New York native Henry Richardson needs a change. His boyfriend just dumped him, and his business has fallen victim to the economy. But is jumping on a plane after a surprise phone call taking things too far?
The promise of a new opportunity drags Henry away from the city to a tiny village in the English countryside and an enormous manor house his great-grandmother wants to bequeath him. As an experienced wedding planner, he sees the potential in renovating the dilapidated building and using it for events. All he needs is to find some local businesses to provide the essentials.
That’s how Henry meets Ryan Burgess, the shy but hardworking owner of an organic farm. The spark between them sizzles slowly while work on the house continues, but Ryan is deeply in the closet and unwilling to take the last step. They finally find something that clicks in cricket, something that Henry, a former amateur baseball player, is surprisingly good at. For him, cricket helps bridge the gap between England and New York—but unless Ryan can find something to span the divide between his sexuality and his fear, their relationship doesn’t stand a chance.
ANNABELL RICHARDSON was a rich old lady with a wicked sense of humor. She celebrated her ninety-first birthday in the house she’d lived in since childhood, the same house that had stood proudly through two world wars and the quiet, gentle death of her family.
Nell, as she was known in the village, played bingo on Mondays, did her washing on Tuesdays, scrubbed her step (on ninety-one-year-old hands and knees) on Wednesdays, took lunch with the vicar on Thursdays, and went to the pub for a gin on Fridays. It was a routine as well-worn as the lines in her face.
Nell swore like a sailor and liked to read dirty books that she found in the local Oxfam charity shop. She hadn’t missed an episode of Coronation Street in thirty-eight years. She got ideas from television programs that her solicitor strongly advised her against implementing.
Nell Richardson rarely did as she was told.
THE rain lashed down on the streets of Manhattan as Henry Richardson rushed for the subway. The message that had been left for him, summoning him to his lawyer’s office in the middle of the day, had been more than a little ominous. Despite all his instincts telling him to hide his face, he’d braved the weather and headed out.
Henry slicked his dark hair back as he looked up at the building, double-checking he had the right address. The offices of Dawson, Swan and Co. were small but suitably modern, and being a small, modern business, they had been happy to correspond with Henry mostly by e-mail. Inside, there was a young woman working reception who wore her blouse with too many buttons undone but smiled prettily at him as he gave his name.
“Go on through, Mr. Richardson.”
Gareth Swan—the beast of a man who spent more working hours out to lunch than he did in the office—invited him in like an old family friend. Gareth and Henry’s father had season tickets to the Yankees just two rows apart and had a long-standing arrangement for a beer together after every winning game. A Bronx native, Swan had built his own career and was proud of the fact he’d put himself through college, waiting tables to pay his tuition fees. Now a barrel-chested man of sixty-five, he was graying at the temples and rarely took cases any longer.
Henry’s case had been a special exception, at the request of his father.
“Come in, Henry. Sit down,” Gareth said, welcoming him with a warm handshake and carefully not staring too closely at Henry’s face. “Glad you found us okay. How’s your mother?”
“Distraught,” Henry said and tried to disguise the fact that rainwater was actually seeping through his jeans to his underwear. “Lou Lou died.”
His mother’s pet poodle had finally kicked the bucket, and, according to his father, she had been in mourning ever since. The house was full of lilies, and she was wearing nothing but black.
“Oh dear,” Gareth said with a hearty chuckle. “She always was attached to that dog.”
Henry managed a wan smile and leaned forward in his seat. “Please tell me they haven’t found anything else. I thought it was all being wrapped up.”
“It is,” Gareth said. “There’s nothing to worry about, Henry. The settlements are being finalized. Then we can be done with the whole messy business. I’ve actually been approached on another matter entirely. Normally, I dismiss these things right away, but considering the circumstances….”
“Tell me,” Henry said, not even bothering to hide his desperation.
“It’s not bad news.”
“Thank God for that.” He relaxed a tiny bit.
“Henry, have you ever heard of Cheddar?”
“No, the place.”
