After 24 years, she's learning the truth that was hidden from her as a child.
Now the fate of many people depends on what she will do with it.
At the age of four, Araminta 'Minty' Cardale was exiled from Eden Hall on the wings of a scandal. Twenty years later, summoned by her half-sister, she has returned to see her dying father. But her hopes of a warm family welcome are shattered, and she is rejected once again.
Making a place for herself in the village at the gates of Eden Hall, Minty begins to learn the truth about her father and her long-dead mother. She has yet to understand the threat she represents to family members who care only for money, power, and self-advancement, or the hope she offers to the community she is growing to love. And there are some who will do anything to prevent her finding out until it's too late.
Thankfully, Minty has friends to stand by her, and, in this modern Cinderella story, she find an unlikely and unpredictable champion. At stake are the soul of her father on his deathbedand the future of the entire village.
About the Author
Veronica Heley (www.veronicaheley.com) has published more than fifty books, including crime fiction, historical, and children's titles. She is currently involved in the Ellie Quicke series of crime stories and a variety of other projects. A full-time writer, she has been married to a London probation officer since 1964, and has one musician daughter.
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Eden Hall Copyright © 2004 by Veronica Heley
Requests for information should be addressed to: Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49530
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Heley, Veronica Eden Hall / Veronica Heley. - 1st ed. p. cm. ISBN 0-310-24963-5 1. Young women - Fiction. 2. Administration of estates - Fiction. 3. Fathers and daughters - Fiction. 4. Cancer - Patients - Fiction. 5. Stepmothers - Fiction. 6. England - Fiction. Title. PR6070.H6915 E34 2004 823'.92 - dc22 2003023565 CIP
Veronica Heley asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means - electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or any other - except for brief quotations in printed reviews, without the prior permission of the publisher.
Interior illustration by Clint Hansen
Interior design by Michelle Espinoza
Printed in the United Kingdom
04 05 06 07 08 09 10 /. CLY/ 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
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She was being watched.
No one had come to meet her, but Araminta Cardale - Minty - could feel eyes upon her. The little country station seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Three other people had alighted from the train, got into cars, and driven away. A number of vehicles remained in the car park, probably those of commuters who'd gone to the faroff city for the day. An ancient man dozed in a disreputable estate car. That was all.
The midday sun lay heavily over the trees and fields before her. The only road leading from the station car park twisted out of sight behinda stand of oak trees. There were no other houses or even people in sight.
Could they have forgotten to meet her? Surely not! It was only last night that Minty's half-sister Gemma had phoned, saying their father was seriously ill and Minty was needed. After all those years of banishment, her father wanted her back! Minty hadn't thought twice about it, but said she'd be on the first train next morning.
Then she had to face the aunt and uncle who had housed and fed - but not loved - her all those years. They'd been furious at what they called Minty's "desertion" of them, even though Minty had made hasty but sufficient arrangements for other people to take over her work in the parish. For once Minty had refused to give in to their appeals and threats. She'd gone back up to pack in the small, cold bedroom that had been hers for nearly twenty years - only to realise she hadn't any money for the journey. She quailed at the thought of having to face her uncle again, but summoned up her courage and did it. She said she'd hitchhike if necessary. In the end he'd agreed to lend her the exact amount for the train fare. Ten minutes passed. No one came. Minty eased her shoulders under her white T-shirt.
It hadn't taken her long to pack her rucksack the previous evening. After all, she was going back to Eden Hall as a daughter of the house. No longer would she have to subdue her natural exuberance, be careful of what she said and whom she said it to. She was leaving behind the life of vicarage drudge and parish secretary. She was going to be herself for once! And leaving Lucas behind, too. An added bonus.
She had cast aside the severe navy blue skirts and white blouses that her aunt had decreed were the appropriate wear for Minty as vicar's niece and his parish secretary. All she took into her new life were the jumble sale and charity shop jeans and T-shirts she had worn when she helped in the youth club, a halfway decent cotton skirt, a couple of sweaters and a jacket. Her Bible, of course, went in first.
