Authors: Rebecca Shaw
Peter had to smile. ‘Yes, I suppose you could say that, though I’ve nothing against Mr Fitch. He’s very honest and plain speaking and I like that in a person.’
‘Oh! So do I. Won’t keep you. A Friday night it is, then.’
‘Yes, we’ll both look forward to it.’
‘I’ll see myself out. Bye!’
He stood outside the Rectory wondering what to do next. Should he take the car? No, he wouldn’t; he’d walk up there, give him a chance to enjoy the approach to Turnham House. He ambled up the drive admiring the layout of the park, and best of all the glimpses of the house through the bank of trees, suddenly arriving there with the full panoply of the whole front of the house before him. Something very primeval coursed through his veins. He couldn’t deny it; he coveted this beautiful Tudor house like no other thing in the whole of his life. He’d bought hotels in the past and been passionate about their acquisition but this . . . something in his blood urged him to go for it, whatever the cost.
Johnny quickened his pace and marched in through the open front door, his senses almost overwhelmed in admiration of the beautiful entrance hall with its lofty ceiling and the big windows flooding the space with clear morning light . . . and the walls! Ah! The ancient panelling that went all the way round, and the huge inglenook fireplace, the biggest he’d ever seen, filled with a great bowl of exotic flowers. The staircase was to die for. It was all completely breathtaking. The construction business students working here this week were incredibly lucky to be studying in this wonderful building.
Still in shock he approached the receptionist. ‘My name’s Johnny Templeton. Is there a possibility I could speak to Mr Fitch? Mr Craddock Fitch?’
‘And your business, sir?’
‘Oh! An invitation for him and his wife to dinner at my house.’
‘You’re from the village?’
‘Yes, I am,’ Johnny said, remembering to speak in that stiff English way that he had had to learn since he came.
‘Very well. Would you care to take a seat and I will ascertain if Mr Fitch is free.’
. Hmmph! Honestly, thought Johnny, how stuffy can you get?
She returned to say Mr Fitch didn’t know him and why should he want to go to dine with someone he doesn’t know?
‘He’ll see me. My name is Johnny Templeton; he knew my late great-great-uncle, Sir Ralph Templeton.’
‘Ah! Right. I see. I’ll go tell him.’
The receptionist returned a moment later smiling from ear to ear. ‘He’d be delighted; do come through.’ She didn’t tell Johnny that Mr Fitch had said he intended a big put down for the miserable little upstart, asking him to dinner! Huh!
But when Mr Fitch shook hands with Johnny he changed his mind about him. There was a strength in his grasp that Craddock couldn’t ignore, and a charm and a similarity to Ralph which he liked. Despite being furious that Ralph always got his own way about things by being pleasant to one and all, he’d actually had great respect for him and envied his ability to charm everyone he met. This prepossessing young man with his good looks and his openness, charmed him in just the same way Ralph had done. And after all, he had inherited Ralph’s aristocratic nose, so that counted for something.
They shook hands and Craddock suggested he sat down. Would a coffee be welcomed? It was about the time he always had his.
‘I’d be delighted; walking up here has given me an appetite for one.’
Craddock dinged his bell and his PA emerged from the room next door, nodded her agreement to get the coffee for him and disappeared.
‘I see you admiring her. She’s a well-mannered efficient girl. I wish she’d worked for me years ago. The last one I had got herself sacked for insolence. Can’t abide insolence.’
‘All depends on how you treat them, how much insolence you get in return.’ Johnny grinned as he said this.
‘Mmm. All depends how they treat me. I don’t pay wages to no-brainers.’
‘Neither would I. Well paid, but they have to work for it.’
‘My sentiments exactly.’
Johnny was impressed by the silver coffee service and the elegance of the silver tray and the beautiful porcelain cups. This was class and breeding, even though Craddock’s accent betrayed his humble beginnings. Still, what did it matter so long as he was honest and pleasant and willing to sell him the house? He wanted it on the same level as he wanted Alice March . . . with an all-consuming passion.
