Nothing—and no one—at Croft Towers is what they claim in this Gothic Regency romance.
When Sybil Delafield’s coach to Croft Towers was robbed by highwaymen, she should have realized that her new position as companion to old Mrs. Chalcroft would be no ordinary job. Upon Sybil’s arrival, Mrs. Chalcroft sneaks into her room in the dark of night, imploring her to relay messages to town that are to stay hidden from the rest of the family. Who exactly is she working for and what do the messages contain?
When fellow passengers of the robbed coach are later murdered, Sybil’s hunt for the truth takes on a new urgency. The only person she can rely on is Mr. Sinclair, Mrs. Chalcroft’s godson, but under all his charms he too leads a double life. Sybil must decide if he is the one honest voice she can trust, or if he is simply using her for his own advances.
Croft Towers holds more than its share of secrets . . . and Sybil is determined to uncover them all.
Praise for In the Shadow of Croft Towers
“In the Shadow of Croft Towers is everything I love in a novel: a classic gothic feel, a regency setting, a mysterious hero . . . and secrets abounding!” —Dawn Crandall, award-winning author of the Everstone Chronicles series
“Shades of Gothic romance in a portrait of Regency England . . . if Jane Austen ever met Jane Eyre, it would be at Croft Towers!” —Kristy Cambron, author of Castle on the Rise
"Blending the unputdownable Regency flair of Georgette Heyer with the intricate plotting of Julie Klassen, Wilson not only places herself competently amidst beloved authors but carves out a unique place of her own." —Rachel McMillan, author of the Van Buren and DeLuca Mysteries
"Beautifully written, suspenseful, and satisfyingly romantic." —Jennifer Beckstrand, author of Home on Huckleberry Hill
- Full-length Regency romance with a murder mystery (c. 95,000 words)
- Perfect for fans of Sarah Ladd, Deanna Raybourn, Julie Klassen, Tasha Alexander, and Lauren Willig
- Also by Abigail Wilson:
- Midnight on the River Grey
- Masquerade at Middlecrest Abbey
- The Vanishing at Loxby Manor (available January 2021)
- Includes discussion questions for book clubs
|Publisher:||Nelson, Thomas, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Abigail Wilson combines her passion for Regency England with intrigue and adventure to pen historical mysteries with a heart. A registered nurse, chai tea addict, and mother of two crazy kids, Abigail fills her spare time hiking the national parks, attending her daughter’s gymnastic meets, and curling up with a great book. In 2017, Abigail won WisRWA’s Fab Five contest and in 2016, ACFW’s First Impressions contest as well as placing as a 2017 finalist in the Daphne du Maurier Award for Excellence in Mystery/Suspense. She is a cum laude graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Dripping Springs, Texas, with her husband and children. Connect with Abigail at www.acwilsonbooks.com; Instagram: acwilsonbooks; Facebook: ACWilsonbooks; Twitter: @acwilsonbooks.
Read an Excerpt
THE ENGLISH COUNTRYSIDE
I often wonder what my life would have been like if I had never learned the truth. I wouldn't have set off as I did for Croft Towers. I never would have met him.
It's strange what I remember about the day I left London. The mail coach was late; the weather wretched. The clock had struck midnight long before two strangers and I ducked beneath the postmaster's outstretched umbrella to board the Royal Mail and rumble across the North Downs.
That difficult journey east marked the beginning of an unseasonably cold autumn. Frigid rain pelted the coach windows. The undercarriage squealed beneath the seats as a metallic scent wound its way between the drafty boards. I gripped the windowsill, wondering if the coachman intended to hit every bump in the road.
"Far to go, miss?"
The woman's voice startled me. Dressed head to toe in red satin, she'd endured the last few darkened hours with a handful of smelling salts and a tongue hot for complaints, but she hadn't spoken to me until now. Not until the first hint of rain-soaked daylight peeked over the horizon.
I lowered my gaze and fiddled with my bonnet ribbons. "Yes, ma'am ... well, not too much farther, I hope."
The woman expelled a huff, her lower jaw jiggling. "Dreadful weather. I begged my Martin not to compel me to go today." She motioned to the window. "But he would have it his way."
I forced a tepid smile but found it difficult to respond. Leaving Winterridge Seminary for the last time had been harder than I'd expected.
"'Pon my word, if this rain continues we'll have no choice but to overnight on the road."
