I’m so pleased to have an EXCLUSIVE to share with readers of Portobello Book Blog today. It’s the final extract from Christina Courtenay’s new novel, The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight today! Make sure you read all of the extracts shared so far and pick up a copy of the book if you’re enjoying the story
You can read Chapter Four HERE.
You can read Chapter Five HERE.
The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight is by Christina Courtenay and published by Choc Lit. It is available to purchase in paperback and eBook format from all good suppliers. Please click here for buying options: www.choc-lit.com/dd-product/the-velvet-cloak-of-moonlight/
For more information on the author, you can follow her on Twitter @PiaCCourtenay
Now read on for Chapter Six
Merrick Court, 22nd May 2016
At last the sun had made an appearance, after months of rain and gloom, and Tess decided she had to be outside on such a glorious day. It would get her away from Rosie and, anyway, she loved gardening. Or she used to, before her life was turned upside down. Today, she could really do with taking out her frustrations on something and the weeds, which had thrived on the constant showers, would be the perfect targets.
Merrick Court was a wonderful old house that practically oozed charm and Tess understood very well why Giles had been obsessed with it. She loved it herself, but the title and all that it entailed had always been more of a burden than a privilege to her. She’d be better off without it. The garden, however, was a different matter. She would miss that terribly when she had to leave. It was like something from a gardening magazine, laid out in large squares with different features. Two walled gardens side by side – one for vegetables, one for roses – an orchard with fruit cages next to it, some formal lawns, parkland and what was left of an intricate Elizabethan knot garden. The only parts that were currently in any proper state were the lawns, vegetable beds and fruit sections. And that was all thanks to the ancient gardener, Bryn Jones.
‘Old Bryn’s been here forever,’ Giles had told her when he’d first introduced them to each other, but Tess could see the man wasn’t that ancient. Mid-seventies, perhaps? He was certainly the old-fashioned kind of gardener though and did everything properly. During her four years of marriage to Giles, Bryn had taught Tess a huge amount about growing vegetables, pruning, thinning and generally encouraging everything to grow. She now felt she had a handle on what needed to be done when and although he did most of it, she’d always helped whenever she had a spare moment. Until Giles’s accident …
Well, time to get back into it as the May sunshine was making every part of the garden explode with greenery. She found the tools she needed and got stuck in.
An hour spent battling bindweed, brambles, nettles and their pestilential friends calmed her down and at the same time invigorated her. As she set off towards the compost heap with a full wheelbarrow she had an inner glow of satisfaction. With that to hold onto, she would cope with Rosie. She’d just have to stay out of the way and let her sister-in-law get on with whatever she was doing. Perhaps she’d soon tire of her lists and go home.
Deep in thought, she rounded a corner of the brick wall that enclosed the vegetable patch and almost rammed into a man who was bent over, pulling at a sapling that clearly shouldn’t be there.
‘Whoa!’ Tess swerved, then stopped dead as the man straightened up.
Tall, with black hair that was shaggy and tousled, and with matching dark stubble, he had the kind of face that could sell millions of bottles of aftershave. Clear green eyes under perfectly sculpted eyebrows – Tess could picture them staring moodily out of an advert in a glossy magazine – and if he hadn’t oozed masculinity, she would have sworn he was wearing mascara, so thick were his eyelashes. He was lean and rangy, but not too thin – his shoulders and arms powerful – and as he was shirtless she could see that his upper body was nicely defined under a stunningly deep suntan. There was some sort of tribal tattoo high up on his left arm and his faded and torn black jeans showed that his legs were as muscular as the rest of him.
‘Who the hell are you?’ she blurted out, then felt her cheeks heat up. Not exactly a subtle way to greet one of the hottest men she’d ever met, but he had no business being in her garden. Well, Merrick Court’s garden. And she had no business finding him attractive – she was recently widowed, for heaven’s sake, and the last thing she needed at the moment was a man to complicate her life.
His eyes reminded her of something – she’d been attracted to another green-eyed man the day before, the one at the castle who’d been gorgeous too, although in a different way. She frowned at the thought. What was the matter with her? And why was the county suddenly full of handsome men with emerald eyes?
