Making your mind up, p.27

Making Your Mind Up, page 27

 

Making Your Mind Up
 



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  “Right, we will. But I think we should contact a professional agency. They’ll know how to track her down; they have all kinds of clever methods—”

  “Maybe, maybe. But give it one more try.” Freddie knew he was being irrational, but by some superstitious urge he wanted Lottie to be the one to find Giselle. “Now listen, I’ve had a word with Tyler and he’s said I can borrow you tomorrow. Will you go up to Oxford and see if you can pick up any clues?”

  “Of course I will.” Jumping up as Nat rat-tatted on the glass, Lottie hauled open the sash window and helped first him then Ruby over the window ledge and into the drawing room.

  “You have the best chestnuts,” Nat excitedly told Freddie. “We’ve got hundreds!” Rummaging in his bulging shopping bag, he pulled out a good-size sample. “Here, you can have this one if you like.”

  “Why, thank you. Most generous.” Freddie took the glossy chestnut, weighed it in his palm. “Is this the best one?”

  “No,” said Nat. “The best ones are in my pockets.”

  “Sensible boy.” Tickled by his honesty, Freddie said, “I keep the best ones in my pockets too,” and slipped each of them a pound coin.

  “Freddie,” Lottie scolded. “They’re spoiled enough.”

  “No we’re not,” whispered Nat.

  “Grab a pen,” Freddie instructed Lottie. “I’m going to give you as much information about Giselle as I can remember.”

  Endlessly curious, Ruby said, “Who’s Giselle?”

  “When I was young, she was my girlfriend.”

  “Did you love her?”

  “Yes, I did.”

  “Kiss her?” Ruby was interested.

  “Often.”

  “That’s romantic. Where does she live?”

  Freddie shrugged. “I don’t know. We’re hoping to find her.”

  “Like my soccer ball.” Nat nodded sagely. “I kicked it over the fence and never saw it again. I think somebody stole it.”

  “Freddie didn’t kick his girlfriend over the fence, duh. And nobody stole her.” Looking thoughtful, Ruby turned back to Freddie. “Are you looking for her because you want her to be your girlfriend again?”

  Freddie and Lottie exchanged glances. “No, nothing like that.” Freddie did his best not to smile. “I’d just like to see her again, find out how she is.”

  “Now who’s a duh.” Nat turned back triumphantly to Ruby. “For one thing he’s too old to have a girlfriend. And for another, she’d have found someone else by now.”

  * * *

  It was windy, it was raining, and it was as if Giselle Johnston and her family had been beamed up by aliens and carried off to another planet. That was the difference between towns and villages, Lottie was discovering as she trudged the streets of Oxford, battling to stop her umbrella being blown inside out. If someone were to come to Hestacombe inquiring about her in forty years’ time, people would be able to tell them where she was living now and exactly what she’d been up to. They would just know.

  But it was different here. Giselle had lived with her parents in an ordinary Victorian terraced house in Cardigan Street to the north of the city. In recent years it had clearly been designated an up-and-coming area, and the homes had been spruced up out of all recognition by yuppies and developers. Lottie, who had spent the last two hours knocking on glossy front doors, had spoken to many upwardly mobile mothers with young children and even more nannies and au pairs employed to look after the young children while the upwardly mobile mothers went out to work. None of these near neighbors knew each other, let alone a family who had lived on the street forty years ago.

  Having first peered through the front window of 274 Cardigan Street, Lottie knocked at the front door and waited without expectation for a reply. Whoever lived here was out, and she sensed that anyone who decorated their living room in charcoal and silver and was so evidently a devotee of urban chic wasn’t likely to have known the Johnstons.

  She turned away and braced herself for another onslaught of rain, which was pelting down at such an angle now that it was coming under her umbrella. A small round figure clad in an electric-blue raincoat and carrying a black trash bag was trotting briskly down the road toward her. Lottie, fully expecting her to trot past the front gate, was astounded when the figure paused, clicked the gate open, and hurried up the front path of number 274.

  “Afternoon,” said the woman pleasantly. “Can I help you?”

  She had to be around seventy. Springy gray hair, orange lipstick, and an interested look in her eyes.

