A Stranger's House

By: Clare Chase

Chapter One

I stood in the shade cast by River House. There was a lot of it, thanks to its three storeys, but it didn’t affect the temperature much. A wave of heat rushed over me, which was partly down to the oppressive weather, and partly to anxiety. The place looked formal and unfriendly, with its sombre navy door and lion’s head knocker. The rooms inside were in shadow, so glancing through the windows gave nothing away. I wasn’t even sure if Nate Bastable had arrived yet. Could a place look that deserted and yet contain a living being? Images of Bookman’s Cottage filled my head, though I tried to push them aside – its bright, informal feel, so familiar after ten years of living there with Luke. The idea that I might never call it home again was almost too much to take in. For a second my eyes prickled. I blinked quickly; time to take a deep breath and get ready to make a good impression. Staying at River House was my chance to get away from the village gossips and hunker down.

I put the lion’s head into action, without really expecting a response, and jumped when the door opened almost immediately.

Nate Bastable was nothing like I’d expected. I’d never met the owner of a house-sitting business before, but within seconds I realised I’d conjured up a detailed picture of what one would be like, and Nate wasn’t it. He was wearing a charcoal-grey shirt – its sleeves rolled up – and scruffy jeans. His dark hair was tousled and, although he was a good few inches taller than me, there was nothing lanky about him. Rough and ready was the phrase that sprang to mind. I’d expected the owner of a house-sitting business to be ready, but ready with polish and a duster, rather than anything else. And if he was going to be rough at all, then I’d imagined this would be with something like a Brillo pad. Nate Bastable was smiling at present, but he looked like someone you’d back in a fight.

For a moment I felt self-conscious, and peered behind him, hoping Steph had made it to River House before me. She’d insisted on coming along to introduce us, which I’d felt was mollycoddling at the time.

At that moment I spotted her, standing in a doorway in the shadows. ‘Ruby!’ She darted forward and hugged me round the middle, since she can’t reach any higher. Not that I’m a giant, only five ten, but she’s four eleven to the top of her bouncy, ginger curls.

After she’d let me go she stood back, and her sympathetic expression hardened slightly. I could imagine why. She doesn’t approve of my black jeans and DMs at the best of times, and probably thought them especially inappropriate for a first meeting with a new employer. I hadn’t compromised on the number of earrings in each ear either. No point in pretending to be something I’m not.

‘I presume you have brought some other clothes with you?’

I took a deep breath – there wasn’t time to count to ten – and twisted slightly so she could see the rucksack on my back.

After a second she seemed to recover enough to do what she’d come for. ‘Ruby, this is my cousin, Nate Bastable. Nate, this is my best friend, Ruby Fawcett. I know she looks like a squatter, but it’s just a front.’

I’d get her for that later.

There was a twinkle in Nate’s blue eyes as they met mine, but then his expression changed, and I had the sensation of being read; as though all I’d been going through was laid bare. To be fair, he probably wasn’t relying on mind reading, thanks to Steph and her motor-mouth. A wave of humiliation washed over me, heating my neck and cheeks. I’d only just clapped eyes on the man, but I was already quite clear I didn’t want him knowing what was in my head. Yet somehow I couldn’t pull my gaze away.

‘Come on in,’ he said at last. ‘I’ll show you round and then we can sort out signing the paperwork if you’re happy with the contract. There are a few instructions from the owner too.’

As he backed into the hall, I took in my surroundings. An umbrella stand contained a walking stick I thought might be made of cherry, with a dog’s head at the top. Black beaded eyes looked mournfully out at us. ‘Spindly as hell, isn’t it?’ Steph said, following my gaze. ‘No one could use it for actual support. I think the house-owner’s big on antiques.’