This summer, escape to Willoughby Hall with Jenny Oliver and her heartwarming and escapist new novel, One Lucky Summer. Out now in eBook (because we just couldn’t wait to share this stunning story with you!), and coming soon in paperback. Read an exclusive extract below!
Returning to Willoughby Park had never been at the top of Ruben de Lacy’s to-do list. Now he was there, he recognised why. The rooms were as cold and dark as they always had been.
Littered with ostentatious antiques and dustsheet-clad furniture. So far, Ruben had confined himself to just two rooms. A plain guest bedroom formerly known as the blue room for obvious reasons, and the kitchen, which had been rarely occupied by his parents when they had been alive; meals were always cooked by lovely Geraldine, a matronly figure who smelt of washing powder and sometimes onions.
From the cupboard under the stairs, Ruben had dug out his old wellington boots and Barbour and whiled away five minutes yesterday taking photos of himself by the giant stone lions out the front for Instagram, captioning the best: Lord of the Manor? It was amazing what boredom and being completely ill at ease in a place could bring out in a person.
Now he was sitting on the back terrace, soaking up some sun, waiting for the estate agent to get back to him, which was an ongoing battle due to the lack of phone reception. He was also struggling with a humongous black cat who seemed to have some wily point of entry into the house that Ruben
hadn’t yet discovered. To his horror, he’d found it asleep on his bed that morning. Oh well, it’d be someone else’s problem soon enough.
The doorbell rang. Ruben sighed. Who was it? Someone to offer their condolences maybe? No, he couldn’t imagine anyone in the village sad to have seen his father, Lord de Lacy, go.
Ruben yawned, stretched in the warm sunlight, then got up to open the front door. On seeing who was standing there, all he could say was, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ. I completely forgot.’
‘Yes, you did,’ replied the woman on his doorstep, thin lips and beautifully coiffed blonde hair. ‘Hello, Ruben.’
‘Hello, Penny,’ he managed.
Standing awkwardly next to his ex-girlfriend, feet turned out like a duck, eyes as saucepan-wide as they’d ever been, stood his eleven, no, twelve-year-old daughter.
‘Hey, Zadie,’ Ruben said with a lame half-wave that he regretted as soon as he’d done it.
‘Hi, Ruben,’ said the girl, smiling shyly.
Ruben looked back up at the ferocious blonde. ‘I’m really sorry. It totally slipped my mind.’ He winced as he said it, aware that one wasn’t meant to say they had forgotten about looking after their daughter, in front of said daughter, who was sucking up every detail like an overzealous Dyson. ‘Why didn’t you ring me?’
‘I did ring you but it went straight to answerphone. And I emailed,’ Penny said, eyes narrowed, expression chal- lenging.
As he had discovered trying to finalise things with the estate agent, the signal at the house was terrible. And Ruben doubted he’d updated Penny with his new email address.
‘How did you know I was here?’
‘Instagram, Ruben. Where does anyone look to find the vain?’
Ruben could feel himself blush as he remembered posing in front of the Georgian entrance columns in his flat cap and Barbour, and suddenly felt like a bit of a tool.
‘When I didn’t hear from you I was going to ask my mother, but she’s taken a fall – she’s OK, don’t worry, not that you would. And as you know, but you’ve probably forgotten, I’m going on my honeymoon tomorrow – yes, I did get married, it was wonderful, thanks for asking.’ Ruben had the inappropriate recollection that Penny hadn’t paused for breath the one time they’d slept together either. ‘And Zadie was insistent she stayed with you.’
They turned to look at Zadie, who was beaming up at Ruben, her sequinned rucksack glinting in the sun, her heart-shaped sunglasses perched on her head.
He tried to remember the last time he’d seen her. There was that dreadful time he took her to the Royal Academy of Arts champagne reception and she set the alarms off reach- ing for a Damien Hirst. Or was it when he’d lost her at the London Aquarium, which, while very stressful, had actually led to a pretty good date with the mother-of-two who’d found her. The giant black cat appeared from the bushes and wound its way through Zadie’s legs, making her giggle. Distracted from the current predicament, Ruben tried to unsuccessfully block its entrance into the house with his foot but the cat went in regardless. Zadie followed, delighted. Any further attempts Ruben might have made to evict the mangy animal were paused by Penny’s authoritative beckoning for him to move out of
Ruben frowned, one eye still on the enemy cat as he followed Penny down a couple of steps.
