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Excerpt for A Vicarage Reunion by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Vicarage Reunion

A Holley Sisters of Thornthwaite Novel

Kate Hewitt

 

 

A Vicarage Reunion

Copyright© 2018 Kate Hewitt

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-947636-88-0

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Epilogue

The Holley Sisters of Thornthwaite series

Excerpt from Meet Me at Willoughby Close

About the Author

Chapter One

Esther!”

Her mother’s tone of pleased surprise morphed into confusion, and then, predictably, worry, as her kindly face creased with concern. “Why have you got a suitcase?”

“Two suitcases,” Esther Langley answered, and hefted both as she stood on the stone steps, the March wind cold and damp as it buffeted her. “May I come in?”

“Of course, darling. You don’t have to knock. You usually don’t.” Her mother’s forehead was furrowed as she stepped aside so Esther could walk into the Victorian tiled porch of her childhood home, the vicarage of Thornthwaite, a village of two thousand hardy souls nestled at the foot of Lonscale Fell in England’s Lake District.

Esther put the suitcases down in the porch and her mother glanced at them askance. “Shall I put on the kettle?”

Esther nodded in relief, grateful for the momentary reprieve from her mother’s well-meaning concern. “Please.”

She followed her mother down the hall and around the back of the Georgian house to the kitchen, the cosy heart of the home. The family’s elderly black lab, Charlie, was sprawled in his usual place in front of the rather battered Aga, and there was a smell of sugar and spice in the air.

“I’ve just made some Bakewell tarts for the pop-in morning in the church hall,” Ruth said as she filled the electric kettle and switched it on. “But they can spare two, I think.”

“Thanks, Mum.” Esther let out a hefty sigh and sank into one of the colourful, mismatched chairs at the table of scarred oak where she’d eaten countless childhood meals. It felt both good and awful to be back in her childhood home at aged thirty-five, enveloped in the sweet-smelling warmth of the kitchen, yet with a leaden weight of sadness and disappointment in her stomach.

Ruth didn’t ask any prying questions as she made the tea, and Esther rested her chin in her hands, feeling absolutely shattered but knowing she couldn’t show up at the vicarage with two suitcases and no explanations. Her mother deserved to know why she was here. In any case, her life’s trials would inevitably play out on the small stage of the village; that was the price of being one of the vicar’s daughters for the last thirty years. Everyone knew everything about her, sometimes even before she did.

She’d learned their family dog before Charlie, Molly, had died from a well-meaning neighbour expressing condolences as Esther had walked home from school. In her teenaged years, she’d discovered her sister Rachel had been dumped by her boyfriend by the woman at the post office shop. That was how life went in a village like Thornthwaite, and Esther had learned to live with it, mainly by never giving anyone anything to talk about it. Too bad that wasn’t possible now.

“So.” Ruth put down two Bakewell tarts, each on its own little plate with a napkin, on the table. “Is everything all right, Esther?”

Esther took a sip of tea, closing her eyes as she savoured the comforting warmth of the drink her mother believed cured almost every ailment, or at least helped a little. Unfortunately, she still felt empty and aching inside, and no amount of tea, lovingly brewed as it was, could help that. She didn’t think anything could.

“I’ve left Will.” Best to state it plainly, up front, get the worst right out and then try to recover. Soldier on, as she was desperate to do, mostly because she didn’t know what else she could do. Most of her life had been about ploughing ahead, head down, chin tucked low, getting things done.

Ruth goggled at her, nearly spluttering her mouthful of tea. “Left… but…”

“We’re separating,” Esther clarified. “That’s why I’m here. Will offered to be the one to leave, but with the farm it didn’t make much sense.” She put her hands flat on the table, her wedding ring winking in the light. She’d wondered about taking it off, making things clearer, at least in her own mind, but she didn’t feel ready for that yet. She’d only been separated, informally at that, for two hours.

“Oh, Esther.” Ruth bit her lip, looking near tears. “Is this… is this because of the baby?”

“There was no baby, Mum,” Esther reminded her. Even now, two months after the miscarriage—if she could even call it that—she felt the lightning flash of pain, like a toothache but in her heart. The blank blackness of the ultrasound screen still reverberated through her, an image she’d never be able to banish, an image of nothing, and she’d felt an awful nothingness when she’d seen it, and then something worse. Something she couldn’t bear to articulate, even to herself, and certainly not to her mother.

“There was a baby, Esther,” Ruth said quietly, her expression both sad and dignified. “It’s just that it died very early.”

“So it’s in heaven?” Esther answered, unable to keep a sarcastic edge from entering her voice, and her mother winced. Esther felt a flash of guilt, on top of the pain. She hadn’t meant to sound so cutting, so disbelieving, but she’d seen the screen and her mother hadn’t. There had been nothing there. Absolutely nothing. And faith felt like a very frayed, thin thread indeed in moments like that one, although her parents chose to cling to it as often as they could.

“Sometimes this happens,” the doctor had said, called in by the newly-qualified and nervous ultrasound technician. “The gestational sac is empty, because the embryo never actually developed…”

No embryo. No baby, and there never even had been. All along, while they’d been telling everyone and buying booties and baby gros, there had been nothing there. It felt like a mean trick played on them by fate—or God, if she wanted to believe the way her parents did, except of course they didn’t believe God operated like that. No doubt, her father would smile sadly and say there was some wretched purpose in this, as there was in everything. Esther reached for her tea.

“All right,” Ruth relented, her tone cautious. “As you say, then. But it’s still a loss, Esther, no matter what showed up on that screen.”

Esther buried her nose in her mug and kept her gaze lowered. No need to reply, then, although she still felt churlish, and she hated hurting her mother, who had to be one of the gentlest people on earth. How she shared the same DNA, Esther had no idea. She was certainly missing some of those crucial genes.

