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A NineStar Press Publication

www.ninestarpress.com

Whitecott Manor

Copyright © 2017 Emma Jane

Cover Art by Natasha Snow ©Copyright 2017

Edited by: Sam Lamb

Published in 2017 by NineStar Press, New Mexico, USA.


This is a work of fiction. All characters, places and events are from the author’s imagination and should not be confused with fact. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, events or places is purely coincidental.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher, NineStar Press, LLC.


Warning:

This book contains sexually explicit content, which is only suitable for mature readers.

Whitecott Manor

Emma Jane

Table of Contents

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Epilogue

About the Author

In memory of my grandfather, and best friend Emma, who both passed away during the writing of this novel


Chapter One

Once I was aware of the cuts, they stung like a bitch. I should’ve worn gloves, really, but it’s so much easier not to. I was almost finished anyway, and the Harpers’ rose borders were nearly ready. They’d look beautiful when they flowered in the summer—they always did. White and red rose blooms flanked the path to the tennis court. I just had one last bush to prune and then I could stop for a cuppa. The cuts were itching now too, right where the thorns had snagged and ripped my skin. I sucked the flesh between my thumb and index finger, tasting blood and mud, and stood there, secateurs in hand, watching the house.

It was a fifteenth-century manor—a beautiful listed building made from warm-yellow stone. It’d been revamped inside, a strange mixture of modern and ancient, and was currently—unfortunately, in my opinion—on the market. I didn’t want it to sell; I didn’t want to lose my job. The Harpers assured me that whoever bought the place would keep me on but, well, it wasn’t down to them.

I took my hand from my mouth and watched as the estate agent led a middle-aged couple from their car—some sort of old classic; light blue with a soft-top—to the front of the manor. Even at this distance, I could see the look on their faces as they gazed up at the building before entering. They loved it already. Everybody did; it was such an impressive place. Bloody hell, I’d buy it if I had a spare eight million lying around.

I glowered to myself and turned back to the last bush, reaching into the branches to snip it into some sort of order. I cut myself on another thorn and swore impatiently.

“Language.”

I turned to see Mr Harper—Emmett—watching me. He stood there, smiling, his hands tucked in the pockets of his ridiculous purple corduroys. He always reminded me of Colin Firth, though he didn’t look particularly like him. He was a similar age, I suppose, and had that same clipped accent and no-nonsense manner.

I tossed rose clippings into my wheelbarrow. “Sorry. It’s these roses. They’re full of thorns.”

“Ah, the roses. Yes. I thought perhaps you’d spotted Mr Daniels showing the Scrantons around.”

“Scrantons?”

“Mr and Mrs Scranton. I don’t know their first names, and I don’t care. Lottery winners, apparently.”

I scratched at my cheek with the edge of my thumbnail and then wiped the back of my hand across my brow. “You really want Whitecott Manor bought by lottery winners?” I asked. It wasn’t really any of my business, but I didn’t want to see the place sold on yet again because the Scrantons squandered all their money and ended up bankrupt within a year.

Emmett shrugged. “My dear, I don’t care who buys it as long as they cough up the money. You know I can’t afford to keep the place.”

I knew. Emmett was swimming in debt. His daughters—all five of them—had now moved out and he had to pay for everything on his own since his wife had left. Old Mrs Harper, Emmett’s mother, lived in the house with him, but she was in her eighties and, I think, had about as much money as he did. They wanted to move to a little cottage somewhere, with a nice granny annex and a garden that didn’t require much attention. Certainly not enough attention to take me with them.

I hadn’t said anything. Emmett came and put his hand to the small of my back. “Whoever ends up here would be mad to let you go. They can see how beautiful the gardens are.”

I nodded and stared into the rose bush.

“And you’re beautiful,” he added. “Who would not want you around?”

“You don’t need to flatter me.” I snipped at the bush and tossed branches into my wheelbarrow.

Emmett chuckled and moved away. “Cheer up, Alistair! You’ve got your whole life ahead of you. I’m off to take Mother her tea.”

I watched him stroll back to the house as if he didn’t have a care in the world. I’d miss him most of all. Well, maybe he wouldn’t move far. I’d probably still see him around—at the local fair or plant show perhaps. Besides, house sales took ages; I knew that from experience. If the Scrantons bought the place, it’d be a while yet before they moved in. And if they decided they didn’t want a gardener—if—then I had plenty of time to look for a new job. I could always audition for the X Factor and see where that got me—Emmett said I had a great singing voice, and I’d often dreamed of performing on stage.

I picked up the wheelbarrow and went to empty the clippings on the compost heap. I was just trundling back to the roses when I spotted the estate agent leading the Scrantons out into the gardens. I’d make myself scarce; I didn’t want to have to smile politely while they stood and gawked, so I downed tools and headed to the potting shed.

The cabbage seedlings were coming on nicely, I noticed, but my beetroots were depressingly small. I’d never had much luck with beetroot. They never grew much larger than rat testicles. I shrugged out of my overalls and tied the arms around my waist, singing an Elvis track softly beneath my breath.

I’d just reached for a watering can when an almighty bang made me jump out of my skin. The windows blew out the front of the manor, followed by tongues of fire licking the frames. I stared, heart frozen and mouth open. Then my heart started again, blood thumping in my ears. I threw open the shed door and ran.

“Emmett!”

I dashed towards the building, pulled open the door, and hurried down the hall to where the explosion had come from—the kitchen. Flames crackled in the room, red and angry and louder than I would’ve expected. Smoke and heat billowed outwards, and I coughed and covered my nose. My eyes watered.

“Emmett!” I yelled again.

Something crashed—maybe part of the ceiling falling—and I took a step to go after Emmett when somebody grabbed my arm and hauled me back.

Mr Harper’s in there,” I shouted at the estate agent, fighting the man’s vice-like grip. “Emmett! Emmett!

