Darbury, England, 1819
Cecily Faire carries the shame of her past wherever she treads, knowing one slip of the tongue could expose her disgrace. But soon after becoming a lady’s companion at Willowgrove Hall, Cecily finds herself face-to-face with a man well-acquainted with the past she’s desperately hidden for years.
Nathaniel Stanton has a secret of his own—one that has haunted him for years and tied him to his father’s position as steward of Willowgrove Hall. To protect his family, Nathaniel dares not breathe a word of the truth. But as long as the shadow looms over him, he’ll never be free to find his own way in the world. He’ll never be free to fall in love.
When the secrets swirling within Willowgrove Hall come to light, Cecily and Nathaniel must confront a painful choice: Will they continue running from the past . . . or will they stand together and fight for a future without the suffocating weight of secrets long kept?
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A Lady at Willowgrove Hall
By Sarah E. Ladd
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Sarah E. Ladd
All rights reserved.
Blacksmith's Cottage at Aradelle Park Detham, England, 1814
Is it always a sin to tell a lie?
Sixteen-year-old Cecily Faire rolled over to glance at Leah, who slumbered in the narrow bed they shared. A worn, wool blanket was tucked tightly under her sister's chin, and her long, auburn braid lay limply against the pillow.
For weeks she had kept a secret from her sister. Her dearest friend. Her closest confidante.
Cecily swallowed the emotion that welled within her.
Each little lie that she had told haunted her.
But had there been any alternative? Secrecy was imperative.
Cecily relaxed her head against her own pillow and stared at the rough, wooden beams running the length of their bedchamber and struggled to make out their uneven shape in the night's shifting darkness. Outside their room's only window, unremitting rain battered her family's modest cottage, clattering against the thatched roof and disturbing the shutters.
Normally, she did not mind a rainy night. The weather changed without warning on the moors. She had grown accustomed to the peculiar groans and whispering creaks conjured by harsh winds. But tonight, the uneven cadence made it difficult for her to hear the single sound that mattered above all.
The chime of her father's clock.
How clearly her mind's eye could recall the timepiece's ivory face, golden hands, and intricate carvings of vines and leaves. It was by far the most elegant piece in their home. It sat in the parlor, just one floor below, marking each passing hour.
Unable to remain still another moment, Cecily clamped her teeth over her lower lip, held her breath as she pushed the thin covers away, and sat up, careful not to wake Leah.
Even as Cecily's heart trembled in anticipation, Leah's prior warning echoed like a boisterous raven, screeching its unpleasant song from the brush. Only two days past, Leah had discovered Cecily and Andrew arm in arm under the lacy shadows of the apple trees in Aradelle's south orchard.
You would be wise to stay away from Andrew Moreton. Her sister's stern voice had quivered with anger as she grabbed Cecily by her work-worn hand and dragged her back to their cottage. He is not good for you. People in his position are not what they seem. Any relationship with him will only bring about your ruin.
Cecily swiped her unruly hair away from her face, the very memory of the words igniting agitation.
What did Leah know of love? Of passion?
Cecily may only be sixteen years of age, but she knew well her heart.
Andrew Moreton loved her. He wanted to marry her. Had he not said those very words? And he would be waiting for her at the midnight hour, just down the lane from their cottage gate, where the road bent and the copse of hawthorn trees gave way to open moorland.
A wave of excitement pulsed through her at the very thought of Andrew's broad shoulders. His dark-brown eyes. The manner in which his cheek dimpled with his carefree, impulsive smiles and the affectionate warmth in his expression when he looked at her.
Perhaps Leah would feel differently if she knew what it was like to be in love.
Tonight she and Andrew would travel by carriage northward to Scotland where they would marry. She knew no other details, but Andrew had assured her that he had made the necessary arrangements. Even though he was only seventeen, he knew people. Powerful people.
Her hands shook so that she could barely pull her nightdress over her head. She had remained fully clothed beneath in her best gown of straw-colored muslin in anticipation of her journey. She inched her way over to the chair next to the casement window. As she slipped on her half boots and tugged at the laces, she glanced to the garden below. The shrubbery bowed and swayed in a dance with the wind and raindrops. Cecily's hold on the laces slacked as she thought of how her mother, dead seven years now, would disapprove of the garden's wild state. Cecily had tried to tend it in a manner in which her mother would have been pleased, but with all of her other chores, time had slipped by.
But once she was Mrs. Andrew Moreton, she would have no chores. No cares.
She snapped the laces tight.
Andrew had promised her as much.
He had whispered in her ear the promise of love and security, of freedom from worry and want.
She turned back to Leah. The moon's intermittent light now slanted over her twin's slight figure, glinting on the long, red hair. Only twelve minutes her senior, they were identical in so many ways. Looking at her was like beholding a living, breathing looking glass, from her straight nose to the smattering of freckles on her cheeks.
But whereas Leah was far too cautious to follow the demands of her heart, Cecily was not.
