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The Ash Grove [MultiFormat]
eBook by Margaret James

eBook Category: Historical Fiction/Romance
eBook Description: When orphan Owen Morgan is taken in by his uncle, his future seems secure. Growing up, Owen and his eldest cousin Jane plan to marry. But mere weeks before the wedding, Owen falls passionately in love with another woman. Banished from his uncle's house, Owen returns to his native South Wales, where unresolved family conflicts create difficulties and dangers, both for him and for his still-beloved cousin Jane. Historical Romance/Fiction by Margaret James; originally published by Magna [UK]

eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, Published: 1997
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2012




The early morning mist was cool, soft and hazy, but when this had cleared it was sure to be yet another hot day. Too hot, in fact, even to consider doing any work.

So, while their tutor's assistant was setting out their inkwells, chalks and slates, and while Mr Fenton himself thumbed through the Latin grammar in search of that morning's lesson, Owen Morgan and his cousin Rayner Darrow were privately agreeing that this sunny summer Monday in the blazing June of 1797 should be a holiday.

'Shall we go to Foxley Woods?' asked Owen. He and Rayner had skirted the rose garden, leapt across the ha--ha, and were presently crossing the water meadows. 'Or shall we go to the Blue Pool?'

'Let me think.' Rayner considered the options. Strictly out of bounds to the boys -- for neither Foxley Woods nor the Blue Pool were on Ellis Darrow's land -- discovery in either of these places would certainly result in a thrashing from Mr Fenton. They might even be punished by the Squire himself.

So Rayner, at ten years old still a little child in many ways, and especially fearful of defying his father's authority or risking his displeasure, looked doubtful. 'Why don't we just go fishing?' he suggested. 'In the brook?'

'Fishing?' His cousin Owen, who was the same age -- to the day, in fact, for the boys shared the same birthday -- laughed this idea to scorn. 'Catching minnows and stickle--spines, only to throw them back in again? That's baby's play!'

'But we might get some perch today. Or chub. Or grayling, even.' Rayner enjoyed fishing. He was good at it, too. 'Why don't we -- '

'None of them make good eating, so what's the point? Come on, Rayner,' urged Owen, his soft, Welsh lilt more hypnotically seductive than ever now, 'don't be so dull. If we slip into Foxley Woods, we could have an adventure. We might even spot Henry Summers.'

'Yes! We just might.' Brightening, Rayner grinned. For Henry Summers, a notorious poacher whom local landowners and magistrates had long been trying to tangle in their own nets, was the scourge of every sport--loving squire in the district. Twice arraigned, he had twice been let off scot-- free, for upon examination the evidence against him had proved too flimsy even to attempt to convict. For some reason, even subpoenaed witnesses had become strangely tongue--tied when confronted by the villain in the dock...

As the richest, most important landowner in the area, Rayner's father Ellis Darrow was also chairman of the local Bench. A scrupulously fair and honest magistrate, who knew perfectly well that Henry Summers was as guilty as Judas Iscariot himself, he would never have condemned a man on hearsay or unsubstantiated report. But, all the same, it was one of the Squire of Easton's life ambitions to have the fellow convicted, sentenced and suspended from the highest gallows in Warwickshire.

Rayner was only too aware of this. 'If we should come across him,' he murmured, 'my father would wish to know all about it. He would need to know everything -- '

'To be sure he would,' agreed Owen. Ingenuousness itself, he smiled. 'Well, then?'

'Let's go.' His conscience clear -- for, far from bunking off lessons, the squire's son and heir was now investigating the activities of a dangerous felon -- Rayner followed Owen Morgan across the fields and into Foxley Woods.

By ten o'clock the summer mist had cleared completely, and an orange sun burned in a sky the colour of the bluebells which were only just beginning to fade.

In the woods, however, it was cool and damp and green. Pretending to be painted savages, two dark--eyed, dark--haired little boys crept through the undergrowth, now and then startling a rabbit or putting up a pheasant -- which rose, wings whirring in angry indignation, from an ill--concealed nest.