‘And g’day to you too. I could say the same, eh?’ He leaned on the spade he’d been using to dig out the root of the sapling and regarded her with his head to one side as if he was wondering what she was doing there. His accent was Australian, or maybe New Zealand – Tess had had both Aussie and Kiwi friends at art college but could never tell which was which. Deliciously Antipodean in any case – she was a sucker for accents.
She ignored his greeting. ‘I’m sure Bryn knows there’s no money to pay for help in the garden at the moment.’ Although in truth she couldn’t actually remember the last time she’d talked to the old man. She had been kind of a hermit of late.
‘Oh, yeah? Well, I don’t need paying,’ he said, with a smile that she found both infuriating and amazingly alluring. Yep, definitely model material. Was that why he didn’t need to be paid? He was already rich? But he wasn’t exactly dressed like a millionaire.
‘I’ll have to discuss this with Bryn.’ She picked up the handles of the wheelbarrow and almost overbalanced it in her haste to get away from this man. He was disturbing her equilibrium and he shouldn’t be in her garden. Damn it, Merrick Court’s garden. When would she stop thinking of it as hers?
‘I’ll come with you. I want to hear this.’ The guy fell into step beside her, walking with long unhurried strides. ‘Want any help with that?’ Again, that annoying smile and his eyes were twinkling too as if he was amused by her efforts to stay calm.
‘No, thanks, I can manage.’
She did, but only just, and she ended up panting with the effort of upending the barrow onto the compost heap, which didn’t help. Nor did the stranger, who followed behind her but didn’t offer assistance again. Instead he crossed his arms, making his biceps bunch up in the most eye-catching way. Annoying man, he was probably doing it on purpose so she’d look at him. She didn’t want to but Tess had to force herself not to stare at the tattoo, which was strangely fascinating. By the time they got to the potting shed, where Bryn could usually be found if he wasn’t outside, she was ready for some answers.
‘Bryn, are you there?’
‘In yere.’ The old man’s Welsh lilt was one of the things she loved about him. That and his ready smile. ‘Just making tea again. Would you like some, my lovely?’
Tess walked into the shed, closely followed by the shirtless stranger. ‘Yes, please, but Bryn —’ She didn’t have time to finish her sentence.
‘Oh, there you are, er … Josh. Come and have a cuppa as well, won’t you?’
Bryn looked from one to the other. ‘So you’ve met his lordship then.’ It was a statement, not a question.
Tess swivelled towards the younger man. ‘L-lordship? What do you mean?’
‘The new owner of Merrick Court,’ Bryn explained patiently. ‘Josh, he says to call him, but I don’t know …’ He scratched his balding head.
But Tess wasn’t looking at him. She glared at the newcomer. Josh, Lord Merrick? He couldn’t be, could he? ‘Why didn’t you mention that?’
He grinned. ‘You didn’t ask.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake …’ Tess stared at the man. Why hadn’t he told her who he was instead of letting her think he was just some workman? But then she had been rather rude so perhaps he’d wanted to punish her a little? She felt her cheeks heating up, embarrassed now by her lack of manners.
‘And who are you?’ Josh said. ‘I thought no one else worked here.’ He raised his eyebrows at the old man as if they’d been discussing this earlier.
‘Oh, didn’t I say?’ Bryn tutted at himself. ‘This yere is Lady Merrick.’
‘What?’ Josh’s eyebrows shot up even further. ‘But I thought … oh, bollocks.’
‘Er, would you care to explain that eloquent statement?’ It was Tess’s turn to cross her arms.
He looked a bit sheepish. ‘Uhm, well, I was expecting what the lawyer called a “dowager”. I mean …’
Tess cottoned on. ‘Ah, an old-age pensioner? Sorry to disappoint you.’
‘I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed exactly.’ Josh grinned briefly again as his gaze travelled the length of her body, lingering on her curves and long, honey-gold hair which was currently piled on top of her head and fastened with a clip. But then he seemed to recollect that he was talking to a widow and the smile disappeared. ‘That’s to say, your age doesn’t matter to me. I was just surprised, is all.’
‘I should hope not too.’ Tess was annoyed to find that the warmth in his eyes as he’d given her the once-over made her hot and flustered. He was disturbingly handsome. How old could he be? Probably in his early thirties, although possibly younger as he was so fit. It was hard to tell.
‘Come and have some tea and then you can get to know each other,’ Bryn suggested.
