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Energetic, clever and beautiful, Lorette intends to make a great success of the old hotel and immediately sets out to restore it to its former glory. But her lavish ideas for refurbishment are met with disapproval by Walter, the caretaker.
The ageing man has no time for emancipated city girls, and believes there's only one way to deal with headstrong disobedience. When Lorette stands up to Old Walter and the local vicar, she soon finds herself unable to sit down. Horrified by her first spanking, she grows ever more determined to have her own way. And despite their misgivings, the villagers soon learn that she is more than capable.
When the stunning heiress meets local lad Ben Markham, she is swept off her feet. The gentle hard- working handyman falls deeply in love with her too. Together, their plans for The Wild Thyme grow ever more ambitious. But when sparks fly, Lorette finds out that it's not only the older men of the village who believe in chastising errant females. Unprepared for a trip across Ben's knee, she finds to her surprise that the experience draws them closer together.
Uncovering a sinister secret in the hotel cellars, they embark on a mission to track down a young Italian POW who hid out in The Wild Thyme during the War. Painful memories begin to fade, and Lorette plans a grand opening party and a thrilling future with Ben. Then an unexpected knock at the door one day, throws her world asunder.
Will the ambitious beauty confront her latest challenge in the usual fiery fashion? And in the wild, secluded herb gardens of her beloved hotel, just what pleasures are there to be explored?
"Goodbye, Miss. And hey - good luck!"
The driver gave a cheery wave as he rolled up the window of the hired motorcar and drove off at speed to make it back to London in daylight. Lorette raised a hand and smiled as she caught a final glimpse of him in his front view mirror. Taking a deep breath and surveying her new surrounds, she spoke quietly to herself.
"Good luck? I'm jolly well going to need it." ����
If she had not been quite so exhausted at that moment, Lorette would have turned on her heels and fled. Dropping her leather travelling case to the ground, she stared aghast at the dark, dilapidated building before her. Turning quickly, she saw the motorcar depart through the ramshackle wooden gate at the end of the drive. The bright sunshine of the high summer's day could do nothing to disguise how rundown the place was. For a second, Lorette wondered if she had even come to the right place. The ruin before her could surely not be the glorious Wild Thyme Hotel of her childhood, could it? The hot, bumpy four hour drive from London left her too tired to explore right away, but there was no turning back, that was for sure. The Wild Thyme belonged to her, after all.� For a 19-year-old, it was a colossal undertaking. But she had never been one to shirk from hard work or responsibility. Clearly, both were badly needed here.
She looked all around her, shading her eyes from the piercing sunlight. It had been exceptionally hot in London, but she hadn't expected it to follow her so far northwest. From behind the shabby wall of the main building's porch, a small dog ran yelping towards her. Behind it came the scuffle of footsteps.
"Hello? Who is it?" a gruff male voice called.
Lorette suddenly felt like a trespasser. She waited for the owner of the dog to make himself apparent before calling back, "My name is Miss Gilday. Lorette Gilday. I don't wish to disturb you sir, but my great-aunt used to own this place. Hello there?"
Marching towards her, with a pace that belied his years, was a tall hulk of a man dressed in the garb of a country squire. Likely in his 60s, Lorette thought, as she took in his creased, sun-burnt features and thick brown unruly hair spiked with tufts of grey. He was at least six-feet-two-inches tall and walked with a polished oak stick, tapping it to the side of his boot as he drew closer to her. Intimidated now, Lorette met his eyes tentatively and waited for him to speak.
"Your great-aunt, you say? Remember her side of the family coming here often enough in the old days. You must have been just a nipper."���������������
Taken aback, but aware of a hidden warmth in the older man's voice, Lorette processed her thoughts.
"Yes, sir. Martin Gilday is - was - my father. And you are?"
"I run the place. Such as is left of it. And I have done, since the curse of Hitler rent our lives in smithereens. Their nephew was a good lad, anyways about it. Was sorry to hear of his loss. "
More at ease now, Lorette struggled with placing the man. He was right. She had last seen The Wild Thyme as a child of four years of age, playing in the corners of its cosy, well-kept rooms, being spoiled by the small staff her great-aunt and uncle had kept. Perhaps it was mere sentiment that made her remember it as a magical place. Now, it was evidently falling to pieces, although that should come as no surprise given the War. Still, Lorette's mixed feelings overwhelmed her as she thought of the London life she'd been so quick to abandon after the reading of the will.
Impatiently, the man rapped the rough stone of the worn path with his stick and made to turn.
"There is hot tea should you care for it, but very little more on offer here. You are welcome to look around, Miss, but I fear there will be nowt hereabouts to impress your likes."
