Callie Anson first met Morag Hamilton at a Mothers’ Union meeting. Jane Stanford, the vicar’s wife, was very much in charge of the Mothers’ Union at All Saints’ Church, Paddington, and as the lowly curate, Callie was deliberately keeping a low profile, sitting in the back row as Jane introduced the speaker. Callie’s thoughts were elsewhere: certainly not on the woman who was to demonstrate how to make festive Christmas decorations out of yogurt pots and ribbon, with the assistance of scissors and a glue gun. The Mothers’ Union was not an institution which held much appeal for her in any case, but she knew that Jane would take as much offence if she were not there as she would if Callie were to try to take too prominent a role in its operation. The safest option, she had long since discovered, was literally to take a back seat.
As the correct use of the glue gun was explained, Callie’s attention wandered still further, to the woman sitting nearest to her in the back row. She didn’t recall having seen her before, though she wasn’t exactly a striking or memorable type: late middle-aged, small, compact, neatly put together, with capable-looking hands folded over a black handbag on a tartan-clad lap. Her grey hair was short and tidy, if not stylish, and her eyes were concealed behind spectacles, their frames unfashionably large.
What did seem out of place to Callie in the midst of the well-groomed London ladies was the woman’s complexion, her cheeks ruddy with small broken blood vessels, as if she had spent much of her life out of doors and in a less genteel and rarefied climate than the soft rains of Paddington, Bayswater and Hyde Park.
Callie spoke to her at the earliest opportunity, as soon as the speaker had finished and the applause had died away. There was a discreet rush in the direction of the tea urn, but the woman hesitated for just a moment, and Callie turned to her.
‘Hello,’ she said, extending her hand. ‘I don’t think we’ve met. I’m the curate, Callie Anson.’
The woman took her hand in a firm grip. ‘Morag Hamilton,’ she said, her strong Scottish burr as much an indicator of her origins as her un-English name. ‘I’m new here.’
‘It’s good to meet you, Morag. And good to have you with us. Do you live in the parish?’
‘Yes, that’s right. Just round the corner, in fact.’ Morag indicated the direction with a tilt of her head.
‘Oh, we’re neighbours, then,’ Callie said, raising her eyes to the ceiling. ‘I live in the flat upstairs.’
‘Over the shop.’ Morag smiled. ‘That’s something I know a bit about myself. My husband was the village doctor, and we lived above the surgery.’
‘In Scotland?’ Callie ventured.
‘That’s right. In the Highlands,’ she amplified. ‘Gartenbridge.
Not far from Aviemore. Do you know it?’
Callie shook her head. ‘No. I’ve been to Edinburgh once or twice, but that’s as far as I’ve been in Scotland.’
Morag gave a brisk laugh. ‘Edinburgh’s so far south, it hardly counts as Scotland at all!’
‘I understand the Highlands are very beautiful.’
‘Oh, there’s nothing so lovely on earth.’ Morag’s eyes looked over Callie’s shoulder, as if focusing on something far away, and her face softened. ‘You really should go, you know. Go for a week, and you’ll never want to come back.’
Callie felt a prickle of curiosity. If the Highlands were so perfect, what was Morag Hamilton doing in London? Might her husband have retired and taken a fancy to city life? As she thought how to phrase the question diplomatically, she was forestalled by Jane Stanford, who was proprietorially steering the speaker towards the refreshments. ‘Callie, it looks as if Mrs. Barton could use a hand with pouring the tea,’ she said sharply, her brows drawn together in disapproval at the curate’s failure to read her mind. ‘I would help, of course, but I must look after our speaker.’
‘Yes, of course, Jane.’ Callie smiled an apology at Morag Hamilton, who quirked an understanding eyebrow in Jane’s direction. That endeared her to Callie, who decided on the spot that she liked the Scottish newcomer. ‘I’ll see you later, Mrs. Hamilton,’ she promised as she made a move. ‘Do come this way and have a cup of tea and a mince pie.’
