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The sunlight had long passed by the time Annie drove into the picturesque Derbyshire village. It was dusk and there was nobody to be seen. The lights from the cosy stone cottages were starting to twinkle. As she passed the village green, she could hear the faint sound of folk music coming from the pub. “Typical!” she thought, “I’m trying to forget everything and I cannot get away from listening to the very type of music my late fiancé used to adore”.

You see, Annie was trying to escape the memories of that terrible day one year ago, when she had veered from delirious happiness to the depths of despair. Annie and Quentin had been flying to the island of Madagascar for their dream wedding when a frightful sound came from the port engine. Captain Dirk Scrimshank’s calm voice came over the loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing some technical difficulties and need to divert to a nearby airport. On behalf of Utopian Airlines we apologise for any convenience caus…..”. The Captain’s reassuring voice was suddenly interrupted by the sound of a similar blast on the starboard side of the aircraft. Immediately, the aircraft started to lose height and banked alarmingly to the left. Annie remembered that her complimentary glass of champagne had spilled from the table and the sight of mountains had loomed larger than life, filling the small window of the aircraft. Events after that point were a blur. All she knew now was that Quentin had perished, and her life as she knew it was over.

Who could blame Annie for her distracted thoughts as she made her way into that little village. Time after time she tried to make sense of the chain of events that had led her to this point in her life. Many times, hours had passed as she tried to answer that one nagging question in her mind – “Why?”.

Suddenly, her thoughts were arrested as she heard a bump and saw a shadowy figure sprawl across the bonnet of her car. “Oh my goodness” she thought, “I’ve rented a house in this obscure little village to make a new life, and I’ve run someone over on my very first day!”. Annie was mortified as she quickly brought her 2CV to a halt. She opened the door and was greeted by the sight of a dishevelled but striking gentleman………

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A memory triggered for an instant, a sense of familiarity as she looked into the dark eyes facing her  … then it was gone.

She wound down the window ‘I’m sorry I’m not from round here, I was looking for my turning…’  Annie stammered, shaken by the experience.  It wasn’t quite the relaxing start to her break she’d expected.

‘I can see that!’ the stranger exclaimed, regarding Annie with an air of disdain.  He brushed down his jeans and adjusted his jacket as he tried to regain his composure.  That had been a close shave!

Despite herself, she jumped out of her car and approached the stranger ‘I’m really sorry, are you alright?’  Annie watched the athletic figure limp to the pavement ‘Do you live locally?  I can give you a lift home if you like? it looks as though you might have a sprain or something’.  She was a kind hearted person by nature, and was devastated to have caused an accident.  ‘God why wasn’t I paying attention’ she scolded herself.

The tall figure sat down on the side of the road to catch his breath.  He held his head in his hands, then ran his fingers through his mop of unruly black curls, and found himself laughing.  ‘Not bloody likely, given you’re driving.   I think I’ll take my chance on two legs thanks’.  Annie couldn’t help but notice his rugged good looks – his smile was enticing, punctuated by two small dimples in his cheeks.  But there was something behind his dark brooding eyes, that unsettled Annie.

Then she came to her senses, and realised that he’d just insulted her ‘Well what d’you expect when you jump out of nowhere?’ Annie retorted indignantly.

‘You ought to get some specs love; you pretty much mounted the pavement.  If I didn’t know better I’d say you’d done it deliberately.’  He couldn’t believe that this diminutive red head was attacking him, for her inability to drive.

Annie wasn’t going to listen to this anymore, she’d gone out of her way to be civil to him to help him, and he was actually laughing at her now, and that’s one thing she couldn’t stand – being made fun of.  He watched on with a faint sense of pleasure as she stormed back to her car, gathering her red coat about her as if seeking protection.

She leapt back into the driver’s seat and after a couple of aborted attempts managed to restart the engine on her old CV.

‘The name’s Jason by the way’ he shouted, as he lifted himself up off the floor.  She quickly wound up the window ‘The cheek of it!’  Annie muttered to herself ‘As if I’d be interested.  Thinks he’s God’s gift to women!!’  She screeched away in 1st gear, not even glancing back.  She couldn’t quite fathom out what had disturbed her, but all she knew is she had to get out of here!

Jason watched her drive away, confused by their brief encounter ‘Who was this feisty woman?  And just what was her problem?’  With a shake of his head, he turned to hobble down the road towards the pub.   Well the evening might as well not be a complete loss – perhaps he’d get some decent conversation in there.

∞∞∞∞∞

As she drove up the hill and rounded the corner, Annie’s spirits raised as she glimpsed the cottage.  Dusk was starting to give way to the darkness of a winter’s evening and the warm glowing lights promised comfort and sanctuary within.

Following the plane crash, when she lost Quentin so suddenly, her once parents in-law-to be had become very close to her.  Perhaps it was their way of staying in touch with their son.  Annie had taken his death very hard, and was struggling to believe that life would ever get back to normal again.

‘Darling, I know you’re going through a hard time at the moment.  We were wondering, Douglas and I… the money that we were going to give you and Quen….’ her voice broke momentarily ‘ you and Quentin towards your wedding, would you allow us to give you that, so that you can go off and do something different?  Whatever you want, you choose – I know our son wouldn’t have wanted you to be unhappy’ His parents were what she termed ‘landed gentry’, living on a large country estate in Hampshire.  Their offer was extremely generous, and it wasn’t that she was ungrateful, but there are some things that money just can’t buy.

Initially Annie refused her ‘mother-in-law’s offer.  It seemed incomprehensible to see life beyond that wedding, the dream wedding that had never been.  But as time went by, she felt a strange need to escape to get away from it all.  She decided to take a six month break to give her time to contemplate what she wanted to do with the rest of her life – and so swallowing her pride here she was – at Parwich Heights.

The old stone farmhouse, sat on the hilltop with a commanding view of the village below.  As she pulled onto the gravelled driveway, she could see the cottages nestled in the valley below.  Annie watched the wisps of smoke, rising from the chimneys, floating up like lost spirits into the starry sky.

‘I hope Mrs Cundy has kept her word’ she thought.  The friendly woman that she’d spoken to on the phone said the house would be unlocked, and she’d have the fire going in the front parlour.  She couldn’t wait to get in front of its crackling warmth, as it was cold and she was still shaking from her earlier encounter.

The entrance to the cottage was at the back of the house, to make the most of the views across the valley.  True to her word Mrs Cundy had left the large oak door unlocked, and she stepped into the hall.  She felt as though she had stepped back in time, the stone flagged floor was worn into a dip in the doorway where many feet had gone before her.  A large iron key, which she assumed was for the front door lay on a small antique table.

She felt a tingle of excitement, and instantly felt at home.  Yes she was sure she would be happy here.

Annie soon made herself at home, having checked out each room like an excited child.  The ‘parlour’ was everything she’d expected it to be – a magnificent grit stone fireplace, with two flickering candles casting a mellow light on the mantelpiece.  A large dog grate stood on the stone hearth – and she watched on, mesmerised by the roaring flames.  ‘Good old Mrs Cundy’, she must remember to drop in on her tomorrow morning to thank her.

Right, first things first – a nice warm relaxing bath, and then snuggle down to a movie.  That would be the perfect end to her first evening in Parwich.

Annie climbed the wooden staircase – it reminded her of her grandma’s house, with a strip of red patterned carpet held in place by antique brass stair rods.  As she hauled her suitcase onto the top step of the landing there was a warm lamplight coming from the room to her left – poking her nose round the corner of the pine panelled door she smiled – ‘Yes this will do very nicely’.

There was a solid brass bedstead in the centre of the cosy room, with a huge thick quilt and eiderdown.  It had been a tough day – and she fell back gratefully into the marshmallow softness.  Annie closed her eyes for a moment – and there he was etched on her memory – the stranger that she’d almost knocked down.  She opened her eyes quickly, in attempt to rid herself of the thought of him, and then Annie did something she’d not done for a long time – she started to sob heavily.

‘Where had that come from?’ she thought as she dabbed her eyes to quell the tears.  Annie thought she had overcome the worst of it, and this had taken her by surprise.  Perhaps it was the realisation that she was on her own.   Quentin would have loved this place, and he wasn’t here to share it with her.

The steaming aromatic bath was a welcome distraction, as she slipped back the water rose up to cover her shoulders, the fizzing foam enveloping her in a jasmine fragrance.  Annie had set her favourite DAB radio on the landing, and the haunting melodies of Enya soothed all her thoughts away.   It felt so calming she stayed in the water as long as possible, savouring the warm glow on her skin.

After towelling herself down, Annie put on her brushed cotton pyjamas and dressing gown – her auburn hair wrapped turban style.  Now she was ready to indulge herself – a bit of me time she thought.

She went to the kitchen first to collect a bottle of sparkling rosé from the kitchen.  It was so cold out tonight that the bottle had lost none of the chill since she’d  picked it up from the off license in Ashbourne.  She also rummaged in the supermarket carrier bags, and triumphantly retrieved the box of dairy milk that she’d treated herself to.  Although Annie loved Quentin, one thing she had hated was the fact that he’d reprimand her if she so much as looked at a chocolate.  Since being a little girl, Annie had always had to work hard at keeping her figure – and chocolate was her guilty pleasure.  There was no-one here to see her now, and it would be such a pleasure to pour over the tray of milky chocolate, deciding  which soft centre to go for.

