Thanks to an embarrassing incident involving a wedding and her ex-boyfriend Marcus, Lucy has to leave her home town in a hurry and needs a place to escape to for a while.
Best friend Fiona is convinced now would be a good time for Lucy to get herself a new life with some potential for romance thrown in. Fate seems to agree when Lucy is given the once-in-a-lifetime chance to star in a TV show and be a contestant on The Love Programme - two weeks of luxury living on a grand Highland estate coupled with, she hopes, fun and romance in wildest Scotland.
When Lucy meets Paul - the young, handsome owner of the Highland estate - she thinks she may have found the love of her life but who is the mysterious Hannah and what part does she play in his life? When she discovers that Marcus is planning to follow her to Scotland to win her back Lucy has some serious soul searching to do. Does she have a future with Paul, with Marcus or is she yet to find the man of her dreams?
“I’m so glad he’s marrying someone else,” whispered Lucy, watching the groom shuffle nerv-ously from one foot to the other at the top of the aisle.
“It could have been you up there,” replied Fiona. “How many times did Marcus ask you to marry him?”
“Three,” Lucy replied, shifting position for the fourth time in as many minutes. Why did church pews have to be so uncomfortable? “The first time when we were five, then again at twenty and finally,” she paused, reliving the moment in her head, “eight months ago.”
“Well,” Fiona said, as the organ struck up, filling the cold but pretty church with overly loud mu-sic, “it looks as though you’re safe from any more proposals, because I think the bride has just arrived.”
Amelie Marchant made her way slowly down the aisle, blonde hair in an elegant chignon, de-signer dress looking a million dollars. Beneath her thin veil it was clear she was smiling, no doubt savouring each precious second of being the focus of everyone’s attention, yet keeping her own attention firmly fixed on Marcus, who was awaiting her arrival at the altar.
Fiona nodded in approval. “She looks gorgeous. Her dress is exquisite.” She nudged Lucy. “Doesn’t the little bridesmaid look sweet in deep pink?”
“Yes, she’s Amelie’s niece apparently.” Lucy let a small sigh of contentment slip from her lips as Amelie reached the altar and stood close to Marcus. Finally she, Lucy Stokes, was going to be free of Marcus Brandon. He was marrying someone else, hallelujah! She would, at long last, be able to live her life exactly the way she wanted to. The whole reason she was here today was to witness the ceremony for herself. To know it was for real.
Okay, so she and Marcus had been childhood sweethearts. They’d played at the whole boy-friend-girlfriend thing on and off, sometimes quite successfully, for well over fifteen years. When she’d reached her twenties Lucy had sensed they didn’t have a future together, and she’d been trying to get Marcus to realise the fact ever since.
When she’d broken it off with him for the last time, to say he hadn’t taken kindly to the idea they were no longer an item was a major understatement. Over time she’d grown used to his persistent phone calls, the fact he often just popped round to see her and casually suggested, if they were both at a loose end, they might go for a drink or to the pictures.
Even when she’d plucked up the courage to attempt to date other people, it had been a complete disaster. Friadon was a small town and Marcus seemed to know every detail of where she went, when and with whom. On more than one occasion he’d tried to talk her out of going on a date, and she suspected, but couldn’t prove, he’d persuaded at least one of her dates to stay well away from her, causing her to be stood up, all alone in the heavy rain, outside the local cinema.
Six months after they’d split up, in a completely misguided attempt to woo her back, he’d gotten down on one knee and proposed to her for the third time at the travel agency where she worked. Armed with a huge bouquet of red roses and a bottle of champagne he’d asked her to marry him one last time. It had been in front of several customers too; Lucy had been pink with embarrass-ment. When, riddled with guilt, she’d gently declined his offer yet again, he’d gone off and met Amelie. Eight months later here the two of them were standing at the altar about to become man and wife.
Realising the ceremony was already well under way and she’d missed the first bit through not paying attention, Lucy tried to focus on what was being said, forcing the memories of Marcus from her mind. Yes, they’d enjoyed some fun times over the years, and she had to admit there had been occasions when they’d been completely great together, but it was all in the past now. His future lay with Amelie.
Clearing his throat the vicar glanced nervously towards the congregation and asked, “Does any-one here object to the marriage of Amelie Marchant and Marcus Brandon? If so, speak now or forever hold...”
“I object.” The words were barely audible but Lucy heard them and fear shivered up her spine.
The vicar, looking as though his worse fears were being realised, glanced around anxiously, un-sure what to do or say next.
This time the voice was louder. The vicar grew red-faced and flustered.
“I’m sorry, sir, did you say you object?”
The bridegroom nodded solemnly. “Yes, I’m afraid I did.”
Those in the first few rows of the church heard the faintest of whimpers escape from beneath the bride’s veil and her knees appeared to buckle just a little.
Fixing a stern gaze upon the unwilling groom the vicar muttered, “Why exactly do you object, Mr. Brandon?”