One day Leah would forgive her for stealing away in the dark of night. Once she married the heir of Aradelle Park, their worries would cease. No longer would she be merely the daughter of the man who worked the estate's forge and did odd jobs in the village. For when Cecily returned from Scotland, she would be a lady. The scandal would pass, and Andrew's family would accept her as one of their own. Then she would send for Leah. And the nightmare they lived would end.
The familiar melody was soft at first, but it seemed to grow louder, like a beacon summoning her. Imploring her to move quickly. It taunted her, urging that if she did not hurry, she might awaken, and her cherished fairy tale would be no more than a tragic dream of what might have been.
Lightning flashed in the tiny room, and at the brightness, Leah stirred. If Cecily was going to leave, now was the time.
With her boots now secured, she stood, crossed the room, and pulled her packed valise from the corner where she had hidden it behind a chest. She opened a small box on the dresser and pulled out a folded piece of paper. At the top she had carefully written her sister's name in her finest handwriting.
Everyone would wonder where she had gone. Someone needed to know.
She propped the folded letter on the bureau where Leah would be sure to see it.
A thrill surged through her, and she paused to look around the room that had been hers all her life. Even in the dark she could make out the low bed. The leaning wardrobe in the corner. The battered, painted chest beneath the window.
She turned to leave but stopped as her eye caught on a simple coral necklace next to where she had placed the letter. It had been their mother's, and it was the only piece of jewelry that remained in their possession. Their father had sold everything else, but somehow this trinket had escaped his greedy eye. At the sight of it, her throat tightened and her vision grew misty.
Their mother had always wanted more for them. More than they would receive as the daughters of a blacksmith.
Would her mother approve of her decision to run away from everything for a chance at a better life?
Cecily had no one to turn to for guidance.
She had to trust her instincts.
She snatched the piece of jewelry, tucked it in her bodice, glanced back at her sleeping sister, and quitted the room.
The corridor was quiet, save for the steady fall of rain. It was too quiet—normally, their father's snores would fill the modest cottage. She tried not to let that fact dissuade her as she descended the steps, avoiding the spaces that would groan under her weight.
With every step she should be feeling freer. Lighter.
But at the foot of the staircase, doubt washed over her. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickled.
Cecily fought the ominous suspicion and strained to hear the night sounds, but the erratic beating of her heart drowned out all other noises. Another flash of lightning sliced through the darkness, lancing her already taut nerves. The sooner she was free of this cottage, and the memories it held captive, the better she would be.
She hurried through the kitchen and out the door to the overgrown garden. She hastened amid the neglected lavender, roses, and foxglove. The hedges of overrun hawthorn and elderberry, which once had been a place of play, now seemed dangerous and foreboding. Ahead of her was the wooden gate. Only a few more steps.
Was that thunder?
No. She took another step.
A shout. One heavy with Irish brogue, rough and gritty like a growl.
It was alarm, pure and violent, that pushed her farther into the unkempt garden. The blood raced through her ears, and try as she might to make out words, the wind muddled them. She dropped her valise and ran toward the gate. The overgrown shrubbery grabbed at her skirt, and she struggled to maintain her balance as her boots sank in the thick mud. It was as if the very ground were trying to keep her captive.
Her father had discovered their plan.
It could be the only explanation.
She skidded to a stop by the gate and rounded the corner. There stood her father, towering over Andrew and appearing more like a hulking monster than a mortal man.
"Stop, Father!" Cecily squealed, lunging forward and grabbing his thick arm. "Stop!"
But with one swoop of his forearm, Joseph Faire knocked Cecily to the side, nearly sending her to the soggy ground. When she gained her balance, she swiped her drenched hair from her face. The weak light from the lantern at her father's feet flickered in hard angles on his wet face, his eyes mere slits.
Fearing more for Andrew's safety than her own, she scrambled back to her father in an attempt to distract him, but he would not be deterred. His massive hands were fixed on Andrew's fine coat.
"Stealing in like a thief in the night!" her father bellowed. "How many times did I warn ye? Tell y'ta stay away from 'er?"
Andrew's eyes were wide and his chest heaved. Cecily had never seen him frightened before.
Andrew's shoulders looked narrow in her father's grip as he pressed the young man against the stone wall. His Adam's apple bobbed. He glanced over at Cecily and then back to her father. "I love Miss Faire, sir. I intend to marry her."
"Ha!" Her father's voice held vicious sarcasm. "You'll ne'er marry a daughter o' mine." The familiar scent of ale and rum wafted around her.
She knew what her father was capable of.
She was unsure if Andrew did.
For so long she had tried to hide the truth of her father's rages. Now there could be no denying.
Cecily's dreams were dissolving right before her, like a tallow candle left too close to the fire. Summoning every ounce of bravery in her small frame, she lunged forward, attempting one last time to divert her father's attention enough for Andrew to break free.
