‘Well guys? What do you think?’
Eighteen year old Jess Hayden stood back, buried her hands in the pockets of her weatherproof jacket and stared at the leaded windows and whitewashed walls of the building in front of her. Beside her, his arm slung loosely around her shoulder, the current love of her life Zac Rayner nodded, a light wind ruffling his untidy blond hair. ‘Yeah,’ he added his approval with a grin, ‘a country pub with great character; love it.’
After a moment’s contemplation, Jess leaned her head into his shoulder, feeling his fingers creep under the curl of her hair and gently stroke the skin at the nape of her neck. Sneaking an affectionate arm around his waist, she gave him a hug before looking in the direction of her uncle, the man who had pitched the original question. ‘I agree,’ she said with an affirming nod, ‘it’s perfect.’
Out of the corner of her eye she noticed her father, his dark eyes also on the building. Burying his face in the warmth of his scarf he gave a thin smile. ‘Ah Rufus, once again it seems you’ve successfully secured the adolescent vote,’ he said in the kind of indulgent, condescending manner she felt sure would be followed by a ruffle of their hair. ‘But seriously brother, from an adult perspective, do you really think you’re cut out to run a pub?’
Jess gritted her teeth; obviously the “adolescent” opinion mattered very little to Leo Hayden. She also realised any reaction to this put down would give her father a legitimate excuse for some smart response and the whole thing would turn into a war of words. No way was she going to allow him to spoil her uncle’s day, not when he had taken the trouble to bring them all here to look at his new business: The Black Bull Inn in the small south Devon village of Lynbrook.
As an only child, Jess would have given anything to have had a sibling; a brother or sister – someone she could be close to and share things with. It appeared, however, her father had no need of companionship in his life. Her earliest memories of him were of a serious, humourless man with a job that took him overseas for most of the year. When he came home in between contracts he hardly bothered with her, unlike the fathers of her school friends who took them on day drips or showed an interest in their school work or hobbies. She had never heard him praise her, been cuddled or experienced his warm kiss on her cheek as she was tucked into bed. Of course not; how could she have when all his energies were taken up with making sure her mother’s needs were catered for? Living on the edge of this exclusive relationship, at times Jess felt relegated to a human version of Fritz, the family’s long haired daschund; although from memory her father seemed to have made more fuss of the dog.
As time went on she learned to accept his indifference. Thankfully, his stays were short and once he returned to Saudi, or wherever the latest construction project for his civil engineering company was located, her mother tried in a somewhat half-hearted way to make up for his inattentiveness. Materially she wanted for nothing but emotionally her mother appeared as neglectful as her father, with a full social life that often found her absent from home. With no family members living close enough to their home in the small south Devon coastal resort of Milton Bay to step in and look after her, Jess became used to regular sleepovers with friends or being looked after by neighbours. Therefore, when the much younger Jack DeLauro walked into her mother’s life and she walked out of theirs, the impact of the emotional loss became secondary to the concern about what would now become of her.
Rufus, her father’s younger brother, immediately stepped into the void, looking after her while she waited for her father to return to the UK. Before that moment he had been very much on the edge of their lives, only turning up for family occasions like birthdays and Christmases. The handsome professional bachelor had been more interested in building a successful business than settling down with a wife and family. Jess had always been fond of him; kind-hearted and comical he made her laugh.
However, if she had thought things might change between her and her father she was mistaken. He had greeted his abandoned daughter with the same cold and aloof manner he always reserved for her, making it clear his work would continue to keep him abroad. On hearing the news, Rufus immediately offered to have Jess come and live with him but Leo fiercely opposed this. Not only did he consider his brother’s lifestyle totally at odds with child rearing, he felt him too irresponsible. So instead she became a boarder at St Ursula’s, the expensive private school she attended two miles north of Milton Bay. She dreaded the end of term, knowing almost certainly her father’s return for the Easter holidays would mean she would be sharing the house with an icy stranger. However Leo, now involved in a major shopping mall build in the Emirates, sent word via her headmistress to say he had decided not to return until the project had been completed. All of a sudden it appeared Leo no longer considered Rufus an irresponsible workaholic after all and Jess found herself handed into his care for the foreseeable future.
Five years younger and with the same thick, black hair and dark eyes as his brother, kind, fun-loving Rufus was the antithesis of her father and a strong emotional bond soon developed between them. Returning to the UK almost three years later with the surprise addition of a new wife, Leo, in his normal arrogant way, seemed to think he could simply dismiss his brother and take over. By this time, however, an unbreakable bond had developed between Rufus and Jess. And that, she decided, was when her father’s vindictiveness had begun.
She watched as her uncle deliberately ignored his older brother’s negative jibes, choosing instead to simply grin at Jess. ‘Thank you for your endorsement, my lady.’ He gave a mock bow, much to Leo’s annoyance. ‘Now,’ he waved a hand towards the pub, ‘let me treat you all to a drink and a look at the interior.’
Slipping her hand in Zac’s, Jess felt the comforting squeeze of his fingers as they followed her stony-faced father and his cheerful brother across the car park towards the heavy, dark wooden door marked Lounge Bar. Inside they were greeted by the welcoming warmth of a fire, which soon banished the cold gloom of the February day outside. Walking across to the heavy stone fireplace and stretching out her hands to the warmth, Jess realised how tired the room looked. A coat of paint, new seating and carpeting were desperately needed but then, she reasoned, the need to refurbish had probably been part of the attraction for her uncle. He would never be the type to simply take a place like this over and run it. He would want to make changes; stamp his ownership on it.
‘I’ll give you a hand with the drinks,’ Zac offered, as Leo walked away and settled himself at a table in the window. At the bar an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with short blonde hair gave Rufus a warm smile of recognition. Switching her gaze to her father, Jess watched him as he slouched sulkily in the window seat, staring out into the car park. She knew he was probably working on some more choice words concerning the condition of the room they were in. Returning with the drinks Rufus and Zac settled themselves around Leo’s table. Jess joined them and after taking a mouthful of beer Rufus began talking about his plans.
