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Lucy stood in the ballroom of Hartwell Hall and watched as a drop of water trickled down the wall, leaving a dark trail on the red silk wallpaper. She looked up just in time for another drop to hit her straight in the eye.
“Bloody place! The roof’s turned into a sieve.” She sighed as she placed a saucepan on the polished wood floor with only a second to spare before the next heavy drop plopped in. She cast a careful eye over the ceiling once more before stepping out of the ballroom and into the long corridor that led back to the main hall. She dodged past two more pans and a bucket. It was always the same when it rained heavily: a mad dash to catch all the leaks. The latest estimate for fixing the roof had arrived that morning. It lay discarded on the kitchen table amongst the empty coffee cups and bills waiting to be paid. Fifty thousand pounds, and that was only for the west wing. Well, it would have to wait, along with all the other repairs and maintenance work Hartwell Hall needed.
When she arrived in the grand reception hall, she found yet another bucket, full to the brim and overflowing on to the black and white marble floor. With a groan she carried it into the cloakroom, trying not to mind as the cold water sloshed on to her jeans. Then she emptied the water down the sink, before returning the bucket to its position at the bottom of the sweeping cantilever staircase. Lucy stood and gazed at the stairs for a second. Over nine years ago, she’d posed there for a photograph on her wedding day, in her huge white dress. Standing there with her blonde hair piled on her head and the Hanley tiara holding her impossibly long veil in place as it trailed out behind her, Rupert smiling by her side. She had been so happy that day. The photo had appeared in Tatler. ‘Rupert and Lucinda, the new Lord and Lady Hanley, on the occasion of their marriage’. When she’d made her vows in front of their friends and family, she could never have imagined how her life would turn out.
As she walked away from the staircase, she caught sight of her reflection in the ornate gilt mirror hanging on the wall and cringed. Her mascara had streaked down her cheek and there was at least two inches of dark growth at her roots. These days she looked like she belonged on a wanted poster, not the pages of a society magazine. She pushed that thought out of her head and ran her finger beneath her blue eyes to wipe away the smudged make-up and tried fluffing up her hair. Yet another thing to thank Covid for. The hairdressers had been closed for months and now they were open again, it was impossible to get an appointment. Not that she had a hundred quid to throw away on highlights and a cut right now.
The estate had been struggling financially even before the pandemic. When Rupert had first brought her here, she’d immediately fallen in love with the place. Nestled on the edge of the North York Moors, the beautiful Georgian house built in mellow stone—with its porticoed entrance and elegant columns—was a world away from her father’s modern Chelsea apartment she’d grown up in. Hartwell Hall had been in Rupert’s family for hundreds of years and she could hardly believe she was going to live there with her handsome new husband. Back then of course, she’d had no idea how much it cost to keep the place running. She’d had to learn fast when Rupert disappeared. Ironically, the last time she’d seen him was on that fateful night in March 2020, when the prime minister had addressed the nation and told them all to stay at home.
Since then, she’d had months alone to try and come up with a plan as bills kept arriving and her income continued to dwindle. Finally, she’d decided that as soon as the first lockdown was lifted, she would open the house to the public. Caroline, her mother-in-law, had been horrified at the idea.
“You can’t have strangers traipsing through the house, gawping at all your belongings,” she had declared, but Lucy didn’t mind one bit. However, as it turned out, continued restrictions meant she could only open the grounds. Still, scores of visitors had arrived desperate to enjoy the rose garden, woodland walk, and lawns sweeping down to the lake after being cooped up for months. They had all seemed quite surprised that Lady Hanley, dressed in jeans and wellies, was there to greet them herself and happy to chat away about the house and its history. Lucy enjoyed it. She liked to be kept busy and meeting new people. More importantly the ticket sales had provided a welcome source of income, but then lockdown two had come along. She’d had to close her gates and there had been no income from the holiday cottages either. Most of her tenants in the village had suffered too, with rents either arriving late or not at all, yet the costs of running the estate kept on adding up.
She leaned her head against one of the cool marble pillars and ran her finger along the delicately carved flutings.
“Gosh,” she sighed. “I know you are beautiful, but you are high-maintenance.”
In the corner, the long case clock struck three o’clock. Lucy checked it against her own watch and groaned. Now she was going to be late to collect Freddie. She dashed back down the corridor accompanied by a little symphony of splishes and splashes from the raindrops. In the kitchen, she grabbed her car keys from their hook only to remember the red light had started flashing on her petrol gauge. The last thing she needed was to break down in the middle of the village.
