Making Your Mind Up
By Jill Mansell
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2015 Jill Mansell
All rights reserved.
"You maaaaake me feeeeel," Lottie Carlyle warbled soulfully at the top of her voice, "like a natural womaaaaan."
Oh yes, the great thing about singing when your ears were underwater was that it made you sound so much better than in real life. Not super fantastic like Adele or Barbra Streisand, obviously — the words silk purse and sow's ear sprang to mind — but not so alarmingly bad that small children burst into tears and hid under tables whenever you opened your mouth to sing. Which had been known to happen on dry land.
Which was why she was enjoying herself so much now, in Hestacombe Lake. It was a blisteringly hot day in August, her afternoon off, and she was floating on her back in the water gazing up at a cloudless, cobalt-blue sky.
Well, nearly cloudless. When it was four o'clock in the afternoon and you were the mother of two children there was always that one small bothersome cloud hovering on the horizon:
What to cook for dinner.
Something, preferably, that didn't take ages to make but sounded like a proper meal. Something that contained the odd vitamin. Something, furthermore, that both Nat and Ruby would deign to eat.
But Nat, who was seven, would only consent to eat pasta with olives and mint sauce, and Lottie knew there were no olives left in the fridge.
OK, maybe bacon and mushroom risotto. But Ruby would pick out the mushrooms, accusing them of being slimy like snails, and refuse to eat the bacon because bacon was — bleurgh — pig.
Vegetable stir-fry? Now she really was wandering into the realms of fantasy. In her nine years Ruby had never knowingly eaten a vegetable. Most babies' first words were Mama or Dada. Ruby's, upon being confronted with a broccoli floret, had been yuck.
Lottie sighed and closed her eyes. As the cool water of the lake lapped around her temples, she lazily twitched away an insect that had landed on her wrist. Cooking for such an unappreciative clientele really was the pits. Maybe if she stayed out here long enough someone would eventually call social services and a battle-ax child protection officer would turn up. Ruby and Nat would be whisked away to some echoing Dickensian children's home, forced to eat liver and cold turnip soup. And after a couple weeks of that, then they might finally appreciate what a rotten thankless task she had, endlessly having to think what to give her finicky children for dinner.
* * *
Freddie Masterson stood at the drawing room window of Hestacombe House and experienced that familiar lift to his spirits as he surveyed the view. As far as he was concerned, it was the most glorious in the whole of the Cotswolds. Across the valley the hills rose up dotted with trees, houses, sheep, and cows. Below, the reed-fringed lake glittered in the afternoon sunlight. And closer to hand, his garden was in full bloom, the freshly mown emerald lawn sloping down toward the lake, the fuchsia bushes bobbing as bumble bees swooped greedily from one fragile flower to the next. A pair of woodpeckers, energetically digging in the grass for worms, glanced over their shoulders and flew off in disgust as a human made its way down the narrow path toward them.
This could be it, then. Watching as Tyler Klein reached the summerhouse and paused to admire the view himself, Freddie knew the American was equally impressed. Their meeting had gone well; Tyler undoubtedly had a fine brain and they had gotten on with each other from the outset. He had the money to buy the business. And, so far, he appeared to like what he saw.
Well, how could he not?
Tyler Klein was now heading for the side gate that led out into the lane. With his dark blue suit jacket casually slung over one shoulder and his lilac shirt loosened at the neck, he moved easily, more like an athlete than a businessman. Clark Gable hair, thought Freddie. That was what Tyler Klein had, with most of it slicked back, but that one dark lock falling uncontrollably into his eyes. Or Errol Flynn. His beloved wife Mary had always had a bit of a thing for Clark Gable and Errol Flynn. Ruefully, Freddie ran a hand over his own sparsely covered head. And to think the poor darling had ended up with him instead.
Glimpsing a flash of brilliant turquoise out of the corner of his eye, he thought for a split second that a kingfisher was darting across the surface of the lake. Then he smiled, because once his vision had had time to adjust he saw that it was Lottie, wearing a new turquoise bikini, rolling lazily over in the water like a sun-seeking porpoise. If he were to tell her that he'd mistaken her for a kingfisher, Lottie would say teasingly, "Freddie, time to get your eyes tested."
He hadn't told her that he already had.
And the rest.
* * *
The lane that ran alongside the garden of Hestacombe House was narrow and banked high on both sides with poppies, cow parsley, and blackberry bushes. Turning left, Tyler Klein worked out, would lead you back up to the village of Hestacombe. Turning right took you down to the lake. As he took the right turn, Tyler heard the sound of running feet and giggling.
Rounding the first bend in the lane, he saw two small children twenty or thirty yards away, clambering over a stile. Dressed in shorts, T-shirts, and baseball caps, the one in front was carrying a rolled-up yellow-and-white-striped towel, while his companion clutched a haphazard bundle of clothes. Glancing up the lane and spotting Tyler, they giggled again and leaped down from the stile into the cornfield beyond. By the time he reached the stile they'd scurried out of sight, no doubt having taken some shortcut back to the village following their dip in the lake.
