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Sarah Stuart - Dangerous Liaisons

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                               Reviews                 

DANGEROUS LIAISONS by Sarah Stuart

 

Dangerous Liaisons: a romantic thriller in which Lizzie is determined that nothing will stand between her and the passionate love she shares with Michael, an amateur actor from the backstreets of a provincial English city.

 

Lizzie alienates her wealthy parents to live with Michael in London, enduring poverty, and risking danger and rejection, in her quest to help him to succeed. Charismatic and talented, he becomes a superstar of stage and screen.

 

Their marriage is threatened by Michael’s brief affair with their adult daughter, and a lovechild Lizzie must contrive to hide from the scandal-hungry paparazzi, with his career, and liberty, at stake.

 

AVAILABLE AS AN EBOOK OR PAPERBACK - HERE 

Or http://www.amazon.com/Dangerous-Liaisons-Story-Women-Command-ebook/dp/B00M9CU1Z6 

"They’d fallen in love A love they thought would last forever."

Latest 5 Star Review - "A Dynasty of Dreams and Deception."

 

 
 
Sample chapters

Dangerous Liaisons

Text copyright Sarah Stuart 2014

All rights reserved

Part One - Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?

 

Chapter One

 

Lizzie Cameron sat cross-legged on the bare boards in the loft and read her grandmother’s copperplate writing by the light of a torch.

This sixteenth day of October the Year of Our Lord 1541, Methven Castle. I tire yet I must write for my beloved daughter comes hence. I pray I live to give unto her this book and charge her to give it also unto a daughter conceived in love. I direct and beseech my heirs to find love where they may. Love is a gift of God, not of kings.

     1541: almost five hundred years ago. She delved into the box found searching for a battered suitcase for university. A thin sheaf of papers hid a book: it was the size of a thick paperback, bound in soft leather bearing a Tudor rose picked out in coloured stones. Balancing the torch on a chair, she opened the cover. The fly-leaf carried an inscription.

 This thirtieth day of November 1489, Richmond Palace. I bestow this gift on my first begotten daughter Margaret on this her Christening Day. Tis my will and pleasure that she doth live humbly and reverently in obedience to God, to Henry VII by the Grace of God king of England, and to her lady mother, Elizabeth the queen.

     Were the stones glass, or white diamonds and pigeon-blood rubies?

     She turned the illuminated vellum pages, breathing the musty smell of years: a calendar of religious feasts, excerpts from the gospels, the order of daily prayer, and lots more. It was a Book of Hours, like those displayed in museums.

     An interested spider dropped from her curls and crawled between the printed texts as if following the illegible words it had written there. She relocated it onto the chair and her torch crashed to the floor. She froze. The last thing her parents needed was waking and she was immediately above their suite. Silence: the house and its many occupants still slept. She fetched the torch. She could make out letters but words still defeated her.

     ‘Lizzie!’

     The book flew out of her hands and her mother caught it before that too hit the boards. ‘What are you doing up here?’

     ‘I wanted a suitcase for uni...’

     ‘That ancient thing?’ The jewels glinted. ‘How did you find this?’

     She waved a hand at the chair. ‘I moved that.’

     ‘Lizzie, I intended to give you the queen’s Book of Hours before you go.’

     ‘It is real?’

     Mother sat on the boards beside her. ‘It’s real, and very precious.’

     ‘The jewels...’

     ‘Aren’t what matter, Lizzie. She... your grandmother... deciphered...’

     ‘I read this one.’ She flapped the mysterious command.

     ‘And that’s the most important.’

     ‘Why?’

     ‘Your grandmother listed all the shorter entries. They show a direct female bloodline from Queen Margaret to her and to me, and through me to you.’

     The attic felt airless. ‘But, I’m just Lizzie. I can’t be related to a queen.’

     ‘You’re holding the proof in your hands, and how else could I have it but by inheritance?’

     She grasped one thing she knew was true from her chaotic thoughts. There was a close bond between her parents. ‘You married for love.’

     ‘My mother called me an infatuated fool.’ Green eyes, the mirror of her own, filled with tears. ‘She never spoke to your father. He wasn’t good enough.’

     ‘But… he’s Laird of Kinloch.’

     Mother found a tissue. ‘She was sure Iain would never be fit... never give me children. The estate was in decline... Lizzie, I want you to have the queen’s book. She almost left passing it on too late.’ She leaned forward. ‘I direct and beseech my heirs to find love where they may. Promise me you’ll do as she asks.’

     Wasn’t finding love every girl’s dream? ‘I promise.’

     ‘Hide it well. It’s the only secret I keep from your father, and the world.’ A toilet flushed below. ‘Iain’s awake.’ A flutter of white lace and she was gone.

     The torch wedged securely on the chair, she examined the spidery wanderings and resorted to her grandmother’s copy of the queen’s first entry.

This twenty-fifth day of January the Year of Our Lord 1502, Richmond Palace. I take the said James king of Scotland into and for my husband and spouse and all other for him forsake during his and mine lives natural. The proxy marriage pleases His Grace my father. My brother Henry, a mere prince, hath been beaten by his tutor for stamping whilst I play my lute, for it behoves a wife to amuse her husband.

     Giggling at the picture of the despot king treated as a naughty boy, she set her alarm and settled to sleep.

     She was out before dawn, trusting her old pony to follow the familiar track in darkness. ‘I know why I’m never asked for dates, Ronan. I’ve got freckles, and I’m too tall.’ She’d inherited Mother’s red hair, but she towered over her. ‘If I found a fossil and made a wish I’d find the right man.’ The right man: she needed a prince and she didn’t stand a chance.

     Ronan snorted, as if he knew wishing on a natural oddity was the theme of a children’s story read to her years ago by a bored guest: a wife who disliked shooting.

     She pulled a face the pony couldn’t have seen if he’d turned his head, and then giggled. Mother had suggested a shopping trip to Edinburgh. Father said she should see London before the first university semester began, and he was paying for a holiday at The Ritz: it would be fun, shopping to replace all her outgrown clothes, without Mother insisting on buying a newsuitcase that would scream fresher.

     Lights, spread by a convoy of Avengers and Shoguns carrying guests, showed newly-pulled stitches in her jumper, and she stopped giggling. She might meet him at uni. She must use the cream Mother bought to stop nail-biting: no man would find jagged claws attractive.

     A shaft of sunlight pierced a vee in the mountains to the east. She raised her binoculars. Red deer grazed, with good cover downwind. No Monarch. The sun rose fully and a salvo of guns boomed: dawn on another day of the grouse season. She turned back; people here to stalk deer would go out after breakfast.

     Father wasn’t in the dining room. She found him in his study, crunching toast. ‘I’ve missed being out with the guests, checking replies to emails. Classic Entranced cancelled... illness. I was sure somebody would be free to come tonight... all no. Will you sing, Lizzie?’

     She wrinkled her nose. ‘Okay.’

     Father’s eyes twinkled. ‘You enjoy it.’

     ‘I go off-key sometimes.’

     ‘You’ll never make Carnegie Hall, but our guests always applaud.’

     ‘After wine with dinner and a few drams of Islay malt!’

     Mother bustled in. ‘A guest’s horse has arrived... kicking the trailer to pieces by the sound of it... and the owner isn’t due for ages.’

     ‘Pop it in a loose box. The gardener’s still here to fork straw about.’

     ‘Pop it in. Iain, it’ll take hours to settle and I don’t have hours.’

     A fit horse could go further than Ronan. ‘I’ll take it out, and find Monarch too.’

     The driver was leading a chestnut gelding down the ramp.

     ‘Hi… Lizzie Cameron. I’ll give him some gentle exercise... cool him off.’

