Friday, 6 April 2012

Predisposed To Murder - Chapter One

(a novel in three acts)
Roger Taber

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in any retrieval systems or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior (written) permission of the author.

The Present Day
Enter Fred Winter


“I’m afraid people disappear all the time, Mrs Cutler.” Fred Winter contemplated, not unsympathetically, a dumpy little woman whose straight grey hair boasted streaks of pink that struck him as most peculiar. “That doesn’t mean to say they’ve all been murdered.”
“He’s dead, I can feel it here,” the woman insisted, hand on heart. “He would never have stayed away all this time without getting in touch.  I’m his mother, for heaven’s sake. If you ask me, she’s done away with him…or got someone else to do her dirty work… like she did the last time,” she added malevolently.
“By ‘she’ I take it you’re referring to Nina Fox?” Winter bristled. He did not approve of snap judgements. Annie Cutler, on the other hand, clearly judged the TV sit-com star responsible for her son’s disappearance. That well may be, of course. But murder…now, that was something else.
“Didn’t she get somebody to do away with poor Ray Bannister a couple of years ago?” demanded the woman breathlessly. It was plainly a hypothetical question.  Fumbling in a huge handbag, she produced an asthma spray then gasped, “She’s already got some other poor devil doing time for her, the whore!” Doesn’t that tell you what she’s like? I tell you, she’s done away with my son and I’ll see she pays for it if it kills me!” she wheezed and made a visible effort to calm herself, breathing out gently several times before holding the spray upright and placing it between her lips.
Winter watched with grim fascination as Annie Cutler pressed down on the canister to release its medication and mentally counted to ten. As he did so, he had a vivid sense of déjà vu.  Helen, his late wife had suffered from asthma. He glanced at a second woman in the room. “Why on earth did you have to bring her here?” he longed to yell but, instead, let a pained expression suffice.
Carol Brady shrugged as if to say, “I was desperate.” Both contemplated the dumpy little woman, breathing more easily now and dabbing at her eyes with a hanky. It appealed to Fred Winter’s imagination that the spacious sofa into which she had subsided seemed intent on gobbling her up.
“Will you help me?” Annie Cutler sniffed and blew her nose.
Winter pursed his lips and made no reply. It appealed to his sense of humour, however, that the woman continued to peer at him as if across immeasurable time and space, sumptuous cushions sucking her into a dark void.  Certainly, it was the fantasy rather than her question that held his interest. 
“It wouldn’t hurt to have a quiet word with Nina Fox, surely?”  Carol Brady ventured to suggest.  Had it been a mistake to come, she asked herself for the umpteenth time?  Freddy had been in one of his indifferent moods for weeks, returning neither calls nor emails. The house looked a mess, as if he hadn’t attempted to tidy up in a month of Sundays. Her eyes strayed to the French windows and the jungle of a garden outside. Inwardly, at least, she permitted herself a wry smile. If Freddy was letting himself go again, that meant he was bored. Annie Cutler may not be the ideal solution but any solution was better than none, surely?  Besides, she wanted the other woman out of her hair and Freddy was just the person to oblige.
She caught his eye with a look that challenged him to deny her prognosis. He turned away but not before she recognized a grudging flicker of acknowledgement. They understood each other well, had been lovers once, years ago. Now they were … just good friends? But Carol’s alter ego warned her not to go there and she forced herself to return to the matter in hand. “Nina would love to see you,” she continued. “I’ve told her all about you.”
Winter merely raised a quizzical, noncommittal eyebrow.
“Nina’s mother, Pat, and I were at school together,” Carol went on, “which is why Annie came to see me.” She glanced at the other woman as if for confirmation but if Annie Cutler saw she appeared not to notice, still dabbing at the handkerchief and looking increasingly uncomfortable. It was as if the armchair had a hidden agenda. Carol resisted an urge to laugh. Poor Annie had the look of a cornered animal or, in this case, someone who had let herself sink farther into the sofa than was wise for a woman of her shape and size. “Since Pat died, I’ve been in touch with Nina. She calls me all the time. Maybe she sees me as a mother substitute, I don’t know. But if I ask her to see you, she’ll certainly fit you in.”
“Fit me in?” Winter was curious.
“You know these TV people, never easy to pin down.”
“She’s on TV?” The penny dropped. “Oh, you mean that Nina Fox, the one who plays a dippy young woman in the sit-com…June something-or-other?”
