vening shadows cloaked the rolling hills and verdant meadows dotted with sheep. Tenant farmers, weary after a day in the fields, paused behind their flocks to watch as an elegant carriage rolled toward the manor house in the distance.
“So. The blackheart has returned.” An old man leaned on his staff and turned to his son. “It isn’t enough that he murdered his bride and tossed his brother from the cliffs, leaving him mute and crippled. Or that he fled England for a life of crime on the high seas, leaving the old lord to clean up his mess. Now he thinks his friendship with the king gives him the right to just come back and claim his inheritance as though nothing has happened.”
“Who’s to stop him?” the younger man muttered.
“Aye. Who indeed? The rich live by their own rules.” The old man’s eyes narrowed, watching the carriage roll to a stop in the distant courtyard. “It’s bad enough that our sweat and blood contribute to his wealth. Pity those who must actually live under his roof at Blackthorne.”
“God save us! His lordship has arrived.” Mistress Thornton, housekeeper at Blackthorne, the estate of Quenton, Lord Stamford, clapped her hands for attention, then began summoning the servants in her squeaky, high-pitched voice. The more agitated she became, the higher her voice. “Edlyn, you vain, idleheaded minnow. Stop preening and move along with the others.”
As the servants spilled out the front entrance and formed a long column in the courtyard, she and Pem-broke, the head of the household staff, stepped forward. They made a comical picture. Where Mistress Thornton was as round as she was tall, with a soiled apron tied crookedly around her middle and a ruffled cap perched upon tousled white curls, Pembroke was tall and thin as a stick, with every dark hair in place and his clothing meticulously pressed. Her voice had the screech of rusty wheels. His was as cultured as royalty.
The driver brought the team to a halt, then leapt down and opened the door to the carriage. A cloaked figure stepped out, barely glancing at the assembled staff.
“Welcome home, my lord,” Pembroke called, after clearing his throat loudly.
“I hope yer journey was a pleasant one,” the housekeeper added.
“Allow me to present your servants, my lord.” Pembroke turned to see that the maids bowed properly and the lads removed their caps.
Lord Stamford acknowledged each one with a brusque nod, then turned back as a little boy stepped down from the carriage.
Pembroke remained ramrod straight, no sign of surprise visible on his features. But his gaze flicked over the sun-bronzed skin, jet-black hair and wide dark eyes of the lad.
For his part, the boy stared around in bewilderment at the imposing fortress with its acres of manicured lawns and its turreted towers that caught the last rays of the fading sun.
The driver began unlashing trunks and dropping them to the ground. At a snap of Pembroke’s fingers several of the staff hurried forward to deal with the lord’s baggage.
“Ye’ll be wanting a late supper, m’lord,” Mistress Thornon said nervously.
As the cloaked figure moved past her she called to his back, “Your rooms are ready for you, m’lord. We’ve prepared your grandfather’s rooms for your arrival.”
He paused. Without turning he said, “I would prefer my old rooms, Mistress Thornton.”
“Your old...? But, m‘lord, beggin’ your pardon, they’re a bit small for the likes of... I mean, now that you’re the new lord of the manor and all...”
Seeing the scowl on his face she couldn’t help taking a step backward. “At once, m’lord. I’ll see to it myself.”
He gave a curt nod. “I will wish to visit my grandfather’s grave, Pembroke.”
“Aye, my lord. On the morrow?”
Pembroke swallowed. “At once. I’ll take you there myself. But first, you may wish to greet your brother. When he heard that you were returning he became quite... animated.”
Quenton glanced up. A man’s face peered down from the upper window. In the reflected glow of firelight, it appeared ghostly-white.
He gave an audible sigh, the only hint of any emotion. “Aye. I’ll go up to him.”
As the two men turned away Mistress Thornton gathered her courage and asked, “What of the boy, m’lord? Where shall we put him?”
He gave a negligent shrug. “The east wing, I suppose .”
“Aye,. m’lord.” The plump housekeeper glanced at the boy, who continued to stand hesitantly beside the carriage. “Come, lad. I’ll show you to yer rooms.”
He moved along at her side as they entered the imposing foyer. Mistress Thornton noted that he seemed properly awed by the gleaming chandeliers, ablaze with the light of hundreds of candles, and, as they began to climb the wide staircase, wildly interested in the colorful tapestries that lined the walls.
“Are ye hungry, lad?” She knew not what to call him, since the lord had not bothered to introduce him, and the lad had spoken nary a word.
