‘Welcome to Mallow Court,’ I say, my smile a little forced. It’s a week since the Churchley-Thursley wedding debacle, and I’ve yet to put it fully behind me. Though Mrs Fairchild has made no noises about sacking me, I have an irritating gnaw inside me that won’t go away. Have I put everything into my job at Mallow Court to avoid focusing on my own future? Is my life nothing more than a house of cards waiting to topple over?
‘I hope you’ll enjoy today’s tour through one of the loveliest Elizabethan houses in the South East.’ I make eye contact with a few members of the American tour group. ‘The house was built in 1604 by a wealthy wool merchant who was also—’
Someone’s phone goes off. I stop my spiel, waiting patiently (if a little pained) for a short bald man in a green bowling shirt to dig around his pocket, find his phone, take it out, squint at the name on the screen – and then, instead of muting it, answer it with a loud southern drawl: ‘Hi honey, how are the kids?’
A few people scowl in his direction, and someone has the nerve to laugh.
He keeps on talking. ‘Yeah, we’re seeing some old house now.’
I clear my throat, glowering at him. He raises a pudgy hand like he’ll only be a second.
When I first started working at Mallow Court, I wrote the script for the tours and gave them all myself. Now, however, there are two other full time guides. Usually for me, giving tours is a welcome break from admin and management, and I enjoy meeting people who are interested in the house. But lately, I’ve been struggling to maintain my enthusiasm.
‘Before I continue,’ I say as I wave the others forward into the library, ‘I’d like to get a few ground rules straight. First, can I ask that you please put your phones on mute…’
Thus follows a good thirty seconds of grumbling, rustling, digging, and beeping.
The man on the phone finally hangs up and rejoins the group. ‘Sorry folks,’ he says.
I ignore his apology while the last of the phones go back into pockets and handbags. An elderly man in a Red Sox baseball cap takes advantage of the chaos to remove his chewing gum from his mouth, and stick it firmly to the bottom of a carved oak table.
‘Also,’ I say, my voice unnaturally high, ‘I’d like to remind you that there’s no eating or drinking inside the house.’
The old man grins at me through gapped front teeth, and pops another tab of Orbit into his mouth. I sigh. Next to him, a pear-shaped lady in a ‘Go ahead, make my day’ T-shirt raises her hand.
‘But there’s a tea room, right? That’s what the bus driver said. I want to buy some of that organic marmalade stuff for my daughter-in-law. And some artistic beer for me!’
‘Of course. The tour will end at the tearoom and gift shop. Now, if we—’
Another woman raises her hand. ‘And where’s the ladies room? The bathroom on the bus was just so stinky…’ She shifts from side to side, managing to look desperate.
‘Outside to the left. And now, please can you hold your questions so we can start the tour? I promise I’ll answer them as we go along.’
Another hand shoots up.
‘Or at the end,’ I say pointedly. ‘Now, as I was saying…’
I gloss over the dates and identities of pale-faced subjects of old portraits. Lots of people who come to visit the house are interested in those things, but there’s no use pretending that everyone is. Instead, I skip to the fun part.
‘You might be interested to know about the current owner of the house – Mrs Catherine Fairchild. Her father, Frank Bolton, was known as “the Knicker King”.’ I smile as a few people whisper amongst themselves. ‘His company was famous for British-made ladies underwear in the 1950s and 60s.’
There are a few sniggers now. It’s the same with most groups, even the erudite ones.
‘He was the first man in Britain to mass-produce the double gusset.’ I say. ‘For those of you who don’t know what that is…’ I raise my eyebrows mischievously, ‘it’s the business end of the knicker.’
Full on laughter now as this new information is considered and underwear jokes are ‘cracked’.
The ice now broken, I move the group along to the billiard room. As I’m doing so, I come face to face with a tall, light-brown-haired man that I didn’t notice before who must have been standing at the back. He’s much younger than the rest – early-thirties, maybe. Instead of passing, he stops and looks me in the eye. His are the most delicious shade of chocolate brown that I’ve ever seen. An unexpected rush of heat shoots down my body.
‘Umm,’ I gabble, ‘the next room is the billiard room.’ Like that’s not completely obvious (given the enormous green baize billiard table that’s taking up pretty much the entire room).
I stumble through my description of how the game differs from pool, all the while aware of him watching me and listening intently. As I’m about ready to move the group on, he raises his hand.
About Lauren Westwood
Originally from California, Lauren relocated to England in 2000. She works as a lawyer for a renewable energy company. Laure’s first novel, ‘Finding Home’ was inspired by her family’s 3-year search for a house that made them the bane of home county estate agents. She currently resides in a pernickety 400-year old house in Surrey with her partner and their three daughters. She enjoys travel, visiting old houses, baking with her daughters, dance, playing piano, and hates tennis.
About Finding Secrets
A country house, a precious jeweled locket, and a puzzle dating back to the London Blitz and Imperial Russia. Utterly captivating, a fantastic romance from beginning to end. Perfect for the fans of Carole Matthews and Milly Johnson.
Alex Hart loves her dream job as manager of Mallow Court, a historic Elizabethan house, even if her friends think she needs to get out more. But a discovery in the pocket of an old coat – a jewelled mechanical locket shaped like a bird – changes everything, and Alex discovers that things are not as they seem.
From an old diary, to a handsome barrister, a mysterious clockmaker, and the darkest hours of the London Blitz, Alex must follow the trail of the jewelled bird to uncover the truth about the things she holds dearest – and someone is determined not to let sleeping dogs lie!
Only by finding the secrets of the past can Alex find the keys to her future – and her heart.
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Lauren’s previous book, Finding Home is out now:
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