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       New Beginnings at the Chatsfield, p.1

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New Beginnings at the Chatsfield


  Step behind the hotel room doors of The Chatsfield, London…

  When bride-to-be Sophie’s groom goes AWOL, she decides to go to her dream honeymoon destination anyway. And The Chatsfield, London’s glamour and exquisite luxury is just what she needs to take her mind off her broken heart!

  But she doesn’t expect that the biggest distraction of all will be meeting gorgeous Spaniard Cristian in the Chatsfield bar! Something about the shadows in his hypnotic gaze tells her he understands her pain more than most – perhaps together, they can help heal the hurts of the past and find a way to a new beginning?

  New Beginnings at The Chatsfield

  Fiona Harper

  Contents

  Cover

  Blurb

  Title Page

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  About the Author

  Discover The Chatsfield

  Copyright

  Chapter One

  I stare in the mirror and think, I should have been Mrs Gareth Hollander for one whole week now.

  But I am not. And no blushing bride is staring back at me. This woman looks tired. Older than her thirty-two years.

  There is a loud knock at the bathroom door. ‘Sophie? You almost ready?’

  I nod and then remember I’m supposed to speak my answer. ‘Almost,’ the woman in the mirror says, continuing to hold my gaze, but her voice seems disconnected from the reflection. It echoes off the tiles. I’ve never been in a bathroom so luxurious, with its marble floor and walls, soft fluffy towels, big roll top bath big enough to house a rugby team. I should be feeling pampered, special. Instead the echoey space feels as cold and empty as a mausoleum.

  The door creaks open and Mel sticks her head round it. ‘Looking good!’ she says, after giving me the once over. ‘Ready to go and hit the town?’

  I turn and nod. ‘Ready as I’ll ever be.’ Which isn’t very ready at all, but I’m not going to tell her that. I can’t help feeling that as I turn and follow her into the hotel bedroom that the woman in the mirror is still standing there, staring after me with her hollow eyes.

  Vikki is waiting for us in the living room of the suite. It was her and Mel’s idea to come to London, to stay at The Chatsfield. I don’t even know if I agreed. I was so numb after Gareth didn’t turn up for our wedding that I’d have jumped off the church spire if someone had told me to. My two bridesmaids came up with the plan of going on the honeymoon anyway, with the two of them to keep me company. They’d make sure I forgot all about my runaway groom, they’d told me.

  I know most people want to go somewhere warm and tropical for a honeymoon, and that certainly appealed, but I’ve always wanted to stay at The Chatsfield. I’ve dreamed of it since I was a little girl. So when Gareth asked me where I wanted to go after we’d got married, I said here. To live like a princess for a fortnight.

  I regret that now. This isn’t a dream come true, a memory I can cherish when I’m old, but a slowly unravelling nightmare. My fantasies of The Chatsfield will always be stained by this now.

  ‘The Criterion for dinner,’ Vikki says, grinning at me, ‘and how about coming back to the bar here afterwards? Then we can plan which club we’re going on to later. Not only is the barman a total hottie, but the cocktail menu is amazing. Mel and I tried some out on Thursday after you’d gone to bed early.’

  Great. A nightmare that involves sparkly shoes. And cocktails. What more could a girl want?

  Even so, I nod. I don’t care. I’m not celebrating anything. I don’t care if there’s champagne or not. And staying out until three in the morning in this glorious city hasn’t taken my mind off my aborted wedding one bit. I float from one expensive venue to the next, pulled along by the sheer willpower of my should-have-been bridesmaids, but all I can think about is why.

  Why did Gareth not even turn up to the church? Why didn’t he tell me he was having doubts? Why did he leave me, stranded, to face all our friends and family on my own, with no answers to give them? I hate him for it. But I ache for him, too.

  You can’t switch that kind of thing off, can you? Even if you want to so badly it makes your eyes swim and your head pound. Okay, Gareth wasn’t the man of my dreams that I’d pictured as a teenager, all brooding dark looks and passionate declarations. Who was? But I’d been able to envision my life with him. He’s a good man, if a little shut down emotionally. I’d been convinced it was all buried in there somewhere, and I thought I’d have a lifetime to excavate it.

