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Authors: Gwen Kirkwood

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BOOK: Darkest Before Dawn
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‘We all know that was a load of rubbish,’ Mr Fisher said briskly. ‘Try to put it out of your mind and look to the future, Billy. Can I leave you to get in touch with Michael and his sister?’

‘Fine, I’ll do that. And thanks for the names, sir.’

‘Tell your young friend to come to me if she has any problems when she moves here.’

Both Sam and Rosemary were relieved at the prospect of Billy having a steady companion to share a flat with.

‘How about me asking Michael and his sister here for tea and inviting Ellen and Kimberley so the two girls can meet on neutral territory?’

‘Mrs Wilshaw might not consider the Appleby family suitable company,’ Billy said anxiously. ‘I mean, them being sort of gentry. Mr Appleby works at the slaughterhouse.’

‘I’ve seen him there,’ Sam said. ‘He’s been there a long time and he’s always helpful if anyone needs a hand with a stubborn beast.’

‘If Ellen still regarded herself as gentry she would be sending Kimberley to a private school.’

‘All the same, you’d better consult them first,’ Billy insisted.

Ellen Wilshaw and Kimberley came over the following day. Sam was surprised to see them both dressed in faded jeans, thick polo-neck jumpers and muddy wellingtons, which they both kicked off at the door as though they had been popping in at
Martinwold for years.

‘We walked over the fields,’ Ellen said, puffing out her cheeks and flinging herself onto a kitchen chair. ‘It’s further than I thought.’

‘Well, the fresh air has certainly brought the colour back to your cheeks.’ Rosemary eyed Kimberley and smiled. ‘In fact, you’re both looking a whole lot better.’

‘That’s because we have got most of our affairs sorted out down south and we’re going to spend the summer making a home up here. Then I shall start converting the Charmwood barn ready for my new enterprise, Charmwood Antiques. We haven’t thought of anything better yet. What do you think?’

‘It sounds good,’ Rosemary said. ‘The wood bit fits in with antique furniture.’

‘Yes, that’s what I thought. Maybe it’s a lucky omen,’ Ellen said with a smile. She stood up and aimed a playful punch at Billy’s chest. ‘As for you, young Billy, I’ll have you know you’re as bad as your Uncle Alex, thinking we’re in a different class to ordinary folks. I reckon I’ve convinced him we’re not the snooty snobs you both seem to think. Your mother and I know all about those, don’t we, Rosemary?’

‘We do indeed, or at least we used to do.’

‘Anyway, Billy, I’m pleased you’ve found someone for Kimberley to meet before she starts at the Academy. We’re grateful to you. We would love to meet the boy who will be sharing your flat, and his sister, wouldn’t we, Kim?’

‘Yes. I expect I’ll still be nervous when I first start at a new school but it would be lovely if I knew somebody.’

‘In that case,’ Rosemary said briskly, ‘I’ll invite them
for an afternoon. I’m sure Sam will collect them both and I’ll take them home later. It will be good for Billy and Michael to have a chance to sort out a few things too.’

‘I think Michael has a Saturday job so it would need to be a Sunday. Is that all right?’ Billy asked.

‘It will suit us fine,’ Ellen said. ‘I like to hear of young people doing something to help themselves.’

The Sunday afternoon with the Applebys went well. Billy took Michael to his bedroom where they could talk in peace and Billy was pleasantly surprised to find that Michael was not so quiet when they were alone together. He had very definite views about what he wanted from life and he was prepared to work hard to achieve his goals. They discussed the practicalities of sharing a flat together and both set out their own priorities and boundaries. When they went down to the kitchen for tea, they could hear the two girls in the sitting room laughing and talking. They exchanged satisfied smiles. Billy had already gathered that the Applebys were a close family and he guessed Michael would look out for his young sister whenever possible.

As they entered the kitchen, Billy was surprised to find his Uncle Alex there, chatting to his parents and Ellen Wilshaw. They all seemed perfectly at ease together. The only difference he could see was that Alex was not in his usual clean jeans and sweater. He
was wearing smart brown chinos and a suede zipped jerkin. It was open to reveal a cream shirt. He was even wearing a tie.

