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It wasn’t London. Emily David stood in the doorway of the cottage, part of a converted stables, and told herself to keep calm. The place was clean, everything bright and sparkling and looking quite new. That was something, at least.
She took a step inside, doing her best to admire the wood-burning stove, the granite counters and chrome fixtures in the kitchen, the French windows overlooking an overgrown postage stamp of garden, a tangle of wood beyond. Really, it was all wonderfully quaint.
So what if it wasn’t London? It wasn’t her flat in a modern, anonymous building where no one knew her name and she preferred it that way. It wasn’t London, where people kept their heads down, mobiles clamped to their ears, and did their best not to make eye contact. It wasn’t London, where she could melt into a crowd, where her office environment was safe and controlled, where she’d developed a routine that worked.
She could deal with all of that. She’d have to. It wasn’t as if her boss, Henry Trent, now Earl of Stokeley, had given her that much choice. He was leaving his high-powered position at Ellis Investments to live at Willoughby Manor in Wychwood-on-Lea here in the Cotswolds to run a charity he and his wife had recently set up for children in care. He wanted Emily, as his executive assistant for the last four years, to accompany him.
Emily had balked at the idea at first; she didn’t like change, and she wasn’t keen on being so far away from the city, although admittedly it was only an hour by train. Still, this felt like another world—the cluster of four cottages around a little courtyard hidden from the narrow road by a dark wood, the crenelated towers of the manor house visible over the tops of the trees.
Henry had done his best to sweeten the offer, giving her a pay rise and free accommodation in the form of this cottage. Eventually, Emily had agreed; Ellis Investments’s HR had said there were no other positions in the firm suitable for her and, truth be told, she actually liked working for Henry. Blunt and often terse to the point of rudeness, he never pried, never engaged in idle chitchat, and was almost as briskly efficient as she was. Together, as boss banker and executive assistant, they’d clicked.
But she had no idea if that positive dynamic would continue here, while Henry ran a charitable foundation out in the sticks, and she was meant to help him.
A careful breath in and out and Emily made herself start to relax. At least the place was clean, she told herself again. It felt like the one positive thing she could hold on to. The moving truck would be arriving any moment, and then she could start putting things in their place. She ran her fingers along the granite counter in the kitchen, frowning slightly. Maybe she’d give everything a quick spritz, just in case.
Emily turned around to see Henry’s wife, Alice, standing in the doorway with a bright smile on her face.
Her boss had married Alice James eighteen months ago, and Emily still didn’t quite know what to make of her. She was ridiculously young, a couple of years younger than her own twenty-six, with a halo of white-blonde hair and an angelic smile to match.
She’d certainly started to soften the usually taciturn Henry, turned him into a man who actually whistled as he walked, or so Emily had noticed when Henry had come into London for work. She didn’t know what to make of that, either.
She hadn’t had much interaction with Alice since the wedding, as she’d been in London and Alice had stayed here, in Wychwood-on-Lea, a chocolate-box village in the lovely Cotswolds with all the thatch, charm, and golden stone you could possibly wish for. She’d met her only three or four times, and the interactions had been brief, as Emily had been working and Alice had only stopped by the office to see Henry. Now she forced a smile to her stiff lips as Alice came into the cottage.
“What do you think? Will it do? Henry said you had a nice flat in Earl’s Court—”
“Oh, yes, it’s fine.” Emily spoke a little too quickly. She wasn’t in the right frame of mind to rhapsodise about the cosiness of the cottage, the quaintness of the village. Everything still felt new and uncertain and alarmingly fragile. She held on to her smile as she added, a bit belatedly, “Thank you so much.”
“Oh okay.” Alice was still smiling, but in a puzzled sort of way. Did she think they were going to be instant best friends now that Emily would be living here? Emily couldn’t see that happening.
She’d had plenty of colleagues and acquaintances, people she passed the time of day with, or chatted to about the weather, but she didn’t really have friends. She didn’t do friendship, and hadn’t since she’d been a child. She couldn’t see herself starting now, in this strange place.
“I brought this.” Alice brandished the tin Emily now saw she was holding. “Tiffin. It’s Henry’s favourite.”
“Thank you, that’s so kind.” Emily took the tin and put it on the counter. She realised there must have been something slightly and unfortunately dismissive about the gesture because Alice’s smile wavered.
“You’re not allergic? It does have raisins. Or maybe you don’t eat sweets…”
“No, no,” Emily said hurriedly. “I’m sure I’ll enjoy it very much. Thank you.” She thought she’d said the right thing, but Alice was still looking a bit…nonplussed. Disappointed, even.
Why, Emily wondered on a silent sigh, did a simple conversation have to be such a minefield for her? Now if they’d been talking about work, she’d have been fine. She could talk about spreadsheets and databases and filing systems all day. But a simple bit of chitchat with a woman who was so obviously thoughtful and kind? Her stomach went in knots and her tongue became firmly tied as every instinct kicked in to stay private.
She couldn’t help it; it was a habit, one built up over years of careful self-protection. Stay polite, efficient, at a distance, so people didn’t look too closely, or ask too many questions. So they don’t find out the truth.
It was the way she’d always needed to be, and it was hard to stop now, even when it wasn’t strictly necessary, with this slip of a woman who so clearly wanted only to be her friend.
“Okay. Well.” Alice tucked her hair behind her ears in a nervous gesture as she kept smiling. “Is the moving truck coming soon? Because I could help you bring things in…”
Emily opened her mouth to say she didn’t need any help, then closed it again. “Actually, if you had any spray cleaner and perhaps some paper towel? I’d love to wipe all the surfaces before the furniture is put in.”
“Oh.” Alice glanced around at the near-sparkling kitchen. “Okay. I have some back at the house. I’ll nip up and get it for you.”
“Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.”
“Right. Won’t be a tick.”
Alice gave her another uncertain smile and then thankfully left the cottage. Emily let out a shaky breath of relief. This was all going to be so much harder than she’d expected, and that was saying something, since she’d had no illusions that it would be easy.
But every innocuous conversation felt like sandpaper on skin, an irritant, even a danger. It was hard to shed that self-protective skin even when it wasn’t needed as much as it had been back in London. After all, her mother wasn’t living with her anymore. She didn’t actually have anything to hide.
Emily slid her phone out of her pocket and checked it for messages, but of course there weren’t any. Her mum didn’t do texts, or voicemails, or even phones. No matter how Emily tried to stay in touch, Naomi preferred to surprise her by suddenly showing up, usually with a suitcase and a smile, to stay awhile.
That had been fine in London, when she’d lived in a building where neighbours didn’t notice or care. But here in Wychwood-on-Lea? With the helpful Alice popping round, and who knew who else? When Emily had driven into Willoughby Close’s courtyard, she’d seen at least one of the four cottages had been occupied, and it had made her stomach clench a little. She couldn’t be dealing with nosy neighbours, well meaning though they might be.
While Alice was gone, Emily decided to inspect the upstairs of the cottage. Henry had mentioned two bedrooms, and as she mounted the set of narrow stairs, she saw that indeed there were two—a master bedroom with fitted wardrobes and an en suite bathroom, and a smaller bedroom with a view of the back garden and the meadow and woodland beyond, the silver ribbon of the Lea River glinting under the fragile March sunshine before winding its way into a dark wood. It was, Emily supposed, so very idyllic…if one liked that sort of thing. She didn’t know if she did.
She’d grown up in the city, had found solace and safety in crowds, anonymity, life buzzing and pulsing all around her. The quiet here scared her, although she couldn’t say why. The solitude felt like a threat, the emptiness an exposure.
Certainly the possibility of nosy neighbours felt exposing. People coming in at all hours, with cheerful hellos and kind, smiling eyes, asking how she was, what she was up to… Emily suppressed a near shudder. It was like something out of a BBC comedy about moving to the country. It was what you were supposed to want, wasn’t it? Yet Emily was quite sure she didn’t.
“Hello? Emily…?” Alice’s friendly voice floated up the stairs. Emily turned from her view of the back garden and headed back down to the open-plan living area. Alice brandished a bottle of cleaning spray and a roll of paper towels with a triumphant smile. “Will this do?”
“Perfect, thank you so much.” Emily smiled and took both. As Alice watched, she started spraying. She wondered if she should have waited, but the truck would be here any minute and she needed everything to be clean. Still, perhaps it was a bit OTT.
“So,” she said in as airy a voice as she could manage, “how do you like living at the manor? I’ve only been here for your wedding. That was so lovely…”
“Honestly? It feels like a dream come true.” Alice laughed self-consciously. “As naff as that sounds, it really does.”
