Can a phone call change your world forever? It did Grace Latimer's. Despite a smart home in Hampstead, a seemingly caring partner and a job that keeps her busy, she is dissatisfied. The house isn’t hers, she finds her work tedious and she is beginning to feel uncomfortably controlled by her partner. When Nick Heysham catapults into her life with a request that she help him complete a contract, she is ready to listen. What she doesn't know is that her search for influential architect, Lucas Royde, and his missing plans for the 1851 Great Exhibition, is set to uncover a Victorian tragedy of desire and disgrace. Nor that the quest will force her to face the truth of her own life.
And this is an extract from the beginning of the novel. I hope you'll want to read on!
I could never have guessed that one single phone call would change my life.
The voice was a little too energetic for this early in the morning. ‘Hi there! Grace Latimer?'
I held the receiver at a distance and took a gulp of strong coffee. 'Speaking.’
'Hi! This is Nick Heysham. You probably don't remember me.’ No, I thought, I don't.
'We met at the Papillon – the Gorski retrospective last month.'
I searched my barely functioning brain for some remembrance of the name but none came.
'A little amateur sleuthing, no more.'
There was a deep intake of breath at the other end of the line. 'It's like this… I've been asked to do a job, a research job, and I'm having real problems. I think you could sort it for me.’
'And why would that be?'
less than ten minutes and now had problems, was expecting me to ride to his rescue.
'I remember you were a pretty impressive woman, amazing qualifications and so on. In historical research - and that's what I need.’ His voice sounded pleased that he'd explained everything to my satisfaction.
'Nick. I thought you might be interested. It's the Great Exhibition.'
'What about the Great Exhibition?' I knew I should put the phone down but I couldn't prevent a small surge of interest. If I’m honest, it was more than a small surge, since I’d written extensivelyon the Exhibition. Before I settled for an easier life, that is.
'Missing plans,' he said hopefully. 'Lucas Royde?'
‘Can you be more precise?’
I didn’t but his words had got me thinking. Was there really anything in this or was I just willing there to be? I was debating with myself whether or not I should simply bid him a curt farewell when he seized on my silence.
'Not today then. But tomorrow perhaps?'
I think my sigh was audible but I didn’t much care. ‘I’m at the gallery tomorrow. I can give you a few minutes after work.’ A thumping headache and the faintest hint of a mystery were sufficient, it seemed, to ensure my surrender. My easy life must be more of a wasteland than I'd realised.
'Six o'clock at the wine bar.’ I knew my brusqueness would make no impression and it didn’t.
'Great. Thanks Grace - see you there.'
I sat holding the receiver for some time. Nick Heysham might be perfectly harmless, just a tad eccentric and overly enthusiastic. On the other hand, he might be a clever manipulator and turn out to be the stalker from hell. I shouldn't have agreed to go. Perhaps I should run it by Oliver first. No, I wouldn't do that. Too much of my life was already run by Oliver. Not that I wasn’t grateful to him. He’d been immensely generous, kind too, but he was a man who liked to control events, control people. The call had come unscripted, out of nowhere, and that was its appeal. That and the smallest possibility of uncovering something new. The researcher in me had risen to the bait and a small voice had whispered that, even at this late stage, I might take the art world by storm. Despite Oliver’s reservations. And if nothing else, finding a missing piece of Victorian art might help to bolster my spirits. They were worryingly dismal these days and they shouldn’t be. For the first time in my life I had security and the love of a good man. That should be enough and yet somehow it wasn't.
I turned back to the papers on my desk and the letter from Marigold Carmichael surfaced from the pile where I'd carefully hidden it two days ago. There was no escape from the latest in a long line of complaints from this most demanding of clients. It seemed that Mrs Carmichael had become newly enraged by my suggestion that the 'original features' of White Heather Cottage had been added some time in the 1950s. Naturally she was gathering expert opinion to disprove my theory. No wonder I felt apathy seeping into every crevice of my life. It wasn't just Marigold Carmichael and her ilk. What kind of a job was it researching the history of other people's houses, most of them vastly uninteresting except to their owners? No kind of job was the answer. Not at least for a woman facing the watershed of thirty. A stop-gap, a dead end, until the next foreign buying trip, the next gallery event, when for a short time I would blossom at the head of Professor Oliver Brooke’s entourage. I wasn’t sure how I’d walked into this life. I used to have plans, ambitious plans, but then Oliver had come along and somehow they had been put on hold. I hadn’t exactly protested: it had seemed simpler that way and after the turmoil, a simple life was what I’d craved. But simple had gradually metamorphosed into dreary and I had only myself to blame.
