Authors: Cheryl Bolen
"I've hired a groom," he said.
"But you know I'm trying to keep expenses down."
"The man begged for the job. All he asks for is room and board, and we already have the stables with his living quarters. You yourself have said we need to get a pony for the children, and it's my desire to acquire a gentle mount for you."
"I've been trying to cut expenses, and here you go spending more money."
He shrugged. "I'm not spending much. Willingham—when he learned I was looking for a pony—told me of a family desirous of finding a good home for theirs because the master is too old to ride it any longer. Willingham assures me we've got enough oats to comfortably feed it."
"I must admit the children will be ecstatic, and it does seem you are trying to economize."
Oddly pleased over her approval, he slid a knuckle down her tawny cheek.
He thought her voice trembled when she spoke. "The groom is a young man?"
"Less than five and twenty, I'd say. Quite a strapping fellow. His name is Ebinezer.
In many ways St. Edward's Chapel in the nearby village of Tottenford was a great equalizer. For within the chapel's stone walls every Sunday morning master and servant and tenant and squire all came together to worship the same God in the same manner. The only distinction among the worshippers was that Lord Sedgewick's family sat in the Sedgewick pew, a square box in front of the other pews. A dozen or more persons could have sat in the Sedgewick pew—and did when George's sisters and their families were visiting Hornsby.
The Sedgewicks merited the prominent pew because the vicar of St. Edward's had his living from the family, as the vicar before him had, and the vicar before him, going back for at least two hundred years.
This morning Sally was going to make the acquaintance of the present vicar, one Charles Basingstoke, who had been at Oxford with George and who had served St. Edward's since shortly after George ascended to the title. Mr. Basingstoke had just returned from York, where he had been attending to family business since Sally's arrival here.
Despite Sam climbing on and off her lap at least thirty times, Sally listened attentively to the priest's sermon. She decided she liked the vicar. His homily on the Eighth Commandment was short, well prepared, and enlightening. She even detected his sense of humor and chuckled at one point while he was speaking. Unfortunately, she was the only one in the house of God to do so. Even George scowled at her. Mr. Basingstoke's voice was of moderate volume, which belied his small stature. It was difficult for Sally to believe the man was the same age as George, for with his thin frame and youthful, freckled face, he appeared far younger and far less masculine than the man she had married.
After the service, they gathered on the steps outside the chapel's timbered doors, and George presented the vicar to her.
She offered her hand, which he brought to his lips for a mock kiss.
"I regret that I was not here to welcome you to Tottenford when you arrived, my lady," he said.
"May I hope that your business in York was successfully concluded?" she said.
His lids lowered over pale green eyes. "Regrettably, my father, who had long been in ill health, died."
George moved to him and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Charles. . . I didn't know. I'm sorry."
The vicar looked up at them and offered a wan smile. "It was for the best. He had been in frail health for a very long time." He eyed Sally. "I was the youngest of eleven children, so my father was not a young man when I was born."
Sally came to put a gloved hand on his arm. "I lost my father just last year. We were very close." She lowered her lashes. "It's rather difficult, is it not?"
His pale eyes sparkled. "I have every confidence my poor parent is finally happy. He was given to self-sacrifice and religious fervor which, for as long as I can remember, prohibited him from ever enjoying anything. I truly believe he would have been in his element as one of those papist monks who slept on rocks and abstained from every possible pleasure."
It was all Sally could do to repress a giggle. Monks sleeping on rocks! Mr. Basingstoke really was enormously amusing.
He met her gaze, his lips sliding into a grin. "Thank you for understanding the humor I was unable to conceal in my talk this morning."
She laughed. "A pity everyone is always so somber in the sanctuary. My father was a vicar, and I must tell you he was given to inserting humor into a great many of his homilies."
Mr. Basingstoke directed his attention at George. "It's good to have you back, Sedgewick. How long before you return to Bath?"
"I'm not planning on returning there anytime soon."
"Willingham will, no doubt, be happy to know that."
George's mouth arched into a smile. "The man most likely finds me intolerable. I question every move he makes and offer suggestions that more than likely aren't welcome."
