Winter’s Wild Melody – Emma V. Leech

Chance had not intended to spend quite so long in the company of his friends. He really hadn’t. Well, yes, all right, he had intended to avoid going home for as long as he possibly could, but… that was beside the point. The point was, somehow it had become the twelfth of December, and he’d been expected at home sometime… sometime on the tenth. “Are you sure you must go?” Chance looked around at his friend Tommy, the Earl of Stanthorpe. The earl was regarding the weather outside his luxurious home in Dorset with a frown of consternation. It had been damned cold the past few days, and was now threatening to snow. “Yes, very sure. It will take me two days if I’m lucky. My father will be fit to be tied as it is.” Tommy nodded sympathetically. “Leg-shackled, eh?” Chance frowned at his boots, buffed to a mirror-like shine by Tommy’s excellent valet. “Not if I can help it.” “But I thought it was all arranged. You said if you hadn’t found a wife by the end of this year, your dear old pa was going to arrange it all for you.

Got a bride lined up, you said.” Chance rolled his eyes. Really, Tommy was a kind-hearted fellow and a devilish good sort, but sometimes he seemed to miss the point. “Yes, he has. She’ll be there waiting to meet me.” “What’s she like? Is she pretty?” “How the deuce should I know? I never met the creature. I don’t even know her name,” Chance said, a little exasperated that Tommy didn’t immediately understand his fury. “My father won’t give two hoots if she looks like the backside of a horse, so long as her pedigree is a thing of beauty, Tom. He’d narrowed it down to a dozen candidates last time I saw him, but now he’s made his choice. Not that he’s told me a single thing about her, only that I need to come and introduce myself, and propose whilst I’m about it, no doubt.

Why the devil do you think I’ve been hiding out here?” “Oh,” Tommy said, face clearing. “But why go at all, then? Mind you, bad form, old chap. Poor girl will be sat upon thorns by now. Dreadful slight.” “Ugh,” Chance exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “I know! I ought not to have stayed this long. I blame that bloody brandy you served the night before last.” “Well, I didn’t exactly pour it down your throat,” Tommy remarked, folding his arms. “I know, I know, that bit was certainly my fault, but if I’d realised the magnitude of the hangover I was in for, I’d have been a bit more circumspect.” Tommy snorted and Chance had to concede the point.

It wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference. Still, the fact of the matter was, he was going to be at least four days late going to meet the young lady his father was trying to make a match with. That Chance did not wish for the match did not matter a jot. His father was putting his foot down: marry, or he’d be out in the cold. Chance was angry at being manipulated and not looking forward to the inevitable confrontation. However, it wasn’t the girl’s fault and Tommy was right. She must be dreadfully embarrassed by his failing to arrive. It was a dreadful slight, and his father would murder him for it. With that happy thought in the forefront of his mind, Chase set off on his journey home. The first day passed uneventfully.

As he had plenty of time to think, Chance had the opportunity to visualise many uncomfortable versions of the reception he would receive upon arriving home. With each mile, he became increasingly gloomy and almost turned his horse around and went back to Tommy’s, where his reappearance would be greeted with pleasure. By the time he stopped for the night, Chance’s fingers were blue, and he’d lost all feeling in his toes. Once he’d ensured his horse, Ransom, was tucked up snug in a cosy stable, Chance warmed himself with brandy and a good meal, and fell into bed with relief. The next day was worse than the first. The snow that had been threatening since before he left finally arrived. At first it was flurries of tiny white dots that left no trace upon the ground, but by midmorning big fat flakes were tumbling softly and settling over the countryside like duck down. “I don’t like this,” Chance muttered to Ransom, patting the big gelding’s neck. “But if I don’t arrive, my life expectancy is going to diminish faster than I wish to contemplate. Ah, well, we’d best push on, old fella.

” By late afternoon, the weather had closed in, the snow tumbling so thick and fast that Chance could barely see his hand in front of his face. They were already on his father’s land but, bearing in mind the estate covered over thirteen thousand acres, it did not mean he was close to home. The snow already lay in thick drifts and showed no signs of stopping. Even if he wasn’t chilled to the bone himself, he could not force Ransom on through this. Turning his horse down a narrow track that was invisible to anyone who didn’t know every inch of the estate in detail, Chance headed towards Corry Brook Farm. The previous tenant, old Mr Burrough, had died three months ago, and his wife had gone to live with her sister. The farm was empty now, awaiting the new tenants who were arriving in the New Year. Chance would just have to put up there for the night and hope he could get home in the morning. “Come on, my lad,” Chance said, dismounting with a curse of pain as his frozen toes hit the ground. He guided Ransom into the stables, relieved to be out of the wind and snow.

His face was burning with cold and he longed to get inside and light a fire, but he settled Ransom first, surprised and relieved to discover a good supply of hay for him. Once his horse was comfortable, Chance hurried to the farmhouse, trying to find a way in. The doors were locked and far too sturdy to force, but he found a window which was not in the best of repair and wriggled the latch open. It was an effort to squeeze himself through the small gap, but there was no way he was spending another moment out in this bloody freezing gale. With a muttered curse and a thud, Chance hit the floor, shoulder first. Well, at least he was in. He felt bad about breaking in, though technically it was his father’s property, but Mr Burrough had been a kindly fellow and Chance had often ridden out this way when he was a boy. The couple had never had children of their own, and they’d always welcomed him. Mr Burrough had taught him much about the land and farming, far more than his own father, who was far too high in the instep for such talk of manual labour. Chance had loved his visits, and Mrs Burrough never failed to send him off with a hot pie or a cake and a fond smile.