“Is that why you and Will have separated?” Ruth pressed, sounding genuinely upset. “Because grief can do strange things to people, Esther. Trust me, I know—”

“I know you know.” Esther could hardly compare her own relatively paltry loss to her mother’s grief over her only son and Esther’s younger brother, Jamie, hit by a car and killed instantly when he was only ten years old. It had been twenty years ago, but sometimes the pain still felt fresh and raw, like a wound that kept breaking open, oozing blood, reminding everyone of how much it had hurt.

Over the years, they’d all become used to his absence, gaping as it was. They toasted him at Christmas and on his birthday in July, recalled happy memories, smiling and laughing a little, and occasionally brought out the photos. It all seemed healthy and right, the sort of thing you read about in self-help books as the proper way to manage grief, but sometimes Esther felt as if they were just applying a layer of gloss to an ugly stain. It didn’t make it better. In some ways, it only made it worse.

Which was why, in her own blunt, forthright way, she’d decided to name this particular wound for what it was. Something that couldn’t heal instantly or easily or maybe even at all. And it wasn’t the miscarriage. It was her marriage.

“Do you mind if I stay here for a while?” she asked her mother.

“Oh, darling, of course not. We have the room, obviously, but…” Ruth trailed off, looking unhappy, and Esther knew why. She hated the thought of Esther and Will being apart, and she probably thought a romantic dinner out at The Winter Hare, the village’s tiny bistro, would knock the problem on its head, bring them back together, easy peasy. All they needed was a little wine and good food to grease the wheels of their creaky marriage.

Unfortunately, life didn’t work like that. And Will wouldn’t even think of taking her out to dinner, not that Esther would want to go. They didn’t have that kind of money, and they’d both see it as a waste.

“Thank you,” Esther said briskly as she stood up from the table. “And thanks for the tea. I should be getting on. I’m due for a farm visit out near Penrith in an hour.”

“All right,” Ruth said. She looked like she wanted to say something else, but Esther turned away, taking both of their mugs to the sink and rinsing them out. “Is Dad around?” she asked, mainly because she wanted to avoid him and the prospect of another concerned conversation, his well-meaning but prying questions, the commiserating clap on the shoulder.

“He’s doing a funeral visit,” Ruth said. “Mary Stanton died—do you remember her? She always sat in the back pew, wearing a pillbox hat.” She smiled in fond, bittersweet recollection.

Esther vaguely remembered the woman; she’d stopped going to church when she’d moved back to Thornthwaite after uni, much to the quiet grief of her parents, and she only barely remembered the parade of grey-haired wrinklies who had, over the years, passed her sweets and pinched her cheek, told her how tall she was, how like her mother or father.

“That’s too bad,” she said as she dried her hands on the dish towel hung over the Aga’s rail and then gave Charlie a pat as his tail thumped on the floor.

“She was ninety-three. She lived a good, long life.”

“Yes, that’s something I suppose.” A silence ticked on, both of them lost, or perhaps trapped, in their own thoughts. Then Esther turned towards the door. “I’d better get on. I’ll just take my suitcases upstairs.” She paused. “Is there a bedroom you’d prefer that I…”

“You can have the one you used to share with Rachel,” Ruth answered. “Or if you’d rather have a little privacy, one of the spare rooms on the top floor. Whatever you like, Esther, of course.”

“Okay.” Esther smiled, grateful for her mother’s easy acceptance of her situation, even if she clearly didn’t like it. “Thanks, Mum.”

The house was quiet all around her, the only sound the steady ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall, as Esther hefted her two suitcases up the wide staircase. The vicarage had been built on grand proportions two hundred years ago, with soaring ceilings, sashed windows, and rooms the size of football pitches. It made the place freezing no matter what the season, with draughts regularly blowing through the old, thin windowpanes and heat rising to the high ceilings. Still it was lovely, and even now it felt like home. Perhaps it always would, even after her parents moved out in four months, when her father took up a pastor’s position in China.

Esther paused outside her old room, which faced her parents’ bedroom, and then decided to head up the narrow stairs to what had once been the old servants’ quarters but now housed two cosy guestrooms under the eaves, mostly used when her parents had temporary lodgers—mercy guests, Rachel called them, for they never paid anything. Priests without posts, locals down on their luck, whatever waif or stray was currently in need of a bed and a roof over their head. And now that was her.

She chose the room on the right, with the small window that overlooked Lonscale Fell, now covered in a white, glittering frost even though it was March. She dumped the suitcases by the bed, unable to face unpacking just then. She also felt unable to face heading out to Penrith to visit Andrew Tyson and see how he was getting on with his drystone walls.

Her job at Natural England involved some travel to farms around the Lake District, encouraging farmers in their implementation of environmental programs and clean technology. It also involved many chats around the kitchen table and countless cups of tea. She was part civil servant, part counsellor—and sometimes she felt like the last person on earth who should be dispensing advice of any kind. She certainly felt that way now.

When Esther wasn’t travelling to farms, she worked from home, part of a budget cut made in the last few years to reduce full-time office workers. Esther missed the camaraderie of the office in Penrith, and she disliked the ever-increasing mundane reality of the government box ticking and spreadsheet filling her job now required. Half her job, it seemed, was simply proving she was doing something. Still, it was the only job she’d ever known, and she believed in its mission wholeheartedly, which was what had kept her going this long.

With a sigh, she ran a brush through her unruly brown hair before catching it up in a ponytail. She glanced in the little square mirror above the bureau; deeper crow’s-feet by her hazel eyes, and stronger lines from nose to mouth. She was nearly thirty-six years old and showing her age. That had been what had spurred them to finally try for a baby. Those eggs were getting curdled, or whatever happened to unused eggs. Did they wither? Shrivel? Explode?

Downstairs, Ruth came out of the kitchen as Esther headed for the front door. “Will you be home for supper—”

Esther pictured her and her parents gathered around the kitchen table every night, suffering through tense, concerned silences as Ruth and Roger struggled to know what to say to their errant daughter. The one who had failed, who had had to limp home, downtrodden and depressed.

