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Summer at the Little Cottage on the Hill: An utterly uplifting holiday romance to escape with by Emma Davies (1)

Chapter 1

Isobel picked up the bow, laid it against the strings of her violin, and began to play. Deliberately elongated, the notes carved through the air around her, filling every corner of the room and bouncing softly on the whitewashed walls before returning back to her, the perfect sound ringing out clear and true. She had no need to check the score, nor think about the tricky technicalities the piece presented – she knew that the music was being played flawlessly. What concerned her today was the quality of the sound she was producing.

She stilled the bow, listening intently as the last note died away, then lowered her violin with a nod of satisfaction. She looked around the space that was to be her home for the next six weeks and congratulated herself on her choice. This little cottage on a hill would do very nicely indeed.

Tucking her long dark hair behind her ears, she placed her instrument on the coffee table in front of her and took in the rest of her surroundings. The living room was a perfect rectangle, with one wall covered in what looked like pages from old magazines, reminding Isobel of the vibrant floral images from the farm’s website. Definitely vintage, but still beautiful, they gave the room a wonderfully historical look without feeling like she was in a museum. The furniture was minimal: the desk she had requested, a low bookcase, a wingback armchair beside the fireplace and a squishy-looking sofa opposite it. None of it matched, but it suited the cosy charm of the room, and to Isobel it was perfectly acceptable. She had no need for luxury; she was here to work.

Anxious about finding anywhere at such short notice – it was already well into the holiday season and everything she’d looked at was booked up – it was purely by chance that Isobel happened across the Joy’s Acre website; something about it had caught her eye. It was clearly a new endeavour, evident by the availability of only one finished cottage on the site and clearer still from the effusive welcome that she had received; gushing and tinged with anxiety. Still, it hardly mattered. What was important was that the cottage was available, and that they were happy to accommodate her practising day and night. With no other guests and work still being undertaken on site, any noise she might make was not considered to be an issue. Just so long as they understood that she was not here to play for them, everything would be fine. She needed absolute privacy while she worked, and no interruptions.

Aside from unpacking her violin to check the acoustics, the only other thing she had done since entering the cottage an hour ago had been to set up her laptop on the desk, together with her small keyboard and two speakers without which she was dead in the water. Her handbag lay abandoned on the kitchen table, and her bags, dumped in the narrow hallway when she’d entered, were untouched. They were of little consequence to her right now, she could sort out the rest of her things later.

She wandered through to the kitchen, glancing at the array of newly installed fittings, and picked up the kettle, taking it over to the sink to fill and wondering in which bag she had packed her teabags. She checked her watch while she waited for the water to boil and drifted back to the desk in the other room. Sitting down in front of the computer, she clicked on the icon to load the program she used to compose her music. Ten minutes later, she had completely forgotten about making tea.

Isobel often had little concept of time when she was working, so it could have been anything between half an hour and four hours later when she looked up again. Frowning, she cocked her head to one side to listen out for what might have interrupted her thoughts. Hearing nothing, she lowered her gaze to the screen once more. No, there it was again. This time she took off her headphones and looked around her, jumping out of her skin as she saw a man’s face pressed up against the window to her left, his hand raised to tap on the glass. Composing herself, she raised a hand in acknowledgement to his beaming face and got up and went through into the hallway with a sigh. Stepping over her bags, she opened the door.

‘Hi,’ said the man, his smile growing even wider. It was the same chap who had helped her carry in her belongings. She gave a brief smile, but remained silent.

‘I’m interrupting… sorry, but I just wanted to check that everything was okay…? With the cottage?’ he added, taking in her bemused expression.

Isobel stared at him, searching her brain for the piece of information she required. She’d been in such a hurry to get rid of him earlier that she hadn’t really listened to what he’d been saying.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘But I’ve forgotten your name. You did tell me, didn’t you?’ She lifted a hand to her lips, the huge jet ring she wore on her right hand flashing in the sunlight.

The man nodded. ‘It’s Tom,’ he replied. ‘I’m the thatcher.’

‘Of course… And the others…’ She peered at Tom. ‘Are… Trixie?’ She raised her eyes, looking for confirmation. ‘She’s the one who cooks, yes? The one with pink hair, and the other lady was Clara, I think?’

