Daisy was thrilled with her job at Kyneston. Even Mum and Dad had come to accept it, once they’d seen that their youngest daughter could cope.
But in Abi’s humble opinion, it wouldn’t end well.
Abi had been the first to see the cot, when Jenner had shown them around their cottage. She’d asked what it was doing there – in the third bedroom that should have been Luke’s.
Jenner had looked sheepish, and promised to explain when he briefed them on their assignments the next day. When he walked into their kitchen that morning, Abi got up to clear everything off the table, because otherwise there’d be no stopping Daisy cramming more toast in her mouth. It was imperative they make the best possible impression, if they were to get Luke back quickly.
She didn’t trust herself to return to her seat, given that Jenner had taken the empty chair next to it. Instead, Abi hovered by the sink as he began to talk. Her parents’ assignments were exactly what Abi had hoped for when she’d filled out the forms for Estates Services. Mum would be nursing a lady up at the great house, and seeing to the slaves. Dad would take care of Lord Whittam’s vintage car collection, and maintain the other estate vehicles.
‘And I think you’ll be perfect as Kyneston’s administration assistant,’ Jenner had said, looking right at Abi with that lovely smile. ‘I hope that doesn’t sound undemanding for someone as bright as you. It really isn’t. I took over the Family Office myself when I left uni last year, and you wouldn’t believe how much there is to be dealt with. I need someone I can rely on to ensure that happens.’
Abi went bright red. She’d be working alongside him. It was a nightmare and a dream wrapped up in one thrilling but super-awkward parcel, bow-tied and with a gift tag saying ‘crush’. She saw Daisy snigger and sent her a ferocious glare.
Then Daisy’s assignment stole everyone’s attention away – Abi’s included.
Daisy would be child-minding a baby. A baby born to a girl who’d been a slave here on the estate. She had been inappropriately involved with his eldest brother, Jenner had explained, but had tragically died in an accident a few months ago.
They all had lots of questions, but it was clear Jenner didn’t want to talk about it. He said ‘That’s all I can tell you’ a bit crossly, and Abi mouthed ‘Shut up’ in Daisy’s direction.
Soon after, Heir Gavar had turned up. The expression on his face was furious, as if he’d come to accuse them of stealing something. He was even taller than his brothers and big, wide across the shoulders. The baby had looked very small, lying along the crook of his arm, but she was sleeping peacefully and Gavar held her so carefully you’d think she was a porcelain doll.
‘That’s the kid?’ he’d said to Jenner, pointing at Daisy. ‘You’re joking, right? She’s still a baby herself.’
‘Don’t start,’ Jenner said wearily. ‘You know how it’s got to be.’
The heir muttered something crude and Dad pushed his chair back as if he was going to tell him off for swearing, before thinking better of it. Poor Daisy looked like she might die of fright.
Gavar called her over with a curt ‘Come here’, but Daisy was too petrified to obey.
‘Go on,’ Mum had said, nudging her gently. ‘He’s not going to eat you.’
And Abi’s heart swelled with pride as her little sis did the bravest thing ever and walked over to stand in front of Gavar Jardine. He looked at Daisy like his eyes might burn holes in her.
‘This is my daughter, Libby,’ the heir said, angling his arm slightly. The baby was adorable, with round rosy cheeks, curling coppery hair and long dark lashes.
‘She is the most important thing in my life, and now she is the most important thing in yours. You must be with her at all times, and when I am at Kyneston I will come and find you every day. I’ll know where you are. You are to talk to her – proper talk, not stupid chatter. Play with her. Show her things. Her mother was an intelligent woman, and she is an intelligent child. You are to address her as “Miss Jardine” at all times. If any harm comes to her, you and your family will pay for it. Do you understand?’
‘Yes,’ said Daisy, nodding her head emphatically. Then, ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Good,’ said Gavar.
He held out the baby.
In the weeks that followed, Daisy became more confident at handling her tiny charge. And Abi did a bit of sleuthing to find out more about Libby Jardine and her mother.
She discovered that one of the older kitchen-slaves had looked after the baby before the Hadleys arrived. She was a kindly sort, and proved talkative when Abi dropped by on the pretext of a pantry stocktake.
