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She'd done it! It was finally hers. A place where after all the trauma and misery of the last few years she could pull up the drawbridge—metaphorically speaking—and be in her own world. Answerable to no one. No matter it was going to take her years to get the cottage sorted; she could do it at her own pace and it would fill her evenings and weekends, which was just what she wanted. Anyway, if it had been in pristine condition she wouldn't have been able to afford it.
Willow Landon heaved a satisfied sigh and then whirled round and round on the spot before coming dizzily to a halt as she laughed out loud. She was in control of her life again, that was what this cottage meant, and she was never going to relinquish that autonomy again.
She gazed round the small empty sitting room, and the peeling wallpaper and dusty floorboards could have been a palace, such was the expression on her rapt face. Walking across to the grimy French doors in which the glass was cracked and the paintwork flaking, she opened them onto the tangled jungle of a garden. Monstrous nettles and brambles confronted her, fighting for supremacy with waist-high weeds and aggressive ivy, which had wound itself over bushes and trees until the whole had become a wall of green. It was impossible to see any grass or paths, but she thought she could spy what looked like an old potting shed in front of the stone wall at the end of what the estate agent had assured her was a quarter of an acre of ground.
She shut her eyes for a moment, imagining it as it would be when she'd finished with it. Roses and honeysuckle climbing the drystone walls, benches and a swinging seat on the smooth green lawn and little arbours she'd create, a fountain running over a stone water feature. She'd cultivate lots of old-fashioned flowers: foxgloves, angelica, lupins, gillyflowers, larkspur, and pinks—lots of fragrant pinks and wallflowers and stock. And she'd have her own vegetable plot. But those plans were for the future. For now she'd simply clear the jungle and rake the ground free of the worst of weeds and debris for the winter. The most pressing thing was to get the house in shape, and that would take plenty of elbow grease, patience and money. The first two she had, the third would filter in month by month when she saw what she had left after paying the mortgage and bills.
Her mobile phone rang, and as she fished it out of her jeans pocket and saw the number she sighed inwardly even as she said, 'Hi, Beth,' her tone deliberately bright.
'Willow.' Her name was a reproach. 'I've just phoned the flat and one of the girls told me you moved out today. I can't believe you didn't tell us it was this weekend you're moving. You know Peter and I wanted to help.'
'And I told you that with you being seven months pregnant there was no way. Besides which you're still trying to get straight yourself.' Beth and her husband had only moved from their tiny starter home into a larger three-bedroomed semi two weeks before. 'Anyway, I've had loads of offers of help but it's not necessary. I shall enjoy cleaning and sorting out at my own pace. I've got a bed and a few bits of furniture being delivered this afternoon, but there's so much to do here I don't want to buy much as each room will need completely gutting and the less I have to lug about, the better.'
'But to attempt to move on your own.' Beth made it sound as though Willow had gone off to Borneo or outer Mongolia on some hazardous expedition. 'Have you got food in for the weekend?'
Before Willow could reply there was the sound of someone speaking in the background. Then Beth's voice came high and indignant. 'Peter says I'm acting as though you're eight years old instead of twenty-eight. I'm not, am I?'
Willow smiled ruefully. She loved her sister very much and since their parents had been killed in a car crash five years ago they'd become even closer, but she had to admit she was relieved Beth would soon have her baby to fuss over. At thirty, Beth was definitely ready to be a mum. Soothingly—but not absolutely truthfully—she murmured, 'Course not. Look, I've taken some holiday I had owing to get straight. I'll pop in for a chat soon.'
'Great. Come on Monday and stay for dinner,' Beth shot back with alacrity.
Again Willow sighed silently. The planning office in Redditch where she'd worked since leaving university was a stone's throw from Beth's new place, and not far from the house she'd shared with three friends for the last twelve months. The cottage, on the other hand, was an hour's drive away, the last fifteen minutes of which on twisting country lanes. Until she'd got familiar with the journey she would have preferred to drive home while it was still light. Now, in late September, the nights were dropping in. But if she suggested going to see Beth for lunch instead it would mean virtually a whole day's work at the cottage was lost. 'Lovely,' she said dutifully. 'I'll bring dessert but it'll be shop-bought, I'm afraid.'
They talked a little more before Willow excused herself by saying she had a hundred and one things to do, but she didn't immediately get to work. Instead she sank down on the curved stone steps that led from the French doors into the garden. She breathed in the warm morning air, her face uplifted to the sun. Birds twittered in the trees and the sky was a deep cornflower blue. Silly, but she felt nature had conspired with her to give her a break and make moving day as easy as it could be. It was a good start to the rest of her life anyway.
A robin flew down to land on the bottom of the three steps, staring at her for a moment with bright black eyes before darting off. She continued to gaze at the spot where the bird had been, but now her eyes were inward-looking.
This was what the cottage signified: the start of the rest of her life. The past was gone and she couldn't change it or undo the huge mistake she'd made in getting involved with Piers in the first place, but the present and the future were hers now she was free of him. It was up to her to make of them what she would. Just a few months ago she had wanted the world to end; life had lost all colour and each day had been nothing more than a battle to get through before she could take one of the pills the doctor had prescribed and shut off her mind for a little while. But slowly she'd stopped taking the pills to help her sleep, had begun to eat again, been able to concentrate on a TV programme or read a book without her mind returning to Piers and that last terrible night.
She lifted up her slender arms, purposely channelling her mind in a different direction as she stretched and stood up. It had taken time, but she was able to do this now and she was grateful for it. In fact it had probably saved her reason. Whatever, she was herself again—albeit an older, wiser self.
