"Katie Fforde's unique spin on romantic comedy is a blend of the sweet, the sad, and the sexy."Patricia Gaffney, author of The Saving Graces and Flight Lessons
Artistic License: A Novelby Katie Fforde
Single, thritysomething Thea traded her promising career as a photographer for the quiet countryside of the English Cotswalds. But when she meets a promising, sexy Irish painter while vacationing in Provence, her creative spirit is unexpectedly reawakened.
Impressed by Rory's charm, but even more taken by his talent, Thea is determined to showcase his/p>
Single, thritysomething Thea traded her promising career as a photographer for the quiet countryside of the English Cotswalds. But when she meets a promising, sexy Irish painter while vacationing in Provence, her creative spirit is unexpectedly reawakened.
Impressed by Rory's charm, but even more taken by his talent, Thea is determined to showcase his paintings for the art world. Resisting his sex appeal, convincing him to forgo the London art scene, and transforming an abandoned building into a cutting-edge gallery in the less-than-hip countryside all give Thea more of a challenge than she bargained for.
Add to the mix a group of old friends, some reluctant teens, a passel of puppies, and a new romantic prospect or two, and Katie Fforde's latest novel delivers art, friendship, love, sex, and delicious new beginnings.
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Thea was standing in the rubbish bin, trying to crush its contents enough to get the lid on, when she heard people approaching down the hallway. They were talking.
'Come into the kitchen and excuse the mess, it's always a tip,' she heard as she crushed a pizza box beneath her heel.
Petal, her youngest and most demanding lodger, followed by a man Thea had never seen before, entered the kitchen.
'Hi, Thea! What are you doing in there?' Petal said, curious but not interested enough to hear the answer. 'This is my Uncle Ben. Oh, that's my phone.'
While Petal searched in her bag for her fifth limb, Thea tried to step out of the waste bin without falling over. There was nothing to be ashamed of in compacting takeaway cartons, cereal packets and Pringle's tubes, thus reducing landfill, but she could have done without witnesses. Petal, having dived on her mobile phone like a gull on a fast-food leftover, went out of the room, talking hard.
Thea, unreasonably annoyed, reached for the wall to balance herself. The bin teetered and her foot penetrated the layer of cardboard to the substratum of detritus beneath. Trying to pull herself free, the heel of her shoe caught round the loop of a drinks can holder and Thea began to lose her balance. For an instant she had an image of herself lying prostrate on the floor, surrounded by eggshells, banana skins and coffee grounds. She put out ahand, groping for something to hold on to, but couldn't reach the wall.
The stranger, seeing her predicament, crossed the room and caught the flailing hand and then her body, steadying the bin and holding Thea upright.
Maybe, if she hadn't been in such a bad mood, she could have seen the funny side and laughed up at him. As it was, she just blushed furiously while he supported her, unwilling to see if he was laughing at her. 'Thank you so much,' she muttered to the bin, as she rammed the lid back on. 'What a ridiculous thing to have happened.'
Petal quite often managed to make Thea feel more disagreeable than the most caricatured seaside landlady and she felt very tempted to tell her so-called uncle that it was all Petal's fault; she had promised to get some new bin liners, having used up Thea's entire roll. But although this was the truth, it would be extremely petty, and it was bad enough to appear bad-tempered and ridiculous in front of strangers without being small-minded as well.
'That's OK,' he said. 'It could happen to anyone.'
To anyone foolish enough to climb into a rubbish bin, she thought, but didn't say. To direct his attention away from the tea bag that had got trapped down the side of her shoe, Thea nodded towards Petal. 'That girl bums the telephone at both ends. I hope it doesn't fry her brain.'
Petal's uncle, who had been surveying Thea and her surroundings with a sort of mystified concentration, said, 'Possibly it already has.'
Thea struggled to get her usual good humour back, but it was difficult. He was tall and dark, with deep-set eyes, and it was easy to take his quiet, serious demeanour as disapproval. She wished she could tell him to go and wait for Petal in the hall, but unfortunately she was chronically hospitable, unable to have people in her house, however unwelcome and uninvited, without offering them food or drink. 'Would you like a cup of coffee? Tea?' She slid thekettle over to the hot part of the Rayburn. She was desperate for a cup herself and didn't feel she could have one if he didn't join her.
'I don't think we're staying. I just came with Petal to collect some things.'
'Does that mean Petal is taking her artwork home at last?'
This was such good news that Thea couldn't help a feeling of benevolence breaking over her. She smiled widely at the thought that she would soon be able to get into the attic, her bedroom and the bathroom, without tripping over the component parts of a dragon, a princess and a castle, all made of papier mâché and covered with Thea's bin bags. 'You might as well have some tea. She'll be ages.' And it'll give us something to do, so we won't have to talk, she thought.
