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THE BIG LITTLE WEDDING IN CARLTON SQUARE: Chapter 3

Here’s the last chapter before HarperCollin’s reveals Lilly’s identity tomorrow! Be sure to register your guess (link is at the end) for a chance to win a fantastic prize.

 

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THE BIG LITTLE WEDDING IN CARLTON SQUARE by Lilly Bartlett

 

CHAPTER 3

Kell and I did go see the library at Queen Mary’s, but my heart wasn’t really in it. Or at least, my wallet wasn’t. It would have been perfect, grand and Victorian and stuffed with books – two soaring balconies surrounding the huge and airy octagon-shaped room with sunshine streaming through enormous windows to light the elegant vaulted dome high above. It was slightly less expensive than Stationer’s Hall, in the way that sirloin steak is slightly less expensive than a fillet. No matter how many places we’ve visited, and it seems to be all we’ve done for the last two weeks, Kell and I can’t find a nice, cheap burger of a venue. At this rate we really are going to end up under the arches. Won’t Daniel’s mother just love that?

This is turning out to be so much harder than I imagined. I can’t concentrate on my coursework with the wedding hanging over me. I’ve been rereading the same page for the last twenty minutes. Anti-social behaviour, looting, blah blah blah.

But my final exams start in two weeks and I haven’t gone to uni for the past five years to bungle it now. It’s been hard enough getting this far.

Just try telling everyone you know that you’re studying criminology when everyone you know has at least second-hand experience with the Old Bill. The mistrust of authority round here won’t go away just because one of their own has enrolled at the Open University.

People only tolerate our neighbour, PC Billy Bramble, because he gets them out of scrapes and drinks in the Cock and Crown.

Dad still suspects I’m going to end up working for the Met like Billy, that one day he’ll see me walking the beat in a Kevlar stab vest and one of those hats with the checkerboard bands. And Mum wishes I would for the pension, as long as I find a nice, safe desk job.

Dad doesn’t have to worry, though, and Mum shouldn’t hope. I don’t want to be the one catching or punishing the kids who go off the rails. I’d rather be the one making sure they don’t derail in the first place. I’m not exactly sure yet where I’ll work, but I can imagine what the job will look like. It’ll be something that keeps kids in school and out of prison or gives them interesting things to do so they don’t feel so hopeless.

A couple of do-gooders, that’s what Kell calls Daniel and me. She’s right. Daniel’s kids walk miles for clean water and, once I find my job, I’ll have to keep mine from nicking stuff.

I knew all about Daniel’s kindness streak by the time we had our first date, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when he took me to a fundraising gig that his charity was doing. I was tempted to ring Kell when we walked into the venue and I saw who was playing. She’d headlined at Glastonbury and won Grammies. And there she was sitting on a stool, in a jumper and jeans, with her voice floating over the piano that accompanied her. I’d never been that close to someone so famous.

‘We don’t need to stay long,’ he’d said into my ear. ‘I’ve just promised my boss I’d stop by, that’s all.’

‘You didn’t tell me your job was so glamorous.’ As far as I knew, he was just a lowly staffer at a water charity.

He’d laughed and grabbed my hand, shifting our month-long flirtation up a gear. My tummy flipped. ‘It’s usually very unglamorous. I talk about drilling and well specifications with engineers a lot,’ he’d said. ‘This fundraiser has been a treat. She even came into the offices to see what we do. I was completely tongue-tied when I met her.’

‘You met her?! Wait, are you trying to impress me by basking in reflected celeb glory?’

‘Yah. Is it helping at all?’

I’d nodded. What I didn’t add was that even without the eye-wateringly famous connection I already knew I was nuts about Daniel.

Auntie Rose stirs. ‘You’re up with the birds,’ she says.

‘Just revising before work.’ I close my book. There’s no chance of getting anything done once the house starts to wake. ‘I’ll do more later.’

She sits up with a grunt. ‘I don’t know where you came from,’ she says, not for the first time.

I play dumb. She loves having this conversation. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I couldn’t abide school, neither could your mother or your Gran. Your mum bunked off every chance she got. And there’s no Einstein on your father’s side, either. Must be some rogue gene making you so bookish. I’ve never seen another like you.’ I can hear the pride in her voice, like I always do.

‘That’s good,’ she continues as I pack away my books. ‘Look at you, about to graduate from university! You’re the only one of us who didn’t quit by sixteen. You’re going to do good things, Emma.’ She smiles. ‘You might even get out of here.’

‘I don’t want to get out of here!’ I say.

‘But you will, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.’

Her words echo in my head as I make my way to work. I know every single shop, school and business along the route, and quite a few of the people too. Some of them wave when they see me – there aren’t that many powder blue Vespas about. The rhythms of the street and its characters are as familiar to me as those in a little village would be to someone from the countryside. There might be more buildings and pollution and graffiti and crime, but this is home. Why would I ever want to leave?

My colleague pulls up at the same time as me. ‘All right?’ Zane asks. I’ll smooth out his accent for you, which is Jamaican courtesy of Hackney Wick. If I were to spell it out, it’d have only vowels. He likes to lean and gurn when he talks too. He thinks it’s street.

I pull up the shutters on the Vespa dealership while Zane starts wheeling the bikes out front. ‘Where’s the golden boy?’ he asks as he brings out my favourite scooter so I can motorhead all over it. It’s the Vespa of my dreams, the one they’ve put out for their seventieth anniversary. It’s top of the range with a 300cc engine, front and rear disc brakes and all the glamour of the old bikes.

I don’t bother answering Zane’s question. It’s not really a question anyway. It’s an accusation aimed at our boss, Marco. The golden boy is his son, Ant – it’s short for Anthony, but he hates when anyone uses his full name.

Our boss has a few scooter shops so he doesn’t spend much time at ours. Neither does his son, even though he’s paid to.

I don’t mind that much. We’re not usually very busy anyway, and since the scooter sales are commissioned, the less competition the better. It bothers Zane, though. Which is why he asks every morning.

I crack open my criminology book and Zane pulls a tattered paperback from his bag. This is the perfect job for me, really. It’s steady money – not much but steady – and I can do it with my eyes closed. I should be able to by now. I’ve worked here since just after my sixteenth birthday. It was either work in a shop or start The Knowledge to get my taxi badge. And Dad really didn’t want me doing that.

‘Why not?’ I’d asked. ‘Because I’m a girl?’

He’d shaken his head. ‘Don’t be daft. It’s because I want more for you.’

‘Dad, I hate to break it to you, but working at the scooter shop isn’t exactly climbing the corporate ladder.’

‘No, but you won’t work there forever. It takes years to do The Knowledge. Once you do it, you’re not gonna want to change to something better.’

I hadn’t known what to say to that. Dad never complained about being a cab driver. He had lots of friends in the business and it kept the roof over our heads.

Now I know what he meant. Cab driving would have made me just comfortable enough to be stuck. Why give up a bit of comfort to start all over?

Dad was right. As usual.

I try to study, but it’s no use; I can’t concentrate. And Zane’s frustrating disinterest in my wedding plans means I have to wedge it awkwardly into conversation myself. Lucky him. He’s stuck with me till we clock off at five.

‘Zane, your sister got married, didn’t she?’

‘Both of them did,’ he says, sucking his teeth. Tall and slender with baby-smooth warm brown skin and cheekbones that are wasted on a guy, he’s good-looking when he’s not pulling faces. He’s got a tattoo all up his neck that I know for a fact made him cry when they did it, but maybe people who don’t know him are impressed when they see it.

‘Where’d they have their receptions?’

Teeth suck. ‘Eyeono.’

‘How can you not know? Didn’t you go to them?’

‘Aw, yeah.’ He thinks, nodding his head, which is covered in little braids that stick up in all directions. ‘We had a party at the Jam Club, in the room at the back.’

I know the place. It’s a reggae bar that makes Uncle Colin’s pub look like Hampton Court Palace. Imagine Daniel’s family toasting our nuptials with cans of Red Stripe while everyone twerks to Bob Marley on the sound system.

Daniel is outside the Overground station after work, watching the market’s ebb and flow as he waits for me.

The fish traders are starting to clear up, emptying their styrofoam crates of ice and water and stacking them. If it swims, they sell it. Technically they’re Kelly’s competitors, but in reality they’re not. Everyone’s got their place in the market. They know their customers, and there’s an unwritten rule that nobody steps on toes, so everyone has enough custom.

That’s not to say that tempers don’t flare with everyone living cheek by jowl here. But the shouting today is just the vendors trying to draw the punters’ attention, especially now it’s nearly the end of the day and they want to flog the perishables before going home.

If I change my point of view, I can just about see what Daniel is seeing, though it’s not easy. Everything is so familiar to me. I see my neighbours in the veiled faces of the Asian women and old schoolmates in the lairy hoodies out-boasting each other next to the camera and phone stall.

Daniel isn’t sticking out too badly in his navy V-neck jumper and jeans. The guys around here do wear V-necks, though not usually over button-down collared work shirts. And definitely not tied over their shoulders. For his own good I had to put a stop to that the first time Daniel tried it here.

It’s the rest of the area that doesn’t quite fit with Daniel. The market isn’t neat and neutral like where he’s from in Chelsea. There you know you’ll see manicured trees and grass, shiny black railings and white-fronted houses, well-dressed people, clean cars and designer shops. The sounds will be of traffic and, in quiet corners, birdsong.

Just as Daniel sees me, two of our neighbourhood junkies reel by with their cans of Strongbow. Daniel jams his hands in his jeans pockets.

‘Don’t worry, they won’t nick your wallet,’ I call as I approach for a kiss. ‘They never bother anyone.’

He drapes his arm round my shoulder. ‘Yah, I wasn’t worried.’

‘Then stop looking like you’re about to face a firing squad. We’re only going for a walk before the pub. It’s perfectly safe.’

He’s already worked out that this is Jack the Ripper territory, though he doesn’t know that one of the murders happened right behind the train station he just came from. The less grim local history that he and his family know, the better, I think.

‘Am I that obvious? It’s not rahly my milieu, is it?’

Who says milieu in normal conversation? ‘Not if you talk like that, it’s not. You know, Chelsea is just as hard for me to get used to as this is for you.’ I look round at the older women in colourful sarees and young ones in trendy hijabs. Two Caribbean women sweep by in brightly embroidered caftans and matching head wraps. This is my milieu, as long as we’re being poncey about it. ‘It’s intimidating seeing all those people walking around your neighbourhood wearing expensive clothes.’ I’m only half joking as I lead him away from the station.

‘East End girl meets West End boy,’ he says.

‘There’s a song in that.’

He laughs. ‘The Pet Shop Boys beat you to it.’ His humming is so off-key that at first I think he’s joking. I only know the song because he’s just said what it was.

‘Wow,’ I say. ‘I’ve never heard you sing before.’

‘Rahly? I’m sure you have. I love to sing.’ Off he goes again. Cats up the road start mewling in protest.

‘No, I’d have remembered.’

But really, who am I to tell him his voice qualifies as torture under the Geneva Convention when he clearly loves it? I don’t always see him being this unselfconscious. Daniel is one of those people who never seems to put a foot wrong – jumpers tied round his shoulders notwithstanding, although in his world everyone does that, so maybe it’s not a good example. My point is that I feel like I’m special when I get to see him totally at ease. Though I know he works hard to look that way all the time.