‘The bairn’s real name is “Liberty”,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Her mother chose it. She was a good girl, Leah was, and very much in love with Heir Gavar. But when she found out she was pregnant they had a falling out and he was cruel to her. So she called the little one that to have a dig at him, to rub it in that she was just a slave.
‘He wanted the mite to have some high and fancy name like they all do – an Amelia or Cecilia or Eustacia or some such – but his parents wouldn’t hear of it. They didn’t like “Liberty” either, of course. Lord Jardine said it was “in poor taste”. So it was Lady Thalia, bless her, who hit on the solution, and the little darling’s been Libby ever since.
‘They don’t regard her as one of them, you see. No Skill – though her mum was convinced she did have it. Poor girl. I think she was a bit crazy at the end. It’s impossible, of course; everyone knows that. That’s why Libby’s looked after by the likes of us, instead of up at the big house. But Heir Gavar loves her something fierce.’
And wasn’t that the truth.
None of them knew when Gavar might turn up to see his daughter. He would suddenly loom over them in the cottage kitchen, while Daisy was spooning mush into Libby’s sticky mouth and crooning nursery rhymes. Gazing out of Kyneston’s office window, Abi would often glimpse him striding towards the lake where Daisy had taken Libby to look at the ducks.
As she hurried through the service corridors one day, Abi heard Gavar roaring furiously about disrespect to his daughter. Fearing the worst, Abi diverted towards the formal front of the house ready to throw herself between him and Daisy. But as she opened the concealed door she saw a particularly snooty parlour-slave cowering against a tapestry, a pile of fresh linen crumpled at her feet. Gavar jabbed a meaty finger into the woman’s face. His other hand was protectively on Daisy’s shoulder, resting on the harness she used to carry Libby.
‘And apologize to Miss Hadley,’ Gavar snarled. ‘Even if you see her alone she will be going about the service of my child. You get out of her way, not the other way around. Now say it.’
‘I . . . I’m sorry, Miss Hadley,’ the maid stammered. ‘I won’t do it again.’
Gavar grunted, and Daisy tipped her head in acknowledgement like a diminutive queen. Astonished, Abi shut the door silently and returned about her errand.
The most startling thing happened the following week. They’d not yet been at Kyneston a month and the four of them were sat down to dinner. Daisy was uncharacteristically glum – even when Mum opened the oven and produced a surprise treat: apple crumble.
‘What’s up, puppy?’ Dad asked.
Daisy sniffed theatrically and wiped her nose with the back of her wrist.
‘I miss Gavar,’ she said, her voice small. ‘I’m going to go and check on Libby.’
And just as Mum put the pudding dish down in front of her, Daisy stood and disappeared upstairs.
The three of them looked at each other, bewildered.
‘Where’s Heir Gavar?’ Mum asked, after a moment.
Abi sighed, and dished herself some dessert.
‘He and Lord Jardine have gone up north,’ she said. ‘To Esterby Castle. It’s the First Debate – you know, when they discuss the Chancellor’s Proposal. There’s one in the autumn, one midwinter, then the Third Debate is here at Kyneston in the spring.
‘Jenner says they usually talk about the Proposals a lot, all the family, but that his dad and Gavar have been tightlipped this year. Silyen’s mixed up in it too, but I don’t get how. Jenner says his father claims the Proposal is so ridiculous it’s not even worth discussing. I don’t think he believes him, though.’
‘Jenner says this, Jenner says that,’ Dad said. ‘Are both my girls going doolally over these Jardine boys?’ His words were teasing, but his face was grim.
‘You watch yourself, young lady,’ Mum said.
Any retort would have kicked off an almighty family shouting match, so Abi bit her lip. Her parents were being absurd. She barely mentioned Jenner.
No, Daisy was the one they should be worried about. Heir Gavar might be charismatic but he was a brute, all swagger and shout, displeased with everyone and everything except his daughter.
And there was something even worse. Estate gossip held that he was responsible for the death of Libby’s mother, Leah. She had been shot accidentally when Gavar was out hunting one night.
Why would Leah have been roaming the grounds after dark? Abi couldn’t construct any convincing scenario.
Which led to one inescapable question: had it really been an accident?
