|Cover Art by Meredith Russell|
What he doesn’t count on is meeting Sebastian Toulson-Brown, the brother of his contractor and the man who may be able to show him he can stop running.
But first Cody and Sebastian must deal with the ghosts of lost loves and the destinies that are woven into the story of the mill and the sycamore trees that stand on its land, one of which might be the gallows tree.
“….Some of RJ Scott’s scenes in The Gallows Tree are touching while others are heart-breaking in their pain and pathos. Ms. Scott’s descriptions of the environs of Mill Cottage are very real. You can almost hear the sounds of crunching fresh powder snow as Cody and Seb trudge across the fields. Likewise, the intimate moments shared by Cody and Seb are sweet in the care they take of each other’s feelings….”
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Paranormal Romance Guild – 5/5 – “…There is also a mystery in the book and surprises, but mostly it is a look into the life of an abused person and how they fight to find themselves. This is a problem that is very prevalent in our society and one in which we constantly see the abused defending the abuser. I was very happy that this author did not shy away from this situation …”
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Hearts on Fire Reviews – 5/5 – “….There are several plot lines to follow in this story which keeps it interesting and keeps the pages turning. The wounded Cody and the patient Sebastian are perfect together as the explore the past only to find their future….”
Three Crow Press – 4/5 – “….The Gallows Tree is another well written story by author RJ Scott, one that is sure to keep you reading until the final page. I could not wait to see how the author planned on clearing up all the little side stories….”
BlackRaven's Reviews – 4/5 – “….Some of RJ Scott’s scenes in The Gallows Tree are touching while others are heart-breaking in their pain and pathos. Ms. Scott’s descriptions of the environs of Mill Cottage are very real. You can almost hear the sounds of crunching fresh powder snow as Cody and Seb trudge across the fields. Likewise, the intimate moments shared by Cody and Seb are sweet in the care they take of each other’s feelings….”
Literary Nymphs Reviews – 4/5 – “….It’s another entertaining read but it certainly isn’t lighthearted because it deals with the dark subject of surviving domestic abuse. Cody is a rather sad character, filled with fear and a deep emotional pain he can’t shake. The vivid descriptions of his turbulent feelings are very nicely done, allowing a good insight into the workings of his mind and how his abuse and near-death have scarred him….”
Padme's Library – 5/5 – “….First off, RJ Scott is one of only a handful of authors that I automatically “1-click” without reading the blurb so there was no question as to whether or not to read The Gallows Tree. Secondly, it has paranormal qualities. Third, because there is ghosts then I knew it would have some historical aspects to the story too. Throw those all together in one book and I just knew I had to move this one to the top of my TBR list….”
“I'm really starting to lose my shit here.” Cody Garret gripped his cell phone tight.
“Calm down, Cody.” His mom was using the patented talking-Cody-down-from-the-ledge technique they had perfected over the last few years. But she sounded wrong, and even though her voice was broken up by interference, he could sense her worry. He wished to hell he could reassure her and say he was okay.
“I. Can't. Calm. Down,” he bit out through gritted teeth. The panic that usually stayed buried well inside him threatened to push to the surface with an insistent press of pain at his temples and a cold sweat that left him shaky.
“Can you count for me, darling?” Nothing was working. Not the counting or the imagining his happy place. Jeez. His happy place was so far away from being stuck here it wasn't even funny. The traffic on this road snaking around London in one big circle was his vision of hell.
“I've been in this tiny fricking Toyota for six hours, Mom, and in the last hour we've gone four miles. Four.”
“Has there been an accident or something?”
“I can't see. I'm just in a line of freaking stopped cars.”
“Can't you turn off from the road you're on? Maybe take a back road?” He knew his mom was trying to help, but he'd thought all this already.
“I'm in between turnoffs; I'm stuck where I am.”
“Okay. Do you need me to get Anna?” Anna was the only other person outside of his mom that had a handle on these panic attacks, but the last thing he wanted was for his heavily pregnant sister to have to deal with his crap. His mom had managed to throw the equivalent of ice water at him with that simple question.
“No,” he said quickly. “I'll be fine. Listen. I'm—breathing.”
“The lights are changing ahead,” he lied convincingly. “I'll call you.”
“Cody, promise me you'll pull over if this gets worse.”
“I promise.” He disconnected the call. Tears choked his throat, and he wondered what the guy in the Lotus next to him would think if he saw Cody beat his head against the steering wheel. Claustrophobia and anxiety clawed inside him like a wild animal wanting to escape a cage, and he was willing to do anything to clear his head. Even give himself a concussion.
Both front windows were fully down, and the car blower was on full blast, but it wasn't enough air. He considered climbing out of the car and standing on the M25 just to feel something except the metal box around him. The noise of a horn snapped through the fog in his head, and he realized the cars in front of him were actually moving. Slowly, but moving. Shaking with tension and desperate to just get the hell off this road, he pressed lightly enough on the accelerator to join this crawling snake of steel as it carved its way through flat green countryside closer to where he needed to be. Pain banded his head, and he focused on the tension in his shoulders and neck that was causing the headache. He had to concentrate on relaxing, but dizziness assailed him. It took all his concentration to keep the car on the damn road at five miles an hour.
