The Pride was a rustic, country pub, with low beamed ceilings and a great fireplace which Joy could imagine sitting by in the winter months, chatting with her new friends. Zach and Casey were funny and friendly and the fact that she wouldn’t be getting involved with either of them made things very easy and comfortable between them. She would just have to ignore the way her heart raced every time Zach brushed against her or looked at her.
The unfriendliness of the locals didn’t seem to be a problem either. Chloe, standing behind the bar and serving them, was as overenthusiastic as a puppy. She was sweet and had a huge smile that lit up her entire face.
‘So you’re friends with Zach?’ Chloe said, finally diverting her attention from the man himself, as he chatted with her.
‘She’s my friend actually,’ Casey said and Joy was thrown by the slight protective tone to his voice.
Zach obviously picked up on the tone as well and he slid an arm round Joy’s waist, clearly trying to piss his brother off or make him jealous. Little did he know. ‘He’s always been the same Joy, never wanted to share his toys.’ He turned back to Chloe. ‘Joy’s just moved in next door, so I’m just showing her the sights, making her feel welcome.’
Chloe let out a girly, high-pitched giggle, twisting her hair round her finger.
Joy looked around at the scattering of customers. Was it her imagination or did the pub suddenly go quieter when Zach announced that she had moved in next door? They were bound to be curious about any newcomers to their tiny village, but the room seemed colder all of a sudden. Although a nearby pair of older men were seemingly focused on a game of chess, and three old ladies – all supping pints of dark coloured bitter and wearing thick woolly cardigans, despite the heat of the night – were chatting quietly in a small booth. None of them seemed to be interested in her. She must have imagined it.
Sitting in the corner, reading a paper, was Finn Mackenzie. And there it was, the huge tidal wave of desire crashing over her again. She could see why Casey was head over heels in love with him. The permanent scowl did nothing to detract from his appearance.
She hadn’t made the best first impression on him. But even if she wasn’t his type, they should at least be civil to each other for the sake of neighbourly relations. She turned back to Chloe.
‘Can I get a pint of whatever Finn is drinking?’
Casey and Zach sucked in their breath.
‘Seriously, you really want to go there?’ Zach said.
‘This is not going to be pretty.’ Casey shook his head in warning.
‘Look, I’m not chatting the man up. I just think we started off on the wrong foot after I got ice cream all down him earlier. If we’re going to live next to each other, it makes sense that we can at least be on talking terms.’
Chloe put a pint of bitter on the bar. ‘Good luck.’
‘When he shoots you down, we’ll be over in the corner.’ Zach gestured to the part of the pub that was the furthest away from Finn.
A smile and a free pint went a long way with most men, so she picked up the bitter and walked over to him.
‘Finn, hi,’ she said, gaining his attention. His eyes cast over her for a second, before he returned his gaze to the paper again. She was undeterred – determined to get one civil word from him, she pressed on. ‘Look I know we started badly, but I’m sure we can at least be polite when we see each other. I’m Joy Cartier and…’
‘I don’t care,’ he said, without even looking up.
Annoyed, she stepped closer. ‘I’m not hitting on you and I know I’m not your type but…’
He looked up, appraising her with what appeared to be a look of disgust. ‘You’ve got that right; you are most definitely not my type. Now I suggest you run along back to your friends.’
He turned back to the paper again and Joy felt her jaw clenching at the dismissal. She slammed the bitter down on top of his newspaper, so it splashed over the glass, soaking the article he was reading. ‘You’re welcome.’
With that she turned and stormed back to the warmer side of the pub.
Finn watched her go. The girl could certainly flounce. The black dress she was wearing seemed to flounce as well; it shook dramatically around her bum and legs as she moved. Damn it. He didn’t like short women. He was so big that kissing someone small was always a problem. And redheads? No way, not again. He would just ignore the flash of heat that surged through him when she had walked over.