Armed and ready for her evening tucked up in the comfort of her new home, she headed into the parlour.  The fire flickered and danced, warming the small but cosy room to an almost tropical temperature.  Annie spent the next few minutes fiddling with the TV and DVD player.  She was quite savvy with technology, but this set up was so old it took a bit of working out.  Finally she was ready, and snuggled into the sofa, surrounding herself with cushions.  The box of chocolates rested on her lap within easy reach, and glass of wine in hand.  Heaven!

Phantom of the Opera, was another of Annie’s guilty pleasure, not only for the classic musical scores – but more importantly Gerard Butler.  Now that’s what she called a man.  Like many women, Annie was a sucker for a frilly white shirt opened just enough to reveal a hint of the hairy chest that lay hidden beneath its linen depths.  The black britches and knee high leather boots hugging and revealing the muscular, manly form of his legs.  She knew it was only a dream, a fantasy – but what a fantasy.  Annie allowed herself to be transported away to another time and dimension – she became Christine and revelled in the emotional charge and passion between herself and the gorgeous Mr Butler.

The rest of the evening passed pleasurably, but Annie had been tired by her journey – and unwittingly dropped off into a deep sleep before the end of the movie.  She woke with a start staring at the black screen, and for a moment forgot where she was.  As the realisation dawned on her, Annie rose groggily.  The flames of the fire had died back now, leaving a mound of glowing embers.  She stretched like a cat, and yawned – ‘I’ll tidy up in the morning’ she thought as she looked at the half empty tray of chocolates.  Now that soft bed was calling her.

The cottage fell silent and settled into darkness.  Before she went to sleep Annie remembered the package that her Mum had given her.  She padded across to her still packed suitcase, and reached in for the small parcel.  Jumping back under the covers, she folded the duvet around her.

A couple of months ago, Annie had dropped in on her Mum.  She’d been clearing out the loft – finding several boxes of junk which Annie had deliberately forgotten about – and had called her over to reclaim her belongings.   As she’d been rummaging through she’d come across the small linen parcel, bound with ribbon.

‘This belonged to your Great, great grandmother’ her Mum explained, sat down at the kitchen table over a cup of tea and chocolate digestives.  ‘My mother gave it to me when I was a little girl.  Her name was Grace, and she was born in a Derbyshire village’, her Mum hesitated, trying to recall the name ‘I think it was Parditch or Parwich or something like that’

‘Anyway’  Joyce continued, ‘It turns out there was a bit of a skeleton in the old family closet…..’But it turned out to be a disappointment, as her Mum couldn’t quite recall the details.

Annie looked at the faded cloth and red silk ribbon that bound the package that now lay before her.  Her heart started beating faster as she reached forward to untie the bow.  ‘Would Grace reveal her secret?  Would she find out exactly what had gone on in Parwich all those years before?…

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Annie sat up in bed, the sun streaming through the window.  The box, with its’ faded red ribbon, lay untouched by the side of the bed.  She looked at the clock.  “10:00 am!  Good grief!”  Annie couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept through the night.  Well, at least not since Quentin had…  Annie shook her head defiantly.  “Pull yourself together girl,” she told herself.  “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!”

Annie put the fragile linen box by her bedside table, quickly made the bed, threw on some clothes and dashed down the stairs two at a time.  In her faded jeans, hiking boots and woolly jumper, and with her unruly red hair pulled into a messy pony tail, she looked young and carefree.

“Thank you Mrs Cundy!” said Annie gratefully to herself as she boiled the kettle and made herself a cup of coffee with the supplies that had been left ready for her arrival.

Coffee in hand, Annie spread the map out in front of her.  It was a beautiful day, and she was going to take full advantage of the good weather with a long walk – preferably one that took in a pub for lunch.  “Hmmmm…” Annie’s fingers drummed the table and traced a circular route.  “Brassington, I think.”  According to her Peak District Guide there were two pubs to choose from, The Miners Arms and Ye Olde Gate Inn.  Annie figured one of them would be bound to be serving food.

Annie set off down the long drive, veering off by a large lime tree down a public footpath.  It was early spring and the meadows, framed by dry stone walls and rickety limestone outbuildings created a scene of rural idyll.  Late snowdrops and early daffodils jumbled companionly together along the seemingly endless path. Sheep, a few with tiny lambs, dotted the grass, their occasional bleats interjecting the birdsong in the air.  Annie made a mental note to sit down as soon as she got back to Parwich Heights and write Quentin’s parents a very nice thank you letter.  This was just what she needed.

After about an hour, the path dipped down into a valley and Brassington spread out before Annie.  “Another charming little village!” thought Annie happily.  She wandered down the road and went into The Gate Inn.  It was an old building, and the windows were quite small. Annie had to blink a few times to let her eyes adjust – despite being the middle of the day, it was quite dark.

She walked up to the bar and ordered a half pint of lager.  While the publican pulled it, she looked around, taking in the huge fireplace and shining brasses on the wall.  Suddenly she gave a start – it was the man from the night before!  There was no mistaking his dark curly hair and rugged good looks.  He had a pint glass of bitter, and was reading the paper whilst absentmindedly stroking the head of a gentle black Labrador which lay at the floor by his side.

He saw Annie looking at him and smiled warmly at her.  “You okay, can I help you with anything?” he asked in a kind tone.

“Ermm, uhh,” Annie stammered, her face blushing bright red at the thought of their encounter the previous night.  And now he had the nerve to pretend like he’d never even seen her before, let alone acknowledge how rude he had been.  She didn’t want to even be in the same room as him.

Annie squared her shoulders.  “No, thank you very much;  I don’t require any help from you!  And I can see you are no worse for wear either!”  Annie left her beer untouched on the bar, walked to the heavy oak door and lifted the heavy steel latch.  She looked over her shoulder for a final retort.  “Although I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear,” she added hastily as she walked into the bright sunlight “that I am on foot today!”

As the door slammed behind her, the man smiled in bewilderment, scratching the lab behind the ear who thumped his tail appreciatively in reply.

The barman called over to him.  “Hey Justin, what was that all about?”

“I have no idea!  I’ve never seen that woman before in my life.”

Justin and his brother were regulars at the Gate and knew the owner, Paul, well.

“It beats me,” Justin added ruefully.

“What beats you, little brother?”  An equally tall, equally handsome man slumped down on the bench opposite Justin and grabbed the sports page.

“A crazy red head, that’s what beats me.  She accused me of doing something, I’m not sure what, and suggested that I’d be pleased she wasn’t driving.  Crazy!”

“A redhead?” asked Justin’s brother.  “Pretty little thing, curvy, crazy hair, lots of freckles – kind of feisty?”

“That would be the one.  Who is she?”

“I have no idea.”

Justin took a long swig of his beer.  “Let me get this straight.  You are in the WC while a redhead who I know is not from around here has a go at me for no apparent reason, you are then able to describe her perfectly, yet don’t know who she is.  Explain please.  Now.”

“Don’t you get snarky with your big brother young Justin!”

“C’mon, Jason, what gives?”  Justin knew his brother had a bit of a bad boy streak, and he was worried about what had happened to the girl.

“Let’s just say we ran into each other last night in Parwich.”  Jason chuckled at the recollection.  He hadn’t been hurt, but couldn’t help teasing the pretty redhead; it had been fun to rile her up.  “I think she’s renting the gamekeeper’s cottage at Parwich Heights.  Heard Mrs Cundy mention something about it in the shop.  Some story attached to her – a plane crash or something.  I’m not sure.”  He pushed his empty glass across the table.  “Your round little brother!”

“Would you lay off the little brother routine please Jason?  I mean, little brother by what – all of 10 minutes?”  He drained his own glass and looked into his brother’s dark brown eyes – carbon copies of his own, and chuckled.  “Sometimes,” he said ruefully “I bloody well hate being your identical twin!”

∞∞∞∞∞

Meanwhile, Annie had stomped over to the Miners Arms and was consoling herself with her second beer of the day – although this was the first one she had managed to drink.  She ordered a cheese sandwich, consulted her map, and decided to forget all about the dark haired stranger she had managed to encounter twice in the short space of 24 hours.  “It’s like having a bloody stalker,” she murmured to herself.

The walk home did much to revive her spirits, and by the time she strode up the drive to Parwich Heights she had nearly forgotten about her lunchtime encounter.

She took her boots off, popped a chocolate in her mouth and lit the fire.  It was chilly.  Annie padded up the stairs in her thick woollen walking socks to her room with the intention of grabbing her slippers and a good book from the large selection lining the bookcase in her bedroom.  Instead she spotted the little box.  Picking it up she said “I’d forgotten all about you!”  Annie pulled on her slippers, and carried the box carefully down.  She grabbed a check throw from the sofa, and wrapped it around herself.  Sitting cross legged on the couch she put the box gently on her lap and pulled at the frayed and faded red silk ribbon.

“So, Great great grandma Grace,” what do you have for me here?”  She lifted the lid of the box carefully, revealing yellowed tissue paper.   Annie parted the paper gently and looked at the contents:  letters, a very old newspaper clipping and a delicate golden ring set with a ruby, and what Annie suspected were two beautifully cut pink diamonds.