Finally the sign for the exit was by the side of his car. Then he passed it, and it was a way back, and then before he had even gotten control of his breathing, he was off from the static parking lot that was the London orbital and onto a new motorway heading north from the city.
Thankfully whatever was stopping the traffic on the M25 didn't appear to exist on this new road. He pressed his foot to the floor, and incredibly air was inside the car, whipping his too-long bangs around his face. The air coming into the car was heavy with heat; he didn't remember reading anywhere that England was supposed to have a heat wave in October and not for the first time he wished he had done more research. Not caring where it took him, he decided he needed to be off this road and took the first exit off of the M1. Turning onto a quieter road, he took a left, then a right, and finally found a place to pull over.
Almost like his mother knew he'd managed to find a way through the metal hell, his cell rang, and he saw it was her. He answered on the third ring as he clambered out of the small car and inhaled great lungfuls of air.
“Cody?” She sounded as anxious as he felt.
“I'm okay,” he said quickly. “Sorry. I'm okay,” he repeated. The last was more for his own sake than his mom's. He needed to tell himself he was moving through to the other side of the attack and that he would stay well and sane.
“Cody, you made this decision too soon. I wish you had waited—”
“I couldn't wait, Mom,” he interrupted quickly. He was so not ready for this conversation again. How the hell could anyone expect him to stay in Baltimore when there was a chance he could see Vince again?
“What if the notes weren't from him, Cody? You should have taken them to the police…”
Cody closed his eyes tight against the midday sun that burned through his thin jacket and made him sweat. He wished he could take it off, but his fair skin needed to stay covered; it burned too quickly. He listened to his mom as she listed all the things that he should maybe have done. He knew all the what-ifs. His mind played them over and over again. What if he hadn't met Vince Antonelli? What if he hadn't gone home with him? What if Vince hadn't done just enough for a younger more impressionable Cody to fall in love? Would any of it have happened? Or was Cody Garret predestined to always be some man's punching bag?
“Don't.” The single plea was all he managed to say. Unspoken was the begging to be left alone to work his way through all of this. His counselor had said it was Cody's form of denial. Not talking about it meant it didn't happen. Hadn't happened. Meant that he hadn't almost died. Self-consciously he placed his free hand over his heart where the worst of the scarring lay and opened his eyes to focus on the weeds and grass at his feet. “I showed them to a friend and he said that there was nothing in them that meant they were from Vince.”
“This friend. He's a cop?”
“You should have let…” Cody zoned out again. He had the notes that had been sent on to him in his suitcase, and every phone call was listed in a diary of dates. When he was ready, he would take them to the cops. Because… taking this proof of Vince contacting him to the authorities meant having to face his ex again. He couldn't do that yet.
“Cody?” Damn. There was his mom's sad voice again. If he didn't know clearly every minute what effect Vince's actions had had on his mom and sister, that single small calling of his name was enough to remind him. She always sounded as if Cody's world had ended, and it hurt so badly. Straightening his spine, he pulled the cloak of invulnerability around him that he used so often.
“Mom I'm in England. This is a good thing,” he said confidently. “I'm an entire continent away from seeing him, at least for a while, and it's beautiful here.” He looked down the road running off the main motorway. The blacktop wasn't exactly picture perfect English village; more of a road to nowhere. The banks and sides were landscaped with spindly trees that clung tenaciously to steep inclines, and he traced their zig-zag path with his eyes. She didn't have to know that what he was looking at could be a road in any country.
“Is it?” his mom said wistfully. Cody was relieved he had managed to get his mom off Vince and on to her favorite subject: England.
“Very…” He searched for the right adjective to bolster her mood and found the one thing that had caught his eye. “…green.” He finished with a flourish, and he heard his mom's sigh.
“Great-gran always said it was beautiful there.” Cody bit his tongue that his long deceased great-gran couldn't have been talking about this particular unmarked road as a welcome breeze blew a familiar wrapper past him. Curling around the nearest small sapling, it stuck to the metal support that surrounded it. The golden arches reminded Cody he hadn't had anything to eat in the last seven hours. Not since he'd left Gatwick and located his rental.
“It is,” he lied again. He had gotten very good at lying over the past few years. Lying about his name, his family, his lover, and his pain.
“How far is it to Lower Ferrers?”
“Hang on.” He leaned in through the open window and checked the navigation system.
“An hour maybe,” he answered finally. Leaning back against the hot metal of the car, he cradled the phone close to his ear. “Is Ben home?”
“He's with your sister at her appointment.”
Irrational fear gripped Cody, but he pushed it down ruthlessly. Vince had never actually threatened his family—the threats had always been to Cody—so why did he suddenly feel so anxious?
“Why didn't you go with them, Mom?”
