Forfeit: Chapters 1-3

© 2014 Caroline Batten. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

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It was the hashtag of her twenty-five year-old life, but from the safety of her sunglasses, Daisy Fitzgerald studied the guys warming up to bat in the village cricket finals and her smile grew. Hiking boots, cagoules and ruddy faced farmers who were overly familiar with their sheep – that’s what she expected when she moved to the Lake District, not eleven pieces of calendar-worthy eye candy. Well, ten – she couldn’t include Clara’s fiancé, Scott, in her mental pin-up.

‘Where did Scott find these blokes?’ Daisy asked. ‘There can’t be a guy in the Miller’s Arms’ team who I’d rate less than a seven.’

‘Check out the opposition, hot or what?’ Clara replied, nodding to their left.

The nearest fielder bent down to tighten his laces and flashed more hairy bum crack than Daisy ever needed to see.

Repressing a shudder, she turned back to the batsmen. They were in a circle, attentively listening as Scott, their captain, discussed team tactics. ‘What I want, is some ego boost flirting.’

‘And the rest. What you need is a shag. It’s been a while.’

‘Six months hardly makes me a born-again virgin.’

‘You sure?’ Clara grinned for a second, but her face soon turned serious. ‘How did it go?’

‘I need a drink.’

‘That good?’

As they headed towards the beer tent, Daisy shed her bank-manager appeasing jacket. ‘He laughed at me, actually laughed at me. The idea of a business loan raised a smirk, but when I mentioned a mortgage, he nearly choked on his tea.’

‘Did he offer you any money?’

‘Not even an overdraft, so that’s a deposit on the bakery cottage out of the window.’

‘Then I have good news. Scott’s found you a house share. It’s with the brother of his best–’

‘Like I want to live with some skanky bloke.’ Daisy swore as she nearly turned her ankle avoiding a cowpat. Her enormous wedge heels were as utterly out of place as her skinny black trousers and vest top. All the other girls wore flip flops and chiffon blouses, the absolute only thing to wear with denim shorts that summer. ‘He’ll expect me to do all the cleaning while he sits around playing on his Xbox.’

‘Beggars, choosers?’

An excellent point, perfectly delivered. Without the twelve hundred pounds she needed for a deposit and first month’s rent, even a dingy flat in the worst part of Haverton looked beyond Daisy’s means. Surely coexisting with some bloke, even a Neanderthal who watched TV with his hands down his pants, had to be better than moving back in with her parents, effectively admitting defeat at her attempt to be a self-sufficient adult.

‘Anyway, he’s–’ Clara held up a hand, shielding the sun from her eyes as the Millers’ Arms huddle broke up. ‘The game’s starting. Go and take some pics of Scott.’

‘He’s your fiancé; you take them.’

‘It’s your camera and I’m crap at taking photos. Please? I’ll buy you a drink. Cheap white wine in a plastic glass?’

Daisy nodded, already taking off the lens cap. Of course, she’d take the photos – the last thing Scott deserved was to be photographically decapitated by his future wife. And like she’d turn down a free drink from Clara.

The Lake District hills and Gosthwaite Hall provided a picturesque backdrop as locals milled around the beer tent and tourists cooed over the homemade craft stalls. Undoubtedly, a fight or three would kick off in the village later – the young farmers already hitting the Famous Grouse in the straw-carpeted beer tent guaranteed that, but until then, this was the rural dream.

Although, why did the rural dream always seem to include cricket? It had to be the most baffling of sports. Daisy valiantly tried to keep track as she photographed Scott, but the commentator offered bugger all help as he struggled with the microphone, a can of Boddingtons and the names of the Flintoff wannabes.

A raucous cheer went up and Daisy, who hadn’t a clue what was going on, zoomed in, desperately snapping Scott as he high-fived his teammate. Surely they weren’t out already? The other batsman saluted the cheering crowd, raising his bat and Daisy’s smile returned.

Even in the ubiquitous white trousers and polo shirt, the guy stood out – tall, rangy with a truly fabulous arse. Annoyingly, a helmet hid half his face, but what Daisy could see looked yummy. Okay, his hair was a bit blonder and longer than she preferred – an eight, maybe a nine at a push?

The commentator congratulated him on scoring the maximum thirty-six runs in just six balls bowled and a semi-jovial yell from the crowd proclaimed blondie a ringer who’d played for Lancashire. As the batsman jogged off the field, Daisy tracked him with her camera lens, relishing the challenge of keeping his bum in focus. What were the odds on him having washboard abs? Two to one? Fingers crossed for a Diet Coke break to find out.

Over by the picnic rugs where yummy mummies clutched glasses of pink fizz and kids sat munching organic burgers, he perched on the tailgate of a four-wheel drive and took off the helmet, tossing it into the boot.

Oh hello.

The guy was off the scale eye-candy. Daisy zoomed in as he languidly yawned and dragged a hand through his hair. It had to be seven levels of tragic to be perving through a camera lens, but she couldn’t tear herself away, not when he stared back at her like that.

Bugger. He really was staring at her.

‘Heads up!’

Daisy’s rugby-obsessed big brother had shouted those two words with reliable consistency as she grew up – instinct kicked in and she scanned the sky. The cricket ball headed straight for her, as did a fifteen-stone fielder. Oh God, should she run left or right? Rooted to the spot, she watched transfixed as the fielder leapt into the air, arm outstretched to catch the ball. He missed by at least two feet.

Duck! Duck, you stupid cow and the ball will miss you.

But the fielder wouldn’t. He flailed backwards and Daisy closed her eyes, preparing for the impact. Oddly, it came from her right as someone knocked her sideways. Her eyes opened in time to see a male hand pluck the ball from the air as his other arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her to him. They fell, her head bashing the baked ground and she lay gasping for the breath he’d knocked out of her, all too aware of cricket pads and some divine aftershave. Was it the fit batsman?

The fielder stood where she had moments ago, grinning. ‘Nice catch.’

The batsman sat up, laughing, and tossed the ball to the fielder. ‘She certainly is.’ He leant over, his hair flopping into his eyes, and gave Daisy a curious smile. ‘Hello.’

Thank God for sunglasses because it was the fit batsman and his smile, one that had to be sponsored by Colgate, had Daisy staring like a loon.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

Daisy nodded, but the movement made her forehead sting and she winced.

‘You’re bleeding,’ he said, helping her to her feet. ‘Come on.’

Crikey, he was well spoken. And very tall. She gazed up at him as he placed a gentle hand on her back and led her to the Land Rover where he’d sat earlier. Even in the enormous wedge heels, she had to be six inches shorter than him. What was he, six-one?

‘Sit,’ he said, rummaging in the boot.

Obediently, she sat on the tailgate and he joined her, placing a first aid kit between them as he peered at her forehead. Perhaps he was some delusion caused by blunt-force trauma.

‘What brings you to Gosthwaite?’ he asked. ‘Holiday?’

She shook her head.

‘But you don’t live here?’

She nodded.

‘In Gosthwaite, really?’ His brow creased with doubt as he ripped open a sterile wipe and she gave a tiny nod. ‘Oh.’

Oh what? But Daisy didn’t ask out loud as he leaned in, gently cleaning her forehead. Who cared if each stroke felt like a razorblade across her forehead when his eyes appeared to be made of Cadbury’s chocolate?

When he leaned closer still, applying a Steri-strip over the cut, his aftershave wafted over her, all citrus and spice, mingling with his cricket-playing pheromones. Why did she have to get knocked off her feet by someone like him? For months, the only two men she’d had any physical contact with were her dad and Scott; there was a fair chance she might drool.

‘There’s no bump,’ he explained. ‘I think you’ll survive.’

Or maybe not if she didn’t breathe soon. To her horror, he lifted her sunglasses, placing them on her head. Daisy barely managed to restrain her squeak, but he held her chin, looking in her left eye, then her right. A smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. Oh God, had he clocked that she’d been struck dumb, and not by his exemplary Saint John’s skills?

‘What are you doing?’ she asked, leaning away.

‘Ah, you can talk.’ His smile grew. ‘I’m checking your pupils.’

‘Because…’

‘You might have a concussion.’

‘I don’t.’ She pushed her sunglasses back down, desperate to be back behind her comfort blanket. ‘I’m fine.’

‘And your camera?’

Stupidly, she turned it on, checking it wasn’t broken, but the screen showed the last shot she’d taken – one of him high-fiving Scott. Could she look more like a stalker? Time to run away.

‘I should let you get back to the game,’ she said, ‘but thanks for patching me up.’

‘You’re welcome.’ Amusement twinkled in his eyes. ‘It’s not every day I get to rescue a damsel in distress.’

Taking the piss? Her embarrassment waned. ‘That’s right, sunshine, because you’re a regular Knight-in-Shining-Cricket-Pads.’

He laughed, his cheeks taking on a definite pink tinge and he ripped the pads off. ‘I’m Xander, by the way.’

‘Daisy,’ she said, shaking his proffered hand.

‘I guessed.’

