020 Orders From Above: Episode 20 ‘the master craftsman’

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

master craftsman.jpg

It was yet again time to visit Ham-Under-Lymfold and Nigel set off with his usual reluctance. Since that horrible meeting about Sins and Virtues, he particularly dreaded an encounter with Lorelei Dove in case the angels had succeeded in with their horrible plan.

But he had to keep a regular check on what was happening at the mill. When the angels had demanded the work be done to ridiculous deadlines, Nigel had retorted that if anyone in the building trade could start within days of asking it could only be because they were cowboys. This had been met with one of Nick’s insufferable grins, and sure enough, as Nigel had found telephone numbers and made calls from his secret behind-the-wall space in his London office, everybody but everybody had said they were available to start on the date he specified. And for very reasonable rates too. Nigel hadn’t missed how surprised they sounded by their own promises.

The old stone bridge had been widened and strengthened to make it suitable for vehicles as well as people on foot, and Nigel drove across and parked to the right of the mill, next to a white van. He could see on the dashboard two empty plastic cups stained with strong, orange-coloured tea, and a newspaper, carelessly folded to the sports pages.

Scaffolding surrounded the building, men in hard hats milled around, and a large skip was fast filling up. The clear, cold air rang with the sounds of hammering, sawing, drilling, whistling, occasional swearing and a commercial radio station that bellowed out appallingly bad local adverts after every third song.

Nigel put on his own hard hat and high-vis yellow jacket and looked up with approval at the reclaimed slate tiles that covered the roof and then strolled inside, trying not to remember the day he had stepped through the portal to the other, immaculate interior that Nick and Gabe inhabited.

He had a good look around and spoke to some of the builders, satisfied to find that all was going to plan and the work was being done to an extremely high standard. It was all going so well, in fact, he felt confident that he could get some more tradesmen lined up so there would be no hiatus in the mill’s progress.

Needing a quiet place to consult the plans and make some notes, he decided to leave his car and take a walk to the cafe.

Gwen Perkins carried over Nigel’s order of coffee and chocolate cake. On the plate was a generous slice of a rich, dark sponge, its top smothered with deep swirls of chocolate frosting. “A new recipe Glen came up with. He’s trying to come up with a name for it,” Gwen said, “It’s got chilli in it, would you believe, but I promise you, it’s absolutely divine.” She asked him if Amelia was well and if she’d be visiting the village again soon, and then, indicating his laptop and the papers he’d spread on the table, said she’d leave him in peace.

Nigel forked in a generous mouthful of the cake and almost swooned at how wonderful and delicious it tasted. He had an idea and called out to Mrs. Perkins: “Why don’t you have a little competition for someone to find a name for it?”

“What a wonderful idea! We could get a few leaflets printed and put a box here on the counter for customers to post their suggestions.”

“And maybe the prize could be a whole cake to take home?”

“Oh, Nigel, thank you! And I’ll ask Debbie to go and talk to Freddie about producing a poster or two to put in the window here and in the pub. He’s very good with computers.” Gwen looked over her shoulder to check no-one else was in earshot, then lowering her voice, confided with a wink:  “Between you and me, I think my Debbie is a bit sweet on him.”

As she bustled off to put the suggestion to Glen, Nigel switched on his laptop and called up the section dealing with the restaurant’s décor. Amelia had adored putting it all together, everything from the plaster finishes, the colour schemes, tables and chairs, soft furnishings, lighting, flooring, et cetera. The only thing she had not had any say in was the front decoration of the bar, for this was to be three panels of hand-carved ebony, designed by Nick.

Nick had provided Nigel with several detailed drawings, and he and Amelia had agreed that it was a fantastic design. Very intricate, very delicate, it took a lot of concentration, and not a little insider knowledge, to see that its four sections were actually a metaphorical depiction of The Fall, as it had been shown to Nigel on that extraordinary film. The far left section showed a host of winged and robed angels surrounded by sunbeams. The next section showed Gabriel and Lucifer standing side by side, clutching each other’s sleeve, staring down into a smoking pit. The third part was mostly a complicated pattern of loops and whorls, but, in its centre, there was a large disc, engraved with flowers. The far right section was of flames and writhing human figures being tormented by behorned imps with pitchforks.

It reminded him of those puzzles that have to be looked at in a cross-eyed way in order to see a black and white 3-D picture emerge from a mass of coloured dots, and Nigel knew that it would only take a couple of people to work out the carving and it would quickly become a major talking point which would, very probably, bring in more people who wanted to see it for themselves.

Only Uri was good enough to create such a thing, and Nigel was looking forward to seeing him to deliver the drawings as soon as he’d finished the wonderful cake. In fact, it was so wonderful he contemplated having a second slice, but his stomach was full and the teapot was empty, so he reluctantly got up to leave. As he paid Gwen Perkins she said, “We’d like to thank you for your idea, so next time Amelia is with you please come and have tea and cake on the house.”

