They were still snuggled in the warmth of his mother’s counterpane when Martin heard Colly’s footsteps plodding up the stairs. He kept his eyes closed, for one last moment let his senses bask in the simple peace, the simple joy that held them. Cradled in his arms, Amanda was no more asleep than he, equally reluctant to move-her body remained quiescent in his arms, relaxed against his. Savoring what would very likely be their last instant of quiet togetherness for the day.
But the morning beckoned; there was much to do. He stirred, then rose. Helped Amanda to her feet. When Colly arrived at the door, he opened it. The old man had brought a small ewer and basin. Martin dallied long enough to suggest they leave Reggie sleeping until he awoke on his own, then followed Colly back to the kitchen.
On the way, he took stock; when he reached the kitchen he was frowning. “We’ll be staying for a few days at least. We need to open up some rooms-brush down the cobwebs, get rid of the dust-enough to be comfortable.”
Colly looked at him in dismay. “The drawing room?”
The drawing room was monstrous. “No. The small parlor will do.”
“I’ll get onto it after breakfast…” Colly glanced at the stove. “I’m not much of one for cooking.”
Martin sighed. “What have you got?”
His years of traveling had given him skills not generally taught an earl’s son; when Amanda joined them, he was stirring a pot of porridge on the stove. “Colly unearthed some honey, which should make it more palatable.”
Amanda looked. “Hmm.”
But she ate it; Martin suspected she was as famished as he. At his insistence, Colly and Onslow ate with them. Onslow was quiet; Colly had already washed and redressed his wound. Martin used the time to get an idea of the state of the larder.
“We’ve tatters in the cellar, and some cabbage. There’s a bit of game pie left over from last week.” Colly thought, then grimaced. “Not much else.”
The nearest market town was Buxton; Martin didn’t want to waste the entire day it would take to go there and back. Let alone so widely advertise his return. The truth was, he hadn’t meant to return; stirring his porridge, he wasn’t sure he’d yet digested the fact he was here.
Focusing on the necessities, he nodded. “I’ll take a gun out and see what I can find, then I’ll saddle one of the horses and visit the bakery.”
“Aye.” Colly rose and gathered their empty plates. “The game’s been running wild hereabouts, and the bakery always has pasties and pies.”
Amanda stood. “I’ll dust and air rooms and make up some beds. I’ll need to watch Reggie.”
Martin glanced at her. “Colly will show you where everything is.”
Two hours with a shotgun, tramping over rugged hillsides he knew like the palm of his hand, produced three hares. And a mindful of memories. He handed the hares to Colly to dress, cleaned the gun, then headed for the stables. It took half an hour to find and check sufficient tack to saddle one of the carriage horses; after that, there was no further reason to put off the inevitable.
The sun was high by the time he trotted into the village of Grindleford. Trotted past the church, presently empty, standing like a benevolent guardian keeping watch over its small congregation. The cottages of the flock were scattered about the nearby fields; only the bakery and the forge stood on the lane itself, one directly opposite the other. The forge was open but there was no one in sight, either there or in the fields.
Martin dismounted before the bakery and tied the horse’s reins to a nearby tree. A bell attached to the door tinkled as he opened it; girding his loins, he ducked beneath the lintel and entered the bright little shop. Savory aromas from the bakery behind filled the enclosed space. A girl wrapped in a white apron bustled through from the back, her face alight with query.
She didn’t recognize him; she was either too young or had arrived in the last ten years. Knowing how little the population hereabouts varied, he assumed it was the former.
“Can I help you, sir?”
Martin smiled and had her show him the latest offerings. He chose two loaves of bread, unable to resist the lure of the cob loaf he hadn’t tasted since boyhood, and a variety of pies and pasties, a selection large enough to have the girl eyeing him curiously.
Inwardly congratulating himself on having accomplished his task without encountering anyone who knew him, he paid and received his change. He was turning away when an older woman, wiping her hands on her apron, appeared in the archway connecting the bakery with the shop. “Heather-
The woman stopped the instant she set eyes on him, as if she’d run into an invisible wall. She stared as if she couldn’t believe her eyes.