“Gosh…” Annie said out loud thoughtfully, looking at the ring, and holding it up in the firelight.  “Where could this have come from?”

Annie looked down at the small diamond ring gracing her own hand.  It had belonged to her mother, and her mother’s mother.  An engagement ring passed down through the years from mother to daughter.  When Quentin had asked Annie’s widowed mum for her hand in marriage, Annie’s mother had given both her consent, and the ring, to Quentin with her love and best wishes for their future happiness.

But if this wasn’t Grace’s ring, then whose was it?

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Annie went to bed thinking about the ring and what secrets it held. That night was very windy indeed – although being holed up in the cosy cottage with the noise of the wind howling through the trees on Parwich Hill was somehow soothing.

Next morning, Annie noticed that the kitchen was cooler than usual, but thought nothing more of it.  Realising the fresh air and exercise was good for her mood, she decided to go for another walk, straight after breakfast.  She had been told about a short walk around Parwich Hill which the locals called the “outer ring road” and decided that this would fit the bill well.

At that time in the morning, Monsdale Lane looked almost magical.  Although overcast, the light still dappled through the overhanging trees.  Last night’s wind meant that there were quite a few twigs and branches scattering the path.

About halfway along the green lane, she noticed a gate to her right.  Just beyond it was a metal sculpture of a bird.  A small plaque informed Annie that this was called the “Cuckoo Gate” and that the sculpture was made by Hayley as part of a school art project in 2006.  She followed the instructions to call out “Cuckoo!” and a few seconds later her voice echoed back from across the valley.

“What a wonderful spot!” thought Annie.  Despite the traumas of recent months, this beautiful, isolated part of the Peak District was working its charm and lifting her spirits.

She continued up the hill, feeling the benefits of the exercise.  After a couple of left turns, the gentle rolling hills, which she knew led to the various valleys carved by the river Dove, opened out in front of her.  It was still quite windy, causing grey clouds broken by shafts of sunlight to drift across the wide skyline, and adding drama to the landscape.

A dead crow – its eyes already taken by its colleagues – lay in the road, emphasising the harshness that lay behind the beauty of this part of the world.  Annie could feel the strings pulling at her fragile, elevated mood.

Stepping over the crow, she found her progress further hampered by the accumulation of mud in the road, which she realised was created by the comings and goings of farm vehicles.  The farm in question was somehow presaged by the dead crow.  A cattle shed with loose corrugated steel rattled in the wind.  In parts it was open, providing views of a dark, muddy interior containing depressed looking cattle.

Annie fought off the encroaching mood.  This was meant to be an invigorating walk to lift the spirits. She focussed on the distant hills, watching the pools of light skimming the checkerboard of fields created by dry stone walls.

“Indeed, this is God’s own country. You take the rough with the smooth.” she thought.

On her return to the cottage, Annie decided to settle down with one of the books on Mrs Cundy’s shelf.  There was a series of novels by an author called Stephen Booth, who specialised in crime fiction based in Derbyshire. Annie thought that the descriptions of the brooding Derbyshire landscapes and of the eccentricities of its inhabitants would complement her stay nicely.  She picked up the first in the series, Black Dog, and settled down for a good long read.

Immediately she empathised with the two protagonists, who each seemed to sum up the different sides of her experience here to date. Diane Fry was the incomer from the Birmingham police force, and Ben Cooper was the local policeman, born and bred in the Peak District.  Annie became more and more drawn into the story, as the missing school girl’s body was eventually found by a retired quarryman called Harry.  The story was so compelling that Annie felt herself actually getting colder as she read on.

Eventually, she tore herself away from the book in order to make some lunch.  She thought she would warm some soup on the Aga and have it with some nice crusty bread.  She put the pan on the simmering plate and went to lay the table and slice the bread.

When she returned to the soup, Annie realised that it was hardly any warmer than when she had taken it from the fridge.  Damn, she thought.  Last night’s wind must have blown the Aga out. That’s why she was starting to feel so cold!  Rather than tackle the job of lighting it herself, Annie thought it best to call Mrs Cundy.

“Oh, yes dear – these old oil fired Agas don’t half present a saga at times.  I’ll come round right away. It’ll take me a few goes, but I’ll be able to get it going again eventually.”

While waiting for Mrs Cundy, Annie again took out the box that her mother had given her.  Staring at the ring, she wondered about its history.

A knock sounded on the door, and Mrs Cundy let herself in.  Annie put the ring and its box down, next to the kitchen sink.

After much messing about with long matches, and a surprising amount of cussing for such a polite lady, Mrs Cundy finally announced that the Aga was back in commission.  Her hands were black from all the soot that had accumulated in the fire box.

As Mrs Cundy scrubbed her hands in the sink, Annie thought she saw a slight shudder in the old lady’s shoulders.  Maybe it was nothing; the kitchen was cold, after all.

“Lovely ring, dear. Where did you get it?”

“Oh, it’s been in the family for many years.  My mother gave it to me recently”, said Annie.

“Well, just you be sure to look after it, dear.  I’m sure there’s been a lot of emotion invested in it over the years.  Right-oh, I’d best be off.  I’m due at the WI shortly, and it doesn’t do to be late.  If there’s anything else you need, you know where to find me”.

Walking down the hill towards her own cottage, Mrs Cundy stared thoughtfully into the distant hills towards Brassington.

As soon as she got home, she picked up the phone and dialled Mrs Lomas, the mother of Justin and Jason.

“Margaret, we need to talk…”

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Justin looked up from his drawing board with a start and realised that the room was flooded with light. He must have been drawing for at least two hours now. He had been something of an insomniac since his student days in London – then it had been a nuisance because he needed his sleep to recover from late nights of drinking and drugs – not that he’d been much into drugs – unlike his brother Jason who had been a bit rebellious and wild all his life. Besides, getting into the Architectural Association had been a hard slog and he hadn’t wanted to compromise his potential employment prospects with the reputation of always being stoned. Now his inability to sleep meant he was often up and at his drawing board in the early hours. Strangely, his creative brain was frantically fertile in those pre-dawn hours and design problems were more easily solved.

He stood up and stretched his long rangy limbs as he walked towards the window, hugging his ancient dressing gown around him. He leant towards the mullioned window with his breath momentarily obscuring the view that he looked forward to every morning. Despite the cold, he pushed open the old, metal-framed window with its small panes of undulating glass and leaned out to fill his soul with the Derbyshire landscape. The roofs of the estate buildings lay beneath with their sagging lines of Staffordshire blue tiles or in many cases, the beautiful heavy stone tiles that had managed to survive. They glistened with the sparkle of overnight frost as the early morning sun threw its pale, watery gaze across them. He ruffled his hands through his boisterous black hair and swept his eyes up and over the village. In the far distance he could see the eerie isolated clumps of trees outlined on the top of Minninglow Hill. A light scattering of snow had dusted the tops of the hills as so often happened on spring mornings in the Peak District. The pale pink sky washed the countryside with the anticipated glow of yet another beautiful day; He could never get enough of this view. Living in London for the past ten years, he had missed this daily sojourn with his earthly roots. His urban friends had scoffed as he waxed lyrical about the countryside of his childhood and couldn’t understand why he took every opportunity to escape back to his mother’s cottage in Parwich. How do you begin to explain to anaesthetised city dwellers that every day in his Derbyshire countryside was a visual delight? In London, the days and seasons rolled into one long suffocating year, interspersed with occasional days lazing in Kensington Gardens amongst the stiff floral displays, trying to cut out the smell of exhaust fumes and the endless background hum of traffic.

He closed the window and glanced towards the dip in the hills where he knew Parwich and his mother’s cottage lay concealed. His thoughts drifted and he reflected on the extraordinary events that had unfolded a year ago. That strange email from his mother, just before his and Jason’s thirtieth birthday, had simply asked for the twins to come home as soon as they could because she needed to talk to them. Their mother’s emails were usually huge epistles of the daily life and happenings of village life – the strains and pleasures of her job as headmistress of the tiny village school and all the web of intrigue and gossip that held the tiny community of four hundred souls together.

They had left London late on Sunday afternoon, after their birthday bash on a Thames party boat. They had promised their Mum and Dad that they would stay for a few days to catch up and recharge their batteries; not that Justin thought Jason needed a rest. Justin wasn’t sure exactly what his twin brother got up to but his job as an investment banker with Hazlet’s didn’t seem too onerous. It hadn’t surprised him when Jason had been subsequently released in the first wave of city bank redundancies.

On that sunny spring afternoon they had driven up together in Jason’s black Ferrari Enzo. It was one of the better journeys back up the M40 ands M42 and despite his anxieties over his brother’s attempts to emulate ‘The Stig’, he had eventually relaxed and they had chattered idly about this ’thing’ that their mother needed to discuss with them. Their speculations soon degenerated into ever-wilder silly fantasies but nothing could have prepared them for the stranger than fiction events that would change both their lives.

