Bridge Winterman, of course, blamed the weather on her husband. But then, they had been so used to fighting that he was first choice to be held responsible for everything that went wrong, and she knew that he afforded her the same negative importance in his life. When she took a breath, and with it inhaled some sense, she did concede that Luke was probably less at fault than the idiot meteorologists who had failed to forecast the whole country would be plunged into an arctic winter. How could they do that in this day and age with all the highfalutin technology at their disposal? Then again, in 1987, two years after she’d been born, one particular well-known weatherman had assured the British public that the rumor of a hurricane heading toward the UK was utter nonsense. A few hours later, the worst storm in three centuries began to batter the southern half of the country and more or less decimated it, so this wasn’t exactly a one-off situation.
Bridge cut out peripheral thoughts of infamous weathermen and Luke to concentrate on driving. All she could see through the windshield was a sheet of white, and those snowflakes flying toward her were starting to have a hypnotic effect on her. But stopping wasn’t an option, not when she was only five miles from her destination.
She’d suggested the meeting should take place at a country house hotel, near enough to the A1 but at the same time off the beaten track. She wasn’t sure if she’d picked the venue because it was grand enough to be a suitable place to begin the end of their divorce proceedings, or because of its awkward-to-get-to location. Either way, Bridge would be coming home from the borders after spending three days viewing derelict properties for sale, Luke was at a convention on the east coast, and the hotel would be equidistant between them on the twenty-third, the planets perfectly aligned for once in their busy schedules. The meeting would be brief, five minutes tops; just enough time for them each to sign a piece of paper, then swap them over to return to their respective solicitors. Then Bridge could go back to Derby and Luke could head home over the Pennines and they could both enjoy a merry Christmas. Job done.
The “negotiations” to end their marriage cleanly had not gone smoothly so far. For almost five years they had spat and fought with each other to exit their union, raged over the phone, pinged off both frosty and heated emails full of recriminations, demanded statements, information, accounts, reports. At least neither of them was stupid enough to have employed solicitors to do the bulk of the battling for them or they would have been bankrupt long ago. But handling it all personally had long since taken its toll and now they were burned out with it. The letters of intent had been Luke’s idea. “Look, Bridge, you have Ben in your life now and I have Carmen, so let’s just end this for their sakes as well as ours and move on,” he’d said in an email. “Get your solicitor to draft something to the effect that you agree to a no-fault divorce and then sign it. I’ll get my solicitor to do the same for me and then we’ll exchange them. If it makes you feel more secure, we’ll do it face-to-face so there’s no room for any more nonsense.”
She’d said yes. Even though she didn’t want to see him. And also, she did.
“What the f—?” She curbed the expletive as her eye took in a screen grab of the GPS that was now saying she had sixteen miles to travel; how the hell could it have shot up from reporting five after her car had barely crawled a hundred yards? There was absolutely no way that Bridge could go another sixteen miles in this, and five wasn’t looking good either. The landscape appeared as if a god was emptying giant boxes of laundry powder over the earth. She was a competent driver, but a gust of anxiety was blowing into her confidence now, making it flap as surely as the sign at the side of the road in the near distance was doing.
“Hey, Siri,” she said to her phone.
“What’s up?” Siri answered.
“Where the buggery bollocks am I?”
Siri’s answer, to her surprise, was not, In the middle of nowhere, love. Two hours away from dying of hypothermia, so that’ll teach you for not driving a sensible car, but a reasoned and encouraging, “You are on the A7501, southwest of Whitby.”
“Where’s the nearest town?”
“I couldn’t find any matching places.”
“Where’s the nearest village?”
“I couldn’t find any matching places.”
Bridge growled impatiently. “Siri, I know you’re a thing that lives in a phone, but help me out here. Where’s the nearest farm, stable, shelter…”
“The closest one I see is Figgy Hollow in two miles to your left.”
Well, that’s more like it, thought Bridge, drawing level with the flapping sign and making out the words “Figgy Hollow” and a left-pointing arrow backing up what Siri said. She would be stupid if she didn’t go there and stay put until this infernal snow cleared, even if Figgy Hollow was one of those places inhabited by strange country folk who bred werewolves and married close relatives. There was bound to be a church and, in the absence of a hotel or a pub or something, she’d throw herself upon its mercy like Esmeralda seeking sanctuary in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
“Make a U-turn where—”
“Oh, shut up, you annoying, unreliable tart,” Bridge spoke over the GPS voice as she swung a left. She had lost all confidence in her after she’d gotten the mileage wrong. “I’m ignoring you in favor of Siri, so save your breath.”