Martin could understand. His smile faded; the only thought in his brain was that she hadn’t previously been a baker. His expression impassive, he inclined his head. “Mrs. Crockett.”
Belatedly, she bobbed. “Sir-I mean… my lord.”
With a curt nod for both her and the now wide-eyed girl, Martin turned and left the shop.
If Mrs. Crockett had said “Good Lord!” he’d have agreed. Of all the people to meet! She’d been old Buxton’s housekeeper and Sarah’s nurse; she more than most had reason to remember why he’d left-why he’d been banished.
Despite the fact Grindleford was so tiny and the population so widely scattered, the news he was back would be all over the county within hours. That, he could count on. He was still grim when he reached the empty kitchen and laid his purchases on the table. Colly wasn’t in evidence, but there were vegetables laid out, and the dressed hares were hanging over the sink. At least they would eat.
He headed for the front hall, wondering where the others were; a feminine huff made him look up. Amanda was teetering on the landing, struggling to balance a large ewer and basin. He took the steps two at a time, lifted the heavy weight from her hands.
“Thank you.” Her beaming smile erased his scowl before it had even begun. “Reggie’s awake! And he’s lucid.”
“Good.” Side by side, they continued up the stairs.
“Colly’s helping him get undressed. Onslow’s asleep.” As they reached the gallery, Amanda’s smile faded. “Reggie’s still very weak.”
“That’s to be expected. He’ll take a few days to recover.”
She seemed to accept that. Martin didn’t add that infection of the wound was the next battle they might face; he was hoping they could avoid it.
She knocked, and Colly bade them enter. Reggie was lying propped up in bed, resplendent in a paisley silk robe that only threw his pallor into sharper contrast. Delighted, Amanda bustled forward.
“Now we need to change your bandage, and wash the wound.”
Reggie looked startled. “You?” Then he looked at Martin. “I don’t-“
There followed an argument of the sort that could only occur between two childhood friends. Martin listened, inwardly smiling, refusing to agree with either, unsurprised when Amanda had her way and, despite Reggie’s dire grumblings, unwound the bandage and laid bare his wound.
Angry, red and raw, it was not a pretty sight. Martin glanced at Amanda’s face but she chattered on, brightly, incessantly, while she gently sponged it and patted it dry. Not even when Reggie tensed and winced did her patter falter. Then he saw the glance she threw Reggie and realized her brightness was all for show, so Reggie wouldn’t realize how worried and upset she was by the wound. As soon as she’d finished, he replaced her by Reggie’s side and deftly rebandaged, tightening the pad against the wound, winding the long bandage round and round to secure it.
The ordeal had drained Reggie’s strength; he was paler than ever as they eased him down to the pillows to rest.
Martin hesitated, seeing the fight Reggie waged to keep his eyes from closing, then asked, “Do you remember what happened?”
A frown formed on Reggie’s face, quite comical because of the bandage. “We rolled around the corner and Onslow slowed-I’d told him to stop and wait. Then there was a shot. I heard Onslow yell, then a thump-I leaned forward to look out. Saw this fellow on a horse. Next thing I knew there was this searing pain across my skull-then I heard the crack.” He frowned harder. “Can’t remember more than that.”
“There isn’t much more. We heard and came running, but the horseman was gone. Did you get a decent look at him?”
Reggie looked up, studied his face, then shook his head. “That’s the strangest thing about it. Don’t know if my mind’s playing tricks on me or what.”
“Why?” Amanda asked.
“It was cloudy, remember, but just then, the moon came out and shone right on him-the fellow on the horse-and he wasn’t that far away. I
“Why so unsure?”
Reggie looked at Martin. “Because the devilish thing is, he looked just like you.”
Silence, then Amanda stated, “But that’s impossible. It couldn’t have been Martin-he was with me when we heard the shots.”
Amanda sat back, as if marshaling her arguments. Martin tweaked her sleeve. “We’ll leave you to rest. Just sleep and recover. We’ll leave the door ajar-if you want anything, ring the bell.”
