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  • Pamela Belle

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The cottage that Rosie and Jenna had once dubbed ‘the witch’s house’ wasn’t far out of her way back home. She drove out of Aldeburgh, past Snape, and turned off the Orford road towards Butley. Once through the village, she headed towards Woodbridge, along an open unfenced road, lined with oak trees, and wide flat fields on either side. Tiny whirling grains of ice rustled against the windscreen, and the sky loomed heavy and grey. The trees on her right began to grow closer and closer together, interspersed now with huge stands of holly, so dense and dark a green that in this light they seemed almost black. Gnarled, twisted branches grasped at the air, or lay tangled and decaying on the ground, meshed over with dead bracken and brambles. In the depths of winter, it was a bleak, even sinister place, and easy to imagine witches living here – or wolves. Not for the first time, Jenna thought that it would be even creepier after dark.

She’d forgotten exactly where Fran’s house was, and missed it. Racking her brains, she seemed to remember that the entrance was next to a footpath sign on the edge of the woods, and did a u-turn at the next junction. Fortunately there was no traffic on the road, though she’d earlier passed a couple of cars heading for Butley, so she could drive slowly, determined not to miss the turning again. The snow, or sleet, was falling harder now, blurring her vision, and she turned the wipers on. Where was the bloody entrance? There, by the sign at the end of the fence. She swung the little red Peugeot through the opening on her left, and hard left again down a rutted track. A couple of rabbits sprinted into the undergrowth as the car jolted along. Jenna peered through the increasingly obscured windscreen, and then suddenly jammed the brakes on as another car appeared in front of her.

Fortunately, it was stationary, and already sprinkled with a dusting of snow. She turned the engine off and got out. The witch’s house, built of brick and flint with gothic windows and a pointed thatched roof like a hat, was twenty yards away. Back in the warmth and sunlight of summer, when she and Rosie had walked along that path and looked through the trees at the ancient half-derelict cottage, sinking down into the shrouding trees and undergrowth, it had seemed sad and unloved, yet also utterly at one with the landscape in which it was set. Now, the foliage gone, the thatch renewed and the window frames freshly painted, she hardly recognised it. Encouragingly, there was smoke rising from one of the two chimneys, and lights inside. Jenna walked gingerly up to the front door, which was painted a soft green, with a bull’s eye circle of thick glass set into it at eye level. It was protected by a tiny thatched porch with a bench on either side, under which stood two pairs of wellies, one large and black, one much smaller and decorated with blue and pink flowers. She raised her hand to knock, but before her hand could make contact with the wood, it was flung open and Flora stood in front of her, rather flushed, her hair back in the severe plaits which she had worn at their first meeting. “It is you!” she said. “Have you come to help? Da said you could, and we couldn’t think of anyone else, except Mrs. Carroll of course, but we don’t know her phone number or where she lives.”

“How about, ‘Hello, Jenna, how lovely to see you, do come on in,’” said Fran’s amused voice behind her. “Hurry up and shut that door, lass, before all the heat disappears.”

Flora stood aside, and Jenna walked past her and into the cottage. She had expected a quaint, country-style interior, and was so surprised by what she saw that she stopped abruptly, looking around her. The whole ground floor had been opened up into one huge room, light and warm and spacious. To her left, a cavernous fireplace hosted a wood-burning stove, substantially larger than her own, cheerful flames glowing behind its glazed door, and two big sofas and a couple of armchairs were grouped round it. There were ranks of bookshelves on either side of the hearth, and above it a blown-up photograph of a Scottish landscape, full of sunlight and shadows marching across a hunched, brooding range of mountains. To her right lay the kitchen, separated from the living area by a long beech table, scattered with papers and coffee mugs. “Gosh,” she said, rather inadequately. “What a lovely room.”

“Not what you were expecting?” Fran came forward from the table, grinning. “Don’t tell me, chintz and floral and beams.”

There were no beams at all, just walls and ceiling in a rich shade of cream. The room smelt of woodsmoke with undertones of paint and varnish. Jenna said, “How did you guess?”

“It’s the classic English cottage, isn’t it? From the outside, anyway. I felt like doing something different with it, and it’s not listed, so I had it turned from four pokey little rooms into one big one.”

“I’d have thought it would have been listed,” said Jenna, still looking round. There was a rather battered guitar propped up on the further sofa, beside a sheaf of sheet music. “Isn’t it really old?”

