In a carriage on the way to Thorncliff Manor

1820

 

“Do you suppose we’ll be arriving soon?” Rachel asked with an edge of impatience. “Before leaving the last posting inn, Mama assured me that it would only be another two hours, but according to my pocket watch it has already been one hundred and twenty-seven minutes. To be exact.”

Christopher gazed across at his younger sister. “I don’t believe Mama has ever visited Thorncliff before,” he said, referring to the Countess of Duncaster’s large estate, which she had turned into a guesthouse.  He and his family would be spending the summer there. “This makes her estimate regarding the duration of this journey exactly that—an estimate.”

Rachel didn’t look pleased. “I wish everyone would appreciate the importance of precision as much as I do.”

“Cook does,” Laura said sweetly, directing Christopher’s attention to another sister. He had five in total. “I’m sure she would acknowledge the importance of accuracy. After all, there’s nothing worse than a cake with too much flour in it.”

“Do you have to encourage her?” Fiona asked. As the youngest of the Heartly siblings, she had never developed the sort of patience the rest of the brood possessed.

Christopher frowned, while Rachel’s face beamed with newfound pleasure as she latched onto Laura’s comment. “Life as we know it would be impossible without adhering to mathematical and scientific principles. Buildings would fall to the ground, dough would refuse to rise, your clothing would be ill-fitting . . . why, I could go on forever about the effect a lack of structure would have on us all.”

“Must you?” Fiona asked with an underlying note of dread.

“Why not distract yourself by contemplating the splendor of our destination?” Christopher suggested. As much as he loved Rachel, he had little desire to endure a prolonged lecture on Euclidean geometry or, God forbid, her recent study on the movement of slugs.

“I’ve heard that Thorncliff is magnificent. Apparently the third Earl of Duncaster wasted no expense when he expanded it,” Laura said before Rachel could comment. “My friend Lady Harriet visited last year with her family, and she has assured me that the estate can easily amuse us all for the duration of our three-month stay.”

“I’ve no doubt about that,” Fiona said promptly, her eyes lighting, “especially since I’ve every intention of putting my own time there to good use. I mean to find that jewelry box Grandmamma spoke of when we were little.”

Christopher stared at her. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t you remember? She always said her family in France sent heirlooms to England during the revolution to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. It was all she would have had left of her family after they all perished at the guillotine, but for unknown reasons, the box of heirlooms never arrived. I’m convinced they must be hidden away at Thorncliff. Considering Grandpapa’s close friendship with Lord Duncaster, I—”

“Now that you mention it, I do recall her saying something to that effect, but I never really put much weight in it,” Laura said. “You know how badly Grandmamma suffered the loss of her family. I always believed her talk of the jewelry box was her way of hoping a part of them had been left behind and would eventually come to her.”

“But she specifically mentioned receiving a letter from her sister, the Duchess of Marveille, in France, encouraging her to wait for it—that the duchess had sent it to England and that arrangements had been made for it to be delivered to her.”

“Your memory is certainly to be admired,” Rachel said, “but I think we must accept that the heirlooms never left France, as unfortunate as that is.”

“But in her diary,” Fiona insisted, “Grandmamma wrote of a visit Grandpapa made to Thorncliff shortly before his death. She wrote that she prayed her husband would soon return home with the box.”

“And yet she never received it,” Christopher pointed out.

Fiona sighed. “No, she didn’t. Grandpapa set sail for France, perishing with the third Earl of Duncaster when the ship went down.” She sighed, her expression somber, though her eyes remained sharp with determination. “It’s possible the jewelry box is still at Thorncliff, in which case, I’ve every intention of locating it. You can count on that.”

Christopher had no doubt about it. If there was one quality his sister didn’t have in short supply, it was tenacity, which was why he was surprised when she dropped the subject completely to say, “I still can’t believe Mama and Papa convinced Richard to join us.”

Christopher curled his fingers into a fist. “He had little choice in the matter. Oakland will be overrun by workmen the entire summer, and I daresay they’ll be busy if Mama’s plan to redecorate the entire place in the Greek style is to be fulfilled according to schedule.”

“Even so, you must admit that it’s surprising,” Laura said.