April Showers,” Carol corrected him testily, well aware that he was winding her up, “Yes, that Nina Fox.”
“A sort of ‘Billy Liar’ with boobs,” Winter remarked, a wicked grin twitching at the mouth.
Carol shrugged. “If you like...”
“You’re not going to tell me you think it’s any good?  Come off it, Carol, we both know better than that. Oh, it tries to be funny. It just never makes it, doesn’t even come close if you ask me.” Winter observed. “If anyone thinks it’s funny, all I can say is they must be fooled by all that canned laughter.”
“You might think so, others disagree. It happens to be one of the most successful sit-coms ever.”
“Yes, well, that’s TV audiences for you…gullible!”
“Never mind about all that now,” Carol snapped. “Will you go and see Nina Fox?”
“Suppose I do go and see the woman, what then?” He spread his hands in a gesture Carol knew only too well. Oh, he could pretend indifference all he liked. But Freddy was hooked, she knew it.
“Ask her about my son!” squawked the roly-poly figure, wrestling unsuccessfully to right itself among the cushions.
“And if she can throw no light on the matter?” Winter addressed the woman directly, trying hard to keep a straight face. 
“Demand, insist, make her tell you the truth!” The falsetto voice grew shriller with every syllable. “You’re a detective aren’t you?  Carol tells me you’re a damn good one too. Help me and I’ll pay whatever it takes. But PLEASE…find my son,” she sobbed.
“I’d like to help, I really would.” Winter spread his hands again. “But I really don’t see how I can do more than has already been done. Presumably, you’ve been through all the usual Missing Persons channels?” Both women nodded.  “Well then…” He grimaced. “Besides, I’m retired and I don’t do Missing Persons.”
“You found Liam,” said Carol Brady sharply, referring to her son who had disappeared, presumed dead, a couple of years earlier.
“We had a lead on Liam and a good idea where to start looking,” Winter was quick to point out, “As far as I can gather, no one has a clue where this…Max, is it?” Again, both women nodded. “Yes, well, wherever Max has taken himself off is anyone’s guess.” He turned to Annie Cutler. “He and Nina Fox had a blazing row, you said?”
“According to her, she told him to pack his bags and get out of her life.” It was Carol who answered. “He did just that and no one’s seen or heard from him since.”
 “She’s lying,” screeched Annie Cutler. “Well, she would, wouldn’t she, a woman like that? Look what happened last time, with the other one…”
“Suppose you remind me?” said Winter, his voice betraying no more than a flicker of interest.
“Her fiancé stabbed her ex-boyfriend with a kitchen knife.”  Again, it was Carol who answered. “The jury must have decided it was a crime of passion because he was cleared of murder and went down for manslaughter. He got seven years.”
“And did that little whore speak up for him at the trial?”  Annie Cutler interrupted excitedly, “Not on your life. And has she visited him in prison? Of course not, she’s too busy getting herself into the papers with her boozing and her fancy men and other antics. It’s out of sight, out of mind with that sort. She knows she’s responsible for whatever’s happened to my Max and could she care less? No. And, why is that? It’s because she’s a shameless hussy that’s what…shameless!”   The little woman became so agitated that she was propelled out of the cushions under her own steam and all but tumbled on the floor. Swaying precariously on the edge of the chair, she went on, “If you ask me, she wanted poor Ray Bannister out of her hair just like it suited her to get my Max out of the way too. She’ll stoop to anything, I tell you…anything!”
“Ray Bannister?” Winter murmured and wondered why the name sounded vaguely familiar, “That would be the fiancé?”
“No, the boyfriend,” said Carol. “The fiancé was Nathan Sparrow.”
“Ah, yes, I remember now. He’s an economist, right…writes for the FT sometimes?”
Annie Cutler’s head bobbed peculiarly on the short neck. Winter correctly assumed she was nodding.  “My dear Mrs Cutler,” Winter saw fit to remind her, “men have fallen out over women, even killed for them, since the world began.  It hardly seems fair to blame those ladies concerned for the sheer stupidity of the men in their lives.”
Both women bristled but said nothing.
“Maybe it’s a guilt thing. There but for the grace of God and all that…?”  Winter suggested to a fly on the wall that promptly took off and settled on a nearby lampshade.  Winter raised his voice slightly, addressing Annie Cutler with a weary smile. “By all means leave it with me, madam, but I make no promises.”