It was drizzling with rain by the time he arrived at the old grey vicarage. Uri’s tiny cottage could only be reached through a side gate into the garden, but this was locked so Nigel knocked on the vicarage door. Hartley, wiping his hands on a striped tea towel, beamed a very warm welcome when he saw Nigel on his doorstep.

“You’re back with us, then? How are you?”

“I’m very well, thank you. Can you tell me how I can get to Uri’s place, please? The gate is locked.”

Hartley stepped away from the door and bid Nigel to come in out of the increasing rain. “Ah, well now, Uri, yes, actually he’s in the garden, tackling the rhododendrons which have gone rather wild, but Heaven knows why he wants to be out in this weather. Why don’t you go through to the kitchen and I’ll call him in. Would you like some tea?”

“Er, thank you, but I don’t want to put you to any trouble. I’ll just go and find Uri, if you’ll point the way?”

Hartley’s blue eyes twinkled. “Heavens, there’s no need for that! It’s time he had a break and you can talk to him here, in the warm and dry.” He lowered his voice, “I happen to know that Uri does not bother with heating, hardly comfortable for a chat. No, much better in here, beside my Aga.”

Nigel followed the vicar across the black and white tiled floor of the gloomy, high-ceilinged entrance hall to a very large kitchen that hadn’t been updated since about 1958. There were no fitted units, just a miscellany of cupboards and drawers and a big, very scratched pine table. The only modern thing in there, looking very conspicuous, was a huge, American-style double-door fridge. The lino on the floor was cracked and worn right through in places, it’s original sky-blue only visible in one or two spots under the table. The porcelain sink had a line of rust running down from the cold tap, and an old boiler fixed to the wall spat hot water through a long, lime-covered spout. But it was homely and the Aga threw out a welcome warmth.

Hartley gestured to him to take a chair, saying, “I think you know my niece, Lorelei? And this is her fiancé, Dr. Stephen George. I’ll just go and give Uri a call, then I’ll make a fresh pot of tea.”

Startled at coming into contact with Lorelei unprepared and so soon, Nigel took a moment to recover his wits and say hello; she didn’t look any different and he dared to hope that the angels had decided to leave her alone after all.

Hartley, having yelled at the top of his lungs to Uri, who was working somewhere deep in the bushes that lined the long garden, asked Nigel, “Have you heard about the coin?”

“The one found in the graveyard? No, I haven’t heard anything.”

“Well, it’s fantastic news! Stephen here took it to a coin expert, and it turns out be rare and worth quite a lot of money.”

“More than quite a lot, Hartley,” said Stephen, “Several thousand is the estimate.”

“Really?” said Nigel, “That’s fantastic. Does the money come to you or to the diocese?”

“Oh, to the diocese I should think, but the village church will get a large chunk of it as the coin was found here. There’s an auction fee, of course, but whatever we get it will be very welcome. The coin is going be sold in London, but not for a month or so as it’s still being examined by various other experts. Stephen has kindly offered to take us to the sale rooms and watch it go under the hammer.”

Nigel noticed that Lorelei never took her eyes from her fiancé, and Stephen George clasped her hand as if their palms were super-glued together. It was delightful to see two people so very much in love.

The handyman arrived at the door and removed his damp cloth cap, before unlacing and removing his muddy boots.

“Come on in, my good fellow, sit down with Lorelei and Stephen and get yourself warm. Here’s Mr. Hellion-Rees to see you.” As he talked, Hartley put a huge blackened kettle onto the Aga and dropped teabags into a battered metal teapot.

Uri didn’t take Nigel’s proffered hand, but held both of his up to show that they were very dirty and he needed to wash them. He scrubbed them well in the kitchen sink, and dried them on a small pink towel. Nigel surreptitiously watched him, wondering what the others would think if they were ever to discover Uri’s true identity. And Gabe’s and Nick’s, of course.

There was a smaller table to the left of the Aga, with a wheelback chair on one side and a three-legged stool on the other. On the table a game of chess was in progress. Uri studied the board as he dried his hands, then moved one of the pieces.

“Oh, Uri, not the bishop, I hoped you wouldn’t spot that!” cried Hartley, bumbling around with cups and saucers. He tipped an assortment of biscuits from a large tin onto a plate, then said to Nigel, “After tea you can use my office, if you’d like to talk in private.”

“Oh no,” protested Nigel, “that’s very kind of you, but I’m only here to ask Uri if he’ll do a piece of work for the mill, a carving designed by Nick De Angelo for the bar. I’ve brought the drawings.”

