About three o’clock on a March morning, Callie Anson thought the world must be coming to an end. It was the wind that woke her, slamming against the sash window of the bedroom as though it was trying to break and enter. Above her head the roof timbers creaked and groaned, then came the sound of a sliding slate, followed by a crash.
Callie was torn between the temptation to get out of bed to look out of the window and the urge to pull the duvet over her head and pretend it wasn’t happening. Cowardice won out over curiosity, aided by the common-sense realisation that it was dark outside and she wouldn’t be able to see much anyway.
Then there was a scratching sound at the bedroom door, frantic and persistent.
‘Oh, Bella!’ In an instant Callie was out of bed, opening the door to admit a black and white cocker spaniel. ‘Come on, girl. You must be terrified.’ She scooped the trembling dog up in her arms and carried her to the bed. ‘It’s okay,’ she soothed, getting back under the duvet and stroking Bella’s soft ears. ‘I won’t let it hurt you.’
As another slate and then two more crashed to the ground, Callie wished she felt as confident as she sounded. But then, that was pretty much the story of her life.
# # #
‘I don’t know.’ The young man shook his head as he surveyed the wreckage which surrounded the church hall: smashed slates and broken branches. He tipped his head back and squinted towards the roof. ‘Yer’ve lost a fair few of them slates, see? And it’s too high up for a ladder. Goner need scaffolding, innit?’
‘Scaffolding!’ That, reflected Callie, sounded serious. And expensive.
‘It’ll cost yer,’ he echoed her thoughts. ‘Got insurance, have yer?’
‘Oh, the church has insurance.’
The young man gave her a suspicious look. ‘Yer live in a church?’
‘This is the church hall—I live upstairs. The church is over there.’ Callie pointed towards the nearby Victorian edifice, its roof miraculously intact. That, at least, was a blessing. The churchyard was going to need some clean-up, with all of those branches down, but it appeared that the building itself hadn’t sustained any significant damage.
Likewise the vicarage, standing stolidly next door. No, the church hall had taken the brunt of the storm, and once it had lost one roof slate, a whole army of its fellows had followed.
The wind, though it had lost the edge of its savagery, was still blowing in frigid gusts. Callie shivered, while the young man crossed his arms across his chest and tucked his hands in his armpits. ‘Any chance of a cuppa?’ he suggested hopefully.
That she could manage: dispensing cups of tea was one of her specialities, rain or shine. It was something curates, if they were at all clever, mastered in the first week of their job.
Callie led the way up the stairs to her flat. Ignoring the fancy hot drinks machine her brother had bought her, she filled the kettle and switched it on. Some good sturdy PG Tips was what was needed here, not poncy cappuccino or espresso.
She brought two mugs back into the sitting room to find that the young man had shed his donkey jacket and was on the sofa, stroking Bella. Above his faded jeans he wore a t-shirt which revealed a surprisingly thin, wiry physique. His skinny upper arms were encircled with some sort of tattoos, like celtic torc armbands. ‘Nice dog,’ he said.
‘Thanks.’ Callie smiled. ‘She’s called Bella.’ ‘I’m Derek, by the way. Derek Long.’
‘Callie Anson.’ She put one of the mugs on the table in front of him. ‘Three sugars, like you said.’
How, she wondered, could he be so thin if he took three sugars in his tea? And what about his teeth? What she’d seen of them didn’t look particularly attractive; her own teeth hurt, just thinking about it.
Derek picked up the mug, blew on its steaming surface, then took a gulp. ‘Perfec,’ he pronounced.
She drank her own tea, feeling she needed the warmth and comfort it provided after her foray outside.
‘Can I ask yer a question?’ Derek was looking at her over the rim of his mug. Looking, she perceived, in the vicinity of her clerical collar.
‘Of course.’ ‘Are yer a vicar?’
Callie smiled. ‘No, not exactly. I’m a curate.’ ‘What’s that, then?’
Ah, she thought, the mysteries of the Church of England hierarchy. How could she explain it without boring this young man to tears? Bishops, archdeacons, deans, canons, vicars, rectors: even the faithful weren’t always clear what it all meant. ‘I suppose a curate is sort of like a junior vicar,’ she said. ‘The vicar—Brian—is my boss.’
