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Authors: Cheryl Bolen

B005R3LZ90 EBOK (23 page)

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Shaking their heads, he and the coachman met in the shallow valley. The horrible smell had become more powerful. George fought the overwhelming urge to get away from here. But he—more than anyone—must stay. The slaughtered sheep belonged to him. He was lord of Hornsby. No one else could make the decisions he would now have to make.

The sound of pounding horse hooves came from the crest of the hill, and George gazed up at Willingham and a half dozen other men riding toward them.

Willingham, pinching his nose in an effort to eliminate the foul odor that now permeated everything, came abreast of his employer and dismounted, a grim look on his face. "John said they're all dead back there."

George's lashes lowered and the muscle in his jaw tightened. "Same here."

"If it's permissible to your lordship, I would like to order the men to begin digging trenches."

George nodded somberly. "I'll send the coachman back to Hornsby to get handkerchiefs with which all the men can cover their noses."

"Have Lady Sedgewick sprinkle her perfume on them," Willingham advised.

"A good idea. We'll need all the hands we can get. I'll have my footman come assist."

"Your new groom's already here, offering to help." Willingham looked toward the hill he had just crossed.

His stomach queasy, George began to trudge back up the hill. When he rounded it, he saw Sally coming toward him on Thunder.
What the hell?
Impertinent wench! What was she doing here? The biggest bleeding heart there was. His eyes drilling into her, he picked up his pace.

She slowed as she came close to him. He saw that her tears were gone now.

"I don't want you here," he snapped.

"I know. It's just that I don't want to see you lose everything. Can't we still try to shear the sheep before we bury them? We won't get as much wool, but it would be better than getting nothing."

"Their wool's all bloody!"

"I know it's a lot to ask of the men, but Mrs. MacMannis and I have agreed to boil all the bloody wool clean and lay it out to dry."

"I can't ask you to do that."

"You're not asking. We offered. It's the least we can do to help."

George glowered at her from beneath lowered brows. "I can't ask the men to shear dead, bloody animals."

"I spoke to Mr. Willingham. He thinks it's worth a try. Let him ask the men."

"That's not the point. It's too much to expect of anyone."

"But it's their money, too. You don't have to force them. Ask for volunteers."

By now, Willingham rode up to where Sally and George had gathered. "Lady Sedgewick's idea has merit, my lord."

"Then you'll ask the men to perform so gruesome a task?" George asked.

"I shall ask for volunteers, if that is agreeable with you, my lord?"

George's glance surveyed the macabre scene which surrounded him, choking him with complete repugnance. His eyes moistened as he nodded. "I'll shear the first myself."




Chapter 21


That night Sally and George collapsed into their beds directly after George read to the children. He had earned the right to go to bed early, Sally thought. Though he was unused to physical labor, he had worked harder than any man that day, and when darkness came he was still laboring over dead sheep, eking out every ounce of wool that could be had. When the coal-like skies closed around him like a cave, Willingham finally forced him to quit.

Sally burst with pride in him—as well as in his workers, none of whom had refused to aid in the gruesome work. She, too, had done yeoman's work that day. Cook and the sturdy girl who helped her in the kitchen were the only household servants spared from lending a hand in some way with the grim task of shearing. The parlor maids carried baskets of the shorn, bloody wool from the fields to Mrs. MacMannis and Sally, who were cleansing it in cauldrons of boiling water. Other maids fetched more water, while still others laid out the clean, wet wool on Hornsby's dark green lawn. By nightfall only a hundred head of sheep had been shorn.

During the day Sally had been too busy to dwell on the savage, violent act that crippled Hornsby, but once she was in the sanctuary of her own bedchamber, she crushed her face into her pillow and wept bitterly. She had vowed not to cry in front of her broken husband. She would be strong for his sake. She would be his helpmate, but in the darkness of her room she would allow herself to weep. She wept for the poor creatures that had been massacred. She wept for the financial blow the disaster had struck. She wept for the unlikelihood that the stock would ever be replenished. Most of all, she wept for George. He had looked forward with unbounded pride to this year's crop, which was to have been the best ever.

