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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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Meanwhile, across the other side of Derbyshire, a body lay motionless in the hospital bed – a grey pallor creeping across the aged skin.  The ward was enveloped in the shadows of late evening – the deathly silence interrupted periodically by the rhythmic pulse of the machines surrounding the bedside – Edward’s synthetic lifeline.

There was still confusion over what had happened earlier that day, however, Edward’s black stallion Samson had charged into the Courtyard, fully tacked and foaming with sweat.  His ears were pinned back, and his eyes rolled wildly, flashing a glimpse of the whites of his eyes.  It took four groom hands over an hour to calm him, and bring him back under control.

It was then that the alarm was raised, and the search for Sir Edward Fitzwilliam had begun – as man and beast were inseparable.  Samson would permit no-one but his master to mount him, and the fact that Edward wasn’t with him when he was saddled and ready to ride could mean only one thing.

It was actually the gamekeeper Brownson who came across his battered and broken body abandoned in a field behind Lillington Hall.  He cut such a pathetic figure prostrate on the floor, limbs angled to impossible degrees, that Brownson thought no-one could possibly survive such a trauma.  However, as he bent lower and reached forward to feel his employer’s neck just under the chin, he detected a faint pulse.  Filled with adrenalin, he jumped to his feet and reached for his shotgun, and fired two shots in quick succession – the agreed signal to the search party.

∞∞∞∞∞

That had been almost ten hours ago.  After initial concerns, the doctors had managed to stabilise Fitzwilliam’s condition.  He was by no means out of the woods yet, but he had settled at least.  Penelope had told Margaret and Jason that there was no need for them to stay – she’d stop with Edward tonight.  At first they protested, but Penelope was insistent – quite frankly she was tired of Margaret’s incessant sobbing and was still riled that the doctors had originally thought Mrs Lomas was Edward’s wife.

Reluctantly, Jason put his arm around his mother’s shoulder and ushered her towards the door.  Casting a glance back towards the bed, he murmured ‘We’ll be back in the morning then – that’s if we’re allowed that is….’  The dark eyes that could enchant women in an instant, also held the potential to display complete and utter disdain.  This was the look he cast towards the current Lady Fitzwilliam now, and turned his back – leaving her stunned into silence.

Exhausted, Penelope had rested her head on her outstretched arm, the trauma of the day’s events had taken their toll.  Her normally immaculately made up features were ashen, and her red rimmed eyes burnt with a mixture of tears and fatigue.  She succumbed reluctantly to the draw of sleep – which promised a temporary relief from the nightmare that was unfolding before her.

She was oblivious to time, as the hour hand indicated the passage of time – and soon the night had given way to the early hours of morning.

The stillness was eventually disturbed by a figure emerging from the shadows, creeping stealthily towards the patient.  The form halted at the bedside, savouring the sweet irony of looking upon Sir Edward Fitzwilliam’s helpless body – weak and vulnerable….powerless.  Without hesitation a black leather-gloved hand reached towards the apparatus, and revelled in the power of flicking the switch.

In the few seconds that it took for the machine to raise its alarm – Edward jolted into consciousness – his eyes opened wide in realisation.  The body’s primeval instinct kicked into action, sensing imminent danger.  Although he was incapable of speech – his eyes fixed upon the face of his killer, and registered the full horror of the moment.  Any apprehension that his assailant may have felt about revealing their identity to this frail, ageing man soon subsided.

The figure observed motionless as the life drained from Edward’s eyes.  Watching as his thoughts ended abruptly in one final spasm, and he descended into the darkness.

Penelope struggled to rouse herself, aware of a disturbance.  She was alarmed to see a nurse rushing to the bedside, shouting for assistance – unaware of a figure slipping through a door at the end of the ward – unnoticed.  It was only then that she registered the monotonous piercing tone of the machine.

Numb struck, she watched on in silence, as the nurses tried in vain to resuscitate her husband.  But as the scene played out in slow motion in her mind – Penelope realised in her heart of hearts that her husband was dead.

∞∞∞∞∞

The following morning, Annie drew back the curtains to reveal the apricot and raspberry ripple sunrise.  She laughed inwardly to herself.  In the cold light of day it seemed absurd that she could have allowed her mind to run away with itself last night.  She had been truly scared – but all that vanished now with the newly emerging day.

Annie was beginning to love her little cottage, in this peaceful Derbyshire village where reality seemed to be somehow suspended.  After a quick shower, and grabbing a slice of toast she jumped into her little Citroën – full of anticipation of what the day would hold.

As an afterthought before she left, she’d rummaged under the bed and reached carefully for the box that her Mum had given her, and retrieved the bundle of letters, bound with red ribbon.  The parchment paper was quite distinctive, each one carrying the same wax seal, and individual handwriting.  Annie seemed to recognise the symbols on the seal from somewhere, but couldn’t for the life of her remember where.  Yesterday’s events had renewed her curiosity – and she was determined to get to the bottom of Grace’s secret.  So she threw the letters on the seat next to her and set off.

∞∞∞∞∞

It took Annie longer to find Lillington Hall this time, as her trip with Jason had been somewhat of a blur – and the roads were unfamiliar.  However, after a couple of detours, Annie pulled up in the driveway by the stables of the Jacobean mansion.  She took a moment to compose herself, and then headed up to the main house, noticing the flag flying at half mast on the lawns in front of the great house, buffeted by the chill March wind.

She pulled on the old iron door bell pull, and listened as the chimes echoed in the hallway – announcing her arrival.  Annie couldn’t hide her surprise as the door opened, and Sally lazily emerged – dressed in what was obviously a man’s oversized pyjama top – her long bare bronzed legs emerging from the cotton striped fabric.

‘Oh it’s you’ not feigning her disapproval, she eyed Annie up and down with her stony gaze.

‘Is Justin in?…..only he’d asked me to come down here this morning to help out with the film crew.’  Annie had seen a hive of activity beginning as she’d driven into the estate, and couldn’t wait to find out what she’d be doing.

‘You won’t have heard will you’ She paused, seeing the concern rising in Annie’s eyes, and relished in leaving the red head wait on her every word.  Finally she continued ‘Edward Fitzwilliam died last night’ Annie’s shoulders dropped noticeably – and thought back to the flag that she’d seen fluttering forlornly in front of the house.

‘So Jason and Justin have been called down to London to sort out some paperwork, they left first thing this morning’ and after pausing..’I’m surprised they didn’t let you know personally…’ the corners of Sally’s lips curled up in a sadistic grin.  ‘ But Justin, did ask me to pass a message on to you’ and motioned to a door at the other end of the building, which Annie recognised from yesterday’s visit as the entrance to the kitchens.  ‘I’ll meet you over there’ and promptly slammed the door in her face.

‘ You cow!’  Annie muttered audibly.  ‘Just who does she think she is?!!!…..’  This blonde bimbo was turning out to be a real pain, for more than one reason.  However, begrudgingly Annie set off to the tradesman’s entrance, fully aware of the insult Sally had just paid her, but she had made a promise to Justin –and she at least was a woman of honour and would keep to her word.

The exchange between the women had remained terse and brief, as Annie was given her orders as if she were the Charlady – and Sally were the lady of the house.  Despite her rising frustration, Annie managed to maintain her composure – and bit her lip – she wouldn’t be dragged down to this woman’s level.  For this Annie felt that she had maintained the higher moral ground.

In spite of her best attempts, Sally couldn’t suppress her adversary’s enthusiasm – and observed grimly as Annie set off in the direction of the barn on the edge of the estate.  For the second time that day, she slammed the door shut – hoping to banish all thoughts of that annoying flame haired Northerner.  Still clutching the handwritten note, that Justin had given her earlier this morning – with the express instructions that it be passed to Annie as soon as she arrived.  Sally sauntered though to the hallway, and standing before the fire burning in the hearth she hurled the folded pages into the flames, and watched intently as the fire burned brightly.

∞∞∞∞∞

An oil lamp hung from a nearby beam, casting a soft sallow light on the stacks of hay.  A young flaxen haired beauty lay evocatively on a bed of straw, propped up on her elbows, with her back arched – allowing her long fair locks to tumble freely to the floor.

‘Come closer Sir… that I might know you better….’  Phoebe slowly raised her head and rested her chin on her collar bone.  Languorously opening her velvety grey eyes to look upon the gentleman stood before her – her words were spoken as a subversive invitation.  Her hungry gaze followed as he edged closer, and she bit on her soft pink lip, in anticipation of what desires she had unleashed in her Master.

‘This cannot be…….’  The tall gentleman cast an uneasy look over his shoulder, conscious of ensuring that there were no prying eyes witnessing this base scene.  ‘My father will not permit this…I…cannot permit this’ Although the words were uttered as a dismissal, Phoebe could sense they betrayed the longing in his body. His strong hands toyed nervously with the riding crop in his hand, as if conjuring a distraction.

‘Master… know you not your own mind?  May you not do your own bidding?…..’ As the elfin like serving girl rose to her feet, her blue woollen gown lifted imperceptibly, to reveal a delicate creamy white ankle.  Phoebe’s tiny fingers, brushed down the folds of her skirt, clearing all traces of the straw from the barn floor.

The statuesque figure of James Beresford, stood transfixed – his strong jaw set, and his blue eyes widening with forbidden longing.  He managed to avert his eyes finally from the temptation, turning his back, the tails of his dark green riding coat flapping in the draft his sudden movement created.

He took a sharp intake of breathe, as her tiny form nestled into his back, resting her cheek against his masculine form, her arms barely encircling his waist.

‘Please Sir’ she implored ‘I cannot bare this burden any longer’  James, turned his face towards the direction of her voice which was plucking at his heart strings.

‘Would that I could take you from your misery….you can but imagine the turmoil that is growing within me.  But you more than anyone know, that this can never be…it is not godly…they will say that you have bewitched me.’  He reached to take one of Phoebe’s slender hands, which still maintained a softness, despite the hard work they had been sentenced to carry out by the very nature of her birth.  James bowed his head, and lifted her hand to his lips, and kissed her gently, his lips brushing her skin.  They revelled in the illicit intimacy of the moment.

Then he closed his eyes, as if it would erase all memory – and dropped her hand.  James strode away with purpose, not looking back at the waif who now crumpled down on her knees, head to the floor.  The tears streamed down her face, which moments earlier could be mistaken for tears of joy, were now a sign of her absolute and utter misery…….

‘And..cut……’  Annie was brought back to her senses, by the bearded chap stood in the corner of the barn, sporting a large set of headphones which he was just removing. ‘That was fantastic Aiden, just wonderful…..and thank you Zoe great job I think that’s a wrap for this scene’  The actress rose from the floor, dabbing at her eyes to wipe away the fake tears ‘…now next we’re over to the farmhouse for Old Woman and Vicar scene…can you get Emily and Rupert on standby please..’  A young lad scuttled out of the barn, following the orders he’d just been given.

Annie watched open mouthed as the lead star then strode past her ‘So that’s Aiden O’Connell..mmmm…dishy!’ Although fair haired men weren’t her thing, she could certainly see the merits of casting this striking man as the male lead.  He threw her a friendly smile as he left the set, loosening the white scarf from around his neck, releasing a subtle musky aroma of aftershave.

On her way down to the barn, Annie had got talking to one of the grips Josie, who’d given her the low down on the epic saga, and revealed that the leading Irish actor Aiden O’Connell was the star of the production, set on an 18th century estate in Derbyshire.  He was all the rage at the moment, but a little demanding apparently.  Despite her best endeavours, Annie couldn’t get Josie to reveal any inside information – more than her job was worth she’d said.

The barn became a hive of activity as everyone busied around as if part of some intricate choreography.  ‘Hi, I’m Annie Caruthers’  she held out a hand to the bearded chap who Josie had said was the producer.  If she hadn’t been told, she could have guessed though, as he’d been standing by the clichéd folding chair with the word ‘Producer’ printed on it, and Annie chuckled to herself.  ‘I’ve been told that you’re the person to see…’ Annie went on to explain that Justin Lomas had tasked her with assisting the film crew, and asked if there was anything she could do.

‘Actually, yes there is…’ he nibbled thoughtfully on the hair underneath his lip.  ‘Jasmine, one of the mare’s has developed a bit of a limp – could do with a vet giving her the once over, make sure it’s nothing too serious.  If you head over to the stables, Hayley will fill you in – she’s in charge of all things horsey..’

‘Absolutely’ Annie replied, ‘I’ll get onto it straight away.’

‘Great, super…well I’ll leave you to it then’ He smiled obligingly, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m Graham….Graham Darling, the producer’  He waited to see the recognition dawn in Annie’s eyes, but seeing none, turned to the young assistant at his side waiting on his every word ‘OK, let’s rock and roll then, can’t keep you know who waiting!!  There will be hell to pay…..’ and then marched off full of self importance, armed with his clipboard.

∞∞∞∞∞

It was turning out to be a beautiful day.  Cotton wool clouds were chasing hurriedly across the cerulean sky – showing a tantalising glimpse of Spring that was just around the corner.  A woodpigeon cooed contentedly on the bough of a majestic oak tree, rocked vigorously by the chill breeze.

Annie was savouring the beauty of nature, as she ventured back towards the house.  She was hoping to catch up with Chambers, as she didn’t have a clue where to start with finding a vet, and she didn’t have an internet connection – or a laptop come to that.  She didn’t think that Sally would be too keen on helping out either.  Anyway, she didn’t want to give her the pleasure of seeing her fail at the first hurdle.   ‘There’s nothing like good old fashioned local knowledge to get you by..’ she thought, feeling slightly inadequate in fulfilling the role with which Justin had charged her.

Firstly Annie dropped by her car, as she wanted to fetch the letters that she’d brought from Great Grandma Grace’s treasure box.  Chambers could be useful for more than one reason, as she had some questions which were puzzling her about the oil painting that she’d seen yesterday on the landing in Lillington Hall.  He seemed the fountain of all knowledge on the Fitzwilliam family, surely he’d be able to provide her with some answers to quell her growing intrigue.

The door creaked noisily as she opened the passenger door, which was unlocked.

‘Damn…must get that seen too’ she cursed.  ‘Can’t be seen in the company of gentry with a squeaking wreck of a car’  Annie patted Dollies’ roof apologetically, and looked on the seat for where she’d left the letters.