I gripped my reticule to my chest. With the tea I purchased in Canterbury and the outrageous price of the ticket, I'd not enough money left to overnight anywhere. Why hadn't I thought of such a possibility?
The woman leaned forward, her rose scent wafting around me like a foggy curtain. "You poor dear. All on your own, eh?" She looked at me as if she thought I'd run away from home. "Don't you worry your pretty head. My brother and I have never been ones to shirk our duty to charity."
"Worse comes to worst, you can always share a bedchamber with my maid."
The wiry woman seated beside her popped out of the shadows, turning her gaze on me as if I were a rabid dog.
But my self-appointed benefactor took no notice. "Yes, yes. Thompkins won't mind at all. Will you, Thompkins?"
Embarrassed, I turned to the window and bit my lip. My situation wasn't as desperate as all that. At least I hoped it wasn't. Of course, I had to admit, the gray evening had taken on a mustard-yellow glow. It was like looking through the bottom of a dirty glass. I took a deep breath. "Thank you for the kind offer, but hopefully it won't be necessary. I'm to get off at Plattsdale."
The woman raised her eyebrows. "Plattsdale? Have you family there?"
A tiny ping hit my heart, and I swallowed hard. "No, not family."
She tapped her leg with the end of her fan, then leaned forward as if she intended to share a secret. Her eyes told me otherwise. "My curiosity is piqued, my dear, piqued. Why would someone such as yourself travel there?"
I pressed my fingernails into the palm of my hand. Whatever business I had in Plattsdale was my own affair. One I certainly didn't wish to share with a nosy traveler on the common stage. But it was hardly a secret, and one I would have to grow accustomed to discussing. I forced my shoulders to relax. "I've taken the position of lady's companion to a Mrs. Chalcroft at Croft Towers."
The woman sucked in a quick breath. "Mrs. Chalcroft, is it?" She paused, then pressed her fingers to her mouth. "Faith, but I wish you well, my dear ... I wish you well."
I didn't like the glint in the woman's eyes, as if she knew something she didn't intend to share. I waited a moment, hoping she might say more. But she had tired of me and now whispered into her maid's ear.
A rain-filled hush settled over the carriage. The gloomy sky dipped into the fog and the towering roadside oaks. As the tree branches sought to snuff out the morning light, the coach emerged from a thicket, wheels splashing through the sludge covering the road.
Amid the gusty rain a cry rang out. I bolted up straight, gripping the seat's edge. The horses lurched to a crawl. The hinges squealed in response. I scanned the windows, searching for the reason we'd slowed, when a gunshot cracked like lightning and echoed off the side of the coach. Gasping, I met the other travelers' frightened gazes.
What on earth? A heaviness hit my stomach. Every muscle told me to duck, but I couldn't help myself — I had to look.
The maid screamed, "Get down! Are you daft, miss?"
I motioned her back as I peeked out the window, pressing my forehead against the icy glass. The guard's horn sounded from the rear of the carriage.
"D-do you see anything?" The maid's voice had turned shrill.
I squinted, trying for a better view. "No ... wait. There are riders approaching. Their faces are covered." I flung myself against the seat. "Th-they all have pistols."
I should have thought before blurting out such a thing. In a flash of lace and ribbons, the nosy woman across from me all but swooned into her maid's lap, crushing the ostrich feathers in her hat.
The maid's lips stretched thin until they disappeared completely. "Now you done it, miss."
"I-I ..." What could I say? I tempered my voice to sound nonchalant, even while my pulse pounded in my ears. "I hate to tell you, but I think we are being robbed."
The mail carriage surged forward before swaying to an agonizing stop, each of us frozen to our seats. For a breathless second all seemed quiet, but the unconscious woman must have recovered because she shot back up and shouted, "Not my jewels! Thompkins, hide them. Quickly." She wriggled a large emerald ring from her finger, and Thompkins slipped it down the front of her dress. I did the same with my bracelet seconds before the woman slumped back onto her maid's lap.
The coach door flew open with an awful squeak, the wind spraying us with mist.
A man appeared on the step, his face covered by a rag. "Get out." He grabbed my wrist. "All of you."
My chest tightened. I wasn't sure my legs would hold me up, but somehow I stood. I knew very well I didn't have any money, but the sound of the earlier shot echoed in my mind. Anything could happen. The robber was tall, his hair dark. I met his eyes as he yanked me down the steps — cold, deep gray with a hint of blue.
