Intriguing, suspenseful historical romance
When Beth leaves home - and more importantly, her domineering aunt - to take a PR job at a stately home she thinks she has finally found a path to happiness. But the inhabitants of the house are far more mysterious than she expected, and she soon finds herself with rather more to manage than she expected ...
Release date: June 21, 2022
Print pages: 208
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Twice Ten Thousand Miles
Not that she was normally a timid person. And she most positively did not believe in ghosts. Tonight, however, exhausted and tense, she was already on the edge of panic. The long drive down from London, coming after that final terrible scene with her aunt, had worn her nerves almost to breaking point. Once during the journey she had even pulled the car into a lay-by, rested her forehead on the steering wheel, and found herself weeping. Weeping helplessly. She who never cried. It was only the picture of another thirty years exactly like the last twelve that had prevented her from turning the car there and then and going straight back home. Back to Aunt Doris, and her dull, safe job, and television evenings, and weekends driving her aunt round a tiny, unvarying circuit of elderly acquaintances.
It was only this picture that had stopped her finding the nearest phone box and calling Mr. Fraser to tell him she’d changed her mind.
Now she was tired out. With seven or eight miles still to go she was at least three hours later than she had planned, and still tortured by the doubts and guilty whisperings of her conscience. She hated driving after dark at the best of times. By the time she was halfway up the ghostly arcade of trees she was ready to jump at her own shadow.
Suddenly there was a movement on the edge of the darkness ahead. Some long grey animal was running just in front of her and to one side, making leaps up the high banks and falling back in its panic. She was almost on it when it veered across, directly into her headlights. Though still strangely grey in the harsh brilliance, it was unmistakably a fox, tail trailing the road, ears back, weaving from side to side but trapped in the dazzling tunnel of light. In another moment she’d have run it over.
She braked and swerved abruptly. The car slid on the soft earth at the side of the road and came to rest quite gently, its near-side wing dug into the bank. Earth pattered down on the bonnet, a minor avalanche. Then everything was suddenly very quiet.
Beth was shaken but unhurt, held by her safety belt. The car’s single remaining eye glared crookedly up the road. Just within its beam she saw the fox, sitting now, watching her. She blew her horn at it crossly. It got up and trotted away along the road a bit, in no hurry whatsoever, and then up over the bank in one easy leap. It was perfectly possible, Beth decided, that it could have been playing with her all along.
She sat for a moment, calming herself, then restarted the car and reversed slowly back onto the road. The bank was fairly soft—if only the headlamp was broken she’d be able to drive on without it. The car came jerkily, with an unpleasant grinding noise, and when she tried to straighten the steering wheel she found she couldn’t. Filled with forebodings, she climbed out and went to inspect the damage. The headlamp was shattered, and the wing pushed in till it jammed against the front wheel. Obviously the bank had been harder than she’d thought.
She knelt down and tugged at the crumpled metal, hoping to pull it out far enough to make the car drivable. It gave a fraction, then no more. She struggled, driving the road gravel through her thin trousers into her knees and bruising her hands. Finally she gave up.
She sat back on her heels. It was a loathsome car. She’d always detested it. She got up and childishly kicked at its front tyre. Ridiculous red two-seater thing. It had never been hers. She’d traded in her dear old mini for a number of complicated reasons: mostly, she saw now, in the hope of somehow trading in the dear old Beth that went with it. If she could appear dashing, perhaps even a bit flighty, then possibly a whole new range of people and experiences would open up for her. Nothing of the sort had happened, of course. No brilliant succession of wild parties (that she’d have hated). No queue of millionaire playboys (to whom she’d have had nothing whatever to say).
Aunt Doris had been furious, of course. They couldn’t afford it (which was true), and besides, did Beth really think it fair to expect her to drive around in a flashy thing like that on their little weekend outings? Beth, already regretting the swap, hadn’t answered. Aunt Doris had sniffed angrily. “I can’t think what’s come over you, childie—you’re usually such a sensible girl.”
Well, what had come over her? Was she simply tired of being “sensible”? or was she, at twenty-eight, getting just a little desperate …?
