Beauty and danger. How can Henry resist?
Henry had noticed her immediately, on the fringes of the wedding party who’d hijacked the peaceful Clifton Heights hotel just when he needed its calming quiet.
With her abundance of untamed hair, hint of mystery and long flowing gown, this girl could have stepped right out of a Rossetti painting.
He was just locking his room and wondering if it was too late to find another place with such secluded sea views when the elevator doors pinged wide and the Rossetti girl herself burst into the corridor.
At the same moment, a pumpkin-faced man emerged from the stairwell, clearly on the hunt.
“Binky!” he cooed rather drunkenly.
The girl made a beeline for Henry.
“Sorry to bother you,” she gushed, “but would you kiss me?”
And before Henry could say a thing, she was in his arms.
He was dimly aware of someone passing by and Room 24’s handle digging into his backside. Then he couldn’t really concentrate on anything at all…
In what seemed mere seconds, he was free again.
The girl blinked at him, then with a smile and a whispered, “Thank you”, she vanished back into the elevator, leaving Henry wondering if he’d imagined the whole thing.
It was mid-afternoon before he saw her again. She glided towards him through the lounge, enfolding her limbs into the opposite armchair.
“I forgot to introduce myself earlier. I’m Des, short for Desdemona. Thanks again for saving me. That obnoxious man just wouldn’t take no for an answer; that’s what you get for gatecrashing a pre-nuptial lunch party, I suppose.
“Oh, wait. You’re not one of the wedding guests, are you?”
“Most assuredly not.”
“Me either. So what brings you to the Clifton Heights, in that case, Mr…?”
“Blunt, Henry Blunt. I’m just here for a break.”
“From what?” she wondered, leaning forward to rest her chin on one knee.
“Administering my late aunt’s estate.” When she continued to watch him, waiting, he added, “I’m a solicitor.”
“Ah. That explains the weary look.”
Henry bridled instinctively, then remembered the face that had peered from the mirror this morning. He was weary, but of what, he couldn’t quite say.
This ennui had been creeping up on him until now, at the prime of his life, he felt he’d been strenuously climbing a mountain only to find that the view at the top hadn’t been worth the effort.
“So what do we think?” Desdemona asked, rolling her eyes at a spot over her shoulder. “Harmless old lady trying a new craft, or a disciple of Wicca taking her revenge for an unpaid debt?”
Henry glanced across to where an elderly woman sat twisting strands of grass into some sort of woven dolly.
“Let me guess,” he said drily. “You’re a crime fiction fan.”
Desdemona shrugged gracefully.
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact. And wouldn’t this secluded hotel be perfect for an Agatha Christie crime?
“But that’s not why I asked about Madame. It’s a game I play whenever I’m among strangers; I invent tales of what they do in life and why they might be in a particular place.”
She laughed at his sombre expression. “What? Don’t you ever let your imagination loose?”
“Yet you’re reading some of the most romantic, creative words ever written.”
Henry frowned at the small poetry book in his hands.
“It’s one of my aunt’s,” he muttered.
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less travelled by.” Desdemona sent him an encouraging smile that did uncomfortable things to his insides. “Go on – try it. Invent an interesting story about a total stranger.”
Reluctantly, Henry allowed his gaze to sweep the sparsely inhabited lounge, finally coming back to rest on her.
“OK, how about this? Pretty girl in a floral dress. Has she come to paint the stunning coastline, or to expose a cheating ex-lover’s broken promises?”
She clapped her hands delightedly.
“Well done! A few more stories like that and you’ll be thinking life is beautiful again.”
He stared at her, wondering if she could see inside his soul.
To avoid the wedding celebrations, Henry decided to eat in his room. He had a nice little balcony from where he could catch a glimpse of the sea, and enjoy his Dover sole and a chilled glass of Riesling as the sun set.
He’d just freshened up when someone hammered on his door.
“I need your help,” Desdemona gasped, closing his door to collapse back against it.
“You remember earlier, I said about Agatha Christie? Well…”
She reached into her mackintosh pocket and when her fingers re-emerged, a glistening pearl necklace dangled from them.
Henry drew in a whistling breath.
“Wow. I’m guessing that’s not yours.”
“Of course not! But it’s in my pocket.”
“How did it get there?”
“You tell me. I’m all for adventure, but this is serious. Someone is going to miss this very soon and kick up a fuss.”
“We have to report this to the police.”
The colour fled her cheeks.
“You’re not serious? It’s my coat!”
“So? I imagine the cloakroom is full of wedding guests’ wraps and things, and when you’re in a rush, it must be quite easy to mistake one shiny black coat for another.”
“Have you ever mistaken someone’s pocket for your own?”
“No, but then I don’t have a guilty conscience. Now, when was the last time you wore the macintosh?”
“This afternoon, out on the cliffs.”
“And you left it in the cloakroom when you returned?”
“Yes, it’s easier when you’re flitting in and out. At this time of year, you never know when it’s going to rain.”
“And then you put it on again this evening?” Harry surmised.
“Yes, Hercule Poirot. I like to take a walk after dinner, but before I could go anywhere, I felt this thing weighing me down.
“Look, I think the police will find it hard to believe that a thief, having gone to the trouble of stealing a valuable necklace, would then be stupid enough to stash it in the wrong place!
“And I wouldn’t blame them. It’s a lot easier to point the finger at a lowly shopkeeper than the type of high society folk staying here this weekend.”
“You own a shop? What kind?”
