Victoria Connelly - The Rose Girl, page 1
ALSO BY VICTORIA CONNELLY
Flights of Angels
Escape to Mulberry Cottage A Year at Mulberry Cottage A Dog Called Hope
The Runaway Actress
Wish You Were Here
A Summer to Remember
The Secret of You
Christmas at the Cove
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
One Perfect Week and Other Stories The Retreat and Other Stories Postcard from Venice and Other Stories IN THE AUSTEN ADDICTS SERIES
A Weekend with Mr Darcy
The Perfect Hero
Mr Darcy Forever
Christmas with Mr Darcy
Happy Birthday, Mr Darcy
At Home with Mr Darcy
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Victoria Connelly All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle www.apub.com
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc., or its affiliates.
Cover design by bürosüdo München, www.buerosued.de
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014920271
To Roy with love.
ONE YEAR LATER
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
‘Some people are always grumbling because roses have thorns; I am thankful that thorns have roses.’
Some people mark the beginning of summer by the call of the first cuckoo or the arrival of the first swallow but, for Celeste Hamilton, summer began with the opening of the first rose. It wasn’t surprising, really, because she had grown up in a family of rosarians and had been growing roses all her life. Her first word had been ‘rose’ and the family joke was that they all had roses in the blood. But, when Celeste had left home and married Liam O’Grady, she’d swapped roses for a reclamation yard and had thrown herself into her husband’s business with the joy of somebody who had been given a reprieve. Roses were her past, she’d thought. Only the past had a funny way of catching up with you, didn’t it?
And now I’m coming home, she thought to herself as the old Morris Minor van wended its way through the overgrown lanes of the Stour Valley. She wouldn’t have ever believed she’d return home but, with the death of her mother and the small matter of her marriage being over, Celeste really had no choice. She sighed as she thought of the weeks that lay ahead of her and only hoped that she could sort everything out before those weeks turned into months because she certainly wasn’t going to stay any longer; that wasn’t part of her plan at all.
‘In and out,’ she told herself as she thought about her childhood home, her mind crowded with memories she’d sooner forget. ‘In and out.’ There was no need to get emotional about things. This was business pure and simple.
She wound her window down and the rich notes of a blackbird filled the car. The hedgerows were full of white campion and stripy—petalled mallow, and she spied a forest of foxgloves in the shade of a wood.
Entering the village of Eleigh Tye, she saw the familiar cottage gardens stuffed with sweet peas, honeysuckle and lupins but, despite the scent and the show they put on, Celeste knew that these flowers were only an overture to the brilliant symphony of summer and she soon saw what she was looking for.
Slowing the car at a corner, Celeste smiled as Mrs Keating’s garden came into view and she spied the brilliant yellow of the rose Maigold which climbed up the front of the thatched cottage like a hundred little sunshines, almost completely obscuring one of the tiny downstairs windows. For Celeste, Mrs Keating’s Maigold heralded the beginning of the rose season and she looked out for it every year.
Her mother, Penelope Hamilton, had told her three daughters that the rose was the ‘queen of summer’. Indeed, one of her most famous roses had been given that very name and had provided them with a very good living for many years, but the business hadn’t been doing so well lately. Her mother’s poor health over the last few months had meant a slide in sales and the old manor house which had been the family home for three generations was rapidly falling apart. Sales had also been hit over the last few years by the recession, with people cutting down on the little luxuries in life. It had also been increasingly difficult to compete with the number of new garden centres popping up all over the place selling roses that weren’t nearly as beautiful or rich in fragrance and colour as the Hamiltons’ roses but which were much more affordable.
Celeste took a deep breath as she thought of the challenges that lay ahead. Was it really wise to go back? She’d thought she’d left Little Eleigh behind her forever, but what kind of big sister would she be to Gertie and Evie if she didn’t help them now?
‘What are we going to do?’ she said, addressing the question to her rear view mirror and the reflection of the little wire fox terrier on the back seat. He’d been awake and alert for the whole journey. She’d left her rented house on the north Norfolk coast a little after midday and had managed to squeeze the boxes of books and bags of clothes that made up the sum total of her possessions into the tiny car, leaving just enough room for the dog on the back seat. There’d been a big squashy armchair which she’d bought with Liam but she wouldn’t have been able to fit it into the Morris even if she’d wanted it so she’d left it behind. It seemed crazy to have to pack all her things and bring them back to her family home when she was planning on moving them out again in a few short weeks, but she hadn’t been able to justify paying rent on a place when she wasn’t using it and, if Gertie was to be believed, they needed every penny each of them could scrape together if they were to sort the mess out at the manor.