Still frowning, but with his eyes now shut, Reggie nodded.
Martin indicated the door with his head; Amanda hesitated, then leaned down and kissed Reggie’s cheek. “Just get well.”
Reggie’s frown eased. The line of his lips did, too.
They left him.
“I don’t understand.” Frowning, Amanda carried the empty ewer into the kitchen. Martin followed, carrying the discarded bandages in the basin. They headed for the scullery. Amanda was still frowning when they returned to the kitchen.
Onslow was coming down the stairs.
They both saw him; Amanda opened her mouth-Martin grabbed her arm, squeezed in warning. She looked at him in surprise.
“Onslow-you must have got a glimpse of the highwayman.” The coachman wavered on his feet; Martin waved him to the armchair. “Sit down, and tell us what you saw. Don’t worry about how it sounds. Just describe the man as best you can.”
Onslow sighed as he settled into the chair. “I’m right glad you said that, m’lord, ’cause truth to tell, I thought I must’ve been seeing double. The geezer looked a lot like yourself.” As Reggie had, Onslow studied Martin anew. “Wasn’t you, I know, and not just because I’d left you down the road having an argy-bargy with Miss Amanda, who I know wouldn’t’ve shut up quick.”
Martin glanced at Amanda; she didn’t know whether to smile or frown.
“Thing is, I can’t put my finger on just why I knew’twasn’t you. You don’t have a brother, do you?”
“No.” Martin frowned. “But-” He cut off the revelation; when Amanda raised her brows at him, he shook his head. Asked Onslow, “How’s the wound?”
“Aching, but not as bad as it was. I reckon I’ll rest and gather my strength, then I’ll see to the horses after lunch.”
There was at least an hour remaining before luncheon. Amanda headed back into the house. “I still have to air rooms for us and make up the beds. I’d only just started when Reggie woke.”
Martin followed her into the front hall. “Wait.” From the foot of the stairs, she looked at him, arching a brow. Beneath her animation, she was weary. “Come out to the garden for a few minutes-you need some air yourself.”
She glanced up the stairs. “But the rooms-“
“Will still be there after lunch. Don’t forget the light fades earlier here-you won’t be able to stroll in the garden of an evening.”
Amanda smiled, but left the stairs and joined him. “I came prepared for Scotland, remember?”
He took her hand, then turned, not for the front door, but down a side corridor.
“Where are we going?”
“A special place.”
She could see that for herself when he guided her through the French doors at the end of the wing into a protected court leading to a garden that must, once, have been a fantasy of scent and color. Although overgrown, remnants of graceful beauty remained, colorful blooms splashing against verdant growth hinting at what, with a little taming, could still be.
“It’s beautiful.” Walking by his side, she swung about and looked back. The garden was protected from the north and east by the rising cliffs, from the west by the house. To the south, the river valley spread before them, basking in mild sunshine. Looking ahead again, she spied a seat at the end of the garden. “Was this your mother’s garden?”
He nodded. “She loved roses especially. Roses and iris, and lavender, too.”
The roses were everywhere, massed and rambling. Spears of iris leaves showed here and there; the lavender needed clipping.
Reaching the bench, Amanda sat. She waited until he sat beside her-they both looked up at the house. “What happened?”
His hesitation suggested he hadn’t expected any question quite so bold. Then, leaning forward, resting his forearms on his thighs, he linked his fingers, and told her. Related how, when the villagers had come storming up to the house, herding him with them, to tell their story and demand justice be done, his father had accepted their tale without question. “The only thing he said to me was: ‘How could you?'”
His gaze remained on his interlaced fingers. “It never entered his head that I might not have committed the deed. In exculpation, I have to admit I was known to have an ungovernable temper.”
“You don’t seem to have one now.”
“No. That’s one thing dealing with the Indians teaches you-there’s no point having a temper.
