Best of Fiona Harper
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I stared at myself in the mirror for a few seconds. Really stared. This would be the last time I’d look like me until late Sunday afternoon. Constance was going to take over until then. I could already hear her tutting at the crimson lipstick, so I held up a tissue to wipe it away. The tissue hovered less than a millimetre from my lips and then my hand dropped to my side.
I couldn’t do it. Couldn’t wipe that last piece of myself away with just a few swipes of a tissue.
The eyes would have to go first instead. I wouldn’t have to watch myself. The liner needed a thorough scrub with a lotion-splodged bit of cotton wool, and I had to close my eyes to make sure I’d got into every corner. Once that was done I opened my eyes again and had another go at eradicating the Crimson Minx.
Another false start.
Another tissue dropped straight into the bin with not even smudge of red on it. I had a feeling I could have gone on like this all afternoon, but noises on the landing jolted me out of my repetitive loop. Voices. From what I could make out, the others were now all ready and impatient to show off their glad rags.
After taking a deep breath, I plucked another tissue from the box on the dressing table and did what I had to do without letting myself stop to think, scrubbing hard with the tissue until there was no Minx left, just smooth, soft pink skin.
I looked up. Met myself in the mirror. It wasn’t a pretty sight. There was black grit in the corners of my eyes and a faint red tinge to the skin around my lips, making it seem as if the ghost of a clown hovered about me. And she was there. Looking back at me. Pleading with me.
I turned away quickly, unpinned my hair and brushed it through, then put on the ghastly olive-green tweed suit I’d intended to force on Louisa and slipped my feet into a pair of sensible brown lace-ups. I then picked up my compact and got to work on my face, not making eye-contact with myself again until I was finished. Until I was Constance, with her severe bun and pinched expression, and the reflection in the mirror was safe again.
I walked away from the dressing table and surveyed the damage in the full-length mirror in the en-suite bathroom. I dared myself to take every detail in, to face what I had made myself. Well, if Nicholas wanted ‘less’ he was certainly going to get it from me this weekend. And, since Louisa Fanshawe definitely was the ‘more’, that should put me at an advantage, shouldn’t it? As I kept staring in the mirror I realised it wasn’t so bad. I might be prim and proper and prissy on the outside, but now I’d recovered myself I could see my inner minx was alive and well and blazing out through my eyes.
There was a knock at the door and I almost jumped out of my skin. ‘Who is it?’ I called back.
‘Me,’ came a lazy rumble I couldn’t help but recognise. Adam’s voice always makes me think of long Sunday lie-ins and rumpled sheets.
I took one last look at Constance in the mirror, thinking I’d show her a thing or two this weekend, and then went to open the door.
I hadn’t seen Adam at all since I’d starting primping and preening the other guests.I’d offered to help him, but he’d said that I bossed him around enough when he was fully dressed and he didn’t need me doing it while he was in his boxers too. Impossible man. I was sure I wasn’t that bad really.
When the door swung wide I don’t know why I was so shocked. It wasn’t as if I’d expected to see Adam in his soft, worn denim jeans and his usual just-fallen-out-of-bed hair-style, but even though I’d picked out his clothes myself—the dove-grey suit, the brogues and dog-collared shirt—I wasn’t prepared for the transformation. Too busy thinking about my own, I suppose.
I stepped backwards, letting Adam pass me and walk into the room. I’d always thought that vicars were supposed to be safe, almost gender-neutral kinds of creatures, but even with a nice suit on and his wayward hair smoothed down there was still a hint of…wickedness about him. Not helped by the mischievous smile he wore as he looked me up and down.
The warmth in his eyes deepened. ‘You look gorgeous,’ he said, doing a credible job of keeping a straight face.
I rolled my eyes. ‘I look like an over-stuffed olive,’ I replied, gesturing with my eyes towards the jacket buttons straining at my chest. When I’d chosen this outfit I’d imagined Louisa looking really frumpy, with the too-large jacket hanging off her bony shoulders. It didn’t look quite the same on me. I’d been particularly pleased with the thick pair of round-rimmed—
I’d almost forgotten them.
‘Just you wait until you see the finishing touch!’ I marched across to the dressing table, picked up the tortoiseshell specs and slid them on carelessly. One hinge was a little loose, and they wobbled precariously on the bridge of my nose. I turned and gave Adam a defiant look, daring him to contradict me.
He just ambled towards me, stopping when he was only inches away. Slowly he pulled his hands from his pockets and straightened the specs with a tiny nudge of his fingers at either edge, all the while smiling into my eyes. He must have got them at just the right focal length, because suddenly everything that had been blurry and off-kilter snapped into focus and I noticed for the first time how the warm conker in the centre of his irises melted into dark chocolate at the edges. He dropped the softest kiss on the tip of my nose and stepped back.
