Fiona Harper.

Best of Fiona Harper





Oh, yes, he said slowly. Youre the girl who sells Izzi all those second-hand dresses she raves about.

Vintage clothing, actually, a gruff voice beside me said. Coreen is an innovative and successful businesswoman.

Nicholass eyebrows raised and he turned his attention to Adam.

Seriously, what is it about men? Sometimes you get two of them into a room together and they have to turn everything into a competition for whos got the most testosterone. Of course Adams surly interjection hadnt helped things. I really was going to have to have a word with him about this big brother protectiveness thing. It was starting to make him behave most strangely at times.

Adam Conrad, he said, thrusting his hand forward.

Nicholas looked across at me, and then back to Adam. I knew that look. It was a jumping-to-conclusions kind of look, and it seemed as if I was going to have to intercept swiftly before he got the wrong idea.

My very good friend, I added sweetly, before Nicholas had a chance to put two and two together and come up with a million and six. He didnt, however, look either pleased or relieved, as many men did when they found out Adam and I were nothing more than pals. His features hardly moved as he shook Adams hand. There might have been a slight squaring of his shoulders, but who wouldnt when Adam was giving off such confrontational vibes? I was feeling a bit like standing taller on my heels and punching Adam on the nose myself.

Adam released Nicholass hand, a hint of a satisfied smirk sparkling in his eyes, and Nicholas flexed his fingers almost imperceptibly. If we werent in such elegant company I would have delivered that punch. Or at the very least put one of my pointy elbows to good use. Id only chosen Adam for this weekend because Id thought hed be a help, rather than a hindrance, but I was starting to see the problem with not enlisting one of my puppies instead. Mongrels have a nasty habit of having a mind of their own.

How strange. I realised as I saw the two men standing next to each other that Id thought Nicholas was much taller than Adam, but they were practically eye to eye, and instead of seeming younger and scruffier and more laid-back in comparison to Nicholas, Adam looked rough around the edges, yes, but in a masculine, slightly dangerous way. I suddenly understood why my single girlfriendsand some of the not-so-single oneshad begged me to set them up with him.

Although Adam and Nicholas had stopped squashing each others hands in a show of masculine strength, there was still an atmosphere of tension in the room. Probably all those male pheromones floating in the air. Unfortunately, Ive always been a little susceptible to the stuff, and I felt my neck grow warm and the little hairs at the back of my neck tickle. I blinked to snap myself out of it. Now was not the time to get all hot and bothered over Nicholas. I wanted to be cool and poised and professional, remember?

But even with my eyelids shut I could feel myself reacting to his nearness.

My skin got too warm as the heat at my neck began to spread. My jacket suddenly felt a little too fitted. I decided that keeping my eyes closed, even for a second or so, was just magnifying the sensations, so I snapped them open again. Only, as everything swam back into focus, I discovered that it wasnt Nicholas I was standing opposite but Adam.

How odd. Nicholas must have moved.

Izzi flitted round the three of us like a somewhat demented butterfly. Oh, this is going to be so much fun, she gushed, dragging us all into the centre of the room. You first, Nicky! she said, and shoved me at him. Thankfully I kept my balance.

Nicholas looked at me now, waiting, so I delved into my alligator bag, half expecting it to bite back, and produced my tape measurenot so much with a flourish this time as with a fumble.

Nicholas was looking down at me, a faint look of concern in his eyes. His gaze drifted to the tape measure and stayed there. How are you going to? I mean, where do you want to?

It was the first time Id seen him anything but slightly bored-looking, and it was actually quite sweet. I got a little carried away with the idea he might be just as affected by the idea of me getting my hands on him as I was, and I totally blame the resulting adrenaline surge for what I said next.

I grinned back at him, forgetting the whole aloof plan entirely. Dont worry, I said, my voice coming out even huskier than usual. No need to do a striptease. Im very experienced in doing it both dressed and undressed.

See? That came out totally wrong. And for some unfathomable reason every time I tell a joke or make a funny comment it always brings out the Londoner in me. In our supremely elegant surroundings my words clanged off the walls, sounding crass instead of playful. I blushed and busied myself getting my notepad and pen out of my bag.

Izzi just hooted with laughter, and said something about it being classic Coreen. I didnt look at Adam. He ribs me mercilessly when I put my patent heels in my mouth, usually both at once, and I didnt want to set him off and give Izzi even more encouragement. I concentrated on being belatedly poised and professional instead.

