Daring in a blue dress, p.2
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       Daring In a Blue Dress, p.2

           Katie MacAlister

  “Bestwood,” he said aloud, enjoying the way the word sounded. “Bestwood Hall. Not a manor, not an abbey, but a hall. Why, hello, how do you do? This? Yes, that’s Bestwood Hall. I own it. I am the master of Bestwood Hall. Heh. That sounds like a Victorian melodrama: The Mystery of Bestwood Hall. The Ghost of Bestwood Hall. Big Bouncing Baby Bustles of Bestwood Hall.”

  He amused himself for a while with titles; then his mind drifted over the work that was before him. Buying the house wasn’t difficult—he’d heard about it from Toby, one of his many former university roommates, who was now a solicitor dealing with complex wills and estates.

  “You’re looking for a house, right?” Toby had said some three months earlier, when Alden had run out of funds and been forced to take a job working under the table for a less-than-scrupulous builder. “Something you can fix up and sell for a profit?”

  “I am,” Alden said, a little flare of hope burning inside him. “But I don’t have much capital. One of my biological relations left me a small amount in an antiquated trust, and my brother Elliott convinced the trustee to release the funds if they were used to purchase a property.”

  “Your biological . . . oh, that’s right, you’re adopted. I forgot that your family was . . .”

  “Multicultural,” Alden said, coming to Toby’s rescue. “That’s the politically correct term for Mum and Dad adopting kids from whatever country took their fancy. A few of my brothers are from Africa, a couple from what used to be the Eastern bloc, and the rest of us from assorted locations elsewhere. My biological family was from Scotland, and Mum kept in contact with them on my behalf until I was old enough to decide if I wanted to know them or not.”

  “And do you?” Toby asked, clearly intrigued.

  “I would have if they hadn’t all died off.” Alden shrugged. “I didn’t get to meet any of them, but that didn’t stop a distant cousin from leaving me the little trust, albeit a frustrating one.”

  “I hate those trusts,” Toby said in an acid tone. “The kind that are tied with the most annoying red tape that you can imagine. Just last week our senior partner dropped a heinous case on me involving not one but two entailments . . . but I digress.”

  “Do you have a house for me to look at?” Alden asked, hoping against hope that the property would be within his means, both monetarily and with regard to renovation. “Where is it? More importantly, how much is it?”

  “It’s an old house—Tudor, I think—although I don’t know that you’d want it. It’s barely habitable. The old man who owned it was not only a miser but a recluse. He lived there for more than eighty years, along with his wife and a couple of crusty servants, leaving behind a mountain of debts that his widow couldn’t possibly pay in her lifetime. A local bank took charge of the house last year due to the debts, and I’ve just heard from an old friend at the bank that they’re looking for a buyer.”

  “There’s bound to be lots of people interested in a historical property,” Alden protested, his hopes dashed. He rather liked the idea of restoring a Tudor house. It appealed to his fascination with history.

  “Normally, I’d agree. But according to Tom Scott, my friend at the bank, the managers are trying to handle the sale for Lady Sybilla in such a way as to not upset her.”

  “That seems a bit odd. A bank caring about someone who’s lost possession of their house, that is.”

  “Ah, but you aren’t factoring in the element of ye old family retainer,” Toby told him. “Tom says the bank managers insist on handling the situation with kid gloves. There’s an old family connection, or something of that sort, I gather. So rather than putting the place on the market and fetching the highest price, they’re looking for someone to agree to their terms so they can avoid the publicity that would go along with a public sale.”

  “The managers must really like the old lady,” Alden said thoughtfully, wondering if he dared hope that his meager trust would cover the sale of a historic house and land.

  “Well, there are conditions that go with the sale, of course,” Toby said.

  Alden nodded, even though his friend wouldn’t see the gesture. “I had no doubt there would be. Something prohibitive, no doubt.”