Leo, whose attention still appeared to be drawn to something outside the window, turned and gave a tired sigh as he picked up his drink. His eyes skimmed over the well-worn carpet before coming to rest on his brother, and he gave a forbidding shake of his head. ‘Well, if the bar needs the kind of money this room requires spent on it, you’ll need deep pockets, Rufus. I hope you haven’t bitten off more than you can chew.’
‘Not at all.’ Rufus looked totally unconcerned, giving her father the sort of optimistic smile guaranteed to upset him. ‘In fact, what lies beyond that,’ he said, nodding in the direction of the connecting door, ‘is a traditional gem. I’ll take you all through when we’ve finished our drinks. Jess and Zac will love it, I’m sure, although you, Leo, will no doubt have something negative and scathing to say. But, as far as I’m concerned, it’s what gives the pub its personality. Take it from me, it would be criminal to change anything in there especially when there’s such a good flow of locals through the door. No,’ he continued, ignoring his brother’s persistent scowl, ‘changes require balance; this is the room needing the work. I can see it now; dining in here and the bar to remain as it is. And with the cricket in the summer…’
‘Cricket?’ Jess echoed.
‘Yes, the village has a successful cricket team. Didn’t you notice the pitch at the side of the pub when we arrived?’ As Jess shook her head he leaned closer to her and smiled. ‘There’s a community hall, too, at the end of the lane behind the pub. The village has a very active events committee, which means they’ll need…’
‘Catering,’ Jess supplied, knowing with all this potential, her uncle with his Midas touch, would make a great success of it.
An easy going individual with a natural aptitude for business, Rufus Hayden had started his career in catering and moved on to become one of the local kings of the fast food circuit. Of course he had never been a big player but, nevertheless, the business had thrived and had become very profitable, something reflected in the eventual sale price. Reaching forty, Rufus decided he wanted a career change and had purchased The Black Bull. Today had been about showing them this new project and outlining his vision.
She watched as her father drained his glass and set it on the table. Sitting back, he let his gaze run around the room once more, a pinched expression on his face. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I wish you luck, brother, because despite all your optimism I think you’re going to need it.’
‘Dad, stop it!’ Jess pushed her dark blonde hair off her face and glared at him. Despite her promise to herself to hold her tongue, she had run out of patience with her father’s nit-picking. The pressure of Zac’s hand around her wrist calmed her as she turned her attention to her uncle. ‘Ignore him,’ she said gently, ‘I think it’s wonderful and you have a natural gift with both people and business. I know they are going to love you here. It will be a great success.’ She finished her outburst with another angry frown in her father’s direction.
‘I believe it will be,’ Rufus agreed quietly, reaching across and patting her hand. Used to what at times he saw as his brother’s dog-in-a-manger attitude, he thanked God Jess didn’t have a scrap of his miserable meanness in her. He liked to think those years he had been responsible for her upbringing had helped mould her into the young woman sitting here today; one with no fear in her dark eyes as she took her father to task over his comments.
Dragging himself back to the present and noticing everyone had finished their drinks, he slapped his thigh and got to his feet. ‘Right,’ he said, deliberately fixing his confident smile on his sour faced brother, ‘now let me show you the bar.’
As he stopped to return their glasses, the barmaid reappeared and he took time to introduce her. Thirty-something divorcee, Sally Taylor, had run The Black Bull since its current owners had put the free house on the market. Sally, competent and organised, proved to be a bonus for Rufus, who although possessing a wealth of catering experience had much to learn about the life of a country publican. Despite seeing himself in a management role here, he wanted to be hands on too, but did not want to make Sally feel he was muscling in and changing things too quickly. For him, she was an essential part of the package.
Jess followed the others towards the back of the lounge and through a half-glass door where a narrow passageway led to the bar. She stopped and stared at this very different world they had stepped into. The large square room had a flagstone floor and scrub-topped tables; a wall of assorted sepia photographs giving it the atmosphere of a time long gone. To her left there was a huge stone fireplace similar to the one in the lounge, where flames licked greedily over thick, fat logs. Rufus had been right; it would be a huge mistake to change any of this.
Behind the copper edged bar, warm light glowed off the optics and the place buzzed with cheerful conversation – raised voices with the occasional burst of laughter and clink of glasses. Yes, this had all the ingredients of a comfortable, rural, social cocoon occupied by a mixture of wellington or boot-clad locals, most sporting wax jackets or sheepskin coats. Heads turned, conversations halted and glasses hovered halfway to mouths as the four emerged into the bar. A few eyed them curiously; others gave an acknowledging nod or verbal greeting to Rufus as they passed through. Although he had not yet taken over the pub, it appeared many already knew him. He stopped at the end of the bar for more introductions and another quick chat. After a few moments he stepped towards the door indicating they were about to leave and they departed to a flurry of raised hands and goodbyes.
‘I’m thinking of having a welcoming party,’ Rufus said, stopping to hunt for his keys as they crossed the car park. ‘I’ve decided it would be a great way to break the ice properly and for them to get to know me. They seem a friendly lot but I know how apprehensive villagers can be about change. But I’ll be bringing good change and I think it’s something they’ll realise when I’ve had a chance to tell them my plans.’
‘You be careful they don’t see you as a soft touch,’ Leo warned, somewhat smugly. ‘These country types can be crafty bastards.’
Jess held her tongue, blowing out an angry breath instead. She waited while Zac opened the rear door of her uncle’s Volvo Estate and then eagerly slipped inside. As he joined her and slammed the door, a maroon Land Rover Defender swept into the car park and pulled up next to them. A solid, middle-aged, balding man emerged from the driver’s seat. Dressed in overalls, a battered wax jacket and with mud-splattered wellingtons on his feet, he levered a worn, tweed cap onto the top of his halo of brown hair before raising a hand in greeting.
