Authors: Jessica Gilmore
The look she gave her own car was scathing, which, Gabe thought, was a little rich considering the fuss she had made over him driving it the night before.
‘Aren’t they gorgeous?’ She had jumped out of the car, heedless of the rain, which had lightened to a drizzle, and was trailing her hand over a cream Austin Healey. ‘And look at that Morris Minor, it’s pristine. Wow, what great condition. Somebody loves you, don’t they, baby?’ she crooned.
Crooned. To a car. To an
‘They are very nice,’ Gabe said politely as he joined her. ‘For old cars.’
‘Shh!’ Polly threw him a scathing glance. ‘They’ll hear you. Don’t listen to the nasty man,’ she told the Austin consolingly. ‘He’s French.’
‘We have old cars in France too,’ Gabe said indignantly, stung by the slur to his country. ‘I just prefer mine new.’
She patted his arm consolingly. ‘This might not be the right place for you. Come on.’
It was a new side to Polly. Excited, eager, playful. It was a side he bet her staff never saw, that barely anybody saw.
‘So, where are we?’ Gabe asked as they walked along the chipping-strewn path that took them through a small wooded area and towards the house. Bunting was strung along the path, dripping wet yet defiantly cheerful.
‘Geographically I’m not entirely sure, socially we’re at a vintage festival.’
Clear as mud. ‘Which is?’
Polly stopped and turned. ‘Surely people go to them in France?’
‘Possibly,’ he said imperturbably. ‘I, however, have not.’
‘You are in for such a treat,’ she said, grabbing his arm and pulling him along. ‘There’s usually stalls where you can buy anything old: clothes, furniture, jewellery. And tea and cakes, and makeovers and dancing. Loads of people come all dressed up in their favourite decade, mostly forties and fifties but you do get twenties and sixties as well.’
Gabe looked at her curiously. ‘Do you go to these a lot?’
Her face fell. ‘Not any more,’ she said. ‘Which is a shame because there are loads now, big affairs like this one looks to be. But I did go to a few vintage clubs and smaller affairs when I was at university. I’ve always loved the twenties; you know, flappers and jazz and the art deco style. Everything that was around when Rafferty’s was founded.’
‘Why don’t you go any more?’
She sighed. ‘The usual,’ she said. ‘Time—or lack of. I used to collect nineteen twenties accessories; costume jewellery, compacts, that kind of thing, but I haven’t even wandered into an antique shop for a couple of years. Ooh.’ Her face lit up. ‘This is great timing. We could have a vintage pop-up at Rafferty’s? Our centenary is in just a few years. We could have a whole series of twenties-inspired events leading up to that?’
Gabe had no intention of still being there in a few years but he could picture it perfectly. ‘Is this just so you can dress up as a flapper?’
‘Of course.’ She looked down at her outfit. ‘Although today I am loosely channelling the fifties. You must have known we were coming here when you picked out the dress.’
Gabe could see the house clearly now; they had ended up at a stately home after all. But this was a place gone back in time, to the middle of the last century if not back to its seventeenth-century roots.
The path had brought them out onto a large terrace at the back of the house overlooking lawns and ornamental gardens that seamlessly seemed to merge into the fields beyond. The furthest lawn was covered with an array of carnival rides, none of which was younger than Gabe, horses going round and round in a never-ending circle, helter-skelters and coconut shies.
Tables and chairs were dotted all around the terrace and lawns, served by a selection of vintage ice-cream vans parked in a row by the entrance gate, some selling the eponymous food, others cream teas, cakes or drinks.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Polly breathed, still hanging onto his arm, her gaze transfixed on the scene before them. ‘Doesn’t everyone look fabulous? We’re completely underdressed, especially you!’
Swing music was coming from the house, clearly audible through the parade of open doors. Parading in and out were people from another era: brightly lipsticked women with elaborate hair accompanied by men in old-fashioned military uniforms. Behind them girls with big skirts and ponytails were chatting to men with Brylcreemed hair and attitude to match. It was all pretty cool—if you were into fancy dress.
It had never been Gabe’s kind of thing. Life was a mystery as it was; why complicate it by pretending to be someone you weren’t? By emulating the lives of those long gone?
‘It’s a good thing the rain’s stopped.’