Before anyone else was up in the morning, she'd set out through the city streets to walk to the station, where she'd nearly an hour to wait for the little local train. She had no money to buy herself breakfast. She went into the ladies waiting room and inspected herself in the mirror. That morning she'd let her honey-coloured hair curl loosely about her shoulders, instead of pinning it up in the severe French plait preferred by her aunt.
She swung her hair from side to side, half alarmed and half pleased at the sensation. She fished a jumble sale scarf out of her rucksack and tied it round her head to hold her hair off her face. The gauzy blue matched her eyes, almost. Her eyelashes and eyebrows were as fair as her hair. If they'd been darker, she might have been considered pretty.
Minty smiled at herself in the mirror. If Aunt Agnes could see her now, how she'd scold! "You look like a prostitute," she'd say. "Just like your mother. Mark my words, you'll come to a bad end, just like her." Aunt Agnes could scold for the Olympics.
Minty twisted from side to side, trying to see as much of herself as she could in the mirror. Her skin was good, though lacking in colour. She touched the tiny gilt cross on its fragile chain round her neck. It was her only jewellery, apart from a cheap watch. She pulled a face at herself. Experience of life had given her a wary look, and she looked older than her real age of twenty-four.
Twenty minutes had passed since the train had left, and she'd no idea how to reach the Hall. Had there really been a gracious golden house set in a spreading park, or had she just imagined it?
Perhaps Gemma's phone call had been a terrible practical joke?
Minty squared her shoulders. She would not be put off now she had come so far. Gemma must have been held up. Her father might have taken a turn for the worse. Minty had no mobile phone, no money for a taxi, but there was only one road leading away from the station and she would follow it until she found someone who could direct her to the Hall. She picked up her rucksack and set off down the road.
The door of the estate car creaked open and footsteps sounded behind her. Ah, the watcher had surfaced, had he? Brought up in a crime-ridden city parish, Minty turned, ready to fight off a mugger.
He blinked at her, this elderly farm worker. His clothes had originally been good and his boots still were. Small, metal-framed glasses, a seamed and weathered face, brown eyes. He looked like a tortoise.
"You'll be Miss Milly's daughter?"
"You're like her."
Minty winced. How often had her uncle and aunt told her so. "All that fair hair!" they'd said. "The mark of a child of shame!" Minty hadn't known for a long time what they meant, but she knew now. Minty lifted her chin. She knew that what her mother had done was wrong, but her own dim memories of the first Lady Cardale had been of warmth and laughter. There hadn't been much loving or laughing in Minty's years in the vicarage, but she remembered those sensations from early childhood.
The old man squinted into the sun. "They're expecting you at the Hall? It would be Miss Gemma called you?"
"Yes." He seemed to know a lot. She'd heard there were no secrets in a village. He didn't seem about to mug her, but could she trust him?
"Thornby. Old Oak Farm. Taking some eggs up to the Hall. Give you a lift."
He walked, bandy-legged, over to the ancient estate car and pulled open the passenger door. After a moment's hesitation she got in, hugging her rucksack. He had to slam the door twice to get it to shut. The car smelt of something organic. The wet nose of a black and white collie investigated her neck and she nearly yelped.
"Down!" said the farmer, and the dog subsided. Minty clung to the half-open window as the farmer swung out of the car park and headed down the road. There didn't seem to be a handle on the inside of the door and the seat belt was broken. The car looked a wreck, but the engine sounded good. She'd heard that cars reflected the personality of their owners. Perhaps this one did, too.
The road gave a sudden twist as they came to the first sign of habitation since leaving the train station. Mr Thornby slowed down as they passed a clutch of run-down farm buildings. Minty thought he was going to say something, but he picked up speed again, continuing down the country lane. Mature trees overhung the road, and the verges were starred with the wild flowers of early autumn. She glimpsed a couple of cottages set back from the road.
Suddenly the trees fell away and they came out on to a village green fringed with houses. A cricket pitch was being mown in the middle of the green, and at one side was a white-painted changing room for the players.
As they snaked their way around the green, a church reared its tower against the sky and they came to a crossroads. Mr Thornby paused to look for traffic - there was hardly any - and took the road down the hill, which turned into a village high street.