As he slammed the door, another younger figure materialised from the passenger seat. Tall, with thick, black, wind-teased hair falling untidily over his collar, he made such a compelling sight that Jess felt unable to tear her eyes away. Pulling on a well-worn wax jacket, he stood for a moment appraising the small group. His penetrating gaze settled on her father and uncle, making her aware of arched brows over smoky brown eyes and a firm mouth that angled slightly upwards at each corner – something that told her he probably owned a killer smile. The swathe of shadowy stubble which graced his jaw put the finishing touches to his dark gypsy looks, giving him the brooding quality of a Bronte hero.
The older man smiled and began a conversation with Rufus, who indicated her father to his right. Nodding a greeting to Leo, he then beckoned to his young colleague to join them. Farmers, Jess decided, noticing his dress mirrored the older man’s, although from the condition of the jumper he wore – which seemed more darns than garment – he resembled a…
‘What’s that? The local scarecrow?’ Zac’s warm breath on her cheek interrupted her thoughts as he leaned forward to whisper in her ear. ‘No, wait a minute, it’s a farm boy, isn’t it?’ He pressed his lips to her cheek and nuzzled her gently.
‘Scarecrow? Farm boy? That’s an appalling thing to say.’ She twisted her head to look at him.
‘Sorry,’ he said, in the kind of tone that indicated appeasement rather than apology, his lips briefly brushing hers.
Jess turned her face away from Zac and gazed out of the window only to find the subject of their conversation staring directly at them. For the briefest moment his eyes met hers, dark and expressionless. She attempted a smile but he simply drew a deep breath and turned away, a look of boredom on his face. No killer smile today then, she thought, feeling strangely disappointed as she watched him zip up his jacket. He said something to the older man before turning to make his way across the car park towards the pub. This seemed to draw Rufus’s conversation to a close and, with a friendly nod and a few parting words, the older man turned to follow his younger companion who now stood in the middle of the car park waiting for him.
‘Sorry for the delay,’ Rufus apologised, leaning back to look at Jess as he slipped behind the wheel and fastened his seat belt. ‘That’s George Selby; he farms on the edge of the village. Mostly dairy, some beef, and if you need a horse stabled he’s your man. His companion is Talún Hansen, he…’
‘A foreigner?’ Leo almost spat the words out as he climbed into the passenger seat. ‘Typical. Someone else here taking our jobs.’
‘Talún is English,’ came Rufus’s unusually sharp response. ‘He was born in this country. God, Leo, sometimes you are such a small minded bastard!’
Jess held her breath. Given the whole atmosphere of today’s outing, she guessed her normally easy-going uncle had at last run out of patience.
As Leo turned his head to respond, she noticed a slight pink stain had begun to creep into his cheeks. ‘Rufus…’ his tone, level and reprimanding held its normal condescending superiority, ‘…do you really think it’s appropriate to react quite so violently in front of Zac and Jess? Let’s not argue over such a trivial thing, eh?’
Rufus didn’t reply. Through the gap in the seat, Jess could see where his hands were gripping the steering wheel, his knuckles white as he backed the car out of the parking space. Leo expelled a harsh breath and tilted his head back against the headrest. Jess felt Zac’s hand sneak over hers, his interlocking fingers giving hers a reassuring squeeze. She returned his gesture with an uneasy smile as they began moving forward.
As the car passed George Selby, she saw him raise a hand in farewell. Beside him, Talún stood watching them, his hands deep in the pockets of his wax jacket. Exiting the car park, she took one last opportunity to glance back at the pub, noticing both men had now disappeared into its interior, leaving her with the memory of dark windswept hair and a hard, measuring stare.
Back in The Black Bull, George Selby had just ordered drinks as Talún, returning from a few brief words with one of the locals, joined him.
‘So that’s our new landlord, is it?’ he enquired, elbows resting against its smooth, wooden surface as he watched Sally prise the top off a lager bottle.
‘Yes,’ George replied, as he handed the barmaid a ten pound note and waited for the change. ‘He’s moving in next month. Nice guy; I think he’ll bed in well with the locals. Wants to bring in changes but is keen to retain the overall feel of a village pub.’
Talún nodded, reaching for the opened bottle standing alongside George’s pint of bitter. ‘We’re not going to be ousted in favour of diners then, like the White Swan at Hensford?’
‘Certainly not,’ George said as he pocketed his change. ‘Our barmaid here can vouch for that, can’t you, Sal?’
‘I certainly can,’ the small blonde replied as she stepped back to pull another pint. ‘There’s to be dining in the lounge and this bar will stay exactly as it is. That’s the plan. All in all, I think Rufus will be an interesting addition to the village too. He’s a bit of a catch; an attractive single man with money.’
‘Ah… but you’ll have to get past that wee bodyguard first,’ Adrian McKenzie, gardens manager at the village’s manor house, Lynbrook Hall, joked as he watched Sally serve him.
‘What bodyguard?’ Sally frowned, placing his beer onto the bar.
‘The daughter. I saw her as I arrived. They can be fiercely protective creatures, you know,’ Adrian warned with a sly grin as his fingers wrapped around the glass, ‘Just in case you had any ideas, Sal.’
‘Well if you must know, I haven’t,’ Sally replied with an amused laugh, as she took his money and rang it into the till. ‘Anyway, she’s his niece, not his daughter. The miserable looking one is her father. He’s Rufus’s brother, Leo.’
‘Yes, we were introduced in the car park,’ George said, joining the conversation. ‘Attractive girl, the niece, don’t you think?’
‘Yes, a lovely lass,’ Adrian agreed with a nod. ‘Off to university in September, Rufus mentioned on an earlier visit.’
‘I noticed Talún giving her the eye,’ George said, with a sly wink in Sally’s direction.
‘Me?’ Talún gave a snort of amusement as he took another swig from his bottle. ‘You’re dreaming. Besides, I didn’t think she was anything special.’
‘Nothing special?’ Sally’s indignant voice re-joined the conversation as she fixed Talún with a look of mild exasperation. ‘You need glasses, you do.’
‘Ah, but Talún prefers them with a bit more mileage on the clock, don’t you laddie?’ Adrian winked and gave him a friendly slap on the back, taking a sip of his beer before moving over to join his work colleagues at a nearby table.
