kept slipping from his, I stumbled several times and I even hiccupped, causing Jason to ask if I’d been on the wine before leaving the flat.
The Italian flag and deep green canopy of Luigi’s loomed ahead of us. My breathing quickened and I mentally prepared myself: must not look gutted if we walk past, must look happy wherever he takes me.
But we didn’t walk past. We stopped. We went in. He gave his name and we were led to a table towards the back where a bucket of champagne on ice was waiting for us. Champagne. Proper Champagne. Jason always said that supermarket own label Cava was overpriced. Which could only mean… Oh. My. God!
I put my glass of champagne down as Jason pushed the candle aside and reached for my hand across the table a few minutes later.
‘You really do look gorgeous tonight,’ he said.
‘You don’t scrub up too badly yourself,’ I whispered, barely able to speak for anticipation of what was coming.
His dark eyes twinkled as he gazed at me over the table. ‘Thank you. I thought I should make a special effort. It’s a special occasion, after all.’
‘I haven’t given you your birthday present yet.’
A shiver of anticipation ran through me. ‘No, you haven’t.’
‘If I know you, you’ll have spent all day trying to guess what it is.’
‘Me? It never entered my head.’
Jason laughed. ‘Yeah, right. I think you’ll like it. I was going to wait until the end of the meal but I’m too excited about it to wait. Is it okay if we do it now?’
‘There are a few things I want to say first,’ he continued.
‘Your water, sir.’ A waiter inconveniently appeared. Bottled water? Not tap? Crikey! I willed the waiter to be quick. ‘Would you like me to pour, sir?’ he asked.
I silently pleaded with Jason to say no before I wet myself with excitement.
‘It’s fine. You can just leave it. Thanks.’
‘Happy Birthday,’ Jason said when the waiter finally left.
‘Thank you.’ We clinked champagne glasses.
‘Now, where was I?’
‘You wanted to say some things?’
‘Oh yes. Do you remember the night we met?’ He reached for my hand again.
‘Of course. Best night of my life.’
‘We said it was fate that we met, remember?’
‘It was meant to be,’ I agreed. Neither of us was supposed to be in Nottingham the night we met. I’d been drafted in last minute to make up numbers on a friend of a friend’s hen do and Jason had spontaneously decided to visit an old friend there after his weekend plans fell through.
After a day of never-to-be-repeated-because-it-was-so-terrifying ‘fun and frolics in the great outdoors’, the hen party donned fairy wings and net skirts and embarked on a pub crawl. We ended up in an eighties club where I spotted Jason on the dance floor looking very cute and very out of place in a thick jumper. ‘Aren’t you hot?’ I shouted over the music.
‘I’m used to the heat,’ he replied. ‘I’m a firefighter.’ Oh behave! I had an obsession with firemen so that one line told me all I needed to know. Then when I found out he lived in London… Well, I was moving there from Manchester two weeks later. It had to be fate.
‘Can you remember what I said attracted me to you that night in Nottingham?’ Jason asked.
‘My fluffy wings?’
He laughed. ‘The outfit certainly helped. But there was something that made me get your phone number at the end of the night.’
‘It was that you’d spent the day on a gorge-walking adventure. Any woman who’d spent the day abseiling, climbing and walking through waterfalls was worth getting to know better.’
Oh! That was unexpected. I thought I’d told him it was a one-off for the hen do and I’d never have agreed to make up the numbers if I’d realised what was planned. Maybe I hadn’t. Probably wasn’t the moment to confess it now.
‘I’ve never had a girlfriend who enjoys being outdoors and keeping fit as much as I do,’ he continued. ‘I can’t believe I’ve found someone who loves to go to the gym…’ Didn’t he realise I tolerated rather than loved going to the gym? Obviously not.
‘… who enjoys mountain biking…’ Eek! I’d better not confess that my mountain bike hadn’t actually been stolen but was hiding in Clare’s garage because I’d have a coronary if I ever had to put myself through the extreme torture again that Jason described as a ‘gentle leisurely ride’.
