“HAMISH, no!” But I was too late. Hamish jumped higher than Steve Smith and unlike the Olympic athlete who kept to a nice clean track, the German Shepherd pup had been running wild in the reeds by the park pond. “Oh, you dreadful boy!”
I was gazing ruefully at myself. My favourite rose patterned top was colourful enough to disguise the coating of fur but nothing in the world could cover the streaks of filth that now ran all the way down my front. Also, Hamish’s sharp claws had torn a triangular tear in my leggings. At crotch level, of course, so the world could see my ancient Paddington Bear knickers.
“Hi, Kelly!” Julia Sackville-Smythe was gazing at me, eyes wide with horror. “Oh, what happened to you? Are you all right?”
I had to laugh because the contrast between the two of us was just too funny for words. You see, Julia is perfect. I’m not kidding. She’s everything I’ve always longed to be: sophisticated, successful and skinny. The three Ss that spell the difference between glamour and - well, mundane me.
Even when out for a stroll in the village park, Julia was dressed to kill. While I looked like a mud dipped horror dressed from the reject bin, she was sporting a beautifully cut tweed blazer and an exquisitely simple mustard yellow wool dress that clung in all the right places. Even her polished leather boots were just lived in enough to be the epitome of country chic.
It didn’t stop at the clothes, either. Julia’s shining blonde locks drifted elegantly around her shoulders, whereas the fresh breeze had whipped my dirty straw hair into a rat’s nest. Add to this that Julia is so trim you might miss her if she stood sideways, whereas me, well, let’s say that if we were in ‘Beauty and the Beast’, she’d be Belle and I’d be Mrs Potts.
“You’re all muddy,” Julia said concerned. “Did you trip and fall? Are you hurt, Kelly?”
On top of the glamour, she really was sweet. Annoying right? You’d think a beauty like her should at least be catty if not an outright bitch, but Julia was well-known for being a total darling.
“I’m fine, thanks.” I brushed at the mud, spreading it rather than eliminating it. “I’m taking Hamish for a run before his training lesson and as you can see, we’ve not reached the bit where I teach him not to jump up.”
“He’s filling out,” Julia was examining the bouncing Hamish critically. “You’ve made such a difference to that dog.”
Hamish looks like a superb pedigree German Shepherd, but the poor pup was rescued from a mill, one of those awful farms where they breed purely for profit and they don’t give a damn about the dogs.
When the police closed the place down, our village vet Dr Gill was called in to help. Hamish was so sick with ticks, fleas and cage fever that he was almost put down. Thankfully, she persuaded the police to let me have him.
It had been touch and go but Hamish had pulled through, so I was misting a little as I watched him run around being happy. “He is looking good, isn’t he? How are you, Julia?”
“I finally sold that Hepplewhite chair so I thought I deserved a break,” she explained. “And how are you doing? Not that I have to ask. Everyone is saying you’re doing great!”
I’m totally invested in my work so that made me smile. “Thanks!”
“You must be so happy, being a business owner. Much better than being a tiny cog in a giant corporation, right?”
She meant well, but it caught me on the raw. You see, I turned entrepreneur after I was let go by Hearts Unlimited, a publishing company specialising in romance novels. It wasn’t anything I did, I was actually very good at my job, but Hearts was sold to an American conglomerate. Being super efficient, they slimmed the organisation down, and I was one of the trimmings.
Although it was just economics, it hurt to be fired. My pride ached even months later. Also, starting a business is roller coaster scary. I mean, so many good ideas just don’t make it, right?
Julia’s well-meaning comment hit some panic buttons but I didn’t let it show. “Pawsome is awesome! I’m having a blast.”
“So I see,” Julia said excitedly. “Everyone’s talking about how you’re training in the park. It’s fun to watch.”
Which is why I was there, of course. Hamish was as cute as a button, and being very visible helped me to spread the word about my business. Even people who weren’t keen on dogs smiled when they saw him.
“Idling away the afternoon, girls?” Mrs Mowbray was marching up the path. I wasn’t happy to see her. As the owner of the sweet shop, she’d always featured largely in our lives when we were little. Unfortunately, she’d always been judgemental and some of her comments bordered on poisonous. Still, in a small village you have to get along, so I nodded politely and braced myself.
“Kelly’s training Hamish,” Julia said peaceably. “Isn’t he adorable?”
“Dogs belong on farms,” Mrs Mowbray snapped. “That animal should be working.”