     ‘Firecrest’s no ride for a lady, miss.’

     ‘Someone must do it.’

     ‘Mm... He responds well to the legs once he settles, and you’re tall.’

     Her height was useful for something. ‘Would you saddle him, please?’

     The driver expertly avoided kicks, and gave her a leg-up.

     Firecrest’s hooves danced on the cobbles, ears flat back at clatter. Noise terrified him: it was probably the trailer rattling over bumpy roads that had upset him. If she rode him on the opposite side of the loch from the guns, he’d be fine.

     Out of the stable yard he bolted, almost unseating her as he skidded into the turn to cross the river bridge. Firecrest raced faster on grass, bucking at every fusillade booming across the water. She clung on, blinking his hot spittle from her eyes. Orderly rows of Sitka Spruce rose beside her. Using reins and legs, she swerved him hard to the left.

     The Craig Dubh track was steep and the horse slowed to a walk, flanks heaving. She stroked his damp neck and relaxed the reins, letting Firecrest pick his own way. A horse approaching wouldn’t spook the stag and she’d found him in the firebreak below the black crag before, safe from stalkers on the far side of the loch. Monarch was a fabulous red hart carrying thirty-point antlers with the centre forming a perfect cup large enough to hold a wine glass: symbol of one of the most prized of stags, a triple royal.

     Rifle shots rang out, close. Poachers? She pushed Firecrest faster and a group of hinds divided round the horse, racing downhill. At the edge of the firebreak she reined in sharply. Monarch struggled to stand, and failed, blood flowing from a bullet wound in his chest.

     Dismounting, she risked tying Firecrest by his reins and wished for the first time she’d learned to shoot. Her only weapon was a knife that had belonged to Father’s father, carried everywhere from habit. It took both hands to penetrate the tough hide, aiming for the right carotid artery. By a miracle she hit it. Warm scarlet fountained over her, pumped out with every beat of Monarch’s heart.

     Kneeling, tears pouring, she understood why she’d loved Craig Dubh. It was the one place, until now, she’d found peace amid the beauty, free of the sight of slaughter and the boasting of guests.

     Halfway home, Firecrest following with the reins stretched taut between him and the stench of blood, she remembered the Book of Hours. I direct and beseech my heirs to find love where they may. Mother had found love, and defied her own mother to marry Father on her eighteenth birthday: together they’d given her a wonderful childhood. She must never let them guess she’d come to hate their way of life.

     No grooms meant she could hose off the blood, and sweat from Firecrest, without being seen, and settle him in a loose box. She rubbed him down, left him nibbling hay and crept upstairs for a proper shower. There was nothing more to be done for Monarch. One of the ghillies would find him eventually. Father would assume poachers had been frightened off by a vehicle travelling on the road below before they could remove their kill. Dr McCabe went that way often, visiting the crofts, and crofters drove to the village.

     She rolled her hair in a towel and checked the time. She’d missed helping Mother serve lunch, but she could help prepare dinner.

     The almost-banquet over, she swapped her waitress uniform for an evening gown and settled at the piano. She opened with Scottish folk songs, as usual, and was about to ask for requests when she caught Mother’s eye. She had a collection of scores for Clement Fynn ballads: One Love was her favourite.

     ‘One love for my lifetime, one sweetheart forever, in my arms, in my heart...’ It echoed Queen Margaret’s wish for her so exactly she sang it a second time before applause interrupted and she changed to Strauss waltzes to start the dancing.

***

Michael Marsh applied lilac emulsion to a ceiling, mentally peopling the theatre dressing room he was transforming: dresser, makeup artist, hair stylist, and perhaps a dietician.

     Mr Wilkinson, painter and decorator, had told him to include the kitchenette: cleaning it had taken a day. He had two left, including today, before all sign of work must be gone and the room left to air before the leading lady arrived.

     He wouldn’t even catch a glimpse of Dame Verity de Brescoe, one of the world’s greatest classical actresses, in London to play Lady Macbeth. Mr Wilkinson had taken him on because his regular crew were all busy. He’d jumped at the chance of stepping inside a West End theatre and when this job was done he’d be stepping out again, redundant.

     His twentieth birthday had passed like any other day he couldn’t find work: reading The Stage and queuing at stage doors with hundreds of others, or writing applications to audition for a role in a play. As a member of the Leeds Limelight Amateur Dramatic Society he’d played leads in three productions a year but working professionally seemed impossible.

     ‘Michelangelo?’

     He wedged his paint roller in its tray and looked down into hazel eyes he’d seen, distant and unsmiling, on dozens of posters. Close-to, Dame Verity de Brescoe looked older than her photographs. Perhaps she was tired. Those same posters said Straight from her triumph playingAurelia in Ibsen’s Catiline at Oslo National Theatre.

     She gazed back, leaving him wondering if he had paint on his nose. ‘What is your name?’

     ‘Michael. I’m sorry the room isn’t ready.’

     She nodded to the ceiling. ‘Finish that, and be quick. She disappeared into the bathroom.

     Quick wouldn’t cover dirty cream, but he could come back and do it properly. The theatre would be open until eleven and a thin coat of emulsion would be dry by six o’ clock. He worked fast; hoping silence meant the lights round the mirror over the hand basin worked.

     Finished, he cleaned his tools, rolled his overalls and washed in the kitchenette. When he emerged, a woman he scarcely recognised had removed the dustcover from the chaise longue and lay against the cushions. Black velvet clung to curves travelling clothes had masked and one hand played with a pendant that lay between her breasts. ‘Come here.’

     He glanced from her to the door. ‘I should go...’

     If he stayed he’d make a complete fool of himself. He was too determined to be a professional actor to tie himself down with one of the nice girls Mam had paraded for inspection on Sundays. He’d made sure he was never alone with them, begging his brother, his sister, and his sister-in-law, to drop in so often neither Gwen nor Fay could help giggling.

     Fingers popped a button undone, and a second, hazel eyes twinkling, and his tight jeans pinched. Two more buttons and no sign of a bra. She was no threat to his freedom...

     She quoted Lady Macbeth. ‘Your hand, your tongue, look like the innocent flower...’

     She’d guessed he’d never had a woman, but he had played Macbeth and the rest of her speech sped through his mind until he reached the answer. ‘We will speak further.’

     ‘Only look up clear; to alter favour ever is to fear. Leave all the rest to me.’

     Leave all the rest to me... He took a step closer and touched a strand of golden hair.

     ‘Lock the door.’

     He could lock it, or walk out of the room and out of her life. He grasped the key and looked over his shoulder, tossing black curls out of his eyes. Seduction in sapphires: they hung from her ears, glittered at her throat, and tempted from her creamy cleavage.

     He turned the key and the lock clunked home.

     ‘Come here... closer.’

     She unbuckled his belt, released his erection from confining jeans and boxers, and took him deep in her mouth. He shuddered uncontrollably, too soon. ‘I’m sorry...’

     She swallowed as if she’d expected nothing else. ‘Waiting gets easier.’

     ‘I don’t know what to say... what to call you.’

     ‘Verity, just Verity, and there’s nothing you need to say.’ She shrugged off her dress, teased for another erection, slid on a condom, and drew him down on top of her.

     Soft curves... overwhelming, exciting, scent... He thrust into her and she gripped his hips, slowing him and holding off the inevitable until he could wait no longer. ‘Verity.’

     ‘Stay with me, Michael.’

     His brain refused to produce a sensible answer. ‘Work... rent... auditions...’

     ‘You want to act?’

     ‘More than anything.’

     ‘Michael, my love, I have influence.’

     He didn’t doubt it. She could probably get him onstage as an attendant in Macbeth, but if... when... he was a success it wouldn’t be because he’d paid for it with sex. ‘No, thank you.’