‘I’ve always had a thing for girls who wear glasses,’ he said in his Sunday morning voice.
I wanted to grin back at him, to thank him for knowing the right thing to say to make me feel better about my horrible tweedy costume, but my lips were temporarily glued shut.
At first all I’d wanted was for him to join me in my tweed-related ranting, but he’d sidestepped my invitation and done the opposite, making me feel warm and confident. He’d given me what I needed before I’d even known it myself. Just like the takeaways he brought me. But even as warmth seeped through me, I shivered a little too. Adam’s unusual gift for cheering me up was lovely, but it was out of my control. Something I’d never be able to coax or tame. Something he could deprive me of if he wanted to. And on that level I didn’t like it much.
‘Ready?’ he asked, and offered me his arm in an exaggerated formal manner.
I stood tall in my sensible heels, lifted my chin and placed my arm in his. This was no time to get maudlin.
‘Born that way,’ I said as we stepped through the door and headed downstairs.
I had a light-headed feeling as I walked down the vast carved oak staircase with Adam. I was aware of my laced-up feet treading on each broad step, of my hand skimming the banister, but I felt oddly disconnected from those sensations, and the excited murmuring of the other guests drifted up from the hall below in a muffled fog.
At the half-landing there was a tug on my sleeve. Adam’s fingers lightly gripped my upper arm and he steered me to look over the banister.
‘Look,’ he whispered, his breath warm in my ear. ‘Look at what you’ve accomplished.’
I blinked and was instantly back in my own body, totally aware of the warm pressure of his fingers on my arms and suddenly his words made sense.
Down below the rest of Izzi’s party had gathered, all dressed top-to-toe in the outfits I’d put together. Outfits I’d scoured the markets and auction houses of London for. Clothes and accessories that had kept me awake into the small hours of the morning as I matched and paired and mentally sorted them. And when I’d finally drifted off I’d had weird convoluted dreams about pearl buttons, Oxford trousers and hat pins.
‘Oh…’ I said.
Just for a moment I had the strangest feeling I’d been catapulted eighty years into the past and was spying, ghost-like, on a real nineteen-thirties house party. Were these really the same people I’d measured and had breakfast with only a fortnight before?
I spotted Izzi first, her grey crimped wig drawing my eyes instantly. She was holding an ebony cane, but every time she got excited she forgot to lean on it and started gesticulating wildly instead.
My gaze only lingered on her for a second, because I instantly searched the group for Nicholas. He stood out, taller than the other two men, looking all dark and handsome and dashing. I can’t say he looked an awful lot different. But what was I expecting? One could hardly expect perfection to improve upon itself.
Julian and Marcus had scrubbed up well, looking very dapper in their single-breasted suits, sharply creased trousers and stiff white collars. I’d done a good job. Satisfied, I moved my attention to the females of the group.
Jos was bobbing around in her maid’s uniform, and flirting with Nicholas in a manner that would certainly get her sacked if she really was the ‘help’. I tried not to look at Louisa. The bias-cut dress in burgundy silk I’d picked out for this evening looked far too good on her slender figure, and the finger waves framing her face just served to emphasise her amazing cheekbones, which even I had to admit were her least duck-like feature.
Izzi spotted Adam and me as we reached the bottom of the staircase and let out a squeal. ‘Oh, look at you!’ And then she shoved her cane into Julian’s unready hands and raced across the marble-tiled hall to inspect us more closely. A rather unbecoming smile for an elderly lady crept across her mouth as she looked Adam up and down. ‘Well, hello, Vicar,’ she purred. ‘Remind me to come and confess all my sins to you later. I’m afraid there are rather a lot. You won’t be too shocked, will you?’
Adam grinned back. ‘I’ll do my very best not to be, but it depends just how naughty you’ve been.’
The eyelash bat and pout that Izzi gave him pushed things a little too far for my liking. I thought we were supposed to be in character, but she looked ready to dribble down the black high-necked dress I’d found her. I coughed, partly to draw her attention away from Adam, but mostly to save the taffeta from drool marks.
Izzi dragged her eyes from the Reverend Michaels and started to walk around me, plucking at my tweed jacket and inspecting every little detail. ‘The transformation’s amazing!’ she muttered. ‘I would hardly have recognised you!’ As she came round to the front again, she spotted my glasses and let out another squeal. ‘Isn’t it a hoot?’ she said, grabbing my hand and dragging me towards the rest of the group.
‘I’m practically an owl,’ I replied, rather dead pan.
‘I just knew you’d be a good sport about this,’ she half-whispered, half-giggled into my ear.