‘I can’t believe you forgot, you complete moron,’ Penny hissed, dragging him further away by the sleeve. ‘You’d better treat her right or I will kill you. And I mean it. Actually murder you.’
Ruben reared back, unused to people taking such a tone with him. ‘All right, steady on.’
‘If it was up to me, I’d have told her exactly what a loafing good-for-nothing you are, but that is not the kind of parent I am,’ she snapped.
‘I’m not a loafing good-for—’
She cut him off. ‘I’m not interested, Ruben. Do you know how often she goes on and on about spending time with her real dad? Not that Barry isn’t like a real dad to her, but there you go. You have two weeks, don’t mess it up!’
Ruben looked from Penny’s murderous ire back to Zadie lying on the floor with the cat on her belly. The sight of both causing him a great deal of discomfort. ‘I’m not actually plan- ning to stay here that long.’
‘I don’t care where you go, Ruben, as long as you take her with you, you can go to the bloody Bahamas if you want. Just stay away from St Tropez because that’s where I’ll be.’
‘Nice choice.’ Ruben loved St Tropez.
‘Please focus on the task in hand,’ Penny sighed. ‘Here’s her suitcase.’ She hoisted a pink Hello Kitty suitcase up the front steps and plonked it down next to Ruben. ‘She’s a vegetarian now …’
Ruben rolled his eyes.
Penny ignored him. ‘If the worst comes to it just give her cereal, she loves cereal.’
‘I love cereal,’ Ruben said, pleasantly surprised.
‘Well, there you go, perfect for each other,’ Penny said curtly, and without pausing for breath turned towards Zadie and said sweetly, ‘Darling, Mummy has to go now. You’ll be good, yes? Anything you need, you call me.’
‘OK,’ Zadie said brightly, scooping up the cat and coming over to give her mum a kiss goodbye.
‘Erm, hang on a tick—’ Ruben tried to interject.
‘You’ll be all right, yes?’ Penny bent down so she was level with her daughter.
‘It’s only two weeks,’ Penny said, seeming to reassure her- self more than anyone. Then she glanced uncertainly from Zadie to Ruben and added, ‘It’s not too late to change your mind, honey.’
‘Absolutely, it’s not too late,’ Ruben agreed.
But Zadie went to stand by Ruben’s side, still clutching the fat flea-ridden cat. ‘I’ll be fine. We’ll be fine! We’ll have a great time,’ she added, placing her soft hand in his.
Ruben held it awkwardly. Penny pursed her lips. ‘Mmm.’
Zadie laughed. ‘Honestly, it’ll be fine.’
Ruben felt his face get warm. ‘Penny, listen, I think we should …’
But Penny ignored him and gave her daughter a giant hug, the cat squashed between them, determined not to give up his new-found ally.
‘Penny, really …’ Ruben said a little more urgent now. ‘Like I said, I’ll kill you,’ Penny hissed.
‘OK, OK,’ Ruben held up a hand to ward her off.
Penny blew Zadie lots of kisses and called, ‘Bye, honey. I love you,’ while beeping open her BMW.
‘Have a good honeymoon,’ Ruben shouted with saccharine insincerity.
‘I will,’ Penny called back, her tone equally false. ‘Look after her,’ Penny ordered as she got in the car.
Ruben did a bored nod as if he’d got the message.
Penny was looking worriedly at Zadie, who called, ‘I’ll be fine here with Dad.’
‘Ruben,’ Ruben corrected.
‘Ruben,’ Zadie giggled like it was a joke.
Penny shook her head like he’d failed at the first hurdle.
Twenty-four hours in, Ruben had failed at the second, third and fourth hurdles too.
All he wanted was a second on his own. Half an hour tops and he’d be happy. He had wondered more than once if it was possible to take the batteries out of a person. When he’d gone to bed he’d been so exhausted he’d fallen straight to sleep only to be woken up at seven o’clock sharp with her standing over him, dressed in a multicoloured unicorn onesie saying, ‘Me, my mum and Barry all read together in the morning. Barry gets up and makes us both a cup of tea, like every day, without fail.’
‘That’s nice,’ Ruben had replied, bleary-eyed. ‘I don’t drink tea.’