“They need their time alone. I promise you I'm all right here, Cody. Ben has every security device available on the house.” Ben's ex-career in a shady Army special ops group meant he wasn't short of a trick or two when it came to personal safety. None of that stopped the nausea Cody got imagining Vince in his family's life. It was enough that Vince knew where his mom lived, but the idea that he might hurt her in any way was unfathomable.
“Will you call me when they get back, Mom?” He could have bitten his tongue at that question. His mom hated it that he worried so much about her and Anna.
“I will,” she said carefully. Then she paused, and Cody could imagine her thinking hard on what to say next, about Cody over-reacting, about how Cody shouldn't worry. He wanted to stop that dead in its tracks.
“Mom, please reconsider and move in with Anna.” Such an old argument, and whenever Cody said those words, he felt another inch of his self-esteem being flayed from him. His mom had friends, and his sister was going to be busy with the new child. Cody was the one who had changed the way he looked at life after Vince. Exposing himself and his fears was visceral, and it hurt.
Hurt so much.
“Call me when you get to the hotel?” She chose to ignore his plea, but Cody didn't feel hurt as the argument was one Cody would never win. She moved on to the next thing on her momma agenda. He knew what was coming next. “And make sure you sign on with the doctor there. I don't know what they'll be like over there, but they need to know for your script.” There, in a few sentences she had covered shelter and health. “And don't forget to eat.” He almost laughed at the triad of needs she always placed on him. He would have laughed if he didn't feel the familiar panic rise up in him at all the things he had to do once he found his new home.
“I will call you, I'll sign on with the doctor as soon as I can, and I'm stopping at the next place that does food.” She harrumphed at his summation of what she had said, but at least they were ending the conversation on a level of humor. That was a good thing chalked against Cody's list of bad things.
“Stay safe, Cody. I love you.”
“I love you, Momma. Get Anna to email me.”
“I will. Bye, sweetheart.”
The call ended. There would be at least another couple of hours until he heard his mom's voice and already he had his thumb hovering over the redial button needing the sound of her voice in his ear. She had been his constant over the last six years—the one person that knew most of what had happened and who had become his anchor as he drifted around America for the last twenty-four months.
Emails, texts, and some limited instant messaging as he moved around the country were the only contacts he had with the family he loved. Every so often he would visit them, but he never stayed long. He couldn't stay anywhere for long. Even the idea of six months here was revving up his fears. Now he was missing the birth of his niece or nephew, and that was the full stop in the sentence he was living.
“Stay until the baby is born, Cody?” Anna had asked with eyes full of compassion. That was the worst for Cody. Anna wouldn't argue with him; she simply understood he didn't want to be there for the day Vince actually managed to corner him. She didn't start the tirade of getting him to tell the cops; she understood him so well. Or rather she was willing to let him feel like he was making the right decision.
He keyed local places to eat into the navigation system and found the closest McDonald's. A healthy food choice it wasn't, but he needed convenience. He needed carbs, and he needed them now. Closing the car door, he pulled on the belt, wincing at the wrench on his chest and arm. The reflex was automatic, and the curse that accompanied it a tried and tested way to vent the pain from his system. He settled his breathing as well as he could and turned the key. The car started on the first turn, which was about the only good thing going for it, and cautiously he pulled out on to the road, allowing the smooth tones of some British actor guide him to food.
Roundabouts were the devil's curse, and traffic lights and driving on the wrong side of the road was so damn confusing he was sure he didn't know his left from his right anymore. Somehow he managed to find the McDonald's, and full of burgers and fries, he continued on his journey. Before he knew it, the sign for Buckinghamshire became visible in the late afternoon warmth. The GPS said twenty minutes to reaching destination. Then ten. When he turned off the final main road into what could euphemistically be called a two-way road, he knew he was almost there. The road wasn't wide; in fact, he imagined two cars would be unable to pass each other without someone pulling onto grass verges. It wound downwards a while and then leveled out and he crossed a small bridge over a wide river. Signs warned for flooding and horses. Then he appeared to enter the village itself.
Lower Ferrers. Please drive carefully.
A big speed sign with a 30 in the middle and another warning for horses sat directly under, and he immediately lifted his foot off the gas until he was driving at more like half what the limit was. He wanted to remember every image of the next few minutes of his life. He had finally arrived at the place his mom's gran, his own great-gran, had left at the end of the war as a Yankee bride. The long curve of the road ran through dense trees that formed an arch of fall golds and browns over his head, and then suddenly, the village was laid out in front of him.
He couldn't just drive in. He needed to stop and think about this final step. What if this was all wrong? This could be the worst decision of his life. What the hell did he know about renovation? He indicated and pulled off to the side of the road just past the signs and onto a widening in the narrow road next to a gate into fields. This was the England his great-gran had spoken about.