‘They’re gone!’ she exclaimed.  Frantically, she scrabbled round on the floor, by the sides of the seats, and underneath with mounting desperation.  There was nothing there.  ‘How can that be? I left them there plain as day….I’m going mad…..’  She clutched her at her hair and shook her head, devastated as having lost a piece of history….her own history.

Scanning round, she checked the courtyard, but it was deserted.

∞∞∞∞∞

If Annie had arrived five minutes earlier, she would have seen Thomas Chambers, scuttling away from the courtyard with a package concealed beneath his dark jacket.  He was headed for the grassy mound across the road, on which the old Norman church was perched.  He stopped abruptly at the lych-gate, and scanned around furtively.  Content that no-one had observed him, he scrambled unceremoniously up the path towards the church.

Again, as he stood on the threshold of the church, he looked around him from the high vantage point, and could see no-one around.

Closing the door quietly behind him, he crept up the stone flagged aisle, towards the altar.  The air was cold, and had the fusty smell of age. Candles flickered in the murky alcoves, and on the steps of the altar – lit in memory of Sir Edward Fitzwilliam ‘God rest his soul…’  Chambers uttered under his breath in tribute to his Lord and master.

The silence was all encompassing, and Chamber’s could hear the rush of his own blood in his ears – so loud was it, that he looked around him again – as he felt sure that someone else would hear.

In the shadows to the right of the altar, there was a small wooden door, concealed behind a heavy tapestry curtain.  Thomas, reached into his pocket and retrieved the iron key, and put it in the lock and turned.  It was clear that no-one had ventured this way recently, as the spiders webs made their own delicate tapestry, between the cold stone walls and the hard oak door.

The door creaked open reluctantly, and reaching for one of the candles on a nearby windowsill Chambers ventured carefully down the spiralling stone steps which disappeared into the darkness.

At the foot of the stairs, Chambers found himself in a small dingy crypt – the dampness of the air enveloped him, making his skin feel clammy to the touch.  Purposefully he moved towards the far left corner of the cavern, until he felt a change in the floor beneath his feet.  Setting the guttering candle on the floor, he felt for the edges of a threadbare rug, and began to roll it back to reveal a wooden lid, with an iron ring pull.  Again, there was another lock, which Chambers proceeded to unlock.

Bracing himself, Thomas reached under his jacket and pulled out the bundle of letters that he’d ‘acquired’ from the young red head’s car.  He lowered the parcel, into the void that he’d uncovered, and felt for the stone ledge which would be the documents final resting place.

‘What’s past is past’ He said to himself ’…………She’ll never know, it’s best this way…….’ Reverently, Chambers re-sealed the cavity, and sat back on his heels, an overwhelming sadness encompassing him.  For the first time in his adult life, a tear dropped down his cheek, and he began to weep uncontrollably.

Still puzzled and angry over the loss of her letters, Annie felt restless in the cramped confines of her little cottage.  The same thoughts kept turning over and over in her mind: who could have stolen the bundle of papers from her car, and why on earth would they want to do such a thing?  Was someone at Lillington Hall intent on playing malicious games with the new arrival?  Or did the letters conceal a secret which had to be kept from her at all costs?

“Why, oh why, didn’t I read the letters when I had the chance?” she shouted, startling herself with her sudden fury.  “What a stupid, stupid girl I’ve been!”

Annie slammed her fist down on the kitchen table in exasperation, almost overturning a small vase of spring flowers as she did so.  This would never do, she realised.  She had to escape the cottage for a couple of hours, or else she would drive herself crazy with these pointless speculations and recriminations.

It was getting too late for a walk.  Besides, Annie had been on her feet all day, fetching and carrying for the film crew.  Although they had treated her like a skivvy, she had enjoyed the rest of the day immensely; it was fascinating to see the television drama being staged and shot in front of her, and she had enjoyed helping the handsome Aiden O’Connell escape the prying lenses of the paparazzi, lined up on the boundaries of the estate.  She needed this job – and most of all, she needed to find constant daily distractions from the grief that she feared would never leave her.   That was why she had decided against causing a scene at the Hall.  The letters might have been important, but her own peace of mind had to take priority over everything else.

As for this evening, perhaps all that she needed was to sit somewhere warm and quiet, lost in the pages of Stephen Booth’s compelling fiction.  The Sycamore served food, and it was high time that she visited the village pub; this was, after all, her fifth night in Parwich.  Annie rose from the table, and reached for her coat.

∞∞∞∞∞

Stepping into the cosy bar, Annie’s eyes immediately alighted on a boisterously giggling couple, snuggled closely together in the corner of the room.  It took her a moment to work out which twin had wrapped himself round the busty young woman with the braided hair and the stud through her nose, but simple logic alone dictated that the sensible – and very much engaged – Justin would never behave so brazenly.

Jason couldn’t have spent very much time in London today, she mused.  It must have been a brisk meeting, to say the least.  And furthermore, was this really appropriate behaviour for a man who had just lost a parent?  Edward Fitzwilliam might only have been the twins’ birth father – not their “real” father, as Justin had put it to her so bluntly yesterday – but even so, couldn’t Jason at least act in a more respectful manner in a public place?

The couple had failed to spot Annie as she placed her food order, but as she turned away from the bar, Jason caught her eye and gave her a leery, mischievous wink.

“Woo, woo, beware the ring!” he howled, in a ridiculously over-dramatic voice.

“Woo, woo!” repeated the girl.  “Beware, beware!”

And with that, they collapsed into hysterical, complicit laughter.

Annie spotted the packet of king-sized Rizlas on the table in front of them.  Then she spotted the top of a clear plastic wrapper, poking out of the top of Jason’s bulging shirt pocket.   Annie had been to plenty of music festivals in her teens and early twenties.  It took her no more than a split second to put two and two together.

“I’ll take my dinner in the back bar, thank you”, she told the bespectacled, kindly bartender.  And without a further word, she sailed haughtily past the couple and through the connecting door.

∞∞∞∞∞

Annie was putting her boots on when she heard the knock.  Hoping that this visitor wouldn’t make her late for work, she peered through the kitchen window before opening up.  Those hennaed braids were unmistakeable.

“Morning”, mumbled the stranger, averting her green, cat-like eyes from Annie’s cold gaze.  “My name’s Wendy.  I’ve come round to say sorry about last night.  We were a bit pi… sorry…  a bit tipsy, if you know what I mean.”

“Tipsy?” snorted Annie. “That’s one word for it, I suppose.”

“Yeah, all right, I admit it – we were a bit spliffed up and all.  You won’t tell, will you?”

“It’s really none of my business, is it?”

“Well, that’s the thing.  It kind of is.  Can I come in?”

“Five minutes, Wendy.  That’s all I can spare you.  So if you’ve got something to say, you’d better get straight to the point.  Shall we sit down?”

Wendy looked nervous and uncomfortable.  Annie decided to suspend her judgement.  Whatever, this was about, she would give the girl a fair hearing.

“So, what is it that you want to tell me?”

Wendy paused, sighed, and took a deep breath.

“Look, it was that thing with the ring.  Laughing at you and stuff.  That was right mean, and I shouldn’t have done it.  It’s that bloody Jason.  He’s a good laugh, but he can be a right bast… sorry.  Well, you know what I mean.”

Another pause.    Another sigh.

“Jason likes playing games with people, OK?  And he’s got this way of talking you into doing stuff you wouldn’t normally do.  Such a bloody charmer!  I shouldn’t have listened, I know I shouldn’t.”

“Wendy, what do you mean?  What did Jason make you do?”

“Have you still got that note, Annie?  You know, the one that was pinned to that bunch of herbs?  It was me that stuck it on your door the day before yesterday, while you were up at the Hall.  Jason wrote it, then he talked me into coming over.  Said he couldn’t do it himself, ‘cos he was on his way to hospital.  His dad had an accident.   His real dad, that is.  Jason never called him his dad, though.  Said he already had a dad, and he didn’t need another one coming along.  Still, you’d think he’d have been a bit more bothered about it, wouldn’t you?  But he was more bothered about playing this joke on you, with this stupid note.  Said he wanted to spook you, good and proper.”

“I can’t believe I’m hearing this”, Annie muttered.  “Why would he want to do such a thing? And how did he even know about…”

“Have you still got the note, Annie?  I’ll talk you through it, if you like.”

Annie fetched the note from the pile of papers on the windowsill.  She spread it out in the table, and read it aloud.

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.

“Right then”, said Wendy, “I’ll start with the herbs, shall I?  Jason tried to buy a bag of weed off this Spanish fella in Buxton the other week – Alejandro, runs a club night, total con artist, I could have told him that for nothing – but when he got home, he found out it wasn’t weed after all.  He’d been had.  The bag was stuffed full of rosemary.  Daft beggar!  We laughed about it for days after.  So it’s our little joke now: “magic rosemary”.  I know it’s a bit childish, but there you go, that’s Jason for you.  I’d say he was born this way, but then his twin brother’s not like him at all.  Sorry, I’m rambling on a bit, aren’t I?”

Annie’s poker face said more than words ever could.

“And the ring?  How did Jason even know about…”

Annie stopped herself.  Best not to say too much.  Let Wendy do the explaining.

“OK, the ring.  Well, Jason’s mum had been to see her sister – that’s Jason’s auntie, Dorothy Cundy, she looks after this cottage – and there was all this talk about some old ring that you’ve got.  Jason said his mum couldn’t stop going on about it, and how it belonged to her family, and what were you doing with it anyway, stuff like that.  So he thought he’d wind you up a bit, and make out that the ring was cursed.  Annie, I do feel really bad about this, you’ve got to believe me.”

“That’s OK, Wendy.  I’m just glad that you’ve come to your senses.  So, who is the mystery woman at the end of the poem?  The one that might be “coming for me”, as Jason puts it?”

“Oh, that’s Sally, who’s meant to be marrying Justin – if he doesn’t wise up and get rid of her, which he bloody well should, if you ask me.  Jason knew she was going to make life difficult for you, especially after he talked Justin into offering you a job at the Hall.  She’s a right jealous cow, is Sally.  Bet you didn’t know she used to be engaged to Jason, did you?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I thought that would shock you.  Annie, you don’t know the half of it!  Jason and Sally were together for years, though God knows how Sally didn’t find out about all his other women.  Anyway, one day she walked in on Jason with some random slapper, went mental, called the whole thing off.  But the thing is, Justin had always fancied Sally as well.  Well, more than fancied – he’d always been mad about her, couldn’t stand it that she’d chosen his twin brother.  So, the next thing we know, Sally makes a move on Justin – for revenge, Jason reckons.  Not that he could care less, but still.  And Justin’s not short of money, so Sally’s done pretty well for herself, all in all.  Poor old Justin thinks it’s love, but we all know it’s just a bad romance.  Anyway, she’s got him wrapped around her little finger now, hates it when he even looks at another woman – so she’s not going to take too kindly to having you around, is she? ”

“In that case, perhaps I should thank you for the warning!  That’s quite a story, Wendy.  Thank you for being so open and honest with me.  Perhaps some good has come out of this silly note, after all.”

“Thanks for being so nice about it, Annie.  Thing is, I nearly didn’t leave the note at all.  Not when I got to the door yesterday afternoon, and saw Mrs Cundy in this kitchen.  I had to be really careful, so as not to get spotted. “

“Oh, that’s strange.  I was having some problems with the Aga, but Mrs Cundy managed to re-light it just fine.  I can’t think why she needed to come round.  Was she with the service engineer?”

“No, she was sitting at this table, reading some letters.  They must have been old letters, because they had these big red seals on them.”

∞∞∞∞∞

As soon as Wendy had left the cottage, Annie picked up the telephone.  Her hands were shaking as she dialled.

“Mrs Cundy?  It’s Annie Caruthers.  Listen, I’m going to get straight to the point.  I had some documents in my possession, which were stolen from my car yesterday.  Would you happen to know anything about their whereabouts?”

“No, dear – I don’t know anything about them, I’m afraid.  How awful for you!  We have so little crime in Parwich, but you just never …”

Annie was in no mood to be fobbed off by her housekeeper’s “sweet old lady“ routine.

“In that case”, she interrupted, “perhaps you would care to explain what you were doing in my kitchen, two days ago, reading the very same documents?”

Dorothy’s tone changed instantly.  “My God, woman – not much gets past you, does it?  In fact, you’re quite the little know-it-all, aren’t you?”

“Mrs Cundy, I have the right to know how you could possibly justify interfering with my private…”

“Annie Caruthers, you can spare me the high-and-mighty act.  You think you’re so much better than the rest of us, don’t you? But you know as well as I do what was in those letters, you conniving little bitch.”

“How DARE you talk to me like…”

“Now, you just listen to me, young woman.  This is all very convenient for you, isn’t it?  There’s poor Edward Fitzwilliam, his body not even cold yet – and there’s YOU, stuffing those wretched letters into your car, ready to wave them in our faces.  You just couldn’t wait, could you?  Oh, I bet you could just dance with happiness!  You knew that Edward’s paperwork hadn’t been completed! Why, I wouldn’t even put it past you to have…”

“To have WHAT, Mrs Cundy?”

“I’ve said enough, Annie Caruthers.  But know this: it will be a cold day in hell before you EVER get your hands on what rightfully belongs to my nephew.  Margaret and I have seen to that.  Now, get out of my house, get out of Parwich, and get out of our lives!”

The rest of March passed by uneventfully, and blossomed into one of the warmest Aprils on record. Since the inexplicable outburst from Mrs Cundy, Annie had made every effort to avoid contact with her ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ landlady, and had only made occasional visits to Lillington Hall. Instead, she’d spent time getting to know some of the locals in the village, and exploring the surrounding Derbyshire countryside. It was a welcome distraction from the increasingly strange goings on of recent weeks. Although she had been relieved that one mystery at least had been solved, when Wendy confessed on behalf of Jason to the peculiar note that had been left pinned to the door of Parwich Heights. ‘Pompous ass!’ she thought, ‘Just goes to show, money can’t buy everything…in particular brains, in the case of Jason Lomas!’ She’d quickly come to the conclusion that that family were trouble – and were not to be touched with the proverbial barge pole.

