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Term of Years

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"Could I ask you a favour?" Ann was not ordinarily diffident, but she sounded almost shy.

"Sure, what?"

"I've booked a week off in April, after the holiday. My mother wrote to me, asking me home for a visit: could you - would you come with me?"

Maddy considered this. "Where do they live?" she asked, sensibly.

"Near Streweminster. South-east England."

"We could drive down, couldn't we?" Maddy suggested. Ann mostly got about in Glasgow on her bicycle, and Maddy had a neat little car that could park practically anywhere and sometimes had to. "We could rent a car, and take turns - do you have to be there on any specific day? Because we could take our time, and stop on the way - "

"Could we do that on our way back?" Ann suggested. still sounding awfully diffident. "My mother said my father's not well, and I haven't been home in ten years - "

Maddy felt like a heel. "Of course. Sorry. So let's drive down - we can do it in shifts, all in one day or take our time and make it two days - and then - should we book somewhere in Streweminster? Do your parents live nearby?"

"Pretty near," Ann said. She looked awfully relieved. "My older sister lives in Colebridge, which is only a few miles away, and we could book a B&B there and go on to Trennels to visit with my parents - are you really okay about going with me?"

"Loon," Maddy said lovingly, handing her a tissue. "Of course I'm coming with. I didn't even know you had an older sister. Is she horrible?"

"No," Ann said. She wiped her eyes, and grinned at Maddy. "No. I just - don't get on with them. Not with any of my family, not really. But if Daddy's ill, I ought to go."

Maddy had a retentive memory, especially for things Ann had said. She looked up Trennels, near Streweminster, in the county guidebook, and found there were three self-catering cottages all called Trennels Something. She spared a self-addressed envelope and a stamp to enquire if one of them was available for even a couple of days within the dates of Ann's and her's holiday.

She got a form reply to say they were all fully booked for those dates, and shrugged it off: if a Colebridge B&B was the closest Ann wanted to get to her family, that was probably for the best. The preprinted signature on the form reply was a bit of a squiggle.

(m)(a)(r)(l)(o)(w)(s)

Maddy liked driving, and liked the early morning start of long journeys, going through the empty streets of her adopted city in the slanting sunlight, everything in a different light because she was traveling, not just going to work or home, but she knew Ann tended to carsickness when she wasn't driving, especially when she was stressed, and Ann had been getting more and more stressed recently.

"Do you want to drive?" she asked Ann, but wasn't surprised when Ann shook her head.

"You enjoy it. I wouldn't enjoy it. I'll be fine, really."

Ann could have very tiresomely long arguments when she was stressed, anxious, and trying to cope by making someone else feel better: Maddy short-circuited the foreseeable argument by nodding, opening the car door, and getting in on the driver's side.

"All right. You take over when we're on the motorway."

Ann nodded. She was looking out of the window with a clear, determined expression, quite evidently resolved not to be sick. She glanced at Maddy and smiled. "I'm all right, really. It's never as bad when I sit in the front seat. I never used to be able to do that. Someone else was always carsicker than me."

"Is that even a word?"

"It is now."

"But your older sister got to be the one who was carsick first?" Maddy asked.

Silence from Ann. She looked, Maddy sneaked a glance, embarrassed.

"I don't know how many of my family will be there," Ann said after a while."But there's an awful lot of them."

"Cousins? Nieces? Nephews?"

"My oldest sister lives in Colebridge," Ann said. "Karen's married, she has three stepchildren and one daughter of her own. Then there's Rowan and Giles - they never married. He's my older brother, he's in the Navy but he lives at home with our parents when he's not at sea. My younger brother Peter's divorced, he has a daughter but she lives with her mother, I don't think Peter sees either of them much. My younger sister Ginty, she lives in Ireland, but she might come home - she got married and she's got two children, her husband and her children all ride - they run a racing stable. So probably her husband will stay home, but she might bring her children. They're teenagers now."

"You never mentioned any of them," Maddy said wonderingly.

"I don't get on with them," Ann said. "My younger sister Lori, she lives in London, I think she has a girlfriend, but I've never asked."

"Why not?" Maddy grinned.

"I don't like Lori," Ann said. "I don't really like my younger brother Peter either."

"You don't like them?" Ann so rarely said she didn't like anyone, that Maddy was startled.

"Lori was always ill when she was a child," Ann said. "We got into the habit of doing things for her, and making things easy for her, and indulging her when she got upset. And then I realised, one year - one Christmas, that she'd turned into a person I didn't even like or trust. She tells rather elaborate stories sometimes, and I never know which bits are true. I just stopped asking her to tell me things. I don't know if she'll be here or not." There was a pause. "Peter's a bully," she added, factually. "He can be very nice if you let him get his way, but he really isn't nice at all if you don't. When his wife left him. I didn't tell my mother obviously, but I was so glad; whenever I'd seen them together I wanted his wife to leave him."

"Any more?" Maddy was joking.

"Lori's twin sister," Ann said. "Nicky. But I don't think she'll be there - she travels a lot."

"Twins? Identical?"

"Used to be identical," Ann said. "We could mostly tell them apart, but at school, sometimes the staff had to ask. They don't look so much alike now."

"Wow," Maddy said. She felt that was inadequate. "Ann... you know more about that amdram group I was part of when I was a kid, than I did about your entire family."

"I don't like them," Ann said. Maddy glanced sideways, and realised Ann had that look on her face that said she was as close to tears as she ever got. "I - never fitted in with them."

"Can you say why?" Maddy was interested, and worried. "You don't have to."

"When I was twelve, I went to Kingscote."

(Ann had mentioned Kingscote once or twice before: a girls' boarding school, quite a good academic reputation. Maddy nodded.)

"Kay had gone there first, she was in the Third, and she had just won this terrific scholarship that would pay her fees for the rest of school and on to university. Rowan was in the Second, she was good at games. I wasn't really good at anything much - I joined Guides, and I liked that, but the staff all knew Kay and Rowan and they thought I'd be as good as they were, and I wasn't: I thought it was just because I was younger. I was used to them being better than me at things."

Ann was twisting her hands together in her lap. Her voice was quite steady, but her eyes were blurred.

"And then when I was in Third, Ginty came to Kingscote, and she was just as - she was excellent at swimming, and hockey, and everyone knew who she was. I was very fond of Lori and Nicky then and when they came, I thought - I suppose I thought I'd be able to look after them, Kingscote had sisters' dorms so we'd be together evening to morning. They were backward at first because they'd been off school so much being ill, and there was a bit of an upset at Guides, but then - Lori turned out to be really good at acting, and Nicky took a while to find her feet but she turned out to be as good as Rowan at games - not just good at playing them, but good at coaching the other girls, being a team leader. And that was when I realised, that I was always going to be the odd one out - that they were always going to be - to be excellent, I was always going to be the dull one."

"But you're not dull," Maddy said, surprised.

"Well, you haven't met my sisters," Ann said, wryly. "They are ... " she seemed to be struggling for the right word, "they're spectacular. I'm just ... ordinary."

"Is that why you don't get along?" There must be something else: Ann's tone wasn't envious at all, just kind of resigned.

"No, that isn't it," Ann said. She hesitated. "Maddy, can you promise - before I tell you - never to tell anyone else?"

"Is any current harm being done?" Maddy enquired, almost rhetorically. She knew, and Ann knew she knew, that even if Ann made her promise (most uncharacteristic of Ann) that she'd break the promise in a minute if it was.

"No," Ann said. "I don't think so," she added. "But really, Maddy - this all happened years ago now. Damage at the time, yes. My family - they did so much harm I don't like to think about it. But harm now, no, I don't think so."

She was silent. And then, as they reached the motorway, Ann began talking about the Christmas she was seventeen.