She leaned wearily on the hood of the car. There was nothing else for it, she’d have to start walking. There must be a farmhouse somewhere nearby, a place with a telephone so that she could ring for a taxi. Always assuming that there were taxis at ten-thirty on a Sunday evening, out on the edge of Exmoor … “I wonder if you ever think, childie, of the chances I missed, me with someone else’s little girl in tow. Maybe I wasn’t pushy like your mother, but I had my chances same as anybody. I wonder if you ever think of that.”
She hadn’t trusted herself to answer. She’d simply closed the front door and stood, leaning on it, staring at the council-green staircase and the broken window on the landing that the Housing Department had grown tired of mending.
When she’d felt strong enough she’d gone on down, carrying her smart new suitcase, out to the car and away, without a single backward glance up to the window. Even the suitcase was suddenly a reproach: blue and green tartan, expensive, with the big clear label she’d defiantly written, as if to prove something, even though it was going with her in the car. Watertown Abbey. Watertown. Nr. South Molton. Devon. She could quite well have made do with the old one and bought something extra for her aunt instead.
She shivered, for the night air was cold, and reached into the car for her coat. It was all Aunt Doris’s fault really. “I wish you wouldn’t call me Aunt, dear. It makes me sound so old.” Doris wasn’t old. And although she often behaved as if she was quite ill, she wasn’t that either. Not really. It was all a device to keep Beth with her, to keep her niece feeling responsible. Beth didn’t doubt that the last-minute tears, like the palpitations, were in their own way genuine enough. She only knew that without them she’d have got away a good two hours earlier, would have arrived here in daylight, wouldn’t have been so edgy, wouldn’t have had this stupid accident …
Still she lingered by the car. The lane up between the trees was totally without movement. She had the ridiculous feeling that it was waiting for her, that only for as long as she stayed by the car was she safe … Of course, none of this was really her aunt’s fault, nor the car’s either. Most of the things that happened to you were your own fault, when you came right down to it.
You could blame circumstances, perhaps. Blame your parents for getting killed twenty-eight years before, in the terrible Liverpool blitz. If only John and Connie—she thought of them by their Christian names, just as Aunt Doris did, and even with Doris’s slight edge of scorn—if only John and Connie whom she had never known had lived, then of course everything would have been different. She herself would have been different. She wouldn’t, suddenly, at twenty-eight, have been filled with panic that time was running out. She wouldn’t have felt herself trapped—by Aunt Doris, by the wrong young men, by the girls in the office already bringing her their problems as if she had none of her own.
She wouldn’t have answered the advertisement. She wouldn’t have tried so hard at the interview. She wouldn’t have ended up here, frightened and alone, and miles from anywhere.
From close above her there was a short sharp screech. Some kind of bird? An owl, probably. But owls were supposed to say to-whit to-whoo … Then she remembered something called a screech-owl from her nature book at school. If she was going to live in the country she’d have to get used to such things. She straightened her shoulders and set off up the road.
After less than five yards she realised she’d left the car’s one headlight burning and went back to switch it off. No sense in running down the battery. With the lights doused the high banks moved in closer. She looked down at her fancy suitcase and wondered if she should take it with her. It weighed a ton and this wasn’t London: in the country things weren’t stolen the moment you turned your back. On the other hand, she’d need it if she ever reached the hotel in Watertown. She hesitated, unable to make up her mind. And for as long as she hesitated she didn’t have to leave the car and start off up the lane again.
Suddenly she heard a car coming up the hill behind her. A second later she saw its lights flickering between the trees far below. It was coming fast: already she could hear its tyres protesting on the corners.
She’d never thumbed a lift in her life. She knew very well what happened to girls in cars on lonely roads at dead of night. Particularly at the hands of men who drove as wildly as the one she could hear approaching. But that, unlike the silent trees, unlike the moonlight, was a danger she felt she could cope with. She fumbled in the pocket of her car for the spanner she always kept there and put it corner-ways into her handbag. By the time she’d done this the other car was almost on her.
