Published by Aria Fiction (Head of Zeus):
Packed full of French flavour and idyllic settings this is a romantic, heart-warming and unputdownable new novel about life and love, perfect for anyone who loves Milly Johnson, Lucy Diamond and Debbie Johnson.
Suddenly unemployed and single, Anna escapes to her parents’ beautiful house in France for a much needed recharge – and to work out what she wants to do next with her life now her carefully mapped out plan has gone out the window.
Anna gives herself 6 months to recuperate, all the while helping renovate her parents’ adjoining gîtes into picturesque B&Bs. But working alongside the ruggedly handsome Sam on the renovation project, she didn’t expect for life to take an unexpected, if not unwelcome, twist…
The L Word
Two weeks today will be the first anniversary of our first real date. Being wined and dined in a chic little French restaurant was a gigantic step forward; it signalled the beginning of a new era in my relationship with Karl. Even though at least half of the meal was spent talking about work, his intentions were clear – we were no longer simply colleagues and romance was in the air.
Since then, Karl must have told me that he loves me more than a thousand times. You might think I’m exaggerating, but I can assure you that’s not the case. He usually manages to slip it into the conversation at least three times a day. The first time he said the L word to me, it slid off his tongue so easily I could almost have missed it. It wasn’t a staring into each other’s eyes moment of discovery, just a casual ‘love you, babe’.
As the months rolled by, I pushed aside my growing fear that it was only a word to him. Because it means so much more to me, I freeze whenever he tacks it onto a sentence.
And, yes, I’m very aware that my air of disapproval does make me sound ungrateful and undeserving. But it’s all about self-preservation, you see. I’ll never utter that word again until I’m one hundred per cent certain that the man I’m saying it to believes I’m their soul mate too – the perfect fit.
The last time I uttered the L word, was six years ago. It was to a guy I’d known since childhood and the man I genuinely believed I would marry when the time was right. He was handsome in a rugged way, fired up with ambition and exciting to be around. Sadly, everyone we knew thought we were the perfect couple too, except the guy in question, as it turned out.
Will arrived in my life when I was a very precocious pre-teen and counting down the days to attaining that revered status. I had this fervent belief that overnight my whole life would change. And it did when Will and his family moved into the house next door. It seemed living proof of that fact because in a ridiculously short space of time he became everything to me. The first glance that passed between us was magical and the best birthday present I could ever have been given.
As classmates, we were best friends throughout those traumatic school years when your hormones are changing you in ways you don’t always understand. With it comes a rollercoaster of incredible highs and devastating lows. Dictated by important events in your life like whose party you are invited to and which group you hang around in, you need one true friend. Will was mine and I was his – life couldn’t get any better. But it did… until the day he broke my heart.
I’m conscious that Lizzie is staring at me across our regular table in our favourite little coffee shop. With the mismatched, scrubbed pine tables and the eclectic mix of upcycled chairs, it’s cosy. You feel like you are sitting in a farmhouse kitchen and there’s always a warm welcome. But then we do spend quite a bit of time here.
Once again, we’re discussing the dilemma that constantly haunts me these days. Namely, how healthy is a relationship that is based on a lie?
‘Of course he loves you, Anna,’ Lizzie responds to the question I blurted out without thinking. With our first anniversary looming Karl doesn’t seem to be signalling any major move forward in our relationship.
But you need to experience the pain of love’s disappointments to be able to understand why it leaves a scar on your heart. Lizzie is very happily caught up in a relationship approaching its second anniversary; and she’s sporting a gorgeous, bought-with-love engagement ring. Daniel is her first and only love and he’s a keeper.
‘You two are always together and Karl dotes on you,’ she offers, emphatically, unable to understand what ails my fragile heart. When I don’t respond she raises her eyebrows, clearly exasperated with me.
‘The move to your new house – it wasn’t a test? Tell me it wasn’t.’ Her jaw drops a little in dismay.
I hang my head. I’m usually an open book to Lizzie, who has been my best friend since I returned to Dursley after university. The fact that I’d fooled her, too, reflects how much effort I’ve put into making my recent decisions seem purposeful and empowering. I wanted Karl to see that I, too, had plans for the future, because that was the truth, even if he wasn’t entirely sure about where we were going as a couple. Waiting around to see what might happen seemed like treading water. But I knew that deep down I had an ulterior motive.
‘He didn’t say a word. It’s a great little house and I love having the extra space, but I really hoped it might make Karl think about what he wants for the future, too.’
