Authors: Carrie Cox
Lauren seemed to have the opposite problem to me. Where I struggled to find the right words and couldn’t say the things I needed to, Lauren seemed to be able to talk the hind legs off a donkey, as my mother used to say.
The unexpected memory of my mother made my eyes prickle with tears. It always happened when glimpses of the past caught me unawares. I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to concentrate on what Lauren was saying.
She was turning in circles, babbling about the beautiful house and the gorgeous gardens. It said a lot about how preoccupied I was. I barely noticed the gardens when we pulled up, but I guess gardens are Lauren’s thing. I envied her really, working out there on the gardens and not having to deal with any people sounded pretty good to me right now.
A smile twitched at the corner of Alexander Harding’s mouth. He seemed to be amused by Lauren’s enthusiasm.
“I’m glad you like the house. I hope you will both feel at home during your stay. I will do everything I can to ensure your stay is … comfortable.”
I’m not sure if I’m imagining things, but Alexander’s gaze seemed to fix on Lauren’s mouth.
“Perhaps if I arrange to have your things taken upstairs, you can settle in, and then we can have dinner together tonight, at say…” He looked at his wristwatch, which was clearly expensive and no doubt cost more than I would earn in a year. “…Seven o’clock?”
Lauren beamed at him. “That would be great.”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
Alexander Harding was putting me off balance. He was treating us more like guests than employees, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like not knowing where I stood.
“Until dinner,” he said and nodded. He turned and walked away, leaving us standing in the huge hallway.
Lauren blinked a couple of times as if she was just coming round after being under a spell, which in a way I suppose she had.
“You weren’t very talkative,” she said.
“You talked enough to make up for that. You talked enough for
Lauren grinned. “I can’t help it. He just has that effect on me. Isn’t he gorgeous?”
I glanced towards the corner of the room where the maid, Maria, was still standing and looking at us curiously. I was pretty sure she had heard what Lauren said. I blushed. “We better get our things.”
As I turned to pick up my suitcase, Maria rushed up to us. “No, no, leave that. I’ll arrange to have them brought up,” she said in perfectly accented English.
“It’s fine,” I said. “We can manage them.”
“No, really,” Maria insisted, shaking her head. “Mr. Harding wouldn’t like that.”
I reluctantly let go of the handle of my case. “Okay, fine,” I said and took a step back.
It seemed strange to have Maria looking after us. I felt uncomfortable having someone wait on me, especially as I was only staff as well.
“Have you been working here long?” Lauren asked her.
“Two years,” she said. “It’s a nice job. I like it.”
We followed Maria upstairs.
It was a huge house, but luckily everything seemed to lead off from the galleried landing, so I thought it would be relatively easy to find my way around the upstairs. With my sense of direction, that was a very good thing.
Maria took me to my room first and waited to see that I had everything I needed before heading off to show Lauren to her room.
I kicked off my shoes and wiggled my toes, glad to be rid of the sensible shoes Kate and Lauren had picked out for me.
I sat down on the bed. It was a very pretty room, but it was simply furnished like the rest of the house. The bed was covered with plain white, cool, crisp cotton sheets. The floor was smooth oak.
White shutters were pulled across the window. I supposed it was to keep the room cool, but it was blocking the view. I pushed back one of the shutters and stared in awe. From here, I could see across the entire bay, and because the house was only slightly set back from the cliffs, it really was spectacular.
The clouds still hung heavily in the sky, but the rain had stopped. It was beautiful. I was still staring out of the window when Lauren poked her head around the door.
“So, what do you think?” she asked. “Are you glad you came?”
I turned to face her. “It’s beautiful, but I don’t belong here.”
“What are you talking about? Belonging has nothing to do with it. You’re here to do a job, just like me.”
“But I’m not like you, Lauren. You’re qualified to do this job. You’re going to love working in that garden and you will do magical things and make it look even more beautiful than it does already.”
“Yes, but your job is even more important.”
I whirled around to face her. “But I’ve got this job under false pretenses.”
“False pretenses? Don’t be so silly. You’re going to be great at this job. Alexander Harding hasn’t asked for any certificates. You need to relax.”
I shook my head. I felt bad for letting Lauren down. But the truth was, I did get this job through a lie. An omission of the truth was still a lie. But I wasn’t going to convince Lauren of that. So I’d just have to wait until I could speak with Alexander Harding alone and confess.
“Do you think it’s strange he hasn’t mentioned his brother yet?” I asked.
Lauren shrugged, “No, not really. I mean, we’ve only just got here.”
I nodded. “Yes, of course, you’re right. I just thought I’d see him straight away.”
Lauren reached out her hand and tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “You’re just nervous, Kristina, but he’s going to like you. I mean who wouldn’t, right? They’d have to be crazy.”
She grinned at me, and I rolled my eyes.
Distracted by a swooping gull outside the window, Lauren moved closer and stared out at the beautiful scenery. “I’m going to have to go outside and have a proper look at the gardens. I just can’t wait any longer. We’ve got an hour before dinner, do you want to come?”
I turned her down. “I’m going to give Kate a ring to let her know we arrived.”
“Okay, good idea. So I’ll see you just before dinner? We can go down together?”
After Lauren left, I called Kate on my cell phone. The call cost an astronomical amount per minute, but it was worth it. I needed to hear my sister’s voice.
I missed her.
