Holton Park, Chapter Six

When I wrote the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘A Time to Mend’, I intentionally left some loose ends to develop into plot lines for future novels.

One of those ‘loose ends’ was the story of Beth Robinson (who is mentioned a few times in passing in ‘A Time to Mend’, but makes many appearances in the ‘Meadowvale’ books.

Beth’s story, and the story of her great-grandmother, Joanna Robinson, might appear somewhat tangential to the main plot of the ‘Meadowvale’ books and ‘ATTM’, but I always knew I would develop them and take them further.

I have now begun to work on that project, and I am going to post a few chapters here as a teaser. Not the whole book, you understand (it probably won’t be done for a year or so); just a teaser to get you interested.

Chapter 6

Holton Park, Bramthorpe, Lincolnshire – August 1st 2008

On the morning of Friday August 1, Edwin Rowley got up at his usual hour of 6.30. He washed and dressed quickly in his small bedroom on the top floor of Holton House, then opened the curtains and looked out over the ornamental walled garden below. The sky was mainly clear, with a slight wind lifting the branches of the trees. A good day for visitors to the grounds, he thought to himself. He turned from the window, pulled on a wool sweater and went through to his private living room, where his three border collies, Angus, Stella, and Maggie, were waiting eagerly, tails wagging in anticipation of their morning walk. He stopped for a moment to greet them. “Yes, yes,” he said. “I know, I know—it’s that time of day. Come on then!”

He led the dogs out onto the narrow landing. His little apartment was under the roof, in what had once been the servants’ quarters of Holton House; most of the bedrooms up here were garret rooms with sloping ceilings, and the narrow central landing ran the whole length of the attic. He led the dogs to the main staircase and ran quickly down four flights of stairs to the ground floor two storeys below, where he let the dogs out at a small back door and followed them onto the south lawn. The dogs ran off down the path towards the footbridge over Manor Brook, while Edwin followed at a more leisurely pace, whistling under his breath and enjoying the fresh morning air.

South of the brook was a small lane with a row of old farm workers’ cottages. As usual, Edwin’s brother Dan was standing in the window of one of them, a mug of coffee in his hand; they gave each other a cheery wave, and then Edwin set off down the footpath across the fields toward the woods that marked the southern boundary of the Holton Park estate. He and the dogs did the two mile walk every morning, unless the rain was truly torrential, which had happened a few times already this year.

Returning to the house at about 7.15, Edwin let himself and the dogs into the family apartment in the south wing. In the spacious newly renovated kitchen on the south-east corner his mother, Evelyn, was standing at the counter by the window pouring hot water from a kettle into a French press. She was still wearing her bathrobe, but her short grey hair had been carefully brushed back from a face that looked a lot younger than her sixty-six years. “Good morning, Mum,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “You look wonderful as usual.”

“Thank you; what’s it like outside this morning?”

“It’s going to be clear and warm, I think,” Edwin replied, running water from the tap into a jug and stooping to pour it into the dog dishes on the floor. “What sort of night did Dad have?”

“He was up a few times, so I’m letting him sleep for a while now. Are you ready for some breakfast? What would you like?”

“Toast and coffee will be fine, but don’t worry about me; I’ll make my own toast.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“Alright. What have you got planned for today? Before your brother and sister arrive tonight, I mean?”

Edwin opened a cupboard, took out a bucket of dog food and poured it into the food dishes on the floor; the dogs quickly crowded around and began to eat. “Meeting with some film people at eleven, then a few house and garden tours, and meeting some time this afternoon about next weekend’s dog show. After that, I’ll make myself available to greet Dan and Diana and the rest.”

“Appropriate, since they’re coming for your birthday!”

“And so they should; it’s not every year a man turns forty, you know!”

They both laughed, and she gave him an affectionate kiss on the cheek. “Happy birthday, Edwin.”

“Thank you, mother. I don’t feel a day over thirty-nine, actually!”

She laughed again. “You’re looking extraordinarily well-preserved, if I may say so.”

“You may say it as often as you like, since my fragile ego needs all the help it can get.”

“Fragile, you say? Not exactly how I would have described it.”

