Kiss Me Under the Mistletoe
Kiss Me Under the Mistletoe
About the Author
As a child, FIONA HARPER was constantly teased for either having her nose in a book or living in a dream world. Things haven’t changed much since then, but at least in writing she’s found a use for her runaway imagination. After studying dance at university, Fiona worked as a dancer, teacher and choreographer, before trading in that career for video editing and production. When she became a mother, she cut back on her working hours to spend time with her children and, when her littlest one started pre-school, she found a few spare moments to rediscover an old but not forgotten love—writing.
Fiona lives in London, but her other favourite places to be are the Highlands of Scotland and the Kent countryside on a summer’s afternoon. She loves cooking, good food and anything cinnamon-flavoured. Of course, she still can’t keep away from a good book or a good movie—especially romances—but only if she’s stocked up with tissues, because she knows she will need them by the end, be it happy or sad. Her favourite things in the world are her wonderful husband, who has learned to decipher her incoherent ramblings, and her two daughters.
Kiss me Under the Mistletoe Fiona Harper
For Mum again. Still love you.
Most women would have given at least one kidney to be in Louise’s shoes—both literally and figuratively. The shoes in question were hot off the Paris catwalk, impossibly high heels held to her foot by delicately interwoven silver straps. The main attraction, however, was the man sitting across the dinner table from her. The very same hunk of gorgeousness that had topped a magazine poll of ‘Hollywood’s Hottest’ only last Thursday.
Louise stared at her cutlery, intent on tracing a figure of eight pattern with her dessert spoon, and eavesdropped on conversations in the busy restaurant. Other people’s conversations. Other people’s lives.
Her dinner companion shifted in his seat and the heel of his boot made jarring contact with the little toe of her right foot. She jerked away and leaned over to rub it.
‘Thanks a bunch, Toby!’ she said, glaring at him from half under the table.
Toby stopped grinning at a pair of bleached blonde socialites who were in the process of wafting past their table and turned to face her, eyebrows raised.
‘Never mind,’ she muttered and sat up straight again, carefully crossing her ankles and tucking them under her chair. Her little toe was still warm and pulsing.
The waiter appeared with their exquisite-looking entrées and Toby’s eyebrows relaxed back into their normal sexily brooding position as he started tearing into his guinea fowl. Louise’s knife and fork stayed on the tablecloth.
He hadn’t even bothered with his normal comments about the carbs on her plate. She was supposed to be getting rid of that baby weight, remember? Never mind that Jack had just turned eight. His father was still living in a dream world if he thought she was going to be able to squeeze back into those size zero designer frocks hanging in the back of her wardrobe.
But then Toby had emotionally checked out of their marriage some time ago. She kept up the pretence for Jack’s sake, posed and smiled for the press and celebrity magazines and fiercely denied any gossip about a rift. He hadn’t ever said he’d stopped loving her, but it was evident in the things he didn’t do, the things he didn’t say. And then there was the latest rumour …
She picked up her cutlery and attacked her pasta.
‘Slow down, Lulu! Good food like this is meant to be enjoyed, not inhaled.’ Toby said, eyes still on his plate.
Lulu. When they’d first met, she’d thought it had been cute that he’d picked up on, and used, her younger brother’s attempts at pronouncing her name. Lulu was exotic, exciting … and a heck of a lot more interesting than plain old Louise. She’d liked being Lulu back then.
Now she just wanted him to see Louise again.
She stopped eating and looked at him, waiting for him to raise his head, give her a smile, his trademark cheeky wink—anything.
He waved for the waiter and asked for another bottle of wine. Then she saw him glance across and nod at the two blondes, now seated a few tables away. Not once in the next ten minutes did he look at her. Her seat might as well have been empty.
‘What?’ Finally he glanced in her direction. But where once she had been able to see her dreams coming to life, there was only a vacancy.
He rubbed his front tooth with his forefinger and it made a horrible squeaking noise. ‘Why are you looking at me like that? Do I have spinach in my teeth?’
She shook her head. What spinach leaf would dare sully the picture of masculine perfection sitting opposite her? The thought was almost sacrilegious. She was tempted to laugh.
The words wouldn’t come. How could she ask what she wanted to ask? And how could she stand the answer when it came?
She tried to say it with her eyes instead. When she’d been modelling, photographers had always raved about the ‘intensity’ in her eyes. She tried to show it all—the emptiness inside her, the magnetic force that kept the pair of them revolving around each other, the small spark of hope that hadn’t quite been extinguished yet. If he’d just do it once … really connect with her …
‘Jeez, Lulu. Cheer up, will—’
A chime from the phone in his pocket interrupted him. He slid it out and held it shielded in his hand, slightly under the table. The only change in his features was a slight curve of his bottom lip. Now he made eye contact. He searched her face for a reaction, and then returned the mobile to his jacket pocket and his gaze to his plate.
He shrugged. ‘Work stuff. You know …’
Unfortunately, she had the feeling she did know. And she kept on knowing all the way through dinner as she shoved one forkful after another into her mouth, tasting nothing.
The rumour was true.
All afternoon, since she’d spoken to Tara on the phone, she’d hoped it was all silly speculation, someone putting two and two together and coming up with five. Six years ago, when the tabloids had been jumping with the stories of Toby’s ‘secret love trysts’ with his leading lady, she’d refused to believe it. She had given interview after interview denying there had been any truth in it. During the second ‘incident’ she’d done the same but while her outward performance had been just as impassioned, inside she’d been counting all the things that hadn’t added up: the hushed phone calls, the extra meetings with his agent. Never enough to pin him down, but just enough to make her die a little more each time she shook her head for the reporters and dismissed it as nonsense.
She blocked out the busy restaurant with her eyelids. No way could she go through that again. And no way could she put Jack through it. He’d been too young to understand before, but he was reading so well now. What if he saw something on the front of a newspaper? She squeezed her jaw together. What kind of message was she giving to her son by lying to the world and letting Toby use her as a doormat? What kind of man would he become if this was his example?
‘Oh, my God! It’s Tobias Thornton! Can I have your autograph?’
Louise’s eyes snapped open and she stared at two women hovering—no, make that drooling—next to Toby’s chair. Toby smiled and did the gracious but smouldering thing his fans loved as he put his ostentatious squiggle on the woman’s napkin. Louise just tapped her foot.
Only when they’d finished gushing and jiggling on the spot did they glance at her. And a split-second scowl was obviously all she was worth. They didn’t even bother keeping their voices down as they walked away. Huddled over her new treasure, she clearly heard one say, ‘He is so hot!’
Toby opened his mouth so speak but, once again, his phone got the first word in. He glanced at the display, stifled a smile, then gestured to Louise that he was going to have to take this one. ‘My agent,’ he mouthed as he walked off to stand near the bar.
My foot, thought Louise, as the waiter cleared her half-eaten pasta.
She watched him out the corner of her eye as he talked. Her husband smiled and laughed and absent-mindedly preened himself in the mirror behind the bar. His agent was male, over fifty, and as wide as he was tall. No, Louise could do the maths. And the number she kept coming up with was four.
Even as something withered inside her, she sat up straighter in her chair. She demanded eye contact from Toby as he finished his call and sauntered back towards her. Now she got her smile—warm, bright, his eyes telling her she was the most wonderful thing in the world.
As he sat down at the table, he reached for her hand and brushed her knuckle with the tip of his thumb. Louise leaned forward and smiled back at him, turning on the wattage as only a former model knew how to do. Toby leaned in, clearly hoping he was going to have his cake and eat it too this evening. She should have thanked him for that; it just made what she was about to do easier.
She let the grin slide from her face and spoke in a low, scratchy whisper. ‘Toby …’ She paused, mentally adding all the names she wasn’t about call him out loud. ‘I want a divorce.’
‘What charity is this thing tonight for again?’ Tara asked as she slid into the limousine beside Louise and flicked a coil of artfully tonged blonde hair over her shoulder.
‘Relief,’ Louise said quietly. ‘They support carers—especially children.’
Tara scrunched up her pretty face. Five years younger. Three sizes thinner. She had none of the telltale lines on her forehead that Louise had, the ones that refused to disappear completely when she stopped frowning. Not that she did that much these days.
‘Isn’t child slavery illegal?’
‘It is,’ Louise said. ‘But there are tons of kids whose parents are sick and they have to take on the role of looking after them. Sometimes they have no choice.’
A different form of child slavery. One Louise knew all about. But she wasn’t going to tell Tara that. The younger woman might be the closest thing she had to a best friend in this shark-infested world she lived in, but she didn’t tell anyone about her childhood. They had enough ammunition for looking down at her as it was.
At least she could support Relief in some small way. At the end of the charity benefit she’d be writing a ridiculously large cheque. Since that dinner a week ago, spending Toby’s money had become an act of revenge.
‘You’re so good to remember all of that stuff they put on the invite,’ Tara said, fluffing her hair and looking out of the window as they sped through central London. ‘All I do is turn up and drink champagne at these things. One benefit just seems to merge into the next.’
Which was a pity, Louise thought. Relief could use someone like Tara championing them. She might play the dumb blonde, but she was nothing of the sort. She’d been to a good private school, got a university degree—in other words, had the education that Louise had only been able to dream about. Tara knew words that Louise couldn’t even spell, let alone understand, but she chose to hide that side of herself away. Didn’t serve her purpose, she said. Degrees didn’t get you much these days. Certainly not a footballer husband who earned more in ten minutes than most people made in six months.
The limo pulled up outside an exclusive Park Lane hotel. She and Tara slid out and walked down the red carpet together. Louise heard her name called repeatedly, but she practised the vague and ethereal smile she wore for these occasions, never really focusing on one person or one thing.
She wanted to rush inside as quickly as possible, but that wouldn’t do. She needed to look calm and poised as always. While she wasn’t going to cover up for Toby about this latest story, she knew that if she gave a hint of a twitch or a frown a lens somewhere would catch it and she’d see it blown up in the morning editions, with a caption reading ‘Louise’s private hell’, or some other rubbish. She wouldn’t give Toby—or his pre-schooler of a girlfriend—the satisfaction.
Oh, she’d fall apart at some point. Just not tonight, especially as this was her last public engagement before she announced her split from Toby and her retirement into private life. She was going to make it count.
But as she and Tara ran the gauntlet of the red carpet, stopping to pose for the cameras, Louise’s smile began to take on a frozen quality. Nowadays, this kind of thing was as common to her as walking down the aisles of a supermarket once had been, but Toby’s shenanigans seemed to have hurled her into a time warp, back to the days when she’d been terrified of all the noise and popping lights, when she’d half-expected to hear a lone accusatory voice above the crowd. ‘Fake …! Imposter!’
‘Let’s get out of here,’ she whispered to Tara, who was taking far too long. But she’d just had her boobs done again, so Louise supposed she was happy to have the excuse to show them off. The lime-green halter-neck dress she was wearing had been deliberately chosen to showcase their new gravity-defying properties.
Tara frowned at her request, and Louise thought she was going to pout and moan, but she took one look at Louise’s flushed face and furrowed brow and gave in. Only when they were in the lobby, once they were out of earshot and camera range, did she turn to her friend and whisper, ‘I thought you were just letting off steam when you ranted to me about Toby down the phone the other day, but you’re really going to go through with it, aren’t you?’
Louise gave her a hooded look. ‘He’s cheating on me. Why would I not go through with it?’ For an intelligent woman, Tara could be really thick sometimes.
‘He loves you really, you know,’ she said, smiling brightly as they entered the ballroom. She paused to waggle her fingers in reply to someone on the other side of the room. ‘Can’t stand her,’ she said out of the corner of her mouth, and then switched seamlessly into the one subject Louise was hoping she’d drop. ‘Husbands like ours … There are some big perks, but there’s a price to pay too.’ She gave Louise a sideways look. ‘It never bothered you before.’
Louise snorted. ‘I never had anything truly concrete before, just suspicions, and my darling husband would just deny everything convincingly and make me feel stupid and disloyal for asking in the first place.’ If Toby’s on-screen performances had been as good as his private ones, he’d have had an Oscar or three by now.
Tara’s eyes widened. ‘You have actual proof? Really?’