The houses and shops in the high street were all shapes and sizes but nearly all were built of golden stone, glowing in the midday sun. Minty caught her breath. After the grimy brick buildings of the city, the village looked like a picture on a calendar. Window boxes adorned many of the houses and at intervals down the broad pavements stood timber planters spilling over with fuschias, trailing geraniums and petunias. A fairy-tale village.
"You remember it?"
She smiled. "It's beautiful."
Their progress down the street slowed because a coach crowded with tourists was moving along ahead of them. Minty's eye was caught by a huge marmalade cat sitting in a bookshop window. A woman with a child in a pushchair crossed the road ahead of their car and, though there seemed to be plenty of room, Mr Thornby swerved into the kerb to avoid her.
Minty's door flew open, depositing her on to the pavement and nudging a dark-haired man who stood chatting with a friend nearby.
The man staggered, letting slip the papers he was holding.
"Steady!" said the older man, grabbing his arm.
"So sorry!" gasped Minty, scrambling to regain her seat and rescue the door.
"Thornby! Can't you look where you're going for a change?"
"So-rry," sang out the farmer.
"What the . . . !" said the dark-haired man, staring at Minty. "What the . . . !"
"I'm so sorry," repeated Minty. She thought, He's really ugly with that long nose, but . . . I've never met anyone so . . . why is he looking at me like that? Why do I want to cry? It's the shock. I nearly killed him, but . . . Why is he looking at me like that?
The farmer said, "Miss Cardale, returning to the Hall."
"Yes," said the dark-haired man, short of breath.
"Seemingly they forgot to send a car for her."
"Ah," said the dark-haired man. He took a hasty step back, cannoned into a wooden bench and sat down. He was perhaps five years older than Minty, wearing conventional dark trousers, a white business shirt and dark blue tie. His eyes were light grey, his skin tanned with the summer sun. In the city Minty would have put him down as a teacher. Here he could be anything. Why was he staring at her like that? She'd never seen him before in her life.
A stocky middle-aged woman bustled out of the bookshop and started to pick up the papers he'd dropped, scolding everyone in sight. "Norman Thornby, you ought to be ashamed of yourself! Too mean to spend money on a decent car; it'll land you in court one of these fine days. Are you all right, Patrick? No damage? Norman, you chose the right man to knock over this time, didn't you?"
Everyone laughed, except Minty and the man the woman had called "Patrick".
"I'm fine," said the dark-haired man, getting to his feet and reclaiming his papers. "Thanks, Mrs Wootton. Thornby, she's right. If you keep on driving like that, I'll see you in court one day."
All the time his eyes were on Minty, and she was looking at him. It was disturbing.
Norman Thornby waved them goodbye and set off into the traffic again.
"Well, that'll give them something to talk about. That was Patrick Sands. Much respected in these parts. Except at the Hall, of course."
Minty gasped. "Sands? The man my mother ran away with?" "If you believe that! His son. Took over the practice when his father retired. And there's the Hall."
She looked where he pointed. At the bottom of the hill was a humpback bridge over a river, and beyond the bridge lay a park of mature trees and green sward, surrounded by a low wall. The shadows beneath the trees looked blue in the sunlight. Between the trees she caught a glimpse of golden stone and light reflected from windows. She could feel her heart beating. Eden Hall at last. Soon she would see her father!
Mr Thornby slowed to take the bend on to the bridge.
"Oh, I remember this bridge!" cried Minty. "My mother used to lift me up on to the parapet to see the river."
The road divided over the bridge. Mr Thornby turned right and then sharply left through some open gates into an avenue lined with horse chestnut trees. A large sign at the roadside indicated that Eden Hall was open to the public five days a week . . . restaurant open . . . price . . .
Minty was so excited she didn't know which way to look, trying to take everything in. Her father . . . only a few more minutes and she would see him! Surely the Hall hadn't been open to the public in the old days. Had her father lost all his money? She'd understood he was a financier. Hadn't there been something about his establishing a charity to help educate children in inner cities . . . ? Perhaps that had been just a fairy-tale. She didn't mind if he were poor now. She knew all about poverty.
