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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
West Sussex, England
Each summer in the village of Hadley Green, the residents looked forward with eager anticipation to two significant events: the first was the week in June in which the vicar put his gout-ridden body into a borrowed coach and took leave of his flock to call upon his aging sister in Shropshire. That was the only week of the year the pulpit could be pried from the vicar’s bent hands, and the young, visiting clergyman’s delivery of the gospel was markedly more succinct.
The second event was the annual gala at the end of summer given by the Earl of Ashwood. It was a celebration of a good harvest and good tenants, and an opportunity to raise funds for the poor orphans of the St. Bartholomew Parish. It was a day-long festival, replete with enough food and ale to feed the king’s army, as well as goods for sale made by the more industrious villagers. There were games for children and adults alike, and a small band that entertained the happy guests who elected to sit under umbrellas at tables festooned with streamers and flowers from the earl’s enviable hothouse and gardens. There was a small lake with a pair of boats that young men employed to court young women as they rowed them about.
Traditionally, members of the Quality came down from London to attend the gala and stayed on as the guests of the earl and his lovely—and strikingly younger—wife, Althea Kent, Lady Ashwood. The Quality partook of the crafts and food and ale alongside the residents of Hadley Green, although perhaps less of the crafts and more of the ale. Inevitably, late in the day, the legs of lords and common men were lashed together for three-legged races, the winners promised a kiss from the countess herself.
Given Lady Ashwood’s uncommon beauty, most mortal men were keen to try.
It was likewise tradition that when the sun began to slide behind the towering elms, the village residents wobbled home in their carts and their wagons, and the lords and ladies retreated inside the earl’s colossal Georgian home to settle in for a night of debauchery.
Those evenings were the stuff of legends. More than one marriage had been threatened by the evening’s activities, and more than one marriage made on the heels of compromising events.
In 1793, a torrential late-summer storm ended the outdoor festivities in the early afternoon. The villagers and the orphans were hurried home to meaner shelter than Ashwood, and the earl’s illustrious guests were hurried inside to waiting servants who handed them towels and stoked the hearths in their rooms.
A steady rain continued to fall throughout the day, cooling the air and filling the rooms with a damp scent. The guests, trapped inside like well-groomed beasts, began to seek entertainment. They were modestly diverted by drink, gaming, and flirting through the long stretch of afternoon into evening. But as evening fell, the stakes at the gaming tables grew dangerously higher, as did the number of men and women disappearing from the salon, only to return a half hour later with wigs askew.
Above the gambling and assignations in the darkened rooms of the main floor was a nursery, and in that nursery was Miss Lillian Boudine, Lady Ashwood’s ward and niece. Lily was an eight-year-old orphan who had been adopted by Auntie Althea when her parents were taken from her at the tender age of five, both of them succumbing to a wasting fever within a fortnight of each other. One might have hoped that the lord and lady of Ashwood would have changed their ways to accommodate the moppet of a girl, but that was hardly the case. Their soirees and balls and gatherings continued, and Lily grew accustomed to seeing shadowy figures embracing in darkened stairwells, and the sound of doors being shut and locked. She’d heard many feminine giggles and the quiet hush of masculine voices. She could detect the scent of women’s perfume lingering in the corridors amid the smells of beeswax candles and blazing hearths.
That evening, Lily was relegated to the nursery with Nurse. Nurse had sampled the earl’s ale in great quantities, and could not keep her puffy eyes open. She slept noisily in a chair near the hearth.
Lily was rather eager to leave the nursery and have a peek at the adults. She stepped past her sleeping nurse and into the corridor, taking care to shut the door quietly behind her. She ran lightly to the stairwell and hurried down to her perfect hiding place, where she could watch the comings and goings of the adults.
But when she reached the first floor, she found it darker than usual. The rainy weather had led to a shortage of candles, and only two were lit in the long hallway. It was so dark that Lily did not, at first, detect the embracing couple until one of them whispered low. The sound startled her, and Lily quickly stepped behind a console table and crouched down.