By ten minutes past six the following evening, Nick Heysham had not made an appearance. The bar was already humming, excited chatter almost drowning the wail from the stereo system. I was hoping that no-one from the Papillon would decide they needed a drink before they left for home but just in case I’d found a seat in one of the darker enclaves where I wouldn’t be spotted. I’d spent a frustrating afternoon at the gallery and had no wish to encounter any of Oliver’s colleagues again. I’m sure they saw me as an interloper whose visits merely interrupted their pleasant routines. I was still trying to tidy up paperwork from the Gorski show but getting their co-operation was painful and I’d managed to do almost nothing.
‘Sorry I'm late.’ Nick Heysham emerged from behind the palm, breathing heavily. 'I lost a wheel on the corner of Gosset Street.'
'Bike. Remember I work for a pittance.'
‘What's happened to the bike?'
His nonchalance in the face of potential death made me blink but he appeared wholly unperturbed. He was dressed in frayed jeans and a tee shirt that proclaimed Same Shirt, Different Day. At least they looked clean. He glanced briefly at my empty glass and ordered two large glasses of white wine. I was about to quarrel with this high handed behaviour when I took a sip. It was surprisingly mellow. He might be short of money, very short by the look of him, but somewhere in the past he'd acquired a knowledge of good wine.
He smiled engagingly and I found myself drawn into studying his face. He was eminently paintable. A strong jawline, dark hair and very blue eyes. He could have sat for a study of any Romantic poet, except for the expression. That was as far from soulful as you could get.
‘Thanks for coming,' he repeated and I realised just how hard I'd been staring. I flushed with annoyance.
'I've only got half an hour so you better fill me in on details.’ I sounded ungracious.
'Of course I've heard of him. He was probably the most influential of all Victorian architects.'
‘Like I told you on the phone, they want to focus on Royde’s beginning rather than his final years. So the design has to be his earliest project - that's the problem.'
‘Hey, you're pretty good.’ He smiled his approval. 'An Italianate chapel Royde designed for the Earl of Carlyon.'
‘Forgive me, Nick,' I steepled fingertips together in deliberation, 'but you seem to have only the haziest idea about Royde. Why would the Royde Society ask you to research his plans?'
He looked a little self-conscious. 'My sister works in events management. They asked her to come up with the goods. And she asked me.'
'Pure nepotism, I'm afraid. But I need the money. And I am a freelance writer with plenty of research under my belt. Lucy thought I could manage it. I thought so, too, but it turns out that I can't. And that’s a shame because I've just about got through the pleasantly large cheque from Art Matters.'
'Idid a series of profiles on significant Eastern European artists. Gorski was the last.'
‘Yes, I need to find those plans for the pavilion - if they exist.'
‘So I gathered from the net but not all of them, it seems. That's the difficulty. They have the stuff on the Carlyon chapel but nothing earlier.'
‘The Society is convinced there was. They reckon Royde spent a couple of years in Italy, Lombardy I think it was then, coming back to England around 1850 and then getting involved in some way with the Great Exhibition. They imagine he was engaged to design one of the hundreds of display spaces. But I can't find a trace.'
‘So what do you want from me?'
He exuded a confidence I didn't feel. I sipped my wine slowly while I thought it over. Did I really want to get involved? All I could do was conduct the same search in which Nick had already failed. It was unlikely to yield a different result, although it was possible a specialist's eye might alight on something he'd missed. I knew I was probably fooling myself but even so I couldn’t prevent a slight frisson of anticipation.
His face smiled pure pleasure. 'You're a pal,' he said breezily. 'And if you do come up with anything, I'll stand you another drink.'