‘Yep…there’s nothing to beat an experienced woman,’ Talún threw back at the red-headed Scotsman with a grin. ‘Heaven help me, Sal, girls with brains? No thank you.’
‘I thought you were seeing some stable girl over Combe Regis way – Annabel Lucas wasn’t it?’ Sally asked. ‘Is that finished then?’
‘Yep, we split up just after Christmas.’
‘First I knew,’ George grumbled, as he leaned on the bar listening to their conversation. ‘Who are you chasing after now then?’
‘Don’t be so nosy, George.’ Talún grinned and waved a reproachful finger at the farmer.
‘If Adrian’s telling the truth then she’s got to be married hasn’t she?’ Sally added her thoughts to the conversation, ‘No Talún, please tell me you wouldn’t be that stupid.’
Talún shook his head and laughed, treating her to one of his infuriating grins before tilting the bottle to his lips and taking a mouthful of lager.
Sally puffed out an impatient breath as she was left to speculate. With that reaction and a reputation for having absolutely no sense of danger it had to be a married woman; and one he would probably be in big trouble over if he was discovered.
‘You know, whatever you’re up to, you need to take care,’ she said, leaning over the bar towards him. ‘I’d hate someone to mark this beautiful face.’ As if to emphasise her point she stroked a gentle hand over his cheek. ‘I mean it Talún, I really do.’
‘Sal, I appreciate your concern but honestly, I’m not in any danger,’ he said with a self-assured smile, pushing himself away from the bar to join Adrian and his companions over in the corner.
George watched him go, aware Talún’s well-known reputation with women might have just wandered into decidedly dangerous territory.
‘Lord Alive!’ he cursed, turning back to his beer and finding himself looking into Sally’s concerned face. ‘Now what’s he got himself into?’
‘It’s a shame his mother’s not around.’ She said, shaking her head, ‘She would have knocked some sense into him.’
‘I know, but the fact is, since Cesca went off on her damned environmental crusade and never came back, Ellie and I have been left to haul him out of trouble.’ He ran a hand around his chin and expelled a tired breath. ‘It’s bad enough he leaves a string of broken hearts behind him, but if it is a married woman. Well that really is bad news.’ He leaned closer to her. ‘Who the hell can it be?’
‘George, I couldn’t even begin to guess.’
‘Well if you hear anything, please let me know, will you? I need to do something before someone gets hurt – and I’m talking broken bones, not hearts.’
Sitting next to Adrian, Talún watched the exchange between George and Sally, noting the serious look on the farmer’s face. He wished Adrian had never opened his mouth. Now he knew George wouldn’t let go of this until he’d found out the identity of the new woman in his life. He heaved a tired sigh. He’d have to tell him, there was no other option; but being honest wouldn’t score him any brownie points with the farmer. If anything he’d be angrier than ever. Finishing off his lager and his chat with the Lynbrook Hall gardeners, he returned to where George stood. Setting the bottle down onto the polished wooden surface, he inclined his head curiously towards the older man. ‘George? You look worried.’
‘I am, about you and the company you’re currently keeping,’ the farmer replied, as he checked his watch against the small brass clock nestling amongst the optics. ‘We need to talk lad…and sooner rather than later,’ he said, eyeing him solemnly.
‘You’re going to give me a lecture, aren’t you?’ Talún said, feeling a little guilty he might have upset the one man he had always looked upon as a father figure. ‘George, there’s really no need, I…’
‘Not now,’ George interrupted irritably. ‘Come on.’ He picked his cap off the bar and slipped it onto his head. ‘Time to get back to work. We’ll talk this evening, if you can spare the time of course,’ he said, as they headed towards the door.
‘No problem,’ Talún reassured him as he followed him out into the car park. ‘I’ll call Leanna and cancel.’
‘Leanna?’ George spun around, cocking his head slightly. ‘As in Leanna Tremayne? Is that who Adrian was referring to?’
‘Yes.’ Talún nodded, bracing himself for George’s reaction.
‘My God boy, have you lost your senses?’ he growled, as he fished in his jacket for the keys to the Land Rover. ‘Duncan Tremayne is…’
‘In a nursing home and daily losing his grip on reality. I’m completely safe. Why else would I be so confident about not getting caught?’
‘Safe from him, maybe,’ George shot back, angry at his young companion’s arrogance, ‘but not from those he could easily employ to do you harm if he found out.’
‘Duncan’s almost a cabbage; he’s not exactly in a position to call in the heavy mob to sort me out. Leanna’s a lonely, attractive woman in her early forties,’ Talún protested, his eyes locking on the older man’s as he tried to win him over and make him understand. ‘Who can blame her if she’s happy for someone like me to put the sparkle back into her life?’
George sucked in a heavy breath as he unlocked the Land Rover. ‘Sparkle is it?’
‘Yes, sparkle; so now I’ve told you who she is let’s leave it there, shall we?’ Talún insisted, as he climbed into the passenger seat. ‘And this is between you and me, not a word to anyone else, okay?’
‘Hello Mr Hayden. How are you today?’
Sitting in the lounge bar of The Golden Hind public house in Exeter, Leo Hayden lowered his paper to see waitress Lily Stevenson standing by his table with two plates of food in her hands and a friendly smile on her face.
‘Hello Lily,’ he said, folding his paper and reaching for his cutlery, his face breaking into a smile as he eyed the plates. ‘Do I gather one of those is mine?’
‘Oh…no, it’ll be about five minutes. We missed you yesterday,’ she threw back over her shoulder as she turned to go, ‘we thought you might have taken Mrs H away on a last minute holiday.’
‘No, I took a trip out to look at my brother’s new pub.’
‘Bet his food’s not as good as ours,’ she teased.
‘No Lily, you’re right there. Couldn’t hold a candle to anything here.’
‘Well I’d best be getting these to the customers, won’t do to be serving cold meals. Five minutes and you’ll have yours. Lasagne, wasn’t it?’