Perhaps her glee was rather too much of a contrast from the grumpy woman he'd helped out of a dustbin because the man frowned. 'I can't stay long. I've got to get back tonight.'
'Suit yourself, but if I don't have something my tongue will cleave itself permanently to the roof of my mouth.'
'Then, thank you,' he said, looking somewhat surprised.
Her euphoria faded a little. Petal's Uncle Ben appeared to have no social skills. Why didn't he comment on the filthy weather or something?
'Do you have far to get back to?'
'Well, after I've dropped off Petal's things, I've got to get back to London.'
That would take him at least three hours at this time of day. Thea found an unchipped mug and put a tea bag in it.
At that moment the phone rang. Thea manoeuvred her way across the kitchen and picked it up. It was an old and dear friend who liked a good half-hour per phone call, and that was if she was in a hurry. Thea talked to her for a couple of minutes, then took evasive action. She picked upa box of matches and a candle, kept there for the purpose, and lit the candle. Then she reached out into the hallway and held it under the smoke alarm. It shrieked obligingly. 'Darling,' she told her friend. 'I've got to go. Something's on fire!'
'Sorry,' she said to Petal's uncle, who was looking at her with stunned amazement. 'That always works. Although I do worry that I'll have a real fire one day as a punishment. Now, where were we? Tea!'
'I really mustn't be long and I was supposed to call in on Molly - er - Petal's aunt, too.'
'You don't have to have any, but I'm gasping.'
The man sighed. 'Actually, so am I.'
As she poured boiling water into mugs, she glanced over her shoulder. 'Is that Molly Pickford? I know her. It's through her I got Petal.' It was Thea's turn to sigh as she wondered why she'd let herself in for having Petal as a lodger. She hoped it wasn't because she was too feeble to say no to Molly, but she feared it was. Molly had insisted that her god-daughter and niece would be quiet and reliable, and able to pay the rent. While the last bit was true, which was important, Molly had forgotten to mention that Petal was extremely demanding. Thea often thought that even if she paid twice as much, she still wouldn't be worth it.
'Milk? Sugar?' She handed her guest a mug, with suitable additions. 'Are you related to Molly, too? Petal referred to you as her uncle, but it doesn't necessarily follow that you are.'
Usually, by this time, Thea would have got over her feeling of awkwardness at being caught with her kitchen at its worst, but as he kept looking around him like a character in a science fiction movie beamed down into a strange land, she felt obliged to distract him with questions she didn't want to know the answer to.
'We're some sort of cousins. You'd have to ask Mollyabout how many times removed we are. She loves that kind of detail.'
Thea warmed to him a little. She picked up a pile of papers from a chair and indicated he should sit down. 'Sorry, I didn't catch your surname?'
'Probably because Petal didn't tell you it. It's Jonson, without an "h". Ben Jonson.'
'Like the poet?'
His slight surprise that she should have heard of one of the sixteenth century's most famous poets annoyed her. 'I love his poems, especially the one he wrote about his son.' She bit her lip. 'His best bit of poetry ...'
His glance made her feel she was strangely almost human, and yet not quite. 'He said "piece", actually. His best piece of poetry.'
Thea's moment of sentimentality evaporated and her irritation returned. 'Well, I knew it was something like that. You'd better sit down; Petal might be hours. Now, I hope you don't mind if I get on with my cooking? In a moment of madness I agreed to give my lodgers an evening meal.'
'Not Fridays or Saturdays, as they're usually out, or home for the weekend, but I always do a big meal on Sunday night.' It was Sunday now and Thea had been making a bolognese sauce for the lasagne on and off all day. She silently urged Petal to come back before she felt obliged to invite her uncle to supper. The lasagne might stretch, but the salad and French bread wouldn't. 'Please sit down, you're making the place look untidy.'
She didn't turn round to see if he realised she'd made a little joke; she was almost sure he had no sense of humour, but she didn't want it confirmed.
Petal came back into the room, still talking: 'Must go, see ya, doll.' Almost the moment she had disconnected, thehouse telephone went. 'Oh,' said Petal, breezily confident, 'that'll be for me.'
Thea took a gulp of tea, wishing it were red wine. Now Ben was seated, she couldn't get past him to the fridge. 'Would you mind very much passing me a bottle of milk? And the lump of cheese? The fridge is just behind you.' He had already seen her kitchen, so the inside of her fridge should be no shock to him, although Thea wouldn't let anyone very nervous look in it. 'The semi-skimmed, in the door.'