‘You guessed?’

‘Not many girls move here, so you must be Clara’s friend, the soon-to-be homeless Daisy.’

Her name sounded so good when he said it. Hang on; surely he wasn’t Scott’s mate’s brother? Her question was answered by Clara sauntering up, who wasn’t bothering to hide her grin.

‘I see you two have met,’ Clara said. ‘You okay, Xander?’

He nodded, still smiling at Daisy. ‘How about you buy me a drink to say thank you for saving your ass and we can discuss the house?’

Before Daisy had chance to respond, he walked away, leaving her staring blankly at his departing arse. ‘He needs a flatmate?’

‘Thought you’d like him.’ Clara offered her one of the plastic cups of wine. ‘Dutch courage?’

Grateful, Daisy sank half of it. ‘I can’t move in with him. It’d take me three wardrobe changes just to leave my bedroom. Does he have a revoltingly beautiful girlfriend?’

‘Single from what I hear.’

‘Good, because I could do without listening to him shagging. Do you know him?’

‘Not really, but his brother, Robbie, is without doubt the sexiest man I’ve ever met–’

‘I’m not interested in him or his brother. Sexy or otherwise.’

‘I would be.’ Clara sighed wistfully up at the sky. ‘Sadly, Robbie’s married and Scott’s best mate, but his eldest daughter is in my class next term and he does the school run sometimes, so I’m hoping he’ll be up for some playground flirting.’

Undoubtedly. Clara was a five-nine, leggy, Scarlet Johansson lookalike and her pencil skirts had the ratio of dads collecting their kids from Gosthwaite Primary triple the national average.

‘You’ll love Xander’s house.’ Clara hauled Daisy to her feet. ‘It’s the cutest cottage in the village.’

‘Are you coming?’ Xander called back.

Cutest cottage in the village? Daisy downed the rest of her wine. He’d rescued her from almost certain and very public humiliation, the least she could do was buy him a drink. Pity he was heading towards the Oscar’s Bar and Bistro marquee where girls in high-end sunglasses were knocking back icy mojitos. The twenty quid in Daisy’s purse would only cover about two drinks in that place. Hopefully, he wouldn’t expect a second round.

‘Jen,’ Xander said to the girl behind the bar, ‘please, can I have a bottle of the prosecco Marcus raves about?’

Then, to Daisy’s astonishment, he reached over the bar, grabbing a bottle of vodka and two glasses. The barmaid set about opening the wine without giving Xander so much as a disapproving tut.

‘Do you work here or something?’ Daisy asked him.

‘Better than that,’ he said, pouring two shots. ‘Oscar’s my dad. Free booze. I wasn’t really going to make you buy me a drink.’

Hurrah for small miracles. She chinked her glass against his and as the prosecco cork popped, they downed the shots.

‘Shall we take the vodka too?’ Xander whispered conspiratorially. ‘Say yes. I’ve had an awful day.’

Daisy certainly hadn’t anticipated afternoon binge drinking when she left the bank manager’s office – hoped maybe – but who was she to argue with her potential new landlord?

Outside, once they’d settled at a picnic table, Daisy kicked off her shoes and let down her blonde curls from their bank-manager-couldn’t-be-less-appeased bun. Okay, the morning had been nothing short of pointless, but sharing a bottle of prosecco with a hot piece of eye-candy totally made up for it. God, Xander was pretty, the smidgen of dark stubble just managing to take the edge of his stupidly perfect face. What was he, twenty-two or three?

‘Where are you from?’ he asked.

‘Cheshire originally, but I’ve lived in Brighton for the last few years.’

‘Bit of a culture shock coming here.’

‘I love it here.’ She smiled up at the fells. ‘It’s like my spiritual home.’

That induced another Colgate smile. ‘Scott said Clara’s selling her house and moving in with him?’

‘Yes, selfish cow.’ But Daisy grinned, glancing over to where Clara cheered on her man. Really, Daisy couldn’t be happier for the loved up pair. ‘How come you’re looking for someone to share your cottage?’

‘My mate, James, was staying with me, but he’s moved into his own place. Are you working around here?’

She nodded. ‘Teaching textiles and design to over-confident, twatty posh kids at St. Nicks. It’s a private school near–’

‘I know it,’ Xander said, stifling his smile.

‘Oh God, is that where you went?’

He saluted her. ‘Twatty posh kid, at your service.’

Despite her mortification, Daisy laughed. ‘It’s hardly my dream job and it’s only part-time, but they’re actually paying me not to work over the summer. Mental or what?’

‘That’s St. Nick’s for you,’ he said. ‘It’s easily the best school I went to, and there can’t be many schools who’d let you get away with having your nose pierced.’

‘True.’ Daisy touched her tiny diamond.

‘What is your dream job?’

Shrugging, she lit a cigarette. ‘I did a fashion degree because I always wanted to be a handbag designer, to work for Mulberry. I like making things.’

‘Why don’t you do it? Be the next Mulberry?’

Daisy laughed. ‘Nice dream. What do you do?’

‘Glorified rep for a six-star holiday company. We pander to the whims of rich people who want to do… well, whatever-the-hell they want to do. Last week, the clients staying at our place in Grasmere wanted to play polo.’

‘In the Lakes? Are there any fields flat enough?’

‘That…’ He high-fived her. ‘Is exactly what I said.’

‘Sounds an awesome job though.’

‘It’s not. This morning, I got back from a two-week cruise around the Med. I’d been in the house ten minutes and Richard, my boss, rings me to say they want me to go back out there tonight.’ He sighed, running a hand through his hair. ‘I told him to piss off.’

To another two weeks cruising around the Med, why? ‘Are there any jobs going?’

‘You wouldn’t want one. Can you imagine smiling nicely for a week on a yacht full of accountants just after tax season?’

‘Actually, yes. And surely the travel makes up for it?’

‘Five days in Wales with ten Premier League WAGs on a hen weekend?’ He shuddered. ‘The wives are always a nightmare.’

‘Yes, I could see it being hell, all those rich women throwing themselves at you.’

‘Novelty wore off a long time ago,’ he said, flicking a beer mat at her.

‘Why don’t you quit and do something else instead?’

‘That’d mean working for my dad. I’d rather put up with chavvy accountants.’

‘You don’t get on with your dad?’

‘Nope.’

‘What would you do if you didn’t have to work? Rescue damsels-in-distress full time?’

Okay, she was taking the piss, but to her relief, the corners of his mouth flickered with a smile and he plucked a daisy from the grass.

‘I’ll keep that,’ he said, tucking the flower into her hair, ‘as a weekend treat.’

How adorable was this guy? She could so share a house with him – even if it did mean putting on mascara to make tea in the morning.

‘And what do you do when you’re not teaching over confident twatty posh kids?’

‘Mostly, I go walking–’

‘What? Like hiking?’

She nodded. ‘But this week, I’m tiling Clara’s bathroom.’

He mouthed, whatever.

‘Honestly, I’m quite good.’

Slowly, he looked her over. ‘It’s easier to believe you’re a teacher.’

Trying not to grin, Daisy leaned forwards, holding out her hands to show off her disgraceful nails. This was suspiciously close to flirting. ‘Grout. Piss off.’

But he leaned closer too. ‘I have another question.’

‘Fire away.’ Dangerously close to flirting.

‘What were you doing with the camera?’

‘Taking photos of Scott,’ she replied, innocently.

Xander raised his eyebrows.

‘Okay, okay, so I was familiarising myself with the village eye-candy.’

Xander’s grin said enough, but this time when he picked a daisy and tucked it into her hair, the twinkle in his eyes had her crossing her legs. Utter, blatant flirting. And dear God, did her ego need it.

 

At four o’clock, while the Miller’s Arms lifted the Gosthwaite Ashes, Daisy and Xander snuck off to the village. The afternoon had been a blast, but due to the prosecco and a stupid amount of vodka, he’d failed to bowl out any of the opposition, so they ran away in case Scott gave him an ear-bashing for letting the side down.

Burgers, binge-drinking and more eyelash batting were on cards, but before they headed to the pub, they popped by Xander’s house so Daisy could look around. The three bed, leaded-windowed cottage dripped with English charm and she wandered in, her mouth gaping. Xander even suggested that the third bedroom could be for handbag making.

‘Make yourself at home,’ Xander said, kicking off his shoes. ‘I need a shower. There’s booze in the kitchen.’

Like she needed inviting twice. Merrily, Daisy staggered down the hall, but a photo of Xander on a mountain bike distracted her. Hurtling down a hill, his t-shirt had ridden up, revealing a snippet of trim abdomen. What must that boy look like with his kit off? Utterly beautiful she suspected.

No, no, no.

Okay, the odd bit of arm touching, hair raking and little whispered comments might’ve turned her cheeks pink, but the last thing she ought to be thinking about was seeing Xander with his kit off. Somewhere to live – that’s what she needed, not a random shag.

She had to think of a politician… Winston Churchill could dampen a nympho’s lust. As Xander ran down the stairs, she hastily grabbed the vodka. They’d do a couple of cheeky shots then go to the pub – it’d be fine.

But it wasn’t fine.

Perched on a windowsill, Xander was talking on his phone. Disappointingly, he’d changed out of the rather sexy cricket gear and into jeans, but less disappointingly, his t-shirt remained in his hand. Poor Winston was beaten into submission. Daisy fell onto the ancient leather sofa, determined not to stare. She should’ve had a tenner on the washboard abs.

‘Get off the phone, Sofia. If Richard hears you, he’ll kill me.’ Xander covered the mouthpiece and smiled apologetically at Daisy. ‘I won’t be a minute… No, I’m still here… No, you can’t. I’m busy.’

Clearly, reception was as appalling in his house as it was in Clara’s because Xander remained glued to the window. Daisy checked her nails, pretending not to eavesdrop, but when Sofia screamed obscenities, she couldn’t hold back her giggles. The girl was bonkers.

‘She’s a friend of a friend…’ Xander sighed, rubbing his forehead. ‘She might be moving in… Yes, she is.’

Another screeched tirade poured from the phone and he closed his eyes. The guy was a superhero; he didn’t deserve that crap. Impetuously, and with booze-fuelled bravado, Daisy dashed over and grabbed the phone.

‘Oh, piss off, Sofia,’ she said, then ended the call.

She couldn’t believe she’d done it and, by the look on his face, neither could Xander. He stared at her, his brow creasing in a deep frown.

‘Oh God, I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s just you’ve been so nice to me and she was being–’

But then he laughed. ‘Christ, I could kiss you.’

After a couple more drinks, I’d probably let you.

His eyebrows shot up.

‘Did I say that out loud?’ she whispered.

‘No, but it’s written all over your face.’

‘T-shirt on, please.’ Ignoring his growing smile, she moved away to sit on the coffee table. Things would go somewhere they shouldn’t and common sense tutted at her, telling her to leave. She didn’t. Instead, she poured two shots. ‘Who’s Sofia?’

‘She’s the boss.’ Xander sat on the sofa, facing her with their knees almost touching. He’d put the t-shirt on, but she couldn’t miss the cheeky glint in those fabulous brown eyes. ‘Well, the boss’s wife.’

‘You’re shagging your boss’s wife?’

He glanced at his feet but didn’t actually blush. ‘Not anymore, thanks to you.’

They downed the shots.

With a slow, deliberate finger, and without touching her skin, Xander lifted the hem of her top a few inches. What the… Daisy held her breath, but he tilted his head to peek at her navel where a couple of cherries dangled from a silver belly-bar.

‘You were playing with it earlier. Pacha?’ he asked and she nodded. ‘You are full of surprises. What did you think you might’ve said out loud?’

She looked up at the ceiling, determined not to blush as she told him.

‘A couple more drinks?’ Grinning, he refilled their glasses.

Oh God, was she actually going to kiss him? Her heart thumped in her chest as he handed her a shot, but without dropping eye contact, they chinked their glasses together and downed the shots.

‘Why are you doing this?’ she asked. ‘To piss off your boss’s wife?’

‘Maybe. Or maybe I think you’re… something else.’ He smiled, looking her over. ‘But the real question is, why are you doing this, Daisy?’

Me?

To her horror, he took hold of her left hand, his thumb gently brushing over the white tan-mark on her ring finger. ‘What happened?’

She lost herself in his fabulous brown eyes, her head reeling from the booze, her heart racing with the anticipation of kissing him. And just for one night, that’s all she wanted to think about.

‘Does it matter?’

 

Chapter Two

He kissed her.

Slow, assured and utterly confident, his lips moved against Daisy’s and it was all she could do not to whimper. She was being kissed by the best-looking bloke in the world and dear God, did he know what he was doing. One of his hands held her face, his fingers in her hair, a thumb brushing down her neck. How did a twenty-two year-old get that good at kissing?

And how the hell could a ten second kiss, one that hadn’t even strayed towards French, have her pressing her thighs together? A shiver ran through her body and she pulled back, desperate for air and a few seconds to regain control of her senses.

Clearly Clara was right; clearly, it had been a while.

But surprisingly, Xander’s breathing was as ragged as her own.

‘I’ve wanted to do that since…’ A small smile played on his perfect lips. ‘Well, since I knocked you over on the cricket pitch. Christ, you’re hot.’

Hot? He thought she was hot? Daisy couldn’t help a ridiculously pleased grin. This amazing piece of eye candy actually fancied her. Sensibly, she should leave; sensibly, she should suggest they go on a date. But when Xander kissed her again, any hint of sensible flew out of the window. A date? Bugger that. What she needed was a shag.

They clung to one another, fingers raking, tongues exploring and Daisy’s hands delved under his t-shirt, wanting to feel the perfection she’d witnessed earlier. Smooth, hard and to her amusement, flinching under her touch.

‘Careful,’ he said, grinning between kisses.

He was ticklish? Well, that was almost too tempting, but Daisy’s giggles settled into a pleased grin as Xander pulled her to her feet, his hand on her arse, pressing her against him. Was there anything about him that wasn’t rock hard?

They shed his t-shirt first, but her vest top quickly followed, and Daisy dropped her head back, adoring the sensations Xander’s lips created as he kissed and nibbled her neck. How long had it been since anything, anyone had made her feel so beautiful? Maybe she should’ve stuck to the date idea.

But his fingers tugged down the zip on her trousers and her eyes flew open. That was a side zip. He’d already clocked how to undress her. The boy wasn’t date material; he was a player. Daisy suppressed her grin. Like it mattered.

His lips worked their way down her body, lingering over her stupidly responsive nipples. Seriously, how long had it been? Her head said six months, but her body screamed, FOREVER.

‘You have,’ he whispered, gently slipping her trousers down, ‘the sexiest arse I’ve ever seen.’

She sincerely doubted it, but with his tongue flicking the Pacha cherries, she was incapable of arguing. How would it feel if he did that six inches lower?

He’d ventured a mere inch by the time her trousers were gone; a teasing three when her shoes were tossed aside. She needed more. Arching towards him, she dragged her fingers through his hair and finally, as his hands drifted back up her legs, thumbs on the insides of her thighs, he kissed her through the black lace of her knickers. Why the hell was she still wearing knickers?

Her mental complaints escalated when he stood up, but any sulkiness vanished as he brushed her hair back, his brown eyes twinkling.

‘You’ve shrunk,’ he said. ‘Shortarse.’

Daisy laughed. It was a fair point. Barefoot, she was a head shorter than him. ‘You’d better come down to my level then.’

She pushed him back onto the sofa, grinning as she knelt over him. The advantage of not being twenty-two like him was she had three years’ more experience. Three years’ experience she didn’t plan to fritter by playing coy. And if he thought he could tease her, to leave her with one, over-the-pants kiss, then she had the perfect trick for him – one Clara had taught her the week they’d met at uni.

Teasingly, Daisy kissed her way down Xander’s happy trail, her fingers popping open the buttons on his jeans. Tactically, she avoided touching his cock and never dropped eye contact with him as she discarded his jeans and shorts. Okay, she sneaked a peek and dear God, the boy was put together well.

Xander’s eyes were dark, laced with undisguised lust as she reached for the vodka bottle, but when she knocked back a mouthful and took a second, he raised his eyebrows. Trying not to grin, she shot him a wink before moving her head lower.

‘Don’t you dare,’ he said. ‘That’ll–’

Her hand closed around him and she swallowed before giving him the full effect of Absolut fumes and her warm mouth.

‘Jesus Christ.’ He sank back groaning, his hands in her hair. ‘Always full of surprises…’

 

At eight o’clock the next morning, Daisy knelt on the floor, valiantly trying not to throw up as she fished a wedge heel from under the sofa. There were three golden rules for successful one night stands: be clear about what you like, use condoms and leave before the morning. Not exactly rocket science.

Okay, so she might’ve obeyed rules one and two, but she still had to get out of there before Xander woke. The last thing she needed was one of those awkward goodbyes where he politely said he’d be in touch about the room. They’d not discussed her moving in all night – clearly that was off the cards. Stupid, stupid, stupid cow. Daisy bashed her forehead against the carpet. She’d blown her last chance at living in Gosthwaite.

Quite literally.

Why hadn’t she stuck to getting to know her potential housemate? Well, maybe because of a bottle of prosecco and way too many vodka shots? Her stomach churned, but she couldn’t blame the booze. It was all Xander’s fault. If only he’d been an arrogant arse, like every other good-looking bloke, then she’d never have shagged him. Sadly, he wasn’t an arrogant arse – far from it.

The previous evening, she’d sat on the kitchen worktop while he knocked up some pasta dish and they’d chatted about everything and nothing. Why had it been so easy to play house, just for a few hours, when the last two years had been hell? And why, instead of being paranoid about her podgy stomach in the company of such physical perfection, had she let him feed her pasta?

