By the time Rachel arrived at Lou’s house the walk had given her a healthy glow in her cheeks and her freshly washed hair had lost some of its initial fluffiness. Jenny opened the front door and looked her up and down before nodding in approval. “Very nice Auntie Rachel, you look far more girly than usual. It wouldn’t have anything to do with our other dinner guest, would it?”
“Leave her alone Jen, you look lovely Rachel. Makes a change from your usual jeans and baggy jumper look. I appreciate your efforts even if my horrible daughter doesn’t.”
Lou took Rachel’s arm and squeezed it, steering her into the front room, which also looked as if it had been given a bit of a makeover. Pictures of Mark; with Lou, with the girls, and with a stunningly beautiful red head who Rachel took to be Mark’s ex-wife Sorrel. She found herself hoping fervently that it wasn’t Damaris.
Lou picked up the picture. “I’ll put this one away, he won’t thank me for leaving it up. He doesn’t talk about Sorrel at all.”
“I thought it might have been – what was her name? Damaris?”
“Good Lord No!” Lou laughed and tucked the picture behind some books. “Damaris is a blonde, a brassy-streaked bottle blonde, with a mahogany spray tan, and extremely enhanced curves. In another age they would have said she was pneumatic and compared her to Monroe. I think she looks like a tart, but I’m biased. She and her horrible mother did their best to drive me out of business by spreading nasty rumours about my baking, and making racist comments about me and the girls. They were trying to divert customers to a friend of the family who had set up an ‘artisan bakery’ in the next village. We rode out the storm thanks to a number of lovely regulars who continued coming, and persuaded others to come back, but it was touch and go for a while.”
“And the artisan bakery?”
“Went bust ages ago. It helps if you know what your customers want, and around here they don’t go a bundle on rock-hard seeded loaves and sour grape chutney.”
Rachel looked incredulous. “And Mark still goes out with Damaris despite all this?”
“He doesn’t know why I don’t like her. I didn’t tell him about it.”
“Why not? He could have gone in there and threatened them or something!”
“When you get to know him better, you’ll realise that he is not that type of detective; not that type of person. Mark is one of the most honourable people I know, and I do my best not to get him involved in my battles just in case he’s pushed too far and loses his temper – and his job.”
“He didn’t lose it with Pete then?”
“He desperately wanted to; as my new-found brother, and uncle to the children that had been abandoned, he wanted to rip Pete limb from limb and it took a lot of persuading to stop him flying out to Portugal and doing the dirty deed. I managed to convince Mark that the girls and I couldn’t cope without him, not to mention Sorrel’s protestations; she was clingy to say the least. Anyway I’ve a few things to finish off in the kitchen before dinner, come and tell me about your day.”
Rachel followed Lou into the large and well-equipped kitchen. Most of the baking for the tea shop took place here, and the kitchen had been remodelled for that purpose. Perching on a stool whilst Lou put the finishing touches to the sauce, that would accompany the fresh sea bass she had acquired from Jeff at the Gun’s brother; Rachel ran through her day. When she reached the part about the Spanish-sounding men, Lou frowned and stopped stirring the sauce.
“They are probably Portuguese; we have quite a few families living outside the village in some old cottages that belong to one of the boatyard owners. It’s become quite a settlement; some of the children are at school with our girls. Most of the residents are fine, but they have a few relatives who come over on yachts and bring contraband. Don’t tell Mark I told you, but this is the job he’s been involved in for the past year or so. We know they are bringing drugs in but it’s really hard for the police to catch them. Mark might be interested in what you saw and heard though so if you can bring it up in conversation …….”
“Sure. I also paid a visit to a boutique that I believe is owned by Damaris.”
“Ooh! Dee’s Designs! Hideous place, hideous designs and hideously high prices. You didn’t actually buy anything did you?”
Rachel grinned. “I bought a nice green silk scarf that I cannot wear down here because your brother is of the opinion that all lady writers are middle-aged and wear long, flowing scarves. I acquired some disgusting silver and turquoise earrings for our receptionist at work – she will absolutely adore them – and a lovely little water colour of the Square and your tea shop.”