‘You’re looking very smart today, Uncle Alex,’ he remarked with a wide grin, his green eyes dancing with mischief.

‘We–ell, I thought since it was Sunday….’ He scowled when both Sam and Billy quirked an eyebrow at him. They knew he didn’t usually bother about being smart for them, and Billy didn’t think he was out to impress the young Applebys. He glanced at Ellen Wilshaw. She was giving his uncle an admiring look.

‘Stop teasing, you two,’ Rosemary admonished. ‘Alex always looked smart when we were young. He was so fit and light on his feet he could dance every other man off the floor, including big brother Sam.’ She cast a teasing glance at her husband.

‘Aye, he was always good at the dancing,’ Sam agreed, ‘and he wasn’t bad at the singing either. He used to sing to the cows at the top of his voice while we were milking. I reckon that’s where you got your musical talents from, Billy.’

‘If you were so good at the dancing, Alex, perhaps you’d agree to partner me for one of the farmers’ dances in Dumfries?’ Ellen suggested. ‘I was going to refuse the invitation. What do you say?’

‘It’s years since I’ve been to any of the annual farmers’ dances. I think I might be a bit old for that now.’

‘Of course you’re not too old,’ Rosemary said briskly. ‘I’ll bet you can still show the young folk a thing or two.’

‘I feel I ought to put in an appearance,’ Ellen said
slowly. ‘I wouldn’t like to give anyone the impression I think I’m a bit … well, you know!’

‘Too upper class?’ Rosemary prompted with a snort of laughter.

‘Something like that,’ Ellen agreed. ‘People do get some strange ideas. Anyway, I need to mix with the local community and make contacts if I’m to build up a new business.’

‘What about Kimberley?’ Alex asked. ‘We can’t leave her on her own. It will be a late night.’

‘I could ask Mrs Brex if she would stay overnight, I suppose,’ Ellen said slowly. It wouldn’t be any fun for the poor child with old Brex for company.

‘Do you think Kimberley would like to stay overnight with us?’ Rosemary asked. ‘If the two girls have got on well today, I could invite Mary for the afternoon again so she would have company.’

‘Oh, Rosemary, that would be really kind. I know Kim would not relish having Mrs Brex’s company for a whole evening.’

‘Shout the girls for tea then, Billy,’ Rosemary said, ‘and Kimberley can let me know what she thinks.’

A fortnight later Kimberley and Mary spent another afternoon together at Martinwold while Ellen Wilshaw went to the dinner dance with Alex. It was a splendid meal and, having lived all his life in the area, Alex seemed to know almost everyone there. He was clearly well respected by his fellow farmers and Ellen liked the way he drew her into the conversation and introduced her to everyone who came up to speak.

‘Rosemary was right, Alex, you really are a good dancer,’ Ellen said. ‘I’m really enjoying myself and if
I’m honest I was rather dreading coming tonight and meeting so many strangers.’

‘Rosie used to be a super dancer herself. We won a competition for dancing once,’ Alex told her with a smile. ‘Sam was jealous as hell.’ He grinned, then his expression sobered. ‘He needn’t have worried because she never had eyes for anyone but him.’

‘I can believe that. Would I be right in thinking you would have liked to marry Rosemary yourself?’

‘I would have if she’d have had me. I’ve never looked at another woman.’ He paused and held her gaze steadily. ‘Until now,’ he added softly. Ellen’s heartbeat quickened. She had felt attracted to Alex since the first time they met, at her brother’s funeral of all places. The attraction had increased as she had got to know him, but until tonight he had given no indication he might feel the same. Surely she was too old to feel like this? Her spirits soared. Alex was good company, they had a lot in common and she enjoyed his sense of humour. Even more importantly, he was kind and considerate and she loved the way he was so patient with Kimberley, answering all her questions and considering her welfare. Kimberley had been more than happy to spend the afternoon and night at Martinwold and meet her new friend again.

It was well after midnight by the time Alex drew the car to a halt at Ellen’s home.

‘I know it’s late, but please come in for a cup of hot chocolate, Alex?’

