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Flood: TWENTYTHREE

..."One of these days, Beth, you will push me too far. I love you dearly, but there are some liberties you should not presume to take." He forced a smile and raised a hand to his hat at a greeting from across the field. "I think, perhaps, it's time we rejoined your parents and called a truce before the heat of our words precipitates a coldness neither of us desires."...

Robert Dyce fights to control his temper after being told some home truths about his motives.

Emma Cookson continues her brilliant story, set in the 19th Century, of love and revenge.

The crowd parted for a juggler in pink tights who was tossing clubs with dexterity. With him was a barker extolling the excitements of the circus. Bessie Pallister and Gertie applauded as they went by and, when their party re-formed, Bessie asked, "How is your house, Robert?"

"There is still work to do but I shall soon be ready for Gertie to take charge of the refinements."

He was having alterations made to Thonglea House and had commissioned Gertie to furnish it with linens and drapery, and anything else that was necessary, and she had already measured windows for curtains and ordered linoleum and carpets. She also kept a check on the progress of work when Robert was away in Bradfield.

Gertie said, "The work will be finished by the end of the month." Her eyes wandered beyond the group. "Goodness gracious. Zacharia Shackleton."

Robert turned and saw Zac pushing his way through the crowds away from them. He excused himself and went after him. He had to run to catch up and Zac seemed to stop with reluctance at the shout of his name. They shook hands and, after a moment, the tensions in his old friend eased and he smiled.

"I saw you all together, like. I didn't want to push in," Zac said.

"I thought you were avoiding me," said Robert. He grinned. "You’re looking well."

"Aye. You and all. I hear you've been doing great things."

"I've been trying to make things right. Like the Colonel did."

"Keep on and they'll be making you a Justice or a Freemason."

Robert laughed. "I don't think memories are that short."

"Money helps folk forget and, from what I hear, you've been spending plenty."

"I plan to spend more, which is why I'm glad I've seen you. I'd like you to work for me. Help me run the mills. You worked in them once and you know how to make them better places ..." He stopped because he could see Zac's reply in his face. "Why not? I thought you'd want to help."

"Heaven knows, folk need help," Zac said. "And I have no wish to stand in the way of them in this valley who are getting it."

He shook his head. "I'm not good with words, you know that, Robert, and I’ve no wish to offend a man I call friend. But why are you still here? Why are you doing all this?"

"Because I can," he said. "And I think the Colonel would have approved. But that's not what you mean. You know I still love her, Zac, and if this is as close as I can be, then I'll settle for it, and if she ever needs my help ..."

"Jane is married, Robert. She has a husband to take care of her."

"She has a villain to take care of her."

"He's her husband and he'll stay her husband until death do part. There's nothing you can do about it and you being in the valley makes it worse. It angers the master and God knows what it's doing to Jane. I've seen you, sitting on your horse on the hillside, watching the hall. What a fine gesture. No doubt Jane has seen you as well. What, in God's name, do you think you're doing? Tormenting her? She's another man's wife and she still grieves for her brother. Your presence on a hillside is nothing but a mischief. For who's benefit do you sit there, Robert? Hers or yours?"

Robert balled his fists and flushed with anger. He remembered a picnic on the moors that had been interrupted by Harry and his friend, the Honourable Arthur Petty. The two young rakes had arrived unexpectedly on horseback and made ribald remarks about Jane. He had spoken out of turn in her defence and been kicked into a mud pool. Zac had said nothing but had remained close to Jane, silent and watchful. He hadn't needed to do anything.

And that other time, when Harry and Arthur Petty had waited for him in the stables to return from Bradfield where he had gone to deliver a message for the Colonel. He had refused to tell them where he had been and they beat him with a horsewhip. He had acquired the scar on his cheek and would have got much worse except that Zac had stepped between them and taken several strokes upon his body until Harry stopped.

That day would always live in his memory, for the scar, and because that was the night the Colonel died.

Robert touched the scar and said, "Remember?"

Zac nodded. "I remember."

"And you still defend him?"

"I don't defend him. I defend my mistress."

Robert suddenly understood.

"If I were to move to another county, would you work for me then?" he said.

"My place is here," said Zac.

"When we met again, I suspected a failed romance," Robert said. "I was not wrong. You love her, too, don't you, Zac?"

Zac's stone expression began to crack.

"Once," he said. "A silly notion." He smiled. "I got over it and put it in its place. I still love my mistress, Robert, but as a mistress. She's gentle. Sometimes too gentle for this life. She needs protection."

"And you’ll protect her?"

"If needs be."

"My dear friend," said Robert, embracing him. "My poor dear friend." He sniffed and smiled crookedly. "What a pair of boobies we are."

"Like as not."

Beth and Gertie had approached without them knowing.

"Should grown men be showing such affection towards each other?" said Beth.

"Boobies is right," said Gertie. "You look as if you've lost a shilling and found sixpence." Her gaze fixed on Zac, to his discomfort.

Robert laughed and said, "I'm sorry, ladies. Do you remember Zachariah?"

The girls, playing the lady, gave demure curtsies and Zac, blushing, returned a stiff bow.

Gertie said, "We have known Mr Shackleton since childhood but who would have thought that scrawny little lad would have grown into such a handsome man."

Zac coughed with embarrassment and Beth laughed and said, "Gertie, you're wicked. Take no notice, Zac. She has become a great tease, of late."

"Zac is big enough to take a compliment and gentleman enough to escort me back to mother and father," she said. "They are preparing the picnic. The Goodwell girls are joining us. They’re lovely little things. Do you like children, Zac?" She took his arm. "Come. You don't mind, do you? I do believe these two have things to discuss."

"Of course not, Miss Pallister."

"You've known me long enough to call me Gertie," she said, guiding him away.

Robert said, "I'll see you later, Zac."

"Aye. And think on."

Gertie and Zac walked away into the crowds and no longer seemed quite so uncomfortable together.

Beth said, "You like him?"

"As a brother."

"I think our Gertie likes him, too."

"He would make a fine husband, if she could ever prise him away from the hall."

"You would be surprised what our Gertie can achieve, when she sets her mind to it." She looked at Robert shrewdly. "What were you and Zac talking about?"

"I asked him to come and work for me."

"And?"

"He refused."

"Why?"

"Loyalty. He says his place is at the hall."

"Another love sick fool? Or is that booby?"

He firmed his chin, gave her a stern stare and looked away.
"Sometimes, Beth, you overstep propriety."

"I do it three times a night at The Shed, love, so that's nothing new," she said, dropping the pretence of gentility. "The pair of you want your heads banging together. She is another man's wife and that should be the end to it."

"That's what Zac said. But her husband is a villain and she may one day need my help. If that day comes, I shall be here."

Beth shook her head and said, "My God, but you are a pompous ass, Robert Dyce. You are so beside yourself with righteousness you should be standing over there. You talk of love and you mean revenge. You talk of protection and your intent is provocation. For God's sake be honest, if only to yourself."

Robert's face was so white that the scar showed vividly on his cheek. He hit the ground with his walking stick and took several deep breaths. When he spoke, it was in measured tones.

"One of these days, Beth, you will push me too far. I love you dearly, but there are some liberties you should not presume to take." He forced a smile and raised a hand to his hat at a greeting from across the field. "I think, perhaps, it's time we rejoined your parents and called a truce before the heat of our words precipitates a coldness neither of us desires."

**

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