Claire Thackeray: Hardworking single mom and gossip columnist. Hoping for the inside scoop on sexy billionaire Hal North, aka her teen crush!
Most wary of: Gorgeous men who set her heart racing. (Been there, got the T-shirtand the baby!)
Hal North: Bad boy made good. Back in his hometown as new owner of the Cranbrook Park estate. Determined to put his troubled past behind him.
Most wary of: Journalistsespecially pretty ones, like new neighbor and tenant Claire Thackeray.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Cranbrook Park for Sale?
The future of the Cranbrook Park has been the subject of intense speculation this week after a move by HMRC to recover unpaid taxes sparked concern amongst the estate's creditors.
Cranbrook Park, the site of a 12th century Abbey, the ruins of which are still a feature of the estate, has been in continuous occupation by the same family since the 15th century. The original Tudor hall, built by Thomas Cranbrook, has been extended over the centuries and the Park, laid out in the late eighteenth century by Humphrey Repton, has long been at the heart of Maybridge society with both house and grounds generously loaned for charity events by the present baronet, Sir Robert Cranbrook.
The Observer contacted the estate office today for clarification of the situation, but no one was available for comment. Maybridge Observer, Thursday 21 April
Sir Robert Cranbrook glared across the table. Even from his wheelchair and ravaged by a stroke he was an impressive man, but his hand shook as he snatched the pen his lawyer offered and signed away centuries of power and privilege.
'Do you want a sample of my DNA, too, boy?' he demanded as he tossed the pen on the table. His speech was slurred but the arrogant disdain of five hundred years was in his eyes. 'Are you prepared to drag your mother's name through the courts in order to satisfy your pretensions? Because I will fight your right to inherit my title.'
Even now, when he'd lost everything, he still thought his name, the baronetcy that went with it, meant something.
Hal North's hand was rock steady as he picked up the pen and added his signature to the papers, immune to that insulting 'boy.'
Cranbrook Park meant nothing to him except as a means to an end. He was the one in control here, forcing his enemy to sit across the table and look him in the eye, to acknowledge the shift in power. That was satisfaction enough.
Cranbrook's pawn, Thackeray, hadn't lived to witness this moment, but his daughter was now his tenant. Evicting her would close the circle.
'You can't afford to fight me, Cranbrook,' he said, capping the pen and returning it to the lawyer. 'You owe your soul to the tax man and without me to bail you out you'd be a common bankrupt man living at the mercy of the state.'
'Mr North '
'I have no interest in claiming you as my father. You refused to acknowledge me as your son when it would have meant something,' he continued, ignoring the protest from Cranbrook's solicitor, the shocked intake of breath from around the room. It was just the two of them confronting the past. No one else mattered. 'I will not acknowledge you now. I don't need your name and I don't want your title. Unlike you, I did not have to wait for my father to die before I took my place in the world, to be a man.'
He picked up the deeds to Cranbrook Park. Vellum, tied with red ribbon, bearing a King's seal. Now his property.
'I owe no man for my success. Everything I am, everything I own, Cranbrook, including the estate you have squandered, lost because you were too idle, too fond of easy living to hold it, I have earned through hard work, sweatthings you've always thought beneath you. Things that could have served you. Would have saved you from this if you were a better man.'
'You're a poacher, a common thief '
'And now I'm dining with presidents and prime ministers, while you're waiting for God in a world reduced to a single room with a view of a flower-bed instead of the park created by Humphrey Repton for one of your more energetic ancestors.'
Hal turned to his lawyer, tossed him the centuries-old deeds as casually as he would toss a newspaper in a bin and stood up, wanting to be done with this. To breathe fresh air.
'Think about me sitting at your desk as I make that world my own, Cranbrook. Think about my mother sleeping in the Queen's bed, sitting at the table where your ancestors toadied to kings instead of serving at it.' He nodded to the witnesses. 'We're done here.'
'Done! We're far from done!' Sir Robert Cranbrook clutched at the table, hauled himself to his feet. 'Your mother was a cheating whore who took the money I gave her to flush you away and then used you as a threat to keep her useless drunk of a husband in a job,' he said, waving away the rush to support him.
