Authors: Jill Mansell
“It's perfect,” the elderly woman was saying as she ran a gnarled hand over the glossy, deep-crimson surface of the casket. Alerted by the sound of footstepsâand possibly Norris's labored sumo wrestlerâlike breathingâshe turned and greeted Kate with a cheerful smile. “Hello, dear. Come take a look. Hasn't this young man done a marvelous job?”
At least concentrating on the casket meant not having to meet Jake Harvey's eye. Kate studied the picture of a leggy brunette in mid-high-kick, presumably dancing the cancan. Frowning, she struggled to work out the significance.
“It's me,” the woman explained with pride. “I was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. I was nineteen when this photograph was taken. It's where I met my husband. Such happy days.”
Intrigued, Kate peered more closely at the lid of the casket, wondering how the effect had been achieved.
“You make an enlarged color photocopy of the original print,” said Jake, reading her mind, “and cut around the figure you want to use. Then you soak it in image transfer cream, place the copy facedown on the lid, and rub over it with a cloth. When you peel the paper away, the photo's transferred to the lid. Couple of coats of varnish and you're done.”
“It's beautiful,” Kate told the woman, careful to keep the left side of her face out of view.
“I know. I can hardly wait to get in it!” Her eyes bright with laughter, the woman said, “And it's going to drive my children demented.”
“Ha! If you met them, you wouldn't need to ask. I have three,” said the woman, counting them off on fingers weighed down with glittering rings. “A bank manager, a Tory parliamentarian, and a perfect wife and mother who lives in Surrey. I don't know where I went wrong. They're dreadfully ashamed of me. I'm the bane of their lives, poor darlings. Oh well. Can't win 'em all, I suppose. Jake, would you be an angel and pop it into the truck? I want to show it off to my friends.”
Jake effortlessly loaded the casket into the back of the woman's muddy Land Rover. Reaching up, she kissed him on both cheeks, leaving scarlet lipstick marks, then hopped into the driver's seat and, with a toot and a wave, roared off.
Norris was by this time flat out on the dusty ground, snoring peacefully in the sun like a drunk.
“Business or pleasure?” asked Jake.
“Are you here to buy a coffin?”
Kate suppressed a shudder. “No.”
He smiled briefly. “So, pleasure then.”
Hardly. “Not that either. Your mother asked me to tell you to take the lamb chops out of the freezer.”
Jake laughed. “Sounds like one of those coded messages. You say, âTake the lamb chops out of the freezer,' then I nod and say, âLamb chops are excellent with mint sauce.' Are you sure you aren't a secret agent?”
She hadn't expected him to sound so normal, friendly even. Stiffly, Kate said, “And she also said not to forget about Sophie's party.”
“Ah, yes, the party.” Still nodding in a spy-like manner, Jake said, “Five o'clock, in ze village hall. Zat is when ze party begins. I haff ze situation under controlâoh bugger, actually I don't.” He looked at Kate, then, quizzically, at Norris. “Where did the dog come from?”
“We're looking after him for a friend of my mother's. Just for a few weeks. Actually, it was
mother's idea,” said Kate.
“Tell me about it.” Jake's greenish-yellow eyes narrowed with amusement. “Ideas are my mother's specialty.”
“She thought a dog would get me out of the house.”
“And here you are, so she was right. Would you be on your way to the shop, by any chance?”
“Yes.” Kate eyed him warily. “Why?”
“Ze party at five o'clock. I haff ze present, but no paper in vich to wrap it.”
“OK.” Kate sighed. Was this where her future lay, as some kind of lowly gofer? She jiggled Norris's leash, and he opened a baleful eye. “Norris, come on. Get
“Leave him with me,” Jake said easily. “You'd only have to tie him up outside the shop.” Taking the end of the leash, he looped it over the gatepost, then dug a pound coin out of his jeans pocket. “There you go. Actually, I'm holding him hostage to stop you running off with my money. Bring me the wrapping paper and you'll get the dog back.”
“You're assuming I want him back,” said Kate.
“And von more zing,” Jake called after her as she headed along Main Street.
She turned. “What?”
“Ze wrapping paper. No Barbies. No pink.”
The general store, a kind of mini supermarket-cum-TARDIS, was owned by a garrulous old spinster named Theresa who had run the place for the last forty years and knew everything that went on in Ashcombe. Kate couldn't get out of there fast enough.