*********

Annie blinked her eyes open lazily. She had forgotten to close the heavy damask curtains the night before and a shaft of sunlight had reached through the tiny window to warm her face. She snuggled the quilt up around her neck, her thoughts roaming and then suddenly, she sat up with a start. Her heart was racing as she realised that this was the first morning since that nightmare day in the hospital that she had not woken with a heavy suffocating stone lying on her chest- remembering that Quentin was dead. She tentatively probed her mind and found she could think about him without that heavy blanket of black fog smothering her. Despite her many misgivings, she wondered if maybe her heart was going to heal after all

Her eyes drifted around the room and rested on the ring lying on the worn oak surface of her bedside table. She reached out and tried it on. Surprised, she found that it fitted her ring finger perfectly, above her grandmother’s old ring.’ Whoever this belonged to must have tiny hands like me’, she thought. She examined it more closely. It did not have any hallmarks and somehow she felt that it’s buttery yellow colour and simple engraved design meant that it was 22ct gold and possibly Georgian.

She swung her legs out of bed and clutching the heavily patterned bedspread to her breasts, padded towards the boarded oak door to fetch her dressing gown. She glanced at the mirrored Edwardian wardrobe and caught sight of her reflection. With her bare shoulders peeping above the folds of heavy material that she clutched to her breasts she looked fleetingly like some ancestral portrait in a stately home. The ring on her finger shot rainbows of light as it caught the sun. Annie stepped forwards to examine the reflection of her cascading red curls and velvety brown eyes. Quentin used to tease her, telling her she was a genetic aberration because red heads should really have blue eyes. She would retort that she was a rarity not an aberration.   Now, she stared into those dark pools as if the future might reveal itself there.

Annie shook herself and decided to get dressed and then read the old newspaper cutting that came with the ring, while eating her breakfast.

Downstairs she sat at the heavily ridged pine table and trailed a spoonful of golden syrup across the surface of her porridge. Ever since childhood she had never been able to resist trying to write her initials.   And today was no different. A little tear prickled behind her eyelids as she recalled that in the days coming up to her wedding she had practised A J instead of A C. Annie sighed and reached for the yellow folds of newspaper.

She opened the blotched paper carefully – the folds were pitted with holes and she was afraid it would fall apart. The stains and gaps made it difficult to read. It was obviously very old with an old-fashioned decorative typeface. Unfortunately it had been cut out of the newspaper without either a date or heading so she had no idea which paper it was from.  The caption was easy enough to read….’Aristocrat’s Son Lost At Sea On The White Star Line Olympic’ She tried to read the rest but struggled to make sense of it. As far as she could tell, it seemed that the son of a Lord Fitzwilliam had been sailing to America to fetch his fiancée Catherine who was the heiress to…some fortune that she couldn’t quite read. His cabin had apparently been found empty by the steward bringing his breakfast and despite a search of the entire ship, no trace of him could be found. It was rumoured that he had been very unhappy to leave England following some scandal with a woman at his father’s estate in Lillington, Derbyshire.

‘How peculiar ‘ thought Annie, ‘life is full of coincidences, here I am, staying in Dorothy Cundy’s cottage not five miles from Lillington House. Maybe the letters will tell me more.’ She reached for the small bundle and began to pull carefully at the dark red ribbon. A rap at the window startled her and she looked up to see a face peering through the small windowpanes.

*******

‘Justin, Justin,’ he heard his fathers voice and turned to face him in the bright sunlight of the cobbled estate yard. ‘Have you by any chance finished those drawings of the barn conversion ready for the Peak Park meeting? You know how difficult they can be and I would like to have sorted out their last lot of gripes,’

“Nearly done” said Justin and hesitated – he still found it difficult to know quite how to address this man and so usually avoided saying anything.’ I don’t know – all the years I worked for Fosters in London and I swear it was easier to build the Gherkin than it is to do a simple barn conversion in the Peak Park.’

“I know,” sighed his father,” but you know how they want us all to live in a Georgian time warp.’

Justin laughed, ‘yes, and how months of discussions can be swept aside by the vagaries of yet a different planning officer!’

‘Well, I’ll see you later’ said his father as he turned and strode off towards the stables for his early morning ride.

Justin stared after the retreating figure, full of mixed emotions. All his life this man had meant one thing to him and suddenly, a year ago all that had changed.

‘Hi Justin’ a girlish laugh interrupted his confused thoughts and a dervish of blonde curls threw itself into his arms.

‘Mmm.., hi Sally’ he said as he buried his nose in the nape of her neck to inhale her fresh, spicy scent. ’You’re up early this morning.’

‘Yes’ she said as she flashed her bright blue eyes at him, ‘I had a kiln cooling all night and I can’t wait to see if it’s all masterpieces or all disasters. Knowing my luck it will be the second.’

Sally was one of his childhood friends from Parwich School and now she was one of the tenants of Lillington Hall Craft Yard. A group of former estate offices had been cleverly converted by his father’s wife into studios and workshops. It housed Sally’s studio pottery, a glass blower, a wildlife artist, a furniture maker, a weaver and an antique shop. Besides bringing in a welcome rent, its huge popularity had encouraged visitors to the many other attractions that Penelope had introduced over the years. She kept the visitor attractions cleverly tucked away behind the main house so that Lillington Hall could continue to be used as a film location for BBC costume dramas and big feature films that loved it’s Jacobean authenticity.

Of course, Justin felt he was particularly lucky as he had the whole of the top floor of the east side of the block for his drawing office and flat. The rooms were strung out in a long line, which meant he got both the morning and evening light. Perfect. Well nearly, he thought. He still had difficulty getting to grips with the last year’s events. Not so Jason, his cavalier brother who was revelling in the added attraction of his new connections using his amiable, devilish charm to lure every willing local beauty into his bed. That new feisty little redhead over in Parwich will be next, he thought. Somehow, that thought disturbed him but he couldn’t quite think why – it wasn’t as if she was his type.  Justin decided he felt like company and knowing his lazy brother would still be in bed, he decided to walk across to Parwich to see his mum.

Justin walked along the main avenue towards the Tissington trail, feasting his eyes on the secrets of an early spring morning. Sometimes when he did this walk he could convince himself that no other person had walked this way for years. Wildlife seemed unafraid and he would often come across rabbits and hares bounding across the fields. This particular morning, a familiar dog fox leapt up onto a drystone wall and walked arrogantly in sharp silhouette against the bright morning sky; it wouldn’t be long before the badgers started to venture out.  Justin came to the stone bridge over the trail and looked down into the deep shadows cast by the massive stone cutting. He could recall every moment of that fateful evening when and Jason had come back and knew he would remember it for the rest of his life. He and his brother had walked up the lavender lined path of his parents cottage still laughing and bantering as they went through the door.  Although the usual log fire had been burning in the cosy front sitting room, the air of tension had been palpable. His mother had jumped up from the sofa and had immediately been flanked, almost protectively, by his father and, of all people, Edward Fitzwilliam.

Their mother had hugged them both and then without the usual preamble of ‘tea and cake?’ had said, ‘sit down both of you, we have something to tell you.’

He had noticed that his mother was shaking but she had taken a huge breath and said, ‘ there’s no easy way to say this so I’ll just go straight in, and please, let me get to the end before you ask any questions.

I know you both think that Robert is your father, but he’s not. Edward is.’

Justin physically started just as he had then and pushed himself away from the stone bridge. The memory of those words still cut through him, adrenaline coursed like a tidal wave through his veins and he had to stride down the hill to expend some energy.   He marched across the fields down towards the marshy bletch, scattering the startled sheep in his way as he recalled his mothers continuing tale; ‘You know that your Dad and I came to Parwich when both you boys were just four and Robert set up his veterinary practice. We came with your fathers name as the Lomas family. But what neither you nor anyone else in the village knew, except for my sister Dorothy, was that we were keeping our own secret. I had been seeing something of Edward after we had met up at a party in London while I was doing my teaching degree. We always knew that the relationship couldn’t go anywhere because his father intentions were for him to marry Penelope Caissons whose family fortune was critical to the future of the Lillington estate. We were not as careful as we should have been and suddenly I found I was pregnant. We considered an abortion but they were still tricky in those days and besides, I knew I couldn’t go through with it.’

She had smiled weakly at them and said ‘ Of course that would have been a tragedy because then we wouldn’t have been blessed with you two.’

As Justin picked his way through the boggy stepping-stones, his pace slowed slightly as the approaching hill used up more energy and he began calming down. His mother had continued, ‘ Edward offered to marry me even though he knew his father would be apoplectic but I refused. I knew it would never have worked and besides, I was already seeing Robert who had swept me off my feet on our very first date. Robert knew about the pregnancy – but not that you were twins,’ and she had laughed nervously and looked to our father who had gently hugged her. ‘ Anyway, in a nutshell, Robert asked me to marry him and I did. However, Edward was and still is, a good man and has always generously contributed financially so that you could go to Repton and have many of the other more expensive hobbies that you both had. Edward and Penelope married soon after us but Penelope knew nothing about you two. That’s how it should have continued and if things had gone as we had planned then both of you would never have needed to know. But life’s never that easy. Sadly, Penelope and Edward have never had children and now they know that it’s too late. So….Edward wants to legitimise your births so that Lillington can have a true heir.’

Justin clambered over the worn oak stile by the holly tree at the top of the hill and looked down on Parwich and his parents’ house. He recalled the deafening silence that had strangled the room. He remembered the drained ashen faces of his family and the growing feeling of panic, as his familiar, safe world seemed to have crashed around him.