  “Not horribly so, actually. Tom told me the gist of the restrictions. . . . I know I wrote it down, just in case you’d be interested. . . . Ah, here it is. The buyer must grant Lady Sybilla the right to stay on the estate in the gatehouse for the duration of her life. Also, the house can’t be demolished with the purpose of rebuilding, and any restorations must be done in a manner appropriate to the style of the existing structures. All pretty benign restrictions, if you ask me.”

  “And how much are they asking for the house?”

  Alden’s eyes widened when Toby went into specifics. Buying the house would wipe out not only his trust, but also the carefully nurtured nest egg he’d built up over the past eighteen years. It wouldn’t leave him with any funds to hire people to do restoration work, which meant he’d have to do it all himself.

  “That’s an awful lot of money,” he said at last.

  “Too much for you?”

  “No.” He thought for a few minutes more. “Is there . . . this is going to sound very crass, but are there any restrictions about selling the house once it’s legally mine?”

  “No,” Toby said slowly, the rustle of papers evident. “No, I don’t see anything about selling it. There’s the stipulation that Lady Sybilla be allowed residence in the gatehouse for her lifetime, but other than that, I don’t see anything that would keep you from selling. Do you plan on selling soon?”

  “Not right away. What I thought I’d do is get the place fixed up. You know, renovate it, and maybe update a few things like the plumbing and heating, and then sell it.”

  “Ah. What the Americans call ‘flipping a house.’ Very smart, if you ask me. Although you’d have to take into account Lady Sybilla’s presence on the estate.”

  “Yes, well, without intending to be either heartless or crass, in all likelihood, it’ll take me a year or two to fix the house up if I have to do it by myself, and by then . . .”

  “By then Lady Sybilla would have gone to her just reward,” Toby finished for him. “A very valid point, Alden. Very valid indeed, and I can’t see anyone taking issue with you for selling the place once she’s gone.”

  And thus it had come about that the bank invited him to tour the house and grounds, and after a whirlwind tour through both—without catching sight of Lady Sybilla, who evidently rested in the afternoon—his offer was approved.

  “Today it’s all mine,” he said to himself as he drove west, the sun dipping low until a rich, velvety navy blue began to claim the sky. “I’m a homeowner. A hall owner. I’m Alden Ainslie of Bestwood Hall. . . . At least I am for the present. No telling where I’ll be once I fix the house up. After all, this could be the start of a brand-new career. People make millions doing this sort of thing—why can’t I? It’s just a matter of fixing things up to look nice, and then capitalizing on the market. Yes, this is going to be good. It’s going to be very good.”

  The optimism stayed with him for three hours, until his transmission decided it had enough and failed completely, stranding him for the night in a small town. He left a message with the solicitor’s office, where he was to have picked up the keys to Bestwood, and settled down as best he could in a dingy hotel located across the street from the car repair shop.

  “Not an auspicious start,” he told himself as he eyed the sagging bed. “But that’s not a bad thing. Things can only go up from here.”

  There were times when he was astounded with just how unprescient he could be.

  Chapter 2

  “Hallelujah, you’re leaving! Oh dear, I didn’t mean it that way, Mercy. I just meant hallelujah. You know, kind of a lesser hallelujah. Hallelujah minus a few points of exclamation, if you will. Erm. You know?”

I smiled and stuffed the last of my clothing into the duffel bag that had gone through many years with me. It was faded in spots, was torn on the end flaps, and had many stains acquired from various roommates and the inevitable accidents that come with living in confined spaces with numerous people. In other words, it was a good visual representation of myself: a bit worn, having seen a lot of life, and definitely not stylishly attractive. “It’s OK, Kim. I know what you mean. You’ve been nothing but accommodating, letting me stay with you and Rafe when I know you’d rather be by yourselves.”

  “It’s not that we don’t love having you here—lord knows, you do the bulk of the housework, and it’s going to be a nightmare having to do all that again—but I’m thinking of you, I really am. You need to find yourself, really find yourself. Find what makes you happy, and what you want to do with your life.”