“The whole family was here-uncles, aunts, cousins. It was the usual Easter gathering my father loved to preside over. I think it was the ultimate sin in his eyes that I should do such a thing at such a time, in front of the entire family. Few of them approved of me either, so… for the good of the family, they decided to bundle me off that very night.”
Amanda quelled a shiver. Being disowned by one’s family, thrown out and cut off-banished. Without justice, without recourse. For herself, she couldn’t even conceive of it; the very thought made her heart ache for him.
She asked the question she most wanted to know, “Your mother?”
“Ah-Mama. She of them all understood my temper-temperament, nature, what would you. It was the same as hers.” Raising his head, he looked across the garden, his eyes narrowed, seeing the past. “She wasn’t sure. She knew I
When he continued, his voice had hardened, “What’s done is done and the past is behind us.”
The change threw his earlier tone into contrast, revealing the underlying truth. “You loved them, didn’t you?”
He didn’t look at her but at the house. “Yes.” After a moment, he added, “Both of them.”
He said nothing more but she could now see the whole clearly. Earlier, she’d returned their purloined bedding to the countess’s boudoir. That room had been an education into his background, yet the earl’s room, beyond it, also held echoes of the character traits that lived in him.
His gaze on the house, he stirred. “When we’re married, we won’t live here.”
No if, but or maybe. Qualification rose instinctively to her tongue, yet she left it unsaid. Fate had taken a hand; they were here, in a deserted house without even a housekeeper to lend them countenance. The time for games was past. The time for decisions was nigh. Although uncertainty lingered, she drew an even breath. “Whyever not?”
He glanced at her.
She studied the house. “It needs refurbishing-well, perhaps more than that, and I haven’t seen all of it yet, still…” Tilting her head, she considered the mellow stone, the steeply pitched roof. “It has potential-all the right bits and pieces-it just needs people to bring it alive. The structure’s impressive-stately on the one hand, charming on the other. I like the windows and the layout of the rooms, and…” She hesitated, then impulsively gestured, arms wide. “It simply fits. This is a magnificent area, and the house is somehow set in, an integral part of the whole. It belongs.”
His gaze on her face, Martin leaned against the seat’s iron back. “I thought you were a Londoner, born and bred?”
“I’ve lived most of my life there-my parents’ house is there-but my uncles and aunts and cousins have houses all over the country. I’ve spent years in the countryside, in various places, but…” Rising, she walked a few steps and stopped, looking south over the vista of the valley. “I’ve never seen a place as fabulously beautiful-no, that’s not the right word-
Her voice faded as the view drew her in. Martin knew how mesmerizing the play of cloud shadows over nature’s patchwork could be. It hadn’t occurred to him that it would speak to her, too, or that her affinity for the dramatic would extend to this wild and rugged landscape.
The landscape of his birth. The wild, wide spaces were as much a part of him as his sensual nature-this, as nowhere else in his travels had ever been, was his home.
He’d turned his back on it, thought he’d shut it out from his life and would never return-never again fall prey to the siren-song of the wind whistling over the crags, to the wrenchingly majestic beauty of the peaks.
Rising, he stood beside Amanda, thrust his hands in his pockets, felt the wind ruffle his hair. As if in gentle benediction, as if welcoming a prodigal son, hopefully wiser and more experienced, back to the hearth.
As he stood beside her, its aura rolled over him, the memories of the good times that he’d pushed out of his mind along with the bad. The sounds of his childhood-the bright laughter, the chatter, running footsteps, shrill voices-the neverending happiness. Childhood giving way to the awkwardness of youth, a time that had been so rich with experience, with the thrill of discovery, the deepening of knowledge.
Then had come the break; it had shattered his world and sent all the good spiralling away like autumn leaves. Leaves he hadn’t known how to catch.
Perhaps catching was not the way. Perhaps what was needed was simply to return, to let the tree bud and bloom again. To start anew.
He glanced at Amanda; simple delight still played over her features. He looked past her to the house. Considered what could be. And how much it might cost.
She looked up, joy and sunlight in her face. “Thank you for bringing me here. She linked her arm in his. But now we’d better lunch, then knuckle down to our chores.” He let her lead him back into the house.