And the shagging… Daisy’s fingers half-heartedly reached for an ankle strap. Shagging Xander certainly couldn’t be notched up as a sloppy, drunken fumble. Okay, it had been a while, but the final time, her favourite of the three, was nothing short of… intense. They’d held hands, fingers linked, her forehead resting against his. Totally intense. And at the end of everything, as they lay face to face, she fell asleep to the soothing rhythm of him stroking her hair.

No.

At the end of everything, it was a one night stand and Alexander Golding was suspiciously adept at unzipping a girl’s pants. She yanked the strap and sat up, triumphantly brandishing the freed shoe.

‘Morning.’

Oh dear God, no.

Wearing jeans and bugger all else, Xander leaned against the wall looking tired, hung-over and possibly sexier than the day before. Her gaze lingered on his perfectly taut abs. Around midnight, they’d done tequila body shots and she’d licked salt from the line going down to his navel.

‘Running away?’ he asked.

‘Fast as I can in these shoes.’

‘Ouch.’

A few years ago, she would’ve tottered away wearing yesterday’s clothes as a badge of honour for pulling someone like Xander, but those were the days before she’d stood in a white Vera Wang frock and vowed to forsake all others.

‘Look,’ she said, fiddling with her shoe strap, ‘you’re sweet–’

‘Sweet?’ He folded his arms, tipping his head to one side.

‘But I’m not sure what the hell I was thinking yesterday. I mean, I don’t make a habit of shagging twenty-two year-old playboys I just met.’

‘Rewind. I’m a twenty-two year-old what?’ An angry scowl darkened his perfect face, and he wandered off to the kitchen, shaking his head. ‘Close the door on your way out.’

Well, she’d made a pig’s ear out of a Hermès scarf there. Time to run away. Daisy glanced out of the window. Sadly, Lynda from the Post Office stood down the lane, chatting with Beryl who lived opposite Clara.

As lovely as it was to live in a village where everyone knew your name, the downside was they’d also know you were married and that you’d drunkenly staggered home with the village eye candy. And if they didn’t know, Lynda from the Post Office would merrily fill them in. It wasn’t quite the time to run away.

Besides, she couldn’t leave with him still cross; how mortifying would it be to bump into him at the grocer’s?

In the kitchen, she hovered by the doorway as he filled the kettle. Mercifully, he’d put on a t-shirt, because that boy’s body could undermine any girls’ desire to flee the scene of a crime. After he’d switched on the kettle, he glanced at her, shaking his head again. At least his scowl had eased.

‘I’m not sure which I’m more offended by, playboy or sweet.’

‘Sorry, sorry, sorry.’

He dropped two teabags into an ancient yellow teapot, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. ‘So, in the cold light of sober, you’re legging it because…’

‘I shouldn’t have done this. I’m… married, Xander.’

‘I’d worked that out.’

‘To Finn Rousseau.’

Xander’s eyebrows shot up and for a moment, he simply stared at her. ‘The actor?’

Wearily, she nodded.

‘Didn’t see that coming.’ Xander let out an astonished laugh. ‘He went to St. Nick’s too. Before my time though.’

‘I may have name-dropped to get an interview.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Xander, you won’t…’

‘Kiss and tell?’ He shook his head. ‘Promise. Why aren’t you wearing any rings?’

‘We split up.’

‘Getting divorced kind of split up? That’s why you ran away to Clara’s?’

She nodded. But until Finn signed the papers, they were still married. Hell, until a judge declared the decree absolute, they were still married. ‘I feel like I’ve committed adultery. I suppose, technically I have.’

‘You shouldn’t beat yourself up.’ He leant against the worktop, his hands in his pockets. ‘Would you like a cup of tea before you run away as fast as you can in those shoes?’

She glanced back towards the door.

‘We can discuss when you want to move in.’

‘But I’m not going to. Not now.’

He stared at her as if she were perfectly bonkers. ‘Why?’

‘Because…’ I gave you vodka head. ‘It’d be complicated.’

‘You should’ve thought of that before you started flirting yesterday.’

‘Me? I didn’t start anything, mister oh-let-me-tuck-a-flower-in-your-hair. This is your fault for wandering around without a t-shirt on.’

He pressed his lips together, obviously fighting a smile.

‘Oh my God, you so did that on purpose, didn’t you?’

He let loose the Colgate grin. ‘Only because you’re a shameless flirt.’

‘I am not,’ she argued, swatting his arm.

‘See,’ he said. ‘Flirting.’

‘I just hit you, that’s not flirting.’

‘Yes, it is,’ he tugged her hair. ‘Like pigtail pulling in the school playground.’

Trying not to laugh, Daisy mouthed, whatever. And hit him again.

‘We can be friends, you know,’ he said. ‘Or are you scared you won’t be able to keep your hands off me?’

A grin spread over his face and Daisy gave him the finger he so richly deserved. ‘I don’t have my beer goggles on now, sunshine.’

His grin grew. ‘Tea?’

Oh, what the hell. It would make the grocer’s situation a lot less mortifying. ‘Milk, no sugar, please.’

‘Breakfast?’

‘If you even mention bacon and eggs, there’s every chance I’ll hurl.’

He laughed up at the ceiling. ‘My grandad taught me it was the height of bad manners to let an overnight guest leave without feeding them. How about toast?’

She nodded and since his mood had improved a thousand fold, she couldn’t resist a little piss-taking of her own. ‘Do you make toast for overnight guests a lot?’

‘Well, the playboy in me doesn’t usually want them to stay over, but you know what a sweet guy I am.’

Okay, she deserved that, but instead of cringing with embarrassment, she sat on the kitchen table, swinging her feet while he pottered around, slicing doorstops of bread, grabbing jars of jam and a tub of butter.

‘What’ll happen with your job?’ she asked. ‘You won’t get sacked will you?’

He shrugged. ‘It won’t be the first time, but they always take me back.’

‘And what about Sofia. Will you apologise to her?’

Xander stopped, frowning down at her. ‘The table’s for food, not your arse.’

‘Ohmigod, you sound like my mother…’ Daisy gave her best teenager-worthy groan as she plonked herself into a chair. ‘How long have you been seeing her?’

‘Your mother?’

‘Don’t be gross. Sofia.’

‘Being a bit nosy, aren’t you?’

‘You want to be friends; friends are allowed to be nosey.’

‘Well, when you’re done being nosey, it’ll be my turn.’

Daisy shrugged her shoulders with a nonchalance she didn’t feel. ‘Whatever.’

‘I’ve been seeing her a while.’ He poured the tea, glancing at Daisy. ‘But I’d say I’ve spent fifty percent of that time trying to get out of it. You did me a huge favour, seriously.’

‘What’s she like?’

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘I’m intrigued.’ Daisy said. ‘You look like you fell out of a boy band and must have girls queuing up, so why are you shagging someone else’s wife when you don’t really like her?’

Notably, he didn’t respond. He handed her a mug of tea, and ran a hand through his hair, but his mouth remained resolutely closed.

Daisy caved, the silence too much. ‘You need a haircut.’

‘Christ, so now I’m a sweet playboy with bad hair?’

‘It’s not bad-bad, just… it’d look better shorter. Come on… Sofia, what does she look like?’

‘She’s tall, dark and incredibly beautiful.’

The antithesis of me. Daisy sipped her tea. ‘Sounds awful, but there must be something about her you like?’

He gave a little laugh. ‘Well, as you heard, she is a bit of a psycho. That’s always a treat.’

‘How old is she?’

‘Thirty-six.’

‘Ooh, a cougar.’

He grinned as he liberally buttered one of the inch-thick slices of toast. ‘My turn, Mrs Rousseau?’

Bugger. ‘I always thought that sounded a bit grand for me so I stuck with Fitzgerald, but fire away.’

He sat back. ‘Who were Finn’s text messages from?’

Daisy forced a smile. ‘Which text messages?’ But she knew fine well.

A month after they’d split up, Finn stupidly lost his phone and within a day, half the world had tweeted some… wholly inappropriate texts. She knew Xander’s careful tone meant he assumed they were from another woman, and that was why Daisy was getting divorced. It’s what the media had insinuated, but the truth was way more humiliating.

‘They were from me,’ she admitted, burying her burning cheeks in her hands.

‘Seriously?’ Xander said, clearly struggling not to laugh. ‘From what I remember, you write a hot sext, Ms Fitzgerald.’

‘Oh, bugger off,’ she said, once again hiding her face in her hands. ‘The entire episode was mortifying. My parents read them and everything.’

‘How long have you been married?’ he asked.

‘Three years in November.’

‘How did you meet him?’

‘Guess.’ He never would and she couldn’t resist a smug grin. Or reaching for a slice of toast. The fantastically bread-like smell had her stomach grumbling.

‘Pacha?’

‘Cold.’ She poked at the yellow block of butter. ‘No Flora?’

‘Butter’s more natural and you’re already too skinny. You did costume design on one of his films?’

‘Ice cold,’ Daisy said, wincing as she spread a week’s supply of fat and calories onto the toast. ‘Need a clue? I met him the summer I lived in Gosthwaite.’