“Hello, dear. Heard you were back. Look at your poor old face, eh? What a shame. What a thing to happen. That's America for you, though, isn't it? Everyone drives like maniacs over there, rushing around. I've seen 'em doin' it on the telly. What I always say is take your time and get somewhere safely, better than goin' too fast and not getting there at allâ¦ What're you doin' buying dog food then?” Beadily she eyed Kate's basket, as if suspicious that the cans of Pedigree Chum might be lunch. “You 'aven't got a dog.”
Just ring them up on the till and stop yabbering, you nosy cow.
Kate smiled blandly and wondered how Theresa would react if she'd actually said the words aloud instead of just thinking them.
“We're looking after one for a friend. And I'll have a sheet of that wrapping paper. The dark blue one.”
“Blue? Not your dad's birthday, is it? Although if it is, we've got some nice boxed hankies, or maybe he'd preferâ”
“It's not his birthday,” interrupted Kate.
“Thought it wasn't.” Theresa looked relieved to have been proved right. “He's January, isn't he? Your poor mum and dad, must've been a terrible shock for them, seein' you with your face like that andâ”
“How much do I owe you?” asked Kate.
* * *
“In and out of Theresa's in under twenty minutes.” Jake shook his head in admiration. “Better contact
“What an old witch. She was bursting to know who the wrapping paper was for.” Kate felt her mood lighten, like the sun coming out. The last time she'd properly known Jake, he'd been Maddy Harvey's irritating little brother, a skinny ten-year-old covered in grazes, with a much-prized dried worm collection. Now, all grown up, he wasâ¦well, all grown up. For some local girl, there was no denying he'd be quite a catch.
“Are you looking at my chest?” asked Jake.
“Oh. Just wondered. Actually, you could give me a hand with the wrapping if you like.”
Kate followed him into the cool gloom of the workshop. Bemused, she said, “A
“Don't sound so shocked. It's not a real one.” Spreading out the sheet of cobalt-blue paper on the workbench, Jake picked up the imitation pistol. “Fires potato pellets. Here, you make a start with the tape.”
“I thought it was a birthday party for a girl.”
“It is, but Sophie chose this. She's already got one, so now she and Charlotte can have shoot-outs. Or murder other girls' Barbies. Sophie thinks dolls are feeble,” said Jake. “She wants to be a police officer when she grows up. Last week I caught her and Tiff aiming a blow-dryer at passing motorists. When I asked what she was doing, she said, âBeing a speed trap.'”
Together they managed to wrap up the potato gun, although the end result was secure rather than stylish.
“I'd better get back,” said Kate.
“Before they send out the search parties.” Jake picked up the unused rectangle of paper. “Do you think I should wrap up a potato too?”
He was teasing her. Realizing she had to say something, Kate began awkwardly, “Look, thanks forâ¦you know, talking to me. Beingâ¦um, normal.”
“That's OK.” Jake clearly found this amusing. “I am actually quite a normal person. Plus, I always do as I'm told.”
“By Marcella, anyway. Life wouldn't be worth living otherwise.”
Suspicion crawled over Kate's skin like ants. “You meanâ¦?”
Smiling, Jake said, “She told me to be nice to you.”
“When?” She could barely get the word out.
“Two minutes before you got here, I imagine.” He patted the phone lying on the bench. “Hey, it's OK.”
OK. It's humiliating. I don't
to be patronizedâ”
“Don't get your panties in a twist.” Jake's green eyes were by this time bright with laughter. “I was going to be nice to you anyway.”
But then, he would say that, wouldn't he? For just a few brief minutes, Kate realized, her mood had magically lifted and she'd almost forgotten about her scarred face.
Now everything was spoiled.
* * *
Nuala Stratton, having slipped away from her barmaiding duties for five minutes, was observing the exchange between Jake and Kate with a mixture of intrigue and indignation. From her bedroom window above the pub, she had a clear view into his workshop. She knew, of course, that Jake was a habitual charmer who flirted effortlessly and always made you feel extra-special, even when all he was doing was ordering a pint of Guinness and a bag of chips, but why on earth was he doing it now with Kate Taylor-Trent?
Maddy would go mental when she found out.
