Hi everyone! I’m thrilled to be taking part in the Condition Love blog tour today but as we’re nearing the end of the tour, I bring you chapter 1 of Wickham Hall, which will be out in paperback January! I’ve read the first part of Wickham Hall and it’s fabulous! So treat yourself to a little read today and enjoy!
I puffed out my cheeks as I turned the corner into Mill Lane. My throat was dry, my lungs felt squashed and achy and one of my laces was beginning to come loose, but I was determined not to slow down.
‘Come on, Holly,’ I muttered under my breath as the finish line came into view. ‘You can do this. Nearly there. One last push!’
I broke into a sprint for the last hundred metres. The early June sunshine was warm on my back and I felt hot and sweaty in my T-shirt and shorts, not to mention ready for a drink. There was no stopping me now, though; I was through the pain barrier, I was in the zone . . .
‘Good grief!’ cried Mrs Fisher, my elderly neighbour, stepping out of her gate, her shopping trolley trailing behind her. ‘You nearly gave me a heart attack, charging along like that!’
‘Sorry, Mrs Fisher,’ I wheezed as I swerved round her. ‘Lovely morning!’
‘How’s your mum?’ Mrs Fisher shouted after me.
‘Fine thanks,’ I yelled over my shoulder. ‘Sorry, can’t stop!’
I ran on to our gate, arms raised triumphantly above my head as though I was breaking through some imaginary ribbon. I’d made it all the way back without stopping for the first time ever. Go me! I leapt over the boxes of rubbish that had been left out for recycling and came to a breathless halt at the front door of Weaver’s Cottage, the honeycoloured stone terrace I shared with my mum.
I checked my watch: five kilometres in twenty-seven minutes.
Result! A personal best and not bad at all for someone who, until recently, would rather grab a box of French Fancies (lemon ones, preferably) and the TV remote and settle down in front of The Hotel Inspector than exercise.
I pulled off my headphones and grinned to myself as the front garden filled with the tinny sound of Shakira singing ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ from my iPod.
You are so right, Shakira, I thought, wiping a line of perspiration from my forehead. These hips certainly don’t lie. A month spent eating cake whilst applying for jobs had done absolutely zero for my figure. Hopefully, thanks to my new fitness regime, the truth would soon hold no fear for my hips – I was definitely feeling fitter. And as for the job hunt . . . I thought I might have sorted out that little problem, too.
I stood for a moment, hands on hips, while I caught my breath. There were a few weeds poking up between the paving slabs and I bent to tweak them out. I would make an effort to do a few jobs today, I thought, make the most of my last few days of unemployment. Perhaps Mum might even be in the mood to help; we could start with the boxes I’d just jumped over? No harm in asking . . .
Five weeks ago, I’d been made redundant from the Esprit Spa Resort. Since then, despite keeping myself busy with job hunting, I’d found myself with quite a lot of time on my hands and Weaver’s Cottage, with its low ceilings and cluttered rooms, had become a bit claustrophobic. And because Mum only worked part time, we’d been spending far too much time in each other’s company and I was beginning to feel the strain.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Mum to bits. Adore her. I’d do anything for her. In fact, I have done anything for her: I’d put up with her ‘peculiarities’ for as long as I can remember but I’m only human and living with her in such a confined space had tested my patience to the max.
Which was why I found it such a joy to stretch my legs outside. Running was my safety valve; the country lanes around my home village of Wickham gave me the space to let off steam and the time to think.
And I had lots to think about. Because I’d been offered a job. Hallelujah!!
I leaned up against the wall of the cottage and began to stretch out my calf muscles one at a time, taking deep breaths and feeling pretty damn proud of this morning’s achievements. Five kilometres, a month of gainful employment and it was only eleven o’clock.
For as long as I could remember, I’d always wanted to work in the events industry, preferably at prestigious international events. No harm in aiming high, I’d thought. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. By the end of my first year at uni, it had become clear that Mum wasn’t coping well without me at home and I’d had to adjust my plans accordingly. After three years living in minimalist heaven in my halls of residence, I came home to Weaver’s Cottage. But while that
might have hampered my globe-trotting plans, it certainly didn’t curtail my ambitions.
The picturesque village of Wickham is in the shadow of Stratford-upon-Avon, a jewel in England’s tourist crown and home to numerous jobs in the hospitality industry. After taking on a variety of roles – including a stint as a hotel receptionist and a ticket seller at Anne Hathaway’s
cottage – I landed ‘a proper job’ with the Esprit Spa Resort. And I’d stayed there for three years, working my way up to assistant events organizer.
Sadly, the owners had got themselves into a financial mess and Esprit was no more, leaving me and the rest of the team unemployed. I’d been applying for jobs like a demon ever since. I was desperate to stay within the events industry and keen to move up the career ladder, too. But as a ‘Plan B’ I’d enrolled with a temp agency in Stratford yesterday and lo and behold I’d had a call first thing this morning with the offer of a temporary office job at the conference centre in town.
