Authors: Jackie Williams
Front Cover Photography
Copyright © 2011 Jackie Williams.
All rights reserved. This book, including the front cover imagery, may not be used in whole or in part by any means whatsoever without written permission from the author.
This book is a work of fiction. With the exception of a famous name to enhance the enjoyment of the storyline, all other names, places and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
The dead leaves rustled wildly under her stamping feet. This was the third time the woman had marched along the same path. Her pace hadn’t lessened a beat from the first time she had pounded past his astonished eyes. He waited silently, hidden by a thick veil of ivy, wondering how long she was going to keep the punishing pace up.
He had been disturbed from his dinner by all the noise she was making. He had been about to enjoy the first mouthful of his homemade beef and mushroom pie and a glass of fine local red wine, when he had first heard the din.
It was an inexplicable sound. Crashing and rampaging violently through the usual evening calm.
Normally the forest that surrounded his cottage was quiet. He liked the serenity of the dark trees. Within the first two weeks of living there, he had learned to pick out the sounds of animals foraging and owls hunting. Now he could tell the difference between a deer brushing gently through the shrubbery and the wind whistling through the treetops.
He had been there for nearly two years, and he was absolutely certain that he had never heard this sort of noise before. This racket had worried him but he had calmly laid his knife and fork down, put his dinner in the oven to keep warm, opened his front
door and had gone out into the gathering dusk to investigate.
Before he had seen her, he had assumed the
re was, at the very least, a he
rd of escaped cattle charging through the overgrown estate. He could scarcely believe his eyes when he had seen just one lone woman. She was so young and slender, he would have thought it impossible for someone as petite to make this raging cacophony of sound. She would normally be pretty too, he suspected, but she was obviously extremely angry and at this moment, she just looked hot, sweaty and annoyed.
Her legs were pumping hard, arms thrashing wildly at her sides. She was puffing clouds of breathy condensation into the cool evening air. It wafted about her shoulders, trying to keep up with her frantic pace, and then disappeared, swirling away into the darkening gloom of the forest.
Her long hair was being caught by the bushes and mud was spattering up the legs of her jeans. She was muttering angrily, her brow creased in annoyance, and he wondered how many more times she would go round in a circle before she realized her mistake. He kept to the shadows and watched as she stomped into the distance yet again.
He sighed deeply, knowing that he would probably end up having to lend a hand. He couldn’t possibly let her walk round and round all night. He waited until he heard her storming off into the distance and then quietly moved a log across the path
behind her. He pulled a huge mound of ivy from a nearby tree and banked it up behind the log. The next time she went round she would have to take a different route.
Damn Justin! This was the final insult. He had gone too far!
Ellen’s breath was coming in great gasps of fury, huge fluffy clouds puffing out of her nose and mouth like an over worked steam train. The forest was full of the sound of her anger, the leaves rustling and twigs crackling under her boots, brambles snatching at her thick dark hair, ripping away from the earth and clinging with sharp thorns, trying to hold her back.
Exactly as if Justin was holding her back. She wasn’t having it. Not anymore. She wrenched her hair away from the clawing stems and tried to walk more slowly, willing herself to calm down. The chilled, damp air was creeping through her overheated body and she still had a way to go. If she didn’t slow down and control herself, she would be sweating and then in a short while she would be freezing.
She stopped for a few seconds, to gather her breath and she listened to the quiet calm that surrounded her. Everything was suddenly so still and silent, far more silent than it had seemed a few moments before. It took almost a whole minute for her to realize that she had been the one making all
the noise. She shivered in the stillness, listening to the hushed sounds of the forest. For a moment, she imagined it was breathing with her, its heart beating in the same rhythm as her own. She could almost feel the inner sounds of the trees, their living pulse beating in their thick branches. They sighed and yawned as they swayed in the evening breeze and she breathed with them, calming herself as she picked a few stray leaves from her now tangled hair.
She took a deep breath and marched on, pulling the overgrowth out of her way and following the faint muddy path beneath her feet.
Five kilometers, the sign had said. She reckoned she had marched a good three, and at a furious pace too. Her calves were aching and she had a painful stitch burning beneath her ribs. She pressed her hand to her side and puffed out miserably, gritting her teeth audibly. It was time to dig in and trudge the next two.
She looked upwards through the forest canopy. The bare branches above her hardly moved, though the air sung through the tops of the trees. She could see heavy clouds racing across the evening sky and she hoped it wouldn’t start to rain. It wasn’t quite dark on the path as most of the trees were still without their spring leaves, but there wasn’t much daylight left. Sh
e estimated another half an hour of hard going and she checked her watch to confirm the time. It was getting difficult to see the hands. She didn’t want to be out here at night time. Not that she was far from civilization and not that she was scared of the dark. Things like that didn’t bother Ellen. She loved secret dark places. Always mysterious, always inviting.
But tonight she had a reservation at the hotel restaurant.
Warm and cosy, dimly lit, with enticing smells and flavours. A gastronomic delight. She was always fascinated when a seemingly random selection of ingredients almost thrown together resulted in something delicious, tantalizing, something she wanted to linger on her tongue, savoured for far longer than chewing time allowed.
Her mother had never been much of a cook and Ellen hadn’t had the time, money or the patience to learn after her parents had gone. Her strapping brother David, a Captain in the Royal Engineers, had only needed quantity and she was no shrinking violet when it came to food either. She had only ever dished up piles of sausages and steaming mash or vast amounts of roast dinners.
