Authors: Lucinda Riley
Tags: #Historical, #Contemporary, #Romance
Understanding she was trespassing on a moment of private contemplation, Julia turned round and attempted to leave the room as quietly as she could.
She had reached the door when she heard him:
‘Can I help you?’
She turned back. ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be in here.’
‘No, you shouldn’t.’ He stared at her. Then his eyebrows furrowed into a frown. ‘Don’t I know you?’
There was a good thirty feet of drawing room between them, but Julia remembered the thick, curly, chestnut hair, the slim body – which had filled out and grown by at least a foot since she had last seen it – and the same crooked mouth.
‘Yes. I … that is, we met many years ago,’ Julia stuttered. ‘I apologise. I’ll go.’
‘Well, well, well.’ His face melted into a smile of recognition. ‘It’s little Julia, the gardener’s granddaughter, now world-renowned concert pianist. I’m right, aren’t I?’
‘Yes, I’m Julia,’ she nodded, ‘though I’m not sure about the “world-renowned” bit …’
Kit raised his eyebrows. ‘Don’t be modest, Julia. I’ve a couple of your recordings. You’re famous! A “celebrity”! What on earth are you doing here? You must spend most of your life living in five-star hotel suites across the globe.’
Julia realised he obviously hadn’t heard.
‘I’m … visiting my father,’ Julia lied.
‘Well, we are honoured.’ Kit feigned a half-bow. ‘You’re my claim to fame. I tell everyone that I was one of the first ever to hear you play “Clair de Lune”. Rather fitting we should meet back in this room, at a time when this house is about to be sold.’
‘Yes. I’m sorry about that,’ she answered stiffly.
‘Don’t be. It’s all for the best. Aunt Crawford let it go to rack and ruin whilst she was living here, and my father hadn’t the money or the interest to sort it out. To be honest, I’m lucky I’ve found someone prepared to take it off my hands. It’s going to cost a fortune to restore.’
‘The Wharton Park Estate is yours, then?’ she asked.
‘Yes, for my sins, I’m afraid so. With Aunt Crawford and then my father dying recently, I’m next in line. The trouble is, all I inherit is a shedload of debts and a shitload of hassle. Anyway,’ he shrugged, ‘sorry to be so negative.’
‘I’m sure there must be a part of you that’s sad?’
They were still standing thirty feet apart. Kit dug his hands into his trouser pockets and walked over to her. ‘To be frank, on a personal level, no. I only came here for holidays when I was a kid so there’s no big emotional tie to the place. And playing Lord of the Manor isn’t really my thing. However, being the one who’s had to take the decision to sell up three hundred years of family history has admittedly given me a few sleepless nights. But what choice do I have? The estate’s in serious debt and I have to sell it to pay the creditors off.’
‘Are you selling the whole lot?’ she asked.
Kit swept a hand through his unruly hair and sighed. ‘I’ve managed to negotiate the old stable quadrangle where some of the workers used to live, plus a few meagre acres. There’s a separate path out on to the road which I can make usable, so I won’t have to use the main entrance to get in and out. My new home is a rather shabby cottage that has no central heating and a bad damp problem,’ he smiled. ‘But it’s better than nothing and I am renovating it. I think it’ll be okay when it’s finished.’
‘That’s where my grandparents lived and my mother was born,’ Julia said. ‘I never saw the cottages in the Quad as shabby or noticed the damp, but I suppose they were really.’
‘Of course!’ Kit reddened. ‘Christ, that makes me sound arrogant. Sorry to be patronising about them. Actually, the reason I fought to keep the Quad out of the sale is because I think it’s a very beautiful spot. Really,’ he emphasised, ‘I’m looking forward to living there. And hoping that, when I’ve finished renovating the rest of the barns and cottages around me, I can rent them out to provide some income.’
‘Don’t you have anywhere else to live?’
‘Like you, I’ve been abroad for a long time. I never quite got round to sorting out a home, somehow …’ Kit’s voice trailed off and he averted his gaze to the view out of the window. ‘And this neck of the woods doesn’t hold particularly good memories for me. I spent some pretty miserable summers here during my childhood.’
‘I used to love it here at Wharton Park.’
‘Well, it’s a fine old house, and the setting is magnificent,’ Kit agreed with reticence.
Julia studied him. She could see he had a deep tan but looked drawn and exhausted. Not knowing what else to say, she replied, ‘Well, I hope you’ll be happy in your new home. I’d better be going.’
‘And I suppose I must come and lurk at the back of the saleroom.’
