Daring in a blue dress, p.3
Daring In a Blue Dress, p.3Katie MacAlister
She bit her lip. “I hate to leave Vandal in a lurch. That’s the only bad part.”
“The man who hired me for the summer. He’s nice, if a bit of a flirt, and I hate to run off and leave them without the help they need.” She eyed me for a minute. “You said you were going to Cornwall for a job, also?”
I made a face. “Unfortunately, yes. A friend set me up as tutor for a couple of spoiled kids with an impossible mother, and you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking, because if you are, I’m quite likely to take you up on it.”
She laughed. “Those must be some really spoiled children.”
“You have no idea. What exactly is the job you’re talking about?”
“General dogsbody, really. Taking tickets at a summer attraction, helping with costumes, fetching and carrying, that sort of thing. It doesn’t pay much, but you do get room and board, and can keep any tips that float your way.”
“How much is ‘doesn’t pay much,’ if you don’t mind my asking?”
Her phone chirruped again, instantly drawing her attention. She read the incoming text, and smiled. “He’s so sweet now that he realizes what an idiot he’d been to leave.”
I gave her a benevolent smile of my own. “Sounds like he’s seen the error of his ways.”
“He has.” She looked up, her expression solidifying into one of determination. “I can’t miss this opportunity. He’s absolutely right in that we only have one life, and to dally in might-have-beens is just a waste. Here, let me give you Vandal’s mobile number. I’ll text him that I’ve had a change of plans, but that I’ve found a replacement.”
“Hang on,” I said, panicking when she started tapping on her phone. “Much as I’d like to dump my job, I can’t do that without giving my employer a warning. She might be annoying, but I’d feel like a heel if I quit without giving notice.”
Janna made a face. “That’s terribly noble of you.”
“Not really. I’m just a firm believer in karma and treating people how I want to be treated.”
She thought for a moment, then scribbled out a phone number onto a torn bit of envelope that she extracted from her purse. “I’m going to give you Vandal’s info anyway, just in case you can’t stomach the family.” She looked up. “Where are you going?”
“Treacher,” I said, naming a small town on the coast.
“That’s not far at all from Bestford, just a kilometer or two.” She finished writing and handed me the paper. “Vandal and company are at a big old house. It’s supposed to be very scenic, even if the house has seen better days.”
I tucked away the paper, shaking my head a little as I did so. “I’m sure it’s charming, but like I said, I can’t quit a job when the woman hiring me is expecting me to show up. But I’ll keep it in case everything goes pear-shaped.”
“You do that.” She looked up as the train slowed as it pulled into a suburb station, and tapped quickly on her phone. “If you don’t mind, I’ll text Vandal about you. What’s your phone number?”
“I don’t have one.”
“Ah. Do you have any way to be contacted?”
I thought for a moment. “I suppose via my employer.” I gave her the name and phone number.
“Excellent.” She jumped up and grabbed her luggage, her purse, and the magazine she’d had with her. “I’ll text Vandal that you’re a possibility, but that you have to see how your other job goes first.”
“You’re really going to Ibiza?” I asked, following her to the aisle.
“I am.” She hurried down the worn aisle, stopping to look back at me, her face alight. “Sometimes, you just have to do what feels right. Good luck, Mercy.”
“Have a happy life with Geoff,” I answered, waving when she dashed down the stairs to the platform.
I reclaimed my seat, smiling when a gaggle of schoolgirls filled my compartment, chattering inanely about some pop star or other. I bit my lip during the ride to Cornwall, wondering, as the miles slipped past us, whether I couldn’t just call Mrs. Innes from the station and tell her I’d had a change of mind.
No, I told myself. You don’t want to be that person. Give the job a chance. It might lead to other things, better things, and make everything worthwhile.
I didn’t really believe the job would do anything but get me through the summer with enough money to return home to California, where I’d be in exactly the same straits I was in England, but that was the future, and if there was one thing I’d mastered, it was not to worry about what might be.
Mrs. Innes wasn’t waiting for me at the station. I stood watching the handful of people toddle off to their houses, wondering if this was a portent of things to come, or just a matter of Mrs. Innes being delayed.
After half an hour of sitting around the tiny station by myself, I went into the town, and begged a lady at a small grocery shop to let me use her phone, calling my employer to find out what I should be doing.
A woman with a distinct Eastern European accent answered. “Hallo?”
“Hi, this is Mercy Starling. Mrs. Innes was supposed to pick me up at the train station a little bit ago, but I haven’t seen any sign of her. Can you tell me if she’s on her way?”
“Mrs. Ince no here. She in Greece.”
“She’s what?” I shook my head. “She can’t be. She hired me to take care of her kids.”
“Mrs. Ince in Greece,” the woman insisted.
“But . . . what about the children? Jocelyn and Natalia? Are they there?” I had a wild thought that Mrs. Innes had run off to have a vacation and left her kids behind—she struck me as exactly that type of person. “I’m supposed to be tutoring them this summer.”
“Oh. Tutor.” There was a rustling of paper. “Have message for tutor. Message say no needed for three weeks. Come back then. Childrens in Greece with mama and papa.”
