“Uh-oh. Bang goes your early finish, Cal. We’ve got another call from the Coastguard.”
Flight Lieutenant Caroline Foster-Finch of the Royal Naval Air Service put down her cup of coffee carefully, trying to be mindful of her dentist’s advice about the unnecessary grinding of teeth. Her casual question, “Which station?” was asked with her fingers firmly crossed in front of her. Please, please let it be Berwick. Or further down the coast, maybe; a fisherman in difficulties off North Shields. Just not.....
“Lindisfarne. Another car stuck on the causeway. Steve’s been on to Seahouses to launch the lifeboat, but the conditions are atrocious. He reckons we’ll get there faster; waves are so strong, they’ll probably need to be winched up anyway.”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. She swore under her breath; more fucking idiots dicing with death and North Sea tides. “What the hell’s wrong with these people, Tommy?” she asked in exasperation. “Can’t they read? It’s not as if safe crossing times to and from the island aren’t well-publicised.”
Lieutenant Thomas Maxwell shrugged. “It’s probably just kids, didn’t leave the pub early enough. Drunks always think they can walk on water,” he replied with a good-natured smile.
“It’s bloody January. Who the hell can afford to go out drinking so soon after Christmas?”
He looked at her and didn’t reply. She understood. Oh yes, of course. I can. Who needs a Service salary if you’re a woman of independent means? That’s what they all think. She wondered if there would ever be a time when her heritage would not be an issue. “Better get my gear on,” she muttered, tight-lipped. “Where are we with the tide?”
“Another thirty minutes or so before it’s fully in. But the storm’s not helping. Breakers are massive. Steve reckons the car will be well under in twenty. The passengers are on the roof, he thinks, but they won’t last long there.”
Tommy shook his head. “Don’t think so. Get going, Cal. There’s no time to hang around. I’ll bring you up to speed on the way.”
Eight minutes later, the Sea King Mark 7 helicopter operated by ‘A’ Flight 204 Squadron Search and Rescue rose from its launch pad and soared out to sea in a graceful arc, flying north towards the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, three miles off the Northumbrian mainland. Search and rescue was just one part of RNAS Boulmer’s operations; one of the foremost defence posts in the United Kingdom, it was responsible for the UK’S Air Surveillance and Control Systems in the event of a terrorist threat. A fleet of Vampire jets were at the ready to be called upon in case of need.
Flight Lieutenant Foster-Finch, at the tender age of just twenty-six, was already acknowledged as the most gifted pilot the SAR team had ever been fortunate enough to have in its ranks. A sci-fi aficionado, her adopted motto of “to boldly go....” had resulted in rescues no one thought possible. Quite why she had swapped her career-building role as a fighter jet pilot for what many thought was a more mundane job was unclear. Why she was in the RNAS at all was a complete mystery to those who didn’t know her well.
It took the Sea King less than five minutes to travel the thirty or so miles up the coast. Caroline’s reputation as Boulmer’s most talented pilot was enhanced by her ability to also be the fastest. Even her detractors (usually male) grudgingly accepted that her flying skills were unparalleled. It didn’t take long for her to realise that this particular rescue would be trickier than most, however. Winter tides on the coast were always a problem and the storm battering the UK for the last twelve hours seemed to have reached a crescendo over the North Sea.
The helicopter’s sweeping arc lights quickly picked up the half-submerged car in the middle of the causeway linking the island to the village of Beal. She could make out four shadowy figures clinging desperately to the roof of the vehicle. Adult males, by the look of it. Hopefully, they’d all be capable of grabbing the winch; no need to send down a separate cradle for children, thank goodness.
“Jimmy, I’ll go as far down as I can,” she said to her winch man, sitting just behind her. “But I don’t want to stir up the waves any more than I have to. Can you live with that?”
“Just keep her steady and we’ll be fine,” Lieutenant Jim Morrison assured her. An experienced servicemen in his late forties, he was a calm and capable presence. Beside him, the flight’s radio operator shut down his com-link to base as Jim began fastening the winch around his body. “Paramedics are on standby,” he said briefly. “Although the Coastguard says they’re fit young lads. No reason they’d be hurt and they haven’t been in the water long enough to be hypothermic. Still, if you need the cradle, just yell.”
Caroline turned her head to grin at him. “How do you know they’re fit, Joe? Or young, for that matter?”
Joe grinned back. “They’d been in the Crown and Anchor since lunchtime, apparently. The barmaid had warned them several times about the tide, but they hadn’t paid much attention. When they finally went, she was worried that they’d left it too late to cross safely so she rang Steve Armstrong at the station and asked him to check. ‘Fit young lads’ was her description, not his.”
It would be, Caroline thought with some amusement. She knew Mary Marshall well. A plump, motherly type in her mid-fifties, she still had a keen eye for good-looking young men. “Thank heaven for concerned citizens,” she replied lightly, knowing that it was probably guilt and not concern that had prompted Mary to call the Coastguard. No doubt she’d realised she should have thrown the punters out sooner, but it wouldn’t be the first time that she’d put profits before responsibility; or the chance to chat up any personable male customers, whatever their age.
Jim was preparing to launch himself out of the Sea King’s passenger hatch. “Bombs away,” he muttered after a final safety check of his equipment. “Keep the bird as steady as you can. Start lowering slowly at first, Joe. This wind will blow me about a bit.”
The sweeping arc lights showed one of the car’s occupants waving his arms about as if he needed to point out their exact position to his rescuers. Maybe he was only trying to stress the urgency of the situation; the gale whipping up the waves would certainly make it extremely difficult to avoid being swept off the top of the vehicle. Caroline didn’t fancy the chances of anyone staying afloat in these waters, however strong a swimmer they were.
“Swing left a bit, Cal,” Joe instructed from his position by the door. “Jim’s almost there, but I want to avoid dragging him too far through the water.”
Obediently, she repositioned the ‘copter as close as she could to the submerged car without risking its rotor blades churning up a tidal wave. She saw Jim’s thumbs up sign as the first person was fastened into the hoist and the winch back up began. Ten minutes later, the rescue was complete and as the final wet, shivering victim arrived on board the Sea King, Caroline closed the door and prepared to head back to Boulmer. But not before turning her head to gaze into the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.
“Time to go, guys. The tide’s against us. We need to get off the island now, or we risk being stranded.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Sergeant Randall Jenkins the Third of US Army Special Services slammed down his pint glass in protest. “Why are you such a killjoy? This is supposed to be my bachelor party, my last drinking session as a single man!”
“I thought they were called stag do’s in this part of the world,” muttered Major Conrad Lefkon, staring balefully down into the amber liquid in front of him. After the fifth pint, he’d decided he didn’t much care for Lindisfarne Special Brew; nothing had happened since to change his mind, other than that he’d discovered he no longer cared.
“Randy, we’ve been here since midday. We’ve been drinking for eight hours straight. Well, some of us have.” Commander Paul Metcalfe looked down at his glass of Coke with a sinking heart and a bloated stomach. If he had to drink much more of this saccharinated rubbish he could probably float them all off this bloody island on his own helium, he thought.
“You did say you’d be the designated driver. You can’t blame Randy for wanting to enjoy himself”, pointed out the fourth member of the party, Sergeant Nathan Hardy. An Oklahoman by birth, he’d struggled against his weight and fitness to get into US Special Forces. Tucking into a large portion of pie and chips, it was certainly a battle he was going to lose on this vacation.
Metcalfe sighed. “Look, guys. I’m not trying to break up the party, but Mary says we really need to be on our way. The tides are dangerous at this time of year.”
“Mary?” Lefkon raised his eyebrows. He glanced over to the bar where ‘mine host’ was deeply engrossed in conversation with a middle-aged couple who were obviously regulars. “She just wants rid of the tourists before the locals settle in for the evening,” he said dismissively. “I wouldn’t pay too much attention.”
Paul sat down again with a sigh of resignation. He didn’t want to push anything or antagonize anyone; especially not his closest friends and colleagues, the people on whom he relied and who counted on him for leadership. He was going to desert two of those people in the near future; it wasn’t exactly a betrayal, although he suspected they would see it as such. He caught Conrad’s eye and saw the warning. Yes, he thought. Say nothing. For now, better to live in the moment; celebrate Randy’s forthcoming marriage. After all, that was why they were here. “Okay, let’s have another drink,” he said as gamely as he could. “One more for the road.”
Twenty minutes later saw the four of them running down the market place for the visitors’ car park not far from Lindisfarne’s causeway. The water was just beginning to ebb over the stone pathway. If they were quick, it should be possible to get to the other side without a problem. Sure enough, vehicles were arriving on the island in convoy, seemingly unruffled by the water splashing under their wheels. Going the other way shouldn’t be an issue; although Paul noticed with a growing sense of unease that theirs was the last car left in the car park.
It was dark enough at this time of night and the lights on the road down to the causeway did little to illuminate the crossing to the mainland. The storm threw up waves of majestic proportions, not encouraging drivers to head home. “Shit,” Conrad muttered, as they gazed out into the blackness before them. “This’ll be fun.”
“It’s okay. We’ll make it.” Paul didn’t feel he could say much else but he hoped he’d be right as they piled into the bright blue hired saloon.
As they set off, conditions didn’t seem too bad. The waves lashing against the car were frightening, but as long as they kept going, not a problem. They thought they could outrun the tide. Then the engine spluttered and died. One by one, the car’s lights went out and the windscreen wipers ground to a halt. The only noise was the roar of the ocean and the rain cracking down on the roof. The reality of their predicament suddenly hit home. They were engulfed in darkness, surrounded by the North Sea, inside a car that was going nowhere.
“Guess we’ve lost the electrics,” Conrad muttered, gazing gloomily down at the dashboard.
In the driver’s seat, Paul shot him a baleful look. “Thanks, Major Obvious. Got any other helpful tips?”
“We walk?” suggested Randy from the back seat. “It’s only a mile or so. We’ll get back to Beal in no time.”
Beside him, Nathan snorted derisively. “Use your noddle, Ran. We can’t see a foot in front of us, or behind, for that matter. How do we know we can keep to the road? “
“That wouldn’t matter,” Paul replied shortly. “We’d end up having to swim for it and in this weather, I don’t fancy our chances of not being swept out to sea.”
“The water won’t get that deep, surely?” Randall sounded unconvinced.
“See those poles over there?” Paul gestured to his right, where a long line of thin black sticks loomed eerily through the rain. “How high would you say they are? Ten, eleven feet? More?”
“Haven’t a clue. So what?”
“Before the causeway was built, the only way on or off the island was either by boat or on foot across the sand at low tide. The walk is known as The Pilgrims Way because of the numbers of missionaries and other religious orders who made pilgrimages to the island over the centuries. It could be a dangerous path because of the risk of quicksand. The poles were erected to guide people safely over to the island.”
“Just what I need right now – a history lesson.” Lefkon’s tone was sarcastic.
Paul ignored him. “The poles are covered in barnacles on the top, apparently,” he continued as if his friend had not spoken. “Because that, gentlemen, is how the deep the water gets. At high tide, especially in winter, those sticks will be completely submerged.”
There was silence from the other three men. They were sobering up fast as the seriousness of their situation became clear. “God, there’s always one smart Alec who’s read the tourist guide,” Conrad said at last. He pulled his phone from the pocket of his jeans. “I hate to admit it, but it looks like we’ll need the emergency services. What is it here? 999?” He typed in the numbers without waiting for a reply.
There was no response from the device. “No signal. Anyone else want to have a go?”
They did, all to no avail. “Looks like the weather is disrupting everything,” Paul muttered after a minute or two of fruitless calling. “Damn it!” He slammed down his phone in frustration.