I’d responded enthusiastically, of course, saying how pleased I was and had promised to let the lady know by close of play today. She’d been a little put out that I didn’t snap her hand off there and then, I think, but I had my reasons. At that point the postman still hadn’t been and whilst deep down I knew it was unlikely at this late stage, I was still carrying a torch for one of the other jobs I’d applied for.
Cool-down stretch complete, I sat on the front step, picked up the bottle of water I’d left tucked behind the empty milk bottles and took a long drink.
Unbelievably, my absolute, one-in-a-million, what-are-the-chances dream job had arisen a mere stone’s throw from home: Wickham Hall was looking for a new assistant events manager. I felt my heart thump a bit harder at the thought of the Elizabethan manor house on the far side of Wickham. The stately home was still privately owned by the Fortescue family and was renowned for its calendar of successful events. This is destiny, written in the stars, I’d thought when I’d spotted the advertisement in the Stratford Gazette two weeks ago. The description read as though it had been written with me in mind: meticulous planner, attention to detail, excellent communications and organization skills and experience running events. The job couldn’t have been more ‘me’ if it had tried!
Plus I knew Wickham Hall inside out; I’d been going there ever since I was a little girl. In fact, when I was small I used to pretend I lived there and dreamed about waking up in a four-poster bed with my own maid, a wardrobe of Disney Princess outfits and acres of space all to myself . . .
I stifled a sigh and shivered a little as my skin began to cool. I rubbed the shin that had been aching and circled my ankles. As usual, my run had allowed my crowded thoughts some room to manoeuvre and I had reached a decision.
The fact was that despite putting heart and soul into my application for the Wickham Hall job, I hadn’t been invited for an interview. And I would have heard back by now: the interviews were being held this week and the postman had had nothing for me again today. It was – to put it mildly – a bit of a blow. On the other hand, if I accepted the temp job, I could be out of the house and back at work on Monday. Hall-e-flippin-lujah.
Put like that, what choice did I have?
I jumped to my feet, intent on making my acceptance call immediately. I put two hands on the front door, which usually needed some force to open it, and pushed.
‘Ooh, hold on; let me move out of the way!’ cried Mum. ‘OK, come on in, love.’
I stuck my head round the door and was greeted by the sight of my mum kneeling at the bottom of the stairs amongst stacks of newspapers and bags full of old clothes, wearing one of her favourite Boden summery dresses, a bargain from the charity shop where she worked. Her ample bottom pointed towards me and I caught an eyeful of dimply thigh.
‘Sorry about that,’ I said, squeezing through the gap. I closed the door and closed my eyes to the mess, focusing on her instead.
Mum and I were the same height, i.e. not high at all. We were both blonde and both prone to gaining weight in the tum and bum department. Her eyes were blue like my grandparents and mine were brown, which I guessed made them the same as ‘he who shall never be referred to’.
But the greatest difference between us – and incidentally the greatest source of tension – was stuff. Mum had stuff everywhere. I did not.
Right now she was ferreting through said stuff.
‘Have you lost something, Mum?’ I was still hot and the hallway felt airless. I opened the door again and fanned myself with it.
‘Not me, no. But you have,’ she said, pushing her hair off her face and dislodging her reading glasses, which nested permanently in her blonde waves.
‘Me?’ I gave her a wan smile. That was one thing I was careful not to do in this house: put something down and you might never find it again. ‘I don’t think so, Mum. Anyway, I’ve come to a decision about that temp job. I’m going to take it.’
‘Hmm? It must be here somewhere,’ she muttered, ignoring me and sifting through a pile of envelopes.
She shook her head anxiously so I closed the door and lowered myself onto the bottom stair, catching a whiff of my own post-run aroma. Shower-time next, methinks, just as soon as I’ve made that call.
‘Mum,’ I said gently, resting a hand on her shoulder, ‘let me take all that post. We don’t need any of it, it’s just junk mail. Please?’
She picked up another handful and flicked through them.
‘You should have had a letter from Wickham Hall. A lady called Pippa has just called to see if you’d received it. I was trying to find it before you got back.’
She abandoned her search and sat back on her heels, staring at me guiltily. ‘It’s my fault, Holly. It must have got lost in amongst my muddle. I’m sorry.’
Mum looked so dejected that it took a moment for her words to sink in. My eyes widened and I swallowed, hardly daring to think what I thought I was thinking.
‘Oh my life, Pippa is the events manager! What did she say?’ I grabbed Mum’s hands and forced her to look at me. ‘Exactly?’
Mum blinked her cornflower-blue eyes at me. ‘She said you hadn’t replied to her letter and she wanted to know if you could still make the interview this afternoon.’
My heart swelled with happiness and hope and pure unadulterated pleasure. The temp agency could wait. The stuff on the front path could wait. I had my dream job to go for.
‘Yes,’ I squealed, planting a kiss on Mum’s cheek. ‘Yes, I can!’