Authors: Sharon Owens
By the same author
The Tea House on Mulberry Street
The Ballroom on Magnolia Street
The Tavern on Maple Street
Revenge of the Wedding Planner
The Seven Secrets of Happiness
A Winter’s Wedding
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London
First published 2010
Copyright © Sharon Owens, 2010
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
For Dermot and Alice
1. Trapped in the Doll’s House
Christmas Day was just two days away and London was shivering in the coldest December for thirty years. Nobody could remember a winter that had been so disruptive or where the sky had been so relentlessly grey. Windows were running with condensation, radiators were rattling with fatigue, and worn-out boilers everywhere were giving up the ghost. Fresh snow was falling all across the city and by mid-morning it was six inches deep, but thankfully it was dry and fluffy rather than icy and slippery and treacherous. Snow-covered gardens sparkled like spilt sugar in the weak morning sunshine.
Emily’s trusty little car crunched slowly up the pristine driveway to the Diamond residence. She noticed a meandering set of tiny paw prints near the front gates. Emily supposed that Mr and Mrs Diamond must have a cat. That was good, she thought to herself. A nice shot of a pampered, contented cat curled up in its cosy basket always went down well with the readers. Finally, she turned a corner in the driveway and saw the house itself. It was set in a small clearing amid a cluster of snow-laden evergreen trees.
‘Oh wow, it’s so, so beautiful,’ she said softly, though there was nobody there to hear her. She parked the car a little way back from the house, careful not to make any ugly tyre tracks near the front door. For this house was so amazing it would surely make the cover of their next Christmas issue. Arabella would be delighted. She always liked to have the prettiest Christmas cover in the industry.
Quickly Emily checked her make-up in the rear-view mirror and then opened the car door. A blast of icy wind went rushing straight up her nostrils and she sneezed loudly several times. The inside of her nose was suddenly alive with angry prickling and soon she was sneezing non-stop. Blinking rapidly, she felt a layer of mascara melt into her eyes. They began to sting fiercely and go red at the edges.
‘Perfect timing,’ she said. ‘This is all I need. Trying to take some decent photographs and conduct a vaguely interesting interview in the middle of a sneezing fit.’
Emily closed the car door again and began to dab at her nose and eyes with a clean tissue from the glove compartment. Her skin was snow white and her lipstick was an easy-to-wear bronze. Emily didn’t slavishly follow the latest fashion trends so there was no fake tan or dark-red lips for her. Everyone in the London media was obsessing over their looks these days, but so far Emily had remained relatively immune. This was not just because she was usually fairly easy-going but also because she didn’t have the money to indulge the fashion-loving aspect of her nature. She had big soulful green eyes with hazel flecks in them, and hair the colour of dark chocolate that she wore in a simple ponytail. Her only concession to high fashion was a glossy fringe that she set on a large roller every night before going to bed. She was tall and slim and a girlish thirty.
‘Right, that’s enough of your silly antics,’ she said, holding another tissue to her nose until it had warmed up a bit and she stopped sneezing. Just as she was contemplating adding a slick of mascara to her watery eyes, the front door of the house opened and a tall, good-looking man wearing a white crew-neck sweater and immaculate white cords waved out at her. With his healthy pink skin tone and the kindly twinkle in his eyes he looked a well-preserved fifty. He also looked a bit like a sweet little snowman in those all-white clothes, Emily thought to herself. She opened the car door for a second time and tested one boot on the glistening drive.
‘You found us without too much trouble, then?’ the man said cheerfully.
‘Yes, no trouble at all. Mr Diamond, I presume?’
‘Yes, do call me Peter. And you must be Emily?’
‘Indeed I am, and what a truly fabulous house,’ Emily said, stepping out of the car at last, her camera bag and handbag looped over one arm. ‘Your email didn’t do it justice, Mr Diamond. It’s just heavenly. I really love it. No, please don’t come out. I’ll just take a shot here of the outside of the house before anyone walks on the snow.’
‘Okay, carry on, just knock when you’re ready,’ he said, closing the door softly again.
And Emily did love the house. Tall and narrow, it looked almost regal standing here in its own grounds. Four storeys high, and everything that could be painted white had been: house walls, garden walls, window frames, front door. There was a pretty carriage lamp hanging above the door and a small potted lemon tree on either side.
