A WARNING shout and the rush of unshod hooves on the worn cobblestones of the street made Emma jump back to let a string of horses go by, the coper chirruping and cracking his whip energetically.
Flattened against the cob-and-timbered wall of a row of shops, Emma watched as they headed off for the Foregate where the beast auction was held, and then continued to the produce market.
It was Midsummer Fair and half the population of Chester seemed to be here. Under the towering walls of St Werburgh’s, stalls and booths were set up, and early though it was, stallholders were doing a brisk trade.
Over the air issued the calls of penned animals, the gabble of the auctioneer and the decisive thwack of the gavel. It had rained overnight and the reek of dung on damp ground wafted, laced with the sweetness of blooms from a flower-seller’s speck at the entrance to the Abbey Square.
“Buy my lavender, missie?” the woman called out, her wind-buffed face crinkling into a gappy smile.
Tempted, Emma picked up a bunch and inhaled the fresh scent, but shook her head regretfully and returned the lavender to the trug at the woman’s feet. Her aunt didn’t hold with fripperies, and posies of flowers, in Maisie Catchpole’s book, were just that.
As this interlude took place a tall figure in breeches and boots, emerging from the Foregate, caught sight of Emma and stood rooted to the spot.
Emma, unheeding, tucked a wayward strand of corn-gold hair into her bonnet and consulted her shopping list. Needles and thread. She’d need to cross the square to the drapery stall for those. She hefted her shopping-basket on to her arm and set off through the crowd.
She was almost there when a cloud drifted over the sun, plunging everywhere into shadow. Next moment, the rain began; a sharp shower that made Emma fear for her new bonnet, a straw confection trimmed with ribbons of her favourite butter-yellow.
Around her, shoppers were scuttling for shelter. Emma was looking for a likely place when a voice said, “Quick, this way!”
A sun-browned hand took her arm and she found herself being shepherded through the deluge to a low stone archway that led into the abbey precincts.
“Bide here a moment. This rain won’t be much. It’s just the pride of the morning.”
The voice throbbed with good humour and Emma glanced up into the deepest blue eyes she had ever seen. They twinkled teasingly in a mobile, square-jawed face, and she felt her heart constrict strangely.
“I . . . I don’t mind the rain,” she stammered. “It’s my bonnet I was worried about. My aunt Maisie did warn me against wearing it today.”
As quickly as it had begun the rain stopped and the sun broke through again. Droplets of water sparkled in her rescuer’s unruly mop of black curls and his damp clothes began to steam in the sudden warmth, exuding a masculine smell of horses and leather.
Something about him, the fustian breeches and mucky boots, the flamboyant scarlet neckerchief at his throat, suggested horse dealer and Emma, reminded of her grandfather Trigg’s words of caution on the subject, took a grip on herself.
“You’ll be here for the stalls,” her rescuer said conversationally. “It’s business for me.”
“Horse business?” Emma prompted.
“That’s right. I came with four and three have gone already. Not bad, eh? I shall be going back with a full purse.”
It sounded like bragging to Emma and her response was tart.
“Then I’d best not detain you, sir, or you may miss a sale on the fourth.”
“Oh, that would be of no consequence. There’s always an outlet for a good riding horse. Besides which, it will give me something to get home on.”
“What will you do if it does sell?” Emma asked, curiosity getting the better of her.
“Why, invest my earnings in another animal, of course! The name’s Brookfield. Josh Brookfield.” She was sent a searching glance. “I wonder what you are called.”
“Emma Trigg,” she said, and then could have bitten her tongue. “Is this what you do for a living, sir? It sounds a . . . a precarious life.”
“It’s the best life ever. There’s freedom in being one’s own man. What’s more, there are the horses. Do you like horses, Miss Emma?”
“Why, yes, I do.”
“There, then.” Josh Brookfield clapped a hand in joyful satisfaction against his thigh. “Didn’t I know you were a girl after my own heart!”