Ally waved to Cesca from across the station car park and she bounded over to Chris’ car, quickly settling herself in the back seat.
“Well this is a bit of a different ride to your usual set of wheels.”
Chris nodded, “Horses for courses, this is my ‘I’m a professional, take me seriously car’. Sometimes it even works.”
Cesca grinned, then dug in her bag, pulling out a folder, “Right, as promised, dossier on all known party attendees.”
Ally caught Chris’ glance, “What? You thought she was joking? When you hand a professional researcher some names, you can expect full life stories, including the truth about the dodgy rumours, by the next day. What have you got? Any really good dodgy rumours?”
Cesca ran through her list. It was a thorough check of an interesting group and reinforced Chris’ description of his would-be client as a stirrer.
“Are you sure you want to work for this guy? He seems to get a kick out of creating high drama.”
“He does, but he likes and respects the people who don’t jump into it, I’m already partway there, but this is his equivalent of the final exam. If we can get through this afternoon with all three of us intact, I reckon we’ll be off the target list and I’ll be able to deal with him on a more level basis.”
Ally turned to look at Cesca, “And with that in mind, you can add another name to your guest list. It seems he’s almost as good at research as you or we’ve got one hell of a coincidence, Lexi is going to be there. She texted me yesterday.”
“My cousin”, was a quick aside to Chris.
Cesca’s jaw dropped, “No way. OMG this is going to be hilarious.”
Chris interjected, keeping his eyes on the road but clearly paying attention to the conversation as well, “Why would this create such a drama? Is there some Pandora’s box lurking or something?”
Ally laughed, turning to face forward, “No there’s not, but most of the world seems convinced there is and that Lexi and I are bitter enemies who never speak. Truth is, she’s the sister I never had and we’re in pretty much constant contact. If her parents want to know where she is, they call me.”
Cesca chimed in, “She’s my other best friend, the only thing I get cranky about with the two of them is that they’ll never tell me which one I met first!”
Ally took up the explanation, “We can look practically identical if we want to. Generally we don’t, we have quite different styles, but at the time we befriended Cesca we were in the middle of a rather drawn out campaign to confuse the hell out of a particularly irritating gossip rag reporter.”
“And there’s yet another story I want to hear.”
“I’ll book it in after the others. In the meantime, your turn, give us your take on our meddlesome host and why you’re jumping through his hoops.”
“Not too much to add on the general side, Cesca covered that pretty well. Local lad made good via stupid amounts of money on the sale some tech start-up. Word among the locals is that he grew up in a little place on the edge of the Old Manor grounds and was friendly with the old lady of the house. Promised her when he grew up and made his fortune, he’d restore the house and they could both live there and take tea every day.”
“Aww, that’s so sweet!”
“The part I like best is that the old lady’s still alive and going strong. Down to just a few rooms in one part of the house, the rest is falling to pieces – wood rot and suchlike. This job is going to be a no-expense-spared clash of tastes between the old and the new. Exactly my bag. The other architects tendering are much more geared towards the modern and I worry that if either of them win the project, the history, and a core part of that childhood fairy tale will be lost.”
“You are such a romantic.”
Chris’ lips quirked slightly but he didn’t deny Cesca’s assertion. Ally put her hand on his knee, turned back again to her friend and smiled.
“So what are the other stories you’re supposed to have lined up to tell?”
Chris put in, “Why she has the same name as her cousin, exactly why she chose to move to the depths of the country from a full-speed city life and a basic English-language translation of what she does for a job.”
“She told you her real name?! WOW! That’s a bigger state secret than the nuclear codes.”
“He told me his secret identity, it was only fair I traded.”
Cesca grinned and got to work texting Lexi.
“I pity your would-be employer Chris”
He raised his eyebrows
“He’s about to encounter the combined cyclone of Lexi and Cesca. His life will never be the same. And his party definitely isn’t going to go as planned.”
“And where do you sit in this cyclone?”
An amused snort came from the back seat, “She steers it.”
The car lapsed into quiet, the music from the radio filling the comfortable silence. It was emphatically broken by a crack of laughter from Cesca.
“You are going to LOVE this!”
Ally turned questioningly.
“Your boy isn’t the world’s greatest researcher, Lexi is the world’s greatest troublemaker. She looked him up after your note a couple of weeks ago and managed to swing herself a place a the table as the current girlfriend. Bad news is she says he’s totally my type and I need to take him down a peg or two, then live happily ever after.”
“I’m not sure whether to run screaming or start filming.”, Chris took the news with admirable calm.