Black crepe darkened the windows. A black wreath hung upon the door. For twelve months, grim silence settled over the Staunton household—or what was left of it.
Neighbors had called, first to offer condolences, and, later, to give their support to the three orphaned sisters. The villagers of Longstone had felt it their Christian duty to look after the daughters of their former schoolmistress, even though the girls were fully grown.
Octavia, the eldest, was twenty-five. She was now the lady of the house, responsible for the upkeep of their cottage and the well-being of her sisters. Her first order of business was to open the house, to shake off the black. To formally end their mourning period after the painful loss of their parents.
It was time.
This had to be done.
The Staunton sisters must return to the land of the living.
They could no longer put off the butcher’s bill. Their landlord, no matter how patient and understanding, deserved his rent. Even dress bills for their mourning attire still needed to be paid—a year later! This was hardly the legacy Mama and Papa had intended to leave behind.
Octavia hauled down the crepe. She removed the wreath from their door. Though she must be strong for Cassandra, whose health was poor, and Honoria, who had been so sheltered all these years, Octavia could not bring herself to wear colors.
She donned her best grey frock and joined her sisters in the garden.
The three women set up a table and chairs beneath the branches of their father’s favorite oak tree. He had loved giving lessons here. The sisters had learned to read in fresh air, rather than cramped in a dark schoolroom.
Papa had been a dreamer, but he’d given them the best education three girls could hope for. Educating women had been his life’s work. In fact, it was how he met their mother.
The daughter of a wealthy London merchant, Mama had fallen in love with her brother’s classics tutor. She had been far more intelligent than her wastrel brother, and Papa had been the only person to take her seriously. Grandfather Dawsen had forbidden the marriage, so they eloped.
Disgraced and discredited, Papa lost any hope of students after that. They retired to the country, eventually settling in Longstone, where Mama taught in the village school.
The Stauntons might’ve been poor, but they were rich in love. That had been Mama and Papa’s legacy—one that Octavia vowed to carry on.
Cassandra smiled as she poured the tea. “How lovely you look in that dove grey silk, Octavia. It brings out your eyes.”
Of course, the most beautiful sister complimented another’s beauty. Cassandra was as kind as she was pretty, and might’ve been married years ago had her health improved.
“I could not bear to wear anything else,” Octavia said, taking her teacup and saucer.
“Perhaps tomorrow you will feel ready,” Cassandra said. “Or some other day.”
Did one ever truly recover from the death of one’s parents?
“How could we wear anything else,” asked Honoria, the youngest, “when all our frocks are black? We haven’t had anything new since…well…last year. Our best colored clothes are old rags now.”
It was easy to lose one’s temper when Honoria spoke so callously, but she had always been Mama and Papa’s pet. Spoiled. Babied. Beloved. She had rarely heard the word ‘no’, even when the others had gone without.
Octavia sipped her tea. The warm, sweetened blend always calmed her nerves. “Once we settle our debts, I promise you may have something new to wear.”
“Silk or muslin?”
She smiled over the rim of her teacup. “That is for you to decide.”
Honoria beamed brighter than she had in the past twelve months. Cassandra only dipped her head and nibbled a wedge of cake. Later, the two eldest sisters would count out the last of their money—Mama and Papa’s paltry life savings—and pray for a miracle.
“Miss Staunton!” A voice called from the front of the cottage. “I say! Are any of the Miss Stauntons about?”
She recognized the cry of their postman. “Here, George, in the garden.”
His blond head appeared around the corner. “I should have known you’d be back here, Miss Octavia. Good day, Miss Cassandra. Honoria.” He grinned sheepishly at the pretty ladies at tea. “I’ve a letter for you.”
She returned his bright, breezy smile. “For whom?”
“For all of you.” He approached the table, fishing through his bag. At last, he produced an envelope and held it out for her inspection.
It was, indeed, addressed to the ‘Misses Staunton of Longstone’.
