Trouble in Seabury by Beth Rain

Chapter 1

Kate peeped through the window of the taxi as it drew to a standstill and breathed a sigh of relief. The Sardine looked quiet. Although there was light spilling from behind the closed blinds, the outdoor tables had been moved inside and it didn’t look like there were any customers lingering in the yard like they did some evenings after closing time. Good. This was one night she’d be grateful to slip inside quietly without her arrival becoming instant gossip-fodder.

‘Thank you!’ she said, leaning forward and handing the driver what felt like a small fortune. She grabbed her bag and quickly hopped out of the cab before he could add any more to her bill. If she’d been off on a jolly she wouldn’t have minded so much but given that it had been such a miserable trip, it felt a bit like daylight robbery to cough up so much cash. It was her own fault really - several people had offered to pick her up from the train station in Plymouth, but she’d turned them all down. This was a trip she’d felt she had to face alone.

Even though it had stung, the cost of getting to London and back would have been a small price to pay if it had meant that her beloved Sardine was safe.

Kate let out a massive sigh as she watched the taxi drive off, slowly navigating the narrow, seafront road. She turned to stare sadly at the front of her cafe. Her home. She couldn’t believe today had gone so badly wrong. She’d really thought that by the time she got back from London, everything would be sorted out and she’d be happy in the knowledge that The Sardine was safe. Sadly, she hadn’t factored Tom into that particular equation.

The man was a first-class prick, and today had just ended up being a very expensive reminder of the many (many!) excellent reasons she was divorcing him in the first place.

Kate hauled her overnight bag more firmly onto her shoulder. All this could wait until she was safely back upstairs in her flat with a glass of wine in hand. She couldn't stand here staring at The Sardine all evening. She just needed to pop into the cafe, pick Stanley up from Ethel, and make sure nothing major had happened in the day and a half she'd been away.

This whole trip had been terrible timing. The new cake subscription box for October was launching in just a couple of days - with a record number of orders to fulfil. She’d felt terrible leaving Ethel, Sarah and Lou to run the place.

Lou was still pretty new, but just like Sarah, she'd fitted in instantly. She also happened to be a keen cyclist, and it had been music to Kate's ears when she’d declared that she was more than happy to step in and cover the rounds on Trixie, The Sardine’s delivery tricycle, whenever Kate needed a break. Or whenever she was forced to travel to London for a mediation session with her stupid, soon-to-be ex-husband.

There was a tiny, secret part of Kate that felt immensely guilty about hiring Lou. What if Tom managed to get his way? What if she had to sell The Sardine to give him his half? She’d have to let Lou go . . . Ethel and Sarah too, come to that. Add into that little soup of misery the fact that she’d be homeless as well as losing her beloved business, and Kate felt a bit like she needed a damn good sob.

No. She wouldn’t give in to that right now. All she needed was a Stanley cuddle. She’d loathed leaving him behind, but Stanley would have hated London, so he’d gone for a sleepover at Ethel’s instead.

Kate sucked in a long, deep breath, filling her lungs with as much of Seabury’s fresh, sea air as she could hold. She was home. She quickly made herself a promise that, no matter what happened with The Sardine, she’d find a way to stay in Seabury. She’d find a way to start again. Everything would be okay. Somehow.

Finally, she strode across the road and let herself into The Sardine - only to be met by an entire table full of people waiting for her.

‘Hello, you lot!’ she laughed in surprise. They’d clearly been camping out in the cafe awaiting her return for some time. The table was groaning with empty coffee cups and crumb covered plates.

‘So-?’ said Ethel, bustling over and somehow managing to take her coat, remove the bag from her shoulder and draw out a chair all in one fluid motion.

‘So?’ sighed Kate, sinking down gratefully.

‘How did it go?’ demanded Lionel, staring at her across the table.

‘Don’t keep us all waiting!’ said Mike.

‘Was it horrible?’ said Charlie, earning himself a swat on top of the head from Ethel as she returned to the table.

‘I . . .’ Kate looked around at them all. She was incredibly grateful that they were here for her - but right now, all she really wanted was a coffee and-

‘Where’s Stanley?’ she asked.

‘On his way!’ said Lou from her spot behind the counter. ‘I think he’s only just realised you’re back!’ she said with a grin. ‘You look like you could do with a coffee?’

Kate nodded gratefully, then looked down with a smile as Stanley’s huge head landed heavily in her lap.

‘Hello beautiful boy,’ she said, softly stroking his ears. ‘Sorry I was gone so long.’

‘He’s been as good as gold,’ said Ethel with a smile. ‘Sarah popped in before she had to head off to college and took him for a nice long walk along the beach, and Mike took him out again about an hour ago.’

‘Thank you,’ said Kate, turning to smile at Mike.

‘It was nothing,’ he said, smiling back. ‘Now - please, put us out of our misery!’

For a split second, Kate wished that she’d arranged to meet Ethel and Stanley up in her flat instead of down here. At least that way there wouldn’t have been an entire welcoming committee waiting to interrogate her the minute she got back. She looked around and gave herself a little shake. They were only here because they cared about her so much.

‘I’m afraid it didn’t go to plan,’ she sighed.