The village was stunning. Beautiful. Old houses with crooked roof lines staggered drunkenly up the road all built in a soft weathered brown and gray stone. Each had a chimney and seemingly randomly placed windows. Cody counted six of these cottage-style houses and above them the top of twisted chimneys on a far grander building. Great oaks and sycamore trees, now with leaves of fall gold and red, towered over the cottages and the twisting road that followed their path upwards. Cody listed adjectives in his head. This was much better than green. This was an idyllic, picture-postcard place, and it was everything he had ever been told about this English village. On the opposite side of the road was a larger dwelling, and he saw the sign outside that proclaimed it as the Ferrers' Arms.
The inn with the slate roof was where he was staying with an open-ended booking. He didn't know how long his stay would be. It could be a month or it could be the full six months. When he moved on depended on so many factors, not least of which was having somewhere to move to. He had a strange feeling inside, and he realized it was a sudden and renewed sense of enthusiasm.
Panic and fear still clung tight in his chest, but his breathing was steady, and the sounds of the village—sheep in the field, horses, birds—and the perfect stillness of the fall sky was utter peace. He closed his eyes and breathed deep. One minute he had been on the highway to hell, and within an hour, he was in the quiet and calm of a village that had been here for centuries. What was it people said? Stepping back in time or something like that. Standing here it certainly felt like he was entering another world.
Was it possible that by his arrival here in the village where his family had roots he was taking a controlled step away from his past rather than running blindly?
Hell, where had that thought come from? A controlled step? Shaking his head at the flight of fancy, he imagined he was losing it big time. Back in the car, he drove the short distance to the Ferrers' Arms and parked up on a gravel lot to the side. The building itself was small and looked older than the cottages, and the sign was of a shield split into two pieces. He could identify the two symbols—a white horse and a cross. He loved history, but the history he'd learned in school was a whole world away from what was here. He pulled his two bags out of the back seat, only two because travelling light was how he had lived for going on two years, and it was how he would remain for a long time.
Pausing to look back at the cottages, he took time to contemplate exactly where the mill was from here. He could see the ribbon of water passing at the base of the hill and remembered driving over a small bridge just before the speed sign. As far as he knew, water equaled mill. If his great-gran had been right, there was one hell of a lot of water as the River Ouse ran through this rural community. What he needed to get his hands on were old maps of the area so he could pinpoint where he was and what he was going to do. A visit to a library in a town would probably answer most of his questions. That could wait though. Right now a beer and some uninterrupted sleep were calling him. After nine hours on the plane and eight on the road, he was running on empty.
“You standin' out here all day, son?” The voice was gruff and threaded with impatience, and it was enough to pull Cody out of introspection and into embarrassment. He was literally standing in front of the main door of the pub.
“Sorry, I was daydreaming,” he responded instinctively. He looked up at the other man. A tall wide-built giant with gray hair and deeply carved laughter lines, he looked as old as the village itself.
“You're the Yank?” the other man asked curiously. Cody swallowed and shrank back a little. One well-aimed hit from this guy, and old man or not, the force would knock Cody to the floor.
“American,” Cody offered cautiously.
“Here for the mill then.”
Wait. This stranger knew about Cody being in the village and his connection to the mill? Okay. At first that didn't make any sense, but just as suddenly, it all became clear to Cody's paranoid mind. Foreboding spread over him with a cloak of attached panic. How did this man know who he was? Did he know Vincent? Did Vincent know Cody had jumped on a flight to England? Had Cody been followed? Irrational and implausible reasons climbed and tumbled onto each other, and the familiar tightness pulled in the center of his chest. He took a step back and felt the solid presence of the doorframe against his back. The scents of alcohol filled his senses, and when he got to look back at what happened rationally, it was probably the first trigger to everything that happened next. The other man narrowed his eyes and then reached out his hands.
“Son, you don't look so good.” He grasped Cody around the upper arms and held him firmly.
“L-leave…” Don't touch me. Don't hold me like that.
“I'm the landlord here. Let's see if I can rustle up a drink and some food.”
“I-I already ate,” Cody stuttered, staring up at the large guy. He flexed his muscles to get the bigger man to let him go, even as terror grabbed at him. Vince would hold him like this, gripped tight and the perfect target for anger and hate. Cody wriggled and pushed insistently, and the landlord released his grip with a bemused look on his face. He thumped Cody on the back, and a belly laugh rolled from him.
“John Abbotson,” he said loudly, and with a none-too-gentle shove, he pushed Cody the final inches through the front door. That was sensory overload, and with a deep groan that seemed to grow from him in a keening noise, he dropped to the floor with his hands over his face and his head bowed. Part exhaustion, part fear and all too much, Cody was into the nightmare of the terror assault before he could stop himself.
“John! What did you do?” Hands touched Cody, but this time, they were softer. They were gentle and thoughtful in the path they traced.
“He wanted to come in. I helped,” John offered in response.
“You idiot man. You don't know your own strength,” the female admonished. “Poor kid looks like a stiff breeze would knock him down and you go manhandling him through the door. Why did you push him? Have you hurt him?”
“I didn't push him hard.”
“Hello? Can you hear me? Would you like some water?”
“He's the Yank, that Garret boy.”