Louise nodded. She’d got up early the next morning after their dinner and had checked Toby’s phone and email account. Plenty of proof. All sickeningly graphic. He’d got lazy about hiding it from her. She really didn’t want to think about what that said about the state of their relationship.
Tara sighed as she plucked two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray and handed one to Louise. ‘But divorce … it’s such a big step. Are you sure?’
Around them the glitzy party continued. People swanned past, greeting each other loudly, air-kissing each other even more loudly, all the while their eyes moving, gauging just how many others they’d impressed with their entrance.
It was a big step. This was the only life she’d known for more than a decade. And the only security she’d ever known in her thirty years. Until her late teens she’d been an outsider, someone who only got to look on while other girls her age were young and silly and carefree. She’d felt like a ghost. Someone not real. Someone who didn’t count.
And then Toby had come along and swept her off her feet. He’d not only seen her, but he’d liked what he saw. It had been nectar to Louise’s neglected soul. She must be worth something if a man like him wanted her, right? For so long she’d hung on to that thought, used it to give her inner strength when she felt out of her depth or that everyone could see past the designer clothes and make-up to the lanky, shy teenager still hiding beneath.
But now everything had gone wrong. Toby didn’t want her any more.
Not really. Oh, he might say he didn’t want the marriage to end, that he wanted to work on it with her, but she’d lost hope he’d ever change. Even if he wanted to—which was a big if—she wasn’t sure he was capable of it.
So, big step or not, it was time to go.
And no one thought being with Toby made her special any more, anyway. Even though she knew for a fact that half the newspaper reports hadn’t been true, Toby had not behaved well the last few years. The rest of the world thought she was a fool. And she was finally ready to agree with them. Staying with Toby was making her an object of scorn—or worse, pity.
‘I’m going to buy a big house in the country somewhere,’ she told Tara, ‘Maybe Devon or Somerset. And Jack and I are going to have long, healthy walks in the fresh air and enjoy the community spirit of village life.’
‘Devon!’ Tara almost choked on her champagne. ‘Nobody lives in Devon!’
Louise blinked. She knew for a fact they did. The county had been the location of some of her favourite family holidays as a girl, before her mother died. ‘Well you’d better phone up the police and report all those people in the houses down there for breaking and entering then,’ she said.
Tara rolled her eyes. ‘You know what I mean. God, I’m so lucky that Gareth is the sort who’d never stray. I’d hate to have to do what you’re doing. But do you really have to go to the lengths of burying yourself alive in the back of beyond?’ She turned to Louise with a genuinely sincere expression on her face, so Tara’s next words astonished her completely. ‘Couldn’t you just, you know, have a hot fling with some young stud to get Toby back and then forget about it all? Tit for tat and all that …’
Louise shook her head again. ‘I can’t.’
She had to think of Jack. What would seeing an I-can-shag-more-people-than-you-can contest between his parents in the tabloids teach him? It was precisely because she didn’t want him to grow up and think that was normal behaviour that she was leaving.
‘Pity,’ Tara said. ‘There’s going to be a complete lack of eligible men in Dorset …’
‘Devon,’ Louise reminded her.
Tara waved a hand. ‘Wherever. The geography’s irrelevant. You’re going to become a dried-up old prune with no sex life.’
‘Thanks for the encouragement,’ Louise said dryly. ‘Nice to know you’re on my side.’
Tara’s brows arched. ‘I am on your side. I’m trying to get you to think this through properly, Lou. I don’t think you’ve really considered what you’ll be giving up.’
Ah, the one time Tara liked to play the clever card was when she was instructing Louise on how to live her life. She did it very well. It got right up Louise’s nose.
‘Perhaps I’ll meet a hot surfer dude or a nice young farmer,’ she told Tara in silky voice, going for shock effect and knowing she’d succeeded from the look of horror on the other woman’s face. Unlike Tara, Louise didn’t need guarantees of Porsches in the garage or Rolexes on a man’s wrist before she dropped her knickers.
‘Maybe I’ll have a hot fling after all,’ Louise said airily, then swigged back a mouthful of her warming champagne. ‘All men are rats, anyway. There’s not a good one out there. I don’t want or need their money. I might as well use them for sex. That’s what they do to us, and it’s about time someone turned the tables.’
Tara’s expertise also extended to her vast vocabulary of swear words. She let a choice phrase out now. ‘I seriously don’t know what’s wrong with you tonight, Lou. I’ve got half a mind to bundle you into a cab and take you to The Priory.’
Louise just laughed. ‘What for? Regaining my sanity? Taking control of my life? I don’t think they make a pill or a detox treatment for that.’
Tara’s brows lowered as she looked at her friend. ‘They should.’ And then she pouted. ‘I’m going to miss you if you move away from London. What are you going to do with yourself?’ She looked her up and down. ‘I suppose you could try plus size modelling.’
Louise closed her eyes briefly and swallowed. Thanks for that, Tara, she muttered silently in her head. You know just how to cheer a girl up.
And she wasn’t plus size, really. She was a normal thirty-year-old woman, with a normal, post-pregnancy, thirty-year-old body. Why was that such a crime? So what if she was the only one amongst her peers not to have shrunk back to beanpole proportions within ten minutes of giving birth?
That was the problem with the kind of life she led: her current version of ‘normal’. Everything was distorted: body image, priorities, people, marriages … children. What some of her older acquaintances were shelling out in rehab fees for their teenage children was shocking. She didn’t want that to be Jack’s fate in a few years’ time. Some of those kids were only thirteen, fourteen …
No, she didn’t want to have a get-you-back fling and carry on like nothing had happened. She wanted out of this life. For her and for Jack. She wanted to find a way to be normal again, to feel like a proper person again. But Tara wouldn’t understand that. All she was interested in was climbing the bling-encrusted ladder of WAGdom until she was Queen Bee. And Louise was quite happy to step out her way and let her.
The time came for speeches and donations, and Louise wrote an eye-watering cheque for the charity. But even that only gave a momentary lift in her spirits. All evening she’d talked and sipped champagne and watched the other people congratulating themselves on having made it onto the exclusive guest list, and all she’d been able to think was: is this all there is? Is this all I was made for?
That couldn’t be true. It couldn’t. She wanted more from life. Needed more. There was a great gaping hole inside her that demanded it.
And once she’d thought she could get that elusive something by being Toby’s wife. It hadn’t worked. Not even one little bit, because Louise felt more of a nothing now than she’d ever done.
So this new life for her and Jack would all be about finding out how she could be something without him. A strange quivering feeling started up in her chest as that thought floated through her brain. She squashed it down. She could be something without Tobias Thornton by her side. She would.
15th May, 1952
Finally I have something worthwhile to write in my diary, something more than screen tests and script learning and rehearsals.
I’ve fallen in love.
I knew it from the very first moment. Never, ever have I felt anything like this before. I’ve found my soul mate. Pity it’s a house and not a man. However, I could never imagine a man being as perfect as Whitehaven. I envy the owners so much it hurts.
Still, for the next two months I can pretend it’s my home. That’s the beauty of being an actress. I can step into another reality for a while. Alexander isn’t coming with me to film on location, so I can pretend I’m not married too, just for a bit. He always says his travels do him good, so maybe this will be my holiday away from him.
The house sits on a wooded hill high above the River Dart in Devon, farther upstream than the busy town of Dartmouth, just before a bend where the green waterswiden. I spotted the whitewashed exterior and columns from the river as we crossed over in the local ferry from the little village of Lower Hadwell. Just a glimpse. Even then the house seemed to be calling to me, tempting me …
Alex would scoff if he heard me talking this way out loud. He’d call me sentimental and a romantic fool. He hasn’t got time for my impractical mental meanderings, he says. But maybe they’ve done me some good.
I know that the script for this latest film is marvellous, that we’ve got the best director in the business, and that the cast is top-notch, but for the first time since my agent signed me up for it I’ve got excited about this project. Finally, like everyone else has for months, I feel this summer will be magical.
A hefty gust of wind blew up the river and ruffled the tips of the waves. The small dinghy rocked as Ben tied it to an ancient, blackened mooring ring on the stone jetty. He stared at the knot and did an extra half-hitch, just to be sure, then climbed out, walked along the jetty and headed up a narrow, stony path that traversed the steep and wooded hill.
He whistled as he walked, stopping every now and then just to smell the clean, slightly salty air and listen to the nagging seagulls that swooped over the river. At first glance it seemed as if he was walking through traditional English countryside, but every now and then he would pass a reminder that this wasn’t a wilderness, but a once-loved, slightly exotic garden. Bamboo hid among the oaks, and palms stood shoulder to shoulder with willows and birches.
After only ten minutes the woods thinned and faded away until he was standing in a grassy clearing that was dominated by a majestic, if slightly crumbling, white Georgian mansion.
Each time he saw this beautiful building now, he felt a little sadder. Even if he hadn’t known its history, hadn’t known that the last owner had been dead for more than two years, he would have been able to tell Whitehaven was empty. There was something eerily vacant about those tall windows that stared unblinking out over the treetops to the river below and the rolling countryside of the far bank.
He ambled up to the front porch and tugged at a trail of ivy that had wound itself up the base of one of the thick white pillars. It had been nearly a month since his last visit and the grounds were so huge there was no way he could single-handedly keep the advancing weeds at bay. Too many vines and brambles were sneaking up to the house, reclaiming the land as their own.
Laura would have hated to see her beloved garden’s gradual surrender. He could imagine her reaction if she could have seen it now—the sharp shake of her snowy-white head, the determined glint in those cloudy eyes. Laura would have flexed her knobbly knuckles and reached for the secateurs in a shot. Not that her arthritic hands could have done much good.
At eighty-eight, she’d been a feisty old bird, one worthy of such a demanding and magical place as Whitehaven. Perhaps that’s why he came up here on the Sundays when it was his ex-wife’s turn to have Jasmine for the weekend. Perhaps that was why he tended to the lilies and carnivorous plants in the greenhouses and mowed the top and bottom lawns. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and shook his head as he crunched across the gravel driveway and made his way round the house and past the old stable block. He was keeping it all in trust on Laura’s behalf until the new owner came. Then he’d be able to spend his Sunday afternoons dozing in front of the rugby on TV and trying not to notice how still the house was without his whirlwind of a daughter.
He ducked through an arch and entered the walled garden. The whole grassy area was enclosed by a red brick wall dotted with moss, and sloping greenhouses filled one side. It was the time of year that some of the insect-eating plants were starting to hibernate and he needed to check on them, make sure the temperature in the old glasshouses was warm enough.
And so he pottered away for a good ten minutes, checking pots and inspecting leaves until he heard a crash behind him. He swung round, knocking a couple of tall pitcher plants off the bench.
The first thing he saw were the eyes—large, dark and stormy.
‘Get out! Get off my property at once!’
She was standing hands on hips and her legs apart, radiating annoyance but managing to look haughty at the same time. But then he noticed that she kept well back and her fingers worried the flaps of her pockets. His hands shot up in surrender and he backed away slightly, just to show he wasn’t a threat.
‘Sorry! I didn’t realise … I didn’t know anybody had—’
He nodded. Technically, he was. Only up until a few seconds ago he hadn’t known anybody had cared—save a dead film star who’d loved this place as if it were her only child.
‘I made a promise to the previous owner, when she was ill, that I would look after the garden until the house was sold.’
She just stared at him. Now his heart rate was starting to return to normal, he had time to look a little more closely at her. She was dressed entirely in black: black boots, black trousers and a long black coat. She even had long, almost-black hair with a heavy fringe. But beneath that dark curtain her face was pale, her eyes large. Ben thought he’d seen beautiful women before, but this one was in another league altogether.
‘Well, the house has been sold,’ she said as her chin tipped up. ‘To me. So you can clear off now. You won’t be required any longer.’
He pressed his lips together. There wasn’t much he could say to that. But the thought of leaving Whitehaven and never coming back shadowed him like a rain cloud. Funny, he hadn’t realised that he’d grown so personally attached to the old place or how much he cared about its future. This new woman—striking as she was—didn’t look like the sort to potter around a greenhouse or dead-head flower borders.
But that really wasn’t his business. He picked up his coat from where it lay on the bench and turned to go. ‘Sorry to disturb you. I won’t come again.’ There was a door at each end of the long narrow greenhouse and he headed for the one at the other end from where she stood, the one that would lead him back into the woods and back down to his boat.
