Chapter House


 

Devil's Hoof


  

Chapter One


  
The door slammed shut with sufficient force to shake the pale cream walls of the office. Gareth Swift sighed and leaned back in his black leather executive chair. Absently, he rubbed his chest, pushing his crimson silk tie askew. His lungs felt tight; his heart was racing. Pulling open a drawer of the antique mahogany desk he was sitting behind, he withdrew a foil card of aspirin and popped one of the pills into his hand. Tossing it in his mouth, he chewed with deliberation, his face contorting into a grimace at the taste, as he eyed the empty space where his son had been standing. Mathrafal’s tail! What was he going to do about Matthew? The boy would send him to an early grave with his antics.

Gareth ran a hand through his grizzled grey hair. At thirty-three, it was high time Matt took on his responsibilities. As his eldest son and leader of the Swift family’s bachelor herd, it would fall to Matt to carry on the bloodline and to keep the mares and foals safe. Hippolytus help them, when Gareth died, Matt’s word would be law. He would be the head of the herd, the Lead Stallion, and so it was time he selected a Lead Mare. The merest suggestion of this – and he had not even mentioned marriage! – had made Matt fly off the handle.


Ever since Matt had been discharged from the Special Forces on medical grounds, he had been like a loose cannon, ready to misfire at the slightest thing. He had resisted all attempts to persuade him to take his rightful place in the company, Rhos Ffynnon Water, or to settle down to any gainful occupation. What was a concerned father to do? Matt was a grown man and could make his own decisions, but so much was at stake and Gareth feared that under the rampant behaviour, his heir was hiding a very real, deep-seated trauma following his time in Iraq.


He once more rubbed his pink and white striped shirt in the area of his heart, his fingers palpating the skin beneath. Added to his anxiety for his son, the pressure he was under from this hostile attempted buyout of the company and the herd’s land by Arran Water, it was no wonder he was feeling the strain. If Gwendolyn ever found out what was going on, that he was self-medicating, she would kill him. He grinned in wry amusement at the bad joke. That was much too close to home.

 

~~*~~

 

Matthew Swift almost galloped past the pretty brunette receptionist without pausing to make her flush with some flirtatious remark as he usually did. He felt anything but flirtatious and Gaynor did not deserve to be snapped at because he was furious with his father. Brushing the leaves of a lush green rubber plant with his shoulder as he hauled open the door to the outer world, he could feel his inner stallion demanding to be let loose.


Anger often did that to him. It was as if the primal pull of the wild half of his nature was woken by the heat of such a basic emotion. Pausing just over the threshold, he scanned the tree-lined tarmac of the business park in front of him, clenching his fists at his sides as he sought control. All the while, he sniffed the air currents, without conscious thought following his stallion’s instincts to be aware of his environment, to protect his herd. He turned his head, listening. He could hear children playing in the school playground less than a mile beyond the Rhos Ffynnon warehouse. A dog was barking in the distance and a lorry was beeping its reverse warning. He could hear the gentle hum of traffic in Presteigne’s High Street and the muted coo-coo of pigeons in the woodland not far away.


The chill February air brought the aroma of bacon from a mobile sandwich bar, for once not tainted with the usual accompaniment of burnt fat; the fresh scent of water from the River Lugg, and the earthy smells of peat moss and leaf mould. A faint whiff of perry drifted to his flared nostrils from the vats of a small local brewer, making him lick his lips and taste the heady fumes hanging in the breeze.


“God, I need a drink,” he muttered to himself. Making a quick decision, he jerked into motion, jogging across the parking area to his beat-up blue Toyota truck. Alongside the shiny Fiestas, Polos, Corsas and his father’s Mercedes, it looked even more decrepit than usual. Splattered with mud and limestone dust from the nearby quarries, its wheel arches were rusty and the plastic tax disc holder was peeling away from the windscreen at one corner. None of these things worried Matt, however. He set no great store by material belongings. He still lived at home, when not ‘camping out’ at a girlfriend’s and while he did own a log cabin, situated in a remote spot in the Rhandor Forest, he could, when the mood took him, fill a kit bag with a change of clothes and a few other essentials and take off into the mountains for weeks at a time.


