When aromatherapist Sukie Ambrose starts using her cottage garden as inspiration - and raw ingredients - for her products, she thinks she's just hit on a good way of saving money while offering her clients a way of de-stressing and relaxation.
However, Sukie lives in a village where strange things have been known to happen. She discovers that her new improved lotions and potions are making her massages distinctly magical - and producing more star-crossed lovers than Shakespeare could ever dream of...
Release date: April 7, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 320
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Mind you, she had to admit, none of them had managed to look quite so spectacular at this early hour of a grey and chilly
March Monday morning.
In fact the only thing wrong with this one, Sukie thought, staring at the lean, tanned torso rising and falling in sleep beneath
her dark blue duvet; at the rumpled streaky ash blond hair which looked glorious against her navy pillows; at the superb cheekbones
and the curve of long dark eyelashes, was that he was a complete stranger.
The initial terror which had kicked in as she’d switched on the light and found an unknown man sleeping soundly in her bedroom,
was tempered by the sheer implausibility of the situation.
All right then, that – and the fact that he was truly beautiful.
Not that that made his presence any less scary, she told herself quickly. Some of the worst villains in history had been extremely
attractive, hadn’t they? Surely some of those mass murderers of the grim and grimy past had been lady-killers in every sense
of the word? And how often had she peered at some serial wrongdoer on the television news thinking guiltily that she’d have
fancied him if she’d met him at a party?
So was he a villain? Someone on the run? A fugitive from justice? A crazed killer suddenly overcome by the need to catch up
on his beauty sleep?
Sukie shook her head. Doubtful. Not that she’d known any crazed killers, but somehow snuggling under an anonymous duvet simply
didn’t seem to fit the Tarantino image.
Mentally downgrading the criminality a bit, perhaps he was a burglar? A housebreaker, taking advantage of both her and Milla
being away from home for the weekend, and making the most of the facilities before making away with their belongings?
Sukie somehow doubted that too. The sleepy village of Bagley-cum-Russet with its one high-banked main road, cobweb of tiny
lanes, and one pub and two shops, was surely never going to be top of any mobster’s must-visit list, was it? And she hadn’t
noticed any sign of a forced entry when she’d opened the cottage’s front door. And everything downstairs had seemed untouched
and normal … but then, exhausted after her journey and simply glad to be home, she hadn’t really been looking for indications
that they’d been burgled, had she?
She could really, really do without this …
Blinking wearily, she stared at the sleeping form again. He was out like a light. Could he possibly be ill? Maybe he’d wandered
in from the winding village streets having suffered amnesia? Maybe he thought this was his home? Maybe he’d lived in Bagley
at some time in the past and muddled up his cottages? No – Sukie discounted that one straight away. He was probably in his
late twenties, as she was, and having been born and bred in Bagley-cum-Russet, she knew everyone who’d ever lived in the village.
He really was very, very pretty. And if he wasn’t ill, and was far too clean and classy-looking to be anyone’s stereotypical
thug, why on earth was he in her bed? Unless …
What if he was a squatter?
That was it! One of that new breed of upmarket organised squatters reclaiming vacant properties as a protest against homelessness and materialism. Oh dear … Sukie felt more than a little sympathy with that particular cause, but could
also feel a severe case of nimbyism coming on.
Sukie stared at him for a little longer. He really was sensational.
Should she wake him? Ring the police? Scream?
No, too late for screaming, and anyway she’d never been much of a drama queen. And the police would take ages to arrive and
then there’d probably be forms to fill in and lots of questions and she was far too tired to even contemplate all that. Maybe
she’d just sneak back out of the room, lock the door on the outside and wait for him to regain consciousness and ask questions
Dropping her holdall quietly to the bedroom floor and holding her breath while she wriggled the old-fashioned key from the
lock, Sukie switched off the light and backed out of the room. Her hands were shaking as she locked the door from the outside.
Damn … Too noisy … She paused, waiting for the explosion, but there was no angry shout from her bed. She pocketed the key
in her jeans and listened again. Still no sound at all from behind the door. Clearly the intruder was exhausted.
