Read an Excerpt
'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even though he dies.'
Lizzie tried to arrange herself more comfortably on the hard pew. She had never attended a funeral before and it was proving a sombre affair. She'd hoped for a large congregation and her wish had certainly been grantedthe church was packed to overflowing. But the gathering of the fashionable that she'd envisaged had not materialised. Her eyes travelled over the crowded rows as the vicar continued to intone the burial service. Not one bonnet worth a second glance, she thought, then chided herself for her flippancy. She had never met Sir Lucien Delacourt but it seemed the whole of Rye had turned out to mourn his sudden passing. It was a measure of her dawdling existence that she had looked forward to this event. Mrs Croft was kind enough but in the three weeks Lizzie had been at Brede House there had been few visitors under the age of sixty, and her days had been filled with a wearisome round of fetching and carrying.
A flutter of white handkerchiefs amid the unrelieved black of the congregation reinforced the sadness of the occasion. Adding to the gloom was the church itself for it was vast and beneath its dark and lofty beams, even such a large gathering as this appeared puny. Stained glass paraded along two entire walls of the building, but on a day of gathering cloud the images seemed flat and opaque. Only the flowers, vase after vase of them filling the altar steps, breathed light. But they were lilies with a perfume so intense that Lizzie began to feel nauseous. And though she tried hard to stop herself fidgeting, the bonnet ribbons tickling her chin were becoming more unbearable with the passing of each minute. She was as anxious now to be gone from the church as she had been earlier to trip across its threshhold. Her restlessness drew a sharp glance from Mrs Croft: the dead man had been a great friend, Lizzie knew, and the old lady was finding this day difficult.
'My father, Lucien Delacourt, was once a soldierbrave, honest and trueand these were the qualities he made his own throughout his life.'
Lizzie was startled. A new voice had succeeded the vicar's and it was electrifying. Tender but strong, as though honey had coated steel with a sweet warmth. It cut through Lizzie's irritation and compelled her bolt upright. Her eyes were drawn to the lectern and remained fixed there. A man she had never before seen had begun to read the eulogy. Her heart gave a strange little jump as she drank him in. He stood tall and straight, his dark clothing fitting him with a military precision, his face lean and tanned, as though he had spent most of his life out of doors. He was surely a soldier. She watched his hands as he readstrong and steady even at a moment of great emotion. Only his hair flew in the face of such determined restraint, abundant and gleaming, challenging the dreariness of the place and the day. Even the dim lighting could not suppress its bright glory, catching at highlights and dancing them in the air, until it seemed the man's head was circled by a veritable halo. Lizzie sat mesmerised as he spoke lovingly of the father he had known. The words themselves hardly registered, it was the music of his voice that caught at her, the power of his presence that kept her still and breathless.
The service was over and she forced herself to muster all the patience at her command while Mrs Croft slowly checked the contents of her reticule and began a search for a mislaid umbrella. Hurry up, hurry up, Lizzie pleaded inwardly, he may be gone by the time we get to the door. But he had not. A straggle of parishioners had lingered behind to offer their condolences and Sir Lucien Delacourt's son had a word for every one of them. While they waited in line, the clouds overhead began to mass into a thunderous blanket. It was doubtful they would make it out of the churchyard, she thought, yet alone reach Brede House before the coming cloudburst, but she was sure it would be worth the inevitable drenching.
At last the final parishioner had said his final word and the young man was clasping her employer by the hand.
'Dear Mrs Croft, my grateful thanks for coming out on such a day.'
His voice was as beautiful as when he'd spoken from the church lectern, and it was not just his voice that was beautiful. He seemed even taller now, more upright, more hardened. Lizzie liked what she saw and, from the shelter of the laurel hedge, unashamedly looked her fill.
'How could I not come, Justin? Your father was a dear friend, a very dear friend. And to lose him so swiftly. I cannot believe he is no longer here with us.' Henrietta Croft dabbed her eyes with an already sodden handkerchief.
'Nor I.' He squeezed her hands warmly, but his lips compressed into a thin, uncompromising line. 'I had no idea how frail he had become.'