Colly had been slaving in the small parlor all morning; he insisted on serving them their lunch-pasties and bread-in there, as befitted their station. Realizing it made both Colly and Onslow uncomfortable to be sharing a table with their masters, they accepted their banishment from the warm homeliness of the kitchen with good grace.
At the end of the meal, however, they forbore to tug the bellpull, but piled the empty dishes and carried them to the kitchen, and thence, despite Colly’s protests, into the scullery. They returned to the kitchen just as the back door was forcibly thrust open.
“Humph!” A large country woman stumped in.
Amanda’s eyes widened. The woman wore a hat perched atop a bonnet, a muffler wound around her throat, and a shawl tied about the shoulders of her serviceable black wool coat. Beneath the gaping coat, she was wearing a quantity of wraps and blouses, and a veritable mountain of skirts. Her feet were encased in large boots.
In each hand, she carried multiple string bags bulging with produce, from turnips and leeks to pigeons and pullets.
Head down, the woman barrelled straight for the table; with an “Oomph” of relief, she dumped the string bags on its surface.
Only then did she look up. She was tall and heavy-boned, with a round, ruddy face and straight grey hair pulled into a tight bun. She noted Onslow, Colly and Amanda, then her gaze locked on Martin. She nodded. ” ‘Bout time you got here.”
Amanda glanced at Martin; a smile was flirting about his lips.
“Good afternoon, Allie.”
“Aye-it’s that an’ all to see you back where you belong.” With a nod for Colly, the woman started to unpack her bags. “I’ll tell you straight I never believed you’d done it-what they said-and now you’re back, I’ll expect you to set to and get the matter sorted. It ain’t the thing for a belted earl to have hanging over his head.”
In between thumping packages on the table-packages Colly was quickly unwrapping and putting away-Allie had been shooting narrow-eyed glances at Amanda. “Now, who’s this?”
“This,” Martin responded with unimparied calm, “is Miss Amanda Cynster.” To Amanda, he said, “Allow me to present Allie Bolton. Originally my nurse, Allie continued to hold that title long after I’d left the nursery. We had a cook-housekeeper but in reality, it was Allie who ran this house.”
Walking forward, he continued, “As you’ll quickly learn, she’s distressingly tyrannical, but has a heart of gold and always has the family’s best interests at heart.” Reaching Allie, he hugged her and kissed her cheek.
“Get away with you!” She batted him back, flustered, pleased as punch and trying to hide it. “That’s not the way I taught him to behave,” she humphed to Amanda, “you may be sure.”
“I’m quite sure he was a handful.” Amanda tried to interpret the shooing-like gestures Martin, now behind Allie, was making. Colly, too, was nodding encouragingly. She glanced at the last of the packages being unwrapped-a pat of butter. The penny dropped; she stepped closer. “Of course, we don’t know what your present arrangements are, but we’d be very grateful if you could see your way to returning to your position here.”
“Humph! Aye-with only him”-Allie nodded at Colly-“to look after the house, I imagine the place is in a right state.”
“We’ve started opening up rooms, but… well, as I don’t know how things used to be…”
“Leave it to me.” Packages stowed, Allie untied her bonnet, set bonnet and hat on the dresser, then started to unbutton her coat. “I sent word to Martha Miggs-she’ll be here tomorrow and we’ll have the place to rights in no time.”
The determination behind the words made it clear nothing would be permitted to stand in Allie’s way; Amanda felt a weight lift from her shoulders, felt relief slide through her veins. “We have an injured gentleman upstairs-he was shot by a highwayman, and my coachman was, too.” She waved at Onslow, who was edging toward the door.
“Gracious heavens!” From under her voluminous skirts, Allie pulled out an apron and tied it about her ample waist. “I’d best take a look at their wounds, then.”
“Mine’s healed well enough-I’ve got to see to my horses.” With a nod to Martin and Amanda, Onslow escaped through the back door.