“Thank you, thank you. I knew you wouldn’t let me down,” Annie Cutler whimpered, letting her short legs drop to the floor and landing on both feet with practised aplomb.
“No promises,” Fred Winter repeated, albeit with a grudging note of admiration not lost on Carol. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, nature calls.”
He left the room without a backward glance.
Both women realised they had been dismissed. Annie Cutler took this at face value and prepared to leave.
“Can I give you a lift?” Carol felt bound to ask and was much relieved when her old neighbour - not really a friend - shook her head.
“I’ll call a taxi.”  Annie rummaged in her handbag and produced a mobile phone. Besides, it’s out of your way.”
“I don’t mind,” Carol lied. The other woman shook her head again and had to squint to make out the numbers on the dial pad.
The doorbell rang less than ten minutes later. It was the taxi.
“Are you staying on?” Annie seemed surprised when Carol nodded. She had completely recovered her self-control, to the extent that Carol suspected she had been putting on an act for Freddy’s benefit. As if he would have been fooled for an instant! She smiled inwardly but kept a straight face as she held the front door open.
“Later. I need to have a few words with Freddy first.” They hugged briefly and Carol watched Annie Cutler clamber in the waiting vehicle. She waited until it had disappeared from view before closing the front door, returning to the living room and helping herself to a large whiskey.
“Has she gone?” Winter reappeared. Carol nodded. “Thank God for small mercies!” he exclaimed with feeling then, “I should have known you wouldn’t take the hint,” he grumbled. “And I’ll have one of those as well while you’re at it.” He watched as Carol reached for the half empty bottle and poured. “A large one, if you don’t mind,” he growled. “Heaven knows I need it after that little lot. Where on earth have you been hiding that suet pudding on legs all these years?  No wonder the son’s done a runner…”
“Her heart’s in the right place.”  Carol poured and handed him the glass, “and I’ll thank you to be a little more respectful. You’re the one who’s always saying we shouldn’t judge by appearances!”
“True.” He took a deep swallow, shook a steely mane of hair and sprawled into the same shabby armchair he had vacated earlier. “But you have to admit she does have the look of a suet pudding about her.”
Carol’s disapproving frown broke into a grin. Simultaneously, they burst into peals of laughter. “Her heart really is in the right place,” Carol repeated as the resulting cacophony subsided, “and she honestly believes something awful has happened to her son.”
“Do you?” Winter felt prompted to ask.
Carol took her time. “It would kill Annie to admit it,” she said at last, “but Max has a temper on him and no mistake. He’s even hit her before now. Oh, yes.” Winter’s eyebrows had shot up. “He’s never been flavour of the month with me, I can tell you. Annie dotes on him, of course. Nina, on the other hand, is more than capable of giving as good as she gets from any man, so it’s not hard to imagine them daggers drawn. On the other hand…” She flashed him a mischievous smile, “…you and I have been daggers drawn often enough, Freddy dear, but we’re still here to tell the tale.”
“More by luck than good judgement,” Winter chuckled. They both laughed. “And what’s all this rum business about an ex-fiancé taking a kitchen knife to the ex-boyfriend? Could it have been a set-up job do you think?”
“If it was, it had nothing to do with Nina.  Ray Bannister…the ex boyfriend,” Carol reminded him as the detective’s eyebrows shot up again, “…was a good friend, that’s all. But she adored Nathan and still does…”
“Ah, yes, Nathan Sparrow. That would be the ex-fiancé, yes?”
“You don’t fool me for one minute, Freddy Winter,” she said crossly, “You remember the case full well. And so you should. The media had a field day at the time. So did your lot, as I recall,” she added scathingly then, “Poor Nina. She still wears the engagement ring he gave her.”
“But she doesn’t, according to Annie Cutler, visit him in prison,” Winter commented, wondering how the woman could possibly be sure.
“According to Nina, Nathan has refused to see her since it happened. He even gave his defence lawyer strict instructions not to call her as a witness.  Since he was pleading guilty, I dare say the prosecution weren’t too bothered about calling her either. It didn’t exactly endear him to the masses. Just about everyone was howling for blood, especially as Ray was being painted as a lamb to the slaughter. Most people think Nathan was damn lucky to get away with manslaughter.”
“Do you?”
