Will asked for her hand the very next morning. He presented himself in his cleanest clothes, stood hat in hand before her father, and asked for permission to pay his addresses to Josephine.
Her father showed him the door. No explanation, no excuses. Just a single order: “Go finish the canal. That’s the only way a Crowle will ever get any of my land.”
Will thought of the tiny parcel of land that had been promised him if he finished the canal by fall. At one time, it had seemed to be everything to him. A new start, and this time in his name, not his brother’s nor his father’s. His and his alone.
Now it seemed like nothing at all.
He was halfway to the canal when he heard it. A boom that rumbled through the land and his body at the same time. He knew what it was before he took his next breath. It was God’s just punishment. To him for throwing away his honor last night. And to Lord Lawton because of the man’s damned impatience.
It was the canal breaking apart. Sabotage, Mother Nature, or God Almighty didn’t matter. And like any fool fighting his destiny, Will threw himself into the raging river and tried to salvage his future.
Josephine slept in blissful contentment. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d woken feeling so happy. What she and Will had done last night consumed her thoughts and had her humming as she dressed. Sadly, she had missed breakfast by several hours, but there was always something at the table, especially during the summer when food was plentiful and everyone’s hours were unpredictable.
She took her time getting out of bed, her mind and her body flush with everything that had happened last night. She was even sore from her exertions. Imagine feeling sore from something that was so absolutely wonderful!
But there was a shadow on her happy mood. Something that would bother her greatly if she thought about it. So she absolutely decided not to think about it. Not yet. Not when she couldn’t stop grinning.
Of course, everything that had happened was a secret. She had to moderate her bubbly delight. She also created an excuse. She and Megan were planning on sorting gowns today. That was always fun, so she could just blame her giddy delight on that. Although truthfully, she was much more excited about seeing Will again tonight. Oh wait, not tonight. She sighed. Not until tomorrow afternoon. Oh, it would be an interminable wait!
She didn’t notice the unnatural silence at first. She was too busy with her own thoughts. But by the time she rang for her maid, she had begun to feel as if something was wrong. The house was too quiet. She couldn’t hear the chatter of voices or the deeper rumble of the men. That was it, she realized as she opened her bedroom door, she couldn’t hear any of the men.
Then Megan appeared, her face tight with worry, and Josephine’s entire body tightened with alarm.
“What is it?” she demanded. “What has happened?”
“It’s the canal,” her sister said. “Didn’t you hear the boom? It shook the whole house.”
“Boom? No. I heard the thunder.”
Megan shook her head. “No thunder, though it’ll start raining any minute now. It was something else.”
Josephine crossed to the window. Her sister was right. It wasn’t raining, but it would soon. The sky was dark and ominous, but so far the land was dry. “What happened?” she whispered. But even as she asked, she began to piece things together. A boom could only mean something had broken. A lock, probably. But… a boom? Just a lock breaking wouldn’t make enough noise to shake the whole house. Then Megan confirmed her worst fears.
“An explosion, we think. Papa and all the men have gone to help. We’re to stay behind until it’s safe, but everyone’s worried—”
Josephine didn’t stay to hear the rest. She pulled on her easiest gown and heaviest boots. Then while Megan was telling her—over and over—that Papa had ordered then to stay back at the house, Josephine dashed outside. Her horse was gone. Likely taken by someone else to help at the canal, so she simply ran. As fast as she could.
She arrived gasping, her chest burning and her legs half crumpling beneath her only to discover that no one was there. She’d naturally run to the place where the men had been working, to the last canal locks, but no one was there. And now that she was catching her breath, she realized that the burn in her lungs hadn’t just been from her run, but because there was smoke in the air.
Turning, she headed upriver to where the completed locks were. It didn’t take long for her to realize what had happened. Their largest lock was blown apart. As if it had been hit by lightning. Or, she slowly realized, as if someone had exploded a barrel of gunpowder on the near side. She couldn’t imagine anything else that could scatter a lock into broken and burning pieces of debris. There were plenty of people working—men and women alike, though it was mostly men. They were gathering the pieces, clearing the land, and generally looking grim.
She found her father quickly enough. He was standing next to Mr. Montgomery, pointing to the broken lock. They were talking, though Alastair was stripping out of his shirt. Apparently he intended to join the workers in the water. Josephine barely noticed. Her gaze had already traveled across the banks, seeing some women picking up debris while the men were wrestling with the heavier pieces. She saw the foreman was knee deep in muck and directing others away from the edge.
She moved closer, searching for Will even as she tallied the damage. Fortunately no one appeared hurt, but even she could see the lock was unstable. Something had blown a gaping hole through it, which left the edges black and broken. But what appeared most dangerous was a whole section of the far side of the lock. The logs were barely holding together and as there had been storms upriver, the water was rushing fast through here. The remaining side could break free at any moment. Anyone caught downriver from that could be killed if it broke free.