Joy Cartier though, not Jo Carter as everyone thought. Joy Cartier from Ascot. So she was rich. She probably had a pony called Princess and a butler called James. Even the way she said Cartier screamed of wealth, not Car-te-er but Car-te-yay. She drove a Range Rover too, big flashy thing that had probably never seen a fleck of mud in its life. He didn’t like snobs.
As she walked, the eyes of every single person in the pub followed her. They weren’t friendly either, some glared at her with mistrust, but most eyes were filled with pure venomous hatred.
He pushed away the sudden need to protect her. He forced his eyes away from her and back to his paper. The ale stain was spreading slowly across the article about The Dark Shadow that he had been avidly reading. He tried to pick out the words through the watery mess. He would not get involved.
Joy knew she had a big, stupid grin on her face. Apart from the cretin in the corner, life in the tiny village had started just as she had imagined it would. She already had two friends and was sitting in her local, putting the world to rights. Zach was very funny and, as Casey said, very charming and attentive. Finn was a git, but she wouldn’t let that spoil her mood.
Casey got up to get another round in, coincidentally at the same time that Finn went to the bar. As the appreciative gaze from Zach returned, Joy excused herself to go to the toilet.
It was as she was washing her hands that Chloe came into the toilet behind her. Joy turned round to speak to her, but she was thrown by the look on her face. Gone was the giddy over exuberance and huge smile – her eyes were dark, filled with hate.
Chloe grabbed Joy by the scruff of the neck and threw her against the wall. Pain seared through her as something stabbed into the back of her shoulder. Joy reacted instinctively, without thought. Her self-defence teacher had taught her well and in that moment when the mind was still processing the attack, her body seemingly reacted by itself. She kneed Chloe hard in the stomach and as she staggered back, Joy kicked her legs out from under her and slammed her into the floor, pinning her down with her foot to her chest.
She hadn’t meant to do that. But as Chloe struggled against her, she didn’t think it was safe to let her up any time soon.
‘What’s your problem?’ Joy said, concerned by the amount of blood that was pouring down her arm. She looked round to see some kind of nail or picture hook hanging out of the wall, which Chloe had inadvertently thrown her against.
‘Zach’s mine,’ Chloe growled.
‘Seriously!! You’ve just attacked me over Zach? Honey, I have absolutely no interest in Zach whatsoever. Casey has already warned me off him, says he’s with a different woman every week. I have no desire to be another notch on his bedpost. I’ve just moved next door to him, that’s all.’
‘He loves me. Those other women mean nothing to him. He’s just sowing his seed. When he’s finished, he’ll come back to me. You’ll see. He’s mine, so keep your filthy hands off him.’
Joy shook her head at the lack of comprehending on Chloe’s part. ‘And you’re welcome to him.’
‘And Casey is with one of my friends, so you can’t have him.’
‘He…? Erm… I’m not interested in Casey either.’ That was a turn up for the books.
‘The man’s an arse, I’m definitely not interested in him.’
All the fight seemed to go out of Chloe. ‘Zach does love me.’
Still not sure whether to let her up, Joy kept her foot on Chloe’s chest a moment longer. ‘I’m sure he does.’
The toilet door suddenly opened and another lady that worked behind the bar came in. Joy presumed she was the pub landlady. She was a large, short woman who would look right at home on a rugby field.
‘What the hell is going on here?’
Joy thought this might be an opportune moment to let Chloe off the floor. ‘Just a difference of opinion, right Chloe? I think we’ve sorted things out now.’
Chloe scrabbled up, clearly still winded by the knee to the stomach, and shot Joy a filthy look. ‘She attacked me Pam, said I was to stay away from Zach, she just threw me to the ground for no reason.’
Joy opened her mouth to protest, but stopped. The landlady’s face was like an open book. Joy could tell that Pam knew Chloe was lying, Pam clearly knew of Chloe’s inappropriate infatuation for a man who didn’t return her feelings, and she had already seen the blood trickling down Joy’s arm. But Pam had already decided whose side she was on, and it wasn’t the side where the customer was always right.