Leo nodded and watched her move to the far end of the room, deposit the plates in front of a middle aged couple and stop for a chat. Of course, he had no idea what kind of food Rufus had planned for his pub, but he knew he wouldn’t like it. He didn’t want to like it. In fact, he hoped the whole thing failed miserably – now that would take the smile off the smug bastard’s face. His thoughts strayed to the sort of staff his brother would most likely employ; probably flashy young women with short skirts and blonde hair. Rufus liked blondes. He would never be interested in polite and friendly types like Lily; a girl good at her job and a natural with the customers. She seemed to have a soft spot for him too, an amazing thing, given his brusque manner, which usually indicated he had no time for anyone, much less the opposite sex. But Lily was different. He watched as she passed his table on her way back to the kitchen, aware her arrival as a new waitress a couple of months ago now meant he actually looked forward to having his lunch here.
The pub had become a peaceful oasis in the middle of a busy day. Usually he became so involved with his work that by the time he realised he should be breaking for lunch, most other people were returning to their desks. So habitually, he found himself with a small scattering of stragglers in The Golden Hind. He liked this time of day with less noise, less intrusiveness; he could read the paper, do the crossword, eat in peace. Sometimes, if he arrived late enough, Lily – having finished her serving duties – would bring her lunch to one of the nearby tables and join him. Over the weeks he had found himself inexplicably drawn to her, wanting to engage her in conversation. It had gained him a window into her life, an awareness of something beyond the realms of his office based job and his home in middle class suburbia.
Lily, he discovered, was a survivor; she’d had a tough life as one of five children growing up with an alcoholic mother and a father in and out of prison. Running away from home at fifteen she had directed her own destiny ever since. However, some of her life’s choices had not been good ones, like her current boyfriend Pauli, who appeared to be something of a feckless waster, no doubt heading in the same direction as her father. Observing her one day as he watched her eat, he decided although not conventionally pretty, there was something about her he liked. Tall and slim, her wide upswept brows were balanced perfectly over pale blue eyes. Her best feature was her long, straight hair, the colour of cinnamon and usually worn pulled back into a neat ponytail. He imagined what a glorious sight it would be loose and spilling over her shoulders and wondered if she ever wore it that way. She rarely smiled; for the most part there seemed to be a cool detachedness about her. Never rushed or flustered, and with a friendly word for every customer, she appeared perfect waitress material. The more he got to know about her the more he wanted to draw her into his world, convinced someone like her could give him the peace he yearned for. There were crazy moments too, usually at work, when he daydreamed in front of his computer about another world; one in which only he and Lily existed. A place where they lived together, where he could shower her with all the things she had never had and in return she would blanket him with her wonderful calmness and drive his demons away. He shuddered at his impulsiveness; she would probably never speak to him again if she knew he had such outrageous thoughts about someone young enough to be his daughter.
Daughter: the word made him think of Jess. How he wished he could swap her for this dear, sweet girl. He tried to blot out her image, realising how much she reminded him of…he gritted his teeth, trying to banish images of his traitorous ex-wife. Pressure from his new wife, Amber, to give Jess a stable home life, had seen him reluctantly swapping his well-paid career abroad to return to a desk job in the UK. A higher salary and a company car did little to sweeten the pill. Nevertheless, he had taken up his fatherly responsibilities, eager to make changes. Typically, Rufus had been far too lax and he wanted to steer Jess’s life in the direction he thought best. Currently that involved getting an engagement ring on her finger so she could settle down and marry once she had finished university. He’d already lined up the prospective bridegroom, pinning his hopes on good looking surgeon’s son Zac Rayner. From the way this wealthy young man behaved around Jess he seemed keen, very keen. Unfortunately, Jess kept putting obstacles in the way with her damned silly notions of having a career and being an independent woman. Such nonsense. He gave an indignant snort. She would do as she was told or there would be consequences.
‘Here we are then, Mr Hayden.’ He looked up as Lily arrived with his lunch. After placing the plate in front of him, she stood back, hands clasped. ‘Anything else you’d like? Another drink? Coffee maybe?’
‘Coffee would be great, thank you.’ Leo smiled, picking up his knife and fork, and cutting into the pasta.
Standing behind the bar, Lily set up another batch of coffee and stood waiting for the water to filter through the machine into the jug below. The sound of a mobile ringing pulled her attention away from it and she glanced across to where Leo Hayden now stood, his phone pressed against his ear. She watched him walk towards the front door, obviously planning to take the call outside.
Noticing he had left his jacket draped over the back of an adjacent chair, her gaze moved to the next table where two young men sat drinking bottled beer and chatting. As Leo disappeared outside, the dark haired man caught her eye and gave her a slight nod of recognition. In the weeks she had spent befriending Leo, she knew from their conversations he had money. She had seen his wallet, not only full of cash but with a swathe of credit cards. She had made the mistake of telling Pauli, and now the two idiots he called friends – the ones who were usually responsible for getting him into trouble – had just turned up and settled themselves on the next table to Leo. She hoped their arrival was coincidental, but something told her it wasn’t; they were here to relieve him of his wallet. And Pauli might be behind it all.
She watched as dark haired Kenny tilted his chair slightly and snaked his arm backwards, working his hand into Leo’s inside pocket. She stared, somehow unable to move, as his fingers groped for the edge of the wallet nestling there. The bang of a door made her jump and she saw Leo making his way back, his call having finished. Both men saw him and she sucked in a breath, realising Kenny’s situation had just become extremely dangerous. Robbie saved the day, shoving to his feet, drink in hand, and stumbling into Leo as he approached his table. The bottle tipped and beer soaked Leo’s shirt sleeve. As he apologised and tried to mop up the damage, she stared in disbelief at Kenny, who seemed to be taking the distraction as an opportunity to carry on. Without another thought she lifted the bar hatch, ran across to Leo’s table and whipped the garment from the back of the chair.
‘Get out!’ she yelled, glaring at each of them in turn. Robbie began to back off, his hands raised in a supplicating gesture, a cocky grin on his face.
‘Time to leave, K,’ he said, with a sly wink at Lily who stood clutching the jacket as if her life depended on it. Hastily, they moved towards the door.
‘And don’t let me see you in here again or I’ll call the police!’ she shouted after them as she watched them go.
