Hilary forged ahead under the gateway arch to the inner reaches of Morland Abbey, leaving Veronica to pick her way more uncertainly over the cobbles in her wake. She gave a sigh of remembered joy. Ahead lay the green lawn of the cloister garth. On its right, the Tudor house, built from the stone of the medieval abbey, faced a newer block across the grass in the autumn sunshine. Beyond them rose the fractured arches of the once great abbey church. Further to her right, the octagonal Chapter House and the soaring roof of the ancient tithe barn delighted her.
'Splendid! Shame about the church, but I have to admit Sir George Woodleigh made a splendid job of rebuilding the East Cloister for his private home. Sixteenth century and still going strong.'
'Hilary, you're parked on a yellow line.'
'Only till we find our rooms and move our cases.'
She turned confidently to the door at the side of the arch.
Veronica caught up with her.
'We had instructions to go round to guest reception in the West Cloister. They said we could park there to unload.'
Hilary looked round at her friend. The tall, fair widow's fine-boned face looked younger than her fifty-eight years. 'Not', thought Hilary, like me. Older, shorter, dumpier, with short brown hair which still managed to look untidy. Veronica hovered at Hilary's shoulder like a guardian angel, trying to keep the somewhat older woman out of trouble.
'Hmmph!' Hilary tried the closed door in the gatehouse that she had confidently expected to lead to reception. She looked behind her and then at the distance between them and the far end of the cloisters. She wondered for a moment whether she should move the car after all. Then she set off at a determined pace across the lawn, until Veronica pointed out the notice asking them to keep off the grass.
'People walk all over the lawn in the summer.'
'It's October now.'
Reluctantly Hilary obeyed. They followed the path along the side of the West Cloister, where many of the guest bedrooms would be. She looked enthusiastically across to the East Cloister and the roof of the tithe barn on its other side.
'It was a splendid idea of Sir George's to make the barn into his great hall. I still get a thrill out of sitting in it and thinking of all the feasts and councils of war and the dancing that have gone on over the years within those same walls.'
'But probably not a master class in crime writing,' suggested Veronica, hurrying to keep up with her.
'Hmm, well. We'll have to see how that goes. But there must be some advantage in forty years of history teaching. And I've seen enough of devious not to say deviant teenagers to provide a few ideas for villains. Between them, I should be able to come up with a halfway decent historical crime novel.'
'I fancy something more modern myself. Perhaps with a romantic lead investigator. And some love interest as a sub-plot.' 'Don't tell me. You're planning a twenty-first-century Lord Peter Wimsey.'
Veronica blushed. 'Well, actually . . .'
'Never mind. Let's just hope this Gavin Standforth knows what he's talking about. Now, where did you say reception was?'
An arrow pointed them round the end of the west cloister to an open door from which a couple, whom Hilary assumed from the back of the man's balding head to be about their own age, were emerging. They unloaded suitcases from their car parked alongside and towed them indoors.
'Our partners in crime,' Hilary observed.
'I looked our leader up on the internet,' Veronica said. 'Gavin Standforth. He's written quite a lot of books. Just one bestseller, a couple of years ago, and a sequel which didn't do as well. I ordered it for my bookshop, and people bought it on the strength of the previous one, but some of them dropped by afterwards and said it wasn't a patch on that. Before that he had a publisher I didn't recognize.'
Hilary snorted. 'Probably self-published. Couldn't get a decent publisher to take him on. Then he struck lucky. May never be able to do it again. Still, you never know. It may say master class, but in my experience masters of any profession aren't necessarily the ones who teach best.'
She ducked into the reception office. A young woman in a crisp black suit and white shirt sat behind the desk.