"There was this local boy who was in care because his mother couldn't cope. His father had kidnapped him when he was a baby, she'd got him back when he was ten, and then he kept running away to try to get back to his father. He got as far as Trennels - he ran away from the care home, too - and Kay's stepchildren were trying to hide him, and we found out - us older ones. I don't know how long Peter and Nicky and Lori knew before we did. Ginty wasn't there either. But my mother was away, my father was at sea. But Giles was at home, and so was Rowan of course, and we three found out.

"I thought we should call his mother - well, call the care home if we couldn't find his mother's number - but no one else did. They were working up this plan to take him to his father. Who was in Switzerland," Ann added. "The plan involved taking the boy to the local ferry to France, and handing him over at the ferry to a stranger who was supposed to be a friend of his father's."

Maddy had to force herself to focus on the road ahead. "Exactly how many laws were they breaking?" she asked.

Ann almost laughed. "I don't like to think. But it wasn't just that. I could see this was a hard choice with no good answers, because the boy must miss his father, and his father miss him, and he wasn't even staying with his mother, he was in a care home because he kept running away - but at least both his parents knew where he was, and he was safe. But my family - well, the five of them who were there that Christmas, they weren't worrying about that at all. About the criminality of what they were doing, or the danger to the boy in just handing him over to a total stranger. If they'd been planning to give him back to his father, that would have been legally risky, but they weren't even planning that. They didn't seem to think anythng about his mother, either - how worried she would be if the boy just vanished from the home and never came back."

"So what happened?"

"I tried to explain why I thought it was a bad idea," Ann said. "And I didn't do a very good job of it, I could tell they were still thinking about it, so I told them if they did, I'd call the police. And they believed me."

Maddy nodded, keeping her eyes on the road.

"And then....?"

"And then they went ahead and did it anyway," Ann said, shortly. She really was crying now. "And they lied to me about it. Giles and Peter - they took the boy by boat, Nicky and Lori helped get the boy from the care home to the coast, I think Rowan was involved too - and they all lied to me about what was going on until Giles and Peter were at sea and it was too late to stop them. They dropped the boy off in France - they didn't do the ferry arrangement - handed him over to his father's friend, and the boy did get back to his father in Switzerland, so the other five, they all thought they'd succeeded, they'd won. And the boy's mother, she was hospitalised after she tried to kill herself, but that was afterwards, when my family weren't paying attention. I still sometimes wish I'd told her."

"Or called the police," Maddy said.

Ann nodded. She mopped up her tears efficiently. "Not that calling the police would have done a lot of good. The local MP's son - he was a friend of Nicky's - he was involved in some way too, and my father and the MP were the two biggest landowners in the locality, and Rowan and Giles were both pretty good at putting on side and getting away with things - Rowan used to drive the farm cars before she had a licence - anyway, I don't think the police would have paid much attention to me then. I was just 17 and I didn't really know how to talk to people except in school or at Guides."

"Oh my God," Maddy said, thoughtfully. She went on driving. "And that was all about fifteen years ago?"

"Yes," Ann said. She was getting her face under control now, but she still wasn't fit to drive, Maddy knew. "I left school and I decided to train as a social worker, and I just... mostly arranged not to go home. I haven't been back at all for ten years."

(m)(a)(r)(l)(o)(w)(s)

Maddy kept an eye on Ann as well as on the road signs, and once Ann was at a stage where she was calmer, Maddy picked a service station and parked. "Use the loos, get coffee, have second breakfast," she bulletined. "Maybe stretch our legs before we get back in the car - there's a path over there."

Ann nodded, sensible Ann, and got out of the car. A whole flock of crumpled tissue hankies fell out of the car with her, and Ann stooped to pick them all up.

"Didn't your parents find it odd, your just not coming home for ten years?"

"Do we have to talk about it?" Ann said.

"I think you know we do," Maddy said. "You did ask me to come along. I can't help if I don't know what's happening."

"Yes, okay," Ann accepted. "Let's get coffee and use the loos and go for a walk. We can have second breakfast when we get back."

The path was a short track maintained by the loal wildlife society: there was a faded board at the entrance with illustrations of various birds and frogs and voles that might be seen there. The path itself was pretty, this time of year: flowers blooming, the pond at the turn calm and alive. There was room to walk side by side. Maddy reached out and took Ann's hand.

Ann glanced at her, and then away. She didn't like to hold Maddy's hand in public, but you would have to stretch things to call this path public.

"I told my parents what had happened," she said. "I found out then they already knew: Rowan and Giles had told them, years ago. My father said that he'd been furious with Giles for risking Peter and himself on that boat journey. My mother said that Rowan had told her then I'd been against it, and I was quite right, but she'd never blamed me for not being able to stop them. I said, shouldn't we tell someone? But my father said, it couldn't ever get out or it would risk Giles' naval career, and Rowan might not be able to carry on at Trennels."

"But what about this woman - the boy's mother?"

"They didn't care about her," Ann said, simply. "She was in and out of mental hospitals by that time, she had no idea the Marlows at Trennels had helped her son get back to Switzerland, and my mother said that she must always have been unbalanced, not a fit person to care for a child."

Maddy frowned, looking at Ann. "And then...?"

"And then I told them what I thought of them," Ann said, without any regret at all in her voice. "And that's why I haven't been back to Trennels for ten years." She did sound regretful then.

(m)(a)(r)(l)(o)(w)(s)

Maddy scrupulously didn't talk to Ann about her family when she was driving: Ann was a good, thoughtful driver. They chatted about work gossip, about Glasgow local politics, about the landscape: the closest Ann got to discussing her family was when she mentioned she had wanted a horse as a child. ("But of course no one would buy me one: I saved up for a bicycle instead.")

"Can you ride?" Maddy said, impressed.

"We can all ride," Ann said. "More or less. Our school had horse-riding lessons, and if I'd been willing to go out hunting, my mother would have paid for me to have a horse to ride in the winter holidays. But I've never agreed with fox hunting, and after my sister Ginty left home, her horse Catkin was sold: no one but my mother was allowed to ride Chocbar. Nicky and Lori and Peter had a couple of ponies they shared."

"I looked up Trennels," Maddy mentioned. "There are three guest houses, all Trennels Something - I wrote to ask if any of them were free."

"Oh, I'm glad they weren't," Ann said, amused. "They're all converted farm cottages. Rowan sorted that out to bring in some extra income, but we'd never get away from my family if we were staying in one of them."

"Is it a big place?"

"Hard to say," Ann said thoughtfully. "Parts of it are old - 16th century at least. It's very cold in winter - the downstairs rooms stay warm enough, but upstairs, the best you can say is, you stay out of the wind. It's a muddled kind of house, because when Marlows got more money, they built it larger, but never seem to have torn down anything. It's entailed - my father inherited it from his cousin, because he was the nearest male heir. There have been Marlows there for five hundred years."

She didn't take her eyes off the road. "I tell myself, there have been far worse Marlows there than my family now. The biggest rebuilding came when there was a Marlow who made a fortune in the slave trade. I try to think about that when I miss Trennels."

"How could you possibly be sure they were your family, five hundred years ago?" Maddy wanted to know.

"Farm records," Ann explained. "And parish records. And gravestones. Honestly, Maddy, now I say it out loud it sounds ridiculous, but it's pretty historically attested: my family's been living there, on that land, in that house, definitely since the 15th century, and probably before that."

(m)(a)(r)(l)(o)(w)(s)

They stayed at a modern, soulless hotel, and drove on in the morning.

Maddy drove: Ann looked distracted. She spotted the spire of Streweminister cathedral over the horizon before Maddy did: but Maddy wouldn't have trusted her to drive to it, when Ann said she would like to see it again.

Streweminister was small for a cathedral town; the railway station had been closed down, Ann said, not long after she'd left school. "When we lived in London, all of us would get into one carriage and travel together - I did like that. Once we moved to Trennels after our cousin died, if we went by train it was always too full to do that."

