The Flower Seller

By Ellie Holmes

Romance, General fiction

Paperback, eBook

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539
3 mins

JANUARY


Chapter One


Perhaps, if she was lucky, he wouldn’t turn up. Jessie Martin looked towards the door of the burger bar as it opened. A gaggle of teenagers entered and her heart rate eased. She went back to nudging the plastic spoon round the cup of tea in front of her, watching the bubbles as they formed and joined before bursting at the cup’s rim.

A waitress came to clear the neighbouring table. Jessie felt the weight of her stare, imagining herself through the young girl’s eyes: a businesswoman who had wandered into the wrong world.

Jessie was the first to look away. It had been a mistake to choose this place. Her desire for anonymity had won out over common sense. This was a world where the manager was a boy no older than her own daughter and all the customers still had their mistakes ahead of them. Did they even know how lucky they were?

Conscious that the waitress was still watching, Jessie picked up her tea and blew on it, making the bubbles spin. Better to drink and risk being scalded than just sit and stare at it.

Beyond the plate-glass window the Essex market town of Abbeyleigh was in the icy grip of winter. It might have been lunchtime but the snow-filled clouds hung so low that the light was already leaching away. It was not a day to be outside and yet Jessie longed to rejoin the grim-faced people jousting with their umbrellas on the high street. Her desk, a sandwich and her paper had never seemed more inviting. I’ll give him one more minute.

It had been her daughter Hannah’s idea to put an advert in the Abbeyleigh Gazette. ‘It’s time to take yourself out of your comfort zone, Mum. Why don’t you get Anne to give you a hand with the ad?’

Sucked into the vortex of her daughter’s enthusiasm, Jessie had agreed before she could talk herself out of it.

‘So, what have you got so far?’ Anne had asked over margaritas in Spike’s Bar.

‘Newly single brunette, slim, attractive, early forties, non-smoker, good sense of humour, would like to meet man thirties/forties for friendship and maybe more,’ Jessie read aloud. Anne pretended to fall asleep and Jessie slapped her arm.

‘Bit dull, sweetie!’ Anne said with a smile. ‘For starters, you should put early thirties. Everyone knocks a few years off. And do you really want to say slim? It’s practically shorthand for flat-chested and you’re not. How about “great figure” instead?’

‘That’s a bit conceited, isn’t it?’

Anne threw her a look. ‘It’s an advert, Jessie. You’re meant to be selling yourself.’

‘Blimey! I’ll just get some fishnets and a red light, shall I?’

‘You know what I mean. You should put something in there about being outgoing. That usually leads to some interesting propositions.’

‘But I’m not outgoing,’ Jessie said.

‘For goodness’ sake, outgoing just means you’re up for a bit of fun. I’m not suggesting for a moment that you put “open-minded”. Now that would lead to some replies that would make your hair stand on end. And obviously your WLTM has to be a man in his late twenties or early thirties.’

‘Has to be? This is my advert, remember? Not yours!’

Anne smirked. ‘So you’d prefer “Recently dumped flat-chested brunette, early forties, lives life with the handbrake on, would like to meet man forties/fifties for visits to the library”?’

‘I’d prefer not to be doing it at all.’

Anne squeezed her hand. ‘I know, sweetie. And you can stick another pin in your effigy of William when you get home but right now we need to get you back out there before life passes you by.’

The day the advert went live, Anne had texted. ‘I see you held on to the word “slim” and eschewed “outgoing”, “adventurous” or “fun”. You can lead a horse to water . . .’

‘I wanted the ad to have some integrity. I did put late thirties . . .’

‘Well, I hope your integrity keeps you warm at night.’

Now, Jessie took another sip of her tea. The notion that a person could find love through an advert was, to her mind, faintly ridiculous. A second-hand car or a nice pine table maybe. But love? Most people went to parties, art galleries or museums. Only desperate people resorted to an advert in the paper.

But I am desperate. Desperately lonely. And my date, if he ever turns up, can’t afford to be superior. After all, answering an ad is almost as bad as placing one.

Jessie’s heart thumped at the prospect of coming face-to-face with the man she had so far only spoken to over the telephone. Barry Sturridge was a farmer two years her senior.

Would she like him? Would he like her? She tilted her cup and watched the tea pitch back and forth. What if they hit it off and a few weeks down the line they wanted to have sex? What would that first night be like with someone new?

She had been a teenager the last time she’d had firstnight sex but the awkward excitement of it all was still terrifyingly real. And she hadn’t had cellulite to worry about back then. She pushed the tea away.

Glancing at her wedding ring, Jessie silently berated her husband. This is all your fault, William! I wouldn’t be sitting here if you hadn’t betrayed me. ‘I’ll love you forever,’ that’s what you said. And I believed you. Her anger spiked as she remembered the day William had left.

‘What do you mean you won’t give me a divorce?’ he’d asked, dumbfounded.

They had been standing in the hall of The Lodge, the home they had shared for a lifetime, surrounded by the boxes he’d spent the morning packing.

‘I don’t want to,’ Jessie had told him, watching with satisfaction as his shock had turned to anger.

‘But what’s the point in hanging on?’

‘Because I can. You can have your divorce when I’m ready and not before.’

The burger bar smelt of frying onions and damp clothes. The windows were fogged with condensation and Jessie could feel the heat prickle between her shoulder blades and in the small of her back. Behind her, the teenagers were laughing loudly. Hannah would be proud of her; she was about as far out of her comfort zone as it was possible to get.

Jessie checked her watch. He wasn’t coming. Her heart rate increased, but this time with relief. She was pulling on her coat when the door opened and a heavyset man walked in carrying a bouquet of flowers.



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