The Gathering Storm

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Lucy Rossington stopped waving and let her hand fall to her side as the car disappeared from sight along the drive with a fading rattle. Her brother Will had insisted on tying cans to the back bumper, where they made a satisfyingly loud noise as the groom had driven his bride away. Lucy stood still, staring unseeingly after the car as a hum of voices around her rose and fell, exhilarated and happy.

'Well,' Anna said lightly beside her, 'that's all done. I really think Daddy was afraid Fran might back out of it at the last moment. As it is, I've got myself a stepmamma. And quite a different person to my own dear mother.'

Lucy came out of her thoughts with an effort and turned to the woman who had spoken, whose nicely curved figure was expertly set off by the fashionably high-waisted dress she wore. In an attempt not to outshine the bride Anna had eschewed her favourite scarlet and opted for a deep rose pink. Almost absentmindedly, Lucy noticed how well the colour suited her friend's rose and cream complexion and long dark curls.

'It did go well, Anna,' Lucy replied. 'I don't think I've ever seen Fran look so happy. And your father was obviously proud of her.'

'Mmm,' Anna agreed, picking hydrangea-petal confetti out of her hair. 'It has been a bit of a struggle, though. I really think she'd have gone quite happily to the church in her jeans and without doing her hair.'

Lucy's gamine smile lit her small pointed face. 'You did a sterling job. That cream dress and jacket were just right for Fran. Not too fussy.'

'She's got a good figure,' Anna said judiciously, rubbing the petals between her fingers. 'It must be all the hard work she does on her farm, because it certainly isn't her diet.' Anna shuddered delicately. 'She's got nice thick hair too. The short angular style suits it well. But,' she gave a little sigh, 'I don't expect she'll look after it when she gets home.'

'For God's sake,' a man said loudly, 'what does it matter? She's got Richard, hasn't she? She won't need to worry about how she looks now.'

Anna gave an exaggerated start and turned to face the man who stood scowling at her, his arms akimbo, his red hair wildly tousled. She smiled sweetly. 'Why, Mike, that's clever of you. Daddy doesn't mind in the slightest how Fran looks. I don't expect he even knew why she looked different today.'

Her eyes ran over Mike. He had discarded his jacket and tie, revealing a rumpled white shirt that had odd washed-out brown stains down its front. 'Mike,' she exclaimed, 'surely you don't wear that shirt when you're working on a dig?'

He glanced down, a puzzled expression on his square freckled face. 'Of course I don't,' he muttered. 'But I can't always pick and choose when I might find something interesting. Anyway,' he growled, his eyes narrowing, 'you don't have to worry about my clothes.' He glanced at Lucy. 'If you want to hang around out here in girl chat that's fine, but Hugh's starting supper. If you want any you'd better come and help him.'

He turned on his heel and strode back into the house. Anna stared after him, then threw an amused look at Lucy, who was gazing abstractedly at Withern, the house that she and her husband Hugh Carey had bought just over a year ago. It was worth looking at, Anna thought. It always had been, even in the state of extraordinary dilapidation it had been in when Hugh found it.

The two women were standing before the double-fronted house that, in the late Georgian era, had been tacked onto the end of a sixteenth century farmhouse. The original building, not visible from here, had been left over the centuries in pretty much its original form, and used generally as domestic quarters.

'Who'd have thought so much would happen when you bought this house,' Anna commented. 'Especially Daddy finding your farming neighbour was an old friend of his and marrying her. And you and Hugh have done a fantastic recovery job with this place. I can't believe you got so much sorted out in such a short time. It looks as though you've been settled here for ages.'

'It feels like it sometimes,' Lucy agreed, her low voice quite flat.

Anna glanced at her quickly. 'I suppose it seems odd, making such a big effort on the renovation and decoration, and now having everything finished. You must feel at a bit of a loose end,' she said. 'I only hope Daddy and Fran can agree on where they're going to live. I don't really know why she won't come to our house. I'm hardly ever there, and if I'm in the way when I come down I can always plant myself on you. After all, it isn't as if Mother ever lived there, and I'm sure Daddy can buy fields for Fran's animals. It isn't as if she's got loads, her place is only a small farm.' Anna lifted an elegant shoulder. 'But perhaps it might be better if they found somewhere of their own. It just seems such an effort. Now is probably the time to do it too,' she smiled brilliantly, 'while they're both so happy with each other.'

'Yes,' Lucy said soberly, 'before the rose-coloured glow fades.'

'Lucy,' Anna was seriously perturbed, 'everything is alright, isn't it? Between you and Hugh, I mean.'

Lucy brushed back a strand of chestnut hair from her face, tucking it into place in her long bob. 'Oh yes,' she said. 'We're fine.' She called Ben, the tricolour collie who had been sniffing along the hedge that lined the drive leading round to the farmyard, and walked towards the front of the house.

As Ben came up eagerly Anna fell into step beside her friend, saying bluntly, 'Come on, Lucy. You seem to be in a world of your own these days. And not a happy one, either.'

Lucy flicked a quick look at her, her hazel eyes sombre. 'I've just got some decisions to make, that's all,' she said quietly. 'We all have to from time to time.'