     ‘There’s always a price to pay for a lover. Subtly, after a few days, if I’m lucky.’

     ‘Not this time.’

     ‘Why?’

     He kissed salty droplets from her cheeks. ‘The way I was brought up, or too much pride.’

     ‘Too much pride to give me ten days, until I move on to Paris... Milan... Vienna? A different hotel, one after another until they’re all the same? Yes, Dame Verity. Anything you want, Dame Verity.’ She dug her fingers into his shoulders. ‘Anything but a lover to sleep beside me through the lonely nights.’

     He’d played lovers... Romeo... Benedict... Mark Anthony... and understood none of the physical passion that drove them, until now.

     ‘Please, Michael.’

     He put a gentle hand over her mouth. He didn’t want to hear her beg, not an actress he’d admired since he was a young teenager reading show-biz magazines bought by the Limelighters’ director, an amateur himself doing his best to keep youngsters off the streets. ‘When I finish this job tomorrow I’ve nothing else.’

     ‘Ten days and then farvel?’

     ‘Farvel?’

     ‘It’s Norwegian for goodbye. You’ll find me in the Ambassador Suite at Le Méridien in Piccadilly, if you come.’

     Working late, the job was done when Mr Wilkinson arrived at noon next day. ‘Not bad, lad. If I get more work, or lose a bloke, I’ll shout. Keep that mobile charged.’

     A small box of tools and the overalls were his own. He stacked the decorating equipment in Mr Wilkinson’s van and examined the cash. Rent, food, and enough for this week’s copy of The Stage.

     You’ll find me in the Ambassador Suite.

     What was it about Dame Verity de Brescoe that made him feel he should spend ten days with her? Ask any of the lads he’d grown-up with and they’d tell him it was sex, but they’d be wrong. Verity had the world at her feet... honoured by her queen... treated like a queen everywhere she appeared, in public. In private she was a lonely woman, knowing men wanted her for what she could give them.

     He glanced down at his jeans, worn beyond fashionably scruffy. No doorman at a grand hotel would let him in. Who would question a workman going in the tradesmen’s entrance? Nobody, but he wouldn’t be earning. He resisted buying The Stage and kept walking.

     A girl strolled towards him, a bag slung over her shoulder. Forever legs, high breasts and long red curls: he could look. The bag fell to the pavement and typical contents spilled out. Any man with a sister like Gwen could have named the lot with his eyes closed. The problem was a damaged buckle on the strap. He crouched beside her, opened his tool box and took out a pair of pliers. ‘Would you like me to fix that?’

     She dropped a lipstick and brushed hair back from her face. ‘What? Oh, the buckle. Yes, please, if you’ve time.’ She blushed. ‘It matches my ancient case.’

     They both reached for it at the same time, his fingers touched hers and the planet stopped spinning. He caught his breath. ‘It only...

     ‘I... sorry, you first.’

      ‘The tongue would hold with a twist, if you don’t mind the buckle looking crooked.’

     ‘I’m going shopping. I can replace it, but the strap makes it easier to carry.’

     ‘It won’t take a minute.’ He fumbled for at least two. ‘There... done.’

     ‘Thank you... no... Leave everything... you’re on your way to work.’

     ‘I...’ A backstreet boy wouldn’t interest a girl who could casually replace a leather bag.

***

Lizzie knelt among her scattered belongings, turning to watch until the tall, dark-haired, young man disappeared, the hand he’d touched burning. He was the man she could love for a lifetime, and he liked her. Bright sapphire eyes had looked into hers, not at the freckles that spoiled her nose. All her nails were bitten and he hadn’t frowned, and he was so tall she could rest her head on his shoulder.

     Japanese tourists, cameras clicking, scurried past. A girl stopped, caught a photograph fluttering in the breeze and offered it to her. ‘Yours?’

     Her mirror image smiled at her. Mother knew how this felt. The first time she’d seen Father, at the Great Yorkshire Show, he’d picked up a dropped riding crop and walked away, leaving her hand scorched by his touch. Mother hadn’t known where he’d gone, until he slipped away from his own father and came to find her.

     Clouds covered the sun. Her workman with his box of tools had vanished in a city with over eight million inhabitants, excluding tourists, and no way did he live in the West End.

     She gathered spare tights, a packet of tissues, the makeup bag she hadn’t fastened and its contents, a comb, and her purse. It was a wonder she still had her purse, so many people were eyeing the things she’d dropped. Thank goodness she’d left Queen Margaret’s Book of Hours in her hotel room, but a great start she’d made at keeping her promise to find love. She took a step in the direction he’d disappeared and a cheap mobile skittered across the pavement. She dived, grazing her knee, and grabbed it as a man bent to pick it up. Could it possibly be his?

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Michael joined a gang of heating engineers at the tradesmen’s entrance to Le Méridien and their boss vouched for the all the men without a headcount. He dodged into Gents, donned his overalls, and climbed the service stairs. A cleaner, told he had a radiator to check in the Ambassador Suite, showed him the way and let him in with her key.

     The suite had everything he’d expected, a lot he hadn’t, and more that he didn’t recognise. The perfume was Secret Obsession: there was an almost empty bottle of it in the bathroom. Verity wasn’t anywhere. He bumped down on a padded box. If you come. She hadn’t meant it or she’d found someone else, and he was a credulous fool.

     His hand looked normal: the girl he’d just met had left an invisible tattoo with her fingers. He could have walked with her, talked with her, and asked her name... and she wouldn’t have told him. There was another clue to riches. Gwen’s silk wedding dress, paid for by social-climbing fiancé, Robert, had shimmered, and so had the green material that emphasised her beautiful emerald eyes.

     A touch on his shoulder made him jump. ‘Michael, my love, I’ve been shopping.’ Verity produced a box and thrust it into his hands.

     He was a fool, but he wasn’t for sale. ‘I don’t want it.’

     ‘It’s a free sample, and I can’t use it.’

     The name on the box, Emporio Armani Diamonds for Men, had a red stamp across it: Not for Sale. ‘Why did you bring it?’

     ‘I was buying perfume for myself and the assistant put it in the bag. They often do.’ She took it out of his hands and sprayed in into his hair, and inside his open-necked shirt.

     Surely it should be on his face? He needed a shave...

     Verity read bits from a paper taken from the box. ‘Sensual... woody...addictive... It could have been made for you. Promise me you’ll always wear it.’

     ‘One day, if I can ever afford it.’

     ‘You will. Determination can take you anywhere. If I’d listened to my first husband I’d have dropped out of RADA. The second expected me to give up my career to care for our sons, which a nanny did better. The third took me shooting.’

     RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art: she’d had training and he hadn’t. He was free, and nothing was impossible, except finding the girl with emerald eyes, and if he found her she wouldn’t remember him after she binned the bag.

     Verity tugged his hair, fairly gently. ‘I want you.’

     He ran a hand over his chin. ‘I didn’t collect my rucksack from my lodgings.’

     ‘Use the disposable razors in the bathroom. You can fetch your belongings while I’m at rehearsal. Michael, stop being so damn practical. Come in the shower with me.’

     Teaching him how to breathe with water jetting over them while he brought her to orgasm with his tongue wasn’t practical?

     He never did collect his rucksack. Sexually, Verity knew what she wanted and taught him how to provide it. She never pretended to love him or want him to even say he loved her.

     It left too many nights, with Verity sleeping beside him, to wish the smooth golden hair spread across his chest was red curls. She would never be his if he ever met her again, and a good thing too: he might as well have married Julia and stayed in Leeds, frying fish in the family chippy, as saddle himself with a wife in London where a permanent job would end his dream of a making it on the professional stage forever.

