Read The Proposal Plan Online

Authors: Charlotte Phillips

The Proposal Plan

‘I’ve had it up to here!’ She indicated a level somewhere above her head. ‘I obviously attract commitment-phobic men. And that’s why I’ve come to get your help.’

He stopped in his tracks, halfway to the door, and looked back at her dubiously. ‘What do you mean,
my
help? What can I do?’

‘You have loads of girlfriends, right? And you’re the most commitment-shy person I know.’

‘Well, yes… I mean no.’ He tried to work out if there was a compliment or an insult in there and decided there was probably both. ‘How is this relevant?’

‘I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands,’ she said firmly. ‘There’s no point hanging around waiting for Ed to get his act together. You can advise me on all this kind of thing.’

He raised his eyebrows at her quizzically.

‘Where I’m going wrong, of course. Why he isn’t falling over himself to get a ring on my finger.’ She warmed to her subject. ‘You must have a
wealth
of experience just waiting to be tapped. You can show me how to be totally irresistible to him.’

He thought for a moment she might actually be going mad. Hangover forgotten, he barged into the kitchen behind her. She’d had some crazy ideas in her time, but this…

‘No. Absolutely no way.’

About Charlotte Phillips

CHARLOTTE PHILLIPS
has been reading romantic fiction since her teens, and she adores upbeat stories with happy endings. Writing them for Mills & Boon
®
is her dream job.

She combines writing with looking after her fabulous husband, two teenagers, a four-year-old and a dachshund. When something has to give, it’s usually housework.

She lives in Wiltshire.

The Proposal Plan
Charlotte Phillips

www.millsandboon.co.uk

This book is for Nick, who made me finish it.
With all my love always.

CHAPTER ONE

‘W
ILL YOU
…?’

Lucy Telford leaned forward expectantly, mouth slightly open, sea-green eyes wide. So certain was she of how this sentence would end that for a moment she actually thought she’d heard the words ‘marry me’. But by the time her brain caught up and performed a reality check, Ed had moved on to describing the cottage for sale on the outskirts of Bath—on which he hoped she would supply the deposit. And it dawned on her to her utter disbelief: it had happened again.

She drove grimly through the quiet streets of the city early the following morning. Apparently the strength of cliché and female experience on her side meant nothing in the face of the male inability to take a hint. It was Valentine’s Day,
check
. She was out with her boyfriend
of two years, relationship good,
check
. He’d booked her favourite restaurant, bought her favourite flowers and told her he had something special to ask her that evening.
Check, check, check
. What girl wouldn’t have expected a marriage proposal given a situation like that? Add in the heavy hints she’d been dropping for at least the last six months. Surely the odds were somewhere approaching dead cert?

She tightened her grip on the steering wheel, her face set, her dark curls even more defiantly springy than usual, reflecting the way she felt. The rest of the evening had passed in an angry red blur. The night hadn’t been much better. She’d tossed and turned, alternately hot and throwing the covers off, then freezing cold. Then somewhere around two a solution of sorts had come to her. A way of taking control.

She pulled the car into a roadside space in one of Bath’s lovely streets, the golden stone of the Georgian terrace picked out by the winter sunshine. It was a perfect February morning, icy cold but bright. Running her own bakery business had made her accustomed to extremely early starts and she adored the way
the city looked when it was still half asleep. It did nothing to distract her today.

Killing the engine, she stalked, as well as she could in trainers, across the pavement and up the stone steps to the three-storey town house of the one person she could moan at unreservedly. The one person who would let her vent her anger, calm her down and give her an objective opinion on what she should do. Childhood friend, adult protector, confidant and big-brother figure, Gabriel Blake was about to kiss his Sunday morning lie-in goodbye.

Gabriel tried mashing one of the pillows over his head and holding it against both ears but the ringing simply faded to a more annoying level. Opening one eye to glance at the bedside clock, he groaned. Seven-thirty. He only knew one person who got up this early on a Sunday. The ringing continued and he eventually crawled from the bed and staggered half asleep down the stairs, gripping the banister for support. His thick dark hair stood up in crazy sleep spikes and a shadow of stubble defined his strong jaw. He rubbed at his scratchy eyes. By now she had obviously tired of intermittent
ringing and was simply keeping the button depressed, resulting in a constant noise that challenged his impending hangover like an ice pick.

He opened the door a crack and, closing his aching eyes against the morning sun, he snarled through the gap. ‘Lucy, it’s seven-thirty on a Sunday morning. What the hell do you think you’re doing?’

‘You’ve got your eyes shut. How did you know it was me?’

‘Nobody else I know would dare disturb me at this time of the morning.’ He opened one eye and squinted at her. ‘Especially on a Sunday.’

