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Authors: Patricia Fawcett

Tags: #Chick-Lit, #Family Life, #Fiction, #Marriage, #Relationships, #Sagas, #Women's Fiction

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BOOK: A Close Connection
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T
HE HOTEL WHERE
she worked was across the border in Devon, several miles down a country lane bounded with high-bank hedges. The short drive normally soothed Nicola, whatever the weather, whatever the season, but today, rattled by the argument with her husband last night, she was still feeling stressed as she approached.

The gardens at Nethersley Hall were in full glorious bloom at this time of year as she drove down the narrow approach drive, past the sunken garden with its charming water feature, parking her car in the staff car park that was sited unobtrusively off to one side. The house was a Jacobean manor, originally a family home, the long gallery supposedly haunted. She was far too pragmatic to believe that, but she had to admit that last year on one of those dark December days, she was alone in the long gallery and as she reached the end of it she felt a distinct chill and heard a rustle of silk close by.

Each bedroom had its unique character, with rich old wood panelling and beautiful pieces of antique furniture, exquisite plasterwork, not to mention the most gorgeous window dressings. The ultimate in honeymoon delight was the honeymoon suite, with its four-poster bed and, following their wedding, the bride and groom often chose to spend their first night
together there. Sitting together in front of a log fire, the heavy curtains drawn across, enjoying a glass of wine and a light supper, it was indeed a perfect way to start off a marriage.

She spotted one of the gardeners – the chatty one with the beard – at work in one of the borders but, even though she saw out of the corner of her eye that he had put down whatever implement he was using in preparation for one of his interminable and incredibly boring chats, she deliberately avoided direct eye contact because he only had one topic of conversation and whether or not the rabbits had been causing havoc again was no concern of hers. She did, however, have the grace to acknowledge his presence with a wave of her hand as she hurried by.

As she neared the entrance, a heaven of scented wisteria surrounding the impressive porch, she spotted a couple of the junior staff slouching outside, leaning against the wall in full view of everyone, smoking and laughing. They glanced at her, totally unconcerned, and she felt a flash of annoyance, in no mood this morning for any further hassle. She may not be that much older than they but she was a hell of a lot more senior and she was not going to let the insolence pass her by. Once you did that, they had you down as a soft touch.

‘What on earth do you think you are doing?’ she said, homing in on them.

They stared at her, speechless for a moment, although the girl’s eyes narrowed and her mouth pursed. She was one of the housekeeping staff with over-made-up eyes and a lot of fluffy blonde hair. A nose-stud too. Good God, what were they thinking of, employing somebody with a nose-stud?

‘What does it look like?’ the girl said, taking another drag, gangster-like, on her cigarette as a couple of guests came by. By moving slightly and offering the guests a broad smile and a ‘Good morning’ Nicola hoped they would not notice the others.

‘If you must smoke there is a designated area at the rear,’ she went on, her smile vanishing as she confronted the youngsters once more.

‘Yes, miss.’ The young man – one of the waiting staff – grinned, not taking her remotely seriously.

‘It’s Mrs Walker to you and if I catch either of you here again, I shall report you to Mr Gilbert.’ She waited a moment for that to sink in, looking at their name-tags and making sure they noticed that. ‘Now, go somewhere else. And tie up your hair, Tiffany,’ she added to the girl. ‘It’s most unhygienic wearing it loose.’

The girl held her ground but her cheeks flushed and she was the first to look away. Tugging at the boy’s sleeve she gave the signal for them to disappear and, with a final withering glance from the young man, they scooted off. Nicola caught the word ‘cow’ but it hardly mattered. She was not here to be popular. One day she would be events manager and after that, who knows what she might achieve? She had dreams of starting up on her own, something to do with events planning but she was not ready yet for that. One thing was sure, the job here was just a stepping stone and she did not see herself here in the long term.