She waved, blinded by the glare, cringing as it hurtled on past. Fifty yards up the lane it slithered to a halt and reversed back, tyres slipping, throwing up gravel, burning rubber. It stopped just by her and rocked on its springs, a long, low, angry machine that made her own look like a little red ladybird. The window on her side hummed down electrically. The driver leaned across.
In the dim green light from all the dials and gauges on the dashboard she saw a girl, blonde, probably younger than herself, in slacks and skimpy striped sweater. Beth was relieved. At least she wouldn’t be assaulted, only terrified to death by the girl’s driving.
“Can I help?” the girl said, her voice surprisingly low-pitched.
“I skidded into the bank,” Beth said. “If you’re going up to Watertown I’d be—”
The other’s attitude changed abruptly. “Where else would I be going?”
There was a long pause. Beth fidgeted. How was she expected to know the road went only to the one place? Finally the car door beside her opened.
“Sorry, mate. Thing is, I thought you were a bloke. Your coat—those trousers—I thought you were a bloke.”
Beth relaxed and laughed. “Do I get a lift even though I’m not a bloke?”
“Be my guest. If we girls don’t help each other, no one else will.”
Beth fetched her case and went round to the back of the other car. The boot lid rose gently as she approached it. She put her case inside.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to slam it,” the girl called. “The automatic shut’s bust.”
Beth slammed it, secretly glad that even such a superlative piece of machinery could have its small failings. Then she went round the side and climbed in.
The car’s interior smelt expensive, of leather and cigars and an unfamiliar perfume, no doubt very exclusive. She closed the door and settled herself back into the deep, softly-upholstered seat. In the car mirror she could see the top half of her companion’s face, thick dark eyebrows, eyes carefully made-up. She peered sideways, but could make out little except a mass of straight blonde hair hanging to below the girl’s shoulders. It could be a wig, Beth supposed, but she didn’t think so.
“Do I pass?” the girl said, turning her face briefly, squinting and putting out her tongue.
Beth jumped. She hadn’t realised her inspection was so obvious. “Driving this sort of car—like you, I’d expected a bloke,” she said.
“So we’re both disappointed.” The girl laughed shortly, and drove on up the lane.
Beth sat in silence, wondering if the other’s enviable confidence was genuine. She doubted if she herself would have stopped for a strange man on that dark and lonely road.
“The village or the Abbey?” the girl said suddenly.
“Mmmm? Oh, I’m staying the night in the village. I’m not expected at the big house till the morning.”
“Then you’ll be Elizabeth Mason. And you’re staying at the Green Dragon.”
“That’s right. Only I’m called Beth.”
The girl was driving slowly now, apparently no longer in a hurry. Beth fiddled with her safety belt, waiting for the other half of the introduction. She felt uneasy. Her companion seemed to know a lot about her. No doubt that was usual in the country, and she’d have to get used to it. But there was something about the girl Beth didn’t like—possibly it was the long, dark-lacquered fingernails lightly drumming the steering wheel. The girl was tenser than she pretended. And Beth had never liked blood-red fingernails.
The avenue of elms ended and the road came out onto open moor, the car’s headlights showing only tussocky grass and white-painted stones at intervals along the verge. Beth waited for the other half of the introduction, but it didn’t come.
Suddenly she remembered something. “Damn and blast,” she said. “I left my car with the keys still in it.”
“Not to worry. We’re an honest lot here in the country. Besides, if the thing isn’t drivable anyway I can’t see that it matters.”
Beth fell silent again. It wasn’t for her to insist on going back. And presumably her little car would indeed be safe enough, just until the morning. She became aware that her companion was watching her covertly. Then, “Do you really approve of this Stately Home business?” was shot at her.
“I … well, I haven’t really thought about it.” She struggled to catch up with this abrupt change of subject. “I don’t see why not.”
“I’ll tell you why not. It’s quite simple—once you let the gawping public into your Stately Home it stops being Stately and it stops being a Home.”
