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                                      Chapter One

Early mornings in Avalon were among Tess Power’s favourite times of the day. On a weekend, nine-year-old Kitty would sleepily climb into her bed and snuggle up to her mother. And sometimes – only sometimes, because he often forgot – Zach would bring her a cup of tea in bed. This would never happen on a weekday like today, when Zach remained buried under his duvet until she hauled him out to go to school.

    ‘Teenagers need extra sleep, Ma,’ he’d plead. ‘It’s official: I read it on the Internet. Ten minutes more …’

    Anything to do with her two beloved children made her happy – unless it was detention for Zach or an argument with Kitty over eating any foodstuff which could be classed as a vegetable: ‘I hate broccoli and tomatoes and all greens, so there!’

    That aside, Zach and Kitty’s existence made Tess giddy with happiness. But there was something special about weekday mornings like this one, when she would slip out while the children were still sleeping and take Silkie, the family’s fawn-coloured whippet, for a walk in the woods beside the home where she’d grown up.

    Up here with the wind whistling around them it felt as if Tess and Silkie were the only creatures in the world. As they approached the abbey ruins, Silkie suddenly turned and ran with easy greyhound grace over fallen leaves and twigs in the direction of the great house. Tess hesitated a moment before following. Even though she came up here almost every day for a bit of early morning meditation while gazing out to sea, she rarely went too close to Avalon House.

    It was nearly two decades since she had left her old home, had watched it sold to strangers, knowing how desolate her father would have been if he’d lived to see it. And despite that lapse of time the pain had not lost its edge, so she tended to steer clear of the house, rarely venturing into the grounds, let alone inside.

    Silkie, thrilled with this rare adventure, had found a path through the undergrowth. Tess didn’t know what was drawing her towards Avalon House, but she followed, picking her way gently through the brambles and briars that had taken over the beautiful gardens her father had worked so hard to maintain. He had loved that garden, and it was strange that neither Tess nor Suki, her older sister, had shown even the slightest interest in gardening. Back then, they’d looked on gardening as a grown-up’s pastime. Now, Tess found that the smell of freshly dug earth took her back to the lovingly tended gardens of the house at the end of Willow Street and awakened an overwhelming sense of loss.

    Stop being so melodramatic, she told herself briskly, lots of people have to move from the house they were born in!

    Yes, that was the attitude. Show some Power backbone.

    She marched on, determined to have a good walk. She was perfectly able to approach the house and look at it and check how far into disrepair it was falling. The American telecoms millionaire who’d bought it ten years ago had lost all his money and now there was no chance that he and his wife would come here to restore the house to its former glory.

    Avalon House was not the most beautiful piece of architecture, but it was certainly majestic, and its hotchpotch of styles reflected the fluctuating fortunes of the de Paors. There was a Victorian great hall, a Norman tower that nobody was ever allowed in because it was a danger zone, and a crumbling Georgian wing. The entire place was shabby and decaying when Tess and Suki were children. They’d lived in the most modern part of the house, which dated back just over a century; despite the vast space, the only inhabitable parts of the old building were the kitchen, the library with its panelling and huge fireplace, and the back stairs that led to the bedrooms.

    The De Paor fortune had long since vanished, leaving no cash for fires or modern heating. As a child, Tess had been conditioned to turn the lights off and to put as many blankets as she could on the bed to keep out the icy breeze that wound up from the coast to the house on the hill. Kids from the village school used to tease her about her big home, but once they’d actually been there, they were less likely to do so.
    However, none of her schoolfriends had Greek goddesses, albeit crumbling and dressed with lichen, in their gardens. Nor did they have an eighteenth-century family silver teapot (one of the last items to be sold) or huge oil paintings of dusty, aristocratic ancestors staring down at them from the gallery. Her father had held on to the paintings till the end, convinced they were worth something.

    Now Tess knew better. None of the portraits had been by important painters, and no one had been interested in paying a vast sum for someone else’s ancestors.

    Yet the house and the name had meant something in Avalon, and people had instinctively placed Tess in the category of elite. It didn’t matter that her clothes were threadbare or that she had jam sandwiches for lunch, she was a De Paor, although the name had been anglicized to Power many years before. She lived in a big house. Her father wore elegant, if somewhat tatty, riding clothes to the village shop and spoke in clipped British tones.

