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Authors: Barbara Erskine

The Darkest Hour

BOOK: The Darkest Hour
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Dedication

For my Dad, with love

and

In memory of my darling Mummy

who had her own part in the origins of this story, and who would have loved to join in the adventure of writing it.

Table of Contents

Cover

Title Page

Dedication

The Family Tree

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Epilogue

Postscript

Author’s Note

Also by Barbara Erskine

Copyright

About the Publisher

Prologue
March

Glancing into the driving mirror Laurence Standish frowned uneasily as he swung the old Citroën estate off the main road and headed into a side turning which wound down steeply through coppiced woods towards the valley bottom. The s
leek black Ford which had been sitting on his tail for the last twenty miles or so had followed him and was drawing closer.

He had first noticed the car coming out of Chichester. It was close behind him. Too close, and he was growing increasingly irritated. Perhaps he shouldn’t have turned off the main road. He was lost now, well off the beaten track, threading his way up and down winding lanes, ever mindful of the car still there in his rear view mirror.

He was approaching a crossroads now. On impulse he spun the Citroën’s steering wheel to the left at the last moment without signalling, feeling the suspension sway and adjust as the road climbed steeply again, becoming narrower and more potholed as it crested the rise and plunged once more into the woods.

The black car followed him. If anything it had closed the gap between them slightly.

He didn’t recognise the car and he couldn’t make out the face of the driver but there was no doubt at all that he was being harassed in an increasingly dangerous fashion. He had no idea why. Was it road rage? Had he offended him by pulling out in front of him or something? He wasn’t aware of doing anything which anyone could take offence at. Did the guy want to rob him? Did he want his car? He doubted it! He fumbled in his pocket for his mobile with the vague idea of calling the police and cursed, remembering that he had thrown it into the battered old briefcase which at this moment lay on the back seat with the surprise birthday present he had picked up for Lucy. A signpost flashed past. He couldn’t see how far it was to the next village, but once there he resolved to pull up outside the first shop he reached and go inside.

The car was even closer now and it was flashing its lights.

Supposing there was something wrong. For a moment he hesitated, taking his foot off the accelerator and as though sensing his hesitation the driver behind him pulled out to try and overtake. Still flashing its lights the nose of the Ford drew level. The road was narrow and winding and there was a sharp left hand bend ahead.

‘Oh shit!’ Laurence stamped on his brake. The car behind him was trying to force its way past. It swerved towards him and there was a scrape of metal, followed by a louder grinding noise as the wheels of the two vehicles locked. Instinctively Laurence pulled his car towards the left, praying there was room for him to manoeuvre. His Citroën’s wheels spun on the muddy verge, then gripped and flung the car into the dense hazel brake. Laurence was aware for a fraction of a second of the tangle of splintering branches thrashing against the windscreen, then beyond, a strip of woodland sloping steeply down towards a stream at the bottom of an area of rolling hillside.

The Citroën banked sharply, racing faster down the hill. Laurence was stabbing frantically for the brake. Shocked and disorientated, he fought to hold the steering wheel. The last thing he saw was the huge oak tree heading straight for him.

The car reared up momentarily as it struck the oak, then it slid sideways in a cascade of shredded bark and started to roll. At the foot of the slope it hit another tree crushing the bonnet like a concertina as it came at last to a stop. There were several moments of silence as the ruptured fuel lines spilled their contents onto the hot exhaust, then with a roar the car burst into flames.

The driver of the Ford had pulled up at the roadside ten yards ahead. He climbed out and ran back, standing by the torn and broken trees, looking down at the burning wreck. That was not supposed to happen.

‘Shit!’

Unknowingly repeating Laurence’s last word he watched in horror as the car exploded, sending a ball of flame and smoke up into the windless air.

For a moment he stood completely still, then swiftly he turned away and ran back to the Ford. It was scraped and dented but still drivable. He climbed in. As he drove away from the scene he pulled the black balaclava off over his head and tucked it into the door pocket.

Nothing in the car would be recoverable.

But no one was going to survive that inferno.

Shit.

1
Three months later

Lucy Standish was in the kitchen of the small flat above the art gallery in Westgate, Chichester, an open letter in her hand. She had read it twice already, trying in her own mind to make sense of the contents.

Re: Your application for a grant to research the life of war artist and portraitist Evelyn Lucas, with a view to producing a biography and definitive history of her career:

I am pleased to inform you that your application for a grant from the Women’s Art Fund has been accepted …

She had been accepted. She had been given the grant. Lucy put down the letter and walked across to the window. The gallery was part of a terrace of narrow period houses, each one different, some two storey, some three. Hers was three, with a small attic floor under a roof of ancient tiles. From the kitchen, on the first floor, she could look down at the pocket handkerchief back garden she and Laurence had created together from the builders’ rubble which had filled the small yard when they first took over the gallery four years before. The short paved path was lined with flowers now, the small lilac tree they had planted had blossomed. There were butterflies everywhere; she could see them hanging from her pots of lavender and from the clinging roses on the fence.

It was months since she had applied for the grant. She and Laurence had discussed the project endlessly, wondering how she could take time out from the gallery to research a book. It was their part-time assistant, Robin, who had suggested applying for some sort of bursary; Robin who had turned up the obscure organisation which had now come up trumps. Robin who had made it all seem possible. Then, before Larry died.

Now it was too late.

She glanced round. On one side of the first-floor kitchen was their living room, and on the far side behind a closed door was the studio where Laurence had worked. It was somewhere she could hardly bear to go, even now. It was in there they had discussed Evelyn Lucas with so much excitement when they had realised that for all her fame there were no books about her, very little research, hardly any information at all; it was there they stood together in front of Evelyn’s self-portrait and it was there, in front of the painting, that Laurence had bent to take Lucy in his arms and kiss her hard on the mouth before running down the stairs and going out to the car.

It was the last time she had seen him. Taking a deep breath she walked across to the studio door and opened it. The portrait of Evelyn still stood on the easel where it had been on the day Laurence died. He had been about to start restoring it when he had had the notion, he hadn’t told her why, that he would like a second opinion on its authenticity. He had contacted Professor David Solomon at the Royal Academy and arranged to take the picture up to London on that fateful day at the end of March. Two hours before he was due to leave the professor’s secretary had phoned to say David Solomon had flu and they had postponed the meeting.

So why had he gone out anyway? She remembered his smile, his mysterious wink as he tapped his nose, his last words ‘I won’t be long’. He hadn’t taken the painting with him after all, and obviously he wasn’t going to meet David Solomon, so where was he going? The question had circled endlessly round in her head. For a while she had wondered if he had gone to buy her birthday present. That might have explained the wink. But that would have meant he had died on a trip to do something for her and she couldn’t live with that thought. Her birthday had come and gone only days after the crash and she had tried to put the idea out of her head. She would never know now.

The professor had written to her several weeks later with his condolences and had suggested that one day, when she was ready, perhaps he could come down and view the portrait here at the gallery. She had not replied, though she suspected Robin had.

Dear Robin. She must start taking control of her life again. It had to go on. And she had to face the fact that almost certainly she could no longer afford him; probably no longer afford to go on running the gallery even with the bursary to back up her income. Glancing into the mirror on the wall by the door she sighed. She had lost a lot of weight over the last three months. Her face, always thin with high angular cheekbones, was positively haggard, her dark eyes enormous in contrast to her pale skin. She had raked her long straight dark brown hair back into an unflattering ponytail which Larry would have hated.

BOOK: The Darkest Hour
4.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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