“Pets give people a lot of pleasure,” I pointed out. “Many of us think of dogs are our family.”
“You never did have any sense,” she responded rudely. “So you’re still wasting your time, pretending to run a business?”
At that, Julia gasped. She might have spoken up for me, but I frowned her down. I like the quiet life, and if that means ignoring the odd nasty barb, that’s fine with me. Mind you, I can be lethal if I want to. But I prefer not to rise if I can help it.
“I’ll arrange some restaurant hours at the Three Swans for you,” Mrs Mowbray took my self-controlled silence for being soft and thought she was on a roll. “You’re not qualified, of course, but they’ll take you as a favour to me.”
Great. I was stupid and incompetent. I took a breath and held on to my temper, “No, thanks.”
“It’s good money, waitressing. And you get tips.”
“I have a business of my own to run.”
Mrs Mowbray scowled. “Right, well suit yourself.” Then she added spitefully. “You’ll pipe down when you go bust.”
At that, I was seeing red but she was marching off before I could blast her.
“Don’t mind her,” Julia comforted me.
“Thanks, I won’t.”
Julia was shifting from foot to foot. “You’re doing okay, though, aren’t you?”
“Of course!” A new business survives as much by its reputation as its products, so I was firm about talking myself up. “I love what I do and my customers are giving me rave reviews.”
At which point Hamish bounced back, feathered paws filthy, and cheerfully leaped on me again, brushing my face with a courtesy mudpack. I was still wiping the muck from my eyes, when I heard Julia exclaim, “Oh lord, I hope that comes off!”
I was holding on to a wriggling Hamish as I fumbled for the leash in my pocket. “Sweetheart, you’re a terror.” But I was petting him as I spoke. The dog was so full of the joys of life that he was irresistible. As I stroked the soft ears, he licked my face, tore himself out of my grip and dashed off again.
“Eeeew,” Julia moaned. “You’re covered in mud!”
“Talk about an impromptu makeover,” I laughed. “Think Hamish would make it as a personal stylist?” From the noises of horror behind me, though, I wasn’t the dog’s only victim. “Sorry, Julia. Were you splashed too? Is it very bad?”
But as I finally wiped the dirt out of my eyes and turned around, I just stood staring in surprise. It wasn’t Julia who’d been spattered; it was Cory Winthrop.
“I’m okay but this suit isn’t.” Julia was fussing, brushing his jacket with long sweeps of her elegantly manicured hand. “I have a magic little velvet roller thing in my shop if you want a quick spruce up.”
I should have said something, but I was tongue-tied. Tall, golden-haired and handsome, he was a vision straight from Hearts Unlimited. He even had a title, being in fact, Corwyn Holbrook Norman, tenth Viscount Winthrop. I know, yummy, right?
Better still, unlike the conventional romances, he wasn’t one of those nasty Byronic heroes filled with dangerous power and sneering alpha male arrogance. Being around Cory meant being enveloped in a bubble of warmth and laughter.
Even now, with his purple silk tie splodged with mud and his steel grey suit jacket, definitely Armani, sprinkled with little spots of dirt, he was smiling. “It doesn’t matter. I never liked the tie, and the rest will brush off when it’s dry.”
Yes, Cory hadn’t changed one bit. I’d had a crush on him when I was sixteen and he was still utterly gorgeous.
Julia was pink with excitement, “It’s been ages, Cory. I almost didn’t recognise you!”
She got a hug right away. “I spotted you straight off. You look even more amazing than usual. Wow!”
Standing together, they looked as if they’d stepped off a novel cover. Hearts would have snapped them up in a heartbeat.
“My jeans and tee days are gone,” Julia said brightly. “I dress pretty to snare customers into paying exorbitant prices for my antiques.”
“I’d pay anything you asked,” Cory replied promptly, adding another, “Wow!”
Julia might have morphed from scruffy student to glam fashion model but Cory had always been pin-up material. You could have dressed him in a dustbin bag, and it wouldn’t have disguised the long cheekbones, sculpted lips, and startlingly blue eyes, the colour of cornflowers and summer skies.
Now those heavenly eyes were smiling down at me. “Kelly Taylor! It’s so good to see you again.” The charm was flowing over me like caramel. “It’s been ages. Five years? Six?”
“More than that, I think.” I looked again and realised he looked better than ever. The lean hips were the same, as were the long legs, but he’d been working out. Drinking in the deep chest and the powerful shoulders, I felt myself blush. To my horror, my crush came rocketing back.
