Betony Field has stuck by the rules and paid her dues while life with a capital L passed her by. A few days before her thirty-fifth birthday, her boyfriend calls it quits, she loses her job, and also her flat. She recovers her life, sans boyfriend, but then Betony decides to blow some of her rainy-day fund on the adventure of her life. There must be a catch, but in the meantime, should she tick the yes box offering sexy fun?
The week before her thirty-fifth birthday, Betony Field walked into an odd little café on the corner of Swift Street and Scuttle Lane. She was shivering, partly from cold and damp and partly because she hadn’t eaten anything worth mentioning since the week before.
She might have picked herself up, tied a knot, and gone on after Jay gave her the not you it’s me spiel. They’d been together for five years, but it really wasn’t going anywhere. She knew he’d leave, but she hadn’t expected him to jump ship just days before she stepped over the hill to nearer-forty-than-thirty. That was the kind of calculated cruelty that didn’t fit Jay’s sure, whatever, personality.
Jay worked for Lance Brill of Topsy Investments, too.
Clearly, he’d known something she hadn’t.
That was just the first blow.
No job. No home. Alone. It sounded like the twangy beginning of a bad song.
Betony had no idea what to do, so she’d reverted to an old trick from her childhood and closed her eyes. Sometimes when she did that, she saw featureless darkness. More often, she saw something else.
Interpreting the things she saw added interest to her otherwise humdrum life. It was like interpreting dreams, except that she saw things when she was awake.
She liked it best when the vision gave her a man, especially when he smiled at her and held out his hand. It wasn’t always the same man, and it was never one she knew. It was never Jay.
That day she saw a café.
Maybe she’d noticed subconsciously that a local café was hiring staff?
Betony cast her mind loose and walked the streets in a meanspirited drizzle. She walked to the corner of Swift and Scuttle, entered the café and sat waiting for inspiration or the offer of a job. None came. She just got colder and more hopeless.
Why am I here? Was it something Mac said?
Yes! He said something about taking a swift scuttle to the café and expecting supersonic service.
A waitress came to the table and stood by with a pen in one hand and a scratchpad in the other.
Betony felt the quick, professional smile beamed at her bent head.
She looked up.
“Ready to order, lovely?” The girl, a redhead clad in a nicely-fitted blue blouse with a darker blue wool vest over the top, was twenty-three at the most.
Betony noted the monogram on the redhead’s vest pocket. It appeared to be V-S.
Verity? Velvet? Violet?
She grabbed the bull by the horns. “I’m looking for a job. Anything open here?”
“I’m not hiring at present. Would you care to order?”
She’s in charge? At her age?
Betony glanced at the specials board. Three different kinds of tea and a dozen versions of coffee, plus a few variations on turmeric, coconut and chilli she’d heard of but never dared to try.
Her stomach heaved and perspiration beaded out on her forehead.
Not eating slimmed some people down. With Betony, it just turned her generous figure gaunt. She thought she looked like a down-at-heel Amazon who’d never got the memo about breast reduction.
The girl’s professional smile morphed into a look of concern. “Are you well, darlin’?” Her accent lilted away from the standard English she’d used before.
“Not very,” Betony said.
“I’ll get you a glass of water, shall I?” The redhead turned away, pausing as the bell over the café door sang out.
A man and a woman entered. The woman’s fair hair was half-hidden under a red beret and her cheeks were flushed with cold. Raindrops clung to her eyelashes. The man’s auburn hair was uncovered, and he had a trench coat with a turned-up collar. He was unbelievable, just like something out of Betony’s better eyelid pictures. They weren’t holding hands, but they might as well have been naked and entwined. They were together, in love and loving it.
Betony shrank into her damp coat. Go away. I don’t want to have to hate you for being happy.
The waitress said, “Mab, I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow!”
“Just landed, Ishlene.” The woman had an Australian accent. If she’d flown overnight from Australia, she had no right to look so alert.
“Her Majesty would come to share the love, Ishlene,” the man said. He bent to kiss his woman on the neck, and a waft of warm spiced chocolate washed over Betony’s senses.
For a moment her mouth watered, but then her stomach heaved again and she choked.
How could he be so beautiful and smell like expensive chocolate to boot? It’s cruel.
The woman, Mab, glanced over, her eyes narrowing. She seemed about to speak, but Betony pretended to examine the menu. Don’t you dare pity me. If you thought I was drooling over your man, guilty as charged. So would you be, if you were me.
She thought of Jay. There was a hole in her life where he’d been, but they had never delighted in one another as Red Beret and Trench Coat did.
The three went into what was presumably the kitchen, but they were out again before Betony had got up the gumption to leave the café.
The couple, still exuding delight in one another and the wider world, kissed the waitress in parting before they went out. The woman did a forehead-slapping doubletake and darted back in to move quickly from table to table, slipping leaflets into the holders on each. Betony’s table was the last, and the woman tutted as she must have realised she’d miscalculated the number she had left.
She glanced at the single one in her hand, lifted one shoulder in a shrug, and gave Betony a slip of a smile.
“Greet you, lassie,” she said, which was rather odd.
A chime and a waft of wind from the door made her start and drop the leaflet. It spiralled from her hand and flitted under the table.