It was the kind of December morning Victorian novelists dream about. Diamond frost sparkling over the trim English pastures, horses with steam breath puffing in the air, a slanted sun line on the stable roof, shiny with melt. On the hill, past the white plank fences, the winter bare trees were pencilled against the too-blue sky. And not that far beyond where the old stone Roman road curved behind the fruit groves, there was the village steeple, arrow sharp and tiny in the distance. Emily could hear the Dilfords, mother, uncle and daughter, opening the paddocks and starting the tractor. She wouldn’t ride today; or anytime soon, it was difficult with the bandages, and anyway there was too much work to do. Besides, she was tired – tired, bitchy and sore. Her hand had hurt in the night with a black ache, clock-ticking sleeplessness that almost made her cry. She could still feel it, the dull pressure of the bandages on her fingers that didn’t have enough courage to be pain but had settled in to irritate her. And she was cold – just out of bed chilly through flannel pajamas and a thick duvet hugged around her shoulders. She turned away from the window, looked at the cold stone hearth and shivered.
“Damn the insurance,” she thought, “Tonight, I’m going to have a fire.” She swept the duvet off her shoulders and back onto the bed. Then awkwardly, she pulled heavy green trousers over her pajamas and a red checked work shirt. She struggled with the buttons, gave up after two and went down to breakfast. Not quite the lady of the manor, but . . . . She ran her fingers through her hair to smooth out some of the tangled sleep. It would be warmer downstairs where the wheezing old Pyaridge’s boilers could reach, but there was no way she was going to endure another winter like this. Something would have to go out of next year’s budget. Next year’s budget? She hadn’t paid for this year’s yet! She ran her hand over the thick oak bannister like you would an old dog and continued down the big step staircase, through the high, wide entrance hall and into the breakfast room.
No matter what time Emily arrived for breakfast, it was there waiting for her. In winter, porridge, eggs and toast, sometimes bacon, sometimes sausage, coffee and juice. She knew if the salt and fat didn’t kill her the cholesterol eventually would, but it had been a war to get rid of the beans, tomato, mushrooms, wheat cakes and assorted other fried bits, so . . . . Mrs. Tisdale ran the Pyaridge kitchen with an iron ladle, fed the entire estate on a budget that would embarrass Gandhi and hadn’t taken no for answer since Emily was 6 — which meant, after winning half the battle, it was an act of valor for Emily to just shut up and eat her breakfast, nice girl. And she did that, every morning, alone at a huge table, in a room built for twenty.
In London, Dreyfus Sinclair didn’t usually eat breakfast unless he was travelling or Mrs. Flynn was in the mood to cook. And since Mrs. Flynn only came in 3 days a week and was seldom in the mood, it was mostly just coffee and a newspaper under the tall windows in the loft over the river. That day, there was a crawling mist on the Thames, so there wasn’t much boat traffic, and the lights on the far shore looked distant and scuffed. It was a perfect day to sit back and contemplate the woes of the world. Actually, Dreyfus didn’t much care about that, but he did enjoy the style and variety of Fleet Street journalism, so he had the concierge bring him a different/random newspaper every morning. It made the read a little more interesting. (Today was The Guardian, full of opinion.) He thought about going to work later, but he wanted to write a few letters, and he enjoyed writing letters, so . . . . Plus, he had that neatly-wrapped plastic package of clothes to deal with, and he wasn’t sure what he should do about that. They had arrived yesterday back from the cleaners with a note that read. “Our apologies. Unfortunately, we were not able to remove the extensive bloodstains from the garments without ruining them, and the style and quality dictate that they would not be easily replaced in that event. Therefore, we are returning them to you. Regards …”
The unwritten rule was no Pyaridge business until after breakfast, and normally Janet Miller, the estate manager, cut it as close as possible, coming in with the second carafe of coffee, a coil notebook in one hand and her own cup and saucer in the other. But Janet had stayed away the first day. She’d sent breakfast up, and it had been a total disaster with unbalanced trays and Emily (slightly stoned on painkillers) tipping, spilling, arguing with the fuss and finally just shouting everybody out of her room. The next day, with no notebook, no coffee and an anxious look, Janet had danced around Emily’s questions until, overcome with frustration, Emily had demanded things return to normal or (and the threat was real) she’d go back to London and they could all fend for themselves. Today was going to be that normal day, and Emily (God, she just wanted to go back to bed!) was determined — even though the thought of trudging through council minutes, potholes, tenant requests and purchase orders almost made her sick. She smeared jam on her last piece of toast, holding it down with a clumsy thumb, and right on cue ….
Janet Miller paused briefly at the door in the one concession she made to the formality that should have existed between the two women. Actually, they’d grown up together — whenever Emily hadn’t been parcelled off to boarding school or America or the wicked aunts of Cheltenham. They had been close as girls and had gotten to know each other better as adults. Now, after some difficult years, they had a “We’re in this together, alone” camaraderie that sometimes develops between women who find themselves in a world where they’re too young, too professional and too female. Mainly it worked, but sometimes their “Aux barricades!” attitude got in the way.
Emily looked up. Janet had her concerned face on, which was actually a relief from all the worried faces Emily had seen over the last three days. “This can work,” she thought and took a breath.
“Good morning, Miller. And how are you this fine, frozen morning?”
Janet Miller sat down, looking sceptical.
“It’s cold up there.” Emily gestured with her good hand. “I’m not getting naked at 40 below zero. Take it or leave it. Now, what do we have today?
“I thought we’d settle the Christmas schedule and tie up some loose ends — if that’s alright?”
“Okay, let’s see.” Janet opened her notebook.
“Right. No outside lights again this year, I’m afraid. But the tree is going up today. It’s not a large as last year, but it’s local. Less expensive. The children from the primary are coming tomorrow to decorate. The school has arranged transportation, and I’ve organized some of the staff to supervise. But they’ll expect an appearance?” It was a question.
“I’ll need some help,” Emily said seriously, lifting the lapel of her work shirt.
Janet nodded. “And lunch. I’ve already spoken to Mrs. Tisdale.”
“So no riding tomorrow, then?” Emily said.
“I should think you won’t be riding for a while.”
Emily made a schoolgirl face. Janet ignored it. (On a different day, she would have probably stuck out her tongue.)
“The Christmas Market’s on the 19th. Again, an appearance?”
“You’ll need to bring money. We’re thinking of Beecham’s jam and perhaps something from the Crystal Shop. I’ll leave you the details. And we going to have two nights of carollers.”
“The 21st and the 23rd. It seems there’s been a rebellion in the Weldon Choral Society. There was a falling out over the program. Unfortunately, the Rebel Alliance called us first and nobody twigged. Now we’re stuck. It will be two night for you, but the rest is taken care of. We’ll just split the menu. Little meat pies, our brandy, coffee, tea, and the local shortbread. Let’s see. Church on Christmas Eve this year. Apparently, a special service. Two hundred years, I believe. They’ll need a donation. We’re at the end of our Charity budget, and there’s still Boxing Day to do, but anything less than a thousand pounds and there will be talk. I was thinking . . . .”
Emily quit listening for a few seconds. The pressure in her hand was starting to throb, and it all seemed so endless — even the Baby Jesus wanted a piece of the pie. She closed her eyes tight, exhaled and started over.
“. . . and the pagans want to use Stride Hill again for their Solstice bonfire.”
“An appearance?” Emily said sarcastically.
“Certainly not. But we did have some trouble with them last year. They left a bit of a mess. So I’m thinking . . . .”
“Who’s the Grand Poobah these days?”
“One of the Clifton boys. Ronald I believe. He was behind us in school.”
“Leave me his information, and I’ll put the fear of God into him.”
The two women made eye contact and smirked at the unintended joke.
“How are you holding up?”
“Just a couple more, I think.” Emily said, and closed her eyes.
