Cherry Crush

I have walked into a whole new life, a life that seems too good, too perfect to be true. A new mum, a proper house, a bunch of brand-new sisters, a beach . . . and a gypsy caravan in the garden. I can't stop grinning.
It can't get any better than this . . . can it?

Well, maybe it can.
Suddenly, out of the trees, a big, fluffy dog appears, circling me, pawing me, jumping about. 'Hey, hey!' I laugh. 'Stop that!'
But the dog won't stop. I think it wants food, because its wet nose keeps nudging my leg, my elbow, the tray itself. I hold the tray high, but still the dog is dancing round me, and then my foot lands on something soft and fluffy and the dog yelps and I scream, and the whole tray of quiche and sausages and veggie kebabs goes flying into the air.
'Whoa, there . . .'
I'm about to go flying myself, when someone catches my arm. Suddenly I am leaning against a boy who smells of woodsmoke and ocean, a boy whose arms fold me close then push me back again so that we're blinking at each other in the fading sunshine.
'Are you OK?'
'I . . . I think so!'
How could I be anything else, when a boy with suntanned skin and sea-green eyes and hair the colour of wheat is holding me? He looks cool, with skinny jeans and a tight blue T-shirt and a baggy black beanie hat balanced carefully on the back of his head, even though it is July.
I catch my breath and wait for him to pull me close again, but he doesn't, of course. He just grins and looks at me for a long moment, until I swear I will melt.
'You've got to be Cherry, right?' he says. 'I'm Shay Fletcher.'
'Shay . . .' The name falls off my tongue like a spell, a wish.
Then I notice the dog, hoovering up quiche and sausages from the grass, his tail wagging madly, and I don't know whether to laugh or cry.
'It's the sausages,' Shay tells me. 'He's mad for them. Bad boy, Fred!'
I drop down to my hands and knees in the grass, scrabbling for plates and dishes.
'I can't believe I dropped them. Charlotte trusted me, and now . . .'
'Blame the dog,' Shay says. 'He's a maniac, Charlotte knows that. Seriously, it's no big deal - nobody will mind.'
I gather up the dishes and the tray and turn back towards the house, leaving Fred to hoover up the evidence. Shay is at my side. 'I said I'd get some logs for the bonfire,' he explains.
'Right,' I say. 'So, you are . . . ?'
'Me? I'm nobody,' Shay laughs. 'I'm not family or anything, if that's what you mean. I live down in the village, go to the high school with Honey . . . and you, now, according to Charlotte. I've known the Tanberrys for years.'
We slip into the kitchen through the side door, and I stack the plates and dishes next to the old ceramic sink.
'You're not a bit like I imagined you'd be,' Shay says. 'I've met Paddy before, the last time he was down, and I suppose I thought you'd look like him, but . . .'
'I don't look anything like him,' I grin. 'I know. My mum was Japanese.'
'Wow! How cool is that?'
'Well, she hasn't been around for a while,' I say.
Shay looks dismayed. 'No . . . um . . . obviously. I'm sorry. I mean . . . well, I'd better just shut up, right? I just meant . . . well, you look really cute and your accent is great, and . . . no, I really am shutting up now. Ignore me! Lets get those logs.'
I follow him outside. I cannot believe that a boy has just told me I am cute. Cute? Me? Shay Fletcher may be the only boy alive who thinks so.
My heart is thumping. I have had a million crushes on cool boys, but never, ever, has a boy liked me. Boys always seem to like the confident, popular girls, girls like Kirsty McRae. They never see me as interesting, attractive. Except possibly Scott Pickles who used to live in the flat downstairs, and that doesn't count because he is only seven, and pretty short-sighted.
Shay is different. He is way, way out of my league, but I am pretty sure his eyesight is OK. And he is looking at me intently, with an ocean-coloured gaze that takes my breath away.
Shay loads me up with branches and logs from the woodpile by the gable end. I end up with twigs in my hair, and he picks them out, gently. 'You'd better tell me everything,' he says, smiling. 'Your whole life story, from start to finish. Then I'll tell you mine, or play the guitar for you . . . deal?'
'Deal,' I whisper.
I think I would tell Shay Fletcher anything, any time, always. I would carry logs for him, to the ends of the earth, and wear twigs in my hair every day just so he could pick them out again.
Shay grabs an armful of logs himself, and leads the way down the lawn towards the party, the bonfire. People turn as we approach, so many smiling faces, and I'm smiling too, because my heart feels full of hope that this is really where I'm meant to be - this is the place where I belong.
'Hello, Cherry! Welcome to Kitnor! We've heard so much about you . . .'
'It's great to meet you at last . . .'
Charlotte appears through the crowd of strangers, smiling. 'Cherry! Has that wretched dog been hassling you?' she asks. 'He just ran through here with half a quiche in his mouth . . .'
'I think I stepped on him . . . I dropped the tray . . . I'm sorry!'
'No, no, Fred's a brute, I should have warned you . . .'
I'm right beside the bonfire, in the middle of the party, with the fairy lights flickering overhead. Shay lets the logs and branches slide out of his arms to make a new woodpile, and I do the same, watching the flames light up his face with flashes of orange and gold. He steps in behind me, his fingers brushing my arm, and his touch burns right through my sleeve and into my skin, like fire.
Skye and Coco are in front of me, grinning, and a girl who looks exactly like Skye only glossier, somehow, and minus the floppy hat and the funny, trailing dress. Her clothes are a dozen different shades of pink, and she moves gracefully, like a dancer.
I remember that Skye and Summer are twins, but I have never seen two girls so alike and so different, all at the same time.
'It's OK,' she says, laughing at my confusion. 'I'm Summer . . . if in doubt, remember I wouldn't be seen dead in droopy hats and jumble-sale dresses!'
Skye swats her with a red-checked napkin, rolling her eyes.
'So, I guess the only one of us you haven't met yet is Honey . . .'
The eldest Tanberry sister is sitting on a fallen tree trunk, a glossy blue guitar at her side, waist-length hair the colour of sunshine tumbling around her shoulders. She is chatting to a bunch of teenagers, laughing.
Dad said she was six months older than me, but Honey Tanberry might as well come from a different world. She's pretty, a whole lot prettier than Kirsty McRae. She could be a model or a singer or a teen movie star, with her little blue-print dress and her polka-dot hairband. She could be anything she wanted to be.
A prickle of anxiety runs along my spine. Girls like Honey, like Kirsty, never like me, no matter how hard I try. They are the popular girls, the cool girls, and I don't fit into their world. Honey isn't going to be my friend, though - she's going to be family. That's different, surely?
I hope.
Honey glances over, and her smile fades. She stands up slowly, her smoky-blue eyes looking me up and down, unimpressed. I cannot work out why she's so frosty, but I know I'm not imagining it. When her lips curl into a grin, I shiver.
Shay drops my elbow and steps away from me, as if I have suddenly become contagious.
'I'm Honey,' the girl says, and her arm snakes round Shay's waist, reeling him in and holding on tight. 'You've met Shay then? My boyfriend?'
I look at Shay, and his gaze slides away from mine, guilty, awkward. I am invisible again.
'Looks like it,' I say.
'OK,' she says, fixing me with an arctic glare. 'Good.'
Dreams of family, dreams of friendship, dreams of love - abruptly, they all crash and burn, falling in little pieces around me, sharp and bright and painful, like broken glass.