The Ex-Prime Minister - Chapter Five Andrew Crofts

 The fifth instalment of the on-going saga of the ex-prime minister

 

“Good God!” Phillipa could hardly bear to watch the screen. The headlines in the morning’s papers had warned her of some of what was coming, but the reality was even more confusing than she had expected. Felicity had explained the concept of First Dates to her, but she was still having trouble getting her head round the idea that anyone would want to undergo such an excruciating rite of passage in public, let alone someone with as many skeletons in their cupboard as Teddy. She was having trouble imagining what Teddy would be like on a date. She was pretty sure they had never experienced anything which could be described in those terms during their relationship.

“This is going to be broadcast tonight?”

“Unless we can find a legal way to block it,” Felicity confirmed. “But if we try anything like that, we run the risk of drawing even more attention to it, and fueling speculation as to what it is we are so keen to hide.”

“And she actually liked him?”

“They both said they would like to see each other again at the end.” Felicity shrugged, as perplexed as ever by Teddy’s apparent appeal to the opposite sex.

“And what do we know of this woman?”

“Nothing,” Felicity admitted, “so far. Just a member of the public who applied to the show. We are looking into it.”

“Please do. Forewarned is forearmed.”

“Since she claims to be a business woman,” Felicity said, “and she has stuck her head above the parapet, it might be worth getting someone to look at her tax returns.”

“I haven’t got time to even think about this,” Phillipa snapped the laptop shut. “I’ve got a country to sort out. You’re going to have to handle it. Do whatever you think is best. Hire some private detectives.”

 

 “Do you want to come down the country for the weekend?” Puppy asked. “We’ve got a house full because we’re shooting, but I’m sure Becky could find a corner for you somewhere.”

“Shooting?” Teddy was unable to keep the hint of disdain from his voice.

“You don’t have to shoot anything. In fact, better that you don’t after that last little accident. You can stay indoors all weekend and scribble in your diary. I just thought it would be good for you to get out of London for a few days. There will be some people there who you would do well to meet as well.”

“People with money?”

“There are some potential backers, yes.”

“Okay,” Teddy nodded his agreement. “I might ask young Candy if she would like to come. Would Becky be alright with that?”

Puppy sighed from the depths of his soul. “I dare say we can squeeze her in. You really like to live dangerously, don’t you?”

“Dangerously?” Teddy looked entirely nonplussed by the suggestion and Puppy decided it definitely wasn’t worth the effort of trying to explain why it might not be a good idea to add a new love interest to the tangled web he had already woven around his day-to-day existence.

 

Candy was surprised by the invitation, and even more surprised as they approached Puppy’s family seat in her Audi TT, down a seemingly endless avenue of ancient oak trees. “It’s a bleeding stately home!” she exclaimed.

“It’s pretty splendid,” Teddy agreed, pleased to have been able to impress his date so easily. “Considered to be one of the best houses in England, I believe, architecturally speaking. And Becky lays on the most stupendous breakfasts too.”

“Becky?”

“Puppy’s better half.”

As they drew up on the gravel forecourt, amidst a circle of watching statues, many of them bearing the faces of Puppy’s ancestors, a helicopter ripped through the tranquility to disgorge its passengers onto a landing strip behind the croquet lawn.

“Who are they?” Candy asked as a group of men made their way across to the terrace, where their hosts were waiting to greet them.

“Pups is organizing a shooting party for the weekend. Apparently, they are potential backers. Russians and what-have-you.”

“Oligarchs?”

“I believe that is the correct term for them, yes,” Teddy laughed. “The word has a pleasant ring to it, don’t you think?”

“It holds a certain promise,” Candy agreed, peering hard through her dark glasses at the figures as they were ushered through French windows into the house.

“Strange fellows, every one of them,” Teddy ruminated. “So often suspiciously familiar with the use of vodka and firearms.”

Candy said nothing as she checked her hair and make-up in the rear-view mirror before helping Teddy extract himself from the car.

