If you haven't read it yet, stop right now, and go and read 'The Powerful Play Goes On'. It's on my profile page. Or you can Sherlock your way to it via the Sense and Sensibility board. I'll be waiting here when you come back. Then all will make much more sense.
Part II: Cate
It all started with a very innocent "Are you coming round the house?" What happened after that I entirely blame on Dr. Gil Grissom.
Harry's eyebrows were raised in question. Something, I deduced, Nick Stokes-like, was up. He had glanced at Ed, then Ellis, then finally at me, asking if I was coming round the house. I paused. Ellis had threatened me to not leave her but then, really, it just made the whole thing more suspicious. To my shame, I also immediately trusted Harry, largely because he was quite cute. Not handsome, exactly. He was too tall and gangly, and not at all classical in profile, but he smiled easily and genuinely, and I couldn't help but like that. Except those are the kind of people who, in the last five minutes of CSI suddenly drop the smile and look evil and reveal that they killed their mother/father/girlfriend/neighbour. With a biro. But he was a vicar. Surely that couldn't be underestimated: he had God on his side. I took a deep breath, trying to squash the inner rambling monologue that I had going on and, glancing at Ellis who was sporting an evil expression, I said, "Uh…sure." Cool Cate. Really smooth.
He grinned. Then he fell in beside me, walking up to the house.
We were only just out of Ellis and Ed's ear-shot when my conscience got the better of me:
"I shouldn't have left her alone." It slipped out before I could stop it. I glanced back over my shoulder, and saw them shuffling awkwardly.
"I'm not sure that I should have left him either."
I glanced up at him, surprised. "He asked you not to?"
He shrugged. "Not in so many words, but…"
I winced. "She did. Her actual words were 'don't you dare leave me'."
"Oops." Harry's grin twitched back into life. "I think that officially makes you the worst friend here."
"Damn it." I stilled, suddenly remembering what Marc had said about him. "Sorry," I said.
Harry stopped walking. "You aren't apologising about saying 'damn' in front of a vicar, are you?"
I winced again. "Maybe? It seems particularly bad."
He smiled, slowly. "It's not. Ed has said much worse things in front of me, and neither have my ears withered, nor has Ed been struck by lightning."
"Good to know."
"Also, I'm a vicar in the very loosest sense of the word."
"You mean, you're not?"
"Pretty much. I'm training right now. It's not like I run a parish single handed and am off to jumble sales and tea parties every weekend."
He grinned again. "No, that would be if I were a vicar on television."
"Oh." I paused. "You're the only vicar here though, loosest sense or not, which makes it more shameful for you to have abandoned your friend."
He smiled some more. He paused to let me in through the double doors first. I entered, then glanced back, through the glazing. They were standing closer than they had been. His head was bowed. Ellis reached out a hand to his arm, and he looked up. Harry stopped too, and looked back. He glanced at me. "We could still go back."
"They look all right, don't they?"
Ed suddenly smiled.
Harry nodded. "Yeah. Come on. They went left, right?" he asked, and he led the way into the formal dining room.
"Have you seen Ellis?"
My semi-guilt was not helped by Brandon's murderous expression. "Uh…not in a while. Why?"
He ran a hand through his hair, impatiently pushing it out of his face. "I…uh…she wasn't…" He paused suddenly, seeming to turn things over.
"Is she all right?"
He leaned heavily on the counter. "I don't know." He stood up again. "I'll call her in a bit." He sighed. "What do you want?"
"Coffee? Maybe some cake."
He raised an eyebrow. "Just for you or for that bean-pole out there too?"
I hit him. "Shut up. I'm just showing him around."
"Because there's absolutely no one else here who could possibly do that?"
I narrowed my eyes. I thought about recalling incidents with Barbies meeting their unfortunate end under the lawn-mower, but then decided against it. After all, it did create the brilliant game 'dead-toy CSI'. "Just give me the coffee, would you?"
He smirked a little. "Fine. I might make it a decaf though. He looks chirpy enough as it is."
"No one smiles that much, naturally."
"Would you stop?"
He smirked some more. "Fine. Get the cake yourself." He pushed a cardboard take-out box at me and then turned to the delicate coffee machine, made all the more delicate by Dad's ministrations to it that morning. A few minutes later, he passed me two cups. "Have fun with your new friend."
"I'm going to kick your ass."
