Olivia skidded into a rut and stalled. Even with headlights blazing and wipers at full pelt, she couldn’t see a bat in the blizzard. It was beyond terrifying. Was this even a road?
Heart jumping, she started the engine and shunted out of the pothole. According to the sat-nav she should be on top of the village. But the world was a white swirl of nothing.
Then eyes! Bright eyes looming through the snow. Staring right at her. She jammed on the brakes. Someone whistled and a dog lolloped past. Jesus! She’d nearly run it over. An old man appeared and grabbed its collar, yanking it back as he pointed an angry finger in her direction.
How was it her fault? His dog had run in front of her car, scaring her out of her wits. She jabbed at the button for the window.
“Your crazy dog has a death wish!”
“Takes one to know one. Driving in this lot? In a fancy car like that?”
He kept on trudging through the snow. Was he joking?
“Excuse me, could you wait a minute? I’m trying to get to Willow Cottage.”
The man turned back and adjusted the peak of his flat cap. “You sure?”
“What do you mean? This is the way to Havenwood Village?”
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Cottage is down that way. If you fall in the beck, you’ve gone too far. Probably freeze to death before you drown.”
Her stomach churned. “What’s a beck?”
“Where did you say you were from?” He said this like he meant which planet. “It’s a stream on a quiet day. Bit uppity at the minute with all this weather. Best be careful.”
“I didn’t know there’d be water.”
“Always water where there’s willows.”
She’d never given much thought to the name of the cottage. She just wanted to get there in one piece.
“Is it far?”
Whatever he meant to say was lost on the wind as his feet slipped from under him. She dashed out to help him, cursing her spiky boots which threatened to bring her down on top of him. As he clasped her arm to heave himself up, she recoiled from the stench of wet dog. The thing was huge. Did it have to sit there panting like that?
“Are you alright?” she asked.
The old man grunted a cursory thank-you as he patted the snow off his overcoat. “Nothing broken.”
“Can I take you somewhere?”
“I can walk quicker.”
He let go of her, gruff rather than grateful. After a few tentative steps, he turned back, a fraction more amenable.
“Pub along by serves good roast dinners. You won’t taste better for many a mile. Get in the warm if I were you. Wait it out.”
“No thanks. I need to push on.”
“Suit yourself. Be seeing you soon enough, no doubt.”
What did he mean by that? There was no way she’d wimp out when she’d come this far. But he was already out of sight, swallowed up by the blizzard that made everything look so alien.
She gritted her teeth and set off again. The wheels screeched and spun, snow churning onto the windscreen as the car lurched forwards. How could an old man walk faster than she could drive? Damn sporty car! The tiniest touch of gas and the back end slewed across the bumpy road. Anything coming the other way and she’d be roadkill herself, never mind the dog.
The lane veered sharply to the left. She made the turn, hunched over the wheel, wary of the uppity stream he’d warned her about. She hated water. Couldn’t even swim. What had possessed her to bid for a cottage near a beck?
She inched past an abandoned church, its ancient spire stark against the blackened sky. Then houses, thank God! Squat little cottages, huddled around a green shrouded in snow. It might be pretty on a summer’s day, if you liked that sort of thing. She didn’t fancy living in any of them. They all had rustic plaques with obscure names. Hadn’t they heard of street numbers? Which one might be Willow Cottage? There was nothing that looked like a willow tree.
Her phone sliced through the silence. Reluctantly, she tapped the screen on her dashboard.
“Olivia, I’m outside your flat and I’m freezing to death,” Beth said. “I hope you didn’t go running in this weather? I brought bacon rolls.”
Her stomach growled at the thought of hot bacon. She’d done without breakfast in her rush to get away. She squeezed the brakes and slid to an untidy stop. How could she admit being lost in the middle of nowhere without sounding like an airhead?
“I didn’t go for a run,” she said. “I moved out.”
“Since when? I only spoke to you yesterday.”
Beth was more hurt than she’d expected. It was a relief they weren’t speaking face-to-face.
“I only made up my mind this morning. Sorry I didn’t have time to tell you. It was a total whim.”
“You don’t do whims, Olivia. What’s going on?”
“I decided not to renew the lease on my flat. I have this lovely cottage, sitting empty. My accountant persuaded me ages ago it would be a good investment but I never did anything with it. It’s rent free so I’m moving in while I look for another job.”
“Sounds very sudden.”
“Turns out I’m suddenly broke.” She took a deep breath, unconvinced by her own breezy response. “I took my eye off the ball but it shouldn’t take long to get fixed up.”
“I would’ve asked you to stay at mine.”
Even on the phone, she could tell Beth was upset at being kept in the dark. But in truth, the last thing she’d wanted was to advertise what she was doing. It was all such an embarrassing come-down she’d been desperate to get it over with. She glued a smile to her face, hoping it would make her voice sound more up-beat.
“Thanks for the offer. But I’ll be fine in my cottage. I’m almost on the doorstep,” she insisted, as much for her own benefit as for Beth’s. “Come at the weekend, when I’ve settled in. I’ll text you directions.”
“Only if you promise to call me later and let me know you got there.”
As Beth rang off, not entirely persuaded, Olivia was swamped by loneliness. There wasn’t a soul on the wretched excuse for a road. Snow had banked like a wave up the towering stone wall that loomed to one side. She crawled past a pair of rusted gates, jammed open by pallets of building supplies. The grand house, undignified and forlorn, was masked by a tower of scaffolding. Havenwood Hall, presumably. Not the most promising introduction.
The next bend gave onto a red brick building, with lights like beacons in the gable end windows. A wooden sign creaked in the wind. The Havenwood Tavern. How very original! But the old man had mentioned hot food and she was ravenous.