“Alright, then, Christmas dinner is very much set up. It will arrive in a van on the 24th and we don’t have to do anything except the tables.” Janet pointed. “We can do those in advance. And, of course, accommodations for the catering staff. They do cleanup and then leave on Boxing Day. It’s a lot more expensive, but it’s better than the mess we used to go through with Epiphany. We do have two empty seats at your table, though. The Claypools are going to see their new granddaughter, so they’ll be gone until after the New Year. I was thinking of adding the Witherspoons. They’ve had a poor year, and lately they’ve been losing chickens.”
“Three nights in a row. It’s a badger. Last night he killed one and left two half dead in the enclosure. We’ll need to apply for a permit and that’s going to take forever. Remember the fine we got for the fox last . . . .”
The telephone rang, and both women looked up in shock. “Morning prayers” (as they called it) were sacred, and everyone on the estate knew that. Janet went over to the sideboard and answered.
“Yes?” It was an accusation.
“There’s a man on the telephone, looking for her ladyship. He’s been quite persistent, and now he’s threatening to go to the police and report she’s been kidnapped.”
“What? Is he still there? Put him through.”
“Hello? Yes. Who am I speaking to?” It was Janet’s you’re-in-deep-trouble voice. “Well, Mr. Sinclair . . . .”
“Sinclair!” Emily turned in her chair and motioned for the telephone.
Janet put her hand over the receiver. Emily motioned again, and Janet reached the telephone over to her. Emily fumbled with her bandaged fingers, juggled and finally held the receiver up to the wrong ear with the wrong hand.
“Hi. How are you?”
“I’m fine. Well, no, not so much, but. Why are you calling me on the estate telephone?”
“There was no answer at the number I have, so I had Sydney find you on doodle.”
“Google,” Emily corrected. “Sydney, of course. How is Sydney? I never got to give him a proper thank you.”
“He’s alright. Making a nuisance of himself, trying to look busy.”
“Busy? You’re not working?”
“No, they close the office for Christmas. Sydney isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do when I don’t call. He’s trying to make . . . .”
“You’re not working?”
“No, I said that. Are you alright?”
“Yes, yes – um – uh” And Emily suddenly decided, “What are you doing for Christmas?”
There was a pause.
“I hadn’t really thought about it.”
Emily could see the Sinclair shrug.
“Come here,” she said. “You can come here. We’d love to have you. Really.”
“What? Wait a minute. I just phoned to see how you were doing. I have your clothes. And I didn’t know . . . .”
“Bring them with you. Bring Sydney. It’ll be fun. We’ll go riding and roast chestnuts and drink hot brandy and …. C’mon, we’ll have a great time.”
“I don’t think Sydney’s ever even seen a horse.”
“I’ll find him a girlfriend, then. Really. You’re not doing anything. Why not?”
This was a serious Sinclair pause. Emily kind of held her breath.
“Alright. Sounds good. When should I arrive?”
“Right now – uh,” Emily looked down at her work shirt. “No – uh — tomorrow. You can help me decorate the tree. We’ll pick you up at the station.”
“I’ll let you know. Answer your phone.”
“I will. Yes. Okay, see you tomorrow.”
“Is there anything you want me to bring?
Emily looked back at Janet and smiled for the first time in three days.
“Do you know anything about badgers?”
Emily tried to untwist the telephone cord that was tangled around her arm and finally, in frustration, just handed the receiver to Janet. She carefully raised Emily’s hand and unwound it, put it back and set the telephone on the sideboard. Then she came and sat down at the breakfast table. The two women didn’t look at each other. It was the silence of not knowing what to say and wanting the other woman to say it first. If there had been a clock, it would have ticked. If there had been an hourglass, they would have heard the sand fall. It was the longest eight seconds in human history. Finally, without moving, Janet looked over and caught Emily studiously “not” looking back, and in that silent apprehensive eye contact, the professional veneer collapsed and they were fifteen again, passing notes in Miss Cafferty’s chemistry class – and they giggled.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Magpie: spill it!”
“What? Nothing. He’s just a man I met in London.” Emily twirled her coffee cup.
“Of course, and you always invite the men you meet in London home for Christmas? This is what? One in a row?”
Emily could hear Janet rolling her eyes.
“Well, no — you know – he — uh – we – uh – we get along really well. I think he likes me.”
Janet nodded her head. “Could be? He tracked you down and threatened to call the police if you didn’t come to the telephone. Yeah, could be? Oh, come on! What’s he like?”
“He’s – uh – it’s hard to say. I’m not sure …. At first, you think he’s sort of not really there, but he has this way of … way of just being there. Just ….”
Emily spread her hands and lifted her shoulders. “Not big … just …”
Emily put her teeth together and shook her head slowly. “More.”
“More?” It was a statement and a question.
“I don’t know, Jans. He has this way of – uh – of getting everything to move around him, but not like he even means to do that. It just happens.” Emily tilted her head toward her friend. “And he was really sweet to me after the Russians cut off my finger.”
It caught Janet under the chin, and she snapped her head sideways. “WHAT?”
“Oh,” Emily paused and shifted her eyes, “You didn’t know.”
Janet exhaled and shook her head. Her eyes had completely lost their schoolgirl laughter. She waited.
“Uh – it’s nothing, really. I was doing some work for … evaluation work — for an insurance company … Well, not really an insurance company. It was … It’s complicated. It’s very complicated.”
“Russians?” Janet asked tentatively, “Like Russian gangsters? What have you gotten yourself into?”
“No, no, it’s not that way. Well, they were gangsters, I suppose. They turned out to be, anyway. But that’s the point. Sinclair is the one who fixed it. He stopped them and got me out of there.”
“After they cut off your finger! God Almighty, is he a criminal too?”
“No, no, he works for the insurance company.”
“The one you weren’t working for?”
Emily slumped back in her chair. Suddenly she was very tired. Everything was so complicated. She just didn’t have the energy to explain. “What did they say happened?”
“Billie said they told him you got your hand caught in a weaving machine. An accident. A bloody, stupid accident.” Janet’s voice was sharp with worry for her friend.
“Janet,” Emily reached over and touched her arm, “It’s over. Completely finished. I promise. And when I’m feeling better, I’ll tell you the whole story. I will. But right now, I’m just too tired.”
Janet hooded the doubt in her eyes.
“Do you have anything else in your book?”
“No, no. We’re done.” Janet said, without looking down.
“Alright, I’m going to go back to bed for a while.” Emily stood up. “You’re going to like Sinclair. I know you will.”
Janet forced a smile.
Halfway to the door, Emily turned around seriously. Janet looked up and understood the look. She moved her index finger back and forth and nodded solemnly. But she also made a mental note to tell Billie to keep an eye on this Dreyfus Sinclair – whoever he was.
The next morning was even colder than the day before, with little feathers of frost in the corners of the Emily’s bedroom windows. The sun was low and long, already cutting a few melting strips across the roofs, but the meadow was still wedding cake white – crisp and even. Emily thought she felt better but wasn’t sure yet. She’d spent most of yesterday in bed — asleep and awake — drowsy even without painkillers. Janet had sent a nurse from the village who changed the dressing (it was smaller now and not so awkward) and said everything looked good. She also sent the housemaids up with blankets and a portable electric heater. They took Emily’s work clothes and laid out two heavy sweat suits, black and grey, and a pair of dark tan Uggs. (Emily wondered if they were from Janet’s personal collection.) Cozy warm clothes helped Emily’s mood, even though she’d struggled with the drawstring and zipper until finally, giving up, she found a big, bulk knit sweater that was loose enough to pull over her head. She turned away from the window. The fireplace looked lonely cold. When she was a child, there had always been fires going on Christmas at Pyaridge Hall. She remembered waking up to the sound and the smell of them. But that was then, and it was time for breakfast and “morning prayers.”
At the top of the stairs, Emily saw the tree, towering in the entrance hall, two floors tall and a perfect cone. She could see that they’d already strung the lights, and for a second she thought about switching them on in the dim morning but realized that she had no idea where the outlets were. From the stairs, she could just reach the higher branches, and she touched them with her good hand, rubbing her fingers on the needles. She leaned out as far as she could over the bannister, closed her mouth and took a deep breath of pine. It smelled like Christmas, and now it felt like Christmas, and she knew she was feeling better.