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The night before on the phone, Margaret had heard the hint of urgency in Dorothy’s voice. “Why, what is the matter?”, she said to Dorothy when she said they must meet – “I am seeing you later at the W.I. – will whatever it is wait until after then?”. Dorothy said that it would, but that she really needed to speak to Margaret in private about a situation which had arisen and the new tenant of the cottage.

They agreed to meet after the W.I. at Dorothy’s small stone cottage opposite the village green. Margaret thought about the call. Her sister was not given to exaggeration or panic but there had been a slight trace of panic in Dorothy’s voice.

After the meeting, the sisters went back to Dorothy’s cottage where she told Margaret about Annie and the ring she had. She described the ring to Margaret who then gasped – “But how can this be? How can she have that ring? It was thought to have disappeared with Charles Fitzwilliam when he supposedly drowned. (Apparently he had taken it with him unknown to the rest of the family when he left England and the loss had been discovered after he was found missing). “Well”, said Margaret, “I will have to call Edward and let him know. As you know, the ring is on many of the portraits in Lillingworth Hall and is a Fitzwilliam family heirloom. What do you know about this girl Annie who is renting your cottage? Where does she come from and just how did she get the ring?” Margaret said she would arrange to meet with Edward to decide how to find out more about how the ring got into Annie’s possession. “I just can’t believe it turning up in Parwich after all this time”, she said.

**********

Back at the farmhouse and the rap at the window which had startled her, Annie recognized the face peering through the small window panes.  “Oh no, it is him again – what does he want coming up here?” By him, she meant Jason. He was smiling and waving at her and indicating for her to open the door. Silly, but she thought about her lack of make-up and put her hand through her hair to tidy it. Why was she bothered? He was just a nuisance and she wasn’t interested in him!  She went to the door and he greeted her with “How are you doing? I just thought I would pop up and see how the lady who ran me over is settling down”.  Annie didn’t know how to respond as he continued with his chatter. “Why have you come here?” she said. Jason looked somewhat crestfallen as he was normally received with a great amount of interest by all the women around the area and indeed had bedded a fair few of them. This lack of interest was new to him, especially since he was now heir to a title. (Much to Justin’s disgust – all due to 10 minutes – thanks Mum!).  He studied Annie and thought about her neck which was calling to him – kiss me – kiss me.  He managed to regain his composure and said that he had called to see if she would like to have a night out down at The Sycamore as a local folk group were due to play tonight.  “Why would I want to go anywhere with you?”, she replied. Jason, not to be thwarted, said  “Well, I did think as you are staying in the village you would like the opportunity to meet up with some of the locals who on the whole are a really nice bunch of people.  Also, it will do you no good staying up here on your own moping or whatever you are doing – you need to mix with people”.  Annie knew he was right and did like the idea of going out to The Sycamore, but folk music – could she manage to face folk music as when she had first met Quentin it was when she went with a friend to a folk festival and saw him playing. Her mind drifted back again to the times they had, he had been so romantic and caring but also exciting, especially when it came to love making. He would arrive with a picnic basket and take the car and they would drive out to the country where they would climb over stiles and into fields and put down the picnic rug and make love, eat strawberries, drink wine and laugh. He was just so perfect. She came back to reality with Jason asking again if she would join him. For some reason she said she would and he said that he would pick her at 6.30. “What about lunch today? Would you like to go to Ashbourne and have a look round and then have lunch?”, said Jason, who knew he was pushing his luck. Annie declined the offer of lunch and said that she was going to look round Lillington Hall. Well Jason couldn’t have wished for more – it gave him the opportunity to tell her all about that evening last year when he heard he would inherit the Hall. “I would be more than delighted to take you over there and show you around. You will get the opportunity to meet my younger brother Justin – I don’t think you have met him yet”.  Annie thought about the offer and decided to take Jason up on it, after all, wasn’t she going there anyway and she was curious about the newspaper cutting that had come with the ring.

Jason waited for her to get ready and they walked to his car which was down near The Green.

On the way to Lillington Hall, they passed an ambulance with its lights flashing.  As it passed, Jason’s mobile rang and his mother was on the phone – “Jason, something dreadful has happened to Edward ……………………………………………”.

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Just momentarily, Jason’s foot lifted off the accelerator, and Annie glanced across at him with a look of concern.  His brow creased, and she couldn’t quite tell whether it was in anguish or frustration.

‘OK Mum, don’t worry, I think I’ve just seen the ambulance.  Where are they taking him?….’ There was silence on the other end of the line, punctuated by heavy laboured sobs.  His usually steady, dependable mother was breaking down.

It wasn’t too hard to hazard a guess, as to where the ambulance was headed ‘Is it the Royal Derby?’ he offered.

‘Y…yes……’ she stammered ‘oh God Jason … I think we might lose him!  Hurry…please hurry’

Annie, instinctively placed her hand on Jason’s arm, she knew something terrible had happened.  He looked visibly shaken, but for the sake of appearances kept his cool, and assured his mother that he’d join her at the hospital as soon as he could.

Ending the call abruptly, he hurled his mobile at the dashboard with a mumbled curse.  Annie felt awkward.  This was for all intents and purposes a stranger – and she felt as though she was intruding on an intensely personal moment.

‘Is everything OK?….’  As soon as the words left her lips, she scoffed at the inadequacy of them.

‘I’m afraid, I’ll have to renege on our date’, he ignored Annie’s raised eyebrows, and continued ‘I could drop you off at Lillington Hall, and join you later?’  His dark eyes stared imploringly into hers, surveying the engaging face before him – finally resting on the rosebud lips, parted enticingly mid question.

Annie couldn’t manage to form the words of rejection that she’d intended, and instead an inner spirit took over her voice, and most uncharacteristically uttered a timid response of ‘Of course I will…no problem’   She dropped her eyes swiftly and looked to her lap, hoping that it would in some way halt the rosy blush that had started to fire her cheeks.

Jason allowed a contented smile to creep across his lips, and then floored the accelerator.  The rest of the journey was a blur to Annie, and in what seemed like no time, they arrived at a gated lodge house, and the car rumbled over the cattle grid into what she assumed was the Lillington Estate.

The green fields bore the undulating scars of centuries of ploughing, and were beginning to reawaken in the early flush of spring.  Jason only moderately tempered his speed, as they passed a handful of chocolate box cottages, where daffodils swayed rhythmically in the subdued March sunshine.

The village was bustling with activity.  Estate workers were going busily about their daily tasks, but waved in acknowledgment as they passed.  She turned her eyes from the rural idyll to glance across at the handsome countenance of the stranger at her side, and couldn’t quite believe he owned all this.

As the church bells were striking the hour, Jason pulled into the long gravelled driveway of Lillington Hall, and Annie’s jaw dropped as she gazed at the majestic country mansion that lay before her.   ‘Wow!…’  Her dark eyes were opened wide in amazement, trying to savour each magnificent detail.  For once Annie found she was lost for words.

Jason flashed her a dimpled smile – he’d forgotten just how impressive this place was.  Then just as swiftly his lips swiftly descended into a frown, as he contemplated the seriousness of Edward’s condition.

Annie was still staring in awe at the forbidding facade of the Jacobean Hall, when she felt the hot breath on the back of her neck.  She turned abruptly to be met by Jason’s attractive features ‘would Madam care to follow me?….’  Before, she could respond, he’d gone and was bounding athletically towards the iron studded oak door that stood slightly ajar.

Regaining her senses, Annie realised that despite all his endeavours, this was no Mr Darcy – and Jason whatever he was couldn’t be described as a gentleman by any stretch of the imagination.  She shook her auburn locks with frustration, and flung open the door of his prized Ferrari – she didn’t care if she dinted it, in fact it would please her immensely right now if she did!   Still feeling disappointed that she’d been such a floozy to be taken in so easily by a disarming handsome stranger, she crunched noisily up the gravelled driveway.

Her tiny frame seemed even more diminutive as she approached the stone arch of the doorway, above which was set a sculptured shield bearing the Fitzwilliam coat of arms.  The heraldic device served as a proud declaration of the family that had occupied these walls for almost five centuries.   Although the ancestors had long gone, Annie could still sense the energy of the characters and events that had left their mark on this place through the ages.

She was startled as a face appeared suddenly from the darkness behind the doorway ‘There you are…I thought you’d got lost.  Or you’d thought better of hanging round, more to the point…’  Jason scanned her features keenly, and the steely gaze that met his eyes confirmed that this was indeed the same spirited red head he’d encountered less than two weeks before.

‘Would a G& T help calm the nerves perhaps?’ he suggested ‘Oh by the way, don’t forget to leave your sword on the way in!’  Roguishly he pointed to a series of double iron hooks protruding from the wall.  Once used to ensure that no visitor crossed the threshold bearing arms – these days they were rather ingeniously used to store an impressive selection of golfing umbrellas.

Turning his broad back Jason strode purposefully across the stone flagged hallway.  A fire crackled and sparked in the dog grate, which was surrounded by the intricately sculpted gothic fireplace rising impressively to the full height of the room.    The starkness of the stone was muted by the oak panelled walls, which enveloped the room in a warmth and intimacy.  Annie watched as his tall form disappeared through a panelled doorway, at the far end of the room.