It seemed wrong to be here like this, with the old man dead and his wife gone, but it wasn’t theirs any longer. Sorrow sat in Chance’s gut like a pebble, and he felt uncharacteristically melancholy. “Buck up,” he told himself, and got to his feet, moving through the gloom to the kitchen. Though it was not yet evening, the world outside was a blur of white and the house was all cast in shadow, yet the kitchen was not as icy cold as he’d expected. In fact, it was warm. Chance moved closer to the fireplace, where a fire burned low in the grate. Strange. He turned in a circle, frowning. “Anybody there?” he called. The house was silent.

Chance moved through the kitchen past the fireplace which separated it from the main living area. “Is there anyone there?” he tried again, shouting up the stairs and feeling a little foolish. Probably it was one of his father’s staff come to check the place had been left in good order, though that was an insult to Mrs Burrough. The idea that she wouldn’t have left everything neat as a new pin was ridiculous. Still… it seemed odd they’d lit a fire. Uneasy now, Chance climbed the stairs, relieved to see one bed remained, though much of the furniture had gone with Mrs Burrough, who’d taken the couple’s belongings with her. At least he’d have somewhere to spend the night. He checked from room to room, finding not a soul, and headed back down to the kitchen. It was the work of a moment to get the fire blazing again, and so he stripped off his sodden coat and hung it to dry. Happily, he still had provisions in his saddle bags, so he sat down to a simple repast of apple and cheese by the fire until he’d thawed out.

Belatedly, he realised he ought to have lit a fire in the bedroom as well, but it was too late now. Instead, he climbed the stairs once more, intending to haul the mattress down and put it on the floor of the kitchen. Once upstairs, he paused in the bedroom’s doorway, staring down at the floor. He’d not brought a candle, and it was almost full dark outside, but something had caught his eye. Chance bent down and picked up a small gold hairpin, turning in his hands. There was a delicate golden daisy on the end, and the craftsmanship very fine. How odd. Why hadn’t he noticed it before? It was tiny but a quality piece, of greater value than anything he thought Mrs Burrough would own. Or, if she did, she’d not forget it or leave it lying on the ground. Where the devil had it come from? Tucking it into his pocket with a frown, he searched the one remaining chest of drawers for a blanket but found nothing.

Disappointed, he grabbed hold of the mattress and tugged it out of the room. He woke in the early hours to the soft glow of the embers, and with the strong suspicion that he was not alone. Something had disturbed his sleep. He kept very still, all his instincts on alert. His time as a soldier had taught him not to ignore his sixth sense, that sensation in his gut which told him something was amiss. A creak from upstairs had him sitting bolt upright, his gaze fixed on the ceiling. All the fine hairs on the back of his neck stood on end and he told himself not to be so bloody stupid. Mr Burrough might have died up there, but there was no reason he could think of for the old man to be haunting the place. Certainly, there was no reason for the fellow to be haunting Chance. They’d always been on very good terms… though Burrough had enjoyed a wicked sense of humour.

Chance could just imagine the old devil laughing his socks off at having put the wind up him. Still, there were no such things as ghosts, and there had been no one up there. He’d checked. Reminding himself very sternly of this fact, Chance laid down again and went back to sleep. Chance woke early the next morning, irritated by a chill draft whistling from under the front door. Grumbling, he got to his feet and stretched, before padding to the window and peering out. Damnation. It was still snowing hard, a fierce wind blowing flurries of white in gusts. Well, it didn’t look as if he was going anywhere soon. With that in mind, he figured he’d best see if there was any food to be had.

Chance built the fire back up, set a kettle of water to boil, and pulled his coat back on before heading out to check on Ransom. Having investigated the storerooms, Chance returned to the kitchen with an armful of apples and some potatoes and carrots. There had been turnips, too, but he wasn’t that hungry. He set the results of his foraging down on the kitchen table and went to pick up the mug he had left there. Except it wasn’t there. He distinctly remembered that, last night, he had drained a mug filled with water and put it on the corner of the table. Chance stared about the room. Nothing. That strange uneasy sensation rippled over him again and he walked back to the cupboard he’d got the mug from… and there it was. Ice water cascaded down his spine.

He stared at the mug in consternation. Think, Chance, he told himself sternly. Either he’d been mistaken, had washed the mug up and put it away—most unlikely—or someone had moved it. Now, there was perhaps a chance that he was wrong about the existence of ghosts, but the only ghost likely to be here was Mr Burroughs, and Chance could not imagine him washing up a mug and putting it away again. Which meant there was someone else here. Someone a dashed sight more particular than he was. While he pondered this, Chance had an apple for his breakfast and decided the potatoes and carrots would do very well for lunch, and dinner if it came to it. The idea of having to spend another whole day and night here was not a happy one, but what could he do? The narrow lanes between here and home would be impassable, and he would not risk Ransom. His father would be furious, but at least he had an excuse now. Besides, there was a mystery here, and Chance did not like mysteries.

It stood to reason that whoever was sharing this farmhouse with him had arrived before he had, and had hidden themselves. Why? Well, either because they were up to no good, or because they were afraid. If they were afraid, they had no reason to be, and Chance could put them at ease and stop this nonsense. If they were up to no good, well, it was his duty to discover it. This was his father’s estate, after all. It would be his one day, and he did not like the idea of strange goings on. He considered the idea of just shouting to whoever it was that he knew they were there so they may as well come out, but that had revealed no one last night, so there was no reason to suppose it would work this time. So, he would have to set a trap. At lunchtime he enjoyed a potato baked in the embers of the fire as he’d learned to do whilst on campaign, with a little of the remaining cheese he had melted on top. Then, leaving all the dirty dishes out on the table, he put on his coat and went outside, where he walked toward the stables.

From there, he ran to the side of the farmhouse, and the window through which he’d first broken in, and did the same thing again. Heart thudding, he crept closer to the kitchen, unsurprised to hear movement within. Well, then, it was about time he introduced himself to the resident ghost.


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