Glancing at her watch, she guessed that the parents would be up in the air by now and she hoped to goodness they had a good holiday together. Nicola knew her mother far too well and she did not trust her motives for inviting the Walkers on this holiday. Whatever her mother got up to, there was always something behind it. Her mother, like it or not, did tend to lord it over everybody and that was fine as long as people respected that. But she knew that Eleanor was not liked in all quarters, that she was considered to be overbearing and too outspoken for some and she just hoped that she was doing this, being charitable, for the right reasons and not because, in some devious way, she was trying to undermine Paula.

Wearing a bright-blue fascinator atop her blonde hair at the wedding, Paula had looked very nice, her mother said, although she did add that it must be so difficult for somebody as tiny as that to find anything to fit properly. The Walker side of the family, determined not to let the side down, had done Matthew proud, the ladies mostly wearing over-the-top hats and a selection of frilly and floral frocks, seemingly unfazed by the Nightingale contingent whose hats were a little more restrained, their dresses elegant in their simplicity although there was a fair sprinkling of outrageous Jimmy Choos. Her funny cousin Philly was wearing a strapless frock that showed off the tattoo that snaked down her arm. Oddly enough it had been Philly who had happily, glass of champagne in hand, surged towards the Walker side of the room at the reception, her raucous laugh livening up proceedings.

‘Really …’ She remembered her mother’s dismay. ‘I can’t think what your aunt Andrea is thinking of. In the old days, Philly would have been tucked away and not allowed within sight of anybody of any significance. As for the tattoo, well, words fail me.’

Nicola agreed the tattoo was a bit off, but she half regretted the easy way Philly got on with everybody, leaving everybody smiling, Matthew included. Surely every family is allowed one black sheep.

Matthew won those snooty Nightingale ladies over, his speech both funny and sincere. He was in a profession they thoroughly approved of and had been to Oxford at that, the proper university that is, so his former attendance at a comprehensive, an inner-city one, could be glossed over. Snobbery among the Nightingale clan was still a force to be reckoned with, proud as they were of a thin trace of blue blood in their ancestry, but she and Matthew were able to laugh it off, although she knew that Paula was painfully aware of it too and could not shake it off quite as easily.

She still recalled that first meeting at home where Paula had seemed overwhelmed by the house and grounds, as well she might be, saying to Matthew later that there was no way she could ever invite them to their home. Her mother had played the part of gracious hostess to a tee, alarmingly regal with the best china on show, the delicate cup looking quite ridiculous in Alan’s hands.

‘We normally use mugs,’ her father had said with a grin, trying to put them at ease but rewarded for that remark with a glare from her mother.

After the wedding, Nicola hoped that the two families would continue to see each other from time to time, but there was no need for intimacy and this holiday together worried her a lot. Being in close proximity for two whole weeks did seem to be a recipe for disaster and she just knew that, sooner or later, somebody would blow a fuse.

Her father-in-law Alan was a lovely quiet man but he was very protective of his wife. It was nauseatingly sweet in fact that the two of them were obviously so devoted to each other. If Paula was threatened or upset in any way, Alan would speak his mind because his little wife could not possibly defend herself. He could see right through Eleanor, Nicola could see that, and she wondered if her mother was aware of that. She had seen the surprise in her mother’s eyes when she first met Alan. He was so unlike Matthew, whose fetching personality made him both likeable and charming, the rougher edges of his West Country accent worn away by the years at university. Alan was a man of the old school, suspicious of strangers and particularly suspicious of strangers with money, and you could almost see the brain ticking away under the calm exterior. He was every bit as handsome as Matthew, though, with warm brown eyes, a man of few words compared with her mother’s monumental vocabulary. She supposed that his caring manner, akin to a sympathetic bedside one, would be ideal for soothing
the nerves of the learner drivers he sat beside day after day.

As for Paula, predictably she worked as an assistant in a shop in town selling greetings cards and the like; a shop which Eleanor now avoided on her visits to Plymouth because it was just too embarrassing to see Paula in there wearing her uniform. Eleanor was retired from her teaching post having given it up years ago to help her father with the business, her linguistic skills proving very useful in his dealings with his European contacts. Her mother’s flair for languages was to be admired, but Nicola hoped she would not try to converse with the locals as that would look like she was showing off in Matthew’s mother’s eyes. Paula had the biggest inferiority complex she had ever come across.

