Stepping Back – Mr Davenport-Hooper

By the time they arrived back at the Square, Mrs Kneller had well and truly spread the happy news and everyone they met wanted to admire Rachel’s engagement ring when giving their congratulations. Well, nearly everyone they met.  Edward Davenport-Hooper was sitting on the same bench that Lou’s daughters had occupied when his sons had started their attempted reign of terror.  He stood up when he saw Mark and Rachel walking across the Square. He looked stern, but a little sad. “Hello Mark. My wife has been arrested apparently; attempting to pervert the course of justice regarding her lies about the date of birth of my sons, speeding, dangerous driving, and aiding and abetting an attempted assault.  My boys have been sent back to school and put under a very strict curfew.  My daughter looks like something out of a freak show and won’t leave the house.  I have advised the police that any complaints made against you should be withdrawn.  We are getting a psychiatric assessment for my wife because she doesn’t appear to be in her right mind – if she ever was.  I don’t understand the situation, but I do feel that I need to apologise for the other members of my family.”

He held out his hand to Mark, who took it and shook it warmly. “I know that you have never been involved in this Sir.  Is there any way we can help?”

“Now that my daughter is staying home, she has started learning to cook and do a little housework.  Our housekeeper is giving her lessons, and as it’s estimated that it will take six months or more before the stuff in her face goes down, she has plenty of time to learn and practice.  I think that the boys are safe where they are for now, but my wife may need to go away somewhere for a rest cure. Thank you for asking Mark, and I believe congratulations are in order.”

“Thank you, Sir. Can I introduce you to Rachel; my fiancée.”

Mr D-H took Rachel’s hand and kissed it. He looked up and she was sure that she saw a hint of a smile on his face. “I’ve read some of your work; Damaris and my wife showed the articles to me.  I think that I was supposed to be cross but I couldn’t help chuckling.  Well done on catching those drug smugglers too, Mark.  I’d better be off. I need to sort out the shrink for Doris as soon as possible.”

With that, he doffed his hat and set off across the Square in an almost jaunty fashion.  Lou had come out of the tea shop to see what was going on and grabbed Rachel’s hand to examine the ring. “It’s lovely! So very YOU as well.  I know that I shouldn’t compare, Mark, but it’s far more beautiful than that chunky knuckle duster that Sorrel wore. I always worried that she’d take someone’s eye out with it.”

“Hmm.” said Rachel. “That would have been an arm, several legs and an eye, not to mention the compensation.”

Mark laughed and put his arms around her. “Rachel’s warped sense of humour is just one of the many things that I love about her. Can I treat us all to dinner tonight, Lou? I’d suggest going out but Pluto’s been home all day long and could do with some company.  How about a takeaway to give you a rest from cooking?”

“That would go down well in all areas; you won’t be able to have a celebratory drink if you’re going out to get food though Mark.”

“I’ll drop the food off and take the car back home.  Rachel and I should be safe walking back now that Damaris is off the road.”

“And her mother I hear?”

“That leaves Sam and Adele’s father as far as the complaints are concerned.  To be honest, I am quite glad to have some time off.  Rachel and I need to talk about the house and making a few changes.”

“Did Mrs K actually catch you at it?” said Lou, giggling.

“No, but it was a close thing, and I should have remembered that she comes in earlier on Mondays because of visiting the old people. I think we are forgiven though, and once she actually sees the ring; we will definitely have her blessing.  Ben’s friend says he has another friend who does wedding jewellery, nothing like Sorrel’s hideous lump, just plain gold with a simple pattern that can echo the theme of Rachel’s engagement ring.”

“So that’s what you two were talking about.” said Rachel, unable to avoid admiring the ring again. “It was all very mysterious Lou.”

“Where are you off to now?”

“Back home.” said Mark.  “I think we may need to rearrange some furniture, and look at how we can brighten the old place up a bit.”

Rachel frowned.  “I love it as it is. It’s quirky.”

“Nothing major.  You noticed that the wardrobes in my – our bedroom – are extremely dark and depressing.  I’ve always felt that a dab of paint would improve them but never got around to it.”

Rachel squinted, trying hard to remember the state of the wardrobes but all that had happened since she first saw them had made the memory fail. “I shall look at them with fresh eyes now.”

Just as they were about to get in the car and go home, Mrs Kneller appeared, and departure was delayed whilst she admired the ring and administered maternal hugs. “I called the police and got them to take my copy of the birth announcements from the Evening Echo of Daw’s twins.   That’s put that lie to bed anyway.  I hear she’s been arrested?”

“We spoke to her husband; he was very apologetic and thinks that his wife has flipped.”

“Oh, there’ll be a nice little holiday away for her then.  I took Pluto out in the garden before I left so he’s done his business.  Might need a bit of fussing though.”

“The girls will come up to take him out for a walk in about an hour – so be warned.” said Lou.  “I’ll let you break the news about your engagement and tonight’s takeaway though.”

Driving back home there were a couple of things that puzzled Rachel and needed sorting out. “Did Sorrel like the house?”

“Never saw it.  She was long gone when I bought it.  We lived in a very posh fully furnished rented apartment in the Marina complex when we moved down to help Lou.  Mrs K did for most of the residents and we kind of took a shine to each other from the start.  Sorrel didn’t. When she left, I was looking around for somewhere smaller and more homely that didn’t have any lingering memories, and Mrs K asked if I wanted to have a look at her next-door neighbour’s house.  The owner had passed away in a hospice and his family were looking for a quick sale.  I’d sold our flat in Edinburgh, so I had enough to be a cash buyer, and as soon as I set eyes on it, I knew that it was the bolt hole that I needed.  Something about those funny little porthole windows at the front, and the sail loft.  I bought new furniture.  You can rest assured that you are the only other person to share my bed.”

Rachel blushed but at the same time felt immensely relieved that Sorrel’s ghost would not be haunting them.  Once the London flat was sorted out and sold, Sam’s ghost could also be banished.  She just hoped that her plan to get him and Adele’s father to drop their complaints against Mark had worked.

Pluto was indeed overjoyed to see them, and wandered around in a happy tail-wagging fashion as Mark and Rachel surveyed the bedroom with new eyes.  The wardrobes were of a very old-fashioned dark mahogany, and there was distinct lack of a dressing table and drawer space.

“Could we move the dressing table in here Mark?  I think Mrs K is right about keeping my clothes where they are.  Your police stuff takes up a lot of room, doesn’t it?”

“Considering how rarely I wear it, but I have to be able to access some of it in a hurry.  There’s plenty of room for the dressing table, and I had a thought about your old room.”

“What?”

“Writers need their space, don’t they?  If we’re rearranging furniture, how about buying a proper desk for you to work at, and a decent chair?  You’d have a lovely view of the garden and it would be an improvement on using the kitchen table – although if you want to use the kitchen table, I’ve no objection to that either. You need to write in a place where you feel comfortable and inspired.”

Pluto started dancing around the room and barking as Rachel sealed her answer with a kiss.

“You’ll need to get used to this mate.” said Mark.

Stepping Back – It’s Official!

It was a short but very happy drive down to the Square; they waited patiently while Lou served some customers and tried to avoid holding hands or showing any signs of affection.

“Hello you two.” said Lou.  “I understand that you are ‘on leave’ Mark because of false complaints made against you.  You look remarkably cheerful under the circumstances.”

“We have some other news for you; much better news.”

Rachel looked over at Mark and took a deep breath. “How do you feel about me actually becoming a real member of the family Lou?”

Lou shrieked. “Are you two – are you really, truly an item now?”

Mark nodded. “Mrs K was a little disapproving when she found us sharing a bedroom this morning, but changed her mind when I announced that I wanted to make an honest woman of Rachel.  She has given us till midday to break the news to you, before it goes public.  In the meantime, we are off to find an engagement ring.  Any ideas Lou?”

“I’m too gobsmacked to think.  Oh Rachel, I am so happy I could skip round the Square!  There’s Ben! Call him over, you have to tell him too.  He’ll be over the moon. Go on Mark, go and get him.”

Rachel took Lou’s hands. “While you are being ecstatic there is something that I need to ask you about.  Pete’s funeral. I know it’s painful but the girls need to have a way of saying good bye, and so do many of the Villagers who knew him.  I will always be grateful that you let me help out with your Mum all those years ago, and now that I know she was Mark’s Mum too, it means even more to me.  Mark and I talked about it yesterday, and we want to pay for the funeral and organise it – if you’ll let us.  This is not something you need to go through on your own, and once it’s over and done with we can get on with happier events.”

“Like?”

“Well, I guess we should have an engagement party, and maybe, a wedding?  What do you think?”

“You’ve chosen the right day to drop this on me.  I suppose I do owe it to the girls to give Pete a good send-off.”

“Splendid.  According to Mrs K, you being a widow woman makes you even more attractive to Dr Hussein.”

“Did she really say that?”

“She did, and who knows better than Mrs K?”