“Bugger, bugger, bugger!” she muttered as she pulled on her wellies and coat. She’d have to walk there now…or rather run. Thankfully, the rain had finally stopped when she stepped outside. Banging the door shut behind her, she crunched down the long gravel driveway and turned right through the huge wrought-iron gates decorated with the oak tree and white hart of the Hanley family crest. As she passed the gatehouse, she tapped on the window and gave Joan, who as usual was busy baking, a friendly wave. Joan was married to Bill, the estate’s gardener. They had lived in the gatehouse for over thirty years and Lucy would be totally lost without them.
The village was a little way up the hill. A collection of about fifty stone-built cottages and houses clustered around a winding stream. She hurried along the cobbled path passing the pub, the church, and the village shop, waving to other parents who were better timekeepers than her. When she finally arrived at the school gates she was quite out of breath. Freddie was waiting for her with Rachel, Lucy’s best friend and Freddie’s teacher. Rachel was short and stocky with her dark hair pulled back and worn in a long plait. A dependable pit pony next to Lucy’s flighty thoroughbred.
“I’m so, so sorry I’m late, darling. Sorry, Rach, I was on bucket duty,” Lucy gasped.
“We were about to call you?” said Rachel slipping her mobile back into her satchel. “Everything okay?”
“Has Tilly had her puppies yet, Mum?” asked Freddie hopefully. Lucy grinned at her son and ruffled his blond hair. He was a serious, sensible little boy, and he adored the dogs.
“No, darling, she hasn’t, but it won’t be long now. When I left, she was fast asleep next to the Aga.”
“Good, I don’t want to miss it. Please can I get some sweets?” he asked.
Lucy hesitated for a second, Freddie always got a treat from the shop on Fridays, but in her rush, she’d forgotten her purse. Waving away Rachel’s silent offer of help, she shoved her hands in her jeans pocket and miraculously found a scrunched-up five-pound note that had quite possibly also been through the washing machine. She smoothed it out and placed it into Freddie’s small, outstretched hand.
“Will you be okay on your own?” she asked, although the shop was only a few steps away. Freddie smiled up at her.
“Of course, Mum, thanks.”
“How’s he been today?” asked Lucy quietly, as she watched him go. Rachel smiled and gave Lucy’s arm a reassuring squeeze.
“He’s fine, Luce. He’s just a quiet kid and like all the ones who were stuck doing home schooling for months on end, he’s taking time to adjust to being back in the classroom full-time. Academically, he is way ahead of the others. I’ll let him tell you his score, but today’s maths test went really well.”
“Good, when Caroline hears she might get off my case about sending him to a prep school. I swear the next time she says something, I shall tell her I have no intention of sending Freddie boarding at eight years old. It’s barbaric.”
Rachel cupped her hand to her ear. “Shh, can you hear that?” she asked.
“What?” Lucy looked around in confusion.
Rachel pointed across the road to the church. “The sound of generations of Hanleys turning in their graves.”
“Ha ha very funny.” Lucy laughed.
Rachel grinned. “Are you still on for tonight?” she asked. Since lockdown had been lifted, the two of them had got into a routine of going to the pub every Friday, for quiz night.
“Absolutely,” replied Lucy, “I’m looking forward to it. Actually, before the stupid rainstorm arrived, I was having a decent day. Max called this morning to say he’s found new tenants for Rose and Lilac cottages.”
Rachel gave Lucy a pat on the shoulder. “Hey that’s fantastic, and it’s about time my drip of a brother-in-law did something useful. Things are finally looking up. I told you they would eventually.”
Just then the bell on the shop door jangled and Freddie appeared again looking very pleased with himself. He clutched his bag of jelly beans in one hand and his change in the other.
“Here you are, Mum. The sweets were one pound and ten pence, so your change is three pounds and ninety pence,” he said as he dropped the coins into Lucy’s hand.
“Thank you, darling. How was Mrs Parkin? Did you remember to say please and thank you?”
“Yes, but she was still a bit grumpy. She asked me if I had clean hands, then said she liked it more when everybody had to wear face masks and that if I eat all these sweets my teeth will fall out,” replied Freddie looking very serious.