‘How dare you come into my pub and attack my staff like this. Get out now.’
Pam took a threatening step towards her and, recognising that that was one fight she certainly didn’t want to have, Joy held up her hands in a symbol of defeat and surrender. ‘I’m going.’
‘And don’t you dare show your face in this pub again.’
Joy scooted out, past Pam and into the pub. She hurried over to Zach’s table and grabbed her jacket.
‘Hey, where you going? I’ve just bought you a drink.’ Casey said, as he sat back down.
‘I’ve got to go. Sorry, you boys stay here, enjoy your evening. Don’t worry about me.’
‘Are you ok?’ Zach stood up, suddenly filled with concern. ‘You’re bleeding. Here, let me walk you back.’
She edged to the door. ‘No, I’m fine. My house is only a minute away. I’ll be fine. Stay here, please and finish your drinks.’
With concerned looks from both of them, she hurried out the pub.
Finn glared at Joy as she ran out the pub. He felt annoyed by the protective feelings she provoked in him.
Chloe was about as unhinged as Kathy Bates’s character in Misery so when he had seen her stalking into the bathroom after Joy, he’d known it was going to lead to some confrontation. He had to physically stop himself from going into the bathroom after them. He was shocked to see Joy hurrying out of the bathroom a few minutes later, bleeding and shaken, but stunned that Pam had to physically help Chloe out of the bathroom seconds after Joy had left. Little Joy Cartier had obviously given as good as she’d got. But he still had this need to go after her to make sure she was ok.
He would not get involved. That would only lead down one path and he wasn’t going to let that happen again.
His eyes flitted to Mrs Brannigan who was hurriedly finishing her pint and heading out the door after Joy. Albert Cole, with a dark look of venom in his eyes, met her at the door and with a mutual nod of understanding between them they quickly left.
Finn was already on his feet as he slammed down the pint that he knew would now go to waste. He cursed Joy for making him care and stormed out of the pub after them.
Outside, Joy slipped off her shoes and leaving her jacket on top of them, she walked down to the edge of the small pond. Moonlight bathed the waters with silvery ribbons. The village was so quiet. There was not a single sound to be heard. It was a beautiful place and she was so desperate to finally find a place that she could call home. But now it seemed that Bramble Hill would go the same way as the other places she had tried, though she had never left because she had been involved in a fight before. She had thought the tiny little village would be the answer. London and the other big cities, where her neighbours had barely said two words to her for the entire time she had lived there, certainly hadn’t been.
She hadn’t even been here a day and she had alienated her neighbour by spilling ice cream down him, had a fight with a barmaid and been banned from her local. It wasn’t the rose-tinted start to village life she had hoped for. Suddenly she was pushed hard from behind and as she tumbled head first into the inky cold water she heard a man speak.
‘Piss off back to Ascot you little bitch,’
But then she also heard a far off shout that sounded like, ‘Oi, leave her alone.’
The coldness of the water was shocking against her hot skin, reeds closed around her like fingers, dragging her down as she fought against them to reach the surface. She gasped out as her head burst through the water and she struggled against the reeds to get to the side. She grabbed a log and pushed her hair out of her eyes, shivering against the cold.
Finn was standing on the edge of the pond, his expression thunderous and she wondered if he was capable of any other expression.
‘Oh very good, payback for me covering you with ice cream was it? A bit childish, but yes revenge is certainly a dish best served cold.’ She was trying to laugh it off, keep some dignity even though she looked like a drowned rat, but she had been shocked by the maliciousness of the push. She heaved herself out of the cold water and clambered up onto her knees, aware of pain in her ankle and shin. The heat of the night did nothing to stop the chill of the cold water on her skin.
‘It wasn’t me,’ he said.
She looked around; the village was quiet and deserted. ‘Well who then? The ghost of the pond perhaps. Oh was it Chloe?’
‘No she was still clutching her stomach when I left. People here are not going to take kindly to you after what you did.’
