To add to the gloom of a storm where the end of the garden was hidden by mist, raindrops bounced off the terrace like golf balls. The pond overflow spout was akin to Niagara Falls in full spate and the postman brought bad news.
Two lots of bad news.
The first was a scribbled note, in a handwriting Arietta didn’t recognise. That got her wondering even before she opened the envelope. Who sent notes like that these days? When she checked the signature she understood. It was from a so-called friend who did not and now never would have Arietta’s phone number, saying she’d met Arietta’s ex a few days before in Mauritius. Wasn’t it fab, she gushed—if gushing in bright green ballpoint was possible—that he was loved-up and his partner expecting a baby in the very near future? As it hadn’t been that long since he and Arietta had split, and he’d always been adamant he hated flying and asserted even from Glasgow to London brought him out in hives, Arietta decided she was entitled to be upset. Especially as it now appeared that the bloke who’d professed she was the love of his life and had been pressuring her to move in with him—or was it him with her?—had been bonking someone else at the same time.
Thank God for condoms. Okay, it was time to forget him, but that was easier said than done. Not that she ever wanted to see or speak to him again, but the bugger had hurt her big-time.
If that wasn’t enough, she’d also received an invitation. A very unwelcome one.
What next? The roof to cave in? The electricity to be cut off? An alien invasion?
Dramatic or what? Enough already.
Arietta opened the other envelope, took out the contents, stared at the piece of very elegant, heavy and expensive card in her hands and grimaced.
“Mr and Mrs Arthur Berkley-Tong request the pleasure of Harriet Clare and partner to the wedding of their beloved daughter, Kristin Therese Maude, to The Honourable Tarquin Algernon Carstairs Kinsley Smith on November 13th at Pannerburn Castle…”
If she hadn’t realised whom the invitation was from, the way her name was incorrect would have told her. She’d never bothered to correct them that Arietta wasn’t and never had been a version of Harriet.
Honourable? Ha, not when I knew him. Tar…Tack for initials? Oh my, hahaha, that fits… Very tacky. Maude? She never mentioned that. Go to their wedding? Not in a million years. November? In Scotland? No chance, I might be stranded there in a snowstorm. Any Scottish snowstorm I’m stranded in is going to be here. The thirteenth, no way. That would be an unlucky thirteen and was a scary thought. Enough to make her shiver. Stuck with a load of people she didn’t know for however long, in a hotel, however sumptuous, wasn’t a scenario Arietta favoured. She’d have to look tidy, not wear jeans without non-designer rips in them, and remember to put on a bra.
Yuck, not to be considered.
Nor was the idea of seeing two people loved-up when her loved-up-ness was zilch. A big fat do-not-go-there zero. She’d sworn off men for the duration. Being dropped with no warning had hurt too much. Even if she’d found out afterwards he was a two-timing, two-faced rat fink.
The idea of a wedding was anathema to her. Especially that one.
She stared at the card again.
It had to be a joke. Was a bloke in tighty-whities going to jump out from behind the front door, take her photo and shout gotcha? She hoped not. Her current attire of a pair of leggings that had seen better days with a large bleach mark down one leg like an exclamation mark and a scarlet uni sweatshirt that had once read ‘writers do it the right way’, and since faded to a dark pink—with splotches of something unmentionable—wasn’t the sort of look she wanted captured for posterity.
Arietta dropped the card onto her desk, just missed her cold cup of coffee—she had been carried away with her writing and forgotten all about it—and caused three pencils and a toffee to rattle off the surface and onto the floor.
Request the pleasure indeed. Pull the other one. That was called rubbing her nose in it, big-time—or it would have been if she’d been bothered. Which, she ruminated, she wasn’t. Ten years was a long time to get over the non-event of a short and not-so-sweet romance, and a barely begun friendship. Strange how it mattered to other people, though.
Nevertheless, why the invite? Just to show what they’d got up to? Perhaps, but seriously, she was not bothered. Life was too short, and she had a book to write.
“Hey, what’s this?” Thomas, her twin and, as she often said, the annoying ten-minute-older half of their twinship, came into her study unnoticed. He picked up the discarded card and whistled. “Whew… Posh place. Who do you know who can afford to get hitched there?”
“I don’t, not really.” Arietta plucked the card out of his fingers and dropped it back on her desk. This time the corner dipped into her coffee mug. “Someone’s being funny—not. It’s a snarky attempt to rub my nose in something. It won’t work.” She might have been upset—for all of half an hour—at the time, but she could honestly say she had not given the two people concerned a thought in the past years. In fact, she could probably pass them by in the street and not recognise either of them. “I don’t give a monkey’s these days. Over, done with, and the proverbial T-shirt burnt almost immediately.” She flicked her finger at the now getting-soggier-by-the second card. “Overkill.”
