Authors: Trisha Ashley
I thought this was more than optimistic. ‘You can see her point, Libby. She adored Joe, he was a father to her in every
sense. And I think girls often get on better with their fathers than their mothers, until they get older. You were fine until she was thirteen or fourteen, and then she started seeing you as competition.’
lovely when she was little,’ she agreed. ‘Then—bam!—in kicked the hormones and she turned into a sulky monster in a permanent strop.’
‘She’ll turn back into a human being again any minute now,’ I assured her. ‘And if she surfaces in London, Maria Cazzini will make her come to the wedding.’ Maria, the formidable matriarch of the family, had married the cousin who now ran the family restaurant business. A thought struck me. ‘You
invited your mother and sister, haven’t you?’
‘Tim said I had to,’ Libby said unenthusiastically. ‘I’ve told Daisy she’ll have to keep Ma off the sauce the whole day. I’m trusting her, but I’ll have a hire car on standby to whisk them away if she goes off-piste. I’ve booked them into a Travelodge, where I expect they’re used to getting all types, including drunken mothers of the bride.’
‘But I thought she’d joined AA and gone teetotal?’
‘That’s what she says, but Daisy reckons she’s just got more cunning about where she hides it.’
‘It was very kind of Daisy to move her down there and look after her.’
Libby gave me a scathing look. ‘It was Joe’s idea. He bought them the house and paid the bills. Now I send money every month and that’s another drain on my income, but at least I know Mum is eating properly and living respectably, because Daisy has control over everything.’
It was some years since I’d seen Libby’s mother, but even semi-reformed, she was still likely to add a lively touch to the wedding proceedings, not to mention raking up the past in the minds of those villagers who were still finding it hard to accept that any daughter of Gloria Martin could possibly marry a
Rowland-Knowles, so I could quite understand why Libby was reluctant to invite her. But Tim was right—it had to be done!
I emailed Pia and that night she phoned me. It was such a relief to hear her voice, even if she was in a strop.
‘How can Mum get married so soon?’ she demanded. ‘She can’t have loved Dad at all. It’s indecent!’
‘But she did love Joe very much, Pia, really she did. And it’s more than a year now. She and Tim just fell in love at first sight, that’s all.’
‘She’s too old to fall in love,’ she stated disgustedly.
‘Oh, I don’t think you’re ever too old, darling. And Tim is lovely—quiet and kind. You’ll like him, honestly.’
‘She doesn’t care if I’m there or not. She probably doesn’t want me coming along and making three.’
‘There you’re quite wrong. She does worry about you, and Tim is really looking forward to meeting you. He hopes you’ll make your home at Blessings with them.’
‘That’s the name of his house. It’s Elizabethan, and Libby’s currently designing your bedroom in one of the original chambers, so if you don’t want to find yourself in a flowery bower, with the gilded rococo bed with cherubs she is talking about shipping over from Italy, you ought to get down here and tell her so.’
‘Cherubs?’ she said, horrified. Then she collected herself and said tersely, ‘It doesn’t matter: I’m not coming.’
‘Where are you now?’
‘Pisa, with Gina. But she says they’re coming here for their honeymoon, so I’ll have to clear out to London then.’
‘Look, do come just for the wedding, Pia,’ I cajoled. ‘Some of the Cazzinis are—your aunt Maria, for one.’
‘Aunt Maria’s coming?’
‘Yes, she’s already sent an enormous Gaggia coffee machine
as a present, so I think you can take it that she approves! I’m sure she’ll be disappointed in you if you don’t come—and your mum will be deeply, deeply hurt.’
There was a small silence. ‘I
come up from London with Aunt Maria, just for the wedding,’ she conceded sulkily.
‘I think that would be a very kind and generous thing to do,’ I said encouragingly. ‘And perhaps you could ring your mother and tell her? She’d love to hear from you and—’
‘No!’ she said explosively and slammed down the phone, her volatile and passionate Italian side clearly getting the better of her good manners. But I was sure Maria Cazzini would manage to persuade her at least to turn up on the day and be polite. I hoped so, because otherwise Libby would be devastated and it would ruin her big day.
