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Under The Mistletoe: Mistletoe Mansion / The Mince Pie Mix-Up / Baby It's Cold Outside Kerry Barrett Samantha Tonge Jennifer Joyce Three sparkling Christmas stories in one, perfect for an evening keeping warm in front of the fireMistletoe MansionThe festive season wasn’t looking too bright for Kimmy Jones, newly single – and homeless – she needed some luck this Christmas! Then, as winter closes in, she lands a gorgeous temporary home and her dream of starting a cupcake company begins to come true. It seems like Kimmy might just get everything she wished for this Christmas – all except for oh-so-handsome handyman Luke…The Mince Pie Mix-Up’Tis the season to be jolly, yet for Calvin and Judy the usual festive bickering has already begun! But after a magical mince pie mix-up, one thing’s for certain – by Christmas Day, life will never be the same again! Perhaps the grass isn’t always greener after all…Baby It’s Cold OutsideSnow is in the air, but all Esme and Jamie can think about is their romantic wedding…that is until an avalanche seals off their mountain hometown from the outside world. Esme will need all the Christmas magic she can get to pull off her dream wedding, but will they make it to the church on time? Under the Mistletoe Mistletoe Mansion Samantha Tonge The Mince Pie Mix-Up Jennifer Joyce Baby It’s Cold Outside Kerry Barrett Copyright (#ulink_60f16046-59b0-5780-b452-f15c7088f25d) HQ An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd. 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF First published in Great Britain by HQ in 2015 Copyright © Samantha Tonge/Jennifer Joyce/Kerry Barrett 2015 Samantha Tonge/Jennifer Joyce/Kerry Barrett asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. E-book Edition © June 2015 ISBN: 9781474048484 Version date: 2018-07-23 Table of Contents Cover (#u97dc7522-86fb-5df8-af0b-9ae33ceb63bf) Title Page (#u560166e2-53d8-5a45-b776-978bcb444a21) Copyright (#u3f9f121b-173e-5c76-ab99-605afc0b5b26) Mistletoe Mansion (#ulink_e529c057-5f01-5333-8603-f364fff3a4bc) Blurb (#ue254f23c-3ce9-574d-beb2-eb424ab34ba8) Author Bio (#u9f63f1e1-5b2a-5d00-824e-5d2b49d27db8) Acknowledgements (#ulink_8fc16531-c4ee-5802-bc92-f51d6de19398) Dedication (#u25f36f51-1d13-55f4-aa9a-d82bc82b81b0) Chapter 1 (#ulink_04fa24f4-c10f-5782-926e-df25a5a41003) Chapter 2 (#ulink_43c4d35d-b03e-57d4-ab78-be608f6d1b47) Chapter 3 (#ulink_d26b0c17-5e7c-569a-a5b5-c8327fcb925a) Chapter 4 (#ulink_8fb26c4d-d67b-5f74-8881-43e2a8607828) Chapter 5 (#ulink_e5ce4e5c-dbc4-5532-a8cf-e6c78df1a465) Chapter 6 (#ulink_8d4ae613-e496-5dc0-af08-44f0cded2f10) Chapter 7 (#ulink_85bddafa-abb9-5f20-9041-f5b3305fce23) Chapter 8 (#ulink_2207da22-1f4f-577b-ae80-430e7fd18c4f) Chapter 9 (#ulink_eb5e2e37-54fa-5ade-8059-eebd1416e4ae) Chapter 10 (#ulink_3854c24d-eee6-50d7-a804-2620f6170045) Chapter 11 (#ulink_2715748f-b547-52bd-a6c2-4d7639858721) Chapter 12 (#ulink_c9d32d68-8da5-5712-b44f-7ec7b9e60788) Chapter 13 (#ulink_6c8719bd-1d76-501e-9650-05ce46759a9a) Chapter 14 (#ulink_a666d165-e084-5de6-8773-a4ca7bf36079) Chapter 15 (#ulink_36e27a0b-9caa-5f27-a5c1-092a6f46d614) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 19 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 20 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 21 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 22 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 23 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 24 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 25 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 26 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 27 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 28 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 29 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 30 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 31 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 32 (#litres_trial_promo) The Mince Pie Mix-Up (#litres_trial_promo) Blurb (#litres_trial_promo) Author Bio (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) Dedication (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One: Mince Pies at Dawn (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Two: Frostie the Snowman Forgot (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Three: Two Parents A-Rowing and a Partridge in a Pear Tree (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Four: We Made a Wish (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Five: The First Stage in Wish-Fulfilment: Denial (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six: The Second and Third Stages in Wish-Fulfilment: Fear and Anger (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven: The Fourth Stage in Wish-Fulfilment: Acceptance (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight: The Gloves Are Off (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine: It Isn’t (Christmas) Fair (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten: Monday’s To-Do List: Tattoos, Waxing and Make-up (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven: The Fifth Stage in Wish-Fulfilment: Acknowledgement (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve: Monday Night Blues (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen: There’s a Rumour Doing the Rounds (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fourteen: PTA (Pain in the Arse) (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Fifteen: Man Trouble (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Sixteen: The Shepherd and the Grinch (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seventeen: A Bad Day (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eighteen: The Presentation (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nineteen: Father and Son (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty: Good News/Bad News (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-One: The Christmas Fair (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Two: Not Quite Driving Home for Christmas (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Three: Step into Christmas (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twenty-Four: All I Want for Christmas Is Me (#litres_trial_promo) Epilogue: A New Year (#litres_trial_promo) Baby It’s Cold Outside (#litres_trial_promo) Blurb (#litres_trial_promo) Praise for KERRY BARRETT (#litres_trial_promo) Author Bio (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgement (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 1 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 2 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 3 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 4 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 5 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 19 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 20 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 21 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 22 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 23 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 24 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 25 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 26 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 27 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 28 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 29 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 30 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 31 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 32 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 33 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 34 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 35 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 36 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 37 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 38 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 39 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 40 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 41 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 42 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 43 (#litres_trial_promo) Endpages (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Mistletoe Mansion (#ulink_ca70c1f9-b075-5887-a6af-2b0959c3da0e) Samantha Tonge Kimmy Jones has three loves: cupcakes, gossip magazines and dreaming of getting fit just by owning celeb workouts. When Kimmy’s Sensible Boyfriend told her he didn’t approve of her longing for the high life or her dream of starting a cupcake company Kimmy thought she could compromise – after all, she did return those five-inch Paris Hilton heels! But asking her to trade in cake-making for a job sorting potatoes is a step too far. So, newly single - and newly homeless – Kimmy needs a dusting of Christmas luck. And, masquerading as a professional house sitter, her new temporary home is the stunning Mistletoe Mansion. Soon she’s best buds with glamorous next door golf WAG Melissa, and orders are pouring in for her fabulous Merry Berry cupcakes! The only thorn in her side is handsome handyman Luke, a distraction she definitely doesn’t need. And talking of distractions, something very odd is going on at night… Kimmy is finally living the life she’s always wanted. But will her glimpse into the glittering lifestyle of the rich and famous be as glamorous as she’s always imagined…? SAMANTHA TONGE lives in Cheshire with her lovely family and two cats who think they are dogs. Along with writing, her days are spent cycling, willing cakes to rise and avoiding housework. A love of fiction developed as a child, when she was known for reading Enid Blyton books in the bath. A desire to write bubbled away in the background whilst she pursued other careers, including a fun stint working at Disneyland Paris. Formally trained as a linguist, Samantha now likes nothing more than holing herself up in the spare room, in front of the keyboard. Writing romantic comedy novels is her passion. http://samanthatonge.co.uk/ (http://samanthatonge.co.uk/) http://doubtingabbey.blogspot.co.uk/ (http://doubtingabbey.blogspot.co.uk/) http://pinkinkladies.wordpress.com/ (http://pinkinkladies.wordpress.com/) Acknowledgements (#ulink_eb9eadf9-0ba9-5748-a3b1-9e0cefe76cd6) Massive thanks to my great editor Lucy Gilmour and the wonderful HQ Digital UK team for their excellent input, dedication and super covers. Plus thanks to my agent, Kate Nash, for her continual support. Fellow Carina authors, you are the best and keep me sane. And Pink Ink blog gals, I couldn’t manage without our hilarious chats. I’m constantly bowled over by the support from chicklit bloggers and reviewers – your effort and time is much appreciated, with a special mention to Robyn Koshel from Elder Park Book Reviews and Tay from Chicks That Read. Plus thank you to those readers who’ve let me know how much my books have made you laugh – because that’s why I’m in this writing business, to raise a smile (and have an excuse to go on Facebook and eat chocolate all day long ). Thanks to Jo Hoddes, founder of the fabulously, affordable online clothes shop Bae Boutique, (http://bae.boutique/ (http://bae.boutique/)), for her support in launching Mistletoe Mansion, a story which features the glamorous lifestyle her customers no doubt aspire to. Martin, Immy and Jay, I so appreciate your regular injections of perspective and confidence. You three guys make every day seem like Christmas. For Martin, Spencer and Dad – ha’way the golfing lads! Chapter 1 (#ulink_9fc37634-76a7-5f94-bbec-22acee21ac0d) ‘Move your legs further apart. Tilt forward from the waist. Rock your hips in a rhythmic motion… Nice, gently does it. Now keep that stroke light. We don’t want a premature start. Remember what I said about balls…’ ‘Keep your eye on them,’ I whispered back to the silky voice coming from the television. My jogging trousers slipped beneath my stomach as I swung my golf club (okay, broom handle). Having just chipped out of three virtual bunkers, I was practising my putting before re-doing the energetic teeing-off section. ‘You still not finished, Kimmy?’ asked Adam, as he came out of the bedroom, in T-shirt and boxers. I smiled. Would the day ever come when I got tired of admiring his rock solid quads (thigh muscles to you and me)? They were like the physical representation of his personality – solid, secure, strong… ‘I thought you were meeting Jess for coffee.’ ‘Almost done,’ I said. It had been no mean feat to follow my new exercise DVD without taking a chunk of plaster out of the ceiling or knocking a bauble off our bargain-priced Christmas tree. Indoor golf wasn’t the best hobby if you lived in a one-bedroom flat where you couldn’t swing a cat, let alone a four foot broom. He rolled his eyes without their usual twinkle. In fact, he’d been low in the sparkle department for several days, now. ‘What?’ I stopped, secretly grateful for the break. Golf may be awesome for toning bingo wings but my back ached as if I’d played eighteen holes up Ben Nevis. ‘You already had that DVD by the bird off Strictly Come Dancing,’ said Adam. ‘Why buy this one? You should go to the gym, like me. It’d save you a bundle of money in the long run.’ I gazed back at the screen. Just as well he’d forgotten the DVD I’d bought by the winners of Britain’s Got Talent. Then there was the Hotpants Workout and the Bootcamp Bum-buster. Starchat magazine had recommended Melissa Winsford’s; said it would give me “the celebrity body of my dreams”. I sighed. Her voice was all velvety and smooth, as if she lived on nothing but marshmallows and hot chocolate. With her firm boobs and flat tum, she was one of the most glamorous “Wags” (Wives and girlfriends for those who don’t know). Oops, better make that “birdies”. Apparently Melissa hated it when “classy” golf was associated with “thuggish” football terms. ‘Give me a few minutes and I’ll make pancakes,’ I said hoping this might raise, if nothing else, a nod of appreciation. Our usual Saturday morning ritual was a late-morning cuddle to my Hits for Lovers CD, followed by pancakes and syrup. Except today I was meeting my best mate, to indulge in festive flavoured lattes at our favourite coffee shop. And in any case, Adam hadn’t been interested when I’d rolled over close for a quick snuggle-up. In fact he’d been moody all week and I don’t mean in a sexy Marlon Brando way. ‘You okay?’ I sat down beside him, on the sofa, stomach pinching a little at the empty expression on his face. ‘You’ve had a hard week. Let me give you a massage.’ At that moment the doorbell rang. I looked at the clock. Of course! Postie! I dashed to the kitchen worktop and grabbed a Tupperware box. It contained six rich brown cupcakes topped with dark butter icing and swirls of red and green cake glitter. ‘Morning, Matt.’ I grinned at his lopsided cycling hat and passed him the box. ‘Hope everything works out,’ I whispered. ‘Thanks, Kimmy,’ he said and in return handed me a brown envelope and some junk mail. He prised open the plastic box’s lid. ‘They look ace. Cool Christmas colours, as well. How much do I owe you?’ ‘Think of them as an anniversary gift.’ ‘What was that all about?’ asked Adam, in a flat voice, as I closed the door. ‘How come you’re so friendly with the postman?’ ‘I’m on first name terms with a lot of people, since losing my job and working random temporary hours – including Dave, the window cleaner, and Sanjay who reads the gas meter.’ I sat down again. ‘Postie and his wife have been having problems. He almost moved out last month. Tonight he’s cooking a special meal. I offered to provide a dessert that would give them a bit of, um, oomph.’ ‘Huh?’ ‘Sweet basil – it’s an aphrodisiac. I disguised its taste with fresh mint which doubles as the perfect breath freshener. After a couple of those cupcakes, she’ll think he’s got the moves of Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing.’ Was Adam even listening? He stared at the brown envelope and didn’t even reach out for the junk mail, to flick through for money-off coupons. ‘Hungry?’ I put the envelope to one side. I had to meet Jess in one hour. ‘Aren’t you going to open it, Kimmy?’ he said, in tight tones. ‘What?’ ‘That envelope. It could be important.’ He was right. Perhaps it was a bill and unlike Mum, I didn’t stash my mail, unopened, into the nearest drawer. I flicked off the telly before leaning back against the beige throw. I ran my acrylic nail along the seal and tugged out a document. Maybe I’d won that competition I’d entered last month for a Hollywood makeover. I sighed. No such luck. It was an application form. ‘Why didn’t you just bring this home with you?’ I left it on the sofa, stood up and walked a few steps over to the open-plan kitchen. ‘Work has procedures. Plus there’s been a freeze on recruitment. I just left your name with the personnel woman last week and crossed my fingers. I can’t believe your luck.’ A sparkle actually returned to his eyes. ‘You want me to work full time at CountryHouse Potatoes? But I thought we’d agreed – I’d temp until the right job came along. Can you really see me sorting spuds?’ ‘Why not?’ he asked and raised both eyebrows. Good question. CountryHouse Potatoes was a great employer. The pay wasn’t bad, and from what Adam said, the staff canteen food was yummy. If the position was temporary, I’d have already been at the post box. ‘I’m, um, used to working with pretty silver sugar balls and candied roses.’ I smiled. ‘Your average potato is uglier than my bunion.’ ‘Ha, ha. Come on, Kimmy. It’s in catering. Put your mind to it and you could be supervisor in half the time I took. All this time you’ve spent at Best Buns bakery, with no chance of moving forward… If you forgot this mad cake-making idea of yours, you could be earning real money, getting promoted…’ His voice sounded even more animated than when he watched football. ‘But I’m going down to the job centre again on Monday.’ I opened one of the rickety cupboards and took out a pan. It was not a mad idea. Even the psychic I’d visited at the local Easter Fair said I was “born to bake”. He picked up the form. ‘You can’t go on like this forever, babe. I want to be with someone who’s willing to look further ahead than next week’s edition of Starchat.’ ‘I don’t complain about your sport magazines.’ Dismissively he waved his hand. ‘They don’t encourage me to waste money on dye kits and fake tans.’ ‘I thought you liked my blonde hair?’ I bent down, opened the fridge door and took out some eggs. ‘Wasn’t your hair light brown when we first met?’ I stood up and turned around. ‘Women call that “mouse”. ’ ‘For all I cared it could have been black, green, streaked with pink or shaved off. It’s you I like, Kimmy – your contagious laugh and your… sense of right and wrong.’ I grinned. ‘Like when I refused to do any housework until you agreed to go halves on a vacuum cleaner that worked?’ He gave a wry smile. ‘No. I was thinking of the time you handed in that fifty pound note you found on the supermarket floor.’ He shrugged. ‘I don’t need to be with some glamorous, hotshot business woman. Marriage, kids, decent house and maybe a Chelsea football club season ticket – that’ll be enough for me.’ I put down the eggs. ‘You feel pretty sure you’ll have kids one day, right?’ ‘So?’ ‘I bet you’ve even pictured them and thought of names. That’s no different to me, except that I’ve imagined my successful cake company, my clients, the shiny van I’ll use as I drive to their homes. I even know what kind of pedigree dog I’ll buy with the profits – he’s called Chico and wears a leopard print coat and matching booties.’ I’d grown up with status dogs, Mum’s boyfriends strutting around with Rottweilers or Staffies. They’d never let me dress them up or strategically place a few ribbons. ‘And it’s not just about the money,’ I continued. ‘Baking’s my life. I even dream about recipes at night, Peanut.’ Peanut was my pet name for him, because of his one big vice: an addiction to Snickers, the nutty chocolate bars. ‘But since your redundancy, you’ve made no concrete plans to get this supposed business off the ground.’ His cheeks flushed. ‘In fact, you’ve just given away a box of cakes. You should have charged the postman.’ ‘I’ve catered for kiddies’ parties,’ I said and my chest tightened. ‘And it’s paying off. I met Megan at her niece’s do. Everyone thought the cakes I made for her wedding were awesome. At last I’m moving on to more upmarket work. The bakery taught me all I know.’ I was rambling now. ‘The next step is to work somewhere I can make the right contacts.’ ‘That’s a plan?’ he said. ‘So, exactly what kind of job are we talking about?’ ‘Um…childminder to the kids of someone famous; receptionist in a top hairdressing salon…’ I could just see me now, delivering cakes to some top football club. The Wags would become my best friends. The men would insist Chico become their mascot… I started beating the eggs, not wanting to catch Adam’s eye. My plan sounded feeble, I knew that, but networking was my only chance. And let’s face it – no one at CountryHouse Potatoes could introduce me to a chart topping singer or Olympic champion. ‘The most famous person living in Luton is either dad to fifteen kids by fifteen mums or on trial for murder,’ muttered Adam. ‘That’s a bit harsh. I thought you liked living here.’ ‘I do, but it pays to be realistic. Wise up, Kimmy – baking cakes is no way to escape the nine ‘til five. Round here, people have to work their butts off to earn an honest living. What makes you think you’re any different?’ ‘I don’t, it’s just…You saw Megan’s cupcake tower – the spirals of pink buttercream icing; the ribboned gift boxes. I was up until three in the morning finishing that display.’ I lifted my chin. ‘And what about the selection of mini Christmas-themed cakes I made for that charity coffee morning, at the community centre, last week? Everyone went wild for the cute Stollen slices, cinnamon cupcakes and chocolate logs… ’ A lump rose in my throat. ‘Don’t you think I’ve got what it takes? You know I work hard. Don’t you believe I’ve got the talent?’ ‘That Megan was a one-off, babe – she got married to her boss and they moved away to London. No one else around here can afford a wedding cake that per mouthful costs more than they earn per hour. As for the charity bash, you sold those cakes at a discount price for the good cause. Your profit hardly covered your costs. Times are hard; we don’t live in some crappy reality show with a quick-fix prize. However much you want it, building a successful business can take years – you ask my Uncle Ron.’ ‘There’s nothing wrong with setting your sights high.’ I bit my lip. ‘So long as it’s not so high that your head’s stuck in the clouds.’ Adam stood up. ‘I’m sick of feeling as if my life’s on hold. We can’t plan a decent future just on my wages. The factory offers regular money, benefits and prospects. You could always do your cake thing when we’ve retired and got a house with a bigger kitchen.’ ‘Retired? I’ve only just turned twenty-one and you’re only a year older! I mean… isn’t that rather a long time off?’ At times he reminded me of Mr Potts, my Year Eleven form teacher, who advised us to choose the most boring career we could think of because it would probably pay the most. ‘I… didn’t expect things to turn out like this either, you know,’ he said and gave a small sigh. ‘I always imagined I’d earn enough to buy a place on my own, get a new car every year and afford a two week holiday in Spain…’ Adam plonked himself down on the sofa again and ran a hand through his short sandy hair, down to the back of his head. Suddenly I longed to do the same to him. ‘You do great,’ I said, softly. ‘Not all your mates have even left their parents’ homes yet.’ He shrugged. “I thought you moving in last year meant that you were ready to settle down. People like us don’t get to drive sports cars or live in houses with their own tennis courts.’ ‘Leona Lewis does all right.’ I picked up the hand-whisk and mock-mimed a ballad. ‘So, now you’re going to audition for the X Factor?’ ‘We’ve got years ahead of us together,’ I said. ‘What’s the rush to cement our relationship, literally, by tying ourselves down to a mortgage?’ I glanced at the oven clock. ‘I’ve got to hurry or I’ll be late for Jess.’ Adam’s mouth went into a thin line. ‘Look…’ he said, eventually. ‘Why don’t we cool things for a bit? I’ve been thinking for a while that, well… It’s for the best, babe… in the long run… Maybe you should move out.’ A ball of coldness hit the inside of my chest. No. Adam had to be joking. He couldn’t mean it. We’d had a great time, ever since I moved in last summer. “Kimberley Jones has shacked up with her boyfriend” was my best ever Facebook status. Hoping I didn’t smell too sporty, I walked over and sat on his lap. ‘How about I find a regular bar job, to combine with the temp agency stuff? That would bring in extra money, until my baking takes off?’ I slipped my arms around his broad neck and gazed right into his eyes. ‘We both know you couldn’t manage without me. Who else would pair up your socks or keep you supplied with clean trackie bottoms?’ His hands slipped around my waist and I leant in for a snog. However, Adam prised me off, like some rockstar rejecting a crazed fan. He reached over to the small coffee table and picked up the local paper, flicking through to the Home Search section. Then he passed it to me. ‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ I stuttered, feeling ever so slightly sick. ‘And on a practical level, how can I afford a place of my own, just like that, let alone find one a couple of weeks before Christmas? Mum won’t welcome me back.’ Especially as boyfriend number… I’d lost count… had just moved in. Like all the rest, he sported barbed wire tattoos and thought he was the next Eric Clapton. ‘You might find a flat share,’ said Adam and folded his arms. ‘Makes you realise, doesn’t it, how important it is to have a reliable income?’ ‘I’ve more than pulled my weight!’ A wave of red-hot indignation replaced the coldness in my chest. ‘Days stuffing envelopes paid for our petrol and food last month. In fact, if we ever get in at the same time, it’s always me who cooks dinner and does the housework whilst you work out at the gym.’ Adam raised his arms into the air. ‘But it’s me who’s responsible for trying to save up for our future.’ ‘Well maybe I needed a break from responsibility after virtually bringing up my younger brother.’ My voice trembled. ‘Ever had to sit your mum down and take her through the weekly budget? No. So, don’t talk to me about being level-headed and practical.’ ‘I’d like to know what happened to that organised, sensible girl I fell in love with.’ Eyes tingling, I stumbled into the bedroom and hauled my pink case off the top of the wardrobe. Sensible? Hadn’t I recently taken back the five inch high shoes I’d only bought because I saw them on Paris Hilton? I sat down on the bed and stared at my glittery nails. It didn’t make me a bad person, did it? Wanting a better life? Holidays where trees smelt of vanilla? Cars with engines that didn’t take ten minutes to start? I wanted arctic white teeth; I wanted rainforest-exotic handbags. I wanted to spend my nine ‘til five doing something that I loved. Wasn’t it good to have aspirations? Work hard for a top lifestyle? That was what I’d always dreamed of, growing up, wearing neighbours’ cast-offs. I didn’t even get a brand new first bra. Mum said I wouldn’t be in it that long and the money she’d save would buy a mountain of fags. ‘You should have let me get down that case,’ said Adam, suddenly appearing at the bedroom door. ‘I didn’t mean for you to leave right away.’ I swallowed. Was he having second thoughts? ‘At least ring around a few friends first.’ My heart sank. ‘Is there… someone else?’ I said and sniffed. ‘No.’ I believed him. Adam didn’t do excuses. Not even if he forgot my birthday or – God help him – finished off the last tube of Pringles. ‘Then give me one more chance,’ I whispered. ‘What’s it going to take to change your mind?’ Adam hesitated for a moment before kneeling down in front of me, by the bed. He took both my hands and gently rubbed my palms with his thumbs. ‘Fill in that form, babe. Then we can both look forwards.’ His eyes crinkled at the corners. ‘I still love you,’ he murmured and kissed me softly on the lips. ‘I just can’t face starting the New Year without having more concrete plans for our future.’ That’s what bowled me over, about Adam – my gentle giant combined strength with such tenderness. The thought of life without him was unthinkable. We went together like a cupcake and cappuccino. I’d never forget feeling sick with excitement when we first started dating. Hunky Adam, with his clean-shaven cheeky smile and steadfast eyes, had asked me out. I’d never find another guy who found my “voluptuous tum” (code for “pot belly”) a turn on – or who, more importantly, made me feel as if the big wide world could do me no harm. Even though we’d been together for almost three years, I still treasured the things he’d bought me which showed that he really cared – not jewellery or flowers, but the emergency holdall for my car with a warning triangle and blanket inside. No one had ever looked out for me like that. When he’d bought me a personal alarm, I’d practically swooned at his feet. But all this… planning for our retirement already… ‘We could window-shop for houses,’ he continued, stood up and grabbed his towel. ‘Suss out what sort of property would suit us. Google mortgage deals…Look into saving plans. It’s never too early to start cutting back. We could eat value range food and buy clothes from charity shops.’ Humming, he beamed and left the bedroom. Mortgage deals? And had he ever tried value cornflakes? They were like cardboard confetti. I headed into the lounge, picked up a biro from the coffee table and, still unable to take it all in, sat back on the sofa for a while. Eventually I leant forward and held my head in my hands. Adam was what my Auntie Sharon would have called “a catch” –kind, hard-working and loyal. But why the rush to throw down roots and, in the process, throw away our freedom? I looked up and chewed on the end of the pen, before reaching for the application form. My eyes felt wet. Every atom of me hurt. Why did he have to give me an ultimatum? With a shaking hand, I texted Jess and asked her to meet me, instead, by the bench outside Adam’s flat. Then I picked up the form and slowly began writing: SURNAME: Dream FORENAME: Ivor CURRENT POSITION: Aspiring Entrepreneur SEX: 100% safe, please, until career well underway ASSETS: Curves. Cupcakes. Ambition. HOW DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN 5 YEARS: Glossy-haired, Dior-dressed catering magnate WHY DO YOU WANT THIS JOB: I, um, don’t. MARITAL STATUS: Single, then? ADDRESS: “No Fixed Abode”, I guess. Chapter 2 (#ulink_7189dd4c-0ae9-5c03-a5f0-a07826212f9a) The bus stop? Little privacy. The back of my old hatchback? No room to stretch out. The doorway of the Spoon & Sausage? I sat on my pink case, outside Adam’s flat. Where on earth would I sleep tonight? How dare Adam throw me out? What a jerk. See if I cared…Yet I squeezed my eyes shut, to trap any tears, and my throat felt tight and sore –as if I’d got the tonsil infection from hell. Perhaps I could crash in some shop’s outdoor Santa’s Grotto. I’d packed as quickly as I could, just finding time to brush my teeth and hair. Plus I’d squashed in some baking utensils and my novelty pig oven gloves. Adam was probably still in the shower, singing “One potato, two potato, three potato, four…” A nearby flowering weed caught my eye. It stood upright between two paving stones. I leant forward, tugged it out and one by one yanked off its petals – he loves me… he loves me not… If I were famous, I imagined the sad shot the paparazzi might take of me now, the drooping wild flower stuffed through my gold metallic parka jacket’s buttonhole. It would go with the headline: “Kimmy Shown Red Card by Love Rat Adam”, except my Adam was more of a love-bunny (he’d hate me calling him that). Shivering from the bitter December air – or was it from shock? – I nevertheless put on my fake designer sunglasses, due to the odd bit of sun. Although when the clouds parted, Luton still looked as grey as an old pair of Y-fronts. The Greta Garbo “I-want-to-be-left-alone look” suited the occasion, don’t you think, after my dramatic morning? A man in uniform walked past, spiking litter. From behind I got a whiff of something pungent – Adam’s aftershave, smelt a bit like some cleaning product. ‘There was no need to leave without saying goodbye,’ he said to my back. ‘You haven’t even eaten.’ ‘You ordered me out.’ I turned around, determined to look more cross than upset. His hair was all wet. Like a white flag, he held up the cheap ready-decorated Christmas tree I’d bought – Adam had insisted stuff like advent calendars and fairy lights were a waste of money, so I’d had to compromise. ‘You forgot this.’ He gazed down at me with those metallic grey eyes. ‘This is silly. At least come back for lunch.’ ‘Now I’m silly as well as irresponsible?’ Annoyed at the tremble in my voice, I stood up and dragged my case along the street, towards the pedestrian crossing on the left. However, secretly I wished he’d scoop me up and carry me back to the flat, saying that it was all just a big mistake. ‘Wait up!’ he called and I slowed slightly, willing him not to drop my ace little tree. The baubles looked basic and the branches were threadbare, but it was the ninth of December, for goodness’ sake, and right now my world needed a dollop of Christmas magic. ‘For God’s sake,’ he said and easily caught me up. ‘It’s not that I don’t understand.’ Chin trembling, I reached for my tree and gripped it by the metal base. We were in front of Clarkson’s Estate Agents. He steered me to the nearby blue painted bench, where I’d arranged to meet Jess. ‘I get it,’ he continued. ‘We all have dreams. Me, I’d kill to live like… like a top racing driver.’ I sat down, shoved my case under the bench and fiddled with a lacklustre piece of tinsel. ‘Sometimes,’ he continued and took a seat next to me, ‘when I’m travelling back from my night shift and the motorway’s empty, I hit the accelerator… But kidding myself that I’ll ever race cars for a living won’t pay the rent.’ ‘Remember that Formula One leather jacket you bought when we first started going out?’ I stared across the road to the White Horse pub. ‘It cost a whole week’s wages.’ ‘Now I know better.” He leant back to avoid a kid on a skateboard whizzing past, followed by a gaggle of giggling teenagers, cheap handbags swinging, not a care in the world. A group of women in burkas walked behind them and a souped-up car, bass volume on full, zoomed along. ‘There’s nothing I want more than you and me together,’ he said, huskily, ‘even though you stick your cold feet on me in bed and leave trails of flour around the flat like some MasterChef slug. But you’ve got to realise that dreams are just that. During the day, it’s about making the best of what you’ve got. This job at the factory won’t come along again – they’ve held back on recruitment for months. When that application form dropped through the letterbox this morning my heart leapt, babe. It’s the best Christmas present I could ever have, the thought that, at last, you and me would be moving our lives forward.’ ‘But next week I’m baking cupcakes for my mate Nikki’s hen night. I even blagged some cut-price sugar from the corner shop that’s closing down. If I spend all day, every day with you, sorting spuds, I’ll never have the energy for cooking after work. You’re always knackered after a day at that place. And what if my business did, by some small miracle, take off and I left the factory? It wouldn’t look good for you. No. It’s best that we keep “us” and work separate.’ ‘Sounds like more excuses.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘Don’t let me keep you,’ I muttered. ‘I said I’d drop round to Mum and Dad’s this afternoon; things to do before that.’ ‘What will you tell them?’ My voice wavered. ‘About us?’ ‘The truth, of course.’ He looked sideways at me. ‘You know Mum. She’ll blame me.’ I half-smiled. Barbara was great. Adam always joked that if he and I ever split up, she’d take my side and ask him what he’d done wrong. ‘She’ll have to take back her wedding outfit,’ he mumbled. ‘That’ll teach her to buy it before we even got engaged.’ Hardly believing his words, I nodded. Telling his parents about our split meant it was final. So this was really happening? How could my lovelife have crumbled around me within the space of one hour? I took his hand, which felt icy cold. ‘Just give me six months. Please. I can sense things are about to go my way.’ ‘You’ve already been temping for weeks, Kimmy.’ He pulled away his fingers and blew on them with warm breath. He stood up and rubbed his hands together. ‘I won’t hold on for another half year.’ His voice broke. ‘Sorry, babe. It’s over.’ With that, he walked away. I pulled the limp flower from my button hole and watched it tumble to the ground. In need of a ballad, I reached into my jeans’ back pocket. Great. I’d forgotten my iPod. ‘Adam! Hold on! Keep an eye on my luggage. I’ve left something in the flat.’ Without giving him much chance to answer, I rushed past, head down, as he sloped back to the bench. I didn’t want him to see my runny nose or tears trickling out from under my glasses. My phone rang and, slowing to a trot, I reached into my front jeans’ pocket. A repentant love message from Adam? No. He didn’t text that fast. It was from Jess. She was on her way over and said it was just as well we weren’t meeting at her place. Hoping she was okay, I put the phone back in my pocket. Mrs Patel from the grocer’s smiled at me as I turned towards the flats. If I were famous, Elton John would lend me his French villa, or I’d flee to my Barbados hideout, or (how cool did this sound) I’d go into rehab. I entered the red-brick building and climbed the two flights of stairs to number fourteen. New graffiti had gone up on the whitewashed walls overnight, featuring lewd cartoons of Father Christmas. It still brightened up the place, though, and drew attention away from the missing chunks of plaster. I unlocked our front door and went in. Stupid, I know, but I expected it to already look different. It didn’t. On the left was the kitchenette, with its scratched worktop, on top of which was a Tupperware box of cranberry and orange festive cupcakes I’d made only last night, after baking Postie’s batch. They were next to the tiny electric cooker and sink where a tap dripped constantly. I’d been meaning to change the washer. Mum had always relied on me to do that sort of thing. Over the years I’d picked up a lot from her boyfriends – like how to change a fuse and put up shelves. One even taught me how to pick locks, another how to hotwire cars. I headed into bedroom and ran a finger along the furniture as I went. Adam had made a real effort when I’d first moved in; skipped the pub for weeks, eventually spending his beer money on a beech effect flatpack wardrobe and a small cabinet for my side of the bed. We’d also made a special trip to St Albans’ market for that beige throw to cover the balding sofa. I lifted my pillow, picked up my iPod and slipped it into the back of my jeans. A photo on the windowsill caught my attention. It was me and Adam kissing behind two plates of curry. We’d celebrated every single one of our anniversaries at the same Indian restaurant. ‘Yoo hoo!’ warbled a shaky voice. It was Mrs Burton. I took off my sunglasses and slipped them into my parka pocket. Then I left the bedroom, forcing my mouth to upturn. Her lined face peeked around the front door. ‘You shouldn’t leave this open, dearie,’ she said. ‘I was just going out,’ I said and grabbed the Tupperware box of cupcakes. We moved into the corridor. I closed and locked the door. Mrs Burton leant on her stick. Whatever the weather, she always wore her long woollen cardigan and secondhand Ugg boots. ‘Everything all right, Kimberley? I happened to see you outside with your luggage.’ Happened to? With her antique opera glasses and log-book, Mrs Burton took Neighbourhood Watch to the next level. She’d note when the number eighty-seven bus wasn’t on time and knew which paperboys were late because they’d spent the night necking cider on the street corner. She held up her hand, translucent skin mapped with veins. ‘No need to explain. You and your young man have tread troubled waters for a while now.’ ‘How…?’ She patted my hand. ‘Not as much laughter as there used to be. Just silence. My Bill and me used to argue a lot. Now that’s the sign of a healthy marriage. Better out than in, me dearie, that’s what I always say. But don’t you worry. Men often take a while to work out what’s best for them. He’s in for a shock as to how much he’ll miss you.’ ‘Cupcake?’ I gave her a proper smile and took off the Tupperware lid. Eyes shining behind pink-rimmed glasses, she lifted one out. ‘It’ll take a lot to improve on the walnut and fig ones you made last week. Those beauties have kept me as regular as a cuckoo clock.’ ‘Thought they would.’ I winked and put back the lid. Jess would be outside any minute. I kissed the old lady goodbye and went down the stairs. When I got back to the bench, Adam was pacing up and down. ‘I’d better get going.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Where will you stay tonight? ‘Um… Jess’s.’ I sniffed and lifted my head into the air. ‘You needn’t worry about me. I can manage.’ He held out his hand. I slipped my hand into his and squeezed it tight. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The key. I may as well have it back.’ ‘But there’s no going back from that,’ I spluttered, the inside of my chest cold again. ‘Come on, Adam. This isn’t you. Work’s been demanding, lately. Perhaps you’re suffering from stress. It’s only a couple of weeks before Christmas, for heaven’s sake!’ ‘Are you blind, babe?’ he said. ‘You haven’t seen this coming? Is this all really such a surprise?’ My throat hurt again, as if I’d eaten too much buttercream icing and had a bad case of acid reflux. ‘Just ring your mum, Kimmy. Ask if you can kip on the floor – she might surprise you and say yes. You can’t stay at Jess’s forever and we both know you’ll never get a flat without proof of a regular income.’ ‘You’ve got to be joking. Her latest man’s got three Alsatians. They have the sofa now.’ Mum made it quite clear, as soon as I got a job at Best Buns, that I was to move out, permanently; find out for myself that life was hard. As if I didn’t know that already. As Adam strode away, my stomach cramped but I held back more tears. Life had thrown crap at me before – I’d survived, and I’d survive now too. That was the best and worst thing about getting older – each tough experience taught you how to cope with the next. I mean, one minute I’d been shooting into Melissa Winsford’s ninth hole, the next I was well and truly lost in the rough… I sat down and almost dropped the box of cupcakes. Outside the White Horse, over the road, a young couple walked along in scarves and hats, hugging each other tightly. Adam never held my hand anymore and would rather Chelsea football club be relegated than us snog in public. I used to slip soppy notes in his lunch box until he complained that they stuck to his sandwiches. Perhaps this break-up had been waiting in the shadows for a while. It’s funny how the things that attract you to someone eventually lose their shine – like the way he threw an arm over me during his sleep; how he insisted on using teabags twice. And I knew my liking for bowls of potpourri drove him crazy. I’d become a fan of them since living above a chip shop. It was my first flat. Dirt cheap. It had to be, on my wages from Best Buns. From the left, a flash of red caught my eye – Jess’s bobbed hair. Despite her small frame, she stood out in her tribal print duffle coat and maroon jeans. Jess didn’t use peroxide, hated fake tan and wore old women’s comfy shoes – in theory, we were a total mismatch. She didn’t watch my fave shows like The Apprentice and Keeping Up With The Kardashians, nor did she use whitening toothpaste. Yet at school we’d both bonded through a deep hatred of sport. Except I was the lucky one, with a mum always happy to write me a letter to get out of netball or swimming; anything for a bit of peace, so that she could get back to her fags and daytime telly. It was only when I met Adam that I got into fitness DVDs. Not that he minded my squishy bits – he liked my “soft curves”. It was my idea to battle my muffin top. You see, I often imagined what Adam and I would look like together, posing in one of my celebrity magazines. If I could just tone up we wouldn’t look half bad. We’d be the next Brangelina – the papers would call us Kimadam, perhaps. I shook myself and waved in Jess’s direction. ‘Kimmy?’ Jess hurried towards me, eyes goggling at the Christmas tree. She carried a massive rucksack. ‘Why are you sitting outside here with all this stuff?’ ‘And what about you, with that rucksack? I said, brightly. ‘You first.’ She slipped the khaki bag to the ground and sat down. ‘No, you,’ I said, graciously delaying my dramatic announcement that Adam had brutally (okay, slight exaggeration) chucked me out. Plus I need a few more minutes to stem any tears that still threatened. I patted her arm. ‘Looks like you and Ryan have fallen out big time. Brothers… Who needs them, eh?’ She bit her thumbnail. ‘What’s happened?’ I said. ‘He called me a neat-freak; said it was worse than living with our mum.’ Her chin wobbled. ‘Ungrateful bastard!’ I said, for one nanosecond forgetting Adam. ‘You’ve transformed his house! Has he forgotten that his previous lodgers liked cheese and had tails?’ She offered me a stick of gum and I shook my head. Jess had taken up the habit about a month ago. ‘Guess I should have knocked, before going into his bedroom this morning,’ she said. ‘Huh?’ Her cheeks tinged pink and instantly clashed with her hair – and her red nose. Poor Jess always seemed to have a cold through the winter months, plus hayfever in the summer – not the best allergy for someone who worked with plants. ‘This morning, it being the weekend, I thought I’d do him a favour and tidy his room.’ ‘That was a bit keen.’ ‘I know, but I had this overpowering urge to clean.’ ‘Was he still asleep?’ ‘No. He, um, had company.’ ‘Jess!’ My hand flew over my mouth. ‘Was she pretty?’ ‘Boobs like grapefruits and a dead neat Brazilian.’ I caught her eye and we both giggled. ‘So, I was wondering…’ Jess glanced across at my case. ‘Any, erm, chance I can crash at yours? You should have heard Ryan. Apparently it’s been a nightmare for him, living with his kid sister, ever since Mum and Dad retired to Spain. He says he owes it to our parents to see that I’m all right, but that I cramp his style and he’s sick of not having a private life.’ ‘What a cheek! I bet he’s already struggling to work out the washing machine.’ ‘I shouted at him,’ muttered Jess. ‘Told him he was a joke and no other woman would ever move into his hovel.’ ‘You never shout.’ ‘I know.’ She sighed. ‘He even made some rude comment about my lentil cutlets. I mean, what decade is he in? No one makes vegetarian food like that anymore. I wouldn’t have minded if he’d criticised my bean burritos or tofu chow mein. He said at least now he could enjoy a guilt-free turkey dinner at Christmas.’ She nodded at my luggage. ‘Please tell me you’ve not moved out. Have you two had one of your disagreements?’ ‘What do you mean?’ A lump returned to my throat. ‘Remember he gave you the silent treatment after your last trip to the salon?’ I’d forgotten that. He thought twenty pounds was a lot to pay for fifteen minutes eyebrow threading. ‘And he didn’t come out to the pub last weekend for that festive quiz.’ Nope. He was sulking because I’d turned down an interview for a permanent cleaning job. ‘Do you think my head’s stuck in the clouds?’ I asked, voice choked up. ‘Adam more or less said I’d treated his flat like a holiday camp.’ I could count on Jess to be straight with me. She’d always tell you if your bum did look big or your new haircut sucked. I pulled the lid off the Tupperware box. Sugar was great for low moods. A bloody good cake could sort out any problem. ‘You’re a… a….’ She sneezed and blew her nose – into a handkerchief, of course. Even tissues made from recycled paper, originally made from sustainable forests, were too environmentally unfriendly for her. ‘You’re a daydreamer, Kimmy; a romantic. No doubt about that. And who can blame you. Let’s face it, your mum hasn’t always–’ ‘She’s done her best,’ I said and bit my lip. ‘I don’t know why you still defend her,’ Jess muttered and shook her head. She took a cake from the box. ‘Whereas Adam, I guess he just looks to his parents. Marriage, mortgage and kids; the daily grind paying off…’ She bit into the sponge and chewed for a moment – the only person I knew who could simultaneously munch on food and gum. ‘Face it, Kimmy: you two have less in common now – you’ve got different priorities and have grown apart.’ ‘But you and me still get on, even though I hate gardening and you’d rather stare at a blank screen than follow Beyoncé on Twitter.’ I took a large bite of cake too. ‘But I’m not planning my future around you.’ She smiled. ‘No offence.’ ‘You’d be better suited for him,’ I mumbled. Jess even had a savings account. She shook her head. ‘Have you forgotten the argument we had about recycling?’ Jess sorted through all her rubbish, composted her peelings and washed out her tins. Adam said multi-coloured wheelie bins cost the government too much money and that they’d be better off investing it in nuclear energy. Jess popped the last mouthful of cupcake into her mouth. ‘Really yummy,’ she said. ‘I trust it was suitable for vegetarians?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Love that orange buttercream icing.’ ‘It’s made with actual orange zest, instead of essence, which means…’ I smiled. ‘Ingredient geek alert. Ignore me.’ ‘Shame you used paper cases. They contribute towards the decimation of rainforests.’ She opened her rucksack and tugged out a copy of the Luton News. ‘Is there anyone else we can stay with?’ Her mouth drooped at the corners. ‘It doesn’t get much worse than being homeless for Christmas. Plus I’ve got to get myself sorted for work tomorrow. The last thing I need, on top of this, is to lose my job. Maybe we can find a flat?’ ‘This late in the day?’ I said. ‘Have we even got enough for a deposit?’ ‘It won’t do any harm to look through the paper. In these arctic temperatures, I for one don’t want to spend tonight on the street.’ She pointed to a splat of congealed sick on the pavement. ‘That mess reminds me, I threw up just before I left Ryan’s. Last night I had a take-away veggie burger – it must have been contaminated with meat. So, I’m a bit peckish now.’ I jerked my head towards the White Horse. ‘What we need is a shot of caffeine. I might even splash out on a packet of crisps, seeing as I no longer have to justify my every financial transaction to Mr Stingy Purse Strings.’ Jess gazed at me. ‘Chin up, Kimmy,’ she said, softly. ‘Come on. I’ll treat you to a cheese toastie and chips.’ I gave a wry smile and nodded. We stood up, ready to haul our luggage to the pedestrian crossing. But then I stopped dead. What was that, stuck to the glass front of the estate agent’s? Leaving Jess to drag over my case, I carried the tree and cake box over to the window. I cocked my head. The house in that photo… Wow. It was everything I’d ever dreamed of: roman pillars either side of the red front door, massive gardens, a well cute pond… I leant forward to read the labels. Five bedrooms, a hot tub and (posh or what) croquet lawn. It even had its own games room and bar. And that kitchen! There was a big American fridge and an island to breakfast off. ‘Ready?’ said Jess. ‘The traffic lights are about to change.’ Puffing under the weight of her rucksack, she gazed at the picture. ‘Bet that place costs a lot to heat.’ Why wasn’t I that sensible? Instead, in my head, I was already clicking my fingers at servants whilst eating a delicious afternoon tea on the front lawn. As for that staircase! And those four-poster beds! And talk about privacy, there was room for a mid-terrace house before you came across the neighbours. I was about to step away, when underneath the For Sale caption I noticed some bold writing. “Live-in housesitter urgently required, to maintain gardens and house until property sold. Enquire within.” ‘What’s the matter?’ said Jess. ‘You look like you’ve just been given limitless texts.’ ‘Do you believe in fate?’ I said. She read the advert and stopped chewing her gum for a moment. ‘Are you completely bonkers? Us? Living in a place like that?’ ‘Why not? Come on, you and I aren’t going to be beaten by our current situation. This is the answer. Think about it – your job at the garden centre is bound to impress. And I’m well nifty with a duster and vacuum cleaner. This could be my one chance to prove to Adam that I do have a practical streak.’ There’s no need for him to know how wicked the setting is – just that I’m prepared to scrub and clean and work hard to put a roof over my head; that I can do anything I put my mind to, including making a success of my cake company. If I slogged my guts out to do well at this job, he’d be impressed. Then I’d wow him with my “concrete business plans” (um, leaflets, cooking classes, entering cake contests). My mind raced. ‘You and me, together, we’ll have that place sold before you can say “Mulled Wine Muffin”.’ I beamed, a chink of hope breaking through the storm clouds of my lovelife. ‘But we haven’t any experience.’ I snorted. ‘You’re joking? The way we’ve kept house for Adam and Ryan? You don’t need a CV a mile long to know how to bleach a loo or polish a mirror.’ I pointed to the window. ‘“Urgently required”’, I quoted. ‘Sounds desperate.’ I scooped my hair back into a scrunchie, unzipped my gold parka jacket and smoothed down my sequinned jumper. ‘After a few days away, the two men in our lives will be pleading with us to move back.’ ‘I don’t know, Kimmy…’ Jess wiped her nose. ‘What about references? How do we explain suddenly turning up like two lost tourists?’ She stared hard at the photo and pointed to the right hand back corner of the lawn. ‘Who do you think that is?’ I screwed up my eyes and examined the topless young man with floppy chestnut hair, leaning on a spade. He certainly had his work cut out – that garden was huge. I fixed a smile on my face and held out my hand, flat, in front of Jess’s mouth, glad she got the message but didn’t actually spit her gum into my palm. Then she smeared on her favourite lipgloss – homemade of course, using Vaseline and food essence. I took a deep breath and pushed open the glass door. Jess caught my eye and I winked. A tiny bubble of hope tickled the inside of my chest. This dream house was going to help me win back Adam. Chapter 3 (#ulink_4be220fc-17a7-54ce-a109-bf182b344a23) ‘You are certainly not within your rights to withhold rent.’ A woman in a smart navy trouser suit, and pristine blouse, looked up from her phone and gave a stiff smile. ‘The owner has been informed of the problem and we’ll be in touch shortly,’ she said, returning to her call. ‘Pardon? You do realise we record some of these conversations…? Well, maybe you’d care more if faced with eviction!’ Calmly, the middle-aged woman put down the telephone receiver ‘Are we sure about this?’ whispered Jess and I nodded. ‘How can I help?’ asked the estate agent, in a flat voice. Her smile had shrunk as she’d clearly worked out our luggage was bargain Primark, not Prada. We set down our bags and I placed the Christmas tree and cake box on a nearby desk. The room was practically furnished with office equipment, and talk about unfestive – there wasn’t so much as one tinsel garland. ‘We’re looking for, um… somewhere to rent,’ I beamed. There was no point looking too keen, and mentioning the house straight away. She pointed to two black swivel chairs on the other side of her desk, which was cluttered with stationery, assorted files and a wilted, white-flowered plant. ‘It’s kind of urgent.’ Understatement. I sat down and luxuriated in office’s warmth. ‘We’re currently homeless.’ The woman’s eyes glazed over and the atmosphere seemed even darker as clouds gathered outside. ‘Homeless?’ She raised her finely plucked eyebrows. ‘It’s just a blip.’ I forced a laugh, which hopefully oozed confidence as if to say “of course a deposit would be no problem”. As long as the rent was based on Monopoly prices, that is. I glanced sideways at Jess. ‘And I’m employed at the moment,’ Jess said. ‘I work at…at…’ She sneezed loudly. ‘Nuttall’s Garden Centre.’ The woman winced. Her badge said Mrs D Brown. D for Deidre? Or Dawn? Perhaps Dragon? ‘We may only need somewhere short-term,’ I said. ‘That might make things difficult,’ she said, crisply. ‘Most landlords are looking for long-term tenants.’ ‘Tell me about it.’ I rolled my eyes. ‘Finding somewhere to live, in between jobs, is one of the few downsides to being housesitters – like occasionally being made homeless.’ She leant forward a little. ‘I know – it’s unusual work,’ I continued, innocently. ‘Most people don’t know the half of what’s involved.’ Ahem, including myself. ‘I’m familiar with the job spec,’ she said and tapped her biro again. ‘Aren’t you rather young for such a–’ ‘Responsible position?’ interrupted Jess. ‘That’s what the agency thought when they gave us our first job.’ Go Jess! ‘But they were so impressed with Jessica’s gardening skills,’ I interrupted, wondering if housesitting agencies really did exist, ‘and my… um… housekeeping experience. You should have seen our last place. Overrun with mice,’ I whispered. Well, it was true about Ryan’s pad. Her brow smoothed out a little. ‘I bet you’ve seen some sights.’ ‘Ooh yes, um, fleas under the sofa and mushrooms in the carpet.’ Plant expert Jess shot me a puzzled look, but Mrs D lapped it up. ‘And the house before that had been well trashed,’ I continued. ‘What happened?’ The estate agent put down her biro, no longer sounding as if we were a nuisance. ‘The previous sitter had, erm, secretly arranged a party and advertised it on Facebook,’ said Jess. ‘People stubbed cigarettes out on the walls and broke toilet seats. Personally I think those social networking sites are a danger to society.’ Her last sentence was in no way a lie – Jess didn’t even have a Facebook account. I kept quiet about my four hundred and sixty-three Facebook friends and the group I once formed, “Ashton Kutcher for President”. That reminded me, I hadn’t got Adam’s laptop to borrow now, which was just as well – I wouldn’t know whether to change my relationship status to single or simply post that Adam and I were… had… Oh God, eyes going all blurry again, must switch subjects in my head. Ow! Jess had kicked me hard. She was busy playing garden doctor. ‘… and don’t prune them until next month, Deborah,’ she was saying, ‘otherwise you’ll get fewer flowers next year.’ Ooh, they were on first name terms already. “Deborah” straightened a pile of paperwork and stared at us. ‘I’m curious,’ she said. ‘There’s no money in housesitting; it’s normally a job for retired people who simply fancy a change of scene.’ ‘The agency does insist we get paid a nominal fee,’ I said, not catching her eye. ‘Just enough to cover food. They tell clients it’s worth it to get in people they can trust.’ ‘Kimberley’s trying to set up her own business, you see,’ interrupted Jess. ‘Making cakes. Housesitting gives her the free time she needs. And the smell of home cooking always helps sell those properties we look after which are on the market.’ ‘True – everyone loves cake.’ Deborah smiled and sucked the end of her pen for a moment. ‘What’s your favourite flavour?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know, um…’ ‘How about Madagascan vanilla cakes, with strawberry buttercream icing and marzipan ladybirds?’ I said, spying a photo of two little girls on her desk. ‘Or I make a mean peanut topping, decorated with toffee teddy bears. Plus currently I’m celebrating the festive season – how about figgy pudding scones? I could drop some in.’ ‘No! I couldn’t…’ ‘It would be my pleasure, Deborah.’ ‘Well, those ladybirds do sound rather sweet.’ I jumped up to fetch my Tupperware box and removed the lid as I sat down again. Sheer ecstasy. The aroma of cranberry and orange wafted into the air. It was like a heady hit of happy pills. I took one out and placed it on her desk. Even I had to admit it looked fab, with the pretty sunset-coloured buttercream icing generously swirled on top. I’d give her five minutes tops before she succumbed. Jess fiddled with her bracelet and I held my breath whilst the estate agent got up. She pulled out the top drawer of her grey metal filing cabinet, and after flicking through several files, drew one out. ‘As it happens,’ she said, ‘I might be able to help.’ I fought the urge to glance over to the advert in the window. She sat down again and took off her jacket. ‘Love the shoes,’ I said, cocking my head under the table. ‘Designer?’ ‘Erm no… but thanks.’ For the first time she smiled properly with her eyes, then slid a photo of that house across her desk. At the top it said Mistletoe Mansion. ‘We don’t usually handle housesitting jobs, but the client, Mr Murphy, is a friend of the boss. His uncle died and left him this outstanding property. He lives up north, in Manchester, so my boss said we’d handle everything to do with the sale. But we’ve had trouble, finding reliable people to look after this place until it’s sold.’ Yay! My plan was working! Here was to a festive season spent enjoying hot tubs and playing billiards. I swallowed. Christmas without Adam? It just didn’t seem real. Jess kicked me again and with a jolt I focused again on the photo. ‘It’s a large property. What exactly are the terms and conditions?’ asked ever-practical Jess. The woman peeked at the cupcake before looking at another sheet of notes. Was it my imagination, or did she position her hole-punch to cover something written in red? ‘You would be expected to keep all the rooms spotless,’ she said, ‘the bedrooms with ensuites, the kitchen, receptions rooms, the Games Room and its bar. Also to maintain the gardens… Not mowing at this time of year, obviously, but keeping track of weeds, digging over the borders regularly – doing everything to keep it in tip-top shape. We’re hoping it won’t take much longer to sell – there have been a couple of bites lately, despite Christmas approaching. You would forward any post on to Mr Murphy and deal with service contractors such as the window cleaners. And, of course, show around prospective buyers and generally keep the place secure.’ ‘Are we given notice to leave?’ asked Jess, whilst I returned to my fantasy of mirrored dressing tables and walk-in wardrobes. The estate agent skimmed the piece of paper. ‘The position runs from week to week with no notice required if the property sells.’ She looked up at us. ‘It’s for one person but if you maintain the garden, Jess, I might be able to persuade Mr Murphy to let you both stay. Like I said, landlords are looking for long-term tenants, you’ll be lucky to find a place to rent for just a few weeks. So maybe this arrangement could be beneficial to both parties?’ ‘It sounds great!’ I said. ‘I mean… Yes. Mistletoe Mansion seems suitable. Nothing we can’t manage, after some of our previous jobs.’ ‘Which brings me to references,’ Deborah said and reached for her biro. ‘Ah, look at the state of this,’ said Jess, exchanging glances with me before she picked up the wilted, white-flowered plant. She fingered some yellow leaves, before sticking her finger in the soil. ‘Even kitchen herbs die on me.’ Deborah smiled. ‘So, ladies, references please.’ She picked up the cupcake and took a bite at…. four minutes and thirty seconds! I knew she’d give in. ‘It’s a bit awkward,’ I said, as a faint “Mmm” escaped her lips. ‘The agency we’re registered with, um, wouldn’t appreciate us moonlighting elsewhere.’ ‘Tightly run, are they?’ she said, a blob of orange icing sticking to the corner of her mouth as she took another bite. We both nodded. She was an estate agent. Pilfering staff from somewhere else wouldn’t bother her. She gazed at me and then Jess, who was still examining the plant. She looked at her notes; took another bite of cake; moved the hole-punch. What was written down there? ‘Mice, fleas, mushrooms… Nothing much fazes you, am I right?’ ‘We’re professionals,’ I said, evenly. ‘Nothing has ever made us quit a job.’ And let’s face it, what could possibly make life difficult at Mistletoe Mansion? Too many party invites from loaded neighbours? ‘Why didn’t the previous sitter see the job through to the end?’ asked Jess. ‘Oh, erm, personal circumstances.’ ‘How long has it been on the market, then?’ I said. ‘About six months – it went on just after the uncle died.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Times are hard, so that’s not unusual. When could you start?’ ‘Tonight,’ we both chorused. ‘Really?’ said Deborah. ‘We’re always keen to get started on a new job,’ Jess gushed and put back the plant. ‘Fair enough. If you’re sure. Just let me make a call. Delicious cupcake, by the way,’ she said, and disappeared out the back. I eyed the hole-punch. Maybe I could just nudge it, accidentally on purpose, to see exactly what that red writing said. ‘Mushrooms in carpets?’ hissed Jess. ‘Don’t you feel just a teensy bit guilty about making all this stuff up? It’s a bit over the top. Her boss won’t be happy with her if it doesn’t work out. We’re bound to be rumbled.’ ‘Look, they need a housesitter. We need somewhere to live… And we’re going to do our best to sell that place. No one’s going to lose out.’ I reached for the hole-punch. ‘And I’m sure we can persuade this Mr Murphy guy to let us stay there for Christmas week, even if it happens to sell super-quick. ‘What are you doing now?’ whispered Jess. ‘She’s hiding something; if I could just read what’s underneath.’ Carefully I pushed the hole-punch across. Scrawled in red biro, surrounded by smiley faces, it read, “Must love Gh–”. Deborah’s heels click-clacked back into the room. Damn! I hadn’t managed to read the last word. What could it say? “Gherkins”? Perhaps “Ghosts”! A haunting could be wicked if it involved me and Adam, Whoopi Goldberg and a sexy potters’ wheel. I must have misread the writing – maybe it said “Gn” and the previous owner had a hideous collection of gnomes. ‘Well, ladies,’ Deborah said, sitting down, ‘Mr Murphy is delighted to have you on board. Normally he’d be more particular about references, but seeing as the situation is urgent he’s agreed – on the understanding that I drop by now and again, to check things are running smoothly.’ ‘Awesome!’ I said. ‘I mean, that’s great. And he’ll pay our… expenses?’ ‘Yes, but he’s impatient for a sale now, so he’s relying on you. So am I.’ ‘We won’t let you down,’ said Jess and wiped her nose. ‘I hope not – Mr Murphy has been quite fair. He’s agreed to pay you a nominal sum to cover food. He’ll add it on to the weekly budget he gives you for cleaning materials and butcher’s bones.’ ‘Bones?’ Jess and I chorused. ‘Didn’t I mention his old uncle had a dog? Mr Murphy isn’t sure what to do with it, so…’ ‘He just left it there?’ said Jess. ‘What happens when there’s no sitter?’ ‘Luke Butler calls in. He used to be the uncle’s handyman and has helped us maintain Mistletoe Mansion.’ Of course! “Must like G…” That red writing had to be about a breed of dog. ‘This Luke… Is he the half-naked guy in the photo?’ said Jess. Deborah blushed. ‘Yes. It was a very hot day. I didn’t like to ask him to put his shirt back on.’ Can’t say I blamed her. He’d looked pretty hot. Not that I’d be interested in another guy for a long time. ‘Why doesn’t he housesit?’ I asked. ‘Initially Luke moved in but didn’t… how can I put it… have the best manner when showing prospective buyers around. And I don’t think housework was his forte. So he agreed to keep an eye on the place from afar and do general maintenance until the place sold.’ A small sigh slipped from her berry red lips. ‘Have to say, he is very good with his hands…’ Jess glanced at me and I bit the insides of my cheeks, trying not to laugh. Deborah slid over some paperwork. ‘Here’s the address, Mr Murphy’s phone number, and a comprehensive list of your duties. The house is in Badgers Chase, a private cul-de-sac. It’s very picturesque. I glanced at the papers. Badgers Chase was on the St Albans side of Harpenden, near where Jess worked. Harpenden was a well posh village with continental cafés and fancy boutiques – the complete opposite of Luton. ‘I haven’t been to Harpenden for ages,’ I said. ‘Mum used to take us there to play on the common.’ Or rather, left us there whilst she met her fancy new man in town. Once she spotted comedian Eric Morecambe, its most famous resident. Not that celebrities impressed her. “Lucky buggers who didn’t live in the real world,” she called them. ‘The nearest bus stop is about half an hour’s walk away,’ continued Deborah. ‘It’s a very exclusive area, not far from a golf club. Isn’t Nuttall’s Garden Centre also that side of Harpenden, Jess? The one with the large bronze acorns outside?’ ‘Yes. Getting there should be easy. I cycle everywhere – unless it snows.’ The estate agent tapped her pen on the desk. ‘Are you sure it wouldn’t be better to delay moving in until morning?’ We shook our heads. She hesitated. ‘Okay. I’ll call you a taxi.’ ‘I’ve got a car,’ I said. ‘But doesn’t someone need to show us around?’ ‘I’ve only been to Mistletoe Mansion a couple of times. It’s not strictly within my duties. Lovely place though. Luke can answer all your questions. If you just wait a minute I’ll ring him. He’s very flexible. I’m sure he’ll be able to pop round tonight.’ Her eyes dropped to the hole-punch and that writing. It was clear that whatever the prospective housesitters “Must love”, she didn’t. I racked my brains for breeds of dog beginning with G: German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Greyhound… Oh my God! Perhaps it was a Great Dane! And come to think of it, that second letter after the G did kind of look like a fancy R. Wow. There was no need for Jess to know. You’d need a dustbin bag for the poop you scooped and giant dog hairs might prove as irritating for her as pollen. We moved our stuff to the window, whilst Deborah made us a coffee and got distracted by trying to sell a one bed mid-terrace to a young couple with twins and three cats. The toddlers were well cute and liked the baubles on my little tree. They were even more interested in my box of cupcakes, and I was going to offer them one until their mum looked daggers at me. Eventually they left and Deborah rang Luke. He was out. She left a message and finally he called back to say he’d drop by the house. Jess waited whilst I collected my hatchback from the small car park behind Adam’s block of flats. I tried not to look up at his window, but couldn’t resist, irrationally hoping he’d be there, beckoning at me to come back. With a sigh, I got into my car. It was white with flecks of rust and not remotely glamorous. I’d done my best inside, to Adam’s disgust fitting a furry pink steering wheel cover and matching dice. I pulled up outside the estate agency and beeped the horn, hoping the police wouldn’t pass by and see me parked on double yellow lines. When Jess came out, I left the engine running to help her haul our luggage into the boot. The sky had darkened to slate and the air had slightly warmed. Perhaps it was going to rain. Deborah took the tree from Jess, as my best mate got in the passenger seat. I gazed out of my side window. Luton looked blander than ever, like a cherry cupcake missing the fruit. ‘Good luck,’ said Deborah, after we’d fastened our seatbelts. She leant in on Jess’s passenger side, passed her the tree and held her hand over the wound-down window. I revved the engine politely. ‘It’s not too late to change your minds,’ she said. ‘I mean… If it was me, I’d wait until tomorrow. The afternoon sky is so dark, it’ll be as if you’re unpacking in twilight.’ ‘Don’t worry about us,’ I smiled. Jeez – what was her problem? Did this Great Dane turn into a werewolf at midnight? ‘See you soon,’ said Jess and began to wind up her window. ‘Thanks for sorting us out.’ Deborah pushed a bunch of keys through the ever-decreasing gap. ‘Luke’s headed out to get you some bits for the fridge.’ She pointed to the sky. ‘Just as well he’s saved you a trip to the shops. A storm’s brewing,’ she called as we drove off. ‘Phew! You’re bonkers!’ Jess said and unwrapped a piece of gum, as the tree balanced on her lap. ‘I can’t believe I let you talk me into that.’ ‘But we pulled it off. Sorted ourselves out – as I knew we would.’ Traffic lights loomed and I applied the brakes. ‘Ryan’s not going to believe I’ve already got somewhere else to stay.’ She chewed vigorously for a moment. ‘Do you think Deborah will find us out?’ ‘As what? We’re perfectly capable of looking after that place. I reckon we’ll do a good job. Here’s to living in the lap of luxury, I say.’ And getting that place sold; impressing Adam. ‘Has Deborah got a crush on this Luke or what?’ said Jess. ‘Did you hear her on the phone? No one should flirt with someone they could have given birth to.’ Now and again, Mum dated younger men. She even went off on holiday to Spain with one and left fourteen year old me alone, to look after my younger brother, Tom. Auntie Sharon had dropped in when she could, but wasn’t there when Tom twisted his ankle or the lights blew. ‘One had better put together a rota for the chores,’ I said, in a posh voice. ‘I’ll clean during the day. You garden after work. A cosy supper will be served at eight sharp. One will be expected to change. Mistletoe Mansion has standards.’ ‘Idiot!’ Jess grinned at me. ‘It all seems too good to be true. There’s got to be a catch.’ Spit-spots of rain hit the windscreen. ‘Have we got time to stop off at Ryan’s to get my bike? There should be room for it if we put down the back seats.’ I nodded as the lights switched to green and we pulled away from the estate agents – from lacklustre Luton; from my life with Adam. I blinked quickly, thinking that only that morning we’d been curled up under the same duvet. Just as I steered around the corner, my sombre thoughts were interrupted by a shriek of ‘Wait! Stop the car! There’s something you should know!’ I glanced in my rearview mirror whilst Jess, oblivious to the shouts, fiddled with the radio dial. It was Deborah, running towards us, high heels in hand and cheeks purple! Chapter 4 (#ulink_8137df74-6087-5beb-9147-cf76760bf12b) ‘Get ready to run for your life’ I said to Jess, as we drove onto Mistletoe Mansion’s drive. Badgers Chase was a T shaped cul-de-sac and our new home was right at the bottom of it. Lightning had just struck the middle of a field on a distant hill and disaster was imminent – if we didn’t get inside right this minute, the rain would turn my hair, still straightened from yesterday, into candyfloss. Jess put the small Christmas tree in the back, next to the bike and our luggage. Wow. As we passed the well cute pond on the left, I gaped at the roman pillars. After parking up, I got out and was distracted from the amazing scenery for a moment as a juicy splat of water hit my head. I could count on one hand the number of people who knew my hair had a natural curl. My eyes tingled. Adam and I shared lots of secrets, like me knowing his bank pincode and him keeping schtum about my girl crush on famous chef Delia Smith. ‘Well established borders, aren’t they?’ called Jess, in gardening centre mode. She inspected the right hand side lawn and yanked out a handful of weeds from the borders crammed full of various shaped plants, with spikes and berries. Jess was muttering in Latin. How come only doctors and gardeners got to speak a classical language? I took a deep breath, feeling as if I was on some epic film set. Any moment now a voice would shout “action” and some heartbreaker hero – hopefully a clone of Adam – would appear, perhaps in classical dress. I would allow him to accompany me for a walk,then his love rival would turn up with a shotgun and… I sighed. This cul-de-sac oozed romance. The houses stood so far apart – whereas I’d never lived anywhere that wasn’t a bowling ball’s roll from a fish ‘n’chip take-away or betting shop. At the foot of the leafy, winding road which led here was the nearest bus stop, a thatched pub called the Royal Oak and a post box. Despite the menacing clouds, I walked down the drive to join Jess. Woody scents filled the air. Where was the stink of exhaust fumes? Or the litter? Or the sound of Mrs Patel shouting at a late newspaper boy? Or the roaring engines of planes leaving Luton airport? I slowed down to a stroll and imagined the photo if paparazzi snapped me now. Maybe I’d look like some Hollywood star in one of those awesome perfume adverts, in some lush setting, the breeze blowing my hair… Good decision Kimmy, not to tell Jess about Deborah running after us. Nothing was going to stop me moving into this place. No doubt the estate agent had heard the weather forecast and was simply going to warn us about the storm. ‘Ooh, nice.’ Jess said and pointed to a border running along the fence, right near the house. I admired the plant, with its sprinkling of small, cream flowers. ‘Lonicera fragrantissima – unusually it flowers in winter. I shrugged. ‘Winter honeysuckle to you,’ she said and grinned. I headed over and plucked a small spray of the flowers. Mmm, what a lovely sweet scent. I tucked it behind my ear. ‘Not as festive as holly,’ I said and jerked my head towards a prickly plant next to the honeysuckle, ‘but less painful.’ Jess shook her head at me and then gazed around. ‘We’ll have to get some white wine vinegar to get rid of all these weeds.’ Jess didn’t believe in chemical products, something she kept from Dana, her sales-mad boss at the garden centre. Another splat of rain landed on my head and I hurried back to the car and grabbed my pink case and Christmas tree. I’d pull Jess’s bike out of the hatchback later. There’d be room for it in the massive double garage. Like an evacuee from a city, I hovered in front of the cylindrically carved white pillars either side of the front door. There was a brass lion’s head knocker right in the middle. On the red brick wall to the right was a fancy gold plate, saying Mistletoe Mansion. My eyes ran over the classy Georgian windows and moss-free grey-slated roof. ‘Come on,’ I called, ‘let’s get in before this rain does more than spit.’ On cue, thunder rolled. The car door creaked as Jess fetched her rucksack. Seconds later she stood beside me and took the keys out of her pocket. ‘Maybe we should knock first,’ she said and chewed her gum slower for a moment. ‘I thought I saw someone at an upstairs window. That Luke might be inside.’ ‘Hopefully filling the fridge,’ I said and realised all I’d eaten today was that cranberry and orange cupcake. I smoothed down my hair, grasped the knocker and rapped hard. The sky was charcoal-grey now and a shiver ran down my spine. Maybe I should have rapped quietly in case some giant dog really lived here. Yet there was no barking, just the pelting of rain. I reached for the knocker once more. At that moment, the door swung open but no one appeared. Prompted by a small yap, Jess and I glanced to our feet. ‘Aw, what’s your name, buddy?’ said Jess and knelt down. You had to be joking! Who could be afraid of this tiny brown and white mutt? With those chocolate button eyes, it wasn’t the slightest bit fearsome. In fact, it would have looked well cute in a little tartan jacket. ‘Scoot, Groucho,’ said a flat voice. From around the side of the door appeared the man from the photo, wearing a lumberjack checked shirt with fawn cords. I rubbed my ear as my eyes swept over his frame. Cords and a checked shirt? That was the uniform of granddads. Except he somehow made them look fashionable, and as for his chestnut bedroom hair and half-shaven face… A frisson of something stirred in my belly. Huh? That had to be a hunger pang. I’d only just broken up with Adam. It couldn’t be anything else. I hauled my case over the doorstep and he watched me drag it into the ginormous hallway, unlike Adam who would have insisted on carrying it for me. His almost old-fashioned manners were one of the things that had attracted me in the beginning – the way he’d always be the first to buy a round at the pub; how he’d offer to drive, if he and his workmates went out on the razz. I took in the arrogant stance of this Luke, with his hands shoved in his pockets. Would I ever meet another bloke like Adam? ‘Groucho’s an unusual name,’ I said, as Jess followed me in. At least there wouldn’t be any poop-scooping up after a Great Dane. I gazed around. Oh my God. That staircase was amazing. You’d build up an awesome speed, sliding down those banisters. ‘Walter Carmichael – Mike Murphy’s deceased uncle, the guy who used to own this place – he bought Groucho at the turn of the millennium, the year he gave up the evil weed,’ said Luke. ‘It was his idea of a joke.’ Groucho… Marx. Of course, that ancient comedian with a bushy moustache and eyebrows, and a fat cigar always between his lips… Must love G… So, I was right, those red scrawled notes were about the dog, but the G stood for his name, not his breed. I looked down as he cocked his head sideways. What possible harm could this Groucho cause, especially with those little grey hairs sticking out from his chin? ‘Does he, um, behave himself?’ I asked, as the white-tipped tail vanished around the side of the staircase. ‘He’s toilet-trained and doesn’t bite, if that’s what you mean,’ said Luke, staring at the flower in my hair. ‘But he’s a Jack Russell – nosy; always into everyone’s business.’ ‘You must be Luke?’ said Jess and smiled as she closed the front door. ‘I’m Jess and this is Kimmy.’ She held out her hand but he shoved his hands deeper into his trouser pockets, which irked me as it made me focus even more on the great things about Adam I was missing. ‘There’s milk, eggs and bread in the fridge. Help yourselves to anything else you find. The last housesitter quit this place in a hurry.’ He smirked. ‘The kitchen cupboards still have some food in them.’ I set my Christmas tree down on the laminated floor, next to a mahogany coatstand, and took a good look around. The winding staircase really was well impressive, with its oak banisters and burgundy carpet. At the top it branched out, to the left and right, past several glossed white doors with gold handles, on both sides leading around to the front of the house. On the cream walls hung brass-framed paintings – I squinted – of foxhunts and deer and fishermen. All this place needed was a tinselled pine tree much bigger than mine – it would be the perfect family home to live in during the festive season. ‘Wow. Impressive,’ I muttered, head back as I gazed up towards the high ceiling and a waterfall effect crystal chandelier. Downstairs were more paintings and to the right, a watercolour of Mistletoe Mansion, in the far corner, above a door – perhaps that was a loo. On the same side, near the front of the house, was an open door leading to the poshest lounge. I walked over to peek in and admired the sage green armchairs and sofa, the long oak coffee table, matching dresser and mega fireplace. On the mantelpiece was a photo of a friendly-looking old couple. ‘Mr Carmichael liked his paintings,’ I said and came back into the hallway. Jess was still gazing at the chandelier. ‘Yep. Murphy’s already sold some of them off.’ Luke stared at a portrait, to the left of the lounge door. It was of an old man, serious looking apart from a twinkle in his eyes – the man from the photo on the mantelpiece. ‘That’s him? The uncle?’ I asked. He nodded and then pointed to behind the staircase. ‘Groucho’s gone to the kitchen. The patio doors in there lead onto the back garden and there’s access to the dining room which is at the back of the lounge.’ Not really listening, I looked out of the front windows and the torrents of rain. Wind rocked the honeysuckle and the weeping willow shimmied like… like seaweed caught in a stream. Listen to me – I’d gone all high-falutin, thanks to this place. It was even more impressive than I’d expected and felt homely – kind of lived-in, not grand or imposing. Not what I’d expected for the empty house of a dead man. My chest felt lighter than it had since me and Adam split. ‘What’s through there?’ asked Jess, looking left to a heavy mahogany door, next to a white hallway desk. Luke consulted his watch. ‘See for yourselves. I’m off.’ He tugged his thumb towards the desk. ‘Murphy’s phone number’s in an envelope on there, along with other stuff like a daily “to do” list with my phone number on, and things like how to work the boiler. Also there’s the remote control to open the garage.’ He grabbed a thick jacket from the coat stand and opened the front door. An earthy, musky smell of aftershave wafted my way – so different from Adam’s favourite fragrance that smelt like clinical air freshener. ‘Just one more thing – a couple of bedrooms are locked. Don’t try to force them open. ‘As if we would!’ protested Jess. ‘They’re full of the Carmichaels’ personal stuff,’ he continued. ‘Murphy hasn’t sold much of that yet. He won’t sort through it until he has to, I reckon, when the house sells. So, just keep out.’ No “Nice to meet you” or “Good luck, I’ll pop in tomorrow to check you’re okay.” Adam would have at least told us to lock the windows at night and taken us through a fire drill. Not that I needed a man to look out for me, but his attentive ways made me feel all fuzzy inside. After a childhood spent practically fending for myself, Adam’s caring nature had initially dazzled me. Whereas my initial impression of Luke was the complete opposite of considerate Adam. Whistling, the handyman upturned his collar and slammed the door as he left. Groucho appeared and after several minutes of tickling jumped up as if to say “I’ll show you the place,” but a sharp crack of thunder saw him skedaddle under the white desk. Jess picked him up and he licked her nose. ‘Let’s take a quick look behind that mahogany door and then find something to eat.’ She turned the handle and we went in. Wow: this was the Games Room with… I couldn’t believe it! Only what I could describe as a mahogany throne in the corner! That was it. From now on, in my head, this room would be named after my favourite show of the moment, Game of Thrones! I’d have to plait my hair to enter and create a cocktail called Sex in Westeros! Polished, rich brown panels covered the left and far side walls, with the rest painted racing green. In the middle stood a full size billiards table and on the right was the small, but well stocked, bar. There was lager, and cola, and a professional-looking line of spirit bottles hung in front of mirrored tiles. As the mahogany door creaked shut behind us, I tiptoed across and bent over the bar. This would be perfect for Adam, I thought, gazing at the different shaped glasses, the small sink and silver ice bucket. After a hard day at work he was often too tired to go to the pub. Jess pointed to a dartboard at the end of the room, fighting to keep hold of Groucho whose legs pedalled mid-air. Eventually she put him down and yapping, he ran back to the door. ‘I don’t think I’m the only one who’s hungry.’ Jess threw her gum into a small bin. I walked over to a window. It was almost dark now and rivers of rain down the glass warped the view. I pulled on a cord which closed the curtains. ‘Picture us,’ I said, ‘sipping fancy drinks, eating Pringles… And getting handyman Luke answering our every beck and call.’ Jess pulled a face. ‘He’s hardly Lady Chatterley’s lover.’ ‘What, our bit of rough?’ I grinned. ‘His manners are almost as bad as my brother’s.’ Tom never ate with his mouth closed, and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Mum let him do what he wanted – eat pizza in bed, not tuck his shirt in for school, drink juice straight from the carton. We went back to the hallway and I stopped by the desk, impressed at how the sound of rain resounded around the big hallway. A dog lead lay curled up, next to a bunch of letters and I flicked through, looking for the “to do” list Luke had talked about. A scrap of paper caught my eye and I pulled it from the pile. Scrawled across the front in red it said “IMPORTANT! NEW HOUSESITTERS READ THIS ASAP!” Lightning flashed again and Jess pulled the hall blinds shut. I unfolded the piece of paper – the words looked as if they’d been written in a rush. With the chandelier light now flickering, I read the note out loud: “Leave now. Don’t stay a single second. If I told you why, you wouldn’t believe a word. Just trust me; this is the worst job I’ve ever had – especially when it’s dark.” ‘It’s probably a joke,’ shrugged Jess. ‘Must be,’ I said and smiled brightly, the hairs standing up on the back of my neck as I thought of Deborah chasing us, purple in the face. As if on cue, an ear-splitting clap of thunder rang out and all the lights went off. Groucho’s claws, on laminate, scratched and skidded to a halt, no doubt under the desk. ‘We need to work out where the fuse box is,’ Jess shouted. Thunder clapped again, as I felt my way into the lounge and looked out of the windows. Forks of lightning lit up the garden – the bushes looked like crouching figures and the weeping willow like hanging rope. Perhaps a zombie-like White Walker from my fave show might appear… ‘Any luck yet?’ I called and searched the shadowy lounge. When I got back to the hallway, she’d opened the blinds but there were no nearby streetlamps to help. Jess switched on her phone and, using it like a torch, headed towards the Games Room. ‘Wait! Did you hear that?’ I hissed, my skin prickling from head to toe. ‘What?’ she said and hurried over to me. ‘That thud?’ There it was again – from upstairs. My heart raced as Jess switched off her mobile. Arm in arm, we stood at the foot of the staircase. Now, through the rain, I could make out a dragging sound. It was too early in December for Santa, dragging his sack, I told myself, trying to keep my mood lighthearted. However, thoughts of zombies flashed into my mind again and I swallowed. At least in Luton I could blame any strange noises on the flatmates above. ‘It could be a tree brushing against an upstairs window,’ said Jess, uncertainly. Lightning flashed once more and lit up a shape, at the top of the stairs. Did I scream? I wasn’t sure. All I could focus on was a man. He was carrying a body over his shoulders. Thunder muffled something he was trying to say as he dumped his load and made his way down. What I wouldn’t have done, right then, to have had a Great Dane to protect us, big poops or not. Thanks to another flash of lightning, I spotted my little Christmas tree and grabbed it. Javelin had been soooo boring at school, but then I’d never had the incentive of warding off some murdering lunatic. The figure came nearer and with a deep breath, I drew back my shaking arm. One, two, three… now or never… I hurled the tree as hard as I could, towards the bottom of the stairs. Chapter 5 (#ulink_027f3b61-11aa-59cb-a799-28ecf135261c) ‘What the…? Why the hell did you do that?’ shouted a male voice. ‘I’ve found the fuse box,’ hollered Jess, and apart from the chandelier, the lights flicked back on. Dim rays filtered through from the kitchen and Games Room. Rooted to the spot, I squinted back at the bottom of the stairs, finally able to make out this freak’s face. ‘You?’ My clenched fists uncurled a little. Luke glared at me and rubbed his head. Jess came over from a cupboard behind the hallway desk. ‘Careful,’ I muttered to her and stepped backwards, as we didn’t know him well. ‘For God’s sake,’ he said. ‘Who do you think I am? Some Rural Ripper? This is sleepy Harpenden, not the East End.’ He wanted to try living in Luton, where crime practically began in the crib. Only last week the bloke living below us caught a nine year old, snooping through his flat, armed with nothing but a stink bomb and Star Wars sabre. My heart raced as I pictured the tabloid headlines, if I was famous: “Courageous Kimmy Scuppers Stalker.” Well, Luke had met me briefly, and that’s all it took for those weirdoes to become obsessed. A story like that would win Adam back. The magazines would feature our reunion. The police would provide me with panic buttons and a cool bodyguard… ‘Who were you carrying?’ I said in a half-whisper. ‘Why don’t I show you,’ said Luke with a sinister grin. Groucho could have at least bared his teeth or found a phone and punched in the number for the police, with his titchy paw. My mouth went dry as Luke went back upstairs and dragged the body along the landing. He flipped it over his shoulder and came back down. I gasped, took a larger step backwards and prayed that my legs wouldn’t give way. My fists clenched tight once more. What kind of monster was he? That body was headless. ‘Let’s go!’ I screeched to Jess. Startled, Groucho scampered into the kitchen and let more light into the hallway as he pushed the door open. ‘Kimmy, wait a minute,’ said Jess. More visible now, Luke stood at the bottom of the staircase. Blood trickled past his eyebrow and one arm was draped casually around the shoulders of… ‘A dressmaking dummy?’ My mouth fell open. ‘Who’s the dummy now?’ he scoffed. His smug look made me almost wish it had been some murder victim instead. ‘Is this your idea of a joke?’ I straightened up and folded my arms. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket. ‘That your way of saying sorry?’ He wiped the blood from his head. ‘What are you doing with that thing? Whose is it?’ said Jess. ‘It belonged to your predecessor. I agreed to pick it up for her – she refused to come back to Mistletoe Mansion.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. His mouth twitched. ‘Pleasurable as this has been, ladies, it’s time I was off.’ ‘Try knocking next time,’ I said, blocking out thoughts wondering whether it would scratch to kiss his bristly face. No, I wouldn’t apologise for his injury. He was to blame. And so were his sexy hair and sardonic smile, for making me think the unthinkable – that, in time, there might be other men out there who could turn my head. No, I wouldn’t consider that. Adam and I were meant for each other and this… this arrogant, rude, unfriendly handyman just proved how important it was for me to win back my decent man. ‘Didn’t want to disturb you.’ He shrugged. ‘Thought I’d be in and out. It might have been safer, though. Didn’t know I’d come face to face with such a drama queen.’ ‘You’ve bent my tree!’ I said, picking up the now lopsided Christmas decoration. ‘How inconsiderate of me. Next time I’ll duck.’ He shoved the doll under one arm and approached me, leant forward and slid the honeysuckle from my ear, his fingers gently brushing against my scalp. ‘Don’t think Mr Murphy would appreciate you picking the flowers.’ And with that he left. I stared out of the front window as he swaggered down the drive. The rain had calmed to a rhythmic patter and the weeping willow hung limp, like my hair after a swim. ‘I didn’t think I’d ever meet anyone ruder than my younger brother. Fancy barging in unannounced, without the slightest concern for scaring the crap out of us?’ Jess shrugged. ‘Suppose he was doing someone a favour. Guess he’s used to popping in and out as he likes.’ ‘You’re defending him?’ My eyes narrowed. ‘Per-lease, Kimmy, he’s not my type! Anyway, I’m a man-free zone. It’s all too soon after…’ Her voice broke. She’d ditched her last boyfriend a month ago. He was older, kind of distinguished and spoilt her rotten. It shouldn’t have been a surprise when the bozo let slip to straight-up Jess that he was married with no immediate plans to leave his wife. ‘Come on… Don’t know about you but I’m so hungry I could eat a Groucho sized nut roast,’ she said, and gave a half-smile. ‘Let’s eat and sort out who’s sleeping where. Then we need to write a list – prioritise jobs for tomorrow… I need to search out the recycling bins and find out on which day they’re emptied.’ I put down the plastic tree, hoping to mend it later, and followed her into the kitchen. Oh my God! The big American fridge with double doors! Jess found some biscuits for the little dog, whilst I pulled out eggs, butter, a small slab of cheese and milk. I’d never used a halogen hob before and ran my fingers along its shiny surface. To the right of the sink were the French patio doors. Arms full of ingredients, I teetered over and took a quick look outside. There, on raised decking, big and round and covered in a green cover was the hot tub – a very cool Facebook status immediately came to mind! Within fifteen minutes, we were sitting at the granite island in the middle of the kitchen, eating omelettes and drinking milk. ‘Here’s to us,’ said Jess, as she raised her glass and drank the contents down in one. ‘At least I’ve worked out why this place is named after a parasitic plant.’ I raised an eyebrow. ‘Out the back…’ Jess jerked her head. ‘Right at the bottom are apple and poplar trees – plus that willow at the front… All are the perfect hosts for mistletoe. I bet the owners have suffered constant infestations over the years.’ ‘Great, let’s hope, in daylight, we can spot a mass of the stuff to help decorate this place. It’s hardly festive.’ Jess wolfed down the omelette. ‘You are hungry.’ I grinned. ‘Well, we’ve only been here a couple of hours and already rescued some torso and committed Grievous Bodily Harm.’ ‘Did you see Luke’s face when the lights came on? What a shame my tree’s now wonky.’ And I supposed it was a pity that its metal base cut his head. Would he need stitches? Okay, perhaps now I was feeling a titch guilty. ‘Beat you upstairs,’ I said to Jess and slipped off the stool. ‘I’m going to bagsy the best bedroom.’ ‘We’re not in Juniors now, you know,’ she said, but nevertheless broke into a chase as I charged into the hallway and upstairs. The chandelier’s bulbs must have blown, so the landing was dark. Therefore I slowed and edged my way around to the very first door on the left, at the front of the house. It was locked, so I edged my way back, to the next door down. I opened it and switched on the light. ‘Hello Magazine eat your heart out,’ I murmured. Transfixed, we entered the sumptuous room. Bang opposite the door was a huge four poster oak bed, with silk crimson sheets trimmed with gold, and a row of pretty cushions embroidered with red and purple flowers, leant up against the headboard. A lavish dressing table with carved feet stood at the end of the room, by the huge back window which boasted generously cut crimson velvet curtains hanging to the floor. I peeked out onto the back garden and could just make out the trees Jess had talked about. I pushed open the top window and shivered as I listened for a moment. ‘Did you hear that shouting?’ I said and quickly closed the window. ‘Sounds like a couple on this street is having one humdinger of an argument.’ ‘Maybe life in Harpenden isn’t so idyllic after all.’ Next to the bed, on the left, was a huge oak wardrobe and further around, a door, no doubt leading to an ensuite. Sure enough, I glanced in. It couldn’t be more feminine, with the delicate pink smudged tiles, cream bathroom units and gold accessories. A showerhead stood over… was that a whirlpool bath? A floral design decorated the toilet seat and even the loo roll had a rose imprint on it. In a trance I headed for the bed and flopped down, just imagining myself in one of those fancy lifestyle magazine photo shoots. Groucho jumped up next to me and snuggled up. I gazed at a rich oil painting of a vase of poppies. ‘I can see you two aren’t going to budge.’ Jess grinned. ‘In here’s too posh for me anyway. Let’s look at the other rooms.’ Reluctantly, I heaved myself off the super sprung mattress, longing to squidge the lush carpet between my toes. In fact, I kicked off my boots and socks and padded around for a few seconds. It felt like the softest clover-filled lawn; it felt like I’d just had one of those trendy fish pedicures. ‘Come and look at this!’ called Jess. After a quick peek in the wardrobe, I hurried onto the landing. I walked to the next room and tried the handle. It was locked. Jess was in the next one along and I went in. With a whoop of joy, I headed straight for a black laptop and sat down in a swizzle chair. How had I managed almost a day without social media? ‘Wonder why he needed an office,’ said Jess, her gaze jumping from the immaculate cream blinds, to the beige leather sofa and shiny laminated floor. On the right hand wall was a massive plasma television. ‘Let’s hope the last two rooms aren’t too small, Kimmy, otherwise I might be sharing your bed.’ ‘As long as you don’t talk in your sleep, like Adam.’ Or dribble on the pillow. Or throw the duvet off every time I pull it up. I bit my lip. Sleeping alone tonight was going to be weird. The next door led into a mint green bathroom with a gleaming walk-in shower and shiny silver accessories. It even had a bidet! And was that a waterproof telly? I’d seen one on an old series of MTV Cribs. The tiling was understated and the streamlined accessories classy. Jess dragged me out, and along the landing to the last room at the front of the house. It was a modest size with a full bookcase. ‘Stieg Larsson, Audrey Niffeneger…’ murmured Jess, flicking through. ‘All the modern greats.’ I squinted. Hmm, couldn’t see any of Kim Kardashian’s novels and you didn’t get more modern than that. ‘You happy in here?’ I asked and took in the terracotta walls, peach bedcover and minimalist furniture. The room also had its own ensuite with gigantic mirrors. On the right, a big window faced the front garden. With its distinct lack of knick-knacks, this room was probably for guests. That meant one of the locked rooms must have been the master bedroom – probably the first one I’d tried to get into, on the other side of the landing, at the front. ‘Sure am,’ said Jess. ‘I left my novels at Ryan’s.’ She took a weathered-looking book off the shelf, sat down on the bed and yawned. ‘It’s been quite a day. Think I might get an early night.’ ‘But we haven’t been in the hot tub yet,’ I protested. ‘Or played at least one game of darts.’ I didn’t want to go to bed and, in the black of night, have to face thinking about my break-up with Adam this morning. ‘Some of us have got to be up for work tomorrow.’ Claws scratched against the door which opened slightly. Chocolate eyes appeared. Groucho squeezed himself through the gap and cocked his head. ‘I bet our instructions include taking him out for a late-night pee,’ said Jess and gave a wry smile. ‘Leave it to me,’ I said, with my most martyr-like expression. Jess grinned. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll stay up so that nosy you can tell me what you discovered about the neighbours.’ ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said innocently. ‘And I’ll have a list of things to do tomorrow ready for when you get back.’ With Groucho shadowing me, I trotted downstairs and into the kitchen. I grabbed my gold parka and slipped it on. Then I fetched the dog lead from the white desk in the hallway. I fastened it to Groucho’s collar and stopped by my pink case for a moment, wondering if I should change into something more fashionable. I wanted to make the right impression and it was good practice for dealing with all those fancy clients I’d have on my books when my business took off. Except I was pretty tired. It was dark. And somehow it wouldn’t feel the same without Adam there to tell me I looked nice. He still did that, even though we’d been going out for two years and eight months – longer than any of Mum’s boyfriends had hung around. Just as I’d get to the point where I’d hug her latest bloke longer than he’d hug me, there’d be some massive argument between him and Mum and he’d leave – whereas Adam had sticking power… ‘Come on, boy,’ I said, and we headed to the front door. I shivered. Was someone behind me? Don’t be stupid, I told myself. Don’t let that Luke spook you out. The air smelt grassy and fresh as I locked up behind us. I squinted through the darkness. No one was around. Where were the drunken shouts? The screech of bus brakes? The empty kebab wrappers? Ah yes. I’d left them, back in Luton. ‘Don’t tempt me!’ yelled a distant voice. Hmm. I spoke too soon. I was right, when I heard shouting outside, on opening the window of my new bedroom – some couple was having one hell of a row. I glanced down at the tiny Jack Russell. The last time I’d walked a dog it had belonged to Mum’s boyfriend before last. One and a half long years Rick had stayed, with his roll-ups, his mechanic’s oily nails and his Pirelli calendars. The plus was, he’d found my little car cheap and done it up. Also, he owned Stud, the gentlest of Staffies, with a tickle-stick tongue and shiny mocha coat. As soft as putty on the inside, if you gave him a biscuit, he held out his paw to say thanks. But he had the neck of a boxer and eyes of a jackal – I never felt scared walking him out, at night. Whereas Groucho stared up at me as if he rather hoped I might growl if anyone dodgy walked past. ‘Let’s track down this argument,’ I whispered to him and zipped up my jacket, hoping the evening dampness wouldn’t curl my hair. We veered left at the bottom of the drive and eventually a house even bigger than Walter’s loomed into view. That was proof of money – owning a place in a road where the homes are all different designs. I’d only ever lived in a terrace or block of flats. I squinted. A huge conservatory was attached to the back. This house was set further forwards than Walters’s and the brickwork looked centuries old. The left hand side was a wide turret. The massive front door was oak and had a huge chrome knocker, in the shape of… an eagle. Ivy climbed the door and in front of the turret was a double garage and… Wow! A parked silver and blue… I strained my eyes… Bugatti! I’d read an article on them and recognised the elegant shape, the spoiler and the distinctive two-toned bodywork. In the middle of the right hand lawn stood a grey water fountain and – another bonkers thing about this place – it was in the shape of a bag of golf clubs! Water ran from the club heads, poking out of the top. This house belonged to a sports-mad pensioner, no doubt. As we carried on, something black darted down from the trees. Was that a bat? ‘Don’t walk away from me, when I’m talking,’ shouted a woman’s voice. I crouched behind a bush in the front border. The Bugatti had been parked at an angle, as if the driver had been in a hurry to get inside. All the downstairs lights were on. A door slammed and seconds later a man and woman appeared in the top bedroom. Their outlines seemed strangely familiar. Groucho sniffed a nearby shrub and I evil-eyed him. Don’t you dare cock your leg just inches from my face! I stared again at the Bugatti. Adam would have killed to give that a test run… Suddenly the front door flew open and I ducked down further, behind the bush, inhaling the smell of wet leaves and damp soil. I could see frosty white mist escape my mouth, as I breathed in and out. Willing Groucho not to yap, I peered through a gap in the plants. At the sound of footsteps on the drive, and thanks to the porch light, I got a clear view of the man’s face. What? No, it couldn’t be. My heart skipped a beat, before I took a quick double take. The number plate said JON 45. I was right! IT WAS GOLFING STAR, JONNY WINSFORD! Chapter 6 (#ulink_8bfc3cb3-e276-5dca-80cf-8b8ed0b338f4) It’s official: miracles do happen; fantasies come true. My new neighbour was the hottest talent on the UK golfing circuit, known as The Eagle. That explained the door knocker and the bonkers water fountain. And that woman… I put my fist in my mouth. She must have been Melissa, she of the velvety voice who, only this morning, on the telly, had taken me through my putts and tee offs. Me? Living just along from the Winsfords? Who cares that I left my fitness DVDs in Adam’s flat, because now I had the real 3D version of the instructor living right next door. Not that Adam would be impressed. He reckoned golf was a sissy’s sport and that any bloke who promoted moisturiser was “a right muppet”. I bet he secretly fancied Melissa, though, with her full lips and pert bum. She’d single-handedly sexed up British golf – and her trophy-winning husband certainly put the pwhoar into plus fours. Between them, the Winsfords had brought golf to the nation and even increased sales of those naff jumpers with diamonds printed on. After their weekly appearances in the glossies, even I’d picked up lots of golfing terms, like a “slice” meaning a shot curving to the right, like a “bogey” – yuck – meaning a score of one over par. The bass beat of Jonny’s – I’d already decided we’d be on first name terms – radio pulsated loudly as he got in and revved the engine. As he reversed down the drive, Melissa raced out of the house. Unsteady on her feet, she wore a sexy nightie and screamed at him to stop. On a frosty patch of tarmac, she slid to a stop, then yanked open the car door, grabbed his… phew, belt, and pulled him out. I wanted a nightie that clung to my nipples; I wanted a car that didn’t need a bump start. She stabbed his chest with her finger and then shook her fist. In response, he stroked her hair, moved in closer and lifted her up. Wow. She looked even more glamorous, spread-eagled, across the blue bonnet. Maybe posh cars needed a hump start? ‘Let’s go.’ I whispered to Groucho, as Jonny lifted Melissa up again and carried her indoors. They were obviously one of those passionate couples who, like in the movies, had great make-up sex. Unlike me and Adam. He’d just sulk for days whereas I should copyright my selection of flounces and dramatic sighs. We were well-matched in that way and would jokingly vie for the Brownie points of apologising first. Wait until Jess heard about our glam neighbours, although glitzy sporting types weren’t really for her. She liked men with hidden depths and meaningful stares, like crossbow-armed Daryl out of zombie series The Walking Dead. God knows why she’d fallen for shallow Phil. ‘Lost something?’ asked a husky voice. Aargh, talk about zombies! Maybe I should’ve followed Adam’s advice - he never approved of women going out on their own after dark. I jumped up and gulped with relief not to find myself facing a member of the maggot-infested Undead. Instead I stared at a double chin and friendly eyes topped with defined grey brows. The old man wore a bright yellow cap and an even brighter anorak, tightly zipped up around his rotund front. Groucho wagged his tail and the man picked him up. ‘Hope I didn’t scare you. Let me introduce myself. I’m Terry.’ He gave a little bow. ‘I live the other side of Walter’s.’ He ruffled Groucho’s ears. ‘I spotted you earlier – you’re the new housesitter? Just settled in for the festive season?’ ‘Yes. The name’s Kimmy,’ I said, heart pounding. Jeez! First headless corpses carried down stairs, and now strangers creeping up on me in the dark… So much for Groucho alerting me of danger. ‘And there’s my friend, Jess – she’s housesitting too. I…um… thought I heard some money fall out of my pocket, that’s what I was looking for.’ I smiled and tucked my hair behind my ears, wishing I’d checked my make-up. No doubt this was an Important Person. You had to be, to afford a place in Badgers Chase. The man wore tartan trousers and – oh my God – over his shoulder had a brown leather man bag. LOL! I mean, funny. Must stop thinking in abbreviations. That’s the trouble with spending so much time on Facebook. ‘Did you know Mr Carmichael well?’ I asked, politely. ‘Walter?’ His sparkly eyes dipped at the corners for a second and he put Groucho back on the ground. ‘We’ve both lived here for… ooh, nearly two decades. Lily, his wife, died five years ago. They were the sweetest couple. She’d been ill for a while but seemed to have turned a corner. They even booked a cruise but, one night, she passed away, right out of the blue.’ ‘That’s so sad.’ Terry nodded. ‘Took it hard, he did, as you’d expect – for a long time talked about not wanting to keep Lily waiting.’ ‘Huh?’ ‘They didn’t have children. It was only the two of them. She’d promised to wait for him if she went first, at the Pearly Gates.’ He smiled. ‘I told you they were sweet.’ ‘How did he manage on his own?’ I asked, as we headed back to Walter’s. ‘As well as anyone can. Eventually he cleared the house of her things; even her fab pashminas and hats. Then he got a new kitchen fitted. She was a great cook – made a wicked lemon meringue.’ Terry sighed. ‘He couldn’t bear to spend time in the old kitchen – too many memories. He even got rid of her beloved Aga.’ ‘Didn’t he keep anything?’ ‘A few bits. She had this amazing recipe book that listed all her favourite cakes. Lily won lots of local competitions and there was a bit of a scrabble to find it after the wake, when her so-called friends from the Women’s Institute visited.’ He shook his head. ‘Not very dignified. Anyway, they were the kindest couple – traditional to the core. She never mowed the lawn and he never filled the kettle.’ ‘You must miss them… ’ I liked Terry. He wasn’t at all what I’d expected – not stuffy nor snooty. I had wondered whether the neighbours might blank me, like that posh designer clothes shop owner in St Albans, who’d evil-eyed me when I’d ventured inside during the sales. ‘Walter introduced me to his golf club,’ he said, ‘and recommended me for membership, even though some of the other members were a bit… well… didn’t approve of…’ ‘What?’ ‘Me. Strange isn’t it, seeing as golf is one of the campest sports in the world – what with the bright colours and plus fours, the silly club covers and all those jokes about holes-in-one. The first few games were a riot. My opponents hardly dared bend over to pick up their balls.’ I grinned. ‘Walter always had a great sense of humour, though. I’d never have got through my Ken’s… departure last year, without him.’ ‘You’ve also, um, lost, your partner? ‘We were fifteen years together. And I didn’t lose the bastard, he buggered off with a twenty year old shelf-stacker from BargainMarket – you know, the frozen food shop.’ He caught my eye and chuckled. ‘I’m trying to see the funny side now. At least he left me with a stocked freezer. Last count I still had forty-five mini pizzas, seventy-two sticky chicken skewers, ninety vegetarian spring rolls and a hundred and eight jumbo tempura prawns. Walter used to call in before his dinner sometimes and we’d share a plateful with a bottle of Merlot.’ He pulled a face. ‘Ghastly food.’ ‘So, why don’t you throw it out?’ ‘Now it’s just me, what else am I going to put in the freezer? And Walter would turn in his grave; said I should at least donate them to some soup kitchen for the homeless.’ ‘He sounds like a good bloke.’ ‘The best.’ Terry smiled at a middle-aged lady who walked past with her Dalmatian. She wore a glossy fur (was that real?) hat and matching gloves. ‘Anyway, listen to me blathering on,’ he said as we arrived at Walter’s drive. ‘Did you know the last housesitter?’ I said. ‘Luke… he’s the handyman–’ ‘Helpful lad.’ Really? ‘He was around earlier collecting her stuff – seems she left in a rush.’ We reached the drive. ‘She was, er, a pleasant enough woman. So was the one before her.’ He looked at me and shrugged. ‘Walter was always happy here, whereas everyone since…’ ‘What?’ He fiddled with his manbag for a moment. ‘It’s getting late. I never know when to stop chatting. You get off, to unpack. Why don’t I call in, some time, erm, in the daylight? I know Walter’s house inside out and could show you around. Luke can sometimes be a bit… He’s a busy man, but his heart is in the right place.’ Terry cleared his throat. ‘Only if you two girls want, though – an old fogey like me might cramp your style!’ ‘You cramp our style?’ I said, with a wink. Terry clapped me on the back. ‘I’m going to enjoy living next to you.’ ‘That would be great if you could show us where everything is. Thanks… Terry.’ I tugged my head towards the Winsfords’ place. ‘Must be cool for you, living two doors down from a golfing legend.’ ‘Legend? That would be Greg Norman or Seve Ballesteros. Whereas this rookie…He’s done okay. Bit flash, though. But his wife’s brought a breath of fresh air to the sport. Some of her clothes are just fabulous.’ His face lit up. ‘And I’m sure I saw that pushy brunette from morning telly at their house the other day, for some sort of interview. Then there was the time Antonia… ’ ‘Not Antonia Hamilton who won last year’s Strictly Disco?’ He clasped his hands together. ‘Yes! She visited. I think she took time off from her tour to help choreograph Melissa’s fitness DVD. I looked through my backlog of Starchat and sure enough, they both went to school together. They’d been photographed together by the paparazzi at some school reunion.’ ‘You keep a backlog of Starchat magazines too? My boyfriend never understood why I did that.’ ‘Neither did Ken.’ ‘And Infamous magazine?’ ‘Shh! It’s our little secret! We really ought to be reading some more upmarket coffee table magazine in Harpenden.’ I grinned again. ‘You’ll have to come round some time, Kimmy. Now must go. Frazzle will be wondering where I am.’ He tilted his cap. ‘Ciao, sweetie! Any problems, I’m just next door.’ Frazzle? Was that a nickname for some new boyfriend? He paused for a few seconds to look at Mistletoe Mansion, opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, then changed his mind. Mrs Winsford! Antonia Hamilton! Living here was going to be so cool. Maybe I’d become good mates with Melissa, we’d go shopping and she’d tell me the latest gossip about her famous chums. Perhaps she’d advise me on keeping your man, and help me win back Adam. Humming quietly, I led Groucho up the drive, when he suddenly ground to a halt. His chocolate button eyes stared right up at the locked front left room. I followed his gaze and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. In that top window, staring straight back, appeared a…a strangely illuminated, transparent face. Every millimetre of moisture drained from my mouth and my legs felt wobbly. I squinted as it darted from side to side, my heart racing and hands feeling clammy. OMG! Not only did we live next to a celebrity – now we had our very own ghost. OF COURSE! The G word that Deborah had managed to hide… That red writing, under the hole-punch… The Gh must have meant… I swallowed hard: Must Love Ghosts. I’d always wanted to appear on Most Haunted, that programme where they investigated spooky goings-on. Now I had my own live show. Stumbling slightly, I scooped up Groucho and looked around for Terry, but there was no sight of the bright anorak. I forced myself to gaze up at the window again and jumped back – it was still there. ‘Cooee!’ I warbled and waved with a trembling hand. Appear friendly. Don’t show you’re scared to death (unfortunate use of words, there). The face stopped still for a minute then darted manically. My stomach scrunched. Perhaps I’d upset it. Who knows what other ghouls were in this place? With a deep breath, I charged towards the house. There was no time to lose. Practically wetting myself with fear or not, I had to get in the house and warn Jess. Chapter 7 (#ulink_95407db5-aa9d-523c-b8b1-a34985e29a43) Go on, you beast, do your worst. Turn into some incisor-flashing, blood-drooling werewolf… Try and take a bite. I’m not scared. It was no good. My attempts at telepathy were useless. Groucho merely rolled onto his back, batting his chocolate button eyes for a tickle. Clearly he’d be no help fighting against some spirit risen from the dead. I was trying to convince Jess that there really was evil afoot in Mistletoe Mansion. ‘Officially nuts’ – that’s what she thought I was. ‘A ghost?’ she’d eventually said. ‘You’ve been watching far too much Most Haunted.’ Just because I’d tried to impress her with what I’d learnt from the show and talked of light anomalies and residual energies. But she didn’t laugh out loud until I suggested asking this astral being I’d spotted to knock three times to prove it was there.Tears had run down her face as she’d waved me out of her room. ‘It’s late,’ she’d said, and giggled. ‘I’ve got work tomorrow. And no, this isn’t Blue Peter, so I’ll decline your request to help you make a Ouija board out of cereal boxes and loo roll.’ Still spooked, I’d then played dirty and questioned her love of a certain supernatural zombie series. She’d shaken her head. Didn’t I know those shows were fictional? Squinting at the shafts of morning winter sunshine, I dumped my shopping on the kitchen floor and made an extra strong coffee. Last night I’d hadn’t slept a wink, due to all my senses being on red alert, homing in on every suspicious creak or thud. Yet when Jess popped into my room before work – with my first caffeine shot of the day and with the daily to-do list Luke had mentioned (Jess had edited it of course, and written on several other things she thought were important) – we had a good laugh. Maybe she was right. The face I saw could have been the moon’s reflection. As if a cut-throat estate agent would believe in, let alone jot down notes about, ghosts. Not that Jess was happy when I finally told her about Deborah running after us, trying to stop our car. She worried there might be something wrong with the tyres or exhaust. Not likely. Adam gave my car a thorough check-over, once a month. Tucking my slightly frizzy hair behind my ears, I gazed out of the kitchen window, onto the sweeping back garden and the cloudless, crisp December sky. A smile inflated my cheeks. I had to update my Facebook status to “Kimmy Jones is…” What’s that expression? Living the life of Riley? No, living the life of Kylie, more like! After the shock of Adam dumping me, my stomach still twisted when thinking of him, but the waves of nauseous hurt were now alleviated by my belief that me helping to sell Mistletoe Mansion could bring me and Adam back together. It was great to be back in this bubble of luxury after my quick trip to the supermarket. I’d been tempted to drive into Harpenden and explore the upmarket food shops. But I’d found some cash for our expenses, in with the list of instructions, and it wouldn’t stretch too far. So, I’d headed to my usual store and bought the essentials (Pringles and Oreos) before buying baking ingredients and other groceries. I’d also picked up some cheap garlands of tinsel, to drape over the pictures and portraits, otherwise – my broken tree apart – no one could tell Christmas was only two weeks away. Despite the storm, my car started straightaway, after its first ever night in a garage. What fun I’d had with the remote – at the touch of a button: garage door up, garage door down. I finished my drink, put away the shopping and ticked off the first entry on Jess’s list (“Stock up”). What an awesome kitchen, with its pristine cupboards that opened properly and shiny worktops. And what an array of utensils, some of which looked surprisingly old. Walter must have kept more reminders of his wife than Terry knew about. There were Tupperware boxes, pastry cutters, jelly moulds, pie funnels, whisks and spatulas… Yet the inside of the double oven was spotless. After Lily’s death, Walter must have eaten out every day or nuked ready meals for one, in the microwave. The doorbell rang. I put away the last bottle of milk and yawned as I headed for the front door. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have slept last night anyway. Apart from the shower dripping every sixth second (I counted), the bed was well big without Adam. I’d stretched star-shaped, burped out loud, done all those things I’d fantasised about doing if I ever slept alone. But it wasn’t much fun and I felt even worse when Groucho reminded me of an amorous Adam, by waking me up with a nudge in the back (except the pointy body part Groucho used was his paw). The doorbell rang again and I looked at my watch – it was almost time for a sandwich. Suddenly I stopped dead. My heart raced. What if that was Melissa, inviting me around for a sushi lunch? Or maybe she just drank that maple and cayenne pepper diet formula all the celebrities swore by. She was so slim, I bet she never ate a bacon butty or double cheeseburger with extra large fries. I dashed into the hallway and wished there was a mirror to check my appearance. Feeling judgy, I glanced down at my legs, squished into discount skinny jeans. At least I was wearing my new black top with a silver sequinned stiletto on the front. I sucked in my stomach. What would I say? Pretend not to know her? Or gush about her talented husband? ‘Just coming!’ I politely called, at the last minute remembering my – what did the French call it? – pièce de résistance. I couldn’t resist buying it, whilst out at the shops. I legged it back into the kitchen and grabbed a cute pink canine sweater with glitter trim off the worktop. I tore off the tag and knelt down by Groucho’s bed. ‘Good boy,’ I said and made him stand up. Well, they didn’t have it in blue, and weren’t dogs supposed to be colour blind? Wrestling his front paws, I managed to pull it on snugly and adjust the shape. ‘Aren’t you handsome?’ I cooed. Melissa probably had a Toy Poodle or Chihuahua. ‘Naughty, don’t pull back your top lip. Pink is soooo your colour.’ Feeling like Paris Hilton or Britney, I carried him (squeezed as if my arm were a vice, to be honest). Talk about ungrateful – he did his best to tug off the new outfit. I opened the door to a wall of icy air and felt the smile drop from my face. ‘You again?’ Oops. That sounded a bit rude. Terry thought Luke was okay, so perhaps I should try to see his better side. It wasn’t his fault that he’d made me realise not all men were as thoughtful and considerate as Adam. ‘Ten out of ten.’ Luke eyed Groucho’s sweater. ‘You going to invite me in? After all, I did ring the bell this time.’ ‘Can I ask what for?’ It’s not as if this Luke owned the place; he couldn’t just call by for no good reason. ‘The chandelier bulbs blew during that storm, yeah? Of course, if you’d rather fix them yourself…’ ‘Erm, okay,’ I muttered. He was wearing those light cords again with a blue shirt, under his unzipped anorak. The skin on his chest (what little of it I could see) was tanned and his profile straight and solid. Yet he didn’t seem the gym bunny type, like Adam, whose muscular shape was well-defined. Luke bobbed out of view for a moment, and then came in carrying a step ladder and toolbox. ‘What’s with the jumper?’ He nodded at Groucho. Groucho barked and I released him to the ground. He rolled on his back, paws scrabbling at his stomach. ‘Think he’s trying to tell you something.’ Without asking, Luke bent down and pulled the jumper off. ‘Why did you do that?’ Honestly, forget my good intentions. He could have at least asked first. ‘He’ll overheat indoors, let alone be the laughing stock.’ He ruffled Groucho’s head. ‘That better, mate?’ Annoyingly, the little dog ruffed. ‘He has been taken out this morning, hasn’t he?’ ‘There’s no need to check up on us,’ I said stiffly. ‘We found the list of instructions. It’s not rocket science.’ ‘How about a cup of tea then, Jess?’ He leant forward towards me. Once more I smelt his musky aftershave that made the word “sex” pop into my head. ‘It’s Kimmy,’ I muttered. ‘Huh?’ Arghhh! This man really was soooo annoying! ‘I might put the kettle on,’ I sniffed, ‘if you have a look at the shower in my room. It’s dripping. Or leave me a large pair of pliers and I’ll unscrew it later. I reckon the washer’s damaged.’ He stared at me for a second. ‘No. It’s okay. I’ll take a look. Where are you sleeping?’ ‘At the back of the house, on the left.’ ‘Lily’s room.’ His face softened. ‘She suffered from insomnia; preferred her own space so she could do her embroidery in the night, without waking up Walter.’ Luke must have known the Carmichaels well. He made them sound more like relatives than former employers. ‘Milk, no sugar, thanks Jess,’ he beamed. I glared, turned three sixty degrees and made my way back into the kitchen. Scraping my hair back into a ponytail, I ignored his irritating whistling. I seized some flour, sugar butter, eggs, rummaged around for a sieve and mixing bowl, then grabbed the fab silicone cupcake pan Jess had bought me for my last birthday. There was nothing better for stress than beating cake batter – apart from eating it of course, once it had been baked, iced and sprinkled. Mmm. Three quarters of an hour later, six naked cupcakes stood on a wire rack, almost cool and waiting to be dressed. I’d mixed the batter with a generous dollop of mincemeat and was just finishing off the brandy buttercream icing, which I piped on top. Then I delicately added a green marzipan holly leaf and red berry to each one. Just as well I’d subbed our expenses money to pay for my baking ingredients. I grinned to myself. This was the kitchen I’d always dreamed of. Film crews could tape my latest series here: Kimmy’s Sixty Minute Meals (I wasn’t as quick as Jamie Oliver). ‘All done,’ said a voice behind me. I turned around and to my annoyance my cheeks burned. He’d taken off his anorak, unbuttoned his shirt a little and had rolled up the sleeves. Determined to find a distraction from his appealingly toned skin, I focused on a scab above his eyebrow. ‘Um, your cup of tea, I forgot…’ ‘Let me.’ He brushed past me to wash his hands before filling the kettle. He reached for the packet of tea bags and my eyes ran over his lean back. He was lankier than Adam; looked as if he kept himself in shape without really trying. ‘How’s your head?’ I said, when the drinks were ready. We sat down at the breakfast table and he helped himself to a cupcake. Deep breaths. Must be nice, because apart from anything else I wanted to quiz him and find out why some of the bedrooms – particularly the one where I’d seen the moon-face – were locked. ‘I’ll live.’ Luke shrugged. ‘You not having one?’ ‘It’s lunch time.’ ‘But you might have poisoned it; perhaps you still think I’m the Harpenden Ripper.’ He took a knife out of a nearby drawer and cut the cake into four. He offered me a quarter. ‘Thanks.’ Why did I say that? After all, I was the host and he was the guest. Although nothing made me happier than watching someone stuff their face with my cake. It made me feel like I’d won the lottery or magically fitted into a size ten. ‘Not bad.’ Crumbs fell from his mouth and I felt an inexplicable urge to run my finger along his top lip, which was covered with the brandy buttercream icing. Not that there was any need as, seconds later, he slowly licked it off with his tongue. I touched my throat. No surprise that he didn’t use a napkin like Adam. Good, reliable, straightforward Adam, who knew my name was Kimmy and didn’t break into houses to cavort around with headless dummies. ‘Lily made amazing cakes,’ he said. ‘A rich fruity one with brandy was one of her specialities.’ I took a bite and then another. Mmm, great, the sponge was lovely and light, despite the mincemeat. The sugar soon worked its magic and made me think that maybe Luke wasn’t so bad after all. Another bite. I mean, here we were, drinking together, making chit-chat… ‘Yes – I’ve heard about her secret recipe book that some of her so-called friends have been trying to get their hands on,’ I said. Luke picked up another quarter, leaving me the slice with the marzipan holly. ‘So, Miss Cake-baker, what’s the story? Why are you really here?’ I almost choked. ‘Pardon?’ He lolled against the back of the stool. ‘We both know you two girls aren’t housesitters.’ ‘And what makes you say that?’ I said airily, and tried to keep my cool. ‘For a start, you’ve picked holly out of the garden and, along with that gaudy tinsel, decorated the house. Then I spotted a framed photo of you and some bloke out on show, in your bedroom. The first day here you’re baking and worried about a slightly dripping shower as if you hope to stay here for a long time. Then there’s that god awful dog sweater.’ He took a swig of tea. ‘You’ve even bought potpourri for the lounge. All of these things say to me that you see Mistletoe Mansion as some kind of home, rather than a job. Housesitters don’t become attached like that. They bring the minimum amount of stuff and leave half of it packed.’ ‘I’m… a bit of a homebird,’ I waffled. ‘What’s wrong with trying to make a place cosy, especially at this time of year? Anyway, what is this? Oprah?’ His eyes flashed as he grinned and for some reason part of me enjoyed the banter. He smirked. ‘Bet the reason you’re here involves a man. That guy in the photo?’ ‘I’m a professional woman.’ I cleared my throat. ‘This job is not some knee-jerk reaction to Adam and me… It’s just another contract.’ ‘Whatever you say.’ ‘And anyway… This place, I can’t explain it… it’s got a good feeling,’ I said and shrugged. ‘It doesn’t feel empty. It feels like a home.’ He stared at me for a moment and ran a hand through his hair. Fighting thoughts of how I’d like to do that – just because, um, it would be pleasant sensation, of course – I stared fixedly into his eyes. ‘Best cupcake I’ve ever tasted, by the way,’ he said. My chest glowed. ‘Thanks. Have another one.’ I still needed to ask him about the locked rooms. ‘Better not. Things to do. The summerhouse door needs mending – I’ve been putting it off for days, what with recent rain. It won’t take long and then I’ll be out of your way.’ Summerhouse? How cool was that! I grabbed my gold parka and followed him and Groucho into the back garden and hung back for a second as winter sun rays tickled my face. As well as Luke whistling, birds chirped and far away, young children giggled and shrieked. A distant aeroplane streaked the blue sky. I strolled past a large shed and impressive patch of wildflowers swaying gently. Further on, bushes bulged with white berries… This place was pretty enough now – in the summer it must look awesome. This was one huge garden. Surely if Adam were here, right at this moment, he would understand why I aspired to a life so much bigger and better than the one I had? Luke’s whistling stopped as, towards the bottom of the garden, he examined the door of what looked like the poshest Wendy house, just in front of the poplar and apple trees. It was shaded by a weeping willow which was almost as big as the one in the front. I caught him up and peeked through the windows at a wicker table and two matching chairs with embroidered pillows. Talk about a private beach hut. I could just imagine myself lounging on the decking at the front, in designer glasses and eating a skinny ice cream… I could see the tabloids’ paparazzi photos of me sitting in the shade, reading some movie script, wearing shades and one of those Greta Garbo turbans, with Luke, topless, fanning me with a palm leaf… ‘Aren’t you supposed to be cleaning the house? This isn’t a holiday park,’ muttered Luke, back to his former unfriendly self. Daydreaming ruined and my sugar rush having worn off, I stared at him – why run hot and cold? Airily, I walked on a little, to admire a regimental-looking vegetable garden. A little overgrown, but… wow! Those looked like leek tops and various other lines of green leaves… Vegetarian Jess wouldn’t believe her luck. With a glare at Luke, I made my way back inside. What was it with him? I was making an effort, even though we’d got off to a bad start. With a sigh, I walked through the kitchen, on my way picking up some nibbles I’d bought for the Games Room which I took in and stashed behind the bar. Dust covered all the bar’s glasses and with the sun shining on the panes, I could see that the inside of the windows needed a good scrub down. However, riled by Luke saying I needed to start cleaning, I delayed and picked up the darts. One by one I threw them at the dartboard. Triple twenty! I hadn’t lost my touch. One of Mum’s boyfriends had been a pub team champion. I took three more shots. Several goes later, I yawned, left the Games Room and went to check my shower, unable to face another sleepless night. As I went upstairs, I cocked my ear to listen for dripping water but instead heard a strange noise, like… a blowing gale. There it went again. I ran up to check in Jess’s room. Perhaps it was some of that New Age stuff she listened to, like the tide breaking or the mating call of whales. But there was no CD player; her iPod was missing. The office was very quiet too. The spooky image from the night before jumped into my mind and within seconds my hands felt clammy. But ghosts didn’t haunt houses this modern, I told myself, sternly. You only had to watch Most Haunted to know they hung out in historical buildings and graveyards. I went into the ensuite in my room. The dripping had stopped. At least that Luke had done something right. I came back out into the bedroom and picked up the photo of me and Adam. Sunday morning – normally we’d still be in bed, him reading the paper after I’d pinched the supplement to read the celebrity stories. Then we’d head over to his parents for a traditional roast. I’d take dessert. My chest tightened. Life with him was comfortable. I enjoyed chilling with him – enjoyed curling up cosily at night, with someone who accepted me for who I was. I shook my head. Thing was, since yesterday, I’d been questioning whether that was really true. Adam asking me to leave confirmed what I’d refused to consider for a while now – he didn’t truly “get” the real me, who had ambitions and aspired to running a successful baking empire. Yet this realisation didn’t stop me missing my “Ex” – there, I managed to say that word without choking or going through a box of tissues. Perhaps I should phone him. Plenty of couples stayed together happily, despite not fully understanding each other… right? I reached into my trouser pocket for my mobile… Urgh. No. I pulled back my hand. Stay strong. Best to wait a couple of days, by which time he’d work out that the toilet didn’t clean itself. I glanced up. Funny, I hadn’t heard the bedroom door close – a draught must have pushed it shut. I gripped the gold door handle. Hmm. It wouldn’t budge. I grasped tighter and pulled it hard. Still no luck. Heart thumping, I again recalled the spooky face from last night and hurried over to the window. Down on the lawn, Groucho swaggered up to a blackbird. It looked like Luke had gone. Maybe if I shouted through the open top window, that friendly man Terry or Melissa would hear and raise the alarm. But their houses were so far away, not like the mid-terrace I’d grown up in where the neighbours could probably hear my disgusting teenage brother break wind. What would they have done on Most Haunted? ‘I mean you no harm,’ I eventually said, voice trembling. ‘Show me a sign that someone is here.’ At that exact moment, a sweet-smelling cloud of smoke edged its way under the door. What now, a fire? Had I left the oven on? Yes, that must be it. My chest relaxed for a second. All these shenanigans had to be due to something logical like that – except that… that… the smoke smelt kind of sweet and the whooshing wind noise increased in pitch. Oh shit! I swallowed hard. ‘Show me your presence,’ I stuttered, mouth dry, like I’d scoffed a whole packet of wafer crackers. Brave Kimmy Flees Fire – I could see the headline in OK Magazine. And a photo of me and Adam, arms around each other, him declaring his love since I’d almost died. I sat on the bed and picked up the list of instructions I’d been reading that morning. There was no other option; Luke was nearest. I’d have to find his number and ring for his help. The police was a no-no. If Mr Murphy got to hear of any damage, from me having potentially caused a fire, he’d probably blame me and I’d be out; I’d lose my chance to impress Adam. I had to keep any funny goings-on in this house well under wraps. Ghost or no ghost, Mr Murphy had to think my stay was running smoothly. My finger ran down the page, to Luke’s number. I slid my phone out of my trouser pocket and dialled. ‘Luke? It’s me, Kimmy… The housesitter. I’m trapped, in the bedroom. Talk about odd noises… and I think something’s on fire.’ I lowered my voice. ‘Someone’s in the house, I’m sure of it. Can you come back? I wouldn’t ask if there was anyone else.’ Apparently Luke was in his car and about to drive off. Finally, with a sigh, he said to shut myself in the ensuite, just in case the smoke was dangerous. Not that I needed his advice. I laid a damp towel across the bottom of the bedroom door. It reminded me of the time Mum lit the barbecue with petrol and the flames instantly spread to the lawn. Hands flapping, she’d run around the garden, whilst I got the hose and put it out. After a few minutes, a voice shouted, ‘Kimmy? You in the bathroom?’ Legs feeling wobbly, I pushed open the ensuite door and there Luke stood, by Lily’s bed, chestnut hair all tousled. Slowly I left the bathroom. I looked around. ‘Was it, um, the oven? Have you put out the fire?’ ‘This your idea of a joke?’ His lips pursed. ‘It’s not my job to play your silly games. My Murphy pays me to do handy work. That’s all. I’ve got another job to get to.’ ‘Games?’ ‘Smoke, an intruder, sounds of a blowing gale…? What next? Voices coming out of the telly?Crockery moving on its own?’ He shook his head. ‘And as for your door being locked…’ ‘I could have been burnt to death!’ He laughed. ‘I know it’s a boring job, minding the house, but really – if you need company, go visit Terry next door, he’s a sound bloke. I’m flattered, don’t get me wrong, but…’ ‘You think I fancy you?’ My top lip curled. Who the hell did he think he was? He folded his arms. ‘Why else would you pretend the shower was broken? Ply me with cupcakes? Ask me to come back and put out some imaginary fire?’ ‘That dripping kept me awake all last night!’ ‘All the showerhead needed was a good clean. Any idiot could see that.’ ‘Well, for your information, I’m not romantically available,’ I said, through gritted teeth. ‘That photo you spotted is of–’ ‘Adam?’ he smirked. ‘Yes. My boyfriend… well my Ex… But we’re getting back together and I’m not looking for a replacement and even if I was, you would hardly be–’ I stopped. Did someone just scream? This whole cul-de-sac was bloody bonkers, what with shagging on Bugattis and smoke under doors; what with dogs that didn’t understand pooch jumpers were the in-thing and big-headed handymen who thought a leaky shower was an excuse for seduction. Luke eyed me for a second, as if he might say something else, but instead charged downstairs. I followed. There was another bloodcurdling scream and we legged it onto the drive. Chapter 8 (#ulink_7ff3663d-d36d-5936-b0fd-bf13b55ef5fe) ‘This is a matter of life and death!’ screeched a female voice. ‘You can’t do this!’ OMG! My recent scary experience forgotten, I instantly recognised the back of that beautifully coiffured head. Melissa Winsford stood on the pavement at the bottom of Walter’s drive, shouting into a phone, wearing the shortest, tightest blue dress, which showed off every inch of her size six legs, plus a tailored black leather jacket and what looked like a real crocodile skin handbag. The sunglasses (totes unnecessary) had a Chanel C on the side. I could tell that, under the flesh-coloured tights, her caramel tan was perfect, with no streaks or blotches of orange – unlike my legs, which had the odd razor cut and patch of stubble. On the pavement just behind her, I stood panting, next to Luke. We’d practically sprinted the length of the drive. ‘Don’t think you’ll get away with this!’ she yelled. ‘I’ll spread the word – make sure you never work south of Watford again!’ She stuffed the phone into her bag and something like a sob escaped her lips. Maybe her doctor had misdiagnosed some fatal illness. Or her accountant had fiddled the books. ‘Are you okay?’ I asked and subtly tried to brush flour off my jeans. Pity I hadn’t had time this morning to re-straighten my hair. She jumped and turned around. ‘How long have you two been there? Do tell your editor that there’s nothing to report and if you’ve taken any photos, darling,’ she said to me in a more velvety voice, ‘delete them and I’ll provide you with some shots that’ll really sell.’ She unzipped her leather jacket and subtly pushed out her double D cups. What a pro! ‘We’re not the press. I’m Luke. Last month I unblocked your upstairs loo, as a favour to Mr Winsford. He saw me mending Mr Carmichael’s roof.’ ‘How nice for you, darling.’ She stopped posing, whilst I chuckled as she visibly shuddered at his cords. If only I’d thought to grab Groucho, complete with his new glitter-trimmed sweater. ‘Are you the cleaner?’ she asked me. ‘I’d have thought they’d have sold this place by now.’ ‘No, I’m…’ My cheeks flamed up and I felt toasty warm, despite being out in the arctic air without a coat. What was my name, again? Deep breath, in and out… Pull yourself together. ‘I’m Kimmy. The housesitter. Can I just say, what a fan I am, Melissa? Is it okay to call you that? I follow all your fashion tips in Starchat. Did…’ She held up a hand. ‘Cute. Drop by my place later; the housekeeper will give you a signed photo.’ ‘We thought you were in trouble,’ said Luke, a long blade of grass now in between his teeth. ‘Obviously we needn’t have bothered dropping everything to run to your side.’ She fished in her handbag and pulled out a crisp twenty pound note. ‘That’s for your time.’ Luke shook his head and, whistling, strode back up the drive. ‘Is he gay?’ she whispered. ‘He’s certainly got the body for it. And with some top products he could have great hair. Although his whistling would give me a headache… Why can’t he just wear an iPod like any normal person?’ She passed me the twenty, instead. ‘You take it.’ ‘Um, thanks!’ I just couldn’t turn down the chance to hold a banknote that had once belonged to someone famous. Melissa still wore her glasses. Maybe her eyes were red and swollen. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’ I asked softly. ‘That phone call… I couldn’t help hearing…’ She removed her glasses. Were those false eyelashes? And tattooed eyebrows were so cool. ‘Have you ever been let down badly, Kimmy?’ ‘Yes, there was that time–’ ‘Hurts, doesn’t it,’ she continued. ‘It was going to be one of the most important days of my life.’ ‘What was? I hid my hands behind my back, wishing I’d redone the nail varnish before breakfast. ‘I’m having a little get-together this week, for some of the golf wives from the local club. Nothing flash – not like the parties I have with the national birdies. But still – I want to make an effort. Jonny and I have lived here for over a year now, and… I don’t feel like I know them much at all.’ Her smile nearly blinded me as the winter sun caught her Osmond white teeth. ‘Not that I’m bothered, you understand, I’m a busy woman.But the golf on a local level, the social life, it’s still important to Jonny…’ Really? If the tabloids were right, her husband spent most of his time abroad, or in Woburn or London. Perhaps she got lonely out here in the sticks, where the theatre was hardly West End and the common was no Hyde Park. Although Harpenden was only half an hour away on the train from the capital, not that I expect she ever took public transport. ‘I’ve pretended it’s a fundraiser,’ she continued, ‘told them to bring their cheque books. But the real reason, the real surprise…’ She clapped her hands. ‘I’ve arranged for them to all have Botox! A few injections and I’ll be their new best friend.’ ‘But I thought you hadn’t had anything done… In all your interviews you say…’ She gave a bright laugh. ‘Some of these ladies are older than me – it’s a favour to them. It goes without saying, I don’t need it yet.’ I raised my eyebrows. ‘Okay, maybe I’ve had it done once,’ she said and gave another small laugh, ‘as an experiment, nothing more.’ But she’d only just turned thirty! I gazed at her rosebud lips. Maybe she also had fillers and collagen; perhaps dermabrasion or a chemical peel. I studied her face with interest. Reading the gossip magazines practically qualified me to carry out most procedures. According to Infamous, the top players’ wives didn’t approve of her glamour. She’d only met Jonny a couple of years ago, and they still thought her under their league. Clearly they didn’t know class when they saw it. You only had to flick through the magazine spreads of the Winsfords’ wedding to see that Melissa had good taste. It had taken place right at the beginning of December and was Christmas themed. Melissa wore mini-bauble earrings and a dress trimmed with fur. The vicar let them spray the length of the aisle with fake snow. At the reception there was a whole turkey on each table, with crackers. As for the cake, it was an almost life-sized chocolate Christmas log, decorated with fake robins. Perfect. ‘Has the doctor let you down, then?’ I asked. Perhaps she’d booked some dodgy East European medic you see on those documentaries called things like “Plastic Surgery Holidays from Hell: How My Nipples Fell Off”. ‘Doctor? No, my lovely nail lady, Sandra, is doing it.’ She sighed. ‘Don’t know what I’d do without that women, she’s more like a counsellor, the problems she’s helped me talk through whilst she’s filed and buffed. Anyway, no, it’s far worse than that. The top-notch catering I’d ordered – a small exclusive company run by a chef who used to work at Claridge’s… He’s pulled out.’ ‘Oh.’ Naughty of me, wasn’t it, to feel disappointed that her upset wasn’t caused by a more sensational story? But I was used to her living her life in the headlines. I wanted the excitement of affairs, drug problems, surgery gone wrong or – every girl’s nightmare – cellulite, weight gain and spots. ‘That’s bad luck,’ I said and tried to sound sympathetic. Adam would have told her to get a life and do the cooking herself. Melissa shook her head. ‘People nowadays, it’s all me, me, me. Just because his mother died suddenly last night. I mean, I’m only asking for one afternoon out of the week.’ Footsteps approached and Luke walked past with his toolbox whilst I digested her news. Er, she did sound just a bit insensitive. I squirmed, trying to ignore the possibility that one of my favourite celebrities wasn’t perfect after all. Melissa scrolled through the contacts on her phone. ‘There’s no way I’m cancelling. It took me long enough to get some of those wrinklies to agree to come.’ She caught my eye and gave a nervous giggle. ‘I mean, those lovely ladies are so busy with their charity work and families, they don’t have time to look after themselves properly,’ cooed her velvet tones. ‘I was thrilled to finally find a date they could all make. I’m trying to move them into the twenty-first century and make them more on trend. On trend. I loved that expression. Yet if I used it I’d sound like Eliza Doolittle trying her luck at being the Speaking Clock. ‘God knows it took long enough to get the national birdies to wear matching jackets, like the Americans,’ continued Melissa. She sighed. ‘The Ryder Cup will be here before I know it. I’ll have to start my pre-tournament diet. You know, the last fancy lunch I went to was at the house of the team’s brightest new player, Jason Lafont. His wife…’ ‘Alexandra?’ I’d seen her in one of those more traditional magazines full of recipes, short stories and adverts for clothes with elasticated waists. Mrs Lafont was a more natural version of Melissa, with strawberry blonde waves and natural curves. Much as I admired Melissa’s dedication to her appearance, I’d never have implants, not since reading they could burst on an aeroplane or if you sneezed really loud. ‘Yes. Alexandra,’ she said, as Luke appeared at the front door. ‘She put on miniature fish ‘n’chips in specially made newspaper cones. It was salmon, of course, with sweet potato wedges, balsamic vinegar and pesto ketchup on the side. It was all anyone talked about for weeks afterwards.’ ‘Try Kimmy’s cupcakes,’ said Luke, as he strode past, heading towards his van. ‘They’re up there with Mr Kipling’s; exceedingly good.’ Huh? So now he was being nice? ‘I don’t think so.’ She pressed dial on her phone. ‘Hi Charlotte,’ she said. ‘Did I ever phone to say those canapés we had at your Wimbledon party were out of this world? Hmm. Yes, really super. In fact, I was wondering, what’s the name of your caterer? Really?’ Melissa pulled a face. ‘Gosh, clever old you! Oh, my taxi’s arrived, must dash. Let’s lunch some time. Byeee!’ She ended the call. ‘Ghastly woman,’ she muttered. ‘Teeth as yellow as custard. I can’t believe she does her own baking.’ She fanned her face as Luke started the van’s engine and drove off. ‘Why don’t you come inside?’ I said. ‘I’ve just made a fresh batch of cakes. I cater for parties and can do any flavour you like.’ ‘You run your own cupcake company?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, with more confidence than I felt. Well I did. I’d been paid for my work and I was the boss. ‘I’ve catered widely for children’s parties, weddings…’ Okay, only one, but still. Adam would be proud – here I was, pushing my business forward. Except Melissa was looking at her phone again… I took a deep breath. ‘Our current, um, specials are all to do with Christmas. Like Cranberry and Orange, Merry Berry and Mouthwatering Mincemeat,’ I gushed. ‘There’s also a, um, skinny range for the health-conscious.’ Did I sound entrepreneurial? I hoped so – this was the chance of a lifetime. Imagine me, catering for the Winsfords? Perhaps OK Magazine would do a photo shoot. I’d have to get some business cards done. If Jess was off work, she could waitress and… Another deep breath. ‘Then there’s our regular alcoholic range,’ I continued, ‘including Pina Colada surprises topped with Malibu flavoured buttercream icing and popping candy, and coffee cakes decorated with, um, Baileys whipped cream, plus festive Port and Orange. Then there are the fun ones,’ I said, thinking back to the kids’ parties I’d catered for, ‘decorated with green and red sprinkles, marzipan Santas and snowmen…’ ‘I suppose a look wouldn’t hurt.’ The phone went back into her handbag. ‘After all. I am desperate. My knees shook. I’d invited the star of all my magazines in for a coffee and cake and she’d said yes! Chapter 9 (#ulink_67c7908a-8ec3-5a6a-908b-08d9d170a36b) ‘I wish now I’d put a dress code on the invitation: no sleeveless blouses.’ Melissa shuddered. ‘A couple of the golfers’ wives don’t even shave under their arms.’ I waved at Terry as I turned to close the front door. He was driving past in his cream Beetle. Melissa craned her neck to look into Walter’s lounge. ‘Cute. Very homely.’ Her tone shouted “boring and bland”. I pointed past the staircase. ‘The kitchen’s through there.’ As she led the way, I ogled her thin thighs. ‘Do you do your DVD every day?’ ‘Mine? You’ve got to be jok… Ahem. Yes, of course I do.’ She turned around and beamed. ‘If I’m not too busy. What with my massage appointments, nails and hair, then there’s the sessions with my personal trainer, three times a week – and that’s only if I’m not speeding up to London to have lunch with Lucy Locklove.’ Lucy Locklove! She was only my all-time fave TV presenter! ‘It’s hard work being a national sportsman’s wife. Even on holidays I have to be well turned out, because of the paparazzi. For our last spring break in Barbados I bought ten bikinis.’ I pointed to the breakfast table and scraped my hair back into a scrunchie that was in my jeans’ pocket. Melissa brushed some crumbs off a stool and sat down. Didn’t she have just the perfect life? The golfer’s wife had matched all my expectations about celebritydom. I couldn’t wait to see inside her home. ‘Do you see much of the national birdies?’ I said as she rested her bag on her lap. I put one of the mincemeat brandy butter cakes on a plate and passed it over. ‘Only when the tournaments are on. I’m still a bit new to the group. Luke Donald doesn’t live far away, though. His wife’s really into art…’ ‘Diana Donald’s gorgeous-looking,’ I muttered. During the Open, Starchat had done a page on the best-dressed golfers’ wives. ‘It’s her Greek roots,’ said Melissa and shrugged. ‘Ian Poulter’s wife, Katie, is okay too; used to be a nurse.’ ‘They sound… normal,’ I said. ‘Not like footballers’ wives.’ ‘I suppose most are – although Sam Torrance’s wife used to be a film star. Another is a show jumper.’ I wondered what Melissa used to do. The magazines never spoke about that. ‘Napkin?’ she said. ‘Of course.’ Oh dear. Kitchen roll would have to do. She picked up the cake and smelt the buttercream icing before prodding the marzipan holly leaf with a long nail. Then she took the biggest bite ever and, in slow motion, chewed. I took this opportunity to scrutinise, up close, the first celebrity I’d seen for real. She had a smooth forehead, no crow’s feet, manicured nails, non-existent roots, tattooed eyebrows in an immaculate arc and spotless skin, as well as full lips, perfectly outlined and glossed. What a goddess. The camera didn’t lie, not if you had access to all the top cosmetic procedures and products. ‘Try this,’ I said and passed her one of the Cranberry and Orange ones I’d made at Adam’s. But I almost dropped it upside down when she put the kitchen roll to her lips and… Did she spit out my cake? ‘Is there a bin in here?’ she asked and I pointed to one of the cupboards. Had I been fooling myself? Were my non-celebrity friends and family too kind to tell me that actually, my cooking was pants? She helped herself to another piece of kitchen roll and took a big mouthful of the Cranberry and Orange one, then did exactly the same again – chewed slowly, before spitting it out. ‘They are fabulous – with the light texture, irresistible flavours and so pretty.’ ‘But you… I mean I thought…You spat them out!’ ‘Spat?’ she looked shocked. ‘Goodness, no! That’s a trick I learnt from the American wives. It’s just a different way of eating – none of the calories but all the taste.’ She sighed. ‘I love those girls, over the ocean. What amazing lifestyles… They’ve all got indoor cinemas and outdoor barbeques the size of your average council flat. The captain’s wife, Tulisa, has just got planning permission for an underground nightclub at their ranch. And talk about great hair, sensational nails… Rumour has it, they all even co-ordinate their underwear. Whereas the English birdies…’ She grimaced. ‘Once we were trying on some free jogging outfits, a sponsor handed out – a couple of them don’t even match their own bras and knickers.’ ‘Really?’ I gasped. Surely everyone followed that rule? They needed to buy my bible, Cut-Above-Couture. God forbid they wore tights with open-toed sandals or black with navy or brown. ‘They haven’t even all had Brazilian waxes,’ she continued. ‘How unhygienic is that? But then I suppose they’ve had an uphill struggle, this side of the Atlantic. I try to tell myself it isn’t their fault, if they think we should look inconspicuous. It’s all that British tradition, all that Old Boys stuff.’ ‘Huh?’ ‘Women are to be seen but not heard at the golf club. It’s a haven for the men. Some still won’t serve anything in a skirt at the bar, unless it’s tartan and hiding more than a frilly thong.’ ‘Well, I’m sure the local golf wives will love the Botox.’ The most generous thing I’d laid on for my friends was a night of chick flicks and face packs. Melissa half-smiled. ‘I’d better get going. Jonny’s bringing his son home for supper. ‘His ex-wife lives near, doesn’t she?’ I said, hoping my knowledge would prove myself a real fan.’ ‘Jeanie?’ Melissa’s voice went funny. ‘Yes. Lovely lady. Done, um, a great job of bringing up Eddie. He’s very polite for a teenager.’ All the magazines said how well Melissa got on with the first Mrs Winsford. Amazing, really, since Jonny left Jeanie for her. ‘Anyway, must go, darling. They’ll be home toot sweet.’ Ooh, I wished I could speak French like that. ‘So,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow? Are you free?’ Oh my God. She was going to invite me round for lunch! ‘Um…’ ‘Get your people to speak with my people,’ she said. ‘That would be great!’ I said and beamed. Oops. Reality check. ‘Um, except that I don’t have “people” – I… I prefer to sort stuff out myself.’ ‘Really?’ She pulled a face. ‘Okay. Let’s say half past nine sharp. My guests will be here at ten.’ How exciting! What would I wear? And… Huh? Guests? Ah. I got the impression that didn’t include me. But yay! Cue a mental image of me jumping up and down! That meant I’d got a catering contract, for a bunch of ladies being treated to Botox. But boo! It didn’t give me long to prepare. ‘How many are going?’ I asked, forcing my voice to steady. ‘Six wives.’ She yawned. ‘Let’s see if I can remember all the details: the captain’s wife, Vivian, sixty-ish… one of the few wives who plays golf. Her best friend Pamela, who’s also heading for retirement…’ I listened as Melissa gave descriptions of all the guests. ‘And finally Saffron…’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘Saffron?’ I grinned. ‘Haven’t cooked with that for a while. You don’t like her?’ ‘Bit of a bitch. In my position, three types of ordinary people step into my world: those in awe, those indifferent and those insanely jealous, like Saffron. Her boyfriend, Steve, is a new member. They recently got engaged. He gets on well with Jonny. She’s a receptionist, in a car sales room, I think, and always loaded with some snide-y comment. At the Centenary Ball last month she praised me loudly for wearing last season’s shoes, what with the recession. Then she questioned what I did all day, whilst most of the other wives work. I only invited her tomorrow because the others seem to like her. She’s very young; brings out the older women’s maternal instincts. Jonny thinks I mad for asking her.’ ‘Why?’ ‘He must have heard her digs about me not having a proper career. He knows how much time it takes networking and supporting everything he does.’ She beamed. ‘So, enough about her. I’m looking forward to a good selection of cupcakes – and yes, a Christmas theme would be fab. Maybe a few skinnies. Everyone’s driving so cut the alcohol.’ She put on her shades. ‘Although, no – why should I miss out? Those Pina Colada ones sounded good. Nothing beats the flavour of a cocktail. Maybe call them Santa Coladas…’ ‘But I haven’t told you how much they cost…’ I said, practically clapping my hands. She peered over the top of her glasses. ‘Money is no object. By the way, what’s your baking company called?’ ‘KimCakes Ltd.’ I’d seen this name a million times, on the side of my imaginary delivery van. ‘Let me write down my landline and mobile numbers for you – I’d rather you ring than call at the house, if you’ve any questions.’ I grabbed a notepad and biro Jess had left on the kitchen unit and gave them to her. ‘That’s awesome writing,’ I said, as her delicate hand expertly guided the pen. ‘Thanks,’ she said and stood up. ‘I once did a course in calligraphy. It always impresses when writing out party invitations.’ We went into the hallway and I opened the front door. ‘I don’t need to say to look smart… Ciao.’ Catwalk-style, she and her size six legs sauntered off, down the drive, crocodile handbag swinging from side to side. I closed the door and did a little jig around the hallway. Tonight I’d Google cupcakes and find out the going price. I glanced at my watch: one o’clock – I had to get back to the supermarket, there was no time for lunch. I hurtled into the kitchen, grabbed the last Cranberry and Orange cupcake and scrabbled around for my car keys, accidentally knocking Jess’s list of jobs onto the floor. I’d tidy up later. Taking a large bite of sweet yumminess, I headed outdoors. By three o’clock I’d returned and after letting Groucho out to kid himself he could catch a pigeon, I set out my extra ingredients: flour (wholemeal and plain), sugar (icing and caster), butter (low-fat and normal) and eggs (large). Then there was a tub of glace cherries, chocolate bars, a bottle of Malibu, marzipan… a whole variety of toppings and flavours. Phew! I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed the mixing bowl from earlier and studied the array of items for a while, before weighing out the ingredients for the first of five small batches. The completed menu would include: Miniature dark chocolate logs cakes, filled with a rich chocolate cream and dusted with icing sugar. Skinny Stollen slices, made from a light fruity dough and topped with low-fat almond buttercream icing. The rich mincemeat cupcakes, topped with brandy buttercream icing and a green marzipan holly leaf with red berries. Uncomplicated wholemeal cinnamon and spice muffins, for any guests who suffer from indigestion. The Pina – I mean, Santa – Colada Surprises consisting of pineapple juice flavoured cake, filled with popping candy with Malibu buttercream icing and a sprinkling of “snow” (dessicated coconut). Three hours later, I gazed around the kitchen, my work finished, face sweaty and arms tired. Flour had showered down my clothes and across the floor. I could feel butter around my ear and suspected my lips might have been stained with dark chocolate. But then, a good chef always tastes what they’re cooking. The breakfast island was cluttered with open jars and packets, plus a puddle of almond essence and red colouring. The sink was stacked high with dirty cutlery, pans stained with melted chocolate and measuring jugs smelling of Malibu. Before I could tackle any tidying up, I needed a strong coffee. Ten minutes later, I sat down on one of the stools and gazed at my cakes with pride. A burst of music interrupted my self-congratulations and I walked into the hallway. The festive notes floated down from upstairs… Wait a minute. It was that classic song, White Christmas… It made me feel all dreamy myself, although it set Groucho off as he ran around the hallway, wagging his tail and yapping. I crept upstairs. It was coming from the left hand front room. I tried the door handle which was well and truly locked. I shivered. The air had turned cold, as if the heating wasn’t really turned on. As the music faded, I returned to the kitchen. Whatever. I hadn’t got time to investigate Mistletoe Mansion’s strange happenings. The black clock ticked to six and the front door slammed. I went back into the hallway. Jess wouldn’t believe the day I’d had. And it hadn’t finished yet. I still had business cards to make. Tomorrow I had to network, network, network! Except Jess didn’t look like she wanted to talk… And that wasn’t just because of her red swollen nose and streaming eyes, still suffering with a cold. Instead she threw down her hessian carrier bag, slipped out of her trainers and let her thick winter coat drop to the floor. She sank down onto the bottom of the stairs. Muddy stains streaked her jeans and dust covered her bottle green “Nuttall’s Garden Centre” shirt. ‘Drink?’ I asked. She shook her head. ‘What’s the matter?’ ‘Ry…Ry….’ She sneezed loudly and blew her nose. ‘Ryan came into work; told me he’d stored a lot of my stuff away in the loft.’ ‘That’s a bit quick.’ ‘Apparently some bloke from his work is moving in. Ryan says he’s about to live the bachelor life he’s always dreamed of. You know, bin overflowing with empty beer cans, take-away pizza boxes piled high and used as foot rests.’ She shrugged. ‘This housesitting job has really got to work for us, Kimmy. We need to stay here long enough to sort something else out. I’ve rung a couple of friends but one’s got her sister staying with her at the moment and the other said her landlord would go mad if she let anyone stay longer than one night.’ Jess plucked some sticky seeds from her sleeve. ‘At least you’re here all day, to keep things running smoothly and work through our lists of jobs. If Mr Murphy has no complaints, we should be here for at least a couple of weeks.’ Ah. That list of jobs. I wasn’t even quite sure where it was. ‘Although Deborah’s message was a bit worrying,’ said Jess and wiped her nose. ‘But then we owe it to her to do our best.’ ‘Huh?’ ‘You know – I jotted it down for you, on the list. It was on the answerphone this morning; those prospective buyers coming around as soon as tomorrow, after lunch. That’s why I wrote down for you to clean the Games Room and lounge – close up, both are dead dusty. Then the dining room table needed polishing and all of the bathrooms needed a going over. The last housesitter clearly didn’t stay long – parts of this place haven’t been touched for weeks.’ I fixed a smile to my face. Surely she’d understand; I’d been too busy – this was my business at stake. And how long would it take anyway, to do a bit of tidying up? She got to her feet. ‘Time to keep my end of the bargain now, anyway, and give both the borders a going over, get outside and tidy up the straggly weeds. I hope that shed out the back is unlocked.’ Her eyes scoured my clothes for a second. ‘You’ve been baking? You should have done that tomorrow morning, the smell might have helped sell this place.’ She turned and headed into the kitchen. ‘Good thinking, though. I’m starving. So, what is it today? Chocolate? Nutty? Dolly Mixture?’ She gasped as we entered the kitchen. ‘Um… It won’t take me long to tidy up. You see I was talking to Melissa – she’s got a party tomorrow – needed someone to take over the catering. She tasted my cupcakes and well… how could I say no? It… it was urgent. And we want to get on with the neighbours, don’t we?’ Crimson in the face, Jess glared at me. ‘Are you crazy? Does this mean you’ve done none of the jobs?’ She bobbed forwards and picked something off the ground. It was her list. ‘You haven’t even stocked up properly, I mean just look at all these items – how the hell did you pay for this stuff?’ ‘Out of my own pocket. I’ll earn it all back tomorrow and more. She said money was no object.’ ‘This do, tomorrow, it’s for charity, then?’ she muttered. ‘Kind of…’ I shuffled from foot to foot. ‘Well, that’s what I’d call it. She’s offering some old biddies free Botox.’ ‘You’ve jeopardised our first proper duty in this house, showing people around, so that a bunch of women can inject poison into their wrinkles?’ ‘It’s not like that… This was too good an opportunity to miss! You understand don’t you, Jess? Think how impressed Adam will be if I make some real money and contacts and bring in more orders–’ ‘How impressed do you think he’ll be if we get thrown out before we’ve started the job?’ She shook her head. ‘So now, after a day on my feet, not only have I got to garden front and back, I’ll have to help you clean all those rooms? It’ll take ages to sort all this out into the relevant recycling bins.’ ‘I can manage.’ ‘What? In between hobnobbing with the neighbours and making marzipan berries?’ She jerked her head towards the puddle of red colouring. ‘Have you any idea how difficult that is to get off?’ She banged her fist on the breakfast table. ‘Maybe Adam was right! You’re totally irresponsible! If we lose this place we’ll be out on the street. How could you be so selfish?’ she gulped. ‘Jess, calm down,’ I stuttered. I’d never seen her like this before. ‘Calm down?’ She picked up a half-empty bag of flour, plunged in her fingers and lobbed a handful at my head. ‘Hey, this is fun, isn’t it? Let’s make as much mess as we can.’ She brandished the bottle of red food colouring. ‘No… not my… hair,’ I screamed, in between spitting out flour. Too late. And peroxide was so absorbent. Jess picked up one batch of perfect muffins, rushed to the patio doors, slid them open and– ‘No, Jess! You may as well put a gun to my head and shout pull!’ She gazed at me. Her lip quivered. Was that a sob? ‘What’s the matter?’ I hurried over and prised the wire rack from her fingers. I put it on the worktop. We both sat down. A fat tear plopped onto her shirt and I tucked a random strand of hair behind her ear. ‘Is it Ryan? Or work?’ My voice sounded alien due to the flour having dried it out. ‘You can tell me, Jess,’ I said, softly, chest squeezing. I’d never seen my bestie this upset before. ‘Whatever it is, I’ll help you sort it. That’s what best friends are for.’ ‘How?’ she sobbed. ‘Can you wind back time?’ ‘What do you mean?’ Her shoulders shook. ‘You’ll think me so dumb, Kimmy. I’m pregnant!’ Chapter 10 (#ulink_a033a30b-e98b-5ac9-bc49-19d49f99fdcb) Breathe, Kimmy, breathe. In and out. Inhale, exhale… Look at me, already practising to help Jess with her contractions. I stared at my best mate, a crumpled mess. Jess. Pregnant. As a baker, there had to be some witticism I could make about a bun in the oven. But joking was the last thing on my mind. My heart pounded at the thought of a baby growing inside her stomach. This was serious, grown-up stuff. Life-changing. I opened my mouth to talk but words wouldn’t come out. Instead I reached out and squeezed Jess’s arm. ‘It’ll be okay,’ I said, eventually. ‘We’ll get through this.’ ‘How?’ she wailed. ‘I couldn’t afford a week’s nappies, let alone a cot or pram on my current wages.’ My eyes filled at the sight of sensible, level-headed Jess sobbing like I did at the wrong time of the month. I shook myself. Get a grip, for Jess’s sake. I focused, for a second, on the rows of cakes I’d made for Melissa. Like a herbalist or naturopath, I decided which was the best to lift Jess’s spirits. Which to choose? The Santa Coladas? No, not alcohol, in her condition. And was popping candy even safe, in the early stage of the pregnancy? Maybe Jess would be better off with the plain, un-iced cinnamon spice ones. After all, lots of women got bad indigestion when expecting a baby. ‘Here…’ I guided Jess to one of the stools and put the plate in front of her. She opened her mouth to speak. ‘Shh!’ I said. ‘Don’t talk. Just eat for a moment.’ She sniffed loudly and, like a small child, did as I said. After a few mouthfuls, one solitary tear trickled down her cheek. But cakes were a girl’s best medicine – whether it was to comfort a broken heart or ease nerves before an important appointment. I poured myself a glass of water. I’d never seen Jess so angry, chucking flour into my mouth and colouring into my hair. At least it was red and not some way out colour like green or blue or … Blue? Wait a minute – had she even done a pregnancy test? There had to be some mistake, I thought, as I watched crumbs tumble down her chin. This was the girl who’d grilled Miss during school sex lessons and asked if two condoms were safer than one (the answer’s “no”, due to more friction). I passed her a square of kitchen roll as she ate the last mouthful. ‘You’re more in need of a tidy up,’ she said and wiped her mouth. ‘Sorry. I … don’t know what came over me.’ I forced my lips to upturn before sliding the red food colouring down to the other end of the table. ‘Just in case.’ She half-smiled back. ‘Have you done a test?’ I asked, gently. ‘Yes. I nipped to the chemist on my lunch break and bought one of those fancy kits that tells you how far gone you are – eight weeks, it said.’ Her voice wobbled. ‘I was sick again this morning at work. Thought nothing about it until Dalek gave me the evils and asked if there was something I needed to tell her.’ Jess and her colleagues called Dana, their boss, Dalek behind her back, because, like those monsters from Doctor Who, she spoke in a flat, monotonous voice and made everything sound like a threat. ‘You were sick yesterday morning, right? But I thought that was some veggie burger you’d eaten?’ ‘Obviously not. And I’ve taken up chewing gum the last month, because recently I’m always hungry. Then I remembered Mum saying that you’re supposed to get that pregnancy nesting instinct, when you go mad cleaning, towards the end, not the start like she always did.’ ‘So?’ ‘Me, cleaning Ryan’s bedroom on a Saturday morning? Usually not even I’m that keen. I obviously take after Mum.’ ‘Right…’ Mustn’t ask about the dad; not yet. Don’t do it. ‘So now you know why I lost it… This house is more important than ever at the moment. When it was just me living at his, Ryan found it too much. He won’t want a mini-me hanging around as well. In any event, that bloke’s moving in and–’ ‘You know I’m here for you. We’ll get through this. Together.’ She shrugged. ‘I can manage on my own. I’ll have to.’ ‘Don’t be silly. That’s what best friends are for.’ ‘I said I’m fine,’ she snapped. I bit my lip. Okay, she was still in shock – as was I. A pit formed in the centre of my stomach. This was what Adam wanted – kids, a domestic future together. But even if I was married, with a regular job and mortgage to boot, the thoughts flashing through my mind of how Jess’s life was about to change, made me realise… I just wasn’t ready for any of that. An unsettling flutter in my chest made me question… Much as I wanted Adam back, in the long run, was it for the best? ‘Of course I’m going to help,’ I said firmly. ‘Haven’t we always looked out for each other? Like the time Mum was rushed into hospital with stomach ache. You met me there and supplied me with coffees whilst I listened to the doctors…’ They told her, for the hundredth time, to clean up her lifestyle. Jess’s voice broke. ‘Like when I broke up with Phil…’ Hmm, her latest boyfriend and, I guessed, the imminent father. ‘You dropped everything and came round to Ryan’s. We spent the whole night talking, watching rubbish TV and eating popcorn.’ She bit her lip. ‘But this is different… My mess… I… I must stand on my own two feet.’ ‘Well, I’ll always think of myself as the kid’s slightly bonkers aunt-in-waiting. Unless… I mean, you’ve still got options…’ Jess bit her thumbnail. ‘There’s no need to rush into anything,’ I continued, gently, ‘but if–’ ‘I’m having it.’ As I knew she would. Jess kept stick insects as a child and, to her mum’s annoyance, wouldn’t even throw out the masses of eggs before they hatched. ‘Then, I’ll be with you every step of the way – even if you use those eco-friendly reusable nappies.’ ‘I’ll be a very environmentally-friendly mum – especially as, on my budget, most of the baby’s stuff will have to come from secondhand shops.’ She gave another big sniff. ‘You don’t want a best mate who’s carrying a kid around the whole time. Admit it. You think I’m a joke.’ Her chin wobbled. I got up and put my arm around her, shards of pain piercing my chest as her eyes swelled, all red. If only I could wave a magic Harry Potter wand and turn back time a couple of months, for her. ‘This is hormones, Jess. You aren’t thinking straight. The rational you knows I’m one hundred percent behind you. And what about the dad…?’ Okay, I know I wasn’t going to mention him but the sooner Jess faced the realities of how she was going to manage financially, the better. ‘Whoever he is, I mean, not that I’m expecting you to confirm anything, but…’ ‘Whoever he is? I can still reach that red food colouring,’ she muttered. She had a point. Phil was the only bloke it could be. Jess only slept with guys she’d fallen for and it wasn’t long since she’d split with Phil, the married bastard who’d promised to leave the wife when his twins grew up – they’d just started pre-school. ‘Will you tell your mum and dad?’ I asked. ‘Not yet.’ ‘Ryan?’ ‘No way!’ She stood up too. ‘Look… Can we drop the subject for the moment? I… I need to get my head around it – weeding the borders will do me good. You tidy up in here – don’t forget to sort out all the bits for recycling but… thanks, Kimmy.’ I smoothed down her rumpled hair and leant forward – cue an awkward hug that hopefully made her feel a titch better. Then the doorbell rang. Jess escaped out onto the back patio and I scooted to the front. My eyes tingled. Poor Jess. The way her chin wobbled. Her blotchy red eyes. With a sniff, I opened the door. Diamond shapes printed on a pink jumper and a coral cap greeted me. Terry had just about managed to tuck his top into his tight grey slacks. ‘Oh my God!’ I said. ‘Aren’t you just the cutest thing? With those tiny legs, that snub nose and such small, perky ears… You’re so well-groomed!’ No, I wasn’t hitting on Terry, I was talking to… ‘Frazzle?’ I asked. ‘You named it after bacon crisps?’ His eyes twinkled. ‘It’s so tiny!’ I looked down towards the end of the red lead. ‘Yes – that’s the point; she’s a micro-pig.’ I ran my hand along the black skin and gazed into the huge, trusting eyes. This was living the high life! Back in Luton, Frazzle would have been ribs on the barbeque before you could say oink. She was hardly bigger than my novelty pig oven gloves. ‘Now the introductions are over, may I ask, is everything is all right? There was, um, some yelling earlier – I couldn’t help overhearing something about putting a gun to someone’s head.’ Heat crept up my neck as I swung back to Terry. ‘Soz about that.Me and Jess – a little argument. And we’ve got all this work to do, before some prospective buyers arrive tomorrow.’ ‘Anything I can do?’ ‘Oh, no thanks,’ I said unconvincingly, thinking about all the chores ahead of me, before bed – like scrubbing the kitchen, vacuuming and dusting. Then there was bathroom after bathroom to clean…’ ‘Come on, Frazzle,’ Terry said and barged past me. ‘Let’s help these two girls settle in.’ From under his arm he took a folded up magazine and waved it in the air. ‘I brought you that copy of Starchat. It’s the one that talks about Melissa’s school reunion.’ He winked. ‘There are also some pretty hot pictures of Jonny. Page twenty-three.’ He stood still for a moment and breathed in. ‘Something smells good. Wow.’ He’d reached the kitchen and took off his coral cap to reveal a bald head, carefully avoiding any spillages as he put it on the table. He let out a low whistle. ‘Someone’s been busy.’ ‘I’m cooking for Melissa. She’s invited some wives around from the local golf club. The party’s tomorrow and the caterers have let her down.’ ‘You’re a professional cakemaker?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I said. The more times I told people that, the more it seemed true. ‘What a pity it’s not the real birdies coming.’ His eyes widened. ‘Wouldn’t you just love to meet the latest girlfriend to join the crowd, Tracy Clifford? Did you see–’ ‘Last week’s Infamous?’ I interrupted. ‘I know – that white dust around her nose looked a bit suspicious.’ ‘She insisted it was face powder.’ Terry grinned. ‘She won’t last long on that stuffy circuit. Ah well, I still expect all the goss. There might be someone famous there so I want all the details – what they wear, how much they eat.’ ‘Melissa showed me this trick,’ I said and started to put the cakes into Tupperware boxes. ‘It involves chewing food for just a few seconds, then spitting it–’ ‘Kimmy?’ Jess appeared at the patio doors and frowned at Terry. ‘Nice to meet you, sweetie,’ he said and stretched out a podgy arm. ‘I live next door. The name’s Terry and this is my better half – Frazzle.’ Jess’s tearstained eyes lit up as soon as she spotted the miniature pig sniffing some flour on the kitchen floor. Terry picked up the animal and handed her to Jess. ‘She gets on well with Groucho and if you tie her to Walter’s weeping willow, she’ll be as happy as a pig in… well…’ Jess tickled behind Frazzle’s ears. ‘I’ll start the borders,’ she called over her shoulder and disappeared outside. ‘Nice girl,’ said Terry and helped me force down a Tupperware lid. He glanced sideways at me. ‘Is she all right? I’m a good listener, you know.’ I shook my head, not daring to open my mouth in case I broke Jess’s confidence and the whole pregnancy thing slipped out. ‘Well, if you change your mind…’ ‘Thanks, Terry – I appreciate it,’ I said, managing to leave it at that. He fiddled with something underneath the base of a cupboard. Suddenly classical music blasted into the room. He re-tuned it to some disco channel. ‘Cool radio,’ I said. But Terry didn’t hear. Dishcloth at the ready, his ample hips rocked jerkily to some retro soul groove. As he filled the dishwasher and scraped remnants of butter and sprinkles into the bin, his breathing became laboured. I tried to work out his age. Late fifties perhaps? It was difficult to say as there were hardly any wrinkles on his chubby face. Certainly not much older than the oldest of Mum’s boyfriends. I offered Terry a random chunk of chocolate from the worktop, but he mouthed the words “no” and “cholesterol”. Then he continued to fill the machine, doing the John Travolta point in between each item, stepping side to side and jiggling his bottom. Glad to see Jess digging outside, with a more cheerful face, I headed upstairs to the bedrooms with a bucket of cleaning products, kitted out to clean my shower, the mint green bathroom and Jess’s ensuite. By the time I’d rinsed out the last sink, my arms ached and I needed a cold drink. It had been quite cathartic and I’d kind of put Jess’s bombshell into perspective. Every day women got pregnant. That was life – messy and unpredictable with shiny jewels of happiness sometimes coming out of the darkest spots. She and me, we’d manage somehow. I’d be the best aunt I could. We’d get as much equipment as we could from charity shops and fingers crossed my baking earnings would help. As my eye caught sight of the laptop, when I passed the office, I bobbed in to enjoy a quick social media catch-up. Waiting for me on Facebook was one poke, as well as three messages. Someone had also sent me a puffer fish for my virtual aquarium. Adam had always refused point blank to become a member; said it was childish and a waste of time. My eyes scoured my homepage. Susie had got tickets to see Bruno Mars! Mandy was still recovering from that hen weekend. Callum had lost his wallet, Zoe was eating a sandwich in Oxford Street and Chelsea had changed her profile picture. But best of all… I could hardly believe it… India off Celebrity Chastity Challenge had accepted me as a friend! As the vacuuming downstairs stopped, I wondered what news to share with my online friends. Normally my Facebook status would include some link to my favourite cute animal YouTube clip, a new cupcake recipe or the latest celebrity goss. However, this time my friends would be well impressed. Quickly I typed: “Am baking for Melissa Winsford!” I snapped shut the laptop and headed towards the top of the stairs. Terry shouted my name and feeling pleased with myself, I breathed in the fresh smells of bleach and ceramic cleaner, wafting out of every room. I was about to go down when… Oh God… That White Christmas music played again. I shivered and goosebumps broke out on my arms. Although there was no smoke or sound of whooshing gales… I know someone’s there and I’m not frightened, you know, I said in my head, even though, chest heaving, I was rooted to the spot. Racking my brains for phrases from Most Haunted, I concentrated hard. Knock three times if you mean no harm. ‘Kimmy?’ called up Terry, from the Games of Thrones Room (still think of it as that). I paused, mouth dry, eyes wide open. Then bolted towards the staircase, down to the comfort of human company. The music had stopped now, anyway. I opened the door and there amidst the racing green walls and mahogany panels sat my new neighbour and Jess. My shoulders relaxed. They were at the bar, drinking… some yucky muddy drink. Terry slid a murky cocktail down to the stool next to Jess. ‘What’s in this?’ I asked, making my way around the billiards table. At least it had one of those brollies in that I’d bought. ‘Half orange juice and half… half…’ Jess sneezed. ‘Cola. We were thirsty and Terry suggested this. It’s called a Muddy Water.’ ‘I tried to persuade Jess to let me nip home for some champagne,’ said Terry and took out a handkerchief to wipe his perspiring cheeks. Frazzle was curled up at the foot of the stool. Groucho was standing guard, ready to be the first to claim any fallen crisps. I shoved a Pringle in my mouth. They were Adam’s favourite flavour. We used to challenge each other to eat them sideways. ‘How about you, Kimmy? A spot of champers?’ ‘Better not, Terry – I’ve still got to sort out the hallway and downstairs loo and maybe give the windows the once over too.’ I looked out of the front window and right at the bottom of the drive spotted two cute copper-coloured dogs trotted past on leads, long hair shimmying from side to side. ‘Borders look good, Jess.’ The sun was setting. Sunday night. Adam would have just got back from the gym, ready to sit next to me on the sofa and watch his favourite detective series. ‘What time are these buyers arriving tomorrow?’ asked Terry. ‘One o’clock,’ said Jess. ‘Deborah, the estate agent, is coming this time too. Just to see how we’ve settled in. Spying for Mr Murphy, I guess.’ ‘Great dress sense, that woman,’ said Terry. ‘I’ve seen her several times. Fabulous shoes.’ ‘Did you see much of Mr Murphy, Terry?’ I asked. ‘He must have been close to Walter, to get this place. Is he married?’ Terry sipped his cocktail again. ‘No. Single – Walter mentioned a long-term relationship that broke down. I met him a few times, during those last months. It’s a long way to come from Manchester – his mum, Walter’s sister, moved there when she got married. He seemed a decent sort – took Walter out to country pubs and would shout him a round of golf. Walter and Lily didn’t have any other younger relatives – Mike was their only nephew. Not that there was much of a family resemblance. Mike was a bit flash for the old man’s taste – you know, chunky jewellery, dyed hair. But they discussed politics and world news together.’ Terry grinned. ‘Right until the end, Walter was as sharp as they come, despite his series of strokes.’ ‘Strokes?’ Terry ran a hand over his bald head. ‘The effects of them were largely physical. No one ever took Walter for a fool. I remember the week before his last funny turn, he gave the postman a hard time for leaving a parcel out in the rain.’ Terry shrugged. ‘Eh, listen to me wittering on… So, I wonder if Jonny will be at this Botox party tomorrow morning, supporting his wife.’ ‘I don’t think so.’ Which was such a disappointment. I could have sneaked a photo of him on my phone. Uploading that onto Facebook would have guaranteed me a hundred friend requests… Jonny topless from the shower, Adam furious when the photo got leaked to the press… The headline would read: “Jealous Ex accuses The Eagle of preying upon young housesitter, Kimmy.” ‘I’ve got to be at Melissa’s for half past nine,’ I said and shook myself back to reality. ‘I’ll get up early to give the place the last once-over. It’s your day off tomorrow, Jess, right?’ She nodded. ‘Well, you have a lie-in, I’ll make sure everything looks spotless before I’m off. I should be back before twelve and then I’ll cook you–’ She glared. ‘I’m fine.’ Terry flicked through some CDs behind the bar. He rolled his eyes. ‘One of the few things Walter and I disagreed on was our taste in music. Give me Michael Jackson or The O’Jays any day. Whereas Walter was into classical and what he called cosy “Fireside music”. Terry cocked his head. ‘What was his favourite now…’ He picked up a Christmas Greats CD. ‘That’s it: Bing Crosby dreaming of a White Christmas. Jeez, he used to play that song at all times of the year. It may have been easy-listening for him, but not me!’ I almost dropped my Muddy Water. Oh my God – the music upstairs. ‘He did like Bond music as well, though,’ Terry continued, as he came across a CD with Sean Connery on the front. Jess bit her thumbnail. ‘Phil, my, um, last boyfriend… He was dead keen on all those Bond soundtracks and films. Plus he loved the old greats like Bing Crosby too.’ ‘Have you played that Christmas CD whilst we’ve been here, with the White Christmas track?’ I asked Jess, a shudder running up my spine. ‘You really think I want to remind myself of that married jerk?’ ‘Oh. Yeah. Sorry.’ I swallowed hard. That only left one person – or entity – who could have played it, then. ‘Everything okay, Kimmy?’ Terry asked. ‘You’ve gone a bit pale.’ I nodded and knocked back my drink, on automatic. So, the ghost, spook, astral being, whatever you wanted to call it, was Walter Carmichael. I shivered. How could I have not suspected this before? Walter was haunting his own house. ‘Anyway, here’s to you two girls,’ said Terry and raised his glass. ‘Hope you stay longer than your predecessors.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘I, um, hadn’t realised it was so late. Better get going, girlies. Come on Frazzle. It’s time for your sow nuts and then I’ll make us both a nice fruit salad. Good luck tomorrow, girl.’ He gave me a wink. ‘Let me cook you something here, as a thanks for all your hard work,’ I said, still digesting the revelation that Walter hadn’t moved on to the next world. I followed Terry into the hall. Why was he suddenly in such a rush? It was as if he didn’t like being out – or at least near this house – as night-time approached. ‘Much, erm, as I’d like to, Frazzle doesn’t like staying out late. It’s been my pleasure though. Remember, I want all the goss from the Winsfords.’ He took out a small golf pencil and marker book from his back pocket and scribbled down a number. ‘Ring me when you get back.’ Then he tucked Frazzle under his arm and quickly disappeared into the chilly evening air. I closed the door and glanced towards the kitchen. I could hear Jess pottering about. She’d switched the radio back to classical. I tiptoed halfway up the stairs and stared at the front, locked bedroom. Dare I try to provoke Walter to show himself, just like they sometimes taunted spirits on Most Haunted? Last night’s polite request for three knocks hadn’t worked. Perhaps it was time to get tough. But what if he’d been turned evil and stole my soul or possessed my body? Knuckles white on my clenched fists, I gave it a go. ‘I know who you are now, Walter,’ I said, in a trembling voice, a wave of nausea rising up the back of my throat. ‘Show yourself. What are you afraid of? Stop hiding behind your… your cheesy music and silly smoke screen. Why try to frighten me and Jess? Cos, newsflash! It isn’t working. I’ve felt more startled by children calling at Halloween; more horror-struck by my hair after five minutes in the rain. Come on, Walter… Throw chairs around. Smash crockery. Do your worst! It’s time to man up!’ Chapter 11 (#ulink_2e685a1a-188c-5ca8-ace4-528369022c36) With an ear-splitting scream, I tumbled down the stairs. My back smacked onto the floor. Metallic-tasting liquid – blood obviously – trickled out of my mouth. Wind whirled around the hallway. Jess charged out of the kitchen and spotted me in a twisted heap, limbs lying at funny angles. White Christmas played loudly and thick smoke filled the air. ‘Have mercy on me,’ I begged, as ominous footsteps descended the stairs… Nah. Not really. No such excitement. But that was what I imagined might happen, if this spooky Walter had any guts. Instead I was still talking to him in my head, a couple of hours later, stretched out, star-shaped, underneath silk crimson sheets, wishing I was wearing some equally exotic negligee, instead of my tatty old Hello Kitty pyjama bottoms and T-shirt. I didn’t mention my revelation about the ghostly happenings to Jess – or the fact that I’d been locked in my room and nearly burnt to death. I figured she’d already got enough on her mind – a few minutes ago I crept onto the landing, to investigate some loud sniffs. But she must have heard me from her room, because when the floorboard creaked it went quiet. She’d cried again earlier, despite me cooking her favourite tofu and nut stir fry. The Jess I knew rarely did tears. ‘It’ll be okay,’ I’d said, willing my eyes not to water as I brushed back her red fringe. The last time she’d blubbed like that was when her pet rabbit died in Year Five. Even then she’d put on a brave face, her designing a memorial plaque for the coffin (shoe box), me singing word-perfect I Want You Back, by N Sync. ‘How will everything be all right?’ she’d sobbed. ‘There’s no crèche at work. As it is, I barely earn enough to pay rent. Mum and Dad are enjoying retirement in Spain – I can’t ruin everything for them. And Ryan can hardly look after himself, let alone a nephew or niece.’ Then she’d gone all independent again – told me not to worry, and it was her problem, she’d sort it herself. Why, oh why, was she shutting me out? I yawned and gazed around my – Lily’s – bedroom. Walter, maybe you could ditch the Christmas tune and play something more to Jess’s taste, I said in my head, all fear gone as he was clearly a figment of my imagination or too chicken to answer back. I pictured him as my fantasy Grandpa, seeing as I’d never had one all these years. He’d be smartly dressed, in a golf shirt of course, smell of cigars and perhaps wear a flat cap. He’d want to know all about my cake-making dreams, sit me down and dish out helpful advice. Arms still aching from all that cleaning, I got up and plaited my hair. What luxurious surroundings, I thought, for the hundredth time, with the fancy carved dressing table and velvet curtains… I gazed at the oil painting of poppies before switching off my bedside light. I still wasn’t used to the complete dark of Badgers Chase and missed the glow of street lamps and take-aways that always crept into Adam’s flat. I’d done well to resist texting him, to resist begging him to take me back. Nor had I ruined my surprise by telling him about KimCakes Ltd finally taking off. No, I’d wait until tomorrow night when I could inform him, in business-like tones, of exactly how much I’d earned at Melissa’s. I yawned again and closed my eyes, missing the sound of Adam’s heavy breaths. Yet, annoyingly, images of Luke crept into my mind. His floppy hair, those god awful cords, the way they showed off his… okay, he had a nice bum. Mmm, musky-smelling Luke, with his bristly cheeks, in a tight white vest, muscles flexing as he carried me out of a burning Mistletoe Mansion – me as light as a feather ( I had to be dreaming), armed with a first aid kit full of cupcakes… Wow! I woke with a jolt. That was some freaky dream. I sat up and leant against the luscious pillows and threw off the silk sheets and duvet. Perhaps I’d become too hot… Yeah, that was the only rational explanation for imagining moody Luke as some hero figure. Eyes wide open, fingers gripping the duvet, I strained to listen to every noise – was that an owl? There was a distant bark… I snuggled back down. What had woken me up? In Luton it was usually a low aeroplane or car alarm going off. It was eerily quiet and despite my bravado about speaking to Walter, the night blackness spooked me a bit. I sniffed. What was that familiar sweet smell? I sat back up, suddenly cold with the December night air. The hairs stood up on my arms at the unexpected sound of rushing wind. According to my phone, it was half past twelve. I grabbed one of the purple embroidered cushions at the foot of the bed and gave it a big hug. Maybe Walter was a little bit ticked off at my earlier comments. Come on, um, Mr Carmichael, I was only joking, play that Christmassy tune again, it’s, um, kind of cool. But that sweet smell only got stronger. I switched on the light. Uh oh – it was the smoke from earlier today, once again billowing under the door. Every molecule of my being springing into action, I threw the cushion onto the floor and jumped out of bed. My phone fell onto the mattress. Again, like earlier, the door wouldn’t budge. Yelling to wake up Jess, I pulled on the handle, hard. Then I heard banging noises from the adjoining front room as if someone – or something – was moving around. My heart knocked furiously against the inside of my chest. ‘Fire! Jess! Wake up!’ I called in a shrill voice. ‘Kimmy?’ called a distant voice. ‘Is that smoke coming under my door?’ ‘Yes! Stop it with a damp towel. Be careful,’ I shouted back. Then, without warning, my bedroom light flicked off. I gasped and stood statue still for a moment before feeling my way back to the switch. On the way I collided with a chest of drawers and tears sprang to my eyes. When I finally found the switch, it didn’t work. In the pitch black, I climbed over the mattress, searching for my phone. If I could just get to the window and shout for help… But… Oh no… Please tell me this wasn’t happening… My body went into spasm as something or someone curled their fingers around my foot. Instinctively, I kicked to and fro, imagining all kinds of gruesome scenarios and a weird noise escaped my mouth, like a cross between a wail and a sob. Finally, my leg broke free. Gulping, I dived to the floor and dropped my phone. It skidded under the bed. Astral beings were never so bold on Most Haunted. I must have really wound Walter up. Yet could that really have been the grip of some ghostly elderly man? And according to Terry, Walter was a sound bloke. Plus White Christmas hadn’t played since I’d woken up. I swallowed hard. Only one thing could explain this: there had to be two spirits – gentle Mr Carmichael and some evil demon that got up to mischief and blew smoke. ‘Stay away!’ I hollered, as heavy breathing came from the other side of the bed. Slowly I got on my knees, turned around and peeked over the bed. My mouth went dry. Standing by the chest of drawers was a tall figure, its arms flailing around. All I wanted to do was curl into a ball and hide but I couldn’t – not now I had Jess and the little one in her stomach to protect. ‘Leave me alone!’ Did this evil spirit have an axe? What about a machete? Perhaps a drill? At least if I was famous, I could have assumed it was just a fan waving an autograph book. “Mysterious Murder of Kimmy Jones – Police Grill Ex-boyfriend” would be the headline. Adam would feature in all the celebrity magazines, saying he was innocent and had been about to take me back. Then they’d arrest a crazed fan of mine, a previous offender, whose fingerprints were found on the front door handle… The figure’s arms dropped and it strode towards the bed. With a whimper, I ducked down and scrabbled frantically under the bed for my phone. Man up, I told myself; time to put into action those karate moves Adam taught me, after I once got pickpocketed. Hands shaking, I forced myself once more to peep over the bed. Phew. It had gone. Perhaps Walter had somehow scared it off. I leapt to my feet, opened the window and screamed for help, feeling even more spooked as a bat flew past the cloud-veiled moon. At least I’d stored Luke’s number in my phone. With bionic speed I searched for his name and pressed dial. ‘Luke! Is that you?’ I whispered, voice shaking. ‘What? Who is this?’ he mumbled. ‘It’s me. Kimmy.’ ‘Huh? Have you any idea what time it is?’ he whispered back. Maybe someone was sleeping next to him. ‘Please… I… Come over,’ I stuttered, managing to suppress a sob. ‘I’ve just been… It might come back… And the smoke…’ ‘Slow down.’ ‘There’s a…’ Ghost would sound stupid. ‘A burglar about and the lights won’t switch on. There’s that smoke again too… He got hold of my leg and–’ ‘For God’s sake,’ he said. ‘Not that nonsense again. It was nothing last time You’re a capable woman. Just check through the house for fire hazards. If you’re really worried, call the fire brigade or police.’ ‘No! We might lose our jobs, if there’s a fuss. Please Luke. Please come round just one more time.’ ‘Look, I know you like me, Kimmy, but please save your sad ploys to catch my attention to a reasonable hour of the day.’ ‘I beg your pardon?’ I said, his arrogance helping me forget, for one moment, that my life was at stake. ‘Your cooking’s not bad, though,’ he said. ‘If you want to impress, forget these silly stories, just bake me some coffee and walnut cakes.’ ‘Might have a problem using the oven gloves, if my arms have been hacked off by some weirdo,’ I hissed. ‘Look, I’m sorry to bother you…’ Which was the absolute truth. How I hated asking for help, like Mum had over the years, bugging neighbours and various boyfriends to wire plugs and put up shelves. ‘It, the burglar, whatever, they’re stronger than me and I haven’t got a pepper spray, gun or bat. If not for me, then… then come round for Jess. All this upset won’t do her any good,’ I said. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘She’s… not well.’ He sighed down the phone. ‘This better not be another false alarm. If it is, I’ll ring Murphy myself.’ ‘Oh don’t worry – I really am at risk of being murdered.’ I snapped. ‘And for the last time, you’re the last bloke I’d have a crush on!’ A phut of exasperation floated down the line. ‘What is it with you housesitters? What’s so difficult about looking after a property and getting it sold?’ The line clicked dead. I sunk to the floor and hugged my knees. If I’d have rung Adam, there’d have been no questions – he’d have been here in a flash, armed with his quads and biceps. Unless… unless he was over me already. After all, it was over twenty-four hours since we’d last spoken and he’d obviously been fed up with me for weeks prior to that. Although I had to admit, just occasionally, Adam’s protective nature felt suffocating and in a funny way it had felt good to hear Luke say I was capable – that he didn’t feel the need to rush around to fight my battles. Which was a messed up way of thinking because I totally loved caring Adam, didn’t I? Whereas Luke’s unprovoked rudeness was TOTALLY, definitely, unquestionably off-putting – even though I just knew his earthy smell and teasing mouth must make my pupils dilate (nature’s giveaway that something’s got the potential to turn us on). My mind raced and I blocked out inquisitive thoughts about what Luke would be like as a boyfriend. Something dug into my side as I leant back against the wall– a pair of my high heeled shoes – perfect, to gouge the eyes out of anything that came near. Every centimetre of my body froze as the door creaked. Someone entered the room. It was too soon to be Luke. Stiletto in hand, I stared across the room. ‘Aarggh!’ I hurled myself over the mattress and lashed out with the shoe. ‘Ow! What the hell…’ someone shouted. Firmly, the thing prised my weapon out of my hand, then backed me up against the drawers. The demon or whatever it was felt solid and blew warm breath onto my neck, as if I was standing under a tropical shower. I sniffed. Hmm. A musky smell teased my nostrils. A firm hand slipped around my back and covered the pointed drawer knob, as if to stop it digging into my back. ‘Surprise, surprise, you’re all right,’ muttered the voice and flicked on the lights. ‘Luke?’ He was still pressed against me. Wow. What amazing moss green eyes. How come I hadn’t noticed them before? ‘Y…you didn’t take long to get here,’ I stuttered. ‘I was already walking nearby. Couldn’t sleep, so reckoned I’d get some fresh air and check on Walter’s house. It’s been empty for so long, guess that’s become a bit of a habit.’ I squirmed uncomfortably. ‘You can back off now.’ ‘Are you sure? You won’t attack me again? First a Christmas tree and now…’ He glanced at the floor. ‘A shoe.’ He stepped away and rubbed his chest. The hood of his jacket fell onto his shoulders. It was spotted with rain. ‘Sorry,’ I mumbled. ‘It’s just you looked like… Is Jess okay?’ ‘I came to you first. Just in case this was another trick. Talking of which, where’s the smoke this time?’ ‘It’s gone again. But Jess’ll tell you…’ I followed him onto the landing and towards her room. ‘It’s only me, Jess,’ I called. She opened the door, Groucho standing on her feet, her face as white as his tail. ‘Maybe you can tell me what’s going on?’ he said. ‘Everything okay? Kimmy said you weren’t well.’ ‘I’m fine,’ she snapped. ‘Was there really a fire?’ He shook his head. ‘You saw the smoke, right?’ I asked, willing her to say yes. ‘Thought so, but it was dark. Things always look different at night.’ ‘She saw smoke,’ I said, confidently to Luke. ‘And something…someone came into my room. It grabbed my leg. I was worried you were next, Jess.’ ‘I heard you scream,’ she said. ‘My door wouldn’t open, otherwise I’d have tried to help. And there was this dead strange noise, like a whirlwind. We should call the police.’ ‘And say what? I’ve seen a spooky face, there’s the sound of wind and some well weird smoke? The police don’t deal with hauntings, do they?’ Oops. There. I’d said it. Luke burst out laughing. ‘You think there’s a ghost? And I was hoping you two were more sensible than your predecessors.’ ‘Why? Has something like this happened before?’ asked Jess. ‘And what’s all this about a…’ he smirked, ‘…spooky face?’ I shrugged at both of them. ‘Laugh if you want but I’m convinced there’s a spirit stuck in limbo here.’ Best not to mention Walter. They’d probably get me sectioned. I thrust my hands in the air. ‘Why didn’t anyone warn us about these ghostly goings on?’ ‘Because this place needs to get sold and Deborah wasn’t going to jeopardise that because of the witterings of a bunch of housesitters. Sure they all mentioned noises in the night, but ghosts are for kids at Halloween.’ He put his hands in his anorak pockets. So I wasn’t the only person to have suspected supernatural goings-on. Suddenly Jess put her hand to her mouth, darted to the bathroom and threw up. ‘Just as well you’re off work tomorrow,’ I said to her when she came back and collapsed on the bed. Groucho snuggled up to her side. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll deal with Deborah and her clients.’ ‘She’s coming tomorrow?’ said Luke and passed Jess the glass of water from her bedside table. ‘Cancel her. You’ve both had a shock. Get her to re-schedule the appointment.’ ‘We can’t,’ said Jess, weakly. I gazed at the black rings under her eyes. ‘It might be an idea,’ I said. ‘I’m over at Melissa’s in the morning and without your help, I’m not sure I’ll get this place spotless in time. It’s Deborah’s fault anyway. She knew about this ghost thing. I’m sure that’s what I saw written in her notes.’ ‘That red scrawl could have said anything,’ said Jess. ‘Time I left this nuthouse,’ muttered Luke and disappeared onto the landing. ‘You aren’t going?’ I called after him. ‘What if that thing is still here?’ I caught him up in the hallway, downstairs. He turned around by the front door. ‘What the spooky ghoul?’ He smirked. ‘Make a cross out of two wooden spoons and sleep with that above your bed.’ ‘Can’t you at least open the room at the front, upstairs? I’m sure I heard movements in there.’ ‘Chill out.’ Luke went to leave. ‘Whoever it was is unlikely to come back. And, as I’ve found out the hard way, you’re good at defending yourself.’ Tears pricked my eyes. I wasn’t crying really. Not in front of him. I was tired, that’s all; in shock. ‘Whatever,’ I mumbled. ‘Thanks for coming.’ I headed for the Game of Thrones Room, wishing there really were some helpful warriors in there. Sitting at the bar, I grabbed the tube of Pringles and shoved in a handful, sideways on. ‘That is one wide mouth.’ Luke appeared at my side. He helped himself to a crisp. ‘Okay. I’ll kip on the sofa in the office upstairs – that’s if you control your attraction to the Adonis that is Luke Butler.’ He took another crisp and chuckled. I was still spluttering with indignation an hour later as I took six cupcakes out of the oven. We all needed something to calm us down and what could be better than a mouthful of fresh, fluffy sponge, dolloped with melt-in-the-mouth buttercream icing? Comfort food at its best. Luke had said coffee and walnut was his favourite flavour and so I’d obliged, finding some nuts left over from Jess’s tofu stir fry. As the sugary aroma floated upstairs, Jess had surfaced. Her nausea passed and she looked just like she needed a midnight – well, okay, two o’clock in the morning – snack. The topping, to suit my best mate, was made with decaffeinated coffee. But when it came to decorating Luke’s cake, a little bit of that demon spirit must have infiltrated me and I added some extra-strong caffeinated stuff I found in a cupboard. With any luck, that would keep him awake all night and he’d see smoke and scream in terror when a hooded figure clutched his leg. However, by the time I’d changed, flossed and moisturised, irritating snores had replaced the whistling escaping from his room. Once again I lay star-shaped, under the crimson sheets and snug duvet. I turned towards the window and gazed through the chink of open curtain. The cloud had cleared. The light rain must have stopped. In retrospect (could say this now that the imminent danger had passed), the evening had been a thrill! I’d always wanted to see a ghost and better than that, I’d actually made physical contact. At that moment, the familiar tune of White Christmas drifted into my room and I didn’t feel scared, convinced that the old man had helped protect me from the evil intruder, before. Walter, you’re here again? Did you get rid of that other spirit for me? Why is it in your house? Perhaps it lived on this land, years before you appeared. Is it keeping you here against your will? Let me help. The music got louder and I sat up in bed. I could either wake Luke, to prove that I wasn’t lying, or grab this chance to communicate with the old fellow. ‘Knock three times if you’re there, Walter,’ I said, out loud to the moonlit room, deciding that maybe the spirit couldn’t read my thoughts. ‘You don’t scare me. I know now why this house feels like a home. It’s because you’re still around. You were – are -– a good person. So, why haven’t you joined Lily at the Pearly Gates? I know it’s not you trying to harm me. We could be friends. Just let me know you’re here.’ OMG! There were three low thuds. Chapter 12 (#ulink_45ae0709-ae03-5f16-9a7b-35779a5fb1dd) My KimCakes Ltd venture was almost over before it started as: I got up late – having hardly slept after Walter’s thuds. It was too tempting, you see, not to ask him everything I’d always wanted to know about ghosts: “Can you still eat chocolate?”, “Do you spy on people having sex?”, “Can you walk through walls?” and “Have you seen Michael Jackson or Elvis yet?” Strangely enough, there was no further response. I’d try again soon and find out why he was hanging around Mistletoe Mansion. Once up, showered and hair blown dry, I then wasted time trying to decide what to wear. By the sounds of it, the local golfers’ wives were a conservative bunch. I didn’t own many outfits that hid my knees or covered every centimetre of my boobs. Then, by chance, I stumbled across an apron in the kitchen, draped over a chair, as if it had been especially left out. It was navy with white stripes, your standard butcher’s job. Tied around my black skirt and white top, it really made me look the part of professional caterer. To add the final touches, I pinned my freshly straightened hair into a bun. Instead of my bronze foundation and purple shimmer lipstick, I plumped for a brush of translucent powder and smear of Vaseline. It’s what Cut-Above-Couture’s style guru called the “chameleon effect”: sometimes, rather than stand out, it was better to blend in. I had to ring Deborah to tell her the appointment with her clients was off. Her voice lost its warmth until I mentioned the terrifying ordeal of the night before. Cue apologies from her that we hadn’t slept well – guilty conscience or what? She duly bumped the appointment to eleven o’clock the next morning. I raced upstairs to tell Jess the good news but – asleep or not – she was hidden under the covers. I hadn’t the heart to wake her up. Luke, on the other hand, got up early and sat in the kitchen like a bed & breakfast guest, so I rustled up soft-boiled eggs with toast. No doubt he’d spent ages trying to look so effortlessly appealing, just to wind me up. I did my best to ignore him swaggering around in nothing but boxer shorts, sitting really low on his flat waist, and a man’s dressing gown he’d found upstairs, which he left deliciously – I mean annoyingly – undone. There was something so basic about him… Almost dirty. My cheeks flushed. I certainly didn’t, in any way, feel the urge to run a hand, fleetingly, across his thighs. If the paparazzi guys were around, and IF (that’s capital letters) I fancied Luke, this scene might just grab Adam’s attention, coupled with the headline: “Handy Hunk Dips his Soldier into Kimmy’s Yolk.” I still had business cards to make, so put something simple together on the laptop and cut them out. Each was a small rectangle of paper with “KimCakes Ltd” written at the top, my full name underneath, then my mobile number. Worst of all, Melissa rang me (although that’s best of all too, I mean, how cool is that?) to remind me to set up at half nine and – get this – to ‘not forget the savoury nibbles’. Huh? When I hinted that we’d only spoken about cakes, the velvet tones disappeared and she suggested I sort it out toot sweet. ‘No problem, see you soon,’ I’d cheerily replied, before screaming silently on my fist. ‘Thanks, Terry, you’re a lifesaver,’ I said and stood back as he came into the hallway. I’d rung him as soon as I put the phone down on Melissa. Thank God for my brainwave. Laden with packets of frozen food, we hurried into the kitchen. The worktop was covered with an array of herbs and salad items. That was the good thing about sharing with vegetarian Jess – there was always plenty of fresh stuff in the fridge and cupboards. ‘Are you sure about this?’ said Terry. Today he wore a pea-green jumper over tight, tan plus fours. ‘I’d stay to help, but despite the poor weather forecast, I’m due to tee off in half an hour.’ ‘You’ve done enough already. I’ve just got time to make this lot look presentable.’ He sniggered. ‘Just imagining Melissa’s face if she knew her savoury nibbles were actually my leftovers from BargainMarket.’ ‘It’s not funny! My reputation’s at stake.’ ‘You’ll be fine.’ He patted his portly stomach. ‘Once they taste those cakes, those women will be in sugar rush heaven and won’t want to eat anything else.’ A whistling attracted his attention. ‘Luke’s here?’ I stifled a yawn. ‘Late night?’ He winked. ‘You think me and Luke…?’ I pulled a face. ‘I’d rather become a nun.’ ‘Kimmy! Have you seen his pecs? And from behind, in just the right pair of trousers…’ We both giggled. ‘Honestly, Terry. He acts as if he’s some megastar and I’m his groupie.’ ‘What’s he doing here, so early?’ ‘Last night… I couldn’t sleep. There were noises… smoke.’ My stomach scrunched as I recalled that thing grasping my ankle. ‘It’s a long story.’ His cheeks burnt red. ‘Terry?’ ‘Really must go, now,’ he muttered. ‘You knew about all this? Why didn’t you warn me?’ ‘Um…’ ‘This house… Sometimes…strange things happen,’ I said. ‘How long has this been happening?’ ‘Apologies…’ Terry shrugged his well-rounded shoulders. ‘You’re right. Once night-time falls, I know from the other housesitters that scary stuff happens…Ever since Walter died, this funny business has been going on. It’s held up every sale. I hoped this time would be different. New, permanent neighbours would be great.’ ‘You know, something grabbed my leg last night.’ Terry bit his lip. ‘Jean, the last woman, said it clasped her arm and tried to pull her out of bed. No one’s ever been badly hurt though – just shaken up.’ I thought for a moment. ‘Did she ever mention random smoke or… or Christmassy music?’ ‘No music, but yes, smoke, locked doors and a bizarre noise of a blowing gale. How about I fill you in properly later? Who knows, maybe if you stick around for long enough, whatever this thing is will get bored and disappear.’ Blimey. So I really was living with something paranormal. I didn’t know whether to gasp in fear or jump with joy. ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ I said and followed him back to the hallway. ‘Luke thinks I’m bonkers.’ ‘Ever watched Most Haunted?’ ‘I love that show!’ I said. ‘Me too! Aren’t the celebrity episodes hilarious?’ I grinned. ‘But Walter’s house isn’t ancient. And according to Luke, before Badgers Chase was built, there was nothing here but fields and rivers. No cemetery. Or jail. Or psychiatric hospital.’ I shuddered. ‘It’s a mystery.’ Terry ran a hand over his bald head. ‘Anyway, got to go. All the best for this morning. I look forward to hearing the details!’ I closed the door behind him and raced back into the kitchen. First things first: heat up the frozen goodies – most only took twenty minutes. Whilst they were cooking, I prepared the garnishes. When the buzzer went I took out the snacks and laid them on platters. I reached for a jar of black olives. I could scatter those with some flat-leafed basil, in between the pizza and cheese bites. As for the mini hot dogs… I quickly fried up some chopped onion and put a spoonful on top of each with a squirt of mustard – that looked well cute. I’d lay the tempura prawns out on a bed of lettuce and sprinkle cherry tomatoes and slim cucumber sticks on top. Natural yogurt, another of Jess’s favourites, would help make yummy dips. I looked at the time: nine o’clock. For good measure, I’d also take a couple of tubes of Pringles. Well, these guests weren’t celebrities. I to-ed and fro-ed with all my boxes and plates, stacking them in the hallway. Hands on hips, I surveyed the pile. I’d just have one last check of the kitchen, where I stopped dead at the door. There, on the worktop, stood a couple of silver cupcake stands. They were beautiful, with silver wire swirls to hold the cakes, the stands in the shape of trees. Where on earth had they come from? What an exquisite, beautiful design. It was as if they’d been left there on purpose, just like the apron. Feeling more like a professional than ever, I carried them into the hallway. Luke rushed past, said he had to go. If that was Adam, he’d have insisted on staying to help me get my stuff over to Melissa’s. Three quick journeys on foot I’d need, to dump everything outside the Winsfords’ house. By the time I’d made my last trip up the drive and past the garages and golf club shaped fountain, it was bang on half past nine – and the gathering grey clouds had turned black. Rain was becoming a bore. With Christmas exactly two weeks today, I was dying for at least a sniff of snow. I rapped the eagle knocker, which was in the middle of an amazing Christmas wreath, made from miniature gold and white baubles, interspersed with glittery fake bronze holly. Jonny’s Bugatti wasn’t on the drive and I was kind of relieved not to meet him for the very first time in my sexless outfit. As for my make-up free face, I had no intention of meeting such a hot celebrity guy as nature intended. Shivering without a coat on, I smoothed down my hair. The Winsfords’ gardener wore an out-of-season man-from-Del-Monte hat and smiled as he trimmed the hedges at the front of her lawn. I smiled back then flicked a fly away from the tempura prawn platter. Tasty smells escaped the foil cover and my stomach rumbled. The door opened. Wow. Melissa had theme-dressed for the occasion. Her hair was twisted back in a conservative chignon and she wore modest cream plus fours with a beige, diamond-print, jumper. And as for that demure pearl necklace… Ten out of ten, I thought. It was all very modest. ‘Kimmy, darling… Glad to see you on time!’ Melissa led me into the hallway. I didn’t see the assassin. I’d been murdered, right? That was the only way I could have died and gone to heaven. I mean, OMG! I’d officially walked into a virtual Hello! magazine spread. Was the décor romantic, or what, with the damson chaise longue and delicately carved telephone table running along the right side of the stairs? ‘That’s an amazing chandelier,’ I murmured, eyes raised to the high ceiling. It had silver effect leaves curling around each glass candle and a hundred times more crystals than on Walter’s. ‘Imported. Cost a fortune,’ said Melissa as she repositioned a large vase of white lilies, mixed with gossamer light feathers, on the window sill at the front. On the far wall, as you entered, was a large framed quote on a white background: “Nothing is too beautiful, Nothing is too expensive.” Ettore Bugatti ‘And all those trophies,’ I said, in a daze, staring at a glass cabinet straight ahead, behind the chaise longue. Both of us went over. Melissa opened the glass doors and talked me through each one. She knew exactly when and where each prize had been awarded and carefully lifted them out, one by one – the big silver cups with enormous handles, bronze figures in the middle of a swing, glass golf balls perched on gold tees, a silver golf bag inscribed with the number one, and shield after shield. They were all on full view to potential burglars. No doubt they were protected by some laser beam alarm system, like in Mission Impossible. Next to the cabinet was a six foot Christmas tree. It was artificial silver, with co-ordinated tinsel and baubles in black and sparkly grey. Set in the wide turret on the left was the kitchen, and Melissa called the gardener to help me carry in the food. For a moment I stood transfixed by the black circular breakfast island and matching stools with gold legs. In the middle was a black vase filled with exotic black roses, intermingled with gold-sprayed leaves. Another chandelier, in gold, hung from the pointed ceiling. ‘Feel free to use the fridge-freezer,’ said Melissa, graciously, showing me to an industrial-sized fridge even bigger than Walter’s. There was plenty of room inside for my BargainMarket platters. In fact, it didn’t look like Melissa and Jonny ate in much at all. There were some diet colas, low calorie ready meals, chilled champagne, a half-eaten bar of king-sized chocolate and various jars of cosmetics. And… oh my God, I’d seen pictures of that in magazines: a shallow sky-blue and gold tin of Beluga caviar. Next to the fridge was a tall gold rack filled with wine bottles. I stared at a door on the right, at the end. ‘The dining room’s through there,’ said Melissa. ‘Take a look. We really ought to use it more often.’ As instructed, I peeked my head in. It was sumptuous – all mahogany, buttercream and fuchsia pink, with billowing curtains that looked like ships’ sails. To one side was a smaller Christmas tree, in the more traditional colours of green and red. In the middle of the table stood a pearl shell vase filled with candy-coloured fake tulips. At the back of the room was part of a simple, white conservatory; it must have stretched further across, out of sight, to the back of their lounge. I turned back to the kitchen and gazed out of the sparkling windows. Huh? Little greens and bunkers? Melissa shook her head. ‘Don’t ask. Jonny wanted a mini golf course landscaped into the back garden.’ ‘Is that…?’ I pointed to a massive looking shed. It was well smart, with a flag on the top and… Melissa nodded. ‘His own little clubhouse. It’s got its own bar, a snooker table, juke box… What more could a man want?’ I could just imagine Adam and myself living in a similar place. Infamous magazine would make us their lead story: “Reunited cake magnate Kimmy and partner show us around their lush lovenest…”Luke would be the hired help and I’d make him obey one of those wacky celebrity rules where he wasn’t allowed to look me in the eye. ‘You’ll serve the food in the lounge, darling,’ said Melissa’s velvet tones. I followed her into the room on the other side of the hallway. It was bigger than Adam’s whole flat, especially with the other end of the humungous conservatory at the back. It was ultra modern, unlike Walter’s which was filled with various bits of traditional furniture which didn’t necessarily match. Everything here was co-ordinated, right down to the colour of the drink mats. There were no cosy touches like Walter’s dog-eared books or Lily’s needlework box with multi-coloured threads hanging out. Even the little row of gold Christmas socks, hanging from the mantelpiece, looked brand new. Plus there was a third Christmas tree, again perfectly co-ordinated, this time in plum and gold. No homemade baubles dangled from its branches, no wooden ones or clip-on fake robins… Everything looked as if it was there for effect. Inwardly I chuckled. What would Melissa think to the little one I’d hit Luke over the head with? She chatted about a small table she’d set up by the window, for the cakes, but I hardly listened. It was as if I’d dived into my favourite celebrity homes TV show. I gazed at the velvet red curtains and glistening glass coffee table, the fragrant bowls of purple and red potpourri, a wicked gold ornamental birdcage and massive, gilt wall mirrors… Two armchairs matched a plum, curved sofa, and ornate ottoman, and on every seat in the room was a palatial cushion, neatly positioned into a diamond. As for the carpet, it was even more luxurious than the thick pile in Lily’s bedroom. If it was green, Jess would have said it needed a damn good mow. If only I had time to text Terry – he’d be well jealous. ‘When the ladies arrive, darling, make the coffees toot sweet. After a drink and one of your creations, I’ll introduce Sandra, my nail lady, and she can get out her needles. Whilst she’s knocking off the years, nearer to lunch time, you can fetch the savoury food.’ The front knocker rapped. ‘Shirley, the ex-captain’s wife cancelled, by the way.’ Melissa’s mouth sunk a little. ‘Apparently she’s woken up with a headache.’ We walked into the hallway, and she opened the door to a tiny, plump-ish lady with bobbed grey-blonde hair in a short-sleeved white medical coat. Her perfectly pink painted nails curled around the handle of a plastic case. ‘You must be the caterer. Lovely to meet you,’ she said to me, before air-kissing Melissa. ‘Where shall I set up?’ she asked. ‘The conservatory,’ Melissa said. ‘It’s airy and cheerful and should ease the nerves of the Botox virgins.’ Sandra placed a hand on Melissa’s arm. ‘I’m sure it will be a great success. I’ve brought my varnishes and files too, thought I could throw in a free manicure, have them leaving here looking really glam.’ ‘What would I do without you? That’s a fab idea!’ She linked her arm with Sandra’s. ‘Make yourself at home in the kitchen, Kimmy,’ she said, as they went into the lounge. Minutes later, the phone rang and after a short conversation echoed into the hallway, Melissa’s face appeared around the kitchen door. ‘Pamela’s cried off now – something about a domestic emergency. So that’s four of them left. Although Sandra says not to worry, that’ll give her more time to do the manicures.’ What was wrong with those women? Weren’t they dying to see the house of someone famous? Melissa looked at her watch. ‘Hadn’t you better switch the coffee machine on?’ She nodded towards a contraption on the unit, just along from the wine rack. Next to the compact black and silver machine were stacked china cups and saucers, white with black flowers. Close up, it looked like something out of a spaceship’s control tower. Adam and I thought we were posh when we bought a percolator, but this… And just look at that stack of cute little sealed coffee punnets! I picked one up – oh, pardon moi, they were actually called “Disc Beverage Pods”. I’d be able to take individual orders, such as a Latte, Espresso, Medium Roast and Cappuccino, then Macchiato (huh?), Chocolate and – get this! – Tiramisu flavour! Having whetted my own appetite, I switched on the machine and filled it right up to the two litres mark. I unpacked the cake stands and took the lids off the cake boxes. The rich mincemeat cupcakes and Santa Coladas looked awesome staggered up one silver tree, the Malibu buttercream icing easily overpowering the scent of those black roses. On the other stand, I carefully balanced the dark chocolate logs and skinny Stollens, then found a large serving plate to set out the cinnamon and spice muffins. I placed everything perfectly on the lace cloth in the lounge, having managed to find plates to match the cups and small silver forks. Melissa had left out some fancy holly and ivy paper cocktail napkins. The doorbell rang and I stood to attention, feeling like the kitchen maid out of Downton Abbey. ‘Vivian!’ Melissa said. ‘So glad you could make it.’ I peered around the door and saw a busty women in her sixties barge in, black patent handbag (her court shoes matched) clasped to her chest, blue silk blouse bolstered tightly into a beige skirt. Her tanned, wrinkled face revealed a lifetime of golf and cigarettes – she was clearly the perfect candidate for Botox. ‘And Denise. Hello. How are you?’ asked Melissa. She was the doctor’s receptionist, married to one of the pros, with two kids at secondary school. Middle-aged, with short mousy hair and no make-up, Denise wore a military design grey dress with buttons all the way up. Her slim legs cried out for stylish shoes but instead she’d chosen a flat trainer type. She wore what looked like one hundred denier flesh-coloured tights and on her back hung a mini rucksack. ‘Good morning, Melissa,’ said Denise stiffly, and looked around. ‘Rather isolated here, isn’t it? Give me the hustle and bustle of an estate, any day.’ Vivian was already over by the trophy cabinet. ‘You should see my Geoff’s collection of prizes; takes me a whole day to polish them. It’s just one of the responsibilities of being the captain’s wife.’ ‘Ladies, what would you like to drink?’ Melissa said, her smile already looking a little fixed, like those actors at the Oscars who’ve just found out they haven’t won. ‘Cappuccino, Espresso…?’ ‘Got anything straightforward,’ said Denise, ‘like black tea?’ ‘Why don’t people sell coffee in English any more?’ said Vivian’s clipped tones. She turned to me. ‘White coffee, please dear.’ By the time I took their drinks into the lounge, the doorbell had rung again and two younger women were in there too, chatting. One had her hair tied back in a scrunchie and wore sporty culottes, a cute pink hooded cardigan and cute stud snowman earrings. She had to be Kate, who, Melissa said, had two toddlers and worked in a gym. Melissa liked her best. That meant the other was Saffron, with hair as yellow as her name and a tan which clearly didn’t come from one of those exotic holidays the Winsfords enjoyed. She’d given Kate a lift and had just slipped her keys into her Louis Vuitton handbag, which I subtly scanned. It was fake, just like the one I’d bought off St Albans’ market. You could tell because there was no monogrammed LV on the zipper pull. Saffron stared around the room, lip-lined mouth open, kohl-rimmed eyes like saucers. Her nails were turquoise with red jewels and her frilly dress was both higher at the bottom and lower at the front than any of mine. I could have sworn I’d seen that exact dress on sale last week in one of my favourite discount shops in Luton. ‘Thank you, dear.’ Vivian took her coffee from me. ‘I’ll have one of Melissa’s lovely Macchiatos please,’ said Kate. ‘Got any green tea?’ said Saffron. ‘If not, I’ll have a black coffee, ta. Got to watch my figure – otherwise the men won’t, know what I mean?’ She smiled smugly. ‘Although I couldn’t do nothing so energetic as Melissa. All that sweat. Don’t you get bored of your own exercise DVD, babes?’ ‘I’m with Saffron,’ said Denise. ‘And I couldn’t sit through all those manicures and hair appointments, either.’ ‘I see it as my duty, as one of the national birdies,’ said Melissa, in a tight voice. ‘People expect me to look my best at all times.’ Vivian was on her feet, studying a portrait of the golfing wife. ‘It’s very brave to hang that up,’ said Saffron, innocently. ‘Was it drawn before you went on a diet?’ ‘Just look how the artist’s captured Melissa’s fine bone structure and glossy hair,’ said Sandra firmly, as she passed by and winked at Melissa. ‘No amount of weight loss could achieve those two things.’ Saffron wrinkled her nose. ‘Kimmy, isn’t it?’ said Kate to me, as I tried to make my escape. ‘The cakes look delicious.’ ‘Yes, maybe you could hand them around, Kimmy,’ said Melissa, in a measured voice. ‘KimCake Ltd’s products are very exclusive.’ ‘Never understood people paying for fairy cakes,’ said Vivian. Denise nodded. ‘Especially us mums. Having kids makes you your own expert on icing and sprinkles. And just because they cost the earth doesn’t mean they’re the best quality. We had a patient in the other day who’d ordered some fancy ones online. They’d taken a big bite and almost choked on a plastic twist tie.’ ‘These are rather special though, and Christmas-themed,’ said Melissa, through gritted teeth. She glared at me. ‘Um yes,’ I stuttered, and gave them a tour of the two pretty stands. Kate clapped her hands when I mentioned the mincemeat cupcakes’ brandy buttercream icing. Vivian sniffed and said she’d try the Santa Colada, only because Denise was driving. Saffron, in between gazing at Melissa’s lush furnishing, interrogated me as to the number of grams of fat in each skinny Stollen and said I should really offer gluten-free, as that was a very trendy diet. Modest Denise said she’d try a cinnamon and spice muffin, as that was the least fancy. So I served their requests onto the delicate china plates and left the room. At least whilst they ate, it went quiet. I mean, jeez! Friendly Wysteria Lane of Desperate Housewives it wasn’t! I’d always thought that being a celebrity meant people would like you, or at least pretend. But Saffron was obviously jealous, Denise unimpressed, Vivian competitive… Thank God for Kate. If anything could bond this mismatched bunch together, it would be eating cakes with the melt-in-mouth buttercream icing and kick of sugary sponge. When I went back, Vivian was onto her second Santa Colada and Denise was asking Melissa if she could have a plain biscuit instead of another cake. Kate gave me the thumbs up and wiped some brandy buttercream icing from around her mouth. Saffron was playing with her healthier skinny Stollen, a tortured look on her face as she refused to let herself eat it. Melissa should have shared her tip about chewing it then spitting it out. But there was no need as Saffron finally put down her plate. Then she ran her hand over the expensive sofa. ‘Have to say, I am rather impressed, young lady,’ said Vivian to me and raised her cupcake, a popping candy fizzing noise coming from her mouth. ‘This Malibu icing is delicious and the dessicated coconut’s texture just sets off the richness.’ ‘Same for the brandy buttercream icing,’ said Kate and licked her thumb. ‘Good thing I’m not driving home.’ ‘Don’t know what’s wrong with simple flavours nowadays,’ muttered Denise. ‘Go to buy a chocolate bar and you have the choice of about ten versions. And it’s impossible to understand the list of ingredients. One of our patients has a nut allergy and is always coming in with Mick Jagger lips, after eating something that’s been cross-contaminated and not clearly labelled’ ‘Kimmy has an impeccable record,’ said Melissa, in her velvet tones. ‘I was lucky to find her.’ ‘Who else have you catered for, dear?’ asked Vivian. ‘Um, most of the national team,’ I said, with an air of confidence, despite crossing my fingers. ‘And some footballers.’ ‘Really?’ Saffron sat upright. ‘That’s mental!’ Vivian shook her head and smiled, as if to say the young woman would eventually grow out of being impressed by celebritydom. ‘I’m holding a hen night for my big sis this Friday,’ continued Saffron. ‘We’re having a buffet – you know, finger food, like on those frozen food supermarket adverts. You could give me your card. It’s not too late, is it? I’m thinking pink and glittery with her name on, and all the better if you have a recipe that’s low-cal… I saw one in Starchat last month for chocolate fudge cupcakes. They done a list of all the celebs eating healthy at the moment. Gluten-free cupcakes are the latest must-have,’ she said and shook back her bouffant blonde hair, as if she’d just made some important announcement. Blimey. She sounded just like me yakking to Adam about the latest celebrity gossip. I passed her one of my, ahem, business cards – they were tucked in the pocket at the front of my apron. ‘It’s my niece’s seventh birthday in a few weeks,’ said Kate. ‘I’d love a boxful to take along, if you could theme them around Disney Princesses.’ ‘Um… of course.’ I handed out another paper slip, successfully containing my excitement until I got back to the kitchen. Adam would be well impressed with this. ‘Open a bottle of champagne, will you, darling,’ said Melissa, as she appeared right behind me. ‘Everything okay?’ She’d caught me jumping on the spot, clapping my hands. ‘Just a bit of cramp.’ I grabbed a bottle out of the fridge, whilst she put some glasses on a tray. ‘I think these ladies need loosening up a bit before I bring out the Botox.’ Melissa grinned. I carried the filled glasses through and Melissa encouraged them all to have at least a few sips. ‘Far too early in the day for me,’ said Denise and put down her glass. ‘Never too early, as far as I’m concerned,’ joked Kate. ‘So tell us, dear,’ said Vivian to Melissa, in a booming voice (maybe I’d overdone the Malibu). ‘Which charity are we supporting? How much would you like us to contribute for every cake we eat – or…’ she eyed the remaining Santa Coladas, ‘… buy to take home?’ Melissa cleared her throat. ‘You’ve probably been wondering who Sandra is, to-ing and fro-ing in her white coat.’ She nodded towards the conservatory at the end of the room, where the nail lady had just finished setting up. ‘I assumed she was your cleaner,’ said Denise. ‘We’d already met the gardener. It must be nice to have so much help.’ ‘No. I mean I do have a cleaner but it’s her day off. Sandra’s… well perhaps she should explain.’ ‘Is she a nurse?’ said Saffron. ‘You trying to help her raise money for new hospital equipment?’ Melissa waved to Sandra, who made her way past the gold birdcage and over to the plum sofa and chairs where the guests sat. I stood in the doorway, ready to bolt to the kitchen for more champagne if required. ‘Um, this isn’t exactly a charity fundraiser,’ said Melissa and beamed. ‘I thought I’d do all of you hardworking wives a favour instead. Sandra?’ The tiny woman gave a warm smile. ‘Good morning, ladies. I’m the answer to your prayers. Ever looked in the mirror and wondered who that was looking back? Ever bought a new outfit, had your hair done, and still felt inadequate? From behind her back she drew out her hand, her long red-nailed fingers grasping a needle. ‘Botox, ladies,’ she said. ‘It’s the easiest way to get the face that reflects the real you.’ She jerked her head towards Melissa’s portrait. ‘By the time I’ve finished with you, you could look almost as glamorous as the lovely Mrs Winsford.’ Smugly, Melissa folded her arms. This was her pièce de résistance. Er, yes, resistance, all right. Denise’s eyebrows knotted across so far they almost became one. Kate and Vivian’s mouths fell open. ‘Botox?’ they gasped, in horror. Chapter 13 (#ulink_14440bfd-0397-5924-97d9-c803725d1fab) ‘You’ve got to be joking, Melissa. You brought me all this way under false pretences so that someone could inject a toxin into my face?’ Denise shook her head. ‘This isn’t as exciting as it might seem,’ she said to Saffron, who had sat bolt upright, eyes all sparkly. ‘Toxin’s a misleading word,’ said Sandra. She went over to Denise and put a hand on her shoulder. ‘And we all enjoy a few glasses of wine, but that’s not supposed to do your liver any good – what’s the difference? We can do it right here if you like. Just lean back and relax, deep breaths…’ Saffron glanced at the other ladies and her shoulders sagged. ‘Um, of course. Denise is right,’ she said and shook back her hair. ‘Anyway, who’s to say all of us need it, know what I mean?’ ‘And even if we do,’ interrupted Vivian, ‘it’s cost me a lot of air miles and packets of Silk Cut getting my wrinkles. That’s quite an investment. Who wants to see the face of a twenty year old on the body of a gran?’ ‘Might be a few sessions before we could knock that many years off you,’ muttered Sandra and brandished the needle. ‘It’s only a bit of fun,’ said Melissa. ‘Kate… You’re up for it?’ ‘Sorry, hon, but how will I tell the kids off, if I can’t even frown?’ ‘One of our patients had too much and it spread,’ said Denise, flinching as Sandra raised her needle. ‘It gave her temporary facial paralysis. Her cheek muscles were so badly affected, she couldn’t eat properly for weeks.’ ‘She lost weight as well, then?’ said Melissa. ‘Bonus! Come on, ladies. It’s my treat and doesn’t hurt a bit. I mean, not that I’d know, but so I’m told.’ Her cheeks tinged pink. ‘Just relax,’ said Sandra to the doctor’s receptionist. ‘You’ll hardly feel a thing.’ Denise’s eyes narrowed. ‘Are you even properly trained? I don’t fancy placing my face in the hands of a nail technician.’ ‘Like you’ve got a lot to lose,’ muttered Melissa. ‘I’ve been treating Mrs Wins… um, I mean, lots of clients, successfully for months,’ said Sandra. Saffron did a poor job of suppressing a smile. ‘Wow, Melissa, babes, so the rumours are true. You must be even older than I thought if Botox is your best bud.’ ‘You look great on it, hon,’ said Kate in a loud voice. ‘I guess it’s just not for everyone. But…’ she glared at the others. ‘It was very generous of you to think of us.’ Denise grabbed her rucksack and stood up. ‘Speak for yourself, Kate. I’m a busy working woman with a family to look after. If this isn’t for charity, then I’m wasting my time.’ ‘And I don’t want to end up with lips like obese caterpillars,’ said Saffron. ‘No one would ever kiss me again.’ ‘It’s collagen that does that,’ I said. ‘Whatever,’ she replied airily and picked up her handbag. ‘It was just… I thought you’d be pleased,’ said Melissa, eyes looking all shiny. ‘Your average woman doesn’t get the chance to go to a Botox party.’ ‘Are you calling us average?’ said Saffron, drawn-on eyebrows arched. ‘Botox parties are for people with too much money, if you ask me,’ said Vivian. ‘Or too little sense. Whereas we all live in the real world…’ She flicked some crumbs off her silk blouse and wavering slightly, stood up. As she walked past, she patted my arm. ‘I’ll get your number. Those Santa Coladas would be a huge hit at my Bridge Club.’ I smiled but didn’t feel like jumping quite so high as before because Melissa’s shoulders slumped as her guests left. Sandra was back in the conservatory, shaking her head as she packed away her stuff. ‘Ring you later,’ said Kate to Melissa, and mouthed “sorry” before following on the heels of Saffron who, with a flounce of her frilly dress, teetered out of the room. ‘What went wrong?’ Melissa sank onto the plum sofa. She swilled back a mouthful of champagne and asked me to fetch another bottle and a glass for myself. By the time I got back, she was ready for a second glass. ‘Here,’ I said and passed her one of the rich mincemeat cupcakes. ‘This’ll make you feel better.’ ‘Whatever do you mean? The morning was a success. They enjoyed the food. I’m sure they thought me very generous.’ But her mouth downturned and she took a huge bite. ‘Sod the calories. Take one yourself. At least we know how to enjoy ourselves. Saffron hardly ate one mouthful. And as for Denise… She’s always got some medical horror story to tell.’ I took one of the dark chocolate logs before sitting next to her, on the sofa. Who would believe I was sipping champagne in Jonny Winsford’s house? I felt another Facebook status announcement coming on: “Champers to celebrate as business is booming.” ‘Do you want me to stay for a while, Melissa?’ said Sandra in a soft voice as she stopped by us, holding her case. She’d taken off her coat to reveal a pastel skirt and smart magnolia blouse. ‘Don’t you worry about those ladies. They wouldn’t know a favour if it pinched them on the bottom.’ ‘No. Honestly. But perhaps you could come round later in the week to do my nails. Your cheque…’ Melissa muttered, words slightly slurring now. ‘Don’t worry, dear.’ Sandra squeezed Melissa’s shoulder. ‘We’ll sort that out next time. I’ll show myself out.’ She disappeared into the hallway and the front door opened and closed. ‘She seems nice,’ I said. Melissa topped up our glasses. ‘My manicure sessions are a godsend. Sandra always has really good advice. She’s shown me this facial exercise routine that’s supposed to produce results better than a facelift. And once I opened a bottle of champagne for lunch whilst she was here to celebrate sales of my DVD. I’d forgotten I was supposed to drive to meet Jonny in Harpenden for some fundraiser. Sandra insisted on giving me a lift there and wouldn’t let me order a taxi.’ She took a large sip. ‘What a wasted opportunity. Those women don’t know how to make the best of themselves.’ Her words were less velvety and strands of hair had slipped out of her chignon. ‘And we never got to try your savoury nibbles. I’ll keep them if you like. Jonny’s agent’s visiting tonight.’ ‘Really?’ That sounded important. I wouldn’t want to let Melissa down. Not after the humiliation she’d faced this morning. ‘Um… I’m better at baking cakes than making canapés. Honestly. I’m sure he’d prefer some of your home cooking.’ She giggled. ‘Darling, Jonny didn’t marry me because I know how to hold a whisk. We eat out a lot and if people come to dinner, I get in caterers. Just tell me how to heat them up. In fact, why don’t you come back later and–’ ‘I was thinking the, um, prawns looked a bit off.’ ‘But you were going to serve them to the ladies.’ Melissa looked at me sideways, then got up and wended her way into the kitchen. I followed. She yanked open the fridge door and lifted the foil on a platter of mini hot dogs. Her eyes narrowed. ‘They all look exactly the same – more factory-produced than handmade.’ She slammed the door and hiccoughed. ‘What’s going on?’ ‘I… I thought you only wanted cakes. When you mentioned at the last minute about savoury nibbles, I panicked and…’ ‘Bought them?’ Melissa shrugged. ‘I hope you used that new deli in town.’ I swallowed hard. ‘They came from BargainMarket.’ ‘Oh, BargainMarket, yes well…’ She gasped. ‘BargainMarket! I wouldn’t feed a dog from there. Wasn’t it recently investigated by the Health and Safety Watchdog?’ She glared at me for a few seconds before her eyes twinkled and she laughed. ‘Can you imagine Vivian’s face if she knew?’ she spluttered. ‘And as for Saffron, she’d die at the levels of salt and unsaturated fat. And no doubt squillions of Denise’s patients have lost their lives to cheap, mass-produced savoury snacks!’ ‘I have tarted them up,’ I said and chuckled. ‘I think we’d have got away with it.’ ‘Good thing I didn’t waste my caviar on them.’ Melissa glanced at me. ‘Although it does need eating up. Ever tried it?’ I shook my head. She opened the fridge door, took out the tin and fetched a teaspoon. ‘Wish I had some crackers,’ she said, and prised off the lid. ‘I’ve got tubes of Pringles,’ I said and rummaged in one of my bags. With a flourish I dragged a tube out, opened it up and set it on the table top. ‘Pringles?’ Melissa giggled. ‘Why not? Hold one out.’ She spooned a teaspoon of dark grey pearly eggs onto it. I stared at the crisp for a moment. ‘Go on,’ she soothed. Deep breath. Mouth open… Mmm. The smooth pearls burst on my tongue and tasted like a breath of sea air, just before the cheesy aftertaste of the Pringle kicked in. A screech of wheels cut through our conversation, then a key turned and the front door opened. OMG! It had to be Jonny – the golfing god himself. Melissa jumped up and hurried into the hallway. ‘Honey?’ I heard her say. ‘You’re home early.’ ‘Have you been drinking again?’ said a male voice. ‘Where is everyone? ’ ‘They had to get off. Busy women. But they loved the cakes. The caterer’s still in the kitchen. We were just…’ ‘You invited Saffron after all.’ ‘How did–?’ ‘Just saw her husband down at the club. Steve said she’d be coming. Get rid of the caterer,’ he said. ‘God knows why but the bloody paparazzi have trailed me all day again. So, if you open the door – try to at least stand straight.’ Footsteps disappeared upstairs. Feeling a bit woozy, I hurtled into the lounge to fetch the cakestands. Then Melissa helped me carry all my stuff onto the front doorstep. She’d shoved the tin of caviar into my bag and handed me a folded cheque. ‘Thanks, Kimmy. This is the going rate, I reckon. Let me know if it’s not enough. Got to go. Ciao.’ ‘But the savoury nibbles…? And I’ve written an invoice…’ ‘I’m not fussed about the paperwork,’ she said and glanced up at the stairs again. ‘And those mini pizzas didn’t look too bad after all.’ She slammed the front door behind me and I was left staring at the golf fountain, before noticing a long lens peer at me from the bottom of the front garden. This was awesome! I was being papped! If only I was wearing more make-up and trendier clothes. How typical that for my first appearance in Starchat I was dressed like a butcher. I made my first journey back to Walter’s house, strolling past the silver Bugatti and trying to ignore the photographer in muddy combat trousers. How important did I feel! Even though I walked quickly, the bloke soon caught up and grabbed one of the cakestands. ‘Let me help yer, love,’ he said, a cigarette drooping out of one side of his mouth. Puffy bags hung under his eyes. ‘Jonny and Melissa seem okay? Some fancy celebration was it? Yer know ‘em well?’ ‘They seem very happy, which is all I’m prepared to say,’ I said, in my poshest voice. ‘You can quote me on that, if you like. The name’s Kimmy Jones.’ He snorted. ‘Not unless yer provide me with some dirt.’ He thrust the cakestand back in my arms and slipped a silver card into my apron pocket. ‘Give me a ring, if yer catch anything going on. Me or someone else from the agency can be here in minutes. There’s good money in it.’ Ew! I didn’t like him. He wasn’t what I’d expected from the paparazzi at all. Where was the cool bike, leather jacket and wavy mop of Italian black hair? With his chunky lily-white legs sticking out of stained shorts, his sweaty face and receding hairline, I wouldn’t want him shadowing me everywhere. I’d always imagined if I was famous, the paparazzi would be my friends. We’d laugh together and I’d hand them cups of tea. In the press I’d be known as ‘The Paps’ Sweetheart’. Not long later, I lay on my bed, apron off and bun undone. The photographer’s silver card was on my bedside table. It had an oily fingerprint on it. Ugh. Jess was out. The house was quiet. It was just me and Groucho, cocking his head and looking all cute, cos he knew it was his dinnertime. On the little table next to me was the empty blue and gold tin of caviar. How decadent was that, me eating the food of the gods in bed? Clearly I was made for the celebrity lifestyle, as not everyone could enjoy raw fish eggs. I gagged slightly and rushed to change the subject in my head. Now was my chance to try speaking to Walter again. I mean there were no rules, were there, that said ghosts only communicated at night? First things first though. Relaxed and calm, it was time to unfold that cheque. I took a deep breath. Fifty quid perhaps? My cakes were worth that. I squealed as my eyes scanned Melissa’s fancy writing. Surely there was some mistake? Hands shaking I reached for my phone. For a few hours’ work, I’d just earned three hundred pounds. An amount like that would blow Adam away! Chapter 14 (#ulink_4150ca07-46b7-5906-832f-ee732b128c0a) ‘Take that!’ I said, not referring to Auntie Sharon’s favourite pop group. I glanced at the clock: nine already. Deborah and the prospective buyers would be here in two hours. My arms ached, my palms stung and my chest heaved up and down. Had I just had a fight with that arrogant Luke or Jess’s Ex or that obnoxious photographer outside? No. The target of my aggression was some butter and a few innocent-looking eggs. The reason? My lip quivered as I flexed my weapon (a silver hand whisk). It was Adam’s fault. He’d eventually answered his phone yesterday evening, after I’d spent the afternoon tidying up the house. I’d hardly stopped for breath to tell him about Melissa’s cheque and the other bookings, namely Saffron’s hen night, the cakes for Kate’s niece’s birthday and Vivian’s bridge club. His reaction? On the positive side, his first words were: ‘You okay then, babe? Where are you staying?’ On the negative side? Where to start? I’d gone on to tell him about Mistletoe Mansion – you know, hot tub, fancy neighbours, micro-pig called Frazzle. He didn’t think I’d taken on board his plea for me to keep my feet on the ground; didn’t give so much as a grunt of interest when I’d babbled on about how my business was taking off. ‘So, when does this holiday come to an end?’ he’d muttered. ‘Holiday? Hardly, what with running this house, keeping it clean and tomorrow I’m showing potential buyers around as well as baking my (fake designer) socks off.’ ‘And what happens when you move back to Luton? You still don’t get it, do you? It’s an unworkable dream. These people you’re mixing with are giving you fanciful ideas.’ ‘Three hundred pounds, Adam – for a few hours’ work – plus half a tin of caviar!’ A sigh whooshed down the phone. ‘Look, gotta go.’ He rang off. I poured the batter into the silicone moulds. These were the vanilla and strawberry ladybird cupcakes I’d promised to make Deborah. The front doorbell rang and I closed the oven door, before heading into the hallway. I pulled out my scrunchie and hoped my hair didn’t look too much of a mess. Eyes alert, Groucho sat under the table in the hallway, as I opened the door to… a red-nosed, shivering Terry. He wore orange and brown checked plus fours and an apricot anorak. I loved his colourful ensembles. ‘Not stopping long! I just came over to see how yesterday went.’ He stared at my face. ‘Did you get any Botox?’ He put Frazzle on the ground and Groucho scooted over for a sniff. ‘Poor Melissa,’ I said. ‘No one was impressed. When they found out the coffee morning wasn’t for charity, they all left, wrinkles intact.’ I gave him a run-down of the details. ‘Poor Melissa. What’s her house like?’ he asked. ‘There’s a massive birdcage in the lounge and the kitchen’s done out in black and gold. You should see this cabinet full of trophies. And the décor was co-ordinated down to the last thread of cotton and shelf bracket…’ On and on I went, Terry lapping up every detail. ‘Then there’s the carpet – it’s higher than Jedward’s quiffs. And I counted at least three Christmas trees.’ His eyes widened. ‘Ooh, wonder if I can get the name of her interior designer. By the way, why all the paparazzi outside Melissa’s place? The last time they had that much attention was when Jonny made that joke about the Scottish, whilst up there playing the Open. Remember that picture of him in Starchat?’ ‘How could I forget!’ It was of Jonny in a sporran (sexy legs or what), telling some offensive joke about Glaswegians and bagpipes. I shrugged my shoulders. Who cares why the cameras were there? All that attention was exciting. ‘Got to fly,’ said Terry, and picked up the pig, ‘if I want to get nine holes in, without freezing my fingers off. The weather’s decidedly chilly today. By the way, do you watch Celebrity Snippets? It’s on tomorrow at seven. There’s supposed to be new revelations about Zac Efron.’ ‘I love that programme! Look…Why don’t you come here to watch it? We’ll have something to eat. Maybe go in the hot tub?’ ‘Sure you young girls want me around?’ ‘Who else can I talk to about what Melissa’s house and clothes are like? And you won’t believe how the Winsfords have landscaped their back garden. Jess isn’t interested and Groucho isn’t really one to gossip.’ Terry grinned. ‘It’s a deal. I’ll bring my costume and something fizzy to drink.’ I closed the door. It was awesome to finally find someone who could match my fascination for celebrities. The girls at Best Buns bakery bought the magazines to glance through at lunch, but didn’t pore over the outfits and accessories like me. Sure, they’d daydream about living like Cheryl Cole, but I actually worked on how I could achieve that by myself. A bit like Mum, my colleagues just hoped one day Mr Right would come along and simply hand them a perfect life. They didn’t even collect and categorise the magazines like me and Terry. I mean, what could be more inspiring than flicking back a few years to remember just how far your fave celeb has come? I dashed into the kitchen to take out and check the cupcakes. Pressing them gently, I found that each sponge sprung back exactly the right amount. So, I left them to cool whilst I prepared the topping, with butter, icing sugar and thawed out mini frozen strawberries. The icing blushed just the right shade of pink and smelt all sweet and summery, despite the time of year. Twenty minutes later, the cakes were iced and crowned with marzipan ladybirds. I put them in a Tupperware box, before wiping up the mess from the black and red food colouring. I didn’t want to provoke one of Jess’s hormonal rages again. It had gone ten and I pulled off my apron. It was time to check the house one last time, before Deborah got here. The lounge, despite Walter’s clutter, actually looked tidy. The Games Room was immaculate. So were my and Jess’s bedrooms. The bathrooms sparkled, even the doortops were dusted. I slipped into the office. Pristine. There was nothing left to do so I just had time to log onto the laptop and check Facebook. Oh my God! Leah’s new profile photo made her look like a vampire with that red-eye. Aw, Rosy from Best Buns had set up a fan group for her new kitten. Lucy from secondary school had invited me to do a quiz on my underwear – which would, apparently, unlock secrets about my personality. I scrolled down my homepage. Poor Becca had splashed bleach on her new trousers. Yet again I had something exciting to report, other than what I’d eaten for breakfast. After clicking onto my status, I typed: “KimCakes Ltd is finally taking off – orders are flying in!” The doorbell rang and I shut down the laptop. Groucho beat me to the hallway and barked loudly when I opened the door. Deborah wore a cream high-necked blouse, brown tailored trousers with a matching jacket and high heels with the cutest button straps. A couple in their forties stood behind her, properly wrapped up for the weather, in smart winter coats over office clothes – they had obviously taken time off work. ‘Hello, Kimmy,’ said Deborah, crisply, without quite looking me in the eye. Well, she must feel sheepish for failing to tell me I must love ghosts. ‘This is Mr and Mrs Davis,’ she said and turned back to them. ‘As I promised, this is an impressive property. Lovingly cared for and maintained, this house has everything you’re looking for – space, real character and the perfect location which is rural yet on the commuter belt. Shall we start in the Games Room?’ She pointed them to the left. As they went in, she held my elbow. ‘Watch and learn,’ she whispered. ‘In the future, you’ll show buyers around on your own.’ ‘If I’m still here,’ I whispered. ‘Why chase after our car? Forget to tell us something, did you?’ She fiddled with her watch. ‘Erm… yes, I’d had second thoughts and was trying to catch you up to say that maybe I should chase your references.’ ‘Rubbish! You knew why this place was taking so long to sell. I think you were going to warn us about Mistletoe Mansion.’ ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said and her mouth took a firm line. ‘You wanted the job, didn’t you? Looked pretty desperate, in fact. I did you a favour. It’s my neck on the line, if this place still fails to sell.’ ‘And it could be my neck, literally, in the noose, if whatever’s in this house turns out to be a hangman.’ ‘You said nothing fazed you – mushrooms and mice…’ ‘That didn’t include supernatural beings! You withheld vital information.’ ‘You weren’t exactly honest yourself. Or shall I press you for the name of the agency you work for?’ ‘Um, no, you see, as we said–’ ‘You get to read people pretty well in my job. I always know when someone’s lying – like so-called buyers who just want to snoop around or rival agents bullshitting about how much commission they’re on.’ ‘Hellooo?’ called Mrs Davis. ‘We’ll talk later,’ said Deborah and headed into the Games Room. I followed her in. Wow. She was good. Awesome as this room was, only an estate agent could make it sound like the welcoming front room of an aristocrat’s house – a much better idea than my intention of schmoozing clients by saying that it was the perfect place to act out some bloody battle or sexy seduction from Game of Thrones (well, doesn’t everyone watch that show?). ‘Bedrooms, next?’ she said and I led them upstairs, disappointed to hear Deborah explain that the two rooms full of Walter’s stuff needed sorting before you could get a real sense of their space. They wouldn’t be unlocked unless the Davis’s wanted a second viewing. ‘You’ll adore this room,’ Deborah said to Mrs Davis, ‘it’s wonderfully feminine and lush.’ Gingerly, she pushed open the door to where I slept. I gasped. How did those cushions get on the floor? Why was the ceiling lampshade hanging loose? Who’d thrown my rouge onto the walls and pulled the paintings well crooked? Groucho lay in the middle of the bed, innocently licking his paws. If he was a Great Dane he might have done some of the damage but I could hardly blame a ten inch tall Jack Russell. ‘I, um… don’t understand,’ I muttered as the buyers raised their eyebrows. Deborah bit her lip. ‘Perhaps we should move along,’ she said in a stiff voice, ‘to the room once used as an office.’ We walked past the locked room opposite the top of the stairs to the one where’d I’d just updated my Facebook status. ‘I was just in here two minutes ago!’ I said in a high pitched voice and gazed around at the knocked over swivel chair and papers scattered across the beech desk. ‘Look, um, let’s go down to the kitchen,’ I said. That would impress them and maybe a fresh cupcake would make them forget all this mess. ‘I hope we aren’t wasting our time,’ said Mrs Davis, in a tight voice as we all walked along the landing. ‘We’re very busy people.’ ‘I can’t apologise enough,’ said Deborah. She caught my eye as we followed the couple down. I shivered. Maybe the mean spirit – the one that had grabbed my foot – was back. With bated breath, I led the way into the kitchen, praying I wasn’t about to walk into puddles of food colouring. I sighed with relief. Everything was as I’d left it, the cupcakes neatly in their box, utensils draining, flour and other ingredients presumably still in their packets. Deborah ushered the couple to look out of the window. Despite the low winter cloud, the garden still looked magnificent. ‘… and you must see the hot tub.’ Deborah led them to the French patio doors. But eyes narrow, jaws set, they stopped by the glass. Tossed to one side was the cover and clumps of flour floated on the water, along with jet black pools, just like the marzipan ladybird dots. ‘Is this some joke?’ said Mr Davis to Deborah, looking around, perhaps for some hidden camera. ‘What sort of amateurish outfit do you work for? We won’t be using you again.’ ‘Wait, please…’ she spluttered and hurried after them into the hallway. It was no good. The couple slammed the front door behind them. Deborah swore under her breath and we went over to the front window to watch them leave. Luke was at the end of the drive and they were talking to him. A man carrying a large camera walked past them, heading for Melissa’s house. ‘I would say sorry for the mess.’ I stared at Deborah. ‘But you know it wasn’t my fault.’ She threw her hands in the air. ‘Happens every time – an angry couple ring me, followed by the housesitter on the phone swearing blind they had tidied up.’ She sighed. ‘I know. I should have told you, that this place is… But it sounds so stupid… Have you seen the smoke? Heard the strange gale?’ ‘Yes. And the White Christmas tune.’ Her brow furrowed. ‘That’s a new one on me.’ Inside I felt kind of warm. So Walter hadn’t revealed himself to the previous sitters. Perhaps he could relate to me because I baked like his wife. Or perhaps I’d picked up psychic abilities by watching so much Most Haunted. ‘What about the lights going out?’ she said. ‘And has anything, um, physically made contact?’ ‘You mean grabbed me? Yes. I could have been seriously injured. You should have warned us this place was haunted.’ ‘Sounds mad, doesn’t it?’ said Deborah. ‘But what else could explain this mess? I’ve cherry-picked the housesitters so far – all reliable, sensible sorts. In fact, you two have been my biggest gamble, with no references and you’re quite young.’ ‘Come on. I reckon we both need a cupcake,’ I said and we headed for the kitchen. ‘I made a batch of those marzipan ladybird ones I promised for your kids.’ ‘Sod the kids.’ Deborah smiled. Twenty minutes later we were sitting in the green velvet armchairs in the lounge, coffees on the low oak table, a plate with a cupcake on each of our laps. ‘Have you told Mr Murphy why the house won’t sell?’ I said and took a large bite. ‘What would I say? Word would get back to my boss. If anyone got to hear I thought a ghost was in one of my properties, my reputation would be in tatters.’ She took a mouthful of sponge. ‘That reminds me. Mr Murphy’s down here on business the day after tomorrow – said he’d drop by here in the morning. So it goes without saying…’ ‘I know. I’ll make sure everything’s spotless and hope no astral being messes it up.’ I’d have to do an early tidy up on Thursday morning, as Terry would be around the night before for telly. Walter would be pleased to have his nephew visit. Deborah licked strawberry buttercream icing from her top lip. ‘Mmm.’ She sighed and slipped off her shoes. ‘Do I really have to give the rest to the children?’ I grinned. Perhaps the viewing wasn’t so bad I thought, taking another mouthful. There’d be others. I was determined to get this place sold. ‘So what exactly have you told Mr Murphy?’ I asked. ‘The same excuse I gave you – that times are hard and that pre-Christmas is a notoriously bad time for the market. I suggested he should lower the price if he wants a quick sale. He said another agency had told him the same – that’s his way of letting me know he might take his business elsewhere.’ ‘But you found him housesitters!’ ‘For the commission on a place this size, any agency would do the same, whether he’s friends with the boss or not. You and Jess… Are you definitely staying? You won’t run off in the middle of the night?’ ‘No.’ I wanted to help Walter. In any case, what choice did I have? Adam was no nearer to taking me back and more importantly, pregnant Jess needed stability for at least a few more days. A sudden rapping on glass came from the kitchen. Deborah looked at her watch. ‘I’d better get going – appointments to keep, piles of paperwork to plod through…’ ‘I’ll just get you the rest of those cupcakes. Come round again and I’ll make you those toffee teddy bear ones I mentioned, with peanut butter icing.’ I grinned. ‘For the kids, of course.’ The knocking became more frantic and whilst Deborah slipped on her shoes and went out of the front of the lounge, I dashed to the door at the back, almost skidding around the corner into the kitchen. Outside stood Melissa, leaning against the patio doors – hair bedraggled, black, gold-trimmed velour tracksuit grass-stained. Perhaps she and Jonny had, ahem, sunk a few holes on their mini golf course. I opened the patio doors and a gush of cold air breezed in. A little unsteady, she held out a jar of black olives. ‘Hello, darling,’ she mumbled. ‘You left these behind, yesterday.’ I sniffed. That was some “perfume”. I recognised the alcoholic bite to it straightaway. It was from the same range as Mum’s – let’s call that Eau de Cider. Melissa’s smelt slightly classier – Eau de Prosecco, perhaps. The golfer’s wife half-smiled, then promptly tripped over the patio frame. The olive jar and England’s number one birdie – appropriately – went flying. Chapter 15 (#ulink_3fede0f3-07f3-570a-a9cb-241edfaf56dc) ‘Don’t move. I’ll be back in a minute,’ I hissed to Melissa, as she got to her knees and clung to a stool. I grabbed some ladybird cupcakes, put them in a Tupperware box and carried it in to the hall where Deborah was waiting. ‘Everything all right?’ said Deborah and undid her umbrella. ‘What was that crash? Did you know there’s a load of photographers at the end of the drive?’ ‘They’re always hanging around Badgers Chase, what with the Winsfords living here.’ ‘Imagine living your life in the spotlight, like that.’ Deborah shuddered. ‘Right, well, I’ll be in touch,’ she said and took the box. ‘Thanks for these and, um, I hope things settle down here, for everyone’s sake.’ As soon as the front door was closed I hurried back to the kitchen. Melissa was searching through the fridge. Luckily the jar of olives hadn’t smashed and I picked it up. Melissa shook her head. ‘What is wrong with you people? This fridge is full of food. Where’s the champagne?’ ‘How about a coffee?’ I said. ‘And a cute ladybird cupcake?’ She sniffed. ‘Okay. Don’t normally drink at lunchtime, anyway. It’s those bloody parasites with their cameras outside, every lens focused on my window. It’s like I’m some little metal duck on a funfair shooting range. Every time I move they’re ready to pop their corks.’ Her usual velvety voice had hardened. I put the kettle on, as she sat down at the breakfast island. ‘Must be great, though, having your face in all those magazines? And it’s well good publicity for your DVDs.’ I sighed. ‘I wish the paparazzi were interested in me.’ Melissa snorted. ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. One of the first ever photos they printed of me was taken when I popped out to the shops, without any make-up.’ She took a cupcake and picked off the marzipan ladybird. ‘Even if I’m only off to the gym, I always have to make an effort – hair sprayed, clothes ironed, polished nails perfectly filed…’ ‘But that’s good, isn’t it?’ I poured out the drinks.’ You set high standards, living like a princess…’ ‘Yes, all on my own most of the time, like Rapunzel – except no one’s going to rescue me from my tower. And knowing my luck, if some saviour climbed up my hair, the extensions would break and they’d fall to their death.’ Melissa wore extensions? That had to be the best kept celebrity secret of the year! ‘I love children,’ she said softly, and gazed at the ladybird before biting its head off. Wow! Another exclusive? Was Melissa Winsford trying to get up the duff? ‘Jonny wants us to wait before we have any,’ she said, with no further prompting, ‘until his career is more established.’ She lifted the chunky mug to her lips and sipped, before pulling a face. ‘I didn’t know you could still buy instant coffee in Harpenden.’ ‘I don’t get it,’ I said, ignoring the jibe. ‘Isn’t Jonny’s career already well underway?’ Her cheeks tinged pink. ‘He’s already got a son, Eddie… Maybe he doesn’t want to make babies with the second Mrs Winsford.’ She glanced down at her clothes. ‘Mind you, can’t say I’d blame him, the way I look at the moment.’ ‘Climb over the fence, did you?’ I grinned. She groaned. ‘One of the paparazzi shouted out to me, just as I fell over the top of it. They must have broken all the rules and gone onto our drive. I was only trying to avoid them, but they’ll probably make up some story about me taking a roll in the grass with… with that whistling friend of yours.’ ‘Luke? The huffy handyman?’ ‘You don’t like him? With well-cut clothes he could be pretty hot, along with the right moisturiser and tweezing. What he needs is a man-over.’ ‘Perhaps,’ I said, trying not to think of his deep moss green eyes and the way his mouth twitched at one corner when he made a joke. Or the top of his boxer shorts sitting invitingly low on his flat waist, yesterday morning after he’d stayed over… ‘Or else they’ll make out you’re my lesbian lover,’ she said and nibbled her cake. Just imagine that headline! “Double Birdie for Kimmy and Melissa. Indignant Jonny and Adam say their Exes had Always Been a Few Strokes Under Par.” ‘I could cause a diversion, if you like?’ I said. ‘We could swap clothes. I’ll distract them whilst you could go back the way you came.’ ‘That’s sweet but I’m not sure you could pull it off. It’s taken me years to develop my taut bum. You’d stretch these tracksuit bottoms. They cost a fortune.’ How come I didn’t feel offended by her unintentional insults? Probably because they were just that – she was too wrapped up in her own problems to think her remarks through. ‘We’ve got more or less the same colour hair,’ I insisted, ‘and we’re about the same height. I’ve got some big bug sunglasses, like Victoria Beckham’s. It’ll be fun!’ ‘Your bingo wings might give you away.’ Melissa clearly had an expert eye as she’d been able to spot them through my winter clothes. ‘No one will notice them under your tracksuit top,’ I said. ‘Plus it’s spitting with rain. I’ll hide under an umbrella.’ She took another mouthful of sponge, chewed slowly and actually swallowed it for once. ‘Okay,’ she said, her smooth tones returning. ‘Just don’t talk to them. Your Luton twang would be an absolute giveaway. But have you got anything else I can change into? No offence, but those skin-tight leggings are very last season – and not terribly flattering, even with my pins.’ ‘So why are so many photographers here, today?’ I asked. She shrugged. ‘Probably some tart has made up some kiss ‘n’ tell story about Jonny. There’s no major championship for a while, so they’re looking for personal, newsworthy stuff. One of those slimy bastards did shout out something about a mystery blonde.’ She shook her head. ‘It’s all so clichéd. And amazing how many of those bimbos go quiet when you threaten legal action.’ Five minutes later, she was upstairs with me, sorting through my wardrobe. You’d think she was choosing some outfit to attend a fashion show, finally selecting white jeans with a designer (okay fake, but she was kind enough not to comment) leopard-print shirt. Then, in front of me, she stripped off and I almost gasped out loud at her washboard stomach and perfectly round boobs, clearly visible through a skimpy lace bra. ‘Jonny bought them for me,’ she said and wiggled her chest. ‘They were a first anniversary present.’ She handed her stained tracksuit bottoms and top over to me. ‘I’ll, um, just get changed,’ I muttered, and scuttled into the bathroom. I slipped on the velour tracksuit bottoms and rubbed the waistband between my fingers. Wow. They were so silky, I could hardly feel them on. I came out of the bathroom and smiled at Melissa. She lay on the bed, next to Groucho. ‘You’d think I could at least have a dog,’ she said, ‘but Jonny’s allergic.’ ‘What would you get?’ I asked. ‘A tiny one?’ ‘Oh no. Handbag mutts are sooo not on trend. Whereas a Corgi, that’s classy. If it’s good enough for the Queen…’ She stood up and cleared her throat. ‘Thanks for the help, Kimmy. To return the favour, why don’t you let me sort out that muffin top? I’ll send my personal trainer round; treat you to a couple of free sessions.’ She did have a point – I’d hardly managed to pull the tracksuit trousers over my size twelve hips. It would be nice to look toned, although I’d keep a few J-Lo curves. I’d be one of those celebrities the magazines praised for “keeping it real”. Melissa eyed me for a moment. ‘Maybe carry a magazine in front of you. Otherwise they’ll think I’ve had a breast reduction.’ She stood up and headed for the door, but something silver stopped her dead in her tracks. She reached down to my bedside table. ‘I’ve seen those cards before. It belongs to one of the paparazzi.’ Her cheeks flushed. ‘I should have known better. You’re just like everyone else – not interested in the real Melissa Winsford, just after some dirt to sell.’ Surely she didn’t really believe I could be that low? ‘Accuse me of anything but that, Melissa – I don’t know why I kept it. The guy’s a creep.’ I snatched the card and tore it up. ‘Why should I believe you after the number of times I’ve been let down in the past? Like the nurse who told the papers about my varicose veins or the beautician who took a photo of me on her phone whilst I was having my top lip waxed.’ Hmm, I remembered that picture – not a flattering look. ‘Melissa, you don’t know me well, but I’m a loyal friend – just ask Jess. And the easiest way to insult me is to suggest I’m out to make a quick buck. I have long-term plans to earn money through my cake business – not get paid for selling secrets about people I like.’ She stared at me for a moment, and then shrugged. ‘I just don’t get it – all this interest in the trivial parts of celebrities’ lives. Imagine knowing if Audrey Hepburn had cellulite or Marilyn Monroe suffered from spots.’ She shook her head. ‘Tell me. What’s the appeal of reading about stuff like that?’ I thought for a moment. ‘It’s good to know that despite fame, people are still human, you know? Not much different to the rest of us. That way, maybe my life isn’t so bad. That way, maybe it’s possible that one day I’ll get me a life full of glamour and designer clothes and second homes abroad.’ I shrugged. ‘Anyway, if you’re a true fan, any news is totes interesting – what your favourite star eats for breakfast, how they met their boyfriend or girlfriend…’ ‘But it’s gone too far nowadays. Let’s face it – James Dean wouldn’t be such an icon if we’d seen lots of photos of him with his fingers up his nose. But apparently it’s a two way thing – if I want coverage of my new DVD then I’ve no right to any privacy.’ She pursed her lips. ‘I’ll delete your phone number. Don’t call me again.’ ‘I’d never contact those slimeballs outside!’ I followed Melissa onto the landing. ‘If that was my game, don’t you think I would have done so by now?’ ‘With what story?’ ‘How about finding out that you do use Botox? The magazines have been asking that for months now, quizzing specialists, asking for readers’ verdicts.’ She paused at the bottom of the stairs. ‘You can trust me,’ I said in a soft voice, and smiled. ‘Come on. Tell me your favourite cupcake. I’ll make some for tomorrow night. Terry from next door is coming over to watch telly and go in the hot tub. It’ll be just a cosy neighbourly night in.’ ‘I don’t think so,’ she said, stiffly. ‘Jonny’s been away at some charity event and is back tomorrow. He’ll want to catch up – maybe take me to dinner.’ ‘Suit yourself, but it could be a laugh.’ She looked like she needed a good night out. ‘My mind’s boggling at what Terry’s swimsuit will be like. Let’s pray it’s not an Ali G sling bikini!’ I shuddered. ‘Or one of those new one-sided thong swimsuits…’ Melissa caught my eye and despite herself, half-smiled back. ‘Suppose I could pop over for an hour.’ ‘And the cupcakes?’ She sniffed. ‘How about a Christmas one, to get me in the festive mood? I’ve had to do all the decorating at home… Jonny’s not interested.’ Melissa bit her lip. ‘Christmas… Really it’s about kids, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes – us big kids as well,’ I said, gently. ‘How about… ooh… gingerbread ones, with nut and chocolate buttercream icing on top – a skinny recipe, of course?’ Melissa licked her lips and nodded. ‘Vivian rang for your number, by the way,’ she said, as we headed back to the patio doors. ‘I gave her your mobile number. If you really want your business to do well, though, you should enter the cake competition at the Harpenden Christmas Market. Jonny was the guest of honour last year. It’s not as big as the July Highland Gathering, or Christmas lights’ switch-on, but still, lots of local companies and farmers get involved – it’s a last-minute chance to buy food and gifts for Christmas. There are various craft-makers demonstrating their art, a big raffle, lots of festive food to buy… Mulled wine on sale, and lots of ideas for presents.’ She shrugged. ‘It’s not a bad afternoon out, as long as the weather holds. The guy who owned this house, Walter, his wife won the cake competition several times. And apparently a few years back, someone trying to launch their own cake-icing company entered and on the back of winning got loads of orders.’ She yawned. ‘The wives at the golf club were going on and on about it at the last dinner we went to.’ ‘When is it?’ ‘Saturday after next. The twenty-third, the day before Christmas Eve. Jonny’s agreed to launch the balloons that kick it off.’ That gave me, ooh… ten days, to think of a winning idea, practice it and… ‘Aren’t I too late to enter?’ ‘Guess I could swing a late registration for you, if you like.’ At that moment the front door clicked open and I nipped into the hallway. ‘Jess? You’re home early. What’s happened?’ Chest heaving, Jess darted into the downstairs loo. I hadn’t heard retching like that since the time macho Adam tried to show off that he could stomach a Vindaloo curry. I dashed in after her and held her hair away from her face as she bent over the sink, but she pushed me away. ‘I can manage,’ she croaked. ‘At least let me get you a glass of water.’ Minutes later, I returned with a tumbler-full. Melissa was in the kitchen, scrutinising her reflection in the patio door windows before following me. She waited in the hallway as I went into the loo. ‘Kimmy? Are you ready?’ she called moments later. Jess raised her eyebrows as I passed her a sheet of loo roll to wipe her nose. It was the pleated stuff, with flowers on and softer than a powder puff. ‘It’s Melissa. I just need to see her back to her house. Don’t ask!’ I whispered. ‘I won’t be long and then I’ll tell you all about Deborah’s visit. You get yourself to bed. How on earth did you cycle home? You should have called me to pick you up and–’ ‘Stop fussing,’ she said, in clipped tones. ‘I’m only trying to help.’ What was it, with her? ‘Someone got a bit of a hangover?’ said velvet tones. ‘I know just how you feel… Nessie, isn’t it? Cheap champagne. That always does it for me. What’s your poison?’ ‘Human Chorionic Gonadotropin, if you must know,’ Jess barked as she met Melissa in the hallway. ‘And the name’s Jess. Not Nessie, nor Bessie, nor Tess.’ ‘Oh, um, okay, Jess,’ said Melissa. ‘Not sure I’ve heard of that cocktail.’ Jess shook her head, and muttered something about an airhead. Although to be fair, not many would know HCG was the pregnancy hormone. Jess was clever like that and shone at pub quizzes. She knew what DNA stood for and could even spell that place in Wales with the longest name in Europe. ‘I’m shattered; going to lie down,’ mumbled the brainbox. She kicked off her trainers and with heavy footsteps made her way upstairs. Her bedroom door slammed. I shrugged at Melissa and we headed back to the patio doors. ‘Take this,’ said Melissa, after staring at her wedding finger for a moment. She slid off her famous yellow diamond ring. My stomach tingled as she passed it to me. ‘You’re not serious?’ I muttered and held it in the air, tilting it from side to side. The pear shape gem twinkled like the insides of a golden kaleidoscope. ‘I dropped hints to Jonny after seeing the film…’ ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ I said. Melissa half-smiled. ‘You really do read all the magazines. Yes. As soon as I saw that yellow Tiffany diamond on Audrey Hepburn, normal diamonds never quite looked the same. Put it on. Flaunt it at those cameras.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Look after it for me.’ Wow. This rock was worth more than… than the average semi in Luton. I curled my fingers tight so that it couldn’t possibly fall off. Melissa glanced sideways at me. I grinned. ‘Worried I’ll run off?’ ‘Like to see you try, with all the paparazzi’s motorbikes waiting outside!’ She smiled. ‘See you soon. Ciao.’ I left the kitchen for the hallway, shoulders back, head high. Now I felt like a real celebrity – special, different, somehow taller. I put on her trainers (ooh, weird sole, they looked like those fancy weight loss ones), grabbed my big bug sunglasses from the kitchen table, picked up a magazine from the hallway table and stepped out of the front door. I hoped no one saw me briefly stumble. In the weird trainers, I felt like I was walking on a wobble board. Plus it was hard to resist the urge to pull down the tracksuit bottoms. They’d wedged right up in between my legs. I held my lips in a “blowing up a balloon” position, in the hope that they’d look more plump. ‘Melissa! Woo hoo! Over ‘ere love! We thought we saw you leg it to your neighbour’s a while back.’ ‘Yo! Melissa!’ yelled a man’s voice. ‘Look up, love! Give us a nice smile! Where’s Jonny?’ Sexy walk? Check. Flaunting ring? Check. Superior celebrity expression on face? Hmm, perhaps I should lose the balloon lips. Even though it had virtually stopped raining, I put up my umbrella and ducked underneath. Yikes, if only Melissa had been wearing a coat, it was freezing. And to match the winter temperatures, I must have looked extremely cool, as I sashayed down the drive, as if on a red carpet, approaching the clicking cameras and shouts. So what if they didn’t know who I really was? At least I might finally get my picture in Infamous. Talking of which, I held the magazine over my modest B cup chest. The sound of snapping shutters and pong of cigarette smoke overwhelmed me as I turned left. The Winsfords’ place wasn’t far but with these men crowding around, poking their lenses under my nose, the short walk began to feel like a marathon. ‘Give us a quote, Melissa. Anything. Come on, love, then we’ll leave yer alone.’ ‘Why don’t you take off those glasses?’ called a voice. ‘Or get out those tits,’ sniggered someone else. I pulled the umbrella down further, like a shield. Mustn’t perspire in Melissa’s top. Mustn’t trip. Mustn’t talk. MUSTN’T LOSE RING. Hey, so far I was doing pretty good. ‘Stuck-up bitch,’ someone muttered. ‘You look a bit rough,’ said a nearby voice. I glanced to my right and spotted muddy combat trousers. It was the photographer who’d given me his silver card. ‘Understandable, though,’ he continued. ‘All this talk of Jonny fooling around with another blonde. Likes playing twosomes away, doesn’t he? Everyone knows golfers are the new footballers. Do yer trust him or is yer marriage under par?’ Melissa had been right. This was all about another false kiss ‘n’ tell. ‘Don’t you worry about letting yerself go though, love,’ he continued. ‘I think it’s admirable that yer happy to put on some weight – you were a lot slimmer the last time I saw you this close.’ He blew smoke in my face. ‘In fact, yer arse looks almost big enough to pinch. If it goes to print, it might inspire yer to get into shape before the big tournaments kick off, in the spring. Can’t have the cute little American golfing Wags seeing yer look less like a petite birdie and more like an albatross.’ Cheeks flaming, I quickened my pace but a couple of men appeared from nowhere, on the pavement in front. I dodged them and put my head down further, praying I wouldn’t fall off the kerb or walk into a lamppost. ‘What’s yer problem, love? All we want is one good shot.’ ‘We’re starving – got any posh nosh?’ ‘Show us a bit of cleavage. Where’s your sense of fun?’ Ignoring the insults, I pushed forward, heart racing. One of the quieter photographers growled at the men to move out of my way and pushed me gently onto Melissa’s drive. ‘Haven’t you got daughters or sisters?’ I heard him mutter to the others and then something about how they should be ashamed. Gratefully, I charged towards the house. Being trailed by the paparazzi hadn’t lived up to my fantasy at all. At the garage I dropped my umbrella and hurried up to the front door. A funny noise came from around the left of the house. I crept around to the side. There it was again. Was that a sob? I walked down to the back garden, past the kitchen, at last (was I really saying that?) out of sight of the cameras. ‘Melissa?’ Head in hands, she sat on the grass, next to an upturned wheelie bin. ‘What’s wrong?’ I threw down the magazine and took off my sunglasses. ‘Vandals? Foxes?’ She looked up at me. ‘No. Another kind of vermin.’ My brow furrowed. ‘I don’t think rats are strong enough to–’ ‘Those bastard photographers have gone through my bins. Usually they wait until dark.’ She bit her lip. ‘They must have got a whiff of a really juicy story out there if they’re this desperate.’ She gazed around at the mess. ‘Jonny will go mad.’ ‘But what are they hoping to find?’ I stared at the cardboard boxes and crumpled kitchen roll. ‘Don’t you shred the important stuff?’ ‘Yes. Anything with our personal details on and all the post, of course. But…’ She sniffed again. ‘I’ve a nasty feeling I threw some empty tablet boxes in here yesterday. Jonny’s on prescription drugs for a bad back. He hates the press finding out anything that might hint he’s not on form.’ ‘Come on. Let’s tidy up,’ I said and swallowed. Poor Melissa. ‘Maybe they’re still amongst all this rubbish.’ She shook her head. ‘I’ve already looked. He’ll go ballistic if news creeps out. Also, I… I threw out a pregnancy magazine I couldn’t resist buying last month.’ She sighed. ‘At least they left the bottle bin alone. Last month some story surfaced about how many bottles of champagne we drank a week. Jonny didn’t speak to me for two days. Said it reflected badly on his wholesome, healthy golfer image and made him look unprofessional. He could hardly say it was me drinking all that fizz.’ Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/jennifer-joyce/under-the-mistletoe-mistletoe-mansion-the-mince-pie-mix-up/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.
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