Authors: Helen Scott Taylor
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary
A Family Forever
Helen Scott Taylor
Copyright © 2012 by Helen Taylor
Cover design © Helen Taylor
The right of Helen Taylor to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author, and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the Copyright owner.
Victoria O'Shea peered over the fence at the bottom of her garden to see if it was safe to climb into the field. There was no sign of grumpy Farmer Andrews who always harassed her if he saw her on his land, so she slung an old mat across the wire to make it easier to climb over.
"Come on, Sophie," she shouted over her shoulder.
"Coming, Mum." Her eight-year-old daughter scampered down the strip of grass that was their backyard, wearing a pink ballet tutu and tennis shoes.
"When I said change out of your school uniform, I meant into shorts or jeans."
"I won't get dirty, Mum. Honest. I'll be careful."
Victoria suppressed a wry grin. The tutu would no doubt end up covered in dirt and leaves, but Sophie was ballet-obsessed at the moment. Victoria didn't have the heart to tell her to change again.
"You go first, Soph." Victoria grasped her daughter beneath the arms and helped her over the fence, then climbed over herself.
She reached back into her garden to grab her bag full of hedgehog food and the brush she used to clean out the animals' bowls. They hurried the twenty-five yards to the public footpath that cut across the grassy field. In theory, Mr. Andrews couldn't stop her walking on the footpath—it was a public right of way—even though she was sure he'd love to ban her if he could.
Sophie skipped on ahead, doing the odd twirl and kicking out her legs in what were supposed to be ballet steps. Victoria knew nothing about ballet, but she had a sneaking feeling her daughter was not cut out to be a dancer.
The worn path angled across the ten-acre field and ended at a stile leading to a country road. Victoria didn't normally go right to the end but left the path when it reached the fence at the far side. There she climbed through a gap onto the grounds of Larchfield Hall.
Skylarks soared across the blue sky, singing sweetly. The stress of the day spent teaching at the local art college ebbed away. Friday evening was her favorite time of the week—the time she reserved for checking on the hedgehogs she'd nursed back to health and released.
Rescuing and caring for injured and sick hedgehogs took a lot of her time and energy, but seeing the animals safely returned to the wild made the hard work worthwhile.
The hole in the fence where she was heading came into sight and she increased her pace, eager to get off old Andrews's land. She was nearly there when his two mangy collie dogs came charging across the field, barking manically.
"Quickly," Victoria said, grabbing her daughter's hand. "Run." Sophie took off and Victoria ran beside her, the bag of hedgehog food banging on her thigh with every step.
The collies reached them, snarling and nipping at their heels. Sophie screamed and Victoria pushed her in front, trying to shield her from the dogs. She'd had enough of Andrews's damn bullying tactics. She quickly moved aside the broken slats of the wooden fence and helped Sophie through the gap to safety.
"Come on, Mum, please." Her daughter's pale, terrified face and tearful blue eyes fired anger inside Victoria. She would not let the miserable old farmer get away with frightening her daughter.
She turned to the collies. "Shoo!" She waved her arms and dashed at them, making them back up a few feet, but they continued to bark like mad.
"Call them off, Andrews," she shouted as the farmer approached.
With his greasy cap and a few days' worth of gray stubble on his lined face, the man looked like a vagrant. He huffed and puffed, obviously out of breath. After a few moments he whistled to the dogs, who then dropped to the ground.
"You're trespassing," he wheezed.
"I was on a public footpath."
"You ain't on it now. Soon as you step off that footpath you're trespassing on my land. I'll report you to the police."
"Go ahead." She wedged her hands on her hips and glared at him. "I'm sure they'd like to hear how you set your dogs on a woman and little girl."
"I'll deny it! It'll be your word against mine." The old man held a shotgun in his hand and waved it at her. She stepped back, her heart rate picking up.
It wasn't the first time she'd had a gun waved at her. On a photo shoot in Africa, making a program about poachers, she'd actually been shot at. But she'd had bodyguards to shoot back, and she'd expected it there. She didn't expect to be threatened with a gun in the English countryside.
"Wave that gun at me again, and I'll report you to the police for threatening us."
At her words, he lowered the weapon to his side and backed up. "I ain't threatening you. I'm telling you to keep off my land."
Victoria gritted her teeth and met the old man's gaze. "I'll walk on that footpath anytime I like. Go and milk your damn cows and leave us alone."
She turned her back on him, her neck prickling as she climbed through the fence. A surge of relief wobbled her legs as her feet touched Larchfield Hall land.
"I don't want to see any of them hedgehogs in my field, either. You hear me?"
Victoria turned back to the man, her eyebrows raised in disbelief. "They're wild animals, Mr. Andrews. I don't control their movements."
"You released them. You must stop them coming in my field." He ran his gaze along the fence between Larchfield and his land, as if he expected hedgehogs to scamper out at any moment. "If I see the blighters, I'll shoot 'em."
Victoria's heart slammed against her ribs. Did he hate her so much that he'd punish innocent wild creatures to get at her? "Why?" she asked, her voice thin with confusion.
Old Farmer Andrews simply glared at her, then whistled for his dogs and turned away.