  Seems I was wrong. Now I can’t envision any future at all. When I try to look forward, all I can see is a pearly smudge, like fog. How can there be anything else when the man I was preparing to spend all of my tomorrows with has stolen them from me?

  A voicemail. That’s all I have to go on. He hasn’t contacted me once in the last week. Maybe he never will. How does a person deal with that?

  Last Saturday, the fifth of July, I’d been standing in the vestibule of the church, waiting. Gareth’s car had got held up in one of the country lanes, I’d reasoned to myself. Probably a tractor or a flock of sheep. I’d imagined us joking about it after the service, saying something about it being the bride’s job to be late, not the groom’s. Not very funny, I know, but we wouldn’t have cared. The joy of the day would have made it hilarious.

  But then my mother, who’d been looking after my bag, had handed me my phone. It had been buzzing repeatedly in there, she’d said, but she hadn’t wanted to disturb me just minutes away from one of the most important milestones of my life. But when the minute hand on her watch had got to ten past, and the service had been due to start at two, she’d given in and handed it to me.

  It had been Gareth. A garbled message saying that he needed time and space. That he was sorry, that it was nothing to do with me, but that he needed to be sure. I was so stupid that at first I thought he just needed a moment to compose himself, that he’d be along soon, but as the minutes had dragged on and the congregation had started to whisper and fidget, I’d slowly realised the truth.

  He was wrong, though. It clearly was something to do with me. Otherwise he’d have been standing next to me at the altar.

  ‘Got the key to the city?’ Mel asks gleefully.

  She’s talking about Gareth’s credit card. It’s been a running joke all week.

  He got me a second card on his account a couple of months ago, for wedding expenses. I shrug and pull the smart black sliver of titanium out of my purse and hold it up. If he wasn’t going to turn up for the wedding, my bridesmaids reasoned, he might as well pay for the honeymoon. He can afford it, after all.

  It had been fun at first, watching waitresses and shop workers’ eyes light up when they saw it, knowing that a serious spending spree was about to unfold. But that had been earlier in the week, when my devastation had hardened into anger, threatening to consume everything. Maybe that’s the reason I feel worse today, like a wrung-out dishcloth. That useful, necessary fire is waning, leaving me bruised and shivering.

  When I place the credit card on the restaurant table later that evening, it doesn’t feel like revenge anymore, but defeat. Suddenly all I want to do is crawl back to The Chatsfield, climb into my bed and burrow myself under the goose down duvet and never ever come out. The hotel may never be my dream come true anymore, not with the memory of Gareth’s defection stamped all the way through it, but for now it is my refuge.

  Chapter Two

  We arrive back at the Chatsfield after what was p
robably a lovely dinner. Mel and Vikki giggle their way through the lobby, arm in arm like schoolgirls, dragging me in their wake. I stare longingly at the polished lift doors. My fingers itch to reach out and touch the call button.

  But escaping to the suite won’t help. All it will do is prolong the hours I spend staring at the bedroom ceiling, alone and waiting for the dawn to come.

  We pass the ballroom as we make our way towards the bar and Mel stops, listening beyond the doors. I can hear music. Not pop or classical, but something with a sharp and sultry tempo.

  ‘Sounds like quite a party,’ she says, then she and Vikki are giggling again. They both turn to me, a question in their eyes. My insides start to feel heavy.

  I don’t know what’s wrong with my two best friends. They’ve been getting wilder and wilder all week. In their attempts to help me ‘snap out’ of whatever’s got me, they’re spinning faster and faster, trying to suck me up into their whirlwind.

  I start to shake my head, but then the door opens and a couple wander into the lobby, giving a tantalising glimpse of the party for just a second. Before I know it, Mel grabs my hand and drags me inside. Vikki acts as rear guard, blocking my escape.

