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Authors: Gwen Kirkwood

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‘So long as you let us know before we go to bed. You know how your mother worries.’

‘OK, will do,’ Billy nodded. ‘You both worry too much,’ he muttered in an undertone as he climbed in beside Kim.

‘They worry because they love you, Billy. You should be grateful that they care. I doubt if my mother ever did, or would have done even if she had lived.’

‘It can be a bit irritating when people keep reminding me I’m not normal,’ Billy said. ‘Do you feel bitter about your mother, Kim?’ He had never heard her mentioned before.

‘Not bitter, no. I never knew her. Anyway Daddy and Aunt Ellen made up for her absence. They took me to all sorts of places children wouldn’t normally be allowed to go. I think that’s why I always felt more grown up than most of my schoolfriends. Mary is
sensible and mature because of her upbringing. I think that’s why we get on so well. I’ve been so lucky. Uncle Alex is a lovely man.’ She smiled in the darkness. ‘He’s as protective as if he’d been my own father.’

In spite of his determination to be a normal man, Billy was wary of the slippery yard. He didn’t want to make a fool of himself by falling again so he was glad when Kim drove close to the door at Bengairney.

‘No good both of us getting wet feet,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Here’s the key. Will you put the kettle on? I’m dying for a hot drink and you’ll need to wait while I cook our evening meal because Aunt Ellen isn’t home.’

‘Right you are, boss.’ Billy grinned, and gave a mock salute. Kim grinned back at him and felt her spirits rise. They were back to their old teasing and camaraderie, like they used to be before she began to feel the little darts of jealousy which had accompanied the pangs of growing up and being aware that Billy was a man and as attractive to other women as he was to her. At least for this evening she would have him to herself. She knew some of the girls from college would know how to make the most of such an opportunity and they considered her old-fashioned and prim. Maybe she was. She drove her battered little car into the shed and locked the doors.

The Carafords had been at Bengairney for fifty years and Billy was familiar with the layout of the house because he had stayed there often when his granny and grandfather had been alive, but the kitchen had been restyled since Ellen moved in.

‘My, this is posh,’ he greeted Kim when she joined him. ‘I’ve put the kettle on the hotplate. Is that right?’

‘Yes, that’s it singing already. The Aga gets hot when
the lids have been down all day. Do you fancy tea or coffee, or something else? Supper will be a while – do you want a scone or some of the chocolate cake I made? It’s a new recipe and Uncle Alex says it’s as good as his mother used to make.’

‘That’s a rare compliment then. My granny was well known for her cooking. Mum uses a lot of her recipes. Do you like cooking, Kim?’

‘Yes, I like experimenting. Aunt Ellen has certain recipes which she does extremely well but she doesn’t like trying out new ideas so she lets me cook whenever I have time.’

‘In that case I’d better have a scone and the chocolate cake in case you’re intending to experiment on me tonight.’

‘That’s good. If I get a casserole in soon it will be easy to warm up when Uncle Alex gets in. Aunt Ellen said on the phone that he has no idea when he will get home. It depends what the motorway is like when he eventually gets back to it. I think the farm sale was quite a distance away on country roads.’

‘Mmm, this is delicious,’ Billy said as he licked the chocolate fudge icing from his forefinger. ‘You can come and experiment on me any time, Miss Kimberley Wilshaw.’

‘Will you put a match to the fire in the wee television room, please, Billy, while I get on with chopping up the meat and vegetables?’ Kim asked, briskly clearing away the remains of their snack. ‘The heating will be coming on about now but the fire makes it cosy on a night like this.’

‘Did you get central heating put in when Uncle Alex married? It used to be electric storage heaters
and coal fires in Gran’s time. Mum and Dad tried to persuade Uncle Alex to get oil heating after Granny died but he said he couldn’t face the upheaval.’