Maddy had grown up in a seaside town where few of the buildings were older than the 19th century; she was used to Victorian houses and shops. Glasgow, where she'd lived most of her adult life, had built its magnificence from the shipping magnates of the 18th and 19th century - from the slave and rum and sugar trade. They turned a corner into a little street that looked almost medieval, and she stood still a moment. Ann glanced at her, and stopped still too. The street ran by Streweminster Cathedral, and from here they could see the lines of the church, the stone arches and inset windows.

"Can we go in?" Maddy asked.

Maddy liked churches. The stained-glass windows, even though they tended to work better as patterns of light than if you looked at the pictures they made: the huge arches like stone trees: the odd carvings one could find in old churches: the feeling of silence and stillness, even in a church during a weekday with tourists. Which of course, she and Ann were.

Ann had gone up the aisle to the space before the altar, and was standing to one side, looking around. When Maddy joined her, Ann mentioned "We did our school nativity play here one year. It was an awful fuss, but worth it in the end. My sister Lori was in it that year."

"And were you?" Maddy had been keen on acting at that age: Ann had never mentioned anything like that before.

"Practically the whole school was," Ann said. "Everyone who could sing was in the choir, and there was a huge Crowd. Ginty was the Archangel Gabriel, and Nicky was one of the soloists. I was made a prefect not long afterwards, and so I nearly always had a group to supervise when I was in Streweminster, but I used to come in here sometimes on my own and think how different the church looked that night, compared to what it looks like now." She glanced at Maddy and smiled. "For one thing, we were all using candles. I'm surprised none of us set ourselves on fire."

"If Streweminister and Trennels are so close, why were you boarding at Kingscote?" Maddy asked, as they left the church.

"I suppose we could have been weekly boarders," Ann said. "Trennels is too far for a daily drive from here, and Kingscote is a few miles from Streweminster. We could have been driven over on Sunday night and picked up on Friday afternoon, and I did wonder why our parents hadn't done that - I know Kingscote cost them a fortune in school fees, first to last, even with Kay's scholarship. Really, it would have made more sense for us all to go to Colebridge grammar school - there's a quick bus connection there. I told my mother once I'd like to do that - I wasn't getting on with the other girls in the Fifth, and I thought I'd like to start again and do my A-Levels somewhere completely different. But she seemed to think that Kingscote would do me good, and I suppose so long as they could just afford it for us, it was their business."

Maddy found it an easy drive to Colebridge, and they got to their B&B in good time. They were able to park their car, and drop off their luggage: the B&B owner said they were welcome to come back any time after four, doors locked at ten without special arrangements.

"Now, let's find your sister's house," Maddy said, taking charge. "Does she know we're coming?"

Ann looked disconcerted. "Kay? Oh, no, I never thought to write to her - or phone, or anything - "

"Well, let's call her when we find a phone, and ask her if we can drop round, or meet up for coffee somewhere. I got the impression you don't dislike her as much as you do the rest of your family, so let's get over meeting her first."

The phone call, Maddy realised from hearing Ann's side of it, went well; she could figure out that Kay was surprised but pleased, wasn't expecting Ann, but that they were invited round.

"Kay said it would take us about twenty minutes to walk there, and if we could dawdle and take half an hour she'd have tea ready for us when we arrived."


(m)(a)(r)(l)(o)(w)(s)


Kay was nice, Maddy was surprised to discover: nice and surprisingly like Ann. They looked really very alike, and Kay was evidently genuinely pleased to see Ann. Afternoon tea was spread on a table in a sunny room that evidently functioned both as dining-room and study: an alarmingly magnificent meal, which Kay admitted was as much for Fob and Marian as it was for herself and Ann and Maddy.

"They'll get in from school about five," Kay said. "So we have an hour to catch up, and then, I'm afraid, no peace and quiet til bedtime. Chas and Rose are coming home from university this weekend, both of them." She laughed. "Chas said that even if this was a Marlow thing, he still wanted to be in on it, and I expect he talked Rose into coming back, too."

"I didn't know there was a thing," Ann said. "Ma just said in her letter that Daddy wasn't well, and if I could come home, I should."

"Oh yes," Kay said. "Giles is on leave, and Peter's been sstaying there - I think Rowan prebooked the guest houses so they'd all be free this weekend for family. Edwin and I don't intend to stay on over Saturday night, but if Marian wants to, I think we should let her. Will you be staying at Trennels?"

"We'd booked a B&B here," Maddy said.

"Ginty and her two arrived yesterday," Kay said. "I haven't seen her yet, but I expect you can't peel her two girls away from the ponies. Rowan breeds Shetland ponies," she added to Maddy.

Outside in the hall, the door opened with a key. Kay's face lightened, a look Maddy knew from her own face. "Edwin's home early - " she said, and then "Who's that with him?"

The man who was evidently Edwin opened the door, saying over his shoulder "They're all in here, I think - " and behind him, a fair-haired, weatherbeaten boy in jeans and a jersey, followed him into the room.

"Nicky!" Kay said. "Hello! When did you get in?"

The boy - the young woman - Nicky - looked at them all with an air of pleased enquiry. "I got a lift to Colebridge and remembered Edwin should be at his office. Lal told me when I rang her there was a party or something tomorrow, so I thought I'd better check there'd be a bed for me before I trailed over to Trennels."

"Doesn't Ma know you're here?"

"Oh yes, I rang from Edwin's office and left a message. Edwin said you always made plenty of tea, could I have some? I'm absolutely starving, I had breakfast at five."

She hadn't actually ignored Ann, Maddy realised: Nicky's eyes had slipped over to her and slid away, as if embarrassed.

"Hello, Nicky, Edwin," Ann said. "This is my friend, Maddy Fayne."

Edwin evidently knew his manners: he shook Ann's hand, said how pleased he was to see her again, shook Maddy's hand, said how pleased he was to meet her:

Nicky shook Maddy's hand - her grip was hard and her skin felt rough - and echoed what Edwin had said. Her fair eyebrows were just like Ann's, Maddy saw.

"We can't offer you a bed for the night, because both my older children are coming home from university," Edwin said apologetically to Ann, including Maddy with a nod. "But I'm sure they can put you up at Trennels: Rowan Marlow was telling me that they had refused all bookings for the three guest houses to be sure to have room for the whole family."

"We booked a B&B," Ann said.

The conversation went on - Maddy liked Edwin: he helped Nicky to a large plate of scones and cheese, and brought her a huge mug of tea - once settled, Nicky tore through the scones at a rate that suggested she really hadn't eaten since five that morning: when Ann asked him about his local history research, he mentioned Kay had written papers about Streweminster local history for her OU degree: and he managed to make both Ann and Maddy feel included in the conversation, though he plainly hadn't expected either of them to be there.

"More scones?" he asked, when Nicky had emptied her plate.

"Thanks. Could I have some of that smashing cake?"

"Was that as well as or instead of?"

"Both, please," Nicky said. She had, Maddy reflected judiciously, quite an engaging grin. She still looked like a teenage boy, but she must be in her late twenties.

All at once, it seemed, the door came open to a horde of children - though when the dust settled and they were standing still, one of them was a young man, and one a girl who was at least in her late teens. Only the youngest child was definitely a Marlow.

All four of them plunged towards Nicky, with yells of "Nacker!" and she set her plate and mug aside, grinning, and let them all land on her. At least the oldest, the young man, didn't actually fling himself on her, just grabbed her into an enthusiastic rough hug and demanded to know if she had brought Sprog.

"No, clot," Nicky said cheerfully, hugging the young man, turning from him to hug the younger one more gently, formally shaking the third child's hand, and looking down at the smallest Marlow with an odd expression before finally shaking hands with her, too. "How could I bring Sprog? There's no harbour for her. I left her at Byfleet St-Anne's with a friend. He'll look after her."

Edwin cleared his throat. All four of them turned towards him like birds sensing a hawk overhead.