One of her favourite pastimes of late was to amble through the village early in the morning, before anyone had risen. Annie enjoyed this time of day the best, and today was no exception as she set off down the hill past Rookery Cottage, and the jumble of antiquated stone cottages lining the narrow road.

A gentle breeze ran through her hair, as the sun was beginning to emerge above the fiery blaze of the horizon. The deepening blue of the sky above already promised another wonderful spring day. The stillness of the morning was enchanting, and belied the hive of activity that would develop in the village in the coming hours, as people gradually began to wake. Her only companions now however, were the multitude of birds as they struck up the captivating melody of the dawn chorus.

As she drew in the crisp fresh air of morning to revive her senses, Annie thought how lucky she was to be living in a place like this. It certainly was the pick-me-up that she had desperately needed. It helped her to forget the tragic events that had led to her arrival here. As the weeks passed by, the nightmares were gradually beginning to fade. Not so long ago, she could close her eyes and conjure up every minute contour of Quentin’s face – breathe in the aroma of his exotic aftershave. It was as though if she reached out, she would be able to touch him and fall into his comforting embrace. Now though, when she tried to recall his features, they appeared as a hazy outline, which seemed to recede further into the darkness the harder she tried to concentrate.

She spent the next few hours in this quiet state of contemplation, unaware that her feet had covered so much ground, and was amazed when she glanced at her watch that it was heading towards 10 o’clock as she re-entered the village. Passing Jubilee Pond, she waved to Fiona who lived in the collection of cottages in the triangle of land just beyond. She was tending to Poppy and Pippin, a cow and her young calf. Poppy the mother, with a dark brown face and huge brown eyes was licking her arm with a ferocious affection, as Fiona petted the young calf nibbling contentedly on a piece of straw. ‘What a lovely morning’ she called out ‘could you use some milk this morning?’ Annie was planning a baking session later that afternoon, so gratefully accepted the 4 pints of fresh creamy cow’s milk that Fiona offered, and after a pleasant interlude of idle natter continued on her way.

Just as she was nearing the Sycamore, Annie jumped with a start as she heard a commotion across the road, and saw one of the cottage doors crash open.

‘When I get back I want you gone, do you understand?’ There was a pause, and then the voice returned with a menace. ‘Do…you….understand… Bitch?’…..Annie could see a small figure cowered in the doorway, with a huge hulk of a man leaning over her – each word punctuated with a blow to the woman’s cheeks. The small figure slumped to the floor, as the man thundered down the path to the gate, flung it open and wheel spun in a cloud of smoke into the distance in his 4×4.

After witnessing the scene with a sense of disbelief, Annie rushed across, and ran down the garden path ‘Fern…Fern… are you OK?’ She reached down to put a reassuring hand on the slender shoulder. The golden ringlets which had escaped the dishevelled ponytail, rested on the woman’s crimson cheeks, which glistened with wet tears.

‘Why do you let him do this to you?…You know he’s not worth it’…Annie’s heart broke as she looked at the devastation that the pitiful excuse of a man had visited upon this gentle young woman.

The two had struck up a strong friendship over the last couple of weeks. Annie warmed to Fern’s simple uncomplicated outlook and sense of humour. They had met at the Zumba class held in the village, and had enjoyed a few drinks at the Sycamore, and even had a couple of ‘girlie nights in’ at Parwich Heights. It was during one such evening, that Annie had discovered the heartbreaking story that lay hidden behind Fern’s placid smile. It was only then, that Annie realised there was a haunting emptiness that lurked beneath the twinkle of her extraordinary green eyes that she’d not noticed before. Fern had just been married for a year, but realised almost immediately what a mistake she had made. Annie vehemently argued that she should simply leave, but Fern despite her unassuming beauty had no self-belief, so resigned herself to the fact that this was her fate.

Annie raised her friend from the floor and held her tightly. Fern sobbed uncontrollably, her face pressed into the warm folds of Annie’s gilet. They remained there for what seemed an eternity, Fern desperately clinging on to every ounce of love that she could take from her friend – as if it would somehow heal the hurt.

‘Is everything OK?… ’ Annie jumped as she hadn’t heard the figure approaching. She turned to see the perfect physique of Aiden O’Connell striding up the path. If she hadn’t been so pre-occupied, she would have melted in his troubled gaze. ‘I was calling in for a paper, and I thought I heard something kicking off’. The lilting Irish burr surprised Annie, as she was so used to the precise English accent, which he obviously assumed for his role.

‘I think everything’s OK now, but I’ll stop with her for a while. Thanks Aiden’. Fern raised her face slowly and took a sharp intake of breath, choking on another sob, and lifted her red-rimmed eyes to look up disbelievingly. ‘Is that….. Is that who…who I think it is?….’ To Annie, it had become an everyday event to be surrounded by the film crew and stars, so had forgotten how incredulous it must be to have one of the world’s most renowned actors to be stood on your doorstep.

Annie chuckled to herself ‘Yes, this is Aiden O’Connell, movie star extraordinaire!’ Aiden’s eyes lit up, and a smile passed his lips, dimpling his cheeks, as he was used to getting this reaction in the street. However, his smile promptly disappeared as he looked upon Fern’s tear stained cheeks, and he could see the bruises beginning to stain the otherwise perfect peachy cream skin. He reached forward, as if to wipe the tiny droplets from her face, but Fern flinched.

‘For goodness sake!…Just you let me get my hands on the brute that did this to you.’ A rage had consumed his features, as he contemplated the atrocity of the situation. ’If I get hold of him, I’ll kill him, I tell you I’ll kill him… and that’s a promise. That’s no way to be treatin’ a Lady’. Annie was taken aback by his intensity, but was grateful for the protection that he was offering her friend.

‘I think we’ll be OK from here Aiden. Thanks for your concern.’ She put a hand on his arm and cast him an appreciative look.

‘Alright, if you’re sure?’ He looked one last time at Fern, who returned his stare like a wounded animal, vulnerable but alert.

‘Yes, we’re fine…Thank you for your trouble’ She murmured.

‘OK …but if he ever does anything like that again, you let me know…you hear?…’. Reluctantly, he turned to go. Turning once with a backward glance, and then he was gone.

Fern fell back onto the doorframe, and sighed heavily. ‘What have I done to deserve this?…….’. Annie had no answer, as there was no reason to what she had just witnessed. She suppressed a sob herself, which eventually escaped into a desolate sigh. ‘I don’t know, but one thing’s for sure…this can’t continue’. She lowered her gaze and met her friend’s eyes like a school teacher reprimanding an unruly pupil, issuing an ultimatum. ‘And you know it. This has to stop now!’

∞∞∞∞∞

As expected, it turned out to be a glorious day, and after a little friendly persuasion, Annie managed to get Fern to join her for a quick drink at the Sycamore – after first storing Poppy’s milk in the cool fridge for safekeeping. It really was unnaturally warm for the time of year, and Annie disrobed herself of her oatmeal gilet, as the sun was beating down fiercely now. As they passed through the narrow, stone stile to the gardens, a collection of locals were already basking on the lawns in the heat of the day.

Annie took a second glance, as she passed a portly chap engaged in animated conversation, waving his pint pot to emphasise some point –as his companions chuckled in unison. His face flushed from working in the fields, exposed to the full heat of the sun. However, it was the turquoise cardigan that was wrapped round his head ’turban style’ that amused Annie. She was tempted to believe that this was possibly the ‘village idiot’, until one of the sleeves dropped slightly to reveal the sunburnt pate, explaining the reason for this somewhat unorthodox attire.

Fern seated herself at one of the benches, and laughed as she watched as her friend was initiated into the intricacies, and peculiarities of village life and characters.

‘Alright Paul?’ Fern lifted a hand in acknowledgement

‘I dunn’a know, but th’a knows th’a shall be better with a pint inside me!’. He raised his glass in mutual acknowledgement, and a large grin spread across his plump cheeks as he continued relaying his tale to the group of friends gathered around him.

A few moments later, the two women were enjoying a drink of their own as they sat and chatted, attempting to forget the rather unpleasant start to the day.

Janet, waddled out of the pub heavily pregnant with her first child – the intense heat was not helping, and it was unclear which was warmer – slaving over the stove in the kitchens or out here. As she passed amongst the benches collecting glasses, she stopped to talk to Annie and her friend.

‘Are you going to the St George’s Day parade tomorrow?, there’s a bit of a do on at the Memorial Hall later – and drinks back here if you fancy…’ Janet perched herself on the end of the table, in an attempt to relieve the weight from her feet for a moment. Annie had really appreciated Janet’s efforts to welcome her to the village, it had made settling here so much easier.

‘Oh yes… I saw something on the Parwich website, what time is it starting again?’ The Landlady knew all the ins and outs, and it was agreed that Annie would call round for Fern in the morning, and they would see how the day developed from there. Eventually Janet couldn’t avoid the mounting chores any longer, and bid them farewell, as she limped through the wooden gate and back to her duties.

It was a couple of drinks and a plate of sandwiches and chips later, that Annie found herself recounting the strange events that had happened since she’d arrived in the village, and since opening the box left to her by her great great grandmother.

‘I feel certain that something happened all those years ago, but I’m damned if I know where to start in trying to find out.’ She pushed the last chip around the plate, trying to catch the final remnants of tomato ketchup, ‘and it doesn’t help that I’ve lost those letters.’ She paused momentarily, and bit down on the chip, the frustration clearly visible in the furrows of her brow.

‘I can’t believe I didn’t look at them before they vanished…now I’ll never know why Grace saved them to pass on to future generations of the family!’. Fern listened intently, mesmerised by the classic beauty of the redhead. She envied Annie’s undoubted confidence, and couldn’t for the life of her understand why she hadn’t been snapped up by one of the Lomas boys, but then again they probably didn’t deserve her.

All of a sudden, a thought struck her. Of course, why hadn’t she thought about it before? ‘Well, if anyone can help you it would be Edie…Edie Swindell.’ Fern watched as Annie’s eyes lit up with anticipation.

‘She must be nearing 100 now, but she knows everything there is to know about what’s gone on in Parwich. She’s fascinating to listen to really, knows all the local folklore too’. Fern gestured back towards Jubilee Pond, ‘She lives in a little cottage up on Creamery Lane….mind you’ll have to catch her before 3 o’clock as that’s snooze time, and you won’t get any sense out of her then!!’ Annie, jumped to her feet and reached across to embrace her friend, feeling an increasing sense of excitement at possibly coming closer to knowing Grace’s secret.

‘Anyway, I best be getting off now’. Fern said with a timid smile, rising from the bench and feeling at the tender spots of red that had begun to flush her breastbone. This time, not bruises but sunburn, as she’d caught the full rays of the sun.

‘But what about you know who?’. Annie gestured to the humble cottage across the road, fearing for her friend.

‘Oh him!’. Fern scoffed with a muted scorn ‘If I know Nathan, he’ll not be back for a few days now. When he does come back, he’ll have flowers and chocolates and be as nice as pie’. She paused, ‘To him, it’ll be as if nothing ever happened!…’ .

‘And you?…What about you Fern?’. Annie knew it was a hopeless cause, as she watched Fern shrug her shoulders and seemingly surrender to her fate.

‘I’ll survive.’

‘At first I was afraid, I was petrified….’ Annie choked on the remnants of her wine, as she watched Fern pirouette, grabbing a rolled up crisp packet and singing the Gloria Gaynor hit into it, as if it were a microphone. ‘Did you think I’d crumble, Did you think I’d lay down and die…Oh no, not I….’. Annie joined in to the strains of ‘I will survive’, amazed at the resilience of her young friend – before collapsing into a heap, as they laughed like a pair of hyenas.

‘OK Gloria, if you’re sure you’ll be OK?’ Fern nodded, ‘Then I’ll pay a visit to old woman Swindell, and see if I can’t shed any light on this story’. Annie had the bit between her teeth now, and was determined to find some answers.

∞∞∞∞∞

It was almost 2 o’clock as Annie climbed the slopes of Creamery Lane, she was feeling a little the worse for wear after being too long exposed to the ferocious heat of the sun, and was beginning to regret that third large glass of rosé! Although Annie, had never been there before, from her friend’s description she knew that she was approaching Edie Swindell’s place.

Behind an old stonewall and overgrown hedge, lay a little cottage submerged in the shadows. The dilapidated wooden gate, creaked in protest at being opened, and Annie decided not to close it to, just in case it fell off its hinges. Under the porch, a flaking green door lay slightly ajar, and Annie shivered as she stepped into the shade of the garden beyond the wall.

She tentatively knocked on the door. ‘Hello, Mrs Swindell…are you there?’ She paused awaiting an answer, hearing none, she ventured again..’Mrs Swindell?….’.

The hoarse voice that responded indicated that Annie had indeed located a lady of some age – either that or she was a very heavy smoker. ‘Who’s there?….’.

‘My name’s Annie…Annie Carruthers. I’m a friend of Fern Johnson, she said that you might be able to help me with some local history.’ It was as if a switch had been flicked, and the old lady emerged from her slumber, the excitement in her voice was tangible.

‘Well, what you waiting for dear, come in, come in and let’s see if old Edie can’t help you.’

Annie almost fainted in the heat that met her as she opened the door. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust to the dingy darkness of the room, after the blaze of the sunshine outdoors. A small coal fire was well banked, and roared ferociously in the grate. It was more than sufficient to heat the pokey little room. The small wrinkled figure sat huddled in a rocking chair by the side of the fire her face like a walnut, a tartan blanket draped across her knees for additional warmth – tiny sheepskin slippers peeping from under the folds.

She lifted a gnarled, misshapen hand, and gestured for Annie to sit down on the armchair at the other side of the fire. She wondered if all old people had crotched antimacassars, as she fondly remembered her Nana’s own spectacular examples.

‘It’s so kind of you to see me Mrs Swindell…,’ but Annie stopped abruptly as the old Lady interjected vehemently.

‘Edie please, I’ve not been Mrs Swindell for nigh on 40 years, since Earnest died. Edie will do just fine’.

‘OK, Edie it is then’. Annie went on to relay a little of her history, eventually culminating in the box of treasures left to her by her great great grandmother. All the time Edie Swindell surveyed her youthful guest carefully, from behind her tortoiseshell spectacles, every now and again emitting a guttural ‘mmmm’ which Annie thought was almost Yoda-like!