    Only one person in her younger life had ever seemed impervious to the patina of glamour about her name and her home: Cashel Reilly.

    Tess didn’t do regrets. Didn’t believe in them. What was the point? The past was full of hard lessons to be learned stoically, not memories to be sobbed over. But it was a different story with Cashel Reilly.

    How ironic to be dwelling on memories of Cashel and heartbreak when she’d come here this morning to have a serious think about Kevin, herself and the separation.

    Nine months earlier, when the cracks in their marriage became too wide to pretend they weren’t there, she and Kevin had both agreed that counselling should help. One of her husband’s better qualities was the way he was open to ideas other men wouldn’t dream of countenancing. There had never been any danger of him dismissing her suggestion that they see a marriage counsellor.

    ‘We love each other,’ Kevin said the day she’d suggested it, ‘but …’

    That ‘but’ contained so much.

    But we never spend any time with each other any more. But we never make love. But we lead separate lives and are happy to do so.

    The counsellor had been wonderful. Kind and compassionate and not hell-bent on keeping them together no matter what. As the weeks went by – weeks of date nights and long conversations without argumentative statements starting ‘You always … !’ – Tess began to face the truth she’d wanted not to see.

    Their marriage was over. Living with Kevin was like living with a brother, and had felt so for years.

    There was no fierce passion. If she was entirely honest, there never had been. Kevin was the man she’d fallen for on the rebound. She’d been twenty-three then, still a romantic, vulnerable. Now, at the age of forty-one, she no longer dreamed of a knight on a white horse racing to save her. Nobody saved you, Tess had discovered; you had to do that yourself. Yet some part of her longed for the sort of love that had been missing from her relationship with Kevin right from the start. You couldn’t rekindle a love that had never existed. It was a sobering thought. Reaching that decision meant breaking up their family, hurting Kitty and Zach.
    All the while, Tess felt guilty because she wondered whether she had done the wrong thing by marrying him in the first place. But their marriage had given her Zach; now a tall and strong seventeen-year-old, with a mop of dark hair like his father. And Kitty, nine years old, was the spitting image of her aunt Suki at the same age, with that widow’s peak and the pale blonde Power hair streaming down her back in a silky curtain. These days, Suki’s lustrous mane owed more to the hairdresser’s bottle with its many shades in the platinum spectrum. Tess’s own hair resembled their mother’s, a muted strawberry blonde that gave her pale lashes which she couldn’t be bothered to dye, despite Suki’s urging.

    Kitty, Suki and Tess shared the delicate Power bone structure, the heart-shaped face that ended in a dainty pointed chin and the large grey eyes.

    Many times over the years, Kevin had told her she was beautiful, as if he couldn’t believe his luck in finding this aristocratic flower with her tiny frame, hand-span waist and long legs. She couldn’t quite believe him, though. She’d only believed one man who’d told her she was beautiful.

    With six months of counselling behind them, Tess and Kevin had agreed on a trial separation, in case they were wrong, in case being apart would make them realize what they had after all.

    ‘This isn’t for ever,’ Kevin told Zach, who’d sat mutinously, head bent down and dark curls covering his eyes.

    ‘Bullshit,’ Zach muttered, loud enough for both adults to hear. ‘I think it’s stupid.’ He’d sounded more like his little sister than a seventeen-year-old. ‘You want a divorce and you’re trying to pretend to us that you don’t.’

    ‘I’ll only be down the road in Granny’s house, in the flat at the back. She hasn’t rented it out for the summer yet, so it’s mine. Ours,’ Kevin corrected himself. ‘You’ll see as much of me as you see of me here.’

    Kitty had gone and curled up on Kevin’s lap so she resembled a small creature, nuzzling against him.

    Tess had been on the verge of insisting that they forget it, abandon the whole painful business of separation, when Kitty had fixed her with a firm gaze and said: ‘Can we get a kitten, then?’