‘That goes without saying,' and for the first time I allowed myself to smile back at him. I could see that he was momentarily stunned by the difference. I've been told that I look ten years younger when I smile and a great deal more fun. And my eyes which often seem misty and indeterminate become an electrifying green. I watched his stupefaction with some amusement.
‘How long have you been a freelance writer?' It was time to lighten the atmosphere.
My eyebrows must have risen and his voice became defensive. 'Four years, may be a bit more. I've never had what you'd call a 'proper' job.'
‘Nor me,' I confessed.
‘How come? You look pretty well set-up.'
But what about the gallery? Don't you work there?'
‘Odds and ends when I'm needed. My main role is hostess at events like the Gorski. Oliver Brooke owns and runs the gallery. Actually he runs three galleries, the one here in London, one in Bristol and one he's just opened in Newcastle.'
'So why, if it's not an indelicate question, aren't you involved in running any of these galleries multiplying across the face of England?'
Nick finished his wine before he said flatly, 'He's your partner.’
'How did you meet?'
I wished I hadn't told him that. He was a stranger and here I was spilling personal information all over the place. I tried to change the subject.
'Bits and pieces. It doesn't amount to much.’
'That's where you're wrong. I know very well. You must have to take on other jobs - unless you have a wealthy family supporting you.'
'And your sister? She hasn't followed in his footsteps either it seems.’
'Hardly. Art Matters is a prestigious magazine. If they thought you were good enough to publish, you should get other offers.'
'That's what I thought but it hasn't happened. I've been hanging around on the off chance that some eager editor will get in touch - I've written a corker on art fraud in Romania - but no-one's interested. So it’s back to waiting tables very soon.'
'Iallowed myself a slight smile since that was precisely what I did think. In response he leaned across the table, his body tense. 'I figured that if you looked through the stuff at the V and A and came to the same conclusion, then I'd be justified in telling the Royde Society that earlier plans simply don't exist.'
'If they do pay out when they get the news - I'm not convinced - these cultural societies are often tightwads. Anyway, if they do pay, I'll stand you dinner.'
'My reward is rising all the time. How can I refuse?' It was a very slight mystery but any mystery was an event in my present limbo and there was always a chance that I might strike gold. ‘I’ll have a look through the V and A archive once I've settled Mrs Carmichael,' I found myself saying.
He got up to go, pulling down the tee shirt that had ridden up over what was a neatly compact body.
'Thanks Grace, you're about to save a dying man,' and started off at a sprint.
'Please. Do I have a card?!'
He grabbed the menu and looked hopefully around for a pen, as if one might materialise out of the air.
'And I'll have it back.’ He was halfway to the door again.
Perhaps not such a joke. Nick Heysham appeared to live on the edge of respectability. Oliver would not approve. He would see him as a liability and wonder why I'd taken it into my head to befriend him. But when I broached the subject over dinner that evening, he seemed relaxed about the idea of my undertaking research for someone I hardly knew and without any likely recompense. His mind was on other things.
'I've an idea to move the Gorski up to Newcastle next month.’ He absently stroked the small, spiky beard he'd managed to grow in recent weeks. 'The exhibition worked brilliantly at the Papillon and we did a good deal of extra business from it.’
'Itwas a foolish thing to say. Oliver is very strong on the notion of 'art for the people'. But at the same time he’s good at spotting the next big thing, which is why he lives in a large house in Hampstead and drives a top of the range Mercedes.
'Don't be snobbish, darling. The art world there is buzzing. Think of the Baltic, the Laing, the Shipley.'
I thought about them while he began to clear the table.
'Yes, of course to Newcastle,' he sounded a trifle impatient at my obtuseness. 'If the exhibition is as successful as I expect, we must celebrate.'
'We could travel on from Newcastle. We haven't had a real holiday for a long time and we'd enjoy a few days in the Highlands.'
I tried to smile back convincingly but wondered why Oliver always talked about “we”. He made the decisions and I went along with them. It was feeble but I wasn’t going to feel ashamed at taking the easy road: the past was still written large in my mind. And as it looked as though I was shortly to be hoisted northwards, I'd better get on with Nick's research as soon as possible. I knew for a fact that there were volumes of papers involved in the Great Exhibition and they would all need to be checked. Once Mrs Carmichael was placated. And she would be. Tomorrow.