“Oh, how exciting!” said the vicar, “Have you seen everything Uri’s made since he’s been here? Bird tables, fruit bowls, walking sticks, even a garden bench, and they’re all magnificent.”

Uri gave a gracious bow of his head at the compliment. “Thank you, Hartley.” He took the drawings Nigel handed him, pulling off the elastic band holding them in a tight roll.

“Shall we make space on the table?” asked Lorelei, the first time she’d spoken since Nigel’s arrival, apart from saying hello.

Nigel glanced at her. Beside her, Stephen was helping himself to the chocolate-covered biscuits, but Lorelei didn’t so much as look at them. Surely a good sign that she hadn’t been blighted with Gluttony, Nigel thought.

Uri used their mugs to keep the corners from curling up, and they all studied the drawing.

“It’s a very intricate pattern,” observed Stephen, “and, looking at the measurements, rather big! That’ll take some doing, I should think?”

Uri suddenly laughed, a deep belly laugh that resounded off the kitchen walls. “It’s not just a pattern! Can’t any of you see what it is?”

Hartley, Lorelei and Stephen all dipped their heads for a closer inspection. After a couple of minutes of deep silence, Hartley straightened up and admitted, “Um, I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Each panel tells part of one  well-known story,” answered Uri, “And right up your street, I should say, Hartley!”

Nigel, remembering how long it had taken him to see it, watched the other three and wondered which of them would be first to recognise what the design depicted. He smiled to himself as they traced the drawings with their figures and muttered amongst themselves.

Suddenly Hartley yelped with excitement and slapped his hand on the table, making the mugs jump. “Good heavens!” he exclaimed, “You don’t see it at first, but it’s the Fall of Lucifer, isn’t it! My word, this is beautiful, just beautiful.”

Now the other two could see it as well and Lorelei exclaimed, “It takes you ages to see it, but once you do it’s so clear. That’s so clever!”

Uri drained his mug and went to the Aga to have another fill of the strong tea from the pot. Nigel could sense he was deep in thought and wondered what he thought of Nick’s design. Would he want to make it?

Hartley offered Nigel the plate of biscuits and said, “So this is for the restaurant in the mill? Oh, I’m so glad the De Angelos decided to come here, they’ve sparked new life into the place. Gabe, now, he’s a really nice chap, very pleasant indeed. He wanted to know about my ministries, you know, where I was before coming here, the history of the church, things like that, and we talked about some of the Bible stories. He’s very knowledgeable about all religions, in fact. Just like you, Uri.”

Uri merely inclined his head again in acknowledgement.

Hartley carried on, “I’m not so sure about the other one, though, that Nick. I’m a Christian man, of course, and I know I shouldn’t judge, but there’s something about him…” He trailed off, his cheeks tinged pink with embarrassment, and hurriedly turned away to pour out more biscuits.

Nigel wondered what Uri’s expression was behind his blue-lensed glasses, but his face was inscrutable as he took another gingernut and dipped it in his tea. When he’d swallowed the biscuit, he indicated the drawing and said to Nigel, “I’ll need some new tools for such delicate work.”

“That’s no problem, just tell me what you need.”

“And I like to keep myself to myself when I’m working, mind. My workshop’s private.”

Hartley said, “No-one ever disturbs you over there anyway, do they Uri?”

“True, Hartley, true. Forget I said anything.” Uri took a lump of wood and a small knife from his pocket. Within minutes, the lump had been transformed to a ballerina en pointe, her pretty head tilted to one side, her hands held delicately beneath her chin, her eyes closed in the ecstasy of the dance.

“Gosh, that’s really beautiful,” Nigel said, “my youngest niece dreams of being a ballet dancer and insists on wearing her tutu absolutely everywhere.”

“Then please take it and give it to her,” said Uri.

“Oh no, really, I didn’t mean …”

“Please, I’d be glad for your niece to have it if it will give pleasure to her.”

Nigel stammered a thank you and placed the figurine on the table so he wouldn’t forget to take it when he left. “So, I can’t think of anything else at the moment, Uri. We’ll just need to get you the tools you need, and the wood. Nick suggested ebony.”

Uri nodded, “That’d be right. I know where to get quality stuff.” He rolled up the drawings and replaced the elastic band. “I’ll leave these here for now, Hartley, if you don’t mind, and collect them when I’ve finished in the garden.”

“My dear chap, it’s absolutely pouring out there now. Why don’t you call it a day?”

“Thank you, but I’ll not stop yet. A bit of rain never did me any harm. Besides, I don’t think it’ll last.”

And as he said it, the rain stopped and a glorious rainbow arced across the sky outside the kitchen window.

Once Uri had gone, the vicar offered Nigel more tea, but Nigel said he had to be on his way. He put on his jacket and picked up the ballerina.

