Book 1: Parish Orphans of Devon
North Devon, England
Helena Reynolds crossed the floor of the crowded taproom, her carpetbag clutched in her trembling hands. The King’s Arms was only a small coaching inn on the North Devon coast road, but it seemed to her as if every man in Christendom had gathered there to have a pint. She could feel their eyes on her as she navigated carefully through their midst. Some stares were merely curious. Others were openly assessing.
She suppressed a shiver. She was hardly dressed for seduction in her gray striped-silk traveling gown, though she’d certainly made an effort to look presentable. After all, it was not every day that one met one’s future husband.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” the innkeeper called to her from behind the crowded bar.
“Yes. If you please, sir.” Tightening her hands on her carpetbag, she approached the high counter. A very tall man was leaning against the end of it, nursing his drink. His lean, muscular frame was shrouded in a dark wool greatcoat, his face partially hidden by his upturned collar and a tall beaver hat tipped low over his brow. She squeezed into the empty space beside him, her heavy petticoats and crinoline rustling loudly as they pressed against his leg.
She lowered her voice to address the innkeeper directly. “I’m here to see—”
“Blevins!” a man across the room shouted. “Give us another round!”
Before Helena could object, the innkeeper darted off to oblige his customers. She stared after him in helpless frustration. She’d been expected at one o’clock precisely. And now, after the mix-up at the train station and the delay with the accommodation coach—she cast an anxious glance at the small watch she wore pinned to the front of her bodice—it was already a quarter past two.
“Sir!” she called to the innkeeper. She stood up on the toes of her half boots, trying to catch his eye. “Sir!”
He did not acknowledge her. He was exchanging words with the coachman at the other end of the counter as he filled five tankards with ale. The two of them were laughing together with the ease of old friends.
Helena gave a soft huff of annoyance. She was accustomed to being ignored, but this was the outside of enough. Her whole life hinged on the next few moments.
She looked around for someone who might assist her. Her eyes fell at once on the gentleman at her side. He didn’t appear to be a particularly friendly sort of fellow, but his height was truly commanding and surely he must have a voice to match his size.
“I beg your pardon, sir.” She touched him lightly on the arm with one gloved hand. His muscles tensed beneath her fingers. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but would you mind very much summoning—”
He raised his head from drinking and, very slowly, turned to look at her.
The words died on Helena’s lips.
He was burned. Badly burned.
“Do you require something of me, ma’am?” he asked in an excruciatingly civil undertone.
She stared up at him, her first impression of his appearance revising itself by the second. The burns, though severe, were limited to the bottom right side of his face, tracing a path from his cheek down to the edge of his collar and beyond it, she was sure. The rest of his face—a stern face with a strongly chiseled jaw and hawklike aquiline nose—was relatively unmarked. Not only unmarked, but with his black hair and smoke-gray eyes, actually quite devastatingly handsome.
“Do you require something of me?” he asked again, more sharply this time.
She blinked. “Yes. Do forgive me. Would you mind very much summoning the innkeeper? I cannot seem to—”
“Blevins!” the gentleman bellowed.
The innkeeper broke off his loud conversation and scurried back to their end of the counter. “What’s that, guv?”
“The lady wishes to speak with you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Helena said. But the gentleman had already turned his attention back to his drink, dismissing her without a word.
“Yes, ma’am?” the innkeeper prompted.
Abandoning all thoughts of the handsome—and rather rude—stranger at her side, Helena once again addressed herself to the innkeeper. “I was supposed to meet someone here at one o’clock. A Mr. Boothroyd?” She felt the gentleman next to her stiffen, but she did not regard it. “Is he still here?”
“Another one for Boothroyd, are you?” The innkeeper looked her up and down. “Don’t look much like the others.”
Helena’s face fell. “Oh?” she asked faintly. “Have there been others?”
“Aye. Boothroyd’s with the last one now.”
“The last one?” She couldn’t believe it. Mr. Boothroyd had given her the impression that she was the only woman with whom Mr. Thornhill was corresponding. And even if she wasn’t, what sort of man interviewed potential wives for his employer in the same manner one might interview applicants for a position as a maidservant or a cook? It struck her as being in extraordinarily bad taste.
