Authors: Jill Mansell
The next morning was even hotter. With Oliver due home at lunchtime, Estelle had rushed into Bath to do a big supermarket shop. It wasn't Marcella's day to work. Finding herself alone in the houseâwell, apart from Norris, who didn't countâKate had changed into a pink bikini and wandered out to the pool. Now, after a few desultory lengths, she was stretched out on one of the recliners, soaking up the sun. Swimming alone was no fun.
Closing her eyes, Kate remembered a magical summer long ago, when she and Maddy Harvey had played endlessly together in this very pool. They had been like sisters then. The following year she had been sent to Ridgelow Hall and had made new friends. She recalled the scorching, dusty afternoon when she and a couple of her new best friends had bumped into Maddy outside the sweetshop. How old had they all been? Eleven, maybe twelve? Nudging her companions, she had said gaily, “Hey, fancy a swim?”
Maddy, her thin little face lighting up, had said, “Oh, that'd be great.”
And she had smirkedâGod, actually
âand said, “Better go jump in the river then. Bye!”
It had seemed funny at the time. She and her friends had screeched with laughter at the look of disappointment on Maddy's face. Now, Kate inwardly cringed at the memory. There was no getting away from it. She had been a snobby little cow, seduced by the my-dad's-richer-than-your-dad mentality of her fellow pupils. Once, visiting the spectacular home of one of the girls and discovering that the pool there was twice the size of her own, she had promptly broken off the friendship in order to not have to invite her back to Dauncey House. For weeks after that, she had even badgered her father to buy a helicopter purely to compensate for the embarrassment of not owning an Olympic-size pool.
A cloud had drifted over the sun. Brushing a fly from her shoulder, Kate opened her eyes a fraction, then let out a yelp of surprise, because it hadn't been a cloud after all: the shadow on her face had been caused by a complete stranger whoâ
“Sorry, sorry, didn't mean to scare you! Hell, what must you think of me? I honestly thought you were asleep. Sorry, all my fault. I did ring the doorbell, but there was no reply.”
Kate stared at him. If this was a burglar, he was the friendliest burglar she'd ever encountered.
“And you areâ¦?”
“Will.” He smiled, extended his hand, and shook hers vigorously. When Kate continued to look blank, he said, “Will Gifford? And you must be Kate. Good to meet you,
good to meet you. Oh dear.” He paused and shook his head in sorrowful fashion. “He didn't tell you, did he?”
“Who didn't tell me what?”
“Your father. God, I'm so sorry. I just assumed he'd have mentioned me.”
He was also the most apologetic burglar she'd ever met. Except it was fairly obvious now that he wasn't a burglar.
“Hang on. You rang the doorbell,” said Kate, “and no one came to the door. So you assumed everyone was out and just decided to explore the backyard anyway?”
“Oh Lord, it sounds terrible when you put it like that. I mean, I didn't break down the front door, just wandered around the side of the house. I didn't know how long I'd have to wait, you see. And Oliver did invite me. I've got my case in the car.”
His case? “You mean you're
here? Look, I'm sorry”âoops, now she was doing it tooâ“but who
Kate was mystified. Whoever this Will Gifford might be, he didn't look like a business colleague of her father's. In his midthirties, he was tall and indescribably scruffy, wearing crumpled black trousers and a baggy, unironed checked shirt. His dark brown hair was all over the shop, sticking out in tufts, and his spectacles were Harry Potterish. The overall impression was of a gangly overgrown schoolboy, quite shy and clever but incapable of wielding a hairbrush.
As Will Gifford opened his mouth to reply, Estelle came into view, hurrying across the lawn, calling, “Hello, I'm ba-ack.”
Will Gifford turned and said charmingly, “Mrs. Taylor-Trent.”
Puffing, catching her breath, Estelle said, “Oof, it's hot. You must be Will. How lovely to meet you. And please, do call me Estelle. You're early!”
“I'm a bit of a one for getting lost,” Will confided, “so I set off from London at nine o'clock, to give myself that extra hour to get lost in. But it was like a miracle. I got the entire journey right first time.” He shook his head, clearly delighted with this achievement. “Never happened to me before. Remarkable.”