“Vintage clothing, boudoir antiques.”
“Ah – I thought you looked a little Mary Quant.”
“And I think we’re wandering from the point here…”
She widened her eyes.
“You needn’t be afraid,” Henry reassured her. “I’m a solicitor, remember? I’d protect you.”
She paused to blink at him.
“You would? How sweet! But still, no police. I… I have a bit of a record.”
She began to pleat the hem of her coat.
“I was only thirteen and trying to get in with the It crowd, you see. They dared me to shoplift and… well, I got caught.”
“What exactly did you steal?”
“One of those nodding dogs, you know, for car dashboards.”
Henry hid a sudden grin.
“I see. In that case, we’ll have to hand it over to the new Mr and Mrs instead.”
Desdemona looked horrified.
“And ruin her big day? We’re the only ones in this hotel who aren’t connected to the wedding. If it isn’t us, then the thief is one of the Fenton-Leas’ own friends or relatives. Is that the sort of happy memories you want to leave them with?”
“So,” said Henry resignedly, “if you don’t want to report it to anyone, what do you want to do?”
“Will you come and find somewhere to deposit this where it can be… found?”
“Without anyone being called to account for trying to steal it, you mean?”
“Exactly!” She beamed at him.
The party was in full swing, Clifton’s dining room transformed into a fairy grotto, heavy on the crystal and cava lilies.
“Why don’t we just slip the necklace into one of the other macs?” Desdemona suggested in a whisper.
Henry steered her round a waiter with a tray of champagne flutes balanced on clawed fingers.
“That would be as bad as whoever put it into yours.”
Next moment, he found himself shoved into an alcove, Desdemona’s warm body pressed tight against him.
“What on earth…?”
“Quick, kiss me!”
“But there’s no-one out there.”
Desdemona’s smile was wicked.
“There doesn’t have to be for me to want a kiss…”
A few hot, breathless moments later, Henry pulled himself away.
“Much as I’m enjoying this, there’s a necklace burning a hole in my pocket…”
Taking her hand, he led Desdemona through to the dance floor.
The band was playing Frank Sinatra. Desdemona melted into Henry’s arms.
“You’re rather a dark horse, aren’t you, Henry Blunt? Are you some kind of undercover spy beneath all the stiffness, here to recover from a secret mission?”
Henry whirled her towards the open French windows.
“Sorry to disappoint, but I’m just a solicitor, specialising in soul-destroying divorce settlements.”
As unobtrusively as he could, he followed the guests spilling onto the terrace to dance and drink the night away with the shimmering sea as a backdrop.
“Ah, that should do it.”
He swayed over to the terrace edge and a clipped hedge sculpture. The huge pot it perched in was scattered with white decorative stones.
Henry dipped Desdemona over his arm and at the same time, slipped the necklace behind a solar light pushed into the soil.
Desdemona sighed as he drew her upright, whether because he’d let go of her or the necklace, he couldn’t be sure.
It was a simple stumble that brought the “case” to a close.
The best man and a bridesmaid mistimed a Viennese waltz and crashed into the pot, sending soil, stones and one shimmering pearl necklace skidding across the terrace.
In the ensuing commotion, the necklace was incredulously claimed by the groom’s grandmother, who couldn’t even recall putting it on that evening!
Her husband explained how absent-minded she’d become these days, and that this sort of incident was precisely why he’d suggested she put her valuables in hotel safes from now on…
When the knock came, Henry was waiting for it. Desdemona leaned listlessly against his doorframe.
“So that’s the end of our adventure.”
Henry pushed the door wide, lifting his arm for her to duck under.
“If it’s any consolation, I was very tempted to keep the necklace; those pearls would suit someone like you far better. Would you care to finish our dance? I find I like the feel of you in my arms.”
Desdemona peered at him.
“Have you been drinking?”
“Not yet,” he said, “but I mean to.” He poured out two flutes of champagne.
“So,” she sighed after a long bubbly sip, “all’s well that ends well.”
“You sound disappointed.”
“I am, a little. It was fun sneaking around together. Now it’s over, and so quietly, it’s all a bit of an anti-climax.”
Henry plucked the flute from her fingers and drew her close.
“Don’t speak too soon. It’s a long time ’til dawn…”
In a never-ending sky stretching out to sea, the faraway stars glittered like so many opalescent pearls.
In Clifton’s dining room, the band continued to serenade drooping guests, while up on the balcony of Room 24, Des snuggled against Henry’s solid chest.
Her shoes lay discarded beside his jacket and an empty champagne bottle.
For the first time in forever, she felt safe. No, more than that, she felt grounded.
She’d always been a free spirit, like her nomadic hippy parents, but now all she wanted was to stretch like a spoilt, satisfied cat.
Who would have guessed that beneath the stiff collar and sensible brogues, Henry Blunt was a fiery, fascinating being just waiting for the right match to set
She’d come to the hotel with quite a different agenda, a last hurrah for the restless light-fingered girl who’d ridden her luck long enough.
But she’d not been able to resist the strange pull of this man, got careless and nearly lost everything.
In the end, it didn’t matter, for she was saved and the real prize was here, keeping her warm.
“Stay with me,” he’d whispered to her beneath the bedclothes. “We’ll take the road less travelled by.”
She sighed contentedly, smiling in the dark as Henry kissed her hair.
One day, she’d tell him who really stole that necklace. One day…
We’ll share another crime themed story from our archives every Monday and Thursday throughout March. Watch out for the next one!