He was a trained soldier and, like the rest of his family, a were-horse. His forebears had lived in the Welsh mountains for centuries. To him, survival was second nature.


As he lifted one denim-clad leg under the steering wheel, it was natural to him to glance around, always alert for danger or anything out of the ordinary. His surveillance was swift, almost unconscious, as he lowered himself into the navy leather driving seat, pulled in his other leg and swung the door closed with a dull clang, yet he noticed the platinum blonde woman in the purple coat.


“What the hell’s she doing here?” he wondered aloud as he fired the engine and reversed the truck out of its space. “Pegasus’ wings! She wouldn’t be following me, would she?”


By the time he was turning out of Rhos Ffynnon Water’s forecourt, the woman, who had been standing beside a small silver Volkswagen beetle, was no longer in sight. He wondered if his imagination was playing tricks on him. Why, after all, would Xandra be here? She lived and worked in Kington and when they had broken up a couple of weeks ago, she had first screamed vitriol at him, then with strident acidity declared she would rather walk Offa’s Dyke barefoot than ever speak to him again.


Matt shrugged. He had tried to let her down gently, but some women just could not take rejection. They both knew their time together had run its course, and while it had been fun while it lasted, neither of them had been committed to the other in any meaningful way. Indeed, he had sensed that Xandra’s eye had been starting to roam, so he had called a halt before she could dump him with the ignominy she doubtless would have engineered. He thought back. He had been a gentleman about it. He had bought tickets for a Take That concert, her favourite band, and presented her with a pretty silver charm bracelet afterwards. Being the self-centred little witch she was, he knew how well she would have delighted in making a public sacrifice of him if he had allowed her to break off their relationship. He could not prevent a sour smile. He should have realized how it would be when he came home and discovered she had changed her name ‒ or, to be accurate, the spelling. She had been christened Sandra, but that had not fitted her image as an upwardly-mobile hairdresser. His lip curled in derision. He did not care what her name was and failed to see what possible difference it could make. To his mind, what mattered was how good she was at her job. It had been one of several bones of contention in the latter stages of their liaison.


Running his hand through his thick, dark blond hair, he pulled out of the Business Park, pausing at the junction to consider whether or not to turn right to Kington for his alcoholic boost. Xandra would just have to accept that it was over, he thought, checking the road and signalling left before pulling out, having opted to enjoy one or two beers at the Whimble Arms in Drumfras instead. So what if it were five minutes to four in the afternoon?

 

~~*~~

 

Shani Stevens dashed away an angry tear and kicked the smart red Jeep’s tyre in frustration. Not that it was the car’s fault that it was sitting half in and half out of a ditch. She glowered at the pregnant ewe which stood cropping the grass on the other side of the unfenced road, oblivious of the mess it had got her into.


Sighing, she flicked her wavy auburn hair over one shoulder and looked around her. It was an isolated spot, on a road which did not even aspire to ‘B’ status. She had come over the brow of one hill and was now descending between two more – or she had been until the mishap with the sheep. Short, ovine-nibbled grass, interspersed with clumps of heather, bracken and bilberry in their drab winter costume, stretched on either side of the narrow lane to distant woodland. It was just her luck, Shani thought bitterly, to crash the Jeep beyond sight of habitation and where her mobile ’phone would not receive a signal. Sighing again, she looked up at the dull sky and checked her watch. Dusk would be settling in before much longer and she had no wish to spend the night in the car.


Pulling open the driver’s side door, she snatched up the map from the grey fabric passenger seat with its natty red stripe. Running her finger along the pale brown line representing the road she was on, she came to some tiny brown squares and breathed a little easier. There was a hamlet a little further on. She would have to walk.


She leaned into the back seat for her warm, padded jacket, its buttercup yellow a cheerful splash of colour against the gloomy greys and greens of her surroundings. Shrugging it on, she added her hand-knitted red, purple and yellow scarf and red knitted hat. She swung her blue denim bag over her shoulder, shut the car door with a snap and locked it with her key fob. That was when she heard the low thrum of an engine.


