Upstairs she put the changing mat on their bed and the child on the mat. She wished again it wasn't quite so cold. She would have liked to take her time over this. She took off the boots and snow suit and then a pair of dungarees, pulled off the nappy. She'd been right, it was a boy. When the child was dressed, she lingered again, standing by the window, the boy in her arms, looking out at the snow which had started to fall again, silent and relentless. It occurred to her that Vera wouldn't get out now, even in the old Land Rover, and that the baby would be hers for the night.
'Jules! Where are you, darling?' It was Mark, shouting up the stairs. That false, loving voice he put on for strangers. The actor in him made it entirely credible to his listening audience, but she knew him well enough to hear the irritation. She set the thought aside. Mark was tense, that was all. He'd put so much effort into this evening. It mattered to him and she couldn't spoil it.
'Just coming! We've got rather a mysterious guest. Look, everyone!' She was halfway down the stairs and through the open door; they all stared at her, at the child in her arms.
'Where did you get that?' The question hadn't come from Mark, but from Harriet. Juliet's mother had got up from her chair and moved out into the hall. Even in her late sixties, she was the most beautiful woman in the room. Silver hair, immaculately cut. Eyes icy and blue. A dancer's grace and a model's instinct for the clothes that most suited her. She was looking up at Juliet. 'Is there something you haven't been telling us, darling?' The bad joke took the edge off her original question and the tension in the room dissipated.
'Nah.' It was Vera, who'd emerged from the kitchen and was standing on the edge of the crowd in the hall. 'It belongs to me. Sort of.'
'He.' Juliet turned to Vera and smiled. 'It's definitely a boy.'
'Well, why don't you hand him over then, pet? You don't want your dinner spoiled. Dorothy and I can take care of him. I've put the word out. We should have the car owner traced in no time and your mystery will all be sorted.' Vera turned to face Harriet. 'You probably don't recognize me. I was just a bairn myself last time I was here, or not much more than.' Vera smiled. 'Vera Stanhope. Hector's daughter.'
For a moment Harriet didn't move. Juliet even wondered if there might be a scene, or as close to a scene as her mother could ever contemplate. A snide and disparaging remark about Hector, perhaps, or some comment about Vera's appearance. Instead she decided to be gracious and reached out her hand. 'Vera, what a lovely surprise. No, I didn't recognize you, though I should have done. There's definitely a family likeness. Something about the chin and the forehead. Will you join us for dinner?'
Juliet thought Vera might do the unforgivable and accept the invitation, just to be mischievous, but the woman shook her head. 'I need to find out what happened to this little one's mother. It's not a night for anyone to be traipsing around outside.' She sounded genuinely concerned.
Mark took over then and led the guests into the dining room, where there was another fire. Juliet handed over the baby and followed them in. It did look magnificent. Shadows thrown by candlelight and firelight hid the shabby corners, and the heavy curtains kept out the draughts, which made their way through the ill-fitting sash windows even on the warmest of days. The tablecloth was starched and white and the silver heavy and gleaming. Dorothy had hired in a couple of sixth-formers, daughters of a tenant farmer, to wait at table, slender young women in black dresses and black ballet pumps. According to Dorothy they were Goths during their spare time, so the black clothes hadn't been a problem, but this evening they seemed willowy and charming, insubstantial, more ghost than vampire. Juliet thought of the snow; perhaps they too would need a bed for the night. Thank God for Dorothy. She would already have thought of the problem, had probably even phoned their parents. Without her, this would be a logistical nightmare.
Mark didn't begin his pitch until the meal was almost over. There was port on the table and the remnants of a Northumberland cheese board. They'd decided that everything should be as local as possible. If the Wylam Brewery had made port, they'd be drinking that too. Everyone was relaxed. He stood up and threw a couple more logs on the fire. Juliet watched him from the far end of the table and thought how easily he'd slipped into the role of country gentleman. It was hard to believe that he'd been brought up in a modest semi in one of the suburbs of Newcastle, and that he'd been educated in a state comprehensive. He even looked the part in his rather shabby clothes but fine, handmade shoes. He'd always been a quick learner and had known how to research a character.
His voice was deep and musical; it had been the first thing to attract her. 'Thanks to all our friends for turning out in this beastly weather. I'm sure you can see what a beautiful place this is, even in midwinter. We've decided it's unfair to keep the house to ourselves. How can we justify all this space just for three people?'
Four, Juliet thought, if you count Dorothy. She thought it rather unfair of Mark not to have counted Dorothy, then realized she'd drunk a little too much, because Dorothy of course had a family of her own.
This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Half Moon Bay by Jonathan Kellerman, Jesse Kellerman.