‘I’m really sorry, but as you may have gathered there’s a bit of a crisis…’ he raised his voice so that he could be heard,  ’My father’s been injured, some sort of accident it would seem’….His deep voice was still elevated, as he turned only to be confronted by the beguiling titian beauty before him.  ‘Oh, I was just about to pour you a drink….I was just saying,’ he softened his voice, ‘I wish it could have been different, but I need to go to Derby…’  Jason checked himself, before reaching out and tenderly resting a hand on her shoulder.  ‘I hope you understand, but my family need me…  my Mum needs me now’.

Annie shuddered at his touch.  There was something in his voice which betrayed the concern he was expressing.  However, she knew better than anyone else how it felt to have the bottom fall out of your world, so returned his sentiment with a soft smile.   Perhaps she was being harsh on him, after all, it did sound pretty serious.

Refusing the offer of a gin and tonic, it was a little early even for Annie – Jason replaced the stopper in the crystal decanter, and shrugged his shoulders.

They passed in silence through a maze of oak panelled corridors, save the echo of their footsteps on the polished parquet floor.  Annie scanned the gallery of assorted eyes that seemed to study her from the ancient gilt framed canvases, adorning the walls – conscious not for the first time today that she was an intruder in this family’s affairs.

‘Now you’re sure you don’t mind waiting until I get back?’

‘I’ll be fine’ she assured him ‘just show me the kettle and the biscuit barrel, and I’ll be as happy as a pig in mud!!’  Jason allowed himself a chuckle, he wasn’t sure he’d ever fathom this lady, but he was beginning to think it might just be a bit of fun finding out.

‘Ok, if you’re sure, I’ll leave you to it then’ he jangled his car keys purposefully.  ‘Make yourself at home, and if you need anything, Chambers is around and about somewhere…he’s the butler or whatever you call them these days…’  Annie gave a little gasp of surprise, ‘a butler?’ she exclaimed.  Although, if she’d stopped to think about it logically, you can’t run a place like this without help – so a butler’s as good as anyone.

‘Yes, he’s a bit of a stuffy old fart, but what he doesn’t know about the place isn’t worth knowing.‘ Jason stepped towards her, till he was so close that her skin tingled with his presence.  For one heart stopping moment, as he tilted his head and his eyes languished on her lips she thought he was going to kiss her.  Then with a sparkle in his dark mahogany eyes and a flash of his smile he pulled away….’don’t go anywhere…I’ll see you later….’, and then he was gone….again!

∞∞∞∞∞

Soft, mellow sunshine streamed through the mullioned windows as Annie made her way to fetch the kettle from the aga.  She was pleasantly surprised to find it still warm, which was a relief as she was only just getting used to operating the one in the cottage, and this looked even more daunting. 

Having eventually discovered all the ingredients to make a hot steaming cup of tea, she looked around in search of the biscuit barrel.  A habit of elevenses developed during her childhood, meant that for Annie a cup of tea wasn’t complete without a ‘dunking’ biscuit.  Disappointingly, however it seemed that this family were too ‘upper class’ to own such a common item.  Although her search was not entirely in vain, as she spied a huge slab of moist fruit cake sat temptingly on the large uneven table in the centre of the room.  Surely no-one would notice if she cut a small slice from one end!

So it was, armed with provisions, Annie retraced her steps back through the house, anxious to explore a little further.  ‘Well he did say make yourself at home!’ she grinned to herself.

Annie recalled there was another door in the Main Hall, diagonally across from the one that Jason had taken her through earlier.  Since before she could remember, Annie had loved nothing more than to run amongst the scarred ruins of castles, exploring each avenue and dank, dark corner.  She never had conquered the feelings of deep disappointment that she experienced, each time she found a locked door – barring her access to whatever lay beyond.  She felt cheated and frustrated, and was left wondering what secrets the door was hiding.  So this was one opportunity that wasn’t going to pass her by.

The door creaked open as she lifted the latch, revealing a similar maze of corridors beyond.  Ignoring the stairway to her right, Annie was drawn instead to the sunlit passageway that disappeared off to the left.  Leaded glass windows were set high above head height, and an array of cracked and aged oil paintings decorated what would otherwise have been plain, painted walls.

She peeped round the corner of an opened door at the end of the walkway, and was amazed at what she saw.  ‘This certainly was some treasure’ she thought to herself, as she gazed upon the rows of ancient tomes stacked floor to ceiling on three sides of the room.  A rickety wooden step ladder had been left propped up against a shelf, pointing at a range of rust and ox blood leather bound spines.

As she stepped further into the room, the only sound that could be heard was the gentle mesmerising tick, tock of a small clock sat on a table by the side of the fireplace.  In front of her were three comfy sofas, arranged strategically around an open fire ‘Just the place to settle down and contemplate what it would be like to live in a place like this – well no harm in dreaming’ she thought.

As she approached the large inglenook fireplace, her eye was drawn by a movement reflected in the Butler’s Mirror, hung over the mantelpiece.  Annie turned to see a greying man in smart attire enter the room.

‘Beg pardon Ma’am, may I be of assistance?’  Annie only just managed to suppress the irresistible urge to giggle ‘Very Upstairs Downstairs’ she thought ‘Does anyone speak like that anymore?’  But keeping her thoughts to herself, Annie responded.

‘Oh sorry, you must be Chambers.  Jason mentioned that you were around somewhere’.   She registered the almost imperceptible movement of his eyebrow at the mention of Jason’s name, but continued.  “

‘He’s gone to the hospital to be with his mother, and father, and said that I could wait here for him.  That is OK, isn’t it?’

‘Certainly Ma’am, any friend of the Master is most welcome at Lillington Hall’.   He moved across the room and tugged at the heavy fabric of the drapes, to arrange them in neat folds.  Stepping back and admiring his work, he continued ‘I take it you’ve availed yourself of refreshments’

Annie glanced guiltily at the last remnants of fruit cake that remained in her hand, and brushed a small crumb from her lips.  ‘Yes thank you’ she responded timidly.  ‘Jason said it was OK……’

‘Very good Ma’am, is there anything else you require?’

Thomas Chambers was the consummate professional.  There weren’t many of his kind left, and he was proud to carry on the family tradition of serving the Fitzwilliam family.  He was a local man born and bred, and knew that other locals laughed at him behind his back, with his attempts to disguise his broad Derbyshire dialect behind the plumy tones of his ‘Queen’s’ English.  However, he reckoned that serving one of the most prestigious families in the County, was answer enough to the back biting of his small minded neighbours.

Poise and discretion were key attributes for any butler, and Chambers was no exception.  He could see exactly what Jason saw in the pretty little red-head, but he wondered if she knew quite what she was letting herself in for.  After all, he’d lost count of how many women had been through the ‘revolving doors’ of Lillington Hall in the space of a little over twelve months.  ‘Pity’ he thought ‘this one seems a class above his usual type’.

‘Well if that’s all Ma’am, I’ll leave you in peace.’  Despite being a little rotund, Chambers moved with a grace and elegance which matched his position, if not his appearance.  If it wasn’t for his coiffured silver hair, and smart black suit, white shirt and waistcoat, anyone would be forgiven for thinking he was a farmer.  His cheeks had the same ruddy glow of weathering by the elements.

‘Actually there is something’   Annie said.

Chambers turned to face her ‘Yes Ma’am’.

Remembering what Jason had said before he left her earlier, Annie thought that meeting Chambers could prove to be quite opportune.  After all, the newspaper cuttings that she’d found in her box, made reference to Lillington Hall.  Jason said the butler was a fountain of all knowledge, so here was her chance.

‘This might seem a little strange, but…..’  Annie hesitated, before proceeding ‘I’ve got a newspaper cutting, which was left to me, and it mentions a Charles Fitzwilliam of Lillington Hall.  Apparently, he left Southampton on the maiden voyage of the Olympic on the 14th June 1911, but when it arrived in New York just over 5 days later, he wasn’t there.  His valet Brownson, had reported him missing to Captain Smith 2 days from shore’ She paused to consider the unthinkable ‘He’d vanished without trace’.

For an instant, the golden light that had flooded the room, dimmed as bruised clouds raced across the skies – temporarily obscuring the sun.

At first Annie thought Chambers was going to remain tight lipped, as she watched his face set like stone.  Then he moved across to a table, positioned just inside the inglenook and reached for a silver framed picture.

‘This is Charles Fitzwilliam’  He handed her the small black and white portrait.  The monochrome face that stared back at her was of a young gentleman with slick short back and sides and a trim moustache.  He reminded her of young, dashing Errol Flynn.

‘He was the eldest son of Lord Fitzwilliam, and had his whole life before him.  He was travelling to the States to bring back his bride to be Catherine Dufresne, and was due to inherit all this’  Chambers gestured to the walls that surrounded them ‘Not that they needed it mind’  He’d unwittingly slipped back into his local Derbyshire dialect ‘She was an heiress in her own right.  It’s quite true what they say, money breeds money’

‘So what happened then?’  Annie couldn’t abide questions, she wanted answers ‘Where did he go?’

