The bramble tendrils wrapped around her legs, hooking their barbs into her cut-off cotton trousers and tightening as she struggled to free herself, panting slightly. Sweat trickled down her flushed face, her long black curls were damp, clinging to her head and neck as she brushed them back with a shaking hand.
Heavy crashing in the thick undergrowth behind her made her turn quickly towards the man who was following her. He was breathing heavily as he lumbered towards her, glaring furiously as he waved the machete in his hand. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ he demanded. ‘Don’t go wandering off the path like that. God know where you’ll end up. This place is like a jungle.’
Anna Evesleigh’s dark blue eyes sparkled with anger as she returned his glare. One hand waved wildly around the tangle of trees, bushes, climbers and long grass that surrounded them. ‘What path, Mike? There isn’t one. The route I chose through this jungle you’ve led us into was just as good as yours.’
Mike Shannon, increasingly distinguished as an archaeologist, was a frightening sight as he rested his hands on his hips. His shirt was torn, flaps of faded blue cotton hung limply across his chest and arms. His red hair, nearly always tousled, was at this moment in wild disarray, knotted with pieces of bark, twigs and leaves, and even a green beetle. His square freckled face was scarlet with exertion and his eyes blazed with fury. The light of anger faded as he considered the woman in front of him.
Anna was unusually dishevelled for a woman who had a natural elegance. Her white shirt was stained with green and brown, and clung to her shapely figure as she bent over, trying again to disentangle the brambles. ‘I should have known this was a terrible idea as soon as you mentioned it,’ she muttered.
Mike burst out laughing. ‘I’m tempted to take a photo,’ he said. ‘The glamorous actress Anna Evesleigh in her spare time.’ His expression darkened. ‘Rather different to the one of you with Hugh in the paper this week.’
‘For goodness’ sake, Mike,’ she said. ‘Stop burbling and give me a hand, or I’ll be trapped here forever.’
He dropped the machete and stepped forward, bending down beside her. His fingers, she noticed, were cut and bleeding even before he began to pull the brambles roughly off her trousers, cursing in an undertone as he wove each strand back into the bushes that nearly surrounded them. Ah well, she thought as snags appeared in the cotton, surrounded by a pattern of bloodstains, the trousers were ruined anyway. No point fussing now.
Anna began absentmindedly to pick the twigs out of his hair as she thought about their expedition. She really should have been more careful, she thought ruefully. Mike’s ideas always led to trouble. She had, she realised, been thrown off her guard by his willingness to join her for lunch with Berhane, her old school friend. Mike had certainly met Berhane before. He had also recently provided Anna with some useful historical background for the community play that Berhane had commissioned Anna to write for the small moorland community where she lived. But Mike never normally volunteered to attend social events.
Yesterday, bumping into him unexpectedly in Coombhaven near her family home, Anna had casually mentioned that Berhane was staying with her and that they were going out to lunch before Berhane returned home today. It had surprised her immensely when Mike had demanded to come to lunch too, to make sure that his information was not distorted. A faint suspicion had flickered across Anna’s thoughts; maybe Mike was once again falling in love.
And that, she realised, was why her mind was not alert enough when Mike had suggested that after lunch, when they had seen Berhane set off, they should look for this place on the way back. And, the thought crept insidiously forward, the idea of a hidden garden was so romantic she hadn’t been able to resist agreeing to come with him. So here they were, she thought glumly as he stood up, rubbing his hands down his jeans and leaving smears of blood on them. It hadn’t even been on the way back. They must have come at least ten miles off the direct route to her home. And the June sunshine was bakingly hot again this afternoon, creating a sauna-like atmosphere under the trees, searing her skin when she was out in the open.
‘This is hopeless, Mike,’ she said, stepping cautiously away from the bushes into the long grass that reached well above her knees, brushing irritably at the insects that buzzed in an eager cloud around her face. ‘We’ve no idea where to go. I can’t even see any sign of a garden, let alone a house. I only hope we can find our way back.’ She glanced over her shoulder, relieved to see that the passage he had hacked out was very obvious, littered with trampled grass and chopped branches. A strong smell of crushed greenery drifted around them, not unpleasantly, she thought.
Mike had retrieved his machete and stood with it propped against one leg, looking around at the uncompromising screen of tangled growth, his sweaty brow furrowed in thought. ‘Most of the garden is in the valley that leads to the sea,’ he muttered, pulling a photocopied map out of his back pocket and opening it up to stare intently at the squiggle of lines. ‘We’ve been going downhill for some distance. These West Country valleys aren’t usually very long, so this must be the outlying woodland and the garden itself should be near. As long as we keep going down we can’t go wrong.’
‘Let’s hope we don’t fall in the sea,’ Anna said crossly. ‘That would just put the finishing touch to the day.’
He glowered at her. ‘If you carry on like this I’ll probably push you in when we get there. Go back to the car and wait if you can’t stand the pace. Good God, woman, this is the opportunity of a lifetime and you stand around moaning about a bit of difficulty.’
She bit her lip to keep back a sharp retort. ‘Mike darling,’ she managed to say sweetly, ‘I know anything you’re involved in will be difficult. I certainly couldn’t leave you to get into trouble. You know how easily you do.’
He was scowling now, remembering the times when they and their friends Lucy Rossington and Hugh Carey had fallen into unexpected and dangerous situations. And how often Anna’s self-defence skills had come in useful. His lips twitched. ‘Ah well,’ he said, his expression lightening, ‘the worst trouble always happens when we’re all together.’
‘Mmm,’ Anna said, looking suddenly sad. ‘But the way things are with Lucy and Hugh now I’m not sure how much that will happen again. Their relationship seems to have gone downhill since she was injured last year.’
He glanced intently at her and opened his mouth. He shut it again with a snap of his teeth. ‘Let’s concentrate on finding this damned garden, not stand around gossiping about other people’s marital problems.’
‘I’m not …’ she began hotly, but he cut across her words.
‘Stay behind me,’ he instructed, picking up the machete.
‘Mike,’ she said in alarm. ‘Do be careful. I’m sure you shouldn’t have that thing.’
‘I’m not planning to swing through the trees,’ he said. ‘How else would we get through?’
There was, Anna conceded as she quickly stepped further back, some truth in that. For the first time she wondered why Mike was so determined to find this garden. Gardens and even eighteenth century houses that stood in them were not at all in his line of work or one of his general interests.
‘Mike,’ she asked, ‘why are you so keen to find this place?’
There was no reply, possibly because he had not heard the question above his grunts of effort as he swung the blade and the crashing of branches falling to the ground, followed by the crunching of his progress forward. A large buzzard flew heavily out of a tree just in front of him, making Mike swear audibly as he came to a startled stop for a moment.
Anna felt as though she had been trailing behind him for several hours when she looked down at her watch, blinking the sweat out of her eyes. Only three-thirty, she saw in stunned surprise. They had left Mike’s car in the cliff car park just after two-thirty, and had surely been in this wilderness for several hours. She felt a sense of relief that they were doing this on a sunny summer’s day, when it would be light until late unless the weather changed unexpectedly. However enervating the heat was, it was still better than struggling through here in dim light and the heavy rain that had fallen for days earlier in the month. She lifted the watch to her ear, trying to hear it ticking above the pounding of her heart, wondering if it had stopped. Giving up, she stepped forward and gasped in horror.
Mike lay sprawled on the ground in front of her, the machete lying under his body. She hurried forward as fast as she could, and almost fell herself when she tripped over something hard on the ground. Mike rolled swiftly aside as she stumbled towards him.
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