‘Curate sounds more like a junior doctor.’ He grinned. Callie laughed. ‘I suppose it does.’
‘So y’re like…religious? Or somefink like that?’
How was she supposed to answer? She thought about it for a moment, then said carefully, ‘Well, I work for the Church. I believe in God, if that’s what you mean.’
Derek Long shook his head. ‘The Church,’ he said. ‘I don’t get it. I mean, like, y’re not bad lookink. If yer don’t mind me sayin’. Why would yer waste yer life on the bloomin’ Church?’
She turned the question back on him. ‘You’re not a church-goer, then?’
‘Me? Nah.’ Again he shook his head. ‘I mean, like, why would I go to bloomin’ church? On a Sunday mornink? Not bloody likely. Not after I been down the pub on a Saturday night, like. I’m not goink nowhere on Sunday mornink.’
And this conversation wasn’t going anywhere either, Callie decided. She didn’t want to come across as prim and pious, and she knew that nothing she said would persuade this young man that church had anything to offer him. So she sipped her tea for a moment, then changed the subject. ‘About the roof,’ she said. ‘It’s bad?’
‘It’s bad, all right,’ Derek replied promptly. ‘To be honest, like, I fink it’s past mendin’.’
‘Past mending?’ That sounded alarming. ‘You mean you can’t fix it?’
Derek ran a hand over his head—which wasn’t quite shaved, but cropped very close to the scalp. ‘Best to have a new roof.’
Well, Callie told herself philosophically, the insurance would take care of it. Brian would moan about all the paperwork, but it couldn’t be helped. ‘Will you be able to do it right away?’ she asked. ‘Or as soon as we can sort out the insurance?’
He shook his head. ‘Not a chance.’ ‘But—’
‘There’s a waitink list, like. For the scaffolding, innit?’ Callie fortified herself with a gulp of tea. ‘Then how soon?’ ‘Month. Six weeks, mebbe. Two months, outside.’
Two months! Callie envisioned the spring rains which were yet to come and remembered the gaping holes in the roof above her head. ‘Can you do something temporary? Put some plastic over the holes so the rain doesn’t come in?’
Derek fondled Bella’s ears. ‘Yeah. I can, like, use some poly- fene sheetink. But,’ he added, as if it were an insignificant detail, ‘yer won’t be able to live here.’
Not be able to live in her flat—for up to two months? Callie sank back in her chair. ‘But…but…where am I supposed to live?’
Derek Long shrugged.
# # #
Where on earth was she going to live? Even if the insurance would pay for it, which seemed unlikely, Callie couldn’t just go off and live in a hotel for two months. She had a dog, for one thing. And she needed to be in, or at least close to, the parish. Close to the church.
She’d better talk to Brian, and soon. Maybe he would know of a parishioner with an empty flat, or someone with a spare room who wouldn’t mind a well-behaved dog—not to mention a well-behaved curate—moving in.
# # #
Jane Stanford was feeling a bit out of sorts. It wasn’t anything she could put her finger on, but she just wasn’t at her best. She’d spent the morning at the ironing board, which she usually didn’t mind at all; on this occasion, though, her lower back ached.
A possible symptom of pregnancy, Jane was aware. If only. But Jane knew that—in spite of her efforts—she wasn’t pregnant. She’d used one of her supply of testing kits just a few days ago, and the results were negative. Again. Not this month. Maybe soon, but not yet.
A baby girl—that was what she wanted. She’d wanted it for a very long time, since not long after she’d given birth to twin boys over eighteen years before, but the hard facts of vicarage budgeting had meant that it was out of the question to have another baby. Out of the question until just a few months ago, when an unexpected legacy had given their finances a boost, and Jane had confided her long-deferred hopes to Brian, hoping it wasn’t too late.
She was, she hated to admit to herself, on the wrong side of forty, when conception could by no means be taken for granted. When she’d had the twins, all those years ago, it had been so easy. Now she was doing everything it said in the book—charting her temperature to pinpoint the moment of ovulation, taking lots of vitamin supplements, even losing a bit of weight—yet nothing had happened.