Hartley said, “That is an amazing little carving, isn’t it? He did one for Lorelei of a dove, for her name, of course, and it’s absolutely wonderful. I’m delighted that you’ve asked him to do The Fall of Lucifer for the restaurant, he’ll do an excellent job.”

Nigel said his goodbyes, noticing for the first time the unusual ring with a purple stone on Lorelei’s left hand. Maybe because she and Stephen George had got engaged so recently, the angels had not tried to do anything to her. Maybe they’d picked on someone else. But that thought didn’t cheer him up, not really, because it meant some other very nice person was about to have their world turned upside down. If it hadn’t been turned upside down already.

On the doorstep, he pulled up his collar and prepared to dash through the rain, but Uri was waiting for him.

“Well done, Nigel,” he said, “It wouldn’t have done for the vicar to realise that we know each other so well.”

“So you’ll start on the carving soon?”

Uri grinned, “Oh yes, and with pleasure. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Then you’d better give me a list of tools – or, I suppose it would it be better for you to go and get what you need?”

Uri laughed. “I’m an angel, Nigel, I already have everything I need. I was just pretending for Hartley’s benefit.”

“Ah, yes,” said Nigel, “speaking of Hartley, do you know if anything has been done to Lorelei? I didn’t see any sign of gluttony in there, and I was rather hoping…”

Uri laid a hand on Nigel’s shoulder, “I know what you were hoping, but I’m afraid she’s still firmly in their sights. Gabe has had a go at leading her into temptation, but failed. He’s just biding his time to have another go, but Nick is getting impatient. He hasn’t had any luck with Violet, either.” He removed his glasses and fixed Nigel with his clear grey eyes. “It will be done, Nigel, because it must be done.”