‘He said he hadn’t done anything to the house but now that he owns it he said Aunt Ellen could make whatever alterations she liked so long as she didn’t bankrupt him and he didn’t have to clean up the mess. She and Daddy were both quite thrifty but she has redecorated most of the rooms since the heating and the double-glazed windows were installed.’

‘That must be a great improvement.’

‘Yes, it is. Aunt Ellen is thinking of inviting your family and your Aunt Tania’s for Christmas here now that everything is tidy again. I used to love Christmas when Daddy was alive.’ She gave a wistful sigh.

‘I’m sure it will be good again, if we can all be together as a family, Kim,’ Billy said comfortingly. ‘Of course you’ll need to get some mistletoe,’ he teased.

‘I shouldn’t think your Ritchie cousins need the mistletoe to steal kisses from what I’ve seen of them?’ Kim said, quirking an eyebrow.

‘No, you’re right there. I wish I had half their confidence. Of course they have plenty of money so I don’t suppose any of the girls reject them anyway.’

‘Oh Billy, I’m sure it takes more than money to attract nice girls.’

‘Yes, it takes a man with two good legs,’ Billy said. Kim’s eyes widened at the note of bitterness. She had never heard him sound so down before. She wondered if Fenella Lennox had rebuffed his advances after spending so much time together during the summer.

Two hours later, Kim was about to serve up their meal when the telephone rang.

‘It’s Uncle Alex,’ she said, covering the mouthpiece. ‘He hasn’t got as far as Shap yet and he’s stopped for something to eat so it’s going to be very late before he gets home. He sounds worried. He’s pleased I have company but he wants to speak to you.’

Kim could only hear Billy’s side of the conversation but she saw his mouth tighten and heard his responses getting more terse.

‘For God’s sake, Uncle Alex, don’t you trust me? Would you rather I left her on her own?’ He listened, then broke in, ‘I have too much respect for her to take advantage,’ and put the telephone down.

‘Can we eat now?’ Kim asked, realizing that Billy was upset and angry over something his uncle had said.

‘Yes. I mean, yes, please, let’s do that. I didn’t mean to snap at you, Kim. I’ll telephone my father later and tell him I shall not be home until morning. Uncle Alex says his herdsman will look round the cows here tonight so we have not to go out.’ His mouth tightened again. ‘He’s afraid I might fall and then I’d be a burden to you trying to get me to my feet. I’m not that stupid! Anyway, I’m not that helpless either, even if it does take me a bit longer than a normal fellow to get up.’

‘Forget about everyone else. Come and enjoy your meal. Uncle Alex says he will not want anything except a hot drink and I’ve to leave the kettle on. So you can eat as much as you like, but I have made you a pudding with meringues, fruit and cream.’

‘Thank you, Kim,’ Billy said warmly. ‘Now you mention it I’m famished and that smells wonderful. What is it?’

‘It’s pork casserole with carrots, onions and parsnips and a few herbs. I’ve made creamed potatoes separately and there’s peas and apple sauce too if you want it. I love plenty of vegetables.’

Kim was pleased when he accepted a second helping.

‘That was delicious,’ Billy said as he scraped up the last of his meringue. ‘Now I’d better phone Dad as I promised to let him know what’s happening with Uncle Alex.’ He fished his mobile out of his pocket.

‘All right, you phone while I load the dishwasher then I’ll make some coffee and bring it through to the room. Would you put some logs on the fire first, please?’

‘OK. Sometimes I think you’re about the only person who treats me as half normal,’ Billy said with a wry grimace.

‘Of course I’m not. You can phone in the room if you like. We get quite good mobile reception in there.’

When Kim entered the room carrying the tray of coffee and homemade biscuits, Billy was still talking to his father.

‘For God’s sake, Dad, not you too! Yes, Uncle Alex said much the same sort of thing.’ Kim put the tray down and crept out again, unwilling to eavesdrop on a private conversation but she couldn’t help overhearing his voice raised in anger.

‘I know she’s young and attractive and possibly innocent too but I’m not that desperate that I need to …’ He listened. His voice lowered and Kim didn’t hear what he said but moments later he called to her.