Thomas tutted at her handling of the card. “You can’t treat it like that. I bet you need to take it with you to get into the place. Think how downmarket you’ll look with it covered in coffee stains.” He took it out and wiped it on his T-shirt. “Mind you, November… Maybe it’s winter rates and cheaper?”
Arietta shrugged. “No idea. Knowing the bloke, it could well have a lot to do with it, but then I’d bet he’s not dipping his hands in his pockets anyway. Not big on sharing his coffers. Or he wasn’t. It’s a long time since I knew ’em.” She pointed to Thomas’ T-shirt. “You’ll need to rinse that or it’ll stain.” Gah, she was conscious she sounded like their gran. She’d be suggesting a blue bag—whatever that was—next.
“The card?” Thomas, an up-and-coming actor and well on the way to becoming the teenagers’ latest, or next, heartthrob, perched on the edge of her desk and swung his legs. As ever, his jeans were ripped in places no jeans should be and still be worn, and his T-shirt with a hole under one armpit was a hand-me-down from when their dad had gone to concerts and had been three stones lighter. In faded black it proclaimed ‘Iron Maiden’.
“No, twerp, your shirt.”
He winked and she growled. He held his hand up in the universal peace gesture.
“Just makes it look distinguished.” He plucked at the faded material. “Actually, could you tell it was stained? It looks part of the pattern to me. I guess if it was still proper black you’d not see it at all.”
Arietta shrugged. “If that’s what you think.” The T-shirt was ready for the ragbag anyway. “Who am I to argue.”
She saved her work on her laptop and pushed her chair back from her desk. From past experience, she accepted she would get no more written until Thomas had gone home, and as he announced he was stopping for lunch, that wouldn’t be any time soon. “What would your fans think if they saw you now?”
“I’m retro cool?” Thomas hooted with laughter. “The shirt’s not a problem, it’s my car mending one.” He housed his elderly MG in Arietta’s garage and tinkered with it whenever he visited. “I do have another one with me. And it’s not even one of Dad’s, just plain boring blue.” He picked up the card again. “You’ve got to go, you know. Apart from seeing how the other half live, or whatever, it will do you good to get out and about again. I worry.”
“Nope, and what do you worry about? I’m fine.”
“Hmm.” Thomas tapped the card on the corner of the desk. “If you call sitting here writing for ninety percent of your time, not socialising, and ignoring your friends fine, I don’t.”
“Honestly what a load of cobblers,” Arietta said defensively. “I do get out, and I do mix. I’ve got lots of friends and I do see them.”
“Nope,” Thomas corrected her. “Who you rarely see. Not since… Okay.” He held his hands up in a ‘peace’ gesture. “I won’t mention it again, but that arsehole isn’t worth your thoughts.”
“And I don’t give him any,” Arietta assured him. But it stung to be so gullible. Stu with his, ‘Oh I’m away for work’. “I don’t know about him being a good screw salesman, but it seems he was a great one for screwing. Ach.” She dusted her hands together. “I’m just a bit wary now. Okay?”
Thomas nodded. “If you say so, no problem. But I can sense a mystery. C’mon, spill. What’s with the Harriet bit?”
Brothers. How on earth had she thought she could put him off? He was like a truffle hound on the scent of truffles. Arietta pushed him off her desk as she walked to the door then turned to look at him with exasperation and affection.
“The people concerned never ever bothered to get my name right. It annoyed me then, it doesn’t now. It’s not a problem, for either of us. Any of it. What do you want for lunch, or are you off before then?”
“Here’s your hat?” Thomas said wryly as he followed her into the kitchen. “It’s not eleven o’clock yet. I can smell a good story when I see it.”
Of course he could.
“Mixed metaphors, love.”
“So?” He put every ounce of incredulity possible into that one word. “Stop trying to change the subject. Come on, tell your lovely brother all about it. I’m a good listener, and I promise not to share it…unless it’s juicy and I can get one of the ghastly rags that dog me for an interview to print it for mega millions. Then all deals are off. I can retire on the money, and lotus eat.” He opened his eyes wide and blinked theatrically. “Er, what does that mean? It sounds uncomfortable.”
“Idiot.” It was just as well she loved him.
“That’s me. Look, on a serious note, this is one fancy deal,” he said earnestly. “I’ve heard it’s at least two to three tho’ a guest, and that’s without a meal, bed or booze.”
“Two or three thousand pounds?” Arietta said, aghast. “What for?”
