Making Your Mind Up, page 2
“Are you saying I’m fat?”
“I’m thinking of my street cred.”
Interested, Lottie said, “What are you doing here, anyway? In your smart city suit and shiny shoes?”
There clearly wasn’t much call for city suits here in Hestacombe. As they turned to leave, Tyler glanced back at the lake, where iridescent dragonflies were darting over the surface of the water and a family of ducks had just swum into view. Casually he said, “Just visiting.”
Gingerly picking her way along the stony, uneven lane, Lottie winced and said meaningfully, “Ouch, my feet.”
* * *
Lottie Carlyle attracted a fair amount of attention as they made their way through Hestacombe. Something told Tyler that irrespective of what she was wearing, she always would. Passing motorists grinned in recognition and tooted their horns, villagers out in their yards waved and made teasing comments, and Lottie in turn told them exactly what she was going to do with Ruby and Nat when she got her hands on them.
As they approached Piper’s Cottage they spotted the children playing with a watering can in the front yard, taking turns spinning around, holding the can at arm’s length and spraying each other with water.
“Viewers of a nervous disposition may wish to look away now,” said Lottie. “This is where I go into scary mother mode.” Raising her voice, she called out, “Hey, you two. Put that watering can down.”
The children looked at their mother, promptly abandoned the watering can and, giggling wildly, shot up into the branches of the apple tree overhanging the front wall.
“I know what you did.” Reaching the yard, Lottie peered up into the tree. “And trust me, you’re in big trouble.”
From the depths of the leafy branches, an innocent voice said, “We were just watering the flowers. Otherwise they’d die.”
“I’m talking about my clothes. That wasn’t funny, Nat. Running off with someone’s clothes is no joke.”
“We didn’t do it,” Nat said immediately.
Ruby chimed in, “It wasn’t us.”
Tyler looked over at Lottie Carlyle. Maybe he’d made a mistake. Catching his concerned expression, she rolled her eyes. “Please don’t believe them. They always say that. You can catch Nat with a mouthful of chocolate and he’ll still swear blind he hasn’t had any.”
“But it wasn’t us,” Nat repeated.
“We didn’t do it,” said Ruby, “and that’s the truth.”
“The more guilty they are, the more they deny it.” Lottie sensed Tyler’s unease. “Last week they were playing with a slingshot in the bathroom and the mirror happened to get broken. But guess what? Neither of them did that either.”
“Mum, this time we really didn’t take your clothes,” said Ruby.
“No? Well, this man here says you did. Because he saw you,” Lottie explained, “and unlike you two, he doesn’t tell lies. So you can climb down from there and go get my clothes this minute.”
“We don’t know where they are!” Ruby let out a wail of outrage.
Without a word, Lottie disappeared inside the cottage. Through the open windows they heard the banging and crashing of cupboards and wardrobes being opened and shut. Finally, triumphantly, she reemerged carrying a scrunched-up pink dress, a pair of flat silver sandals and a yellow-and-white-striped bath towel.
“It wasn’t us,” Nat blurted out.
“Really. Funny how they happened to be in the backyard then, isn’t it?” As she spoke, Lottie was shrugging off the miles-too-big suit jacket, handing it back to Tyler and wriggling into her crumpled sundress. “Now listen, taking my clothes was bad enough. Telling lies and denying it is even worse. So you can forget about going to the balloon festival this weekend, and you won’t be getting any allowance either.”
“But it was somebody else,” squealed Ruby.
“This man says it was you. And out of the three of you, funnily enough, I believe him. So get down out of that tree, get into the house, and start tidying your bedrooms. I mean it,” said Lottie. “This minute. Or I’ll stop your allowance for the next six weeks.”
First Ruby, then Nat dropped down from the branches. Dark eyes narrowed in disgust, they glared at Tyler. As Ruby stalked past him she muttered, “You’re the big liar.”
“Ruby. Stop that.”
Nat, with bits of twig caught in his hair, looked up at Tyler and said with a scowl, “I’m going to tell my dad on you.”