He’d almost reached the door before she called out. He stopped, but didn’t turn round straight away. Slowly, and with a spark of matching defiance in his eyes, he circled round to face her.
She took a few steps forward, then stopped, her hands clasped in front of her. ‘The estate agent told me the place has been empty for a couple of years. Why do you still come?’
He shrugged. ‘A promise is a promise.’
Her brows crinkled and she nodded. A long silence stretched between them. He didn’t move, because he had the oddest feeling she was on the verge of saying something. Finally, when she knotted her hands further and looked away, he took his signal to depart.
This time, he had his hand on the door knob before she spoke.
‘Did you really know her? Laura Hastings?’
He let his hand drop to his side and looked over his shoulder. ‘Yes.’ A flash of irritation shot through him. For some unfathomable reason, he’d not expected this of her. He’d thought her better than one of those busy-bodies who craved gossip about celebrities.
‘What was she like?’ Her voice was quiet, not gushing and over-inquisitive, but her question still irritated him.
He stared at her blankly. ‘I really must be going. I meant what I said. I won’t trespass here again.’
She followed him as he swung the greenhouse door open and stepped out into the chilly October air. He could hear the heels of her boots clopping on the iron grates in the greenhouse floor. The noise echoed and magnified and he let the door swing shut behind him to muffle it.
‘Hey! You’re going the wrong way!’
No, he wasn’t. And he wasn’t in the mood to chitchat, either.
She didn’t give up, though. Even though it must have been hell to stride after him in her high-heeled boots, she kept pace. Something to do with those long legs, probably.
Either the changeable riverside weather had turned milder, or he could feel the warmth of her anger radiating towards him as she closed the gap. He left the garden through an arched gate in the brick wall and started off on the path that took him back down the hill and to his boat.
‘I asked you to get off my land!’
He stopped and turned in one motion, and was surprised to find himself almost nose to nose with her. She just about matched his height at six foot two, but then she had the advantage of heels and was standing on a slope.
She stepped back but her eyes lost none of their ferocity.
He didn’t have time for mood swings and tantrums. He had more than he could handle of those from his ex at the moment. That was why coming to Whitehaven was such a good distraction on a Sunday afternoon. It soothed him.
He looked Miss High-and-Mighty right back in the eyes. ‘And I’m getting off your land as fast as I can.’ Even though he had a strange sense that she was the trespasser. She was the one spoiling the peace and quiet of this perfect spot.
Her lips pressed together in a pout. One that might have been quite appealing if he weren’t so angry with her for being here. ‘The road is that way.’ She jerked a thumb in the direction of the drive.
‘I know.’ He deliberately didn’t elaborate for a few seconds. Just because he was feeling unusually awkward, although, in the back of his mind, he knew she was bearing the brunt of his frustration with someone else. But the woman in front of him was cut from the same cloth—expensive designer cloth, by the look of it—and he just couldn’t seem to stem his reaction. He took a deep breath. ‘My boat is tied up down by the boathouse.’
He blinked, waiting for more of her frosty words.
‘I have a boathouse?’ Once again, the tide had changed and she was suddenly back to being wistful and dreamy and far too beautiful to be real. That just got his goat even more. When she spoke again she was staring off into the bare treetops above his head. ‘It’s real? It wasn’t just a film set?’
He shrugged and set off down the path and his features hardened as he heard her following him.
‘Now what? I’m going, okay?’ he called out, only half-turning to let the words drift over his shoulder.
‘I want to see my boathouse.’
Ben normally loved the walk back down the hill on an autumn afternoon, but today it was totally ruined for him. He couldn’t appreciate the beauty of the leaves ranging from pale yellow to deep crimson. He didn’t even stop to watch the trails of smoke snaking from the cottages of Lower Hadwell, just across the river. All he could hear were the footsteps behind him. All he could see—even though she was directly behind him and completely out of sight—was a pair of intense, dark eyes looking scornfully at him. It wasn’t a moment too soon when he spotted the uneven stone steps that led down to the jetty.
As he reached the top step he heard a loud gasp behind him. Instinctively, he turned and put out a hand to steady her. But she hadn’t stumbled; she hadn’t even registered his impulsive offer of help. She stood with her hands over her mouth and her eyes shining. Great. Now it was time for the waterworks. He was out of here.
As quickly as he could, he made his way to where his boat was tied and started untying the rope, busily ignoring her slow descent of all the steps behind him. Just as he was about to step off the jetty and into the dinghy his mobile phone chimed in his back pocket. He would have ignored it, but it was Megan’s ring tone. Something might have happened to their daughter.
And, since she was standing within reaching distance, not doing much but staring at the old stone boathouse, he slapped the end of the rope into the frosty woman’s hands and dug around in his jeans pocket for his phone.
‘Dad?’ Not Megan, but Jasmine.
‘What’s up, Jellybean?’
There was a snort on the other end of the line. ‘Do you have to keep calling me that? I’m almost twelve. It’s hardly dignified.’
Ben’s brows lowered over his eyes. Less than twenty-four hours out of his custody and she was already starting to sound like her mother. ‘What’s up, Jas?’
‘Mum says she can’t drop me off this evening. She’s got something on. Can you come and get me?’
Ben looked at his watch. Jasmine had been due back at five. It was past three now. ‘What time?’ Maybe it was just as well he’d had to leave Whitehaven early. It would take all of that time to cross the river, walk back to the cottage and drive the ten miles to Totnes.
He waited while his daughter had a muffled conference with her mother.
‘Mum says she has to be out by four.’
Ben found himself striding along the jetty in front of the boathouse. ‘I can’t do it, Jas.’ He kept walking while Jasmine relayed the information back to Megan. And when he reached the end of the jetty he turned and went back the way he’d come.
‘Mum says she wants to talk to you.’
There was a clattering while the phone changed hands. Ben steeled himself.
‘Ben? I can’t believe you’re being difficult about this! I know you’re still angry with me for moving on, but this kind of behaviour is just childish.’
He opened his mouth to explain there was nothing difficult about not doing the physically impossible, but Megan didn’t give him a chance.
‘Everything always has to be on your terms, doesn’t it?’ she said in that weary, self-righteous tone she seemed to have adopted recently. ‘You’d do just about anything to sabotage my new life, wouldn’t you? But I’m not coming back, Ben. I can’t.’
It had taken a while to get there, but Ben really didn’t want her back any more. Not that Megan was ever going to believe that. Her ego had puffed up far too much since she’d found her ‘freedom’ to allow that.
His voice was more of a growl than he’d intended when it emerged from his mouth. ‘I do hope you are not letting our daughter overhear this. She doesn’t need to witness any more arguments.’
Megan gave a heavy sigh. ‘That’s right. Change the subject, as always!’ Still, he got the distinct impression she had moved into the hallway as her voice suddenly got more echoey.
‘Megan, I’m at Whitehaven. This has nothing to do with sabotage and everything to do with being too far away to get there by four o’clock.’
He waited. He could almost see the pout on his ex’s face. And, as he found himself back by his boat, he noticed a similar expression on the woman standing there watching him. He abruptly turned again and carried on pacing. Not exactly the same expression. The lips were fuller, softer.
‘Fine! Well, if you’re not going to make the effort to come and get her, I’ll just have to take her with me. I’m having supper with … a friend. I’ll drop her back at eight.’
And with that, Megan ended the call. He was tempted to hurl his phone into the slate-grey waves. This is what that woman did to him—riled him up until he couldn’t think straight, until he was tempted to do foolish things. And he never did foolish things.
He jabbed at a button to lock the keypad then stuffed his phone back in his pocket. Then he marched back to his boat.
‘Thanks a lot for giving me some privacy,’ he said dryly as he got within a few feet of the glowering woman on the jetty.
She gave him what his grandmother had used to call an ‘old-fashioned look’ and waggled the end of the rope from side to side. Incredible! How did the woman manage to make a gesture sarcastic?
‘You didn’t give me much choice, did you?’ she said.
Ben ran his hands through his wind-tousled hair and made himself breathe out for a count of five. He had to remember that this wasn’t the woman he was angry with, not really. ‘Sorry.’
He’d expected the pout to make a reappearance, but instead her lips curved into the faintest of smiles. ‘Divorced?’
‘Me too,’ she said quietly. ‘Well, almost. That conversation gave me déjà vu. I bet I could fill in the blanks if I thought hard about it.’
Against his will, he gave half a smile back. ‘You’ve got kids?’
‘A boy,’ she said, her voice suddenly lower and huskier. When she caught him glancing up towards the house, eyebrows raised, she added, ‘he’s staying with his father while I move in down here.’ She turned away quickly and stood perfectly still, staring at the woods on the hillside for a few long seconds.
She turned back to him, a smile stretching her face. ‘What do you know about the history of the boathouse?’
He played along. The same smile had been part of his wardrobe in the last two years. Thankfully, he was resorting to it less and less often. ‘As far as I know, it was built long before the house. Some people say it’s sixteenth century. And, of course, it featured prominently in the film A Summer Affair, but you know that already.’
The defiant stare vanished altogether and she now just looked a little sheepish as she stared at the glossy seaweed washed up on the rocks nearby. ‘Busted,’ she said, looking at him from beneath her long fringe. ‘It was a favourite when I was younger and when I saw the details of the house, I knew I had to view it.’ She turned to look back at the two-storey brick and wood structure. ‘I didn’t realise this place was real. I suppose I thought it was just fibreglass and papier maché, or whatever they build those sets out of …’
‘It’s real enough. Take a look. But I ought to …’ Ben looked at the rope in his hand. ‘… get going.’
She nodded. ‘I’m going to explore.’
Ben stood for a few moments and watched her climb the steps up to a door on the upper level. It hadn’t been used for years. Laura hadn’t been steady enough on her feet to make the journey down the hill for quite some time before she died.
He climbed into the dinghy because it felt like a safe distance but carried on watching. The wooden floor could be beetle-infested, rotten. He’d just stay here a few moments to make sure the new owner didn’t go through it.
His hand hovered above the outboard motor. Any moment now, he’d be on his way. He readied his shoulder muscles and brushed his fingertips against the rubber pull on the end of the cord. He gripped the loosened rope lightly in his other hand.
The boathouse was on two levels. The bottom storey, level with the jetty, had large arched, panelled doors and had been used for storing small boats. The upper level was a single room with a balcony that stretched the width of the building. He was waiting for her to walk out onto it, spread her hands wide on the railing and lean forward to inhale the glorious salty, slightly seaweedy air. Her glossy, dark hair would swing forward and the wind would muss it gently.
A minute passed and she didn’t appear. He began to feel twitchy.
With a sigh, he climbed out of the boat and planted his boots on the solid concrete of the jetty. ‘Are you okay back there?’
No response. Just as he was readying his lungs to call again, she appeared back on the jetty and shrugged. ‘No key,’ she yelled back, looking unduly crestfallen.
All his alarm bells rang, told him to get the hell back in the boat and keep his nose out of it. Whitehaven wasn’t his responsibility any more. Only, the message obviously hadn’t travelled the length of his arm to his fingertips, because he suddenly found himself retying the boat and walking back up the jetty to the steep steps that climbed up to the boathouse door.
As he reached the bottom step, she turned and looked down at him, one hand on the metal railing, one hand bracing herself against the wall. Her thick hair swung forwards as she leaned towards him.
‘The door’s locked. Any ideas?’
With his fingernails, already dark-rimmed from the rich compost of the glasshouse plants, he scraped at a slightly protruding brick in the wall near the base of the stairs. At first, he thought he’d remembered it wrong, but after a couple of seconds the block of stone moved and came away in his hand. In the recess left behind, he could see the dull black glint of metal. Laura had told him about the secret nook, just in case.
He supposed he could have just told the woman about it, yelled the vital information from the safety of the dinghy. He needn’t get involved. Even now his lips remained closed and his mouth silent as he climbed the mossy stairs and pressed the key into the soft flesh of her palm.
There. Job done.
For a couple of seconds, they stayed like that. Then he pulled his hand away and rubbed it on the back of his jeans.
‘Thank you,’ she said, then shook her long fringe so it covered her eyes a little more.