‘You don’t drink tea?’ And she was off. By the time he’d man- aged to locate his dressing gown and fumble himself to a sitting position, he’d found out that Aunty Janice drank seventeen cups of tea a day and Uncle Peter couldn’t understand the obsession with high-street coffee when you could have a cup of PG Tips
for relatively free. Who were these people, Ruben wondered, and why hadn’t they taken Zadie for two weeks? As if on cue, ‘They now live in Australia. Barry was really sad to see them go. He cried.’
‘Did he?’ said Ruben, trying to sound engaged. Ruben usu- ally enjoyed a leisurely wake-up that involved a good stretch while Amazon’s lovely Alexa brought him up to date with the news and what weather to expect.
‘Barry says that real men aren’t afraid to cry. Do you cry, Ruben?’ Zadie was sitting on her knees on the bed.
‘When was the last time I cried?’ Ruben rubbed his forehead. He couldn’t remember. By all accounts it should have been when he’d got the call to say his dad had died, but he knew for certain that there had been no tears.
The rest of the day with Zadie had carried on in much the same fashion. Question after question. Ruben longed for a glass of ’52 Latour in his pants on the balcony of his London flat smoking a Cuban and indulging in some Radio Four quietly so the attractive Gen Z on the floor below didn’t hear. Instead, it was Little Mix and Stormzy. Ruben had actually bought a pair of Stormzy tickets recently to impress a Tinder date but the affair had come to an end before said concert had taken place. Outside it had started to rain. Huge great globs of water keeping them inside. The black cat sat forlornly soaked on the windowsill. Ruben didn’t want to be confined indoors with his ever-present daughter following him round as he hauled open drapes in the
various bedrooms just to get some light into the place.
‘Ooh, this is nice, that’s nice,’ she said, picking things up, putting them down. She opened things and shut things, she dropped things. She broke things. ‘Sorry, sorry!’
‘It’s fine, it’s fine,’ he heard himself say, growing increas- ingly tight-lipped while trying his hardest to remain relaxed. He caught his facial expression in one of the giant gilt mir- rors and saw a flicker of his father in his agitated expression. Internally imagining, while a candlestick toppled as Zadie reached for a porcelain figurine, what his dad would have said had he done the same.
And if he heard another word about bloody perfect stepdad, Barry … Barry who cried but also Barry who fixed things. Barry who was great at washing-up and could kick a football like a pro. Barry who built their extension single-handed and had the neighbours queuing up for one of his unique garden water features.
And she was always hungry. Ruben thought he was hungry a lot of the time, but this was another level. When the incessant moaning got too much, he drove to the Co-op at the petrol station, wound her up and let her go. Hence why, by dinnertime, they were eating Sugar Puffs standing up in the kitchen. ‘My mum says we have to have dinner at the table, it’s proper family time.’ Ruben was too exhausted to listen. He closed his eyes and dreamed of his noise-cancelling headphones lying casually on his desk at his London flat. For a little calming self-indulgence, he furtively checked his Tinder, Instagram, Twitter and weather apps. ‘Barry says we’re not allowed phones while we eat.’ Suddenly a drop of rain landed on his nose and Zadie said, ‘Oh, you’ve got a leak.’
Ruben looked up to see a large grey damp patch on the flat-roofed kitchen ceiling spreading above them. ‘Shit.’
‘Shall we call Barry?’ Zadie asked. ‘He’d know what to do.’ The cat, who Zadie had brought in dripping and refused to
let Ruben evict, was asleep on a kitchen chair. It opened one pitying, disdainful eye, exacerbating in that look everything Ruben was feeling.
‘Shoo!’ he said to the cat, clapping his hands.
‘Don’t!’ Zadie stepped between them but it made no dif- ference, the cat wasn’t going anywhere, it just curled back up in a different position.
The rain dripped from the ceiling to the tiled floor.
‘I’ll call someone,’ said Ruben, getting his phone out and finding there was only one bar of reception. He had to go right up to the top floor to get anything resembling a signal. Zadie trotted after him. When he turned to question her shadowing, she said, ‘It’s scary down there on my own.’
Ruben remembered being terrified of the house at night. The creaking of the stairs. The hoot of the owl. His father’s irate bark, ‘For Christ’s sake, leave him. Let him cry. No son of mine is a coward.’
He called the emergency roofer. ‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t really hear you. Tonight? Oh no. No one available tonight. We can be there first thing tomorrow.’