  “Well, that’s the big question, isn’t it?” I smiled at my friend. I’d met her a year ago, when we both were attending a criminal justice class at a London university.

  She made a face. “You have been to enough universities. . . . Couldn’t you pick a degree and find a job doing that?”

  “Doing what?”

  “Whatever your degree is. Would be.” She sighed, and made a frustrated gesture. “Whatever job would be pertinent to the degree that you don’t yet have, but would have if you stuck it through to the end.”

  “It’s never quite that easy,” I said, cramming the few precious books I had left into the bag, grunting a little as I forced the zipper up its pregnant, bulging length. “Technically, I have a lot of credits in a number of subjects, everything from English to medieval history, phys ed, and of course criminal justice. But that doesn’t mean I’m qualified to get a job that pays more than minimum wage.”

  Kim raised an eyebrow and looked doubtful.

  “OK, OK, I could probably get a job, but not one I’d like,” I said in response, hating the fact that people didn’t understand my need to learn everything there was to be learned. “If only I could get your universities to give me more financial aid, everything would be groovy.”

  “Groovy?” Kim snorted. “Your liberal arts are showing. And do you really think that more time at uni is what you need? Look at this temporary tutoring job you found.”

  “I didn’t actually find it—an old friend did,” I interrupted. “She knew I was desperate, and I didn’t like the other option she found for me.”

  “Regardless, it serves to illustrate my point—you could become a teacher, a proper teacher, not just a summer tutor.”

  I shuddered. “Those kids . . . oh, Kim, those kids! Their mother was bad enough at the interview with her pretentious sneering, and trying her best to impress me with all the money her husband has, but her kids! They were hell spawn.”

  “I’m quite certain they’re not that bad,” Kim said with gentle chiding.

  “You didn’t see them. Natalia, the seven-year-old, spent the entire time her mother and I were chatting racing around on her Rollerblades, screaming at everyone in the park. And not shrieks of laughter—the kid has a worse potty mouth than my father does. And the nine-year-old Jocelyn was even worse. He actually threw a tantrum, an honest-to-god tantrum, when some other child dared to do a skateboard flip or twist or whatever that Jocelyn couldn’t duplicate. The child needs desperately to be in therapy. Both of them do, and those are the little monsters I’m supposed to spend three months tutoring. You know why they need tutoring? Because they’re so out of control not even their expensive private school can cram learning into their thick heads.”

  “Ouch,” Kim said, flinching, but I wasn’t sure if it was in response to my attack on the kids I’d agreed to teach or to my situation. I hoped it was the latter. “Still, it’s a job, and you never know what doors it may open. If the parents are as rich as you say—”

  “The car that picked her and the monsters up had its own driver.”

  “—if they are that well-off, then perhaps they can help you find a job that you will enjoy more. I agree that the children don’t sound pleasant, but perhaps they just need a firm hand. A sort of Mary Poppins figure to come into their lives and turn them into pleasant little people.”

  “Mary Poppins I am not, but thanks for the pep talk.” I checked around the small spare room that I’d been occupying for the last three months—much to Kim’s boyfriend Rafe’s growing unhappiness—and hefted my bag. “And thank you for letting me stay with you while I tried to get my feet under me. It was a nightmare having that bastard scammer wipe out my bank account, feeble as it was, and you made all the difference.”

  She gave me a knowing look. “Next time, don’t fall for a hard-luck story and let someone have access to your personal information so he can steal money out of your account.”

  “Oh, trust me, lesson learned,” I said, giving her a hug made awkward by the approximately fifty pounds of bag slung across my back.

  “Although it certainly would have been easier for you to simply call home—”

  I lifted a hand in acknowledgment, and staggered out of the room, down the stairs to the exit of the building, Kim accompanying me as far as the street. “That is not an option. Happy two’s-companying, Kim. Be sure to thank Rafe for me—I appreciate you guys putting up with me more than you’ll know.”