That man. Patrick. Why had he looked at her like that? As if . . . ? She shook her head in frustration.
The Hall overlooked a great sweep of parkland. Hadn't there been a lake? She couldn't see it. She dug into her memory for the stories her mother had told her about the house.
"Sheep!" her mother had said, holding up a model of a sheep. "The oldest part of the house was built on the money we made from wool." Then her mother had held up a toy train. "Then we went into railways and built wings on to the original house so that it became a hollow square."
That's right, thought Minty. I remember an enclosed courtyard with a fountain in it. There were staircases in the towers at each of the four corners of the building. It was great to play hide and seek, running up one staircase, through the formal rooms and down another . . .
Minty's head turned from side to side as they eased their way under a wide stone archway into a cobbled yard. They were directly under the original Elizabethan wing now, the one that had been built on the money made from wool. The sound of the car on cobbles brought back a fleeting memory. She had been just five when she'd been driven away.
To the right were outbuildings displaying signs with "Restaurant", "Shop", and "Toilets" on each.
Another archway, another courtyard. Expensive-looking cars housed in more outbuildings. On the right, windows opened on to a kitchen, clattering with noisy food preparation. She didn't remember that at all.
Mr Thornby parked by the kitchen door. "You won't want to go in the front door, because that's the way the tourists go in to visit the house. I think we'd best find Ms Phillips to look after you." He hopped out, relieving her of her rucksack and leading the way back into the first courtyard.
"Who's Ms Phillips?" asked Minty, trying to keep up with him. There were several doors leading into the house. One stood open, but he ignored it. They passed another door marked "Estate Office" and eventually came to a door marked "Private" with a discreet logo on it. Mr Thornby rang the bell beside the door. He put down the rucksack and said, "I'll be in the kitchens back there if you need me."
As Minty thanked him, the door was opened by a youngish woman who looked at her curiously but did not speak as she gestured for Minty to enter.
Her father . . . in a few minutes she would see him. Would she be held by him, welcomed, loved? Was she tidy? Perhaps he wouldn't like her wearing jeans. It was too late to change.
She stepped inside. She was in a dark passage. The woman who had admitted her opened a door on the left and ushered her into a spacious reception room. The mullioned windows didn't let in much daylight, but sympathetic lighting helped to counter the darkness of the original panelling. This was a ground floor reception room, with comfortable modern chairs arranged around a low table on one side, and on the other the latest technology - and behind it a middle-aged, competent personal assistant/secretary. Glasses flashed as the woman looked up from some papers she was studying.
"Ms Phillips? I'm Araminta Cardale. My sister phoned me to . . ."
Ms Phillips nodded to the younger woman, who disappeared through an inner door.
"We've been expecting you. Take a seat. Coffee? Tea?"
Minty shook her head. In a minute her father would come bursting through the door, holding out his arms to her . . . or perhaps he might be so ill that a nurse would lead her up to his bedroom, where he would be lying with his eyes turned to the door, waiting for her. Perhaps she wouldn't be able to hug him as she wanted to, but would be able to hold his hand and stroke it.
The inner door opened and in rushed a beautiful red-haired girl wearing designer clothing and glittering with gold chains. She was in tears, tissue in hand.
"Oh, Araminta, I'm so sorry! It's all been a terrible mistake, there's been the most awful row, and I'm so, so sorry! I tried phoning you, but you'd gone already."
Minty could hardly take in what the girl was saying. Was this her half-sister, Gemma? Minty felt the blood leave her head.
"I know I ought to have met you at the station, but mother was in such a state, and then Simon said . . . and of course we daren't tell father, so you see . . . ?"
Minty had risen when Gemma came in but now sank back on to the chair. It had been a mistake to leave without breakfast.
She said, "Sending for me was a mistake?"
Ms Phillips had disappeared. Gemma sat down beside Minty. "I can't apologise enough. Father's been gradually getting worse for weeks though mother refuses to see it, and of course Simon's been running the house and estate for some time, because there's so much to do, you can't imagine, even with all the volunteers. It's never ending. I help mother with her charity work and that's pretty well a full-time job, I can tell you."