Desperate to hide the tide of red that I knew was sweeping over me, I whipped a pack of wetties out of my pocket and rubbed away at my muddy face. Suddenly I was wishing for a little more of those three Ss. Or at least a muck free face.
“You’ve always been handsome. You know I’ve lusted after you forever, don’t you?” Julia was holding his hand, looking soulfully up at him as she flirted shamelessly.
“You were my first crush,” he responded instantly. “When our eyes met, it was perfect love.” He paused a second and added wickedly, “Or it might have been because you had a choc ice. I’ve always been partial to those.”
“Oh lord, St Edmund’s Church charity picnic,” Julia giggled. “We must have been, what, six years old?”
As they laughed away like the old friends they were, it came home to me that this was really too much like a scene from a Hearts novel. Except I wasn’t the heroine, damn it. I now knew exactly what it was like to be a wallflower at a debutante’s ball.
“You were there too, weren’t you, Kelly?” Cory was chatting happily. “I think you two must be my oldest friends.”
In a way, that was true. Julia, Cory and me were all village born and bred, and as Silverdale is small, we all went to kindy and primary school together. The three of us had been best friends in those early years. But after that, I went to the local comprehensive while Julia went to Cheltenham Ladies College, a hugely expensive private school, and Cory went to Eton, which is even more exclusive.
From that point, we lived separate lives. During the holidays I spent my time earning Girl Guides badges and then as working as the vet’s kennel cleaner and assistant while Julia and Cory hung out at various stately homes between trips to Corfu and Tuscany.
“It’s like old times, isn’t it?” Julia squeaked. “I feel as if we’re back at school again! Oh Kelly, do you remember how Mrs Twickerton made us perform scenes from the Odyssey? We were Sirens, remember, and Cory was Neptune.”
“Mrs Twickerton got it right on the button,” Cory grinned. “You two are irresistible.”
I wanted to sparkle, or at least say something interesting, but as the crush rolled back, it brought along my teen shyness. I was horribly aware of my over-abundant curves and muddy clothes.
Of course, Julia was chatting away. “Where did you spring from, sweetie? I thought you were in London.”
“Mum’s charity ball,” Cory said easily. “I came up to help.”
I’d been to the Hearts galas and Cory was acting as if we were still as close as the days were shared buckets and spades in the sandpit but I was thinking that the only way I’d be invited to Winthrop Hall was as a waitress. It shouldn’t have bothered me, I wouldn’t know a soul who was going, but somehow it just underlined how difficult the year had been.
I’m usually confident but for a split-second, I wondered if I was kidding myself. Was I building my own business and being my own boss, or was I wasting my time and squandering my savings? Every penny I had was invested in my venture. Would I come out of this completely broke?
Julia’s ecstasy pulled me out of my temporary funk. “A charity ball? But I’ve not heard a word!”
“It’s a bit sudden,” Cory said vaguely. “As soon as it’s sorted, I’ll send you tickets. And you too, of course, Kelly.”
Sweet, right? Told you he was lovely.
“I haven’t been to a fun do in ages,” Julia sighed. “Any celebs coming?”
Cory grinned. “There may be a few. If I know Mum, she’ll have London and Paris turning out.”
“Yes!” Julia squeaked. “Oh, I love your mum!”
“Save a dance for me, Julia,” Cory said warmly. “And you too, Kelly.”
I finally got my voice back. “It sounds lovely. But Cory, about that mud -”
“It’s no problem,” he said quickly. “How have you been, Kelly?”
“Great.” As scintillating was out of the question, I went for the obvious. “You walked up from the station?”
“That’s right,” he smiled. His eyes went to Hamish who was now frisking about the reeds again. “That’s a good-looking dog. Yours?”
“Yes. I’m training him.”
Cory gazed at the German Shepherd who was now running around like a lunatic. With a tree branch in his mouth and leaves sticking to his muddy sides, Hamish looked like he was training at the Attila the Hun School of Discipline. “He looks very happy,” Cory ventured.
I couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh lord, you are kind. But really, he’s only four months old. He needs to run off his energy before his lesson.”
“He does have a lot of that,” Cory agreed. But the heavenly eyes were thoughtful. “You’re with Hearts Unlimited, right? Are you back for a holiday?”
But before I could answer, Julia was chatting. “Didn’t you hear? Kelly moved back in with her mum and dad. She’s the village dog whisperer now!”
