Would a mysterious encounter and echoes of the past awaken something in unromantic Jane?
“You know that feeling you have sometimes that you’ve known someone all your life?” Jasmine gazed dreamily into space, a plastic figure of a knight in armour forgotten in her hand. “Like they’re your soulmate?”
“No, not really,” Jane said. She took the knight from Jasmine and placed it on the shelf.
A whole regiment of the tiny soldiers lined up facing her, their shields twinkling in the shop lights.
“I feel like that about Jack,” Jasmine carried on, as though Jane hadn’t spoken. “As though I could tell him anything. As though I already know him so well.”
Jane stifled a sigh. She was reasonably sure Jasmine had said the same thing about Nigel, whom she had bumped into at the railway station, and Dean the barman, and the bloke she had met at art class who might have been called Tim.
Jasmine was a hopeless romantic.
Whereas she… Well, Jane didn’t believe in romance, least of all soulmates.
She’d been there and tried that and Hal had been a sewer rat – in Jasmine’s parlance – rather than a knight in shining armour.
Jane stood back, hands on hips, surveying the display of ornaments critically. Outside twilight was falling across Ashby Castle grounds and the mist was creeping up from the river, making the grey stone of the ruined walls look pale and ethereal.
It was at times like this Jane loved working at the castle. Not for the history – Mrs Plant had managed to kill the subject dead for her at school with her endless lists of dates and battles and kings – but because it was so beautiful.
The shop and tearoom were just inside the main gate, facing the great green sweep of grass that Jasmine had told her was called the Inner Ward. Jas was a bit of a history fan as well as a romantic. Perhaps the two went together.
“We should sell shed-loads of stuff at the fair tomorrow.” Jasmine interrupted Jane’s contemplation of the view. “Those castle snow globes are so cute and the kids will love the toy bows and arrows.”
They had certainly done their best with all the new stock that the regional manager had shipped in for the big anniversary re-enactment event the following day.
Jane hadn’t been paying much attention to the historical background although she thought it was something to do with the English Civil War.
What she did know was that she and Jasmine had worked their fingers to the bone all day to make all the displays look good, and that it was time to close up and head home. She had a quiet evening planned.
“You’re thirty-four going on a hundred and four,” Jasmine had scoffed when Jane had told her that she preferred the ballroom dancing on television to a night in the pub.
But then Jasmine didn’t know about Jane’s history of disastrous relationships, culminating in horrible Hal.
Where Jasmine spilled all her secrets, Jane kept hers firmly locked up inside.
“Home time.” Jasmine yawned. “Maybe there’ll be some buff-looking re-enactors wandering about tomorrow.”
“I thought you and Jack were an item,” Jane said.
“I’d throw him over for a knight in shining armour,” Jasmine said, winking. She turned off the shop lights, plunging them into gloom. “Don’t get lost on the way home,” she called to Jane as she went out. “This place gives me the creeps after dark.”
“I love it,” Jane said defensively. “Look at the way the sun’s setting over the top of the tower -”
But Jasmine had gone. With a sigh, Jane turned to lock the shop door, checking that it was properly fastened and all the lights turned off.
Outside it suddenly seemed much darker. A three-quarters moon was rising over the hills patterning the sweep of the castle green with a lattice of light and shadow.
It also felt much colder, as though there was snow on the edge of the wind. Jane drew her jacket more tightly about her, shivering.
A noise caught her; the hollow thunder of horses’ hooves through the arch of the gateway and the echo of voices upraised in warning.
“Bar the gate! We’re under attack!”
Torches flared. There were shouts and men came running.
Jane drew back into the shadow of the gatehouse, not wanting to get trampled in the sudden flurry of action.
The re-enactors must have arrived. It seemed late for them to be rehearsing and she wondered whether Tom, the regional manager, had given permission for them to practise in the dark. She thought it was probably against health and safety regulations.
The light sparked off the horses’ bridles, the stirrups and the elaborate harnesses. Their flanks heaved with exertion, steam rising.
Banners of red and gold fluttered in the sharp wind. Jane felt a shiver of uneasiness. This might be play-acting but it felt real. She could feel the tension; sense the men’s desperation and aggression.
The main gate crashed shut and Jane almost jumped out of her skin. She heard the beam thud into its socket, sealing them in.
She realised she was stuck inside the castle.
She’d have to interrupt the rehearsal to ask them to let her out. How awkward.
“My lord? There are but forty of us to their hundreds. How can we defend ourselves against such odds?”
Jane was about to step forward to make herself known when one of the soldiers spoke up, appealing to the man at the head of the column. There was a low mutter of agreement from those around him.
“We defend ourselves with skill, bravery and loyalty to the King, as always.”
The commander’s voice was hard and authoritative, but with an undertone of humour, easing the tension.
He had a face that was almost harsh beneath the brim of his hat: strong cheekbones, hard line of chin and jaw, dark hair and darker eyes.