“What now?” Nathan asked anxiously.
Metcalfe shrugged. “I guess we sit tight and hope the Coastguard spots us sooner rather than later.”
“Any idea how long it takes for the tide to be as high as it gets?”
“Not long enough,” Lefkon replied shortly. He had opened his side window and was peering out into the darkness. He withdrew his head and turned to the others. “The water’s risen a good few inches in the last ten minutes. It’s not quite up to the sills yet, but at this rate it soon will be. I think we need to get on higher ground now.”
“Everybody on the roof,” Paul said decisively, unbuckling his seat belt.
Randall looked alarmed. “The car will be totally flooded if we open the doors,” he said.
“The car’s wrecked anyway, numbskull,” Lefkon retorted angrily. “And if you don’t want to jilt your bride by dying on her, I suggest you get topside now.”
Paul was already there, leaning over to reach out a hand to Nathan who had made it onto the bonnet of the car, but was struggling to clamber up the windscreen. Outside the relative safety of the vehicle’s interior, the perilous nature of the situation intensified. The wind had reached gale force and was whipping the waves into a frenzy, so that even if the top half of the car was not yet submerged, it was only a technicality. Drenched by the driving rain and oncoming breakers, they clung desperately to the edges of the roof by their fingertips to avoid being swept away.
“Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into, Stanley,” Conrad muttered sotto voce into Paul’s ear.
“Well, I couldn’t help it, Ollie,” Paul whimpered back, feigning tears.
“Are you two nuts?” snapped Randall, who was clutching on to Paul’s lower leg with great determination. “We’re about to die on top of a friggin’ car in the North Sea in the middle of the worst storm ever and you’re treating us to your Laurel and Hardy double act? Give me a break!”
“My pleasure,” Conrad retorted, turning his head to look behind him. “Hear that? Sounds like a chopper; maybe we’re about to be rescued.”
They all fell silent, straining their ears in the darkness. Sure enough, the whirring of rotor blades intensified and beams of light suddenly fell on the churning maelstrom of water. “If they come any nearer, we’ll be swept away,” Nathan muttered, waving an ineffectual arm in a half-hearted ‘back-off’ gesture.
Paul shook his head. “They’re winching someone down; they’ll need to get as close as they can.”
“Christ – it’s an RNAS Sea King,” Conrad said, dismay crossing his face. “Just our luck.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t care what the hell it is as long it gets me out of here,” Randall yelled back at him.
“There’s an RNAS base just down the coast,” Paul said, exchanging glances with Conrad. “They have a Search and Rescue team stationed there. They must have decided they were our best chance.”
“Listen up, guys; we’re just hapless tourists who are in the UK for a wedding,” Conrad said urgently. “We decided to do a little sight-seeing and misjudged the tide; if they ask us, we give them our names and nothing else. No mention of what we do for a living.”
“Why not?” asked Nathan innocently.
Paul sighed inwardly. His young sergeant was not the sharpest pencil in the pack. “Because we do not want them to know that the latest bunch of idiots they’ve saved from drowning are in fact a crack team in US Special Forces,” he hissed. “If they want to dine out on our humiliation in the confines of their own mess, that’s one thing; risking it getting back to ours is another. So we keep schtum. Got it?”
Nathan nodded dumbly as Lieutenant Jim Morrison swung himself and his winch onto the bonnet of the car. “Everyone okay?” he asked briskly, not waiting for an answer. His eyes took in the scene in front of him, quickly assessing the situation. Aye; Steve was right. Fit young lads. They were soaked and shaking with cold, but they appeared unharmed.
“We’ll take you up one at a time,” he said, fixing the winch clip firmly around Randall’s waist. “Don’t worry, you’ll be perfectly safe. Just hang on to me.”
Randall did as he was told and slowly, laboriously, the lift began. Ten minutes later, the hatch door on the Sea King finally closed as Commander Paul Metcalfe lurched unsteadily into a seat behind the pilot. She’d glanced behind her as he appeared in her peripheral vision and he felt the jolt as their eyes met. “You all right?” was all she said, as she spun the helicopter in a smooth arc towards land.
“We’re fine. Obviously very wet and rather embarrassed, but extremely grateful, Ms... er...”
“Lieutenant,” Caroline answered shortly. He might have the most amazing eyes she’d ever seen, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a total prat.
“Lieutenant..... yes, of course. Well, thank you for what you’ve done tonight. I’m sorry our idiocy has caused so much bother.”
She risked another glance at him through her rear-view mirror. Odd, she thought. He was wet and clearly very cold; yet there was a composure about him she didn’t see in most people rescued from the North Sea. He was gazing out of the Sea King’s windows as if he was genuinely interested in his surroundings. “You’re not taking us back to Lindisfarne?” he asked courteously.
Sharp. If he’d picked up on their direction so quickly despite the storm, she wondered how on earth he and his pals had ended up as they had. “No,” she replied. “Normally we would, but it’s late and conditions are bad. We’re heading back to Boulmer. Where do you need to be?”
“We’re staying in Alnwick. Can we get a cab?”
“Yep. It’ll cost you, but a taxi fare’s probably the least of your worries.”
Caroline had had enough. She turned in her seat and addressed all four of the bedraggled men behind her. “From your accents, you’re clearly not locals,” she said crisply. “So I’m assuming that’s a rental car you’ve just written off. I do hope you have deep pockets, gentlemen, because believe me, no amount of insurance will cover the damage; not to mention the fact that the rental company will also be responsible for towing what’s left of it off the causeway. That’s an expense not covered by RNAS or the taxpayer and I very much doubt the people you hired it from will pay up either.”
There was silence. Jim Morrison saw the dismay etched on their faces and momentarily felt sorry for them. They were bound to be in shock after their ordeal; they didn’t need to have ramifications thrust down their throats right now. There were times when Cal’s tongue ran away with her, he thought.
The brown-haired man with the hooded dark eyes and thin lips turned to his companion. “Good thing you’re marrying into money,” he said. “But maybe you should wait till after the ceremony before you break it to your new daddy-in-law that he’ll be bailing you out.”
“Don’t think this is the wedding present he had in mind,” the other man said bleakly. His face was green. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
Jim hastily thrust a plastic beaker at him as he retched noisily. Caroline glanced behind her. “When’s the wedding?” she asked Paul.
“That’s good. The salt water should be out of his system by then. I don’t know about the alcohol, though.”
“That may take a little longer,” Paul acknowledged with a smile. He really was gorgeous, she thought. Even an unexpected dip in a freezing sea had not taken the edge off his allure. He reminded her of an old-fashioned Hollywood screen idol; rugged chin, squarely carved, but cleft dead centre, giving his strong jaw line just that quarter inch of vulnerability. His black hair was slicked down by water, but one thick lock had fallen forward, giving him a roguish look. The eyes were the best, though; Oscar winners in a field of nominees. They were true blue, not drained by grey, or pushed around by the threat of green. This man’s eyes were periwinkle, a blue so soft and deep that you wanted to immerse yourself in their depths.
Well, some women might, she thought crossly, giving herself a mental shake. It was a long time since she had allowed her head to be turned by the outer packaging; underneath, he was probably just another brainless cardboard cut-out. Still......
“Do you have a name? Apart from Lieutenant, that is,” he asked suddenly, interrupting her reverie.
“Umm.... it’s Cal,” she mumbled, startled by his directness.
He raised an eyebrow. “Cal? And that’s short for....?”
“Caroline. Caroline Finch.”
“I’m Paul Metcalfe. Thank you, Cal, for rescuing us tonight. I’m deeply sorry that our stupidity has caused so much trouble.”
In the rear of the Sea King, Jim exchanged knowing glances with Joe. The meaning was obvious. Typical bloody Yank. Only interested in chatting up a pretty face; not bothered about who actually got him out of that hell-hole.
Conrad Lefkon narrowed his eyes, following their unspoken exchange. Watch your step, Paul, he thought. We’re in enough trouble without alienating the RNAS. He fixed the two servicemen with a bright smile. “I agree with my friend,” he said warmly. “We understand that we probably owe you our lives. We’re very grateful.”
“Just doing our job, mate,” Jim replied, slightly grudgingly. “We’re glad you’re all okay.”
“You’ll not find a taxi-driver who’ll let you into his cab with soaking wet clothes,” Joe interjected suddenly. “We’ll have to see if we can find some spare overalls for you to change into.”
“A hot shower would be good,” Nathan said, a hopeful look crossing his face. “Or is that pushing our luck?”
Jim frowned. “We do have showers on base, but they’re not for civilian use,” he said stiffly.
Caroline turned her head. “Oh, come on, guys,” she said lightly. “I don’t suppose taxi-drivers like the overpowering smell of seaweed either. We can spare hot water and soap for them to get cleaned up.” She flashed a slightly apologetic smile at Paul. “Search and Rescue is only a part of what we do at Boulmer, so we’re not really set up to deal with the needs of the people we pick up. That’s why we mostly drop them off at the Coastguard station on the island and let them avail themselves of facilities in the nearest hotel.”
Paul nodded. “I understand. Thanks for sticking your neck out for us.” He leaned forward to peer over her shoulder as she slowed the aircraft down in preparation for landing. “You have some very impressive radar down there. Used for surveillance, I assume?”
“We control the UK’s airspace. We’re responsible for making sure that nobody is using it that shouldn’t be. We have a squad of fighter jets ready at all times to intercept any intruders. In addition, we’re a training base for Aerospace Battle Management, not just in the UK, but throughout the world. We have trainees from all over.” Caroline paused and looked back at him. He was gazing out of the window, an expression of intense interest on his face. “You seem quite knowledgeable about this,” she ventured. “Do you have a military background, Mr Metcalfe?”
He looked startled by the question, which puzzled her. For a second she wondered if he and his companions had something to hide; maybe they were not just hapless tourists after all. But then he said, “Oh, my dad was an airman. I picked up a lot from him. I’ve always found airbases fascinating. I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a guided tour, is there?”
Caroline laughed and relaxed as she brought the helicopter to a final stop. “Not tonight, in weather like this,” she replied with a shake of her head. “Besides, you wouldn’t see much in the dark. We do have occasional open days, though, where the public can have a look around. I’ll check the notice board to see when the next one is.”
He shook his head regretfully. “I doubt we’ll be in the area long enough, I’m afraid. This is just a whistle-stop tour. “
“That’s a pity,” she replied, surprising herself at how disappointed she felt by the thought that they were unlikely to meet again. Get a grip, she told herself irritably. He’s just another rescue. Besides, he’s probably married.
“I’m heading home now,” she told all four of them as they walked towards a long, low building that seemed to be the centre of operations. “I’ll probably be gone by the time you’ve showered and changed, so I’ll say goodbye now. Good luck for the wedding, I hope you get the car sorted out without too much trouble.”
“You don’t live on the base?” The question came from Paul who seemed rather taken aback by the prospect of her imminent departure.
She shook her head. “I have a house in Lesbury. It’s a little village just a couple of miles down the road. I have doss-down facilities here when I’m on call, but if I can, I prefer to get home at night. It’s rather a big ask to expect my neighbour to look after my cat 24/7.”
She watched his face as he processed this information. So: no one else at home to care for puss. Okay.
“I’d hang around and give you chaps a lift back to Alnwick, but I’m afraid I couldn’t take all of you,” she added apologetically.
“You’ve only got a two-seater car?” asked Randall, seemingly incredulous that anyone would be in possession of anything less than a gigantic people-carrier.
“No. I’ve only got a two-seater motorbike. And one spare helmet.”