She physically ached for George's hurt. Would this tragedy send him back to Bath? Back to the place where he couldn't be hurt because there he was devoid of feeling? She wept even more bitterly.

* * *

The next morning she met George at breakfast. He looked so much better than he had the night before. It was not just that he was clean-shaven and wore a fresh suit of clothing. Everything about him looked rested. A good thing too, she thought, for today would be even harder than yesterday.

"Did you sleep well?" he asked.

She lied. "Yes. You?"

"I was asleep as soon as I hit the bed."

Her thoughts flitted to their bed in Bath. She could almost picture him removing his pantaloons before lying beside her. At the memory of his bare, muscled legs parallel to hers, her breath came a little faster. She poured herself coffee from the silver urn and sat down across from him. "Cook did a fine job of feeding everyone yesterday, especially considering she was unable to use the kitchen hearth."

His green eyes leveled with hers. "All the servants did a commendable job. I'm very proud of them." He took a sip of coffee. "And grateful."

She suddenly remembered something she wanted to share with him. "You know, George, I heard the most extraordinary story from one of the parlor maids yesterday." She stirred the cream she had added to her coffee.

He arched a brow.

"Estelle said she had difficulty sleeping the previous night, so she left her bed and began to pace her chamber. In the middle of the night, she peered from her window and was shocked to see a naked man walking toward Hornsby from the meadowlands."

George's eyes rounded as he whirled at her. "Did she see where he went?"

Sally shrugged. "No. She said she was too embarrassed to look. As soon as she saw his nudity, she began to tremble and spun away from the window."

His fist hammered the table. "Damn!"

"What's the matter?"

"He was the one."

Sally sat stunned for several seconds. "The one who slaughtered the sheep?"

He nodded.

"How do you know?"

"The person who . . . who killed the sheep would have been completely saturated with blood. If he had any sense, he would have taken off his clothes
the crime. The bloody clothes would have been evidence against him. I'm guessing he did strip first, then afterward he took a dip in the lake."

Her hand flew to her mouth and her eyes misted. "Oh my God, you must be right! But who. . ." her voice cracked. "Who would do this awful thing?"

Anger flashed in his eyes. "Someone who hates me very much."

"But you haven't any enemies! You're amiable and well liked by all who know you."

His mouth went taut. "Obviously not all."

Adams entered the chamber. "Mr. Basingstoke begs a word with you, my lord."

"Send him here." George wiped a napkin over his mouth and got up to greet the vicar.

Mr. Basingstoke, wearing fawn breeches and riding boots, stormed into the room, his brow folded like a closed fan. "Sedgewick, I heard about the unspeakable act that's been inflicted upon you!"

George shook his head solemnly. "I seem to have made a dangerous enemy."

Sally winced, then addressed the vicar. "Would you care for coffee, Mr. Basingstoke?"

"No, thank you. I've come to work." His gaze locked with George's. "There are twenty men outside who've offered to help you today."

Unable to hold back her tears and unwilling to allow either man to see her cry, Sally brought her napkin to her face and dabbed at her mouth, then quickly wiped away the tears.

George nodded solemnly. "I don't know what I've ever done to deserve this, but I'm not too proud to accept help. We need every hand we can get. With twenty more men, I believe we'll finish today—and we must. The odor's already overpowering."

"Yes," Basingstoke said, wrinkling his nose. "I can smell it from here at the manor house."

Sally glanced at her napkin and jumped up. "You all need to use napkins around your faces to help stifle the smell. I'll just run upstairs for some perfume."

"Believe it or not, the perfume does help," George said, clapping a hand on Basingstoke's shoulder.

Basingstoke looked at George and solemnly shook his head. "The village folk are nearly as outraged as you. In fact, I've already got pledges from people who want to help you restock. So far, thirty sheep have been donated—and twelve new lambs can be spared by the good farmers of Tottenford."

"Then everyone must know that I've been wiped out," George said in a cracking voice.