Marcus addressed the packed congregation, his eyes scanning the rows, seeming to search for someone. Then in a loud, clear voice he announced, “I object because I’m still in love with an-other woman!” Raising his right hand he pointed to an area, three pews back on the right, just in front of a stone pillar. “Lucy, my love, will you ever take me back?”
There was collective gasp from the congregation; the bride fainted on the spot, sinking to the floor to be quickly swallowed up in a cloud of ivory silk and lace. Lucy, covered in embarrass-ment from head to foot, used her generously proportioned purple feather hat to try to hide her face, clasped her matching purple purse to her chest and ran from the church as fast as her kitten heels would carry her.
“Poor woman. Imagine being left at the altar.” Fiona licked her lips and placed her fork back on the now empty plate, having demolished a generous portion of blueberry cheesecake. “It’s the kind of thing you never recover from, surely.”
“I know, I know, and I’m mortified everybody thinks I was in some way to blame.” Lucy sighed and searched in her handbag for a tissue. “I tried to call Amelie afterwards to explain there was nothing going on between me and Marcus, but her mum slammed the phone down on me. Eve-ryone hates me and I haven’t even done anything wrong.”
“So, where is Marcus now then?”
“He flew out to Portugal yesterday after the wedding to stay with his sister and her family. He rang me from the airport and asked if I’d fly out to join him, can you believe it?” Lucy shook her head in despair. “What do I have to do for him to get the message?”
“Well, he’s obviously still crazy about you.” Fiona sighed and then pinched the uneaten biscotti from the side of Lucy’s cup and saucer. “In some ways it’s rather romantic.”
“Fi! It’s not and you know it! You’ve known me since school, and you know how he’s been driving me crazy for years! You, of all people, should understand!” Lucy replied, trying to re-trieve the stolen biscotti from Fiona. “I want some freedom from him. I want a life. I want to be able to try to find my Mr. Perfect.”
Fiona shook her head despairingly. “Not Mr. Perfect again. Don’t tell me — the man of your dreams needs to be,” she started to count on her fingers, “One, he needs to be fabulously wealthy. Two, he needs to be drop dead gorgeous. Three, kind and loving, attentive and thought-ful. Four, intelligent and successful. Five…”
Lucy held her hand up in protest. “Well, a girl needs to aim high.”
“I understand about you and Marcus. He’s not the man for you, but I’m afraid you’re not being realistic in the male wish list department. Firstly, you swap and change your mind about things all the while, and secondly, you know Mr. Perfect doesn’t even exist,” Fiona said, with a regretful smile. “I’m sure we all wish he did, but he doesn’t. Never has.”
Looking like a child who’d just been told Santa Claus wasn’t real, Lucy replied, “Okay for you to say. You’ve found your soulmate and are heading for the Friadon wedding of the year in a couple of weeks.”
“Yes, this is true.” Fiona nodded, a blissful smile appearing on her face. “But don’t forget I was realistic. I know Luke’s the one for me. I accept he’s not Mr. Perfect. He doesn’t shower me with roses or gifts, he goes down to the pub with his mates to watch the football far too often, and he’s not made of money. Oh, and he hates shopping!”
Lucy shook her head, pretending to disapprove. “And yet you still love him!”
“Yes, I do.” Fiona snapped the biscotti in half and handed one piece to Lucy. “Didn’t you ever love Marcus?”
“No. Well, maybe I thought I did when I was younger. We were great together for a while.” She sighed, stirring her coffee absentmindedly. “I suppose I’ve never had much chance to date other guys, to experience life. That’s part of the problem. Marcus always wanted us to go absolutely everywhere together when we were dating.”
“I don’t know how you’ve managed. To reach the ripe old age of twenty three, and you can probably count the number of boyfriends you’ve had on three fingers.”
Lucy buried her head in her hands, a curtain of straight blonde hair falling forward to hide her face. “I know. It’s crazy. And now I’m hated by pretty much every female within a ten mile ra-dius because they think I’m a trollop and I’ve been carrying on with Marcus whilst he’s been en-gaged. I’m completely innocent in all of this, yet I’m the one getting bad-mouthed.”
“They’ll get over it.” Pausing for dramatic effect, Fiona added, “It’ll just probably take a long while. In the meantime you’ll have to get used to being thought of as a wanton woman.” Patting her hand reassuringly, she said, “Anyway, I’m still your friend.”
“Great, thanks,” muttered Lucy, head still in her hands. “Sometimes I just feel this overwhelming desire to move away from here, to get myself a new life.”
“Well, do it then. For goodness sake you’ve been whinging on about it enough for the last few years.” Fiona popped the biscotti into her mouth. “Think about it. What’s stopping you from leaving Friadon anyway? Well, apart from my impending wedding of course.”
Warming to her topic she said, “It would do you good to get away from this small town mentali-ty. You should have done it years ago. Go off and explore, find out what you want from your life. You’ve never had a chance to date properly without Marcus peering over your shoulder. It must have been awkward.”
