Linden Bulstrode was coldly furious, not with Polly, but with himself.
His youthful dalliance with Polly had foundered on his father’s opposition to the match and he’d given way to the older man’s strictures, with pride keeping him silent. Since his father's death, he’d done much to reverse the clinging to the past that dogged the village and sent their best people elsewhere, expecting her gratitude to overcome her earlier disappointment in him. Henry Cowper and her father both clung to the past, the blacksmith following a trade rooted in the dark ages and the father using out-dated methods that made his holding subsistence level at best.
Now he’d mismanaged the whole affair with Polly and it was her fault—she always brought out the worst in him, making him revert to the old ways by her challenges. He was being unfair…and he knew it.
Henry would undoubtedly make their rendezvous in the orchard another confrontation. There’d been enough of them since they’d played together as boys. The strapping blacksmith had learnt to hide his bullyboy ways since then, but he’d revert soon enough in private…
The thought was a catalyst to a plan that washed the fury from Linden’s mind and eased his features into a smile. It might nudge the remainder of the village into his way of thinking and condemn Henry, her father and all the other fogies into the past, where they belonged.
Polly fought against her father’s strength. The old man might be ailing but he retained enough of the strength that had made him a feared bare-knuckle fighter to overcome her resistance. “Leave him go, lass. Squire Bulstrode needs to be shown and Henry is the man to do it.” The old man still used the old title. “He treated you badly in the past and now he has to pay.”
She tried to push past him and reach the door.
“No, lass. I want you to go to your room and stay there. You mustn’t interfere.”
Polly stood stubborn, willing him to give way, but he continued to push her towards her door, smiling at her resistance.
“Go in there and stay. The window’s too small since you’ve become a full grown woman.” She used to slip out of it in her teens and get up to more mischief than he knew about.
“All right,” she gave way. “I’ll go to my room, but you’re both wrong.” She had her own secrets.
“I’ll put the bar across the door,” her father warned.
“Do as you wish.” She shrugged her shoulders. It had been years since he’d last locked her in her room to enforce his words. Her window faced the path to the orchard and it wasn’t long before she saw him join Henry and head towards the rendezvous with the Squire.
Removing the window frame was the work of minutes, Linden had shown her how, and this made it possible for her to slip through and land gently on the turned earth of the garden bed. She’d have to tidy it on her way back in lest her secret be discovered, but she must hurry.
The moon had risen, bathing the orchard in silver light, turning the shadows beneath the trees black, but Linden stood exposed in the swale, his face lit by the moon.
“It’s the old team,” he mocked. “Which one will hold me this time? Is it your turn, Henry?”
“I need no one to best you.” Henry rumbled. “Did it often enough in the past.”
“Getting too big to need the old man?” Linden jibed, taunting the both of them. “But, you still brought him along.”
Henry rushed forward, head down, intent of crushing resistance.
Linden stood, curiously casual until the last second… and then his movement blurred in the uncertain light and Henry went flying over his head to crash full length on the untilled earth.
“Not all my studies were wasted,” the young Squire commented. “My Chinese history tutor was a Shaolin monk.” He turned his back on her father, standing oddly hipshot as he waited for Henry to rise.
What happened next shocked Polly into a half scream. Her father took three paces and threw a savage punch aimed at Linden’s kidneys. It never connected and her cry of alarm was unnecessary. Linden’s weight shifted from one leg to the other and he helped her father fall past him as he swiveled, taking her father’s arm with him to wrench the shoulder joint.
“I didn’t think you’d wait,” Linden said, stepping back from the two fallen men. “Now the others can see you for what you are. Relics of a past age, brainless bullyboys.”
Polly watched the other villagers emerge from the shadows and stand silent.
Linden felt no pride in humbling the two men, no bitterness for the past. His only satisfaction was the breaking of their influence on the others. The changes the village must make to survive an uncertain future might come a little easier now. Polly’s white face shone in the moonlight and he remembered her cry of warning, but now was not the time to approach her. He’d made too many mistakes already. She must come to him when she was ready…