“Well then, after I take ye to yer rooms, I’ll see that ye have a fine meal brought up.” When they reached the east wing, she flung open double doors and led him inside a set of rooms that included a sitting chamber and bedchamber.
“This is Edlyn.”
A scowling serving wench, who had been coaxing a fire on the grate, got to her feet, dusting off her skirts.
“This lumpish, knotty-pated strumpet will help you unpack and see that you’re made comfortable.”
The boy giggled at the housekeeper’s colorful choice of words, unsure of their meaning.
“And what is yer name, young master?” Edlyn asked.
“Liat.” His voice had a musical quality as he spoke the word in two syllables. He made his way to the balcony, where he climbed onto a trunk in order to stare at the green, rolling land below.
“Liat? What sort of mammering, hedge-born, heathen name is that?” the housekeeper muttered under her breath. She crossed herself, then turned away with a sigh. “I’ll have his supper sent up on a tray.”
As she hurried away, her mind was filled with thoubling thoughts. Too much had happened too soon. The old earl had been so loved until his unexpected death. It was well-known that his grandson had been reluctant to return from sea to take over the estate. Already the rumors were flying about the return of Lord Stamford to his ancestral home, Blackthorne. Now, to add fuel to the rumors, he had brought with him a lad of questionable parentage. She had no idea what to expect anymore. But this much she knew. Life here at Blackthorne would never be the same again.
THE CEMETERY WAS little more than a bleak, windswept stretch of hill beside the country chapel. Through a curtain of mist could be glimpsed the rooftops of the university buildings and picturesque houses nestled in a green valley below.
The vicar, a stooped gnome of a man, intoned the words meant to comfort the bereaved. But the words he’d spoken a hundred times or more had little meaning to Olivia St. John, who stood with head bowed, tears flowing freely.
It was almost beyond comprehension. Mum and Papa, falling to their deaths during one of their daily climbs. Still young and vital and full of life and love. And now they were gone. And she was alone. Alone. The word reverberated, like a litany, through her mind. No parents, nor grandparents, nor brothers or sisters. Alone, except for this aunt and uncle, who were complete strangers to her.
She glanced toward her mother’s sister, Agatha, Lady Lindsey, who stood beside her dour-faced husband, Robert. As the two simple wooden boxes were lowered into the gaping holes in the earth, husband and wife turned their backs, hastening toward their waiting carriage to escape the elements. As if on cue, the heavens darkened and the rain began.
Olivia stood alone, unmindful of the cold rain that soaked her clothes and turned the open grave into a sea of mud at her feet. It seemed fitting somehow that it should rain. “The angels in heaven are weeping,” Mum had often said of the frequent English rains.
She couldn’t tear her gaze from the two caskets as the village gravedigger slowly covered them with earth. Even when the task was completed, she continued to stand alone, grieving as though her heart would break.
“Come, girl. Your aunt will catch a chill.” It was the rough grasp of her uncle’s hand upon her wrist that had her turning away. As soon as she was seated, a whip cracked and the carriage lurched ahead.
Her aunt’s words, spoken through gritted teeth, penetrated Olivia’s layers of pain. “I told Margaret that she was marrying beneath her station, but she would not listen. Her inheritance has been badly mismanaged.”
“Alas, there is little enough left. You are practically penniless.”
“We were forced to live quite frugally, Aunt Agatha. Mum said that her money was in London, and under your control. Yours and Uncle Robert’s.”
Her uncle’s lips thinned. “You can be grateful for that, young lady, or it would all be gone. Had it not been for our son Wyatt’s careful scrutiny, that befuddled father of yours, with his nose stuck in dusty old books, would have squandered his wife’s inheritance years ago.”
“Papa had no interest in Mum’s money.”
“That was plain enough. As it is, there’s barely enough left to pay your keep, though I suppose we can get something for the sale of your cottage.”
Her husband gave a snort of disgust. “According to the vicar, even that will fetch no coin because your niece insists upon giving it away.”
As her aunt began to issue a protest, Olivia struggled to keep the rising anger from her voice. “I have already offered it to the widow Dillingham, who is a dear friend of ours. Since the death of her son, she has no one to see to her. I know that Mum and Papa would have wanted to share what little they had with her.”
“No matter.” Her uncle dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “It would fetch little, since it is no more than a hovel.”
The cruel words brought a fresh stab of pain to Olivia’s heart. “It is the only home I have ever known.”
“And now you have none,” Agatha said with a sigh of impatience. “Out of respect for my sister’s memory, I suppose I shall have to take you back to London.”
