Playing for Love by Caroline Dunford by Caroline Dunford - Read Online

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Playing for Love - Caroline Dunford

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Dunford

PROLOGUE

Chapter One

Sam crunched up the gravel path, postbag clutched in his hand, to the polished oak front door with its little brass bell. He hesitated a moment then, instead of ringing it, turned and wheeled his bicycle over the beautiful lawn, round to the back where the small apple orchard stood. It was an unseasonably warm day, one for sitting in the garden, and that had given him an idea.

Annie’s parents had put patio doors in – he wondered if that would be possible under modern planning laws – and Sam knew that she often kept them open when she was writing. Just outside them, on a small patio, Annie had a table and chairs. She often took breaks from her writing to sit sipping tea in the garden and, being an early riser, the girl often had an early elevenses cake out there too.

If he timed his delivery right, sometimes he got a cuppa and a slice. Probably not today, he was too early … still, if he mentioned his suspicions about the chimney maybe he’d get a cuppa as a reward – and he could even put in a word for his brother-in-law, who ran a building firm and would treat Annie right if he asked … Would that be worth more than one round of Annie’s home baking? Some of her homemade ginger biscuits? Sam’s mouth watered in anticipation. All that ‘get fit’ nonsense from his wife Maggie was making him hungrier by the day, and Annie’s cottage was one of the few places where he could break his Maggie-enforced diet.

As he passed the chimney end of the cottage, Sam checked it one last time. Leaving the day before, he’d noticed that the chimney looked odd; either he’d been leaning to one side or it had. He placed his bicycle against the garden wall and experimented again. No – no matter which way he examined it, the chimney definitely looked like it had been down the Black Bull and had one too many. Of course, none of the cottages in Little Gattle were as upright as they had been when they were built, but Annie’s chimney had definitely taken a turn for the worse.

Sam sighed. He’d better mention it. He was a good soul, and as he’d had more than his fair share of repairs on his own old house, he knew it was just the kind of thing Annie shouldn’t have to deal with alone. She was still young, but she behaved like she was in her twilight years, hardly leaving the house let alone the village. It wasn’t natural, a young girl keeping to herself that much.

The patio doors were open. Sam could see Annie sitting at her desk, her fingers resting on the computer keyboard. She looked absurdly young.

Despite having turned thirty, Annie was often mistaken by Cotswolds tourists for a student, if not quite a schoolgirl. Her daily uniform of jeans, trainers, and T-shirts or ragged jumpers, and her habit of wearing no make-up or hair products, gave her a youthful look. She’d lived in the village since she was a young child and even the locals who’d known her since then still referred to her as ‘the Greigs’ little girl’. No one thought of Annie as a grown-up, least of all Annie herself.

It was a bone of contention with Mrs Dale, the postmistress, that someone as young and inexperienced as Annie had ended up sole mistress of Owl Cottage. Sam had come to the cottage that morning fresh from enduring yet another one of Mrs Dale’s diatribes.

‘She may look like a teenager, but she’s a woman grown. It’s about time she left that bloody place and went out into the world. Not that Owl Cottage isn’t lovely, mind you. A proper cottage, mullioned windows and nice thick walls.’

As usual, Mrs Dale had warmed to her theme, ignoring Sam’s sigh. ‘Why, that inglenook fireplace where you can practically sit on top of the fire! And the thatched roof cut ever so lovely. And she uses Old John for the garden, stocked to overflowing with vegetables, flowers, and fruit it is. What that girl will do when he retires I don’t know.’

She’d paused briefly, hands on hips, to see if Sam was still paying attention. ‘What does a young girl on her own need with the oldest and largest cottage in the village? I’ve heard she’s even put in an en suite!’

Sam had indeed heard. He heard it most mornings. Agatha Dale lived in eternal hope that Annie would move on so she could finally get her hands on Owl Cottage.

‘What that girl needs is to get out of this village!’ Mrs Dale had concluded.

‘Nah, what she needs is a man,’ retorted Sam. ‘Preferably one that makes lots of money so I don’t need to be lugging these dirty great parcels of paper up there every bloody day.’