Reaching a natural clearing, they found themselves standing on the mossy banks of the stream which fed the springs of drinking water on Squire Darrow's estate. Here, a recently fallen tree had created a dam, behind which was a deep, dark pool of brown water. 'Shall we swim?' suggested Owen.

'Well -- '

'I shan't duck you.' Ever the man of action, Owen was already half undressed. 'I'll not hold you under.'

'You promise?

'I promise!'

'Oh.' Still, Rayner was doubtful.

But the water looked so cool and inviting. Rayner, on the other hand, was sticky, sweaty and uncomfortably hot. 'Oh, very well,' he agreed.

'Good man.' Owen grinned.

Two years ago, Owen had taught Rayner to swim. After a fashion. In the cold, grey waters of the artificial lake on his father's estate, Rayner had gasped and choked and spluttered, had dog--paddled out of his depth and almost drowned, while Owen laughed at him, then hauled him back to the shallows. Then tricked his shivering, terrified student into floundering out of his depth again, and again, and again.

But this little pool did not seem to pose any great dangers of that kind, so today Rayner shrugged off his clothes and followed Owen's example, shivering not with dread but with pleasure as the clear, brown water lapped his shoulders. But then, as Owen grabbed his legs and pulled him under, closed over his head.

A good two miles from the southern boundary of the Easton estate, Foxley Woods were the private property of Mr Nathaniel Graham, who had bought the land the previous autumn, but actually come to live in the refurbished manor house only six weeks ago.

A keen preserver of game, who fancied himself the equal in cunning and guile of any poacher throughout the length and breadth of Warwickshire, on buying the estate Mr Graham had immediately set about defending his spinneys, coppices and pheasants with a ferocity which was almost mediaeval in its zeal. Hundreds of spring--guns, always primed and loaded, lurked in the lush summer undergrowth, pointing their lethal bolts at all unwary trespassers or casual passers by. Cruel iron man--catchers, each quite capable of taking a leg off at the thigh, skulked in even the greenest of dells.

Because of this, Rebecca Darrow had forbidden both her son and her nephew to enter any part of Mr Graham's estate. This prohibition had been seconded by her husband, who had hinted that defiance of the ban would result in a beating, administered not by their tutor but by the Squire of Easton himself. So, naturally, the boys trespassed on Mr Graham's trap--infested land as often as they dared. Discovering a new man--crusher, and springing it with a stick, was the undoubted highlight of any day.

Tiring of trying to do any serious swimming in so confined a space, and by now nicely cooled off, the boys clambered over the dam. 'Come on, then,' said Owen, hauling himself into shallower water, 'let's go and see if we can find some eggs.'

'But we're not allowed to disturb -- '

'Oh, for God's sake! We'll only take one or two, for our collection.' Owen grinned. 'There were half a dozen nests back there, in the spinney.'

So the boys forded the stream, stirring up mud and gravel to such an extent that, had he observed them, Nathaniel Graham would have suffered a bilious seizure at the very least.

Dawdling along the banks, Owen and Rayner threw stones into the shallows. They poked sticks into the mud. Then, in a little clearing, they discovered some fresh, pink mushrooms -- or at any rate, what they decided ought to be mushrooms -- so they sat down and ate them, all the while dabbling their feet in the fast--flowing stream.

As they ate, they realised they were in fact very hungry. Fortunately, Owen always had food in his pockets -- for Bethan Davies, his former nurse, who nowadays worked in the kitchens at Easton Hall, kept her erstwhile charge well supplied with pastries and cakes. It was rumoured she intended to make him as fat as she was, and if Owen hadn't been so fidgety and energetic, she would no doubt have succeeded in her attempt.

Splashing back to the place where they had left their clothes, Owen and Rayner began to ransack Owen's greasy pockets. But, as they did so, they heard the goblin's wail.