‘Ready for the coffee now?’ she asked brightly.

‘Yes, please.’ He sighed. ‘Do you trust me, Kim?’

‘Trust you?’ Kim stared at him, holding a half-filled cup of coffee.

‘Yes, trust me to spend the night here, alone with you, I mean?’ His tone was bitter. ‘It seems both my own father and my precious uncle think I might take advantage of your innocence or molest you, or some other bloody thing. Don’t they realize if you had gone away to university you might have been sharing a flat with men or women every night, for God’s sake?’

‘Here, drink your coffee,’ Kim said flatly, eyeing him warily, ‘and if you mean can I trust you with my reputation, then of course I do.’ Sometimes I wish I didn’t, she thought miserably. Billy never made the sort of advances towards her which other boys did – and some of them she detested, then they taunted her about being unnatural.

‘They must think I’m so desperate I need to push my attentions on you the minute the opportunity arises,’ he muttered angrily. ‘I can think of a few girls when I might have been tempted to take advantage of the situation, but I respect you too much for anything like that, Kim. I hope you know that?’

‘Oh yes, I know that,’ Kim muttered into her coffee cup. Billy frowned. She turned on the television but neither of them could settle to watch. Billy sensed something he had said had upset Kim but he didn’t know what. After the day’s work and the freezing cold outside, the big meal and the warmth of the fire, he couldn’t stifle a yawn. When he excused himself a second time, Kim said abruptly, ‘I can see you’re tired.’ Or bored, she thought miserably. ‘I’ll make up the bed in your father’s old room. We may as well get an early night. There will be plenty of snow to clear in
the morning and Uncle Alex and I will need to rescue Aunt Ellen.’

Billy didn’t argue. Their earlier camaraderie seemed to have disappeared like smoke up the chimney, leaving only tension between them. He was still angry with his father and uncle. Was it so obvious that he admired Kim? He knew she was too young for him to consider seriously. Surely they should have realized he respected her too much to take advantage just because they were spending the night alone together? Maybe he should start taking out other girls again to throw them off the scent. He had spent plenty of time with Fenella Lennox during the summer but that was different; they enjoyed each other’s company and they could discuss the past and Liam, something neither of them could do with anyone else. Both knew there were no strings attached to their friendship. In fact, Billy was beginning to suspect Fenella and Michael Appleby were in closer contact than he had realized.

The snow had disappeared by Christmas and heavy rain had washed away any lingering drifts beneath the hedges and behind the stone walls. Only Criffel and a few other high peaks still wore white caps. The weather made little difference to the festive spirits at Bengairney as the family gathered together in the warm and cheery house. Kim had decorated the Christmas tree and retrieved the various decorations she had known since childhood. She had even hung the mistletoe in the hall. Ellen glowed with happiness as Alex praised her cooking.

‘I can’t take all the credit,’ she said, smiling. ‘Kim made the starter and the puddings.’

‘I’m lucky to be blessed with two talented women,’ Alex said. He looked across at Tania’s son, Steve. ‘You make sure you get a wife who can cook and look after you, laddie. All that glamour I hear you chasing after….’ He shook his head. ‘Ach, that’s no use on its own.’ Steve flushed a little. He enjoyed being seen with glamorous girls.

‘I’ve plenty of time to choose if I wait as long as you,
Uncle Alex,’ Steve retorted.

‘There’s no need for that sort of remark,’ his father rebuked and Tania gave a repressive frown, not that it ever did any good with Steve.

‘I don’t know where Steve has sprung from,’ she said. ‘I don’t remember you and Sam being like that when we were young, Alex? He doesn’t take his flirting from Struan or me, and I’m sure none of his grandparents were like that.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Alex said. ‘He’ll learn one day.’ He glanced at Ellen and smiled. ‘My prize was well worth waiting for, but it’s time we made up for waiting so long. I’m planning to take things easier and have more holidays together now that Kim is growing up and doesn’t need us, but so far our plans never seem to work out.’