‘Lily?’ Leo looked at her and the penny dropped. ‘Surely not…?’
She nodded. ‘They were trying to steal your wallet.’
‘Good God! Really?’
She nodded, and as Leo took the jacket from her she began to shiver as she realised chasing Robbie and Kenny away might find her in big trouble with Pauli. She felt Leo’s arm around her, guiding her to a nearby chair. ‘Come along, sit down,’ he said gently. ‘Thank you, that was an amazing thing you did.’
‘Everything all right, Lily?’
Alec Duggan, the owner of The Golden Hind, appeared from the back of the pub, his concerned eyes fixed on Lily.
She nodded but could see Leo wasn’t convinced. ‘You’re not all right, you look very pale,’ he argued, moving his gaze to Alec. ‘Can you get her a brandy? She’s had a bit of a shock. Two guys were just here and they tried to take my wallet. Lily saw them off.’ He looked at her and smiled. ‘She’s been really brave.’
‘Bloody opportunists, they’re everywhere,’ the large blond haired publican declared, before he headed to the bar, returning with a shot of amber liquid. ‘Here,’ he said, handing her a glass. Lily took and drank the contents back in one gulp, triggering a fit of coughing. Leo smiled and patted her on the back.
‘Sorry,’ she gasped, holding her throat as she replaced the glass on the table. ‘I guess I should have sipped.’
‘That might have been a better idea.’ Alec looked across at Leo and grinned. ‘Stay there, I’ll get chef to fix you some lunch,’ he said, and moved off towards the kitchen.
As the landlord disappeared, Leo pulled up a chair and sat facing her, taking both her hands in his. ‘Thank you,’ he said quietly, ‘I know it took a lot of courage to face those two. If there’s ever anything I can do for you…’ Releasing her hands, he reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, pulled out one of his business cards and pressed it into her hand. ‘I know at times things aren’t good with you and Pauli,’ he said, his dark eyes solemn. ‘So if you ever need my assistance, you call me immediately, do you understand?’
Lily looked at the card, then at Leo, and nodded. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I will.’
Jess drove towards Lynbrook, her first return trip since Rufus had shown her, Leo and Zac over The Black Bull. The landscape had totally changed since that dull, cold February day. Now it was early April and the countryside had morphed into a luxurious spread of varying shades of green. Living in a South Devon tourist destination like Milton Bay, with its small harbour full of fishing boats, narrow winding cobbled streets and Victorian promenade, she had never really appreciated the scenery inland. But now able to view all its developing lushness under clear blue skies, it gave her a strange sense of wonder. She couldn’t wait to visit the stables where the promised hired horse waited, giving her the opportunity to explore some of this wonderful landscape during her stay. Rufus had arranged this for her through George Selby, the farmer he and Leo had chatted to on the day they had looked over the pub. She remembered George’s companion too, the one with the unusual name and the amazing eyes. The one Zac had mocked and her father had taken such an exception to.
On their arrival home, she’d watched Leo as he’d paced up and down the lounge, the storm within him slowly building. In public he had reined in his anger, but once within his own four walls, he’d given vent to his frustrations.
‘How dare Rufus talk to me in that tone! How dare he defend common foreign rabble!’ He began to bluster, hands thrust into his pockets as he stalked back and forth, his face becoming redder and redder. ‘Heaven knows what Zac thought about the whole embarrassing situation.’
‘I don’t think Zac had any thoughts about it at all,’ Jess said with a tired sigh as she watched him. Catching his expression, she realised she’d said the wrong thing.
‘No thoughts?’ Leo gave a mocking snort as he turned to look at her. ‘How can you be so foolish? Doesn’t his uncle have some high ranking Whitehall job connected with immigration?’
‘I think so, but…’
‘But nothing! This could ruin your chances.’
‘Chances, what chances?’ Jess frowned, not understanding.
‘You and him and a life together.’
‘Dad, we’re both eighteen and we’ve been dating for a year. Marriage to anyone, let alone Zac, is years away yet.’
‘Don’t be so naïve; he’s a first class catch. You can’t possibly pass up such a brilliant opportunity.’
‘I think you’re forgetting we’ve got A levels and university to think of, and beyond that our individual careers. Those things come before anything else.’
‘Jess.’ He shook his head slowly and pursed his lips. ‘For you a career, as you call it, will only be short term. Marriage and children, that will ultimately be where you will concentrate your energies.’
‘Why allow me to go to university then? What’s the point?’
‘So you can find the right sort of husband – but of course,’ he waved a hand at her, ‘that’s no longer an issue now you’re with Zac. However, you still need a proper education if you’re to make any sort of wife for a man like him.’
‘In other words, it’s a mere formality. Is that what you’re saying…?’ Jess felt her patience with her father beginning to fray. ‘…so I can find the right sort of husband and avoid being a social embarrassment to him?’
Leo gave an uncomfortable laugh as he turned to look at her, tilting his head in his usual, infuriatingly patronising way. ‘Well, I wouldn’t put it quite like that.’
She stood her ground, folding her arms and forcing him to make eye contact with her. ‘Dad, can we get a few things straight? Firstly, I don’t know how long my relationship with Zac will last. Secondly, university is not some finishing school to enhance my opportunities in the marriage market. It’s where I’m going to get a degree. I want to teach.’
Leo looked at her impassively but she knew from past experience it was a deceptive calm. The gradual tell-tale seep of pink returning to his cheeks spoke of trouble. Jess braced herself, feeling if she backed down now it would set a dangerous precedent; one which would see him winning this war of control.
‘Do you know something? You remind me of your mother,’ he said, his cold black eyes narrowing angrily. ‘Stubborn; always thinking you know best. I was blind, I couldn’t see it at the time…I gave her everything. Big mistake; but I learned my lesson and you, Jessica…’
The sound of the front door opening and closing halted his words and a second later, Jess’s stepmother Amber’s head appeared around the door. Her smile faded as she stepped into the room, taking in father and daughter’s hostile stances.