Rising, then falling, then rising again, it was the cry of a soul in torment. Pleading and beseeching in an agony of loss, it made the flesh creep and the hair stand on end.

'Oh, God!' Frozen in mid--rummage, Rayner grew pale with dread. 'Owen, is it -- '

'The bwbach!' Owen's face grew paler still.

Now, the boys stared all around, first into the green opacity of the trees, then at one other. Hurriedly, they dressed, pulling on shirts, breeches and waistcoats in crumpled haste. Abandoning their picnic, they took to their heels, not caring that Rayner's stockings had been left on the bank, nor that Owen's neckerchief, incriminatingly embroidered with his initials, still lay in the mud at the water's edge. They had to get away!

Crashing through the undergrowth, in their panic hardly knowing where they went, soon the trespassers found themselves in the deepest, densest part of the wood. Fighting their way through thickets of bramble and thorn, soon their faces were scratched and their clothes ripped to shreds.

But, in spite of this, they kept going. Bethan Davies's bedtime stories, which invariably featured all manner of malevolent fairies and evil spirits, were so much a part of them that even as great big boys of ten they were terrified of ghosts, goblins and witches. They would have faced any number of spring--guns, and braved whole serried ranks of man--catchers, rather than confront that awful, howling thing back there in the wood.

But confront it was exactly what they were obliged to do. Stumbling out of a particularly dense thicket of hazel saplings, most of which they'd damaged in their flight, they came face to face with Mr Graham's head keeper. At his side was a young woman. Her bony knuckles showing white, she held fast to the wrist of a scruffy little red-- headed girl.

'Well, gentlemen!' Stephen Hurst grinned. Reasonably assuming he must be the last person on earth these particular trespassers could wish to meet, the keeper folded his arms. 'To what do we owe the pleasure of your company this fine day?'

The boys gaped at him. Appalled, but also immeasurably relieved, they found they could not speak.

The red--headed girl was squirming like a ferret. A rather anaemic ferret, however -- for, apart from the scarlet weals of a recent slap which incarnadined her left cheek, her tear--stained face was ashen. She squirmed again. But then, as the boys stared at her, she seemed to realise the game was up. She was outmanoeuvred, outclassed, outnumbered hopelessly. So, her struggles became less violent. Miserably, despairingly, she sniffed. Then she wiped her nose on her sleeve.

Clucking irritably, the woman poked her between the shoulder blades. Then she glanced sharply at the keeper. 'Do you know these creatures?' she enquired.

'I do indeed.' Still, the keeper grinned. But then, pursing his lips, he blew down the barrel of his gun, which he now tucked under his arm. 'I reckon we should all go back to the footpath,' he said.

'All of us?' Eyeing the two boys, the woman grimaced in disdain. 'Even these little villains here?'

'They're no villains, ma'am.' The keeper met Rayner's eyes. 'May I have the pleasure of making the introductions?' he demanded. 'Or shall I leave that to one of you?'

Rayner shot an enquiring glance at Owen, who was staring resolutely at his feet. Obviously, his cousin intended to remain dumb. If he'd had any sense, Rayner might have done likewise. But then, generations of good breeding triumphed, and noblesse obliged. Looking up again, the heir to the Easton estate forced a polite smile. 'I am Rayner Darrow,' he began, bowing to the woman courteously. 'I am the son of Ellis Darrow, of Easton Hall. This my cousin, Owen Morgan.'

'So, Mr Darrow -- Mr Morgan -- you're aware you are trespassing on private property?' The woman smiled in return, but hers was a bitter smile. 'There are severe penalties for trespass, you know.'

Indeed, Rayner did know. So he said nothing more.

'I'll see you to the path.' Tired of all this messing about, Stephen Hurst began to lead on. 'Mind you keep to the way, now,' he advised. 'There are traps all over this part of the wood, and an encounter with one of those fellows will do you no good at all.'

To illustrate his point, at one of the forks in the path the keeper broke a branch from an overhanging oak tree, thrust it into the undergrowth, and let the trap concealed there bite it. The branch broke easily.