‘I know the feeling,’ Sam said with a sigh. ‘You’ll never have time for holidays while you have a dairy herd. Now that we have Billy back home we’re going to have a holiday in the spring. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?’ He winked at Rosemary. He could still make her blush even though they were a long-married couple.

‘I’ll believe it when I’m there, in some exotic place or other,’ she said with a grin.

‘Ah, then you haven’t seen the brochures I brought from the travel agent? I left them on the kitchen table.’

‘Oh, I did see them, but they were all for cruises.’

‘Yes, I thought we might try a short cruise to start with and see how we like it. Ten days in May, I thought, before we start the silage. All the cattle will be out to grass by then. Why don’t you and Ellen come with us, Alex?’ Sam asked. He liked his new sister-in-law and he knew
Rosemary and Ellen had renewed their early friendship.

‘We–ell, it’s an idea. What do you think, Ellen?’

‘Sounds good to me. Kim will still be at college but I could close down the antiques centre for a week and Mrs Brex will keep an eye on things and take any messages. Mmm, I think we would enjoy it with the four of us.’

‘What about you and Struan, Tania?’ Rosie asked. She had been friends with Sam’s sister since they were children.

‘I’m sure we’d love to come but we have promised to visit Struan’s sister in Australia this spring and we couldn’t possibly go all that way and not stay with Carol too.’

‘Oh, lucky you!’ Rosemary said wistfully, thinking of her beloved daughter on the other side of the world. ‘I know she’d love to have you. I suspect she still gets homesick. We can talk to her on Skype now but it’s still not the same as being there. Angus is growing so fast too. He’ll be past wanting cuddles from his granny by the time we see him.’

‘If Billy manages all right while we’re away on a cruise we’ll go to visit her ourselves later in the year,’ Sam promised. He missed his daughter too. ‘How about next Christmas?’

‘We shall have to wait and see how Billy gets on first,’ Rosemary said doubtfully.

‘Oh, Mother! I shall manage everything fine,’ Billy said with a note of irritation. ‘And I should get on even better if I could persuade you and Dad to let me install a couple of robots.’

‘If we did that we’d have no money left to go to
Australia,’ Sam said lightly.

‘I’m serious, Dad. And there’s ways round the capital outlay if that’s really the problem. It is the way dairy farmers will go in the future.’

‘This discussion is not for the Christmas dinner table,’ Rosemary said firmly. She had heard the
argument
over robots between Billy and Sam several times recently and she knew it could go on a long time and could become heated.

‘I don’t know anything about robots,’ Steve chipped in, serious for once, ‘but Cousin Billy is right about the herds expanding, isn’t he, Dad?’

‘Yes,’ Struan acknowledged, ‘but I don’t know much about robots, or whether they’re worth the capital outlay.’

‘You’ll know better than us about that, Billy?’ Steve said. Billy nearly always felt irritated by his older, more confident cousin, but underneath the brash exterior he knew Steve was a shrewd businessman and a good farmer. Most of the time he seemed at pains to hide it and spent his time flirting with girls or playing practical jokes with his friends. Billy had noticed the way he had kissed Kim under the mistletoe and in his opinion he had held her far longer than was necessary. He had liked the feel of her soft full lips himself and he would have liked to hold her longer too. He had seen her colour rise when he met her eyes but she hadn’t blushed with Steve. Did that mean he mattered to her?

‘How do these robots do the milking anyway?’ his Uncle Struan asked curiously. ‘Are they like mechanical men going round the cubicles? And how do they decide when a cow needs milking?’