Sucking in her stomachâsomething she found herself doing almost instinctively whenever she looked at JakeâNuala watched him saunter over to the bulldog, unhook its leash from the fence post, and cajole the overweight animal to its feet. Then he said something else to Kate, handed the dog over to her, and gave her forearm a reassuring squeeze.
What a traitor. So much for family loyalty. Didn't Jake realize that some people didn't deserve to be smiled at like that?
“Nuala?” Dexter's voice bellowed up the stairs. “Get a bloody move on, will you? If you've fallen asleep up there, you're sacked.”
Not that she was jealous of the attention Jake was paying Kate. Not properly jealous anyway. She had Dexterâshe and Dexter
togetherâand he was all she wanted. It was just that you could be perfectly happy with one man and still harbor a teeny crush on another. If they were honest, probably every woman who met Jake had a teeny crush on him. It must be quite strange to be Maddy, having Jake as a brother and not secretly fancying him.
Get your backside down here this
Hastily, Nuala kicked her discarded four-inch turquoise stilettos under the bed and slipped her feet into less exotic but far comfier two-inch heels. She had Dexter and she was happy with Dexter, but he did like to see her dressed like a glamour girl and, being a man, he simply had no idea how excruciating four-inch stilettos could be. God knows she'd never make it as a Playboy Bunny. Two hours of crippling pain was as much as she could bear in one shift. Tonight she would put the turquoise ones on again, but for now, the low-heeled suede mules would just have to do. Quickly checking in the wardrobe mirror that her reddish-brown hair wasn't too messy, that her cream top was still free of drink stains, and that her new caramel skirt didn't make her bum look vast, Nuala exhaled with disappointment. Failed on all three counts, and the wet patch of lager was situated directly over her left breast. Hastily she brushed her hair, slicked on another layer of glossy toffee lipstick, and jacked the belt around her waist in by another notch.
Dexter wasn't what you'd call an easygoing character. She loved him to bits, but there was no denying that sometimes he could be tricky to live with. Volatile and impatient, he could teach Basil Fawlty a thing or two about being temperamental. Living and working with Dexter was like standing too close to a pyromaniac with a box of fireworksâat any moment, the whole lot could go off.
“We need another crate of Cokes from the cellar,” said Dexter when Nuala arrived downstairs. His gaze dropped to her feet. “Got your granny shoes on, I see.”
He wanted her to be Liz Hurley, Rita Hayworth, and Jessica Rabbit all rolled into one. Nuala's only comfort was in knowing that, with his receding hairline, expanding paunch, and waspish put-downs, Liz Hurley wouldn't look twice at Dexter.
Besides, it wasn't as if she was the only one he insultedâanyone was fair game. And he was actually a lot nicer in private, when it was just the two of them together. Rolling his eyes in despair and mocking her shortcomings was his way of entertaining the customers; she knew he didn't mean it deep down.
“My feet were hurting. It's either these or my furry slippers,” said Nuala.
“God save us,” Dexter roared to his audience. “She's turning into Nora Batty.” Shaking his head in disgust at Nuala, he said, “You are such a frump.”
Nuala smiled. She knew she wasn't a frump.
“I've just seen Jake chatting to Kate Taylor-Trent.” Then, because he was looking blank, “The one who called me fat the other night.”
“So? You are fat.”
He didn't mean it. All for show.
The lamb chops were sizzling on the grill when Maddy arrived home from work. Foil-wrapped potatoes were baking in the oven, and a bowl of salad sat on top of the fridge. With Sophie out at her party, the house was silent apart from the hiss of the shower running upstairs.
By the time Jake appeared, wearing a red-and-white-striped towel around his waist, Maddy had boiled the kettle and made two mugs of tea.
“Thanks.” Taking a mouthful, Jake froze, then spat it back into the mug. “Jesus, what did you put in that?”
“Tabasco. And salt. And mustard,” Maddy added serenely, because Jake particularly loathed mustard.
“Why? Oh fuck, that is
. My tongue's going to drop off.” Racing to the sink as the slow burn of Tabasco kicked in, he put his mouth under the tap and tried to rinse away the taste.
“Good. Maybe if you didn't have a tongue, you wouldn't be able to chat up girls likeâooh, let me see, girls like Kate Taylor-Trent.”
“I wasn't chatting her up. Mum just said be nice to her. Polite, that's all.” Still vigorously rinsing and spitting, Jake reached blindly for the paper towels.