Carol shrugged. “I wouldn’t know, never having met the man. Nina still can’t believe it happened. If you ask me, she’s too much like the character she plays on TV, inclined to bury her head in the sand. Not like Pip. Now, there’s someone who’s been through the shredder and how! Pip faces up to things and gets on with life regardless.”
“Pip, you say?” Winter was only mildly curious but the change in Carol’s tone, from matter-of-fact to oozing sympathy and admiration could not be ignored.
“Pip Sparrow is Nathan’s daughter. The poor girl was devastated when her father went to prison and Nina sort of adopted her as far as I can tell.”
“Sort of…?  How do you ‘sort of’ adopt someone? You either do or you don’t, surely?” he growled.
Carol hesitated. “Yes, well, Nina took her in anyway,” Carol told him, “although I get the feeling the poor kid’s little more than an unpaid skivvy.  I could be wrong of course,” she admitted. “Whatever, Pip obviously dotes on Nina.  Not that the child doesn’t need someone to look out for her after everything that’s happened, she certainly does. Her mother and brother died in a house fire about seven years ago. Pip could only have been ten or eleven and now her father’s in jail. Let’s face it. It would finish some people off. But Pip’s a fighter in the best sense of the word.”
“And you say she dotes on Nina Fox?”
“Very laudable of her, I must say. Not to blame the Fox woman for her father’s predicament, I mean. Unlike, for example, your friend Annie, who appears to blame her entirely for son Max’s unexplained disappearance?”
“There’s no comparison. Pip’s case is pretty straightforward whereas the other…well, it’s one of life’s little mysteries, you have to admit.”
“I admit nothing of the kind,” Winter snorted loudly and handed her his glass for a refill. It had been nothing short of torture drinking tea with that teetotal Cutler woman and he was anxious to compensate. “In my experience, nothing is ever straightforward or, at any rate, as straightforward as first appears. As for life’s little mysteries, they invariably prove to be far more straightforward than people would have them.”
Carol shook her head in mock despair as she handed back the glass. “You’re a contradictory old bastard and that’s a fact!” she told him, laughing, as she returned to the drinks cabinet to retrieve her own.
“Less of the old, if you don’t mind,” remonstrated Winter cuttingly, the light of battle discernible in his eyes. “Besides, I’m not much older than you.”
“Touché,” she giggled and perched on his lap. He made no objection and even sneaked an arm around her waist. “Have you made any plans for this evening?” She tugged playfully at his beard.
“No,” he said firmly, “and if you’re entertaining ideas about making any for me, you can forget them.”
“That’s a pity,” was all she said, unsubtly removing his arm and going to sit on the sofa.
“Why, a pity?” he could not resist asking.
“Because Nina Fox is throwing a party for a few friends tonight and we’re invited. I said we’d be there about eight. She followed his glance to the grandmother clock on the wall. “That’s right, Freddy, you have two hours to make yourself look half decent.  Now, there’s a challenge,” she added with a withering look he knew only too well.
Winter opened his mouth to protest and thought better of it. There was no arguing with Carol in this mood. Besides, what hot-blooded male would balk at dinner with the voluptuous Nina Fox?  “What can I say? An evening with you and the sexy, if somewhat dim, Miss Fox…how delightful! I will go and make myself presentable this instant.” He rose, paused, and ran a long, critical gaze over her stunning white trouser suit. “Nothing formal, I take it?” The lovely violet eyes glared at him. He merely drained his glass, made his way, whistling, to the door and closed it gently behind him. “That took the wind out of your sails, my darling Carol,” he chuckled and proceeded to take the stairs two at a time.
Five minutes later found Winter back in the living room and looking very sheepish. “I don’t have a clean shirt,” he confessed, “or clean anything else, come to that.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Carol flung at him.
“There’s no point in taking a bath and smelling of roses if I don’t have any clean clothes to wear so…maybe another time?” he mumbled.
“Tell me something, Freddy.”  Winter raised an eyebrow. “What do the words washing machine, dryer and iron say to you?”
He grinned broadly. “They say, my sweet, that you’re a treasure. The machine’s already loaded and I’ll wear the blue shirt. Oh, and don’t let the iron get too hot, eh?  I’ll be back after a good soak and, don’t worry, we have plenty of time.”  Before she could protest, he had dashed out of the room and was halfway up the stairs.
