In the darkness near the manor house Lucy Rossington paused, an incongruous figure clad all in black, jeans, long-sleeved sweatshirt and sneakers. Her hair was hidden under a dark beanie, her hands were gloved and, the final startling touch, her cheeks were darkened. The centre of the South Lawn behind her was brightly lit with spotlights and seethed with movement. People moved backwards and forwards, sometimes disappearing into the outlying shadows beside the beech hedge that screened the lawn's boundary, their voices loud and carrying clearly across the summer night.
A snatch of conversation reached Lucy's ears as she shifted the weight awkwardly from her aching hip. 'We know what we want to happen. That gives us an advantage,' said a man's low voice.
His companion said more loudly, 'True. And we can always get rid of her if she doesn't do what we want. Come on, let's get those coats; it's got very cold.'
Somebody's taking this seriously, Lucy thought, trying vainly to identify the speakers. Not even shapes were distinctive in the deeper darkness as the figures left the lawn and crunched across the gravel drive towards the parked cars that fringed the house and the grass verges leading down to the lodge. Her gaze moved past them over the dark mounds of the bushes to where a thin sliver of new moon rode the crenellations of the church tower that was just visible as a darker angular outline in the blackness, all that she could see of the old priory enclave it guarded.
Lucy turned away and walked across the stone-flagged courtyard, pausing again to lean heavily against the oak back door, faintly aware of the heady scent from the stocks growing among the rosemary and marjoram in narrow beds against the walls. The house lay around her, the main Elizabethan building behind her, its west and east wings stretching out on either side, holding her safe at its heart. Lights streamed from the mullioned windows, creating stripes of brightness and shadow across the courtyard. Lucy was pinpointed now in the glow of the overhead lamp above the door as she turned to look back, resting her shoulders against the bleached wood.
Beyond the hive of activity on the lawn the beech hedge loomed above the invisible ha-ha, cutting off movement from the stillness that lay behind it. The sky arching over the meadows and cliffs was a luminous darkness sprinkled with glimmering stars. Lucy knew that if the distant silence extended to the grounds of her family home as it usually did, she would be able to hear the murmurous sound of the sea, beating endlessly against the cliffs and rolling onto the beaches.
Oh well, she thought philosophically, the play's only going to be on for six nights, and it's a good thing the weather seems likely to stay so fine.
A snuffling from behind the door made her move, reaching for the handle. Lucy opened the door a crack and slipped through to an ecstatic welcome from the collie waiting eagerly on the other side. 'Alright, Ben,' she said quietly, crouching down stiffly to greet him. 'I know it's all very exciting, but you can't go out just yet.'
She used one arm to fend off the large black curly-haired mongrel that leaped at her, knocking her off balance. 'Down, Hades,' she said sharply, regaining her footing. She stood up awkwardly and walked across the hall to the stairs with a slight limp that she made no effort to disguise, watched attentively by both dogs. Lucy was too used to the room to pay any attention to the half-panelling on the stone walls, and did not even spare a glance at the famed gallery above her head as she pulled off her gloves and beanie, throwing them carelessly onto the shelf under the sweeping stairs.
The grandfather clock began to chime the hour as she shook out her chestnut hair, glancing into the gilt-framed mirror by the front door as she smoothed it and tucked it behind her ears. Lucy grimaced as she caught sight of her blackened face and then moved back across the room, treading carefully over the polished floorboards, as the final ten o'clock note rang out. She passed the cabinet without noticing her wedding photograph, in which she sat near her husband Hugh, her pointed elfin face aglow above creamy silk and lace, a remarkable contrast to the picture she presented now.
She paused to lean against the mule chest, stretching forward to peer out of the window above it into the courtyard as the collie came to press against her legs. Yet she was taken by surprise when the dogs both barked as the door opened and another woman entered the hall in a cloud of scented air.
Anna Evesleigh's long black curls were held back by a glittering red band, whose colour was reflected in the short tiered skirt she wore with a cowl-necked top. The clothes emphasised her shapely figure, very different to Lucy's slight boyish one, and Anna moved with unconscious grace, greeting the dogs happily before she turned to close the door.
She caught sight of her friend as Lucy straightened up and moved away from the chest. 'Lucy,' she exclaimed. 'Hasn't it been exhausting?' She rushed on without waiting for an answer. 'But the rehearsal went well, don't you think?'
This time she stopped anxiously for the reply, and Lucy's gamine smile flashed out, her teeth very white against her darkened skin, as she said, 'Oh yes, very smoothly. Aren't you pleased?'
'Definitely, and relieved too,' Anna said. 'But I could murder a coffee.'
'Me too. Come on through to the kitchen. Gina was leaving out something for us to eat.'
