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Authors: Christina Jones

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BOOK: Jumping to Conclusions
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Hutchinson,' Gillian corrected, sweeping reams of scribbled-on paper to the floor. 'My darling husband – for his sins. Now, where shall we start? Ooh yes, drinks.'

As Gillian opened a well-stocked fridge and clinked white wine, soda and ice into long glasses, the radio suddenly spurted into life.

'And it's another complete disaster!
" The commentator's voice ricocheted round the make-shift office.
'It looks as though we have a major problem here, don't you agree, John? Yes! Oh, this could be catastrophic! I think there's going to be a delay to the start – if not a complete abandoning of the race -

The running – or not – of the Grand National was the last thing on Jemima's mind. She looked around the summerhouse in some confusion. It certainly appeared to be an office complete with word processor and fax machine, while at the same time housing all the usual garden paraphernalia – and every inch of it was buried under scribbled on papers, screwed up scraps of notepad and a million empty cigarette packets.

'Everyone in the village has backed Dragon Slayer.' Gillian handed Jemima her glass and lounged elegandy against the fax machine. 'What's your money on?'

'Nothing. I didn't even realise it was the Grand National today.'

'What?' Gillian looked scandalised. 'Oh, no – listen ...’

'... and unless they can clear the course,'
the commentator had run out of clichés and was into second-guessing,
'I think it'll be another débâcle. What can you see from your end, John?'

From the silence it was apparent that John couldn't see anything. The commentary crackled again.
'Sorry, John. Gremlins in the link line... Not our day... And back here at the start everyone is getting very nervous…’

'Poor darlings,' Gillian purred. She raised her glass. 'Cheers. Here's to a long and happy friendship.'

'But, don't you want to know a bit about me? And aren't I supposed to look at the flat? I mean, I know I sent references but –'

Gillian drank half her spritzer in one go. 'And they were wonderful! God had simply answered my prayers – I knew that as soon as I read your letter. I couldn't believe it. I had no idea who was taking over the bookshop – the jungle drums had completely seized up on that one. And then – there you are! We've got so much in common! I'm a writer, you see.' Gillian scrabbled for a cigarette and inhaled joyously.

'Oh, right.' Jemima, still sipping through enough ice cubes to sink the
was trying to keep up. At least it explained the office.

The racing commentator was speaking in hushed tones now the way they do after a disaster. Something nasty was happening at Aintree. Jemima really didn't care. 'I don't know if I made it clear that I'm here a bit ahead of schedule. I've sunk every penny into the shop so I'll need to earn some money before it opens. I won't actually be gainfully employed until July.'

'I gathered that. It won't be a problem. There's plenty of temp work in the village if you're not picky about what you do. The Cat and Fiddle could do with another barmaid, and Maddy Beckett runs a cleaning firm – she's constantly on the look-out for casuals and if the worst came to the worst, you could always help me with Leviticus and Ezekiel.'

Jemima racked her brains and wished that she'd concentrated more on her religious education classes at school. 'Er – Deuteronomy – um – Numbers – and oh, Genesis.'

Gillian looked slightly doubtful. 'Oh, yes, well done. Now what were we talking about – ah yes, Leviticus and Ezekiel.'

'You write religious tracts?'

Gillian's laugh sent another wodge of papers cascading to the floor. 'Whatever gave you that idea? I write romance.'

'But Leviticus and Ezekiel?'

'Leviticus and Ezekiel are my sons.'

God Almighty. Jemima spluttered through the wine. 'Oh, lovely. Er – how old are they?'

'Twins. Eight. Strange age.' Gillian stubbed the cigarette out in a plant pot and smiled indulgently. 'They're really looking forward to you moving in with us.'

And yes, we have confirmation of a delay
.' The radio trumpeted into life again.
'Ten minutes at least to clear the course...’

Gillian groaned. 'Animal rights protesters I'll bet! Silly woolly green liberals! That could be the end of my fiver.'

Jemima, whose sympathies lay entirely with the protesters, tried very hard not to think about gambling. Gambling immediately led her to thoughts of her father. At least he wouldn't be able to remortgage the family home to raise this year's stake. The house had been repossessed in January. This year, Vincent's stake would probably be a loan from someone with shifty eyes who he'd met in a pub. Someone with bad teeth and bad breath and a betting shop stoop. Someone else to come thundering on Vincent's bedsit door demanding payment.

