To celebrate the launch of ‘The Valentine Present and Other Diabolical Liberties’ I have released a bargain box set of all my romantic comedy books. Here it is for the bargain price of £3.99. On Kindle only.
It is a fab bargain and only available for a limited time.
The Valentine Present and Other Diabolical Liberties is released today in paperback and to wet your appetites here is an extract.
Thank you to the eighteen reviewers who have so far given it 5 star ratings I am thrilled.
Enjoy the extract. The Diamond’s are everyone’s favourite as they are mine.
Thank you Lady Gaga for all the inspiration
The Valentine Present and Other Diabolical Liberties
Julian slams the door of his Mercedes van, juggling a freshly iced birthday cake in one hand and a card in the other. He pauses for a moment to admire his new vehicle. Spotting a tiny mark on the bonnet he rubs it with the sleeve of his jacket and, after satisfying himself that the mark has gone, rushes to the communal door of the flats. God, he’s so late. Not even time for a shower. He lets himself in and places the cake onto the kitchen table. That will please her. He will hide it on the top shelf of the cupboard and present it to her on her birthday. He saunters into the bedroom and smiles when he sees the morning suit laid out on the bed for him. He is just about to pop on the bow tie when he hears the front door open. Thinking it is his girlfriend he strolls out of the bedroom beaming.
‘I thought we were meeting at the ch …’
He stops instantly. The smile freezes on his face and his mouth opens and closes several times with nothing emanating from it. Two burly men stand in his living room. The room normally looks small but now it seems miniature. A smartly dressed man walks between the two men and smiles at Julian. Julian’s eyes lower to the man’s left hand and the missing little finger.
‘Ello Julian, ‘appy Valentine’s Day,’ says Jack Diamond. ‘I’ve come to deliver your Valentine’s present,’ he smiles, revealing a gold tooth.
‘Yeah, and it ain’t a Valentine’s card either,’ says one of the younger men.
‘Ow rude of me,’ continues Jack. ‘Where’s me manners? I didn’t introduce me lads, Babyface Jack and Mad Jack Junior.’
He smiles while slapping his hand on the shoulder of each son in turn.
‘But it’s not Valentine’s Day,’ says Julian.
‘I like to be early,’ smiles Diamond.
‘Yeah, I like to be early,’ repeats Babyface Jack.
‘You needn’t have worried,’ mutters Julian.
‘Cat got your tongue Julian?’ asks Jack as he winks at Mad Jack Junior.
‘Of course, we could arrange for you to lose your tongue,’ says Mad Jack.
Julian struggles to lick his lips, not wanting to expose his tongue for too long so as not to draw attention to it. Oh God, this is a nightmare. His mobile rings and he tries to ignore it but it continues incessantly.
‘Someone loves yer,’ laughs Jack Diamond.
‘Yeah, someone loves yer,’ repeats Babyface Jack.
‘It’s been three months Julian, and you ain’t given me nothin’.’
‘Yeah, it’s been three months,’ echoes Babyface Jack, ‘and you ain’t given me nothin’.’
‘You’re taking a diabolical liberty you are,’ says Diamond.
‘Yeah, a diabolical liberty,’ repeats Babyface Jack.
‘It’s just I haven’t had it to give to you Jack …’ Julian looks from one Jack to the other, unsure of which Jack he should be addressing. Christ, how can they all have the same bloody name?
‘The restaurant has only just opened and things have been difficult,’ he apologises.
‘And yet I still make an effort to come ‘ere and give you a present. With Valentine’s Day coming up, ‘ow could I not? But I thinks you wanna give me your present first don’t yer Jules?’ says Diamond menacingly with a twitch of his shoulders. Julian cringes.
‘I, well … The thing is …’ begins Julian, his mouth growing drier.
‘That cake looks a bit of awright. Is that for me? I’m touched.’
Julian nods dumbly. Jack sighs.
‘Shall I remind yer what your little present should be? And it ain’t a frigging iced cake.’
He beckons to Babyface.
‘Yeah, shall we remind yer what your little present should be,’ says Babyface, giving Jack the note.