"We're all delighted to see Nicola," said Edwin. "However…"

"Hello, Dads," all four of them said, very nearly in chorus. Maddy caught Kay suppressing a grin. "Hello, Methren."

"You'll remember your Aunt Ann," Edwin said to the smallest child, thus neatly evading the question of whether his older children remembered her or not. "And this is her friend Maddy Fayne. Maddy, my offspring: Charles, Rose, Phoebe, and Marian."

Maddy found her hand being shaken, politely, by four well-mannered young people one after the other who didn't at all behave like the mob who'd yelled Nacker! for Ann's sister.

"Who's Sprog?" Maddy asked Charles.

Nicky - Nicola? - had Marian and Rose sitting squashed into the same chair as her, all of them eating scones and cake from the same plate. Charles was helping himself to a plate of food, but he stopped to say politely "Nacker's boat. She went round the world in it. She promised she'd take me out sailing in it when she came back."

He added, with trained politeness, "Excuse me, can I get you anything?"

"No, thank you," Maddy assured him. "I'm perfectly fine."

She glanced at Ann, who was looking withdrawn, and decided now was the time to make a move to go.

"Ann, shall we head back now?"

"Oh yes," Ann said readily, getting to her feet, confirming Maddy's sense that she had wanted to leave as soon as Nicky came in.

They were practiced partners in this, and manoevered towards the door collecting their coats on the way, saying the appropriate things: "Thank you very much for the tea and the lovely scones, Kay. Wonderful to meet you all again. So nice to meet you, Edwin. See you tomorrow."

 

(m)(a)(r)(l)(o)(w)(s)

 

They had barely got out onto the street, when they heard the door open again behind them, and Nicky appeared, shouldering her way into a coat and a backpack, both of them practical and battered.

"Hi," she said, and shut the door gently. "I'll walk over to Trennels tonight, if they've definitely got spare beds."

Ann stared at her. Maddy could feel her tensing up again.

"Okay to walk over to where you're staying with you?" Nicky said.

"You're going to walk to Trennels?"

"I might get a lift," Nicky said. "But I know the way."

Looking unsettled, Ann set off down the street, and Nicky followed them, pacing them. It wasn't far from Kay's address to their lodgings: Colebridge was a small town, really.

"Look," Ann said, stopping by where they'd parked their car, "I really don't think it's sensible or safe for you to walk to Trennels. It might be dark before you got there. We can give you a lift." She sounded tentative, uncertain, as if she was expecting an aggressive response, and Maddy bristled on her behalf.

But Nicky only shook her head, grinning suddenly. "It's not far, I know the way, it's completely safe. Really." She looked amused. "Ann, look - " She glanced at Maddy. "I did want to get to talk to you. Could we - "

"Yes, certainly," Ann said. Unexpectedly, she reached out to take Maddy's hand. Nicky couldn't see this - the car and Ann were in the way - but Maddy glanced at Ann with uncomfortable surmise. "What do you want to say, Nicky?"

Nicky looked as if she was bracing herself. "I wanted to say sorry," she said. "I know it's a bit late, but I kept expecting to see you, and then I was away."

"I'm glad you did what you planned," Ann said gently, inflexibly. "Is that all?"

"No," Nicky said. "I wanted to say - you were right, the rest of us were wrong. We should have listened to you. I realised that a few years afterward, but I never wanted to put it in a letter, and I never seemed to see you when I was at Trennels. But I wanted you to know. And I didn't want to put it off another night."

She nodded at Ann, and Maddy. "Well - see you tomorrow." She turned and went down the street, walking briskly, a slender solitary figure, out of sight.

Ann stood frozen, one hand gripping Maddy's, the other spread on the car roof. Maddy took her by the arm, and led her inside: their room was on the ground floor, and there was a tea tray. She sat Ann down on the bed, and made her a cup of tea, and got her to drink it.

"I never thought Nicky would apologise," Ann said at last, thickly. "Honestly - I never thought she liked me much." She drank the last of the tea. "I suppose I should call home - call Trennels. Tell our mother that Nicky will be over this evening, and ask what time we're expected tomorrow.

"And when you've done that, we should go out and get something decent for dinner," Maddy ruled.

Ann laughed. "We'll probably need to drive back to Streweminster for that."

(m)(a)(r)(l)(o)(w)(s)

They were having a family dinner to start at five, Ann's mother had told Ann: and that they should come for morning coffee to meet Ginty and her girls.

Morning coffee, Ann explained, meant come at eleven. "If we pack our good clothes into the back of the car, we can ask Ma for a room to change in - "

"No," said Maddy, firmly. "We are not sitting around in your parents' lounge having coffee for six hours. I'll book lunch somewhere and we'll leave at half past twelve."

She let Ann negotiate her to quarter to one, because that seemed to make Ann feel genuinely better, especially when Maddy pointed out that with everything suggested to her about Trennels, they would probably find it easier changing in their B&B and driving over to Trennels for five.

Maddy drove: Ann gave directions. Ann jumped out of the car to open a gate and Maddy drove over a cattle-grid and Ann opened the door as if to get back in, but then bent down and said to Maddy "I remember this. Do look." She pointed: Maddy got out of the car and stood in the clear fresh silence of a country road, and looked at Ann looking.

The road ahead was gravelled, with white stones marking the edges, and two untidy hawthorn hedges marking off field from road. The road went uphill, following the contours of the slope. The fields either side were lush with green wheat.

At the top of the hill was a house that seemed to grow out of the ground: grey stone and grey slate and dark windows gleaming in the crevices. Never more than two storeys high, shapelessly rambling in wings and walls and outbuildings, it made Maddy think, absurdly, of a hobbit-hole, and then, more practically, of Elrond's Last Homely House. Behind and about the house were trees - old trees, but if what Ann had been saying yesterday was true, younger than the house itself. Ann was standing gazing up the road at the house, fair eyebrows locked in a frown, her blue eyes wide.

"I remember this," Ann said again, and shot Maddy a quick smile. "Sorry, I know it doesn't look like much - but I remember this, every time I came home from school, from when we first came to live here, after Cousin Jon died. I used to try to be the one who got out to open the gate, so that I could walk up to Trennels from here and see it all, all over again."

"Do you want to walk up the hill? I can follow - "

"Oh no," Ann said, sensibly. "It's not really obvious where you park, I'd better drive from here."

The road bent its way up to a gate, then turned on itself and flowed round the wall to an arch: Ann drove under the arch, into a flagged yard surrounded by other buildings, brick and stone and slate and tile and plaster and dark beams of wood - none of the buildings were the same style or design or age, they had melded together only because they had sat there together at the top of the hill so long - and Ann parked neatly, shut off the engine, and turned to Maddy.

"Thank you for coming with me," she said.

"Thank you for asking me," Maddy said gravely.

They got out of the car, and Maddy stared round. "You grew up here?" she said.

"Oh no, we lived in London til I was fifteen," Ann said. "We came here for summer holidays, sometimes. I only really lived here for three years, and most of that time I was at school." She looked round the yard again, frowning. "That was the Old Shippen - it looks as if Rowan's converted it into one of the cottages. And those were the stables, they've been converted too. I wonder where the third cottage is?"

The door to the kitchen was in a wall made of white plaster and dark beams of wood. The door itself was modern, but the doorstep was stone dinted in the middle by centuries of footfall. The kitchen was large, stone-walled, stone paving (Maddy thought by the chill) under the worn lino on the floor: it looked as if it had been modernised over decades by a family who could never afford an entire new kitchen, but had been able to manage a new counter, or some cupboards, or a new stove, piecemeal.

The wooden beams were huge, dark polished oak. You didn't see trees that large in Europe any more.

 

The door at the other side of the kitchen opened, and a woman who looked enough like Ann that Maddy spontaneously identified her as Ann's mother, came in quickly and said in Ann's voice "Darling, we saw your car coming up the road, how lovely to see you. And this is your friend? We're all in the dining-room, it's much the warmest part of the house. Do come on through, Ann, unless you'd like to unpack first?"