‘Please, call me Morag,’ insisted the other woman. ‘And it would be very nice to see you again.’
# # #
Rachel Norton woke gradually, and not because it was yet day- light. The only source of light was from the ensuite bathroom, glowing faintly round the top and side of the stripped pine door. These Victorian houses had many charms, but period features came with a price—and that included doors which didn’t quite fit in their frames and single-glazed sash windows which admitted the chill winds of winter without putting up a great deal of fight.
Half awake, Rachel couldn’t quite decide whether her sleep had been disturbed by noises from the bathroom, or by the baby’s movements. Under the duvet, she ran her hands over the great mound of her belly, still not used to the shape she had assumed over the last months. Yes, the baby was kicking, all right. She shifted a bit, trying to find a more comfortable position. Most of the time now she slept on her back; anything else was just too awkward.
The cracks of light round the bathroom door morphed into a rectangle as Trevor came through, clad in his running shorts, a grey tee shirt and his expensive state-of-the-art trainers. His iPod was strapped round his upper arm in a holster.
‘Morning,’ Rachel murmured.
‘Oh, love.’ Trevor came to the side of the bed and leaned over, kissing her forehead. ‘I hope I didn’t wake you—I was trying to be quiet.’
‘The baby was kicking.’
Trevor gave a fond chuckle and patted the duvet above the mound. ‘He’ll be a football player. Mark my words, Rache.’
‘You’re so sure it’s a boy.’ Rachel’s protest was perfunctory and half-hearted, oft-repeated. The scans had been noncommittal on the subject, but Trevor was unfazed.
‘It’s got to be. A beautiful blond boy.’ Trevor lifted a lock of the thick blond hair spread on Rachel’s pillow and fingered it lovingly, then patted his own close-cropped fair head. ‘Couldn’t be anything else.’
Rachel changed the subject. ‘What time is it?’ ‘Seven. As usual. You know I always run at seven.’
Like clockwork, she reflected. You could set your watch by Trevor’s timekeeping. A run along the canal at seven—winter or summer, dark or light—, home for a shower and a quick breakfast, and at his desk by half-past eight.
Trevor was much happier these days, since he no longer had to commute into the City. His office was at the other end of the corridor, in the large bay-fronted room at the front of the house. When they’d bought the house, six months ago, Rachel had fancied that room for their bedroom, but Trevor had been adamant. ‘I’ll spend more time in the office than the bedroom—we both will, for that matter. Makes sense to use the biggest room. Space for all the computers and filing cabinets. And good light.’ She hadn’t really argued. It was a big house, and their bedroom at the back was perfectly adequate in size. And they’d taken the small bedroom next to it, knocked it through and fitted it out as an ensuite, still leaving another bedroom to use as the nursery.
They’d come a long way from the scruffy, cramped flat in Stoke Newington that they’d shared for a few years before their marriage, and where they’d started their married life a scant year ago. Trevor was an IT genius—she’d always told him so, and eventually he’d carried through with the threat he always made when his boss hacked him off. He’d told him where to put his job, and had started up on his own as an independent IT consultant. Some—many—of his old clients had followed him; it hadn’t taken long for word-of-mouth to bring others, and now the business was flourishing. They’d bought the Victorian semi in Paddington—with the canal close by for the daily run—and left Stoke Newington behind forever.
Rachel, too, had quit her job—as a bookkeeper in the same City firm where Trevor had worked, and where they had met. Trevor had insisted that she could do his books instead. After all, with the business growing like it was, he needed a good bookkeeper. She didn’t miss the commute, she admitted to herself, but she did miss her co-workers, her mates. She’d been working there since she left school, and those people were almost like family to her. The congenial coffee breaks, the confidences shared over sandwiches at lunchtimes, the drinks at the corner pub after work: those things were undervalued at the time, barely thought of when she’d agreed to pack in the job. Now, when she no longer had them, she valued them fiercely with a nostalgia she’d never expected in herself.
And now, with the baby on the way, Trevor didn’t want her to work at all. ‘We don’t need the money,’ he said often. ‘You can be a stay-at-home mum.’
