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“Hi, honey, I’m home.”
Alex had never actually watched the nineties TV series of that name, nor was she old enough to have plucked the phrase from the fifties. However, she often sang it out when she walked in the door because it was what her parents used to do, and it had usually made them laugh—or at least smile.
It generally had the same effect on Jason, but not this evening, apparently, because he didn’t seem to be at home. Unless he was in the garden braving another attempt at putting the new shed together. It was going to be hard to get anything as polite as a smile out of him if that was the case. In spite of him being a fully qualified builder, his last effort had ended with a hammer boomeranging off the back wall of the house while he performed a weird sort of Friday prayers next to the compost heap.
Since then, the offending shed parts had been banished from sight and were quite likely, Alex suspected, to stay that way until they were ready to behave like the reasonable, easily assembled components they were supposed to be, according to the website they’d ordered them from.
Dropping her heavy work bag and gray denim jacket at the foot of the stairs, she quickly checked the time on her watch and groaned inwardly to see how late it was already. She had less than an hour to shower, change, and grab a snack before needing to head out again. After the day she’d just had she wouldn’t have minded simply crashing in front of the TV for the rest of the evening, or outside on the patio in their smart new loungers with a bottle of half-decent wine. On the other hand, she was excited about tonight—so excited, in fact, that merely thinking about what lay in store was enough to dispel her exhaustion and infuse her with so many exhilarating waves of energy that she could sing, dance, even turn cartwheels across the lawn if required.
That would have given old Millie Case a bit of a chuckle, if she’d still been in the cottage next door. Sadly, Millie had been moved to a care home a few weeks ago, her Alzheimer’s making it impossible for her to carry on living alone.
Quickly adding a visit to Millie to her list of must-dos over the weekend, Alex entered the kitchen to find it empty. However, both top and bottom halves of the stable door were open to the patio, and the buzz and roar of the lawn mower careening up and down the back garden explained why Jason hadn’t heard her come in. Inhaling the delicious scent of freshly mown grass, she was about to go and commend his manly horticultural skills when the phone on the dresser started to ring.
Tucking the receiver under her chin, she opened the fridge to take out some wine. “Hi, the Vicarage,” she answered. Though the house no longer belonged to the church, it had retained its name since her father, the rector, had bought it, and its position of splendid isolation at the top end of the village (with Millie’s cottage attached) made it one of the area’s more desirable homes. Not that it was particularly large or well modernized—in fact, it could boast none of the grandeur of most renovated vicarages around the country. It was the views that made it so sought after, both out across the open fields behind, and down over the random sprawl of village rooftops in front. Alex was always mindful of how lucky she was to be living here now that her parents had gone, but she knew that the day would soon come when Gabby would want to sell.
What was she going to do then on her paltry salary?
No time to think about it now.
“Hi, Alex, is that you?” a voice demanded from the other end of the line.
“Yes, it’s me,” Alex replied, gliding effortlessly into her evening persona of joint founder/director/producer of the Mulgrove Village Players. Alex the child-protection worker would fall away magically when she shook out her hair and removed her specs. Or so she liked to think. In reality, the problems of the day never really went away; they simply went off backstage for a while, very often to work themselves up into something superbly melodramatic, ready for a middle-of-the-night session when she was unable to sleep. “How are you, Hailey?” she asked chirpily.
“Oh, you knew it was me,” Hailey gushed delightedly.
Alex couldn’t help but smile. Hailey was the most self-effacing writer with talent she’d ever come across—not that she’d come across many writers, but there had been a few. “Is everything OK?” she asked, half-filling a glass with perfectly chilled chardonnay. A sudden cloud threatened. “Please don’t tell me you can’t make it tonight.”
“Oh, no, no,” Hailey cried hastily. “I mean, yes, of course I’ll be there. I’d never let you down, you know that. I was just checking to make sure I have the time right. Seven-thirty at the village hall.”
Suspecting Hailey really just wanted to speak to someone who’d understand how nervous and excited she was, Alex, in her role as director, said, “I know you won’t be late, and having you there will make a world of difference to everyone.”