Her stomach rolled loudly at the thought of the hotel chef’s next spectacular creation. She didn’t want to be late, even though it would mean sitting across the table from Justin. He may have been fabulously handsome, but his conversation no longer interested her. He was too wrapped up in himself, in his own plans to listen to anything she might say. She fumed all over again as she knew she was heading for a tasty but interminably dull evening.
When she thought about it seriously, she
didn’t even know why she was with him any longer. What little passion there had been, had fizzled out long ago, and since she had come into money, things had become even worse. It was as though he had become a habit, a very bad one.
She had only just finished a degree course in business, when news of the vast legacy had come through. She had done her utmost to remain unaltered by her new wealth, still keeping up her interests, seeing all her friends and cooking vast dinners for all of her brother’s army pals, but it was difficult to contain the excitement. She had just bought a fabulous new car, one that Justin adored and they had been about to open their own designer boutique in her hometown when her life changed forever.
David had been blown up by a roadside bomb while on duty in Afghanistan. His injuries were terrible. He had barely escaped with his life.
The money paled into insignificance instantly. She stopped the opening of the boutique and sold the ridiculous car. She left the money in the bank and set about helping her brother cope with his new and more restricted lifestyle.
David hadn’t taken easily to being inactive. He was bitter, unresponsive, sometimes even aggressive, for many months afterwards, but then, as his rehabilitation had ended, the army had offered him a job in intelligence. He had leapt at the chance and had gone merrily back to an office job within his regiment, leaving Ellen unsure of what to do next.
And Justin had sulked ever since. He had loved the few weeks of luxury that her inheritance had brought him. He wanted the cars, the clothes,
the holidays. He was no longer content to be seen rummaging through vintage clothes shops or to listen to rock music on their iPods, as they took long walks in the country. He dragged her into outrageously expensive restaurants or planned visits to the Venice Opera House. He sneered at her efforts on his dinner plate and avoided David and his colleagues like the plague.
That was what hurt her the most.
Justin could barely even look at David on his visits home, and he wouldn’t be seen dead with him in public.
Her vast bank deposits took on another meaning for her now. She was not going to let it be frittered away on meaningless baubles that only bolstered one’s own ego, but in something special and lasting, something that would benefit many. She put in hours of research and had come up with a fabulous idea. It had the enormous advantage of not having to make a profit. She didn’t need any more
money, she only needed the plan to not make a loss.
Justin had been furious when she had spoken to him of her French dream. She had explained her plan carefully. He knew the reasons behind it, but he had just gawped at her as though she were mad. He told her in hard angry tones, while
they were eating a dish of overpriced, tasteless vongolè, that she knew nothing about property development and that she would never make a penny.
Not that he knew anything about property either, but at least Ellen had done the research.
He couldn’t comprehend why she wanted to do it. He didn’t understand that she wanted something that would be a completely new adventure.
Justin’s idea of an adventure was somewhere between Marbella and Malaga, laying flat on his back on some over hot beach, having his drinks handed to him by scantily clad waitresses. And it turned out that his business acumen was even more mundane.
He had interpreted her ideas in his own shallow way and come up with seaside apartments and golfing duplexes in Spain. He had been thrilled when she had stopped trying to make him expand his horizons and given in to his brow beating. She remembered how her heart had thudded dully as she signed the million pound contract, knowing that the overpriced two bedroom duplexes overlooking an over manicured eighteenth fairway, would be a huge mistake. She hated having to be there to oversee them and Justin certainly wasn’t interested in the work involved or in the people they had to employ to service them. It was becoming a nightmare.
And now he was trying the same thing in
France. Justin was convinced he knew exactly what she wanted and he had dragged her around a selection of the most unsuitable apartments.
This time she wasn’t going to give in. When she had been a teenager, her own mother had moaned endlessly about how stubborn she could be.
Almost driven, when she had the bit between her teeth. Well, now Justin was going to get some of the same treatment.
For goodness sake, she was twenty-five. It was about time she took control!
She had been sitting on her fortune for over three years. She would spend it exactly as she liked.
If he didn’t like her decision, and really thought the place they had just seen was such a great idea, then it was about time he put his own money where his mouth was.
She set her jaw determinedly and walked on briskly.
The path at her feet widened slightly and turned where an old ivy covered log had fallen. She didn’t have to shove brambles out of her way as often now, but the air was becoming even cooler and the dusk was beginning to settle. She quickened her pace again, driving onwards, the pain in her shins now stabbing sharply.
She burst through the dense greenery and realized that she was pushing through a huge hedge of rhododendrons. Their thick, leathery leaves slapped her face as she scrambled through the bush.
Surely, she must have missed her way.
The path had been clearly marked not five minutes ago, and now it was completely overgrown. She felt as though she had been walking for hours.
She stumbled over hidden roots, tangled over the rough ground and at last staggered out into some sort of a clearing. She stood with her heart hammering as she surveyed the wide open area, wonder where her next marker would be and if she would ever be able to find it in the thickening gloom.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust and take in the fantastic sight before her.
Weathered stone seemed to spring up everywhere in front of her. It towered over her and around her, great high walls barring her way, never-ending as they loomed into the distance. She ran towards the soaring mound of grey and pressed her hands against the flat surface, trying to ascertain if it were real or imaginary. It felt as solid and as cool as stone could possibly be and she placed her cheek against the cold smoothness, catching her breath as she tried to peer along its length into the increasing darkness.