  “Do you live here?” As she said it, Lottie was eyeing the front door key in her hand.

  “Good grief, I hope you’re joking! Have you had a look through that window?” The woman’s eyes shot up into her hairline. “It’s like a flaming spaceship in there. Do I look the type who’d want to live in a spaceship?”

  “Well, no…”

  “Go on, take a peek!”

  “I already have,” Lottie admitted.

  “So what’re you doing here? Selling something?”

  “Looking for someone.”

  “Sorry, love. Mr. Carter’s out at work.”

  “Not Mr. Carter. I’m trying to trace someone who lived here on this road forty years ago. Her name was Giselle Johnston.”

  The woman fit the key into the front door and opened it. “Giselle? Oh yes, I remember her. You look like a drowned puppy, love. Want to come in for a cup of tea?”

  The woman’s name was Phyllis and she lived three streets away. Had lived three streets away her whole life. Now a grandmother, she worked two days a week cleaning other people’s houses.

  “Are you sure Mr. Carter won’t mind?” Lottie was aware that she was dripping puddles of rain onto the spotless white kitchen floor.

  “What the eye doesn’t see, the heart won’t grieve over. Here, love, give me your coat. Heavens, you’re wet all over. Soaked through!”

  Phyllis wasn’t wrong there. Furthermore, she’d removed her bright blue raincoat, and her lemon-yellow acrylic twinset was bone dry.

  This is when you know you are getting old, thought Lottie. When you begin to realize that a raincoat is, in fact, a Very Useful Thing, if not Downright Desirable.

  “He works for an advertising agency,” Phyllis went on. “Leaves this house at seven thirty every morning, never back before six. I just come in when it suits me for a couple hours, have a clean around, and let myself out. Lovely little job. Cash in hand. Me and my hubby went on a cruise around the Med last year.”

  “And you do his washing for him,” said Lottie as Phyllis began loading the contents of the black trash bag into Mr. Carter’s tumble dryer.

  “Nooo, love. I just borrow this to dry my own clothes. He’s a nice chap, he wouldn’t mind.” Phyllis froze and said cautiously, “You’re not from the Tax Office, are you?”

  “Now I really hope you’re joking.” Lottie was genuinely appalled. “Do I look like I work for the Tax Office?”

  “Sit yourself down then. I’ll make us that cup of tea.” Having switched on the tumble drier, Phyllis began to fill the streamlined black kettle. “So what’s all this about you looking for Giselle?”

  At last.

  “A friend of mine knew Giselle when she was much younger. He’d like to see her again. Freddie Masterson,” said Lottie, suddenly realizing that Phyllis could be about to slap her thigh and exclaim, “Freddie Masterson? Well I never! How is dear old Freddie these days?”

  But no thighs were slapped. Instead Phyllis pursed her orange mouth and said, “Oh. Him. Well, no wonder he sent you to do his dirty work.”

  Yikes. “Why?”

  “Because he wouldn’t get a warm welcome if he did find her, mark my words. I remember Freddie. Broke that girl’s heart, he did. Poor thing, she’d done nothing to deserve it. How many sugars?”

 
Two.” Lottie excitedly blinked rain from her eyelashes. “And he’s really sorry he hurt her. So does she still live around here?” Hey, this was fantastic; maybe she could meet Giselle this afternoon, persuade her to come back to Hesta—

  “No, love. Went to America. Milk?”

  America. Bugger. Lottie nodded. “Are you still in touch with her?”

  Phyllis shook her head. “I’m talking almost forty years ago, pet. We knew each other and all, but you wouldn’t say we were best friends. She met an American lad with a funny name and got engaged to him. They went off to the States to get married. That was the last I heard of Giselle. And then her parents moved away too—but they’d be dead now.”

  Oh well, anything was better than nothing. Taking a notebook and pen out of her sodden handbag Lottie said, “What was the funny name of the American lad?”

  “Tuh, don’t ask much, do you? Polish, it was. Started with a K. Ended with –offski. All manner of twiddly syllables in between. Kiddlyiddlyoffski, something along those lines. That any good to you?”