“I’m not sure,” Esther hedged as she shrugged on her waxed jacket. “I’ll ring you.”

“All right.” Ruth watched her go, clearly struggling not to say something Esther obviously didn’t want to hear, and then with a distracted, apologetic smile aimed at her mum, Esther wrenched open the door and she was free.

The air was sharp and cold, with the bone-pervading damp that three weeks of wintry rain had caused, even though the sun was now attempting to break out from behind a bank of dark, dank clouds and spring was technically only a few weeks from now.

The air was still, the only sound the bleating of lambs in the distance. It was the middle of lambing season, and Esther had felt a curdling of guilt in her stomach that morning for leaving Will at the busiest time of a sheep farmer’s year. But she hadn’t felt as if she’d had any choice; it had been either that or claw her own eyes out.

Things between them had been getting steadily more strained, the silences that had once been comfortable and uncomplicated feeling like a scream that Esther struggled to suppress.

When she’d woken that morning she’d felt, with a leaden certainty, she couldn’t wade through one more unendurable day. She just couldn’t. And so, after breakfast, she’d told Will she’d thought they should separate. He’d stared at her blankly, as if she’d been speaking Swahili.

“Separate? What on earth are you talking about?”

“Oh, come on, Will.” Esther dumped a frying pan in the sink and stared despairingly around at the cluttered mess of the low-ceilinged kitchen of Will’s family home for nearly a hundred years. “Even you have got to realize things haven’t been good between us.”

“Even me? And what’s that supposed to mean?” He was standing by the door, wearing an old fleece, mud-spattered all-weather trousers, and wool socks, a Wellington boot in one hand. His hair was an unruly shock of light brown around his weather-beaten face, his eyes, piercing blue, now narrowed.

Esther had always found Will’s rugged, farmer looks sexy, but now he just seemed tired. It was six-thirty in the morning and he’d already been up for two hours.

“Nothing.” She shook her head, too tired herself to go into lengthy explanations. And neither of them were the emotional sort, anyway. They didn’t analyse each other’s words or rake over old arguments. They didn’t give each other lovey-dovey nicknames or send sappy love notes, never mind some kind of appalling sext. They just got on with things, two sensible people, happy in each other’s company. Until now. Or, really, until the last few months, when Esther had gone into this awful, emotional tailspin. She was still trying to regain her balance, and feared she never would.

“Well, what are you talking about then, separating?” Will put his boot down. “I’ve got nowt time to have a pagger, Esther.”

Esther always knew when Will’s emotions were engaged, because he lapsed into the Cumbrian dialect he usually avoided, not wanting to seem parochial. Sheep farming was a gentleman’s business these days; Oxford-educated philosophers were buying up farms in the fells and then writing blasted books about it. Will couldn’t afford to seem like some sort of backwards yokel.

“I don’t want to fight,” Esther said. “I thought I was stating the obvious.”

“It’s not bloody obvious to me. Look, is this about the baby? Because—”

“It’s not about the baby. That was just… a symptom, I suppose.”

Will looked thunderous. “A symptom? Of what?”

“Of us not working anymore,” Esther burst out. Of her not working, as a wife, as a person. “Of not being happy,” she persisted, “either one of us, not really. Come on, Will. Tell me you haven’t been miserable these last few weeks.”

He stared at her, a storm in his eyes, and said nothing. That was answer enough, surely.

“I’ll move back to the vicarage,” Esther said. “It’s the most sensible thing.”

“If you feel you can’t live with me,” Will said, sounding furious, “then I’ll be the one to move—”

“Will, come on.” He had an old-fashioned code of gentlemanly behaviour, but it didn’t make sense now. “You have the farm, and the lambs to see to. I’ll go.”

He stared at her, his jaw bunched and working, his eyes snapping icy blue sparks. “Fine.”

“I’ll leave this morning.”

“Can’t wait to get away, can you?”

Esther flinched but took it as her due. This was her fault. She accepted that. She should have been strong enough to keep muddling on, the same as always. She knew Will was. He would have gone on another forty years, the same day in and day out, without a flicker. She was the one who had suddenly detonated inside, ruining everything.

Will nodded tightly and then yanked on his boot. He paused in the doorway, slightly stooped under the low stone lintel, looking as if he wanted to say something, but wasn’t sure what. And in the end, that had been part of the problem, hadn’t it? They’d never known what to say to one another. It just hadn’t mattered all that much until grief had reared up and sucker-punched them both.

Except you’re not all that grief-stricken, are you?

That was a treacherous little voice she quickly silenced now. It was hard enough dealing with all the other rubbish she had going through her mind. Climbing into her beat-up Land Rover, she gripped the steering wheel and set her jaw, determined to soldier on, and not to think, to wonder, to doubt.

She couldn’t picture her future—living at her parents’ at thirty-five? Really? And besides, her mum and dad were moving out of the vicarage in just four short months. They were moving all the way to China, and that was something Esther tried not to think about, either.

She often acted as if she merely endured her parents’ enthusiastic presence in her life, but the truth was, she couldn’t imagine them not in it, the strong and silent foundation to everything she did and believed.

She couldn’t imagine not being able to stop by the vicarage whenever the feeling took her, to sip tea and eat her mother’s delicious baking while she tried—sometimes harder than others—not to roll her eyes on her mother’s unsubtle poking and prying; the when-are-you-going-to-have-a-baby conversation had been dancing around that table for years.

The sudden sting of tears behind her lids took Esther by surprise. She was so not a crier. She hadn’t cried that morning, when she’d packed her bags in the eerily silent farmhouse, with Toby, Will’s springer spaniel, twelve years old, a puppy when they had been dating, whining at the bottom of the old, narrow stairs he was no longer spry enough to climb, sensing something was wrong.

She hadn’t cried when she’d seen that awful, blank screen at the hospital, felt the silence in a moment when she should have heard the watery whoosh of her baby’s heartbeat. She hadn’t even cried when her brother Jamie had died; she’d been called from her history classroom in Year Ten, taken to the head teacher’s office, everyone looking far too solemn.

