Young Sybil Colbrooke had not intended for things to get this far with the strapping new stablehand, at least not on this day, but the opportunity had presented itself. What began as an innocent stroll on the path in the early afternoon had become something more as soon as she allowed the young man to kiss her. It did not take long for her to discover that his hands were expert at discovering her most tender and secret places, and she did not want this unexpected and delightful experience to end. Besides, nobody would know. She brought him to this secluded spot to consummate the act far away from everyone, hidden in the tall, sweet grass on one side and the ancient crumbling wall on the other.
Thus hidden, they lay down and very quickly found themselves overwhelmed with the ardor of youth. Her groping hands and hungry kisses, clumsy at first, gave rise to a blazing passion she had only suspected lay just below the surface longing to be fulfilled. He roughly pushed her skirts up her back, and she was soon astonished to hear her own cries as the sudden pleasures rolled throughout her body in delicious waves in time to his animal grunts in her ear.
An outraged voice called from nearby, shattering their intimate moment. In an instant, he was climbing off her and bounding across the field. Startled, Sybil raised herself to her haunches to face the owner of the voice. Them! She met their enormous eyes over the wall.
“Did he hurt you?” One of them asked. She could never tell which one. She stared back, absently rubbing her hands on her skirt, trying to smother her embarrassment. Since their birth, there was no getting away from them. Already, they were scrambling over the wall and deciding if her attacker had too much of a head start on them and if a pursuit was worth the effort.
“What are you doing here?” She demanded irritably getting back on her feet.
“We heard you call out. We thought…”
“It was the new stablehand, wasn’t it?” The other squinted across the field.
“You need to mind your own business.” She was plucking random weeds form her hair to make herself look presentable. Meeting their eyes, she realized she should have kept quiet. Their expressions changed as they gazed upon her in a dawning realization that they perhaps misunderstood the situation they had witnessed, and it was altogether something else.
She smoothed her skirt. “And you will say nothing about this, do you hear?” She said in her sternest voice. A stickiness was dribbling down her inner thigh. She needed to clean herself.
“I think father needs to know what his workers are up to.” One of them said. His eyes moved from his brother, to her, then back. He was still deciding, but she already knew how that would end. The same as always, they were one, she the outcast. Only this time, the consequences would be severe.
“You will do no such thing!”
“I will too! We can’t have that sort of thing…”
Self-righteous little beggar! It must be Laurence.
“He’s right. We’re telling.” They made their first mistake, which was turning their backs to her.
Her hand shot out and grasped him by the wrist. To his credit, he tried to yank his arm back, yelling in outrage. The other pulled on his brother’s free arm, trying to wrest him from her grip. They tugged back and forth in a violent struggle, and she nearly lost her footing on the rocky terrain so near the wall. The scuffle continued, and to an onlooker it may have appeared like an amusing game, but it was deadly serious. Everything was at stake.
Suddenly, she’d had enough. The weight of eight years of botheration pressing down on her shoulders, her own happiness at stake — her reputation at the very least — became too much to bear, and she yanked them forward and kicked out viciously. He released his brother’s arm with a howl and stumbled backward, his arms wrapped around his body at the unexpected pain in his ribs. Suddenly free from one side, the twin’s body hurtled toward her and she jerked him aside and let go of his hand. Caught in the momentum, he careened wildly, smashed into the wall head-first and bounced off into the grass. The other ran forward and crouched over him.
Sybil watched the two of them, her breathing gradually returning to normal. She had not intended for things to come to this, but at least now, they would finally get through their thick skulls to leave her be, so, it was just as well. How she longed for the day when she was old enough to live on her own terms!
“Look at what you’ve done.” She accused the boy who leaned over his brother. “This is all your fault. I hope you are pleased.” She let him take the full brunt of the accident, turned and marched away. The stickiness between her legs was irritating, and she was desperate to clean herself of the entire afternoon. Whatever the boys said, it was their word against hers. Eventually, life would resume, and everything fall into its usual rhythm. But, that never came to pass.
“The marriage took place three months ago.”
Those shocking words were the start of her recent problems.
When Davis Whitlock, the family solicitor first gave her the news of her son’s marriage three weeks ago, she was dumfounded. Within a week, her son was back home and the lawyer informed the young bride the following week that she was a widow, the result of a tragic accident.
Lady Alma Colbrooke gazed out the window at nothing in particular.
“How did it happen in the first place? I simply don’t understand.”
