"A wounded hero and bold heroine who defy the conventions of society...Readers will enjoy their visit to Thornbrook Park." —RT Book Reviews
A lady's maid finds forbidden love in the halls of England's grandest estates in this romance for fans of Downton Abbey
Disowned for marrying beneath her, Eve Kendal has returned to England destitute after her husband's death and the mysterious disappearance of their savings. She's looking for survival, not romance. But from London to the Yorkshire countryside to the elegant estate of Thornbrook Park, Eve's path seems destined to cross that of the dashing but violent Captain Marcus Thorne.
For Marcus, a return home means facing the demons that drove him to war in the first place. As he and Eve begin a steamy affair, tensions that had been simmering just beneath the surface threaten to explode and shake the very foundations of Thornbrook Park.
Thornbrook Park series:
Thornbrook Park (Book 1)
An Affair Downstairs (Book 2)
The Great Estate (Book 3)
Praise for Sherri Browning:
"Browning gives the reader a most beguiling story and a classic plotline while capturing the atmosphere of the era." —RT Book Reviews
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Misty fog draped London like a bridal veil, obscuring Eve Kendal's first view of her homeland in six long years. She was left to imagine the tower, the bridge, and the clusters of chimney tops merrily puffing out smoke. A dusk arrival hindered sight of the skyline, fog or no. Better to employ her time in making plans for disembarking rather than idling on deck where a fetid stench rolled off the water. Colonel Adams, who had accompanied her from India, approached her, apparently in the same frame of mind.
"I've arranged for a hansom cab, and I would be pleased to deliver you to your friend's address. No need to tempt the ruffians, a lovely young woman alone. It will be dark before we're finally off the ship."
"Thank you, Colonel. You're very kind." Too kind. Colonel Adams and his wife, a doting older couple, had done little else but fret over Eve's welfare in the year and a half since the colonel had delivered the news of her husband Captain Benjamin Kendal's unfortunate demise.
Six years earlier, when she'd eloped with Ben to India against her parents' wishes, making her own way in the world was something that had never crossed her mind. Now that she was on her own, she craved a chance to manage her own affairs. She'd only accepted the colonel's offer to accompany her because he had matters to attend that coincided with her return and it seemed wise to make the passage with a companion.
Her finances necessitated a return to England. Her widow's pension would only stretch so far, and she couldn't find out what had happened to their savings. Ben had spoken of investing them. Her fervent hope was that her late husband's solicitor in London would know where their money was.
That her family had disowned her for marrying Ben, an army captain instead of the earl her mother had hoped for, seemed an unhappy turn, but no crucial setback at the time. They had each other, and together they would conquer all, even life in a strange, new country. But they hadn't accounted for natural disaster. When an earthquake rocked the Kangra Valley in India, where Ben had been sent on a special mission for the magistrate, he was killed in a shower of falling rocks.
Eve had stayed in the safety of Raipur, where they'd made their home among a small community of expatriates. They'd once talked of a quiet retirement in the English countryside, their many children all around them. In six years of marriage, Eve hadn't yet conceived and she'd begun to fear that she couldn't. With Ben-and their savings-gone, it was probably for the best that she didn't have children to support.
Still, how she would have loved a child with Ben's eyes and laugh to be her constant companion. Her memories were all that remained, memories she wouldn't trade for anything, not even to win back her parents' support. Over a year later, she was out of mourning and on to a new life, the dreams she'd shared with Ben behind her.
Her parents and brother never answered her letters. Besides Colonel Adams and his wife, Adela, Eve had one friend in the world, her girlhood companion, Sophia.
All through her absence, Eve and Sophia had kept up correspondence. When Eve had written Sophia about Ben's death, she'd been touched to receive her friend's offer of the Dower House on the grounds of her estate. She was grateful to Sophia for throwing her a lifeline when she needed one most.
Standing next to her on the deck, Colonel Adams suddenly placed his hand over hers on the rail, interrupting her thoughts.
"Time heals all wounds, my dear, as they say. Or someone said. I don't recall who..."
"I believe it was the Greek philosopher Menander, as echoed by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde."
"Ah." He stroked his silver mustache. "Very clever, but perhaps best not to demonstrate that so readily. A number of suitors would be discouraged from pursuit of a bookish woman."
"Suitors, Colonel?" Eve suppressed a smile and shook her head. "Even if I wanted one, I wouldn't accept a man who shied from intelligence. You know me better than that."
"I do." He nodded dismissively. "What I mean to say is that time heals, perhaps, but it works all the faster when you're in familiar territory. As much as Adela and I will miss you, I believe being back in England will be restorative for you. A fresh start in-where is this place you go, again?"