They walked side by side through the darkened rooms towards the hall.
‘So,’ asked Kit companionably, ‘where are you living these days? Some vast penthouse overlooking Central Park, I shouldn’t doubt.’
‘Hardly. I’m staying in Blakeney, in a small, damp cottage I bought years ago, when everyone told me I had to put some money into property. I’ve been renting it out for the past eight years to holidaymakers.’
‘Surely you must have another home somewhere else?’ Kit frowned. ‘Celebrities don’t appear on the pages of glossy mags sitting in damp cottages in North Norfolk.’
‘I don’t do “glossy mags”,’ Julia countered defensively, ‘and it’s a … long story,’ she added, realising they were approaching the main entrance hall. There was an urgent question she needed to ask. ‘Are the hothouses still here?’
‘I don’t know,’ Kit shrugged. ‘To be honest, I haven’t been into the kitchen garden yet. There’s been rather a lot to do elsewhere.’
As they entered the hall, Julia could see her sister standing by the door with her urn, looking impatient.
‘There you are, Kit!’ A large woman with chestnut hair and deep-brown eyes just like his accosted them. ‘Where have you been? The auctioneer wants an urgent word with you about a vase. He thinks it might be Ming dynasty or some-such, and you should pull it out of the sale and have it valued by Sotheby’s.’
Julia saw a hint of irritation appear on Kit’s face. ‘Julia, meet Bella Harper, my sister.’
Bella’s eyes swept Julia up and down without much interest. ‘Hi,’ she said absently as she tucked her arm through Kit’s. ‘You need to speak to the auctioneer now,’ she told him firmly and pulled him off across the hall.
He turned back and gave Julia a fleeting smile. ‘Good to see you,’ he called and was gone.
Julia followed in his wake and walked across the hall to Alicia, who was staring at the departing figures.
‘How do you know
?’ Alicia asked curiously.
‘Who?’ asked Julia as she took the other end of the proffered urn and they carted it down the steps towards the car.
‘The ghastly Bella Harper, of course. I saw you talking to her just a few moments ago.’
‘I don’t. I only know her brother, Kit.’
They had reached the car and Alicia opened the boot to stow the urn inside. ‘You mean Lord Christopher Wharton, the heir to all this?’
‘Yes, I suppose that’s who he is now,’ Julia agreed. ‘But I met him years ago in this house, and bumped into him again just now.’
‘You’re a dark horse, Julia; you never said you’d met him when we were kids,’ frowned Alicia, moving an old mac to swaddle the urn and wedging it into the side. ‘Let’s hope this makes it home,’ she said, slamming the boot. They both climbed in and Alicia started the engine.
‘Fancy a quick drink and a sandwich at the pub?’ Alicia asked. ‘You can tell me all about how you met the delectable Lord Kit. Hope he’s more pleasant than his sister. I’ve met her a couple of times at local dinner parties and she treats me as though I’m still the gardener’s granddaughter. Thank heavens the closest male heir inherits the title. If Bella had been a man, there’d have been no stopping her!’
‘No … I don’t think Kit’s like that at all,’ said Julia softly. She turned to her sister. ‘Thanks for the offer, but if you don’t mind, I’d just like to go home now.’
Alicia read the exhaustion in her sister’s eyes. ‘Okay,’ she replied, ‘but we’re stopping at the shop on the way back and I’m buying you some supplies.’
Julia acquiesced, too weak to argue.
Alicia insisted that Julia sit on the sofa whilst she lit the fire and stowed away the food she had bought from the local Spar. For once, Julia didn’t mind being fussed around. The trip out – her first in weeks – had drained her. And returning to Wharton Park and seeing Kit had unsettled her.
Alicia appeared from the kitchen with a tray, which she placed in front of Julia. ‘I’ve made you some soup. Please drink it.’ She picked up the brown envelope that Julia had placed on the coffee table. ‘May I?’ she asked.
Alicia drew the paintings out of the envelope, laid them on the table and studied them. ‘They’re lovely,’ she said, ‘and the perfect gift for Dad. Will you frame them?’
‘If I can do it in time, yes.’
‘You are coming to us for his birthday lunch next Sunday, aren’t you?’ said Alicia.
Julia nodded reluctantly as she picked up her soup spoon.
‘Darling, I understand it’ll be hard, that big family gatherings aren’t quite your thing at the moment, but I know that everyone’s looking forward to seeing you. And Dad would be devastated if you didn’t come.’
‘I’ll be there. Of course I will.’
