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Authors: Hester Browne

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The Vintage Girl (19 page)

BOOK: The Vintage Girl
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“Whatever.” I crunched faster. “They’re shared romance. My biggest fear is marrying a man who gives me power drills for Christmas, like Dad does. Okay, so maybe I overcompensate, and maybe I do want things to be rosier than they are; but honestly, if you’d grown up in my house, you’d be making top-ten favorite historical periods for proposals too.”

Robert kindly said nothing.

I stopped, and he stopped next to me. “Catriona’s already mentally redecorating the house for when you’ll move in together,” I said. “Please don’t make a fool of her, just because you don’t know what you want to do with yourself. Do you love her?”

I didn’t think so. There were no sneaking glances, no excuses to touch. But then, what did I know?

Robert looked uneasy. “Cat’d make an excellent mistress of a house like Kettlesheer,” he said. “And I think she’s being pushed into it as much as me. She’s a nice girl, I like her. It helps that her dad’s the only bloke round here with any money.” He arched an eyebrow. “Nothing changes much.”

“What if there was something in the house that was worth selling?” I asked eagerly. “Something … really important?”

“Is there?”

“There might be.”

He looked at me shrewdly. “Then Dad wouldn’t sell it.”

“Unless you persuaded him that it was worth it, to keep the house.” I looked Robert in the eye. “If you found a reason to keep Kettlesheer in the family.”

He didn’t drop my gaze, and we stood in the moonlight, trying to read each other’s minds. Robert’s gaze was fierce, and it really felt as if he was trying to drag the thoughts out of my head.

I thought of petite Violet, toughening to survive the Scottish winters, and Ranald, wrapping her in his thick tweed topcoat as they walked back to the lunch hut after a late-autumn pheasant shoot. I didn’t know where the image had come from, but it was sharp in my mind.

“You look cold,” he said. “Let’s get you back to your bed. Come on.”

He put an arm around me, initially to move me along, but he left it there as we walked, and it warmed me up. There was no actual physical contact through our many, many layers of clothes, but the gesture was warm.

The woodland was thinning out now, and as we stepped onto the path that led to the house, a cloud moved away from the moon. Clean, cold light flooded Kettlesheer’s turreted roofline, leaving it stark against the sky like a film set.

“Fabulous,” I breathed.

“All it needs now is a werewolf,” agreed Robert. “Or a broomstick.”

“Or a family ghost.”

“I’m sure we’ve got one of them,” he said. “I’m surprised you haven’t found one.”

“Give me time,” I said. “I’ve got a few more days …”

Robert smiled, and it reached his unsettling, beautiful eyes.

Stop it,
I told myself.
This isn’t your fairy tale.

Nineteen

I tried to get hold of Alice before breakfast, after breakfast, and on the half hour before lunch, but she wasn’t answering her phone. There were things I needed to discuss with her as a matter of urgency—what I was going to wear, for one, and when she was going to call poor Fraser with a decent explanation.

It wasn’t as if I had time to run in and out, since I was also supposed to be handing Duncan a preliminary list of what he could expect to sell. To do that properly, I needed to hear from Max about the table, and he was proving elusive too.

Meanwhile, Kettlesheer itself was metamorphosing into a green and gold winter palace. Despite the thick snow blocking some roads, the Ball Committee and its team of volunteers had descended on Kettlesheer with a vengeance, and now tumbling arrangements of ivy and golden apples were springing up everywhere and massive candles were being fastened in every crevice. Ladies in tartan pinnies whisked dusters around while log fires were built in every available grate and scattered with fragrant pinecones.

Deliverymen wheeled box after box of wine through the hall, supervised by Fraser, who’d arrived in his off-duty red jeans to brief the bar staff on the drinks they’d be serving and also to speak with the caterers preparing Ingrid’s dinner for sixty.