Hal North had not become a multimillionaire by betraying his emotions and he kept his face expressionless, his hands relaxed, masking the feelings boiling inside him.
'You can't blackmail an innocent man, Cranbrook.'
'She didn't have to be pushed very hard to come back for more. Years and years more. She was mine, bought and paid for.'
'Hal ' The quiet warning came from his lawyer. 'Let's go.'
'Sleeping in a bed made for a queen won't change what she is and no amount of money will make you anything but trash.'
Cranbrook raised a finger, no longer shaky, and pointed at him. 'Your hatred of me has driven you all these years, Henry North and now everything you ever dreamed of has finally fallen into your lap and you think you've won.' Oh, yes
'Enjoy your moment, because tomorrow you're going to be wondering what there's left to get out of bed for. Your wife left you. You have no children. We are the same you and I '
'The same,' he repeated. 'You can't fight your genes.' His lips curled up in a parody of a smile. 'That's what I'll be thinking about when they're feeding me through a tube,' he said as he collapsed back into the chair, 'and I'll be the one who dies laughing.'
Claire Thackeray swung her bike off the road and onto the footpath that crossed Cranbrook Park estate.
The No Cycling sign had been knocked down by the quad bikers before Christmas and late for work, again, she didn't bother to dismount.
She wasn't a rule breaker by inclination but no one was taking their job for granted at the moment. Besides, hardly anyone used the path. The Hall was unoccupied but for a caretaker and any fisherman taking advantage of the hiatus in occupancy to tempt Sir Robert's trout from the Cran wouldn't give two hoots. Which left only Archie and he'd look the other way for a bribe.
As she approached a bend in the path, Archie, who objected to anyone travelling faster than walking pace past his meadow, charged the hedge. It was terrifying if you weren't expecting ithence the avoidance by joggersand pretty unnerving if you were. The trick was to have a treat ready and she reached in her basket for the apple she carried to keep him sweet.
Her hand met fresh air and as she looked down she had a mental image of the apple sitting on the kitchen table, before Archienot a donkey to be denied an anticipated treatbrayed his disapproval.
Her first mistake was not to stop and dismount the minute she realised she had no means of distracting him, but while his first charge had been a challenge, his second was the real deal. While she was still on the what, where, how, he leapt through one of the many gaps in the long-neglected hedge, easily clearing the sagging wire while she was too busy pumping the pedals in an attempt to outrun him to be thinking clearly.
Her second mistake was to glance back, see how far away he was and the next thing she knew she'd come to an abrupt and painful halt in a tangle of bike and limbsnot all of them her ownand was face down in a patch of bluebells growing beneath the hedge.
Archie stopped, snorted, then, job done, he turned around and trotted back to his hiding place to await his next victim. Unfortunately the man she'd crashed into, and who was now the bottom half of a bicycle sandwich, was going nowhere.
'What the hell do you think you're doing?' he demanded.
'Smelling the bluebells,' she muttered, keeping very still while she mentally checked out the 'ouch' messages filtering through to her brain.
There were quite a lot of them and it took her a while, but even so she would almost certainly have moved her hand, which appeared to be jammed in some part of the man's anatomy if it hadn't been trapped beneath the bike's handlebars. Presumably he was doing the same since he hadn't moved, either. 'Such a gorgeous scent, don't you think?' she prompted, torn between wishing him to the devil and hoping that he hadn't lost consciousness.
His response was vigorous enough to suggest that while he might have had a humour bypassand honestly if you didn't laugh, well, with the sort of morning she'd had, you'd have to cryhe was in one piece.
Ignoring her attempt to make light of the situation he added, 'This is a footpath.'
'So it is,' she muttered, telling herself that he wouldn't have been making petty complaints about her disregard for the by-laws if he'd been seriously hurt. It wasn't a comfort. 'I'm so sorry I ran into you.' And she was. Really, really sorry.
Sorry that her broad beans had been attacked by a black-fly. Sorry that she'd forgotten Archie's apple. Sorry that Mr Grumpy had been standing in her way.
Until thirty seconds ago she had merely been late. Now she'd have to go home and clean up. Worse, she'd have to ring in and tell the news editor she'd had an accident which meant he'd send someone else to keep her appointment with the chairman of the Planning Committee.
