From Chapter One: In Which We Meet a Brand New Sammy Day.
Claudette Stradling, known to her friends as Claude, paused in the doorway of the The Cross Keys Hotel. Sammy was beneath the cherry tree with his back to her, gazing at the English village beyond, and even from this angle she could hardly believe it was him. In that smart tux, with that easy slouch, and the floppy fair hair that used to be dark, he was every inch the hottie – not the dweeb he used to be. Oh, Claude had waited many months to say sorry for the way she’d teased him back at college, and seeing as this was their old housemate’s wedding, she’d come prepared to apologise sincerely. The last few weeks had reminded her how cold loneliness could be, and she knew Sammy had never deserved such cruelty. The glasses of champagne she now held by the stems were just the beginning of her attempt to build a bridge.
Until this moment, she’d only spied him from afar and she wasn’t even sure he knew she was here. And Jesus, she hadn’t expected him to turn into a stud!
As if hearing her thoughts, he spun round. A grin leapt to his lips – he was a gent to fake such pleasure at seeing her here. “Claude!” He gave a casual wave and paced across, bursting into a boyish jog.
When he kissed her on the cheek, she flushed. He smelt of fresh cologne.
“Sammy, so good to see you.” She passed him a glass.
“In case you hate me.”
He laughed. His blue eyes gleamed.
She drained a good third of her glass before saying his new look suited him. He accepted the compliment with a pleased little squint – a gesture left over from the shy Sammy Day – before touching her bare arm, brushing his hand along her wrist.
Claude almost gasped at the surprise of their connection. His touch was soft and perfectly pressured – it gave her tingles that worked down her body. She and Sammy clinked glasses and he sipped his drink, saying, “You always said my mind was wasted on computer screens.”
Claude mumbled that she was sorry, running her hand through her hair.
“No, no.” He stepped back and opened his arms as if showing her who he was. “I’m a teacher, these days. It’s true, what you said. I was cut off from everyone. This is far better.”
“Still,” sighed Claude, “I had no right.”
Sammy gave her a nudge, and they shared a laugh. God, he was so different – the acne, the trainers and lank, greasy hair had been replaced by tanned skin and the scent of dry cologne. He still possessed a hint of that submissive vulnerability Claude had always taunted, yet here he was, handsome and toned – not cloistered in his room like a sickly child.
They chatted for a while about the wedding, and Claude was taken with how at home she felt. Neither of them could believe Jake their old housemate, was getting married in an hour’s time – the bride was a French actress neither of them had met: a fact that had surprised Sammy. “I know he’s bi,” he told Claude, “but I thought he’d end up with a boy.”
“That's Jake,” said Claude. “King of surprises.”
She gazed down the hill at the grey, stone church below, which jutted up from between the clustered houses. Above them, storm clouds were gathering, shards of sunlight struggling to push through. “I hope the rain holds off,” said Claude.
“It won’t,” said Sammy. “Can’t you taste it in the air?”
“Poor Jake. A stormy wedding.” Filling an awkward pause, she added, “I’d never have guessed he’d be the first to get hitched.”
“Yeah, I thought you guys would take the lead.”
Claude felt a tightness in her stomach and gazed up at their canopy: the bright pink blossoms of a cherry tree in bloom. This was what she’d been dreading – questions about her break-up with Rob.
“Forgive me,” said Sammy. “I’m out of the loop, but are you two…?”
Claude said she was single, and before she knew it Sammy was standing close, pushing her hair away from her face. She glanced up, astonished at his concern, and tried to ignore her sudden thirst to kiss him. Those lips, that tan, those gentle eyes…and the close electricity of the weather was turning her on. “I’m sorry,” he said, holding her gaze, “but you were too good for him.”
She laughed. He was being sarcastic, for sure; this was an elaborate trick to teach her a lesson. And yet…his expression was still serious and his touch had felt tender.
“To the future,” he said, raising his drink.
She smiled. They clinked glasses.
Above, thunder rumbled. “We should go in,” said Sammy.
As he sipped his champagne, she watched his mouth and felt a growing heat in her core – God, she’d like to touch him, run her hands across that chest, feel those strong arms clamping her, those fingers on her thigh… Jesus, was this possible? Was she actually hot for Sammy? It had only been three months since Rob had walked out, and here she was craving the man they’d labeled a loser.
As if he’d read her mind, Sammy sidled up to Claude and splayed his hand in the small of her back. “Pretty,” he said, staring down at the village below.
He pressed her through the silk of her dress and the heat felt divine.
She gazed at his blue-eyed profile. "Isn't it," she said.