"You can try, Short-Round."
I carried the food out onto the deck. "I will," I called back, then nearly bumped into Harry.
"This view," he exclaimed. "It's amazing."
I handed him his coffee, then looked out across the sea. It did look beautiful, the sun sparkling on every wave-top, sea gulls wheeling. "You forget," I said, "after a while."
He grinned, took a gulp of coffee and sighed, satisfied. "So, what am I missing right now?"
"That would probably be the tour of the gardens."
"Ah." He winced
"What? Did you want to see them?"
"Kind of." He leaned against the railings, and accepted a doughnut out of the box. "My Dad wanted me to come and scout out the gardens here. He's looking into having ours remodelled or something like it."
I pursed my lips. "So a tour around the gardens with, say, the landscape architect who designed them would be ideal?"
His eyes widened. "Are you serious?"
"Come on," I said. "We can take our coffee with us." I fished my doughnut out of the box, and led the way back through the boat-house. "Hey, you can have this back," I said, throwing the empty box back at Brandon.
"I don't want it back…" he growled. "Catherine…"
"See you later!" I called, chirpily, and exited the building.
"Friend of yours?"
I smiled. "My oldest brother."
He had paused by the lake, watching the grebes chasing each other, kicking up the spray behind them.
"So," I began, breaking his reverie. He blinked, turned, and smiled again. "What's your garden like?"
He took a sip of his coffee. "Small, paved and cluttered with broken garden furniture."
He grinned. "Dad's, however, is 40 acres of lush North Devon countryside."
"Oh, he's funny! Why did no one warn me of this?"
He grinned again, starting to walk next to me. "Karl Barth said that laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God."
I narrowed my eyes at him. "Did he?" I said, my tone deliberately cautious.
His grin widened. "Yes," he said, holding laughter back only just past the surface. "Also, Hobbes said that if we couldn't laugh at things that didn't make sense then we couldn't react to a lot in life."
I frowned. "Hobbes? The philosopher?"
His look was all too innocent. "Uh…no. The tiger."
I seriously considered pushing him in the lake. Fortunately for him, good sense won out. For the moment.
"Cate! There you are. Good." Cliff descended on me like a bat out of hell (he was, after all, built like Meatloaf) as soon as we stepped out of the woods and into the formal garden.
"Cliff," I said, warily.
"I need you to show some people round. Brandon thought that you were already doing it anyway…?"
"Not the house?" I protested, a little too fast perhaps. "I don't know anything about the antiques or the paintings or…"
Cliff waved a hand, vaguely. "No, no. Just the grounds. Some relatives of the Dashwoods turned up a little late, and I need to take everyone else up to the boat-house. Jill's doing something, and Mari's busy at the book-shop and Ellis has disappeared…"
I gulped, guiltily.
"They're Ellis' friend Ed's family?"
"Fine," I said, resigned.
"Brilliant. I'll just go and get them, and push them your way."
He bustled off, leaving me and Harry standing on the very edge of our garden walk-through which was clearly now, not to be. "You can come along too?"
He smiled. "Thanks. I should probably go and find Ed anyway. I'll catch up with you later?"
I hoped desperately that the disappointment that he hadn't decided to stay with me and have me show off didn't show too starkly on my face. "OK," I said. He had started walking away when I called, "wait, do you know Ed's family?"
He looked over his shoulder and grinned, a little too guiltily. "Yes."
"They don't like you?"
He stopped and turned around. "It's more like I'm not such good vicar material when I'm around them," he said, hands held out in guilty admittance. He grinned again. "See you later." Then he turned and carried on walking.
There are some girls who could make you painfully aware of your extra weight carried on your thighs and hips and your complete ineptitude with eye liner if they weren't so nice. Or at least, if it wasn't that they were so self-assured that they didn't need to tear down your hair/make-up/fashion/figure. I realised, upon sight, that Izzy Ferrars was one of them. She had the look of a porcelain doll with her flawless skin and massive blue eyes, not to mention masses of blonde hair. She smiled, straight away.
"Cate, right?" she said. "I'm Izzy. This is my brother, Robbie."
Robbie didn't cut quite such an impressive figure. He was of a medium height, a little heavier than Ed, and a lot more groomed. He was dressed in an Oxford shirt, jeans, slung a little too low, and deck shoes.
"Hi," he said, disinterested in tone, although he was all over me with his eyes.