Polly huffed. ‘And people say the English are obsessed with the weather. Come on, Gabe. Let’s go in.’
* * *
‘What do you think?’ Polly twirled around in front of Gabe, She hadn’t been able to resist the opportunity to have her hair pin-curled and it hadn’t taken much to persuade her into the accompanying makeover.
Or a new outfit. ‘You look like you’re from a film,’ he said. Polly wasn’t sure whether he meant it as a compliment or not but decided to go with it.
‘That’s the idea.’ She looked down at the pink-flowered silk tea dress. ‘It’s not twenties but it will do. You need something too. A coat. Or a hat! We should get you a hat. This is so much fun. Why haven’t I done this for so long?’
She led the protesting Gabe over to a stall specialising in military overcoats. ‘I hope they have a French coat,’ she said. ‘Army, air force or navy?’
She knew she was chattering a bit too much, was being a little too impulsive, happily trying—and buying—anything that took her fancy.
It was better than thinking or worrying. She was almost fooling herself that everything was okay, that nothing had changed.
She wasn’t fooling Gabe though. She could see it in his eyes.
‘Lighten up.’ She held a coat up against him. ‘You’re the one who wanted a day out, a change of scenery, remember?’
But his smile seemed forced, concern still radiating from him. Concern for her.
Suddenly the dress seemed shabby rather than chic, the lipstick heavy on her mouth. She had just wanted a day to forget about everything, a day with no responsibilities or decisions.
‘I need some air.’ She pushed past him, ignoring his surprised exclamation.
The swing band was still going strong in the ballroom and couples were engaging in gymnastics on the dance floor, a series of complicated lifts and kicks. At any other time Polly would have stopped to watch, to join in with the onlookers enthusiastically applauding each daring move, but she felt stifled, too hot, too enclosed. She wandered over to the terrace, stopping at one of the ice-cream vans to buy a sparkling water and took it over to a table where she examined her impulse purchases.
They were a mixed bag. A few old crime novels, a rather lovely, shell-shaped compact still with the wrist chain attached, two rose-covered side plates and a matching cake stand and some bunting made out of old dress material. It might look nice in the baby’s room, she thought idly.
The baby’s room.
Her breath whooshed out of her body and she held onto the iron table, glad of the cold metal beneath her palm, anchoring her to the world. She was pregnant. That was her reality and no amount of impromptu days out could change that.
But the expected panic, the gnawing pain in her stomach didn’t materialise. Instead she felt light; it was okay. She didn’t have a plan or any idea what to do next but it was okay.
For what must be the hundredth time that week Polly put her hand on her stomach but not in illness, or shock, or horror.
‘Hello,’ she whispered.
Nobody answered, there was no resulting flutter or any acknowledgement of her words, yet everything had changed.
She wasn’t going to be alone any more.
‘Would you like an ice cream?’
Polly pulled her hand away as if she had been caught doing something wrong.
‘I’m okay,’ she began, but the words died on her lips. ‘What are you wearing?’
‘They didn’t have any French coats,’ he said. ‘So I got a hat instead.’
The trilby should have looked incongruous with the jeans and T-shirt, but somehow he made it look edgy.
‘It suits you.’
‘What have you got there?’ Gabe nodded at the bags spread over the table.
‘Bits and bobs, bunting.’ She looked up, met his eyes. ‘For the baby’s room.’
He tipped the trilby back; the gesture made him look almost heartbreakingly young, like a World War Two pilot heading back to base for a final mission.
‘I hope he likes flowers, then,’ he said doubtfully.
Polly gathered the bunting back up, stuffing it into the bag. ‘He might be a she, and either way no child of mine will be constrained by gender constructs.’ She was aware that she sounded stuffy and that laughter was lurking in his watchful dark eyes.
For a moment she had a view of another path. One where the man teasing her wasn’t a momentary diversion in her journey. One where the baby wasn’t a shock to deal with but a welcome and much anticipated event.
A world where she might bicker playfully over the suitability of floral bunting, the colour of the paint, where to put the cot and the name of the first teddy bear. Where she wouldn’t be doing this alone.
‘So do you?’ Gabe broke in on her thoughts.
She blinked, confused. Did she what? Want to take a different path? It was a little late for that.
‘Polly? Ice cream?’