She made a move to lean around the front door and see past him into the house, glancing indifferently as she did so at his toned torso and the muscular broad shoulders that were set off by the remains of a tan from his last trip abroad. She’d stayed with him in this house for a while a year or so ago and as a result she had developed a unique immunity to the fact that with no shirt on he looked like a god. Unlike the rest of the female race, to her he just looked like Gabriel. Best friend of some twenty-three years. No romantic attraction involved.

‘Is there someone with you?’ she asked him
bossily. ‘Because if there is, get rid of them. This is an emergency.’

He ran a hand through his hair, mussing it more than ever, and tried to think straight. ‘There’s no one here—it’s just me. What do you mean an emergency? Are you OK?’

‘I can’t discuss it on the doorstep. Let me in!’

He leaned wearily back against the wall and she lost no time in pushing past him like a tornado into the hall. He looked longingly back up the curving stairway in the direction of his bedroom and waved a mental white flag. Now he’d let her in the house there was no way sleep was going to be on the cards. He closed the front door and followed her resignedly to the kitchen to put coffee on.

She turned as he entered the room and he felt a fresh stab of exasperation as he noticed for the first time she was wearing jogging gear. Three-quarter-length running shorts hugged her lean frame, giving away for once the fact that she was fit and toned. She was so tiny that ordinary loose clothes gave her the impression of fragility. Ironic, he sometimes thought, that someone whose life revolved around cake should be so slender. Her dark curls were
caught up in a band, but tendrils escaped as usual around her face. The clothes could only mean one thing. She intended to persuade him to go running with her when he still had at least three hours’ sleep to catch up on.

On the brink of losing his already frayed temper, he saw just in the nick of time the dark smudges under her green eyes, starkly contrasting with the creamy complexion, and the troubled expression on her face. Unable to feel anything but protective towards her when she was unhappy ever since she was six years old and he was eight, he abandoned his mission to fill the kettle and gave her a hug instead. He couldn’t help noticing the stiffness in the muscles of her shoulders even through her clothes, and her hands against his bare skin as they slid around his waist were cold enough to make him jump. Everything about her exuded tension.

‘What’s up?’ He spoke gently over her head, which nestled perfectly just under his chin, coils of her caught-up hair brushing his jaw lightly. Her hair had a lovely lemony scent, making him dimly aware that he could do with a shower. She didn’t seem to notice, though, as she made no move to pull away from his chest,
and she would normally be the first person to point out if he smelled of last night’s curry. ‘Tell me it’s something serious to justify waking me up before eleven on a Sunday.’

She looked up at him in obvious anguish.

‘Oh, God, it’s not one of your parents, is it? Are they ill?’

Now she pulled back to arm’s length, an expression of incredulity on her face. ‘Something happening to either of my nightmare parents doesn’t come very high on the serious metre—you of all people should know that.’

‘OK, then,’ he conceded. ‘It obviously
isn’t
to do with your wonderful parents.’ He ignored Lucy as she made a face. ‘But I’m not up to playing guessing games. Come and sit down and tell me what’s up.’

Abandoning the coffee, he pulled her by the hand into the sitting room, shoved aside a pile of newspapers and dragged her down next to him on one of the squashy white sofas. She gazed down at her tiny hands, the nails always short and never varnished because that interfered with her baking.

‘It’s Ed.’ One of her hands crept up to her mouth and she chewed on one of the thumbnails distractedly.

‘I knew it! What’s the idiot done now?’ He had no real opinion of Ed. There seemed nothing about him to provoke strong feelings one way or the other. He seemed to treat Lucy well enough and he didn’t interfere with their friendship. That was all Gabriel really cared about. She always seemed too focused on building up her bakery business to be serious about anyone.

‘It’s not what he’s done.’ She looked at him miserably. ‘It’s what he hasn’t done.’

‘I’m not following.’

She sighed. ‘We’ve been together now for, what, two years. It’s all going fine, ticking along, you know.’ He nodded encouragingly. ‘And at Christmas, I thought that was going to be it…’

‘What was going to be it?’ His head had begun to ache. He wished she’d get to the point.

‘When he gave me the necklace. You know, the moon-shaped silver one?’ She searched his face. Gabriel had no idea what she was talking about but nodded anyway. ‘He handed the box over with this big grand gesture and I thought for sure that was it. I would open it and there would be the ring.’ She held a hand out, palm
upturned, as if expecting the non-existent ring to materialise there in front of her eyes.

So this was it.