There was a momentary silence. Then Conrad said, “I like bikes. What have you got?”
Caroline felt her face grow hot, although she wasn’t sure why. “It’s not a make you’d recognise,” she said stiffly.
“Try me. I’m pretty knowledgeable about what’s out there.”
“It’s a custom bike.”
“Cool. What did it start life as?”
He did at least sound impressed. Oh well, she thought, in for a penny, in for a pound. “A pile of spare parts,” she replied, a hint of defiance in her voice. “I built it myself from scratch. It’s got top calibrations; it goes okay.”
As Conrad’s mouth fell open, Jim came up from behind to fling an arm round Caroline’s shoulders. “Take no notice of her,” he said. “It goes better than okay. That bike’s a little beauty; won awards at all the custom shows; and it only took her six months to put it together. Our Cal is one hell of a talented mechanic.”
She blushed and nudged his shoulder with her own in acknowledgement of the compliment. “I could only work on it during evenings and weekends, so it took a while,” she explained. “But I’ve got my garage set up as a workshop, so at least I was able to work under cover. I’d like to have a go at something bigger, with more power, but I just don’t have the time.”
Paul was staring at her, an unfathomable look in his eyes. “So which is it?” he asked suddenly. “Bikes or planes? What’s really got your heart?”
“Planes.” Her answer came immediately, strong and clear. “I’m a flyer, that’s what matters to me.”
“Good.” He smiled then, a dazzling grin of stellar brilliance, as if her answer had pleased him greatly for reasons she couldn’t understand.
Joe trudged up alongside them, carrying equipment, ropes and winches. “What the hell are you all standing around here like ninnies for?” he yelled, the wind whipping away his words. “Get inside and point these chaps in the direction of a shower before they die of hypothermia!”
Jim grimaced at him, but obediently marshalled them all into the reception area, slamming the door shut against the inclement weather. “Okay, everyone,” he said. “I’ll take you up to the stores where we can sort out dry clothing for you – won’t be anything flash, mind you, so don’t get your hopes up. Then I’ll show you where you can shower and change. After that, I’ll bring you back here so you can call your taxi and get on your way. Understood?”
The men exchanged glances. Understood. There was to be no unaccompanied wandering about, no meandering into areas that might possibly be out of bounds. They needed to be out of the RNAS’ collective hair as soon as possible.
Paul looked back to see Caroline head off in the opposite direction. “Cal – Caroline! Hang on a sec, would you?”
She stopped and turned round to face him, an enquiring look in her eyes. “I just wanted to say..... well, I’m not sure really,” he said lamely. “I just feel that ‘thanks’ doesn’t quite cover what you did for us today. I’d really like to buy you dinner tomorrow night; at a restaurant of your choice, of course.”
She regarded him quizzically. “Even supposing I’d say yes, how do you know that I won’t choose the most expensive place in the county? I could clean you out, especially in light of your impending vehicle expenses.”
He grinned broadly. “I think it’s a risk worth taking. And my credit is good. So, please do say yes.”
Caroline sighed. She could do without this, she knew. Paul Metcalfe was gorgeous, but dangerous. She understood that in every fibre of her being. She was behaving like a moth that couldn’t resist the flame. Still......
“Look, I’ve got very little time in the near future,” she said at last. “I’ve got plans all weekend and it sounds as if you have, too. I can’t do dinner tomorrow, but I could possibly squeeze in lunch.”
His face lit up. “Marvellous! Where and when?”
“There’s a pub in my village. It’s called the Coach Inn. It does nice food – just pub grub, but good and inexpensive. How about I meet you there at 12.30pm?”
He nodded. “Okay. Lesbury, right?”
She smiled. He’d remembered everything. She hadn’t been wrong about how sharp he was. “Will you be okay to get there?” she asked. “I mean, without a car.... do you need me to pick you up?”
He shook his head. “No, it’s fine. I’ll manage. I’m resourceful.”
“Not resourceful enough to get yourself off Holy Island without help,” she retorted, as she walked away from him with a backward flip of her hand. She turned her head just once in time to hear his muttered “Ouch!” as he raced to catch up with his friends.
Paul Metcalfe paid off the surly taxi driver with what he regarded as an unseemly large tip. Okay, it wasn’t the shortest of journeys from Alnwick to Lesbury, but considering the weather was greatly improved from the day before, he felt that the attitude of the driver could have been cheerier. But then, maybe he just expected the world to be imbued with his own feelings, which he realised did not necessarily make sense in the circumstances.
He’d left his hotel in Alnwick having delegated all responsibility for the state of the washed-up car to his companions. He’d done enough, he reckoned. He would pay his share of the costs, of course, but he couldn’t be bothered to take any further interest in the proceedings. There were times, he thought, when his team needed to realise that he wasn’t responsible for their every movement in off-duty periods. His team wouldn’t be his team for much longer of course, although the majority of them didn’t know that. He was bound to secrecy and that made him uncomfortable. He believed in an open and trusting environment with his colleagues. After all, it was how you stayed alive.
But now, the world was changing and new opportunities had opened up – opportunities that Paul and his best friend Conrad Lefkon very much wanted to be part of. They had signed up to a new multi-national organisation called Spectrum, which would be responsible for world-wide policing and security. They’d been head- hunted, which was very pleasing from an ego point of view. The difficulty was that they were forbidden to talk about their new jobs until the time came for them to take up their appointments. That was still probably some months away: Spectrum was in the process of recruiting thousands of operatives, picked from the cream of the world’s military and security forces. While Paul understood the need for secrecy, not being able to be upfront with his friends didn’t sit well with his open nature.
The storms of the previous day had abated and although it was bitterly cold, the clouds had parted sufficiently to allow weak sunlight to filter through. He stepped cautiously on the heavily frosted pavement, testing the soles of his boots against the icy surface. He didn’t want to end up flat on his back before he’d made it through the door of the pub; his lunch date thought he was a total klutz as it was. He wanted to remedy that, not exacerbate it.
Fortunately, the Coach Inn welcomed him without mishap and he found himself in a delightfully ‘olde worlde’ lounge bar with wooden tables and comfortable chairs. Despite the freezing January weather, the place was already filling up with customers; it was clearly very popular. Looking around him, he spotted Caroline at a table in the far corner by the window. She was nursing what looked like a glass of orange juice while gazing contemplatively into the flames of a blazing log fire. She glanced up as he made his way towards her.
“You got here, then,” she greeted him with a smile.
“Yep. Not as easy as I thought, though. Maybe I was a little overconfident last night. I looked at bus timetables and couldn’t make head nor tail of them. In the end, I settled for a cab.”
She laughed. “Very wise. At this time of year, the buses are a bit unreliable, especially if the weather is bad.”
“I’m not late, am I? Sorry if I’ve kept you waiting.”
“No, no, you’re fine,” she reassured him, shaking her light brown head. “I got here early in an attempt to snag this table by the fire. I just live over the road, you see,” she continued in answer to his questioning look. ”This place is my ‘local’; I’m always popping in and out. The owners know me.”
Paul slid into the chair opposite her with an automatic glance out of the window. The houses on the other side of the road were large, expensive- looking stone cottages, built around fifty or sixty years ago, at his best guess. He wondered briefly how a twenty-something air-sea rescue pilot could afford such a property on her own. Even renting would be exorbitant.
Caroline pushed a menu towards him, interrupting his thoughts. “They have a really good choice,” she said. “And the daily specials are on the blackboard by the bar. I already know what I want.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Which is what?”
“Fish and chips,” she replied promptly. “Tim, the chef, cooks the best cod and haddock I’ve ever tasted. It’s locally-sourced; it will be fresh from the boat this morning. They have a supplier in Seahouses who delivers direct to the pub every day.”
“Sounds like a good enough recommendation to me,” Paul acknowledged, closing the menu with a snap. “That’s decided, then. Now, what would you like to drink? I’m not much of a beer or lager man; perhaps we could share a bottle of wine? ”
She shook her head regretfully. “I‘ll be out on the bike later on, so I’d better stick to lemonade.”
“Oh, okay. I’d have the same, but after consuming at least eight pints of Coke yesterday, I’m afraid I couldn’t look another fizzy drink in the eye right now.”
Caroline laughed. “I don’t blame you! Please, go ahead and have some wine, I’ll content myself with looking on enviously.”
Once ordered, the drinks were duly delivered to their table, closely followed by the largest plates of battered fish and chips Paul had ever seen. As they tucked into their meals, conversation was slow until Caroline put down her knife and fork with a contented sigh. “Did you manage to sort out the car situation?” she asked. “I know I was a bit snippy about it last night, but I really hope it won’t ruin your holiday.”
“We may get lucky,” he responded cautiously. “I left the guys to sort it out, but my understanding is that we’ll only have to pay for the retrieval costs. The insurance company will cover the loss of the car.”
“That’s good. How are your mates doing? The bridegroom – has he stopped throwing up yet?”
“He didn’t appear for breakfast, but I’ve been assured he’s still alive,” Paul replied solemnly. “How his state of health will be after he’s confessed all to his fiancée remains to be seen. Oh, that reminds me.” He reached down to pick up the plastic laundry bag he’d deposited by the side of his chair. “Here are the borrowed overalls, returned with massive thanks. They’ve been cleaned.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You must have been up early to get that organised.”
He shrugged. “The hotel receptionist was very good. She took me down to the laundry room at 7am and showed me how the machine worked.”
Caroline threw back her head and laughed. “DIY washing? Well done, you! I’m impressed at your commitment.”
“Perhaps I’m a little more resourceful than you gave me credit for last night,” he suggested with an arch grin.
He was gratified to see her face redden. “Sorry if I was ungracious,” she muttered. “You and your friends came at the end of a very long day. I wasn’t at my best.”
“On the contrary – I suspect you were at your very best doing what you did for us.” Impulsively, Paul reached out and covered her hand with his own. “You’re a bloody good pilot – one of the best I’ve ever seen. Your colleagues did an amazing job getting us out of the water, but it would have been a hell of a lot more difficult if you hadn’t handled that chopper the way you did.”
She didn’t pull her hand away, but he saw her eyes narrow. “So you’ve seen a lot of pilots in action, have you? That’s interesting. Something tells me that you know the inside of a cockpit as well as I do and I’m betting you didn’t get that from watching your dad,” she said tartly. “Just what is it that you do for a living, Mr Metcalfe?”
Paul leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes briefly. She was a clever girl. Oh, well, make or break, he thought, reaching into his jeans’ pocket to pull out a card. Silently, he handed it over. He watched as she read the words that might damn him; Commander Paul Metcalfe, US Special Forces.
Her eyes widened in incredulity and he heard her sharp intake of breath. “Bloody hell! No wonder you were embarrassed!” she exploded. “So you should be – fancy getting yourselves into that situation!”
“Yes, it was spectacularly stupid and we’re thoroughly ashamed of ourselves, which is why we weren’t upfront with you and your colleagues,” he replied quietly. “But I knew if I wanted to see you again – and I did- that I would have to level with you at some point. Anything less would be unfair.”
There was silence for a while as she gazed down at the card and he sipped his wine. Eventually, she laid the card face down on the table and regarded him with a quizzical gaze. “Well, I admire your honesty,” she said at last. “And don’t worry, my lips are sealed. I won’t be reporting this back to my crew mates. I reckon even crack military troops make mistakes from time to time, so I shouldn’t judge.”
He gave her a relieved smile. “Thanks, I appreciate that; and the fact that you’re still here. I thought you might walk out on me in disgust.”
She raised an eyebrow. “What? Before we’ve had dessert? No chance! If you invited me to lunch as a gesture of thanks, I intend to make the most of it.”
