Aloud, she said, ‘No I hadn’t heard, but I’m very sorry.’
Fiona Culham shrugged. ‘Well, don’t be, please. It was a hideous mistake, but you can’t win them all.’
The hideous mistake—an enormous London wedding to the wealthy heir to a stately home, with minor royalty present—had been plastered all over the newspapers, and featured in celebrity magazines. The bride, described as radiant, had apparently been photographed before she saw the error of her ways.
‘A little long-distance excitement for us all,’ the Vicar had remarked, at the time, laying his morning paper aside. He sighed. ‘And I can quite see why Holy Trinity, Hazelton Magna, would not have done for the ceremony.’
And just as well, Tavy thought now, knowing how seriously her father took the whole question of marriage, and how grieved he became when relationships that had started out with apparent promise ended all too soon on the rocks.
She cleared her throat. ‘It must be very stressful for you. Are you back for a holiday?’
‘On the contrary,’ Fiona returned. ‘I’m back for good.’ She looked Tavy over, making her acutely aware that some of her auburn hair had escaped from its loose topknot and was hanging in damp tendrils round her face. She also knew that her T-shirt and department store cut-offs had been examined, accurately priced and dismissed.
Whereas Fiona’s sleek chignon was still immaculate, her shirt was a silk rainbow, and if Stella McCartney made designer jeans, that’s what she’d be wearing.
‘So,’ the other continued. ‘What errand of mercy are you engaged with today? Visiting the sick, or alms for the poor?’
‘Delivering the village newsletter,’ Tavy told her expressionlessly.
‘What a dutiful daughter, and no time off for good behaviour.’ Fiona let in the clutch and engaged gear. ‘No doubt I’ll see you around. And I really wouldn’t spend any more time in this sun, Octavia. You look as if you’ve reached melting point already.’
Tavy watched the car disappear round a bend in the lane, and wished it would enter one of those time zones where people mysteriously vanished, to reappear nicer and wiser people years later.
Though no amount of time bending would improve Fiona, the spoiled only child of rich parents, she thought. It was Fiona who’d made the skinny red-haired kid remark, while Tavy was helping with the tombola at a garden party at White Gables, her parents’ home.
Norton Culham had married the daughter of a millionaire, and her money had helped him buy a rundown dairy farm in Hazelton Parva and transform it into a major horse breeding facility.
Success had made him wealthy, but not popular. Tolerant people said he was a shrewd businessman. The less charitable said he was a miserable, mean-spirited bastard. And his very public refusal to contribute as much as a penny to the proposed restoration fund for Holy Trinity, the village’s loved but crumbling Victorian church had endeared him to no one. Neither had his comment that Christianity was an outdated myth.
‘It’s a free country. He can think what he likes, same as the rest of us,’ said Len Hilton who ran the pub. ‘But there’s no need to bellow it at the Vicar.’ And he added an uncomplimentary remark about penny-pinching weasels.
But no pennies had ever been pinched where Fiona was concerned, thought Tavy. After she’d left one of England’s most expensive girls’ schools, there’d been a stint in Switzerland learning cordon bleu cookery, among other skills that presumably did not include being pleasant to social inferiors.
However, Fiona had been right about one thing, she thought, easing her T-shirt away from her body as she remounted her bike. She was indeed melting. However there was a cure for that, and she knew where to find it.
Accordingly when she reached a fork in the lane a few hundred yards further on, she turned left, a route which would take her past the high stone wall which encircled the grounds of Ladysmere Manor.
As she reached the side gate, hanging sadly off its hinges, she saw that the faded ‘For Sale’ sign had fallen off and was lying in the long grass. Dismounting, Tavy picked it up and propped it carefully against the wall. Not that it would do much good, she acknowledged with a sigh.
The Manor had been on the market and standing empty and neglected for over three years now, ever since the death of Sir George Manning, a childless widower. His heir, a distant cousin who lived in Spain with no intention of returning, simply arranged for the contents to be cleared and auctioned, then, ignoring the advice of the agents Abbot and Co, put it up for sale at some frankly astronomical asking price.