Anger filled me then, anger at being so unimportant to Mrs. Innes when I had just talked myself out of dumping her because she didn’t deserve to be treated that way. “Well, that solves that little dilemma,” I said aloud. I’d just drop Mrs. Innes a note saying that I appreciated the job, but couldn’t wait three weeks.
“Eh?” the shop woman said, turning from where she was helping a customer.
“Sorry, just talking aloud.” I dug out a few more coins, and laid them on the counter. “Would you mind terribly if I made another call?”
“Not at all, luv.” She scooped the coins up with a deft hand, and turned back to gossip with the lady who was waiting.
It took me a minute to dig out of my bag the scrap of paper with the number that Janna had written on it, but I dialed the number with only a minimum of grumbling under my breath.
“—to think I went to all the trouble, not to mention expense, of coming all the way to Cornwall—oh, hello. Is this Vandal?”
The voice that answered me was muffled, drowned out by the fuzzy white noise familiar to people on a busy motorway. “It is indeed. And you are?”
“My name is Mercy Starling. A woman named Janna—”
“Ah, you’re Janna’s friend who’s going to take her place. Excellent. Can you get yourself to Bestford? I’m coming up from Dover with a load of equipment, but I won’t be there until early evening.”
I figured there had to be a train going that way, or at least a bus. If nothing else, Janna said it was only a couple of miles away—dragging my bag wasn’t ideal, but given my present state of mind, it was better than staying here and fuming. “Sure. I’m at the town next to Bestford, so I should be able to make it there on my own.”
“Great. Just ask the locals how to get to Bestwood Hall. There’s a private road leading to the house itself, but if you have the bus drop you at the end of it, I’ll pick you up on my way in.”
“Sounds good. Um. I’m not super-clear on what the job is, other th
Vandal’s voice cut out as he started to speak, but I could have sworn he said something about medieval knights before the connection went dead. I stared at the phone for a moment, then spun around and marched over to the shop window, which held a variety of posters and advertisements. Sure enough, located right in the middle of notices of parish meetings, pony club summer parties, and housecleaners looking for work was a colorful poster showing a man in full fourteenth-century plate armor, wielding a big-ass sword.
Join the Hard Day’s Knights, read the headline. Learn to fight the medieval way! Britain’s premiere medieval combat full-contact troupe comes to Cornwall for a summer session of swordplay, archery, and medieval combat. Join us at Bestwood Hall for the day, or a week! Classes run hourly and weekly, with personalized instruction available.
There was more, but I didn’t stop to read it. I simply thanked the shop lady, grabbed my duffel bag and slung it over my back, and headed out to find a bus that would take me to the summer job to end all summer jobs.
It wasn’t until about four that I finished navigating the convoluted network of buses that inexplicably took me to three different towns before dropping me off at my destination. I had a two-and-a-half-mile hike out to where Bestwood Hall was located, and by the time I turned off the paved road, and onto a graveled one bearing a sign that announced Bestwood Hall was a mere mile ahead, I was sweaty, my shoulder hurt where the duffel strap dug into it, and my legs felt like they were made of marshmallows.
“Screw it,” I said, dropping the bag and plopping myself down onto it in a graceless heap. I stared balefully at large black wrought iron gates, one of which hung askew, like a bird with a broken wing. “I’m taking a rest. Hopefully Vandal will find me before I have to drag myself another mile.”
Around me, sounds of wildlife could be heard; sitting quietly, I could hear at least ten different birdcalls and songs. A gentle lowing sound from the distance reminded me of the rurality of the area, and the fluffy little white blobs seen on a faraway hill bespoke the presence of more than just cows grazing the lush pastureland. Behind me, the grasses rustled mysteriously, and at one point, a sharp-eyed little brown face peered out at me.
“Ferret?” I asked the face. “Weasel? Stoat? I wish I knew the difference, but I haven’t taken the zoology courses that I wanted, so I’m afraid I don’t know what you are.”
A low rumbling sound grew louder as I spoke, a car appearing down the road. The face considered me for another few seconds; then with a twitch of his whiskers, he was gone. I shifted my attention from the tall tangled grasses to the car, wondering if it was Vandal. When the car slowed down at the dirt road, I got to my feet, relief swamping me. I grabbed my bag and stepped out into the road, smiling gratefully when the car pulled to a stop in front of me.
“You have the best timing ever,” I told him, crossing in front of the car to get to the passenger side, and shoving my bag into the backseat before taking my place. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to see you. I really was not looking forward to that mile walk, and I was getting to the point where I was explaining to the weasel or stoat about the zoology classes.”
Vandal stared at me for a minute. “Er . . . you’re a zoologist?”
“No, but I’d like to be one.”
“Ah. A noble pursuit, I believe.”
“It’s interesting, that’s for sure. But like I said, you have excellent timing. My feet hurt bad enough without having to do another mile.”
I pointed to the sign. “It wouldn’t be bad, except my bag weighs a ton.”
He turned around in his seat to take a good look at my bag. “What’s in it?”
“Just my stuff.” I settled back in the seat with a sigh of comfort. “Things I need for the summer.”