Mark and Ben appeared in the tea shop doorway.  Ben swept Rachel up in a huge bear hug. “Rachel!  You shameless hussy!  You’ve gone and stolen the lovely Marky from underneath my very nose!  I take it that Mrs K hasn’t started up the Village semaphore yet?”

“She gave us till midday; after that, the whole world will know.” said Rachel managing to detach herself.

“We need your help though, Ben.” said Lou.  “Where can they buy an engagement ring?”

“Nothing flash or expensive.” said Rachel as Mark took her hand in his.  “Perhaps something antique?”

“You need look no further than my friend across the water.  He has some exquisite jewellery as well as those gorgeous dresses, one of which you just happen to be wearing today. It suits you.”

“One other thing Ben.  Who can we go to about Pete’s funeral?  Mark and I will be helping Lou and the girls, but I’ve no idea where to start.”

“I am your fairy godmother indeed!  I know a lovely couple of chaps who live up the road and run their own funeral service; cars, flowers, organising the service, and if you don’t want a religious do, one of them is a humanist celebrant.  Shall I give them a call and ask them to contact you, Lou?”

“Sounds good Ben, but I’d rather they dealt with Mark and Rachel for now.” Lou was looking rather overwhelmed by the whole situation, coupled with the fact that the early lunch hour crowd was heading towards the tea shop.

“We’ll leave you in peace Sis.” said Mark as he kissed Lou goodbye.   “I’m going to carry Rachel off on the little pink ferry to see if we can find a suitable ring on the other side of the river.  We’ll be back before closing. Concentrate on sarnies and cupcakes; everything will sort itself out.”

Mark took Rachel’s hand and followed Ben outside into the Square, where he was busy spreading their good news.  After numerous congratulations, they went down to the Quayside and took their places on the little pink ferry.  It was something that Rachel had been promising herself since she had arrived months ago, and she felt quite moved that Mark had remembered how much she wanted to make the short trip across the river. The boat trip was every bit as sweet as she had remembered; being able to look back at the Village and see the Marina in the sunlight, was just another memorable aspect of the day.  Mark sat with his arm around her, and looked every bit as happy as she felt.  The shop wasn’t far from the ferry dock, and Ben had already been on the phone to his friend, who greeted them with enthusiasm, as well as asking Rachel to do a quick twirl in her new dress.  He pulled chairs out for them both in the shop, and after passing over a tray of rings, went into store room, and brought out a bottle of champagne and three glasses.

Rachel saw the ring straight away; a tiny diamond set in gold, surrounded by eight petal shaped sapphires. Gingerly, she took it from the tray and tried it on, anxious in case it was too big, or too small.  Just like Cinderella, it fitted as if it had been made for her.  Mark smiled and raised her hand to his lips.  Rachel gulped, and Ben’s friend handed her a tissue and a hastily poured glass of champagne.

Mark took the ring off her finger and knelt down. “I ought to do this properly.  Rachel, I love you more than I ever thought possible.  Will you marry me?”

“Yes! Oh Mark! Oh!  Is the ring very expensive?”

“It’s the right ring for us, so the cost doesn’t matter.”

Mark handed his credit card over, paid and pocketed the contents of a small blue velvet box as well.  He had a feeling that now the ring was on Rachel’s finger, nothing would remove it.  She sat staring at it and absent-mindedly sipping her champagne while the transaction was taking place. 

An engagement ring!  

Something she knew Sam would ever have entertained, and looking over at Mark, who was smiling happily, Rachel was glad that the subject had never arisen, and that she had made the right choice in the end. The pink ferry was getting ready to leave just as they got to the dock, and the journey back to the Village was even more magical.  Rachel kept looking at her hand, and at the blue and white stones echoing the bright blue of Mark’s eyes and the colours of the river around them. It was definitely the right ring.

“Tell me honestly Mark, was it very expensive?”

“Honestly. No.  The only other experience I had of buying an engagement ring was Sorrel’s.  She insisted on having it made from Cornish gold by a friend of hers.  It was abstract and ugly, cost me an arm and several legs, and I never liked it. The wedding rings were even worse.  It was a good job that I didn’t have to wear mine when I was working.  This ring is you.  It suits you and if I’d looked at the tray first, this is the ring I would have chosen for you.  True blue of the sea and the river, and an absolute diamond to all those who love you.  Pretty scary to those who don’t, though.”

He kissed her in a very thorough way that made her shiver and feel relieved that they were the only people on the ferry apart from the captain, who very discreetly kept his back to them and his eyes on the river.

Stepping Back – Rumbled

It was the sound of Mrs K vacuuming that woke them both the next morning.  Although it was wonderful to be curled up in bed in Mark’s arms at last, Rachel couldn’t help wondering what kind of reception they would get when her own empty bed was discovered

Mark jumped out of bed and pulled on a tee-shirt and jeans. “Mrs K has made me promise not to wander around the house naked.  I fear that we may have offended her sensibilities this morning. Stay put and I’ll try to pour oil on some troubled waters.”

Rachel grinned and slid back down under the duvet.

“Good morning, Mrs K!” said Mark cheerfully as he opened the kitchen door.  “How are we this morning?”

“’WE are fine.  I hope you aren’t playing fast and loose with our Rachel. We didn’t have that sort of thing going on in my day.”

Mark leaned against the kitchen table. “I have no intention of doing anything to upset Rachel, but yes.  We are now an item.  Lou doesn’t know yet, so if you could give us a chance to tell her before the jungle drums start beating, we’d both be grateful.  I am officially on leave due to the fact that I have had complaints made against me by Rachel’s ex, and the entire Davenport-Hooper family, and my boss needs me to keep my head down.”

As he had suspected, Mrs Kneller’s initially cool response to Mark and Rachel’s new sleeping arrangements turned to total outrage against the absolute cheek of Sam and the D-H family to make complaints about him.  He took the opportunity to nip down the corridor and fetch Rachel’s dressing gown before Mrs K had drawn breath.

“There’s orange juice there for the pair of you.  Make sure you remember to bring the glasses back.  Pluto’s been out for a wee and I’ve fed him.  I take it that Lou will be your first stop once you’re up and about?  I’ll finish off here and leave you to make your own breakfasts.”

Rachel was waiting behind the bedroom door and pulled on her dressing gown quickly before going into the kitchen.  Mark went back into the bedroom, sat on the bed and kept his fingers crossed.

“I know it’s not the way things were done in your day Mrs K, but please be happy for us?” said Rachel.  “You know that you are so much more to us both than the next-door neighbour who comes in and does.  You are the Mum that neither of us ever knew, and the last thing either of wants to do is upset or offend you.”

Mrs K looked at Rachel over the top of her spectacles; she shook her head but gave Rachel a hug of forgiveness. “Heaven knows, I’ve had my mind set on you two becoming a couple, but I thought there might be a bit more courting before you jumped into bed together.  This isn’t just a fling though, is it?”

“I can only speak for myself but I’m hoping that this will be a permanent arrangement.”

“An engagement and wedding then?”

“Possibly but we need to focus on Pete’s funeral, and getting Lou and the girls through it first.  Whatever Pete became in the end, he was from this Village, and should be sent off by properly by his family and old friends.  Will you help us with it?”

“I suppose it will be a bit less work in this house with only one bed to make; the pair of you have known sadness in your lives, so you need to make up for it in your own way.  Your Mum indeed! Go and get our Mark, and I’ll put the kettle on for some coffee.”

“Thank you.” Rachel gave Mrs Kneller another hug, and almost skipped back to the bedroom where Mark, now fully clothed was waiting for her.

“I heard. Detectives need to have good hearing.  Rachel, you are indeed a clever wordsmith.”

“I meant it Mark.  Whatever other people may think of Mrs K, she has a huge heart, and I hated the thought of her being offended by our behaviour.”

“You gave all the right answers.”

“All of them?”

“If I had a ring on me, I would be down on one knee asking for your hand in marriage.  Perhaps we are both more old-fashioned than we realise?  Your being here has improved my life one hundred percent, and I love the thought of sharing the rest of it with you.”

Rachel wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, so she did both and buried her face in Mark’s chest.

“Is that a yes then?”

“No one’s every proposed to me before – with or without a ring – but yes, please.  You make me feel so happy, and able to do all the things that I want to do.”

“Get dressed then and I’ll put the toast on, and ask Mrs K for her blessing.”

Grabbing her clothes from the night before, Rachel downed the orange juice and ran down the corridor to her bedroom, hiding her face.  Mrs Kneller watched her go and turned to Mark. “You haven’t upset her already, have you?”

“I don’t think so.  Tears of happiness, I hope.  I just asked her to marry me and she said yes.  We need to go and buy a ring though, so I can do it properly.  You can release the news at lunchtime if you like?”

“Good lad.  Well, for what it’s worth, you have my congratulations.”

“It’s a blessing from you that we need.”

