When Lou suggested that she come and stay in her brother’s cottage, Rachel was initially dubious, but by Thursday night Rachel was beginning to wonder if she would ever meet her elusive host. He was away on some kind of a mysterious operation and the only evidence of his existence so far had been an old oilskin and some disreputable deck shoes under the stairs. Any personal belongings were tucked away somewhere. According to Lou, her brother Mark was a police detective but very few people in the village were aware of this; it was assumed by most people that he had some kind of dodgy business in London that kept him away for days on end.
The cottage was cleaned and the daily shopping done by his next-door neighbour, Mrs Kneller, a pleasant soul who sang 50’s tunes from her youth, as she polished and vacuumed. Never having stayed in a house with a housekeeper, Rachel felt a little confused about what her own household duties might be but after the first day or two and a word with Lou, she came to the conclusion that if Mrs Kneller wanted something done – or not done – she would definitely say. That included doing Rachel’s washing and ironing; a situation that Rachel hadn’t been in since the days of boarding school and having all her clothes sent to the laundry. So far, Mrs Kneller proved far more efficient and caring than the school laundry had ever been.
Rachel loved the solitude of the shoreline in early spring, and found the old cottage with its beams and strange angles more suited to her mood than the clinical modernity of her London flat. The cottage was long and low, with her bedroom at one end, and the room presumably occupied by her host at the other. The galley kitchen and a large lounge and dining room were in the middle of the building with a set of stairs going up into the sail loft. Two small beds had been squeezed in there as well as dozens of canvas bags containing strange shapes redolent with the scent of the sea. Rachel had a choice of bathrooms; an all mod-cons shower room next door to her bedroom, or a more traditional bathroom on the other side of the kitchen. Patio doors from the lounge led out to a terraced garden full of herbs, the cooing of wood pigeons, and the tinkle of flapping halyards from the nearby boatyards.
Rachel had dined with Lou and her three daughters each evening so far, and was given an immaculately prepared packed lunch so she could stay out on the beach all day, her trusty Dictaphone to hand for moments of rare inspiration. Lou was very proud of her big brother and the girls spoke about their uncle as if he were a legend. The more she heard about him, the more curious Rachel became about the man. She couldn’t remember Lou talking about Mark when they were at Uni together, or ever having met him before. Sally, the youngest of the three girls and also the most garrulous about her Uncle Mark, was holding forth about how he was involved in some mysterious undercover work that meant no one had seen him for days. Rachel put aside the uncharitable thought that he might just as well be involved in illicit smuggling as far as she knew, and finished off her glass of wine. Her offer of help with the washing up politely but firmly refused yet again by Lou, Rachel picked up her bag and said her goodbyes. Sally and her eldest sister Jenny offered to walk her back to the cottage as it was such a clear night.
The walk along the coast road to the cottage was short but exhilarating, with a wind blowing in from the sea that swept away the last vestiges of mellowness engendered by a good company and an excellent meal. The cottage was in darkness, and only Rachel’s car graced the gravel drive. Sally and Jenny insisted on unlocking the door for her and checking to make sure everything inside was okay. Whether this was a thinly veiled opportunity to snoop around their uncle’s home, or a security measure that he had instilled into them, Rachel wasn’t sure but the silence when their chattering voices had eventually left, became more eerie than it had seemed on the previous nights. She decided that a good book and early bed was the antidote and after performing her usual night time ablutions, ten o’clock found her settled in the large double bed with her hair neatly plaited, and wearing a comfortable old flannel night shirt.
She woke with a start as her book tumbled to the floor; her bedside light was still on and the hands on the travelling alarm clock on the cabinet read three am. The room was very warm, despite the half-open window, and picking up her glass, Rachel decided to get some fresh water from the bathroom. It was the first time she’d done this at night in the four days she’d been staying at the cottage. She felt along the wall for a light switch but having found it, decided she could manage in the darkness.
She turned on the cold tap and let the water run for a while, and then downed two glassfuls in quick succession, pressing the cool of the empty tumbler against her forehead before filling it again. Once in the corridor she felt strangely disoriented and leaned against the wall for support, unable for a moment to see the way back to her room. She found the light switch and turned it on; hoping that a few seconds of light would enable her to get her bearings again. The light came on, and then went off again with a resounding pop as the bulb blew.
Rachel cried out and dropped the glass in her panic, it shattered on the floor spraying her feet and legs with cold water and shards of glass. She froze, afraid to move in case she cut herself.
She jumped at the sound of the unexpected and very authoritative voice.
“Stay very still please. I’ll be back in just a moment with a torch. I don’t want you to cut yourself on the glass.”
Rachel sighed, relaxing slightly at the realisation that this must be her host at last. The shock was replaced by embarrassment as she drew a mental picture of herself; worn out navy nightshirt and hair in school girl plaits on either side of her face. Her spectacles were on the bedside table so she could only see about a foot in front of her clearly. This was definitely not the way one should meet a man, let alone the person that she was sharing a house with.
The darkness was cleaved by a powerful torch beam shining at her feet. His feet, also in the spotlight, were bare. His calves were athletic and not too hairy, and at least he was wearing boxer shorts, although she had a feeling that he had little else on. He continued shining the torch on the floor, and Rachel shivered as he crouched down and began picking the tiny pieces of glass from her feet and putting them carefully in a pile to one side. The beam of light moved as he shone it on the little airing cupboard door. Opening it, he took out a couple of towels, one of which he placed in front of her feet and the other he used to gently wipe the water from her legs.