‘Will you stop frigging repeating everything I say,’ growls Diamond.
‘I’m not frigging repeating everything you say.’
‘So Julian, it’s been three months now and …’
‘I’m only behind with one month,’ breaks in Julian.
The three Jacks stare at him menacingly.
‘You disagreeing with me mate?’
Julian shakes his head,
‘So, you owes me, with interest …’ He glances at the piece of paper and Julian holds his breath as Jack reads from the note.
‘Two chicken breasts, a tin of tomatoes and a pint of milk?’
Julian looks up questioningly.
‘What the hell is this Babyface?’ demands Jack.
‘Sorry, that’s Mum’s shopping list, she said …’
‘I don’t give a toss what she said.’
Jack slaps him across the head and the man whimpers. Julian winces and takes another step back. They all wait while Babyface Jack composes himself and produces the right note.
‘Kids, you see how I indulge ‘em? Now, you owes me twenty grand plus interest, which is?’ he looks again at Babyface.
‘I dunno but I bet it’s a lot,’ says Babyface, turning to Julian. ‘You scumbag, we should cut off your ear and send it to your mother for not paying us.’
Jack Diamond grunts.
‘I’ll cut off your sodding ear and send it to your bleedin’ mother if you don’t give me those sodding figures,’ he snarls at Babyface.
Babyface Jack pulls a mobile from his pocket and punches numbers into a calculator. Jack Diamond fidgets uncomfortably while they wait and Julian wonders if he can make a run for it.
‘Well?’ asks Jack.
Babyface wrinkles his forehead in concentration.
‘The creep owes us, with interest, thirty thousand quid and ten pence.’
‘We should smash your skull in you tight-fisted loser,’ says Mad Jack, kicking over the coffee table.
Jack Diamond sighs.
‘Ave some respect Mad Jack, now pick that up. Sorry about that Jules. I blame their mother. You should see ‘er in a temper. It’s bleedin’ worse than an ‘orror film.’
‘That can’t be right,’ says Julian. ‘There is no way it’s that much even with the interest. You’ve calculated it wrong.’
There is silence.
‘What I mean is, I don’t owe the ten pence,’ Julian adds quickly.
‘You saying you owe us less, you pilchard,’ snarls Babyface. ‘You saying my phone don’t know ‘ow to add up?’
‘You saying my son’s an idiot? No one calls my son an idiot, Julian.’
‘You do Dad,’ argues Babyface Jack.
‘Shut up,’ snarls Jack, clipping him round the ear. ‘That’s different.’
Mad Jack Junior sniggers as Jack Diamond pulls a penknife from his pocket. Julian swallows.
‘I’m not calling him an idiot,’ Julian adds frantically, ‘in fact, I think he is a genius.’
‘You do, do yer,’ says Babyface, pulling his shoulders back. ‘You got a death wish or something?’
Jack pushes Julian back against the wall and holds the knife to his throat.
‘No one calls my son a genius, do you understand? Not even me. And Christ knows if he was one I’d know. So, don’t insult my intelligence.’
‘Bloody hell,’ groans Julian quietly. They’re fucking lunatics. He begins to move and Diamond grabs him again.
‘I’m giving you twenty-four ‘ours Julian. But I need a present now.’
‘Oh God, not my ear, please don’t send my ear to my mother.’
‘I was thinking more of that nice shiny motor you’ve got outside and we’ll see what else we can find in this lovely little flat of yours shall we?’
He turns to his sons.
‘Trash the joint.’
Mad Jack opens a gym bag and removes a baseball bat.
‘Oh Christ,’ groans Julian.
He lifts it high into the air and is about to bring it down onto the glass coffee table.
‘Aven’t you forgotten something?’ Jack asks exasperated
‘No, I don’t think so,’ replies Mad Jack.
‘We don’t wanna upset the neighbours do we?’
‘You want me to slit their throats first?’ suggests Mad Jack Junior.
‘Oh God,’ groans Julian.
‘No, I want you to put on some music so no one will ‘ear you doing the ‘ousework.’
Mad Jack nods as Diamond pulls a shaky Julian into the kitchen.