He didn’t either and could not help but feel that he had let her down. But, it had taken him off guard too. The whole affair was indeed, completely unexpected. Since then, he had done his best to remedy the situation, for all of their sakes.
“At any rate, it is over now. She is a widow. Let us leave it at that. It would be imprudent to call attention to the family.”
“Yes, of course.” She sighed. “Still, I would rather she not come.” Again, she regretted her decision allowing the young woman to visit, but it was the proper thing to do. The entire situation had left her emotional and unguarded.
“She needs to say goodbye, that is all. Surely, there is no harm in that.” He spoke in his soothing lawyerly voice.
“I suppose not, but she can’t stay long. It will cause dreadful complications.”
Davis Whitlock well understood her reluctance and was not about to elaborate on the subject. She had suffered enough.
“May I suggest you offer her a small settlement, a gift, if you will?”
“Yes, a reasonable sum and send her on her way. You always know the right thing to do.”
He wished that were true. “He left no will, and she stands to gain nothing. They lived quite modestly. It appears she truly loved him.”
Alma gazed absently into her empty teacup. “Lance secretly married. How…” She found herself unable to finish the sentence. Lance was gone.
The solicitor, who knew the family better than most, had no answers either. On this subject, he was unable to even speculate.
“Yes, Laurence is back. I would really prefer that she is gone before he learns of the visit. The sooner we get on with our lives and she with hers, the better for us all.”
He reached into his briefcase and withdrew a check book. He wrote the check, handed it to Alma. A nod of her head indicated that she approved. She sighed again, and their eyes met. Sometimes, she forgot all the years that had passed and saw beyond the passage of time the young man he had been. His great shock of wavy black hair first drew her attention to him. No matter how he tried to tame that mane, it simply refused to stay in place. It was a great contrast to his calm gaze and reassuring demeanor, and he often fretted that he would not be taken seriously as a result, though he need not have worried. It rather gave him an air of intrigue the women in particular found enticing, mentioning often that he reminded them of the composer, Beethoven. Everyone adored him, and if she hadn’t already been promised to Teddy, well who can say…
“Indeed. If there is nothing else then.” He said, rising to his feet.
Alma shook her head. “Are you sure I can’t offer you anything more, Davis?”
According to ritual, they’d had tea before setting down to business, though on this occasion, their normally light-hearted banter was rather awkward with her strained nerves.
“No, no, please don’t get up. If I leave now, I shall be back home by nightfall.”
“You do realize we have more than one spare room in this house.” Alma said with a grin. It was an old game the two engaged in over the many years of their acquaintance, but he always insisted on the dreadfully long carriage ride back to the city.
“Ah, but you also know I look forward to the quiet ride. It gives me time to think.”
“Perhaps you think too much, old friend.”
He smiled and bowed a head of silver waves over her hand and kissed it lightly.
“I will see myself out.”
She had lost count of how many times this very scene had played out in the study over the years. It all began when she was young and a new bride herself. Such a pity Davis had never married.
They first met when she had recently become affianced to her future husband, Sir Theodore Colbrooke. He introduced the dashing Davis Whitlock as a young new partner in the Whitlock firm, whose father had been the Colbrooke family’s solicitor. He was himself in the process of taking over the responsibility from his aging father, and his loyalty to them had been unfailing. Thank goodness for Davis. She couldn’t imagine how she would have survived the events of all those years without his wise counsel and comforting presence. She glanced at the check and secured it in the top drawer of her oversize desk. Her new and unexpected daughter in-law would be here soon. She tried unsuccessfully to not worry.
“Is it far?”
“No more than two hours brisk walk.” Mrs. Magruder replied wiping a rag over the counter. “Take the main road west and follow the sign where the road splits. It starts just over the bridge.”
Two hours. That was better than she hoped. If the weather held out, she would easily be back by nightfall. She didn’t plan on staying long.
“I can call for a carriage, if you like, Miss.” The innkeeper’s wife suggested, clearly curious about the comely and subdued young woman’s reasons for wanting to go to Ashdown Manor. Her first guess would be that she was a new service girl, but something about her mannerisms suggested otherwise. Not many visitors found their way to that place these days.
“Thank you, but I prefer to walk. The weather is just lovely this time of year. I rather enjoy it.” She replied cheerfully.
“As you like, Miss.” The innkeeper furrowed her brow and swiped at a stray wisp of grey hair, unconvinced by her show of enthusiasm. Sensing that there would be no shared intimacies today, she returned to her work.