“Mid-nineteenth-century, masquerading as Tudor Gothic. Its real name is Keeper’s Cottage, which is a bit of a giveaway. But it does mean that it’s built solid. Most of what needed doing was just cosmetic – apart from the damp proofing, the plumbing, the electrics, the insulation... Tea? Coffee?”

“Tea, please.” She followed him round the table, which was strewn with books and text books that must be Flora’s, and into the kitchen section. Everything was plain, functional, and simple: no fuss or frills. The kettle, though, was transparent, and blue LED lights glowed round the base when Fran switched it on. As bubbles began to rise through the water, he took two mugs from hooks below the wall cupboards and dropped a tea bag in each.

“Can I have chocolate? Please? As it’s snowing?” After shutting the door, Flora had followed them and was looking pleadingly at her father with large blue eyes very similar to his.

“What’s the fact that it’s snowing got to do with it?” Fran asked, entirely reasonably in Jenna’s opinion.

“Because it means it’s cold, and hot chocolate warms you up,” Flora said. After a term at a Suffolk school, there was little trace now of her American accent: instead, an interesting mix of Fran’s soft Scots and the harsher local tones infused her voice. “And I’ve worked very hard,” she added.

“Indeed you did, once I’d cracked the whip. Be off back to your books, and I’ll bring it over.”

“Thank you, Da!” said the child, and sat down at the table with an expectant look on her face.

“I think I know why you need my help,” said Jenna, with a smile. “Homework causing problems?”

“Aye, there is that, and my maths isn’t a lot better than hers. But there’s something else as well.” He poured milk into the mugs, removed the tea bags and made another mug of instant chocolate with the water left in the kettle. “Here you are, hen. I’m just going to show Jenna the rest of the house, then we’ll be back, so make sure you’re ready for us – it’s very kind of her to help, so we don’t want to take up more of her time than’s absolutely necessary, OK?”

“OK, Da,” said Flora, and began shuffling her work books into some sort of order. Fran led Jenna to a door at the back of the kitchen. Through it was a flagstoned utility room, with the usual appliances, and two more doors, obviously original ledged and braced, though they had also been newly painted in the same soft green as the one at the front of the cottage. “Downstairs toilet and shower,” Fran said, giving it a cursory wave of his hand, “and stairs up – three bedrooms, bathroom, en suite.“ His voice dropped. “Since they’re in a state of considerable disarray, I’m not going to give you the guided tour, but I wanted to explain without Little Miss Long-Ears listening in.”

“OK, fire away,” Jenna said cautiously.

She'd thought she knew what was coming, but she was wrong, and his words took her by surprise. “It’s Krystal,” he said. “She’s just signed a contract for two more series of this cop show – it’s been a big ratings hit – and she wants Flora to go to a private school, preferably with a scholarship. So she’s in something of a panic, asking me to arrange tuition for her, especially in maths.”

“Ah. A private school here?”

“No, in the States. For obvious reasons, she’s thinking of a boarding school – they’re not as usual over there as they are here, and they tend to be very difficult to get into, and very expensive. Hence the need for intensive coaching.”

Jenna had only met Flora twice before, but somehow she couldn’t see her at an exclusive private school. However, she had no right to criticize or object, so she said neutrally, “What are your thoughts?”

My thoughts?” Fran looked surprised, and ran his fingers through his hair, making it flop over a different part of his forehead. Then he grinned. “You’ve never met Krystal, of course. Anyone else’s thoughts won’t come into it.”

“Not even Flora’s?”

“Well ... I haven’t told her yet. I really haven’t had the heart. She’s been doing so well at school here, loves it, made lots of friends – I did suspect they all thought she was glamorous, being American and having a mother who’s been on TV, but some of them have been here for tea and they seem really nice kids, all just being normal and giggly together. And their mums are very friendly too, I had to go up to London to demo some stuff before Christmas and there was no problem finding someone to have her after school until I got home.”

I bet there wasn’t, Jenna thought wryly. Single dads always attracted sympathy and offers of help, as if they must be totally clueless without a woman to manage them.

“Anyway,” Fran went on, “when Krystal dropped this bombshell yesterday, I thought you might be able to help. I know you said you didn’t fancy going back to private tuition, and I won’t be offended if you say no. I’m sure there are lots of others out there. But we’re old friends, and I’m not asking for a favour – Krystal will be paying, and paying handsomely. And Flora likes you, which makes it a lot easier, because if she doesn’t like you, there’s usually trouble. As some of her teachers in the past have discovered, to their cost.”