“No. Is it in Wisconsin?”
Gareth chuckled again. “No. Somerset.”
“Somerset… New England?”
“Ha! Wrong again. Somerset, original England.”
Henry sat back in his chair, utterly confused. “No, Gareth, I’ve never heard of Cheddar. Or Somerset.”
With great relish, and with the swagger of a man who knew something, Gareth leaned forward on his desk. “Well, Henry, you might want to familiarize yourself.”
LESS than a week later, Henry woke with a start as a woman—a flight attendant—placed her hand on his arm and asked him to buckle up for landing.
Groggily, he snapped the belt over his lap and pulled the thin blanket more tightly around his shoulders. He’d always hated flying, always found himself too cold, and his skin dried out horribly, especially with longer flights.
This was the last leg of his journey, from Amsterdam to Bristol, and he’d caught only a few hours’ sleep over the past twenty or so hours. His body and his head had no idea what the time was, and his split lip was throbbing where he’d bitten down on it while sleeping. This was the last of his injuries to heal, probably because he kept chewing on it by accident.
In the frequent moments when Henry wondered what the fuck he was doing, he carefully told himself the facts over and over in his mind, those, at least, being comforting to him.
Nell Richardson, his father’s grandmother, was dying.
But she was taking her time about it.
With spiraling private healthcare costs, she had reached the stage where her move to a nursing home was imminent, and her greatest fear was that her beloved family home would be sold to help pay the bills.
That was, unless she could pass the house on to a relative—any relative—in her will. Henry still wasn’t sure why she’d chosen him over one of his cousins, but Gareth was convinced that Mrs. Richardson wanted him to go first, before she considered passing the house on to anyone else.
Not that Henry was complaining. With the past few months he’d had, getting out of New York, even if it was just for a visit, was a tempting prospect.
When, through Gareth, Henry sent word that he was willing to go and meet the old lady, he was shocked at the speed of the response. His flights and travel visas were secured with surprising alacrity, making him wonder what was so important that he needed to be in England within a week.
For this trip, he’d packed relatively light, which for him meant two suitcases and his carry-on bag. He had no idea how long it was going to take, and, other than the fabled rain, he didn’t know what the weather was like during the British springtime.
It was early evening when he dragged himself and his luggage out of the airport terminal into a steady, misty rain. A short, squat man held a sign with his name on it, and Henry followed him out to a vehicle that was emblazoned with the cab firm’s logo: STDs. Underneath, in a smaller font, the full name of the firm—Somerset Taxi Drivers—didn’t really counter the first impression.
“You from New York?” the driver asked as they pulled out of the airport.
“Yeah,” Henry said, failing to keep the weariness from his voice.
“Long trip. Long trip.”
As they made the journey south, Henry tried to keep awake, to watch the changing scenery as they moved through the rolling countryside, but his eyes were drooping. It only took thirty minutes before they were pulling up in front of a small building with bright flowers hanging from baskets either side of the door.
“This is it.”
“Thanks,” Henry said, digging in his pocket for his wallet.
“It’s all paid for,” the driver assured him. “Mrs. Richardson said to put it on her tab.”
Henry nodded, grateful, and dragged his suitcases up the path. The small bed-and-breakfast-style hotel was clearly a converted house, the reception desk placed somewhat awkwardly half under the stairs, sticking out into the hallway.
Behind it sat a middle-aged woman with a paperback, reading so intently she didn’t immediately notice the door closing as Henry pushed it behind him.
“Oh!” she said as she looked up. “I’m so sorry. It’s too easy to get engrossed, don’t you think?”
Henry smiled wryly. “Sure.”
“You must be Mr. Richardson. I’m Judith. This is my place.”
“Nice to meet you.”
“I’ll just get you checked in….” She spun on her chair to tap at a laptop, then reached behind her to a wall and pulled a key from a hook. Not a key card, an old fashioned skeleton key. Henry groaned to himself.
“I’ve put you in room five,” she continued, “it’s at the front of the building, but it’s actually the quietest room we have here.”
