Read Winners and Losers Online

Authors: Catrin Collier

Winners and Losers (57 page)

‘I wish I had hair as thick and straight as yours. It never tangles or frizzes, just stays put when you pin it.' Rhian brushed it out, caught the end and twisted it into a neat knot on the crown of Julia's head.

‘You wouldn't like the colour.' Julia picked up her hairpin box.

‘I think it's lovely.'

‘I don't. I'd give anything to have blonde curls and big blue eyes like you.'

‘And be a maid?' When Julia didn't answer, she added, ‘Mrs Williams says we always want what we can't have. Pass me a pin, please.'

‘Have you decided whether or not to meet Mr Evans today?' Rhian and Julia had no secrets from one another and Rhian had told her about Joey's offer to get her a coat and his invitation to spend the afternoon with him.

‘I still haven't made up my mind.'

‘You only have a couple of hours left.'

‘I know.'

‘I'm dreading tonight. Mrs Larch has invited thirty people for a New Year supper.' Ignoring the fact that Julia was two years younger than her, Mabel Larch had demanded that both her stepchildren address her as ‘Mother', with the result that Julia and her brother Gerald avoided calling her anything to her face and ‘Mrs Larch' when they had to resort to naming her.

‘With thirty people coming, there's bound to be someone nice you can talk to,' Rhian reassured.

‘Is there?' Julia enquired sceptically. ‘I scanned the guest list. I scarcely know any of them. And,' she wrinkled her nose, ‘I doubt my father and brother do either.'

‘You never know, one of them might be an explorer or archaeologist who can't wait to tell you about his latest find.' The authors who had fired Rhian's imagination the most were Rider Haggard and Kipling.

‘Can you see Mrs Larch inviting an explorer into her drawing room? She'd be terrified that he'd bring a pet lion cub or wear muddy boots.'

‘Real explorers would do both.' Rhian looked at Julia and they burst into giggles.

‘It would be wonderful if an Allen Quartermain did walk into our drawing room tonight, but even if by some miracle he did, he wouldn't want to talk to me.' Julia fingered the gold locket around her neck that held a photograph of her mother.

‘Why wouldn't he?' Rhian slipped the last pin into the knot. She leaned forward, studied Julia's reflection in the mirror and teased a light fringe out on to her forehead.

‘Because I'm dull and boring.'

Rhian suspected that Julia was repeating something Mrs Larch had said. But she wasn't in a position to criticize her mistress. ‘You read so many books and you know so much about art and music, you could never be boring, Miss Julia. There, your hair is all done.'

‘Could it be you don't find me boring because you're a good listener, Rhian?' Julia left the stool.

‘No, because I've learned a lot from you, and, while I think of it, thank you for lending me
Kim.'

‘Have you finished it?'

‘Not yet, because Bronwen won't let me use up a week's attic candle ration in a night. Do you want it back?'

‘Not until you finish it. And if you're short of candles, sneak some from the storeroom.'

‘The mistress inspects the attic.'

‘If you've a spare half hour, come in here, switch on the electric light, empty the top drawer of my dressing table on to the bed and if she finds you, tell her I ordered to you to tidy my room.' Julia gave Rhian a rare smile that lit up her face and added sparkle to her eyes. ‘Since Mother died, you're the only person I can talk to about books. Father likes reading, but between work and his other commitments he never has time. And all Gerald wants to do is ride his bike and sneak whisky from the cabinet in my father's study.' Julia plucked nervously at her gown. It was black, like all her clothes. Despite her father's remarriage she had refused to stop wearing mourning for her mother.

‘I have to go down and eat breakfast before Bronwen starts serving it upstairs.' Rhian gathered her cloak and bag from the chair.

‘And I have to go down and check that Mrs Williams has everything in hand. The slightest thing out of place seems to upset Mrs Larch.'

Neither of them doubted that the housekeeper would have everything under control, but whether Mrs Williams's arrangements would be to Mrs Larch's satisfaction was another thing. Julia opened the door and they stepped out on to the landing. Edward Larch was leaving his bedroom. He stopped and looked at both of them.

Embarrassed to be seen in the family quarters out of uniform, Rhian bobbed a curtsy. ‘Sorry, sir.'

‘It's Rhian's day off, Father,' Julia reminded him.

Edward loved Julia dearly but every time he saw her he couldn't help wondering how he, and petite, delicate Amelia, with her fair hair and gentle blue eyes, had produced such a daughter. He and his son, Gerald, were tall, slim, fair-haired and blue-eyed, like his Scottish father. But if they owed their looks to some raping, pillaging Norseman, Julia had reached even further back, to a time when flame-haired, raw-boned, uncouth Scottish clansmen had ruled the glens. She would have made a striking peasant. A carthorse of a woman, sought as a wife for her strength and capability for hard work. Certainly, she would have looked more at home in a primitive croft than a drawing room. Whereas Rhian ...

‘Father?'

Edward realized then that he was staring at the maid. ‘Sorry, I was miles away,' he lied. It was the first time in months he had seen the girl out of uniform and he was amazed that he'd never noticed her resemblance to his late wife before. Freed from her uniform cap, her blonde curls were the exact same shade as the lock of hair secreted in the back of his wallet. Her eyes were just as blue – and worryingly disturbing. ‘Enjoy your day off, Rhian,' he snapped, more abrupt than he'd intended.

‘I will, sir.' Glad to be gone, Rhian put her head down and walked to the end of the passage. Just as she closed the door to the servants' staircase she heard Mrs Larch shout.

‘Edward, what is that girl doing in the family quarters, out of uniform?

The
Brothers &Lovers
series
by
Catrin Collier

 
 
 
 

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