"Thornbrook Park, the Earl of Averford's estate in West Yorkshire."
"Thornbrook Park, indeed. Nothing like the clean air of the English countryside to restore good health and spirits."
"Yes. A night at Averford House, my friend's house in town, and then the train straight to Thornbrook tomorrow morning."
"They know you at Averford House?" A bushy brow arched over inquisitive green eyes.
"No, but Sophia, Lady Averford, sent a letter ahead to the butler informing him to expect me. I don't anticipate any problems."
"Good. I'm in town for a fortnight, don't forget, at the Langham, should you need me."
"So you've told me. Three times now." Eve smiled. It was probably more like ten times. "You've no need to worry. As much as I love your company, I hope I won't need to look you up. Lady Averford's brother-in-law, an army captain, currently resides at Averford House. You might know him, Captain Marcus Thorne?"
"I don't know the name." The colonel shook his head, though his eyes brightened at the news that there was a man in charge at Averford House, an army man.
"I'm sure I will be quite safe. Give my love to Adela when you get home."
"We will start looking for your novel as soon as I get back."
She laughed. "I have to write it first. I'm not sure when I'll find time. And then, I'll need a publisher. You won't have to start looking for at least a year, and I'll send plenty of letters in the meantime."
"We have faith in you, my dear."
"Thank you, Colonel." She wished she had as much faith. As she noticed activity picking up around them on the deck, she removed her hand from under the colonel's and reached for her bag. "I believe it's time to disembark."
Captain Marcus Thorne, his hands in his pockets, shouldered his way through the rough crowd gathered in the street outside the Hog and Hound.
"A fighter!" one of the lads said, gesturing to him. The boy was too young to be out late in such a neighborhood. Marcus stifled the urge to reprimand the boy, but kept his head down and kept walking.
"No, 'e's a gentleman," said a toothless old hen. "Come to watch and wager like the rest of 'em."
No one could accuse him of dressing impeccably, but he supposed his clothes stood out as fine, more befitting a gentleman than a fighter: dark frock coat concealing broad shoulders, black trousers, and black hat low over his eyes covering wheat blond hair, close cropped to be suitable for fighting, nothing for an opponent to grab. Onward. No sense in correcting her.
The black rage was upon him, taking him over, becoming more impossible to control by the minute. After the war, he suffered many black rages, pounding at the back of his brain like a time bomb ticking toward explosion. And when it went off, God help those around him. The only thing he'd discovered that could dismantle the rage, as he had disabled box mines in South Africa, was to hit something, someone, anyone.
During the war, he'd had steady hands, a sharp mind, and nerves of steel. Now, his nerves were shot to hell, and the rest of him was on the way there, too.
After he'd spent too many nights to count in holding cells for starting brawls, a friend had suggested Marcus put his fists to better, or at least more profitable, use and take up prizefighting. He spied the friend, Thomas Reilly, a private detective, at the bar as he entered the room.
The dim lighting and haze of smoke in the air could not disguise that the pub had seen better days. Perhaps the worn state only served to make him, and all the other miscreants, feel more at home, though the gentlemen among them seemed equally undaunted by the divots in the wood-paneled walls between prints of racehorses and pugilists, or the occasional dots of rodent droppings on the sanded floor.
Marcus acknowledged Tom with a nod and kept walking to a table in back occupied by a slim young man in a suit cut two sizes too large, perhaps to add the impression of size. Without a word, Marcus placed a note stating his intentions on the table and waited for a response.
The man did not answer, but raised his brows in surprise, jumped up, and ran through the faded red velvet curtains to the ring in back.
"Gentlemen." Marcus could hear the man, his voice sturdier than his build. "We have a newcomer waiting. He demands a fight to the finish with the best man in the room."
The announcement was followed by silence and then hoots of laughter. The champions of all weight classes had undoubtedly been decided and declared by the time of Marcus's arrival. A challenge to take on the best, without specification of age or weight class, would be considered either a fool's mission or an outright joke.
Marcus had served in the Second Boer War, the biggest fool's mission of them all in his mind, and there could be no more ridiculous joke than sending him, a gentleman's son, off to war. Commissioned officers weren't often sent to war, and being directly involved in bloodshed hadn't been what he'd expected when he'd purchased his commission. He'd only meant to impress his father and show his brother that he, the bookish one, could pursue an active life of adventure, while his brother, the sportsman, was destined to a custodial life in charge of a house, grand though it was. Perhaps the real joke was that he had returned when so many had not; that he, a pampered mother's favorite, had faced every challenge thrown his way and survived.
