Chapter 1 (Copyright Dawn Brookes)

It was only for a few nights, Marjorie told herself after scanning the final guest bedroom. She was satisfied that they were prepared for the houseguests. 

The doorbell rang, but it didn’t just ring once; it rang constantly. There was nothing more irritating than a person repeatedly ringing a doorbell without giving the building’s occupants time to answer. 

It can’t be Edna, her train’s not due in until lunchtime and Horace promised to pick her up

The bell stopped momentarily, but rang again while Marjorie crossed the gallery on the first floor. She took the main staircase down to the ground floor, noticing that even the banisters had been polished. Her housekeeper had done an excellent job.

“All right, I’m coming.” Marjorie heard Jeremy before seeing him striding towards the front door. “Where’s your housekeeper?” he snapped, seeing her descending the stairs.

Hiding, if she’s got any sense, Marjorie thought, but answered, “She’s been busy preparing rooms for your guests. I don’t know how I let you talk me into this, Jeremy. It really is too much, and if all your business colleagues are going to be as impatient as the whoever that is outside, you can find alternative arrangements.” Marjorie felt annoyance rising in her chest when the bell rang yet again. Her son had assured her people wouldn’t be arriving until later.

Jeremy swatted away her protest with a wave of the hand, using the other to open the door with such force, it almost hit the wall. A harsh and chilly wind drove into the hallway, causing Jeremy to almost lose his footing. 

“Oh, it’s you, Marcus,” he said.

The man called Marcus pressed one more time with his trigger finger before barking, “This doorbell doesn’t work. I’ve been standing here for ages.”

Another loud ding-dong, ding-dong chime rang through the hallway. 

Marjorie glared from behind Jeremy. “As you can hear, the bell is working, so if you could remove your finger?” she replied.

“Well, I couldn’t hear it from outside.”

That’s because doorbells are meant to be heard inside, thought Marjorie.

“Let me introduce you to my mother,” said Jeremy, letting the man in and pushing the door closed against the resistant gale blowing outside.

Marjorie felt her forehead wrinkle with confusion. Who was this Marcus person? She scanned the guest list she had memorised in her head, but didn’t recall anyone going by that name. 

We have allocated all the spare rooms

Jeremy took the man’s overcoat and hung it on the coat rack in the hallway. Marcus was around six foot and wore a navy-blue pinstripe suit with matching tie. His dyed black hair, parted in the centre, hung down over his eyebrows. 

“Mother, this is Marcus Singleton, our chief negotiator. Marcus, this is my mother, Lady Marjorie Snellthorpe.”

Chief negotiator since when? Marjorie took the man’s outstretched hand, noticing long, stubby fingers which felt cold to the touch. 

“How do you do?” she said.

“Very well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Snellthorpe.” Whilst his tone was warm, his eyes quickly moved away from her, greedily scanning the hallway in a way which made her feel uncomfortable. “This is very grand. It will do nicely, Jeremy. Shall we look around?” 

Marcus Singleton had only been through the door a few minutes and he was already grating on Marjorie’s frayed nerves.

Jeremy cleared his throat. “Perhaps you’d like a drink first.”

“It’s a bit early in the day for me,” said Marcus.

“There will be a tray of tea and coffee in the sitting room,” Marjorie said, rolling her eyes towards Jeremy.

“Follow me.” Marjorie’s son led them towards the large oak door behind the stairs. “Through there,” he said, allowing Marcus to pass ahead.

“His name’s not on the list,” Marjorie hissed at Jeremy as they followed.

Jeremy spoke loud enough for Marcus to hear. “Marcus isn’t staying overnight, Mother. He’s heading up the business negotiations, though, so he will join you and our guests for meals and outings. I asked him to come early because he wants to get to know the lie of the land, and make sure the kitchen staff are well prepared.”

Marjorie’s temper was fraying even more than her nerves. She stopped dead in her tracks, not knowing which of Jeremy’s revelations to address first. Marcus was helping himself to coffee from the pot. 

She took Jeremy to one side. “I don’t need any of your friends – or rather, employees – checking on my staff. Thank you.”

Jeremy lowered his voice. “They’re not your staff, Mother. You told me you needed more help, which is why I arranged for a cook and extra hands to help with serving and cleaning for the week. I could have outsourced the cooking, but you wanted the food prepared here. If you didn’t want any interference, you should have let me bring in outside catering.”

“And have one of your guests end up with food poisoning! At least if the food is prepared here, I know where it comes from. This is my house and my rules, Jeremy. But if you don’t like it, there’s still time for you to find an alternative.”

Jeremy sighed, putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “It’ll be all right, Mother. I promise. Marcus just wants to meet people, that’s all.”

“If you say so,” she conceded. Marjorie should have refused when he press-ganged her into hosting his potential new suppliers the week before Christmas. She was feeling fractious under the strain. Jeremy left her, satisfied he’d won, and helped himself to a coffee.

She heard the wretched ding-dong of the doorbell again. I need to get a more calming chime, perhaps even a tune, Marjorie told herself. She poked her head into the hallway and saw Gina heading to the door, so she joined Jeremy and Marcus Singleton. The latter was staring at her paintings.

“Is that an original?” Marcus had his eyes on an oil painting. 

“Yes, it is. It’s by an American artist called Thomas Kinkade. He died far too young. Do you like art, Mr Singleton?”

“Indeed, I do. I have quite a collection myself.” Marcus had become animated and was examining the signature in the bottom right-hand corner.