Emily glanced at the younger woman; happiness was radiating from her in an almost visible way, like beams of sunshine shooting out from her fingertips. A shaft of entirely unexpected envy twisted her gut and she spritzed some cleaning spray onto the top of the pristine cooker.
“Well, Henry certainly seems happy. He’s stopped scowling, which I never thought I’d see.”
Alice laughed. “Yes, he’s unbent a bit, hasn’t he? That makes me happy, too.”
“I’m not quite sure how to deal with him, to be honest.” She let out a little laugh. “I really am delighted for you both. Honestly. It’s so wonderful to see…” She didn’t exactly know how to finish that sentence, and so she stopped, only to see to her horror that Alice Trent was looking at her with something like pity. Did she feel sorry for her, so clearly on her own, solitude radiating from her the way happiness was from Alice? Perhaps Henry had said something. My poor secretary, darling. She’s got absolutely no social life at all…
Emily’s cheeks warmed as the moment spun out and then, thankfully, was broken by the rumble of tyres on gravel outside.
“That must be the moving truck,” Alice said with a bright look. “Let me help you move your things in.”
“Oh, you don’t…” Emily began, but Alice was already out the door. Heaven help well-meaning neighbours. The last thing she wanted was Alice bringing boxes in, reading the labels on the top, asking brightly about things she had no need of knowing. And then unpacking them, touching all her things, putting them in the wrong place, heavens…
Emily walked quickly out the door. The truck had pulled right up in front of the cottage, and the burly driver and his equally impressive colleague were already opening the back and starting to unload. Clearly they were on the clock, which suited Emily fine.
“The boxes are marked by room,” she said. “If you can put them in the right places?”
“Sure thing, love.” The driver gave her a nod and a wink. “How about a cuppa?”
“Oh…right. Yes.” Fortunately she’d put some of the most essential kitchen things in her car, a ridiculous rental that Henry had arranged, thinking she’d enjoyed zipping about the country lanes in a navy-blue convertible Mini, the top down to the spring breeze.
And in truth, Emily sometimes wished she was the sort of person who would enjoy that—the hedgerows blurring by, the wind in her hair. But the reality was that she was definitely a sensible sedan sort of girl, and driving the Mini from London to the Cotswolds had made her feel both uncomfortable and nervous, especially after she’d googled “convertible safety concerns” at a rest stop.
Still, she was here, she’d made it, and she’d return the car tomorrow even though Henry said she could have it for the week. Since she’d be working at the manor and there was a train station in the village, she hoped she wouldn’t need a car anyway.
“Do you want to me to make the tea so you can supervise the movers?” Alice asked as Emily brought the box with the kitchen stuff back into the cottage. She looked so eager to be helpful, so very hopeful, that Emily almost relented.
“Thank you, but I think I’ve got it in hand,” she said as firmly as she could without being rude. “I don’t have that much stuff, anyway. I doubt it will take long. But you’ve really been so kind.”
“Oh…” There was no mistaking Alice’s disappointment, and Emily’s stomach curdled with guilt. She wasn’t trying to be mean, honestly; she just…liked to do things on her own. She needed to.
“Thank you, though,” Emily said yet again. “You’ve been very kind.”
“It’s no trouble at all. And I wanted to let you know that you’re invited to come up to the big house for supper tonight,” Alice answered, rallying once more, with cheerful determination. “Nothing fancy—just a kitchen supper. Shepherd’s pie. You’re not vegetarian…?”
Emily’s smile was starting to feel fixed. “No, I’m not.”
“Well, Henry insists that you come. He wants to welcome you properly. He was busy this afternoon, meeting some potential donors, but I know he wants to see you tonight, check in with how you’re settling.”
“That’s very kind,” Emily said after a second’s pause. As everything else was. Why did Alice have to be so bloody kind? And Henry, as well? She knew she couldn’t say no to her boss, although she dreaded the prospect of making chitchat with Henry or Alice over what would surely be an interminable, if delicious, supper.
Her relationship with her employer had worked because they’d both been efficient, uninterested in niceties. Henry had appreciated her brisk manner, and she’d appreciated his taciturn one, as well as the fact he’d had zero interest in her as a person. Since his marriage, and now his move, that seemed as if it might change, and Emily wasn’t sure she could deal with that on top of everything else.
End of Excerpt