At any rate, it couldn’t be safe for Daisy to spend so much time with Kyneston’s heir. All her initial fear of him had been replaced by a kind of worshipful adoration. But she was only ten, and while she was doing brilliantly minding Libby, surely at some point she’d slip up or make a mistake. Then how would Gavar react? No, it was too risky. Abi would have to see if Jenner could get Daisy assigned to some other task.
With this thought guilt welled up inside Abi again. She was no nearer to getting Luke transferred from Millmoor. The first few times she’d dropped her brother into conversation with Jenner, he had made no comment and she’d thought him simply preoccupied. But on the third occasion he’d turned to her with regret plain in those kind brown eyes.
‘I’m very sorry, Abigail, but there was a good reason why your brother couldn’t come to Kyneston, and that reason still stands. Please don’t ask me again.’
Then he shut himself off, just as he had the day they arrived or when they’d first asked about Libby.
His words were soft, but the refusal hit Abi hard. She had to keep asking. The thought of Luke stuck in Millmoor and at the mercy of people like that brutish guard for another few months was awful. That he might never join them was unthinkable. Luke, being the only boy, might fancy himself his sisters’ protector, but Abi was the eldest. Looking out for her siblings was her responsibility.
Whatever that ‘good reason’ was, she’d have to discover it. Overcome it.
In the meantime, there was Daisy to think about.
The next morning was a Saturday, and though the weather had turned chilly now it was late September, the day was sunny and gorgeous. Abi found her sister changing the baby and suggested a walk in the estate woods. It would be the perfect opportunity to give her a gentle talking-to about her attachment to both Libby and her father.
‘We can show Libby the foliage and kick some leaves around,’ she told her sister. ‘Babies like colour and noise, they stimulate their brains.’
‘Gavar would like that,’ Daisy said approvingly, as Abi tried not to roll her eyes. ‘I’ll go and find her hat and mittens.’
The woods were every bit as beautiful close up as they had appeared from a distance. By the lake was a showy miniature temple. (Follies had become fashionable among the Equals a few centuries ago, because clearly having an enormous house wasn’t ostentatious enough.) Then the trees began, and stretched as far as the eye could see. Kyneston Estate really was as vast as it had seemed that first day.
Abi led the way in beneath the branches, her boots rustling through the deep leaf-fall. Sunlight filtered through the tree canopy, making the already colourful foliage vivid and bright, like stained glass cast by someone who liked only the first half of the rainbow.
‘This one is red,’ said Daisy, stooping to pick up a leaf and presenting it to Libby, who promptly dropped it. ‘And this one is orange.’
Further ahead was a tall, triangular tree that was perfectly yellow. Abi bent to root in the leaf-fall for a nice specimen to show Libby.
Her hand hit something solid yet yielding. Furry.
Backing away, she grabbed Daisy and shoved her little sis and the baby behind her, towards the tree’s sturdy trunk.
What an idiot she’d been! There could be anything in these woods. So what if there weren’t supposed to be wolves or bears in England any more. There weren’t supposed to be naked men on leashes either, yet Lady Hypatia had brought one to Kyneston.
But nothing erupted from the forest floor. No slavering fangs snapped at them; no claws knifed through the air towards them. Nothing.
Abi waited. Her hands trembled.
Why wasn’t the creature moving? She’d whacked it hard enough to wake anything – even Luke.
Hardly believing what she was doing, she crept back to the pile of leaves. Holding her breath, she slowly reached one hand down and felt it.
Coarse fur. But cool to the touch. And still. You didn’t have to be a med student to work out what that meant.
Emboldened, Abi brushed away the rest of the leaves. The creature – she soon saw it was a deer – never stirred. The eyes were wide open and filmed over. It was dead.
But how? There were no injuries or signs of sickness. The corpse looked perfect in every way. The fur was still thick and glossy. It didn’t even smell.
In fact, the odour here was pleasant: sweet and fragrant. Abi lifted her head and looked about, sniffing. She saw the source and smelled it at the same time.
A short way off, in a glade open to the sky, stood a tree. A cherry, judging from the profusion of pink blossom. Its branches bent down to the forest floor under their weight. In the crisp autumn air, the scent was unmistakable.
The sight was mesmerizing. Abi moved towards it and sensed Daisy following. She put her palms out and brushed them over the blossom, luxuriating in the dense flowers. At her side, Daisy had taken off Libby’s mittens and was encouraging her to touch them, too.