“It was.” Lucy shrugged, staring at a large crumb of biscotti on the table. As she had a good idea how infrequently the table tops were cleaned in this café, she resisted the strong urge to scoop the crumb up and lick it from her finger. “Anyway, at my age, shouldn’t I have my life all mapped out by now? You know, what I want from men, work, the whole caboodle.”
Shaking her head Fiona reached for the last of her coffee. “Nah, it’s just a popular myth. Gener-ally things just happen, and they’re probably not what you were planning but they usually kind of work out for the best in the end.”
Looking at Lucy, she said, “Remember how you used to complain about how boring Marcus was? Saying how you’d never been in a relationship where you’d been totally swept off your feet, how you wanted to find a man you could be completely crazy about for the rest of your life? Always going on about how you wanted to find your Mr. Perfect, the love of your life?”
Lucy pushed a lock of hair behind her right ear, frowning. “And your point is?”
“Go find the man for you, have your adventure, enjoy yourself,” Fiona added encouragingly. “All of the hearts and roses stuff, the handsome looks and pots of money business we all, at some point, crave. Doesn’t matter. They’re not the real recipe for happiness in a relationship.” As Lucy’s face took on a not-this-lecture-again look, Fiona said, “You’ll see, I know you will. You just need to find the right man first.”
Business had been slower than usual at the Price Right Travel Agency where Lucy worked. “Isn’t it boring when nobody comes into the agency?” She sighed as she deftly slid a pair of scis-sors through some plastic wrapping on a pile of holiday brochures proclaiming Turkey to be ‘paradise in the sun’.
Her boss Melanie glanced up from her computer with an irritated expression on her pixie-like face. “I imagine we’re being boycotted thanks to your little shenanigans with Marcus.”
Trying to wedge some brochures with a picture of a gorgeous sun-drenched Turkish beach on the front onto the shelving, Lucy said, “For the tenth time, Mel, I didn’t do anything. What do I have to say for people to believe me?”
Mel shook her head. “I’m not here to judge your love life but when it starts to affect my busi-ness…” she paused, choosing her words carefully. “For starters Marcus was one of our best cus-tomers. He even booked his honeymoon here. Goodness knows what will happen there. Nobody has asked about the chance of a refund yet. What with Marcus paying for it and then jetting off to Portugal straight after the non-wedding, he hasn’t had a chance. I expect he’ll be in to try to sort it all out when he gets back.”
“He’ll lose his money. I’m pretty sure walking out on your wedding isn’t covered under his in-surance,” said Lucy with a grimace, feeling guilty about how Marcus and Amelie wouldn’t get to enjoy the five star hotel he’d chosen on a gorgeous stretch of beach on Cyprus. If she remem-bered rightly the place had three restaurants, five swimming pools, a spa and a gym. Everything you could wish for. She’d helped him to choose the place. Now she was the reason he wouldn’t be going there.
“Perhaps it would be best if you took a bit of a sabbatical. Have you thought about it at all?” Mel asked with more than a hint of encouragement in her voice.
“Sabbatical?” Lucy queried, the brochures in her hand slipping to the floor. “Not a polite way of saying I’m fired is it?”
“Of course not. I’ll hold your job open for you. Just consider it an opportunity to take a few weeks off to go and have yourself a bit of fun. Hopefully by the time you return, all the gossips will have moved on to someone else and the next Friadon scandal.”
“You’re serious aren’t you?” Lucy asked, sitting down on several bundles of as-yet unopened brochures.
“Definitely. I have this friend who works for a small TV production company. They’re doing some sort of programme about love and one of the girls has had to pull out at the last moment for family reasons. They need a replacement right away and the filming is supposed to start in two days. Craig, my friend, doesn’t want to have to go through all the audition info again to choose someone else. I bet you’d be ideal.”
Sceptically Lucy asked, “What sort of love programme? It’s not something tacky is it?”
“No, no,” Mel answered, tapping away at her computer keyboard. “I think the idea is for three girls and one boy to spend two weeks together at some glam location. It’s properly organised and supervised. Each of you would get to go on your dream type of dates. It’s all about the psycholo-gy of finding the love of your life.”
Lucy got to her feet, then swayed unsteadily as her sandals slipped across several of the glossy holiday brochures scattered about the floor where she’d dropped them minutes earlier. Stooping to gather up the brochures before a customer (should one of them ever appear) broke their ankle on them and sued the agency, Lucy contemplated Mel’s suggestion. “So it would all be quite tasteful then?”
“I should imagine so. I think they’ll be having a psychologist on hand too, so after each date you can talk about how you think things went. There’s a complete relationship analysis service avail-able so you can learn about yourself, men, and your attitude towards dating. Sounds ideal for you.”
Realising she’d been holding her breath for a few seconds, Lucy let it out in a long sigh. “Okay, I might be interested. Shall I call this Craig or will you?”
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