‘To Chloe? She attacked me, I just defended myself –’
‘I’m not talking about that nut job, everyone round here knows what’s she’s like – though beating her up certainly isn’t going to curry favour with the locals. I’m talking about Mrs Kemblewick.’
She looked up at him in confusion. He was a lot bigger than her, but from her position kneeling on the floor, the feeling of intimidation that seemed to seep from him was certainly more prevalent. She moved to get up, but quickly realised that the pain in her ankle was from a bad twist or sprain. She was determined that he wouldn’t know he had hurt her as well as soaking and embarrassing her, so she stayed where she was. She would wait till he had gone before she hobbled home. She shivered again.
‘Who’s Mrs Kemblewick?’
‘The lady you kicked out so you could move in. Classy, you don’t even know who was living there. Did Daddy’s solicitor handle everything for you?’
Her head was swimming with cold, confusion and pain and he clearly wasn’t going any time soon. She stood carefully, deliberately trying not to put any weight on her ankle. Her dress clung to her and she realised her bra had come undone at the back. To her absolute horror as she stood, one of her breasts fell out the top of her dress.
To her surprise, as she quickly scooped her breast back in, Finn’s coat was suddenly around her. It was huge, swamping her from neck to toe, making her feel like a child in her dad’s clothes. It was warm and smelt earthy.
She glared at him. ‘What the hell is wrong with you? You push me in the pond, then hang around so you can see how humiliated I am, give me some cryptic warning about some Mrs Kemblewick and then give me your coat because you suddenly feel guilty?’
‘As I said, it wasn’t me and if you don’t want my coat I’ll take it back.’
‘Fine.’ Joy shrugged out of it and passed it back to him, then wobbled a bit when she inadvertently put weight on her twisted ankle. Finn grabbed her arm to stop her falling back in.
Joy looked down at her shoulder. ‘I know, where Chloe attacked me, silly cow, threw me against a picture hook.’
‘I meant your shin.’
Joy glanced down and sure enough her shin was pouring with blood from a large gash just underneath her knee. Though the water was probably making it look worse than it was.
‘Just… go away Finn. You don’t like me; you’ve made that perfectly clear…’
Just then Casey came running down the banks towards them, closely followed by Zach.
‘What happened?! Joy, are you ok?’ Casey shrugged out of his jacket and wrapped it round her.
‘Someone pushed her in,’ Finn said.
‘Over Mrs Kemblewick?’ Casey said, rubbing her arms trying to get her warm.
Finn nodded then turned to walk away but stopped when he came face to face with Zach. If she thought the look of anger and hate that he had given her was bad enough, it was nothing in comparison to the look he gave Zach. It was pure venomous loathing. Zach stepped back under the weight of it, and with another filthy look in his direction, Finn stormed off.
Zach watched him go, then quickly moved to her side.
‘Are you hurt?’ he said, his arm round her shoulders.
‘No, not really – my ankle is twisted, I’ve cut my shin, but my pride is hurt more than anything.’
‘Here, lean on me, I’ll help you get back.’
Casey grabbed Joy’s shoes and jacket and with Zach supporting her she hobbled the short distance back to her house. On the way, she explained what had happened between her and Chloe and then with Finn and the pond.
‘It wasn’t Finn,’ Casey said, as he opened her front door for her. ‘I know he can be a moody sod, but there’s no way he would do that.’
Zach nodded. ‘Me and Finn don’t get on, as you no doubt saw, but I’d have to agree with Casey, Finn would never do something like that.’
Joy sighed as Zach helped her onto the sofa.
‘Then who, and more importantly why?’
Zach moved into the kitchen, probably to get some ice and Casey sat next to her.
‘My guess would be Albert Cole and Mrs Brannigan, they left the pub straight after you. I only thought it odd when Finn got up and went after them. He must have known something was wrong.’
Zach came back with a bowl of water and a towel. He knelt at her feet and started to clean up her cut. There was something about the way he ran the damp cloth up her leg that was incredibly intimate. His eyes were on hers as he moved the cloth over her and swallowing the desire to suddenly lean forward and kiss him, she tore her eyes from him and focused on Casey instead.