“Go on with you.  It’s what I’ve wanted since the first time I met our Rachel.  She’s pure gold.  I’ve put some toast on, and once Rachel’s dressed, I’ll strip and remake her bed.  She may as well keep her clothes in that wardrobe, you haven’t much room in yours with all that police stuff.”

“I thought about getting her a proper desk and chair so that she can write in there, rather than on the kitchen table or balancing on the dressing table.  If she wants one that is.  There’s a lot to think about, but Lou and the girls come first.”

Having dried her eyes and got dressed, Rachel came back into the kitchen to the welcome sight of Mrs K and Mark in a very congratulatory hug.  He raised his head and grinned. “Mrs K will wait till midday before making the official announcement; that should be enough time to put a ring on your finger, and make us both more respectable? You aren’t having second thoughts, are you?”

Rachel took Mark’s hand and shook her head.  “Not a chance. Perhaps I should go and put a dress on if there’s going to be an event?”

“Good idea lovely, and you Mark, need a shave.  It’s all very well being on leave, but no one likes to kiss a man with stubble.  I’m right aren’t I, Rachel?”

Rubbing her hand along Mark’s chin and cheek, Rachel nodded. “Designer stubble may be very trendy up in London, but I do love a nice clean shave.”

Remembering that Sam had been sporting a great deal of stubble when he turned up in the village, Mark hastened to the bathroom.  By the time he had returned shaven and smooth, Rachel was waiting for him, and wearing a dress that he hadn’t seen before.

“I like that one as well.  Is it new?”

“I bought it at Ben’s friend’s shop.  You waited outside in the car so that I could browse in peace, and make my own choices.  It was another thing about you that I appreciated.”

Mark put his arm around Rachel’s waist and gave her a squeeze.  Mrs K looked on with an approving smile. “Well, you certainly make a handsome couple, I must say.  If you’re going shopping you can leave Pluto with me. I expect the girls will want to come and take him out when they come home from school anyway.  Out of my way now, I have work to do!”

Stepping Back – Dark Wardrobes

Eating Shepherd’s pie in the kitchen with Mark felt like the epitome of a domestic bliss she had always wanted.  Rachel enjoyed the camaraderie of cooking together, and chatting about nothing in particular while they prepared the meal and sat down at the kitchen table to eat together.

“Thank you.” Mark said as he finished off the last of the Shepherd’s pie.  “This is definitely worth coming home for.”

Rachel pulled a mock-disappointment face. “Just the pie, or me and Pluto too?”

“Everything.  The house feels far more like a home than the flat I shared with Sorrel. Mrs K cleaned most of the apartments in the block, but I did the cooking.  It wasn’t Sorrel’s thing. Mrs K kept me sane when Sorrel’s antics got too bad.”

“Mrs K is rather special.  Apart from Lou – and you – she’s the only person who ever really looked after me because they wanted to.”

“I’m so glad that you two get on…”

“If the last couple of days have taught me anything, it’s that I am well and truly over Sam, and that I don’t want to go back to working in London.  I feel happy and welcomed here.  It isn’t just the old memories, it’s the new ones too.  The way people have rallied round to support Lou and the girls – and me as well. If I sell the flat in London, I’m burning my boats, but with the money in the bank I can concentrate on writing.  I may have to buy more long and flowing scarves though.”

Mark laughed and leaned back in his chair.  Rachel could tell that there was something that he was burning to say, but didn’t know whether or not he should.  Mark’s work mobile rang out in the hallway and he jumped up to answer it.  Rachel cleared the table and tried not to listen.  It didn’t sound like it was very good news, but Mark’s voice remained calm, low and level.  She started on the washing up in order to distract herself and had managed to wash, dry and put away before Mark returned to the kitchen looking annoyed but not furious. “I’ve been asked to take some gardening leave.  Sam has put in an official complaint about me, so has Adele’s father and the entire Davenport-Hooper family.”

“No!  Mark!  I’m so sorry! This is all my fault!”  Rachel turned around and leaned against the sink feeling as if the whole world was crumbling again, and just when she was beginning to feel safe and happy.

“Come here Rachel?” He put his arms around her, and gently turned her so that her face was nestled against his chest. “Shush.  None of this is down to you.  It’s the work of arrogant and power-hungry people who think that that money and influence can break the law.  My job is very important to me, but ensuring that I do things by the book is just as important.  Regarding Sam, I made sure that I recorded everything I did and submitted it at the time of the arrest.  Although Sam initially broke the law by taking Adele’s car without permission, that charge has now been dropped, and she has paid the fines that she owed.  I couldn’t overlook the lack of insurance however, and that’s why the car was impounded.  Adele’s father is just annoyed about having to get someone to come down here to collect it.  As for the D-H’s; on two of the occasions where the twins were spoken to by the police, I was not involved. Apparently, our Daw has said that the boys are minors, and should have had an appropriate adult when they were interviewed.  That needs checking out, but again that’s for someone else to do.  There have also been questions about why we didn’t report Damaris for nearly knocking us down, but I was still working undercover at the time, and making too much of a fuss might have blown the whole operation.  Daw has been spoken to about transporting her sons (especially if they are minors) to our house knowing that they had offensive weapons that they intended to use on you.  Daw also got another speeding ticket which means that she’s used up all her points and will now be disqualified from driving.  With all this against them, the D-H collective has decided to fight back and accuse me of harassment.  I am angry, but my boss feels that it will disappear once an investigation is started.  Look on the bright side Rachel. I’m on holiday again until it all blows over.”

“But none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for me!”

“I don’t see it that way and neither does my boss. In fact…”

“What?”

“He’s read your pieces online, and says he found them very entertaining, and informative.  He also said that you must be someone very special.  I’m inclined to agree with him.”

Rachel pressed her forehead against Mark’s shoulder and breathed in the scent of him that she had come to know so well. He stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. “I miss the pigtails; they’re yet another quirky aspect of you that I…Oh Rachel, why can’t I say what I want to say?”

Rachel smiled. She stroked the side of his face and looked into those beautiful blue eyes. “You could always try kissing me instead?”

Mark needed no other invitation; it was the kiss that they had both been waiting for.  She was where she wanted to be, in Mark’s arms and feeling every fantasy turning into a rather wonderful reality. Pluto had other ideas however.  All this hugging and kissing just made him feel left out, so he leaped around the kitchen barking and yelping, until Mark and Rachel had no choice but to pay some attention to him.

Mark looked at him sternly. “That’s enough now Pluto.  You’re just going to have to get used to this. Isn’t he, Rachel?”

Rachel reached down and ruffled Pluto’s ears.  “We’ll have to be discreet and confine ourselves to a Pluto-free space.”

“Does this mean what I think it means?”

Rachel smiled and nodded. “Looks like we’ve really become an item now Mark.  It isn’t just Lou and the Village that makes me want to stay. You’re an even bigger part of it; have I got a future with you?”

Mark held her so tightly that she thought he was going to squeeze the life out of her, and she tapped his shoulder in protest. He loosened his grip. “I’m sorry; I’ve just been waiting for you to give me a sign that I was in with a chance. I was attracted to you right from the very first moment you sat on the bed while I picked broken glass off your legs.  The more I’ve come to know you, the stronger my feelings have grown. You and I made the wrong choices the first time around, didn’t we?”

“Second time lucky, and I think we’ve both learned from our mistakes.  I’ll admit that I found you very attractive right from the start too, but Sam kept getting in the way.  I love the way that you let me be me, whether it’s the clothes I wear, or the words that I write. Ease up on the bear hugs though, I don’t want to find myself having Ben and Dr Hussein treating me for cracked ribs.”

“Sorry Rachel. I just can’t believe it’s true.”

“Let’s take Pluto out for his late-night walk and put him to bed, and then…”

“And then?”

“I think it’s about time you showed me around the rest of the house, and I’m not talking about the sail loft.  After all, you have become very familiar with my bedroom, but I’ve never set foot in yours.”

Once Pluto was settled on the sofa and the living room door firmly shut, Mark opened his bedroom door, and walked over to switch on the bedside lamp. Rachel stopped on the threshold for a moment and surveyed the hitherto unknown territory. The room was dominated by a set of built-in wardrobes in very dark wood surrounding Mark’s bed. “It’s functional.” he said.  “I just sleep in here and keep all my police kit in the wardrobes. The curtains on the road side are kept drawn all the time, but I have a good view of the garden through the other windows.  I toyed with the idea of having doors out onto the patio, but I’ve never got around to it. It isn’t very romantic in here I’m afraid.  Your room is much nicer; Mrs K picked up some things to make it more homely when we knew you were coming to stay.”

Mark shut the door and leaned against it; looking a little embarrassed by his sombre surroundings.  Turning towards him, Rachel reached up and held his face between her hands as she kissed him. “You and I are alone in this room, and that’s what makes it romantic.  I don’t care where we are as long as we finally get the opportunity to get to know each other properly.”

“There’s another thing, Rachel?”

“Mm-m?”