The time for sympathy cards had long passed. Curious, Octavia took the letter from the postman and ran her fingertips across the elegant black scrawl. Her hand weighed the heavy stationery. Expensive paper, expensive ink. No one she knew could afford such luxuries.
She was itching to open it. “Thank you, George.”
He doffed his cap. “You’re welcome, Miss Octavia. Miss Cassandra. Honoria.”
He remained rooted to the spot, hovering just beside her elbow. Did he intend to read over her shoulder?
Octavia glanced up at him. No, of course not. His eyes were on beautiful Cassandra and the tea spread she presided over.
“Won’t you take a slice of cake for your deliveries?” Octavia hinted. “I imagine you must get peckish on your long rounds through the village.”
Taking her cue, Cassandra wrapped a wedge of cake in a napkin and handed it across the table. It was as polite a dismissal as they could manage without hurting sweet George’s feelings.
Papa had once helped him pass his examinations. The Stauntons always had a soft spot for one of their parents’ students.
George took the cake. He stashed it in his mailbag, smiling sheepishly. “Thank you, Miss Cassandra. I shall eat it and think of you—of your kindness. Your kindness in giving it to me.”
The postman blushed as red as a ripe berry. Cassandra looked anywhere else but at his young face, so full of admiration for her.
“Yes,” Octavia said, putting an end to the flirtation. She knew romance was the furthest thing from Cassandra’s mind. “Thank you, George. Good day.”
He touched his cap for the hundredth time, surely. “Good day, ladies!”
At last, he disappeared through the gate, around the house, and into the lane beyond. When he was out of earshot, Octavia ripped open the seal and unfolded the letter.
The paper was edged in black—its sender was a household in mourning.
Her eyes scanned the elegant, even scrawl. She read the note, and then re-read it to be absolutely certain she had not imagined it. This was the last thing she expected.
Certainly, the last thing she would’ve wanted.
“Well?” Honoria asked, stretching across the table to grip the letter. She tried to pry it from Octavia’s clenched, white-knuckled hand. “What…does…it…say?”
She blinked back tears. She cleared her throat, which had suddenly gone all tight and sandy, no matter how much tea she sipped. “It is from Grandfather Dawsen.”
Honoria sank back into her chair, wide-eyed. “Mama’s father? That awful man who tried to keep her and Papa apart?”
“The very same.”
Even Cassandra looked worried. Her pretty face was paler than usual. “What does he want?”
“Want? More like ‘demand’.” She handed the letter to her middle sister. “Read for yourself.”
Cassandra read it, blanching. The thick, cream stationery trembled in her hands. “My God, the nerve! If this is how he treated Mama, it is no wonder she ran away.”
Honoria huffed in frustration, for no one was letting her in on the secret. “What does it say?”
“It is an ultimatum,” Octavia explained. “We must travel to London and live under his protection or we must be married. Either way, we need a man’s careful guidance.”
“But we are of age,” Honoria said. “Does he know that I am now twenty-one?”
“I wager he does. He must know an awful lot since he has found us after all these years.” Octavia held up the black-edged paper. “And he must know about Mama, since he is clearly in mourning.”
“She would not like his interfering,” said Cassandra.
Neither did they!
“I resent this intrusion,” Octavia said. “We’ve managed for twenty-five years without him. Why does he think he has a say in what we do or where we go?”
“Because we are poor.”
They looked at Honoria. Had the gravity of their situation finally struck home?
“And poor women require husbands.”
“Well, I don’t want one.” Octavia tossed down the letter. Grandfather Dawsen’s words—his meddling—were repugnant to her. “And why should I? We needn’t sacrifice ourselves at the altar when we have our health, hearts, and our heads together. We shall simply find another way.”
The following Sunday, all the villagers of Longstone gathered in the quaint church. Octavia sat between her sisters in their usual pew. She glanced around the musty, darkened chapel to spy the faces of her neighbors.