“I’ll see to you later!” Allie called after him. She turned to Amanda. “Right, then! You’d best take me up to this gentleman, and then we’ll see about opening more rooms. Colly, you’ll be needed-don’t disappear.”
Martin watched Allie hustle Amanda before her on into the house. Colly sighed, but he was smiling as he bent to stoke the fire. Martin felt his own lips curve, felt the gesture warm a place deep inside him that had been cold for a long, long time. He hesitated, then, smile deepening, turned and went to help Onslow.
Household activity the next morning approached the recognizably normal. Reggie was still weak; he’d boggled when Allie had descended on him, making eyes at Amanda, pleading for rescue, but Allie had quickly subdued him. He ate the breakfast she presented him without a murmur, then let her bully him downstairs to doze in a chair in the sunshine.
After a good night’s sleep in the room next to Reggie’s, aired and dusted to Allie’s high standards, then breakfasting with Martin in the sunny small parlor, Amanda, restored to her usual, stubborn and determined self, went looking for Allie to thank her and put herself at the older woman’s disposal. There was a great deal to do; helping seemed a quick way to learn the ins and outs of the household.
She found Allie in Martin’s room, shaking out the bedclothes that draped the huge bed. Yesterday, after finishing with Reggie and completing the room Amanda now used,
Allie had stridden straight down the corridor and flung the double doors at the end wide. The windows had been next, then she’d swept, dusted and polished with a passion, stripping the bed and remaking it, chattering all the while. Amanda had helped, listened and learned.
When she and Martin had retired the previous evening, in response to his question over which room Allie had readied for him, she’d indicated this room. She’d seen his hesitation, but had given no sign, merely smiling wearily and bidding him good night. She’d closed her door and listened; after a minute, he’d walked down the corridor, then she’d heard the door open.
A long pause had ensued, then the door had shut.
She’d peeked out; he’d gone in. She’d retreated to her bed, speculating on what he might be feeling, what might be going through his mind. She’d been tempted to go and find out, but she’d known in her heart it wasn’t yet time. And she’d been too physically weary to do much beyond sleep, which she had, deeply.
Now… while she felt she understood Martin’s relationship with his mother, his relationship with his father remained veiled. Yet last night, Martin had slept in this room, previously his father’s. That much-that he was his father’s son-he’d accepted.
Walking into the room, she looked for any evidence that he’d changed things, any little sign he’d made the room his. His brushes had been moved, the mirror atop the tallboy shifted.
Puffing the pillows, Allie saw her noting the changes. “Aye-he’ll come around.” She eyed Amanda, then asked, “Am I right in thinking you didn’t expect to land here?”
“Yes-it was pure chance the highwayman struck so near here. I was heading for Scotland, to my cousin and his wife. Martin… followed me.”
“Aye.” There was a wealth of understanding in Allie’s tone. It had taken her a mere few minutes to guess how matters lay between Amanda and her erstwhile charge. While she’d said nothing directly, Amanda was aware she’d been vetted and examined during the previous day, and Allie had approved.
Allie turned from the bed, then stopped, staring out of the window. “Now I wonder what…?”
Amanda walked to the window and saw Martin setting off on one of the horses. “He must be going to the village…” Allie hadn’t asked him to fetch anything.
Allie came up beside her, a frown in her old eyes as she watched Martin disappear down the drive. Then she nodded brusquely. “Ah-of course. He’ll be going to the cemetery.”
“The cemetery? I thought I saw a mausoleum in the woods.”
“Oh, aye-his parents are buried here.” Allie shook out her duster, and attacked the tallboy. “But it’s Sarah he’ll want to see first. That’s where it all began.” Allie glanced at Amanda. “He has told you, hasn’t he?”
“Well, then.” Allie nodded at the window. “You’ll know what to do.”
The rock-solid confidence in Allie’s tone overrode the doubts rising in Amanda’s mind. Leaving Allie, she headed for the stable.
Onslow helped her saddle the other bay, then mount. They hadn’t been able to find a sidesaddle and she hadn’t had time to change into her habit; with her skirts rucked up to her knees, she felt utterly hoydenish as she cantered down the drive.
