The fourteenth entry of our Top 20 Undiscovered Shortlist is The Chocolate Project by Celia J. Anderson
Remember your favourite entry because you'll get the chance to vote after all twenty excerpts have been posted!
Over to Celia J. Anderson…
THE CHOCOLATE PROJECT (BLURB)
Brand new books, chocolate and a Jacuzzi; could there be a better combination? Gorgeous geordie, Laurie, thinks not. He arrives in Clayton-on-the-Bream on a mission to make his mark and to find Mab. When he reveals his ideas for a bespoke bookshop, aspiring authors’ club and chocolate-themed cafe, struggling writer Mab finds it impossible to resist his plea for help.
But Laurie’s timing is disastrous – Mab's life is already in turmoil, and Laurie's is even more complicated. As they begin to work together, Laurie and Mab fight hard to ignore the warm, sensual friendship that is growing between them. If only Laurie wasn’t engaged to the flighty, ultra-tanned, super-thin Sophie. If only Mab wasn’t already up to her neck in a scheme that threatens her previously undemanding lifestyle, and will horrify Laurie when he discovers it. And if only Laurie’s older brother Den wasn’t so charismatic.
Laurie and Mab forge ahead to make Laurie’s ambitious ideas a reality. When their eclectic mix of family and friends weigh in to help, the dream seems almost within reach, but is the tranquil, southern market town of Clayton ready for The Chocolate Project? Even more importantly, is Laurie able to ignore Mab's past and to make her his future? As they battle with sabotage, jealousy, vindictive neighbours and unpredictable relationships, Mab and Laurie discover the importance of family ties, and begin to realise that some things are worth the heartache.
READ THE FIRST 3000 WORDS OF THE CHOCOLATE PROJECT OVER THE CUT
The Chocolate Project by Celia J. Anderson
Laurie swerved to avoid yet another dead badger. The A1 was still so quiet that groups of starlings rose in disgruntled crowds as he disturbed their breakfast, and the cafe where he had once eaten the best bacon sandwich of his life was firmly shuttered. He gave in to the violent rumblings of his stomach and reached into the glove box, tearing the emergency chocolate bar open with his teeth and chewing until the bitter sweetness melted on his tongue, soothing and sensual. Chocolate and the future – they were closely linked in Laurie’s mind. He sighed deeply. It was a pity that Sophie didn’t share his enthusiasm, but he supposed it was hard to get enthusiastic about a chocolate-based dream when all you ate was lettuce. Sophie was only twenty five after all, ten years younger than himself, and harder to amuse than a new puppy. Maybe after they were married she would realise what a brilliant opportunity this move was going to be, and would be ready to leave Newcastle and her creepy friends behind.
Stretching his legs, Laurie decided that this cab must have been designed for a much smaller man. He yawned, felt his eyelids droop and blinked furiously, thinking of hot baths and strong coffee. This was ridiculous; he’d had no sleep for almost twenty four hours. Celebrating was great, but work would have to come first from now on. It was time for The Chocolate Project. The excitement that had been building up in waves washed over Laurie again, and he gave the middle-aged lady driving towards him the full benefit of his flashing grin and dimples. He saw her jaw drop and laughed for the sheer joy of living; at last, Laurie was about to make his mark, and no-one was going to stop him.
Much further south, in the Surrey market town of Clayton-on-the-Bream, Mab Millington was scrubbing as if her life depended on it. She was not one of life’s natural cleaners, having a tendency to skip the hidden bits and stop for tea every ten minutes, but today there was more at stake. A huge chunk of deposit money, to be precise, which she desperately needed if she was going to find somewhere better to live than this tiny, noisy flat.
‘I need a hero!’ screamed Bonnie Tyler from Mab’s radio, ‘I’m holding out for a hero ‘til the morning light, he’s gotta be strong and he’s gotta be fast and he’s got to be fresh from the fight.’