“Garret? Cody Garret?” she repeated. “Cody? Do I need to call a doctor?”
“Just get him stood up. He doesn't need a doctor—”
“John. Do something useful. Get some water, shut the front door, and then just leave us be.” Cody heard noises and felt cool glass as it was touched gently to his arm.
“Cody? Are you Cody Garret? I'm Abigail, and that idiot you met is my husband. I'm sorry if he hurt you. Are you okay? Would you like me to call the doctor?”
Cody counted down from a hundred as Abigail's voice calmed him from his intense reaction. She wasn't crowding him, and she was talking low and steady. Somehow she must know that room to breathe and think was vital. As the fear subsided, it was replaced by his customary embarrassment and shame, and he couldn't look her in the face. There was no way on this earth he was going to lift his hands from his eyes and see her pitying expression.
“Can you look at me?” she asked gently. “Cody?”
Soft hands closed on his and gently prized each finger away from his eyes until the only thing that blocked his vision was his eyes being screwed tightly shut.
“Will you open your eyes for me, Cody?”
“I can't.” Cody couldn't do what she asked. How many people had seen this happen to him? How many pairs of eyes had been focused on him, exposing the shame of what he had become to all?
“It's only me,” she said softly. He must have said something out loud. “John is in the cellar with the barrels now, and the pub is empty. Open your eyes, Cody.” She was running her hands gently up and down his arms, and it felt like his mom was there. He opened his eyes slowly and blinked at the small amount of light around them.
“There now. That's better,” Abigail said gently. Focusing on her proved to be difficult as she was very close to him. He scooted a few inches along the floor and could finally concentrate on brown eyes filled with compassion and a halo of riotous red curls. “My idiot husband doesn't know how strong he is.”
A multitude of emotion flooded him. Shame gave way to dismay, which subsided quietly back into embarrassment. He needed to word that for her so she could understand. An entire sentence was required here, one where he explained why he had succumbed to a panic attack and why he sat shivering on the floor of his new home with a thin sheen of sweat on his skin.
“Shit,” was what he actually said. Abigail smiled and then nodded.
“Can you stand?” she asked.
There wasn't really a response needed. He had to show her he wasn't entirely useless, and using the rough-hewn stone walls as support, he carefully stood. The head rush was expected, but her hand on his arm as he rose was a new experience. He was used to being alone when he had these meltdowns. She passed him the water.
“You'll be exhausted. Long flight and then a drive, I assume?” she asked very matter-of-factly.
“Yes, but that wasn't—”
“All caught up with you. Have you eaten?”
“Good. Good. I'll show you your room, and you can get some sleep.”
“I won't mention this again.”
“Bed.” Her voice brooked no argument, and unlikely as it was he could even muster the words to tell her to back off, he didn't. He actually listened.
She encouraged him to a door at the rear of the bar marked private and up narrow stairs. His room was at the back, overlooking wide empty fields and small hills in the distance. He could see the curve of the river if he looked to the right and the back of the large building with the ornate chimneys he had noticed behind the cottages earlier. The large house was big and sprawling and right at one end of the village.
“The manor house,” Abigail explained. “The church is opposite, and they use the bells every third Sunday. They start quite early, but you have a few days until the next one.”
“Why only every third Sunday?” Cody was intrigued enough to ask.
“That's mostly what happens here now. When three or four churches in proximity share a vicar, the services are alternated at each. The church backs onto the mill land; in fact, I think the land you own is adjacent to the churchyard, although I could be wrong. Never mind. I'll bring up some wrapped food for you and leave you to sleep. Jet lag will drag you down I know, and you may wake up hungry in the middle of our night.”
“A drink too,” she added. “Through here is the bathroom. There's plenty of hot water.” She indicated a heavy oak door and pushed it open to reveal a startling white bathroom with a bath and a shower over it. Cody turned to the bed, a huge four-poster affair that wouldn't look out of place in a castle. Gauzy material hung from each corner, and the quilt was a dark blue with a paler blue check. Every piece of furniture looked solid and permanent, and Cody felt comforted by it somehow. Even more so when, as Abigail left, she pointed out the one thing that really helped.
“The door locks from inside,” she said. Pointing at the big brass key in the lock, she turned it experimentally, and Cody heard the reassuring click. “So, I will go and scavenge food and drink and then you can close the door on the world and sleep. You won't hear much from the bar. This is a quiet place generally.”
He waited by the window until she came back with plated and wrapped sandwiches and a couple of packets of chips, an apple, and bottled water.
“Breakfast is at eight if you manage it,” she said. “Otherwise dinner is served all evening in the bar.”
She turned and pulled the door shut behind her, and he crossed to lock it after her. The sound of the key turning was a final turn in this troubling day. He thought maybe he should shower before climbing into the huge bed, but his body betrayed him and told him he needed sleep more than anything. After a quick text to let his mom know he was safe, he stripped and climbed under the warm covers. Here was a slice of heaven, and in seconds, he felt the edges of sleep draw in.