     A day into rehearsals Verity stamped into the suite and refused dinner. ‘You could play Macbeth better!’

     ‘I have played Macbeth, and Malcolm, but only with an amateur company.’ Macbeth ended with Malcolm’s speech inviting his new subjects to see him crowned. Mam had closed the chippy for the evening, and brought the latest pretty daughter of a friend to watch.

     Verity opened one of her dozen suitcases. ‘I must have a script somewhere.’

     ‘I know both parts by heart. I read lines once and they stick.’

     ‘Get on with it then, but I’m in no mood to be called fiend-like queen. Start from Macbeth’s first meeting with the witches.’

     ‘So foul and fail a day... what about Banquo?’

     ‘I’ll play him too, but for that I do need a script.’

     She found one and read enough of each speech to cue the next. Verity playing three very different witches was too much. He shook with laughter. ‘St... stay, you im... imperfect speakers, tell me more...’

     ‘Tell you more? Wave your arms about like that and any casting director would say next.’

     ‘Next?’

     ‘Next as in go away and let me see the next actor. For goodness sake, Michael, it’s all about your voice and body language, not dramatic gestures. Does your repertoire include Anthony and Cleopatra?’

     ‘Yes.’

     ‘Then forget Macbeth for a minute and let’s see if your memory is as good as you say it is. If it be love indeed, tell me how much.

     Her voice alone brought him to his knees, her hands in his. ‘There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned.’

     ‘I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved... You see? You didn’t put your hand over your heart while you looked at the audience. You expressed it all with one movement and feeling in the words, and you addressed Cleopatra. Macbeth... and no laughing at my witches.’

     He wouldn’t have dared. His Cleopatra had emerald eyes, not hazel.

     ‘Michael, you’re not listening… Oh, damn Macbeth, I’ll teach the wretched man to act tomorrow if the director hasn’t the sense to see he needs help to play a West End lead. Disappear while I order dinner.’ She chuckled. ‘Room Service probably think I need help, eating so much.’

     Days sped past to the morning girls packed Verity’s luggage and he tinkered with a radiator. If Verity noticed him when she left she gave no sign but she’d played fair, providing no gifts or recommendations to influential friends. He replaced a spanner in his toolbox and paper crackled. If it was money, he’d earn whatever it took to send it by registered post to Paris: Dame Verity de Brescoe and the name of the theatre would find her.

     The sheet of hotel notepaper hid nothing but words written in a flamboyant hand. We shall meet again when you play your first lead. Farvel, my love. Verity.

***

Inbox is empty. Sent items folder is empty. Missed Calls, no numbers. Received calls, no numbers. Lizzie clicked on Contacts: none listed. She switched off the old mobile, impatient with herself. The records were as blank as the day he had bought it, if it was his, and still she couldn’t resist looking. The battery wouldn’t last forever and her charger didn’t fit. Her one hope was that he might ring the number when he realised he’d lost it, hoping to locate it by the sound. She kept it on during the day, but after two weeks it didn’t seem likely.

     Bereft with the tenuous maybe-link cut she settled to sleep. An hour of tossing about convinced her it was impossible, yet again. If she managed to forget the scorching touch of his hand on hers, and the sapphire eyes, the glitter of a heavy silver crucifix drew her back to the wiry black hair curling on his tanned chest in the vee of his open-necked shirt.

     Dismissing magazines that failed to hold her attention, she fetched The Book of Hours. There was only one copy her grandmother had made of Queen Margaret’s entries she hadn’t already read, and yet the spaces between the printed text, and over the illustrations in one section, were crammed with writing.

     She frowned. Had her grandmother lost interest once the proxy wedding confirmed the princess had become a queen? Had she intended to use the Book of Hours to attract a Baron, or even aim as high as an Earl and see her only daughter become Countess Margaret? If she had, she was a snob who’d cared nothing for the queen’s command to find love. How had the heartless old widow told her daughter she wouldn’t give permission for her to marry the man she loved? How had Mother broken the news that they must wait until her eighteenth birthday to Iain Cameron? Father’s damaged heart wasn’t his fault: he’d caught a virus. She held the final paper by the corners, the copperplate writing suddenly alien and hurtful.

This first day of July the Year of Our Lord 1503. Richmond Palace. Tomorrow I leave for Scotland. My companion, the Lady Catherine Gordon, talks of new clothes and scarlet bed drapes of Italian sarcenet, and says I hath nothing to fear. Why doth she tell me this when I go to the marriage bed? Will King James love me? He hath sent no letters of love.

     The proxy wedding had taken place in January 1502. Eighteen months later the king was still a stranger. He could have sent letters, and gifts: ambassadors travelled between courts. How had King James treated his young queen? Armed with hotel paper and pen she struggled, word by word, to find out. Two hours later she had a readable copy of the next entry.

I must bid farewell to His Grace my father at Collyweston Palace where I rest this night. Grandmother made me welcome, yet she cares nought for my fears of the marriage bed for she bore my father at thirteen years of age. She, who must be addressed as My Lady the King’s Mother, says I owe obedience to His Majesty, King James of Scotland. The Lady Catherine sleeps but I cannot. Twas not right that Grandmother so oft took my mother’s place at court. No woman shall come betwixt me and my husband.

     ‘Grandmothers!’ She locked the Book of Hours in the safe and went back to bed. When she woke, her hand went to the old mobile. One missed call, today’s date, time 6.38, and an Outer London number. She copied it just before display went black for the last time, her heart thudding wildly and her fingers fumbling with her own mobile.

     ‘Wilkinson and Co, painters and decorators.’

     She was out of luck with him ringing his own mobile, but perhaps she could find out more about him. ‘I missed a call from you earlier. It’s... err... it’s my boyfriend’s mobile.’

     ‘My hubby must have got his number off him in case the regular crew are all busy. Tell him to ring tonight. There’ll be a job wants doing.’

     ‘He forgot his mobile this morning, and I don’t know where he lives to return it.’

     ‘Hum... what’s his name?’

     ‘I don’t know that either. He’s tall with black hair and blue eyes.’

     ‘I answer redirected calls when my hubby’s out of his office. I don’t go meeting his men.’

     What had possessed her to say this morning as if he’d just got out of her bed? ‘I can’t keep his mobile... lose him work.’

     ‘Well I’m glad to hear you’ve got some decency left, my girl. Ring at six. My hubby will probably know who you mean.’

     The phone at the other end clattered into its cradle. Seven hours to wait. Forget him, for now. She had decisions to make. She always thought better outside and nobody would be shooting anything in Green Park. Walking along the road from The Ritz she shivered: the late September sun had little warmth.

     Lizzie Cameron was heiress to Kinloch Shooting Estate, but was Kinloch where she wanted to spend the rest of her life? She bit a nail, and cut her tongue on it when she snatched her finger from her mouth. Thathabit dated back to understanding people killed for fun not food: they wanted heads to have mounted for display, or a good bag of game birds to boast about. Being forced to kill herself, and hating doing it, she couldn’t face spending the rest of her life serving people who enjoyed it, so what was the point in a degree in Tourism and Hospitality?

     Thrusting her hands into the pockets of her jeans she left the path, and the shade of the Plane trees still in full leaf, and wandered across the grass. Mother and Father were very proud of her, the first of the Camerons of Kinloch to go to university. Would South Bank let her change her course? It didn’t seem likely: she’d already missed meeting her tutor, and her booked tour of the Southwark campus. Perhaps if she took a gap year and reapplied, but what did she want to study?

     ‘Bubbles, for goodness sake, you’re old enough to hold Poppy’s reins for a minute.’