Was Mr. Thornhill aware of what his steward was doing?
She pushed the thought to the back of her mind. It was far too late for doubts. “As that may be, sir, I’ve come a very long way and I’m certain Mr. Boothroyd will wish to see me.”
In fact, she was not at all certain. She had only ever met Mr. Finchley, the sympathetic young attorney in London. It was he who had encouraged her to come to Devon. While the sole interaction she’d had with Mr. Boothroyd and Mr. Thornhill thus far were letters—letters which she currently had safely folded within the contents of her carpetbag.
“Reckon he might at that,” the innkeeper mused.
“Precisely. Now, if you’ll inform Mr. Boothroyd I’ve arrived, I would be very much obliged to you.”
The man beside her finished his ale in one swallow and then slammed the tankard down on the counter. “I’ll take her to Boothroyd.”
Helena watched, wide-eyed, as he stood to his full, towering height. When he glared down at her, she offered him a tentative smile. “I must thank you again, sir. You’ve been very kind.”
He glowered. “This way.” And then, without a backward glance, he strode toward the hall.
Clutching her carpetbag tightly, she trotted after him. Her heart was skittering, her pulse pounding in her ears. She prayed she wouldn’t faint before she’d even submitted to her interview.
The gentleman rapped once on the door to the private parlor. It was opened by a little gray-haired man in spectacles. He peered up at the gentleman, frowned, and then, with furrowed brow, looked past him to stare at Helena herself.
“Mr. Boothroyd?” she queried.
“I am Boothroyd,” he said. “And you, I presume, are Miss Reynolds?”
“Yes, sir. I know I’m dreadfully late for my appointment…” She saw a woman rising from a chair within the private parlor. A woman who regarded Helena with an upraised chin, her face conveying what words could not. “Oh,” Helena whispered. And just like that it seemed the tiny, flickering flame of hope she’d nurtured these last months blinked out. “You’ve already found someone else.”
“As to that, Miss Reynolds—” Mr. Boothroyd broke off with an expression of dismay as the tall gentleman brushed past him to enter the private parlor. He removed his hat and coat and proceeded to take a seat by the raging fire in the hearth.
The woman gaped at him in dismay. “Mr. Boothroyd!” she hissed, hurrying to the older gentleman’s side. “I thought this was a private parlor.”
“So it is, Mrs. Standish.” Mr. Boothroyd consulted his pocket watch. “Or was, until half an hour ago. Never mind it. Our interview is finished in any case. Now, if you would be so good as to…”
Helena didn’t hear the rest of their conversation. All she could hear was the sound of her own beating heart. She didn’t know why she remained. She’d have to board the coach and continue to Cornwall. And then what? Fling herself from the cliffs, she supposed. There was no other way. Oh, what a fool she’d been to think this would work in the first place! If only Jenny had never seen that advertisement in the paper. Then she would have known months ago that there was but one means of escape from this wretched tangle. She would never have had reason to hope!
Her vision clouded with tears. She turned from the private parlor, mumbling an apology to Mr. Boothroyd as she went.
“Miss Reynolds?” Mr. Boothroyd called. “Have you changed your mind?”
She looked back, confused, only to see that the other lady was gone and that Mr. Boothroyd stood alone in the entryway. From his seat by the fire, the tall gentleman ruffled a newspaper, seeming to be wholly unconcerned with either of them. “No, sir,” she said.
“If you will have a seat.” He gestured to one of the chairs that surrounded a small supper table. On the table was a stack of papers and various writing implements. She watched him rifle through them as she took a seat. “I trust you had a tolerable journey.”
“Yes, thank you.”
“You took the train from London?”
“I did, sir, but only as far as Barnstaple. Mr. Finchley arranged for passage on an accommodation coach to bring me the rest of the way here. It’s one of the reasons I’m late. There was an overturned curricle in the road. The coachman stopped to assist the driver.”
“One of the reasons, you say?”
“Yes, I…I missed the earlier train at the station,” she confessed. “I’d been waiting at the wrong platform and…by the time I realized my error, my train had already gone. I was obliged to change my ticket and take the next one.”
“Have you no maid with you? No traveling companion?”