Keeping the house at her back, she took the lane south and followed the river. The morning was bright and fresh; spring was in the air, the buds plump on the branches, just waiting to burst. A haze of green had already replaced the dull brown of winter. Beside the lane, the river ran strongly along its rocky bed, fracturing the sunlight, its murmuring a paean to the morning.
She reached the church and saw the other horse tied to a tree. Reining in, she dismounted, an ungainly exercise she was thankful no one was around to see. The bakery stood just a little way along, a blacksmith’s opposite, the forge glowing inside the shadowy workshop. Tying her mount alongside Martin’s, she headed for the lychgate.
It stood open; she climbed the steps to a narrow path that led to the church’s front door. Glancing about, she followed the path; before the door, it bisected, circling the small building. She turned to the right and walked on, scanning the graves. None of the stones were big enough to hide Martin, yet she arrived back at the church door without sighting him.
Frowning, she looked across the road at the bakery, then peered at the forge. Searched the surrounding fields. No Martin. Puzzled, she walked back to the gate, then around to the horses-they were both still there.
Then she remembered. Sarah had taken her own life.
Amanda looked to either side, then headed left around the outside of the cemetery wall, seeking the small plot that often existed outside hallowed ground. It lay along the stone wall toward the back of the cemetery. The grass grew longer there, the graves bare mound only just detectable.
Martin stood before one, distinguished only by a rock placed at its head, the letters SB crudely carved into one face.
He must have heard her approaching, but he gave no sign. What she could see of his expression was bleak, intimidating. Stepping between two graves, she slipped her hand into his, and looked down at the grave of the girl he’d been accused of dishonoring.
After a moment, his hand closed, tight, around hers.
“I never had a chance to say good-bye. When they bundled me off that night, they wouldn’t let me stop here.”
She said nothing, just returned the pressure of his clasp. Eventually, he drew a huge breath and looked up. Then he glanced at her. She met his gaze. He studied her eyes, then nodded ahead.
He led her out of the small plot to a jumble of boulders at the corner of the cemetery. He lifted her up to sit on one, then hoisted himself up alongside.
They looked up the sunlit valley to where the house stood high on the rise with the cliff at its back. The sun struck the windows, made them wink and gleam.
She didn’t need words to know they were thinking the same thing.
“Which cliff was it?” Swivelling, she studied the ragged cliffs that formed a backdrop to the village.
He pointed to a towering escarpment. “That one. Froggatt Edge.”
She considered it, considered the distance from the village, the sheer drop to the broken ground below. “Tell me again-what happened that morning when you set out to find Sarah’s father?”
He hesitated for only an instant, then turned and pointed to a cottage down a narrow lane. “I went to Buxton’s house first. When the housekeeper told me he’d gone walking, I thought for a minute, then took that path.” Pointing, he traced a well-worn path that led from the lane across the fields to the escarpment. “It climbs around the side of the Edge, and comes out some way back from the lip.”
He paused, then went on, “I didn’t see or hear anyone or anything, but the path goes up that cleft and needs concentration-it’s not an easy stroll. On top of that, I was in a rage-a gunshot I might have heard, but anything less might well not have penetrated.
“When I got to the top, it was deserted, as I’d expected it to be. I’d gone up because from there I would have been able to see Buxton if he was anywhere around. I walked to the lip and looked. All around, everywhere. I didn’t see anyone. I remember suddenly feeling cold, deathly cold. Then I noticed the buzzards. They were circling below the lip. I went right to the edge and looked down.”
He stopped; after a moment, she prompted, “Where was it that he’d fallen?”
Martin pointed to the base of the escarpment, to where the ground was broken by upthrusting rock and scattered boulders. “There’s a gap between the rocks. You can’t see in until you actually reach it-or unless you look down from the top. I remember… it looked like Buxton, and the first thought I had was that I was glad he was dead. I thought he must have thrown himself off in remorse and guilt.”
“You came down to check.”