Rachel picked up the picnic basket, pulled out the picture and handed it to Lou who let out a squeal of delight. “Oh! Wow! I know who painted this. She’s one of my regulars. Miss Sharp. It looks as if it were painted a few years ago though, two of the shops in the Square have changed hands since then. I expect Damaris only brought it because ‘Dee’s Designs’ is in it.”
“It’s for you.”
“No! Really? Oh Rachel, thank you. I love it and I’ll put it in pride of place in the tea shop. Miss Sharp will be so pleased. You couldn’t have brought me anything nicer.”
“Good. Watch your sauce!”
Lou squealed again and stirred gently until the sauce was smooth and velvet. From the yells and laughter coming from the lounge, it sounded as if Mark had arrived and was busy teasing his nieces. Putting the sauce to one side, Lou gave Rachel a meaningful look and motioned for her to follow.
Mark was on the sofa; Sally was snuggled up to him, Jenny was perched on the arm of the sofa, and the usually reticent Sarah was curled up on his other side. He was wearing an old pair of jeans that fitted him very well, a battered but clean navy sweatshirt and the disreputable deck shoes. He grinned as they walked into the room and Rachel, feeling self-conscious anyway, blushed as she found herself under his perceptive scrutiny. He had the good manners not to make any comments about her appearance, but she was sure that she saw just the tiniest wink, which made her blush even more. Jenny opened her mouth to make another tactless teenage comment but was grabbed by Lou, who hustled her into the kitchen after motioning the others to their seats at the table.
Sally and Sarah grabbed the seats next to Mark, leaving Rachel to sit opposite with Jenny, and Lou at the head of the table. Lou’s pep talk to Jenny had limited success however, in that she sulked, rather than made any more intemperate comments. There was good-natured sibling banter between Mark and Lou that enabled Rachel to sit back and watch rather than try to join in. The occasional sly glance confirmed that Mark was indeed very attractive, with bright blue eyes that were totally different to Sam’s.
Stop it, Rachel! Stop comparing. There were times when Rachel felt that the only way to overcome the visions of Sam was to be quite stern with herself. There was no one else to do it, although she was sure that if she asked, Lou would oblige. This was something that Rachel knew she had to sort out for herself however.
The fish was beautifully cooked, and although Mark raised an eyebrow when Lou lied about it coming from Tesco, he ate with gusto and demolished two bowlfuls of apple and blackberry crumble before volunteering himself and Rachel to do the washing up. It was Rachel’s turn to raise her eyebrows when Lou graciously accepted the offer and threw herself down on the sofa grinning.
Rachel followed Mark into the kitchen; he looked at her quizzically then picked up a tea towel. “I’ll dry if that’s okay, I know where everything goes, and you might find it less hazardous if you wash, given your habit of smashing things.”
She opened her mouth to argue but decided it would be a waste of time. Her washing up technique was thorough however; she decided that she didn’t want to give Mark the opportunity to hand back any smeared glasses or grubby forks. They worked in a companionable silence, eventually interrupted by Lou putting on the kettle and shooting interrogative glances in Rachel’s direction.
Mark took Sally and Sarah off for a bedtime story. Jenny sloped off to her room, her hair straighteners, her laptop and mobile phone, leaving Lou and Rachel to finish their coffee at the kitchen table.
“He definitely likes you. I can tell these things. He keeps looking at you and smiling.”
“Leave it Lou. I have no desire to be involved with any man at the moment – or ever.” Rachel said defiantly.
“Not even if Sam turned up and begged you to marry him – on bended knee?”
Rachel blushed. “He wouldn’t. I mean no. I mean that I wouldn’t take him back under any circumstances. At least I don’t think I would. Oh, I don’t know Lou. I wish I could just slam the door on what we had, but it’s so hard when there was so much. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if he turned up here. Part of me never wants to see him again, and yet there are times when I ache for him.”