Christopher chose not to comment. Contemplating his younger brother’s service to the Crown made him uncomfortable. As Richard’s older brother, he’d always felt a certain responsibility—a need to protect him—but the war against Napoleon had left Christopher with nothing but a distinct sense of failure. Reaching inside his jacket pocket, he pulled out his own pocket watch to assess the time. It was one minute after two in the afternoon. He waited a minute before brushing his thumb across the watch face three times.

“There’s no point in that, you know,” Rachel said. “Good fortune is derived from hard work and common sense, not from silly rituals.”

Although her comment was to be expected, it still annoyed Christopher. “I believe in luck, Rachel, and if that means adopting a few oddities, then so be it.” Turning away from her, he determined to savor the gentle sway of the carriage as they tumbled along, thankful that his sister chose not to comment any further. The truth of it was that his superstitious nature embarrassed him, for he knew it defied all logic and reason, yet he couldn’t seem to avoid the feeling that awful things would happen unless he took certain measures to prevent them. He sighed. The hold it had on him had only increased after passing a tree with two ravens in it in 1815. That year, he’d not only been unlucky in love but his brother had also been captured by the French.

“Do you think Chloe will ever remarry?” Laura asked suddenly, referring to their widowed sister and consequently drawing Christopher out of his reverie.

“Probably not, all things considered,” Rachel muttered.

It occurred to Christopher that Rachel might be prettier if she didn’t insist on pulling her hair so tightly back. Her sisters ought to offer their assistance, for they all looked pretty with their soft curls framing their faces, but Christopher knew that to suggest such a thing would only invite argument. Rachel had some very stubborn ideas—none of which were likely to get her married.

“It’s a good thing her husband died in that duel, or I would have run him through myself,” Fiona stated.

Christopher frowned. He wasn’t sure if he ought to be proud of his sister’s thirst for blood or terrified. Hell, he wished he’d had the opportunity to challenge the late Lord Newbury himself after discovering the man’s numerous affairs. In the end it had been the unhappy husband of Newbury’s latest paramour who’d seen to the man’s demise. “One can only hope that if she does remarry, it will be to a man who deserves her,” he said.

Laura’s eyes lit up. “Perhaps she’ll meet an eligible gentleman at Thorncliff!” She leaned forward, her gaze fixed on her brother. “There might even be a young lady there to—”

“You’d better not finish that sentence if you know what’s good for you,” Christopher warned.

“There’s no need for you to be so touchy,” Laura told him primly as she straightened and raised her chin a notch. “I only want what’s best for you.”

Christopher groaned. His mother and father had told him the exact same thing. Repeatedly. It was the reason he’d avoided sharing a carriage with them to Thorncliff. The last thing he needed was to be trapped with them for six hours while they took turns suggesting potential brides to him. As the eldest son and heir to the Oakland title, he knew he’d eventually marry. He just wanted to wait until he was ready—perhaps enjoy another Season of blissful bachelorhood in the arms of that little opera singer he’d had his eye on. He certainly had no desire to repeat the mistake he’d made five years earlier. “If I may offer a suggestion, dear sister—restrict your romantic musings to the heroes and heroines in those wildly creative novels you’re writing and keep me out of it.”

“But—”

“No buts,” he told her firmly. “I won’t allow you to play matchmaker for me.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Laura stared back at Christopher, glowering. He knew she was struggling to hold her tongue, and he admired her effort. Truly he did. But there was no telling how long her self-restraint would last. Deciding to steer her attention away from him completely, he said, “All things considered, I think it would be more prudent if I were to find husbands for each of you.”

“W-h-a-t?” The outburst came from Rachel, which wasn’t the least bit surprising. Christopher knew her entire world revolved around math and science. Settling down and starting a family was probably the furthest thing from her mind.

“You’re not getting any younger,” he said, indelicately addressing the subject their mother had broached so often that it had turned into a regular sermon.

“I’m only eighteen,” Fiona said with marked indignation. “Hardly an old maid yet.”

“True,” Christopher agreed, patting her hand in a gesture he hoped would soothe her. “I admit that your situation is not as urgent as Rachel’s or Emily’s, who, if I may remind you, are three and twenty and two and twenty, respectively.”