‘… and hiking. It’s such a dream come true. I love that you have the same passions as me.’ He looked at me all dewy-eyed across the table and I tried to hold his gaze with confidence while my pulse raced. Oh no! I’d anticipated a proposal speech to be all about how happy I made him and how much he loved my company. Actually, that’s effectively what he’d said, but I so hadn’t seen it coming from that angle. I knew honesty was the foundation of a good relationship, but these were only little white lies, weren’t they? I mean, I did regularly accompany him to the gym, but mainly because he worked shifts so I’d hardly see him if I didn’t. And I did go hiking, but that’s because I loved being in the countryside, not because I liked to trample twenty miles across it. Perhaps the time for confession wasn’t when he was about to propose. It wasn’t like that was all we had in common. We did loads of other things together. The gym and all that stuff was such a small part of what we did… wasn’t it?
Thankfully Jason’s scary fitness speech had ended. ‘You know you mean the world to me so I wanted to make you really happy on your birthday. I racked my brains trying to think of the perfect gift. I wanted to give you something you really long for so… here it is. The one thing I know you really, really want…’
He reached into the pocket of his suit jacket. My heart leapt as he produced a small green velvet ring box. ‘Happy birthday, Sarah,’ he said, placing it in front of me.
‘Open it and you’ll see.’
With shaking hands, I eased open the lid. My stomach lurched as it opened wider and wider to reveal… What the…?
There wasn’t an engagement ring inside.
There wasn’t even a pair of earrings.
There was a small key.
I looked at Jason, then at the key, then back at Jason again. A thought struck me. He hadn’t got down on one bended knee yet so maybe this was the start of an elaborate game to find the ring. It would be locked in a tin in a suitcase in a safe or something like that and I’d have to follow a trail of rose petals and fairy dust. How incredibly romantic.
He handed me an envelope. The first clue maybe? I tore the seal open and scanned the contents. Maybe not. My fist tightened, crumpling the edge of the paper.
Dear Mr Wilkes & Miss Peterson,
We’re delighted to confirm your six-month premium membership at The Fitness Factor. This is a fantastic investment in your health and wellbeing. Your exclusive membership guarantees a place in our most popular classes – no waiting lists for you – as well as a weekly premium-members-only pool session and climbing wall session.
And you’ll have exclusive use of your very own lockers for the duration. We’re pleased to enclose your keys.
Finally, we’ll be launching an exciting programme of outdoors adventures next year on which premium members will have priority booking.
Thank you for choosing The Fitness Factor. We look forward to welcoming you both as premium members very soon.
Your Fitness Factor Team
He hadn’t, had he? Surely he hadn’t bought me a gym membership for my birthday. A joint membership. A gift for him too. I felt nauseous as that random speech about keeping fit and the great outdoors suddenly had a context.
‘What do you think?’ Jason shuffled in his seat with obvious excitement. ‘Is it the perfect gift or what?’
‘It’s great,’ I said, my voice sounding an octave higher than usual. ‘Thanks, Jase.’
‘You’re welcome. I knew you’d love it. How many times have you said you wished you had your own locker so you didn’t have to remember to take your shampoo and stuff when you go for a swim or sauna?’
Cue flashback of us leaving the gym a couple of weeks ago. I mustn’t have zipped my bag up properly because my shower gel clattered onto the tiled entrance floor, spurting citrus gunk everywhere. ‘Do you know what I wish for right now…?’ I said.
‘I know six months is a big commitment,’ he continued, ‘but as we’ve been living together for two years, I didn’t think it would be too big a step.’
I felt my shoulders sag and the energy seep from my whole being. So that’s what he meant about plans for the future. A six-month gym contract. Not a lifetime together. Tears pricked my eyes and I rapidly blinked them away.
‘That’s not the only present I’ve got for you,’ Jason said.
Maybe? He reached under his seat for something then pushed a sports shop carrier bag across the table with ‘Love, Jason’ scrawled across the front in marker pen. Maybe not. I peered into the bag and reluctantly pulled at the shiny leopard-print material. Oh. My. God. ‘A leotard?’
‘You’ll look fantastic in that.’ I really think he believed it.
I tentatively dangled the offending article over one finger and clocked the size 8–10 label. I wanted to scream at him: When have I ever been a size 8–10? When have I ever liked leopard-print? When have I ever indicated that I’d like to wear a leotard instead of a baggy T-shirt and leggings? After more than two years together, don’t you know me at all? Yet all I said was, ‘Thanks, Jason. It’s lovely,’ trying to sound as though I actually meant it. I suspected the accompanying smile looked more like a grimace, but Jason clearly didn’t notice. He looked so pleased with himself.