“A seat in the chapel, exclusive use of the place—the chapel, not the whole kit and caboodle. There’s cottages to rent in the grounds, and if someone’s got in first, tough luck—and a bun fight I guess.” Thomas stared at her. “Without the buns. At the venue of the decade, and I mean the. Where the oh-so-beautiful go to be seen and talked about and are prepared to pay the big bucks. No press, or at least not without prior notice and invitation. The rooms start at five k a night, and that’s for a shoebox. You can however add many noughts on for a suite or a cottage.”
“Sounds pretentious.” Arietta observed. “And you know all this how?”
“Because Rob Toleman, a fellow actor, enquired about renting one for his parents’ golden wedding and his mum told him if he wanted to waste his money, would he waste it on flying lessons for her instead.”
“What about his dad?” Arietta asked, fascinated by the insight into the life of someone Thomas associated with. As an up-and-coming actor he was, as he said, “happy rubbing shoulders with the good and great, but not quite on a par yet”. “What did he do?”
“Bought his mum the lessons and gave his dad his dream.”
“An allotment.” He paused for effect. “With a shed, a bench, a coffee maker, comfy chair, radio, iPad and a generator. And Netflix.”
“Oh I love it.” That sounded amazing. Sometimes Arietta wished she had somewhere like that—well, she wasn’t bothered about Netflix or any streaming gubbins. As long as no one except her knew where the allotment was. Why did people assume because you were at home you weren’t doing anything important? She’d lost count of the number of times someone assumed she’d do whatever, because “you’ve nothing on”. However, as she rarely told people what she did, she guessed she only had herself to blame. Goodness knew what they thought she lived on. A private income? A sugar daddy? One day she’d have to try to find out. “Were they pleased?”
“Oh yes, and back to the subject in question.” Thomas waggled his finger at her. “There has got to be a good reason why you don’t want to go. Apart from being anti-social and anti-weddings, and not over that arsehole Stu, I sense a mystery.”
He was like a truffle hound on the scent.
“I am so over him,” Arietta said indignantly. The note she’d got that morning had been for her information only. Thank goodness she’d thrown it in the shredder. Why did some people enjoy being bitchy?
There was no answer to that.
“Earth to Arietta.”
She jumped. She’d forgotten she was having a conversation with Thomas
“This is me, you’re talking to, love,” Thomas said. “He who knows you as well as he knows himself. Well, almost. The sod hurt you, and you wouldn’t let me hurt him back.”
“Yes, okay, he did, but that was then, now I’m just wary and off men. Present company apart…as long as you stop this interfering.”
“Stopped,” Thomas said hastily. “But spill the deets over why the invitation and why the antipathy.”
“No mystery,” Arietta said, resigned to telling him everything—almost everything—as she spooned coffee into her stovetop coffee maker and slid it onto the hot plate of her Aga. “Just someone trying to be superior, and I’d guess they think they’re rubbing my nose in it. Which they aren’t, but I bet my next royalty cheque they wouldn’t believe that even if I swore it on oath.”
“I need more.” Thomas sat on top of the work surface, as close to the Aga as he could without burning. “Lots more. What’s better than coffee and gossip?”
Arietta rolled her eyes. It didn’t matter how many times she complained about his preferred seat, he just grinned and carried on doing it. One day he’d burn his bum and it would be his own fault.
“Bride or groom?” he asked as he began to juggle the salt and pepper pots. “As I have no idea what it’s all about it is still a mystery to me”—he began to sing It’s a Mystery in a very tuneful voice—“spill the beans. Who?”
“Both, sort of, but I suspect it’s the bride.” Arietta grabbed the condiment set before all the contents ended up on the floor and put them down out of his reach. Then she handed him a cup of coffee and sighed. “She was a bit of a bitch, and that’s doing bitches a disservice. Ditto if I said a cow, to cows.”
Thomas raised his eyebrows and rolled his eyes. “Ooh…you’re not usually spiteful. Tell me more, sister mine.”
It was Arietta’s turn to roll her eyes. “Oh all right, Mr Nosy. Let’s sit in the conservatory and I’ll give you chapter and verse.”
“Done.” He jumped down and tweaked Arietta’s nose. “Let’s go.”
“Anyone would think it’s the story of the century and it’s really not,” Arietta said as they settled in the sun-warmed room. She watched two robins eyeing each other up with suspicion and smiled. Her garden wasn’t large but she loved it. This room and her study both overlooked the lawn, pond and bird table. Contrary to popular belief, she was never distracted from work by the view. It gave her inspiration. Many a hero in the historical romantic crime stories she wrote had had his complicated love life resolved as she’d stared out of the window.