He understood from her expression that she knew exactly why he’d asked her out and it had nothing to do with gratitude. Yet she’d agreed to meet him and seemed in no hurry to bring the experience to an end. Heartened by this, he picked up the menu once more. “After fish and chips, I don’t think I can do justice to sticky toffee pudding,” he said lightly. “What’s the crème brûlée like?”
“Very good,” she replied promptly. “But I think I’ll go for ice cream. The salted caramel is to die for.”
“Okay.” Paul beckoned the waitress to take their order and then sat back in his chair, turning his blue gaze on his companion. “Other than your name and your occupation, I don’t know anything about you,” he observed. “Tell me more; how did you end up in air – sea rescue, for instance?
“By a circuitous route, really,” she answered slowly. “I was born in Cambridgeshire, grew up in London. I studied Physics and Mechanical Engineering at Durham University. I’d never thought about flying as a career, but a friend who ran a local aero club took me up in his Cessna a few times and that got me hooked. By the time I graduated, I’d got my licence. The RNAS used the club to advertise recruitment; I’d already decided I didn’t want to leave the north-east, so I applied to join Boulmer’s fighter jet training programme. I was lucky enough to be accepted and five years on, I’m still here.”
“You flew jets?”
She nodded.“Tornados, Vampires; Hornets, sometimes.”
“Why the switch to helos?”
She hesitated fractionally. “Sheer stupidity, I think. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. It was definitely the right decision but probably made for all the wrong reasons.” At his questioning look, she gave him a rueful smile. “About eighteen months ago, it looked as if I was going to be transferred to another base. At the time I was living with an accountant whose firm was based in Newcastle. There was no question of him re-locating and I didn’t want to leave him. A vacancy came up in search and rescue, so I went for it and here I am.”
“But not with the accountant, I take it?”
She made a face at him. “No. Six months ago, I came home from work to find him in bed with his secretary. They’d been an item for a long time, apparently; the only idiot who didn’t know about it was me. The situation was so clichéd, it was ridiculous. So he went the way all arseholes do; I packed his bags and kicked him out.”
Paul reached across the table and squeezed her fingers. “I’m sorry,” he said simply. “That’s awful.”
“Oh, I’m over it now; and as I say, I don’t regret my change of job. But the whole thing taught me to be careful not to make major decisions based on what my heart wants rather than what my head tells me.”
“True. But there are times when you need to pay attention to your instincts.”
“Heart and instinct are two completely different things,” she retorted. “And in my experience, the latter is way more reliable than the former.” There was a brief silence before she continued in a lighter voice. “So who’ve you got at home? Wife? Girlfriend? ‘Significant Other’ of either sex?”
He shook his head. “No and no and no; not even a dog. In my job, I need to be anywhere in the world at very short notice. Sometimes we can be deployed abroad for weeks or months at a time. It’s hard to sustain lasting relationships if you’re rarely together.”
“How did you end up in Special Ops?”
“Bit like you, I suppose; I started off flying jets in the air force, then I transferred over to ground forces during the Terrorist Wars.”
Caroline picked up his card and studied it carefully. “You’ve risen through the ranks very quickly if you’ve made Commander by.......how old are you?” she asked.
“Thirty last month.”
“Wow. That’s impressive.”
He shrugged. “Well, I don’t think I‘ve ever lacked motivation, but my parents were killed during the Wars and I guess that sharpened my focus. I wanted a change of direction.”
“I’m sorry, that’s sad. How did they die?”
“Car bomb. It wasn’t meant for them, they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose the only thing to say is that they went together which I think is what they’d have wanted.”
“How old were you at the time?”
“Twenty-five; my sister was twenty-nine. We were both shell-shocked, but in a way it’s been tougher on her. She was married to an air force pilot who was also killed in an accident a couple of years later. That was a heavy blow. She was only just coming to terms with the loss of Mom and Dad. She lives in Canada now with her little boy who’ll be seven this year. I try to see as much of them as I can, but.....”
“I can understand it’s not easy,” Caroline concluded with a sympathetic nod. “What rotten luck.”
“Yes. But then again, the Wars had massive impact on everyone. There probably aren’t many families who haven’t been affected in some way, even if it’s only indirectly.”
Her reply was deflected by the arrival of coffees and desserts, so Paul took the opportunity to change the subject. “I have a favour to ask,” he announced, picking up his spoon to attack his crème brûlée topping. “Apart from the friends I came with, I won’t know a soul at this wedding tomorrow. If you’re free, would you like to be my ‘plus-one’? I’d love to see you again and you’d be doing my street-cred no end of good as far as my pals are concerned – they think I’m a hopeless case on the dating circuit. ”
“Somehow, I doubt that,” she responded tartly, although her words were softened with a smile. “I’d love to, but coincidentally, I’m also attending a wedding tomorrow. And I don’t have a ‘plus-one’, either. What a shame. Where is your ‘do’ at?”
Paul looked vague. “It’s at a place called Ellingham Hall. It was supposed to be at Alnwick Castle, because the bride has family connections with the owners, but they had a flood in one of the main reception rooms a few weeks ago, so they had to re-locate. From what Randy tells me, there was a real panic on, but it’s sorted out now.”
Caroline was staring at him, her salted caramel ice cream melting in front of her. “Oh, my God!” she exclaimed. “I think we’re going to the same wedding!”
“We are?” Paul was nonplussed, his crème brûlée forgotten.
“The bride is Rhiannon Percy, right? And the groom is a Yank called Randall something-or-other the third?”
“Yeah. Wow, what a coincidence. How do you know Rhia?”
“We were at school together. I knew she was living in the States, but we haven’t really kept in touch over the years. I was a bit surprised to be invited, actually. I’ve never met her fiancé; well, obviously I have, I just didn’t realise it.” Caroline sat back in her chair, her childlike open grin an acknowledgement of her delight in this unexpected turn of events.
“Well, I won’t say it’s a small world because that’s way too cheesy, but I’m very glad we’ll have the opportunity to meet again,” Paul said with a smile. Inside, his heart did a buoyant flip. It seemed his costly and unwelcome dip in the North Sea was actually turning out to be rather fortuitous.
“Well, even if last night hadn’t happened we’d have met at the wedding,” she pointed out, as if she had followed his train of thought. “Although it’s a big wedding – lots of guests – so you probably wouldn’t have noticed me.”
“I’d have noticed,” he replied softly, fastening his deep blue gaze on her face. He saw her blush and wondered why she appeared to have so little confidence in her powers of attraction. Perhaps the idiot accountant had dented her self-esteem more than she realised. He felt a sudden and irrational flash of anger at the stupidity of a man who had betrayed this striking and unusual young woman in such a callous way.
“How are you getting to the Hall?” he asked. “Not on the bike, I hope? Leathers and a posh frock might be an odd combination.”
“Unusual, certainly,” she acknowledged with a smile, her heightened colour fading to a normal pale rose. “I’m going there tonight by taxi. Mr and Mrs Percy have hired the Hall for the whole weekend, so Rhia has invited family and close girlfriends to an informal get together this evening, ahead of the main event tomorrow. We’re all staying there overnight anyway – either in the Hall itself or in the cottages around the estate. There are two outdoor hot tubs so she has this romantic notion of us sitting around in our swimsuits sipping champagne while the snow gently falls.”
Paul grinned. “It’s.... erm... different, I guess. Will you be up for that?”
“Are you kidding? In these temperatures? It’s not different, it’s insane! But, I daresay after a few glasses of vino I’ll find myself taking a dip.”
“Hopefully the water will be warmer than the North Sea,” he responded with a grimace.
She gave him a sympathetic look. “It’s bloody freezing, isn’t it? Coldest sea in the world. People have been known to have heart attacks, yet there are still deluded bathers on the beach every New Year’s Day. Still, I expect you’ve experienced colder waters in your career.”
“I have. The Arctic ocean takes some beating,” he acknowledged thoughtfully. “I think the difference is you expect it in that part of the world, but here.... well, to say we were unprepared is an understatement.”
“Don’t beat yourself up,” she responded briskly. “It could have happened to anyone.” She rose from her chair, gathering up her shoulder bag. “Paul, I’m really sorry to cut this short, but I’m afraid I have to go. I have tons of things to do this afternoon and as usual, I’m completely disorganised. But I’m happy to give you a lift back to Alnwick, if you don’t mind a bike ride.”
“Don’t mind at all,” he replied, signalling to the waiter for the bill. “But I don’t want to put you out if time is tight.”
“You won’t be, I have to go there anyway. I have a hair appointment at three o’clock followed by a manicure and a facial at four thirty. God, the things you have to do for a society wedding.”
“Is it?” Paul asked curiously. “A society wedding, I mean. I didn’t realise it was such a big deal.”
“It is when you’re related to the Duke of Northumberland,” she retorted. “Rhia’s branch of the family may be the poor relations, but it’ll still get lots of press coverage. My mother will be furious with me if I appear in the pages of Tatler looking my usual dishevelled self. She still hasn’t given up on trying to turn me into a lady, alas.”
“Mothers tend to do that, I think,” he replied, pocketing his change after depositing a hefty tip into the leather bill folder left discreetly on the table. “Wanting you to be someone you’re not. Not that I’m suggesting for one moment that you’re not ladylike,” he added hastily as he saw the gleam of amusement in her eyes.
“Your mother was disappointed in you? That’s sad. I would have thought she’d be immensely proud of having such a talented – if rather tactless – son.”
Paul grinned ruefully. “Touché. One up to you. But no, Mom wasn’t disappointed in her kids as such. She’d have supported us whatever we did. But she was a physicist – a good one- and I think she hoped we’d follow in her footsteps. I did study astrophysics at college, but my heart wasn’t in it. I’m not one for research. My sister Carolyn is the one with the real talent; she’s a natural scientist. I think Mom saw Carrie as a clone of herself in a way, expecting her to make the same choices. But Carrie’s her own person, she always has been. If you push her, she’ll push right back. And often, if she thinks you desperately want her to go a certain way, she’ll go in the opposite direction, just for the hell of it. So as you can imagine, there were battles royal in our house when it came down to career choices; Mom on one side of the argument, Carrie on the other.”
“I take it your mum didn’t win,” Caroline replied, as they left the warmth of the pub to cross over the road towards the row of houses on the opposite side.
He shook his head. “Not over astrophysics. Carrie decided to study medicine instead and she qualified as a surgeon. She joined the US Army at the height of the Terrorist Wars and she spent quite a lot of time in Syria and Afghanistan. Mom was very proud of her, but I know she worried terribly. After Carrie got married and had Michael – that’s her little boy – she resigned her commission and started working at a hospital in Houston. Mom never said it, but I think she was relieved.”
“Hmmm. My mother disapproves of what I do, but I don’t really think it’s because she worries about my safety,” she replied crisply. Before Paul had a chance to express his surprise at this, she made a sharp left turn onto a paved driveway that led up to a smart little detached house. They’d passed the larger homes directly opposite the Coach Inn – Caroline’s comment about living ‘just over the road’ hadn’t been completely accurate- and turned a corner into a small cul-de-sac.
“Here we are, home sweet home,” she said, a slightly self-conscious note in her voice. “Watch your step on the drive; I haven’t had a chance to put down salt yet.” Deftly, she opened the front door and led the way into a tiny white-painted porch.