He handed her the milk and cheese. Petal was still on the phone, making arrangements. Soon, Thea's other lodgers would begin to arrive back from their weekend haunts, and the kitchen would be more crowded and cooking would be more difficult.
'I do wish Petal would get off the phone,' said Ben and Thea together. They looked at each other and Ben smiled.
It transformed him, but as Petal hung up the phone at that moment, Thea looked away before she could work out why. When she looked back again the smile had gone.
'Oh, by the way, Thea,' said Petal. 'Aunt Molly's coming over later.'
'Oh, God, why?' Too late, Thea realised that this must have sounded extremely rude to Molly's relatives. 'I mean, I'm just so busy at the moment.' Thea tipped the milk into the pan. 'Do you know why?'
'Some art appreciation tour or something. On Wednesday.'
'Well, it's my day off on Wednesday, so I can probably go. I'll give her a ring later. Save her the trouble of coming over.' It was more to save Thea the trouble of sanitising the kitchen. Ben Jonson might look about him disapprovingly, but at least he kept his thoughts to himself. Molly would be voluble on the subject of Thea's standards of tidiness and hygiene.
Petal frowned. 'I may have got it wrong, but I'm sure she said something about France.'
'France?' Thea, whisking hard, was wondering if she'd made enough sauce and wasn't really listening.
'Yeah. I think Aunt Molly wants you to go to France with her. On Wednesday.'
Thea put down her whisk, leaving a smear of cheese sauce on the worktop. 'Try and think, Petal. What did Molly say? She can't possibly be asking me to go to France with her on Wednesday.'
'Yes! Molly's mate's broken her leg, or her hip or something, so she needs someone to go with. I told her you were probably up for it.' Petal, bored with a subject that didn't involve her, turned to her uncle. 'Oh, Uncle Ben, I'm glad you've got some tea. It'll take me ages to find the stuff in the attic, it's so full of junk.' She looked at the crowded table, the crockery-covered worktops, the Welsh dresser buried under paper. 'This house is always so untidy.'
'So would yours be if it were full of lodgers who can't put a mug in the dishwasher, let alone run a tap and wash it,' said Thea. 'And I hope you're going to take everything off the landing. At least the stuff in the attic is out of sight most of the time.'
Momentarily abashed, Petal said, 'Sorry Thea, but you don't nag us enough. If you don't nag people, they just don't clear up. When I move into a flat people are just not going to leave their stuff all over the place!' Petal marched out of the room, stiff with resolution, leaving Thea limp and without it.
'So Petal drives you mad?' asked Ben.
'Is it that obvious? Well, only sometimes.' She tasted the sauce and reached for the nutmeg grater. 'I mean, I love her really. She's very decorative, and great fun and great to go shopping with.'
She was aware that if only she were a firmer and less indulgent landlady she wouldn't be so walked on by herlodgers. But she was new to the trade and hadn't learnt how to make rules and stick to them. 'You wouldn't be a sweetie and grate some cheese for me?' she asked and then had to hide her giggle with a smile as she realised how inappropriate her endearment had been.
He raised an eyebrow. 'Since you ask so nicely, how can I refuse?' He took the cheese and the grater, and set to work.
'I wonder what Molly wants? I can't believe she really wants me to go to France on Wednesday. Even she ...' she paused, suddenly realising she was about to criticise his second cousin once removed or some such.
'Couldn't be that unreasonable?' he suggested, not giving anything away on how he felt about Molly.
'Not at all. I just meant that she's usually very organised. I hope she doesn't arrive just as everyone's sitting down to eat.' This was likely. Molly, with only a husband to organise, was likely to have got her evening meal cooked, served and cleared away before nine o'clock. Thea, whose supper was a feast made moveable by the punctuality or otherwise of its guests, rarely achieved this happy state.
Petal came back just as Thea had levered the completed dish into the oven. Preceded by a large number of plastic sacks, Petal said, 'You really should clear out the attic, Thea. I can't believe you've got so many cardboard boxes. What on earth have you got in them?'
In fact, they were full of Thea's photographs and negatives, carefully indexed and catalogued, from when she was a student to the moment she gave up professional photography. But she had no intention of telling Petal that. 'The attic's probably a lot clearer now you've taken your work out of it, Petal;' she said, mentally trying to locate the corkscrew.
In a minute Petal and her uncle would go away, and shecould open the bottle of red wine which was hidden behind the bleach in the cupboard under the sink, the one place her lodgers would never look, however desperate for a drink they were. She wouldn't offer any to Molly when she appeared. Molly was of the 'life's too short to drink cheap wine' school of thought. Thea felt that life was too long not to.