     ‘I want to pick daisies and Poppy won’t come.’

     Green Park was very green, except for the formal beds. She looked round. The white bits in the distance were scattered handfuls of bread. Much closer, a flustered young woman was kneeling beside a buggy.

     ‘Can I help?’

     ‘It does this every time I come out, and will she listen?’

     ‘Does what? Who?’

     ‘The children’s mother. It isn’t as if she couldn’t afford a new one, but it isn’t her pushing the bl…’ The woman glanced at Bubbles. ‘The wretched thing when the front wheels jam. They’re supposed to swivel. I suppose you wouldn’t hold Icarus? If I turn the buggy on its side I can fix it.’

     Icarus was about the same age as the latest baby born in Kinloch village, two months. She cuddled him against her shoulder, breathing in the special smell no shampoo or talc could disguise. He yelled in her ear and she walked round the buggy rocking him, watched closely by Bubbles.

     ‘That’s my new brother. Who are you?’

     ‘My name’s Lizzie.’

     ‘Are you a nanny?’

     ‘Not yet.’ The words were out of her mouth almost before she thought them, but she couldn’t imagine a nicer job.

     The young woman stood the buggy upright and pushed it in a circle. ‘That’s it, until next time. Where are you training, Lizzie?’ She wiped her hands and offered one. ‘Pippa.’

     ‘Nowhere yet. I’m supposed to be starting at uni, but I’ve changed my mind about what I want to do.’

     ‘You’re too late for Chiltern College this year. That’s the place if you want a job like mine.’ Pippa grinned. ‘The buggy apart, I do all right. Good pay, my own suite, laundry and cleaning done, and food provided, for me and the children.’

     This was interesting, and the longer she kept Pippa talking the longer she could cuddle Icarus. ‘I could take a gap year while I apply. Where is Chiltern College?’

     ‘Near Reading, only about half an hour out of London. Look, I have to go… dentist for Bubbles and Poppy. Google it, and good luck.’

     Icarus left an empty space in her arms, and she’d have liked to play with Poppy, and there was a lovely story in one of her leaflets about why no flowers grew wild in Green Park, though it wasn’t suitable for a child as young as Bubbles. A teenager maybe.

     She fished out her mobile. Mother would be changing ready to greet guests returning for lunch: not everyone stayed out all day. She’d have time to talk.

     ‘Lizzie, I’ve tried to call you three times.’ She could hear the smile in Mother’s voice. ‘We know it’s all very exciting, but we are interested. Is your tutor the same person who did your telephone interview? What’s your room like?’

     ‘Mother, I’ve changed my mind about going to South Bank. I want to be a nanny.’

     ‘A nanny? Lizzie, nobody brings babies to Kinloch House.’

     ‘There are rich families in London who’d employ me.’

     ‘But… a degree in Tourism and Hospitality is perfect for you. Your father can go on teaching you about managing the estate in the vacations.’

     ‘I’ve decided to apply to Chiltern College for a place next year. I’ve just met someone who trained there and she’s looking after three lovely children.’ Mother would expect her to go home while she waited. ‘I’ll spend the gap year in London. Get a job.’

     ‘Lizzie, dropping out of university when you worked so hard for a place is ridiculous.’

     Somehow she must avoid telling Mother why she didn’t want to go home. ‘Three years studying a subject that doesn’t interest me would be worse.’

     ‘Not interest you.’ Mother sighed as if swirled cream curdled on overheated soup. ‘It involves everything you enjoy doing here.’

     ‘I’m fed up with waiting at tables... cleaning...’ Either of which she’d have to do, and soon. Running up a bigger bill at The Ritz than she already had didn’t gel with independence.

     ‘I wish you’d told me before. I could have employed extra girls from the village, and Iain could have showed you more about running the estate sooner.’

     ‘Mother, I don’t want to run the estate.’ If she wasn’t careful she’d have to say why and hurt both her parents.

     ‘Then who will when Iain...?’

     ‘Mother was upset thinking of losing Father, as if it wouldn’t break her heart too. ‘I might have grown-up children by then.’

     ‘And one of them, at an age when he or she should be at university perhaps, would take on the responsibility that’s yours? Think harder, Lizzie... take a year out if you must... but promise me you’ll go to South Bank today, now, and explain your doubts.’

     ‘I don’t have any doubts. I’m going to find work, here in London, and then train to be a nanny. Father needn’t pay the fees. I’ll take out a student loan.’

     Mother’s voice froze the sun. ‘Very well, Lizzie. I’ll tell Iain.’

     ‘I’ll tell him myself.’

     ‘Please don’t, not this stupidity. If you change your mind you know where we are.’

     Her mobile went silent and something inside shrivelled. Mother had understood nothing, and neither would Father. She’d tried to protect them from being hurt by her rejection of their way of life and succeeded in alienating them completely. Should she go to South Bank and settle for the life she’d intended to lead?

     She returned to the path, scuffing her feet. Pippa, at a guess, was about twenty-five. When she was ready to settle down and have a family she’d know exactly what to do: an only child, like her, would benefit even more from being a nanny. Mother had made her promise to find love, and pass on Queen Margaret’s Book of Hours to a daughter. Why couldn’t she see helping in Kinloch village crèche, when she had time, which was rarely, wasn’t like being properly trained? She’d ring Mother again and explain.

     When her tenth call went unanswered she gave up. She had one life, not two: there were no second chances.

     She returned to The Ritz to pack, where his mobile kept catching her eye. At six o’ clock she rang the number of the decorating company, hands sweating.

     ‘Wilkinson and Co, painters and decorators.’ It was a male voice.

     ‘I’m sorry to bother you in the evening, Mr Wilkinson. Your wife said you might know the name of my boyfriend.’

     ‘Michael.’

     Michael, for Michael the archangel? ‘Do you have his address?’

     ‘No. He saw my advert in the precinct and rang me. Lives local I reckon. It hadn’t been there more than an hour.’

     No address: she wiped her hands on her skirt and persisted. ‘Which precinct?’

     ‘Valuvale, where else?’

     ‘Yes, of course Valuvale.’ Any taxi driver would find it. ‘What’s his second name?’

     ‘Sorry, I can’t remember. He’s only worked for me once, casual for cash.’

     How far could a man walk in an hour... two miles... three? She’d traced him, to about nine square miles of urban streets. Finding him, the man who walked through her dreams, waking and sleeping, was impossible.

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Lizzie’s tears dried before they fell. Find work in Valuvale precinct and she stood a chance of finding Michael: he’d visited a newsagent there. She left The Ritz before the noon deadline.

     Forever later her taxi stopped. ‘Valuvale.’

     The precinct, served by its own tube station, was enormous. A lot of the buildings set round the traffic-free area looked new. There was a twenty-four-hour supermarket, a cinema, three casinos, two banks, a building society, four pubs, KFC and Rollercoaster, and rows of specialist shops. Finding a job should be easy: the supermarket advertised for checkout staff, shelf-stackers and delivery drivers, two of the pubs wanted barmaids, and Rollercoaster had signs outside inviting waitresses and waiters to apply within.

     Her suitcase would annoy the management before she opened her mouth, and the Book of Hours and her purse were safely in the shoulder-bag she hadn’t replaced. She stowed the case in the porch and went inside, aware a uniformed man had seen her reading the sign.

     He homed in, wearing a badge reading manager, half an eye on the crowded tables. ‘Waitress? Five eight hour shifts with an hour’s break... table ten, Lyn... minimum wage plus lunch. I need you mornings. Start at seven tomorrow, and bring your P45.’

     Mother dealt with P45s, and she didn’t have one. ‘This is my first job.’

     ‘Three months trial with training. Name? Age?’

