Liam Payne is like a love-sick puppy – but does Cheryl feel the same?

For millions of obsessed Directioners the world over, it would be a dream come true. But going out with Liam Payne – 1D Liam! – is something they can only experience in the deepest of sleeps, and one which stops abruptly when the alarm clock goes off.

For Cheryl Fernandez-Versini, however, life is never so simple. No wonder she can’t make her mind up about how to portray her new cougar/toyboy relationship with Liam, 22, to the public.

Shout it from the rooftops? (‘Hey, Cheryl, I put that picture of us cuddling on Instagram – isn’t it cute?’ ‘You did WHAT?! Take it down Liam!’)

Play it coy? (‘OK you three, stand behind me and I’ll say something teasing about one
of you being my mystery man.’)

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This being 2016, every move has been played out on social media. And for those who can’t read between the lines, there was the conveniently placed front-page splash in a tabloid newspaper to bring them up to speed. Something, Now understands, Cheryl wasn’t entirely in favour of.

‘Ideally, Cheryl would’ve kept this quiet and she did her best to keep it that way. Liam’s camp weren’t so worried, he’s smitten and quite happy for people to know, but having it blasted out here wasn’t what Cheryl wanted,’ says our source.

But as Cheryl and Liam look to move their budding relationship to the next level, it’s becoming
clear they have very different ideas of how to move forward. Liam, friends say, is ‘ecstatic’ about his new life. ‘Cheryl? For want of a better word, paranoid.’ Ouch.

 Is he too young for me?

‘Liam’s crazy about Cheryl – it’s something he’s dreamed of since he was a teenager and he can’t quite believe it’s happened now,’a well-placed source told Now. ‘He can’t stop talking about it and wants to tell the whole world how happy he is.

‘But Cheryl is older, wiser and has been hurt a lot, so she’s not able to let go in the same way. Plus, she’s still trapped in a marriage. People forget, she’s still not divorced from Jean-Bernard [Fernandez-Versini].

‘Right now it feels great to have let down her defences again. It’s the old saying that the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.

‘But Cheryl’s much more hesitant than Liam. She’s very worried about her image and
how this will play out with the public. So she’s holding him back while he’s straining at the leash.’

Public OPINION

Cheryl, 32, has good reason to be concerned about the reaction to her dating Liam, who is a decade younger than her.

Since news broke of their fling, she’s been inundated with vicious comments from 1D fans who have gone on the attack for such an ‘old lady’ stealing their pin-up, as well as some dubbing her a ‘man-eater’ and a ‘cougar’.

People who previously praised Cheryl’s every move have become vile trolls, ramping her paranoia and feelings of being trapped up another notch.

SINITTA LIFTS THE LID ON CHERYL AND LIAM

Romance or Showmance?

Cheryl is also understood to be deeply worried about how her own fans – or ‘soldiers’ as she calls them – will react. The squeaky-clean image she’s worked so hard to develop is hardly helped by her new status as a man-eating cougar.

Worse still is the widely held view among online commentators that this is little more than a ‘showmance’ aimed at boosting their careers.

Cheryl is painfully aware that this is a make-or-break year for her. She has not had a hit record in years, while there is still uncertainty about The X Factor and her role in it.

Liam, however, is on a creative and professional high, four months after coming out of one of the world’s biggest boybands. Widely regarded as the driving force behind One Direction in the studio and on tour, Liam is moving into production as well as hand-picking solo collaborations.

By bringing that selling-power and commercial reach to Cheryl who, unlike Liam, has never cracked the US, he is a top-ranking proposition.

‘How convenient!’ chorus the doubters. ‘Cheryl has set her sights on an obsessed lad she met when he was a wide-eyed 17-year-old and now he’s going to turn her into a star in America.’

Harsh, perhaps, yet there is more than a hint of truth to rumours of a collaboration.

And with Cheryl set to spend the summer in Los Angeles, they’ll have plenty of quiet time to work on it.

Let’s elope!

‘More than anything else, Cheryl wants to break the US,’ says an industry insider. ‘She’s never been able to achieve that, whereas Liam is huge there. He can take her to another level.

‘They’re really excited about making music together and Liam has his sights on Jamie Scott, who wrote loads of 1D’s hits, including Story of My Life. Liam’s been in touch with Jamie and would love him to work with Cheryl.

If that comes off, they will be recording some material in Jamie’s home studio in Surrey, but first they have business in the US. Now understands they’re planning to rent a house together in LA for a few months – a last-minute decision prompted by the whirlwind nature of their collaboration.

With her ex-husband Ashley Cole still on the scene – and also living in California since signing for LA Galaxy – Cheryl’s keen to find a place on the waterfront in Malibu or the hills of Los Feliz. ‘Somewhere a bit out of town so they can get away from all distractions, as Cheryl is still emotionally vulnerable,’ our source adds.

In recent weeks, the couple seem to have settled into a cosy routine of staying up late while Liam plays the guitar and they throw melodies back and forth.

Mending a broken heart

This bond over music, forged in Liam’s penthouse apartment in London, has helped thaw Cheryl’s initial reluctance, friends say.

‘Cheryl’s never really paid him much attention, though they’ve known each other for years,
when they had the same management team and crossed paths a lot,’ says one.

‘Liam’s always thought Cheryl was one of the hottest women in town but she either ignored him or treated him like a young sweet guy. Now she wants to be on a man’s arm and when she started flirting back with Liam, he was bowled over. He’ll do anything to make her happy and getting involved in a music project together helps the relationship no end.’

Too much too soon?

With her divorce from Jean-Bernard still in the early stages – they only split in December, days before Liam made his move – Cheryl is prone to fits of self-doubt and over analysing situations.

‘You just have to look at Cheryl’s physical appearance to see how much happier she is, but
she is still quite frail,’ admits our source. ‘The last thing she needs is another setback, so they
will carry on but with caution. While in the past Liam has been happy to throw anything and everything on social media, Cheryl’s now pleaded with him to run it past her first. Of course he said yes in a heartbeat. He’s a serial monogamist and would love a long-term relationship with Cheryl.

Liam’s mature for his age and is already talking about marriage. Then again, there’s probably nothing less appealing for Cheryl right now than the prospect of another husband!’

VIDEO: SEE CHERYL’S CHANGING FACE OVER TIME