“It’s good to know that when age is of concern, everyone in this family can be quite precise indeed,” Rachel said, her eyes flashing as she pressed her lips together in a firm line.

“Surely you must have considered leaving your scientific discoveries to someone—a legacy of sorts, if you will? Who better than a child, whom you can educate and influence so he or she will share your enthusiasm for . . .” Christopher searched his brain for a suitable word but could only think of “. . . slugs?”

“Since you’ve developed such a keen interest in my research,” Rachel said, the fire in her eyes cooling a fraction as she spoke, “I’ll have you know that I intend to publish my work as soon as it is completed. That, dear brother, will be my legacy. Husbands and children will only complicate the issue.”

“I don’t think Christopher intended for you to have more than one,” Laura murmured.

Christopher’s lips twitched as he fought against the smile that threatened. Appearing to be amused by this conversation would not be to his benefit, trapped as he was with three women in a closed carriage.

“More than one what?” Rachel asked, her head swiveling toward her sister. There could be no denying her irritability.

“You spoke of husbands just now,” Laura explained. “As in plural?”

“I . . .” Rachel began. She must have realized that denying her error would be futile with witnesses present, for she crossed her arms instead and said, “Oh! You know what I mean.”

“Did you ever consider,” Christopher remarked, “that there might be a lonely scientist out there who’d be thrilled to make you his bride? Shared interests and all that?”

“There isn’t,” Rachel said, her expression so tight she looked positively frightening. “Not unless I am willing to settle for a man who’s either thrice my age or one who can barely afford to put food on the table. I calculated the probability of it last year.”

“The statistics might have changed since then,” Christopher offered.

Rachel said nothing further. She merely glared at him.

“Well, perhaps I will focus on settling Emily’s future instead,” he said. He wasn’t sure why he insisted on continuing this discussion, other than that he took pleasure in teasing his sisters.

“She won’t like your meddling any more than you would ours,” Fiona said with a seriousness that belied her age. “And don’t forget that unlike the rest of us, you’re Papa’s heir. It’s your duty to find a wife and start producing children.”

Christopher angled his head just enough to stare down at his youngest sister. “And what, pray tell, would you know about that?” he asked.

“Enough to inform you that you cannot accomplish it alone,” Fiona declared. Laughter sprang from Laura’s lips, and Rachel turned a deep shade of crimson. “You will need a lady to assist.”

Hoping to hide the rising sense of discomfort that always came with this particular subject, he assumed his most arrogant tone and uttered the only word that might be considered appropriate in such a situation. “Indeed.”

Unwilling to discuss the subject further, he proceeded to stare out the window, forcing his thoughts away from the woman he should have married five years earlier if she hadn’t turned out to be a complete fraud.

“That can’t possibly be it,” Laura said a short while later.

Christopher turned toward the sound of his sisters’ voices all ooh-ing and aah-ing, as if they’d just stepped inside La Belle Anglaise, an exclusive fabric shop in Mayfair. They were all blocking the window of course, preventing Christopher from glimpsing the subject of their excitement until Rachel moved aside, apparently through with her inspection.

Christopher leaned forward, equally amazed. In the distance, nestled against a soft swell of hills, stood a manor . . . no . . . a palace, more splendid than any he’d ever seen. Hell, it put Carleton House to shame with its regiment of marble columns standing sentry before each wing, the central part of the building paying tribute to a Greek temple.

“It makes Oakland Park look like a hovel,” Fiona remarked.

Christopher blinked. To his amazement, he found he could not disagree. Thorncliff was indeed a sight to behold, its magnificent size a true temptation that made him eager to explore. “I’ve read that the original structure was built upon the ruins of a Roman settlement during the twelfth century.”

“Truly?” Fiona asked, her voice filled with excitement.

Christopher nodded as his gaze swept the length of the impressive building. “There’s even supposed to be a vast network of tunnels running beneath it.”

His interest in Thorncliff wasn’t a new one. Intrigued by castles since he’d been a young lad, he’d read about the great estate on numerous occasions, and since his parents had announced that the Heartly family would spend the entire summer away from home, he’d looked forward to the prospect with great anticipation. There was also the advantage that here, it appeared, he stood a reasonable chance of avoiding his mother and the potential brides she no doubt longed to press upon him. Smiling, Christopher sat back against the squabs. Salvation was finally within reach.

