The maid relieved Dottie of her coat and veiled black hat and carried it away to the cloakroom. Everyone was gathering in the vast chilly space of the entrance hall. Another maid was doing the rounds of the mourners with a tray of sandwiches, and behind her, a young male servant was bringing sherry.
Heels clipped on the tiled floor, the solemn murmur of voices grew in volume, and the temperature in the hall rose as the number of bodies increased. Soon it began to feel more like a party than respite following the funeral. Except for the family.
‘George, I’m so sorry about your mother,’ Dottie said. ‘I think the funeral went off as well as anyone could have hoped.’ She swept her brother-in-law into a tight fierce hug.
The funeral had exhausted him, she could tell. His wife, Dottie’s sister Flora, hovered protectively, anxious to ensure that no one upset him. She was relieved to see it was Dottie who was talking to him. Free of that concern, for now at least, Flora turned away to attend to the infant twins in the care of their nanny. Diana was quiet and cherubic, but Freddie was squalling again, his cheeks crimson and shiny. Certainly he was teething, Dottie thought.
She led George a little further apart as a gaggle of ladies surrounded Flora, the nanny and the two babies.
‘Thanks,’ George said. ‘I’m just glad it’s over. It will be a relief for Father too.’ He half-turned to glance across the room to where his father was standing, ostensibly part of a group deep in sombre conversation, but in fact Piers Gascoigne was staring at the floor, lost in thought. The hand which held the glass of sherry had tilted and the sherry was in danger of spilling. Dottie noted that he was excessively pale, his lack of colour only exaggerated by the severity of his black overcoat and suit.
She shook her head sadly, and turning back to George, asked him, ‘Is anyone staying with him tonight?’
‘Yes, my mother’s younger sister, my Aunt Sarah has come to stay for a few days. Frankly I’m worried about how he will cope on his own once she’s gone home again.’ He gave a deep sigh. ‘We shall see, I suppose. I know I ought to have arranged to stay myself, but…’
‘Another sherry?’ Dottie asked.
He shook his head, wrinkling his nose. ‘Not really my drink.’
‘How about a whisky? I’m sure Overton could rustle you one up.’
He brightened. ‘Good idea.’
Dottie went in search of Overton and explained that Mr George needed picking up a bit. Overton, like all butlers good at their job, immediately procured what was required and Dottie rejoined George a minute later, handing him the glass. He disposed of its contents in one gulp.
‘That’s better.’ He set the glass aside. ‘Dottie, I’ve got something to give you. It’s from my mother. She asked me to give it to you, when she knew she wasn’t, you know…’
Dottie nodded. But she was puzzled. She and her parents had always got on all right with George’s parents, though they had only ever seen them once or twice a year. Certainly they had never been on gift-giving terms, except for a token present of a bottle of wine at Christmas.
George dug in his pocket and drew out a small envelope, slightly bulging. He gave it to her. ‘I’ve put a little note inside, it explains—at least, I hope it explains—things a bit better.’
Dottie took it from him. She was about to open it. He put his hand over hers. ‘Not here, Dottie. Can you wait until you get home?’
She nodded, definitely intrigued now. She put the envelope in her little black clutch bag. Her mind was still busy on what it might contain as George said, softly, ‘Heard from Gervase Parfitt?’
She shook her head. ‘No. That’s over. I told him in no uncertain terms what I thought of his lack of support when I was in Sussex. I told him I never want to see him again.’
‘Quite right too, the idiot deserves it.’
‘He was furious.’ She shrugged, replaying the horrid scene in her head. ‘But it’s too late now, it’s finished. I wouldn’t mind if he’d apologised, or even if he’d just lied to me and pretended he believed all along I was innocent, but that he couldn’t help me because of his professional position. If just once he’d said that he’d wanted to support me as my…well, I suppose we weren’t engaged anyway, so he never was my fiancé. For some reason he managed to make me feel as though I was the one in the wrong. Again.’ She gave George a crooked little smile. ‘I can’t spend my life with someone like that. I need someone I can trust, someone who will support me and believe in me. I know that sounds silly, but…’
‘Not at all. I think that’s the least one can ask of the person one plans to spend one’s life with.’ George looked across at the group centred about his wife and baby.