“From what I hear, you were being more than polite. She's a stroppy cow and you have no business chatting her up when she's been so vile to me.”
Jake straightened up, drying his mouth with paper towels.
“Look, you're both adults now. She's back, and in a place this size, you can't just ignore her. It's stupid. Put it behind you.”
He really had no idea. He'd heard all her grievances before, but he hadn't been the one on the receiving end of Kate's snide remarks.
“She and her school friends used to make fun of me because Marcella was black. Kate said
things about herâ”
“And she probably regrets it now. We all do stupid things when we're young.” Swallowing and pulling a face, Jake added pointedly, “Look at you. You're twenty-six and still doing stupid things.”
“You're supposed to be on my side.” Maddy watched him refill the kettle and drop a tea bag into a fresh mug. “If she regretted it that much, she would have apologized.”
“OK, I'll tell her that, shall I?” Jake raised his eyebrows. “I'll be the go-between, let her know that if she says sorry
nicely, you'll be friends with her again.”
Maddy gave him a pitying look. “It wasn't just me, you know. She said horrible things about you as well.”
“Not anymore she doesn't.” Amused, Jake said, “She fancies me rotten now. Anyway, who told you about me talking to Kate?”
Maddy counted on her fingers. “Nuala was watching you from the pub. Juliet saw you.
Theresa from the supermarket.”
“Ah, the usual suspects.” Pouring boiling water into the mug, Jake added modestly, “They all fancy me too.”
* * *
When Kerr McKinnon had moved back to Bath five months ago, he had rented an apartment in the heart of the city, just a few hundred yards from the offices of Callaghan and Fox. He drove out to his mother's old house every week or so just to keep an eye on the place, check that it hadn't burned to the ground or been taken over by an army of squatters, but he hadn't ever driven the extra couple of miles and revisited Ashcombe.
This time, purely out of curiosity, he did.
OK, it possibly had something to do with Maddy Harvey, but he thought it would be nice to see how the place looked, find out if it had changed much in the last ten years.
With the evening sun now low in the sky, Kerr put on his dark glasses and switched off the stereo as he approached the outskirts of the tiny town. There was the primary schoolâhis old schoolâon the right. Slowing, he passed over the humpbacked bridge that crossed the River Ash. Ahead of him, he saw the war memorial. To the left lay Main Street; to the right, Gypsy Lane. Turning left, he drove even more slowly past the Fallen Angel and an assortment of shopsâsome he recognized, others he didn't. There was the Peach Tree Delicatessen where Maddy worked, then a couple of antique shops, the small supermarketâ¦ Carrying on up Holly Hill, Kerr reached the outskirts of the town where a new housing development had been built. He turned and headed back down the hill, this time concentrating on the row of craft and workshops on the left-hand side of Main Street. There was the sign for Harvey's Caskets, Jake's business. And now he was passing Snow Cottage, where Maddy lived with Jake and his daughter. Ridiculously, he found it hard to tear his eyes away from the low, honey-colored Cotswold stone building. It was like being a teenager again, wondering if Maddy was in there, but he couldn't stop, mustn't draw attention to himself. Instead, he carried on, turning into Gypsy Lane, mentally bracing himself for the moment when he would follow the winding road around to the left and reach the spot where the accident had happened.
There it was. And he hadn't even realized he'd been holding his breath. Exhaling slowly, Kerr saw that the wild flowers planted by Marcella Harvey were still there, marking the place where her beloved stepdaughter had died. Strangers arriving in Ashcombe might wonder about the story behind this sudden burst of color along an otherwise undistinguished stretch of roadside. He knew that April was buried in the churchyard and that her grave would bear a profusion of flowers too.
Continuing up the narrow lane, he saw the figure of a woman ahead, walking a dog. With her back to him, wearing a baggy gray jogging suit and a baseball cap on her head, it was impossible to gauge the identity of the dog walker.