Jane straightened up, arching her shoulders to ease the strain. Perhaps, she told herself, the back ache was because she hadn’t slept very well. There had been a tremendous storm in the night, battering the vicarage windows with a frightening savagery. Brian, bless him, had managed to sleep through it, but Jane hadn’t been so lucky. She’d lain awake for what seemed like hours, hoping the walls and roof would withstand the onslaught.
And while Jane was ironing, transforming crumpled lumps of white fabric into crisp, snowy surplice and alb, Brian had spent much of the morning in his study with his curate, Callie Anson. There was something about Callie Anson that got on Jane’s nerves. She admitted it to herself, though she wasn’t sure why it was so. In theory, Jane didn’t have any strong objections to women in the clergy, nor could she come up with any valid theological arguments against women’s ordination. She didn’t really think that Callie had designs on Brian or would ever, consciously or unconsciously, inflict damage on their marriage. Callie wasn’t rude or patronising to Jane as ‘just the vicar’s wife’; on the contrary, she was always pleasant and polite. She was a perfectly acceptable young woman, attractive and bright and hard-working. Jane just…didn’t like her.
She’d tried very hard to keep her feelings about Callie from Brian. After all, she knew how irrational they were, and she didn’t want Brian to think she was some sort of jealous shrew. Still, she wasn’t sure how successful she’d been until that day at lunch-time.
Lunch was vegetable soup, made with the dregs from the vegetable drawer of the fridge and a few sprouty potatoes she’d found at the back of the larder. Still, Brian ate it without complaint, and while eating he dropped his bomb-shell.
‘The church hall really took a hit from that storm last night,’ he said. ‘I suppose we were quite lucky that the church and the vicarage weren’t damaged as well.’
‘The roof,’ said Brian. ‘Lost quite a few slates. Apparently the whole roof will have to be replaced. It’s not even safe for habitation. The roofing chap told Callie she’ll have to move out.’
Jane didn’t have a premonition of what was coming. ‘Oh, poor Callie,’ she said with as much sincerity as she could muster.
‘I told her she could stay here at the vicarage,’ said Brian. ‘Just for a month or two. You don’t mind, do you, Janey?’
# # #
A month. Or two. Jane stared at her husband as though he’d taken leave of his senses. Which, it would seem, he had done.
‘We have all this space here, especially with the boys away,’ he went on. ‘The guest room is made up, isn’t it? Callie won’t be any trouble.’
‘But she has a dog.’
Brian shrugged. ‘Oh, that won’t be a problem. Bella’s a quiet little thing, and we have a big garden. It’s not as if you’re allergic to dogs.’
Allergic to dogs. That was hardly the point. ‘But…isn’t there anywhere else she can go?’ Jane managed. ‘An hotel?
‘You said it yourself, Janey,’ Brian said with infuriating patience. ‘She has a dog. She can’t stay in an hotel with a dog.’
‘How about her mother’s?’
He shook his head. ‘Her mother lives in Kensington. Callie needs to be in the parish.’
‘Surely there are people in the parish…’ Jane looked down into her soup bowl, struggling to keep her voice even. ‘Can’t you ask round, Brian? I can think of several people. Elderly ladies on their own in big houses, like Mildred Channing, or Hilary Dalton?’
He raised his eyebrows and gave her a quizzical look. ‘I’d almost think you didn’t want her here, Janey. This is the logical place for her to stay. You must see that.’
Jane swallowed hard. She had one last argument in her arsenal and now was the time to bring it out. ‘What about the… the money?’
‘Money? What do you mean?’
Of course, thought Jane, Brian never worried about little things like money. It was up to her—and always had been—to eke out his stipend till the end of each month, to pay the bills and put food on the table. ‘Her meals,’ Jane said baldly. ‘Am I expected to feed her out of my housekeeping money?’
Brian grinned, clearly pleased with himself. ‘This is the best thing about it, Janey. I rang the EIO. The insurance company. They’ll pay to put Callie’s belongings in store. And they’ll pay us. There will be a weekly cheque coming in for her accommodation!’
