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Authors: T. J. Brown

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Historical, #Romance

Summerset Abbey

BOOK: Summerset Abbey
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I dedicate this book to the father of my heart, Lyle George Foreman, who was born in 1916, during World War I and lived to see a man on the moon, the World Wide Web, and his rebellious, youngest daughter become an author. I’m not sure which one he found most shocking. I love you, Papa.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

First and foremost, I have to give all props to my amazing agent, Molly Glick, who didn’t even bat an eye when I sent an email out of the blue saying we should pitch an Edwardian. She not only rolls with the punches, she makes magic happen out of nothing. Next, I must acknowledge Lauren McKenna, editor extraordinaire, who knows exactly what she wants and how to bring out the best in me, and the equally hardworking Alexandra Lewis, who spent hours going back and forth with me via email to whip this book into shape. It’s a far better book because of her insight. My most gorgeous cover is due to Lisa Litwack and a heartful of thanks goes to production editor John Paul Jones and copyeditor Jane Elias, for her copy editing savvy and comma knowledge.

Gratitude to Art Braccioforte, who read the first few chapters and told me it had merit. Huge props to Dianne Cooke, freelance editor who helped me clean up the messes I kept making and sending her way, and more sparkly props go to fact checker and amazing Edwardian author Evangeline Holland.

And then there is my crazy, wacked-out, one-of-a-kind family to thank—my husband, who takes care of me, as I haven’t the first clue as how to do it myself and, in fact, tossed women’s lib back forty years in order to get out of doing the bills, maintaining the cars, repairing all the house stuff, and going to the store. My wonderful children—Ethan, who makes me laugh and finishes my sentences, and my daughter, Megan, who makes up for my lack of sense by learning how to work on cars and look beautiful doing it. There are no words to express how much I love you three. I could survive almost anything, including cancer, editorial letters, and a zombie apocalypse, as long as I always have you guys by my side.

CHAPTER

ONE

P
rudence Tate paused before the arched doorway to allow Victoria time to regain her composure. In front of her, the sanctuary was so filled with black feathered hats, it looked as though a flock of ravens might have overrun the church. The scent of stale incense, decaying flowers, and ancient prayers permeated the foyer, but Prudence barely noticed these things.

Next to her, Victoria’s slight body trembled with grief and exhaustion. “Do I really have to do this?” Victoria asked, her voice more of a wish than a whisper.

Born too soon to a dying mother, Victoria had always been frail, but what she lacked in health and vigor she more than made up for in temperament. Only the death of her father had lately diminished the audacious glint in her china-blue eyes.

“We have to.” Prudence slipped her arm lightly around the younger girl’s shoulders. Tears slid down Victoria’s face and Prudence feared she would fall apart completely before they made their way down the aisle.

Funerals were as scripted as coronations, and custom dictated the familial order of the church procession. Rowena, as Victoria’s older sister, had gone ahead of them on her uncle’s arm and was no doubt waiting for Victoria at their pew. Sir Philip Buxton’s closest contemporaries, all men in fussy black mourning coats, stood behind them, waiting to go in. They fidgeted, looking at anything but the two girls.

Tradition dictated that Prudence, as the governess’s daughter, wait in the back of the procession with the staff, but Sir Philip’s bohemian household had never given a fig for tradition.

Looking at Victoria, Prudence felt her chest squeeze around her heart so tightly that she couldn’t breathe. Recent weeks had taken such a toll on the girl that even though the woolen, crepe-trimmed mourning dress had just been fitted, it hung on her as if there were nothing of substance underneath. Victoria had never been conventionally pretty; her face was too thin and her eyes were too big, but she usually displayed a vivacity that, in spite of her weak lungs, made her the most arresting person in the room. Today that vibrancy had dimmed and dark circles bruised her eyes.

Prudence reached down and took a firm grip of Victoria’s hand. “Come. They’re waiting.”

Victoria cast her a wobbly smile as they walked through the doorway and down the aisle to where Rowena and their uncle, the Earl of Summerset, waited.

When they reached the pew, the Earl gave Prudence a look so disdainful that she almost stumbled. His nose twitched with contempt, as if she were one step away from an Irish peasant with dung still clinging to her shoes.

Before she’d died, Prudence’s mother had gently warned her that even though she’d been raised as one of Sir Philip’s girls, there were many who would think of her as nothing more than a cheeky and presumptuous servant. Evidently, Lord Summerset was among that group.

Rowena, on the other side of her uncle, looked beautiful in a stylish silk crepe mourning gown that skimmed her ankles. A cunning little toque perched atop her upswept dark hair, and she wore a gold locket clasped around her neck. Rowena held out her hand and, relieved, Prudence reached out and clasped it with her own. Without letting go of either girl, she and Victoria scooted past the Earl to join Rowena.

They stood as the rest of the procession solemnly made their way to their proper places, but Prudence, thankful to be tucked firmly between the two people she loved best in the world, took no notice.

A lump rose in her throat as she caught sight of the ornate casket, draped with a full spray of lilies, carnations, and palm fronds. The only reason she was here, clutching Rowena’s and Victoria’s hands in hers instead of shrinking into the background with the other servants, was the kindness of the man who lay inside. After Prudence’s father had died, her mother, who had worked at Sir Philip’s estate as a girl, had been sent to attend to Rowena and Victoria’s ailing mother. When his wife died, Sir Philip asked her to stay on to help raise the girls, and Prudence, exactly between his daughters in age, became part of the family. Prudence, who volunteered her time at several different poorhouses in the city, knew exactly what happened to young girls left alone in the world. She would forever be grateful to Sir Philip for not allowing that to happen to her.

She blinked away her tears and occupied herself by looking at the rest of the congregation. Only a few looked familiar. Among them were Rupert Brooke, the high-strung and handsome young poet; Ben Tillett, the iron-jawed union leader; and Roger Fry, the controversial artist responsible for bringing London’s shocked attention to postimpressionism some years prior. These were some of Sir Philip’s friends, a motley collection of artists, intellectuals, and misfits.

Because the Earl had arranged the funeral, most of the people in attendance were his peers, men from the House of Lords and others from the cream of London society.

Sir Philip would have hated it.

The beautiful gold arches and polished marble of St. Bride’s Church gleamed, just as they had the few times the family had attended church. Sir Philip had chosen St. Bride’s because, as he used to say, “Sir Christopher Wren built the kind of church that God might actually enjoy.”

Gradually, Prudence became aware of a young man staring at her from across the aisle. Her eyes darted in his direction, then away. Moments later, unable to help herself, she glanced back to see whether he was still looking at her. He was. She turned slightly and stared fixedly at the bronze candelabra to the left of him, her cheeks burning.

Victoria leaned around her to whisper to Rowena. “Look, Lord Billingsly has noticed our Prudence.”

“I’m right here,” Prudence whispered, and gave both their hands a hard squeeze for emphasis.

She didn’t look his way again.

Once the service started, Prudence sank into a well of grief that threatened to drown her. The waves of it lapped at her from all sides, covered her head, and made sight almost impossible. Inside, her heart broke and a waterfall of sorrow poured from the cracks. On one side, Victoria sobbed quietly, while Rowena’s stiff resolve buoyed her from the other. She clung to their hands as the service passed in a blur of speeches.

They remained that way until it was time to get into the ornate black and gold funeral carriages that would take them back to their home in Mayfair for the reception. Behind the carriages stood a line of motorcars; most of the wealthy guests had long given up their carriages for the convenience and speed of automobiles. The Earl himself had several, and Sir Philip’s sleek Eton-blue Belsize sat idle in the carriage house, but the Earl insisted on traditional horse-drawn carriages.

“Miss Tate will ride in the staff carriage.” The Earl’s voice brooked no opposition and his square jaw firmed. Prudence knew that look. Rowena’s pretty face held the same expression when she got all stubborn about something.

Victoria’s eyes widened. “Prudence rides with us.”

“Nonsense. The Duke of Plymouth wishes to join us and there isn’t enough room.”

Prudence placed her hands on Victoria’s shoulders. Tension vibrated through the young girl’s slender body and Prudence’s stomach knotted, sure that Victoria was going to throw a fit, the kind she used to throw when the family still called her baby and she wanted the biggest sweet in the shop. Even at eighteen, Victoria wasn’t above a tantrum or two if she thought the situation warranted it. But her waiflike face suddenly fell and her lower lip trembled.

“It’ll be all right,” Prudence whispered. “I’ll go back with the staff and meet you at home.”

But upon arriving at the house, Prudence found herself so busy helping Hodgekins, their butler, and Mrs. Tannin, their housekeeper, that she barely got to see Rowena and Victoria, who were stuck in some kind of morbid receiving line in the marbled foyer. After the guests offered their hushed condolences, they went either into the pale green and white sitting room on the right, or to the formal dining room on the left to gobble up indelicate amounts of food.

Prudence slipped adroitly through the crowd, making sure there was enough port, brandy, and mulled wine. Carl, their footman, served oyster patties and croquettes, while the sideboard held silver platters of ginger biscuits from Biarritz and fine Belgian chocolates.

The hothouse flowers had been delivered and arranged earlier in the day. Black beribboned vases of lilies stood on every table and the enormous silver bowls on the dining room table overflowed with white chrysanthemums. The scent made Prudence’s stomach churn and she wondered whether she would ever again enjoy the smell of flowers.

As she busied herself with mundane tasks, Prudence noticed that except for a few of Sir Philip’s closest friends, who offered her their heartfelt condolences, the guests looked through her as if she didn’t exist. When one pinched-faced woman wearing a black velvet turban handed her an empty glass, Prudence realized why she was invisible.

The Earl’s friends considered her staff.

She stood in the middle of the wide marbled hall, holding a Waterford wineglass, tears pricking at the backs of her eyes. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Prudence set the glass down on the nearest table and slipped away from the crowd into a small alcove near the curving mahogany staircase. She placed her hands on her heated cheeks and drew in several deep breaths.

“I know the daughters, of course,” a female voice said, quite close to where Prudence was secreted. “They attended a house party at Stanton last summer with the Earl’s family, but I don’t know the girl who sat with them at the service.”

“That was the governess’s daughter,” said a second woman. “Sir Philip raised her like one of his own and kept her on even after her mother died several years ago. Can you believe it? He had such liberal ideas. The girls practically ran wild in London.”

The voices drew nearer and Prudence shrank farther back into the alcove.

“How bizarre. They seemed like very nice girls.”

“Oh, they’re nice enough. But I’ve heard the eldest is a member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and the youngest says the most startling things. She has the tendency to bring up in conversation bizarre subjects young girls shouldn’t even think about—strange talk of plants and herbs and such. And she’s delicate, you know.”

“I’ve never seen the girl at Summerset or at any balls during the season.”

The second woman tittered. “Well, of course not. You don’t think Sir Philip would push the Earl that far, do you?”

The voices moved away and Prudence leaned her back against the wall, almost upsetting a small occasional table with a marble statue of Circe on top. She reached out and steadied it with one hand, her cheeks burning. What did the woman mean about Sir Philip not wanting to push the Earl? Prudence wished she could hide away forever, but it wasn’t fair to leave Hodgekins and Miss Tannin with all the work. They were grieving, too.

Pushing the conversation from her mind, Prudence hurried to the larder and pulled two extra bottles of port from the shelf, where they’d been sitting upright, ready for the occasion. She dusted them off and took them to the butler’s pantry for Hodgekins to decant.

That done, she decided enough was enough. She may not be a daughter of the house, but she
was
a part of the family and she desperately needed Victoria and Rowena’s comforting presence to erase the hurtful words still ringing in her ears. She turned the corner and stopped just short of running into a man putting on a black serge overcoat.

“I’m so sorry.” She was about to step around him when she realized it was the same man who’d stared at her during the service. Her breath caught as she stared up into the obsidian darkness of his eyes.

“No, I’m sorry. I thought I could just leave through the back.” He looked down at her and colored when he realized who it was. “I’m sorry. I only meant that I didn’t want to trouble the family further. I didn’t know Sir Philip very well.”

“Then why are you here?” Her cheeks heated at her rudeness. Why did she say that? She couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe with him so close. She took a step back.

“My mother is ill and she wanted me to pay our respects. My parents know the Earl well and I’m good friends with Colin, the Earl’s son.”

“Oh.” She risked a glance up at his face. Burnished brown curls fell over a high forehead and he regarded her steadily beneath quizzical brows. They stared at each other for a long moment and she wondered whether he felt as dazed as she did. Her heart sped up as the moment lengthened. She finally broke eye contact. “Thank you.”

She moved to go past him and he caught her by her elbow. “Wait,” he said, his voice almost urgent. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Prudence,” she said, before pulling her arm away and moving down the hall.

“But who are you?” he called after her.

She couldn’t tell him, for at that moment she didn’t know.

Prudence found the girls still standing in the marble foyer, greeting guests. Alarm spread through her as she spied Victoria on the other side of a potted palm. She hurried to the Earl, who was speaking to a gaunt gentleman in a top hat.

BOOK: Summerset Abbey
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