She slid the key into the lock and turned it. He’d half-expected to door to fall off its hinges, but it swung in a graceful arc, opening wide and welcoming them in. Well, welcoming her in. But his curiosity got the better of him and he couldn’t resist getting a glimpse.
He’d expected shelves and oars and tins of varnish. Decades-old grime clung to the windows, and the filmy-grey light revealed a very different scene. A cane sofa and chairs huddled round a small Victorian fireplace, decorated with white and blue tiles, and a small desk and chair occupied a corner in front of one of the arched windows.
She walked over to the desk and touched it reverently, leaving four little smudges in the thick dust, then pulled her fingers back and gently blew the dirt off them with a sigh.
‘Did she come here often, do you know? Ms Hastings?’ she asked, still staring at the desk.
Why exactly he was still here, keeping guard like some sentry, he wasn’t sure. He should just go. He’d kept his promise to Laura. He wasn’t required. And yet … he couldn’t seem to make his feet move.
She turned to look at him and he shrugged. ‘Not when I knew her. She was too frail to manage the path down, but she talked of it fondly.’
She blinked and continued to stare at him, expressionless. He wasn’t normally the sort who had the urge to babble on, but most women he knew didn’t leave huge gaping gaps in the conversation. He stuffed his hands in his pockets and kicked at the dust on the bare floorboards with the toe of his boot. Everything was too still.
‘Not really your sort of place, is it?’ he muttered, taking in the shabby furniture, the broken leg on the desk chair, held together with string. The place was nowhere near elegant enough to match her. This woman was used to the finer things in life. Finer than a dilapidated old boathouse like this, anyway.
Her chin rose just a notch. ‘What makes you think you know anything about what sort of woman I am?’
Just like that, the sadness that seemed to cloak her hardened into a shell. Now the room wasn’t still any more. Every molecule in the air danced and shimmered. She strode over to the large arched door in the centre of the opposite wall, unbolted it, threw the two door panels open and stepped out onto the wide balcony.
He was dismissed.
He took a step towards her and opened his mouth. Probably not a great idea, since during his last attempt at small talk he’d planted a great muddy boot in it, but he couldn’t leave things like this—taut with tension, unresolved. Messy.
Her hands were spread wide as she rested them on the low wall and looked out over the river, just as he’d imagined. The hair hung halfway down her back, shining, untouchable. The wind didn’t dare tease even a strand out of place. He saw her back rise and fall as she let out a sigh.
‘I thought I’d asked you to get off my property.’ There was no anger in her tone now, just deep weariness.
He turned and walked out of the boathouse and down the stairs to the jetty with even steps. She didn’t need him. She’d made that abundantly clear. But, as he climbed back into the dinghy, he couldn’t help feeling that part of his promise was still unfulfilled.
This time there were no interruptions as he untied the rope and started the motor. He turned the small boat round and set off in the direction of Lower Hadwell, a few minutes’ journey upstream and across the river.
When he passed the Anchor Stone that rose, proud and unmoving, out of the murky green waters, he risked a look back. She was still standing there on the balcony, her hands wide and her chin tilted up, refusing to acknowledge his existence.
21st May, 1952
We started filming almost a week ago now, but today was my co-star’s first day on set. Sam Harman might be a very talented director, but he has some very strange methods. Very strange. Up until now he has insisted that Dominic and I rehearse separately. Ridiculous. I mean, instead of building the rapport I should have had with my leading man—in a love story, for goodness’ sake—I’ve been getting acquainted with an assistant producer who reads the lines off a crumpled script like a robot.
The plot’s a simple one, I suppose. Dashing son of the wealthy family falls for the gardener’s daughter, and she for him, but the snobbery of both families conspires to keep them apart. I’m sure there are a thousand stories like it on library shelves. But what makes this one different is the characters, the chemistry. In the script, it just leaps off the page, and I didn’t understand why Sam had stopped Dominic and me meeting until we shot our very first scene together—coincidentally, Charity and Richard’s first meeting too. (She’s come back from university,aged 22, having always been in love with him, and he suddenly sees her with new eyes.)
I wish I could write in an American accent, because I’d so love to reproduce Sam’s blunt instructions accurately. I can’t remember his exact words, but I do remember that he told us the scene had to pulse with unspoken longing, with electricity.
If I’d had more time to think, I probably would have panicked awfully. That was just what I’d been afraid of, having read the script—that I wouldn’t be able to do that ‘instant connection’ thing Sam has been drumming into me since we started rehearsals. I tried to explain this, why it had been such a bad idea keeping Dominic and me apart, but he just kept talking about it being important, about only getting one chance to capture that sweet awkwardness of a first meeting.
To be honest, I thought he was barking up the wrong tree completely. Or maybe just barking mad. Still, he’s the director and I’m no diva. I need to work. I have to work. It keeps me sane.
So we all tramped down to the darling boathouse at the bottom of the hill and I went out onto the balcony overlooking the river. (Richard finds Charity there. She isn’t supposed to be there really, but she goes to the boathouse to think, to breathe. It’s her sanctuary.) I suppose Sam is quite clever as a director. He likes his actors being ‘real’, he says.
Anyway, I didn’t enjoy it much at the time, because heleft me standing there, facing away from the door, hands wide on the balcony railing for what felt like an age. By the time Dominic (as Richard) actually did arrive, I’d been waiting so long, all worked up, that I actually did jump when the door crashed open. Didn’t have to act that reaction one bit.
And then I turned round and saw him.
‘Breathless,’ Sam had said to me. ‘That’s all I want from you, Laura. Breathless.’
And breathless I was.
I’d seen him before, of course, on a cinema screen like everyone else. I knew he was good-looking, with that sandy thick hair and those startling blue eyes. I always thought it was something about the colouring process that made them look that way, but they really are that blue. And he came striding across the room to confront me … I mean, Charity … and I found I literally had to suck the oxygen into my lungs. I seemed to have forgotten how to do it automatically.
What was worse was that at first I could tell he was just in character, ready to put a flea in the ear of someone he thought was a trespasser, but the then he reached the door to the balcony and he just … stopped. Stopped dead. I couldn’t tell if he was still acting at first, or if he’d forgotten his lines. I’d certainly forgotten mine.
And then I realised that he felt it too—the thing I’d hardly realised I’d been feeling myself. It was the strangest thing …
I knew I wasn’t Charity any more, and he wasn’t Richard. I was me and he was Dominic, and yet something just … fell into place. Instant connection. The only words I have to describe it are Sam’s. How ironic. And it still seems like a poor reflection of what it felt like.
Knew I loved him. Right from that moment.
So now I’m not just a sentimental, romantic fool; I’m obviously ready for the nuthouse too. And possibly the divorce courts.
I also knew that he was married, as I am. But, unlike me, he loves his wife. He’s one of the few film actors who has a good reputation in that department. Another man might act on whatever weird ‘electricity’ of Sam’s passed between us, but I know Dominic won’t. Even if he felt what I felt.
But now, alone in my hotel room away from Whitehaven, the more I recall the moment, the more I think I was maybe kidding myself. He’s an actor, after all. A very good one. Much better than me.
He’s probably not worrying about the upcoming scenes, the ones when he’ll have to take me in his arms and kiss me. But I can hardly sleep for thinking about it. I haven’t resorted to marking the calendar with big red crosses yet, but I’m close.
I can’t wait. But I also know it’ll be just a few, snatched moments of perfection and then they’ll nevercome again. Which would be worse: to kiss or not to kiss?
And it might mean nothing at all to him. Like shaking hands with a stranger …
And, even if it did, it can only mean something for two glorious months, and then only when the cameras are rolling and Sam is barking his orders at us. Maybe that would be worse.
Come to think of it, Sam was very quiet today. The last couple of days, when I’ve been shooting scenes involving Charity and her parents, he’s been interrupting all the time, making us do things over and over again. But today I hardly heard a squeak out of him. He watched Dominic and me play the scene, his arms folded, and when Dominic had left and I was just staring at the open door, finally able to heave in a breath, Sam just said, very quietly, ‘Cut’.
One take, that was all, and then he packed up and said he was done for the day. Most unusual.
Louise had been staring so long at the field of sheep on the other side of the river that the little white dots had blurred and melted together. She refused to unlock her gaze until the dark smudge on the river in her peripheral vision motored out of sight.
Eventually, when it didn’t seem like defeat, she sighed and turned to rest her bottom on the railing of the balcony and stared back into the boathouse.
He couldn’t have known who he’d looked like standing there below her on the steps as he offered her the long, black key. It had been one of her favourite scenes in A Summer Affair—when Richard came to meet Charity secretly in the boathouse. Not that anything really happened between them. It was the undercurrents, the unspoken passion that had made it one of the most romantic scenes in any film she’d ever seen.
The trespasser had looked at her with his warm brown eyes and, somehow, had offered her more than a key as he stood there. For the first time in years, she’d blushed, then hurried to hide the evidence with her hair.
And then he’d had to go and spoil that delicious feeling—the feeling that, maybe, not all men were utter rats—by reminding her of who she was.
Louise stood up, brushed the dirt off of her bottom and walked back into the little sitting room. Of course, she wasn’t interested in getting involved with anyone just now—despite what Tara said about the therapeutic nature of a hot and heavy fling—so she didn’t know why she’d got so upset with the gardener. Slowly, she closed and fastened the balcony doors, then exited the boathouse, locking the door and returning the key to its hiding place.
The light was starting to fade and she hurried back up the steep hill, careful to retrace her steps and not get lost, mulling things over as she went. No, it wasn’t that she was developing a fancy for slightly scruffy men in waxy overcoats; it was just that, for a moment, she’d believed there was a possibility of something more in her future. Something she’d always yearned for, and now believed was only real between the covers of a novel or in the darkness of a cinema.
She shook her hair out of her face to shoo away the sense of disappointment. The gardener had done her a favour. He’d reminded her that her life wasn’t a fairy tale.
She snorted out loud at the very thought, scaring a small bird out of a bush. She was probably just feeling emotional because she wouldn’t see Jack for two weeks. Toby had kicked up a stink, but had finally agreed that, once she was settled at Whitehaven, their son could live with her and go to the local school. She and Jack would be together again at last.
Toby had been difficult every step of the way about the divorce. Surprising that he would lavish so much time and energy on her, really. If he’d paid her that much attention in the last five years, they might not be in the mess they were in at present. But that was Toby all over.
She pulled her coat tighter around her as she reached the clearing just in front of the house. The river seemed grey and troubled at the foot of the hill and dark, woolly clouds were lying in ambush to the west. She ignored the dark speck travelling upstream, even though the noise of an outboard motor hummed on the fringes of her consciousness.
Not one stick of furniture occupied the pale, grand entrance hall to Whitehaven, but, as Louise crossed the threshold, she smiled. Only two rooms on the ground floor, two bedrooms and one bathroom had been in a liveable state when she’d bought the house. All they needed was a lick of paint and a good scrub so she could move into them. The furniture would arrive on Wednesday but, until then, she had a blow-up mattress and a sleeping bag in the bedroom, a squashy velvet sofa she’d found in a local junk shop for the living room, and a couple of suitcases to keep her going.
She’d let Toby keep all the furniture, disappointing him completely. He’d been itching for a fight about something, but she just wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. Let him be the one waiting for an emotional response of some kind for a change. She didn’t want his furniture, anyway. Nothing that was a link to her old life. Nothing but Jack.
None of that ultra-modern, minimalist designer stuff would fit here, anyway. She smiled again. She fitted here. Whitehaven wasn’t the first property she’d owned, but it was the first place she’d felt comfortable in since she’d left the shabby maisonette she’d shared with her father and siblings. She knew—just as surely as the first time she’d slid her foot into an exquisitely crafted designer shoe—that this was a perfect fit. She and this house understood each other.
The kitchen clock said it was twenty past eight. Ben sat at the old oak table, a lukewarm cup of instant coffee between his palms, and attempted to concentrate on the sports section of the paper instead of the second hand of the clock.
Megan had never been like this when they’d been married. Yes, she’d been a little self-absorbed at times, but she’d never shown this flagrant disregard for other people’s schedules, or boundaries, or … feelings. He wasn’t sure he liked the version of Megan that she’d gone in search of when she’d left him. Or this new boyfriend of hers that he wasn’t supposed to know about.