However, it was when Annie showed her the striking ring that she wore on the index finger of her slender right hand that the old woman really sat up, her rheumy grey eyes opened wide like a wizened owl.

‘Well I never.’ She paused, seemingly unable to find her voice, which had disappeared almost into a raspy whisper. ‘I had my suspicions, but that…’ Edie struggled to raise herself, and reach forward for Annie’s youthful hand. The twisted craggy fingers trembled slightly, as the old woman felt the soft buttery gold of the ring, almost as if trying to determine that it was real. Annie’s heart was beating furiously, as she watched the old lady drift into a hypnotic state, never taking her eyes from the ring.

Finally, the silence was broken as a hot fragment of coal spat from the fire, landing on the threadbare mat in front of the hearth. The black scorch marks that peppered the fabric, showed that this had been a regular occurrence over the years, and the orange glow of the ember flickered briefly and faded into a smouldering grey ash. It seemed to rouse Edie from her trance, as she adjusted her spectacles and shuffled in her seat as if to make herself more comfortable for the epic tale she was about to relay – one that had remained untold for many years now.

She sat back in her chair, and tilted her head back, staring at some point on the low beamed ceiling above, and then shut her eyes tightly as if to expel any light that may be remaining in the dim room. The air of concentration was palpable in that moment, as Edie Swindell transported herself back through the centuries to evoke the details of the tale that had passed through the aeons of village folklore, and until this moment had been in danger of being lost for all time.

‘It was over 250 years ago that it first began.’ She paused momentarily and squinted through one eye to see if her visitor was paying attention. Seeing the eager youthful face waiting on her every word she continued.

‘His name was Tobias Twigge, he was the gamekeeper for the Parwich Estates. Some say he was a dark brooding chap, maybe even arrogant – but that would be an injustice to the dear departed. My grandmother always insisted that her family had known him to be a truly good man at heart. Perhaps, just born into the wrong times, for you mustn’t forget my dear – how different life was then. None of this modern shallow life we know today, love was hard earned – but once gained, endured and was the more powerful for it. It was also a society where each had their own place, and the divide between the classes was a given. Everyone from farm labourer to duke or duchess knew their lot in life, and no-one would dare to cross the line.’

Annie listened enraptured, as she visualised the scene of village life in Georgian Parwich centuries before. The scene played out as she hung on Edie’s every word.

‘Or so it was most of the time. In the case of Tobias however, a summer’s day in 1750 was to change his life forever. For it was his fate to meet with the young Lady Georgiana, sister of Lord Samuel Fitzwilliam of Lillington Hall. She was only a young girl of eighteen, but already men were falling at her feet vying for her hand in marriage. Her beauty was legendary, soft porcelain skin flushed with rosy cheeks and lips like ruby rosebuds. Yet it was her hair, as jet black as shimmering coal some said, that had the men captivated.’ A wry smile creased Edie’s lips, as she considered with irony her own thinning snowy white curls.

‘Anyway, where was I?’ After a prompt from Annie she resumed, ‘Ah yes…’.

The tale that unfolded was of a forbidden, passionate love that defied the rules of hierarchy. Two young people who threw caution to the wind, to experience the joys and pains of true love – whatever the cost. Tobias, was a young man who held a brutal magnificence in Georgiana’s eyes, from the moment she first laid eyes on him as she trotted on horseback up the rise to Parwich Hall. She had brazenly devoured the sight of the dark skinned gamekeeper as he bent to splash his face with the cool refreshing spring waters. His jacket lay on the stone trough, and the sleeves of his white shirt were rolled above his elbows to reveal powerful forearms which glistened in the sun, as he squatted before the spring – scooping up handfuls of clear, cleansing water from the bubbling spring, letting it cascade over his long ebony mane.

As the horses hooves passed by on the lane behind him, the dark gypsy figure turned his head to look in the direction of the gaze that was burning through his very skin. Transfixed, he observed the lavish black eyes that consumed him. Involuntarily he rose, possessed by a force, which worked deep within his core. Tobias had witnessed many wonders of nature, but before him was a rare beauty indeed – one which he instantly felt driven to possess. However, he was rudely roused from his reverie, as a riding crop struck him harshly on his left cheek leaving an angry weal on the weathered skin.

‘You will bow before the Lady Georgiana, and keep your eyes lowered. Have you no respect you heathen?’ Tobias, begrudgingly complied and averted his eyes as the pompous aristocrat passed by, sneering at the pathetic creature.

‘From that moment on, many say that he was bewitched.’ Edie sighed, ‘Inexplicably drawn together they were….’

‘Gosh that must have caused quite a stir round here at the time!’ Annie sat agog, aware of how totally inappropriate such an attachment would have been in those days. Although, all too often history was littered with tales of grand ‘gentlemen’, even Kings having their wicked way with lowly peasants, siring bastards which were discarded and hidden up and down the country, and no-one even blinked an eyelid. In fact, it was almost considered some ancient tribal rite. So why should it be any different for Tobias and Georgiana, albeit that the roles had been reversed? Annie found herself growing to like this unconventional pairing, and hoped that their tale would have the ‘happy ever after’ that they deserved, although something told her that it wasn’t to be.

‘Oh, they knew they were playing with fire, for sure’. Edie lowered her gaze, staring above the rims of her spectacles at her captive audience ‘and Tobias, God rest his soul tried to resist his feelings for Georgiana’s sake, to spare her the shame. But it was meant to be, and that was that.’

‘So what happened?’ Annie quizzed, anxious to know more.

‘OK, hold your horses, I’m getting there, just be patient young lady… my mind’s not what it used to be!’ The redhead, duly chastised, held up a hand in acknowledgement, and let the elderly sage continue in her own time.

‘Tobias, being the gamekeeper for the Estate, lived in a small cottage called Parwich Heights up yonder end of the village.’ Edie raised a misshapen finger, indicating some point in the distance. Annie’s eyes opened wide with amazement, and her jaw dropped – however, wisely decided against interrupting the Old Lady again, it was more than her life was worth.

‘Georgiana made more frequent visits to the Hall that Summer, her brother was convinced that she’d fallen for the eldest Son James Levinge, so encouraged her visits – it was considered a good match, a very good match indeed. However, as was customary in the day she was always chaperoned by her Lady’s Maid Eliza.’ Edie cleared her throat, and reached for a glass of water on the side table, taking a sip to ease the irritation. Her hands quivered slightly as she wiped her lips before continuing.

‘However, what Samuel didn’t count on was the fact that the roguish Master Levinge had in fact taken quite a fancy to young Eliza, and was more than accommodating of Georgiana’s requests to ride up into the hills ‘to take the air’. To any prying eyes, it was a respectable party of young folk enjoying the pleasures of the countryside. However, just beyond Parwich Hill Georgiana would watch the dappled mare and chestnut stallion of James and Eliza head into the shelter of a wooded copse. The first time it had happened, Georgiana had reservations, as she felt that she was using her closest companion as a pawn in her intricate game. However, she watched as a flush of anticipation coloured Eliza’s skin with each new encounter, and knew that her servant took great pleasure from these meetings. The fact that it also benefited her Lady was a secondary concern for Eliza.’

‘But what of Georgiana and Tobias?’ Annie prompted with a sense of exasperation.

‘I’m building up to that young Lady, patience is a virtue!!’ Edie raised, two silvered eyebrows heavenwards as if to emphasise her point, before resuming the tale.

‘Eliza attended on her Lady’s every needs, and in the most intimate confines of her bedchamber. She alone was privy to what happened in the time between Georgiana leaving her and the Master to spend their treasured hours alone together in the copse. She’d come upon him by accident at first, but since that first meeting Georgiana had been on the hunt for her enigmatic ‘gypsy Prince’ as she called him, and through sheer grit and determination she found him.’ Edie shook her head as she contemplated what was to come.

‘Despite what we are all led to believe, love at first sight is a rare thing indeed, and the feelings that Tobias and Georgiana had for each other were truly unique. As I said before, Tobias, tried to resist the urge to give in to his feelings, but he hadn’t reckoned on Georgiana’s spirit. She snared him, like one of his rabbits, and he was vulnerable to her formidable charms’. Annie visualised a Heathcliffe-like character, rough and unrefined, dumbstruck and awkward in the presence of such a delicate, gracious beauty. Dreamily, she imagined their first encounter, the pure animal magnetism that sparks between a man and a woman – made all the more intense, as what they were to experience was illicit love.

‘Georgiana was a true lady, and was no brazen hussy mind.’ Edie re-iterated. Keen to emphasise that the Lady’s passion exceeded pure carnal desire. ‘She visited the cottage on numerous occasions that summer, and they’d spend hours talking, sharing their dreams – and contemplating how different their lives would be had they been born into different families. This was their precious time, and Georgiana loved to fuss about the home as if she were a simple housewife – prettying the stark practicality of Tobias’s den with small vases of meadow flowers. They would have been content to steal these moments of shared tranquillity, but something was to happen later that year as autumn approached that would have a devastating effect on their lives….forever……’

A few moments passed, and Annie became aware of the slow rhythmic tick-tock of the clock on the mantelpiece, and realised that Edie had stopped her spellbinding version of ‘Jackanory’. The old Lady’s head had rolled forward and her chin was rested on her chest. At first, Annie was afraid that the old dear had popped her clogs, but was reassured when she saw Edie take a deep breath and emit a loud snore.

‘Mrs Swindell….Edie..’ Annie reached across gently tapping on the saggy arm of the white nylon cardigan. When there was no response she tried more vigorously, ‘Edie, wake up…you’ve not finished the story yet…’ However, the wrinkled eyes remained stubbornly closed, and it was clear to Annie that this old lady wouldn’t be conscious again this side of Sunday.

‘Damn, drat and double blast!!!’ Annie exclaimed. She’d been given a tantalising view into bygone times, but was left even more mystified than before as to how this fitted into Grace’s story. Reluctantly, Annie stood to leave, adjusting the tartan blanket to make sure that Edie was comfortable, and then tiptoed tentatively to the door. With an exasperated sigh, she looked back towards the frail old lady, before gently closing the cottage door behind her.

Not for the first time today, her head was reeling, and this time it wasn’t just the wine!

Annie spent a restless night in the old cottage. The stonewalls seemed to have absorbed the heat of the day – and the small bedroom was airless and stifling. Perched high above the village, the former Gamekeeper’s cottage wasn’t overlooked, so Annie often left the curtains drawn back, and tonight had cracked open the rickety sash window, which let a grass scented breeze waft through the room – occasionally cooling the still air. The moon was full tonight, and bathed the fields and hills in a dazzling silver light, which illuminated the uneven plastered walls with a spectral glow. In the distance, in her broken sleep Annie could hear two owls – their haunting calls echoing through the stillness of the night.

She’d been unnerved by her visit to Edie Swindell, and although she still loved the homely tranquillity of Parwich Heights, since returning home tonight she swore that she could feel a presence within the fabric of this place. As though the walls had somehow recorded a traumatic event in history, which was captured and entombed – to be replayed and relived by whoever unlocked their secrets.

Eventually, in the small hours of the morning Annie managed to escape the ghosts and phantoms of her imagination, and dropped into a deep sleep. She lay with one pyjamed leg straddled across the feather eiderdown, in an attempt to cool down – her arm subconsciously cuddling a duck down pillow. It was in this position that she woke, as the sun streamed through the window and heralded the start of another glorious day.

∞∞∞∞∞

The village was bristling with activity, in preparation for the St George’s Day parade. Annie and Fern met up as agreed first thing and headed to the Legion for a freshly cooked bacon butty. There was nothing better than the salted greasy splendour of the fresh local bacon, served on a soft white cob to soak up the alcoholic excesses of the day before.

They stood amongst the Cyber Scouts, and congregating Oddfellows enjoying the good-natured banter of the local community. Merlin and Ginny the ‘resident’ border collies darted playfully amongst the gathered crowd, gratefully lapping up the attention of anyone who cared to pat them. Merlin in particular, although he knew he was not to beg, pawed the air in his attempt at doggy communication, and gave Annie such an imploring look that she succumbed and gave him a piece of her prized bacon. It was gone in a flash and he licked his lips in appreciation. Although she did manage to resist his further attempts to acquire more titbits, ‘Mummy Emma won’t be happy with me if I feed you any more!’ Annie chided. With that, he cocked his head to one side with a quizzical look, and seeing no further booty, trotted off happily to find Ginny.

As ten o’clock approached, Fern and Annie made their way back down the lane to wait at the vantage point they’d spotted on the way up. They stood with their backs against the stonewall facing towards the Legion – watching the band gather themselves into a semblance of a formation. Cotton wool puffs of white cloud drifted lazily across the powdery blue sky, and they felt the sun warm on their skin.

Across the road, a gallant old gentleman, who Fern had named as Jack Cundy sat outside his pristine cottage on his striped deckchair, watching the comings and goings of the young folk around. He was kitted out in a smart blue blazer, on which was displayed an impressive array of medals with a variety of multi-coloured ribbons, and a beret sporting his regiment’s badge set neatly on his head. His weather beaten hands were rested atop his walking stick, as he proudly awaited the procession. A character who had seen much life, and was part of a generation that fought for King and Country and maintained a sense of pride and occasion for this day – St George’s day.

Unfortunately, Jack’s war wasn’t the last and his counterparts of the current generation were still embroiled in other battles in distant countries, far removed from Parwich. Annie smiled inwardly, and wondered what old Jack would make of Major Ingham’s reports from Afghanistan – she’d recently discovered on the village blog. Tales of everyday life, which breached the divide of thousands of miles to bring the realities of modern warfare, to this tranquil Derbyshire village. How things had changed in just a few short decades – but one thing that hadn’t was the bravery and courage shown throughout history by the young people prepared to risk their lives to serve their country.

Fern waved in acknowledgement to the old gentleman, and with his usual valour, he doffed his cap, and gave her one of his best toothy grins in reply.

Although Annie could already tell by her friend’s demeanour, Fern confirmed that Nathan hadn’t returned home last night as expected. She had an air of relaxation when he wasn’t around, which was contagious, and Annie delighted in her company at these times.

‘Oh I popped in to see Edie Swindell by the way.’ Annie stated excitedly, ‘You weren’t wrong when you said she knows everything! Although, we didn’t exactly get to a conclusion – so to be honest, I’m none the wiser. I’ll have to pop down and see her later on.’