Breakfast was the same/same, and Janet Miller was right on time, if perhaps a little more professional than usual. There wasn’t much, mostly scheduling.
“I’ll need help today to dress for the children.”
“Anything special?” Emily added.
“No, the usual: cricket, student garden group. The Doughty’s daughter won a poetry contest.”
“Uh. . . ” Janet consulted her notebook. “Tynal.”
“They’re from Birmingham.”
“Hmm,” Emily agreed.
“Don’t worry: I’ll have Lillian there with the crib.”
“Lunch here,” Janet gestured, “Thank you, thank you. Then load them back on the bus.”
There was a hum it the air. Janet noticed, paused and tilted her head. Then, unable to decipher it, she went back to her book.
“Anyway, here’s the details on the pagans.” Janet passed Emily a sheet of paper. “It’s Donald, not Ronald, and he was two years behind us. It’s called Science and Sorcery, something or other. I can do this if you like.”
“No, it’ll do me good to scold somebody. I don’t remember him, though.”
Janet shrugged, “Apparently Billie knows him quite well.”
“No. You know Billie. He worships the water you walk on.”
Emily smiled and thought for a second. “What did he do with the Jag?”
The hum was louder. Both women heard it and glanced at the windows.
“Left it in London,” Janet said, turning her head back to the table. “Brought you home in the Roller. Carried you upstairs. Rolled up the rugs. Banished the dogs. I finally had to throw him out.”
Emily smiled, remembering close to none of it.
“Ah, they’re at the Dilfords.” Janet said, slightly distracted by the hum that was now a noise, “Moping.”
“I’ll bring them home tomorrow.”
The noise was getting louder. Both women looked at the windows again. Janet put her hand up.
“Just a moment.” She got up and went to the window. Outside, at the end of the drive, there was a school bus turning onto the estate and a full blue sky with – with birds? Three big black birds were flying – but they weren’t birds? They were . . . too steady, too symmetrical.
Janet turned back to Emily.
“Come see this,” she motioned. By the time she turned back, both women could hear the unmistakable whoop/whoop of helicopter blades. They were helicopters. In fact, they were three R.A.F. Puma HC support helicopters, flying in formation towards the house. Emily got to the window just as they settled high over the front lawn. She looked up and one slowly began to drift down, as the others hovered above it.
“What the ….?”
Suddenly, Emily shot her hand over her open mouth and gave a short I-should-be-embarrassed-but I’m-not, breathless laugh.
“It’s Sinclair,” she said. “My God, it’s Sinclair!” And she laughed out loud.
The two women turned their faces to each other.
“I told you,” Emily said, spun around and ran out of the room.
“Mind your hand!” Janet shouted after her.
She turned back to the window just as the helicopter touched the ground.
Two men jumped down from the helicopter, reached back and grabbed garment bags and suitcases. They squatted with their heads down until the big machine roared and rose straight up over their heads, as if it was being pulled on a string. Then they straightened up, adjusted themselves, picked up their luggage and started walking to the house.
“This stunt is going to be all over the parish by midday,” Janet thought, and looked over at the main doors. They were still closed. That was good. All the gossip mill needed now was the Duchess of Weldon running across the front lawn like a meadow fox in heat.
Janet knew Emily wasn’t some lovestruck schoolgirl, but she also knew that smart was no guarantee against getting tangled up with the wrong person. And love may not always be blind, but even on its best day it was definitely near-sighted.
Janet went back to the table, stuck her pen in her book, pushed her chair into place and went out through the open door. Time to meet what all the fuss is about.
In the entrance hall, there was utter chaos. There were open boxes of decorations; a couple of ladders; a thick, half-strung garland stretched out on the floor; several wreaths spilling off a table; holly, candles and a bundle of giant barbershop candy canes on the floor. The staff who’d been enlisted to help with the tree were casually mingling with the other staff – who just happened to be there for reasons completely unrelated to the gigantic helicopter that had recently landed on the front lawn. Janet was halfway into the hall and about to take charge when Reynolds opened the double doors. The low morning sun suddenly burst through the room, and the silhouettes standing on the threshold were surrounded by a crisp, winter light that made them look like two fallen angels still bright with heaven. But before anyone could do anything or say anything, Lady Perry-Turner, Duchess of Weldon, skipped forward and flung her arms around the neck of the man on the left. Instinctively, Janet turned her head and shot a fire and brimstone stare at the staff who collectively twitched and immediately found things to do. Then she turned her head back, stepped forward to the other man and reached out her hand.
“Good morning! I’m Janet Miller, the estate manager. You must be Sydney?”
The man smiled – half smiled – it might have been a snarl without the mischief that crinkled in his eyes. “Pleased to meet you, but actually, I’m Dreyfus Sinclair.” He barely raised an index finger, “The young gentleman over there, being strangled, is Sydney.”
“Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I assumed …”
“No, no; not to worry. It happens all the time.” Dreyfus set down his garment bag and extended his hand.
Emily let go of Sydney and stepped back.
“Sydney, Sydney! It’s so good to see you.” Emily almost clapped her hands but thought better of it.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s good to see you, too.” Sydney was more than slightly embarrassed.
They all stood there for a couple of seconds in an awkward English silence. Then Emily swivelled on one heel.
Dreyfus reached out and delicately took Emily’s bandaged hand. She didn’t move. He held it like you would fragile glass and looked into her face. “How does it feel?”
Emily looked up at Dreyfus. “It hurts,” she said like a whimper and then caught herself. “And the itch is driving me mad.”
Dreyfus smiled and gently lowered her hand.
Over their heads and through the open doors, Janet could see the school bus pulling up. Oh, my God! They didn’t need to add thirty hyper children into the mix.
“Your Grace,” she said.
Emily, confused by the formality (Janet didn’t speak like that) just stood there. Then, slightly shaking her head in recognition, “Oh, we haven’t ….”
“Actually,” Dreyfus turned back to Janet, “We have. Just now. And this,” Dreyfus opened his palm, “is Sydney. Sydney, this is Janet Miller. She’s the estate manager.”
Janet and Sydney leaned forward between Emily and Dreyfus in a clumsy handshake. The murmuring conversations behind them were getting louder. There was a clatter and exclamations as something fell on the stairs, and outside, Janet could see the bus had stopped. She straightened back up.
“Your Grace. The children?”
For a second, Emily’s face was empty, her eyes still on Dreyfus. Then she looked at Janet and realized what she was saying.
“Of course.” She nodded and turned back to Dreyfus.
“You’ll have to excuse me for the moment: we’re on a very tight schedule this morning. Reynolds will see to the luggage. Reynolds? Would you like to freshen up, or perhaps a coffee?”
“Coffee would be grand.”
“Janet, could you? In the sitting room. I’ll join you in a few minutes.”
Emily turned back to the staff.
“Lillian, would you meet the teachers outside, please? Give everyone a minute to clear up the confusion; then the tree is all yours. And the rest of you are all here to assist with the tree?” It wasn’t a question, and people started moving.
“Hannah, could you help me upstairs, please?”
Emily turned back to Dreyfus. “Thanks for coming, Sinclair. I’ll be down in a bit.”
And she turned and walked away.
As Dreyfus watched her go, Sydney moved over towards him and whispered, “I think I’ll stay with the luggage, sir, and get the rooms sorted.”
“They’re not going to steal anything, Sydney.”
Sydney didn’t look convinced. “I don’t know about that. It feels like we’ve stepped into an episode of Midsomer Murders.”
“Whatever you think, Sydney.” Dreyfus said laughing, and went over to where Janet was waiting.
“You must have a very busy job: the estate is quite impressive from the air.”
“Actually, Pyaridge is one of the smaller Midland estates. We’re a bit of a backwater here.”
Dreyfus half laughed, “That’s why Sydney couldn’t find a train.”
