The Theme is Death

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Mike Shannon brought his car to a juddering halt, sharply jerking his companion in the front passenger seat against her seat belt. He had been forced to drive slowly along the narrow winding lanes, and Anna Evesleigh had let her gaze wander over the small fields they were passing. Grazing cattle moved languorously through the flower-patterned grass, in and out of the long shadows cast by oaks and sycamores in full and heavy summer leaf in the hedgerows and copses. The late July sunlight was still bright and hot, even though it was early evening, and she had been watching for flashes of deep blue sea that were occasionally to be seen through gateways, and admiring the plants that flourished in the West Country stone wall that tightly bordered the lane on both sides. Felted grey-green foxglove leaves almost submerged the curling hart’s tongue ferns, white and golden bedstraw hung in loose swags among the curtains of shiny black bryony leaves.

It had been a peaceful journey so far, and Anna had been insensibly soothed, distracted from the attention she generally paid to Mike’s driving, but now as she bounced back hard against her seat she turned her startled eyes to look at the lane ahead of her. They had just rounded a bend and in the narrow stretch of lane in front of them a car was parked at an angle, completely blocking the route.

‘For God’s sake,’ Mike growled, clashing the gears and stalling the engine, ‘get that bloody thing off and out of sight.’ He glanced over his shoulder, wondering how far he would have to reverse the car before he could turn it.

Anna fingered the necklace around her throat, relishing the warmth of the rubies and the smoothness of the gold against her skin. ‘Really, Mike,’ she said mildly, ‘I don’t think highway robbery is that likely.’

‘I don’t plan to find out,’ he said gruffly, turning to face her, his hands reaching out for the necklace. ‘I certainly don’t recognise the bloke.’

Anna batted Mike’s hands aside, leaning forward to peer through the windscreen at the figure walking slowly along the lane towards them. She squinted against the bright light that was streaking through a gap in the trees and bouncing off the windscreen. ‘Oh,’ she said, with a gasp of amusement, ‘it’s Amaury Durant. I expect his old banger’s broken down. It always is, but he says he doesn’t want to get an expensive car to dent in our lanes.’

‘Who the hell is Amaury Durant?’ Mike demanded, ignoring Anna’s French pronunciation and shooting the words out with a firm English accent, his eyes still fixed on the man who was coming towards them.

‘You wouldn’t know him,’ Anna said lightly, ‘but Sir John Pengerick has asked him to come to tonight’s party to help with the French and Spanish guests. Amaury is an interpreter working for one of the big shipping companies down in Plymouth.’

‘And how do you know him?’ Mike asked suspiciously, his gaze swinging from the approaching man to rest on her.

Anna shrugged. ‘I don’t know him well,’ she said, ‘but he’s one of the people sharing the wing of Genarran vicarage. I don’t expect you remember, but it’s let out as the vicar and his wife don’t have a family and feel they’ve got more space than they can use.’ Anna saw Mike’s mouth open, his expression impatient, and carried on quickly, ‘I met Amaury because I managed to find a place there for a friend’s daughter, Ilsa, who’s come to England to improve her English.’

‘And?’ Mike said, one arm resting on the steering wheel as he watched her.

‘And Amaury’s interested in Elowen, so he’s come there with me a few times, and I’ve got to know him a bit. He’s very nice,’ she said firmly.

Mike ignored this last comment, focusing instead on the first. He frowned blackly as he realised that Anna was still visiting the abandoned garden they had recently found.

‘Anna, for God’s sake, you mustn’t keep going back there,’ he said forcefully, remembering the traumatic events that had accompanied their discovery of the garden. ‘You know it’s bloody dangerous. Wasn’t one accident enough for you?’

‘But I’m not going there on my own, so I’ll be alright,’ Anna pointed out. ‘Mike, open the window. Let’s find out what’s wrong.’

Mike reluctantly lowered the window a sliver, glowering at the man who was bending towards it. At first glance Amaury’s face was not prepossessing, Anna thought, as she watched him and Mike. Amaury’s nose was too big, his chin jutted too far, and his lips were a trifle thin. But the thick dark hair that he flipped back with a casual finger failed to screen his dark eyes, bright and interested. And the charm that oozed from his every pore could make him well nigh irresistible. She reflected wryly that he seemed to have Mike’s share as well as his own, but doubted that Mike would appreciate that.

An apologetic smile touched Amaury’s mouth as his eyes fell on Mike, whose square freckled face was set in lines of impatience. ‘My apologies,’ he said in a deep pleasant voice with just a hint of French intonation, ‘but my car has given up the ghost. Would you be so good as to help me move it out of the way, and perhaps even extend your goodness to give me a lift into Marghas?’

‘Amaury,’ Anna said, ‘of course we can give you a lift. After all, we’re going to the same place as you. Just mind my flute case when you get in, I’ve propped it safely on the back seat.’

Amaury bent lower, staring past Mike. His eyes widened as he saw Anna. ‘Anna,’ he said, appreciation colouring his voice, ‘I did not realise it was you. And in such beauty too.’

Mike snorted, but could not stop his own eyes from straying to the woman on his left. He had been startled when he had first seen her dressed for the evening. Startled and unwillingly aware of her beauty for perhaps the first time in their relationship. He was taken unawares now to feel annoyance that another man should be noticing as well.