Lorette did feel self-conscious, in her smart blazer and pleated cr�pe shirt-waister. Inheriting the hotel, as well as all her great-aunt's money, had seemed something of a miracle. She wasn't one to believe in fate, but after the horror of the war years and the private hell she'd endured in its aftermath, news of the legacy was like a fairy tale. But the old fellow had a point. She looked out of place in the clothes she'd picked up in Brighton. Certainly her dainty court shoes were not fashioned for exploring the Shropshire hills. Despite this, Lorette felt there was something welcoming in the atmosphere here.
The words Wild Thyme Hotel, once painted in deep ochre above the main door porch, had faded badly over the years, she could see. But her curiosity was already bettering her and she hastened after the man.
"A cup of tea would be just lovely, sir," she said cheerily as she followed him into the hotel.
"I may have been just a little girl when last here, you're right, but I do remember it as a thriving establishment. You can imagine my surprise to be bequeathed it as my great-aunt's final wish."
The man stopped abruptly in his tracks before pausing to wipe his boots on the tattered welcome mat. Lorette noted his reaction cautiously.
"You knew my great-aunt and uncle well, then? You are Mister ....?"
He ignored her and entered the porch, the yelping terrier now close to his boot heels. Lorette bent to pat it, the animal apparently hungry for fresh company. As the man pushed open the battered wooden door, at last he offered her a hand to carry her travelling case.
"Walter Mountford. I rode carriages for your great-uncle Stephen. Suppose you might say I was his taxi cab, for this here place. I mourn that fine man to this day. Never saw much of his wife after we lost him, I have to say. I don't mean no offence to your blood relatives, but that's how it was."
Mountford's final comment was laced with resentment. It was little surprise to Lorette. The great-aunt had herself been elderly when her husband, Stephen, had died five years before. Of French extraction, she had no time for the English climate and had run The Wild Thyme largely by telegraphed instruction, preferring to spend her summers on the Riviera. When the war broke out with threat of German invasion, the ageing proprietrix had been desperate to get rid of The Wild Thyme.
"My great-aunt lost interest in life sir, after the death of my uncle and then the war. But she was a very clever woman. I am grateful to her for this opportunity." Lorette smiled confidently.
Mountford looked her up and down, from her crown to her ankles. She ill-fitted the countryside, he thought. Her long, wavy chestnut coloured hair spilled neatly to her shoulders, held in place by two bright red Bakelite clasps. She wore a hint of rouge, and lipstick, too. Less than impressed, he wondered how on earth a dainty painted city doll could ever amuse herself at the long-neglected Wild Thyme, especially if she courted the great-aunt's fancy ways. Mountford had never had any time for his employer's foreign wife and was loathe now to be reminded of her.
"New owner, eh? Well, we had heard tell that it was so. Couldn't figure out who it might be. But I suppose with no boys either side of the family, she was left with no choice. I do hope she had the wit to put decent guardianship in place."
Lorette bristled at the remark. Mountford carried on,
"You're a few miles stretch too young for the task by my reckoning. This place has gone to the dogs."
The old man was already beginning to irritate Lorette, who was accustomed to being her own boss.
"Forgive me Mister Mountford, but I have a great deal of experience for my age. I worked in the munitions and was promoted within the first four months to supervisor. I have long had to fend for -" but Mountford wasn't listening. Turning his back to her, he called up the stairs at the back of the scullery.
"Mrs Carmichael? Are you about? We have company."
Turning to Lorette, he offered not even the faintest hint of a smile.
"Any child related to Stephen Hayhurst is welcome within these four walls. At least what's left of them."
"And whatever is left of them, Mister Mountford, is my property," Lorette smiled stiffly. "I am sure that together we can come to some arrangement that will suit all. May I ask: who is Betsy?"
"That'll be me, my dear."
A portly woman, badly out of breath, appeared at the foot of the narrow wooden staircase. She wore a crisp, perfect white apron and cook's hat, giving her the air of a professional quite unsuited to her tattered surrounds. In the frosty air of Mountford's grudging welcome, Lorette felt immediately drawn to her.
"I am very pleased to meet you," Lorette said and outstretched her arm, businesslike. Mrs Carmichael smiled gently and removed her hat.
"Ah! The young Miss given over of the hotel. I must say you're a fine-looking girl, just as we had heard. Welcome to The Wild Thyme!"
"Thank you ma'am," Lorette said brightly, casting a sneaking sideways glance at Mountford.
"Mister Mountford seems rather less enthused. It appears I was a last resort, since I have no brothers or male cousins. I do hope I can prove him wrong!"