Turning, she went back inside and through the house to the front door. Her trusty little Ford Fiesta was parked on the grass verge at the end of the small front garden, which, like the back, was a tangle of weeds, nettles and briars. The car was packed to the roof with her clothes and personal belongings, along with a box containing cleaning equipment and the new vacuum cleaner she'd bought the day before. She had roughly four hours before her bed and few items of furniture were due to be delivered, and she'd need every minute. The old lady who had lived here before she'd finally been persuaded to move to a nursing home had clearly been struggling for years to cope. The nephew who had overseen her departure from the cottage had apparently cleared it; removing the carpets and curtains—which the estate agent had assured Willow had been falling to pieces—along with everything else. What was left was mountains of dust, dirt and cobwebs, but from what she could see of the grimy floorboards they would be great when stained. And at least she could really put her stamp on things.
Four hours later she'd emptied the vacuum bag umpteen times, but at least the dust from the carpet underlay, which had disintegrated into fine powder, was gone, and most surfaces were relatively clean. The cottage wasn't large, comprising a sitting room, kitchen and bathroom downstairs, and two bedrooms upstairs. There was a kind of scullery attached to the kitchen by means of a door that you opened and stepped down into a six-foot by six-foot bare brick room with a tiny slot of a window, and it was evident the old lady had been in the habit of storing her coal and logs for the fire here. There was no central heating and in the kitchen an ancient range was the only means of cooking. The cottage had been rewired fairly recently though, which was a bonus in view of all the other work she'd need to do, and it had a mains supply of water.
The furniture van arrived and the cheery driver helped Willow manoeuvre her bed and chest of drawers upstairs. There was a built-in wardrobe in the bedroom she'd chosen to sleep in. A two-seater sofa and plumpy armchair and coffee table for the sitting room completed her purchases; her portable TV was in the car, along with her microwave.
That night she fell into bed and was asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow, and for the first time since she had left Piers there were no bad dreams. When Willow awoke in the morning to sunlight streaming in the uncurtained window, she lay for a long time just listening to the birds singing outside and drinking in the peace and solitude. The house she'd shared with her friends for the last months had been on a main road and the traffic noise had filtered in despite the double glazing, but that had been nothing to the noise within most of the time! And before that—
She sat up in bed. She wasn't going to think about the years with Piers in any way, shape or form. New resolution. New start. Off with the old and on with the new. She could so do this. She'd always had her fair share of willpower.
The next couple of days were spent cleaning and scrubbing every room, but by the time Willow had dinner with Beth she was satisfied the years of dirt were dealt with. OK, the place needed serious attention, but the roof was sound and she'd keep to her original plan and do a job at a time as the money dictated. Buying furniture had taken every spare penny but she could work on the garden for the rest of her holiday.
She drove home without mishap after an enjoyable evening with Beth and Peter, and the next day began the assault on the garden. By the weekend she was scratched and sore and aching in muscles she hadn't known she had, but she'd cleared a good-sized section of land. Sunday afternoon the sun was still shining and she decided to have a bonfire. That was what people did in the country, after all.
At some time there must have been a small picket fence separating part of the garden. This had long since rotted, but the remains were useful as a base for the bonfire, along with armfuls of other pieces of wood she had found and old newspapers. When she'd opened the door of the dilapidated pottingshed a couple of days earlier, she had found it stacked from floor to ceiling with old newspapers, magazines, cardboard egg boxes and food wrappers. The old lady must have deposited her paper and cardboard there for years before the garden became too overgrown for her to reach it.
Willow piled the brambles and nettles and other vegetation she'd cleared as high as she could. It would take ages to burn the contents of the potting shed alone, but she had until it got dark. She had positioned the bonfire at the end of the garden some feet from the high stone wall. Beyond this, she understood from the estate agent, was the garden of a larger manor house. The house in question was set in extensive grounds and obscured from view by massive old trees, but the landscaped gardens visible from the lane spoke of considerable wealth. It had been the country residence of the local squire who had owned most of the village set in a dip below Willow's cottage in the old days, apparently, and her cottage had been the gatekeeper's property before the cottage and garden had been sold off. These days the manor house was the weekend home of a successful businessman, according to the estate agent.
Once the bonfire was well and truly alight, Willow began to enjoy herself. There was something immensely satisfying in burning all the rubbish and she fetched more piles of newspapers from the potting shed, throwing them into the crackling flames with gay abandon. This would save a good few trips to the local refuse site if nothing else.
Quite when a sense of slowly mounting unease turned into panic, Willow wasn't sure. Her gung-ho approach with the newspapers had resulted in a large quantity of pieces being picked up by the breeze—still merrily burning—and sailing over the wall in ever-increasing numbers. She tried to knock a pile that was smouldering off the fire with a big stick, but only succeeded in fanning the flames.
She had followed a tip of Peter's and drenched the wood at the bottom of the bonfire in petrol before she'd piled the rubbish on it; now there was no stopping the blaze. Increasingly alarmed by the power of the monster she'd created, she retreated to the cottage to fetch a bucket of water to throw on the flames now leaping into the sky with ever-increasing ferocity and strength.
She was still filling the bucket in the kitchen when she heard shouting. Turning off the tap, she picked up the half-full pail and hurried into the garden in time to see the figure of a man hoisting himself astride the stone wall, his curses mingling with the roaring fire and the wild frenzied barking of what sounded like a pack of rabid dogs.
'What the hell are you playing at?' he snarled at her as she approached. 'Have you lost your reason, woman?'