Maria placed the hotpot in the Rayburn, washed her hands at the sink, then moved to the living room and gazed through the French windows.
She had never been in any doubt about their move to the country, and the past few days had confirmed her conviction that she and Donald were doing the right thing.
She had taken a fortnight off work to settle into Yew Tree Cottage and begin the laborious task of unpacking. The move from London had gone well, and on entering the property on Monday morning, Maria had not been beset with the second thoughts or despondency that had accompanied other house moves in the past. Mrs Ashton had left the place spick and span, along with a bottle of Bordeaux and a card wishing them well.
Added to that, over the course of the past few days Maria had greeted a procession of neighbours who introduced themselves and welcomed her and Donald to the village.
She looked down the length of the snow-covered back garden to the stream glinting beyond a stand of willows and elms. In the distance, she made out the imposing bulk of Standing Stone Manor, smoke rising vertically from one of its many chimneys.
Hugging herself, she turned and regarded the room. Not for the first time since the move, she felt a certain euphoria, a happiness she could only put down to the thought of her and Donald making their home in Yew Tree Cottage.
In the past, she had always preferred large, airy rooms, but over the course of the last few evenings, snuggling down on the sofa before the roaring fire, she had come to appreciate the long, low-ceilinged room, with its blackened oak beams and old-fashioned fleur-de-lis wallpaper. What was more, it was proving to be a warm house—dispelling Donald's prognostication that it would be an ice-box. The Rayburn heated a couple of radiators, one in the kitchen and the other in the room that would be his study, and open fires in the living room and master bedroom provided sufficient warmth if they were lit early enough.
They had managed to make four rooms habitable—the living room, kitchen, dining room and master bedroom. The others, including the study, were piled high with cardboard boxes and packing crates, many of them containing books.
From the mantelpiece, she took down a handwritten card that had dropped through the letterbox that morning.
Wellspring Farm, Crooked Lane
Wonderful to have new blood in the village. We're having a little dinner do on Friday night at eight. Do come.
Mr and Mrs Richard Wellbourne
The telephone bell shrilled, startling her. She plucked up the receiver and settled herself on the sofa before the fire. 'Ingoldby four-five-two,' she said. 'Maria speaking.'
'Darling,' Donald said. 'Why is it that, down the phone, your voice sounds so husky and sensual, like melted chocolate?'
'Donald,' she laughed, 'you're drunk!'
'And so would you be if you'd just undergone a liquid lunch with your editor and agent.'
'How is Charles?'
'On top form. Just back from a short break in Paris with Albert and singing its praises.'
'How did the editorial meeting go?'
'Good news in that department, old girl. I don't know how he did it, but Charles has secured a three-book deal from Worley and Greenwood, with an increased advance and higher royalties.'
'You clever man!' Maria said, smiling to herself. The previous week, Charles had told her that sales of Donald's latest thriller had exceeded all expectations, and that better terms were therefore in the offing.
'You're not working too hard, are you?' he asked.
'I've unpacked a few more boxes and made a hotpot for dinner. I hope you haven't eaten too much for lunch?'
'No fear. The portions at Greenwood's favourite haunt are minuscule. Look here, take it easy this afternoon. No more unpacking until tomorrow, and we'll do it together.'