     ‘Lizzie Cameron and I’m eighteen.’

     He thrust a paper into her hand and marched off, tongue-whipping the unfortunate Lyn.

     She hurried back to her case, read what he’d given her, and sat on it with a bump. How did people survive on a wage that low? Rooms must be cheap.

     Adverts for lodgings were few. She found a yellowing card in the window of a charity shop and spoke to a lady wheeling a rack of clothing outside.

     ‘Byers Street?’ The lady pointed. ‘There, between The Golden Hind and Hogget’s Arms.’

     Byers Street was old, and a lot of the front rooms were used for businesses she’d read about but never seen: pawnbrokers, betting shops and escort agencies. Mrs Barnes, wearing a hairnet, opened the door of number seventy. ‘Want a single, duck? Come up.’

     She followed, and stopped, appalled, in the doorway. The walls were crawling with things and a larger creature scuttled across the threadbare carpet.

     Her prospective landlady put her foot on it. ‘Sodding cockroaches... just kill them, duck.’ She pointed to Rates half-covering Fire Regulations. ‘Rent’s weekly, and the radiator’s electric... coins in that meter. Shared bathroom along the landing.’

     Brown marks were dried cockroach blood? Her blood chilled with more than horror: rent would take most the money she earned. No wonder Rollercoaster included a free meal: they needed their workers to stay alive. ‘I’ll think about it.’

     Back at the precinct she read every card on display. Homes wanted for pretty kittens. Found, black and white terrier. For Sale, Moses basket. Temporary room offered to young couple willing to help with packing and household chores. The rent was ten pounds more than the room in Byers Street but it would be bigger, and it couldn’t be dirtier. What could a couple do that might defeat her? She’d spent half her life doing housework, and packing was a service taken for granted by Kinloch guests.

     Questions took her four streets from the precinct to Bella Vista. The view was of similar houses, and it had an estate agent’s board in the front garden. How temporary was temporary? It would give her time to look for somewhere else, anywhere but Byers Street. She might even find a job helping to look after children: Pippa had someone to cook, clean and do the laundry.

     A hand, blue-veined with age, hovered over the chain that held the door three inches open, but the eye inspecting her was as bright and alert as a bird’s. ‘Yes?’

     ‘I’ve come about the room. There’s only me, but I’m strong and very willing.’

     ‘Oh, Prince Charming will be along. Coach and horses... dashing white charger...’ The lady released the door and hopped backwards. ‘You can manage the rent?’

     ‘If you give me time to work at Rollercoaster.... seven in the morning until three.’

     ‘Good gracious! I’d forgotten those hours existed. I never get up before noon, and then I paint.’ She tilted her head to one side. ‘I suppose you wouldn’t cook for us both now? I don’t think I’ve eaten since yesterday, or perhaps it was the day before.’

     Did both mean the woman and her husband or was she about get a free meal? ‘Do you have food in?’

     ‘Oh yes. The supermarket delivers. Very good they are, putting everything away. I have the same every week, but you can change that. Young people are so good with computers. The estate agent looks like a schoolboy and he says I can use one to goggle at my house.’

    ‘Google. It’s a search engine that would find his website, and the photos.’ 

     ‘Is it? What’s your name?’

     She gave up trying to decide the colour of hair beneath paint. ‘Lizzie Cameron.’

     ‘Lizzie, I like it. Zara Kirtley... call me Zara. Shout nice and loud when dinner’s ready. I get engrossed painting.’ She rubbed a hand over her eyes, adding a smear of orange. ‘I do too much at once. You must talk to me... though I could paint you…’

     A supermarket delivery man had put food in the fridge, six days ago judging by the eat-by dates. Dinner was steak, with trimmings cooked from frozen, and both did include her.

     Zara cleared her plate. ‘I’d forgotten how good food could taste. I shall make coffee and we can get to know each other by the fire.’ She shivered. ‘I have a villa in Andalucía. It was for winter, but two homes are too much. Age is a nuisance.’

     ‘I’ll make coffee.’

     ‘I hoped perhaps, for you, the dishwasher would work. Every week the man brings tablets for it but they do no good.’

     Smothering laughter, she removed packets of detergent cubes and found the control switch. Loaded with pans, china, and cutlery, the dishwasher swished obediently.

     ‘Ah, you are so clever... so young... so beautiful. I shall paint a portrait that will enchant Prince Charming so you can keep him forever.’

     Had Michael been attracted to her? If she found him, could she keep him forever? Carrying coffee, she followed Zara into the living room where a gas fire did its best to pretend the logs were real. At Kinloch... she pushed Kinloch from her mind. ‘How do you order food deliveries?’

     ‘My great-niece did it... on the line she said. Every week different, and then she married Carlos and stayed in Spain.’

     She fetched her laptop. Five wireless networks offered their services, at a price. ‘Would you like me to shop when I finish my shift at Rollercoaster?’

     ‘Oh yes, Lizzie. You can tell the nice man he needn’t deliver. Now... amuse me.’

     Kinloch forced itself on her yet again: a piano stood to one side. ‘I could play for you.’

    ‘And sing the songs of Andalucía?’

    ‘If you have the music I could try, but I can’t speak Spanish.’

     ‘However you pronounce the words they’ll remind me of hot sunshine and blue skies.’

***

Michael jogged homewards, half-inclined to take a longer route. He’d thought sleeping would be easier away from Verity and the warmth of a body close to his. Instead his single bed produced a broken spring that poked through the thin mattress and his pillow grew lumps. He hadn’t noticed before the girl with emerald eyes erupted into his life.

     Could love at first sight happen? He knew it could: it had happened to him, and he couldn’t escape it however fast he ran. He’d been out since three o’ clock this morning and still his hand burned where she touched it: his right hand, which made concentrating on writing audition applications more difficult, and The Stage would be on sale today.

     He slowed as he reached Valuvale. The precinct was quiet, but for a steady stream of workers heading for the tube and the early trains: it was only six o’ clock. He needed to think, and he couldn’t do it faced with a pallid microwaved potato disguised with own-brand baked beans. He turned into Rollercoaster and ordered a cooked breakfast. Spearing sausage, he groaned. If he didn’t find work soon there’d be no point in buying The Stage: he’d yet to earn money for a new mobile.

     A young couple with two children sat at the next table.

     ‘Tea and toast for us and a boiled egg each for the kids.’

     ‘Can we have toast fingers to dip, Dad?’

     ‘No. This is a treat and it’s got to last until the van arrives with our furniture.’

     ‘You can have a piece of my toast, Danny.’

     ‘Don’t go spoiling them, Heather.’

     He stopped listening: the conversation would end in tears, or a row between the fraught parents. He had to pay for breakfast, so eat.

     Mam, who’d adored Dad, meant well with her nice girls, but did she ever really look at her own three children?Gwen and Robert’s twin girls wanted for nothing. Graham had four children; Fay had been determined to have a boy to name after Dad. Gwen passed on outgrown clothes and toys, which caused rows with Robert. Graham and Fay both worked, but even two wages meant saying no too often: no swimming lessons, no dancing lessons, no Rainbows or Brownies for the girls. Fay worked from home, which didn’t pay as well; childcare for Patrick was too expensive.

     Loud piping from the next table interrupted his thoughts. ‘Ta, Mum.’

     Danny’s small sister beamed as she dipped toast in her egg.

     She was a pretty girl, and Danny had a mischievous grin. He wanted children like that, but not until he could afford them: if his wife enjoyed working, fine, but it would be from choice, not necessity. At twenty he had plenty of time.

