Ellie got some drinks and found her way to the others who’d managed to find a table opposite the door so they could see who was arriving. They soon spotted Charlie and Henry who walked in with a young girl none of them had noticed before. The three of them came over to say hello though Ellie saw that Henry hung back and seemed more interested in looking round the room than he did at them, and as usual his response to their greeting was hardly a grunt.
‘This is my sister, Zara,’ Charlie said introducing them to a tall, slim girl with long blonde hair. She was pretty and expensively dressed, but Ellie thought she looked a little out of place in a country pub. Zara nodded her head by way of acknowledgement before turning back to Henry to continue their conversation.
Charlie sat down next to Jess on the banquette. There wasn’t any more room for Henry and Zara but it seemed as if they weren’t too interested in joining their group anyway. Ellie decided that she wasn’t too impressed with Zara. It was hard to believe that Charlie would have a sister who seemed so unpleasant. She hadn’t even been bothered to say hello properly, and she clearly thought she was better than everyone else there by the sneering expression on her face. Dressed in white trousers and an oyster silk blouse, Ellie watched Zara flick at her seat with a tissue before she sat down. Henry was fussing round her now, she noticed, and then their heads were together, whispering. Zara laughed affectedly, a device used to draw attention, and clearly one she’d used many times before, Ellie thought. She flicked back her hair, which was the colour of spun gold, and crossed her long legs, smiling at Henry before she gave the room the benefit of a sultry pout.
Greg Whitely and Will MacGourtey came in next and soon joined them. There wasn’t a seat left by Liberty so Greg made his way to the other side, sitting down next to Ellie. Liberty didn’t look too happy but Will, it seemed, was happy to stand whilst talking to her and as long as she had some male attention, she was in high spirits.
‘You’re Ellie, aren’t you, a friend of my good assistant Liberty? Will’s been telling me what a talented artist you are,’ said Greg. ‘I’d love to see your work.’
Ellie considered he was probably just being polite, but felt flattered that he’d remembered what must have been a passing conversation. She blushed pink and to hide her discomfort gulped rather too much wine. ‘Well, I love to paint and a project like this is a fascinating mix of fact and fiction. I didn’t think I’d be asked to do anything special so it’s a real bonus for me.’
‘Will speaks very highly of you … you’re clearly very talented. I like to paint when I get the chance. I take any opportunity I can to escape from London and spend time in the countryside with my sketchbook and pencils. I must admit, I take a lot of photographs, which is cheating, I suppose, but I prefer working in a studio where it’s warm.’
Ellie was so surprised by what he was saying that she found herself almost tongue-tied. ‘I like to do both, but working outside is definitely favourite with me when the weather is good.’
‘Do you come from an artistic family?’ Greg asked taking a slug of beer and peering at her over the top of his glass.
‘Not really,’ Ellie answered, ‘at least, there are no artists in my family. I’m a vicar’s daughter, and my mum has always been at home being the vicar’s wife. She’s a very creative lady in her own right and can put her hand to anything from dressmaking to flower arranging, and seeing to all sorts of events at the vicarage.’
‘So, I have this picture in my mind,’ said Greg, looking far off into the distance, screwing up his eyes as if in deep contemplation. ‘A large Georgian rectory, summer fetes and harvest festivals in a quintessentially English village, with you, the vicar’s daughter, taking on commissions of portraits for the local ladies in the Townswomen’s Guild and the Women’s Institute.’
Ellie laughed. ‘You couldn’t be further from the truth. I come from a London suburb, where the vicarage is appointed on the wrong side of town. It’s a 1970s modern box, and though there are summer fetes and harvest festivals, I doubt you’d recognise them as being particularly English. It’s what I love about the area I live in, there’s such an interesting mix of people and cultures. I find it quite strange to come here, and find that places like this still exist. It’s lovely, but a bit on the quiet side for me. As for commissions, I haven’t really started yet. I’ve got some of my work on Instagram and there’s been a bit of interest, but it’s early days and I’m more concerned with having a relaxing holiday right now than selling my work.’
‘There speaks a lady I can identify with – I intend to take a holiday as soon as this little project is finished. I hate to take them on my own, however, and it’s some time since I had the luxury of sharing a vacation. I love travelling, don’t you, Ellie?’
‘I do, though I haven’t done much outside Europe. I would love to explore India and Thailand if I ever got the chance.’
‘You’d enjoy it, undoubtedly. There is so much inspiration for a painter. India is magical, a land of colour, scents and experiences unlike any other. I know you’d love the breathtaking scenery of the Himalayas … you can take a train from the town of New Jalpaiguri to the lovely hill station of Darjeeling, which has to be one of the most incredible journeys I’ve ever made. Or, if you’re feeling rich, you can take a luxury train from Mumbai and travel as they used to in the past. I can just see you in your element, stopping off en route, paintbrush in hand, conjuring up a Goan temple with a few strokes of translucent colour, as the sun sets to an apricot glow.’