We take a turn off Whitechapel Road, leaving the hustle, bustle, noise and fumes of the main thoroughfare behind. ‘Here’s what I wanted to show you,’ I tell him proudly as we turn into the narrow cobbled road. ‘Welcome to Stepney Green.’

‘Gosh, this is unexpected. It looks a bit like Hampstead. Do you remember?’

‘How could I forget?’ We both smile.

A few days after the charity gig date we met again in Hampstead village and made our way to the swimming ponds on the Heath. Before Daniel, my dates invariably involved drinks in a pub somewhere or, at a stretch, a film before drinks in a pub somewhere. This felt different, and not just because there were no beer mats. We already had that comfortable certainty about each other that usually comes after months of going out. We got a running start at it during our course together.

I’d been at the Open University four years by the time I took our architecture class, up to my back teeth in criminology courses, so it felt pretty decadent to take something so unrelated. But that was the point of Kell and my family giving me the City Lit voucher for Christmas.

Daniel signed up for the same reason. On the other side of London he’d been up to his back teeth in the water charity where he worked. So we were both branching out. It just so happened that our branches intertwined perfectly, first as study friends and then as something a lot more exciting.

That didn’t mean I was crazy about the idea of swimming with Daniel in a duck turd-filled pond, though. It’s hard to be alluring when you’re trying not to drown.

For the record, I can swim. I just don’t like putting my head underwater. But with Daniel going on about how much he loved the weekend swims he’d done there with his dad since he was a teen, I couldn’t very well tell him that the only time my swimsuit came out of the drawer was to sun myself in the back garden.

I sneaked glances at his lean torso and muscular just-hairy-enough legs as we made our way to the dock. ‘Jump straight in?’ he asked, reaching for my hand.

‘Or go down the ladder?’ I said, snatching it back.

‘Yah, of course, if you’re more comfortable that way. Do you mind if I jump in?’

He sliced easily through the water with hardly a splash, emerging several yards away to grin at me. ‘It’s lovely!’

Slowly I lowered myself down the ladder, not showing Daniel my best side.

I managed to swim with him to the other side of the pond, all the while imagining what might be living in the murky water. The more I imagined, the more I was sure there were things, live things, dangerous things, swimming just out of sight under the water.

So nobody should have been surprised when Daniel’s fingers on my leg unleashed such blood-curdling screams. I stopped swimming, naturally, and dove for my date.

Reader, I climbed him.

‘Emma, it’s okay!’ he said, between gasps as I pushed him underwater. ‘You’re all right, just relax. What’s wrong? Here, hold on to my shoulders. That’s it. I’ll swim us in.’

As I floated on Daniel’s back to reach the ladder, he calmly suggested that we dry off in the sunshine and then have a picnic on the Heath. My hysteria hadn’t fazed him.

Daniel found my attempt on his life perfectly understandable. That’s a sign of true love. Though we haven’t swum together since.

We walk over the blue cobbles of Stepney Green to peer through some imposing wrought-iron gates at the tall red-brick house. ‘It was built in the late sixteen hundreds.’

Daniel nods. ‘Yah, Queen Anne style. As you know.’

‘I do know.’ We grin at each other. I’m not just showing him this to prove it’s not all market stalls and junkies round here. It’s a nostalgia trip. And actually, we nearly didn’t meet. I would have taken an art history course instead if it hadn’t started during my exam week. ‘Imagine if one of us hadn’t signed up for that course.’

‘My life would be quite literally unbearable,’ he says, ‘without you.’

‘You are such a kiss-arse.’ I love when he says things like this. ‘You wouldn’t know about me, so you wouldn’t know what you’re missing.’

‘Right, but I do know. Unbearable.’ He turns me to face him and plants a soft kiss on my lips. ‘I know I tell you this all the time, but you’re rahly not like anyone I’ve ever met, Emma. You never take anything for granted. It’s so rare and I love you for it.’

I squeeze his hand. ‘You don’t take things for granted, either.’ There isn’t a silver spoon anywhere near Daniel’s mouth. It’s not even hidden in his cutlery drawer.

‘I do try not to,’ he says, ‘but sometimes I catch myself. Then I’ve got to remember that I’m where I am because of everything my parents gave me. This charmed life of mine is an accident of birth. People love to say they’re self-made when that’s bullshit. Excuse the expression, but when you’re born into a family that has the time to read to you instead of working day and night jobs to make ends meet, or that can afford to send you to a good school or even just properly feed and clothe you and put a roof that doesn’t leak over your head, then you’re not rahly self-made, are you? People congratulate themselves when they’ve benefitted from small classes and motivated teachers and tutors to help with revision, when they haven’t had to worry about paying tuition or working through uni or parents who can’t pay their bills. That’s why I admire you so, Emma. You haven’t had any of the privilege that I’ve been handed and yet here you are, about to graduate from university.’

‘I see what you mean, but that’s not really true, Daniel. I had most of those things too. I’ve had the supportive family who read to me, despite working multiple jobs, and teachers who believed in me and I had enough money to go to uni. We might have had to work for those things, but I’ve had a lot of help too.’

He shakes his head. ‘You’re right, I’m being too literal. Privilege can mean more than one thing. So we’re both wealthy.’

I do feel pretty rich as we walk hand in hand from Stepney Green to Uncle Colin’s pub where I know everyone is waiting. It’s best not to tell him what I suspect: that it’s probably not just my family inside. ‘Just remember not to mention Uber. My dad’ll go spare.’

Dad may not drive a cab anymore but a lot of his friends do. You want to start an argument, try telling one of them you’ve got an Uber account.

He’s about to push open the door when he hesitates. ‘Should we get a bite to eat first?’

‘There’ll be seafood later,’ I tell him. ‘Go on, don’t be a coward.’

I run into the back of him, though, when he stops dead in the doorway. Everyone in the packed pub is staring at us. ‘Erm, welcome to my side of the wedding,’ I whisper, giving him a gentle shove.

‘Hi Daniel!’ they all chorus over and over as they fall about the place laughing.

Shyly he raises his hand in greeting.

Mum waves us over to their table, where Daniel kisses her cheek and shakes my dad’s hand.

‘Mum, this is cruel!’ I say. ‘The Inquisition ended in the Middle Ages, you know.’

‘Don’t blame me. Everyone wants to meet Daniel.’

Mrs and Mr Ishtiaque are sitting opposite my parents. They have smiles plastered to their faces. I can’t remember the last time I saw them in a pub. Don’t blame Mum, my arse. ‘I suppose you just fancied a pint tonight, Mrs Ishtiaque?’ I tease. She’s never drunk anything stronger than prune juice. ‘Mrs Ishtiaque, Mr Ishtiaque, this is my fiancé, Daniel. Daniel, the Ishitaques are our next-door neighbours.’

Mrs Ishtiaque clasps Daniel’s hand in her tiny ones. ‘We’ve known Emma since she was coming home from the maternity ward,’ she says in her sing-songy Bangladeshi accent. ‘She is like our daughter.’

‘How d’you do?’ he says. ‘Emma’s told me all about you. I gather you make the best curries in East London, Mrs Ishtiaque.’

Mrs Ishtiaque blushes at the compliment.

‘The best,’ Mr Ishtiaque confirms. He’s a man of few words.

‘Let’s get this over with,’ I tell Daniel when he’s finished trading smiles with the Ishtiaques.

‘Yah, now I know how you felt at Mummy’s drinks,’ he murmurs as we make our way to the bar.

Uncle Colin is pretending not to notice us. If he was in one of those old-timey westerns, he’d be polishing a glass and whistling.

He does a comedy double take as we approach. He’s destined for the stage, honestly.

Hands are shaken across the bar. ‘Barbara’ll be down in a minute,’ Uncle Colin says as he spritzes the shandies. ‘You’re very welcome here, Daniel.’

When Daniel visibly relaxes I feel like kissing my uncle. But he’d only get embarrassed if I did.

The ladies at Auntie Rose’s table aren’t backwards in coming forwards when we join them with our drinks. They’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. June’s even traded her tracksuit for trousers and one of those silky printed tops with a pussy bow that office workers liked to wear in the eighties.

‘Do you like East London?’ Doreen asks, doing her trademark cleavage cross-twiddling.

‘Yah,’ he answers politely.

‘What do you like about it?’

‘Oh gosh, yah, I like that Emma was born and raised here amongst so many people she loves. And once I’ve spent more time here, I know I’ll love it as much as she does.’

‘Lor’ love a duck, ’e ain’t half charming!’ says June.

‘She likes you,’ I tell Daniel.

He flashes them all his killer smile. I happen to know that those teeth took two and a half years to straighten out. I never had braces, so my own overlap a tiny bit. ‘Thank you. I was just telling Em that it’s not my natural milieu, but I hope I don’t put my foot in it too badly!’

I cringe. Must get him to stop saying milieu. ‘It’s not his usual part of town.’

My family and friends don’t seem to know what to make of Daniel. His poshness would normally set their teeth on edge, but their curiosity at this exotic specimen overcomes any ingrained mistrust. Before long they’re showing Daniel how to play cribbage, firing questions and answers back and forth, and even though I’m sure they don’t completely understand each other, they’re laughing like old friends.

Doreen meets me at the bar. ‘Your Daniel seems nice.’ She doesn’t bother keeping her voice down, so half the bar can hear her. ‘Can’t play cards worth a damn, though.’

‘He’s probably just letting you win,’ I say.

‘You and your auntie, both too cheeky by ’alf.’

‘How is she? With you all, I mean?’

Doreen puts a leathery hand on my arm. ‘She’s all right, my love, not much more forgetful than the rest of us. She’s been all right at home?’

‘Usually. She’s wandering more lately, though.’

‘She’s safe here.’

Most of the time you wouldn’t think there was a thing wrong with Auntie Rose. She never gets muddled up and she doesn’t forget words. She just gets into her head sometimes that she’s got to be somewhere else. If someone’s around when she grabs her coat or handbag and announces ‘Right, I’m off’, then we can go with her. But every so often she makes her announcement to nobody, and we have to send out a search party.

So far she hasn’t left the neighbourhood, but you can’t turn her around once she gets going, either. It might be the laundromat or the café or a specific shop. No amount of coaxing will get her to turn back. It doesn’t matter that she never has laundry to do or a shopping list to tick off. She’s going wherever she’s decided to go, and that’s all there is to it.

She doesn’t seem distressed or frustrated that she can’t tell you why she wanted to go in the first place. Whenever we ask her she just shrugs and says, ‘One of life’s mysteries.’

But what if she decides one day to go to Heathrow, or Downing Street via a rough estate? That’s what I worry about.

I hear Barbara behind me as I’m carrying the drinks back to the table. ‘So where is this young man I keep hearing about? Hello, my love!’

‘Uncle Barbara!’ I throw myself into his waiting arms. ‘Come and meet Daniel. He’s heard all about you.’

Of course I’ve told Daniel about Uncle Barbara, but nothing prepares him for meeting my uncle in the flesh. First of all, he’s Uncle Colin’s identical twin. All six foot three hairy inches of him. Secondly, he’s built like a railway siding. And thirdly, he’s wearing a swingy red and white dress and shiny black knee-high boots.

He claps Daniel on the back with more force than someone in a frock should have. As everyone shifts round to make room for him I catch Daniel’s eye. He’s grinning like he can’t imagine anything more fun than being surrounded by old ladies and cross-dressers.

Uncle Barbara used to be Uncle Mark, but I haven’t called him that in a very long time.

‘You’ve picked bridesmaids and groomsmen now, yeah?’ Uncle Barbara asks us. ‘They need some warning, you know. And you need time to find outfits. Once that’s set, everything else can work around them.’