‘How about a nice cuppa and a piece of that cake you made me Jules? Did I ever tell yer about the nice tea party I ‘ad with Fat Tessie when he owed me money?’
The booming strains of Lady Gaga drown out Jack Diamond’s words but Julian hears enough to groan Oh God one more time.
Don’t you just hate people who are always on time? Even worse are those people who aren’t only on time but fifteen minutes early. Totally unexpected buggers aren’t they? There you are in the middle of a quickie and they turn up on your doorstep, and you’re staring at them with that post orgasmic flush on your face as you accept their bunch of carnations and bottle of plonk. Not that Julian and I often have quickies before people come to dinner you understand, just in case you think we do, but you know what I mean. The only quickie you’ll catch us doing fifteen minutes before guests arrive is sieving lumps out of the cheese sauce. Lumpy cheese sauce is a speciality of mine. As for me, I am late for just about everything. I just can’t seem to get anywhere on time no matter how hard I try, and believe me, I try. I’m trying pretty hard right now. Julian, however, is one of those people who is always on time and I imagine he is well on his way to the church by now.
‘I’ll meet you at the church. Try not to be late,’ he had said with a wink, knowing full well I would be.
Meanwhile, I’m desperately trying to bungle Celia Blakely out of the laundrette where I work so I can finish my shift, change, and get to my friend, Silvia’s, wedding.
‘So, I said to Mr Newman, you know Mr Newman don’t you?’
I don’t know Mr Newman in the least and I am beginning to wonder if I actually want to.
‘He lives just up the road. His wife was …’
She leans closer and I shift slightly so I can hear her while continuing to unload the dryer.
‘Having it with Mr Douglas from number thirty-three.’
‘Oh,’ I say, folding the towels and placing them into her laundry bag.
‘She went to the Isle of Dogs with him. Well, I said to Mr Newman she can go to the dogs a woman like that. We don’t want the likes of her here in Battersea do we?’
I shake my head and glance at the clock. I’m going to be so late. I find myself wondering if Julian and I might have it later. A wedding always gets you in the mood doesn’t it? Lots of slow dances and champagne, and Julian in a nice fresh smelling shirt and I can see myself getting quite turned on. After all it seems like ages since we have.
‘Where’s this wedding you’re going to?’
‘St John’s Wood, it’s a bit of a posh one. My mum used to clean at their house when I was little and I used to play with their girl. I’ve got to get the bus when I clock off here.’
She grabs the washing bag and hands me ten pounds.
‘Here’s a little extra. Get a taxi. I know you’re struggling with that café and your studies.’
Café? God, Julian would have a hundred canary fits if he heard the restaurant being called a café.
‘Oh no, I couldn’t Celia.’
‘Don’t argue, just take it. It’s your birthday soon, ain’t it?’
‘Yeah, tomorrow actually. Thanks Celia, I’ll pay you back. Honest.’
‘I wouldn’t want it back.’
I see her to the door and rush to the back room to change, tapping Julian’s number into my mobile as I go. It rings and rings and finally goes to voicemail. Shit, he is probably at the church already. I pull off my stripy laundrette overall and study myself in the cracked back room mirror and slip on my new scarlet satin dress. It’s not strictly new of course. I bought it at Oxfam, but it’s perfect. I expect Alistair will quip something about The Waltons when he sees it. A quick shake of my shaggy blonde hair and a stroke of mascara transform me. I look critically at my reflection and sigh. Not enough time to achieve my normal Kate Moss look. Who I am I kidding? I clip a diamante slide into my hair and swipe Sugar Kiss Red lipstick over my full lips and stroke Rosy Red blusher onto my cheeks and sigh. Not bad I suppose. Of course, I’m sure I could look sensational if I had that Bobbi Brown stuff that Fiona uses. I’m so knackered. The last thing I need is a wedding, and a posh one at that. I slip on my trainers, as they are easier for running, and throw my red satin sling backs into a carrier bag. Clutching my woollen shawl, I open the door.
‘Bye Maud,’ I shout to my boss.
My mobile trills and I fumble in my bag. It’s Sid, my landlord.