The muscles in her father's exposed forearms corded, and his hands shook with intense pressure. He bunched his fists around the lapels of Andrew's coat. His words came out in a hiss. "Stay away from my daughter. If I see ye 'round her again, 'twill be the last time."
He then shoved Andrew to the ground. He turned as if to leave, but then pointed a shaking finger back toward Andrew. "Your father may pay me wages, but dunna go thinkin' you can take what's mine. You dunna own me. You are a snake. You are all alike. The lot o' you."
Her father stumbled toward him, and fear for Andrew's safety trumped Cecily's own desires. "Go, Andrew. Run!"
With that, the youth scrambled to his feet and took off.
Her father turned his angry eyes on her.
* * *
"Get down, girl. Be smart about it."
Cecily winced at the harshness in her father's tone, but fear kept her lips pressed together. After the five-hour cart ride in the rain, in the dead of night, it was the first time he had spoken to her.
This was the gamble she had made, for she had known if her father ever discovered her plans, there would be no reprieve from his fury. She'd been so careful to conceal them. Although rough, her father was a cunning man, his shrewdness—and his contempt—sharpened by a lifetime of striking blows. It didn't take long for him to notice that she was fully dressed in the black of night and to find her discarded valise. She confessed her plan in the hope that he would forgive her. But instead of finding redemption, she incited his anger further.
Cecily clutched the side of the cart's bench and stared at the ground as if it were a pit of fire instead of dirt and gravel.
"I'll be glad to be free of ye, y'romp." He spat. "I said get down!"
Cecily jumped from her seat and scrambled down, propelled by the fear of bringing his wrath on her once more. She didn't dare look at him. She knew what she would find in his expression.
Instead, she glanced up at the building, trying to figure out where they were.
Somewhere in the misty distance, a wren broke into a morning song, and the gray light of an early spring dawn cast long shadows on the manicured landscape. Morning dew clung to the grass and evergreens, and in the light, it shone like diamonds.
And then she saw the brass marker nearly hidden by shrubbery.
Rosemere School for Young Ladies.
As the words registered, Cecily's heart thudded, threatening to burst free from her chest. How many times had he threatened this? To send her away to a girls' school. To separate her from her sister.
As if moving by some unseen force, she rounded the front of the cart. The donkey poked his nose against her arm, no doubt seeking a stub of a carrot or a lump of sugar. Hot tears stung her eyes. Would this really be the last time she saw the animal that had been her companion for as long as she could remember?
She did not have time to contemplate it, for in two large steps, Joseph Faire reached around and snatched her up by her arm. A cry escaped her lips. His grip tightened around her arm, and he all but dragged her to the door.
Struggling to maintain balance, she glanced up at the building—a formidable building of gray stone and latticed windows. A movement above caught her eye, and through the wavy glass, curtains parted and the faces of two girls appeared.
Cecily bit her lower lip.
Her father pounded against the heavy, wooden door, the volume of which disrupted the silence and set a dog barking. He adjusted the grip on her arm and muttered under his breath before pummeling the door once more.
Shame forced her to look at the worn toes of her black half boots, and she tried to stay calm.
Stupid, foolish girl!
Her father continued to beat on the door until movement and muted voices stirred within. After several moments it swung open, revealing a tall, sinewy man in haphazard dress, his rumpled linen shirt hanging over his trousers, his frock coat askew on his shoulder, and his feet in stockings. Sleep marks creased his wrinkled face, and his graying hair pressed against his head.
"What is the meaning of this?" the man hissed in an obvious attempt to keep his voice low. "It's barely dawn!"
Her father, on the other hand, made little effort for discretion. "I have a new pupil for you." He shoved Cecily forward. She stumbled at the sudden jolt.
The man shook his head, the crisp morning breeze whipping around the building's corner and disrupting his hair. He pushed his crooked spectacles up on his nose and assessed Cecily before speaking. "Return at a more suitable hour and we will discuss—"
"I'll not return at another hour." Joseph Faire's tone darkened. "We'll speak now."
Cecily was familiar with her father's brash ways, but the rise of the man's bushy eyebrows suggested he was not accustomed to being spoken to in such a manner.
The man finally blinked at her, then back to her father. "This is most unusual, you understand."
"What's unusual 'bout it?" Joseph Faire barked. "I've a girl, you've a school, and I've money to see her through 'til she's o' age—no more, no less."
The distance and the nonchalance in his tone shouldn't have shocked her, but they did. He spoke as if he were bartering for services or trading animals. Their relationship had always been strained, but did she mean so little to him?
A younger woman with a long, black braid appeared, dressed in a wrapper and hugging her waist. She placed a hand on the man's arm, her face drawn in pointed concern. "But we haven't the room. It will be at least another month before we can even consider—"
"Well, she'll not come home with me," spat her father, interrupting their conversation. "So 'tis up to ye, either she stays here, or she is on her own."
Excerpted from A Lady at Willowgrove Hall by Sarah E. Ladd. Copyright © 2014 Sarah E. Ladd. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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