I smiled, out of politeness more than anything else.
"It's nice to meet you. I'm Cate Morland. I was the garden designer here at Barton."
Izzy's jaw dropped. Her eyes widened. I secretly cursed her for the fact that her surprise made her only more attractive. "The whole thing? You're one of those freaky geniuses I've heard about. What's the square root of 5,389?"
Somehow, I immediately warmed to her. "Uh…I don't know," I said. "Not a clue."
She smiled. "I doubt anyone does unless they're like that Stephen Hawkings and in a wheelchair and, you know…"
Robbie proceeded to do a massive politically incorrect impersonation of the said eminent scientist. It was, unfortunately, spot on.
I smiled. "Right," I said. "No, I'm not like him."
"But the whole place?"
We had walked through the maze of hedges and now came out onto the terrace and the parterre.
"Like, you did all this?" asked Izzy, flipping her sunglasses down off her head and surveying the garden in front of her. "Holy…"
"No," I admitted. "Not entirely."
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" Izzy grinned. "Clever."
"It's a good strategy in business," said Robbie, hands shoved deep in his pockets, revealing even more of the Calvin Klein signage on his underwear. Not that I was looking exactly. "Accept the praise for everything you're given, whether you did it or not. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there Izzy."
"No," I broke in laughing, a hand out to gesture which unfortunately landed on Robbie's arm, causing him to raise his eyebrows at me suggestively. I stopped laughing and carefully removed it again. "I meant that these gardens have been here in some form or other for several hundred years. The parterre design wasn't mine originally, but in redoing it I had to make some adjustments since some Victorian lord of the manor dumped that massive fountain in the middle, irrespective of how much it would mess up the garden."
"Oh, I see," said Izzy, fishing her mobile out of her impossibly tight jeans pocket and taking a picture. She turned back to me. "I guess this place is like a beautiful woman with great bone structure, you know? The base is a great start, but it just needed some…tarting up."
I laughed. "Right," I said. "Except some bits needed more like a lift and a tuck and then an implant."
She laughed, tucking her arm through mine. "Of which I am an aficionado."
My disbelief must have shown on my face. Damn my expressive nature. I blame Mrs Hoover and my Year Seven drama class. Robbie barked in laughter. "Not in first-hand experience, yet Iz." He glanced at me, smirking. "Our mother is a little too interested in a certain surgeon on Harley Street."
"She's had a lot of work done?"
He snorted with laughter, as Izzy and I began walking again, through the parterre to the far side. "You could say that," he scoffed.
"She's a little more interested in the surgeon than his knives, if you know what I mean," said Izzy.
"Really?" At that very moment, I felt like home-spun-Annie, best friend of Peggy Patch, rabbit best friend and crack jam-making abilities in tow.
Izzy smiled, long-sufferingly. "I read a lot about plastic surgery in that waiting room when I was younger. One hell of a lot of waiting, you know?"
My jaw dropped. It didn't help to make me feel less home-spun. "Wow."
"Yeah," she said, as we descended the steps from the parterre, and went on down through the lower terrace. "It wasn't all time wasted."
"Yeah?" I asked, glad that she could dredge something good out of a traumatic childhood of sitting in waiting rooms while her mother had it off with a plastic surgeon. Lovely.
"Yeah," she said. "I think that all my past boyfriends can be grateful for Cosmo-ducation."
"Wait, what?" Robbie grimaced. "Oh, that's not right, man."
I had to agree. I smiled a little at him. At last his face twitched into something resembling an actual smile and not, as it had been for the last ten minutes, a leer.
Izzy laughed. "Come on," she said, and dragged me along the path down to the rest of the gardens. "Let's see what else this freaky genius has done."
The June weather had not disappointed. In fact, by the time we reached the walled garden, it was boiling.
Izzy danced up to the closed wooden door in the old brick-work. "What's through here?" she asked.
"Oh, it's not quite visitor-ready yet," I said. "We were hoping for it, but we're not quite there."
"Can we have a look?" Wide-eyed with excitement, she was looking even more beautiful.
