JOSH entered the saddler’s shop prepared for argument. Whatever it took, he had to see if any progress had been made over Emma. To his surprise, the man behind the counter was not Gideon Trigg but a much younger person.
“Good morrow,” Josh greeted him. “My name is Josh Brookfield.”
There was the briefest hesitation, and then the personable face broke into a smile.
“Glad to meet you, sir. Alfie Trigg, Emma’s brother.”
The two men shook hands across the scuffed, age-worn counter.
“My grandfather and cousin are out on business. Can I help?” Alfie said.
“Possibly. I should say that I was not exactly welcome here when I last came.”
“I think things have changed since then. It’s about Emma, isn’t it?”
“Aye. I must find her. I’ve searched unfailingly, combed every lane and byway but, ah! The countryside is vast. It begins to feel an impossible task. If there is anything you can tell me, I’d be grateful.”
“There has been a new development. What do you know of Emma’s background?”
“Her background? I don’t care a whit for that! It’s Emma I care about,” Josh said testily.
“Were you aware that my grandfather engaged professional help to find my sister?”
“A man called Rudge, yes. Alice Courtney told me.”
“Alice did?” Alfie was taken aback.
“She and I have been in contact for some while. From what I could deduce, Alice has reasons of her own for wanting to sort out this dilemma.”
“That comes as no surprise,” Alfie said wryly. “With regard to Emma’s history . . .”
Josh listened to what Alfie had to say. He heard about the uncertain paternity, the findings at Plymouth and the startling consequences. Lastly, he learned of Emma’s maternal lineage and felt his heart clench painfully.
The question of Emma’s sire bothered him not one jot. A sea-going career was a worthy enough calling and the fact that the fellow had come forward after all this time did him credit.
The connection on the mother’s side was something else. She was too good for the likes of a dealer man with nothing to his name but a string of nags and a head full of dreams.
“The Dawnes!” he said, his voice choked and raw. “I should have realised. That air about her, that easy confidence.”
“Emma has our mother’s spirit,” Alfie put in. “There’s much of her sire in her, too.”
“You still have no idea of her whereabouts?”
“I fear not. We don’t even know if she survived the hardships that befell her.” Alfie looked despondent.
“Emma lives. I know it!” Josh said fiercely.
“Your faith is encouraging. Perhaps we should join forces in this. Will you come through to the house, Josh, and meet my aunt?”
Josh gave his head a shake.
“I think not, considering. I’d best go.”
He turned and made blindly for the door. He needed air. He had to think! He could not face a future without Emma.
* * * *
Within the hour Josh had packed his saddlebags, settled his bill at Flookersbrook and left, a string of six horses trotting out behind him.
There had been showers that morning and the horses’ hooves rang out sharply on the wet road. Rich smells of newly turned earth wafted from a ploughed field. Overhead, a skylark soared, singing, towards the sun that now shone fitfully over the landscape.
As a rule, Josh welcomed the coming of spring. Today he was oblivious to the scents and sounds around him. His one thought was to pay his final respects to his beloved parents and make his escape.
Soon he came to the small country church. Josh flung his horse’s reins over the standing post, tethered the string and strode through the entrance, his booted feet crunching on the pebbled path.
At the graveside he froze, for there, by the headstone, was a posy of white violets.
Violets! Only one person could have placed them there.
His heart soared, as ecstatic as the skylark above him. Emma was alive! She was here after all, in this very vicinity. How, in heaven’s name, during his countless forays down lane and muddy bridleway, could he have missed her?
Not that it was now of any issue. Her future lay elsewhere. Despair broke over him afresh. At his feet, the two who had given him life slept the eternal sleep.
“Why?” he raged. “Why should Fate deal such a cruel blow?”
His father’s answer rang in his head.
“Get along after her. Talk with her, see where her heart lies.”
If only it were that simple. Josh lingered there, lost in thoughts of what might have been, while beyond the church wall the horses cropped the wayside grass and the sun began to dip in the west. Above, the skylark trilled on. Josh, catching the sound, had to wonder how anything could sound so joyful when all felt so hopelessly black.