The estate agent pulled me away, forcing me bodily back down the hall and outside. He was speaking—shouting, I think—but I yelled too, my voice hoarse, and I couldn’t hear him, couldn’t see, couldn’t… Emmett.

Sirens screamed in the distance, and then I saw the lights flashing through the trees that flanked the lane beside the manor. Fire engines arrived in a cacophony of noise and colour. The estate agent held me in a bear hug, and all I could do as firefighters jumped from their vehicles was stare at the flames roaring from the broken windows.



The funeral took place a week later. It was hot—too hot for spring—and I was sweaty and uncomfortable in my black suit. A tree thick with pink blossoms hung over the grave, but Old Mrs Harper and her granddaughters occupied all the shade. I rolled my shoulders in an attempt to get the shirt material unstuck from my back and eyed the little black fan that Persephone Harper batted prettily around her face.

“It wouldn’t suit you,” Emmett said, rocking back on his heels as he stood by my side. “It’d make you look positively camp.”

I hid my smile by bowing my head and staring at the patch of grass beneath my feet. Mr Harper’s apparition first appeared to me a day after the fire—I suppose it was a weird sort of coping mechanism. The real Emmett Harper was currently being lowered into the ground, snug and lifeless in his mahogany coffin. I might’ve been going insane, but I liked having him with me. When I was a boy, I don’t know, nine or ten years old, I had an imaginary friend called Peter. I remember I always had trouble picturing Peter’s face, but with Emmett I could see him clearly. It could only be because I knew him—had known him—so well.

The vicar spoke, the daughters came forward with handfuls of dirt, and I stood there and smiled to myself as I remembered him. A blackbird twittered in the tree, its song far too cheerful for such a sombre occasion, and as I lifted my gaze, Emmett raised a shotgun and aimed it into the branches.

I bit back a laugh and managed to turn it into a half-cough, half-sneeze. Nobody noticed. Mourners moved away, and the Harpers spoke softly to the vicar. I followed the procession from the graveyard and around to the front of the church where people lingered to talk to one another.

“You horrible boy,” Emmett said, leaning close to my ear. “Laughing at my funeral.”

“I didn’t laugh,” I said.

The man standing in front of me turned, smiled, and said, “No, nor me. Well done us, eh? I always feel like laughing in these sorts of situations.”

I wondered how many funerals he’d been to. He was around my age, I suppose. Late twenties. Nice-looking, if a little plain. Well spoken. He held out his hand, and I took it—his grip warm and firm.

“Martin Spencer,” he said. “Mr Harper’s solicitor.”

“Alistair Ellis. Mr Harper’s gardener.”

“And lover,” Emmett added. “Don’t forget that.”

Well, yes. Of course I wouldn’t forget that, but I didn’t think it appropriate to bring up in polite conversation. I scratched the back of my hand.

“Oh. Will you be looking for a new job?”

“Will I…?”

“I’m sure old Mrs Harper’s told you about the sale. Should be nice and easy. The Scrantons keeping you on, are they?”

“I’ve not spoken to them,” I said, frowning.

Oh.” Martin pretended somebody had called him and turned away with his hand raised. I glowered to myself. So Whitecott Manor was going to end up in the hands of the lottery winners. I hoped they were going to treat the place with the respect it deserved, and I especially hoped they were going to let me keep my job.

As I turned back to the graveyard, I spotted old Mrs Harper and her granddaughters making their way to the car park. Everybody would head to the village hall where the wake was to be held and fill themselves up on sausage rolls and finger sandwiches.

I couldn’t face it. Not now. I slipped away without anybody noticing and headed to my car.

Chapter Two

I carried on working while builders carried out repairs on the manor house. First my wages came from old Mrs Harper, and then, once the sale had gone through, the Scrantons paid me, though I’d still not spoken to them. They had more important things to worry about, and I guess it was just convenient to keep the existing gardener. I’d seen Mr Scranton—David—a few times, keeping an eye on the repair work and making sure the builders weren’t slacking off. Once he’d glanced in my direction, but I kept my head down and wheeled my trimmings off to the compost heap.

I knew I should’ve introduced myself, but he was just as capable at coming over to me. Besides, part of me was still indignant that these people were lottery winners and really didn’t suit the place at all. Not like Emmett had.

I remembered when I’d first started working there. Emmett’s wife had just left him for the previous gardener—who’d been fired a month earlier—and old Mrs Harper had hired me because she knew my father and, I was certain, knew I was gay and unlikely to show any interest in her daughter-in-law. By the time I started, young Mrs Harper had left anyway, leaving Emmett to brood alone in the garden. And watch me.

He’d sit on the white bench under the apple tree and read his newspaper. Every time I’d straighten up to rub my back—I was sowing carrot seeds at the time—I noticed he’d clear his throat and turn his attention back to the paper. It used to make me smile.

Then he would join me and ask questions about my work and ask after my father. It developed into little compliments—about the garden at first, I shaped the box hedges far nicer than the previous gardener—and then about me. I was a handsome young man and the like. He’d touch the small of my back, just lightly, and I really wanted him to take it further.

I didn’t make the first move. I wasn’t sure enough of his intentions and I didn’t want to lose my job. But one day, he came to me in the potting shed. I remember turning as he opened the door and wondering what was going on as he wore an unusually serious expression. His breath smelled of alcohol as he said, “That’s it. I’ve had quite enough of this.”

He strode up to me and kissed me, and I probably should have asked if he was sure, because he was almost definitely drunk, but instead I ended up giving him a blow job.

I remember looking up at his face.

“You’re getting awfully maudlin. And will you watch what you’re doing? You’re drowning those begonias.”

I cursed and turned the hose off, stepping back out of the soggy patch I’d created in the border. Emmett laughed.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. I shook water from my hands and reeled the hose in.

“You need some time off. Go and find yourself a holiday romance.”

You are dead,” I said. “You don’t get to give me time off any more.”

“Then go and see a doctor because talking to yourself is clearly a sign of madness.”