“I was about to ask you if you had anything on under those pyjamas but as you’ve just taken them off…”  

Stepping Back – Remembering

By the time Mark arrived home, Rachel had written three separate pieces, spell-checked them and edited them before sending them off to Tony.  Half an hour later she received a very happy email advising her that she had scooped Sam yet again, and that numerous colleagues in the office were still laughing about his beach escapade and subsequent rescue.  The longest of the three pieces was about Lou and Pete; Tony had promised to sit on that one until the funeral had taken place, in order to give the people of the Village the opportunity to pay their last respects without any outside interference. News travels fast on the police network and Mark already knew about the arrest of the D-H boys.  He had texted Rachel earlier to let her know that the boys were being bailed but to their school address rather than home, so there would be no more hassle from them for now. He didn’t ask her if she was okay, because he knew that she would be, and didn’t want her to think that he was being patronising.  He did put several ‘x’s’ at the end however, which made Rachel smile and type a little bit faster.

She changed out of the lilac dress into a pair of the short pyjamas bought on her shopping trip with Lou and the girls, and was settled on the sofa with a fed and dozing Pluto, when Mark came back.  Pluto jumped to his feet when he heard the sound of Mark’s key in the door, and was waiting in the hallway with his tail wagging happily.  Rachel decided to stay where she was until Pluto had finished his welcoming, and Mark had washed the affectionate slobber from his face and hands.

He sat down next to her on the sofa and took one of her hands in his. “It’s been a hell of a couple of days, hasn’t it?”

Rachel nodded and leaned her head against his shoulder with a sigh. “We’ve got through it though, all of us.” she said.  “Except poor Pete.  Even now I can’t hate him; I’d rather remember him as he was in the old days when we all used to hang around the Quay.  Perhaps that’s just as well; I haven’t discussed the funeral with Lou yet. Jeff and the lads have already raised a fair sum courtesy of Sam’s payments, but it will take more than that to giver him a good send off. Lou’s the only family I’ve ever had; I’d like the girls to have a memory of what Pete used to be like.  He was so funny and lively in those days, and it was only when he got into debt that he had to turn to other means of making money.”

Rachel was aware that at some point during the conversation, Mark’s other arm had encircled her shoulders and she liked the feeling very much. She smiled as another thought of the day occurred to her. “I bet Sam was really fed up about being arrested and sent back to London on the train.”

Mark nodded and grinned. “He was not happy at all.  I had to supervise his phone calls.  Interesting though, that he called your editor first to say that you had sabotaged his attempts to get his story. Judging from his response, that didn’t go as planned because he slammed the phone down.  The call to his girlfriend was totally different.  He was SO apologetic and almost grovelling to her, but when he came off the phone he was smirking.  I’m sorry Rachel but I had to walk away from him or I’d have punched him.  Hard.”

“Why are you apologising?  Perhaps if I’d had the courage to stand up to him, we would never have stayed together.  I was beginning to understand what was wrong with our relationship, but this has made me see him for what he really is.  An arrogant little bully.”

Mark held his breath for a moment, considering what he wanted to say against what he thought he ought to say. “What happens next?”

“I’m starving.  I was waiting for you to come home before I started cooking anything.  Mrs K has left the makings of a Shepherd’s pie in the kitchen.  It would probably take me about half an hour to knock up, especially if you peel the potatoes for me?”

“That wasn’t what I meant, but I do love Shepherd’s pie. With garden peas and gravy?”

“Of course.  I haven’t exactly had much chance to cook for anyone but myself for the last few years but Shepherd’s pie was one of the few things that Lou would allow me to make when we shared the house.”

“Can I ask you something Rachel? What happened to the nightshirt?”

“Mrs K said that I should invest in more attractive nightwear. Pyjamas are more practical for taking Pluto out in the garden – and for cooking dinner. Do you like them?”

“I do.  There’s one other thing I wanted to ask you, though?”

“Do your worst?”

“You told me that Lou was your only family, but surely you had parents at some stage?”

“Lou said that you were brought up by your father’s parents.  I never knew who my parents were either. When I was born my maternal grandparents took me on.  I say that loosely.  They were rarely home, and until I was old enough to be sent off to boarding school, I had a number of nannies to look after me.  My grandparents were involved in ambassadorial work, and spent most of their time travelling abroad.  When I turned eighteen, the solicitors advised me that my grandparents felt they had discharged their obligation to me and wanted to cut off all contact.  I had a more than generous settlement to cover living expenses, and all my university fees were paid.  I met Lou and she took me under her wing; she didn’t have a lot of money at the time, her father had just died, and your mother was quite poorly so we looked after each other.  It hit Lou hard when your mother died.”

“I never knew her.  What was she like?”

“She was funny and sweet.  She was a wonderful singer and that’s how she met Lou’s dad.  He played bass guitar in a band that performed in most of the jazz clubs. He was a lot older than your mother when they met, and when he developed Parkinson’s Disease, he had to stop playing altogether.  He died about six months before Lou was due to start Uni and at first, she didn’t want to go but your mother insisted.  We were both oddities at Uni; Lou with her black curls and the stigma of racism, me the plain Jane from a boarding school who didn’t know what a real home was.  We clicked somehow, and teamed up against the snobs and the racists that we met.  I had sufficient money from my grandparents to rent a cottage in the Village when we moved out of halls in our second year. Lou often took me home with her; your mother always made me feel welcome, but by the time we were in our third year, she had faded away as the cancer took hold.  Lou let me pay for your mother to go into a hospice near to our Uni.  It meant that she was safe and well looked after, it also meant that we could visit her and take in little things to make her smile.  She didn’t live to see Lou married though.”

“I take it that you probably helped Lou out with the wedding then?”

“It was one of my greatest pleasures, and I told Lou that if she insisted on putting me in a bridesmaid’s dress, then I’d be the one who paid for it, and all the other things that a wedding required.  I had plenty of money once the hospice fees were paid up, and by then I was well and truly part of Lou’s family. She promised to pay me back when she won on the Lottery; that was our standing joke. We didn’t go mad anyway; a marquee outside the yacht club and a disco provided by a friend from Uni.  I look at the amount of money people spend on weddings nowadays and I wonder if they can possibly have as good a time as we did that day. Come on.  I’m hungry, in which case you must be absolutely starving!”

Pluto followed Mark and Rachel into the kitchen to watch the preparations.  He settled down on his bed and fell asleep feeling safe and happy. Just until the Shepherd’s pie was ready and he could eat up any leftovers.

Stepping Back – No More Secrets

The first sight that greeted Pluto’s dog walkers when they reached the Square was a jolly bunch of men sitting on the benches outside the Gun. Jeff was the first to spot Lou and Rachel, and sent up a cheer at their approach. “Come on over for a drink, ladies; they’re on the house! Has your snotty friend gone back to London yet, Rachel?”

Lou and Rachel looked at each other and giggled like a pair of schoolgirls.  Jenny decided that someone needed to act in a responsible manner under the circumstances. “Uncle Mark has just arrested him for twocking, no insurance and non-payment of fines and congestion charges.  The BMW is going to the pound, and will need to be recovered by the owner.  Stop giggling Mum, and you, Auntie Rachel.  You should know better!”

“Sorry Jenny. You shouldn’t have made the comment about Uncle Mark though.”

“That’s okay Lou,” said Jeff grinning.  “Most of the Village knew that Mark was a copper anyway.  Apart from the Dick-Head family that is. Some of the boys have been helping Mark out with a bit of snooping concerning the comings and goings at the Quayside.  What will you have?  That includes you girls as well, but soft drinks and crisps only. I don’t want to lose my licence.”

“Two draught ciders please Jeff?”

“Water for Pluto too? Probably got a few dog biscuits knocking around.”

“I’ll come in and give you a hand Jeff.” said Lou, following him into the pub.

“Sorry to hear about Pete, Lou.” said Jeff as he started to pour the drinks.  “He may have gone to the bad but he was still a part of the Village.  If it’s okay, we’d like to make a donation to the funeral.  Rachel’s ex has already made a sizeable contribution, but there’s more coming in.”

Lou gulped and had to turn away.  She had been trying so hard to push Pete’s death to the back of her mind, but the thought of a funeral and how to pay for it made it all seem real.  Jeff came round the bar and put a comforting arm around her shoulders. “I know it’s a shock Lou, but you have a lot of friends here and we know that since Pete left, you have worked like a trojan to give your girls all that they need.  You make the world’s best cupcakes too!”

Lou laughed. “I’ll pop over to the shop; I’ve got stock in the fridge for tomorrow, and I’d far rather share it with you lot than the tourists.”

Having taken all drinks outside and given Pluto his reward, Lou took Sarah and Sally over to the tea shop.  Jeff sat down next to Rachel, who was halfway down her pint of cider already. “She’s worried about organising and paying for Pete’s funeral; bad enough that he pushed off and left them, but having to sort out his funeral is a double blow.  I’ve said that we’ve already raised some money from your ex, but that’s only a drop in the ocean.”