'He has not been well for some time,' Mrs Croft conceded, 'but the heart to fail! None of us expected that.'
'I should have been here, seen what was happening ' His eyes seemed to wander to a distant horizon and there was a bleakness in their depths. They were greenor were they grey? Lizzie wondered. They held a curious light, ever changing like the sea, and they spoke of restlessness, of constant motion. 'I should have realised how vulnerable he was.'
'You must not blame yourself, Justinyou have been fighting for King and country, and very bravely by all accounts. It is what your father would have wanted. And he has left you problems enough, I don't doubt. The estate must be in a sorry mess.'
'You excuse me too easily, but you are right. Chelwood has been badly neglected of late. I cannot make up for my prolonged absence, but I can at least set the estate on a smooth path before I leave.'
'You are planning to leave Rye?' Mrs Croft's voice rose in surprise.
'I must return to my regiment as soon as I am able.'
'But I thought' her voice tailed off uncertainly 'I thought that now you have inherited the title and estate, you would be certain to sell out.'
'I shall never take that course, Mrs Croft. The army is my life. There can be no other for me.'
Lizzie's heart did another of those curious little bounces. She knew exactly what he meant, for did she not have the military in her very bones? He was a kindred spirit, she was sure, and she wanted to rush forwards and clasp those strong hands in hers. Taking a deep breath, she walked boldly from her shelter and into their conversation. Mrs Croft seemed surprised to see her, as though she had recently mislaid her companion as well as her umbrella, but was happy enough to perform introductions.
'Justin, this is my young friend, Miss Elizabeth Ingram. My cousin was kind enough to recommend her. Elizabeth has recently been a pupil teacher at Clementine's establishment.'
Justin Delacourt bent his head in the smallest of bows and when he looked up, his eyes refused to meet hers. Or so it seemed, for Lizzie was certain that he had deliberately looked through her. She felt angry at him and angry at her foolishness. Why was she always attracted to unsatisfactory men? She should not have allowed herself to be beguiled: he was cold and indifferent and far too like another soldier of her acquaintance. He was also quite possibly short sighted, for she knew herself to be a pretty girl and was unused to such treatment. There could be nothing in her appearance surely to give him disgust. The dove-grey gown had been carefully refurbished in deference to the occasion and a straw villager bonnet hid the dazzle of auburn curls. Did he perhaps not like women? Or was it simply snobbishnessshe was a mere companion and therefore not worthy of notice?
'I found the eulogy you gave most moving.' She was determined he would take notice of herhe need not know it was his voice rather than his words that had moved her so powerfully.
'Thank you, Miss Ingram. You are very kind.' Another dismissive bow and he was turning back to his father's old friend.
'Such a splendid congregation, do you not think?' she prodded. 'They were most appreciative.'
'I am glad you feel so. It is difficult to distil into a few words all that one man has meant.'
'You must have succeeded. I did not know your father during his lifetime, yet I found myself touched by your words.'
She knew herself guilty of flummery but at least she had forced him to look at her. She saw his gaze travel over her figure and linger unwillingly on her face and though he might wish otherwise, he could not prevent his eyes betraying a flicker, a flash of interest. He gave a brief nod in acknowledgement and then abruptly looked away to address Mrs Croft once more.
But whatever he was about to say was lost. A well-dressed, middle-aged couple emerged just then from the shadows of the church and hurried towards them. There was a subdued murmuring of greetings mixed with farewells and in a moment Mrs Croft was leading the way from the churchyard with an unwilling Lizzie in her train. She would have liked the chance to make clear to Sir Justin Delacourt that she was not a woman to be ignored.
'How wonderful to see you back in Rye where you belong.'