The vicar shrugged. "I know because Willingham and I are close. I knew how important this year's crop was to Hornsby's fortunes."

George, his voice still cracking, turned his head away. "I'm moved by everyone's generosity." A pity it took a tragedy to show him that Hornsby and the people who inhabited it clasped his heart as surely as if bound by chains.

"It's your own generosity that's spurred this," Basingstoke said. "Never has anyone in Tottenford been in need that you've not come to their aid. I know that whenever I ask for your help, you'll do anything you can to assist. Now, for the first time, you need help, and it's time for others to help you."

"I daresay the old George would have been too proud to accept, but I have a family to consider now. You know, Charles, I had decided to stay at Hornsby. I wanted to make it a place my children would look to with pride." He laughed bitterly. "How in the hell I'll do that now without any money, I don't know."

There was pity on Basingstoke's face when he nodded.

* * *

By noon the wool that had been washed the day before was ready to be bagged, and new, wet wool replaced it in crooked, ever-lengthening lines across Hornsby's lawn. Those facts were conveyed to George via the maids who came throughout the day with empty baskets and left with full ones.

Not that George stood around talking. He spent the day bending already sore muscles over death-stiffened sheep. He had even mustered enough strength to single-handedly turn over a beast in order to shear its other side. Sweat clung to the napkin that was tied around his head to mask the foul odor. He worked without a break. He worked even when every limb cried out to be rested. He worked until the sunlight faded, then abandoned him altogether.

After shearing the last of the sheep, George winced in pain as he raised himself up from his bent-over stance and began to walk across the grim pastures. Now that his hands were free, he was at liberty to press the perfumed napkin to his face. He had inhaled the putrid stench for so long and his lungs were so permeated with the odor, he wondered if his breath would ever be free of it.

He heard voices and saw the forms of other men, but it was too dark to recognize anyone. He was almost too tired to walk, but he forced himself to climb the hill. With each step, he craved a ride upon a horse, but no such relief was available.

As he rounded the hill, he heard Willingham's voice and followed the sound.

When they met in the darkness, Willingham spoke in a weary voice. "We'll have to begin the trenches tomorrow."

"No," George said firmly. "We'll burn them. These men have worked hard enough."

"Burn the sheep?"

"Yes. With ropes and horses it shouldn't be too difficult to put them into piles for the bonfires."

"I wish I'd thought of that. It will be a lot less work—but a damn foul odor."

"The odor can't be any worse than it is now," George said.

For dinner that night George had invited to Hornsby as many men as could sit around the long dining room table, and he insisted that no man need dress for dinner this night.

"But we'll stink up your house," Willingham protested.

George shook his head. "The house already stinks. I daresay the wretched odor has reached as far as Tottenford."

Willingham shrugged. "I daresay you're right."

Sally saw to it their best wine was served to these loyal friends. Being the only woman at the table kept her silent throughout the dinner.

With the lion's share of their work now behind them, the men's thoughts turned to speculation over who could be responsible for the senseless slaughter.

George related the maid's tale about the naked man, and they all agreed that he must be the man responsible for killing the sheep.

"At least we know he was walking toward Hornsby—and thus, the village," Basingstoke said. "That should eliminate anyone to the north."

George's eyes narrowed, his voice lowered. "I would very much like to get my hands upon him."

"George!" Sally shrieked.

He spun toward her, his eyes wide with worry over the terror he heard in her voice.

All color drained from her face. "What about the children? If someone hates you that much . . ." Her voice broke.

A hush fell over the long table.

Dear God!
He felt as if a giant had kicked him in the gut. His hand began to tremble so badly, he had to set down his fork. Could any pain be greater than seeing your child die? He spoke with barely controlled anger. "They are never, ever to be left alone. You will convey that order to the nurse and to all who serve at Hornsby."

Her eyes misted as she nodded solemnly.

* * *

Sally knew she would sleep well this night. She had been even more exhausted today than yesterday because of her lack of sleep the night before.

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