'That could have been your leg.' The keeper shook his head. 'Clean as a whistle, eh?'

Four days later, Owen and Rayner were summoned to Ellis Darrow's study, where the squire harangued them at great length on the evils of trespass, truancy and general disobedience. Then he came to the question of punishment.

Rayner clenched his fists in anticipatory dread. Involuntarily, Owen's own gaze was drawn towards the collection of canes in the tall Indian jar, which stood by his uncle's desk. Never yet used as offensive weapons, they were only biding their time. Today would surely see one of them make contact with his shrinking frame?

But this was not to be. 'I have decided you will not be beaten,' continued the Squire of Easton, his brow furrowed and his expression grim. 'Instead, your allowances will be stopped until Michaelmas Day. Your hours of study will be doubled. On Sundays, you will attend divine service morning and evening, until such time as some improvement is seen. Both in your general behaviour, and your demeanour towards those in positions of authority and trust.'

Ellis Darrow looked from one wretched miscreant to the other. 'Well? Do you have anything to say for yourselves?'

'No, sir.' Humbly, Owen hung his head.

'No, sir.' Rayner followed his cousin's example. 'Thank you, sir.'

'Then you may go,' said the squire.

'Damn Stephen Hurst!' cried Owen, as the door of his uncle's study closed softly behind him. 'Damn him to hell, the tale-- bearing swine!'

'Hush!' Fearfully, Rayner glanced behind him. If his father heard Owen cursing, the boys' allowances would be stopped until All Saints' Day. Mr Fenton would be authorised to use his cane after all.

But still Owen ground his teeth and swore to get even, one day.

As it happened, it was most unfair to blame Stephen Hurst -- who had, in fact, forgotten all about his encounter with two juvenile trespassers on his master's land. A chance remark by Isabel Graham, that she had met some other children in the woods, followed up by a request that they might be invited over to the house to play, was responsible for the story coming out, and reaching the Squire of Easton's ears.

But Rayner and Owen were not invited anywhere. The rest of that long, hot summer of 1797 was passed mostly indoors, chafing and fidgeting under the watchful eye of their tutor. While his sisters Jane and Maria were invited to meet their new neighbours, while they anxiously examined Isabel Graham's gowns, fearful lest they should discover the trimming and stitching were superior to the embroidery on their own, Rayner had his head bent over Caesar's Gallic Wars or Cicero's Orations, while Owen was getting great gobbets of the Scriptures by heart.

Or trying to.

Mr and Mrs Nathaniel Graham, lately arrived from Richmond, Virginia, had long--established family connections throughout the whole of Warwickshire. So, it was only natural they should have decided to settle there.

Scions of an ancient Royalist family still staunchly loyal to the Hanoverian kings, Nat Graham's ancestors had done well for themselves in the New World, but Mr Graham himself had found he was a fish out of water in the new Republic of the United States. Increasingly cold--shouldered by his Anglophobe, anti--monarchist neighbours, he had finally sold his tobacco plantations and emigrated to Canada. But republican ideals poisoned the air there, too. So the Graham family decided it was time to come back home.

An only child with a taste for company and excitement, which could hardly be indulged in the green solitude of Warwickshire, after that first encounter in the woods Isabel Graham sought out the gamekeeper again. Following him around the coverts and obliging him to talk to her, she was delighted to discover from Stephen Hurst that the two young gentlemen recently apprehended in the hazel thicket had female relations. 'What are their names?' she demanded, excitedly.

'Miss Darrow and Miss Darrow again, of course,' replied the keeper, who knew his place.

'I mean, their Christian names!' Crossly, Isabel twisted a strand of her startlingly red hair, round and round and round. 'Well, Hurst?'

'Miss Jane and Miss Maria, I believe.' As Isabel fidgeted about, then trod squarely on yet another clutch of pheasant's eggs, Stephen Hurst sighed. 'Had you better not go back to the house, Miss?' he suggested, wishing he could wring this tiresome creature's skinny little neck. 'I'm sure your nurse is wondering where you are.'