She spoke quietly, but with almost savage intensity. There could be only one reason why she should care so much. “You live in Watertown Abbey?” Beth asked.
“You might say I lived there. Then again, you might not.”
Beth caught a faint enigmatic smile on the girl’s lips. She controlled her irritation. It was none of her business, really, where the girl lived. “It was lucky you came along,” she said brightly, “otherwise I’d have had a long way to walk.”
But the other girl wasn’t to be put off. “Parts of the Abbey were built in the fifteenth century. Did you know that? The air, even the silence there is special.” She held up one finger, as if listening. “What happens to all that, d’you think, when the mums and dads and their snotty children have finished tramping all over it?”
Beth didn’t argue. After all, she was accepting a lift in the girl’s car.
“You don’t agree with me, of course. You believe in the right of the proles to poke and pry wherever they damn well like. So long as the money’s right. Otherwise you’d never have got the job.”
It was an extraordinary conversation. Beth cleared her throat. “Well, I—”
“Incidentally, do you know why you did get the job?”
Beth didn’t answer. It was a question she’d often asked herself. Besides, her companion was obviously going to tell her.
“Well, Rob Fraser says—you’ll have to watch him, by the way—Rob Fraser says he gave you the job because you were the only one who didn’t go on about the Viscount.”
“I hadn’t heard of him. I … don’t listen to records much.”
“That’s it, then. Rob needs a secretary, not some star-struck pop fiend.”
The girls at work had gone crazy when she’d told them she was going to work for the Earl of Monksford. Wasn’t he the Viscount Albioni’s grandfather? Wasn’t the singer resting down in Devon after his recent illness? Wasn’t she wild with excitement? Didn’t she know his incredible records, the incredible, sexy Italian way he had with him? At the time she hadn’t known his records—Aunt Doris stuck to Mantovani and the Black and White Minstrels—but she’d managed to hear a few of them since. And she had to admit that he did have a fairly incredible sexy Italian way with him. Though how the grandson of a British earl came to have an Italian name she’d no idea.
She sat silent for a moment, watching the road ahead. If that was really why she’d got the job it was in many ways a relief. She’d been worried about the lies she’d told at her interview—well, the half-lies anyway—about her long experience in Public Relations. She’d been out of the typing pool hardly a year, and even then as only a sort of general P.R. dogsbody … The girl beside her interrupted her thoughts.
“Of course, Heck’s not really a Viscount. Being the wrong side of the blanket, if you know what I mean. Come to that, the Albioni’s a bit of a fiddle too. Wop prisoner-of-war, his father was. Count Albioni, so he claimed. Could’ve been the Italian equivalent of Joe Bloggs, for all the family knows. Still, it’s all good stuff in the record business.”
“Should you be telling me all this?” Beth said, a little stiffly.
“Nothing you won’t find out soon enough once you get there. And a whole lot more besides … D’you think you’re up to it?”
“I’m only to be Mr. Fraser’s assistant. I don’t expect I’ll get much involved in—”
“Don’t you believe it, Beth Mason. They’re all one big unhappy family up at the Abbey. Believe you me, mate. One big unhappy family.”
The road left the moor and dipped steeply, entered trees again, this time short untidy beeches and hawthorns. The girl changed down and took the car rapidly round a double bend and over a narrow bridge at the bottom. Suddenly they were among houses.
“I’ve been adding you up, Beth Mason. No offence meant, but they’ll eat you alive. Word of warning, love, and kindly meant.”
She put a hand on Beth’s knee and squeezed it. In spite of herself, Beth shivered. The word of warning, she was sure, was not kindly meant at all.
“What do you suggest I do?” she asked coldly.
“Do? Nothing at all. Gypsies’ warnings are like that—people never take a blind bit of notice. Which may be one reason why wherever you look there’s so much rotten mess.”
They passed dimly-glowing windows, the noise of the car thundering between whitewashed walls. The village street climbed, then widened, with some kind of monument in the middle.
“The Jubilee Clock, erected by Her Majesty’s grateful subjects,” the girl said as she swirled the car round the memorial and brought it to an abrupt halt. “Journey’s end,” she went on. “It’s after closing time, so you’d better go round the side. Otherwise they’ll think it’s the law.”