Haley was thankful she’d had the foresight to give her name as Haley Maxfield. No one needed to know the nature of her association with the Colbrookes. But she was not as cheerful as she made out to be, in fact, she felt thoroughly wretched about the upcoming meeting with her mother in-law. She and Lance had planned on visiting his family home not long from now, and they would have made this journey together had he not received a mysterious summons that he was urgently needed back home to attend to something or other. If only she could have gone with him, but she could not leave her students on a whim and he had to leave directly. Within the space of two weeks her life fell apart.
Lance never explained his reluctance in taking her to meet his family, but he made it adamantly clear that it had nothing whatsoever to do with his devotion to her. In fact, he felt they were not good enough for her, which she found endearing and amusing. Not good enough indeed, she having so little to her name. That fact was the other reason for the long walk ahead. She simply could not afford the luxury of a carriage, but she had been truthful about her enjoyment of walking. The exercise would calm her nerves.
From the doorstep, she had her first look at the village, having arrived after dark the previous night. She had chosen this particular lodging because of its location, tucked back from the main square and near the outskirts, therefore, less dear. The Colbrookes had not known about her until now, so she never had a chance to go to her own husband’s funeral. The cost of her visit was negligible compared to having the chance to say goodbye to Lance. Waking to a foggy morning hadn’t filled her with optimism, but by the time she was dressed and ready, the mist had evaporated with the rising sun and lifted some of the melancholy she wore these days.
She adjusted her shawl and crossed the main square which was already bustling with stall vendors, merchants, their carts overflowing with root vegetables, kitchen items, hand tools and more wares than Haley could name, and haggling townswomen. Wagons rolled past her laden with crates, casks and hay drawn by teams of enormous horses. A small version of a city’s Gothic church tolled the hour. Haley headed west and soon passed the last house, leaving the town and its normal daily life behind her. A breeze showered her with golden leaves as she strode in the sun-dappled shade. Gradually, the trees thinned out and the landscape on either side of the rutted road opened itself before her revealing sprawling fields dotted with farmhouses. When she arrived at the split, she turned off the main road and followed the Ashdown sign. Judging from the ruts in the road, it was a well-travelled one, so the farm itself was not entirely isolated. Still, she had no idea what she would find there.
Lance had not spoken much about his home nor his life at Ashdown, though she had encouraged him to. She wanted to learn everything about her husband, but his reticence seemed unshakeable. She supposed that in time, he would open up, but they had run out of time, and she was left with very little to go on. He’d said Ashdown was a large farm growing oat, wheat and barley and hay for cattle and horses. His sister — what was her name — Sybil bred prize Shire horses, a surprising occupation for a woman. Her choice of vocation alone left Haley apprehensive about their possible meeting. He had mentioned a brother, but other than that, said nothing else about him. It was a subject he refused to bring up again, and Haley couldn’t help but sense something painful in his past.
He told her his father died many years ago. She didn’t know anything about his mother, the woman she was going to be face-to-face with not too long from now. His few words regarding her had been kind, though it didn’t seem they were particularly close. The news of their marriage must have been nothing less than shocking. That Alma Colbrooke, who just recently learned of her existence, had acknowledged her and even gone as far as to agree to her visit, had come as a surprise. As soon as Haley received the letter from the lady, she packed her valise and left before either one of them had a chance to change her mind. Haley needed to see where he came from, the place he had grown up, and where he had his accident and died. And to visit his grave. It was that which she needed to see the most, for she had never seen his body, had never had a chance to say goodbye. Neither her mind nor heart could yet fully accept that he was so permanently gone, and she could not continue otherwise. She would, for the rest of her life, expect to see him around every corner and hear his voice in a crowd. Perhaps Mrs. Colbrooke understood that as a widow. Whatever the reason, she was glad to be that much closer to the end of this chapter of her life. Maybe in time, she may let go of Lance entirely. Or not.
She came to the foot of a bridge that spanned a fast-flowing river. In the distance, past more fields and stands of trees and high stone walls, she detected rooftops and chimneys. Once over the bridge, she would set foot on Ashdown lands. Suddenly, a hand gripped her heart as she stood beside a stand of birches. Their leaves rustled softly overhead and flaps of loose, papery bark flapped in the breeze. The river rippled along glinting in the sun. Here is where Lance came from, where he grew up, played as a boy. And where it all came to an end. She took a deep breath before continuing on under a cerulean sky that had become overly bright and garish in contrast to her darkening mood.