There was a momentary silence before Fern spoke ‘You won’t have heard will you?’ Annie’s blank look confirmed she was right. ‘Edie was taken to hospital late last night’. Annie let out an exasperated gasp, and cupped her head in her hands before her friend could continue. What was it with this place and people being whisked unexpectedly into hospital!.

‘Oh God it’s my fault.’ She shook her red locks disbelievingly, ‘I thought she was just asleep, I should have known…I should have checked properly.’

Fern rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder ‘Annie, she’s an old lady – she has these turns every now and again. It’s not the first time she’s been taken in. It’s just precautionary really, I’m sure she’ll be fine – but she won’t be up to any Miss Marple stuff I can tell you that!!’ Annie felt thwarted at every step, and was still contemplating her predicament when a friendly chap approached and entered into affable conversation with Fern.

His hair was a barely there light stubble, with matching moustache and beard and he wore a casual grey jacket and black shirt, with light khaki cords. Annie thought if Phil Mitchell from EastEnders had a trimmer, genial twin brother – the man before them would fit the bill perfectly. He chatted easily about village life, although it appeared he too was a relative newcomer to Parwich. As the band began to strike up, he checked his watch, and raised his eyebrows.

‘Well if you’ll excuse me ladies, I’ve got a frock to change into, and a dragon to slay!’ Annie’s jaw dropped visibly, and it was only then that her eyes lowered from the friendly smiling face, to the white collar set neatly around his neck.

‘OK, we’ll see you at the service later Reverend.’ Fern said. With that, they watched as he jogged off in the direction of the church, to prepare for the service later that morning, and Annie realised she’d just been introduced to Reverend Andy Larkin. Not being a regular churchgoer herself Annie pictured the vicar, as an elderly, slightly severe looking man, spouting ‘Hellfire and Brimstone’ to his assembled congregation. However, from what she’d seen, Andy looked like a normal everyday person, down to earth and approachable, and she found she was looking forward to attending the service later that morning. She always felt an inexplicable sense of awe whenever she entered a church, and an overwhelming sense of humility. Perhaps it would help bring a sense of perspective back, into her crazy upside-down life.

Annie was jolted from her thoughts, by the powerful drum beats that signalled the start of the procession proper, and the rest of the Dove Holes band joined in. Those villagers that weren’t already waiting along the roadside, emerged from the warren of cottages dotted round the village as if enchanted by the Pied Piper himself. Some wore crimson red roses in their buttonholes, and the Oddfellows, with their white gloved hands and smart suits, marched neatly with straight backs to the beat.

Having been brought up by a father who loved brass band music, Annie had been weaned on the Brighouse and Rastrick Band, and relished the rousing melody, which seemed to play havoc with her emotions. Each time she heard a band strike up, she felt a tightening at her throat, and her eyes began to water involuntarily – her stomach seeming to resonate with every beat of the base drum. She couldn’t explain whether it was the power of the instruments, or the tunes themselves that made her well up every single time without fail. However, if she was really honest, a little part of her always connected the music with her father and happy carefree childhood times – times that were only memories now as he’d been dead for over twenty years. Conscious of not showing herself up in front of half of Parwich, Annie gripped her left wrist firmly which for some inexplicable reason always helped stem the flow of tears and took deep breaths as she watched the figures file past.

The procession weaved cheerfully through the village, those that hadn’t ventured out to join in the parade, peered through open windows to witness the patriotic scene. Annie smiled as she spied a couple of young children sat in a bedroom window still in their pyjamas, waving their plastic St George’s flags animatedly in time to the beat. The band led the congregation up the hill past Greengates, stopping to assemble outside the imposing gates of Parwich Hall.

Annie’s thoughts momentarily drifted back to her visit to Edie Swindell the day before, and of the drama that had unfolded in these grounds hundreds of years before. To think Tobias had traversed this lane each day, passing the imposing facade of the hall on the way home to his own humble cottage, and a life far removed from the excesses and privileges of its aristocratic occupants. It then dawned on Annie, just how remarkable his relationship with the beautiful Georgiana had been.

Suddenly the gates of the hall opened, and a mature woman appeared, descending the steps gracefully in a smart navy blue suit with a string of creamy pearls at her neck, and a midnight blue wide brimmed hat sat jauntily atop her greying hair. Her white gloved hands clasped before her, as she began an address to the Oddfellows and the gathered procession.

‘Fern, who’s that?’ Annie whispered surreptitiously from the corner of her mouth, hoping no one would overhear her. ‘She doesn’t half remind me of the Queen Mother, God rest her soul’.

She continued to listen intently to the rest of the speech, in which the regal figure thanked everyone for turning out, and helping to carry on the tradition of the annual parade, until her attention was broken by an exasperated guffaw from her companion beside her.

‘You don’t half have a way with words you know!’

‘Why what’s wrong?’ The pretty redhead raised her eyebrows questioningly. ‘I am new round here. I can’t help it if I don’t know everyone in the village, and every generation that’s ever been by their first name and tell you exactly where they are buried!!’ Annie raised her eyes heavenward to emphasise her exasperation.

Fern countered her friend’s frustration with a pleasant smile. ‘I’m sure Mrs Shields would be delighted to be compared with the Queen Mother’. The gathered crowd burst into a spontaneous ripple of applause, as the address concluded, and Fern looped her arm through Annie’s ‘I’ll fill you in on a bit of local who’s who…’ and the two friends, followed behind the procession, deep in conversation as it continued on a loop back to the church on the green.

∞∞∞∞∞

The beautiful spring day mellowed into a golden evening, casting long shadows on the sweet juicy grass as the sun began its descent below the horizon. A hint of coolness crept into the air as evening approached. However, far from retiring to sleep, the villagers of Parwich congregated once more, filing into the Memorial Hall to continue the festivities to mark this quintessentially English day.

The impressive hall was brimming with folk animatedly chattering, and more than a few rosy faces were dotted about the room as the beer and wine continued to flow, and the delectable buffet helped to soak up the alcoholic excesses of the day. Those who still had the energy, were jigging on a makeshift dance floor serenaded by a local Irish singer.
Annie was amazed at the sight before her, as she entered the hall the party was in full swing. This village never failed to amaze her, and more than once had proved the ‘pick-me up’ that she had so desperately needed before arriving here a few months before. A grin spread across her cherry painted lips, as she turned to Fern with a face like a delighted child barely able to contain her excitement, seeking approval to join in the fun.

In the short time that they had known each other, they had experienced numerous highs and lows together. However, tonight Fern looked on her friend in a new light. She’d always known that her freckled friend was pretty, but tonight she seemed to exude an energy, which made her seem irresistible. Her auburn tresses, tumbled freely about her shoulders, and she had finally summoned up the confidence to wear the fitted turquoise frock that they’d purchased as an impulse buy from a boutique in Ashbourne. It accentuated her slim frame perfectly. Fern thought, that tonight for the first time, she was seeing the real Annie – and momentarily felt a pang of jealously as she considered herself the ‘ugly duckling’ next to Annie’s graceful swan. However, it wasn’t Fern’s nature to covet anyone or feel unhappy with her own lot, and she truly wished her friend could find permanent happiness.

‘Come on then let’s go get ‘em!’ Fern said with gusto, and with that, they burst into the room, straight to the dance floor singing a duet of ‘Sweet Caroline’. Luckily, they were inaudible as the whole room broke into an impromptu rendition of the popular melody, and danced energetically without inhibitions.

Annie opened her eyes fleetingly, from the concentration of belting out the numerous golden oldies, and spotted a figure casually propped against a doorframe observing their movements with amusement, sipping on a pint of dark liquid.

He winked cheekily in Annie’s direction, and casually sauntered across the room towards them. It wasn’t until he drew nearer, that she realised it was the irresistibly handsome Aiden O’Connell – she’d recognise those emerald green eyes anywhere.

‘Well fancy meeting you here young Annie. Quite the dancer aren’t we!!..’ He let his entrancing eyes take in every intimate contour of her body. Even amidst the commotion of the party, she still succumbed to the soothing Irish brogue. ‘Is there anything this man isn’t good at?’ Annie asked herself, letting her eyes run over his toned torso and with a blush, concluded that it was unlikely.

Unaware that they had company, Fern twirled around and losing her balance fell towards their young male companion. Instinctively, her hands reached out to steady herself and she froze as her hands came to rest upon his broad chest. The pint of Guinness that he’d been holding had been spilt down his crisp fitted white shirt, and Fern felt a pang of guilt as she subconsciously regarded, a patch of dark hairy chest that had been revealed through the now see-through material, beneath her slender fingers.

Aiden raised his free hand, to tenderly cup Fern’s face, and his thumb caressed the soft velvety skin of her pink cheek. ‘How the devil are you then? Are you well?….’ His eyes were open wide as he took in every perfect contour of her face. Fern nuzzled self-consciously into his cupped palm, taking in his musky scent and cast Aiden a shy look. ‘All the better for seeing you…’ Her voice trembled slightly, and the mischievous sparkle that lit up his eyes confirmed that the feeling was mutual.

Annie stepped away and merged invisibly into the throng, as she watched the couple bask in the intimacy of their shared moment.

Surprisingly, she’d been so busy dancing she’d not had a drink all evening and decided a large glass of rose was called for. She’d forgotten what it was like to be a gooseberry, and suddenly although this was a jovial crowd, Annie was conscious that there weren’t any people that she actually knew, other than in passing. So staring into the bottom of a wine glass, was a welcome diversion, and she didn’t feel quite so alone.

With her nose immersed in a generous wine glass, mid sip, Annie surveyed the room. She gasped and spat back a gulp of wine, as she spotted the dark brooding figure of Justin Lomas eying her with disapproval from the doorway. Since her altercation with Mrs Cundy, she’d avoided the Lomas family and assumed this was the reason for Justin’s thunderous look.

She started visibly, and turned her back as she saw him marching across the floor in her direction.

‘Annie.’ His deep voice was sharp, and she wished she could be anywhere else but here right now. It had been such a pleasant day, she didn’t want to spoil it – it was one of those ‘beam me up Scottie’ moments.

There was nothing for it, there was no miraculous escape, so she turned to face the music and his glowering dark stare.

‘What’s up with you?’ Annie retorted, gulping a draft of rose to boost her ‘Dutch courage’.

Justin snorted with exasperation ‘What’s up with me! I don’t believe it… you were the one that didn’t turn up… and you ask what’s up with me?!’ He rammed his fists into his jeans pockets with frustration, and looked to the tiny figure that stood uneasily before him, demanding an answer.

‘Hang on….you storm over here and come over all Mr Darcy on me, accusing me of not turning up!’ Annie’s cheeks were flushed scarlet with rage. ‘Just what the hell are you talking about?….’ Justin opened his mouth, as if preparing his retort, but stopped mid flow, as if he’d thought better of it. The fact was despite his anger and frustration, he’d become aware of how dazzlingly beautiful Annie looked tonight, and it took him off his guard.

‘Well then, I’m waiting Justin!…’ Annie shuffled uncomfortably, under the scrutiny of this young man’s gaze, conscious that he was watching her intently. The silence seemed to last for an age, until Justin came to his senses. He ran his hand through a tangle of dark curls in an attempt to revive himself from his reverie.

‘I’m sorry…that wasn’t very subtle of me…’ He cast his eyes downward, and his lips formed into an apologetic smile, revealing endearing dimples in either cheek. Seeing Annie’s glare soften slightly, he continued, ‘But, I don’t appreciate being stood up. You had my mobile number, the least you could have done was to let me know you couldn’t make it.’ Justin was looking to Annie for some kind of answer now. ‘I know you had a bust up with Aunt Dorothy, but that doesn’t excuse…’

He didn’t have time to finish his sentence before Annie interrupted, a clear look of bemusement on her face. ‘Justin, I don’t have the faintest clue what you’re talking about. I don’t recall making any arrangements to meet up with you…when was this anyway?’

Surprise registered on the younger Lomas brother’s face, as he struggled to comprehend what was going on. ‘The note I left for you, I asked Sally to pass it on… last Friday when I was in London with Jason…’ Annie couldn’t suppress a derisory snigger, and it gradually dawned on Justin that the petite redhead had been telling the truth after all. ‘I’ll kill her…she’s no right to go meddling in my business….’

These Lomas brothers never ceased to amaze her, she’d expect this from Jason, but Justin. She was disappointed in Justin, she thought he was different somehow, special even. ‘Look I know me and her don’t exactly get on, but you can’t expect her to go passing on love notes on your behalf, that’s not on…No wonder I didn’t get the message to turn up for the date, she made sure of it’ A look of exasperation marred her pretty features, ‘And for once, I don’t blame her!’

‘Annie please’, Justin stepped forward to take both of Annie’s dainty hands in his own, in an attempt to reassure her. ‘It’s not like that at all. I’m, not like that’ He recoiled as Annie withdrew sharply from his grasp. ‘Please, give me a chance to explain. Meet me in the churchyard in five minutes’ His dark eyes were pained, as he stared imploringly at her. ‘Don’t let me down this time, I promise you it’ll be worth it….’ With that he turned, and with an abject gait crossed the room, and left the hall.

∞∞∞∞∞

Despite herself, Annie couldn’t resist the mysterious invitation. So it was, she emerged from the energetic chaos of the Memorial Hall to discover that dusk had already succumbed to the darkness of night. She walked briskly down the deserted main high street in the direction of the church. She buttoned up her cropped cardigan against the chill, which had begun to taint the evening air. A few solitary stars began to glisten in the darkening sky. Just as she approached the church gate which stood slightly ajar, the bells in the church tower began to chime indicating that it had reached eleven o’clock already. Annie shivered involuntarily, as she pushed the gate open, and walked down the gravel path towards the arch of the church doorway. As she approached, she could see a faint wisp of smoke rising up into the air from the dimly lit porch. Justin was leant against the stone doorway, drawing heavily on the remnants of a cigarette. He scrutinised the stub before dropping it to the ground, crushing it beneath his brown leather shoe.

‘I didn’t know you smoked…’ Annie said with a sense of distaste, and was surprised by the fact that it even bothered her.