He woke once at some god-awful time before dawn, and although disoriented, he managed to use the bathroom and sit back on his bed. Hunger gnawed inside him, and he made quick work of the sandwiches and the apple. The screen of his cell phone told him it was four in the morning, and the room was absolutely silent.
The next time he woke it was to the noise of an engine, throaty and chugging and loud. He rolled onto his side to block it out. The noise sounded like farm machinery of some sort, and added to that, he could hear the loud mooing of cows. Voices shouted below his window in greeting, and half of him wanted to get up and check out what was down on the fields behind the pub. The other half wanted more sleep, and by the time he woke up again, it was dark outside, and his cell showed him it was seven forty. Apparently he'd slept nearly twenty-four hours. He'd missed three texts from his mom, one from his sister, and had two missed calls from an unknown number.
He sent back reassuring messages then hovered over the unknown number notifications. After a moment's hesitation, he deleted them. It must be a coincidence that he had received calls. It couldn't be Vince; this was a new damn cell phone that he'd only picked up a few days before leaving the States. He decided enough was enough of sitting here. He needed a shower and clean clothes, and his stomach was protesting that he had to eat.
Showered and dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, he carefully he made his way down the steep stairs to the door into the bar. There he stopped. He was finding it hard to shake the embarrassment from yesterday's meltdown, but at least it wasn't morphing into full-on panic. The noises beyond the door were the clink of glasses and the sounds of talking, and he rested his hand against the wood to give himself a few seconds to regroup.
The mixed scents of alcohol and people hit his senses as soon as the door opened and he took a step into the shadowed bar.
“Cody.” Abigail's voice was strong and clear above the hum of conversation, and as quickly as she spoke, the voices stilled. “Everyone, this is Cody Garret, great-grandson of Gwen Cole.”
“He's the American,” her husband added helpfully, which evoked a few oohs and aahs and oh, yeses.
“Hi, everyone,” Cody offered weakly. He wasn't meeting anyone's eyes, and after a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, the talking resumed, and Cody breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't do crowds. That wasn't entirely fair; he used to feel right at home in a room full of people. Until Vincent.
“Roast chicken okay with you? If not, we have a vegetarian option.” By this time he had settled onto a stool at the bar, and John had asked him what he wanted to drink.
“Chicken please,” he said to Abigail, “and water, if that's okay.”
“A drink on the house, son. For yesterday.” John was showing remorse in every syllable and the way he held up both of his huge hands in a silent plea. Cody wasn't holding a grudge. He wasn't stupid; John wasn't Vincent, and the gruff inn owner had no idea how damaged Cody really was. It was just one of those situations.
“Really, water is fine,” he reassured.
John didn't argue, and Cody was thankful for small mercies. Water was enough, and he hadn't actually drunk anything alcoholic in six years. There was no way he was going to start now. Too much of what had happened with Vincent held the remembered scent of whisky fumes. A few of the other patrons came to chat with him, and over dinner, he answered questions about where he had lived and why he was in Lower Ferrers. He was vague enough about his past that he let no one know anything, but he focused entirely on why he was here, at least giving over what he knew people wanted to hear. Standard responses that would stop any more questions.
“Mill Cottage was part of my gran's estate; she passed it to my mom when she died in '06. I'm here to work on the renovations to the old mill and the cottage and get them ready to sell for her.”
Reactions were mixed. They were roughly split between “old” and “new” village, the “old”, who worried about newcomers buying the cottage and mill and the “new”, whose conversations included words like property values and market upheaval. He hadn't expected much else from either group. John and Abigail stayed neutral, probably a good idea for the couple who ran what was probably the social center of the village.
He asked a few questions about the company he'd contacted the week before to work on the cottage. Every response was positive. Apparently Manor Renovations was a local company, and Justin, the owner, had a good reputation. He hoped the feeling he'd had was justified when he actually met the company's representative in the morning.
When everyone left and it was just the two behind the bar and himself, he pushed past not being tired and took himself to bed. Back in his room with the dark around him and his drapes closed, he spent an hour lying back with his eyes closed. There was no sleep for him yet, but he could sort through his thoughts before he tried to force his body to accept the new time zones. His cell vibrated, and he answered it without even thinking; his mom and sister hadn't contacted him in a few hours.
“Hiya.” His sister's voice was a welcome sound, and he grinned before even responding.
“How you feeling, sis?”
“Fat,” she snapped back, but it just made him laugh.
“How was the OB? Is everything okay with you and the baby?”
“Another two weeks now but I swear Ben is freaking out more than me.” She chuckled, and he joined in. Half of him wanted to talk to Ben and warn him to look after Anna, but he held back the urge to ask that his brother-in-law come to the phone.
“I miss you, sis,” he admitted when their conversation drew to a close.
“Of course you do.” She laughed. “I am awesome. Fat, but awesome.”
“I'm sorry I'm not going to be there for the baby—”
“Don't go there, Cody. Enough with the apologizing. Do you think we don't understand?”