Poor Fraser kept trying to catch my eye like a freshly kicked spaniel, clearly hoping for some news of Alice’s sprained ankle. I was already avoiding Catriona and her Bluetooth headset. She’d cornered me in the dining room while I was trying to get another look at the Chippendale and made me demonstrate the steps of the Duke of Perth reel using eight silver salt and pepper pots being polished by Sheila and Ingrid.

(I got it more or less right, though, as Sheila pointed out, it would have been easier if the condiments had been more obviously male and female.)

The whole morning was very like a reel: me scuttling in and out of rooms, round and behind everyone else, swapping one conversation off against another, and generally trying to avoid everyone other than Sheila and Ingrid.

I couldn’t avoid them: they both had lists of tasks for me to help with.

“It’s all hands on deck,” said Ingrid, who’d taken on a much happier air since I’d hinted about the possible lifeline in the dining room. “Where’s my son? He should be up here, mucking in.”

“If he doesn’t come up to help us, I’m going down to get him,” announced Sheila, over the sound of a Jacobean reiver-crushing shield being covered in bubble wrap by two of Janet’s elderly foot soldiers. “He
knows
we’re run off our feet.”

“He’s maybe working,” I said. “His office is phoning him even though he’s on holiday.”

“And what am I doing?” demanded Ingrid wildly. “Self-tanning? So much for glamming up before the ball—have you seen my nails? I’m going to fail Janet’s inspection!”

Sheila turned to me. “Evie, do you have to go down there this morning for e-mails? Maybe you could persuade him to grace us with his presence.”

“I’m not sure I’m his favorite person this morning,” I said. “We had a bit of a discussion about the house last night. I think I might have been rather … frank.”

I’d actually woken up at 6 a.m. with some of the things I’d said clanging in my ears. I’d gone
far
too far. I barely knew the man, and I’d told him what he should do with a life I had no clue about. And oh, God, I’d also admitted my own most embarrassing secret. Not even Max knew about Jack Wrightson and the Invisible Proposal. Yet now Robert did.

Sheila gave me a shrewd look. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve seen more of Robert round here this week than we usually do in a month.”

“It’s true,” said Ingrid. “Last time he had dinner up here voluntarily was when the river flooded and his electricity went off. And yet … twice this week.
And
a trip to the Grahams’.”

“Where he’s not set foot in over a year, despite repeated invitations.”

They turned their combined laser beams on me.

“I think he just enjoys talking to someone from London,” I offered weakly.

“But, darling, you
don’t
talk about London,” said Ingrid. “You only seem to talk about this house!”

“Ladies! What a hive of industry!”

We all jumped as Duncan strode in, his gingery hair wild around his head like static.

I slid my notebook off the table and onto my lap, where it wouldn’t draw attention to itself. I had a draft list of items to discuss with him, but obviously the table made a huge difference. And beneath my bubbling excitement about it, I couldn’t quite shake off that odd sense of … wrongness.

“Evie, we must find a moment amidst this fevered preparation to sit down and discuss your discoveries,” said Duncan. “When do you think would be a good time?”

“When’s a good time for you?” I hedged.

“This afternoon?”

I glanced at Sheila. “Actually, if the main road’s clear, I was hoping maybe Fraser might be able to drive me into Berwick this afternoon. Alice’s dress still hasn’t arrived, and I need to find something to wear.”

“Poor Alice. Did she manage to get to the post office?” Ingrid asked innocently. “How is her ankle? It was her ankle, wasn’t it?”

“Yes.” My neck went hot. “I expect she got her assistant to parcel it up.”

Bloody Alice, I thought. These were really,
really
nice people, and I was having to lie to them—and I couldn’t even do it convincingly because I was as clueless as they were about why she was being so rude.

“Och, I’m sure he’d be happy to take you,” said Sheila. “He’s always going on about how that car of his could drive up the side of Ben Nevis.”

“This evening, then.” Duncan rubbed his hands gleefully. “I must admit, I’m quite excited—it reminds me of opening the first bottle of the year’s vintage. How have we done? What surprises will there be? What delights have been revealed?”