I sighed, resigned to the fact that the heat that had made her glow equally made me sweat. Yes. Attractive. "Sure, I guess," I said, and I pushed open the wooden door. Vast planes of muddy ground stretched out before us with slim paths of gravel interlacing between them. Further across the walled space there was more greenery. Tom had worked his ass off to get the vegetables and selling-plants ready, but it had been at the expense of the rest of the space. The espaliered fruit trees had been seen to, and were shaped and growing much better. The greenhouses were fit to bursting. The grass, fountains, and benches, however, were a little way off. Izzy, I noticed, had also switched focus from the apple trees and budding honeysuckle and was more interested in something else. I spied him through the trees, carving an old tree trunk into a new bench.
"Who's that?" she said.
It isn't exactly pleasant to have to either see your brother shirtless, or admit that he's reasonably built, but both were unfortunately on the cards. "Uh…that's my brother," I said. "He's kind of an on-site carpenter here."
"Oh hell…" muttered Robbie.
"Can we meet him?" Izzy was breathless with anticipation. "Come on, Cate. Introduce me."
I paused, wondered whether Jim might not appreciate the interruption but then remembered his deliberate usage of the last of the hot water that morning, and lost all sympathy. "OK," I said. "Come on."
He chose that exact moment to pour a bottle of water over his head, and shake the water clear of his hair, dog-like.
"Wow," murmured Izzy from behind my shoulder. I worked on not showing my nausea on my face. I'm not sure that it worked.
"Jim," I called. "This is Ellis' friend's brother and sister: Robbie and Izzy."
He still had a hand over his face, wiping the water away. "Ellis' friend's brother's dog's…?"
"Actually, she's my sister's half-sister-in-law."
Jim smiled, disbelievingly at Izzy. "Really?"
"Yeah," said Robbie. "Our connection is all bull, but it was a good excuse to get away from our parents for the day."
Jim smiled again. "Fair enough," he said and, having wiped his hand on his shirt, lying over the back of the bench, he held it out. "James Morland," he said, and shook with Robbie. He glanced at Izzy, smiled again and then almost automatically, he picked up his shirt and shrugged it on. "Lizzy, was it?"
She held out a hand, flat, as if he were to kiss it. "Izzy," she said. "Isabella."
He grasped her hand in his, his fingers curled into hers, his thumb across her knuckles. "A pleasure," he said, and smiled again. I resisted the urge to yell 'who are you and what have you done with my brother?' It was strong, but I was stronger. That, and it would have been a little embarrassing. Maybe this was what he needed all this time: an obscenely hot girl to shake him out of his funk. Not that she was exactly his type, but then what guy didn't go for skinny girls with curves, big eyes and pouting lips? To my chagrin, I couldn't think of one who wouldn't. Automatically, my mind flitted to Harry. I told it off.
"So," asked Jim, surreptitiously doing the buttons of his shirt up. "Are you enjoying Barton Park?"
"It's beautiful," cooed Izzy. "Cate's being showing us around."
He shot me a look. "Has she really?"
"Yes. We were going to the boat-house next probably." I paused and, despite the hot-water-shower conundrum, I relented. "Have you had lunch yet? You could come too if you wanted."
"You'd be welcome, man," said Robbie, graciously. He flicked me another look. I carefully didn't return it.
Jim glanced at his watch. "Oh…sure. I could do with a break." He interlaced his fingers, stretching out his arms. Then he picked up the more dangerous of the tools, locked them in the shed, and dusted off his hands on his jeans.
"So," began Robbie, eyeing the carpet of woodchips, "you're a carpenter."
They fell in step next to each other, Jim talking quietly about saws and planing, oak versus holly and sandpapers of the world. Robbie, in reply, made sounds of understanding it all, encouraging the next incomprehensible bit of carpentry wisdom out of Jim's mouth. Izzy meanwhile slipped an arm through mine again. We walked a little way behind the boys and although we talked, she was distracted.
"He's had a really hard year," I said, finally, giving up our conversation.
"Who, Joaquin Phoenix?"
I raised my eyebrows, and nodded to Jim. "No."
"Oh." She grinned, guiltily. "Was I that obvious?"
I shrugged. "He's a good looking boy. Even I can admit that."
She grinned some more. "He's more than cute, Cate."
I cringed. "OK, that's enough."
She stopped walking, and, having looked after them, probably admiring Jim's fine behind (although it made me queasy to even think it) she said, "do you think he likes me?"
I smiled. Even Izzy, aesthetically perfect Izzy, had doubts. "I don't know. As I said, he has had a really tough year. He's only just crawling out the other side of it, really."