‘It’s just like a doll’s house scaled up to life-size,’ Emily said suddenly.
Perfectly proportioned, beautifully presented and so self-contained, it felt as if the building were alive in some way, and expecting her visit. She took a few dozen shots with her digital camera and then rang the doorbell. By this time her nose had gone so numb that the sneezes were frozen inside it.
‘We have a pot of tea and some freshly baked mince pies all ready for you,’ Mr Diamond said, opening the door at once.
‘Thank you, how lovely,’ Emily replied, stepping gingerly into the hallway and shaking the man’s hand warmly.
She thought she felt his arm flinch slightly when their hands locked, and a brief flicker of anxiety passed across his narrow, blue eyes. But the moment passed and then he smiled again, the corners of his eyes folding up into very attractive crow’s feet. There was something warm and reassuring about this man, as if he would be good at looking after a woman. Emily could usually sense when someone had a kind heart. She had always had a sixth sense about people, and a feeling for whether or not she could trust them. It was a useful talent to have when she worked so much with strangers. Emily’s special talent had only let her down badly once; she really hadn’t seen the end coming to her relationship with her ex-fiancé, Alex. But then there were a lot of things about Alex that she had chosen to overlook during their years together. So she really couldn’t blame her instincts for failing to protect her from Alex; she’d never given them a chance to rally against him in the first place.
‘I expect you’ll want to take a picture of the tea things before we tuck in?’ Mr Diamond added, pulling Emily out of her reverie.
‘Yes, I always like to get a shot of the teapot if there’s a brew on offer,’ she smiled.
The carpet inside the house was the purest white. Up the stairs and in the rooms on the ground floor all was a sea of perfect uninterrupted white. Everywhere was vacuumed smooth with no footprints or vacuum tracks visible. Emily supposed they must have a special technique of backing out of the rooms as they cleaned. Emily had a white carpet in her bedroom back at the flat, but the walls were navy blue so the effect wasn’t nearly as ethereal.
‘I love your home, Mr Diamond,’ she said brightly. ‘The light is so soft. It’s like Narnia in here.’
And it did feel like Narnia in the Diamond house. Even the walls were white, and there were few pictures – instead delicate Venetian mirrors reflected back the light from the white-painted furniture, the collection of glass candlesticks on the hall table, and the massive glass chandelier hanging up on the landing. Heavy drapes muffled any sound of distant traffic.
‘Thank you very much,’ the man said brightly. ‘It’s all my wife’s doing. And do call me Peter, please. My wife’s name is Sarah; well, of course, you know all this already from my email. Now, would you like that tea?’
‘Lead the way. Are you regular readers of
?’ Emily asked.
‘We never miss it. It’s the highlight of our month.’
Emily nodded. She didn’t doubt what Peter said was true. In the ten years she’d worked for the magazine she’d met hundreds of people who lived for their homes rather than just in them.
‘Hello, you must be Sarah?’ Emily said as they went into the conservatory kitchen together.
A beautiful woman in her early forties was standing by an exquisitely laid table. Even the white linen napkins had been carefully folded into miniature swans.
‘Yes, I’m Sarah,’ the woman said. She was dressed in a white shift dress, with her long blonde hair pinned up.
Emily could sense that both this lovely man and his beautiful wife were very nervous about her visit. She got out her camera and began clicking immediately. From experience she knew that most people relaxed a little when the shoot got under way quite quickly. The light was just right in this all-glass extension and the snow-covered garden outside was the most romantic backdrop possible to the white china on the table.
‘It’s our wedding anniversary today,’ Peter said brightly. ‘It was snowing the day we got married too. A real blizzard it was. I had flu. We had to walk the last mile to the church because the wedding cars got stuck in traffic. I arranged this photo shoot as a surprise for Sarah.’
Sarah blushed as Peter took her hand and kissed her on the cheek.
‘That’s lovely,’ Emily said, taking a quick shot of the couple as they held hands by the massive fridge. ‘Okay, that’ll do for now.’
The three of them sat down at the pedestal table and Peter began to pour tea while Emily smiled encouragingly at both of them and got out a notebook and pen.
‘Not a tape recorder, then?’ Peter asked.
‘No, I prefer shorthand,’ Emily said, helping herself to a mince pie and a spoonful of cream. ‘It’s less intimidating, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ Sarah smiled.
‘So first things first – what do you both do?’