Not as exhausted as she was though. Driving back to Berkshire from Newcastle through the night had seemed like a good idea
at the time. Her three-day course – ‘Advanced Aromatherapy: Essential Oils and Infusions for the 21st Century’ – had ended
late the previous evening. The delegates had been invited for a night out on the town, sampling every hot venue the Quayside
complex had to offer, with the additional tempting promise of spotting premiership footballers and reality TV stars at every
But after three rigorous days of studying, attending lectures, practical sessions and a rather sneaky written exam, and having
already spent three evenings of gallivanting with several like-minded beauticians to make the most of the Newcastle pubs and
clubs after classes, all Sukie had wanted to do was go home to Bagley-cum-Russet and crawl into bed and sleep for a week.
Not possible now.
Of course she could sleep in Milla’s bed as Milla wasn’t due back until later today from her hen-party in Dublin, but maybe
this wasn’t a great idea with a strange man in the cottage.
Oh, bugger …
Feeling bone tired and more irritated than frightened – after all the bedroom door was securely locked and the window, centuries
old and much-painted over, opened only a few inches, so the interloper was safely imprisoned for now – Sukie tiptoed downstairs.
The sleeping man upstairs had put a bit of a dampener on the usual sense of euphoria Sukie normally felt on returning to the
strangely named Pixies Laughter Cottage. It was her sanctuary, truly her home, a place she loved with all her heart.
She’d always hated having her cherished space invaded, and having it invaded by a naked stranger had thrown her completely.
And, she thought with a weary grin, what on earth would her godmother have made of it all?
Cora, Sukie’s maternal great-aunt and godmother, had lived all her higgledy-piggledy life in Pixies Laughter. Sukie had adored
the elderly, eccentric Cora and spent an idyllic childhood with her in the low-beamed rooms, snuggled up in front of the log
fire in the winter, playing wild games in the garden through long hot summers.
When Sukie’s aspirational parents, living on the other side of the village in their up-to-the-minute stylised and clinically
neat modern estate semi, had inherited the cottage they’d immediately planned to modernise it and sell it at some exorbitant
sum to incomers.
Horrified at the thought of losing Cora’s home, her happy memories and her childhood bolt hole, Sukie had begged, pleaded
and eventually convinced her parents that she’d be the ideal owner for Pixies Laughter. After much wrangling a price had been
agreed – nowhere near as high as the Ambroses would have managed to extort from strangers – and Sukie, having convinced the bank that she’d be a great mortgage
risk, had moved in. The modernisations – central heating and a bathroom – had eaten into her savings and a further bank loan
and more, and her parents had refused to help on the grounds that if Sukie wanted the cottage so badly she took it warts and
all and paid dearly for the privilege. So a year previously she’d taken Milla in as a lodger to ease the financial burden.
The whole thing had caused a few ructions at the time, but feathers were now more or less smoothed down… However, Sukie’s
parents’ visits to Pixies Laughter were few and far between despite only living less than a mile away, and Sukie’s visits
home to the minimalist semi were equally rare.
Sad, really, she thought now, as she ducked under the lowest beam at the foot of the stairs, that she hadn’t immediately thought
of ringing her parents for advice on the current situation. Apart from the fact that they’d be extremely annoyed at being
woken up before dawn, they’d probably feel it was her fault somehow and would trot out trite and irritating lines like ‘you
made your bed when you took the cottage on – if you’ve got a problem you’ve only yourself to blame’.
Nah, she’d deal with sleeping beauty on her own and in her own time, Sukie thought, clattering across the uneven hall floor.
The central heating was humming gently, and in the tiny brightly-lit kitchen, Sukie did what any girl would do under the circumstances.
She put the kettle on.
She was just scrabbling in the dishwasher for a clean mug when the kitchen door opened.
She screamed and dropped the mug on the ancient quarry tiles. The bits skittered across the floor.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Milla, her cottage-mate, tall, slender and blonde, wearing a very skimpy T-shirt and a
black thong, blinked from the doorway.