Victoria watched him go, Sophie's hand clasped tightly in hers. She wasn't sure if the man was bluffing, cruel, or crazy. He'd had it in for her from the moment she'd moved in to her cottage and she'd no idea why.
She just prayed that the new owner of Larchfield Hall turned out to be hedgehog friendly and wouldn't frighten the animals out of the garden.
"I like the look of this area, Dad. I want to explore. Are we nearly there?"
As he drove, Adam Cantrell had been mulling over his schedule for the next few days. At his son's words, he jolted back to the present and examined the quaint English village and woodland outside the car. Adam would probably have enjoyed exploring the countryside as well when he was ten.
"A couple more minutes, Harry. The house is on the outskirts of the village."
His son leaned forward, nose pressed to the side window of the car, his iPad forgotten on the floor while his precious camera was clutched in his hands.
They turned between the tall stone pillars at the entrance to Larchfield Hall and headed along the rutted drive through a mass of overgrown shrubs and greenery. After a hundred yards, Adam swung the car around a dried-up fountain and parked outside the front door of the imposing Victorian manor house.
"Wow, Dad. This is cool. It looks like it might be haunted." Harry had his seat belt undone and the door open almost before the car stopped rolling. He jumped out and put his camera strap around his neck.
Adam chuckled at his son's enthusiasm. It was good to see him excited about something instead of moaning he was bored.
Climbing out, Adam stretched, his back and shoulders aching after the drive down from London to Hampshire. He was only thirty-six, yet sometimes he felt as stiff and achy as an old man. His doctor said the pain was tension caused by stress, but there wasn't much he could do about that. He had a business to run. Life had to go on.
The sun still kicked out plenty of heat even though it was nearly six p.m. Adam left his suit jacket in the car and pulled off his tie, unfastening the top button of his shirt.
"Can I go and explore, Dad?" Harry already had his camera up to his eye, looking at everything through the viewfinder.
"Of course. How about I come with you?" Adam had intended to make a few calls, but they could wait until Monday. He planned to spend the weekend with his son. Not that he didn't spend plenty of time with him already, but travelling together for work was not the same as having fun.
Adam gazed at the weeds sprouting through the gravel of the circular drive and the overgrown garden in dire need of cutting back. The house wasn't in a much better state, the paint peeling and timbers rotting. He looked forward to getting this project underway, seeing the building renovated and converted into luxury apartments, and then erecting the homes he planned to build on the ten acres of gardens.
"Which way, Dad?"
Harry focused the camera on him and snapped a few pictures. Adam pulled a stupid face, making his son giggle.
"Let's try down there." He pointed at a path that disappeared between the burgeoning shrubs. He'd only visited the place once before making his offer to purchase, but he'd pored over the plans and diagrams of the site for months. He knew the boundaries, paths, and the layout of the house itself by heart.
Birds chirruped in the bushes and flew up from the undergrowth as the two of them made their way along the path. They occasionally stomped on fallen branches or pushed aside creepers so they could get through.
Harry bent and snapped some pictures of the ground.
"I'm not sure there's much of a market for photos of dirt, pal," Adam observed with a wry grin.
"It's not just dirt. See the animal footprints here. Do you know what made them, Dad?"
Adam bent beside his son and stared at the prints. He hadn't the faintest idea. Wild animals were not really his thing. He knew a good racehorse when he saw one and could appreciate a pedigree dog, but that was about it. "Might be a dog, I guess."
"Whose dog would be in here?" Harry frowned.
"Good point." Then Adam had a sudden inspiration. "I bet it’s a fox. They're related to dogs, aren't they?"
"Yeah. I bet you're right." Harry shot some more photos from various angles. Adam watched, inordinately pleased with himself for coming up with a credible answer. Maybe he wasn't such a dunce when it came to wildlife after all.
They wandered on, pausing often for Harry to photograph leaves, flowers, birds, interesting twigs, and numerous other things. Adam rarely walked in the countryside, he normally only saw it from inside a moving vehicle. But this afternoon he enjoyed the fragrance of the flowers and plants and the sun-warmed earth. Even the sound of the birds and the wind in the leaves relaxed him.
The tension that rode his shoulders most of the time eased, and he wondered if his doctor had a point when she told him to take more time off and wind down.
They reached the southern boundary fence and some black and white cows stared at them over the wire, mooing while Harry photographed them. Despite his relaxed mood, Adam couldn't stop his brain mentally charting where the new houses would be erected. He had a blueprint in his head with each plot marked out.
The properties were to be individual, architect-designed homes with decent-sized gardens. He would have made more money by clearing the whole plot, demolishing the Victorian manor house, and cramming in as many small homes as possible. But that wasn't his thing. He was known for quality developments aimed at the top of the market. He still turned a tidy profit without compromising his principles.
He followed Harry around a corner and halted abruptly at the unexpected sight of a young girl in a pink tutu. She was twirling in circles, arms arched above her head like a ballerina.
"Who's that, Dad?"
"I don't know." But he intended to find out. It wouldn't surprise him if the local kids from the village trespassed on the property, especially as it had been empty for a while.
He'd had problems with site security at other developments. If kids played in the garden here, it didn't matter much right now, but once the building work started the area would become dangerous.