“Duncan,” I began nervously, “it’s really only a preliminary—”

“I’ll go and find Fraser now,” said Sheila. “Can’t have Cinderella going to the ball with no dress!”

“Who doesn’t have a dress?”

Catriona had appeared in the doorway, clipboard primed for action and problem radar swiveling.

“Evie’s ballgown hasn’t arrived yet,” said Ingrid. “She was hoping Fraser could run her into Berwick this afternoon, to see what she can find.”

“But Fraser’s supposed to be moving the trestle tables downstairs for the caterers to start setting up.” Catriona’s mouth closed, her eyes went blank as her brain worked; then she smiled, plan formed. “I’m sure
I’ve
got something you can borrow, Evie. The roads are awful—Ollie Jennings nearly wrote off his Subaru last night. You could be gone hours, and there’s no guarantee you’d find anything. We’re about the same size, aren’t we?”

I wasn’t sure what to say without being rude to one of us. I was at least four inches taller than Catriona, but whereas she spent her free time riding and breathing country air, I spent mine eBaying and chain-crunching Pringles, and the difference was at least one dress size.

“I’ve got a couple of stretchy ones,” she offered, as if reading my mind. “I can pop home at lunchtime and bring some over for you to try.”

“That’s
very
sweet of you, Catriona,” said Ingrid. “I’d offer Evie something from the trunk we found, but they’re so tiny, the old dresses, aren’t they, Sheila?”

Sheila nodded. “I’m having to let them out for Ingrid, and you can see what a wee bird she is.”

“No, I’ve ripped enough vintage jackets in my time to know I’m not vintage-sized,” I said. “Thank you, Catriona.”

What else could I say? It wasn’t that I wanted to go to the only ball I’d ever be invited to in someone’s old “stretchy” dress, but what alternative was there? I crossed my fingers that somehow Alice’s ballgown might still turn up. That was definitely worth another call. She could harass the couriers from her end.

“I’ll pop back now and sort that out.” Catriona flashed me a satisfied smile and pulled a pen out of the top pocket of her pinafore to jot a reminder on her clipboard.

I noted, with a sinking heart, that she was wearing a pinafore. That didn’t bode well for the dresses.

“And I’ll go and see if I can raise Robert,” I said. It occurred to me that if I called Alice from
Robert’s
landline, she might just pick up.

“You do that, hen,” said Sheila with a wink.

*

Outside the sun was bright and surprisingly warm on my face, despite the nip in the air. In the distance the Cheviots were solid white with snow, and the sky above them was pure and clear like pale blue glass.

The second I got any reception at all, I pulled one flap of Robert’s trapper hat up and applied the phone to my ear to get my messages.

To my absolute astonishment, the first was from Alice, Queen of Cheek. She must have called in the three-minute window when I hadn’t been trying to call her.

“Just me, checking in to see if everything’s okay. Have you got the dress yet? And have you remembered to leave some money in your room for the housekeeper?”

“Oh, for God’s sake!” I spluttered. She couldn’t stop micromanaging even when she’d bailed out.

The second message was also from her. “Meant to say, is Fraser all right? What did you tell him? I hope you didn’t tell him anything too outré.”

That was it. I phoned her back, ready to leave a ripsnorting message when she didn’t pick up.

Imagine my surprise, then, when she did.

“Evie, are you all right?”

I stopped walking. I was right in the middle of the woods, halfway between the lodge and the main house. No one could hear me.

“Finally you pick up,” I said icily. “I’ve only been trying to get hold of you all morning. How are you?”

“Fine,” she said. “Apart from this client of Mum’s—he’s a footballer and he collects turf from famous pitches, can you imagine the mess, they’re all over the—”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Oh,” said Alice in a small voice. “Is this about Fraser?”

“Yes,” I said. “It
is
about Fraser.”