The car hit a crater with an ominous crunch. Heart sinking, she got out to inspect the damage. Marvellous! Now she had a puncture. She kicked the tyre in frustration and slipped. Her heel broke with a woeful crack. Her favourite boots ruined, on top of everything else.
She hauled herself up by the wing mirror, half expecting it to snap off in her hand. Then she took a deep breath and limped inside to face her dismal future.
Nathan had eaten an epic roast beef dinner and was keen to get home while the lane was still passable. But Bob had mentioned some mad woman in a swanky car, hell-bent on driving to Willow Cottage. They didn’t get many strangers, especially in an unseasonable April blizzard. Odds-on she was going to need digging out.
When the door creaked open, the dozen or so diners all turned to gawp at her. Her black jeans and quilted jacket were wet down one side. She must’ve fallen in the snow. She flicked her dark hair behind one ear as she limped over to the bar. A busted heel, by the looks of it. Not that surprising. Sexy boots like those weren’t made for snow.
Rufus trotted over to give her a sniff. She snatched her hand away, looking terrified. Nathan grabbed the dog’s collar and scooted him back to Katie, doing her jigsaw on the rug by the roaring log fire.
“Don’t mind him. He’s a sweetheart, just curious.”
“We’ve already met. I think he wants me for lunch.”
Rufus would prefer more meat on the bone. But skinny or not, those striking blue eyes looked near to tears, however determined she was not to show it. Conversation had dried up as everyone pretended not to listen.
“You’re soaked,” he said. “Are you hurt?”
“Only my pride.” Then she spotted Bob wiping glasses behind the bar. “Hello again,” she said, as if it wasn’t much of a pleasure. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine, love. It’s you needs looking after. Not sure I should let you into my bar, though, since you almost flattened my dog.”
“I believe you invited me.”
Nathan leaned against the back of his chair, weighing her up. What was that all about? Not finding Bob’s teasing funny, she stood like a deer caught in headlights, still trying not to cry. He’d never seen eyes that dark, almost purple.
“This joker’s Bob Martin. I’m Nathan Swift.”
She cleared her throat, pulling herself together. “Olivia Wilding.”
She let him shake hands. She was freezing.
“Can I get you a drink?”
“Hot coffee would be lovely. Thank you.”
“Have it on the house,” Bob said. “Sorry for joshing with you, love. I’ll get you a bite to go with it.”
Bob disappeared to the kitchen and the hum of conversation started again. Nathan pulled out a chair and invited her to sit down. There were things he needed to know. He had a bad feeling about her.
“Bob said you were having bother with your car?”
“It got worse. Flat tyre.”
“Need help to fix it?”
“No intentions of trying in this weather. Thanks anyway. Could you point me in the direction of the ladies room?”
She came back without her wet jacket. Her sweater skimmed rounded breasts at odds with the skinniness of the rest of her. Boob job, maybe? But no point wandering off in that direction until he found out what she was up to. She had trouble written all over her.
“You picked a bad day to come visiting,” he said, over-casual even to his own ears.
“What makes you think I’m visiting? I’m moving into Willow Cottage today.”
She had to be joking. The cottage had stood empty for ages. If the place had been fixed up for renting, he’d have heard. He hated the thought of a neighbour intruding on his space.
“Check the place over before you signed on the bottom line?”
“It can’t have changed that much since I bought it. How far is it, anyway?”
“You’re saying you bought it and you don’t even know where it is?”
Her scowl took on a haughty air. “How would that be your business?”
He was squeezing the life out of Donna’s red pepper mill as resentment boiled in his gut. He put it back on the table, making a production of brushing the pepper dust onto the floor while he weighed up what to say next.
“I live in Hazel Cottage, next door,” he told her. “I tried to buy Willow Cottage. But some moron with more money than sense paid way over the odds and outbid me.”
“Who are you calling a moron?” she gasped. “I had excellent advice.”
Not that excellent, it would seem. But was it down to him to tell her?
Then Donna appeared with a tray, all blonde domestic goddess swamped in a butcher’s apron. The two women sized each other up. Donna cracked first, but kindly. She wouldn’t know how to be anything else.
“The old man said you needed hot food. Get this down you.”
Olivia looked daggers at the heaped plate. Probably never seen a roast dinner in her life. Her type existed on diet pills and vegan smoothies. Donna hovered to oversee operations. She didn’t like her cooking going to waste.
To his surprise, Olivia caved and plucked cutlery from the tin on the table. By the way she got stuck in, she was clearly famished. How long had she been on the road? And why had she pitched up unannounced? The cottage had been sold months ago.
She was running away from something. He’d put money on it. He knew all about running away. But he was settled now. And the last thing he needed was a neighbour disturbing his hard won peace.
Donna was loitering, fiddling with the tulips in the little red vase, impatient to be brought up to speed.
“Olivia bought Willow Cottage.”
“Good luck with that!”
Olivia laid down her knife and fork. He wondered if she did everything so precisely.
“Maybe you could both do the neighbourly thing and help me move my stuff?”
“You can’t mean today?” Donna scoffed. “The state of it!”
“It can’t be that bad.”
“The place needs gutting,” he told her. There was no way to soften the blow. “The roof’s a wreck. It isn’t safe.”
“But I saw the pictures in the auction catalogue.”
“Years out of date. Most people view in person before they put in a bid.”
She crumpled in the chair as the fight seeped out of her. On balance, he preferred the feisty version, even if she’d seemed capable of scratching his eyes out. He had to lean forward to hear what she said next.
“I have to move in,” she insisted. “I’ve got nowhere else to go.”