Claire Thackeray swung her bike off the road and onto the footpath that
crossed Cranbrook Park estate.
The “No Cycling” sign had been knocked down by the quad bikers before
Christmas and late for work, again, she didn’t bother to dismount.
She wasn’t a rule breaker by inclination but no one was taking their job
for granted at the moment, besides, hardly anyone used the path. The Hall
was unoccupied but for a caretaker and any fisherman taking advantage of
the hiatus in occupancy to tempt Sir Robert’s trout from the Cran wouldn’t
give two hoots. Which left only Archie and he’d look the other way for a
As she approached a bend in the path Archie, who objected to anyone
travelling faster than walking pace past his meadow, charged the hedge. It
was terrifying if you weren’t expecting it — hence the avoidance by
joggers — and pretty unnerving if you were. The trick was to have a treat
ready and she reached in her basket for the apple she carried to keep him
Her hand met fresh air and as she looked down she had a mental image of
the apple sitting on the kitchen table, before Archie — not a donkey to be
denied an anticipated treat — brayed his disapproval.
Her first mistake was not to stop and dismount the minute she realised she
had no means of distracting him, but while his first charge had been a
challenge, his second was the real deal. While she was still on the what,
where, how, he leapt through one of the many gaps in the long neglected
hedge, easily clearing the sagging wire and she was too busy pumping the
pedals in an attempt to outrun him to be thinking clearly.
Her second mistake was to glance back, see how far away he was and the
next thing she knew she’d come to an abrupt and painful halt in a tangle
of bike and limbs — not all of them her own — and was face down in a patch
of bluebells growing beneath the hedge.
Archie stopped, snorted, then, job done, he turned around and trotted back
to his hiding place to await his next victim. Unfortunately the man she’d
crashed into, and who was now the bottom half of a bicycle sandwich, was
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he demanded.
‘Smelling the bluebells,’ she muttered, keeping very still while she
mentally checked out the “ouch” messages filtering through to her brain.
There were quite a lot of them and it took her a while, but even so she
would almost certainly have moved her hand, which appeared to be jammed in
some part of the man’s anatomy if it hadn’t been trapped beneath the
bike’s handlebars. Presumably he was doing the same since he hadn’t moved,
either. ‘Such a gorgeous scent, don’t you think?’ she prompted, torn
between wishing him to the devil and hoping that he hadn’t lost
His response was vigorous enough to suggest that while he might have had a
humour bypass — and honestly if you didn’t laugh, well, with the sort of
morning she’d had, you’d have to cry — he was in one piece.
Ignoring her attempt to make light of the situation he added, ‘This is a
‘So it is,’ she muttered, telling herself that he wouldn’t have been
making petty complaints about her disregard for the bye-laws if he’d been
seriously hurt. It wasn’t a comfort. ‘I’m so sorry I ran into you.’ And
she was. Really, really sorry.
Sorry that her broad beans had been attacked by blackfly. Sorry that she’d
forgotten Archie’s apple. Sorry that Mr Grumpy had been standing in her
Until thirty seconds ago she had merely been late. Now she’d have to go
home and clean up. Worse, she’d have to ring in and tell the news editor
she’d had an accident which meant he’d send someone else to keep her
appointment with the chairman of the Planning Committee.
He was going to be furious. She’d lived on Cranbrook Park all her life and
she’d been assigned to cover the story.
‘It’s bad enough that you were using it as a race track—’
Oh, great. There you were lying in a ditch, entangled in bent bicycle,
with a strange man’s hand on your backside — he’d better be trapped too —
and his first thought was to lecture her on road safety.
‘—but you weren’t even looking where you were going.’
She spat out what she hoped was a bit of twig. ‘You may not have noticed
but I was being chased by a donkey,’ she said.
‘Oh, I noticed.’
Not sympathy, but satisfaction.
‘And what about you?’ she demanded. Although her field of view was small,
she could see that he was wearing dark green coveralls. And she was pretty
sure that she’d seen a pair of Wellington boots pass in front of her eyes
in the split second before she’d crashed into the bank. ‘I’d risk a bet
you don’t have a licence for fishing here.’
‘And you’d win,’ he admitted, without the slightest suggestion of remorse.
‘Are you hurt?’
‘Only until you move I can’t get up.’
Oh, right. Not concern, just impatience. What a charmer.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, with just the slightest touch of sarcasm, ‘but
you shouldn’t move after an accident.’ She’d written up a first aid course
she’d attended for the women’s page and was very clear on that point. ‘In
case of serious injury,’ she added, to press home the point that he should
be sympathetic. Concerned.
‘Is that a fact? So what do you suggest? We just lie here until a
paramedic happens to pass by?’
Now who was being sarcastic?
‘I’ve got a phone in my bag,’ she said. It was slung across her body and
lying against her back out of reach. Probably a good thing or she’d have
been tempted to hit him with it. What the heck did he think he doing
leaping out in front of her like that? ‘If you can reach it, you could
dial nine nine nine.’
‘Are you hurt?’ She detected the merest trace of concern so
presumably the message was getting through his thick skull. ‘I’m not about
to call out the emergency services to deal with a bruised ego.’
No. Wrong again.
‘I might have concussion,’ she pointed out. ‘You might have
concussion.’ She could hope…
‘If you do, you have no one but yourself to blame. The cycle helmet is
supposed to be on your head, not in your basket.’
He was right, of course, but the chairman of the Planning Committee was
old school. Any woman journalist who wanted a story had better be
well-groomed and properly dressed in a skirt and high heels. Having gone
to the effort of putting up her hair for the old misogynist, she wasn’t
about to ruin her hard work by crushing it with her cycle helmet.
She’d intended to catch the bus this morning. But for the blackfly she
could have caught the bus…
‘How many fingers am I holding up?’ Mr Grumpy asked.
‘Oh…’ She blinked as a muddy hand appeared in front of her. The one that
wasn’t cradling her backside in a much too familiar manner. Not that she
was about to draw to attention to the fact that she’d noticed. Much wiser
to ignore it and concentrate on the other hand which, beneath the mud
consisted of a broad palm, a well-shaped thumb, long fingers… ‘Three?’ she
‘I’m not sure that “close enough” is close enough,’ she said, putting off
the moment when she’d have to test the jangle of aches and move. ‘Do you
want to try that again?’
‘Not unless you’re telling me you can’t count up to three.’
‘Right now I’m not sure of my own name,’ she lied.
‘Does Claire Thackeray sound familiar?’
That was when she made the mistake of picking her face out of the
bluebells and looking at him.
She was now in heart attack territory. Dry mouth, loss of breath. Thud.
Mr Grumpy was not some irascible old bloke with a bee in his bonnet
regarding the sanctity of footpaths — even if he was less than scrupulous
about where he fished — and a legitimate grievance at the way she’d run
He might be irritable, but he wasn’t old. Far from it.
He was mature.
In the way that men who’ve passed the smooth-skinned prettiness of their
twenties and fulfilled the potential of their genes are mature.
Not that Hal North had ever been pretty.