She wasn’t what he’d expected. Sarah could see that straight off, from the way his eyes widened and his mouth dropped open slightly before he smiled and opened the door wider.
“Come in, come in. Would you like a cup of something? Tea—”
“Just water, please,” Sarah said, and stepped into the narrow little entrance hall of the cottage.
He, on the other hand, was exactly what she’d expected when she’d seen the advert in the local paper: Retired professor seeks part-time housekeeping help. Sandy, thinning hair, faded blue eyes, glasses he’d pushed up onto his forehead and seemingly forgotten about. He wore an old jumper that was threadbare at the elbows, and baggy chinos that had mud on the knees. A pair of dirty Wellington boots stood by the door, along with some ancient, cracked gardening gloves.
“Sorry,” he said, following her gaze to the boots and the gloves. “I’d thought I’d dig over one of the flower beds and completely lost track of time.”
“It’s all right,” Sarah answered, smiling. The boots looked right there somehow, by the door. She liked them there, liked the whole picture of cozy, cottage life his home presented. It was what she wanted, why she’d answered this advert.
He fetched a glass of water and led her into a conservatory in the back of the cottage that overlooked a long, narrow garden that ran right down to the river. Most of it was overgrown grass and a wintry tangle of untidy flowerbeds, but he’d clearly been making an inexpert stab at one of the beds nearest the house.
He followed her gaze once again with a wry shake of his head. “It’s a disaster, I know. My wife used to take care of it all but I haven’t done any gardening since—” He stopped, abruptly, but Sarah could guess. Since she died. She felt her heart twist in sympathy.
He cleared his throat. “So, Miss Tyson—”
“Please, call me Sarah.”
“Sarah,” he amended with a smile, “I must admit, you’re not what I expected.”
“You’re very young—”
“Twenty-three, Mr. Lanford.”
“Please, call me Peter.” She just nodded. It didn’t feel right somehow, to call him by his first name. Not yet. “Not many young people in the village these days,” Peter said with a wistful sigh. “My children have all left, you know.”
“I’ve just moved here.”
“Oh?” Interest lit his eyes, made them bluer. “Where, exactly?”
“I spent a year teaching English in Japan, but my father was in foreign service, a diplomat. I’ve lived all over the place, really.”
He looked, as most people did when she said this, both impressed and at a loss for words. “Fascinating,” he finally murmured and Sarah nodded, kept her smile friendly, firm. Fascinating to people on the outside, she knew. She’d spent two years each in Athens, Addis Abba, Lima, and Berlin. But it had been lonely and isolating to a child actually living in those places. She’d never had a home, nothing even close, unless you counted soulless rented villas in gated communities. In her memory she couldn’t distinguish the one in Greece from the one in Ethiopia.
“And so what has brought you to this little corner of Gloucestershire?”
“I was born here.” He looked surprised, so she clarified, “My parents moved abroad when I was two. But I lived in a little cottage at the end of the street for those first two years. Piper Cottage.”
“Of course. It’s a rental.”
“Yes.” Her life, Sarah thought, had been one of rentals. Of impermanence, everything temporary, changing, disposable. She wanted that to change, and this was the only way she knew how. She didn’t have the emotional or financial resources for anything more.
Peter gazed at her for a moment, a wrinkle furrowing his forehead. “And you have experience…”
“I was teaching English, but I’m happy to turn my hand to just about anything,” Sarah said. In other words, she had no practical housekeeping experience. “I’m capable of whatever you need me to do.”
“I’m sure you are.”
She raised her eyebrows, still smiling. “A little housework, ironing, some occasional cooking…?”
He laughed self-consciously. “That’s about it, yes…”
“I make a mean omelet.”
He laughed again, shaking his head. “It’s not that I don’t think you’re capable, Miss—”
“Sarah,” he agreed with a nod. “But you’re so young. Are you sure you’ll want to stay in such a small village as this? There’s not much going on—”
“That’s fine with me. I’m not looking for excitement.” I just want a place I can call home. The bedsit she’d rented in the nearest market town wouldn’t be it, but this might be. She glanced outside; a few robins perched on the edge of a ancient-looking birdbath, and a wrought iron garden bench was lit by the pale, wintry sunlight. “I’ve always wanted to come back here, you know, and see the first place I called home.” And perhaps the only place.
“Are your parents still abroad?”
She tensed, hating this question. The answer made people so very uncomfortable. “No, they’re not abroad.”
“Retired, eh?” He smiled in a familiar way, no doubt imagining her parents in a cottage much like this one, pruning roses and watching the afternoon drama on ITV3. Sarah shook her head.
“No, I’m afraid they’re dead.” Her tone was one of apology; she always felt this need to say sorry for making someone so uncomfortable, as if she’d said the wrong thing.
“Oh, my dear!” Peter’s face had slackened with surprise before his eyes glinted with understanding. “I’m so sorry. I know all about grief. My wife…” He paused, shook his head, and then cleared his throat.
Sarah shifted in her seat, longing for the conversation to move on. And thankfully, Peter must have sensed that, or perhaps he felt it himself. In any case he smiled and said in a tone with a touch too much heartiness, “Well, we can give it a try, can’t we?”
Sarah felt the relief, a sweet, cold rush, slip through her. “Yes,” she agreed, “we can.”