‘But your books…’
‘I can hire a bookkeeper,’ Trevor had stated grandly. ‘I’ll advertise.’
The baby kicked her again, even more violently than before.
Rachel flinched and rubbed her stomach.
‘I’m off, then.’ Trevor leaned over and kissed her lightly on the lips. ‘See you in a bit. There’s no rush for you to get up, love. Take your time.’
‘Have fun,’ she called after him.
‘Running isn’t supposed to be fun,’ Trevor reminded her as he slipped his iPod earphones into his ears and pushed the play button. With a wave over his shoulder he disappeared down the corridor, already breaking into a trot.
Rachel waited until she heard the front door close, then struggled into a sitting position and reached under the bed for her laptop. Propping it up awkwardly on her bump, she opened it, logged into the wireless network, and checked her e-mail.
# # #
Neville Stewart had scarcely seen his friend Mark Lombardi for weeks. They’d run across each other occasionally at the police station, once or twice sharing a meal in the canteen, but it seemed as if the old days of bachelor evenings together at the pub had come to an end.
There had been no row; they hadn’t changed their pattern by design. It just happened that the station’s two most confirmed bachelors had developed relationships at the same time, and things had changed.
Today, though, Neville was feeling restless, missing the old camaraderie he and Mark had shared.
There was an underlying reason for his restlessness, one he didn’t want to think about too closely.
He was sick of the status quo, tired of the way things seemed to have stalled out. Going nowhere: that was their relationship. Why was she so stubborn?
They had met up again a couple of months ago, nine years after a brief but intense affair which had scarred them both. The magic, Neville realised at once, was still there. Triona affected him as no other woman had ever done, before or since.
He had invited her out to dinner; she had accepted.
He had gone to pick her up at her flat—her posh flat in a warehouse conversion overlooking the river.
They’d never made it to dinner. They hadn’t made it any further than her bedroom.
Turning over the papers on his desk without really looking at them, Neville recalled that night with a complex mixture of burning longing, self-pity, and anger.
It had been as good as ever. Better. Triona had matured, was now a grown woman who knew what she wanted and knew how to give pleasure, without losing any of her raw animal energy. He knew her so well, recalled every detail of her body, yet she was a stranger to him, a source of unexpected delight.
That night had been the best, most memorable one of Neville’s life. He hadn’t wanted it to end. He’d assumed, naturally enough, that it would be just the first of many such nights to come.
In the morning, lying with Triona in his arms, her head pillowed on his chest, he’d looked round her bedroom. ‘It’s a great flat,’ he said, playing with a curled strand of her long black hair. When he’d first known Triona, her hair had been shorter, wild and curly with a life all its own. Now she’d grown it out, wearing it in a neat and elegant knot by day. That night, though, he’d freed it from its constraints; it had sprung back into its curly ways, untamed and uncivilized. ‘Do you own it? I don’t suppose you’ll want to move back to my scruffy old place. It would make more sense for me to move in here.’
Triona twisted round to stare at him, her dark blue eyes abruptly losing their drowsy look. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
‘My flat. It’s the same old place in Shepherd’s Bush. No nicer than it used to be, and not very convenient for your job in the City. This will be a bit of a commute for me, but…’
He tailed off at the look on her face. ‘Don’t be daft, Neville.’ Triona sat up and wrapped the duvet round her. ‘Neither one of us is moving anywhere.’
‘But…’ He reached for her; she jerked away.
‘It happened,’ she said crisply. ‘It just happened. Okay? And I enjoyed it. I won’t pretend that I didn’t. But it was a one-off. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that we’re back together. Not in any sense of the word.’
Eventually she relented, just a tiny bit. ‘If you want me back,’ she said, ‘you’ll have to prove it. You’ll have to woo me. No more shagging. We’ll forget all the water under the bridge, and pretend we’ve only just met for the first time.’
‘But we shagged the day after we met,’ Neville pointed out. ‘You moved in a few days later.’
A smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. ‘Perhaps we’re not the world’s best example,’ she admitted. ‘But this time it will be different, Neville. If you want a relationship, it has to be on my terms. And my terms are simple. In a word, courtship.’
She’d meant it, too. And he’d been bending over backwards to do it her way. Dinner dates, flowers, the whole bit.
And after weeks of this game, Neville was sick of it. Sick of the artificiality, sick of the frustration. They were going nowhere.
Last night he’d confronted her about it. After dinner—admittedly a nice, romantic evening—he’d pressed her to take things a step further. ‘Let me stay the night,’ he’d begged. ‘Don’t you think we’ve waited long enough?’
Triona had been firm, though. ‘No way, Neville. You just don’t get it, do you?’
He’d asked her the question which for him summed everything up. ‘Do you want to be with me or not?’
She’d lowered her eyes, turned her head away. ‘That’s not really the point.’
It seemed to Neville that it was exactly the point. He wanted to be with her. With her—in her bed, in her arms. God, how he wanted it. But he was tired of playing games. Enough was enough.
Tonight, he decided, he wouldn’t be available. And maybe not tomorrow night either. Let her stew.
He picked up his phone and rang Mark Lombardi.
# # #
Jane Stanford had always put great stock in Christmas, busy time that it was for her husband Brian, and tried to make it special for her family.
On a vicar’s stipend there had never been a great deal of spare cash for splashing out on the trimmings, so Jane had to plan carefully, putting aside small sums of money through the year and using her creativity to make that money go as far as possible. Fresh trees were increasingly expensive; some years ago she’d obtained a very good quality artificial one at a church jumble sale, and had fashioned some decorations for it herself. She’d knit a set of crib figures out of bits of left-over wool, and the wreath for the front door of the vicarage was trimmed with a recycled bow from an ancient flower arrangement and some pine cones she’d found in the park. On Stir-up Sunday she’d made her own Christmas pudding, and the Christmas cake, laced with brandy from a generous parishioner, had been maturing in the larder for even longer than that.
Their parishioners were very generous, Jane acknowledged, especially at Christmas time, providing enough bottles to get the Stanfords through the first few months of a new year. That was how she thought of them: their parishioners, rather than Brian’s. She was a partner in Brian’s ministry, proud of her calling as a vicar’s wife, smug in her feelings of superiority to those modern clergy wives who scorned their proper place at the heart of the parish and instead took up jobs outside the home. Or even, in this day and age, went for ordination themselves.
That, inevitably, reminded Jane of Callie Anson, her husband’s curate. Why Brian hadn’t been given a nice young man as a curate was beyond Jane. Up till now the curates had always been young men: some more pleasant than others, some brighter or more capable, but always men. The nicer ones Jane had treated almost like members of her family, like older brothers to the twins, inviting them to meals and sometimes even doing their laundry. But much as she’d tried, she just couldn’t warm to Callie Anson.
It wasn’t that she was jealous of Callie—not exactly. She didn’t think that Callie was a wanton temptress, trying to steal her husband away from her. Though, Jane knew, such things were not unknown with vicars and female curates: she’d read one or two accounts in the papers. Proximity fostered intimacy, and when people were thrown together in the course of their jobs, day in and day out, sharing confidences…Well, anything could happen. It was human nature. Not that she didn’t trust Brian, of course.
Brian had suggested that they might invite Callie to join them for Christmas lunch. That, as far as Jane was concerned, was out of the question. ‘She has her own family,’ she’d pointed out. ‘Her mother lives in Kensington, doesn’t she? And isn’t there a brother? Why would she want to come to us? Christmas is a family time.’
‘I just thought it would be nice to offer,’ Brian had said mildly. ‘I don’t think she gets on all that well with her mother. And when Tom was the curate, you invited him for Christmas at least twice.’
‘That was different,’ stated Jane, though she wasn’t able to explain why. And this year things were going to be different enough as it was.