Twenty minutes later, just as his fingers were really itching to pick up the phone and yell at someone, he heard a car door slam. Jas bounced in through the back door and, before he could ask if her mother was going to make an appearance—and an apology—tyres squealed in the lane and an engine revved then faded.
‘Nice dinner?’ he asked, flicking a page of the paper over and trying not to think about the gallon of beef casserole still sitting in the oven, slowly going cold. Eating a portion on his own hadn’t had the comfort factor that casserole, by rights, ought to have.
Jas shrugged her shoulders as he looked up.
‘Just dinner, you know …’ she said. And, since she was eleven-going-on-seventeen, he supposed that was as verbose as she was going to get.
‘Have you done your homework?’
This was quality conversation, this was. But he was better off sticking to neutral subjects while he was feeling like this. In the last couple of years as a single dad, he’d learned that transitions—picking-up and dropping-off times—were difficult, and it was his job to smooth the ripples, create stability. Being steady, normal, was what was required.
‘Define mostly,’ he said, smoothing the paper closed and standing up.
Jas dropped the envelope assorted junk she was clutching to her chest onto the table and threw her coat over the back of a chair. ‘Two more maths questions, and before you say anything …’
Ben closed his mouth.
‘… it doesn’t have to be in until Thursday. Can I just do it tomorrow? Please, Dad?’
She stared at him with those big brown eyes and blinked, just once. She looked so cute with her wavy blonde hair not quite sitting right in its shoulder-length style. His memory rewound a handful of years and he could hear her begging for just one more push on the swing.
‘Okay. Tomorrow it is.’
‘Thanks, Dad.’ Jas skirted the table and gave him a hug by just throwing her arms around him and squeezing, then she lifted a brightly coloured magazine out of the pile of junk on the table. ‘Recreational reading,’ she said, brandishing it and attempting to escape before he could inspect it more closely.
He wasn’t so old that his reflexes had gone into retirement. The magazine was out of her fingers and in front of his face before she’d fully disentangled herself from the hug.
‘What’s this trash?’
Jas made a feeble attempt at snatching it back. ‘It was Mum’s. She’d finished it and she said I could have it.’
Ben frowned. Buzz magazine. He’d never read it himself, but he knew enough from the bright slogans on the cover that it was the lowest form of celebrity gossip rag. The lead story seemed to be ‘Celebrity Cellulite’. Nice. What was Megan thinking of giving Jasmine a publication like this? Didn’t his ex know how impressionable young girls were at Jas’s age?
‘I don’t think this is appropriate.’
Jas rolled her eyes. ‘It’s interesting. All my friends read it.’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘All of them?’
The nod that followed couldn’t have convinced even Jas herself.
‘That’s what I thought,’ he said. ‘I mean, there’s no substance in here. It’s just rubbish …’ He flicked through the pages, hoping his daughter would see what he saw. ‘It’s the worst kind of gossip. I—’
But then he stopped leafing idly through the pages, his whole frame frozen. His mouth worked while his brain searched for an appropriate sound. He placed the magazine on the table and stood, arms braced either side of it, as he stared again at one particular grainy photograph.
‘Told you it was interesting,’ Jas said with a smirk.
‘But that’s …’
Jas turned so she was side-by-side with him and leaned against his bunched-up arm muscles, looking down at the magazine too. ‘Lulu Thornton,’ she informed him, in an astoundingly matter-of-fact voice. ‘Or Louise as she now likes to be called. Mum thinks she’s a waste of space. Most people do.’
‘Lulu who?’ he whispered hoarsely.
Jas punched him on the arm. ‘Da-ad! You’re stuck in the Stone Age! You know … She married Tobias Thornton, the actor.’
Again … who?
‘We watched him in that action movie last weekend. The one with the bomb on the private jet?’
The picture was dull and not very clear—the product of a telephoto lens the size of a space shuttle, no doubt. But there was no doubting the fierce glare in those eyes as she squared up to the paparazzo, her son clutched protectively to her, his face hidden. He’d been on the receiving end of that very same look just a few hours ago and it still gave him the shivers thinking about it.
‘And she’s famous?’ he asked Jas, trying to sound as uninvolved as he actually was, but less involved than he felt.
Jas nodded. ‘Well, famous for being married to somebody famous. That’s all.’
Married. He should shut the magazine right now and condemn it to the recycling bin. Only … she’d said she was divorced. Almost divorced. And, in the few moments that she’d let her icy guard down, he’d known she was telling the truth. The gaudy headline splashed across the top of the feature seemed to confirm his gut instinct: ‘Louise’s Private Hell Since Split!’
He took one last look at her image and felt a twinge of sympathy. Going through a divorce was bad enough, but having every spat reported for the world to see? More like public execution than private hell. No wonder she’d freaked out when she’d found some strange man in her greenhouse.
He closed the magazine and looked at Jas. ‘Sorry, Jas. I think these sorts of magazines are a gross invasion of privacy. I’d rather you didn’t read it.’
She chewed her lip and her fingers twitched. He could tell she was torn between doing the right thing and insatiable curiosity. Thankfully, when she gave him a rueful smile and a one-shouldered shrug he knew he’d been doing an okay job of counteracting all the psycho-babble her mother had been subjecting her to since their separation.
He grinned. ‘Good girl.’
Jas’s smile grew and changed. ‘Since I’ve earned a gold star, can I have fifteen pounds for a trip to the theatre with school?’
Ben looked heavenward. What was it with women and money? Any good deed seemed to need a reward—preferably in the form of shoes. Perhaps he should be glad that at least this was something educational. But the shoes would come later. Oh, he had no doubt the shoes would come later. ‘Give me a second while I find my wallet. What are you going to see, again?’
‘The Taming of the Shrew.’
Ben nodded approvingly while he searched the kitchen worktops for his battered leather wallet. He hunted through the junk drawer. Where had he put the darn thing when he’d come in this evening? ‘Jas, I’ll come and give you the cash when I’ve found my wallet, okay?’ he said slamming the drawer in an effort to get it to close in spite of the disturbed odds and ends inside.
‘And Jas …?’
She turned at the doorway to the lounge.
‘This Louise Thornton woman. Do you think she’s a waste of space?’
She looked up at the corner of the ceiling and then back at him. ‘Mum says any woman who finds her identity in a man, or puts up with the … rubbish … she did, is TSTL.’
From the way Jas paused before she’d said ‘rubbish’, Ben guessed his ex-wife’s version had been a little more earthy.
‘Too stupid to live,’ Jas elaborated and scooted off to watch the TV.
The sounds of her programme floated in from the adjoining room as Ben searched for his wallet for a full ten minutes. He checked his coat, the car, the kitchen again … Just as he was racking his brains and replaying the day in his head, it struck him. He knew exactly where he’d left it. He could see it so clearly in his mind’s eye, he could almost reach out and touch it.
A rough wooden bench, long rays of the afternoon sun slanting through uneven Victorian glass. A black, soft leather square with cards and ancient till receipts poking out of it sitting next to a pot containing a rather spectacular pitcher plant.
He sat back down on a chair and frowned. His wallet had been too bulky in the back pocket of his jeans and he’d taken it out and put it on one of the shelves in the greenhouse this afternoon. And then, with all the scowling and marching back down to the boat, he’d forgotten it.
He blew out a breath. If it had been just the cards and the few notes that were in there, he might have just left it. There was no way his face was going to be welcome back at Whitehaven any time this century. But the wallet contained one of his favourite photos of Jas and him together, taken in a time when she’d had ringlets and no front teeth and when he didn’t seem to have permanent frown lines etched on his forehead.
There was nothing for it. He was going to have to go back.
Ben knocked on the door twice. Hard enough to be heard, but not hard enough to seem impatient. And then he waited. The clear, pale skies of yesterday were gone and a foggy dampness dulled every colour on the riverbank. He turned his collar up as the mist rallied and became drizzle.
He raised his fist to knock again, but was distracted by a hint of movement in his peripheral vision. He turned quickly and stared at the study window, just to the right of the porch. Everything was still.
He grimaced and shoved his hands in his pockets. At least he and Louise Thornton were both singing from the same hymn sheet. Neither of them was pleased he was here.
Knowing she was probably hovering in the hallway, he knocked again, just loud enough to make a dull noise against the glossy wooden doors.
‘Hello? I’m sorry for the intrusion—’ He’d been going to say Mrs Thornton, but it seemed odd to use her name when she hadn’t revealed it to him herself.
‘I really didn’t want to disturb you again,’ he called out as he pressed his ear to the door, trying to detect a hint of movement inside, ‘but I left something behind and I—’
There was a soft click on the door opened enough for him to see half of her face. She didn’t have the heels on today—not that he ever noticed women’s shoes—but instead of being almost level with him, she was looking up at him, her face hard and unreadable.
‘I left my wallet in the greenhouse,’ he said with an attempt at a self-deprecating smile.
She just stared.
He should have looked away, ended the awkwardness, but she had the most amazing eyes. Well, eye—he could only see one at present. It wasn’t the make-up, because this morning there was none of that black stuff. It wasn’t even the hazel and olive-green of her irises, which reminded him of the changing colours of autumn leaves. No, it was the sense that, even though she seemed to be doing her best to shield herself, that he recognised something in them. Not a familiarity or a similarity to anybody else. More like a reflection.
He shook his head and stared at his boots. This was not the time to descend into poetry. He had come here for one reason and one reason only.
‘I’ll just pop up and get it quickly,’ he said. ‘Then I’ll be out of your hair as soon as possible. Promise.’
She looked him up and down and then the door inched wider. ‘Wait here and I’ll get the key.’
The key? It had never been locked before. But he supposed if he’d have found a stranger lurking in his greenhouse, he’d have been tempted to lock it too.
A couple of minutes passed and Ben stepped out of the porch and onto the gravel drive, the crunch underneath his boots deafening in the still of the autumn morning. Louise Thornton reappeared just as he’d managed to find himself a spot where the pebbles didn’t shift underneath him. Her long, dark hair was scooped back into a ponytail, but the ever-present fringe left her face half-hidden. In her jeans and a pullover she should have looked like any other of the young mothers who stood outside the school gates.
He followed her up the hill, round the house to the top lawn. When she moved, her actions were small, precise, as if she didn’t want to be accused of taking up too much space. Megan and all her friends had reached an age where their body language spoke of a certain confidence, a certain comfort in their own skin. This woman had none of that, despite her high-gloss lifestyle and multi-million pound bank account.
Once again he felt an unwelcome twinge. He fought the urge to catch up with her, to tell her that it would get better one day, that there was life after divorce. But, since he’d become a cliché by burying himself in his work and, therefore, wasn’t a glowing example of man with an active social life, he thought it was better if he kept his mouth shut.
She unlocked the greenhouse door, then stood well back, giving him plenty of room to pass through. She didn’t stay outside, though. He heard her footsteps on the tiled floor of the greenhouse behind him and, when he looked over his shoulder, she was watching him suspiciously.
The wallet was right where he’d remembered it was, tucked slightly out of sight next to a plant pot. He picked it up, jammed it into his jacket pocket, then stooped to pick up the plant that had been a casualty of yesterday’s meeting. He’d forgotten all about it after Louise Thornton had appeared.
Carefully, he placed it back on the shelf and pressed the compost down with his fingertips. Despite his ministrations, the slender pitchers pointed at an odd angle. He would have to bring a cane from home and …
No. There would be no canes from home. Not any more.
He stepped back and indicated the listing plant. ‘This needs a cane. There might be one around here somewhere—’ Down the other end was a likely place. He started to walk in that direction, checking behind pots and peering under the bench as he went.
‘Why should you care?’
That kind of question didn’t even warrant turning round to answer it. He carried on searching. ‘It’s a beautiful plant. It would be a shame to leave it to die.’
Once again he heard footsteps. Just a handful, enough for her to have stepped further into the greenhouse. He found what he was looking for—a small green cane—hidden between the window sill and a row of pots. He picked it up, careful not to send anything else flying, and turned to find her fingering the delicate cream and purple foliage of the ailing Sarracenia.
‘Then you really are a gardener?’