‘Good idea.’ In truth, Tess had forgotten the old man was there, she was so focused on Josh. Which was totally wrong. She shook herself mentally and went to sit down.
‘So you’ve been the lady of the manor then,’ Josh commented, taking the mugs from Bryn and setting them on an old table surrounded by stools.
Tess loved it in here. It had been her refuge whenever things with Giles got too bad. Sitting in such timeless surroundings, breathing in the scents from the garden and chatting to the old man had always filled her with peace and inner strength.
Not today though. Josh made her all jittery and it annoyed her that he had this effect on her. She didn’t like feeling wrong-footed and they had definitely not started off the right way. But he was nothing like she’d imagined he would be. Not that she’d thought much about it, but she too had envisaged someone older, so she couldn’t really blame Josh for thinking the same about her.
‘Yes, you could say that,’ she replied. It was not a role she’d ever felt comfortable with but it was in the past, so no point mentioning that.
Bryn brought out his trusted old biscuit tin and put that on the table, together with a carton of milk.
‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ Josh said, his eyes showing that he meant it. ‘Now that I’ve met you, I can see it’s doubly tragic.’
Tess assumed he was referring to Giles’s youth. ‘Thank you. Yes, it was a bit of a shock, to say the least. An accident,’ she explained, as Josh obviously didn’t know what had happened. ‘Didn’t the lawyers tell you anything?’ She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice, but she was still a bit cross about stumbling on him like this. Why hadn’t he come up to the house? Or rung to say he was coming? And why was he working in the garden? But maybe the solicitor had told her about his visit and she’d forgotten. The medication she’d been taking did make her lose track occasionally. Another good reason she’d stopped taking it.
Bryn answered the second of those questions as soon as he’d perched on one of the stools while Tess and Josh helped themselves to biscuits.
‘Josh arrived a bit early so I persuaded him to wait before waking you. I didn’t know you were up and about today. And he offered to help me with some of the heavy work while he was waiting. I hope you don’t mind, Lady M?’ He’d always called her that, as a sort of joke, ever since she’d told him not to be so formal with her.
‘Well, no, of course not, but …’
‘I’m sorry, I should have let you know I was coming,’ Josh put in. ‘But I was under the impression you’d moved out. I’m afraid I was in a bit of a hurry when I went to see Mr Harrison, the lawyer, in London and I must have missed the part about you still living here. I just wanted to come and have a look at the place.’ Josh waved his biscuit to encompass the estate. ‘He said the “custodian” would let me in. I had no idea that meant you.’
‘Why are you still here? If you don’t mind me asking.’
Josh’s piercing green eyes made Tess want to squirm, but she had every right to be here at the moment. ‘Mr Harrison felt that from a security point of view it was better to keep the house occupied and it took them rather a long time to find you, I gather.’
‘I was travelling. The friend who was in charge of collecting my mail back home in New Zealand didn’t think the envelope from Harrison looked important.’ Josh rolled his eyes. ‘Just because it wasn’t a bill. He’s not the sharpest tool in the box but he’s a good mate.’
‘Right. Well, anyway, Mr Harrison asked me to stay on and so I did.’ Tess had looked into renting a place nearby but hadn’t wanted to start paying rent before it was necessary. That would have been a waste of money.
‘Okay. I understand where he was coming from and I’m grateful to you for waiting so long. As I said, if I’d known I’d have come sooner. I’m sure we can come to some agreement now.’
‘So are you wanting to move in immediately?’ Tess held her breath, hoping he’d say no.
‘Not exactly. I’ll need a place to crash for a few days while I look at everything, but after that I don’t intend to live here. I’m selling up. From what I’ve heard, that takes a fair bit of time in this country. Two to three months, right?’
‘You’re selling Merrick Court?’ So Rosie had been right. Tess should be pleased the house might go to Louis after all, but for some reason she wasn’t. This man had only just arrived and he hadn’t even seen it yet. How could he care so little for what had turned out to be his birthright?
Josh sighed. ‘Yes, that is my plan.’ He glanced at Bryn. ‘Although I’m getting the vibe you guys think I’m nuts.’
‘No, no, it’s up to you, of course. For now, I’m sure we can find you a spare room or two to sleep in.’ It was meant to be a joke, but Josh’s expression turned pensive.