Judith hopped over the desk with an agility that belied what Henry estimated was her fifty years. She wore jeans that were splashed with bleach stains and a pink polo shirt, her light hair tucked behind ears that were decorated with small diamond earrings.
“Come on. I’ll show you upstairs.”
The hotel was warm and clean, and Henry decided that it had probably been renovated about ten years ago. The décor was just slightly outdated. Still, it was a fairly nice place to set up camp in while he was here.
Judith chattered enough that he didn’t feel compelled to join in the conversation except for the occasional, vague words of agreement. She showed him the room—a double—with its adjoining bath.
“I’ll let you crash,” she said. “You seem tired.”
When she left, Henry kicked off his boots and collapsed, fully dressed, on the bed.
AS SHE’D promised, among all the idle chatter the night before, Judith allowed Henry to sleep in for as long as he wanted. Despite that, he woke fairly early—the sun was seeping in through the flimsy curtains. The clock on the wall told him it was approaching 10:30 a.m., but his watch and his body clock were convinced it was more like five thirty.
Once sitting up in bed, Henry could appreciate how exhausted he must have been when arriving. He ran his fingers through his hair, combing it back from his face, stretched, yawned, and headed for the shower.
It took him at least half an hour to get clean, to run a razor over his jaw and scrub his teeth. He dressed in jeans and a light-blue shirt, rolled up the cuffs of both several times, and gelled his hair so it flopped artfully back from his forehead in a halfhearted attempt at a quiff.
When his stomach clenched, he felt suddenly sick. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten a meal—the bag of chips he’d managed at the airport in Amsterdam didn’t count. Deciding there would be a diner or something close by, he grabbed his wallet with its strange foreign bills inside, the key to his room, and his phone and headed down the stairs.
Judith was at her desk again. “We’re happy to do you a breakfast if you want it,” she said with a warm smile.
“That—” Henry croaked, then cleared his throat. “That would be good,” he said. “Thanks.”
“No problem. Go and find a table. There are newspapers on the bar if you want one. Oh, and I’ll give Miss Gupta a call for you.”
Henry wasn’t sure exactly who Miss Gupta was or why the British referred to young or unmarried women as Miss rather than Ms., but he could smell coffee coming from the dining room, and to his nose, it seemed to be freshly brewed. He wasn’t going to hang around and ask questions. Those could come later.
The coffee was served to him by a teenage girl wearing a slightly stained white shirt and very short black skirt. She looked no more than about fourteen, not that he was particularly good at guessing the ages of teenagers, but it would put her at about the right age to be the daughter of the proprietress, so he didn’t question it.
“Do you want a fry-up?” she demanded of him.
“Do I want a what?”
Fourteen rolled her eyes at him. Her heavily-lined-with-black-eyeliner eyes. “A fried breakfast?”
Henry’s stomach lurched at the thought. “No, thanks. Do you do waffles and bacon?”
No response but a what-the-fuck expression that was as good as a “no.”
“Toast will be fine,” he said warily.
There was a sign on the wall, next to the long mahogany bar, which declared that “Breakfast is served from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. daily,” which probably explained Fourteen’s surly attitude. She was working overtime.
When she returned with his toast and topped off his coffee, he dug his wallet out and sorted through the different colored notes, then selected a green five and handed it to her.
She frowned at him.
“It’s a tip,” he said slowly, wondering if she was possibly a bit slow. “Thanks for staying open for me.”
“Whatever,” she muttered, tucking the five into her bra. Jesus, she was wearing a bra.
“Leave the pot,” he said as she turned to go again. “It’s fine. I’m nearly done anyway.”
Fourteen left the pot on a pile of table mats, rolled her eyes again, and left.
Henry licked his finger and turned the page in his newspaper.
A few minutes later, the sharp clicks of women’s heels on polished wood announced his next interrupter’s arrival.
“Oh, thank fuck,” a warm voice said from behind him. “I could murder for a coffee right now.”