Petal, oblivious to the acid in Thea's tone, looked anxiously about the kitchen. 'Don't you think you should tidy up a bit, if Aunt Molly's coming?'
Thea would have liked to commit murder, but thought she'd better not. It would only add to the mess. 'I'm in the middle of cooking a meal, Petal. And I take it you're not eating with us?'
'Oh, no! Didn't I say? Sorry.'
At that moment the doorbell rang. 'Answer it, will you?' Thea implored.
'But it'll be Aunt Molly, for you.' Petal was surprised Thea could ask such a thing of her. 'I'm really busy.'
'So am I!' said Thea who was swooping round the worktops with a cloth.
'I'll get it,' Ben offered.
This was kind and, if he wanted to be even kinder, he would involve Molly in a lot of time-consuming chat upstairs in the hall, giving Thea valuable extra seconds to clean up.
Molly, whom she had met on her first day in Cheltenham, had been introduced by some distant relative of Thea's mother's. It was a very tenuous connection but Molly, who could be very kind, had followed it up immediately by inviting Thea for coffee. Thea, delighted to get away from the removal men, walked round in her old jeans and torn shirt. Molly, as always, was immaculately groomed and dressed, and had given her sherry, not coffee. She assumed that Thea's dishabille, meant that she was 'arty'and had taken her under her wing. In the two and a half years that Thea had lived in Cheltenham the two women had spent quite a lot of time together. Now she entered Thea's kitchen, all benevolence, a good five minutes after she had rung the doorbell.
Thank you, Petal's uncle, thought Thea.
'Thea, sweetie!' Molly was fond but brisk. 'I hope this isn't wildly inconvenient, but I wanted to come and tell you in person.'
'Tell me what, Molly?' asked Thea, after they had kissed each other.
'About the trip.' Molly pulled out a chair, regarded its seat dubiously and sat down. 'To Aix. In Provence. Should be lovely at this time of year. Petal did give you my message?'
'She said something about you going to France on Wednesday.'
'Darling, Provence is in France. Surely you knew that? But not just me, you too.'
Thea, who had been getting more of her surfaces wiped than she usually achieved in a week, turned round. 'What?'
'Thea, do pay attention! I said I want you come to Provence with me. On Wednesday.'
'This Wednesday, coming?'
'Yes. I was going with my friend from my pottery class, but she's broken her leg. If I go on my own I'll have to pay the single room supplement. Come on,' she went on bracingly, as if Thea were refusing to go swimming because the water was cold. 'It's only for six days.'
'Derek hates art and sightseeing, and all that stuff. He is such a Philistine.'
'But Molly - it's terribly short notice.'
'Oh, I know it's a bit sudden, but think how heavenly it would be. Early April is just my favourite time forProvence, before all the tourists get there.' Molly obviously hadn't noticed she was a tourist herself.
'I can't afford it, for a start.' This was a guess, but Molly was, by Thea's standards, enormously rich and had probably booked a very expensive tour. 'And really ...'
'Oh, come on, Thea, be a bit spontaneous. Don't worry about the money, Derek'll pay. It was his idea that I ask you, actually. He said you probably deserve a holiday for looking after Petal.'
Thea gave Derek a mental 'thank you' for understanding that his niece was not all joy. 'But Molly, it would be far cheaper to pay the single room supplement.'
'Oh, I know. It's the company I want you for, really. You never know who you'll get on those trips. I like to go with someone I know. Someone I can talk to.'
Personally, Thea liked to go on holiday with somebody she liked and although she did like Molly, even the very best of friendships could founder in such conditions. And she wasn't sure that Molly qualified as 'very best'.
Thea decided to risk losing Molly's good opinion of her by producing her hidden wine. As Petal probably had the only decent corkscrew in her room, she had to prise the cork out with one that hurt her fingers. 'It's terribly generous of you, Molly, but I can't possibly accept. Have some of this. It's only a "bogoff" but really quite OK if you warm it up a bit first.'
'Bogoff?' Molly looked at her glass as if it contained very nasty medicine.
'You know, buy one, get one free.'
Molly was a member of a wine club and this notion appalled her, but she didn't comment. 'Of course you can come to France,' she said decisively. She picked up her glass, thought better of it and put it down again. 'Really, Derek can afford it and he's right, you deserve a break for looking after Petal.' She looked up at the ceiling. The sound of banging and crashing indicated that Petal'sartwork was nearing the front door. 'Can you get away at such short notice?'
Suddenly the thought of exchanging her lodgers and her boring part-time job for Provence in the spring was terribly attractive. And even if Molly was bossy and overbearing, she was fun.
