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WILL stopped the car and got out, leaving it slap-bang in the middle of the road. He left the door hanging open and walked forward a few steps.
The turrets and chimneys on Elmhurst Hall rose above the surrounding trees, its sandstone walls warmed to a golden yellow by the slanting afternoon sun. Long-paned windows filled the stonework and high arches curved over the heavy wooden doors.
This was the moment he'd been waiting for since he'd opened the letter from the solicitor a month ago. The moment his family had anticipated for three generations. If he faileduncharacteristic for him, but not impossibleit could take another three generations to recover. An eventuality he was not prepared to contemplate.
He got back into the car and glanced at the publicity brochure on the passenger seat. It said that Elmhurst Hall was 'a vision from a fairy tale'. At the time, he'd just thought that was sales talk.
He took a deep breath and gazed through the windscreen. It was more than a vision. It was breathtaking.
And now it belonged to him.
He turned the key in the ignition and drove down the country lane towards the hall, keeping at an even twenty miles an hour. It was just as well there was no other traffic, because he was hogging the road completely.
He brought the car to a halt as he reached the large wrought-iron gates. They were more than ten feet high and were bolted shutprobably to keep the peasants like him out. The thought only made him smile again. Too bad. He was here now, and there was nothing the rest of the Radcliffe family could do to stop him.
Now he was closer, the grandeur of the building faded a little. Gutters hanging off and crumblingstonework made her seem like a tired old movie star, past her heyday, but with the echoes of her former beauty still visible beneath.
He smiled. How ironic that the grandson of the family outcast might just have enough money and skill to give this old lady the nip and tuck she needed. It was obvious that the late Lord Radcliffe hadn't had either the cash or the inclination to do so.
What a waste. He'd found old buildings in a much worse state of repair and seen them restored so that no one would guess they'd ever lost their fairy-tale quality. He'd built a business on it. Now he would just have to work his magic here.
Down to his left was a small road. He followed it and found himself in a large and rather empty visitor car park.
The way back towards the hall was through a large walled garden. He checked his watch. Mr Barrett was expecting him at four o'clock and it was almost five to. He'd better get a move-on. Two tugs at a rickety-looking gate covered in peeling green paint gave him entrance to the garden. It wasn't the big open space he'd expected; it was divided into much smaller sections by thick yew hedges.
After five minutes of going this way and that, he decided there was no logic to the layout. He reached a crossroads and considered his options. The path ahead of him seemed to be the obvious choice to take him to the hall, but he knew from the experience of the last five minutes that nothing in this place was as it seemed.
He was just about to take the path on his left when a creature with shimmering wings burst from the shrubbery and landed on the path in front of him.
'A vision from a fairy tale' the brochure had said. Still, he hadn't expected to see actual fairies. His feet were frozen to the spot while his heart galloped on ahead.
Before he could rub his eyes, another figure tumbled from the foliage and landed spread-eagled on the path. Laughter, light and musical like bursting bubbles, filled the air. The sound vanished abruptly as the pair noticed they weren't alone. Two pairs of impish eyes fixed themselves on him.
Will stared back, his senses still reeling from the sudden assault of noise and colour.
The little one with wings spoke first.
'Who are you?'
He stared at the protuberances on her back. They were made of pink netting and were held in place by a criss-cross of elastic stretched over a fur-trimmed coat.
'I'm Will,' he said, then wondered why he hadn't introduced himself properly. He never forgot his manners.
She stood up and brushed the dirt from her sticky-out skirt.
'I'm Harriet,' she said and offered him a pink-gloved hand to shake. Will bent forward and took it, too surprised by the gesture to think of doing anything else.
He had no idea how to gauge the age of a little girl. It was something that came with experience he didn't have. Older than threeher speech was clear and lisp-freebut probably younger than seven. He didn't know why knowing how old she was seemed important. Maybe because he needed a concrete fact to ground this rather surreal meeting in reality.
'Hattie, I've told you not to talk to strangers unless I say it's OK.'