“Please? I can do that if I can get back to my room. I’m very short-sighted though, and I can’t see much without my specs. They’re just on the bedside table.”
“That’s okay. Please take my hand and step onto the towel. I don’t want you treading on any of the glass.” His voice was very deep and slow, more relaxed now that he had dealt with her minor crisis. “I’m Mark by the way. I’m assuming that you’re Rachel and you’re not a burglar?”
“Yes, sorry. What a way to be introduced, smashing glasses and blowing up bulbs in the middle of the night. I really am very sorry. I have a tendency to clumsiness.”
“Obviously that’s something else you and Lou have in common. Has she let you wash up yet?
“She usually gets one of the girls to stack the dishwasher. I’ve never met such a woman for breaking things.”
“I’m not that bad! I was just startled by the bulb blowing. I’m sorry about the mess.”
She let Mark lead her across the towel and back to her room, where he sat her on the bed and used the torch light to check her legs and feet for any glass or cuts. Smoothing her nightshirt down over her thighs, she put on her spectacles and glanced down at him, noting that his dark curly hair was abundant with no sign of thinning or bald patches. Like Lou, he had inherited skin the colour of smooth caramel, and on closer inspection she could see now that he really did have an impressive torso. The boxer shorts were loose enough to be comfortable but tight enough to cause an increase in blood pressure in the most laid-back of women. Which she certainly was not.
Mark stood up. “You’ll do. I’ll go and clear the mess up. Would you like another glass of water?”
“Please Mark? I made the mess. I’ll clear it up. I can see now. If you’ll just tell me where the dustpan and brush is?”
He grinned. “No offence Rachel, but it’s very late and it’ll be much quicker if I do it. I need to get a new bulb for the hallway anyway. Just sit tight and I’ll be back in a moment.”
Rachel stayed where she was, rapidly coming to the conclusion that people didn’t often argue with Mark. She heard him return to his room, then to the kitchen. He was back very quickly and placing another glass of water on her bedside table before she’d even had time to get back into bed. He’d put on a washed-out black tee-shirt and those very old deck shoes she’d seen in the hallway. She blushed as he caught her looking at him, and was aware that he was carrying out an inspection of his own. “I thought you’d be older. When Lou said I’d be having a lady writer for a lodger, I had visions of some grey-haired old dear in flowing scarves.”
“Sorry to destroy the illusion.” Rachel muttered, blushing again and lowering her eyes as she pleated the duvet cover nervously between her fingers.
“Not at all. If I’d known you were so definitely not an old dear, I’d have made myself known sooner.” He extended his hand. “How do you do Rachel? I hope you’re enjoying your stay here and you find the accommodation acceptable?”
Rachel took his hand and shook it. She began to rally her defences a little. “Hi Mark, I must admit I was beginning to wonder if you existed at all. When Lou suggested I stay in her big brother’s cottage, I had my own visions of some portly old chap gently easing himself toward retirement.”
“Seems we were both a bit wrong then? I’m only six years older than Lou – and well away from retirement. Are you sure you don’t have any of those scarves?”
“Haven’t you already checked out my wardrobe and luggage? I’ve been out every day since I came down.”
Mark had the grace to blush slightly, and laughed. “Touché. I ought to get that glass cleared up. I have another early start tomorrow.” He moved toward the door and Rachel felt disappointed that he was leaving. “Can I help? I could hold the torch while you change the bulb, and I’m sure I can sweep up a bit of broken glass.”
Mark grinned again and gestured with his head. “Come on then. Lou said you were a bit stubborn.”
“Oh, did she! What else did she say?”
“That you were an old and trusted friend who needed a holiday. She didn’t elaborate but I got the impression that you’ve had a bad time recently.”
“A bit. Being down here helps but I’m not looking forward to going back much.”
“There’s no rush as far as I’m concerned, be my guest as long as you like.”
He turned and went out into the corridor. Rachel slid off the bed and shoved her feet into flip flops before joining him. He handed her the torch and reached up to take out the old bulb. As he stood on his toes to remove it, she couldn’t help but admire his physique and the ease with which he moved. Once the light was on, he took the torch from her and replaced it with the dustpan. “I’ll sweep if you collect the bits. Is that okay?”
She nodded, aware that the bright light was maybe not the most flattering to her, and ducked her head as she crouched down and held the dustpan flat against the floor. He was very quick and efficient, checking all around him in case there were any stray pieces of glass left.
“I should wear your flip flops when you come out in the morning. I’ll be home in the afternoon and do the vacuuming then.”
She protested. “I’ll do it. Really! I don’t mind.”
He reached out and tugged one of her plaits. “You’re on holiday and you’re my guest. I have to fight Mrs K for the right to do my own vacuuming as it is. Tell Lou to set the table for one extra for dinner. I’ll see you later.”
He took the dustpan from her and disappeared back along the corridor and into his room, closing the door quietly behind him.
Rachel slowly stood up and went back to her own room, leaning against the closed door. She did not need this. She did not need to be alone in a house with an exceptionally attractive single man who had just smiled very sweetly at her. She sat down heavily on the bed and picked up her bag, extracting from it the letter that had sent her far away from her ordered London lifestyle and down to this sleepy South coast village.
Sam wrote an excellent letter, she had to give him that. In all the time they’d been together he’d only written to her twice; once to tell her how smitten he was with her, and this second time, to tell her that he was leaving. That he had found another woman who made his heart beat faster.
“It’s not you, its me.”
That old cliché.