She could just make out the shadowy figures through the legs of the console. They were kissing. Lily leaned out a little to see better, but in doing so she lost her balance. She caught herself with both hands before tumbling onto the carpet, but panicking, she gasped softly and quickly pushed back, pressing her back to the wall, stifling her breath with one hand.
Several moments passed before Lily dared to look again. She was disappointed to find that the couple had evaporated into the darkness. Lily stood up, carefully looked about, then darted down the corridor toward her hiding place.
But as she reached the top of the very ornate, curving dual staircase that led to the floors below, a hand clamped down on her shoulder. Lily cried out with alarm as she was twirled about and forced to look up into the lovely face of Aunt Althea.
Althea was none too pleased. The ruby of her lips matched the ruby of her velvet gown, and the color in her cheeks was quite high. “What do you think you are doing, Lily?”
“Nothing, Auntie! I meant only to see the ladies’ evening gowns!” Lily had used that excuse before with success, but tonight, Althea would not accept it. She put both hands on Lily’s shoulders and gave her a gentle shove into the corridor. “Honestly, what am I to do with you, darling? Go back to the nursery! You know very well I am to Scotland on the morrow. I must be able to depend on you to be good whilst I am away.”
“I will!” Lily promised earnestly.
“No, Lily, no more of your empty vows,” Althea said sternly. “There is nothing that will displease the earl more than your bad behavior, and if he grows weary of you, what will become of you then?” She sank to her knees, so that she could look Lily in the eye. “Your mother, my dear sister, is dead. Another sister is ailing. That leaves only my youngest sister in Ireland to take you in. Do you really want to be Irish, Lily? I’ll be gone for an age, and when I come back, it had best not be to my husband’s complaints and demands that you pack your bags. You really must stop this spying and skulking about!”
Lily felt frightened and guilty. “Yes, Auntie, I promise with all my heart.” She was very sincere. She never meant to be bad; it just seemed to happen.
Her aunt softened and smiled, cupping Lily’s chin. “My, how you remind me of Maria,” she said, speaking of Lily’s mother. “She was an imp, just like you. Not as pretty as you, I think, but just as spirited. I miss her so. And I shall miss you desperately.” She smiled and kissed Lily’s cheek. “Now show me how good you shall be and go back to the nursery and stay there.” She came to her feet, ran her hand over Lily’s crown. “Go before the earl sees you.”
Lily ran down the corridor and up the servants’ stairs to the second floor. She walked into the nursery and shut the door behind her. Nurse started, but then shifted in her chair and snorted in her sleep. With a roll of her eyes, Lily climbed onto the window seat. It was dark and wet outside; the only light was that which came from the house. She traced a line down the cold, wet pane, leaving a fat trail like that of a snail.
The nursery was never warm. It was far too big for the single fireplace, and Lily was always cold here. She thought it would be lovely if she had a companion, someone to share these interminably long and boring nights.
A movement outside caught her eye. Lily pressed her face to the window and peered out. It was a rider; she could see him trotting past by the light of the house, moving away. Lily suddenly sat up. She knew the rider—or rather, she knew the horse. It was the big gray with black spots on his rump that belonged to Mr. Scott, the woodcarver. Lily had seen him here many times before tonight, as he had crafted the dual staircase that curved up and around the main entry to the first floor.
Why should he be at Ashwood tonight? He was not Quality. What woodcarving would he be doing on the day of the gala? And why was he riding away in the rain across the park instead of the main road? Had he not left when the other villagers were instructed to go home?
But ride away he did, disappearing into the dark night.
Lily wrote her name in the condensation on the glass, then realized she was shivering and found her bed.
She was awakened sometime later by a lot of shouting, the cries loud enough to wake even Nurse. “Glory, it must be fire!” Nurse cried, and rushed Lily downstairs—Nurse, in her nightclothes, Lily still in her evening frock—to the main floor.
They were greeted by general bedlam, as the guests were all shouting at one another, and at least one lady was crying. The earl was scowling at the lot of them and Althea was pale.
Nurse nudged a footman and whispered loudly, “What is it, what has happened?”
The footman, an eyewitness to the tumult, was eager to deliver the news. “The Lady Ashwood was playing loo, but the earl refused to give her a pur...