“Mark and I talked about it this afternoon,” said Rachel reassuringly.  “He will sort out the police side of things; there will have to be a post mortem because of all the injuries, but I’ll see to the practical stuff.  Lou is the only family I have, even if we aren’t actually related, and she’s been there even more for me, since Sam and I split up.  I’m in the fortunate situation of having a good salary, low overheads, and dead relatives who left me very well off.  Mark has refused to let me pay rent all this time, and I’ve made some extra money out of the articles I’ve written.  I’ve been asked to write a book about the Village, so any tales you have to tell will be very welcome.  I was going to rent out my flat in London, but … well I might be making the move permanent, so selling it would be more sensible really.”

“You’re definitely staying then?  Sammy boy didn’t persuade you to go back to London?”

Rachel laughed and shook her head. “Jenny looked out of the window and said there was a grumpy old man outside.  I looked at Sam with different eyes at that moment, and she was right.  A very unpleasant person who expects everyone to do as he says.  I don’t want that kind of person in my life any more.  Despite falling into a prickle bush and being threatened by Damaris’s little brothers, I’ve been very happy here, happy in the same way that Lou and I were when we were younger.”

“And what about our Mark?”

“Time will tell, but he’s everything that Sam isn’t. He’s also been an extremely good friend.”

“Best way to start off I always say.  Here’s our Lou with a load of cakes and scones.”

Lou and the girls put the trays of food on the tables, and stood back watching them disappear rapidly.  Rachel’s phone rang and she got up and walked a few yards further up the Square where it was quieter.  It was Mark, and though the news he gave was a little disappointing, he had a second piece of news that was more promising.  She told him where they were, and what Jeff had said about the funeral and the reluctant fundraising courtesy of Sam.

Rachel went back to spread her news. “It seems that the car wasn’t stolen after all; Adele ‘forgot’ that she had lent it to Sam, she has also settled her parking fees and congestion charges.  The car is still impounded however because Sam wasn’t insured to drive it.  Adele’s daddy will be sending a fully insured member of staff to get it released.  Sam has been fined and got points on his licence, but was very kindly taken to the train station so that he can get back swiftly to Adele’s loving arms.”

“And how does that make you feel, our Rachel?” asked Jeff.

“Relieved to see the back of him, and I can’t help wondering if he’s realised just how big his bald patch is now? The other piece of news came from my editor Tony. Mark spoke to him about Sam’s predicament, and he said that Sam could sort his own messes out but that he needed some copy about the incident from me, and as soon as possible.  I’d better make tracks and get my laptop booted up.  Shall I take Pluto girls, or do you want him for a bit longer?”

“Please leave him with us for a bit, Auntie Rachel?  We’ll bring him home after tea.”

Rachel said her goodbyes and set off home, smiling at the bunch of happy munchers and drinkers. She was just getting her front door key out when she was aware of a noise behind her.  Turning around she saw the two D-H boys who had been hiding in the bushes.  One was holding a cricket bat, and the other was brandishing a riding crop.  What Rachel could also see was Mrs Kneller, peering over her garden fence and making telephone signs with one hand.

“Not so stroppy now that you haven’t got your dog to protect you.” said the twin with the cricket bat.  “You’ve upset our sister and got us banned from the village.  We aren’t going to let you get away with that.  We’ll make sure that when you’ve recovered from the thrashing we’re going to give you, you’ll go back to London and never come here again.”

Rachel assumed that Mrs Kneller had phoned for help but in the meantime, she surreptitiously felt in her pocket.  Jenny had returned the rape alarm and very kindly put the new batteries in it.   She felt that stalling for time just a little bit longer might give the cavalry a chance to arrive. “Why is your sister upset? She was never engaged to Mark.”

“Yes, she was!  He came to our house for dinner once, and he took her out a couple of times, and besides, our Mother said that they were engaged.  Damaris has been and had some work done on her face so that Mark would fancy her again, but it went wrong and now she can’t leave the house. That’s your fault and you’re going to pay.  When we’ve finished with you, Mark won’t want to look at you ever again.”

The cricket bat wielding twin took a menacing step closer, and Rachel pressed the button on the rape alarm.  The ear-splitting noise made them both jump back, although they had both heard it before.  At the same time Mrs Kneller popped up from over the garden fence and directed her garden hose at them both.  Rachel took the opportunity to move to the safety of the front porch, and as she did, Jeff’s pickup roared into the driveway, loaded up with his brother and several other fishermen, all carrying high-powered water pistols that they aimed at the boys. From the horrendous smell, the liquid in the pistols had come from the water tanks near the Quayside, redolent of old fish and mouldy seaweed.  Not long after after the water battle commenced, a police car screeched to a halt in the driveway, and the skirmish ended with the D-H boys cowering by the bushes, wet and extremely smelly.  Not surprisingly, he beat policeman was reluctant to have them in his car, and called for a van to collect them.

“Are you alright Miss?” he asked Rachel, seeing the cricket bat and riding crop on the floor.

“Thanks to Mrs Kneller and the lads, these boys didn’t have a chance to attack me, but they made it quite clear that they intended to give me a beating with those weapons.  I’m quite happy to give a statement.” said Rachel.

“And me.” said Mrs Kneller.  “I saw them being dropped off outside by their mother.  You might find her parked down the road waiting for them so that she could dispose of the evidence.  That makes her an accessory before the fact, doesn’t it?”

The policeman forced a smile and took out his notebook. 

Again.

Jeff and the lads returned to the square, giving Mrs Kneller the opportunity to hose the driveway down and get rid of the smell of elderly fish.  “I’m not wasting good water on those two,” she said.  “I expect you’ll have to put them in those white Noddy suits when you get them to the station.  I wouldn’t put it past them to have knives or something in their pockets as well.  You’d better frisk them too!”

When the police van arrived, the boys were reluctantly patted down, and as Mrs Kneller suspected, they were both carrying Swiss army knives. Rachel shuddered, thinking what damage they could have done her, and astounded that their mother had colluded with them in such an evil pursuit.  All because of Damaris and her fantasies about Mark.  The all-seeing Mrs Kneller put her hose away and came round the fence. “Come on, my lovely.  We need to get you inside and away from all this.”

“Oh lord! I almost forget.  I need to set up my laptop and send some copy up to London before Sam gets back.”

“You get in the kitchen and do your writing; I’ll get you a drink.”  She turned to the police constable. “You don’t need us for now do you? Come round later on for the statements.  I’ve got a nice fruitcake just out of the oven.”

By the time Mrs Kneller had poured Rachel a generous glass of sherry, the laptop was up and being frenetically typed upon as the day’s events tumbled out onto the keyboard.

Stepping Back – Sam Outmanned

Sam followed the signs to the beach. Beach!  This was unlike any beach he had visited abroad, especially on his recent holiday with Adele.  A short stretch of shingle and stones interrupted by concrete boxes and some kind of ancient artillery.  He intended to stop in the car park and check out Rachel’s piece on his mobile but there was hardly any reception, and little room to manoeuvre due to the number of aging trucks with boats and trailers attached to them.  He drove a little further down the beach and found that he could get a signal on the other side of the boxes.

Grudgingly, he had to accept that Rachel had written a good piece; it captured the spirit of the Village unity, and mixed facts with good humour.  Of course, there were changes that he would have made for her, but it gave him a better idea of how he should be angling his own piece of investigative journalism on the drug smuggling racket. So engrossed was he, that he failed to notice that the tide was coming in, and that there was a very good reason why no other cars had parked at this end of the beach. He started up the car, but the muddy shingle gave the slick tyres little purchase.  Perhaps taking Adele’s new red BMW sports car had not been the best idea.  He had thought that the villagers would be in awe when they saw it, and willing to answer his questions.  

Wrong on both counts.

A couple of the fishermen from the car park wandered over and asked if he needed a hand.  Noting their barely hidden smirks, Sam’s first instinct was to refuse but he was no Canute and the waves were moving closer.

“It’ll cost mind.  The time it takes to get a car like this safely off the beach will eat into our fishing time.  Would you be the bloke who’s come down from London to interview people about the drug smuggling?”

“Yes.  Just get the car out of here without it getting damaged.  I borrowed it from a friend.”

“Oh.  No insurance then?  Better not let the local bobbies know that.  Rachel says that we are to help you but only if you pay up.  Says that you can afford it.”

Damn Rachel and damn her village idiots!

Sam got out of the car and tried not to wince as the grubby fisherman and his extremely muddy boots sullied the immaculate interior of Adele’s latest present from her daddy. After revving the engine and putting the car into reverse, an increasingly large group of men leaned on the front end of the car, and pushed.  Hard. Once free of the mud, the car sped backwards until it was safely in the car park, and greeted with cheers and applause from the other occupants.

“Nice little car mate,” said the largest and most imposing looking of his rescuers. “But I think it’ll need a valeting before you give it back to the owner.  Might be a few dints on the bonnet where we leaned on it.  I think a ton should be a suitable fee for rescuing it from the sea. Cash only.”