Finally I managed to get something right. I took all of Nicholass measurements swiftly and efficiently. Well, not all. I took his word for it on the inside leg. And my hands didnt shake even once. I was very proud of myself. In fact I couldnt have been more composed if Id been measuring up Gladys and Glynnis, the two second-hand mannequins that live in Coreens Closet.

I moved onto Adam next, since I was in a man-measuring frame of mind, and that was when the delayed reaction hit. My ears began to tingle and I kept dropping my tape measure and forgetting the numbers so I had to start all over again. Thankfully Nicholas was deep in conversation with Izzi by then, and didnt see a thing.

Hmm. I stared at my notepad and compared figures. It seemed Adams shoulders were as broad as Nicholass. Broader, in fact. Just goes to show how appearances can be deceptive.

Once Id got started with the measuring, I didnt stop. The rest of Izzis friends arrived while I was doing her bust measurement and she dashed off to greet them, almost taking me with her, connected by the tape measure, but I managed to wiggle free in time. There were a couple of floppy-haired ex-public schoolboys called Julian and Marcus, Izzis best friend Jos, and, to my horror, mouldy old duck-faced, stick-thin Louisa Fanshawe. Nicholas suddenly stopped looking as if he was a caged lion pacing backwards and forwards, smiled microscopically, and sent for coffee and croissants.

I noticed when they arrived that Louisa only nibbled hers.

I hate girls who nibble things. Dont trust them. In my book, if you want to have a cake or some chocolate you should just have it. None of this gnawing at it like a hamster, pretending it wasnt the sort of thing youd wolf down in one go if you were on your own, and then leaving it half eaten because youre supposedly too full up. My reasons for not having a croissant were purely professional, of course. It had nothing whatsoever to do with not wanting to look piggy. I mean, I could hardly leave greasy, flaky marks on everybodys clothes as I measured, could I?

I could tell as I was doing the last of the measuring that Izzi was revving up to something. She kept giggling to herself and pressing her fingers over her mouth. Shed announced earlier that shed tell us which parts shed assigned us today, and I was dying to know who Id be.

As I wound my tape measure I let myself dream about playing the part of the debutante. The whole murder-mystery thing was to be set around a family gathering on a country estate, as far as I could tell. I guessed that Nicholas would probably end up as the heir to the family fortune, and I was desperate to play his devoted fianc?e. I even had a midnight-blue floaty chiffon dress picked out that would really set off my colouring.

Izzi made a big show of gathering us all on two vast sofas that faced each other near the fireplace, and produced a little notebook and silver pencil from her bag.

Boys first! she exclaimed, and fixed her eyes on Julian.

It turned out he was going to play the carousing younger brother. Marcus slapped him on the back and almost made Julian choke on his coffee. That means youre actually going to have to talk to a girl! he bellowed. Poor old Julian just blushed and stammered something about talking to girls on a fairly regular basis, actually.

Marcus was going to be the layabout best friend of the son and heir, to which he merely said, Nothing new there, then! and slapped Julian twice as hard on the shoulder. Hed better be careful. From the looks Julian was giving him there might be a second murder at Izzis weekend. An unplanned one.

When Izzi said that Adam was going to play the cousin, who happened to be a vicar, I almost snorted my coffee out through my nose. Oh, I was going to have such fun with him! I wondered if hed let me give him false teeth and a bald wig.

That meant, of course, that Nicholas was to be just who he should bePrince Charming, for want of a better descriptionand I was more than willing to step into the shoes of his devoted princess. I sighed and reached for a pain au chocolat, completely forgetting myself.

If Id thought Izzi was excited at dishing out the boy parts, as she called them, she notched it up a gear when it came to us girls.

Im going to be Lady Southerby, she said, clapping her hands loudly and waiting for us to all hoot and exclaim. Isnt it going to be wild! Im going to be a crusty old matriarch and youre all going to have to do as I say!

Not much change there, then, Marcus said again, as he rammed half a croissant into his mouth and sprayed crumbs everywhere.

Izzi was far too pleased with herself even to give him one of her withering looks. And then she turned to me.

My heart began to pound. I clasped my hands together on my knees and looked at her with wide, unblinking eyes.

Youre going to love your part, Coreen, she said. I guarantee its absolutely perfect for you.


CHAPTER FIVE

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps

Coreens Confessions

No. 5Ive worn red lipstick every day of my life since I turned seventeen.

I STILL cant believe Izzi did that to me! The corners of my mouth tugged downwards and made my bottom lip protrude slightly. I thought we were friends!