“No, the trains don’t stop. We haven’t had a station for over eighty years.”
“Mm-hmm. Just go through, Mr. Sinclair. I’ll organize some coffee,” Janet said, stepping aside.
Dreyfus Sinclair was not having a very good time. He was cold. Even with his coat on and his hands over the glowing red electric heater, he could feel the drafty room in his bones. Yesterday had been miserable. He’d spent the day playing hurry up and wait for a few odd minutes with Emily, hide and seek with the Pyaridge staff (who were overflowing with May-I-help-you’s) and just hiding from the evil Janet Miller who prowled the corridors like Lady Macbeth. And when he went outside (twice) he ran into a strange-looking man cradling a shotgun. Dinner had been a disaster — a table full of local potentates obsessed with drainage and a nervous woman on his left who actually wanted to hear about insurance. Plus he just realized he hadn’t seen Sydney since he disappeared up the stairs with the Midsomer Murders’ butler, Reynolds.
“The hell with it,” he thought and got up to go find the breakfast room.
“Breakfast is at 8:00, Mr. Sinclair.”
Dreyfus looked at his watch. So kill me for ten minutes.
The breakfast room was a cavern with a high vaulted ceiling. For a second, Dreyfus thought about shouting “Helloooo!” to see if it echoed. But he saw Emily sitting tiny at the far end of the very, very long table and decided not to be flippant. Instead, he walked in. At least it was warm.
“Cozy,” he said, halfway up the table.
Emily ignored the remark. “Good morning, Sinclair. Did you sleep well?”
Dreyfus took a cup and saucer from the sideboard, set them down on the table and gestured at the carafe of coffee. “Very well. But, this morning it was freezing up there.”
“Really? Hmm. I’ll have a heater sent up.”
“There’s one in the room.” Dreyfus poured coffee, “And believe me, it’s not up to the task.”
Emily thought for a second then casually changed the subject. “Is Sydney coming down?”
“You better check. I think the penguins ate him.”
“Oh, for God’s sake! It’s not that bad.” Emily turned her head and shot Dreyfus an annoyed glance. Dreyfus caught a glimpse of fuzzy pink at her throat. In one smooth, swift motion, he stepped forward, grabbed Emily’s bandaged hand at the wrist so she couldn’t move it, reached his other hand just under the neckline of her sweater, and before she could react, pulled the collar of her pajamas free.
“Hey!” Emily yelled.
“Flannel!” Dreyfus replied, letting everything go and calmly sitting down again. “No wonder you’re not cold: you’ve got about three layers on there.”
Emily adjusted her sweater and her composure. “Alright, it might be a little chilly, but you need to control yourself, Sinclair. This isn’t Scotland. Around here, a girl likes to be asked before you stick your hand under her jumper.”
“Good advice,” Dreyfus laughed and sipped his coffee. “But, seriously, what’s the deal?”
Emily shrugged. “Big house, old boilers. I think the last time they were refit was in the 60s. Normally, it’s not a problem. I’m the only one who lives up there, and in the summer it’s quite pleasant.”
“Don’t the fireplaces work?”
“Oh yeah. When I was young, we used to have fires in all the bedrooms at Christmas. But the house was full then. Now …” Emily shrugged again, “Besides, the insurance premiums were killing us. So, no fires.”
“Insurance. Bunch of thieves.”
“Says the man.”
Dreyfus spread his hands. He gestured with his chin. “Give me one of your pieces of bacon.”
“No,” Emily wrinkled her brow. “Call down. Mrs. Tisdale will make you anything you like.”
“Seems like a lot of trouble for a piece of bacon.”
“No, really. Call down now, and Janet can bring it up when she comes.”
“Oow, the ubiquitous Ms. Miller.” Dreyfus wiggled his fingers, “Will she be joining us for breakfast?”
“No, we go over estate business every day after breakfast, Morning Prayers. Don’t you like Janet?” It was a real question.
“She scares me. And I think she wants me,” Dreyfus paused, raised his eyebrows and nodded his head slowly, “sexually.”
They both chuckled.
“Careful what you wish for, Sinclair. You could end up losing more than a finger.” Emily held her bandaged hand in the air.
Dreyfus smiled to himself. This was the Emily he’d gotten to know in London. He’d been worried that she might have changed – fear and trauma can do that. He was relieved. It wasn’t that he felt guilty — he didn’t — he’d done what he had to do. No, this was the Emily he liked. The one he wanted around. And it was good to see her again.
“Am I allowed in the kitchen?”
“If you two are going to talk drains all day, I want to be warm and close to the food.”
“We’re not going to talk drains all day.” Emily shook her head sarcastically, “Actually, I’m going to walk down and get the dogs this morning. Come with me? It’ll do you some good.”
“Okay,” Dreyfus shrugged. “So just direct me to the food, and you and Ms. Miller can plan and plot to your heart’s content.”
Emily thought about it. It was a serious breach of etiquette. The staff might not be pleased. But … that’s what she loved about Dreyfus: he was a different breeze. And it wasn’t as though they weren’t already talking. She could well imagine. Emily closed her eyes to remember and pointed her finger.
“Out that door,” Emily bent her finger left. “Left, then first right.” She straightened her finger. “Follow the hall all the way to the end and down the stairs. First landing.” Emily opened one eye. “I think.”
Dreyfus drank the last of his coffee, set the cup down and stood up. “Where will I meet you?”
“I’ll be in the entrance hall in about an hour. Have someone find you a pair of boots. It’s a bit of a walk.”
Dreyfus met Janet at the end of the hall just before the stairs. She looked just slightly shocked. Dreyfus smiled with mischief.
“She’s all yours,” he said. Then he raised his index finger, “But I got the dogs.”
The mid-morning was beautiful, clear and quiet. The sun was high enough to be warm and the air cold enough to be crisp. And the only sound in the world was the crunch of the finely-packed gravel under their feet. Janet had insisted on a wool hat, duffle coat (buttoned to the neck), long wrapped scarf, and mittens, and Emily felt like a waddling bear — but this was the first time she’d been out in nearly two weeks, and it made her giddy. Dreyfus, on the other hand, wasn’t sure about the borrowed boots (they seemed a little big) so he was literally watching his step. At the end of the driveway, they crossed the road and went through a slight stand of trees into a huge winter meadow, still spotted with frost.
“Wow! This is fantastic,” Dreyfus said. “Is all this yours?”
“Mm-hmm. Beyond those hills,” Emily pointed, “To the airfield, and that used to be ours also, but my great-great somebody gave it to the government during the war.” Emily turned her hand to the left, “That way passed the village to the motorway.”
“You own the village?” Dreyfus interrupted.
Emily stopped walking.
“You own the village? And you’re the Duchess?”
She crinkled her nose at Dreyfus.
“I knew you were Lady something-or-other, but nobody told me you were royalty.”
“Royalty? We’re not royal. Who told you that?”
“Nobody. I just assumed. Duchess. Royalty.”
“Noooo,” Emily scoffed and started walking again, “It’s only a name. James I gave us the title in 16 – uh – I don’t know, because all the other families around here were Catholic. We’re not royal. Far from it.”
The path was wide enough for both of them, and they walked side by side.
“What about you, Sinclair? What’s your story?”
“No story. My family never heard of James I.”
“C’mon. The last time I saw you, you had a gun in your hand, and you were selling my finger to the highest bidder. Correct me if I’m wrong, but insurance adjustors don’t carry guns. They don’t barter body parts. And they sure as hell don’t scare the shit out of Russian gangsters.”
“You lost your accent.”
“Don’t change the subject. What happened there?” Emily asked seriously.
Dreyfus thought about it. “If you recall, I wasn’t selling your finger: I was negotiating a price – that started off with your head. It was smart bargaining got it down to a finger.”
“That’s true. I suppose I should thank you for that.”
“You did. Extravagantly.”
Emily looked puzzled.
“You don’t remember much about the loft, do you?” Dreyfus asked, carefully manipulating the conversation.
