The champagne bottle knocks against the marble kitchen counter, making me jump. I glance at Jack, hoping he won’t have noticed how nervous I am. He catches me looking and smiles.
‘Perfect,’ he says softly.
Taking my hand, he leads me to where our guests are waiting. As we go through the hall, I see the flowering lily Diane and Adam brought us for our garden. It’s such a beautiful pink that I hope Jack will plant it where I’ll be able to see it from the bedroom window. Just thinking of the garden makes tears well up from deep inside me and I swallow them down quickly. With so much at stake tonight, I need to concentrate on the here and now.
In the sitting room, a fire burns steadily in the antique grate. We’re well into March but there’s still a nip in the air and Jack likes our guests to be as comfortable as possible.
‘Your house is really something, Jack,’ Rufus says admiringly. ‘Don’t you think so, Esther?’
I don’t know Rufus or Esther. They are new to the area and tonight is the first time we’ve met, which makes me feel more nervous than I already am. But I can’t afford to let Jack down, so I fix a smile on my face, praying that they’ll like me. Esther doesn’t smile back, so I guess she’s reserving judgement. But I can’t blame her. Since joining our circle of friends a month ago, I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all—the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect life. If I were Esther, I’d be wary of me too.
My eyes fall on the box of expensive chocolates she has just taken out of her bag and I feel a flicker of excitement. Not wanting her to give them to Jack, I move smoothly towards her and she instinctively holds them out to me.
‘Thank you, they look wonderful,’ I say gratefully, placing them on the coffee table so that I can open them later, when we serve coffee.
Esther intrigues me. She’s the complete opposite of Diane—tall, blonde, slim, reserved—and I can’t help respecting her for being the first person to step into our house and not go on about how beautiful it is. Jack insisted on choosing the house himself, telling me it was to be my wedding present, so I saw it for the first time when we came back from our honeymoon. Even though he’d told me it was perfect for us I didn’t fully realise what he meant until I saw it. Set in large grounds at the far end of the village, it gives Jack the privacy he craves, as well as the privilege of owning the most beautiful house in Spring Eaton. And the most secure. There is a complicated alarm system, with steel shutters to protect the windows on the ground floor. It must seem strange that these are often kept shut during the day, but as Jack tells anyone who asks, with a job like his, good security is one of his priorities.
We have a lot of paintings on the walls of our sitting room but people are usually drawn towards the large red canvas that hangs above the fireplace. Diane and Adam, who have already seen it, can’t help going over to have another look, and Rufus joins them, while Esther sits down on one of the cream leather sofas.
‘It’s amazing,’ Rufus says, looking in fascination at the hundreds of tiny markings that make up most of the painting.
‘It’s called Fireflies,’ Jack offers, untwisting the wire from the bottle of champagne.
‘I’ve never seen anything quite like it.’
‘Grace painted it,’ Diane tells him. ‘Can you believe it?’
‘You should see Grace’s other paintings.’ Jack eases the cork from the bottle with only the slightest of sounds. ‘They really are quite something.’
Rufus looks around the room with interest. ‘Are they here?’
‘No, I’m afraid they’re hanging elsewhere in the house.’
‘For Jack’s eyes only,’ Adam jokes.
‘And Grace’s. Isn’t that right, darling?’ Jack says, smiling over at me. ‘For our eyes only.’
‘Yes, they are,’ I agree, turning my head away.
We join Esther on the sofa and Diane exclaims in pleasure as Jack pours the champagne into tall glasses. She looks across at me.
‘Are you feeling better now?’ she asks. ‘Grace couldn’t make lunch with me yesterday because she was ill,’ she explains, turning to Esther.
‘It was only a migraine,’ I protest.
‘Unfortunately, Grace is prone to them.’ Jack looks over at me sympathetically. ‘But they never last long, thank goodness.’
‘It’s the second time you’ve stood me up,’ Diane points out.
‘I’m sorry,’ I apologise.
‘Well, at least you didn’t just forget this time,’ she teases. ‘Why don’t we meet up next Friday to make up for it? Would you be free, Grace? No dental appointments for you to suddenly remember at the last minute?’
‘No, and no migraines either, I hope.’