“I wasn’t sure it was him. He was lying facedown, and besides, what if he wasn’t dead? I couldn’t just leave him there.”
“How did you get down?”
“The same way I got up.”
She considered the distances. “Is there another way down from the top to where he fell?”
Martin pointed to the other side of Froggatt Edge. “There’s a much steeper path down that side. It’s shorter, but I didn’t take it because it’s more dangerous, and usually that means slower.”
“So you got to the bottom, to where the man was, and…?”
“He’d been turned over and his skull had been bashed in with a rock.”
Amanda stared. “Between the time you saw him from the top and reaching him at the bottom?”
Martin nodded. “Someone had been there in between and whoever it was had made sure he was dead. The rock was covering his face. I still wasn’t sure… so I picked up the rock.”
“And that’s when the villagers found you.”
He* nodded. “I lifted the rock and saw… then I heard them coming and looked up, and there they were, crowding in…” He refocused and shook his head. “I must have been in shock. I know that now, but then… nothing like that had ever happened in my life. I’d just learned Sarah had died, that people assumed I’d… and then that. I don’t know what I said, truth to tell, although I do know that later I insisted I hadn’t done it.”
Amanda frowned. “You said the villagers had seen a gentleman they thought was you throw the old man over the edge.”
Martin waved at the forge. “The blacksmith was working-the back of the forge was open. He happened to glance up and see two men-old Buxton and a young gentleman he mistook for me-struggling on the Edge. He saw the man push Buxton over. He downed tools, doused what he was working on, then rounded up some others and raced for the spot.”
Amanda fitted the information together like a jigsaw in her mind. “So… Buxton goes out walking-he goes up to Froggatt Edge. Is that likely?”
“Many walk up there. It’s a popular spot.”
“Very well-he goes up and walks. You come to his house, then set off for the Edge, quite coincidentally, to locate him. But someone else who also wanted to find Buxton is before you. While you’re climbing up, he struggles with Buxton and pushes him off. The blacksmith sees, douses his work and rushes off to get help. Then, not sure Buxton is dead, the murderer pelts down by the other path to finish him off. Meanwhile, you reach the top, look around, and see Buxton, lying facedown. You couldn’t see that other path from the top, could you?”
His face impassive, Martin shook his head.
“You decide to go back down and check for life. You go down by the first path. Could you see the spot where Buxton fell from that path?”
“While you’re on the way down, the murderer reaches Buxton, turns him over and bashes him dead. Then he runs away. Could he have done that without being seen by you or the villagers?”
Martin hesitated. “It would have been dicey, but yes. The ground’s so uneven near the base of the cliffs, he could have got out of sight of both me and the villagers without having to go far. Later… once the villagers found me, no one was watching for anyone else.”
Amanda nodded. “So then you get to the body, and the villagers find you there. That’s how it happened.”
Martin eyed her calm, determined-stubborn-expresssion. “You seem remarkably sanguine about murder.”
She met his eyes. “I’m remarkably
He didn’t deny it. She let the moment stretch, then asked, “So… how do we go about proving the truth?”
“I don’t know that it’s possible. There wasn’t a shred of evidence at the time. If there had been, even in shock, I would have waved it.”
Amanda remembered Lady Osbaldestone’s words. “Things happened very quickly. It’s possible something was overlooked, or only came to light later.” When he said nothing, she urged, “It can’t hurt to ask.”
It could, but it wouldn’t be him, or her, who might be hurt. Martin didn’t say the words; he knew the time had come. He had to choose-her, or that other he was protecting. She hadn’t begged, but if he resisted, she would do even that; she was committed to his resurrection because the future she envisioned for them hinged on that.
It was a future he now coveted more than anything else in life. He looked into her cornflower blue eyes, then lifted his gaze, looking up the valley to Hathersage. His father’s and grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s house. Now his.
Now theirs. If he would…
He drew in a breath, exhaled, and reached for her hand. “Let’s see if we can find Conlan.”
She jumped off the rock, looked her query.
“The blacksmith who thought he saw me pitch old Buxton over Froggatt Edge.”