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Julian Britton was a man who knew that his life thus far had amounted to nothing. He bred his dogs, he managed the crumbling ruin that was his family's estate, and daily he tried to lecture his father away from the bottle. That was the extent of it. He hadn't been a success at anything save pouring gin down the drain, and now, at twenty-seven years of age, he felt branded by failure. But he couldn't allow that to affect him tonight. Tonight he had to prevail.
He began with his appearance, giving himself a ruthless scrutiny in his bedroom's cheval glass. He straightened the collar of his shirt and flicked a piece of lint from his shoulder. He stared at his face and schooled his features into the expression he wanted them to wear. He should look completely serious, he decided. Concerned, yes, because concern was reasonable. But he shouldn't look conflicted. And certainly he shouldn't look ripped up inside and wondering how he came to be where he was, at this precise moment, with his world a shambles.
As to what he was going to say, two sleepless nights and two endless days had given Julian plenty of time to rehearse what remarks he wished to make when the appointed hour rolled round. Indeed, it was in elaborate but silent fantasy conversations—tinged with no more worry than was enough to suggest that he had nothing personal invested in the matter—that Julian had spent most of the past two nights and two days that had followed Nicola Maiden's unbelievable announcement. Now, after forty-eight hours engaged in endless colloquies within his own skull, Julian was eager to get on with things, even if he had no assurance that his words would bring the result he wanted.
He turned from the cheval glass and fetched his car keys from the top of the chest of drawers. The fine sheen of dust that usually covered its walnut surface had been removed. This told Julian that his cousin had once again submitted to the cleaning furies, a sure sign that she'd met defeat yet another time in her determined course of sobering up her uncle.
Samantha had come to Derbyshire with just that intention eight months previously, an angel of mercy who'd one day shown up at Broughton Manor with the mission of reuniting a family torn asunder for more than three decades. She hadn't made much progress in that direction, however, and Julian wondered how much longer she was going to put up with his father's bent towards the bottle.
"We've got to get him off the booze, Julie," Samantha had said to him only that morning. "You must see how crucial it is at this point."
Nicola, on the other hand, knowing his father eight years and not merely eight months, had long been of a live-and-let-live frame of mind. She'd said more than once, "If your dad's choice is to drink himself silly, there's nothing you can do about it, Jules. And there's nothing that Sam can do either." But then, Nicola didn't know how it felt to see one's father slipping ever more inexorably towards debauchery, absorbed in intensely inebriated delusions about the romance of his past. She, after all, had grown up in a home where how things seemed was identical to how things actually were. She had two parents whose love never wavered, and she'd never suffered the dual desertion of a flower-child mother flitting off to "study" with a tapestry-clad guru the night before one's own twelfth birthday and a father whose devotion to the bottle far exceeded any attachment he might have displayed towards his three children. In fact, had Nicola ever once cared to analyse the differences in their individual upbringing, Julian thought, she might have seen that every single one of her bloody decisions—
At that he brought his thoughts up short. He would not head in that direction. He could not afford to head in that direction. He could not afford to let his mind wander from the task that was immediately at hand.
"Listen to me." He grabbed his wallet from the chest and shoved it into his pocket. "You're good enough for anyone. She got scared shitless. She took a wrong turn. That's the end of it. Remember that. And remember that everyone knows how good the two of you always were together."
He had faith in this fact. Nicola Maiden and Julian Britton had been part of each other's life for years. Everyone who knew them had long ago concluded that they belonged together. It was only Nicola who, it appeared, had never come to terms with this fact.
"I know that we were never engaged," he'd told her two nights previously in response to her declaration that she was moving away from the Peaks permanently and would only be back for brief visits henceforth. "But we've always had an understanding, haven't we? I wouldn't be sleeping with you if I wasn't serious about... Come on, Nick. Damn it, you know me."
It wasn't the proposal of marriage he'd planned on making to her, and she hadn't taken it as such. She'd said bluntly, "Jules, I like you enormously. You're terrific, and you've been a real friend. And we get on far better than I've ever got on with any other bloke."
"Then you see—"
"But I don't love you," she went on. "Sex doesn't equate to love. It's only in films and books that it does."
He'd been too stunned at first to speak. It was as if his mind had become a blackboard and someone had taken a rubber to it before he had a chance to make any notes. So she'd continued.
She would, she told him, go on being his girlfriend in the Peak District if that's what he wanted. She'd be coming to see her parents now and again, and she'd always have time—and be happy, she said—to see Julian as well. They could even continue as lovers whenever she was in the area if he wished. That was fine by her. But as to marriage? They were too different as people, she explained.
"I know how much you want to save Broughton Manor," she'd said. "That's your dream, and you'll make it come true. But I don't share that dream, and I'm not going to hurt either you or myself by pretending I do. That's not fair on anyone."
Which was when he finally repossessed his wits long enough to say bitterly, "It's the God damn money. And the fact I've got none, or at least not enough to suit your tastes."
"Julian, it isn't. Not exactly." She'd turned from him briefly, giving a long sigh. "Let me explain."