I rang her straight away and gave her an edited version of what Pia had said, because I knew it would be a huge relief to Libby just to know she was safe and well. Whether Pia turned up for the wedding would all depend on Maria Cazzini’s persuasive skills.
At dinner last night (Spanish omelette followed by a blackberry version of Eton mess), I said to Ben that he seemed to have an awful lot of calls on his mobile lately, and was everything all right?
I could tell something had been on his mind since he’d come back from London, even after he told me about Mary being pregnant, but I thought perhaps it had to do with his parents. He tends not to mention them to me; they’re a thorny subject.
He took a deep drink of elderberry wine and said, Actually, darling, there is something worrying me and I haven’t known how to tell you. In fact, I thought it would just sort of…well, fizzle out on its own.’
That was typical of Ben. He’d let problems slide in the hope
they’d either simply go away or
would sort them out for him, by which time they had generally escalated.
I leaned my elbows on the table and said encouragingly, ‘So, what is it?’
‘You’ll probably think this sounds silly, but I’m being…well, stalked.’
‘Pestered—followed—rung up and harassed. By this woman who has been buying my work—you know, the patroness?’
‘Now she seems to want to acquire me too. She must have a mental problem, because in her head she’s convinced that we’re already having some kind of relationship. It’s getting a bit embarrassing.’ He looked at me appealingly ‘I’ve tried distancing myself, but it’s very awkward.’
‘Yes, it must be! The poor thing,’ I added charitably, because I could see how easy it would be to fall for Ben and, if you were inclined to mix reality and fantasy, dream up a whole relationship in your head.
‘The Egremont Gallery must have given her my number, because she keeps phoning me up. I’m just afraid she might call the house too, and she’s so unhinged she sees you as the usurper, darling, so goodness knows what she might say.’
‘Do you know, there
been a lot of calls lately where the phone’s been put down the moment the caller heard my voice,’ I said. ‘Do you think that might have been her?’
‘Possibly.’ He leaned back, looking relieved. ‘I’m really glad I’ve told you about it now, Josie!’
‘Yes, but shouldn’t we tell the police or something? I’ve read of cases where stalkers can get quite nasty—even dangerous.’
‘No, I don’t think so. I’m sure she isn’t the violent type. And, after all, she’s not going to turn up here—it’s too far away—and in London I avoid her as much as possible. Let’s wait and see,’ he suggested.
He was probably right. For all we knew she made a habit of imagining herself in love with personable men and would soon lose interest in Ben and be off after someone new. And since after getting that off his chest he reverted back to being the good-natured, easy-going Ben I was used to, I felt much, much happier.
On Halloween I had a whole tray of small toffee apples to offer any young ghoul who turned up on my doorstep—and quite a lot did, attracted to my pumpkin lantern like moths to a flame.
I’d dipped the tops of the apples in dark chocolate and they were really yummy. Ben, who has a sweet tooth, ate three before the first trick-or-treater rang the bell, and there were only just enough to go round.
Country at Heart
article I had had an increasing number of enquiries about wedding cakes, though luckily once I made it clear that I only delivered locally, most of them lost interest. But not all. I was having to harden my heart and only take the ones I really wanted to do, because I didn’t want to spend all my time making weird and wonderful wedding cakes!
At the moment, Libby’s Pisa Tower cake was taxing my skills to the limit…
Round here, on Guy Fawkes Night, we still tend to carve turnip heads to put our candles in, rather than pumpkins. The smell of hot turnip, the exciting tang of gunpowder in the air and the taste of hard, home-made, splintery treacle toffee—those are the things I associate with 5
Sometimes we go over to the bonfire at Middlemoss, a few miles away, where they have the strange tradition of burning an effigy of Oliver Cromwell instead of Guy Fawkes…
‘Cakes and Ale’
Libby finally left for her shopping trip to London early next day, which, considering her wedding day was now less than three weeks away, was pushing it a bit. I was not even going to think about what monstrous bridesmaid’s creation she might bring back for me…
Later that morning I was standing at the sink washing up the equipment I’d just used to make parsnip wine, when I glanced out at the tranquil Green and spotted Aggie, the escapologist hen, wandering up the road. Without stopping to take off my red rubber gloves, I shot out of the front door.