To his surprise and delight, Isabel complied. Then, after some hours of pestering her mother, who was reclusive, and preferred reading her Bible to seeing company, she eventually persuaded Mrs Graham to invite Mrs Darrow and her daughters to Haddesdon Manor.

The Squire of Easton's lady received this invitation with pleasure. While hardly a gadabout, Rebecca Darrow had no objection at all to evaluating another woman's choice of furniture, fittings and upholstery, and she looked forward to finding Mrs Graham's Colonial taste far inferior to her own. So, after having sent her husband to wait on Mr Graham and formally sanction the acquaintance, she ordered the carriage. To the Manor Mrs Darrow and her daughters duly went.

At fourteen, Jane Darrow was already a young lady. Once a tree--climbing, mischief--making daredevil of a tomboy, who liked nothing better on a frosty morning than to ride to hounds, or steeplechase across open pastureland, this summer her love of country pursuits had suddenly given way to a consuming interest in fashion, flirtation and finery. Recently nothing but a grubby little hoyden, of whom her nursemaids had despaired, all of a sudden she had become an irreproachably hygienic, fastidious child--woman, who could spend all day putting her hair up and taking it down again. Soon, she would be on the look--out for a husband.

Although only eleven, Maria was mature and sensible far beyond her years, so was her elder sister's preferred companion and confidante. Introduced to nine year old Isabel Graham, who was still a child in manners, dress and appearance, it was perhaps inevitable that the Darrow girls should find her tiresome in the extreme.

So the visit was not a success, and they were not long in the carriage going home again before the squire's daughters began to pick over their new neighbour's many faults and failings, then to magnify these tenfold.

'She's even younger than Owen and Rayner,' complained Maria who, as the nearer in age to Isabel, had been asked by her mother to make a special effort to be pleasant to the child. 'In fact, she's just a baby, in thought, word and deed. An excessively spoiled and backward baby, too. My dear Jane, do you not agree?'

'Most certainly,' agreed her sister, who was thinking of bonnets and trimming. 'I never saw such a brat.'

'But my dear Maria! My dear Jane!' Rebecca was shocked. 'How can you be so cruel? So very unkind?'

'My dear ma'am, I'm sorry to offend you, but I speak only the truth.' Maria shook her head. 'The little fool can neither read, write, nor cipher. Indeed, she can hardly make herself understood in common speech, for she drawls and snuffles so.'

'Her bedchamber is so full of dolls and other silly playthings,' added Jane, 'which I'm sure my sister learned to despise years ago, that one can't find a place to put one's feet. I trod on a doll -- indeed, I broke it. I couldn't help it. But Isabel didn't care. She has so many toys that the loss of one makes no difference at all to her.'

All the way home, Jane and Maria muttered to one another about Isabel Graham's childishness and stupidity. In spite of their mother's reproachful stares, they resolved to have nothing more to do with her until she was a little more grown up. They treated their little brother and cousin with the casual indulgence accorded to their kittens, puppies and other pets. But Isabel was too boring even to be a pet.

Alighting from the carriage, Rebecca went into the house. But, noticing Owen and Rayner dawdling near the dovecote, talking to the man who looked after their mother's beloved peacocks, turtle doves and other ornamental birds, the sisters decided to accost them. Correctly supposing the boys to be temporarily released from the bondage of what was these days almost perpetual study, Jane and Maria enticed them into the rose garden. There, they told them all about their day.

'She said she was already acquainted with you.' Flicking fastidiously at a speck of dust on Owen's lapel, Jane raised her eyebrows and smiled, in arch enquiry. 'So, my dear Owen, pray enlighten us. When were you introduced?'

'I don't know what you're talking about.' Threatened with a beating if he were not word perfect on a set chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, to be repeated to Mr Fenton later that evening -- and well aware that he wouldn't be, for learning by rote was not his forte -- Owen was inclined to be sulky. 'What do you mean, introduced?'