Izzy turned to look after the boys again. "So he could do with a distraction?"
"I don't know..."
She grinned again. "You think I have a chance?"
"Look at you!" I said before I could stop it. I stopped then, and cringed. "I meant…yes. Maybe."
She grinned once more, triumphantly. "Good."
"How do you feel about older men?" I asked Izzy speculatively as we waited out on the deck for the boys to bring the drinks.
She shrugged. "Very good," she said. Then she grinned. "Why? You have your eye on someone?"
"No. I just thought that I'd warn you."
"Hey!" said Jim, reappearing. "Look who I found to come and have his lunch with us."
Brandon, obviously hot and tired dropped into the chair that Jim had pulled up.
"Oh," said Izzy, almost reverentially. Then, catching my eye, she burst into laughter.
"She all right?" asked Brandon, wearily.
"She's fine. It's a hot day," I said shakily, feeling that laughter was imminent.
Izzy got control of herself, pushed her curtain of hair out of her face, and held out a hand to Brandon. Evidently it was only the ones that she really liked who she tried the hand-kissing-routine on. "Izzy Ferrars," she said.
He shook it. "Brandon Morland." He frowned a little, his hand still gripping hers. "Ferrars?" he repeated.
"Yep," said Robbie. "And I'm Robert Ferrars," he said. "Robbie, please."
"Ferrars?" asked Brandon again.
"You got Tourette's, dude? Yeah. Ferrars. We're an old family down on this coast. Maybe you know some distant relation of ours?"
Brandon had paused. "Does Edward Ferrars ring any bells?" he asked, tightly.
"Brandon," said Jim, gently remonstrating.
"Uh…yeah. He's my brother."
I got up. "I think it's a bit hot out here. Shall we go and find the parasols, B?" I dragged him out of his chair and, once out in the store room, pushed him onto the solitary folding chair. "What are you doing?"
He hung his head, kneading the back of his neck with one hand. "I'm sorry," he said, muffled. "I'm just…" He sat up again, leaning against the shelves, stacked with tines and boxes.
"Ellis was crying earlier."
I sagged against the opposite shelves, guilt suddenly very heavy on my shoulders. "Ellis? She doesn't cry. Not in front of anyone anyway."
"Right," he said, wearily. "I'm guessing it was that Ferrars idiot. I don't know what he did or said or…" He paused. "I could happily punch him right now. Right in the face."
"Very Lancelot of you."
He glared at me. "It's not funny, Cate."
I sagged some more. "I know. I was the one who left her alone with him. I thought I was helping."
He gave me a long, withering look. "Not so much."
"What should I do?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. Don't tell anyone for starters. It was a complete aberration that she cried in front of me."
"Uh…Brandon?" Lorna stood in the doorway, wringing her hands. Clearly she hadn't yet cracked her way through Brandon's Kinder egg mentality. It first took smashing his veneer of vague, quiet niceness to find the impossibly hermetically sealed vault within. It took years of prising and jamming combined with a hefty spade-load of irritation before, finally, his inner toy was revealed, waiting to be reconstructed as a car. Or a dinosaur. Or something. Ellis had done it in record time. I suspect it had something to do with a complete lack of sexual tension between them. Lorna, however, a) feared Brandon as her boss and yet b) also clearly had the hots for him. I doubt he had even noticed.
"Yes?" he asked, wearily.
She squirmed. "I'm sorry. Could you come and look at the coffee machine?"
He grunted as he stood up. Classy, dude. "Fine," he said.
"What should I do?" I repeated as he sloped to the door.
He turned, a hand pushing his hair off his face. "I really don't know." Great. He shrugged. "Sorry," he said, "but maybe you shouldn't have meddled in the first place." He disappeared back off into the kitchen.
Helpful. Really helpful. I emerged out of the store-room, and heard Izzy, Jim and Robbie before I heard them. At that moment of writhing, crushing guilt, I didn't quite feel up to drinks and giggles. Instead, I walked out of the front door, and straight into Harry.
"I'm beginning to think," he said, a hasty apology, a brief exchange of worried thoughts, a walk to the nearest bench and a few minutes of awkward silence later, "that we made a massive mistake."
He closed his eyes, leaning back, grimacing. "You can't find Ellis?" he asked eventually.
"No. And no Ed either?"
He shook his head. "You don't think that they're together though, do you?"