‘I could ask you the same thing,’ Sukie snapped, rescuing the broken mug from under the table and wondering how come Milla always managed to look so perfectly groomed and glamorous
even when she’d just woken up. ‘Why aren’t you in Dublin? I didn’t see your car in the lane.’
‘Caught an earlier flight. Still a bit tipsy. Didn’t want to drive. Left the car at the airport and got a cab.’ Milla gave
an elegant yawn. ‘Collecting it later. Why aren’t you in Newcastle?’
‘Couldn’t stand the pace. And – there’s a problem.’
‘What?’ Milla flicked back her bone-straight silver hair and reached a slender hand into the dishwasher for two mugs. ‘What
sort of problem?’
‘We’ve got an intruder. Upstairs. In my bed.’
Milla handed her mug to Sukie and laughed. ‘He’s not an intruder. He’s with me.’
Sukie sighed heavily. She really should have guessed. Milla was always careless with her men. She’d once left one at a taxi
rank in Reading while she nipped off to find a loo after a night out clubbing and completely forgotten about him. Rumour had
it that the poor sap had still been standing there forlornly waiting as dawn broke.
‘I should have guessed, I suppose. But couldn’t you have labelled him or something? Like Paddington Bear: “Milla’s Man – Please
Don’t Touch”? Anything to indicate that he wasn’t a threat? And why—’ Sukie wearily spooned granules into the mugs, ‘—is he
in my bed, not yours? And who is he?’
‘Whoa! Far too many questions! Anyway, I’ve no idea about the last one—’ Milla perched on the edge of one of the oddment kitchen
chairs crossing her long perfectly shaped legs, ‘—which is the answer to why he’s not in my bed. Even I’m not that shallow.
I do like to be on least first name terms before I offer B&B. Thanks.’ She took the coffee. ‘No, honestly, we only met last
night. At the airport. Waiting for a taxi. I didn’t even see him on the plane. He’d been to Dublin with a stag-party. He was
about as hung-over as me so he decided not to drive home either, and while we were chatting in the queue I discovered he came from Winterbrook so we shared a cab.’
Sukie raised her eyebrows. The relief was short-lived. Even for Milla it seemed a bit unlikely, not to mention downright risky.
‘And you didn’t ask his name? What he does for a living? Like murder, rape, pillage? Chatting up blondes in taxi queues with
the intention of relieving them of their worldly goods and their bank accounts and maybe their breathing?’
‘Sukie, sweetheart.’ Milla shook her head. ‘You read far, far too many tabloids. He was just a fellow-traveller in need of
a good turn.’
Sukie slid onto the opposite chair. ‘Not good enough. Why is he here? Why didn’t he stay in the cab and go on to Winterbrook?
It’s only a few miles away.’
Milla smiled her sleepy-cat green-eyed smile. Sukie, who was of average height, curvy, with short, dark, spiky hair and blue
eyes, sighed. She’d kill to look like Milla.
‘He was sound asleep by the time we got here,’ Milla lit a cigarette. ‘Out cold. The taxi driver didn’t want the hassle of
unloading him single-handed at Winterbrook so he turfed us both out here. Poor bloke was almost asleep on his feet and I knew
you wouldn’t be back, so I gave him your room.’
‘Wasn’t that a bit risky? You didn’t even know him?’
Milla blew smoke towards the ceiling. ‘Like I said, he was practically comatose. And the cab driver legged it. I could hardly
leave him outside in the lane, could I? So I woke him up, made him a cup of coffee which he didn’t drink, pointed him towards
your room and well, that’s it really …’ She stubbed out the cigarette. ‘And he is rather cute, isn’t he?’
‘Very.’ Sukie sipped her coffee. ‘And I should have realised he wasn’t one of yours anyway. He’s got a chin.’
‘Bitchy …’ Milla stretched showing most of her slender toned midriff, then yawned again, still managing to make it look endearingly attractive. ‘I don’t always date chinless wonders.’