I sighed and rubbed my face. Bloody mental lunatic… A metallic clank coming from the direction of the house made me look up. The builders were removing the scaffolding and loading it back onto the lorry. Mr and Mrs Scranton would be resident any day now, and I would just have to deal with it.



ZaraMrs Scranton, that is—was actually quite a nice lady. She’d bring me a tray of tea and biscuits while I worked and we’d stop and chat about what she wanted to do with the garden. Her two little Bichon Frise dogs, Candy and Coco, were a pain in the arse and would dig up and eat my bulbs before I could stop them.

David Scranton mostly glared at me as he stood outside and smoked his cigarettes. He barely spoke to me, unless it was to tell me about something he didn’t like or wanted to change. I’d defer to Zara, and more often than not, she’d tell me to ignore him.

All in all, working for the Scrantons was all right. I missed Emmett, though his apparition stayed with me, and I visited old Mrs Harper fortnightly as she’d moved to a cottage in the village and I’d sneak her fruit from Whitecott Manor’s orchard.

For weeks I did nothing but work. Then, one evening out of the blue, an old mate of mineFreddie Carter who’d moved to London for some posh office jobappeared on my doorstep and told me we needed to catch up. We just went to the local pub for a bit of karaoke, but Freddie managed to hook up with a pretty blonde girl and I was left sitting at the table on my own, drinking my pint of Thatcher’s cider.

Emmett dropped into the seat opposite me. “You, my boy, are wasting away. You’ve not been with anybody since me. I’m quite sure your testicles will shrivel up like prunes.”

I slurped my drink and eyed Freddie with the woman. I didn’t know for certain, but I was pretty sure I was the only gay man in the village. If I wanted to get laid, I’d have to head to a gay bar in one of the towns nearby.

“Or,” Emmett said, “you could try Internet dating. I hear that’s all the rage nowadays.”

“I don’t want a relationship,” I said.

“Talking to yourself, Al?”

Freddie loomed over me, grinning inanely, one arm wrapped around the woman’s waist. She giggled, leaned in to Freddie, and whispered something in his ear, to which he replied, loudly, “Nah, love. He’s gay, this one. You tell your mate she can join us though, eh? If you fancy it.”

“Fred,” I muttered. I didn’t want to hear about his sex life and I was sure the rest of the pub wouldn’t, either. He gave my arm a playful jab and headed back to the bar with the woman. I downed the rest of my pint and sat there, feeling lonely and sorry for myself.

Internet dating. God help me.



Bloody Freddie. I’d not really felt it until he’d dragged me out and now I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It beingwhat else?sex. Sex and the fact I was all alone in my little house in rural Somerset. My dad visited me, of course, and I’d still go to his for our traditional Sunday lunch. Then there were my trips to see old Mrs Harper and my garden chats with Zara, but I was lacking in male company. The imaginary ghost of my dead boss didn’t quite count—nor did the passing grunt of communication from David.

I was busy treating the wood of the summer house, humming a song I couldn’t remember the name of, when a white van pulled up in the driveway, tyres crunching the gravel. The cursive lettering on the side of the van read: Mucky Mutts. My heart thumped. Mutts meant dogs. If there were giant, drooling, snarling beasts in that van, I needed to get out of the way, quick. Coco and Candy I could just about cope with, but anything else… I almost turned to go, but as the driver got out I couldn’t help but watch him.

Dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin. He was slender and lovely and, quite obviously, gay.

Chapter Three

I watched with the paintbrush paused in my hand halfway to the wall of the summerhouse as the man closed the van door and walked towards the house. He wore dark trousers and a plain blue T-shirt that had some sort of small logo on it that I couldn’t read from where I stood. I don’t think he noticed me at all, and he carried on up to the doorstep, a cute little swagger in his walk. The dogs barked inside the manor when he rang the doorbell, and a moment later, Zara opened the door.

“Close your mouth,” Emmett said, appearing by my side. “You’re practically drooling.”

The man disappeared inside, so I turned back to the summerhouse and bent to dip my brush in the little pot of varnish. “Jealous?” I asked.

“Of a dog groomer? Hardly. Besides, he’s just a boy. And far too pretty for you.”

I brushed aside a spider crawling across the wood and slapped on the varnish. “You always told me I was beautiful.”

“My dear, you were always the most beautiful flower in my garden.”

I painted quietly for a while and Emmett wandered off. I wasn’t disrespecting his memory by looking at another man. And it wouldn’t hurt if I just spoke to him. Just to say hello. The varnish ended up a little slapdash as I hurried to finish. Once I’d put the pot away and left the brush to soak in some turps, I snatched up my hoe and headed to the driveway to do a bit of weeding around the borders.

The sun shone, although it wasn’t overly warm, and I used it as an excuse to shrug out of the top half of my overalls and tie the arms around my waist, leaving my white vest top exposed. Emmett had always told me I had lovely arms—I knew they were my best feature. It came from all the manual labour. Hopefully, they would attract the attentions of the dog groomer.

I was just skimming weeds when the front door opened and the man exited the manor. Zara stood in the doorway with one of the dogs in her arms, and she caught my eye and flashed me a smile before heading back inside.

I pretended to be more interested in my work, though I was very close to his van. I nodded as he approached and said, “Afternoon.”

He smiled, and I noticed his gaze travel over my body as he replied, “Hiya.” He dropped his aitch.

I cleared my throat. “You’re something to do with the dogs, are you?” It was a stupid question, but it was all I could think of.

“I will be. Mrs Scranton wanted to check me out and see how I got on with the pooches before she’ll let me clip them. I passed, so I’ll be back next week for our first appointment.” He smiled again. His bone structure was amazing. He honestly looked like one of those male models or a footballer or something. I couldn’t place his accent—he wasn’t local—he sounded Northern, maybe.

“Oh right,” I said. “Well, I’ll probably be around.”

He laughed at that and opened the van door. “Good to know!” Then he smiled at me again and got into the driver’s seat. I was still staring after him as he drove away.