    In the three months since Kevin had moved out, Tess had found that single motherhood was more difficult than she’d expected. Kevin had always been fairly hopeless when it came to housework, but now that he was gone, she’d realized how much another adult added to the family, even if the other adult appeared to do little apart from arriving home expecting dinner and tousling Kitty’s hair affectionately as she got her mother to sign her homework notebook. He used to put out the bins, deal with anything electrical and was the one who went round the house at night, locking doors and checking that the windows were shut. Now that she had full responsibility for these tasks herself, Tess realized the value of Kevin being there, always kind, always good-humoured, another person with whom to sit in front of the television at night. Someone in the bed beside her. Someone to talk to about her day.

    In the first week of his being gone, she’d felt the relief at their having finally acted on the fact that they’d never really been right for each other and the children had been the glue holding them together. Only separation would tell them the truth.

    And then the questions had come: had she been stupid? Perhaps they should have continued with marriage counselling, not decided so quickly that separation was a good plan.

    Was it such a good plan, she wondered. Had been wondering for some time.
Silkie came and lay down on her feet, a signal that she was getting bored.

    ‘Time to go, pet,’ Tess said, with a quick glance at her watch. ‘Nearly a quarter past seven, let’s go home and haul them out of bed.’

    Tess had brought Zach and Kitty up here a few times; not on her walks with Silkie, though. Instead, they’d gone through the huge, rusty iron front gates, which local kids had long ago wrenched open, and up the beautiful avenue lined with trees. She’d wanted her children to see their birthright.

    ‘This is where your aunt Suki and I used to live with your darling granddad.’

    Granddad was a bit of an unknown to both her children as he’d died before they were born. The only grandparent they knew was Helen, Kevin’s mother. Granny Helen liked to play Monopoly, got very upset when she lost, and could be counted upon to give fabulous presents at Christmas.

    Zach had been twelve the first time Tess took him to Avalon House. He’d looked at it in awe, pleading to go inside and see the rooms.

    ‘It’s huge!’ he’d said, eyes wide with amazement. ‘Nothing like our house, Ma.’

    ‘I know,’ said Tess cheerfully. It was hard trying to be cheerful as it hit her that, after generations of owning, Avalon House was no longer theirs. It wasn’t the size, the fact that it dwarfed their own tiny house ten times over, that made her mourn the loss. It was the sense that this had been home. This was where she’d been so happy as a child until … until it had all gone wrong.

    Kitty had been much younger when she first took an interest in the house.

    ‘It’s a palace, Mum,’ she’d said delightedly when they arrived. ‘It’s as if Cinderella could arrive here in her pumpkin coach with horses and silvery plumes coming out of their hair.’

    Tess had laughed at her beautiful eight-year-old daughter’s fabulous imagination; in Kitty’s world even a crumbling old moss-covered ruin of a house could be sprinkled with fairy dust and transformed into a palace.

    ‘Why don’t we live here?’ Kitty wanted to know.

    Tess was used to straightforward questions. Children were so gloriously honest.

    ‘The house was in my father’s – your grandfather’s – family for a long, long time, but the family fortune was nearly gone when your grandfather inherited it. When I was born there was only a teeny-weeny bit of money left. Big houses cost a lot because the roof is always leaking, so your granddad knew we would have to sell. He and I were going to move to a small cottage in the village – the one we live in now – but he got very sick and died, so I had to sell Avalon House and move all by myself.’

    ‘Oh, Mum,’ said Kitty, throwing her arms around her mother’s waist. ‘You must have been so sad.’

    Tess’s eyes had teared up. ‘Well, I was a bit sad, darling, but Zach came along and then you, so how could I possibly be sad when I had my two beautiful angels?’

    ‘Yes,’ said Kitty, instantly cheered up. ‘Can I see your bedroom, Mum? What was it like? Was it very princessy?’

    Tess thought of all this now as she made her way round the back of the house, following on Silkie’s trail through the brambles. The old knot garden, created by her great-great-grandmother, was nothing more than a big mound of thistles. The walls surrounding the orchard were in a state of collapse. Tess could understand why nobody wanted to buy Avalon House; beautiful as it was, perched high on the hill overlooking Avalon and the sea, it would cost an absolute fortune to make it habitable again. Soon it would go the way of the Abbey and be reduced to a pile of stones, and the past would be buried with it.