‘Yes, and whoever thought the girl could earn her living by making things up?’

Sam had chosen that moment for his big reveal. He had harboured his surprise for a while. Time in Little Gattle moved slowly, and surprises were to be savoured, then unleashed at the right time.

‘I read one of her books. The Man With the Brown Shoes, it were called,’ said Sam.

Mrs Dale’s jaw had dropped. Sam still felt rather pleased with himself that despite working alongside her for nigh on twenty years he could still render her silent.

‘What’s more, weren’t bad. Not my kind of thing, but the wife liked it.’

‘Well, your Maggie would read anything. Always thought she was better than the rest of us when we was at school.’

‘Reckon that’s ’cause she is,’ Sam had said on his way out. Then, because he’d wanted to show he had more manners than Tittle-Tattle Dale, he’d raised his cap to her before picking up his postbag and heading out, whistling.

‘You can stop that, Sam McKay,’ called Mrs Dale after him. ‘You hold a tune about as well as a sieve holds water.’

As he got closer to the open doors Sam overheard Annie’s voice. She appeared to be talking to someone out of sight, but he couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. Because he felt awkward about disturbing her, and because anything that could be overheard was fair game in the village, he paused and strained his ears.

‘You are wonderful,’ said Cesare, sliding one long finger under her chin to tip her face up towards him. His chocolate brown eyes glowed with warmth.

Hmm, chocolate, really? Maybe she shouldn’t have skipped breakfast.

His deep brown eyes soft as a sofa …

No. Just no. Not unless she wanted to win the Bad Writing Award of the Year. Delete. Delete! Mud brown? Nut brown?

‘Call my eyes velvety brown as you usually do,’ whispered Cesare in her ear. His breath was warm and tickly. She gave a little giggle.

‘But I always do that,’ she said.

‘My eyes,’ responded Cesare, ‘they do not change, they …’

‘Yes. Yes,’ said Annie. ‘We need to get on with the story. This is no time for a chat. You’re in the process of telling Mimi why you can’t live with her on her paradise island forever.’ Annie sensed a vague disquiet. ‘Now, Cesare, you know you can’t. You have so many more mysteries to solve.’

‘Work. Work. Work,’ sad Cesare in her head. ‘It is like I have joined the army.’

‘Stop being naughty and tell me what you would say to the girl.’

‘If I must,’ said Cesare, throwing up his hands in a graceful gesture of acceptance. ‘You know, Annie, I would never leave you.’

‘I can’t put that in the book! The reader has to believe you might fall in love with her next.’

‘Pah! It is all so tiring,’ he complained.

‘Yeah right, mate,’ sighed Annie, ‘you try churning out two books a year. That’s what I call tiring. Not strolling around looking cool, picking up a few well-laid clues, and wooing beautiful women.’

‘You forget the frequent attempts on my life,’ complained Cesare.

‘That’s called dramatic tension,’ said Annie. ‘Now come on!’

‘Oh, very well. I suppose I would say something to the woman like … It is just that in my life I cannot –

Then Cesare stopped of his own volition. ‘Annie,’ he whispered, ‘we are being watched!’

Annie spun round in her chair and saw Sam hovering on the patio. She pushed down the annoyance she felt at being spied on. She’d left the doors open. Fair game. How much had he heard, she wondered as she got up and went out to him.

She noticed Sam checking her hands for a teacup. Ah, so that was how she would get even.

She smiled inside and out. The funny little games the villagers played with each other had provided her with a microcosm of human behaviour. She doubted any boardroom battle was fought as bitterly as the annual selection of the head of the village fete. Really, it was surprising that no blood had been spilled over it yet.

Yet Annie loved every minute of village life and valued her interactions with all the villagers far more than they knew. She decided to let Sam down gently.

‘Hello, Sam, you’re a bit early this morning aren’t you? I’ve barely got started.’

Sam, looking somewhat crestfallen, offered her the large parcel. ‘Here’s another big one for you,’ he said. Annie reflected that in a city setting a man might have made more of that sentence, but Sam was merely telling it how it was. Annie took the parcel from him and staggered slightly.

