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Christmas at The Little Duck Pond Cafe: (Little Duck Pond Cafe, Book 3) by Rosie Green (1)

CHAPTER ONE

I’ve been looking forward to this performance of Pride & Prejudice for weeks.

The lights go down, the curtains swish open and Mr Darcy, in riding gear, strides onto the stage. There’s a hush as roughly fifty per cent of the audience stops breathing for a second, hearts aflutter, as they drink in his haughty, dark good looks and long, strong, muscular thighs, the sort you could crack walnuts with.

Hot from his ride (very hot) he discards his jacket, throwing it carelessly onto a nearby chaise longue. The white shirt beneath, open almost to the waist, moulds to the hard muscles of his gleaming chest as he stands there, long legs like solid tree trunks, gazing out over the audience, his expression touched with a hint of torment.

He seems to be searching for a face in the crowd.

Suddenly, his eyes alight upon me.

Recognition flares between us, and my heart starts pounding in my ears as he leaps off the stage and sweeps me up in his powerful arms. I’m helpless to resist as he crushes me against his Herculean chest and brings his mouth down on mine . . .

Someone digs me in the ribs. ‘Earth to Fen? Are you awake?’

My glorious fantasy interrupted, I open my eyes and see my friend, Ellie, who’s just back from the refreshments queue.

She gives me an arch look and hands me an ice-cream. ‘I suppose you were day-dreaming about a certain Mr Ethan Fox, hunky star of tonight’s performance?’

‘I certainly was not!’ I’m blushing more hotly than a sizzling sausage on Bonfire Night. ‘I just happen to be quite – um – tired, if you must know.’

Ellie smiles knowingly. ‘If you say so.’

She’s right, of course, about Ethan Fox.

Ever since he casually asked me to join his amateur dramatics group, based in Sunnybrook village hall, he’s been invading my dreams on a disturbingly regular basis.

Tonight, Ellie, Jaz and I are here to watch the group’s performance of Pride & Prejudice.

Ellie and I are huge Jane Austen fans. Jaz, not so much. I think she just came for the chat and the ice-cream in the interval.

The first half went off deliciously, without a hitch, and now I can’t wait for the second half. More precisely, I can’t wait for Ethan Fox – six-foot-plus with dark good looks and devastating charm - to stride onto the stage again in those riding breeches.

‘Long and silky-smooth and utterly irresistible,’ groans Ellie. ‘Pure wicked pleasure on your tongue.’

I whip around – to find Ellie slowly tearing the paper off her ice-cream. She nods at mine, sitting forgotten in my hand. ‘Get going or it’ll melt.’

I do as she says, unwrapping my indulgent chocolate ice-cream on a stick. In adverts on TV, a luscious model with glossy, bee-stung lips will bite through the hard outer casing to the soft, creamy heaven beneath, making a tantalising sound that’s guaranteed to send women all over the country weak with unbridled lust.

Like Ellie right now . . .

She grins. ‘I’m all for sensual pleasure these days.’

I flick my eyes to the ceiling. ‘So I gather you’re still having plenty of – er – fun with Zak, then?’

She smiles smugly and gives her blonde hair a little flick. ‘You could say that. I suppose the shine might wear off after fifty years. But in the meantime, I’m definitely not complaining.’

‘What’s that?’ demands our friend, Jaz, returning to her seat on the other side of Ellie. ‘What’s she complaining about, Fen?’

‘The amount of sex she’s having,’ I say with a deadpan expression.

Jaz sighs, running her hands through her newly cropped hair. She’s always changing the colour of it. This month, it’s a lovely shiny coppery red. ‘Lucky you!’ she says grumpily. ‘I hardly ever see Harry these days. He was all over me when we first got together, remember? But now he’d rather go to the pub with his mates or travel miles on photography jobs than spend any time with me.’

I nudge her shoulder. ‘Harry’s crazy about you. Everyone knows that.’

‘So why has he persuaded Zak to go for a drink with him tonight rather than come here to see the play with me?’

Ellie snorts. ‘Jaz, we might be Jane Austen enthusiasts, but you can hardly expect Harry to be equally in love with her!’

‘I suppose so.’ Jaz doesn’t look convinced.