‘Yeah you do. Well, when you’re not dating city traders with sharp suits, sharper tongues and estuary accents.’
‘A girl has to maintain her standards,’ Milla shrugged. ‘You can’t support my lifestyle on a labourer’s wage packet, sweetie,
as I keep pointing out to you.’
Sukie winced. It still didn’t solve the problem of the stranger upstairs in her bed and the fact that she had probably never
felt so tired in her entire life.
‘So – how were you and him going to get back to the airport to collect your cars? Oh no – don’t look at me like that. I am
not – not – driving you all the way to – good lord!’
A thundering crash from upstairs rocked the cottage to its centuries-old foundations.
‘I think he’s awake.’ Milla frowned at the ceiling. ‘Probably needs the loo. He doesn’t sound very happy.’
‘No.’ Sukie bit her lip. ‘He wouldn’t. I locked him in.’
‘You did what?’ Milla shrieked with laughter. ‘Sukes, you’re priceless! Then you’d better go and unlock him, hadn’t you? And point him
in the direction of the bathroom pretty damn quickly.’
By the time Sukie reached the top of the narrow winding staircase, the man was pounding on her bedroom door. She unlocked
it and stood back, screwing up her eyes in case he was stark naked.
He wasn’t. Well not completely. He’d managed to pull on a pair of faded jeans, which did absolutely nothing to detract from
the stunning rest of him.
‘Thanks,’ he blinked at her through the long strands of ash blond hair. ‘Door seemed to have stuck and I walked straight into
those bloody beams. Does this place belong to the seven dwarves or something? Er – sorry, but where’s the loo? Please?’
‘Bathroom’s along the passage. End door. And mind the beams.’
‘Thanks.’ He gave a weary, bleary smile. ‘Er – do I know you?’
Sukie shook her head. ‘Nope. And I’m not Snow White either. But this is my cottage.’
‘Is it?’ He looked confused. ‘Were you on the plane last night, then? I thought—’
‘No, that was my taller, thinner, prettier, blonder friend.’
‘Oh, right – sorry – but I must …’
Sukie stood aside as he pounded along the passage.
‘All okay?’ Milla appeared at the top of the stairs. ‘Is he in the loo? Good – I’m going back to bed, Sukes. Catch you later
Sukie sighed as Milla slammed into her bedroom, then casting one last lingering look at the cosy invitation of her own bed,
dragged a blanket from the airing cupboard and trudged wearily downstairs to catch up on her beauty sleep on the sofa.
‘And so you slept on the sofa and he’d gone when you woke up, had he?’ Jennifer Blessing raised perfectly arched eyebrows
at Sukie later that day in the peaches and cream draped splendour of Beauty’s Blessings on Hazy Hassocks High Street. ‘And
I bet Milla had disappeared too.’
‘Yep. Hopefully still living and breathing and not dragged over the quarry tiles to be buried in a shallow grave.’ Sukie,
struggling untidily into her peach overall, nodded at her boss. ‘And I’m still fuzzy-headed from too little sleep, so can
we possibly leave the rest of the cross-examination until later, please?’
‘Cross-examination? You make me sound like a nosy old bag.’ Jennifer frowned but not very fiercely. Botox for Beginners had
had a radical effect on her forehead. ‘I’m just a concerned employer, that’s all.’
Yeah, right, Sukie thought, feeling achy and scratchy and still irritated. She’d had a maximum four uncomfortable and restless
hours on the sofa, and hadn’t known whether to be pleased, concerned or annoyed that Pixies Laughter Cottage had been empty
when she’d woken up.
Still, there’d been no signs of violence, and on the plus side it at least meant Milla and the nameless sex god had made other
arrangements about collecting their cars from the airport, and someone – probably not Milla – had stripped her bed, remade
it with fresh linen and even put her navy blue duvet cover, sheet and pillowcases into the washing machine.
If Mr Blond and Beautiful was a serial killer, he was a very domesticated one. Which meant, of course, that he could be married.
