ere was an ominous rumble in the distance.  The breeze was getting stronger and gustier, and the leaves of the oak tree had gone from whispering to an excited chatter amongst the branches above her head.  She glanced around her.  The shadow of a distant storm was creeping inexorably towards her.   Lightning flickered in the depths of the cloud.  She counted.  Thunder rumbled again.  It was a good five miles off, but closing fast.  Better get moving.  She rose to her feet stiffly, back kinked and etched with the striations of the bark she’d been leaning on for so long.  She turned and laid her hand affectionately on the tree, looking it up and down for a moment.  Then she turned and set off for the dark smudge on the horizon that marked the position of Harrington Hall.  Walking swiftly now in the gathering gloom and wind, she was glad that her sandals had rubber soles, but unsure how much good it would do her if she was caught in the open by the storm.  She was astonished to realise that her hangover seemed to have all but vanished. She took a few skipping steps to test her head.  Nothing.  Laughing delightedly, she took off at a run, just for the sheer joy of being hangover-free and able to move normally again.  She flew across the turf on the wings of the approaching storm’s wind, which seemed to be getting stronger by the minute, her hair whipping around her head like a wild fire.  She reached the top of the last rise before the hall as the rain hit her in stair rods.  She was instantly soaked to the skin and absolutely exhilarated.  Throwing her arms wide, she spun around and around, greeting each crash of thunder and flash of lightning with whoops and yells loosed from the very centre of her being.  Eventually, she realised that the thunder and lightning were far too close together and the storm was very nearly overhead.  Certainly, it was a very bad time to be dancing on top of a hill yelling like a maniac, so she turned and sprinted down the slope towards the gateway in the wall of the hall.

When she reached it, she half expected the gates to open automatically, as they had done when she’d first arrived.  However, as she came to them, they stayed firmly shut.  Jen went to the intercom and pressed the button on the box, but nothing happened.

“Well, I can’t stay out here all bloody day!” she said to herself, and went around to have a look at the wall.  It was high, but the stonework was rough, with plenty of hand and foot holds.  She regarded it critically, the rain streaming down her face, the thunder crashing and rolling overhead.  She’d done a bit of climbing in the past, but rarely without a rope.  Then she thought, “Oh, sod it!  It can’t be that hard.”  So she took off her sandals and threw them as hard as she could over the wall, to allow her to use her toes for some extra grip.  And she began to climb.  It was slipperier than she was used to, and her heart fluttered in her chest a couple of times, but the stone was very rough and seemed to grip her hands and feet as much as she was gripping it.  She was very proud of herself when she reached the top of the wall and sat there getting her breath back for a moment.  A further crash of thunder and an intensifying of the assault by the rain reminded her that this was not a great place to rest.  She fled down the other side much more quickly, as it sloped slightly on the inner side, for strength, she presumed, but it was convenient for her as her limbs were streaming with water and she had to keep shaking rain out of her eyes.  When she reached the bottom, she sprinted across the lawn around to the side of the house towards the kitchen garden, wincing whenever she was obliged to use a gravel path.

 

She burst into the kitchen dripping and grinning with glee.  Mags, who was busy lighting candles in the gloom, whirled around with her hand on her heart in shock.

“Oh, Jen dear!  You did give me a fright!”

Jen giggled.  “Sorry, Mags” she said, closing the door behind her.

“Are you all right?  I was beginning to get worried.”  Then she frowned.  How on earth did you get in?  The storm’s knocked out the power and we can’t get the gates to open.”

“I climbed over the wall,” Jen said, blithely.

“Oh no!  You could have broken your neck doing that,” said Mags, reprovingly.  “And in this weather, too!”

“Oh, I was fine, Mags, honest.  It wasn’t too hard – there was a lot to hold on to.”

“Well, at least you’re back safely, now.  I was on the verge of sending the boys out to look for you, although goodness knows, we can’t really spare Rick during a storm – he keeps the poor horses so calm.  I have no idea how he does it, but they kick the stuffing out of their stalls if he’s not around to keep them steady.”

“What does he do?  Whisper sweet nothings in their ears?” said Jen, skeptically, giggling again.

“I really don’t know, dear, but whatever it is, it works like a charm.”  She frowned.  Anyway, enough of this – you need to get out of those we things, before you catch a chill.”  She smiled.  “Oh listen to me – I sound like a bad novel!”

Jen laughed.

“Nevertheless, you do need to warm up quickly, dear.  I can’t have you standing around sopping wet.  If nothing else, your skin will go all white and wrinkly.  Ghastly.”  She shuddered.  “Here,” she whipped a couple of towels from the stove rail, where they had been warming, “Get out of those clothes and get these around you whilst I make you a hot drink.”

Jen was about to protest that really she was fine; when she realised that she was shivering.  Quickly, she undressed and wrapped the fluffy towels around her with a grateful sigh at their warmth.  The storm seemed to have stripped the heat out of the air, and standing still talking to Mags had allowed her to calm down enough to feel it and start developing gooseflesh on her arms and legs.  It was distinctly chilly standing barefoot on the flagstones.  She stepped closer to the fire and sat in a nearby chair, propping her feet up on one of the rungs to keep them off the floor.  As she did so, she reflected that being small occasionally had its advantages, as the large towels had almost buried her, and there was enough left over from wrapping around he body to comfortably swathe her feet as she propped them up.  She snuggled deeper as Mags handed her a mug of tea, listening to the crashing of the storm receding into the distance.

“Now, dear, how are you feeling?” asked Mags as she pulled up a chair next to the fire with her own mug of tea.

“Mmm, lovely and snuggly now, thanks.  You do look after me well, Mags.  Thank you.”  She added, sincerely.

“Well, I do my best, dear,” replied Mags, looking a bit uncomfortable at the gratitude.  “How’s your hangover, by the way?  Did the walk do you good – or did the storm make it worse with all that banging and crashing?”

“Oh, yes.  I felt much better by the time I’d reached that big old oak tree on top of the hill.  I even ended up having a snooze against the trunk.  I had the strangest dream…  she trailed off, her eyes distant.  Then she shook her head and came back to the kitchen.  “Probably sleeping in a funny position or something.  Or the after effects of that godawful moonshine!”  She grimaced.

“Hm…  Probably.” agreed Mags.  “Now, since you’ve warmed up a bit, I suggest you go on up to your room and put some clothes on.  I’ll take these,” she indicated the sopping pile that Jen was embarrassed to realise she’d left there when she stripped them off and wrapped the lovely towels around her, “And set them to dry in the scullery.”

“Oh no, Mags – I’ll do that” said Jen, reaching for them.

“Don’t worry about it, dear, it’s no trouble.”  said Mags, whisking them out of Jen’s reach.  “It is my job, after all!”  She smiled, turned and headed for the scullery.   “Off you go and get yourself into some warm clothes before you catch your death,” she added over her shoulder as she disappeared.

Jen obeyed.  Wincing, she tippy toed over the cold floor as quickly as she could and headed for her room.

The storm had subsided by now, but the air and floors were still very cold.  Making her way up the stairs, Jen sighed in relief when she hit the carpeted passage at the top.  She was wondering whether she could really justify taking two showers in one day, since she was still a bit chilly having left the warmth of the kitchen and a shower would raise her core temperature quickly, when she rounded a corner and, literally, ran slap bang into Rick.  She gave a little scream of fright as the passage was very gloomy and Rick seemed to have just appeared out of the shadows.  He gasped and took a step back, his eyes locked on Jen.  She drew back a little, too, and then in a rush remembered how she was dressed.  Or not.  Gathering the towel more tightly about her shoulders, she said, “Um – I got caught in the storm… Er…” then embarrassment won and her voice died in her throat.

Rick’s eyes were still riveted to her.  Then he recollected himself and stepped aside swiftly, muttering “…sorry…”

Jen thanked him breathlessly, and hurried past, her face flaming.  The rest of the way to her room, she crept along as fast as she could, stopping to check around every corner.  She was acutely aware now that she was liable to run into anyone; even – horror of horrors – Lord Harrington-Harrington.  Wouldn’t he just love that, given the way he’d spoken to her about her unorthodox stretching methods?  He’d probably send her packing if he found her running around his ancestral home half-naked.  Shuddering to think of the scene if she had to explain this to Brian, she was so busy worrying that she almost ran straight past the door that led to what she was beginning to think of as ‘her’ corridor.  Fortunately, she remembered and turned back with a curse on her sense of direction.

 

Some time later, dressed, much warmer and back in the kitchen, she was telling Mags about it, who laughed when she got to the bit about running into Rick.  “Oh, Mags!  I was so embarrassed!  I’ve barely spoken to him and then there I am – wearing nothing but a towel”

“Oh, don’t worry, dear – he was probably more embarrassed than you were.  He’s quite shy with strangers.”

“Well, don’t feel like a stranger – I feel like I’ve been here about a year already, and it’s only been a few weeks.”

“But, as you said, you’ve hardly spoken.”  Then, “Hmmm…  What were you planning on doing tomorrow?”

Jen blinked at the rapid change of subject.  “Er…  I’ve not really, thought about it to be honest.  I’ll probably go back and get on with the cataloguing, I think.”

Mags disagreed vehemently.  “No, no dear – that won’t do at all.  You need to take the whole weekend off.  You’ve been working far too long days and nights.”

“Not that long!” Jen protested.

“Oh yes you have – don’t think I haven’t seen the light on in that library before I’ve gone to bed.  And you’re up at the crack of dawn.  No – you need to have a good long sleep and another day away from the books.  You can’t have had much sleep last night, after all – being passed out doesn’t count!” she added, as Jen opened her mouth to protest.  “You should go and see Rick, introduce yourself properly and ask if he needs any help with the horses tomorrow.”

“What?  I couldn’t!  Not after meeting him in the passage like that!  I’ll be so embarrassed.”

Mags gave her a hard look.

“Oh, Mags – do I have to…?”

“Yes, dear.  I think you do.  It’s best to get the embarrassment out of the way as soon as possible – the sooner the better.  That way, it doesn’t have time to grow,” pronounced Mags, implacably.  “You’ll just have to be brave.”