‘You wanted him to say he’d move in? Or hand you a key to his place? Oh, Anna, maybe it’s simply too soon for him.’
I feel like letting out one long, agonising scream to defuse my mounting sense of frustration. Another year of my life has passed and I really thought this was going somewhere. I hoped that this time it was for real, but as each day passes I’m simply feeling more and more confused. Karl’s lack of interest in discussing our future sucks the joy out of every day we’re together. On paper, he’s perfect; we’re probably the perfect couple. So why do I have this overwhelming feeling that something is wrong? Is this history repeating itself?
‘Or maybe he likes his life the way it is,’ I remark, trying to avoid eye contact with Lizzie as I know she has a soft spot for Karl.
‘Talk to him; tell him how you feel. I’ve heard him say he loves you, he does it all the time.’
And be on the receiving end of that embarrassed smile, the one that signals you are addressing the elephant in the room? If he hasn’t already sensed my growing discomfort about our situation then he doesn’t know me at all. I notice every single time he utters the L word, not for the usual reasons, but because I’ve never once said it back to him. And he has never once noticed that omission. That’s precisely why it worries me.
‘I’ll think about it.’
Lizzie is a close enough friend to know that’s a firm no.
‘Look, if this is really still about that guy Will, then you have a major problem, Anna. You told me he broke your heart but you aren’t still in love with him, are you?’
I look at her aghast. ‘No, of course not.’
‘Then aren’t you being a little unfair, doubting Karl’s intentions?’
My shoulders sag and I can see she isn’t going to let me skate over this.
‘It’s time you told me exactly what happened with Will, Anna. How else can I be a good friend and understand what’s really going on inside that head of yours?’
I gaze down at my half eaten purple berry with sparkling vanilla frosting, cupcake. It’s delicious but my appetite seems to have suddenly disappeared. I look around and today only half of the tables are occupied so it’s not as if anyone can overhear our conversation. With that, I take a big breath and begin.
‘As you know, Will and I were really close friends all through secondary school. When he told me he, too, had accepted a place at the University of the West of England, I was over the moon. I knew his father wanted him to go to Reading and with two firm offers I assumed he’d bow to family pressure. I could hardly contain my joy, even though we were still only friends at that point. Will standing up to his father was a shock and, silently, I loved him even more for it because I thought he’d made that decision so we could be together. I was facing the future confident that our relationship would develop on a more personal level.’
I notice that Lizzie too, has now stopped eating. She waves to the waitress to order two more coffees and I find myself shifting around in my seat, uncomfortably. Reliving this incident isn’t easy, even after all this time.
‘Over the next eighteen months our friendship developed into a passionate love affair and we became inseparable. Always together, always having fun and always at the centre of what was happening. We were the couple our friends envied, as they went through the trials of falling in and out of love.
‘Will often joked about the pressure on guys to make a huge deal over the proposal; he warned me not to expect any more than flowers and a Chinese takeaway. We laughed about it and even talked about finding our dream flat overlooking Bristol Harbourside once we had both graduated.’
‘Ah, that’s heart-breaking, Anna. So what exactly happened to make the relationship fall apart?’ Lizzie looks at me anxiously and I can’t bear to see the sadness she’s feeling on my behalf.
‘Something changed between us and I found myself looking for any reason at all to avoid facing the truth. I told myself he was under pressure with a project he was working on and that’s why I was seeing less and less of him. I believed his excuses.’
Lizzie stares at me, letting out a gasp. ‘Oh no—’
I nod. ‘I realise, with hindsight, that there were three of us in the relationship at that point. The third person was a girl named Cassandra. She was always around us and it had been that way more or less since we’d arrived on the campus. It was understandable in a way, as she was on the same course as Will. Or, at least, that’s what I told myself.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me there was someone else involved? I just assumed it fizzled out between the two of you. Honestly, Anna, it’s not good to keep a hurt like that a secret.’ Lizzie’s reaction makes me feel guilty for holding this back.
I shake my head, busying myself putting sugar in my coffee to avoid eye contact.
‘I was young and naïve; I just didn’t see it coming. One Friday night we ended up tagging along with a large group of friends to a wine bar in Clifton, in Bristol. We were celebrating the start of the Christmas holidays. Will had been in a bad mood all day and started drinking quite heavily early on in the evening. I was finding him increasingly more difficult to read and physically it had been weeks since we’d shared a bed. Eventually, there were only eight of us left. I was sitting directly opposite Will, deep in conversation with a girl named Sally. She was on the same course as me. Suddenly I heard raised voices and when I turned to look across at Will, I saw that Cassandra was sitting next to him and his eyes were blazing. She put a hand on Will’s shoulder in an attempt to calm him down and keep him seated, but he struggled to his feet. Heads were starting to turn in the direction of our table as people began to wonder what the noise was all about.
