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Authors: Hester Browne

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The Vintage Girl

BOOK: The Vintage Girl
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Hester Browne is the author of numerous bestselling novels
including
The Little Lady Agency in the Big Apple
,
The Finishing
Touches
and
The Runaway Princess
. She divides her time between
London and Herefordshire.

‘Hester Browne writes with such wit and polish.
I love it!’ Sophie Kinsella

‘Gorgeous writing’ Jill Mansell

‘Deliciously addictive’
Cosmopolitan

‘Funny and flirty’
Glamour

First published in the United States in 2011 by Gallery Books

This ebook edition first published in 2012 as
Swept Off Her Feet
by
Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
London
W1U 8EW

Copyright © 2011 by Hester Browne

The moral right of Hester Browne to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Ebook ISBN 978 1 78206 566 1

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.

You can find this and many other great books at:
www.quercusbooks.co.uk

Also by Hester Browne

The Runaway Princess
The Finishing Touches
The Little Lady Agency and the Prince
Little Lady, Big Apple
The Little Lady Agency

For the Flourish Walls reelers, belles and trotters, with love and thanks

Acknowledgments

I fell in love with Scottish reeling a few years ago, and when I say fell, I mean,
fell
. Evie’s encounter with the log basket is based on my own undignified destruction of a similar basket during my first encounter with a truly masterful spinner. I don’t know why the Scots bothered with claymores when they could have easily spun the English right back over the border with one flick of their mighty wrists, taking out chunks of Hadrian’s Wall as they went.

Now, though—at last!—I have a proper place to apologize to the Charterhall Academy of Scottish Dance for the broken furniture, and to thank its long-suffering teachers for their wonderful hospitality. Kettlesheer Castle, the McAndrews, and the famous table are fictional, but the magic of reeling and turning and skimming across a roomful of kilts and bare arms at two a.m. is entirely real. Thank you so much for inviting me.

I’m constantly grateful to my agents, Lizzy Kremer and David Forrer, for their encouragement and jokes, and to my editor, Kara Cesare, and the team at Gallery Books, for their enthusiasm and patience. The writer is only one person in the Reel of the Romantic Novel, and I’m lucky to dance it with some wonderful people.

One

Everyone has a weakness. Some people have a weakness for champagne cocktails. Or older men with French accents.

My weakness is old French champagne glasses. Preferably ones that have seen a bit of
après
-midnight action. Or English pub glasses with real Victorian air bubbles, or those 1950s Babycham glasses with the cute little faun.

Any kind of glasses, actually, they don’t have to match.

Old
sun
glasses too, come to think of it. Also, gloves (satin evening ones, especially), vintage wedding photos, fountain pens, trophies for long-forgotten tournaments, postcards …

Okay, fine.

My name is Evie Nicholson, and I am addicted to The Past.

*

“A child’s teddy bear, circa 1935.” Pause. “Missing one eye. And left arm.”

Max looked up from the printout the auctioneer had enclosed with the delivery, and fixed me with his best withering gaze. It wasn’t the one he used to persuade rich Chelsea wives to buy chaise longues they didn’t strictly need. It was astonishing what Max could sell, simply by draping his lanky frame over it and flashing his Heathcliff eyes. Only now they were looking less
Come to bed, Cathy
and more
I’m going to burn down your house and do something unspeakable to your puppy
.

“Would you please explain why you bought a one-armed blind teddy, the stuff of pure childhood nightmares?” he inquired.

“He’s a Steiff, and he was going for a tenner,” I muttered, picking the bear out of the delivery box.

Up close, he was a bit …
mangy
. When I’d spotted him in a box in the salesroom, all I’d seen was his threadbare nose, the fur worn away by thousands of kisses from his sailor-suited owners. I’d seen T-strap shoes and nursery teas and nannies with starched aprons. This brave little bear had once had pride of place in a smart London nursery; I couldn’t stand seeing him waved around by some unfeeling porter, unwanted. He was worth
one
bid, surely?

“You paid a tenner,” repeated Max, “for something even the moths have moved out of?”

I tweaked the bear’s wonky limbs into an appealing hug. “Someone’s obviously loved him. He deserves a good retirement home.”

“Someone loved Adolf Hitler, but that doesn’t mean I’d be happy to fork out real money to sell him in my shop. With or without eyes.” Max shook the paper again, and it opened up to another three pages. He let out a strangled squeak of horror.

Three pages! I bit my lip, and propped the bear on a bookshelf. I didn’t remember buying quite so much. I’d gone in there with my catalogue strictly marked up and sat on my hands for loads of amazing bargains.

“Honestly, it’s not as bad as it looks,” I said. “I’ll pay for some of those myself. I can always eBay what—”

Max’s hands flew up as if he were warding off evil spirits. “Don’t say
that
word in
this
shop!” he roared.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

“Oh, God.” He hunched his narrow shoulders and closed his eyes, squeezing his hand over his forehead in theatrical despair. “We’re going to have to have The Talk again, Evie. Where shall I begin? With the fact that one man’s junk is nearly always
another man’s junk
?”