‘We’ll soon be there, Frinton,’ Celeste told him, watching as he stuck his nose out of the window as far as his doggy seat belt would allow him. Frinton had been a birthday gift from Liam two years ago and she loved him dearly. Named after the seaside resort where Liam had proposed and where Celeste should have run a mile, he was a little bundle of energy and joy and never failed to put a smile on Celeste’s face even when her days had reached their darkest.
‘You’re the best thing to have come out of my marriage, you know that?’ she told the little dog, and how grateful she had been to have his warm company at the bottom of her bed on the nights following the breakdown of her marriage a year ago. But she wasn’t going to think of that now, she told herself. She had more urgent things to think about.
They drove by the
As she passed by a stile where she’d had her first kiss at the age of thirteen, the road curved round to the right, the hedgerows now heading skywards at an alarming speed after the recent rain. Everything was so lush. She slowed the car down and, a moment later, turned left down a private road that was lined with horse chestnuts which provided shade in the summer and shadows in the winter, and littered the road with shiny fat conkers during the autumn.
There was an old slate signpost that read ‘Little Eleigh Manor’ and, next to it, a horrible handmade wooden sign which Evie had made years ago that read ‘Hamilton Roses’. There was a painting of a faded Rosa Mundi on it and the letters were faint and cracked. Celeste made a mental note to get it replaced at once.
The wrought iron gates had been left open for her and she drove over the moat and around the rose bed at the front of the house which would soon be vibrant with Bourbons and Portlands in a dozen shades of pink. Her mother had planted it with some of her favourite species like the voluptuous La Reine Victoria and the gracious Comte de Chambord. Celeste could see some of the buds were about to open any day now and, despite her misgivings about being back, she couldn’t help but look forward to sticking her nose into the soft petals and inhaling deeply. There was nothing quite like an old rose for scent.
Parking the Morris next to an old Volvo shared by her sisters, which was more rust than paintwork these days, she sat for a moment, looking up at the great house. Little Eleigh Manor dated back to the fourteenth century, although it had been added to down the decades with a Tudor wing here and a Jacobean one there. Mostly made of red brick which had mellowed and softened over the years, it also had great stretches of half-timbered construction that leaned precariously over the moat. Dozens of windows of all shapes and sizes winked in the early summer sunshine and the great studded wooden door made the place looked like a fortress.
The gatehouse was probably its most impressive feature with its two four-storey turrets shooting up into the Suffolk sky. Visitors were always impressed by the courtyard that greeted them when they walked though, marvelling at the medieval grandeur. Well, it would have been medieval grandeur once upon a time before everything started to fall apart.
Celeste’s grandparents, Arthur and Esme Hamilton, had bought the property in the 1960s and it had been in a dreadful state. They had done their best to restore it and make it habitable for their family but, despite the success of their rose business, there was never enough money to spend on the house and whole sections of it were still in danger.
Celeste’s mother, Penelope, had just turned a blind eye to it.
‘It’s been standing here for six hundred years. I doubt if it’s going to collapse during my lifetime,’ had been her philosophy. So, doors had been shut and whole wings abandoned. There might be a whole army of ghosts living in part of the old house and they’d never even know about it.
Before Celeste could sink further into depression at the state of the manor, a young blonde-haired woman walked across the driveway. Frinton spotted her instantly and broke into a volley of barks.
‘You’re here!’ she cried, hugging Celeste as soon as she got out of the car. ‘You’re really here! And Frinton too!’
‘Evie! You’ve gone blonde,’ Celeste said, touching the golden halo of her little sister’s hair. ‘Very blonde!’
‘I got fed up with being a brunette,’ Evie said. ‘It was so boring.’ Her brown eyes suddenly widened. ‘I mean, it’s not boring on you, of course. You suit being a brunette.’
Celeste gave a wry grin. She would be the first to admit that she’d never been terribly adventurous when it came to her looks, preferring to keep things neat and simple. In fact, when she came to think about it, she’d worn her hair in the same straight shoulder-length style since she’d been a teenager.
Evie opened the passenger door and released Frinton from his seatbelt. He leapt out of the car and ran half a dozen circles around Evie before jumping halfway up her legs in a bid for attention.
Just as Evie was giving in and scooping the mad terrier up in her arms, Gertrude emerged from the gatehouse, her long dark hair scraped back in a ponytail and a pair of secateurs dangling from a belt around her waist. Gertie was the middle sister and, when she wasn’t pruning roses, could usually be found with her with her nose in a book in a quiet corner of the house, sitting Jane Eyre–style on a windowsill, wishing that her life was more like a Tennyson poem or that she was living in a villa in the sun-drenched hills of Tuscany instead of in a damp Suffolk manor house. She was the same height and had the same slender build as Celeste but her features were softer and finer and her expression was more wistful. Perhaps because she still had all her romantic notions of the world intact and hadn’t had them knocked out of her like Celeste.