“No,” Emily shook her head ruefully, “Between the pain and the painkillers, not much. I remember those tall windows: they were gorgeous. And the fireplace and the soup. Oh, God! I remember the soup! That was the best soup, and I remember ….”
Emily eyes flickered, and she stopped talking and stopped walking. Dreyfus turned his head.
“We didn’t?” The question was real, “Did we?”
Dreyfus smiled and laughed. He put his hand up. “No. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my sex consensual.”
Emily tucked her chin into her scarf and slightly closed her eyes. (“Why not?” she thought.) “I would have consented,” she said evenly.
Dreyfus laughed again. “I was talking about me. You’re very aggressive when you’re stoned.”
“You bastard!” Emily swiped at him with her mittened hand, missed, took a step sideways to try again and tripped. Dreyfus grabbed her by the hips to keep her from falling.
“I beg your pardon?”
Emily twisted away from his hands and knelt down. She pulled a flat black lump out of the grass and held it like a prize.
“I knew it. The minute I tripped, I knew it.”
Emily looked around, trying to orient herself. Dreyfus just stood there, wondering what was going on. Emily turned back to the ground, wiping the grass with her mitten, and then reached down with both hands. Dreyfus jumped forward.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” he said, pulling her injured hand away. “What are you doing?”
Emily stopped. She looked at Dreyfus and laughed nervously. “I guess this looks pretty silly, doesn’t it?”
“Hmmm. It’s complicated.” Emily stood up and brushed off her knees. “One of my stupider ancestors was mad for tarmac – um – pavement – um,” Emily searched for the word, “Asphalt! He asphalted everything. All the footpaths, the fences, along the streams, random places for no reason. Anyway, Billie and I decided to get rid of it. We did the footpaths and all the obvious places, but it keeps coming back. It’s everywhere. It’s like a war, and every time we find it, we tear it out. This must be another overgrown pathway of some kind. I was just going to pull out a bigger piece so we’d be sure to find it again. But….” Emily held her hand in the air.
Dreyfus let go of Emily’s raised hand and reached down. He found the end of the pavement, steadied his feet, and — with both hands — pulled straight up. There was a snap as the asphalt broke, and Dreyfus stumbled forward with the effort.
“Big enough?” he said, regaining his balance.
“Perfect. Just put it on the path, so we can find it.”
Dreyfus set the black lump down, and Emily placed the smaller piece beside it. She smiled at him as if they were now comrades in arms.
“Anything else I should watch out for? Dinosaur bones? Dragon’s teeth?”
“No,” Emily laughed again, “Let’s go get the dogs. Dilford Cottage is just beyond those trees.”
Dilford Cottage was straight out of a 19th century sketchbook – grey slate, thatched roof, bony fingers of hawthorn and ivy climbing the walls. Dreyfus had never imagined places like this even existed. There was a short wooden gate across the path, but no fence. Emily stopped a couple of paces up the path and put her hand up.
“You need to stay here for a minute. The dogs don’t know you.”
“There’s no fence.”
“Just, just stay here.”
Emily opened the gate and closed it behind her. She walked up and pounded loudly on the door.
“Mrs. Dilford,” she shouted and opened the door, “I’ve come for ….”
Three medium-sized black and white tornadoes erupted at Emily’s knees. They twisted and chased and dodged and darted, and Emily staggered back a little from the weight of them around her legs; but, Dreyfus noticed, they didn’t jump up or bark.
“Hello, dogs!” Emily took off one mitten and scratched and patted each one in turn — each one dancing and pushing for extra attention. One of them stopped, gave Dreyfus a suspicious stare, then went back to the hand that was scratching him.
An older, square-shaped woman appeared at the door.
“I just came for the dogs, Mrs. Dilford,” Emily shouted. “I hope they weren’t too much trouble.”
“No, not at all,” the woman shouted back. “They were good company.” She paused. “Our Billie said you had an accident, dear. Are you alright?”
“On the mend, Mrs. Dilford, on the mend. How are you?”
“Still good, still good. I’ll put the kettle on if you have the time?”
“No, I’m with someone at the minute.” Emily turned slightly so Mrs. Dilford could see.
“Ah, that’ll be your Mr. Sinclair. Pilot, is he?”
Emily laughed, “Insurance.”
“Hmm,” Mrs. Dilford considered that.
“Well, we best be off. Will I see you at the market?”
“Oh, yes. I’ll be there.”
“Alright, then. See you then, and thanks again for the dogs.”
“No trouble. Anytime. Mind how you go.” Mrs. Dilford disappeared back into the house, and Emily took the few steps to the gate – the dogs still around her feet. She opened it and stepped through. The dogs stopped and stood, anxiously waiting.
“These are my dogs. What do you think?”
Dreyfus raised his shoulders and tilted his head.
“No, you have to say something.”
Emily laughed “I don’t know. How about ‘Emily Perry-Turner is the sexiest woman in the world’?”
“You don’t think I’m sexy?”
“Of course I do, but what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Dogs!” Emily’s voice was a command.
The dogs flew through the gate, and Emily closed it behind them. They ran out and back and danced around Emily’s feet.
“They just had to hear your voice,” Emily said as they came over to get a sniff of this stranger.
Dreyfus stood self-consciously still. He didn’t know much about dogs. “Are they vicious?”
“No, they’re pussycats.” Emily reached her hand into the neck of one and scratched, “Aren’t you. Yeah. Big suck.” Emily looked up, “But they’re very protective. Five or six years ago, one of our EU advisors thought it would be cute to shake the ladder I was standing on. I yelled, and he got 18 stitches. Since then, I’ve been cautious with visitors, but everybody else around here spoils them rotten.”
“Oh,” Dreyfus still didn’t move, “What’s the trick with the gate?”
“No trick. When they were puppies, Billie and I trained them not to leave Dilford’s yard. Collies are smart, and they love to learn things. Billie and I taught them all kinds of stuff. It was a long summer.”
“What are their names?”
Emily shrugged and shook her head.
“Dogs,” she said, off-handedly, and looked out into the clear sky. “Should we give them a good run?”
“They’re your dogs,” Dreyfus said, relaxing now that they seemed to have lost interest in him.
“See the hill over there? The highest one?”
“The one with the people building a-a-a-a house?”
“Those are pagans, and they’re building a Wicker Man to burn on the Solstice.”
“Yes, and I need to have a word with them. Want to come?”
“Sure. Maybe they’re the ones who ate Sydney.”
“Dogs!” Emily waved her hand forward, and the dogs shot across the meadow like three blur fur bullets.
“You needn’t worry about Sydney,” Emily started walking. “He spent last night in the village with Hannah and her sister. And if the rumours about those two are true, you might not see him for the better part of a week.”
“Sydney?” Dreyfus thought. “So, you’re not the nerd you say you are.”
The hill wasn’t steep, but it was long, and Dreyfus could see Emily was slowing down. “How you doing?”
“I can feel it,” she said. “I think we’ll go home after this.”
When they got to the top, they stopped to catch their breath. There were about two dozen assorted pagans, carrying and stacking and twisting. The dogs had been there and back at least twice, and they were wandering around uninterested. Several of the pagans kept working, but most of them were just playing at it, very aware of Dreyfus and Emily’s presence there. Emily blew out a big breath.
“Stay here,” she said and took a few steps forward.
“Who’s in charge here?” She didn’t raise her voice, but it was heavy with authority.
One of the men stood up, came forward and gave an exaggerated curtsy. “Raven’s Claw of Deene End, at your service, Your Grace.”
“Don’t you play silly bugger with me, Donnie Clifton. I knew you when you peed your pants in primary. This is a serious business, and if you don’t want to be serious, find me someone who does.” Emily clenched her teeth, “I’ll wait.”
Emily’s stare was a cold, unholy quiet.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I thought since you brought Mr. Sinclair, this was a social call.”
Dreyfus made a note that everybody seemed to know him.
“It’s not. And I will bring whomever I want to my hill.”