Next episode: 021 Orders From Above: Episode 21 ‘satan’s whiskers, anyone?’

~~~~~~~

banner for email

 

019 Orders From Above: Episode 19 ‘the baker gets timely advice and a new recipe’

To read from the beginning click here: Episode 1

secret recipe.jpg

Gabe was not happy to be heading for the bakery at 4.30 in the morning, but Nick, who’d  finally stopped sulking after the failed temptations of Violet Cattermole and Lorelei Dove, was determined that they would go together.

“Come on, bro,” Nick cajoled.  “It’ll be interesting!”

“The only thing that interests me about baking is eating the result. How do you know that he starts so early anyway?”

“It’s all in Nigel’s profiles, which you would know if you bothered to read them. Perkins wakes very early without the aid of an alarm clock and leaves his warm double bed without waking his wife, who doesn’t rise until four hours later. He tiptoes downstairs in his dressing gown, and into the kitchen, where the only sound is a loudly ticking clock. Laid out for him by Gwen the night before are his work clothes, a large, clean white apron, and a mug with a spoonful of instant coffee and two spoonfuls of sugar in it. Then he gets dressed while the-”

Gabe butted in, “Are you really telling me that Nigel’s reports go into such fine detail?”

“Well, he hasn’t done a bad job, but, no, he could hardly know all the really intimate details. So I’ve checked them out for myself.”

“You mean you’ve been spying?”

Nick tutted at that but ignored the question and carried on speaking. “Where was I? Oh yes. Perkins gets dressed while the kettle boils, and carries his mug of tea through to the bakery ready to start on the dot of 5 o’clock. By the time the ovens have reached the correct temperature, the tea is drunk and the ingredients for the various batches of bread and rolls, some of which have been left to rise overnight, are spread about the worktops, as well as whatever he needs for that day’s cakes.”

“That’s all very fine, but as I’ve already said, as much as I love bread and cakes – particularly cakes – I have no wish to stand in a hot kitchen watching them get made. And what will Glen Perkins think, us just turning up unannounced and interrupting his work?”

“He won’t mind, Gabe. And if he does, it’ll be very easy to make him unmind.”

“I still can’t see why you’re so keen to do this and why you have to drag me along.”

Ignoring Gabe’s remark again, Nick chattily passed on more information about the baker, “Our man Perkins used to sell high-spec kitchen equipment all over Europe. He and Gwen had a very fine house in Richmond, where Debbie was born. He made good money because he was good at his job, but when the company hit hard times, he took voluntary redundancy and used the money and his savings to return to the place of his and Gwen’s birth and buy this little place. He’d had a dream of having his own bakery ever since his mother had shown him how to make sourdough bread when he was eight or thereabouts.”

“Really?” said Gabe, brightening up as he loved to hear nice stories about people and, anyway, he couldn’t hold a bad mood for long.

“Yes. And his wife, the magnificent Gwen, had been more than happy to move back to the village as well, thinking it would be a better place to raise their delightful young daughter. Ah, here we are.” Nick peered through the darkened window of the bakery. “There’s light at the back, let’s go round.”

They went down a narrow alley and through the wooden gate that led into the Perkins’ tiny garden. The gate creaked on its hinges and Nick cursed as a big ginger tomcat yowled as it darted between his legs. The back door opened a crack, spilling light onto the dark lawn, and Glen called out, “Is someone there?”

Nick replied, “Good morning, Mr Perkins. I hope you don’t mind me calling round, but you did say that I could watch you bake if I could ever get myself up in time. Well, this morning I awoke particularly early and I thought, aha, today is the day to take Mr. Perkins up on his word, and my brother decided to come along too!”

Gabe could see that Glen Perkins was struggling to remember promising any such thing to anyone, but he stood back to allow them both into his kitchen.

Nick stepped over the threshold ahead of Gabe, and rubbing his hands in anticipation, said, “I’m really excited about this, you know!”

Glen watched in bewildered silence as Nick walked over to where the ingredients and tins were laid out, studying them for a bit and then turning to the two large ovens, which were working themselves up to temperature. Gabe heard a strangled cry come from Glen’s throat when Nick opened the door to one of the ovens, and stuck his head right in.

“Fascinating!” echoed back at them, then Nick withdrew his head, closed the oven door and turned to Glen, his beaming face scarlet from the intense heat, and trilled, “Let’s get started then, shall we?”

Glen Perkins merely nodded, cleared his throat, and then, like a man in a trance, launched into an explanation of what he was about to do. “It gets pretty messy in here, what with the flour getting everywhere, so may I suggest you wear an apron? You certainly don’t want flour or dough on your smart clothes, do you?”

He opened a small cupboard by the door that led into the café and took out two freshly laundered aprons.

Nick, more delighted than Gabe had seen him in a long time, shrugged off his leather jacket, hung it on a hook on the door, and donned the apron; Gabe more slowly followed suit. As Glen Perkins was more than twice the size of him and his brother, the aprons should have wrapped round them twice with room still to spare, but once he and Nick had tied theirs round their waists with neat bows, they seemed to have readjusted themselves to a perfect fit.

Gabe stood beside Nick and they watched in absorbed concentration as Glen worked with the risen dough, knocking and shaping loaves and rolls before putting them into tins and onto baking sheets. Some were wholemeal, some brown, some white, but all quite plain.

Nick broke the silence. “Have you ever thought of making something a little, um, more interesting?” he asked, once all the trays and tins had been slid into the ovens.

Glen set about cleaning the work surface of flour and sticky bits of dough so he could start on the cakes. “No, Mr. De Angelo, sadly there’s no call here for exotic breads. The villagers like their loaves and rolls plain; they wouldn’t buy bread with herbs and seeds in it.”

“Are you sure about that?”

Clearly a little irritated by Nick’s questioning of his expertise, Glen banged his bowls and utensils into the sink with too heavy a hand causing one to cracked and fall apart in two pieces. Glen said a very rude word before exclaiming, “That was my favourite mixing bowl. What a nuisance.”

“Oh, I’m sure it can be fixed,” cried Gabe. “Here, give the pieces to me. I promise you I’ll bring it back good as new.”

Behind Glen’s back, Nick rolled his eyes, then went on the attack again. “Well, now, Glen, I wonder if you’re right about the villagers not wanting fancy breads? I happen to know that Mrs. Capsby buys sundried tomato and green olive ciabatta from the bakery in Monkton Combe every Saturday, and Mrs. Fordingbridge buys cinnamon rolls there because Freddie loves them. The Reverend Hartley Cordwell is very fond of their walnut bread, so, you see…..”

Glen, paying attention now, handed the pieces of his mixing bowl to Gabe, and faced Nick, who casually informed him, “I also happen to know that that very bakery is closing down soon as the owners are retiring to the coast. The new buyers are going to turn it into a gift shop – which will fill the residents of Monkton Combe and Ham-Under-Lymfold and many other villages with despair. Think about it – where will Olive get her olive ciabatta and Freddie his sweet rolls then, hmm? Must the good vicar deliver his sermons without being fortified by walnut bread? Why make them go all the way into the city when they could get want they want right here?”

“Well, I-”

It slowly dawned on Gabe that Nick had just performed a Very Good Deed for Glen Perkins of his own volition, and that’s why he’d wanted Gabe there, to be a witness to it. He beamed at Nick to show his approval, and said to Glen, “My brother is right, Mr. Perkins. If they have to go into the city, they’d most likely buy all their bread there to make the effort worthwhile. But not if you start offering such things now. It’s worth thinking about, isn’t it?”

“And let’s not forget that the new restaurant will be in need of plentiful supplies of fancy breads. ”

Glen slowly nodded his head. “Um, maybe you’re right… I’d certainly enjoy making such things.”

“Good man!” said Nick, patting Glen on the shoulder. “You mull that over then, but in the meantime let’s do some cakes. We’re particularly fond of cakes, aren’t we, Gabe! In fact, I have a rather special recipe to share with you, if you’ve got some fine dark chocolate handy.”

***

Back at the mill, Gabe sat at the breakfast bar, carefully gluing the bits of Glen’s mixing bowl back together. “Feels good, doesn’t it, brother?”

“What?”

“You’ve just done something really kind by showing Glen Perkins the way to improve his business!”

Nick shrugged his shoulders and a sly look came into his eyes as he said with studied nonchalance, “How about we count it as an achievement for Charity, and leave Violet to her wonderful, nasty little ways?”

“Oh, Nick, is that why you did it? But there was no tempting, and Glen is already a good person so there was no change of any kind! You performed a straightforward act of beneficence and you should feel proud of yourself, but Violet is still your target.”

Nick shrugged. “Oh well, it was worth a try. And at least we’ll get some decent bread and cakes around here now.”

“Always an ulterior motive with you, isn’t there?” Gabe held up Glen’s bowl. “Good as new, with a little bit of glue and a touch of angel magic.”

Next episode: 020 Orders From Above: Episode 20 ‘the master craftsman’