‘Leo? Jess?’ Her grey eyes moved from one to the other. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘Of course.’ Leo’s mouth drew itself into a thin line as he looked at Jess once more before walking over to join his wife, placing a dutiful kiss on her proffered cheek.
‘Leo, are you sure you’re alright? You’re looking rather pink.’ She frowned. The red rage in his face had subsided but a few small blotches still lingered.
‘Everything is fine, Amber, it really it is.’ He brushed a wayward brown curl from her cheek and patted her shoulder. ‘Merely a father and daughter difference of opinion; nothing to worry about. Now,’ he began, guiding her out of the room towards the kitchen, ‘how has your day been?’
‘Busy, but I did find time to book the holiday. And you will never guess who I bumped into?’ She grasped his arm, her eyes bright. ‘Rufus. He told me about your visit to the pub. Said you’d all enjoyed yourselves. He’s very excited about his new project.’
‘Yes Amber, I know he is.’ Jess noticed the irritation creeping back into her father’s face at the mention of his brother’s name.
‘Such luck too, running into him,’ Amber continued enthusiastically, seemingly oblivious of her husband’s displeasure.
‘Luck?’ He cocked a suspicious eyebrow. ‘What do you mean, luck?’
‘Well, once I’d booked our two weeks in Sorrento I suddenly realised we couldn’t go away and leave Jess here on her own, could we? So I…’
‘Amber?’ Leo’s brows butted together angrily. ‘What exactly have you done?’
‘I’ve arranged for Jess to go and stay with Rufus while we’re away, of course. Oh don’t look like that, Leo.’ She flapped a hand at him. ‘She gets on very well with her uncle and I’m sure you won’t begrudge them the opportunity to spend some time together, will you?’ She patted his arm in her normal, calming way.
Jess smiled, remembering the expression on her father’s face. Being challenged by three people in one day had been too much for him. ‘I have to go out,’ he’d snapped, and left the house, slamming the door behind him. It had been left to Jess to explain to a bewildered Amber exactly what had triggered this reaction.
Not a word of her stay with Rufus had been mentioned since that day and now this morning, Leo and Amber had left for the airport and their flight to Naples. As the taxi driver loaded their luggage into his cab, Amber had come to say goodbye and wish her an enjoyable fortnight. Leo had decided to ignore her, slipping into the back of the taxi and sitting there like a large sulky child. The vehicle had eventually left with Amber waving enthusiastically, while he remained like a statue, staring straight ahead.
Back in the present, as the Mini rounded a bend, she saw the village ahead of her. Nestling in a small river valley, its pale stone houses and prominent church spire were surrounded by a swathe of green fields, with a large wooded area to the south. As she passed the first cottages on the outskirts she noticed a rider up ahead on a grey horse. Slowing down, she gave them a wide berth as she overtook. Spotting the village shop ahead on the left and the entrance to the church beyond that she knew she had nearly reached her destination. Slowing the Mini on the next bend she indicated and turned smartly into the pub car park, slotting it into the empty space next to her uncle’s Volvo. She hauled her suitcase from the back of the car in time to see the rider, a woman, approaching.
‘Hello’ Jess called out, watching as the woman pulled the animal to a halt, giving her an opportunity to see her properly for the first time.
‘And you are?’ Tall and slim with dark hair tucked under her riding hat, she stared blankly at Jess.
‘Jess Hayden, the landlord’s niece.’ Jess kept her smile in place, determined to melt the woman’s frosty stance. ‘I’m staying for a couple of weeks. That’s a lovely horse.’ She nodded towards it, watching the woman readjust her hold on the reins.
Frosty blue eyes lingered on her silently, making it clear she did not intend to identify herself or make any effort at friendly conversation.
‘I’m hoping to ride while I’m here,’ Jess continued, attempting once more to break the ice. ‘I’ve the use of one of the horses from Manor Farm.’
‘Manor Farm?’ The woman found her voice, tugging back on the reins sharply as her horse skittered slightly to one side, a suspicious frown clouding her expression. ‘You know Talún then?’
‘Oh yes, I’ve met him,’ Jess said, with a slight stretching of the truth, feeling to have admitted she had only glimpsed him from a car would have sounded odd. ‘Looks like something out of a Bronte novel, don’t you think? Dark, brooding, romantic. Sorry,’ she apologised, ‘I’m not quite as crazy as I sound. I’m taking English A level, Wuthering Heights is one of the set books. It’s sort of got under my skin.’ The cold, blue-eyed stare stayed in place and Jess groaned. Oh God what have I done? I’ve made myself sound like the village idiot.
‘My, what an imagination you have.’ The woman’s voice was syrupy and patronising, exactly the reaction Jess had anticipated after her outburst. ‘I’ll be sure to tell him,’ she added, as she kicked her heels into her mount and left.
Jess stood watching her as she disappeared down the road. ‘Well let’s hope the rest of the natives are friendlier,’ she muttered, before picking up her case and heading towards the pub.
Pushing open the bar door, she stepped into a room well packed with lunch time locals and noisy conversation. Through the press of bodies she saw Rufus leaning on the bar chatting to a thin, balding man wearing dark green cords and a navy body warmer, laughing as they shared a joke. All of a sudden his gaze turned her way and a huge smile surfaced as he lifted the bar flap and joined her.
‘Jess!’ He slipped an arm around her shoulder and hugged her. ‘Welcome! Come along, let’s have your case.’
By now, curious faces were gazing at her with accompanying smiles and murmured interest as some, it appeared, recognised her from her previous visit. Jess looked at them all and smiled back as Rufus introduced her once more. There were acknowledging nods and words of welcome as he guided her towards the bar. She followed him, drinkers moving aside to let her through. She took a last look around with a final word of farewell, promising she would see them all later. Scanning the room as she received more warm acknowledgements, her gaze came to rest on a solitary figure leaning on the end of the bar. Among all the friendly faces this one, with its chilly, assessing regard, stood out like a blazing beacon. Thick, dark hair fell untidily around his face, his eyes holding onto hers with a brazen intenseness. Picking up the bottle in front of him he tilted it to his lips, eyes still fixed on hers. Then he simply pivoted around and presented her with his back. She heard his laughter as he began a conversation with someone out of her line of vision.
