You can always rely on Clare Chase for a little bit of mystery! Our fourth birthday story of the day and another competition at the end too
Open viewing – 15th June – 10am – 6pm. Come and help us celebrate Houghton House’s 200th birthday.
Wander through its spacious rooms, drink in the atmosphere of its glorious gardens – and enjoy a free glass of bubbly and some birthday cake. Our staff will be on hand to answer any questions you have.
I put down the local paper with its advertisement. Bill Morris, the estate agent, had assured me this was a great approach. ‘Of course, we’ll get plenty of freeloaders,’ he’d said, ‘but the hordes will increase the sense of urgency for genuine buyers. And they’ll love that it’s the house’s bicentenary.’
It all sounded horribly calculated, but as the executor of my grandmother’s will, I knew I needed to get the highest price I could, to divide fairly amongst her beneficiaries. I sighed. I didn’t want to let the house go at all, but it was way beyond my means.
At 11am on the 15th I was standing in my grandmother’s sunny garden, underneath a cedar tree, wearing a smart dress and a fixed smile. The air was full of the scent of roses and the sound of swifts overhead. Beyond the garden hedge, over the fields, I could see the medieval church at Little Halstead.
I tried to distract myself by guessing which visitors were genuine buyers. There was one guy in particular who got my attention. He had tousled dark hair and brown eyes, which caught mine for a moment as he passed by. There was something appealing about his rumpled white shirt, undone at the neck, combined with well-cut trousers. By the time I’d had a glass of bubbly myself, I’d made up my mind he should buy the place, after which we’d embark on a passionate love affair.
As the day wore on, I realised that he was still present. Maybe he really would put in an offer. He was upstairs when I spotted him. For just a second he went into what had been Auntie Mary’s room, but came out onto the landing again quickly. I managed to duck out of sight. After that, I got curious, and made it my mission to follow him. It reminded me of the games of spies my sister and I used to play, running in and out of those very rooms.
An hour later, I was sure of one thing. Mr rumpled white shirt was up to something. He’d been into Auntie Mary’s room several times, usually reappearing quite quickly. At last, he stayed put, and I decided to find out what was up.
But as I pushed the door open, I came face to face with him. Whatever he’d been doing, he’d finished. For an awkward moment, we stood opposite each other, and I noticed something incongruous. The folder of information on the house, which he’d been carrying earlier, looked thicker. What’s more, I could see there was a wodge of paper shoved into it that didn’t look like marketing material.
I let him past, but then followed him down the stairs. Presumably he’d only hung around so he could access my aunt’s old room alone. If I was right, he’d found something there, and now he’d be on his way.
As I watched him leave via the side gate, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t exactly call the police. Instead, I carried on following him. It wasn’t long before he turned around, and this time, there was nowhere to hide.
At the sight of me, he gave a rueful smile. ‘I had a feeling you were onto me.’ He held out a hand. ‘Jack Wentworth.’
I shook it. ‘Ellie Mayhew.’
‘You’re family then?’
I nodded. ‘My grandmother was the owner.’
After a moment’s hesitation, he reached inside the estate agent’s folder and passed me the sheaf of papers I’d spotted. Letters – all written in the same hand.
By the time I’d read the first couple I’d got the picture. Notes from a man who was clearly married to a third party, to someone called Emily. ‘And this woman, Emily…?’
‘Is my great aunt. She lived in the house with her parents, before your grandmother moved in. She’d hidden the letters under a floorboard in her old room. I understand she would have removed them before they sold up, but she’d moved to the US by then, so she didn’t get the chance.’ He sighed. ‘She spotted the place was up for sale again and saw an opportunity to get them back. I wanted her to contact you direct, rather than sending me in. But because the lover’s still alive, local and married to the same woman, she wouldn’t agree. I’m sorry.’
He took the folder back from me, and suddenly I felt tears in my eyes.
‘What is it?’
‘I’d have done the same, if my grandmother had asked me. Sorry – just battling my emotions; it’s been a long day.’ But of course it was my granny I was missing. Houghton House just seemed like my last link with her.
He put a hand on my arm and I shivered, in spite of the warmth of the day. ‘It can’t be easy. Would a drink help, do you think? My place is just up the road.’
‘That sounds good. But hang on a sec.’ I nipped back and grabbed some of the leftover birthday cake, wrapping it in a napkin before Bill Morris spotted me.
And so it was that I celebrated Houghton House’s 200th birthday in a tiny cottage nearby, with its own roses in the garden. It was right next to the medieval church in Little Halstead.
‘Would it make you sad to come and visit again?’ Jack said, pouring me some wine. He met my eye. ‘Only I’d like you to.’
And I suddenly realised there was every chance I could get just as sentimentally attached to his cottage as I was to Houghton House. And not just the cottage …
‘No,’ I said at last. ‘I’d like that.’
We were a little bit suspicious of Jack for a moment there, but glad we could change our minds, as he sounds gorgeous! Great job, Clare
If you enjoyed Clare’s story and would like to read more of her writing, then you’ll love this competition. For a chance to win a copy of You Think You Know Me and some goodies, simply tell us what you think of the story, either in the comments below or on the relevant Twitter/Facebook post. We’re looking forward to hearing your thoughts
You have until Friday 17th June to enter.