“I assume she likes her present teacher?”

“Aye, Mrs Carroll stands no nonsense, but she’s got a good sense of humour and knows how kids tick. She has the gift of making learning fun, too. Anyway, Flora’s having a bit of trouble with the maths homework she’s been given for the holidays, so I thought you might be able to give her some help with that and see how the two of you get on one to one.” He gave her an appealing grin. “OK, I know it’s a bit of a cheek, but you can feel free to tell me to sod off if you like.”

“I can’t,” Jenna pointed out. “You’ve already told her I’m going to help.”

“Oh, Christ, sorry, so I have.” He ran his fingers through his hair again. “I’ve really cocked this one up, haven’t I? I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”

His contrition was so obviously genuine that she took pity on him. “Of course I’ll do it, idiot. Anyway, bright girl like Flora, it shouldn’t take long to sort her out for next term – when has it got to be handed in?”

“Officially they should have gone back today, but the school’s closed for an extra couple of days, apparently the boiler's broken down and won’t be fixed until Thursday. But you’re right, it’s only a few sums, shouldn’t be a problem – I just wanted to see how the two of you got on, really. Just don’t mention anything about the American school idea yet, please – I need to think quite hard about how I’m going to tell her.”

“Wouldn’t Krystal do that?”

Fran grimaced. “She’s going to be filming twelve hours a day for the foreseeable, apparently, so she won’t have much opportunity to talk to her on the phone, given the time differences. So she left it up to me.”

Jenna was beginning to take an active dislike to the woman, even though they’d never met. She wondered what Fran, who seemed so sensible and grounded, had ever seen in her. The usual story, probably. She said, “Don’t worry, I won’t breathe a word. Shall we go back in? The tea will be getting cold and Flora will be suspicious if we stay out here too long.”

She did indeed eye them assessingly when they returned to the kitchen. Jenna picked up her mug of tea, now cool enough to be drinkable, and went to sit beside her. “What have you been doing? Can you show me?”

Flora was having trouble with decimals, a problem with which Jenna was completely familiar. She went over all the various strategies and methods, and the child listened intently and asked a couple of pertinent questions. It took a couple of minutes to jot down a selection of ten increasingly difficult sums, so that she could check that it had all sunk in, and then she joined Fran on the sofa by the stove. “I think she’s got it, but I gave her some work to do to make sure. You’d be amazed how many bright kids get flummoxed by place values. I remember one of my colleagues said when she retired that she’d taught for more than thirty years and the children in her last class still didn’t know where to put the decimal point.”

Fran chuckled. “Thanks. I knew you’d sort it.” He looked at her sideways over his mug. “Sorry again.”

“What for?”

“For taking advantage of your good nature.”

“Shut up. I like doing friends favours. I like Flora. I know I said I didn’t want to do tutoring again, but this is different. Anyway, I get a nice cup of tea and a nose round your lovely cottage. As for the other ... I’ll think about it, but I’m not sure it’s ...” She paused, trying to think of a phrase that wouldn’t alert Flora in any way, though she seemed intent on her maths book. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea, long term. But that’s not up to me.”

“Nor me, unfortunately. When a certain person has a bee in their bonnet, it’s very hard to dislodge it. Rather like another certain person, in fact. I’ll let you know what happens.”

“Thanks.” She was about to say more, but Flora suddenly leapt up from the table, waving a piece of paper triumphantly. “Finished!”

“Already? All ten?” Jenna got up and went over to inspect. Yes, Flora had indeed completed them, and on checking, every single one proved to be correct. She used a thick red felt-tip to put a jubilant tick against each answer, and handed the paper back to the girl with a smile. “Well done, that was great. Do you think you understand it properly now?”

Flora nodded. “Sure do. Da, it’s still snowing, please can I go outside?”

“God, is it?” Jenna had completely forgotten about the inclement weather outside this snug and welcoming cocoon. She went over to the nearest window and peered out. It had probably been half an hour since her arrival, and snow had obviously been falling lightly but steadily ever since. There was now a generous covering on the grass outside, and the bare branches of the oak trees surrounding the house, so sinister and bleak a little while ago, were now delicately traced in frosted silver, as if dusted with icing sugar. She said, suddenly anxious, “I’d better set off home now, before the roads get any worse.”

“Oh.” Flora, half way to the front door already, halted, her face a picture of disappointment. “Can’t you stay? Please, Jenna? We could build a snowman.”