But could The Wild Thyme ever be the hotel it once was, Lorette wondered, as she looked about the kitchen and removed her pale cream blazer. Over the weeks since the various legal documents had come through, she had grown used to the idea and decided that she could make such an enterprise her future. What else was she looking for, after all the drudgery of the war years and her awful disappointment in love?
Mountford observed the elegant way in which Lorette sat down at the kitchen table, crossing her slim ankles. She wore sheer nylon stockings, the first he had laid eyes on since before the War. But that accent of hers didn't sound upper class. He had always been aware of Stephen's wife's family, in particular her sister's son born out of wedlock. When the boy married well in London, they hoped the best for him, but since then, the whole family had drifted badly apart, not helped by two cruel wars in succession. Mountford had no idea how the child might have been raised. If she was the racy type he figured, she'd best not get too comfortable. She was a hard one to box off, he thought as he studied her discreetly.
Misters Carmichael busied herself with preparing a pot of tea.
"So did you live with your great-aunt, my dear? Me, I've not been here as long as Mister Mountford, but I do remember her as a fine-looking lady."
"Oh no, not at all. Despite my name there is no French blood. Ma and Pa were always fascinated by Great-Uncle Stephen's having married a French woman. Lorette was her middle name, you see. And they were so good to us when I was little. But the war wrecked everything, didn't it?"
She trailed off, as all three of them - strangers - were stopped still by the bare truth of it.
Lorette took a deep breath and drew her dainty woollen cardigan tighter around her. Despite the beautiful summer's day outside, the hotel felt depressingly cold and empty.
"I did have one month in her company in France just shortly before she died last year. But I was raised in the east end, in Tooting. When Da went off to the War it was only me and Ma. We both went into the munitions."
"My word," said Misters Carmichael, at once struck by the notion of such a young woman in active service.
"And did you leave your mother in the city, dear?" she asked. Mountford remained silent, sipping his tea. Lorette looked down at the table.
"Very sadly so, in Bexley Hill Cemetery. She died almost two years ago. Septicaemia."
Without a word, the woman reached out and touched Lorette's hand gently.
Lorette swallowed the hot lump that had formed in her throat.
"She was worn down, like the rest of us, and then one day during the worst of the Blitz, she was horribly injured in the shoulder when a spring-lock gave way on one of the munitions lorries. It didn't heal, and with the dirt everywhere she just grew worse. In no time at all she was in the isolation hospital at Rottenrow. There was nothing they could do."
Mountford studied Lorette, stroking the rim of his teacup.
"That's no easy straits for any young girl. But how comes you've been given the reins of this place without a by-your-leave? You can't yet be 21?"
"No. I shall be 20 by year end. But Great Aunt Aur�lie was quite explicit that the whole properties should be passed to me. The trustees are the London solicitors who have acted for our family since Great-Uncle Stephen died. Mister Fredericks has been nothing but supportive. And I am really very excited, now that I am here at last!" Lorette beamed at Betsy.
"Pah!" said Mountford suddenly, ignoring Lorette as he spooned thin sugar into his boiling tea.
"What a man wouldn't give for a decent bit of cake or morsel of cheese. How long's this rationing going to go on for? Till we're all dead of the scurvy?"
Lorette could tell that the old fellow presented something of a battle. With an impatient air, Misters Carmichael rose and made her way to the pantry.
"Now Wally, you know fine well we're a lot better off than the poor folks of the city. Got our own beasts and our own soil to grow things, don't we. Let me see if there is even a scrap of that tea loaf left."
"Please don't worry about anything, Misters Carmichael. The fact of the matter is that my inheritance is really rather generous. It's my intention to restore The Wild Thyme. Completely! There will soon be more than enough to ensure a simple, but substantial dinner menu for around twenty guests. I've already started thinking it all through. So within a few weeks, we can have orders coming up from London. We can stock up, as the work is going on to re-build the hotel. The lawyers have said -"
Mountford replaced his tea cup on the saucer, too noisily. Without looking at Lorette, he said quietly, "Restore The Wild Thyme? Are you insane, girl? First we've heard of it. You come waltzing in here and think you can do whatever it is you want? Any mind at all of who has struggled to look after the place these last long years? And a fine thing it is, too, to be throwing your money around when the country's on its knees!"�
Lorette flushed in irritation and embarrassment.
"Come now, Wally," said the cook. "Miss Gilday's funds are none of our business. But she's offering to do good with 'em, isn't she? Times change and young folks need to do their best to clear up after all the mess. Strikes me as if Miss Gilday were in the munitions, she's not scared of getting her hands dirty!"