I drew my knees up. "No," I said. "She was upset, I think, sometime quite soon after we left them alone."
He shook his head again, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, palms pressed against his eye sockets. "I feel like such a crap friend."
I raised my eyes at his language. Yet again, I felt like little home-spun Annie, and stopped myself from appearing to be the biggest prude in the world, second only to Beth March.
"What happened with her?" he asked, turning to look at me, face drawn.
I shrugged. "I can't say," I said. "Brandon made me promise."
He nodded, slowly.
"You know what's going on between them?"
He turned back to me, and nodded again. "Bits and pieces."
I nodded, silent. The pause lengthened awkwardly.
"I've promised as well," he said eventually. "I'm sorry. I hate keeping secrets."
He gave me a long, appraising look. Then he said, "Don't beat yourself up about this."
I shrugged. "It's my fault."
He smiled, wryly. "It's our fault, if that helps at all."
I smiled back, automatically. "Maybe." I paused, prepping myself to ask what felt like the dumbest question ever asked. "Are you…" I swallowed. "Have you prayed about this?"
The speed and simplicity of his answer knocked me off my fear of embarrassment. I was now however, potentially foolishly, on a roll. "And you think it'll work?"
"Yes," he said again, sporting a small smile. "Somehow, yes."
His complete, all-encompassing faith calmed me. "OK," I said, eventually.
He leaned back again, clearly a little less upset. "How are you getting on with Ed's brother and sister?"
"All right," I said, slowly. "They're a bit…" I paused. "I like Izzy, and she certainly likes my brother."
He smiled again. "The one at the boat-house?"
"No. The other one. Jim's a carpenter. He was badly affected by the accident last year, but he's starting to come out of his shell a bit again."
Harry frowned a little. "He doesn't sound like her type."
"He was topless when we first bumped into him."
Harry grinned. "Ah."
"Yes. She…" I didn't get any further. Harry's mobile burst into life and, looking at the screen, he sagged in relief. "Ed?" he said into it, clamped firmly to his ear, standing up at the same time. "Where are you?" The reception was dodgy on the estate. He had to duck and weave to maintain the conversation. I decided that he needed privacy. I waved to signal my imminent departure and then, having caught his eye and smiled, I started to walk back to the boat-house.
I turned to see him, hand over the mouth-piece, waving back.
He smiled. "Thank you."
He grinned. "See you later?"
He grinned again, and then turned back to his phone. I, meanwhile, had a stern word with the baby rabbits playing harps at the edges of my minds. This was not to turn into anything. It couldn't. He was here for the day, then back to his father's north Devon estate, at the very nearest. It was at the very least two hours away. It wouldn't work. It couldn't. The baby rabbits amiably stopped playing their harps. The heart shaped confetti scattering, however, continued. Damn those rabbits.
As the stable-yard clock mercifully ticked over to the hour and chimed, I staggered into the book-shop. Mari looked up and smiled.
"Are you all right?"
I dropped into a chair. "Exhausted," I said.
"I hear you."
The old till chimed and slammed, and Mari appeared next to me. "So," I said, leaning back, regarding her through half-closed eyes, "you have plans with lover-boy tonight?"
She grinned. "Not tonight. We're too tired."
I waggled my eyebrows. "Tired of doing what, I might ask?"
She grinned again. "Work, Cate."
She pursed her lips. "I…uh. He's taking me out on Friday night, though."
"Really? Smooth, Marc. Smooth."
She looked even more awkward. Finally, she stood up and closed the door. "I think," she began, confidentially, "that he might propose."
She blushed. She sat down again. She folded her hands in the most naïve, modest air that she had ever exuded.
"Really?" I asked again. "Wow."
She narrowed her eyes. "You think that it's too soon?"
"I think that it's wildly romantic," I said, my not-so-secret love of dashing heroes and romantic explosions making itself known. Practicality, however, born through a combination of necessity and a year of friendship with Ellis, reared its boring head. "Have you talked to your family about it?"
She nodded. "Kind of. Ellis knows, or at least, she knows that I think that he might."
Curiosity also flared. It won out, for the moment, over the sting of guilt. "What does she think?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. She's a closed book to me."
She grinned. "To everyone. Maybe not Brandon, so much, and she was close to Ed…" She sighed, shaking her head. "Anyway. Hopefully she'll sort herself out soon."
I frowned. "What does that mean?"