Minty put her hand to her forehead. Wasn't she going to be allowed to see her father, after all?
Gemma misunderstood her. "Oh, you probably don't remember. Simon's our half-brother, mother's son by her first marriage. Father adopted him, of course, and - "
"Talking about me?" One of the handsomest men Minty had ever seen was leaning against the doorpost, looking down his nose at her. He was tall and blond with blue eyes. An open-necked white shirt over the latest jeans showed off an extraordinary tan. Somehow Minty knew the tan went all over.
She'd forgotten about Simon. She had a hazy memory of somebody who used to tease her and laugh. She shook her head, frustrated at her inability to remember.
"Is this Little Miss Hopeful, then?" he said. "Doesn't look much like the Old Man, does she?"
"Oh, Simon!" said Gemma, disconcerted but also trying to hide a giggle. "How could you!"
"Very easily, my dear. Get rid of her before I lose my temper." He vanished.
Gemma was embarrassed. She tried on a laugh. "I'm so sorry. Simon is . . . well . . . you understand?"
Minty didn't, no. "Am I not to see my father, then?"
Gemma ignored that, lifting a hand with a giant emerald ring on it. "You have to laugh; I've known about you for ever, the black sheep of the family. I grew up wondering about you, thinking family feuds like that went out with the Borgias. Several times I nearly got in touch with you just to see what you were like, but I never did because . . . well, I don't know why, really. Then last week everything went pear-shaped. Simon's so busy with his new project that he forgot about the cleaners, and he wanted me to take over the holiday lets, and I just flipped! Then I came across your address, and I was so cross with Simon, and it seemed like a good idea to call you.
"I told mother and Simon this morning, but of course I'd got it all wrong and she was devastated. She explained how much it would hurt father if you came, so I tried to stop you. But I was too late. Oh, and do be happy for me! I got engaged last week, and mother says I'm to take over her duties here, opening fêtes and giving prizes at the school and all that and, well, you see how it is, don't you?"
Minty could only think of one thing. "I want to see my father. That's why I came."
"Mother says it would only upset him. So you see . . . ?" She spread her manicured fingers, with the glowing emerald on her left hand.
Minty felt the contrast between Gemma and her with a stab of pain, even while she tried to come to terms with her disappointment. Gemma was a darling - except perhaps for that moment in which she'd laughed at Minty with Simon. But that might have been nerves. Gemma was ingenuous, pampered. Much loved. Minty in her jumble sale clothes was something the cat had brought in.
Gemma touched Minty lightly on her shoulder. "I really am so sorry. I thought it would be the perfect answer to all our problems if you came and helped out - part of the family, you know. But you're not even my half-sister, my mother says.
"Perhaps we can arrange to meet up later in the year, in town, say? For lunch or something? Not for the wedding, of course, but . . . I did ask my mother if you could stay the night having come all this way, but I'd forgotten that Simon has got people staying, so it's out of the question, I'm afraid. Don't look so . . . it really is not my fault! Ms Phillips will get a taxi to take you back to the station."
Minty didn't see Gemma go, as she was putting her head down between her knees to still the roaring sound in her ears. When her faintness receded, she sat up and pushed her hair back from her forehead.
Ms Phillips was offering her a glass of water.
Minty drank. "Thank you."
"Have you eaten today?" A kindly enough voice. Ms Phillips wasn't devoid of compassion, it seemed. Or perhaps she wanted to avoid having a fainting girl on her hands. "I suggest you get yourself a square meal at the restaurant and then I'll call you a taxi."
Minty thought of the few pence she had left in her purse. She began to laugh but recognised the hysteria in her voice and made herself stop. What should she do? Tamely return to her uncle and aunt? Not to mention the problem represented by her cousin Lucas.
No, she thought. Having come so far, I'm not going to be fobbed off with excuses. She squared her shoulders, took a deep breath. "I can't go back without seeing my father, especially if he's as ill as Gemma says. Besides, it's not possible for me to go anywhere. I haven't the price of a taxi on me, nor the train fare. I don't even have enough to buy a sandwich!"
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