‘Are you sure?’ he asked after a momentary hesitation. They both knew that it was not only hot chocolate she was offering.

Much later they lay side by side in Ellen’s bedroom,
watching the moonlight making silvery patterns on the walls, and turning the trees to dark silhouettes against the sky.

‘I feel as though it’s lighting me up too, right from my toes to my head,’ Ellen said softly. She hesitated. ‘Alex, are you – were you shocked to – to find a woman in her forties still a virgin?’ Alex knew she was a capable and confident businesswoman but suddenly she sounded young and insecure. He held her closer, cradling her next to his heart, while his fingers stroked the silky skin of her upper arm.

‘Surprised, maybe, because you’re a very attractive woman, Ellen, with a lot of style and character, but personally, I am thrilled and delighted to know you have given yourself to me – only to me,’ he added softly, his voice deep with passion. ‘That’s selfish of me, I suppose. I hope you will not regret this tomorrow?’

‘Oh no. I’ve never felt anything like this before. I’m a – I was a virgin by choice. I never met a man I respected enough before, let alone one who aroused so much desire in me. I love Kimberley to bits but I’m pleased she is at Martinwold tonight.’

‘Mmm, so am I,’ Alex murmured, his fingers moving to stroke the soft creamy skin at her midriff again, moving seductively in ever widening circles. He smiled down at her as she caught her breath and responded eagerly to each caress.

Less than a couple of hours later, Alex opened his eyes, yawned and stretched.

‘I have to leave you now, Ellen,’ he said softly, with a sigh of regret. ‘I need to get home and change then start the milking. I’ve never felt it was a chore until today.’

‘Do you always milk the cows yourself, Alex? I gathered from last night’s company that your herd is one of the best in this area and your animals are in demand for breeding far and wide.’

‘I’ve been lucky with the breeding,’ he said modestly. ‘I have a good man who does the milking every second weekend, or if I am away overnight, but this is my weekend to work. I’m sure Tommy would have taken my turn, especially if he knew the reason,’ he added with a grin. ‘But I didn’t know myself I would be enjoying the best night of my life. Anyway, I don’t want to spoil your reputation with gossips like Mrs Brex and my Mrs Walters – at least not yet,’ he added more seriously.

‘B–but you’ve no regrets, Alex? Have you?’ Ellen asked, still unsure.

‘Not one,’ Alex assured her. ‘Well, maybe one,’ he teased, his eyes dancing as he looked down into her wide eyes. ‘I regret that I have to leave you and that I shall have to sleep alone in my own bed tonight.’

‘Oh, Alex! You are a tease, but I share that particular regret and I don’t know when we shall have an opportunity like this again with Kim around.’

‘No, that may not be so easy,’ Alex agreed. ‘We’ll not rush into anything, but we’re both adults and old enough to know what we want. Give Kim time to get used to us being together. Bring her to Bengairney often. She seems to like the farm and the animals. She’s a sensible lassie, but I would hate to upset her if she thought I was taking you away from her, especially when she has just lost her father, poor lassie. When you think she might accept you marrying me, and living at Bengairney, then let me know. That
is if you think you might consider marriage, Ellen?’ She heard the diffidence in his tone.

‘I would marry you tomorrow, Alex,’ she said softly, ‘if we only had ourselves to consider.’

‘You would?’ He leaned down and hugged her tightly, kissing her with a passion which made the blood sing in her veins. He groaned. ‘If I don’t go right now I think the cows will still be waiting to be milked at midday.’

At Martinwold Billy faced Kimberley across the breakfast table and grinned.

‘I’ll bet your aunt will be tired out and needing a long lie in bed this morning after a night of dancing with Uncle Alex, at least if what Mum says about him is true. It will probably be lunchtime before she comes to pick you up. Would you like to come for a walk round the animals, see the young calves and such like?’

‘I’d love that, if you’re sure? I mean, is it all right for you to – to walk much?’ As soon as the words were out Kim saw him scowl and knew she had said the wrong thing. She had already gathered he was sensitive about losing his leg and being unable to play the sports and other things he used to do. She flushed painfully. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve seen for myself that you’re determined to do most of the things we all do. I–I didn’t mean to – to….’