‘Harriet, I hate to phone you darling. I’ve tried Julian but I’m not getting an answer. I’m sure it’s a silly mistake. Just a bloody oversight but as it happened last month I just thought I should check all is okay.’
What happened last month? I look down the street for a taxi.
‘Sorry, what’s that Sid?’
‘Julian’s bank isn’t paying the standing order for the rent. I’m sure it’s a mix up again, like last month.’
I feel my stomach lurch.
‘Last month?’ I say my voice rising.
I sense his embarrassment.
‘Not to worry babe, I’ll try him again. We’ll get it sorted. He said he would settle last month‘s rent and this month by the end of last week, but I think he must have used the wrong account again. Not to worry huh?’
‘I’ll speak to him. We’re at a wedding today. But I’ll get him to sort it tomorrow for you. I’m sure it’s just a mix up like you say.’
I hang up and push the conversation to the back of my mind. Sid’s right I’m sure. It’s just a silly mix up. Right, all I need now is to hail a taxi and that’s no mean feat. I’ll probably have to flash them. Oh well, there’s a first time for everything.
* * *
‘This is it,’ I tell the taxi driver as I slip on my new Shoezone stilettos.
‘That’s twenty quid darling.’
‘What? You’ve got to be kidding. That’s bleeding extortion more like,’ I quip fumbling in my purse. ‘What a liberty.’
I reluctantly hand over the money and dash through the church gates, struggling with the strap of one of my sandals as I go. That will teach me to buy cheap. I wobble on one foot and fiddle with the strap when I feel a hand on my arm.
‘Can I help with this?’
I turn to the voice and come face to face with a very striking man. In fact, he is so good looking he sends an ache through me. He’s wearing a dinner suit and his white shirt complements his tanned skin. His warm hazel eyes twinkle with amusement and a small smile flickers over his face. His voice is soft but clear and seems to have a hint of laughter in it. Is he mocking me, or is it just his manner? He holds out his arm and I lean gently on it and adjust my shoe strap while trying to ignore the fact that my breathing has quickened. His arm feels warm and sends a tingle down my spine.
‘Ta very much,’ I say gratefully, removing my hand as quickly as possible before I end up ripping off his shirt.
Blimey, I haven’t felt this randy in months. He nods towards the church where the organ is playing softly.
‘I think they’ve started,’ he says in his soft cultured voice.
I do believe I have lost the power of speech, bloody hell, that’s a first.
‘Shall we?’ he asks, heading towards the church.
Ooh, I’d love to but I’m not so sure a church is an appropriate place. For a split second I imagine him without that white shirt and feel myself go weak at the knees. I follow meekly, slipping in quietly at the back. I spot Fiona and Alistair but Julian is not with them, and I can see no sign of him. I love the smell of churches. I couldn’t tell you why. They are kind of sweet and musty all together. Although right now this church smells of Chanel perfume, Pierre Cardin aftershave and rose petals. There is also a faint smell of baby vomit which I am trying to ignore. I love weddings too. I don’t care where they are, I just like the atmosphere. Church weddings are best of course. The atmosphere in a registry office is nowhere near as holy is it? I’d like to get married in a church, not that Julian and I have ever talked about marriage even though we’ve been together for three years. And let’s face it, we can barely afford to eat at the moment, let alone plan a wedding. We never seem to have time to discuss our relationship. Either I’m dashing out to work, or panicking to finish a study assignment and you don’t normally bring up the subject of marriage as you’re tumbling out of bed or flying through the kitchen waving a piece of Marmite-smeared toast. Julian is working hard getting his restaurant going and if we are both home at the same time we are so knackered that we barely exchange more than twenty words. When it’s time for bed we are normally out for the count in seconds. Our sex life isn’t riveting but then whose is after three years? Mind you, my sister Caron and her boyfriend are at it nine to the dozen, or so she would have me believe, and they’ve been together for four years. It would be exciting though, I don’t mean not going at it nine to the dozen, although that would be pretty exciting if I could just get up the energy. No, I mean getting married would be exciting. I look down at my dress and feel my head again to check the diamante slide is still there. All the other women are wearing huge hats and fabulous dresses and I feel just a touch underdressed. I’m not good at top hat and tails weddings. I love my friends but I feel so out of place with some of them. I bet these guests didn’t buy their outfits from Oxfam. I pull the dress gently from my newly pierced navel and adjust my bra slightly. I love Oxfam. I don’t know what I would do without it, not that I want people to continually starve, I mean that obviously goes without saying, but charity shops are a godsend to people like me. It’s just a shame they don’t sell cheap food.