“Freddy Winter, come back here!” she yelled after him. “If you think I’m going to do your damn laundry you can think again!” But she knew when she was beaten.  The man was incorrigible, always had been. She ran after him.
“What the…?” He was undressing when Carol burst into the bedroom. She could hear the bath water running.
“Don’t let me keep you,” she purred and started to undress.
“What the…?” he repeated.
“If you think I’m doing your dirty washing dressed like this you can think again!” she retorted, slipping out of the immaculate trouser suit and grabbed a hanger from the wardrobe. Don’t worry about me, Freddy darling, I’ll just grab a pair of jeans and an old shirt. You run along and have your bath.”
“You’re incredible,” he murmured and would have embraced her but she ducked neatly aside.
“You’ve got a nerve! Now, go and get cleaned up and let’s hope the drains don’t get blocked up with all the dirt on you. You’re a disgrace.  I warned Annie you looked a mess. But behind that disgusting exterior, I assured her, lurk a fertile mind and good heart.”
“Thank you.” He beamed.
“Don’t thank me,” Carol was livid, “just be glad some people will swallow anything and Annie Cutler is one of them. Now, go and do something with yourself before I do it for you!”
“Is that a threat or a promise?” But he was already ducking the slipper that flew across the room and crashed into the bedroom door just as he slammed it shut behind him.
Minutes later, he was stretched out relaxed and thoughtful in the bath. Winter closed his eyes, stroked his beard and reluctantly turned his attention to Annie Cutler’s fears for her son.
Max Cutler, by all accounts, was no angel. He had a temper on him, Carol had said. So too, it would seem, had Nina Fox. It was hardly a recipe for domestic bliss but…murder? It was an unlikely scenario, little more than the product of a distraught mother’s imagination surely?  Not that anything could be ruled out, he had learned that the hard way. “Damn!” He dropped the soap. Recovering it with some difficulty, he replaced it in its shell dish at the taps end of the bath and lay back again, sweating buckets in rising clouds of steam.
Memory began to provide snippets of information about Nina Fox. Certainly, having a fiancé on trial for the murder of an ex- boyfriend had done wonders for her career. The tabloids had elevated her from sit-com starlet to femme fatale status overnight. As for April Showers, it had leapt from near bottom to near top of the audience ratings and stayed there.  The fact that Nina Fox and bad publicity had gone hand in hand through the public domain ever since had almost certainly helped.  “The trouble with you, Fred Winter?” the detective’s alter ego taunted, “is that you’re a miserable old cynic!”  A cynic, yes, Winter had to concede but, as for being miserable…well, yes, he had been that lately too. 
He sighed, gladly embracing the feeling that much was about to change. Carol was back on the scene, for a start. And wasn’t he about to enjoy the company of a beautiful young actress? Possibly, too, there might be a case in the offing, sufficient, at least, to occupy a mind crying out for succour.
Winter frowned and gave his beard a little tug, a sure sign that he had caught the whiff of a new investigation. The former detective’s nether instincts, however, warned him it had precious little to do with the elusive Max Cutler, on the run no doubt from his awful mother.
Suddenly, unbidden, the name ‘Pip’ sprung to mind. He remembered the incident only vaguely but it was of the kind likely to paste itself, among countless other miscellanies, to the walls of the mind. Resolutely, he began to peel. Mother and son, he recalled, had died in a horrific inferno started by a cigarette left smouldering in a downstairs room. The girl, Pip, had only escaped because she had come down to the kitchen for a glass of water. The father, he could only assume, had not been in the house at the time. This tallied with what Carol had told him and, on the face of it, was of no particular significance since he was being asked to investigate Nina Fox. He could recollect no mention of her at the time. This could only mean the star of April Showers wasn’t on the domestic scene then. Nathan Sparrow had that pleasure yet to come. “For which he is now doing time…” Winter observed grimly.
After lathering himself all over with a brand of soap his late wife always preferred and being more than a shade lavish with shampoo on his hair, he gladly let his entire body submerge. Eyes closed and holding his breath, Winter let his body float across time and space for all of ten seconds. During that time, various colours and shapes - some blank, some inscribed but indecipherable - floated before his inner vision, like pieces of a jigsaw. At the same split second he resurfaced, the jigsaw came together, a perfectly formed picture but making no sense, not least because he still had shampoo in his eyes and was frantically reaching for a flannel to wipe it clear. Even so, he understood what years of experience and training were telling him. His suet pudding visitor, her missing son, the dead ex-boyfriend, the ex-fiancé in jail, the daughter who had survived a terrible fire and was now living with a glamorous TV star indirectly (at least) responsible for putting him there, not forgetting the star herself…these were all pieces in the same jigsaw, parts of a bigger picture.
