Read The Amber Keeper Online

Authors: Freda Lightfoot

The Amber Keeper

OTHER TITLES BY FREDA LIGHTFOOT

Historical Sagas

Lakeland Lily

The Bobbin Girls

The Favourite Child

Kitty Little

For All Our Tomorrows

Gracie’s Sin

Daisy’s Secret

Ruby McBride

Dancing on Deansgate

Watch for the Talleyman

Polly Pride

Polly’s War

House of Angels

Angels at War

The Promise

My Lady Deceiver

The Luckpenny Series

Luckpenny Land

Wishing Water

Larkrigg Fell

Poorhouse Lane Series

The Girl from Poorhouse Lane

The Woman from Heartbreak House

Champion Street Market Series

Putting On The Style

Fools Fall In Love

That’ll Be The Day

Candy Kisses

Who’s Sorry Now

Lonely Teardrops

 

Women’s Contemporary Fiction

Trapped

 

Historical Romances

Madeiran Legacy

Whispering Shadows

Rhapsody Creek

Proud Alliance

Outrageous Fortune

 

Biographical Historicals

Hostage Queen

Reluctant Queen

The Queen and the Courtesan

The Duchess of Drury Lane

Lady of Passion

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2014 Freda Lightfoot

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

 

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781477826157

ISBN-10: 1477826157

 

Cover design by bürosüd° München,
www.buerosued.de

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014941656

To David and my family, who are always there for me.

PROLOGUE
1919

My snow-boots were worn through so that I walked on the ice that coated the rough mountain path, the soles of my feet numb with cold. Gasps of breath formed frozen crystals on those parts of my nose and cheeks not protected by scarf and fur hat. I had long since lost my small pony, the poor animal having bolted home in terror when the guns started, although whether she’d ever arrived is doubtful.

Home, if that is what you can call the house in which I had resided for so many years, no longer existed. It was but a shell of its former glory. I remembered how the darkness of the night seemed to press in upon me, almost as if I were back within those prison walls. I had closed my mind to the horrors I’d left behind, attempted to set aside my fears about those loved ones dear to my heart who had vanished from my life. Instead, I’d fixed my weary gaze on the heels of my guide trudging ahead of me, knowing that if I was to survive, I must stay focused. This was my last chance to get out of Russia.

We walked for days, through ice, snow and blizzard, sustaining ourselves with hunks of none-too-clean stale bread, and with nothing to wet our palette but sucking on icicles. When, hours later, we staggered into a cave, my knees gave way and I fell to the ground, weak with gratitude. I remember feeling a huge relief that at least I could rest for a while, thankful to be out of the bitter wind. The last two nights ‒ or was it three? ‒ we’d slept in the open, not even daring to light a fire in case the Bolsheviks should spot it and come searching. Curling myself thankfully into a corner, rubbing my hands and feet in an effort to stave off frostbite, I pulled up my collar, tucked my knapsack beside me and told myself firmly that I must not fall asleep. I was afraid I might never wake again, due to the fierce cold.

But despite my best efforts I must have fallen asleep instantly out of sheer exhaustion, for I knew nothing more till I was woken by a shaft of daylight filtering into the cave at dawn, and some strange sound that had alerted me. I sat up abruptly, looking around for my guide. He was nowhere to be seen. The man to whom I’d paid an exorbitant sum, every last kopek I possessed, had deserted me. I was quite alone. But as the sound of horses’ hooves clattering over rocks penetrated my befuddled brain, I realised I was about to experience some unwelcome company.

ONE

1963

I
t wasn’t until the crowds on the station platform began to clear that she saw him, a gaunt figure in a dark suit emerging like a ghost out of the steam. She stood frozen with grief and resentment as the Windermere train disgorged its passengers, heard the long hoot from its whistle and the slow grind of gears as it began to chug slowly out of the station again. Battling against the urge to jump back on board and return to Paris, anything rather than face the inevitable recriminations, Abigail felt as if this were very much the end of the line for herself as well as the train. She looked about her at the familiar scenery where pockets of snow still lingered on the mountain tops, the spring sunshine lending the frosted peaks a brilliant clarity, while the coolness of the breeze entirely suited her mood. She breathed in the clear air, as sharp and heady as champagne, and reminded herself that this was home. This was where her heart lay.

He came towards her not exactly with arms outstretched, as she had hoped, but with one hand raised in greeting and what might be evidence of a slight smile on his stiff lips.

‘Abigail, there you are, at last.’

‘Pops, it’s good to be home.’ A bleakness opened up inside her, giving the lie to her words. She hoped he might gather her into his arms as he’d used to do when she was a small child, but he made no move to do so. For years she’d dreamed of a reunion, but not for one moment had Abbie imagined it would be under such circumstances. She’d had ample time since the day she’d left home to reflect on how she could perhaps have handled things better. How wise we all are in retrospect. Unfortunately it was not possible to go back and change the past: one could only move on into a new future.