~~~~~

banner for email

018 Orders From Above: Episode 18 ‘gluttony’

To read from the first episode and catch up click here: Episode 1

cake for gluttony.jpg

It was time for them to leave, but Stephen really didn’t want to move. He was too absorbed by Lorelei’s face, her hair, the feel of her soft, warm body in his arms as she chatted about… well, he was too busy listening to her voice to take in the words. For all he cared she could be reciting train timetables, he’d still be as enchanted as he’d been when they first met. Tonight was their twenty-third date and they were going to celebrate with a candlelit dinner in his favourite place, a small and intimate Italian trattoria, just around the corner from his apartment.

“We need to go, Lorelei,” he said with reluctance. “The table’s booked for 7.30.”

Lorelei leaned into him, but after allowing himself the pleasure of just a brief kiss, Stephen sighed and pulled himself away. “If we don’t move right now, we’ll never get out of here. We’re going to be late as it is. Come on, let’s go and eat and then we’ll come back here and …” He waggled his eyebrows and did a lewd little jiggle with his hips, making Lorelei giggle.

“Do you think we’ll get to eat dessert this time? Maybe we should share one.”

It was a private joke between them that they’d never managed to stay for a pudding. From the moment they sat down, the heat between them would start to build, rising by the minute until it simply get too hot for them to eat anything else. Stephen, in a strangled voice, would ask for the bill, and they’d be out of the restaurant and entwined in each other’s arms like lovesick teenagers. The last time this had happened, a passer-by had muttered, “Get a room, why don’t you!”

Stephen held out her soft woollen wrap and kissed the tip of her freckled nose once it was settled around her shoulders. They made the short walk as if joined together from shoulder to hip.

They arrived twenty minutes after the time he had booked for, but it didn’t matter, they were greeted warmly and led to a table in the corner.

The waiter handed them a menu each, took their drinks orders, and with a flourish lit the stubby candle in the wax-covered Chianti bottle. Lorelei looked so beautiful, Stephen began to wonder if they’d manage to get beyond the starter, let alone make it to a shared dessert. He fingered the box in his pocket and wondered when would be the best time to-

His thoughts were interrupted by a chocolate-brown voice drawling, “Good evening, Miss Dove.”

Stephen blinked at the tall figure staring down at Lorelei as if he’d like to devour her. Slightly alarmed, he racked his memory … yes, it was one of the De Angelo brothers; he’d seen them once in The Blacksmith’s Anvil and Lorelei had told him who they were. At first he thought the man was alone, but then saw that behind him was the other one, the brother, looking as if he was trying to hide.

Stephen blinked some more, and then, remembering his manners, raised his bottom a couple of inches off his chair and held out his hand. “Hello, I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced? You obviously know Lorelei, and I’m Stephen George.”

“Nick De Angelo,” replied the man, giving Stephen’s hand a brief but bone-crunching shake. “And this is my brother, Gabe.”

The one called Gabe stepped forward with a shy smile and gave Stephen the merest nod of his head. He then took Lorelei’s hand, raising it and grazing her knuckles with his lips and gazing deep into her eyes. When he let go, Lorelei seemed momentarily startled, and Stephen saw such a sorrowful expression on Gabe’s face that he wondered if he’d recently had some very bad news.

There was an awkward silence as Stephen waited for the two interlopers to go to their own table and leave them alone before the romantic mood was completely broken. And he wanted tonight to be very romantic, more than any other night they’d spent together.