He moved past her, retrieved a roll of garden wire from a hook near the door and returned to the plant, unwinding a length as he walked. ‘You think I like to play in the dirt for fun?’
She remained silent, watching him fashion a loop of wire wide enough to help the plant stand up without pinching it to the cane. When he’d finished, and the little plant was straining heavenwards once again, she took a few steps backwards.
‘Most men are big kids. So it’s entirely possible you play in the dirt for fun.’ There was a dry humour behind her words that took the edge off them.
His lips didn’t actually curve but there was a hint of a smile in his voice when he answered. ‘It is fun. The earth feels good beneath my fingertips.’ She raised an eyebrow, clearly unconvinced. He’d bet she’d never hadn’t had dirt underneath fingernails in her life. And he’d bet her life was poorer for it.
‘Gardening brings a sense of achievement.’ He fiddled with the stake and wire loop around the Sarracenia until it was just so. ‘You can’t control the plants. You just tend them, give them what they need until they become what they should.’
She broke eye contact and let her gaze wander over the plants nearest to her. ‘These don’t look like they’re becoming much. Aren’t you a very good gardener?’
He fought back the urge to laugh out loud. ‘They’re in their dormant phase. They’ll perk up again, when the conditions are right.’ He stood looking at her for a few seconds as she stared out into the gardens. ‘Well, I’ve got what I came for. I’ll be going now—as promised. I did say I was one not to break a promise, didn’t I?’
He took a few long strides past her, breathed out and opened the greenhouse door. He was halfway across the lawn before she shouted after him.
‘Then promise to come again.’
Ben didn’t want to turn round. He’d told himself he wouldn’t respond this time. After all, he’d had enough of high-maintenance women. But …
She stood on the lawn watching him, her hair whipped across her face by another surly gust of wind. Once again, her eyes held him captive. Not for their dark beauty, but because something deep inside them seemed to be pleading with him. His friends had told him he was a sucker for a damsel in distress, and he’d always denied it, but he had the awful feeling they might be right. Hadn’t he tried—unsuccessfully—to rescue Megan?
Louise tugged a strand of chocolate-brown hair out of her mouth. ‘The garden. It does need looking after. You’re right. It would be a shame to …’
Once again, the eyes pleaded. He should have a sign made, reading ‘sucker’, and just slap it on his forehead.
He’d do it. But not for her. For Laura. Just until he was sure this new owner was going to care for the place properly. And then he’d pass it on to one of his landscaping teams and charge her handsomely for the privilege. After all, he reminded himself, life was complicated enough already without looking after somebody else’s garden.
Or somebody else’s wife.
11th June, 1952
It was both better and worse than I’d feared.
Today we finally shot the scene in the boathouse—the one I’d both been anticipating and dreading. The basic story was this …
Charity had realised she was utterly in love with Richard, but his parents announce his engagement to the highly suitable Margaret. Heartbroken, she runs through the woods on a glorious summer afternoon and hides away in the cool of the boathouse, the one place she can be alone and think of him.
He comes to find her.
She’s on the balcony, crying, and he pulls her into his arms and kisses her tears away. It’s the first time she knows he feels the same. Before then he’s been trying to keep the peace with his parents, despite their growing attraction, but when they push the engagement issue, it makes him realise what he really wants. Who he really wants.
Thank goodness for incompetent sound recordists, that’s all I can say.
Just like that first time, we might have only needed one take otherwise. I forgot to fake it totally, thereby giving Sam exactly what he wanted. Dominic came towards me. I could hardly see him through the glycerine the make-up woman had put round my eyes, but I didn’t need to see much. Just the look in his eyes.
Whether it was Richard’s eyes or Dominic’s I wasn’t sure at first.
I shook. Literally felt myself rattle in my shoes when his lips first touched mine. It was what I’d always thought kissing should be like.
When I kiss Alex, it’s different. At first it was nice. Warm. Comforting. Now I do it because I think I ought to, because it’s what husbands and wives are supposed to do. I’m not even sure Alex notices the difference. Maybe that’s because he always seems to be in such a rush.
Dominic wasn’t in a rush.
He was soft, gentle. Patient. I know it was all supposed to be about Richard and how he felt about Charity, but I couldn’t help feeling as if he was gently reaching inside me to see what no one else has ever seen before. All the bits I hide. All the bits that are too precious to let anyone see. It was utterly, utterly bewitching.
I fluffed the next three takes on purpose.
But then I think Sam got wise to me. He gave me one of his looks. The ones I’ve learned to pay attention to. It doesn’t do to cheese the great Samuel Harman off, not if you want a career that lasts longer than a fortnight, so I steeled myself to make the last take count.
Dominic walked onto the balcony, placed his hands on my shoulders and turned me to face him. The shaking started again. I couldn’t help it. This was going to be it—the take Sam wanted, and my very last kiss with a man who felt like my perfect match. It was almost too much. I nearly fluffed it for real.
He stared down at me, looked deep into my eyes in a way that made my insides both churn and come to rest at the same time. I felt as if I was flying. And then he pressed the softest of kisses to my eyelids. I hung onto him, taking all I could. Giving everything back.
And then his lips were on mine. Sweet, sweet heaven. I started crying for real. No need for the glycerine.
And then something wonderful happened. Dominic had been leaning against the balcony, pulling me close against him, and he lost his balance, stumbled slightly because of the way he’d turned his body to kiss me more deeply. I knew the camera was in really close on us, and I heard Sam swear when we both lurched out of shot.
‘Cut!’ he yelled, and Dominic and I broke apart.
I looked up at him and I thought my heart was going to pop right out of my chest.
‘Sorry,’ he said, but there was a glimmer of humourin his eyes, a sense of being co-conspirators in some wonderful secret.
And that’s when I realised that Dominic Blake had messed up on purpose.
Louise watched Ben go. She kept watching until long after his tall frame disappeared round the side of the house into a tangle of grass and shrubs and trees that were now, technically, her back garden. Not that she’d had the courage to explore it fully yet.
She forced herself to turn away and look back at the greenhouse.
Was she mad? Quite possibly.
In all seriousness, she’d just given a man she knew nothing about permission to invade her territory on a regular basis. Yet … there’d been something so preposterously truthful about his story and so refreshingly straightforward about his manner that she’d swallowed it whole. Next time she’d have to frisk him for a long-lens camera and a dictaphone, just in case.
She’d left the greenhouse door open. Slowly, she closed the distance to the heavy Victorian glazed door, with its beautiful brass handle and peeling, off-white paint. On a whim, she stepped inside before she closed the door and stood for a few moments in the warm dampness. It smelled good in here, of earth and still air, but very real. She liked real.
The assorted plants lining the shelves by the windows really were quite exquisite. She’d never seen anything like them. Venus fly-traps sat next to frilly, sticky-looking things in shades of pink and purple.
She walked over to the little plant that the gardener had saved. She felt an affinity with this little plant, recently uprooted, thin, fragile. Now in a foreign climate, reaching hungrily heavenwards with an appetite that might never be satisfied. She reached out and touched the soil at its base. It did feel good. She pulled her hand away, but didn’t wipe it on the back of her jeans.
Near the door were the stubby, brown plants that had started to hibernate. Just like her. All those years with Toby now seemed like a time half-asleep. Her mind wandered to a photo of a famous actress who had graced the pages of all the gossip magazines a few years ago. She’d been snapped whooping for joy when the papers finalising her divorce had arrived. Since then she’d lost twenty pounds, received two Oscars and had been seen with a string of hot-looking younger men.
Louise frowned. Shouldn’t this be the time when she blossomed, came into her own? She paused for a moment, tried to search deep inside herself for the first signs of germination, but she was afraid she’d be waiting a very long time. She still felt numb inside.
She turned and exited the greenhouse, closing the door behind her and marched back down the path to her new home. Once the house was sorted, she’d feel better. She’d already talked to a team of decorators who could make her vision for this old house come alive. But what she really wanted more than anything was to find some pictures of how it had been in the past, so she could take the best elements of its history and mix them with her own unique stamp.
Surely there were photos somewhere she could look at? Once she’d had a cup of tea, she’d rifle through all the forgotten cupboards and attics of the vast old house and see if she could find a photo, or some papers—something—that would help her bring this house back to life.
Louise might still be hibernating, but she had a feeling Whitehaven was ready to wake up.
It seemed odd to have so much noise and movement in the house after a couple of weeks of solitary occupation and silence. The structure of the house was sound, but it needed a little TLC. The outside was worse than the inside, having had to brave a few winters high up on a hill above a salty tidal river. Nothing a little skilled work wouldn’t fix, though.
At first Louise stayed on hand to oversee the repairs and redecoration work. When she wasn’t needed, she hunted through the forgotten spaces of Whitehaven, looking for any clues to the house’s past. She found old newspapers and some electricity bills from a decade ago, but nothing that got to the heart of the lovely old mansion.
In the end she took refuge from the muddy boots, the endless tea-making, and took herself off down to the boathouse. That was also somewhere that could do with a bit of a spruce-up, but she’d already decided it was a project she would handle personally. If all those women on the decorating shows on telly could wield a paintbrush, then so could she. And, if she got it all wrong, then she would be the only person to see it, because this was her place, her sanctuary.
Louise wasn’t scared of a bit of hard work. She’d done plenty while she’d been raising her brothers and sisters and looking after her dad. But she’d felt trapped by it, as if it were a prison sentence stretching into the future. Cleaning up the boathouse was different. It was her choice, and she found that instead of being draining and weary, scrubbing down the walls and making every last inch shine was energising. She surprised herself with how long she kept going the first day.
Even more, she surprised herself by arriving early the next morning again—flask of tea in hand, and a book to read when she took a break—ready to start again. Halfway through the morning she turned her attention to the fireplace. It was a Victorian design: cast iron holding tiled inserts with a wooden surround and a firestone cut into the floorboards. She decided to take the thick layer of dust off first, then she’d be able to work out what kind of cleaning materials she could use on the tiles without damaging them. She didn’t want to rub the hand-painted blue flowers off their white background with one pump of cleaning spray.
This wasn’t normal dust, she realised, as she passed the duster over it. It didn’t fluff and fly off like normal stuff. It seemed to be welded on. She rubbed a little harder, trying to dislodge some of the stubbornly clinging dirt, trying hard not to think about what the ingredients might be to make it stick that way.
She must have been rubbing harder than she’d realised, because suddenly the second tile down in the vertical strip of four gave way and her hand hit the wall behind. Her heart pounded. Had she broken the tile? If she had, she had no idea if she’d ever be able to match it again. But she hadn’t heard a crashing noise, just a dull clang as it had fallen down behind the tiles below it. She moved closer to the fireplace and dipped most of her forearm down into the hole. Her fingers reached and flexed trying to find a hard ceramic edge. Perhaps she could just balance it back in place until she found some glue to repair it?
Louise’s fingers closed around something, but it wasn’t fired clay.
It was paper. And a leather binding.
It was a book.
What on earth was it doing inside the fireplace in an out-of-the-way spot like this? Hardly a conventional bookshelf. Could it have fallen down the back?
She stood up and checked the surround. No. It was fixed securely against the plaster wall. Frowning, she knelt down again and reached inside the square hole once more. Carefully, she pinched the book between thumb and forefinger and tried to pull it out. The hole the fallen tile had left behind was too small, but she found she could slide the next tile down out of its spot easily, and then the book was freed from its dusty prison.
She blew on it, and instantly started coughing. Regular dust, this. It flew up into her face straight away and clung to her hair the moment the air moved around it. She grabbed the duster and gave it the once over, then wandered over to the window to get a better look.
There were no markings on the outside and the tan leather cover was soft. She took a moment to stare at it before she opened the cover and looked inside. Her heart-rate tripled when she did so.
This wasn’t a novel or a child’s picture book. Elegant blue ink filled the pages. Hand-written sentences. Dates and times …
This was a diary.
Louise closed the cover and walked out onto the balcony.
This was obviously someone’s private thoughts. She now realised it hadn’t got behind that fireplace by accident. It had been hidden. But there was one very likely candidate as to the author and Louise was burning with curiosity to find out if she was right. She sucked in a breath, looked to the sky, said a silent prayer for forgiveness, and opened the cover again.
