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A week earlier
'It seems almost too good to be true,' Tallie Paget said with a sigh.
'In which case, it probably is,' her friend Lorna cautioned dourly. 'You hardly know this guy. For heaven's sake, take care.'
Tallie gave her a reassuring smile. 'But that's exactly what I shall be doing, don't you see? Taking care of Kit Benedict's flat while he's in Australia. Living rent-free, with just the electricity and heating bills to pick up, which I shall naturally be keeping to an absolute minimum.
'That has to be better than starving in a garret while I get the book finishedeven if I found a garret I could afford.'
She paused. 'There's a word for this kind of thing.'
'I know there is,' said Lorna. 'Insanity.'
'Serendipity, actually,' Tallie informed her. 'Making happy and accidental discoveries, according to the dictionary. Just thinkif I hadn't had an evening job in one of the wine bars which Kit's company supplies, and he hadn't seen me scouring the evening paper for a shed in someone's garden at less than a thousand pounds a month, none of this would have happened.'
'And moving out of your present flat,' Lorna asked dryly. 'Is that another happy accident?'
'No, of course not.' Tallie looked down at her empty coffee cup. 'But I can't stay there, not under the circumstances. You must see that. And Josie made it quite clear she wasn't planning to move out and live with him.'
'God, she's a charmer, your cousin,' said Lorna. 'It wouldn't surprise me if she asked you to be her bridesmaid.'
'Nor me.' Tallie bit her lip. 'I can hear her now. "But Natalie, Mother will be mortified if you refuse. And it isn't as if you and Gareth were ever really involved."'
'No,' said Lorna. 'And just as well, under the circumstances.'
Tallie sighed. 'I know. And I also know I'll come to see that myself one day.' Her voice wobbled slightly. 'But not quite yet.'
Lorna gave her a searching look. 'And this Kit Benedict promise me you're not falling for him on the rebound.'
'Heavens, no,' Tallie said, aghast. 'I've told you. He's off to Australia touring vineyards to learn more about the business. Besides, he's not my type in the slightest.'
Her type, she thought with a pang, was tall, with blond hair falling across his forehead, blue eyes and a lazy smile. Kit Benedict, on the other hand, was medium height, dark, and rather too full of himself.
'He needs a house-sitter,' she went on. 'I need somewhere to live. Done deal.'
'So what's it like, this place of his? The usual bachelor pad, overflowing with empty bottles and take-away cartons?'
'The total opposite,' Tallie assured her more cheerfully. 'It's on the top floor of this Edwardian block, with an utterly fabulous living roomwonderful squashy sofas and chairs, mixed in with genuine antiques, plus views all over London. There's a kitchen to die for, and two massive bedrooms. Kit said I could use whichever I wanted, so I'm having histhe master with its own gorgeous bathroom.'
Her room at Josie's was like a shoe box, she thought. One narrow single bed, with a zip-up plastic storage container underneath it for her limited wardrobe. No cupboard, so the rest of her clothes were hanging from two hooks on the back of the door. One tiny table, fortunately just large enough for her laptop, and a stool.
But then her cousin had never really wanted her there in the first place. Her offer of accommodation had been grudgingly made after family pressure, but neither she nor her flatmate Amanda, who occupied the two decent-sized bedrooms, had ever made Tallie feel welcome.
But the rent was cheap, so she'd have put up and shut up for as long as it tookif it hadn't been for Gareth.
Wincing inwardly, she hurried on. 'In fact, the whole flat is absolutely immaculate because there's a cleaner, Mrs Medland, who comes in twice a week. Kit says she's a dragon with a heart of gold, and I don't even have to pay for her. Apparently, some legal firm sees to all that. And I send the mail on to them too.'
She took a deep breath. 'And, from tomorrow, it will be all mine.'
'Hmm,' said Lorna. 'What I can't figure altogether is how it can possibly be all hisunless he actually owns this wine importing concern he works for.'
Tallie shook her head. 'Far from it. Apparently the flat is part of some family inheritance.' She paused. 'There's even a room that Kit uses as an office, and he says I can work in there and use the printer. I'm spoiled for space.'
