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Soon, Ann finds she must separate herself from ...
Soon, Ann finds she must separate herself from Sir Arthur in order to save a naïve young woman by the name of Letty, along with her cat, Van Eyck. The two women, although very dissimilar, strike up a friendship and lean on each other for support. With the help of Allen Herrick-an agent of houses and the secret service-Ann finds a home of her own, away from Sir Arthur and his odious cruelty. Even so, Ann has not escaped entirely.
When Sir Arthur is found murdered on the grounds of Ann's new home, questions are raised. Who hated the man enough to kill? Could it be a victim of his blackmail? Could it be Arthur's dull yet vengeful brother Percival? What does the town gossip have to do with murder? With the help of Herrick and friends in Scotland Yard, Ann must come to terms with her past and decide her future. Will she find the happiness she deserves, or will the web of lies lead to her undoing?
England—spring 1949. The land here in the West Country, even after the long years of war, shows no scars, reveals no secrets. The scars and the secrets are hidden in the minds of the survivors. Sorrow in the minds of many. Anger in the minds of many. Guilt in the minds of many. In the minds of a very few, there was a shadowy empty space where guilt could reasonably have been found, and was not. Those minds still wove a skein—a dangerous skein—of intrigue and deceit, here where the scars and secrets of war were real, but could not be seen.
This is the story of a few brave but unlikely friends who uncovered those secrets and those scars by following their shadowy strands into the intricate heart of the skein.
In late May in this West Country, the fields were all the many greens of newness. Tall trees, notable for their great age, were incongruously unfurling brilliant green leaves radiant in their new beginnings. In the rose garden of High Place Old Lodge, no blooms yet added scarlet or vibrant cerise to the lush green, but there was a brilliant rose-red in the lovely dress of Lady Riddecoombe, glowing in the center of the lush green so that she seemed to be the one rose—the one perfect rose in the garden.
"Damnation all to hell and back!" Lady Riddecoombe was not pleased. Nor, from her words, was she entirely British. She was certainly not the aristocratic British rose to be expected in this, the essence of an aristocratic English garden. Yet she spoke with a quiet tone and an undeniably refined accent at uncomfortable odds with the words she spoke. She was seated on a white Victorian garden bench, uncomfortable as only the Victorians could make them, surrounded by her own personal correspondence on her own personal stationery.
The stationery was a light blue gray with a white deckled border, and obviously not a personal choice. She had been given the choice of colors and styles—of course she had. However, since she had been the young bride of the wealthy Sir Arthur Riddecoombe, what choice had she but light Wedgwood blue with white deckled edges? Was that not what was to be expected? The new Lady Riddecoombe had learned very quickly that the expected was, well, to be expected. One judged a new Lady Riddecoombe by a certain standard. It was always the standard of those who expected the best—the standard of Sir Arthur Riddecoombe, to give an example. For him, the best was always to be expected. The best, to give an example, in the subtle art of blackmail, which he had refined and polished so assiduously in such a perfection of secrecy. The very best in the sophisticated, Janus-faced, art of humiliation. He took pride in perfecting his art. He had begun in childhood and, by this time, had reached a very high level indeed.
Anne, on the other hand, was a mere beginner. In a game in which she had no experience nor, to her credit, any natural aptitude, she learned slowly. She had not always been Lady Riddecoombe. She had been young, of course, awkward, over-tall, red-haired Annie Westwood as she grew up, the only child of an upper-class younger son of a younger son in a fashionable but not impressive area of West London. Her parents were scholarly rather than aristocratic—born in the higher classes, but not of them. Her father even taught school. Granted, at a well-respected public school, but still, not the accepted thing, not at all. Her genteelly timid mother had stood firm for once and insisted that Annie be sent to the States with many other children at the beginning of the war, rather against the wishes of her father who considered it "unBritish." Her mother had been right. The London house had become a smoking crater halfway through the Blitz. Her parents, thankfully, had been staying at their small summer place, a made-over tenant farmer's cottage really, a very small house on a rather large acreage in Wiltshire. It was all they had left. It was part of the land of the West Country.
Annie, one of the many British children sent to the States for safety during the war, spent those years on a thriving farm in Kansas. She was conscious of a great deal of conflict within her growing sense of herself. She felt that she had, in her father's words, "let the side down." Yet she was supremely happy there while her home and former life were being destroyed. The family to which she temporarily belonged had requested her partly because her foster mother had a family of three strong, healthy boys and was rather afraid of trying again and making it four. Her foster mother loved her dearly, and a bond formed that sent the affection back and forth between them in easy comfort. It was here Ann learned what it felt like to be loved. It would be a long time before she felt that again. The three boys had seen her as a means of allowing them to have teams of two against two of whatever sport was in season. Summer meant baseball on the dusty diamond by the small schoolhouse. Fall meant a rather abrupt introduction to football, tag football, their mother insisted, but the term had been vaguely defined. The boys had called it rag football, which was more appropriate, somehow. Winter meant basketball in the school gym.
Ann and the boys reached the gym by plowing through knee-deep snow against a high wind that always came at them from whichever direction they were trying to go. Ann developed a joy and a skill in basketball. Annie, now Ann, developed a set of skills Annie never would have dreamed of. She now had skills she was proud of, but skills she did not write home to mother about. London, even fashionable West End London, did not allow for robust growth in its young. Skills like tramping through knee-deep snow to school and possibly even deeper snow on the way home were not needed in the gritty, grimy slush of London. Skills like skipping stones on the cow pond were not part of a young London lady's upbringing. Her real love and her real skill was writing.