Grasping hold of her child’s hand she took a tentative step forward, as if echoing the thought. All too aware of the awkwardness between them she planted a kiss on each cool cheek in typical French fashion, but as he made no response, she stepped quickly back. It was almost as if they were strangers.

‘We rather expected you yesterday.’ His stilted tone sounded very like a reprimand.

‘I’m sorry, I missed the train.’ Deliberately. But she didn’t tell him that.

‘We’d almost given up hope.’

‘Oh, you should never give up hope, Dad. Sometimes it’s the only currency we have left.’ The quip was meant to lessen the tension between them. It failed miserably, although she hadn’t risked using her pet name for him this time.

Somewhere she could hear a tinny transistor radio playing
Please, Please Me
, and squeals of happiness at more joyous reunions taking place around them, which made Abigail feel even worse. At one time they would have engaged in jokey banter, perhaps about her Beatnik-style stripy jumper, or the fact she still couldn’t control her long, unruly dark hair despite the black beret she’d pulled down over it. ‘Get your hair cut, girl,’ he’d used to say in his sergeant major’s voice, and she would laugh and remind him she wasn’t one of his army recruits, and the war was long over. There were no such jokes today.

Taking a breath and drawing the child to her side, she said, ‘This is Aimée, my daughter. She’s been longing to meet you.’

‘And I you,’ Tom Myers politely remarked, bending a little to take a small hand in his and give it a little shake. But even the child recognised the insincerity of his words, saying nothing as she leaned shyly against her mother. Abbie smoothed her daughter’s soft curls in a comforting gesture.

What had she expected? Forgiveness, or that they could take up as if nothing had happened? In all these long years of separation, communication between her and her parents had been almost nil since the letter she’d sent when first she’d arrived in Paris, announcing she had no intention of returning to finish her studies. The few she’d written since had rarely been acknowledged. Had she dreamed that one day Kate would turn into the loving, caring mother she’d always longed for? That would never happen now. The opportunity for reconciliation between them was gone forever.

The drive to Carreckwater took longer than Abbie remembered, which was a pity as she and Aimée were both desperate for their beds, having spent a night sleeping rough at the Gare du Nord when they’d missed the train, or rather allowed it to leave without them. Fortunately they were able to close their eyes and nod off a little in the back seat of the car, the child’s head resting on her breast, warm and comforting, smelling sweetly of flowers and the doughnut she’d eaten earlier. Beyond a few polite comments about the weather, the journey was almost entirely silent, which was something of a relief.

Later, with Aimée asleep even before she was tucked into the small bed next to her mother’s old room up in the eaves, Abbie couldn’t resist the luxury of a long bath. The hot water and lavender oil were deliciously refreshing after the long journey and the tepid showers she was used to in the Paris apartment. Unfortunately, it proved to be a bad mistake to lie soaking too long, as her mind conjured up the hopes and dreams she’d indulged in the last time she’d used this bathroom, the night before she and Eduard had run off together. And of their parting row just a few days ago when her whole life seemed to collapse. Tears filled her eyes at the prospect of never seeing him again, just when she needed him most.

Why had he let her down so badly? Didn’t he love her? Had she failed to make him happy? Briskly rubbing herself dry, Abbie closed her mind to such hurtful memories. Her decision was made. Now she must learn to live with it and move forward, her first task being to attempt some sort of reconciliation with her father.

She chose a sensible knee-length dress in a soft caramel wool. Her father was a conservative man who still clung to old traditions and etiquette, so her black stirrup trousers and fake leopard-skin top would not meet with his approval. She did, however, daringly dab on a little green eye shadow which suited the brown eyes she’d inherited from her mother, a touch of mascara and pale pink
lipstick
. She even dutifully pinned up her hair into a French pleat. Then, pinching her cheeks to restore some colour to her somewhat pallid complexion, she proceeded down the wide staircase to the dining room.

The feel of the highly polished banister rail beneath her hand, the creak of the old floorboards, the very smell of the oak-panelled walls and ancient furniture somehow warmed her heart. She’d forgotten quite how much she missed this old house. From the outside Carreck Place appeared rather bland and square, fronting a wide lawn, but inside was quite a different story. There was an ageless charm to the house that Abbie had always loved. She half expected to see a Christmas tree standing in the hall and a huge fire blazing in the drawing room, and hear the sound of merry chatter from the many guests her mother had loved to gather about her.

The dining table this evening was set for only two, the meal taken largely in silence. Not that she managed to eat much of the freshly caught trout prepared by Mrs Brixton, the housekeeper. Abbie’s appetite seemed non-existent, despite the fact that she had barely eaten a thing on the long journey. Finally pushing away her untouched dessert, she accompanied her father to the library for coffee. Reality could no longer be ignored.

Abbie cleared her throat. ‘Tell me how it happened. Who found her?’

There was a long pause in which her father stared into the empty grate. Abbie shivered. It was cold in the library, a brisk March wind rattling the shutters, yet it hadn’t crossed his mind to order a welcoming fire to be lit for her return. Even so, the chill came not from the room itself but from the shock and anger that still reverberated within him.