‘I’m organising a dinner party for a few friends from the village. Would you and your wife count yourselves among them and come? I’m planning it for a Friday night in about two or three weeks’ time. There’ll be eight or ten of us. Would Friday be a good evening to choose?’
‘Excellent. I’ll tell Kate. You’ve met her, have you?’
Johnny nodded. ‘One night at the youth club I spoke about Brazil, and I saw you both in church one morning when I read the lesson.’
‘Of course, yes, you did, I remember you now. You read it to the manor born.’ A reluctant smile of approval flitted across Mr Fitch’s face.
Johnny heard a hint of sarcasm in his tone but ignored it. Wouldn’t do to antagonise the old man, not right now. ‘Lovely house you have here.’
An almost tangible glow appeared around Craddock’s head as he replied, ‘Indeed, yes. I love it. Inordinately proud of it I am, I have to say. Superb, isn’t it?’
‘What I’ve seen, yes.’
‘This room makes me feel completely at home, as though I’m made for it.’
Johnny took a moment to admire the amazing antique desk that was Craddock’s and the ancient shelving holding books he secretly felt Craddock must have bought just to fill the shelves as appropriately as possible: leather bound, gold lettering on the spines. Oh, yes! Not bought for their intrinsic value, that was obvious. But he had to admire the room and respect the man’s love of the place. Johnny was intensely aware that Mr Fitch wouldn’t give up this house of his without a struggle.
A silence fell between the two of them while they sipped their coffee. Johnny couldn’t think what on earth to say except
I’d like to buy your house
and Craddock seemed to be thinking about matters far away from this wonderful room.
Johnny got to his feet. ‘Mustn’t keep you any longer. I’ll be sending the invites out in a week or so. Glad you’re able to come. Thanks for the coffee! Good morning.’
Now, who next? He needed a female to pair up with himself and make a proper balance. Did he know any lone females in the village who would fit in?
That lively old lady he met one morning out taking her constitutional around the cricket pitch? She would do very nicely. Now where did she live?
He’d ask in the pub. The doors were open and there was a sound of activity in the bar. Johnny checked the time: eleven fifteen. Just right.
‘Good morning, landlord! Coffee please. Latte if possible.’
‘Dicky, of course.’ Johnny stood at the bar to await his coffee and surveyed the scene. There were three obvious tourists sitting close up to the inglenook fireplace, and a young girl sitting by herself, reading a book while drinking coffee, and he decided she was stunning. He’d catch her eye. He raised a hand and smiled at her and she smiled back. She was beautiful in repose and even more so when she smiled. She acknowledged his greeting and then rather shyly tapped the table as an invitation to join her. So he did. As simple as that.
‘I’m Johnny Templeton.’
‘I know. Oh! Look, here’s your coffee. Do sit down.’
‘Love to. And you are . . .?’
‘Beth. It’s short for Elizabeth.’
‘You live in the village?’
‘All my life.’
‘Haven’t seen you around.’
‘I’m at university. I’m home at the moment, because I’ve had a really bad bout of flu that’s knocked me for six.’
Johnny smiled. ‘No, which university.’
Not only beauty, but brains too. ‘Oh! My word! I thought all girls who went to Cambridge wore round steel-framed glasses, flat shoes and looked in need of a makeover.’
Beth laughed. ‘Honestly! You’re way out on that score; there are still a few like that but most of them are right out front in the fashion stakes.’
‘Ah! Right. Never got the chance myself. Just went straight into the family business. I’m envious of your opportunity. Must be a wonderful experience, Cambridge.’
‘It is. I’m privileged.’
‘And I’m privileged having coffee with such a lovely-looking lady.’
Beth pulled a face. ‘Oh! Please, what a line!’
‘Sorry. But you do have the looks, there’s no doubt about that. My compliment was well intentioned.’