Later, as Lady Riddecoombe, she remembered the yellow, green-lined Goldenrod pads of school paper with great fondness. She was good at writing, and with her different perspective, keen observation and deep understanding of human nature, she was able to write about things around her in ways that made her classmates see them in a new light and appreciate this newcomer from across the pond. She sharpened her perceptions on everything around her: trees in winter, clouds and their indications of the coming weather, her friends, and, on another sheet not to be shown to anyone, her enemies. She had few enemies and many friends. English teachers loved her. Math teachers tolerated her, barely. She was happy.
Then the war came to an end, or rather the fighting came to an end. For some, the struggle continued. Certainly the blackmail continued. The misdirection of arms, art, and other things of beauty continued. Arthur was happily busy at the things he did best.
Then came the victory—the welcome home that should have been so joyous.
Welcome home to a hole in the London mud where her home should have been and to two exhausted and feeble parents, aged well beyond their years, who now lived on their huge acres in their tiny summer home. The house had originally been a tenant farmer's cottage, It was now old, cramped, and damp. Ann's room was taken by the nurse her parents relied upon. There was no room for Annie in the house or in the lives of these two gray people depleted of all the colors of life. These two strangers were desperate to take care of "the problem of Annie" before the death they could already feel so near.
Her parents lived long enough to reintroduce her to her neighbors at High Yews. Sir Fredrick Riddecoombe had lost his money to gambling and their home, High Place, with the war. It still stood at the top of the hill but was no longer theirs. The Allies had arrived. They bought and they held.
When the eldest Riddecoombe son, Arthur, safely home from a financially successful war, had tried to buy the estate back, all he could buy—argue he never so winningly, offer he never so much—was the Dower House, which he promptly bought and renamed High Place Old Lodge, far more fitting for a bachelor. It came with only a minute, a shamefully minute, strip of land adjoining the Woodhouse acres. He was furious. He was brought into this world to have what he wanted to have no matter how he got it. He was a highly successful military man who had control of the flow of arms and equipment over a significant part of the Western Front. How ironic that he could not return successfully to his own family seat, to the land that was rightfully his! All right, there were other ways. If he couldn't buy the house, at least he could marry the land. The land belonged to Annie's parents. It was all they had left. It solved the problem of Annie.
So here was Annie, now also without a home. She was not really a lady at all. She could shoot baskets, but not grouse. She had no social skills. She had developed a stride intended to cover the long spaces of the Midwest, but had definitely not acquired a graceful way with staircases. Further, she came with red, not auburn but red, hair. Sir Arthur's crowning blow was that this scarecrow of a wife, who granted him his dream of the Woodhouse acres, stood a good three to four inches over Sir Arthur's slightly balding head.
It was Sir Arthur now, with her parents' impending demise, who would own the Woodhouse acres next to, marching with, the pathetic little strip of the Riddecoombe property that was still his.
Annie's parents lived barely long enough to be present at the wedding. They had solved the problem of Annie. They died content.
Arthur's friends joked that the marriage had been a mere transfer of titles. Anne, now with an e, acquired the title to her name, and Arthur acquired the title to her land. His friends considered it elegant in its simplicity.
It was much more than that. Much more. Annie/Ann/Anne knew nothing for certain anymore—not even her own name. Anne had simply been considered more befitting a lady, and so she became Lady Anne Riddecoombe. She could see it on her stationery. Lady Anne Riddecoombe. She was as much his property as her land had become.
She knew how to be Annie and knew she had never liked it. She knew she had loved being just Ann. The same man who had added the Lady had added the e. She was helpless to change either one, and he knew it. Further, he knew she didn't like it. He liked that too. He waited until all his friends had seen her as a redhead, although the veil had softened that at the wedding, and then he chose the tint on the chart that had changed it to a soft rich auburn. Then he was able to stand to one side and watch his friends appreciate the difference, The fact that the auburn was much more flattering and that she liked the look of it only made things more confusing. He saw that she was taller than he. He let her know, so kindly and with such loving teasing, that this was not acceptable. She began to slouch and wear flat-heeled shoes. Anger and frustration can make even the most attractive face unappealing. That delighted him. Then he took her to the most exclusive dress shops and had clothes made for her without the slouch. It would never do to slouch before the couturier. Then, of course, when the Riddecoombes had guests, he would insist that she wear her most stunning dresses—the ones that the two lovebirds had decided upon. Of course, the gorgeous frocks would look hideous on her. Rather, more to the point for Sir Arthur, she would look hideous in them. Nothing wrong with the frocks, absolutely nothing wrong with them. So he would smile proudly at her, and his friends would snicker and cough behind their hands. Worst of all, she would blush. A redhead is never at her best blushing. He knew that too. He knew so much. So very much.
That kind of knowing had been based on long practice. She realized that. He had always been short for his age. She remembered him from those few summer vacation times when they were in groups of children always arranged by age. Of course, Napoleon's name came into the conversation as soon as the other boys learned who Napoleon had been. She remembered the merciless teasing he received. What she could not know was how he got his revenge.
Small children can hide more easily than tall ones. They can learn to be very quiet. Like little mice, they can be quiet. Then they can overhear things. Little pitchers can have big ears. Big ears combined with retentive memories can be dangerous when they are as highly motivated by revenge as those of little Arthur. Revenge taught memories to sort these things heard and to retain the most useful of them. The most useful things, Arthur soon found out, were things that could be used against the speaker. Used first for a bigger share of someone else's candy. Then all of someone else's candy. Then the laugh would be on the one suddenly without candy. The candyless one did not dare defend himself without letting out the secret that had been so safe. Until now. Until Arthur.
Excerpted from The Skein by Elizabeth Schaeffer Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Schaeffer. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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