‘You make it sound so wonderful,’ Ellie enthused. Now that she’d spoken to Greg her initial impressions were changing. He was clearly more intelligent than she’d reasoned and he genuinely seemed interested in her. With some guys, all they wanted to do was talk about their own interests, but despite what she’d initially thought, he didn’t seem like that. And though he enjoyed a certain ‘celebrity’ status, he was just being one of them, keen to join in the conversation. Martha’s mother must have her reasons for disliking him, but she wasn’t going to listen to idle gossip. Ellie decided she would give Greg a chance.
They were in deep conversation when she noticed Zara staring at the pair of them in a really unfriendly way. When their eyes met, Ellie saw her look away with a disdainful expression and watched Zara pointedly whisper in Henry’s ear.
‘Do you know Zara Harden or Henry Dorsey?’ Ellie asked Greg.
‘A little, why do you ask?’
‘I don’t know either of them, but they were just looking over here, and to be honest, they didn’t look as if they might be about to join us. In fact, I’d go as far as to say, they looked rather hostile.’
Greg nodded and sighed deeply, picking up his beer and taking another long draught. ‘I went to the same boarding school as Henry, though I’m a little older than him. Not that he’d have had anything to do with me if we’d been in the same year. I was surprised to see him here; actually, I wouldn’t have had him down as one ready to get his hands dirty.’
‘I didn’t think people like him still existed,’ said Ellie. ‘I’ve met lots of people who have money but none ever behaved as if they were still ‘lord of the manor’. If there’s one thing I really don’t like, it’s a snob.’
‘His family are very wealthy, and were old friends of my family, once upon a time. They were in business together some years ago, but the Dorsey’s ideas of expansion meant that they cut out my father, and, consequently, any chances I had of taking over my family business when we were dissolved.’
‘Oh, that’s awful. I knew I didn’t like the look of him from the very first. He’s a typical arrogant rich kid who has probably been spoiled rotten by his mother.’
‘Well, it all happened a while ago, and I’ve moved on.’
‘You’re a success, and you’ve done it all by yourself, despite being trampled all over. You should be proud of your achievements.’
‘I am, but being in television isn’t all that glamorous, you know. Everyone thinks we’re rolling in it, that all presenters have million pound contracts, but, sadly, that isn’t the case for us all.’
‘You’re really popular,’ said Ellie, ‘and even if you haven’t got that contract now, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.’
She wasn’t quite sure why she was giving so much support and reassurance to someone who probably didn’t need it, but Ellie really felt sorry for him. She hated injustice and knew how much her parents struggled to get by, and she could imagine the effect it must have had when Greg’s family had found themselves in reduced circumstances through no fault of their own.
Greg was smiling at her and she was struck for the first time by his good looks. He had dark hair, which was very much her preference, and in contrast, a pair of striking blue eyes shone out from a handsome face. She’d seen his picture in magazines and always thought he seemed a bit slick, but now she saw his personality coming through she could forgive him his piratical style, which thankfully, he’d toned down a lot tonight.
‘Ah, I see Melanie has just arrived … I’d better go; I promised I’d get her the first drink. I’ve really enjoyed our chat,’ he said, draining his glass and standing up. ‘That’s why it’s so good to work on a project like this; you get to meet the most interesting people.’
‘Yes, it’s lovely to meet you; it’s been so kind of you to take Liberty under your wing. It’s a dream for her.’
Greg smiled again. ‘I hope we’ll be able to catch up again very soon. I’d love to hear some more tales of the vicarage.’
When he’d gone, Ellie was happy to sit and watch the goings on for a minute or two. In a place like this where groups intermingled, it was fascinating to see who was mixing and who preferred to stay talking to the same person. Jess and Charlie seemed very clear in their preference. Ellie doubted they knew anyone else existed. Their eyes met and looked away again as in a dance, each step taking longer to accomplish and each tender expression lingering until forced to look elsewhere. They were talking, but it was their body language that communicated far more. Ellie was so pleased for Jess. She deserved happiness like no one else she knew.
As she scanned the room, Ellie suddenly realised she was being scrutinised herself. Henry Dorsey was staring at her, and she wondered for a moment if her hair was sticking up or if her buttons had come undone. She smoothed back her long mahogany hair, and made a quick check on her appearance as best as she could. His eyes were still on her face, she sensed it, and when she looked, he was really studying every feature. She smiled, reasoning that friendly attack might be the best defence and something seemed to quiver about his lips. Not quite a smile perhaps, but there was definitely some progress. Ellie couldn’t wait to tell Jess – the haughty Henry had cracked his face!