The closer she approached the house, the tighter the knot in her stomach grew. This was no ordinary farmhouse, rather a sprawling manor house; two stories of grey stone broken up by shuttered windows, every inch of it imposing. She passed through the open iron gate, and the walls opened to a cobbled courtyard. Gathering clouds and treetops reflected off the many paned windows and a breeze played with her hat. She repositioned it on her head, tucked a loose curl behind her ear and smoothed her skirt. She straightened her back and took a deep breath — perhaps this could have waited until tomorrow — before knocking on the solid oak door. The first tendrils of panic tried to take hold of her. Too late now, the door opened, and an older gentleman in a dark suit was gazing at her rather imperiously. She gave her name, and he allowed her inside, where he left her waiting in the spacious foyer while he made his way in measured steps down one of the hallways.
Haley’s eyes swept the interior of the manor. Beyond the foyer where she stood, a sweeping staircase divided the square central hall, a corridor on either side leading further into shadows. A series of closed doors interrupted the dark wainscoted walls. Two rectangles of sunlight stretched on either side of her on the floor boards. The atmosphere was cool and hushed.
Had she really envisioned a farmhouse with plaster walls and a cozy fire? She doubted Mrs. Colbrooke would appear before her wearing a smile and an apron. Lance really hadn’t told her a thing.
Taking in the large, austere space, she found it difficult to imagine him as a young boy romping about in here with his siblings, sliding down the bannister, and equally hard to believe that laughter ever echoed within these walls. If anything, melancholy seemed to permeate this house. She could not help but form the impression that Ashdown Manor was closed onto itself as if it was holding something back, guarding itself from within. But that could easily apply to herself as well.
“I beg your pardon, madam. There is a young woman to see you.”
“Who is it, Dodsworth?”
“A Haley Maxfield. She says she is — was Sir Lance’s wife.”
So, she has arrived. Alma regretted her decision anew. She had gone over it at least a dozen times since Davis left. Why had she agreed to this? It solved nothing, only complicated her peaceful existence. Thankfully, Sybil was showing her prize Shire stallion and was well away from home. Not for the first time did Alma wonder how her daughter had arrived at horse breeding. Offering stallions for stud services was an occupation better suited to a man for many reasons, some of them frightfully obvious. Perhaps it was a sign of the changing times and her own age. Whatever the reason, she was glad Sybil was away and would not bear witness to this meeting and pass judgement on it for a goodly length of time afterward.
Alma had planned on a simple visit; tea, exchanging a few pleasant remarks, the dreaded visit to the crypt, handing over the check and bidding her farewell. It should amount to no more than that. Once the young woman fully accepted her widowed state, one that she herself was acquainted with, she would continue with her life. She was still young enough to make another marriage and live a happy life.
Alma realized Dodsworth was still in the doorway awaiting instructions.
“Please show her to the study and ask Beth to bring tea. Thank you.”
She would give her a few minutes to settle in. She needed those moments for herself as well.
When the butler returned, he led Haley to a room, where he asked her to wait for Lady Colbrooke, who will join her shortly. Lady Colbrooke? Lance could have mentioned that! He closed the door behind her. The old floorboards creaked under the carpet as she stepped further into the panelled room and gazed around at the full bookcases, a set of leather grandfather chairs and a matching settee grouped near the marble fireplace. The sun slanted in diamond patterns through the leaded glass windows. Oil paintings depicted pastoral scenes, similar to the landscape she had passes by on her way. A dignified older gentleman gazed down at her with startling blue-black eyes from above the mantel. He must be Lance’s father, she mused, though no true resemblance to him was evident. The gentleman’s face was square with a strong jaw, the dark brows heavy under greying hair, his moustache white. Perhaps in the set of his shoulders. Lance had strong shoulders.
A clock ticked the minutes away on a massive desk. The room had a very masculine feel and was probably used for occasions of a business nature. So, this was the tone of the meeting with her new mother in-law. Regardless, she was here on the business of laying her husband to rest, in her mind at any rate. Maybe it was better to see this meeting from a more emotionally detached perspective. Already thoughts of Lance spending time in this room under his father’s watchful gaze were having a dispiriting effect on her.
She turned to the sound of the door opening. An older woman in an indigo day dress, her auburn, silver-streaked hair gathered in a soft twist entered and closed the door behind her. She paused for a moment and regarded Haley from across the room. Her posture was erect and figure trim, her elegance of manner attesting to an education in a fine finishing school. She stepped toward her, the amber eyes so like Lance’s never leaving hers. She extended her hand and Haley took it. The handshake was neither firm nor weak, a courtesy, and no more.