Lou put her arm around Rachel’s shoulders. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Mark in the door way, and signalled to him to go into the other room for a while. Rachel cried quietly, a tissue clutched to her nose as Lou held her tight and made the same soothing noises that brought back memories of past disastrous dates and humiliations. Coming up for air and deciding that this was not the time for all-out sobbing, Rachel blew her nose, squared her shoulders and gave a weak grin. “Thank you, I’m okay. Do I look dreadful?”
“No, but go up to my bedroom and put on some more lippy and a dab of powder, I’ll persuade Mark to make some coffee. He’s probably fallen asleep by now.”
Lou went back into the lounge and nudged Mark awake. “Well?”
He squinted at her through half-open eyes. “You were rather economic with the information about your friend Rachel.”
“I didn’t tell any lies.”
“No, but you didn’t tell me that along with being clumsy and stubborn, Rachel was also rather lovely. I don’t mean glossy magazine stuff either. She is very easy on the eye. but doesn’t seem know it. I like that.”
“I thought it better to let you two make your own minds up about whether you could share the house together.”
“Well, so far, so good. She’s definitely stubborn though.”
“It’s another of the things we found that we had in common; probably what drew us together at Uni. That and the fact that Rachel hasn’t a racist bone in her body, and stuck up for me when the others in our residence were making nasty comments. She threatened to punch one of the boys. He backed off so she didn’t actually have to do it but she was fully prepared to. I held her specs. I for one, am very glad to have her back and I hope she stays for as long as she needs to.”
“No rush as far as I’m concerned. Mrs K seems to have taken a shine to her too.”
By the time Rachel came back to the lounge, Mark was pouring coffee and watching the news. Lou was curled up in the armchair leaving Rachel a choice between an upright chair or the place on the sofa next to Mark. Grimacing at Lou she took the latter, making sure that she sat as far away as possible.
At the end of the news Mark yawned, stretched and got to his feet. “Shall we go then Rachel? A nice bracing walk up the lane to wake us up? I’ll be up at the crack of sparrows again tomorrow.”
Lou saw them both out to the door, hugging Mark and then Rachel, and standing in the doorway to watch them as they walked up the lane. Rachel did her best not to shiver, but the thin cotton dress and cardigan were not much protection against the cold night air. Mark offered her his arm and she took it, warmed by his very solid and comforting presence. She talked lightly about her day at the beach, remembering to throw the incident with the Portuguese sailors into the conversation in a fairly inconsequential way. Mark’s interest was sparked, and he began to fire questions at her that made her feel as if she was in a police interview room.
They had just come round the bend in the lane when they heard the sound of a roaring engine and were temporarily blinded by full on headlights. A bright red sports car came into sight, and Rachel realised that it was heading straight for them. Mark blocked Rachel with his own body, and pushed her into the hedge, narrowly avoiding being hit by the car himself as it screeched to a halt some yards further down the road.
“For God’s sake Damaris!” he yelled, hauling Rachel out of the hedge, “You nearly killed us.”
A blonde vision in a tight red dress unfolded herself from the driver’s seat and sashayed over, wiggling in a pair of killer Louboutin heels, and draping herself over Mark’s shoulder. “Don’t be so dramatic darling, I just thought I’d give Mrs Kneller a shock. Oh, gosh. You aren’t Mrs Kneller, are you? So sorry! Not wearing my contacts tonight.”
“Then you shouldn’t be driving. Have you been drinking as well?” said Mark as he shrugged her off and turned to Rachel who was surveying the wreckage that the hedge had made of her dress, legs and face. She couldn’t be sure but she had a feeling that she was bleeding in more than one place, and the skirt of her dress was definitely ripped. Mark turned back to Damaris; he did not look like an adoring fiancé. “Go home Damaris, and for God’s sake, drive slowly. I need to get Rachel back and see to these cuts.”
“Oh, darling Mark, I thought you might invite me in for a nightcap.” She drooped and pouted but to little effect.
“Push off Damaris, before I call the police. And drive slowly!”
Sulkily, she tottered back to her car and after revving the engine, smirked at Rachel and roared off into the night.