Will registered the voiceit was older, but just as clear and precise. He meant to take a good look at the fairy's older companion, but his gaze was locked with the little girl's.
He'd never seen such an intense stare in his life beforenot unless he counted looking in the mirror. And she didn't shy away or hide behind the other girl's legs as he would have expected. Instead she fixed him with a regal look of superiority and met his curious gaze. Finally, when she'd got the measure of him, she gave a nod of recognition.
How odd. Children rarely warmed to him. He always felt so stiff and awkward in their presence. But this strange little girl didn't seem to mind that.
The noise of the other person getting to her feet drew his attention. Her gaze was just as intense as her friend's. Although his senses were back on track and he was now fully aware that she was nothing more than human, he couldn't quite shake the feeling that there was something different about her.
He shifted his weight onto his other foot.
'The hall is closed to visitors on Thursdays and Fridays until April,' she said.
'How did you get in?'
Will glanced briefly in the direction of the car park.
'I came in through the gate, of course. I have an appointment with Mr Barrett.' The man was supposed to be the butler, or something like that. He hadn't known that real butlers still existed.
She held out her hand for Hattie's.
'You'd better follow me, then. This section of the gardens is divided into "rooms", as the gardener likes to put it. It can be a little confusing if you don't know your way around.'
Hattie skipped next to the older girl, who he was now suspecting might be a babysitter rather than a sibling. A multicoloured striped hat that reminded him of a tea cosy with strange pink tassels on either side was pulled down over her ears and she wore a short denim jacket over cargo trousers and clumpy boots.
He shrugged. Who was he to judge? It was turning out to be a much more practical choice of outfit than his Italian suit as they trudged along the pathways between the hedges. Mud was already clinging to the hems of his trousers and clogging his shoes.
They entered a large sunken garden filled with vast flower-beds and a fountain in the centre and at last he had a clear view of the back of Elmhurst Hall.
He knew enough about architecture to recognise that the building was a patchwork of different periods and styles, some sections dating back to the sixteenth century.
The wing facing the front gates had obviously been added later, the grand façade, but round the back of the building one could see the history. Different sections had been added by previous owners, all wanting to improve Elmhurst Hall and leave their fingerprint on it. Now it was his turn to do the same.
It truly was a unique piece of architecture. He could hardly wait to start exploring it.
A small set of fingers tugged his hand then wiggled their way into his palm until they were clasped in his.
'Come on, Will. It's this way.'
Hattie pulled him in the direction of a set of stairs that went through a small square tower. The path then continued upwards and across a spacious flat lawn, ending at a large wooden door that was big enough to squash him flat if it fell off its hinges. He let the little girl drag him forwards, too caught up in absorbing his surroundings to navigate his own way.
The babysitter was standing in the arch of the tower, frowning down at him as he climbed the steps. He turned to Hattie.
'So, if visitors aren't allowed today, what are you doing here?'
'Playing princesses and trolls.'
Her voice was flat and matter-of-fact, as if she expected every visitor to engage in similar activities.
'I'm the princess,'she said, spreading her full skirt slightly to emphasise the fact, 'and Mummy is the troll.'
There was a small grunt from the figure at the top of the stairs.
'Mummy always ends up being the troll.'
She was the child's mother? Will took a closer look as he climbed towards her. She barely looked older than a teenager herself. Maybe it was her height. She was petite, reaching five feet three at the very most.
The hand she thrust out for Hattie's was more an order than a request. Hattie slipped her gloved fingers from his and ran to her mother.
Something about him put this woman on the defensive. He could see it in the stubborn set of her chin, the way she avoided eye contact. She started off again before he'd caught up, always keeping a good distance between them.
He followed her, not through the large wooden door in front of them, but round the side of the building into an area that would have been the servants'entrance in days gone by. Hattie broke free and disappeared through a little door, leaving it open behind her.
The woman turned to look at him.
'What are you really doing here?' he said, his usually sharp and inquisitive mind finally whirring away like normal.