     He forced himself to go on eating. She would never be his wife and he didn’t want anyone else... An idea so audacious his heart thundered floated into his head. He’d never find her but there was a way of making it possible for her to find him, if she wanted to: leave poverty behind and become a celebrity featured in the glossy magazines a rich girl would read.

     And how was he supposed to do that when his only talent was acting and nobody was prepared to give him the chance to prove it? He chewed bacon that suddenly tasted like cardboard. All he could do was keep applying for places at every audition advertised in The Stage, and how many did he miss spending so long on each and able to do none at all on days when he did find work?

     Tired tears from the next table gave him the answer. If he couldn’t sleep at night he might as well work, but it wouldn’t be labouring on a building site in the dark. He paid for his breakfast and walked across to the supermarket.

WANTED – check-out staff – shelf-stackers – delivery drivers.

     A man inside the staff entrance assessed him. ‘Shelf-stackers do nights. Ten to six, with a couple of half-hour breaks.’ He winked. ‘If you don’t take the breaks... pay’s in cash.’

     Five more hours a week than a fulltime job, and it sounded as if the short-staffed company might turn a blind eye to seven shifts not five. He could save and have something to offer but dreams if she did live in London. He might get an audition and see her in the West End.

     The man pushed a form and a pen at him. ‘Take it or leave it.’

     He filled in the form, handed it back with his P45 and looked at the clock. It was three minutes past seven: he had a whole day free to write letters.

***

Lizzie kicked Firecrest and the horse broke into a gallop. Still the tall figure drew ahead on the steep, rough, track from the loch to the firebreak. Monarch stood at bay at the foot of Craig Dubh. Black hair flying, the man vaulted onto the red hart’s back, found foot and handholds where they didn’t exist, and climbed towards the summit of the crag.

     Monarch faced Firecrest, scraping forefeet on solid rock, head down and mighty antlers ready to kill. Her mount skidded to a halt and she shot out a hand in a futile defensive gesture. Blood fountained over her as Monarch lurched forward and fell onto the grass. Dashing the hot, viscous liquid from her eyes she gazed at the figure silhouetted against an azure sky. He vanished. ‘Michael.’

     The tangled duvet slid off, leaving her drenched in sweat and shivering. It was four in the morning, again, and running the shower might wake Zara. She changed her nightdress and fetched the Book of Hours. She wouldn’t get back to sleep; she never did. Michael walked, jogged, or ran, until he vanished from sight every night, but tonight... that was the worst nightmare yet.

     Queen Margaret, away from the constraints of her father, and her grandmother, enjoyed her royal progress to Scotland. She’d been feted at several places with names she recognised: Grantham, Newark, Doncaster, Pontefract, Tadcaster, and now York.

This fourteenth day of July the Year of Our Lord 1503, the Archbishop’s Palace, York. Two miles from the city The Earl of Northumberland met me, riding a fair courser covered to the ground with crimson velvet bordered with orfavery, and with him, his Master of Horse, liveried knights, and three hundred horsemen. A mile further and I ascended a horsed litter. So many men of the church and the city waited to walk in procession afore me it took a full two hours to reach the Minster. I kissed the cross and made my offering but the day is not done. As I write my ladies prepare my gown, for tomorrow at the ninth hour of the morning councillors shall attend me. Tis said they will give unto me a standing silver piece containing a hundred angels of gold. Mayhap twill please His Grace King James for I come hence with a dowry that reflects meanly upon His Grace my father.

     Had the young queen looked forward to her journey’s end? Alone, while her ladies were busy, she sounded worried. King James must have been too rich to be angry about his wife’s poor dowry, or he’d loved her too much to care. Why else would she have wished her descendants love? She worked on, increasingly dismayed.

This tenth day of August the year of Our Lord 1503. The Palace of Hollyrood. Already Scottish ladies rule my chambers, though my retinue are royally entertained. Feasting went on late afore the king and I were bedded with much ceremony. He smelled of sweat worse than any groom who hath lifted me into the saddle. I feared his whisky breath would render me unconscious beneath his weight and would that it had. Today, when I must appear before the people of Edinburgh, I can scarce walk. I dread the nights.

     The queen’s reason for wishing her descendants love wasn’t memories of her wedding night. King James seemed to have ignored his bride’s age and virginity. She put the Book of Hours aside: Queen Margaret had changed her mind later.

     Lizzie Cameron was fairly sure she lived in the same area of London as the man she loved and Valuvale was the hub of it, yet weeks had passed without her spotting Michael. Perhaps he was working in the West End again. If he was, the place to watch for him was the tube station. It wasn’t quite six: she could go now.

     The November night had left the first frost of winter on the pavements and a bitter wind whined through the narrow streets. She hooked her coat fastenings and ran. When she reached the precinct there were already crowds of workers crossing. She joined them, eyes darting from one tall man to another: no Michael.

     No Michael when she had to leave the station. He’d seen the advert in the precinct. Was it where he always looked for work? She tore pages off her order pad when the manager wasn’t looking. This afternoon she’d list every employer who advertised locally, ring them if there was a number or visit them if there wasn’t.

     By six o’ clock she’d found four advertisements like Mr Wilkinson’s, and all had phone numbers. She could go home, cook for Zara, and ring them tomorrow.

     ‘The kittens on the card next door have all gone, but I’ve got a couple if you’re interested.’

     She opened her mouth to tell the owner of a pet shop she wasn’t looking for a kitten, and caught sight of a CCTV camera over the door. Most of the shops had them: Rollercoaster did, front and back, but she had no access to the film. ‘I was hoping someone might have found my dog. He slipped his collar near here.’

     ‘Did you have him micro-chipped?’

     ‘No.’ Retrievers and spaniels arrived at Kinloch with their owners.

     The man frowned. ‘All dogs should be micro-chipped, and your address registered. How are the police or rescue centres supposed to contact you otherwise?’

     ‘I didn’t think... he’s never loose... I suppose you wouldn’t let me watch your CCTV footage? I might see which way he went.’

     ‘I’ll be here for a bit, feeding... cleaning cages. Come in.’

     The camera covered a section of the precinct in front of the pet shop that reached Rollercoaster opposite. If she went back far enough she’d see herself sitting on her suitcase the day she found out how little she’d be paid.

     ‘No point in watching the lot. Use this switch to roll back to the time you lost the dog and come forward.’

     Rolling back to early morning made sense, as did speeding up when few people were about. She sat engrossed, stopping now and then when she spotted a tall, dark-haired man.

     ‘Any luck?

     She jumped. ‘No, but thank you for letting me look.’

     ‘You’ve done me a favour. Hadn’t the heart to stop you, you looked that worried. Got stock sorted... orders ready...’

     It was nearly ten o’ clock: Zara wouldn’t still be engrossed in painting and she hadn’t bought the plaice she’d promised to cook for dinner. The fishmonger had long since put up his shutters so she made for the supermarket. People were disappearing down an alley at the side: a tall, dark man followed others. ‘Michael.’

     The man swung round and walked towards her. ‘The girl with the emerald eyes... you can’t be. She never knew my name.’

     She produced his mobile, warm from holding it in her hand inside her pocket. ‘I’ve been looking out for you. You dropped this when you fixed the buckle on my bag.’

     ‘It didn’t have my name on it, and the battery must have run down.’

     ‘Not until after Mr Wilkinson had a job for you and rang.’ Perhaps she shouldn’t have left it on, or checked his contacts even though there weren’t any. ‘He told me your name was Michael, and he thought you lived round here... somewhere.’

     ‘It’ll save me the cost of a new one. Thanks.’

     He took it and she resisted holding on to his hand: the electric spark was there, more powerful than before. ‘Do you work in the supermarket now?’

     ‘Shelf-stacker.’

