Authors: Elise Chidley
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Elise Chidley
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: October 2008
For launching Lizzie in the U.S., I’d like to thank Emma Parry, Christy Fletcher, Beth de Guzman, and Caryn Karmatz-Rudy; special thanks go to Alex Logan for her insights, humor, and wise edits. And of course I’d like to thank those who read the book early on and said enthusiastic things: Creina Beattie, Debbie Lynn, Odette Watson, Julie Camarillo, and Clodagh McCoole. Laura Hatto deserves mention for helping with some key research. And most of all, my thanks go to Patrick for his unwavering support.
he kitchen cabinets at Back Lane Cottage were at a height the average man would find a bit of a stretch. The average woman, standing on tiptoe, might just be able to reach the underside of the cupboard doors if she had very long fingernails. Lizzie Buckley’s fingernails, bitten to the quick for the first time since she was twelve, were nowhere near long enough.
All in all, the cottage was the most inconveniently laid out place Lizzie had ever seen. What prankster of an architect would put the only bathroom downstairs? And under what circumstances had it ever seemed like a good idea to put the stairwell in the dining room?
Then there was the hallway. With its odd shape and plethora of doorways, James would call it a criminal waste of space. There wasn’t much you could do with the room except hang a chandelier — and maybe let the children loose on their tricycles.
The contrast with the home she’d left in Gloucestershire couldn’t have been greater. Mill House, so ancient that it was probably listed in the Domesday book, had been renovated to within an inch of its life. To look at its weathered limestone exterior, you’d never guess that every possible convenience — cappuccino-maker, crushed-ice dispenser, twenty-jet power-shower — had been tucked away amid the lovingly preserved period features. Back Lane Cottage was old too, but not old enough to be interesting. Just old enough to be awkward.
The trouble was, by the time Lizzie had noticed all these flaws, she’d already made up her mind. Back Lane Cottage was the house for her.
The garden won her over before she even stepped out of her real estate agent’s car. Not that it was a beautiful garden. Far from it. It was little more than a field — rough, lumpy, nettle-infested, and riddled with rabbit holes. Compared to the Sissinghurst-inspired garden at Mill House, it was laughable. But it was huge and hemmed in by big trees. Best of all, it was very well fenced. Just the sort of place for her three-year-old twins — once she’d cleaned it up, of course.
The other great thing about the house was its bedrooms. There was a tiny one, perfect for an office, and a big stately one complete with its own fireplace — a bit grand for a newly single mother, but never mind. The third bedroom made the house completely irresistible — it was long and bright, lit by two large windows with deep sills that would be perfect for sunflower seedlings, piggy banks, and the collections of bird’s eggs, pebbles, pinecones, shells — you name it — that sprang up around the twins wherever they went. These untidy and sometimes smelly collections had always been an eyesore among the gleaming antiques at Mill House. But here, they’d fit right in with the ramshackle nature of the place.
As Lizzie stood in the doorway of this room, picturing a set of twin beds beneath the windows, she felt a little warm glow of excitement building somewhere in her chest area. She put her hand to the place in surprise. It was days since she’d felt anything but a cold lump of misery there.
She could work with a house like this. She could turn it into a home.
But if Lizzie was sold on the house, her real estate agent wasn’t — which seemed odd to Lizzie. Then again, her experience of real estate agents was limited. She hadn’t needed one since her student days when she and her friend Tessa had been in hot pursuit of any sort of two-bedroom flat they could actually afford. Of course, when she married James he’d already been in possession of Mill House, and they’d moved in at once without ever considering that perhaps they didn’t
to live in it.
Even given that she was a novice in the world of real estate, Lizzie could have sworn that she understood the basic motivation of the profession — to unload houses on clients as quickly as possible. So she was surprised by this woman’s determination to drag her away to see another house, one with a “
of updates, and a bit more of a conventional layout.”
“Is the rent the same?” Lizzie asked, opening the tiny fridge a second time and peering into it. Back Lane Cottage was already more expensive than what she’d imagined she (or James, more precisely) would have to shell out.
“Actually, it’s a bit more,” the agent admitted, “but then it
furnished, and you said you wanted furniture.”
Looking out of the kitchen window across rolling fields, Lizzie sketched a careless gesture. “Furniture’s not a big issue,” she said, not quite accurately. “We can always sleep on blow-up mattresses just at first.” She wasn’t doing much sleeping at the moment, so beds, or lack of them, made very little difference to her personally. The twins, of course, ought to have something between themselves and the carpet.
“But this place is so isolated. Fantastic for a big family, yes, but for someone in your situation? Wouldn’t you want to be closer to town? And do you really think you’d manage with no dishwasher?” The agent watched Lizzie warily as she spoke, perhaps wondering if she was going to burst into tears, as she had several times the day before.
“But look at the view from the kitchen sink,” Lizzie riposted, determined to remain dry-eyed and rational.
