Moonlight Kisses at Willow Tree HallAlison Sherlock
Romance blossoms under the stars in this feelgood love story for fans of Milly Johnson and Heidi Swain.
Lily Harper is an events organiser, but her neat, ordered world has just exploded. First she lost her job, then she lost her fiancé. Her five-year plan is looking increasingly shaky.
Lost and lonely, Lily heads home to her childhood village, and accepts the position of live-in housekeeper at the grand but welcoming Willow Tree Hall. It's not exactly her dream job – Lily is more used to arranging parties than pantries – but at least she's working.
Her first task is to arrange the Willow Tree Hall summer fete. Lily is in her element, writing to-do lists and organising bunting and baking – until her old flame Jack Carter turns up in the village. Lily hasn't seen Jack in over ten years, when he sped off on his motorbike, taking with him the pieces of her broken heart.
The Willow Tree Hall Series Love Begins at Willow Tree Hall Summer Secrets at Willow Tree Hall A Winter Wedding at Willow Tree Hall Moonlight Kisses at Willow Tree Hall MOONLIGHT KISSES AT WILLOW TREE HALL Alison Sherlock AN IMPRINT OF HEAD OF ZEUS www.ariafiction.com First published in the United Kingdom in 2019 by Aria, an imprint of Head of Zeus Ltd Copyright © Alison Sherlock, 2019 The moral right of Alison Sherlock to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book. This is a work of fiction. All characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. ISBN 9781786694959 Aria c/o Head of Zeus First Floor East 5–8 Hardwick Street London EC1R 4RG www.ariafiction.com Contents Welcome Page Copyright Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Chapter 45 Chapter 46 Chapter 47 Chapter 48 Chapter 49 Acknowledgements About Alison Sherlock Become an Aria Addict 1 ‘We’ve got trouble.’ Lily Harper spun around to face Mary, the wide-eyed young intern who had just rushed up to her. ‘What’s up?’ she asked. ‘One of the waitresses has accidentally thrown red wine all down our hostess,’ Mary told her with a grimace. Lily glanced over Mary’s shoulder and saw a glamorously dressed grey-haired lady sobbing in the middle of the ballroom. ‘And that’s not even the worst of it,’ carried on Mary. ‘The band were due to come on but their lead singer thinks she’s coming down with a migraine. She’s hiding in the toilet and won’t come out, so there’s no music. Somebody’s nicked a whole heap of party bags, so there aren’t enough to give out. Oh, and the finance director is so drunk he’s climbed onto the stegosaurus and won’t come down.’ Lily scanned the packed ballroom once more. Almost 800 people were packed into the Earth Hall of the Natural History Museum for the Forsythe & Sons annual banquet. A banner strewn across the stage read, ‘Celebrating 54 amazing years of high-density, lightweight concrete blocks!’ ‘Where’s Julie?’ asked Lily, feeling irritated. ‘This is her event, not mine. She can sort it out.’ ‘I can’t find her,’ said Mary, with a shrug. ‘She said something about taking a break.’ A break? Lily pressed her lips together to stop herself swearing. When had Lily ever managed to take a break in the five years that she had been doing the job? And yet Julie was the one who had somehow survived the recent wave of redundancies at the event-organising firm where they all worked, whereas Lily would be out of a job the following week. ‘Help me! Please!’ pleaded Mary. Lily sighed. ‘Fine. Let’s see what we can sort out.’ She walked towards where the chairman’s wife was standing, grabbing a bottle of sparkling water and a pillar of salt from a nearby table as she went. ‘Hello,’ she said to the lady who was staring down in teary dismay at the ugly patch of red wine across her blue evening dress. ‘Would you mind following me? We’ll have that stain gone in a flash.’ The woman followed her to the ladies’ washrooms, where Lily quickly used the water to moisten the stain and the salt to begin lifting off the stain. She blotted and sprinkled salt over and over until the stain could no longer be seen. The woman then stood underneath the hand-dryer, which quickly dried the damp patch. ‘Thank you,’ she said, with a grateful look towards Lily. ‘I couldn’t have coped looking like that all evening.’ ‘Not at all,’ replied Lily, already reaching into her pocket as she headed across to where the band’s singer was hunched in a corner clutching her head. ‘Will ibuprofen help?’ she asked, bending down. The singer nodded. ‘Yeah, probably. Thanks.’ Lily handed her the pills and the bottle of sparkling water to wash them down with. As she straightened up, she caught Mary smiling at her. ‘Wow. How’d you learn to do all that stuff?’ Lily shrugged. ‘I’ve seen enough crises over the years to know what to do.’ And it still wasn’t enough to keep her job, she reminded herself. After all, she hadn’t gone to university like Mary and gained a degree. She had only scraped through that business studies course at sixth form over ten years previously. Once more, she felt distinctly average in both her professional and private life. But perhaps that was about to change? She nervously fiddled with her bare ring finger. Maybe, just maybe, tonight was the night. With two of the crises swiftly averted, Lily headed back into the ballroom. She could really do with an extra hand but she couldn’t see her boyfriend, Mark, anywhere. As Area Manager for the company they both worked for, he was there tonight to oversee the event. Lily was hoping he had another, more personal reason to be there tonight as well. Especially as he had promised her a dance, which was unusual. But it was the perfect setting for what she hoped he had planned. Her heart filled with expectation, but all that would have to wait. She went across to where a middle-aged man had clambered across the ropes and was now swaying as he hung onto the leg of the large stegosaurus skeleton. ‘Hi,’ she said to him. ‘How about we get you a nice glass of water?’ The man blinked at her before breaking into a leering, lopsided smile. He slowly ran his eyes up and down her long black dress before settling on her face. ‘Hello, beautiful.’ His words were slurred. ‘Redheads are my favourite.’ ‘How lucky for me,’ said Lily between clenched teeth. ‘Shall we?’ She held out her hand to encourage him away from the priceless prehistoric exhibit. ‘Anything for you, sweetheart,’ he replied. But, unfortunately, he used their hands connecting to pull her in towards him and press his body up against hers. Lily felt a flare of anger at his disgusting behaviour. She was just about to knee him in the groin and follow it with a karate chop to his neck when she remembered where she was – and who she was, these days. She was wild Lily Harper no more. These days, she had to be responsible and practical, regardless of the man’s vile actions. She had to be professional. So she grabbed the drunken man and manoeuvred him across the rope barricade until he was finally on the right side and the stegosaurus was safe. She pushed him down into a chair and went over to Mary, who was standing nearby. ‘If he goes near any of the dinosaurs again, you have my permission to beat him over the head with a large fossil,’ she whispered. Mary grimaced. ‘Do I have to? He looks like he’d probably enjoy it.’ ‘You can handle him,’ Lily told her. ‘Now, about the party bags. There were some spare ones lined up outside in the courtyard. I’ll go and grab some.’ Lily looked around the room again for Mark but couldn’t see him. Perhaps he was in the gents’, trying out his speech. She wondered what he would say. Would he go down on one knee, even in the middle of the dancefloor? She secretly hoped so. That was how she had always wanted it to be done. And now the time was finally near. A small frown creased her forehead. In fact, the time was actually a little overdue according to her life plan. She had wanted to get engaged on her birthday, but Mark had given her a lovely necklace instead of a ring. He knew about her plans to be engaged by the time she was thirty, so he only had until her next birthday to propose. But she could forgive him for the short delay, as it was such a glorious setting that summer evening and would make an amazing story to tell their children. Perhaps they would come back to the Natural History Museum when the kids were old enough to understand. ‘And that’s where Daddy proposed to Mummy. Right by that dinosaur.’ Lily smiled expectantly at her reflection in the hallway mirror. She tucked a stray lock of red hair behind her ear, but her ponytail and simple makeup had remained in place. Her green eyes were framed with just a lick of dark mascara, her lips painted with a natural matte colour. Nice and neat. Nothing too outlandish. She allowed herself a satisfied nod as she carried on past the mirror and downstairs to the cloakroom. Her relationship with Mark might have been going well, but the recent loss of her job had been a massive disappointment. Even now, the panic was simmering inside her. She didn’t like surprises or anything unexpected occurring in her life. She hadn’t done ever since the car accident that had knocked her whole world off its axis when she was sixteen years old. These days, her life was mapped out so that there could be no room for hurt or pain. To be in total control was a good thing. It protected her from the very worst that life could offer. She was safe from hurt and would continue to be so, as long as everything went to plan each and every day. She stepped outside into the spacious Darwin Centre courtyard and took a moment to enjoy the night air. It was a perfect summer’s evening with a full moon shining down from the night sky above. Not that you got to see too many stars in the centre of London. She felt a brief pang of longing for her home village of Cranley, where the sky was endless and full of stars, with not a skyscraper blocking the view. She didn’t know why she was feeling so unsettled and homesick at the moment. It had to be about losing her job, she supposed. But she had left her home village many years ago to take the burden of having to support her away from her parents. After all, she had hurt too many people back then. The ripples of pain were still being felt to that day by her family. She focused back on the job in hand and spotted the spare party bags in the far corner of the terrace. As she walked away from the other partygoers, she thought she spotted movement behind the large trees lining the terrace. Lily had organised enough parties to know about all the sexy comings and goings that occurred. She would ignore whoever it was, grab the party bags and get out of there before anyone was embarrassed. But at that moment her colleague, Julie, staggered out from behind a large tree. ‘Easy, babe,’ she said, laughing. She looked as though she was about to dive back in for another embrace when she saw Lily. ‘Oh! Hi!’ she said, the blush spreading across her cheeks. ‘We need the spare party bags,’ said Lily in a chilly tone of voice. ‘You haven’t left enough in the main hall.’ ‘Oh. Sure.’ Julie stole a glance at the man who was still hidden behind the tree before grabbing as many of the bags by the handles as she could. She almost ran across the terrace in her haste to get away. Lily decided not to confirm the existence of the man who was probably one of the guests. It was just so unprofessional, she thought. Once more, she wondered why Julie should have been chosen for the job and not her. Because she didn’t mess up her life and went to university, unlike you, whispered her inner voice. But as Lily reached down for the bags, she glanced back at the man’s feet, which were sticking out from behind the tree trunk, and was struck by the familiar blue of the shoes. That is odd, she thought. They look just like… And then the man stepped forward. Lily drew in a shocked breath as she stared up at Mark. His immaculate navy suit was covered in tiny little leaves that had fallen from the tree. At least he had the grace to look embarrassed whilst they stood there in stunned silence. ‘You have lipstick on your face,’ she finally blurted out. He brought out a handkerchief and wiped away the traces of scarlet from his lips, the silence stretching out between them as she watched. After he had put his handkerchief back into his pocket and finally made eye contact with her, she exploded. ‘I don’t believe it,’ she told him, reeling from what she had witnessed. ‘Two years of going out and I can’t believe you chose tonight of all nights to cheat on me. I thought we were happy! I thought you were going to propose!’ ‘I wasn’t,’ he suddenly snapped, coming back to life. ‘You thought I was going to propose.