Sam knew that he only had credit cards on him, and wondered how easy it would be to escape without paying.

“Nearest cash point is at the bank next to the Gun.  My brother Jeff here is the landlord, and will give you a lift while we look after your friend’s car. Bear in mind that if you want people from the Village to talk about the drug smuggling, they’ll need paying too.  May as well draw out enough to cover all your costs at once, eh?”

“Is there anyone that doesn’t know Rachel in this village?”

“Might be a few incomers, but everyone knows Mark, Lou and the kids.  Those kids need every penny we can raise now that their Dad has died.  That’s where the money will be going – just in case you thought that we were out to make money out of you for ourselves.”

“When did their father die? What happened?”

“Best talk to Lou or Mark about that.  It’s police business so I’m not sure how much can be disclosed.  Here’s Jeff now.”

Sam got into the passenger seat of an incredibly smelly truck.  Jeff grinned at his discomfort. “The girls didn’t half smell after I rescued them from the beach.  I suppose I ought to give the tarps a bit of a hose down one of these days.  I don’t notice the smell anymore, but strangers coming into my pub say that it niffs of fish a fair bit. Here you go, I’ll hang on and give you a lift back to the car park.”

Relieved to be out in the fresh air, Sam drew a sizeable amount of money out of the cash machine using more than one of his cards to overcome the limitations. He spent the journey back leaning out of the window, much to Jeff’s amusement.  The bill for safe removal of the car was settled, and a few extra £20 notes doled out to the lads who had watched the entire arrest of the drug smugglers from behind the safety of the boat park fence. Jeff advised Sam that Mrs Kneller would be his best source of information, but to be careful about what he said, as she was very fond of Lou and her family, and that included Rachel.

In the meantime, Lou had received a phone account of Sam’s stranding on the beach from one of her friends at the boat yard, and a warning that someone had let slip about Pete’s death. Mark and Rachel were still ensconced in the back room, and while she didn’t want to disturb them, she badly needed advice.  Just as she was about to get Sally to knock on the door, it opened and Mark emerged looking sheepish, followed by Rachel, who was smiling. “Sorry Sis.  We had a few things that needed sorting out.  Are you okay?”

Lou relayed Sam’s sorry tale to much laughter, then the conversation turned more serious as she explained that Sam knew about Pete and wanted to find out more.

“He’s always had a nose for a hidden story I’m afraid.  He won’t pull his punches either.” said Rachel, wanting to spare her friend as much exposure as possible.

“Can I suggest that the three of us talk to Sam together?” said Sam.  “I can give him the official version; Rachel and I can support you Lou, and stop him if he digs too deep.”

“What can I say? My ex-husband was involved with drug smugglers who beat him up so badly that he died from his injuries.  There’s no way you can sweeten that, is there?”

“Isolate the facts as people know them.  Pete was beaten up and turned up here in desperation.  I took him to hospital, but he never regained consciousness so we won’t know how much involvement he had with the smugglers until it goes to court.”

“I can’t do this Mark.,” said Lou, torn between fury and sorrow.  “I’m angry again with Pete and what he’s put us through again.  I’m sad that my children have to watch their father’s name being dragged through the dirt and, I’m sorry Rachel, but I’m so furious with Sam after the way he’s treated you, that I just want to punch his lights out.”

Rachel put her arms around Lou and held her very tight. “Mark, you are more than a match for Sam – personally and professionally.  Would you speak for Lou and the children? I’m afraid Sam tends to home in on vulnerabilities and could probably use Lou’s feelings to write something damaging.”

“You can tell him Mark, that if I talk to anyone about anything, it will be Rachel.”

“You are so capable Lou.” said Mark. “But having been absent for so many years, I welcome the opportunity to be a real big brother and stick up for you and the girls.  Any tips Rachel? You’ve been Lou’s sister for a long time, and you know Sam better than anyone.”

“He’s just pulled onto the driveway in a red BMW that I’ve never seen before.  Are you still under cover Mark or are you allowed to be a proper policeman again?”

“No need for pretence for now.  What did you have in mind?”

“Start off by checking his insurance.  I have a feeling he may have borrowed the car from Adele, and he won’t have bothered about such a trivial thing as arranging insurance when he’s in a hurry.  Get him on the back foot; who knows you may even have the grounds to get the car impounded.  Does that sound vindictive?”

“No, it sounds really cool.” said Lou.  “While you have a chat with him in the backroom Mark, Rachel, the girls and I can take Pluto for a walk into the village and say thank you to our friends.  We’ll wait in the living room until the coast is clear.”

Mark grinned and went outside. He introduced himself to Sam, personally and as a detective inspector, taking out his official mobile as he admired the car.   “Nice little car.  You must be making a good wage to buy one like this.”

“It isn’t actually mine.  A friend lent it to me as I was in a rush to get down here.”

“It’s fully insured in your name then?”

“Ah.  I’m not sure if she put me on the insurance actually.  Is that a problem?”

“It might be.  Would you come inside please, while I make a few calls?”

“Where’s the dog?  I don’t think he likes me.”

“He’s going out for a walk shortly.”

Mark looked over to the living room window and suppressed a smile as he saw the curtains twitch. He led Sam into the back room, closed the door very firmly and made some calls to check out the status of the car.  The sound of giggles and Pluto’s happy bark as they left the house, gave Mark the opportunity to explain to Sam that he would be speaking on behalf of his sister, and officially as the detective in charge of the investigation. News from the station came through very quickly; not only was the car uninsured, but Adele, in a fit of pique, had reported it stolen.  The car also had several unpaid congestion and parking fines.  Mark took the car keys from Sam, and arranged for a tow truck to remove it to the police pound.

Sam was not happy. “Is Rachel behind this?  Just because we split up; I didn’t think she could be so spiteful.”

“It’s you that’s broken the law Sam, not Rachel.  You’ve taken a car without permission; you aren’t insured and there are a number of fines that your girlfriend couldn’t be bothered to pay.  How is any of that Rachel’s fault?”

“The Rachel I knew would never have done this to me.  She used to be such a compliant person.”

“I don’t know Rachel as well as my sister does, but what I do know is that she has been a good friend to Lou and the girls.  I think that she is more concerned with their welfare than yours, and according to Lou, it’s good to have the real Rachel back again.”

“Hang on a minute!  Aren’t you Rachel’s landlord as well?  Is something going on between you two?”

“Rachel has been staying in my spare room since she came down.  I’m away a great deal so she’s been looking after the house – and Pluto – in my absence.  I’m afraid that I’m going to have to arrest you once the car has been taken away, and transport has arrived for you, so feel free to ask me some questions about the drug smuggling ring before I read you your rights.”

Stepping Back – Sam

Lou’s Sunday roast surpassed all previous reputations; whilst Rachel had worried that the news of Pete’s death might have cast a pall over the day, the girls seemed to have accepted the loss of their already very absent father with some alacrity. It was probably easier for Sally and Sarah, whose memories of Pete were scarce, but for Jenny there was still anger because he had put his family and her friends in danger by becoming involved in the drug smuggling ring.  As Lou had said, her own grieving took place when Pete first abandoned them, and after last night she had no more tears left.

Mark took the opportunity to fill in the gaps about the investigation and arrest; at least as much as he was allowed to share officially.  Rachel’s news about managing to get the village’s story told before Sam could get his hands on it was greeted with hilarity, especially when Jenny got the online version up on her tablet. She was particularly pleased that Rachel had been economical in her retelling of how Jenny had managed to get down to the beach with her friends, and hadn’t revealed her escape route in the garden.  She made her excuses, left the table and ran off upstairs to tell her friends to log onto the newspaper’s online site. Sally and Sarah settled in front of the TV, while the adults ferried the leftovers and washing up back into the kitchen.

“That will boost our circulation and my popularity a bit.” said Rachel, pleased that Jenny had liked the piece, and even happier when Lou gave her a big hug. “This is the Rachel I remember from Uni and your early days in journalism.  It’s honest, and very kind about our Village and the people who live here, but it also shows how easy it is for drugs to creep in and ruin people’s lives. Did you read it Mark?”

“I did, and I’m very glad that I held back and didn’t jump out from the trees to rescue the girls, and Rachel yesterday. She has the respect of the rest of my team for making it all look so effortless.  Just a woman, walking a dog on the beach.  We might ask her to do some undercover work for us?”

“No thanks,” said Rachel, horrified at the very thought. “I can admit to you both that I was terrified, especially when I saw the men coming back down toward the beach.  I just kept thinking that if I was scared, the girls must be even more frightened.  Which reminds me, I need my rape alarm back and we need to buy up a batch for Jenny and her friends.”

“Mum!” Jenny’s far from dulcet tones roared down the stairs.

“What’s up Jen?”

“There’s a really grumpy-looking old bloke standing outside the house.”

Lou shrugged her shoulders and went out to the front door, followed by an equally curious Pluto, who immediately started his bad person barking. They came back very quickly. “Rachel.  I think it’s Sam.  He’s asking to speak to you. A very unhappy Sam, and Pluto definitely doesn’t like the look of him.”

