Read an Excerpt
Barton Park. Emma could hardly believe she was there again, after so much time. It felt as if she had been swept up in a whirlwind from one world and dropped into another, it was all so strange.
She stood at the rise of a hill, staring down along the grey ribbon of road to the gates of Barton. They stood slightly open, as if waiting to welcome her home, but Barton no longer felt like home. There was no longer anywhere that felt like home now. She was just a little piece of gossamer flotsam, blown back to these gates.
She gathered her black skirts in one hand to keep them from tossing around her in the wind. The carriage waited for her patiently on the road below, halted on its uneventful journey from London to here when she insisted on getting out to look around. Her brother-in-law's driver and footmen waited quietly, no doubt fully informed by downstairs gossip about the unpredictable ways of Lady Ramsay's prodigal sister.
Emma knew she should hurry inside. The wind was brisk and the pale-grey clouds overhead threatened rain. Her old dog, Murray, whined a bit and nudged with his cold nose at her gloved hand, but he wouldn't leave her side. Murray, at least, had never changed.
Yet she couldn't quite bring herself to go to the house just yet.
She'd left Barton five years ago as Miss Emma Bancroft, full of hopes and fears for her first London Season. She came back now as Mrs Carrington, young widow, penniless, shadowed by gossip and scandal. The fears still lingered, but the hope was quite, quite gone.
She held up her hand to shield her eyes from the glare of the light and studied the red-brick chimneys of Barton rising through the swaying banks of trees. Spring was on the way, she could see it in the fresh, pale green buds on the branches, could smell the damp-flower scent of it on the wind. Once she had loved spring at Barton. A time of new beginnings, new dreams.
Emma wanted to feel that way again, she wanted it so desperately. Once she had been so eager to run out and discover everything life had to offer. But that led only to disaster, over and over. It ended in a life with Henry Carrington.
Emma closed her eyes against a sudden spasm of pain that rippled through her. Henry. So handsome, so charming, so dazzling to her entire senses. He was like a whirlwind, too, and he swept her along with him, giddy and full of raw, romantic joy.
Until that giddiness turned to madness and led them on a downward spiral through Continental spa towns where there was plenty of gambling to be had. Henry was always so sure their fortunes would turn around soon, on the turn of the next card, at the bottom of the next bottle. It only led them to shabbier and shabbier lodgings on shadier streets with uncertain friends.
It led Henry to death at the wrong end of a duelling pistol, wielded by the husband of a woman he claimed to have fallen in love with at Vichy. And it took Emma back here to Barton, when she found the scandal had blocked her escape anywhere else.
'Let me help you,' Henry's cousin Philip had said, grasping her hand tightly in his when he gave her the news of the fatal duel. 'Henry would have wanted it that way. And you know how very much I have always admired you. Dearest Emma.'
Philip had indeed always been Henry's friend, a friend who caroused with him, but also loaned him money, made sure he made it home, visited Emma when she was alone and frightened in strange rooms with no knowledge of when Henry might return. She appreciated Philip's kindness, even in moments when his attentions seemed to ease over a line of propriety.
In that moment, with Henry so newly dead and the shock so cold around her, she was almost tempted to let Philip 'take care of her'. To give in to the loneliness and fear. But then she looked into his eyes and saw something there that frightened her even more. A gleam of possessive passion she saw once in Mr Milne, the dancing master, and in that villain who had once kidnapped her in the rainstorm at Barton.
The same look they had just before they violently attacked her.
So she sent Philip away, swallowed her pride, and wrote to her sister. Jane had warned her against Henry when Emma wanted to marry him, had even threatened to make Emma wait a year before she would even agree to an engagement, which led to Emma eloping and causing the first of many great scandals. And then Henry had found out that Jane and her husband had tied Emma's dowry and small inheritance from her mother up so tightly he could never touch them and some of his passion died.
While Emma wandered the Continent in Henry's wake, Jane wrote sometimes, and they even saw each other once when the Ramsays were touring Italy. They were not completely estranged, but Jane would never give in when it came to the money. 'It is yours, Emma, when you need it,' she insisted and so Henry cut Emma off from the Ramsays.
