You And Me, Always by Jill Mansell

Chapter 1

There he was, sitting in the sun outside the Star Inn. Lily slowed and parked the van outside Goldstone House, next to the pub. Dan saw her and waved, and her stomach tightened at the sight of him, as it always had done. There was just something about the languid angles of his body, those long legs in black jeans stretched out in front of him, the tilt of his head as he chatted on his phone and laughed at something that had been said.

The tightening didn’t mean anything, though, Lily knew that. It had evolved as a kind of Pavlovian reaction, a habit that had become ingrained over the years simply because Dan Rafferty was so physically attractive. The good thing was, the fact that he knew he was attractive, and traded on it shamelessly with all concerned, meant the idea of an actual relationship with him was the very last thing anyone in their right mind would want.

And since she was in her right mind, thankfully she was safe.

‘Lily, Lily.’ Dan’s eyes crinkled and he pushed his dark glasses to the top of his head as she jumped down from the van. ‘My most favourite girl in the world.’

See? This was what he was like. ‘And you’re the most annoying boy.’

‘I’m not a boy. I’m a man.’

He was twenty-seven, two years older than she was. Technically he might be a man, but when you’d known each other since childhood, it just seemed wrong somehow.

‘You used to put frogspawn in the hood of my anorak,’ said Lily. ‘You’ll always be a boy to me. Where’s your car, anyway?’

‘Over in Chipping Norton.’ Dan had texted her earlier asking if she could give him a lift to go and pick it up.

‘Why?’ As if she couldn’t guess.

‘Best not to ask. The usual, basically. Good wine and bad women. Well, one bad woman taking shameless advantage.’ He gestured to the still full cup of coffee on the table in front of him. ‘Are you in a tearing hurry, or can I get you a drink?’

Lily checked her watch. It was twenty past six. She’d spent the last three hours delivering a marble-topped table and a set of Victorian chimney pots to a customer in Chippenham, but work was now over for the day and the rest of her evening was free.

‘Go on then, I’ll have a Coke.’ She joined him at the table, unsticking the back of her T-shirt from her shoulder blades and flapping the front of it to cool down her ribcage while Dan disappeared inside to order the drink.

When he returned, she took the glass and said, ‘Cheers, thanks. Why couldn’t Patsy give you a lift back to your car?’

‘She’s out. Gone on a date. With a mystery man off the internet.’

Lily perked up. ‘Ooh, what’s he like?’

‘No idea.’ Dan shrugged. ‘That’s the whole point of him being a mystery. She didn’t want me to meet him.’

‘Well, after last time with the chap from Chepstow, who could blame her?’

‘Welsh William.’ He shrugged. ‘That wasn’t my fault. He was the one who challenged me to an arm-wrestling match. He was just showing off, trying to prove how strong he was.’

‘You could have let him win,’ said Lily.

‘Me?’ Dan looked horrified. ‘Why? He was an idiot. Patsy wouldn’t want someone like him anyway.’

Which was true enough. Ah well, maybe this new one might be an improvement. Lily swirled the ice cubes in her glass and took a gulp of Coke, then paused as her attention was drawn to a stocky man on a bicycle heading along the main street directly towards them. He was wearing an orange cycling helmet that clashed with his red face and turquoise Lycra leggings. As his legs pumped the pedals, he appeared to be talking to himself.

By this time Dan had turned and was watching him too. It wasn’t until the man had drawn closer that they realised he wasn’t riding an ordinary bike; it was a tandem. Nor was he having a conversation with himself; he was loudly addressing his cycling companion behind him.

‘… and in September of two thousand and thirteen … or it might have been the October come to think of it … anyway, that was when I cycled from Ravenglass to South Shields alongside Hadrian’s Wall, and that’s one hundred and seventy-four miles in total, so it’s quite a trek, but the views were phenomenal … then the following March I did the Devon coast-to-coast, from Ilfracombe to Plymouth …’

‘Whoops,’ Lily breathed as the tandem drew nearer still and they were finally able to see who was on the back of it. Dan sprayed coffee and rocked forward on his seat. Poor Patsy, clearly mortified as her companion continued at top volume, saw them watching and pulled an Oh God face.