From Ruin to Riches(3)

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 How had she escaped? She still wasn’t sure. She remembered screaming, screaming as she backed away from the horror at her feet. When people burst into the room she’d retreated behind the screen to hide her near-nudity, hide from the blood. They didn’t seem to notice her as they gathered round the body.

 And there behind the screen were her clothes and water. She had washed her hands and dressed so that when she stepped out to face them she would be decent. Somehow, that had seemed important. She’d had no idea of trying to run away from what she had done so unwittingly.

 Jonathan’s pocketbook lay on top of his coat. It must have been blind instinct that made her stuff it into her reticule. Then, when she had made herself come out and face the inevitable, the room was packed and people were jostling in the doorway trying to see inside.

 No one paid any regard to the young woman in the plain grey cloak and straw bonnet. Had anyone even glimpsed her when they burst in? Perhaps she had reached the screen before the door opened. Now she must have appeared to be just another onlooker, a guest attracted by the noise, white-faced and trembling because of what she had seen.

 The instinct to flee, the cunning of the hunted animal, sent her down the back stairs, into the yard to hide amidst the sacks loaded on a farm cart. As dawn broke she had slipped unseen from the back of it into the midst of utterly unfamiliar countryside. And it felt as though she had been walking and hiding and stealing rides ever since.

 If she could just sit for a while and absorb this peace, this blissful lack of people to lie to, to hide from. If she could just forget the fear for a few moments until she found a little strength to carry on.

 * * *

 The tall column of grey shimmered, moon-lit, in the centre of the narrow stone bridge. Long dark hair lifted and stirred in the night breeze: a woman. Impossible. Now he was seeing things.

 Will strained every sense. Silence. And then the night was pierced again by the three long-held notes that signalled the start of the nightingale’s torrent of languid music, so beautiful, so painful, that he closed his eyes.

 When he opened them again he expected to find himself alone. But the figure was still there. A very persistent hallucination then. As he watched, it turned, its face a pale oval. A ghost? Ridiculous to feel that superstitious shudder when he was edging so close to the spirit world himself. I do not believe in ghosts. I refuse to. Things were bad enough without fearing that he would come back to haunt this place himself, forced to watch its disintegration in Henry’s careless, spendthrift hands.

 No, it was a real woman of course, a flesh-and-blood woman, the paleness of her face thrown into strong relief by the dark hair that crowned her uncovered head. Will moved into the deeper shadows that bordered the Lake Walk and eased closer. What was she doing, this trespasser far into the parkland that surrounded King’s Acre? She must be almost a mile from the back road that led to the turnpike between Thame and Aylesbury.

 Her long grey cloak swung back from her shoulders and he saw that she was tall. She leaned over the parapet of the bridge, staring down as though the dark waters beneath held some secret. Everything in the way she moved spoke of weariness, he thought, then stiffened as she shifted to hitch one hip on to the edge of the stonework.

 ‘No!’ Cursing his uncooperative, traitorous body, Will forced his legs to move, stumbled to the foot of the bridge and clutched the finial at the end of the balustrade. ‘No...don’t jump! Don’t give up...whatever it is...’ His legs gave way and he fell to his knees, coughing.

 For a moment he thought he had so startled her that she would jump, then the ghost-woman slid down from the parapet and ran to kneel at his side.

 ‘Sir, you are hurt!’

 Her arm went around his shoulders and she caught him against herself in a firm embrace. Will closed his eyes for a moment. The temptation to surrender to the simple comfort of a human touch was almost too much.

 ‘Not hurt. Sick. Not contagious,’ he added as she gave a little gasp. ‘Don’t...worry.’

 ‘I am not worried for myself,’ she said with a briskness that bordered on impatience. She shifted her position so he fell back on her shoulder and then laid a cool palm on his forehead. Will bit back a sigh of pure pleasure. ‘You have a fever.’

 ‘Always do, this time of night.’ He fought to control his breathing. ‘I feared you were about to jump.’

 ‘Oh, no.’ He felt the vehement shake of her head. ‘I cannot imagine ever being desperate enough to do that. Drowning must be such a terror. Besides, there is always some hope. Always.’ Her voice was low and slightly husky, as if she had perhaps been weeping recently, but he sensed that it would always be mellow, despite its certainty. ‘I was resting, looking at the moonlight on the water. It is beautiful and calm and the nightingale was singing so exquisitely. I felt some need for calm and beauty,’ she added, with a brave attempt at a rueful laugh that cracked badly.

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