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Read an extract of The Perfect Guests by Emma Rous

July 1988

The house sat on a gentle rise in the otherwise flat landscape, as if it considered itself a castle in this kingdom of marshy scrubland and water channels and rustling green fields. Pale grey walls, broad steps rising from neat gravel to the front door, row upon row of gleaming square windows, and—

‘Is that a turret?’ I craned my neck through the passenger window. ‘Is this whole place really just for three people?’

‘Four, if you behave yourself.’ Caroline jerked the steering wheel to swing us on to the driveway, bumping me back into my seat.

‘Remember your manners, Beth. Stop gawping.’

The driveway was longer than the road I used to live on when my parents were still alive, but someone in the house must have been watching for us, because already the front door was swinging open. Three figures emerged, and they waited, side by side on the top step, like a proper welcoming committee.

Even from this distance, I recognised Leonora’s golden curls and Markus’ thick, straw- coloured hair.

I’d met Leonora and Markus only once before, a week earlier, when they introduced themselves to me at the end of my summer concert. Markus had congratulated me on my performance, while Leonora studied me with an intense, sympathetic gaze. Then, somehow, Leonora had coaxed more details out of me about my life at the children’s home than I’d ever shared with anyone.

Standing between them now, on the top step, was a slender teenage girl, and I knew this must be their daughter, Nina.

Nina was the important one. She was the reason I’d been invited here. I wasn’t close enough yet to read her expression, but I crossed my fingers and tried to do the same with my toes inside my too- tight jelly shoes. I hope she likes me.

The car came to a crunching halt on the sun- baked gravel and, for a long moment, nobody moved. Leonora, Markus and Nina squinted down at us from the top step. Caroline, for once, offered no spiky words of advice. I squeezed the door handle with clammy fingers, holding my breath, gazing back at Nina.

She wasn’t smiling. Did she hate this idea of her parents? Would Caroline end up driving me – her jaw tight, her knuckles a furious
white on the steering wheel – straight back to the children’s home before today was over?

A disdainful squawk made us all glance up as a goose flapped overhead, and the tension was broken. I scrambled from the car, and Leonora’s gaze locked on to mine. Then she started down the steps, her arms outstretched.

‘Beth! Caroline. We’re so glad to see you. Welcome to Raven Hall.’

I leant into Leonora’s hug. Her perfume was powdery rose petals, soft and comforting. When she released me, Markus shook my hand heartily, and then he glanced over his shoulder to where his daughter still hovered on the top step.

‘Nina, come down and say hello.’

All I knew about Nina was her age. When I’d asked Caroline for more information in the car, she’d snapped at me to let her concentrate on driving. So I’d turned my gaze to the blurry fields and tried to recall the conversation I’d had with Leonora and Markus – I’d been entirely oblivious to its significance at the time. Leonora had mentioned that their daughter had recently turned fourteen, but that was it – that’s all I remembered.

It meant we’d be in the same school year, since I was only a few months older, and of course, we might have all sorts of other things in common . . . But as I watched Nina skip down the steps and land lightly on the gravel, I felt a lurch of doubt.

Not only was she shorter than me, she was also much skinnier and younger- looking. Her pixie- like face wore an expression of detached amusement, and I tugged at my Tshirt self- consciously, not knowing what to say. No one had explained what was expected of me here; I didn’t even know how long the arrangement might be for. All Caroline had said was: ‘You can go and be a companion for their daughter for a while, until I’m ready for you to move in with me.’

Nina and I studied each other. The adults watched us in silence, as if we were specimens being introduced in a zoo. The conviction that she was going to reject me swelled in my chest until it was physically painful. Then she gave me an unexpectedly shy smile.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘I’m Nina. I really hope you’re going to like it here.’

Relief rushed into my lungs.

‘Me too,’ I said. ‘I mean, thanks.’ I gestured awkwardly at the imposing grey house behind her. ‘I’m sure I will.’

Leonora stepped between us then, and she placed one hand on the back of my head – she was barely taller than me herself – and the other on Nina’s dark hair.

‘Look at you two,’ she murmured. ‘Like chalk and cheese.’

I stiffened. Nina seemed happy enough to meet me; surely Leonora hadn’t changed her mind? But Leonora sounded wistful rather than disappointed, and Nina sidestepped away from her and gave me an apologetic grimace.

‘Can I show Beth up to her room, Mum?’

Leonora blinked, as if dragging her thoughts back from somewhere else.

‘What? Oh yes, of course.’ She turned to Caroline. ‘Will you come in for a cup of tea? Or you’re welcome to stay for
dinner . . . ’

But Caroline was already reaching into her car boot and setting my bags and violin case down on the gravel. ‘No, no, I’ve got to get back. Long flight tomorrow, you know.’ She slammed the boot shut, walked around to the driver’s door and fixed me with her sharp stare. ‘Be good, Beth.’