Mari leaned forward, conspiratorially. "He's here. She's here. It's a romantic setting. They were close and then ripped apart by circumstance." She raised her eyebrows. "It's more romantic than me and Marc. I met him. I liked him. He liked me. End."
"Not that you can tell her that I said that."
Guilt flared further. "I'm not supposed to know about Ed?"
Mari waved a vague hand. "Anyone who had been around them would know that they have history and bizarre chemistry despite her immensely boring practicalities and his ineffably uninspired thoughts on the works of Peter Jackson." She grinned. "No. I meant that you can't tell her that she and Ed have a much more romantic shtick than me and Marc. I'd never live it down."
I frowned, a good few sentences behind. "You don't like Ed?"
She made a dismissive face. "He's lovely and sweet, and he's clearly nuts for Ellis which is always a good sign in my book, but I would die of boredom if I married him."
I laughed in reply. Slowly, we descended into exhausted silence, broken only a few minutes later by Marc, knocking on the door and letting himself in.
"Hi," he said, and grinned, as devilishly handsome as ever. I had a massive crush on Marc the first time I met him. And the second time. And pretty much every time. There had never been that many young people in Barton before the accident, but afterwards, it was pretty much a ghost town. I had all but given up on the possibility of meeting someone without the use of the internet. Thank goodness for Ellis and the train of under-forties that she brought in her wake.
"Hi," I replied, ever so cool, carefully moderating my tone so that my traitorous larynx would close on me, turning me into a high-pitched squealing girl-monster.
Mari grinned. She, unfortunately, had found out the effect that Marc had on me. It had happened the very day that she had come to the Delaford Kitchen to apologise. Ever since she had enjoyed my automatic squeak and blush routine in Marc's presence. Except this time, it wasn't so hard. Much less squeak reflex. Barely any blush. She looked positively disappointed.
"You done here?" he asked, looking down at Mari.
"Umhmmm," she said, clearly now too tired for words.
"You want to go have a drink in Barton?"
"Umhmm," she said again. "Sure."
He smiled. He looked up. "Cate? You want to come too?"
The crawling guilt made its way to my conscious. "Uh…no. Thanks. I've got to go and find Ellis. Have you seen her?"
They both shook their heads. "No. Not all day."
Mari raised her eyebrows at me, lasciviously. "Yeah," she said, grinned. "Not at all."
I, however, inwardly groaned. "All right then," I said, standing up slowly. "I'll leave you love-birds to finish tidying up here. Have a good night."
"You too," Mari called, and I made my way out into the early evening sunshine.
There was no reply at the Dashwood's flat front-door. I hoped that it meant that she wasn't there and not, as I was beginning to suspect, that she was just not answering. The office door threw up equally poor results. I sighed, groaned in fact, and leaned my forehead against the door. It had only just been a year since the tragedy had ripped through her life. She was fragile and I, like the large-footed giant of bad decisions that I clearly was, had stamped all over her. After all, as Mari had said, none of us knew what she was really thinking. She was elusive. Irritatingly independent at times, and stubborn as a mule, but not strong, really. Just bullishly determined. Running out of ideas, with only trawling the entire 500 acres of the estate left, I decided to leave her a note on her desk. The door, thankfully, was open. The desk was empty. I sighed. Then I walked over and unearthed a post-it. Suddenly, a scuffle behind me sent me spinning around, wishing that I was armed with a blunderbuss. Or something, anyway, better than a biro.
She smiled, weary and false, but it was a start. "Yes?"
"I…" I paused. "I was leaving you a note. I wanted to check that you were all right."
She walked past me, and sat back down in her desk-chair. "I'm fine," she said.
I mentally clocked the first of the evening's lies. "Really?"
She gave me a look.
"I just…we hadn't seen you all day and I was worried."
"We?" she questioned, writing something on the next post-it down, my hastily scribbled note already screwed up and dropped in the bin.
"Um." It occurred to me that the fact that while I knew that she had been upset, I wasn't supposed to know it, and certainly not that she had cried. Also, that her relationship with Brandon could become shaky if I implicated him in my scheme. "You know," I started boldly. "Everyone. No has seen you." Except Brandon. Except I couldn't say that either.
She gave me a long look. Finally, she broke it. "No," she said. "I had a few things to do."