But Nick, directing a slightly malicious grin in his direction, rubbed his hands together, and said, “Well, isn’t this nice. Hey! Why don’t we all sit together?”

Before anyone could object – and everyone except Nick looked as if they really wanted to – he had ordered that two tables be joined up so the four of them could sit together.

Stephen was too stunned and too polite to do anything other than pretend it was what he’d wanted all along. Perhaps Lorelei was better acquainted with the De Angelos than he’d thought and she was happy for them to share their table? But as Gabe took the seat next to her, his cheeks flushed and his eyes downcast, he could see that Lorelei was as taken aback by this turn of events as he was. Of the four of them, then, only Nick De Angelo seemed totally relaxed, and Stephen felt a resentful dislike for the man start to build.

The evening that followed were utterly surreal as far as Stephen was concerned. The velvet ring box could not possibly be brought from his inside pocket and presented to Lorelei under these circumstances, even if the De Angelo brothers were to leave them alone after the meal. Maybe it was a sign, for Stephen believed in such things, that it was too soon to be thinking of marriage? They hadn’t been together other all that long, after all – but no… he had known she was the one for him since their first date in The White Lion. And Lorelei constantly declared her love for him. She’d even told him that he had a wonderful aura, and had been surprised and delighted that he’d known exactly what she’d meant.

“You’ll love my sister,” Stephen had responded, “She’s a family counsellor, but she does astrology for a hobby. She loves angel cards and psychic fairs, all that kind of thing.”

“And you don’t think it’s silly?” Her green eyes had looked worriedly into his brown ones.

“No, Lorelei, I don’t think it’s silly. My sister is one of the smartest and most sensible people I know, and her astrological readings have sometimes been of great help to me. She’s longing to meet you.”

Now he wanted to marry Lorelei as soon as possible. He’d told Stella, who had become very fond of Lorelei, that he planned to have the ring secretly placed in a glass of champagne and presented to his beloved, but she had replied, “That’s very romantic, Stephen, but fraught with danger, bearing in mind you both go all to pieces when you’re together. You’d have to hope she didn’t knock her glass over or just gulp it down and choke on it! But, really dear, Lorelei strikes me as a woman who would prefer you go down on one knee and present the ring in the traditional manner.”

So that’s what he’d planned to do, right here in this restaurant, but now he could only sit, fuming in silent frustration, as Nick De Angelo dominated the conversation. The subjects ranged from the narrow confines of village life to the political situation in Brazil and back again. Nick ate heartily, sometimes talking with his mouth full, but Stephen, Lorelei and Gabe merely picked at their food. He hoped they could make their escape after the main course, but when he tried to say that they had had enough to eat, Nick called for the dessert menu.

A waiter brought over a blackboard with the desserts neatly chalked on it and left it on the table so they could take their time. Gabe, who’d hardly spoken a word, didn’t even glance at it, muttering that he didn’t want anything.

“Would you please excuse us for a moment?” said Nick, “I just need a quick word with my brother.”

They left the table and Stephen watched in amazement as they walked out of the restaurant. Were they leaving him with the bill? But no, he could see them through the window, and they seemed to be arguing. Well, Nick was talking urgently and waving his hands about, a look of fury on his face, but Gabe was standing with his head down and his hands shoved in his pockets, looking like a schoolboy being admonished by the head master. Stephen looked ruefully at Lorelei , “I’m so sorry about this. I should have insisted at the start that we wanted to be alone.”

Lorelei smiled at him, “No need to apologise. You were being polite and I rather think Nick wouldn’t have taken no for an answer.”

“They’re a bit strange, though, aren’t they? Nick doesn’t stop talking!”

“Mm, and Gabe doesn’t say much at all. Oh, shh, they’re coming back. Let’s say we’re finished and need to leave.”

The brothers sat down, Nick grinning as he laid his napkin once more across his lap, Gabe looking for all the world as if he was holding back tears as he did the same.

“Lorelei,” he said, his shoulders still slightly slumped as he reached for the blackboard, “I do hope you are going to join me in having a dessert?”

“Er, no, thank you.” She patted her stomach, “I’m far too full.”

“Oh you can’t be,” said Gabe, his cheeks flaming for some unfathomable, “You hardly ate a thing! Now, how about chocolate mousse?”

Lorelei held up her hand, “No, really. I don’t want anything.”

“Raspberry roulade? Profiteroles? Crème Caramel? ”

Gabe sounded a bit desperate and Stephen wondered why he trying to force a Lorelei into choosing a dessert. He decided to take charge, and tried to attract the attention of a waiter, saying, “I’m sorry, but we really do have to leave now. I’ll get the bill.”

Gabe implored, “How about ice cream? Gosh, says here they have eight flavours.”