    Tess pulled up sharply. Told herself there was no point thinking about the old days. The future was what mattered.

    ‘Come on, Silkie,’ she said briskly, then she turned and headed away from the house. Soon, the beautiful sweep of Avalon Bay opened out in front of her and picking up speed she strode down the drive. There was a lot to do today. She didn’t have time to get lost in the past.

    Zach’s bedroom smelled of teenager: socks, some new, desperately cheap aftershave he adored, and the musky man/boy scent so different from the little boy smell she used to adore.

    ‘Time to get up, love,’ she said, giving his shoulder a shake and putting a cup of tea on his bedside locker.

    A grunt from under the covers told her he was alive and sort of awake.

    ‘I’ll be back in ten minutes with the cold cloth if you’re not up,’ she warned. She’d used the cold cloth on her sister too. Years ago, the threat of a cold, wet flannel shoved under the covers had been the only way to get Suki out of bed of a morning.

    Kitty was easier to wake. Tess kissed her gently on the cheek and made Kitty’s favourite cuddly toy, Moo, dance on the pillow for a minute, whispering ‘Time for breakfast!’ in Moo’s bovine voice.

    By eight, both of her children were at the table, Kitty chatting happily and Zach bent over his cereal sleepily.

    Silkie, happy after her walk and breakfast, lay under the kitchen table, hoping for crumbs.

    The next hurdle for Tess was making Kitty’s lunch while simultaneously eating her own breakfast and checking that whatever she’d taken out of the freezer the night before was on the way to defrosting for dinner.

    ‘Why don’t we fall off the Earth if it’s round and it’s in space?’ Kitty wanted to know.

    Tess considered this. ‘It’s gravity,’ she said. ‘There’s a magnetic pull …’

    She stalled, wondering how to explain it all and trying to dredge the facts from her mind. Kitty asked a lot of questions. At least the heaven and angel phase was over, but she feared that ‘Where do babies come from?’ wouldn’t be far away.

    ‘Can you explain why we don’t all fall off the Earth, Zach, love?’ she begged her son.

    He looked up from his bowl. ‘Gravity, Newton, Laws of Physics. Don’t ask me, I dropped physics last year.’

    ‘What’s physics?’ said Kitty. ‘Is it a person who can see the future? Julia says her mum’s always going to physics. She says they might win the lottery, but only on a Wednesday night. Do we do the lottery, Mum?’

    ‘No,’ said Tess. ‘But we should,’ she added, thinking of their bank balance.

    ‘We could do it on Wednesday,’ Kitty said, ‘with my pocket money.’

    ‘You’ve spent all your pocket money,’ teased Zach.

    ‘Have not.’

    ‘Yes you have.’

    ‘I have money in my Princess Jasmine tin,’ Kitty replied haughtily. ‘Loads of money. More than you.’

    ‘She probably does,’ remarked Tess, putting a plate with two poached eggs in front of her son. Zach’s appetite had gone crazy in the past year and he hoovered up food. Since breakfast was considered the most vital meal of the day, she was trying to get him to eat protein each morning, even though he said eggs made him ‘want to puke’.

    ‘No puking,’ Tess instructed. ‘You’ve got games today.’

    When she’d dropped Kitty off at school and deposited Zach at the bus stop, she came home and spent half an hour tidying the house before she left for work. She loved her children’s rooms in the morning when they were safely in school. Even Zach’s teenage den, with its lurking, smelly sports socks balled up under the bed.

    On all but the most rushed days, she felt a little Zen enter her soul when she went into the rooms of the two people she loved best.

    The added peace came from the fact that her darlings weren’t actually there, so she could safely adore them and the idea of them – without being asked for something or told she was unfair, that all the other kids had such and such, that really, if she could only lend him some pocket money, an advance … ?

    Kitty had been right at breakfast: she probably did have more money than Zach. He was forever lending fivers to other people or spending on silly things.

    Kitty’s bedroom was still a shrine to dolls, soft toys with huge eyes and Sylvanian creatures with complicated houses and endless teeny accessories that were forever getting lost.

