Welcome to my stop on the blog tour for Martinis & Memories by A.L. Michael. Before I share this fab extract here’s the blurb:
A fun, feisty novel of love and chasing your dreams
Bel Hailstone has spent the past decade building her dream – Soho’s best burlesque club – from the ground up. But now The Martini Club is under threat and it will take everything in Bel’s power to resist encroaching developers and save her pride and joy.
Amidst the chaos Bel’s past comes knocking with the unexpected arrivals of her still-not-quite-ex-husband, her estranged mother and Brodie Porter – the boy who got away all those years ago.
To keep her beloved club afloat – not to mention her sanity – Bel will have to accept help for the first time in a long time, put the past to rest and claim the happy ever after she once thought was lost for good.”
Published by Canelo it’s available now from:
The night was painfully quiet, even though Charlotte sparkled on the stage, so much so that the man in the front row’s jaw actually dropped. Taya slithered into the spotlight down from the ceiling on her red silks – smooth, perfect movements until that sharp fall that left the audience gasping. But a perfect show seen by a small audience was still a small audience.
I watched with a sort of dread in my stomach, a panic that fluttered like a drunken butterfly. I’d had four glasses of champagne that night and I usually was better than that. Each glass I thought of the cost and profit, wondered how many were drinking the good stuff, whether Jacques was up-selling.
I left early, claiming a headache, waving away concern. I couldn’t remember the last time I had left before the night was over. I was always the last person to leave, whether that was having a Martini at the bar, or cleaning out the office and checking the books. I had been there until the lights were turned out every night since I set up the place eight years ago.
It felt like defeat.
I walked home, those black heeled boots sharply reminding me that I was not practical enough at every turn. Usually, I stomped home, determination leading me down the streets of Soho, turning this way and that around drunks and crawling taxis.
I didn’t tell anyone that I managed to live in central London. It conjured all sorts of expectations and jealousy. I especially didn’t tell my staff, for fear they’d think I was raking in all sorts of money from the club.
The truth was I had gotten lucky ten years ago, almost to the day. Which, thankfully, as much as I didn’t feel like celebrating, I’d remembered.
And that was why Euan said timing mattered. Ten years since I’d disappeared. Damn. It wasn’t fate, but it was definitely something.
I unlocked the black wooden door in between the photography studio and that new arty vegan place, kicking it twice at the bottom, 6 cm from the right. It hadn’t changed in ten years, and I wouldn’t have wanted it to. I climbed three flights of winding stairs, unconsciously stepping over the tear in the carpet on the ninth step, and as ever, refusing to take my heels off until I got the top. I hadn’t ever done that, and I’d already broken enough rules this evening.
I unlocked my door on the first floor, undid my shoes and chucked them off before heading to the fridge. It was mostly empty, as usual, except for the customary bottle of wine, a few chunks of decent cheese, some shrivelled grapes and the box I had bought especially. It was a pastel blue, with a gold imprint on top, and I grabbed the remainder of the wine and a glass, balanced between my fingers, before padding upstairs.
‘Sam? You up?’ I knocked with my elbow before walking in. The routine had been the same for as long as I could remember.
‘You even need to ask?’ The room was in relative darkness, that one lamp on in the corner of the room. Sam stood looking out of the window down onto the streets of Soho, smoking a roll-up. He was tall, a six-foot-something American with leathered skin and solid fingertips, scarred from playing guitar in an almost-famous band once upon a time. Not that he would tell me which band that was.
‘I come bearing gifts.’ I held up the box before collapsing onto the sofa, covered in blankets and shawls, greeted by Santana, the one-eyed black cat. He was a supercilious little bastard, but he’d come in for a nuzzle every now and then. I placed the box on the coffee table, on top of a pile of books and CDs, and poured myself a liberal glass of wine. ‘Presents? Did I forget my birthday again?’ Sam’s voice always sounded like he should have a midnight radio show, a perfect balance of smooth and rough. Chocolate and whisky and good cigarettes. Sometimes I liked to close my eyes when he spoke. He was pushing sixty, but he didn’t look it. ‘Because don’t remind me.’
‘No, darling, it’s our anniversary.’
He came to sit next to me, a smile forming as he picked up the box. ‘Anniversary, hey?’ ‘Ten years since you gave a poor, lost ragamuffin a place to live,’ I said, gesturing at the box with my foot. ‘Go ahead.’
He snorted as he opened it, seeing the beautifully iced miniature cake, topped with ‘10’. I might have to stop with the extravagant treats from specialist bakeries soon enough. Make do with supermarket doughnuts. It was a ghastly thought.
I lived fairly minimally. I didn’t drink a lot, but I drank good wine. I didn’t eat a lot, but what I did was expensive. I would rather a little of something wonderful than enough of something ordinary. If the club didn’t start picking up soon, life would become incredibly dull.
‘Well thank you, sweetheart, but I don’t remember you being a lost ragamuffin. I remember a gutsy broad walked into my studio and said she needed some work and she was the best person for the job.’