Adam glanced over at me, but kept his attention on the road. Just as well, really, since we were hurtling around the M25 in his Range Rover. Its been two weeks, Coreen. You need to let it go.

Okay, I may have mentioned my displeasure regarding the matter to Adam a few times already.

It is what it is, he added, with an annoying air of superiority. Sometimes life doesnt hand us what we want, so we have to find a way to make what we have got work to our advantage.

I folded my arms across my chest and stared at the number plate of the car in front. Thank you for that bit of priceless wisdom, Socrates.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Adam had lifted one eyebrow. I decided his character for the murder-mystery weekend was going to his head. He was being annoyingly serene in the face of my abject distress.

I dont need you to get all philosophical on me, I said sulkily. I need you to beto be my What was the word I was looking for? It wouldnt dislodge itself from my memory banks.

Your back-up? he suggested.

Exactly! I told him as much.

His mouth straightened out of its ever-present smile. Always, he said quietly. You know that.

I sighed loudly and let my folded arms drop into my lap. Yes, I did know that.

Adam indicated and swiftly changed lanes to overtake a van. I held my breath, wishing I was behind the wheel instead. Adam might be steady and reliable in most aspects of his life, but none of that seemed to rub off on his driving. If my car had had a bigger boot we wouldnt be having this problem, but unfortunately my treasured Beetle didnt have the space for all this lovingly pressed vintage clothing.

He saw me tense up and chuckled under his breath. Just because Im here this weekend to be your back-up, it doesnt mean I cant have a little fun along the way too. And he pressed harder on the accelerator, reaching a speed my poor little Volkswagen could only dream about.

Mongrel, I muttered, as I dug my fingernails into the edge of my seat.

Drama queen, he shot back.

I didnt have much of a defence to that, so I slumped back into the comfortable leather seat and tried to smooth down the little catches Id made with my nails only seconds earlier before Adam noticed them.

When did you get rid of Dolly?

Dolly had been Adams old Land Rover. Older even than my little car. Hed had her ever since I could remember. But when hed come to pick me up that afternoon hed arrived in a gleaming new Range Rover, with a glossy black exterior and parchment-coloured leather seats. It was almost sexyat least as sexy as a giant hulk of a machine like that can be.

Oh, I havent got rid of the old girl, Adam said, smiling to himself. But I need something a little moreconfidence inspiringwhen I go to meet clients. And a vehicle that doesnt backfire rust and can get from A to B without the help of a recovery truck tends to help with that.

I trailed a finger along the immaculately stitched seam on my seat. Dolly Mark Two was certainly very impressive. And rather expensive, Id have guessed. How on earth had Adam managed to afford her? I hoped he hadnt sold a kidney or something.

The clock on the dashboard said twenty to three. Only fifteen minutes more and wed be at Inglewood Manor. Everyone else was due to arrive around four, to get ready, but Adam and I were getting there early so I could hang the outfits in each of the guests rooms and check that every last cufflink and clutch bag was present and correct.

Ugh. Thinking about what everyone was wearing just made me remember the fashion monstrosities that I was going to have to wear over the coming weekend, and that brought me both down to earth and back to square one.

I closed my eyes, shook my head and let out a loud huff. I still cant believe that Izzi

Get over it, already! Adam half-yelled, half-chuckled, cutting me off. I clamped my mouth shut and resumed my pout.

I suppose Izzi hadnt sabotaged my plans on purpose. She was just dying to get out of her glamorous clothes and play against type. She must have thought Id be game for a laugh, ready to do the same. I really shouldnt be cross with her, but I had to be cross with someone, and she was the only one in the firing line at present.

Adam performed another bit of outrageous overtaking and then looked over at me. I grimaced back.

Okay he said in conciliatory kind of voice. Maybe you have got a little bit of a point. I didnt like his tone, for all its sympathy and understanding. When Adam stopped bantering and talked to me that way it only meant one thingtrouble.

He let out a soft chuckle as he clocked a large blue road sign up ahead. What was Izzi thinking when she cast a girl who changes her mind every ten seconds as Constance?

I was too depressed to box his ears or give a witty comeback. I just sat in silence as Adam turned off the motorway and headed in the direction of Inglewood Manor.

Yep. That was my role for the whole weekend: Constance Michaels. The dowdy, frumpy sister of Adams country vicar. Not a hint of silk or chiffon in Constances wardrobeoh, no. That was all going to rotten old Louisa. I was stuck with tweed and dreary floral prints. Sensible shoes and good, clean living. It was going to be dire. The only consolation was that as the Reverend Harry Michaelss sister Id be able to give Adam all the ear-flicks and Chinese burns I wanted, and he wouldnt be able to complain.