“But—”

“There is a difference between collecti
bles
, and dust collect
ors
,” he began with vicarlike relish. “To succeed in antiques, you’ve got to ignore the item and focus on the
person
you can sell it to …”

I clamped my lips shut. This was a major bone of contention between Max and me, but for the purpose of filling in the ten minutes until my sister, Alice, galloped to my rescue, I decided to let him do his routine. Antiques for me were all about the lives they’d once been part of. I loved the whispers of the past they carried, the proof that those period films had once been real life. Max, on the other hand, was all about the money. He obsessed about the covert movement of valuables from one wealthy family to another like someone studying the Premiership football-team transfer market, but with Sheraton dining sets instead of soccer players.

His shop in Chelsea, where I worked and he flounced about, provided a small taxable income, most of which was snapped up by his ex-wife, Tessa, but Max’s real work was discreetly acquiring treasures from the impoverished English aristocracy and finding new homes for them in Cheshire, New England, or the millionaires’ mansions on the outskirts of London. A bit like Robin Hood, except he was the only one who made any money, and I was the one who wore the tights.

“Your problem is that you only ever buy for
yourself
,” he droned on, “and you’re hardly the most discerning—”

“That’s not fair!” I protested. “I spotted some Chanel costume brooches for Mrs. Herriot-Scott. Big camellias, genuine, in an old biscuit tin—no one else bothered to check it.”

I didn’t add that
I’d
only opened it because I was a sucker for lockets concealing wartime sweethearts, and you only found those by trawling the depths of general house-clearance boxes. And biscuit tins.

Max ground to an abrupt halt at the mention of Mrs. Herriot-Scott, one of his favorite clients. We loved her, and her insatiable desire for expensive plastic.

“Ah, well, that’s different.” His black eyes glittered as he calculated the markup. “What about that Georgian card table Jassy de la Mara asked us to look at?”

I glanced at the door and surreptitiously checked my watch. Max was on the second page, when my bidding had got a bit … well, emotional.

“The card table wasn’t right. Reproduction. But I picked up some nice cranberry glass,” I said.

Max’s face was crumpling alarmingly as he read on.

“And I got some Weymss piggy banks,” I added, my voice rising. “For Valentine’s presents? It’s that time of year?”

“My God,” he said, his voice cracking with grief. “Are you trying to break me? Is Tessa paying you to destroy my credit rating as well as my credibility?”

Too late. He’d obviously reached the photo frames, my Achilles’ heel.

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said in a small voice.

He thrust the list at me. “Evie, Evie, Evie, not wedding photographs
again
.” Max clapped a hand to his head. “Do I even have to look at them? What freaks have you snapped up this time?”

Damn,
I thought. Max would choose this one afternoon to roll back in after lunch. The one afternoon Lots Road Auctions decided to deliver late. He never noticed half my purchases normally; I was an expert at buying, staging, and reselling before he even noticed the shop looked different.

“They’re good old frames!” I argued. “And if they’re already filled with wedding photos, it’ll give people looking for wedding presents the
buying feeling
!”


Hello?!
These freaks would put anyone off getting hitched!” Max reached into the box and shoved the top frame under my nose with such urgency that his leather jacket squeaked. “Four eyes and not one of them looking in the same direction!”

If I was being honest, the frames weren’t that special, but I felt so sorry for someone’s great-grandparents, dressed up in their finest and looking so happy, being sneered at and passed over. Chucked onto the unsold pile. What was twenty quid a go?

Plus hammer tax.

Plus VAT.

I swallowed, and wished Alice would hurry up. I had a bad feeling about where this was going.

Max regarded me with a mixture of frustration and despair. “I’m beginning to think I should start going to auctions myself.”

“Yeah, right,” I scoffed, before I could bite my tongue.

Max hadn’t been to an auction within fifty miles of the shop in five years, on account of his chaise-longue-lizard reputation going before him, and the prices rising accordingly as all the dealers in the room abandoned their bickering and clubbed together in order to see off Max Shacks, the Housewife’s Choice. That was the whole point of having an assistant to do his bidding. Literally.

“It’s all perfectly salable.” I swiped the list of out his hands before he got to the moth-eaten sampler that had made me go all Jane Austen. “If I wanted it, someone else will.”

“That’s the trouble, though, isn’t it? You’ve got more of my stock in your flat than I have in here.” He paused in his ranting and asked curiously, “Speaking of which, did you ever manage to get that knackered Chinese silk dressing screen up your stairs?”

“Yes,” I said, lifting my chin. “It’s giving my boudoir a very Edwardian ambience.”

Max snorted. “You are still living in that sixties block of flats round the back of Fulham Palace football ground, aren’t you?”

“It’s not where you are, it’s … what you have around you. It makes me
feel
Edwardian.”