‘My author copies,’ she explained. ‘I’m in hardback this time.’

Sam nodded, obviously oblivious to what a coup this was in authorial terms. ‘It means my books are doing very well,’ Annie explained.

‘Don’t like hardbacks meself,’ said Sam. ‘Too expensive to read in the bath – too expensive all round.’

Briefly, Annie considered explaining royalties to him, but thought better of it. She could feel Cesare tugging on her sleeve. ‘I’ll make lemon drizzle cake for tomorrow. If the weather holds fine you can have a slice in the garden with me before you head on your way.’

Sam’s face broke into a smile as bright as sunshine. ‘That would be grand, lass,’ he said. ‘I’ll look forward to it.’ He turned and began to walk away, then turned back, ‘Meant to say, your chimney don’t look right. I’d have a man have a look at it. Looks like a drunken vicar on a bike. My brother-in-law George is a builder. He’ll see you right. Brightly Builders. He’s in the book.’

Annie watched Sam’s figure retreat. She should go and have a look. She knew that compared to the other cottages hers had got away lightly, for there had been no repairs to Owl Cottage since she was a child. She’d known it was only a matter of time. She also knew how heartbreakingly expensive it could be.

Cesare tugged on her sleeve again. Darling Cesare, always ready to take away her cares and woes.

Cara, do not waste your time on these silly buildings, think about the lovely time we will have here this summer. You will pick fruit warmed by the sunshine and eat it with your fingers in the garden. In the evening you will watch the swallows fly. Your day will be full of birdsong and by night the owls will call.’

‘More likely the bailiffs, if we don’t get any work done,’ said Annie.

Cara,’ said Cesare in deep disapproval, ‘sometimes you can be so worldly.’

But with a firm frown Cesare got himself back into character. Another beautiful woman saved, another beautiful woman to leave, and hopefully many more beautiful women in the future. His was a life of true adventure and romance …

The telephone rang loudly.

‘Blast,’ said Annie. ‘Ignore it. Ignore it, Cesare darling. It’s probably only someone trying to sell me something. Carry on.’

But Cesare did not like interruptions. He liked his intimate moments to be dramatic and he did not like sharing a scene with a ringing telephone. Annie tried to get him going again, but he’d lost momentum. The telephone continued to ring.

‘Just shut up!’ shouted Annie. ‘He’s getting away.’

But it was too late. Cesare had vanished like mist on a summer’s morning. She was left with a blank screen, a winking cursor, and no idea what he was going to say.

The phone rang again. Annie picked it up. ‘Yes,’ she growled, willing someone to try and sell her something so she could unleash a tirade of fury on them.

‘Bad time?’ asked a familiar baritone.

‘Oh, Bryan.’ Annie’s voice lost some of its sting. ‘Sorry. I was at the point when Cesare is explaining to Mariella, or is it Mimi, that he cannot stay with her as – well, as the world needs him. Or, to be brutally frank, my bank account needs him. When are my next royalties due?’

Bryan made a strange coughing sound. ‘Annie, you do read the marketing reports the office sends you, don’t you?’

Annie’s eyes flicked up to the file on her desktop. It contained all the emails that came in from Bryan’s agency that weren’t actually from Bryan himself. All the unread emails.

‘I … er … um.’ Her heart gave a funny little bounce in her chest. Bryan had the ability to make her feel like a guilty schoolgirl. ‘Is there something wrong with my sales?’

‘Wrong? Wrong! For goodness’ sake, woman, don’t you know you’ve hit the top ten in the New York Times bestseller list?’

‘No,’ said Annie, her voice dropping to a whisper. ‘No, that can’t be true.’

‘I assure you is it, my dear. The Man With the Brown Shoes has gone stratospheric.’

‘But why? It’s no different from any of my other Cesare books. I mean, there’s nothing special about it.’

‘All your books are special, Annie.’