  Even though it’s close to midnight, and it’s obvious there were originally more guests at this event, the faithful are still going strong. The band is playing an up-tempo salsa song and people are dancing. It’s not showy, like they’ve been to ballroom classes after watching Strictly and want to demonstrate their skills. The way they move is natural. Easy. As if they’ve been doing it their whole life and don’t really have to think about where their arms and legs are going.

  I want to feel the way they feel, I think to myself. I want to feel as if reality is nothing but the thrum of the music in my breastbone, that nothing exists beyond the unthinking sway of my hips as my feet travel across the floor.

  ‘Oh!’ Vikki says, stopping short, her eyes fixed on something further into the room. ‘Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all.’

  Mel follows her gaze and also stops smiling. She reaches back and grabs hold of my hand.

  I hadn’t really been paying much attention to my surroundings, too caught up in watching the easy elegance of the couples on the dance floor. Now I look around.

  It must have been a very elegant party. There are beautiful crystal glasses on the tables, most now either empty or half full with flat champagne. Flowers in tall-stemmed vases stand guard over those that are left. Everything is cream and gold. Very elegant. Very romantic.

  A thought starts to form in my head, something tickling round the edges of my consciousness. I frown and glance further around the room.

  That’s when it hits me, the reason this whole thing seems vaguely familiar, like a half-remembered dream. My eyes finally come to rest on the remains of a large and elaborately decorated four-tiered cake in the corner. It is then I notice the sparkly confetti everywhere, the forgotten bridal favours left on the tables. Everything inside me turns cold. I feel as if I’m in a horror film, at the exact moment where the girl in the nightdress realises the monster is in the house, and the camera does that thing where it both zooms in on her and zooms out on the background at the same time.

  ‘Come on,’ Mel says, tugging at my captive hand. ‘This was a bad idea. Let’s just go.’

  I can’t move. All I can do is stand and stare at the stupid cake. All I can think is that it’s nicer than the one that I chose, the one I don’t even know what happened to—did anyone eat it? Did it just get thrown away?—and I’m jealous. I’m actually jealous.

  I’m so pathetic I start to laugh. Softly.

  Vikki steps closer. ‘Come on, Soph…’

  ‘No.’

  I pull my hand away from Mel’s. I don’t know how I know it’s there, but I turn and look at the bar on the far side of the room. I’ve been drinking all week. Because I’m supposed to be drowning my sorrows, because I’m supposed to be having fun in an attempt to stick two fingers up at my absent groom. Because I’m supposed to be toasting my own phoenix-like regeneration after a holiday with the girls.

  I start walking towards it, the only thing in my focus the bartender conscientiously cleaning a glass with a sparkling white napkin. I’ve been drinking all week, but this is the first time I’ve really craved alcohol.

  ‘Go if you want to,’ I say loud enough for the two women staring at my back to hear, ‘but I’m staying.’

  It’s time I stopped running and turned to face the monster.

  Chapter Three

  ‘You don’t look as if you are having a very good time.’

  I look up from my glass of Scotch to find a man sitting on the bar stool next to me. He is looking at me. Not in a sleazy way, but with guarded curiosity. I prepare to say that I’m fine, that I’m just a bit tired, but the words never leave my lips. I just haven’t got the energy to lie any more, and this man doesn’t know me. I don’t have to pretend that Gareth’s actions haven’t made me feel like a fragile piece of confetti trodden onto the bottom of somebody’s shoe.

  He nods at the circus of movement and enjoyment on the dance floor and raises his eyebrows.

  ‘Probably because my life has gone down the toilet,’ I say matter-of-factly. ‘I don’t belong here, anyway. I crashed this wedding.’

  His expression doesn’t change but I spot a glimmer of amusement in his eyes as I slam my tumbler back down on the bar and signal for the bartender to keep ‘em coming.

  I look at my companion. He is older than I am but I can’t tell by how much. He has thick dark hair that might wave if it were allowed to grow longer, and there is a speckling of grey not only at the temples but in the cowlick on his forehead. He isn’t handsome. Not in the pretty, chiselled way Mel and Vikki like their men—his nose is too strong and his eyes too deep-set—but there is something about him. I’m surprised he’s bothered to stop and talk to me. There are much better pickings on the dance floor—including Mel and Vikki.