“Now, mother—John’s still in charge of the abuse department, you know!”

“And it’s often reciprocated, but of course, I’ve said that before.”

“You have, but today is my birthday and I’m feeling magnanimous, so I’m not going to get on my high horse about it.”

“Good. Is there anything I can do to help out today?”

Edwin put a couple of slices of toast in the toaster. “I’m meeting with Amanda at eight-thirty, then at nine we’ll have a quick team huddle; if you’re not busy and you want to join us, we can get some idea of when the house tours will be this afternoon. I know Sandy’s always glad to have you on board, but if Dad needs you, don’t worry about it; I can step in for a few minutes to say my piece.”

“Right; I’ll sit with you while you have your breakfast, and then I’ll see how things go with your father; he’s very tired and I’m loath to wake him up until he’s ready.” Evelyn took two mugs down from the kitchen cupboard, poured coffee into them from the French press, and handed a cup to her son. “There you are,” she said.

“Thank you. Is the home help coming today?”

“Yes, she’ll be here at nine-fifteen.”

“Good. I think you should consider extending her hours, Mum.”

Evelyn shook her head; “Not while I can still do things for him.”

“But it’s going to get worse, you know; that’s the nature of Parkinson’s.”

“I’m well aware of that; let’s not argue about it any more, alright?”

“As you wish.” Edwin took his coffee and sat down at the breakfast table, glancing at the front-page headlines in the copy of ‘The Times’ that his mother had placed beside his plate. After a moment the toast popped, and he got up again, buttered the two slices and took them back to the table. “I assume you’re not having breakfast yet?” he asked as he opened a jar of marmalade.

“No; I’ll wait and see what time your father feels like eating.”

“Of course.”

***

Edwin finished his breakfast quickly, talking intermittently with his mother and skimming the newspaper at the same time. At about eight o’clock he excused himself, the dogs at his heels, and went through to the main part of the house, to the rooms open to the public. He spent a few minutes walking quietly through the length of the house: the formal dining room, the Tudor great hall with its open fireplace, rich wood paneling and many paintings of ancestors, the library with its shelves full of books dating as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the large drawing room with its chalk fireplace, rich carpets, and antique furniture. He then went back to the entrance hall and out through the formal front doorway of the house, stopping for a moment to enjoy the vast green expanse of the front lawn, stretching north past the driveway half a mile to the lake, with the line of trees beyond it that marked the road. Away to his left, partially hidden by another row of trees, was the old tithe barn his father had moved onto the estate years ago and converted into another banquet hall that could seat a hundred and forty guests in a fashionably rustic country setting. To his right, just north of the walled garden, was the stable block that now housed the offices of Holton Park Estate.

He made his way along the path to the stable block, reflecting, as he often did, on how well the conversion had been accomplished. The old exterior was still there, with only the modern windows betraying the fact that inside, approximately three quarters of the old stables was now a suite of offices. The eastern side of the stable block still housed two or three horses kept by the family for riding, while the remainder of the building provided workspace for the administrative staff who ran the house and organized the many public events that were at the heart of the life of the estate.

Edwin unlocked the front door and turned off the burglar alarm; he went through the reception area and up the stairs to his office on the west corner of the building, the dogs still at his heels. The room had windows facing west and north providing excellent views of the house and grounds; it was furnished with an antique desk and a modern computer station at one end, and at the other a meeting area with four armchairs set around a low round table. It was, he thought, a comfortable and yet suitably dignified office for the manager of an estate that dated back to the sixteenth century.

He opened a window to let in the fresh morning air, sat down at the workstation and turned on his computer. Around him in the office the three dogs wandered around aimlessly for a moment, as they usually did, before settling themselves into their customary spaces. Later in the morning, when outsiders began to arrive for meetings, he would take the dogs back to the family apartments at the main house, but he liked having them around him for the first part of the morning; they were friendly and well-behaved, and the staff enjoyed them as much as he did.