“Ooh, he’s so scared.” Lottie deftly swept him past Tyler. “Inside. Now.”
Nat and Ruby disappeared into the house. By this time, feeling terrible, Tyler said, “Listen, maybe I did make a mistake.”
“They’re children; it’s their job to get up to mischief.” Knowingly, Lottie said, “I’m guessing you don’t have any of your own.”
Tyler shook his head. “No.”
“Look, they hate you for telling on them.” Lottie’s eyes sparkled. “They’re doing their best to make you feel bad. But you never have to see them again, do you, so what does it matter?” As she spoke, someone inside the cottage burst into noisy heaving sobs. “That’ll be Nat, standing by the window to make completely sure we can hear him. I’m surprised he didn’t tell me an eagle flew off with my clothes then dropped them in our backyard. Anyway I’d better go. Thanks for the jacket. I hope it isn’t too damp.” She paused, raking her fingers through her wet hair, then broke into a dazzling smile. “It was kind of nice to meet you.”
“Waaaaahhh,” bawled Nat, evidently inconsolable.
“Kind of nice to meet you too.” Tyler had to raise his voice to be heard over the heartbreaking noise.
“Well, thanks again.” Lottie paused as a thought occurred to her. “Um…did you hear me singing earlier?”
“That was you?” He grinned. “More to the point, that was singing?”
Her dark eyes danced with mischief. “I sound a lot better underwater.”
As a fresh round of sobbing broke out inside the cottage, Tyler said, “I’ll take your word for it.”
Changed into a lime-green tank top and white jeans, Lottie made her way out onto the broad terrace behind Hestacombe House, where Freddie was sitting at the table levering open a bottle of wine.
“There you are. Good, good. Have a seat,” said Freddie, thrusting a glass into her hand, “and get some of this down you. You’re going to need it.”
“Why?” Lottie had been wondering why he’d asked her to come over to the house this evening. Not normally reticent, Freddie had been out and about a lot recently without letting on what he was up to. Tonight, in his white polo shirt and pressed khaki trousers, he was looking tanned and fit, maybe even a little trimmer than usual. Don’t say he’d found himself a lady friend at last.
“Cheers.” Freddie clinked his glass against hers. There was definitely a secret in there, waiting to burst out.
“Cheers. Don’t tell me.” Delighted for her employer, Lottie held up her free hand to stop him in his tracks. “I think I’ve already guessed!”
“Actually, you probably haven’t.” But Freddie was leaning back, smiling at her as he lit a cigar. “But fire away. Tell me what you think.”
“I thiiiiiink”—Lottie drew out the word—“that love could be in the air.” Playfully, mystically, she wiggled her fingers. “I do believe we could be talking romance here.”
“Lottie, I’m too old for you.”
She pulled a face at him. “I meant with someone your own age. Am I wrong then?”
“Just a bit.” Freddie was puffing away on his cigar, his signet ring glinting in the sunlight.
“You should, you know. Find someone lovely.” Since Mary’s death, Freddie hadn’t so much as looked at another woman, yet if the right one were to come along Lottie knew he could be happy again. It
“Well, that’s not going to happen. Are you drinking that or letting it evaporate?”
Lottie obediently took a couple of giant gulps.
“Like it?” Freddie surveyed her with amusement.
“What kind of a question is that? It’s red, it’s warm, it’s not corked. Of course I like it.”
“Good, seeing as it’s a Château Margaux 1988.”
Lottie, who knew nothing about fine wines, nodded knowledgeably and said, “Ah, yes, thought so.”
His eyes sparkling, Freddie said, “Two fifty a bottle.”
“Hey, excellent. Is that one of those half-price offers in the supermarket?”
“Two hundred and fifty pounds a bottle, you philistine.”
“Jesus, are you joking?” Spluttering and almost spilling the rest of the wine on her jeans, Lottie clunked the glass onto the table. Seeing that he wasn’t joking she wailed, “What are you doing, giving me stuff like that to drink? That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!”
