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After work, Carrie slid into one of the comfortable booths of the Ram and Raisin, a faux-Regency watering hole belonging to the Wetherspoons chain. Mercy had changed into a little pink dress, a bit lacy and short for Carrie's tastes, but Carrie was still in uniform.  

"I'm meant to be popping over Susan's for her to do my laundry," Carrie explained, indicating her canvas shopping bag stuffed with clothes. "She's been letting me use her machine ever since I moved in. I just need to give her a call..." 

"I only live ten minutes away!" Mercy couldn't stand the idea of Carrie venturing out to the housing estate after dark. "Come and do them at mine!" 

Carrie pressed her lips together, pulling a face. "You've already shared your lunch with me, and now you're paying for dinner..."  

"It's two for eight pound something. That's not bad. And it's two for one on desserts. You can pay when you've got the money."  

Mercy reminded Carrie so much of Ffion, straight forward, determined and not about to take 'no' for an answer. Her lips bowed upwards involuntarily, but then she remembered their last phone conversation. The little ball of guilt that had lain dormant in her belly all day began to bounce again. She hadn't actually spoken to Ffion since last week's row. It hadn't even been a proper row. Carrie had just snapped at her, and hung up. Ffion hadn't even sent a text. 

"Sure..." She sagged, tired and defeated, giving in to the inevitable.

Although fleeches may come in all shapes and sizes, they are all easily recognised by their overwhelming sense of shame.

"I mean, thanks. Thanks for everything." Carrie was close to tears. "It's been a really tough couple of weeks."

A small manicured hand rested warmly on hers. "Hey! It's no problem! If I was stuck in a new town and didn't know anyone..." The other woman shrugged. "How long have you... been living in the house?"

"Since Monday of last week. I can't honestly believe how fast I got this job. I was thinking I'd be looking for ages."

Mercy pursed her lips. "Mm. Well, yeah, we... ah... we get through staff quite quickly in this place." Frowning, she added, "It's a stop-gap job for most people, you know?"

"I'm hoping it's temporary for me too," Carrie said. "Not that it's not a good career option," She realised she didn't know if Mercy was a SupaPrice lifer or not, "But I'd rather go back to my old job. I liked selling insurance."

Mercy's plucked eyebrows shot up. "Really?"

Carrie grinned down at her lap. "What? I wasn't cold-calling. I had a portfolio."

"I don't know, I guess it just sounds a bit boring."

Carrie didn't have an answer to that.

           Mercy ordered the food at the bar, and came back with drinks. Carrie sipped her house white, although she would have been just as happy with lemonade.

"What made you buy it?" Mercy asked, meaning The Crows. She couldn't keep away from that topic of conversation for very long.

Carrie hesitated before answering. She remembered the first time she had seen it - the very first time, before she had set foot in the grounds and felt that deep sense of belonging and ownership and - she hesitated over the word - possession. It had been from the passenger seat of Phil's Mondeo, and they had been hopelessly lost.

Was it fate, Carrie wondered? When she had seen the great crumbling edifice of the grey Dickensian towers and Georgian porch from the hill road, the mess of architecture and decay sprawling over the thorny, overgrown lawns below them, she had felt a definite tug in her chest. It was instantaneous, glorious love. The wrought iron gates were hanging off their hinges and part of the west wing had collapsed into the remains of the glass house, but there was something still soulful about the place. Carrie had been unable to explain it. And when she had made Phil drive down there so that she could get a closer look, her first proper look, and when she stood on the lawn staring up at it, she knew. She just knew. She had to have it, whatever it cost.

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