What do you do when your best friend has an affair with the man to whom you’ve been married for twenty-five years? The father of your two children and the person you trusted with your heart? Not to mention the best years of your life …
Well, you pack your bags, grab half of the equity in the house you’ve both lovingly restored and run away to an idyllic little cottage in the country.
I suppose not having the cottage surveyed was the first mistake—buying with your heart, and not your head, isn’t the wisest move. The second was moving in six days before Christmas, the day the heavens decided to open and the rain just kept on coming.
Maddie Brooks grits her teeth and hires the highly recommended man who can, ex-soldier, Lewis Hart.
Chapter 1: Falling in Love All Over Again
The queue of traffic inches forward slowly as I glance at the clock on the dashboard for what seems like the millionth time. Ahead of me someone honks their horn in sheer exasperation. The farmer seems completely oblivious as he slowly rounds up the stragglers to rejoin his large flock of sheep. If I wasn’t so stressed, I’d probably enjoy this quaint little scene that’s a million miles away from the bustle of city life. However, I’m nearly fifteen minutes late for an appointment to view my dream cottage, which has literally just come on the market. Life without a love interest is going to be simpler, I’ve decided; no more having to pander to the whims of a man, and at least bricks and mortar can’t break your heart.
I’m the first to view and if I don’t get there before the next couple arrive, well, I simply can’t let that happen. The truth is that cottages in my price range are few and far between. I glance at the property details lying on the passenger seat and grit my teeth. Ramming the gear stick into reverse I edge back a little, sending the driver behind me into panic mode. He’s safe enough – I’m sure there are inches to spare. It’s not exactly a three-point turn, but after a series of manoeuvres I finally manage to turn the car around and leave the queue of traffic behind. My satnav goddess kindly informs me that in two hundred yards I should turn around, even when I explain to her, very politely, that I have to find another route.
“Drive two hundred yards and turn around,” she reiterates for the third time.
“But I need you to recalculate and find me another route,” I plead. She ignores my request, so I stab my finger at the screen while trying to negotiate the narrow country lane.
“Take a left and turn around,” her perfect and calm voice fills the car.
“Please, just recalculate and find me another route before I have a total meltdown!” I’m mortified to hear my own voice sounding worryingly unhinged, but it does the trick.
“Recalculating. Drive fifty yards and take a right turn.”
I adjust the air-conditioning and reposition the vents until a waft of deliciously cold air sweeps over my flushed and perspiring face. The lane becomes even narrower and steeper, branches flicking against the sides of the car as I speed along as fast as I dare. If I meet someone coming towards me now there is nowhere to go. I have to drop down into second gear as the gradient increases rather suddenly. I wonder if I’m being punished by my satnav goddess for ignoring her instructions. Is this the alternative route from hell and is this how she exacts revenge when someone chooses to ignore her instructions? I had had no idea that there were lanes as narrow as this, the hedges either side are barely clearing my wing mirrors. It’s bordering on claustrophobic and hard to believe this is going to lead anywhere, other than into a field. I must be lost.
“In one hundred yards turn left into Forge Hill and your destination is on the left.”
Unexpectedly, the lane begins to open out again as I approach the top of the hill and take the turning.
“In seventy-five yards your destination is located on the left.”
“I find that hard to …” The words die on my lips as I round the corner and am surprised to see a small collection of farm buildings and cottages. As I continue on past a rather sharp bend, the view suddenly opens up as the hillside falls away. There, in front of me, is my chocolate-box cottage.
“Your destination is on the left,” my satnav goddess confirms and I respond politely.
“Thank you, thank you and thank you!” A wave of excitement grips me as I pull onto the short drive in front of a rather quirky-looking garage.
Stepping out of the car, I immediately spot an older woman walking towards me. Well, I say older, she’s about my age.
“I’m very sorry I’m late,” I extend my hand. “I’m Madeleine Brooks.” We shake and exchange smiles.
“Sarah Manning. Lovely to meet you. Glad you were able to find it. We have back-to-back viewings this afternoon, but the next couple has phoned in to say they’re lost and are running late, so it’s not a problem. Have you come far?”
“Only thirty miles, but I’ve been in the car for well over an hour. I managed to get held up by a flock of sheep,” I laugh.
“Ah, country living. It’s a different pace of life the minute you get away from the city. If you’re looking for peace and tranquility this is it.”
As I follow Sarah along the winding footpath that takes us from the road down to the cottage, I can’t take my eyes off the view. The valley unfolds gently in front of us, belying any true sense of height or distance. The lower level of the cottage nestles back against an outcrop of rust-coloured rock, with a canopy of leafy-green forest high above it, creating a perfect backdrop. Every window in this property faces out onto the panoramic view. It sweeps down to what looks like a stream in the distance and then across to the other side of the valley. It is, quite simply, breathtaking.
