My latest contemporary romance 'Shopping for Love' is due for release next week - providing I can iron out the minor detail of the cover in time! It's being worked on by a great cover artist, but we haven't yet managed to agree all the details, so I can't include a sneak peek here. However, I can include a quick peek at the opening.
She heard him muttering under his breath in the vegetable aisle – the one with the salads, cucumbers and tomatoes. I do that too, she thought. I wonder if other people notice me doing it. It wasn’t a question that worried her too much. Supermarkets were so big and impersonal and forever shifting their stock around as if the management lived in perpetual fear of customers growing too complacent about finding what they wanted. It was hardly surprising that confused and harried customers muttered to themselves as they went through the trauma of their weekly shopping ordeal.
The thing about this muttering customer, though, was that he was extraordinarily good-looking, in Emma’s eyes. He didn’t seem the type to be frequenting a supermarket alone on a Friday evening, much less muttering under his breath like he might be declaring war on it! Emma smiled to herself as she deftly swung her trolley around him and stood facing the rows of tomatoes – the supermarket’s top picks, not the rows upon rows of blushing red, orange and yellow jewels glistening in boxes, clinging to vines or nestling shyly together in punnets with little ribbons saying ‘ripen at home’. She’d tried all those and Joan had complained about them: too sour, too tasteless, too tough, too squishy etc., etc.
After surveying the array of so-called ‘deluxe’ produce before her, Emma reached up to the top row to the most expensive pack of all. Surely that meant they had to be the best? As she reached for the plastic container, her hand touched another hand reaching for the same box. She withdrew hers rapidly, as though she’d been stung, and glanced to her left with an apologetic air. “I’m so sorry.”
“I’m so sorry,” he said, simultaneously. It was the gorgeous, muttering man. “Allow me.”
“Oh no, I was just looking,” Emma said. She felt very silly. Just looking? At tomatoes? How stupid does that sound?
“I know, it’s very difficult to know what to choose, don’t you agree? I mean, whatever I buy, my grandfather will find something to grumble about.”
“Oh.” Emma smiled; it was her biggest and best offering. “I’m shopping for a rather fussy old person too. I sometimes think she gets more pleasure out of complaining than living.” She heard him give a throaty chuckle, which sounded rather sexy, as he turned and looked at her for a moment.
“Are you sure you’re not my grandfather’s secret shopper?”
He had a very pleasing twinkle in his deep brown eyes, Emma observed. She widened her smile for him. “Oh no, my Nemesis is definitely female.”
He picked up two packs of tomatoes from the top shelf. The leather on his jacket creaked as he stretched his arm and she could just catch the faintest whiff of its pleasant, earthy smell.
“Well maybe these will appease their fastidious tastes?”
Together they gazed at the array of tomatoes huddled under the cellophane wrapper. The label proclaimed them to be hand-picked for sweetness and flavour and their assortment of colours and sizes certainly made them look more interesting than the uniform red ones. She caught the scent of his cologne: deep spice tones with a hint of citrus. It smelled expensive. Emma wondered, irrelevantly, if it was his own choice, or a gift from a woman.
“These get my vote,” he said. “Let’s go for it and we can meet here next week and compare notes.”
He said it jokingly but she smiled and nodded as she accepted the box and placed it in her shopping trolley. When she could think of no reason to linger further, she nodded and smiled a bit more before consulting her list and moving off towards the next aisle.
She rather hoped he might follow her, or that she would encounter him again in a different aisle, but no such luck. She’d read magazine articles about supermarkets being the latest venues for people to meet but hadn’t believed them for a minute. She came to this one every Friday at more or less the same time to do Joan’s shopping and pick up a few things for her herself for the weekend and had never even seen, much less talked to anyone remotely date-worthy. Until today.
Sterodent. She checked her list and rolled her eyes. She’d forgotten Joan’s denture cleaner and had to back-track to the dental products aisle. She was such a disorganised shopper, hating it so much. For her own needs she could happily shop at the corner shop with its deli-counter and mini-market but Joan was far more fastidious than Emma. At 87, Emma conceded, she had a right to be so.
Her servitude to Joan started some three years previously. Joan lived in a small and pleasant block of manager-supervised flats next to the little cottage Emma had inherited from her grandmother. She often saw Joan pottering about in the well-kept grounds in the evening when she came home from school. Joan used to be a teacher too and she enjoyed chatting to Emma about her day and comparing notes about her own teaching days. How very different those days were.
Some two or three years ago, Joan disappeared for several weeks and the little patch of garden she always tended herself became overgrown. There was a flourishing rosemary bush to which Joan had invited Emma to help herself should she ever need that herb in cooking and Emma had rather cheekily, but discreetly, taken a cutting from it for her own garden.
Emma wondered vaguely what had happened to Joan and considered approaching the scheme manager to enquire, but she wasn’t sure then how to do that and more pressing matters always seemed to get in the way. The next time Emma saw Joan, she was limping and heavily reliant on a stick. Emma watched her surveying her little patch and looking sorrowful.
“My gardening days are over. I’m to be moved to Fernleas.” Joan told her mournfully.
“But why?” Emma asked in concern.
“I’m not mobile enough to manage here as I can’t do my own shopping anymore; much less tend my little patch of garden. They say I need a residential place. It will break my heart to leave.”
“But I can help with your shopping, if that’s the main problem.” Emma assured her quickly. Too quickly, but that had always been one of her faults. And that was how it all began; her servitude to Joan.
Not that Emma minded, most of the time. Joan was profoundly grateful and it was no hardship to collect her meagre list and stop off at the supermarket on her way home from school each Friday. School generally finished early on Fridays – the one day no meetings were ever scheduled and the supermarket was just around the corner from it. She would drop Joan’s shopping off, idle away half an hour or so chatting with the old lady and then go home. It wasn’t as if she ever had any more pressing engagements these days. Especially since Bailey had mumbled his excuses and fled her life. He’d left a gap which Emma felt she’d never be able to fill.
After a time, Joan gave up attempting to leave the building, only venturing out of her tiny flat once a week to hobble to the room at the end of her corridor where the hairdresser came to wash and set the old people’s hair. As long as Emma did her shopping, however, she was able to retain her independence and her dignity. She had no family and no friends mobile enough to help her or even visit her. She received her lunch courtesy of Meals on Wheels but managed to fend for herself at breakfast and supper thanks to her personal shopper. Emma was acutely aware that if she didn’t fulfil this service, Joan would have no choice but to succumb to a residential care home to await her eventual death.
During the past few months, Emma noticed that Joan grumbled a lot more about minor things. She swore her loaves of bread and pots of yoghurt were getting smaller, her concentrated orange more dilute, her loo paper thinner and such little gripes. Emma worried at first but then learned to dismiss the complaints which gradually escalated week by week, instead trying to distract Joan with more cheerful observations. She found the constant complaints depressing.
Emma told her about the nice man in the tomatoes aisle, but Joan showed little interest in him. Instead she peered at the tomatoes with a look of suspicion. “In my day, tomatoes were always red,” she observed, poking at the cellophane with her arthritic finger.
Emma laughed. “Yes, we thought these would amuse you. They look interesting, don’t you think? If you don’t like them, I’ll look for some different ones next week.” She wondered if she would ever see the tomato man again.