Bit by bit, the throaty throb grew louder. There was an odd comfort in the sound. Shani was not superstitious by nature, but she crossed her fingers inside the pocket of her jacket just in case. She tried to remember if she had passed any buildings where the vehicle might stop before it reached her. There had been a large house on the brow of the hill, but she did not think the sound of an engine would carry from there. A few hundred yards away, a bend in the road hid the vehicle’s approach, but she was convinced it was coming nearer. Chewing her bottom lip, she stepped away from the ditch so she could flag down the driver.


A blue pick-up came roaring out of the bend, clouds of black smoke belching from its exhaust. For one horrible moment Shani thought it was going to sail on past, but at the last moment there was a screech of brakes and it pulled to the side of the single track road, bare inches from the ditch and her unhappy Jeep.


The driver’s door opened and as a figure got out, a weak beam of sunlight chose to break through the thick, grey cumulus, blinding her for a moment.


“You seem to be in a spot of trouble there. Need a hand?”


The voice was soft and deep, redolent of chocolate and brandy liqueur and flavoured with a hint of a Welsh lilt. Sexy and husky, it did funny things to her insides, things she had never felt before. Of a sudden, her mouth was dry. She cleared her throat, annoyed when her own voice sounded croaky.


“If you could give me a lift to the nearest—” She broke off as the man moved to the front of the truck.


It was the discovery of an unexpected truth which could be so frightening sometimes. The quote popped into her head from nowhere. She could not remember where she had read or heard it, but it described how she felt to perfection. She gazed at the beautiful masculine form across the bonnet of the pick-up and knew she had never felt such a connection with another being. Her skin sizzled, and it had nothing to do with the scant warmth of the sunshine which still bathed her.


He was tall, impossibly handsome with a shadow of stubble over his firm jaw. Against the light, she could not see the colour of his eyes, but his face was lean with a narrow nose, his cheek bones well defined and his dark blond hair close cropped yet showing a tendency to wave. He wore a black or dark grey sleeveless T-shirt, faded blue jeans and no jacket, in spite of the coldness of the day, and she could just make out a livid scratch on his left biceps.


Almost as soon as it had arrived, the sun retreated behind the clouds and Shani flushed as the stranger met her stare and arched an ironic eyebrow.


“Er – sorry,” she stuttered. “Yes – er – if you would be kind enough to take me to a ’phone… mine won’t work in these hills… or to a hotel or B and B, I can get someone to pull my car out… It’ll be tomorrow now, I suppose…” Aware that she was babbling, she relapsed into silence as the man, who she guessed to be in his early thirties, came around the pick-up and went to investigate the Jeep’s plight.


For several minutes he said not another word as he squatted down on both sides of her car, peering underneath it and pushing at the tyres with his foot. Shani’s heart thudded so hard she was sure he must hear it. He was so unlike any man she had ever met before. There was a primal quality to him, something earthy and elemental which she could not quite name and yet it drew her like Pooh Bear to honey.


“I think we can do better than that,” he said at last, in belated answer to her request.


Standing up, he went to the back of his pick-up, passing between her and the Jeep as he did so. Shani caught a whiff of his aftershave; a clean, fresh smell of shady forests and ferns, with a hint of pine. Her heart skipped a beat. She stepped backwards, crossing her arms in front of her as if by doing so she could somehow ward off the incomprehensible effect he was having on her. Six feet three or four of hard-muscled, arrogant male was more than she could contend with right now… and if she were honest, more than she had ever been able to contend with.


She forced her features into a mask of composure as he returned with a thick, reinforced tow-rope in his square, capable-looking hands. Dropping to his knees behind the Jeep, he leaned underneath it and attached one end of the rope, pulling it hard several times to ensure it was secure before regaining his feet in a smooth, effortless manner which intimated at a healthy and active lifestyle. Unable to look away, she watched through the screen of her auburn eyelashes as he walked with pantherine grace to his truck, climbed in and with practised ease turned it around before backing it up to the foundered Jeep. Within seconds, it seemed, he had connected the rope to his tow-bar, checked the Jeep’s handbrake was off and having returned to the pick-up, was hauling the red car out of the ditch.


