he hid in her mother’s wardrobe. The Sickness would not find her there. Shoulders scrunched, limbs hugged close to her body, eight-year-old Cecily Burkhart huddled against the silks, taffetas, and damasks of the baroness’s elegant gowns. She fingered the materials, thinking of her beautiful mother, murdered by the dreaded sweat. She heard the servants’ dresses as they rushed in and out of Lady Ashley’s chambers. They rustled, stiff with starch, crude gowns of homespun and wool. They did not flow the way her mother’s did when she walked across the floor.
But she was not walking across the floor. The footfalls that click-clacked against the rush-strewn chambers now belonged to the physician, the servants, and, finally, the priest as he administered the last rites.
Cecily’s mother was dead.
Cecily buried her head against the fur hem of her mother’s gown and offered silent sobs. Her mother was the last of them, her father, Lord Edward Burkhart, passing the week before. He had joined Cecily’s four brothers, who met the angels when they were but infants. Now she was alone.
Someone called her name. She hugged herself and began to rock back and forth. She did not want to answer. She did not want to think of anything but her mother’s gowns. She smiled to herself, remembering Mother gliding across the floor, hand on Cecily’s father’s arm, in the very gown her tears wetted now. How gentle she was and how merry was Cecily’s father in her mother’s company.
“Lady Cecily, do come out, lamb!” begged one of the servants, Mistress Fitzgerald. “You must come out of Lady Ashley’s wardrobe now; we must know if you are ill!”
“Supposing she passed on and we’re not being aware of it?” another of the servants added, her voice wrought with anxiety.
Cecily drew in a breath. She must not evade them any longer; it was cruel to cause them distress. “I am here,” she said in soft tones.
Footfalls bounded toward the wardrobe. “Lady Cecily, child, are you ill? Do you feel hot, child, achy?” Mistress Fitzgerald’s voice was taut.
“I am ... well,” Cecily assured her. She was not well. Her parents were dead, her family was wiped out, she did not know what was to become of her. But she was alive and there was no other response she could think of.
Mistress Fitzgerald threw open the doors to the wardrobe. Cecily squinted against the painful light and retreated farther back within its reaches. Meaty, chapped hands parted the gowns, revealing Mistress Fitzgerald’s broad face and teary brown eyes.
“Lady Cecily,” she said in gentle tones.
“What have they done with my mother?” Cecily asked, sniffling.
Mistress Fitzgerald expelled a heavy sigh. “Lady Ashley has been promptly put to rest, to help contain the spread of the Sickness.” She narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “Blast the king for bringing God’s wrath upon us and all for lust of that Boleyn Whore, witch and heretic that she is! And blast your parents for supporting him! That’s why God took them, you know. They supported the Boleyns and their despicable lot.”
Cecily covered her ears against this gloomy interpretation of God’s will, averting her head from the round-faced maid.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Mistress Fitzgerald said. “It’s just me being mad with grief is all. This sweating sickness came into our country with the Tudors ... and sometimes I’m afraid it won’t leave till the last Tudor is—” At this she cast her eyes to and fro, then crossed herself. It was treason to predict the death of any monarch and Mistress Fitzgerald had enough problems.
Cecily uncovered her ears and stared the maid in the face. “Then I am Baroness Burkhart now,” she said as she realized the fact for the first time. “I am the lady of this house ... of everything.. . .”
“Yes,” said Mistress Fitzgerald. “Though this is hardly the time to gloat about it.”
Cecily scowled. “I mean to say, madam, that I am the mistress of this house,” she explained.
Mistress Fitzgerald bowed her head. “Of course, my lady. What can I do for you?”
“Close these wardrobe doors and leave me alone!” Cecily ordered.
Mistress Fitzgerald screwed up her face in confusion, shrugged her shoulders, and closed the doors.
In the darkness of the wardrobe, Cecily inhaled the traces of perfume on her mother’s gowns. She wrapped herself up in them and pretended they were the beloved arms of the woman she would never see again.
Father Alec Cahill saw no valid reason for having to fetch the Earl of Sumerton’s new ward. Now that the threat of the dread sweating sickness was on the decline he couldn’t understand why the Pierces could not get the girl themselves. It was the least they could do for her, a child all alone in the world with no one to care for her. As for the Pierces, while a stag lived in Sumerton Forest they were not to be disturbed. Not when there was hunting and entertainments to be had.
Yet Father Alec liked the Pierces. They were warm and merry, and since being engaged as tutor to their children he could not say he didn’t enjoy being a member of their household. The children were intelligent and eager to learn, the employers were generous and freethinking enough to allow him to teach in the progressive manner he felt would someday benefit the children in what was becoming a fast-changing world.
If there was any fault to be found with the Pierces it was that they were upper gentry and, as with most upper gentry, an inherent selfishness accompanied their station. It would not occur to them to fetch the Baroness Burkhart themselves, not because they were cold and unfeeling but because the thought would never cross their minds. He supposed it didn’t matter. He would endeavor to make the child feel as comfortable as possible until her delivery to the Pierces, where he was confident they would do the same.
Father Alec drifted in and out of a listless sleep as the coach lurched and bounced along the rutted road. When not sleeping, he prayed for the girl’s smooth transition, and it was as he was praying, eyes closed, mouthing the words, that the coach rambled up to Burkhart Manor. He opened his eyes to a sprawling green vista. The manor house was set on a hill surrounded by lush gardens and an imposing stone wall. Vines climbed the walls of the house toward the heavens and Father Alec inhaled the sweet smell of fresh rain and green things.