There was a sharp edge on Emily’s icy silence.
“Now, here’s a History Lesson. My family has allowed pagans to burn on Stride Hill since before Christ made corporal. There’s never been a problem — until last year, when you and your merry band of Wicca wankers turned this place into a rubbish heap. I won’t stand for it. If you choose to live like swine, do it at home. But don’t come here, and don’t call yourselves pagans: you’re not worth the name.”
An urban, gym-slim couple in conspicuous outdoor gear stood up. He had a branch in his hand. Dreyfus mentally measured the distance.
“Excuse me! You can’t ….”
Emily’s eyes didn’t leave Donnie’s face, but her voice cut through the crisp air.
The three dogs ran to her side. Emily pushed her hand, palm down, towards the ground. The dogs dropped into a low crouch, their backs bowed, their front paws outstretched, their muscles almost twitching and their eyes straight ahead, intent — waiting for the command.
Nothing moved. No one spoke. Finally, Emily blinked — and her gaze shifted to the half-built bonfire.
“You’ve got a good turnout this year, Donnie.” Emily paused, “Look, I trust you. We’ve known each other since we were children. We used to play on Wither’s Wall, remember. I know you understand your responsibilities.” Emily’s voice had softened, “But you need to remind your people.” Emily turned her head just slightly to the couple who had stood up, “Especially outsiders who don’t know our history. Stride Hill has been here since the time of the Druids, and it’s going to be here long after we’re all dead and gone. It’s our job to preserve it. And our families have always done that — for centuries. Now, I don’t think you want to be the one who mucks it all up. So, just tell me I can count on you to keep it tidy this year, and that’ll be an end to it.”
“Of course, ma’am,” Donnie said, without hesitation. “We’ll leave it the way we found it. And I’m very sorry about last year; it won’t happen again.”
“Alright. Good. Enjoy your party. I’ll have Billie bring up a couple of bottles from the Pyaridge cellars — with my compliments.”
Emily turned around. “Let’s go home, Sinclair,” she said and started down the hill. Dreyfus looked at the dogs. They didn’t move. He looked back at Emily who was already several steps ahead. He took a few big steps to catch up, and they continued down the hill.
“Let’s let them think about it for a little minute,” Emily said, anticipating Sinclair’s question.
Several steps later: “Dogs!”
A couple of seconds after that, the dogs were walking beside Emily like three satisfied soldiers.
“Very impressive. Are you sure you’re not related to the Windsors?”
“No such luck. Actually, the truth is, we’re an older family than they are: we’re in The Domesday Book. Perrys were here in Weldon when William the Conqueror was still called Billie the Bastard.”
Dreyfus laughed. “Speaking of? Who’s this Billie you keep talking about?”
Emily shrugged. “He’s just Billie. His father was my father’s estate manager, but he wasn’t any good at it.” Emily made a drinking motion with her hand. “Old Bill drank himself into a three car collision when Billie was a teenager, and Daddy kept him on to do odd jobs and such. Now, he’s just Billie. He does all kinds of things around the estate.”
“Like tearing up asphalt.”
“Yeah,” Emily laughed, “Like tearing up asphalt. You met him. He was the one who came and got me in London.”
“No, didn’t meet him. I wasn’t there. Mrs. Flynn left me a note. If I’d been there, I wouldn’t have let you leave.”
“That’s good to know,” Emily thought — and kept walking.
Generally, Dreyfus took life as he found it, so he was annoyed with himself that the Pyaridge crew were annoying him. They seemed like nice people, and he genuinely wanted to like them — but ever since he arrived, they’d been seriously getting on his nerves. If fact, he’d even started mentally sniping at them, and he never liked himself when he was petty. But he couldn’t help it. They were everywhere — they hovered like helpful little worker bees – and the buzz was driving him crazy. Breakfast in the kitchen had been alright, but on the edge of uncomfortable: they were all just a little too eager to answer his questions or pass him the jam. Later, when he and Emily had finished their walk, they swarmed almost immediately: first, Ms. Miller with her omnipotent notebook; then Mrs. Tisdale’s minions with bread, soup and cheese; then the sexually active Hannah with a selection of clothes. Then — yippee-ki-yay! — they were on the road again with a Ms. Miller wannabe (she had her own notebook) named Lillian in tow, and Billie (yes, he was the strange man with the shotgun from the day before) driving them to the village in the oldest Rolls-Royce Dreyfus had ever seen. It was like getting beaten up by teddy bears, and he was exhausted just thinking about it. Now, here at the Market, some hours later, it was getting dark. The fairy lights were coming on, and he should be enjoying himself (this was just the kind of thing Dreyfus liked) but he wasn’t. He was standing next to the Useless Trinket stall, watching Lillian at Emily’s elbow, determined to guide the Duchess through the appointed route — even if she had to drag her the last hundred metres. They were both bright and beautiful, bundled-up shoppers from a Christmas card. But then Emily turned and looked at him, and her eyes and smile caught the twinkling lights.
“Get over yourself!” It wasn’t actually a conscious thought, “You need to do something — even if it’s wrong.”
Dreyfus stepped forward. “I think it’s time for a cup of tea?”
Emily looked surprised, and Lillian looked as if he’d just asked for extra nails at the Crucifixion.
“You don’t drink tea.”
“I do now. And that place looks likely,” Dreyfus pointed. “I don’t know what they have, but it smells delicious.”
“Chestnuts?” Dreyfus chuckled.
“Yeah, chestnuts. You know. Roasting on an open fire.”
“No, you want some?”
“I’ve never had chestnuts, but it sounds good as long as we can sit down and enjoy them.”
Surprisingly, the romantic in Lillian took the hint.
“I’ll just take our packages to the car,” she said. And then she leaned forward to Emily’s ear and whispered, “Do you have money, ma’am?”
Emily nodded and Lillian disappeared.
At the outdoor table, with two thick white mugs of steaming tea and a cone of hot chestnuts between them, Dreyfus could see the weary in Emily’s face. She took her mittens off, cradled the cup in both hands and half closed her eyes. Dreyfus noticed the bandages were still crisp and white. Her hand was healing.
“So, what’s on the agenda tonight? Gutters? Ditches? More drains?”
“God, Sinclair, give the drains a rest.” Emily opened her eyes, “I’m tired.”
“Of course you’re tired. You’ve recently suffered a limb-ending injury.”
“A limb,” Dreyfus stated.
Emily rolled her eyes.
“A digit, at the very least. You deserve to be tired. Look, we walked forever this morning, not to mention the pagans — and you discovered a new source of asphalt. That’s a day’s work in anybody’s book. Even your dogs got the afternoon off. But you’re still here, getting paraded around like the prize heifer at the Cattlemen’s Show.”
“Thanks for that image. Now I feel much better.”
“You know what I mean.”
“This was scheduled months ago. It’s one afternoon. And there’s nothing on tonight. No drains.” Emily screwed up her face.
“Great! Let’s go to the pub. I imagine they make a brilliant meat pie around here. We’ll have a couple pints, and you can tell me all about James I.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Why not? Billie’s driving. And I’m pretty sure young Lillian could use a stiff drink.”
“No, I can’t. There are two pubs in the village.”
“And you own them both?”
“No, I’m the landlord. It’s different. Let me explain a few things to you, Sinclair. People in villages tend to be cliquish. They have their groups, and I can’t be seen to favour one over the other – in anything. You know, this is the first time I’ve ever even had a cup of tea here? And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.”
That explained the look on Lillian’s face, but Dreyfus heard the sad serious in Emily’s voice and kept quiet.
“And pubs are dangerous. Not everybody’s overjoyed about the class system in this country. And it’s not as if people around here don’t know who I am. So, I’m a target for anybody with a complaint and a couple of cups of courage. Somebody makes a remark. Then what do I do? I can’t sit there and argue with them.” Emily slowly shook her head, “And it can’t look like I was chased out. Either way, it becomes an event in a small place like this. And people take sides. They dig in. There’s animosity. So, no. I stay away from inviting that kind of trouble. I can’t go to the pub.”