‘N–no, nothing like that.’ Billy stifled a laugh at the picture his uncle conjured up of wee metal men shuffling round the cubicle shed amongst the cows. ‘The robots are fixed and have to be installed so they’re accessible to the cows, and not too far from the dairy. The milk is piped automatically into the bulk tank. The cows come to the robots themselves whenever they feel ready to be milked. Each cow wears a collar which is recognized electronically and every cow is programmed into the computer so that the right amount of cake can be measured out to her each time she is milked. It is more natural because they can be milked several times in twenty-four hours, the way a calf would suckle. The amount of milk and the cake used are all recorded and you can look them up on the computer. It can be linked to the house so you can keep an eye on things easily. Of course there are some problems but it’s a lot easier than having to be there for the whole milking twice every day, and you don’t need to start at five in the morning.’ He glanced at his father.

‘I know, I know, I’ve heard it all before,’ Sam said with a sigh.

‘It sounds a good system, the way you describe it, Billy,’ Alex agreed, ‘but what if a cow develops mastitis, or if one is newly calved and the milk cannot go into the bulk milk tank?’

‘Yes, I wondered that?’ Struan remarked.

‘Now, Struan,’ Tania interrupted, shaking her head and making a face at Rosemary and Ellen, ‘the subject is banned. We’re here to celebrate Christmas, remember?’

‘Oh but Aunt Tania, just let me tell them this bit,
then we’ll forget about farming for today.’ Before Tania could agree or disagree, Billy turned to Struan and went on, ‘That’s one of the reasons the robots would suit me so well. I wouldn’t need to carry buckets of colostrum up the steps from the milking parlour pit, nor any milk that has to be kept separate if a cow has been treated with antibiotics. You set the computer and the robot diverts the milk into dump buckets so it doesn’t go near the main milk tank.’

‘Is that right? It sounds too good to be true.’

‘He makes it sound good, doesn’t he?’ Sam said drily. ‘Perhaps he should be a robot salesman instead of farming Martinwold.’

‘Oh, Dad! Don’t be like that,’ Billy pleaded.

‘Well, you admitted the robot alerts you on your mobile when the tubes get twisted or something else goes wrong, even if it’s in the middle of the night.’

‘Trust Dad to remember the bad bits,’ Billy chuckled and gave an exaggerated sigh.

‘Anyone for Christmas dinner?’ Ellen interrupted with a smile and was greeted with a chorus of eager assent.

It was indeed a happy day. Ellen had been diffident about asking Alex’s family to Bengairney, knowing what excellent cooks Tania and Rosemary were.

‘It’s been just like old times,’ Sam said, ‘With all of us back at Bengairney. You’ve made our old home look well, Ellen. And Alex is like a new man.’ He kissed her cheek warmly as they left. Alex told her how proud he was when they had all gone.

‘I never thought I’d have a wife and family of my own and be able to ask them all back here,’ he said. ‘They all enjoyed the day.’

‘Actually, so did I, once I’d served the Christmas dinner and everyone cleared their plates,’ Ellen admitted. ‘Kim was a great help. I think she enjoyed having your nephews and niece for company.’

‘Yes,’ Alex agreed, ‘I noticed Steve and Billy made the most of the mistletoe, and Billy snatched another chance when they were leaving. I reckon he thought nobody would see but I saw them in the hall mirror.’

‘He’s a handsome lad. There’s no wonder Kim has a crush on him,’ Ellen said. ‘I hope she doesn’t get hurt though. I have a feeling the Lennox girl has her eye on Billy and she would make a good wife for him when she has her veterinary training.’

‘Only time will tell,’ Alex sighed. ‘Whatever they do, I hope neither of them waste as much time as we did.’ His voice grew husky. ‘I don’t intend to waste any more though,’ he whispered, drawing her closer.

In the end Alex and Ellen decided they could not manage the holiday with Sam and Rosemary so this would be the first time the two of them had been on a proper holiday alone since their honeymoon, with no family, no cattle sales to attend en route, no other farms to visit.

‘We both love our home and our way of life but this will be a brand new experience, going on a cruise down the Rhine,’ Rosemary chuckled. ‘How will you survive, Sam, without a cow in sight?’