‘You mean you thought he was going to propose and it turned out he’d bought you a necklace?’ He laughed, feeling an unexpected flash of passing sympathy for Ed. Women. Sometimes there was no pleasing them. ‘Hey, at least he bought you a necklace!’

She threw her hands up in exasperation. ‘You’re missing the point. What was last night?’

He scratched his head. ‘You’ve got me. Saturday night?’

She shoved him. ‘No, you idiot. It was Valentine’s Day, wasn’t it? Surely you must remember that—the postman probably got a hernia heaving your sackload of cards up the steps.’ She looked away and muttered disgustedly almost to herself, ‘I can’t
believe
you don’t remember.’

‘Of course, of course, Valentine’s Day. I did get a few cards as it happens.’ He glanced at the waste-paper bin in the corner, into which he’d dropped all the love-related correspondence of the previous day.

‘I don’t care about your cards! It was Valentine’s
Day, and Ed had booked a table at our favourite restaurant, that Italian one, you know. And he’d told me he had something special to discuss with me. And I thought, well…’

Gabriel sighed. He could see where this was heading. ‘You thought he was going to propose.’

‘Yes.’

‘And did he?’

‘No! He started going on about this investment opportunity and wondering if I might consider putting some money in. The bakery has been doing pretty well lately…’ She trailed off miserably.

Gabriel looked at her, torn between concern for her and amusement. He’d known, of course, that she had a bit of a dream of ending up with the perfect happily ever after. Marriage, two-point-four children and a dog. How could he not know that when they’d been friends for so long? After the insecurities of her childhood it made perfect sense that she would want to build her own secure family in later life. But he’d never seriously considered it would happen in the foreseeable future; she was far too ambitious and engrossed in her growing business.
And he’d never for a moment considered Ed as…

As what? Competition?
His stomach did a slow and unexpected flip, adding to the hangover symptoms he was gradually developing. Where the hell had that thought come from?
As permanent fixture material
, he corrected himself. He must really need some sleep; he wasn’t thinking straight. He put a hand to his head and massaged his temples with his thumb and forefinger. ‘Lu, it’s just one of those things. He hasn’t done this to upset you—he probably hasn’t got a clue you feel like this. Did you tell him?’

She shook her head.

‘You know what Ed’s like. It probably doesn’t occur to him that you might like him to propose marriage.’ Gabriel didn’t particularly consider Ed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but, even if he was, mind-reading was likely to be beyond him. ‘It doesn’t mean he isn’t happy, does it?’

She shrugged. He decided to try a more brutal tack. He felt an unexpected compulsion to talk her out of the marriage dream. Nothing to do with disliking Ed. If anything he was completely neutral on that subject. But Lucy was
only just approaching thirty. She was far too ambitious to settle down; this would turn out to be one of her temporary crazes. Occasionally she got a mad idea into her head and threw her heart and soul into it, only to tire of it ten minutes later. The only thing she’d ever been totally committed to was creative cookery.

Straight talking was what was needed here. He took a deep breath. ‘Look, Lucy, you really need to get over this sudden obsession with settling down, with marriage. Marriage isn’t the be-all and end-all of everything these days, you know. Loads of people are happy just dating long term, or maybe moving in together. And don’t forget your business has just taken off. Ed probably just thinks there’s no rush.’ As an afterthought he added, ‘And he’s right.’

She shook her head vigorously. ‘You’re not getting it. I know loads of people don’t go for marriage these days and that’s up to them. But this is about me. And for me moving in together is a cop out. Not enough.’

She looked up at him, her green eyes wide and clear. He felt as if he could see every fleck of colour in them. ‘My parents just lived together and one or other of them was always either about to leave, leaving, or left. Maybe
if they’d been married they might have taken it all a bit more seriously. Moving in is not enough of a commitment. Not for me. Not deep down.’ She made a fist and pressed it against her flat stomach. ‘Ed has no excuse. He’s more than up for getting married when we discuss it in principle, which we have done
loads
of times.’

Gabriel stood up and started back to the kitchen. He needed coffee and painkillers. Not necessarily in that order. The hangover was kicking in with a vengeance.

She called after him. ‘He’s quite happy to say of course he wants to get married one day. But when it comes to actually stepping up to the plate and making it official? Nothing! I’ve had it up to here!’ She indicated a level somewhere above her head. ‘I obviously attract commitment-phobic men. And so that’s why I’ve come to get your help.’

He stopped in his tracks halfway to the door and looked back at her dubiously. ‘What do you mean,
my
help? What the hell can I do?’

‘You have loads of girlfriends, right? And you’re the most commitment-shy person I know.’

‘Well, yes… I mean no.’ He tried to work out
if there was a compliment or insult in there and decided there was probably both. ‘How is this relevant?’

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