The beginning of the diary was tame—starting in January, as new diaries often do—and detailing Laura’s glamorous life: rehearsals, parties, dinners at nice restaurants with other famous people. It all seemed so wonderful, but as Louise read on, she couldn’t help feeling as if there was something missing.
She sighed. Laura Hastings, with her ice-blonde hair and classic bone structure, had always seemed like the perfect woman to Louise. She’d loved her films as a child, used to watch them with her dad in the afternoons when he hadn’t been feeling well. And for some reason, Louise had never even considered that Laura might have struggled with her seemingly perfect life, just as she had with hers. How odd.
Of course, it had been the same for her. Of course.
So Louise read on, reading not just the words, but interpreting the spaces between them, what was not said as much as what was said, and it brought a whole new sense of connection between herself and the previous owner of her home.
And then Whitehaven was mentioned … and the boathouse …
Louise sank even deeper down into the chair, forgetting completely about grime and dusters and pulled-apart fireplaces. And when Laura met Dominic, she pressed a palm against her chest and it stayed there as she read the next handful of entries.
26th June, 1952
Dominic and I have been spending a lot of time together. The nature of our job means there’s a lot of time hanging around, waiting. And even when we’re working we have a lot of scenes together.
He talks to me. Really talks to me. In a way Alex has never done.
I think about my marriage now and wonder why we got together. It seemed so perfect at the time—like a fairy tale ending. Industrial heir marries movie princess. But I wonder now if I just got caught up with the glamour and the whole idea of us. I know that’s one of my faults, acting impulsively, getting carried away in the emotion of the moment.
I try to tell myself that’s what this is with Dominic, but I don’t really believe myself.
Alex doesn’t see me the way Dominic does. I think, to him, I’m just another trophy he’s collected. He likes the best of everything, you see. And I was flattered that he thought I was the best. But I hadn’t realised thatonce he’s got that object he’s had his eye on, that he locks it away behind glass and then moves on to the next conquest. I’ve tried not to think about what that might mean when it comes to other women, and I’ve never even caught of whiff of scandal about him, but still …
No, that’s horrid. I can’t blame my husband for things he hasn’t done, because I’m feeling guilty about having feelings for someone else. That’s too low.
Alex is a good man, really. He’s just rather distant and … I don’t know. I don’t know what’s wrong with him—except that he isn’t Dominic.
And Dominic trumps Alex in every way. I know he feels something for me. I can see it in his eyes, the way I find him looking at me across the set a thousand times a day. Where Alex is a good man, Dominic is an extraordinary one. We talk, we sit together, but he won’t take it any further. I want to hate him for being so principled, but I find I can’t. If I were his wife, I wouldn’t want him any other way. I don’t want him to lower himself to something he isn’t for me. I don’t want to make him less, when I feel he makes me so much more.
But when we have scenes together—scenes where Richard and Charity get close—I know it isn’t acting. I know he’s drinking every moment in, saving it up, like I am. It’s taking the film to a new level. Sam hardly says a word when we have our scenes. More than once we’ve got an important moment down in one take.
I wrote that something magical would happen here at this house this summer, didn’t I, and it has.
I met Dominic.
But I also know I’m making the film of my career. Something that will last long after I’ve grown old and ugly and no one will want to watch films with me in them any more.
Thank you, Whitehaven. I don’t know how I am ever going to repay you.
Louise closed the diary and walked back into the relative gloom of the boathouse interior. She stared at the book in her hands, hardly able to comprehend what she’d just read, what she’d just found.
This was Laura Hastings’ diary! And obviously written the year she’d filmed A Summer Affair here. This was … it was … amazing. She felt as if the house had given up one of its secrets, trusted her with it. She hugged the book to her chest until she realised it was leaving a dusty imprint on her front, and then she carefully wiped it down with a soft, clean duster.
And what a romantic story.
At least, it seemed like one from the outside. But Louise knew all about how glamorous and exciting things could seem when you read about them, when it was a whole different ball game to live through them. Part of her ached for the young Laura Hastings, too.
She’d always seemed so perfect on the screen, had always been one of Louise’s icons. Who wouldn’t fall for that ice-blonde hair and those big, sparkling blue eyes? Laura Hastings had always looked so poised, so in control. She wondered if anyone had had any idea of the inner turmoil underneath the movie star surface.
She flicked back through the diary again. The entries seemed to be sporadic. Sometimes they were days apart, sometimes months. Sometimes there were gaps of a few years.
She carefully replaced the book in its hiding place and slotted the two tiles back into place. She discovered the one she’d pushed through would sit very nicely in its spot, held gently by the cast iron surround, as long as no one applied undue pressure to it. As she hid the book again, made everything look as it had before she’d made her discovery, she tried to wrack her brains about what had happened to Laura after her heyday.
She made films into her forties, but then she’d just quietly faded away. Must have lived here for some time and died an old woman. Louise was shocked to realise she didn’t even know if Laura had lived here on her own or if she’d been married. And if she’d been married, who had the husband been? Alex, still? Or Dominic?
She could ask Ben, she supposed, but he seemed to be a little tight-lipped about the previous owner. And, anyway, the diary wasn’t huge. It wouldn’t take too long to read it and find out for herself.
Louise frowned. She didn’t want to gulp it down in one sitting—it was too beautiful for that. Maybe she’d just read a little bit each week, ration herself. Then she could make the magic last for months. She had years to uncover the rest of Whitehaven’s secrets, so maybe she could be patient about finding out about Laura’s too.
Almost a fortnight later, Louise was putting the finishing touches to Jack’s room. She looked at her watch. It was almost one o’clock, but she couldn’t even contemplate eating anything. Only five more hours and Jack would be here. Her eyes misted over as she fluffed the duvet and smoothed it out, making sure it was perfect—not bunched up in the corners or with an empty bit flapping at one end.
It looked so cosy when she had finished that she flumped down on top of the blue and white checked cover and buried her head in the pillow.
She’s made the trip up to London a couple of times to see him in the month and a half she’d been here, but it had been far too long to go without seeing him every day. She sighed. It had been the longest they had ever been apart. Toby had used to moan that she didn’t travel with him any more, and maybe that had been part of the reason their marriage had crumbled. Even strong relationships were put under pressure when the couple spent weeks or even months apart. But how could she leave Jack? He was everything. He always would be everything.
It wouldn’t have been fair to uproot him and ask him to change schools before the half-term break. She snuggled even further into the pillow, wishing it smelled of more than just clean laundry.
Toby had agreed—thank goodness—to let Jack live with her. Her ex was away filming so often that it wouldn’t have been fair to Jack to leave him at her former home in Hampstead with just a nanny for company. Even Toby had seen the sense in that.
So Jack would be with his father on school holidays, and even though Louise hadn’t lived with her son for weeks, she’d still agreed to let Jack stay with Toby for the half-term week. Her ex could be a true diva, so she’d decided it was sensible to appease him, just to make sure he didn’t change his mind.
But tonight Jack would be coming to Whitehaven. He’d be here.
She turned to lie on her back and stared at the ceiling. She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Mostly she just ached.
Minutes, maybe even half an hour, drifted past as Louise hugged herself and watched the light on the freshly painted ceiling change as the October wind bullied the clouds across the sky. Eventually, she dragged herself off the bed and sloped towards the window.
Something shiny glinted in the bushes and instantly her back was pressed against the wall, every muscle tense. After five seconds, she made herself breathe out. Nosing very carefully round the architrave, so only half of an eye and the side of her face would be visible from outside, she searched for another flash of light.
No-good, money-grabbing photographers!
In her effort to remain hidden, she only had a partial view of the front lawn. She remained motionless for some time, until her left leg started to cramp and twitch, and then only when she was very sure nobody was in her line of sight, did she lean out a little further.
Another glint! There!
Once again she found herself flattened against the wall. But this time she let out a groan and covered her face with her hands. It wasn’t a telephoto lens but a big, shiny spade that had reflected the light. Ben the gardener-guy’s spade. It was Sunday afternoon and he was here. Just as he’d been for the previous two weeks. Only she’d forgotten he’d be here in all her excitement about Jack coming.
Not that she ever really saw him arrive when he came. At some point in the afternoon, she’d become aware that he was around. She’d hear him whistling as he walked up to the top lawn, or hear the hum of a mower in the distance.
So why had she felt the need to slam herself against the wall and pretend she wasn’t here? This was stupid.
She stopped leaning against the wall and drew herself upright. There. Then she walked primly across the room and out of the door. No one was hiding. She was just walking around inside her own house, as she was perfectly entitled to do. Okay, she’d chosen a path across the room that had meant she couldn’t have been seen from the window, but that didn’t mean anything. It had simply been the most direct route. Sort of.
She found herself in the kitchen. It was in serious need of updating, with pine cabinets that had darkened to an almost offensive orange, but it had a fantastic flagstone floor and always seemed warm—probably because, in the now defunct chimney breast, there was an Aga. It looked lovely and spoke of families gathered in the kitchen sharing overflowing Sunday lunches, but after a more than a month at Whitehaven she still had no idea how to work it.
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. She knew how to boil the kettle. And, at this present moment, that seemed like a shockingly good idea. She filled the battered, thick-bottomed kettle with water, lifted the heavy lid on the Aga hotplate and left the kettle to boil.
She hoped Jack would love Whitehaven as much as she did. What was she going to do if he decided he didn’t like living in the depths of the countryside, far away from the flash London townhouse she’d shared with Toby? It was the only place he’d ever known as home. Well, that and the New York apartment. And the villa in Beverley Hills. Whitehaven was charming, but it lacked the gloss of her former houses.
She’d been getting what she needed out of the cupboards while she’d been thinking, and now discovered that she’d placed two teabags in two mugs. Something she’d done regularly in the early days after her split with Toby, but hadn’t done for months now.
Her first instinct was to put the teabag and mug back in the cupboard, but that urge was hijacked by another one.
She might as well make one for Ben. She gave a short, hollow laugh. It would be the nearest thing to payment she’d given him for all his hard work. The lawns were looking fabulous and, little by little, the shrubs and borders close to the house were starting to lose their wild look. Inside and out Whitehaven was regaining some of its former glory.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t intended to pay him. Just that she’d been heartily avoiding the issue. She’d acted like a diva herself that first week, and she didn’t know how to undo that all-important first impression. As if summoned up by her thoughts, she heard the crunch of footsteps outside. A moment later Ben passed the kitchen window, probably on his way up to the greenhouses.
A cup of tea seemed like a poor effort at a truce, but it was all she had in her arsenal at the moment. Boiling water lifted and swirled the teabag in the cup. Louise hesitated. Sugar, or no sugar?
On an instinct, she put one level spoon in the cup and stirred. He looked like a man who liked a bit of sweetness.
Another laugh that was almost a snort broke the silence. Well, she’d better have a personality change on the way past the herbaceous border, then. Especially if she was truly on a peace mission. At the moment she was the dictionary definition for the absolute opposite of ‘sweetness’. Meet Louise Thornton, sour old prune.
When Louise arrived at the greenhouse, she realised she had a problem. Two hands and two cups of tea meant that she had no spare hands to open the door, or even knock on it. But it had seemed stupid to leave her mug of tea in the kitchen. By the time she’d have delivered Ben’s, discussed paying him and walked back to the house, it would have been stone cold.
She peered inside the greenhouse and tried to spot him. The structure was long and thin—almost thirty feet in length and tucked up against the north side of the walled garden to catch as much sun as possible. Down the centre was the tiled path with wrought iron grates for the under-floor heating system. The side nearest the wall of windows was lined with benches and shelves, all full of plants, but on the other side, large palms and ferns were planted in soil at floor level.
Halfway down the greenhouse a leg was sticking out amongst the dark glossy leaves. She banged the door with her foot. The leg, which had been wavering up and down in its function as a counterbalance, went still.
She held her breath and tried to decide what kind of face she should wear. Not the suspicious glare he’d received on their first meeting, that was the sure. But grinning inanely didn’t seem fitting either. In the end, she didn’t have a chance to decide between ‘calm indifference’ and ‘professional friendliness’, because the leg was suddenly joined by the rest of him as he jumped back onto the path, rubbing his hands together to rid them of loose dirt, and looked in her direction.
