Liz, Present Day
Liz washed up on the shore of the Isle of Wight like flotsam, bedraggled in body and spirit. The exhaustion of flying across the world after the emotional upheaval of Tony’s desertion seemed to have knocked the stuffing out of her. She wished she could crawl into a nice warm bed and stay there for a century.
Having learned from experience that her style of driving was incompatible with narrow English country lanes, Liz didn’t hire a car, which would have been the most sensible mode of transport to use on the island during her stay. When she’d told Seagrove’s manager her plans to take a train and a bus to Seagrove, the woman had insisted on sending someone to collect her from the ferry terminal at Ryde. What a relief.
Only during a conversation on the ferry did she learn that buses no longer stopped near Seagrove, because some of the closest road had recently fallen off the cliff. She tried not to be daunted by that.
Nevertheless, by the time she arrived at the Isle of Wight port, Liz could have wept with gratitude when she saw the tall, carelessly dressed individual holding a sign with her name on it. His attention wasn’t on her or on the crowd disembarking from the ferry, but on a paperback novel in his hand.
“Boy, am I glad to see you.” The man looked up and her words trailed away as she saw his face.
No man had a right to be that handsome outside a Hollywood movie. He had a healthy, outdoors look to him, all tousled hair and golden tan. Laughter lines at the corners of his eyes and the deep furrows on either side of his mouth gave his face character, and a little age, too. She guessed he must have been older than she was, but not by much. And those eyes… Sea green and changeable, like the waters that lapped against the nearby shore. He wore faded jeans and a t-shirt that had a tiny rip at the shoulder seam.
His gaze flicked over her without interest. “Is that all you have?”
She looked down at herself. Then she realized he referred to her lack of baggage. Most of her summer wardrobe was in Phuket with Tony, so she’d decided to pack a carry-on suitcase and buy the rest over here.
“Yes, that’s it.” Her mouth twisted a little at the thought of Tony. “Long story.”
He didn’t seem the least bit curious to hear it but merely reached for her bag and headed toward the car park with it.
Her driver was a big man, with that rumpled elegance that seemed coded into the DNA of a certain type of Englishman. He drove an ancient Range Rover that seemed to be held together by chewing gum and string.
This must be the lord of the manor.
“I’m Liz, by the way,” she said over the roof of the car, before getting in.
He looked down at the sign he’d been holding with her name on it, then tossed it to the back seat. “Morning.”
Without taking her lead and introducing himself in return, he climbed in beside her. His physical presence seemed to fill the cabin. What was he, six-four?
Liz was no midget. She’d once heard herself called a ‘strapping wench’ by the senior partner at her old law firm, but she felt tiny next to this man.
He glanced at her as he backed out of the parking space, eyes glittering in the golden tan of his face. Was it her imagination or did his gaze linger with slight puzzlement on her hair? Nothing she’d done to it that morning could get the strange kink out of it. Although to be honest, she hadn’t tried very hard.
She supposed he had a right to judge. While it was as uncontrived as the rest of him, this man’s hair was a work of art. It was brown streaked with every shade of highlight, from caramel to tawny to gold, and shaggy as a surfer’s. She’d no doubt the color was natural. He didn’t seem the type to sit in a salon with little strips of foil sprouting from his head.
“So… what’s your name?” she prompted, because it didn’t look like he was ever going to volunteer the information. A wave of tiredness hit her. What time was it in Australia? She didn’t have the energy to work it out.
“Theo Nash,” he said.
She’d been right about his identity, then. What was the Lord of the manor doing playing chauffeur? Didn’t he have minions to do that for him?
Liz stifled a yawn. “Nice to meet you, Theo.” She rested her head against the window and tried not to fall asleep.
She still hadn’t managed to corner Nick on the real reason he’d sent her here. When questioned further about their conversation in his study, he’d turned annoyingly vague.
That was uncharacteristic of him, come to think of it. Once she’d agreed to go to Seagrove, he’d sent a package of printed information she hadn’t yet had time to read. He’d reiterated her mission to negotiate to buy the estate, but that wasn’t all he wanted. She was sure of it.
What was it that he’d been about to say when Yolande had interrupted them that day? When Liz had pressed for more on the phone, he told her that once she’d settled in and read the material he’d sent, he’d be in touch to discuss strategy.
He’d thanked her for her care of Yolande, and reading between the lines, Liz took it that he’d managed to smooth things over with his wife. Maybe Yolande’s accident had given Nick the jolt he’d needed. Liz hoped so, for Yolande’s sake.