“Because you know I’m a philistine, so it’s just a complete waste.”
“You said you liked it,” Freddie pointed out.
“But I didn’t appreciate it, did I? I just guzzled it down like soda, because you told me to! Well, you can finish my glass.” Lottie pushed it across the table toward him. “Because I’m not touching another drop.”
“Sweetheart, I bought this wine ten years ago,” said Freddie. “It’s been in the cellar all this time, waiting for a special occasion.”
Lottie rolled her eyes in despair. “It’s certainly a special occasion now. The day your assistant spattered Château Margaux whatever-it-is all over your terrace. You’d have been better leaving it in the cellar for another ten years.”
“Yes, well. Maybe I don’t want to. Anyway, you haven’t asked me yet why this is a special occasion.”
“Go on then, tell me.”
Freddie sat back and blew a perfect, practiced smoke ring. “I’m selling the business.”
Startled, Lottie said, “Is this another joke?”
“No.” He shook his head.
“I’m sixty-four. People retire at my age, don’t they? It’s time to hand over and do the kind of things I want to do. Plus, the right buyer happened to come along. Don’t worry, your job’s safe.” His eyes twinkling, Freddie said, “In fact, I think the two of you might get on extremely well.”
Since this was Hestacombe and not some bustling city metropolis, it didn’t take a genius to work it out.
“The American guy,” said Lottie, exhaling slowly. “The one in the suit.”
“The very same.” Nodding, Freddie said slyly, “Don’t try to pretend you can’t remember his name.”
“Tyler Klein.” Freddie was right; when strangers were that good-looking, their names simply didn’t slip your mind. “We met down at the lake this afternoon.”
“He did happen to mention it.” Entertained, Freddie took another puff of his cigar. “Interesting encounter, by the sound of things.”
“You could say that. So what’s going to happen, exactly? Is he buying everything? Are you moving away? Oh, Freddie, I can’t imagine this place without you.”
Lottie meant it. Freddie and Mary Masterson had moved to Hestacombe House twenty-two years ago. Freddie had caught her stealing apples from his orchard when she was nine years old, the same age Ruby was now. He was part of the village and they would all miss him if he was no longer around.
Plus, he was a great boss.
“I’m not selling this house. Just the business.”
Relieved, Lottie said, “Oh well, that’s not so bad then. So you’ll still be here. It won’t really be that different after all.”
Hestacombe Vacation Cottages had been built up by Freddie and Mary into a successful concern over the years; eight original properties, painstakingly renovated, were either dotted around the lakeside or, for greater seclusion, tucked away in the woods. Guests, many of them devoted regulars, rented the ravishingly pretty homes for anything between a couple of nights and a month at a time, safe in the knowledge that their every whim would be catered to while they enjoyed their break away from it all in the heart of the Cotswolds.
“Here, drink your drink.” Freddie pushed the glass back across the table toward her. “Tyler Klein’s a good man. Everything’ll be fine.” With a twinkle in his eye he added, “You’ll be in safe hands.”
Now there was a mental image to conjure with.
This time, taking a girlie sip, Lottie did her utmost to appreciate the expensiveness of the Château Margaux. It was nice, of course it was, but she’d still never have known. “So where will he be living?”
“Fox Cottage. We only have to rejig a few bookings. As long as the guests are moved into something better they won’t mind.”
Fox Cottage, their most recent acquisition, had spent the last three months being extensively redesigned. By some miracle the work had been completed ahead of schedule. It was one of their smaller properties, the second floor now knocked through to make just one huge bedroom with floor-to-ceiling windows affording a stupendous view over the lake.
“Not very big.” Innocently Lottie said, “Won’t his wife find it a bit cramped?”
Freddie grinned. “I think what you’re trying to ask is, is he married?”
So much for being subtle. Kicking off her sandals and tucking her feet under her on the padded chair, she said, “And?”