I didn’t do anything to disillusion her. I needed to keep on Izzi’s good side this weekend, didn’t I?
Now we were all gathered, Izzi introduced the murder-mystery weekend organisers she’d hired, who were playing the parts of Lord Edward Southerby, Izzi’s character’s husband, and the housekeeper. They gave us a brief introduction to the weekend, which I mostly ignored, and then handed us large white envelopes with our characters’ names on them.
We were then led through into the drawing room. I could see why Izzi had decided to ‘borrow’ the family home for the event. It was perfect. The Chatterton-Joneses’ drawing room was chockablock with antique furniture, and stern-faced portraits were everywhere on the moss-green walls. The room was so huge that there wasn’t only one seating area but various groupings of sofas and chairs, the largest of which was in the centre of the room, close to the stone fireplace. They were upholstered in a deep plum jacquard, half hidden by a million tapestried cushions in all shapes and sizes. Anywhere else this decorating style would have seemed haphazard and messy, but in the drawing room of Inglewood Manor it just softened the effect of the vast fireplace and the grand plasterwork ceiling, making the space seem both elegant and comfortable at once.
I eyed my white envelope suspiciously. I had a horrible feeling that whatever instructions were inside were going to send my plans into reverse. I already didn’t like what I’d heard about the reason for our characters to be gathering this weekend. We were supposed to be celebrating the engagement of Rupert and Frances—Nicholas and Louisa’s characters.
‘Robert will serve us cocktails while we take a little time to read our character packs,’ Izzi announced, then dropped into one of the plum armchairs and got straight into being Lady Southerby by fixing us all with her beady eyes.
‘What would you like, miss?’ a silky voice asked from behind my right ear. I almost jumped straight out of my tweed suit. I turned to find Mr Discreet from Nicholas’s house standing there. I pressed a hand on top of my thumping heart and gave him a long hard look.
‘I wish you wouldn’t do that,’ I said, frowning. ‘I thought you worked in the London house, anyway.’
Mr Discreet—or Robert, as I know knew he was called—didn’t let his weariness with the whole situation show anywhere but his eyebrows, which drooped a little at the outer edges. ‘Sir thought I might enjoy a weekend in the country and a chance to…’ He paused, as if he couldn’t quite bring himself to utter the words. ‘To dress up and have a bit of fun.’
The eyebrows said otherwise. I suddenly felt a pang of sympathy for the poor blighter. I glanced across the room to where Nicholas and Louisa were standing by the fireplace. He was pointing out family photographs of when he was younger and she was cooing over them.
‘What have you got that’s got a bit of a kick to it?’ I asked grimly.
I could have been mistaken, but I thought I saw a hint of a twitch in Robert’s left cheek. ‘Perhaps madam would care for a Gin Sling?’
‘That sounds lovely. A Gin Sling it is.’
Robert gave a nod of approval, but before he’d got two steps away Izzi, who was still holding court from her armchair, announced, ‘Oh, no. That won’t do at all, Robert! We can’t have the vicar’s sister tipsy on hard liquor.’ An evil glint appeared in her eye. ‘None of the demon drink for you, Constance, dear!’ she added loudly. ‘You’ll just have to have something virgin!’ And then she collapsed into a fit of giggles, as if it was the funniest thing anyone had ever said.
Of course everyone else had stopped their chatter when she’d raised her voice, and now they all chuckled along with her. Even Nicholas. I just pushed my horrible tortoiseshell glasses up my nose and pretended I didn’t mind at all. The last thing I was going to do was let it show that her judgement of me had stung. Somehow, without my heels and my lipstick on, I couldn’t bat the comment away as I could have done if I’d been ‘me’.
I suppose I should have been grateful. I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of chat-up lines involving filthy-named cocktails in my time. At least this was a joke in the other direction. But the joke was still on me, and I didn’t want anyone to think that the idea of me being anything but a floozy was hysterically funny. Just because I normally look the way I look, it doesn’t mean I’m…easy.
Adam suddenly appeared at my side and put his arm round my waist. ‘Well, if we’re drinking in character,’ he said, looking in Izzi’s direction, ‘I think you should hand that champagne to me and replace it with a tomato juice cocktail.’
I had to give Izzi her due. Whether it was class or privilege or cold hard cash that kept her armour-plated self-confidence intact, it was doing a terrific job. There wasn’t even the hint of a dent in it as she laughed back at Adam, downed her champagne, and then ordered the tomato juice from Robert, who was still standing beside me, waiting for my revised order.
‘Whatever you bring me is fine,’ I told him.
‘How about a Maiden’s Prayer?’ he said smoothly.
Izzi grinned and clapped her hands. ‘Oh, yes! That sounds much more suitable.’
