The car drew up with a crunch of gravel, slotting neatly beside a red Ferrari Chris identified as belonging to one of his competitors.
“Too flashy, the Italians are far too flamboyant for an English manor.”
Cesca was nothing if not biased.
The house was a stark tribute to modernism – all white, glass and hard angles. Ally could see why Chris was worried for the Old Manor.
The front door opened and their host descended the stairs with a smug grin, only to be bowled aside by a human whirlwind.
Lexi raced across the parking area, arms wide, “Coustwin! What took you so long?”
Chris watched the utter bewilderment on the other’s man’s face with quiet satisfaction, it was a rare moment to see Simon Savenase outmanoeuvred.
The two women embraced, quickly joined by Cesca throwing her arms around them both, Lexi talking nineteen-to-the-dozen the whole time.
“What the hell Whittaker?”
“They sprang it on me as well. Or to be precise, I think your latest girlfriend sprang it on the lot of us.”
Lexi reappeared at Simon’s side, dragging the other two, “Si, meet my darling coustwin Ally and our evil best friend forever, Cesca!”
“She’s my cousin, but we were born really close together, like, a day apart, and look completely the same, so she’s my twin, so coustwin.”
Ally’s quiet, “Welcome to the cyclone.”, to Chris went generally unnoticed under Lexi’s exuberance.
“Come and meet everyone, they’re going to LOVE you guys, and Chris, you’re overdue for the obligatory family grilling. The APs won’t get around to it, far too easy-going, so I’ll have to be the one who puts you through the mill before we all decide we adore you.”
It was Simon’s turn to smirk at Lexi’s ability to turn the average male on his head.
They’d made it through the house by this stage and emerged on a back patio with ten or so people mingling on it.
It was as Chris predicted, a tank of painted and perfumed piranhas. Unfortunately for them, the three women had swum with sharks. They baited, bit, drew blood and pulled Chris effortlessly along behind them, smiling like angels the whole time.
Simon stayed clear but was noticeably put out over his loss of control over the intended melodramas of his party.
Cesca turned her smile on him.”Now that we’ve all got to know each other, when do we get to see this mysterious house you’re going to wave your magic wand over?”
Quite why she managed to fluster him with what seemed to be a perfectly innocent question, Simon wasn’t prepared to examine, but he took the opening and ran with it.
“Funny you should ask, our transport should be here any minute now.”
He was rewarded by crunching gravel on the other side of the house and led his guests around the side to present a large horse-drawn hay wagon, thoughtfully equipped with hay bale seats. The dismay was palpable and Simon permitted himself a small smirk, immediately ruined by cries of delight from his definitely not girlfriend and her two henchmen (henchwomen?).
They were fussing and cooing over the two Shire horses while Chris fetched something from his car boot. The something turned out to be running shoes the ladies had pre-packed, and some blankets to protect bare legs and delicate fabric from the hay.
Simon was big enough to applaud Chris’s preparedness on the latter item at least, that was something he should have come up with but hadn’t thought through. He supposed he should be awarding bonus points for anticipating contingencies, a useful trait in someone restoring an old and temperamental building.
Chris’ two rivals had failed to produce anything to aid the comfort of their partners and he sent them back around to the barbeque area to bring the outdoor cushions and throws adorning the chairs and loungers scattered across the patio.
Once the hay was adequately insulated, and the ladies in the tighter, shorter skirts somehow brought aboard with far less fuss and and bother than Simon had hoped, they set off. It was doubtless the fault of Those Three again. The sooner this was over with, the better.
The wagon turned and made its way back down the driveway. After about fifteen minutes of awkward conversation and an excess of artistic landscapes and selfies for Instagram, the wagon turned in at a crumbling, but still impressive set of gate posts.
If Simon had been looking at his troublesome trio, rather than ahead at the road, from his seat next to the driver, his meddlesome spark may have reignited. At the sight of the gates, and the name of the home, Lexi grabbed Ally’s arm in a death grip.
“That said Acrewood Hall.”
Ally was rigid, “I saw, I can read you know.”
Cesca eyed them both with foreboding, “What bomb’s about to hit?”
“You know Grandma?”
“As in the scary one?”
“Met her twice, would be happy never to again.”
“Acrewood Hall is the family home of her closest friend, Lady Louisa Hemmingshaw.”
“OMG, so Si’s beloved old lady of the manor is the best friend of the battle-axe?”
Chris caught the full exchange, even though it was conducted in urgent undertones, through clenched teeth smiles.
“What do you want to do? I’ll need to meet her but you don’t have to.”
Ally gave him a real smile, “No, she’s fierce, but if she knows we were here and didn’t show proper respect, she’ll be hurt, and you know she’d find out.”
“And if we behave ourselves for a change, she might decide Chris is a good influence and give him the job”, It appeared Lexi had decided to come down square on his side at some point during the afternoon.
He hoped this was a good thing.