‘Anyone would think I was asking to go on the streets.’
The stinging slap sent the honey gold hair swirling about her face, enveloping her burning cheeks in a wash of colour that for a brief moment lit up the shabby kitchen.
Any ordinary face would have been hardened and cheapened by the cold light of the single Tilly lamp, but not this one. The girl’s face was arresting, alive with the urgency of her request. There was strength in the way she firmed the wide mouth, resolution in the sweeping arch of the brow, in the smoke grey of the eyes fringed by a crescent of dark lashes above cheek bones that would hold their beauty long after time had wrought its damage.
But there was no one to be captivated by Meg Turner’s youthful beauty here, certainly not her uncompromising father. Even her two brothers had withdrawn from the scene to a safer distance the moment supper was over, Dan to check the flock for any new lambs, Charlie reluctantly to clean out the sheds.
The remnants of the kitchen fire fell together with a small hushing noise. There was no other sound in the room, save for that of the rain that beat against the window. Outside, great waves of it washed down the hillsides from the high mountain tops, gushed into the overfilled beck and pelted onwards to the River Kent and the distant sea. They were used to rain in Lakeland and paid little heed to it, and the glowering skies seemed eminently suited to her mood. Meg wished she was out in it, letting it wash over her face and limbs, cleansing the pain and frustration from her as it so often did. The wind was rising, she could hear it whining in the great ash trees that lined the track to the farm and gave the name Ashlea to the place that had been her home for all of her nineteen years.
Inconsequentially, she remembered leaving a blanket loose on the line. She’d have to search for it in the bottom field come morning. Nothing that wasn’t battened down would survive the helm wind that scoured these high fells. Though the wind could not penetrate the walls of the farmhouse which were four feet thick, solid enough to withstand the worst mountain weather, and keep her within, like a prisoner.
Meg began to clear the table with jerky, angry movements, swallowing the bitter tears of disappointment that threatened to choke her. She supposed the slap was no more than she deserved. She shouldn’t have dared to repeat the rebellious statement she’d made to Dan earlier when he had caught her pulling pints at the Cock and Feathers.
‘Get your coat on,’ he’d bluntly told her. ‘You’re coming home with me.’
She hadn’t been able to believe her bad luck, having deliberately chosen the inn because it was far from the market area of town where her father conducted his business. Not for one moment had she considered the possibility of her own brother choosing to drink there. But losing her temper would get her nowhere. Hadn’t she discovered so a dozen times?
Nevertheless, since it had taken her weeks to find this job, she wasn’t for giving in easily. ‘I’ll not,’ she’d said, continuing to pull pints, feeling the excitement of defiance in the pit of her stomach.
When she’d tossed back a ragged abundance of honeyed curls from slender shoulders, an unconsciously sensuous act, not a man in the room would not have willingly championed her.
Only Dan Turner was not a man to take on lightly.
The elder of the two Turner brothers, his short stature belied the beefy power of him. In his tweed jacket and waistcoat, flat cap jauntily tilted to one side of his large bullet head, he looked even more intimidating than in his more usual working overalls. He had the typically round, handsome Turner face, broad nose and very slightly projecting ears. But unlike young Charlie, this brother seemed to wear a perpetual sneer, which drew up one corner of his mouth and flared the nostrils in a way that gave off a strong warning to leave well alone.
The farmers, recalling Dan Turner’s expertise on the wrestling field, fascinated though they were by this little drama, had drawn back slightly, shuffling uncomfortably.
‘You should be selling the eggs, not swanning around behind a bar.’
‘The eggs are all sold. What’s so terrible about a little job? You drink in enough of these places. Why shouldn’t I work in one?’
‘You know damn well why, because you’re a woman! God knows what Father will say.’
‘It’s only Saturday mornings, for pin money.’ She had spoken with calm assurance, desperately wanting to disguise the unease that filled her at mention of her father’s reaction. ‘You’re not going to tell on me, are you?’ But he had.