‘Who’s Mrs Kemblewick?’
‘A very sweet old lady that lived here for twenty years or more – so say the gossips.’ Casey said. ‘It seems she was the lover of the man that owned the house…’
‘Joe?’ That was a surprise. Her landlord was young, very good looking and had struck her as a bit of a ladies’ man. Who knew those ladies were of the elderly variety?
‘His father apparently, Eric Carter from Ascot. He would turn up two or three times a week, keep her entertained, so to speak. He died a few months ago, leaving the house to his child. Joe then gave Mrs Kemblewick notice that if she wanted to stay there she would have to start paying rent, seemingly paying rent in sexual favours for the last twenty years wasn’t going to cut it with the recently bereaved offspring. Mrs Kemblewick, having no income of her own, was forced into a retirement home. Something that the residents of Bramble Hill were less than impressed with. She died last week and I think the locals are baying for blood.’
Zach moved to sit on her other side, so he could clean up her shoulder.
‘We all thought that it was Joe Carter that was moving in. Or Jo as in Joanne. When you introduced yourself to me as Joy Cartier and told me you were renting, I knew we were going to have some problems. Though I didn’t expect this,’ Casey said.
‘Are you saying that my landlord Joe kicked out some old lady from her home and I’m now being punished for it?’
‘Sums it up, yes.’ Casey eyed his brother suspiciously over her shoulder.
Joy turned round to see what Zach was doing and regretted it immediately when she nearly clashed mouths with him. She shuffled away from him and he moved back as well.
‘Er… your cut to your shoulder is pretty deep and as it was a nail, I’d recommend getting a tetanus jab.’
She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘And what the hell is this thing with Chloe about?’
‘She is an absolute fruit loop. I slept with her, three, four years ago, just one drunken night. She’s been like my stalker ever since. I’ve made it clear that it was a one night only thing, that I’m not interested, but she won’t listen. Sorry about that. I’ll talk to her.’
‘So… that’s your thing is it, sleeping with a different woman each week, not worrying about the broken hearts you leave behind?’
‘Yes,’ Casey said. ‘She summed you up pretty quickly.’
‘With a little help from you no doubt.’ Zach glared at his brother. ‘I’m looking for love, Joy. It’s just very hard to find. And when you know that the person you’re with is not the one you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, there’s no point in continuing with it is there?’
His eyes were so honest and she suddenly felt like she’d found a kindred spirit. That’s what she had felt about all the places she had lived in over the last few years. She knew almost instantly that a place wasn’t going to be her home, so there seemed little point in sticking it out.
She felt her frown soften slightly. ‘I suppose not.’
She smirked when she heard Casey let out a sigh of exasperation behind her.
‘Listen both of you, get out. I need to think about how I’m going to persuade the village I’m really very lovely.’
Zach stood and with the sexy smile fixed back on his face, he moved towards the door. ‘I’m already persuaded.’
Casey rolled his eyes as he watched him go, then turned back to her. ‘You ok?’
He leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. ‘I’ll probably see you tomorrow.’
She smiled as she watched him go. Damn his sexual preference.
Finn was lying in bed when he heard Joy come upstairs and start to move about in her room. He switched the TV off and listened.
The four houses in Blackberry Row used to be two larger houses and were converted into four smaller cottages, many years before. He shared floorboards with Joy. Zach shared them with Mr and Mrs Butterworth. The split had been done very successfully downstairs, so that you would never know that it once had been one large house. But up in the smaller back bedroom, they had either run out of time, money or patience and the dividing wall between his and Joy’s houses was so thin that he could hear everything. This hadn’t been a problem when Mrs Kemblewick lived there. Her bedroom, the one she shared with the previous owner of the house, was the front one, so Finn didn’t get to hear their sexual antics two or three times a week. But Joy, it seemed, preferred the amazing view that the back bedroom gave, which was the very reason he had chosen it to sleep in too.
