Authors: Jill Mansell
“Anyway, you already know you'll go.”
“What?” Maddy stared at her. “How can you say that?”
“Oh, come on. Why else would you show me the letter? That's why you're here, isn't it?” Looking pleased with herself, Nuala said, “Because you knew I'd say you had to meet him. Face it, you know me. I'm hardly likely to tell you never to see him again, am I? You want me to persuade you to go to his apartment tomorrow night, so it's my decision and not yours.” Squishing an ant with her thumb, she beamed across at Maddy. “Plus, of course, it'll be my fault if anything goes wrong.”
Maddy couldn't speak.
“See?” Nuala said happily. “I'm not as daft as I look, am I?”
“God, I didn't even
what I was doing.” Maddy let out a wail, snatching the letter and shoving it back into her pocket. “I hate it when you're right!”
“So there you go. You have my permission to see him. And wear something sexy.”
“We're only going to
“Good grief, are you mad? If he's as gorgeous as you say he is, and meeting him is this risky, what on earth's the point of just talking?” Nuala raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “I mean, if Marcella's going to go ballistic anywayânot that she will find out, of course, but
she didâyou may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.” Pausing, she frowned. “You know, I don't actually understand what that means. I mean, why would anyone want to hang a sheep
,” bellowed Dexter like a sergeant major from the back door of the pub.
“Honestly, he's such a bossy pants,” Nuala grumbled, but she was already on her feet, gathering up their empty glasses.
Maddy, wondering why on earth she was asking advice from someone whose idea of a perfect partner was Dexter Nevin, said, “Will you two end up getting married, d'you think?”
“Good grief, no.” Vigorously, Nuala shook her head. “Not a chance.”
Oh well, that was something to be grateful for.
“I've already asked him,” Nuala went on, blowing her bangs out of her eyes. “He turned me down flat.”
“What are you, a three-toed sloth?” bawled Dexter. “Get a bloody move on, woman. There are customers dying of thirst in here!”
Wishing she'd thought to bring Sophie's potato gun along with her, Maddy shook her head and said, “Wouldn't it be nicer to have a boyfriend who isn't horrible to you the whole time?”
“Dexter isn't horrible,” Nuala said fondly. “That's just his way. It's only a bit of fun.”
“Lunch? We stop serving lunch at two.” Dexter jerked a finger in the direction of the clock on the wall. “It's five past.”
Defiant pub landlords didn't faze Oliver Taylor-Trent.
“Tell me about it,” he said jovially. “My wife burned ours to a cinder. We're starving. My invited guest here is starving. I've told him all about your miraculous bouillabaisseâhe's a documentary maker, by the way. Will, meet Dexter Nevin. Dexter, this is Will Gifford.”
“Blimey, you must be really hungry.” Dexter's dark eyes glinted with sardonic humor.
“More than you can imagine. Cooking's never been my wife's strong point. We'll have a bottle of Laurent Perrier, by the way. Oh, and would you have any objections to Will doing a spot of filming here in the pub?”
“For TV? What,
?” Dexter looked taken aback.
“Not now.” Will spread his arms reassuringly. “See? No camera. But within the next few days. The thing is, I'm making a film about Oliver,” he explained. “And Ashcombe's such a great place. I wouldn't want to leave the pub out of it. Could be good publicity for you,” he added with a winning smile, “but don't worry. Feel free to say no if you'd rather not.”
“Two bouillabaisses?” asked Dexter, who wasn't stupid.
“I think we'll take a look at the menu,” Oliver replied with satisfaction. “And there are three of us. My daughter's waiting outside.”
See and be seen was Oliver's motto. Despite the fact that the Fallen Angel had a perfectly good restaurant area and a ravishingly pretty rear garden, he had insisted they eat at one of the tables at the front of the pub. Kate, waiting self-consciously for her father and Will Gifford to reemerge, watched as one of the locals ambled past and turned to stare at her. Oliver had persuaded her, against her far better judgment, to join them for lunch while Estelle set about the task of fumigating the kitchen and scraping cremated salmon fillets off the baking tin she had put into the oven and promptly forgotten all about until the smoke alarm had gone off. Oh well, she couldn't hide away forever. Safety in numbers and all that.