Green Wellington boots stood on the tiled floor and in the other corner, an umbrella rack leaned rather precariously against the wall. Paul carefully wiped his feet on the ‘welcome’ mat and admired the scarlet poinsettia on the narrow windowsill. “I must admit it’s confounded my lack of skill with plants,” she conceded, smiling with pleasure. “I’ve never before had one that was still going strong at the end of January. I thought the porch might be too draughty for it, but I was wrong. Take your boots off, if you like. I’ve got underfloor heating so the carpet will be nice and toasty in the living room.”
“Okay, thanks.” Paul bent to unzip his boots, casting a surreptitious glance around him. The porch opened on to a narrow hallway which, judging by the open door at the end, gave way to a kitchen displaying glossy cream and black units. Off to his left was the living room where Caroline was already busying herself switching on lamps and closing blinds. From where he stood, he could see the outline of a large tortoiseshell cat stretched out luxuriously on a white fur rug. Looks like it’s got the life of Riley, he thought, laying his boots carefully next to the wellies before following her into the room.
“This is nice,” he remarked, genuinely surprised at how warm and cosy it was. Over stacked bookcases lined walls decorated in soft shades of cream and apricot. A large chesterfield in rich brown leather dominated the centre, with lamp tables at both ends and a polished mahogany coffee table in front. The table was piled high with newspapers, magazines, empty coffee cups and several toys which Paul presumed belonged to the cat.
“I’m sorry the place is such a mess,” Caroline said contritely, following his gaze. “I never seem to be here long enough to clean up properly. Please have a seat if you can find an uncluttered bit. I’ll make coffee before we set out again.” With that, she hastily gathered up the dirty mugs and headed off to the kitchen. Paul sat down gingerly and leant back against the generous cushions. He was just starting to relax when a loud squeak from beside him galvanized both himself and the cat, which shot up immediately and launched itself onto his knees, looking at him expectantly through clear green eyes. He put one arm out to pat it gently and dug the other one down between the leather cushions to retrieve an orange felt carrot, dangling on a string.
The cat mewed with delight and swiped its paw at the toy, catching it successfully in its claws. Balancing with gymnastic precision on Paul’s knees, it gazed hopefully at him. “Oh, I see. Want to play, do you?” he murmured as the animal impatiently nudged the carrot towards him. Picking up the string, he flung it across the room and watched as the cat sprang off in pursuit of its’prey’, eventually wrestling it down in a corner.
“I see you’ve met Morpheus,” Caroline said with a grin, entering with a tray of coffee mugs and biscuits. “He loves flexing his muscles with a new sparring partner, but be warned – he can go on for hours; or as long as the catnip lasts.”
“He’s a beautiful animal,” Paul acknowledged dutifully as she set the tray down on the table. “I must admit I’m a dog man myself. Don’t know a lot about cats.”
They’re good pets to have if you aren’t able to keep them company 24/7. They’re sociable but independent – and they sleep a lot, which is why he’s called Morpheus.”
“Does he sleep with you?”
It was an innocent, if somewhat idiotic question on his part, but when she gave him an odd look, he realised that underlying the words was the suggestion of an unspoken portent, which she hadn’t missed.
However, all she said was, “He knows he’s not allowed upstairs, so naturally, he’s made it his life’s work to do exactly that whenever my back’s turned. I used to wonder how the hell he managed to open a closed door, but then I discovered he could jump high enough to pull the handle down with his paws. After that, I gave up. So yes, he keeps me company a lot.”
“Lucky boy,” he observed, keeping his tone casual. He saw the sudden flush of colour in her cheeks, but she busied herself stirring her coffee so he helped himself to a chocolate digestive and turned his attention to Morpheus who had padded back to him with the carrot between his teeth, ready for a repeat performance. This time, the cat misjudged his distance and in a scrabble for the toy, managed to collide with the glass doors of an elegant china cabinet. The impact caused the collapse of two of several photo frames which were artfully displayed on its top. Morpheus, startled by the clatter, abandoned his game and raced off in the direction of the kitchen.
“Sorry. I guess that was my fault,” Paul said contritely. “I threw it in the wrong direction.”
“No, he’s always doing it,” she replied, getting to her feet with a sigh of resignation. “I think he’s got a few vision problems: he’s getting on a bit in cat years.”
“The glass hasn’t broken, has it?” he asked, coming to stand behind her as she straightened up the pictures.
“No, they’re fine. No harm done.”
Paul looked curiously at the display of photographs. Most seemed to be family portraits as far as he could tell. There were one or two of a teenage Caroline with youngsters he guessed were her siblings, together with two adults he assumed were parents, judging from the facial resemblance.
“These are your folks? He asked.
“Yeah. Mum and Dad, of course. My brothers Max and James and my sister Isabel. Those two are from years back as you can tell, but that one there was taken at Max’s wedding a couple of years ago. Izzy and I were bridesmaids.”
Paul looked at what was a typical wedding picture, taken in a garden setting with the bridal party posing for the photographer in traditionally formal fashion. The sun shone, the radiant bride and groom beamed out at the camera as their parents smiled in indulgent pride. Caroline, one of three adult attendants and two small flower girls, looked self-conscious in full length, citrus-lemon taffeta.
She caught his eye and read his thoughts. “I look horrendous, don’t I? That is so not my colour. And those fussy puff-ball sleeves..... God, they were hideous. The trouble is, the bride usually gets to choose what her attendants wear on her big day; unfortunately for me, my sister-in-law has appalling taste.”
Paul laughed. “Yeah, I can understand it must have been a bit of a penance. But actually, you look fine, although I agree the colour isn’t really for you.” His eyes travelled on to the next photo, which showed Caroline’s parents deep in conversation with an elderly couple who looked familiar to him. All were dressed formally in suits and hats and all were clutching champagne flutes. He struggled for a moment before recognition hit home with startling clarity. “Isn’t that King William and Queen Catherine?” he asked, pointing them out. “How come they were at your brother’s wedding?”
“They weren’t, of course,” she replied with a grin, although he noticed her sudden air of discomfort. “That was another occasion, a garden party at Buckingham Palace. My parents do a lot of work for charity so they’re always getting invited to these shindigs. Occasionally they get presented to whichever royal can be bothered to show up. It’s not usually Will and Kate, though. They’re both in their eighties so I think they’re cutting back on civic duties. I suppose it’s quite a thrill meeting them, though.”
Paul looked back at the picture. Caroline’s father was throwing back his head, apparently roaring with laughter at something the King had said to him. Queen Catherine’s head was dipped in concentration as she listened to Mrs Finch’s animated conversation. There was a familiarity between these people which did not sit well with Caroline’s tacit suggestion that her parents had been ‘presented’ to the monarchs for the first time.
Before he had a chance to ruminate further, she touched his arm. “Sorry Paul, we need to push off now or I’ll be late for my appointments. Brian – my ex – left behind a set of leathers. They may be a bit small for you, but they’ll be better protection against the elements than just your jeans and jacket. I’ll dig them out.”
“Why did he leave them? And why haven’t you binned them?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Brian hated the bike. He only got on it if he had to. I’d bought the suit for him so I knew he had proper protection. I thought about getting rid of it, but it cost a lot of money and I decided it might come in handy for anyone who needed to borrow it.” She smiled at him. “Like you, for instance.”
Paul frowned. He wasn’t sure he liked the idea of wearing gear belonging to the idiot accountant. However, he had to admit it would make the journey a whole lot more comfortable. “Okay,” he acceded. “Sounds good to me.”
The journey back to Alnwick was cold and exhilarating. Caroline was right – the leathers bought for her former partner were a little small on Paul’s six foot two height and powerful build, but they did afford protection against the icy winds blowing in from the Arctic circle. She was a skilful biker who imbued him with not only a sense of safety, but of freedom. As he watched the coastline speeding past in the fading winter light, he leaned into her back, mesmerised by the lights over the bay at Alnmouth, comforted by the looming presence of Alnwick Castle in the distance.
She deposited him outside The White Swan in the centre of the town just after a quarter to three. Paul swung his leg over the pillion seat and handed over his helmet, retrieving his other belongings from the rear side panniers. Caroline lifted off her own helmet, turning her gold-brown head towards him. “Enjoyed the ride?” she asked, her cheeks flushed with a mixture of cold and excitement.
“Great, loved it. Thanks so much, and for lunch, too.” Impulsively, he bent his head and kissed her mouth lightly. The moment was electric and might have lasted longer had it not been for the buzzing of his personal communicator. “Shit! Sorry, it’s just my phone. Hang on.....” She waited patiently as he listened to whoever was on the other end, his face screwed up in concentration. “Yeah, yeah. Yes, I can hear you – just. Okay. Well, we’ll see you whenever.” He clicked the machine off and slid it back into his jacket.
“Problems?” she asked sympathetically.
He shook his head. “Nah, not really. Conrad’s girlfriend is flying in today. He went to the airport to meet her, but her flight’s been delayed, so it may be a while before they end up back here. Oh sorry, Con’s the dark-haired guy who’s into bikes,” he added as he saw her blank expression
“I hope he didn’t think of hiring another car to pick her up,” she said primly, her face set in a picture of innocence.
Paul burst out laughing. “Oh, trust me; there’d be no way Con would travel to Newcastle on public transport! He’ll have got there in his own way, but he’d be careful where he rented a car from. He’s a professional – nothing will be traced back to last night.”
“Should I be reassured by that?”
“I don’t know. It’s up to you.” He bent his head and kissed her again. “Enjoy the rest of your day. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He placed the helmet back on her head. “Ride carefully.”
He strode away, leaving her to savour the tingling sensation on her lips that had nothing to do with the cold.
Caroline stepped out of the elaborate claw-footed bath which dominated the en-suite in her bedroom and reached for the large fluffy bath sheet. Wrapping it round her body, she dried herself vigorously, glancing anxiously at the clock as she did so. Although the wedding ceremony would not take place till four-thirty pm, guests were expected to arrive about three. She realised she’d left it rather late to dress and do hair and make-up. She began to regret having turned down an offer to take up the services of the resident beautician. Well, she’d just have to get a move on, she thought, rummaging through her lingerie; nothing else for it.
Despite the best intentions of the bride, last night had turned into an alcohol - fuelled riot which had ended much later than planned. Having lasted as long as they could in the hot tubs until the freezing night air drove them indoors, Rhiannon and her friends had ended up sitting around the hall’s large kitchen in their pyjamas, quaffing champagne and giggling like the schoolgirls they’d once been. Caroline had finally collapsed into bed sometime after two, forgetting her resolution to down a bottle of water before going to sleep. She’d only remembered that bit when she awoke at nine, bleary-eyed and de-hydrated.
The hall’s staff had prepared bacon and egg sandwiches for those staying over both nights, but it seemed few guests had taken them up on this. The kitchen was quiet when Caroline, clad in jeans and jumper, ambled down at 10.30 to grab a cup of tea and something to eat. She realised this probably suited the staff; preparations were clearly already underway for the reception dinner that evening. The chefs needed the room to move around freely.
There was no sign of Rhiannon or her bridesmaids. Probably still in bed, Caroline thought, although she understood that the full day was expected to be taken up with a steady stream of professionals, buffing them all up to Hollywood-style perfection. She shook her head in bemusement at this thought. Why on earth, on your wedding day of all days, would you want to look like someone you’re not? She thought as she made her way through the lounge with her tea and sandwich, looking to pick up a magazine to while away half an hour or so. She recognised the middle-aged, grey-haired man sitting in the corner by himself perusing a copy of the Financial Times. “Hi, Mr Percy. All alone this morning?”
“Caroline!” He looked up with a warm smile. “How lovely to see you again. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Are you still rescuing people from perilous situations?”
“I am; although hopefully not this weekend,” she replied, sitting down beside him on the leather sofa.