In each case, she’d just felt frozen inside, and the truth was, she’d never tested to see how deep or thick that layer of ice was, or whether any emotion lurked underneath. And now she was afraid to find out, afraid to probe those dark depths and discover how deep they went. Afraid she’d drown.

Eyes narrowed against the wintry glare of the sun emerging from behind the clouds, Esther drove over the little stone bridge that crossed St. John’s Beck and out of Thornthwaite.

Chapter Two

Will Langley had always been a man of few words. He’d never minded, but now, when it was too late, he found words bubbling up inside him in a ferment of feeling, surprising and infuriating him because Esther had already left. He’d watched her Land Rover pull out of the farmyard, the hard-packed dirt glittering with frost, and then down the narrow, rutted track that led to the B-road into Thornthwaite, just over a mile away. She’d gone and bloody left him.

He still couldn’t believe it. Couldn’t accept it, even though he supposed he had to. And now it was too late to ask her to stop, wait, and then demand what on earth she was going on about, because as far as he was concerned this had come out of nowhere. Hadn’t it?

He worked all day, spending most of it in the lambing shed, with two first-time ewes who were having difficult labours, as well as looking after a weak lamb who hadn’t been able to feed from his mother. He’d docked a dozen lambs born in the last two days, the pockets of his trousers full of the rubber rings used to shorten their tails, his hands tinted a sickly yellow from iodine. The joys of lambing season.

At least the work kept him from thinking about Esther, although the knowledge of her departure, the sight of her looking so weary and resigned as she stood by the sink, was emblazoned onto his brain. Even when he was elbow-deep in an ewe he could still see it, the unfortunate movie screen in the back of his mind, his wife looking as if she couldn’t stand another minute in his house, his life, as if she’d been beaten down by it all, by him. And he hadn’t even realized.

At half past six, he stomped back into the farmhouse, ducking under the lintel as he shucked off his mud- and blood-spattered boots and trousers. The long, narrow kitchen was dark, the only sound the low, comforting rumble of the Aga. Dirty dishes were still piled in the sink, a pile of old post on the table. Toby came up to Will and whined, licking his hand; he hadn’t been fed, and he was normally given his dinner at six, by Esther, after work, while Will was still out in the fields or barns.

It was probably chauvinistic and shallow to miss the creature comforts Esther had provided, but right then, mucky and muscles aching, Will did. He missed the sight of a cosy kitchen, with something simmering on top of the Aga, a hot bath already drawn upstairs in the claw-footed tub that was a century old. He missed Esther’s smile and the brisk way she’d hand him a thick ceramic mug of tea, steeped so strong he could just about stand a spoon in it, before he’d even asked. He missed Esther.

Why on earth had she left? They’d been fine, hadn’t they? He’d thought they’d been fine. Mostly fine, anyway. Not as bad as all that. All right, yes, the last few months had been a bit… difficult. But they’d just lost a baby, and of course that had to affect Esther. It had affected him. Even now his heart clutched as he remembered how the realization had thudded through him. No baby. No more picturing a little boy or girl, a bean of a baby that would fit in the curve of his arm. No more thoughts of a family, how they would finally be one properly, after so many years of waiting and wanting.

He hadn’t talked to Esther about it, though, because they’d never been talkers, and he’d thought she wanted some space. He’d expected them to struggle through to the other side, find their balance again. He hadn’t thought it had been that bad, but apparently it had. For Esther.

Will reached for the old, dented copper kettle on top of the stove and filled it up at the deep, farmhouse sink as he stared moodily out at the farmyard, now cloaked in a soft, purple twilight. The two ewes had safely delivered their lambs, and no others had shown signs of labour, so he might actually have an evening free for once.

If Esther were here, they’d open a bottle of wine and watch a DVD box set in the sitting room, with a fire in the wood stove crackling away merrily, her feet in his lap. Simple pleasures, but they’d been good enough for him. Although if he was honest, they hadn’t done something like that in a long while.

No, with a free evening, Esther would be at the kitchen table, peering at her laptop as she filled out one of her wretched spreadsheets for work, an endless round of government box ticking, and Will might have tackled the farm’s accounts, something he was forever putting off. Or he would have watched the telly by himself—football, maybe, or a mindless crime show.

They would have spent the entire evening apart, until bedtime, when Will would have checked on the animals and Esther would have taken Toby out and turned off the lights, maybe made up a couple of fleece-covered hot water bottles to take upstairs with them.

Then they would have gone up to the antique, oak bed Will’s great-grandfather had bought his bride as a wedding present, and undressed for bed mostly in silence, although sometimes with the off comment about the farm or Esther’s work; they’d never needed many words between them.

Then they would have climbed into bed and snuggled under the duvet, Esther’s icy toes tucked up against Will’s calves, a hot-water bottle tucked between them like a baby.

The baby. That was what this had to be about, no matter what Esther had said. What else could it be? They’d been happy before then. At least Will had been happy. Now he wondered if he’d ever actually known what Esther thought or felt. He certainly hadn’t seen this coming, not ever, and the complete lack of knowledge, the utter shock he felt, rocked him more than a little.

With a sigh, he patted Toby’s head and went to fill up the dog’s bowl. The fridge was depressingly empty for Will’s own dinner; Esther was the one who did the food shopping, she obviously hadn’t for a few days. He found a heel of hardened cheddar cheese and the end of a loaf, and with a pint of Langdale bitter he called it a meal.

He’d just sat down at the table when headlights flashed across the window from the farmyard, and Toby set to barking as a Land Rover parked in front of the house. Esther. She was back. Daft woman, she regretted leaving him. Of course she did. With a sloppy grin spreading over his face, Will rose from the table, nearly tripping over Toby in his eager haste.