Kate's suspicions were growing. Her father had invited this man here to stay with them. Her mother had been expecting him but hadn't mentioned it to her. Was Will Gifford some kind of self-help guru, hired by her parents to teach her that looks weren't everything?
They certainly weren't as far as he was concerned. The man looked like a cross between a mad scientist and a scarecrow.
Oh God, was he supposed to be her present?
Gaily, Estelle said, “Right then, why don't I make us all a nice pot of tea?”
Kate waited until her mother was back inside the house before saying, “I still don't know what you're doing here.”
“Relax. You're looking at me like I'm a dentist.” Will grinned and flopped down on the grass a few feet away from her.
“Is it something to do with me?”
“Nothing at all to do with you, crosspatch. I'm making a documentary about your father and he was kind enough to ask me to stay for a few days. Although since the idea of the program is to see Oliver Taylor-Trent both at work and away from it, of course I'd like you to feature in the film.”
A documentary. Well, she hadn't seen that one coming.
“Can I say no?”
“Of course you can say no.”
“Good. In that case, no.”
Mildly, Will Gifford said, “That's a shame. Why not?”
“Oh please, don't tell me you hadn't noticed.” Kate gazed steadily at him, hoping he'd be embarrassed.
“Your face, you mean? Oliver told me about your accident. But I'm sorry. I don't see how it's relevant.”
“OK, let me put it this way. Why on earth would I want to appear on TV, so that even more people can see my scars? Don't you think it's hard enough for me just walking down the street?”
It was meant to be the ultimate riposte. Will Gifford spoiled it completely by tilting his head to one side and saying easily, “With fashion sense like mine, you get used to it.”
If she hadn't been lying flat on her back, Kate would have stamped her foot.
“It's hardly the same thing, is it? Please don't try to compare your hideous shirts with my
“Yoo-hoo, here we are! Dad's home,” sang Estelle, heading up the path with a tray of tea in her hands and Oliver Taylor-Trent following in her wake.
Despite everything, Kate felt a lump form in her throat. Being back in Ashcombe was having a weird effect on her hormones; for a split second, she'd longed to scramble to her feet and hurl herself into her father's arms. But since they weren't a huggy family and Oliver certainly wouldn't appreciate getting suntan lotion all over his Hugo Boss suit, she stood up and gave him a decorous kiss on the cheek instead. The next moment, he was briskly greeting Will Gifford, while Estelle fussed around with the tea tray and attempted to tear open a bag of shortbread with her teeth.
“Will, welcome to Dauncey House. I don't think we want tea, do we? Got a bottle of something decent in the fridge, darling? We should raise a toast to an interesting and mutually profitable projectâ¦and, Kate, maybe you'd be more comfortable slipping some clothes on?”
As ever, Oliver had taken charge of the situation, reorganizing the family to his satisfaction. As Estelle rushed back inside with the no-longer-required tea and cookies, he put his hand on Will's frayed shirt cuff and said, “While we're waiting, why don't I show you the grounds? Afterward you can see the rest of the house, then later on I'll take you on a guided tour of our little town.”
, thought Kate. Like he owned it.
“Fantastic.” Winking at Kate, Will rubbed his hands together with boyish enthusiasm. “Can't wait.”
Kate pointedly ignored the wink. What an utter idiot.
* * *
Deliveries completed, Maddy was back in Ashcombe by one o'clock. Racing over to the Angel, she said, “Dexter, I know that deep down, beneath that horrid, grumpy exterior, you're actually a sweet and lovely man.”
“No I'm not.” Dexter carried on hanging up beer mugs by their handles.
“You see? Modest too.” Plunging on, Maddy said, “And now I need a favor. Can I borrow Nuala, just for ten minutes?” It was Friday lunchtime and the pub was quiet. Dexter could easily handle the few existing customers himself. For good measure, she added, “Please?”
“It'll have to come out of her wages.”
Naturally. Maddy flashed him a brilliant smile. “I'll pay you the thirty pence myself.”