Turning away, Jess hurried to catch her uncle, swallowing her anger. Why did Talún Hansen have to be so rude when everyone else had been welcoming? Her memory of him, the one she had carried with her since their first meeting in February, readjusted itself dramatically. She had been drawn by those hypnotic eyes and his exotic looks, so out of place with the rest of his thread-bare image. Quite foolishly, the romantic in her had created a character who bore no resemblance to the ill-mannered individual she had just encountered.
As she reached the top of the stairs she saw her uncle waiting with her case, the door to one of the rooms open. He stood back, his hand extended with a grin and an ‘after you.’
Stepping into the bedroom, she looked around and smiled at the bright simplicity of the comfortable room with its oak furniture, patterned curtains and freshly painted smell.
‘I had the decorators take time off from working on the restaurant. Sally chose the curtains and bedding, I hope you like them,’ he said, as he lifted her case and set it down on the bed. ‘I’ve given you a room at the front too, thought you’d like the view.’
‘It’s fabulous, thank you so much.’ Jess smiled, running her fingers over the pastel shades of the duvet before making her way towards the window to look out. Below in the car park she spotted George and Talún crossing towards their Land Rover. As they reached it, George stopped, rummaging in his pockets for his keys. Waiting by the passenger door and pulling on his scruffy wax jacket, something seemed to catch Talún’s attention and he moved away from the vehicle, his long-legged strides carrying him across the grass verge in front of the pub as he headed for the road.
A female rider approached. Jess recognised her as the woman she’d seen on her way in. She reined in the grey as he approached, waiting for him to reach her. Jess saw him smile and raise his hand to pat the animal’s neck before moving it to stroke the woman’s thigh as they stopped to exchange words.
‘Who’s the rider?’ Jess asked her uncle, who had now joined her at the window, his gaze fixed on the same scenario.
‘Leanna Tremayne. I guess you’d call her the lady of the manor. Her husband owns Lynbrook Hall.’
‘Talún’s rather familiar with her.’ She turned her gaze towards her uncle. ‘Is there something going on between them?’
When her uncle failed to respond, Jess drew in a sharp breath. ‘There is, isn’t there?’
‘Yes. You sound as if it bothers you.’
‘No, not at all, it’s just…’
‘It reminds you of your mother and Jack?’
She nodded, watching as Talún continued to run his hand over Leanna’s thigh. ‘I can’t believe he’s behaving like that in public. Isn’t he worried someone might tell her husband?’
‘Duncan Tremayne doesn’t live in the village, he…’
‘It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, or hers,’ Jess interrupted, trying to banish the feeling that the anger she felt might be driven by something more than mere memories of her mother’s infidelity.
‘No, I guess it doesn’t,’ Rufus replied, his gaze remaining on the two figures who were still engaged in conversation.
Jess continued to watch their exchange. It appeared to have started amicably but then she noticed Leanna staring down at Talún, shaking her head, her expression becoming angrier and angrier as they spoke. All at once the conversation seemed to stop abruptly and, yanking her horse’s head around, she eased her heels into its side, moving the animal quickly past him. Talún stepped back, his hands in the air and a mixture of confusion and frustration on his face. She heard him call after Leanna. Too late, Jess realised, watching her canter up the road without a backward glance. He turned and strode back to the waiting Land Rover, his expression grim.
As he reached the vehicle and tugged open the door, he swung his gaze back to the pub and saw her watching him. It gave her the opportunity to gift him with the same hard stare he had given her earlier. Turning quickly away, Talún slid into the passenger seat and slammed the door. As the Land Rover pulled away, Jess and her uncle moved away from the window.
‘Does his mother know what’s going on?’ she queried, unable to let go of this strange anger within her. ‘I can’t think any self-respecting woman would be happy about her son being involved with someone who is probably as old as she is.’
Rufus settled himself on the bed. ‘Talún’s mother disappeared nearly four years ago. She left the village for a few months but never returned. No one knows exactly where she is, or even if she is still alive.’
‘Well, what about his father?’
‘Ah well that’s a bit of an unknown. George told me Talún was five when he and his mother arrived here with a group of travellers. They were part of the protest about the building of the Lynbrook-Hensford bypass back in the late eighties. When the group eventually packed up and left, Talún’s mother remained in the village working for George’s wife, Eleanor. As the Selby’s didn’t have any family of their own they sort of unofficially adopted them. So they automatically took responsibility for Talún once his mother wasn’t around. However, it’s not been easy as you can imagine. Talún’s always been a bit of a magnet for women but since he’s taken up with Leanna he’s become a little too sure of himself. He has no idea of the kind of woman he’s got himself involved with. If old Tremayne…’
‘Old Tremayne?’ Jess repeated, ‘you make him sound ancient.’
‘He is. He must be seventy five if he’s a day. He lives in a care home just outside Exeter. He’s got Alzheimer’s. Quite advanced, I gather.’
‘Not really. I think he’s better off where he is, poor devil. Leanna was employed as his live in nurse and it didn’t take long for her to get him to put a wedding ring on her finger. Within months of them marrying she had him moved into a care home. The Alzheimer’s had already been diagnosed but at the time he was still coping fairly well. She could easily have hired someone to look after him but it was clear she didn’t want him around. Her actions didn’t exactly endear her to the villagers. Duncan’s family had owned the Hall for several generations; he was an established part of the community and well liked. Now, of course, she’s a free agent, taking young men to her bed and flaunting them brazenly in front of the whole village.’
‘Talún’s not the first?’
‘No, he’s what George calls her latest distraction.’
Jess settled herself next to her uncle, her thoughts drifting back to her earlier confrontation with Leanna. That first meeting had left her with the impression of a hard, unpleasant woman; something the conversation with Rufus had now confirmed. And in the light of this new knowledge about Talún, although she felt sorry for him losing his mother, he had definitely lost the title of romantic hero. Rude, arrogant and immoral were words that suited both him and the ghastly Mrs Tremayne perfectly. They were a match made in heaven.