Babies, Dottie corrected herself. As far as the world was concerned, the two babies were twins, both of them the children of Flora and George, although the close family knew the truth: that baby Diana was in fact the illegitimate daughter of George’s sister Diana who had died upon giving birth to her child just eight months earlier. George and Flora had adopted baby Diana as their own, and Freddie had been born a little more than three weeks later. The loss of their daughter had driven a wedge between Piers Gascoigne and his wife, Cynthia who had passed away a week ago leaving Piers with more guilt than he knew how to handle.
George smiled, the careworn creases between his brows and his mouth smoothing away. ‘I’d be lost without Flora.’
Dottie kissed his cheek and went to join her parents, thinking, if only she could find a man who inspired the kind of love that George and Flora shared.
Two days later, Dottie knocked on the front door of a large townhouse in London. If she’d let herself think about it, she would have turned and hurried again, nervous of facing the man she’d come to see.
As she’d walked up the steps, she’d wondered if he was inside, behind the curtains, watching her. Did he know she was there at his door? Unlikely, she told herself. Why should he be looking out of the window at precisely that moment?
Then as she waited for the door to open, her thoughts conjured a host of anxious alternatives. What if he didn’t respond? What if, having seen who was coming to the door, he decided not to open it? Would he welcome her into his home? Or would he wish she hadn’t come?
Hard on those thoughts was the desire to run. It wasn’t yet too late, she told herself, still not too late to quickly run back down the steps, along the street and around the corner. He would never know she had been there… one ridiculous train of thought interrupted another… unless of course he had already seen her. Which he wouldn’t be likely to do… She hopped from one foot to the other.
Then suddenly it was too late to run: the door opened. He was there, wearing old boots, old paint-smudged trousers, his sleeves rolled back, the old shirt open-necked with no singlet underneath. Her eyes took in the smooth skin of his neck and the little patch of light-coloured hair on his chest. She forced herself to look at his face. His eyes were very blue, his fair hair rumpled, a streak of paint across his chin. The breath in her throat choked her. Such a beautiful man.
Clearly, he was just as taken aback to see her. She dithered in the doorway, he stepped back—wordless—to let her in. For several seconds she stood there before reminding her feet to move and go inside.
He shut the door, taking a long time to do so. He was composing himself, she knew. She stared at the breadth of his shoulders, his slim waist, his lean hips, and wondered yet again how she had ever thought Gervase anything like him.
William turned in the narrow hallway and said, with a half-smile, ‘So, you’ve obviously heard about your friend Mrs Carmichael leaving me this place in her will.’
‘Yes,’ she said, and ran out of words. He was staring at her still. Should she simply state her business then leave? Perhaps he really wanted her to go. Perhaps…
‘Come through to the kitchen. The sitting room’s a mess at the moment.’
‘Decorating?’ It was a safe, normal thing to ask.
‘Yes, I’ve almost finished downstairs. I’ve been here eight months already.’
‘The hall is much nicer now that horrid brown paper has gone.’
‘And the draughts! Now then…’ He pushed the door at the end of the hall open, then stepped back to allow her to go first. He bumped into her. She had expected to follow him through the doorway and was closer than usual, having already taken a step forward. The physical contact was a jolt in the limited space and caused them both to take a rather theatrically large step apart. With stammered apologies on both sides.
The kitchen was bright and warm, and very fresh-looking with the new paint, new lino, and the new stove. Everything was so neat and clean. A smallish table with four chairs had been set in the centre of the room. It was perfect, thought Dottie, and said so.
He set the kettle on the stove to boil. Dottie pulled off her scarf and coat, draping them over the back of the nearest chair, then she pulled off her gloves, one finger at a time, added them to the coat and scarf, and put her bright red hat on top of the heap like the cherry on the cake. She took the seat and waited.
He was fussing with the crockery, cutlery, tea, milk. He’s trying to decide what to say, what to do, she intuited for the second time. In the end, he just ran out of things to do and stood with his hands resting on the edge of the sink, staring out into the little back garden. Daffodils bobbed by the path.
‘William,’ she said. His head went up but he didn’t turn.
This time he had to respond. He turned, leaned back against the sink, arms folded across his chest. He looked on the defensive, she thought. A man backed into a corner. While she was still planning what to say, he spoke:
‘Why are you here, Dottie? I mean, I’m very glad to see you, but…why? Does Parfitt know? Would he approve of you calling on a single man in his home, quite unaccompanied?’