The wall was so thin, or built so badly, that he could even see a thin sliver of light underneath the skirting boards. He rolled over to his side to watch the shadows move around the room as she did, finding it oddly comforting to have her there.
He heard her on the phone, putting the person she was calling on loud speaker as she no doubt got undressed.
‘Hello my lovely,’ said a man’s voice, which gave Finn an unexpected surge of jealousy.
Alex. That was her brother.
‘How’s your first night going?’
Finn heard the hesitation in her voice. She clearly wanted to tell Alex all about Chloe and the pond incident and the nasty man next door, but she didn’t.
‘Joy, I know that tone, what’s happened? Is it that moody sod that you spilt ice cream over, is he giving you grief?’
Little did Alex know that the moody sod next door was the least of Joy’s worries.
‘No, well I don’t think I’m going to win him round with my famous apple pie, but … everything’s fine. I’ve met some other people, there’s Casey, he’s lovely. I may give him your number actually; you might be able to advise him on a few things.’
‘Well I’ll let him tell you all about it, it wouldn’t be fair for me to tell you. And I’ve met his brother Zach who lives the other side of me.’
There was a pause from Alex and Finn could hear the laughter in his voice when he spoke.
‘And Zach, is he lovely too?’
Joy laughed. ‘Yes he is, but by all accounts he’s a complete tart. Casey warned me off him, so I’m staying well clear. We can just be friends.’
‘Men and women can’t be friends.’
Finn nodded in agreement. He certainly didn’t want to be friends with Joy, because then it would be friends who would hang out together, friends that would kiss, friends that would… No it would be better all round if he stayed as the moody sod next door.
‘Sure they can. You’ve got lots of women friends,’ Joy said.
‘That’s because I’m gay. That’s like being an honorary female. Besides they know they’re never going to get anywhere with me, so they don’t have to worry about impressing me or making me jealous, they can just be themselves. That’s the only time male/female friendships works. You can sort of be friends with the husband of a female friend, that’s ok as long as the female friend is laidback enough or comfortable enough in their relationship not to get all jealous and psycho every time the two of you speak. Other than that, being friends with a man doesn’t work, especially not when you’re both single and both attracted to each other.’
‘Well I’m going to prove you wrong. Absolutely nothing is going to happen between me and Zach.’
‘How much do you want to bet?’
‘A million pounds.’
Finn sat up. Bloody hell. Was she that rich that she could so easily bandy about that kind of money?
‘Anyway, I’m going to sleep now, that’s if I can shift Darcy off the bed, she’s slept all afternoon, lazy sod.’
‘Joy, are you sure you’re ok?’
‘I’m fine, everything’s okay. Goodnight. I love you.’
‘Love you too, kid.’
There was a beep to indicate the call had finished and then there was a heavy sigh.
‘Yeah, everything’s fine Al, the moody sod next door hates me, the locals are going to run me out of the town with pitchforks and burning torches, I was pushed in a pond, had a fight with a barmaid and I’m now covered in so many cuts and bruises I look like I’ve had a run in with Mike Tyson. Yeah everything is absolutely fine.’ She sighed again. ‘Shift your arse Darcy, you big fatty.’
There was the sound of the bed creaking, the light went out and then silence.
Finn lay back on his pillow. She’d not had the best start to village life and he was part of the reason for that. He couldn’t help feeling guilty. The villagers were going to make her life hell; he didn’t need to add to it. In fact, he was probably the only one that could stop it. His position in the village as local celebrity should be able to afford him some weight in these matters. But then again, her moving out wouldn’t be such a bad thing either. Then he could just go back to his uncomplicated life.
Suddenly there was the sound of a really loud fart.
He sat up in surprise. Surely not.
‘Darcy, I swear, if that stinks, I’m shoving a cork up your bum.’
He smiled to himself. Maybe having her next door wouldn’t be so bad after all. Just as long as they weren’t friends.
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