Beth climbed out, leaned on the open door. “Thank you very much,” she said. For the lift, not for the spiteful gossip.
“Think nothing of it. Just thank your lucky stars it was me that came along, not the famous Viscount. He’s got a way with little girls. They’ll tell you up at the Abbey he’s been sick. You look at his mother and ask yourself what sort of ‘sick’.”
Beth closed the car door. She felt dirtied and was glad to get away. She collected her case, slammed the boot-lid, and watched the car turn across the road and up a narrow lane between two houses. As its headlights swung she saw a sign on one of the house walls: Watertown Abbey. No Through Road.
She stood in the deserted village street, her suitcase on the ground beside her. The excitement of the moment overcame all her misgivings. She’d arrived. The journey behind her, this was where her adventure really began. She smelled wood smoke on the cold night air. Tomorrow she started work. Tomorrow she moved into the Abbey Lodge. But tonight she was alone and free, all obstacles surmounted, in a street in Watertown, two hundred miles from London, two hundred miles from Aunt Doris, two hundred miles from her past. There should by rights be fireworks, and a big brass band to welcome her.
Silence gathered heavily about her. The moon was gone, hidden behind the steep hill down which she’d come. Opposite her a solitary street lamp lit the front of a small grocery shop, its light spilling onto a lych gate into a churchyard, the dark shape of yew trees and a square church tower now clear against the stars beyond. A cat trotted across the pool of light without turning its head. The houses all had blank faces. The Jubilee Clock, pinnacled and grotesque, remained silently occupied with the important affairs of Her Majesty.
Beth had seldom felt so totally ignored. She wanted to wave her arms and shout, “I’m here! I’ve come!” She wanted to make something happen. Except that at twenty-eight, and personal assistant to the P.R.O. of Watertown Abbey, you didn’t do such things.
By now her eyes had adjusted, and she saw that she was standing directly outside the Green Dragon. So she sighed, and picked up her case, and trudged sensibly along the white front of the inn till she came to an archway over a cobbled passage, and a strip of light showing under a door at the end. She felt her way along the passage and knocked, with greater confidence than she felt, on the door.
The acknowledgement she had received of her booking had been signed E. Skinner. E. Skinner turned out to be a thin, immensely old woman, in a coppery wig, with a sharp, inquisitive face, bright blue eyes, and the voice—only slightly cracked—of a cheerful London barmaid. She welcomed Beth in, talking straight through her apologies for being so late.
“We’re night birds here, dearie. Cornelius will take your bag. Had enough of this early-to-bed-early-to-rise caper on munitions during the war. Got a lift, did you? That’s nice. Thought I heard the car. There’s a Pole here runs the garridge. Good workers, Poles. He’ll sort out your little bit of bother in the morning, no time at all. Come along then. You’ll be worn out—mustn’t stand here gabbing. Cornelius will take your bag.”
A big, red-faced man with rough-cropped hair that stuck out all over his head as if permanently surprised, stooped through the low doorway behind them. “He’s only sixpence in the shilling, if you take my meaning, but none the worse for that. Woman like me needs a big chap about the place, Skinner leaving us in the lurch the way he did.”
She led Beth down a musty passage and into a bar-room crowded with noisy after-hours drinkers. The chatter stopped dead as they entered, and a dozen or more pairs of eyes watched their progress across the room. Someone whistled. “And you can keep your dirty comments to yourself, Franklin Brimmacombe,” the old woman said, not pausing in her stride. “Else a word from me to your mam and you’ll be home watching the telly this month of Sundays.”
There was a shuffling of feet and subdued laughter. Then they were through the bar and going up a steep oak staircase out of the inn’s main entrance hall. Beth could hear Cornelius behind her, bumping her smart new suitcase on each uncarpeted tread.
“You need brains, of course, as well as brawn, running a place like this. Skinner and me, we come down here twenty years since. ‘Little place in the country, Emmie’, he says. ‘High time we took things easy.’ Then he ups and dies. Fine sort of taking things easy it’s been for the poor grieving widder.”