Thomas coughed ostentatiously. “Earth to Ari.”
“Don’t call me that,” she said automatically. He always made it sound as if he’d deliberately dropped the “H”. “Okay, well, you remember when I first went to St Andrews, to uni? I shared a flat with four other people?”
Thomas nodded. “Yeah, you, Jan, Daisy, Helen and someone I don’t remember. Long hair she tossed around at every opportunity and over-plump lips. Do you think she’d had them done? She definitely needed her roots done.”
Thomas laughed. “Got the claws out,” he agreed. “She had to be a cat to upset you. What was her name again? I can’t keep calling her trout lips.”
“Kristin, who called herself Krystal, and regarding her lips, who knows? Her roots, yup, always two-tone but not by style. Several years older and evidently she’d swanned around, ‘trying to find herself’—that’s a direct quote by the way—before she chose to go to uni. She wasn’t with us for many weeks. She got a feller, got fed up of actually having to work and got a better offer from Daddy. Went to live the life of a…well, a well-heeled lady in London, I guess.”
“It’s her wedding?”
Arietta nodded. Thomas whistled. “And you’ve kept in touch?”
“Oh no, never heard from her since she left.” Which Arietta decided was a plus. “Weird or what?”
“Then why now?” Thomas sounded as puzzled as she felt. “‘Weird or what’ is about right.”
“Ah, that’s the rest of the story.” Arietta sipped some coffee then put the cup down. It must had been her mood because the best Kenyan blend tasted like cardboard. Soggy, cheap cardboard. That was annoying. She was limiting the amount of full strength, full flavour, full-on caffeine coffee she drank every day, so for one not to be up to par didn’t seem fair.
“You remember for a few weeks back then, in the first few weeks of my first year, I said I was sort of seeing a bloke?” she asked. “He was a post grad. I wasn’t sure about him, but was prepared to give him a chance? He had… I dunno, something about him that was appealing. Up to a point, I guess. He had an appalling taste in socks. Anyway, we had a barney and I told him to sling his hook? You were in Spain filming that TV series where you played an alien, so all my angst was by phone and email?”
“Oh yeah,” Thomas said fervently. “When I got back all fired-up and ready to kick ass, you told me to calm down, it was well over and done with. I’ve never seen you so…so disgusted, I guess. You never did say why, though, and I was too much of a gentleman to pry.”
Arietta laughed. “Get it right, love. You were too much involved with that pretty blonde who called you Tommy. Or was it the one who lisped and called you Th…hom…uth and kept sending you pouty kisses?” She mimed blowing him a kiss with her bottom lip stuck out. “And cwoowtie pie.”
“Susie and Loretta,” Thomas commented with a reminiscent smirk. “I’d forgotten them. Ah, to be young and have stamina. Actually, it was neither then. They came, they went, I was gutted. Until it was Maybelle Fortune. Lovely Maybelle. She married a vicar and has six kids at the last count. Even one named Thomas. Lives in Cumbria. I get a Christmas card every year. And stop changing the subject.”
“I wasn’t,” Arietta said indignantly. “Well, not very much,” she added with honesty. “And it’s boring, the old, old, story. I met him in my first few days at uni. He tried to monopolise me and didn’t take kindly to me not letting him. Then, after only a couple of weeks, he wanted to have sex. I didn’t. Too much, too soon. I mean, you and the parents had drummed into me…be sure, and I wasn’t. We were having a heated discussion about it in the communal lounge when Kristin walked in and said, well, if I didn’t want sex with him, she did.” She smiled at the memory as Thomas let out a long whistle. “Not good.” With hindsight it was humorous, but it hadn’t been at the time. Kristin had sent her a malicious smirk as she had spoken. It had been obvious by her snarky comments she’d been smitten by the guy and most annoyed he’d chosen Arietta to ask out.
“He said, ‘last chance, babe’, to me. I said not interested, too much too soon, and I didn’t realise he was that desperate, so he shrugged, said my loss.” She snorted. “I said not really, plenty more fish in the sea, less needy, not much of a loss.
“He said I was well named—he’d thought my initials were HRC and said it was short for hah-archaic. Then he said to Kristin, ‘yeah, why not’.
“She said to me, ‘All’s fair in sex and war’ and they walked out of the room together. I laughed loudly, well, it was laugh or throw things and I wasn’t stooping to that. Not wanting to be around to hear anything—the walls weren’t that thick and we already knew she was a screamer—I went down to the union.”
Thomas spluttered his coffee. “Oh my a…” He shook his head in mock sorrow. “Look what I missed. Luckily.”