“Sorry, I really can’t. I don’t want to end up in a ditch, or stuck in a snowdrift, and anyway the kittens need their lunch, they’ll be getting hungry.” She glanced at Fran, who was looking at her quizzically. “And yes, I’m well aware that to you this is nothing compared to the Cairngorms in January, but I’m not used to driving in any kind of snow, so I’d like to take it easy.”

“No worries,” Fran said, getting to his feet. “It was really good of you to come in the first place. Thanks for helping.”

“A pleasure,” said Jenna, meaning it. “I enjoyed it. Nice to have a pupil so quick in the uptake, believe me.”

“Thank you!” called Flora, already eagerly grasping the door handle. “I never understood decimals before and now I do! And can I come and see the kittens again? They’re soooo cute! Bye!” She waved enthusiastically as Jenna, her hair already sparkling with snowflakes, hurried back to her car. As she drove cautiously down the track, she could see the child in the porch, hopping with excitement as she thrust her feet into the flowery wellies, while Fran vainly proffered a coat and hat.

Halfway home, driving slowly and cautiously, Jenna was visited by an idea, and pulled up in a farm gateway. She extracted her mobile from her bag and quickly composed a text. ‘Tell her it might be a bit like Hogwarts, but without the magic.’ It would possibly do the trick, though she doubted it. Flora, with her abrupt, spiky manner, wasn’t the sort of child to take kindly to institutional life. She could foresee trouble ahead, but it was none of her business. And if Fran did ask her to be his daughter’s tutor, would she decline? Or would she swallow her scruples for the sake of friendship and a bit of extra cash?

It was a tricky one, and she knew what Saskia would say, if asked. “Take the money, darling, and do your best by the brat. She might even like boarding school, which is more than I did.” Her friend’s father had been an engineer in the oil industry who worked in the Far East for long periods, and Saskia had been sent back to school in England at the age of eleven. She had a fund of lurid and amusing stories which made St. Trinian’s look about as exciting as a vicarage tea party, but, tellingly, had failed to inflict a similar education on her own offspring.

By the time Jenna arrived back Wisteria Cottage, the snow had almost stopped, and a feeble sun had appeared low in the southern sky, above the marshes. Relieved to have reached home safely, she turned the key in the lock and was instantly greeted by Apollo and Artemis, tails vertical, voicing their pleasure at her return. She fed them, made a sandwich and a cup of tea for herself, and was just about to sit down next to the comforting warmth of the woodburner, when her phone rang. She looked at the screen, saw that it said ‘Unknown number’, and pressed the reject button. It was bound to be some dodgy firm trying to sell her solar panels, or compensation for a fictional accident. Then, too late, she realised that although she and Andrew had exchanged phone numbers, his had been on a business card. When it cuckooed again, a few minutes later – she really must change that bloody ring tone before people thought she was cuckoo too – she hastily picked it up and said cautiously, through part of a thick ham and pickle sandwich, “Hello?”

Instead of an automated voice offering to help her claim for the accident she hadn't had, she heard a man’s voice saying tentatively, “Hello? Is that Jenna? Jenna, er, Johnson?”

“Yes, who’s this?” She hastily swallowed her mouthful, almost choking in the process.

“Oh, hi, Jenna.” The man sounded pleased and relieved. “I wasn’t sure if I had your number right – I just jotted it down quickly at the party. It’s Marcus here, Marcus King.”

“Hello! Sorry, I didn’t recognise your voice. Nice to hear from you.” Jenna glared at Apollo, who was eyeing the rest of her sandwich, and wagged her finger. He stared back innocently, obviously trying to pretend, without success, that larceny hadn’t crossed his mind.

“I just phoned to say how much I enjoyed the party the other evening. It was good fun. Thank you for inviting me.”

“Not at all, it was great that you could come. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“Good. Good.” There was an awkward pause, during which Jenna became aware of a swift movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned, just in time to see Artemis, who had sneaked up along the top of the sofa behind her, leap down and snatch up the sandwich. “No!” she shouted, and made a grab for her, but the kitten was too quick. She leapt onto the floor and vanished into the kitchen, bread and ham clenched in her jaws. Apollo hurried after her, and Jenna heard a sudden wailing growl: evidently Artemis was defending her prize to the death.

“Jenna? Are you all right? What’s happened?” Marcus sounded quite alarmed.

