In 1909, Grace McAlister set sail for Canada as one of the thousands of British Home Children taken from their families and their homeland. Though she is fortunate enough to be adopted by wealthy parents, the secrets of her past are kept hidden for ten years until someone from her long-buried childhood arrives on her doorstep. With this new connection to her birth family, will she be brave enough to leave her sheltered life in Toronto and uncover the truth?
After enduring hardship as an indentured British Home Child, Garth McAlister left Canada to serve in World War I. His sweetheart, Emma Lafferty, promised to wait for his return, but after three long years apart, her letters suddenly stopped. When Garth arrives home from the war to unexpected news, he is determined to return to Canada once more on a daunting mission to find the two women he refuses to abandon—his long-lost sister and his mysteriously missing sweetheart.
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Grace Hamilton shifted her weight from one foot to the other. How much longer was this going to take? They couldn’t expect her to stand perfectly still on this footstool forever. She shot a look at the dressmaker, kneeling at her feet, and then at her mother. “Are we almost finished?”
Impatience flashed in her mother’s eyes. She crossed the parlor toward Grace but then pressed her lips together and held her peace.
Mrs. Wilson pulled a pin from her lips. “It shouldn’t be too much longer. I’m almost done pinning the hem.”
Grace turned and glanced at the clock. “I’m supposed to meet Abigail Gillingham at one to work on our plans for the church charity sale supporting injured veterans.”
Mother’s eyebrows arched. “Abigail can wait. This final fitting is more important.”
Grace twisted around. “But, Mother—”
“For goodness’ sake, Grace, stand still! You’re almost eighteen. You must learn to have patience and conduct yourself like a proper young lady!”
Grace froze in position, her frustration simmering just beneath the surface. Being forced to pose like a statue had worn her patience thin. But if that was what it took to be free to meet her friend and have some time away from home, then that was what she would do.
Mrs. Wilson poked the next pin into the sky-blue satin fabric and looked up at Grace. “I must say this color is a perfect match for your eyes, and it highlights your blond hair very nicely.”
Mother sent Grace a pointed look, her expectation clear. Grace swallowed her frustration and gave the expected response. “Thank you, Mrs. Wilson.”
Her mother nodded, seeming satisfied. “Grace will be wearing this gown when she makes her debut at the St. Andrew’s Ball in April.”
Mrs. Wilson turned toward Mother. “I didn’t realize she was coming out this spring.”
“We had planned to bring her out next year, but now that the war is over and the soldiers are coming home, her father and I have decided it’s best not to wait.”
Grace lifted her eyes to the ceiling. All this fuss and bother about making her debut and finding a husband. She wouldn’t turn eighteen until mid-May. Why were they in such a rush?
Mrs. Wilson added another pin. “I’m thankful the war is finally behind us. But what a terrible cost our men had to pay for the victory.”
The dressmaker’s words sent a pang through Grace’s heart. Here she was frustrated about this dress fitting when so many brave men were still recovering from injuries they had suffered in the Great War. How courageous and noble they were to serve their king and country. And some would never come home, including her cousin Rodney, who had died at Passchendaele.
Her eyes grew misty as she thought of how she and Rodney had laughed and played together when they were younger. He might not be her cousin by blood, but they’d shared a close friendship ever since she’d joined the Hamilton family. Now he was lost to her forever.
Mother stepped forward and touched Grace’s back. “Stand up tall. No man wants a wife who slouches.”
Grace straightened her shoulders and tried to ignore her mother’s stinging words, but it wasn’t easy. No matter how perfectly she tried to follow every rule of etiquette, she couldn’t seem to please her mother.
“With so few men of marriageable age left, the most promising prospects will be snatched up this spring.” Her mother fingered the satin fabric of Grace’s skirt. “That’s why Grace must make the best impression possible at the ball. We don’t want her to miss the opportunity to find a suitable husband.”
Mrs. Wilson looked up at Grace. “With her natural beauty and this lovely gown, there’s no doubt she’ll attract a long line of suitors.”