Most listened intently to their vicar, Mr. Morton, as he gave the sermon. A few of the younger children—and, indeed, some of the adults—struggled to keep their eyes open. It wasn’t always easy to stay awake, for the church was so quiet, Mr. Morton spoke so slowly, and everyone sat so still.
As a girl, Octavia had struggled with heavy eyes during Sunday service. Mama had always smuggled a pocketful of boiled sweets, which she discreetly passed to her girls when their attention strayed from the week’s Bible lesson.
It had always been the ‘pick-me-up’ they needed. The Staunton sisters had learned God’s word with cheeks packed like little squirrels.
Octavia longed for a sugar drop, and checked her skirt pockets, even though the sweets were only a memory. Strange how things that had once seemed so mundane were now treasured in her mind.
Cassandra shifted against her. It wasn’t always possible for her middle sister to sit on the hard, oaken pews. Indeed, there were weeks—one out of every month, in fact—where she could not attend services at all.
But Cassandra was not suffering today. With a sigh, she leaned against Octavia’s shoulder and whispered, very softly, “What I wouldn’t give for a boiled sweet.”
The two young women smiled at one another, and then returned their focus to the sermon.
When the service ended, the congregation rose from their seats with sore bottoms and shuffled out the door on numb legs. The parishioners milled about the churchyard, if only to stretch their aching limbs.
This was also the best chance to catch up on a week’s worth of gossip.
No one in Longstone kept a carriage, though many such conveyances passed through the village on their way to the recently-built railway station. The new stop brought visitors from the surrounding countryside and beyond.
It had proved a boon to sleepy little Longstone, and with the trains and carriages came wealthy neighbors—chief among them were the Raines family, a mother and daughter who summered at Stone House for three months each year.
The Raines’ carriage crowded the lane. The glossy black conveyance, with its jangling horses and stern-looking coachman, stood out like a dark blot among the green fields and flowering hedgerows.
When Mrs. Raines emerged from the church, she spoke briefly to the vicar without a glance at the curious villagers who strained to hear her words. The ladies of Longstone fell silent in order to properly admire the young Miss Raines’ silk frock, which had surely come from Manchester.
“Have you ever seen such skirts?” whispered Honoria. “It is a wonder her hoops can hold them. Oh! If only I could have such silks…”
Even Octavia delighted in the fashionable young woman’s appearance, for Miss Raines was breathtakingly beautiful. As the two women brushed past their little group, she noticed not a speck of dust stained their skirt hems, while Octavia’s were dirtied merely from the walk over.
Likely, Mr. Morton swept the churchyard path especially for haughty Mrs. Raines and her pretty young daughter—half the men in Longstone were in love with her, though they’d never shared a word in passing.
It was almost comical.
“Good Lord,” Cassandra said, “even the air smells better in their presence.”
Octavia sniffed. Yes, it really and truly did. “I suspect Mrs. Raines enjoys more than a dash of rose water. That, dear sister, is French scent.”
“How would you know?” asked Honoria, huffing. “Where have you ever smelled perfume?”
She hadn’t. Nothing so fragrant had ever been sold in Longstone. “Merely speculation.”
It was easy to become envious of pretty, wealthy, lavishly turned-out ladies when one was staring down destitution. Octavia was not immune to that stab of jealousy.
A neighbor, Miss Mary Brooks, who had arrived shortly after Mama’s death to take charge of the village school, spoke up in her defense. “I’ve smelled French perfume. It is very similar to Mrs. Raines’ scent, but—in my opinion—not at all worth the cost. Certainly not as lovely as real flowers.”
Octavia smiled at the newcomer. It had once hurt to see Mary Brooks in her mother’s place amongst the schoolchildren. A year later, the two women were edging toward friendship.
They linked arms as they strolled through the churchyard. Cassandra and Honoria followed a step behind. The foursome passed the Raines’ carriage, sneaking one last glance at the ladies nestled inside.
The coachman cracked his whip as the lacquered conveyance left the villagers in his dust.