The floor of the upstairs corridor creaked and sagged. Mrs. Skinner stopped by a door, unlocked it, kicked it open when it stuck, and switched on the light in the bedroom beyond. She had not, Beth decided, ever been much of a woman for taking things easy.
The man Cornelius pushed past them, dumped her case on the bed, and made off back down the stairs. “If I’ve told him once I’ve told him a hundred times. Hang around, lad, if you know what’s good. Folks like an outlet for their generosity … Won’t never learn, though.”
Beth went into the room a little anxiously. Mrs. Skinner’s eccentricities had prepared her for almost anything: spiders, ancient, mouldy bed-clothes, dark corners full of unnameable fluff. She’d misjudged her hostess. The bedroom was spotless, with rosy wallpaper and dark beams against a sloped ceiling. The chintz-curtained windows were almost at floor level, cut deep into the three-foot thick walls. On the little brass bedstead the sheet was turned back invitingly. In one corner was an old-fashioned washstand, with blue-flowered bowl and soap-dish and jug.
“Mod cons just along the passage, dearie,” Mrs. Skinner said, pointing. “We keep that lot for our Americans. Running h. and c. in the bedrooms wouldn’t give them half the thrill. Only been open a couple of years, the Abbey has, and already we’re packed out come the summer. Say what you like, it’s done the village all the good in the world.” She paused, looked Beth up and down. “I hope he behaved himself, young whoosit as give you the lift. I heard the car, see. Only come from one place, a car like that in these parts. More money than sense. Easy come easy go though, so I don’t altogether blame him.”
She stared at Beth and waited. Apparently Beth was at last going to be allowed to get a word in edgeways. “It was a girl,” she said. “She was—”
“That’ll be Miss Penny. The old man’s granddaughter by that fancy Lady Pat.” Mrs. Skinner spoke quickly, perhaps a little too quickly even by her own standards. “She’s the only one as young whoosit’d let out in one of his grand motors. Worships the ground he walks on … There’s nothing wrong with that, see, them being no more nor second cousins and all. Maybe she’d went down to town after the funeral. Sad thing now that was. Not that I ever saw the old lady mind, not in all the twenty years I been here. She’s across the road with the rest of the family. Eighty-four, she was. I been across to look. That’s two years younger than the old man.”
Beth didn’t ask any questions. She’d learn all about everything soon enough in the morning. She felt suddenly very, very tired. She sat down on the bed and smiled mechanically at Mrs. Skinner, waiting for her to go.
“I can see you like your room, dearie.” The old woman folded her bony arms, looked down at her kindly, head on one side. “It suits you. Pretty as a picture, the both of you. Well now, how about a little bit of something to settle you down? I can bring it up easy—hot milk, sandwiches, tot of something to iron out life’s little problems?”
Beth shook her head. No doubt her hostess meant well, but she had never felt less pretty, or less like a little tot of something to iron out life’s problems.
“No? Well, never mind. Just you remember, dearie—we don’t fill up for a few weeks yet—just you remember I’ll keep this little room free for you long as I can. Case things get what I call difficult up at the Abbey. Port in a storm, like. Any time, mind, day or night … Well I’ll leave you to your beauty. Breakfast when we see you. Mod. cons, down the passage, first on the right.”
At last she was gone. Beth undressed, found her way to the decent modern bathroom first door on the right, returned to her room and fell gratefully into bed. She switched off the lamp by her bed and closed her eyes.
Sleep didn’t come as quickly as she’d expected. Very faintly through the closed door she heard the drinkers downstairs depart one by one. She thought of Franklin Brimmacombe, a grown man whose mother would keep him at home by the television at a word from Mrs. Skinner. She thought of Miss Penny, the girl in the sports car who worshipped the ground young whoosit walked on. Except that she didn’t—at least, not if the spiteful things she said about him were anything to go by. She thought of the funeral and wondered which old lady it was who lay across the road with the rest of the fa. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...