“What’s it running these days — for and against?” Dreyfus asked, knowing Emily would understood.
“About 60/40, but that’s only because Janet and I have been working at it for the last five years. My father was a wonderful man, but he didn’t understand compound interest or public relations.”
“And that’s why you have the studio in London, so you can get away from it?”
“Mmm, it’s one of the reasons.”
“So what do you do when you are here? Rattle around in that massive house all by yourself?”
‘No, there’s always lots of work to do. The grounds to keep, the horses, the tenants, village maintenance. You haven’t even seen the orchards yet or the distillery.”
“You make whiskey?”
“Brandy. From our own pears,” she said proudly.
“Plus, you’ve got all that asphalt to tear up.”
“Yeah,” Emily half-laughed. “But you’re right. In the wintertime the nights are very long, and I do rattle sometimes.”
“Have you ever thought of fixing that problem?”
For the next few seconds, there was a world of thought in Emily’s mind — but there really weren’t any thoughts, at all. She’d decided this a long time ago. “I don’t lock my bedroom door.”
Later, at the house, Dreyfus paused as Emily and Lillian walked to the door. He went around to the driver’s side, and Billie rolled down the window.
“Can you help me out?” Dreyfus asked. “I need you to do me a big favour.”
That night, Dreyfus and Emily were alone in the big dining hall and dinner came on two covered silver trays – one each.
“Thank you, Margaret. That will be all this evening. Could you tell Reynolds to lock up, and we’ll all get an early night tonight.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Margaret left the trays and left the room.
When she was gone, Emily gestured for Dreyfus to lift the cover. On the tray was a pub pastry meat pie and a bottle of beer. Dreyfus laughed his surprise.
“We can’t go to the pub; maybe the pub can come to us.”
“You can do this?”
“Sure,” Emily shrugged. “Given enough notice, Mrs. Tisdale can do anything.”
Emily lifted the cover off her dinner.
“So, what do you want to know about James I?”
The dinner was small-talk pleasant, if a bit hollow in the big room. Dreyfus asked about the estate and things like where the dogs were. (They didn’t like the house and had their own kennel by the stables.) Emily rambled a bit, too tired to pick her questions, but it was clear she had some. Dreyfus avoided most of them.
“That was quite an entrance with the helicopters.”
“That was Sydney. He’s very keen. I just said we needed to get to Pyaridge Hall tomorrow, and he whistled up the helicopters. I’m going to have to be careful in the future.”
“Who’s Harbir Singh?” Emily asked seriously.
“I know that. But who is he? When you told the Russians he was Sydney’s father, they noticed. So who is he?”
“I told the Russians a lot of things.” Dreyfus shied away from the answer. “I was negotiating, remember.”
Emily scowled, “C’mon.”
Dreyfus considered it for a second. “He’s a heavy hitter in the City. A lot of power and a long reach.”
“So why’s Sydney driving a taxi for you?”
“Punishment, I think. Harbir Singh owns the service I use, and one morning Sydney showed up as my driver. The morning I came to your studio, actually. You’ve known him as long as I have. But it’s worked out. I like the kid. And he’s certainly enthusiastic.” Dreyfus made a rotating motion with his index finger.
“I like him, too, but I’m just as glad he’s staying in the village,” Emily slyly admitted.
“Am I going to have to go drag him out of the arms of the Weird Sisters?”
Emily laughed and the tired went out of her eyes. “No, he’ll be here for Christmas dinner.”
Dreyfus looked the question.
“We hold Christmas dinner here for the staff, tenants, people associated with the estate. Hannah will be here, and her sister, and I’m guessing Sydney also. You can negotiate his release then, if you like.”
“Well, you do have nine other fingers.”
Emily laughed again. It was good to joke.
“C’mon. I want to show you something.” Emily flipped her napkin on to the table and stood up. “I think it’s kind of cool.”
They walked out of the dining room, down the short wide passage into the entrance hall that burst into Christmas as the tree lights automatically came to life. On the other side, there were two more rooms that also lit up when they entered and then a set of double doors that were (oddly) very nearly square. Emily stopped.
“You’ll have to help me,” she said, motioning with her injured hand. “I can’t do them both.”
Dreyfus reached for the long metal handle, and they pulled both doors open. They were surprisingly light.
“Alright, now take my hand. No. Wait. Let me get on the other side.” Emily was clearly excited, “There. Now, on three, take one step forward. One, two, three!”
They stepped in unison into the room. Nothing happened.
“Shit! Okay. Just ….”
Suddenly the room ignited with light. It was so big and so bright and so empty it took a few seconds for Dreyfus’ eyes to adjust. There were three massive chandeliers, in a line high in the ten metre ceiling that shone like burning diamonds. One long wall was a row of tall casement glass windows that were dozens of dark mirrors, reflecting away from the black outside night. The other wall was a vast field of textured, dove white with an irregular track of portraits that lost themselves near the far wall. And the far wall was small – insignificant in the massive room.
“This is the ballroom. We’re going to have Christmas dinner here.” Emily smiled at Dreyfus’ approval.
“Who are you trying to feed — the Royal Marines?”
Emily laughed and stepped forward, sweeping her arm at the white wall.
“And these people are my ancestors. Back to ….” Emily shrugged, “Actually, we don’t know who this first bunch are. Uh – well, we know who they are; we just don’t know which is which. They got mixed up a couple of hundred years ago.” Emily chuckled and pointed, “But that’s the first real Duke of Weldon, there.”
Dreyfus saw an Elizabethan grandee with stiff ruffed neck and a dagger goatee.
“Then they follow each other all the way down the wall to my grandfather and daddy. Then there’s a place for me.”
“Then what?” Dreyfus thought. He also noticed that a couple of the portraits were women, but Emily’s hand caught his attention before he could ask.
“And there’s dessert.”
Over in the corner was a small round table and two tiny chairs. In the big room they looked like doll furniture. Emily put her hand on Dreyfus’ elbow and directed him forward. They sat down.
“Alright. Sliced winter pears from our trees,” Emily indicated. “Nutmeg, if you like, but I wouldn’t.” She shook her head, “Crumble cheese — not quite local but close enough to bear the name, and Tuc Originals from – uh – Tesco.”
Emily reached below the table. Dreyfus could hear ice jingle.
“And this,” Emily said, as she lifted a clear squat bottle, “Is our pear brandy. Pyaridge Hall’s Eau de Vie.” She set the bottle on the table.
“There’s a pear in there.”
“Mm-hmm” Emily smiled, pleased with herself.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had pear brandy.”
“I’ll let you have some — if you tell me what you did with the Fabergé eggs.”
Dreyfus laughed. “You’re not going to let it go, are you?”
Emily shook her head.
Dreyfus hesitated. He didn’t want to talk shop. He wanted her, but he wanted her on her terms. That’s why he telephoned; that’s why he accepted her invitation; that’s why he was there. He wanted – needed — to know. And now they were sitting at a table together alone in a huge room bright as golden glass. And she had brought them there. To the hopeless romantic in Dreyfus, it seemed as though all he had to do was take Emily’s hand and the two of them would glide away across the floor like elegant dancers. But those weren’t real thoughts: they were just shades, textures, the vague perfume of what he felt looking across the table at her.
For Emily, it wasn’t that complicated. For her, it had been lust at first sight, and even though she’d learned long ago to be selective about her lovers, she hadn’t thought about that. In fact, she hadn’t thought about anything. She’d invited Dreyfus to Pyaridge Hall because she desperately wanted him to be here – close to her. Close enough to touch. That was the only thing that would satisfy her disrupted dreams. And now – here — there was nothing – no barrier — between them.
Emily turned the bottle on the table, struggling with the cork and her bandaged hand. Instinctively, Dreyfus reached over to help her. He twisted out the cork and set it on the table.
She poured both glasses, set the bottle down and lifted her glass.
“Merry Christmas, Sinclair.”