Coughing, Mary Brooks said, “A pity about poor Miss Swann. Have you heard?”
The Staunton sisters swiveled their heads to face her. They had not heard.
“What about her?” Octavia asked.
“I have it on good authority that Miss Swann has quit her post.”
“No! But she had only just arrived.”
Mary Brooks nodded. “Which makes her swift departure all the more intriguing. Miss Swann spent last night in the White Lion and left on the morning train.”
“Could she not have gone on holiday? Or perhaps to visit family?”
“She took her trunks with her, according to Mr. Rhodes. In fact, when he asked about a return ticket, she laughed in his face and vowed never to set foot in Longstone again.”
Mr. Rhodes was their stationmaster. He knew all the comings and goings in the village. Surely, his word was to be believed.
Mary Brooks lowered her voice as she continued, “Governesses pass through Caswell Hall at an alarming rate. They never stay long.”
Honoria butted in with some gossip of her own, “It’s that dreadful Lord Althorne.”
No one in Longstone had ever met the viscount who lived only a few miles away. Octavia passed the gates of Caswell Hall many times in her youth, but a daughter of the local schoolmistress had no business peeping any further.
It seemed they were all slightly afraid of their local lord.
Truthfully, no one knew anything about him—except that he burned through governesses like candles in a ballroom. One after another, they came and went. Miss Swann had fled so quickly that nobody in Longstone had gotten to know her.
“There will be another one along soon enough,” Cassandra said. “This time we might ask her what is so terrible about Caswell Hall.”
Honoria huffed. “I’m telling you, it’s Lord Althorne.”
“The house could be haunted,” Octavia said, ignoring her younger sister. “Those old piles often are.”
Mary Brooks laughed. “You don’t truly believe that, do you?”
“I’d rather it be haunted than assume the worst about a gentleman who isn’t here to defend himself. There may be a perfectly rational reason that the viscount cannot keep a governess.”
They looked at her as if she were a fool, yet Octavia was not naive. She knew men could be tyrants. Employers could be monsters, taking advantage of overworked, underpaid, often desperate workers.
Octavia did not wish to dwell on the worst possibilities, for she had struck upon an idea. As the four women walked, gossiping about the vacancy at Caswell Hall, she had been calculating a governess’ wages and applying that money toward the Staunton household’s monthly bills.
In the days since Grandfather Dawsen’s letter, she’d resigned herself to a future working for wages—it was the only way, short of marrying some rich old codger—to support her sisters. Cassandra could never work, as her precarious health wouldn’t survive it. Honoria was young and gay, and a life of labor would break her spirit.
As the eldest, it had to be her.
Octavia met their eyes. “I am going to apply for that governess position.”
“No, Octavia, you mustn’t.” Cassandra gripped her gloved hand with surprising strength.
“There is no other way. We have debts to settle and no money coming in. You read Grandfather Dawsen’s demands. Do you truly want him interfering in our lives?” She had to be brave for her sisters. She had to appear sane to her neighbors. “Besides, if I work at Caswell, I won’t be so very far away. I can visit Longstone every week.”
Mary Brooks did not seem convinced of her scheme. “But you have no references—you are not qualified.”
“I am, in fact, overqualified.” She was her mother’s daughter, and her father’s best pupil. Octavia might not possess the formal schooling required of a governess, but she’d been well-educated.
Now it was Honoria’s turn to argue. “Caswell Hall is a place of depravity! There is a child, yet Lord Althorne is unmarried.”
A fair point, but Octavia refused to listen to reason. “Then he has no cause to be choosy. Surely, willing governesses for illegitimate children are few and far between.”
Cassandra nodded. Her middle sister accepted that Octavia had made up her mind, and there was no changing it. “Perhaps that is all it is—some women turn their noses up at children born out of wedlock. The child’s offensive parentage could be what has been scaring them off.”
Yes, priggishness and nothing more.
Either way, she would find out soon enough.
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