“Quite a character, that landlord,” announced Will, sitting down next to her and handing her a menu.
Glancing at it, Kate prayed no one passing by would assume they were a couple. More specifically, she hoped Jake Harvey in his workshop across the road wouldn't think it.
“I'll have the steak in port. And a glass of red.”
“Your dad's on his way out with another bottle of champagne. What it must be like to be wealthy,” Will marveled. “You wouldn't believe the lengths I normally have to go to to get a glass of champagneâblagging my way into celebrity parties, getting kicked out on my ear when they realize I haven't been invited, the humiliation of realizing I'm actually a pint of bitter man through and throughâexcuse me, but is that dog all right?”
Norris was snorting and grunting at her feet. Kate shrugged. “I don't know. He always breathes like that.”
“He might be thirsty. I'll ask for a bowl of water while we're ordering the food.” Unfolding his long legs, Will said, “Back in a sec. By the way, you don't happen to know the name of the pretty barmaid, do you? Curvy redhead, cute dimples?”
it with men? One-track minds or what?
“I only moved back here this week. I don't have a clue.” This was perfectly true; she and the barmaid hadn't gotten as far as exchanging names, only insults.
“Fine, fine.” Will raised his hands in mock terror, as if dodging a poison dart. “No problem anyway. I've just had a brilliant idea.”
Kate wondered if he was capable of a brilliant idea. Bored, she said, “What?”
“I'm going to call on my expertise in the field of investigative journalism.” Will's brown eyes sparkled. “And ask her.”
The champagne helped, which was something to be grateful for. Before long, Kate's knees were feeling nicely relaxed. When Will realized that the bowl of water hadn't arrived for Norris, her father said brusquely, “Kate, go sort it out,” and she found herself rising automatically to her feet.
The abrupt transition from bright sunlight to dim, smoky gloom was disorienting, not helped by the fact that she was still wearing her dark glasses. Removing them and blinking, waiting for her eyes to adjust, Kate saw the door from the kitchen swing open and heard a voice saying, “Back in a moment. There's something I forgot toâ
The curvy redhead with the dimples, carrying something in both hands, had caught sight of Kate in the pub and frozen for a millisecond. Sadly, a millisecond was all it took for the swing doors to swing shut again, before she had a chance to escape them. Realizing too late what was about to happen, the girl lunged forward, getting caught anyway. She let out a squeak of alarm as the bowl ricocheted out of her hands, sending up a beautifully choreographed fountain of water before hitting the flagstones with a loud
. Kate gasped. The girl gazed in dismay at the shattered remains of the bowl, now strewn across the floor, and at the sopping wet front of her white shirt and navy skirt.
A roar of fury made them both jump. Erupting out of the kitchen like a maddened bear, the landlord bawled, “You bloody idiot, can't you do
right? Is a bowl of water too difficult for you?”
“I'm sorry. The doors swung shut on me.” Flushing, the girl knelt and began frantically scooping up the scattered shards, wincing as a splinter of china dug into her knee.
“Possibly because they're
,” jeered the landlord. “But then you've only been here for two years, haven't you, so how could you possibly be expected to have known that? Oh, for crying out loud, stop faffing about and clear it up. Get a dustpan and brush, if you know what they are, and try not to get blood all over the flagstonesâ¦ Yes, can I help you?” As the girl scurried off, the landlord turned his attention to Kate for the first time. “My apologies for the scene of carnageâyou can't get the staff these days.”
“It was an accident,” said Kate.
He gave a snort of derision. “
“No wonder you can't get the staff”âKate bristledâ“if this is the way you treat them. Why do you have to be so rude?”
The landlord smiled, but not in a friendly way.
“Because it's fun. I enjoy it. Why, what's your excuse?”
Eyeing him with contempt, Kate retorted, “At least I'm not a bully.”
