Two letters irrevocably changed Cassandra Staunton’s life. The first came from her estranged grandfather, who had written after Mama and Papa’s untimely deaths to demand that the sisters either live under his protection or find husbands to support them.
Grandfather Dawsen underestimated the Staunton sisters, for they were clever, capable women. They had balked at his high-handed meddling and tossed his costly stationery into the rubbish bin. That first act of rebellion had steered their lives down a path no one—least of all, Cassandra—could’ve imagined.
The second life-altering letter had arrived only yesterday from Octavia, the eldest, who had taken a position as governess at Caswell Hall. According to their sister’s missive, Cassandra and Honoria were invited to attend an afternoon party at the local manor, where they could enjoy a fun and frivolous day away from Longstone.
“Oh, please, Cass!” Honoria begged. “Please, let’s go!”
She looked up from the letter to face her younger sister. They sat under Papa’s favorite oak tree shading their back garden. They’d set up a table and chairs beneath the branches, and the space had quickly become their favorite place to take tea.
“I thought you hated Lord Althorne.” Harsh words, as neither of them had ever met Octavia’s employer.
“I do,” Honoria said, stuffing her pretty, young face with cake. For weeks, they had gone without even the basic necessities. To have cake and strong tea was a treat, indeed. “But I am infinitely curious to see how a viscount lives. Do we know anyone who has ever visited Caswell Hall—or any hall, for that matter? Of course we don’t! We’d be the envy of everyone in Longstone.”
They already were the envy of their neighbors. Cassandra was beautiful. Honoria was bright and gay. They’d been well-educated by their father and brought up as ladies by their mother, when everyone else in the village worked as a cobbler or a laborer, or married cobblers and laborers.
Honoria plucked the letter from her grasp. “You don’t have to go, Cassandra. I shall be perfectly happy to accept the invitation for myself, and tell you all about it when I return.”
“If you think I’m letting you go to Caswell Hall without me, you are sorely mistaken. Octavia will be minding the child. Someone will have to keep an eye on you.”
Her youngest sister smiled. “There will be handsome gentlemen there.”
“You’ve never even met a handsome gentleman.” They only knew local lads and the travelers that passed through the newly-built railway depot. Lord Althorne would certainly invite wealthy, sophisticated men of society. Poor, boy-mad Honoria would be dangerously out of her depth. “And what would George Fulton say?”
George, the local postman, was the most eligible young man in their village. He had grown up with the sisters, but—lately—the youngest Staunton had developed an infatuation with the fellow.
It was a point of great teasing by everyone who knew them, and Cassandra couldn’t resist a good-natured jab at her little sister.
Honoria’s cheeks flamed. “Perhaps some competition for my affections would do him good. If he heard I was escorted in to dinner by a wealthy London gentleman, he might learn to see me as more than a grown-up version of a schoolgirl in short frocks and pinafores.”
It had been a very long time since any of the Staunton sisters wore short frocks, pinafores, and ribbons in their hair, yet their lives seemed stagnant. Stale.
Cassandra was twenty-three. Honoria had recently turned twenty-one. Perhaps it was time they grew up.
They ought to take charge of their lives and make something of themselves.
Accepting Octavia’s invitation to Caswell Hall would be exciting. It would be a breath of fresh air after a year of mourning. It might be the new start they needed.
Cassandra laughed, for they were going to escape Longstone—if only for one day.
“Very well,” she said, cutting a wedge of cake for herself. “I’ll write back to Octavia, and you can carry the letter to the post office. We had better dig out our best frocks!”
“Silks and muslins?”
“Silks, muslins, and the evening dresses Mama gifted us. If we are to meet Octavia’s viscount, we cannot look shabby.”
Honoria leaped into action. She nearly toppled the tea table in her excitement. “We should pack something nice for her, too!”
The youngest Staunton sister raced for the house, leaving Cassandra alone beneath the oak tree. “We’ve a week to prepare!” she called to Honoria’s back. “Never mind the carpetbags. Bring me a pen and paper.”
For the first time in a very long time, Cassandra felt a thrill of excitement. In one week, they would be reunited with their beloved eldest sister. In one week, they would be dining at Caswell Hall.
Seven days felt like an eternity when she had been waiting twenty-three years for her life to begin.
Cassandra tried not to count the hours as they passed, yet the relentless old German clock upon their mantel kept the time. It ticked on as usual, as if this were any lazy afternoon and not the most important day of the sisters’ lives.
Today was the day they visited Caswell Hall, and everything they’d ever known would be different.
One did not visit a viscount’s manor and return to one’s sleepy village unchanged. Cassandra would see things she’d dreamed of—a magnificent house filled with servants, luxurious furnishings and decorations, delicious foods that no Longstone girl had ever tasted, and elegant guests dressed in their finery.