Abbie had almost given up hope of receiving an answer to her question when finally her father began to speak, his tone carefully controlled, almost matter-of-fact. ‘I’d spent the afternoon walking over Loughrigg, since it was a Saturday, then called at the shop on the way home. Linda, the assistant, was unpacking a delivery of cabochons from the wholesalers and told me that Kate hadn’t been in. She’d taken quite a few days off recently as trade is often quiet at this time of year, so I wasn’t too concerned. Not till I arrived home at almost seven o’clock and found the house in complete darkness . . .’ Tom Myers paused to glance at his daughter. ‘You know how she loved to have all the lights blazing.’

Abbie nodded, feeling the tears start to blur her vision. ‘And Rachmaninoff blaring away. Where was Mrs Brixton?’

‘She’d been given the day off, apparently, or so I learned later.’

Heavy silence fell again and this time Abbie did nothing to encourage him to break it, suddenly unwilling to hear the conclusion to this story, even though she knew the ending, having been bluntly informed over the phone by her brother. It came anyway.

‘I found her hanging from the top banister rail. She must have been there some time.’

The horror of it all was suddenly too much and Abbie ran from the room to throw up what little she’d managed to eat at dinner down the cloakroom lavatory. She felt hot and cold all at the same time and couldn’t seem to stop shaking. Ever since she’d received the news of her mother’s suicide, Abbie had felt beset by a strange numbness, as if she were somehow detached from events. She’d gone about the business of packing her bags, booking a seat on the train, making the necessary arrangements to leave as if watching herself through frosted glass. Now, having rinsed the foul taste from her mouth and bathed her face in cold water, she finally allowed the flood of tears to come.

What on earth would make her mother take her own life? What terrible depths of despair had she sunk to, and, more to the point ‒ why? Was living here in beautiful Lakeland so impossibly awful? She’d run a successful business, had a loving husband, and her precious son and grandchildren lived not too far away, so what could possibly have made life so unbearable?

Returning to the library she found a small glass of brandy standing waiting for her on the coffee table. Casting her father a glance of gratitude, she took a sip, welcoming the spread of its warmth within. After a moment she said, ‘I still can’t quite believe this has happened. Why would she do such a thing?’

He looked at her, his glance chilling. ‘Need you ask?’

Something inside Abbie began to shrivel up. It had taken months to reclaim her self-esteem following the trauma of running away from home all those years ago, and within a few hours of returning she could feel it rapidly diminishing yet again. She strived to hang on to it, for she was no longer a rebellious teenager, but a woman of twenty-five with a child of her own. ‘Are you implying that this is in some way my fault?’

‘You were ever obstinate, completely oblivious to whatever your mother asked of you.’

‘Perhaps because she asked too much, expecting me to behave in a way that would put her in a good light, with no consideration for what I might want. She wasn’t an easy woman to please.’

Her father’s face tightened with a mixture of anguish and fury. ‘You know full well that she wanted only the best for you. It wasn’t easy for her, being adopted.’

Emotion blocked her throat and tears again threatened. ‘I’m sorry, Dad, but I don’t understand. Why did she have all those hang-ups when Gran absolutely adored her? And what did
I
do that was so terrible?’

‘You broke your mother’s heart, Abigail, by taking off into the unknown with that ne’er-do-well.’

Abbie’s heart contracted at these words. She really had no wish to discuss her failed love life with her father at this stage. Maybe she’d talk to Gran later. Lifting her chin, she held fast to her pride. ‘Actually, Eduard was the love of my life.’ Or so it had seemed at the age of barely eighteen. The fact that he was well into his thirties at the time, and married, hadn’t troubled her in the slightest.

It occurred to Abbie that perhaps she really wasn’t any good at relationships. It was certainly true that there’d been no closeness with her mother during her adolescent and teenage years, nor had they seen eye-to-eye on the future Kate had planned for her. There’d been no easy mother‒daughter rapport between them at that time. Now there never would be. Was this where foolish rebellion had taken her ‒ to be forever scarred by guilt?

Even so, Abbie longed to challenge her father’s accusation by asking why, if it were true that she was the cause of her mother’s alleged broken heart, it had taken Kate seven years for her to act upon it. Yet how could she do that when he was so desperately upset and grieving?

‘When is the funeral?’ she asked instead, tactfully changing the subject.

‘Tomorrow. I was beginning to think you’d miss it. Robert and Fay will be here first thing with the children, although of course the little ones will not attend. You’d never believe how Carrie has grown, no longer a baby but a lively toddler of eighteen months, and young Jonathon starts school soon.’

Abbie quickly bent her head to rummage in her tote-bag for a hanky, unwilling for her father to witness the pain she felt at hearing the pride in his voice, and the way he smiled as he mentioned his grandchildren. It was an emotion he’d never expressed over her own daughter, and there’d been no smile for her lovely Aimée.

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