The knock at the door made him pause; wouldn’t Esther just come in—or was she being absurdly formal, for some reason? He opened the door, the smile wiped off his face as he saw Dan Trenton, the local vet and fiancé of Esther’s sister Rachel, standing there. Of course it wasn’t Esther. Will was an idiot.

“Dan.” He nodded his greeting. “What brings you here? All my ewes are fine and hardy.”

Dan smiled. “Good to hear it. Lambing going well?”

“Two tricky births this morning, but it ended all right.” Will stepped aside so Dan could come in; a light, needling rain was falling and the air was frigid. “What’s going on with you?”

“I was over at the Whitford farm and I saw your lights. I thought I’d stop in.”

He knew about Esther, then. Will appraised his future brother-in-law rather grimly, wondering how he’d found out. Had Esther told him? Had she told everyone? Or maybe Rachel had worked it out from Esther and then gone to Dan. Either way Will didn’t like it much. His business was his business… and Esther’s. The last thing he wanted now was to have Dan asking well-meaning questions, or worse, looking at Will with some kind of pity because he couldn’t keep a wife.

“Well, then,” he said, not meaning to be unfriendly, at least not exactly.

Dan smiled easily, as unruffled as always. “I wondered if you felt like a pint at The Bell?”

“The Bell?” The Queen’s Sorrow was the pub for most of Thornthwaite; The Bell was for day labourers and lads on a pub crawl, intent only on getting drunk and maybe having a bust-up if they’d had too much.

“Why not?” Dan shrugged. “The Queen’s Sorrow always seemed a bit posh to me, all that Barbour and Burberry makes my eyes cross.”

Dan was posh, though, even though he’d been born and bred in Thornthwaite. He’d gone off to Cambridge for uni and come back sounding like a gentleman; he wore waxed jackets and Hunter boots and was interviewed by Cumbrian Life. He embodied the gentrified side of farming life that wasn’t real, as far as Will was concerned. Will was a dying breed, a farmer born and raised, not a hobbyist who’d made his fortune in London and bought a farm for laughs with his pocket change.

“I’ve got the lambs,” he said.

Dan raised his eyebrows. “I thought you said you’d delivered two ewes this morning?”

“Yes, but…” There was no good reason why he shouldn’t spare an hour or two at The Bell, but Will resisted all the same. He didn’t want Dan, kind as he was, prying into his business. He didn’t want to talk about Esther, not when he didn’t even know what was going on, not really. Not when he felt so bloody raw from it all.

At the same time, he didn’t want to stay in this cold, dark, empty house. It felt as if all the light and life had been sucked from its thick stone walls when Esther had packed up and left. And he’d just opened his last pint of bitter.

“All right then,” Will said with a nod. “Let me wash a bit of the sheep off me, and I’ll meet you there.”

“Excellent. Shall I order us some food as well?” Smiling, Dan spared a bemused glance for the sorry bit of bread and cheese on the table.

“Might as well,” Will answered gruffly.

Fifteen minutes later he’d washed the worst of the mud and blood off him, although he still smelled like sheep—a mixture of wool, dirt, grass, and animal. He’d never get that smell off him, not during lambing season, at least.

He changed into a fresh flannel shirt and jeans, and then climbed in his own Land Rover, as beaten up as Esther’s, and started down the bumpy track towards Thornthwaite.

The Bell looked comforting, its door thrown open, the interior lit up like a Christmas candle. Will parked on the side of steep, narrow Finkle Street, and strolled down towards the pub. He paused in front, his gaze travelling instinctively over the little stone bridge towards the village church with its square, squat Norman tower, and the darkened bulk of the vicarage beyond. He saw a light winking from his father-in-law’s study window, but otherwise the vicarage looked dark and empty.

Was Esther there? What was she thinking? Feeling? Questions he’d never needed to ask before, never thought to ask. He didn’t like asking them now, and he particularly didn’t like not knowing the answers.

“Will.” Dan called to him from a booth in the back as he came into the pub, shouldering his way through a press of slick-haired footballer lads who were making a bit of a ruckus.

“Busy in here for a Wednesday night,” he remarked as he slid into the bench opposite Dan.

“West Lakes Football Club,” Dan explained. “They come here after practice every Wednesday, or so the bartender, Sam, said.”

“Right.” Will picked up his pint of bitter. “Cheers. I’ll get the next round.”

“I probably shouldn’t have more than one,” Dan said regretfully. “Driving and work tomorrow.”

Will nodded, wiping the foam from his upper lip. “Next time, then.”

Dan nodded and they put down their pints, appraising each other. Will decided to break the silence first. “So you know about Esther, then.”

Dan ducked his head. “Sorry, mate.”

“It’s all right.” Will shrugged, acting as if it was all of little consequence, which was as daft as anything he could have done. What mattered more? He had a pain in his chest, the way he suspected a heart attack would feel, but he knew it wasn’t. “You heard the crack from Rachel, I suppose?”

Dan nodded. “She saw Esther this afternoon, at the vicarage.”

Will nodded and took another sip from his pint.

“I really am sorry,” Dan said after a moment. “I know things have been tough…”

“Did you?” Will interjected abruptly, his voice harder than he’d meant it to be, that raw wound opening wider. “Because I’m not sure I did.”

Dan looed startled. “I meant with the pregnancy… the miscarriage, you know…”

“Aye, that was hard.” There was a tightening in his chest as he remembered Esther’s toneless description of what had happened. He hadn’t gone to the twelve-week ultrasound; she’d briskly told him he didn’t need to, and with things busy as ever at the farm, he’d taken her at her word, which, now that he thought about it, seemed like a bloody stupid thing to do.

And so, it had meant he’d learned that their baby had never even been by Esther matter-of-factly recounting the events of her appointment as she sat at the kitchen table peeling potatoes. Will remembered the long, brown strips of peel, the pure white of the potato, the incongruity of it all. Death and dinner. He had barely been able to choke out “Oh, Esther” before she’d risen and gone to the Aga.