Mark took Rachel’s arm and steered her up the road to the cottage. She was in too much pain to argue and allowed herself to be led down the driveway and into the kitchen. In the bright light she looked down at her legs, and was shocked to see how much damage the hedge had done to them. Without saying a word Mark lifted her up very carefully, and sat her on the kitchen table, before turning around and getting out a First Aid box from one of the drawers. He took a clean tea towel and ran it under the tap before gently wiping the blood from her legs. He still looked absolutely furious and Rachel, shocked and in pain, started to shake. “I’m sorry Mark.”
“Hey, it’s okay Rachel. It’s bloody Damaris I’m angry with, not you. Your legs are a bit scratched; they look worse because of the blood, but there’s not so much damage now I’ve cleaned you up. Your dress is pretty torn up though. Shame, you look really nice in it. I think you need a drink. Whisky, brandy or sherry?”
“Umm, sherry please. Does she always drive like that, your – fiancée?”
“Yes, she does. And whatever she says we are not engaged; we are not even an item. I have taken her out a couple of times on some very boring dates, and went to a dinner dance that her mother was hosting. That does not constitute an engagement in my book.”
He handed her a generous glass of sherry and poured himself one as well. “Cheers.”
Rachel sipped at the sherry and began to feel a little less shaky as the warmth filtered down through her body. She took another sip and looked down at her legs, then at the rip in her dress which was showing off rather more of her thigh than she would have liked. She tried to pull the material together to cover her modesty; Mark put down his glass quickly and grabbed her hand. “Hang on a sec, there’s quite a deep cut on your leg there, I didn’t see it before.”
He grabbed up the tea towel and rinsed it through again, before dabbing it very gently on the cut at the top of her thigh. He was right; it was deep, deep enough for stitches. “I ought to take you along to A&E.”
“No!” Rachel wailed.
“Are you sure? I don’t relish the thought of going; we could be in there for hours. Let me have a look at what’s in my emergency kit in the car. Back in a minute.”
Rachel drank the last of her sherry and tried not to look at her leg. Mark ran back in clutching a small packet. “Steri-strips!” he cried triumphantly. “Do you want to do this or do you want me to?”
“You please, I’m not good with blood – or sick – or anything like that really.”
“Okay. Drink some more sherry. Oh, you already have. I’ll top you up then.”
He poured her some more sherry and she tried to concentrate on the glass, and not on the soft black curls barely an inch from her nose as Mark concentrated on sticking the cut together. He surveyed his handiwork with some pride then put a clean dressing on top of it and pulled her dress back down. “Good girl. I think it’ll be okay now. How are you feeling?”
“A bit wobbly. I’m not sure if it’s the drink or all this blood, or – or.”
Mark handed her his handkerchief, then sat down on the table next to her and put his arm around her shoulder in a brotherly fashion. “I’m sorry Mark, blubbing twice in one night, I feel such an idiot.”
“Sssh. Come on, I’ll help you to your room. Will you be okay with getting undressed?”
“Of course, I will!” Rachel felt quite outraged, until she noticed that Mark was grinning at her.
He picked her up from the table and carried her down the hall to her bedroom; pushing open the door with his foot. She leaned her head against his shoulder and closed her eyes, trying not to enjoy the warmth of his skin against hers too much. He placed her very gently on the bed and sat down beside her. “Are you sure you’ll be okay now? I’ll get you some water. Don’t want you falling over in the middle of the night again.”
Rachel sat in the middle of the double bed, slightly drunk, slightly shocked and having more than slightly enjoyed being carried to her bedroom by Mark. He brought a fresh glass of water back with him and put it on her bedside table. Frowning, he removed a stray twig from her hair and planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Call me if you need anything, please? I’m really sorry about Damaris. This has made my mind up about her though. The end of a very imperfect relationship. Goodnight Rachel, and sweet dreams.”
She watched him close the door, very slowly moved off the bed and got changed into her nightshirt. She managed to stagger next door to clean her teeth but it was a relief to finally get into bed, find a position that wasn’t too uncomfortable, and drift into sleep with a rather sweet fantasy of Mark’s strong arms picking her up and carrying her off to bed.