“Indeed not,” he agreed, putting down his paper. “I’m snatching a few quiet moments before my wife gives me the latest updates on proceedings. I have a feeling it’s going to be a bloody long day until it’s time to walk my daughter down that staircase.”
Caroline laughed. “It will give you time to put the finishing touches to your speech, I suppose.”
“There is that,” he conceded. “Although I wouldn’t dare alter anything without Annabel’s approval. She’s censored it several times already.”
“I’m sure it’ll be brilliant, Mr Percy. You’ve always had a way with words.”
He tutted. “Oh, call me John, for heaven’s sake; or Jack, if you prefer. Mr Percy makes me feel like Methuselah.”
“All right, thanks.” Caroline sat back in the seat, unsure of what to say. She’d always got on with Rhiannon’s father, but it was several years since their paths had crossed. She’d never felt familiar enough to address him by his first name. Still, she was no longer a child now – perhaps she should consider him as an individual rather than as just the parent of a school friend.
“Did your father tell you I’d bumped into him in London last week?” he said suddenly, interrupting her thoughts. “He looked well, I must say. Business seems to be booming. Of course, the stock market is on the up at the moment.”
“That’ll please him, then,” she replied shortly. “As long as he’s making money, that’s the most important thing.”
He looked surprised at her acerbic tone. “He’s very proud of you, you know,” he said mildly. “He was regaling me with tales of your recent exploits.”
Now it was her turn to be surprised. “I doubt he’d remember,” she said dismissively. “Whenever I call him, he usually can’t wait to hand the phone to my mother.”
“Ah. Well, that’s what fathers of daughters do, I’m afraid,” he responded, a twinkle in his eye. “We’re not very good at the small talk. But I suspect your dad pays more attention than you think.”
Maybe he’s mixing me up with Izzy, she thought sardonically. Apple of Daddy’s eye. No surprise there, then.
John Percy suddenly picked up his newspaper and with a muffled curse, buried his whole head in it. Caroline recognised this as some kind of avoidance tactic and hastily looked around her. A very large, florid-looking man had poked his head round the door of the lounge. He was clearly looking for someone. Behind his paper, Jack grunted. “Don’t let him see me, please. Otherwise, I’m done for.”
Caroline gave the man at the door her sweetest, most seductive smile and waved at him. “Hi, there. Lovely morning! Can I help you with anything?”
The newcomer seemed uncertain. “I... er... was looking for Jack Percy,” he boomed in a broad Texan accent. “Father of the bride, that is. You... er... haven’t seen him around, have you?”
“Oh, no, I don’t believe so. Perhaps he’s gone over to the cottages to see how the groom and the ushers are getting on.”
“Yeah, maybe so. Could have sworn he said he’d be here, though. Ah, well.” With that, he withdrew his fair head and disappeared.
Jack lowered his paper and exhaled in relief. “Phew! Lucky escape. He’s my daughter’s intended father-in-law. Seems to feel the need to do a bit of male bonding with me. Typical American windbag, if you ask me. Too much money and not enough brains, much like his son. Still, you can’t win ‘em all, I suppose.” He got to his feet, stretching. “I need to get out of here before he realises he’s been had. Care for a bit of fresh air?”
“Actually, yes, that would be good,” she conceded. “After last night I could do with having my cobwebs blown away.”
He chuckled. “What? Young girl like you can’t take the pace? I’m disappointed. Still, I daresay it’s a good reason why you’re a lot fitter than me. Go grab your outdoor gear and I’ll see you at the main gate in five minutes. We can have a restorative stroll down by the river while we keep out of everyone else’s hair.” He paused and eyed her speculatively. “Unless you’d rather be in the thick of things here with your pals? An old fart like me mightn’t be much fun for you. ”
“No... No. I prefer walking to sitting around. It’ll clear my head.”
And so it had, Caroline thought, as she pulled her chocolate-brown satin dress off its hanger. The ‘stroll’ along the river had actually turned into a three mile hike through the surrounding countryside, ending up at Ellingham’s village pub, The Pack Horse. Once there, Jack Percy had bought her a sandwich and a warming glass of mulled wine as thanks, he said, for ‘saving his bacon’ earlier.
There had been a moment when she’d wondered about his motives in suggesting this little outing on his daughter’s wedding day, but she decided any misgivings were unfounded. He was simply a rather lonely man who was in need of companionship and good conversation; neither of which he appeared to get from his family, she deduced.
Rather too fond of his beer, though. She’d almost had to manhandle him out of the pub at one-thirty and they’d really had to leg it back to the hall where she left him to face the wrath of his wife. She hoped that Annabel Percy, whom she rather liked, would not regard her as a bad influence.
She swiftly applied make-up and then considered her hair. Her stylist had persuaded her to try a multi-toned ‘ombre’ shading in her long, light brown locks. This had involved keeping the base colour, but adding golden highlights progressively through the strands until the ends were quite blonde. She’d had reservations about it, but now she had to admit it took away the ‘mousy’ tinge and brightened up her complexion. She quickly undid the habitual tidy plait and let it fall into cascading waves across her shoulders.
The dress was fitted to the waist with an elaborately decorated halter neck and jewelled belt. It was not her usual style, but it flattered her straight shoulders and athletic frame, imbuing her with a femininity which pleased her. Although she was lithe and fit, at a big-boned five foot ten, no one would ever consider her ‘delicate’. While this was generally an advantage in her chosen career, there were times when she didn’t wish to appear as one of the boys. Paul Metcalfe liked her, she thought. He’d flirted with her, kissed her, made no secret of the fact she attracted him. And, if she were honest, it was reciprocated. Draping a cream faux fur stole round her shoulders, she studied her image in the long freestanding mirror and a frisson of excitement coursed through her. Something would happen tonight, she thought, with a sudden prescience. Something life-changing.
Paul Metcalfe was frustrated. He’d done his duty in attending the nuptials of a friend and colleague and he had to admit that he’d enjoyed his day. But so far, it hadn’t gone as he’d hoped. He’d arrived at Ellingham Hall a little after 3pm, together with Conrad and his girlfriend. Nathan, in his role as one of the ushers had gone on ahead to ‘assist’ the groom who had taken up residence in one of the estate’s pretty cottages for the night before his wedding. Any assistance provided by Nathan would probably be in getting Randall plastered before the ceremony, Paul thought wryly.
He’d immediately looked for Caroline among the guests milling around the bar, but she didn’t appear until the formal champagne reception, hosted by Rhiannon’s parents, had begun. She’d smiled and waved at him, but was immediately surrounded by several groups of young men and woman, clearly eager to engage her in animated conversation. He’d hung back, feeling slightly awkward. In the light of her remarks at lunch yesterday, he hadn’t expected her to know so many people; she’d implied that she too, would be an outsider at this function. Perhaps he’d misunderstood, he thought. Although she may not have kept up a close friendship with the bride, that didn’t mean she wasn’t in regular touch with other people from her school days.
They certainly seemed a privileged bunch, though. Conrad’s girlfriend Simone had busied herself in pointing out the rich and/or famous guests as they arrived. When he’d asked how she knew who they were, she’d said, “Oh, most of them appear in Hello! magazine pretty regularly.” The rather obvious presence of photographers, journalists and film camera crews appeared to back up Caroline’s assertion that this wedding was a high-powered shindig.
Paul kept out of the way of the reporters jotting down the names of important-looking guests. His new employment required a certain degree of anonymity, so the last thing he wanted was to end up in the pages of a society newspaper. He noticed that Conrad and Simone did likewise; they too, had no wish to be publicly identified.
He was denied an opportunity to speak to Caroline until the ceremony had ended and they filed out for official photographs to be taken. He’d found himself sitting near the back of the hall’s large chapel, on the groom’s side, in contrast to her position near the front, just behind what he now knew were most of the Percy family. She’d turned her head to look for him and he’d given her a small wave of acknowledgement, glad that she hadn’t forgotten his presence. He saw her face light up in a brilliant smile and felt his heart lift for the first time that day.
He’d waited for her at the back of the chapel and was gratified when she greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. “Hi, Paul. I’m so sorry we haven’t had a chance to talk. It’s a bit chaotic, isn’t it?”
“Just a bit,” he acknowledged with a smile. “I must say I hadn’t expected so many people.”
She nodded. “I love this place, but it’s not really big enough for a large wedding. It’s a pity Alnwick Castle was damaged. As it is, I’ve no idea how they’re going to cram everyone into the Orangery; that’s where we’ll all be eating dinner later,” she added in response to his enquiring look.
“I noticed picnic tables on the lawn,” he replied with a grin. “They could take any overspill, I guess; although you’ll need more than a fur stole to sit outside in these temperatures. You look gorgeous, by the way. That dress suits you a hell of a lot more than the bridesmaid thing did.”
She blushed prettily. “Thank you, kind sir. You look rather smart yourself.”
“Well, we former colonials like to think we can take on any British toffs on the day.”
“But you’re not a colonial, are you? You told me you were born in England,” she countered, as they strolled through to the larger of the lounges where the cameras were being set up.
“Yes, I was, and I have dual nationality. But I grew up in the States so I see myself as American and that’s always the passport I use. I have little memory of my childhood here.”
“How old were you when you emigrated?”
“Almost six. All I can really remember of it was giving our dog away. He was basically too old and ill to make the journey, but of course, I was too young to understand that. I was completely devastated, I cried for days. Once we were settled in Houston, my dad bought me a new puppy so I cheered up pretty quickly.”
“Kids are very resilient,” she agreed, as she reached out to accept the glass of champagne proffered by a passing waiter. Across the room, Mrs Rhiannon Jenkins and her new husband were beckoning their guests to take part in group photographs around the flower-decked fireplace. As Annabel Percy purposefully walked towards them, Caroline handed her glass to Paul. “Would you mind hanging on to this for a while? I think my presence is required for the mug shots.”
Sure enough, Annabel took firm grasp of her arm. “Come along, dear,” she said briskly. “Rhia wants some pictures of her with all her Marlborough College friends. I’m sure this good-looking young man can look after himself for a few minutes.” She gave Paul a gracious smile that implied he was not expected to rebuke this suggestion. With an apologetic shrug, Caroline allowed herself to be led away.
Standing in the corner watching the photographers jockeying for position to arrange the bridal party in poses to their liking, Paul suspected that the proceedings were going to take rather longer than ‘a few’ minutes. He looked down at the champagne and morosely decided he might as well drink it himself. Caroline had not actually said which school she’d attended, so he’d been rather taken aback at the mention of Marlborough College. He was aware that it was a public school beloved by the British aristocracy and any other upwardly mobile families who could afford the exorbitant fees. It certainly explained the presence of all the ‘Hooray Henrys’ among the guests. What it didn’t explain was his growing sense of unease at what she had so far revealed about her background. Although he wasn’t sure that she’d actually lied to him, he was starting to get the distinct impression that she may have been rather economical with the truth. She certainly seemed to be very much at home among these people.
He reasoned that as they had only just met, she was hardly obliged to reveal her family history to him – or indeed, to talk much about herself at all. Yet, onboard the Sea King, he’d felt they had made an immediate connection and he’d known the moment their eyes met that she knew it, too. In his book, that connection required honesty between them; no misrepresentation, which was why he’d felt the need to come clean about his occupation. Perhaps she didn’t see it that way; although she hadn’t seemed the type to play games.
After fifteen minutes, the photo sessions weren’t showing signs of winding up, so Paul made his way through to the music room where a group of people, Conrad and Simone among them, were clustered round the grand piano listening to the playing of a reasonably talented guest. Simone noticed the look of dejection that Paul couldn’t quite hide and flashed him a sympathetic smile. “Don’t worry, there’ll be time later,” she whispered softly in his ear. He nodded, unsure if she was tuning in to his disappointment or referring to another subject altogether.