Her father had always convinced himself that his gambling was for his family's benefit. Vincent Carlisle had never used his own money – even when he'd had any. For years he'd been borrowing from the small building company he ran, until the coffers ran dry and the auditors moved in.

'The flat is in the Vicarage attic,' Gillian continued, still obviously tuned in to the Aintree developments. 'And you've got your own front door, and I don't mind if you want your lover to stay over or anything – Glen and I are very broad-minded.'

That at least wouldn't be a problem. 'I haven't got a lover.'

'Really?' The green eyes widened. 'We'll have to remedy that! Does that mean you're taking the flat?'

Before Jemima could answer, the radio got all excited.
'There are some developments here at Liverpool! It seems as though they've cleared the last of the protesters away from Bechers, so we may have a start very soon, eh, John?

John at last broke through and seemed determined to get his fair share of air-time.
'It looks like they'll be off at any moment – although the jockeys have been circling at the tape for some considerable time now – and unlike the heatwave in the south, we seem to have got a typical north-west gale blowing. Everyone is very cold. The delay could have unsettled a lot of preparations ...'

'As long as it doesn't unsettle Dragon Slayer or darling Charlie.' Gillian refilled the glasses, lit another cigarette, and hitched the floaty silver dress above her slender knees as she perched on the desk. 'So, where were we? Oh, yes – you'll be taking the flat?'

'No – well, not no exactly. But we haven't discussed rent or the deposit, and I haven't seen it and you really don't know anything about me.'

'And they're off! The Grand National is underway at last! Several slow starters but they're heading for the Melling Road for the first time and ...'

Gillian's eyes were glazed as she sucked feverishly on her cigarette. Jemima, who didn't want to listen, stared through the summerhouse window and wondered if planning to open her own bookshop was possibly not the brightest idea she'd ever had. She'd been employed as a bookseller for eleven years at Bookworms in Oxford, and no one had expected them to close so abruptly. Maybe she should have sunk her savings into something safer, something more high-tech and millennium-friendly, like mobile phones or computer software.

'And there's a faller! Two – no three – down at that one! All horses up on their feet! Two jockeys still on the ground! They're heading for Valentine's now ... and the leaders are up and over! All over! No, there's another faller! Dragon Slayer and Charlie Somerset have gone at Valentine's! The favourite is out of the National!'

'Fuck it,' said Gillian.

Half an hour later Jemima felt as if Jeremy Paxman had invaded her soul. Gillian Hutchinson had left no corner of her life undisturbed.

She'd completely understood that Jemima couldn't stay on in Oxford under the circumstances – or – heaven forbid – doss-down in Vincent's mangy bedsit. She'd dismissed Jemima's fears about her venture and declared that opening the bookshop in Milton St John was the best thing that had happened to the village for years. In fact, she announced, Milton St John in general was exactly what Jemima needed to shake off the cobwebs of her previous existence.

Jemima, on her part, was delighted with the low rent, loved the description of the flat, was scared rigid at the thought of Leviticus and Ezekiel – not to mention the Vicar – and found herself warming to Gillian more with every minute. She still couldn't quite believe that she'd told Gillian all about the party-thing. She'd never mentioned a word of it to anyone else. Still, Gillian, being a vicar's wife, was bound to be ultra discreet, wasn't she?

'Come on then.' Gillian once again linked her arm through Jemima's. 'Let me show you the flat. It's really sweet. I'm sure you'll love it.'

'But won't Mr Hutchinson want to interview me too?' Jemima queried as they climbed the vicarage stairs. The house was centuries old; homely, untidy, and exquisite. 'Surely he'll need to be assured that I'm suitable?'

'Goodness,' Gillian puffed at the top of the third flight of stairs, 'he already knows that you are. We've discussed you endlessly since we got your letter. It'll be you he's worried about – and now you've told me about what happened in Oxford I'm sure you'll be well able to hold your own with the twins. Nobody's actually bitten them before. It might do them good. Here we are ...'

Gillian unlocked a battered oak door and ushered Jemima into the flat. Large leaded windows looked down on the village street from one side, and the tiny church and sprawling shrubbery from the other. All around, the chalky Downs dipped and rose like a petrified ocean and just faintly, in the distance, unseen cars swished in the searing heat. The rooms were pale and airy beneath vast sloping ceilings, and Jemima knew she had found her new home.