The vicar shook his head. "At one time you were the most knowledgeable landowner in England. Willingham's always commending you."
As he spoke, Willingham joined the group. Sally noted that he wore the same black frock coat he had worn that night he came to Hornsby for dinner.
The conversation immediately turned to matters of farming.
Sally glanced down at Sam, who tugged at her hand. He was tired of being on his best behavior. She bent down to sweep him into her arms before he got into mischief.
Mr. Basingstoke's eyes rounded. "Don't tell me, Sedgewick, this is your lad! I'd know him anywhere! He looks just like you, but he's certainly not a baby anymore."
"Exactly what I keep telling Lady Sedgewick," George said, shooting Sally an amused glance. "She's forever telling me he's just a babe."
Sally stroked Sam's curls as he poked his thumb into his mouth and contentedly laid his head against her modest bosom.
"You must have had children of your own, Lady Sedgewick, though I daresay you do look rather young," the vicar said.
She was utterly flattered. Not that she looked young, but that she looked maternal. "Only Georgette and Sam. I've known them all their lives."
"She was at school with my sister Glee," George explained.
"And how are your sisters?" Mr. Basingstoke asked. "I expect their nurseries continue to increase."
George turned somber. "Neither my sisters nor their nurseries are increasing, but my sisters are well. They're still in Bath."
Sally drew in a breath. Why had Mr. Basingstoke mentioned the nurseries, a sure reminder of Diana's tragic death? Now George was likely to be morose all day. Even after all this time, he still had days like that. Days when she knew he grieved for the lovely woman who had been his wife and borne his children.
Her heart flinched. How could she ever feel truly a wife when she would never bear George children, never be physically loved by him? Now she was the one who grieved.
"Tell me," George said to Mr. Basingstoke, "my wife says since Sunday is a day of rest, I'm to refrain from reading books on agriculture. Do you agree?"
Mr. Basingstoke smiled. "Reading the Bible—or other types of reading—are perfectly permissible on the Sabbath."
"You would tell Sedgewick that," Willingham said with jest. "The man is your meal ticket."
The vicar turned to Willingham. "As he's yours, but I daresay you wouldn't stay silent were Sedgewick desirous of turning Hornsby into a pineapple plantation."
At the unlikely prospect of growing pineapples in England, Sally pursed her lips, dimpling her cheeks.
Though both men spoke with good nature, the friction made Sally uncomfortable. "'Tis a good thing all of you have been friends for a great many years," she said.
"Which reminds me of Blanks," Mr. Basingstoke said, his lips curving into a smile. "I suppose marriage and fatherhood has tamed him."
George shrugged. "He's still the hedonist, despite his marriage."
It wasn't always that way.
Mr. Basingstoke sighed and met George's gaze. "I thought if anyone could tame him, it would be that lively sister of yours."
Sally patted Sam's back and glanced at Georgette, then addressed the vicar. "The children grow restless. It's been a pleasure meeting you. You and Mr. Willingham must come to dine with us. Tonight?"
Both men looked at George.
"Do come. Lady Sedgewick sets a fine table."
"I don't doubt it," Mr. Basingstoke said, eying Sally appreciatively.
Unfortunately, Mr. Willingham did the same, and his dark, flashing eyes made her exceedingly uncomfortable. George's glance flicked from Willingham to Sally, and he placed a possessive hand at her waist and nodded. "Tonight, gentlemen." He reached for Georgette's hand, and they walked to the awaiting carriage.
* * *
The carriage had not driven over a thousand yards when a great commotion was heard. The coach lurched to a stop, and George flung open the door and sprang out. "What is it?" he asked, alarm in his voice.
John was running toward him, terror on his face. "They've all been slaughtered, my lord!"
George's stomach plummeted. From the pain on his tenant's face, George thought the man had lost his family. All those sweet little girls. His heart pounded nearly out of his chest. "Who's been slaughtered?" George demanded, surging toward John.
A shriek came from the carriage, and Sally burst from the coach, streaking toward them.
"The sheep," John rasped. His eyes filled with liquid.
It was as if George suffered a blow to the windpipe. "What sheep?" he finally managed.