‘What do you mean?’ said Lionel, frowning at her. ‘Did they not do the job properly?’

The last thing she wanted to do was re-live the mediation session with Tom, but right now, she couldn’t see a way out.

'It wasn't the firm's fault,' said Kate, shaking her head. 'They were brilliant. Really professional. Tom just behaved like a toddler. He didn't bring all the financial paperwork he was supposed to, he stomped his foot at every available opportunity and basically acted like a brat. It was a waste of time and money, and now I'm going to have to go up again for another session because we didn't get to the bottom of what we're going to do about this place.'

'Did you manage to agree on anything?' asked Ethel.

Kate nodded, then added a shrug. ‘Just the stuff that had already been agreed by the solicitors. Tom still wants half of The Sardine, and I completely refuse to back down. I mean - I’m already paying him flippin’ spousal support because he’s such a lazy little-’

‘You’re what?!’ demanded Lionel.

‘I know, I know. But it’s not very much and it’s only for a few years, and it’s my fault that we didn’t work out. I mean, I did leave him.’

Lionel shook his head. ‘But that’s not how this works! There’s no way that should be going on. I think you need a new solicitor,’ he growled.

Kate nodded. ‘I might have to at this rate. The thing is Tom’s adamant he’s going to take me to court for The Sardine. It’s like he’s been watching too much daytime TV or something - he was playing some kind of “big baddie” role the whole time. The poor mediator didn’t know what to do with him. It was embarrassing.’

‘But surely the courts won’t touch this?’ said Lou from the kitchen.

Kate shrugged again. ‘They certainly wouldn’t without this mediation malarkey. You’ve got to prove that you’ve done this bit first. That’s why I went up there. I thought we might be able to get ourselves sorted out without taking it that far, but he just kept saying “I’ll see you in court!” like a bloody pantomime villain!’

‘Does he even realise how much a court case would cost?’ asked Mike quietly.

‘I doubt it,’ said Kate. ‘He reckons he’s going to make me pay for his share of the mediation by the time this is all over too.’

‘Well, that’s definitely not how it works,’ said Lionel, his bushy silver eyebrows now positively bristling.

Kate picked up her coffee, took a sip and then promptly plonked it back down on the table. It was delicious, but she didn’t have the energy for it right now. She didn’t have the energy to think about Tom any longer either. She needed a shower, and then she needed to go to bed early and pretend this mess didn’t even exist. She would think about solicitors and letters, court cases and divorces once she’d had a good, long sleep.

‘You know,’ said Charlie, ‘I’ve got one of me feelings about all this. I reckon it’ll all sort itself out. Just you wait.’

Kate smiled at him weakly. ‘I really wish that was true.’

‘Well, true or not Kate love, you’ve done what you can for now,’ said Ethel kindly. ‘You look like you need a rest. Perhaps a shower and a glass of wine? I’ve left you a shepherd’s pie in the fridge, and then maybe you should go to bed early?’

All eyes around the table swivelled to stare at her, and Kate nodded. ‘Sorry, guys. I’m wiped. I’ll fill you in a bit more when I’ve had a rest?’

She got to her feet and grabbed her coffee to take with her. ‘Lou - are you okay to lock up for me if I disappear upstairs?’

‘Go on, boss - get out of here! We’ve got this.’

* * *

Kate was just turning the key in the lock to let herself into her little flat above The Sardine when she felt someone watching her. She peered over her shoulder only to find Mike looking at her awkwardly.

‘Hey,’ he said with a smile. ‘I know you’ve got Stanley, but I was wondering if you’d like some company - or if there’s anything I can bring you? Takeaway? Fish and Chips? Wine?’

Kate smiled at him. ‘Thanks Mike, that’s so lovely of you but I’m good. I’ve got Ethel’s shepherd’s pie waiting for me, and I’ll probably just crash out after that. Sorry!’

‘Don’t apologise!’ said Mike quickly. ‘I just realised that we rather ambushed you in there - but it’s only because we . . . because we care?’ he shrugged, looking awkward.

If Kate wasn't so knackered right now, the sight of Mike Pendle, businessman extraordinaire, scuffing the toe of his trainer into the ground and looking more like a shy teenager than a grown man would have melted her heart. As it was, all she could really focus on was the siren call of her pyjamas and the numbing effects of the bottle of red she’d stashed for the occasion.

‘I know you care,’ she said at last, as Stanley gave a little whine, waiting for her to hurry up and open the door so that he could trundle up the stairs and get into bed. ‘Let’s catch up properly when I’m more with it?’

‘Sounds like a plan,’ said Mike, smiling at her.

‘Great. Tomorrow evening? At the lighthouse? Leftovers picnic?’

‘It’s a date!’ said Mike. ‘Have a good evening, Kate.’

‘You too,’ said Kate.

She stood and watched as he wandered towards the seafront, turning in the direction of North Beach rather than back towards The Sardine.

‘It’s a date?’ she muttered to herself, finally opening the door and letting Stanley amble past her before closing it firmly behind them both. ‘I like you, Mike Pendle, but right now - after everything that’s happened - the last thing I want is a date!’