“No? Hardly Julie Andrews, though, are you?” He was openly smirking at her now. “I mean, forgive me if I'm wrong, but aren't you the one who was in here the other night hurling insults at Nuala? Calling her a fat cow and reducing her to tears?”
“I didn't call her a fat cow.” Kate was seriously regretting coming here, but she was damned if she'd back down.
“No. Justâ¦fat.” Thank goodness the barmaidâNualaâwas still off somewhere, hunting down the dustpan and brush.
“You made her cry.”
Oh God, she hadn't, had she?
At that moment, the kitchen doors swung back open. Surveying the sceneâKate and the landlord facing each other across the wooden barâNuala said, “That's not true.” Turning to Kate she added, “Don't take any notice of him. He'll say anything to win an argument.”
“Been listening at the door, have we? Very classy,” drawled the landlord as Nuala bent down and began sweeping up the bits of broken bowl.
Not to mention embarrassing
, thought Kate. Addressing Nuala, she said in disbelief, “Why do you let him speak to you like this? I mean, what are you doing here, working for someone who treats you like dirt?”
Nuala, hurriedly brushing the last splinters of china into the dustpan, mumbled something unintelligible.
“Ah, but she doesn't just work for me,” the landlord declared with satisfaction. “She's my girlfriend. We live together. Didn't you know?” He raised his dark eyebrows in mock surprise. “We're love's young dream.”
* * *
“You've been ages. We were about to send in a search party.” Will Gifford patted the space on the bench beside him. “What was all the crashing and shouting about in there? Is that your way of getting reacquainted with the locals?”
Kate wondered if his scruffy, bumbling Hugh Grant act was meant to be endearing. “I'm fine. The landlord's a dickhead, that's all.”
With a shout of laughter, Will said, “Oh, good grief! You mean it was you?”
Emptying the lukewarm dregs of her champagne into an oak barrel overflowing with geraniums, Kate held out her glass for a refill from the bottle in the ice bucket.
“Your daughter doesn't suffer fools gladly,” Will told Oliver, and Kate shot him a meaningful, take-note look.
“That's Kate for you.” Oliver nodded with pride. “She's always known her own mind.”
Nuala appeared, carrying a fresh bowl of water for Norris. As she placed it on the ground next to their table, she glanced awkwardly across at Kate.
“Look, thanks for sticking up for me in there. I heard what you said to Dexter.” Despite feeling she needed to express gratitude, she clearly wasn't comfortable saying it.
Kate shrugged. “I meant what I said. He's a bully.”
“He isn't really. A lot of it's just for show,” Nuala insisted.
“Fine.” Kate picked up her drink. “If that's what you think, good luck to you. You'll need it.”
“Honestly,” complained Will, “this is so unfair. I miss all the fun.” His eyes bright, he looked at Nuala. “So what happens now? Is she banned from the pub?”
” It was Dexter, emerging with their lunches. “You must be bloody joking. Had the guts to stand up to me, didn't she? I've always respected a girl with a bit of spirit.” Deftly, he laid down the plates, straightened the cutlery, and refilled their glasses with the remainder of the Laurent Perrier. “Besides,” he went on, acknowledging Oliver with a nod, “what landlord in his right mind would ban the daughter of a man who spends two hundred quid on a pub lunch?”
“Anyway,” Nuala murmured when Dexter had whisked open their napkins with a flourish and disappeared back inside the pub, “I just wanted toâ¦um, apologize for the other night, although I didn't say what you thought I said.”
“Fine,” Kate replied stiffly, aware of Will bristling with curiosity beside her. “Let's just forget it, shall we? In future, you don't make fun of my face and I won't make fun of your fat.”
“There you go.” Will Gifford gave her a comforting nudge when Nuala had left them. “Sounds to me like you're settling back in a treat.”
“Right,” Oliver announced with a flourish of platinum Amex, “how about that guided tour now?”
Norris, nudged awake by Kate's foot, spotted a small, sandy-haired terrier some distance away and lumbered to his feet, snuffling with interest.
“No,” Kate warned, but Norris ignored her. Like a new graduate from an assertiveness training course, he raced across the dusty road dragging her along in his wake. The terrier, eyeing him in return, let out a volley of high-pitched barks and rushed up to greet him like a besotted groupie.