‘Fine.’ Ruben would just put a bucket under the leak for now. They headed back to the kitchen, Zadie so close she was almost wrapped round his waist, followed by the thump of the cat. She caught him checking his reflection in the hallway mirror,
an ingrained habit, and pulled his hand to make him pause. ‘Do you think we look alike?’ she asked, a little shy as she
stood next to him. Her wide eyes and black-framed glasses. Plump, pink puppy-fat cheeks. Expression so open it was almost painful. In contrast, Ruben looked old. The other day he’d discovered his first grey hairs. His cleaner, Hildegard, had
recommended a spray that women use to cover it up. There was nothing, he discovered, like spray-on hair colour to make you feel old. Standing beside Zadie he looked ancient.
‘Maybe,’ he said, non-committal, turning away before he could even consider resemblances. His body starting to envelop itself in a protective force field.
Zadie shrugged. ‘I think we do.’ Nothing was able to dent her limpet enthusiasm.
In the kitchen, the patch on the ceiling was getting exponen- tially bigger. The bowl he’d put on the floor was already full.
Zadie stared up at it, hands on her hips. Now she looked like her mother. ‘It’s got much worse.’
‘Yes, I can see that, thank you.’ Curse his life. ‘Barry would know what to do.’
‘I’m sure he would,’ said Ruben, bashing about in the cup- board under the sink for a bucket.
‘That’ll fill up really quickly,’ Zadie commented when he appeared with an old red one.
‘Yes,’ he muttered in agreement.
Then after a few seconds.‘I think the bucket has a hole in it.’ ‘Bollocks.’
‘That’s a pound in the swear jar.’ ‘A pound! Are you kidding me?’
‘Some words are worse than others.’
Ruben could think of a million words he’d like to say but he couldn’t afford it.
‘When we had a leak once, Barry fixed it himself. He went out the skylight on to the roof. It was really exciting.’
‘I’m sure it was.’ Ruben replaced the broken bucket with the bowl and searched the kitchen for something more substantial.
The cat stretched and yawned, mocking Ruben’s inadequacy. The rain splashed on another area of the floor.
‘There’s another leak!’ Zadie was hopping.
‘For Christ’s sake!’ As soon as he said it, Ruben flinched and stopped. He had his hands on his hips, his brow furrowed. If he looked in the mirror now he’d be the spitting image of his father. He took a deep breath, exhaled slowly like his yoga teacher had taught him. He could do this.
‘Shall I call Barry—’
‘No,’ Ruben held up a hand. ‘No, I’ll do it myself.’ Zadie’s eyes lit up.
Ruben yanked on his old Barbour and pushed his feet into his wellingtons, while Zadie slipped on her Converse. He was outside in the garden shed before he really stopped to consider what he was doing, pushing spiderwebs and plant pots out of the way to get to the ladder on the far wall. Something fluttered in the darkness, Ruben yelped as a bat flew out, making him jump, and Zadie laugh. He searched the shelves for a tarpaulin and something to hold it down with, finding a rusty staple gun in a box of old tools. Zadie held onto the bundle of plastic and the staple gun as Ruben swept away more cobwebs to haul the ladder out and up the path. The rain had slicked back their hair, soaking through his coat, getting in his eyes.
As soon as he’d stepped outside the house he’d realised it was a mistake. He wanted to go back inside. If Zadie wasn’t there he’d have left the leaking bucket where it was and ignored the whole fiasco till a professional could fix it in the morning. He’d have just thrown money at the situation. But the deadly combination of her heroically capable stepdad and the memory
of his own authoritarian father had propelled him into this ridiculous no-man’s land as he tried to out-do one and banish the other, succeeding only in making a mockery of himself.
The ladder tipped and swayed as he extended it to its full height, hands slippery with rain, and propped it up against the side of the house, pushing the leaves of a buddleia out of the way and securing the base against a particularly vile faux wishing well, another of the garden ornaments for which his father had such a penchant.
‘Shall I hold it?’ Zadie asked, face soaked.
‘Definitely,’ said Ruben, as he tested the slippery ladder rungs, more reluctant now than ever to head up to the kitchen roof. Nothing but pride spurring him on. His wellingtons slid as he started to climb. The whole endeavour was foolish. But Zadie seemed to be enjoying herself. ‘This is exciting, isn’t it?’ she grinned, little wet hands holding tight to the ladder.