Panting and laboring for breath, John slowed to a stop. "All of them."
By now, Willingham rushed up, shouting. "Our sheep, man?" John nodded and spoke in a hoarse whisper. "All of them. Even the lambs."
Sally cried out, a long, sorrowful wail.
George moved to her, a million thoughts scrambling in his brain. He fleetingly thought of how Sally had begged to participate in the shearing. He swallowed hard. Now there would be no shearing. Now there was no herd. His brows drawing together, George said, "How? When?"
Sally's hand swiped the tears from her face. "Who would do this?" she asked in a shaking voice.
John shook his head. "I don't know. I live closest to the pastures, and I never heard nothin'. It musta happened in the middle of the night. Looks like some maniac came through there with a sword or dagger and embedded it in their bellies, one by one. He had to be one bloody son o' bitch. Beggin' yer pardon, milady."
Sally winced and her thin shoulders shook violently as she wept. Oddly, George was almost as upset over her grief as he was outraged over his loss. Damn, but he did not like to see her hurt. "Come, let's go. Perhaps we can save some of them." His arm around Sally, he hastened back to the carriage. "There's room for another," he called back to John.
"I'll gather some of the men and meet you there," Willingham said as he ran toward his tethered mount.
Once they were all settled in the carriage and the coach was speeding ahead, Sally gathered her composure enough to speak in a trembling voice. "We can't allow the children see it."
Of course she was right. "We'll drop you and the children off at Hornsby."
"Just the children," she said. "I might be able to help."
He remembered how fascinated she had been over the newborn lamb just the other day. Seeing all those slain creatures would be too much for her delicate sensibilities. "No," he said firmly. "I won't allow you, my lady."
"But George. . ." Her tears gushed forth.
He moved closer and set a reassuring arm around her. "I wish to God
didn't have to go, Sally. It won't be a pretty sight."
"They'll be needin' to be buried," John said. "By tomorrow, the odor will be overpowering."
A moan escaping from her, Sally buried her wet face into her hands.
"Who would do this?" George asked in a raspy voice, his head shaking from side to side. "Why?"
"The scarcer the wool, the higher price others' wool will fetch," John said. "It could be anyone."
"But not just anyone would be able to slay five hundred head of sheep," George said bitterly.
"Papa?" Georgette asked.
He glanced across the carriage where his children sat on either side of John. "What, love?"
His gaze locked with his daughter's, his stomach churning. "It means to kill."
Her little face clouded. "Someone killed our lambs?"
George nodded solemnly.
"How could anybody be that mean?" she asked.
From beneath lowered brows, his glance darted from Georgette's solemn face to Sally's tearful face, and he, too, felt like crying. But of course, he couldn't. What was needed in a situation like this was someone who could stay level-headed and make the painful decisions. Never mind that part of his own heart had been wrenched from him. "I honestly don't know, pet."
When they reached Hornsby, the coach slowed only long enough to deposit Sally and the children, then it sped up again toward the pastures.
George and John were the first to arrive at the slaughter. Getting out of the carriage was the most difficult move he had ever made, but he would not allow John to know that. He wrenched the carriage door open and jumped down.
For a moment he froze. The silence was eerie. For as far as he could see, the fields were covered with the sprawled sheep. Most would have appeared to be asleep if it weren't for the blood staining their wool and running into red rivers. The grim scene turned his stomach. His fists clenched, and he spoke in a guttural voice. "I vow, whoever did this will pay."
John's voice choked with emotion. "Where do we begin?"
"Most important at present is saving any sheep which still might be alive."
"You take this pasture. I'll go across the hill." George directed the coachman, then jumped up on the box beside him.
After they rose over the crest, the coach came to a stop, and George, along with his coachman, began to search for signs of life from any of the hundred and fifty sheep which had grazed there. As George went to the east, southerly winds swept the sickening stench of death over the meadowland. Blood covered his boots as he made his way down the hill. As painful as it was, he studied each animal, grotesque in death, hopeful for signs of life. If only he could have been here last night, he might could have saved some of them. But it was too late now. The farther he went down the hill, the more hopeless his mission, the more his eyes misted.