“Tea will be in half an hour,” she’d said. “Why don’t you have a bath beforehand?”

Will had stared at her, at a loss. Even he wasn’t so clueless when it came to feelings that he realized this wasn’t the right or normal response to a miscarriage. It wasn’t the response he felt inside, but hell if he’d known what to say or do.

“That was hard,” Will told Dan, “but it was two months ago, and Esther hasn’t seemed…” He paused, trying to think how Esther had seemed. As brisk as ever, surely, and maybe a little remote. But not grief-stricken. Not heartbroken. “Truth be told,” he said, “Esther didn’t seem as upset as all that.” He looked down into his beer, feeling disloyal for saying such a thing, even if it was true. “At least on the surface, I mean.” And he didn’t really look much farther than that. He wasn’t sure he knew how, not when what was on the surface had made him happy.

“Sometimes these things fester though, don’t they?” Dan said, and Will stared at him blankly. Fester? Open sores on a hoof festered. Not feelings. And yet even he knew what Dan meant. A bit.

“Esther isn’t the sort to hold a grudge or anything like that,” he protested. “If she’s got a problem, she’ll tell you. Tell me.” At least he’d thought she would—and she certainly had today. Except he still didn’t feel any the wiser.

“True enough, I suppose,” Dan acknowledged with a wry smile. “She can certainly be blunt, can’t she? I got my hair cut a few weeks ago and she said it made me look like a shorn sheep.” Will smiled a little; he’d never minded the sharp side of Esther’s tongue. “But what do you think is going on, then?”

Will shrugged again. What else could he do? He had no idea what was going on, and even if he did, he didn’t think he wanted to share it with Dan. But he did know his wife, or at least he’d thought he did, and she was one of the most practical, down-to-earth, no-nonsense people he knew, and so this kind of over-the-top, abrupt, and emotional behaviour was totally unlike her. That’s what he couldn’t get his head around.

Her practical, purposeful air had been one of the things that had attracted him to her, when they’d met ten years ago at a quiz night at The Queen’s Sorrow. He’d looked at her and thought, there’s a woman who will tell you like it is. Who won’t mess you about. A woman you could build a life, a family, with. And then she’d laughed—a surprisingly deep, throaty, sexy sound, and Will had been sold.

He’d asked her out that night, they’d had dinner at a little Italian place in Keswick that weekend, and they’d been an item by Monday, engaged two years later, married the year after that. All smooth, smooth sailing, not a ripple in the water. Or so he’d thought. Now he had the uncomfortable sensation of feeling the need to question everything, doubt everything, something he never thought—or wanted—to do.

“Shall we order our food?” he asked, and Dan nodded. “I’ll go up to the bar. What would you like?”

“Fish pie for me, thanks.”

Will nodded and rose from his seat, grateful to have a short reprieve from Dan’s kind but cack-handed attempt at a man-to-man chat.

He shouldered his way to the bar; the football lads were getting a bit arsey, on their third or fourth pints by now, the raucous laughter holding a slightly menacing edge. Will leaned his forearms on the bar and gave his order to the hassled-looking barman, who was keeping an eye on the lads behind him.

“Busy tonight, eh, Sam?” Will asked.

Sam had gone to the comp with him and taken over the pub five years ago, after it had been run nearly into the ground by a bickering couple constantly on the brink of divorce. Not like him and Esther… or so he’d thought.

“A wee bit too busy, I’m thinking,” Sam answered. “Those lads need nowt more to drink. They’re well kaleyed. What are you having then, Will?”

Will gave the food order, and then waited while Sam rang it up on the till. He glanced to the man parked on a stool to the right of him, an old codger with a flat cap pulled down low over his face, his expression set and stony, his gnarled hands clasping his pint of ale.

That could be him in another thirty years, Will realized with a jolt. Coming to the pub every night for the company, never mind the beer. Living alone, with only a dog to ease his loneliness, the kind of fate he’d feared until he’d met Esther. Until he’d found a place with her, a home, damn it. He didn’t want to give that up without a fight. He couldn’t.

Staring at the old geezer next to him with his surly, set expression, he had a sudden urge, almost a compulsion, to walk out of the pub, right up to the vicarage, and take Esther by the shoulders and ask her to come home. Demand or beg, he didn’t much care which at this point. He just wanted her back.

“That’ll be sixteen fifty, Will.”

Will glanced up at Sam and nodded, his mind still on the man next to him, on the unending road of loneliness stretching in front of him, and on Esther. Always on Esther. He handed over a twenty-pound note, and as he did so the man on the stool glanced over.

“Areet, eh?” he asked in a Cumbrian accent so thick even Will struggled to understand it.

“Areet,” he answered brusquely, not quite meeting his eye, and then he took his change and headed back to his table.

Dan seemed to have taken the hint that Will wasn’t up for some kind of heart-to-heart chat, and so they talked about farming and football for the rest of the evening, and after another half-pint—since he was driving—Will managed to relax a little.

“It’ll come all right,” Dan said as they walked out of the pub; Sam was in the process of forcibly ejecting the drunk lads, taking two by the scruffs of their necks.

“What will come all right?” Will asked as he stepped out onto the pavement. The night was black and starless, the air damp and chill, full of the plaintive sound of bleating sheep, the symphony of farming life.

“You and Esther.”

“Ah.” It all came back to him with a chest-slamming thud, nearly making him take a step back into the two lads who were keyed up and drunk and no doubt looking for a fight. And Will almost thought about giving it to them, just to relieve the pressure building inside him, pressure that had nowhere to go.

“What are you staring at?” one of the lads asked rudely, his fists balling at his sides. He reeked of beer and cheap aftershave, dressed in a tight football jersey and a pair of low-slung trackie bottoms.

“What do you care, what I’m staring at?” Will growled back. He was six inches taller and at least two stone heavier.

