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“I don’t bite, you know.”
Alice James tried for a laugh and managed a smile as Lady Stokeley opened the massive door wider. “Come in, please.”
Alice stepped into the dim, draughty foyer of Willoughby Manor, blinking in the dusty, musty gloom. Today was the first day of her new job, and she was feeling both anxious and excited in equal measure.
“You’re looking well,” she told Lady Stokeley, who was indeed looking surprisingly full of vim and vigour.
Two weeks ago Alice had been hired, in what she suspected was a gesture of blatant pity, to take care of Lady Stokeley who was in the final stages of cancer. She’d decided to stop undergoing chemotherapy and was spending her final days, weeks, or maybe even months at home… with Alice, a would-be waif with an almost level two NVQ and not much else to recommend her.
“I feel well,” Lady Stokeley answered briskly. “Despite every test saying otherwise. Who knows how long it will last. I’ve seen cancer before, and when it decides to strike it does so with unexpected strength. As swift and deadly as a viper.” She didn’t sound particularly alarmed by the prospect. “A quick end is something to be thankful for, though, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” Alice agreed, because her grandmother’s end hadn’t been all that quick, and those months of watching her wither away, and far worse, forget, had been the worst experience of Alice’s life… which was saying something.
“Now, tea.” Lady Stokeley pressed her knobbly hands together and gave a little nod. “In the sitting room, I think, because the weather is turning. Or perhaps I just feel the cold more.”
“It is chilly out,” Alice offered.
It was the last week of August and the benevolent sunshine and balmy breezes of just a few days ago had sharpened into a chilly wind and dark skies of billowy grey clouds. Autumn was on the move. “Shall I…?”
“Yes, you shall.” Lady Stokeley pointed to a narrow hallway leading off the foyer to the back of the huge house. “Through the green baize door. I’ll be in the sitting room.” She trotted off down another hallway, leaving Alice alone in the enormous entryway, unsure what to do.
The last two months of her life had felt like an endless tailspin, and she still hadn’t straightened out or regained her balance. In late June she’d had to leave the sheltered accommodation provided for ex-foster kids, because she’d aged out of the system. Unfortunately, that had meant she’d lost her job as well as her livelihood, and within a few short weeks she’d been on the street, with nothing to her name but a rucksack and a handful of change. Alice had always known how close she walked to destitution, but she hadn’t quite realized what a tiny, teetering step it was until she’d taken it, and found herself without any hope at all.
Until Ava Mitchell had swooped in like a glamorous angel, taking her back to Willoughby Close, feeding her, buying her clothes, getting her lamentable CV in shape, and even finding her this job. Alice owed everything to Ava, a fact that weighed on her uncomfortably. She didn’t like feeling so needy. She didn’t want to have to trust someone so utterly. Unfortunately, she’d been left with little choice.
Realizing she’d been standing in the hall staring into space for the better part of five minutes, Alice started towards the green baize door, pushing it open cautiously. The house was dark, the air still and stale and decidedly chilly. It seemed like a most inhospitable place to live or even to die, despite the grand rooms, the endless artwork and elegance, all of it chipped, faded, or otherwise shabby.
Alice followed the narrow corridor with the black and white checked marble floor to a huge kitchen in the back of the house. The ceiling was shrouded in cobwebs and shadows and greenish light filtered through the ivy-covered windows. A huge work table of scarred oak took up the centre of the room, and Alice took in the ancient cooking range, the stone sink that looked like she could stand up in it, and the cupboards stuffed with dusty china, with some alarm. One of her duties was to cook Lady Stokeley’s meals, but she wasn’t sure she’d be able to manage to boil an egg in this yawning kitchen. It all looked far too intimidating and… old.
Taking a deep breath, Alice squared her shoulders and hunted around for an electric kettle. She wasn’t going to falter at the first hurdle, or any hurdle. She needed this job. She needed this job just about more than anything she’d needed in her life.
She couldn’t find an electric kettle, so she hauled the huge copper one that looked as if belonged in a museum off the range and filled it at the sink, the pipes screeching in elderly protest as she turned the taps. Fortunately there was a two-ring electric cooker shoved up next to the huge range, and, her arms aching, Alice heaved the kettle up onto the stovetop, balancing it between the two rings before turning it on. Now to find the tea.
She opened cupboard after cupboard of fancy, fiddly china—teacups made of transparent porcelain and lots of silver and crystal—before she finally found a cupboard by the sink that held some food. Teabags, sugar, a few tins of Spam, and some boxes of UHT milk. Rather a depressing supply, but Alice supposed Lady Stokeley didn’t have much of an appetite these days. She hoped she’d be able to buy some proper food, since she’d be making her own meals as well as her employer’s.
The kettle started to whistle, and Alice lugged it off and made the cup of tea. It felt like a monumental effort, which was rather stupid, considering what a small job it was. She needed to be better at this. She hoped she’d adjust.
Placing the cup on the saucer, she started down the hallway in search of the sitting room and Lady Stokeley. It took several tries, ducking her head into various dust sheet-shrouded rooms, before she finally found a little sitting room that seemed cozy if rather shabby—a settee that looked as if it were made from horsehair, an armchair with huge wooden clawed feet that Lady Stokeley was settled in, an electric bar fire with one bar offering a tepid orange glow in front of the ash-strewn fireplace, and what looked like a black and white television circa 1960. The walls were covered with faded, peeling wallpaper, and no small amount of oil paintings in ornate frames jostled for space.
“Here you are.” Alice tried to inject a cheerful note into her voice as she placed the teacup on the table next to Lady Stokeley, who was squinting at a large-print Sudoku puzzle book.
“Eh? Oh, thank you, my dear.” She looked up from the book, her gaze sharpening as she inspected Alice. “But you didn’t get one for yourself?”
“Oh. Um. No, I’m okay.” Alice hadn’t even considered making one for herself.
Everything here felt fraught. She’d taken care of the elderly before; she knew how to do that. She’d worked in a nursing home for four years, after all. But she’d never been someone’s personal nurse, and she’d never worked for someone who lived in a place like this. Both Lady Stokeley and Willoughby Manor were incredibly intimidating to her, and she hoped she’d get over that soon.
Lady Stokeley settled back into the enormous armchair and took a sip of tea. “Why don’t you sit down,” she suggested. “You make me nervous, standing there like that.”
“Sorry,” Alice mumbled, and perched on the edge of the horsehair settee. Lady Stokeley didn’t seem nervous. Not as nervous as Alice was, anyway.
“So, young Alice.” Lady Stokeley smiled, and Alice thought her faded blue eyes looked both shrewd and kind. “I gather you have not had an easy time of it lately.”
How much had Ava told her? “It’s been difficult,” Alice allowed, “but everyone has their challenges, I suppose.”
“True enough.” Lady Stokeley took another sip of tea. “Even the most charmed life has its moments, and everyone will experience, whenever it comes, a season of sorrow.” For a second her face looked wistful, her lips pursed, her gaze distant. Then she shook the mood off like a dog shaking its wet coat. “You must forgive me. I’m afraid I occasionally drift towards the tediously melancholy and reflective, because of my current state.” Her eyes narrowed. “You remember, I hope, that I am a terminal cancer patient?”
“Yes.” Lady Stokeley had made that clear during Alice’s brief interview two weeks ago.
“And that I have no wish, no wish whatsoever, to undergo any further treatment? I am eighty-six years old. I am ready to die.” Her voice didn’t quaver but her lips did, and Alice wondered if anyone was truly ready to die.
“I understand that, Lady Stokeley,” she said carefully. “But I hope that you’re able to enjoy whatever time you have left, especially since you seem to be in good health at the moment.”
A smile flickered across Lady Stokeley’s face like a ripple in water. “I shall do my best.”
“Good.” Alice smiled back, heartened by this small exchange.
She wasn’t looking forward to when Lady Stokeley’s health finally failed, because she knew from experience how hard that could be. But she hoped there could be some normalcy, some simple pleasures, before then.
“Now my nephew, Henry, has arranged for you to sleep in the bedroom next to mine. I’m not quite sure that’s necessary at this point, but he is of course insistent. So, for the meantime, you shall sleep there, but when he returns to Willoughby Manor, I shall discuss other, more suitable arrangements.” At Alice’s confused look, Lady Stokeley clarified briskly, “I value my privacy, just as I’m sure you value yours.”
“Oh… right.” But if she wasn’t given accommodation, she’d have no choice but to go back to Ava’s, something Alice was reluctant to do. She already owed Ava so much. She didn’t want to have to owe her anything more.
“Henry wishes to meet you,” Lady Stokeley continued, and thoughts of Ava and accommodation fell away in light of this surprising and unwelcome news.
“He does?” Alice supposed it was to be expected, considering Henry Trent was responsible for his aunt’s welfare, and the heir to the title, Earl of Stokeley. But she’d heard from Ava that he was cold, officious, and entirely unpleasant, a City banker who neglected his aunt and was only interested in his inheritance. The thought of being subject to some sort of interrogation by him terrified her. She’d been intimidated by simply stepping foot in this house and making a cup of tea. How on earth could she handle Henry Trent?
“Don’t worry,” Lady Stokeley said, seeming to read Alice’s mind, or perhaps simply noting the blank terror Alice was sure was on her face. “Henry’s bark is far, far worse than his bite. But his bark is rather loud, and he does bite on occasion. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.”
Which did not make Alice feel better by one bit. Lady Stokeley let out a raspy laugh and shook her head. “My dear, your face. Really, you must not pay Henry any attention. He learned to bluster from his father, more’s the pity. I’ve often wondered what Henry might have made of himself, if he hadn’t had Hugo Trent as his father. He did well enough, I suppose, but he could have—” She broke off with a sigh, her face drawn briefly into sorrowful lines, before she shook her head and placed her teacup on the table. “But never mind about all that. What I really would like is to discuss your duties, or rather, the lack of them.”
“Oh?” Alice tried not to think of the looming interview with Henry Trent as she refocused on Lady Stokeley’s bright, wrinkled face. “What do you mean, exactly?”
“Well, my dear, as you can see, I am quite well for now. A bit tired, perhaps, and I do get breathless, but I have been taking care of myself for thirty-four years, and I have no intention of turning into a doddering, dribbling wreck simply because I am dying. Everyone’s dying,” she added robustly. “The mortality rate of the human race is one hundred percent.”
“True,” Alice answered with a weak smile. She was used to death; she’d encountered it enough at the nursing home, but no one there spoke about it in quite the forthright manner that Lady Stokeley did.
“So I must tell you now that I really can’t have you fussing about me, taking my temperature, feeding me beef broth, or the like. Really, it would be far too annoying.”
“What would you like me to do, then?”
“Nothing much at all,” Lady Stokeley answered firmly. “I have a healthcare visitor from the local GP coming twice a week to listen to my heart and my lungs and generally be a nuisance. I don’t need any more fiddling than that.”
“But…” Alice’s heart had started a slow downward spiral of disappointment. “I need to do something,” she said, and Lady Stokeley shook her head.
“All I ask is that you brew me the occasional cup of tea, and perhaps keep the kitchen in order as I can’t be bothered to do many dishes. That’s all.”
Which was about fifteen minutes of work in a whole day. The disappointment that had been creeping over her like a cold, grey mist settled in her bones in an icy fog. Alice had a horrible feeling Lady Stokeley had hired her simply because she was young and biddable and easily intimidated. All the things she wanted to change about herself… and Lady Stokeley wanted her like that, so she could do as she pleased.
How could she justify accepting this job if there was nothing for her to do? Alice bit her lip, trying not to let her feelings show on her face. She was terrible at hiding her emotions, which was an unfortunate quality to possess when one needed to hide them from most of the people they encountered, whether it was irritable foster parents, a dodgy employer, or a mother whose emotions spiralled out of control and resulted in either sobs or slaps.
“I’m happy to be helpful in any way that I can,” she said at last, which was true, at least, and seemed to satisfy Lady Stokeley.
“Very good. Then I suspect we shall get along very nicely indeed.”
Alice took a deep breath. Lady Stokeley sounded as if she were about to dismiss her, and Alice wasn’t ready to be dismissed. There was still so much she didn’t know.
“What about medication?” she asked, her voice rising a little bit in a challenge she hadn’t quite meant to voice. Lady Stokeley’s eyes narrowed.
“I told you I required no further treatment.”
“Pain medication,” Alice clarified. “Surely you’ve been prescribed something? Pain management is an important part of palliative care.” It was a sentence from her textbook, but she agreed with it, at least she had once she’d untangled what it meant.
Lady Stokeley pursed her lips. “The pain pills make me sleepy and nauseous, and I have no desire to compromise my health unnecessarily.”
“Fair enough, but there might be other options—”
“As far as I am aware”—Lady Stokeley cut her off, her voice sharpening—“you are not a nurse. You are certainly not my nurse.”
Chastened, Alice fell silent. She might have most of a level two NVQ in healthcare, but she was a long way from being a nurse. And it seemed that was the way Lady Stokeley wanted it.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured. “I just…” She trailed off, unsure even what she’d wanted to do.
Appear useful? Feel better about herself? She wasn’t at all sure that her question had been about Lady Stokeley or her pain medication at all.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” Lady Stokeley said, her tone gentling a little. “I didn’t mean to sound so sharp. Henry can bring out the worst in me, I’m sorry to say.” She sighed and leaned her head back against the seat. “And I so wanted him to bring out the best.”
Alice stared at her in uncertain confusion and Lady Stokeley drew a quick breath. “You’re quite right, of course. I will need pain medication at some point, of that I have no doubt. But that time has not yet come, and I want to enjoy what little health I have—for I do know it is little—while I can. I hope that is acceptable to you.” Lady Stokeley’s tone implied that it would have to be, and Alice could understand her sentiments. Who knew how long this brief spell of seeming good health would last? She would just have to find some way to occupy herself in the meantime.
“Yes, it’s acceptable.”
“Good.” Lady Stokeley picked up her puzzle book. “Now I’m in the middle of a fiendishly difficult Sudoku, so perhaps you could take my cup?” She raised thin, white eyebrows in expectation. “And if you’d like to have a look at your bedroom… although hopefully that matter will be sorted out sooner rather than later.”
Alice rose awkwardly from the sofa and took Lady Stokeley’s cup and saucer. Lady Stokeley reached out to pat her hand comfortingly. “Really, my dear,” she said, “I think we shall get along splendidly.”
Only, Alice suspected, if she was a pushover. She managed a smile and then found her way back to the kitchen, washing the cup and saucer in the enormous sink and then wondering what she was going to do for the rest of the day. She supposed she should have a look at her bedroom, temporary a measure as Lady Stokeley wanted it to be.
She left the kitchen and made her way back to the foyer, the house stretching silent and still all around her. This place was creepy, there was no doubt about it. Alice studied a muddy-coloured oil painting of a frowning Elizabethan wearing an enormous ruff and suppressed a shiver. It was creepy and cold.
She’d just turned towards the stairs when she heard the front door opening behind her with a creaking protest of its hinges, and then a quickly indrawn breath.
“And who the devil”—a man’s cut glass tones rang through the hall—“are you?”
End of Excerpt