‘Oh. No, no thank you. Actually, I think I want a walk. The grounds look spectacular.’ Walk away from her thoughts and the sudden, unwanted regrets.
Gabe cast a doubtful look at the sky. ‘Those clouds are pretty dark.’
Rolling her eyes, Polly got up and picked up her bags. ‘You have a hat to keep you dry. Honestly, Gabe, you’re not going to last five minutes in England if you can’t cope with a bit of rain.’
‘A bit? Not a problem. This nasty drizzle...’ his accent elongated the word contemptuously ‘...it’s not natural. I can’t understand why the Normans didn’t just turn straight around and go home as soon as they landed and saw the sky.’
‘Exactly.’ Polly began to walk away from the house, across the wet lawns and towards a small path covered in wood chippings that led through the cluster of trees. ‘Romans, Vikings, Normans—rainy or not we’re still quite the prize.’
Apart from a disbelieving snort Gabe didn’t reply and they walked towards the woods in a companionable silence. After a moment Gabe reached across and took the carrier bags from her. Polly froze for a moment and then loosened her fingers and allowed him to relieve her of her load.
They wandered along for a few more moments, the air heavy with the promise of summer rain. Polly inhaled, enjoying the freshness of the countryside; the heady scent of wet leaves mixed with the damp earth and sawdust from the path.
They rounded a corner and the trees came to an abrupt end; in front of them a pretty ornamental lake stretched ahead, the path skirting the edge.
‘Okay, Mr Spontaneity, right or left?’
‘What is that?’ Gabe sounded startled. ‘Have we stumbled onto the set of a horror film?’
Polly followed his disbelieving gaze and saw a dark grey stone tower perched on the edge of the lake, the jagged edge of the spire reaching up into the sky.
‘It’s a folly. You know...’ as he looked at her in query ‘...a couple of centuries ago it was the craze to build some kind of gothic ruin in a picturesque place. Around the time you were chopping aristocrats’ heads off.’
‘This is exactly why we were chopping off heads, if they squandered money on such crazy projects.’
‘Hence the name. Want to take a look? There might be a princess for you to rescue at the top, or a prince in need of my knightly skills.’
It only took a few minutes to reach the base of the tower and Polly stood on tiptoe trying to get a look inside but the narrow slits that passed for ground-floor windows were set too high. ‘Where’s the door?’
Gabe had wandered off around to the other side. ‘Here. Are you sure you want to risk it? You might disappear, never to be seen again, kidnapped to be the bride of a headless horseman.’
Polly joined him by the heavy oak door, the hinges exaggerated iron studs. ‘Is it locked?’
‘Only one way to find out.’ Gabe grasped the heavy iron ring and turned it and, with a creak so loud Polly jumped, the door swung open.
‘Ready? It looks dark in there.’
scared of ghosts?’ she teased.
, not ghosts. Spiders and rats on the other hand I am not so keen on.’
Rats? Polly shuddered, an involuntary movement of complete horror. She edged back. ‘You think there are rats?’
‘Hundreds. And cockroaches too,’ he added helpfully.
Polly glared at him. ‘Move aside, I’m going in.’
With an exaggerated bow Gabe stood aside, allowing her to precede him into the room.
‘There are no stairs, how disappointing. Definitely no stranded royalty for us to rescue.’ Polly swivelled slowly, taking in the large circular room paved in grey flagstones, the steep sides rising all the way up to the pointed tip of the tower. There were no other floors but it was mercifully dry. And free of any evidence of rat infestations.
‘I still don’t understand. What is it for?’ Gabe had followed her in.
Polly flung her arms open as she turned. ‘Probably somewhere for illicit trysts.’
‘Ah, for the nobleman to meet the maid.’ He leant back against the wall of the tower, arms crossed, face full of amusement, the hat still tilted back on his head giving him a rakish air.
Polly tilted her chin and stared up at the windows and considered. ‘Or for the lady of the house to meet the gamekeeper. Or maybe the stable boy.’
She looked across at Gabe to share the joke but he had gone still, his gaze focused intently on Polly. ‘Is that what you would have done? Snuck out to meet the gamekeeper?’
Polly felt a jolt of heat hit the pit of her stomach as their eyes snagged and held, a flash of that first, unacknowledged attraction zipping between them.
‘Or the stable boy.’ Was that her voice? So husky.