EMMA lifted her teacup to her lips and as she did so the firelight sparkled on the exposed charm bracelet on her wrist. Prudence’s dull brown gaze took on a momentary glimmer of interest.
“That’s pretty. Was it your ma’s?”
“No.” Emma put down her cup and saucer on the floor and tucked the cuff of her gown back over the bracelet. “It was a gift from someone I knew.”
At that moment the back door opened to let in a blast of cold air and the stocky figure of the landlord.
“Any tea in the pot?” he demanded, going straight to the range and picking up the big brown teapot. “Tes bitter out there. Too cold for snow, I’m thinking. We had a fall last Christmas, remember, Aggie?”
Emma, realising with a start that tomorrow was Christmas Day, wilted under a sudden wave of sheer desolation. It would be work as usual. There would be no festive good cheer this year, with Granfer Trigg carving the goose and Aunt Maisie bearing the pudding, alight with spicy flames.
What were they doing at Chester? Would her empty place be noted? Or had the seating been reorganised around the circular dining table where this very special feast was taken, so that her absence was not obvious?
How was Alfie? If anyone genuinely missed her, it would be her brother. Half-brother, reminded the small inner voice that cut her to the quick.
Had Alfie been let into the secret of her begetting? Or was she now simply labelled as the black sheep of the family, a flibbertigibbet, no longer worth a thought?
* * * *
Gideon knocked the dottle from his pipe into the blazing fire, coughing. Dang take this chest of his; it were always worse come winter. Emma had always concocted a linctus that had eased the problem considerably.
Emma. Her face swam up in his mind and he grew very still.
Across the hearth, Maisie was knitting, the click-click of her needles loud in the quiet of the room.
“’Sakes!” she said. “I shan’t be sorry when tomorrow’s over. It won’t be the same without Emma.”
Gideon sent his daughter a wearied look.
“Don’t start, lass. It won’t do a scrap of good.”
“No, it won’t. We’ll just go round in circles, as always.” She sighed. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
“I wouldn’t say no.”
Gideon watched his daughter spear the needles into the ball of wool and put aside her knitting. She rose and left the room. Gideon thought she looked more angular than ever. He, too, had lost some weight – he’d had to punch yet another couple of extra holes in his leather belt.
Sleep evaded him most nights. His temper was short. Guilt and remorse at his hasty action had become a constant ache. What had possessed him? Emma had brought light and laughter into the house. Of course her presence was missed!
His mind went back to a couple of evenings previously. The boys had gone through to the house, leaving him to extinguish the lamps and lock up. He was about to turn the key in the shop door when he noticed a figure loitering on the Row outside. It was Josh Brookfield.
Gideon had been seen and had no choice but to open the door and enquire what the young man wanted.
“I’d like to speak to Emma,” Brookfield said without hesitation.
About to shut the door in the fellow’s face, something in his manner had given Gideon pause.
“You would, would you?” he’d said gruffly. “What makes you think she wants to see you?”
“Why shouldn’t she? Sir, may I be frank? I love Emma and I was of the impression that my feelings were returned.”
“Oh, aye? As her guardian, can you explain why I was not informed of this development?”
“It was a recent declaration between us. Well, fairly recent. We . . . perhaps you were not aware that I assisted Emma with the horse you had from me. It happened shortly after you’d got him. He’d run off with her with the trap. She couldn’t hold him. I was in the vicinity and went to the rescue.”
“And events went from there? A whole summer of secret liaisons and I knew nothing?”
“Sir, nothing indelicate took place! You have my word on it. She has the makings of an excellent horsewoman and I confess I enjoyed her company.
“Then, one day, she let slip news of a betrothal between her and her cousin. I did the only honourable thing and put an end to the meetings. It was then I came to realise exactly how much Emma meant to me.” His voice faltered. He took a long breath to collect himself, and then looked Gideon straight in the eye.
“Master Trigg, I’ve written to her several times and not had any reply. I must know what’s going on. I demand to be allowed to speak with Emma!”