I didn’t even know his name. What a bloody idiot! I had to wait a week for him to be back—provided he came back when I was working—and then what? I’d make a prat out of myself again. How often did bichons need grooming? How many chances would I get to speak with him?

Of course, the first thing I did when I returned home was google dog grooming. Bichons needed clipping every four to eight weeks. I thought about Coco and Candy. They were pretty hairy; it’d probably be every four weeks for them. Maybe two weeks.

I typed Mucky Mutts into the search engine and scrolled through the various dog groomers until I found him. Mucky Mutts of Yeovil, Somerset. That had to be him, and yep, when I clicked into the site, the first thing I saw was a photo of him standing behind a dog grooming… table…thing, with a pair of scissors in hand as he concentrated on the…some sort of spaniel.

I scratched my face. I wasn’t very good at dog breeds. In fact, I tended to avoid dogs as much as was possible. He was clearly a dog lover, though, and I wondered if I should learn some of the names.

“Labrador,” Emmett offered. “Good dogs.”

“I know what a Labrador is,” I said, squinting at the pictures. “But look at this hairy thing here, it looks like a mop. I don’t want him thinking I’m thick.”

“And do you think he knows the names of the plants?”

That was a very good point, and besides, I was getting carried away with myself. I clicked on his About Me page and found his name. Noah. He’d not put his surname, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t like I was going to marry the guy.

“Just a quick fuck in the potting shed,” Emmett said.

I smirked. I’d always loved it when he swore—his accent made it sound so much dirtier.

“Look at him,” I said, gazing at the photo. “Why is someone that good-looking not on the TV? He could be… I don’t know. A celebrity dog groomer. Then he’d be in all the magazines and he’d end up shirtless in the Gay Times.”

“My dear, you’re drooling again,” Emmett said.

“Oh, come on,” I said, waving a hand at the photo. “Don’t say you wouldn’t!”

“I only ever had eyes for you.”

Emmett moved away from the computer and sat on my sofa. A pang of guilt touched my guts and then turned into loss before it passed. Truth was, I didn’t know if Emmett had ever looked at another man, before me or during our time together. We hadn’t socialised—it wasn’t as if Emmett was out of the closet. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure he was even gay. I mean, yes, we slept together, so clearly he liked men, but I knew he’d loved his wife.

“Can’t a man have both?” Emmett asked.

“Of course.” I switched the computer off, deciding I’d have a cup of tea before heading over to see Emmett’s mother. I wanted to ask after Persephone—the last time I’d visited, she’d been there and had been telling anybody who’d listen—mostly me, as I suspect old Mrs Harper had selective hearing—about her new man. A man named Joe Scranton.

“And why does that matter?” Emmett asked.

“He’s twice her age.”

Emmett raised his eyebrows. I was being hypocritical, I know. Mr Harper was—had been—much older than myself. I didn’t know why it bothered me, Persephone’s love life was nothing to do with me, and God knows I had no interest in it, but…there was something I didn’t like.



I walked through the village to old Mrs Harper’s cottage, passing my father’s work van on the way. He’d parked outside the pub, and I had no idea whether he was working in there or having a crafty pint. A quick look at my watch told me it was five p.m., so there was a good chance he’d gone in there for something to eat. Dad didn’t cook much since Mum died, other than the traditional roast, and without the pub, he probably would’ve existed solely on microwave meals.

“Maybe you should be seeing to your father rather than my mother,” Emmett said. He strolled beside me, ridiculous and handsome in a green tweed suit.

“Maybe,” I muttered. My dad didn’t like a fuss, didn’t like me worrying. We cared about each other, loved each other, but expressing emotions? That was something Mum had done. She’d fussed over the pair of us. Without her, we didn’t really know how to behave around each other.

I scratched the side of my nose, glanced down the road to check nothing was coming, and crossed over to the green. The oak tree, big and beautiful in the middle of the lawn, had a scattering of black and twisted leaves surrounding it. I squinted up into the branches and noticed a white powder coating some of the leaves—oak mildew. A good spray with a fungicide would fix that, and I pondered contacting the council to get them onto it as I neared the little row of cottages on the far side of the green.

The light shone through the window of old Mrs Harper’s cottage though it wasn’t dark out, and I could see her moving about behind the net curtain. I made my way down the path and knocked on the door, waiting for longer than usual for her to answer. When she did, she soon ushered me inside.

“Alistair. Good. I need someone to look at this blasted television.”

She turned inside, leaving me on the doorstep to follow. I closed the door behind me and headed into the living room. The television screen showed nothing but static.

“Harriet,” old Mrs Harper said, waving a hand. “She fiddled with it earlier, and now the damned thing won’t work.”

“Harriet was here?” I tried not to sound surprised and failed. Harriet, Emmett’s oldest daughter, lived in London and only came to this neck of the woods when she had to.

“Yes, yes. Fix that, will you?” Old Mrs Harper wandered out of the room, and I heard her bustling about in the kitchen.

I picked up the remote control and pressed buttons until the TV came back on to the right setting. I wanted to ask what Harriet wanted, but it wasn’t my place.

“What does Harriet ever want?” Emmett asked, appearing on the sofa. “Money. She married that awful banker for his money.”

Old Mrs Harper came into the room carrying a tea tray, and I hurried to take it from her. “Was Harriet okay?” I asked as she lowered herself onto the sofa next to Emmett. I put the tray on the coffee table and poured tea for the both of us.

“Hm? Oh, yes, I suppose so. She’s still not happy the manor sold for so little, but there’s not a lot we can do about that.”

I sat in the armchair and sipped my tea. Old Mrs Harper noticed the TV worked again, and she jabbed at the remote control to turn it off. “Thank you, Alistair. Oh, Alistair? You’re not still gay, are you?”

“’Fraid so,” I said.

The old lady sagged in her chair, hugging her teacup between her hands. “Pity,” she said. “You’d be a much better match for Persephone than that Scranton fellow.”

