Read on for an exclusive extract of The Village Inn of Secret Dreams by Alison Sherlock.
‘Will you marry me?’
Belle Clarke’s heart thumped wildly in her chest as the anxiety began to rise deep inside of her.
She glanced across to the front door in the hope of a quick getaway, but her exit was pretty much blocked. Unbelievably, The Black Swan Inn of Cranbridge was actually quite busy that evening, which was a rarity in itself.
Just her luck.
Her gaze flicked over towards the other people in the inn to see if anyone else agreed with her dismay, but everyone was looking at Josh Kennedy who was down on one knee in the middle of the room holding out a diamond ring in front of him.
And, at Amber Green too, who was blushing furiously as she looked down at her boyfriend.
‘Yes,’ Amber finally replied, breaking into a soft smile. ‘Of course I’ll marry you.’
A huge cheer went up as Josh stood to take Amber into his arms. Belle could see that her best friend was both equally thrilled and embarrassed at the attention. Amber was naturally shy and would always let anyone else take the limelight away from her. But on that September evening, Amber smiled and laughed as everyone crowded around the happy couple with their congratulations and best wishes.
Of course, everyone knew Josh and Amber, as together they had run The Cranbridge Stores – the popular village shop – for the past year and over the winter their business partnership had become a romantic one as well.
Belle watched as their other best friends, Lucy and Molly, stepped forward to hug Amber and exclaim their delight at the proposal. Belle could hear the excited chatter from where she stood behind the bar, rooted temporarily to the floorboards with shock.
‘How wonderful!’ she heard Lucy cry. ‘I’m so happy for you both.’
‘It’s just so romantic!’ said Molly, near to tears.
Belle knew that she should rush over and join her friends to congratulate Amber. After all, they were a close-knit group. But she was afraid that she would end up blurting out, ‘Stop! Wait! Don’t do it!’ instead.
Even though she loved Amber and Josh very much. Even though she knew how much Josh loved Amber and would never hurt her. Even though they were one of the best suited and happiest couples that she had ever known.
Despite all of that, Belle felt like dragging the glittering diamond solitaire that was now on Amber’s finger and throwing it into the river outside.
To trust in love was bad enough with all the heartache that always followed, but marriage ruined everything, didn’t they know that? Why couldn’t Amber and Josh just stay as happy as they were at the moment?
In her hesitation about how well she could fake her reaction to Amber’s engagement, she was still hovering behind the bar counter when Uncle Mick joined her.
‘Isn’t it smashing?’ said Mick, nodding and smiling along with everyone else. ‘Ain’t young love grand? And we could all do with a bit of good news these days, eh?’
Uncle Mick didn’t notice his niece’s frown and was giving everyone his usual amiable smile as he looked around at his customers. With his round, jolly face, he suited the role of congenial landlord very well, having been in the job for over forty years. He was always smiling at anyone, apart from at his own wife.
‘Champagne for everyone!’ announced Mick to a resounding cheer from the crowd in front of them.
This brought Belle’s Aunty Angie rushing along the bar to join them in a fit of barely concealed rage.
‘Are you mad?’ hissed Angie, her heavily mascaraed eyes almost popping out of their sockets as she glared at her husband. ‘We can’t afford that.’
‘Give it a rest for just one night,’ muttered Mick, rolling his eyes. ‘Besides, we’ve got that massive magnum of the stuff in the cellar just sitting there.’
‘Which we might be able to sell, rather than you giving it away for free,’ carried on Angie, placing one hand on the bar, where her long orange nails tapped in irritation. The other hand went to her red leather skirt.
Whereas Belle always dressed in dark colours, eager not to draw attention to herself, Aunty Angie’s view of clothing, hair and make-up was that you needed to be seen from outer space. Preferably without the need of a telescope.
‘Nobody ever orders champagne in here anyway,’ snapped Mick. ‘It’ll go to waste otherwise.’
‘Humph,’ said Angie, shaking her head. ‘Well, I suppose you’re right, for once. No point keeping it when the inn’s going up for sale anyway.’
Belle took a sharp intake of breath at her aunt’s words. Despite her own worries about her friend’s future marriage, that was nothing compared to Belle’s anxiety about the state of the inn. The Black Swan had struggled for so many years, but she knew that it was now teetering on the brink of closure and nothing appeared to be able to save it. Putting it up for sale would be the only solution to their money worries, Uncle Mick had told her. But it made Belle feel ill to even think about it even though she had tried her best not to.
Mick turned around and began to head towards the cellar steps, intent on collecting the champagne, with his wife in hot pursuit. Their heated words could still be heard even as they went downstairs.
Exhibit number one on the disastrous marriage front, thought Belle with a heavy sigh.
She had moved in with her aunt and uncle at the age of twelve and the arguments had grown worse and worse between husband and wife every day since then. She had always been grateful for them giving her a loving home. But although they treated their niece with huge amounts of love and kindness, Mick and Angie’s love for each other ran hot and cold, with the emphasis on cold. Almost freezing, in fact.
Very occasionally, and with the help of a large drink, or three, Mick and Angie would share a soft smile and there would be a break in the hostilities, but mostly it was an ongoing war with no hope of a peaceful outcome any time soon.
Most successful inns had a landlord and landlady providing a top-quality service and smiles all round. Despite their best efforts, her aunt and uncle provided neither. Most of the time, any customers actually venturing inside the shabby Black Swan inn were shocked by the continuous arguments that invariably broke out. Coupled with the run-down state of the place, the customers never returned, other than the regulars from the village. Although this was only because there was no other inn within walking distance.
Belle looked back across the inn at the crowd of people. Amber and Josh were still surrounded by well-wishers. She knew that she ought to go and congratulate her friend. She had hesitated too long. The last thing she wanted to do was upset Amber. She cared too much about her.
Amber had only arrived in the village a year ago, but she had quickly become close to both Belle and Molly, who had lived in Cranbridge her whole life. When Lucy arrived in late spring, they had swiftly become a tight-knit group of four. Belle had never had such close friends and was grateful for their friendship and support. Which is why she would support her friend now, even if she didn’t think marriage was a good idea.
As Belle headed around the side of the bar, she found Amber coming the other way to see her. Her friend’s long blonde hair was all messed up from numerous hugs and she had a bright pink lipstick kiss mark on her face, presumably from Aunty Angie.
‘So what do you think?’ asked Amber, looking nervous at Belle’s expected negative reaction. All of her friends knew Belle’s feelings on love and romance.
Belle forced a wide smile onto her face as she stepped forward to hug her friend. ‘I think it’s brilliant,’ she said as she broke away from their embrace. ‘Congratulations. I’m so happy for you both.’
‘Thank you,’ said Amber, breaking into a huge grin once more in relief. ‘Did you know?’
Belle shook her head. ‘Nope. He kept it very secret.’
‘I still can’t believe it,’ said Amber, giving a little giggle of excitement as her parents headed over to offer their congratulations and sweep her into yet more hugs.
Belle stepped back, with the excuse of bringing out all the glasses that they would need for the champagne.
‘You’re going to have a long and happy marriage,’ she heard Cathy, Josh’s mum, say as he too was swept into a hug nearby.
‘Thanks, Mum,’ said Josh, giving Belle a wink of solidarity over her shoulder as he was almost smothered in his mum’s embrace.
Cathy knew all about happy marriages, of course. She and her late husband, Todd, had celebrated their silver wedding anniversary in the inn around five years ago.
Perhaps there was hope after all, Belle tried to remind herself. Perhaps there were long and happy marriages out there and Amber and Josh would be fine. She really, truly hoped so.
But her own experience with marriages didn’t bring her much optimism.
If living with Uncle Mick and Aunt Angie had shown her wedded misery, that was nothing compared to her own parents’ relationship. They were most definitely Exhibit number two in the case for avoiding marriage.
Growing up, the arguments and tension had been a daily source of wretchedness for Belle. An unwanted only child from day one, she had been the focus and reason for much of the tension. So she had developed a hard outer shell to prevent any more hurt from touching her and rarely trusted anyone with her innermost thoughts.
Her parents had waited until Belle had reached twelve years old and was due to head to secondary school before, to everyone’s relief, they had finally brought to an end a most unhappy marriage. With the divorce being spectacularly acrimonious, Belle had been packed off to stay temporarily with her aunt and uncle in Cranbridge. And she had been there ever since.
Belle had fallen in love with Cranbridge, the pretty little village in the heart of the English countryside, by the end of the first day. Best of all, the freedom of being away from her parents had brought her a kind of peace that she had never known until that time. Her aunt and uncle showered her with the love and affection that she had been so desperately starved of in her early years.
But she still kept herself to herself at the local secondary school, always struggling to make new friends after her parents had pretty much destroyed any confidence that she may have had. Her dry wit was misunderstood as aloofness and so Belle retreated further into her own company.
Never having much of a career plan, she had abandoned further education and had become a barmaid instead, eager to stay within the protective walls of the inn. The Black Swan was her safe place, her happy place even with her aunt and uncle’s constant bickering. Besides, she enjoyed working in the cosy, historic inn with its small stream of regulars to chat with each evening and the community spirit of the village as a whole.
Meanwhile, once her parents’ divorce was finally settled, her mother had headed straight off to the Far East and was currently dating a llama farmer, last time Belle had heard. Her mum was ‘living my best life’, according to the infrequent texts Belle received.
As for her dad, he had decided to play the field and was currently on wife number four, who was a whole five years younger than Belle. Thankfully they hadn’t bothered to invite her to the ceremony.
Uncle Mick reappeared holding the champagne and began to pour out the drinks, trying to ignore his wife, who was still glaring at him.