“Blimey, you must be desperate.” Aware of Maddy and Nuala's intensive gossip sessions, Dexter raised an eyebrow. “Not pregnant, are you?”
“I just need to talk to Nuala.” She heaved an inward sigh. “And you're her boss, which is why I'm being so nice to you.”
“OK. What d'you want to drink?”
“Two Cokes please.”
“Go ahead then. Take her outside.” Dexter waved a dismissive arm in the direction of Nuala, emerging from the storeroom with a fresh supply of salt-and-vinegar chips. “Just for ten minutes. And she'll have Diet Coke,” he added. “There's hardly room for both of us in one bed as it is.”
“Backyard,” Maddy told Nuala when she'd dumped the bags of chips and Dexter had served their drinks. As he dropped the change into Maddy's hand, he said, “Time startsâ¦
“Actually,” Nuala said brightly when they were seated outside, “I prefer Diet Coke. Once you get used to the taste, it'sâ”
“No you don't,” Maddy interrupted. “You've just brainwashed yourself into thinking you prefer it because Dexter won't let you drink the normal kind.” A lot of their conversations ran along these lines, with Nuala defending Dexter and Maddy vainly attempting to make her see sense.
“Anyway, enough about you. We're here to talk about me. If I don't tell you my stuff, I may have to explode.”
“And Dexter would make me clear up all the mess.” Instantly diverted, Nuala leaned her elbows on the table and said eagerly, “Go on then, tell me. Is this to do with the bloke you met last week at the party?”
it! Is he completely gorgeous?”
“And you really, really fancy him?”
“And he really, really fancies you? Oh wow, that's so brilliant! When did all this happen and why didn't you tell me befâ
“Sorry.” Maddy sighed, because the only way to stop Nuala when she got this carried away was to pinch her wrist hard. She hadn't meant to grind the bones like that, though.
“I knowâsorry, sorryâbut we don't have time to play twenty questions, and the thing is, it
. What a basâoh, no you don't.” Nuala snatched her wrist away just in time. “OK, sorry. I'll shut up.” Pause. “But I'm right, aren't I? He's
“He isn't.” Shaking her head, Maddy explained the whole sorry McKinnon saga in four minutes flat. This time Nuala listened intently and didn't interrupt once.
“Shit,” she said flatly when Maddy had finished.
“This isn't good.”
“Tell me about it,” agreed Maddy, draining her Coke and feeling pretty drained herself. At least, her brain felt drained, but underneath the wooden trellis table, her hopelessly overexcited knees were jiggling away like mini Michael Flatleys. Taking an envelope from her jeans pocket and placing it in front of Nuala, she added, “And now this.”
Nuala whisked the enclosed sheet of paper from the battered envelope and read the brief handwritten note.
“He wants to meet you tomorrow! God, this is so romantic! I mean, I've had phone calls and text messages in my time, but nobody's
written me a letter.”
“It's not romantic when he's only doing it because a phone call would be too risky.” Fraught, Maddy raked her fingers through her already drastically raked hair. “He's in London today. He left the envelope with his receptionist to hand over to me.”
“But don't you see? That's even more romantic! âI need to see you, properly.'” Nuala swooned as she read aloud. “âSaturday night, seven o'clock, my apartment. Let me know if you can't make it. Hope you can. Kerr.' Ooh,
apartment,” she added with approval, noting the address. “And lovely, masterful handwriting. If you aren't up for it, can I go instead?”
“I want to go, more than anything.” Maddy watched a ladybug inch its way along the edge of the table, then spread its wings and take off like a Harrier Jump Jet. “But how can I?”
“What d'you mean, how can you? Are you mad?” squeaked Nuala. “You
“Marcella would kill me.”
“What Marcella doesn't know won't hurt her,” Nuala blithely retorted. “How's she ever going to find out? My mum's next-door neighbors got divorced last summer. It turned out that the husband had been having an affair for the last fifteen years and his wife hadn't had any idea!”
As if that makes it all right
, thought Maddy. “Butâ”