'To the young lady who met you trespassing -- how shocking, dear Owen, could it really have been you, lurking in the undergrowth like a common poacher -- on her father's estate?' Maria also looked arch. 'She had run away from her nurse. There had been some disagreement over a flannel bodice, I believe, so she was taking a ramble all by herself. But the gamekeeper found her, and warned her out of the woods.'

'That was Miss Graham?' Disgusted, Owen sniffed his disdain. 'I'd supposed she was the keeper's daughter. Or some urchin from the village.'

'Why did you think that?'

'Well -- she looked a sight. Her gown was torn and filthy. Her hair was all elf--locks. Her face was as dirty as a gipsy's. My aunt says Miss Graham is supposed to be beautiful. But that girl was a fright.'

'As ugly as sin,' agreed Rayner.

'Red as a carrot, lank as a skinned rabbit, and freckled as a toad.' Owen grinned. 'If that girl's a beauty, I'm a Chinaman, and Rayner here's a Red Indian brave.'

'Miss Graham is an heiress.' Jane looked from one boy to the other. 'My mother says she will bring her husband forty thousand pounds. Yet more when her father dies. If I were you, John Rhys Owen, I would court her good opinion directly, beauty or not.'

'I don't mean to live off a wife!' retorted Owen, indignantly. But then, he grinned. 'I shall make my own fortune,' he declared. I'll marry whom I please -- I shall wed the Great Sultan's daughter herself, if I so choose. Rayner here can take the skinny, freckled thing.'

'I'd sooner shoot myself dead.'

'What a pair of fools.' Maria clicked her tongue. Well aware that it was desirable to marry for love, and would be wicked indeed to court a rich woman merely for her money's sake, if she were Owen Morgan she would even now be resolving to fall for Isabel Graham. To seek her good opinion in return.

Fortunately, where looks were concerned, Jane Darrow and her sister Maria took after their mother. Fashionably fair--haired and pale--skinned, they presented a complete contrast to their dark--haired, dark--eyed brother and cousin.

Their sweet, heart--shaped faces were undeniably pretty. Their figures too were light and slender, and beautifully accentuated by the high--waisted gowns then in fashionable favour. Possessing rank, money and breeding -- for these days it was conveniently forgotten that their mother had been a manufacturer's grand--daughter -- they were the best matches in the district.

Or they had been. Over the next few months, however, it became depressingly clear that their stars were to be eclipsed by an even brighter sun. As Owen and Rayner had observed, strictly speaking Isabel Graham was no beauty -- no beauty at all -- but an heiress such as she needed only a regular number of arms and legs to be lauded far and wide.

Common report soon talked her up, and in due course her anaemic, ginger looks were universally agreed to be as lovely as those of an angel. As for her own voice, which was certainly peculiar -- a strange, Southern drawl, it was almost incomprehensible to the natives of Warwickshire -- this was quickly decided to be an additional charm. She was pronounced delightful by all.

Soon, she and her parents were on regular visiting terms with all the families round about, especially the family at Easton Hall. For it was from Rebecca Darrow, who was as devout and God--fearing a woman as Mrs Graham herself, and as reluctant to stray into frivolous company as she was, that Isabel's mother hoped to learn all about her neighbours and their ways.

Isabel became better acquainted with the Easton children. Maria and Jane learned to tolerate her, while Rayner, the baby of the family, came to understand the benefits of having someone younger and less well--educated than himself about the place. Someone whom even he could patronise and impress.

But perversely, for he gave her no encouragement at all, it was Owen whom Isabel appeared to like best. She sought him out, hearing him speak nonsense with great deference, and watching fascinated as he showed off, as he turned cartwheels across the manicured lawns which surrounded the beautiful Elizabethan manor house, or climbed one of the great oaks in the grounds -- and all too often fell out of it, as well. But on these painful occasions, he would always laugh Isabel's concern to scorn. Dusting himself down, he would sooner have died than admit he had wrenched his ankle or sprained his wrist.