  Sometimes, it appeared, anything wasn’t better than nothing after all. So as not to hurt Phyllis’s feelings, Lottie wrote Kiddlyiddlyoffski in her notebook.

  “Can you remember his first name?”

  “Not a clue, love. Tom, Ted, Dan, something like that. Never met him myself. Here, get that tea down you. How about a cookie to go with it?”

  “Oh, thanks.” Lottie helped herself to a chocolate cookie. “Any idea whereabouts in America they might have gone?”

  Phyllis frowned, as if trying hard to squeeze an answer out of her brain. “Could it have been…Toronto?”

  It seemed her brain was constipated.

  “Is there anyone else around here who might know?” Lottie wondered if it was too late to hope for a miracle.

  “Sorry, love, can’t think of a soul. It’s all changed around here, you know. Nobody left from the old days. Ooh, it’s time for my program.” Having glanced up at the futuristic clock on the wall, Phyllis picked a remote out of the stainless steel fruit bowl and switched on the portable TV.

  “Well, thanks anyway. You’ve been really…um, helpful.” Lottie finished her cup of tea and swallowed the last mouthful of cookie. She put away her notebook and shrugged her arms back into the sleeves of her soggy jacket. So much for miracles. If this had been a film, Phyllis would have said at the last minute, “Oh, how silly of me not to have thought of it before. Of course I know how to find out where she is!”

  But it wasn’t, and Phyllis the cleaner, munching her third chocolate cookie, was already engrossed in an episode of Quincy, ME.

  “I’ll be off then,” said Lottie.

  “Right you are, love. Nice to meet you anyway. When you see Freddie Masterson you can tell him from me he’s an old bastard. And if he doesn’t manage to find Giselle Johnston it jolly well serves him right.”

  Chapter 42

  “You’re an old bastard and it jolly well serves you right.”

  Freddie chuckled, although there was sadness in his eyes. “Suppose it does. Good old Phyllis, always one to speak her mind.”

  He was sitting at the polished oak desk in his office surrounded by paperwork. Producing a printout, Lottie said, “We’re still going to find Giselle. I’ve done my best, but it’s time to call in the professionals. Here’s a list of companies that trace missing persons. Pick one of them, and they’ll track her down in no time. Just think, Giselle might have been waiting forty years to throw a drink in your face.”

  “Run me over with a steamroller, more like. Disappointed that you couldn’t find her yourself?” said Freddie, sitting back in the swivel chair.

  “You know I am. We both wanted me to be able to do it.”

  “Never mind. I’ve got one more for you to try. Should be a bit easier this time.” His mouth twitched with amusement as Lottie reached eagerly for her trusty notebook. “Her name’s Amy Painter.”

  “Not another old girlfriend. Honestly, who d’you think you are?” Lottie was busy scribbling down the name. “Jack Nicholson?”

  “She’s about your age.”

  “Freddie! You do think you’re Jack Nicholson!”

  “Amy isn’t an old girlfriend.” As Lottie’s eyes widened he added hastily, “She isn’t my daughter either.”

  “Oh.” Lottie fanned herself energetically. “Thank goodness for that. You had me going there for a minute.”

  “You’ll like Amy. Everyone does. In fact, you may even recognize her,” said Freddie. “I’m pretty sure the two of you have met before.”

  As Lottie was leaving the house ten minutes later, Freddie said, “I haven’t even asked. How’s it going with this new chap of yours?”

  “It’s going great.” Lottie blushed slightly, because last night, for the first time, Seb had stayed at Piper’s Cottage. They had spent the night together and made love twice. “We really have fun. Nat and Ruby love him.”

  “I’ll have to meet him myself, give him the once over. See if he deserves you.”

  “Oh, he does. I’m just not sure I deserve him.” Touched by the genuine concern in his eyes, Lottie could hardly bear to think that Freddie might not be with them for much longer. “He’s away for three weeks from tomorrow, organizing a polo tournament in Dubai. But as soon as he’s back I’ll bring him over here, I promise.”

  * * *

  “So if we go to Blenheim Palace, will we be able to meet the Duke and Duchess of…Blenheim?”