Awkward was the only word she could think of to describe the whole set-up.

The four of them had nothing in common. On the one hand, a driving instructor and a shop assistant; on the other, an entrepreneur specializing in fine arts and his lady wife, a former teacher and linguist, who liked to think she was a touch above.

It would only end in tears.

 

‘Hello, Barbara. How are you?’ Nicola said, heels clicking as she tapped her way into the hotel and the polished dark oak of the reception desk. It promised to be another fine warm day and already she was feeling over dressed in the suit, tights on at that, but it was important to look the part and Gerry Gilbert, the manager, was very keen that the dress code amongst the staff, senior or otherwise, was observed.

‘I’m good, thanks.’ Barbara nodded, giving her a quick once-over, glance hovering a moment at her stomach. Barbara had caught her being sick in the ladies’ loo a week ago and was now convinced she was pregnant, which was not true. Absolutely not true. ‘No major problems to speak of. We’ve got
the terrace tables ready for lunch and we are fully booked but you may have noticed that it’s getting a bit breezy so we may have to abandon them.’

‘Have you checked the forecast?’

‘Not yet.’ Barbara had been here forever and she thought she ran the place but Nicola had already discovered a few loopholes in her efficiency. The woman was stuck in her ways and she needed to up her game.

‘Then wouldn’t it be a good idea to do that?’

‘I was going to,’ Barbara said, not giving an inch. ‘But you know what it’s like here. In this valley we’re in a kind of climate cocoon. Weather passes us by. I’ve found the best thing is to ignore the forecast and just to look out of the window.’

Nicola had no time for further discussion about the weather and with a final brief smile breezed on.

They were full, more or less, which was good news but good weather now and for the next month would mean repeat bookings, so Nicola looked anxiously out of the window as she went through the ‘quiet’ adult-only lounge on her way to the meeting with Gerry, passing through the long gallery where a couple of guests were taking morning coffee. She acknowledged them with a breezy smile, pausing to pass the time of day before continuing.

There was a wedding coming up in a few weeks, preparations in full swing, as well as a small corporate event in a few days’ time in the form of drinks and nibbles, which Emma had handed over to her as her first solo venture. It was something of a coup because Emma was notoriously uneasy about delegating. Emma, who was in overall charge of the events team, was very efficient, calm, confident and controlled and a wonderful mentor and Nicola hoped that, by the time Emma moved on – a move back up to her beloved north with her partner was long threatened – she would be deemed ready to step into the lady’s shoes.

She made sure she was well thought of by Emma and Gerry, adopting an agreeable stance with them, so that when the time came for Emma to go, her enthusiasm and gathering expertise would not pass unnoticed. If, on the other hand, Emma’s move up north proved to be just wishful thinking on her part, then she would herself move onwards and upwards, where to she had no idea but it certainly would not be the north. Matthew could do his job from anywhere so there wouldn’t be a problem in persuading him to move. She liked this area well enough but there were some equally attractive areas spread around and staying put seemed rather a dull option.

She thought briefly of her parents, well on the way to Italy by now, and of Matthew’s too. The Walkers had flown before but not very often and she knew that Paula was nervous, but they were on a tour and it was a one-class-only affair on the chartered flight, which would mean her mother having to rough it this time.

Although her mother normally abhorred these sorts of tours on ‘Riff-Raff Air’, this particular tour was of the top-notch variety as her mother had been at pains to point out, certainly not one of these cheapo affairs based at a budget hotel, and they were staying at a high-class hotel in a prime location on the shores of the Italian lake. Interested in hotels from a professional viewpoint, Nicola had looked it up and it certainly looked most impressive, very nearly as impressive as this one.

She entered the manager’s office, where Emma was already there beside Gerry Gilbert, smiling broadly at them and offering them a cheerful good morning, before closing the door. She did not give a hoot about offending the junior staff but when it came to the big knobs it made sense to keep on the right side of them.

The parents, all four of them, would be absolutely fine, she told herself as she eased herself into a chair, and if not, then there was nothing she could do about it.

BOOK: A Close Connection
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ads

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