“I can’t thank you enough, Mister—?” she said when he returned to disconnect the rope.


The sudden crooked smile he threw at her tingled over her skin as if he had touched her. It dispelled the shadows which lurked in his soft brown eyes. Puppy-dog eyes, she thought, feeling breathless… a puppy who has perhaps been beaten, or abandoned; a puppy who has lost hope. She gave herself a mental shake. She must have eaten too many mint imperials. The smile crinkled the corners of those expressive eyes, yet somehow made him look younger. Shani ran her tongue across her dry lips.


The stranger held out his hand. “Matthew Swift ‒ and the pleasure’s all mine,” he said, looking her up and down in an appraising way which made her itch to slap him. The smile widened and he tilted his head in expectant query.


“Oh, yes, I’m Siân Stevens. Shani.” She rushed into speech and in the same instant cringed inside for the ridiculous image she was projecting. Whatever must he be thinking?


“Well, Ms. Siân Stevens-Shani,” he murmured in his sinful, seductive voice, holding out his hand, “if you’ll give me your keys, I’ll check if your car will still start.”


“Th-thank you.” For goodness’ sake, Shani, get a grip! As she handed over the keys with the velvety long-tailed pony dangling from the ring, their fingers brushed. A charge of electricity hummed between them and buzzed up her arm, making a gasp spring to her lips. Her eyes shot to his, but he was already turning away. She wondered if he had felt it too.


Moments later the Jeep roared to life and her rescuer’s face appeared above its roof.

“Where are you headed?”

“New Radnor,” she replied. “I’m booked into a B and B at Drumfras for a few days.”

He nodded. “On holiday?”

“That’s right. I love ancient sites – castles and so on. I plan to visit some while I’m here.”

“Well, watch how you go, especially in the Forest. It can be harsh up there in the hills at this time of year. The mist can come down without warning.”

“Thank you. I’ll be careful. And thank you again for pulling me out.”

“Pleased to be able to help. I’m going to Drumfras myself. I’ll follow you ‒ make sure you get there okay.”


She suspected him of mockery, but could see no evidence of it in his handsome countenance.


“It’s good of you to offer, but there’s no real need. I’m sure you have more important things to do than ride herd on a foolish tourist who runs herself into a ditch to avoid a stupid sheep!”


He grinned; a charming, boyish curve of his lips which had an alarming effect on her skeleton’s ability to support her. She had a strong suspicion he was quite aware of the devastation it could wreak on the female senses.


“Maybe I have and maybe I haven’t.” He winked, the gesture suggestive, but then, for no reason she was aware of, his whole demeanour changed. The shadows seemed to have returned to his fathomless eyes. “Where are you from, Ms. Stevens?”

“I live in Herefordshire,” she replied, “but my parents are Welsh.”

“Then you will be aware that in Wales – and Radnorshire in particular, for we do not consider ourselves belonging to Powys – we take hospitality very seriously. I will escort you to your accommodation.”


There was something in his tone, something primordial, dark and powerful which brooked no argument. In normal circumstances she would rebel at such peremptory and unwanted interference from anyone; more so if it came from a man. It therefore surprised her when she found something deep inside her responding – that inherent feminine part of her which reached out to the protection of a masterful male.


She gave him a brief nod. “All right, if you insist.”


Climbing into the Jeep, she put it into gear and drove away. In no time at all, the blue truck was following, its headlights glowing like twin suns in the gathering murk, the body of the vehicle a dark, menacing presence behind them. Could vehicles take on the personae of their owners? Shani shivered. It was a chilling thought. For all his kindness in rescuing her from the ditch, there was something forbidding about the man in the pick-up. He was complicated, without a doubt dangerous to her in ways she did not want to think about and although he was undeniably attractive, she was not at all sure she ever wanted to see him again.