Reaching to take the picture back from her, the butler set it back in its usual place and appeared to brace himself.  ‘It was a tragic accident, nothing more, nothing less Ma’am….. and don’t believe anyone who would have you believe otherwise’  He cast Annie a serious look ‘As the old saying goes, curiosity kills the cat…..’  He paused briefly ‘Now if that is all, I have chores to attend to’  As an after thought Chambers gave her a strained smile before leaving the room.

When he’d left, Annie slumped down into the feather cushions of the sofa, and was mulling over the strange encounter, when a black Labrador trotted into the room, tail wagging furiously.

“Hugo, come here boy!”  A tall figure strode into the room, but checked himself, as he saw his ‘obedient’ dog with his paws rested on the lap of a young woman, hoping to lull an unsuspecting stranger into play.

He instantly recognised her as the intriguing red head that he’d bumped into in Ye Olde Gate.  Their last exchange had been a little bizarre, and Justin smiled inwardly to himself at the memory.

Annie looked up from petting the over excited dog, and the look of surprise must have registered on his face, as she witnessed a smirk creep across his face.

‘Jason, I thought you’d gone to the hospital….I didn’t expect you back so soo…..’  Before she could finish, she was interrupted.

‘No, I’m not Jason, I’m his brother….Justin, Justin Lomas’ Annie scrutinised his face, as if doubting the revelation.  Although the eyes were an identical scrumptious chocolate brown and he had the same strong jaw line, and sideburns defining the upper lines of his high cheekbones, there was a softness to his features which was lacking in Jason’s.  It was only then, that she allowed herself to consider that he might just be telling the truth.

Then the horrifying thought dawned on her, as she recalled the bewildered look she’d got when she reprimanded the stranger that she’d assumed was Jason in the pub a couple of weekends back.  As Hugo trotted devotedly to his Master’s side, she realised she had an apology to make.

‘Oh God I’m really sorry.  You must have thought I was a real nutcase!….I thought you were Jason the other weekend at the pub’  Annie screwed up her eyes, as if desperately trying to erase the memory.

‘Don’t worry about it.  It’s an occupational hazard of having a twin brother, particularly one like Jason!’  She watched his figure as he moved towards the fire, seeking the heat of the flames with his hands outstretched.

‘Even so, I’m really sorry’  Justin was struck by just how beautiful she looked, as the sun shone through the windows, highlighting the auburn and copper streaks of her hair, which fell in soft feathers around her porcelain freckled face.  ‘Typical of Jason, he always was the jammy one’, but he kept the thought to himself, as he spoke.

‘Jason’s told me all about you.  You’re Annie aren’t you?  I hear you’re stopping over at my Aunt Dorothy’s place…the Gamekeeper’s Cottage.’  Seeing the look of puzzlement on her face, he added ‘Oh, you’ll probably know her as Mrs Cundy.’

‘Oh yes…..yes, I’m staying at Parwich Heights.  What a wonderful place, I’m hoping to stop for about six months or so….just while I get myself sorted….’  Meeting his questioning gaze she added ‘It’s a long story…perhaps I’ll bore you with it some other time!’

Justin moved to seat himself in the sofa opposite Annie, and Hugo took his place loyally at his feet.  Without thinking Annie played with the hem of her turquoise skirt, as she watched Jason’s brother lay back into the comfort of the sofa, relaxing his head into the cup of his hands.

‘I’m surprised Mum and Aunt Dorothy haven’t had you enrol in the WI yet…singing Jerusalem and whatever else it is that they get up to these days.’  Justin had to repress an image of Annie ‘a la’ Calendar Girls, as he recalled one of the more contemporary activities the organisation had become famous for in recent years.

‘No, not my scene at all I’m afraid.  No I’m not that practical, I think I’d feel slightly inadequate – reminded of all the things that I’m no good at!!’  Annie smiled apologetically, but then considered that perhaps she would be good at those things, but had never had the time.  Well she had all the time in the world now, perhaps she’d surprise herself.

Then a thought occurred to Annie, as she relaxed chatting to Jason’s twin brother – what about his father?  What if Justin didn’t know about the accident?

‘Justin, I don’t know if you’ve heard – God I can’t believe I’ve just been sat here wittering on’ She braced herself, shuffling to the edge of the sofa ‘Jason was bringing me here this morning when he got a call from your mother, saying that your father was being taken to hospital….he’s had an accident’  She caught her breath, weighed down by the responsibility of conveying such terrible news, ‘Jason’s gone to the hospital in Derby, to be with them.’

‘I know’ he said.  Annie couldn’t disguise her surprise at his reply, and as if in response, Justin continued ‘He’s not our father’

‘But Jason seemed so concerned, I’m sure I heard him right…. Yes, he did say “My father’s had an accident”…….He left me here and headed straight off.  He seemed very distracted’

‘I’m sure he was’ Justin jibed sarcastically ‘That’s Jason all over, ever the caring son!’  With a shake of his head, he sprang to his feet, startling Hugo who’d been dozing with his muzzle rested on his outstretched paws.

‘What’s going on Justin…..was your brother lying to me?’

Taking a position in front of the fire again, Justin stared into the flickering flames as if seeking inspiration.  How could he begin to explain to this unsuspecting woman, just what a complicated family she had become involved with?  With a deep breath he turned to face Annie and continued.

‘I don’t know what Jason told you….. but Edward Fitzwilliam is not our father, or at least wasn’t around for the first thirty years of our lives….so in my book, that doesn’t count as a father.  Robert Lomas is my Dad.  He played football with us, took us fishing….taught us to fight for ourselves when we were bullied at school….’

Annie sat in silence, trying to comprehend the story unfolding before her – puzzled as to why twin brothers would have such different reactions to the same man.

‘Ok, perhaps it’s not technically correct, because Edward Fitzwilliam is our biological father.  But we didn’t find out till last year when Mum told us….’  Justin candidly revealed the conversation that had occurred 12 long months ago, including the reason for the timing of the revelation.  Edward wanted to make his illegitimate sons ‘legal’ – as so many other gentleman and nobles had done throughout history to preserve the estate for future generations of the ‘family’.

Annie fully empathised with Justin’s emotions, and could only imagine at the inner turmoil that the burden of this legacy would inflict on a person.

‘So although I like and respect Edward, I can’t bring myself to consider him as my father.  But for the sake of my Mother, I will go along with the plans to legalise things.  Anyway, it’s Jason as first born that will inherit…..he’ll probably keep me on as his skivvy if I’m unlucky!!’ he joked awkwardly ‘But I’m not sure what’ll happen if Edward doesn’t pull through.’

Justin was an unassuming guy, and didn’t make any attempts to disguise his lack of interest in the legal process to legitimise the Fitzwilliam heirs.  It was a necessary evil in his eyes.  However, he was sure that out of courtesy, if nothing else he would have been told once everything was done and dusted – and he’d heard nothing.

Quickly changing the subject, Justin turned to Annie and with an overly cheery smile and said ‘There’s a great view over to the village from the drawing room on the first floor, you can see Parwich Heights from there.  Why don’t’ I show you?’

‘OK, that’s sound great’ Annie was glad of the distraction as she followed the younger Lomas brother out of the room.  She was becoming increasingly bewildered by this family’s complicated affairs.

As if in complaint at their weight, the treads on the old Jacobean staircase, creaked and groaned noisily as they climbed to the first floor.  Running her fingertips along the chunky handrail, Annie traced the outline of the engraved oak serpents, which had been carved into the wood centuries before.  As a shaft of hazy sunlight shone through the window on the landing, the dust filled rays, lent the scene an ethereal glow.  Annie had an overwhelming sense that she was stepping back in time, it was almost as if she’d been here before.

At the top of the stairs, Justin led her through the drawing room – towards a large bay window.

‘There you go’ he pointed into the distance, beyond the rolling hills immediately in front of the Hall ‘Parwich Heights!’

‘Gosh, you weren’t joking when you said you could only just see it were you!’  Annie exclaimed as she strained to focus on the silhouette of the cottage that she currently called ‘home’.  ‘I assume you could walk it from here?’

‘Yes, there are loads of paths you could take – quite a pleasant walk really.  I could show you one day if you like,…… that’s if Jason leaves you in the lurch again, I’d be happy to step in!!’  They both laughed, and fell into idle conversation – happy in each other’s company.

After a while, Annie’s interest was drawn to a group of large white vans that were beginning to accumulate on the grass verges outside the walls of the Manor House.

‘What’s going on down there?’ she enquired ‘Whatever it is, it looks interesting?’

‘Oh that’, he replied, ‘Film crew.  They’re filming a period drama, over the next few weeks, and they’re using Lillington Hall as the main character’s residence, and a couple of the farm cottages’

Annie forgot herself momentarily, and jumped up and down, eyes wild with excitement ‘No….you’re joking!  What are they filming?’  She couldn’t get her words out quick enough.

‘You’re asking a bloke like me?’  Justin rolled his eyes ‘I’ve no idea, and I’m not really interested.  As soon as I see a period costume, that’s me gone, about as interesting as watching paint dry if you ask me!’