Getting up, she saw Cara and Liberty had moved to the bar to talk to some of the film crew and decided to join them. Henry’s eyes burned into the back of her as she walked away, and a quick glance behind confirmed the truth. It was all a little unnerving.
‘I see you’ve made a conquest,’ said Cara, opening a bag of crisps and offering the packet to Ellie.
‘Whatever do you mean?’ Ellie thought she was probably making some reference to Greg.
‘Henry Dorsey can’t take his eyes off you.’
‘Oh, yes I noticed that. It’s a bit creepy, to be honest, this trying to stare me out. He just doesn’t like me, though goodness knows what I’ve done to warrant such contempt.’
‘It doesn’t look like contempt from where I’m standing,’ said Cara. ‘It looks like lust.’
‘I’m only describing what I’m seeing; the bloke is positively drooling into his beer.’
Ellie purposely turned so she could no longer see him, even out of the corner of her eye.
Cara laughed. ‘That’s done it … he’s taking in all your best features now, starting at your toes and he’s going up. Now, where do you think he’s looking?’
Ellie couldn’t help laughing at Cara. ‘You’re making it all up now, you wicked girl.’
‘I’m not, I swear, and even though he knows that I’ve seen him staring at your legs it’s not deterred him. Up and down he goes like a rat in a drainpipe.’
‘That description most aptly suits him, I fear,’ said Ellie thinking back to her conversation with Greg.
Liberty was looking slightly worse for wear. Several empty glasses lined up on the bar told why she was slurring her words and giggling every ten seconds. She was draped over one of the film crew, a man in his thirties who was wearing a wedding ring. ‘I’d love to be on the end of your lens, Jake,’ she was saying, loud enough for the entire pub to hear, and when the rest of the crew heard what she’d said, there were guffaws of laughter. Liberty didn’t seem to care even when she realised how her words had been misconstrued and she just laughed all the more.
‘Come on, Liberty, I think it’s time we headed home,’ said Ellie moving over to her and quietly whispering in her ear.
‘I don’t wanna go home,’ she shouted, ‘I’m having such fun with … what did you say your name was again?’
Ellie sighed. When Liberty was in this kind of mood, it was hard to reason with her or extract her without making a fuss. She looked over at Jess and their eyes met, but they weren’t the only eyes that had registered what was going on. Charlie, Zara and Henry were looking on aghast. Ellie felt she wanted to curl up and die rather than have Henry witness her friend’s behaviour. Jess came over in seconds. If anyone could reason with Liberty it was Jess, but not before Liberty knocked back her glass and started demanding more. In the next breath she declared she wanted to be sick, and by that time Jess was able to march her off to the Ladies’ room.
Ellie fetched Martha and together with Cara they all went to see how Liberty was doing. Thankfully, she seemed much better and as she was in no fit state to argue, she did as she was told. Jess bathed Liberty’s face, and once they’d established whether she was fit to walk home, they decided that would be the best course. Supporting Liberty between them as they’d done on many occasions before, Ellie and Jess realised it was going to seem a long walk home. What they hadn’t reckoned on was that Charlie would be waiting outside for them.
He seemed genuinely concerned. ‘Is she all right?’
‘Nothing that a few cups of black coffee won’t sort out,’ said Ellie, biting her lip.
Liberty’s head rolled from side to side, but she managed to look up when she heard she was being talked about. ‘I’m fine, Charlie. You are gorgeous; do you know that? You need to get with our Jess, you’d make a lovely couple!’
Jess was turning a deep shade of beetroot and couldn’t meet Charlie’s eyes. He was looking at her and grinning. ‘Listen, my car is not five minutes away. I’ll get it and take you home.’
‘We wouldn’t want to put you to so much trouble.’ Jess managed to look up to meet his unerring gaze.
‘No, it’s no trouble. In fact, I insist. Wait here, I’ll just pop home. I won’t be long.’
Cara and Martha decided there probably wouldn’t be enough room for them in the car too, what with Liberty hardly being able to stand or sit up, and so after saying their goodbyes they began the walk back home along the lane together.
It seemed no time at all before Charlie was back pulling up outside in a sleek, black Mercedes. Ellie offered to sit with Liberty in the back of the car, which meant Jess could sit with Charlie in the front. No one seemed to know what to say as they sped off noiselessly down the road.
‘It’s just a bit of high spirits,’ Charlie said, breaking the silence. ‘We all do something daft from time to time.’
Ellie saw Jess look across at him and smile. ‘Thank you, Charlie, for being so kind and taking us home.’
‘It’s a pleasure,’ he said, leaning over and squeezing her hand.