EMMA was surprised and a little disconcerted to find her brother waiting for her in the Saddler’s Row yard.
“You’ve been gone ages,” Alfie said as he helped her down from the saddle. “I heard you leave at dawn.” He looked at her searchingly. “What’s going on? You’re different lately. Dreamy, abstracted.”
Emma opened her mouth to speak but tears choked her throat, and next moment she was weeping bitterly into the rough fabric of her brother’s fustian jacket.
“It’s Josh Brookfield!” She sobbed. “He came to my rescue when Cygnus bolted with me and offered me help with him.”
Gradually the story unfolded.
“Alfie, I love him so much and now I’ll never see him again!” she finished on a note of despair.
Alfie patted her back comfortingly.
“Perhaps it’s better so. You were taking a risk. If anyone were to find out –”
“Nobody would have. Josh made sure we weren’t seen together.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Alfie said wryly. He handed her a kerchief. “It’s good that Brookfield has made a stand. You’ll see that once you’ve got over your disappointment. Think of Hamilton. I know he’s got his faults but he’s not a bad fellow at heart.”
Emma scarcely heard. All she could think of was the fury in Josh’s eyes when her secret was revealed. Fury and other emotions she could not identify.
“Emma,” Alfie said next. “I need your advice.”
“It’s Alice. She’s become indifferent towards me and I can’t think why. Has she said anything?”
Emma bit her lip. She badly wanted to tell her brother about Alice’s penchant for minor flirtations, but she could not bear to see him hurt.
She had even spotted Alice and Hamilton together, but thought little of it. Once their betrothal was formalised Hamilton would be true to her, she told herself. Had she not indulged a hopeless fantasy herself?
“I haven’t spoken to Alice in weeks,” she told Alfie. “We had words, I’m afraid.”
At that moment the town clocks began to chime the noontide hour and effectively released Emma from further explanations.
“I must stir myself. Don’t worry too much, Alfie. Alice loves you. How could she not?”
Leading the horse into his stall, she hoped heartily that her words would bear fruit.
* * * *
Hamilton sighed. What to do about Alice? There had developed a more serious edge to their liaison and he had no idea how best to deal with it. He liked Alice a lot, perhaps loved her.
Romantic love, in his view, was all tied up with wedding bells and orange blossom, which soon became reality once the babies started coming along.
Could he visualise Alice as a mother? Possibly, considering the billing and cooing that went on over her small dog.
On the other hand, plans were being made to bind him to Emma. What a pickle it all was! And what a blessing his mother had not caught on . . .
Hamilton had underestimated Maisie Catchpole’s powers of observation, however. During that morning he escaped to the kitchen for something to satisfy his sweet tooth and found her putting the finishing touches to an eel pie.
“There’s a raspberry sponge in the larder,” she said in response to his request. “It’s for tea, so mind you leave enough.”
Maisie watched as he helped himself to a generous slice of the cake, her eyes narrowing shrewdly.
“Hamilton, I wasn’t born yesterday. What’s amiss?”
“Not a thing, Mama. Why should there be?”
“Don’t play the innocent with me. ’Sakes, I have to wonder what’s happening here. There’s Alfie preoccupied and Emma downright morose. As for you, well, if there’s anything wrong, you’d best say.”
Hamilton hesitated, and then spoke in a rush.
“It’s Alice. Alice Courtney.”
Maisie shunted the eel pie to one side and sat down in a chair with a thump.
“You’d better explain.”
Hamilton did so, admitting how what had begun as an innocent flirtation had escalated into something beyond the control of either of them.
“I think a lot of Alice, Mama. I believe I love her.”
“Alice is Alfie’s betrothed. Did you never pause to consider that? Never think how hurtful this could be to him? Nor the repercussions this could have on us all? And where does Emma fit into this equation?”
Dumbly Hamilton listened as his mother began to extol Emma’s virtues, reiterating her previous argument on how opportune it was to be joined in wedlock to someone like his cousin, brought up to the specific demands of the saddler’s trade.
“Emma will make you a fine wife,” she told him. “So you’d best put an end to this nonsense with Alice Courtney.”
“Alice will be upset.”
“You don’t have to be blunt about it. Try a gentle cooling off. Any girl will recognise the signs. And while you’re about it you might step up your courtship of Emma. Show how you love her. Cheer her up some.”
Hamilton said nothing. Avoid Alice? Make her feel rejected?
He only wished it were that simple.