A large, maroon car was sweeping up towards me
the unaware hen, who was ambling along in its path in an aimless, hesitating sort of way.
‘Aggie!’ I yelled, and, without thinking, leaped forward into
the road to make a grab for her. Behind me, the car slammed on its brakes with a squeal, but Aggie, squawking loudly, shot off across the grass, with me in hot pursuit.
Luckily, all the titbits I’d given her made her too fat to keep up any kind of pace, so I soon scooped her up and tucked her under my arm. She gave in instantly, and made amiable clucking noises.
The driver of the old Jaguar that had so narrowly missed us was now standing next to it: a tall, slender man with short, ruffled black hair and an olive complexion that contrasted startlingly with his light grey eyes. As we approached, he had the cheek to whip a camera up and click away with it!
I was already cross and this didn’t improve my temper, so I marched up to him and let rip: ‘Are you mad, driving so fast in a village? You could have killed Aggie—in fact, you could have killed both of us!’
‘Ooo-er!’ agreed Aggie, softly.
‘I wasn’t actually driving fast,’ he said, with a hint of amusement in those grey eyes that made me feel even crosser. ‘In fact, I was crawling—and I’d seen the hen. I just wasn’t expecting a madwoman in red rubber gloves to hurtle out right after her.’
Aggie made another throaty crooning noise and he lifted his camera—an old-fashioned one, I noticed, not a new digital job—and clicked the shutter.
‘What on earth do you think you’re doing?’
‘Sorry—habit. Do you mind?’ He had a very charming, apologetic smile that titled upwards at one corner, but I wasn’t at all beguiled.
‘Yes, I do mind!’
‘Once a photographer…’ he drawled, looking at me assessingly with half-closed eyes. ‘And you do make rather a unique picture, standing holding that hen.’
I became conscious that my hair was blowing out in the wind like a banner, my feet were bare and frozen, and my red rubber
gloves did little to add to an ensemble that consisted of a rather pulled green fleece over torn dungarees. ‘Maybe, but you should ask permission first!’
‘Sorry, it really was just impulse. Actually, I’m looking for a house called Blessings, if I have the name right. It sounds a bit unlikely.’
‘Yes. You’ve heard of it?’
‘You’re practically next to it. It’s that Elizabethan pile over there. Are you…I mean, do you know Tim Rowland-Knowles?’
He looked that type—sort of minor public school, comfortably off and assured.
‘Not yet. But an old friend, Libby Cazzini, says she’s going to marry him, so, since I was passing nearby, I thought I’d pop in on my way back to London.’
‘You’re an old friend of
?’ I gazed at him like the halfwit he patently thought me, while my brain digested a couple of things. ‘Oh…then would you be that photographer she told me about—Jonah somebody?’
‘Noah. Noah Sephton.’
‘I knew it was biblical. And you’re out of luck, because Libby’s actually on her way to London, to buy her wedding dress. Maybe you’ll catch up with her down there, though she’ll be a bit pushed for time since she’s coming back tomorrow.’
He smiled again, rather attractively. And I suppose
wouldn’t be the mad friend who chose to stay in Neatslake when she could have lived in London, by any chance? I can’t remember your name at all, biblical or otherwise.’
‘Josie—Josie Gray,’ I said, wondering what on earth Libby had said about me. ‘Does she talk about me?’
‘All the time.’ He offered a long, slim hand and, hampered by the hen, I shook it awkwardly. Then he turned to survey the Green and the church behind it, with its strange, rather squat tower and said, ‘Well, it’s a pretty enough spot, but I always
thought she’d had a dodgy start in life here and never wanted to come back again.’
‘So did I, but she always loved Blessings and now she loves Tim Rowland-Knowles too, so that’s the reason she’s coming back.’
I wondered if, perhaps, he had become more than just a friend since Libby’s husband had died (I knew her too well to think she would play around while she was still married); but he didn’t look upset or even slightly jealous, just interested.