Dreyfus flexed his fingers. “How’s it feel?”
“I stopped the painkillers last night, so it’s a little tender.” Emily raised her glass, “But this should help.”
“It’s very nice, but true confession: I don’t have a very sophisticated palate. I usually just take what I’m given.”
“You’re hardly ever disappointed then?”
“Depends on how you look at it.” Dreyfus drank and reached for the bottle.
Emily put her hand on his. The touch between them was soft with feeling.
“We had a deal,” Emily said, lifting her hand.
“I’ll make you another deal,” Dreyfus replied and refilled both glasses.
“Do you negotiate everything?”
“I’ll tell you about the eggs if you let it go and we get on to more important things.”
Emily considered it. “Alright, as long as you’re not just fobbing me off with some bullshit fairy tale.”
Dreyfus nodded and smiled. “How come your accent goes in and out like that?”
“Don’t skirt the question, Sinclair,” Emily said and put a bit of cheese on a cracker and ate it.
“Okay,” Dreyfus laughed, “I gave the eggs to my boss, and I have no idea what he did with them, but ….”
Emily scowled at him.
“But,” Dreyfus held up his index finger, “I’m pretty sure they’ll go back to being lost and Hudson and McCormick will get a healthy storage fee to make sure they stay that way.”
“But they’re not lost. I saw them. I have photographs.”
“I’d lose those photographs if I were you.”
Dreyfus sipped his brandy and reached for a piece of cheese.
“Look, Emily, nobody wants those eggs found. Nobody. And you should forget about them.”
Emily raised her bandaged hand. Dreyfus slowly shook his head. He was seriously worried.
“They’re trouble. More trouble than you need. More trouble than they’re worth.”
Emily knew just how much four “lost” Fabergé Eggs were worth in the art world.
“That’s right,” Dreyfus said hearing her thoughts, “But there’s a lot more trouble than that out in the real world, believe me. Your friend Anton was killed because of those eggs, and you barely escaped with your pretty little head. So just forget about them. Seriously.”
“You think I’m pretty?” Emily smiled and flirted, but then she was serious again. “Is this what you do?”
Dreyfus slightly lifted one shoulder and gave her a pained look.
“I don’t care. Really. I don’t. I just need to know. If I’m going to worry, I’d like to know why and for how long. That’s not too much to ask.”
“I don’t know how to answer you. Hudson and McCormick insures things that are,” Dreyfus gave a small grimace and sucked air through his teeth, “under the radar.”
“Like ‘lost’ Fabergé Eggs?” Emily ate a slice of pear.
“Yes, like ‘lost’ Fabergé Eggs. And when things go wrong, they send me out to fix them. That’s it. That’s what I do. Mostly, it’s just like any other job, but every once in a while, you run into people like the Russians,” Dreyfus shook his head again, “Who won’t take no for an answer.”
Emily thought about it. “Alright, I think I can live with that.”
Dreyfus spread his arms with an opened palmed question.
Emily looked directly into Dreyfus’ eyes.
“Take me to bed,” she said.
Dreyfus picked the cork up off the table, held it for a second and then pushed it back into the bottle with his thumb. He lifted his eyes and looked at Emily.
“I’ve got a better idea,” he said.
Dreyfus stood up and offered his hand in invitation. Emily took a slice of pear and put it in her mouth, stood up and they walked wordlessly out through the big double doors. The lights in the next room came on automatically and Dreyfus hesitated, then stopped. There were three other doors.
“You’ll have to show me which way,” he said. “I’m a little lost.”
Emily’s eyes widened. “I don’t know where we’re going.”
“Oh, alright,” Emily said, a touch of uncertainty in her voice, “This way.” And took Dreyfus’ hand.
They retraced their steps back to the entrance hall that blazed with Christmas when they got there. And they climbed the big staircase just a little too quickly — like anxious travellers, barely pausing at the top. Emily’s bedroom was the first on the right. Dreyfus opened the door and put his hand on Emily’s waist with enough pressure to make her go in first. She stepped through the doorway.
The lights were on, but it was all wrong. It was moving, reflecting, dancing, like – like — fire. Fire! Emily had a twitch of panic before her head snapped to the fire in the fireplace.
“How did you do …?”
Emily suddenly turned to Dreyfus, “We can’t do this.”
“Of course we can. It’s your house.”
Emily stepped forward and saw the pile of quilts and pillows and duvets on the floor in front of the hearth.
“No, you don’t understand, we ….” Emily turned back and gestured, “How did you do this?”
“Billie did all this?”
“I think he likes you.”
Dreyfus moved past her and knelt down on the quilts. He opened the glass doors on the fireplace and put in a short log from the stack that was sitting there. He closed the doors, twisted around and unzipped his boots. He took them off, bent his knees and pulled his feet up.
‘I should have brought the brandy,” he said.
“I’m confused.” Emily said, standing there.
“Don’t be. Come down here where it’s warm.”
“What is all this? What’re we … What’re we doing?” Emily moved her head slightly back and forth.
“Well,” Dreyfus paused, “Most people get caught up in the moment, and then when the storm’s over and they’re lying around all naked and sticky, they have to figure out what happens next. Or – even — worse, what just happened. But you and I – um – we’re not most people, so I thought we should do things the other way around.”
Standing there, looking down at Dreyfus surrounded by flames, seeing him like she did yesterday in the doorway, like she did the first time they ever met, she knew exactly what he meant — exactly what he was doing. This was her Dreyfus Sinclair, and she could feel the ache for him.
“Besides, if you think we could have had sex in this refrigerator, you don’t know much about the male anatomy.”
Emily gave a very small laugh. “I’m probably too tired to do it properly anyway,” she said and kicked off her shoes.
“Just a minute.”
She went over to her night table, pulled open the bottom drawer and brought out a small bottle. She held it like a prize, came back to the pile of quilts and gave it to Dreyfus.
“You little drunk!”
“Just in case,” she said and awkwardly sat down.
Dreyfus took a swallow from the bottle and passed it to Emily.
“Janet’s going to kill me,” she said and took a sip.
“She really does manage everything around here, doesn’t she?”
“No, the fire,” Emily rolled her eyes and passed the bottle back. Dreyfus set it down behind him.
“Don’t worry: tomorrow, Hudson and McCormick are going to make her an offer she can’t refuse. Anyway, we just won’t tell her.”
“There are no secrets in Pyaridge Hall, Sinclair.”
“Well, we might as well make the best of it then.”
Dreyfus lifted himself with one hand and pulled one of the quilts out from underneath him. He put a pillow under his head, stretched his legs forward and reached out with his left arm.
“Come,” he said, moving his fingers.
Emily curled into him.
“Watch your hand,” he said and dragged the quilt over both of them.
“What do we do now?” Emily asked, taking her bandaged hand out from under the quilt and putting it across Dreyfus’ chest.
“Figure out what happens next.”
Emily snuggled in closer. “That better be obvious,” she said, slightly pushing with her hips.
They lay there for a few seconds, feeling the warmth of the fire and their bodies together. Then there were a few seconds more and they were long and cozy. And Emily closed her eyes, and there was more time — somewhere. And drifting, Emily could feel Dreyfus, the lines of his body against her, and they touched everywhere. And there were sounds from the fire, and it smelled like Christmas, and she wanted to tell him. But then there was more time, and the fire was warm, and he was warm and …
“What do you want for Christmas, Dreyfus?” she thought she said. But before he could answer, he felt Emily’s breathing drop, deep and even. And he closed his eyes, and a few second later — for the first time in their lives — Emily and Dreyfus fell asleep together.
9 thoughts on “Christmas At Pyaridge Hall – Complete”
If the Corona regulations allows me to have visitors?
If I decide to have a Christmas tree in my house?
If visitors are willing to listen to me?
In that case I will read this great story at Christmas eve.
PS: will you send us some snow ….
Thanks for your kind words. No snow here (and we don’t want any) cheers
It was a great story, WD, from beginning to end. Well done!