“Hey, hey, let’s not get worked up here,” Dan said easily, and with a hand on his shoulder he steered Will towards the street. “Don’t waste your breath on those lads, mate.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Will unclenched his fists and flexed his fingers. He wasn’t a fighter. He’d only swung a punch once in his life, and he’d lived to regret it more than just about anything he’d done. But that was something he didn’t think about, a memory he’d dropped into the deep, empty well inside his mind. He never looked down there.

But right now he was angry, and he wasn’t used to it, and he didn’t know where to put it. Why the hell had Esther left him?

He swung away from The Bell and started down the pavement, only to come to a stop when he saw the two figures on the other side of the street, both of them standing stock still, looking shocked. Dan’s fiancée Rachel… and Esther.

Chapter Three

Esther stopped right there in the street and stared at Will as if she hadn’t seen him in ten years, rather than ten hours. His hair was rumpled, sticking up on one end, as if he’d driven his fingers through it or forgot to use a comb all day—or both. He was staring at her the way she suspected she was staring, mouth open, eyes wide. Gormless.

“Oh…” Next to her Rachel muttered under her breath, and Esther glanced at her sister sharply as she clocked that Will was with Dan, and she was with Rachel, all of them out at the pub, albeit different ones. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, or rather Thornthwaite.

“Did you plan this?” Esther asked in a low voice, and Rachel bit her lip.

“Not… exactly…”

Yeah, right. Esther felt as if she was about thirteen, being pushed forward by a giggly friend to give a boy her phone number. Except Will wasn’t standing there waiting, trying to look cool. No, he’d actually walked on, Dan hurrying to catch up, right around the corner to Finkle Street, out of view.

“Good thing, then,” Esther said as briskly as she could, and marched on towards the vicarage, trying not to feel hurt. It had been a bad idea to come out with Rachel, anyway. She’d only agreed because her sister was a cross between a golden retriever and a pit bull when it came to social occasions—jumpy, overfriendly, and aggravatingly tenacious. And Esther had been feeling the littlest bit lonely, just hours into her newfound separation.

“Esther, wait,” Rachel called, and hurried to catch up with her.

Esther broke her stride, but only just. “Tell me the truth,” she demanded as they crossed the little stone bridge over St. John’s Beck. “Did you plan that?”

“We didn’t plan it,” Rachel hedged, but the ‘we’ gave it away.

“So, let me guess. After I told you that I’d left Will, you and Dan decided to hatch this cute little plot to take us both out to the pub, and then, oh, wow, what a coincidence, we meet outside in the street, fall into each other’s arms, and boom, we’re back together.” Esther shook her head, trying to dissolve the hard lump of disappointment and anger that had formed at the back of her throat. Why had she become so stupidly emotional? Why did this hurt so much?

“It wasn’t quite like that,” Rachel said as they turned up the darkened lane to the church and the vicarage beyond. “We just wanted to help. Give you both someone to talk to. Honestly, Esther, that was all.”

Esther sagged, knowing she was being prickly, even for her. It was just that she felt so lamentably raw. “I know,” she said on a gusty, ragged sigh. “I know you mean well, Rachel. It’s just… I’m not there yet, okay? Neither of us are. This is… very new.”

“Sorry,” Rachel whispered, looking so wretched Esther took pity on her.

“You don’t need to apologize. You took me out for a drink, and I was in desperate need of a large glass of wine.”

“That’s the least I could do.” Rachel gave her sister a rather shaky smile. “Because, Esther, if you and Will don’t make it… is there any hope for the rest of us?”

Esther stopped where she was and turned slowly towards Rachel. “What do you mean by that?”

“Just that you guys always seemed so solid. Perfect for each other, low maintenance, comfortable, just happy to be, you know? And if that isn’t working after all…” Rachel trailed off, biting her lip.

“You don’t need to worry about you and Dan. What happened between Will and me… well, it’s not a problem you’re likely to have.” A pressure was building in her chest. Rachel would never react the way Esther had to life’s tragedies. No one would, because it wasn’t normal, to feel the way she had. Still did.

Rachel frowned. “What did happen?” she asked gently, but Esther just shook her head.

“I can’t go into that now. I’ve got to be up at six tomorrow to drive to a farm north of Carlisle. And… and I just can’t. I’ll see you later.” She started walking again, quickly, her head down, the misery in her chest swamping and suffocating her. She hated feeling like this, but she didn’t have the energy to fight her way through the morass. Who knew what was on the other side, anyway?

Rachel got into her car, which she’d parked in front of the vicarage, as Esther stepped into the house. Inside everything was quiet; her father was at a wardens’ meeting and Ruth was curled up on a sofa in the upstairs family room, Charlie stretched out by the fire, as she watched one of the BBC dramas she liked.

“Everything all right?” she asked lightly when Esther dutifully poked her head in the doorway, feeling like a teenager reporting in before curfew.

“Fine. I’m just shattered, and I’ve an early morning. Good night, Mum. And… thanks.” Ruth smiled and nodded, her eyes seeming sad, and Esther turned away, towards the upstairs.

Her room was freezing, due to the lack of central heating on the vicarage’s top floor, although her mother had thoughtfully brought up a space heater for her, as well as a hot-water bottle.

Esther stared at the fleece-covered rubber bottle and the lump in her throat thickened. That bottle made her think of those wintry nights with Will, tucked up in bed, happy simply to be, just as Rachel had said. They had had something, Esther knew that. It just hadn’t been enough. She hadn’t been. She couldn’t have been, to feel this way now.

Esther got ready for bed, slipping beneath the cold sheets, clutching her hot-water bottle. The space heater emitted a feeble, electric warmth that barely took the chill from the air.

She closed her eyes, willing sleep to come, but despite her exhaustion everything in her felt wide awake and aching. The house seemed unfamiliar even though she’d grown up in it, and the creaks and rattles as the wind battered the windowpanes and the house settled into itself kept making her jolt awake. Eventually she fell into an uneasy sleep, only to surface from sleep at four-thirty in the morning as if she were coming from deep underwater.