Or seriously attached. Or maybe even …
‘You did enjoy the aromatherapy course, though?’ Jennifer interrupted Sukie’s runaway train of thought. ‘I realise it pales
into insignificance compared with coming home to find a naked man in your bed, but it cost a lot of money and—’
‘It was great,’ Sukie yawned. ‘Oh, sorry. No, I loved it. Learned loads. Until this morning I was bursting with enthusiasm,
couldn’t wait to put it into practice and I will be again, promise. I just need to sleep for a week and wake up properly first.’
‘Good, lovely – I’m really pleased you got such a lot out of it.’ Jennifer batted her newly enhanced eyelashes. ‘Because you’re
a natural masseuse and I think offering this mobile service will really put us on the map. No other salons round here do home
treatments, and those experimental ones we tried out round the villages last year went down well, didn’t they?’
Sukie nodded. They had. Probably because they’d been free. The most unlikely people from Hazy Hassocks, Bagley-cum-Russet
and Fiddlesticks had volunteered for lip-filling and head massages and pedicures with the usual rural enthusiasm of getting
something for nothing even if they didn’t want it.
Jennifer patted her dark red hair in one of the peach-lit mirrors. ‘We’ll go through the oils and fragrances you’ll need later.
My suppliers can get hold of any new stuff, then hopefully you’ll be out on the road by next week. I’ve already had several
enquiries after that splash in the Winterbrook Advertiser.’ She stopped patting and preening and peered at Sukie again. ‘Oh, sorry to keep on about work. You poor thing – you know
I wasn’t really expecting you to come in today anyway – and you do look awful …’
‘I’ll make some more coffee, shall I? See if that helps?’
Doubting that anything would help apart from sleep, sleep and more sleep, Sukie nodded gratefully as Jennifer whispered away
in her own slinky overall towards Beauty’s Blessings’ tiny kitchenette.
The cold March morning had lengthened into a cold grey afternoon, and not even the warm tones and even warmer scents wafting
round the salon could lift Sukie’s flagging spirits. Lamps glowed under peach shades, and Classic FM murmured tastefully in
the background. Jennifer, Sukie knew, had poured her heart and soul, not to mention a fair whack of her husband Lance’s hard-earned
money, into the salon which was doing well, but somehow they both doubted if bucolic Berkshire was ever going to be quite
ready for eyebrow threading, caviar facials, chocolate body wraps or even chemical derma-peels.
However, since Beauty’s Blessings had opened the previous summer, the trade for basic facials and manicures had been steady,
and thanks to a concerted leaflet-drop after Christmas, the massages and non-surgical face-lifts were becoming quite popular,
but Jennifer was still keen to build the business further, hence the one-to-one home aromatherapy service.
This mobile expansion, Sukie realised, was mainly due to Mitzi, the first Mrs Blessing, having made such a stonking success
of her Hubble Bubble Country Cooking outlet at the other end of Hazy Hassocks High Street. Jennifer, the second Mrs Blessing,
was nothing if not violently competitive on all fronts.
Beauty’s Blessings was housed in a flint and slate ex-cottage next door to Hazy Hassocks Dental Surgery, which had caused
a bit of soul-searching for Jennifer as Mitzi’s gorgeous, much younger, live-in dentist lover worked there, and this was originally
considered a little close for comfort. However, although the location certainly hadn’t been Jennifer’s first choice, at the
moment the relationship between the Mrs Blessings Mark One and Two was reasonably civilised, and as long as no one mentioned Mitzi’s entrepreneurial
skills on Jennifer’s premises the two businesses blossomed in relative harmony.
A couple of hundred years ago Beauty’s Blessings had probably housed a family of seventeen, and according to the more elderly
residents it had had a chequered history once it had moved into commercialism. It had enjoyed life as a cobbler’s early in
the twentieth century, then in rapid succession an engraver’s, a sweet shop, a dress shop, an estate agent’s, a charity shop
twice, followed by its most recent incarnation as a juice bar.
Sadly Hazy Hassocks simply hadn’t known what to do with a juice bar and it had closed within six months.
