Read an Excerpt
Daughters of Hardwood House Book One
By Sally Laity, Dianna Crawford
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2012 Sally Laity and Dianna Crawford
All rights reserved.
Bath, England, 1753
The rat-tat-tat of the brass door knocker echoed eerily through the spacious house.
Kneeling on the kitchen's stone floor, Rose Harwood started. Oh no. Please, not now. She dropped the scrub brush into the bucket and scrambled to her feet, wiping her hands on her long work apron. The pungent odor of lye soap clung stubbornly to them, but she could do nothing about that at the moment. Perhaps the caller would not notice the smell—or worse, her red hands. Never before had she undertaken such menial labor.
Even as she tore off the soiled apron, her frantic gaze searched worktables and shelves until it landed on the spice chest. Mexican vanilla beans could mask the scent. But no ... she could not justify the ruination of something so costly to replace.
The knocker rapped several more times. Louder. More insistent. "Do calm yourself, Rose." Clasping her hands together, she hiked her chin with new resolve. "I simply shan't go to the door."
But that wouldn't do either. Under normal circumstances, if none of the Harwood family happened to be in residence, the hired girl would answer a summons. But circumstances were no longer normal. Several weeks past, Rose had been forced to let Hildy go. Word must not get out, lest people begin to suspect.
Expense be hanged. She lifted the spice chest from a niche beside the hearth oven and opened it, releasing myriad exotic fragrances into the air. Without so much as a second to savor the sweet perfumes, she snatched the small pouch of vanilla beans, shook two brown stalks out, and rubbed them vigorously over her hands.
A third, more demanding, tapping resounded through the rooms.
Was this to be the day of the family's undoing? Inhaling a troubled breath, Rose hurried to the front door and opened it. "Constable Bradley." She swallowed her angst and bobbed a curtsy. "Good morning to you, sir."
"Good day to you, Miss Harwood. I trust you are in good health." He touched his hat in a polite gesture. "Is your father at home?"
Rose had never noticed how huge the local official was. In his great winter coat, he quite filled the entry. She shook off the wayward thought. "I am most sorry, sir, he is not. May I be of service?"
"'Tis gentlemen's business, miss." Clutching the edge of the warm fur hat he'd removed, the aging man turned to leave. "I'll fetch him down at his shop."
Fetch him? The constable had come to place Papa under arrest! Her worst fears realized, Rose caught hold of the man's arm. "My father keeps no secrets from me. Pray, do come inside. I'm sure there must be another answer."
His bushy eyebrows dipped as he frowned down at her. "Forgive me, miss. I have me duty."
"Please, sir. I ask but five minutes."
He hesitated then exhaled in a huff. "Very well. But not one minute more."
As she stepped aside for him to enter, she glanced up and down the lane. No one seemed to be about, but that didn't mean that some snoopy neighbor wasn't peeping out from behind lace curtains. Bath most certainly had its share of busybodies.
She closed the door and turned to the official, who dwarfed the small, tastefully furnished parlor. "Do warm yourself at the fire."
Moving to the marble hearth, the constable thrust forth his beefy hands toward the comforting glow. But despite his seeming compliance in giving ear to her request, the expression on his heavily jowled face remained dour.
Rose attempted a bit of light conversation, desperate to establish some measure of rapport. "I shall be exceedingly heartened when April brings a bit of spring weather, will you not?"
It was wasted effort, as her visitor did not deign to reply. Instead, he shot her a worried look. "Be assured, Miss Harwood, 'tis all legal and final. I've the papers right here in me pocket." He patted his coat. "I'm duty bound to take your father into custody."
"But if you please, sir, Papa is seeking a loan even as we speak. Tomorrow or the next day he's certain to have the money. See if he won't."
The constable shook his head. "Forgive me, miss, but Merchant Solomon, of Bristol, will wait no longer. I've been ordered to collect either the money owed by Henry Harwood or the man himself this day. So I'd best get meself down to his shop."
Rose twisted her hands together and bit down hard on her lip. She could not let such a thing happen. Not to Papa. Especially since none of this was his fault.
She stepped in front of the constable, blocking his path. "You said you were told to arrest him today. Yet the day has scarcely begun. I beg you, please give me until the last hour. I pledge most sincerely that I shall satisfy Papa's account with Supplier Solomon before the sun sets."
The officer absently brushed back strands of his graying hair and plunked his beaver hat atop his head once again.
Rose sensed the man was contemplating her proposal and therefore pressed her advantage. "Constable Bradley, you've known me my whole life. You know I am a responsible person. I've run this household since I was a mere thirteen years of age, taking care of my brothers and sisters, never once straying from my obligations. If I say I will do this, you can be most assured that I will."
His expression softened. "Ye've been a blessing to your pa, that's certain. A comely lass such as yourself, sacrificing your courting years to help your family. Nevertheless, if your father is unable—"
"I vow I shall see to the matter. I mean this most sincerely." She met his gaze squarely, despite the fact he'd as much as called her a spinster. She had to remain strong. Do what Papa could not bring himself to do.
The constable sighed. "Very well, Miss Harwood. Ye have 'til nightfall. Not a moment more."
Vastly relieved, Rose ushered the official out then returned to take mental inventory of the room. Each familiar article of furniture, every table decoration, and even the exquisite carpets had been carefully, lovingly, selected by her mother. The family had basked in its beauty over the years. But alas, sentiment no longer had a place here. All must be sold. Now. Today. But where? Market day wasn't until Friday.
In a rise of panic, she pressed her hands to her temples. "Where? Where?"
The Bristol docks.
"Of course!" Several ships were certain to be in port, with captains looking for quality merchandise to take abroad and sell for profit. Since she must journey there to deal with Mr. Solomon anyway ...
She plucked a Chinese jade figurine from the mantel. So much to pack and load. So little time. La, why had Mariah and Lily chosen this day of all days to go visiting? She needed their assistance desperately. With no time to waste, she'd simply have to go and fetch them.
But reality stopped her in her tracks. Mariah was on a mission of her own, to gain a wedding proposal from Lawrence Wirkworth before their family's calamitous reversal of fortune became common knowledge. Rose shook her head. How typical of Mariah to think only of herself.
In truth, however, Rose had to concede it was essential for her sister to find swift success. Once the family's finest goods were loaded onto the cart and hauled out of town, all of Bath would see and know that something was amiss at Harwood House. "May God help us all."
* * *
Chilled to the bone and exhausted from a day of dickering and bartering, Rose trudged up to the front entrance in the last faint light of eventide. The thirteen-mile distance from Bristol had seemed more like a hundred on the rutted, ice-crusted roads, despite the fact that, partway, a kind passerby had provided a ride in his wagon. The elements had been the ruination of her best shoes, and several spots on her feet burned as if a hot poker had tormented her heels and toes. But her return to Bath before nightfall had been imperative.
Thank Providence, the wax-sealed envelope from Mr. Solomon now lay in the hands of the constable. She'd obtained a reprieve for Papa. Gotten him another month to pay the remainder of his debt.
With a weary sigh, she reached for the door latch. The threat of this day had been conquered, albeit at great cost. Far greater than she would ever have foreseen.
She swallowed her trepidation and pushed the door open.
A cluster of relatives—her entire family—turned to face her, their grim faces snatching from her mind the fine speech she'd concocted along the way. Papa stood beside Mariah, a comforting arm about her, both looking as if they'd just returned from a funeral. In sweet contrast, her youngest sister, Lily, greeted Rose with a gentle smile. Next to Lily stood Tommy, the baby of the family. Only a scant spark of his usual mischief glowed in the twelve-year-old's eyes.
Even Charles, their married brother, was present. By this hour of the evening, he should have been in his own home with his wife and children. In the erratic light of an untrimmed lamp wick, his lean face seemed much older. Much harder.
Mariah broke from the group. "Just where, might I ask, have you been?" Anger contorted the family beauty's delicate features into an ugly accusation as she rushed toward Rose. Her deep blue eyes flashed fire, and her mass of black ringlets bobbed in disarray. "Look about you, Rose. We have been robbed. Our family home has been ransacked. Everything of value is gone—even the money Papa set aside for my dowry." She paused, and her expression became accusing. "Tell me this is not your doing. If it is, I demand you explain yourself." She planted a hand on either hip, her lips pressed into a grim line.
Rose had hoped for a moment or two to rest before facing her loved ones, but it was not to be. Somehow she would have to relate the sordid details of this trying day.
Henry Harwood, the kindest of fathers, now loomed before her, more agitated than she'd ever seen him. He grasped her by the shoulders. "I must ask what you know of this, daughter. Speak up. Tell us all."
Rose felt the bite of his fingers through the thickness of her woolen cloak. She lifted her gaze to the beloved face that had aged noticeably in the past few weeks since the financial trouble erupted—when the flamboyant Sir Gordon Ridgeway had met an untimely death in a duel mere days after taking possession of fifty signature brooches he was in the habit of passing out to his lady friends. The gentleman had begged off paying for the jewelry, promising to return in a fortnight with the money. Papa could not have refused the young bachelor, his best customer. But now Sir Ridgeway's uncle refused to honor the debt, refused even to acknowledge a debt existed, leaving her father, the finest goldsmith between Oxford and Bristol, in ruin.