“That isn’t necessary. I can take care of myself here in Oxford. I don’t wish to be a burden, Aunt Agatha.”
“Nor will I permit it.” The woman’s eyes glittered with shrewdness. She took note of the coarse, shapeless gown, the worn, shabby boots, the threadbare traveling cloak. The figure inside the clothes was equally unimpressive. Small and slight, with few womanly curves. Dark damp hair, tucked beneath a nondescript bonnet. If this girl had inherited her mother’s striking beauty, she kept it well hidden. Perhaps, Agatha thought, the unfortunate girl had inherited her father’s eccentric behavior instead.
How could this creature possibly fit in with the wealthy, titled women of London? Agatha thought of her own children, a daughter, Catherine, betrothed to the Earl of Gathwick, and a son, Wyatt, who shared his mother’s fondness for amassing a fortune. Thanks to Wyatt’s careful management of their estates, they had become one of the most prosperous families in England, and had even been invited to dine with the king. That had been one of Agatha’s proudest moments.
“At least you can earn your keep. The vicar told us that you have a fine mind, and that your father saw to your education. I suppose I can find you a position with one of our better families in London.”
London. Olivia thought about her impressions of the city on her single visit some years ago. Row upon row of town houses. Carriages clattering along narrow, dirty streets. Vendors, and parades of people, and parks filled with nannies and children. She had returned to her quiet country home and breathed a sigh of relief. “I cannot go to London. I prefer to remain here.”
“It is out of the question. As your mother’s only kin, I have no choice but to take you back.”
The carriage rolled to a stop in front of a modest cottage. “Pack your things, girl,” Agatha said sharply.
“Of course,” Agatha snapped. “Did you think we would make another trip just to fetch you later?”
“Will you come inside?” Olivia struggled to remember her manners. “And perhaps have some tea while I pack?”
Agatha’s reply was curt. “No, girl. Now move quickly.” She folded her arms across her ample bosom. “We are eager to return to London. We’ve suffered quite enough discomfort.”
Olivia was relieved that her aunt had refused her invitation. She was in desperate need to be alone. To gather her thoughts. To fill herself with the scents and sights and sounds of her home. To allow her heart a moment to grieve.
As she closed the door and leaned against it, her eyes filled with fresh tears. How she loved this place. For as long as she could remember, it had been her home. A home filled with love.
She touched a hand to the shelf that held her parents’ precious manuscripts. She had instructed the vicar to see that their papers were given to the university.
Perhaps to others the St. Johns had seemed odd. Always walking about the countryside, sketching the wild creature, observing and recording in a journal. But scholars had held both husband and wife in high esteem. As for Olivia, she adored them both, and had enjoyed nothing so much as the time spent in their company.
Hearing the impatient stomp of the horses, she hurried to her room and began to pack. There was little enough to take with her to London. Two serviceable gowns, one gray, one blue. A shawl, a bonnet, a parasol. As for the rest, she knew the widow Dillingham would distribute them among the needy of the village.
On a sudden whim she walked to her parents’ room and carefully folded the small, embroidered coverlet that lay across the foot of their bed. Her mother had made it before her wedding. Olivia pressed it to her face, inhaling the scent of her parents that lingered in the folds.
“Are you ready, girl?” came her uncle’s irritable voice.
She raced back to her own room and picked up her valise. As she stared around the little cottage, she had to swallow the lump that was threatening to choke her. How could she leave all that she held dear? How could she just walk away from her memories, her childhood, her life?
She glanced at the two crude rocking chairs, fashioned by her father’s hand, placed side by side in front of the fireplace. She could hear, inside her head, her mother’s voice. “The mind is a wonderful gift, Livvy. In it we carry all of life’s treasures. All the laughter, all the love. And so long as they are tucked safely away in our mind, they are always there when we need to take them out, to remember, to savor...”
“Come along now,” her uncle called sharply.
Olivia lifted her chin higher and strode out to the waiting carriage. The driver helped her inside and stowed her valise. As soon as her uncle settled himself beside his wife, they began to move.
She turned her head, drinking in her last glimpse of her beloved home. As they rounded a bend she strained until, at last, the little cottage slipped from view. She glanced up. Seeing her aunt’s penetrating stare, she bit her quivering lip until she tasted blood. She was determined that these two people would witness no further sign of weakness. But as she closed her eyes against the pain, she began to recall some of her treasured memories of her life with her gentle parents. They were not gone, she consoled herself; they Would live on forever in her mind.