The entrance is via a glazed door into a large conservatory, which runs the entire length of the cottage. As we step inside a mixture of joy, apprehension and knowing, hit me. I’ve found my new home and it’s going to be the perfect place to begin my new life.
“Of course, it’s a bit unloved at the moment and requires some work. It’s a probate case; the owner, Aggie, died about a year ago.” Sarah casts her eyes over my face to see whether I register any concern. “The bank is handling the estate as there are eight beneficiaries. All are distant relatives and tracking them down hasn’t been easy. I’m afraid there’s no room for negotiation on the price. We’ve been instructed to market it at five thousand pounds below the current valuation in order to achieve a quick sale. It’s sold as seen.”
I have no idea what that means, but her words fall on deaf ears. I’m too caught up in the moment to process what I’m being told.
“I’ll take it.” The words echo around the large conservatory, which looks like the only room in the cottage that can be even loosely described as anything other than bijou.
“The kitchen is small, but very quaint,” Sarah throws in, as if reading my mind. My eyes are everywhere, imagining how it will look once it’s renovated. Much of the conversation is one-sided. Sarah’s voice continues to float over my head, as if I’m surrounded by a force field.
I’m picturing myself at a Belfast sink, gazing out of the window at the sweeping vista below as I wash the dishes. I notice a dovecote on the other side of the valley in the garden of a rather large farmhouse. A flight of doves circle and swoop, diving in formation and landing elegantly on a nearby roof, as if they’ve been lovingly choreographed. After a few minutes they take to the air again, the stark contrast of their white feathers against the cornflower-blue sky creating a magical moment.
“You don’t mind the main bathroom being off the kitchen?” Sarah asks, bringing me back into the moment.
“Sorry? Oh, no. I like quirky. There is a shower room upstairs, isn’t there?” I’m sure I saw that on the details.
“Yes, but the only bath is in here.” She pushes open a rather narrow door and I’m delighted to see a surprisingly spacious room beyond. The suite is tired and needs replacing, but the proportions of the room are totally unexpected. In the centre of the vaulted ceiling is a large Velux window. It’s a window that has nothing to obscure it, filled only with clouds and blue sky, as if it were a framed picture.
“Imagine lying in the bath and looking up at the stars,” I murmur, thinking out loud.
Sarah laughs. “Well, that’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. You really have fallen in love with Ash Cottage, haven’t you?”
“I’m serious about the offer. I’m a cash buyer and I’d like to move things along as quickly as possible. I’m desperately in need of a home.”
I see a slight frown cross her brow as her business head kicks in.
“Nothing dodgy,” I quickly add. “It’s a cash settlement from my ex-husband following our divorce. Ironically, we’d spent many years turning a rundown Victorian house into the perfect family home. I always dreamt of owning a little cottage like this some day, but I always thought it would be somewhere to spend leisurely weekends together.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” Her voice softens and I kick myself, thinking that this was too much information. My emotions are still raw. I find myself constantly struggling to avoid bursting into tears or letting slip details people simply don’t want to hear, particularly strangers. When you’re hurtling towards fifty and your whole life is suddenly hanging around you in shreds, it’s as if you don’t know who you are any more. Sometimes I’m not even aware I’m saying my thoughts out aloud.
“Sorry, and it’s fine, really. I just wanted to reassure you that I’m in a good position. I’m in rented accommodation and the cash is sitting in the bank. Please don’t sell Ash Cottage to anyone else.”
I’m mortified when my eyes begin to fill with tears and Sarah is clearly embarrassed. Damn it! I have to stop making a fool of myself and I utter a silent prayer of thanks that I’ve finally found a place that feels right. Now, at last, the first step towards the rest of my life is within reach.
We exchange glances that soften into polite smiles and Sarah holds up her mobile.
“Right, I … um, well, I’ll ring in your full asking-price offer while you take a look at the bedrooms. If you’re sure, that is?”
“I’m sure. Every box on my list is already ticked, it couldn’t be more perfect. I have one condition – that they take it off the market immediately. I’m not sure I could face another disappointment at this point in my life.”
Something akin to an awkward grimace flashes over her face as she turns to exit; her finger is already on the dial button.
I know it’s not perfect at the moment, but the point is, it will be. Our second house was a wreck, literally. So, I know what can be achieved if you are prepared to roll up your sleeves, get a little dirty and make endless cups of coffee for plumbers, electricians and carpenters.
The bank is happy to recommend my offer to the beneficiaries, together with my proviso.
“You won’t sell it to anyone else in the meantime, Sarah, will you? I mean, I’ve heard about gazumping and I can’t really afford to increase my offer.”
“Don’t worry, there’s no reason at all why the beneficiaries would say no. The sale price is fair and it’s just a formality. Ash Cottage is yours.”
True to her word, Sarah rang to confirm just that the very next day and it was a major boost to my confidence. This middle-aged, recently divorced woman felt as if she had finally taken back control of her life.