His mention of Gervase induced her to snap at him, ‘You can leave Gervase out of it. As far as anyone else is concerned, you are a trusted family friend.’ Irritation made her add, heedlessly, ‘Goodness knows why.’
There was a prolonged, somewhat frosty silence. William didn’t move from the sink, and eventually it was left to Dottie to rescue the boiling kettle, pouring a little hot water into the pot and leaving it to warm, and placing the kettle back on the stove. She felt exasperated by the situation, by herself, and him too, of course. Clearly the recent renewal of their friendliness in Sussex had died an immediate death.
‘I’m here because I have something to give you.’
She bent to open her bag and took out the tiny package from George’s mother. She held it out to him, not wanting to cross the room to him. He didn’t move. She shook her head. If possible, she felt even more exasperated. They were behaving like schoolchildren. Especially him. She put the package on the table, and only when she turned to see to the teapot did he come away from the sink and pick up the package. She emptied the water out of the teapot, spooned in tealeaves then poured in the fresh boiling water and replaced the lid.
She watched him, part policeman, part angry ex-lover, as he first looked then finally began to unwrap the parcel. His fingers trembled a little. That hurt her. That they had done this to one another. That she—that she had done this to them, to him. And after all the help he had given her in Sussex just a few weeks earlier. And where had Gervase been then, just when she had needed him most? Sitting safely behind his desk polishing his reputation, that’s where, she reminded herself furiously.
As the paper opened in his hands, she said softly, ‘George gave it to me after his mother’s funeral. Just before she died, she told him she wanted me to have it. She wanted it to be reunited with the rest of the mantle. I—I thought you might be able to see to that.’
Finally the thing, soft, faded and warm, fell out of its trappings and into William’s palm. He stared. As realisation hit, he looked up at Dottie, but dipped his head again almost immediately.
‘The final piece…’ His voice was barely above a whisper.
‘The Gascoignes had it all this time.’
‘Yes,’ she said again.
He drew a long, shaky breath. ‘An old Norman family, I suppose that’s not much of a surprise.’ He looked down at the tiny piece of ancient fabric. ‘Even on its own, it’s still…’
‘I was about to say, sacred. I know that sounds rather melodramatic, but…’ He turned it over in his hands, his touch gentle. Dottie came closer to get a better look.
‘The colour is still so rich here and here.’ She pointed with a neatly manicured fingernail, taking care not to touch the ancient fabric. ‘There’s even a tiny hole there, look, where someone put in a stitch. Perhaps in the wrong place, and it was removed? Perhaps an apprentice, still learning the broderer’s craft? We’ll never know for sure.’
He turned the fabric to catch the light, then saw the tiny hole and nodded. He fixed his eyes on her, intense, yet veiled. She felt as though he saw all her thoughts but kept his own well-hidden. Softly he said, ‘Thank you.’
She bit her lip. She could not cry. How her emotions dipped and soared these days, untrustworthy, flighty. She couldn’t seem to keep them in check. If he touched her now, if he spoke even one syllable of kindness…
He stepped back, turning to grab the paper from the table, and placed the fabric in it once more, then having wrapped it and slipped it back inside the envelope, he put it in a drawer in the dresser.
‘I’ll make sure it’s delivered to the museum. The rest of the mantle is still with the restorer, but they expect to have it finished by Easter.’
‘Wonderful.’ She took a breath and on it, she took a step towards him. This could not go on. She had to fix this. Now or never.
There was a sound behind her in the hall. The front door had just banged shut. Dottie sent him a questioning look.
William looked towards the door, clearly knowing who had just arrived. His expression was impossible to read. Dottie felt troubled. She heard a clattering of a woman’s heels. His sister? But surely Eleanor was still in Matlock? A woman’s voice, coming nearer, called, ‘Bill, sweetie, it’s only me!’
It was the woman from the car several weeks earlier. Dottie and her mother had seen him get into the car with her, had seen her lean over and kiss him. The woman halted in the doorway. A blonde. Big blue eyes, lots of glittery eyeshadow and deep red lipstick. Petite but curvy. Very curvy. She glanced from William to Dottie and back again, her perfect eyebrows raised in dainty enquiry.
William crossed the room to her side and kissed her full on the lips before helping her out of her fur coat. ‘I’ve just made a pot of tea,’ he said.
His look was guarded, secret, as he looked back at Dottie and said, ‘May I present Miss Moira Hansom, my f-fiancée.’