Read an Excerpt
"HOW'D YOU LIKE TO HAVE YOUR FORTUNE TOLD BY A TRUE GYPSY?"
It was a crisp autumn day, and I was traversing the market square in Chitterton Fells after purchasing traveler's checks at the bank. I had just avoided bumping into gossipy Mrs. Potter from the Hearthside Guild, knowing she was dying to have a word about our new vicar, when the thickset woman in the tobacco-brown coat beckoned to me. She was sitting on one of the stone benches under the clock tower. Having been brought up not to be rude to strangers, I walked over to her.
"You've got luck in your face, young lady."
"And a pretty face it is, too." She pushed back a lock of unkempt hair before tossing down the cigarette she had been smoking and grinding it underfoot.
She certainly had the patter down pat. It was true I was looking my best in my new heather tweed suit. But at thirty-three I had come to terms with the fact that my eyes were rainwater gray and were unlikely to turn blue as I matured. I no longer minded too much that I was sturdily built or that my hair was so straight it wouldn't maintain a hint of style unless worn long and secured with enough pins to make the metal detectors at airports go berserk. What I did mind, particularly when I looked up at the clock tower and saw that it was almost 5:00 P.M., was being sweet-talked into crossing the woman's palm with silver. Perhaps if she had demonstrated a true professionalism by producing a crystal ball, I would have felt differently.
"I see a dark, handsome man and lots of good fortune."
"That's nice." The hustle and bustle of daily life went on all around me. The doors of Tudor buildings opened and closed. Pedestrians thronged the square. There were mothers pushing prams or holding on to toddlers, elderly couples with shopping bags, and gaggles of teenagers elbowing each other amid sputters of laughter. A longhaired trio stood strumming guitars and singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Pigeons pecked their way around my feet, while I stood like someone who had nowhere to go in a hurry, watching the woman on the bench pull a battered packet of cigarettes out of her coat pocket and light up again. I had been raced off my feet the last couple of days, and it felt good to idle. But the truth was, I had always been nervously interested in having my fortune told.
The woman dropped her match and squinted at me through a wispy spiral of smoke. "No need to be scared, lady. I won't tell you nothing bad. I just said there's luck in your face. You're going to live to be ninety-three, you are, and hardly a day's sickness from now till then."
I wasn't quite that gullible. Shaking my head, I turned away. But she stopped me, although not by a hand grabbing at my sleeve or a voice that descended into a whine.
"You've had your share of sorrows," said the woman in the grubby tweed coat, most of its buttons hanging by threads. Her hair could have done with a wash. "Lost your mother, didn't you, lady? When you was only sixteen."
I had been seventeen. Suddenly I felt chilled.
"Came as a shock, it did, because it wasn't like she'd been ill, poor soul. What I see is her taking a bad fall down a steep flight of steps. They didn't think she'd die, not at first, but it was a terrible bang she'd given her head."
"She developed a blood clot." It was difficult getting the words out. The pain of memory mingled with a fearful, heady excitement. "Spellbound" best described my state of mind. Not only did time stand still; even the pigeons, along with the passersby, froze in place. Detractors claim psychics are crafty. They know how to size up their subjects. But how could this woman, true Gypsy or not, have known about my mother? From the way I walked? Or held my handbag?
She began talking in an ordinary, chatty sort of way about the wonderful weather we had been having for October and how there were some decent shops in Chitterton Fells.
"And it's nice to be in a place where you get a blow of sea air." She tossed away another cigarette stub. "Want me to take a look at your hand?"
"How much will it cost me?" I asked.
"Ten pounds, lady."
So much for "cross my palm with silver." Perhaps I had provided her with necessary information, after all. The heather tweed suit had been a splurge, and my handbag was patently expensive, having belonged to my cousin Vanessa and given to me in a mad moment of generosity.
"Gypsies got to keep up with inflation like everyone else." The woman's eyes narrowed in amusement. "And you'll see I give value for money. Want me to tell you about your dad? Doesn't get in touch much, does he?" She leaned forward, seeming to inhale my faint gasp. "You've been worried about him, haven't you, lady?"