‘He was in one of those Shakespeare plays by the lake?’

‘No. Doing something most people do when they come here.’

‘Buying Kendal mint cake they’ll never eat?’

‘We were wearing boots.’

‘Hiking boots?’

She nodded.

‘Are you telling me, you pulled an A-list actor out fell walking?’

‘I’d put him at B-list, but yep, I was walking up Catbells. Rock’n’roll or what?’

‘What was he doing up here?’

‘Visiting friends.’

Xander shook his head. ‘You’re wearing Prada shoes. Can’t see you in boots and a cagoule.’

‘I own three pairs of high-end shoes – all remnants from my previous existence as the B-list movie star’s wife. I have these, a pair of Louboutin pumps and the most amazing black python Gucci knee boots, but I have four pairs of walking boots and my waterproof jacket cost more than these jeans. So there.’

Xander laughed. ‘You really are something else.’

‘Well, we can’t all be tall, dark and incredibly beautiful, so we make up for it with character.’ Daisy sat back, taking a mouthful of toast, mostly to hide her smile.

‘You’re also very weird.’ Xander leaned forwards, resting both elbows on the table. ‘Seriously, you pulled Finn Rousseau walking up a mountain?’

She couldn’t talk; her taste buds were exploding. How did bread and butter taste so good? She looked from Xander to the toast, blinking in disbelief.

‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.

‘I don’t know if it’s the butter or the bread, but it might be the best thing I’ve eaten.’

And the full-on Colgate smile returned. ‘I can’t take credit for the butter, but the bread’s mine.’

‘You made it?’ she mumbled through a second, divine mouthful.

‘Not many playboys can say that, can they?’

She stuck her tongue out at him and for a minute, they simply sat, grinning at each other. Maybe she could move in. Maybe they could be friends.

‘So why are you getting divorced?’ he asked carefully.

Flippant. Flippant was the best response. ‘Well, I was twenty-two, he was twenty-six and we got married two months after we met. You know the old saying, marry in haste…’

‘Seriously, two months?’

‘It seemed a good idea at the time.’ Daisy’s smile came more naturally than she’d expected. She usually hated talking about Finn, but Xander’s easy-going manner somehow made it okay.

‘And why are you really getting divorced?’ his tone turned as soothing as his tea and toast. ‘Did he have an affair or something?’

Before her lip wobbled, she jabbed her nails into her palms. ‘I’m divorcing him for unreasonable behaviour, but can we leave it there?’

‘Of course,’ he said, nursing his cup. ‘Sorry.’

Daisy picked at her leftover crust. ‘Where did you learn to make bread?’

‘My granddad.’ Xander glanced around the kitchen. ‘This was his house. He left it to me when he died.’

God, the boy lived a charmed life: drop-dead good looks, mummy and daddy have a chain of bars and Grandpa leaves him the quaintest cottage in the village.

‘Was he a baker?’ she asked.

‘No, a chef.’

‘So he taught you to cook?’

‘The basics. I trained as a chef and worked for Anthony Errington after I left school.’

‘Isn’t he on TV, that chef versus chef thing?’

Xander nodded. ‘And he has the Boathouse at Grasmere.’

‘The Michelin-starred place? Clara went there. Scott was still starving when they left.’ Daisy sipped her tea. ‘But you said you were a holiday rep taking people on high end sporting adventures.’

‘I am.’

‘But if you hate your job and you’re a chef, why don’t you do that instead?’

His easy-going manner evaporated as he sat back in his chair. ‘Long story.’

‘I have half a mug of tea left.’

‘I should’ve let you run away.’

‘Tough. Once upon a time…’

Xander leant forwards, seemingly finding his tea fascinating. ‘I can’t because there’s not a head chef in the county who’d give me a job.’

‘Why? Can you only cook bread?’

A sheepish smile took over his face. ‘Anthony’s wife.’

‘OMG.’ Daisy stared at him. Another married cougar? ‘But okay, so Anthony Errington’s hardly going to want you back, but the Lakes is littered with restaurants.’

‘After I left Anthony’s, I spent most of my time wasted. I got sacked from four jobs in six months.’

‘Why? Because you liked her?’

‘I can’t believe I’m telling you this.’ He shook his head, a smile threatening. ‘Yes, I liked Lucy Errington far more than I should have.’

‘And what’s she like?’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ he said, hastily. ‘It was ages ago.’

She’d have to Google Mrs Errington.

‘Anyway, I realised I wasn’t cut out to be a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant and I couldn’t face working for my dad so my brother got me a job with the holiday company. He’s a director there. Will that do you?’

Quite frankly, no. Why was he shagging older women instead of supermodels his own age? Why did he work a job he hated when he’d trained as a chef? Actually, Daisy had a million other questions, but her mug was empty and her toast nothing but crumbs.

‘I should go,’ she said, squeezing her reluctant toes into the wedge heels. ‘It’s going to take a very long walk up a bloody big hill to get rid of this hangover.’

While she gathered her phone and bag, he perched on the same windowsill he had the night before, but this time Winston would win the war. There was no way she was letting herself get involved with Xander – too young, too good-looking, too much like heartbreak waiting to happen.

‘Well, thanks for everything,’ she said, flashing a cheery smile. But Xander didn’t look up. He stared at his feet, the little muscle in his jaw twitching away. ‘Your Grandad would be proud.’

He gave a half-laugh but still didn’t look up. Was he cross with her again?

‘I really needed yesterday,’ she went on, ‘and…’

His frown deepened.

‘And well… that was the best… toast I’ve had in a long time.’

Finally, he raised his head, his eyes twinkling with amusement. ‘Come with me to a party?’

‘What?’

‘It’s my friend’s birthday in a couple of weeks and he has a huge party. DJs, dancing… like Pacha in a Windermere mansion. You can wear one of your three pairs of high-end shoes.’

Oh good God, no. Was he expecting more of the same? This was worse than the awkward phone number conversation. ‘Xander, I don’t want… I’m in the middle of a hideous divorce and okay, I totally needed a…but I don’t–’

‘It’s okay,’ he said, flashing an affable smile. ‘I get it, but I was thinking we could go as friends. We’ll hang out, have fun and you’ll see it’ll be okay for you to move in.’

‘Are you desperate for someone to do the cleaning while you play on your Xbox?’

‘Mrs Oxford down the road does the cleaning and I don’t have an Xbox.’

‘Then why?’

‘Because you’re fun.’

Fun?’

‘I don’t mean shagging. Friends, I promise.’

This was not the usual post-one night stand conversation. He wanted to hang out with her but not shag her… Well, that was okay. It was, wasn’t it? Besides, she had to give him a chance; his cottage was a dream come true.

Oh who was she kidding? Dancing, music and a new friend to play with – that was better than a dream come true. Not quite the life she’d planned when she moved to the middle of nowhere, but her smile grew. This would be okay, absolutely okay.

‘Is that a yes, Fitzgerald?’

‘Yes.’

As that Colgate smile took over his face, she shot him her cheekiest wink and left.

 

Punishing her legs, relishing the burn, Daisy marched up the final incline, anticipating the solitary bliss she’d find on Lum Crag, her favourite mini-mountain. Aside from clubbing, fell walking was the only exercise Daisy had ever tolerated and when she’d arrived in Gosthwaite with nothing to do but obsess about Finn, she’d dug out her hiking boots. Clara said she was mental, but there was nothing better for the soul, or a hangover, than sitting on the crag after a character-building ascent.

With Café del Mar in her ears, a mug of tea by her side, Daisy lit a cigarette and smiled at the village below. Gosthwaite nestled in the Lum Valley – a less well known corner of the Lakes. It had no Peter Rabbit or lonely poet wandering around, but every day she stayed, Daisy felt a little more at home.

From up high, it looked like a daddy-long-legs – the village green providing the fat body, the little lanes and roads making long, spindly legs. The shops ran along Market Street, on one of the northern legs, while to the west, on Chapel Street, stood the terrace of little workers’ cottages where Clara lived. And to the south, two hundred metres away on Mill Lane, was Xander’s cottage.

Oh God, she’d had cheap and meaningless sex with an utter stranger. Daisy took a long drag on her cigarette, closing her eyes. And what level of crazy was it to say yes to the party? Pacha in a Windermere mansion with a twenty-two year-old who made his own bread. Who would buy into that bull?

Me.

Lulled into a faux sense of security by comfort blanket tea and toast, she’d totally bought into it.

Stupid girl.

And what if Finn found out? He could launch a counter attack, suing her for adultery. No way was she giving him that satisfaction. Her phone sat in her hand, a message drafted, but before she had chance to hit send, the mobile buzzed into life. Xander.

Having second thoughts yet?Don’t. I’ll see you a week on Sat.

X

Oh, he was good. How many girls had read what they wanted into that x? Was it a kiss or his initial?

With her soul invigorated, her hangover cured, Daisy strode down the mountain with a smile she couldn’t temper. And for over twenty-four hours, she hadn’t even considered Facebook-stalking Finn. It had to be a record.