For the first time, the boys would be coming home for Christmas, back from their first term at Oxford. Jane and Brian had visited them once during the term, taking them out for a meal, but Charlie and Simon hadn’t yet been home.
So their homecoming would be special, and Jane was determined that this Christmas would be the best ever for the Stanford family, with no curates or other hangers-on to spoil it.
On this particular evening, Jane was feeling even less charitable towards Callie Anson than usual: Brian, having received two tickets to a posh pre-Christmas charity concert, had opted to take his curate rather than his wife. Jane felt she’d done a very good job of masking her disappointment from him; she’d even managed, with a semblance of cheerfulness, to tell him to have an enjoyable evening.
‘You’re sure you don’t mind?’ Brian had said at the last minute— far too late to have done anything about it if she’d said yes.
‘I’ll enjoy an evening in by myself,’ Jane had assured him. She’d had a scrappy supper of leftovers; she’d listened to The Archers. She’d checked the telly listings and not found anything remotely appealing, then had picked up her library book and tried to immerse herself in it.
But she couldn’t get the picture out of her mind: Brian, enjoying himself with Callie Anson. Listening to the concert, eating the lovely food at the livery company reception, chatting to interesting and important people. Brian would be introducing Callie to them, showing her off. Callie, with her shiny brown bob and her attractive figure, probably wearing a brand new frock. Deliberately she switched her mind to thoughts of Christmas.
Christmas, and the boys.
Dropping her library book, which wasn’t that good anyway, she got up and went to the telephone. On impulse she dialled Simon’s mobile number. A chat with him was just what she needed to cheer her up. Mothers were not supposed to have favourites, especially when it came to twins, and Jane didn’t—not really. She adored both her boys. But Simon was the one who was temperamentally more similar to her, of all people on earth the quickest to understand her moods and most likely to say just the right thing.
‘Mum?’ said Simon when he heard her voice. He sounded surprised. And was it her imagination that he didn’t sound pleased?
‘Hello, darling. I just wanted to say hello.’ ‘Umm…Mum. Could I ring you back later?’
Her maternal antennae twitched, sensitive to the tiniest signal. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘Fine. I’m just…This isn’t a good time. Okay?’
‘It’s not important,’ she assured him. ‘Don’t bother ringing back.’
‘Okay, then. Bye, Mum.’ He hung up.
Jane stood for a moment, staring at the receiver in her hand.
What on earth was wrong?
Charlie would know. He and his twin brother had always been extraordinarily close. Jane rang his number. He answered after a couple of rings.
Sensitive now, she asked him, ‘Is this a good time for you?
I’m not disturbing you, am I?’
Charlie laughed. ‘I’m working on an essay. So I’m delighted at the interruption, Mum. What’s up?’
How could she put it? ‘I was just…wondering about Simon,’ she began. ‘I rang him just now, and he…Well, I just wondered if something was wrong.’
‘Oh,’ said Charlie. ‘I expect he’s with Ellie. Not wanting to be disturbed, if you understand me.’
There was a brief silence on the other end. ‘Hasn’t he…?’ Charlie began. ‘Oh, bother.’
‘Who is Ellie?’ Jane heard a squeak in her voice as she said the name, tasting it in her mouth, knowing instinctively that it would become familiar to her.
‘He said he was going to tell you. Weeks ago, Mum. I thought he had done.’
‘Tell me what?’ Now her voice was calm, deliberately so. ‘About Ellie.’ Charlie sighed. ‘His girlfriend.’ ‘Girlfriend?’
‘He met her during Freshers Week. They started going out straightaway. And they’ve been inseparable ever since. He spends all his time with her—I’ve barely seen him for weeks.’ Charlie sighed again. ‘I really thought he’d told you, Mum.’
‘No,’ she said. She played with the phone wire, unkinking a twist in the spiral cord. ‘But why, Charlie? Why didn’t he tell me?’
Charlie spoke slowly, as though choosing his words with care. ‘Maybe he thought you’d be jealous.’