I sighed. This exchange of lies was becoming indicative of my friendship with Ellis which, thus far had been interesting to say the least: loyalty, fairness and a keen sense of humour had each been paired off with a stubborn refusal to let anyone get too close, a snarling defence of her own privacy and a complete disregard for the help anyone else could give. It was like being hugged, really well, at arm's length. Infuriating, but comforting. Mari, on the other hand, after a cautious beginning and a bumpy ride in the middle, was now one of my best friends. Privacy was an alien concept. Boundaries were never evident. Nostalgia mixed with wild romanticism and severe criticism served to make her the craziest cocktail that I knew. Being friends with the Dashwood sisters was like being friends with both fire and water. It was, at times, exhausting. Not that life in my household was any easier. Maybe just more familiar, what with Jim's particular brand of weird, and Brandon's rollercoaster of drama.
"Look," I said, sitting down opposite her. "I'm sorry about earlier. I shouldn't have left you alone."
She smiled, again, not quite reaching her eyes. "It's fine," she said.
"No. You asked me to not leave you and I dropped you straight away."
She raised her eyebrows. A thought shot through my mind of 'what if she thinks that everyone does this?' which, frankly, made me feel queasy. If it was true, then no wonder she was upset. It must have been last year all over again.
The guilt doubled. At the very least.
"Ellis, I'm so sorry. I'm programmed for nuttiness, but this was…" I paused, chewing on my lip. "Brandon always says," I started, cautiously, "that the only two things you need to know about me are that I'm a paranoid hypochondriac, and that I enjoy it."
She smiled, reflexively perhaps, but it looked genuine.
"I thought that something was up, and that I knew better, but I was wrong, and I should never have left you, and I apologise."
She nodded slowly. "I accept your apology," she said, slowly, "although there really wasn't anything to apologise for." She sighed and for the first time in a while, the real Ellis showed through. "I shouldn't have asked you to do it anyway. It was unfair of me to put you in an awkward situation like that, not knowing the…full story," she said, trailing off to the end.
Curiosity, I'm ashamed to say, piqued me. Dead cats be damned. "What is the full story?"
She sighed, and ran a pen between her fingers, absentmindedly. "Complicated and…" she said, "delicate, I suppose…" She trailed off again.
My curiosity shamed me. "You don't have to tell me, Ellis," I said. "It's fine."
She bit her lip. "I will," she said. "One day. Just not now."
She nodded, smiling a little.
"So," I said, sighing. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Sure," she said. "Have a good night."
I stepped back out into the stable yard and let out a long gusty breath. Then I phoned Brandon.
"Lovely phone manner, B." I paused. "I was just phoning to tell you that I've seen Ellis."
"She's all right?"
"I don't know. She says she is."
He made a dismissive noise. "Yes, well…"
"Yes. I thought you'd like to know."
"You didn't tell her that you knew…?"
"No," I said, "although it was pretty tricky to avoid it."
"Yes, well," he said again. He sighed. "You need to come by here."
He sighed again, irritation clearly growing. "Because there's an irritating knot of people here who, despite the fact that I threw them out so that Laura could clear tables, insist on loitering on my deck."
"It's Lorna, not Laura."
"What?" he snapped, even more irritated.
"Never mind. They're waiting for me?"
"It would appear as much. Hurry up," he said, then hung up, leaving me listening to a dial tone.
"Lovely," I murmured, then, with some coaxing, got my tired legs to move again, and walked down through the woods and out to the boat-house.
Northanger Abbey has now become my most-read Austen. Yes. Surprising, but true. And I enjoy it more every time I read it. I like that Catherine isn't dazzlingly clever and witty like Elizabeth Bennet, nor is she beautiful and wealthy like Emma Woodhouse, or a 'good girl' like Fanny Price. She's kind of normal, if a little loopy, and I love her. And I thought she made a great counterpoint to Elinor Dashwood's earnest do-gooding, which I read as stubborn and lonely.
So, naturally, Northanger Abbey is all Jane Austen. I just added the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation references, Brandon, and I made the executive decision to remove James Morland's shirt at times. You're welcome. And yes, Henry Tilney is still a vicar. I won't apologise. He's the only non-wet, non-creepy, non-idiotic vicar that Austen wrote. I'm making the most of it. And he's ragingly hot.
Thank you to all who have read Part I this far. I hope you enjoy Part II. It's a little loopier. But then, so is Cate Moreland.