He sighed and looked down at the list. “Evie, this really isn’t the week to be filling the shop with tat because you feel sorry for it. I’ve got the accountant coming in—we’re living in hard times …”

I’d heard this one before as well, and was easily distracted by the doorbell jangling. The deliveryman had returned. He was backing in under the weight of my final mercy buy, and when he turned round, giving me a full view of what I’d bought, I blanched.

“I know, I know. Why don’t you sit down, and I’ll make you some coffee?” I gabbled, hustling Max toward the tiny office in the back.

Too late. Hearing the bell jingle, Max turned round and staggered back against an Arts and Crafts bookcase in shock.

“Where’d you want this, mate?” the deliveryman asked, weaving slightly beneath the weight of a massive oak-mounted stag’s head. The stag had seen better days. One glass eye was drooping, as if he’d had a dram too many, and both antlers bore traces of tinsel from some recent Christmas party at the auction house.

Max turned to me and widened his eyes until I could see the whites around the bloodshot bits. “Why?” he demanded.

“It looked so noble!” I pleaded. “It just screams
stately home
! I’ll find a buyer for it, Max, I promise.”

“Who?” We’d reached monosyllables. Not a good sign. Max generally loved the sound of his own voice.

“Um …” I racked my brains. “Um, animal lovers? People with hats?”

The deliveryman swayed, but wisely stayed silent.

Max sank onto a mahogany dining chair and put his head in his hands. Then he removed it, and demanded, “How much?”

“Um, I think it’s a good price for—”

“How
much
, Evie?”

“Two hundred pounds,” I said in a very small voice.

“Nnnggghhh.”
Max shoved his hands into his hair and gripped tightly. Along with his suggestive mouth and cavalier way with priceless heirlooms, his hair was one of his redeeming features, being thick and black and tinged with gray, in a sort of rakish Shakespearean-actor fashion. In idle moments, I sometimes pictured him in a doublet and ruff, complaining about the price of lampreys.

Sadly, the hair and the mouth did not make up for the foul temper, the inability to work a credit-card machine, or the biting sarcasm that he liked to think was Wildean but usually made him come across more like a petulant geography teacher. He also habitually wore a long leather coat—the trademark he hoped would eventually get him a gig as a TV antiques expert.

“You are paying for that out of your own money,” he informed me, emphasizing each word with a stab of his finger.

“Fine,” I said, a bit too brightly. “Why don’t you take it out of my—”

“No.” This time his voice was very distinct. “No, you’re already down to a hundred and ten quid for the month, thanks to that filthy Edwardian wedding dress that even Miss Havisham would have used for dust rags. I want the money in cash, in my account, by the end of the month.”

“But it’s
February
, it’s a short month! And I’ve still got Christmas to pay for,” I protested as the deliveryman inched his way backward out of the cluttered shop. He gestured toward the stag and made
I’m not taking that back
gestures.

I ignored him.

“Keep them, sell them, I don’t care,” Max went on. “But I want the money. For the freak-show photos, the deformed teddy, the moth-eaten stag, everything. Now, not over time. It hurts me to do this, Evie,” he added, less convincingly, “but it’s a lesson in business. You are here to learn, are you not? Or am I running some kind of flea market?” He paused, then frowned, distracted. “What’s that?”

A long streak of something red had appeared at the window and was peering inside.

“Sweet Jesus! Has that postbox moved?” Max demanded. “I have
got
to stop drinking with Crispin at lunch—”

“No,” I said, getting up to let Alice in. “It’s my sister. And don’t be rude about that coat—it’s her style statement for this winter.”

“Alice? I’ll go and make some coffee,” said Max and slunk off.

Alice was one of the few people I knew who could carry off a bright-red maxi coat. She was very tall and always gave the impression she was wearing a cape, even when she wasn’t. She was, by profession, an “interiors consultant,” and her swishy efficiency extended from her cowed clients to her enviable wardrobe: Alice spent a fortune on one dramatic item per season and wore it everywhere, referring to it constantly in the fashion singular. Once everyone had fallen under the spell of her “key piece,” she “retired” it (i.e., passed it on to me) and moved on to the next.

Max had once tried to argue that his leather coat was a key piece, but as Alice pointed out, rather brutally, it was more of a meanness issue than a style one. He’d had it so long that on a pay-per-wear basis, it now owed him money. Alice didn’t show her clothes any loyalty, whereas it would take pliers to get that thing off his back.

She swept in, chestnut hair swinging like in a shampoo ad, and I could tell by her eyes, skittering from box to box, that she was itching to tidy up.

“Evie, don’t tell me anything, I want to guess why you SOS-ed me,” she said by way of greeting. “Has Max got the call from
Antiques Roadshow
? Has he
finally
schmoozed his way to fame?”

Alice threw one hand dramatically onto her hip and knocked over a Chinese vase with her sleeve.

BOOK: The Vintage Girl
6.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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