Malice in the Cotswolds Online - Rebecca Tope

Chapter One

Yvonne Parker, owner of Hyacinth House in Snowshill, had an out-of-control air about her, which made Thea want to protect and reassure her, as she apologised repeatedly for being such a nuisance. ‘I do hope you’ll be able to manage it all,’ Yvonne said, with a worried frown. ‘It seems such a lot to ask anybody to do. I hate leaving it. But—’

‘It’ll be absolutely fine,’ Thea insisted. ‘It really doesn’t sound too arduous.’

‘I suppose it’s just routine to you, this sort of work,’ said Yvonne wistfully. ‘But I’ve never left it like this before. It’s taken me all this time to get up the courage.’

Never before had this particular line been taken by a departing householder. Most of them had been blithely confident of the house-sitter’s abilities. Some had left exhaustive instructions, covering eventualities of every kind. A few had culpably failed to warn her of pitfalls. But nobody had yet expressed such reluctance to hand over the responsibility to her.

There was a girlishness to the woman, who had to be over fifty. Her blonde hair was obviously dyed, with occasional patches where the natural faded colour was still visible. There was puckered flesh at elbow and armpit, as she flapped her arms in explanation of the way her household worked. She wore a tight sleeveless top and cotton cut-off trousers, revealing pale mottled skin on her lower legs. Thea paid very close attention to everything Yvonne said and did, aware that every snippet of information could turn out to be of vital importance.

The Parker homestead comprised two beautiful young Burmese cats, a large garden and four placid-looking cows in a small field at the end of it. ‘They’re not mine, of course,’ said Yvonne. ‘They’re just here to eat the grass and have a bit of a rest. They’re dry.’ The cows were fat and docile, it seemed, awaiting their turn to give birth and rejoin the milking herd at a farm half a mile away. Yvonne’s easy reference to the cycles of dairy cattle suggested a long involvement with these and other animals. ‘If you think there’s a problem with the cows, call Pippa on this number, look. She’ll come over right away.’

Hyacinth House was modest in size and completely beautiful in appearance. It stood on the south-western edge of Snowshill, a village Thea scarcely knew at all. There was a famous manor house somewhere close by, but she had not yet located it, having only been to see Yvonne on a brief preliminary occasion, three weeks earlier. On that occasion she had found herself staring in disbelief at yet another achingly lovely Cotswold settlement. She had thought it impossible that she could still be stunned by the beauty of the old stone buildings and the way they seemed so carelessly scattered around a church, with a quirky pub for good measure. Snowshill had the same drunken sweeps as Duntisbourne Abbots; the same intriguing walls concealing large mansions as Blockley or Broad Campden – but its short uneven row of gabled houses to the west of the church easily vied with any of the other villages for sheer aesthetic glory. She looked forward to reading up on its history, and learning all about its own special features.

‘That sounds easy enough,’ she assured Mrs Parker, as they stood admiring the cows from the bottom of the garden. ‘And the cats probably won’t take much notice of me.’ She was deliberately putting emphasis on the least worrying part of her assignment, trying not to think about the greater responsibilities that lay within the house.

Yvonne glanced anxiously at Thea’s spaniel, which was nosing around the garden. ‘They’re not used to dogs,’ she said.

‘I won’t let her bother them. She’s very good in that respect.’

‘Of course, it’s the things you’ll be worrying about,’ said Yvonne, as if reading Thea’s mind.

Things was an understatement. The house was densely packed with ornaments, pictures, books, wall hangings, candles, bowls and much more. The ornaments were ceramic, wooden, stone and glass. A great many of them were made of glass. They were displayed on long shelves mostly, in the main living room. But many sat on low tables, window sills, mantelpieces, and on top of other furniture, not just in the living room, but all over the house. Everywhere Thea looked there were accumulations of Yvonne’s things.

The garden was similarly overstocked, with not an inch of bare ground to be seen – even the minute lawn grew lush and green. The colours were bright, if