My hands moved, turning the brass catch of my bag, then feeling around inside for my wallet. Tucked into one of the little credit-card slots was a dog-eared snapshot of my father. It had been taken shortly before he left a note on the mantelpiece, highjacked my three-speed bicycle, and took off for parts unknown, leaving me to fend for myself at seventeen and three-quarters.
The woman took the ten-pound note I handed her and stuffed it into her coat pocket before taking my hand.
"I should've charged you twenty," she said, tracing a tobacco-stained finger across my palm.
"Because the writing's so small?"
"Aren't we the funny one?" Her lips twitched, but whether with amusement or annoyance I couldn't tell. "What I meant is there's a lot that's happened to you. I'm giving you a reading on the cheap, lady, because this old Gypsy has a heart and I liked your face from halfway across the square. I see you've got a husband."
"You see I'm wearing a wedding ring."
"He's that dark, handsome man I mentioned earlier. And you've got a big, beautiful house overlooking the sea and enough money laid by so you don't have to lay awake nights wondering where the next pot of caviar's coming from. Then there's the children." She turned my hand for a better look. "Two lovely kiddies. A boy and a girl, and I wouldn't be surprised if they was twins. Twins is lucky."
I felt quite dizzy.
"And I seem to see another child. Younger than the others. Though I'm not quite sure how she fits into the picture."
"That would be Rose." I was unable to stop the words from spilling out. "She's my cousin's daughter. But we've had her since she was a couple of months old. Her mother's a fashion model and travels abroad a lot."
"Some aren't cut out to be mums. Well, it takes all sorts, doesn't it? And she knows you'll take good care of her little one."
Now halfway convinced that the Gypsy woman was the true article, I almost asked if Ben and I would get to keep Rose and bring her up as our own. But I was afraid that she'd say it wouldn't happen.
"You were going to tell me about my father," I reminded her.
"Doesn't do to rush these things." She dropped my hand to light up another cigarette. "I'm getting to him, lady. He's been out of your life for years, hasn't he? Except for the letters."
"Written mostly by me." I couldn't keep the bitterness from my voice. "He does well to send the occasional postcard, and there hasn't been one for weeks."
"That's a man for you." She tapped ash onto the passing head of a pigeon. "My advice, lady, is don't hold on to hard feelings. He loves you in his own way, and times haven't been easy for him of late. True as I'm sitting here, one day soon he's going to show up on your doorstep. Sobbing his heart out. Begging you to forgive him."
"And if I know diddle, you won't be able to send him away. Not your very own father."
She sat puffing on her cigarette, looking past me as if searching out another likely customer. When she next spoke, I sensed that her interest had dwindled and she was rounding out my ten pound's worth by resorting to a tried, if not necessarily true, spiel. There was money coming to me from an unexpected quarter and a trip across the water.
"That's right!" I was jolted back to my senses. "I need to get home and finish my packing. My husband and I are leaving for France tomorrow morning."
The look of alarm that leaped into her eyes could have been faked, but it stopped me in my tracks as I turned away from her. Disposing of the cigarette, she reached again for my hand but instantly dropped it as if it were red hot.
"Listen to the Gypsy," she rasped. "Don't you take that trip! The fates are against it. And it don't never do to turn your back on them. Not if you want good fortune to be your friend. Here!" She pulled a button off her coat and handed it to me. "This'll do for a good-luck charm. Magic from a true Gypsy. But it won't work if you don't stay home."
I thanked her and put the button in my shoulder bag. What nonsense! Ben would have a lot to say if I told him we shouldn't go to France because a Gypsy had advised it.
Driving home, I rolled down the car windows to help clear my head. The woman had made a few lucky guesses about my family life, but I would not allow myself to believe she truly had the sight. Or tell myself there had been something sinister about her even as she smiled.
The golden October afternoon was fading into purple twilight, but it was still a perfect day. The air was as crisp as the first bite of a Granny Smith apple. The leaves that scattered the winding cliff road did not resemble the soggy cornflakes so common in autumn. They were crisp and crackling, as if just poured from a cardboard box. Even better, there was hardly a cloud in the skyuntil a dark mass dove across the sky. And it broke into streams of birds heading for their winter resorts. As usual, there was a laggard trailing way behind.