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘And God forbid we should step away from your wretched life plan!’ She gave a start. ‘What do you mean by that?’ ‘I mean, our whole lives have been mapped out according to you! When we get engaged, married, kids… It’s exhausting!’ Lily was shocked. How had this become her fault? ‘I thought you loved me,’ she told him, the pain causing her words to thicken in her throat. ‘You don’t give anyone a chance to love you,’ he told her. ‘You’re so busy organising everyone and making them feel insecure that you don’t give anyone a chance. Especially when they muck up and make a mistake. If they’re not perfect, you shut down on them.’ ‘I’m not like that,’ she told him quickly. His handsome face was staring stonily at her now. ‘It makes you cold, Lily. Ice cold. You’re like some kind of robot on automatic pilot.’ Tears stung her eyes. He really thought she was that bad? Surely he understood why she had closed her emotions off for so long? That the pain in her past had made her the way she was? She struggled to hold herself together. ‘Well, I can see now that I was sadly mistaken in thinking that we even had a future together,’ she said, in a wavering voice. ‘I shall post your front door keys through the letterbox tomorrow on the way into work.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘That’s right. Go on with your planning.’ She wanted to ask him how long he had felt like that – how long he had seemingly hated her for. But she couldn’t bear it. She didn’t want to know how he felt any more. She was wounded and so very upset. She shook her head, as if dislodging an annoying insect rather than watching her dreams of marriage burst into flames and die before her. ‘We must get back to the party,’ she announced. ‘We both have a job to do.’ ‘Of course,’ he drawled. ‘The show must always go on, eh?’ She watched him walk away, leaving her alone in the corner of the terrace away from the other partygoers. To her horror, she felt a tear roll down her cheek. She angrily wiped it away. Not now, she reminded herself. She didn’t have time to show weakness. She had a job to do. At least for another week, that was. What she really wanted to do at that precise moment was to kick and scream and wail. Her younger, wilder self would have thrown a drink in his face, like in the movies. For a second, she relished the dream of Mark standing there dripping and miserable. To be free enough to do something that daring, it was so tempting… But she reminded herself that part wasn’t her any more. The wild, emotional side of her was long since buried beneath the guilt of what she had done to her family with her selfish actions. So Lily straightened her back and strode back towards the main hall as if she didn’t have a care in the world and her heart hadn’t just been broken into a thousand pieces. 2 Jack Carter doodled on his notepad whilst his colleague continued to drone on about something next to him. Meetings. He seemed to spend his whole life in them. He glanced out of the window at the blue skies high above the skyscrapers of the city of London. A glorious summer day. A perfect day to be out on his motorbike, he thought with a pang of longing. The urge to break free of the homogenised air-conditioning and smog of the city and hit the leafy country lanes on his bike was never stronger than on beautiful days like today. He frowned to himself. Not that he could ride his motorbike at the moment. He had let the road tax lapse whilst he had been abroad in Dubai for the past three years and had yet to sort it out, despite having been home for a couple of months. Good thing he had his luxurious company car to use. But the thought gave him no pleasure. He drew his gaze back indoors to the executive meeting room and the row of men seated opposite him. All were dressed in sharp designer suits like him, but Jack knew that they would never give up their beloved BMWs and Mercedes for a Ducati motorbike like his. After all, that was what they bragged about most of the time anyway – who had the quickest 0–60mph times and all that. Despite its being off the road for the time being, he liked to think that owning the motorbike kept him apart from the pack. That he still wasn’t one of them. He glanced across at Richard, his colleague, who was still speaking. Jack knew the type of man Richard was. A silver spoon in his mouth at birth, he had gone to the best schools and been afforded every opportunity in life. Meanwhile, Jack had fought and scrapped for everything. Boys like Richard had once looked down on Jack. But he was having the last laugh now. As the best salesman on the team, Jack had the biggest Rolex, the most expensive company car and the largest bonus each and every Christmas. He had a lot to be grateful to Eric Thatcher for. Jack looked at the grey-haired man at the head of the glass table they were seated around. Eric had started with nothing, or so he claimed. ‘We’re alike, you and me,’ he said all the time. Jack had outwardly agreed with his boss, but, inwardly, he knew that Eric was wrong. Eric had rich parents who had given him everything, including the money to start up his now legendary hotel chain. First, he had conquered the world and now he wanted a Thatcher’s hotel in every county across England. They were expensive, classy places to stay in the countryside for people with large amounts of money who expected the very best. Jack always thought it ironic that his job involved dealing with such elegant places when his own upbringing had been anything but. Eric knew a little of the story – just as much as Jack would let on. Hardly anyone knew about the hard beginning he had been afforded in life. Only his adoptive parents knew the whole sad tale. He frowned to himself as he realised the date. When had he last seen them? Had it been Father’s Day, he wondered. A brief visit, as always, out of duty, having just returned from abroad after a long absence. A nondescript card handed over, followed by a cup of tea quickly gulped down before he rushed off. He had barely had time to see them since arriving home three months previously. He spent much of his time going around the country and staying in Thatcher’s hotels, which suited him just fine. The house he had built himself on the outskirts of his home village lay vacant most of the time. As well as the motorbike lying idle in the garage. He fiddled with the gold signet ring on his little finger. What would his birth father make of it all if he could see his son now? Jack’s eyes hardened as he stared across the table at the blank wall. He would probably just want money. Certainly not a relationship. Nor would he be likely to display any kind of pride in what his son had achieved from his lowly beginnings. But Jack didn’t care. Why try and have a relationship with the birth parents who’d abandoned him at such a young age? He had spent most of his childhood being shunted from foster home to foster home, being dismissed as worthless, useless or dangerous. But he had proved them all wrong, hadn’t he? In retaliation, he got his thrills by making more money than he had ever dreamed of. Each year he wanted more and more, determined to make his own destiny – to hell with everyone else. If they could see him now, all those people who had looked down on him in the past, they would be amazed. He was an accomplished salesman in high demand. He was mortgage-free. He would never be homeless or hungry ever again. He belonged to nobody and no one. On top of this, Eric had had to give him a vast pay rise just to lure him back from the Middle East earlier that year. Yet, deep down, he frequently felt frustrated. He felt stifled and bored. Really and truly bored, each and every day. ‘So, Jack, I think this should be your baby.’ Jack blinked back to life on hearing his name and found everyone turning to look at him. ‘Sure,’ he said, nodding along as if he had understood every word. Actually, it wasn’t that hard to work out. Eric Thatcher bought run-down large properties for dirt-cheap prices and then renovated them, turning them into his chain of hotels. It was probably just another large house for Jack to buy, making a deal with some poor owner who had got themselves in too deep with a hefty mortgage, as usual. ‘It’ll be perfect for us,’ Eric carried on. ‘I mean, look at it! It’s an absolute beauty.’ Jack looked at the photo on the screen at the end of the room. It was a large, elegant mansion that stirred some distant memory inside his brain. ‘Nice,’ he said, with an approving nod. ‘What about the bypass?’ asked Richard, looking down at his notes. ‘It’s been flagged up on the initial searches.’ Eric waved away his concern. ‘My contact on the council says the route will be signed off later this year. One of the proposed directions was quite near to the place but my friend assures me that it won’t happen.’ Eric laughed. ‘It’ll cost me, mind you!’ Eric had quite a few dubious friends in high places, which always worked to the company’s advantage. ‘How do you know the owners will sell?’ asked Jack. It was always the biggest problem that they had to contend with. Eric was still smiling. ‘I pulled a few strings with my contacts at the bank. Apparently, the family are only just keeping their heads above water.’ ‘I’m not surprised, if it’s privately owned,’ said Jack, looking at the photo once more. ‘The overheads must be huge to run a place like that.’ But the familiarity of the place was still nudging his brain. ‘What’s it called?’ he asked. ‘Willow Tree Hall,’ said Eric. ‘But we can change the name.’ Jack turned to stone. He glanced down at the paperwork in front of him as Eric continued chatting. He hadn’t even bothered to check it until that moment. ‘It’s in some little village called Cranley.’ Eric looked at his notes. ‘Apparently it’s a small estate with cottages and so forth. But we’re not interested in those. We just want the big house. Maybe the family can move into one of the outlying properties. Anyway, it’s all owned by Arthur Harris. You won’t believe it but his actual title is—’ ‘The Earl of Cranley,’ said Jack, with a small sigh. No wonder the photo had rung a bell. Eric looked impressed. ‘You know your Debrett’s, that’s for sure. Maybe you’ve got friends in high places as well.’ ‘Cranley is the next village along from where my parents live,’ said Jack in a flat tone. Eric looked hopeful. ‘And do you know this earl?’ Jack shook his head. ‘Never met him, but I went to school with his eldest grandson, Sam.’ ‘Better and better,’ said Eric. ‘You can use that old school network to our advantage.’ Jack nearly burst out laughing at the irony. The private boarding school had been a nightmare where the boys had teased his rough accent and even rougher ways. His adoptive parents had scraped together the money to send him there as a day pupil, but he had never fitted in. There were only a few boys that he had got on well enough with, two of whom were Sam Harris and his younger brother Will. They had been kind enough towards him in those days. ‘Are you still friends?’ asked Eric. ‘It would certainly smooth along the consultation period if you were in with the family.’ Jack shook his head. ‘Sam and I haven’t seen each other since school.’ Perhaps it would be nice to catch up with Sam after at least twelve years. But that’s all, thought Jack. He had pretty much kept himself to himself at school, such was the shock of going from the streets to a private boarding school in the space of a year. ‘Pity.’ Eric brightened up. ‘Ah well. At least you’ll be going in there as a friend and not the enemy.’ Jack wasn’t sure the word friend applied when he hadn’t seen Sam in so many years. They had both moved on in that time. But Eric sounded determined. And whatever Eric wanted, he normally received. ‘So you make the contact and have a nice little chat with the family,’ his boss was saying. ‘Go there and offer what it takes to get them to sign on the dotted line. Not too much though, eh? I still want to make a tidy profit. But I want this place for our portfolio. Got it?’ Eric could be ruthless on occasion but business was business, after all. And if Jack could get the Harris family to sell up, it would be another major accomplishment in his career. As Jack tidied up his paperwork after the meeting, he spotted one of the secretaries looking at him. As always, his automatic assumption was that they were inspecting him like a speck of dirt on their shoes. But, no. Glancing at her again, he realised she was giving him a flirty smile. He didn’t return it. He didn’t like being the centre of anyone’s attention. He knew that he was OK to look at. But he didn’t need anyone else’s company or desire it to keep him warm at night. He was just fine on his own. He couldn’t imagine ever falling in love with someone so hard that he couldn’t bear to be without them. It was unthinkable. Everyone else had let him down too often. He didn’t need anyone. But the thought of Cranley had brought up other memories he had long since tried to hide. Of yet more guilt. Would Lily Harper still be living there? Surely not, after all this time. It was highly unlikely. The wild girl he had known would be all grown up and long gone. After all, she had always been desperate to escape and see the world. But he knew that he would be looking out for her as he drove through the village, anyway. And that she was the reason that he had barely been home for almost fourteen years. 3 The late afternoon sun blinded Lily briefly as she drove towards Cranley. Although the lane was narrow and twisty, it was her favourite way to go home as it afforded her the best view of the village. The view caused her to smile for the first time in a fortnight. It had totally been the right decision to head home for a while and not stay in London. She’d tried not to think about Mark’s betrayal and the utter misery of the past two weeks as she had packed up her life in London. She had tried to find a new job, but to no avail. Then the deposit on her flat had been kept from her due to her flatmates ruining the lounge carpet with candle wax burns. Lily sighed and concentrated on looking out from the high viewpoint over the last rolling hill towards the village of Cranley. It was a tiny English hamlet nestled amongst the hills in a valley. In the centre was the ancient church of St Barnabas, its wobbly spire high above anything else in the village. Along the main street was the infant school, a couple of shops and a pub. Willow Tree Hall could just be seen peeping through the trees beyond. Normally it was surrounded by lush green fields and, out of view, the river. But after a hot, dry summer, the fields were golden as the grass had died, leaving only the baked, scorched earth. She smiled, as she always did whenever she saw the view. She had been so determined to escape Cranley when she had been a teenager, but ever since then she had yearned to be back there and missed it terribly whenever she was away for any length of time. Especially as somewhere in the valley her parents and grandad were waiting for her in a tiny cottage. Her grandad had moved into the family home after he had been diagnosed with heart problems a year ago. He had taken Lily’s old bedroom and that was fine, because she was never going to move home again. Or so she had thought at the time. Lily glanced in her rear-view mirror but couldn’t see out at all, such were the number of bags and suitcases that she had packed into her Mini. She had spent all morning traipsing up and down the three flights of stairs, to and from the room she had rented in a shared flat, to cram her belongings into her car. She had been hoping to move out and straight into Mark’s flat once she was engaged. But she hadn’t even heard from him since that night at the Natural History Museum. She sighed heavily. A failed relationship. And now she was jobless too. So much for her life plan. But at least she was still in control. There was no way that she was going to even consider living in yet another dodgy flat. She would take stock in her lovely home village for a week or so and then start again. She really couldn’t afford to take any longer than a brief holiday, but it would be so good to see her family again. She pulled up the car outside No. 1 Cherry Tree Avenue. The road was wide and tree-lined, bathed in the warm sunshine on a mid-August late afternoon. As she got out of the car, she noted how dusty the ground was. It had been weeks since it had rained properly. She straightened up from grabbing her handbag from the passenger seat, and the front door to the neighbouring cottage was suddenly flung open. ‘Hiya!’ said Megan, popping her head around the corner. ‘I thought it was you. Welcome home!’ ‘Thanks,’ said Lily. Megan’s family had lived next door, at No. 2, for as long as she could remember. When Megan’s parents had moved up to Scotland a few years previously, Megan and her husband Neal had moved in to make it their own family home. ‘I’m sorry about your job, though,’ said Megan. ‘Your mum told me. And about the breakup as well.’ ‘Good news sure travels fast,’ said Lily, with a grimace. ‘I think your mum’s secretly pleased to have you back for a while,’ said Megan, with a wink. ‘I know she is,’ said Lily, blowing out a sigh. ‘It’s just, you know, having to move back in with your parents when you’re nearly thirty…’ And the only spare bedroom was now a tiny box room. ‘Think of the cheap rent,’ said Megan, with a grin. Lily didn’t have the heart to tell her that it wasn’t so cheap – she had been sending part of her wages to her parents each month to keep a roof over their heads. ‘Oh! I nearly forgot,’ carried on Megan. ‘I’ve got a parcel for you.’ Lily headed around the path and up towards No. 2. The grass was overgrown on either side and, inside, the sounds of a hectic family home filtered into the evening air. ‘It’s a big one today,’ said Megan, reappearing with a large cardboard box. ‘Thankfully, it’s lighter than it looks.’ Lily took the parcel and checked the label. She wasn’t surprised to see her dad’s name on the label, despite the box appearing to be from a baby food company. ‘Another day, another win,’ said Megan, with a smile. ‘I guess so,’ said Lily, looking down at the box. ‘If it’s age appropriate, you can have whatever’s in here.’ ‘Thanks,’ said Megan. ‘Little Sam really enjoyed last week’s free rusks.’ Lily rolled her eyes. ‘I don’t know why Dad insists on entering all the competitions for children as well as all the other stuff,’ she said. ‘I’m not complaining,’ said Megan. Lily understood. Times were hard and her dad’s obsession with entering competitions at least meant that everyone stood to gain from his surprisingly frequent winning entries. The sound of chaos at the back of the house was getting louder. Megan groaned. ‘Paddling pool time,’ she said, with a grunt. ‘Which at least will replace the horror of bath time. And then bedtime followed swiftly by gin o’clock.’ Lily smiled and laughed. ‘I’d better leave you to it.’ ‘Look, pop in and have a coffee tomorrow, yeah?’ said Megan, giving her arm a squeeze. ‘You can bitch about your horrible ex and I can moan about the kids.’ ‘Thanks,’ said Lily. ‘That’d be nice. Good luck with the paddling pool!’ ‘I’m going to need it,’ said Megan, rolling her eyes. ‘I don’t know who ends up more wet. See you tomorrow.’ Lily carried the box across the front gardens and up to her own front door. She managed to manoeuvre the key into the lock whilst holding onto the box and open the door. ‘Hello,’ she called out, nudging the front door closed with her hip and putting the box down. Celia Harper dashed out of the kitchen, which was at the back of the house, to hurry along the hall towards her. She was still wearing the plain clothes that she always wore under her supermarket uniform. Her red hair was shorter and paler than her daughter’s, and sprinkled with grey. ‘Hello, darling!’ she said, sweeping Lily into a warm hug. ‘You’re almost late. Dinner’s in three minutes.’ She stepped back to give her daughter a once-over. ‘You’re looking tired. Hardly surprising given that your heart’s just been broken. My poor girl. Well, we won’t mention his name again. He’s not worth it.’ Her mother paused for breath, and Lily took advantage to get a word in edgeways. ‘Shall I get the rest of the stuff from the car after dinner?’ ‘Oh, lordy, yes,’ said Celia, rolling her eyes. ‘Otherwise we’ll never hear the end of it from your grandfather if it’s a minute over half past six.’ As her mum rushed away again, Lily picked up the box and carried it into the front room where her dad was stationed in front of the television, as always. ‘Hi, Dad,’ she said, placing the box down next to his chair. She noted that he wasn’t wearing his prosthetic leg, which probably meant that he hadn’t left the house again that day. He muted the TV. ‘Hello, love,’ he said, as she bent down to give him a kiss on the cheek. ‘How are you?’ ‘Never better,’ she lied. ‘Never liked the bloke, anyway,’ he muttered, giving her a wink. Lily nodded at the cardboard box. ‘They delivered this to next door by mistake.’ ‘Great,’ he said. ‘I’ve been expecting this one.’ With the delight of a child at Christmas, he ripped open the box and picked up the delivery note. ‘Five sets of bath-time toys, as well as baby talc, lotion and bubble bath.’ ‘Well done,’ she said. ‘What was the competition this time?’ ‘Can’t remember, love, to be honest.’ ‘What’s that?’ asked her mum, appearing at the door. ‘Baby stuff,’ said her dad, beaming. Her mum looked briefly at Lily before sighing. ‘Dinner’s on the table,’ she announced. Lily put down her handbag and followed her mum into the kitchen. ‘He doesn’t think, sometimes,’ Celia murmured. ‘It’s fine,’ said Lily, crossing the room to pick up the salt and pepper from the side. Except it wasn’t. She had wanted a family of her own for many years. She also wanted a man who loved her, and a happy, secure, steady life. And she had none of that at the moment. ‘Evening, all,’ said her grandad as he came through the open back door. Lily smiled and rushed across to give him a hug. As always, Bert Harper smelled of earth and grass. It was her grandfather who had set dinnertime at six-thirty sharp every day. As his daughter-in-law, Lily’s mum had taken on the responsibility of the strict timing once he had moved in, much to her chagrin. ‘Good to have you back,’ he said to Lily, his eyes twinkling at her below shaggy grey eyebrows. ‘Good to be back,’ she replied, giving him a kiss on a cheek that had a five o’clock grey shadow of stubble on it. Her grandad had never been a smartly turned out man. But Lily loved him, despite his gruff way of speaking with nearly everyone who wasn’t her. She knew she was the apple of his eye and had never minded his abrupt way of talking to everyone else but her. ‘How was your day?’ asked her mum, as she laid the plates onto the table. ‘Everywhere is parched,’ said her grandad, sitting down at the head of the table. ‘The earth is so hard after all these weeks of no rain.’ Her grandfather was head gardener at Willow Tree Hall. In fact, he was the only gardener at Willow Tree Hall, such was the depleted staff at the great house these days. He was the same age as the Earl of Cranley, whose estate both the Hall and Cranley itself belonged to. Thankfully, Arthur Harris, the earl, had kept the rent for the cottages as low as he could for the past fifty years and only rented out the sixty or so cottages to local workers. Some of the cottages had been in the same families for generations. But her grandad had given up his to move in twelve months previously. ‘They’re saying September should bring some rain,’ said her dad, as he came into the kitchen on his crutches. ‘That’ll freshen things up a bit.’ Once Richard had joined them at the table, they all began to help themselves to the food laid out before them. ‘I hope you weren’t digging,’ said her mum in a stern voice. ‘That won’t do your back any good.’ ‘Can’t plant onions otherwise,’ said Bert, giving Lily a wink before ducking his head back down. Celia’s mouth pressed into a thin line as she decided against further nagging of her father-in-law. ‘Where’s the butter for the new potatoes?’ asked Lily’s dad, looking around the table. ‘And how about a bread roll?’ ‘There isn’t any,’ replied Celia. ‘The doctor said you need to lose a bit of weight, so you’ll eat them without.’ Lily gave her dad a sympathetic smile but remained quiet. There was no point in getting involved in the constant discussion about her dad’s health. His weight was beginning to become a bit of a problem, as he barely left the house these days. It was quiet at the table for a few minutes whilst they carried on eating. ‘It’s nice to have you home,’ said Celia, looking across the table at Lily. ‘Whatever the reason. What will you do next with your career?’ ‘It was hardly a career,’ said Lily, with a laugh. ‘You know that I can’t find any other work. Things are tight all over.’ It wasn’t as if she had any discernible skills, either. And whose fault was that, she reminded herself. She had wasted her teenage years and ended up with a very small Business Studies qualification. She was just an ordinary person who had managed to drag herself a few rungs up the career ladder, mostly by chance. But now she was back at the bottom again and had no idea what to do next. ‘There might be a vacancy at the supermarket,’ said her mum. Lily grimaced, which her mother unfortunately caught sight of. ‘There’s no point in having airs and graces, my girl,’ said Celia in a stern tone. ‘You need to work and it’s possible that Audrey might leave in the next month.’ Lily nodded. She loved her mum. She just didn’t know whether she could live and work with her twenty-four hours a day. But the fact that she needed a wage to continue helping out the family would quickly become a problem if she couldn’t find a job any time soon. After dinner, Lily and her grandad cleared the plates off the table before Bert headed into the front room to read the newspaper. Lily wiped down the kitchen table. ‘Thanks, love,’ said her mum, looking weary as she stood up. ‘It’s been a long day. I’m just going to go and have a shower. I need to get out of these sweaty clothes.’ Lily and her dad watched in silence as Celia leave the room. Her dad played with the salt and pepper pots, which had been placed back in the middle of the table. ‘I made ten pounds today from the sale of that food blender on eBay,’ he finally said. ‘That’s great, Dad.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘I try, Lily. I really do.’ He looked downcast. ‘Folks haven’t got as much money to spread around so they’re not paying so much for my stuff at the minute.’ ‘I know.’ ‘I try and do my bit for the family. Your mother works so hard. She’s even taken on extra shifts.’ Her dad’s bottom lip wobbled. Lily couldn’t bear to see him upset and leapt up to wrap her arms around her dad. ‘If only she didn’t have to work at the bloody supermarket,’ he muttered into her shoulder. ‘She trained to be a chef. That’s what she enjoys doing. It’s all my fault,’ he said, his voice almost a whisper now. ‘I should be out there earning.’ ‘It’s not your fault, Dad,’ Lily told him, squeezing him harder now. ‘Look, don’t get upset. It’s my first night home.’ ‘You’re a good girl,’ he said, pulling back to give her a teary smile. ‘Tell you what I did win last week. A lovely bottle of gin. Maybe you could mix us up one of your fancy cocktails later.’ ‘That sounds like a plan,’ said Lily. ‘In the meantime, you go and watch your quiz show. I’ll bring you and Grandad a cup of tea.’ ‘Thanks, love.’ She watched as he slowly manoeuvred himself up from the table and onto his crutches. Richard Harper had once been a vibrant, energetic man and a skilled carpenter. The car accident had changed everything. She could still remember a time when her dad was able to work. When he could drive. When he laughed. When he wanted to leave the house… But the accident fourteen years ago had not only robbed him of the lower part of his right leg but also his life, it felt. Of all their lives, in fact. Nothing had been the same since. Lily turned to look at the garden. It was a beautiful summer’s evening and, for a second, she allowed herself the whisper of a memory of a similar night, many years previously. The sound of the river bubbling nearby. The long grass tickling her bare legs. And Jack, holding her close and kissing her. She abruptly turned away as other, more painful memories threatened to materialise as well. She had blamed Jack for such a long time but, ultimately, the fault of the accident would always remain with Lily. And she carried the guilt with her each and every day. 4 Lily woke up in bed with a start, wondering briefly where she was. Then the pale pink walls of her parents’ box room slowly came into view and she remembered she was living back at home. Lying in bed, she turned her head. The room hadn’t changed at all from when she had been a teenager. A dumping ground for all and sundry, now also filled with her own boxes and suitcases. Lily grabbed her phone, as she had done every morning for the past two weeks, hoping to see many text messages or emails offering her employment or even from Mark to say what a horrible mistake he had made and how he desperately wanted to marry her. But her inboxes were empty. She automatically opened up the Notes folder next. She loved lists. They were her life. Everything went down on one and she had separate lists for her job as well as her social life and even her next food shop. She had even made a list to remind her what to pack when she had left her rental flat the previous day. Then there was the list entitled Life. This one had marriage, children, all listed by the appropriate age she should be when each life event happened. She was now twenty-nine and had succeeded in none of her wishes. She didn’t know why she kept the list when it was obvious that she had failed at it. She quickly dismissed it from the screen and brought up another. These were her work goals. Promotion. More money. Small flat. Perhaps even enough saved up for a deposit to buy her own place. Again, a big fat zero achieved, with no happy ticks alongside the list. And definitely no money, either, in any of her accounts. She had one month’s worth of wages to live on and that was it. She bit her lip. It was all a disaster. Not knowing what else to do, she slowly got up. Smacking her elbow against the wall as she shuffled around the tiny space, she briefly wished she was in her old bedroom, which was a good size. But that was her grandad’s now. The box room would have to suffice. She wandered downstairs in her pyjamas and found the family in the kitchen having eaten breakfast already. ‘Are you going up to Willow Tree Hall today, Grandad?’ asked Lily, making herself a large coffee. ‘I’ve got nothing on until later this morning when I’m meeting Megan, so I can always drop you up there, if you’d like.’ Bert shook his head. ‘Got to sort out a few bits in the shed first, so I’ll cycle up there this morning. But thanks, love.’ The wedding ring on his finger glinted as he drained his mug of tea. Her grandmother, a stern woman, had passed away five years previously. Lily’s main memory of her was as a somewhat distant woman who had never smiled. Her grandad could be as equally stern as his late wife had been. But on the quiet, when he thought nobody was looking, he had secretly handed her toffees and sweeties when she was younger. Sometimes, it would even be a bunch of cut flowers from the allotment. But mostly it was vegetables from the large walled garden that he tended at Willow Tree Hall. It was only the previous year at the age of seventy-two that he had finally admitted he was struggling to live on his own and had moved in with his son and daughter-in-law. ‘So, what will you do with yourself today?’ asked her mum, who was batch-cooking at the stove. She had become very skilled at making cheap cuts of meat stretch to feed the family. ‘Look for a job,’ said Lily, with a sigh. ‘I’m not sure how many event management jobs there are around here, though. Oh, I’m popping in to see Megan later this morning to catch up.’ ‘Such a shame about the redundancy,’ said her mum, shaking her head sadly as she chopped up some garlic. ‘And now single again as well. No children either. The only thing you had going for you was your career.’ ‘Gee, thanks a bunch, Mum,’ said Lily, rolling her eyes. ‘I didn’t mean it like that, darling.’ Her mum took a chopping board over to the sink. Lily took the criticism and tried to ignore it. In her younger years, she and her mum had fought and argued to the point that she had been desperate to escape from her home. But these days, there was too much pain and, anyway, all their petty rows over nothing were in the past. She was still feeling pretty low, so was glad she still had her visit to Megan next door later in the morning. * ‘Come on in,’ said Megan, as soon as she opened the front door. ‘My mum is babysitting the kids at her place, so it’s safe to enter.’ ‘How is the family?’ asked Lily. Megan groaned. ‘Exhausting, and we’re only four weeks into the summer holidays. God help me.’ Inside, the cottage was a mirror image of Lily’s own home, but whereas hers was fairly dull, Megan’s was packed with toys and life, and, as it turned out, Annie, Megan’s best friend. ‘Hi,’ said Annie, giving Lily a hug as soon as she went into the lounge. ‘Lovely to see you. Hope you don’t mind me crashing your gossip session. I was on my way home from the doctor’s.’ Annie had gone to school with Megan and, along with their other friend, Eleanor, the three of them had been as thick as thieves throughout their lives. Recently reunited as they all now lived in the village, Lily had heard that they were as close as ever. Annie had been in the year above Lily at school until her parents had moved away. However, she had returned to Cranley a year and a half ago where, to the amazement of everyone in the village, she had fallen in love with and eventually married Sam Harris, Arthur’s grandson. With Sam first in line to inherit the earldom from Arthur, Annie was suddenly elevated from housekeeper to future countess. ‘It’s great to see you, too,’ Lily told her. ‘I haven’t seen you since the wedding, anyway.’ It had been a beautiful ceremony and reception at Willow Tree Hall. Lily remembered making mental notes about the decoration for her own future wedding to Mark. How could she have been so blind? ‘You’re really starting to get big now,’ said Lily, looking at Annie’s baby bump. Annie smiled a little wearily. ‘I know. But I think my swollen ankles are showing worse.’ She was dressed in leggings and a baggy T-shirt. Hardly countess material, but certainly comfortable-looking. Megan brought in a packet of biscuits and three mugs of coffee. ‘When are you due?’ asked Lily. ‘Tenth of October.’ Annie automatically touched the bump. ‘It’s been a bit grim, actually,’ she said, her pretty face screwing up into a grimace. ‘Grim is an understatement. It’s been like something out of The Exorcist up at the Hall,’ said Megan, sitting down. ‘Poor thing’s got the worst morning sickness.’ Annie nodded. ‘It’s true. And it didn’t stop at twelve weeks, either. I don’t know when I’m supposed to look radiant and blooming. I just feel tired and sick most of the time.’ ‘How awful,’ said Lily. ‘Poor you.’ ‘Here, I got you some ginger biscuits,’ said Megan, leaning forward to pass the packet to Annie. ‘You’ve lost a bit of weight,’ said Lily, studying Megan. ‘You think so?’ said Megan, blushing as she picked up her mug. ‘I have been trying to, haven’t I? Plus I’ve been running around like a loony since beginning to help out Eleanor with her business.’ ‘It’s still going well?’ asked Lily. Eleanor had started up a natural beauty business in the stable block of Willow Tree Hall. Megan nodded. ‘It’s really taken off, so I help her out when little Sam’s at nursery. Apart from today, that is. Thankfully, she’s up in London with Tom today.’ ‘Tommy King?’ asked Lily, her eyes widening. She had heard the rumours, of course. Tommy King was a global superstar who had arrived in the village the previous summer to record his new album. Annie’s husband, Sam, was his manager and had built a recording studio in the grounds. Eleanor and Tommy were now living in the old forge in the village. ‘I think they’ll be shopping for an engagement ring before too long,’ said Annie, grinning. ‘Wow,’ said Lily. It seemed as if everyone was settling down and partnered up except her. Something must have shown in her face, as Annie suddenly said, ‘I was sorry that you broke up with your boyfriend.’ ‘I blabbed,’ Megan added. ‘Sorry.’ ‘That’s OK.’ Lily shrugged her shoulders. ‘Was he really cheating on you?’ asked Megan. ‘Yup.’ ‘Tosser,’ muttered Annie. ‘Absolutely,’ said Megan, nodding her head in agreement. ‘You’re well shot of him, if that’s what he’s like.’ ‘You’ve had a tough time recently,’ said Annie, looking at her in pity. ‘Between that and losing your job.’ ‘Yeah, I’m living the dream being back in my parents’ box room,’ said Lily, with a grimace. ‘What will you do now?’ asked Megan. Lily shrugged her shoulders. ‘There aren’t too many event management jobs around here. And that’s all I know. Or, rather, that’s all I’ve been doing for the past five years. Really, it was just the paperwork, mainly. And coordinating staff, invoices, the lot. I love a good mess, me.’ ‘You should come up to the Hall then,’ muttered Annie. ‘It’s in chaos at the moment.’ ‘What’s going on?’ asked Lily. ‘I thought all the renovations were finished?’ ‘Almost. But it’s not that. There’s just so many of us to keep track of these days,’ said Annie. ‘You heard Sam’s younger brother is back for good now? And he got married, so there’s both Will and Skye around all the time. Which is lovely, don’t get me wrong. But everyone likes to eat dinner together in the evening and I just haven’t got the effort in me to plan and cook meals at the minute.’ ‘Arthur doesn’t make too much mess though, does he?’ said Megan, with a smile. ‘Of course not,’ said Annie, her face softening. ‘Is his sister, Rose, still living at the Hall?’ asked Lily. ‘Yes. Do you know her?’ Lily nodded and smiled. Everyone knew Rose Harris. A warm, friendly pensioner of extravagant fashion sense with a wicked sense of humour. Married four times, she had been around the world but had come home to Willow Tree Hall when Arthur had been widowed a few years ago. ‘So there’s Sam and me,’ carried on Annie, counting on her fingers. ‘Will and Skye. They live in Willow Tree Lodge, which is in the grounds. Eleanor is always popping in with Tom. And Arthur and Rose.’ ‘Sounds nice,’ said Lily. ‘A place filled with life.’ ‘Only problem is trying to keep track of everything and everyone. They’re all so busy with their own jobs and trying to keep the place afloat. Not that I was any good at it when I was housekeeper, and there was only Arthur and Rose then! I need some help, but I don’t know where to start.’ ‘I know,’ said Megan, her eyes gleaming as she looked from Annie to Lily. ‘You should be their temporary housekeeper!’ Lily was startled. ‘I don’t know how to be one of those!’ she said, laughing. ‘I haven’t got any experience in being a housekeeper.’ ‘That’s a good idea,’ said Annie enthusiastically. ‘And, besides, I didn’t have any experience either.’ ‘And it showed,’ murmured Megan. ‘Excuse me?’ said Annie in a mock stern tone. ‘You were awful and you know it.’ Megan looked back at Lily. ‘I mean, you say you’re used to organising stuff and people. You’ll be great. They’re desperate up there, honestly.’ ‘I was a little bit more organised than you’re giving me credit for,’ said Annie, almost affronted. ‘Listen, I love you but don’t push it,’ said Megan. ‘But it doesn’t matter. Dream husband, dream home, baby on the way. So just bask in the irritating bloody marvelousness of your good fortune and let Lily get some organisation in the place. Honestly, there weren’t even any loo rolls in the guest bathroom when I last went.’ Annie blushed. ‘I just forgot to pick up any, that’s all.’ ‘You’ve got full-on baby brain,’ said Megan. ‘Why don’t you let Lily take over? It’ll be fine.’ They both turned to look at Lily. ‘I don’t know,’ she told them, trying to think of any reasons not to take the job. Was it too good to be true? But she needed to get another job, and fast, to keep helping out her family. ‘Listen, maybe think of it as just for the time being,’ said Megan. ‘To tide you over until you get another job. Just whilst Annie is pregnant.’ ‘Why don’t you come up to the Hall this afternoon?’ said Annie. ‘If you’re free, that is. I’ll show you around and you can make up your mind. No pressure, honestly.’ So it would only be for the next two months or so? Lily wondered whether she should dare to go for it. But jobs were hard to come by and it wasn’t as if she had any stunning qualifications to her name. Plus, the money would tide them all over until she found something more permanent. Lily was shocked to find she was nodding her head. Her family needed the money and, besides, this job seemed to have landed in her lap quite by chance. Perhaps it was worth heading up to the Hall to find out for herself. 5 Jack brought his car to a halt on the brow of the hill just outside of Cranley and wound down the window. He took a moment on the edge of the hill to look around him. The hot, dry summer had turned the fields to brown but the patchwork quilt of countryside in front of him still looked so beautiful. And extremely familiar. It seemed a long time ago and yet it could have been only yesterday, as the hurt stung at him deep inside. The feeling of being an outsider. The feeling of never belonging that had stayed with him year after year. He looked across the valley to the large stately home of Willow Tree Hall, barely visible through the trees. Had he ever been inside the house when he was young? He doubted it. He certainly couldn’t remember that far back. But this time he wasn’t a visitor. He wasn’t an awkward schoolboy, either, with a massive chip on his shoulder, scowling at his adoptive parents. He was a highly paid property developer with a job to do. Life was pretty peculiar sometimes. He revved up his Mercedes and set off once more. The journey to Willow Tree Hall led him through Cranley village. From what he could remember, the tiny hamlet had barely changed in the fifteen or so years since last he had seen it. There were only a handful of cottages and shops. All the buildings were made from a sand-coloured stone, which made the whole place very attractive to look at. His parents only lived a couple of miles down the road and he had his own property just a short distance away by car. And yet he hadn’t returned to Cranley since that fateful night all those years ago. He had left straight after college at the age of eighteen and had never looked back. Hardly came back, either, to visit his adoptive parents who lived in the next village along. It was for the best, he knew. They wouldn’t want him anyway if they found out the truth. A mile or so on from the high street, he turned the car through some rusty iron gates and into the long driveway leading up to the house. Bouncing up the drive, he slowed down to avoid the massive potholes. Despite the huge craters in the narrow lane, Jack couldn’t help but feel appreciative of the stunning setting. The driveway was long, bordered on either side by huge fields of long grass and sun-bleached picket fences. He seemed to recall that the front lawn was where the summer fetes had been held. In the middle of the front lawn stood a huge willow tree, presumably so ancient that the Hall had been named after it all those centuries ago. The willow tree’s long boughs of green leaves swayed gently, catching the light of the late afternoon sun as they moved. Then the house came into view. It was even bigger than Jack could remember. At least it looked well maintained. All the sash windows appeared new, as did the doors, walls and most of the fixtures and fittings. But somehow it had retained its air of aged splendour. He pulled up the car and turned the key. In the silence that followed the engine being cut, Jack could hear nothing but birdsong and the leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. He had a brief moment of reverie when he remembered the first time that he had been taken to meet his adoptive parents. Having lived in the city for so long, the silence of the countryside had been quite frightening. Or perhaps it was being alone with his own thoughts that he had found the most unsettling. He got out of the car, pulling on his suit jacket before starting to head towards the large red front door. But before he was anywhere near, it suddenly opened and he was face to face with his past. ‘Hi!’ said Sam, coming across to shake Jack’s hand. ‘Good to see you again after all these years.’ Jack had been in the same school year as Sam Harris, who was the grandson of the Earl of Cranley to whom the estate belonged. Sam had been a popular boy at the school, despite becoming more quiet year on year, especially after his parents had been killed in a car crash. His younger brother, Will, had been the more popular boy, with his quick wit and easy charm. When Jack had rung to make an appointment, Arthur had handed the phone call across to Sam, who had brought him up to speed. Jack might have remained friends with Sam after school, but he had left the village so quickly after sixth form. Besides, they’d moved in different circles, and Sam’s choice of career as a manager for various singers and bands meant that he had been travelling across the world for most of the past decade. Although most of his artists were good, none had been commercially viable until Tommy King’s breakout into global superstardom a few years previously. In addition, his rock band Hazy Memory, despite not having had a hit since their annoying 1970s Christmas single, had also had a resurgence in sales in the past year. But with the sudden and much needed income from his commission, Sam had unexpectedly withdrawn from the music scene. He still retained a handful of artists to manage, but he had professed himself content with his life in the country. Apparently, he was now married and living in the stately pile. ‘How was your journey?’ asked Sam. ‘Fine, thanks,’ said Jack, taking Sam’s hand and giving it a firm grip. ‘I’d forgotten how big this place was.’ Sam nodded and glanced back at the Hall. ‘Big bills to match, unfortunately,’ he said. Jack understood that Arthur, Sam’s grandfather, had suffered with ill health a while previously and Sam had stepped up to take responsibility for the ancestral home, albeit reluctantly at first. ‘Come inside and I’ll take you through to Grandad’s study,’ said Sam. They were just heading towards the front door when the sound of another vehicle bumping its way up the driveway made Sam’s steps falter. They turned around to see a taxi pull up. The back door opened and out stepped a very glamorous-looking older lady wearing a huge hat, which caused her some difficulty in getting out of the car. ‘Hello, darlings,’ cried the woman, heading towards them. ‘Hi, Aunty. How was Glyndebourne?’ asked Sam. ‘Glorious, as ever!’ the woman told him. ‘But oh so tragic! La Bohème! Such sadness!’ She went up on tiptoes to give Sam a kiss on his cheek. He, in turn, gestured to Jack. ‘Aunt Rose, let me introduce Jack Carter. An old school friend who’s here for a meeting.’ ‘How marvellous,’ said the woman, giving Jack a once-over that would make anyone blush. ‘Is that flashy car yours? How I do like a man with a fast-running motor!’ ‘Thank you,’ said Jack, his mouth twitching into a smile. Aunt Rose had to be at least seventy years old and was dressed in a very fashionable dress, jacket and matching hat, from which protruded a large feather in the same hot pink colour. Sam sighed. ‘I’d like to say that you get used to my aunt’s flirting, but don’t assume that you have to.’ ‘My darling nephew, I do not flirt!’ said Rose, with a throaty chuckle. ‘I merely stun and disarm.’ She placed her arm in Sam’s and they headed towards the front door. ‘How’s your gorgeous wife been whilst I’ve been away?’ ‘A bit tired,’ said Sam, his smile dropping. ‘She’s gone to see Megan.’ ‘Poor Annie,’ said Rose, shaking her head. ‘She is suffering with this pregnancy. Well, you know what they say. Hard pregnancy, easy baby.’ ‘Let’s hope so,’ said Sam. ‘My wife’s due to have our first child in October,’ he added, as an aside to Jack. ‘Congratulations,’ said Jack automatically. It wasn’t that he had anything against children. But being one that had been thoroughly unwanted since the day he came into the world, he had no plans to become a father any time soon – despite the odd pang that he was missing out on something amazing. They went through the wide double front door and into an enormous entrance hall. Jack stared around in wonder. Despite the deep red walls, it was still a light and airy room. A wide, dark oak staircase curved up to the first floor. All along the stairwell were portraits of generations of the Harris family. From the double-heighted ceiling hung a chandelier, glittering in the afternoon sunshine. A large fireplace was waiting to be lit when winter arrived. Jack became aware of Sam watching his reaction. ‘I’ve been in worse,’ he said, with a rueful grin. Rose gave a chuckle. ‘Oh, you’re going to be great fun, I can tell! Right. Sherry o’clock, anyone?’ ‘Jack’s here for a business meeting,’ said Sam, in a pointed tone. ‘I always like to mix business with pleasure,’ said Rose, giving Jack a wink before she went across to a large corridor on the right side of the hall. ‘Sorry about my aunt,’ said Sam. ‘She’s always on the lookout for husband number five. Anyway, that’s the east wing,’ he added, pointing at the corridor Rose had disappeared into. ‘The kitchen’s at the end of the corridor. Would you like a drink? It doesn’t have to be sherry.’ ‘I’m fine, thanks. You have separate wings?’ said Jack, his eyebrows raised. ‘Who doesn’t?’ said Sam, with a sarcastic roll of the eyes. ‘Come on.’ They walked into the corridor on the opposite side of the entrance hall, which led to the west wing. ‘That’s the drawing room,’ said Sam, as they went past an elegant room in soft shades of green. Jack just had time to register the comfortable-looking sofas and large fireplace. ‘And this is the library.’ Jack glanced through the open door and saw a long wall was covered from floor to ceiling with a vast number of bookcases filled with classics. There was also a full-size snooker table, which looked to have been used recently, although one end was propped up with more books. ‘All the windows are new in every room,’ said Sam. ‘And the fireplaces work too, thank goodness. It’s so much better now it’s no longer draughty. But there’s not enough money to do the rest of it.’ Jack noted things were definitely tight for the family and wondered if that might work in his favour when he offered them a substantial amount of money to turn the place into a Thatcher’s Hotel. Surely the heating and running costs alone must have been in the thousands? ‘At the end of the corridor is our newly renovated ballroom,’ said Sam. ‘That’s my study, which is the old music room. But we’re meeting here, in Grandad’s study.’ Jack followed Sam into a large room. It was desperate for new plaster and redecoration, but the whole place looked settled in its careworn way, with the dark wood shelves and desk. Many dusty books were piled up, most of them referring to agriculture and estate management. ‘Grandad, let me introduce Jack Carter,’ announced Sam. ‘Jack, this is my grandfather and Earl of Cranley, Arthur Harris.’ Standing up behind the desk was Arthur Harris. He was an older version of his grandson, probably in his mid-seventies. They shared the same strong chin and tall build, although Sam was much broader and more muscular than the fragile-looking earl. ‘Welcome to Willow Tree Hall,’ said Arthur, in his clipped aristocratic tone. He held out his hand, the other grasping the desk. ‘Good to meet you, sir,’ said Jack. ‘“Arthur” will do just fine,’ said the elderly gentleman, gesturing for Jack to sit down on one of the chairs on the other side of the large oak desk. ‘We’re all on first-name terms here.’ ‘You have a beautiful place here,’ said Jack. ‘Thank you. It’s certainly looking better than it did a few years ago,’ said Arthur. ‘But when the foundations are firm, everything else holds steady and any improvements show.’ ‘So what can we do for you?’ asked Sam, sitting down next to Jack. ‘As I said on the phone, it’s a flattering offer but Willow Tree Hall isn’t for sale.’ ‘I appreciate your honesty,’ said Jack. ‘But I’ve been asked to come here personally to offer you and the family a substantial amount of money to take Willow Tree Hall off your hands.’ ‘And what are the plans for our home if we were to sell?’ asked Sam. ‘It would be turned into a luxury hotel,’ said Jack. ‘A retreat in the middle of the countryside.’ Sam looked at his grandad and smiled. ‘A luxury hotel, eh? And where do you fit in with all this?’ ‘I’m just the go-between,’ Jack told him. ‘However, we have an amazing team of architects who redesign the places. Although, I have to say, your home doesn’t need much reconfiguring as it’s so beautiful.’ ‘The problem is what on earth my family would do without Willow Tree Hall to take care of.’ said Arthur. ‘Retire early and relax,’ said Jack. ‘I imagine all the bills are pretty high, so you would be mortgage-free and remain well-off for the remainder of your days.’ ‘The trouble is, this is our home,’ said Arthur. ‘In fact, it’s been my home for seventy-three years, and six generations of Harris family before this. I’m the seventh Earl of Cranley, you see. This isn’t just another stately pile.’ ‘There’s also the estate to consider,’ added Sam. ‘We have all the cottages in Cranley as well, which all have sitting tenants – local families, some of whom are in their third or fourth generations.’ Jack thought about Lily’s family. He knew from brief conversations with his parents that they still lived in the village. Annoyed with himself for letting his mind drift, he focused back on the meeting. ‘I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey,’ said Sam. ‘I did want to see you and do you the courtesy of turning you down face to face, for old times’ sake.’ ‘I appreciate your honesty,’ said Jack. Often these negotiations could be protracted and time-consuming. But Sam and Arthur were not likely to change their minds at all, he could see that. The trouble was that Eric Thatcher wasn’t a man who heard the word ‘no’ very often. If ever. He wouldn’t like being turned down by the Harris family. But Jack would just have to explain to him that they wouldn’t budge. Surely there was another stately home somewhere that he could purchase instead? What was so special about Willow Tree Hall, anyway? 6 Lily’s nerves were jangling as she drove up the long driveway to Willow Tree Hall. Thankfully, her grandad had been home for lunch and had accepted her offer of a lift as he didn’t drive any more, so she had some company. ‘Have you got a busy afternoon?’ asked Lily, as she slowed down to avoid a massive pothole. ‘Salad leaves need sowing,’ said her grandad. ‘More mouths to feed than ever at the big house these days.’ Lily stared out of the windscreen as Willow Tree Hall came closer and closer. The huge manor house was a familiar place to her. She had attended many fetes in the past, as well as Annie’s wedding. But as she had grown up, it had retained its sense of awe as the imposing centre of their tiny village. ‘I’m a little nervous,’ she confessed, slowing the car down. ‘I mean, I know Arthur’s nice, as is the rest of the family, but look at this place!’ ‘They’re just like you and me,’ said her grandad. ‘Just got bigger walls, that’s all.’ Her grandad was unlikely to be intimidated by anyone, Lily had always thought. He had attended the tiny local infant school with Arthur, so had no need to put on airs and graces either. But Arthur was the Earl of Cranley. He owned Willow Tree Hall and the whole estate, which encompassed the hamlet of Cranley and all the cottages and businesses therein. As far as Lily was concerned, he was also a kind landlord who had given lots of families in need, including her own, a vastly reduced rate of rent each month. They got out of the car and Lily watched as her grandad wandered around the side of the house towards the walled vegetable garden at the rear of the house. She gulped and then went up to the front door. Could she really work in this amazing place as a housekeeper? She honestly didn’t know. She was somewhat relieved that it was Annie who opened the huge front door. ‘You’re here! Come in,’ she said, with a wide smile. They went into the entrance hall. Lily had been there for Annie and Sam’s wedding the previous December. That had been the first time she had ever been inside the main house, as the summer fetes had always been held on the front lawn when she was younger. On a cold, winter’s night, in the soft glow of candlelight and fairy lights, it had been glittering and magical. On a late summer’s day, it was just as magnificent. Despite the deep red walls, it was a light and airy room. From the double-heighted ceiling hung a chandelier, glittering in the afternoon sunshine. A large fireplace was waiting to be lit when winter arrived. ‘This is lovely,’ said Lily. ‘I’m so lucky,’ Annie told her, nodding in agreement. ‘Come on. We all tend to gather in the kitchen most of the time.’ Lily followed Annie through a corridor off the side of the entrance hall and down a couple of stone steps into the large but welcoming kitchen. ‘Wow! You weren’t kidding about how great the renovation was,’ said Lily, staring around the room in wonder. Lily tried to imagine how run-down the place must have been, but it was hard to see past the baby-blue cupboards and long oak worktops. In the middle of the room was a large island in matching colours. Annie gestured for Lily to sit down in one of the comfy chairs that had been placed either side of the large fireplace, near the long oak table. ‘The whole place was falling apart but now it’s my favourite room,’ Annie told her. ‘We always end up chatting in here at some stage of the day. Especially now there’s so many of us. Tea?’ ‘Yes, please,’ said Lily. She watched Annie head past the table, which was laden with paperwork, and then past the sink, which appeared to be full of mugs. Annie sighed as she glanced at the crockery. ‘I don’t know how it gets so messy.’ ‘There are a lot more people here these days, aren’t there?’ asked Lily. ‘Oh, yes. There’s Arthur, of course,’ began Annie. ‘I hope that’s not my name being taken in vain,’ said Arthur, appearing at the top of the stairs before beginning to step down gingerly, holding a walking cane in one hand. A fall a few years previously had slowed him a little, but otherwise he was still full of life despite the air of fragility about his slim frame, encased now in a tweed jacket and old worn trousers. ‘How are you, my dear?’ said Arthur in his clipped, aristocratic way of speaking as he walked across the kitchen. Lily leapt up to shake his hand. ‘Very well, thank you.’ ‘And your parents?’ Arthur’s grey eyebrows crossed into a frown. ‘I must pay your father a visit. It’s been too long since I last saw him.’ ‘Thank you. He’s OK.’ Lily blushed and shrugged her shoulders. ‘Well, you know. He’s keeping busy.’ Arthur had been wonderful when the terrible car accident had taken place. He had refused to take any rent from the family for the cottage until her father was back home from the hospital. Afterwards, Arthur had kept the rent as low as possible. ‘I’m glad to hear it,’ said Arthur. ‘Please pass on my regards to him and I shall give him a call this week to arrange a suitable time to visit him.’ Annie came over to them both, carrying two mugs of tea. ‘There you go,’ she said, placing them on the table. Just then, the back door was flung open and a woman with purple hair came into the kitchen. Annie smiled. ‘See? I told you that everyone’s always coming and going,’ she said. ‘Hi, Skye!’ ‘Hello,’ said Skye, beaming. ‘Lovely day out there.’ ‘Have you met Lily Harper?’ said Arthur, doing the introductions. ‘She’s one of our tenants. The Harper family have been in the village for as long as the Harris family. Lily, please allow me to introduce my granddaughter-in-law Skye Harris.’ ‘Lovely to meet you,’ said Lily as Skye came across to shake her hand. She had heard that Arthur’s youngest grandson, Will, had recently got married, but this was the first time that she had met his bride. Skye’s bohemian taste in clothes and purple hair were a stark contrast to the sharply dressed playboy that Lily could remember from having seen Will at a distance. ‘Harper? Is Bert the gardener any relation?’ asked Skye, frowning in thought. ‘He’s my grandad,’ said Lily. Skye’s eyes widened in recognition. ‘Ah! Thought the surname was familiar.’ ‘I’m less grumpy,’ Lily told her, to which Skye laughed. ‘I was just going to check on the stables,’ said Skye to Arthur. ‘Did you want to come with me for your afternoon walk?’ ‘That sounds lovely, my dear,’ said Arthur, smiling. ‘What about your meeting?’ asked Annie. ‘All done,’ Arthur told her. ‘I left Sam chatting to his old school chum. Seems a very nice chap.’ ‘Oh!’ said Annie, getting up. ‘I wanted to meet him as well. Lily, come with me and then you can see Sam. He’s probably almost done with his meeting, anyway.’ Without waiting for Lily’s answer, Annie headed up the steps so Lily had no choice but to follow her towards the entrance hall. They were just passing the grand staircase when Lily noticed the French doors at the back of the hall open. She recognised Sam, of course, as he strode in from the grounds at the back. He had been the handsome groom at the wedding the previous December. He was chatting to a man who was hidden behind him. But it was only as Sam moved to one side that Lily came face to face with her past. There, in the large, elegant entrance hall of Willow Tree Hall, stood the man who had broken her heart all those years ago. She stood and stared at Jack Carter. 7 Jack stared at the woman in shock. He couldn’t believe it was really Lily Harper standing there in front of him. ‘Hi,’ she was saying, walking over to shake Sam’s hand. But she appeared to be in some kind of daze, as she couldn’t tear her eyes away from Jack. ‘Nice to see you again.’ Jack found he couldn’t break eye contact with her either. He was an idiot. Of course there had been a chance that she would be at Willow Tree Hall of all places. Her parents lived in the village, didn’t they? He had wrongly assumed she would have long since left, such had been her desire to break free of the place all those years ago. How long had it been since he had last seen her? He had been eighteen and was about to leave college. She had been sixteen at the time. Her hair had changed. Not the gorgeous red colour, of course. But these days it was fixed in a neat ponytail, as opposed to the wild and wavy mane around her shoulders that he remembered. Her face was a little older, but her smooth, pale skin wasn’t lined. She was smartly dressed in a pair of skinny trousers and a silk T-shirt. But when her eyes flashed back at him it was like instantly going back in time. That same vivid green. The deep emerald staring at him. That was the same. He realised that somebody had spoken. ‘Do you two know each other?’ asked Sam, looking from one to the other. ‘From a long time ago,’ said Lily. She broke into a smile but it didn’t meet her green eyes. ‘It’s been a while, Jack. How are you?’ Her words were polite but the tone of her voice was hard. Who could blame her for being upset with him, even after all this time? ‘Very well, thank you,’ he replied. He felt Sam and Annie exchange a look. ‘Sam, can you just check something for me?’ said Annie, dragging her husband away. Then it was just the two of them standing alone in the entrance hall. ‘What are you doing here?’ said Lily, when she finally spoke. ‘I was having a meeting with Sam and Arthur about the possible future development of the Hall,’ Jack told her. ‘I see.’ But she was frowning as she looked him up and down. ‘You’re in a suit.’ He glanced down. ‘Yeah,’ he told her. ‘How times change, eh?’ She nodded in thought. ‘They really do.’ He supposed that the last time he had seen her he had been wearing his battered leather jacket and jeans. And she would have been wearing that little silver vest top with the lacy straps that he loved seeing her in. Those long legs bare in her tiny denim shorts… Jack was desperately trying to keep his wits about him. But he was having trouble concentrating on anything as Lily stood in front of him. It had been so many years, and yet seeing her like this had jolted him right back to his miserable teenage years. She represented all that he hated about himself. He had tried to push the thought of what he had done to her away, but the guilt still ate away at him each and every day. How she must hate him. After all, he would always be the man who had promised that they would run away together. Instead, he had left her on the night of her school prom and taken off by himself. * Lily was trying very hard to be professional and not let her shock at seeing Jack ruin the job she had come to Willow Tree Hall for. And yet, here he was after all these years. She was cross with herself for struggling to think straight. She was definitely angry with Jack for showing up like this. And she was angry with herself for being cross with Jack. She needed this job. Wanted it, too, she realised. And now Jack of all people was here at Willow Tree Hall! Why on earth was he back? From what she had heard whenever her mum mentioned bumping into his parents, he never visited Cranley. What a mess! But she had an interview to get to and, by golly, she was going to get to it. She fixed a smile on her face. ‘Well, I’d better go and see Annie. Nice to see you again.’ She had hoped that he would pick up the hint that she wanted to leave. But he stayed silent and continued to stare at her. She wasn’t surprised. He had always been mean and moody. Of course, he was older now. Leaner. Still handsome. She could see the hard muscles of his stomach through his T-shirt and gulped, hating herself and him for having that effect on her more than a decade later. He cleared his throat as she went to leave. ‘So, how are you?’ ‘Good, thanks,’ she replied. ‘And your family? They’re well?’ ‘Yes, thanks.’ If he was hoping that she would be making this easy for him, he was very much mistaken. ‘And your dad is well? Hard at work?’ Lily gave a start. Why on earth would Jack expect her dad to be at work? She shook her head. ‘He’s, er, mostly at home these days.’ ‘Took early retirement, eh? Good for him.’ Lily gazed at him, utterly aghast. Something must have shown in her face as the smile on Jack’s face began to fade. To her dismay, tears filled her eyes, which caused to her blink furiously as if that would make them disappear. ‘You don’t know?’ she finally managed to say in a thick voice. Jack shook his head. ‘No. What is it?’ ‘He never went back to work after the car accident,’ she said, brushing away the stray tears that had appeared on her cheek. ‘Oh, God,’ he muttered. ‘I had no idea. I’m so sorry.’ ‘Your parents didn’t mention it?’ He looked uncomfortable once more as he shook his head in reply. They stared at each other for a while in stunned silence until Jack opened his mouth to say something, but Lily shook her head to stop him. She didn’t want to hear what he had to tell her. ‘Don’t bother,’ she told him. ‘It was a long time ago.’ Lily hitched her handbag higher on her shoulder. ‘Besides, after the accident it didn’t really matter any more. Nothing did, to be honest.’ She was relieved to see Annie and Sam suddenly appear from the nearby corridor. ‘I was just saying that I’d better come and find you,’ said Lily in an overly bright voice. Annie raised her eyebrows but merely smiled. ‘Yes, I think that cup of tea will be well and truly stewed by now.’ ‘Nice to see you,’ said Lily to Sam. She forced herself to look at Jack. ‘You too,’ she added, and walked away. Thankfully, she was leading the way towards the kitchen so that Annie didn’t see the tears streaming down her face as she went down the steps. * Jack walked back outside through the front door with Sam towards his car. He felt dazed and was still trying to take it all in. ‘Nice Mercedes,’ said Sam, admiring the company car. ‘Thanks,’ said Jack. ‘And thanks for meeting with me. It’s a shame that the offer wasn’t any good for you. But it was good to see you again and meet your grandad.’ ‘Any time you’re in the area, pop in and say hi,’ said Sam. ‘You’re always welcome.’ ‘I will do,’ said Jack, getting in the car. ‘Thanks.’ He waved his hand as he started up the engine and pulled away back down the driveway. But he felt so numb as he pulled out of the driveway onto the road that he had to swerve to avoid a car coming in the other direction. Jack brought the car to a stop at the side of the road. His breathing was still rapid in his chest as he glanced down at himself and the car bonnet. But both were intact. He had missed the other car. But that wasn’t what was making his pulse race. He shook his head. Lily. Wild Lily Harper. After all these years. Memories flooded back before he could stop them. He could see Lily laughing as she leapt off the bridge into the river below. Pulling on his leather jacket when she became cold late at night and snuggling in closer to him. Crying as he told her that he had never loved her and that she’d be better off without him. He shouldn’t have come back to Cranley. Lily was a ghost from his past that wouldn’t let him go. He stared up at the blue sky and swore to himself. He was an idiot. Why didn’t he know that her father had never recovered from the accident? He should have known. Why on earth hadn’t his parents told him? Because you never speak to them, came the reply from deep within. You never talk for more than a few moments. You hardly ever visit them. When would they have the time or the opportunity to let you know? He hung his head in shame. The fault didn’t rest with them. It was his fault alone. How she must hate him. Her face had been so white when he had told her that she couldn’t run away with him. Standing there in her pretty, long dress, all dressed up for the prom. And then a short time later there had been an accident and her dad had been severely injured. Of course Lily hated him. How could she not? But not as much as he already hated himself each and every day. 8 Lily was still trying to keep her emotions under control as she reached the kitchen. Annie hadn’t said anything about her tear-stained cheeks, instead just giving her a sad look. Lily swallowed hard. She couldn’t believe that he was back after all this time. The shock of seeing Jack Carter was enough to make the job interview fade into second place in her ‘things to be most stressed about’ list for that day. After all, he never came home these days, did he? It had been, what, ten years? Fourteen years, her smug inner voice reminded her. Annie gestured for Lily to join her at the table. ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ she asked gently. ‘Not much to tell,’ said Lily, her voice cracking a little. ‘He was the first one to break my heart.’ She took a deep breath. ‘We almost went to the prom together.’ ‘Almost?’ prompted Annie. Lily sighed. ‘We’d got to know each other that winter.’ She allowed herself a small smile. ‘I had a huge crush on him, to be honest. He was so cool and handsome. You know, the typical bad boy hanging around the village.’ ‘Except he went to school with Sam and Will,’ added Annie. ‘That’s a pretty posh school for a bad boy.’ Lily shrugged her shoulders. ‘I never quite worked out the deal with that. I don’t know why he rebelled against his adoptive parents. Maybe because they were too rich. Anyway, he was only a day pupil so he was around every night and weekend. We met one afternoon down the river and that was it. Or so I thought.’ She had been so bored, so restless with dull village life as a teenager. And then Jack had appeared and it was as if a light bulb had switched on inside her. He would be her future and they would make it an exciting one. At least, that’s what she had hoped at the time. ‘Did you go on a few dates?’ asked Annie. Lily shook her head. ‘We met in secret for around six months. You know how uptight Mum is. She would never have approved of him. Besides, I was getting into trouble at school, so there was so much else going on at the time. But we might have shared a kiss or two.’ She blushed at the memory, even now after all these years. ‘He was your first love,’ said Annie, smiling. ‘I get that. Mine was a bad boy as well.’ ‘Seriously?’ Lily was surprised. ‘But he turned out to be a total loser.’ Annie shrugged her shoulders. ‘I thought Jack seemed nice.’ ‘I thought so too,’ said Lily, frowning. ‘He was kinder and softer than I first thought. More gentle than he initially appeared. And when he asked if he could be my date for the prom, I jumped at the chance. I had all these visions of walking in with this great guy in his tux. Me in my purple dress. King and Queen of the prom!’ She laughed bitterly. ‘What happened?’ asked Annie. ‘He picked me up,’ said Lily, relishing the memory. ‘And then he met my parents. The whole awkward meet-up thing. He turned up on his motorbike! Can you imagine Mum’s face?’ ‘Oh my God,’ said Annie, agog. ‘How did you get on the back of the bike in your long dress?’ ‘With difficulty,’ Lily told her, rolling her eyes. ‘I wasn’t impressed. Moaned a lot on the way. But then he pulled over halfway to the Hall and told me that he’d changed his mind about going out, full stop. That he couldn’t take me to the prom after all.’ She gulped at the memory, of how hard his eyes had been as he’d told her that he had never cared for her. Annie looked confused. ‘Why did he bother picking you up if he was going to dump you?’ Lily shook her head. ‘I have no idea. I don’t know if it was because I was moaning about the bike and my dress. I thought he’d been in a funny mood when he’d picked me up, but figured it was because of meeting my parents. Anyway, I stropped off to the prom on my own. Told him to get lost.’ ‘That’s terrible,’ said Annie. ‘What did you do? I hope you carried on without him at the prom and had an amazing time.’ ‘I wish,’ said Lily, with a grimace. ‘You know what utter bitches sixteen-year-old girls can be. It was my fault. I had told them all about my hot date, and when he didn’t show up they thought that I had made it all up. After all, they’d never seen him with me. Nobody had. So I spent the evening being laughed at and ended up going home early in tears.’ ‘Poor you,’ said Annie, shaking her head. Lily closed her eyes. Her mum had been so cross that she had never told them about her bad-boy date. But her dad had held her close and told her that it would all turn out alright. But it hadn’t. If only she hadn’t made such a big drama out of getting dumped. If only she had picked herself up and not been a bitter, sobbing wreck the whole of the next day. Perhaps then her dad wouldn’t have suggested that they all go out for pizza that night as a treat. Then they wouldn’t have been on the roads at the same time as that stupid young lad who had stolen a car and gone for a joyride. And then the car accident wouldn’t have happened… She lived with the guilt every second of every day. The harm she had caused her family was so overwhelming that she would never get over it. Annie reached across the table and squeezed her hand. ‘There’s something else, isn’t there?’ Lily gulped away the tears. ‘The car accident happened the day after. You know, the one that injured my dad so badly.’ Annie’s eyes widened as she realised. ‘Oh no! How awful for you all.’ But it had been a turning point as well. Lily had decided over that wretched, sad, awful summer that her life was not working being left to chance. That fate had had its opportunity and had failed miserably. She had decided there and then that she needed to be in total control in order to stand a chance at happiness in the future. ‘So, you need a temporary housekeeper,’ she said, trying to look more cheerful. ‘I promise I won’t break down in tears every day.’ Annie nodded, recognising the obvious change in subject. ‘Look, we just need someone to sort everything out. To give us a bit of a hand, really. What do you think? Do you want to help us out? We can pay.’ Her face dropped. ‘Not an awful lot, unfortunately, because we’ve used all our money to get the house straight.’ ‘I just need to know what kind of things we’re talking about job-wise,’ said Lily. ‘I’m good at paperwork.’ ‘That would be great. I can’t seem to keep track of the household stuff. Even the groceries. There’s so many of us coming and going. It’s hard to keep a handle on it all. Sam pays the household bills but there’s so much else involved with running such a massive place. I was completely useless at it.’ ‘It didn’t work out so badly, as it turns out,’ said Lily, smiling. Annie gave her a rueful grin as she rubbed her baby bump. ‘No, it didn’t. Look, I know it’s not very glamorous. Not like those fancy parties you were used to organising.’ Lily thought back to finding Mark with the other woman, but quickly dismissed the thought from her mind. ‘Although we do have a few of Sam’s bands and singers popping in and out on a weekly basis,’ added Annie, waggling her eyebrows. Lily grinned. ‘I remember them from the wedding. It all sounds very glamorous.’ Annie laughed. ‘You obviously haven’t met Hazy Memory. They’re definitely not at all sophisticated.’ ‘What about the cleaning?’ asked Lily. Annie held up her hand. ‘I promise that you won’t have to clean anything. Megan’s niece has just finished her exams. She’s going to help us out as well. If you could supervise her, that would be great. Erm, what else? I know! You’re OK with dogs, aren’t you?’ Lily looked around. ‘Dogs?’ ‘Well, dog, singular. Eleanor and Tom have got Dylan. He’s over most days. Arthur adores him,’ she added in a whisper. ‘Dogs are fine,’ Lily told her, hoping it wouldn’t entail too much extra work. ‘Well, we know we can trust you because we know your family so well. It will only be Monday to Friday. There may be the very odd weekend, but hopefully not.’ It wasn’t as if she had a wild social life at the weekends, thought Lily. She and Mark had tended to head to the supermarket to restock and then they’d watch various box sets on the TV. For a second, she felt the sharp pang of his betrayal before she quickly brushed it aside. ‘So, what do you think?’ asked Annie, looking hopeful. Lily was sorely tempted. She needed the money to help out her family. ‘Jack was only here for a meeting, wasn’t he?’ she asked, suddenly fretful about running into him every day. ‘Sam hasn’t seen him since they were at school,’ Annie told her. ‘They’re not close mates or anything. He was just here for a meeting. You won’t have to see him again.’ Lily felt grateful for that. Jack belonged in her past and had stirred up enough pain in her life. She didn’t have time to dwell on all of that. ‘Look, if you want a break from your mum you could even move in,’ said Annie. ‘We’ve got loads of spare bedrooms.’ Lily took a deep breath. ‘That might help. The box room is pretty tiny and we’ve only got one bathroom. I’ll see how hysterical Mum gets when I tell her. OK,’ she added. ‘I’ll give you a hand for a while.’ ‘That’s great,’ said Annie, looking relieved. ‘It’s really just going to be a little bit of admin and a small amount of organisation. That’s all.’ Lily smiled, but she was going to take it more seriously than that. She might not be trained in anything but she could organise a place like Willow Tree Hall, couldn’t she? After all, she was responsible. Practical. She’d had to be, because ever since her world was shattered at the age of sixteen she had made sure that her adult life was steady and reliable. Dull, whispered a voice deep inside. She instantly shrugged it off. Safe, she reminded herself. Safe kept her from being hurt. ‘Oh, we’re going to have such fun,’ Annie was telling her, laughing. Lily was thinking that fun wasn’t the priority. She was actually looking forward to sorting out whatever mess lay inside Willow Tree Hall. But she knew that she was good with lists. She planned her life, didn’t she? OK, it hadn’t exactly turned out incredibly, but she could organise things and people. At least, she hoped so. She had handled large events for over a thousand partygoers. How hard could it be to organise one family? 9 Lily told her family about her new job over dinner that evening. ‘A housekeeper?’ Celia looked stunned as she served up the shredded chicken. ‘Up at the big house?’ Willow Tree Hall had always been referred to as the ‘big house’. It held both a sense of awe and respect mixed together. ‘I thought it would tide me over whilst I look for something else.’ Her mother nodded, knowing that her daughter’s income would help. But she still looked confused. ‘So you’re a cleaner now?’ Lily shook her head. ‘Apparently Megan’s niece is starting in the next week or so as a sort of maid, I think. So she’ll do that kind of thing.’ ‘A chambermaid,’ said her mum. Lily looked at her, surprised. ‘I watched Downton Abbey just like you did,’ said her mum in a prim tone. Lily frowned. ‘I don’t think it’s really like that.’ ‘They’re just normal people,’ said her grandad, reaching across the table for a buttered roll. ‘Nothing to fret about.’ ‘Still, a housekeeper role is a huge responsibility,’ carried on her mum, looking pleased. ‘Like Mrs Hughes. You’ll keep the whole place going. Afloat, as it were.’ ‘Sounds more like the Titanic,’ said Lily’s dad, with a wink. ‘I hope not,’ said Lily, feeling a little more nervous now. She decided to Google the job requirements after dinner and was startled to read up on how much it entailed. Apparently, the main aim of a housekeeper’s role was to ‘maintain a clean, sanitary, comfortable and tidy environment for a private household’. Lily made a face as she looked at the screen. Clean? Well, she could ensure that Megan’s niece kept it all looking nice. Tidy? She lived for neat and organised, didn’t she? She glanced around the box room. Well, she normally did. Current circumstances didn’t help, as everything had to be squeezed into one tiny room. She hadn’t mentioned the possibility of sleeping at Willow Tree Hall yet. She would see how the first few days went. But the thought of a normal-sized bedroom and an en suite was tempting. The other jobs that the housekeeper role entailed interested her more. She needed to ensure that groceries and household supplies were maintained to adequate levels. Fireplaces needed to be lit. But seeing as it was August, and summer was still going strong, that could be ignored. To plan and cook meals for her employer? That made her sit up straighter in a slight panic. She had many gifts but cooking wasn’t one of them. But Annie hadn’t mentioned cooking, so that was fine. Anyway, she was certain that she could totally handle it. After all, she had checklists. She would be fine. She turned up the following day at nine o’clock sharp in the morning. She waited outside the front door for about five minutes until a blond man appeared from around the side of the building, carrying an empty coffee mug. ‘Hey. You must be Lily,’ he said, by way of welcome. ‘I’m Will.’ ‘Hi,’ she said, shaking his hand. Will was a slimmer, blonder version of his elder brother, Sam. ‘You can just go on in, if you dare,’ he told her. ‘I would, but it’s locked,’ said Lily. ‘Nobody’s used it yet probably. It’s still early. You’d better come around to the back door, then,’ said Will. ‘That’s the one everyone uses, anyway.’ Lily followed Will into the kitchen, where she found what appeared to be most of the family. In fact, she could hear them all before she saw them, such was the crescendo of noise that was created. ‘Will!’ called out Sam from the head of the long kitchen table. ‘Settle this argument once and for all, would you? I caught a fourteen-pound carp in the river when we were younger, didn’t I?’ Will laughed. ‘I think you’ve added ten pounds too many to that estimate, bro.’ He picked up the kettle and, finding it empty, went to the sink to refill it. ‘By the way, I found our new housekeeper if anybody wants to say hi.’ A chorus of welcome bubbled up from the table. ‘Welcome,’ said Sam, jumping up to shake Lily’s hand. ‘I didn’t get a chance to say hello properly yesterday.’ He looked along the table. ‘So, do you know everyone?’ ‘More or less,’ said Lily, blushing at being the centre of attention. ‘That’s the senior end,’ said Sam, nodding at the other end where Arthur and Rose sat. ‘I’m not sure I relish being referred to as “senior”,’ said Rose, making a face. ‘Darling, I’m middle-aged at best.’ ‘At seventy?’ murmured Arthur, getting up. ‘My dear brother, it’s sixty-five and you know it,’ said Rose, with a smirk. ‘Welcome to Willow Tree Hall,’ said Arthur, smiling as he turned to face Lily. ‘You’ll find us quite a noisy bunch to contend with.’ ‘That’s fine,’ Lily told him softly. ‘Sweetheart,’ said Rose, leaping up to hug Lily. ‘It’s been too long. I’d forgotten how beautiful your red hair is. Do you think I could get away with that colour?’ ‘Well, I don’t see why not if you’re only middle-aged,’ said Arthur pointedly. Rose held up a heavily bejewelled hand. ‘Darling, you know I knock off a couple of years for luck. It’s not good for my sex life, otherwise.’ A groan went up around the table. ‘Moving on,’ said Sam, in a loud tone above the hubbub. ‘As quickly as possible, please,’ added Will, coming over to the table with a mug of coffee. ‘Quite,’ said Sam. ‘This is my younger brother, Will, and his far lovelier wife, Skye.’ ‘We met yesterday. Hi,’ said Skye, looking up from her phone. ‘I’m so glad you took the job.’ ‘Do you know Eleanor?’ continued Sam. ‘She works at the stable block in one of the workshops.’ ‘I think “work” is being a bit optimistic,’ said the good-looking man sitting next to Eleanor. ‘Watch it, buster,’ said Eleanor, giving him a nudge with her elbow before smiling up at Lily. ‘Hi. You were in the year below us at school, weren’t you?’ Lily nodded. ‘Yes. I’ve heard that your business is doing so well.’ Eleanor had begun Eleanor’s Apothecary, creating homemade creams and soaps and, according to local gossip, it was going from strength to strength. ‘Thanks,’ said Eleanor. She glanced at the familiar-looking man next to her. ‘This is Tom. You might know him as global superstar Tommy King, but to us he’s just the carpenter.’ ‘Hi,’ said Tom, with a shy nod. Lily smiled in reply trying not to look goggle-eyed at the famous singer. ‘Unfortunately for us,’ said Will, sitting down opposite them. ‘I’m desperate for an electrician and all you know is wood.’ ‘And a few songs as well,’ added Sam. ‘Tom’s been taking a year off away from the limelight.’ ‘And I’ve spent all of it helping Will do up one of the old barns,’ said Tom. Will shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’d have hired someone to do it instead, but your charges are much more reasonable.’ ‘I’m doing it for free!’ said Tom. ‘Exactly,’ said Will, grinning. ‘Who have I left out?’ asked Sam, frowning. ‘Just me,’ said Annie, appearing at the bottom of the stairs. ‘How can you forget someone that fat?’ said Will, who promptly received a clip around the ear from his big brother. ‘She’s not fat,’ said Sam. ‘She’s beautiful.’ ‘Apart from my ankles,’ said Annie, sitting down and putting her feet up on the bench. ‘They’re most definitely fat.’ She looked up at Lily. ‘Give me five minutes to recover from the walk downstairs and I’ll give you the tour.’ Lily had found the family warm and welcoming. Surely it would be a piece of cake to organise them all? True to her word, Annie led Lily across the large entrance hall a few minutes later to show her around the house. ‘This is the west wing,’ began Annie, as they walked through a large doorway on the opposite side of the hall. ‘Here’s the drawing room.’ It was a large, elegant room painted in soft green, with oak floorboard