She held up his cup of tea and then, when his face had broken into a broad grin, she breathed out. He was obviously really thirsty, because he practically ran to the door and swung it wide. She thrust the mug towards him, ignoring the plop of hot liquid that landed on her hand as she did so.
He took it from her, smiled again, and took a big gulp. ‘Fantastic. Just how I like it. Thanks.’
Louise took a little sip out of her own chunky white mug. ‘No problem. It’s the least I can do.’
Ben lent back against one of the shelves and took another long slurp of tea. He seemed completely at ease here. She tried to copy his stance, making sure she was a good five feet away from him, but she couldn’t work out what to do with her legs and stood up again.
‘Um … about money …’
Ben raised his eyebrows.
‘I can’t let you going on doing all this for nothing.’
He shrugged. ‘It started as a labour of love. I’m just sorry I haven’t been able to do more.’
He wasn’t making this easy. All she wanted to do was to work out what the going rate was and write him a cheque. She didn’t want him to be nice. Men who were nice normally had a hidden agenda.
She put her mug down on the only spare bit of space on the shelf nearest her and drew herself taller. Only, he didn’t make that easy either. Her five-foot-eight wasn’t too far away from his six-foot-plus height, but however much she straightened her spine, drew her neck longer, she still felt small beside him. But this was no time for weakness. She was the boss. She was in charge.
‘Well, if you could just let me know how much you’d routinely charge for this sort of job …’
He drained his mug and looked at her with a more serious light in his eyes. ‘I can’t say any of my “routine” work resembles this in the slightest.’
Louise crossed one booted foot in front of the other and a corner of her mouth rose. Oh, this was his game. Make it seem like he nobly didn’t want anything, but sting her with an exorbitant price when it came to the crunch. And, if he played this game well, she was probably supposed to be shaking his hand and thanking him profusely for being so generous when the moment came.
She folded her arms, but only had to unfold them as he handed her back the empty mug.
‘There’s no rush for money. I’ll send you a bill if you’re really desperate for one, though.’ He smiled, and it had none of the sharkish tendencies she’d expected after a conversation like that. ‘Thanks for the tea.’ And then he turned his back on her and went returned his attention to a large plant with floppy leaves.
If there was one thing Louise didn’t like, it was being ignored. It had been Toby’s favourite way of avoiding anything he didn’t want to talk about. All she’d had to do was utter the words, ‘You’re late. Where have you been?’ and the shutters had come down, the television or the game console switched on. Nobody liked to be rendered invisible. She coughed and Ben looked up.
‘No rush?’ She’d promised herself she wouldn’t be pushed around by any man again—ever. Okay, in her mind, she’d meant significant others, but suddenly it felt important to stand her ground, to have this conversation on her terms. ‘I’d much prefer it if we could talk figures now.’
He straightened again. ‘Fine. It’s just that I know you’ve just moved in, Mrs Thornton—’
The pause was just long enough to indicate he hadn’t meant to say that, and for the first time in their conversation he broke eye contact. She realised she didn’t remember telling him her name.
‘I thought you might like a little more time to get settled.’
Louise felt her features harden. ‘Why are you being so nice to me?’
Ben looked for all the world as if he hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. Boy, he was good. She’d almost fallen for that straight-talking, man of the earth and sky nonsense. So he knew who she was, and he wanted something from her. Maybe not money, but something. People always did.
Eventually he scratched the side of his nose with a finger. ‘I suppose I felt I needed to make up for being a little … awkward … the first time we met. I was angry with someone else and I took it out on you. It’s not something I’m proud of.’
A man who apologised! Now she knew the act was too good to be true.
Still, she was prepared to play along for the moment. He’d show his cards eventually. ‘Well, if you’re not going to be businesslike about this, I may just have to look in the Yellow Pages and find a gardener who is.’
He didn’t seem that worried about losing her business; he just went back to fussing with the floppy plant. After a few seconds he looked back at her. ‘Suit yourself.’
Once again, Louise felt as if she’d been dismissed. How dared he? This was her garden, her greenhouse. Those were her plants he was messing around with. ‘At least give me your card.’ That was a pathetic attempt at gaining control, getting him to give up something, but it was all she could think of.
He patted his pockets. ‘I don’t think I have one … ah!’ He pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and rummaged around inside. The card he pulled out was creased and the edges were soft. She took it from him and backed away.
Oliver Landscapes. Very grand for a one-man band outfit.
‘Feel free to let me know if you don’t want me to come any more, but if I don’t hear any differently, I’ll just assume I should pop by again next Sunday.’ This time he didn’t turn away and continue working; he just looked at her. Not with barely-concealed curiosity, or envy, or even out-of-proportion adoration. Those kinds of responses she was used to. No, this was something different. He looked at her as if she were transparent.
She didn’t know what to do.
‘Just come,’ she said, and fled, leaving her mug of lukewarm tea in the shade of a wilting ficus.
Louise couldn’t help grinning as she climbed out of the car, even though the weather was disgusting and she was about to get on a tiny little ferry and cross an angry-looking river. Just as well she could see their destination, the village of Lower Hadwell, only a few minutes away on the opposite shore.
The rear door opened and Jack climbed out, tugging at the collar of his new school uniform and looking a little uncomfortable. He was tall for his age and he had his father’s good looks. Half the class at his previous school—the female half—had cried for a week when he’d told them he was moving away.
Not that Jack cared. He had no idea that his golden blond, shaggy hair was anything but a nuisance to comb in the mornings. He might have Toby’s physical characteristics, but he lacked any of his father’s swagger. And long may it stay that way. Louise knew from first-hand experience just how devastating a weapon all that beauty mixed with a little too much ego could be.
‘All ready to go?’
Jack nodded and clutched his book bag. Louise wanted to take his hand and hug him to her. He was being so brave. Starting a new school was difficult for any kid, but Jack was going to face an extra set of challenges. She’d had a meeting with the headmistress to discuss it and they’d both decided that, quietly, the word would go round that Jack was to be treated like every other child in the school.
She laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Jack was a normal boy in that he wouldn’t allow more overt public displays of motherly affection.
At this time in the morning there were regular ferries across the river and they walked to the edge of the high stone jetty and waited for the little wooden boat, painted white with a blue trim, to sputter up to a seaweedy flight of steps.
The ferryman paid them absolutely no attention other than to take coins off them and Louise breathed a sigh of relief. Lower Hadwell was a small community and news of her arrival in the area had to have spread. Although she’d been here for a while, she’d kept herself to herself and this was her first proper trip to the little village across the river. She just hoped they were all like this guy. Completely uninterested. And with that blissful thought in her mind, she sat on the hard wooden bench that circled the stern of the boat and turned her face into the wind.
By the time they reached the jetty on the other side of the river, she was sure her hair had picked up a bucket-load of salt that was blowing up the river from the sea. Never mind. She’d deliberately dressed down in a tracksuit and baseball cap, hoping she’d blend in a bit more with the other mums at the school gate.
Jack declared the boat ride ‘sick’ and jumped out the ferry in one smooth motion. Louise followed, although her clamber on to dry land was nowhere near as graceful.
The school had to be at the top of the longest and steepest hill in the whole of south Devon. It only took a minute before Louise’s legs burned and her breath came in gulps. Her calves begged for mercy as they trudged past a pub, cottages in hues of cream and earthy pink and a handful of shops. Jack stopped and turned round to face the river.
She grabbed on to his coat and tried to inhale enough oxygen to talk. ‘Jack!’ The noise that came out of her mouth barely registered as a croak. ‘Come on!’
Jack gave her his usual, I’m-eight-and-I-understand-the-universe-much-better-than-you look. ‘Try walking backwards. It doesn’t hurt so much.’
Louise couldn’t work out if that was the most sensible idea she’d heard in years or the most stupid. She stared at her son as he started ascending again, this time with his backpack pointing up the hill. Stuff it. She’d do anything to stop the fire in her calf muscles. She did a one-eighty and followed suit. Her legs fairly sang with relief. This was much better!
At least it was until she came unexpectedly in contact with something tall and warm. Something that said ‘oof’. Louise squeezed her eyes shut, yelled an apology and turned and ran up the hill after Jack, who had made much better progress.
Coward, she thought, as she reached the level ground just outside the school gates. But it was only a minute before the bell was due to go and she didn’t need someone recognising her and delaying her by asking for an autograph or something.
Jack stopped just short of the wrought iron fence on the quaint village school. Louise bent over and tried to suck in more air. She knew from the furnace in her cheeks that her face was probably pink and blotchy and sweat was making her back feel all sticky.
She laid an arm on Jack’s shoulder—more to support herself than anything else. She got down the gym every now and then. So why had this finished her off?
The jangle of an old-fashioned brass school bell rose above the screams and shouts of the playground. She stood up, put a hand on each of Jack’s shoulders and stared into his eyes. ‘You ready?’
Jack pressed his lips together and nodded just once. She grinned at him and, as she spoke, she turned to walk through the gate.
‘Then it’s showti—’
A bright flash seared her retina. At first she couldn’t work out what had happened, but the guy who jumped out from behind a parked car with a whacking great camera round his neck kind of gave it away. Instinctively, she pulled Jack to her and started to run. She really, really wanted to swear, but this was neither the time nor the place.
As they reached the safety of the school building, all grey stone and arched windows, she started to chastise herself. She’d been stupid not to have been prepared for this! Of course the tabloids would want a picture of Jack starting his new school. They were desperate for any titbit about either her or Toby. And while Toby had gushed at length about the new love in his life, she’d steadily maintained her silence.
Jack was in tears. And it took a lot to make her little man cry.
Louise marched up to the school reception and fought back tears herself while she waited for the receptionist to stop fiddling with the photocopier. Maybe she should just have given an interview to Celebrity Life or something. Her refusal to play their game had just made incidents like this inevitable.
Jack was hugging on to her, his face buried under her arm. She stroked the top of his hair.
Now she was good and angry. She and Toby were fair game. They’d chosen this life. But Jack had no choice. When she’d got her son settled in, she was going back outside and she would find that photographer and she would shove his camera so far down his throat that he’d be coughing up bits of his memory card for weeks. That’s if they didn’t make it out the other end first.
Ben was happily walking down the road, minding his own business. Well, almost. He’d just spotted a picture of the Wards’ cottage in the estate agent’s window and was actually paying more attention to that than the direction in which his feet were heading. He and Megan had dreamed about buying that place for years.
With his current income and the maintenance payments to Megan, could he afford it? Maybe.
But, before he could do the mental arithmetic, he was winded by some idiot charging up the hill backwards. He didn’t even have the chance to say hey! before the track-suited figure garbled out and apology and ran off. He was so busy staring up the hill at the pink-clad bottom with the word ‘Juicy’ emblazoned across it that he was almost knocked over a second time by a man in a large anorak and a wild look in his eyes. He had a huge camera in his hand.
Ben shrugged. Bit late in the season for bird-watching, but what the hell did he know? Global warming was having a weird effect on the wildlife in this area. Last year some strange-looking bird only seen in the isles of Scotland had been blown down to the south coast of England by a freak storm. The local ‘twitchers’ had gone bananas. That man had had the same crazed look in his eye. Marauding ornithologists aside, nothing was going to stop him wandering down to the newsagent’s to get his morning paper before his meeting today.
However, Mrs Green, owner of the shop for the last thirty-three years and purveyor of local gossip, was in a chatty mood. Ben valiantly attempted to tuck his paper under his arm and drop the money in her hand, but her arms stayed firmly folded across her ample chest and he was forced to hover, one hand reaching over the counter, as the inquisition began.
‘I heard that another celebrity has bought Whitehaven, Mr Oliver. What do you think of that?’ She narrowed her eyes and analysed his reaction. He was trying hard not to have one. Something might have given him away, because she added, ‘Of course, I expect you know all about that—having been so friendly with Laura Hastings, and all.’
‘I just helped out in the garden, really.’ He waved the coins again, hoping the glint of something shiny might distract her.
‘Yes, but you’d know if the place had been sold, wouldn’t you?’
He didn’t know why he was protecting Louise Thornton. Just that, having been the source of local gossip himself a few years ago, he knew how unpleasant, how … invaded … it could make one feel.
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