Hurry, befuddled, feathered soul mate! I was just the same. Always flapping to keep up. And today had been no exception. Even with the able assistance of Mrs. Malloy, who came three times a week to do the rough, as she called it, there was always plenty to do in the house. Especially when I was in the midst of packing, as was presently the case. And since the death of our beloved Jonas earlier in the year, we had been without a gardener. Ben now did all the mowing and hedge trimming. But he wasn't much good with flowers. And he didn't have the time, either. True, he had recently converted Abigail's, his cordon bleu restaurant in Chitterton Fells, into a café that served only morning coffee, light lunches, and afternoon tea. But not only was he a devoted father; he had also started work on a new cookery book. Added to which, I (after attempting for over a year to get back to working steadily as an interior designer) had landed a plum job, revamping the ancestral home of Lord and Lady Grizwolde.
It was because our lives had become increasingly busy that Ben had urged me to take his parents up on their offer to mind the children while he and I went to France. We hadn't had a holiday in years. And I wasn't going to allow an unknown woman's premonition to ruin the opportunity to bask in my husband's arms between trips to the Louvre instead of to the loo with the children, who always knew just when to interrupt us. Their grandparents had collected them that morning. It had been heart-wrenching to wave them off. But I knew they would be cosseted to the point of spoiling in the small flat above the greengrocer's shop in Tottenham.
Rounding the next bend in the road, I came within a stone's throw of home. But I had a stop to make first, at St. Anselm's Church hall. I'd promised Kathleen Ambleforth, our new vicar's wife, that I would lend her a silver serving dish with a domed lid for the dining-room scene in Murder Most Fowl, a melodrama she had written herself, with no help from William Shakespeare, and was directing (from what I'd heard) with all the determination of a sheepdog herding its woolly-witted charges into the shearing pen. She was a pleasant woman, and my heart went out to her.
It can't be easy dealing with the egos of people such as my cousin Freddy and Mrs. Roxy Malloy, who had long dreamed of making their first triumphal appearances in an amateur production to be played to thirty people sitting on hard wooden chairs. And then there was Lady Grizwolde, who had graciously agreed to take on the starring role of Malicia Stillwaters. Her ladyship had been a professional actress before her marriage to Sir Casper. Not a particularly famous one. Only two people in Chitterton Fells thought they might know someone who might have seen her in something or other. Even so, it must surely be a little intimidating giving stage directions to a pro.
Kathleen Ambleforth got even more of my sympathy when I parked on the gravel space between the church and the vicarage and spotted my friend Frizzy Taffer's teenage daughter Dawn wending her blond and leggy way between the churchyard's sagging tombstones.
"Hello, there!" I called out as I tucked the serving dish under my elbow and backed into the car door to close it.
"Oh, it's you, Mrs. Haskell." Dawn eyed me without enthusiasm. "I'm sorry I can't stop to chat, but I'm late for rehearsal."
"Freddy tells me you're very good." I fell into step beside her as she reached the path, which wound around the back of St. Anselm's to the church hall. "Your parents must be so proud."
"I should have got the lead," she said with a toss of the Godiva locks. "It was silly of Mrs. Ambleforth to say I was too young to play Malicia. I tried to tell her that I'm an old soul, but there's no talking to her. And as it is, I'm terrified of being typecast."
"Well, you know I played a maid in the school play, and now I'm doing it again. Only this time I have fewer lines, although I do get to cry when I find Major Wagewar's body. Would you like me to show you?" Dawn suddenly scooted smack bang in front of me, almost causing me to drop the serving dish. From what her mother had told me, she was remarkably good, even for a sixteen-year-old, at producing fake tears, but I have to say that I was extremely impressed when, without any change of facial expression, the water spouted from her eyes and cascaded down her porcelain cheeks.
"That's certainly a gift," I said.
"I should run in and tell everyone you've been horrid to me." She shook her head, spraying me in the process. "But I won't because I'm really not as diabolical as Mum makes out." She darted away, and seconds later I followed her into the church hall, where we found Kathleen Ambleforth pacing below stage with a script in one hand and a whistle in the other. She was a forceful-looking woman even when glimpsed from the back. A person prone to old-fashioned tweed skirts, serviceable cardigans, and shabbily genteel hats.