Maybe it was something about the snow and the woods that unleashed some unusually fierce home-truth-dispensing instinct, but I was overwhelmed with a vision of Fraser dropping everything to drive me into Berwick with his snow chains, Fraser patiently teaching me to dance, Fraser covering up his disappointment so as not to spoil my weekend, when in fact Alice had just ruined his. Maybe even ruined his lovely planned proposal.

And this wasn’t me whipping up imaginary visions; this was real.

I’d always fancied Fraser, but I’d never
liked
him as much as I did after this week. He was a real gentleman, and he didn’t deserve to be messed around with like this. Especially if that reason was something to do with Robert.

Oh, God, it was so complicated. Alice always managed to make things so
complicated
, when all I wanted was a nice, straightforward happy-ever-after.

“Alice, there’s something I have to say, and you mustn’t interrupt until I’ve finished,” I began.

“Oh, actually, while I remember—the dress,” Alice interrupted, before I’d even stopped telling her not to. “You might need to get some Spanx—”

“No!” I shouted, then lowered my voice. “I mean, no, it’s not about that, it’s about Fraser.”

That
shut her up.

I swallowed and crashed onward, walking fast as if my feet could somehow give my brain momentum.

“I need to know why you’re not coming,” I said. “I can’t carry on lying to everyone—it’s not fair on me or him. And besides which, I think you’re making a huge mistake. He is an
amazingly
nice man.”

“Don’t, Evie.”

“Don’t what? Don’t remind you what you’re risking screwing up here? Do you know how his mother is looking at me right now? Sheila’s not a stupid woman, Alice. She knows there’s something up.”

“Don’t,” she said again, in the
la-la-la not listening
tone that reminded me of Mum.

“Don’t say
don’t
! That’s the problem, no one in our family actually gets past the bloody
don’t
!” I spun round, frustrated. “It’s Robert, isn’t it? Have you had some kind of fling with Robert and you’re scared of seeing him? Because if it is that—
don’t interrupt me!
—I can totally see why, he’s incredibly sexy in that smooth London way you go for, but he’s not Fraser. And frankly, he’s so completely wrapped up in his own problems that I very much doubt he’d even find time to—”

“It’s not Rob. I mean, Robert,” said Alice. “We’re … I mean, he’s … there’s nothing to discuss. Ask him.” She paused. Then said, “Actually, don’t ask him.”

“Well,
that
tells me everything!” I declared.

“No, it doesn’t. You’re making it sound all dramatic and it’s not,” she said crossly. “We just … had a misunderstanding. That party I met Fraser at—well, I thought I was going
with
Robert, only I wasn’t, as it turned out; but it was okay because I met Fraser, but ever since, Robert’s always been a bit ‘You’re not good enough for my mate because you flirted with me,’ and then we had a bit of a frank exchange of views about business, and …”

I was stalled at the part where Alice had imaginary relationships too.

“We get on fine now,” she insisted, “apart from when he tries to boss me around. Fraser says we’re very alike, which I don’t see at all. I honestly didn’t know he’d be there this week. If I’d known, I’d have told you.
Warned
you.”

“So why aren’t you here?” I demanded. “The only explanation I can think of is that you’re trying to let Fraser down gently, and if that’s the case, you’d better be really sure you know what you’re doing, because there are girls
queuing up
here for him.”

“I’m not trying to let him down,” she spluttered. “What gives you that idea?”

“I know what you’re like,” I went on. I wasn’t going to bring this up, but I heard myself saying it anyway. “How long have you two been going out? Two years? Isn’t this about the time you normally bail? When they try to give you the key to their flat?”

“I do not!”

“It’s exactly what you do!” I howled. “Every time! You audit them, and always find a ridiculous problem. Alice, Fraser is a keeper! He’s going to be a fantastic father, and a gorgeous, supportive husband, and in thirty years’ time he’ll be a silver fox and your daughter’s friends will have massive crushes on him!”

BOOK: The Vintage Girl
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