Justin smirked ironically, considering the decimated remains on the ground. ‘I don’t. It’s you, you drive me to it!..’ Before, Annie had the chance – as he could see her bristling, he continued, ‘I’m joking of course. Things have been a bit rough recently, and it’s that older brother of mine leading me astray.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Anyway, thanks for coming. I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t’

Annie stepped onto the stone step of the porch to stand next to the tall figure of Justin Lomas. She reached out and patted the checked arm of his shirt. ‘I’m sorry, I’d almost forgotten how rough these last few weeks have been for you. It was thoughtless of me…’ Justin cast her a rueful smile, aware that this was probably as close to contrition as Annie was ever likely to get.

She looked out into the gloomy shadows of the churchyard, puzzled, ‘So…what exactly are we doing here?’ Justin reached round to take a small torch from the back pocket of his jeans, the stark light of its beam picking out a plethora of recumbent gravestones scattered before them. For a moment, they both stood taking in the complete hush of the night, contemplating the jumbled bony remains that lay in eternal repose beneath the surface of the grassy knolls.

‘It’s about Grace Samuels…’ Justin continued in a whisper.

‘But…but .that was my Great, great grandmother’s name’ Justin lifted the torch between them, to illuminate the quizzical look spreading across Annie’s face. ‘How do you know…?’ Before she could finish her sentence, her male companion interjected.

‘I didn’t know anything about her…or her connection to you for that matter’ Annie’s heart was beating ferociously, she could feel the blood pumping through her veins. ‘I happened to overhear a conversation between my Mum and Aunt Dorothy, not long after you arrived in the village’ As if by way of explanation he continued, ‘Not that I usually listen in to other people’s conversations mind you, just that Aunt Dorothy was rather agitated….’

‘Why?’ Annie was still extremely puzzled, ‘I don’t understand’

Justin stepped out from the shelter of the porch, ‘Come with me’ he held out a hand towards his bemused companion, ‘I’ve got something to show you’.

‘Hang on a minute…this isn’t some sleazy excuse to have your wicked way with me behind the bushes is it!’ Incredulous Justin shook his head, and fixed her with an earnest stare, ‘Trust me…’

Intrigued, Annie clasped his warm hand, which gave her an overwhelming sense of reassurance on what was turning out to be a bizarre evening. He led the way down the path, which crunched loudly underfoot casting the beam of the torch from side to side as if searching for something. Not easily spooked, Annie was apprehensive about what lay beyond the fringes of the light, as strange shadows darted to and fro like some impish gremlins.

Justin slipped his hand round Annie’s slender waist, to guide her between two precariously positioned headstones, heading off the main path, ‘Where are we going?’ A note of concern registered in her voice now, as a twig cracked noisily beneath her feet.

‘We’re almost there’ Justin promised her, heading towards a clump of overgrown bushes, which rustled in the soft breeze. A few moments later, he stopped, the beam of his flashlight picking out a tangled column of ivy.

Justin turned to hand Annie the torch, and knelt to the ground, tearing at the parasitic greenery as if in a search of some hidden treasure. The redhead watched on in silence, not quite sure what she was witnessing.

Gradually, from the depths of the intertwined ivy a hard surface began to emerge. Encouraged, Justin clawed frantically removing large clumps of growth until a large patch of creamy grey veined marble materialised. Despite the coolness of the night, Justin was perspiring slightly from his exertions, reaching back to take the torch from Annie’s grasp.

‘What is it?…’ she questioned.

‘This…’ Justin swept the surface of the marble delicately, ‘is your Great Great Grandmother, Grace Samuels..’ He turned elbow rested on one knee, to see Annie slump to her knees in amazement, her mouth opened wide, aghast.

‘Oh my God…I had no idea she was buried here! But, how did you know?’ There were a million and one questions reeling through her mind, ‘How did you know she was here, and how did you know where to find the grave?…’ Justin, detected the look of complete and utter shock in her eyes, and turned round fully to face her now.

‘The reason Aunt Dorothy was so freaked out that time, I overheard her talking to Mum was because she saw the ring..’ he gestured to Annie’s right index finger, and the buttery gold ring that encircled it, ‘She couldn’t understand how it came to be in your possession, as it was a Fitzwilliam family heirloom…she went mouthing off to Mum’. Uncomfortable sat on his haunches, Justin sat back onto the dewy grass, and sat cross-legged, whilst he brought Annie up to date with everything he’d discovered about Grace Samuels and her involvement with the Fitzwilliam family.

Justin revealed how the two sisters were concerned about the ring turning up, particularly now of all times. Dorothy Cundy had admitted that she was aware that her young tenant was somehow related to Grace Samuels. However, when questioned by her younger sister Margaret, Dorothy refused to divulge exactly how she’d come across that information. They then went on to whisper in hushed but agitated tones, about Charles Fitzwilliam, and some family misfortune at the beginning of the 1900’s, which Justin had only partially managed to hear.

‘I thought nothing of it…I thought it was just a couple of women gossiping, as only women know how’ At Annie’s raised eyebrows, Justin continued hurriedly before he could be reprimanded. ‘I wouldn’t have thought anything more of it, if I hadn’t gone up into the attic at Lillington Hall. His face was a mask of seriousness, eying Annie carefully.

‘Edward…you know my step-father, he’d sent me up there on some wild goose chase, he was after a chest of portrait miniatures and silhouettes. He’d been watching Antiques Roadshow, and he was convinced that he had a set of rare portraits that had been referred to.’ Justin smiled reflectively, although he’d not known the man long as a father figure, one thing he was very aware of was Edward’s competitive edge, the need to be seen to be the best. ‘I spent a whole afternoon up there, choking on the dust..I was covered in cobwebs by the time I’d finished’

‘So, what’s this got to do with Grace and the ring?’ Annie’s impatience was rising, but she checked herself as she saw the seriousness return to Justin’s eyes.

‘Well needless to say, I never found the portraits, but..’ His shoulders hunched almost as if weighed down under the burden of some secret, and he lifted his dark eyes to look upon the confused and expectant face of the young woman before him. He could see Annie shivering, as the deepening darkness of night brought with it an increasing nip in the air. Having no coat himself to offer, he shuffled round so that he was next to her. Annie melted gratefully into his gentle embrace, as he rubbed briskly on each of her arms in an attempt to warm her – like some prehistoric caveman trying to kindle a fire.
‘As I was saying, I didn’t find the portraits…but I did find another chest.’ He paused briefly, before resuming, his chin rested on top of Annie’s perfumed hair, as they both looked at the marble epitaph before them.

‘I found some documents in a chest marked Charles Montague Fitzwilliam, it looked like an old travelling case. Anyway, there were various papers relating to the estates etc, but there was one document which appeared to have an unbroken seal – when I turned it over the name Grace Florence Samuels was written neatly in immaculate handwriting on the other side..’ Justin felt Annie’s soft hair tickle his neck, as she jerked in surprise at this latest revelation. Subconsciously, he took a lock of her auburn hair in his right hand, and twisted it therapeutically between his fingers, caressing the silky softness.

‘I opened it…’ Annie sat up now, her interest heightened.

‘What was in there?’

‘It was an agreement between your Great great grandmother, and the Fitzwilliam family. It seems, that she and Charles Fitzwilliam were an item at one point, although it was very hush hush of course, she was one of the housemaids.’

How apt Annie thought, her Mum had always told her there was a skeleton in their family cupboard, and here she was sat in a graveyard in the dead of night listening to all the intimate details. So Grace was gradually beginning to reveal her story after all.

‘Hang on’ Annie interrupted, ‘Chambers told me that Charles Fitzwilliam was sailing to America to marry his fiancée Catherine something or other…where did Grace fit into the picture?’ She was desperately hoping that her Great great Grandmother had been more than some grubby secretive affair.

‘Oh yes, Old Chambers – seems to get his nose into everything!’ Justin exclaimed. ‘No. Well yes he was going to – however, there were some letters in the chest’ he stumbled as he tried to work out how best to explain ‘I don’t know how the letters came to be in the chest, but they were addressed to Grace. Amongst them was a telegram sent from his last voyage, you know he disappeared..’ Annie nodded sombrely in acknowledgement. ‘It was something to the effect of, I don’t love her I love you, please wait for me I’m coming home’ Annie’s eyes opened wide in amazement at this revelation.

‘Gosh! I’d never have expected that…wow Charles you old dog!’ Annie was pleased that Charlie had turned out to be a decent guy, and was smug in the knowledge that Grace had captured the heart of such a gorgeous man with his movie star looks. ‘So what was in the paper then, the one with the seal?’

Justin pursed his lips tightly ‘It was an agreement. Between the Fitzwilliam family, and Grace…she had to sign away any rights for her and her child to any stake in the Fitzwilliam family estate. She was to be positioned with a family on the outskirts of Derby.’ Justin watched as the gravity of her ancestor’s predicament dawned on Annie, before adding ‘The strange thing is she was given two things..the ring, which you’ve got now and a locket hung on a black velvet ribbon. There was some peculiar accusation that they were cursed or something’

‘Wind back, a moment.. did you say Grace and her child?’ Annie was rising to her feet now, looking down at Justin as he nodded sympathetically in agreement.

‘Yes, it seems the relationship with Charles wasn’t entirely plutonic!’

‘Oh Grace, Grace…what must you have thought’ It wasn’t meant as a question, as she knew it would remain unanswered. All that remained of her Great great Grandmother now were the bones that lay beneath their feet. However, she felt that somehow part of her kindred spirit still lived on in Annie Carruthers.

‘Anyway’ Justin interrupted her moment of peaceful contemplation, ‘the reason I brought you here is, if I’m not mistaken there’s something buried beneath the headstone’ Could this evening get any more implausible Annie thought, as she struggled to comprehend everything that was unfolding before her.

Justin had already sprung to his feet, brushing down his jeans in an attempt to dry the dampness that clung to the fabric. He rooted furtively amongst the grass and weeds at what he thought to be the foot of the grave, still not explaining what he was looking for. After a few minutes, Justin concentrated his efforts on a small hump in the ground. Mud became lodged under his fingernails, as he clawed inexplicably at the ground. However, his labour was rewarded by a marble structure, which was revealed below the surface, he scrabbled further until the top of a tiny urn was revealed.

Looking round excitedly to Annie, he felt his heart hammering as she ran to his side, and he lifted the exquisitely carved lid, and gestured for Annie to focus the beam of the torch on the contents. The two were amazed, as Justin crossed his fingers in a pincer movement to pull an object from within.

They both watched on in amazement as a fragment of black velvet emerged like a snake being charmed from a basket. As the tail end emerged, a faded gold locket swung like a pendulum, freed from its crypt for the first time in decades. Annie’s jaw dropped lower than she thought was physically possible, as she gasped.

‘Justin, it’s the locket…isn’t it, it’s the locket in those papers you found?’ The young man, nodded in acknowledgement.

‘But how did you know it was there? I don’t understand….’

Before Justin had an opportunity to answer, they were both startled by a siren screeching noisily into the village. Regaining his composure, Justin bent to pick the torch up from the ground where he’d dropped it. Curious, the two figures worked their way back through the gloom of the graveyard to the pathway, and towards the gate at the entrance.

A flashing blue light swirled like a dervish, illuminating the dark walls of the buildings as it tore past them, screeching to a halt abruptly on the village green. Like Starsky and Hutch, police officers sprang from the doors with a sense of urgency heading towards a cottage set just off the green, which until now had been peaceful and calm.

‘What’s going on?’ Annie asked, as if Justin had all the answers.

Hearing no response, she turned towards the younger Lomas brother who had a deathly pallor in the dim glow of the streetlamp as they emerged onto the road.

‘Justin, what’s wrong’ she grabbed his arms and shook him, in an attempt to awaken him from the trance like state.

‘I don’t know’ he faltered, ‘but that’s my parents house…’.

Across the hills in the neighbouring village of Brassington, the bells of St James’s church began to chime, heralding the witching hour of midnight.

In a modest, stone cottage nestled in the warren of narrow streets, a rotund figure slumbered on, oblivious.  Swaddled in a checked dressing gown, warmed by the flames of the open fire, which had now reduced to embers – the figure snoozed contentedly, the remnants of a glass of port set on a table beside his creaking wooden rocking chair.  His companion, a scruffy mutt, lay at his slippered feet with her head rested on her paws– occasionally lifting a lazy eyelid to check that all was well with the world.

Suddenly, the silence was broken by the shrill ‘bring, bring….bring, bring’ of the rotary dial phone on the sideboard.  Startled, the man snorted heavily- aroused unceremoniously from his sleep, tentatively opening an eye to look in disbelief at the clock placed above the fire on the stone mantel.  He reached quickly for his spectacles, which were folded neatly beside his glass, and observed hazily, as the precise time came into view.

‘Who in their right mind would be ringing at this time?..’  He muttered to himself and Tilly yelped, as he unintentionally trod on her paw fumbling to reach the phone in the dim light of the early hours.

He cleared his throat, before picking up the receiver, ‘Brassington 441250’, and braced himself for the response.

‘Thomas I’m sorry to call so late…but I just had to speak to you!’

The surprise registered in Chambers’ face, ‘Dorothy, what on earth is the matter?  What’s so urgent that couldn’t wait till tomorrow morning?….’  His heart was racing, not only from jumping up too suddenly, but also as a precursor of his fear and anxiety.  He felt a plunging feeling in the pit of his stomach, as he considered what could have possessed the austere Mrs Cundy, to contact him at such an ungodly hour, and in such a flap to boot.

‘It’s Robert…Robert Lomas.  He’s been arrested for Edward’s murder…..’  Thomas didn’t hear any more as the handset dropped from his grip and he reached for the sideboard to steady himself, his jaw dropped in a look of horror and a cold wet tear escaped from his grey eyes.  As if in empathy, Tilly sat before her owner, head cocked, whimpering.  Watching on, as Chambers descended into a fit of uncontrollable sobs.

∞∞∞∞∞

The radiant sun was rising tentatively, casting a powder pink and vanilla hue in the morning sky – full of hope and expectation.  The dawning of a new day, which masked the chaos and despair of the night that had gone before.

As the village began to wake fitfully following the excesses of the St George’s day celebrations, little clusters began to form on the village green, street corners and on doorsteps.  Like any village in the grip of a scandal, Parwich was awash with animated gossip.