“It’s OK, everything’s fine – just that the bloody kittens have nabbed my lunch.” Jenna sat back on the sofa, laughing at the absurdity of it.

“Kittens? I didn’t know you had kittens – I didn’t see them at the party.”

“We had them shut away upstairs,” Jenna said. Drat, she was still hungry, and she’d made the sandwich with the last of the bread. “Saskia and the children gave them to me for Christmas. They’re Burmese, and very naughty.” She began to laugh again. “The sheer ingratitude of it – I’d already given them their lunch, and then they go and pinch mine!”

“I didn’t know kittens ate sandwiches.”

“This was a ham and pickle one, so they might decide they don’t want it. Or sick it up on the kitchen floor. You must think,” Jenna added, still grinning, “that I’m a sort of animal misbehaviour magnet. First Sammy and now this.”

“I don’t think anything of the sort!” Marcus laughed, but it sounded a bit forced: she’d already noticed that he didn’t seem to have a very well-developed sense of humour. “Look, Jenna, I’ve got something to ask you – just say no if you don’t fancy it – but would you like to come out for dinner one night this week or next? There’s a great Indian in Woodbridge if you like curries, or if you’d prefer fish how about the oyster place?”

“Oh, gosh.” Jenna, taken by surprise, couldn’t think of anything. “That would be lovely. But I’ve only just moved here, I’ve no idea where the best restaurants and pubs are.” In her past life, she would have loved a meal at the Oysterage, but now she knew she couldn’t afford it. “I do like Indian, though, or I know the pub just down the road from me does nice food – well cooked and unpretentious.”

“We’ll go there,” said Marcus, with the easy, sweeping manner of one who is used to making decisions. “And then neither of us will have to drive. Foul weather today, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I went to Aldeburgh this morning and it was a bit hairy coming back. But it seems to have more or less stopped now.”

“Still snowing here in Woodbridge,” Marcus commented. “Well, I’ve got a patient due any moment, what about setting a date? Would Friday evening suit you? I’ll book it for seven thirty, shall I? Great! Ah, that’s her at the door, better go. See you then!”

He hung up, and Jenna stared at the phone in some perplexity, feeling she’d been railroaded into something she really wasn’t ready for. She wasn’t annoyed about it, exactly, but Marcus was obviously accustomed to making plans for other people – just like Rick, in fact. And she’d tamely gone along with it, just as she’d done when she was with Rick.

All sorts of potential complications crowded into her mind. A meal in the pub fifty yards away would mean she couldn’t very well bid him goodbye on her doorstep. It would be rude not to ask him in for a coffee, and all the connotations that supposedly simple invitation would bring in its wake made her head spin. One thing, though, was abundantly clear to her: she emphatically did not want to embark on another relationship. Rick’s betrayal was too raw, and far too recent. And besides, she had spent the past twenty-three years being Rick-and-Jenna, or The Twins’ Mum, or Rosie’s Mum. She badly needed to get back to being just Jenna again, to connect with the real self that had been buried for a very long time under the demands of domesticity. Here at the cottage, as she made it truly her home, filling it with things she loved, doing what she wanted, beginning to make new friends and looking forward to the prospect of a new job, she had felt that essential Jenna beginning to surface.

She wouldn’t ring him back and tell him she’d changed her mind. But she would have to be very firm and very determined. It was obvious that Marcus King was a man it was hard to say ‘no’ to, and she knew she must do her best to keep him at arm’s length for the time being.

Another spine-chilling growl from the kitchen reminded her of the fate of her lunch. She went in and discovered Artemis crouched next to the feeding bowls, fur starkly on end, so intent on keeping her brother at bay that she hadn’t yet had the opportunity to devour her prey. She didn’t notice as Jenna swept up to her and whisked the sandwich out of her jaws. The expression of astonishment and dismay on the kitten’s face when she realised what had happened, was comically human.

“No, you’re not having it.” Jenna dropped the sucked and saliva-clogged remains into the bin. “And neither am I, unfortunately. Time for a brisk walk, I think.”

She left Artemis vainly searching the floor for her vanished sandwich, and went out into the hall. Once well wrapped in her padded jacket, a woollen hat pulled down over her hair, a matching scarf round her neck, gloves on and her feet in warm fleece-lined boots, she felt almost ready to do battle with the weather. With a quick look round to ensure that the kittens hadn’t followed her, she shut the door to the sitting room and cautiously stepped outside.

