It was Dottie Manderson’s 21st birthday. The house was all hustle and bustle, but Dottie stayed in her room. Her parents couldn’t seem to understand that the celebration held little joy for Dottie; her memory turned back a year, to the dinner party that was to welcome her 20th birthday. The evening had ended with Dottie staring down the barrel of a gun, and their guests stripped of their jewels, threatened then made to lie on the floor whilst the perpetrators had made their getaway, killing a young constable as they did so. The sound of that fatal shot would never leave Dottie.
It was useless to tell herself again and again that the terrible incident would not be repeated. The last fourteen or fifteen months had filled her life with death and mayhem, and she was feeling the weight of it all, so much sorrow pressing down on her as she became an adult in the eyes of the law. Try as she might, she couldn’t feel excited about a new dress or a party at a grand hotel. A quiet dinner with her family would have been far preferable, but the arrangements had already been made. But Dottie just felt like hiding away.
Impossible to explain to her mother how she felt. Mother just frowned and said, ‘Nonsense,’ in her usual determined manner. Dottie knew it wasn’t nonsense but knew too that her mother was just trying to brace her, to push her into the big wide world armoured and ready for whatever life had to throw at her.
The new dress had been laid out ready across the counterpane of her bed and Sally had taken Dottie’s favourite evening shoes to sponge a scuff-mark off the toe. That had bought her a few minutes. Not long enough. But better than nothing.
It wasn’t as if William Hardy would be there to hold her hand. The man she loved had been in Derbyshire for most of the four weeks since Dottie had returned. He was no doubt crossing Ts and dotting Is and generally attending to the mess of red tape that resulted from his attempt to have the assistant chief constable of Derbyshire charged with a long list of crimes, most notably perverting the course of justice and corruption. The ACC, Gervase Parfitt, had been a former beau of Dottie’s. William had enlisted her help in building the case against Parfitt. Dottie had been there in the room just four weeks earlier when, faced with overwhelming evidence, Parfitt had killed himself.
More sounds she would never forget, Dottie thought. She leaned on the bedpost, seeing again his odd, gloating smile as he straightened his shirt cuffs. Then he had thrown himself through the window. Dottie clamped her lips together, trying to shut out the smashing of the glass, the awful crunching sound of his body hitting the ground, the car horns, the shrieks of passers-by.
She sank down on the floor and began to sob.
She was still there five minutes later when Sally returned with the sandals.
‘Oh my Lord! Miss!’ Sally flung herself to Dottie’s side and wrapped her in a tight fierce hug, rocking her gently as the sobs overwhelmed her.
Her mother found them like that a few minutes later. She halted for a second in the doorway, feeling a panicked lurch in the pit of her stomach before she too ran forward to pull Dottie into her arms. To Sally she said, ‘Tell Mr Manderson that we must cancel the party. Tell him Miss Manderson is unwell.’
But Dottie finally protested, wrenching herself free and scrubbing furiously at her cheeks with her sleeve.
‘No Mother, it’s far too late to cancel. Everyone will be on their way to the Royal Albert by now. Just give me some time to pull myself together. I have no idea where all that silliness came from. I’ll be downstairs shortly, I promise. I’ll quite all right. No really, Mother, I mean it.’
Mrs Manderson and Sally hesitated, not sure. But Dottie gave herself a mental shake and got to her feet. ‘I mean it,’ she repeated. ‘I’ll be perfectly all right in a minute or two.’
‘If you’re sure,’ her mother murmured. She looked at Dottie again. Her daughter seemed in earnest so Mrs Manderson nodded to Sally. ‘We’ll give her a few minutes, then you can come back and help her finish getting ready.’
‘Of course, ma’am.’ Sally bobbed and left.
‘You must go away for a rest,’ Mrs Manderson said to Dottie.
‘No Mother, I can’t. I won’t. Besides, I’ve been away for a rest. And every time I go away something terrible happens. I want to stay here and never go out again.’ She attempted a wonky smile at the silliness of that last comment. It was true that at this moment she felt like she never again wanted to leave the house, but no one could live that way, could they?
But her mother was already shaking her head. ‘It’s clear you’ve been far more deeply affected by all this business with Gervase Parfitt than I realised. I’ll fix something up.’ She was at the door by this time, and pulling it closed behind her, said softly, ‘I’ll see you downstairs in a few minutes.’
Alone again once more, and feeling alarmed by her sudden emotional outburst, Dottie couldn’t help dwelling on her mother’s words. She thought she knew of a way out of this dilemma that might suit them both.
She heard footsteps approaching and hurriedly reached for a little pot of make-up, blobbing come on her chin with a shaking forefinger. Sally immediately snatched it off her, saying,
‘Not like that, Miss. Here, let me help you.’
Ten minutes later, they were getting into the car and heading off to the hotel. When they arrived, and the car halted outside the big double front doors, Dottie forced a smile onto her face and took a deep breath before going inside to receive everyone’s good wishes. A crowd of smiling faces swarmed about her, calling good wishes, kissing and hugging her.
The party had begun.