Of course, if this were a Hollywood movie, the dog would lurch suddenly off the pavement and into the road, dragging its owner after him. Kerr, paying attention, would brake in plenty of time, but the juggernaut screaming down the hill at sixty miles an hour wouldn't be able to stop or swerve to avoid them. If he hadn't leaped out of his own car at superhuman speed and snatched the womanâand her dogâto safety, they would have been killed outright. Andâthis still being a filmâit wouldn't be until the woman turned to face him, gibbering with tearful gratitude and thanking him for saving her life, that he'd realize it was Marcella Harveyâ¦
Well, it was a nice fantasy. Kerr smiled wryly to himself as he passed the woman with the waddling, overweight bulldog huffing to keep up. Beneath the peak of her cap, he couldn't see much of her face, just enough to let him know that she was white and younger than Marcella.
At the top of Gypsy Lane, he swung the car around yet again. Heading back into the town, as he approached the entrance to Dauncey House, he saw the girl and her dog turning into the driveway. This time she briefly turned to look at him, and he felt a flicker of recognition. A momentary glimpse of profile wasn't much to go on, but he was almost sure it was Kate Taylor-Trent.
Putting his foot down, Kerr sped past. He had an early start tomorrow and wall-to-wall meetings in London. Time to head back to Bath.
* * *
When he was out of sight, Kate turned and stared down the empty, tree-lined lane. Had that been Kerr McKinnon? God, had it really? But what was he doing here in Ashcombe? As far as she was aware, he'd moved to London years ago and stayed there.
Then again, if his mother was still living in the same house, he must have to visit her sometimes. Although no one seemed to know for sure if Pauline McKinnon was still alive; according to Estelle, nobody had clapped eyes on her for years.
Kerr McKinnon, driving a dark blue Mercedes and wearing dark glasses. It had been quite a whileâOK, a decadeâsince they'd last seen each other, but Kate knew instinctively that it was him. Her heart was still beating like a tom-tom inside her ribs. She felt overheated and frozen at the same time. And Norris was at her feet, giving her the kind of world-weary look that signified he knew exactly what was going through her head.
She was fairly sure Kerr hadn't seen the scars. She certainly hoped he hadn't seen themâalthough this was a pointless exercise if ever there was one. If she was never going to see Kerr McKinnon again, what did it matter? And if they did meet up, well, sooner or later there was a chance he was going to notice her spooky new resemblance to Quasimodo.
Oh, forget it.
If it hadn't been for her accident, she'd have been overjoyed to see Kerr again, may even have waved and gestured for him to stop the car. She had been smitten with him once and, modesty aside, he'd been pretty interested in return. Who knew, if he hadn't left to go back to university at the end of that summerâ¦
Anyway, too late now. The accident had happened, and unexpectedly bumping into old boyfriends was no longer a joyful experience.
“Who's uglier, Norris? You or me?”
Snuffling, Norris gazed up at her.
“Except it's easier for you.” Kate gave his leash a let's-get-going tug. “You've always looked like that.”
Estelle greeted them at the door with a beaming smile on her face.
“Darling, fantastic news! Guess who just rang?”
Kate couldn't help it; for a split second, her thoughts flew back to Kerr McKinnon. He'd recognized herâ¦been too shy to stopâ¦reached for his cell phone and dialed information, then rung their numberâ¦ If she hadn't spent the last ten minutes gazing after him in the lane before dawdling back up the drive, she'd have been here to pick up the phone herselfâ¦
“Oh.” Bending, Kate unclipped Norris's leash and watched him waddle like John Wayne through to the kitchen in search of food. Oh well, served her right for getting carried away. And in all honesty, since when had Kerr McKinnon been shy?
“He's coming home tomorrow,” Estelle gabbled on, overdoing it as usual, “for a whole week! Isn't that brilliant?”
“Brilliant.” Dutifully, Kate forced herself to smile. Not that she didn't want to see her father, but it was hardly the most earth-shattering news in the world. Like most business tycoons, he was a workaholic, spending most of his time in London and jetting off at a moment's notice around the world. When he was at home, he was constantly on the phone. It wasn't as if she was suddenly going to have a dad to play endless cozy games of Monopoly with. Oliver Taylor-Trent preferred to play Monopoly with real money and proper hotels.
“He'll be here around midday, and he's sorry he couldn't get down before now, but he'll make it up to you tomorrow.” Her eyes sparkling, Estelle confided, “I think he's bought you a present.”
It was like being seven again. Her father never changed.
“You mean he's told his secretary to pop into Harvey Nichols and buy me a present.” But Kate couldn't be cross; she was too used to it. Besides, it might be shoes. God knows, anything that drew attention away from her face had to be worth a try.