Of course he’d know all about it. I don’t often think of him that way, but when he was Uncle Mark he was married. His wife took off with their two boys after finding him in one of her frocks. They moved away up north, and it’s only in the past few years that his sons have even started talking to him. He goes up every few months, and I have to give him credit for that because it doesn’t sound like it usually goes very well.

‘Kelly’s my bridesmaid,’ I tell him, ‘and Daniel’s sister and one of his best friends.’

‘And my flatmate, Jacob, will be my best man, along with three of my school chums as my groomsmen,’ Daniel adds. ‘It’s going to be an awful lot of fun!’

‘An awful lot!’ croaks June as smirks dash round the table. I can tell they’re not making fun of Daniel. Only his odd figures of speech. I can’t blame them. He does talk like Bertie Wooster sometimes.

‘You’ll need another bridesmaid, Emma,’ Uncle Barbara says. ‘It’s bad luck to have an odd number. We had three at my wedding and look what happened.’

‘It made you queer,’ Auntie Rose chips in. ‘Only joking. I know the difference between a queer and a trannie.’

But not the difference between being offensive and not, clearly. ‘Mum,’ I shout over to their table. ‘How many bridesmaids did you have?’

‘Four,’ she says. ‘Why?’ She gasps, throwing her hands over her mouth. ‘Have you got only three? Oh no, Emma! You’re doooomed.’

‘You’re all taking the piss,’ I say. ‘Hilarious.’

‘It does look better for photos to have an even number on each side, though,’ Uncle Barbara points out. ‘If you’re looking for another, I’d be willing to step in.’

He sounds jokey, but he’s blushing under his beard.

Aside from my parents, Uncle Barbara is my closest relative under seventy and I’d love for him to be one of my bridesmaids, but can you imagine the looks on my new in-laws’ faces seeing him come up the aisle? ‘Thanks, Uncle Barbara, I’ll let you know, okay?’

‘Just don’t wait too long, like I said. I’d have to get me dress. And shoes, accessories …’

‘There is such a lot to think about,’ Daniel says, turning to me. ‘So many decisions to make. How would you feel about chocolate?’

‘I’m all for it!’ Auntie Rose says.

‘Is this another question like your mother’s about fish? You’re not going to suggest making the entire reception out of seventy per cent dark, are you, or have a Kinder vicar filled with toys?’

He laughs. ‘Mummy mentioned a chocolate fountain, that’s all. Guests can dip fruit in it. She thinks it will be such great fun.’

Of course she does. She’ll probably want fruit that has to be airlifted in individually by private jet and chocolate sourced from some remote Aztec civilisation and made with leprechaun’s tears.

‘Mmm, maybe.’ The reception would look like there’d been a massacre at Willy Wonka’s factory five minutes after this lot gets into a chocolate fountain. ‘Let’s see where we find for the reception first.’

Daniel grimaces. ‘Right, it’s just that she’s got an image of the wedding in her head now,’ he says. ‘Of course we’ll do what we want. It is our wedding. It’s only that I wouldn’t want to disappoint her if we don’t use any of her ideas.’

‘The last thing I want is a disappointed mother-in-law, so of course we’ll use some,’ I say. Just don’t ask me how.

The pub has thinned out by the time Kelly nudges me later. ‘The prawn man’s here.’

‘Told you we’d eat,’ I say to Daniel, who can’t take the grin off his face. ‘What is it?’

‘I’ve read about them,’ he says.

‘What, prawns? They swim in the sea.’

‘You sometimes eat ’em with Marie Rose sauce,’ Kell adds.

‘Cockle men,’ he says. ‘Or prawn men. I didn’t think they were real.’

‘Aw, bless, he looks like he’s seen a unicorn,’ Kell says, waving the man over.

‘All right?’ the prawn man asks, tipping his basket of seafood toward us so we can have a look. We politely glance into the basket even though he always sells the same things. He’s getting on a bit now and I’ve been eating his prawns since I was a little girl in here with Mum and Dad. He never says more than he has to. He just tips his cap as he goes from table to table, passing out snacks and collecting money.

We get three pints of prawns, which we demolish in about a minute. As I watch Daniel go to the bar to get his round in for us all, I get a little misty watching everyone’s smiling faces. That’s my fiancé, the most popular toff in East London.

 

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THE BIG LITTLE WEDDING IN CARLTON SQUARE: Chapter 2

She’s fun, she’s funny, she’s a mystery! HarperCollins wants you to read get a sneak peek at the book and see if you can guess who Lilly Bartlett really is. So here’s Chapter 2!
Be sure to enter your guess in the competition – link at the end.

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THE BIG LITTLE WEDDING IN CARLTON SQUARE by Lilly Bartlett

CHAPTER 2

‘Bollocks!’ Dad’s already got his arms crossed. His re-crossing is just for emphasis. I’ve got more chance now of winning the EuroMillions than getting him to change his mind. I didn’t even want to have this conversation again. But Mum, being Mum, wouldn’t stop going on about the wedding plans. Like I haven’t worked out for myself that most decent places are already booked up. We’ll probably end up paying over the odds for a garage under the arches.

I really don’t want to have our wedding in a garage under the arches.

‘I’m just saying that they can afford it.’ The words are out before I can stop them.

Mum closes her eyes and sighs.

Why can’t I ever quit while I’m not too far behind?

The set of Dad’s jaw tightens. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he says. ‘You know I think Daniel’s a good lad, but you don’t need a big fancy wedding to get married. You’re committing to each other and you can do that just fine at the registry with a little party after. Your mother and I were married–’

‘“In the town hall not ten minutes from this house,’” I finish for him. He’s trotted out the same lines ever since I first dared to ask for Dr. Martens when I was ten. Real ones, not the Junior Dr. Martens rip-offs they had down the market. What’s good enough for my parents is good enough for me. I’ve heard it a million times, and quite a lot recently. ‘“We had our do at the Cock and Crown,”’ I continue, ‘“with our family and friends, and everybody was happy.”’

‘“We stuffed ourselves on prawns from the prawn man till we were nearly sick,”’ Mum finishes. ‘“We didn’t need to spend a lot of money and it served us just fine.”’

Mum and I grin at each other.

‘Exactly,’ Dad says. ‘So you know the story, Emma.’ His voice grows as soft as his expression. He’s a handsome man, my father. He’s usually got a sparkle in his eye and a cheeky grin for everyone, but he can be a pit bull if you push him. ‘Why not have a simple wedding?’ he says. ‘The important thing is that you love each other.’

When I hug him his beefy arms squeeze me tightly. ‘I know that, Dad. We do love each other, and I don’t want anything fancy. I’m going with Kell to see some places tomorrow. We’ll find something that works.’

I just hope it won’t cost the earth. Mum and Dad are really stretching to give me two thousand quid for the wedding. I know it’s draining their savings, but whenever I protest they change the subject.

So I’m not about to tell Dad that my future mother-in-law is probably expecting ice sculptures and a synchronised dove release. Our parents haven’t met yet. The last thing I want to do is make Mum and Dad even more preoccupied with Daniel’s family than they already are. When I told Mum about the engagement party she asked me to take photos of Philippa’s bathrooms. As if rich people don’t poo the same way as everyone else.

I had to explain that no, they don’t have fancy quilted loo roll or one of those hand soap pumps – just a plain old bar of soap in a dish. And drapes on their windows – no nets.

Maybe that’s what the great social divide really comes down to: the haves versus the have nets.

Our parents will need to meet before the wedding, as soon as we figure out the best way to do it. It was hard enough introducing Mum and Dad to Daniel. The fact that he’s from West London is enough to make them uncomfortable. As soon as I mentioned Chelsea, Mum started going on about redecorating before he came over.

Our house is perfectly fine. Maybe it’s a bit dated, but we have lived here my whole life, and Mum hasn’t exactly got an interior design budget to work with. It’s a typical sixties council house on a red-brick two-storey terrace where most of the gardens are kept up pretty well. We’ve got wood floors all inside and tile in the kitchen and bathroom. The suite isn’t new, but Mum doesn’t let anyone eat their dinner on it so it’s not too stained, aside from Dad’s chair, and there are stacks of coasters everywhere so there’s not a water ring on any of the tables. When I was little I wanted a bay window like Kell has at her house, but other than that I haven’t really wished for anything different.

‘Do me a favour,’ Mum says. ‘Go get Auntie Rose with your dad. She’s at the pub with her ladies. I’ll get the tea on and then I’ve got to be to work for seven.’ When she leans down to kiss my dad, the curtain of thick straight ginger hair that she wears in a long bob covers their faces.

‘Right, to the pub, Dad?’

‘Ready when you are.’ He awkwardly pats his pockets. ‘I’ve got me money. Off we go.’

‘One pint, Jack, and then come back. I mean it. Otherwise the tea’ll burn. Half an hour.’

He waves over his shoulder as I grasp the handles of his wheelchair and carefully manoeuvre out the front door and down the ramp.

We had the ramp installed on my twentieth birthday. I remember because Kell joked that it was for when I came home pissed from the pub. We all made out like it was the greatest invention in the world. Now Dad could come and go as he pleased, we said. He put on a brave face, but everybody knew he’d have preferred not to need it in the first place.

If he wasn’t a taxi driver, he would probably have realised a lot sooner that he was ill. But, like he said, sitting on your arse all day is bound to cause some pins and needles. It was when his vision started going funny that he finally admitted his symptoms to Mum. She had him down to Helen at the GP’s surgery almost before he’d finished telling her.

The doctors did loads of tests that Dad got pretty sick of by the time they told him he’s got multiple sclerosis. That was over ten years ago. It’s the kind that comes and goes and gets worse over time, which is why we had to get the ramps fitted on my twentieth birthday. He’d had to stop work a few years before that, though. He can walk with crutches if he has to, but he doesn’t usually have to with the wheelchair and all of us to push him around when he gets bad. Their bedroom’s on the ground floor now, in the old dining room, and we had an en suite added so he doesn’t need to worry about going upstairs at all.

Of course, Kell was worried about me when it all first happened. At fourteen everything is a huge deal anyway, so when it really is a big deal it seems catastrophic. But she didn’t really need to worry because my dad is still my dad; he’s still with us and he’s still himself. He can’t drive the cab anymore and it’s pretty bad when he relapses, and Mum’s gone down to part-time work, what with looking after Dad and Auntie Rose, but that’s why I’m working. It’s lucky I’m here.

But once I get married I’ll have to move out. Imagine the row if I try to keep giving them money then. You’ve seen how Dad reacts when Daniel offers for his parents to pay for our wedding. I’ll have to hide tenners down the sofa cushions or something.

Auntie Rose is doing a victory lap around the pub when we get there, shouting, ‘Persimone! Get IN!’

‘She’s winning, I take it?’ says Dad to Uncle Colin once he’s finished nodding his hellos to the half-dozen men sitting round the battered tables.

‘Insufferable!’ Auntie Rose’s friend, June, shouts from the big square booth by the door. ‘Take her home, Emma, she’ll only be a dreadful winner again.’

‘Sour grapes,’ sings Auntie Rose as she throws her ample frame back down in the booth, jostling the Scrabble board on her landing.

‘Mind the game!’ Doreen adjusts the tiles. ‘Don’t spoil it for the rest of us. Next week we’re playing cribbage.’

Auntie Rose takes a sip of her lime and soda. ‘Where’s your fighting spirit?’