Lorelei shook her head, and reached behind her to take her wrap from the back of her chair.

Nick, looking highly amused, said, “So… no desserts, then.”

Gabe dropped his head, whether with frustration or relief Stephen couldn’t tell, until he caught a smile that Gabe was trying to hide. What on earth was going on here?

What happened next was so astounding Stephen would later believe he’d hallucinated the scene. As Nick leaned forward and made to touch Lorelei’s arm, Gabe gave a strangled cry and, to Stephen’s mind, deliberately knocked over his nearly-full glass of wine. The liquid appeared to leave the glass in a solid burgundy ball which skimmed across the surface of the crisp white tablecloth before hurling itself at Nick, spattering the front of his pale blue shirt, his red silk tie, and the lapels of his jacket. Not a speck of wine landed anywhere else.

There was a stunned silence and nobody moved until two waiters converged on their table with napkins and started to dab at Nick’s clothes. His face a picture of controlled fury, Nick pushed them away and told them not to trouble, then he calmly asked for the bill.

He insisted on paying. “After all, it was my idea that we all dine together.” He ordered Stephen to put his wallet away when Stephen tried to contribute.

The bill was settled with a large pile of new twenty-pound notes and the brothers said their goodbyes. Stephen caught Gabe, who’d spoken not a word since knocking over his wine, cast a very strange look at Lorelei as he rose from his chair, one of profound sadness, and wondered what it meant. They really were a pair of odd fellows.

But that was forgotten as with much relief, Stephen gently escorted Lorelei away from the trattoria in case the dreadful Nick De Angelo, despite his wine-stained suit, reappeared and insisted on dragging them to a nightclub or something.

Finally alone back at his apartment, they discussed what had happened. Stephen asked if she’d noticed anything odd about the wine-spilling incident, but she said her eyes had been on him so she hadn’t seen anything.

“I can’t explain why,” she mused, “but I really didn’t like Nick, there’s something about him…”

He held up his hand to stop her speaking further. “Shh! No more talk of them or anyone else!” He slid down onto one knee in front her, took her left hand in both of his. “Lorelei, my darling, sweet Lorelei, will you marry me?”

Her eyes widened and she gasped, “Stephen, I-”

“I know it’s early days for us, but I don’t care! I love you, Lorelei, I know you are the one for me, and I want you to be my wife.” He pulled out the velvet box and lifted the lid, revealing a delicate ring set with a round purple stone, two small diamonds sparkling either side. “Please say yes.”

“Oh, Stephen!” she gasped,  “It’s beautiful! Is that amethyst?”

He nodded. “I had it specially made. I couldn’t think you’d want any other stone.” He removed it from its snug velvet bed and held it up to her. “It’ll fit you, my love. I borrowed a ring-sizer from the jeweller and measured that silver ring you sometimes wear. But, Lorelei, you haven’t answered my question.”

She threw herself at him, knocking him flat on his back, crying, “Oh Stephen, the answer’s yes! Yes please! Yes, yes, YES!”

***

“So what the hell was that about? If you wanted to stop me touching Lorelei and resetting the scene you shouldn’t have done it that way! I’m sure Stephen George noticed the trajectory of that wine!” Nick waved his hands in front of himself in a downward motion, chin to hips. The red wine stains disappeared.

“Of course he didn’t! Humans see magic all the time but they brush it away. I didn’t want you resetting the scene, Nick. I just couldn’t do it, not tonight.” Gabe narrowed his eyes at his brother, “You do know what Stephen was intending to do, don’t you?”

“No I do not know and I don’t care! Unlike you, I was concentrating on the job in hand, not using telepathy to go prying into his mind.”

“He was going to propose, Nick! I just couldn’t do it to them, not tonight.”

Nick’s grey eyes narrowed and darkened to obsidian and he spoke through gritted teeth: “As you’ve so recently pointed out, it is only in your interest that neither Lorelei nor Violet succumb to temptation.” He stabbed his finger into Gabe’s chest, and continued to jab with each word while Gabe tried to back away, “So you can be sure, brother, that I shall be watching you very carefully from now on.”

Nick stalked off, leaving Gabe gazing miserably into his empty coffee cup.

Nick was right, of course. He, Gabe, didn’t want the changeover to happen, not now, not ever. But a promise was a promise, especially when it was with a capital P and made by archangels, so he had no choice.

He resolved to try harder next time, and maybe it would be easier because, surely, the engagement would have taken place. But then there’d be the wedding! Bottom lip wobbling, he dropped his head into his hands.

What an evening! And he hadn’t even had the chance to sample just one of those eight ice cream flavours!

Next episode: 019 Orders From Above: Episode 19 ‘the baker gets timely advice and a new recipe’

~~~~~~~

banner for email