A LOUD hail made them glance round. From a low-roofed cottage the man himself emerged.
“Good day, ma’am, sir. You found us, then.”
“Indeed.” Hamilton jumped down from the high seat of the gig. “Master Brookfield, I take it? Hamilton Catchpole at your service.”
The horse-dealer offered a sinewy brown hand and took the other man’s in a grip that made him wince.
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Master Catchpole. Shall I put your horse in the barn while you try out the youngster?”
“Do that,” Hamilton said curtly.
There was caution on both sides, Emma saw. Hamilton made no move to help her down so she opened the side door and was struggling with the portable steps when Josh appeared and in a few deft movements had lowered them and handed her to the ground.
The physical contact, brief though it was, sent bolts of emotion surging through her.
“Thank you, sir,” she managed to say.
“My pleasure, ma’am. Would you care to wait indoors? My father will find you some lemon cordial to refresh yourself.”
Parched after the drive in the heat of the day, Emma was tempted. Granfer Trigg, however, would be sure to ask her opinion of the horse. Besides, she was curious herself.
“Thank you,” she said, “but may I first see the horse?”
“Surely,” Josh Brookfield replied, and led Barney and gig away. Moments later he reappeared and gestured Emma and Hamilton towards the stables.
In an end stall was a handsome dark-grey gelding.
“He’s a good-natured, tractable sort,” the dealer said as he tacked the animal up. “I’ve not had a moment’s bother with him. ’Course, he’s young yet and still has things to learn.”
He led the animal out to a mounting block, tightened the girth and stood back to allow Hamilton to mount, which he did awkwardly.
Emma patted the horse’s arching neck, laughing as he lipped her palm in hope of titbits.
“He’s lovely,” she said, as Hamilton entered a large meadow to try out the animal’s paces. “Does he have a name?”
“He was called Cygnus so I’ve stuck with that.” Josh Brookfield gave a shrugging smile. “It’s considered bad luck to change a horse’s name.”
“Cygnus suits him. Is he good in the stable?”
“Aye, a perfect Christian. Why do you ask?”
“It’s me who might have the care of him. Alfie helps when he can. He’s my brother.”
They were standing very close together, focusing on the horse being cantered round the meadow, with Hamilton an ungainly figure aboard its back. Emma, very aware of the tall, limber figure at her side, felt suddenly tongue-tied.
“Did you get the package?” Josh Brookfield spoke without shifting his gaze from the rider.
“I . . . yes. Master Brookfield –”
“I should not accept your gift.”
“Why not? Because it’s not proper? Fie, Miss Emma. Where’s the harm? You wanted the stuff, didn’t you?”
“You were watching me!” Emma said accusingly. “You sought me out at the shop.”
“But see what’s come of it, a possible sale and a renewed contact between old acquaintances. Father was pleased to hear news of Gideon Trigg. You must meet Father before you go. He’d have come to greet you, but his health is not good.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Emma said gravely.
Josh turned to her, his eyes very blue in his sun-browned face.
“I believe you are, Miss Emma.”
He gave her a smile which Emma found herself returning.
“Do you like the fairs, mistress?” he asked softly.
“Why, yes, I do.”
“There’s one at Frodsham next Saturday. There will be mummers, acrobats and horses aplenty to feast the eye upon.”
He paused, and then spoke impulsively.
“Come with me! Come and share the fun of the fair.”
“Me?” Emma caught her breath. “Oh, but I couldn’t!”
“Of course you could. You’re free to come and go, aren’t you? I would meet you at a given spot and see you home again, and no-one any the wiser.”
“It . . . it wouldn’t be proper.”
“You’ll come to no harm, you have my word on that. Have you ever danced at the fair, Miss Emma? Have you marvelled at the mysteries of the fortune teller? Laughed at the antics of the jesters?”
Emma wavered, her thoughts circling. Part of her, the well-brought-up part, was berating the man for his nerve. But some small ripple of adventurous spirit was surfacing with an irresistible urge to fall in with his offer.
A day at the fair with an admiring young man at her side, away from the dull routines of the daily round, was oh, so tempting.
Could she put her faith in him?
Yes, a small inner voice said decisively. Forward Josh Brookfield might be, but that steady gaze and honest expression inspired trust and liking.
Would she be standing here had not her grandfather arrived at the same conclusion?
Emma was brought abruptly from her reverie by the thud of hoofbeats and Hamilton appeared at the field-gate. He reined in, his face thunderous.