At Bowerly Hall – 12

WHEN did the spate of break-ins begin?” I asked curiously.

The vicar thought for a moment, a frown wrinkling his forehead.

“Let me see… I believe it has been a year already.”

“But the thefts are not regular,” James said slowly, as if thinking it out. “Not one a month or some such thing. They are sporadic. At first there were long gaps between them. But there has been a cluster recently, as if he’s gaining confidence.” “Or desperation,” Sarah suggested. “Maybe he needs more money now than he did before.”

I remembered what Sarah had told me. That Viscount Bowerly had only been back in the country a little more than a year. Was it coincidence?

I said nothing of this, however. I felt that my companions might be shocked at the train of my thoughts.

But then I wondered why he would be the thief. Surely he had no need to steal other people’s belongings? Bowerly Hall looked to be prosperous.

Unless he had debts. It was possible. Yet what proof did I have, except that he had acted strangely? None. It was all in my imagination.

My head began to ache and soon I made my excuses to Sarah, gathered up Mary from the playroom and made my way back to the Hall. I was being foolish. Mary was tired from playing with Charlotte and lay down for a nap. I left Peggy in charge of her and went downstairs.

I wondered how to fill my afternoon. I could hardly join the servants. I wasn’t ready for another of Mrs Dane’s chilly stares or a snappy comment from Mrs Bell. Instead, I found my footsteps taking me to the far side of the house and to the stables.

I loved horses. I often rode at Chelmley Wood. I knew most of the countryside around it from the back of my beloved Betsey.

I stroked the nose of one handsome black beast, over the stable door. He snickered in a friendly fashion. I breathed in the scent of horses, hay and feed.

“His name is Raven.”

The voice came from behind me and I started. I turned to find Charles watching me. My heartbeat quickened.

“He is a beauty,” I said.

“He is of impeccable lineage.”

I was inexplicably disappointed with him. Was that all that mattered? I supposed so, if breeding horses was a business.

Personally, I cared more for the personality, the spirit of a horse. Betsey had been a gentle ride with a sweet nature. Raven certainly looked regal but not too fierce. Unlike his master.

Then Charles smiled. It swept away his brooding expression and made his blue gaze lighten. My heart lurched.

“Not only that,” he said, stroking Raven’s nose in the exactly the spot I had, “he never loses his temper with me. A rare quality.”

“Do you often bring others’ wrath upon you?” I asked mildly.

“I have a knack for it, it’s true.”

“How awful for you.” I heard the teasing in my own voice and it struck me that we were bantering with each other. I was seeing a different side to the viscount.

“Do you enjoy riding, Miss Thorne?”

“Oh, yes!” I said enthusiastically until I remembered where I was. “At least, I used to. At home.”

“Where, might I ask, is home?”

“Of course my home is here now. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to . . .”

“Come, Miss Thorne, I asked you a question. You must answer it.”

I glanced up at him uncertainly. His expression was not unkind despite the order he’d given. Indeed it looked as if he genuinely waited to hear my answer.

I took in a deep breath.

“My home was at Chelmley Wood, in the South Downs. You won’t know of it, of course, but it was a lovely, special place.”

“I do know of it. In fact I have fond memories of the place.”

“You do?” Surprise made me squeak.

His smile widened.

“A small river runs through the grounds, does it not? A great orchard backs the house and I seem to recall my partiality to coconut biscuits being indulged by the cook. I cannot bring her name to mind.”

“Mrs Gilmour,” I whispered.

A pain twisted in my chest. I swallowed down the ache to be back there, not only in physical space but in the past. A past where Father and Mrs Gilmour ruled the house with love and guiding hands.

“Ah, yes, that was it. The indomitable Mrs Gilmour. I have never since tasted such wonderful biscuits.”

“Why were you visiting?” I tried and failed to find a memory of him in my past.

“My father was very interested in geology. Your father had the best library in England on the subject and mine was invited to come and study the books. I was very young but he took me with him. What an adventure for a small boy.”

If he had been a small boy then I must have been only a baby or toddler, which explained why I didn’t remember him. How odd that now we had a connection of sorts.

I reminded myself that I didn’t trust him − but he was good with animals. Raven was clearly besotted with him. They say that animals can tell if someone is to be trusted.

A bell rang somewhere distantly in the Hall. Charles stiffened and all at once his smile vanished to be replaced with the darkness I had come to expect. It was in his brows and changing blue eyes and a scowl that set his jaw too tight.

He bowed and made to take his leave. Just before he rounded the end of the stables, he stopped.

“You must borrow a horse and go riding, if you will. Whenever you wish to, ask the stablehands and they will find what you need.”

With that he was gone.

Tracey Steel

Having worked on a number of magazines over the years, Tracey has found her perfect place on The Friend as she’s obsessed with reading and never goes anywhere without a book! She reads all the PF stories with a mug of tea close by and usually a bit of strong cheese too!