“How lovely to see you, do come in.” Theresa relieved her guests of the proffered bottle of wine and box of chocolates. “This way.” She pointed to the empty lounge and groaned inwardly. Why would the Hendersons be the ones to arrive half an hour early and why would Evan still be out on a run? “Let me get you each a drink; do make yourselves at home.”

Theresa checked the contents of the oven, stirred the soup, and put the salad ingredients into a bowl of iced water before taking a beer and a glass of wine through to the lounge. Steven was scrutinising the bookshelves while Annette was handling the ornaments decorating the shelf near the door. She looked up as Theresa entered and smiled broadly. “Wine! I’ve been looking forward to a glass all day.”

“An interesting collection of books you have here,” Steven observed while sipping his beer. “Very interesting indeed.” He sat down heavily. “Is Evan around?”

“He’ll be here shortly.” Theresa glanced at her wristwatch, willing her husband to hurry up. “The Davidsons and the Yeomans should arrive soon too.” Her voice pooled into an empty silence. Should she sit down or make an excuse to finish off the dinner? Her guests were both eyeing her intently.

“We’re very early I know.” Annette gulped at her wine. “Deliberately so, I might add.” She smiled and waved her arm around the room, her many bangles clamouring for attention. “I love looking inside other people’s houses. It’s always so interesting to see what the interior reveals about the characters within.” She glanced across at her husband comfortably ensconced in Evan’s favourite easy chair.

“I’m sure you have a few more things to do in the kitchen,” she continued. “Don’t mind us. Another glass of wine please and all will be well.”

Theresa heard Evan unlocking the back door. She slipped into the kitchen, the empty wine glass in hand. “Your ‘very important’ Hendersons arrived a while ago,” she hissed. “You’d better be downstairs pronto!”

“Let me take the wine through. I should have warned you Annette’s a bit loopy. Steven’s a good bloke though and he knows a lot about otters.”

“Evan, you’re all sweaty and _ “

“No matter.” He kissed Theresa on her cheek. “Dinner smells so good I can hardly wait.”

Theresa relaxed a little once their other guests had arrived. Annette appeared to be in her element and chatted about anything and everything at once. She had imbibed several glasses of wine before everyone at last gathered around the dinner table, yet showed no sign of fatigue.

Olivia had just been describing a guest house she and her husband had stayed in when Annette cut across her with “You have such a lovely house, Theresa. It is charming and, well, lived in. I feel quite at home here.”

“Thank you.” Theresa rose to gather the dinner plates to take through to the kitchen. Dessert, then cheese and biscuits, coffee, perhaps a liqueur or two and then everyone can go home, she thought wearily.

“Your guest bathroom is very austere though.” Annette’s comment halted Theresa in her tracks.

“Well, it’s a ‘working bathroom’ really.” Theresa was tired of being polite to this larger than life woman. “We use it all the time as it is downstairs.”

“I’m looking forward to dessert,” Fiona broke in. She rose too. “Let me help you with the dishes.”

It was while everyone was chatting over dessert that Annette excused herself from the table. “Just need to powder my nose,” she announced loudly with a conspiratorial wink and swept out of the room.

Olivia helped to bring in the cheese, nuts, biscuits and fruit. There was still no sign of Annette, whose dessert remained untouched. “She’s not in the bathroom, I checked,” Fiona murmured.

The cheese platter did the rounds. Evan was so absorbed in conversation that he didn’t seem to notice the missing guest. Steven too was unperturbed, tucking into more cheese as the platter came and went.

“Perhaps she went outside for a breath of fresh air,” Olivia suggested.

“Does she smoke?” Theresa got up to make coffee. The untouched dessert bowl seemed to glare at her.

“She has had a lot of wine,” Fiona whispered, “I’ll check if she’s fallen asleep outside.” She too gathered plates as an excuse for leaving the table. The men remained oblivious to being left on their own.

Coffee was served. Theresa glanced at her watch; it was already ten o’clock. Annette had been missing for an hour. Olivia emptied the three boxes of chocolates onto a plate and passed them round. By this time even Evan had noticed the untouched dessert bowl and the empty chair. He looked at Theresa enquiringly; she shrugged her shoulders while casting a glance at Steven.

Chocolates! My favourite after-dinner treat!” Annette swept into the room, her cheeks flushed and the ends of her hair slightly damp. “Darlings, you simply must know that this couple have the most divine bathroom upstairs.” She wolfed down her dessert and emptied the dregs of a wine bottle into her glass.

“I’m glad you approve,” Theresa responded stiffly. “Would you care for a cup of coffee?”

“Oh, Prissy Missy!” Annette laughed loudly. “I couldn’t resist a peek at all the unguents in your cupboard. Tried most of them in a most luxurious bath. Such a heavenly mixture of scents. No coffee. More wine though to go with the chocolates.”

“You bathed?” Olivia and Fiona asked in unison. The men stared at them.

“Of course! How else can one appreciate the effect? I noticed quite a few you haven’t opened yet.”

Steven stood up abruptly, followed by everyone else. “Thank you for a wonderful evening Evan, Theresa.” He held his wife in a firm grip. “It’s time for us to go home dear.”

“Oh what a pity,” she responded, still smiling broadly. “I was really beginning to feel so at home here.”


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