Lorna sighed. 'Well, I suppose I have to accept that the whole situation's above board and you've actually fallen on your feet at last. I just wish you could have moved into Hallmount Road with us but, since Nina's boyfriend arrived, we're practically hanging from the light fittings as it is.'
'Honestly,' Tallie told her, 'everything's going to be fine.'
And I only wish I felt as upbeat as I sound, she thought as she walked back to the advertising agency where she'd been temping for the past three weeks, filling in for a secretary who'd been laid low by a vicious bout of chickenpox. She'd soon adapted to the strenuous pace of life at the agency, proving, as she'd done in her other placements, that she was conscientious, efficient and highly computer-literate. At the same time she'd revelled in the stimulation of its creative atmosphere.
In fact, it had been one of the nicest jobs she'd had all year and she was sorry it had come to an end, especially when her immediate boss had hinted that it could become a permanency. That she might even become a copywriter in due course.
And maybe Lorna was right and she was insane to throw away that level of security for a dream. On the other hand, she knew that she'd been given a heaven-sent opportunity to be a writer and if she didn't grasp it she might regret it for the rest of her life.
Everything she'd done that year had been with that aim in mind. All her earnings from the wine bar, and as much as she could spare from her daytime salary, had gone into a savings account to support her while she wrote. She'd be living at subsistence level, but she was prepared for that.
And all because she'd entered a competition in a magazine to find new young writers under the age of twenty-five. Entrants had been required to produce the first ten thousand words of a novel and Tallie, eighteen years old and bored as she'd waited for her A level exam results, had embarked on a story about a spirited girl who'd disguised herself as a man and undertaken a dangerous, adventure-strewn odyssey across Europe to find the young army captain she loved and who was fighting in Wellington's Peninsular Army.
She hadn't won, or even been placed, but one of the judges was a literary agent who'd contacted her afterwards and asked her to lunch in London.
Tallie had accepted the invitation with slight trepidation, but Alice Morgan had turned out to be a brisk middle-aged woman with children of her own who'd been through the school and university system, and who seemed to understand why career choices were not always cut and dried.
'My brother Guy always knew he wanted to be a vet like Dad,' Tallie had confided over the wonders of sea bass followed by strawberry meringue at the most expensive restaurant she'd ever visited. 'And at school they think I should go on to university and read English or History, before training as a teacher. But I'm really not sure, especially when I'll have a student loan to pay off once I qualify. So I'm taking a gap year while I decide.'
'Have you never considered writing as a career?'
Tallie flushed a little. 'Oh, yes, for as long as I can remember, but at some time in the future. I always thought I'd have to get an ordinary job first.'
'And this gap yearhow will you spend that?'
Tallie reflected. 'Well, Dad always needs help in the practice. And I've done a fairly intensive computer course, so I could find office work locally.'
Mrs Morgan leaned back in her chair. 'And what happens to Mariana, now in the hands of smugglers? Does she get consigned to a file marked "might have been"? Or are you going to finish her story?'
'I hadn't really thought about it,' Tallie confessed. 'To be honest, I only wrote that first bit for fun.'
'And it shows.' Alice Morgan smiled at her. 'It's not perfect, but it's a good rip-roaring adventure told with real exuberance by a fresh young voice, and from the female angle. If you can sustain the storyline and the excitement at the same level, I think I could find more than one publisher who might be interested.'
'Goodness,' Tallie said blankly. 'In that case, maybe I should give it some serious thought.'
'That's what I like to hear,' the older woman told her cheerfully. 'One aspect you might consider is your hero, the dashing William. Is he based on anyone in particulara boyfriend, perhaps?'
Tallie flushed. 'Oh, no,' she denied hurriedly. 'Nothing like that. Justsomeone I see around the village sometimes. His parents have a cottage they use at weekends, but I I hardly know him at all.'
Although I know his nameGareth Hampton.