  Lottie carefully didn’t meet Tyler’s eye—he was sitting across from her in the office. The Mahoneys, over from Minnesota, were visiting England for the first time and had their hearts set on being introduced to anyone with a title. They’d already visited Windsor Castle and been sorely disappointed not to have been greeted personally at the front gate by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Now, clearly, they were prepared to lower their standards.

  “I think they’re pretty busy.” Lottie did her best to let them down tactfully. “But it’s still a fantastic place to visit. You can—”

  “Highgrove Castle?” Maura Mahoney was riffling through her tourist’s guidebook. “Would Charlie be there?”

  “Highgrove House isn’t actually open to the public.” Lottie was aware of Tyler raising his eyebrows at her. If her legs had been twenty feet longer she would have kicked him. Hard.

  “Highgrove House? He’s the Prince of England and he doesn’t even live in a castle? You guys should take more care of your royal family,” Maura chided. “OK then, how about Gatcombe Palace? If we just dropped by to say hi, d’you reckon Princess Anne would at least give us her autograph?”

  More like the finger, thought Lottie, casting wildly around for a satisfactory solution. “The thing is, the royals don’t really go in for…for…” Her voice faltered as the door swung open and Seb breezed into the office. “For, um, autographs.”

  “Who wants my autograph?” Seb flashed a wicked grin, raised a hand in casual greeting at Tyler, then said to Lottie, “Got a couple minutes? I’m on my way to the airport.”

  Lottie’s hand flew to her chest; with his floppy, upper-class blond hair and super fit body, the sight of Seb when she wasn’t expecting to see him still had the ability to send her heart into overdrive. “I’m busy at the moment. Can you hang on a bit?”

  Maura Mahoney was avidly taking in every detail of Seb’s spectacular six-foot-two body. Her gaze fastened upon the blue and white polo shirt bearing the Beaufort Polo Club logo. “Excuse me for asking, but do you play polo?”

  “Why yes, I do.” Surveying in return Maura’s squat body, bulging curves, and size twentysomething Burberry trousers, Seb said gravely, “Do you play as well?”

  “Are you crazy? I’m way too old for that kind of thing!” Maura blushed and fluttered her mousy lashes. “But you sure look the part! You don’t play with the princes, I suppose?”
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br />   Seb nodded. “Regularly. We’re great friends. Why?”

  “Oh my Gaad! I don’t believe this.” Fanning herself energetically with her tourist’s guide, Maura gabbled, “You’ve made my vacation! And you talk just like them too! Would you do me the world’s biggest favor and let me take your photograph? Or better still…” Almost strangling herself as she attempted to unloop the Canon from around her neck, Maura thrust it into Lottie’s hands. “Here, sweetie, would you take a few pictures of the two of us together?”

  Lottie ushered them out of the office and solemnly took a ream of photos of Maura, bursting with pride, standing next to Seb. When Maura and her hot flash had been duly dispatched, Seb swung Lottie into his arms and said, “Jesus, are all Americans that gullible?”

  “Shhh.” Lottie jerked her head meaningfully at the office door, which was after all only about six feet away.

  “What? Oh.” Amused, Seb strolled over and stuck his head around the door. “Sorry.”

  Tyler, sounding as if his teeth might be gritted, said politely, “Don’t mention it.”

  “It’s like buses. You don’t see a Yank for ages then two come along at once.” Seb looked thoughtful for a moment. “Not that I’ve ever caught a bus.”

  Hurriedly Lottie said, “I didn’t know you played polo with the princes.”

  “God yes, have done for years.” Seb’s eyes danced. “Gavin Prince and Steve Prince.”

  More disappointed than she cared to admit, Lottie said, “I won’t tell Maura that.”

  “Oh dear. Is that a letdown? I do know the other princes too, but only to say hello to.” Sliding his arms back around her, he pulled her toward him. “Does this mean you won’t miss me while I’m gone? How about a quickie, just to remind you what you’ll be missing?”

  OK, this was getting the teensiest bit awkward now. Tyler was inside the office overhearing every word, whether he wanted to or not. Attempting to draw Seb away from the door and meeting with some resistance, Lottie realized he was doing it on purpose.

 
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