Best of Fiona Harper
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‘Oh, yes,’ he said slowly. ‘You’re 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.’
Nicholas’s 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 who’s got the most testosterone. Of course Adam’s surly interjection hadn’t 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 didn’t, 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 Adam’s hand. There might have been a slight squaring of his shoulders, but who wouldn’t 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 Nicholas’s hand, a hint of a satisfied smirk sparkling in his eyes, and Nicholas flexed his fingers almost imperceptibly. If we weren’t in such elegant company I would have delivered that punch. Or at the very least put one of my pointy elbows to good use. I’d only chosen Adam for this weekend because I’d thought he’d 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 I’d 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 girlfriends—and some of the not-so-single ones—had begged me to set them up with him.
Although Adam and Nicholas had stopped squashing each other’s 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, I’ve 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 wasn’t 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 measure—not 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 I’d 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. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, my voice coming out even huskier than usual. ‘No need to do a striptease. I’m 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 didn’t look at Adam. He ribs me mercilessly when I put my patent heels in my mouth, usually both at once, and I didn’t 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 Nicholas’s measurements swiftly and efficiently. Well, not all. I took his word for it on the inside leg. And my hands didn’t shake even once. I was very proud of myself. In fact I couldn’t have been more composed if I’d been measuring up Gladys and Glynnis, the two second-hand mannequins that live in Coreen’s 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 didn’t see a thing.
Hmm. I stared at my notepad and compared figures. It seemed Adam’s shoulders were as broad as Nicholas’s. Broader, in fact. Just goes to show how appearances can be deceptive.
Once I’d got started with the measuring, I didn’t stop. The rest of Izzi’s 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, Izzi’s 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. Don’t 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 wasn’t the sort of thing you’d wolf down in one go if you were on your own, and then leaving it half eaten because you’re 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 everybody’s 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. She’d announced earlier that she’d tell us which parts she’d assigned us today, and I was dying to know who I’d 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 you’re 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. He’d better be careful. From the looks Julian was giving him there might be a second murder at Izzi’s 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 he’d let me give him false teeth and a bald wig.
That meant, of course, that Nicholas was to be just who he should be—Prince Charming, for want of a better description—and 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 I’d 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.
‘I’m going to be Lady Southerby,’ she said, clapping her hands loudly and waiting for us to all hoot and exclaim. ‘Isn’t it going to be wild! I’m going to be a crusty old matriarch and you’re 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.
‘You’re going to love your part, Coreen,’ she said. ‘I guarantee it’s absolutely perfect for you.’
Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps…
No. 5—I’ve worn red lipstick every day of my life since I turned seventeen.
‘I STILL can’t 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. ‘It’s 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 doesn’t 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 don’t need you to get all philosophical on me,’ I said sulkily. ‘I need you to be…to be my…’ What was the word I was looking for? It wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t be having this problem, but unfortunately my treasured Beetle didn’t have the space for all this lovingly pressed vintage clothing.
He saw me tense up and chuckled under his breath. ‘Just because I’m here this weekend to be your “back-up”, it doesn’t mean I can’t 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 didn’t have much of a defence to that, so I slumped back into the comfortable leather seat and tried to smooth down the little catches I’d made with my nails only seconds earlier before Adam noticed them.
‘When did you get rid of Dolly?’
Dolly had been Adam’s old Land Rover. Older even than my little car. He’d had her ever since I could remember. But when he’d come to pick me up that afternoon he’d arrived in a gleaming new Range Rover, with a glossy black exterior and parchment-coloured leather seats. It was almost sexy—at least as sexy as a giant hulk of a machine like that can be.
‘Oh, I haven’t got rid of the old girl,’ Adam said, smiling to himself. ‘But I need something a little more…confidence inspiring…when I go to meet clients. And a vehicle that doesn’t 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, I’d have guessed. How on earth had Adam managed to afford her? I hoped he hadn’t sold a kidney or something.
The clock on the dashboard said twenty to three. Only fifteen minutes more and we’d 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 guest’s 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 can’t 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 hadn’t sabotaged my plans on purpose. She was just dying to get out of her glamorous clothes and play against type. She must have thought I’d be game for a laugh, ready to do the same. I really shouldn’t 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 didn’t like his tone, for all its sympathy and understanding. When Adam stopped bantering and talked to me that way it only meant one thing—trouble.
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 Adam’s country vicar. Not a hint of silk or chiffon in Constance’s wardrobe—oh, 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 Michaels’s sister I’d be able to give Adam all the ear-flicks and Chinese burns I wanted, and he wouldn’t 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 I’d imagined, the road to the manor was lined with fir trees. I could half imagine that they’d 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 wasn’t 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.
I’d 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; he’d been bred to stay put, to build a family not to tear it apart. Chatterton-Jones men didn’t do runners. Never would. So why did that realisation make me feel more nervous, instead of more convinced I’d 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 go…Constance?’
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 Adam’s 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 I’d even unpacked all the clothes the hordes descended, and rather than being able to concentrate on making what I’d 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 o’clock 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 I’d 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 I’d 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 I’d 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. I’d 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.
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