“Courage, men. We will withstand them.” There was a half-smile on his lips as though he relished the challenge. “Follow me.”
Something grazed Jane’s cheek.
There was a rush of air and a humming sound. Her mind screamed an instinctive warning.
The commander ducked and the lead musket ball skimmed his hat.
“Enemy fire! They are on the battlements!”
For one long, frozen moment the soldier stared into the shadows where Jane was concealed. The sudden lift of his head, the glance towards her, hard and sharp, felt as direct as a touch. Jane felt her heart start to race.
Men were scaling the castle walls now, seething across the open spaces of the bailey, dozens, hundreds of them.
It was all noise and chaos, steel on steel. Jane shrank back in shock. Putting her hand up to her cheek she felt the warmth of blood.
She steadied herself with a hand against the castle wall, and the rough masonry beneath her fingers felt real and reassuring.
Then the wind stilled and the world steadied.
The night was clear again, the moon rising, the castle grounds completely empty but for a solitary blackbird calling from the ruin of the tower.
It was eerily quiet. There was no one there at all.
That’s a nasty scratch,” Jasmine said. “What have you done to yourself?”
“I had a bit of an accident on the way home,” Jane said truthfully.
“You should be more careful.” Jasmine’s gaze had already wandered to the scene in the Inner Ward where the re-enactors were setting up their tents, chatting with the early visitors and showing off their armour and weaponry.
“I thought there would be horses,” Jasmine groused. “And proper fighting. You know, a real re-enactment.”
“So did I,” Jane said. She had gone home the previous night and searched the web for all she could discover about the Civil War battle for Ashby Castle.
What she had read had disturbed her so much she had almost wished she had not discovered it.
My lord Rainsford was almost killed at the very start of the fighting, one eyewitness had written, was it not for a remarkable instinct that made him duck out of the way of a musket ball.
God be praised, he survived, for had he perished so would our cause have been lost.
As it was he led us to the most famous victory, our few outnumbered men against a larger enemy.
Jane had lain awake for hours trying to persuade herself that she had imagined the whole experience.
It had been impossible, though, to forget the man and the moment their eyes had met. She had felt such a sense of connection.
Jane heard the door of the shop open. Glancing up from dusting the toy soldiers she saw that Jasmine was smiling, the smile she reserved for particularly good-looking men.
“Can I help you?” Jas gushed.
“I’m looking for a book about the history of Ashby Castle.”
He had a nice voice, Jane noticed absently, mellow but with an accent she could not quite place; Australian perhaps.
She turned, and got the shock of her life.
It was the man she had seen the previous night.
He had the same high cheekbones, the same black hair. The eyes she had thought brown were in fact a dark grey.
Jane steadied herself automatically with a hand on the shelf, and knocked over the soldiers. They went down like ninepins.
“Here, let me help you.” He had abandoned the books and was down on his knees beside her, helping to scoop up the little figures.
Their fingers touched. Jane, already blushing, felt even hotter.
Their eyes met. She saw a shade of some expression come into his, not easy to read. It was gone almost as soon as she saw it.
Jasmine was chatting, oblivious to the atmosphere.
“Are you here for the re-enactment?”
“Kind of.” He looked up briefly and smiled, but then looked back at Jane. “I was invited over for the anniversary. I’m doing some family history research.”
He was speaking directly to her now.
“You’re a Rainsford,” Jane said, and he grinned and extended a hand to shake.
“I am. Alex Rainsford.”
“Are you Lord Rainsford?” Jasmine queried hopefully, and Alex laughed.
“Sorry, no. Plain Mr Rainsford. I’m a vet in New Zealand.” He stood up and offered Jane his hand again to help her stand. This time he didn’t let her go immediately.
He was watching her with the same look in his eyes: puzzlement, disbelief, and something else, something that made her pulse race.
“I don’t know much about my ancestors,” he said slowly, “but I hear one of them held this castle for the King during the Civil War.”
“That’s right. He was a total hero,” Jasmine gushed.
“He inspired his men to fend off a surprise attack when they were outnumbered, and held the Parliamentarians at bay until reinforcements arrived,” Jane said.
“Perhaps you could tell me more about it later.” Alex smiled at her. “I have to go and open the fête now but I’ll come back later if you’re free for a cup of tea…”
“I’ll be here,” Jane said.
Alex nodded. He went out, then turned to look back at her for one long moment, just as Rainsford had looked at her the previous night.
“Well!” Jasmine said, eyebrows shooting up. “That was quick work. You are a dark horse.”
Jane watched the figure of Alex Rainsford as he strolled down the cobbled path towards the tower, where a platform had been set up all ready for him to make his opening speech.
The sun was on his dark hair, turning it the glossy black of a raven’s wing. He had an innate confidence, as though he owned the place.
“You know how it is,” Jane said. She smiled, a secret smile. “I feel as though I’ve known him all my life.”
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