Annie used the guise of getting some bacon, for a good old-fashioned English Breakfast to wander down to the shop, and see if she could shed some light on what had happened after last night’s dramatic events.  She desperately wanted to contact Justin, but thought better of it.  She was sure he’d get in touch in his own time.  Annie smiled dreamily, as she recollected Justin’s comforting embrace and his hot breath on her hair, as he held her close against the chill of the evening.  With an imperceptible sigh, she slammed the front door of the cottage shut and ambled down the lane, on what was becoming her familiar walk down towards the village.

‘So what happened last night on the green then?…What were the police doing at the Lomas’s’  Annie broke off a chunk of dairy milk, and considered it in anticipation – then popped it in her mouth and savoured the creamy, velvety texture as it melted on her tongue.

‘Well…..’  Janet leant on the shop counter, arms crossed, clutching her elbows.  ‘Betty here lives next door to them..Robert & Margaret that is…and she saw it all, didn’t you Betty?..And there’d been some rumours flying round recently about their so-called ‘happy’ marriage too, hadn’t there Betty?…’  That was an invitation that the mousey brown haired woman stood next to Annie had awaited eagerly.

For the next quarter of an hour, the lives of the Lomas’s were laid bare for all to see.  Speculation was that the usually mild mannered Robert, had watched on in turmoil as his wife flirted uncontrollably with Edward Fitzwilliam, the natural father of his sons Jason and Justin.  There was also talk that Margaret had become increasingly consumed by grand ideas of her son inheriting the Fitzwilliam family fortune, and had driven her husband to distraction.  It seems she harboured visions of reconciliation, even if Edward did not.

‘They always say that it’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch’,  Betty said raising one sparse eyebrow knowingly.  ‘After all, he’d dedicated his life to Jason and Justin, even though they weren’t his – did you know that?….’  Registering Annie’s nod of the head with surprise, Betty continued ‘Happen he felt threatened but kept it all close to his chest like.  Kept it all bottled up inside, so he wound up tighter and tighter like a coiled spring.  Until he got himself wound up so tight, that he couldn’t take no more that was it… ‘pop’..’  Betty gestured frantically with her spindly arms and hands, in an attempt to indicate an explosion.

‘He snapped in a fit of jealously…the classic crime of passion.’  Annie looked incredulously between the two women, unable to comprehend the tale that was unfolding between the bread rolls and oxo cubes, in the tiny confines of the village shop.  Then a look of realisation crept across Annie’s face, and her jaw dropped into a gape.

‘Oh my God….so it wasn’t just a riding accident then?…..’  The question was aimed at no one in particular, but Janet shook her head in response.

‘No…not according to Josie anyway.  She lives in the last cottage as you head out of the village.  She works on the Lillington Hall estate in the stables.’  The landlady pointed in the direction of the shop window, indicating the hill behind Sycamore Cottages – beyond which the Lillington Estates lay in the distance.  ‘It wasn’t until Sir Edward had died, that the police came to search the stables….’  Janet was just about to conclude, when Betty chipped in to steal her thunder.

‘That’s when they found it…a sharp object imbedded in the underside of Samson’s saddle.’  Betty continued excitedly, ‘ He’s the local vet, so no one would think anything of it if Robert were in the stables giving the horses the once over…that’s when he must have done it!….Robert knew what he was doing alright….’  Annie looked down to find the purple wrapping was emptied of its contents, except for a few chocolaty crumbs.

‘But he didn’t die, not straight away.  I was with Jason and Justin, just after it happened’, Annie tucked a curl of auburn hair behind her ear…’ and he was improving in hospital….perhaps Robert hadn’t intended to kill him.  Perhaps he just wanted to warn Edward off, and it all went horribly wrong…that’s not murder’ Annie picked up the bacon, and white rolls that she’d purchased before getting engrossed in the nitty gritty of this tragic affair.  Her stomach was now grumbling in protest, reminding her that she needed an extra dose of fatty comfort food to counter last night’s intake of rosé.

‘Mm..But very convenient though don’t you think.  Him making a ‘recovery’ in hospital and then wham he’s gone just like that.  No warning, just gone.’  Betty chewed in contemplation on a fruit gum, like some female version of ‘Columbo’.  ‘Perhaps, Robert wasn’t expecting Edward to survive…perhaps…just maybe he went back to the hospital to finish him off…finish the job he’d started..Now that would be murder…’.

Janet broke the pregnant pause that descended between the women ‘Betty!  This is Parwich – you’re not in an episode of Midsomer Murders now you know.  Really!..’ Janet raised her eyebrows in exasperation at Betty’s fertile imagination, and with that, Annie said her goodbyes, and turned to leave.

‘Stranger things have happened though!’  Betty stated purposefully, before popping another fruit gum into her mouth.

∞∞∞∞∞

After the excitement and intrigue of the morning, Annie retreated to the peace and tranquillity of Parwich Heights.  Settling down at the rustic kitchen table, she took a sip from her mug of piping hot coffee.  She was preparing with relish to delve into her sausage, bacon, egg, black pudding, beans and toast when she heard a knock on the window.

Turning round, she spied Fern’s pleasant smiley face, and indicated excitedly for her to come in.  Annie turned down Classic FM, which had been piping from the DAB radio on the worktop next to the aga.  After her initial desperate attempts, she’d really grown to love cooking on the range and couldn’t now ever contemplate being without it.

‘Hi..how are you?…’  Fern burst into the kitchen with her infectious, bubbly energy, and snatched a sausage from Annie’s plate.  ‘Where did you go last night?  I didn’t see you leave….’  The redhead shot her friend a cheeky look.

‘No?  Well, that’s because you were otherwise engaged with the delectable Mr O’Connell I believe’  Fern blushed faintly, as she recalled the passionate kisses she’d shared with the handsome actor the night before.  The memory of his lips, exploring hers, nuzzling into the base of her neck – it was as though her skin had been scorched by his touch, and she smouldered still at the recollection.

‘Er, yes I was rather!…’  Fern chuckled contentedly at the thought.

The two friends, demolished the breakfast and drank numerous cups of coffee, as they analysed the events of the previous night.

‘So you have no idea what the significance of the locket is?  Have you got it?….’  Annie shook her head to confirm that she hadn’t.

‘No, that was when the sirens went off.  Justin just dashed off, I assume he’s still got the locket with him…but he’s got bigger things on his plate than me at the moment’.  Annie cupped her mug comfortingly, as she considered how close she’d come to finding out more about Grace last night.  So near, and yet tantalisingly, so far.  She was in a quiet state of contemplation, when something that Fern said, brought her back to the world of the living.

‘What did you say?’  Annie perched on the edge of her chair in expectation.

‘Ireland… Aiden’s taking me to Ireland – one way to get shut of Nathan once and for all!’ she smirked impishly,  ‘Well filming wraps this week, and he always likes to go home to ‘ground’ himself as he calls it.’  Fern laughed under her breath at the enormity of what she was saying..’he wants to take me to meet the family’  She scrunched up her fists and clutched them to her cheeks in excitement…’Me Annie, Aiden O’Connell wants to take me to meet his family, can you believe it?….’

Annie sprang to her feet and rushed to the other side of pine table to embrace her wonderfully modest friend.  This couldn’t be happening to a nicer person.  ‘Of course I believe it, it’s only you who can’t see what an amazing catch you are!’  Annie gushed, as she wiped the tears of happiness from her eyes.  ‘So will we be hearing the patter of tiny feet any time soon?….Mrs O’Connell!…’  Fern chided her companion at the absurdity of it, but the fluttering sensation from her heart down to her belly, belied the fact, and indicated her true hopes and aspirations of a life with the desperately good-looking Aiden O’Connell.

‘Well, I’ll put a fiver on it…you’ll be down that aisle in no time at all….My God, just think of how amazing your babies will look with you pair for parents!!…Gee wiz!’  The girls collapsed in a fit of giggles at the thought.

It was only the sound of something dropping through the letterbox, which broke them from their reverie.

‘That’s funny…the postman’s already been with a letter from Mum this morning. And other than Quentin’s parents, no one else knows I’m here… ’  Annie looked quizzically in the direction of the hall.

Fern shrugged her shoulders ‘Well you’re not going to find out, by standing like a Dodo in the kitchen are you?…’  The fair-haired woman smiled mischievously, as Annie padded across the creamy limestone flagged floor, towards the front door of the cottage. ‘Perhaps, it’s an invite from Prince Charming. Cinders….You will go to the ball!’.

It was only a few moments before Annie returned to the room, waving an opened envelope in her hand.

‘Did you know anything about this?..’  Annie eyed Fern quizzically, ‘because if you did….’

Fern shot up out of her chair, almost upsetting her mug of coffee. ‘Know anything about what?’

The pretty redhead thrust an envelope and card in Fern’s direction, and waited with her hands perched firmly on her hips anticipating some form of explanation. After a few moments, Fern raised her eyes in bewilderment.

‘Well..’ Annie continued to push for an explanation, ‘Did you know anything about this?…an invite from Prince Charming indeed!  Pah!…’

‘Look Annie, truly I don’t know anything about this.  Why would I know, who the Fitzwilliam family are going to invite to their dinner parties?’  Her eyes registered hurt at being at the sharp end of Annie’s fiery temper.  Sensing, she’d overstepped the mark Annie retracted, and smiled apologetically at her wounded friend.

‘Sorry.  I didn’t mean to have a go at you.  It just seemed a bit ‘twilight zone’, that’s all.  You know you joking that it could be an invite to a ball.  Then this..’  Annie reached to take the card from Fern’s gentle hands, and looked again at the intricate copperplate writing, that flowed effortlessly across the gold trimmed card.

In honour of the Fitzwilliam Family past & present

Mr Justin Lomas Fitzwilliam

Requests the pleasure of your company for cocktails and dinner

Saturday, the evening of 30th April 2011 at 8.00 pm

Evening Wear

‘What does it mean? Why would Justin Lomas…’  Annie corrected herself, begrudgingly ‘Sorry Justin Lomas Fitzwilliam..’ she paused for effect, ‘invite me to a dinner party at Lillington Hall?….and what’s all this ‘in honour of the Fitzwilliam Family past & present’?…he’s a bit up himself isn’t he!…’  Annie looked to Fern for confirmation, and received a nonplussed look in response.

‘He told me he wasn’t interested in all that pomp and circumstance lark- of being heir to an ancestral estate..and I believed him.  I thought he was such a down-to-earth, ordinary guy…’ Annie slumped dejectedly into her chair.  ‘Anyway, it’s Jason that’s the heir anyway…So why’s Justin…?’  Flustered the redhead gave up trying to pre-empt the motive for this mysterious invite.

‘And as for Prince Charming….’  Annie scoffed, tossing the invite unsympathetically onto the remnants of her breakfast plate.  ‘Well I think we all know the answer to that one!’  She shifted restlessly in her seat as if to emphasise her displeasure.

‘Really?’  Fern countered, from across the table – searching the angry countenance that she saw before her ‘I’m not sure WE do!…’.

She allowed the faintest smile to crease her lips, and watched smugly as Annie’s freckled cheeks blushed hotly under her gaze.  The long dark lashes cast downwards, concealed Annie’s indignant hazel eyes, which stared so intently at the stone-flagged floor, it was almost as if she were willing the ground to open up beneath her feet and swallow her whole.

Annie played absentmindedly with the buttery gold band that adorned the index finger of her outstretched hand.  She watched hypnotically, as the band rotated between the graceful touch of her finger and thumb, scrutinising the vivid ruby red stone, and iridescent blush diamonds – watching them appear and disappear as the ring circled incessantly.  Annie was so caught up in her thoughts, that she hadn’t noticed Fern tiptoeing tentatively from the room, leaving her in solitary contemplation.

Nor did she notice, as a melancholic air descended on the little stone cottage, the unearthly chill that crept stealthily from the hallway.  The frosty air shifted in swirls and eddies about her motionless body, as she sat almost statue-like in the sunny glow of the small kitchen.

An involuntary shudder jolted Annie’s tiny form to its senses, and she shook her head repeatedly in an attempt to revive herself.  ‘Blimey, ….I could have sworn someone just walked over my grave!….’ she exclaimed, rubbing her arms to re-inject some warmth back into her body.

The chill air retreated deftly, and the more customary snug, homely ambience of Parwich Heights was restored once more.

The weather in the following week deteriorated, much like Annie’s spirits.  She knelt on the sofa that morning as she had done many times as a child, her arms crossed defiantly on the back of the sofa, resting her chin in a melancholic pose as she stared absentmindedly through the sash windows of Parwich Heights.  Multiple shades of grey merged to form a blanket in the sky that hung ominously over the village.  She watched as hundreds of plump droplets descended from the sky, drumming against the panes of glass in a kamikaze fashion, and a crack of thunder rumbled through the valley.

Recollection of a childhood memory coaxed a tiny smile from the corners of her mouth – remembering how she and her brother had listened in awe at their parent’s explanation of these meteorological phenomena.  ‘Mum, what is thunder… how is it made?….’  Annie would quiz.  ‘Oh it’s only God moving his furniture around….’ she would reply.  Or, in the case of rain, it was God crying.  She and her brother, had discussed how big the furniture would have to be to create such a din, and concluded that God was some gargantuan goliath in the heavens.  They had wanted to ask, how he didn’t fall through the clouds, but it all got too complicated and scary to contemplate, that they never questioned any further.

For the first time since coming to Parwich, Annie felt an overwhelming sense of loss, and isolation.  She didn’t want to contemplate life in the village, without her soul mate Fern.  She was pleased that the demure blonde had found an escape from her mundane life tainted with violence….but, a part of her deep down was just a tiny bit jealous.

She, Annie Carruthers was the one meant to live happily ever after – at least that’s what she’d planned with Quentin anyway.  The young woman sighed heavily as she remembered the reality, of the dream that had been snatched cruelly from her grasp.  Now here she was in her fleecy pyjamas, locked in some god forsaken time warp – contemplating a life of spinsterhood like some cobweb adorned Miss Haversham… with no ‘great expectations’!!

‘Hi Annie’ a cheery voice shouted out, which Annie instantly recognised as Fern, the reason for her self-pitying reverie.