‘Good.’ Alicia looked at her watch. ‘I suppose I’d better be off, back to the madhouse.’ She rolled her eyes, walked over to Julia and squeezed her shoulder. ‘Is there anything else I can get you?’
‘Okay.’ Alicia planted a kiss on the top of Julia’s head. ‘And listen, please keep in touch and try and remember to keep your mobile switched on. I worry about you.’
‘The signal’s almost non-existent here,’ Julia said, ‘but I will.’ She watched Alicia as she walked to the door. ‘And thanks. Thanks for taking me back to Wharton Park.’
‘My pleasure, really. You just call and I’ll be here. Take care, Julia.’ The door slammed behind Alicia.
Julia felt sleepy and lethargic. Leaving the half-drunk bowl of soup on the table, she walked wearily up the stairs and sat on her bed, hands folded in her lap.
I don’t want to get better. I want to suffer the way that they suffered. Wherever they are, at least they’re together, whereas I’m here alone. I want to know why I wasn’t taken with them, because now I’m neither here nor there. I can’t live and I can’t die. Everyone wills me to choose life, but then, if I do that, I must let them go. And I can’t do that. Not yet …
At two minutes to one the following Sunday, Alicia marshalled her family into the drawing room.
‘Lissy, have some wine, darling.’ Her husband, Max, pushed a glass into her hand and kissed her on the cheek.
‘Rose, will you take that iPod off now!’ Alicia snapped at her thirteen-year old daughter, who was slouched morosely on the sofa. ‘And all of you, please try to behave.’ Alicia sat down on the fender and took a large slug of her wine.
Kate, her pretty, blonde eight-year-old, sidled up to her. ‘Mummy, do you like my outfit?’ she asked.
Alicia looked properly for the first time at the concoction of vivid pink top, yellow polka-dot skirt and turquoise tights. Kate looked a mess, but it was too late. She could see her father’s car coming up the drive.
‘Grandpa’s here,’ shouted James, her six-year-old, excitedly.
‘Let’s go and get him,’ shrieked Fred, the four-year-old, and he headed for the front door.
Alicia watched the other children following him, a smile of pleasure at their excitement playing on her lips. The children opened the front door and scattered out of it to surround the car.
A few seconds later, George Forrester was pulled into the drawing room by his grandchildren. At sixty-five, he was still a handsome man – slim, with a full head of hair just greying at the temples. He had an air of authority and confidence, gleaned from years of addressing an audience.
George was a renowned botanist – Professor of Botany at the University of East Anglia – lecturing often at the Royal Society of Horticulture and at Kew. When he wasn’t sharing his knowledge, he was off to foreign parts, searching out new species of plant-life across the world. Which was when, he readily admitted, he was at his most content.
George had always told his daughters that he had walked into the hothouses of Wharton Park expecting to be overwhelmed by the famous collection of orchids that grew there, but instead had fallen instantly in love with the young beauty – his future wife and mother of his two daughters – who was in the hothouse with them. They had been married only a few months later.
George advanced towards Alicia. ‘Hello, darling, you’re looking as beautiful as ever. How are you?’
‘I’m well, thanks. Happy birthday, Dad,’ she said as he hugged her. ‘Drink? We have some champagne in the fridge.’
‘Why not?’ His eyes creased into a smile. ‘Bizarre really, celebrating the fact I’m one step nearer the grave.’
‘Oh, Dad!’ Alicia chided. ‘Don’t be silly. All my girlfriends are still in love with you.’
‘Well, that’s always nice for a chap to know, but it doesn’t change the facts. Today,’ he turned round to face his grandchildren, ‘your grandfather is a pensioner.’
‘What’s a pensioner?’ asked Fred.
James, two years older and wiser, dug his little brother in the ribs. ‘It’s an old person, silly.’
‘I’ll go and get the champagne,’ Max said, winking at Alicia.
‘So,’ George perched himself on the fender opposite his daughter, stretching his long legs out in front of him, ‘how’s everything?’
‘Hectic, as usual,’ sighed Alicia. ‘What about you?’
‘Same,’ agreed George. ‘Actually, I’m rather excited. Last week I had a call from an American colleague of mine who lectures at Yale. He’s planning a research trip to the Galapagos Islands in May and wants me to join them. It’s one place I’ve never been to and always intended to go – Darwin’s
Origin of the Species
and all that. I’ll be away for a good three months, mind you, as I’ve been asked to give a couple of lectures whilst I’m in the States.’
‘No intention of slowing down then, now you’re a pensioner?’ Alicia smiled.