Excellent, Lottie thought happily. Although having introduced him to Nat and Ruby, she’d probably already succeeded in putting him off her for life.
But something else was still puzzling her. “Where did you find him, then? You didn’t even tell me you were thinking of selling the business.”
“Fate.” Freddie shrugged and refilled their glasses. “Remember Marcia and Walter?”
Of course. Marcia and Walter Klein, from New York. For the past five years the Kleins had been coming to Hestacombe every Easter without fail, using one of the cottages as a base while they explored, with typically American enthusiasm, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath, Cheltenham—all the usual tourist traps.
“They’re his parents.” Lottie realized that the son Marcia had been boasting about all these years was, in fact, Tyler. “But he’s some kind of hotshot Wall Street banker type, isn’t he? Why ever would he want to give that up and move over here? That’s like Lewis Hamilton giving up Formula One to drive a milk float.”
“Tyler wants a change. I’m sure he’ll tell you his reasons for doing it. Anyway, Marcia rang a couple weeks ago to arrange their booking for next Easter and we got chatting about retirement,” said Freddie. “I happened to mention that I was thinking of selling. Two days later she rang back and said she’d mentioned it to her son, who was interested. He’d had a good look at the website. Of course he’d already heard about us from Marcia and Walter—bless ’em, they were praising us to the skies. So then Tyler rang me. I told him what I was asking for the business and put him in touch with my accountant so he could go through the figures. Last night he flew into Heathrow and came to see the place for himself. And two hours ago he made me a fair offer.”
Just like that.
“Which you accepted,” said Lottie.
“Which I accepted.”
“Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” Was it her imagination, or was Freddie not quite as happy with the situation as he was pretending to be?
“Absolutely sure.” Freddie nodded.
Oh, well then. He was entitled to a bit of fun. “In that case, congratulations. Here’s to a long and happy retirement.” Raising her glass and clinking it against his, Lottie said encouragingly, “You’ll have a fantastic time. Think of all the brilliant things you’ll be able to
This time Freddie’s smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “There’s something else.”
“Oh God. Not marathon running.”
“Actually, it’s worse than marathon running.” His fingers tightening around the stem of his glass, Freddie said simply, “I have a brain tumor.”
Lottie looked at him. This couldn’t possibly be a joke. But it had to be. How was Freddie able to just sit there and say something like that? She felt her heart begin to thud loudly, like a drum. How could it be true?
“I know, bit of a conversation stopper. Sorry about that.” Evidently relieved to have it out in the open, Freddie added, “Although I must say, I never thought I’d see you at a loss for words.”
Lottie gathered her wits. “Well, it’s a shock. But the doctors can do so much now; it’ll be fine—they just whip them out these days, don’t they? You wait. You’ll be as good as new in no time.”
It was what she wanted to believe, but even as the words were tumbling out, Lottie knew the situation was far worse than that. This wasn’t like cradling a child with a grazed knee, sticking a Disney bandage on, and reassuring them that it would stop hurting in a minute.
This wasn’t something she could kiss better.
“Right, I’m telling you this, but I’d appreciate it if you don’t pass it on to anyone else,” said Freddie. “The tumor is inoperable, so the surgeons can’t whip it out. Chemo and radiotherapy won’t cure me, but they might buy me a little more time. Well, funnily enough I wasn’t tempted by that, so I said thanks but no thanks.”
“I’d also appreciate it if you didn’t interrupt,” Freddie said calmly. “Now that I’ve started I’d quite like to finish. So anyway, I decided pretty much straightaway that if I don’t have long to live, I’d rather live it on my own terms. We both know what Mary went through.” He looked at Lottie. “Two years of surgery, endless nightmare treatments. All that pain. She spent months feeling like death, and what good did it do? At the end of it all, she died anyway. So I’m going to give that a miss. According to my consultant, I have maybe a year. Well, that’s fine. I’ll make the most of it, see how things go. He warned me that the last few months might not be pretty, so I told him that, in any case, I’d probably give them a miss too.”