Born in South Wales and brought up with Gower Welsh as his first language, Owen's English was at every bit as distinctive as Isabel's own. But now, catching the rhythms of his speech, she began to mimic him, his Celtic lilt being grafted most uneasily on to her Southern drawl.

She was infected by his bluntness, too. 'God, there's messy,' she observed one fine morning, as she examined Maria's not very successful sketch of the new marble fountain in front of the house, which was playing for the first time that summer. 'It's entirely wrong by there, look -- all crooked it is!'

'My dear Isabel, what can you mean?' Laughing good-- naturedly, for she knew she was no Hogarth, Maria turned to look at the child. 'Do you presume to find fault with my perspective, perhaps?'

'No. But this bit where the water's supposed to be coming from is awful.' Critically, Isabel frowned. 'Looks like a bottle with sticks poking out the top, so it does.'

The American brat was Owen Morgan incarnate! Maria nearly choked.

Just at that moment, Owen himself appeared on the terrace. 'What you laughing at, then?' he demanded, suspiciously.

'Nothing, dear Owen. Nothing at all.' Still grinning, Maria took his hand. 'Look at my picture,' she invited. 'See this bit by here. Does it strike you as peculiar, now?'

'God -- I don't know!' Narrowly, Owen observed her. He knew he was being teased, but for the life of him he could not see the joke.

Neither, apparently, could Isabel. For she too stood there quite perplexed, every bit as puzzled by Maria's sudden mirth as Owen was.

Later that day, Owen was taking a short cut through the small physic garden which his aunt had established in a sunny corner. Here Rebecca grew sage, rosemary, borage and a host of other medicinal plants, to be used in infusions and ointments in the home.

Observing someone sitting on a bench, he realised it was Isabel. Permanently at a loose end, for she appeared to do no lessons of any kind, nor did she ride, draw or even read for pleasure, he presumed she was waiting for Maria to finish her piano practice. Or for Jane to accompany her on a walk.

In the bright sunshine, he noticed, her red hair glowed like fire. Picking a couple of marigolds, used in the making of poultices for wasp stings, he looked from the flowers to Isabel, then back again. Her hair was exactly the same golden orange as the flower petals. It shone just as brightly as they did. For the first time ever, he saw beauty in Isabel Graham.

Just then, she glanced up. She saw him. 'Good morning,' she began, smiling. Today, she was dressed all in white, which suited her. 'Just waiting for your cousins, I am.'

'Oh.' Embarrassed, Owen looked down at the flowers in his hand. Whatever had possessed him to pick them? Only girls picked flowers! He blushed furiously.

But Isabel did not notice, for she was eyeing the marigolds. 'Pretty, they are,' she observed. 'Lovely they look, shining in the sun.'

'You think so?' Owen shrugged. 'Here you are, then,' he muttered, thrusting the flowers straight at her, 'you have them.'

She beamed at him. Accepting the marigolds, she clasped them to her heart, inhaling sharp, pungent scent. 'Thank you,' she said.

'Well, I didn't want them did I?' Owen scowled at her, fixing her with his large, dark eyes. 'They should have called you Marigold,' he observed.

'You think so?' Isabel shifted along the bench. 'Sit down,' she invited.

Owen sat.

'Talk to me,' said Isabel.

'What?'

'Talk to me! I know -- tell me all about yourself.' Drawing up her knees and making herself comfortable in the left hand corner of the bench, Isabel continued to smile at him. 'You're an orphan aren't you? You were born in Wales. Is that far from here?'

'Miles away. Hundreds of miles!'

'Oh.' Isabel looked suitably impressed. 'What happened to your parents, then? Why did you come to live in Warwickshire?'

'I -- I can't talk about any of that.' For a moment, Owen closed his eyes. Then, jumping to his feet, he left her. He ran off to find Rayner, while Isabel stared after him in astonishment, wondering what on earth she'd said.


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