'Like Hattie said, we were playing. You couldn't find a better place to play imaginary games than here.'
Yes, but there were more suitable ways to go about it than trespassing in the grounds of Elmhurst Hall. He was about to say as much, but downgraded his observation to something less confrontational.
'You have the owner's permission?'
'In a roundabout way. I work and live here. Use of the grounds is one of the perks of the job.'
Well, he'd find out more about that later.
She nodded in the direction of the open door.
'Good luck,' she said, without any hint of encouragement in her eyes.
'You're not the first man in a suit to turn up. You're wasting your time, though. When Lord Radcliffe died ' Here she paused, and her voice softened slightly. She shook her head once, as if to swish away an uninvited thought, and continued.
'I'm guessing you'll go away empty-handed. There's precious little left to pay his debts.'
Now he could study her face properly, he could see why he'd thought she was only a child. She had large eyes and ripe lips set in an elfin face. If it weren't for that square little chin, she'd look just like a fairytimeless, ageless, wise.
'Thank you for your advice '
She blinked at him.
'Josie.'As she said her name she reached up and grabbed the tea-cosy hat with one hand.
'I'm not here to ' The rest of his sentence was forgotten as he realised the bright pink tassels didn't move with the rest of that hat. He squinted at her then opened his eyes wide.
Not tassels. Plaits! Little stubby braids in a particularly violent shade of fuchsia.
This woman was one surprise after another.
He saw the barest of smiles touch her lips as she turned and stepped over the threshold. She liked the fact she'd shocked him, made him forget what he was going to say.
Well, two could play at that game. And he had a feeling his arrival here was going to cause a bigger upset than discovering an employee with pink hair. If his instincts were right they'd be as surprised as if they'd well, found fairies at the bottom of the garden.
The narrow passageways in the servants' quarters amplified the footsteps of the stranger walking behind her. Josie turned to knock on a door made in a century when people must have been a heck of a lot shorter.
At five-two, she wasn't going to have a problem, but Will Whatever-his-name-was was going to have to duck.
She sighed as she ushered the visitor in to see Barrett and closed the door behind him. She had no wish to hear what he had to say. It was all far too depressing.
Harry had been the dearest, sweetest old man alive, but he'd been hopeless with money. She'd suspected it ever since she'd come to live here six years ago, but only his death and the unravelling of his haphazard accounts had proved how bad things really were.
They were all in limbo until the legal wrangling over Harry's estate was over. He'd once told her he would leave her the cottage she lived in, but in all the rooms full of clutter Harry had left behind no one had come across anything resembling a will.
That left her and Hattie at the mercy of the new owner. Her beloved godfather had let her live in the run-down cottage virtually rent-free and she couldn't see the new Lord Radcliffe honouring that. He'd not only inherited the hall, which ate money with a voracious appetite, but also all of Harry's debts. Even if he was inclined to help out, he probably wouldn't be able to afford to.
Her salary from running the tearoom here only just about covered her basic outgoings. If she had to pay rent of any kind, the only option would be to cut out Hattie's activities, and even then there'd be a huge shortfall.
She grimaced as she threaded her way through the ancient corridors towards the kitchenfor that was undoubtedly where her daughter had run off to. Hattie loved her ballet lessons and she would sulk for a month if she had to stop.
Personally, Josie couldn't see what all the fuss was about. There was no freedom in it, no exuberance. Twisting yourself into unnatural positions and stuffing your feet into hard little shoes that were two sizes too small. No way.
Still, Hattie seemed to like torture in a tutu and Josie wasn't about to stop her doing what she loved. That was what good parents didthey supported their children's choices and let them blossom into the unique creatures they were meant to be. She was not going to impose her own likes and dislikes on her daughter as if they were the Ten Commandments.
Just as she'd predicted, Hattie was sitting at the kitchen table looking expectantly at Mrs Barrett, Elmhurst's cook. And just as her husband would answer to nothing other than "Barrett", Mrs Barrett was conveniently deaf unless she was addressed as "Cook" by most people. Josie got away with Mrs B, but only if she wasn't being too cheeky and the older woman was in the right kind of mood.