“No, it's not stupid. You're not stupid. Six months there and you can get your head around the fact you need to deal with the Vince situation. Don't think of it as running; think of it as taking time to breathe.”
“I don't think I will ever be ready to deal with Vince.”
“The cops will know what to do. When you tell them he's harassing you, they'll know how to handle it.”
Cody's throat tightened with emotion. At that moment he wanted nothing more than to reach out and hug his sister. “I love you, sis.”
“I love you too, Cody.”
They talked a while longer, then after goodbyes, he found himself alone again in the dark listening to the sounds of the night. Restless, he climbed out of bed, crossed to the main window, and pulled the drapes. The harvest moon was full and cast an ethereal glow over the land outside the inn. It was utterly beautiful, still, and silent as befitted a place at two in the morning. The noise of hooves on the road caused him to glance right towards the manor house, and he squinted to see if he could see the horse and rider in the dark.
He spotted movement, and as the horse came nearer the inn, he made out both the animal and a rider crossing the road bridge that he'd driven over yesterday. The horse was huge, and the rider tall in the saddle, and Cody wondered why someone would be out riding at this ungodly hour. Maybe it was another American with a screwed-up body clock. The rider guided the horse off the road and momentarily disappeared through a gap in the high hedges to reappear on the fields behind, crisp and clear in the moonlight.
Cody caught a glimpse of white and then immediately knew exactly what he was watching. Some kind of lovers' tryst? A midnight, well, two o'clock, rendezvous between a man and a woman. The man slid from the horse in a smooth move, and in an instant, he had the small woman in his arms. The view was strangely erotic as he lifted her slight body into his arms and pressed her back against the fence surrounding the field, and Cody wondered if he should even be watching. He thought he heard a voice, a whisper. But a whisper or even a shout wouldn't carry across that distance, and he dismissed the words as nothing even as they repeated inside his head.
Justice can be seen.
The two were kissing as passionate a kiss as Cody had ever witnessed, despite the fact he couldn't really see their faces. The passion was in the way the man held his lover—tightly, all encompassing, and with unrestrained need. She was bowed back, offering her throat for his kisses, her slim arms wrapped around his neck. It was too much to be watching; it felt wrong. With a sigh, Cody dropped the drape and went back to bed. This time sleep wasn't far off, and he allowed it to pull him under so he could explore further in his dreams what he had just witnessed.
The dream he wanted to have proved elusive. Instead, he dreamed of the usual hurt, fear, and pain that haunted his every sleeping and waking second, and a single sentence spun around his normal hurt. Justice can be seen.
Six in the morning and he was more awake than ever. Decision made that he was starting the day now, he showered, pulled on clean clothes, and unlocked his bedroom door. He locked it again behind him and pocketed the brass key. Room cleaning had to be covered with Abigail because he really didn't want anyone in his room when he wasn't there. She was in the bar emptying the large industrial dishwasher and threw him a wide smile when she spotted his entrance.
“Did you sleep well?”
“Fine,” Cody lied. No sense in troubling his host with his nocturnal wonderings and inability to get his body clock sorted this quickly.
“Breakfast isn't for a while, but I can get you some fruit or a coffee?”
“It's okay. I thought I might go out for a walk.” He bit back the exasperation he felt that he was looking for her approval or even her permission. Idiot man.
“Good idea. You're at the back, so for the manor, you need to turn left, and for the farm and the road, you turn right. The roads are quiet here, but you do get the odd boy racer deciding to use the village as a rally track so keep an ear out and stick to the verge.” Cody zoned out for a minute; Abigail sounded so much like his mom it wasn't funny.
“I will,” he finally agreed, and remembered to add a smile. His mom liked it when he smiled, said he didn't do it often enough. In under a minute, he was out in the crisp early morning fall air, and without conscious decision, he turned left and towards the manor house. Images of what he had seen last night made him look to the field where the lovers had met, and he wondered who they were to be meeting in the dead of night. Not only that but he wondered about the horse. Who rode a horse at two in the morning on roads as tight and twisty as this with probably zero visibility other than that afforded by the full moon? He couldn't find the gap in the hedge the rider had used. Evidently his eyesight wasn't as good as he thought. He couldn't have seen the horse pass through a hedge. He sighed. He was seeing things in the freaking dark.
Crossing the narrow road to the church, he leaned his hands on the wall to peer into the graveyard surrounding the old impressive building. The sign proclaimed it was the Church of Saint Cuthbert, and it was exactly as he expected a church to look in a quintessential English village. Constructed of solid stone, it had a tall square tower and imposing arched windows. Three large stained glass windows depicted a story that Cody couldn't exactly make out, and all were behind a wire mesh. The building was beautiful, even more so with the wispy autumn mist that hugged close to the ground and moved eerily in and around the ancient gravestones.
The sign said, Services Every Three Weeks, and under it was the name of the vicar, Tristan Toulson-Brown. Cody snorted. That was one hell of a fancy British name if ever he'd seen one. There were contact numbers, but nothing about the history of the church or even how old it was. He pulled out his cell, but the signal was low so there was no hope of researching the church as he stood there. He resolved to use the Wi-Fi back at the inn to increase his knowledge of this village. Local knowledge always helped when selling property, or so his sister said.