He spent a few minutes checking his email and responding to some messages that needed an immediate reply. He checked the estate website, and the Facebook page his communications manager had recently created, noting a couple of new comments left by people who had visited the previous day. He took a quick look at his calendar for the day, noting that Amanda Scott, his Personal Assistant, had added another morning meeting at ten o’clock with the estate’s building surveyor, Hugh Molyneux, who happened to be married to Edwin’s ex-wife, Liz. He scowled momentarily at the computer screen; there was no doubt, he thought, that Molyneux was one of the best building surveyors around, but that didn’t change the fact that it was an awkward situation.

There was a knock on his office door and Amanda came in, dressed formally in skirt and blouse, her long blonde hair pulled back severely from her face and tied behind her neck. “Good morning, Mr. Rowley,” she said as she put his mail on his desk. “Happy birthday.”

“Thank you, Amanda; it’s good of you to remember.”

“It’s hard to forget, when you gave me such a nice invitation to the come and go tea tomorrow!”

“Right. On another subject, what does Molyneux want?”

“Drains, so he said. He told me to tell you it was important but not catastrophic.”

“I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies.”

“Yes. How many cups of coffee have you had this morning?”

“One, so I’d be glad of another, if you’re pouring?”

“I just made a full pot, so it’s nice and fresh. I’ll go and get it, shall I?”

“Excellent.”

Edwin got to his feet, stretched his back, and glanced at the letters she had placed on his desk. Two of them he recognised as being from the estate solicitor, and he had a pretty good idea what they were about. There were also two letters addressed to his father; for a couple of years now, by mutual agreement, he had been screening his father’s correspondence and weeding out items that the old man was no longer capable of dealing with. Today he recognised the writing on both envelopes; one letter was from his father’s only surviving sibling, his younger brother Harold, a retired military officer who at seventy-three was in excellent health and enjoying life in Hastings on the south coast. The other was from a retired politician who had served with his father as a Conservative M.P. in the late sixties.

Edwin was just scanning the second letter from the estate solicitors when Amanda returned with two mugs of black coffee, which she set down on the table in the meeting area. “Are you ready for me, Mr. Rowley?” she asked.

“Just about.”

“Right, I’ll get my notepad and files.”

As she slipped out of the room again, he picked up his day timer and a couple of file folders; moving over to the meeting area, he took his seat in one of the armchairs and picked up one of the mugs of coffee. Amanda came back into the room, took her seat across from him and opened her notepad.

“So,” he said, “tell me more about today.”

“Well, as you know, there’s a team meeting at nine in the boardroom. I’ve got a note from Sandy saying there are three tour groups coming through this afternoon, and she’ll want to make sure we’ve got everyone we need for each group. I hear that Mrs. Summerfield’s still sick, so I expect Sandy will have a backup plan to make sure the shop is staffed.”

“Who was the person they had yesterday?”

“Her name was Judith Edwards; she belongs to the Friends of Holton Park. She seemed quite knowledgeable. I don’t know if she’ll be back today, but I think we can leave that in Sandy’s capable hands.”

“Of course. Now, what’s this about drains?”

“Mr. Molyneux was here two weeks ago for a routine inspection of the exterior of the main house.”

“I remember that.”

“He says there are a couple of drains that are deteriorating and will need some work.”

“Not catastrophic, you say?”

“That’s what he told me in his email yesterday. He didn’t mention a figure to me, though.”

“Will we be able to deal with him in an hour before the film people get here?”

“He knows that he can have no more than forty-five minutes of your time.”

“Excellent. Now, remind me which film people we’re talking to today?”

“Strictly speaking, these are television people, not film people. They’re connected with ITV and they’re in the early stages of planning a miniseries set in the time of James the First.”

“So they’re following ‘The Tudors’ with ‘The Stuarts’, are they?”

“Something like that. We’re at the very early stages of planning and they’ve asked for a preliminary meeting; they want to outline what they have in mind and find out what we can offer and what sort of costs they’d be looking at.”

“Is there anyone coming to the meeting who we’ve worked with before?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Barry Desmond’s going to be in on this, I take it?”

“That’s right.” She handed him a manila file folder. “This is all the information I’ve got so far. I’ve sent you an electronic copy, too.”

“Good. Have you and Barry talked about it?”

“I had a very brief conversation with him yesterday, but he’s had copies of all the emails so he’s well-informed about what’s been talked about so far.”