‘Forget it,’ Billy said brusquely. ‘I shall have to get used to people treating me differently, I suppose. Can you swim?’

‘Swim?’ Kim was flummoxed by the sudden change of topic. ‘I can swim but I’m not wonderful.’

‘Mmm, it’s a pity we didn’t tell you to bring your swimming costume. At least I can still do that and I’ve proved I can travel on the bus without help. Liam and I often went swimming, and Fenella, his sister, usually came too. Fen swims like a fish but she’s not even allowed to speak to me now, let alone meet up. Her father blames me for the accident. So remember to bring your swim things next time you come to stay.’ Listening to them while she watched the toast, Rosemary’s heart ached for her son. He sounded like a small boy desperate to prove he could do the same as his friends.

‘Well, I suppose I could b–but … I don’t know …’ Kim broke off hesitantly.

‘You afraid you might freak out if you have to see my stump, is that it?’ Billy asked harshly. ‘I suppose most girls will feel like that.’

‘It would take more than that to freak me out, as you put it,’ Kim said, surprising him with her impatient tone. ‘I meant I don’t know if I shall be invited to stay here again. It was very good of your parents to have me but …’

‘Oh, Kimberley, I have loved having you to stay,’ Rosemary said, coming across to the table with the toast rack. ‘You’re welcome to come any time. I miss having my own girls at home and it’s good for Billy to have young company.’ She glanced at his frowning face. ‘You’ll have to excuse him if he’s a bit touchy about his leg, or the sight of his stump. You don’t strike me as the type of girl who gets squeamish easily.’

‘I’m not.’

‘The doctors say Billy has done well to gain his
balance and learn to walk so well. He has an advantage with being young and he has strength in his arms and shoulders from playing rugby and working on the farm. It takes most patients about three months in rehabilitation but they allowed Billy to come home only eight weeks after the accident.’

‘That is very good, and swimming will be good exercise without pressure on the legs, I suppose. I’d like to go swimming with you, Billy, but it will depend on what Aunt Ellen wants me to do. She didn’t used to go out much in the evenings, except for her work.’ Billy thought she sounded a bit lost and lonely and he was sorry he had snapped at her. After all, she was only twelve. It was easy to forget that. She was as tall as his mother and not at all like the giggly girls he remembered in their first year at the Academy.

‘Would you mind if Ellen did want to go out more now she has come to live up here again?’ Rosemary asked gently.

‘No. It is what Daddy wanted. One of the last things he said was that we had taken up too much of Aunt Ellen’s life already. He said she will be lonely when I’m older and want to go away or have a career and he wanted me to have a happy life of my own choosing. He said the best thing would be if Aunt Ellen found a nice man and got married so that she would always have a companion. He said I must not mind if she did that. Of course I wouldn’t mind if it made her happy, especially when I know it is what Daddy wanted. She misses him as much as I do, but I hope she chooses a nice man. Maybe somebody like Mr Caraford.’

‘Uncle Alex?’ Billy chuckled. ‘It’s a pity he’s a confirmed old bachelor.’

‘Hey, not so much of the old, Billy,’ his mother admonished.

‘I wouldn’t like to stay on my own in that big house without any neighbours or anything, though, if Aunt Ellen does start going out at nights.’ Kimberley wrinkled her nose slightly. ‘It will not be much fun having Mrs Brex to stay either, but I shall try to remember Daddy would have wanted me to fit in.’

Rosemary put an arm round her shoulders, giving her an affectionate hug.

‘You’re a good lassie, Kimberley. Any time you think your Aunt Ellen wants to go out for an evening, promise you will phone and tell me. I will keep Rena’s wee room ready for you and you can come whenever you want.’

‘Can I really?’ Kimberley looked up at her, her blue eyes shining. ‘I would much prefer that,’ she said with feeling. Then, ‘Daddy and my friends and teachers called me Kim. I prefer that really. It – it makes me feel I belong. I told Mary that and she’s going to call me Kim.’

BOOK: Darkest Before Dawn
4.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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