Thank you. X.

 

Chapter Three

 I’m ignoring that and picking you up at 7.

Daisy laughed at the latest text from Xander. For two weeks, they’d swapped endless messages all instigated by her daily decisions that going to the party was a really bad idea because Finn might find out. But each evening, she’d receive a text from her new friend as he sailed around the Med on a super yacht and be reassured the party would be okay, more than okay.

Besides, school had closed for the summer and she’d finished Clara’s bathroom – didn’t Daisy deserve a treat for all that hard work?

Absolutely.

She also deserved a kick-ass outfit.

One day, she’d be able to shop at Net-a-Porter again, but in the meantime, she’d settle for its second-to-none, dressmaking inspiration. After a lengthy online window shop left her with a strapless playsuit in mind, she splashed out on one and a half metres of black silk, dug out her sewing machine and put her fashion degree to good use.

The Net-a-Porter version had Swarovski crystals dotted around the hem of the shorts, but Daisy made do with clear glass beads – no one would know – and teamed with her black Louboutin heels, the effect was perfectly VIP clubbing.

‘Xander’s here– Jesus Christ.’ Clara stared at her. ‘You look fabulous. You two will so end up in bed again.’

‘No, we won’t,’ Daisy replied, adding yet another layer of mascara. ‘We’re just friends.’

‘Whatever. He said you’ve got the sexiest arse he’s ever seen, right?’

‘He was drunk, that doesn’t count.’ Daisy paused in front of the mirror. Why would Xander fancy her, really? Okay, she was no horse, but there were way hotter girls out there, girls who’d fall over their endless legs to get to him. Daisy stood at five foot four if asked but five foot two with her curls flattened. And her face could hardly be described as incredibly beautiful.

‘Why else would he invite you to the party? Twenty-two year-old boys answer to the beck and call of their dicks.’ Clara’s eyes widened. ‘Think he’s after your divorce settlement fortune?’

‘Ha, ha. And as if he’d need it. His cottage must be worth half a million and he’s got a six month-old, top of the range Golf GTI – do you reckon his parents pay his insurance? Lucky bugger. I mean, how loaded must they be? The Oscar’s Bar & Bistro empire has eleven bars around the country now.’

‘I still think he fancies you.’

‘Well, he knows I’d say no.’

‘No, you’ll get drunk and screw him again. It’s better to regret something you’ve done…’

‘…than something you haven’t.’ It had been their mantra throughout university, but as Daisy teased her curls, making them more enormous than usual, she met Clara’s eye through the mirror. ‘We’re just friends. It won’t happen.’

‘Bet you twenty quid, you shag him tonight.’

‘Bet you twenty quid, I won’t. He’s promised no shagging.’

‘Just don’t fret about HMS Rousseau if he breaks that promise.’

Daisy held up a three-finger salute. ‘Brownie’s honour.’

 

But what did the kick-ass little black playsuit get from Mr Golding? He leaned against the doorframe and shrugged.

‘You’ll do,’ he said.

There wasn’t even a cheeky wink, but mercifully he was too busy peering back at the roadside to see her disappointed pout.

‘Whose is that?’

‘The Mazda MX5?’ Daisy glanced distractedly at her twelve year-old little black convertible with affection. Xander had gotten a haircut. ‘It’s mine.’

‘Not exactly practical for driving around here.’

‘No, and it’s a bit of a step-down from the Audi TT I did have, but it’s cute as, right?’ Oh God, she’d told him to cut his hair and he’d cut his hair off. He’d listened to her. Was he that desperate for her to move in? Or was it… he couldn’t like her, could he?

‘Always full of surprises, Fitzgerald.’ A smile flickered at the corners of his mouth as he pushed his hands into the pockets. ‘Ready?’

She was right though; his hair did look better shorter. In fact, somehow everything about him looked better – a peacock blue t-shirt showed off his perfect torso, while his tan made those deep brown eyes even richer. Clearly, sailing around the Mediterranean for a week hadn’t done the boy any harm.

Not that it mattered; she’d so be winning the twenty quid.

 

‘How did the end of term party go?’ Xander asked, accelerating as they left the village. ‘I take it the punch got spiked?’

‘Apparently, it’s so customary the bursar provides the booze these days.’

For ten minutes, she regaled him with tales from the St Nick’s disco, choosing to concentrate on Xander’s perfect face rather than the oncoming corners. Clearly the boy could drive, but he’d overtake too close to the bends and his foot seldom met the brake.

‘I got hit on by three sixth formers.’ She closed her eyes as they reached eighty down a straight. ‘Oh God… we’re so going to die.’

Xander grinned. ‘You don’t trust me?’

‘Not in the slightest.’

‘So, these sixth formers… did you pull?’

‘Ha ha.’ Despite her abject terror, she swatted his arm. She’d forgotten just how much how he made her smile. ‘How was the cruise?’

‘Actually, good,’ he said, relaxing back into his seat as he pootled behind a Volvo. ‘No annoying fuckwits. They could bore you to death about golf, but they all said please, thank you and tipped very nicely. I loved your messages by the way. I’d spend the day guessing what that evening’s excuse would be. My body’s a temple and I shall not succumb to the temptations of liquor, was my particular favourite.’

‘I’m so glad I provided you with some entertainment.’

‘Well, the odd sext wouldn’t have gone amiss.’

Sext? Had he actually said that? Daisy’s cheeks flared into life, but when she glanced at him, he was trying very hard not to grin – taking the piss, yet again.

‘You’re too easy to wind up,’ he explained.

Before Daisy had chance to chastise him, they drove over the crest of a hill, and she knew exactly how Elizabeth felt when she first saw Pemberley. A vast mansion sat in immaculate parkland, taking up a chunk of lake frontage. Pacha in a Windermere mansion… Daisy struggled to restrain her smile as they drove past a queue of eager guests waiting for burly security guys to check their tickets.

This is a birthday party? Whose?’ she asked.

‘James Dowson-Jones.’

Daisy squealed. ‘India Dowson-Jones’ brother?’

‘He’s my best mate. Well, him and his brother, Marcus.’

‘Will India be there?’ Please say, yes.

‘No idea. She’s doesn’t always get on with James.’

‘Bugger. I’d love to meet her.’

India Dowson-Jones… expelled from Cheltenham Ladies for drugs, photographed arriving at V festival with the headline band after escaping St Nick’s in a helicopter and getting pregnant at fifteen to some rock star she refused to name. Magazines regularly covered India’s private school antics and Daisy had devoured every word, wishing she didn’t have to go to a beyond boring state school.

It wasn’t something she mentioned in her St Nick’s interview, but it being India Dowson-Jones’ alma mater was half the reason Daisy applied. And India’s daughter, Freya, being a pupil there didn’t hurt either.

After he parked in a reserved space near the house, Xander quickly glanced in the mirror, running his fingers through his inch-long hair.

‘Looks good,’ she said. ‘I was right.’

‘Feels weird.’

‘Then why’d you get it done?’ And why did she ask that?

But Xander pushed open his door, grinning. ‘Well, it wasn’t to get into your pants again, Fitzgerald.’

Oh.

Daisy pasted on a faux-smile and climbed out of the car.

‘Not that I’d say no,’ he added, giving her a good coat of looking at. ‘You look fucking amazing.’

She didn’t bother to stifle her grin. ‘That’s better than, you’ll do.’

Giving an embarrassed laugh, he kissed the top of her head and they wandered up the steps to the main doors, ignoring the queue.

‘Are we VIP?’ she asked, trying to act utterly nonchalant.

‘No, we’re V-VIP.’ He took hold of her hand and nodded to the doormen who let them in without even checking a guest list, let alone a ticket.

Inside, a Radio One DJ stood behind decks stationed halfway up the main staircase, while a couple of hundred twenty-somethings danced with their arms raised in adoration. Daisy itched to join them, her head already bobbing to the beat, her smile growing as a shirtless guy turned to her, his grin enormous. Oh God, it wasn’t just him, everyone she passed looked E’ed up to their dilated eyeballs.

Daisy buried her desire to dance and dutifully followed Xander to the other side of the ridiculously large house. Even burlier security guys opened French doors and Daisy stepped out onto a terrace where waitresses circulated with trays of cocktails in the evening sunshine.

‘You’re in luck.’ Xander pointed to their right.

India Dowson-Jones, in a slip of white silk, leant against a life-size granite lion as she chatted with a guy who had to be her brother, James. The offspring of a Greek supermodel and an English furniture billionaire, they looked like twins with their coal black curls, regal roman noses and black olive eyes, but where she radiated a relaxed, ethereal glow, he came across as demonic and thoroughly bored.

‘OMG,’ Daisy whispered.

‘Do you have to look so awed?’ Xander said, trying not to laugh. ‘Why on earth are you star stuck by India Dowson-Jones?’

‘Because she’s the coolest person ever.’