“What a ray of sunshine that woman is,” drawled Rachel. “There should be a sign above the shop door: ‘Here resides Nora Parkin, Hartwell’s biggest gossip and prophet of doom’.” She turned to go. “I’ll see you later, Luce. Have a lovely weekend, Freddie.”
“Thank you, Rachel, I mean Miss Foxton,” replied Freddie politely. He often got confused about what to call her.
“See you later,” Lucy called after her, before taking her little boy’s hand and walking back down the hill. Freddie chattered away and Lucy tried not to let it bother her that he didn’t mention school and instead concentrated on his favourite subject.
“Mum, if you could be a dinosaur, which one would you be?”
“Ooh let me think. Which is the one with a long neck?”
“A diplodocus or an apatosaurus,” replied Freddie immediately.
“Then I’d be one of those. What about you?”
“A triceratops of course,” said Freddie as if there could ever be any doubt in his answer.
“Of course,” agreed Lucy.
“Can I go and make a wish?”
They had drawn level with the avenue of ancient oak trees that led down to the well which, along with the deer that roamed free, gave the village its name. There was a legend that the Druids, who had lived in the area thousands of years ago, had thought that the well was sacred. Today the villagers simply called it the wishing well and generations of the young and not so young cast their pennies into the water in the hope that their wishes would be granted.
“Yes, you may,” Lucy replied. She handed over a ten-pence piece and followed him as he chased towards the crumbling stone wall surrounding the old well. She stopped and watched as he closed his eyes tight and screwed up his face. She saw his lips moving quickly and silently before he flung the coin down, then waited for the satisfying splash before racing back to her.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you what I wished for, or it won’t come true,” he explained breathlessly.
“I understand,” Lucy replied forcing herself to smile. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. What if his wish was about Rupert coming back? He barely ever mentioned his father. Rupert had been away a lot even before he disappeared and when he was at home, Lucy had felt like she was walking on eggshells. He had spent very little time with Freddie, distracted by his other interests, but surely Freddie must miss his father.
As they arrived at the entrance gates to Hartwell Hall, a black Range Rover pulled up alongside them. The window glided down, to reveal a man with a round, slightly ruddy face and greying hair. It was Guy Lovell, the local MP. He had taken over the constituency when Rupert’s father died and lived in the village at The Grange. Although he was almost twenty years older than Lucy, she had always found him rather charming, but Rachel thought he was a creep.
“Good afternoon, Lady Hanley. You’re looking as lovely as ever,” he said beaming at her.
Lucy smiled back, knowing full well she looked a mess. “Hello, Guy, how are you?”
“You know me, busy, busy. I’ve just been to Thirsk races for the first meeting of the year. It was good to see the place bustling again. Incidentally, I was given a tip for the five-fifteen. False Friend, he’s meant to be a dead cert.”
Lucy wrinkled her nose. “That’s not a very nice name for a horse.”
“You’re quite right,” agreed Guy, with a grin. “Maybe that’s why it’s fifty to one.”
At that moment, a Volvo stopped behind the Range Rover and beeped its horn loudly.
“I think that’s my cue to leave. Enjoy your weekend,” said Guy before zooming off. His place was taken by the Volvo’s driver, dressed in her uniform of tweed skirt, silk twinset, and pearls. Caroline may now live in the dower house, but she still gave the impression that she was in charge of Hartwell Hall and its inhabitants.
“I hope you aren’t encouraging him, Lucinda. Think how it might look given your circumstances.”
Lucy felt herself flush under the disapproving gaze of her mother-in-law’s cold, blue eyes. “He was only being friendly,” she stammered.
Caroline arched an eyebrow. “He was flirting,” she declared, before turning her attention to Freddie, whose little face looked worried as his eyes flicked between his mother and grandmother. “How are you, Alfred? Did you have a good day at school?”
“Yes thanks, Granny. I got ten out of ten in my maths test today.”
Caroline’s stony expression cracked into a smile. “Excellent! All our hard work is paying off.” Caroline had insisted on being involved with Freddie’s home schooling via Zoom each day. “You must come to tea one day next week—not Monday though, I’m playing bridge with Colonel Marsden and the vicar. I’ll leave it to your mother to try and organise something. Goodbye, darling.”
Caroline wound up her window and drove off without another word to Lucy.
“Bye, Granny.” Freddie waved, and Lucy had to stop herself using a very different hand gesture as Caroline’s car disappeared over the hill. She was definitely going to put that bet on now.
End of Excerpt