Chapter Eight

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By late Sunday afternoon, Connie was fully installed in Poacher's Cottage. The painting party had broken up early in the morning, its members mostly, like Connie, nursing hangovers, hers the second of the weekend; not an average she intended maintaining far into the school term.

Tom had downed sufficient strong coffee and bacon sandwiches to deem himself capable of driving the minibus and its passengers safely back to town; capable of driving but probably not of passing a breathalyser test should the occasion have arisen, Connie later reflected.

Valerie had arrived at the cottage at the crack of dawn, armed with a tape measure, cleaning supplies and a frying pan. Long before any of the slumbering forms had stirred from their sleeping bags, she'd first measured the kitchen window and French doors, then scrubbed and disinfected the cooker until she was satisfied it was hygienic enough to use. After this she proceeded to rouse the houseguests with the sweet smell of frying bacon. She'd been charmed by Tom's lilting protestations of gratitude and the kiss of thanks he had dropped on her hand as he herded the troops out to the minibus after breakfast, but disappointed that the handsome Mr Turner had departed before her arrival.

Matt had slipped out shortly after five in the morning, the growl of his bike's powerful engine not enough to break through the stupor of those colleagues still inside. He hadn't planned to stay overnight and really should have gone home to Mollie and Maggie. Maggie had been perfectly okay with everything when he'd phoned early in the evening to ask if she minded him stopping over. In fact, it was fair to say she'd been over the moon. He didn't do much socially and he knew she worried that he was keeping people, women in particular, at arm's length. She didn't need to worry. She was right, though, he was keeping the opposite sex firmly in the category marked 'acquaintance only'. But something about the previous evening had made him want to linger and share a beer and some food with his friends. Who was he kidding, it wasn't something, it was someone! Connie was funny and clever and beautiful. Spending time with her had his heart beating faster and put a grin on his face like nothing else had done in eight years. Their afternoon together had gone by only too fast, the conversation flowing easily. He'd found himself stealing frequent glances in her direction when she was unaware he was looking and had admired the slim profile, the way her teeth tugged at her bottom lip in concentration. He could see, however, that all she was interested in was friendship and that would really be best all round. He couldn't risk letting anyone break through the protective barriers he'd built around his heart after the breakdown of his relationship with Kate. He was not yet ready to deal with the emotions that risked being disturbed by any breach in his defences.

Connie had spent the rest of the morning packing her belongings, many of which were still conveniently stored in boxes in her parents' attic, into the back of the Landrover, her bed loaded into the trailer for transportation down the drive to the cottage. Then, she had enjoyed an afternoon arranging her stuff in her new home. The prints her parents had given her for her twenty-first birthday, which she'd never before found a home for, were now hung in the sitting room and her vast and eclectic collection of books was housed in the bookcase in the study. Luckily, she'd hung on to the kettle, toaster and few cooking basics she'd used at university, although they were a rather limited and shabby collection that barely filled one cupboard in the kitchen. The fridge, however, was full to bursting with burgers and sausage as well as the eggs, bread, butter and milk Valerie had brought down for breakfast. Connie wouldn't starve! Her rather larger collection of clothing had just squeezed into the new wardrobe Mike had built one side of the unused fireplace in her bedroom. She really needed a chest of drawers for her underwear and tee shirts but that, like the long overdue service for Marjorie, would have to wait for her first pay cheque.

By early evening, Connie was shattered and was sitting on the rug in the sitting room, a cup of tea balanced on the hearth next to her, surrounded by a spaghetti of electrical wires, trying to get her head around how to set up the TV. Grateful she'd got a couple of weeks' worth of lesson plans and resources prepared in advance, she intended to spend a couple of hours dozing in front of a Sunday evening drama on the box before getting a much needed early night. As she thought back over the last week and the weekend in particular, Connie felt quite overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome she'd received from her new colleagues and by the generosity of the kindness they'd all shown her. Even the frosty Matt Turner seemed to have thawed a little and extended the hand of friendship. She'd settle for that. Connie wasn't going to deny that she found him incredibly attractive; he was a very good looking and, when he chose, charismatic guy but the barriers he'd built around himself were so real, you virtually knocked your head against them if you got too close. She'd really enjoyed her afternoon with him, working together on the kitchen units. Conversation had come easily, his face frequently lit by his signature wide and sexy grin but Connie knew that if she allowed the firmly locked door to her emotions to open a chink, she was in danger of disturbing a lot of unresolved issues that should stay exactly where they were, in a box marked 'Do not open...Ever'. The pain caused by the brutal conclusion to her relationship with Serge still had the ability to take her breath away if caught unawares. No, friendship was definitely all she could handle. Like she had any choice in the matter, anyway!

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