He'd listened for what had seemed like an hour, although she'd likely spoken ten minutes or less. At the end, after everything had been said between them and she'd climbed out of the Rover and disappeared into the dark gabled porch of Maiden Hall, he'd driven home numbly, shell-shocked with grief, confusion, and surprise, thinking No, she couldn't . . . she can't mean No. After Sleepless Night Number One, he'd come to realise—past his own pain—how great was the need for him to take action. He'd phoned, and she'd agreed to see him. She would always, she said, be willing to see him.
He gave a final glance in the mirror before he left the room, and he treated himself to a last affirmation: "You were always good together. Keep that in mind."
He slipped along the dim upstairs passage of the manor house and looked into the small room that his father used as a parlour. His family's increasingly straitened financial circumstances had effected a general retreat from all the larger rooms downstairs that had slowly been made uninhabitable as their various antiques, paintings, and objets d'art were sold to make ends meet. Now the Brittons lived entirely on the house's upper floor. There were abundant rooms for them, but they were cramped and dark.
Jeremy Britton was in the parlour. As it was half past ten, he was thoroughly blotto, head on his chest and a cigarette burning down between his fingers. Julian crossed the room and removed the fag from his father's hand. Jeremy didn't stir.
Julian cursed quietly, looking at him: at the promise of intelligence, vigour, and pride completely eradicated by the addiction. His father was going to burn the place down someday, and there were times—like now—when Julian thought that complete conflagration might be all for the best. He crushed out Jeremy's cigarette and reached into his shirt pocket for the packet of Dunhills. He removed it and did the same with his father's lighter. He grabbed up the gin bottle and left the room.
He was dumping the gin, cigarettes, and lighter into the dustbins at the back of the manor house when he heard her speak.
"Caught him at it again, Julie?"
He started, looked about, but failed to see her in the gloom. Then she rose from where she'd been sitting: on the edge of the drystone wall that divided the back entrance of the manor from the first of its overgrown gardens. An untrimmed wisteria—beginning to lose its leaves with the approach of autumn—had sheltered her. She dusted off the seat of her khaki shorts and sauntered over to join him.
"I'm beginning to think he wants to kill himself," Samantha said in the practical manner that was her nature. "I just haven't come up with the reason why."
"He doesn't need a reason," Julian said shortly. "Just the means."
"I try to keep him off the sauce, but he's got bottles everywhere." She glanced at the dark manor house that rose before them like a fortress in the landscape. "I do try, Julian. I know it's important." She looked back at him and regarded his clothes. "You're looking very smart. I didn't think to dress up. Was I supposed to?"
Julian returned her look blankly, his hands moving to his chest to pat his shirt, searching for something that he knew wasn't there.
"You've forgotten, haven't you?" Samantha said. She was very good at making intuitive leaps.
Julian waited for elucidation.
"The eclipse," she said.
"The eclipse?" He thought about it. He clapped a hand to his forehead. "God. The eclipse. Sam. Hell. I'd forgotten. Is the eclipse tonight? Are you going somewhere to see it better?"
She said with a nod to the spot from which she'd just emerged, "I've got us some provisions. Cheese and fruit, some bread, a bit of sausage. Wine. I thought we might want it if we have to wait longer than you'd thought."
"To wait? Oh hell, Samantha..." He wasn't sure how to put it. He hadn't intended her to think he meant to watch the eclipse with her. He hadn't intended her to think he meant to watch the eclipse at all.
"Have I got the date wrong?" The tone of her voice spoke her disappointment. She already knew that she had the date right and that if she wanted to see the eclipse from Eyam Moor, she was going to have to hike out there alone.
His mention of the lunar eclipse had been a casual remark. At least, that's how he'd intended it to be taken. He'd said conversationally, "One can see it quite well from Eyam Moor. It's supposed to happen round half past eleven. Are you interested in astronomy, Sam?"
Samantha had obviously interpreted this as an invitation, and Julian felt a momentary annoyance with his cousin's presumption. But he did his best to hide it because he owed her so much. It was in the cause of reconciling her mother with her uncle—Julian's father—that she'd been making her lengthy visits to Broughton Manor from Winchester for the past eight months. Each stay had become progressively longer as she found more employment round the estate, either in the renovation of the manor house proper or in the smooth running of the tournaments, fêtes, and reenactments that Julian organised in the grounds as yet another source of Britton income. Her helpful presence had been a real godsend since Julian's siblings had long fled the family nest and Jeremy hadn't lifted a finger since he'd inherited the property—and proceeded to populate it with his fellow flower-children and run it into the ground—shortly after his twenty-fifth birthday.
Still, grateful as Julian was for Sam's help, he wished his cousin hadn't assumed so much. He'd felt guilty about the amount of work she was doing purely from the goodness of her heart, and he'd been casting about aimlessly for some form of repayment. He had no available money to offer her, not that she would have needed or accepted it had he done so, but he did have his dogs as well as his knowledge of and enthusiasm for Derbyshire. And wanting to make her feel welcome for as long as possible at Broughton Manor, he'd offered her the only thing he had: occasional activities with the harriers as well as conversation. And it was a conversation about the eclipse that she had misunderstood.