 

In another carriage on the way to Thorncliff Manor

 

Seated between her younger stepsisters, Alice and Juliet, Sarah made a stoic attempt to ignore the disapproving look that sat upon her stepmother’s face. Her father was more tolerable, since he’d been reading his newspaper the entire journey and had paid little attention to the rest of the family.

“Is there something you wish to say, Mama?” Sarah eventually asked, unable to stop herself from uttering the question for one moment longer.

Lady Andover’s gaze narrowed, but just as Sarah had suspected, she merely responded with, “Not at the moment.”

Speaking of Sarah’s sins in front of her young, impressionable sisters was taboo. Later, however, once the girls were out of earshot, Sarah had no doubt that her stepmother’s tongue would give her a sound thrashing. After all, it was what Sarah had come to expect after proving herself a disappointment to the Argisle name.

“Would you look at that!” Alice suddenly gasped, supplying Sarah with a much-needed distraction. Leaning forward while Juliet tried to press past her in an attempt to look out the window as well, Sarah just managed to catch a glimpse of the largest building she’d ever seen when her stepmother said, “Do sit back, Sarah. Your sister can’t see when you’re in the way.”

Sarah did as she was told, fully aware that her stepmother had just used Alice and Juliet to her own advantage, for there was a smug smile upon her face as if to say, I know you do not wish to cause a scandal in their presence.

Biting back a scathing remark, Sarah remained silent and unmoving while her sisters’ excitement filled the carriage. Instead, she reached inside her reticule and stroked the little fur ball within, taking comfort in its heat while she wondered what her stepmother would say if she were to discover that Sarah had brought her pet hamster along with her. Lady Andover would probably find a way to punish Sarah for it, which was all the more reason for Sarah to keep her pet well hidden.

“We’re finally here,” Alice exclaimed as the carriage tumbled into a paved courtyard and came to a swaying halt. “Just look at that doorway! It must be twice as wide as the one we have at home.”

“And beautifully carved too,” Juliet said as she strained to look past her sister. “Oh, I can’t wait to get inside.”

Sarah couldn’t help but agree as she stared out at the looming façade, the weather-worn stones suggesting that this great building had borne witness to many things through the ages. It had history.

“Calm yourselves, dears,” Lady Andover said. “You may be on holiday, but you are still expected to conduct yourselves properly.” She looked directly at Sarah, a warning in her sharp eyes. “There will be no running about. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Mama,” Alice and Juliet spoke in unison, their voices filled with disappointment. A footman opened the carriage door and gracefully offered his hand to Lady Andover. She alit, followed by Alice and Juliet. Sarah made to follow them, but she was stopped by her father’s staying hand upon her arm. “You will not disrespect your stepmother,” he told her softly but sternly. “After all that you have done—the disgrace you have put us through—you have no right. No right at all. Do I make myself clear?”

“Perfectly, my lord.”

With a curt nod, he released her, allowing her to flee the stifling interior of the carriage even if she could never escape her shame. A tight knot twisted inside her chest as she watched her sisters climb the steps of Thorncliff. Please don’t make the same mistake I did, she prayed as she started after them, unbearably aware of her father’s stubborn presence at her side. “There’s a purpose to this visit,” he muttered. “I trust you will remember that.”

Looking up into his stalwart gaze, Sarah nodded. How could she possibly forget?

“Good,” her father said as they stepped over the threshold into a massive hall with polished marble floors. At the center, a large wind rose was inlaid in black and gray tones. “I’m glad we understand each other.”

Sarah would never know if he said anything further, for her entire focus was riveted upon the marble archways that flanked the sides, the niches that stood above them, filled with poised statues and crowned by towering windows through which golden rays of sunlight cast their glow. Above these, the ceiling curved toward an enormous painting depicting a fray of soldiers, angels and leaping horses.

“Come along, Sarah,” her stepmother hissed, the words undoubtedly louder than intended as they rose through the air and bounced off the walls, filling the vast space with bitterness. “Don’t stand there dawdling. We’re being shown to our rooms now.”