"Thank you, Misters Carmichael," said Lorette calmly, rising with her cup. She walked to the stove and opened the grate.
"Need to get going on this, for a start. I'm not saying we need a fire at this time of year but start as we mean to go on, and it'll be colder soon enough. I'm a dab hand at building a fire. We got used to it when we had to take the homeless out of the city after the bombings. For now, let's find some candles so we can cheer up the table for dinner."
Mountford had remained motionless at the table, turning the tea cup round and round.
"Goodness, but you must have tales to tell, Miss Gilday!"
Misters Carmichael was already delighting in the presence of another female in the hotel. She had taken pity on Wally Mountford when Old Stephen had passed away and the French wife had cleared off. She'd made it clear she'd move in to keep the place going as far as they could, but there were to be no shenanigans. She was a church-goer who would keep a room of her own. It worked out well enough for the odd bit of company. But there had been less and less to cook as the war took its toll and The Wild Thyme was forced to close. Though they struggled to keep up an appearance, lately there had been no one at all to cater for other than themselves. With no family of her own, Betsy Carmichael found life lonelier than ever. This beautiful young thing could brighten up The Wild Thyme no end!
"Please call me Lorette," she said jauntily, examining the peeling paint of the skirting boards and drawing off a layer of dust with her middle finger. Her east London upbringing was evident in her accent, though she spoke clearly and well, being a keen reader and a natural first class scholar who had passed her 11+ with flying colours. And moreover, she had grown used to giving out orders in the factories.
""I'm taking the dogs out, Betsy," grumbled Mountford as he rose from the table. “Whatever there is to eat this evening, I'd be grateful to see sight of it by seven."
"Mister Mountford, sir, where should I sleep?" Lorette picked up her travelling case.
Surprised at her deference but determined not to show it, Mountford did not turn to face her.
"There's a box-room on the last landing to the attic. It's clean enough and dry. The washroom on the first landing is the only one still functioning. I bid you good day."
As he walked down the drive, the terrier to one side of him and two large, excited collies to the other, Lorette looked ruefully after him.
"He doesn't like me at all, does he. I don't mean to be - vulgar - or seem like I'm the snooty type. I'm really not. And I know fine well about the poverty there is all around. I saw the worst of it in the east end when the bombing was going on. But if I'm lucky enough to have money in my pocket, why not put it to use? And it's gradually getting better, honestly it is. A lot of the rations have been decontrolled in the city especially at the food markets. We can source plenty, Betsy."
The older woman smiled back.
"Call me Betsy, dear. Oh, our Wally can be full of himself when he wants to be. He's never got over the loss of your great-uncle - they were thick as thieves. When the fighting started, well, he saw one young fellow after another go away and never come back. Just like the time before that. He'd no sons of his own, you see. Thinks too much and gets resentful. Three daughters that he loves the bones of, but they're all in the far corners now. And he was widowed at forty-eight. Not that there aren't plenty out there what are far less fortunate. And yes, the old grouch ought be mindful of it. But you just keep on the right side of him dear, and you should be able to make your mark. Are you really thinking of doing this all on your own?"
"Why not? I ran a mobile canteen feeding sixty at the height of the Blitz! I was in the Women's Voluntary Service. Even though I was just turned 16. What choice did we have? Me, and darling Ma. Doubled up in fact, once it got really bad. I'd do a shift in the factory out at Hounslow then come back in town for the evening. It was tough, but we all stuck together and you know what? I wouldn't have missed it for the world!"
Betsy gazed at Lorette with no little awe, as the girl opened cupboard doors slowly and peered inside frowning, as if expecting some alien creature to take a leap at her from their darkest recesses.
"A bit of a re-build, painting and polishing - what's that besides war work? Wally Mountford and his ilk are all too quick to forget that the men didn't win the cursed thing on their own, you know. Now, you must point me in the direction of the nearest telephone, since I see the hotel's is disconnected. That will have to be remedied. I must speak to Fredericks in London. Funds will need to be drawn down so that I can get started without any more dithering! It's so lovely to meet you, Betsy!"
With that, Lorette lifted her heaving travelling case on to the table and yanked open the thick brass zip with a flourish. Lying on top of the pile of colourful clothes, under-garments, shoes and hairbrushes was a large bottle of Spanish sherry, and nestling beside it a jar of macaroons.
"An afternoon treat, all the way from old London town! Oh, I know all about rationing! Believe me I do. But the best still comes in from the Continent and it's available at a price. Now fetch us a couple of glasses and let's raise a small toast. I've had a long drive and I need it. Will you work with me Betsy, and give The Wild Thyme back its magic?"