‘So it’s really love, purest love?’
‘Definitely. Tim’s such a sweet man,’ I assured him. ‘They fell for each other the minute they met…or met again, because we’d played tennis with him when we were teenagers. I didn’t think he would remember us, because he’s a few years older and we were just tedious, giggly fifteen-year-olds at the time, but he says he does.’
‘Oh, well,’ he shrugged, ‘it seemed a bit sudden, but she’s old enough to know what she’s doing. Maybe I’ll see her in London, as you say. I’ll give her a ring. Should have done before I called in, only I was so near. And I did meet you, after all. I expect I’ll see you at their wedding?’
‘I suppose—’ I stopped, for the Jaguar’s passenger door had swung open and a girl with tousled blonde hair and the longest legs I’d ever seen got out. Even dishevelled, without makeup and in Ugg boots and a crumpled denim miniskirt, she looked beautiful. She just had to be a model, she had that ‘look at
!’ air about her.
‘Are you going to be much longer, darling?’ she asked Noah, ignoring me. ‘I’m freezing.’
‘Get back in the car then,’ he said shortly.
Behind her, Ben suddenly appeared in the cottage doorway, tall, tousled and chunky, a smear of ochre paint up one cheekbone. As always, I felt my face break spontaneously into a smile and my heart melt.
Noah, looking bemused at this sudden transformation from the half-propitiated virago of a moment before, moved aside as I wished him an absent goodbye and went in, hen and all—though not before he had whipped that camera up again.
I heard the whirr of the shutter and sincerely hoped he had forgotten to load it with film, or I might just appear in one of his exhibitions as ‘Portrait of the Village Idiot’.
When I told Ben who I’d been talking to, he was cross that I hadn’t introduced him.
‘He’s very well known and he’s photographed a lot of famous writers and artists. If he’d known who I was, he might have taken my picture and it could have done my career a bit of good!’
‘He seemed to be more interested in taking mine,’ I pointed out, ‘and Aggie’s.’ Under my arm, Aggie crooned agreement.
‘I can’t imagine why, unless he’s doing something on village characters. You do look slightly mad in patchwork dungarees, with a hen under your arm and red rubber gloves,’ he added with a grin, and I gave him a dirty look.
Then he compounded his insult by asking, ‘Who was the gorgeous blonde in the car?’
‘I have absolutely no idea,’ I snapped, and stalked past him, heading for the back door with Aggie.
Libby squeezed in a visit to Mary’s Chinese herbalist. In fact, she phoned me from there to relay a list of rather personal questions. It was just as well that Ben was shut up in the studio and Harry distantly hammering something in his garden shed. She said really the woman would have preferred a personal consultation, ideally with Ben as well, but she was making me something up to try until my next visit to London.
I told her she’d missed a fleeting visit by her photographer friend, though we didn’t have time to chat, she had too much to do.
* * *
I went over to Blessings next day and she gave me a package of pale jade-coloured pills and also a sort of herbal tea, with instructions. ‘But it can take a few months to work, and if it hasn’t by then, it probably isn’t going to,’ she warned me. ‘Ben might be the problem, so you may have to try and persuade him to consult her too.’
‘Thanks, Libby I hope it wasn’t too horrendously expensive?’
‘No, not really, and I was interested anyway, though I’m not about to do anything hasty unless Tim presses me about having offspring. I’d like it to be just us two for a while, at least—and Pia, of course, if she deigns to grace us with her presence.’ She paused, biting her lip. ‘You
think she will turn up, don’t you, Josie?’
‘Yes, of course I do,’ I assured her with a confidence founded on Maria Cazzini’s ability to make Pia behave properly, once she came within her orbit.
It seemed to cheer Libs up, because she stopped looking quite so worried and said, ‘Come on and I’ll show you the dresses!’
She led the way. She and Tim had already moved into the largest bedroom in the old part of the house, though she insisted on having a new mattress made to fit the ancient four-poster before she slept in it. Of the two small chambers off it, which had probably been servants’ rooms, one was now a solidly Victorian bathroom, all brass, and blue and white porcelain, and the other Libby seemed to be using as a walk-in wardrobe. She had installed a couple of long rails on wheels, but her wedding dress hung on a wooden peg against the wall, almost indistinguishable from the plaster.
