ALICE’S face puckered in thought.
“Could she have strayed off the road in the snowstorm by mistake? Maybe she saw a light at a window and made for that. Did you try the lanes off the turnpike?”
“Lass, have you any notion of how it is out there? Drifts like castles and just as impenetrable. I’d defy anyone to get through them.”
A brewery horse and dray lumbered close by, the driver cracking his whip, and Black Diamond shied skittishly, causing Josh to break off to quieten the animal.
“I have business matters that will keep me away for several days. I shall be back soon. Should you hear anything of Emma in the meantime, could you leave word at my lodgings? It’s Mistress Bradely at Flookersbrook.”
“Yes, but sir, I don’t understand. Why lodgings? What of your Broxton yard?”
“I gave it up. What with Father passing, and other things, it seemed best. The lease was due to expire anyway.”
“Your papa is gone? I’m sorry to hear that. Please accept my condolences. Emma always spoke fondly of him. She would not have known.”
“I’m not sure. I wrote to her, explaining the situation, but whether she received my letters is anyone’s guess. It was all so sudden – meeting up with Emma again, Father dying . . . I wasn’t thinking straight. Besides, the Broxton yard had its drawbacks. It was not a place I’d have taken a wife to.”
Alice’s eyes widened in surprise.
“You were planning to wed?”
“Yes. I had a notion of getting some cash together quickly so as to secure premises more suited to a family man. There was a sale up north where I knew I’d get a good price for my stock. I needed to leave right away, and I left Emma a note telling her to wait for me. Perhaps I should have tried to see her and explained.” He drew a shuddering breath. “Alice, I can’t live without Emma. I must find her!”
Desperation rang in Josh’s voice. He glanced away, momentarily overcome, and did not see the flash of envy and longing his words had provoked in his listener.
Mastering his emotions, Josh straightened.
“I must go. There’s no telling what the roads will be like between here and Shrewsbury. You will do as I ask?”
“I will. Safe journey, sir.”
Alice stood back as he mounted up, the dog clutched safely to her as the horse twirled and jinked at the prospect of a journey.
A nod of farewell, and Josh dug his heels into the horse’s sides and sent him plunging away, clods of hard-packed snow spattering out from beneath the clattering hooves.
* * * *
Alice watched him go, resisting the urge to stamp a well-booted foot in disappointment.
Dear goodness! Wasn’t it just her luck to have her plans thwarted? At this rate she’d never win back Hamilton’s favour.
She put the dog down and, mulling over what Josh had told her, continued into the deserted park where the park-keepers had been busy clearing the walkways of snow. She took her usual route between winter-bare flower-beds, and as she went a trickle of unwelcome speculation entered her mind, stirring a cold dread within her.
If it was true that Emma had succumbed to the horrendous conditions then she, Alice, was instrumental in bringing that about! She had as good as taken the life of her one-time dearest friend and ally – loyal, trusting Emma! How could that be? She hadn’t meant things to go so far!
Deception had played a part, too. She had led Josh into believing that her friendship with Emma held fast, when this was not strictly true.
Alice walked on, grappling with an increasing sense of panic born of guilt and remorse.
Why had she not spoken up sooner? Even allowing for Gideon Trigg’s intractability a degree of searching must have gone on for Emma, though done behind the saddler’s back. Why had she not sought Hamilton out and pointed him – discreetly, of course – in the right direction?
Emma’s face as she had last seen it, flushed with eager anticipation at seeing her handsome horse-trader once more, appeared before her mind’s eye. It touched some hitherto untapped region in Alice’s heart, and shame rippled through her.
Swallowing hard, she strove for logic and reassurance. Emma was no fool. She’d surely have sought refuge from the blizzard, wouldn’t she?
“That’s it, Suzette, my pet,” she murmured to the dog. “Please God Josh Brookfield is right and Emma is still with us. We must be alert for word of her.”
The horse-trader’s revelations had been illuminating and Alice felt suddenly very much alone. How glorious to be so cherished, so desired. Would anyone ever love her like that?
After all, one good turn was said to deserve another. She must put her faith in Cupid and trust that they were on the right track. Then, with Emma safely wed to her true love, Hamilton’s way would be clear for her.
Moderately cheered, Alice reached the park exit and headed off for home and a warming cup of hot chocolate.