Quay Street ran down towards the river and the sea, and the east wind surged up it in a flurry of stinging sleet. Jenna turned her back on it and strode up the hill towards the centre of the town. She wasn’t looking forward to the walk back, but if the cafe was open she could get a warming cup of tea to fortify her.

Unfortunately it wasn't, and a sign informed her that it was closed until next week, due to staff holidays. She went into the shop, remembering that she might need some more kitten food, and put some pouches and a carton of biscuits into her basket. As she paused by the newspapers, debating whether to treat herself to a magazine to read later, a familiar voice hailed her. “Ah, Jenna! I thought it was you!”

She turned, and saw the formidable figure of Paula Woodman emerging from behind the shelves of cereals. “Hi,” she said, aware that she could have sounded more enthusiastic. “How are you?”

“Could be better,” said Paula. Her basket held several wrapped items from the deli counter, an expensive bottle of wine, and several tins which looked as though they might be rice pudding. Jenna wondered if they might be for John: Paula didn’t really seem like a rice pudding sort of person. “It’s the cold,” the other woman continued. “Horrible day, absolutely horrible, but then it’s January, so I suppose we should be thankful that the snow doesn’t actually seem to be lying. Oh,” she added, looking at the contents of Jenna’s basket, “I didn’t know you had a cat.”

“Two, actually,” said Jenna. “Kittens, brother and sister.”

“Ah.” Paula managed to imbue the single syllable with a complex wealth of meaning. “Never had cats, myself – allergic. Now, you haven’t forgotten book group, have you?”

“No, I haven’t,” said Jenna, who had completely forgotten it right up to the moment when she saw Paula approaching. “Next Wednesday, at yours, and it’s Bleak House. Which I won’t have had time to read,” she added, wishing to make this salient point quite clear.

“That doesn’t matter, the more the merrier, just come along. Splendid, so glad you could make it, I’ll see you then,” said Paula, and sailed majestically off to the checkout. Jenna retreated to the furthest corner of the shop and took an unwonted interest in the shelves of nappies and baby milk until a ting from the door indicated that Mrs. Woodman had left, whereupon she returned to the newspapers, chose a magazine and a couple of loaves, a nice one for the bread bin and a sliced wholemeal for the freezer, and went to pay.

“Hi,” said the girl on the checkout. She was about Rosie’s age, with a nose stud, a tattooed, vaguely Celtic pattern just visible above the neckline of her uniform, and bleached hair strained back into a pony tail. “Are you on holiday?”

“No,” Jenna told her, with a touch of pride. “I live here. Down on Quay Street.”

“In one of them holiday cottages?” said the girl. “Thought I hadn’t seen you before.” She rang up the cat food, bread and the magazine with expert speed. “You want to watch Mrs. Woodman,” she added, with a wink. “If you don’t join her book group she’ll have you any way she can – WI, Museum Committee, Orford in Bloom, you name it. That’ll be twelve pounds fifty five, please.”

Well aware that she was paying a considerable premium for the convenience of doing her shopping five minutes’ walk up the road, Jenna handed over a twenty pound note and received her change. As she went to the door, her phone sounded, and she gave the surprised checkout girl a wry grin before going outside to answer it, in a gust of icy wind. She’d seen it was from Marcus and didn’t want to be overheard. “Hi!”

“Hi! Just wanted to say that I’ve booked the table.” Marcus’s voice sounded so close and loud she involuntarily looked round, expecting to see him standing next to her, but there wasn’t anyone in sight.

“Great,” she said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “When for?”

“Friday, half past seven. I’ll call round five minutes beforehand, we can walk down together.”

Jenna opened her mouth to protest, and then stopped. There was no reason why she should object to this, but she would have preferred to meet him at the pub. “That’s fine,” she said, thinking that he was probably the sort of man who came over all protective at the thought of a grown woman on her own in a licensed bar. “I’ll see you then. Look forward to it.”

“So will I,” he said, more warmly than she found comfortable. “See you on Friday! Bye.”

She walked back to the cottage, so wrapped in her thoughts that she hardly noticed the wind stinging her face. He seemed very keen – too keen. It would be sensible, and kind, to tell him that she wasn’t interested in a relationship, not for the foreseeable future. Friendship, yes, she could deal with that: it was what she had rediscovered with Fran, that comfortable, easy relationship which didn’t presume (or not too much) and was founded on mutual liking and respect, not to mention a shared history. Of course she didn’t have any history with Marcus – you couldn’t really spend a whole evening reminiscing about the time Sammy gave him a cold shower – and she hardly knew him: they’d only met twice. The thought of getting better acquainted was not unpleasant, though she’d already noted that he seemed slightly lacking in the sense of humour department. Or maybe he wasn’t at all, just lacking in her sense of humour, which had always been slightly left-field thanks to Nanna May.