“So, Barry will take the lead on this meeting, and I’ll just be there to add a word here and there, and to take the temperature?”

“Exactly.”

“Right. And what time is the dog show meeting this afternoon?”

“Four o’clock. Barry thought it would be a good idea for the team to get together, so everyone knows how everyone else’s preparations are going. He can take the lead if you need to be at one of the house tours.”

“Let’s see what Sandy has to say about timing and take it from there. My mother told me she might be able to step in to one or more of the tours, depending on how my father is when the time comes.”

“How is he today?”

“Still sleeping when I left this morning, but thanks for asking. Okay—what else do we need to be working on today?”

They talked for a few more minutes about various items on the agenda for the day, and Edwin jotted down some notes. When he was satisfied that he knew everything he needed to know, he said, “So, are you going to be able to drop by tomorrow afternoon?”

She gave him a shy smile. “I was going to ask you about that. You see, I’ve met someone…”

“Ah—you want to bring a date, do you?”

“Would it be alright?”

“Absolutely.”

“Only, I know your mum and dad are so conservative about these things.”

“That’s true, but you know, my cousin Martin is coming with his partner Charlie.”

“I don’t think I knew you had a gay cousin.”

“Did you not? That’s right, I don’t expect they’ve been up since you started working here. Yes—he’s the son of my father’s brother Harold. He’s an actor in London. We’ve all been getting on famously for years now.”

“What about your parents?”

“As you say, they’re conservative on these matters, but they aren’t nasty about it. At least, not to Martin’s face. So, what’s the name of this lucky person you’re bringing tomorrow?”

“Noor.”

“Noor? That’s Arabic, isn’t it?”

“Her parents are from Iran, actually, but she was born in Leicester.”

“And absolutely none of that is my business, but I would be delighted to have her at my birthday come-and-go.” He gave a little frown. “I should, however, warn you that among their many other charms, my parents are ever so slightly racist.”

“Really? I’m surprised to hear that.”

“I’m sure they would deny it, but there you are. I’m afraid it’s the age they grew up in, you know.”

“Right. Tell me honestly, would you rather I didn’t bring Noor? It’s not that we’ve been together for a long time or anything, but I’ve told her about this fabulous place where I work, and I’d love her to have the chance to see it.”

“You should definitely bring her; I’d love to meet her, and I honestly don’t think Mum and Dad will say anything offensive to her. But sometimes you don’t need to say anything, if you know what I mean.”

“I do.”

“So, tell her from me that she’s more than welcome, if she wants to come.”

“Thank you, Mr. Rowley; I’ll pass that on.”

***

The day went smoothly for Edwin, and he was able to excuse himself toward the end of the dog show meeting to go back to the main house and say a word at the end of the final tour of the day. Group tours of the house and grounds were common all through the spring and summer, and Edwin always liked to arrange for a member of the family to say a few words at some point in each tour; it was a custom his father had started years ago, and he was glad to continue it. He or his mother usually looked after it, as his brothers John and Dan and his sister Diana all had full-time jobs. John, the oldest in the family, worked as a high-end stockbroker in a well-known London firm. Dan, two years Edwin’s junior, was an architect in a small practice in Peterborough. Diana, the youngest of the four siblings, was a classical musician in London, where she played violin with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

During the winter months, when the house was not open to the public, the family often had their meals in the formal dining room, but during the season they usually ate in the smaller dining area in the family kitchen, unless they had guests for supper, in which case the room would be too small. On this weekend the family was planning on celebrating Edwin’s birthday with a come-and-go tea on Saturday afternoon, but his brother Dan and his sister Diana had also decided to join them for supper on Friday night, along with Dan’s two children and Diana’s husband. His older brother John and his family would join them on Saturday, along with Edwin’s two teenage children Alexander and Ashley.

 The cook, Mrs. Hedges, and the household manager, George Pascoe, were the last vestiges of the enormous staff of butler, housekeeper, footmen, and maids who had served the needs of the family a hundred years ago, and even these two were employed by the estate and not just the family. Mrs. Hedges worked with the catering companies that served wedding receptions and other large events on the estate, and also with the staff of the tearoom on the east side of the building. George Pascoe looked after the needs of the family, but he also took the lead in running the public areas of the main house.