He was going to be furious. She'd lived on Cranbrook Park all her life and she'd been assigned to cover the story.
'It's bad enough that you were using it as a race track'
Oh, great. There you are lying in a ditch, entangled with a bent bicycle, with a strange man's hand on your backsidehe'd better be trapped, tooand his first thought was to lecture her on road safety.
'but you weren't even looking where you were going.'
She spat out what she hoped was a bit of twig. 'You may not have noticed but I was being chased by a donkey,' she said.
'Oh, I noticed.'
Not sympathy, but satisfaction.
'And what about you?' she demanded. Although her field of vision was small, she could see that he was wearing dark green coveralls. And she was pretty sure that she'd seen a pair of Wellington boots pass in front of her eyes in the split second before she'd crashed into the bank. 'I'd risk a bet you don't have a licence for fishing here.'
'And you'd win,' he admitted, without the slightest suggestion of remorse. 'Are you hurt?' Finally
'Only, until you move I can't get up,' he explained.
Oh, right. Not concern, just impatience. What a charmer.
'I'm so sorry,' she said, with just the slightest touch of sarcasm, 'but you shouldn't move after an accident.' She'd written up a first-aid course she'd attended for the women's page and was very clear on that point. 'In case of serious injury,' she added, to press home the point that he should be sympathetic. Concerned.
'Is that a fact? So what do you suggest? We just lie here until a paramedic happens to pass by?'
Now who was being sarcastic?
'I've got a phone in my bag,' she said. It was slung across her body and lying against her back out of reach. Probably a good thing or she'd have been tempted to hit him with it. What the heck did he think he was doing leaping out in front of her like that? 'If you can reach it, you could dial nine-nine-nine.'
'Are you hurt?' She detected the merest trace of concern so presumably the message was getting through his thick skull. 'I'm not about to call out the emergency services to deal with a bruised ego.'
No. Wrong again.
'I might have a concussion,' she pointed out. 'You might have concussion.' She could hope.
'If you do, you have no one but yourself to blame. The cycle helmet is supposed to be on your head, not in your basket.'
He was right, of course, but the chairman of the Planning Committee was old school. Any woman journalist who wanted a story had better be well-groomed and properly dressed in a skirt and high heels. Having gone to the effort of putting up her hair for the old misogynist, she wasn't about to ruin her hard work by crushing it with her cycle helmet.
She'd intended to catch the bus this morning. But if it weren't for the blackfly she could have caught the bus
'How many fingers am I holding up?' Mr Grumpy asked.
'Oh.' She blinked as a muddy hand appeared in front of her. The one that wasn't cradling her backside in a much too familiar manner. Not that she was about to draw attention to the fact that she'd noticed. Much wiser to ignore it and concentrate on the other hand which, beneath the mud, consisted of a broad palm, a well-shaped thumb, long fingers 'Three?' she offered.
'I'm not sure that "close enough" is close enough,' she said, putting off the moment when she'd have to test the jangle of aches and move. 'Do you want to try that again?'
'Not unless you're telling me you can't count up to three.'
'Right now I'm not sure of my own name,' she lied.
'Does Claire Thackeray sound familiar?'
That was when she made the mistake of picking her face out of the bluebells and looking at him.
She was now in heart-attack territory. Dry mouth, loss of breath. Thud. Bang. Boom.
Mr Grumpy was not some irascible old bloke with a bee in his bonnet regarding the sanctity of footpathseven if he was less than scrupulous about where he fishedand a legitimate grievance at the way she'd run him down.
He might be irritable, but he wasn't old. Far from it.
He was mature.
In the way that men who've passed the smooth-skinned prettiness of their twenties and fulfilled the potential of their genes are mature.
Not that Hal North had ever been pretty.
He'd been a raw-boned youth with a wild streak that had both attracted and frightened her. As a child she'd yearned to be noticed by him, but would have run a mile if he'd as much as glanced in her direction. As a young teen, she'd had fantasies about him that would have given her mother nightmares if she'd even suspected her precious girl of having such thoughts about the village bad boy.
Not that her mother had anything to worry about where Hal North was concerned.