‘I’m about to fight,’ Doreen grumbles. She will too if they let her have too much sherry. She might look like a sweet old lady, but you’d do well not to cross her. There was once a husband, but he disappeared after getting caught playing away once too often. Maybe he’s living with his mistress out of town, maybe he isn’t. That’s all I’m saying.

So all’s well at the Cock and Crown. Nobody’s surprised to see a seventy-five-year-old woman fist-pumping her way round the bar. Technically she’s my great auntie, my Gran’s younger sister. She’s been meeting her best friends here every week for about the past forty years for a game of cribbage or cards or, when Auntie Rose gets to choose, Scrabble. No matter what else happens in their lives, they wouldn’t miss a week unless they’re in the hospital, like when June broke her hip, or one of them dies, like my Gran did seven or eight years ago. That’s when Auntie Rose came to live with us. She’s not so good at being on her own.

‘We’ve got to be home in half an hour for tea,’ I tell my auntie, who’s gone back to studying her tiles. Her lips move as she considers her next play. She’s got an impressive vocabulary considering she left school so young. She credits that to my great grandad being a newsvendor. He let her do the crossword from The Telegraph every day, as long as she never creased the page and ruined it for sale. She used to trace out the crossword onto a sheet of paper and fill it in.

‘You all right?’ June asks me in her twenty-a-day voice as everyone shifts round to make room for me and Dad. I catch a waft of June’s Mentos. ‘How are the wedding plans coming along?’ Her pale blue eyes are lined with life and worry.

‘We’re really just getting started.’ June and Doreen nod their bright blonde heads. Auntie Rose does their hair too. She’s got a very limited colour palette. She figures if it looks good on her, it’ll do for everyone else. ‘But it’s less than three months away so we really need to make a start.’

‘That’s plenty of time,’ June says, rolling up the sleeves on her knock-off hoodie. She always dresses in a range of nearly-Nike and almost-Adidas, like she’s on her way to aerobics. ‘Your parents did it in less time than that.’

Looks shoot between the older women as Doreen fidgets with the little gold cross nestled in her cleavage. You wouldn’t catch her out of the house in trackies. She’s always in a wrap dress. The wrapping job’s a bit hit and miss, though, given the shape of the package inside.

‘In those days things weren’t so formal,’ Auntie Rose says. ‘Nowadays everything is so fancy. I saw in the news about couples who spend a million quid on flowers! I bet the Queen doesn’t spend a million quid on flowers.’

When Auntie Rose says the news, she means The Sun. The Telegraph is good for the crosswords, but she gets all her information from the tabloid.

‘Oh, I know!’ says June. ‘My Karen’s youngest had two hundred people at her wedding. They had to get a second mortgage to pay for the whole palaver. Those payments’ll probably last longer than the marriage.’

‘We’re not taking out any loans,’ Dad says. ‘We’ve got a bit of dosh saved. We’ll do right by you, Emma.’

‘I just wish you’d let Daniel’s parents give us money,’ I say, even though I know I’m pushing my luck. ‘They won’t even miss it.’

His fist slams on the table, making Auntie Rose’s lime and soda jump. ‘Goddammit, Emma, why can’t you get it through your head that I don’t need your in-laws’ charity! Isn’t it bad enough–?’ He shakes his head. ‘Don’t be fooled by the wheelchair, girl. I might not be able to do most things anymore, but I can look after my own family. Now that’s the end of it, Emma. I mean it, this topic is closed. We’re doing this for you, and that’s the end of it.’

His pride will never let him accept help from Daniel’s parents. ‘All right, Dad,’ I sigh, ‘and I’m really grateful for everything you and Mum are doing. Incredibly grateful. We’ll keep it very low-key, like you suggested.’

I don’t want to cry here in the pub. The very idea of Mum and Dad draining their savings for me when they’ve got so little as it is.

‘Aw, you’re a good girl,’ Doreen says. ‘You’ve got your head on straight, don’t she, Jack?’

Not necessarily. I just know when I’m fighting a losing battle with Dad. And it’s not like I want an extravagant wedding anyway. I just don’t want Mum and Dad using all their savings for it.

But I’ll never budge Dad now, so the least I can do is spend their budget wisely. We’ll have a nice little wedding and everyone will love it. They might not get gold necklaces or exotic fish, but they’ll still have a laugh.

It is just one day out of the rest of our lives. We don’t want to go into debt like June’s Karen’s youngest, do we?

I know Uncle Colin would be really touched if we asked to have the party here. He’s rightly proud of his pub. But as I stare round, trying to see it as an outsider would, my heart sinks. I love a fruit machine as much as the next person, but their blinking lights don’t exactly give off the right ambiance for a wedding party. The chairs and booths that I’ve sat in my whole life look clunky and tired, and there’s no getting round the faint odour coming from the swirly green carpet. Even if we could turn off the machines and take down all the football paraphernalia that Uncle Colin has collected over the years, it’s not the Ritz in here.

But it is home. Plus it’s where Mum and Dad had their party, though Uncle Colin was only a barman then, not the landlord.

‘When do I get to meet your bloke?’ Uncle Colin asks as he empties a rack of pint glasses on to the shelf behind the bar. ‘You can’t keep him from me forever, you know.’

‘I’ve only met him once myself, Colin,’ pipes up Auntie Rose from the booth, ‘so you’re not the only one.’

Dad and I exchange a look. Auntie Rose has met Daniel four or five times at least, but we smile at her indignation. It’s better than correcting her. She only gets upset when we do that.

‘I’m not keeping him from you, Uncle Colin. I’m planning to bring him round next week to meet everyone.’

‘Barbara’s still up north,’ he says, pulling a pint of ale for one of the men sitting at the bar. ‘The week after would be better. Or you could always bring him round twice. We’ll have to get used to him eventually.’

‘He’ll have to get used to you lot, more like,’ I say. ‘I’ll bring him the week after next then. That way he can brace himself to meet everyone at once.’

I haven’t been keeping Daniel away. He’s met Mum and Dad several times, and my best friend Kell, of course. It’s just tricky trying to entertain when you’re still living at home. There isn’t exactly room for romance in our house. There’s barely room for the family.

We have to pry Auntie Rose away from her friends, as usual, to get home in time for tea. She’s won at Scrabble again, but I don’t think they let her. She may be losing her marbles, but she’s still a dab hand at board games.

Later, in bed, just when I’m about to drop off to sleep, Auntie Rose’s voice floats over from the other bed. ‘I don’t have to tell you about the wedding night, do I?’

What am I supposed to say to that? First off, the idea that my old auntie might explain the Kama Sutra to me makes me shudder. Secondly, she’s not technically even supposed to know about that, since she’s never had a wedding night. And even if she does have some inside knowledge, I’d definitely rather not hear it. ‘No, I know what happens, but thanks all the same,’ I say, really hoping she’ll fall asleep quickly.

‘Well, I should bloomin’ hope you do, with a man like Daniel around.’

She’s quiet, but I know her. She’s not finished. If she asks me any intimate questions about Daniel, I’m going downstairs to sleep on the settee.

‘Then you also know you’re going to be too tired to do anything after the wedding, so my advice is, find a quiet spot during the do and get your leg over. Got it, girl?’

I stifle a laugh into my pillow. ‘Yes, Auntie Rose, thanks for the advice.’

The walk to Kelly’s fish van the next afternoon is as familiar as my walk to the corner shop each morning to pick up Auntie Rose’s Telegraph. Long before Kell became the reigning fishmonger in her family business empire (if a single van can be called an empire), we used to come together after school to beg spending money off her dad. Going bass fishing, that’s what we called it. We’d get some coins, or not, depending on whether he’d shifted the sea bass – a big ticket item that only the people in the houses on Stepney Green splashed out on. So Kell’s pocket money was dependent on who wanted fancy fish for tea.

We’ve been inseparable since childhood, except for a terrible two weeks in year six when we stopped speaking over something neither of us can remember, so Kell knows everything there is to know about me. Which should give her hours of material for her bridesmaid’s speech.

I tell her about Auntie Rose’s advice after making her swear not to mention it at the wedding. She reminds me a lot of her dad when she’s working, and not just because she wears the same white coat and white mesh trilby hat that he always did. They’ve also got the same relaxed, efficient way that makes it seem like they don’t mind when customers take all day to make up their minds. Her dad, Mr McCarthy, doesn’t come to the market as much now, preferring to take care of the buying and the restaurant deliveries, so Kell does most of the retail trade. She ends up covered in fish scales, but it’s better than getting up at 4 a.m. to haggle over the day’s catch at Billingsgate.

She’s slicing a trout from gills to tail and stripping out its guts. ‘You want me to take the heads off, right?’ she asks the customer standing next to me.

‘Yeah, but I’ll keep ’em,’ says the woman. ‘Don’t throw ’em away!’

‘You’re here every week, my love. Have I ever thrown them away?’

‘Well, don’t.’

Kell wipes her hands on the apron over her coat. ‘She’s probably right,’ she says to me, meaning Rose about the wedding, not the customer about her fish heads. ‘Give me five minutes to pack up, okay? I’ve got a change of clothes in the van. I can close up and move it when we come back. Sorry, my darlin’, I’m closing,’ she tells the grey-haired black man who’s just arrived. ‘Unless you want the fillets. The snapper, yeah? Okay, give me a minute.’

I wander down the row of market stalls to wait till Kelly’s ready. Not that there’s anything new to see since I was here a few days ago. It’s busy, as usual, with mostly women shopping. I like to think I know my way around a kitchen, but I haven’t got a clue what some of the fruit and veg is on the Asian stalls. If you promised me a hundred quid, I couldn’t cook it for you. Mrs Ishtiaque next door buys it all the time, though. She’s definitely the best cook in our road, but I’d never admit that to Mum when she needles me. It’s just different food, I tell her. Of course curries are more interesting than plain old roasts when they’ve got all those spices in them.

Auntie Rose won’t eat any spice at all. She’s even suspicious of basil and won’t touch garlic. ‘I like me food good and plain,’ she says. It’s definitely plain, but I don’t know about good.

Stacy Boyle is at my favourite shoe stall, on her phone as usual. ‘All right?’ I ask her, because I know she can carry on at least three conversations at once.

‘Yeah, all right,’ she answers, pushing her silvery pink fringe off her face. ‘How were the shoes for your party?’ Then, to her caller she says, ‘’e’s got no right. Well, tell him to fack off.’

I don’t have the heart to tell her they killed my feet so I tell her everyone loved them instead. Stacy’s grandad was a cobbler. Her dad was too till it got cheaper to buy new shoes than fix old ones. Like Kelly’s dad, he comes to the stall sometimes, but mostly it’s Stacy who works here now. When my parents were my age the Boyles had a tiny shop just behind the stall. It’s like that with a lot of the market traders. Take Kelly, for instance. She’s a fourth-generation fishmonger. But instead of a stall, she has a repurposed ice cream van, with a big window in the side. Mr McCarthy had that converted into a fold-down display area to hold the fresh fish on ice. He also wanted to turn the giant ice cream cone on the roof into a sea bass, but Kelly didn’t think that painting scales on it would fool anyone. They sold the cone, which is a shame.

‘’e’s always saying that,’ Stacy says. Then, to me, ‘Anything else for you today?’

‘Nah, I’m just waiting for Kell to finish, thanks. We’re going to look at some venues for the wedding.’ Just saying it is exciting!

‘All right for some,’ Stacy says, either to me or her caller as Kelly approaches. ‘Good luck!’