To her relief, having escorted her to the bed and breakfast establishment she had booked for the duration of her stay in the area, Matthew lifted one finger to his temple in farewell and drove off in a cloud of black smoke. Releasing the breath she had held without meaning to, Shani took her suitcase from the boot space of the Jeep and walked across the small parking area to the front entrance of the little hotel. A log pergola with an apex roof sheltered the doorway which stood two grey stone steps up from the gravelled forecourt. Gnarled stems ranging from green to reddish brown provided evidence that in the summer the pergola was festooned with roses, while a range of ceramic pots offered winter colour and texture to soften, through pansies and dwarf conifers, where once there had been garden.


Receiving a warm greeting from her hostess, Bronwen Jones, Shani was shown to her room, which was situated at the back of the house. It had fine views to Great Rhos in one direction; the Smatcher and Highgate Hill in the other. The room itself was pleasant, if small, being painted cream and furnished with solid pine. The bed stood beneath the window with a small bedside cabinet next to it and against the facing wall was a large, free-standing wardrobe. Opposite the door was a chest of drawers with a mirror hanging above it and a rocking chair sat in one corner. Patchwork covers of soft creams, greens and blues adorned the bed and chair, whilst hanging at the window were curtains of heavy ivory with a single green horizontal stripe near the bottom edge.


Following a hearty supper of good Welsh mutton in a rich stew with dumplings, and home-baked apple pie topped with thick yellow cream, Shani was more than satisfied with her accommodation and her landlady. A widow with a teenage son to support, Bronwen had explained that although Rhiw Tyin (Hill House) was, in essence, a bed and breakfast establishment, since it was the close season she would be happy to provide dinner for a small supplement. Shani had been glad to accept.


Having shared the washing up, since a natural affinity had seen them migrate to the kitchen, the two women were sitting at the solid pine table, chatting over mugs of tea. Both hands cupped about the fine porcelain, which was painted with a dainty portrait of a tiny grey Welsh Mountain pony on a green hillside, Bronwen was interested in Shani’s plans.


“Not that I mind, of course, but what brings you here at this time of the year?” she was asking. “Most folks steer clear in the wintertime.”


Shani took a sip of scalding tea from her own mug, which depicted a stunning example of a black Welsh Cob stallion, the largest of the four different sizes in the Welsh Stud Book.


“I had some leave owing,” she said, “which I had to take before the end of the month, and I wanted some peace and quiet.”

Bronwen chuckled. “You should get that all right! If you like walking, there are some fabulous views to be had hereabouts, many of them in and around Rhandor Forest. There are lots of paths and tracks to explore, but be careful. The mist can come down a bit sharpish.”

“Yes, so I’ve been informed.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you’d been talking to the locals already! I thought you had just arrived.”

“I have.” Shani gave a brief résumé of her mishap with the sheep and her encounter with the enigmatic Matthew Swift.


“Oh, they’re good lads, the Swift boys!” Bronwen smiled and pushed her brown curls back from her forehead. Her hazel eyes twinkled with memory. “I used to have a crush on their father Gareth, back in the days before I met my husband. Of course I was a dumpy little thing then – not that much has changed!” she laughed, giving her curvy frame a rueful look, “– with all the hang-ups of puberty, and Gareth was the dashing sixth former. We all had a crush on him! He played the field, of course. You couldn’t blame him, but he never noticed me, much to my chagrin at the time. He and his family own and run Rhos Ffynnon Water – you know, bottled spring water?” Shani nodded. “They have a huge farm on the other side of the Forest. They need a lot of space, they’re a big family. It’s quite weird, though.” In the manner of someone imparting a secret, Bronwen lowered her voice, although there were just the two of them. “Gareth’s been married five times, but they all still live together in perfect amity! All the wives and the children, all in one huge house! How wacky is that?”


Unbidden, an image of Matthew Swift’s haunted countenance invaded Shani’s mind’s eye. Did he feel somehow rejected, he, his mother and any siblings cast aside, yet trapped – publicly at least – in a happy, extended family unit? She snapped back to attention as Bronwen prattled on.