Bryan’s voice had mellowed like warm chocolate in her ear. (Chocolate again! She needed food!) Annie held the receiver a little further away. She was never comfortable when people were nice to her. It made her suspicious. She drew breath to protest, but Bryan continued, ‘But yes, I do understand what you mean. This book has suddenly become what we call a breakout book. Unusual for the tenth in a series.’

‘How many copies does this mean I’ve sold?’

Bryan told her.

‘No!’ said Annie. This time it was more a scream than a whisper.

‘Only thing is, Annie, the timing wasn’t that great. It’s just at the start of the quarter, so it’ll be a few months before you get your royalties.’

‘But I’m going to be rich,’ said Annie.

‘It’s one big cheque,’ said Bryan. ‘Not a lifetime wage. We have to make sure that now you’re on top, you stay on top.’

Annie felt herself blush. She could get Cesare into (and out of) any number of romantic entanglements, and he had become a touch heavier on the innuendo of late, but if any other man had said that to her on the phone she would have slammed it down. Bryan, of course, was different.

She felt the blood slowly leaving her face. Bryan was still talking.

‘So what do you think?’

‘Hmm,’ said Annie, playing for time.

‘Will you license them to do the play? They’ve got a top-notch writer on board. She’s done a lot of telly.’

‘Hang on, backtrack a minute, Bryan. Someone wants to write a play based on The Man With the Brown Shoes?’

‘Yes, and take it to the Edinburgh Festival. If it does well there’s always the possibility it could be picked up for film or TV.’

‘Someone else wants to write Cesare?’ Annie’s voice rose. ‘My Cesare? No, just no. Never!’

She slammed the phone down.

‘I wonder, cara,’ said Cesare’s gentle voice in her head, ‘if that was quite wise.’

‘Oh, shut up!’ snapped Annie.

Chapter Two

‘I’m not saying it’ll go in the next half-hour, Miss Greig, but I wouldn’t like to lay any bets it’ll still be standing come next year. Not with the winter weather we’re getting now. You’d think with global warming we’d all get a few more sunny afternoons, but no. Up here it’s ruddy storms and damn near hurricanes. These old bricks,’ he slapped the side of Annie’s hearth, ‘they can’t take it.’

Annie took a deep breath. ‘Is it going to be expensive?’

George Brightly gave a big belly laugh. Annie smiled. Obviously it wasn’t going to be that bad. Then George named a price for which she could have bought three or four small cars. She gasped.

‘’Course, that ain’t including VAT, and you’ll need reports from both an architect and a structural engineer. There’s a couple I usually work with who aren’t as bad as the usual shower of charlatans, I can point them your way if I’m doing the job.’

Annie swallowed. ‘It turns out one of my books has done rather well. I should get a lump sum in a few months …’

George held up his hand. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t doubt you’re good for it, but with the industry the way it is, I’d need paying by the month. And reports would have to be paid for before I could even start. It’s all a bit hand-to-mouth for us round here at the minute.’

‘I’ll need to think about it,’ said Annie.

‘You do that, lass. Get yourself a couple of other quotes. Nobody will better mine though. Not unless you use cowboys. Make sure whoever you use is familiar with this kind of building. Wrong materials, wrong methods, and you’re throwing your money away, setting yourself up for even bigger repairs down the line.’

Annie nodded and attempted to smile brightly. She showed George to the front door then staggered back to the living room and collapsed by the fire. She picked up her cup of tea and drank it without noticing it was cold. The cost was staggering. There went her royalty windfall.

She looked over at the inglenook fireplace. What if the builders found it was worse than they thought when they opened it up? The village was littered with horror stories of what happened once you started to work on these old walls. It seemed you took one brick out and suddenly you found the house had been holding itself up by will alone and there was loads more work to do.

The Sudfords had started with a small conservatory extension and ended up selling their cottage when it was discovered a supposedly load-bearing wall had never been underpinned. The only way they had been able to recoup the costs had been to sell up and move to a much smaller house in the next village. People still discussed the event in hushed voices in the village Co-op. The villagers seemed to think that death was preferable to having to move out of Little Gattle. Annie had always laughed at them, inwardly, but now her mind spiralled from chimney repairs to destitution to leaving Owl Cottage. Unthinkable!