By the time he had changed into the clean shirt and socks left on his bed, dusted off his one and only suit and chosen the best of three awful ties, Winter was feeling positively buoyant. He joined Carol downstairs and even submitted to her scrutiny and straightening his tie without demurring.
“You’ll do. I suppose,” she declared with an unsubtle mixture of exasperation and affection.
Winter merely flung her a boyish grin.
They arrived at an address in Chelsea just after eight o’clock. People had already started to arrive and were being shown into a cloakroom by a pretty young woman with auburn hair, wearing a print dress that struck even Winter as being, if not understated, at least inappropriate for the occasion. “That’s Pip,” Carol whispered as they crossed the piled carpet floor towards the subject of their observations. “Hello Pip, you may not remember me….”
“Of course I remember you Mrs Brady. Let me take your coat.”
“And this is my friend, Freddy Winter.”
“Please to meet you Freddy. Now, push off the pair of you and enjoy yourselves.” She had turned away and was already greeting someone else before Winter could so much as open his mouth to impress on her that he liked to be called Fred, not Freddy. Only Carol called him that. She always had and probably always would, he reflected irritably. One of these days he really must tell her how much he hated it.
“Why, Carol, darling, hello!”
Winter looked up to see a young blonde woman in a green, off the shoulder dress displaying more cleavage than he had seen in years, approaching them hands outstretched. He did not need to be told that this was Nina Fox.
The woman kissed Carol on both cheeks then turned her grey-green eyes full upon him. “And you must be Freddy, the man with a mind like a laser beam! Thrilled to meet you, I’m sure. We’ll have a chat later, I promise, and you can investigate me all you like. Don’t look so surprised, darling. Carol has told me all about Annie Cutler wanting you to prove I’ve done away with her precious son.” She treated Winter to a sly, seductive, wink. “Not, as you can see…” she added, “that I have anything to hide.”  A girlish giggle belied the impression she emanated of a highly accomplished hostess. “Here, yes, you boy!”  She signalled to a waiter who struck Winter as if he couldn’t possibly be old enough to have left school. All three helped themselves to cocktails before Nina seized the arm of an elderly, distinguished looking man who happened to be passing. “Darlings, this is George. George is my mentor, my agent and…well, never mind what else,” she tittered. “George, these are my dear friends Carol and Freddy. Look after them for me, will you, there’s a love. Coo-ee, darlings!” she cried and was soon waving and threading her way towards another couple.
“I’m sorry, you must excuse me,” mumbled a bemused George who promptly headed after her.
“Some dress, eh?” Winter nudged Carol who surprised him with a disparaging glare. “Well, isn’t it?”
“There’s nothing wrong with the dress, it’s gorgeous. But you need the back and shoulders to carry off a dress like that.”
“So the poor woman’s practically covered in freckles!”
“I didn’t notice any freckles.”
“Of course not, You were too busy drooling over her tits,” remarked Carol frostily, “But never mind that now. There’s a buffet through there, see? Come on, I’m starving…”
Winter, hungry himself all of a sudden, made no protest as Carol led him towards French windows and several trestle tables heaped with every kind of party nibbles. A strawberry cheesecake caught his eye and he made a beeline for it.
“I made it myself,” said a voice at his left shoulder and he turned his head to find himself face to face with Pip Sparrow. The voice was light and friendly but somehow her expression managed to be as prim and severe as the dress she wore. “You can’t leave everything to caterers, can you?”
“Oh? Why is that?” Winter wanted to say but settled for, “It’s delicious!” and meant it.
“Why, thank you.” The plain, oval face brightened, became pretty as if my magic.
Winter found himself warming to the girl, realizing intuitively that she felt as much out of place among these noisy, vivacious, silly people as he did himself. At the same time, there was something else about Pip Sparrow that he could not place.  Whatever, it sent a cold shiver down his spine.  He felt irrationally protective towards this slim, plain girl and would have liked to give her a paternal hug but she had already turned away and was mingling with other guests.
Winter frowned. A copper’s instinct warned him that there was to Pip Sparrow than met the eye. 

To be continued on Monday