Rain slicked his hair to his forehead. The staple gun weighed down his coat pocket. He had a folded tarpaulin under his arm. It was dark, the noise of the rain was deafening. He could see the dreaded black cat smugly stretched out along the kitchen radiator, not out in the pissing rain with a pointless point to prove. ‘This is ridiculous,’ he muttered.
‘You can do it, Ruben!’ Zadie urged him on.
He exhaled, slow and resigned. His wellie slipped as it caught on the rung and made him wobble. When he got to the roof, he held onto the gutter with one hand and leant forward to exam- ine the felting. He should have brought a torch. What kind of idiot goes up on the roof in the dark and doesn’t bring a torch? Annoyed with himself, he looked down. It was quite a long way. Instead, he focused on where the hole might be by following
the line up from the red bucket he could see through the almost ceiling-high windows, and started to staple the tarpaulin at random over the approximate area.
It was an ill-conceived plan and he knew it, but he couldn’t back out now.
‘Barry would be SO impressed. I’m not sure even he would go out in the rain.’
Ruben swiped the water from his eyes. ‘You said—’ but then he stopped himself, it was too petty. He imagined Penny catching sight of him in horror – he’d been tasked with being a responsible adult and looking after his daughter and he was precariously up a ladder in—
‘Is that thunder?’ ‘Fuck.’
‘That’s five pounds!’
The tarpaulin was too big, buckling where he’d stapled it in crumpled lumps. He imagined his father watching with a sneer
– ‘de Lacys never show weakness, boy!’ Even more frustrated now, Ruben tried to flatten the tarpaulin, steadying himself on the gutter, stapling great pockets of the woven plastic. He stapled through his index finger at the same time as the cheap guttering snapped.
‘Argh!’ he cried, yanking his stapled hand back in shock. The plastic beneath his other hand shearing, his foot losing purchase and suddenly he was falling, sliding down the ladder, his hands grappling for hold, ungainly in his tragedy. Zadie’s little face gasped in horror. Fear infused every pore of his being as his body whacked and thumped against the ladder.
The buddleia softened his fall. But it was the crumbling wishing well that took the brunt of the impact, smashed first
by the ladder and then further destroyed by the weight of Ruben’s body.
He felt a moment of triumph considering his father’s passion for ornamental garden statues, but the triumph was short-lived as the bruising pain from the fall kicked in. Zadie was peering over him with a look of sheer and utter panic that he was dead. ‘It’s OK, I’m OK.’ He sat up. His head throbbed. His back
ached. Rain pelted his skin.
Zadie fussed around him. But Ruben just sat for a moment, staring at the broken old stones between his legs, thankful that the wishing well wasn’t real otherwise he’d have plummeted metres underground, thinking enough was enough. He would leave for London in the morning. He’d get his cleaner Hildegard to babysit.
But then something among the rubble caught his eye. His brain was a little slower to compute as his hand reached to pick it up.
Zadie stopped fretting and asked, ‘What’s that?’
It was a little blue plastic box. Ruben hadn’t seen one for years. It immediately brought back memories of unconcealed excitement. Of unfolding a square of paper. The staccato hand- writing in black biro. He remembered school holidays racing through the woods. Light flickering through canopies of leaves. The thrill of the chase. The crackle of bonfires. Waves crashing on the beach. The dart of something in the undergrowth. The goading, the fun, the triumph. The dares to reach out for antlers soft as velvet. The warmth of a darkened room. The flicker of a TV. Hot coffee. Illicit cigarette smoke. The throatiness of her laugh. The shocking green of her eyes. The scent of her skin. The humour of her gently mocking gaze.
My God, he must have had a knock to the head. ‘What is it?’ Zadie asked again.
Ruben’s hand rested on the lid of the box, reluctant to open it as a strange mix of warmth and trepidation infused him. ‘It’s a clue,’ he said, ‘for a treasure hunt.’
‘Ooh! Can we do it?’ she asked, voice squeaky with excite- ment.
Ruben didn’t reply straight away. Instead, he turned the box over in his hands, mulling over the possibilities and found himself suddenly less inclined to dash back to London. He looked across at his overeager daughter. ‘The thing is,’ he said, forehead creasing, ‘it’s not really our treasure hunt to do.’