     ‘I guessed it was somewhere advertised in Valuvale.’ And he’d wonder why she was here when they’d met in the West End. ‘I work at Rollercoaster.’

     He frowned, long lashes hiding his eyes. ‘It’s late. Not safe for a girl to be out alone.’

     ‘I need plaice for dinner... supper... The fishmonger’s closed but I can get it here.’ Would he walk her home? ‘I only live four streets away.’

     ‘Promise you’ll run. My pay will be docked if I’m late.’

***

Michael waited outside Rollercoaster. He was a fool, wanting to make sure the girl with the emerald eyes had got home safely. If she hadn’t, Mrs Barnes, who listened non-stop to local radio, would have said so. Murder or gang rape made her day, the gorier the better.

     He’d worked out that if the serving staff changed shifts at seven in the morning they were likely to do it again at three, but did she work that shift? What had she been doing shopping for supper at ten o’ clock? Why did he care so much? He rubbed a thumb over his leather jacket, an eighteenth birthday present from Gwen collected from the pawnshop, and wafts of Armani Emporio Diamonds made him sneeze.

     Drat the girl! He’d found work that gave him days free to study The Stage from cover to cover and write letters that would get him noticed, and the results weren’t worth the cost of a stamp. He paced a few yards, and back. They’d be better if he could sleep for a few hours each morning. If he managed to doze at all she walked through his dreams, which would be enjoyable if he didn’t instantly wake and find he was clutching an armful of duvet.

     ‘Today’s special offer is garlic bread free with a double burger.’

     She had appeared from nowhere, a shopping bag over her arm, and he was a bigger fool than he’d thought, waiting by the front entrance when Rollercoaster must have one at the back for staff. ‘I... err... Is it?’ 

     ‘It sounds good, and costs them nothing. The profit margin on a double burger is higher than a single.’

     She worked in accounts. ‘Sorry, I thought you were a waitress.’

     ‘I am. My parents run a... a hotel. I cut my teeth on business knowhow.’

     She pushed up her sleeve to check her watch: Gucci, and the coat looked like Gwen’s mink. ‘You’re one up on me. You didn’t tell me your name.’

     Her smile accelerated his heart. ‘Lizzie. Lizzie Cameron, and you’re Michael...?

     ‘Marsh. Would you like coffee?’

     ‘I’d love one. Cappuccino doesn’t come with slices of garlic bread.’

     Garlic bread instead of potatoes and beans... ‘We could go to the bistro.’ A queue for seats wound round the few tables. ‘We’d better try somewhere else.’

     ‘We could go outside. The seats are dry, though I’m surprised they’re still out.’

     If she’d lived around here long she’d know. ‘They’re packed with revellers on Christmas Eve. Two cappuccinos to take out, please.’

     He spent coins hoarded for the greedy meter in his bedroom. It was worth a thousand more to sit close to her, and Mam would approve. She was the loveliest nice girl ever.

     ‘You’ve noticed the freckles on my nose.’ She rubbed and her light makeup came off.

     He hadn’t noticed, but they bothered her. ‘A scattering of stardust draws attention to your eyes.’

     ‘Stardust. I bite my nails.’

     Cold hands failed to quell his desire to kiss her, and nails like claws were no protection against gangs roaming the streets. ‘Lizzie, let me walk you home.’

     ‘Thank you.’ Her smile provided the sun. ‘I think it’s going to snow.’

     ‘It already is.’ White flakes twinkled in red curls let down after her shift.

     She finished her drink. ‘Shopping... only the butcher and the greengrocer today.’

     He carried the bag: two large fillet steaks left him wondering who was going to eat them.

     ‘Perhaps I should buy bread. I can make my own garlic butter.’

     Maybe, if he was a success, in ten years he could afford her: she’d be married long before then, and not to a backstreet boy from Leeds, who was now a backstreet shelf-stacker in London.

     She added a loaf to the basket. ‘Are you sure you’ve got time to walk home with me?’

     ‘My shift doesn’t start until ten.’ Her curls were a deeper red when they were damp and snow sparkled on them like stars. Would she let him collect her in the morning? He’d be heading home, to sleep.

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Zara stirred a brush in water and splattered her blouse. ‘I had the colour of your hair perfect, and then you come in day after day with it damp.’

     Lizzie’s dream of Michael doing more than carry her bag morning and evening dissolved. ‘He says my curls trap the snowflakes and they sparkle.’

     ‘And when, may I ask, am I to meet Prince Charming? I told you he’d be along. He comes and all you tell me is his name, Michael.’ Zara eyed the offending hair in her portrait. ‘I shall take a photo the instant you come in tomorrow if he wants Snow Princess for Christmas instead of Andalucían Music.’

     ‘Zara, you can’t give him a portrait of me! I hardly know him.’

     ‘And whose fault is that? The lad gets frozen walking from the precinct and do you ask him in? No. Would Joanne be living in the sun with Carlos without learning to feed him gachas... chicharrón... pescaito frito... mollete... the food of Andalucía? You cook like an angel and leave Michael thinking he’d spend his life eating Rollerburgers.’

     ‘I suppose I could make shortbread.’

     ‘Petticoat tails and fingers, and one of your heavenly chocolate cakes.’

     ‘I’d better start now.’

     Zara’s voice floated down the hall. ‘Prepare a casserole too.’

    ‘Why?’

    ‘The house agent said something delicious in the oven influenced buyers. I expect it has the same effect on hungry young men. He might even stay for a helping, with dumplings.’

     Michael was muscular but far too slim to be fond of dumplings, unless he walked so much the calories vanished. She began baking: mentally accumulating vegetables already in the larder that she could add to beef.

     Michael left her at the staff entrance next day. ‘See you at three.’

     She began service at her tables. Rollerburgers had never looked so unappealing and the offer with the double was a plastic beaker of something fizzy from unmarked cartons. Not that Michael ever came in, but coffee with cake and biscuits was much nicer. Was Zara right about dumplings? She could almost smell beef simmering four streets away.

     Zara could be a problem. What she might say about a coach and horses, or a dashing white charger, or Prince Charming... Odd to think she might have been a princess. Why wasn’t she? ‘Margaret, do you mind if I call you Margaret? I promise not to muddle you with Mother.’

     The almost tangible presence at her elbow assured her Margaret didn’t mind, but she “talked” through the Book of Hours and the next entries were in code. Lying awake she’d studied them, but so far making any sense of the letters had defeated her tired brain. It might help if she knew more about the Tudors.

     Skipping her free lunch, she joined the Valuvale library and chose a pile of books. Flicking through her selection, she found one of them listed the children born to Margaret and King James.

James, Duke of Rothesay – 21 February 1507 to 28 February 1508

Daughter – 15 July 1508 – died.

Arthur, Duke of Rothesay – 20 October 1509 to 14 July 1510

James V – 10 April 1512 – 14 December 1542

Daughter – 16 November 1512 – died.

Alexander, Duke of Ross – (posthumous) 30 April 1514 to 18 December 1515

     There was a long gap between the births of Arthur and the second James, and yet Prince Arthur, heir to the throne, had lived only nine months. Surely James IV would have wanted another child, hopefully a boy, quickly? Only one of six children had survived infancy, unless one of the daughters lived. Neither had been named: a princess would have been, valued as a pawn in the marriage market.

     ‘Margaret, you didn’t give King James a princess so how did the secret royal bloodline start?’ This was one of the few old buildings in Valuvale and SILENCE notices abounded, but story-time for pre-school children smothered her voice. ‘Does it exist or did my grandmother string it together because it suited her?’ Margaret remained silent, but the answer must lie in the coded entries.

 

 

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                                                                      Sarah

 

 

 

   

 

 


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