Sacrilege, Annie thought as she peered through the leaded windows eager to take in every detail.  How could you not be gripped by the forbidden passion, bound up in corsets, heaving bosoms, leather and britches?   Beats the less than romantic reality of modern day relationships, she pondered.  The excitement of the chase was all important, the moment of the first kiss tantalisingly delayed until the final scenes.  Two lovers, disappearing into the clichéd sunset, forever suspended in the bliss of the moment, when their true feelings are finally unleashed.

‘Ah pity’ she sighed ‘is there any way of finding out?’  She turned hopefully to Justin, who seemed deep in thought.

‘You’re at a loose end you say, while you’re stopping at Parwich Heights?’  Justin moved closer to her side, as he gestured to the scene before them.  ‘If you’re serious, and you’re available, you could do me a huge favour’

‘Go on…’  Annie prompted ‘You’ve got me intrigued now!’

‘Well, Edward left me in charge of liaising with the film crew whilst they’re here just being on hand in case they need anything, – can’t trust Jason with that sort of thing.  I’m already stacked out with the plans for one of his developments, and I have a deadline to meet, so you see, you’d be doing me a huge favour.’

Annie couldn’t quite believe her ears.

‘But if you’d rather not, I’ll understand, I thought it might get you out of a corner too?  But I understand perfectly……’

Finally finding her voice, Annie responded ‘No, no…..that sounds absolutely perfect….when do I start?’

‘Tomorrow?’  He watched as Annie gave a squeal of delight.  If only all women were as easy to please he smiled.

‘C’mon let’s have a glass of wine, and I’ll fill you in on the details’ Justin offered ‘A cold glass of sauvignon perhaps?’  Annie glanced at her watch and was amazed that almost three hours had passed since Jason had left her ‘home alone’.  It was now a perfectly respectable time for a drink and anyway she had cause for celebration, so she readily accepted and followed Justin as he led the way back down the corridor to the staircase.

As they crossed the landing, Annie’s gaze was drawn to a dark windowless corridor to her right.  The shadowy gloom was eerily illuminated by the flickering flames of two sets of candles set in golden wall sconces at the far end of the passageway, which flanked a large portrait.  For some inexplicable reason, she felt compelled to walk towards the darkness, as if drawn by some invisible force.  She edged forward cautiously, the floorboards creaking with every step.

Annie stopped dead in her tracks, as she faced the painting.  A striking raven haired lady stared uncompromisingly from the canvas.  She was dressed in a vibrant crimson gown, which revealed the soft white skin of her shoulders.  Her hands were resting daintily on the taffeta folds of her lap.

‘No…no, it can’t be.’  Annie exclaimed out loud, as she followed the long slender fingers of the woman’s right hand.  Lifting her own hand, she studied the buttery gold of the ring that she’d discovered in her Great great grandmother’s box.  She looked back to the portrait, and it was unmistakeable, it was the same ring.

As she studied the painting more closely, Annie discovered that although the mysterious woman dominated the foreground of the painting, there was something else etched into the dark background strokes of the oil painting.  Disbelievingly, Annie stepped nearer and saw the contour of a hill emerge.  A solitary windswept figure stood on the horizon as if watching over the lady, caught in the silvery moonlight, his overcoat billowing in the wind.  The figure was standing next to a cottage, a plume of faint white smoke rising lazily from the chimney.

‘How strange….how very strange’

Annie was startled, as she became aware of the Hugo’s persistent barking, and whining. She turned to see his black form at the end of the corridor, running round in circles at the end of the passageway, occasionally turning to face Annie, crouching and barking, as if urging her on.  However, regardless of how desperate he seemed to catch Annie’s attention, he refused point blank to come any further.

‘Hey, what’s up Hugo, it’s only me…’  She walked towards him, out of the darkness of the corridor, and patted his head reassuringly.  His tail wagged furiously with relief.

‘What’s going on up there?’ Justin shouted from the hallway below ‘Play nicely you two!’

‘We’re coming’ she shouted in response.  As they descended the stairs, Annie looked back over her shoulder towards the ‘dark’ corridor – and there was no evidence of the candle light dancing and flickering on the oak panelled walls, just an obscure murkiness, and a deathly quietness.

∞∞∞∞∞

‘I’m in here’  she followed the direction of Justin’s voice, and went to join him in the kitchen where he was midway through pouring two huge glasses of wine.  He offered her a glass, and she sipped from it, savouring the cool intoxicating liquid that she knew would numb her senses.

Annie was about to question Justin about the portrait, when his mobile rang.  It was Jason, calling from the hospital.  After a couple of minutes, the call ended ‘ok, I’ll let her know’.

Placing the handset on the worktop, Justin explained, ‘Edward’s in a critical condition, Jason’s going to hang on with Mum and Penelope at the hospital.  He’s asked me to apologise, and say he won’t be making it home anytime soon.’

‘I hope he’s going to be alright’ Annie looked into her glass, recollecting the cold clinical hospital corridors, and the beeping, flashing machines, that Quentin had been surrounded by after the plane crash.  The sense of helplessness you feel, when the life of a loved one literally hangs by a thread.

Annie stepped closer to Justin, and laid her hand gently on his, in a gesture of friendship.  His dark eyes, registered his appreciation, and he turned to put his glass on the worktop.  Intuitively, he took her small frame in his arms, and held her close to his chest, resting his chin on the top of her jasmine fragranced hair.

The kiss that he placed on the top of her head was so gentle that she wouldn’t have noticed it, if it hadn’t been for the shock of sensations that shot through her body.  Her lips parted for an instant, as she savoured the exquisiteness of the moment

The kitchen door flung open, and their bodies parted abruptly.  Annie, self consciously, played with her hair, as the lithe blonde beauty swayed into the room.  She sauntered up to Justin, and hung her arms around his neck – kissing him full on the lips, as if there were no-one else in the room.

Annie averted her eyes, and felt a vague sense of embarrassment.  Reaching again for her glass, she took a large gulp of wine, as the blonde haired woman continued to seduce her prey.

‘Annie, sorry….this is Sally…..my……’  He wasn’t allowed to finish the sentence, as the kiss that the young woman planted on his lips was explanation enough for Annie.

‘I’ll see myself out then’ she uttered to no-one in particular.  Never one to outstay her welcome, Annie thought now would be the ideal time to make tracks, and follow one of the paths that Justin had described that would lead her back to Parwich Heights.  ‘Ok, see you then!’

Justin cast her an apologetic look, but Annie could tell he had more important, more pressing things on his mind.  She waved, and then turned hurriedly to exit the same way that the gorgeous Sally had entered.

‘See you tomorrow then?’ he shouted after her, but it fell on deaf ears as she’d gone.

The icy blast of the March air, revived her as she strode forward purposefully in the direction of the hills before her.  Back home, back to normality she thought with relief.

After a short distance, Annie had to take shelter, in a tumbled down barn to escape a heavy rain shower that was passing.  The sunny start to the day had been rapidly smothered by a bleak grey blanket of cloud.

‘I hope it eases off so I can get home’ she mumbled to herself. ‘Don’t much fancy trudging home in this’ As she huddled to warm herself against the chill of the wind, Annie observed a sleek black stallion charging over the rise.

She watched intently, as the rider pulled back on the reins, and his steed reared up alarmingly.  Snorting and whinnying, then charging in tight circles, as if in combat with his master.

The figure kept a powerful grip on the reins and succeeded in bringing the beast under control.  As the horse pirouetted, Annie noticed, that the man’s golden locks were tied loosely in a pony tail held by a single black ribbon.  The fabric of his white open necked shirt buffeted in the wind, and revealed a golden brown collar bone.  A white scarf was tied around his neck, and fluttered erratically behind his back.  His thighs gripped the saddle tightly, and his sculpted leather boots battled to keep purchase in the stirrups.

Annie was mesmerised, it was as though Mr Rochester himself, had escaped from the pages of a book and was coming to life before her.

Surveying the land before him, Aidan O’Connell kicked the flanks of his horse, urging him to gallop on.  The ride had invigorated him, and his mind was stirred by thoughts of his leading lady, Emma Sander .  When he’d left her, she’d been entwined in the sheets of his bed at the farmhouse – her mahogany locks fanned out across the feather pillows, and her long creamy limbs draped sleepily over the patchwork quilt.

‘Time for a bit of role play’ he thought mischievously, as he galloped with an increased sense of urgency back towards the village of Lillington.

Aidan was well known in the industry for his dedication to his art, and he researched every detail intimately.  It was certainly true that no leading lady was safe when he was around – seduction was his particular forte.  Emma Sanders certainly wasn’t complaining….for the time being anyway.

∞∞∞∞∞

Dusk was starting to descend, as Annie reached the door of her cottage, and she felt a sense  of relief to be home.  The walk had been pleasant and had given her time to mull over her eventful morning.

As she approached the doorstep, her attention focused on two bunches of rosemary deliberately placed at the threshold.  She raised her eyebrows, ‘Funny, I can’t remember those being there this morning’ she thought.

As she moved closer, she noticed a note pinned to the doorframe, which flapped noisily in the wind.  She reached to pull it off, and began to read the message, penned in neat copperplate writing.

‘A gift of rosemary I bestow on you

To protect and cherish the whole night through

Beware the ring

For the curse is true

Take good care

Don’t let her come for you’

Annie dropped the note to the floor as if it were poison, and turned nervously to look around the shadowy garden.   She had an uneasy feeling that she was being watched.

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