“I’m Lady Alma Colbrooke. You must be Haley Maxfield, or rather Haley Colbrooke.”
“It’s lovely to meet you, Lady Colbrooke.”
“Please, call me Lady Alma. It’s far less formal.”
“Thank you.” Haley indicated the portrait above the fireplace. “Is that…”
“Yes, that was my husband, a rather formal depiction. More often than not, Theodore had a preference for dungarees and rolled up shirtsleeves. Please, have a seat, Haley — I may address you as such?” She indicated a chair by the fireplace. “Haley, a rather unusual name for a female, not at all the sort one hears.”
“I was named after my mother. It was her maiden name.” She replied.
Alma nodded and took her time settling in her chair, smoothing her skirt. The silence wore on. Had they already run out of things to say? Haley was close to wringing her hands, but resorted to only twisting her wedding ring to at least give the impression of calm and smiled back feebly. Lady Alma continued to watch her devoid of expression, made all the more discomforting by the strong likeness to her son.
A soft knock followed by a maid pushing a tea cart ahead of her broke the awkward silence. She pushed the trolley between them and offered to pour the tea when Alma held up her hand and the maid curtsied and turned from the room. Alone again, Alma poured the tea, plain as Haley liked it, and held the cup to her.
Haley murmured her thanks, and was otherwise at a loss to say more. They each sipped, then the lady set down her cup.
“I understand you were married three months ago.”
“Almost four now.” Haley instantly regretted making the correction. This was not going very well.
“Tell me, Haley. How did you two meet — if you don’t mind, of course?”
“No, not at all.” Haley gave her a shadow of a smile.
It wasn’t a romantic meeting at all, though she did almost see stars, in a sense. She had finished giving piano lessons to a student in the posh neighborhood and decided to take a stroll along the path by the reservoir before returning home. The spring sun shone with the promise of warmer days ahead and the air was sweetly scented with budding trees. She was not paying much attention to anything else until a shadow fell on her. A startled horse reared on his hind legs directly behind her; she barely had a chance to turn when strong arms encircled her waist and twirled her out of the way and into a hawthorn bush. She would have been scratched to ribbons if she hadn’t landed on him. As it happened, the horse had been startled by a bee flying in its ear, and her rescuer, also strolling nearby, acted quickly, and they fell into the bushes.
Before she even had a chance to see who was responsible for her rescue, a small crowd had gathered, and someone pulled her free, completely disoriented, her dress torn. The poor fellow himself staggered out of the hawthorns with a bit of help, considerably the worse for wear. A sharp twig had caught him just below his left elbow and torn right through the sleeves of his jacket and shirt. A trickle of blood ran down his arm. Immediately, the horrified, well-to-do couple who had been riding in the barouche pulled by the startled horse insisted on taking care of them both, the gentleman accompanying him to the family doctor’s to have his many cuts and scratches attended to, the lady escorting Haley home despite many assurances that she was unhurt. The very next day, a clerk from a shop Haley had only wistfully glanced into delivered a lovely dress to replace her torn one. She was even invited to a rather awkward tea, which she would have preferred to avoid, but it would have been rude not to accept. That was where she met Lance again, and she was glad she was wearing her pretty new dress.
She noticed straight away that the hero of her afternoon drama was a handsome man with chestnut hair that gleamed copper in the sun, and intriguing warm eyes that reminded her of Baltic amber. Despite the urgency of the situation, and later amidst further apologies from the elderly couple, he managed a good natured attitude, making less of his own injuries. Now, that she had the opportunity to study him closer, since they were seated opposite each other in Elspeth and Albert Worthington’s parlour, she found him even more appealing. Later, they had a good laugh about the whole misadventure.
“Really, so much fuss when it is I who should be thanking you, Mr. Colbrooke.” She had told him.
“It was my pleasure entirely.” He gave her a rakish smile and the gold in his amber eyes glinted. “And please, call me Lance.”
“Were you badly hurt in the fall, Lance?” She blushed in spite of herself. Calling a man by his given name hinted at an intimacy which they did not share, but she sensed it was not far off. “You brushed it off, but I noticed you were bleeding.”
“Merely a flesh wound.” He grinned. “It will leave a small scar, a reminder of our afternoon adventure.”
“Oh, dear. You were very brave.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
“The horse could have just as easily knocked us both down.”
“I grew up around horses, so I can judge somewhat what they are about to do next. But, by all accounts, it was a rather inelegant rescue.”