What girl wouldn’t want to experience a fairyland they’d only ever heard about in bedtime stories?
While Cassandra sat, trying not to crease her sprigged muslin, Honoria spied through the sitting room window out onto the lane beyond. One gloved finger held the curtain back. A sliver of warm sunlight illuminated her face, and Cassandra couldn’t help but realize how much Honoria resembled their mother.
Her young sister’s vibrant spirit would brighten Lord Althorne’s gathering. Honoria would surely make the acquaintance of many gentlemen and become friends with some of the ladies. The youngest Staunton would shine today.
Cassandra hoped to stay out of the limelight, if such a thing were possible. Her pretty face was often the center of attention, the chief topic of conversation. It stole the show, so to speak, and left her—the woman behind it—in a supporting role.
“Honoria…” she said, pulling her sister’s attention from the bustling lane, “please do not tell anyone about my illness today.”
Her sister’s brow furrowed over a pair of familiar blue eyes. “Why would I do that in the first place?”
“It always seems to come up in conversation somehow. We’ll be meeting new people today, and I want them to see me for who I am, not what is wrong with me.”
The story of her life had been the same since she was fifteen years old. Her affliction had been difficult to ignore, and everyone in Longstone heard of Cassandra Staunton’s ‘woman’s troubles’. Since then, she’d been whispered about as ‘the pretty, sickly girl’.
She did not want to be the sick one, or the beautiful one. She wanted to be the brave sister, the clever sister, the kind sister. But, no, she was only ever ‘beautiful’ and ‘sickly’.
A rattle of carriage wheels on the lane drew their attention to the window. Honoria peered through her sliver of curtain, inspecting the pavements, the village green, and the White Lion inn beyond.
Cassandra rose and went to see for herself. An elegant, black lacquered carriage clipped through the busy street. Pedestrians stepped from its way, carts yielded as it passed. Neighbors paused mid-stride—Mr. Harris at the White Lion even emerged from his doorway in anticipation of a wealthy guest—but the conveyance slowed to a stop in front of the Staunton cottage.
“That’s for us,” Honoria whispered.
“Yes, it would appear so.”
A smart coach was out of reach for almost every family in the dales except two—Lord Althorne, master of Caswell Hall, and Mrs. Raines, who rented Stone House every summer.
Today, it had come to collect Cassandra and Honoria.
After a moment, a knock sounded upon the door. Cassandra answered and directed the coachman to collect their luggage. They required a change of clothes for dinner and had packed their best frocks in two old carpetbags.
The fellow did not blink at the shabby baggage. He merely hefted the lot into the open door of the carriage, and slid them aside to make room for passengers.
He offered his hand to assist the sisters.
With a deep breath, Cassandra gathered her muslin skirts in one hand, placed her fingers into the steady care of the coachman, and climbed aboard. The carriage rocked on its springs as she settled on the squabs. She hardly stole a moment to glance around before Honoria bounded onto the seat beside her.
“Thank you, my good man!” the youngest sister said, laughing.
They caught a glimmer of amusement in the driver’s eyes as he closed the door. Again, the carriage lurched and swayed as he climbed onto the box, gathered his ribbons, and urged the horses to action.
The noise of the street was muffled by plush upholstery. Tasseled shades covered the windows, which Cassandra was happy to keep in place—she wouldn’t put it past her neighbors to peep inside to catch a glimpse of the ladies riding in His Lordship’s coach.
Honoria gave the shades an eager tug, rolling them up, and flooding the darkened conveyance with bright afternoon light. The youngest sister put her hand up and waved at their fellow villagers as if she were the queen come to call.
“Look, there’s George on his rounds!” Honoria waggled her fingers at the handsome postman.
Cassandra pressed back into the squabs. She closed her eyes, imagining herself invisible. They were supposed to have a fun and frivolous day, not turn the jaunt into a spectacle.
“What’s the matter?” her sister asked. “Are you sick?”
“I am not sick.”
“No, I meant…from the motion. You don’t look like you’re having fun, and that is not like you.”
“I thought I’d rest my eyes before the party began,” she lied. “Besides, all this dust on the lane—”
“Don’t say it. Not one word about rain. You’ll curse us.”
Cassandra opened her eyes to discover the village fading from sight. In its place was a rambling country track through the hills, lined on both sides by jagged stone fences and hedgerows. There were trees, meadows, and distant tunnels carved out by the railway.
She had only ventured from Longstone once in her life, and the railway had not yet come to their part of Derbyshire back then. To see the scars that progress had left upon the land now came as something of a shock.
The world had changed while she’d sat at home dreaming of something adventurous. Perhaps Honoria had been right to lift the shades, to wave at their neighbors. To press her face to the glass and enjoy the ride.