I snorted. ‘I didn’t even know what the job was.’
‘But you were right,’ Sam croaked, sticking a finger into the icing and tasting it.
‘Mmn. Damn, that’s good. I couldn’t have had a better photographer’s assistant. You were a brilliant model, you were good with people, you fixed their make-up, made them look better than they believed they could. I was just capitalizing on your talent, baby girl.’
‘It was the least I could do, believe me. Without you, the MC would never have existed.’ I paused, taking a generous glug of wine. ‘Although, if we carry on the way we are, it won’t exist for much longer.’
‘More of the vultures?’
I nodded, refilling my glass. God, I was a wreck. ‘And not just the ones I’ve become accustomed to, darling. Who should show up today but a wayward ex-husband I was sure I’d lost years ago?’
‘A day for all sorts of anniversaries, then, hey?’
‘You have no idea.’
Sam looked at me, a greying eyebrow raised. ‘And what did the leech have to say for himself?’
‘All sorts of crap that I don’t believe for a minute.’ I thought of Euan’s face, so sincere with that nostalgic smile. ‘He said he was proud of me. Of what I’d achieved.’
Sam chuckled throatily. ‘And he’s wondering how much of that he’s entitled to as your legal other half?’
‘Would selling be the worst thing in the world? They’d be investors, wouldn’t they?’ Sam stabbed the cigarette out in a heavy marble ashtray. ‘I know it’s against who you are, but we’ve all got to make sacrifices for what we love.’
‘I’m not an employee. I’m not going to raise the prices of my drinks, or pay my performers less, or do whatever some stuck-up suit says to get himself and his cronies some profit from my club. The MC is family. It always has been.’
‘Families don’t make great business, sweetheart. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. And the vultures in the suits will keep coming. They smell blood. You wanna throw them off, you’ve got to seem so strong that they know you’re not worth their time.’
I snorted. ‘Somehow they’re not quite falling for my charming assurances that everything is tip top.’
‘That’s because they’re not. You’ve got to stem the bleeding – they’re following the money. Gotta get your house in order.’
Sam knew what he was talking about. His move from music to photography looked seamless from the outside, but I was there when he was running around on shoots, offering half price deals, schmoozing with young, rich women, depending on his flattery to get him a recommendation.
And then he got a shoot with a depressed debutante who was causing trouble on the scene. His work was always vulnerable, arresting – it made the viewer slightly uncomfortable, as if they were being judged by the subject of the photograph. It got picked up by Vogue, and that was that. The bad boy of rock and roll became the bad boy of the photography scene.
‘Jacques wants me to do a few deals for dinner and drinks. Thinks it’ll bring in more business,’ I said, staring at Santana as he arched his back and yawned.
The room was a mishmash of strange, exotic items. It always had a blue tint to the darkness, and some nights when I got home, I wanted to disappear into this room and its safety.
‘And you don’t want to do that?’ Sam asked, frowning at me. That weathered old face often looked like it was judging you for some past misdemeanour, but often he was just pensive. His black shirt was tucked into his jeans, and even relaxed into the sofa, he looked larger than life.
When I was a kid, I’d ask Mum about my father, and when she’d tell me I didn’t have one, I’d make one up. Some big, huge guy who would stroke my hair and tell me in this rough, deep voice that I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. And I saw a picture of this guy one day, a sort of cowboy, and decided that had to be him. Which was how I convinced myself that my dad was Johnny Cash.
When I met Sam, he fit the bill almost too well. Didn’t need to spend money on a therapist for that one. I was always on edge, waiting for the moment that my boss/landlord/older male friend crossed the line, tried something and destroyed that pretended bond forever.
But he never had. He’d mentioned kids before, he was sure he had a few of them somewhere, probably my age now. We were pretend family to each other, and after growing up with my mother, pretend family was often preferable.
‘I don’t want to cheapen the place. You say those suits are smelling blood now – what happens when we extend happy hour, or offer half price show tickets? When we cut the expensive dishes from the menu and replace them with pasta? This isn’t an industry that rewards thrift. No one wants a burlesque show without the glitz, glamour and distance. You know what you’re left with? A pizza buffet at a strip joint.’ I could feel my throat closing. ‘The difference is class. And class is money.’ I huffed, throwing my head back and staring at the ceiling. ‘So how do I make class without money?’
Sam chuckled. ‘You tell me, you’ve been doing it every damn day since I met you.’
It was true, but that only worked with me, with my fake sparkle. When you sewed your own outfits they looked wonderful in the darkness of the club, or glittered in a spotlight. In daylight I was as raggedy as I felt.
A. L. Michael is the author of 13 novels. Almost all of them are snarky love stories where difficult women learn to embrace vulnerability. Andi works as a content writer, so no matter what she’s doing, she’s all about the words. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in Creative Business and an MSc in Creative Writing. She is represented by Hayley Steed at Madeleine Milburn.
Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour