Raised by her widowed mother in genteel poverty in an isolated English village, for the past six years Rachel Woodley has been working in France as a nursery governess. When her mother unexpectedly dies, she returns to England to clear out the cottage, and finds a scrapbook full of cuttings from London society pages—all pictures of her supposedly deceased father, very much alive. He's an earl, socially prominent, with another daughter who is living a charmed life: a debutante, much photographed, and engaged to a rising Tory MP. Rachel's cousin confirms the horrible truth: her father is alive, with a legitimate, acknowledged family. Which makes Rachel...not legitimate. Everything she thought she knew about herself and her past—even her very name—is a lie.
Still reeling from the death of her mother, and furious at this betrayal, Rachel enters into an uneasy alliance with a mysterious man-about-town, who promises her access to her father. With his help, Rachel sets herself up in London under a new identity and insinuates herself into the party-going crowd of Bright Young Things, with a steely determination to unveil her father's perfidy and bring his—and her half-sister's—charmed world crashing down. Very soon, however, Rachel faces two unexpected snags: she finds she genuinely likes her half-sister, Olivia, whose situation isn't as simple it appears; and that Rachel herself might just be falling for her sister's fiancé.
From Lauren Willig, author of the New York Times Best Selling novel The Ashford Affair, comes a page-turner full of deceit, passion, and revenge.
“Vibrant and thrilling, Willig’s third stand-alone should garner an audience beyond fans of the Pink Carnation series."
» RT Book Reviews
“... the complexity of the story-line and the characters draws readers deeply into the story until they are completely invested and hooked until the end. Readers will find themselves looking into their hearts and relationships, comparing their reactions to the characters. A thoughtful read."
Water steamed into the old brown teapot with the wonky spout. The smell of tea rose like memory. Her mother’s favorite tea, Irish tea, strong as sin. During the War, they’d used the leaves over and over, until the tea was little more than faintly tinted water. Rachel could remember that first cup of real tea after the War, her mother’s palpable satisfaction as she poured the dark brown liquid from the pot, breathing in the scented steam.
Rachel came to herself to see Alice, her best friend, looking down at her from across the table, two wrinkles between her eyes. “I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
“Nothing,” said Alice quickly, and set the pot of tea down on the old pine table.
They had sat like this thousands of times over the years, at this same kitchen table, this same teapot on the table between them, working on their lessons—or avoiding their lessons—as one of her mother’s students plunked out tunes on the piano in the sitting room.
For a moment, Rachel thought she could hear the music from the other room. And then it was gone, nothing but the ringing in her ears. She took one of the broken biscuits Alice had set on a plate. They were stale, but Alice was right, she needed to eat something. Her mind groped after what came next. Arrangements—the arrangements had been made. She would need to see her mother’s solicitor. Or had they sent a letter? Ask Alice about the mail, see Norris about the rent….
Anything to keep from thinking about the silence of the other room.
Tea spattered from the broken spout as Alice poured. “I imagine—I imagine you’ll be going back to France?” she said hesitantly.
Rachel remembered the look on the countess’s face when Rachel told her she needed to go back to England, to be by her mother’s sickbed.
A hysterical laugh welled up at the back of her throat. She’d closed that road with a vengeance. And for nothing. She had been too late.
“No, not back to France. Thank you.” She took the cup of tea Alice handed her, wrapping her palms around the warmth. “I rather burned my bridges with the countess, you see. I don’t think she’ll be giving me much of a reference. Not the sort of reference one would want, at any rate.”
“Where will you go?”
“I hadn’t thought about it.” There hadn’t been time to think about anything. In the space of two days she had lost both mother and job. “Here, I suppose. Just until I find myself another position.” Something in Alice’s face made her say sharply, “What? What is it?”
Alice toyed with her tea cup, turning it around and around on the saucer. “Mr. Norris came to the funeral. He told me that he’s—reclaiming the cottage.”
“For non-payment of rent. He claims the rent wasn’t paid to him on time last week—well, it wouldn’t be, would it?—although everyone knows it’s just an excuse. He thinks he can rent it out to a rich Londoner as a weekend cottage. Horrid man. That was why I was here. I wanted to make sure you had your things—your mother’s piano—”
Rachel’s tired brain refused to grasp what Alice was saying. “Norris is evicting me?”
“He didn’t lose a minute,” said Alice bitterly. “And at your own mother’s funeral! It seemed unlikely he’d come to pay his respects, but I’d never imagined—” Alice scooted her chair forward. “There must be some way to fight it. The rent is all of a week overdue. If I’d realized, I’d have paid it myself, you know I would.”
“I know,” said Rachel numbly. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. First her mother, and now her home, the home in which she’d grown. She glanced up at Alice. “You’re not dying of some terrible disease, are you?”
Alice looked at her in confusion. “No. Why?”
“I was trying to think what the third blow might be. That’s only two so far. Troubles are meant to come in threes.” Her voice was too fast and too high. Rachel took a deep breath and reached for a broken biscuit. “It’s an inalterable law of nature. Isn’t that what Mrs. Spicer always said?”
Tentatively, Alice touched her fingers to Rachel’s arm. “You know that you can stay with us for as long as you like.”
“Do you need a new nursery governess?” Rachel rubbed her aching temples with her fingers. “I need to work, Alice. Now, more than ever. I couldn’t be beholden to your charity.”
“It’s not charity. We’re almost sisters, remember?”
The words woke bittersweet memories. There had been a time when she and Alice had schemed to see their parents married to each other. And why not? Mr. Treadwell had been a widower since Alice was a baby; by then, Rachel had long since abandoned her daydreams of her father’s triumphal return from the dead. At twelve, one was too old for such fancies, but not too old to fancy oneself the more matchmaking sort of Jane Austen heroine.
It would be splendid, she and Alice had agreed. They could be truly sisters, and share a room, and stay up late at night talking. With the sublime condescension of youth, they had decided it would be rather nice for the old people to have the company once Rachel and Alice were off in the world. Alice, Rachel remembered, was going to marry the Prince of Wales, while Rachel aspired to lead an expedition to the Arctic, complete with dogsleds.
It was really an ideal plan—but for the fact that neither of the adults in question had the least bit of interest in being married to each other.
Alice’s father, the Vicar of Netherwell, was married to the theological treatise he had been writing and re-writing, with limited success, for the past twenty years.
As for Rachel’s mother, she had sat Rachel down, and said firmly but kindly that she appreciated their efforts, but it just wouldn’t do.
I cannot marry Mr. Treadwell, she had said. Just like that.
Why not? Rachel had protested.
You forget, said Rachel’s mother gently. I am married. And I shall be until I die.
Those simple words had shamed Rachel into silence, the memory of her father suddenly a palpable presence between them. It made Rachel feel small and cheap for having so entirely forgotten him, for having presumed that just because the time had passed, her mother’s love might be any less.
Not real sisters, then. She and Alice had admitted defeat, and had resigned themselves to being almost-sisters, sisters in everything but name.
But even almost sisters grew apart. Rachel loved Alice; she would always love Alice. They were part of the furniture of each other’s minds. But the day to day discussions that had been the stuff of their friendship were long since gone. They communicated now, when they could, in scattered bursts of correspondence, always months apart and, in so many ways, a world away.
Alice would always be a part of her past, but Rachel shied from the thought of intruding upon her present. If anything could make the memory of a friendship stale, it was the reality of that friend, permanently parked in one’s spare room.
“I don’t know what I did to deserve a friend like you.” Rachel squeezed Alice’s hand, then let go. “But can you imagine me living in your spare room as a carping maiden aunt?”
Alice lifted her teacup. “You don’t have to carp. And who’s to say that you wouldn’t get married?”
Rachel looked at her askance. “The only eligible man for forty miles was Jim, and he’s been quite taken for some time now. Unless you think I ought to set my cap for Mr. Norris. He is a widower, after all.”
“Ugh,” said Alice, with disgust. She fiddled with her teacup. “Is there—”
Rachel rested her chin on her hands. “Any money? No.”
She supposed she might be surprised, but she doubted it. Unless her mother had a pirate’s horde hidden beneath the bed, the sum in her post office account had never been more than fifty pounds.
Fifty pounds, a battered piano, and her gold watch. That was all Rachel had in the world.
Only it wasn’t, she reminded herself fiercely. She had her own wits, such as they were. She was a hard worker. If she needed to, she could scrub floors, beat curtains. She wasn’t afraid of work, any more than her mother had been.
Pushing her teacup aside, she said, “How quickly does Norris want me gone?”
Alice looked down into her cup. “As soon as possible. When I pressed him on it, he said he imagined he could give you a fortnight—at a reasonable rate.”
Which meant an unreasonable rate. “How very generous of him. So nice to know that chivalry isn’t dead.”
There was an awkward silence. Alice pushed back her chair. “It’s nearly time for Annabelle’s tea. Please, come home with me.” In a falsely bright tone, she added, “Annabelle has been asking after her Auntie Rachel.”
Rachel rose, the muscles in her legs protesting. She felt stiff and achy and strangely lightheaded. “You mean that she’s hoping I’ve brought her a new dress for her doll.”
“That, too.” Alice paused, her hat in her hand. “You’re dropping on your feet. Stay with us for tonight. There’s a bed made up in the spare room; you can sleep as long as you like.”
Rachel forced a smile. “With Jim blundering about, delivering babies?”
“He seldom delivers them in the spare room.” Alice shoved her hat onto her head. “I hate to think of you here alone.”
“Are you afraid Mr. Norris will try to rent me out with the cottage?”
“That’s not funny.” But Rachel could see the hint of a smile there all the same. Alice had always been shocked and delighted by Rachel’s more outrageous comments. It was one of the many reasons they were friends. “Let me feed you supper, at least.”
Making small talk with Jim? Rachel liked Alice’s Jim well enough, but she didn’t think she had it in her to fix a false smile to her face, to pretend nothing was wrong. All she wanted to do was sleep.
“If it’s all the same, I think I’ll have an early night.” One of her last nights in her own bed.
Impossible to think that the room that had always been hers would soon be emptied of her possessions, like a stage set awaiting a new actress. Rachel shook her head. She shouldn’t be melodramatic. What was a house? A box filled with rooms.
Resolutely, she said, “I’ll go down to Oxford in the morning. I ought to thank Cousin David. For making the arrangements.”
And to ask how much she owed. Nothing, he would say. But she knew that the undertaker didn’t provide coffins for free, or violets, for that matter. She couldn’t let Cousin David bear the whole cost of it.
How much of a dent would that make in her meagre nest egg?
No point in thinking of it now. She’d sell her watch if she had to. Rachel closed her fingers around it, feeling the engraving on the underside. To Rachel.
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can do for you?” Alice was hovering, her coat over her arm.
“You’ve made me tea.” Rachel gestured to the anemic liquid in her cup, now cold as well as weak. When Alice still lingered, she added, “And you’ve reminded me that I’m not entirely an orphan. What more could I ask?”
Alice didn’t need more persuaded. Her thoughts, Rachel knew, were already shifting to Charles and Annabelle. As it should be. But it made Rachel feel more than a little lonely all the same.
Who was there to think of her?
Of all the maudlin claptrap! Rachel took a firm hand on herself and the teacups, rinsing them quickly in the cold water from the pump. There was a familiar chip on the corner of one saucer. The chip might belong to Rachel, but the cups belonged to Mr. Norris, as did the Dutch dresser into which she set them.
Tomorrow. Wearily, Rachel wiped her hands on a cloth. Tomorrow she would have to go through the cottage, make an inventory of what was theirs, and, even more importantly, what could be sold. There wasn’t much, not really. Most of the furniture, ugly old Victorian pieces, scarred from use, had been let with the house.
Her carpet bag still sat on the floor where she had dropped it, at the base of the stairs. The sitting room was overstuffed, crammed with knick-knacks—the Dresden shepherdess with a crack down one arm, the oil lamp with its crooked glass shade—but so little of it was theirs. Just their clothing, a few pictures, her father’s chess set, her mother’s piano.
Not the piano. She hated the idea of parting from her mother’s piano. But what was she to do with it? She had never had the patience to play. And she could hardly take it with her, strapped to her back like a snail.
The money from the piano might pay for a typing course.
Rachel took a firm grip on her bag, hauling it up the stairs, treading lightly on the fourth board that squeaked, her fingers tracing the familiar contours of the banister. The familiarity of it all closed around. She found herself straining her ears, listening for the sound of her mother’s footsteps, the fingers on the piano keys. Any moment now, the door to her mother’s room would creak, and she would hear a pleasant alto voice call, “Rachel?”
The door to her mother’s room was closed and still. Rachel dropped her bag just inside her own room. The glass was too low; she had to bend to see herself in it as she took the pins out of her hair, letting it fall free. She kicked her shoes off, under the bed. Maybe Mr. Norris, in all his venality, was doing her a favor. She could stay here, in her childhood room, waiting for a voice that never came, or she could go out and make her own way in the world. Pull the bandage cleanly off, that was the way.
That had been her mother’s philosophy. She could remember it only as a series of blurred images, their departure from their old home. It had happened so quickly. A letter one day, and, within the week, their life packed into boxes and bags, crowded onto a wagon and then a train, the old life gone, gone beyond recalling, all in the blink of an eye, as Rachel clung with one hand to her mother’s skirt and with the other to her battered old stuffed rabbit, one of the few relics of their old life that came with them.
At the time, a confused four year old, she hadn’t understood that flurried move. Now, Rachel thought she might. The ghost of her father would have been everywhere, in the garden, on the stair. Easier to start fresh than live with the memories.
Rachel had known, without being told, that she wasn’t meant to ask about her father, that to do so would only bring that set look to her mother’s face.
It must, she realized now, have been terribly hard. She remembered the affection between her parents: the way their hands touched as they passed, the looks that said more than words, the love and care they had lavished so freely on her. All gone, so quickly. And her mother had taken her and moved on. As she must move on.
Tentatively, Rachel crossed the hall on stockinged feet, to her mother’s door. It opened with the old, familiar squeak. The bed had been hastily made, the counterpane pulled up crookedly over the pillows. Someone had aired the room, but there was still the lingering smell of sickroom, camphor and stale sweat.
Without thinking, Rachel went to her mother’s bed, as she had all those years ago, after her father had died. She had been all right during the day, but, late at night, when the unfamiliar dark of their new home closed around her, she had needed the assurance of her mother’s body beside her, needed to touch her and smell her lavender scent, in the physical assurance that she was still there.
There was a lump in her throat, a lump twenty-three years old. The bed had seemed so high when Rachel was little. Wearily, Rachel curled into the hollow left by her mother’s body, wrapping her arms around the pillow.
Something crinkled beneath her fingers.
Startled, Rachel sat up, dislodging the pillow, and sending the paper, whatever it was, fluttering to the floor. It wasn’t a letter. The paper was thin and glossy, the sort of paper one found in expensive magazines. It had been folded; on the side facing up, Rachel could see an advertisement for Turkish cigarettes.
Her mother didn’t smoke. She would have been horrified at the very idea. Unless—perhaps it was something that Jim had accidentally dropped beneath her pillow? Yes, because doctors so frequently inserted bits of magazine beneath their patients. Leaning over, Rachel fished up the page, shaking it open.
Her father stared up at her in grainy black and white.
Rachel blinked, hard, but the picture was still there. She smoothed it out against the counterpane with hands that weren’t entirely steady, wondering if she were seeing things. How long had it been since she had slept? Years ago, it seemed like, if one didn’t count the odd doze on the train, her head jerking against her chest. Perhaps she was asleep now, asleep and imagining that she had reached beneath her mother’s pillow, found this odd, odd picture of her father.
It all had the curious unreality of a dream: the picture, the image flattened by the glare of a flash; the discreet block letters at the upper right hand corner of the page, which proclaimed the paper THE TATLER. That in itself was odd enough. The only paper her mother ever read was the Morning Post. The Tatler was for other people, people who followed society and its doings.
And the picture itself…. The picture was her father and not her father. Tall like her father, yes, with the fair hair that Rachel hadn’t inherited and the deep-set gray eyes that she had. There were the gold-rimmed spectacles, the slightly stooped posture.
There was even the slight shadow of a scar on his chin. She remembered running her fingers along that scar as a child, feeling the curious ridge of it.
But this man was older, older than her father had ever lived to be. As old, in fact, as he would have been if he had lived. And he was dressed as Rachel had never seen him, in evening clothes, a white scarf around his neck, a tall hat on his head, the ribbon of an order shimmering on his breast, and a fair-haired young woman on his arm.
The caption beneath the picture read, “Lady Olivia Standish, escorted by her father, the Earl of Ardmore.”
The date was December, 1926. Only five months before.