Kell’s been working on a list of places to check out for the reception. Not that she’s telling me anything about her ideas.

She’s not the only one with ideas. Philippa barely waited for me to leave the party before she started firing off emails. Wouldn’t it be amazing, she’d written, to have it at Kensington Palace? Yes, the Kensington Palace, where the future king of England lives. Like we’re the Middletons or something.

‘I don’t suppose we’re going to West London?’ I ask Kelly as we shuffle down the bus to make room for a lady with a double pram.

She gives me the same look she’s done since we started school together. To me, she doesn’t look that different than she did then. She’s got the pale round face and upturned nose of her Irish ancestors, and her eyes turn into crescents when she smiles. She says her thick straight brown hair just hangs in her face to annoy her, which is why she wears it in a ponytail with a heavy fringe.

‘We don’t need West London,’ she says. ‘We’ve got better.’

Kelly’s always been suspicious of anything that’s outside our postcode. It may as well be France as far as she’s concerned. She’s not interested in going there, either.

I used to think the same thing till I started taking courses in Central London. It’s no use trying to convince Kelly that there’s a world west of the City, though.

The bus lurches past grand stone buildings that are tall enough to block the sunshine from the narrow streets weaving between them. It’s easy to imagine men in bowler hats hurrying from their clerking jobs instead of the office workers who’re all walking with their mobile phones out.

She pushes the button to let us off near a tiny lane. There’s a low arch between buildings leading into a big square. ‘Holy shit, Kell, this isn’t for us. It looks like a church. You know Dad–’

Her eyes crinkle. ‘Keep your wig on, it’s not a church. It’s for your party. You wanted something to impress Lord and Lady Muck.’

‘Mucking.’

‘Whatever.’

Its Portland stone façade and huge arched windows look official, like a town hall.

‘It’s Stationer’s Hall,’ she explains as we look around outside. ‘You know, one of the guildhalls, for stationers and newspapers, publishers and the like. It’s as close to books as I could get and still be posh. I figured you wouldn’t want your wedding at the newsagent’s and you’re such a booky swot that I thought you’d like this.’

I love it. Plus, I know my great grandfather was only a newsvendor, but I like this slight connection to my family. ‘How’d you even know it was possible to have a reception in a place like this? I figured it’d have to be in a hotel.’

Kelly nods. ‘I know. That’s why you made me your bridesmaid.’ She taps her forehead. ‘Lateral thinking.’

‘I thought I made you my bridesmaid because you threatened to kill me otherwise.’

‘I only threatened to kill you when you made Cressida bridesmaid.’

‘Don’t start on Cressida, please.’ Her feelings about Daniel’s friend are a whole story that’s not worth getting into just now.

She pretends not to hear me. ‘With me you get your life, and you get your lateral thinking for free.’

‘A two-for-one offer.’ Once a market trader, always a market trader.

She leads us down some steps to a big wooden door that swings open as soon as she presses the bell.

The man standing in the doorway might be around our age, but he’s got about nine strands of blond hair left on his head, which are swept back with some kind of unfortunate gel that makes it look like the raked sand in a Japanese zen garden.

We just about keep straight faces when he calls us Miss Liddell and Miss McCarthy and introduces himself as Mr Thompson-Smythe. He’ll make a perfect head teacher if this job doesn’t work out.

‘After you, Miss,’ Kell says to me.

‘No, after you, Miss,’ I say back.

Mr Thompson-Smythe smiles blandly.

He leads us down a corridor lined with oil paintings of old men who all look like Margaret Thatcher, asking about my wedding plans so far. I feel his disappointment when I say there aren’t many. Emma must try harder.

‘We’re keeping it small,’ I offer him. ‘Maybe around sixty?’ As long as Philippa doesn’t go overboard with the invitations.

‘Terrific,’ he says. Sixty is obviously the perfect number for a wedding in his opinion. ‘Well, this is the Stock Room. It can seat up to sixty guests or have a hundred guests standing. Are you thinking of dinner or just a drinks reception?’

‘Erm, I don’t know,’ I say, looking up. Giant brass chandeliers hang from the lofty ceiling, which is painted white, gold and blue. It’s not a huge room, and with the walls all clad in dark wood and covered in livery shields, it feels a little oppressive.

‘Terrific,’ says Mr Thompson-Smythe again to reward my indecision. ‘The oak panelling dates from the seventeenth century and we do allow candlelight in this room.’

Seventeenth-century panelling! I wouldn’t let anyone light a candle near it.

Mr Thompson-Smythe pushes through the wooden double doors at one end of the room to let us into a huge hall that’s panelled like the one we just came from. It’s a lot brighter, though, thanks to an enormous stained-glass window at one end.

Henry VIII banqueting tables are pushed up against the walls and a few colourful flags hang high up to round out the medieval feel.

Mr Thompson-Smythe watches us take it all in. ‘The floors and panelling in this room are oak and date from the sixteenth century. The original liveries are on the carved shields above the panelling and candlelight is allowed in here too. Would you have candles?’

He’s really pushing the candlelight. Maybe they’re trying to keep the electricity bills down. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Terrific.’

I’m starting to suspect he’s not really paying attention to my answers.

‘What do you think?’ Kelly whispers as Mr Thompson-Smythe scurries away to pretend not to listen.

It’s definitely right up my future mother-in-law’s street. ‘I like it, but … it just feels a bit formal. That’s not it, exactly, but do you know what I mean?’

‘Too posh for us? It’s like royals would have a party here.’

‘Mmm, no, just not our style.’ I smile at Mr Thompson-Smythe, who creeps back to our side.

‘Do you have any questions?’ he asks. ‘Miss McCarthy checked and the hall is free on your proposed wedding day.’

‘Oh, good,’ I say, not wanting to reject his sixteenth-century décor and hurt his feelings. ‘It’s very beautiful. And there’d be plenty of room for us. What’s the cost to hire it?’

‘The hire fee is four thousand and seven hundred pounds, plus VAT. We’d require a small deposit to hold the booking.’

‘Terrific,’ I say, casually leaning on one of the banqueting tables to keep my legs from going. ‘And does that include … food?’

‘No, it’s the hire fee only. We can supply you with a list of caterers, though.’

Unless they supply me with a bank account to pay them, this is never going to work.

‘The fee does include the whole building,’ he continues, ‘so you’ll have use of all the rooms, and the garden as well. You could have a pre-dinner drinks reception outside, for example, if the weather is nice, then dinner in the Livery Hall and dancing in the Stock Room. We’re very flexible.’

For nearly five thousand quid they should be more flexible than a circus contortionist.

Kelly can see I’m having trouble breathing. ‘We’ve got more venues to see, so can we get back in touch in a few days?’

‘Of course. Would you like to see the Court Room?’

He can tell he’s losing his audience.

‘Nah, that’s okay, thanks,’ she says. ‘We’ll ring you, okay?’

I can’t get out of there fast enough.

Four thousand seven hundred quid to hire a room for the day? They must be insane. All that panelling and candle wax has addled Mr Thompson-Smythe’s brain. I’m trying not to panic, but it’s hitting me just how hard this is going to be.

‘I thought Daniel’s family offered to help,’ Kelly says. ‘Do you need to sit down? You don’t look good.’

I sigh. ‘They did offer, but Dad’s adamant that he doesn’t want their help. He says he should be able to take care of his own family.’

‘That’s so sad, with everything he’s been through,’ says Kell. ‘I feel sorry for him.’

A lump wells up in my throat. That’s been happening a lot lately when I think about how Dad must feel. ‘At first I thought he was just being his usual stubborn self, but it’s really important to him that he and Mum do this for me. He’d be crushed if he thought someone else had to pay for my wedding. I’ve got to figure out a way to do this.’

Kell puts her arm around me as we turn our backs on the Stationers’ Hall. ‘You don’t have to do it on your own. I’ve got some savings that you could have if you need it.’

‘Thank you, but even all our money together won’t cover the cost of something like this. And it’s just the start. We’ll need food and drink too.’

Kelly purses her lips. ‘What if we did a takeaway, fish and chips or a curry or something? That’d only be six or seven quid a head. That’s not too expensive.’

I nod. ‘It’s a bargain. Then we’d just need another five thousand quid to have somewhere to eat our takeaway. No, this is going to have to be on a shoestring. And by shoestring, I mean the flimsiest piece of thread you’ve ever seen.’

The problem is, Daniel’s family is expecting those shoestrings to lace up a fancy pair of Manolos. I’ve got the sinking feeling that a curry and a can of lager isn’t going to cut it for them.

‘There is another place closer to home,’ she says as our bus pulls up. ‘It’s the library at Queen Mary. You could even walk there on your wedding day. Save a few bob on bus fare.’

‘That one pound fifty will come in handy, but it doesn’t really make a dent in the hire fee, does it?’

There’s got to be another option that’s within our budget and, since I can be as stubborn as my dad, I’ll just have to find it.

 

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THE BIG LITTLE WEDDING IN CARLTON SQUARE: Chapter 1

You might have heard that there’s a new romcom author in town… only she’s not new! She’s a mystery and HarperCollins has asked me to share the first three chapters of her upcoming novel, THE BIG LITTLE WEDDING IN CARLTON SQUARE, to see if you can guess her real identity before she’s unmasked on April 6th.

So if you like a mystery, and romcom, read on!

Chapter 2 will post tomorrow and Chapter 3 on April 5th. HarperImpulse is unmasking Lilly on the 6th, so be sure to enter your guess before then (link is at the end) and be in with a chance to win a prize from the puhblisher.

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THE BIG LITTLE WEDDING IN CARLTON SQUARE by Lilly Bartlett

CHAPTER 1

Breathe, Emma. Pretend this is just a perfectly normal walk, like the time we went rambling all over Hampstead Heath and even though it started to drizzle and Auntie Rose had spent ages getting my hair straight, I acted like I’d been wishing for a clammy mist to come along and soak me through.

No, wait, that’s when Daniel told me he loved me. With water dribbling off my nose, frizzy hair and all. Oh god.

The important thing is to be cool and calm and not to act like some crazy person about to be proposed to. That’s how I’ll want Daniel to think of me whenever he remembers the day we got engaged. His cool, calm girlfriend who answered with something clever and nonchalant but still genuine and emotional.

Because I’m sure that’s what this is. In the entire history of the South Bank, the only people who’ve ever come here to walk along its wide Thames-side promenade are tourists and lovers.

It’s not only the location that’s alerted me. There’ve been clues, though I’m sure Daniel thinks he’s been subtle. A few months ago as we cuddled on his sofa with a bottle of wine and a film neither of us was very interested in, out of the blue he asked, ‘Do you ever wear rings? I just wondered because Mummy does.’

I should explain about the Mummy thing before we go any further, otherwise you’ll be picturing someone not very appealing. Daniel is very appealing. He’s not a mama’s boy (or a mummy’s boy). That’s just what posh people call their mums. It’s why he speaks like his jaw is wired open and loves red trousers, even though he’s only twenty-five. He might be a bit hard to understand sometimes because he slides over most of the syllables in words but lands on the letters at the ends. Isn’T thaT amaahzing? I’m getting pretty good at translating him into normal, though, so I’ll do my best.

Anyway, that one little question was the biggest clue that he might be thinking in the long term. There were other things too – mentions of future plans, including what sounded like a Christmas invitation to his family’s next year, even though we’ve just passed Valentine’s Day. But he asked about the ring months ago and, forewarned, I did shave my legs nearly every day after that (and definitely for Valentine’s Day, just in case), though lately I’ve reverted to my normal shaving-twice-a-week-if-I’m-lucky stubble.

All of which is to say that I’m not as prepared for today as I’d like. My hair’s got a weird kink and instead of a killer outfit I’m in my usual jeans and trainers and my winter wool coat that I should have replaced last year when it started to pill. It’s too warm for a wool coat anyway. I can feel my face sweating. Just to complete that marry-me look.

Daniel, I now notice, is dressed up. He’s wearing his tan brogues with his red trousers, and the stripy scarf I got him for Christmas is looped over his navy jumper.

I have to catch my breath when I sneak a glance at him. In the early spring sunshine his hair and complexion are golden, even though we haven’t been away all winter. He’s got the kind of skin you see on gorgeous Scandinavians in those adverts selling extra-healthy yogurt, with pinkish lips and just the right amount of stubble for a Saturday afternoon. He catches me with his bright blue eyes, edged with the longest, thickest brown lashes this side of a Rimmel advert.

‘Everything all right?’ His arm tightens around my shoulder, which fits perfectly into his armpit as long as I’m in trainers. Which I am, as previously explained.

‘Everything’s perfect.’ And I mean it. I’ve been in a near-constant state of happiness since the day we got together.

‘I think so too,’ he says. ‘This is perfect.’

Something about the way he says it tells me this is the moment. Even if I hadn’t had the clues first, I would have known.

Gently he steers me to the stone wall at the edge of the river. The tide is going out and it smells a bit fishy, but I wouldn’t mind doing this on top of a rubbish tip. ‘I know we haven’t been going out very long,’ he says. ‘But–’

‘Nearly a year,’ I remind him. Shush, Emma. Let the man speak.

‘Yah, nearly a year.’ He envelops my hands in the warmth of his. ‘And I’ve known for nearly that long how much I love you. You aren’t like anyone I’ve ever met before and I feel like I could spend the rest of my life learning more about you. And the more I learn, the more I love, so … …’ When he drops down on one knee I’m aware of people starting to stare. ‘Emma Liddell, will you please make me the happiest man on earth by marrying me?’

My eyes are so glued to his hopeful face that I almost don’t notice the box he pulls from his pocket.

But I notice the ring when he pops open the box.

‘Daniel! That’s–’ Huge. It’s a square-cut diamond whose sparkles could do permanent retina damage in this sunshine. ‘I can’t let you go into debt like this.’ He only works for a charity.

‘I’m not in debt. It’s a family ring.’

‘Which family? The Queen’s?’

His face reddens. ‘They have a bit of money. I didn’t like to mention it because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t, does it?’

He looks like he’s just confessed an infectious disease. ‘No.’ I laugh. ‘I think I can manage to love you anyway.’

‘Is that a yes, then?’

‘It’s a yes! Of course it’s a yes, I love you!’ We fling our arms around each other to the enthusiastic applause of the tourists, and maybe even a few of the lovers, on the South Bank.

‘I cannot wait to marry you, Emma Liddell,’ he murmurs just before he kisses me.

Two weeks later …

When Daniel said his family had a bit of money he failed to mention that he grew up in a mansion. Not a mansion block but an actual bona fide mansion – four floors high, white stucco-fronted with black-and-white chequered tiles in the doorway under the portico and an ornate wrought-iron fence to keep out the riffraff. Not that any riffraff probably comes to this part of London.

I can’t stop staring up at the façade. My feet don’t want to move and the rest of me is taking orders from them. If the neighbours catch sight of me, they’ll be straight on the phone to the Old Bill about someone casing the place.

The last time I was inside such a grand home I’d mopped its floors with Mum. She’s never going to believe this.

Huge topiary trees flank the black front door, which is so shiny I can almost see my reflection. I pinch a leaf from one of the trees. Real. Of course it is. The heavy lion-headed knocker makes an echoing boom inside.

Daniel didn’t let on about any of this, not the huge family house or the topiary or the knocker. He was so uncomfortable when telling me about his family having money that I felt bad bringing it up again. He’s right – we’re marrying each other, not our families.

I’ve met Daniel’s parents and sister several times before, but they’ve never mentioned any of this either. I’d assumed we always met at restaurants because his mum doesn’t cook, but now I suspect he’s been keeping this dirty little rich secret from me. It’s hard to get too cross about that.

The slender blonde woman who opens the door is about my age. She smiles her greeting and steps aside for me. She’s wearing black trousers and a white blouse, which makes me feel better. I was worried I hadn’t dressed up enough for this do.

‘Hiya, I’m Emma Liddell.’ I stick out my hand, but she just looks confused.

Maybe I should have cheek-kissed her? Daniel is always kissing people he’s just met.

‘May I take your, erm, helmet?’ she asks.

We both glance at the duck-egg blue helmet under my arm. It’s not exactly a Louis Vuitton. Now I’ve got a second reason to wish I hadn’t driven my scooter. It had looked so little and careworn parked out front amongst all the Rollers and Audis.

‘Sure, here. Sorry, I didn’t get your name?’

She takes my helmet, ignoring my question. ‘The guests are through there.’

I turn away quickly so she won’t see my cheeks flush. She’s not one of Daniel’s friends who happens to be dressed in black and white and answering the door. She’s their maid.

That’s a great start.

I can hear loads of people in the room where she’s pointed. It seems like about a mile between there and the front door. Possibly because Daniel’s hallway is bigger than my entire house. Wide stairs run up on one side and the ceiling must be fifteen feet high. Everything is painted either boring pale grey or white, with a huge silver mirror on one wall and tall vases of lilies on the long black table underneath. The only interesting thing I spot is the giant copper and glass lantern that hangs from the ceiling, like the ones you find outside pubs. I hold on to that tiny little slice of home comfort as I make my way towards the noise.

I should have asked the maid to get Daniel for me so I wouldn’t have to walk in alone. What if I don’t see him right away? What if he’s not here yet? I only know his parents and sister, and I definitely can’t talk to them without Daniel here.

Not that they’re rude. Just in a different world.

The world I’m about to join. If they’ll have me.

There aren’t as many people in the room as I’d feared and of course Daniel’s mother, Philippa, sees me straightaway. So much for hiding in the corner. ‘Emma, darling!’ she cries. ‘It’s so wonderful finally to have you here in our home. We’ve been bothering Daniel for months to invite you and now, finally, here you are with us.’ She hold my hands out, which she’s got grasped in hers. ‘Don’t you look lovely?’

‘Thank you. And thank you for this party.’ I say this to both Philippa and Daniel’s father, Hugh, who’s standing beside her. Hugh doesn’t usually make an appearance unless Philippa makes him, so she’s clearly making him. I’m not surprised he stays in the background with a force of nature like Philippa around. She’s a take charge kind of woman, whether you like it or not. Daniel told me she even orchestrated Hugh’s marriage proposal. But they seem to rub along okay, so maybe he’d have got around to it eventually on his own.

Philippa waves her hand at the room. ‘Oh, this is nothing, just something I cobbled together so we can celebrate!’

I glance at the silver and the sparkling champagne glasses laid on blue linen tablecloths, the stacks of cocktail napkins that look like real linen too. She’s even got matching waiters, and I don’t mean they’re dressed alike. They’re clones of one another.

Philippa looks perfectly put together as usual. She’s got on a navy wool dress that probably cost more than I earn in a year, though if I compliment her on it she’ll say, ‘What? This old thing? It’s been in the back of my closet for ages.’ And then she’ll try to give it to me, even though she’s about a foot taller than I am. Because she’s very gracious like that.

She’s not classically pretty – more handsome. And tall, like I said. Her big booming voice matches her personality and she’s exactly what you’d picture if I told you she’s a hearty woman. She’s somewhere north of fifty, but how far north is anyone’s guess. Could be Manchester, could be the Orkneys. She’s got a few lines around her mouth and a few around her eyes, but she hasn’t tried to Botox or fill them. Too much bother, she claims. She probably colours her hair too, but the dark blonde looks completely natural. Daniel says she used to have it all the way down her back when she was young, but now she wears it in a bob like nearly all the other women in the room. Something about giving birth seems to make women cut off their hair.

I doubt I’d ever do that. Not that my hair is overly long now. If I tip my head back, it reaches my bra strap. It’s naturally wavy, but Auntie Rose did me a blow-dry this morning.

I’ll never be able to subtly hide the grey like Philippa can, though. Not that I need to reach for the L’Oréal yet. I’m only twenty-four and my hair’s nearly jet black, thanks to a great great (great? I forget) grandfather, imaginatively known as Blacky all his life. I’m the only one in the family who’s got his hair. Mum’s even got a natural ginger tinge, or so she claims. Auntie Rose has done her colour forever – it’s always red but veers between Amy Adams and Prince Harry.

‘Right, you must come meet our dear, dear friends,’ Philippa says, leaving Hugh standing on his own with his drink. I catch his wink as his wife drags me off. Better me than him, it says.

‘May I introduce you to George and India, Lord and Lady Mucking? George’s parents were lifelong friends of Hugh and me, and we’ve known George since he was born!’

Lady Mucking is pretty and plump, with the requisite blonde bob. Her nose is slightly big but nothing compared to her husband’s. I could stay dry in a hurricane under that thing. But his face is friendly and they both smile when Philippa introduces us. They’re older than me – probably in their late thirties – but not nearly as old as I imagined lords and ladies would be. Though for all I know the upper classes might give birth to fully grown lords. Or maybe they sprout like tulips every few years in the Queen’s garden.

‘India, George,’ says Philippa. ‘May I introduce Emma Liddell, Daniel’s fiancée!’

I can hardly believe I’m marrying into this lot. I had no idea it was this bad. I mean good. Of course I mean good.

‘Very pleased to meet you both,’ I say as I shake their hands. I’ve never knowingly touched a lord before. His hand is sweaty. Maybe he’s never knowingly touched a commoner.

‘Hellair! Lidl, you say?’ asks George. ‘As in the supermarket? I knew it was family-owned. Are they Lidls?’

I nearly guffaw at the idea that I’m part of some supermarket dynasty, till I catch on that he’s serious.

‘No, no, not related. L, I, double D, E, double L. I think Lidl is German. We’ve been in East London forever. Dad’s traced us back to the eighteen-eighty census.’

‘Yah, our family was in Burma then,’ George says.

‘You’re a cockney?’ India asks. Her hands twinkle with jewels as they fly to her chest. ‘That’s delightful! Let me see, yah, I remember. Did you come up the apples and stairs just now?’

I smile indulgently. Anyone west of Farringdon thinks we all talk like the cast off Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. ‘I did and I’m Hank Marvin for one of those.’ I snatch a tiny sausage roll from a passing tray.

India looks confused. ‘I mean starving. Is Daniel here?’ I ask Philippa, trying not to sound as panicky as I’m starting to feel.

‘Oh yes, he’s just gone to check on the kitchen. They’re being awfully slow with the rest of the canapes.’

Sure enough, Daniel wanders in, amiably chatting with a waiter who’s carrying a tray of what might be miniature pancakes.

‘Em!’ He scoops me up in his arms for a gentle kiss. ‘You look gorgeous.’

‘Not too …?’ Market stall? I want to ask. It’s a plain little black dress with lace on the short sleeves and down the front, but I wonder if Daniel’s crowd can tell it’s not designer. It feels wrong wearing lace when the rest of the room is in wool and silk, and nobody aside from the staff is wearing black.

‘It’s just right,’ Daniel says. ‘You’re beautiful. You haven’t been here long, have you? I got caught up talking with Pavel in the kitchen. We were in the same village in Laos in the same month, isn’t that amazing?’

Pavel seems to be the waiter that Daniel walked in with. Sure enough, when Daniel waves at him, Pavel waves self-consciously back.

Daniel’s got one of those naturally friendly faces that means strangers are always stopping him for directions, and he’s so nice that sometimes he even walks them to their destination. I love that he’s always striking up conversations like this. If he didn’t, we’d never have met.

‘I’m awfully sorry I wasn’t here when you arrived,’ he murmurs as we edge out of earshot of Lord Mucking. ‘You’re ever-so brave to face this mob on your own.’

I think it’s kind of brave too. But then I’m going to have to get used to it sooner rather than later. ‘You didn’t mention that you’re stonking rich,’ I say. ‘I thought you took our course because you were interested in the historical architecture of stately homes. Not because your family lives in one.’

His expression is slightly bemused, like he’s seeing his family’s lounge for the first time. It’s about the size of one of the galleries at Tate Britain, and if I’m not mistaken, the painting on the burnished panelling over the fireplace is a Constable. They could have put velvet ropes around Lord and Lady Mucking and charged an entrance fee.

‘But I did tell you what Father does,’ he says.

Something for Lloyds, he’d told me. We used to have a Lloyds branch not far from us, but it closed down. Nobody working there looked like they could afford all this, even if they were the manager.

But I’ve got it wrong. It’s not Lloyds the bank but an insurer by the same name, and Daniel’s father is a lot bigger than a branch manager.

‘He helps underwrite their insurance.’ Daniel catches my expression and shrugs. ‘It means he provides the money to pay out when insurance claims are made.’

‘Like when someone wrecks his car or gets his phone nicked,’ I say. ‘What’s in it for him if he’s fronting all this money?’

‘They give him a percentage of the insurance premiums and he hopes there aren’t too many claims. They’re specialist insurers so they underwrite bigger things than stolen phones. More like military coups and earthquakes. Or Michael Flatley’s legs or Bruce Springsteen’s vocal chords or …’ He clasps his chest. ‘Dolly Parton’s breasts.’

‘Dolly Parton’s breasts are definitely bigger than a mobile phone. And your dad gets a cut of these premiums.’ My head swims as I take this in. ‘I see. Is this his only job? I only ask because keeping up a gaff like this must be expensive. My dad had the same problem with our council flat, so he was a taxi driver and a trader down the market, as you know.’

He laughs at my lame joke. ‘He’s got his own investment portfolio too. I’ve told you, it really doesn’t matter.’ Pronounced rahly. He looks worried that I might bolt at the news that he’s genuinely minted. ‘You’re marrying me, not my family.’

‘I know, it’s just that I’m not used to a house quite like this.’ That’s the understatement of a lifetime, considering that I share a bedroom with Auntie Rose at home.

He runs his fingers through his blond thatch. ‘Right, darling, I haven’t been completely honest with you, but please promise you won’t judge me.’ He waits for me to nod, though my tummy is starting a series of forward rolls that doesn’t feel nice. ‘I did mean to tell you about my family. I don’t usually have to say anything when I meet people in our circles. Everyone knows everyone, at least by reputation. But we met and I liked you so much and it’s just that you’re so …’

‘Poor? Working class? Not like you?’

‘Normal. I was going to say normal, Em. And we got along so well that our backgrounds didn’t seem to matter. Or at least I hoped they didn’t. You can see why I didn’t mention anything at first, can’t you? Then as time went on it got harder to say “Oh, by the way, my family is wealthy” without sounding like a tosser. Besides, that’s them, not me. I only work for a charity, remember?’

He looks honestly anguished about his family. ‘You make it sound like they’re criminals,’ I say. ‘So you’re a rich boy done good, eh? Breaking that horrible cycle of wealth?’

That makes him laugh. ‘I sound like a spoiled twat, I know, I’m sorry. It sounds ridiculous no matter how I explain it, but wealth does seem like a crime to some people.’

‘And you were worried that I might think so too?’

‘I was too bowled over by you to take a chance like that, even though I should have known you wouldn’t judge. I’m rahly sorry my family is wealthy,’ he says. ‘There’s nothing I can do about that.’

So he did shield me from the worst of it. I mean the best of it. I’ve got to stop saying that. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get over it,’ I tell him. ‘Somehow I’ll manage to overlook your bank account.’

‘My bank account only has my salary in it … and not even much of that these days.’

‘There you are!’ Abby bounces toward us. It’s a welcome interruption, to be honest. I’m not wild about the idea that Daniel kept all this from me, but I have to admit I see why he did it. It’s been tricky enough breaking the news to my side that I’m in love with a public school-educated bloke who shops organic. I’m not going to be the one to tell them that the prime minister is probably on his family’s Christmas card list too.

Abby is Daniel’s little sister and could have been cloned from their mum, except she’s a few inches shorter with longer blonde hair, the same shade as Daniel’s. Watching them together always makes me think of golden retrievers. ‘How long do I have to stay?’

‘Are you not enjoying our engagement party?’ Daniel asks.

She rolls her blue eyes. ‘It’s the same people we always see. Besides, nobody does engagement parties anymore. Not since Mummy and Daddy were married back in the dark ages.’

I feel the flush creeping up my neck as I think about the do Mum wanted to throw for us.

Daniel remembers it too, because he says, ‘Do try and keep up. Everyone’s doing them now.’ He puts his arm around me. ‘Come along, Em, duty calls. We’ll say hellair to all the bores and then we can relax.’

It’s not easy keeping track of who’s a lord and who’s a sir, so I just end up nodding and smiling at everyone as Daniel lets his mother drag us round the room. Every so often she pulls my hand in front of one of her friends for inspection.

I haven’t been able to stop staring at the ring since Daniel put it on my finger. Mum nearly fell over when she saw it.

Frankly, I’d have been just as happy if he’d stuck a Foster’s pull tab on my ring finger. I can’t wait to marry this man.

‘Emma works for a Vespa dealer!’ Philippa volunteers to the group I’ve just met. ‘You know, those darling little Italian scooters that are so fun.’

I thought she was just being polite when I first told her where I work, but for some reason she thinks selling scooters is interesting. Maybe it’s because everyone else she knows is busy running boring old banks or funding coups or whatever Daniel’s dad does.

‘Do you know that Anna Green got them for her grandchildren at Christmas? To ride round the estate,’ says one of Philippa’s friends.

If anyone rode a Vespa round the estates near me, it’d get nicked before it turned the first corner. I’m guessing Anna Green’s estate is a bit different. It would be, if she’s handing out five-thousand-quid scooters to her grandkids.

‘And not only that,’ Philippa carries on like nobody has mentioned Anna Green and her grandchildren, ‘she’s about to graduate from uni! Working and studying, clever girl! I couldn’t do both.’

‘You’ve barely done either,’ says one of Philippa’s interchangeable friends, though Philippa doesn’t seem to hear her. ‘When’s the big day?’

Everybody’s eyebrows rise towards the ornately plastered ceiling when I tell them we’re doing it in three months.

‘There’s no reason to wait,’ Daniel explains. ‘I’d marry Emma next week if Mummy wasn’t so set on the party.’

Everyone asks us this question and believe me, we’ve looked at it from all angles. No matter how we do our sums, we won’t have much more money in a year than we’ve got now. Sure, we could save a bit if we moved in together, but then my rent would go to a landlord instead of my mum and dad, and that would cause a whole other set of problems. They don’t like to talk about it, but my parents can really use that money. So if anything, it’s not the approaching wedding that worries me but the dent that my moving out is going to put in their household budget.

‘It won’t be a big wedding, though,’ I say. ‘Maybe sixty people? Just our families and close friends.’ We could go over the top and take an age to plan a big do, but we’re not bothered about the groomsmen’s bowties matching the serviettes or making photo montages of Daniel and me drooling through our childhoods. We just need someone to marry us. Throw in a bit of food and lots of drinks and everyone will be happy.

‘Sixty!’ Philippa laughs. ‘We’ve got more than that just from our side, darlings. It’ll have to be bigger, but don’t worry, I’ve got lots of ideas.’

My mouth feels a little dry.

‘What kind of ideas?’ her friend asks as Daniel’s godfather, Harold, and his wife join us. There was a slightly awkward moment when Daniel first introduced me to Harold and I said, ‘So you’re The Godfather,’ making Italian hand gestures and talking like I had a mouth full of cotton. Everyone stared at me and I had to pretend I hadn’t just done that. Harold is a lord too, but I don’t curtsy or anything. The less attention I draw to myself, the better.

‘I thought that as it will be summer we could have the whole thing under arched trellises that make a roof woven with flowers. Yah, and hang them with crystal chandeliers!’ Philippa beams. ‘Or even build a structure to suspend an entire hanging garden!’

The assembled crowd all nod, murmuring yah, yah. Philippa’s got a feverish glint in her eye that’s making me nervous. Hanging gardens? Where are we – Babylon?

‘I’m not sure–’

Bless her, she picks up right away on my discomfort. ‘Oh, darling, I don’t want to step on your toes, not at all! Maybe chandeliers aren’t your style. Of course we could use whatever you’d like. Maybe something more modern, like those gorgeous exposed lightbulbs that Heston has at his restaurant in the Mandarin. Only we could have hundreds of them lighting up the night. Wouldn’t that be romantic? Imagine!’

Yeah, imagine. Imagine the cost. I bet Heston didn’t get his lights from the B&Q sales bin like I’m planning to do.

And imagine Mum and Dad’s reaction if I tell them we’re building hanging gardens so we can suspend chandeliers. They’d send me straight to the GP to have my head examined. No, they wouldn’t need to. I’d make the appointment myself.

But Philippa looks perfectly serious. ‘If you want something more traditional, we could do crystal, yah, for the tables, and silver cutlery. Or gold? Does anyone do gold anymore? I can’t keep up with all the trends! And a gorgeous vintage pattern for the plates. We could even use my pattern if you like it, though you’d need to hire since I’ve only got place settings for forty-eight.’

Who has actual china for forty-eight people? The only time I’ve sat down to eat with that many people was at Uncle Colin’s fundraiser for the RNLI. We ate off the Tesco Value range.

Now’s probably not the time to tell my future mother-in-law that Mum and Dad suggested a casual do in Uncle Colin’s pub after the wedding. Actually, it’s probably not the time to tell Daniel, either. He looks pretty excited about his mother’s ideas. We’ll need to talk about this.

‘What do you think of fish?’ Philippa asks.

‘I like fish.’ Though I wasn’t thinking of a sit-down meal. Maybe some snacks. We could push the boat out and get them from M&S.

‘You could have enormous tanks of the most beautiful fish!’ Philippa says. ‘We could give them away in little bowls to the guests after the party. Wouldn’t that be fun!’

Yah, yah, everyone but me says.

‘Couldn’t we just return them to the pet shop after the wedding?’

Listen to me. Like I’m actually considering aquariums at our wedding.

‘Oh darling, you are hilarious. We’ll need favours for the guests anyhow. This way we can double up. Although maybe you’d rather do jewellery or key fobs? Aspinal have beautiful things.’

‘We’d like to keep the costs down,’ Daniel says. Finally, the voice of reason. ‘We’re only a young couple!’

Right. The last thing we want is to end up twenty grand in debt.

‘Of course, darlings. You just give me a budget and tell me whatever you want. I’ll find it for you.’

‘You’ll marry in St Stephen’s?’ asks Philippa’s other friend. Daniel’s father and godfather and the other men have stood silently while their wives fire off the questions. They’re probably mulling over football scores, or whatever rich people think about when they’re not counting their money.

‘Erm, actually we were thinking of a registry wedding. In a nice registry, though.’

‘Not church?’

‘My family’s not really religious,’ I say.

‘Right. St Stephen’s is only C of E,’ Philippa’s friend assures me. ‘It’s not religious either.’

That still wouldn’t go over well with Dad, but I’m not going to be the one to argue with Philippa’s friend.

Somehow I’ve got to get the discussion away from gold cutlery and chandeliers or next they’ll start demanding swans. With Aspinal jewellery.

‘Have you been to East London at all?’ I ask everyone.

Harold, Daniel’s godfather, comes to life suddenly. He cuts an imposing figure in the room with his tall, broad-shouldered physique and thick white hair that streams, mane-like, from his head. ‘Yah, when I worked in the City, before we moved to the wharf,’ he says. ‘We used to go to Brick Lane quite a lot for a curry.’

‘And probably to Shoreditch for a lap dance!’ I add. Whoops. Perhaps I shouldn’t have accused Lord Godfather of stuffing notes into G-strings.

But he roars with laughter. ‘Indeed, yes!’

His wife smiles indulgently. ‘Oh, Harold.’

This is truly another world. If Dad ever confessed that in front of Mum, she’d knock his teeth out.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Daniel’s family. They’ve been nothing but kind to me and I’m sure all their friends are nice too. It’s just that I’m not exactly up to their usual standard, am I? It’s so constantly apparent that they can’t help but notice it. So far they’ve been too polite to say anything, but it’s just a matter of time.

I’m dead on my feet when we get back to Daniel’s, and pleased to see that his flatmate, Jacob, isn’t home. Not that I ever feel like the third wheel even when he is. I know technically he should be the extra wheel, not me, but since he and Daniel have been mates since school, there was potential for some tension. Far from it. Jacob made me feel completely welcome despite my crashing his lad’s pad. In fact, at first he acted like I was the first girl Daniel had ever brought home. Needless to say I like him all the better for that.

It probably helps that even though it’s not a big flat it never feels cramped. Its layout is all nineteenth-century higgledy-piggledy, with the front door all the way down a winding set of stairs at the bottom of the building, the high-ceilinged eat-in kitchen at the opposite end to the cosy lounge and Daniel’s bedroom set under the eaves up in the converted loft.

It’s teatime, but I feel a little sick from all the canapes. I’ve had to get used to eating like this since meeting Daniel. His family and friends like to have what they call ‘nibbles’. Philippa laid on enough canapes to feed an army. So don’t blame me for eating like a cadet. Emma Liddell, reporting for eating, Sir!

‘God, I’m glad that’s over,’ Daniel says as he throws himself down beside me on the lumpy old settee and offers to rub my sore feet. My shoes might look Fendi-esque, but the blisters are pure Primark. ‘Now that you’ve been properly introduced, Harold said you’ll have to come along for supper with me next month.’ His thumb finds the spot in the middle of my foot that he knows I love to have massaged.

‘I had to be properly introduced first?’ Maybe I should have curtseyed.

Daniel laughs. It was that laugh that I first noticed when we met. He throws himself into it with his entire body. I dare anyone not to at least smile when they hear him. ‘He’s old-fashioned,’ he explains. ‘I hope you weren’t awfully uncomfortable today. Mummy does like a party, and I know those social engagements can be tedious. I’ve always hated them. But now it’s just us again.’ He leans over to kiss me. ‘So, formalities finished, we can focus on our wedding.’

‘Aw, have you been dreaming about being a bride ever since you were a little girl?’ I tease.

‘Who do you think you’re talking to, Emma Liddell? I’ve always thought of myself as an independent woman,’ he says. ‘No man is going to tell me what to do.’ He snaps his fingers, then laughs at his own joke. ‘In all honesty I never imagined myself being married.’ His eyes meet mine. ‘Until I met you.’

This should be cheesy, right? But Daniel says things like that a lot, and with such feeling that I have to bite down my urge to take the piss. That’s just my nerves anyway. I’m not used to being loved so obviously. Okay, I’m not used to being loved at all. I’ve had exactly six boyfriends in my life and two of those might not even agree with the title. Still, not such a bad track record for a twenty-four-year-old living at home who’s known ninety per cent of the men in her neighbourhood since she was in nappies.

I’ve never been in love with any of them like I am with Daniel. Sometimes that frightens me, but then I see him and know he’s in just as deep. ‘I’ve never wanted to marry anyone else either,’ I say. ‘There’s just one thing …’

His thumb stops its rubbing. ‘What is it, Em?’

‘Nothing bad! It’s just that your mum has a lot of ideas about the wedding.’

He starts working on my other foot. ‘She’s ever-so excited. It is the first wedding in the family.’

‘I know, and I want her to be involved. It’s just that everything sounds kind of expensive.’ Kind of expensive? I’ve already calculated what it would cost to give all our guests a cheap necklace from Accessorize. It’s about half my savings. ‘Like you said, your parents might be able to clear the UK national debt, but we don’t have a lot of money ourselves and we really shouldn’t be going in to debt for a party, right? Would you mind very much if we keep it really low-key?’

He gathers me into his arms, shifting till we find the lying-down position on the settee that doesn’t make my arm go numb. When we first figured out that this was possible, it seemed like the universe telling us that we really are perfect together. ‘I don’t mind,’ he says. ‘I just want to spend the rest of my life with you. My side can pitch in as much or as little as we want. Besides, I’m sure a wedding doesn’t have to cost that much.’

‘This is based on what, your vast amount of wedding-planning experience?’ I say, as I spot a crumpled bank statement peeking out from under the settee. Who knows how long it’s been there? Daniel and Jacob really need a cleaner. Snatching it up, my eye falls on the balance. And on the account owner’s name.

‘Daniel?’

Suddenly we’re sitting up staring at each other with the bank statement between us.

‘Don’t worry,’ he says. ‘I’ll pay it off. I needed a new suit, that’s all.’

‘Made of what, solid gold?’

He laughs. ‘You’d be proud of me, actually. I channelled my inner Emma and found a rahly good deal. That’s not all from the suit.’

‘That’s not making me feel better. Daniel, we’ve talked about this. Why don’t you just wait until the money’s in the account to buy what you want instead of always playing catch-up?’

‘But you know I’ll pay it down, darling. I always do, don’t I?’

I know he does. He is very good at tightening his belt when he’s spent too much, and he’ll get that overdraft down just like he’s promised.

‘This is all the more reason not to go overboard with the wedding,’ I tell him. ‘Your family won’t need to pitch in. We’ll do something nice that we can afford. Mum and Dad have some money for us.’

‘Em, your family shouldn’t have to pay for everything when we’re more than happy to contribute. After all, it’s my side that wants a blowout and Mummy has already offered. Your parents will let us help, won’t they?’

‘We’ll see. Let’s look at our options first, okay?’

But I already know what Dad’s going to say about the idea of Daniel’s family paying for his only daughter’s wedding because he can’t afford to.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

READ CHAPTER 2 TOMORROW

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Top 5 Romantic Heroes || GUEST POST by Charlotte Butterfield

by Charlotte Butterfield

 

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When I was writing the character of Will in Me, You and Tiramisu, I wanted to create a man that was devastatingly handsome, but also a bit cheeky. Charming, but not sleazy. Funny, but not annoying. Sensitive but not in a weepy, curl-up-in-a-ball type way. It was a bit of a tall order, so I started looking back at my favourite heroes in TV and film for inspiration, and here are a few of my favourites:

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  1. The Colin Firth character in Love Actually. He rushes back in the middle of a wedding to check on his sick girlfriend. He writes novels on a typewriter. He owns a French cottage. He learns a new language to converse with the girl he’s in love with. He has a great collection of chunky knitwear.

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  1. Mr Big in Sex and The City. Those eyes. And flirty lip curl. But mainly the eyes.

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  1. Idris Elba in Luther. Ok, so he’s a bit violent, but only with baddies. I am totally in the Elba for Bond camp. Can you imagine that combination?

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  1. William Thacker played by Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. He owns a bookshop. And lives in Notting Hill. He wears shirts with rolled-up sleeves. He has interesting friends and likes going to dinner parties where the wine seems to flow freely. Score.

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  1. Jake Ryan played by Michael Schoeffling in Sixteen Candles. I watched this seminal eighties film when I was a teenager and instantly fell in love with the brooding bad boy. I watched it again recently, and apart from the awful haircuts, high-waisted jeans and general eighties cringiness, I can totally see why my younger self was so weak of the knee.

 

What about you? What are your favourites? Comment below to tell us, and you could win a paperback copy of ME, YOU & TIRAMISU! Or, if you’d rather, just grab your copy by clicking here.

 

Winner will be chosen at random from all eligible entries at noon GMT on Monday 6 March 2017. UK & Ireland only.

Lorraine Wilson: How I Write When I Can Barely Read

Harper Impulse has a lot of authors that have come from extraordinary places and situations, but no one has a story like Lorraine Wilson. Read this post to hear how she has overcome disability that would put most people off reading and writing for life and instead has become the author of nine books and many short stories.

 

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I’m a writer who can’t read.

 

At least, I can read a little, but even a page or two or filling in a form can leave me with disabling symptoms that make it very unpleasant.
Like most writers I used to read for pleasure voraciously. As a child I spent all my pocket money on books. Not a single day went by that I didn’t read, until I had an accident that left me with a brain injury. After that I was left with only audiobooks, which I do love but sadly not all books make it onto audio.

 

More importantly I was left with a pressing problem – how was I going to write? I’d had a full manuscript requested from a publisher before my accident but finishing it seemed like an impossible dream.

 

Thankfully I had an amazing support worker – a speech and language therapist who specialised in acquired dyslexia and who refused to let me give up. She taught me speech to text technology and text to speech. And we found ways around the changes in my brain, around chronic migraines, disabling eye pain, short term memory problems and nerve pain in both my arms. I could work with images, colours and mind maps for plotting my stories. I could do a little on paper when I couldn’t stand to be near a computer, although my writing often comes out jumbled up and even I struggle to make it out. With all those techniques and the emerging accessibility software it has got easier, to the point where I can do most of my writing remotely on my phone using Bluetooth headphones. I still have to use a computer to edit but often get human assistance when my brain can’t cope with remembering changes in plot and different characters. I have to say I couldn’t have wished for nicer, more supportive editors and I have a great group of writing friends – The Minxes of Romance – who refused to let me give up and gave up lots of their own writing time to help me.

 

Finishing my first novella (Confessions of a Chalet Girl) felt amazing. ‘Try a 50 thousand word book next’, my friends urged me. So I did and was astounded when I actually completed it. An 80-90 thousand word book felt utterly insurmountable but then so had all my other goals. And when you break it down to one or two thousand words a day it sounds much less daunting.

 

For ‘Chalet Girls’ I used different colour index cards to keep track of the various characters’ story threads and put a scene prompt on each card to be shuffled into an order I was happy with to make up the overall plot.

 

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I’ve shared a lot today because I want to pass on a bit of advice – if you’re an aspiring writer, don’t waste time. When I think of all the years when I wrote bits here and there, of all the healthy time I didn’t use…it’s enough to make me cry, except that really would be a waste of time!

 

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