Marjorie owned several original paintings, some of which had been handed down from her late husband’s family and some she had purchased herself over the years. She wondered if Marcus Singleton’s interest in art was just for show, but felt unkind thinking it. One thing was certain: she would have to keep this man away from Edna. He was likely to bring out the worst in her cousin-in-law, who could spot a fake from ten miles away. 

There she was again: judging a man she’d only just met. It didn’t bode well for the rest of the week. She chastised herself once more over the reason she had agreed to host Jeremy’s business friends.

Once polite conversation had dried up, Marjorie interrupted the men’s business chat. “My friends will be arriving shortly; would you like me to show you around now, Mr Singleton?” Marjorie hoped the earlier ring of the doorbell had been the cook who would be standing in for her own cook Gloria for the next five days.

“That would be spiffing,” Marcus said.

Marjorie raised an eyebrow towards her son, who just shrugged. 

“Perhaps you would like to follow me, then?” Marjorie led them back into the hallway and began the tour in the library, as it was closest to the sitting room. 

“Who reads all these books?” Marcus sniffed.

“My late husband was an avid reader, Mr Singleton. I enjoy a good book myself, but I could never compete with his desire for a classic.”

“Hmm.” Marcus sniffed again before sneezing. “Shall we move on?”

“I take it you’re less interested in reading than you are in art?” Marjorie was grateful this rude man, who was becoming more irritating by the minute, wouldn’t be staying in her home. 

“I don’t see the point of keeping them; too much dust, if you ask me.” He sneezed again for effect. “Let’s get on, shall we?”

“Of course,” said Jeremy. “Come on, Mother, there’s nothing to see in here.”

Why did Jeremy pander to such people? “Very well.”

Marjorie inhaled a calming breath before continuing the impromptu tour of her home. They crossed the main hall, passing the sitting room where they’d had tea, and moved into the centre of the house. 

“There’s a toilet under the stairs over there and more conveniences in an annexe off the kitchen.” She waved a hand in the first facility’s direction and passed her study, which she used more as a reading room these days, without opening the door. A burst of sunlight shone through the ornate windows over the stairs. Marjorie often paused halfway down the stairs to take in the grand view of the front gardens, but she had no intention of taking Marcus further than the ground floor. “It appears to have stopped raining.” 

Marjorie led the way into the large banqueting room where she and Ralph used to entertain his business guests. The mahogany dining table, which had been freshly polished, could extend almost the length of the room. The staff would lay it ready for dinner this evening, but there would be no need to extend it. Marjorie rarely ate in this room, but she couldn’t bring herself to change it around. The dining space had been one reason she and her late husband Ralph had bought the house, it being so suited to entertaining. 

The doors adjoining the banqueting room were closed. Jeremy slid one of them open to reveal the more spacious and formal sitting room with settees and chairs surrounding a large open fireplace and other seating scattered around. Another room Ralph had used frequently when holding charity balls or conducting business meetings.

Marcus marched around the room with his nose in the air. Thankfully, with no sniffing or sneezing. 

“This room will do nicely, Jeremy. We can hold separate discussions. We’ll need to rearrange some of the furniture…”

Marjorie felt her jaw tighten, but said nothing.

“… but yes,” the bumptious man continued, “this is where we’ll conduct most of our business.”

Jeremy cleared his throat, avoiding eye contact with his mother. “I’m sure we can accommodate.”

“I’ll leave you gentlemen to your plans.” Marjorie pursed her lips and made towards the door.

“I still need to meet the staff,” Marcus called after her.

Forcing a smile, Marjorie agreed, opening another door off the large sitting room which took them back into the hallway. 

“Follow me. I’ll introduce you to my housekeeper and cook, although the latter is leaving for her holiday today.” Marjorie sighed at the reminder of how inconvenient Jeremy’s imposition was. “She’s visiting family for the Christmas break.”

Marcus Singleton stopped in his tracks, glaring at Jeremy.

“But you have a replacement, Mother.” Jeremy’s tone was sharp. “There’s nothing to worry about, the temp comes highly recommended. I sourced her myself.”

Without meeting the woman. Marjorie hoped she hadn’t said that out loud. “I heard the doorbell earlier, so I assume she’s arrived,” she said instead. “The staff will be very busy, Mr Singleton, so please don’t keep them too long.”

“I didn’t hear any doorbell,” Jeremy moaned, shooting his mother a worried look. What hold over her son did this Marcus have? Marjorie was feeling more anxious with each step towards the kitchen. 

The door swung open.

“Ah, Mrs Ratton, I’m pleased we’ve—”

Marjorie didn’t have time to finish the sentence. She noticed her housekeeper’s eyes widen just before hearing the clattering of broken crockery as the tray Gina Ratton had been holding hit the floor. 

“I… I… I’ll get something to clean that up.”

Marjorie had never seen her usually calm and efficient housekeeper so flustered. She tried giving a reassuring smile, but Gina scurried back to the kitchen. 

“What’s got into her?” Jeremy fumed, wiping a few drops of tea from his trousers. He turned to Marcus Singleton. Marcus’s eyes bulged as he stared at the kitchen door, his face bright red and a pulse throbbing in his forehead. 

“I’m sorry about that, Marcus. Perhaps we can meet the staff later.”

“That might be a good idea. We’ll leave you to deal with your staff, Lady Snellthorpe.” Marcus swivelled on his heels and marched back towards the sitting room with Jeremy in hot pursuit.