“Help yourself,” Henry said, not meaning it but saying it to be polite. When the woman slid into the chair opposite him, something clicked in his head. “Are you… Shenal Gupta?”
“You say it like ‘Chanel’,” she offered, correcting his pronunciation while pouring herself a cup of coffee. “My parents have a weird sense of humor. I’m their fifth child.”
Henry stared at her blankly.
“Like, Chanel Number 5? The perfume?”
“You’re my lawyer?”
“No,” Shenal corrected him. “I’m Nell Richardson’s lawyer.”
Carefully, with the impression that he was being judged, Henry folded his newspaper and took off his glasses. He only needed them for reading anyway.
Shenal was nothing like what he’d expected when Gareth had mentioned that Nell’s solicitor would meet with him when he arrived in England. Although he’d read the name Shenal Gupta before—he must have; it was familiar in the back of his mind—to his shame, he’d assumed the solicitor would be a man.
The woman sitting before him gave off an air of calm and coolness and a certain amount of challenge, waiting to see if Henry was going to judge her for being a woman, or an Indian woman, or an Indian woman who wore a sari while working.
Her dark hair was pulled back in a shiny braid, and gold jewelry decorated her throat and ears. There was a tiny gold hoop in her nose. She wore light makeup but a rich lipstick, and when she lifted the coffee cup to her lips, he noticed that her fingernails were painted a dark-red color.
When he declined to comment on her gender or race, Shenal raised an eyebrow, then smiled.
“Nell wants to meet with you later,” she said, “after lunch. Two o’clock. Sharp. Before then, we can go and see the house if you like, but there’s no rush, really.”
“Sure,” he said, slightly overwhelmed. He touched his fingers to his lips absently, knowing that the cut at the corner of his mouth had nearly completely healed. It wasn’t obvious anymore, and any other visible physical injuries had healed. Thank God.
Shenal had a car waiting outside, a bright silver Mini, which turned out to be the perfect size for nipping around the little streets and narrow country lanes.
“I know you only got here last night,” Shenal said as she drove out deeper into the countryside, “so sorry to spring this on you. But Nell wants to meet you as soon as possible, and I thought it would be best if you went into that meeting as well prepared as you could be.”
“That’s fine,” Henry said. “I’m only a little jet-lagged.”
Jet-lagged wasn’t the biggest of his problems, though. Being totally dumbfounded was. When he’d arrived, he didn’t have the inclination to look out of the window and take in the scenery. Now, he could barely tear his eyes away from it.
Just like Dorothy, he was a long, long way from home.
He barely noticed that she had stopped the car outside a pair of tall iron gates.
“So, this is it,” Shenal said. “Stretton House.”
It helped Henry when he disassociated the thought that this could possibly be his with his rational impressions of the house. Because it was more than a house. It was more like a country manor… a mansion.
Just inside the gates was a small cottage, which quickly gave way to a long drive lined with old, old trees. The house itself was visible from the gate, although it was immediately obvious that it was in a state of disrepair.
When Shenal stopped the car again, Henry got out and turned one full circle on the gravel. Then he looked back to her.
“Okay, so what’s the catch?”
“What do you mean?”
“Where the fuck is Candid Camera or Punk’d or whatever?”
Shenal gave a little bark of laughter. “No, I promise you Ashton Kutcher is not hiding in the bushes. At least, I hope he’s not. Do you want to see inside?”
“Sure,” Henry said, aware of how high-pitched his voice had become. Nerves. He was going to attribute that to nerves. “Sure, okay, whatever.”
After rifling through her purse, Shenal pulled out a bunch of keys and unlocked the double front door. As she threw the old, creaking doors wide, Henry felt his heart stutter in his chest.
The house was huge; he’d already established that. But it was beautiful as well.
Inside, the entrance hall was tiled in terracotta and black squares, stretching away farther into the house. Straight ahead was a huge, sweeping staircase that reminded him of the Cinderella story his mother used to read to him at night. It was wide at the bottom and the top and narrower in the middle, the banisters on either side still far enough apart that Henry was sure he could stand with his arms outstretched and his fingers wouldn’t reach both sides.