‘It’s so pretty,’ Daisy cooed to the baby. ‘Isn’t it pretty?’
Except it was also, some part of Abi’s brain belatedly told her, very wrong. It was late September. Autumn. Not spring, when these flowers usually bloomed.
She felt a sudden chill that had nothing to do with any breeze. The deer was dead, but didn’t look it. The tree was alive and blossoming when it shouldn’t be.
‘Okay, sweetie,’ she told Libby, gently moving the branch back out of reach and shooting Daisy a trust-me-on-this-one look. ‘We’re going to go now. We’ll have our picnic back by the big house.’
She only saw him when she turned.
He was sitting on the ground several metres away, legs stretched out in front of him and his back propped up against a tree trunk. His hair was tangled, and he’d raked it back from his face, which looked thin and tired. But his eyes were bright with curiosity as he watched them. The Young Master.
For a moment he said nothing, and neither did she. Then he jumped to his feet, a smooth, quick motion, and strolled over to where they stood. He reached out and offered a finger to Libby, who seized it and started gnawing enthusiastically. Abi felt Daisy shift uneasily beside her. She plainly wanted to step away, but was unable to do so without breaking that contact.
‘Do you like my tree?’ said Silyen Jardine.
‘Your tree?’ said Abi, stupidly.
‘Yes.’ He smiled and it was bright and cold as the day. ‘Or, to be more accurate, my experiment. From the noise you made just now, I’m guessing you found my other one, too. This is prettier, though, isn’t it?’
He reached out his free hand and fingered the petals thoughtfully.
‘The dead deer,’ said Daisy indignantly. ‘That was you?’
‘Death. Life,’ said Silyen, waggling his finger in his niece’s gummy mouth as she blew bubbles around it. ‘The usual party tricks. Little Libby here was my inspiration, actually. Or rather, her mother was, when Gavar shot her and she died right there in front of us. There was nothing I could do, which was . . . intriguing. I don’t like problems I can’t solve. I’m sure you know what I mean, Abigail.’
It gave Abi the creeps hearing him say her name like that. But the words before it held her attention. Silyen had seen Gavar shoot, and Leah die. It didn’t sound much like a hunting accident.
‘What?’ Daisy had gone alarmingly pink. ‘Not Gavar. He wouldn’t. He loved Libby’s mummy. He’s told me so.’
‘Coming to his defence? Gavar’s way with the ladies is legendary, but I never knew it started so young. Your sister knows I’m telling the truth, though.’
‘Abi?’ Daisy was shrill.
Abi gritted her teeth. She had wanted to introduce her sister gently to the idea that Gavar Jardine might not be a hero. Not with this shocking knowledge. Daisy hadn’t even known he was involved in Libby’s mother’s death – let alone Silyen’s rather more dramatic version of events.
‘We’ll discuss it later,’ she said. ‘We were just heading back, anyway. So if you’ll excuse us, Master Silyen.’
She ducked her head and made to pull Daisy away, but Silyen Jardine wasn’t done with them yet.
‘Tell me,’ he said, withdrawing his finger from Libby’s grasp and eyeing her speculatively. ‘Does she ever do anything . . . special? Unusual?’
‘Skillful, you mean?’ said Daisy. ‘No. She’s just a baby.’
‘Oh, that doesn’t stop us.’ He smiled. ‘If anything, babies’ Skill is much more noticeable, because it’s more uncontrolled. Apparently Gavar used to shatter plates if our mother tried to feed him anything other than mashed banana. Twenty-three years and he’s barely changed.’
‘I don’t believe a word you say about him,’ said Daisy. ‘You’re just jealous because he’s the heir.’
Please, thought Abi. Please, let us just get out of these woods in one piece, away from dead animals, Silyen Jardine’s party tricks and Daisy’s lack of any self-preservation instincts whatsoever.
But Silyen merely shrugged and turned away, his gaze returning to the tree. He reached out to a branch and shook it, just as Daisy had done, and watched the petals shower to the ground. He frowned.
He removed his hand but the petals kept falling, faster and faster, whole flowers dropping off, entire and perfect, until all three of them stood ankle deep. The scent rose up from the woodland floor in an overpowering wave of sweetness. On the branches, green shoots appeared, pushed out and unfurled. Soon the tree was covered in leaves, as thick and full as the flowers had been. Despite her desire to flee just moments before, Abi was fixed to the spot as if she’d put down roots herself.