He was not the same man upon his return. Memories haunted him, his conscience nagged him, and the black rages took him over on occasion, but no longer as frequently as they had when he'd got back, before he'd first stepped into the ring.
Tonight's rage had been initiated by the carriage driver who swerved and nearly killed the little urchin selling flowers at the roadside before continuing on his way without pause. Tick. And the lady in the bird-ornamented bonnet walking right on by, stepping over the child without a moment's hesitation to ask if she were hurt. Tick. And when Marcus stopped to help the girl up and gather her flowers, he could see that her eyes had the same gray-green hue as another child he'd known. His mind flew back to the South African concentration camps and a mother and daughter separated from the rest of their family by force and held against their will.
"For your own safety," Marcus had been instructed to reassure them. "Wouldn't want innocents to get caught up in the fighting." For the safety of the troops, Marcus knew. Wouldn't want opposition to grow and spread like wildfire among the civilians.
Tick. The rage had fallen upon him, ready to blow, pounding behind his eyes, throbbing in his ears, and he'd dropped his evening plans and come straight to the Hog and Hound to have a go.
Win or lose, it didn't matter as long as he got to pummel something hard and fast, someone there with the full intention of being hit and of hitting back in return. It wasn't the safest of diversions, but the money was good when he won, and even better when he had the sense to stay out of the ring and wager on the right fighters. When the rage took over, though, there was no help for it.
The slim young man returned, taking a good look at Marcus as if sizing him up. He shook his head, a gesture Marcus interpreted to mean that he'd be fighting a heavyweight, probably the biggest of them all. Marcus, six feet of solid muscle, was a match for anyone under sixteen stone, but over that he had to be fast on his feet and dodge all blows. "Come with me."
Marcus followed, any sense of impending doom deadened by the incessant throbbing at the base of his brain. Instinctively, his hands curled into fists. Without a thought to the throng of gentlemen and commoners alike assembled around the ring, Marcus forged through the crowd, climbed up, stepped into the ropes, found his corner, and began to strip down. He felt all eyes on him and let them look. If his size and the shrapnel scars dotting his muscle-bound chest made him any more intimidating, so much the better.
"Seconds?" a craggy old man with cauliflower ears, known to Marcus simply as Jameson, called from the ringside.
"Here." Tom Reilly appeared, the crowd parting to allow him to make his way to the ring, where he hopped up and took his place beside Marcus. Tom looked like a fighter in his own right. He stood only an inch shorter than Marcus's six feet, all of him lean muscle. His hair was short and brown with a natural curl that he couldn't seem to tame. His Irish blue eyes had an occasional twinkle that lent him an air of joviality, but they could just as often turn dark and threatening like clouds rolling in for a storm.
"Here." Another man waved from across the ring. He was as short as he was wide and swarthy enough to resemble a storybook troll. Augustus Hantz. Which meant that Marcus's opponent was none other than Smithy Harris, a formidable giant to whom Hantz might have been physically attached since they were so often together.
Harris appeared in the ring seconds later. He came by his nickname honestly, as he'd been a blacksmith by profession. His arms-thick like sides of beef from wielding his heavy hammer-bore the hallmarks of the trade, and he stood half a foot taller than Marcus, if not more. Some men might think this spelled trouble for Marcus, and no doubt the betting was fast and furious against him. But Marcus had watched Smithy Harris before and knew that his size, though unnerving, was a hindrance to easy movement and that he could tire the giant out in minutes as long as he kept bobbing and weaving around the ring.
Once stripped to the waist, Marcus followed Tom to the center where they shook hands with his opponent and the second. The blackness had taken over to the point where he couldn't think to lock his gaze on Harris, and he'd lost all awareness of the boisterous throng in the room. He did hear the whip cracking down to discourage spectators from crowding too close, and when Jameson started reading rules he found his voice.
"American rules," he growled, and stalked off to his corner of the ring. Bare knuckles, his preference.
"Queensbury," Jameson countered, and Tom stayed center ring for some minutes arguing Marcus's case.
In the end, Tom returned to Marcus's corner and handed him his gloves. "Queensbury rules."
Marcus answered between gritted teeth, "Queensbury it is."
The time for argument had passed. He was desperate to hit something, fists gloved or no.
As soon as the bell sounded, he rushed in for Harris's head, missed him, and received a sharp body blow in return, leaving an angry mark above his ribs. He danced around, much lighter on his feet than Harris, and managed to herd him into a corner against the ropes, where he rained punches into Harris's steel-like chest and iron abdomen before landing one square to his jaw.
Unflinching, Harris returned a sound jab to the side of Marcus's head. Marcus reeled but managed to stay on his feet. His ears rang. Fortunately, so did the bell for the end of the first round.