    ‘Mum, I can’t find the cakes for the cake shop!’ was a constant refrain in the house and Tess had spent ages on her hands and knees with Kitty, looking under the furniture for minuscule slices of plastic cake, with her daughter’s lovely little face anxious at the thought of Mrs Squirrel not being able to run her cake shop.

    This morning, Tess did a bit of sorting out in the Sylvanian village, then moved on to close the half-opened drawers and tie back the curtains before tidying the dressing table There was growing evidence of the emergence of Kitty’s tweenage years with silvery bracelets and girlish perfumes in glittery flacons clustered on the table. Moo, Kitty’s cuddly cow, loved to greyness, had a place of honour on her pink gingham heart cushion and it was Tess’s favourite job to make the bed and enthrone Moo on the cushion, ready for that night.

    It didn’t matter that on the way to school Kitty could loudly sing along in the car to questionably explicit pop songs that made Tess wince: as soon as it was time for bed, Kitty morphed back into a nine-year-old who liked to snuggle under her pink-and-yellow-striped duvet, hold Moo close and wait for her bedtime story with the clear-eyed innocence of a child.

    Once it was all tidy, Tess gave the room one last fond glance and moved on to Zach’s room. Zach’s domain was painted a lovely turquoise colour, but these days, none of the walls were visible because of posters of bands, footballers and Formula One drivers.

    The rule was that Zach had to put clean sheets on his bed once a week and run the vacuum cleaner over the carpet. Since Tess had found the Great Cup Mould Experiments under the bed, he had to rinse out any mugs on a daily basis – and he was actually very good about doing it.

    Seventeen-year-olds didn’t like their mothers tidying up their bedrooms. It was all part of the process of growing up. Like the part that said mothers had to let go. Tess knew that. Had known it from the first day Zach stopped holding her hand as they walked into the village school.

    ‘Ma – let go of my hand!’

    He’d been seven and a bit at the time. Tall for his age, dark shaggy hair already ruffled despite being brushed into submission minutes earlier at home.

    Tess had let go of his hand and smiled down at her dark-eyed son, even though she felt like crying. He was growing up. So fast.

    ‘Am I embarrassing you?’ she asked with the same smile that always shone through in her voice when she spoke to her son.

    Because she adored him so much, she was determined that she would not be a clingy mother, not make him the vessel for all her hopes and dreams.

    ‘Yes!’ he’d replied, shrugging his schoolbag higher over his shoulder as a sign of his macho-ness.

    Tess had watched him march into the classroom without giving her a second glance.

    Ten years on, he still hugged her. Not every day, not the way he had as a small child. But he was an affectionate boy, and now that he towered over her, he’d lean down and give her a hug.

    He called her ‘Ma’.

    ‘See ya, Ma,’ he’d say cheerily as he was about to leave the house for school.

    He reminded her of his grandfather, her own beloved father. Zach had the same silver-grey eyes with lashes so black it looked as if he wore eyeliner. He had her father’s patrician features too, and his gentleness. For all that he played prop forward on the school rugby team, Zach Power was a gentle giant. All the girls in Avalon loved him. The ones he’d been to primary school with gazed at him with a combination of fondness and attraction. Tess could see that too: he also had the charisma of his father, the indefinable characteristic that would make women look at him always.

    For the past two months he’d hauled the bins to the gate on Thursday night for the Friday-morning collection, trying to fill Kevin’s shoes. Every time he did it, Tess battled the twin emotions of pride and sadness.

    Huge pride at him behaving like the man of the house, and sadness that it was necessary.

    From the hallway below, Silkie yelped, eager for her next trip out – she knew her daily itinerary as well as Tess did.

    Tess grabbed Zach’s laundry basket and went slowly downstairs. Silkie was standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking forlorn.

    ‘I’ll put the washing on and we’ll go.’

    Tess walked to work every day, come rain or shine. She and Silkie would set out from the house on Rathmore Terrace, through the garden Tess was always planning to spend many hours on but never did, and out the white wooden gate.

    Instantly, Silkie would pull on the extendable lead, sticking her nose into the gatepost in case some passing dog had marked it.