The icy rain slid down my shoulders as I edged beneath a nearby tree. The men shouted to one another over the rush of rain. "Be quick about it! Leave nothing untouched."
Their boots splashed in the mud as they circled the coach. "Search everything. And get that deuced lady out of the coach. I don't care if she's conscious or not."
The plump woman all but jerked back up, cowering behind her maid, then batted at the air like a wild animal. "You — you ruffians! If you think I have any intention of stepping out into the pouring — Oh!"
The horses reared up at the front of the coach, their panicked neighs adding texture to the wind as it whipped through the trees.
One of the robbers raced to the front of the coach and grasped the reins. "Whoa! Easy, fellas." He was jerked forward and the entire equipage jolted a pace.
A man leaned out from the interior. "Blast you, Calvin! Keep 'em still."
The robber who wrenched me from the coach brought over the driver and the Royal Mail guard, their hands tied. He directed the barrel of his pistol at the five of us, trapping us beneath the tree.
Relentless and brutal, the downpour filled my ears as I glanced around, the hopelessness of our situation seeping further into my soul with every cold drop. There would be no means of escape. We were utterly and completely at the highwaymen's mercy. My traveling companions had come to the same conclusion, and a faint whimpering took flight on the wind.
What must have been minutes felt like hours as the robbers scurried in and out of the coach, their greatcoats flinging raindrops at will, their shouts growing louder and more irritated. I didn't dare move, but carefully I glanced up to catch the penetrating glare of my captor. He tilted his chin, and by the look in his eyes, I wondered if he hid a smile beneath that rag.
How long had the wretch been staring at me? Considering the way my wet frock clung to my legs, outlining my knobby knees, I wondered if he had been looking at ... all of me. I jerked my attention to the ground, warmth flooding my cheeks. One of the men called out across the clamber of thunder, "The devil's in it, I'm afraid. Nothing's in the coach. Beginning to wonder if this was all a hum. Get on with checking the passengers. Deuced nuisance if I'm not home for my dinner."
The robber who'd pulled me from the coach redirected his pistol at me with a kind of lazy satisfaction. "Well? Shall we get on with this?" His voice sounded cultured with a slight musical quality to it. Educated, no doubt.
I raised my eyebrows and took a step backward. "I-I haven't any money."
He glanced once more at my dress and his voice held a hint of a laugh. "I'm well aware of that. My friends have already emptied your reticule." He lowered the pistol and stepped close, his face a few inches from my ear. "Have you a pocket?" A prickle made its way down my spine. My frock did have a pocket, as well as something in it. A letter from Mrs. Smith to Mrs. Chalcroft. I stiffened. "Yes, but it holds nothing you would be interested in."
He lowered his voice. "Allow me to be the judge of that."
My shoulders shook, partly from the cold, but more from a surge of panic that pinned my arms to my sides.
The man shoved the pistol into his jacket. "Don't toy with me, miss. I haven't the patience or the time. Hand it over or I shall be forced to look myself."
A screech jarred me from his piercing glare. My riding companion tried to jerk away from the man clenching her arm, but it was no use. The robbers would have their bidding. My heartbeat echoed the fear in her voice. I watched in stunned silence as the woman thrust her hands into the folds of her skirt and passed her jeweled necklace to the man.
A wrinkle formed across my captor's forehead, raindrops pooling in a line. After observing the spectacle for a moment, he turned his icy blue eyes back on me. "Well?" I thought I might be sick. I reached to tuck a wet hair behind my ear, but his iron fingers wrapped my wrist in a flash. "I'm tired of waiting."
He spun me around, jamming me against him, his head just over my shoulder. He smelled of nature, like the boys in town who'd spent the day playing in the fields. His voice came out in a whisper. "I'd rather you empty your own pocket."
His hand pressed against my mouth. "Now."
I nodded, my arm aching from his grip. I squeezed my eyes shut for a split second. Keep your wits about you, Sybil. The man with the steel fingers was serious — deadly serious.
I wriggled my free hand through the slit of my damp gown, grasping the letter from Mrs. Smith and holding it out, satisfied the man would be disappointed. But he didn't release me.
"Is this all?"
I nodded again and noticed a small triangular-shaped scar on his wrist just inside the cuff of his sleeve. Strange. The mark had an almost uniform quality to it.
He shoved me back and ripped open the letter. A few seconds later he met my gaze over the limp paper, his eyes softening. Just when I thought he was going to address me, he called out to his friends over his shoulder. "I daresay it's time to move on."
He refolded the note and slipped it into his jacket pocket. "Thank you, ladies, for a most invigorating time; however, I'm afraid we must bid you all good day." He bowed, then walked away and mounted what was more of a beast than a horse.
He motioned ahead to his friends before guiding his mount back by the group of us shivering beneath the tree. "I, uh, do apologize for any inconvenience we may have caused."
I probably imagined it, but he seemed to direct the statement to me. Heat flashed through my body. My mouth popped open, all kinds of horrid words tangled in a ball on my tongue, but none came out. Was he still smiling beneath that rag?
He met my obvious fury with a wink, then spurred his horse to a gallop, disappearing into the driving rain.CHAPTER 2
The mail coach lurched forward before I'd taken my seat, but the driver seemed tentative, holding the horses to a slow clip. The mood inside the carriage was dismal. I took a steady breath and tried to discover where we were, despite the fog, but time seemed lost.
My desire to reach Plattsdale grew with each irritated sigh from the other women. They stared me down as if the highway robbery were somehow my fault.
However, just as I had given up all hope of the nightmare ride ever ending, the twisting shadows parted, revealing a sign tipping in the wind — the Boar's Head Inn. Plattsdale.
The coach veered right, scattering gravel along the narrow road, then rolled to an agonizing stop. A man's call pierced the heavy silence like a bell rung a bit too loud. There was a shuffle in the yard, but no one in the coach moved. I could read the questions on the other women's faces. Were we safe at last?
I glanced at my soggy gown and reticule, smudged by the robbers' dirty hands. What would become of me? The carriage's wooden bench squeaked beneath the sour-faced woman as she patted what was left of her coiffure. Her maid watched in silent amusement, but I looked away — chilled, hungry, and tired. Every bone in my body ached, but nothing would induce me to speak, not even to ask if I could share Thompkins's room for the night.
My cold fingers sought the bracelet on my arm, the one I received on my last birthday. Something might have to be traded for a room, but not the bracelet — not my only link to the past. If at all possible, I would travel on to Croft Towers at once, regardless of how I ached for a clean set of clothes and a soft bed.
The coach swayed as the driver swung down from the box and opened the door. The two women clawed their way from my presence, tripping over my feet, and neither looked back for me. As I feared, the offer for a room wasn't renewed.
Just as well. I didn't need their help. I didn't need anybody's.
I'd done well enough on my own so far.
One of the ostlers peeked around the side of the coach. "Still here, eh?" He took a quick glance over his shoulder to the coaching house door. "Where to now, miss?"
Startled by his gruff voice, I rose to my feet. "Is-is there a man here from Croft Towers?" I tried not to sound as desperate as I felt.
A look of relief washed across the man's face as he nodded and extended his hand to help me down. I gladly took it — clammy though it was — and followed his lead across the yard, hopeful my luck had finally turned.
The sudden thunder of horses' hooves sounded like a wind gust out of the rain, and I paused beneath the inn's narrow awning. The ostler turned as well. Three uniformed dragoons burst into the yard, their dark-blue jackets barely distinguishable from the gray drizzle. In a flash they were but a couple yards from where we stood. A few shouts and some boys rushed by me. I watched as the officers dismounted and relinquished their horses. Had they heard about the robbery somehow? I turned, hoping to ask the ostler, but he spun away in a huff. Apparently he had no intention of addressing them.
He hurried me through the door, but something about the way he hesitated as we walked into the receiving room, the way his cold eyes flitted about and landed on me, I knew he'd not meant to bring me inside. I tucked a loose hair behind my ear and tried to shake off the chill he'd caused with only a glance. He thought me a common urchin. Of course, I looked like one, which made it sting all the more.
The man wrinkled his nose, his eyes saying, Don't you dare sit on the settee as wet as you are. But he only cleared his throat. "I'll go fetch John from the taproom." With a sideways glance, he added, "Don't get too settled. I won't be but a moment."
If I had been Lady Sybil with an abigail and an entourage, I would have been ushered to a private parlor to rest. But as plain, boring, unchaperoned Sybil Delafield, I was left to stand and drip in the entryway.
I wandered the dimly lit room, imagining how a cup of tea would feel going down my throat. I glanced out a pair of dirty windows and stepped nearer to the fireplace. So this was Plattsdale — my new home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In The Shadow of Croft Towers"
Copyright © 2019 Abigail Wilson.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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