“’Ey miss! Help me!”
The call came from her right. A woman—Miss Amy Fenton, newly engaged to one of the workers—was trying to drag a thick bit of log out of the path along the water. It wasn’t big, but it had caught on another piece. There were bits of debris everywhere clogging the way. Josephine joined the woman and together they started dragging pieces away, taking them to the growing pile set to the side.
“Have you seen Will? Er, Mr. Benton?”
Amy nodded and pointed. “He’s under the water, trying to shore up the pieces.”
Josephine looked. She saw Alastair, now scrambling along the edge, half in the water, but she didn’t see Will. Until she did. Suddenly his head popped up, gasping and pushing on the broken logs. She cried out when she saw him, but not in fear. The sound was more relief that he was alive and apparently safe.
She watched, her hand pressed to her mouth, as he heaved himself out of the water. His expression was grim as he spoke to Alastair, pointing and talking. She couldn’t hear him, of course. He was too far away, and besides, the rains had started. She hadn’t even noticed at first, but all too soon she realized her face was wet and her dress was heavy against her legs.
She looked up, as did many others. As often happened in Yorkshire, the rains came fast. Drizzle turned into rain which became a downpour in a matter of minutes. Men cursed and slogged out of the water. Women drew back under the scattered protection of the trees. The only one who didn’t leave the water was Will. And right beside him came Alastair, both on the dangerous side of the lock.
“What are they doing?”
No one answered her. She saw that everyone else had moved away from the river. Everyone else was looking on grim and angry at the sky. Everyone except for Will and Alastair. She found her father and the foreman on the far side of the bank. Father was gesturing and bellowing at the foreman who was just shaking his head. Whatever Father wanted, the foreman was telling him it wouldn’t work.
And then it happened. The sound was a groan, but of wood and metal giving way. The broken part of the lock teetered, then sunk. No splash that she could see. And no Will as the huge piece picked up speed as it half rolled, half floated downriver. She’d been staring right at him. She saw his grimace at the noise. And then the piece was washing away and he was gone. Just gone.
She rushed forward, screaming as she went. “Will! Will!”
Amy grabbed her arm, keeping her back from the slick bank. Josephine wanted to shake her off, but what would be the point? She couldn’t swim. Not in those storm-swollen waters. She could only stand by the side and pray.
To her right she heard a woman cry out and point. One glance told her it was Nanny, looking as wet and shaken as Jo felt. She was pointing to the water where a man appeared as he clawed his way out of the water. It was on the near bank, so Jo was able to strain forward. Some men were there before her, helping him out. It took an agonizingly long time before they separated enough for her to see. But finally they stepped back, and Josephine nearly cursed in frustration. It was Alastair. He was covered in mud, and she saw crimson mixed in with the water, so she knew he’d been hurt. Nanny was at his side, seeing to the man’s pain, so Josephine turned away.
Where was Will?
Amy answered her, gripping her arm and twisting her to look far downstream. “Over there! Down there, Miss Josephine. He’s fine.”
Jo rushed forward, looking to see. She couldn’t find him at first. Not through the rain and press of bodies, but then she saw him. On the opposite side of the river, looking filthy, angry, and healthy. No blood. No broken bones that she could tell. Only furious Will, pushing people off him as he stomped up the bank.
She was so relieved her knees went out. Amy kept her standing, but only barely. And then—from all the way across the river—he saw her. She saw him jerk, saw him grimace as if his head pained him, and then he took a step forward. A single step, but the river was between them.
They stood there like that, eyes locked together, while everything else faded from her mind. There was Will—alive and strong. And she was so far away from him.
Then she felt a touch on her shoulders. A strong grip that pulled her back. She turned, meaning to snap at whomever had hold of her. She meant to find a way across the river. The bridge was back a ways—
It was Alastair, his expression grim, his mouth pulled into a flat line. Beside him stood Nanny, her fingers twisting in her skirt. Jo swallowed, her mouth suddenly dry. Fortunately, she was spared any need to speak. His words were dark and angry as he forcibly turned her toward the woods.
“This is no place for you, Josephine.”
“I will take you both home. Now.” There was no compromise in his voice or his expression. He was furious, and she knew better than to disobey. Not in front of the entire village. And certainly not when the man was her fiancé. But still she couldn’t stop herself. So she looked back at the opposite bank. She saw Will immediately, still watching her. And she saw her father, looking as furious as Alastair, but his anger was aimed at Will.
There was nothing for her to do then. Will would face her father and the destroyed lock. She would have to deal with a rightly livid fiancé. And they would do it on opposite sides of the Lawton land.
What a bloody mess.