That, realised Jane, was it. She may as well give up and accept it.
# # #
The storm had passed, bringing behind it unseasonably warm temperatures and sunshine. It was, in short, too nice a day for Mark Lombardi to eat his lunch in the police station canteen. Instead he picked up a sandwich and headed for his favourite green space.
Newcomers to London were always surprised at how much green space was to be found in the nation’s capitol city. Mark, as a London native, took for granted the vast expanses of Hyde Park, to the south of the station, Regents Park, to the north-east, and the more modest Paddington Green, round the corner. But there were smaller green spaces as well, tucked away in unexpected places—tiny squares, little parks, churchyards. Some time ago Mark had discovered one of the latter just a short walk from the station: a secluded churchyard with a bench where he could sit and eat his sandwich in peace and feel a million miles away from the bustle of London.
And sitting in a churchyard, even if it wasn’t her churchyard, somehow made him feel closer to Callie: more a part of the world she lived in. Thinking about Callie, imagining what she was doing at any given moment, was something Mark did a great deal of these days, wherever he was.
If anyone had told Mark Lombardi, six months ago, how much his life could change in half a year, he wouldn’t really have believed them.
All it had taken was that trip to Venice to visit his grandmother. On the way back to London, he’d been seated next to an engaging young woman with shiny brown bobbed hair, and they’d talked for the entire flight as if they’d known each other for years. That’s how it had started; by the time they’d landed he knew that he wanted to see Callie Anson again. And again and again.
Mark wondered, not for the first time, about the vagaries of fate. What if the woman at the airline check-in had assigned him a different seat that day? What if Callie hadn’t commented on the Italian newspaper he was reading, and drawn him into conversation? So many variables…And yet there was such an inevitability about it, looking at it from the perspective of the present. Here, now, sitting in this churchyard, he could not imag- ine his life without Callie in it. She was woven into the fabric of his thoughts, day and night; they saw each other most evenings, and in between they spoke on the phone. She was even—miracle of miracles—accepted by la famigilia Lombardi, that formidable institution which pretty much governed his life.
He still couldn’t believe that Mamma liked Callie. He’d been so prepared for the opposite that he’d delayed their meeting for months. After all, he had been programmed for his entire thirty-one years to bring home a nice Italian girl, with all that implied. And Callie wasn’t just an Anglo: she was an Anglican. An Anglican in Holy Orders, at that.
To Mark’s astonishment, Mamma had taken it all in her stride. Callie had won her over without even trying. And where Mamma led, Pappa followed. Pappa thought Callie was wonderful.
It was a mystery.
Mark took a bite out of his cheese and pickle sandwich and looked at the clump of daffodils near the church porch. They were a bit battered in the wake of the storm, but still held their yellow heads upright.
Rather like his sister Serena, he thought. The events of the last few months had been horrendous for her. Yet she had carried on, head held high, as if nothing had changed. Mamma and Pappa hadn’t known—hadn’t even suspected—that she was heartbroken, bearing the burden of her husband Joe’s infidelity.
She had—in the throes of her anguish—confided in Mark. It had shaken him pretty badly as well. He had known Joe di Stefano for most of his life, and his sister’s marriage had always seemed rock-solid to him, the exemplar of all that marriage should be.
Marriage. That brought Mark’s thoughts round to his good friend Neville—Detective Inspector Neville Stewart.
If Mark’s life had changed in six months, Neville’s had altered beyond recognition. From being a confirmed and carefree bach- elor, he had transformed into a married man. And it had been even more of a shock to Mark than it had to Neville.
Neville had played his cards so close to his chest that Mark had had no idea what was going on. Yes, he knew that Neville was seeing someone, early on when Mark himself was getting to know Callie. But his absorption with his own new relationship had blunted his curiosity, and within a few weeks Neville had told him, in his taciturn way, that things were over between himself and Triona. Neville had never been comfortable talking about emotions, about things of the heart; he often kidded Mark about his Mediterranean temperament, wearing his heart on his sleeve.
Suddenly, then, just before Christmas: an engagement. Neville had told him over a drink at their favourite pub. ‘Seems I’m getting married,’ he’d said casually, halfway through his first pint of Guinness.