Tom nodded. ‘The gardener,’ he supplied. The two of them looked at one another. ‘And then there’s Seth, the owner of the farm, and Maddie, who helps run the place. Maddie will be the one you’ve been corresponding with. You’ll get to meet her a bit later on, I expect.’

Isobel was beginning to feel a little uncomfortable.

‘Sorry, what was it you wanted again?’

He gestured to the hallway behind her. ‘Just to see if everything is okay – did you manage to get things up and running?’ He was trying to look past her.

‘Yes, fine. It doesn’t take me long to set up and the acoustics are actually better than I thought.’ She registered the slight frown. ‘Oh. That wasn’t what you meant.’

Tom gave a nervous smile. ‘It was actually, but really I’m supposed to be asking if the cottage is to your liking. And whether you have enough towels and pillows, that kind of thing.’

Isobel looked about her. She hadn’t even been upstairs yet; what could she possibly be expected to say? The silence grew again.

‘I’m a musician too,’ began Tom tentatively.

Isobel’s heart sank. She had heard that so many times in the past from people who thought it would give them an instant connection with her. And they always, always, wanted to talk about it; they wanted her to ask what kind of music they played, or worse, what kind of music they wrote. Then, once she’d done that, they wanted to know all about her too… Seriously, sometimes the conversation could go on for quite a few minutes.

She gave a tight smile. ‘I thought you said you were a thatcher?’

Tom scratched his head. ‘Well, yes, that too. But that’s just the day job… I play in a band, out of hours, like…’

It was hot standing on the doorstep, and Isobel ducked her face away from the sun.

‘How lovely,’ she said, suspecting she sounded trite, but not caring. She took a step backwards and pasted on a smile. ‘Please could you let the owners know that the cottage is wonderful. I’m sure I’ll have everything I need, and so they mustn’t worry about me. I’m here to work as I think you know, so…’

‘Right. Absolutely,’ replied Tom, finally taking the hint. ‘And thanks… we’re all a bit, well, nervous, I guess. This is a new venture for us so we’re just hoping we’ve got everything covered.’ He peered down the hallway, trying to see past her. ‘Have you had a chance yet to see what you’d like for dinner? I left the list on the kitchen table… although it’s only a guide of course, Trixie is happy to cook something else if there’s anything in particular you’d rather have.’

With another sigh, she motioned for Tom to come in, grimacing as she stepped over her discarded bags once more.

‘I’ve been a bit busy…’ she muttered. The list on the kitchen table was right beside her handbag, but Isobel hadn’t even noticed it was there. She picked it up, scanning the lines. ‘Oh yes, the chicken sounds lovely.’ She handed the list back to Tom. ‘And whatever’s easiest for dessert, I really don’t mind.’ She probably wouldn’t eat it anyway.

‘And what time would you like it?’

Isobel scanned the kitchen looking for a clock. ‘What time is it now?’ she asked.

‘A little after four.’

‘Well then, seven o’clock would suit me. Would that be all right with the cook?’

‘I’ll let Trixie know, I’m sure it will be fine.’ The conversation was becoming more and more stilted by the minute.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said again, glancing at the laptop. ‘I have a deadline…’

‘Oh, right… yes of course. I’ll let myself out, but do let us know if you need anything else, won’t you…? Or if anything is not to your liking…’ He was already backing down the hallway.

Isobel nodded, forcing a smile. She waited until Tom had reached the front door then she turned and walked back into the living room. Sitting down at the desk again, she replaced the headphones over her ears, sighed with relief and carried on as if the interruption had never even taken place.

‘It was awful,’ said Tom, ‘I felt like a kid trying to make friends in the playground. Oh, please will you like me, please?

Clara flashed him a sympathetic smile. ‘Tom, I’m sure it wasn’t as bad as you think.’

‘Oh, it was. She’s altogether more gorgeous up close, with the biggest brown eyes… but she kept looking at me like I was some irritating insect buzzing around her.’ He rested his head in his hands and groaned. ‘And then when I mentioned I was a musician as well, she practically shut the door in my face. You could see it was the last thing she wanted to talk about.’

Clara sat back on her heels and tucked a stray strand of her long blonde hair behind her ears. She’d been weeding and her muddy hands left a streak of dirt across her face, which Tom politely ignored.

