BY the time Josh arrived from attending to the horses, the floor was swept, the furniture dusted and the fire refreshed. Emma and his father sat drinking tea.
“You shouldn’t trouble yourself with all this cleaning,” Josh said to Emma. “We’re used to a speck or two of dust.”
“Dunna you heed him, lass,” his father put in. “It does me good to see the place being titivated up. Takes me back to when the missus were here. Lovely, she were. Dark hair and eyes so blue you felt you were drowning in their depths. Josh has a look of her. Pity him dunna shape up and take a wife like her to see after him. I could die easy then.”
The implication was clear and Emma blushed.
“Let’s hear no more talk of dying,” she chided him before turning to Josh. “Tea?”
“Aye, thanks. Then you must see the newcomer.”
Soon afterwards, Emma gave a gasp of delight at the spectacle that met her gaze. Mare and foal stood on a deep bed of straw in a corner of the foaling box. Leggy, with innocent eyes and a little tuft of a tail, the foal gazed back at Emma curiously.
“Oh, what a beauty! Shall you keep her?”
Emma turned a rapturous face to Josh and something caught at him, poignant and unexpected. He had thought he had his emotions safely under control, but plainly this was not so and his answer was bluffer than he intended.
“For now. I’m not one for sending mothers and newborns to the auction. It’s cruel practice, to me. A foal needs to feel the grass under its hooves and the sun on its back. I shall be turning these two out in the meadow for what’s left of the summer.”
He broke off.
“How did you find Father?”
“Not good, I’m afraid,” Emma said gently. “Is the remedy not helping any?”
Josh shrugged. Excellent though the properties of herbs were – and Emma had proved herself skilled in their usage, providing a cure for an ailing horse and one for himself when a cut on his hand had festered – they both knew that in this case it was a losing battle. Sam Brookfield’s days were numbered.
“I could try hawthorn,” Emma said thoughtfully. “I’ve a free hand nowadays in the stillroom, what with my aunt occupied with the nuptial plans.”
She paused, a guilty flush appearing.
“Nuptial plans?” The jolt that went through Josh shook him.
He listened, grim-faced, to her stumbling explanation. She was to be betrothed at the end of October and wed on Easter next.
“You are to be married?” he said, hearing the disbelief in his own voice and at a loss to do anything about it. “You’ve never said.”
“No,” she agreed woodenly.
Josh stared at her, his mind racing. Part of him, a small unworthy part which relished his single status, registered the fact that the revelation had its merits. He and Emma had grown closer over the weeks. It had developed subtly, creeping up on him. This new turn of events should have let him off the hook.
He waited for the rush of gratified acceptance that did not come. All he felt was an aching sense of loss, pierced by a stab of envy for the man who had won her hand.
“Who is it?” he asked savagely.
“My cousin Hamilton.”
“Hamilton Catchpole? They’re tying you to that milksop? Deuce!”
Josh thought back, his conscience panging. He had flirted with her, dammit. Kissed her even, that day at Frodsham Fair. What man wouldn’t have, in the circumstances? And all the while she had been part-promised to another! Had he known, he would never have taken advantage.
One thing was certain. The dawn meetings must cease, for Emma’s sake. As the betrothed of another man, her reputation had to be above reproof. He must make that clear and in doing so make the transition of getting his own life back on an even keel. He had managed without her before, hadn’t he?
She was looking at him in anguish. On her wrist she wore the trinket he had given her and she twisted it round and round in agitation.
“Catchpole!” he repeated in disgust.
The mare threw up her head in alarm and nudged her foal protectively. Brought abruptly to his senses, Josh took Emma’s arm.
“Come, we’re upsetting them. I’d best see you home.”
“You don’t have to accompany me,” she told him sadly.
“Poppycock! These parts are not safe for a female travelling alone. Of course I’ll see you back safely.”
He hustled her out into the sunlit stable yard and left her there, silent, while he fetched the horses.
Josh felt bereft, as if the sun had gone and storm-clouds were gathering. What a fool he had been not to have guessed there was an understanding between Emma and the cousin when they had come here together that day in June. What a blinkered, self-centred fool!