As the final tour was leaving, Edwin made his way to the main kitchen, which, like many of the more functional parts of the building, had recently been renovated under his brother’s supervision. The two young people who ran the tearoom were just getting ready to leave, and Mrs. Hedges, a widow in her late fifties, was putting the finishing touches on a fruit salad; she glanced up when he came into the kitchen, smiled at him and said, “Hello, Mr. Rowley. Is there anything I can get for you? A nice cup of tea after a busy afternoon, perhaps?”

“No thank you, I’m going straight through to the apartment, but I just thought I’d drop in on the way and make sure everything’s all right for tonight.” He sniffed at the air. “Is that a curry I smell?”

She laughed; “I thought you’d like it, and I know your brother and sister like it too. Don’t worry—I’ve cooked a nice shepherd’s pie for your father and mother.”

“Very wise.”

“I thought with it being a warm day, though, a nice fruit salad with some ice cream would go well for the sweet?”

“Excellent; thank you very much.”

“I’m assuming you’d like wine with supper?”

“That would be nice.”

“Do you want me to make the choices, or will you do that yourself?”

“You’re so good at it; I’m sure I can safely leave it in your hands.”

“Very good. Both red and white?”

“Yes, please.”

“Have you heard from everyone yet about what time they’re getting here?”

“I expect Dan and his children will be here any minute. Scott and Diana told us to expect them around six, so we’ll eat at six-thirty, shall we?”

“Very good.” She gave him a sudden smile. “Diana’s husband’s such a nice young man, always very polite. I’ve never asked you what he does; is he a musician, like her?”

“No, he’s an estate manager, like me. Do you know Kenwood House in London?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“It’s an old stately home on the edge of Hampstead Heath. Scott’s the general manager there.”

“Really? He seems young for a job like that.”

“Ah, but my spies tell me he’s very good at what he does!”

“I suppose you would have a lot in common, wouldn’t you?”

“I can assure you, we’re never short of things to talk about. Anyway, I’d better go through.”

“Right you are, Mr. Rowley.”

Edwin slipped out and made his way down the corridor to the family living room where his parents were sitting in easy chairs on either side of a large window, with a small antique coffee table between them. The window looked south toward Manor Brook and the cottages beyond, and on this warm summer evening it was open to let in the fresh air.

Edwin’s mother glanced up from their crossword puzzle and gave him a warm smile. “I thought I heard you coming; would you like a cup of tea or something?”

“Actually, I’m going to have a whiskey. No, Dad, don’t get up,” he said as he saw his father struggling to sit up in his chair. Robert Rowley was seventy-six and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease ten years previously. He now rarely walked without a frame, and was beginning to have some difficulty with speech and cognitive functions. Nonetheless, he was dressed semi-formally today in a blue blazer, white shirt and cravat, and Edwin could see that he had been trying to help his wife with the crossword puzzle. The old man smiled up at his son and said slowly, “Did you have a good afternoon?”

“Very enjoyable. The first tour group was a grammar school party, and they were excellent. The last lot have just left. The dog show meeting went very smoothly.” Edwin went over to the liquor cabinet and poured himself a whiskey. “Anyone else want anything?”

“No thank you”, said Evelyn.

“Where are the dogs?”

“Dan and the children came over early and asked if they could take them for a walk down to the woods.”

“Ah, they’re already here, then?”

“Yes, and Diana called a couple of minutes ago to say that they just got off the train at Stamford. They’re taking a taxi, so they’ll be here shortly.”

“I would have gone into town and picked them up.”

“They know you’re busy, and they don’t mind the taxi.”

Edwin heard the back door open, and a moment later the three dogs ran into the room, their tails wagging madly. They ran from person to person for a moment, and then Edwin heard his brother Dan’s voice. “Come back here, you scruffy lot—there’s water out here for you!”

The dogs ran out of the room eagerly, and a moment later Dan and his two children, nine-year-old Lexy and seven-year-old Jason, appeared in the doorway. “Uncle Ed!” Jason cried.