Beth’s next remark took Johnny completely by surprise. ‘You prefer beautiful women then?’
‘I must admit it does add to the pleasure if they’re good lookers.’
‘Well, she’s certainly that.’
Alarm bells rang in Johnny’s head, so he feigned puzzlement to give himself more time to think. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Rather . . .
do I mean.’
This was dangerous ground. Johnny raised an eyebrow.
‘Yes, I do know her.’
‘We know you do.’
‘We . . .?’
‘People in the village.’
‘You didn’t honestly think no one would guess, did you? I can’t say I blame her. You must be a godsend to her, compared to that puffed up ridiculous husband of hers.’
‘Mmm!’ Johnny looked at her calmly.
‘Lost your power of speech?’ A wicked grin spread across Beth’s face. ‘Must go, I’m supposed to be making lunch for my dad and I’ve got to shop first.’
‘Who is your dad?’
‘Go for it, I say; she deserves someone like you. It’s been a while since we had a romance in the village. Murder, yes, burglary, yes, a very charming conman, a wedding, yes, but not an illicit romance. At least it gives us all something to talk about.’ Beth picked up her book and her purse, smiled sweetly at him and left Johnny in turmoil.
So they all knew. So what? Let them. He didn’t care how much gossip they stirred up; to hell with it. Alice was meant for him and he was determined he would have her for his own. He’d leave a message on her mobile, even though she had forced a promise from him that he never would communicate with her by phone. He hadn’t worked out her reasoning for this rule. Surely Marcus didn’t check her phone, did he? Who did he think he was? Well, damn it, he was sending her a text this minute because he couldn’t wait another moment to hold her to him, to smell her, thread his fingers through her hair, see her splendid eyes shine with bright stars brought about by laughter.
Must see you, Alice. Sorry for making you angry. Please forgive me. Johnny
He sent it immediately and left for home.
Ten minutes later he heard her key in the kitchen door.
The ladies’ choir that met in the church hall every Thursday evening was made up of women from a wide area. Several were from Turnham Malpas but a larger number were from the surrounding villages. For a start seven came from Little Derehams and five from Penny Fawcett. In total they usually numbered between twenty-five and thirty members attending each practice. The choir was almost entirely in the charge of Alice March, except occasionally Gilbert Johns, the county archaeologist and church choir master, held Alice’s baton. This Thursday it was Alice in sole charge and the choir were not convinced that her mind was as fiercely focused as it normally was.
She fiddled about sorting her music, changed her mind twice about their first voice exercise, called someone by the wrong name and was nonplussed when the person she was looking at didn’t reply, and finally sent half her sheet music spinning to the floor as she sorted through to find the important piece they were practising for a competition in Culworth only two weeks away. ‘I’m sorry about this. Let’s start again,’ Alice mumbled.
Harriet collected together her music from the floor and handed it back to her. Alice tapped her baton on her music stand, brought the accompanist in with a nod and they began, but it was a ragged rehearsal. The choir members, accustomed to her usual streamlined performance, were confused by her distracted manner and when she brought the rehearsal to an abrupt end a quarter of an hour early they knew something was afoot.
Alice always stayed a while chatting to anyone who needed to have a word with her, but tonight she hastened off full of excuses for not going to the Royal Oak with the usual crowd for a drink before they trundled home.
In the bar, they pulled two tables together, worked out whose turn it was to pay for the round and sat down to wait to be served. Caroline, guessing the nature of Alice’s distraction, tried to point the conversation away from Alice to the charity coffee morning being held in Little Derehams on Saturday morning.
‘You haven’t forgotten about the do at Sheila Bissett’s on Saturday morning, ten till twelve? They’re rather short of gifts for the Bring and Buy. I’m sure Sheila will be grateful for help . . . with . . . that . . .’ Her voice trailed away as she realised no one had heard, because little pockets of whispering were going on all round the table.