“So we hear.  I suppose I ought to speak to him.  Can I use the little room at the back, Lou?”

“Of course, you grab Pluto, Mark, and I’ll show Sam through.”

Rachel went into the small room that looked out onto the back garden.  She had expected to feel those butterflies, or at least some element of excitement but annoyance had the upper hand, especially when Sam entered the room, looked around in ill-disguised disgust and flung himself down into one of the old wicker garden chairs that were stored there during the colder months. “What the hell is going on here Rachel?  I’ve come down to get the story on this drug smuggling, and no one will talk to me. They all direct me back to you and say that they will only talk if you give your permission, and if I’m prepared to pay them first.  Is this the Village of the Damned or what?”

“Hello Sam.  How are you? How is Adele?  I’m very well thank you, and I’m not sorry that our friends in the Village are refusing to speak to you.  I’m afraid that your reputation has preceded you.”

“My reputation!  You mean these yokels know about my private life as well?”

“No.  They know about my not-so-private life.  You dumped me and ran off with a much younger colleague.  I don’t mind admitting that I was in bits when I first came down here.  Luckily, I have a very efficient support system. How did you know where to find me?”

“I got your address from one of the girls in reception; Tony wouldn’t let me have it and I couldn’t get into the flat to check your address book.  You changed the locks – on our flat!”

“My flat.  You moved yourself in, and you moved yourself out while I was away at a conference.”

“Irrelevant details.” he said, waving his hand as if swatting flies.   “I called at your address here and some old woman came out and gave me the third degree.  She refused to say where you were, but then I went down to the Square and an old lady with paintbrushes stuck in her bun offered to tell me but it would cost me twenty quid.”

“That will be Miss Sharp; resident landscape and graffiti artist.  The twenty quid will probably go in the charity box. Have you seen the piece I sent to Tony this morning?”

“No.  I was sat outside the flat waiting for you to turn up and clear your things out.  If you have no other plans for it, I’d like to move back in.”

“Alone?”

“Adele’s father isn’t happy about us living together.  He has quite strong principles.”

“Obviously Adele hasn’t inherited them then.”

“That’s very bitchy Rach.  That’s not like you at all.  You need to come back to London.  We should share the flat again?”

“Shows how very little you know me, Sam.  I have spent years of my life being what you wanted me to be, allowing you to criticise and mould every aspect of my life.  Coming back here, coming home, has helped me to find myself again, and to realise who my real friends are.”

“Oh, bully for you! Well, I hope you’re happy now that you’ve given up on your career.”

“Did Tony not tell you that I’ve had a book offer as well as a further six-month extension? How remiss of him. Have you said all that you came to say Sam?  I’ll put the word around that I’m happy for the villagers to talk to you, provided you give them at least twenty pounds a head.  Jeff at the Gun and his brother might ask for more though.  They’re quite fit, so I wouldn’t bother arguing with them.  Take some time to read the online piece I did this morning.  Tony won’t be happy if there’s too much duplication.”

“You’re really going to leave it at that Rach? The very least you could do is let me move into the flat.”

“No.  I bought the flat with my inheritance, and I will probably sell it.  You have no claim on it at all.  Goodbye Sam.  It won’t do you any harm to find your own accommodation for a change instead of battening on foolish women like myself who fall prey to your charms.  I used to think that you had the most beautiful brown eyes, but our dog Pluto has far more honest and loving eyes.  He is usually very good tempered but he does have a nose for unpleasant people, and he definitely had you marked down as soon as he saw you.  I’ll show you out.”

Sam found himself ushered through the front door, without so much as a goodbye kiss or hug.  For the first time in his life, he actually felt defeated, and went off to the car to drive down and look at Rachel’s piece, as well as the infamous beach while she got the locals to talk to him.  Rachel leaned back against the front door and heaved a huge sigh of relief.  It had gone.  All the feelings that Sam had previously evoked in her had vanished.  Lou poked her head around the living room door. “Are we okay?”

“We most certainly are. Sam has gone off with several fleas in his ears, and safe in the knowledge that our relationship is over and there is no way on earth that I am going to let him move back into my flat.”

“Bloody cheek!  Things not going to well with the lovely Adele then?”

“She is more than welcome to him.  Jenny is a very good judge of character; when I set eyes on Sam, I saw what she was seeing.  A grumpy old man who just wants his own way.  Good riddance.”

Pluto and Mark poked their heads around the door jamb too. “Is it safe to come out now?  Pluto’s been growling.  I wanted to come out when I heard raised voices, but then I cast my mind back to yesterday at the beach and I thought, ‘No, Rachel can handle herself’.”

Without a second thought, Rachel threw her arms around Mark’s neck and gave him a resounding kiss, not really the kind of kiss that friends give each other.

“I have washing up to do,” said Lou, laughing.   “You two take it in the back room and sort things out a bit.  Pluto! You come into the kitchen with me and I’ll find you some leftovers.”

“Before you do that Lou, could you phone Mrs K and tell her that the bottom line is twenty quid and if they can screw any more out of Sam, good on them.”

The atmosphere in the small back room was tense but in a different way.  Rachel leaned her head against Mark’s shoulder and though he wanted more than anything to kiss her, he held back. She would tell him when the time was right. “How do you feel Rachel?”

“Relieved.  Slightly hysterical. Very sure that whatever I felt for Sam has gone, though.  He’s got a bloody nerve!  Coming down here and expecting me to give him information so that he can get all the glory!  You and your team caught the smugglers after months of hard work; Mrs K, Lou and the Village worked together to keep Jenny and her friends safe.  Sam rocks up here in a flash car and expects it all to be laid at his feet.  I am also very angry with him, but that’s one of the best emotions to have under the circumstances.  I’m quite looking forward to packing up the flat, and selling it now.  I feel free.”

Mark wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  He was pleased that Rachel had seen Sam in his true light, but what did she really mean by free? For the moment he felt that being there for her, as her rock and supporter, was the best that he could do but oh, he so wanted to take her in his arms and kiss her.

Properly.

“There is one thing though Mark?” said Rachel, trying to resist the urge to grab him.

“Yes. Anything?”

“Pete’s funeral.  We’ll need to help Lou, emotionally and financially.  The Village will expect a send off for him; he’s one of their own whatever happens.  Will you help me?”

“Of course I will.”

Rachel leaned against his shoulder again and sighed, but it was a happy sigh.

Stepping Back -Picking Up Some Pieces

The insistent buzz of Rachel’s mobile woke her just after nine o’clock the next morning.  She picked it up and groaned when she saw the time. “Hi Tony.  What can I do for you?”

“Write me a very quick piece on the drug smuggling ring that is based in your village.  I take it that you have more information than the official stuff that is currently filtering through online?”

“How about the plucky teenage girls who rescued their friend from the wicked Portuguese bad men, hid behind the Bofors gun on the beach until the local pub landlord and some fishermen brought them back under some very smelly and fishy tarps in the back of a truck.  The drug-smugglers went down to the beach to grab the girls as hostages, but by that time they were long gone, and the police were able to catch them without anyone being injured.  I can’t give you the official police version but I guess our readers would rather go for the human touch anyway?”

“How soon can you get 500 words to me?”

“I’ll set up my laptop in the kitchen.  Will half an hour do?”

“Rachel, you are a star.  I take it that you won’t be popping up to town today then?”

“No.  After yesterday, I intend to write this piece, eat some breakfast, have a shower and tidy up a bit.  Then we are all off to Lou’s house for a late Sunday afternoon roast.”

“Good.  I have to warn you that Sam was intending to meet up with you at the flat today.  He had some idea that you might let him have the flat rent free for old times’ sake.”

“Not a chance.  That’s why I got the locks changed so quickly.  How are things with Sam and dear Adele anyway?”

“Decidedly dodgy.  I think Adele’s daddy is one of the few people that have failed to be charmed by Sam.  That’s why I wanted you to get a piece in quickly.  Sam is bound to be champing at the bit to get down there and scoop all the best parts of the story.”

“Again, not a chance.  My landlord played a very important part in the arrest, our next-door neighbour rallied the local troops, and my best friend’s eldest daughter is one of the plucky teenagers.  Pluto and I played a bit of a role in it too.  You could tell Sam not to waste his time; the rumours about how he dumped me have been widely circulated in the Village, and if he wants information, he will have to pay for it, and no, we do not have a spare room for him.”

“Rachel my dear, I would say that you are well and truly back to your old self.  Now get on and write me a piece that I can get online asap.”

“Will do. And thank you.”

“You are a far more valuable commodity than you realise.”

“You say the sweetest things.  Bye!”