"No, no, Brigadier Lester-Smith," she admonished the middle-aged man standing woodenly behind the footlights. "You cannot be shot, die, and remain standing up. You have to fall to the ground with a resounding thump. Now, let's try it again, if you please. And no more talk, there's a dear, about getting your suit rumpled when you're put in the trunk. I've been telling you for weeks to wear old clothes to rehearsal."
"This is an old suit, Mrs. Ambleforth." The brigadier sounded just a little petulant. He was a man who believed profoundly that duty to one's apparel came next only to that required toward God and country. He was known for the razor-sharp creases in his trousers. A speck of lint on a coat sleeve was a violation of everything he held dear. But clearly the acting bug had bitten him. Perhaps he had hopes of impressing a certain Miss Clarice Whitcombe, who had recently claimed his bachelor's heart. Sacrifices had to be made. He squared his shoulders and moved center stage, saying he was ready to do the scene again.
"Good man! And now"Mrs. Ambleforth rolled the script into a paper truncheon"where is that naughty girl?"
"I'm here!" Dawn's voice was surprisingly meek as she slid around me and scampered up the steps to stand alongside Brigadier Lester-Smith. "Sorry I'm late, but I ran into Mrs. Haskell and she kept me chatting."
I could have thrown the silver serving dish at her.
The vicar's wife turned, noticed me for the first time, and hurried my way, tossing words back over her shoulder as she came. "You've always got an excuse, Dawn. If opening night weren't just a few days away, I might have to think about replacing you. And please remember not to resonate quite so much this afternoon. I know I told you your voice has to carry to the back of the hall, but we don't want tins of Heinz tomato soup flying off shelves in Tesco's five miles away. Why don't you and the brigadier go backstage and read through your lines with the rest of the cast who are back there. I'll be ready for you in five minutes. These young girls!" She shook her head and smiled conspiratorially at me. "It's quite exhausting trying to show them who's boss. I'm glad my niece Ruth is past that trying stage. You'll enjoy her in the play. She's marvelous in the love scenes with your cousin Freddy. Strangely enough, those are the only times he doesn't seem able to get fully into his part. A bit wooden, if you know what I mean. Which, as you might guess, is how the brigadier is from curtain up to curtain down. He never comes alive until he's supposed to be dead. I just have to keep telling myself this isn't a West End production. But having Lady Grizwolde onboard is bound to build the public's expectations. Would you like to stay and watch her in action? She just took a break after shooting the brigadier for the fifth time."
"Oh, I can't," I said quickly. "I just stopped to give you the chafing dish and wish you heaps of luck on opening night."
"Such a pity you and your lovely husband will be away for it."
"Yes, isn't it?" I lied. Unfortunately, I didn't have a lot of acting ability.
"You couldn't have put off your holiday for a week or two?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Freddy must be so disappointed, but it is kind of you to let us borrow this lovely piece." The vicar's wife-cum-beleaguered-director set my silver offering down on a table marooned in the middle of the room. "Now that you're here, can't you at least stay for five minutes? Even an audience of one is such a boost for the cast." Luckily, I didn't get to answer, because a voice called out from the stage: "I'm ready if you are, Mrs. Ambleforth," and Lady Grizwolde emerged from the wings; in reality, the space where the Hoovers and floor polishers were kept.
It was hard to believe that such a woman as her ladyship coexisted in a world with domestic appliances. She was a dark-haired, classic beauty of about thirty-five, with that elusive something called presence and the sort of figure that would have caused most men to drop dead at her feet without putting her to the trouble of having to shoot them. I found myself wondering if Freddy got to kiss her during any of their scenes together and if, in the process, he was able to remember that she was married in real life to a peer of the realm.