This has to be the famous Bean
, Kate realized as Jake Harvey emerged from his workshop and whistled to attract the little dog's attention. Bean glanced back, then promptly ignored him, far more interested in discovering what a hulking great bulldog looked like close up.
And smelled like close up, Kate discovered, as the two animals investigated each other thoroughly, indulging in that dreadful bottom-sniffing thing dogs loved to do to embarrass their owners. Mortified, she tugged at Norris's leash and prayed they wouldn't attempt anything more gymnastic.
Laughing, Jake sauntered over. “Bean, you're under age. Plus, he'd squash you flat. How was lunch?” He grinned broadly at Kate.
“Pretty good.” Actually, it had been excellent. “But I don't think much of the landlord.”
“Dexter? Oh, he's in a league of his own. Actually, we're fairly sure he's the secret love child of Simon Cowell and Rosa Klebb. Saw you talking to Nuala,” he went on innocently.
“That girl shouldn't let him speak to her like that. What is she, some kind of doormat?”
“Nuala? Her motto is better the devil you know than no devil at all. Anyway, how about you?” He nodded over at Will Gifford, currently shrugging his way back into his shabby jacket. “Who's the mystery man? Boyfriend of yours?”
Oh God, was this the conclusion everyone was going to jump to? Now that she was ugly, would they automatically assume that someone like Will was the best she could hope for?
“Please.” Kate shuddered. “I'm not that desperate.” In fact, if anyone physically resembled a battered old doormat, it was scruffy, tufty-haired Will: should you need to wipe your feet on something, he'd be perfect.
“You're looking a bit happier today,” said Jake.
Was she? Really? Well, maybe she wasn't feeling quite so suicidal. Then again, this could be due to picturing herself trampling all over Will Gifford in spike-heeled boots.
“Either your heart's beating very fast indeed,” Kate observed, “or someone wants to speak to you.”
The pocket of Jake's white cotton shirt was vibrating like a hummingbird.
“I was enjoying the buzz.” With a wink, he took out his cell phone and answered it. Much to Kate's relief, Norris and Bean had stopped investigating each other's bottoms, evidently having decided to keep their relationship platonic. Norris was now lying on his side on the dusty ground while Bean, rather sweetly, attempted to clamber all over him.
“Hello, you,” Jake murmured, smiling into the phone and raking tanned fingers through his blond hair. “I know. Me too.” He paused to listen, then laughed. “Now there's an offer I can't refuse. No, definitely free tonight.” Another pause, then he broke into a grin. “You're a bad, bad girl. OK, eight o'clock. I'd better go now. See you there.”
Kate had never been more glad of her dark glasses. Was every conversation with Jake Harvey destined to lift her spirits, then bring her crashing back to earth with a bump?
“Sorry about that. Sophie's headmistress,” said Jake.
Oh.” Too late, she realized he was joking.
Entertained, he said, “You haven't seen Sophie's headmistress. Anne Robinson on a broomstick.”
“Well, I'd better be going too.” Kate gave Norris's leash another tug before Jake could start telling her all about the stunning girl he'd arranged to meet tonight. Across the road, she saw that Oliver had finished settling up. If he and Will made their way over now, Will would be bound to say something excruciating.
“So who is he?” Clearly curious, Jake nodded over at Will.
“He makes documentaries. He's doing one on my dad. He'll be filming around here too,” said Kate.
“Filming?” Jake let out a low whistle. “Anyone with something to hide had better watch out then.”
“Does that include you?” Kate couldn't resist the dig.
“Not me.” He flashed her a wicked grin. “Luckily, I'm not the secretive type.”
* * *
“Who's he?” asked Will.
Honestly, and women were supposed to be the nosy ones.
“Local coffin maker. Thinks he's it. I'm taking Norris home,” said Kate, because Norris was casting lovelorn looks over his burly shoulder at Bean and she didn't trust him not to drag her back across the road.
“We won't be long,” said Oliver. “Just a quick tour of the town, then we'll be back.”