Pulling on the dark blue velvet dressing gown that Lou had persuaded her to buy, Rachel gathered up her laptop and set off for the kitchen.  Pluto was still asleep and so was Mark, so she shut both doors, and sipping some very welcome orange juice, set about turning the previous day’s events into something that would convey both the danger, and the loyalty of all concerned.  She had almost finished the first draft when a yawning Mark emerged with Pluto nudging at his heels.  Seeing her engrossed in typing, he put the kettle on for coffee, dropped a kiss on top of Rachel’s head, and took Pluto out into the garden.

As was her habit, Rachel ran the spellchecker through the piece and then edited it again.  This would usually be enough but she felt that this time, Mark’s opinion was particularly important.  She got up from the chair when he returned from the garden. “If I make some toast, will you have a quick read through this piece before I send it off – please?”

“Are you sure?”

“I don’t usually ask anyone to check my stuff now – that’s up to Tony, but I want to make sure that I haven’t said anything legally unwise.  I don’t want to jeopardise the smuggling investigation.”

“Thank you.”

Before sitting down at the laptop, Mark dashed into the hallway, and took something out of his coat pocket.  Curious as to what he has trying to hide, Rachel peered over his shoulder and noticed that he was wearing spectacles.  He caught her looking and stared down at the keyboard. “My guilty secret.  I only wear them for very close work. Even Lou doesn’t know about them.”

Rachel sat down on the other chair so that she could see him better. She nodded and smiled. “They suit you.  Studious, but rather cute?”

She smiled even more at the sight of Mark blushing. 

Touché.

She couldn’t resist kissing the top of his head in return.

Rachel made toast and coffee, giving Mark a glass of orange juice and putting some food down for Pluto.  It was another step away from the past when Sam had checked everything.  There had been too many occasions when he had rewritten a piece and sent it off to Tony before she had been able to look at the changes herself.

The sound of Mark chuckling made her smile, and realise that she’d made the right choice of reader.  He got up and hugged her; a friendly hug, tucking his spectacles back into his jacket. “I love it!  I don’t know that we could use it all in court but it certainly shows how a small village can get together and support each other in a crisis.  Were the tarps really that smelly?”

“Foul.  It took me and Lou ages to fumigate Jenny’s bedroom after her friends had left.  Coffee is ready, and I’ve done some toast.  I just need to send this off to Tony so he can get it into the online version.”

With a press of the button, it was gone.  Rachel barely had time to butter a slice of toast before the answering ping showed that the piece had been read by Tony and accepted. “There’s something else I need to tell you Mark.  Sam may be on his way down here to get a ‘scoop’.  I’ve told Tony that there is nowhere for him to stay and that he might have trouble getting the people in the village to talk to him, once they realise who he is. Perhaps we should get Mrs K to spread the word and tell everyone to make some money out of him?”

“Somebody taking my name in vain here?” said Mrs Kneller as she popped her head around the back door.  Rachel grinned. “My ex-boyfriend is probably going to turn up and start poking around for information.  He can pay for it, but make sure people don’t sell themselves short, nor say anything that they could get into trouble for.”

“Consider it done.  You two finish your breakfasts and make sure you put your clothes in the wash from yesterday.  I can still smell fish, and that bathroom was in a right state.”

Mark looked guilty. “Sorry. I had to bag up Pete’s clothes for evidence; that’s when I found the drugs, so I needed to get him down to the station as soon as possible.  He wasn’t happy about the handcuffs.  I’m afraid he was very ill and died without regaining consciousness even though we got him into hospital so quickly.”

“Poor Lou.  She and the girls are better off without him though.  Leaves the path clear for Dr H anyway, her being a widow woman is more respectable for a doctor’s wife than being a divorcee. I’ll come in a bit later anyway.”

And she was gone, still leaving Rachel and Mark a little dumbstruck.  They cleared away the breakfast things, ready to be washed up later, if Rachel could get them done before Mrs K returned.  The vagaries of the elderly plumbing system meant that having a shower at one end of the house and a bath at the far end, resulted in a lack of hot water in one room or the other. Mark waited for Rachel to yell that she had finished before he went to run his bath; smiling as he thought about how quickly the two of them had fitted into routines that complimented each other, the house, and Mrs Kneller.

Showered and having totally banished the aroma of old fish, Rachel rummaged in her wardrobe for something suitable to wear.  True to her word, Lou had managed to get the lilac dress invisibly mended, and although there were newer clothes, as well as those that dated back to Uni days, this was the dress she wanted to wear, and she wondered what Mark would think. Who was she kidding! She hoped that Mark would be pleased to see her in her favourite dress again.

He was.  The sight of Rachel coming up the corridor in the lilac dress brought back a host of memories and feelings. He smiled and bent down to check that the scratches on her legs had fully healed from the pyracanthas attack. “I haven’t had a chance to tell you before, but we were waiting in the trees behind the beach yesterday, and when I saw you, my first instinct was to call to you, to get you out of there. Then I realised that you’d spotted the girls, and that the best thing I could do was to trust you.  You looked so relaxed when you and Pluto sauntered back to the Quay, and then we saw Jeff just as casually trundling down in his truck.  The rest of the team were very impressed by the way you got the girls out safely.  The gang were intending to get hold of Maria and Jenny, and use them to get to Pete.  Whatever happens between us Rachel, I will never underestimate you again. I promise.”

Rather stunned by this speech, Rachel didn’t really know whether to blush, laugh or cry in response.  Saved again by the timely arrival of Mrs Kneller and the vacuum cleaner, she chose to smile instead. “Dirty clothes are in the wash Mrs K,” said Rachel. “I’ve stripped my bed too; I didn’t have a chance to shower last night and we were too busy cleaning up the girls at Lou’s first.  We’ve been invited down to Lou’s for Sunday lunch so we’ll get out from under your feet, if that’s okay?”

“That’s lovely.  I’ve put the word out about your nosey ex.  Are you taking Pluto with you?”

“Of course.  The girls would be very cross if we left him at home.”

“I don’t think he likes the vacuum much either.  Have a nice lunch and don’t go falling into any more bushes now!”

Stepping Back – More Bad News

The girls were in bed, Lou, Rachel and Pluto were all dozing off on the sofa when Mark finally arrived.  He looked tired and his skin had lost its usual healthy colour.  He sat down on the armchair and ruffled Pluto’s ears. Lou leaned over and gave him a hug. “You look knackered.”

“I am, and I’m sorry Lou but it doesn’t get better.  Pete’s gone.  He died without regaining consciousness from the internal injuries he got in the beating.  The only positive thing that has come out of this is that one of the ‘uncles’ has told all and incriminated the other three that we arrested.  Maria’s parents are in the clear; they were under duress and had little choice about putting up with the drug smugglers. Will you be okay Lou?”

“I did all my crying over Pete when he first left.  The man who turned up here yesterday wasn’t the man I married.  Go home Mark, and get some sleep.”

He looked over at Rachel, who was deliberately keeping quiet. “Do you want to stay here, or do you and Pluto want to come home?”

“Home please, if that’s alright with you.  We’ll cancel the London trip Lou. I think we could all do with a lazy day.”

“Good idea.  I doubt if you could last another night on that sofa, Rachel.  How about if we have a proper Sunday roast; about two o’clock?”

“Sounds wonderful,” said Mark.  “Come on Pluto. You can have a quick walk in the garden before we go to bed.”

The journey home was quiet; Rachel didn’t want to pump Mark for more details, there would be plenty of time for that tomorrow.  The most important thing was that everyone was safe; except for Pete, but at least he wouldn’t have to endure any more pain or the stress of a court case and probable imprisonment. Mrs Kneller had left the porch light on and a plate of sandwiches and biscuits on the kitchen table.  It was this thoughtful touch that proved to be the final straw.  Rachel tried to hold back the tears but all she really wanted to do was to feel Mark’s arms around her and know that he understood.  He understood.  The embrace might have led to something more, but Pluto expressed his desire to be included by jumping up and down around them, and barking excitedly.

With a guilty laugh, Mark broke away and took Pluto out into the garden.  Rachel took a very deep breath, blew her nose on a piece of kitchen roll, and found the sherry bottle and two small glasses.  Other people may rely on whisky in stressful moments but sherry always seemed to raise her spirits and then induce much-needed sleep. Pluto returned with Mark following behind him.  Rachel handed Mark a glass of sherry.

“Cheers.” said Rachel, raising her glass. “Much as I could do with a shower, and clean clothes, once this sherry is gone, I am off to bed, and no Pluto!  You can stay in the living room my boy, and have the sofa to yourself tonight.”

“Same for me.” said Mark.  “I’ll see you in the morning, Rachel and…I’m glad you and Pluto came back with me.”

It was another moment that could easily have progressed, but Rachel took the wise choice, gave Mark a swift hug and a peck on the cheek, then set off down the corridor to her room.  She had a feeling that if she had turned around, she would have gone running back down the corridor and into Mark’s arms, but it wasn’t the right time for either of them. Mark watched her go; glad that she was back under his roof but wishing that she hadn’t gone.  Settling Pluto in the living room he went back to his own bedroom relieved to find that Mrs Kneller had cleaned up the mess that Pete had left in the bathroom.