Celeste watched as Gertie approached her, shoulders slightly hunched, tense and awkward.
‘Hi,’ Gertie said.
‘Hi,’ Celeste echoed. ‘You okay?’
Gertie nodded. ‘This is weird, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘I’m afraid everything is a complete mess,’ Gertie went on. ‘I’ve not had a chance to tidy around because the boiler’s broken again and we’ve had to move some of the books in the library because that damp patch is now the size of Sudbury.’
Celeste sighed. ‘Well, at least give me a hug before you give me the list of chores to do,’ she said, embracing Gertie and noticing that there was a hen’s feather in her hair.
‘I’m so glad you’re home,’ Gertie added. ‘We’ve missed you. And it’s been so awful getting used to the place without Mum.’ Her face was pale and sombre and Celeste realised that her two sisters were still very much mourning their mother. It had, after all, only been a few weeks since she’d died.
‘I’ve missed you too,’ Celeste said, wishing that she could feel something, anything that approached normality when it came to their mother.
‘Can we help you with your stuff?’ Evie asked and Celeste nodded.
‘Do you want it in your old room?’ Gertie said.
‘Where else?’ Celeste asked.
‘Well, we thought you might like Mum’s old room. It’s got a much nicer view than yours and you’ll have more space too,’ Gertie said. ‘Evie and I have been discussing it, haven’t we?’
Evie nodded. ‘We think it’s too sad to leave it empty.’
‘I don’t want Mum’s room,’ Celeste snapped.
Gertie and Evie stared at her and Celeste bit her lip.
‘I’ll be happier in mine,’ she explained in a gentler tone.
‘Are you sure?’ Gertie asked.
‘Okay then,’ Gertie said.
They each took a box of books and walked across the driveway and through the gatehouse into the courtyard. Celeste swallowed hard at the sight of it, her heart racing unnaturally fast as if it were about to launch her into some kind of panic attack. It didn’t seem a minute since she’d left it all behind her and yet three whole years had passed since she’d said her goodbyes and left to marry Liam. Things felt so different now. She didn’t feel as if she’d grown up, exactly, but she had definitely grown away from her old home; she couldn’t help feeling that she had slipped into reverse by coming home and that her life was tumbling dangerously backwards.
It won’t be the same this time, she told herself, trying to keep a check on her emotions. Her mother was gone now. She was no longer there to criticise or belittle her. She was dead.
Celeste only hoped that Penelope Hamilton wasn’t the sort of person to come back and haunt the living.
Frinton tore up the stairs ahead of the three women, skidding on the bare floorboards at the top before taking off at lightning speed. He’d never visited the manor before and Celeste knew that he was going to have great fun exploring every nook and cranny that it was possible to stick a cold, wet nose into.
‘You’ll have to keep him away from my hens,’ Gertie said as she watched the terrier’s antics.
‘I know,’ Celeste said.
‘I mean it. Terriers are the worst kind of dogs around chickens.’
‘I’ll keep an eye on him. Don’t worry,’ Celeste told her, feeling like a stranger in the place she’d once known as home.
They walked the length of a long corridor lined with old oil paintings and sepia family photographs and reached a room at the end. Gertie pushed the door open with her foot and the three of them entered, placing their boxes of books on the floor.
‘I opened the window first thing this morning but it’s still a bit musty, I’m afraid,’ Gertie said.
‘This old house is always musty,’ Evie said. ‘I bought some incense sticks and lit them around the place but Mum went bananas.’
‘Oh, those things were awful, Evie,’ Gertie said. ‘You made the place smell like a hippie commune.’
‘Well, one of us will have to create a really wonderful rose room scent,’ Evie said. ‘You know – like an air freshener.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with a musty smell,’ Celeste said. ‘It’s the smell of centuries gone by, of woodwork and plaster and old books. I like it.’
Gertie and Evie stared at her as if she was quite mad.
‘Actually, I think it’s just the damp you can smell,’ Evie said, wrinkling her nose.
Two more trips to the car and back and they were done. Celeste sat on the end of her old bed, her hands stroking the pink and green patchwork bedspread. Frinton was lying on the rug in the centre of the room, licking his front paws. It was, she thought, the first time she’d just sat still for months and she let her mind drift. Her eyes scanned the room as if she was seeing it for the first time.
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