* * *
Sophie and Tiff were playing with a cardboard box on the pavement outside the Peach Tree.
“Takes me back a bit,” Oliver said jovially as he and Will approached the delicatessen. “Playing with cardboard boxes because we couldn't afford proper toys.” He liked to exaggerate the circumstances of his childhood, play up the poverty aspect. “Hello there, you two. Having fun? This is Sophie, by the way, our housekeeper's granddaughter. And Tiff is the son of Juliet, who owns the deli.”
“Hi,” said Will, eyeing the box with its letterbox-size slit in the top. “Playing postmen?”
Sophie shot him a pitying look. “It's a toll booth.”
“It costs fifty pence to get into the shop,” said Tiff.
,” an exasperated female voice called out from inside the delicatessen. “Tiff, let them in.”
Tiff and Sophie gazed up at Oliver.
“Outrageous opportunism,” Oliver tut-tutted, pulling a handful of coins from his trouser pocket and slipping them into the box. Sophie and Tiff exchanged smug glancesâOliver Taylor-Trent was always a soft touch. Then their eyes swiveled in unison to fix upon his younger, scruffier companion.
“Don't look at me,” Will protested. “I'm like the queen. I never carry cash.”
“Appalling children.” Juliet sighed, appearing in the doorway and ushering in her potential customers. “You shouldn't give them any money.”
“Nonsense,” Oliver said briskly. “Couple of young entrepreneurs in the making. Reminds me of myself when I was young.”
“More like a couple of highway robbers.” Juliet smiled apologetically at Will. “What must you think of us?”
It didn't take a mind reader to guess what Will was thinking. Juliet was wearing a white, peasant-style Indian cotton blouse and a swirling calf-length skirt strewn with poppies. Her dark hair was tied back in a loose, glossy plait. Her eyes, darker still, were alight with gentle humor. Oliver, watching Will's reaction to Juliet, wondered whether it was those eyes or her glorious hourglass figure that appealed to him most.
“How's business?” Oliver asked easily.
“Oh, pretty good. We get by.” Dimples appeared in Juliet's cheeks. “I'm sure trade will pick up now that you're back.”
“Funny you should mention it. Estelle forgot to buy prosciutto this morning.”
“Customers with expensive tastes and more money than sense,” Juliet told Will cheerfully as she crossed to the chill cabinet, “are my favorite kind. Three bags or four?”
Oliver thought about it. “Better make it six.”
“Go on then.”
“How about those olives you like?”
“You've twisted my arm.”
“And we've got the most amazing Sevruga caviar.”
“Now you're pushing your luck,” said Oliver.
“Oh well, worth a try.” Juliet laughed as she rang up his purchases on the till and expertly packed them into a Peach Tree brown paper bag with string handles. “Thanks very much. I'll put it on your account. And we look forward to seeing you again soon.”
“Bye, Mr. Taylor-Trent,” chorused Tiff and Sophie as they left the shop.
“Bye,” said Oliver. “Don't spend it all at once.”
much money,” Sophie told him. “Only three pounds twenty pence.”
“Wow,” breathed Will, when they were out of eavesdropping range of the children. “I meanâ¦
“She has that effect on men,” Oliver agreed. “I tell you, if I were twenty years younger, I'd be tempted myself.”
“It's not just her. This wholeâ¦place.” As Will Gifford spread his arms to encompass Ashcombe, a button went
and parted with his shirt. “I mean, are any of the people who live here
“Funny you should say that.” Oliver steered him up the road toward the mini supermarket. “Brace yourself. You're about to meet Theresa Birch.”
* * *
You knew your subconscious was up to something when you went into Bath to buy a new pair of sneakers and a bottle of contact lens cleaning solution, and scuttled home three hours later with a lime-green silk and velvet bra and panty set instead.
What a trollop.
Worse still was hearing the front door open and guiltily stuffing the shopping bag containing your new bra and panties under the sofa.
“Hi, darling.” Marcella came bursting into the living room. “Buy something nice?”
Maddy pulled a face. “Couldn't find any sneakers I liked.”