‘I’m an accountant,’ Peter said shyly.
‘And yourself, Sarah?’ Emily asked.
‘I’m just a boring old housewife,’ Sarah said quietly, and her pretty smile faded away.
‘Nothing wrong with that,’ Emily said quickly. ‘This gorgeous house must take a lot of looking after. Have you any children?’
‘No, we haven’t,’ Peter said matter-of-factly.
‘Okay, so tell me when and why you bought this house,’ Emily said.
‘My wife fell in love with it the minute she saw it,’ Peter said tenderly. ‘Ten years ago it was. We got a bargain really, because there was so much work to be done. The whole place was derelict, but Sarah brought it back to life.’
‘How lovely,’ Emily said. ‘Now, shall we get those all-important pictures of your Christmas tree?’
‘Yes, of course. It’s in the drawing room upstairs,’ Peter told her. ‘Luckily it’s still got all its needles, even though it’s been up since the first day of December.’
‘I can’t wait to see it,’ Emily said. She was also secretly eager to get a peek into all the other rooms. She never got tired of looking round other people’s houses.
‘Let’s go up,’ Peter said, showing the way.
Sarah remained sitting at the table as Emily followed Peter up the stairs and into the drawing room. He switched on the tree lights.
‘Well, that’s just splendid,’ Emily said, awe-struck at the sight of a ten-foot Blue Spruce covered in hundreds of white lights and handmade fabric love hearts.
‘My wife did it all,’ Peter told her proudly. ‘She hand-stitched every one of those little hearts. She’s so creative.’
‘She could be a stylist, you know,’ Emily said softly, clicking the tree from every angle. Again, everything in the room was white, elegant and perfectly arranged.
‘This house truly is the most amazing home I’ve ever set foot in.’
‘You are too kind.’
‘No, really, your wife has a genuine flair for interior design. I’m not just saying that. She ought to be a professional stylist.’
‘Sarah was an interior designer,’ Peter said sadly. ‘She was one of the best in London at one time.’
‘I see,’ Emily said, though she didn’t quite see.
‘I thought your boss might have heard of her?’
‘Well, I’m sure she has.’
‘You don’t have to say that.’
‘Arabella probably meant to mention it to me,’ Emily faltered. ‘She’s terribly absent-minded about names. I mean, I’m sure she would have come herself today if she’d put two and two together. Arabella loves to meet the real talent as well as the celebrities, and the regular readers, of course.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Peter said gently. ‘People tend to forget someone when they’ve been off the radar for more than six months.’
‘Tell you what, I’ll ask Arabella if she knows Sarah,’ Emily offered. ‘Maybe they can have lunch sometime?’
‘No, really, it doesn’t matter.’
‘Look, I’m very sorry if any offence has been caused.’
‘Dear me, no, there’s no offence taken. It’s just that Sarah is acutely agoraphobic, I’m afraid,’ Peter said, turning his back to Emily and gazing out of the window. ‘She never meets anyone for lunch any more.’
‘Oh dear …’
‘Yes, well, that’s life, I suppose,’ he said.
‘I had no idea anything was the matter. She seems so … I mean, what happened?’ Emily said before she could stop herself.
‘My wife was physically assaulted in an underground walkway near a Tube station. That’s what happened.’
‘Oh, how awful. How absolutely awful for her,’ Emily said, not knowing what else she could say. She discreetly put her camera away.
‘Some evil lowlife punched her to the ground and stole her bag and keys. Pulled the jewellery off her hands and cut her quite badly. He was a determined sort of chap by all accounts. It could have been much worse, I daresay, but some people came along and scared him off. Sarah was in too much shock to ask for help so she just staggered all the way home. Five miles it was, and then she waited on the doorstep for me to come home from work. She hasn’t left the house since.’
‘I’m so sorry. When was that?’
‘Nine years ago, just when the structural work on the house was nearing completion. I asked my company if I could work from home for a few weeks until she got her nerve back, but she never did. She had to give up her own work. The stress of getting around London on her own was just too much for her.’
‘Well, I suppose it would be.’
‘And we decided as the years went by not to have any children. It would have been too difficult, as you can imagine – to bring them up without Sarah ever leaving the house.’
‘I rarely go out myself any more,’ he added in a faraway voice. ‘It upsets her so much to be here by herself. And she doesn’t like anyone else but me to keep her company.’