The wedding march roaring from the organ snaps me out of my daydream. I turn to see the bride enter, but am acutely aware of the good-looking man beside me and the fresh clean smell that comes from him. I gasp as Silvia glides down the aisle in her beautiful Vera Wang wedding dress.
‘She looks amazing,’ I sigh.
‘She looks okay,’ says the man beside me.
I gape at him.
‘You’re kidding, that’s a Vera Wang dress. I’d die for a Vera Wang dress.’
Oh God, I sound so shallow. I give him a sideways glance and try to guess his age. I’ve never been good with ages but at a guess I’d say he was early thirties. I wonder if his wife/girlfriend and Julian are stuck somewhere together. There is absolutely no way this sex god is single.
‘I like your dress,’ he says softly, looking into my eyes.
‘You do?’ I say surprised. ‘It was a fiver in Oxfam …’ I bite my lip. What am I saying? I don’t need any help in making a bad impression do I?
‘Alistair always thinks I look like crap. He’s dead embarrassed to be seen with me,’ I whisper.
‘Is Alistair your boyfriend?’
‘Heavens no, I’d rather slash my wrists …’ (heavens instead)
He must think me so common.
‘He’s my friend’s partner,’ I say, pointing at Fiona a few rows ahead, ‘but he’s a bit rude. My boyfriend Julian hasn’t arrived yet,’ I say quickly, although I’m not sure why.
‘I’m Brice Edmunds by the way.’
Brice? I should have known he would have a sexy name.
‘Harriet Lawson,’ I reply, wishing it were something much grander.
There is a hushed silence as the vicar begins the service. It is so unlike Julian to be late. Forty-five minutes later and it is all over and we are applauding Silvia and Hugh as they leave the church. I make my way outside and wait for Fi and Alistair while searching for Julian. Brice passes me and smiles. He could stop hearts with that smile. I spot Fiona and Alistair and head towards them. My God, his flies are undone. I’m so preoccupied with Alistair’s trousers that I send myself sprawling as my heel tangles in my dress. Fiona catches me and wraps me in a tight embrace. Thank God for a familiar face, (goodness)although it would have been much nicer had it been Julian’s.
‘On time as always,’ Alistair quips sarcastically. ‘There is something c-c-comforting about your consistent lateness.’
‘Hello Alistair, you look nice, like the Y-fronts.’
Fiona follows my eyes to Alistair’s zipper.
‘Christ Alistair, your flies are undone. Do something before that Jeremy guy sees you.’
‘What Jeremy guy?’ Alistair asks while fumbling with the zipper.
‘Over there. He’s a Lord or Sir or something. Anyway, zip your flies up for Christ’s sake.’
I peer at the man.
‘I don’t think he is,’ I say.
‘Are you sure? He looks familiar,’ she says.
‘That’s because he’s the parking attendant at Homebase,’ sighs Alistair.
I narrow my eyes.
‘He’s right you know,’ I say.
‘Are you sure? What’s he doing here?’
‘P-p-parking cars,’ huffs Alistair. ‘I wish you would wear your contact lenses. Honestly you’ll be curtsying to parking attendants before we know where we are.’
‘I do wear them. I’m just so tired and they make my eyes sore. I was sure my glasses were in my bag. I feel like I’m jet lagged. You know, that ‘when you’re not here’ feeling?’
‘I’m rather wishing I wasn’t. I feel like a sodding wallflower,’ I say looking around desperately for Julian.
‘A scarlet w-w-wallflower,’ sneers Alistair. ‘It’s a w-w-wedding you know, not a b-b-bloody period drama.’