‘You and me both, Bonnie’, muttered Mab to herself, mopping the kitchen floor with more than usual gusto, ‘But where are we going to find one? And I’ll give you strong and fast, but ‘fresh from the fight?’ I bet you’d spend the first half hour putting plasters on him, and telling him what a brave soldier he’d been.’
Wringing out her mop, Mab paused for a moment in front of a large pin board hanging over the sink. It contained a montage of curling snapshots and right in the centre was a photograph that offended her every time she looked at it. She unpinned the small picture and tore it into shreds.
‘Right – I’m putting you in the compost bin where you belong, Pete, down amongst the eggs shells and smelly old tea bags. I’m sick of your smug face looking at me while I’m washing up. I’m going to be a success now. I’ll get my book published, find an interesting job with decent wages, and maybe I’ll even look for someone better than you, someone to cherish me. And while I’m at it, I’d better stop talking to myself.’
Mab had been thinking of her dream man off and on all morning; she’d even typed out a list of his essential qualities, telling herself that she wasn’t wasting valuable writing time and that it would be useful background information for her next novel. The man of her dreams (should she decide he was worth the risk) must have;
* a wicked sense of humour
* a kind heart
* an aptitude for whipping up stunning little suppers
* the sort of bottom that makes you want to bite it
* a fabulous smile with strong white teeth
* sparkling eyes
* a great body –tall enough for her to look up at him; strong and muscular without being burly
* squeaky-clean hair, with maybe a tendency to curl?
* designer stubble
* an interesting accent; soft Irish brogue, lilting Geordie, gentle Scots etc
But where was she going to find him? More to the point, would he find Mab amazing enough to pursue her, because there was no way she was chasing a man – never, ever again. And even more importantly, would he wait long enough for her to sort out the tangle of her life? For around six and a half months?
Checking the clock, Mab pushed the bucket and mop into a corner. That would have to do for now – she’d tackle the rest later. Realising at the last minute that she was still in her pyjamas, she changed quickly and, picking up her bag, slammed the door of the flat behind her. The May sunshine was dazzling, and Mab slipped on a pair of huge sunglasses, feeling unusually glamorous as she looked sideways at her reflection in the pizza shop window. If she pulled in her stomach, the overall effect wasn’t too bad; tall, but with her head held high
(thanks to a nagging mother and early ballet lessons), masses of brown hair, and a flowing shirt that disguised some of her more voluptuous areas. Mab remembered too late that she’d promised herself a trip to the swimming baths to begin her ‘Get Fit for Summer’ campaign. Oh well, there was always tomorrow.
As she headed for the market place, Mab saw that the sunshine had brought the tourists out in force today. She supposed Clayton-on-the-Bream wasn’t such a bad place to live if you had already found your man. There were lovers everywhere; holding hands, stopping to sneak a kiss, smiling sickeningly into each others’ eyes, pointing and giggling at the naked mermaid statue in the square, and even one pair of lovebirds gazing into the jewellery shop window. She saw them leaning together as they peered at the rows of shining rings.
‘Go on, then – which one’s it to be?’ the man asked, slipping an arm around his girlfriend’s skinny waist.
‘Ooh, I don’t know, you choose. They’re all so expensive, I don’t know…’
‘Nothing’s too good for my girl,’ he said, feeling nervously for his wallet. Mab felt faintly sick. When would this ever happen to her? And did she really want it?
Doing her best to avoid tripping over two closely entwined teenagers, Mab told herself how cool it was to be a strong, independent woman, in charge of her own life and destiny, rather than in a relationship as her status on Facebook had announced until recently. Granted, it had hurt to go back to single when Pete had disappeared last month with a blonde scuba diving instructor from Queensland and £200 of Mab’s savings. On the other hand, life without him was much less stressful and she could now watch the whole of Eastenders without any fear of interruption, and eat things which didn’t involve deep fat frying and ketchup. She frowned as she negotiated the crowd hanging around the fountain in the market square. There seemed to be some sort of under-age love-fest going on everywhere today –
several couples giggled and groped happily, and one of the boys was playfully trying to tip his girlfriend into the pool. Mab shuddered. If she was going to even think of giving up her freedom again, it would be for a proper hero this time – a man who would dive in and rescue her from rushing waters, not push her into them. But could she move on? What Mab really needed was a long heart to heart with her best friend, Jess, which wasn’t going to happen today – Jess would be hard at work buttering toast and making baguettes in the cafe.