‘Speaking of lurve,’ says Ellie, with a mischievous smile. ‘Guess who said he might call in at the café after the performance? Only the star of the show, Mr Gorgeous himself!’ Her pointed glance at me, as she mentions Ethan, makes my cheeks burst into flame. ‘He came into the café the other day and when I told him we were going to tonight’s performance, he said that if I felt like opening up specially, he’d bring some of the cast along afterwards to unwind after the show.’ She shrugs. ‘It’s good for business, so I said yes.’

Jaz grins. ‘No doubt he’ll be using his legendary charm to entice you to join his group, Fen. You should give it a go. Amateur dramatics sounds like fun.’

‘Yeah, right,’ I say with heavy sarcasm. ‘Because being the outgoing, party person that I am, I’m sure to be an absolute natural on stage.’

I’ve thought about it a million times since he asked me, wondering if I could pluck up the courage to go along to one of their meetings. But whenever I imagine myself walking through the door and having to talk to loads of people I’ve never met, my stomach starts turning triple somersaults and I know I can’t do it . . .

‘It would be behind the scenes,’ points out Ellie. ‘I heard him say that to you. So you wouldn’t have to go on stage. You should do it, Fen.’

‘Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t,’ I say coolly, concentrating on removing the last bit of my ice-cream wrapper.

Ellie can be so annoying when she’s got a bee in her bonnet about something – and for some reason, she seems determined to get me a boyfriend.

But she’s living in cloud cuckoo land if she thinks anything’s going to happen between me and Ethan Fox. He’s so far and away out of my league, he’s probably got an Australian passport.

I suppose when people are crazily in love – as Ellie is with Zak – they tend to assume finding someone to love is as easy as falling off a log. And it might well be. But what isn’t quite so easy is finding a man who is just as crazy about you.

My shyness has always felt like an obstacle to me finding love. At school, I struggled to even look at boys I liked, never mind talk to them. I developed a crush on a different boy every year, but all I ever did was admire them from afar. If a boy ever so much as glanced in my direction, I’d panic, blush the colour of pickled beetroot and pray for the floor to swallow me up. Not surprisingly, I hadn’t even kissed a boy by the time I left school at eighteen. And having reached the ripe old age of thirty, I can count on one hand the number of dates I’ve had over the past decade.

Only one of my dates blossomed into a real romance.

I really liked Joe and the feeling seemed to be mutual. But there was one problem. Joe was a party animal and liked going out socialising all the time, whereas I much preferred to stay at home, curled up on the sofa, engrossed in a book. We were poles apart, really – he an extrovert, me the classic introvert - but I was certain I’d met The One and that we’d overcome any obstacles together.

So I was utterly devastated when Joe ended our relationship after just three months, saying it was never going to work because we wanted such different things out of life. He yearned to travel the world while I was perfectly content to venture no further than the village of Sunnybrook, where I’d lived all my life.

After Joe, I gave up on love.

But I didn’t give up devouring my favourite romance books.

My family all know where to find me if they need me: I’ll likely be curled up on the comfy old sofa, the one with the stuffing falling out, in the far corner of the drawing room - deep in some love story or other.

I know my shyness irritates Mum. She’s always trying to turf me out into ‘the real world’ to ‘have experiences’. Being such an out-going person herself, she can’t understand the horrible anxiety that can dog a shy person’s life.

Dad understands, though. We’re very similar. He likes nothing better than to go to his study and spend hours engrossed in a book. He’s happy in his own company, just like me. Not that his tendency to be solitary has held him back in his career at all. He and Mum were both highly regarded barristers until they retired to turn Brambleberry Manor, our home, into a tourist attraction.

That was Mum’s decision but she was eventually able to convince Dad it was a good idea. And I think she was right. If they want to hold onto the beautiful manor house that Mum inherited, they need a reliable source of income that will continue long after they retire.

My brother, Richard, who’s also a barrister, takes after Mum and is really ambitious.

I definitely take after Dad, and I’ve always thought there wasn’t much I could do about the shyness thing.

Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder . . .

I’ve had this restless feeling inside for a while now. It’s dawning on me that if I’m not careful, life – and love – will just keep on passing me by.

These nagging worries of mine are probably a result of seeing how happy Ellie is in her relationship with Zak.

They have absolutely nothing at all to do with Ethan Fox . . .

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