As we turned off the main road and through an imposing set of gates I sat up straighter in my seat. We were finally there. But, rather than the sweeping drive through open parkland that Id imagined, the road to the manor was lined with fir trees. I could half imagine that theyd picked up their skirts only moments before and run to stand on the edges of the drive, eager to see the approaching guests. Through their dark branches I glimpsed clipped lawns, rose gardens and finally a vast redbrick house.

It wasnt until we were almost directly in front of Inglewood Manor that the drive widened and split to circle an oval-shaped lawn dotted with miniature firs in the most beautiful assortment of shapes and sizes.

Id seen pictures of Inglewood Manor before, of course. Had known that it was grand and elegant. But now that I was actually there I realised that this vast multi-roomed house was also very pretty, even though it rose to three storeys. The windows were long and perfectly proportioned, and the unusual parapet of stepped battlements and cones, along with twisting redbrick chimneys, gave the house a fairytale air.

It struck me that Nicholas Chatterton-Jones was a man with a very attractive guarantee. Generations of tradition cemented his feet to the ground; hed been bred to stay put, to build a family not to tear it apart. Chatterton-Jones men didnt do runners. Never would. So why did that realisation make me feel more nervous, instead of more convinced Id pinned my hopes on the right man?

Adam brought the car to a halt, switched it off, and turned his body to face me. Raring to goConstance?

I jabbed him in the shoulder with a fingernail. Just you remember that Socrates met a very nasty end. Poison, if I remember rightly. And this is a murder-mystery weekend.

The corners of Adams eyes crinkled. I hear the deadly draught was self-inflicted in that particular case.

I ignored him. Bring the clothes in, will you? I said, waving towards the boot, and then I opened the door, exited the car with an elegant sweep of my legs and walked off to the huge wooden front door, channelling every bit of Marilyn I could.

Starting to understand what drove the poor bloke to it, Adam muttered as he pulled his key out of the ignition and jumped out of the car.

The rest of the afternoon went in a bit of a blur. Before Id even unpacked all the clothes the hordes descended, and rather than being able to concentrate on making what Id got to wear work to my advantage suddenly it was, Coreen, can you do this zip up? or Coreen, how do I put spats on? Or a million and five other stupid questions.

I hardly had time to notice the lovely wood-panelled landing between the various bedrooms, or lose myself in the ornate plaster ceilings, elegant furnishings and antiques.

Izzi had decreed that no one should see anyone else before the Great Unveiling Ceremony. Under no circumstances were we allowed to fraternise before six oclock cocktails, when the murder-mystery rigmarole was going to commence. As a result, I was the only one allowed to see anyone in full costume before the allotted hour, and I was rushed off my feet running errands, pinning hair, finding lost gloves. Marcus even had the gall to pat me on the bottom and ask me whether I could fetch him a cup of tea. I gave him a look that left him in no doubt as to where I would insert that cup of tea if I ever returned with it.

I was most miffed with Izzi for laying down the law in this way. I had hoped Id get at least half an hour to remind Nicholas just how gorgeous I was before Constance had to put in an appearance, but Izzi was into her character right from the get-go, cracking the whip and generally making sure we did nothing to spoil her elaborately planned fantasy weekend. I was starting to think the whole idea was more trouble than it was worth.

Finally, when Id sorted out all the last-minute fashion glitches, I managed to scamper back to my room, close the door behind me and slump against it for a few seconds rest. This was the sort of room you saw in posh interior decorating magazines, and I could hardly believe Id get to sleep in it for two whole nights. Everything was elegant cream and muted duck-egg blue. There was even a magnificent mahogany four-poster bed, so at least I could imagine I was a princess between midnight and dawn, if nowhere else this weekend.

I took in a few deep breaths, drinking in the serenity of my surroundings. I needed it. There was only a quarter of an hour left for me to get myself ready, and it was going to take half of that time to de-Coreen myself.

Taking off the fifties garb was easy enough, although I had a moment of mourning when I slid my feet out of my heels and sank them into the thick carpet. I looked at myself in the mirror. My suspicions had been right. My usual style of bra definitely had too much va-va-voom for a tweedy female missionary wannabe, and I had to replace it with something much plainer.

I left my make-up until last. Id never gone anywhere in broad daylight without my liquid liner wings and my Crimson Minx red lippy. Not even to the corner shop on a late-night chocolate run.