The leaves began to curl up. The tree lost its vibrancy as they shrivelled; yellowed; fell. Dead leaves piled on top of the flowers.
Soon the tree was entirely bare. Black and skeletal, it reached long fingers down to the ground to trail sadly among its fallen beauty and vigour, as if yearning to gather it all back in again.
Silyen Jardine said nothing. Daisy said nothing. Baby Libby kicked her legs and gurgled.
Silyen cocked his head, as if listening for something.
‘My father and brother are back,’ he said, turning to them. ‘Gavar’s desperate to see his daughter again. He’ll come straight to you. It’d be better if he didn’t find you with me. That’s the most direct way out.’
He pointed across the glade, indicating a route between two great oak trees. Neither of them needed telling twice.
Daisy set off at a pace, early fallen acorns crunching under her feet and Libby’s soft booted heels knocking against her middle. Abi followed. She didn’t look round, not at the Young Master, the dead cherry tree, or the woods beyond where the deer lay lifeless and still. She emerged from the treeline blinking in the full glare of the sunshine. Her heart was pounding, as if she’d just had a narrow escape, though from what exactly she couldn’t have said.
When they were past the temple grotto, Abi heard the faint roar of a motorbike. Daisy clapped her hands with excitement and Abi cringed. She never knew people actually did that.
More to the point, how could Daisy still be so stoked to see Gavar, now she knew what had happened to Libby’s poor mother?
The bike surged into view and slashed to a halt, gouging grass into mud. The heir kicked his bike to a stand and hurried over.
‘You’re a long way from the house,’ he said to Daisy sternly. Abi might as well not have been there.
Gavar wore the fierce expression that made house-slaves wet themselves in terror, but her little sister simply grinned.
‘We’re wrapped up warm and have everything we need,’ she told him, undoing the clasps on the harness and handing Libby to her father. Gavar doted on the baby for a few moments, rubbing her nose against his and making her laugh. Then he looked at Daisy and his expression was almost gentle.
‘I missed her while I was away,’ he said. ‘But I knew she’d be safe with you. Let’s go sit by the lake and you can tell me what you’ve been up to.’
He tucked Libby against his chest and laid a hand on Daisy’s shoulder, steering her towards a bench by the water’s edge.
‘You,’ he said, over his shoulder, not bothering to look. ‘Get the bike to the garage.’
Abi scowled as he walked off, secure in the knowledge that whatever else Skill did, it didn’t give you eyes in the back of your head.
The bike was a nightmare, an incomprehensible lump of metal reeking of petrol and hot leather. She didn’t have a clue how to get it moving. Luke would have known.
‘Brilliant idea!’ she heard Daisy sigh, with dreamy approval.
Abi turned to see what Gavar the Marvellous was doing now. On the lake a long, shallow keelboat was gliding across the water. On the far shore, the doors of the boathouse where it was usually kept stood open. The oars were shipped, lying inside along the length of the hull. There was no one in the boat and no visible means of propulsion. It was heading straight to where Daisy, Gavar and the baby were sat, as if drawn on a string like a toy.
Held upright by her father, Libby kneaded her small feet into his thigh and smacked her hands together.
The boat made a faint plashing noise as it moved smoothly forward. Disturbed, a moorhen gargled and scudded away. Everything else was quiet and still. So Abi heard Heir Gavar’s next words very distinctly.
‘I’m not doing anything.’
Abi stiffened, one hand clenched uselessly around the bike’s handlebars. She scanned the wood’s edge for any sign of Silyen. She couldn’t see anything, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t there, plotting mischief. There were only rooks, circling.
The prow thudded softly into the bank, right in front of the bench. There was a faint clatter of wood as the oars rolled with the impact. Then the boat swung until the whole length of it rested alongside the bank.
It was possible – just – that the boat might have slipped its mooring in the boathouse and drifted across the lake. But this movement was unnatural. Deliberate.
Abi heard Gavar’s next words, full of wonder and pride – and just a touch of disbelief.
‘It’s not me, Daisy. It’s her.’
Squirming in her father’s grasp, Libby Jardine giggled.