She went through the open front door into the wide hallway. When she had first seen this it had been partially obscured by the filthy glass in the sash windows and the sheets of cobwebs that hung from the high ceiling. Now the replastered walls were pristine, the cornices repaired, and all painted a light grey. A glass storm lantern hung from the centre of the ceiling, reflected in the floor length mirror in a gilded frame that almost covered one wall.

This was the formal entrance to the house, where the pale stone floor tiles were almost always uncluttered. It was the entrances in the older part of the building that were cluttered with the boots and coats of everyday country use.

Lucy did not pause to appreciate the change in the room. She stopped beside the console table on one side of the hall, leafing quickly through the letters that had been put there. Almost impatiently she pushed them to one side, dropping a thick white envelope that she hastily retrieved, dropping it carelessly onto the pile again. She walked quickly past the painted treads of the sweeping staircase to the door that led through to the back of the house, Ben pattering at her heels.

Anna cast a quick glance at the large picture that hung over the console table opposite the mirror. Hugh's choice, she knew, as her eyes passed approvingly over the curves of the snipe caught in flight, a bird of brown shades against the warmth of a heather moor. She tore her gaze away and followed Lucy, more anxious than before, and without the usual thrill of surprise that the change from Georgian gentility to Elizabethan farmhouse normally gave her.

As they walked down the long corridor that ran along the old front of the sixteenth century farmhouse, with Ben's claws clicking on the granite slabs, Anna did not even glance through the original front door of the farmhouse, which stood open onto a small garden. This door had been reopened during the renovations, after Lucy had carefully pruned the tangled mass of roses that had concealed it. The caterers had used it today as the shortest route between the kitchen and the orchard, where a gazebo had been erected under the ancient fruit trees for the small wedding reception Anna's father had insisted upon.

For a second Anna's spirits lightened, remembering how in turn Fran had insisted the reception should be out of doors. It was fortunate that Fran's weather prediction had been accurate, Anna thought, slowing her step to cast a quick look out of one of the small windows at the sunlight, whose warmth had already brought a tinge of pink and crimson to the early rosebuds.

The sound of men's voices caught her attention, and she looked down to the end of the corridor where Lucy was disappearing into the kitchen. Mike's voice was loud and indignant, covering the clear laugh of a younger man that Anna knew as Will, Lucy's brother, and a lower voice that was Hugh's, Lucy's husband.

Anna paused in the kitchen doorway, watching Mike push away the dogs that milled around his legs. From the fuss he was making, Anna thought, you'd think it was a whole pack falling on him. Really it was just Ben, Lucy's collie, and Will's large black curly-haired mongrel, Hades, whose long tail was lashing furiously with pleasure at the game he thought Mike was playing.

It was Mike's own fault, Anna decided, that the dogs always leaped on him, because he always made it such fun. But Ben, Anna noted, had already slipped into position near Hugh, who was preparing steaks for the barbecue, drizzling herbed oil over them as he laid them across a tray. The collie lay quietly, his black head on his speckled paws, his golden eyes alert, waiting for any spillage.

As Hades flung himself down next to Ben, long pink tongue lolling out of his grinning mouth, Anna glanced round the room, appreciating the cream walls and deeper cream kitchen cupboards. It seemed to be full of light, especially now that it had been opened into the other rooms at the back of the house.

The connecting doors in the new archway were pushed back, revealing the dining room that had been created when two large storerooms were knocked into the old parlour. The table in the centre had been opened out to its full extent, and Anna guessed that it had been made ready, just in case Fran's weather forecast had been wrong and the unseasonal hot and sunny weather had not lasted.

Anna's eyes turned towards Lucy who had opened the doors of a dresser, painted a deeper shade of cream like the other kitchen units. Lucy's simple cotton plaid shift in shades of green looked very good on her slight, boyishly slender figure, especially with the sequin and bead embroidery across the bodice. Anna made a mental note to ask Lucy where she had found it, while her eyebrows contracted slightly as she noticed how thin Lucy had become.

'Of course I'm hungry,' Mike said loudly, startling Anna, as he leaned back on a kitchen chair, balancing it on two legs. 'Will is too.'

The young man leaning against one of the wooden work surfaces grinned. He was taller than his sister Lucy, and had dark hair, but there was a noticeable family resemblance in their build and features. 'Too right,' he said. 'See, I keep telling Lucy to keep chips and burgers in the freezer, especially now when we're on study leave. We'd be okay now.'

His friend nearby shuddered as she chopped tomatoes with a deft hand. 'Not really, Will,' she said. 'Anyway, I'll soon have these salads done, and Hugh's nearly got everything ready for the barbecue.'

'Are you sure, Niri?' Lucy asked quietly, putting plates onto a wicker tray. 'We can always go into Coombhaven for a meal.'

'Of course I'm sure,' Niri said calmly. 'You know how much I like cooking, and it's a shame not to enjoy this weather. Who knows how long it's going to last.'

'It was clever of you to change,' Anna commented. 'That was a nice dress you were wearing.' She glanced down at her own. 'Perhaps I'd better slip into jeans as well.'

'I had to,' Niri said. 'I don't run to dresses, so I borrowed one of my mother's. I daren't mess it up.' She turned to the two men lounging on the far side of the table. 'Will, if you and Mike remove the pergola and take the cloths off the table in the orchard we'll probably be more comfortable. And you can light the barbecue too, then we'll be able to eat fairly soon.'

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