Amaury’s appreciative gaze was roaming over Anna’s amber dress with its square bodice and full sleeves, which almost hid the cream silk underskirt revealed by the front inverted v opening. Even cramped into the car the lovely brocade, with its black embroidery, enhanced the woman who wore it.

And Anna was aware of it, her dark blue eyes sparkled under her daintily arched eyebrows, and the colour in her rosy cheeks was perfectly natural. Her long black curls were knotted high on her head, interlaced with strings of rubies. Real rubies. And the golden necklace around her neck was not fake, it was a genuine Elizabethan treasure too, studded with rubies that glowed warmly against Anna’s creamy skin.

It was because it was genuine that Mike was so jumpy, Anna knew that. As an archaeologist most things ancient were valuable to him, even something as recently made as this. But it was because it was on loan, she guessed, that he was even more nervous. He had not wanted her to accept the offer from the Marquesa de Mansilla, an old friend of her father’s.

But the thought of wearing a real Elizabethan necklace to this evening’s party had been irresistible. After all, as she had pointed out to him, the evening was to initiate the various events commemorating the Spanish Armada. The opening party was on an island, what could be safer than that? The jewellery and other precious objects that had been loaned by Spanish and English families were all there in the exhibition that was the highlight of this summer’s events.

And the community play that she had written, shortly to open in the grounds of Rossington Manor, was about an Irish mule chest that had come off one of the Armada ships. She really did have to make a splash, she owed it to everyone who had worked so hard on the play. As an actress she knew the value of attracting attention. Especially when she had plans of her own that needed financial support. But she had yet to tell Mike about those.

Mike’s voice brought her thoughts back to the present. ‘Let’s get on with it,’ he said, opening the door so abruptly that Amaury had to leap backwards. He moved with effortless ease, unlike Mike, Anna thought, who clambered awkwardly out of his seat and stalked towards the stranded car.

She frowned slightly. This would not do Mike’s evening clothes any good, she knew. She had been surprised to see how well he looked in them, accustomed as she was to seeing him in stained trousers and shirts, which had generally been well used on his excavations. He had even made an effort to control his unruly red hair, but she expected that to return to its normal tousled state soon. His habit of running his fingers through it would make that certain.

Anna lowered her own window to get a breath of air and resolutely turned her eyes away from the sight of Mike pushing the old Sierra from behind as Amaury steered it down the lane towards a field entrance. She gazed unseeingly at the high hedge that blocked her view of the field beyond. The double stone wall that the hedgerow grew out of was patterned here with silver and yellow lichens, while creamy spires of navelwort grew out of the crevices and the thick moss. All of these seemed unaffected by the sultry heat that had pervaded the south west of England since the middle of June and right the way through July. But now she could see that the grasses and wildflowers that grew along the foot of the hedgerow were dried and wilting, while the leaves of the nearby ash tree hung limp and dusty.

Voices startled her and she turned her head to see the men beside the car. She ran her eyes quickly over Mike, astounded to see that his clothes appeared to be unmarked.

‘No, don’t,’ she exclaimed urgently, leaning forward. ‘Don’t rub your hands down your trousers, Mike. Here,’ she opened the flap on the dashboard and pulled out a packet, ‘use these wipes. I’m keeping them there for times like this.’

Mike snorted, but took the wipe and scrubbed his hands as he resumed his seat behind the steering wheel. He dropped the wipe carelessly on the floor as Amaury slid into the back seat.

‘My apologies, Anna,’ Amaury said contritely. ‘Your friend insisted on pushing the car. I was quite willing…’

‘Let’s get on,’ Mike interrupted. ‘The sooner we get this over with the better I’ll feel.’

Amaury’s dark eyes, brimful with laughter, met Anna’s for a second. ‘Your friend does not look forward to the evening? And yet what man would not with such a beautiful woman at his side? Or perhaps he thinks I have designs on,’ he paused delicately, then continued smoothly, ‘the beautiful necklace you wear?’

‘How rude of me,’ Anna spoke hastily, ‘I haven’t introduced you, Amaury. This is Mike Shannon, an old friend of mine. And Mike, I was explaining who Amaury is when we saw him.’

Mike mumbled something, his hands clenched on the steering wheel as he drove down the winding lane.

‘Ah,’ Amaury sounded amused, ‘but of course it would be Mike. The so clever man who found the garden that you love; the so lucky man who has won such a beautiful woman.’

The car jerked, narrowly missing the hedge, as Mike turned his head to glare at Anna. ‘How…’ he began furiously, righting the car involuntarily.

Anna interrupted him quickly, putting a hand lightly on his arm, her own eyes fixed on the road ahead. ‘It’s not widely known, Amaury. I’m surprised you’ve heard.’

‘But no,’ he expostulated, bending forward to pick up the bag that Anna’s movement had dislodged from her lap. ‘The entire village talks of it, that you and Mike are a couple. And why should it be a secret, such a happy thing?’

Before Anna could concoct a reply Amaury’s eyes fell on the bag he was holding out to her. ‘But this is lovely,’ he exclaimed, pulling it back to look at it more closely. ‘The work is exquisite. Where did you find it?’

Now read on…

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