"What's the matter with you?" Tom sponged him down and handed him a towel. "The object is to tire him out, remember? He's capable of beating you to a pulp."
Marcus grunted. His body, coated in a fine sheen of perspiration, glistened under the gas lamps. The bell rang for the start of the second round. This time, he managed to duck and weave, avoiding all blows until the bell rang again. What he didn't do was land any hits of his own, which added to his frustration. It didn't matter if he got pummeled. He needed to hit, and hit hard.
The third round delivered the satisfaction he craved. The half-minute break hadn't allowed his opponent sufficient time to catch his breath, and Harris's huge, hairy chest rose and fell while he blew air through wide nostrils like a spent old workhorse ready to be put out to pasture. Marcus didn't intend to let him recover. He sprang at him with unimpaired energy, punching, weaving, ducking, and punching again-left, right, left, left, jaw, nose, ribs, jaw, jaw. The giant staggered back and looked as if he would fall. The black had begun to fade from Marcus's mind, and his instincts of survival came back to him.
He landed one last dig to Harris's chin, and Harris recoiled and spun in a slow circle. It was all but over. Marcus's gaze swept the mob to gauge the reactions of all who had bet against him. And that's when he saw him, shaggy brown hair over soulful brown eyes wide with wonder, the very image of his buddy Cooper who had died in his arms during the war.
"Coop?" he said, but he knew it wasn't Coop. It was Cooper's son, Brandon. Brandon, fourteen years old and in need of guidance and approval, who now looked up to Marcus like the father he'd lost. Brandon, Anna, Emily, and Finn. And Prudence Cooper, widow of Lieutenant William Cooper, the best friend and best man Marcus Thorne had ever known.
"Coop!" Marcus said it again, not to Brandon, but a summons to his dead friend, as if William Cooper could come flying out of heaven to deliver his errant son safely home. The pub was no place for a boy, especially not during a boxing match, and Marcus was powerless to defend him, should something go amiss. The Coopers were Marcus's responsibility now. He'd promised his friend as Cooper lay dying, his gut ripped open from one of the box bombs they'd been sent to dismantle. "I'll look after them, Coop. Find your peace."
The last of Marcus's rage melted away, replaced by a growing sense of urgency to see the boy from the pub and home to safety. And in those few seconds of inattention, Marcus lost sight of the glove speeding toward his face until it was too late. The slam struck with such force that Marcus staggered and lost his balance, followed swiftly by his awareness. The black returned, but this time with the deadly silence of nothingness instead of a roaring rage.
When he woke, his friend Coop stood over him. Marcus recognized him through a gauzy haze.
"Coop, brother," he said, "I'm sorry I've let you down."
"You can't win every match, hey?" A higher voice than Coop's velvet baritone answered him. "But well done!"
Marcus's vision cleared. He hadn't died and met up with his departed friend after all.
"Brandon Cooper." Marcus found his best paternal voice. "What are you doing in a pub late at night? Your mother must be sick with worry."
"She thinks I'm at the millinery. I had a feeling you would come tonight. I didn't want to miss it."
"At the millinery?" Marcus shook his head to clear it and managed to sit up. The crowd was leaving, the match over in a mere three humiliating rounds. The few who remained were collecting their winnings from wagers placed against him, insult added to injury. "Whatever would you be doing at the millinery?"
"Trimming bonnets. I've taken up some work to help Mum."
"And your mum approved?" What had Prudence been thinking? He would have to speak with her. Their lot must be harder than she had let on. How had he not realized? How could he have been so lax in his duty to his friend? He would have to be more attentive. Brandon was at a tender age, too eager to grow up but not ready to face heavy issues. Left on his own, he could easily turn to unhealthy habits, fall prey to bad advice.
"I didn't give her much say in the matter. I am the man of the house now."
Marcus sighed. "Man? You're not a man until your whiskers come in. Now come on, no more talk of the millinery. I've got to dress and get you home."
"I have whiskers." Brandon stroked his soft, young chin. "And we're not leaving until I collect my winnings." He offered a hand to help Marcus to his feet.
"Your winnings? You wagered against me?"
Brandon had the decency to blush, at least. "Did you get a look at your opponent? Smithy Harris is enormous."
"I'm fast on my feet."
"Not fast enough." Brandon chuckled, his lip curling up at the corner like his father's used to do. His brown hair, in need of a trim, nearly hid his eyes but couldn't block the golden spark of mischief shining from them.
At least someone had made money for the Coopers tonight. Marcus watched Brandon run off to collect his winnings and bid good night to Tom.