It was a strange mixture of a house. Part of it was said to date from Jacobean times, but since then successive generations had added, knocked down, and rebuilt, leaving barely a trace of the original dwelling.
Sir George had been a kindly, expansive man, glad to throw his grounds open to the annual village fête and allow the local Scouts and Guides to camp in his woodland, and whose Christmas parties were legendary.
But without him, it became very quickly a vacant and overpriced oddity, as his cousin refused point blank to offer the same hospitality.
At first, there’d been interest in the Manor. Someone was said to want it for a conference centre. A chain of upmarket nursing homes had made an actual offer. A hotel group was mentioned and there were even rumours of a health spa.
But the cousin in Spain obstinately refused to lower his asking price or consider offers, and gradually the viewings petered out and stopped, reducing the Manor from its true place as the hub of the village to the status of white elephant.
Tavy had always loved the house, her childish imagination transforming its eccentricities into a place of magic, like an enchanted castle.
Now, as she squeezed round the gate and began to pick her way through the overgrown jungle that had once been a garden, she thought sadly that it would take not just magic but a miracle to bring the Manor back to life.
Over the tangle of bushes and shrubs, she could see the pale shimmering green of the willows that bordered the lake. At the beginning, volunteers from the village had come and cleared the weeds from the water, as well as mowing the grass and cutting back the vegetation in front of the house, but an apologetic letter from Abbot and Co explaining that there was no insurance cover for accidents had put a stop to that.
But the possibility of weeds was no deterrent for Tavy. She’d encountered them before in previous summers when the temperature soared, and all that mattered was the prospect of cool water against her heated skin. And because she always had the lake to herself, she never had to bother with a swimsuit.
It had become a secret pleasure, not to be indulged too often, of course, but doing no harm to anyone. In a way, she felt as if her occasional presence was a reassurance to the house that it had not been entirely forgotten.
And nor was the Lady, who’d been there for nearly three hundred years, and therefore must find all these recent months very dull without company, standing naked on her plinth looking down at the water, one white marble arm concealing her breasts, her other hand chastely covering the junction of her thighs.
Tavy had always been thankful that the statue hadn’t been sent to the saleroom, along with Sir George’s wonderful collection of antique musical boxes, and his late wife’s beautifully furnished Victorian doll’s house.
You had a lucky escape there, Aphrodite or Helen of Troy, or whoever you’re supposed to be, she said under her breath as she took off her clothes, putting them neatly on the plinth before unclipping her hair. Because the lake wouldn’t be the same without you.
The water wasn’t just cool, it was very cold, and Tavy gasped as she took her first cautious steps from the sloping bank. As she waded in more deeply, the first shock wore off, the chill becoming welcome, until with a small sigh of pleasure, she submerged completely.
Above her, she could see the sun on the water in a dazzle of green and gold and she pushed up towards it, throwing her head back as she lifted herself above the surface in one graceful joyous burst.
And found herself looking at darkness. A black pillar against the sun where there should only have been blanched marble.
She lifted her hands, almost frantically dragging her hair back from her face, and rubbing water from the eyes that had to be playing tricks with her.
But she wasn’t hallucinating. Because the darkness was real. Flesh and blood. A man, his tall, broad-shouldered, lean-hipped body emphasised by the close-fitting black T-shirt and pants he was wearing, who’d appeared out of nowhere like some mythical Dark Lord, and who was now standing in front of the statue watching her.
‘Who the hell are you?’ Shock cracked her voice. ‘And what are you doing here?’
‘How odd. I was about to ask you the same.’ A low-pitched voice, faintly husky, its drawl tinged with amusement.
‘I don’t have to answer to you.’ Realising with horror that her breasts were visible, she sank down hastily, letting the water cover everything but her head and shoulders. ‘This is private property and you’re trespassing.’
‘Then that makes two of us.’ He was smiling openly now, white teeth against the tanned skin of a thin tough face. Dark curling hair that needed cutting. A wristwatch probably made from some cheap metal and a silver belt buckle providing the only relief from all that black. ‘And I wonder which of us is the most surprised.’