What a cheek, some people just don’t appreciate individualism do they?
‘Bloody things,’ he mumbles yanking the zip up.
‘You look lovely,’ Fiona assures me. ‘I love the snap pearl buttons on that dress.’
‘You don’t think it’s a bit, you know, Little House on the Prairie?’ I say feeling self-conscious.
‘A little bit?’ sneers Alistair. ‘That’s an understatement.’
‘Ignore him, he wouldn’t know style if it bit him on the arse,’ Fiona says glaring at Alistair.
‘Have you seen Julian?’ I ask. ‘He should have been here ages ago. I’m sure he left well before I did. You know how he likes to be on time.’
‘Most people like to be on time,’ says Alistair.
‘I can’t see anybody without my contacts,’ moans Fiona, ‘let alone Julian. He’s probably got held up at the restaurant.’
I shake my head sending a pearl drop earring flying.
‘I’ve tried the restaurant, and his mobile, and he isn’t answering either. I’ve only brought a cheap card with me. He’s supposed to be bringing the present.’
‘I imagine he’s still bombing it down the A40 in your Mini,’ says Alistair casually.
I stare at him.
‘That’s just the thing. Alistair swears he saw Julian bombing it down the A40 in your Mini. I said that’s not possible. It’s completely the wrong way, and your Mini won’t do more than forty,’ says Fiona.
‘Not with an empty tank it won’t. That’s why I got a taxi here. I forgot about petrol. I don’t mean I forgot that the car takes petrol, of course. I’m not that dippy.’
‘That’s a relief,’ quips Alistair.
I shoot him a dirty look.
‘I just forgot I was on the red and I’m flat broke. Bombing it down the A40, are you sure he was in the Pooch? The thing will blow up.’
‘I don’t think it is p-p-possible to mistake your Mini. You know that distinctive whining sound that says Harriet’s Mini?’
Why on earth would Julian be ragging the Pooch down the A40 when he’s got his new van? I hope the wheels weren’t nicked from it. That’s all we need. The past nine months have been shit. Every single penny going into Julian’s dream of setting up a French restaurant which, so far, has not done very well at all. If it wasn’t for our friends eating there we wouldn’t have broken even. I’ve seriously started considering selling a kidney. Julian’s obviously, not mine. I’m not that crazy. After all, we could survive on three between the two of us. In fact, maybe I could sell off bits of Julian’s body until he has the restaurant up and running and I have all my studies paid for. Although, strictly speaking, not all our money has gone into the venture. I have been secretly squirrelling away some of my earnings. I decided from the start that one of us needed to put a little by and I’m so glad I did. I need to pay for the next part of my tuition fees as I am not planning to work in a laundrette all my life. I can’t help worrying though, what earthly reason would Julian have for racing down the A40 in my Mini? Come to think of it why is he ragging it down the A40 at all when the church is the opposite way? Still, Julian always did have a terrible sense of direction. All the same, it’s a bit odd. Julian would never be late unless there was a good reason.
‘It’s not like Julian to be late,’ I say voicing my concerns.
‘There’s a f-f-first time for everything,’ says Alistair.
‘It’s dead posh this wedding isn’t it?’ says Fiona, breaking into my thoughts. ‘There are Lords and MPs and everything. It’s a real high-class do isn’t it? They’re all big knobs.’
‘Is that a fact? Perhaps you should keep an eye on that zip Alistair. You don’t want people making comparisons,’ I laugh.
Fiona snorts and quickly turns away. Alistair scowls and storms off.
‘God, what’s wrong with him?’
‘He’s tired. He’s putting a lot of hours in at the office. We both are. Honestly, what with the rent and food …’
‘What’s food?’ I quip.
‘Oh come on Harriet, things aren’t that bad surely.’
‘No, that’s true. There are my mum’s scraps after all.’
‘C-c-come on,’ calls Alistair.
‘He’s not stammering much today, that’s good isn’t it?’
‘He’s taken a Valium,’ she says with a sigh and grabs my arm. ‘Come on, lead me to the reception. I can’t see a sodding thing beyond my hand without my contacts, and you know how I hate wearing glasses.’