Mark could only stare at him. ‘Married? But who to?’ ‘Triona O’Neil. Will you be my best man?’
‘I’d be honoured. But…’
Eventually he’d pried it out of Neville. He and Triona had lived together for a few months, some years earlier. Their break-up had been painful; Neville had really never got over her. Then they met again by chance, were drawn together briefly, and split again.
‘But I finally realised,’ Neville said, looking down into his Guinness, ‘that I didn’t want to live without her. It was like…a lightbulb going on over my thick head. Difficult as it is to be with her, being without her is worse. Much worse.’
He had proposed to her, he confessed, at the top of the London Eye. He’d done it properly, going down on his knees.
‘And she said yes?’ Mark surmised.
She’d said yes—or at least maybe, at that point. And that wasn’t all she’d said.
‘I’m going to be a dad,’ Neville told him, pulling a bemused face.
Triona had broken the news to him immediately after her provisional acceptance of his proposal: the one time they’d slept together, there had been consequences which neither of them had expected. She’d known about it for weeks but hadn’t been planning to tell him.
‘It’s not like I wouldn’t have figured it out eventually,’ Neville said wryly. ‘But she didn’t want me to feel like I had to marry her. Even after I proposed, and she told me about the baby, she said that if it made any difference to the way I felt, then we’d call it off there and then.’
Mark raised his eyebrows. ‘And how do you feel about it?’
There was a long pause while Neville emptied his glass. ‘It scares the crap out of me,’ he said frankly. ‘I just never thought… I never really thought about having kids. I know that sounds stupid. But it’s like…being old or something. A wife is one thing. But a kid?’ He shook his head. ‘I’m still getting my head round it, to tell you the truth.’
That sounded a bit worrisome to Mark. ‘You need to be sure,’ he said. ‘You shouldn’t marry her if you’re not sure—about the whole package.’
‘That’s what Triona said.’ Neville stood up, ready to go to the bar to get the next round. ‘So we’re not rushing into anything. We’re going to wait a couple of months, to give me time to get used to the idea. But I am going to marry her, mate,’ he added firmly. ‘So you can start working on your speech now.’
The wedding had taken place the previous weekend, and now Neville was on his honeymoon. Mark thought about it as he finished his sandwich.
It had been a small wedding, held at a posh hotel in the City. Neville had cleaned up well, looking positively handsome in his hired dinner jacket. And Triona, her bump unabashedly visible beneath her gown of clingy, creamy bias-cut satin, was a radiant bride. The guest list was limited to a few friends on either side: Triona’s solicitor pals, and Neville’s police colleagues. Mark was best man, and Callie’s great friend Frances Cherry was Triona’s attendant.
No family—not on either side. That seemed the strangest thing of all to Mark. He couldn’t imagine a wedding without family. If it had been his wedding, it would have been awash with them, streaming in from near and far. Nonna—his grandmother—would have come from Venice, and no doubt other Italian relations as well.
Nonetheless the wedding had moved Mark deeply. As the couple said their vows he watched Neville’s face, and his friend looked as if he’d won the lottery and inherited a brewery on the same day. And Triona, when the ring was slipped on her finger, glowed with a transcendent beauty which was partly to do with motherhood and all to do with love.
It made Mark want to rush to Callie’s side, throw himself at her feet, and beg her to marry him. During the wedding break- fast, as she sat beside him looking as lovely as he’d ever seen her, the urge was powerful.
So why hadn’t he done it?
Mark still wasn’t entirely sure. It was partly to do with a failure of imagination. Their wedding: what would it be like? Yes, there would be family there, in abundance. But that in itself would be an issue rife with possibilities for problems. His ardently Roman Catholic family would take a dim view of a wedding held in an Anglican church. Yet that wasn’t just a possibility—it was a certainty. Callie was an ordained clergywoman, within a few months of being a priest. It was who she was, not a mere religious preference. Her wedding should by rights take place in her own church. What would his family make of that?