But when Emma wrote after Henry's death, Jane immediately sent money and servants to fetch her home, since Jane herself was too pregnant to travel. Jane would never abandon her, Emma knew that. Only her own embarrassment and shame had kept her away from Barton until now, had kept her from leaving Henry and seeking the shelter of her childhood home. She wondered what she would find beyond those gates.
Murray whined louder and leaned against her. Emma laughed and patted his head with her black-gloved hand.
'I'm sorry, old friend,' she said. 'I know it's cold out here. We'll go inside now.'
He trotted behind her down the hill and climbed back into the carriage at her side. For some months, Murray had seemed to be getting older, with rheumatic joints and a greying muzzle, but he wagged his plumy tail eagerly as they bounced past the gates. He seemed to realise they were almost home.
The drive to Barton was a long, picturesquely winding one, meandering gently between groves of trees, old statues and teasing glimpses of chimneys and walls. In the distance, Emma could see the old maze, the white, peaked rooftops of the rebuilt summerhouse at its centre peeking up above the hedges. In the other direction were the fields and meadows of Rose Hill, the Marton estate, and its picturesque ruins of the old medieval castle, which she had long wanted to explore.
Then the carriage came to a V in the drive. One way led to a cluster of old cottages, once used for retired estate retainers, and old orchards. The other way led to the house itself.
Emma leaned out of the window next to Murray and watched as Barton itself came into view. Built soon after the return of Charles II for one of his Royalist supporters, Emma's ancestor, its red-brick walls, trimmed with white stonework and softened by skeins of climbing ivy, were warm and welcoming.
When Emma and Jane had lived there before Jane reconciled with Hayden, the walls had been slowly crumbling and the gardens overgrown. Now everything was fresh and pretty, the flowerbeds just turning green, the low hedge borders neatly trimmed, new statues brought from Italy gleaming white. Emma glimpsed gardeners on the pathways at the side of the house, busy with their trowels and shears.
So much had changed. So much was the same.
As the carriage rolled to a halt, the front door to the house flew open just as a footman hurried to help Emma alight. Jane came hurrying out, as quickly as she could with her pregnant belly impeding her usual graceful speed. Her hazel eyes sparkled and she was laughing as she clapped her hands.
'Emma, my darling! Here you are at last,' Jane cried. As soon as Emma's half-boots touched the gravelled drive, Jane swept her into her arms and kissed her cheek. 'Welcome home.'
Home. As Emma hugged her sister back, felt her warmth and breathed in the soft, flowery scent of her lilac perfume, she could almost feel at home again. In sanctuary. Safe.
But wandering anchorless around Europe, seeing the dark depths all sorts of people were capable of, had taught her there was really no place safe. And even as she wanted to hold tight to Jane now, the guilty memory of how she had hurt her sister by eloping, of Jane's disappointment, still stung.
Emma stepped back and forced a bright smile as Jane examined her closely. Emma had learned the art of hiding her true feelings with Henry, but still it was difficult to do. 'Barton is looking splendid. And so are you, Jane. Positively blooming.'
Jane laughed ruefully as she gently smoothed her hand over her belly. 'I'm as big as a barouche now, I fear, and twice as lumbering. But I've felt much better this time than I did with the twins, hardly any morning sickness at all. I'll feel all the better now with you here, Emma. I've missed you so much.'
'And I've missed you.' More even than Emma had realised all those lonely months. 'And Barton.'
Jane took her arm and led her into the hall. Emma saw the changes to Barton were not just on the outside. The old, scarred parquet floor was replaced with fashionable black-and-white marble tiles. A newly re-gilded balustrade curved up along the staircase, which was laid with a thick blue-and-gold carpet runner. A marble-topped table held a large arrangement of hothouse roses and blue satin chairs lined up along the silk-striped walls.
But Emma didn't have much time to examine the refurbishments.
'Is that our Aunt Emma?' a tiny, fluting voice called out, echoing down the stairs. Emma glanced up to find two little faces, with two matching sets of hazel eyes and mops of blond curls, peering down at her from the landing.
'I am your Aunt Emma,' she said, her heart feeling as if it would burst at this sight of the twins, who she hadn't seen in so very long. 'You must be William and Eleanor. You are much bigger than when I last saw you. Back then you were about as large as a loaf of bread.'
The two of them giggled and quickly came dashing and tumbling down the stairs to land at her feet. They peered up at her with curiosity shining from their eyes, eyes that were so much like their mother's.