'Great,' Anna said happily. 'I really envy you having her as a cook.' She added in heartfelt tones, 'It seems ages since dinner.'
'It is,' Lucy replied, leading the way down the western corridor, followed closely by the collie. Hades accompanied them at first, but his pace slowed and he came to a halt half way along the passage. Suddenly he turned, trotting briskly back to the hall, where he flung himself heavily onto one of the rugs scattered across the floor.
'He knows Will's out there,' Lucy said as she pushed open the door into the big white-walled kitchen, releasing the lingering smell of recently baked bread. Herbs rustled on the overhead airer as they walked across to the table, the scent of recently gathered rosemary, thyme and marjoram floating lightly out to meet them. Light from the lamps dotted around the room was reflected warmly back from the copper pans and moulds that hung on the walls.
'I'm glad Will left him indoors,' Anna said. 'He always wants to join in the duelling. That brother of yours has come on pretty well, you know.'
'He's been practising endlessly,' Lucy commented without much interest.
Anna glanced at her from the corner of her eye, noticing the stiffness of her posture and the deepened lines of strain around her mouth. 'Look,' she said impulsively, 'you sit down and let me get the food.' She sniffed appreciatively. 'It smells like tomato soup.'
'I can manage,' Lucy said sharply.
'I know you can,' Anna agreed, 'but you've been running around all evening and I haven't.'
'Alright,' Lucy said ungraciously, lowering herself onto one of the benches beside the pine table and absently putting out a hand to stroke Ben as the collie came to sit beside her. 'But I can't stand being fussed over. Hugh is forever doing it.'
Anna walked over to the Aga, and checked the contents of the saucepan resting on the nearby worktop. 'Mmm, I was right,' she said, lifting the lid and moving the pan onto the hot plate.
'There's cheese bread, as well,' Lucy said. 'I'll get it.'
'No, stay where you are,' Anna said firmly. 'Lucy, this place is like a second home to me. Do you think I don't know where things are?'
Lucy bit her lip. 'Of course you do. But I don't want people doing things for me.'
Anna brought the loaf over on the breadboard and put it down in front of Lucy. 'Fine. So cut the bread while I fetch the wine. I guess you could do with some.'
'Yes,' Lucy replied gratefully, pulling out the knife to slice the loaf.
Anna returned with a bottle of rosé from the fridge in one hand and two glasses in the other. She put them down opposite Lucy and poured the wine into the glasses, pushing one across to the other woman.
'I'll just get the soup, then we can talk,' Anna said, and Lucy watched her walk elegantly back to the Aga.
By the time Anna brought two steaming bowls back to the table and sat down opposite her friend, Lucy was sipping her drink, her hair hanging forward and concealing her face.
Anna considered her thoughtfully, swallowing a mouthful of her own wine. She made up her mind and said frankly, 'Lucy, nobody wants to fuss you. We all want you to be just as you were before you were injured.] But you've only had a few months to recover and we don't want you to overdo things and set yourself back.'
'And that leads to fuss,' Lucy said without looking up. 'And Hugh's worse than anyone. I can't do with it. Sometimes I'm really glad that his publishing business takes him away such a lot.'
'It must be irritating to be fussed over,' Anna agreed. 'But we were all worried about you. So worried,' she said in heartfelt tones as a shiver ran through her body. 'And Hugh most of all. After all, you've hardly been married for any time. So of course we find it difficult not to try to protect you sometimes. Perhaps you should make allowances for that. As we make allowances for your bad moods.'
She sat back in some trepidation and waited for the explosion.
Lucy looked up, brushing back her hair, her eyes flashing with anger. Then she sank back on her bench, shoulders slumping. 'I know I'm being horrible. I just thought I'd get back to normal faster. But I still can't do things properly, and I wonder now if I ever will.'
'For goodness' sake, Lucy,' Anna exclaimed in exasperation. 'You were badly hurt, and you're very lucky to have improved this much so quickly.'
'I suppose so.' Lucy's shoulders straightened and she sat up taller. 'Thanks, Anna. You're quite right of course. And to prove it, I'll resign from the stagehand role.'
'Thank goodness,' Anna said with relief. 'We've got too many people trying to shift things, but I didn't want to say in case it upset you.' She glanced at Lucy, noticing that her lips were twitching, and added, 'I could really use you as a back-up, just keeping an eye on anything that might go wrong when I'm doing something else.'
'Consider yourself backed,' Lucy said. She held up her glass. 'Let's drink a toast to the success of Anna's Plays.'
Anna lifted her glass to tap Lucy's. 'Success,' she echoed. 'Especially to this first one, Lady Mary.' She sipped her wine, adding, We'll be okay if the actual performances go as well as tonight's rehearsal.'
'I thought dress rehearsals were usually disastrous,' Lucy commented, stirring the hot soup in her bowl.
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