The landscape rattled by in a blur of deep green hills, fields and meadows spotted with sheep. She knew enough of the island’s geography to predict they would head inland to get to Seagrove, so she wouldn’t see much of the coastline. The chalk stumps of the Needles, the island’s most famous landmark, were situated well to the west. Her destination was on the island’s south coast, maybe half an hour’s drive.
If she’d hoped for a tour guide-style commentary on their journey, she was to be disappointed. Theo kept his eyes on the road, muttering now and then when the actions of another motorist displeased him, or raising an index finger from the wheel in acknowledgement when some obliging person pulled onto the shoulder of the road to let him pass.
On the whole, she was glad Theo wasn’t too interested in talking. While she knew she ought to pay attention to the countryside, the motion of the car soon lulled her into a doze.
A sharp bump woke her. Liz opened her eyes.
They’d left the smooth road and were rattling and bouncing along a lane that was little more than a goat track. Liz looked out Theo’s window and saw water on the horizon.
Beyond the track, the cliff fell away steeply, giving her a jolt of vertigo. Her brain told her the edge was some distance away, but her hand gripped the armrest on the door beside her. As if that could keep them from tumbling over.
A structure came into view, but it wasn’t the grand Georgian edifice she’d expected. The Range Rover puttered to a stop outside a large, gabled two story house with dormer windows and a thatched roof. It squatted amid an overgrown garden, as if hunkering down, bracing itself against the elements.
She blinked. “This isn’t Seagrove.”
“No,” said Theo. “The big house is about a mile or so that way.” He pointed in a direction she assumed was north. “This is Saltwater Cottage, where you’re staying. All booked and paid for.”
Before she could get it herself, he grabbed her case and headed up the path.
The garden gate hung loosely on its hinges, flapping rhythmically with the stiff sea breeze. Liz caught it on the backward swing, pushed it open and followed him.
“Cleaned it up a bit,” said Theo, looking around. “Needs a deal more work, though.”
While clearly old and as shabby as her driver, the cottage was clean. That was a relief.
“As long as there’s a bed and a bath, I don’t care,” said Liz. Would decent plumbing be too much to hope for?
Nick’s assistant had made the booking. What was M.J. thinking, to stick her miles away from the real action? If Liz was supposed to be digging for information, didn’t it make a lot more sense for her to stay at the house? Well, she’d see what could be done about her accommodation when she got her wits together.
Liz squinted up at the bare light bulb that hung on a lead over the stairwell. “I’m guessing you don’t have wi-fi here.”
“Not even mobile reception,” said Theo, in a tone that bordered on the self-congratulatory. Liz checked her phone. He was right.
The cottage had an uncanny atmosphere, as if ghosts whispered through cracks in the walls. She often felt like that in old buildings. You didn’t get too many houses of this vintage back home in Brisbane.
She followed Theo into the low-beamed living room that adjoined the small entry hall. He yanked aside the curtains on the front window and sunlight flooded the room.
He’d called the place a cottage, but it was a large house by Liz’s standards, made of stone and covered in a thick blanket of ivy. It was draughty and musty, and she didn’t doubt the chimney was blocked with birds’ nests or the carcasses of sundry climbing animals.
Luckily, it was summer. She wouldn’t need to make use of the fireplace. Besides, if she had anything to do with it, she’d be staying up at the “big house” in no time.
“Hold on,” Theo said, opening a cupboard under the stairs, “I’ll turn the power on.”
“Are you the caretaker, then?” said Liz. She managed to keep her voice deadpan. Something about this man—perhaps his unwillingness to exchange more than monosyllables by way of conversation—made her want to needle him.
When he didn’t answer her, she peered around at him, to see that he watched her with a slightly bemused expression.
“Actually, “caretaker” is a good way of describing it.” He held up her carry-on. “Put this in the bedroom, shall I?” He headed up the stairs.
Liz followed him, thinking he didn’t sound offended by her cheek, which was just as well. She was supposed to be getting to know these people, after all. “Are you Lord Nash, then? Sorry. It’s just that you’re not dressed like a peer of the realm.”
“My Order of the Garter is at the dry-cleaners,” he said over his shoulder, but she caught the glimmer of a smile as he opened one of the doors off the landing.
“Well, you can’t blame me,” said Liz, encouraged by the spark of humor. “I expected a bluff squire type in tweeds and a wax jacket, at the very least.” Not a sun-drenched god in jeans and a ripped t-shirt. Not quite your average Mr. Darcy.