The agent cleared her throat and shuffled through some papers. “Just a
look at the next property?” she pleaded. “I’m not really comfortable with the idea of you and the kiddies all alone in this place. To be honest, I only showed it to you as a bit of a yardstick this morning. We have a mantra at our office, ‘Show the worst first.’ Not to
anyone into anything, you know, just to give the client a realistic idea of what’s out there.”
Then Lizzie understood. She was supposed to have fled from this place with a quaking heart, only to snap up the next house in pure gratitude for its dishwasher and upstairs bathroom.
Well, it wasn’t going to happen. After yesterday’s dreary tour of one miserable little semi after another — all that was available in the price range she’d originally suggested — Lizzie was tired of looking at houses. Besides, she couldn’t keep making the exhausting round-trip from Gloucestershire, couldn’t keep asking her friend Maria to babysit the children. More importantly, she couldn’t expect James to stump up
a bit more
so that she could have loads of updates in her Kentish bolt-hole.
“I don’t want to see any more houses,” she said, surprised by the firmness of her own voice. “I’ve made up my mind. This is the one I want.”
And if the rent on this place stretched the joint bank account a bit further than was comfortable, too bad. Maybe James would come to his senses all the faster.
It was all so simple in the end. A week later, they were in.
Lizzie didn’t take a stick of furniture out of Mill House. She wouldn’t have had the nerve. The furniture was as integral to that house as her nose was to her own face. She’d chosen none of it herself; many of the pieces had originally come from the manor house, so it was possible they didn’t even belong to James, but to his parents. Besides, she hadn’t wanted to suggest anything as irrevocable as a division of the marital spoils. On moving day she simply walked out of the house with her luggage and turned the key, leaving it fully furnished and ready to receive them all back again at a moment’s notice, if necessary.
The truth was, at the back of her mind she was still hoping — quite fervently, although with absolutely nothing solid to go on — that James would suddenly see how ridiculous this whole situation was, how massively he’d overreacted, how impossible it was that the two of them could live apart.
That was partly why she’d left. If he could no longer glance casually out of the library window at the manor and physically see the building that housed his family, maybe he’d finally see the light and realize what he’d done — the enormity and downright misery of it all. It wasn’t that she wanted him to come crawling back to her — a sheepish shuffle would probably do the trick — but if he didn’t make some kind of move toward reconciliation sometime soon, she didn’t know how she was going to keep getting out of bed every morning.
So she left Mill House tidy but not at all vacant, secretly telling herself that she’d be home again before the roses were in bloom. When she pulled up at Back Lane Cottage later that same afternoon and dragged four suitcases, three inflatable mattresses, a folding table, an old computer, sundry bits of hand luggage, and two bags of groceries over the threshold, she realized she was treating this whole “move” a bit like a camping trip.
When she finally released the children from their car seats, they spilled out into the desolate garden and chilly house with shrieks of glee, excited to the point of hysteria by the novelty of the unfurnished rooms, which they were seeing for the first time. They weren’t demanding tenants; even the dark and dusty garden shed delighted them.
Lizzie herself was shaken by the emptiness.
The newly painted “magnolia” walls seemed to echo. In every room, a bare lightbulb swung dejectedly from the ceiling. In amazement, Lizzie noted that there were no towel racks in the bathroom, no bathroom shelves or cabinets of any kind, not even a humble and homely toilet paper holder. How come she hadn’t noticed how denuded the place was the day she’d looked it over?
Standing in the chilly, echoing bathroom, Lizzie suddenly felt helpless and deeply afraid. How on earth would she cope with this stripped-down life? She must have been mad to think she could make a home of this place, temporary or otherwise. It had all the comforts of an abandoned barn. Okay, so she’d often poked fun at the splendidly tasteful Mill House interiors, mostly because they’d made her feel a bit inferior, but at least she’d always been comfortable. In fact, she’d been more than comfortable. She’d been living in the lap of luxury, traveling first class — and now she was in the cattle truck.
Shaking the excess water off her hands, Lizzie’s heart suddenly missed a beat as she realized that she hadn’t heard a squeak out of the twins for a good twenty minutes or more. Silence was never golden when preschoolers were involved.
She stuck her head out of the door. “Alex! Ellie! Where are you?”
“Alex! Ellie! Come quick, I have a surprise for you!” That usually worked in short order, and luckily she had some emergency Smarties in her handbag.
With an exaggerated sigh, she began a quick tour of the downstairs rooms, absentmindedly popping Smarties into her mouth as she went. Nothing.
Irritation was tipping over into alarm as she went out into the bleak, unkempt garden and did a hurried reconnoiter of the few bushes and trees. All she found was Alex’s toy fire engine abandoned in the rough grass. She stuck her head round the corner of the house and surveyed the nettle-infested side garden. Not surprisingly, the twins weren’t there either. Alex would be bringing the house down by now if he’d wandered among the nettles. For a big bruiser of a boy, his pain tolerance was pitifully low.
Now her heart was definitely beating too fast. Giving up all pretence of calm, she sprinted into the house and up the stairs. Without a stick of furniture, there was nowhere for them to hide; not even a built-in closet. But as she flung open bedroom doors one by one, she was greeted only by the smell of new paint and a silence that seemed to hum.