On a heavy sigh, Sarah followed her family as they were led to a long corridor by a maid. Though the ceiling here was not as high as in the hall, it was still high enough to make Sarah wonder which poor servant was given the task of dusting for cobwebs all the way up there, if Thorncliff even had a ladder long enough for such a task, or if they just left the spiders alone in the hope that no one would see them. As they walked, Sarah also noted that footmen had been placed at every corner, their expressions impassive as they stared straight ahead, protecting the virtues of young ladies by bearing witness to potential mischief. Or perhaps they served to protect Lady Duncaster’s valuables from Thorncliff’s many visitors, Sarah mused.

They soon arrived in another hall, this one smaller than the first. A splendid staircase monopolized the space as it rose up, splitting halfway before continuing left and right. Bronze statues of women reaching toward the ceiling, each with a candelabrum in her hand, stood on either side of the base, while tall lanterns reminiscent of the streetlights Sarah had seen in London stood at the very top.

“I daresay I’ll lose myself in this place,” Alice murmured as she looked up at the ceiling, almost tripping on the steps in the process.

“If you do, I’m sure a maid or a footman will direct you to your room, though I doubt it will even be an issue, since you and Juliet will be in either my own or Hester’s company,” Lady Andover said, referring to the lady’s maid the three sisters would be sharing.

Sarah didn’t need to look at her sisters to know they would both be scrunching their noses at such a prospect, for as kind as Hester was, she’d gotten on in years and lacked the energy Alice and Juliet craved. “We would so much rather have Sarah for our chaperone,” Juliet said. “Oh please, Mama, can’t we spend our days with her instead? You won’t wish to run through a maze with us anyway, and Hester prefers to sit in the shade all day.”

“Which is very correct of her,” Lady Andover said. “Young ladies should stay out of the sun and off their feet as much as possible. They certainly shouldn’t be running around like savages. Besides, Sarah will be quite busy during her stay here. She’s going to make the acquaintance of Mr. Denison and will no doubt be quite occupied by his company. Isn’t that so, Sarah?”

“Quite so,” Sarah said, dreading the meeting her father had arranged for her.

“So you see,” Lady Andover continued, her breath coming in short bursts as they reached the top of the stairs, “Hester and I will have to do.”

“As you requested in your letter, my lady,” the maid said as they followed her down a long corridor lined with burgundy runners, “you’ve been placed conveniently close to each other. The rooms are also quite spacious, so hopefully you will all be very comfortable.” Halting in front of a door carved in rich tones of auburn-colored wood, the maid pressed down on the handle until the door swung open. “For the young ladies,” she said before crossing to the door opposite and doing the same. “My lord and lady. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ring the bellpull.”

“Thank you,” Lord Andover said as he popped his head through the doorway and peered inside the room. “I think this will do very nicely.”

Bobbing a curtsy, the maid took her leave while Alice and Juliet escaped inside their room. “I’m sure Hester will be up as soon as she’s ensured that the footmen have our luggage under control. In the meantime, Sarah, please see to it that your sisters get some rest,” Lady Andover said, her countenance stiff as always. “The journey has been a trying one.”

“I will do my best,” Sarah promised.

Offering a curt nod, her stepmother said nothing further as she turned her back on Sarah and followed her husband into their bedroom, closing the door behind her and leaving Sarah alone in the corridor. She took a breath, trying to relax and ignore the way her insides shuddered in response to her stepmother’s resentment. “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” she heard Alice remark.

Entering her room, Sarah had to confess that she certainly had not, for as it turned out, they were to share an entire suite of rooms with a comfortable sitting area in the center.

“Never,” Juliet replied, echoing Sarah’s thoughts.

Ignoring her sisters, Sarah walked across to the window and peered out at the vast lawns, the intricate flower gardens, the maze in the distance and the massive lake upon which, if her eyes did not deceive her, was a sailing ship—a frigate, to be exact. No doubt Thorncliff surpassed every ancestral home she’d ever visited. Nothing compared. Perhaps that was the point of the Thorncliff estate.