“Mister Jason! Have you been walking my dogs?”

“We took them to the lake, but Daddy wouldn’t let them run into the water!”

Edwin grinned at his brother. “I wish you’d share your secret with me; one word from me and they do as they like!”

“It’s simple: they’re afraid of me, and they’re not afraid of you. Happy birthday, by the way.”

“Thanks.”

The two brothers hugged briefly, and then stepped back and looked at each other. Of the four Rowley siblings, they were the ones who looked the most alike: they were both of medium height, with strong facial features, wavy brown hair, and a tendency to grow a five o’clock shadow at the end of the day.

“Any idea when the sister unit’s arriving?” asked Dan.

“Any moment now, apparently. Do you want a whiskey?”

“No thanks; I expect we’ll be having wine with the meal, right?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll probably wait for that, then.”

They took their seats around the room, joined a moment later by the three dogs, who went from person to person, looking up expectantly for attention. Edwin took a sip of his whiskey and grinned at his brother. “Busy day in the architecture business?” he asked.

“Average. In the office in the morning, then out to some building sites this afternoon. The last one was in Stamford, so I was able to get home a bit earlier than normal.”

“And you lot?” Edwin asked his niece and nephew. “Mooching around with your other grandma?”

“We went to Nene Park,” Lexy replied.

“Because it wasn’t raining,” Jason added.

“Oh, right—it’s been raining a lot, hasn’t it?”

“Almost every day,” said Jason.

Evelyn glanced out of the window. “Ah, here’s the taxi.”

Dan raised an eyebrow. “Diana and Scott?”

Edwin nodded. “They came up on the train and then got a taxi at Stamford.”

***

Much later that night, the three Rowley siblings sat around the kitchen table, talking together in low voices. Their parents had long since gone to bed, as had Diana’s husband, and Dan’s children had bunked down on the third floor in the room beside Edwin’s apartment. But the three siblings were hungry for more of each other’s company, so they had gravitated to the kitchen. Edwin had initially suggested more whiskey, but Diana and Dan had asked for hot chocolate instead, and Edwin had decided to join them.

After they had caught up on each other’s news they were quiet for a moment, and then Diana asked, “When are we expecting John and Juliet and the children?”

“Early afternoon, I think,” Edwin replied. He gave a little frown. “Speaking of John, I need to talk to you two about something. I’ve got a feeling it won’t be long before our brother asks Mum and Dad for financial help again.”

Diana laughed softly. “Our brother the high-end stockbroker needs financial help?”

“I didn’t say he needed it; I said I thought he was going to be asking for it.”

“Forgive me, Eddie, but as a classical musician I’m having a difficult time summoning up any sympathy for him.”

“I’m on the same page as you, sis.”

“How can he possibly need financial help? He lives in a mansion in Mayfair, and he and Juliet both drive Jaguars. And didn’t they just get back from a holiday in the Caribbean or something?”

“They did.”

Dan frowned. “What’s going on, Ed? Is it something to do with the crash?”

“That, and their persistent habit of living beyond their means. And I should clarify: John hasn’t specifically asked for help yet, but he’s been fishing for it. He’s asked me a couple of times how the estate is doing financially, and last week he almost asked me how much money Mum and Dad have got in the bank.”

“How do you ‘almost’ ask a question like that?”

“He asked me how much money Mum inherited when Grandpa Cartwright died. He already knew the answer to that, of course, so it wasn’t a real question.”

“Is the crash really affecting his bottom line, then?” asked Diana.

Edwin nodded. “It’s getting serious, Di. Stock prices are collapsing all over the world, and some of our financial institutions are starting to look quite precarious. It’s especially bad in America, but that has a knock-on effect over here, too. I suspect John’s really feeling the pinch.”

“But he’s got lots of room to consolidate, hasn’t he?” asked Dan. “That house must be worth a couple of million at least.”

“I don’t expect Juliet’s eager to sell.”

“And what about her?” said Diana. “Her family’s not exactly poverty-stricken.”

“No, but I think John and Juliet may have gone to that particular well too many times already.”

Dan stared at his brother. “How do you know this, Ed?” he asked.