‘Jealous?’ Jane gave a laugh which sounded forced to her own ears. ‘Why would I be jealous? Simon’s always had girlfriends. Both of you have, all through school.’ And they had: it was only natural. Her sons were good looking, red-blooded boys. Of course they’d had girlfriends.
‘Girlfriends, yes.’ Charlie cleared his throat. ‘Ellie’s different, Mum. It’s…serious.’
‘But he’s only known her for a few weeks.’
Charlie gave a dry chuckle. ‘You’ve always told us that as soon as you met Dad, you knew he was the one.’
‘Yes, but—’ Trust Charlie to remember that and throw it back at her now.
‘Ellie’s the one, Mum.’ His voice was gentle, as if breaking bad news to a child. ‘Believe me. She’s the one.’
# # #
Neville and Mark met for dinner at a Chinese buffet not far from the station. ‘This worked out well,’ Mark said as they sat down facing each other across a red tablecloth. ‘Callie is out tonight. Out with her boss, the vicar. Some posh do.’
‘You’d better keep an eye on that sort of thing,’ Neville warned, grinning. ‘She’ll throw you over for the boss.’
Mark smiled. ‘I’m not too worried. He’s married.’ ‘And you think that will stop him?’
‘Also middle-aged and not exactly a catch. Callie has better taste than that—or at least I like to think so.’
Neville suppressed a small twinge of jealousy. ‘So—things are going well, then?’
‘Yes and no.’ Mark fiddled with his chopsticks. ‘Callie’s great.
I really, really…’ He swallowed. ‘Well.’ ‘Don’t tell me. It’s the family thing.’ Mark sighed. ‘Always the family thing.’ ‘They don’t like her?’
He didn’t look at Neville. ‘They haven’t met her. They don’t even know about her.’
‘Good God, man.’ Neville shook his head. ‘How long are you going to wait till you tell them, then? Maybe when you send out the wedding invitations?’
Mark stood and moved towards the buffet table. ‘We’re a long way from that, Nev.’
Neville followed. ‘Just tell them. Bloody get it over with, man. You’ve been seeing her for months. If you think there’s any future in it, you’re going to have to tell them.’
‘I’d like to think there’s a future.’ He took a plate and regarded the choice of starters, then helped himself to some prawn crackers, a spring roll, and a spoonful of seaweed. ‘In fact, I can’t imagine my future without her.’
Neville heaped his plate with sticky ribs and added a few fried wontons, banishing a momentary mental vision of Triona. ‘Then you don’t have any choice.’
‘I know. I know.’ Mark went back to the table and for a moment he picked at the seaweed with his chopsticks, looking thoughtful.
‘I don’t know how you can eat that bloody grass,’ said Neville, picking up a rib with his fingers.
‘It’s good. Just a bit hard to eat, is all.’
Neville, chewing on a rib, was incapable of speech for a moment.
Mark thought out loud. ‘My sister,’ he said. ‘Maybe I could talk to my sister. She might be sympathetic. She might have ideas about how to tell Mum. Nostra mamma.’
Around the rib, Neville asked, ‘Is your sister married?’
‘Oh, yes. She’s been married for years. She’s older than me,’ he added. ‘Eight years older. Nearly nine.’
‘And she did what your parents wanted her to?’ Neville lifted an ironic eyebrow. ‘Married an Italian and had lots of bambinos?’
‘Bambini,’ Mark corrected him automatically. ‘Only two, as it happens. Serena’s had a lot of problems with her pregnancies—just like my mum. She’s had several miscarriages and that sort of thing.’
Neville made a face. ‘Too much information.’ ‘Sorry. You did ask.’
He put down the chewed bone and picked up another rib. ‘These things are almost more trouble than they’re worth,’ he grumbled. Like women, he was about to add. That, though, might lead him down a path where he definitely did not want to go. It was all very well for Mark—those Mediterranean types always wore their hearts on their sleeves anyway—but he didn’t want to talk about his romantic woes to anyone. Not even Mark. And he wasn’t going to talk to Triona. Not tonight. Maybe never.