The entrance to the churchyard was closed but wasn't locked and opened easily. Testament, he imagined, to someone maintaining the large wrought iron gate. Peering closely at the first gravestones he came across, they showed dates as far back as the eighteen hundreds, but those farther back had worn so far down he couldn't make out dates. A cross under a tree intrigued him. It was a simple cross, heavily weathered, and nature had chosen to reclaim it with ivy and weeds climbing and crossing over the names and dates. He spent a while looking at it as he lost himself in thought.
Trees as old as the gravestones stood tall and wide, and there were sycamores above the cross, dropping seeds that looked like wings. Flashes of his childhood interspersed with the absolute calm he felt inside in this place. There wasn't a church like this where he'd grown up or such a natural balance with the gravestones of people long ago dead. He wasn't even what people called religious in any way. He had beliefs, but they definitely aligned with nature, nurture, and a side order of fate, as opposed to some guiding hand.
If he'd believed, would it have made him any less susceptible to Vince or able to better handle what had happened? He sighed at the maudlin turn of his thoughts and strode through the graveyard to the back of the church and the view of the fields beyond. There were more trees here, possibly even what could be called a copse, and he jumped the lower stone wall to check it all out.
A rustling behind him caused him to turn sharply, and a familiar dizziness assailed him, causing him to grab at the nearest tree. Idiot. Startled by a squirrel or a badger or some other indigenous species at the age of twenty-six for god's sake. He peered into the thicker part of the standing trees wondering what it was that had moved and focused in on a huffing, scratching weird kind of noise. He saw a flash of something, then he had a face full of something black and large and wet. He stepped back, twisted his foot on a tree root, and toppled to the ground.
“Jack! Stupid dog… Jack!”
Cody pushed the animal away, his hands going straight to his face as teeth came near, and he struggled to get in control of what was happening. The ground was wet beneath him, the leaves scrunching and scratching at his skin, and the animal, fucking huge thing, was on him, pawing him.
“Shit. I'm sorry. Jack, get the hell away—” The owner of the voice pulled the monster away from Cody, and as soon as he was free, Cody scrambled to move. Hands helped him stand, but Cody moved away as soon as he was vertical and steady. “I'm so sorry. Are you okay? Idiot dog is a bloody nuisance.”
Cody focused on the voice—clipped, British, and really damn apologetic. Still, it didn't stop the temper inside him. What kind of person owned a killer dog and allowed it to attack people? He even opened his mouth with the express purpose of telling this man exactly what he thought, but as he did so, he looked down at the dog and, with a double take, back up to the piercing blue eyes filled with apology that stared at him. The man with the killer dog was wearing a woolen hat, a huge thick coat, and jeans that probably used to be blue but now looked mud colored.
“Your dog—” Cody started and glanced down at the muddy and very wet black Labrador that sat panting by the man's feet. The animal didn't look as scary now as it leaned into the man's leg and looked up at him with an adoring doggy grin.
“I'm sorry. Genuinely sorry,” the stranger continued. “We don't often find people walking this early in the fields. Are you okay?”
Mentally, Cody checked himself out. Physically, he was winded but fine; mentally, he was as embarrassed as it was possible to be. He even remembered letting out some kind of freaking girly shriek when the dog had landed on him. Jeez.
“I'm fine,” Cody said and turned on his heel to return back to the relative safety of his room.
“Sorry!” the guy called after him, but Cody simply lifted a hand and waved away the apology.
“It's fine,” he said firmly. With his embarrassment and his aching butt filling every part of his thoughts that weren't focused on sapphire eyes, he trudged back to The Ferrers' Arms.
* * * *
Damn. He really had hoped to slip past Abigail and, jeez, John as well now.
“I had a run-in with a dog,” he said grumpily.
“Dalmatian, black Lab or Chihuahua?” Abigail asked carefully.
Cody glanced down at the wet paw prints on his jacket and picked off a leaf caught in the pocket zipper. A Chihuahua would not have left paw prints that big, and suddenly, it was past embarrassing and annoying and had moved on to funny. For the first time in as long as he could remember, he had a genuine smile on his face, one that was emerged straight from inside him.
“Black Lab,” he answered.
“Sebastian,” Abigail informed him with an answering smile.
“I think he was called Jack,” Cody corrected.
“No, Sebastian is Jack's owner. Seb lives in the manor house. One of the Toulson-Browns. Walks his dog over the fields every morning.”
Cody filed away the information and then wondered if Sebastian was a relation of the vicar, given the exact match of surnames. He didn't realize he had said it out loud until he heard Abigail reply.
“Tristan is his brother.”
“Oh.” Cody didn't have much more than that. He needed another shower and change of clothes, and when his stomach rumbled, he knew what else he needed. Breakfast.
Then he really needed to do what he'd come here to do.