'Oh, goody,' Gillian said, looking at Jemima's face. 'You can't imagine how grateful I am. When do you want to move in? You do like it, don't you?'

'I love it.' Jemima was still doing lightning fiscal calculations. She had just enough money saved for the deposit. As long as Gillian was right about the amount of temporary work in the village, she should be able to afford the rent until the bookshop got going. She looked at the glorious view again and decided that she'd sell her soul if necessary.

'Does a twelve-month lease sound right?' Gillian asked vaguely. 'I'm sorry that I'm not more business like. We've never let the flat before. It used to belong to the boys' Nanny and went with the job – but she's retired and –'

'Twelve months sounds perfect,' Jemima said, wondering if the Nanny had been pensioned off suffering from nervous exhaustion. Having had very little contact with children, and not being sure that she even liked them, she was still a littlle daunted by the sound of Leviticus and Ezekiel. 'You can always get rid of me, if I'm not a suitable tenant.'

'The boys'll do that,' Gillian said happily. 'Now, are you sure we've covered everything?'

'Yes – except I'm not a regular church-goer. And I do tend to lapse into "Oh, God!" and "Jesus!" occasionally.'

'If that's all you come out with after spending time with the twins you'll deserve to be canonised. Shall we say you'll move at the end of the month? The first of May sounds like a good day for starting afresh, doesn't it?'

It did. That would give her four weeks. Just enough time to work out her eviction notice in Oxford. Jemima had nodded again, trekked down the twisting staircases, was kissed fondly by Gillian, and found herself once more on Milton St John's sun-baked main street. Gleeful shrieks echoed from the village green and people were chatting animatedly outside the Cat and Fiddle and the Village Stores. A ginger cat washed itself leisurely on the vicarage wall.

Jemima took another look at her empty shop, visualising the shelves crammed with colourful jackets, the window displays, the comfy chairs and low tables for the browsers, and was beaming as she unlocked Floss's door. The air of brooding unreality had completely vanished and Milton St John had become far more
Thrush Green
Midwich Cuckoos.
She only hoped she'd feel the same way about it after May Day.

Chapter Two

This had been, without doubt, the worst day of his entire career, Charlie Somerset thought as he pushed the Aston Martin to its limits along the M6. Tearing away from Liverpool in the April dusk, wanting to put as many miles between him and the humiliation as possible, the speedometer was flickering at 120.

Running away? He'd never run away from anything in his life – except maybe one or two irate husbands. What the hell was the matter with him? So, he'd fallen – so what? All jump jockeys fell – it was par for the course. Half the jockeys in the Grand National had been unseated at sometime during that afternoon's four and a half miles. The fact that his horse, Dragon Slayer, was reputed to have superglue on his hooves; had never so much as stumbled in his glittering seven-year career; and had been red-hot favourite to win Aintree's Blue Riband, merely seemed to compound his felony in the eyes of the race-going public. The gamblers of the nation were baying for his blood.

He braked sharply behind a BMW dawdling at 90 in the outside lane and irritably flashed his lights. And it hadn't been only the punters, Charlie thought miserably. Torquemada and Medusa had been waiting for him afterwards.

Kath Seaward, Dragon Slayer's trainer, had been skin-strippingly scathing in her criticism. Almost worse was the reaction from Tina Maloret, the horse's owner. She'd looked at him disdainfully, as though he'd sailed from Dragon Slayer's saddle at Valentine's simply to embarrass her. Tina Maloret, with her yard-long legs which had so recently wrapped themselves sinuously round him; and her collagen-enhanced lips which regularly attached themselves to various parts of his body with more suction than a Dyson vacuum cleaner, had glared at him with contempt in her eyes.

He groaned at the memory, finally intimidating the BMW into taking refuge in the centre lane.

Tina had been banking on basking in the limelight this afternoon; counting on it to accelerate her catwalk career. 'Supermodel Wins National!' She had probably already written her own press release. He groaned again, this time more loudly because the Aintree bruises were beginning to make their presence felt, and the year-old injury to his leg, sustained in a crashing fall at Newbury, had decided to come out in sympathy.

BOOK: Jumping to Conclusions
6.1Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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