Maddy would have liked to stay in the kitchen. But, introductions over, Mrs Marlow ("do call me Pam") was ushering them out. They had to step up to leave it - a worn stone step and then a wooden step and then modern sanded boards with elderly rugs, the hall was the full height of the house and the wiring for the electric light was visible on the walls, because the walls were solid stone.

"This must be the oldest part of the house?" she asked, trying to sound sociable.

"Yes, it is," Mrs Marlow agreed. "We used to heat it with a coal fire in the old iron range, but we had to get rid of the range years ago - we simply couldn't afford the fuel any more."

Five hundred years old, Maddy thought, and looked at Ann sideways: she was still tense, but managing to take her mother on the terms her mother was offering: pleasant chat, pretend the daughter hasn't been absent for ten years. Everyone has family five hundred years ago, it's the way it is: but the thought of coming home, even for summer holidays, to a house your family had lived in for centuries, was an extremely strange light on Ann herself.

The dining-room was large but normal compared to the kitchen: besides the long table with the chairs pulled up to it for an army of absent Marlows, there was a smaller table surrounded by comfortable chairs in the window, which overlooked the road, and three Marlows waiting for them: Captain Marlow, who was in his sixties, Nicky Marlow, who, Maddy now saw, looked exactly like a younger version of her father and looked as uncomfortable as he might if Mrs Marlow had made him wear a skirt and blouse, and Ginty Marlow, who made Maddy blink: she was fair and blue-eyed like Nicky and Kay and her father, but in her, the looks of both parents had transmuted to beauty.

She was not only beautiful, Maddy realised after a few minutes - Mrs Marlow gestured to Maddy to sit down next to Ginty, and she and Captain Marlow literally cornered Ann - she was charming. Charmingly, Ginty explained she had two daughters, who couldn't be pried away from Rowan's Shetland ponies: her husband hadn't been able to leave their stables: she enquired how long Ann and Maddy had been friends, and what Maddy did for a living, and how she liked Glasgow. ("We went up to Edinburgh for the afternoon when we had runners at Perth Races, but I've never been to Glasgow.") She helped Maddy to coffee and cake. The cake was shop-bought, but none the worse; the coffee was served from an antique silver thermos, but it was terrible.

Nicky Marlow had a cup of coffee in front of her, all but untouched, but ate two slices of cake. She was keeping half an eye on the road. "That's Lori," she said.

In the confusion of Mrs Marlow getting up and saying she must get more coffee, and Captain Marlow and Ginty both squinting out the window at the tiny car speeding up the road, Ann unobtrusively stood up and reached for the coffee thermos: when Nicky stood up, Ann was positioned to sit down next to Maddy. She glanced at her, with what Maddy knew Ann well enough to read as desperation, and said "Where did you book us in for lunch?"

"That place in Colebridge," Maddy said. She hadn't made a booking. "The place by the station, we passed by last night when we were looking for somewhere to park."

"Do you really think we can get there if we leave at quarter to one?"

"No," Maddy said, with a completely straight face, "I think we should probably leave at quarter past twelve at the latest."

"Okay," Ann said, and looked relieved.

Lori parked her car outside the front door - Maddy could see it, bright red, the same kind of tiny car she had for Glasgow - and Maddy expected to see another version of Marlow: but the slender brunette who swept into the room had dark hair, arch-perfect dark eyebrows, huge sunglasses with bright red frames that matched her bright red nails and a trim black dress.

She took her sunglasses off when she came into the room, and Maddy, who was a keen fan of the theatre since childhood, knew her at once: Ann's little sister Lori was Lawrence S. Marlow.

Twice, Maddy had seen Lawrence S. Marlow act on stage in London, on hurried stopovers - whenever Maddy had the chance to spend an evening between trains, she got a last-minute ticket to whatever was available and went to see a play: and several times in Edinburgh at the Festival. Ann took less than no interest in theatre, and Maddy had never questioned this.

She knew Lawrence S. Marlow could simply walk on to a stage and hold the audience's eyes without saying a single word: she had the kind of stage presence great actors have, who draw the eye and command the room.

As Lori Marlow, she was giggling about some comment Nicky had made about her hair, and shrugging off a query from Ginty about whether she was in work, and glancing at Ann with the same half-uncertainty that Ginty had.

"You'll need to move your car," said Captain Marlow.

"Oh, it's so little, it's not in anyone's way," said Lori. She glanced over at Maddy, without any uncertainty at all: Maddy knew the acting profession, and was quite sure Lawrence S. Marlow was calculating when she would be recognised.

My sisters are spectacular, Ann had said: not even irritated by it, just resigned.

"Little or not, we can't have it parked by the front door, that's just where vehicles turn on the drive. Put it in the stableyard with Ann's car, there's plenty of room."

"I'll go round with you," Nicky said. "Ma's put us in our old rooms. How much luggage did you bring?"

"Enough," Lori said, equably. "I remembered your typewriter."

"Great, thank you."

"You owe me for that," said Lori, and they went out of the room together, bumping elbows - looking like twins, suddenly and unexpectedly.

Mrs Marlow came in with a fresh pot of coffee, and sat down next to her husband without looking disconcerted at all that Ann had changed places. "Really, my two youngest daughters are a pair - running off like that the minute Lori gets here. I'm sorry, Maddy - what must you think of us?"

"Well, I saw for myself when we were driving in, you can't park a car there."

"I'm sure they'll be back for lunch," said Captain Marlow, and turned his attention to Maddy, who found herself being asked the same kind of questions that Ginty had asked her, with a kind of shadow of Ginty's charm but also the kind of authority that a senior consultant has: like his youngest daughter, Maddy realised, he knew how to command a room.

At quarter past twelve, Maddy glanced at her watch. Ann was listening to her mother, with a grave expression.

"I'm so sorry," Maddy said. "But if we're going to get to Colebridge in time for our lunch booking, we'd better go now. I was looking forward to meeting Rowan," she added, catching the name of Ann's last sister out of a crevice of memory. "But we'll be back for five."

There was the usual round of must-you-go and but-you're-welcome-to-stay-for-lunch, but they were passing through the Elizabethan kitchen before they were stopped: Nicky and Lori was standing talking in front of Lori's tiny red car, which was parked exactly where their car would need to turn to get through the arch.

Nicky was carrying three cases, Lori one. Ann didn't look surprised, she only said "You can see you'll need to move the car, Lori, and we need to go: we're having lunch in Colebridge."

"You can stay here for lunch, can't you?" Lori said, and made an exit, clutching her bag: Nicky gave them both a grimace and said half-apologetically "Just let me put these down inside - "

"I suppose we could stay for lunch," Ann said flatly.

Maddy opened the little red car door. "No way," she said.

"What are you doing - ?"

"Your sister left the key in the ignition. You get our car out, and I'll park your sister's just where we left it."

One of the doors on the yard opened, and another Marlow came out: a male one, also blond and blue-eyed and with a short fair beard. Ann was already in their car. Maddy gestured at him to move, but he stood there, staring at her. He came towards the car after a long minute, and leaned down to knock at the window. Maddy rolled the window down.

"I say," the male Marlow said, "This is my sister's car."

"I know," Maddy said. "I'm moving it so we can get out."

He blinked at her, and she realised he had the look of someone who had just woken up. He was younger than Ann, perhaps younger than Nicky, what was the name of the younger brother? "Peter," Maddy said loudly and clearly, "Ann and I have to get to Colebridge for lunch, can you move so we can get the car out?"

The male Marlow blinked. "Reasonable," he allowed, and stepped back to let Maddy turn. Ann shot their car out of the yard almost faster than was safe: Maddy parked Lori's car and got out quickly, not intending to be caught for discussion.

"Was that Peter?" Ann said, when they were safely on the way to Colebridge.

"I suppose so," Maddy agreed.