He was shown into the house, where he was instructed to wait in the great hall for the girl. It was a stunning hall, outfitted with imported Turkish carpets, intricate tapestries, and stained-glass windows bearing the Burkhart coat of arms. He shook his head, awed as always by such opulence. It, along with all of the treasures within, belonged to a single little girl now. Quite heady.
“I’m afraid she won’t come down, Father,” a stout servant informed him with a huffing sigh. “She’s been devastated since her loss, sequestering herself in her mother’s wardrobe. She takes her meals in there and everything—only leaving to use the chamber pot!” With this the round face flushed deep crimson. “If I may be begging your pardon, Father.”
Father Alec smiled and waved a hand in dismissal. “Perhaps you should take me to the girl.”
“I apologize, Father,” the servant continued as she led him up the stairs to the chamber that used to belong to Baroness Ashley Burkhart. “Lady Cecily has always had a bit of a stubborn streak in her and now aggrieved as she is—”
“I am not worried, mistress,” assured the young priest with a slight chuckle.
The servant entered the chambers first. “Lady Cecily, there’s a priest here waiting to see you, a servant of God! You’ll not want to be angering a servant of God!”
“We’re all servants of God, so I expect
should not want to anger
either!” a little voice shot back.
Father Alec’s lips twitched, but he refrained from breaking into a smile.
The servant balled her thick hand into a fist and pounded on the heavy oaken doors of the wardrobe. “Now we’ve indulged you long enough! You come out of there!”
At this Father Alec rushed forward, laying his hands upon the doughy shoulders of the servant. “Please, mistress, perhaps you should allow me. If you wouldn’t mind stepping out?”
Scowling, the servant scuffled out of the room, slamming the chamber door so that the little girl within the wardrobe was certain her displeasure was heard.
Father Alec laid a slim-fingered hand on the door. “Lady Cecily, my name is Father Alec Cahill. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind coming out and speaking with me awhile? If you do not like what I have to say you can go back in if it pleases you.”
Father Alec leaned his forehead on the door. He found himself wishing with more fervency that the Pierces had come to collect the girl.
“Then perhaps you will allow me to come in there and talk to you,” he suggested in gentle tones.
“All right, you may come in,” she conceded.
“Thank you, my lady,” said Father Alec as he opened the door and crawled inside the cramped, stuffy wardrobe. He folded his knees up under his cassock and thanked God he didn’t have gout. “This is a rather nice spot, my lady, if I may say so.”
“Thank you,” the child replied, her voice thick with reluctance.
“I’m told you’ve made it a second home,” he said. “Small for gentry folk, but I suppose it has all the amenities.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “My ... my ... lady’s gowns are here so I stay here to be closer to her. To her smell.” Her voice caught in her throat. “It makes her seem alive.”
“My child, you will never heal from this. I know.” Father Alec heaved a sigh, squeezing his eyes against memories of his own. He continued. “But God will give you the strength to go on and each day your burden will be easier to bear. You must honor their memory by living. There is so much of the world to see, so much that you need to do. You are the last of your family and it is up to you to be brave and carry on for them, to grow up, to marry and have children. You cannot do any of that if you hide yourself away in this little wardrobe.”
“But if I come out it all becomes true. One day will go by and then another and another. And all without them,” she said miserably. “In here it isn’t quite real; in here I can pretend they’re just away. They were always away so that is easy,” she added with a sniffle. “I can still smell my mother’s pomander, you know. I wait for her in here. Any minute, I keep thinking, she will throw open the doors and find me hiding, just like she used to when she was alive. She would laugh and put her hand to her heart as though I gave her an awful fright—but all along she knew I was there.”
Father Alec was silent a long moment. “It sounds like a beautiful memory, Lady Cecily. I imagine your mother must have been a kind, loving woman. It would break her heart to see you hiding away. She cannot come find you now. So she sent God to. And God and your mother both long to see you come out and take your place in the world.”
The child was silent.
In the hopes she was giving credence to his words, Father Alec went on. “I’m certain the wardrobe with all of your mother’s lovely gowns can be brought to your new chambers at Sumerton,” he told her. “And someday when you are big enough, the gowns can be updated and fitted for you. Your mother would love to know you would use them again, I imagine.”
Cecily paused a long moment, then quietly, in tremulous tones, she asked, “What is Sumerton like?”
“It’s a lovely place, much like your home,” Father Alec told her. “It is surrounded by a lush forest teeming with life and there is a lake the Pierces keep their barge on. There are stables filled with beautiful horses and mews with regal hawks. And Lord Sumerton loves hounds. The king himself has called them among the finest in England.”
“The earl—I am his ward now?” Cecily asked.
Father Alec nodded, then, realizing it was too dark for her to see, said, “Yes.”
“Is he kind?”
“He is,” Father Alec told her in truth. He had never known Lord Hal to be unkind. The man always smiled, always had a gentle word for his children, never raised a hand to anyone. “He is kind and quite young, in truth.” He smiled in fondness. “He and Lady Grace, the countess, are both vibrant with youth and vigor. It is ... well, it is a
place, my lady—very alive. And me, I am tutor to their children, which means I will be educating you as well.”
“Tell me of the children,” Cecily prompted.
Father Alec’s legs were getting sore and stiff within the confines of the wardrobe, but he continued. He would win this child. Rather win her than have to drag her kicking and screaming to Sumerton. He rubbed the backs of his knees as he talked.
“One, young Aubrey—they call him Brey—is just your age, and Mirabella is thirteen. They are loving children and eager to make your acquaintance,” he said. “Why, the whole household has been in a thrall of preparations since news of your wardship. They will be so disappointed if I cannot convince you to join me.” He paused. “Won’t you join me, Lady Cecily?”