I very nearly spat out my tea but managed to almost choke myself on it instead. Once I’d finished coughing, I said, “You’re not a fan of Joe Scranton, then?”

“Is anyone? He’s one of those…what do you young people call them? Chaps.”

I frowned. “What chaps?”

Chaps,” she repeated, as if that made her any clearer. “You know. One of the lower classes.”

“Oh! Chavs.” I smirked to myself as I pictured Joe Scranton. Aesthetically, I could see the appeal. A square jaw covered in designer stubble and a body that could melt ice. Personality wise, well, I got the impression he was a bit of a lad. “He’s just a bit rough around the edges.”

I said it to convince myself as much as old Mrs Harper. She snorted over her teacup, and as our gazes met, I knew neither of us believed it.

Chapter Four

My dad lived in a little two-up two-down on a cul-de-sac full of houses that all looked the same. One of the neighbours had a birthday party that weekend, and the road was full of cars and the street busy with children kicking a football. I squeezed onto the driveway behind my dad’s van and, after switching off the engine, sat in my car for a while staring into space.

Topics floated through my mind and vanished before I could turn them into something interesting. What would we talk about this time? God, I hated small talk.

I left my car, glanced across the road as a cheer rang out from the house with the Happy Tenth Birthday! banner across the door, and made my way up the garden path. I knocked and entered without waiting for a reply—my dad knew I was coming, so the door was unlocked.

The smell of roast chicken wafted down the hall, and my stomach rumbled. “Dad?” I called.

He was in the kitchen, his back to the door as he cut up a turnip and tossed the pieces into a saucepan. He half turned to me. “All right, son?”

I nodded. “You?”

“Ah.” My father had a strong West Country accent, like a few of the older residents still had around the village, and although his response might’ve baffled anybody else, I grew up knowing ‘ah’ meant ‘yes.’ I nodded again and stood in the doorway with my hands in my pockets.

“Smells good,” I said.

“Ready in about half an hour,” he replied. “Sit down, will ’ee? Standing in the doorway like that, you make the place look proper untidy.”

I pulled out a chair, wincing at the creak as it slid over the linoleum, and sat at the table. Dad continued chopping up turnip until it had all disappeared into the pan, and then he wiped his hands on a tea towel. I wished Emmett were with me, but he’d abandoned me—or, I was unable to imagine him—and I was stuck there all alone with nothing to say.

I cleared my throat. “Old Mrs Harper was asking after you,” I said.

“Oh ah?”

“Yeah.”

“All right, is she?”

“Yeah.”

More awkward silence. Dad opened the oven and a waft of heat and roast chicken hit me in the face. I almost said ‘smells good’ again until I remembered I’d already used that one. I excused myself from the table to use the bathroom, even though I didn’t need to go, and managed to pass five minutes attempting to remove the dirt from beneath my nails. When I returned to the kitchen, Dad had made us both a cup of tea, and mine sat steaming in my place.

“What’s it like working for they new owners up at the manor then? That Mr Scranton still a miserable sod?”

I smiled. Whitecott Manor was our main topic of conversation, and every weekend since the Scrantons had moved in, my dad had asked what it was like to work for them. “Still doesn’t talk to me much,” I said. “But I don’t mind. Zara’s nice.”

“That his missus?”

“Yeah.”

“They still got all that wood panelling in the reception room?”

“I think so,” I said.

“I helped restore that back when I did odd jobs for old Mrs Harper.”

I already knew that, of course, and I suspected my dad knew I knew that, but I appreciated the attempt at conversation, and so I said, “I can ask Zara if you can come and have a look around, if you like?”

“Nah.”

I drummed my fingers on the table and was pleased when Dad dished up the dinner and placed it in front of me. We sat at opposite ends of the table and ate in silence except for one “These roast potatoes are lovely” from me, and a “Pass the salt, Al?” from him. When we both finished, we sat for a while, letting the food go down, until we stood to wash the dishes and clear up. I imagined Mum looking down on us, wanting to bang our heads together.

I don’t know why conversation had gotten so awkward between us. We were just stuck.



I stood in the greenhouse, eating my cheese and pickle sandwich as rain splashed into the pond. An attractive pair of waders covered the lower half of my body, and I was hot and sticky despite the weather. As soon as I finished my lunch, and hopefully the rain would’ve stopped by then, I’d be back out there, wading into the pond to finish skimming the weed. The pond was large and full of ornamental koi and water lilies. Mrs Scranton had a gaudy statue of a naked woman, gold-coloured, installed at the centre. It dribbled water into the pond from a vase the woman carried.

Emmett appeared outside the greenhouse, blocking my view. He held a black umbrella above his head, and water dripped down around him from the material. I smiled at my impressive imagination—the details were always spot on—and raised a hand in greeting.

“Can’t you do something about that statue?” he asked, his voice raised to reach me through the rain and glass. “Bloody awful thing. I’m sure it can meet with some sort of accident if you try hard enough.”

“Zara likes it,” I said. “You have to let it go.”

Emmett’s brow creased into a frown, and then we both turned towards the manor at the sound of tyres munching up the gravel driveway. I spotted the white van, mud splashed up the side, and dropped my sandwich to grab my umbrella from where it leaned against the door.

“Don’t make a fool of yourself,” Emmett called after me as I jogged across the lawn to the van.

I reached it just as the driver door opened, and I stood there, umbrella at the ready, as Noah looked up at me.

“Hiya,” he said, smiling. “You waiting for me or something?”

“No!” I waved a hand at my waders. “I was working. Saw you coming and had an umbrella to hand so…um…”

Noah got out of the van and shimmied into the space in front of me so he could benefit from the umbrella. He had beautiful dark eyes. “I’m Noah,” he said.

“Alistair,” I replied, pleased I hadn’t replied with ‘I know.’

“Giz a hand, will you?”

He hurried to the back of the van, and I followed him, keeping the brolly over his head as if I was the footman.

“There’s no dogs in there, is there?” I asked. “I mean…they’re not going to jump out when you open the door?”