"He must be staying there. I wonder why he didn't come for coffee?"

"Because he'd just woken up, and he had a hangover," Maddy said frankly. "What did your parents have to say?"

Ann's hands were steady on the steering wheel. "They wanted me to apologise to them," she said, and added, grimly, "I wouldn't."

(m)(a)(r)(l)(o)(w)(s)

The man who jumped out in front of the car - Ann was going at a sensibly-slow speed, and stopped in plenty of time - was not-a-Marlow. He was brown-haired and brown-eyed.

"Sorry about that," he said, and his voice too was not Marlow: he sounded like the owner of their B&B, educated-local. "You're Ann, right? Your sister wanted to have a quiet word with you."

"Which one?" Ann asked.

"Rowan," the man said. He stuck his hand through the open window. "Afternoon. I'm Oliver Reynolds - you won't recollect me: I was about the height of your elbow when we last met."

"Where's Rowan?"

"Ah," Oliver said cheerfully. "This all seemed a bit roundabout to me, but Rowan knows best. If you could see your way clear to turning hard right at the next bend, it looks a bit narrow but I promise even your car will get through, it widens out and you can park. Rowan packed lunch for four." He turned around and slid through a gap in the hedge.

Maddy stared after him. Ann frowned. "There is a turn-off down there, but it doesn't go anywhere," she said.

"All the same," Maddy said. "Who is he?"

"One of Rowan's farmhands. I think my mother mentioned his sister Wendy works at Trennels too." Ann glanced at Maddy in appeal. "Really, I suppose we should just drive on to Colebridge."

"Do you want to?"

"No," Ann said, reluctantly. "If Rowan wants to talk, I suppose we should talk."

"Well, if she wants you to apologise - " rather to Maddy's surprise, that came out with a snap " - we'll just leave her with her farmhand and her lunch, and drive on."

Ann smiled. "Fine."

The turn-off ended in an elm tree, and Rowan Marlow was sitting underneath it. She clambered to her feet as Maddy and Ann got out of the car, and unexpectedly, Oliver Reynolds appeared through the hedge.

"I'm starving," he said. "Let's eat first."

"What is it?" Ann asked.

"We need to talk about Judith Oeschli," Rowan said.

Ann paused. She glanced at Maddy. "Yes?"

"Let me tell this bit," said Oliver Reynolds, picking up a sandwich. "When I was a lad, Judith Oeschli was a girl with a bad reputation. She wasn't a girl, of course, she was a grown woman, but she'd got into the family way with a boy she wasn't married to, and then when he'd married her, he'd stuck around til the baby was born and then he'd gone home to his family in Switzerland. Taking the baby with him. We're traditional in these parts, and Judith didn't fit in: she wasn't a widow, she wasn't a wife, she wasn't a single mother whose boyfriend didn't do right by her. Her mum and dad thought she should have gone to Switzerland with her husband and son. They gave her house-room and let her work, but they didn't care for her. After a few years, she got a notice of divorce from Switzerland, but she went on calling herself Judith Oeschli."

Oliver Reynolds looked at Ann. "I know you know all this," he said, "but I don't think you Marlows ever got how out of place Judith Oeschli was, with a man in Switzerland who wasn't married to her any more and her son there too. Wendy got warned off talking to her. My dad told me, her parents are respectable, but we don't have anything to do with that Judith."

"When her son was ten or so, he came back for a visit, like, but when it was time for him to go home, Judith put her foot down and said he was staying. Her dad was dead by that time, or he'd have had something to say about it, and with him dead, Judith got more backbone. Seems her man had no real right to take her son back then, and Judith said she wasn't sending him back, he was staying with her and her mum. Well, her son was headstrong, and he kept running away, trying to get back to his dad, and this got to be known: Judith finally has to ask for him to be taken in at the Children's Home in Colebridge, where they can just stop him running away, til he gets used to the idea he's here to stay, see?"

"Well, people here were arguing back and forth about whether Judith was right or wrong to do that, but before anything got decided, Edward runs away from the Children's Home and this time he gets away: next thing we hear about him, Judith has a call from Switzerland and her man tells her, she'll never see her son again, he's back home with his dad and he's staying there. And then Judith takes pills. She doesn't die right then, but she's never right after that, and then she dies."

"Well." Oliver Reynolds looked from Ann to Maddy and to Rowan. "Around here, everyone's maybe a bit ashamed of how they treated Judith when she was alive. But what killed Judith, was when her son ran away back to Switzerland. And nobody knows how he got there. The police say he had to have help, he was only ten, someone must have picked him up from the Children's Home and got him out of the country. Someone who knows the lay of the land around here well enough to just slide out from under a search. Some proper villain, is what they say around here. Some proper villain who took her son and killed her as dead as if he'd shot her, my dad said."

Rowan looked at Ann. "I trust Oliver," she said. "Do you trust Maddy?"

"I already told her about this," Ann said.

"I suppose that answers the question," Rowan said. "Well, Oliver's told you how the locals see it. What nobody knows except us, is that the Marlows at Trennels are the proper villains who did it."

"With Patrick Merrick," Ann said.

"I can all but guarantee that if the story gets out, the Merrick boy will slide right out from under," Rowan said. "And his papa will make sure whoever gets it in the neck from the law, it won't be his Patrick."

"Did you realise exactly how many laws you were breaking?" Maddy asked.

Rowan looked at Maddy: her eyes were like and unlike Ann's. "I think I did. I think I did even then. Ann, I told you I was sorry for how we'd treated you, but I don't think I said that I knew you were right and we were wrong. I wish I could say I properly knew it when Judith died. But I think I only realised it in full when I had to tell Oliver."

"And that properly took me aback," Oliver said. "Look, ladies: please, can we eat? We've been trying to catch up all of the work this morning, and we hardly even stopped for elevenses."

Ann picked up a sandwich, and bit into it. Maddy mentally shrugged, and followed suit: lunch in Colebridge retreated into the middle distance.

"We all got Edward out of the Children's Home and got him to France and handed him over to his father's friend," Rowan said. "All of us Marlows who were there that Christmas, except Ann, working as a team. Lori and Nicky helped: I did too: but Giles and Peter were the two who sailed him to France. If what we did were exposed, Giles and I were the only two legal adults involved. And Giles was the one who actually got Edward out of the country."

"Daddy said it would ruin Giles' career," Ann said. She had stopped eating the sandwich. Her voice was brittle.

"Captain Marlow didn't ever really live at Trennels til he retired," Oliver said. "He only inherited because so many of the heirs got killed in the war. Jon Marlow and him were the only two male Marlows left, and Jon never had kids, poor bugger."

"If it came out that Giles Marlow was the proper villain who kidnapped Edward and made poor Judith die of sorrow," Rowan clarified for Oliver, "Giles couldn't live here. Even if the law overlooked what he did, the village would make Giles pay."

"Are you asking me not to tell?" Ann asked, distastefully.

Rowan shook her head. "You'll do what you think's right, same as you've always done. Giles is mortally afraid you'll tell, but he won't ask. I don't know if Lori and Nicky think about it at all - "

"Nicky apologised to me," Ann said. "Last night."

"Did she?" Rowan took a big mouthful of sandwich. She took a long time chewing. "Well, I won't discuss that with Giles: he's convinced they were too young to think much about it. Ginty wasn't here, and none of us told her what she missed."

"Well?" Ann asked dryly. She finished her sandwich, in a businesslike way, and folded up the sandwich-papers tidly.

"I wanted to explain before this evening," Rowan said mildly. "I suppose I should have said before, but it was always too easy to tell myself, there's time. And then I realised we were all out of time."

Oliver reached into the sandwich bag and produced three apples. He tossed one neatly to Rowan, and handed the other two to Ann and Maddy. He found a fourth for himself, and crunched into it.

