‘All right, all right, where’s the fire?’ Betsy chuntered crossly before opening the door.
She had a crease on one cheek and her hair, usually so immaculate, was fluffy on one side and had partly escaped from the clip at the back. She stretched her eyes as if adjusting to the daylight.
‘I’m so sorry, did I wake you?’
‘Good heavens, no,’ she said, appalled. ‘Asleep at four o’clock in the afternoon? Not me.’
‘Oh good,’ I said brightly. It was well after five; someone had had a nap and lost track of time.
‘Well, don’t stand on ceremony, come in.’ She turned away and marched off through an open door, trailing her hand along the wall as she did so.
I stepped into a hall with wood-panelled walls and a lovely worn herringbone wood floor. Overhead was a huge Tiffany chandelier which even when it was not lit from within created rainbow patterns on the walls where the light hit it.
The house smelled of vanilla, lemons and furniture polish and a faint hint of wood smoke; it was a welcoming home and I had the strange sense of being wrapped in a warm embrace. I smiled at my sentimental thoughts, shut the door and followed Betsy into a large old-fashioned kitchen. It was exactly how I imagined it would be: from the original deep butler sink with its lovely copper taps to the oiled oak worktops atop cream cupboards with worn metal handles. A family-sized table and chairs stood beneath a large picture window that had views out across the patio and the vineyard beyond. Bunches of dried herbs, a garland of garlic and a string of onions hung from a wooden drying rack which had a pulley system. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most dominant feature was the huge floor-to-ceiling wine rack which, next to a sturdy oak dresser, took up most of one wall.
It feels lived in and loved, like the heart of the home should be.
‘You have a beautiful home, Betsy.’
‘Hmm, you should have seen it when we moved in. A pigsty, in more ways than one. Sit down, I’ll make you a cup of tea; it’s just straightforward English – I don’t hold with that herbal stuff.’
‘Thank you. No milk for me, please.’
I took a seat at the table and inhaled the scent from a jug of sweet peas which sat in the centre on a small lace mat. Starsky trotted in, eyed me warily and then flipped over on to his back presenting me with a pink tummy to stroke. I obliged and he squirmed happily.
Betsy shook the kettle and topped it up at the sink. ‘The kitchen was the first room I did up when we moved in. Needs redoing now, but I shan’t bother.’
‘I think it’s lovely,’ I said, meaning it, taking in the row of knives on a magnetic strip fixed to the wall and an earthenware pot with at least fifteen wooden spoons and spatulas of varying sizes and the orangey-red cast-iron pots stacked in the corner. ‘It feels lived in and loved, like the heart of the home should be.’
Starsky rolled on to his tummy, curled into a ball and closed his eyes as if to prove just how much he loved this room.
‘It was.’ Betsy sighed so faintly that I barely heard her. Then she seemed to give herself a shake. ‘I always hankered after a large range cooker. Ted promised me one, but then decided we needed a quadbike more. He said as soon as we started making a profit from the wine we could have a whole new kitchen. I’m still waiting.’
A little alarm bell rang; did that mean that the vineyard had never made a profit? Or that Ted had always found something better to spend the money on? I decided that I wouldn’t ask those questions today, even if Betsy didn’t mind that I was nosy.
I remembered Marjorie saying something about Betsy burning herself and joined her by the kettle.
‘I’ll pour the tea, shall I?’ I said. The mugs she’d dropped teabags into were ringed inside with caffeine stains and looked like they could do with a good scrub.
‘No need.’ She took a small device from a drawer and clipped it on to the side of one of the mugs.
‘Aha! It’s a magic alarm to tell me when I’ve poured in enough liquid. My eyes find it hard to judge the level of water. Stops me burning myself. Despite what Marjorie may think, I’m not an idiot; I do keep myself safe. You can pass the milk, though.’
I opened the fridge and a whiff of something off made me gag. On the top shelf was a half-eaten carton of peeled prawns which had a greeny tinge to them. The use-by date was last week. What should I do? Tell her and risk embarrassing her, or . . . let her smell them for herself? And what if she didn’t, what if she ate them?
‘I was going to have prawn sandwiches for supper, if you wanted to join me?’ said Betsy. ‘Hurry up with that milk, dear.’
The question startled me and I ended up slamming the fridge door harder than I’d intended.
‘That’s very kind of you,’ I said, ‘but I’m planning on doing some reading this evening. Pippa said there might be some books on growing grapes you could lend me?’
‘Just a hundred or so,’ she said wryly. ‘I’ll find you some later. Come and watch my magic thingy.’
I watched as Betsy poured the boiling water into the mugs until the beeping noise alerted her to stop.
‘See,’ she said stoutly, handing me my mug. ‘Perfectly safe.’
‘Indeed.’ I wiped the hem of my T-shirt around the rim of the mug surreptitiously. I’d have to find a way of dumping those prawns in the bin, perhaps if she left the room . . .
‘Do sit down, dear, you’re cluttering the place up. I’ll find us a biscuit to tide us over. Should be a tin of shortbread in here somewhere.’
I did as I was told, hoping that whatever she was looking for wasn’t six months past its sell-by date. My stomach contracted at the thought. I wasn’t sure I could even drink my tea after sniffing the contents of that fridge, let alone swallow a biscuit.
‘This place was some sort of smallholding when we bought it,’ said Betsy, opening a cupboard and squinting at the contents. ‘A misguided couple from Birmingham had taken it on wanting a taste of the good life.’
‘Did they have animals or grow crops?’ I watched her run her hands over the tins and boxes and plastic Tupperware containers, seeking the biscuits by touch.
‘Both. Pigs and garlic.’ She let out a peel of laughter. Her fingers alighted on a square tin and she gave a triumphant sigh. ‘Can you imagine a more pungent combination? Once they’d got the good life, they found they didn’t like the taste after all. Nor the smell. Mind you, I’m not surprised. It took me six months to get the aroma of pig shit out of the stables where you’re living now.’
‘Goodness!’ I raised my eyebrows. It was such a lovely cosy little place; it was hard to imagine it with pigs in. I opened my mouth to say so but she got in there first.
‘Why the surprised tone?’ she tutted. ‘Because I said shit?’
‘No, not at all,’ I laughed. A scratching noise at the front door caught my attention and I turned my ear to the kitchen door to listen. It sounded like someone was sliding a key in.
His jaw had a hint of stubble and he smelled lovely; I probably smelled sweaty.
‘Honestly, why your generation thinks that swearing is the preserve of the young I’ll never know. Even Shakespeare was fond of a good obscenity. My particular favourite is f—’
‘Jensen!’ Betsy gasped. She dropped the tin and swept the little liquid alarm from the worktop mug into the drawer.
‘Surprise!’ A man bounded in, grabbed Betsy around the waist, lifted her from the floor and swung her round, pressing loud kisses to her cheek. I couldn’t help but smile, seeing the usually buttoned-up Betsy being whirled round, her feet flying out. I’d never seen her so undignified; but she seemed very happy about it.
Starsky sprang up too, his little tail thumping against the leg of the table.
Betsy hooted with laughter. ‘Good heavens, child, put me down.’
The ‘child’ was a man in his thirties dressed in smart trousers, polished shoes and a pale pink shirt, open at the neck with rolled-up sleeves just below his elbows. His dark blond hair was short at the back but the top was curly, flopping over one eye, giving him the look of a 1950s film star – charming with just a hint of mischief. He was taller than Betsy, which wasn’t hard, and athletic-looking – a lean build, so much more natural than the ginormous shoulders and biceps Harvey was so proud of.
He lowered his grandmother to the ground and she pressed a smacking kiss to his cheek before patting her hair back into place.
‘Silly boy,’ she chuckled, her cheeks rosy. ‘You gave me quite a fright.’
‘I rang the doorbell, but no one came so I used my key.’
Jensen spotted me at the table and smiled enquiringly. The dog couldn’t contain himself any longer and jumped up Jensen’s legs for some attention. He obliged, scratching behind the delighted dog’s ears. ‘Hello, boy.’
‘Battery’s dead and I couldn’t find the right screwdriver to replace it,’ said Betsy.
Jensen and I spoke at the same time:
‘I’ll do that.’
‘I can sort that.’
Jensen turned his attention to me. ‘My apologies, we haven’t been introduced.’
Wow. Jensen was one of the most gorgeous men I’d ever seen. Piercing navy blue eyes, dazzling smile, lovely teeth. I felt an unexpected ping in my chest. If I hadn’t been completely sworn off men after escaping Harvey’s clutches I may well have embarrassed myself by morphing into a swoony giggling girl. As it was I managed to keep perfect control.
‘I’m Lottie Allbright,’ I said, getting to my feet and returning his smile.
‘Jensen Butterworth.’ He shook my hand. ‘Lovely to meet you.’
Unexpectedly, the touch of his hand – warm, dry and somehow assured – sent the butterflies in my stomach into a tizz. Double wow.
‘Likewise.’ I swallowed.
His jaw had a hint of stubble and he smelled lovely; I probably smelled sweaty.
Why hadn’t I got changed before coming across? Slipped into a dress, or a T-shirt and shorts. Anything other than this polo shirt, still hanging out from when I’d rubbed my mug with it and which must have shrunk because it never used to be this tight across the chest, and these hideous work trousers which were brilliant for keeping thorns and insects at bay, but probably equally effective at keeping male admiration at bay too. Plus, I was hot suddenly. Very hot.
‘Lottie,’ said Betsy, suddenly tight-lipped, ‘is our new vineyard manager. Amongst other duties.’
He stared at me. ‘Sorry, I, er, I wasn’t expecting . . . Gran hasn’t mentioned anything about you.’
I realized I was still holding on to his hand.
‘Sorry,’ I said, releasing it. Now I wasn’t just hot, I was embarrassed too which meant a whole new level of attractiveness: my neck and chest had done its rashy thing.
‘Lottie.’ Jensen scratched his chin. ‘Hello, pleased to meet you.’
‘Clearly,’ said Betsy, looking between the two of us and smirking. ‘You’ve told her twice.’