His eyes narrowed at me, and I had to admit, I was probably more aware of him than an employee should be of her employer. He looked like he was in his early thirties, with a slight case of stubble that made my knees feel a bit wobbly, a square chin, and a couple of dents on his cheeks that warned he might be the possessor of dimples. I sincerely hoped not—I had low enough tolerance to men with square chins and manly stubble, but if Vandal threw in dimples on top of it, then I’d have a hell of time keeping my libido under control.
Especially since it had been two years since I’d had a boyfriend.
Two long years.
“Things you need for the summer?” Vandal looked confused as he repeated what I’d said, his face suddenly clearing as he nodded. “Ah. You’re here to . . . er . . . help me, yes?”
“That’s right.” I slid him a curious glance when he put the car into gear and began to bump his way down the somewhat rutted dirt road. Had he forgotten our conversation already? “I hope you don’t mind about the substitution.”
“Eh?” He risked a glance at me for a few seconds, then returned his attention to the road.
“You know, Janna. Since she was supposed to be here, but I’m here to do the job, instead. I appreciate you letting me come in her place.”
“Ah. I didn’t realize there were two of you. She’s very resourceful.”
“Who is, Janna?”
“No, my . . .” He waved a hand, the car bouncing hard when we hit a pothole, and then clutched the steering wheel with both hands. “My sister-in-law.”
“Ah. That must be nice,” I said agreeably, wondering what that had to do with the price of tea in China.
Vandal was silent for a few seconds, then gestured awkwardly, his voice growing more hesitant and stilted as he said, “I suppose if you’re going to stay for a bit that I should warn you that the house is bound to be fairly uncomfortable. It needs a lot of work.”
“That’s OK. I’m used to roughing it.” I slid a look at him out of the corner of my eyes. Had I said something to offend him? All of a sudden, he sounded . . . off. Like he didn’t want me there. “My folks sent me to camp every summer, and you learn fast how to cope with a camp bed and a tent.”
“Just so. I . . .” He coughed, and inadvertently jerked the car, slamming the brakes on, then muttering an apology before gripping the steering wheel so tight his knuckles were white. The car lurched forward again as he said, “I’m afraid I didn’t catch your name.”
“Mercedes Starling, but everyone but my dad calls me Mercy. Wow.” I leaned forward when the road curved to the left, suddenly revealing the house where it sat surrounded by rather wild green lawns and hedges. “That’s . . . that’s impressive. Much more than I was expecting.”
“It is pretty, isn’t it?” Vandal said, his voice warming as he pulled to a (smooth, this time) stop so we could admire the view. He gazed at it, his attention wholly focused on the sight before us, and I couldn’t blame him for staring. The house was old, as I’d expected, made of a lovely soft gray stone, with lots of recessed, narrow arched windows. The main entrance was set under a tower bedecked with a gorgeous series of stained-glass windows. To the right, a wing had been added—probably at a later date, since the windows didn’t match that of the main house, but it, too, was of the same gray stone. Tall chimneys dotted the roofline, and I counted six pillars that seemed to be an afterthought of the designer (or, more likely, a later owner).
“It’s lovely, just lovely,” I agreed. We sat in companionable silence for a few minutes. “How old is it?”
“Mid–fifteen hundreds, for the main house. The front wing and the block to the north were added a century later. Evidently there was a south block that housed a power generator, but that blew up more than thirty years ago, so now the house is a bit off-balance, architecturally speaking. But still very nice, don’t you think?” Vandal suddenly seemed to recall himself, for he shot me an unreadable look, cleared his throat, and, with a grinding
Great, I thought to myself. Now he’s back to being annoyed with me, and I don’t have the slightest clue why.
Vandal stared up at the house, his hands on his hips, as I got out of the car and hesitantly took a few steps toward him. I half expected him to say something brusque, but the look on his face was one of sheer pleasure. No, not pleasure—contentment, a quiet, soul-deep contentment. I had no idea why he was so happy all of a sudden. . . . Perhaps he had mercurial mood swings? Or maybe he liked houses? Or it could be that he was simply tired of being in the car, and was glad to be at his destination.
“There’s a lot to be done to bring it up to a point where it can be lived in,” he said, his eyes still on the house. I had a feeling he was talking more to himself than to me. “But to be honest, I’m looking forward to the work.”
“You’re going to work on the house?” I asked, pulling my duffel bag out of the car, and moving around the end of it to join him at the bottom of five shallow steps that led up to the double-door entrance. “Why?”
He shot me an irritated look. “Because it needs it. Evidently the previous owner did little with it other than have it wired for electricity, and installed bathrooms at the insistence of his wife. It’s quite a daunting prospect, isn’t it? Not the sort of thing that the casual person might wish to take on as a holiday.”
I blinked at him for a second before turning back to consider the house. “Oh, I don’t know. I’ve always felt that places like this have a presence of their own, a soul if you will. Something this old doesn’t witness the parade of humanity going through it without absorbing a certain amount of it, don’t you think? I imagine restoring it to its glory would be very satisfying.” I reached out and patted the mossy stone balustrade that lined the steps. “I think the place would like to be done up. It has an air of genteel decay about it, doesn’t it?”
Daring In a Blue Dress by Katie MacAlister / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes