Authors: Patricia Keyson
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Suspense, #Inspirational, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense
First published 2014
Not So Noble Books
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental. The spelling used is British English except where fidelity to the author’s rendering of accent or dialect supersedes this
ALSO AVAILABLE BY PATRICIA KEYSON:
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HOLIDAY ROMANCE ‘The perfect beach read’
Cherry looked in dismay as the pool of water bubbled its way up through the floor of her home. She’d known that the narrow boat was in bad repair, but had thought it would get her through another few months until she found somewhere more acceptable to live. Acceptable to her ex-husband that was, who felt it wasn’t the right environment for his son. She loved it on the river as did her eight-year-old son, Jay. Quickly grabbing a couple of pillowcases, she stuffed as many still-dry clothes and possessions into them as she could and hauled herself out of the watery cabin onto the towpath. She unlocked her bike from the side of the boat. Just as she was about to pedal off, a man in jogging gear came bounding round the corner. He was plugged in to his iPod and didn’t notice her until it was too late.
Watch out,” she shouted, as he nearly knocked her down.
He waved cheerily, not hearing h
er, and continued on his way.
Cherry then pedalled furiously to the Oarsman Hotel, further up t
he river. It wouldn’t do for her to be late for work on top of everything else. Her thick, unruly, dark hair streamed out behind her and her face grew hot with the effort of going as fast as she could with a loaded basket.
Sorry I’m late, Pat,” she panted as she hurtled through the staff door.
not. You’re on time. Calm down. Who’s after you?”
had a bit of a morning, that’s all,” said Cherry, running her fingers through her hair.
going to need more of a make-over than raking your hand through that thatch. Go on, clean up a bit.” Pat opened a locker. “And you’ll probably be better off with these.”
Cherry looked at the proffered soft, brown moccasi
ns, then down at her own feet. She was still wearing her muddy Wellington boots. “What would I do without you, Pat?” she smiled weakly.
Come and have a cup of tea when you’re ready,” encouraged her friend. “We’re not too busy this morning, but the new owner arrived last night so we’d better not hang about. And I’m not even going to ask what you’ve got in those.” Pat indicated the pillowcases with a shudder.
Ten minutes later
, Cherry emerged from the cloakroom looking a different person. Her hair was captured in a bouncy ponytail, she was wearing a pair of fresh mint-green overalls, and her feet were dry and warm in the moccasins. “Will I do?” she asked. She and Pat had grown friendly over the few months that Cherry had worked as a cleaner at the hotel. Although Pat was the housekeeper, she was not at all bossy and the two enjoyed an easy relationship.
Jay? He’s not in any trouble, is he?” asked Pat, pouring tea into two mugs.
No, he’s fine as far as I know. He stayed at his friend’s house last night.” Cherry settled herself in a plastic chair, then confided, “The boat’s on its last knockings as far as I’m concerned. It could be repaired at the yard, but I can’t afford it.”
But where will you live?” gasped Pat. “How will you manage?”
Now you know why I was so upset,” said Cherry, making a face. She took a sip of scalding tea, then said, “And the social worker’s meeting me here this afternoon. I couldn’t bear it if she took Jay away from me.”
* * *
After lunch, Cherry hurried along to the meeting room to clear up. It hadn’t occurred to her that it may still be occupied. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were still here,” she apologised. She didn’t recognise the man standing there, he was someone she would have remembered. In one long look she drank in his dark formal suit, set off with a snowy white shirt and gold tie. He looked tired, she thought, as his green eyes met hers. “Shall I come back later?” she added. More than anything she hoped that he’d say yes. Her body had taken over. A whole jumble of activity churned her stomach and she had to make a real effort not to reach out and touch him. She was hooked.
His eyes roved over her as he asked,
“What for? What have you come to do?”
I was going to take these things back to the kitchen. Can I get you some fresh coffee? It was a long meeting, wasn’t it?” Immediately Cherry knew she had said too much. It wasn’t up to her to offer coffee or comment.
If this was your hotel, would you make any changes?”
Yes, of course,” replied Cherry without hesitation. “But I don’t think you need my opinion,” she added tactfully.
Can you spare a few minutes . . .” he peered at her name badge, “Cherry?”
No, I can’t,” apologised Cherry, thinking of the social worker’s imminent arrival. She dashed for the door, hoping he couldn’t hear her pounding heart.
* * *
To those who knew Cherry, she was a hardworking, doting mother. She’d do anything to help or protect Jay. Very few people knew that she had an ongoing battle with her ex-husband about what was best for their precious son. Cherry was in no doubt that Alan loved Jay just as much as she did, but he lived at the other end of the country and was often away on business. If Jay went to live with Alan, he wouldn’t be with his father every day and Alan’s new wife always put her own two daughters before Jay. On the other hand, what could Cherry offer apart from all the love she possessed for her cherished son? Now she couldn’t even offer him a roof over his head.
As the clock ticked towards the expected arrival time of the social worke
r, Cherry was feeling jittery. After splashing cold water over her face and tightening the scrunchie round her ponytail, she made her way towards the lounge to meet the woman whose appraisal could break her heart.
Hello, Cherry.” The voice was stiff and restrained.
Hello, Mrs Talbot,” said Cherry, glumly. “Shall I get some tea?”
No, I don’t think this will take long, do you?” said Mrs Talbot frowning over the top of her glasses. “I came here past the river,” she continued, looking meaningfully at Cherry, who sagged. “What’s happened to your home?”
It’s sinking,” admitted Cherry. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Pat approaching the table. What was she doing? She usually kept out of the way when Cherry had personal matters to attend to.
Cherry, here you are,” called Pat, cheerfully placing a bunch of keys in her friend’s hand. Then she turned to Mrs Talbot. “The keys to Cherry’s staff accommodation,” she explained with an indulgent smile. “We value our good workers here.” She turned and walked away, leaving Cherry to recover quickly, slip the keys into her pocket and beam at the social worker. “So Jay and I will be living here. You can check up on us at any time.”
I see,” said the social worker frostily, gathering her papers and stuffing them into her briefcase. “Good afternoon.”
Cherry ran to find Pat.
“How can I thank you enough! Is it really all right if we stay?” Pat nodded, her eyes shining. “We won’t be any trouble, I promise. Which room have you given us? It doesn’t matter at all, I’d be grateful for a bed in a cupboard.” Pat still didn’t say anything. “It isn’t a cupboard, is it?” asked Cherry, her lips twitching. She delved into her pocket and pulled out the bunch of keys. “Chalet three? The self-catering places? But that’s terrific, Pat. Those places are bigger than the boat and there’s a separate bedroom and kitchen and everything.” She paused for breath, then asked, “What does the management say?”
That’s the catch,” confessed Pat. “I haven’t told them.”
Then what they don’t know won’t hurt them, will it?” But Cherry felt uneasy. “As you know,” continued Pat, “number three’s due to be renovated soon and has been empty for a week. As it can’t be let out, there won’t be any rent for you to pay.”
For Cherry to keep Jay, she had to have somewhere legitimate for them to live and it would only be a matter o
f time before that wretched Mrs Talbot found out that things were not as she had been led to believe, but for the time being she was more than grateful.
Cherry had a good arrangement
for the school run. She walked Jay and his best friend, Tom, to school in the mornings and Tom’s mum, Hazel, met the boys after school. She brought Jay to the hotel where he stayed until Cherry had finished her shift. Today, Cherry had mixed feelings as the time approached when she would have to break the news to Jay that their home was no more.
Hi, Mum. How’s the boat? Did you manage to pump out all right this morning?” was the first thing he said when he saw her.
It wasn’t so easy this time, Jay. The bilge pump wouldn’t work because the water had spoilt the batteries. The hole must be getting bigger and I’m afraid the river water won. I’m sorry, but the boat’s sinking.” Her heart went out to her son. Hazel, appreciating the situation, steered Tom towards the door.
Where will we stay? Are we homeless?” said Jay.
We’ve got a new home here for the time being. Want to see?” Cherry took his hand and walked him across a paved area to chalet three. Making a big show of opening the door, she bowed and ushered her son inside. “What do you think, love?”
Wicked!” said Jay wandering from the sitting room through to the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom.
I thought you could have the bedroom and I could sleep on the fold-out bed in the sitting room,” replied Cherry cheerfully. For all its faults, the old boat had been their home for a while now and they were both going to miss it.
Jay jumped up and dow
n on his bed and looked around. “Where are the rest of my things? Will we be able to get them?” he asked anxiously.
I saved what I could, but some of it was so muddy and drenched, I had to leave it. I’ll go back later and see if there’s anything else I can bring over. Now, what sort of a day did you have?” She watched as Jay held out his plastic folder stuffed with a reading book, spelling words and drawings. On the top of the see-through folder was a picture he’d drawn of their boat, Dream Maker.
Can I stick this up somewhere, Mum?”
Of course you can,” said Cherry, ruffling his hair. She’d die if she had to give him up.
* * *
Cherry pedalled back to check on the boat after leaving Jay in the hotel lounge. Armed with black rubbish bags this time, she climbed down into the boat and gathered more of their possessions. When she had gathered as much as she could reasonably carry on the bike, she tried to make her exit. The riverbank appeared much higher up now as the ailing boat slowly sank deeper.
Need a hand?”
Cherry looked up and saw the jogg
er who had passed her earlier. Ruefully, she accepted that she did need help and grudgingly held out her hand.
Not looking too good, is she?” said the stranger. “Not that I’m an expert.”
She’s done for,” said Cherry, furiously hoping she wouldn’t start crying. Rapidly changing the subject, she said, “I know all the usual joggers along here. You’re new.”
I’m staying at the Oarsman, do you know it?”
I work there. Nice meeting you . . .”
Darius,” he smiled.
Cherry tried not to gape.
“Like the guy on the X Factor, or was it Pop Idol?”
. “I think my parents had the Persian Empire more in mind at the time.”
His laugh was infectious and Cherry found herself smiling, until she remembered that
she’d have to call on the lock-keeper and ask his advice about the disposal of the boat and its contents. It wouldn’t do for the possessions she couldn’t rescue to be found floating up the river.
* * *
Before collecting Jay, Cherry took a short walk down to the river. She breathed in the evening scent. The grounds of the hotel had seemed more inviting a few weeks ago when the cherry blossom was out, but soon the flower beds would be in full colour. Hopefully her life would blossom too, but at the moment it seemed unlikely.
I think we have unfinished business,” called a voice.
Who’s that?” Cherry felt a thrill as she half recognised the tone of the man in the meeting room. As he came into full view, she felt the tremor run through her body again.
Working late, are you?” he asked.
Just getting some fresh air before,” she hesitated, “going home.”
He came and stood close to her, his citrus aftershave mingling with the ot
her fragrances of the evening. As she looked at him a frown creased his forehead and he cocked an eyebrow.
Sorry, did you say something?” asked Cherry, feeling enormously stupid, like a schoolgirl.
Earlier on, you said you’d make changes to the hotel if it were yours. Tell me what they’d be.”
Cherry focused her attention
on the question and the river. Anything to take her mind off this man, whoever he might be. “Well, for a start, I’d include that.” She nodded towards the river. “I’m sure people book into this hotel because of its name. They expect to have access to the river. It would be good to include boat trips, or a few little rowing boats that they could use to go along to the lock. A couple of chalets could be erected further down from the hotel, much nearer the river, for fishermen. The hotel could host special breaks, like Murder Mystery weekends, singles events, wine tastings. There’s so much that could be done. It’s a nice enough hotel, cosy, but a bit . . .” Having let her imagination run away with her, Cherry realised just in time that she had said enough, if not too much. She looked up and bit her lip.