'And will it be your usual, Miss Hattie?'
Josie smiled. This was a game they played, Cook and Hattie. She thought it reminded the loyal servant of the glory days of the hall when she'd had staff to boss around and 'at-homes' to cater for.
There were no prizes for guessing why Hattie liked the game. It was every girl's dream, wasn't it? To be Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty and live in a castle. And she wasn't going to stop Hattie having her dreams, even if she knew the reality was pretty grim.
Most people didn't realise this, but living in a fantasy castle could drain a girl's spirit. It wouldn't be long before she'd go stir-crazy. She'd start snoozing all day, or losing her shoes, and do a Rapunzelgrow her hair so she could get the heck out of the stuffy old mausoleum.
Hattie folded her hands on her lap.
'Yes, please, Cook.'
'And can I tempt you with a freshly baked gingersnap to go with that?'
Josie tried hard not to laugh as Hattie considered the offer, her head tipped to one side, eyes focused on the ceiling. She looked so prim and proper sitting there, her back perfectly straight and her ankles crossed.
'I think I would like that very much, Cook.'
Mrs B nodded and poured Hattie's juice into a delicate little teacup, complete with saucer, reserved exclusively for that use.
'Hi, Mrs B,'said Josie, ruffling her daughter's hair. The action was rewarded with a scowl as Hattie removed her tiara and smoothed down the fluffy bits.
'Afternoon, dear. Catch any trolls today?'
Josie chuckled and slid into the chair opposite Hattie.
Cook gave her a quizzical look as she placed a mug of tea in front of her.
Hattie was happy to fill in the gaps.
'We met a man in the gardens. His name is Will. I think he likes fairies,' she said through a mouthful of biscuit crumbs.
'I took him in to see Barrett,' Josie added.
'Not that he'll have much joy until the new lord is traced. Even then he's going to have to join the back of a very long queue if he wants his money.'
Mrs Barrett parked her ample bottom in the chair next to her.
'Barrett told me today that they've found him. Working overseas, he said. The late Lord Radcliffe's great-nephew. Apparently he will be arriving some time this week. There's an emergency staff meeting at four-thirty. I'll look after Hattie while you go. Barrett can fill me in later.'
Josie took a sip of her tea.
'I didn't think Edward Radcliffe had any sons. I thought you told me he gave up trying after four daughters.'
'No, Edward was Lord Radcliffe's youngest brother. The new lord's grandfather would have been the middle of the three Radcliffe brothers.'
'I never knew there was another Radcliffe brother. I don't remember seeing anything in the genealogy.'
'No, well, you wouldn't. It happened long before you were born, Josie. Some big family falling-out between Harry's father and his youngest son. The whole family disowned him. The man the solicitors hired discovered that he'd changed his name, which explains why his descendants have been so hard to trace.'
Josie gave a wry smile. 'Another black sheep, then.'
Mrs B just changed the subject.
'You'd better hurry along or you'll be late for the meeting.'
Josie leaned back in her chair, kicked her booted feet up to rest on the table and ignored the disapproving stare she got from the other two.
'I've got a few minutes left. Time to drink my tea, at any rate.'
So, the black sheep's grandson had inherited Elmhurst. There was no doubting that life at the hall had fallen into a rut as deep as the Cheddar Gorge. It could do with a good shake-up.
Only she didn't want some Hooray Henry storming into her territory and causing a ruckus. If there was going to be an uproar, she'd jolly well cause it herself.
Josie returned from the staff meeting feeling a little foolish. Scratch that; she felt a whole lot foolish. Not that she'd let Will Whatever-his-name-was see how she was feeling.
She stomped back to the kitchen. How dared he walk in here, looking all ordinary? He wasn't what she'd been expecting at all. Anyway, it was his own fault she'd been a bit off with him. He shouldn't go sneaking up on people in the gardens and expect them to know who he was.