  For a moment he doesn’t say anything, just absorbs my answer, then he also signals to the bartender, while pushing my empty tumbler away from me. ‘There’s only one thing for heartache,’ he says completely seriously.

  I realise he has a slight accent. Mediterranean, maybe. Spanish?

  He leans forward and gives instructions to the bartender, who places two large goblets in front of each of us and fills them with a dark, fragrant red wine. ‘Try it,’ he tells me and I hesitantly reach out and take hold of the glass, allow myself a tiny sip. It tastes amazing, of berries and plums and vanilla, and it feels like velvet on my tongue.

  ‘What is it?’ I ask, already yearning for more.

  ‘Malbec,’ he says, ‘2006 vintage. That was a wonderful year.’

  ‘You know about wine?’ I take another sip. It’s even better second time around. I can taste spices and rich fruit and a hundred other things I’m not sophisticated enough to identify.

  He smiles and his serious eyes light up. My tummy warms. I tell myself it’s the wine.

  ‘It is my passion,’ he says. I think that only someone who looks and sounds like him can get away with saying something like that. On an English man it would sound either ridiculous or insincere. I like his honesty. I have forgotten men can be so honest.

  Not that Gareth is a cad. He didn’t lie to me. It was the truth he hid that brought me here today, seeking a cure for my heartache in a bottle of exquisite Malbec. The truth that he didn’t love me enough to marry me. I have discovered that truth omitted can be every bit as damaging as all-out deception.

  I turn and face the bar, stare without focusing at the smooth wooden surface. ‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘You’re right about the wine. I think it will do very nicely.’ I wait for him to leave.

  But he doesn’t leave. I feel him there—warm, tangible—barely two feet away. He also doesn’t chatter. When I sneak a sideways look at him, he is staring at his wine very much the same way I have been.

  He turns his head, finds me looking at him. I sp
eak to cover up my very English awkwardness. ‘How did you know?’ I ask. ‘About the Malbec…?’

  He blinks slowly, considering my question. ‘Because I work in the wine industry, like my family before me for three generations. Things like this get passed down from father to son. Not just the technical aspects of making a good wine, but it’s less…tangible…secrets.’

  ‘You make wine?’

  He shakes his head. ‘My family used to. I work as a wine broker.’

  I nod as if I know what that is. Suddenly, I feel very much the girl from a little country village in Sussex, even with Gareth’s exclusive credit card tucked in my clutch bag. ‘In Spain?’ I ask, trying to steer the conversation towards something I might know something about.

  He shakes his head. ‘Argentina.’

  So much for steering. I think I just hit a brick wall. He doesn’t seem to mind, though.

  ‘You didn’t want to stay home and grow grapes?’

  He shrugs. ‘Times were tough when I was a teenager. My father had to sell the vineyard. I don’t think I would have stayed, even if I could have. I had itchy feet, and my job takes me all over the world.’

  ‘Even London,’ I say, smiling slightly. ‘Where there is a distinct lack of vineyards.’

  He smiles back at me and I feel a little jolt down in my stomach. ‘Even London, occasionally. Although, this trip I am here for my brother’s wedding.’

  Ah. Yes. The wedding. I’d kind of forgotten about that. I glance nervously towards the ballroom doors, regretting my bold outburst about crashing. I shift on my stool, reaching a leg towards the floor, preparing to leave.

  ‘No,’ he says softly. ‘Stay. Nobody minds. Finish your wine at least.’

  I stare at the dark red liquid in the goblet, then I sit back firmly on my stool and take another sip. ‘Why London for the wedding?’

  ‘My new sister-in-law is English, and they’ve been living here for four years.’

  I nod. That makes sense. But I hate the feeling of jealousy that creeps over me for the now-absent bride and groom. Envy that their day went as planned, and they probably hadn’t even entertained the idea it wouldn’t. Just as I hadn’t.

 
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