She unhooked it and, holding it against herself, gave a twirl, so that the full skirts flew out around her. ‘What do you think? The colour is the exact match to the veil Dorrie gave me, but it took a bit of finding. You wouldn’t think there were so many shades of white!’
‘Lovely,’ I said, admiring the way the ivory silk and lace was ruched and draped and adorned with tiny crystals and small roses tinged with the palest hint of pink. ‘And a very modest neckline and sleeves.’
‘Of course! I’ve no intention of walking down a church aisle in one of these strapless ones, with my baps hanging out. It’s not my style at all, and anyway, it would be freezing in this weather. I’ve got a little fur-trimmed velvet cape to go to church in, if it’s really cold.’
It hung on the end of the nearest rail, the fluffy edges stirring slightly in the draught caused by Libby’s twirling about. She looked like the governess in
The King and I.
‘It’s not real fur, is it, Libby?’
‘No, of course not, it’s fake. Don’t get your thong in a twist.’
‘Briefs—cotton midi ones. Thongs are too hideously uncomfortable.’
‘Yes, I’ve noticed the VPL.’
‘I think VPL is sexy,’ I said firmly.
She gave me a look. ‘When I get to the church porch, I’ll take the cape off and hand it to you.’
‘What do I do with it?’
‘Hang it in the porch. I might need it on the way out, though I’d rather have the photographs without. And the rehearsal is the day after tomorrow, at four—is that OK?’
‘Yes, I want everything to go perfectly on the day, so we’re going to have a walk-through. There will be me, you, Tim and Nick Pharamond, the best man—he and Tim were at school together. You’ve met him, haven’t you?’
‘Yes, when I was making their wedding cake, and of course I’ve read his cookery articles in the newspapers. I found him a bit scary, to be honest.’
‘Tim says he’s more bark than bite. We’ve had Sophy Winter and her husband over to dinner once, but I’m not inviting the
Pharamonds until Gina gets here, because I don’t think my cooking’s up to their standards!’
‘I think your cooking is brilliant—or your pasta is, anyway,’ I added honestly.
‘Pasta is all I do, and I don’t even bother with that if Gina’s there to do it for me.’
‘So Gina is definitely coming to live at Blessings?’
‘Yes, she’s flying over before the wedding and will stay here while we’re on honeymoon. She’s packed up a lot of her things and sent them on, so she can make the flat a little home from home.’
‘It’s lucky Joe’s first wife was American, so Gina speaks English well, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘I hope she likes it here in Neatslake, because it doesn’t really have the attractions of a city like Pisa.’
‘Gina says Britain is a heathen country, but it’s her duty to look after me here, though what really swung it was the thought of having her own home, so she can invite her relatives to stay.’
‘I’m looking forward to seeing her again,’ I said, for when we’d visited Pisa, I’d spent many happy hours in the kitchen with Gina, learning how to do things the Italian way. ‘Did you say you’d managed to get my bridesmaid’s dress too?’
‘Yes, though I think it’ll need taking in at the waist. I was in a bit of a hurry after spending all day finding the perfect wedding dress and then visiting the herbalist.’
She took a shrouded shape off the rail and I saw the warm glow of pink through the white plastic with a sinking heart. ‘I knew it: it’s a Barbie dress!’
‘No it isn’t. It’s pink, I admit, but it isn’t the pale pink I wanted, more a pinky-purple old-rose colour—and actually, I think it will suit you.’
The dress was, in fact, much prettier than the stiff, flouncy, satin horror of my nightmares. It was made of fluid velvet, for a start, in a vaguely medieval style—close-fitting to the hips,
then flaring out in heavy folds to the feet, with long, tight, pointed sleeves and a gothic sort of neckline.
‘That’s really pretty!’
‘It’s the last thing they offered me, in desperation—a cancelled order. Look, just slip it on, so we can see how much it needs altering.’