‘I knew you’d like it. I was only going to get you the gym membership, but when I was in the shop the other day, I spotted that in the sale and thought it was so you.’
How? How could he possibly think a leopard-print leotard was so me? I couldn’t bring myself to look at him as I hastily shoved the Devil’s gym kit back into the bag.
‘Firefighter Wilkes!’ A booming voice startled me. ‘You come to my restaurant.’
‘Mr Crocetti!’ Jason stood up and embraced a large man wearing chef’s whites.
‘Luigi, please,’ he insisted. ‘And who is the bella donna? Your wife?’
‘God, no!’ Jason said. ‘We’re not married. She’s just my girlfriend, Sarah.’
I stared at Jason, mouth open. ‘God, no’! Did he really just say that? And ‘just my girlfriend’? He did. He said, ‘God, no!’ That would mean the idea of getting married to me was… I couldn’t finish the thought.
‘Buona sera, Sarah.’ Luigi reached for my hand and kissed it. ‘Your man here, he save house. He save rabbit. He is hero.’
‘He did what?’ My head felt fuzzy. I needed some air, but I had a wall on one side and a loud Italian on the other.
‘He save house. He save rabbit,’ Luigi repeated.
‘I was on a shout today,’ Jason explained. ‘Small fire in Luigi’s garage. Their pet rabbit was overcome by smoke but I did mouth-to-mouth and—’
‘He save rabbit. Bambini so happy. I say to him come to my restaurant any time. On the house. You choose anything. He suggest tonight. I say of course.’
‘Thanks Luigi,’ Jason said.
‘Enjoy.’ Luigi leaned over and patted my arm then pointed at Jason. ‘Hero,’ he said, bowing. Then he headed towards the kitchen.
I felt the colour drain from my cheeks as I stared at Jason. ‘It’s free?’ I whispered. ‘The meal? Champagne? Tonight?’
‘I know. How great is that? Don’t get mad at me, but I hadn’t got round to booking anywhere so the timing was perfect. Like I could afford to bring you here again if it wasn’t on the house.’
He grinned at me, clearly thrilled with himself and oblivious to the impact of his actions. I lowered my eyes to my hands, which were hanging limply in my lap, and focused on the bare engagement finger. It was never going to be a proposal. It was a last-minute freebie and I was such a stupid fool. Sighing, I covered my left hand with my right one.
‘Are you okay?’ Jason asked. ‘You don’t look very well.’
‘I thought you were bringing me here to—’
I looked up from my hands. He genuinely looked flummoxed. He’d forgotten what happened here last time and what he’d said.
‘Sarah? To what?’
‘Nothing,’ I muttered. ‘It doesn’t matter. Would you excuse me?’ I stood up slowly, holding on to the table, fearing my legs wouldn’t hold me. ‘Must go to the ladies before the food arrives.’
Humiliation and disappointment burned at the back of my throat as I stumbled through the crowded restaurant. I fought hard to keep it together until I made it to the ladies, but I’d barely closed the cubicle door before the first heaving sob shook my body. Slumped on the toilet, I didn’t care who heard. Anguished cries echoed off the marble walls and cocooned me in my pain.
Eventually the tears stopped flowing and the shaking subsided, but the pain in my heart remained. I blew my nose and wiped wearily at my wet cheeks. How stupid had I been to think he’d brought me here to propose? How could I have got it so wrong?
I rose slowly, dropped the pile of soggy tissues into the toilet pan, flushed it and watched the tissues disappear along with my hopes and dreams. The words he’d said to Luigi echoed in my mind. Not his wife; just his girlfriend? Where the hell could we go from here? Not up the aisle, that was for sure.
But a nagging voice in my head said, ‘Don’t get angry at him, Sarah. This is your fault. You’ve had over two years to tell him you don’t love the gym or hiking or mountain biking like he does. What do you expect? The poor guy genuinely thought he’d bought you something you’d love because you led him to believe that you loved working out as much as him. This is your doing; not his.’
I didn’t want to listen to that voice.
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