She showered and dressed, stumbling around in the dark, and then drank a cup of instant coffee by the Aga while Charlie lifted his head, looking at her in vague resentment for disturbing his slumber.

By the time she hit the road a little after five she was feeling awake but grotty, as if it was the end of a long day rather than the beginning.

The rambling sheep farm near Hexham was a pleasant spot, at least, and the drive up the A595 was smooth and uneventful, save for a few tractors.

As Esther pulled into the farmyard, a couple of spaniels set to barking, and the front door opened before she’d got out of the car. Jane Telford stood on the stone slab step, her hands on her hips, a smile on her broad face.

“I’ve got a brew on,” she called, and then whistled for the dogs, who, after sniffing Esther thoroughly, retreated to the kitchen. Esther had always liked the Telfords’ farmhouse. She only visited twice a year, but the family always welcomed her like a long-lost and much-loved relative. Their farmhouse was similar to hers and Will’s—or was it just Will’s now?—except there were more people and dogs, and somehow that made the place feel more loved and lived in, a proper home, than the empty rooms of her own house, rooms they’d expected to fill eventually. At least Will had.

Esther ducked her head under the stone lintel as she stepped into the cheerful kitchen; the kettle was whistling away on top of a dark blue Rayburn, and the dogs were getting under everyone’s feet, tails wagging furiously.

“You’ll have a cuppa,” Jane said, not a question, and Esther nodded. She had so many cups of tea during a day of farm visits that by evening she could practically hear her insides slosh. “You’ll never guess who’s here,” Jane continued as she poured boiling water from the kettle into an enormous brown teapot that looked as if it had come over on the ark. “Izzy,” she finished triumphantly, as if that should mean something to Esther.

Slightly panicked, she scrolled through her mental Rolodex of names, trying to recall an Izzy. Izzy… Izzy Telford… ah, yes, Jane and Jim’s oldest daughter, who had married two years ago. Esther had been invited to the wedding, a big local knees-up in the village pub, but she hadn’t gone, she couldn’t remember why not now. Probably because of the farm. That was usually why she didn’t do anything.

“How is Izzy?” she asked as she sat down at the kitchen table and a dog flopped onto her feet. “And… Darren?” The name popped unbidden out of her mouth and she hoped she’d got it right.

“They’re right as rain,” Jane answered, handing Esther a mug of tea. “And Izzy’s had a bairn since you’ve been here last!”

“A bairn…”

“A wee one,” Izzy said with a laugh, coming into the kitchen in her dressing gown, unselfconsciously sporting a serious case of bedhead, a newborn baby nestled in her arms, its fists curled up by her face like two flowers, the gently pursed lips reminding Esther of a rosebud.

“Born just three weeks ago,” Jane said proudly. “And doing so well. Isn’t she, precious?” She leaned over to give the baby a smacking kiss on the forehead.

“Adorable,” Esther murmured. She was struggling to put a smile into place. “A girl?” she added, just to check, because you never knew.

Izzy laughed. “She certainly is. Caitlin Rose.”

“Lovely.”

“Why don’t you have a cuddle, then?” Jane suggested and when Esther opened her mouth to politely say she’d rather not—although how she would phrase that, she wasn’t sure—Jane just let out a bellow of laughter and nodded at Izzy to bring the baby forward. “Go on, then. You’ll be needing some practice, won’t you?”

Esther froze. “Practice…”

“Well, you’ll be having the bairns soon enough, won’t you?” Jane said as she settled herself at the end of the table with her own mug of tea.

“Mum,” Izzy said with an embarrassed laugh, “don’t be so nosy.”

“Nosy? Eh?” Jane looked startled and a bit offended. “I’m just being friendly like. Esther and I go back, don’t we, love? Ten years, isn’t it now, that you’ve been working for Natural England?”

“Eleven,” Esther replied with a small smile. Then Izzy tipped the baby into her arms like a barrow full of dirt and she jolted forward, anxious to keep the tiny person safe. Because it was a person, this little bundle in her arms, which was such an amazing thing. Esther adjusted her hold on the baby, making sure she was supporting her head.

She hadn’t held many babies in her life but she knew that much at least. Before the miscarriage, she’d read at least half of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, a book that had alarmed more than comforted her. There had been so much she needed to know, so many things that could go wrong. Although, in the end, it had turned out she hadn’t needed to know much at all.

“You’ve got the hang of it now,” Jane said approvingly. “A natural, you are.”

Esther let out a dry little laugh. A natural she was not. Not by a million, zillion miles.

“She’s lovely,” she told Izzy, who was watching her in concern, sensing, clearly, that something wasn’t quite right. It had to be obvious. “Really lovely.” She jiggled the sleeping baby a little, studying the faint blond eyebrows and lashes, the perfect, rosy skin, the full, round cheeks and pouty lips. Then she held the baby out to be taken, and Izzy scooped her up, a professional after just three weeks.

Would she have been like that, confident and laidback with this tiny person entrusted to her care? Esther had no idea. Part of the problem had been that she hadn’t been able to imagine herself pregnant or as a mother, not really. She couldn’t picture herself with a big, proud baby bump, or holding a mewling infant to her breast. Not at all.

So when that blank, black screen had come into focus, and the doctor had explained about the baby-who-wasn’t, part of her hadn’t even been surprised. And part of her had been… but, no. She couldn’t think about that. And she couldn’t possibly explain it to Will, not that he’d ever even thought to ask.

“Right,” Esther said as she hurried to finish her cup of tea. “How’s Jim getting on with the Environmental Stewardship Scheme, then?”

Two hours later she was climbing back into her Land Rover, having walked with Jim Telford through his fields that were currently not being used for agricultural management, and listened to his litany of complaints about the price of feed, the terrible weather, and the government’s endless interference. All said good-naturedly, of course, while Esther nodded and murmured and soothed, and then reminded him of what still needed to happen if he wanted to be part of the environmental scheme.


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