“Don’t be daft.” He pulled the doors open and dragged out a folded-up table, a metal pole contraption that looked dangerous, and a couple of dog leads.

“Grab my bag?” he asked, and I did before rushing after him towards the manor.

We stood under the portico, and I ditched the umbrella as Noah rang the bell. “I should get back to work,” I said.

“You can’t help me carry it all in, can you?”

The door opened, and Zara stood before us, one of the little white dogs in her arms. The other stood behind her, looking wary, one paw held up. It gruffed and then scurried away.

“Hiya,” Noah said. “Where do you want me?”

Zara waved him inside and gave him instructions to one of the rooms down the hall. She turned back to me and jabbed a finger at my waders. “Take those off before you come in here!”

“I wasn’t… I was going to…”

Zara tutted and sauntered after Noah, leaving me standing. I shrugged out of the waders and boots and left it all in the portico. My left sock had a hole in, I noticed, and my big toe stuck out. Groaning, I picked up Noah’s bag and headed down the hallway to find him. He’d already set up the table, and Zara was securing her dog to the pole when I entered the room.

“I’ll bring in Coco once you’re done with this little one,” Zara said. She kissed the dog’s head, made baby talk, and then flashed me a wink and left me alone with Noah.

Noah took the bag out of my hand and jerked his head at the room. “Nice this, innit? Dead posh.”

We were in what had been Emmett’s study, only his old mahogany desk had been replaced with cardboard boxes the Scranton’s hadn’t yet unpacked. The large window with its sand-coloured stone frame looked out over the formal gardens. Box hedging marked triangular bedding areas of soft, herbaceous planting, interspaced with pathways leading to the centre of the design and a seating area. I spied one of the topiary cones looking a little wonky from this angle and made a mental note to get the shears on it.

Noah was fussing the dog. The metal pole fit to the table, a lead dangled from it and around the dog’s neck, reminding me of a hangman’s noose. Emmett appeared on the window seat and made a daft choking action which made me chuckle.

“What?” Noah asked.

“Hm? Oh…thinking of something that happened earlier. So, I guess I should leave you to it.” I’d frozen to the spot, though, not wanting to leave and yet not wanting to get any closer to the dog.

“You can’t giz a hand, could you?”

That made my heart pound again. I didn’t want to touch the dog. I couldn’t touch the dog. What if it sensed my fear and attacked me? The two little dogs always gruffed at me whenever they were in the garden—I think they knew I didn’t like them.

“Just come here and hold her head.” Noah bent to take a pair of clippers and a comb from his bag and then raised his eyebrows at me once he straightened up and saw I hadn’t moved.

My gaze flicked to Emmett and back again. “I’m allergic,” I said. God, that was a good excuse. I smiled.

“Oh.” Noah shrugged, turned on the clippers and, holding the dog with one hand, got to work.

I stood there, stupefied, as he ran the clippers expertly over the dog’s body, lifting its legs and moving its head as he worked. White fur fell away in neat tufts. His movements mesmerised me—he mesmerised me, and I felt strangely calm until I noticed the ring on his finger.

“You’re married?” I asked.

I think I sounded confused because he grinned at me. “Engaged. Tony. Six months now.”

I could only nod. After a moment, I turned to leave, but Noah spoke again. “How about you? Anyone special in your life? Girlfriend?” He flashed me another smile as he added, “Boyfriend?”

“No. No boyfriend. Or girlfriend. No…uh. I’m single. Nobody really special. I mean, there was, but…” I glanced towards Emmett.

“Like that, is it? Tough luck.” Noah snipped around the dog’s muzzle with a pair of scissors and then threw me a look. “Thought you’d be sneezing. What with your allergies.”

“It’s more of a rash…situation,” I said. “You know. If I touch them.” I cleared my throat and moved towards the door, realising I had to get back to work, and I wasn’t doing myself any favours by standing there, staring at somebody else’s man.

“Alistair,” Noah said as my hand touched the door handle. “What time do you get off? Could go for a drink later, if you fancy it.”

“Yeah?” I smiled. “With you and Tony?”

Noah laughed. “Just me. I thought we could get to know each other as we’re kinda working together now. Tony’ll be working late anyway.”

I loved the way he pronounced ‘thought.’ Faught. I wanted to tease him about it. Instead I said, “Okay. I finish about six, but I can meet you in the King’s Arms at eight? That’s the pub in the middle of the village.”

“All right. Catch you later then.”

I stepped out into the hallway, glanced about for the other dog, and then headed for the door with a stupid grin on my face. I stopped in my tracks when the big door opened and David entered, sopping wet and already peeling off his coat. He paused when he saw me.

“What are you doing in here?” he asked, turning briefly to hang his coat on the stand.

“Mr Scranton. I was just helping the dog guy with his table and—”

“You shouldn’t be in here. Nothing to do with you in here. Get out.”

I raised my eyebrows at his rudeness but shrugged it off and made for the door. David grabbed my arm as I passed and held it tight. He moved his face, red with water dripping from the tip of his nose, close to mine. “I don’t want to see you in here again.”

“Zara didn’t mind.”

He opened his mouth as if to reply. Instead he let me go and grunted a response. Frowning, I headed outside.

“Awful man,” Emmett said, appearing by my side under the portico as the door closed behind me. “I wonder what he wanted to say?”

“I don’t know,” I said, grabbing my waders. “And I don’t care.”

Chapter Five

After work, I returned home to shower and shave and put on my best clothes while reminding myself I wasn’t going on a date. I sang Karma Chameleon loudly, which was unusually camp and upbeat for me. Emmett watched me as I threw various shirts onto my bed, and when I turned to grin at him, he folded his arms and glowered.

“You’ll make a fool of yourself,” he said.

Look, I’m just going for a good time. I’ve been miserable since you died, and bored, and I need a night out. I know Noah’s unattainable, okay? Not even a quick shag. Besides, even if he wasn’t engaged, it wouldn’t work between us. He likes dogs! And I’m…allergic.”