"I had a think about it when Rowan told me," he told Ann. "If Judith had still been alive. Well, I might have felt differently. But she's dead, and her mum and dad are dead, and though I know what my dad would say, I haven't listened to my dad for more than five minutes since I left home. He and mum didn't do a thing to help Judith when she was alive, either. So in the end, I thought; I'll stick by Rowan."

Ann nodded. She glanced at Maddy. "I don't know what you want me to say," she said, and got up. "But thank you for the lunch."

"You're welcome," Rowan said. She leaned back against the tree. "See you tonight."

(m)(a)(r)(l)(o)(w)(s)

Peter Marlow, in white tie and dinner jacket, showed Ann and Maddy up to the library: "We're all meeting there first," he explained unnecessarily. "There's the family solicitor from Colebridge too."

Indeed, everyone was there: Including, Maddy noticed, Oliver Reynolds, sitting with a younger woman who looked enough like him to be his sister.

Only Lori and Nicky were absent: Captain Marlow frowned, glancing at his watch. "Where are they?"

"I'll find them," said Rowan, getting to her feet. She was sitting at her father's right: the man sitting at his left must be Giles. As Rowan exited, Giles stood up and came over to them, giving Ann a very formal kind of hug and shaking hands with Maddy. He looked bleak and stressed. He had an abrupt manner that reminded Maddy of police officers in a casualty department. He lacked, Maddy was interested to note, the ability both his father and his youngest sister had to command attention.

Nicky and Lori entered together, and Rowan just after them: although their voices had been heard incomprensibly along the hall as Rowan shepherded them there, as they saw they were last, both had the grace to look embarrassed: Nicky even mumbled "Sorry" as she grabbed a chair and both she and Lori perched on it. They were right under their father's nose, and he was glaring at them.

"Well," said the solicitor, "if we can begin? Captain Marlow, I know you wanted to say a few words to your family."

"Yes," Ann's father said, and was silent for a moment, looking round at them all. "I don't want to make a speech," he said, and Maddy wondered why people always did introduce their speeches with that. She found herself watching Lori, now she could do so without the actress noticing: it was very odd to see Lawrence S. Marlow in close-up, without stage make-up, not in character: she was listening to her father with an air of close attention, leaning babyishly on her sister: Maddy thought she was acting a part still, and wondered if Lori always was.

Ann's father was explaining what presumably everyone there except Maddy, and perhaps the two Reynolds, already knew; the family history of Trennels, five centuries ago and the last twenty years. Maddy was watching Lori: she knew just when Captain Marlow, for the first time, said something Lori hadn't expected. " - the informal arrangement that was made when Rowan was seventeen, that she would be our farm manager until either I or Giles retired from the Navy, is clearly no longer fit for purpose. Giles won't be able to retire to Trennels, and in any case, natural justice dictates that the Marlow heir who should inherit Trennels isn't Giles, but Rowan, who's worked here now half her life."

Maddy glanced at Ann, who, without performance, really had been watching her father with attention - Maddy had felt her wince a little when Captain Marlow had mentioned his retirement on medical grounds. But though Ann breathed out a little soundless sigh, she wasn't surprised at this - not like Lawrence S. Marlow, who was now sitting bolt upright and indignant, not like Peter, who was looking frankly stunned: Ann was deeply reserved, but Maddy thought if anything, Ann was satisfied, as if natural justice had been carried out.

"I tell you all this," Captain Marlow said, "because while only Giles and myself are directly affected, this is a Marlow family matter and you should all know it." He nodded to the solicitor, who coughed pleasantly and drew documents out of his briefcase, handing them to Giles and to Captain Marlow.

"This is quite a historic moment," the solictor said. "As Captain Marlow said, Trennels has been one of the oldest Entail Male estates in England. But where present owner and heir are agreed, an entail can be ended."

"You mean," Lori said, sounding overly-loud in the quiet room, "Rowan gets Trennels instead of Giles? But what happens when she gets married? Her children won't be Marlows."

Oliver Reynolds shifted in his seat to stare at Lori. "Well, as to that," he said, his voice also pitched a bit too loudly - "Me and Rowan talked about that, and I'll be taking the Marlow name when we wed."

"What?" Lori said, loud as breaking glass.

"Thanks," Maddy heard Rowan mutter, and then, more loudly, "Yes, thanks for asking the right questions, Lori. Oliver and I are getting married, yes, everyone here will be invited, no, you and Nicky do not get to be bridesmaids, and yes, Oliver is going to become Oliver Marlow, and any children we have will be Marlows."

"One thing at a time," Captain Marlow said, taking the room's attention back to himself effortlessly. Lori's mouth was open: she shut it abruptly. evidently quite well aware she couldn't compete.

"Giles, have you read this over?"

"Yes, sir," Giles said, looking up from his set of documents. "It's exactly like the copy I was sent last week."

"Then let us sign,"the laweyyer said briskly and smoothly, as if he really hadn't heard any of that. "This is quite a historic event, isn't it? The breaking of the oldest Entail Male in England! You'll find crosses where you need to put your name. And we need two witnesses, neither of whom - just for clarity's sake - should be Marlow family members either by blood or marriage."

"Wendy," Captain Marlow said. "If you would." He glanced at Maddy. "And perhaps you would oblige us, Miss Fayne?"

Maddy was about to get up and follow Wendy over to the table where Giles and Captain Marlow were signing, when Ann grabbed her hand, and Maddy stared at her.

"No," Ann said, loudly, stiffly. "Maddy's part of my family. If Oliver can't sign, Maddy can't either."

There was a large, sudden, family silence. Even Lori didn't break it: she was staring at Ann with genuine wonder. Maddy felt herself glow from the inside: she gripped Ann's hand. She looked back at Captain Marlow, who was now giving both of them a considering frown.

Then Charles got to his feet, and came forward through the chairs: he walked very loudly. "I can sign," he said. "I'm not a Marlow, and I'm not going to marry one. No offence," he added, very cheerfully. He gave Ann and Maddy a very happy grin as he passed them.

"This is my oldest daughter's stepson," Captain Marlow said to the solicitor. "Charles Dodd."

"You're over eighteen?" the solicitor checked.

"Have been for years," Charles said. "Where do I sign?"

There were several sets of papers to sign: Giles Marlow had to sign some of them too, and as the papers and pens were being handed round the little group at the front, Maddy looked at Ann. Ann looked gravely back at her. There would be other even more public declarations in their future, but both of them were conscious of each other, and of their hands gripping, palm to palm.

Once the signing had been done, the solicitor gathered all the papers back into his briefcase and left quite abruptly, muttering something about copies being registered somewhere, and just as the door closed behind him, Charles said to Rowan, interrupting and relocating the family stares that were attaching themselves to Ann and Maddy, "So Trennels is yours now?"

"After Daddy dies," Lori said. "Isn't that what it means?"

"One of those papers was a deed of gift," Charles said. He was smiling faintly at Rowan.

"Death duties," Captain Marlow said. "Well spotted, Charles." He didn't sound altogether approving. "I am transferring ownership of Trennels to Rowan gradually over the next few years; she'll own it outright in seven years, and so long as I live for at least seven years after that, she'll have no inheritance tax to pay. That's the legal matter of it - but in practical terms, yes, Trennels is now Rowan's. I shan't interfere."

There was a short, baffled silence. Ann broke it. She said to her mother, "You told me Daddy was ill."

"Well," Mrs Marlow said, sounding disconcerted. "I may have said - "

"That's how you got Ann here," Rowan said, suddenly. "I wondered. Sorry, Ann."

"Are you ill?" Ann asked her father.

"I had pneumonia last winter," Captain Marlow said. "Doctor Clarke said his best medical advice to me was not to spend another winter here at Trennels."

"Your father had to go into hospital in Streweminster for over a week," Mrs Marlow said, sounding defensive.

"You could have told me then," Ann said.

"Well, yes, I suppose so, but there wasn't time to write - "

"You told me all about Peter's divorce!"