‘Cheer up, love, it might never happen,’ shouted the man who cleaned the windows of the town’s shops. Mab looked up at him as he swayed slightly at the top of his ladder. She gave him her best mean stare, lifting her sunglasses to maximise the effect.
‘Maybe it already has,’ she hissed.
Mab strode through the mid-morning shoppers, cursing their dawdling, crossed a cobbled street and pushed open the door of Beattie’s Bakehouse, sniffing the warm, biscuity smell and feeling a swirl of queasiness again. She usually found it hard to be so dependent on cake, but today her stomach lurched as she caught the waft of baking ginger biscuits.
‘Table six, four toasted teacakes and Earl Grey for two’ shouted Jess from the kitchen, ‘Hi Mab, I’ll be in as soon as I’ve loaded the dishwasher – we’re out of cups again. I think they’re eating them today.’
The tiny room was packed; all the tables but one were taken. Mab squeezed into a seat with relief and rummaged for her notebook and pen. Maybe this wasn’t a very classy sort of office for an aspiring author but since discovering the steamy cafe with its seventies-style macramé hanging baskets, bamboo furniture, checked cloths and cheese plants, Mab had felt more at home every day. Bustling through from the kitchen, Jess looked pleased to see that her usual ploy to save Mab a place had worked. For some reason, nobody seemed keen to sit at a tiny corner table surrounded by heaps of dirty crockery and screwed up napkins.
‘Morning Mabel,’ said Jess, loudly, flicking Mab’s ear and beginning to load a tray with pots.
‘I wish you wouldn’t call me that,’ said Mab, ‘I don’t call you Jezebel, do I?’
‘Good job too – I wouldn’t answer.’
‘Well, pack it in, then; it’s not funny.’
‘Yes it is – and it still makes you go all red.’
Ever since primary school, Mab and Jess’s names had been a burden to them. At secondary school, things got steadily worse, and Mab endured several limericks composed in her honour, the cleanest being
There was a young slapper called Mabel
Who was quicker to lay than a table.
This wasn’t in any way accurate, but the idea had stuck, and caused much amusement in the boys’ toilets. Jess had experienced similar problems with her ‘bad girl’ namesake, and soon substituted Jess for Jezabel, in the hope that any new friends would assume she was really a sophisticated Jessica type of person.
‘Thought you weren’t coming; it’s nearly half past eleven,’ said Jess, as she crashed the cups around, splashing tea dregs onto Mab’s white shirt.
Mab glanced down at the spreading stains. The day was not going well. This morning, the postman had delivered yet another large brown envelope, self-addressed to Ms M. Millington, which meant that her manuscript been returned with the standard response ‘…but we didn’t feel the necessary level of enthusiasm for your work.’ Mab’s precious novel was turning into the most faithful kind of homing pigeon. Also, her landlord had called round at 6.45a.m (never a good time for a chat) to remind her that the rent was overdue again. Mab’s flat was small, stuffy and right next to the ring road, but it was all she could afford at the moment. To cap it all, during the night Maurice had caught a mouse, eaten most of it, and
regurgitated it onto the newly changed duvet cover. She had told her landlord about this, in an attempt to lighten the atmosphere but he had replied that pets were not allowed in this building, and if she insisted on keeping a cat, she could find somewhere else to live by the end of the week. And what’s more, if she didn’t give the place a good scrub up, she’d not be getting her deposit back. Mab wished she’d been more forceful. She hadn’t realised that her contract had even mentioned pets.
‘Are you ok, sweetie? said Jess, wiping the table with her usual efficiency, ‘You look a bit down today.’
‘No, not really – I could do with a good catch up. You free later?’
‘Sorry, got to take George to the doctor’s, his eczema’s flared up again. Maybe tomorrow?’