Thea took a large sip of her wine and decided that Molly was right: it wasn't very nice. The wine in Provence was bound to be better. Then she pulled up a chair and threw her cloth into the sink. 'We're not particularly busy at the moment and I don't get holiday pay or anything. I don't think it would be a problem.'
'Super! You'll need comfortable shoes, an umbrella and a sunhat.'
Just then, Petal opened the kitchen door and shouted through it, 'Ben said thank you for the tea and sorry he can't say goodbye, but he's loading the car. And Aunt Molly, he'll give you a ring as he hasn't time to call in now. 'Bye!' The kitchen door closed and then opened again. 'By the way, Thea, there are some clothes of mine in the tumble-dryer. If you could be an angel and hang them up for me?' Assuming that Thea would be an angel, Petal removed herself.
Thea regarded Molly. 'A sunhat?' The cold spring rain was lashing against the window and the tumble-dryer was full of Petal's clothes. 'I'd love to come, Molly.'
Thea's part-time job at a high street photographer's was not one which was ever going to bring her much in the way of job satisfaction. Sending off other people's holiday snaps and handing them back twenty-four hours later was not intrinsically interesting. She had realised that going for that particular job was a mistake the moment she had first made coffee for everyone. But because in a previous life she had been a photographer it had seemed natural, although she now knew that selling cheap importedclothes to bo-hos and second-time-around hippies would have been much more fun.
But while she often inspected cards put up in other shop windows and turned to the jobs page in the local paper, she couldn't quite summon up the energy to find anything more challenging. It was to do with the lassitude that had begun to affect her lately; she wasn't happy with her life, but hadn't the initiative to do anything much to change it. Perhaps an art appreciation tour in France would give her the necessary prod.
It would have been an overstatement to say that Thea's 'life' and the 'love of it' had both deserted her at the same time, but she had hoped the man in question would turn into a partner - or even a husband.
She had been a photojournalist, just making her name, and what had happened was hurtful and humiliating, but the worst part was that her female photographer friends all told her it was her fault.
They had bullied the story out of her three days after her arrival at the door of one of them, late one evening, asking if she could stay the night. After three days of seeing Thea in her pyjamas watching Channel 5, the friend, who wanted her sofa back, called in reinforcements. Ordered to get dressed, she was frogmarched to a local pub where they could straighten her out in peace, accompanied by tequila slammers.
After they'd heard that she and Conrad had broken up (which they'd guessed), they moved on to the reason why. And, to a professional, hard-boiled woman, they condemned her as a naive amateur.
'I know,' she admitted, finishing her slammer. 'I've got so much egg on my face I can hardly see out.'
'I could do with egg like that,' said Zelda, a model who had moved round to the other side of the camera. 'How much did you get as a thank you present?'
Thea repeated the amount, although they all knewperfectly well by now. 'I feel bad about accepting it, but Anna insisted. She told me that I'd given her much more than money could ever buy and that being generous involved receiving as well as giving. I thought it was rather sweet.'
The women's collective expression told Thea they found it rather nauseous, actually, but they didn't comment.
'So now what? You can upgrade your shoebox to a boot box. When you've got the bastard out, that is,' suggested one.
'What you should do is get some really fancy equipment, something that will earn you proper money.'
Elizabeth was career-minded and made Thea feel tired at the best of times. 'What I really want to do', she said, preparing to duck from what was about to be thrown at her, 'is to buy a large house in Cheltenham and fill it with students.'
ARTISTIC LICENSE. Copyright © 2001 by Katie Fforde. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Meet the Author
Katie Fforde is the London Times-bestselling author of Second Thyme Around, Life Skills, Stately Pursuits, and Wild Designs. She lives in Gloucestershire, England, where she is at work on her next novel.
Katie Fforde, a London Times bestselling novelist, lives in Gloucestershire, England. Her novels include Love Letters, Wedding Season, Restoring Grace, A Perfect Proposal, and Practically Perfect.
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This book was a very entertaining read. Highly recommend to anyone who enjoys a well thought out, humorous story.
When I needed some brain-candy for I train ride I bought this book and I did it enjoy it. The protagonist is a former photographer turned landlady and neither so organized nor so chaotic that I couldn't identify with her. I especially enjoyed her flight to Ireland, since there are times I wish I could just go off like that. Her motivation throughout the book is understandable and the supporting cast is likeable. The characters, especially the men, are a bit stereotypical: wild, sexy and unreliable versus charming, but maddening with son, and so is the story. But if you want a romance with a happy end and some trouble before, set in modern day Europe, you will find this a pleasant book.