Caroline Armitage held out impulsive hands to the young friend towering over her, but for a moment received no response. Justin was struggling to regain his composure. He had caught sight of a light-grey skirt half-hidden behind the greenery, but he'd had no idea of its owner. Then without warning she was upon them and he'd glimpsed a pair of the deepest-brown eyes and a profusion of errant curls the colour of fresh chestnuts tucked beneath her bonnet. He had been taken aback at how young and pretty she was, far too young and far too pretty to be anyone's companion, particularly a semi-invalid like Henrietta Croft. And far too interesting for his peace of mind. Experience had taught him that women were either manipulative or missish, and neither held any attraction, but he had sensed straight away that Miss Ingram was different. She was no simpering miss that was certainshe had a bold and lively spirit, but an honest one, he thought. She was also quite lovely. In truth, he had been unnerved by her and that made him feel ridiculous.
'Justin? How are you, my dear?'
He gave himself a mental shake and embraced Mrs Armitage with affection, extending a warm handshake to her husband.
'My very humble apologies for not having visited you both. It is what I most wanted to do but there has been so much to arrange at Chelwood and I have been home but a week.'
'We understand that well enough,' Caroline soothed. 'It has been the saddest homecoming for you.'
'Sad indeed, but I have the best of neighbours. I mean to pay Five Oaks a visit next weekonce the formalities are overand will hope to find you both at home.'
'You know that whenever you come, you will be very welcome,' James Armitage said heartily. His eyes slid uneasily towards his wife and a warning hand was placed on her arm.
Justin saw it and wondered. The Armitages were lifelong friends and their son, Gil, his closest companion for as many years as he could remember. But a note of discomfort had crept into the conversation and that was odd. Perhaps they, too, thought he should have been at Chelwood caring for his father rather than fighting battles in Spain. In an effort to cover the awkward moment, he said, 'I collect that Gil is away on some adventure right now. As soon as he is back, he must ride over to Chelwood and tell me all. We will have much catching up to doit must be over three years since I was last home.'
To his horror, tears began to fill Caroline's eyes and two large drops trickled down each of her cheeks.
'Mrs Armitage, what have I said?' Justin was genuinely alarmed. In all the years he had known her, he had never seen her cry.
'I'm sorry, it is not your fault,' she managed at last. Then the tears became too much and she retreated into the folds of a cambric handkerchief. Her husband signalled urgently to their waiting groom to escort her back to the carriage.
'I must apologise for my wife's tears.'
There was an uneasy pause until Justin asked, 'Can you tell me what ails Mrs Armitage?' He felt upset as well as mystified. Caroline had been more of a mother to him than his own and he loved both the Armitages.
'It was your mention of Gilbert, you see,' James said haltingly. 'The boy is missing.'
'Missing?' Justin's face was blank. 'But how, when?'
'He has been missing for three months and as to how, we have no notion. That is the problem. One day he was here and the next he had gone. He simply vanished from sight, taking nothing with him except ' James hesitated a moment ' except a little money and a family ringbut they would certainly not be sufficient to sustain him for long.'
'But surely someone must know where he is. His friends? Your family elsewhere in the country?'
'We've sent messages everywhere, but no one in the family has seen him. As for friends, Gilbert has few. It was always you, Justinhe needed no otherand since you have been away, I think at times he has felt very lonely.'
Another reproach to add to the already long list, Justin thought. 'I have been away too long and I am sorry for itbut is there no one in the neighbourhood that might have an inkling of his whereabouts?' It seemed impossible to believe that a healthy, young man could disappear so completely.
'The new excise officer was the only person he talked to. He spent a good deal of time with him walking the marshes and the cliffs, as he used to with you. But then the poor chap died. It was most tragic. It was Gil who found his body, you know, lying at the foot of the cliff. He'd fallen in the darkness, though there are rumours that it might not have been an accident. Whatever the truth of it, Gil was greatly upset and I have sometimes wondered if that might be the reason he disappeared. I have no real idea, though. I seemed to have lost touch with my son, long before he vanished.'
Justin's brow furrowed, trying to think himself into Gil's shoes, but he found that he was as much out of touch with his friend as James. 'Might he have gone to London?' he offered without much hope.
'We certainly considered the possibility and sent Robertyou remember Robert, I'm surehe is as true a servant as you could hope for. We sent him up to London almost immediately to make discreet enquiries, but not a sound or sign did he gather. After two weeks we called him home. It was a hopeless task.'