Haley laughed. “Perhaps not the sort one would read in a romantic novel, but preferable to being trampled.”
“That would have been a tragedy not worth contemplating. But here we are, alive and fit!”
“Indeed, we are. And I have you to thank for it.”
“May I call you by your given name, or do you insist on Miss Maxfield?”
She blushed again and smiled. “Given the fact that you saved my life, I think it would be all right if you call me Haley.”
His pondered her reply. “That is an unusual name, lovely but unusual.”
“It was my mother’s maiden name.”
“I see.” He regarded her, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “It is fortunate that your mother’s and father’s names were not in reverse otherwise, you may well have been named Maxfield.”
“My goodness! It never occurred to me.” She laughed, and from that day on, Max was Lance’s special name for her.
It seemed like a million years ago and it gave her comfort to be retelling the story of their meeting, though she gave the lady an abridged, less intimate version.
“I had no idea. Please, forgive me if I appear somewhat confused, but Lance had not mentioned anything of this marriage. I thought he would have at least sent a letter letting us know the news. It is not something that can remain a secret forever, after all.”
“Yes, I mean, of course he was planning on telling you in person, next month in fact.”
“Ah, next month. I see.”
“He was looking forward to coming, as I was. I can imagine what a great shock this must be for you, learning about our marriage, about me the way you did after…” She set down her cup with a trembling hand. “I’m sure none of this has been easy for you, and I hope you will forgive me for pushing my way into your home, into your life like this — but you see, I had to come. I had to see for myself that he is…” Oh dear, now the tears were coming, despite all her efforts to keep them back. She rummaged in her bag for a handkerchief and blew her nose as discreetly as she could and dabbed at her eyes.
“I’m sorry. It’s all so sudden — I…” She should have stayed away. It should have been enough just knowing that he is gone. Seeing a gravestone with his name carved in it was only going to rub salt into a raw wound. Quite possibly, not only for herself. But it hadn’t been enough.
“It’s quite all right.” Alma said, her voice becoming softer. “I understand. It was sudden, and we are all in varied states of shock. My husband died after a short illness, and being prepared for the end made little difference. I do sympathize with you, Haley.”
Haley’s eyes spoke her gratitude. There was a slim chance this meeting may recover if she pulled herself together.
“Forgive me. I’m sure your loss is at least as great as mine.”
“Indeed, it is.”
“I miss him terribly, despite having known each other for so brief a time.” She took another of her many deep breaths this day, “I won’t stay long. I really came to see his — grave, say my farewell. I hope you will allow me that. I never had the chance to say goodbye.” Fresh tears burned again, and she fought to keep them back. Her temples were throbbing with the effort. A fine impression she had made on this woman, having become a blubbering mess. She knew this meeting wouldn’t be easy, nor particularly pleasant for either of them. If there had been a cemetery she could have visited on her own, she would have preferred it. No matter. She was here, and in a few moments someone, maybe the old butler, would take her out and show her to the grave, and that would be the last time she saw any of them or this place again.
“Of course, you will have your chance to say your goodbyes. It is very important that you do. I know from experience. I cannot imagine how I could have gone on either had I been denied the opportunity for some sort of resolution.” She reached forward and took Haley’s cup, refilled it. It seemed that Alma Colbrooke wasn’t heartless after all.
“Are you staying in the village?”
“Yes. I took a room for two nights. Then I will go back home.”
“And where is home? Birmingham?”
“It was, but not anymore. My brother and his family live in Devon. He suggested I go and live with them.”
“That seems like a reasonable plan. It wouldn’t be wise to be alone at a time like this.” Her eyes clouded over for just an instant. She indicated a tray of sandwiches. “You must eat something. You are quite thin, and I’m sure food has not been a priority. When is the carriage coming for you?”
“I didn’t arrange for one. I walked.”
Alma raised her brows.
“I enjoy walking, quite a bit really. Lance and I often took long walks together.”
An unexpected smile tugged at Alma’s lips. “Lance spent many afternoons as a boy wandering the estate.”
“He did mention that. He said he once cut himself a path through the barley so he could walk in it more easily.”
“Ah, yes. He did, indeed. His father was none too pleased with that particular effort.”
They exchanged their first genuine smile since their meeting.
The clock struck the hour. She would have to visit the grave soon if she was going to spend any time there. The days were growing shorter, and her walk back would very likely be at a slower, more burdened pace. The emotions of the day were sapping her strength.