“The gates!” her sister cried, placing a hand upon her knee. “Cass, we are here!”
Indeed, Lord Althorne’s coachman steered his horses between two stone pillars. The carriage descended a private drive that sawed through the dales. A canopy of leafy green trees provided a shady banner, welcoming the new arrivals.
The two sisters squeezed their hoop skirts together on the bench to spy from both sides of the carriage.
Caswell Hall was larger than anything they’d ever seen—larger, surely, than the historic palaces illustrated in Papa’s lesson books. It sat deep in the valley, forming its own private nugget of countryside. Lattice windows winked in the afternoon sun, crowned by a tall, gabled, lead-tiled roof.
“I wonder which room is Octavia’s?”
Cassandra frowned. “Doubtless one of the smaller ones. She is the governess, not mistress of the manor.”
“But, still…imagine waking up in that house every morning. One would certainly feel like the mistress no matter how tiny one’s window.”
It truly was a magnificent house, as grand as Octavia had described. Caswell Hall was the perfect home for the eldest Staunton sister, and Cassandra felt a stab of jealousy. A woman could find her purpose in such a place.
The viscount’s carriage rattled down the drive. His lively team tossed their heads and flicked their tails as the coachman slowed them to a stop beneath the columned porte-cochère.
Cassandra peered through the window to see her beloved elder sister standing on the steps beside a gentleman wearing a tall, beaver hat and an immaculately-tailored frock coat.
Truth be told, they looked more like the lord and lady of the manor than an employer and his governess, though it was kind of His Lordship to join Octavia as she greeted her guests.
Her sister rushed down the steps to meet them. Cassandra and Honoria were handed down from the carriage, and all three ladies embraced as if they hadn’t seen one another in ages. For a moment, they were all aflutter.
“Come and meet His Lordship,” Octavia said, taking her sisters by their gloved hands.
The eldest Staunton sister wore a muslin garibaldi blouse and silk skirt, and her dark hair had been smoothed back and twisted into an ivory comb. She did not look like a governess—and from the eager glances His Lordship kept sneaking at her pretty figure, he did not consider her a mere employee.
“Cassandra, Honoria, may I present Lord Althorne? My Lord, these are my sisters, Miss Cassandra Staunton…”
“And Miss Honoria Staunton.”
Honoria dipped as well. The youngest sister regarded him with wide eyes, for he was nothing like they’d imagined him to be.
Lord Althorne swept his tall hat from his blond head and bowed. “Misses Staunton, how do you do? I am so pleased to have you at Caswell.”
Cassandra spoke, for Honoria could not seem to find her tongue in the presence of this handsome, aristocratic male. “We are glad to be here, My Lord, and much obliged to you for sending your carriage.”
He flashed a bright smile at the awestruck ladies. “I am forever telling Octavia to make use of the thing. It’s a long walk to the village and back. No use getting dusty and trampled in the lane.”
Lord Althorne escorted them inside, chatting and laughing as a butler pulled the door closed behind them.
“I’ve had a room prepared for you,” their host said. “Feel free to rest or freshen up at your leisure. You did bring your evening frocks, didn’t you?” They nodded, and he continued, merrily, “I’ll have them pressed and delivered. In the meantime, please, enjoy your afternoon.”
With that, he bowed and left them in Octavia’s care.
Honoria turned to their eldest sister. “That was Lord Althorne? Why, he is not hunchbacked or hideous at all! I wonder why folk would consider him so? I feel foolish for calling him ugly when he is perfectly charming.”
“I’ve learned that what is whispered about one is rarely true and almost always hurtful. Some other poor governess must’ve spread those vile rumors in retaliation for a job badly done.”
It was true. Village tattle had been vicious—especially since governess after governess had fled Caswell Hall. The sisters had feared for Octavia’s safety, yet their anxieties had been sorely misplaced. She seemed happy here, living and working alongside the gregarious nobleman.
The eldest Staunton did not keep to the shadows here at Caswell. She was not as discreet or distant as the servants scurrying just out of sight. Octavia led them up the main stairs, explaining, “The Raineses are in attendance.”
Although the sisters frequently spied the wealthy, elegant Raines family attending Sunday services, no one in Longstone had actually spoken to the women. They were a class above the cobblers, laborers, and shopkeeper’s wives. It made perfect sense for the beautiful Miss Raines to attend this premier gathering.
Octavia’s tone did not foster optimism for a friendship between the Stauntons and their well-heeled neighbors.
“Are they awful?” Cassandra asked, fearing the worst.
“They treated me abominably yesterday. Miss Raines is determined to catch a husband, and doesn’t care who she hurts to get him.”
If Eugenie Raines wished to find a husband among the guests at Caswell Hall, she had nothing to fear from Cassandra Staunton—that path had been closed to her years ago.
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