“I don’t know it, but John has dropped hints.”

Diana sipped at her hot chocolate and sat back in her chair, stretching her legs out under the table. “Have you talked to Mum and Dad about this?”

“Yes, and I think they feel torn about it. Dad wants to help, but he knows John’s got to learn to live within his means. Mum’s being Mum, of course; John’s her oldest, and she’s inclined to be supportive of him, but even she knows there’s got to be a limit.”

“How many times has this happened before?” asked Diana.

“Two or three that I know about, but I think there may have been one or two earlier occasions, before I started running the estate.”

“Is he pulling the older brother on you?” asked Dan.

“He’s tried that once, and I shot him down right away. This is the twenty-first century, and we’re not the Royal Family; there’s no law of primogeniture for families like ours. Ever since he went off to university John’s taken absolutely no interest in Holton Park except when he needed cash; there’s absolutely no chance that Dad would leave him any sort of interest in the estate.”

“You’re sure about that, are you?” asked Diana.

“I’ve seen their wills.”

“You’ve seen their wills?”

“They revised them last year, and Mum consulted me about them. There are legacies for all of us, but Holton Park stays in my hands.”

Dan nodded. “That’s as it should be. After all, you’ve done all the work.”

“I can see John challenging it, though, when the time comes.”

Dan raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“He might claim I’ve exercised undue influence on Dad and Mum.”

Diana frowned. “But surely this is all very premature, isn’t it? I mean, we all know Dad’s health is precarious, but Mum’s still young and strong. She could easily live another twenty years or more.”

“Exactly,” Dan agreed.

“The three of us know that,” said Edwin, “and John does too, but that won’t stop him dreaming. Meanwhile, though, he’s going to keep coming after Mum and Dad. Has he asked either of you for money?”

Diana burst out laughing. “Have you got any idea how small my bank balance is, Eddie?”

Edwin smiled. “I can guess; I know you don’t make a lot of money.”

“He hasn’t asked me either,” said Dan, “but then, he wouldn’t take that approach, would he? If he knows you’re not sympathetic, he might try to use us to go around you and put pressure on Mum and Dad.”

“I wondered about that,” Edwin replied. “He hasn’t done it yet, though, has he?”

Dan and Diana both shook their heads. “He probably knows he’d get no sympathy from me,” said Diana. She glanced at Dan. “He might come after you, though. After all, Christians are supposed to be generous.”

“To the poor,” Dan replied, “not to the extravagant rich!”

Edwin smiled. “Well said, little bro! I’m rather relieved to hear you take that line, actually.”

“Surely you didn’t think I’d cave in to him?”

“No, not really, but I’m glad to have my opinion confirmed.”

“I don’t want to be mean to him, of course. I mean, he is our brother.”

“And if he asked me for financial advice, I’d be happy to give it to him,” said Edwin. “That’s the sort of help he really needs, but I’m afraid he’s not going to come begging for it until things get really desperate.”

Diana drained her hot chocolate and stifled a yawn. “Well, boys…”

“That time of night, is it?” asked Dan.

“I think so; I’m for my bed.” She smiled at them both. “God, it’s good to see you two. Not to get all sentimental on you, but I miss you.”

Dan put his hand on hers. “Miss you too,” he said. “And I was glad to see you brought a violin with you. Dad always enjoys it when you play for us.”

“I know; that’s why I brought it.” She got to her feet. “Okay, you two are turning into small little dots in the distance, so I’ve really got to find my bed while I still can.”

“Yeah, I should get my two up and take them home,” said Dan.

“Do you need to?” asked Edwin. “They’re fine up there by my room, and it’s not as if they’ve never slept there before.”

“True, but they’re sleeping in their underwear right now.”

“Run over and get their pyjamas, if you like, and I’ll put them by their beds in case they wake up in the night. Anyway, I think Lexy’s probably got at least one dog in bed with her.”

Dan laughed. “You’re probably right about that. Okay, I’ll run over home and get their pyjamas, and then perhaps I’ll leave them in your capable hands, Ed, if you don’t mind?”

“Not at all. I know where to find you if I need you.”

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