“You better believe it. Anyway, I met up with the others, had a good slag-off fest and lots of dodgy cocktails. Eventually we meandered back, slightly mellow, shall we say, and her room was empty. Just a toothbrush and a packet of contraceptive pills on the bathroom floor. Mega oops there, we reckoned. Even so, that was the last we saw of her in the flat. We were told she’d changed halls. For a while after that you’d see the pair of them arm in arm, or tonsils against tonsils all over the place. The term ended, and then… No one saw her again. Nor him.”
“But it’s over, what, fourteen years since then,” Thomas pointed out. “Nothing since then?”
“Not a lot. I did hear third or twentieth hand about six or seven years ago that he was working for her father, who has a multi-million-pound company recycling rags, and that she was modelling.”
“The rags?” Thomas said and almost fell over as he snorted. “I’d love to see it.”
Arietta punched him. “Idiot. I never saw her name mentioned anywhere afterwards, so who knows. Anyway that’s it. A non-story. I don’t half know how to pick ’em.”
“I don’t get it.” Thomas ignored her woe is me remark, picked up two pencils and began to juggle with them. “Why has she suddenly decided to ask you to her wedding?”
“I’m guessing that’s got a lot to do with her groom,” Arietta said and sniggered. “All those years and…” She did the ‘da…da…dah daaah’ out loud.
“You mean?” Thomas smiled, very wickedly. “You mean…”
Arietta nodded. “Whatever the pair of them have been up to in the meantime, the bloke I ditched is the groom to be.”
Thomas howled. “Ohh, the cat she is. You have to go, you cannot miss it. Don’t you have a handsome, hot-as-hell bloke tucked away? Someone to make her drool? Someone you can ask to be your partner?”
Arietta rolled her eyes. “Nope.” Droolworthy men in her orbit were few and far between, as in zilch, none she wasn’t related to. “The only one of those is you. Stop grinning, you sod, I was going to add allegedly, though I can’t see it myself and frankly you’re too well-known for anyone not to know you’re my brother. Plus you’d be mobbed and I’d be stuck in the corner as Ari-no-mates.” She couldn’t stand the thought of Kristin’s smirk if she turned up alone. “I’ll send my apologies and say I’m at some writer’s convention in Ulan Bator or somewhere.” That sounded sort of plausible, and she had a mate who could mug up some tweets if need be.
“Tut, tut.” Thomas shook his head in mock sorrow. “What is that our dear mama always says about liar, liar, pants on fire?”
“She also says if you have to lie, do a big one,” Arietta pointed out. “And I’m doing that. Mega big. Though I might say Hong Kong and go visit Jan. She’s still out there.”
“Ah, the lovely Jan. Still refusing to admit I’m the love of her life?” Thomas patted his heart. “Gutted, I am.”
“’Fraid so.” Arietta looked at him curiously, struck by the wry note in his voice. “Would you like to be?”
“Gutted? Nah. The rest? Who knows,” Thomas said in what Arietta decided was a cryptic manner. “Dammit. I really wanted to find out what Pannerburn Castle was like, even if it’s second-hand. You’re cruel, love.”
“That’s me.” She didn’t mention his change of subject. On the odd occasion that Jan and Thomas were in the same vicinity, sparks flew, and Arietta had long wondered why, made her own conclusions and decided never to interfere. “When you get your Oscar, you’ll just have to treat yourself,” Arietta said, unmoved by his ‘woe is me, poor deprived male’ expression. He was a bloody good actor and used that at his convenience. “Or just be brass-necked and go and have a look around. It’s only on the other side of the loch. Not far as the crow flies.” Although a lot longer by road. “Now make yourself comfy with the paper or something while I write my sorry, but thank you note and sort out something to eat for lunch.”
“I’ll need to slip into the village and buy a paper.” Thomas patted his pocket. “Wallet in place. You write your scaredy-cat note and I’ll pop it into the post box for you. Anything else you need?”
“Nope.” Arietta nipped back into the study, found an appropriate card and scribed her apologies. She handed it to Thomas with a flourish. “Are you happy with my pâté and stuff for lunch?”
“Well, duh. Look, my last attempt. Are you sure you’re not letting what happened with them and that bloody Stu cloud your judgement? I mean, you should go and say sod ’em all.”
“I shouldn’t go and be miserable. Which I would be. To say nothing of bankrupt and not able to feed you when you visit. Now are you going to give it a miss and give over, shut up and let it be and stop for lunch, or have me throw a hissy fit and chuck you out?
“Shutting up. Lunch, please.”
“Great. It’ll be ready when you get back. Here you go.” She handed him an envelope. “I’ve even found a stamp for it.”