Dinner that evening was immaculately prepared by Becky’s latest chef and casually served, so that guests could mingle freely, putting down their plates wherever they chose. Log fires blazed at both ends of the dining hall

“How do you plan to amuse yourself this weekend, Candy?” Puppy asked, sitting himself next to her while Teddy was still loading his plate to toppling-point. “If Teddy is scribbling in his diaries?”

“I’d love to come out on the shoot,” she said, aware that several of the other men were scrutinizing her with an intensity that even Teddy was likely to notice before too long, and exchanging whispers. “If that would be okay. I’ve never been on one before.”

“There’s a spare gun, if you would like to have a go,” Puppy said. “As long as you promise not to shoot any of the other guests.”

“Well, nothing in this world is completely certain,” she laughed, “but I promise to do my best.”

“Teddy shot an ear off a neighbouring Viscount once,” Puppy said. “It rather put him off his stroke.”

“He was lucky not to blow the man’s head off.”

“The Viscount’s ears protruded a fair way from his head. Had they not, of course, as Teddy pointed out at the time, his shot would have skimmed past perfectly happily.”

If Becky disapproved of Candy gatecrashing the shooting party, she was far too intrigued, and far too skilled a hostess, to allow it to show. Several of the other guests had already enquired as to Candy’s status in the house, as if they were surprised to find her there. None of them had admitted that they had met Candy before, but Becky’s instincts told her that there was more going on than she had anticipated when Puppy first informed her that Candy would be joining them for the weekend, so she greeted the news that Candy wished to join the shoot as joyfully as if it had just moved the suffragette movement forward twenty years, and set about finding a suitable outfit for her guest in the form of a fitted tweed jacket, rakish hat and plus-fours.

“By Jove!” Teddy, exclaimed when he saw the results at breakfast the next morning, “you look as alluring as a pantomime prince.”

“He almost certainly means that as a compliment,” Becky said.

“I most certainly do,” Teddy confirmed, looking a lot like an oversized pantomime schoolboy himself, in his pajamas and dressing gown.

Some of the other members of the shooting party did not bother to hide their discomfort at the arrival of a woman in their midst as they were loaded into a fleet of Land Rovers. For some, the irritation turned to outright fury as Candy proceeded to score a hit with virtually every shot she fired.

“I thought you said you were new to this,” Puppy said during a pause in the gunfire, as they waited for the beaters to send up fresh targets.

“Beginner’s luck,” Candy shrugged, before adding. “I’ve always had good hand-eye co-ordination. I was a star netball player at school.”   

A crash of wings coming up through leaves and branches, followed by a volley of shots and then a series of whistles and calls to dogs interrupted them for a moment. As Candy lowered her gun again, she gave Puppy a quizzical look.

“So,” she said, “you are the real power behind the throne?”

“Not sure I follow you,” Puppy replied, keeping his eyes on the woodland stretching out before them.

“Teddy tells me you are the mastermind behind his rise to Number Ten.”

“Good Lord no,” Puppy laughed in a way that was intended to sound good-natured, but still did not make eye-contact. “Old Teddy has always been his own man. He has always been the leader, ever since prep school. Always pretty handy with his fists if anyone tried to challenge him.”

“Really?” Candy said, her tone deceptively casual. “You surprise me.”

“Why?”

“Well,” she said, “he seems pretty emotionally vulnerable to me. Perhaps that was why he chose to throw his weight around, in order to assert himself, behaving like a bully in order to make himself seem like a leader, but more than that ….”

More birds and more explosions interrupted them.

“More than that?” Puppy prompted her as the dogs went back to work, retrieving the prettily feathered corpses.

“Well,” she screwed up her face, as if struggling to find the right words. “He just doesn’t seem very bright.”

Now Puppy was looking directly at her, and had she been made of less stern stuff, Candy would have found the look in his eyes chilling.

“Tread very carefully, young lady,” he growled, “you are swimming a long way from the shore.”

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