As soon as Mitzi had opened, and made a success of, Hubble Bubble at the other end of the High Street, Jennifer had persuaded
Lance to back her to fly solo too. Fortunately Lance ran a small building business so the extensive renovations on the defunct
Juicy Lucy’s hadn’t been as costly as they might have been. Before Lance had been allowed to alter anything though, Jennifer
had toured various Berkshire salons, attended trade fairs, consulted all the style magazines, checked with colourists, and
ordered all the latest equipment, with the result that Beauty’s Blessings now offered the most opulent and luxurious and up-to-date
surroundings in the area.
Sukie lifted one of the filmy peach drapes and peered out of the window. Everywhere looked very grey and cheerlessly cold.
Shoppers hurried past en route to Big Sava, heads down against the wind, their noses the only splash of colour in the uniform
beigeness of their bobble-hat-to-bootee attire. Maybe it would snow, Sukie thought. She hoped so. Hazy Hassocks looked much
prettier when it snowed.
Hazy Hassocks, with its winding sycamore-lined High Street filled with a mishmash of shops and small businesses, was a large
village a few miles away from Sukie’s home in Bagley-cum-Russet. It was where the Bagleyites, and the Fiddlestickers from the neighbouring hamlet, did most of their
shopping and socialising. Winterbrook, the nearest market town, offered larger supermarkets and banks and other municipal
delights, while Reading was regarded as Up Town and reserved for shopping sprees of mega-proportions.
If the Romans had bothered themselves with this part of the county instead of concentrating their efforts on the Ridgeway,
then the villages would all be within a few minutes’ travelling distance of one another. As it was, the lanes twisted and
turned back on themselves in convoluted loops, and while they looked only centimetres apart on the map, the reality was very
Jennifer had used the complex local geography to cash in on the beauty business. There were no rival rural establishments
‘Thanks, Jennifer. You’re an angel.’ Sukie took the coffee gratefully. ‘And as the junior here I should be making coffee.
And sweeping up and washing the towels and—’
Jennifer laughed as much as her eye-lift would allow. ‘If the aromatherapy takes off we’ll be able to employ a proper junior
for those jobs. I was thinking of asking Winterbrook FE college if they’d like me to take some of their final year beauty
students on day-release. And we won’t have to pay them much because they’ll be gaining invaluable practical experience here,
Oh, of course. Jennifer could teach Shylock a trick or two. Child labour would be right up her street.
Wandering over to the desk, Sukie sipped her coffee, waiting for the caffeine to kick in, and studied the appointment book.
It was reasonably full.
‘Shall I go and see to Mrs Fellowes now? She must have been in the cubicle for hours.’
Jennifer shook her head. Her mahogany bob didn’t move. ‘I’m going to leave her for a few more minutes. The seaweed wrap is good – but not that good. Years of junk food and lager tops have taken their toll there I’m afraid. What she
really needs is a body transplant … You can do Chelsea’s nail extensions if you like. She’s due in shortly for a complete
revamp – I think she wants a hearts and flowers motif this time.’
Sukie groaned. She was so tired, she wasn’t sure she could cope with acrylic nails and mini-transfers and glue and clippers
and emery boards, not to mention Chelsea’s irrepressible non-stop gossiping, without probably doing her some irreversible
harm. However, as arguing with Jennifer was never an option, with another yawn, she gathered together the necessary paraphernalia
and staggered off to the nail-bar.
Ten minutes later she was half-heartedly buffing away at Chelsea’s nails without, so far, having drawn blood.
‘… and then her mum and dad came home and took one look and – Sukie? Are you listening to me?’
‘What? Yes, yes of course I am. Fascinating. Really. Try and keep your hand still – I need to get the tweezers just right
and these roses are fiddly – oh, sod it!’
Chelsea stared at the tiny rosebud transfer now raggedly adorning her wrist and giggled. ‘Mind not on the job, eh, Sukes?
Not that I’m surprised … You look like you haven’t slept for days – and who can blame you … Derry Kavanagh is enough to keep
any girl awake.’
. . .
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