Dinner was served in the Orangery at 6pm. As Caroline had predicted, it was a tight squeeze fitting in sufficient seating to accommodate all the guests. Paul and his friends found themselves on a round table in the ‘overflow’ area, the mezzanine overlooking the room itself. As Caroline was seated near the top table below, he had a bird’s eye view of her, but in practical terms, he was as far away as he could have been. She smiled and waved and he waved back, but he understood that would be the extent of their communication for the duration of the meal. With the exception of Conrad and Simone on his right, Paul didn’t know a soul. At least he was fairly close to the bar set up beside the doors leading to the roof terrace. He could drown his sorrows if he felt the need.
By 7pm, the speeches were wrapped up, many tears had been shed by all and sundry and Paul sat back in his chair. The wedding ‘breakfast’ had turned out to be one of the best dinners he’d ever eaten and he wasn’t sure he could do justice to either dessert or coffee and cake. Relaxed and uninhibited, guests were now mingling freely, so he decided to stretch his legs and wander down to where Caroline and her friends sat, giggling and chatting animatedly.
She didn’t see him approach and it was only when he whispered a breathy “Hi, having a good time?” that she jumped and turned her head, startled. Immediately, her hand went down on her place name card, crushing it beneath her. The action didn’t escape his notice and he frowned, puzzled.
“Oops! Nearly knocked my glass over,” she said with a giggle. He didn’t reply: they both knew the glass hadn’t moved. Once again he had the uneasy sensation that he was being duped, about something that everyone else in the room but him knew. “Did you enjoy the meal?” she asked, her tone bright and airy.
“Very much. It was absolutely delicious,” he responded, deciding that whatever charade was being played here, he had little option but to join in. The other female guests at the table were eying him with interest and not a little admiration. “Introduce your friend, Cal,” instructed the buxom blonde sitting opposite, her lascivious smile stopping just short of a leer. The two young women next to her nodded their approval with high-pitched giggles that reminded him of donkeys braying..
Caroline did as she was told and he was duly informed that the donkeys were otherwise known as Hermione, Arabella and Jacinta. Paul fashioned his face into an expression of interest and feigned enthusiasm. Fortunately, the conversation was interrupted by an announcement that the bride and groom were about to cut the cake after which coffee would be served. “Guess that’s my cue to go back to my seat,” he said lightly, trying to sound regretful. “Lovely to have met you, ladies. Enjoy the rest of the evening.”
“Oh, it’s not over yet,” murmured Hermione with a coy flutter of her false eyelashes. “Perhaps we’ll meet again on the dance floor. After all, Cal mustn’t hog you all to herself.”
Caroline shot her a venomous look and Paul’s heart lifted. The idea that she thought these three witches were competition was laughable, but......whatever her game was, he was obviously still in it. “I’ll catch you later,” he muttered, giving her shoulder a quick squeeze. She nodded but didn’t reply, so he forced himself to walk away without a backward glance.
As he took his place up on the mezzanine, the elderly man seated to his left turned to him. “Saw you talking to Caroline,” he said with a knowing smile. “Cracking girl, isn’t she? Didn’t realise you knew her – thought you were on the groom’s side.”
“I am,” Paul admitted, surprised that his companion had been watching him. “We met a few days ago, purely coincidentally. It was... er... in connection with her work.”
The other man – whose place card declared him to be Sir Peregrine Lloyd-Roberts- nodded sagely. “Ah, yes. The search and rescue stuff. Never quite understood it myself. Oh, I don’t mean the job,” he added as Paul gave him a questioning look. “Important work, of course, I know that. Laudable to have a vocation and do one’s duty. Rather a pity she’s taken herself completely off the circuit, though. I’m surprised she’s turned up to this do, actually. Never seen her at any events for months, not even Ascot.”
“The social circuit. I gather she doesn’t get out much, doesn’t mix with the in-crowd. Of course, it must be a bit difficult when she’s stuck in the back of beyond like this, but still..... she should come up to London more often. Always been the stubborn one in that family, though. Goes her own way. Her mother is quite despairing.”
Paul fought down his irritation at the other man’s patronising tone of dismissal. He sensed there was enlightenment to be found here if he played his cards right. “Do you know her family well?” he asked, trying not to sound too interested.
“Oh, good lord, yes,” Sir Peregrine boomed, beaming with enthusiasm. “I’ve known Caroline all her life. My niece married her father, you see. Good match, good match; no better chap than Davey Foster-Finch. Produced four great kids, although in my opinion young Max let himself down when he married Rosie Bentley. Gold-digger without a brain in her head. Still, nobody minds that if you’ve got the looks and the child-bearing hips, do they? Eh,eh?” He cackled with laughter, giving Paul a nudge and a wink.
This old buffoon sounded like a relic of the eighteenth century, Paul thought. He felt sick with distaste, but forced a smile. “Nothing wrong with a good pedigree,” he said lightly. “I take it the Foster-Finches are wealthy?”
“Wealthy? Oh, my word! Could buy and sell most of us, I should think. Old money, although Davey must have increased the pile. He’s always had the knack for a good investment; unlike me, sadly. Lost most of my lolly in the crash of 2058: on my uppers these days.” He took a slug of champagne with a downcast expression on his face. “Good vintage, this; I can’t afford it any more, of course. Still, you never know how many bottles might still be lying around at the end of the night, do you?”
He mistook the reason for Paul’s frozen look. “Sorry, old chap. No doubt you don’t want an old duffer like me boring you to tears.”
“On the contrary,” Paul said swiftly.”It’s fascinating; I’d like to know more. Here, let me pour you another glass of fizz”...............
Caroline stood at the bar, morosely nursing a drink she didn’t really want. At the reception, she’d followed Paul’s departing back with worried eyes. He’d seemed different with her, more guarded, although she hoped that was just her imagination. Still, she wondered how much he suspected. Then she’d seen him in animated conversation with the man next to him and guessed she was probably doomed. Uncle Perry couldn’t keep his mouth shut at the best of times, but when fuelled with alcohol...... still, she thought, there was no particular reason she should be the topic of discussion. Then Paul had turned his head and looked directly at her. Even at a distance, she saw his suddenly shuttered face, eyes turning to blue chips of ice. He knows, she thought despairingly, realising she’d been a fool to think she could get away with it here, among these people. Oh, God. Please don’t let it change things.
After dinner ended, the wedding party moved to the Hall’s ballroom for the evening entertainment. A local ‘tribute’ band had been hired to provide the music and they were soon belting out very professional covers of the latest hits, albeit at slightly deafening levels. Caroline had looked around for Paul, but he’d proved elusive. When he did re-appear, he glanced over, but made no move towards her, choosing instead to immerse himself in his small group of friends. His attention seemed focused on the slender blonde who’d been seated on his right at the reception. As Caroline watched their heads bent together in intimate conversation, his eyes lit up and she heard his burst of laughter. Stabbed with jealousy, she tortured herself with her stupidity. Then the dark-haired man with the hooded eyes turned his attention away from the band and put his arm round the blonde. He whispered something in her ear and she responded with a smile and a tender, lingering kiss.
Caroline exhaled in relief. Yes. She recognised him as Conrad, and so the blonde must be his girlfriend. She looked at Paul. He was lounging against the wall, sipping his drink, apparently unaware of his friends’ display of affection. She wondered what to do to bring him back to her. She could of course, simply go over and talk to him, but her nerve deserted her. So she picked up her bag and stole and sashayed down the centre of the room in the direction of the lounge bar. He couldn’t fail to notice, she thought. If he was still interested in her, he’d follow.
Except he hadn’t. She’d been standing alone for almost ten minutes with only the barman for company. Miserably, she picked up her glass and made to go back to the ballroom when the corner of her eye registered the presence of someone beside her. She turned her head in sudden joy, only to meet the cool blue-grey gaze of the blonde.
“Hi. It’s Caroline, right?” Her voice was smooth, well-modulated, with a mix of inflections that suggested both a Transatlantic and a European upbringing. Not waiting for a reply, she thrust her hand out. “I understand you and your crew saved the lives of my knuckle-headed boyfriend and his pals the other night. Conrad probably didn’t thank you, but I want to – he may be an idiot, but for some unfathomable reason, I’d quite like to keep him around.”
Her grin was disarming and Caroline felt her shoulders relax. Still, she was intimidated. This vision of perfection in ivory and black lace would undermine most people. “Look, Ms....umm...”she began awkwardly, not knowing quite how to respond, “It’s just my job, it’s what I do. There’s no need to thank me, although I do appreciate it, of course. I’m glad it was a good outcome.”
The blonde nodded. “Of course,” she said briskly. “You’re very professional. And I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. Simone Giraudoux. I believe you and Paul have got to know one another a little and he tells me you’re one hell of a pilot. I’m impressed; Sea Kings aren’t the easiest to handle, particularly the model you’re using.”
She exuded an enviable, casual confidence, Caroline thought, staring at her. There was something familiar about this woman, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. “You fly helicopters?” she asked, hesitantly.
“Occasionally. I’ve flown most things, but helos don’t really float my boat. However, I do recognise the skill you need. At the moment, I’m working with space shuttles.” She grimaced. “Trust me, most boring things on the planet. Can’t wait to move on.”
The pieces of the jigsaw clicked in Caroline’s mind. “Oh, my God! You’re Simone Giraudoux!” she exclaimed, her hands flying to her mouth.
“Yes, I think I already said that,” the other woman responded with a wry smile of amusement.
“No, I meant... I... I’ve heard of you. You were in the news last year; the youngest woman to captain a space shuttle. The International Space Agency called you its rising star.”
“Oh, well, they do like to exaggerate a bit,” Simone replied with a dismissive wave of her hand. “To be honest, there’s not a lot to flying shuttles. They’re mostly computer-controlled from Houston. You just switch on the auto-pilot and go back to sleep for a while. Not much fun in that. Now, fighter jets.... that’s where the action is.”
Caroline nodded her agreement. “Yes, I used to fly jets. I must admit I enjoyed that ‘seat of your pants’ feeling. I rather miss it.”
“Good. I was hoping you’d say that,” Simone responded, her eyes gleaming.
Caroline’s curiosity was piqued. “Why?”
“Because I have a proposition I’d like to put to you.” She took hold of Caroline’s arm and guided her towards a sofa. “Let’s have a seat and I’ll tell you what I mean. Have you heard of Spectrum?”
“Yes, of course. Everyone in the RNAS has. The assumption is that once it’s up and running, most defence organisations will be working closely with it.”
“Hmmm. Maybe not as closely as they think,” Simone said reflectively. “But the mission statement hasn’t been published yet, so I don’t really know. But more importantly, have you heard of the Angels? I’m not talking about the celestial type, by the way.”
Caroline laughed. “I didn’t think so. Is this the group of female pilots Spectrum is hoping to have?”
“Not hoping, they’ve already got them; well, some of them anyway. We’re still recruiting.”
“’We’?” Caroline looked at her curiously. “Are you part of all this?”
“I’m heading up the frontline squad, which will be located on Skybase, Spectrum’s airborne headquarters. We’re not sure yet how many pilots we need, but initially, it will be a fairly small team.” She looked squarely at Caroline. “I emphasise the word ‘team’ here. The jets we’ll have are on the cutting-edge of technology. They’re lighter, faster and more manoeuvrable than anything else currently out there. That’s why they’re looking for female pilots; we have a body-weight ratio that’s ideally suited to the craft. My job is to put together a group of people who will operate as one seamless unit.”