Even more than that, though, he had been constrained by something Serena had said to him on the evening he’d introduced Callie to the family, just before Christmas. He and his sister had had a heart-to-heart talk in the kitchen over the washing-up.
‘What do you think?’ Mark had asked her; he knew that she knew the answer he wanted.
‘She’s lovely,’ said Serena. ‘Very nice, Marco.’ If her voice conveyed a bit less enthusiasm than her words, at least the words were the right ones.
‘I really love her,’ he confided. He wouldn’t have told his mother that, but he felt comfortable saying it to Serena.
‘Asked her to marry me? Not yet,’ Mark admitted. ‘I’m working up to it, though.’
Serena didn’t look at him, but she laid a damp hand on his sleeve. ‘Don’t rush into anything,’ she said in a flat voice. ‘I mean it, Marco. You may think she’s the one, the right person—’
‘She is,’ he interrupted. ‘I’m sure of it. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.’
‘Give it time,’ Serena said. ‘If she’s the right one, you won’t lose anything by waiting. And if not…well, it’s better to find that out before you commit yourself.’ She swallowed. ‘You think you know someone, but it takes time. Lots of time.’
Mark realised she was talking about Joe, was talking out of her own pain. He shouldn’t have expected her to be over the moon about his happiness with Callie.
And yet…there was something in what Serena said. If it was right, then what was the rush? Callie wasn’t going anywhere, and as his feelings for her—their feelings for each other—deepened even further, there would come a time when the next step would present itself as inevitable.
Mark’s churchyard reverie was interrupted by the jangling of his phone. Callie.
‘Cara mia,’ he greeted her, a smile in his voice.
‘I just wanted to let you know, Marco. There’s a change of plan for this evening.’
# # #
‘Well, Bella,’ said Callie. ‘I suppose this is it.’ Home, for the next few weeks.
Home. If you could call it that. Callie looked round the room, trying hard to find something homely about it.
It wasn’t a small room: that was one thing in its favour. High ceiling, plenty of floor space. The high ceiling, though, meant that there was all the more of the drab, depressing wallpaper on view. And as for the floor space…
The floor was covered with not one but two patterned carpets, joining somewhere near the wardrobe. The carpets were equally threadbare, equally hideous—one a bilious shade of green, with large swirls of a darker green, and the other a floral design, featuring overblown pink roses on a dreary grey background. The Stanfords’ last vicarage must have had smaller rooms, Callie guessed, with none of its carpets large enough to make the transi- tion to this current Victorian monstrosity. Either of those carpets would have been ugly enough on their own; together they were truly sick-making.
Unsurprisingly, none of the furniture matched either. There was a frameless double bed, covered with a dingy white candlewick spread, a dark oak wardrobe, a lighter oak chest of drawers, and a pine bedside table. Blessedly there was also a wash basin attached to the wall in the corner, its pipe-work concealed by a frilled and gathered skirt.
Callie looked at the books on the bedside table. Thoughtfully provided? On the whole, she doubted it: they seemed a random collection of old paperback novels—from some long-ago church jumble sale, or left behind by previous guests—mingled with an assortment of other tomes. There was a cookery book, a chemistry text book, and a battered children’s picture book. She was glad she’d thought to bring along her own reading material.
Unfortunately, though, there was no reading lamp on the bedside table. The room’s only illumination came from the window, and above—from the single dim bulb dangling from the middle of the ceiling, shrouded in an ugly fringed shade. Evidently people were not meant to read in this room.
Bella jumped up on the bed and flopped down, seemingly impervious to her depressing surroundings.
‘Oh, Bella,’ Callie said. She realised she should probably get the dog off of the candlewick bedspread, but she didn’t have the heart. Instead she sat on the edge of the bed and stroked Bella’s ears.
What had she done? What had she committed herself—and Bella—to?
She hadn’t had many other options, and when Brian had suggested it, she’d overcome her reservations about living under Jane’s roof for maybe two months, and had accepted his offer. At least, she told herself philosophically, the new arrange- ments would put on hold the fraught question of sleeping with Mark Lombardi. It certainly wasn’t going to happen here, at All Saints’ vicarage. And maybe that was no bad thing, to remove that particular issue from the equation for a while.