I picked up a salmon-coloured shirt and held it up for Emmett’s inspection. He shook his head and waved a hand at my white one with the blue flowers. My mother had bought me that shirt just before she’d died.

Melancholy bubbled up inside me, numbing everything and making Emmett disappear until I picked up the shirt and put it on. I buttoned it in front of the mirror and smiled when Emmett stood behind me.

“It brings out your eyes,” he said.

“Mum always knew what suited me.”

“You’ll make that boy realise he’s getting married far too young,” Emmett said. He laughed. “Is that your plan? You’ll go and show him what he’s missing out on.”

I don’t have a plan. I told you. I’m going for a good time.”

“Of course you are, my dear boy,” Emmett said, and I smiled.



Every once in a while the King’s Arms held a live music night. As I strolled down the road towards the pub, I spotted the blackboard outside the door advertising the band playing. A band called The Honey Badgers. I couldn’t decide whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. Not the band’s name, although that struck me as daft, but the fact a band was playing at all. Would Noah and I be able to hear one another? Did that matter? It would be an opportunity to get close to him if anything, to lean close to him so he could hear me, to laugh, to touch…

I shook my head at myself and went inside. The usual people propped up the bar, and I gave a polite nod to a couple of my dad’s old mates before leaning against the bar to order a drink. Noah hadn’t arrived, so I stayed where I was in full sight of the door.

The pub had music playing, some sort of generic pop CD, but I could see the band setting up for their performance at the back of the room, fiddling with lighting and amps and microphones. God, I’d loved to have joined them and belted out a couple of tunes.

I slurped my cider, wiped moisture from my lips, and glanced towards the door again. I imagined Noah would be the only nonwhite person there tonight—Mr Chan from the local Chinese takeaway didn’t strike me as the sort of person who’d like live music—and I worried suddenly that he’d feel awkward. Then I worried that that thought somehow made me racist.

“You’re not a racist,” Emmett said, perching on a bar stool. I noticed he’d dressed up for the occasion too, though he looked like someone out of Downton Abbey.

“You can’t be here,” I told him. “You’ll put me off! I can’t be talking to you like some sort of nutcase.”

“I’m here for support until your date arrives.” He turned from me to wave to the barman, who, of course, ignored him.

“It’s not a date.”

“Of course not.” Emmett attempted to flag down the barman and failed once again. He sighed. “What does one have to do to get some service around here?”

I frowned. “I don’t know. Breathe? Have a heartbeat? Actually exist, maybe?”

“You’re being flippant, Alistair, and it doesn’t suit you.”

With a resigned sigh, I raised my glass to my lips. I had to ignore Emmett if I didn’t want Noah to think I was completely insane. Maybe alcohol would help.

The door opened and a young couple entered. My shoulders sagged in disappointment until somebody else followed them in.

Noah wore black jeans and a striped V-neck top that served to make his chest look broader than it probably was. He looked around until he spotted me, and when he did, his face broke into a smile. I raised my hand in greeting and he headed over.

“Hiya,” he said. “Hope I’m not late.”

“I’m probably early,” I replied. “Didn’t have so far to come as you.” I pulled my gaze away from him and beckoned the barman over. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Just a lemonade for me, ta,” Noah said. “Driving.”

We stood in a semi awkward silence while the barman served the drink. I paid and then waved a hand towards the tables. “Shall we sit? There’s a band playing tonight. Do you like music?”

Noah laughed and followed me over to the table. “Oh yeah, love music, me. Are there people who don’t like music?”

“I meant live music.” I hadn’t meant to sound like an idiot. I cleared my throat and glanced towards the bar, where Emmett was still trying to be served.

“S’all right, I s’pose,” Noah said. I noticed how he briefly watched the band with only a vague expression of interest on his face. When his gaze met mine again, he smiled. “My little sister’s a performer.”

“Oh yeah?”

He nodded. “She did this drag king act up in Manchester. Trying to get some interest going somewhere ’round here. Bristol maybe. She’s dead good.”

I paused with my cider halfway to my lips. “Drag… what?”

“King,” Noah said. “You know. Like a drag queen, except she’s a woman who dresses up like a man.”

“Oh.”

“He’s called Johnny Hammers.”

“Who is?”

“My little sister!”

I almost said ‘oh’ again. My lips formed the shape, but I made myself take a drink instead so I didn’t look like an idiot. Noah laughed.

“You’re funny, you are,” he said.

I smiled. “Am I?”

Noah nodded. He seemed about to say more, but the lead singer of the band tapped the microphone and introduced himself and his mates to the room. I clapped, and Noah gave a cheer, though I thought it was for my benefit rather than the band’s.

We both listened to the music for a while—they weren’t bad, though the singer sounded a little pitchy to me—then, made bold by cider and Noah’s smile, I said, “I sing.”

“Do you?” He grinned at me, genuinely interested.

“Yeah. Well, karaoke.”

Noah leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “You any good?”

I shrugged. “I think so. I’m not bad anyway.”

“I’d love to hear you sing.” Noah flashed me a smile before lifting his glass to his lips. When a group of young women got up to dance, laughing drunkenly and whooping, Noah put his glass down and grabbed my hand. “Come on, let’s go and dance!”

“I don’t really think—” Noah was on his feet now, tugging my hand. I sighed and stood up. “I don’t really think there’s much room for dancing,” I said. “And I’m definitely not drunk enough.”

“Well, I’m stone-cold sober and I’m gonna dance.” He let go of me, turned to the women—who only seemed too happy for him to join them—and raised his hands above his head. I stood on the outskirts, a bemused half smile on my face as Noah swayed his hips and clapped his hands. One of the women put her arm around Noah’s waist, and he laughed and dropped an arm around her shoulders, before turning to beckon me to join them.

Rolling my eyes and thinking what the hell, I grabbed Noah’s hip and latched myself into the circle of dancing women. We clung to one another, Noah and the women and me, and danced awkwardly and not entirely in rhythm in the small space in front of the band.