‘She’s here to work, Tom, don’t forget that. All that matters is she is here, and paid up for six whole weeks.’

‘I know.’ He turned his head back towards the cottage, the roof of which he had finished thatching only a few weeks ago. ‘I guess I thought…’ He trailed off. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

But Clara was far too perceptive to let his comment go. ‘That you might have found a kindred spirit?’

Tom rolled his eyes. ‘Is that what we’re calling them these days?’

‘I was trying to be polite.’ Clara grinned. ‘She is very attractive.’

‘Ah well, you can’t blame a man for trying… But you know one of these days my luck will turn and I will find my one true love… In the meantime I have a hot date with destiny, courtesy of Tinder.’

‘Is that really her name?’

‘Oh, very funny.’ Tom grimaced. ‘No, her name is Angie.’

‘Right, well you’ve checked Isobel’s okay now. She’s a grown woman and I’m sure she’ll come and ask if there’s anything she needs. I’ll be out here for a bit yet anyway – I swore to myself I’d get this bed finished today, so I’ll keep an eye out for her. Now, go on, off you go, you’ve got a roof to finish.’ She swivelled her eyes past Tom towards the second cottage on the plot. ‘It’s very quiet, perhaps I’ll hear her music out here while I work.’

‘Headphones,’ said Tom with finality. ‘Whatever she plays, I’m not sure any of us are going to get to listen to it.’ He gave Clara a wry smile. ‘Laters,’ he said, already walking away, before suddenly calling out. ‘Oh, and tell Trixie madam wants chicken for her tea.’

At first Tom didn’t even notice the sound of music. The soft notes seemed to blend with the evening air perfectly, the melody drifting up high to where he was sitting on the roof and mingling with birdsong and the rustle of leaves from the willow tree that sat just behind the house. It wasn’t until his ears tuned into the pattern of sound that he realised someone was playing. Isobel. He stopped what he was doing, holding his breath so that he might hear better.

He played the violin himself, not well, but enough to get by if he needed to. But he had never, ever, managed to play it like this. He sat up straighter, craning his neck for a better view of Isobel’s cottage, and then swung his leg over the ridge, and then again so that he faced the other way. The piece was not one he recognised, but then it had been a long time since he last played classical music. It was slow and measured, lilting as if riding the thermals of warm air as the notes swooped up and down the scale. Then, suddenly, it stopped.

Seconds later it started again, slightly faster this time and played with more force, the final notes of each section elongated, played vibrato. Every now and again he lost the sound as the breeze carried it away and part of him longed to climb down and listen properly, but the other part knew that somehow it would break the spell. And so he sat, entranced, as Isobel played her violin, the same piece over and over again, but each time with slight variation of speed, or tone or technique.

The sun had been high in the sky all day, the fields that Tom could see from his vantage point on the roof turning golden in the light. Joy’s Acre sat high on top of a large hill, and its slope and the view of the village beyond spreading out before him was ever-changing depending on the weather or time of day. Tom was so attuned to the sun’s passing that he scarcely had need for a watch. The colours would deepen and intensify as the day drew on, reaching full saturation just after dinnertime, before the light became slightly hazy and the colours wispy as the sun began to set.

A beeping sound broke Tom from his reverie and he refocused his attention, swearing under his breath. He pulled his phone from his pocket, grimacing as he realised the time. Angie was in the pub waiting for him, and had been for twenty minutes by the time she had texted.

Tom pushed the phone back into the pocket of his jeans and closed his eyes, feeling the heat gradually dissipate from the day. Of course, what he should do was climb down from the roof. The pub was in the village and he could be there in ten minutes, but even as the thought crossed his mind, Tom realised he wasn’t going to go. He should never have made the date in the first place, but he had made it more out of habit than anything, believing as he always did that it would make him feel better. It rarely did, and it was time he stopped putting himself and his dates through this charade.

He sent a brief text saying that his car had broken down, and that his phone battery was about to die. He’d bought himself some time, that was all, and would explain things properly to Angie later. He didn’t want to think about anything now; all he wanted was to listen to the music and let it return him to the way he had felt moments earlier.

By the time Isobel had finished playing, and Tom finally climbed wearily from the roof, he was astonished to find that another hour and a half had passed.