Mrs Morgan nodded. 'I rather got that impression because, as a hero, I couldn't get a handle on him either. And if Mariana is going to risk so much for love of him, you must make him worth the trouble. And there are one or two other things '
Tallie caught the train home two hours later in something of a daze, the back of her diary filled with notes about those 'other things', but by the end of the journey any indecision about the immediate future was over and she had A Plan.
Her parents were astounded and a little dubious when she outlined it.
'But why can't you write at home?' her mother queried.
Because I'd never get anything done, thought Tallie with rueful affection. Between helping Dad when one of his assistants is sick, walking the dogs, giving a hand in the house and getting stuck into loads of batch baking for the WI or some do at the village hall, I'd always be on call for something.
She said, 'Mrs Morgan emphasised that I need to get my research right, and living in the city is just so convenient for that. I'm going to spend my Christmas and birthday money on a subscription to the London Library. Then I'll do what Lorna's done and find a flat-share with two or three other girls. Live as cheaply as I can.'
Mrs Paget said nothing, but pursed her lips, and a few days later she announced she'd been talking to Uncle Freddie and he'd agreed that living with strangers was unthinkable, and insisted that Tallie move in with her cousin Josie.
'He says her flat has a spare room, and she'll be able to help you find your feet in London,' she added.
Tallie groaned. 'Push me off the Embankment more likely. Mum, Josie's three years older than me and we haven't a thought in common. Besides, she and Aunt Val have always looked on us as the poor relations, you know that.'
'Well, I suppose we are in material terms,' said her mother. 'But not in any other way. Anyway,' she continued with cheerful optimism, 'I expect working for a living has smoothed off some of Josie's edges.'
Not so you'd notice, Tallie thought now as she rode up in the lift to the agency floor. At least, not where I'm concerned. And waiting on tables in the evening as well as holding down a day job may have been tough, but at least it's kept me out of the flat and away from her.
And, more recently, by dint of working until closing time and beyond at the wine bar, and leaving very early each morning, buying coffee and a croissant en route to work, she'd managed to remain in comparative ignorance about whether or not Gareth was now spending all his nights in Josie's room. Although the nagging pain deep within her told her the probable truth.
Stupidstupid, she berated herself, to have built so much on a few lunches and a couple of weekend walks. But Gareth had been her 'bright particular star' for almost as long as she could remember, and simply spending time with him had seemed like a promise of paradise.
Until the moment when she'd had to stand there numbly, watching her star go out and paradise disappear, she thought bracing herself against the inevitable pain.
However, it was her last day as a member of the employed, and she wasn't going to break her self-imposed rule of never taking her personal problems into the workplace. So she straightened her shoulders, nailed on a smile and marched through the double glass doors into the open plan office beyond.
In the event, it turned out to be a much shorter afternoon than she'd expected. Before it was half over, her boss called the other staff together, champagne was produced and the managing director made a brief speech about what a valuable team member she'd been and how much she'd be missed.
'And if the next job doesn't work out as planned, we're only a phone call away,' he added, and Tallie heard a wobble in her voice as she thanked him.
When she called at the temps bureau later to collect her money, the manageress there also made it clear she was loath to lose her services.
'You've always been so reliable, Natalie,' she mourned. 'Isn't there a number where I can reach you in case of emergency?'
'I'm afraid not,' Tallie said firmly. Apart from her family and Lorna, no one was having the contact number at Albion House. Kit had made it clear she was not to hand it out to all and sundry, and she was happy to go along with that.
Besides, she was going to need every ounce of concentration she possessed for her book, which completely ruled out being at the beck and call of The Relief Force, as the bureau titled itself. They would just have to manage without her, she thought, although she had to admit it was nice to be needed, if only in a work sense.
Meanwhile, finishing early today meant she would have the flat to herself when she got back, and she could do her packing before she set off for her final stint at the wine bar. So many doors closing, she thought, but another massive one about to open in front of her, and who knew what might lie beyond it.
At the flat, she made herself some coffee from what little was left in the jar. In theory, they all bought their own groceries. In practice, Josie and Amanda were always too busy for a regular supermarket shop, and they used whatever was available.