When Xander introduced her, James barely acknowledged Daisy’s existence as he started cutting lines of coke on a low glass table but, to her absolute delight, India kissed her cheeks, cooing over Daisy’s playsuit and asking if she’d got it at London Fashion Week. Daisy’s mouth opened, but her brain couldn’t muster a single sentence über-cool enough to utter to India Dowson-Jones.

‘Hello, Daisy-chain,’ purred a female voice purred behind them and Daisy turned to see the only person she’d ever truly hated.

Tabitha bloody Doyle.

Daisy never held grudges, but for this posh, second-rate actress, she made an exception. The previous year, Tabitha had tried it on with Finn yet here she was, her arms open waiting for a hug, her freckled face and emerald eyes a picture of concern. Daisy remained rooted to the spot, but Tabitha, the melodramatic tart, didn’t give up. She strode over and clasped her arms around Daisy.

‘Oh Daisy, I thought you two were like a rock.’ Her upper-class vowels were sharper than a diamond on glass. ‘How can you be getting divorced?’

‘Acting lessons are coming along well. You should get an Oscar for that little performance.’ Daisy almost smiled as Tabitha’s face fell and her eyes flickered away.

‘I deserve that,’ she said, taking Daisy’s arm and leading her away from the others. ‘I’m sorry about last year. I know it’s no excuse, but my marriage to Dex was a shambles. I feel awful.’

And? What did she want, forgiving?

Tabitha glanced nervously at her hands. ‘I was pretty messed up. Can you forgive me?’

Was she for real? Daisy shook her head. ‘My marriage is a shambles and I’m pretty messed up. For God’s sake, you tried to cop off with my husband on our wedding anniversary. You’ve got some bloody nerve.’

‘I know.’ She gnawed the edge of her thumbnail. ‘But can we do lunch, to talk?’

Do bloody lunch? ‘Why? It’s not like we were ever friends.’

‘Please give me a chance. I always thought you seemed pretty terrific, sweetie. To be honest, you make me green with envy.’

Tabitha Doyle was jealous of her? Daisy blinked. Actually, the Hervé Léger dress might show off Tabitha’s fabulous figure, but her usually glossy auburn hair could’ve done with a wash three days ago and Daisy had seen better skin on a teenager. The girl needed a bloody good scrub with a wire brush.

Mollified by the crumbling pedestal at Tabitha’s feet, Daisy wavered. She wavered for two whole seconds until Tabitha obliterated any sympathy by tilting her head to one side, clearly calculating the situation as Xander wandered over, cocktails in hand.

‘At least you have him to cheer you up.’

‘Xander’s a friend, that’s all,’ Daisy replied, tempted to slap the silly cow.

Tabitha gave a tinkly laugh, shaking off any suspicion with a warm smile. ‘Sorry. I’m teasing. Xander’s one of the loveliest people I know. Please, let’s do lunch.’

And she kissed Daisy’s cheek. Still reeling, Daisy stared at Tabitha’s departing back, too stunned to verbalise the expletives forming in her head.

‘Here you go, Fitzgerald,’ Xander said, handing her a glass. ‘Martini.’

Daisy gulped the drink. ‘Why the hell does that silly bitch have to be here?’

‘She’s not that bad.’

‘Oh, she is. There was this bar Finn and I used to go to in Brighton. She’d pop her evil little head in every so often and try really bloody hard to cop off with my husband.’ The last time, on their anniversary, he’d looked sorely tempted. ‘Have you known her long?’

‘She’s related to the Dowson-Jones’ so she’s always been around. Seriously, I know she’d stab herself in the back if it would help her career, but other than that, she’s harmless.’

‘Xand,’ James said, sitting back and rubbing his nose. ‘Rails?’

‘Fitzgerald?’ Xander raised his eyebrows. ‘It’s up to you.’

Daisy hesitated, her mouth open to say no. She shouldn’t; she really, really shouldn’t, but the pretty white lines lay on the table, whispering promises of chatting to India with ease, and that Tabitha wouldn’t be intimidating, or annoying. Slowly, Daisy nodded and seconds later, she sat with a rolled up twenty. What the hell was she doing? As it always did in the moment just before, her heart raced, her head panicking at the idea of doing Class-A drugs, of dying, of addiction, but before she over-thought it, the two skinny lines were gone.

‘You sharing, miss?’ said a female voice.

Oh God, no. Daisy sat up, her hand instinctively shielding her nose. This couldn’t be happening, but when she blinked, Freya Dowson-Jones stood smirking down at her. To make matters worse, she had the school bad boy, Travis McKillican, in tow. There was no way this could actually be happening.

‘Freya, Travis,’ James said, waving a dismissive hand, ‘fuck off back to the underage playpen.’

But the insolent pair were already heading away, Freya’s fingers a blur over her phone.

‘Oh God,’ Daisy said. ‘She’ll have tweeted the whole bloody school by Monday.’

‘Your new friend’s a teacher,’ James asked Xander, his voice dripping with disdain, ‘at St Nicks?’

Xander merely grinned and pulled Daisy to her feet. ‘Come on, Fitzgerald. Let’s dance.’

 

Tonight…’ With her arms raised in honour of the zeitgeist classic remixed to a one-twenty bpm bass, Daisy couldn’t stop her grin. Okay, maybe it was the coke, maybe it was the cocktails, but dancing with Xander had become her new favourite thing in the whole world.

Than the sun…’ Xander sang back, his forehead resting against hers.

They were sweaty, grinning, loved up idiots. He was the best date – her glass never empty, be it vodka shots, cocktails or water, whatever she needed, he provided. Better still, he didn’t look at another girl the whole time – which was quite extraordinary considering the number of girls stalking him.

They were legion and would gaze longingly or pout angrily, causing Daisy to mentally divide them into Has-Beens, Maybes and Never-Will-Bes. Only the coke prevented her from wilting under the animosity each and every one exuded as they looked her over with the same disdain James had.

‘Alexander, who is this?’ A pair of arms wrapped around her waist, pulling her back towards a tall male – another Saint Nick’s old boy by the sound of him. ‘Can I play with her?’

Xander shook his head, smiling and the arms dropped away. Aside from James, it was the only time that evening Xander appeared genuinely pleased to see someone. ‘This is Marcus, James’ brother. Daisy’s my new best friend.’

‘She can be mine.’ Marcus blatantly eyed her up.

Laughing, Daisy returned the favour. Clearly, he’d fallen out of the same Abercrombie and Fitch advert as Xander – his snug white shirt contrasted perfectly with his mocha-brown skin and Disaronno-brown eyes. He was every bit as beautiful as his siblings, but they were Greek; he was black. How was he James and India’s brother?

Marcus laughed. ‘I’m their half-brother, different mothers. Don’t ask.’

Daisy’s cheeks burned, but Marcus’ attention had already switched to a pair of matching blondes in red dresses.

Ciao, bella,’ he said, before putting a hand on Xander’s shoulder. ‘James is asking where you are. He’s gone to the boathouse, bored.’

As Marcus bee-lined for the girls in red, Xander tipped his head, signalling an abrupt end to Daisy’s dancing.

‘It’s his party. We’d better go.’

Daisy tried valiantly not to sulk as they dawdled across the lawn, holding hands and sharing a cigarette. ‘How can James be bored? The music is beyond fabulous.’

‘He hates parties.’

It was looking ever-more likely that she and James wouldn’t be terribly good friends.

 

The boathouse, overhanging the edge of the lake, had been converted into a des-res – open plan with acres of glass, smooth oak and shiny steel, its impeccable, contemporary styling screamed of overpriced architects and interior designers.

‘Bit of a step up from your cottage,’ Daisy said, trailing her hand along the smooth slate handrail running around the edge of the deck.

‘Just a bit.’ Xander smiled. ‘He has an Xbox.’

There was a smaller, more exclusive party going on with dozens of people milling around, most out on the floating deck. Daisy spotted several actors from Coronation Street, two footballers and the lead singer of a boy band but, sadly, no India.

On an ancient leather chesterfield, James and Tabitha sat shoulder to shoulder as he cut up yet more coke. Smiling like a pussy cat, Tabitha patted the sofa, inviting Daisy to join her. One day, she might give Tabitha a second chance, but it wouldn’t be that night. Instead, Daisy offered a half-hearted smile and glanced around, looking for a distraction. Next to them was a huge pile of still wrapped gifts.

‘James, why haven’t you opened your birthday presents?’ she asked.

‘It’s not really his birthday,’ Xander explained, dropping onto the sofa opposite James. ‘That’s on New Year’s Day.’

‘But who needs a party on New Year’s Day?’ James glanced around as Marcus arrived with the matching blondes. ‘There’ll be nothing of any interest. You open them, Daisy.’

He managed to make it sound like an order, but whatever, because that whole better to give than receive concept always struck Daisy as nonsense, and she strongly suspected opening someone else’s gifts would still rate higher than giving.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she merrily tore open the gifts. The first was a rather foul painting, but the booty contained concert tickets, DVDs, books, cufflinks and, rather oddly, a glass vase. Okay, it was pretty, but why would a man want a vase?