The lane opened out into a sandy clearing that sloped down to meet a small artificial beach. Freddie Masterson had had this constructed several years ago, chiefly for the benefit of visitors to his lakeside vacation cottages, but also — as Tyler had just witnessed — to be enjoyed by the inhabitants of Hestacombe. Shielding his eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun as it bounced off the lake, Tyler saw a girl in a bright turquoise bikini floating lazily on her back in the water. There was a faint unearthly wailing sound coming from somewhere he couldn't quite place. Then the noise — was it singing? — stopped. Moments later, as Tyler watched, the girl turned onto her front and began to swim slowly back to shore.
It could almost be that scene from Dr. No, where Sean Connery observes Ursula Andress emerging goddess-like from a tropical sea. Except he wasn't hiding in the bushes and he had all his own hair. And this girl didn't have a large knife strapped to her thigh.
She wasn't blond either. Her long dark hair was a riot of snaky curls plastered to her shoulders, her body curvy and deeply tanned. Impressed — because an encounter like this was the last thing he'd been expecting — Tyler nodded in a friendly fashion as she paused to wring water from her dripping hair and said, "Good swim?"
The girl surveyed him steadily, then looked around the tiny beach. Finally she said, "Where's my stuff?"
Stuff. Taken aback, Tyler gazed around too, even though he had no idea what he was meant to be looking for. For one bizarre moment he wondered if she had arranged to meet a drug dealer here. That was what people said, wasn't it, when they met up with their dealer?
"The usual stuff you leave out of the water when you go for a swim. Clothes. Towel. Diamond earrings."
Tyler said, "Where did you put them?"
"Right there where you're standing. Right there," the girl repeated, pointing at his polished black shoes. She narrowed her eyes at him. "Is this a joke?"
"I guess it is. But I'm not the one playing it." Half turning, Tyler indicated the narrow lane behind him. "I passed a couple kids back there, carrying off stuff."
She had her hands on her hips now, and was surveying him with growing disbelief. "And it didn't occur to you to stop them?"
"I thought it was their stuff." This was ridiculous, he'd never said the word stuff so many times before in his life. "I guess I just thought they'd been swimming down here in this lake."
"You thought the size ten pink halter-necked dress and size seven silver sandals belonged to them." The sarcasm — that particularly British form of sarcasm — was evident in her voice.
"The sandals were wrapped up in something pink. I didn't actually get a close look at the labels. I was thirty yards away."
"But you thought they'd been swimming." Gazing at him intently, the girl said, "Tell me something. Were they ... wet?"
Shit. The kids hadn't been wet. He'd make a lousy private eye. Unwilling to concede defeat, Tyler said, "They could have come down for a paddle. Look, did you really leave diamond earrings with your clothes?"
"Do I look completely stupid? No, of course I didn't. Diamonds don't dissolve in water." Impatiently she shook back her hair to show him the studs glittering in her earlobes. "Right, what did these kids look like?"
"Like kids. I don't know." Tyler shrugged. "They were wearing T-shirts, I guess. And, um, shorts ..."
The girl raised her eyebrows. "That's incredible. Your powers of observation are dazzling. OK, was it a boy and a girl?"
"Maybe." He'd assumed they were boys, but one had had longer hair than the other. "Like I said, I only saw them from a distance. They were climbing over a stile."
"Dark hair? Thin and wiry?" the girl persisted. "Did they look like a couple of gypsies?"
"Yes." Tyler was instantly on the alert; when Freddie Masterson had been singing the praises of Hestacombe he hadn't mentioned any gypsies. "Are they a problem around here?"
"Damn right they're a problem around here. They're my children." Intercepting the look of horror on his face, the girl broke into a mischievous smile. "Relax, they're not really gypsies. You haven't just mortally offended me."
"Well," said Tyler, "I'm glad about that."
"I didn't see a thing. They must have crawled through the bushes and sneaked off with my stuff when I wasn't looking. That's what happens when you have kids who are hell-bent on joining the SAS. But this isn't funny." No longer amused, the girl said impatiently, "I can't believe they'd do something so stupid. They don't think, do they? Because now I'm stuck here with no clothes —"
"You're welcome to borrow my jacket."
"And no shoes."
"I'm not lending you my shoes," Tyler drawled. "You'd look ridiculous. Plus, that'd leave me with nothing to put on my feet."
"Wuss." Thinking hard, the girl said, "OK, look, can you do me a favor? Go back up to the village, past the pub, and my house is three doors down on the right. Piper's Cottage. The doorbell's broken so you'll have to bang on the door. Tell Ruby and Nat to give you my clothes. Then you can bring them back down to me. How does that sound?"
Water from her hair was dripping into her clear hazel eyes, glistening on her tanned skin. She had excellent white teeth and a persuasive manner. Tyler frowned.
"What if the kids aren't there?"
"Right, now I know this isn't ideal, but you have an honest face so I'm going to have to trust you. If they aren't there, you'll just have to take the front door key out from under the tub of geraniums by the porch and let yourself into the house. My bedroom's on the left at the top of the stairs. Just grab something from the wardrobe." Her mouth twitching, the girl said, "And no snooping in my panty drawer while you're there. Just pick out a dress and some shoes then let yourself out of the house. You can be back here in ten minutes."