There was a door on either side of the hallway, but both were closed, and it seemed that to get to the back of the house it was necessary to walk around the staircase.
“Nell Richardson lived here?” Henry exclaimed as soon as he found his voice again. “On her own?”
“God, no,” Shenal said. “She lived in the little gatekeeper’s cottage we passed on the way in. It’s a two-up two-down place. No one’s lived here for at least forty, maybe fifty years. It was turned into a hospital in the Second World War, where they looked after injured soldiers. There’s a military base not far from here. Nell’s father, I believe, lived in the house after the war, but when he died she moved out.”
“Wow,” Henry said.
“For the past ten years, at least, she’s had interest from developers who want to turn it into flats. Apartments,” she corrected, for Henry’s benefit. “But she won’t have anyone dividing up the house, which was why she got English Heritage involved.”
“Those are the people who can decide if it’s of historic importance, right?”
“Yeah,” Shenal said, looking pleased. “You’ve done your research.”
“Not really. My father’s lawyer told me.”
“Well, it’s a long process,” Shenal continued and walked deeper into the house. For lack of anything better to do, Henry followed her. “At the moment, Nell’s being taken care of in a private care home, and it’s expensive. She was worried about some hotshot developer coming in and offering to cover all her bills, and not being able to refuse the money. That’s why there’s trustees involved.”
“What is the problem, then?” he asked.
She gave him a sad smile. “Time. For everything, really. She doesn’t have much longer to live, and she knows it, and this place needs serious work or it’s going to become completely irreparable. Her father was a clever man, and he made sure that his investments were in land and property, which he saw as more stable than stocks and shares.”
“Sounds like a clever man to me.”
“He was,” Shenal agreed, leading him back through to the main hall. “There are works of art in this place that I’m sure would make money if Nell sent them to auction, but she won’t. This is all she has. It’s her own heritage, and she doesn’t want it chopped up and sold off.”
Henry sat down on the bottom step of the staircase, deciding that he didn’t care about dust, and put his face in his hands. He felt, rather than watched, Shenal sit down next to him.
“I know this must be a bit overwhelming,” she said, gently laying a hand on his shoulder.
“A bit?” he said with a laugh, then steeled himself and looked up. “Okay. What’s the deal here, then?”
“Nell wants to sign the house and all its contents and land, over to you as her heir. The conditions are that you won’t sell the house, or modify the structure of it, or build on the land until after she’s passed away. Of course, she’d prefer it if you didn’t do that at all, but she appreciates that once she’s dead she doesn’t have much of a say in the matter.”
“Is this about passing the house on to family? Or just getting back at ‘the man’?”
She chuckled lightly. “I think it’s mostly about her love for this place. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that seeing it sold off or renovated into flats would break her heart.”
“Shenal, you should probably know that I’m gay.”
He waited for her reaction. After a moment, she pressed her lips together and turned away.
“What?” he demanded.
“I sort of figured that out for myself,” she said, and he could hear the slight tone of laughter on her voice.
“I don’t think Nell will mind, if you want to tell her, but it’s up to you, of course.”
“I’m just not in a position to offer her lots of children who can inherit the house from me.”
“I can tell you now, as Nell’s lawyer, that she is not going to legally tie you into something that will insist that you pass the house down to your own children and your children’s children and so on. All she wants is the right to keep her house in her old age so that she can come back here if she ever wants to. She’s not incapable of getting around. She’s just old, Henry, and sick.”
He sighed and looked up. It was something of a mistake. The ceiling, way, way above him, was painted with cherubic images. Like everything else in the house, it was awe-inspiring. Henry hadn’t quite managed to get his head around everything yet. Everything that Shenal was saying felt like all his hopes and all his fears combined. The possibility of starting his life again was hovering, right in front of his nose, and all he had to do was reach out and grab it.
“Do you want to go meet her?” Shenal asked. “Nell?”
Henry took a deep breath, considering. “Yeah.”