“Matt, now, he’s the heir, but he was wild as a youngster. Going into the army was the making of him. He’s not long come home from Iraq – invalided out, if you listen to the gossip. Doesn’t seem to have settled to anything yet. You want to watch that one! Good looking boy; knows how to put on the charm – just like his father! – but he’s a jack-the-lad. He’ll break your heart and never look back… Jamie, now, he’s Matt’s younger brother and Gareth’s right hand man at Rhos Ffynnon. The word is that he’ll take over when his father retires. He’s calmer, steadier than Matt. Then there’s Megan. She’s working as a fashion designer in Aberystwyth and lastly there’s Gavin. He’s a vet. That’s Gwendolyn’s brood. Then there’s second wife Cerys and her children Catherine, Charlotte and Michael…”


When Shani crawled into bed late that night, her head was reeling and she had quite decided she wanted nothing further to do with Matthew Swift or his bizarre family. How was it, then, that she could not get him out of her mind?

 

~~*~~

 

Having left the flame-haired beauty at Bronwen Jones’ Bed and Breakfast on Rectory Lane, Matt drove straight to the Whimble Arms on the High Street. Painted white with red window frames and front door, it was a warm, friendly inn where the beer was good and the landlord non-judgemental. He pushed through the glass-paned, inner double doors and paused, surveying the interior. The pub was quiet at this time of day, the only other patrons being two lads playing pool in the TV bar. His glance flicking over wooden tables and settles, red cushions and curtains, he lifted one hip on to a red leatherette-covered stool at the long walnut bar, then ordered a beer and a double whisky.


He was not given to drinking spirits when he was driving, but knew he could always bed down in the truck if necessary. He needed to somehow turn off the images in his head, the memories which haunted his dreams and would, without warning, inflict themselves on his consciousness when he least expected it. Random noise; shouting, explosions of gunfire, a bomb going off; the ground slipping away, the sensation of falling… and the terror of being buried alive… The images had hit him like the slap of a wet tail during his conversation with the tourist and it had taken all of his iron will not to run from her like a colt about to transform for the first time. He hated to allow anyone within a metaphorical mile of him when he was having an ‘episode’.


The strength of his attraction to the girl, Siân Stevens, had surprised him. She was tall, with a model’s poise and slender build which did not carry ‘much up top’. She was also a redhead. His usual preference was for busty blondes, although he hoped he was not as shallow as that made him sound. Personality was of equal, if not more, importance to him, but hey, he was a bloke and he liked women who knew the score…


His mind conjured the tourist’s svelte form and he smiled to himself as he drained the whisky and ordered another. She had felt the electricity zap between them the same as he had, yet it had seemed to disturb her. Not interested in entering into another relationship so soon after the break-up with Xandra, he had assumed the Lothario-style persona which most women appeared to mistrust, but somehow with her it had felt unkind and wrong. Something in her clear violet eyes had spoken to his soul, as if in times long past, he and she had been kindred spirits. There had been fear and attraction in equal measure in that fine gaze and he was not quite sure how he felt about it.


“Pegasus’ wings!” he groaned, draining the second whisky and then taking a mighty swallow of his beer. He gestured to the landlord. “Keep them coming, will you? I plan on getting drunk tonight.”

In the end, he imbibed sufficient alcohol to chase the shadows away and considered himself safe to drive after several tough games of pool with a couple of acquaintances. If he weaved a bit as he walked to the truck, it was from light-headedness, since he had had nothing to eat. It was dark in the pub car park apart from a halogen bulb which came on when someone walked beneath it, but soon went off again.


It went off when Matt was halfway between the pub and his truck. He stopped, staring into the sudden darkness around his lone vehicle and rubbed his eyes. Perhaps he was more drunk than he had thought. He sniffed the air. Was that the faintest trace of musky perfume? The halogen lamp came on again as somebody else exited the hostelry. Matt stared at his pick-up. It was empty as it should be, and there was no-one anywhere near it, yet the hairs on the back of his neck prickled and drunk or not, he knew what he had seen. Xandra had been sitting in the passenger seat.



© Heather King

No comments:

Post a Comment