I ignored her and nodded my appreciation to Robert.
‘Thank you,’ I whispered to Adam, and then deposited myself with as much grace and dignity as I could muster at the end of one of the sofas.
I looked across the room at Louisa, all slender elegance and perfection. Nobody would have made that crack about her. She had that otherworldly kind of beauty that made men think of medieval princesses and cherubic waifs. Whereas I was an easy target. Blessed with a figure that meant I was always labelled the same way—even in tweed, for goodness’ sake!
For a long time I’d thought my sex appeal was the source of all my power, but just then, just for the tiniest moment, I started to wonder if it might be a curse, if I might always be the object of lust but never of devotion…
No. That was stupid. Of course I inspired devotion. I had my puppies, after all. And what could be more devoted than a gorgeous little puppy? And with that thought I squashed the nasty, wriggling feeling of insecurity away and sat up tall.
Stupid stuffed-olive suit. It was messing with my head.
So I imagined myself out of my suit and into Louisa’s dark blood satin. I imagined my lipstick back on and four-inch heels on my feet, and instantly I began to feel better. Things improved even more when I tasted the Maiden’s Prayer that Robert brought me. One sip and I knew the drink hadn’t been named for its innocence. More likely because supplication would be the only way of saving oneself after two or three of these little babies.
My envelope was still unopened in my hand, so I decided to delve inside and see what the rest of the weekend might be about. When I leafed through the sheets of paper I had to stop myself from groaning. Izzi, in her mad-doggish fever about her project, had timetabled the weekend to within an inch of its life. How was I going to convince Nicholas how low-maintenance and laid-back I was if we didn’t get any down time to mingle?
Along with a lengthy itinerary of activities—both indoor and outdoor—designed to promote clue-solving, was a full character profile of Constance, a brief summary of the other house party guests and some personal objectives for the first part of the evening. I had one thing I needed to keep secret and another thing I needed to find out: why Harry, my big brother, had become so overprotective of me in the last few weeks.
I let out a sharp little laugh at that bit. Talk about life imitating art…or was it the other way ’round?
Adam had just plonked himself down beside me, in the space I’d mentally reserved for Nicholas, and he leaned over to try and read my sheet over my shoulder. ‘What’s so funny?’
I quickly rolled my papers up so he couldn’t see anything. ‘No peeking!’ I told him, looking over the top of my little round specs.
‘With those glasses on you’re actually quite cute when you’re being bossy.’ Adam didn’t sound chastised at all. ‘I might just let you order me around a bit more when we get home—if you promise to keep them.’
See? There was no winning with Adam. He was, and always will be, completely untrainable.
Since my character notes were still rolled up in my hand, I swatted him on the nose with them. ‘You’re not taking this seriously,’ I said. My gesture had the desired effect and he backed away, rubbing the bridge of his nose. ‘You can’t talk like that to me. It didn’t sound a bit like how a brother would talk to his sister.’
Adam came as close to frowning as I’d ever seen him. ‘Suppose I don’t want to be your brother?’
I sighed and fixed my eyes on Nicholas and Louisa over by the fireplace, toasting their pretend engagement with champagne cocktails. ‘Tough. We’ve got to make what fate’s given us work to our advantage…remember?’
Adam’s gaze followed mine and then he sank heavily back into the sofa cushions. ‘What idiot told you that?’
I grinned at him. Strangely enough, he didn’t grin back instantly, as he normally did. But I’m pretty persistent. I just kept going until one corner of his mouth tilted a tiny fraction.
‘So…brother of mine…I’m supposed to be finding out why you’ve gone all prison warder on me in recent weeks. Care to spill the beans?’
Adam shook his head and waved his own big white envelope at me. ‘Can’t tell you. It’s supposed to be a secret.’
‘Adam Conrad! You’ve never kept a secret from me in your life!’
‘But I’m Harry, remember?’ He rubbed his nose again and I started to regret whacking him there. An awkward Adam was twice as infuriating as the regular one. He planted his feet firmly on the Persian rug and stood up. ‘And, actually, Adam does know how to keep a secret—even from you.’
I shook my head and let out a low, disbelieving chuckle. ‘No, he doesn’t!’
His expression clouded over. ‘If you knew about it, it wouldn’t be a secret any more, would it?’
Before I could quiz him further, to find out whether he was actually pulling my leg or—rather alarmingly—telling the truth, he glanced across the room to where Jos was standing with Robert. By the look of Robert’s eyebrows he wasn’t too enamoured with his partner in crime.
‘Now, if you’ll excuse me,’ Adam said loftily, ‘I have to go and weasel some family secrets out of Ruby Coggins the parlour maid.’
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