Surely he would understand her actions of this day and forgive her desperate deeds. She fervently prayed it would be so. Hadn't she proved how much she cared for her family these past twelve years since her mother's death on the childbed? She'd taken charge of newborn babe Tommy, as well as the other children, run a well-ordered household. Putting the needs of her dear ones first, she'd unselfishly set aside even her own chances to wed.
Of course her father would understand. He knew her heart as she did his. She reached past the folds of her cloak to smooth a crease alongside his tight mouth. "I've aided the family in the one way I knew you could never bring yourself to do, Papa."
She looked past him to Charles, who bore a strong resemblance to their lank-boned father, down to an identical trim mustache. "I know you'll all see the wisdom in what I've done. I'll tell you everything. But first—" Rose shifted her attention to her youngest sister, who had yet to venture forward. "Lily, dearest, would you mind fetching me a cup of tea? I've had a most tiresome day."
The growing worry in Lily's dove-gray eyes melted away, replaced by a simple trusting goodness that never ceased to lift Rose's spirits. "I shan't be a minute," she said in her airy voice. "The kettle is already heating."
As the girl hastened out of the parlor, Rose noticed how tall the lass had grown this past year. The child had become a maiden last month, on her fourteenth birthday. She was now old enough, Rose fervently hoped, to do without her big sister. Older than she herself had been when their mother passed from this life.
"Rose." Her father pulled her attention back to him. "I must ask you to explain yourself. I came home from the shop to find the house stripped of everything we hold dear, and your sister Mariah in high dudgeon."
"Aye." Tommy nodded. "You'd have thought she was musket shot the way she wailed and clutched herself." With an exaggerated moan, the twelve-year-old grabbed at his shirtfront and staggered toward the nearest wing chair, where he collapsed into its confines. The merry scamp could always be counted upon to lighten the gloomiest of moments.
Despite herself, Rose's lips curled into a smile as she moved across the room and gratefully took a seat in the companion silk brocade chair. The larger pieces remained in the room only because the pony cart had been too full to fit any more items.
Obviously Mariah had derived no humor from their younger brother's imitation of her. She shot him a scathing glower before lighting on the settee and eyeing Rose with naked malice. "If you intended to rob me of my dowry, I must know why you waited until Lily and I had gone to the Wirkworths'. I wasted hours smiling and cooing over their horse-faced heir. Had you an ounce of common discretion, you should have allowed me this one last chance to make a successful match before people learned of Papa's huge debt. And I had Master Lawrence so close to pledging himself to me. So close," she grated through clamped teeth. Angrily she tossed her head, sending her midnight curls to bouncing like so many coiled springs. "I shan't be surprised were he to come here this very eve to ask Father for my hand. Can you imagine anything more dreadful? One look at this room bereft of so many fine furnishings and he'll surely draw the most shocking conclusions. That is, if one of our neighbors doesn't enlighten him first. Soon enough everyone will be aware of the shame that has befallen this family. We shall never be able to hold our heads up again."
Rose got up and stepped toward her sister with an outstretched hand. "Please, Mariah, you must trust that the Lord will see us through this valley of misfortune. Today I had no choice but to act immediately and choose the only open path to reverse our tragic circumstances. Surely you will all come to understand it was the prudent one."
"Daughter." From her father's tone and unyielding expression, Rose realized he had reached the end of his patience.
"Why don't we be seated?" She pulled loose her cloak ties and carefully lifted the hood from her head, tucking a loose strand of amber-colored hair into the heavy coil resting low at the base of her neck. "I'm afraid this day's sad happenings touch us all."
As her father and Charles settled in the hard-backed armchairs flanking the settee, Rose's gaze roved the room. This once cozy parlor of their neat quarried stone house now appeared stark and spartan, devoid of most of the lovely furnishings that had made it home. It was as if she saw it for the first time.
None of them had the slightest suspicion it would be her last.
But no tender memories would she take from this bare skeleton of a room, no comfort. Mariah had voiced the truth when Rose first stepped inside. Their home had indeed been robbed—of all its grace and charm.
Every wall hanging and crystal lamp, every porcelain piece, stitched tapestry, and doily had been stripped from the parlor. Even the prized Chippendale table. Rose had managed to find room in the pony cart for that one last elegant piece. And should Papa but open the music cabinet, he would discover the absence of Mariah's violin, Lily's flute, and her own mandolin. The windows stood bereft of their fine Belgian lace curtains; only the heavy velvet drapes remained for privacy's sake.
The room looked as utterly cold and dreary as her journey home had been.
Charles's voice interrupted her brief reverie, sounding every bit as overwrought as their father's. "You should be aware, sister, that we arrived here just in time to prevent Mariah from going after the constable."
Excerpted from Rose's Pledge by Sally Laity, Dianna Crawford. Copyright © 2012 Sally Laity and Dianna Crawford. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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