A tear slid down her cheek. She brushed it away roughly.

‘I’m sure I can talk her round,’ Bryan Douglas was saying. ‘She just need a little time to get used to the idea. Annie’s been writing Cesare for a long time. He means a lot to her.’

‘I’m sure he does,’ squawked a nasal voice in his ear, ‘but my producer wants a play to put on. He wants a sure-fire thing and we thought that’s what your girl had. Is it the money? Because I have to say our terms are pretty damn reasonable.’

Bryan held the receiver a little further away from his ear, so they wouldn’t hear him sigh. ‘You’ve been more than generous.’

‘Glad you appreciate it.’

‘But,’ interrupted Bryan, ‘the Cesare stories are going to be huge. It can take the market a while to realise what’s under its nose, but now they have the sky is the limit for Annie Greig. Your offer is fair, but you’re getting in at the ground floor here.’ He paused to let the other agent consider. ‘Give me some more time.’

‘A week, Bryan. I can give you a week.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Take her out for dinner at the Ivy. No one says no at the Ivy.’

Bryan ended the conversation and put the phone down. Whether or not people did say no at the Ivy, taking Annie anywhere was going to be a problem.

How the hell could he explain that when he and Annie had first spoken on the phone, he’d had a cold and she had mistaken his voice for that of a much older man. She’d even told him, quite bluntly, that she was glad he was old.

‘Oh, that sounds so rude,’ she’d added quickly, ‘but I live quite a quiet life, really, and I need to know I’m in the hand of an experienced professional.’

He had thought it a cynical comment, but hadn’t taken it too seriously. She was after all a new, nervous author who wanted a good agent. But as their relationship had progressed, it became clear that Annie was not so much cynical as painfully shy. She didn’t know any men of her own age, and trusted him because of his ‘advanced years’. His had been an avuncular role. Despite what he might tell Vera, his boss, that was why he had never brought Annie down to London.

Though he doubted she would have accepted the invite anyway.

The office door opened. Vera, all sharp angled haircut, blood-red nails, killer heels, and sheath-like suit, sashayed in. She perched on the edge of his desk. Bryan took in the length and tightness of the skirt. There was no point asking her to take a seat. It simply wouldn’t be possible.

‘You should get yourself a standing desk, Bry. They’re very on trend and so healthy.’

‘I’m quite comfortable sitting down.’

‘Touché,’ said Vera, and began to shift through the files on his desk.

‘Is there anything particular you want to know, Vera?’

‘Hmm?’ said his boss, teasing out a report from a manila file. ‘Goodness, is he still writing? I thought he was dead. He must be older than Methuselah by now. You really need to offload some of these old duffers.’

‘He still has readers.’

‘I don’t care about readers, darling. I care about the bestseller list. I care about big book deals. Personalities.’ She paused. ‘Plays that can become movies.’

Bryan sat back and suppressed a sigh. ‘You’ve heard about Annie.’

‘The girl you’ve been cosseting since goodness knows when. She’s had a lot of time from this agency and when something of hers starts to sell she gets all precious. I am not impressed. You need to bring her to heel, Bry.’

‘She hasn’t said no.’

‘She certainly hasn’t said yes. For heaven’s sake, man, take her out to dinner, explain how rich she can make us all. Use those big blue eyes of yours on her.’

‘We’ve never met.’

‘What?’

‘It’s all been done over the phone. She’s very reclusive.’

‘How reclusive?’

‘I don’t believe she ever leaves her village.’

‘How old is this woman exactly?’

‘Early thirties? I’m not sure. You remember she wouldn’t let us do a bio at the front of her books.’

Vera frowned. She appeared genuinely confused. Several queries were obviously colliding in her brain at the same time. Bryan waited to see which would win.

‘Where does she get her clothes if she doesn’t come down to London?’

Bryan shrugged.

Vera brightened. ‘Does she wear clothes? A naturist would gather us some headlines.’

‘She wears clothes,’ said Bryan gruffly. To his horror he could feel the blood rushing into his face.

‘Oh well,’ Vera narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Not that you’d know, never having