“Oh, what a shame. So you didn't get anything at all?”
“No, just looked around the shops.” Not just a trollop, but a wicked
trollop. Wondering if this was how people felt when they smuggled hard drugs through customs, Maddy hurried through to the kitchen and put the kettle on. She imagined the hidden underwear pulsating and glowing like kryptonite, signaling its presence to Marcella. “Chocolate cookies?”
“No thanks, but I'd love a raw carrot.” Marcella grinned. “What a ridiculous question. Of course I want chocolate cookiesâooh, here come the rabble.” She jumped to one side as the door crashed open again. Jake, Sophie, and Bean came clattering down the hallway and erupted into the kitchen. Sophie, covered in grass stains and dust, was clutching a soccer ball and looking triumphant.
“She's lethal,” complained Jake. “Almost broke my leg. She's Vinnie Jones in a skirt.”
“He lost,” Sophie said matter-of-factly. “And I don't wear skirts. Anyway I've never heard of Vinnie Jones. Who's she?”
“That reminds me,” said Marcella. “Vince and I are having a barbecue tonight, if you fancy coming along.”
“Great,” said Jake.
“I can't.” Maddy used the excuse she'd had the foresight to prepare earlier. “I'm meeting up with Jen and Susie in Bath.” She looked suitably regretful. “We're having a girly night out.”
“Oh well, never mind. Give them my love,” said Marcella warmly, which only made Maddy feel worse. “And if you're home before midnight, come on over. We'll still be going strongâoh, darling, what have you got there? Is that a present for me?” Bending down, she reached for the glossy black bag Bean was dragging into the kitchen, and Maddy felt herself break into a light sweat. For a panicky moment, she wondered if she could get away with pretending it was a present for Marcella, but it wasn't her birthday and the bra was the wrong size and her mother wasn't stupid. So basically she wasn't going to be able to get away with it at all.
“I say, these are a bit special.” Lifting out the tiny velvet-trimmed bra and panties, Marcella's dark eyes danced with mischief. “Been out buying for a lady friend, darling?”
“Nothing to do with me.” Jake raised his hands, absolving himself.
“Maddy? I thought you said you didn't find anything you liked.”
“Iâ¦I changed my mind,” Maddy stammered, uncomfortably aware of Jake's gaze upon her. “I mean, I
like them, so I bought them, but I'm going to take them back to the shop. Tooâ¦um, expensive,” she added hurriedly as Marcella glanced at the price tag and let out a low whistle. “It was a moment of madness. I don't know why I did it. I mean, you know me; it's usually Marks & Spencer's multipacks.”
Maddy knew she was gabbling, but this part of the lie was actually true. She could get worryingly excited about tearing open a pristine M&S multipack.
“You don't know why you did it? Spent sixty pounds on
? Well, I think I can probably hazard a guess
”âMarcella gave her a less than subtle, tell-us-everything nudgeâ“who is he?”
Now Maddy really couldn't meet Jake's eye. She didn't know where to look.
“No one. Really. I just saw them and liked the color.”
“See that?” Marcella pointed out of the kitchen window. “Flying pig. Sweetheart, you must have your eye on someoneâhey, I know! Why don't you invite him to the barbecue? Bring Jen and Susie along too. Then it won't be so obvious. Just tell him it's a casual get-together for a few friends. Wouldn't that be a fabulous idea? Then we can all meet him and see what we think!”
What Marcella would think truly didn't bear thinking about. Shoveling the bra and briefs back into their black bag, Maddy said, “Mum, I promise you, there isn't anyone. This stuff's going back to the shop, I'm meeting Jen and Susie in Brown's at seven, and if it's OK with everyone, I'd quite like a bath before I go.”
“She thinks I was born yesterday,” Marcella said cheerfully as Maddy squeezed out of the crowded kitchen, “but she's forgotten two important things.”
Ever inquisitive, Sophie said beadily, “What important things?”
“I'm her mother,” Marcella told Sophie, raising her voice so that Maddy could still hear as she escaped up the stairs. “And I'm