  “You’re very welcome. Now go turn those poor children’s lives around, and enjoy not trying to force more facts into your head.” She smiled, giving me a little wave as I started down the street toward the nearest tube stop. “And network with your new bosses. Maybe they can help you find the perfect job. You need to do something more with your life than just go to school!”

  Her words stuck with me for the next hour as I took the train that would carry me off to the coast of Cornwall, where my much-dreaded summer job awaited.

  “The problem is,” I said aloud, staring blindly out the window of the train, where it sat in the bustling station, the noises of thousands of people passing through the confined spaces thankfully muffled by the windows, “I like learning.”

  “Oh, sorry, is this taken?” A woman paused at the open doorway to the compartment in which I sat.

  I glanced around the empty plush maroon seats, three of which faced another bank of three, and said, “No, not at all. I was just talking to myself.”

  “I do that a lot, too,” the woman said, hefting a couple of suitcases onto the white metal racks arranged above the seats. She gave a quick look around the compartment, adding, “I haven’t seen a train like this since I was small.”

  “From what the ticket person said, I gather they had some mechanical issues, and had to pull a few old compartments out of retirement. I think it’s kind of fun, actually. It’s very Agatha Christie, don’t you think? I half expected to find a body under the seat, and a box of stolen jewels hidden in the luggage rack.”

  She gave a tight, brief smile and took the seat opposite me, pulling out her phone and moodily tapping at it before setting it on the seat next to her. Distantly, a metallic voice droned some instruction or information, wholly incomprehensible. “They are different, aren’t they? I suppose these old compartments let people talk more than the row seats we normally get.”

  “Exactly. I’m Mercy, by the way. Mercedes, actually, but everyone calls me Mercy.” I didn’t offer my hand, not because I felt she’d spurn it, but because she was tapping at her phone again, clearly preoccupied.

  “Janna,” she said abruptly, then looked up, a frown pulling her brows together. “Sorry, that’s my name. Are you Canadian or American?”

  “Both, actually. My mother was from British Columbia, but my dad is a Californian. I was studying history of law here in London, but ran out of funds, so now I’m heading to Cornwall to start a new job.” I stopped, realizing I was doing the oversharing thing that caused so many Americans to be the butts of jokes by folks less willing to blab out every little nuance
of their life to strangers.

  “Oh?” She looked up from her phone. Her face was tight with some worry or concern. “Sorry, I’m scattered today. Geoff, my partner—well, ex-partner, I guess you could say—he’s gone off to Ibiza to work at a resort, and now he’s telling me that he made a mistake leaving me, and I should go out there with him.”

  I settled back into the well-worn (but still oddly comfortable) seat, prepared to enjoy the human drama that never failed to intrigue. “Goodness. Ibiza sounds exotic and sunny.”

  “It is.” She glanced out of the window, her lips a thin line. The train gave a lurch and then started forward, rolling us past the mass of humanity that filled the station. “I wish I knew what to do. We were together for four years, and one day it all fell apart. . . .” She stopped and gave me a chagrined look. “Sorry. I’m babbling.”

  “No, not at all. I don’t mind if you want to talk. I’m told I have a very sympathetic manner, probably due to the two years of psychology I took back at the University of Calgary.”

  She looked a bit doubtful, but evidently the promise of a sympathetic ear was too much, because within five minutes, she was telling me about her life, her hopes, and especially her plans of life with Geoff, which had been dashed when he ran away from her growing demands of commitment. “And now,” she finished up some twenty minutes later, “now he says he can’t live without me, and wants me to throw away everything and go to Ibiza with him.”

  “That’s a tough situation,” I said slowly, not wanting to give advice that wasn’t desired (or needed). “I suppose there’s pros and cons to consider.”

  “Not so many cons, that’s the problem,” she said miserably, glancing at her phone. “I really have nothing keeping me here. My roommates will replace me without any trouble. I haven’t even started the job I’m on the way to, and it’s only for the summer. And the resort where Geoff works sounds like heaven. He said I won’t have any problem getting a job there.”

  “Sounds like your mind is already made up,” I said.

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