Was that true? Grace shifted her feet and looked away. The idea of dressing up and attending balls had sounded exciting and romantic when they’d first discussed moving up her debut. But now that the time was near, she wasn’t so sure.
How would she know which young men she ought to encourage? What were the most important qualities she should look for in a potential husband? And when someone did pursue her, how would she know if he truly loved her or if he was more interested in her family’s wealth and position in society?
Her mother focused on choosing the right gown and making the most influential social connections. Surely there were other things that were more important.
She pushed that thought away. Her parents had provided every advantage for her, including the best education a governess could offer, as well as years of piano, voice, and dance lessons. She should feel grateful and confident about the future, but somehow she couldn’t help feeling unsettled, like something wasn’t quite right about her life.
Faded memories of her early years in England and her family there drifted through her mind. Her father had died when she was five, and she wasn’t sure what had happened to her mum. She could barely recall her parents’ faces now, and that thought pierced her heart. Why had she been sent to Canada? Weren’t there any relatives in England who could have taken care of her and her siblings?
She was the youngest of four, she remembered that much. Her brother, Garth, and sister Katie were twins seven years older than Grace. They would be in their midtwenties now. Were they still living in Canada, adopted into families as she had been, or had they finished their indentured contracts and struck out on their own?
And what had happened to their oldest sister, Laura? Was she still working as a lady’s maid on a large estate in England, or was she married and caring for her own family now?
Her throat tightened as she recalled other memories of her brother and sisters. They had been so close when they were young. She thought they had shared a bond that would never be broken. Yet they had been separated soon after they came to Canada, and none of them had ever written to her or visited her.
She blew out a breath to release the painful ache in her chest. It wasn’t right. They were older. They should’ve searched for her and made sure she was safe and well cared for, but they hadn’t. She’d been taken in by strangers and expected to accept them as her new mother and father.
Her parents said they knew nothing about her birth family and had forbidden her to tell anyone she was adopted. Most people didn’t approve of taking in a Home Child with an unknown background.
She lifted her chin, and a wave of determination coursed through her. She might be a British Home Child, but she was not ashamed of that fact, or of her birth family, no matter what her adoptive parents said.
If she could find her siblings and discover the truth about her family and life in England, maybe she could make peace with her past. That seemed the only way she could live an open and honest life rather than feeling she must hide her history from everyone she met. But would connecting with them finally fill the aching void in her heart?
“Turn, please.” The dressmaker looked up at her.
Grace blinked and shifted her gaze to Mrs. Wilson.
“Really, Grace, you must put aside your daydreaming! Soon you’ll become a wife and then a mother, though I can hardly imagine my little girl is all grown up.” Her mother’s eyes filled, but she sniffed and looked away.
Grace sighed softly. Her mother was often sentimental and dramatic, praising her one minute and criticizing her the next.
Footsteps sounded in the front hall, and her father strode into the parlor. Tall and glowing with good health and confidence, he was dressed in a fine charcoal suit and carried his black leather briefcase. Threads of silver glistened in the black hair at his temples and in his full beard and mustache.
His assistant, Richard Findley, followed him through the doorway dressed in an equally fine fashion.
“Ah, Judith, here you are.” Father greeted Mother with a brief smile, then looked across the room at Grace. His eyebrows dipped into a slight frown. “It looks as though we’re interrupting.”
“It’s all right.” Mother glanced at Grace before she turned to the dressmaker. “Mrs. Wilson is just pinning the hem.”
Mrs. Wilson rose. “Yes, the dress is finished. I was just checking to make sure the hem is the proper length.”
Richard flashed a confident smile at Grace. “You certainly look lovely this afternoon, Miss Hamilton.”
Her cheeks warmed as she stepped down from the stool and returned his smile. “Thank you.”
Richard was ten years her senior and worked as her father’s assistant manager at Hamilton’s, the second-largest department store in Toronto. He was a handsome man with reddish-brown hair and deep-set brown eyes. Lately, he seemed to take more notice of Grace, paying her compliments and sending her teasing smiles whenever he visited their home.