'You're much younger than we imagined,' William said.
'And thinner,' Eleanor added. 'You should eat some cream cakes.'
'Children!' Jane admonished. 'Manners, please.'
They curtsied and bowed with murmured 'How do you do's' before Jane sent them off to find tea in the drawing room.
'I am so sorry, Emma,' Jane said as they turned to follow the children. 'Hayden and I, and their nannies, work so hard to teach them how to be a viscount and a lady, but they are at such an outspoken age.'
Emma laughed. 'Rather like we were back then? Though I fear I have not quite outgrown it, whereas you are the perfect countess.' Suddenly she glimpsed a pile of travel trunks near the drawing-room doors. 'Are you going somewhere?'
'We were planning to go to London for my confinement,' Jane said. 'Hayden thinks I should be near the doctors there. But now that you are here '
'You must still go,' Emma said firmly, a bit relieved she might have a few days to find her feet without Jane worrying over her as well as the new baby. 'Your health comes first. You can't worry about me now.'
'But you can't rattle around Barton all alone! You could come with us to London.'
London was the last place Emma wanted to be. All those watching eyes and gossiping tongues, all too ready to stir up the old scandal-broth of her elopement and disastrous marriage. 'Actually, I was thinking I could use one of the old cottages. They are so small and cosy, a perfect place for me to decide what I should do next.'
'Live in one of the cottages,' Jane exclaimed. 'Oh, Emma dear, no. This is your house.'
'But you said yourself, it is too big for one person. And I can't go to London now. Not yet. You wrote that Hayden was seeing about releasing my small inheritance from Mama to me soonI can make do on that in the cottage.'
'But.' Jane looked all set for an argument, but she was, luckily, distracted by the twins calling for her. 'We will talk about this later, Emma,' she said as they hurried into the drawing room.
Emma was sure there would be a long talk later, yet she was set. A small cottage, where she could be alone and think, would be perfect for her now. She would be out of Jane's way, and she could decipher how not to make such foolish mistakes again.
The twins were already settling in next to a lavishly appointed tea table near the windows that looked out on the gardens. Light gleamed on their grandmother's silver tea service and platters of sandwiches and cakes, all cut into pretty shapes and arranged in artistic pyramids.
The children eyed the display avidly, but sat quietly with hands innocently folded in their laps.
'All this for me?' Emma said with a laugh.
'Hannah missed you, too,' Jane said, mentioning the woman who had been their maid for many years. In poorer times she was their only maid, but now she was housekeeper of Barton.
'Here, Aunt Emma, you must have this cake,' Eleanor said, passing her a pink-frosted confection.
'Thank you very much, Eleanor dear,' Emma said, sure her niece was most serious now about fattening her up. As they sipped at their tea, she studied the gardens outside. The terraces of flowerbeds sloped gently down to the maze and she was sure when summer came it would be a glorious riot of colour. 'What has been happening in the village of late? Anything interesting?'
'Oh, yes, a great deal,' Jane said enthusiastically. 'There is a new vicar, an excellent gentleman by the name of Mr Crawford. He is Lady Wheelington's son from her first marriage. I am sure you must remember my friend Lady Wheelington? She is newly home from abroad herself. Mr Crawford is sadly yet unmarried, but I am sure that will soon be remedied. His mother has hinted of a young lady from Brighton. And old Lady Firth finally won the flower show last year! It was long past time. And Sir David Marton has come back to Rose Hill at last.'
'Sir David Marton?' Emma said, startled by the name. She feared the words came out much sharper than she intended and quickly turned away to nibble at her cake. 'I hadn't realised he ever left. He didn't seem the adventurous sort.'
'So you do remember Sir David?' Jane said.
Of course Emma remembered him. How very handsome he was. The way he seemed to admire Jane's sweet ways so much. The way he would look at Emma, so carefully, so close and calm, until she feared he could see her every secret.
How would he look at her now, after everything that had happened? Would he even speak to her at all?
Somehow the thought of Sir David's disapproval made her heart sink just a bit.
'I do remember him,' she said.
'Yes. He was quite kind to us when things looked rather bleak, wasn't he? And he was such a help that night of the fire.'
He had been kind to Jane, always. 'Yet you say he left the village?'
'Yes. He married Miss Maude Cole. Do you remember her as well?'