‘We shall probably appreciate what we have all the more when we return. I’m sure I shall survive, but will Billy?’

‘Sam, he’s a man now and he has chosen farming as his work, as his life. We can’t worry about him
forever and we shall only be away for ten days. If you feel like this now how will you control your worries when we go to Australia for six whole weeks?’

‘Mmm, I’ve been pondering that question. I think you’ll have to visit Carol on your own, Rosie,’ Sam said.

‘Oh no! Carol thinks the world of you, Sam, and she’s your daughter just as much as Billy is your son. I’ve promised we will go at the end of the year. She knows this cruise is a trial to see how Billy copes on his own, and how you feel being torn away from your beloved Martinwold and your cattle. She’s already planning and looking forward to us going. Besides I think Alex will keep a discreet eye on Billy, phone him up and so on, and probably pop in some days.’

‘Yes, they do get on well, too well sometimes, it seems to me,’ Sam said darkly. ‘I reckon Alex
encourages
him over the robots.’

‘Mmm, I’ve noticed he seems quite interested but he says it’s not worth his while making the changes at Bengairney and spending so much money when he has no son to follow on.’

‘He has Kim now. She’s as interested in the breeding side of the herd as Alex is himself.’

‘That’s different. Kim might marry someone with no interest in farming, then where would Alex be? No, I can understand why he doesn’t want to make such major changes himself.’

‘I suppose you’re right, Rosie. You usually are,’ Sam said with a wry smile, ‘but I’m still not sure about going off to Australia and leaving Billy entirely on his own for so long.’

‘He’s looking forward to the challenge and I’m sure
Ellen will invite him for meals now and then.’

‘Aye, but it’s not his meals I’m worried about. Suppose he had a fall or an accident?’

‘That could happen to anyone. Billy always has his mobile phone with him. I never thought I would admit what a useful thing that is, but it does reassure me when he’s working in the fields. The doctor says he has adjusted well. It is up to us to accept things the way they are and treat him as any normal young man, instead of keep reminding him of his amputation.’

‘That’s easier said than done,’ Sam muttered.

‘He has been so determined to prove he can do nearly everything you can do. Look at the way he insisted on taking his turn at the milking even when he was at university, and he has kept up with all the pedigrees.’

‘It’s a different thing being in sole charge every day without a break,’ Sam said. He heaved a sigh. ‘Then there’s another thing, and it’s a problem Alex doesn’t consider because he has never had children of his own, but we have three. Billy can’t have everything. I know Rena is more than happy with her share since you signed over Langton Gardens to her, and she has the rents from the houses you owned. She’s told me often that she’s happy with the way her life is turning out, but Carol has had nothing much yet. Is it fair that she should have to wait until we die before she can have her share?’

‘Well, ye–es, there is that,’ Rosie agreed slowly. ‘I’ve thought about it myself. Carol was so homesick, especially after Angus was born. I wondered how things would work out then. If she had had money of her own she might have been tempted to come back
to Scotland at that time, but she seems happy now. After all, it was love at first sight with her and Paddy and his family welcomed her so warmly. They seem to be quite well off.’

‘That’s not the same as her having some money of her own,’ Sam insisted, ‘but we shall see for ourselves how things really are when we visit. If there are any decisions to be made we’ll make them when we return. At least Carol has provided us with a grandson, even if it does look as though he’ll grow up a wee Aussie. I can’t help wondering whether Billy will ever find a wife. I used to think he and Fenella Lennox….’

‘Sam Caraford!’ Rosemary said in angry exasperation. ‘There you go again, belittling our son! Why shouldn’t Billy get a wife? He’s only lost half a leg, for goodness’ sake. He’s not paralyzed from the waist down as he could so easily have been. He’s good-looking and intelligent and he works as hard as anyone else. Why shouldn’t some girl love him for the fine young man he is, and provide you with more grandsons than you might desire?’

BOOK: Darkest Before Dawn
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