Kathleen Ambleforth had bustled away from me in a murmuring of thanks for the chafing dish and hopes that I and my lovely husband would enjoy our holiday. And I was suddenly sorry not to have the time to stay and watch Lady Grizwolde step into her starring role in Murder Most Fowl. I had only met her a few times without any sense of getting to know her. It had been a surprise when she had phoned to express an interest in hiring me to do some redecorating for her at the Old Abbey. A week later, I had come away from the consultation without high hopes. But she had got back in touch to say she liked my ideas and had chosen me over a London decorator. And after the first euphoria wore off, I wished I had a better feeling for what made her tick. That sort of understanding is crucial to doing the best possible job for a client. Now, as I was about to walk out of the church hall, I heard her ladyship speak from the stage in a throaty whisper that seemed to darken the room.
"It's one of those funny facts of life that when someone doesn't do things precisely to my satisfaction, they tend to end up very dead." Turning around slowly, I saw that she was talking to Dawn, who, in the role of the maid, ducked a trembling curtsy before backing out of sight. Then, as I walked out into the gathering dusk, I told myself that my sense of foreboding was all tied in with the Gypsy's nonsense and should be put right out of my head.
A few minutes later I reached the gates of home, standing open to the cliff road. The house had been built at the turn of the century at the whim of some distant cousin on my mother's side. What a lovely man he must have been, I thought for the umpteenth time as I drove past what had originally been the caretaker's cottage and was now my cousin Freddy's digs. In creating Merlin's Court, Eustace Grantham had brought a fairy-tale castle to life, complete with turrets, a moat, and even a miniature portcullis. It had fallen into a sad state of disrepair by the time I visited as a child. But when my Prince Charming finally showed up (they don't make white horses the way they used to), we moved in and eagerly set about removing the curses of time and neglect. We were so lucky, Ben and I, with our adorable, healthy children and this marvelous house in which to bring them up. If I had to walk around with my fingers crossed for the rest of my life, I would gladly do so. Not that I was superstitious. Far from it. I was already thinking about what I would have for my first dinner in France. The asparagus mousse or lobster bisque for a starter? Or possibly both?
It was only after I had stowed the car in the old stable that we used for a garage that I noticed another vehicle, a battered old crock, if ever there was one, parked in the courtyard. Could it belong to the Reverend Dunstan Ambleforth? He had been promising to pay us a call, and his wife had laughingly warned us not to be unduly surprised if he turned up in the middle of the night; apparently he was very much the absentminded clergyman. Especially after long hours spent in his study working on volume eleven of his Life of St. Ethelwort. But here he was, I presumed, at a perfectly seemly hour.
Crossing the moat bridge, I felt considerably cheered. Surely a spiritual visit from a man of the cloth would offset the Gypsy's warning. Being exceedingly High Church, he might even offer to come out to the stable and sprinkle the car with holy water, just to be on the safe side. I was halfway up the stone steps when Ben opened the front door. He is a man who looks good in any light, but the violet shadows cast by the onset of twilight planed his face to perfection and did marvelous things to his jawline. Even in his old corduroys and navy blue sweater he could still make my heart miss a beat.
"Ellie," he said, running lean brown fingers through his curly black hair, "there's someone here."
"I know." The wind ruffled my hair as I glanced back at the parked car.
"It's a man."
"I thought it might be." As so often was the case, I marveled that my husband's blue-green eyes were flecked with gold.
"Not just any man, Ellie."
"You're right." I understood what he was getting at. As our new vicar and a foremost authority on St. Ethelwort, Reverend Ambleforth deserved to be welcomed by Mrs. as well as Mr. Haskell on his first visit to Merlin's Court. 'I'm sorry I was so long, darling. The beastly cashier acted as though I had the getaway car at the door when I asked for traveler's checks. He summoned the manager, who kept insisting, with all the authority conferred by his pinstriped suit, that our account was thousands of pounds overdrawn. Finally, he admitted that he had misplaced his bifocals and had read the plus as a minus sign, by which time I was ready to cosh him with my handbag."
"Our visitor is in the drawing room." Ben took my hand and led me through the front door into the flagstone hall.
"Well, I hope you made him a nice cup of tea," I said.
"Of course I did, and gave him a good-sized piece of chocolate cake." My husband drew me to him and kissed my cheek. "After all, sweetheart, it's not every day that your long-lost father shows up out of the blue."