‘His words were slurred, “You don’t think I’ve had enough of this pretence?” but clear enough. Even above the sound of the music thumping away in the background everyone around our table heard. And realised what was going on. Heads then turned in my direction as faces fell. I watched in horror as the little scene played out. Will stomped out of the bar, without a backwards glance. Cassandra looked around at our shocked faces and her reaction was one of total disbelief. For a few brief seconds she closed her eyes and when she opened them again she stared straight at me. My jaw had dropped and I felt as if I was frozen to the spot. All eyes were on the two of us and I struggled to keep my composure.
‘Suddenly she jumped up, muttering “I’m sorry,” as she chased after Will. The truth had surfaced and I was devastated. Cassandra was in a long term relationship with a guy from her home town. I thought she was lonely and didn’t mind her tagging along. It never crossed my mind for one second that there was anything going on between her and Will. As it turned out, they’d been sleeping together for a while and he was pressing her to break up with her boyfriend. I wasn’t even his first concern and I have no idea when he would have told me what was going on. The only way to move on from that humiliating episode was by promising myself that when it came to affairs of the heart I would never take anything for granted ever again.’
‘Oh, Anna – now it all makes a lot more sense! You must have felt so humiliated, being strung along like that.’
Lizzie looks appalled.
‘Karl saying the L word in such a casual way all the time sets alarm bells ringing for me. He’s never declared his love; I mean, told me why he loves me. And doesn’t he wonder why I don’t say it back to him? Everything else between us is perfect; well, except for the lie we’ve been living, of course.’
Lizzie sighs. ‘And I was just happy for you to have found someone at long last! No wonder you have trust issues, Anna. But then, having to keep your relationship a secret doesn’t help, does it? I can now fully understand your concerns.’
‘The truth is that I wouldn’t normally have accepted the situation but when Karl asked me out we’d been working in the same department together for almost five months. Friendship sort of slid into dating so it all felt rather natural and, I suppose, comfortably safe from my point of view, given my understandably cautious instincts. I began to think that we were destined to meet and that maybe this really was it. Here was a man I already admired, who was both charming and reliable. Someone I could finally trust. He knew what he wanted out of life and was determined to get it; it’s a quality to which I seem to be irresistibly drawn. He wasn’t afraid of saying the L word, either, and I wanted to believe him – really I did. But he doesn’t talk to me about our future together as a couple, it’s always about work and the team hitting those targets.’
‘This no fraternisation policy in your contract is a big deal, isn’t it?’ Lizzie’s voice is full of concern.
‘Yes, because Karl is my line manager and Creative Connect Advertising’s terms of employment are clear. When he first suggested we keep our relationship a secret he said it would only be for a little while. I know, it’s crazy and I should have said no but Karl said we worked well together and that true professionals should have no problem whatsoever in keeping their work and their private lives separate. The company are focusing on the ethics of the commercially sensitive information we often deal with. Now I’m beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable about it. Karl dismisses my concerns with a wave of his hand but it all feels very wrong – emotionally, morally and contractually. Doesn’t every woman want the man who proclaims his love to her to shout it out to the world proudly? When you find your soul mate that should be a life changing event, shouldn’t it? I’ve been waiting with bated breath to hear Karl say that it’s time to tell HR that we’re together and face the consequences. I’ll probably be the one who is moved out of the department, not him. What I fear is that I mean more to him as a member of his team, than I do as a partner.’
Lizzie reaches across to pat my arm. ‘You can’t possibly go on like this indefinitely, Anna. You must understand that Karl doesn’t know what you’ve been through, though, or how anxious you are. He won’t have any idea about your concerns over whether this is some excuse or not, but you can’t assume he has a hidden agenda. You’re a sensitive soul, my friend, and yet you’re so careful to hide that from the world. It’s not right to hide it from Karl if you think he’s the one. Not being straight with your employer is out of character so that tells me he’s special to you.’
It’s time to head back and when we hug goodbye I’m glad that Lizzie finally knows everything.
I drive home wondering whether a part of me didn’t want to tackle the issue head on with Karl. Do I want to commit to a man who puts his career before us? If I make a fuss then maybe he will come clean but what if I only think I’m in love with him? Is it only my gutting disappointment that he’s happy to continue to live a lie that keeps me from giving him an ultimatum?