That term was one I loathed, so I stepped in quickly. “Mum and Dad were in an accident, and as my job disappeared when Hearts was sold, it made sense to come home.”
“I heard the company changed hands,” Cory frowned. “But not about your job or your parents. I’m so sorry, Kelly.”
“They’re both much better and it’s given me the opportunity to start my own business.”
“Luxury pet treats.” I wasn’t even thinking as I dug into my pocket and handed him a flyer. I’d been boring on to anyone who’d listen for months, so my elevator pitch was perfect. “If you’re worried about salt, sugar, and additives in commercial pet treats, try Pawsome. It’s fresh, home-made and packed with goodness. Pawsome treats for pawsome pets.”
“Very slick,” Cory smiled. “I love it!”
Success breeds confidence, so I didn’t hesitate to talk myself up. “I’m also a positive reinforcement dog trainer. If you have a pup who needs to learn company manners, I’m your girl.”
“You must be doing great, seeing the village is obsessed with their pets.” He was being nice but I could see him trying not to look at my ripped leggings.
Cory Winthrop wasn’t just titled and rich; he was also a very successful banker. He’d skipped university, going straight into the family bank from school, and swiftly transformed the small private corporation into a hugely successful investment bank that rivalled Lloyds and Goldman Sachs. The serious newspapers were filled regularly with details of the multimillion pound deals he did before breakfast.
Faced with all that success, I was suddenly certain my fledgling business enterprise was a childish dream. Maybe Mrs Mowbray had been right. Maybe I should be looking for hours at the Three Swans.
For a second my confidence wavered but then Julia went into support mode, “We all thought Kelly was crazy when she first started handing out her flyers, but she’s a red-hot hit. Everyone is raving about her.”
While she gushed, I stepped away from them both and called Hamish. Much to my relief, he came bounding over. He was absolutely filthy now and tired enough not to jump up.
“Sit, Hamish.” Yes, he was eager to please. I rewarded him immediately with a treat and praise. “Good boy.”
I clipped the leash to his collar, and tried to look cool, calm, and collected as I said my goodbyes. “I have to go back to work. Sorry about the mud, Cory. It’s nice to see you again. Please give my best to your mum.”
“Of course.” Those wonderful eyes were looking straight into mine. “Do you have to go?” He had tiny laugh lines and they were crinkling at me. “Sorry, but it’s so good to be back home. After grey claustrophobic London, I feel like I can breathe again.”
“Has it been foul?” Julia asked sympathetically.
“Oh, you know how it is,” Cory replied. “It’s always interesting but it’s not home.”
Julia shook her head but I knew what he meant. “It becomes stifling after a while,” I agreed.
Cory nodded. “Exactly! Hey, how about we all meet tonight? I left my bag at the Three Swans so I’m driving down there later to collect it.”
“I have a dinner with the Ellingtons,” Julia said regretfully.
“How about you, Kelly?”
That came totally out of the blue. I just gawped at him. “Erm, me?”
“You’re at Old Yew Lodge, right? I can swing by and collect you.”
I thought I’d misheard him. There was no way that Cory Winthrop, the country’s nicest, most handsome and probably most eligible bachelor to boot, was asking me out. Unless it was a Candid Camera prank.
He was standing so close to me, that I could smell his aftershave. It was fresh and clean, like a newly mown lawn after rain. In the blink of an eye, I was thinking how it would feel to be hugged by him. I knew that snuggling into those arms meant being enveloped in a cloud of loving warmth. I was a split second away from doing a Hamish and just going for it.
“They have a Pinot Grigio there that’s very good,” Cory said.
Julia was looking a bit down, but she nodded, “Yes, but Kelly likes cider.”
I preferred wine but I wasn’t going to admit I drank local scrumpy by the glass because I couldn’t afford to spend a fortune on an imported award-winning wine that was sold by the bottle. “I like both.”
The laughter lines were nothing compared to the brilliant smile. “Great. They do excellent roast beef and the duck’s fantastic too.”
Not just a drink but dinner. Was I dreaming? I almost pinched myself.
“Shall I pick you up at eight?” Cory asked.
Putting myself in his way would lead to nothing but trouble. He wasn’t just out of my league; he was from a different universe. I should walk away and spend the night planning a promotion schedule or working out a new recipe for dog biscuits.“Yes, please,” I heard myself say.
Love, Laughter, and Lots of Dogs
A standalone novel
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