‘Hmm, yeah, that’s a bit awkward, huh? I’m guessing you still feel this is your home so I wouldn’t want to be an uninvited guest. Maybe there’s a hotel nearby or something?’
‘I don’t mind, really.’ Although that was a lie and Tess had a feeling he could hear it in her voice.
‘How about you use my guest room?’ Bryn put in. ‘I’m only just down the road so you’ll have easy access to the house.’
Tess and Josh answered at the same time.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Oh, Bryn, we don’t want to put you out …’
Bryn chuckled. ‘It’s no bother. You’re more than welcome, especially seeing as you own my cottage too.’ The twinkle in Bryn’s eyes told Tess he didn’t mind and she wondered what Josh had done to get into the old man’s good graces so quickly. Perhaps it had been the digging? Not exactly the behaviour expected of a lord.
‘It should be me moving out,’ Tess said, but Josh held up a hand to stop her protesting any further.
‘No, it’s fine. I stuffed up by not telling you about my arrival so I’ll stay with Bryn. Cheers, mate,’ he added and clapped Bryn on the back before grabbing his T-shirt which had been half shoved into his back pocket. As he pulled it on, Tess looked away, even though her eyes wanted to stray to that amazing torso. ‘Have you got time to show me round the house now or should I come back later?’
‘The house? Oh, yes, sure.’ Tess stood up, dragging her thoughts away from the sight before her. Even with his T-shirt back on he was incredibly attractive, but it shouldn’t matter to her.
‘I saw Miss Rosie and the children arriving yesterday,’ Bryn commented while he started clearing away the mugs. ‘Come for a visit, have they?’
‘No, she’s just here to annoy me.’ The words came out before Tess had a chance to think about it, but when Josh snorted, she realised she’d been a bit indiscreet. ‘I mean …’
Josh laughed, a delicious rumble that made something inside Tess stir. ‘No, don’t backtrack on my account. I love a good family feud. Had my fair share of them. I take it she’s family?’
‘Not mine. She’s my late husband’s sister. And it’s not exactly a feud,’ Tess started to say, but then wondered if it was. She and Rosie had been at loggerheads almost from the first time they’d met, since Rosie hadn’t considered Tess anywhere near good enough for her brother. Presumably she’d have preferred one of her posh friends, not an art student from a very middle-class family.
‘Miss Rosie never did learn any tact,’ Bryn put in. ‘Spoiled by her da’, so she was, something rotten. Always demanding this, that and the other, and usually got it. I suppose it’s the husband that buys it now.’
‘Well, he can afford it,’ Tess muttered. Besides having inherited a fortune, George was something important in the City and he seemed to give Rosie whatever she wanted.
‘Are they staying long?’ Bryn asked.
‘No idea. I didn’t even know they were coming, but they’ll have to fend for themselves food-wise as I can’t afford to subsidise anyone.’
Bryn smiled. ‘Speaking of food, I’ve been offered a couple of hens. What do you think, should I take them? It would give you free eggs.’ His smile faded. ‘Although maybe there’s no point now as I don’t know where I’ll be living in a few months’ time. No, tell you what, I’ll just borrow a couple from the farmer down the road.’
Tess swallowed hard and nodded. ‘Yes, why not?’
He was such a sweetie, trying to help her out. He knew she was struggling to make ends meet. Without a regular housekeeping allowance, her only income was from the fledgling business that she’d started as a hobby. It wasn’t making much profit as yet, but she was working on it so hopefully it would do soon.
‘I’ll see to that then. I’ll keep them in my own garden.’
‘Thanks, Bryn.’ Tess turned to Josh. ‘Shall we go?’
‘Yep. Lead the way, Lady M.’ He smiled at her and for some stupid reason she felt her cheeks heat up again. The way he said ‘Lady M’ in that wonderful Kiwi accent made her nerve-endings tingle, which was ridiculous. There was a whole nation of people who spoke like that, he was just one of them.
‘It’s Tess,’ she said. ‘Bryn only calls me Lady M because … well, it’s a joke.’
‘Okay, Tess it is.’
His green gaze fixed on her for a moment, filling her with confusion. Those eyes felt familiar, unsettling, but exciting at the same time. It was as though she knew him, but of course she’d never met him before today. Strange.
‘Come on then.’ She headed for the door. ‘Thanks for the tea, Bryn.’