‘But Jess, it’s really important. I’m…oh, it doesn’t matter, we can’t talk here. Thanks for saving my space anyway – I really need a sugar rush today.’
‘Good job you came when you did; Thursday’s getting to be one of our busiest days, with that new farmers’ market. Look at all these people with bags of posh cheese and pickles. It’ll be one big ploughman’s supper around here tonight.’
‘Never mind cheese, are there any of those sticky caramel doughnuts left? This definitely isn’t the day to think about dieting.’
‘No, we’ve stopped serving those – apparently Beattie decided that they were way too unhealthy, even made with that brown flour with the bits in. Edward tried to argue, or so he says – I reckon he must be right under the thumb.’
‘Right, how about a double-chocolate-chip-super-healthy wholemeal muffin? You had stacks of those on Monday. They were stupendous. Why does Beattie make all the decisions around here anyway – they’re supposed to be a team?’
Jess sniffed. ‘Well, if that’s marriage, I’m glad I’m done with it – the Crabtrees are never in the same place for long enough to be a team. She just issues her orders by email from wherever she happens to be working. Anyway, I’ll go and find you a cake, if you’re quite sure?’ She looked down at her own slim hips and swayed gracefully away.
Mab sighed again – she was already aware of far too many intimate details of the Crabtrees’ marriage. And at this moment, ten weeks pregnant with Edward’s child, Mab was beginning to realise that she had made the biggest mistake of her life.
As she watched Jess disappear into the depths of the kitchen, Mab wished fervently that she could turn back the clock to any time before she had agreed to help the Crabtrees. Floundering around in her post-Pete depression, she had definitely been in the wrong frame of mind to make major life choices, but even with that excuse, Mab had managed to screw things up quite spectacularly. When Edward and Beattie had approached her to be their surrogate, she had been completely intimidated by Beattie’s emotional blackmail and Edward’s air of despair. Having already discussed the idea in great detail with Mab’s mother Ria – one of their oldest friends – the Crabtrees seemed to think that the decision had already been made. Mab couldn’t believe she had let Ria’s opinions influence her yet again, but then Ria had always been able to push her daughter in whatever direction she chose. Mab could hear her mother’s voice now, plaintive, controlling and on the end of the telephone, of course.
‘But darling, it’s only nine months out of your life. When you think about the joy you could bring to a childless couple, how can you refuse? You know the health problems that poor Beattie has had. And what else would you be doing, for pity’s sake?’
‘Well, living my own life, for one thing,’ Mab had said, with unaccustomed bravery.
‘Living your own life? You’re over thirty, Mabel, and you’ve got nothing to show for yourself. At least if you do this one small thing you’ll be some use to someone else, for once.’
Mab had wondered if it was entirely normal for a mother to ask such a favour of her daughter even if their relationship was difficult and unconventional, but as usual she had gone along with her mother’s wishes. Now here she was, tied up in an agreement with a couple that she hardly knew. If she was honest with herself, a large part of the decision had been made because she needed the deposit on a new flat – she couldn’t even say that she’d done it totally out of the goodness of her heart. And soon Mab would be the size of a house and there would be no chance of meeting a hero; brave, strong or any other kind. Mab sighed; her weight had always been an issue – it hovered around the ‘could do with losing at least a stone’ mark but her love of cake usually made this target impossible to reach. At least today she felt reasonably ok, showing off her long legs, and wearing layers that skimmed over her curves, with a flash of cleavage to distract the eye; her shirt was teamed with a short denim skirt, leggings and flat sparkly pumps. She had been quite happy with the effect until Jess added the tea stains.
The outer door of the cafe clanged open just as Jess came back carrying a loaded tray. Mab instinctively sat up straight as she spotted the tall, tousle-haired man who was peering around vaguely through dark glasses, his five o’clock shadow giving him the air of an off duty rock star.
‘Who’s that?’ Mab breathed, ‘No, don’t look now…’
But Jess had already swung around. She stared in open-mouthed admiration as the man wove his way between the tables and stopped right in front of Mab.