“Oh, don’t say that,” Hailey protested. “I’m just glad that it all seems to be going so well. I never dreamed that I’d ever actually have one of my plays produced.”
“So you see, dreams do come true,” Alex told her, grimacing at her own corniness, while feeling amazed all over again that timid little Hailey Walsh from a neighboring village had managed to come up with such a boisterous comedy. OK, it was cheesy in parts, and very definitely over the top, but if the hilarity during rehearsals was anything to go by, the show itself would have their friends and neighbors rolling in the aisles. “I’d better ring off now,” she said, glancing at the clock on the wall, “or I’ll be late getting there. See you at seven-thirty.”
“On the dot,” Hailey assured her, and Alex didn’t doubt it.
No sooner had she hung up than the phone started off again. Checking the caller ID, she clicked on with a merry “Hello, Mulgrove Vicarage, Alexandra Lake at your service.”
Chuckling, her aunt Sheila said, “Hello, dearie, how are you? Is this a good time?”
“Actually, no,” Alex admitted, spotting Jason taking a call on his mobile. “Unless it’s urgent. Is it?”
“No, just ringing to let you know I’ve received my tickets.”
“For the opening night? Fantastic. So you’ll be able to make it?”
“I’m certainly going to try, but you know how busy I am here. I can’t think when I last had a day off, and I’m far too old for it all, really.”
Knowing that the day her aunt gave up her beloved horse refuge would be the day she keeled over, Alex said, “Seventy is the new fifty, I’m told, and anyway, you don’t look a day over forty.” It wasn’t true, because actually her adoptive mother’s sister looked ancient, but where was the harm in saying it if it made her feel good? “Do you know if Gabby’s got her tickets yet?” she asked.
“I haven’t heard from her so far today, but I’m sure she has. Oh, hang on, don’t go anywhere, this might be her now and I’ll be able to tell you.”
As she waited, Alex took a sip of wine and felt proud of herself for not minding that her sister and aunt spoke on a daily basis. Once upon a time it would have made her feel fretful and excluded, but she’d learned in recent years to have better control of her insecurities. No doubt they were still raging away somewhere in her psyche, getting themselves nicely fueled up by the issues she had to deal with in her day job. However, not since she was a high-strung teenager had she got herself into an emotional state over not mattering as much as her sister. Their mother had always denied it, of course, saying that if she hadn’t been told she was adopted she would never have come up with such nonsense. And occasionally Alex had wondered if that might be true, but even if it were, there was no doubt in her mind that Gabby was more special to her parents simply because she was theirs.
“No, not her,” Sheila announced, coming back on the line. “I’ll let you go then, if you’re in a hurry. Toodle pip and all that.”
After saying her own goodbye Alex hung up the phone. Seeing that Jason was still on his mobile, she blew him a kiss through the open window and ran upstairs to take a shower. It was only when she turned it on that she remembered one of Jason’s regular plumbers had come out on an emergency call that morning to disconnect it. Heaven only knew what demon or gremlin had been at work in the system during the night, but for some reason water had started gushing out of it at 6:00 a.m. with no one turning it on, and apparently the plumber hadn’t managed to sort it out yet.
Resigning herself to a lengthy wait for the bath to fill to a mere few inches, she stuck in the plug, spun the crusty old brass taps, and went back along the landing to the master bedroom to dig out some fresh clothes. This had always been her parents’ bedroom until her mother, newly widowed, had moved down to Devon to live with Sheila and be closer to Gabby and the children. The furniture was all theirs, the old-fashioned wrought-iron bedstead with its slightly bent footrail and limp feather mattress, the his-and-hers wardrobes with the maddening system of front-to-back hanging rails, and the odd collection of walnut chests and pine cabinets. The carpet was a busy mix of red and green swirls, while the curtains were a dusky shade of gold. It would win no awards for interior design, but with its dual-aspect windows bringing in so much light, Alex loved the room anyway, and Jason, who’d only lived in modern houses until he’d moved in with her a year ago, always claimed that he loved it too.