The road was narrow, deserted; she kept crawling forward until she was rewarded by the sight of buildings, which drew a weary sigh of relief from her: a small church, some cottages, the roofs thickly iced with snow and—deep joy—the Figgy Hollow Inn. She projected herself forward in time ten minutes, sitting in front of a log fire defrosting the outside of her while a large brandy warmed up her insides.
The ignition on her Porsche cut out as soon as she braked near the parking lot sign; it might as well have held up a limp hand and said, “No more, I need to rest.” It was like a racehorse of the car world: lovely to look at, fine on a familiar course, but throw in some hardship and it became a proper wet blanket. Bridge slipped on her suit jacket, opened the car door, trading the cozy warmth for a blast of Arctic wind, and hurried across to the front door of the inn, only to find that it was locked. Oh, bloody marvelous, she said to herself, noticing that in the window stood a square of cardboard with the words, OPEN FOR PREBOOKED RESERVATIONS ONLY. CHRISTMAS DAY FULLY BOOKED written on it. But one thing was for sure: she couldn’t sit here for two days waiting for someone to open up.
She peered in the window, hoping to see a cleaner vacuuming around or a barman polishing tables, but there was no one. She rapped on the glass in a vain attempt to summon somebody who might be hidden out of view—a cellarman perhaps, having a crafty indoor cigarette. No response. She banged hard on the door with the side of her fist. Still nothing. Pulling her jacket tight around her, she stepped, but mostly slid, in her snow-unfriendly Jimmy Choo boots, around the side of the building, almost falling over a large iron ring attached to a cellar access door in the ground, hidden by snow. She bent and pulled it, but it was firmly secured from the inside. There was a shed full of logs opposite, and at the back of the property she found another door with an iron grille over it and a long, narrow window to its right. She tapped as hard as she dared on the glass, hoping against hope that someone was lurking in the back half of the building, but really she knew she was on the road to nowhere with all her efforts; the place felt empty as well as looked it.
There was always the church, she supposed, making her way to it across the parking lot and the one-lane road, traversing a short bridge that stood over a deep, thin ribbon of stream, slipping and sliding with none of the grace of Jayne Torvill. She tried the great arched door, twisting the rusted ring, then engaged in a bit more banging with various parts of her hand to absolutely no avail. So on it was, to the row of six adjacent cottages. She peered through the small window of the first of them, but it was too dark, the glass too dirty to see through. A knock on the door yielded the same result as every other knock she’d tried in the past fifteen minutes. She repeated the process with the remaining five houses—nothing; summer vacation cottages no doubt, abandoned until the start of the season. She returned to her best—well, only—option of shelter: the inn. And if she couldn’t find a way into it, she’d have to make one and risk the consequences. Better to be prosecuted for breaking and entering than be found frozen to her steering wheel, she reasoned.
Thanks to a delinquent spell as a teen, Bridge was deft with a lock and a screwdriver, and she always carried a toolbox with her in the car. A dysfunctional, unorganized upbringing had led her to find solace and stability in being prepared for most eventualities, although that did not extend to her having her waterproof coat and snow-worthy wellingtons with her today. They were currently sitting in the back of the sturdy four-by-four she would have driven if a) she hadn’t been intent on trying to show Luke Palfreyman that she was more than a match for him in the financial stakes, and b) the weathermen of the UK hadn’t been such inept idiots.
She swung open the trunk, hoisted out the metal box stored in the compartment under the mat, and pulled out a flat-blade screwdriver, her breaking-in implement of choice. If this didn’t work, she’d smash a window and gain entry that way. But she was pretty confident in her abilities, and rightly so; even after all these years, she still had the touch. A couple of artful prods and twists in the keyhole and there was a satisfying click. She gave the door a heavy push to open it, and a rush of air came out at her with a sigh, as if it had been trapped and was thankful for its freedom.
She called hello, apology cued in her mouth just in case she’d been mistaken and there was someone within after all, but, not surprisingly, there was only silence and darkness to greet her.