“That doesn’t sound like an easy task.”
“It isn’t. Finding people who not only have the technical expertise but also the personal compatibility is proving rather tricky. However, I have good instincts and I’m hoping they’ll see me through. I haven’t been wrong so far and I have a feeling you won’t be the exception.”
Caroline’s mouth fell open. “You’re offering me a job?”
Simone shook her head. “Not yet. That wouldn’t be down to me, anyway. I can say who I want, make recommendations, but the final decision lies with the guy who’s heading up the organisation. Paul wanted me to meet you because he thinks you have the qualities I’m looking for and he usually knows what he’s talking about. So at this point, I’m simply suggesting you should consider applying. I think it could be the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Caroline was startled. “Is he part of Spectrum as well?”
“Yes, he is; Conrad, too. I’m sorry; I assumed you already knew that.”
“No. No, I didn’t.” Caroline replied, crestfallen. Paul’s attentions towards her had suddenly taken on a different connotation..
Simone noticed her deflated expression, but didn’t comment. “There’ll be interviews, aptitude tests, training, try-outs with the teams, loads of preparation and even then there’s no guarantee you’d be selected,” she continued briskly. “ But although I’ve not seen you fly yet, the guys were impressed so I looked up your CV. I think your chances of success are good. All I need to know right now is, are you interested?”
“Well, yes, I think so,” Caroline replied slowly. “It’s a bit unexpected; a lot to take in. But it does sound exciting.”
The other woman nodded. “It is. But you don’t have to decide immediately; just think about it. I understand you’ll need more information before you make up your mind; that’s no problem. We can talk anytime and I’ll bring you fully up to speed on what’s involved.” She got to her feet and picked up her bag. “I’d better get back to the boys. I need to make sure my beloved isn’t making a fool of himself on the dance floor; he’s got two left feet.” She looked down at Caroline. “I’ve enjoyed meeting you and thanks for hearing me out. For what it’s worth, I hope you decide to go for it. I really do think we’d work well together.”
With that, she swung her bag deftly over her shoulder and walked briskly in the direction of the ballroom, leaving Caroline alone to nurse both her drink and her thoughts. Not for long, though. A shadow fell across her and a familiar male voice said, “Drinking alone? That’s never a good idea. You need company.”
Startled, she looked up as Paul Metcalfe sat down beside her, his face open in an easy smile. When she said nothing, he gave her a searching look and then picked up her hand, entwining their fingers together. “So Simone has talked to you,” he said simply. “What do you think?”
“I think she’s a nice woman and it’s a tempting offer,” she answered bluntly, pulling her hand away. “But I’m not sure what I think about you.”
His brows came together in a puzzled frown. “I don’t understand.”
“I thought you were interested in me,” she burst out, suddenly feeling an urge to cry. “I thought you invited me to lunch because you liked me. I thought you wanted to spend time with me because you liked me. Instead, it was just a ruse to test my suitability for a bloody job. So now that you’ve played your little game and made a complete fool of me, why don’t you just bugger off and leave me alone!”
Paul looked bewildered. “Cal, there was never a hidden agenda here,” he said helplessly. “I did ask you out because I’m attracted to you and I wanted to see you again. At the time, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that you might be a candidate for the Angel squad. In fact, it only dawned on me last night when Sim and I were talking and she told me how difficult she was finding it to put together her dream team. Then, it seemed so obvious I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before. I actually thought I might be doing us both a favour; I’d get to see more of you if we worked together and you might appreciate the career leg-up. Honestly, it was never meant as an insult.”
She looked at him, doubt in her eyes. “Honestly?”
“Honestly. Definitely. Absolutely. I can’t make it any plainer than that.”
He did look contrite, she thought. “Okay,” she said finally. “Well, I’m sorry I flew off the handle. It is a great opportunity, I must admit. And it’s quite a compliment that you think I’m good enough, so.... thanks.”
He smiled. “Don’t thank me too soon. It’s what Simone thinks that matters. But she did give me the thumbs up when we passed each other back there, so I reckon you’ve got the seal of approval.”
“She said I might not get in; that it wouldn’t be down to her, anyway,” Caroline reminded him.
He nodded. “That’s true. Technically, she doesn’t have the final say-so. But make no mistake; Simone has one hell of a lot of clout. She’ll get the people she wants.”
There was silence for a few moments. Then Caroline took a deep breath. “Paul, I think there’s something I need to tell you,” she began.
He raised his eyebrows. “Oh, really? And what would that be, Miss Finch?” he replied, suddenly slapping his thigh with exaggerated force. “Whoops, got that wrong, didn’t I? Hang on while I check.” He rummaged in his suit pocket and triumphantly produced a battered piece of paper. Caroline’s eyes widened in horror. Her place name card. Oh, hell.
“The Honourable Caroline Sophia Foster-Finch” he recited in a voice laced with sarcasm. “Never just Miss Finch at all, were you? Or even Lieutenant Finch for that matter.”
Caroline winced. “Please, Paul, let me explain......”
He held up a restraining hand. “No need, I have a potted history here. Let’s just see if I’ve got it right. Twenty-six year old elder daughter of David Foster-Finch and the former Charlotte Campbell-West, aka Lord and Lady Huntingdon. Parents own half of Cambridgeshire. Educated at Marlborough College and the University of Durham, where one of your flatmates just happened to be Prince Richard of Gloucester, grandson of William V. Great expectations there, I understand.” He looked up at her. “Anything missing so far? Other than the fact that I knew none of this until an hour or so ago, of course. So don’t talk to me about having been made a fool of.”
His sarcasm cut into her like a knife. “I was born with a title,” she replied hotly. “There’s nothing I can do about that. But I don’t use it because it’s not who I am. It doesn’t define me and it’s not part of the life I lead. I haven’t lied to you.”
Paul laid his head back on the sofa cushions. “You haven’t exactly been truthful, either,” he said wearily. “Or maybe the word I’m looking for is honest. I guess there’s a difference.”
“I’m sorry.” On impulse, Caroline leant back against him, risked resting her head against his shoulder. “It’s just that I’ve always wanted to be accepted for me. Most people take that for granted, but believe me, you can’t if you’re born into a family like mine. You quickly learn that attitudes change when people see the background and the money. I grew up never knowing who my true friends were.”
She heard him sigh and felt his arm loop around her as he pulled her into an embrace; she knew in that moment she was forgiven. “That’s sad,” he said quietly. “No-one should have to live like that. I understand now why you’re reticent with people, but still... I wish you’d felt able to trust me.” He rested his chin on her hair. “Still, maybe I should count myself lucky that you’ve ‘fessed up before your engagement is announced on the news.”
“Engagement?” Caroline raised her head. “What engagement?”
“To Prince Richard, of course. According to Uncle Perry, that’s what your mother and Queen Catherine have been planning for years. What could be more fortuitous than a union between a royal grandson and the daughter of a former lady-in-waiting?” His face was a picture of innocence.
Caroline dug her elbow into his ribs. “Oh, shove it. Everyone knows he’s gay.”
“Doesn’t mean he won’t be expected to marry, though.”
“True. But not to me.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear it. I take it your parents aren’t happy with your choice of career and lifestyle?”
“My father doesn’t mind,” she admitted. “Since the King was a seasoned veteran of the RNAS, and so is Prince George, Daddy doesn’t feel he can object. He’d probably prefer it if it was one of my brothers, though.”
“What about your mother?”
“Oh, Mummy just wants me to be more like my sister. Izzy’s the pretty, popular one. She has a safe, boring job as a fashion buyer, does an occasional bit of modelling, and dates bankers and spoilt footballers. She’s basically just passing the time until one of the hapless idiots slips a ring on her finger. As you’ve probably realised, that’s not for me.”
“Thank the Lord for that.” Paul turned his head and bent his lips to hers. The kiss was long, sweet and passionate. “You’re a stunningly attractive woman and I like you very, very much,” he murmured as they eventually surfaced for air. “And I couldn’t give a toss about how much money you have, where you went to school, or how much prettier you think your sister is. So I want us to start over – discover who we really are, beyond all the subterfuge and misunderstandings. See what the future has in store for us.”
“I’d like that too,” she breathed, already knowing she’d sleep with him. “Are you going back to Alnwick tonight?”
“I don’t know. I think that may depend on you,” he replied gravely. His deep blue gaze turned her stomach to molten liquid.
Her response was interrupted by the noisy arrival of various members of the wedding, led by Randall and Rhiannon, the bride still resplendent in her flowing ivory gown.
“Come on, you two,” she gushed, pulling Caroline to her feet. “We’re having fireworks on the lawn. You can’t miss this; it’s going to be fabulous!”
“You all go ahead, we’ll be out in a minute,” Paul replied with a smile. His eyes hadn’t left Caroline’s face. As the laughing crowd jostled their way into the night air, his expression was questioning, but all he said was, “Want to join them?”
“It’s freezing out there.” She hesitated, knowing that behind his words lay a different question. “I was thinking... maybe we could watch from my room,” she continued, suddenly shy. “It has a massive bay window overlooking the lawns so we’d have a good view. It would be warmer, at least; and... and... more private.” She was stammering now, the butterflies in her stomach gaining momentum.
“It would,” he agreed, knowing he had his answer. Taking hold of her hand, he brushed his lips gently against hers and continued softly: “And after that, we can make some fireworks of our own.”
This was intended to be a short little ‘back story’ about how Captain Scarlet and Rhapsody Angel made their acquaintance before Spectrum was up and running. Eighteen months later, it’s turned into the usual rambling epic. Although never intended as a Christmas story, the action (such as it is) takes place at the end of January, so I thought it might be a fitting end to the challenge.
The information in the story about RNAS Boulmer (RAF at the present time) is mostly factual. In addition to its defence operations, Boulmer has had, for much of my lifetime, a long-running, very busy Search and Rescue team covering the whole of the north-east coast, in which it works closely with the Coastguard and the Royal Naval Lifeboat Institution. The rescue of Paul and his friends from the tide on Lindisfarne causeway is not exaggerated; such events happen on a fairly regular basis.
Several months into this story, I discovered to my dismay that Search and Rescue was now to be moved to Humberside because the helicopter contract had changed from Sea Kings, operated by Sikorsky/Westland, to Bristow S92s. As the story was well on its way to completion, I decided that I would take both artistic licence and the view that in fifty or so years time, politics will have seen sense and Search and Rescue will once again be a much needed part of Boulmer’s operations.
I heartily concur with Caroline and Paul’s opinion that the Coach Inn in Lesbury is a lovely pub with great food. Ellingham Hall was built in the 17th century by Sir John Haggerston. It has served as a rectory, a boys’ boarding school and latterly as a privately-owned home available to hire for weddings and other functions. My descriptions of it are reasonably accurate, with a few small alterations as the story required. (My biggest disappointment was that it does actually have a helicopter landing pad and I simply couldn’t work that in!) And while I think it unlikely that any member of the British royal family will read this, if they do, I hope they will forgive any liberties I have taken with their futures.
My thanks to everyone who has supported me and listened to the moans and groans while I’ve tried to get to the end of this. Many thanks to my beta-reader, Hazel Köhler, who gave it a last-minute once-over. Any mistakes remaining in the text are entirely mine. Thanks as always to Chris, who is so understanding when we take her to the wire on “Challenge” stories. The usual tribute is made to Gerry Anderson who did such wonderful work in bringing back Captain Scarlet in a different format for new generations to enjoy, and to his family and friends who continue the legacy.
Best wishes for 2016.
29 January 2016