She’d always been the good daughter, the clever one, the perfect one. And I’d been the tearaway, the black sheep of the family. After our mother’s death, I’d really gone off the rails. I’d lived in a way that had dulled the pain. It stopped me hurting, but it wasn’t who I wanted to be. I wanted to find my way back to the person I’d been before the drugs took over.
Kate’s fiancé, Benjamin Easton, had been very generous and paid for my rehabilitation and for that I’d always be grateful. But I didn’t think the rehab had worked due to the expensive clinic. I think it was just my time. Something inside me had snapped, and I didn’t want to be that person anymore. The trouble was, I didn’t really know who I was anymore.
Connecting with Kate helped. It made me remember the person I used to be and the person I still wanted to be.
After I hung up, I had a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I really wasn’t one for crying, but I just felt so out of my depth here. I didn’t know how to do the right thing.
This was supposed be my fresh start, but I didn’t want a fresh start based on lies.
I knew what I’d have to do. No matter what Lauren said, I had to tell Alexander Harding the truth.
I had to tell him I’d lied.
At five minutes to seven, Lauren knocked on my door. She had changed for dinner and was wearing a gorgeous, black, fitted dress. It was knee-length, elegant and tasteful. In other words, it wasn’t something I would usually wear, but she looked fantastic.
Her hair was pulled back and fastened with a Diamanté comb. She had obviously taken time over her makeup, too.
I grinned at her. “You look great. Are you trying to impress someone?”
She scowled at me. “I’m just making a bit of an effort. I thought we should.”
“I’m only teasing.”
I was wearing a navy blue wrap dress. Another item of clothing Kate had bought me. It was probably a good thing she had insisted on revamping my wardrobe. If a skirt ended mid-thigh, that used to be long for me. And when she’d inspected my wardrobe, Kate had pursed her lips and held up a selection of tops. In her words, they
didn’t leave much to the imagination.
I felt almost sophisticated in my modest blue dress. I closed the bedroom door behind me and linked arms with Lauren.
“How were the gardens?” I asked as we made our way down the hall towards the galleried landing.
“Absolutely beautiful,” she said. “Really, they are just gorgeous. But I’ve got so many ideas, so many things I want to try. I mean, I’ll have to talk it over with Mr. Harding, of course, but I’m really hoping I can make some amazing changes. I’ve never worked on a garden like this. And the climate is so different over here. It’s going to be brilliant, such a challenge.”
Excitement shone brightly in her eyes, and I squeezed her arm. I was glad Lauren was happy. Even if I couldn’t stay here, I still wanted it to work out for Lauren.
And she needed this job. I knew things had been tough for her after her father had died and left her the family gardening business. It had been hard to get enough work to keep the business afloat, but I’d never met anyone as determined as Lauren. When she wanted something, she wouldn’t rest until she had it.
We were met at the foot of the stairs by Maria. “I’ll show you to the dining room,” she said.
The dining room was no less impressive than the rest of the house. A huge crystal chandelier hung over a gleaming mahogany dining table that seated eight.
“This is the small dining room,” Maria informed us. “We only use the large dining area when we have a number of guests. Mr. Harding finds this more intimate.”
“Um, I see.” I wasn’t sure what else to say. Butterflies danced in my stomach.
Alexander Harding was already seated at the table. He got to his feet and smiled at us.
I let go of Lauren’s arm, and my hands fluttered at my sides. I wasn’t sure where I should sit. Glancing at the table, I could see multiple sets of cutlery on the white, starched table cloth and the butterflies in my stomach turned into a herd of stampeding buffalo. Oh, God. It was going to be one of
evenings. How the hell did people know which forks to use for each course?
“Please sit down,” Alexander said. “I hope you have both settled in. Are the rooms to your satisfaction?”
“Oh, yes, everything’s lovely,” Lauren said. “We’ve both settled into our rooms, haven’t we, Kristina?”
“And I’ve visited the gardens. They’re absolutely spectacular. I really can’t wait to get started.”
My mind wandered as Lauren chatted away with Alexander Harding about the garden. He listened to her with a slight smile on his lips.
I tried to force myself to relax, but every muscle in my body felt tense. I took a breath. It was going to be all right. After dinner, I’d find an excuse to talk to Alexander Harding on his own, and I’d confess.
I was so lost in my thoughts that when a man, dressed in what looked like black-tie formal wear, appeared at my elbow, I jumped.
And I don’t just mean slightly jumped, I yelped and knocked over a crystal goblet. Luckily, it was empty and it didn’t break.
Lauren and Alexander Harding turned to me and I flushed. My cheeks flamed with embarrassment, as the man beside me picked up the glass and began to pour the wine.
“I’m sorry, mademoiselle. I didn’t mean to startle you,” he whispered in a low voice.
“Don’t worry about it. It was my fault,” I said, wishing the ground would swallow me up.
Alexander Harding stared at me. Great. I’d managed to draw attention to myself.
“I hope your sister and Benjamin are well.”
“They are,” I said and let out a shaky breath. I sounded so nervous. I was starting to annoy myself. I needed to get a grip. “They’re good, thanks. I spoke to Kate, before dinner, to tell her we arrived safely.”
Alexander Harding tilted his head to one side, regarding me curiously. He was probably wondering what the hell the matter with me was and trying to work out why I was so jumpy. I couldn’t blame him.