    ‘Come on,’ Tess said most mornings. ‘No loitering.’

    Every second house was home to one of Silkie’s friends, so there were delighted squeaks at the house of Horace, a Great Dane who lumbered over to greet her and then lumbered back to the porch to rest his giant bones; a bit of rough-housing with Rusty, a shiny black collie who loved games and had to be told not to follow them; a few tender doggy kisses with Bernie and Ben, twin cockapoos who could rip any neighbourhood dustbin apart in minutes and caused chaos when they were in their owners’ holiday home.

    By the time she and Tess had come to the end of their street and turned down the hill on to the lane that led to Main, Silkie would be panting with happy dogginess.

    Their next stop was St Ethelred’s, the oldest Presbyterian church in the country, where tour buses paused for tourists to take pictures of the twelfth-century building, the moss-flecked tombs and small crooked headstones. The graveyard was watched over by three towering oaks that were at least, according to the local tree man, two hundred years old. At this hour of the morning, the great wooden door under the arched porch was locked. The rector would be along at ten to open up, with Mrs Farquarhar-White following him in to bustle around and polish things.

    On warm, sunny mornings, Tess would take the time to stroll into the grounds with Silkie, drinking in the serenity that inhabited this sacred space. Today, however, a breeze that felt as if it had come straight from Siberia ruffled Tess’s short fair hair as she stood at the church gate, so instead of going in she waited for Silkie to snuffle amongst the dog roses for any rabbits who’d dared to visit, then the two of them set off down the lane again.

    Cars passed her by, some of the drivers waving or smiling hello, others too caught up in their morning routine to do anything.

    Tess was happiest when the tourist season began to wind down and locals got their town back. With the school holiday over, the caravan parks had mostly emptied out and Avalon was beginning to fall back into the relaxed and gentle routine that would continue through autumn and into winter.

    Not that she objected to the summer visitors – they kept the town going, and provided a bit of excitement for local teenagers. Cabana-Land – which used to be called The Park when she was young – had always had a reputation as party central. She remembered how, back in the early eighties, she’d longed to stay out late at The Park like her elder sister. Suki never paid any attention to the curfew imposed by their father. On summer nights she would shimmy down the drainpipe wearing her spray-on stone-washed jeans, with her sandals in her hand, hissing, ‘Don’t tell him or I’ll kill you!’ at a worried Tess as she peered down at her from their bedroom window.

    There was a seven-year age gap between the two sisters and in those days, Suki and Tess had been complete opposites. Suki hated homework, was breezily unconcerned when she got into trouble at school, and by the time she reached her teens she had mastered the art of swaying her hips so that men couldn’t take their eyes off her as she walked through Avalon. She was taller than Tess, with the same blonde hair and the widow’s peak, inherited from their long-dead mother, and full lips that she made use of with a carefully practised pout.

    Tess, on the other hand, was never late with her homework, fretted over whether she’d get top marks on her history test, and was never in trouble either at home or school. She was the pale version of her sister, chiaroscuro in action, with strawberry blonde hair, and a fragility that made her perfect for ballet classes – if only they could have afforded them.

    The biggest difference between the sisters was that Tess loved living in Avalon, while Suki couldn’t wait to escape. She longed to live somewhere exotic, having failed to realize what Tess had grasped even as a child: that for the visitors who came from far-flung places, Avalon was exotic. City dwellers were charmed by the crooked main street with its scattering of gift and coffee shops and a single butcher’s. People from other countries thought that the high cross in the central town square with its working water pump and stone horse trough was adorable. They beamed with delight when grizzled old farmers like Joe Mc
Creddin stomped out of the post office in his farming clothes and threadbare cloth cap with his trousers held up with baler twine, as if he’d been sent from central casting just for their amusement.

    And they all loved Something Old, the antique and curio shop Tess had run for seventeen years.
Tess knew that her business had survived this long because she understood her clientele. She knew the pain of selling treasured heirlooms because money was in short supply.

    ‘My family owned a big old house which was once full of the most glorious antiques,’ she’d say, ‘and we never had a ha’penny. By the time I was ten, my father had sold just about everything of value, including old books, furniture and silver dating back two hundred years.’

    Zach helped too. Tess took him along on all her calls to buy antiques, right from when he was a baby, strapped in his car seat, big round eyes staring out of a chubby face. People liked having a baby arrive: it made the painful process of parting with heirlooms a little easier to bear.

    She and Zach would be invited in for tea, cake would be produced, then stiff old gentlemen would unstiffen and reveal how they hated having to sell the sideboard or the vase their great-granddad had brought back from India, but there was no other option.

    Her success also owed much to her innate kindness and sense of fairness.

    ‘You’ll never make a fortune selling a Ming vase on after buying it for twenty quid,’ said one lady, who was delighted to find that her set of old china was actually a full and unchipped early Wedgwood, worth at least five times what she’d thought.

    ‘Money earned in that way doesn’t bring you luck or happiness,’ said Tess. She simply wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night if she’d conned anybody out of a precious piece.

    As always, Tess felt a glow of pride in her town as she turned on to Main. Few of the visitors who stopped to admire the quaint shopfronts and exteriors were aware of the transformation that had taken place in the town ten years earlier, and the effort that had been put in by local businesses in order to achieve it. They had been forced to up their game by the construction of a bypass that stopped cars passing through the town on their way to Wexford. Belle, who at that time was the lady mayor as well as the owner of the Avalon Hotel and Spa, had started the ball rolling by calling a town meeting.

    ‘The caravan parks and the beach aren’t enough,’ she warned. ‘We need to revamp this town, brand it, put it on the map or we’ll all go out of business.’

    Dessie Lynch, proprietor of Dessie’s Bar and Lounge (Come for breakfast and stay all day!), disagreed. ‘The pub’s doing grand,’ he blustered. ‘I’m making a fortune.’

    ‘People drinking in misery,’ said Belle with a fierce glare. ‘When all the locals have destroyed their livers and are sitting at home on Antabuse tablets, you’ll be out of business too.’

    Galvanized by their strong-willed mayoress, local traders had set about tidying up the town; shopfronts were painted and a unifying theme was agreed upon – Avalon was to be restored to look like the Victorian village it had once been. The chip shop reluctantly gave up its red neon sign and now did twice the business selling old-fashioned fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. The council was squeezed until they came up with the money to clean the high cross and the stone horse troughs that surrounded it. The water pumps were repaired and repainted, and a team of locals volunteered to hack away the brambles that had grown up around the ruined abbey and graveyard high above the town to turn them into a tourist attraction too. There hadn’t been enough money to pay for research into the abbey’s history so they could print up booklets and make an accurate sign, but illustrated pamphlets had been printed for St Ethelred’s.

    The result was an increase in the town’s business and a second term of office for Belle.

    Drawing level with Dillon’s Mini-Market, Tess tied Silkie’s lead to the railings beside the flower stand. Immediately the whippet adopted the resigned expression she always used on these occasions: Abandoned Dog in Pain would be the title if anyone were to paint her. Tess knew that dogs couldn’t actually make their eyes bigger just by trying, but Silkie did a very good impression of it: two dark pools of misery taking over her narrow, fawn-coloured face.

    Inside, Tess grabbed a newspaper and a small carton of milk. She nodded hello to a few of the other shoppers, then went to the counter where Seanie Dillon held court.

    ‘Grand morning, isn’t it, Tess?’ he said.

    Seanie had a word for everyone, yet understood when someone was in a rush to open up their shop. He could wax lyrical on the village for interested tourists, telling them about that time the snow fell so heavily that several people got stuck inside the shop overnight and they all had a party with the roasted chicken, bread baked on the premises and an emergency cocktail made out of wine, cranberry juice and some out-of-date maraschino cherries.

    ‘Lovely day,’ Tess replied. ‘A soft day, as my father liked to call it.’

    ‘Ah, your father, there was a great man,’ sighed Seanie.

    Tess took her change and wondered why she’d mentioned her father. She’d dreamed of him the night before; the same dream she always had of him, on the terrace of the old house with his binoculars trained on the woods behind, watching out for birds.

    ‘I’d swear I saw a falcon earlier,’ he’d say excitedly. He was fascinated by all birds but particularly birds of prey, which was surprising, given that he was the gentlest, least feral person she’d ever met.

    Above all, he was interested in everything – politics, art, other people. He’d have loved Something Old, even if he’d have hated to see his daughter working so hard and still not making enough money from the business. He would have liked Kevin too and if he’d only been alive he would have never let her consider something as crazed as a trial separation.

    Milk purchased, Silkie and Tess walked across the square and the last few yards up Church Street to her shop. She nodded hello to Mrs Byrne and Mrs Lombardy, who were out doing their morning shop, an event which always looked like a patrol of the area to Tess, as their eyes beadily took in everything and everyone. A bit of paint flaking off a flowerpot in the square, and they’d be up to report it to Belle in the hotel.

    So far as Tess was concerned, the only negative to living in such a small community was that it was hard to have secrets. Since she and Kevin had separated, Tess had told the true story to a few people she trusted, hoping that this would stop any rumour-mongering. But who knew? That was the question. Would Mrs Byrne or Mrs Lombardy have spotted what was going on by now? They mustn’t have, Tess decided. Else they’d have stopped her to console her – and look for a smidge more information.

    She smiled at the thought. She was happy in Avalon. Not for her the itchy feet of the traveller. Not like Suki, that was for sure.

    Something Old occupied the bottom half of a former bakery. Upstairs was a beautician’s salon, and the scent of lovely relaxing aromatherapy treatments often drifted downstairs. Tess’s premises consisted of two large rooms with a bow window at the front, and then a smaller storage room at the back, along with a kitchenette, toilet and a lean-to where she kept old, unsellable stuff that she couldn’t bear to part with.

    As soon as they were inside, Silkie made for her dog bed behind the counter. After her two walks, she would sleep there all morning quite contentedly. Tess carried on into the kitchenette where she boiled the kettle for her second cup of coffee.

    Tess loved her shop. Not everyone understood its appeal. To some, it might have looked like the maddest collection of old things set out on display. But to connoisseurs of antiques and those who purred with happiness when they found four strange little apostle spoons tied up with ribbon or a delicate single cup and saucer of such thin china that the light shone through, Something Old was a treasure trove.

    It was all too easy to while away the morning half-listening to the radio as she opened a box of items bought in a job lot at an auction. Tess had found some gems that way; pieces that nobody had realized were precious in the mad dash of the executor’s sale. Some just needed a bit of work to restore them to their former glory. Like the silver trinkets that were dull nothings until she’d burnished them to a glossy sheen, or the filigree pieces of jewellery tossed unnoticed in the bottom of a box, which could be delicately polished up with toothpaste and a cotton bud, to reveal the beauty of marcasite or the glitter of jet.

    She had two boxes to open today, mixed bags from a recent auction, and as she went to collect them, she realized that the light on the answerphone was winking red at her.

    Sometimes people rang asking if they could bring something in so she’d value it, or saying they had antiques to sell and perhaps she’d like to see them.

    The answer machine voice told her the message had been left at nine the previous night. ‘Hello, my name is Carmen, I’m working with Redmond Suarez on a biography of the Richardson family in the United States, and I’m trying to contact a Therese Power or …’ the voice faltered. ‘Therese de Paor. Sorry, I don’t know how to pronounce it. We’re looking for connections of Ms Suki Richardson. If you can help, please call this number and we’ll ring you right back. Thank you.’

    Tess stood motionless for a moment. Every instinct in her body screamed that there was something very, very worrying about this message.

    If Suki knew of anybody working on a book about the Richardsons, the wealthy political family into which Suki had once married, then she’d have told Tess. The Richardsons were powerful people and if someone wanted to talk to anyone connected with the family, a note on their fabulous creamy stock paper would have arrived, possibly even a phone call from Antoinette herself – not that Tess had had any contact with the Richardsons since Suki’s divorce. But she was quite sure that, if someone was digging into the past, they’d have been in touch, loftily asking her not to cooperate. That was the way they did things, with a decree along the lines of a royal one.

    But there had been nothing. No correspondence from the Richardsons, no mention of this from Suki herself.

    No, there was something strange going on.

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