Finally, when everyone had been given a drink, they all raised a glass.
‘To Amber and Josh!’ announced Mick.
‘To Amber and Josh!’ said Belle as they all joined in with the toast.
Josh murmured something in Amber’s ear that made her blush and smile.
For a moment, Belle envied the close relationship they had and surprised herself with the idea that perhaps love wasn’t something to be avoided. That perhaps she too could be happy, if she ever met the right man.
She sighed and drained her glass in one gulp. As expected, the champagne was not of a stellar vintage, but she hoped it might help make her feel better.
Josh appeared on the other side of the bar to place his own empty glass down on the counter.
‘Congratulations,’ she told him, heading around the side of the bar to give him a kiss on the cheek.
‘Thanks,’ he said, with a warm smile.
Despite her misgivings about marriage, she was very fond of Josh. When Belle had first arrived in the village, Josh and his family had played a huge part in welcoming her into the community. The Kennedys owned the corner shop, The Cranbridge Stores, and she had grown close to both Josh and his younger brother, Pete, despite them being a few years older than herself. They had become the surrogate big brothers that she had never had, being an only child herself.
‘Can’t wait to tell Pete he’s got to be my best man!’ carried on Josh, laughing. ‘That’ll shake his jet lag off when he arrives at the airport in the morning.’
‘Absolutely!’ said Belle, fixing a wide smile on her face.
But as she walked away, her smile quickly faded. Josh’s brother, Pete Kennedy, was coming home the following day. She had managed to temporarily forget about Pete for a whole five minutes, but now it was all she could think about.
‘We need more crisps,’ she heard her Aunt Angie say.
‘I’ll get them,’ said Belle quickly, before turning to head into the small hallway beyond and downstairs into the cellar.
Once she was alone, she sagged against the wall and leaned her head against the cool bricks to try and clear her feverish mind.
There were so many problems in her life right now. But Pete coming home from Singapore was yet another one.
They had always been so close – Belle, Josh and Pete. But where Josh was a little more serious, Pete had been the one to make her laugh with his silly jokes and had brought her out of herself, especially in those early years when she was still reeling from her parents’ disastrous marriage.
The brothers had been friendly, flirty and fun, which was entirely what she had needed after the many years of misery hiding inside her bedroom to avoid the rows between her parents.
Josh was the older brother of the two, equally handsome and charming but dependable. Pete was a wild card, always looking for the next adventure. He was a natural flirt, even at the age of thirteen, and all the girls at school had fallen for him, including Belle. She had had a huge crush on Pete growing up, but he had always treated her like a sister and, because of her tomboy ways at that age, sometimes like a brother as well. So she had watched from the sidelines as he had dated and kissed every girl in the village except her. But it didn’t bother her. At least, that was what she had tried to tell herself.
As the years passed, Pete had lived all around the world, but he came home frequently, and Pete and Belle had continued their easy, close friendship. He had carried on dating many women and Belle had carried on shrugging off any offers of romance from anyone who showed any interest in her, eager not to replicate the wretched past of her parents’ marriage.
But everything had changed three years ago when Pete had been about to head off to Singapore to work. Pete’s father, Todd, had unexpectedly passed away. It had shaken the whole family, but Pete appeared almost numb with shock about losing his dad.
The evening after his funeral, Pete had been in the deepest despair that she had even seen him and had sought out Belle’s shoulder to lean on. He had been so sad, so grief-stricken, that Belle had barely known how to console him.
Then, to the surprise of them both, Belle had found herself leaning forward whilst they had been sitting so close and had kissed him on the lips.
It was supposed to have been a kiss of comfort, to try to ease some of his pain and perhaps to also say goodbye as he left for the Far East. But she had been astonished to find him responding to the kiss with passion for a brief, glorious couple of seconds until he had pulled away, staring at her in disbelief.
‘I can’t,’ he had stammered, shaking his head. ‘Not with you.’
‘It’s okay,’ Belle had said quickly.
But it hadn’t been. Pete had immediately stood up and walked away from her.
And she hadn’t seen or heard from him since that day.
She had made a terrible mistake in kissing him and had ruined everything between them, that much she knew. She carried the pain within her, not telling even her closest friends about what she had done. It was too shameful that he had rejected her, so she kept the secret to herself.
And now he was coming back. She didn’t know how long he would be staying for, but she hoped that any awkwardness wouldn’t last whilst he was living just over the other side of the river above the shop with Josh and Amber.
But the fear of seeing Pete again and facing up to her secret crush was nothing compared to her other worries. The inn was going out of business. And without the inn, she had no home and no job. What would she do? Where would she live? She had no qualifications and no real skills to her name.
Worst of all, she was scared to leave the sanctuary that The Black Swan had provided for so many happy years. She didn’t want change. Feared it, in fact.
The inn and Cranbridge had been the only places where she had ever felt at home and at peace. What on earth was she going to do if she had to leave it all behind?
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