"I can't do this." Tyler shook his head. "You don't even know me. I'm not going to let myself into a strange house. And if your kids are there ... well, that's even worse."
"Hi." Seizing his hand, she enthusiastically shook it. "I'm Lottie Carlyle. There, now I've introduced myself. And my house really isn't that strange. A bit untidy perhaps, but that's allowed. And you are?"
"Tyler. Tyler Klein. Still not doing it."
"Well, you're a big help. I'm going to look like an idiot walking through the village like this."
"I told you, you can borrow my jacket." Seeing as she was dripping wet and his suit jacket was silk-lined and seriously expensive, he felt this was a pretty generous offer. Lottie Carlyle, however, seemed unimpressed.
"I'd still look stupid. You could lend me your shirt," she wheedled. "That'd be better."
Tyler was here on business. He had no intention of removing his shirt. Firmly he said, "I don't think so. It's the jacket or nothing."
Realizing when she was beaten, Lottie Carlyle took the jacket from him and put it on. "You drive a hard bargain. There, do I look completely ridiculous?"
"You're too kind." She looked sadly down at her bare feet. "Any chance of a piggy back?"
Tyler looked amused. "Don't push your luck."
"Are you saying I'm fat?"
"I'm thinking of my street cred."
Interested, Lottie said, "What are you doing here, anyway? In your smart city suit and shiny shoes?"
There clearly wasn't much call for city suits here in Hestacombe. As they turned to leave, Tyler glanced back at the lake, where iridescent dragonflies were darting over the surface of the water and a family of ducks had just swum into view. Casually he said, "Just visiting."
Gingerly picking her way along the stony, uneven lane, Lottie winced and said meaningfully, "Ouch, my feet."
* * *
Lottie Carlyle attracted a fair amount of attention as they made their way through Hestacombe. Something told Tyler that irrespective of what she was wearing, she always would. Passing motorists grinned in recognition and tooted their horns, villagers out in their yards waved and made teasing comments, and Lottie in turn told them exactly what she was going to do with Ruby and Nat when she got her hands on them.
As they approached Piper's Cottage they spotted the children playing with a watering can in the front yard, taking turns spinning around, holding the can at arm's length and spraying each other with water.
"Viewers of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now," said Lottie. "This is where I go into scary mother mode." Raising her voice, she called out, "Hey, you two. Put that watering can down."
The children looked at their mother, promptly abandoned the watering can and, giggling wildly, shot up into the branches of the apple tree overhanging the front wall.
"I know what you did." Reaching the yard, Lottie peered up into the tree. "And trust me, you're in big trouble."
From the depths of the leafy branches, an innocent voice said, "We were just watering the flowers. Otherwise they'd die."
"I'm talking about my clothes. That wasn't funny, Nat. Running off with someone's clothes is no joke."
"We didn't do it," Nat said immediately.
Ruby chimed in, "It wasn't us."
Tyler looked over at Lottie Carlyle. Maybe he'd made a mistake. Catching his concerned expression, she rolled her eyes. "Please don't believe them. They always say that. You can catch Nat with a mouthful of chocolate and he'll still swear blind he hasn't had any."
"But it wasn't us," Nat repeated.
"We didn't do it," said Ruby, "and that's the truth."
"The more guilty they are, the more they deny it." Lottie sensed Tyler's unease. "Last week they were playing with a slingshot in the bathroom and the mirror happened to get broken. But guess what? Neither of them did that either."
"Mum, this time we really didn't take your clothes," said Ruby.
"No? Well, this man here says you did. Because he saw you," Lottie explained, "and unlike you two, he doesn't tell lies. So you can climb down from there and go get my clothes this minute."
"We don't know where they are!" Ruby let out a wail of outrage.
Without a word, Lottie disappeared inside the cottage. Through the open windows they heard the banging and crashing of cupboards and wardrobes being opened and shut. Finally, triumphantly, she reemerged carrying a scrunched-up pink dress, a pair of flat silver sandals and a yellow-and-white-striped bath towel.
"It wasn't us," Nat blurted out.
"Really. Funny how they happened to be in the backyard then, isn't it?" As she spoke, Lottie was shrugging off the miles-too-big suit jacket, handing it back to Tyler and wriggling into her crumpled sundress. "Now listen, taking my clothes was bad enough. Telling lies and denying it is even worse. So you can forget about going to the balloon festival this weekend, and you won't be getting any allowance either."
"But it was somebody else," squealed Ruby.
"This man says it was you. And out of the three of you, funnily enough, I believe him. So get down out of that tree, get into the house, and start tidying your bedrooms. I mean it," said Lottie. "This minute. Or I'll stop your allowance for the next six weeks."
First Ruby, then Nat dropped down from the branches. Dark eyes narrowed in disgust, they glared at Tyler. As Ruby stalked past him she muttered, "You're the big liar." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Making Your Mind Up by Jill Mansell. Copyright © 2015 Jill Mansell. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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