" - and you know how your father is - "

"I did tell her not to write to the family about it," Captain Marlow said. "No need to worry you all. Once I was in hospital, I started getting better immediately."

"You told Ann all about my break-up with Jean?" Peter said. He had got up and come over and was standing far too near.

"Peter," said Rowan. "Shut up. You told Ma all about your break-up with Jean, you told me all about it, you've told the villagers down in the pub all about it, there's no point trying to pretend it was this grand secret."

"Too right," Oliver said. He appeared at Peter's elbow, and took Peter's arm firmly. "You'd be surprised who's told me about your wife finishing it with you. Now why don't you and me and Wendy head downstairs and see if there's anything last minute to do - " He didn't quite march Peter to the door, but he was clearly irresistible.

"Useful man that," Captain Marlow said briefly: he was not talking about Peter.

Rowan grinned. "I think so."

Karen and Edwin were gathering together their four children together by eye: Charles said happily to Captain Marlow "Glad to have helped," and headed back to his parents. Ginty, who had not moved throughout, got up with her two daughters and said to Rowan, her face frozen into a pleasant smile, "Well - congratulations. Will you be changing this place much?"

"I'll keep everyone informed," Rowan said.

"Ro," Nicky said. She had appeared, Lori behind her, as Ginty turned away, following Karen and Edwin out of the library. "I need to ask you something - "

"Right now?"

"Well, yes, otherwise I'm going to have to go back with Lori to London tomorrow morning. Can I stay here?"

"Of course, darling," Mrs Marlow said, and then cut herself off, turning to both her husband and Rowan in apology.

"Why?" Rowan asked.

"Well," Nicky said, looking uncomfortable, "I have to write a book. I've got my logs to work from, and I wrote an outline, but the publisher wants an actual manuscript, and I can't do it if I stay with Miranda or Lori, there's too much else going on. I think I can do it all inside three months if I can just sit and work at it, and I've got to, because the publisher wants it by the end of July, for Christmas."

Rowan sighed. She glanced round - Giles, Maddy realised, had unobtrusively left without saying anything to anyone.

"Nicky - Yes," Rowan said. "But - and that means you too, Lori - not a word about staying on here for months. I'm about to evict Peter. It's time he got on with his life," she said to Peter's parents, who were looking at her dubiously. "He was supposed to be helping me with the farm, and he hasn't. He isn't doing much here at all. Lori, let me be clear, if you breathe a word to the others about this, if you let them know I told anyone else Peter was going before I told him, you're never coming back here again."

"Why me?" Lori said indignantly.

"Because Nicky and Ann aren't going to talk, Oliver's the strong silent type, and Maddy has no reason to," Rowan said. "But you're just likely to get drunk and start telling Peter as a funny story over dessert. But it won't be. Breathe a word and I'll skin you alive, Lori, I mean it."

"I won't," said Lori, looking subdued.

"I'll tell Peter tomorrow," Rowan said to her parents.

Mrs Marlow nodded. Captain Marlow sighed. "If you need back-up, send him to me," he said. "I'll tell him you're only doing what I should have done months ago. We should all go down to dinner now, but first - " He looked at Maddy.

"My daughter Ann and I haven't got on so well these last few years, and I'm sorry for that," he said. "But I'm delighted to have met you." he held out his hand. Maddy shook it.

Dinner was awful. Maddy ate as little as possible. She had been separated from Ann by Giles Marlow, who looked bleak and applied himself to his food without conversation. Lori was sitting opposite, and Maddy couldn't stare without it being noticeable. The food was terrible: the wine was excellent. Everyone seemed to be trying to make conversation without much material to go on. Ginty and Lori were both talking at length, but you couldn't call their monologues conversation, though at least it was something to listen to.

Maddy caught Ann's eye once coffee was served - the same dreadful brew as this morning - and Ann nodded. She got up. "We really should head back," she said. "We don't want to be locked out o the guest house."

Edwin and Karen and their children also got up, and suddenly the room and hall was a polite melee of people leaving. Ginty and her daughters were left at table with a silent Peter and Giles: Lori and Nicky had also, unobtrusively, slipped away.

Maddy was in the passenger seat when there was a knock at the side window: Nicky bent down and said hastily "Apologies - can I get a lift with you - " She pulled the back seat door open, and got in behind Maddy.

"What?" Ann said, not moving.

"Patrick's showed up. I don't want to talk to him. Look, Ann, sorry to be a nuisance, but I just want to get out of here - "

Ann set the car in gear, and moved off. Maddy said, in bewilderment, "Do you need somewhere to stay?"

"Patrick Merrick?"

"Yes, of course Patrick Merrick," Nicky said disagreeably. She pulled herself together with an audible effort. "Lori said she'd head him off and I said there was no way she could do that looking the way she does now and she said try me, so I scarpered." She laughed, briefly. "Sorry, Ann. You just have to take me down the road, I'll walk back over the fields."

They had just reached the foot of the private road up to Trennels. Ann braked. "No," she said. "Tell me what this is about, Nicky. Is Lori going to pretend to be you to deceive Patrick?"

"But she couldn't, could she?" Maddy said, interested. "Right now. at least, you don't look at all alike."

"Yes, she could," both Ann and Nicky said, simultaneously.

"Lori acts me better than I do," Nicky said. "I don't think she will, though, Ann. I just - can't talk to him tonight. I've got to deal with him, but - not tonight. Not till Rowan says definitely I can stay."

"Oh, I see," Ann said, sounding rather more understanding. She brought the car into gear again and moved off, driving carefully down the unlit road.

"He's an ex-boyfriend?" Maddy asked, interested. Rowan had mentioned Patrick Merrick, earlier.

"Sort of," Nicola said. "When I came home last time, when I'd got Sprog and a publisher's contract and I was all set to go - the parents said they wanted me to come for a visit before I actually set out - " she added, in parenthesis - "Patrick asked me to marry him."

"For you to be engaged?" Ann asked.

"No," Nicky said. "He wanted me not to go at all."

"Well, I know Mummy and Daddy weren't terribly keen - " Ann said.

"Everyone was so beastly worried," Nicky said. "Except you and Lori. And Ginty didn't really care at all. I knew what I was doing, and I had Sprog kitted out just exactly as I wanted, and I had this advance from the publisher to pay for my supplies if I wrote a book when I came back, and Patrick was just so - so - " she sounded speechlessly indignant. "He told me he'd pay back the advance to the publisher, and I told him he couldn't because it was actually Mr West who'd paid for it with a subvention - "

"Miranda's father?"

"Yes," Nicky grinned suddenly, Maddy could see the flash of her teeth in the mirror. "He wasn't beastly worried. He said he was certain I'd come back and certain I'd write the book because he'd never met anyone more sure of what she wanted."

"Well, I was quite sure you'd come back," Ann said. "You're very competent."

"What are you going to do after you write the book?" Maddy asked.

"Depends if the book sells," Nicky said. "If it does - I might get another contract."

"To go round the world again?" Ann sounded disturbed. "I thought that was just something you wanted to do once, and I was very impressed that you found a way to do it, but really, Nicky, is this sensible?"

"No," Nicky said. "But I want to be out with Sprog again. And someday I will. Ann, can you let me off here? I'll head back over the fields and sneak in. If I don't see you before you go back to Glasgow - " She paused. "Well, goodbye," she added. "I'm glad I got to meet you, too, Maddy."

She was out of the car and through a gap in the hedgerow, and disappeared into the moonlight.

"Will she be all right?"

"Goodness knows," said Ann, setting off again. "Oh, you mean getting home? Yes, it's all Trennels land both sides of the road." She sighed, her eyes fixed on the road ahead. "Thank you for coming with me, Maddy."

"We don't have to go back tomorrow?" Maddy checked.

"No," Ann said, decidedly. "No, let's just have our holiday."

"I love you," Maddy said, in the shadowed car.

"I love you too," said Ann, and drove on.