When the song stopped, we clapped and cheered and my head spun with giddiness though I’d only drunk one pint.

Noah turned to me, laughing and breathless, and said, “Good that, wasn’t it?”

Our gazes met, and I had the biggest urge to kiss him. I cleared my throat. “Yeah, good fun.” I put a hand on the small of his back and guided him back to our table.

I stopped in my tracks when I spotted Emmett in my chair. “Don’t get attached,” he warned me. “The boy is taken.”

“You all right?” Noah asked. “Look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He flopped down in his seat and sipped his lemonade. “Urgh, it’s gone all warm.”

“Uh huh.” I blinked hard, but Emmett didn’t disappear. “I’ll get you a new one.” I turned to the bar before Noah could question my reaction and glowered as Emmett joined me. “Can’t you give me some privacy?”

“Absolutely not,” Emmett said. “I’m here to stop you doing something stupid. He is engaged.”

“I know that.” I said it through clenched teeth, which I somehow managed to turn into a smile when the barman caught my eye. “Just a lemonade please, mate.” I fished in my back pocket for my wallet.

I took the drink back to the table and passed it to Noah. He smiled at me. “Looks like you was talking to yourself just then,” he said.

“Probably was,” I agreed, taking my seat. “Bit of a mutterer.”

Noah laughed. He drummed his fingers on the table, sipped his lemonade, and then asked, “So, how long’ve you worked for the Scrantons then? That manor’s dead posh, innit?”

“As long as they’ve owned the place,” I said. “I used to work for the previous owners. The Harpers.” I stared at the table and picked at a knot in the wood.

“Nah, don’t know ’em,” Noah said.

My gaze turned to the bar, but Emmett had gone. “You didn’t read the local papers then?” I asked. “There was a big explosion. Gas. The Scrantons had quite a lot of money knocked off because of all the damage.”

There was a big cheer from the group of ladies at the other table, laughter, and a gaggle of voices as they all tried to speak over one another as well as the music. Noah was grinning as he watched them, and once again, his infectious smile cheered me.

He turned back to me. “Don’t really read papers,” he said. “Can’t be doing with all the doom and gloom. Tony’s always watching the news on telly. It drives me mad.”

I tried not to look put out at the mention of his partner. “Does Tony work?” I asked. I didn’t care, particularly, but I had to pretend I was interested.

“Yeah, he’s working tonight, remember?” Noah said. “That’s why he couldn’t be here. He’s a project manager at a construction company. It’s right boring.”

“Oh.” Tony’s job was boring. I was hoping Tony was boring too. I finished my cider.

Noah watched me with an impish grin on his face. Then he leaned forwards and said, “What do you do for fun around here? Is this it?”

I looked around at the band. “Pretty much. Not much of a ‘scene’ here.”

What do you do for fun? Besides karaoke.”

“Uh…” God, I had to think of something that made me sound more exciting than Tony. “Karting,” I said, pleased I’d remembered there was a track nearby. I’d been once, years ago, at my mate Freddie’s 25th birthday bash. “I go go-karting.” It was probably because it began with K, the same as karaoke. I was such a bloody idiot. I offered Noah a grin anyway.

“Sounds good,” he said. “Can I come with you next time you go?”

“If you like.”

“Really? What about this weekend?”

I raised my eyebrows. “Don’t you want to spend the weekend with your feller?”

He wanted to spend the weekend with me. My heart palpitated so I sipped my drink to attempt an air of nonchalance.

“Can he come too?”

“Uh…”

Luckily, the lead singer gave a shout out for requests, and I took the opportunity, while I was pretending to be distracted by this, to think of an excuse to dump Tony. There wasn’t enough room in my car for Noah and Tony, or they didn’t allow groups of more than two people or didn’t allow people called Tony.

Failing miserably, I said, “Sure.”

Noah rewarded me with a grin. “Cool.”

We spent the rest of the evening dancing and laughing and, I was pretty sure, flirting.

Chapter Six

A row of glorious purple dahlias grew along the border right in front of the manor, the colour of them stunning against the yellow brick. They were top-heavy now and needed support, so I was busy staking them in place when a car pulled up in the driveway. I glanced back quickly and then again when I realised it was Joe Scranton.

He closed the car door, looked at me briefly, and then towards the manor. Persephone was a very lucky young woman, I had to admit. Joe wore khaki shorts and a T-shirt that clung to him enough for me to tell he had a six-pack under there. It took me a moment to realise the woman who emerged from the passenger side wasn’t Persephone.

“Bleedin’ ’ell, Joe!” she said. “This place is a bit posh, innit!” Her skirt was very short and her heels very high. I pulled my gaze back to the dahlias, telling myself she was his cousin or… just a friend. Whatever she was, it was none of my business.

I pushed a stake into the earth and knotted twine around the plant’s stem. From the corner of my eye, I noticed Joe shepherding the woman inside, his hand low on her back.

Emmett appeared when I turned to reach for another stake, making me jump out of my skin.

“Curious,” he said.

“What is?”

“You know what. That man is supposed to be dating my daughter.”

I rolled my eyes. “Two straight people can be just friends, you know. They’re not all shagging.”

“Oh, come on,” Emmett said. “You’re thinking it just as much as I am. Go and see what they’re doing.”

“No! I’m working.” I dusted mud from my hands. “Anyway, I’m not allowed in there. And if they’re shagging, they would’ve gone upstairs.”

“Remember when we did it in the library on my old Chesterfield?”

I grinned. “Yeah. Leather sofa and bare skin—not good.”

“So go and look in the library window!” Emmett said, flapping a hand at the side of the manor. “Go.”

I was sure they wouldn’t be in the library. They would’ve gone to a bedroom, though if they were having an affair, why would Joe have brought her to his brother’s house? Still, I downed tools and slunk around the side of the building. My heart beating hard, I peered in the library window.


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