‘This one has a letter.’ She held up a page of barely legible scrawl.

James, glaring at Marcus’ blondes, told her to read it out as it could be from some love sick bitch. Marcus jerked his head and the girls went out onto the floating deck.

‘Happy?’ Marcus sighed.

‘They’re fawning tarts,’ James said. ‘You can do so much better.’

‘They’re fun.’ Marcus shrugged. ‘You should try them.’

Did James hate women? How was he Xander’s best friend and since he was, what did that say about Xander? He met her gaze and his face broke into that Colgate smile. Reassured he was nothing like James, Daisy shot him a wink then read the letter.

Dear Jim. What do I give a spoiled, misogynistic bastard for his birthday? This isn’t a very nice letter.’ She looked at James, but he smiled, for the first time she’d seen. ‘I’ve decided it’s time to part with an old favourite of mine. If you don’t like it, the Teetotum gambling ball should fetch a few grand. The game is something my gaggle of bored young things invented back in the Eighties. We had bugger all sense and too much money, but I’m sure your crowd would put us to shame. Charming. We all made it to Stage Three, so don’t let the side down. Yours etc. Uncle Seb.’

James leant forwards. ‘Uncle Sebastian? Christ, no one’s heard of him in years.’

He took the shoe box sized package and put it on the table between the two sofas. Carefully removing the paper, he revealed a heavy wooden box. The only decoration was a small silver plaque inscribed with one word: FORFEIT.

Intrigued to know what kind of game their counterparts had dreamed up a few decades ago, Daisy perched on the corner of the table as James took out the Teetotum gambling ball, a handmade, peach-sized, many-sided dice; so worn, so battered, it seemed ancient. Still inside the box were a handwritten card and three smaller boxes, all wooden and each with a silver label.

Stage One: £50

Stage Two: £500

Stage Three: £5,000

‘I’m surprised they ever got past Stage Two,’ James said, an intrigued smile taking over his face as he opened the card. ‘Those who play must pay. Each player rolls the dice and takes the appropriately numbered dare card. The dares are based on the Seven Deadly Sins and Heavenly Virtues, testing the players’ mental, physical and moral mettle. There are three stages of increasing challenges and appropriate timeframes.

Stage One: One Hour

Stage Two: One Month

Stage Three: One Year

At the end of each stage, the players vote for the winner, the person they believe completed the best dare. The winner takes the stage pot.

‘It sounds fun,’ Tabitha said, draping herself over James’ shoulder and kissing his ear lobe. ‘Let’s play, sweetie.’

‘It sounds insane.’ Marcus lit a cigarette, earning another scowl from his brother. ‘Oh, come on, five grand to do a dare?’

Xander snuck an arm around Daisy’s waist, resting his chin on her shoulder. ‘And seriously, dares? We’re not thirteen.’

James rolled the Teetotum ball around in his hand. ‘Who’s playing?’

To her utter surprise, Daisy was the first to speak. ‘I’m in.’

Xander frowned at her, but she merely shrugged. She’d been paid by the school, the money was in her purse so for one night only, she wasn’t Daisy Fitzgerald, crappy teacher from Cheshire – she was Daisy Fitzgerald, friend of the rich and the fabulous. Tonight, she was India Dowson-Jones.

‘Okay, me too.’ Xander kissed her head.

Besides, she could so do with two hundred quid; how hard could it be to win a silly dare?

Marcus dropped his money on the table. Daisy and Xander’s followed.

Tabitha sulked. ‘I don’t have a bean on me. James, loan me?’ He obliged and she picked up the Teetotum ball. ‘Bagsy first go.’

She rolled a twelve. James handed her a dare card which she read and grinned. Okay, they couldn’t be too bad then. Daisy rolled the Teetotum ball, praying for a pleasant dare, and when it landed on twenty-five, she smiled. Her age, surely that was fortuitous? She took the card out of the Forfeit box and read the dare.

Lust: Kiss another player for five minutes. Don’t tell anyone what you’re doing, or why.

Oh bugger.

‘This is nuts,’ Xander said, shaking his head as he rolled the ball.

Totally nuts, Daisy mentally replied. The dare was doable, absolutely doable, but who the hell was she going to kiss? The obvious answer was Xander.

He laughed as he read his dare card. The obvious answer, but should she? He’d stuck by his no shagging promise and hadn’t been even slightly flirtatious all night, but what if he got the wrong idea? Or got pissed off because he thought she had? She couldn’t ruin their new best friend relationship, or her chance to live in the dream cottage.

‘Mine’s a piece of piss,’ James said, grinning.

Maybe she could kiss James. She could walk right over and just kiss him. As if he’d read her mind, he glanced at her, his face crumpling with disdain as he checked out her chest. What the hell? They might not be enormous, but her boobs were one of her better features. Clearly, she couldn’t kiss him. He might tell her to piss off. That would be horrific. Not James.

‘Twenty-to-one,’ James said. ‘One hour. Let’s do it. Tab, give me your bra.’

‘Not wearing one. I need a bottle of Jack and a shot glass,’ Tabitha purred to James, showing him her card.

‘Unlucky.’ He laughed, already heading for an open cabinet crammed with spirits. ‘It says whisky, spelled without an e. How about a sixteen year-old single malt?’

Tabitha’s smug smile faded. ‘But you know I can’t stand scotch fucking whisky.’

‘Aren’t you doing your dare then?’ Daisy asked sweetly. Wasn’t payback a bitch?

Tabitha snatched a bottle of Jura from James. Game on. Daisy grinned, appreciating Tabitha manning up, but she couldn’t help wishing that knocking back ten shots of top-quality whisky were her dare. It’d be a lot easier than kissing one of the other players for five minutes.

What about Marcus? He grabbed a guitar that stood propped beside the piano – because what respectable bachelor pad didn’t have a Steinway to hand? Casually, he sauntered up to a pretty girl with a dark, elfin cut. Any conversation she was having with her friends dried up as Marcus took her hand, kissing it briefly, before bursting into song. And not just any song. He’d chosen One Direction’s Little Things.

Daisy would’ve giggled at the cheesiness, but Marcus knew the words and he could play the chords. Better still, despite being off-key and horrifically flat, he delivered the song as if he were Harry Styles himself. The pixie girl never dropped eye contact with him. He’d so pulled. Daisy wouldn’t be kissing him.

Which left Xander.

He’d settled back on the sofa with his eyes closed. Was his dare to go to sleep?

‘If I die, I leave everything to my cat,’ Tabitha said, lifting the first of the ten shot glasses James had lined up on the table.

It had to be Xander, but what if it all went wrong? God, she was acting like a twelve year-old over a stupid kiss-dare. Wasn’t that the point of a dare, to do something humiliating? And she had to do it – no way would she flake out in front of Tabitha bloody Doyle. Then Daisy had a brilliant idea; how to make it a lot less messy – she’d cheat.

Buoyed up on cocktails, coke and escapism, she sat astride a somewhat stunned Xander.

‘Help me?’ she whispered, surreptitiously showing him the card.

Tabitha groaned as she sank number four. She was so going to be sick, but Daisy’s stomach churned too. What if he said no?

He didn’t.

Clearly fighting a smile, he gave a slow nod and Daisy stared at him, her nerves building. Oh God, she was about to kiss Xander. He raised his eyebrows, his eyes twinkling as he waited. She’d have to start this – it was her dare, not his. Tentatively, she brushed her lips against his, testing the water before she set the timer on her phone.

Five minutes, easy-peasy.

It all started harmlessly – even a little mechanical, but after the first minute, Xander’s hands moved up her back, his thumbs caressing her skin through the thin silk and shivers surged over her. He’d done the same on the one night stand, just before he’d undone her bra.

And I want him to do it again.

What the hell was that drumming noise inside her head? Was that her heartbeat? She wanted to pull away, desperate to breathe, to take control of her head, but her hands still held his face and his Bulgari aftershave still sent her senses reeling.

Slow, sweet, teasing, this was no teenage kiss-dare. Xander’s hands had moved up her bare shoulders, his fingers doing wicked things to her neck. How long had they been kissing for, three minutes, maybe four? Why wasn’t it thirty seconds? Then she’d have four and half minutes still to go.

Tequila body shots. Oh to lick salt off his abs again.

‘Supposed to be just friends,’ Tabitha slurred behind her. ‘That doesn’t look like friends.’

Daisy’s phone beeped. The five minutes were up, but no way was she stopping.

I want more.

‘I bet it’s her dare,’ James replied.

A dare.

She dragged her lips from Xander’s, looking down, watching his chest rising and falling. It was just a stupid dare. How had she got so carried away? How had they got so carried away? Oh God, what if he wasn’t carried away? What if he thought she were some desperate cow, throwing herself at him? Mortified, she closed her eyes, her head dropping. How could she laugh it off, put on her bravest of brave faces when she’d made such a fool of herself?

Xander dropped a kiss on her neck.

 

#Forfeit is available now from Amazon. It’s just £1.99/ $2.99 or FREE via Kindle Unlimited.

 

 

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