 

 

Sarah resisted the urge to explore Thorncliff for an hour—longer than she’d ever thought possible. Then, with the intention of taking a look around, she left her slumbering sisters to Hester’s watchful eyes. After descending the stairs, she wandered down a corridor and soon discovered that Thorncliff was filled with guests and servants to the point of overflowing. Her first impression upon visiting a salon wrapped in Chinese décor, where some ladies were having tea, was that she’d probably be unlikely to discover a private space she could claim as her own. This suspicion grew when, after passing a series of other rooms, she found each one to be occupied by somebody else. Though she did recognize a few faces and made sure to offer polite greetings, she had no desire to engage in conversation with anyone, fearing it would only result in unpleasant prying.

Eventually, Sarah decided to head out into the garden in search of a secluded corner where she and Snowball would be able to enjoy each other’s company. The poor little creature had spent the better part of the day confined to her reticule and was surely growing restless. But, before arriving at the French doors that would take her outside, Sarah came upon another door that piqued her interest. It was made almost entirely of glass, and beyond it, she could see nothing but greenery—trees, bushes and ferns mostly, all planted on either side of a tiled path that wound its way between them before disappearing from view.

Reaching out, Sarah pressed down on the handle until the door swung open. A humid heat blending with the smell of wet soil greeted her, and she stepped quickly inside, closing the door behind her with care. Silence, and the relief that came with solitude, washed over her as she reached inside her reticule and retrieved her furry companion. Snowball squeaked, wriggling between Sarah’s fingers as she stroked him gently across his back. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I know you’d love nothing better than to scamper about between these plants, but if I set you down, I’ll never find you again.” Stepping forward, she started along the path while her gaze leapt from one massive glass window to the next.

Andover Abby didn’t have a conservatory, and Sarah had always wanted to visit a house that did. She just hadn’t imagined finding one of such incredible size. Why, it had to be at least one hundred yards long, and the width . . . perhaps twenty or thirty? Thinking herself alone and lost in her attempt to calculate an accurate square footage, Sarah instinctively leapt at the sound of a very loud grunt, startled by it to such a degree that she let go of Snowball, who tumbled to the ground and, as one might expect from a curious hamster, chose not to sit and wait for Sarah to pick him up again but raced off along the path as fast as his tiny legs could carry him. Forgetting the sound she’d just heard, Sarah hurried after him, desperate to catch him before she lost him forever in the small jungle.

“Snowball?” Sarah hissed, as if the creature would actually come walking back to her when summoned. Pushing past some wide leaves, she finally spotted the little fellow, sitting quite happily on the edge of the pathway. Heart pounding in her chest, Sarah dropped to a crouch and eased her way forward, desperate to prevent him from leaping off between the bushes. Good heavens, she’d never find him then! With measured breaths, Sarah moved with the silence of a wraith—at least to her own way of thinking—and as tedious and strenuous as the endeavor proved, she knew she had to avoid startling Snowball at all cost. Eventually, she reached him, her hand moving toward him, ready to snatch him up, just as another grunt shook the air.

Snowball darted off beneath a fern, and Sarah swore with vigor. Hands clenched into two tight fists, she prepared to rise and give whatever creature it was that had produced the sound a proper set down, when a voice spoke, saying, “Aren’t you a bit too old to be crawling about on the floor?”

Sarah froze. If the grunt had belonged to a pig, she might have understood. A pig would not have been clever enough to know what Sarah was trying to accomplish, but then again, a pig would not have been roaming around a conservatory either. Her irritation grew. Of course her efforts had failed because of a man. Brilliant!

Expelling a deep breath, she unclenched her fists, closed her eyes for a brief second and rose, determined to avoid a quarrel with the foolish individual behind her. She prayed that somehow she’d find the ability to be polite in spite of her annoyance. “Sir,” she started to say as she turned toward the dunce, “I will have you know that I . . .” Her words trailed off as he came into view.

Heaven above if the addlepated dunderhead had not been graced with looks that could easily make a roomful of women swoon. Sarah steeled herself. She would not allow his handsome face to affect her. “Where else should I be, all things considered?”

“On your feet?” he suggested, as if he were speaking to a child.

Sarah glared at him. “Obviously,” she said. “Why on earth didn’t I think of that?”

Idiot.

The man’s eyes widened as he leaned back a notch, and Sarah realized to her horror that she’d spoken the insult out loud.

 

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