‘Bloomin’ heck!….’  The redhead jumped deftly from the settee, as if it had just spontaneously combusted in that instant.  She’d forgotten that earlier that week, following the aftermath of the St George’s day parade she and Fern had agreed to go on a girly shopping trip to Ashbourne for something suitable for the mysterious soiree at Lillington Hall.

Annie watched as her friend’s peachy complexion peered round the door of the sitting room, and greeted her with a perplexed look.

‘Annie I know you like the casual look…’ Fern tittered, ‘but even you must admit that this is taking casual to the limit!!’.  Annie cast her eyes down to the baggy, red polka dot pyjama bottoms, and teddy bear adorned top and nonchalantly countered, ‘Do you think so?…I thought it rather fetching myself!!’, and shot her friend an ironic look as she hopped and skipped out of the room a la ‘Morecambe & Wise’ leaving Fern shaking her head in disbelief.  The wooden floorboards creaking with each jaunty bounce…’but if you insist…I have another little number, of which I’m sure you’ll approve….’ she said haughtily, and with a final flick of her leg, Annie disappeared behind the cottage door of what would once have been referred to as the parlour.

‘Annie…’  Fern shouted after her, ‘don’t be too long…I’ve got a boat to catch later, remember…..’  There was no response but silence, apart from a creak on the old wooden floorboards as Annie stopped in her tracks, before treading dolefully upstairs.

∞∞∞∞

Later that afternoon, a few pounds the lighter…and not in weight, the friends snuggled cosily on a soft squidgy leather sofa in a bar set alongside the bridge in the bustling market town of Ashbourne.  They sipped merrily on flutes of pink champagne, gossiping idly as if they hadn’t a care in the world.  Gradually, they became aware of murmurings and general air of commotion.

Annie peered over the rim of her raised crystal flute, as she took another sip of the bubbly intoxicating drink and watched enviously as Aiden O’Connell strode confidently towards them.  Looking as dapper and gorgeous as ever in his dark navy moleskin jacket, a crisp white linen shirt open at the neck just enough to reveal the hints of the hirsute toned torso that lay beneath.

Guiltily Annie snapped out of her hypnotic state, and followed Aiden’s piercing emerald gaze that fell hungrily on her companion.  Fern was equally entranced, and her cheeks coloured rapidly at the sight of her very own Adonis.

‘I thought I’d come to bid yer a final adieu….before we head off’ the unmistakable lilt of his deep Irish tones alone could disarm any woman, as he tore his eyes from his paramour and flashed an irresistible smile at Annie.

Caught up in the palpable energy of the passion between the two lovebirds, and encouraged a little by the warm woozy feeling the champagne was starting to have, Annie dipped playfully into a glossy paper bag labelled ‘Lou Lou’s’ that was tucked discreetly under the low coffee table.

‘This…’  Annie announced triumphantly, ‘is my undergarment of choice, for the evening…’ at which she flaunted a dainty, intricately laced piece of fabric that she’d retrieved from the depths of the bag.  Peacock like colours adorned the sheer, practically transparent fabric trimmed in purple lace detailing, and set with an amethyst jewel dangling provocatively between the two modest cups.  Fern sniggered indiscreetly, as the red head flashed her bra and matching pants, without a care for who was watching.

The raising of Aiden’s eyebrows indicated his approval, as he took a deep sup of his pint of Guinness. ‘I’ve got something too……’  Fern added playfully.

‘And, do I get to see it?…..’ he ventured, as he leant back and rested an arm casually on the back of the sofa.  Fern melted under his gaze.

‘Later maybe….’ she mouthed breathlessly, at the thought of his strong embrace, and soft searching kisses.

‘I’ll look forward to it…..although, you are best enjoyed as nature intended!  No amount of silk or lace could improve on the beauty of that…..’ Feeling more and more like an unwanted hairy gooseberry with each passing moment, Annie thought it was a good job that there was a table separating Romeo from his Juliet.

‘Excuse, me you pair….’  Annie interjected ‘there is a third party here…’ she raised her arms in mock exasperation.  ‘You’ll soon have one another to yourselves, but until then can we please come back down to planet Earth for a moment!!’  At that, all three laughed raucously, and Fern reached over to give her friend a huge hug.  They clung together tightly…..this was something they were going to miss.  They’d known each other for such a short time, but such was their closeness it was as if they’d known each other in a previous life – and were just taking up from where they last parted.

Annie, dabbed at a tiny bead of moisture that had appeared at the corner of her eye.

‘Will yer come on yous twos….it’s not like yer never going to see each other again is it!…There are such things as mobiles….they do work in Ireland too yer know!!’  The young actor smiled teasingly, revealing the dimples that made him so damned dishy.  The girls looked at one another in acknowledgement, and reached in unison for the champagne flutes that Aiden had just re-filled.

‘To us and a new start….’ the trio chinked glasses, and Aiden looked lovingly at his partner….’Here, here…’  Annie added with gusto.

With a deep intake of breath, and another dab of her eyes hoping her mascara hadn’t run, Annie settled back into the comforting folds of the sofa, and cupped the champagne flute in her hands, as if it were a warming mug of hot chocolate.  ‘So, are you all packed then?…..’

‘Yes, ready for the off….Although Aiden’s packing was somewhat lighter than anticipated….wasn’t it sweetheart?…’  Fern twirled a golden lock of her hair round her index finger, and looked reproachfully at her Irish inamarato.

Penitently, Aiden raised his pint to his lips to take in a large swig before continuing.

‘Yes….I got back to the motor home after we wrapped on Wednesday evening to find half m’ wardrobe strewn through the streets of Lillington!….’  Annie smirked unsympathetically.  ‘It wouldn’t have been so bad, but the damn sheep were doin’ a bloody good take on River Dance all over m’ best chinos, and Armani suits to be sure so they were….and that’s not the worst of it….’  He took another draft of thick ebony liquid ‘most of the crotches were missing from m’ pants!…’.

Annie laughed out loud now, at the poetic license of the culprit’s actions.  ‘Let me guess’  the flame haired beauty suggested.  ‘It wasn’t Emma by any chance was it?…..’ referring to the stunning Ms Sanders, Aiden’s co-star in the TV production.

‘How did yer guess?’ the actor added ironically.

‘Well, call it a woman’s intuition…..you’re not exactly known for being backwards in coming forwards, if you get my meaning!!  And, it may have something to do with the fact that you were shagging her, and now……’  Annie nodded in Fern’s direction, as she sipped innocently on her fizzy drink.

‘And, now I’m shagging Fern…….’ the Irishman followed Annie’s unspoken chain of thought, ‘Is that what yer mean?….’

‘Well, that’s the truth of it, isn’t it?…’  Annie quipped bluntly.

Aiden shifted forward, till he was sat on the edge of the sofa, and thoughtfully turned the pint glass in his vigorous grip.

‘Yeah, yer right….Holy mother of Jesus, I’m not proud of what I did to Emma…but she’s hardly the Virgin Mary herself yer know!!’  He shot Fern an apologetic look, and it was evident that he was genuinely consumed with an overpowering love for this local lass.

‘I admit, before meeting this lovely lady….’ he motioned towards Fern, who was obviously captivated by his every word.  ‘I admit, I was a bit of a Jack the lad…’.

‘Pah….that’s putting it lightly, if what I’ve heard’s true!!’  Annie chided, locking eyes with the fetching hunk  sat opposite, wanting to warn him off ever repeating that sort of behaviour with her best buddy.  But she was disarmed by his irresistible eyes, and found herself thinking that it was impossible for any woman not to fall for his Gaelic seductive charm.

‘I know I’ve been an eejit…and I’m not proud of some of the things I’ve done’  He was truly chastened, no-one witness to his confession could doubt that.  ‘But, I’ve never really loved anyone before…..and, well Fern, she’s different.  I want to keep and cherish this little one forever…..’  Aiden offered his strong hand across the table, and Fern’s exquisite hand disappeared in his confident grip.

‘This one’s fer keeps…..’  Annie studied the pair, and felt reassuringly that this match was meant to be.  She wouldn’t have been able to relinquish her friend to anyone less deserving – and felt happy that she was able to share in these final precious moments together.  For not two hours later, she’d waved the lovers off – watching them disappear down Church Street in his immaculate silver Range Rover sport, horn beeping intermittently in a jubilant retreat.

Annie slowly lowered her raised arm, which had been waving an enthusiastic goodbye to the couple.  She gently hugged herself, cradling each elbow in her cupped hands.  A sense of loss that was becoming a frequent occurrence these days, swept through her body – seemingly dragging her heart to the depths of her belly.  As the car disappeared beyond view, Annie turned reluctantly reaching to retrieve the bags she’d accumulated during the morning’s shopping spree.  The contents that had given her such a sense of excitement and anticipation a few hours before seemed so pointless and unimportant now.

‘Pull yourself together woman!!…’  Annie’s feisty spirit rekindled, as a single tear escaped from her eyes tracking slowly down her flushed cheek, before she wiped it away with the back of her hand.  ‘Be happy for her, if anyone deserved happiness it was Fern…..’  A quiet smile spread across her face, as the young woman marched on with resolve.

‘So happy endings do exist….’ she contemplated as she passed through the crowds of Saturday shoppers, browsing the abundance of antique shops that dotted the High Street of the market town.  After all, who’d have thought that Fern’s life could go from ‘zero to hero’, in such a short space of time?  Her life of misery and despair transformed, into a living fairy tale.  Although, it had needed a bit of brute strength from Aiden to ensure that it didn’t escalate into a nightmare ending.

He’d given old Nathan a taste of his own medicine when he’d returned to Parwich a week or so ago, banging on the door of Chestnut Cottages demanding to see Fern.  The thickset bully got more than he bargained for when Ireland’s own heartthrob opened the front door, and planted a swift right-hander onto Nathan’s nose, which sent him reeling backwards, clutching his bloodied face.  Aiden strode purposefully towards his prey, as he cowered towards the gate.  Taking a fistful of Nathan’s Khaki jacket he hoisted the ruffian up, so that he was teetering on the tips of his steel capped boots, swaying uncertainly as a mixture of anger and fear flashed through his eyes.

The sandy haired actor, jerked his quarry closer till their noses were almost touching and he studied the white’s of Nathan’s eyes which darted frantically trying to read the handsome actor’s face.  The face that he looked upon was contorted with hatred, and dizzily he looked down to the tight set lips, which were moving incomprehensibly – the knock he’d received had left Nathan dazed.

‘D’yer hear me, yer bastard…..’  With a heavy slap Nathan came to, ‘Not so cocky now are we sunshine – not man enough to pick on someone yer own size..’,  Aiden spat, his normally sensual lips drawn back in a grimace.  ‘If yer so much as enter this village again, yer’ll have me and me mates to answer to…do yer hear me?….’  Aiden took the whimper that emerged from the crumpled face before him to be an affirmative.   ‘Trust me, I jest not…..The Peaky Blinders have nothing on us when we’re pissed off, so I suggest yer don’t try anything stupid’  The athletic actor, flashed a celebratory smile as the one time bully gulped – his adam’s apple bobbing frantically to swallow his fear.

‘Now sod off yer poor excuse for a human!…..’  At that, Aiden released his grip, and pushed Nathan forcefully so he stumbled and fell on the garden path.  Without letting his gaze move from Aiden’s, for fear that another right hook was destined to follow – the pathetic figure scrambled to his feet as fast as he could.  The last Fern saw of her unfortunate ex – was as he shot through the garden gate as if his life depended on it…not looking back.

Annie smiled at she recalled Fern’s animated description of the day that she was ridded of Nathan Bramall once and for all.  ‘Oh to have your own Prince Charming!….’ the redhead smirked ruefully as she stepped into the taxi.

‘Parwich Heights please.’  She sat back watching dreamily as the scenery rolled by, suddenly exhausted by the emotions of the day, and overcome with a tad too much pink champagne.

∞∞∞∞

A shaft of resplendent sunlight emerged from the blackness of the clouds that raced overhead, and illuminated the tiny chapel like some heavenly searchlight.  Dappling, the uneven stone floors with tiny shards of jewel like colours, from the ancient stained glass that was set in the mullioned windows above.

The hush was broken only by muffled whisperings emanating from a pew set before the altar of the little church.

‘Well…what did he say exactly?….huh?’  The voice of the mature woman probed urgently.

In the lull before the man spoke, a melodious chorus of birdsong resonated.

‘He told me he knew about the letters….’ the woman took a sharp intake of breath

‘What…but he can’t…..’  Dorothy Cundy played nervously with the pearls strung about her wrinkled neck, ‘It’s not possible..’

‘I’m telling you, that’s what he said….’  Chambers stood with a groan, as his knee creaked in protest, and he began to pace the stone-flagged floor before the altar.

‘He said he knows about Grace, and everything..’  He wrung his hands apprehensively, the skin like crumpled crepe paper beneath his fingers.  ‘Dorothy, what am I going to do?….’  Thomas Chambers looked imploringly to the haughty figure of Mrs Cundy sat before him.

He flinched, as she rose from the wooden pew – what she lacked in height, she made up for in girth!  An imposing woman that Chambers thought he’d do well to stay on the right side of.

‘What are you going to do Thomas?!’  She said with disdain, eying him as if he were something unpleasant she’d just stepped in.  ‘What about our family Thomas…. have you thought about that!…’

At that, Dorothy Cundy turned her back and waddled noisily from the chapel, her sturdy black heels pounding the stone floor of the aisle, reverberating around the cold walls.

‘Dorothy….’  Thomas implored, but his voice was a whisper that barely left his lips.  He surveyed the empty chapel, the last light of day rapidly retreating, allowing the shadows of evening to descend to keep the souls of the dear departed company once more.

The proud butler took his head in his hands, gripping tufts of silvery hair in his clenched fists.  His usual grandiose manner vanished as he was overcome with feelings of shame and inadequacy.

Raising his eyes heavenward, Chambers muttered as if in anticipation of divine inspiration ‘Well Albert,…..tonight, I think things will change forever’, he snivelled as he wiped his dribbling nose with his cuff, something the professional Thomas Chambers would never be seen dead doing!

‘Yes, I’ve tried matey, really I have…..but I think change is afoot…….’  There was no answer, only deathly silence as night finally fell, and a dejected Chambers shuffled pathetically towards the chapel door, which stood slightly ajar.  This was it….time to face the outside world ‘God help me….’ he muttered to no one in particular.