What Happens in Tuscany by T.A. Williams
Katie didn’t really have experience of many men. There had been that first time with her friend Melanie’s brother, after both of them had consumed potentially liver-crippling quantities of cider. Her memory of the event was mercifully very hazy, but she remembered enough to know that the earth had not moved for her, at least until she started throwing up. There had been a few short-lived affairs at university and then, of course, for the last seven years, there had been Dean. She had only exchanged a few emails with him since the break-up, and if she never heard from him again, that would be just fine with her.
She shook her head to clear it and returned her thoughts to her rugby-playing solicitor. As the big car snaked in and out among the dense undergrowth of rhododendron bushes beneath the canopy of ancient trees, she knew she was looking forward to seeing Martin again. The fact that every minute took her further away from him made this all the more unlikely.
‘There’s the great house up there, Miss.’ She was brought back to the present by the voice of Mr Mackintosh. He extended an arm out in front of him as the woodland gave way to open pastures. There, in the distance, set at the edge of a lake, was one of the most wonderful houses she had ever seen. As they drove towards it, faster now as the road straightened out and widened, she saw the absolute perfection of its design, a triumph of columns, arches and extravagant statuary. It was quite enormous and surrounded by magnificent gardens.
The estate appeared to be ringed by a high stone wall that disappeared off into the distance either side of a lodge house that guarded the fine wrought iron gates. Mr Mackintosh hooted the wonderful old klaxon with his gloved hand and seconds later a figure limped out of the lodge and unlocked the gates. As they swept through, Katie saw that the gatekeeper was an old man, bald apart from an edging of straggly white hair around his shiny pate. He raised his fingers to his temple in salute and she found herself waving back like royalty.
There was a vibration from the tyres as they crossed a cattle grid and entered the parkland. A fine selection of specimen trees dotted the fields and Katie soon realised that the animals sheltering in the shade beneath their branches were deer. It was a magnificent scene, like something out of a Gainsborough or Constable painting. A drumming noise drew her attention. She looked around and saw that they were being followed by a figure on horseback. As she watched, the galloping horse drew near and then overtook them. The rider peeled off in the direction of the house before Katie could get a clear look at her. She registered that is was a female figure, dressed in impeccable white breeches and shiny black boots, but she and the horse quickly disappeared from sight. The car followed the avenue as it weaved between the ancient trees. By the time the big vehicle crunched across the gravel in front of the house, there was no sign of the horse or its rider.
‘Was that Miss Victoria?’ Katie looked up at Mr Mackintosh as he jumped out to open the door for her. He nodded briefly.
‘Yes, Miss. I imagine she’s gone round to the stable yard with Thumper.’
‘That’s the name of her horse?’
‘That’s the name of the horse she was riding this afternoon. She has a string of horses to suit her mood.’
‘Does she have a lot of different moods?’ There was a pause before Mr Mackintosh risked a response.
‘She has not had an easy life, Miss, in spite of all this.’ He waved a gloved hand in the general direction of the manor house. ‘I’m sure she will tell you herself.’
Katie climbed out and went round to retrieve her luggage, but Mackintosh had preceded her. ‘That’s all right, Miss. I’ll see that these go up to your room. Here’s Mrs Milliner. She’ll look after you.’
A maternal-looking woman who could have been mid-fifties, or maybe a shade older, appeared from the main door of the house and made her way nimbly down the steps towards them. She nodded approvingly as she saw Mr Mackintosh with Katie’s bags and gave him his instructions. ‘The young lady will be in the Green Room. If you would be so kind, Mr Mackintosh…’
He grunted assent and headed for the house. Mrs Milliner turned her attention to Katie, who was feeling a bit overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the place and the formality of the staff members. As Mrs Milliner extended her hand towards her, she felt quite apprehensive. The handshake, however, was gentle and an equally gentle smile spread across the woman’s face. ‘Welcome to Iddlescombe Manor, Miss Parr. I’m Mrs Milliner.’ She supplied no details of her job description but Katie had definitely got the impression by now that Mrs Milliner was in charge. She did her best to reply in a strong voice.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Milliner. My name is Katherine, but everybody calls me Katie.’
‘Very good, Miss Katie. Now, if you would like to come along with me, I’ll show you to your room.’ Katie walked with her up the front steps. Two massive stone lions guarded the doors, which were a masterpiece of elaborate carving. A fine brass letterbox was set into the woodwork, shining brightly as only regularly polished brass can do. A massive metal rod and handle hung down to one side of the doors, presumably to act as the doorbell. Mrs Milliner stood to one side and motioned Katie inside.
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