Nanna May. It was five months since her death, and Jenna still felt an acute sense of loss. She could have discussed her dilemma with her grandmother, something which would have been impossible with Patricia, or even with Saskia (‘I never turn down a personable single man, darling, they’re like hen’s teeth at our age.’). And Nanna May, with her forthright opinions and the wisdom of ninety-five eventful and sometimes scandalous years, would have understood.

She’d also have told Jenna to stand up for herself and be more assertive, to stop hiding her light. And that was something that she fully intended to do. Just by moving here, and beginning a new life, she had taken her future into her own hands rather than Rick’s, or her mother’s, or even Saskia’s. And, of course, there was her new job, however long it might last, not to mention the research on the casket to think about: she was still excited at having taken the female line back another generation. With all this, she didn’t want the complications and turbulence that embarking on a new relationship would inevitably bring. It was bad enough trying to keep the kittens in order.

With a grin, Jenna let herself into the welcoming warmth of her cottage, made herself another sandwich and a cup of tea, and settled down on the sofa with her laptop. Artemis and Apollo had curled up together in front of the wood burner, looking deceptively innocent, and she took some pictures on her phone to send to Saskia, Rosie and the boys. Then she checked her emails. There was a message informing her that Tom and Joe had added another page to their blog, and another saying that someone calling themselves ‘OldBrit’ wanted to be her friend on Facebook. Suspecting a Saskia wind-up, she deleted it, and spent the next half hour happily looking at the twins’ photos of their latest exploits, snorkelling off the Queensland coast. “And we actually saw a Great White!” Joe had commented, next to a picture of a large expanse of impossibly blue ocean, punctuated by a very small but sinister fin in the far distance. “Are we bovvered? No way!”

Jenna considered what their reaction might be if she messaged them with strict instructions never ever to go into the water if there was the slightest prospect of sharing it with a ton of top predator, and decided on a more passive-aggressive approach. “Glad to see it’s a long way off!” she typed into the comments box. “Stay safe, guys!” They’d just dismiss her concerns as Mum-being-fussy, but at least she’d tried. And although Joe threw himself into everything with gusto (Nanna May had always referred to him as ‘Gung-ho Joe’), both the boys had a cautious streak and she hoped that, despite the air of testosterone-fuelled bravado, they wouldn’t take unnecessary risks. She had tried her best not to worry, but the fact that they were so far away didn’t help.

For the rest of the afternoon, she surfed the internet, looking at her mother’s cruise liner, which seemed fabulous even if it did look like a vast white brick sitting on top of the sea – as impossibly blue in the company’s photos as it was in Tom’s pictures of the Pacific – and at the website for Andrew’s shop. She also looked up the photographer whose picture she had bought – she’d already measured it for a frame, and propped it up on the bookshelf so that she could study it. Claire Stephens proved to be a woman of about her own age, to judge by the picture of her on her home page, and as well as a gallery of her work, which was beautiful, there were also details of the classes she ran, on both the creative and technical aspects of photography. Jenna stared at them, a sudden sense of possibilities surging inside her. She hadn’t done anything artistic since school, apart from working with her pupils, but she had always wanted to create something. She couldn’t draw, had never potted, she hadn’t the talent for needlework that the mysterious MJ had possessed, but photography was different, it required no particular skills or draughtsmanship, but an eye for possibilities and potential, and a flair for composition and design. And she had a nice camera, a digital SLR, that Rick had bought her a couple of Christmases ago after a particularly successful year – had it been the product of a guilty conscience? she wondered now – and which currently sat, unused and neglected, in a box in the understairs cupboard, because it was just so much easier and simpler to take quick snaps on her mobile.

On impulse, she emailed her details to Claire Stephens. There might not be any suitable courses running at present, but it was something she could wait for, and they weren’t expensive. Taking up a new hobby would be one more strand in the new tapestry she was beginning to weave for herself, one that was more intricate, more brightly coloured and above all more fun than what had gone before. Then she found the camera in its hiding place, took the manual out of the box – it was as thick as a small paperback – and began to study it with a sense of rising anticipation.

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