Unfortunately, his children couldn’t stand it, but since their mother had convinced them that they couldn’t stand anything to do with Alex Lake, or Mulgrove, or in fact anything outside of Kesterly-on-Sea, the nearby coastal town where they lived and Alex worked, it would have been a bit of a miracle if they’d fallen for this ramshackle rural idyll at first sight.
“It’s like dead creepy,” Tiffany, Jason’s thirteen-year-old, had murmured disgustedly before she’d even set foot in the door.
Taking up the theme, ten-year-old Heidi had shuddered theatrically as she’d gulped, “It really scares me.”
“Has it got ghosts?” eight-year-old Tom had whispered, his eyes bright with the thrill of it.
Though Alex had never felt anything in the least bit sinister about the house, she would readily admit that to some it might give the impression of containing otherworldly residents reluctant to move on. Its association with the church, which was opposite the house halfway down the hill going into the village, clearly added to its sense of mystique. But for her the only real ghouls that existed anywhere near the Vicarage were the ones inside her head—so she couldn’t actually claim they were real. However, she was certain they weren’t imagined either, because the nightmares that had troubled her ever since she was a child, she knew, came from the time before the rector, her adoptive father, had rescued her.
Shaking off the thoughts before they had a chance to start darkening her mood, she ran back downstairs to find out if Jason was off the phone yet. What had happened back then was all a very long time ago, and who needed to be dealing with a twenty-five-year-old horror when she had fresh ones coming up practically every day?
“At last,” Jason declared, pocketing his mobile as she finally made it outside to greet him. “You’re back later than I expected.” Scooping her into his arms, he planted a bruising kiss full on her lips. “Mmm, that’s better,” he murmured suggestively as he pulled back to gaze at her with his intense blue eyes. At five foot seven he didn’t tower too far over her, but at thirty-eight he was a full ten years older, and with the grizzle of gray in his wiry dark hair and lines around his eyes, he often looked it. However, there was no getting away from the fact that he was heart-stoppingly handsome—at least to her mind he was—and not even the unsightly scar that puckered his right cheek would change her opinion on that. He’d got it in an accident as a child, which he’d told her all about the night they’d met at a party, in Kesterly, eighteen months ago. Not the traditional sort of chat‑up line designed to sweep her off her feet, but she’d fallen for him anyway.
“Good day?” he asked, kissing her again.
“Depends how you define good.” She smiled. “How about you?”
“On a scale of one to ten it’s just tipped off the top end.”
She eyed him carefully.
“I mean seeing you,” he said with a laugh.
“OK, as long as it’s not something to do with the call you just took, or I might be jealous.”
Since she wasn’t jealous by nature he never took her quips seriously; however, on this occasion he grimaced awkwardly and turned to start packing up the mower.
“So who was on the phone?” she prompted as he carted the empty collection box over to a springy pile of cut grass.
“I think you can guess,” he replied, not turning round.
Her heart immediately sank. “Gina,” she stated, trying to keep the frustration out of her tone. No call from his estranged wife was ever a good one. “So what did she want?”
Sighing, he said, “Apparently her car’s broken down, so she wants me to drive Heidi to her dance class.”
Taking no more than a split second to work out what that was going to mean for the evening, Alex’s eyes flashed with anger. “I swear she does it on purpose,” she cried. “She knew what we had planned for tonight. . . .”
“How could she?”
“Anyone could have told her, or knowing her, she’s been on the theater’s Facebook page checking up on everything we’re doing. Jason, you can’t let us down tonight. It’s a tech run, for God’s sake.”
“I know, I know, but what am I supposed to do? Heidi’s passionate about those classes and she’s due to perform at assembly on the first day of term, so I can hardly make her skip a lesson now when there’s less than a week to go.”
“But she can already dance the piece perfectly.”
“Says you. She doesn’t think so, and as she’s the one who’s performing . . .”