“No, sir. I traveled alone.” There hadn’t been much choice. Jenny had to remain in London, to conceal Helena’s absence as long as possible. Helena had considered hiring someone to accompany her, but there’d been no time and precious little money to spare. Besides which, she didn’t know who she could trust.
Mr. Boothroyd continued to sift through his papers. Helena wondered if he was even listening to her. “Ah. Here it is,” he said at last. “Your initial reply to the advertisement.” He withdrew a letter covered in small, even handwriting which she recognized as her own. “As well as a letter from Mr. Finchley in London with whom you met on the fifteenth.” He perused a second missive with a frown.
“Is anything the matter?” she asked.
“Indeed. It says here that you are five and twenty.” Mr. Boothroyd lowered the letter. “You do not look five and twenty, Miss Reynolds.”
“I assure you that I am, sir.” She began to work at the ribbons of her gray silk traveling bonnet. After untying the knot with unsteady fingers, she lifted it from her head, twined the ribbons round it, and placed it atop her carpetbag. When she raised her eyes, she found Mr. Boothroyd staring at her. “I always look much younger in a bonnet. But, as you can see now, I’m—”
“Young and beautiful,” he muttered with disapproval.
She blushed, glancing nervously at the gentleman by the fire. He did not seem to be listening, thank goodness. Even so, she leaned forward in her chair, dropping her voice. “Does Mr. Thornhill not want a pretty wife?”
“This isn’t London, Miss Reynolds. Mr. Thornhill’s house is isolated. Lonely. He seeks a wife who can bear the solitude. Who can manage his home and see to his comforts. A sturdy, capable sort of woman. Which is precisely why the advertisement specified a preference for a widow or spinster of more mature years.”
“Yes, but I—”
“What Mr. Thornhill doesn’t want,” he continued, “is a starry-eyed girl who dreams of balls and gowns and handsome suitors. A marriage with such a frivolous creature would be a recipe for disaster.”
Helena bristled. “That isn’t fair, sir.”
“I’m no starry-eyed girl. I never was. And with respect, Mr. Boothroyd, you haven’t the slightest notion of my dreams. If I wanted balls and gowns or…or frivolous things…I’d never have answered Mr. Thornhill’s advertisement.”
“What exactly do you seek out of this arrangement, Miss Reynolds?”
She clasped her hands tightly in her lap to stop their trembling. “Security,” she answered honestly. “And perhaps…a little kindness.”
“You couldn’t find a gentleman who met these two requirements in London?”
“I don’t wish to be in London. Indeed, I wish to be as far from London as possible.”
“You friends and family…?”
“I’m alone in the world, sir.”
Helena doubted that very much. “Mr. Boothroyd, if you’ve already decided someone else is better suited—”
“There is no one else, Miss Reynolds. At present, you’re the only lady Mr. Finchley has recommended.”
“But the woman who was here before—”
“Mrs. Standish?” Mr. Boothroyd removed his spectacles. “She was applying for the position of housekeeper at the Abbey.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Regrettably, we have an ongoing issue with retaining adequate staff. It’s something you should be aware of if you intend to take up residence.”
She exhaled slowly. “A housekeeper. Of course. How silly of me. Mr. Thornhill mentioned the difficulties you were having with servants in one of his letters.”
“I’m afraid it’s proven quite a challenge.” Mr. Boothroyd settled his spectacles back on his nose. “Not only is the house isolated, it has something of a local reputation. Perhaps you’ve heard…?”
“A little. But Mr. Finchley told me it was nothing more than ignorant superstition.”
“Quite so. However, in this part of the world, Miss Reynolds, you’ll find ignorance is in ready supply.”
Helena was unconcerned. “I should like to see the Abbey for myself.”
“Yes, yes. All in good time.”
“And I should like to meet Mr. Thornhill.”
“Undoubtedly.” Mr. Boothroyd shuffled through his papers again. To her surprise, a rising color crept into the elderly man’s face. “There are just one or two more points at issue, Miss Reynolds.” He cleared his throat. “You’re aware, I presume… That is, I do hope Mr. Finchley explained…this marriage is to be a real marriage in every sense of the word.”
She looked at him, brows knit in confusion. “What other kind of marriage would it be?”
“And you’re agreeable?”
He made no attempt to disguise his skepticism. “There are many ladies who would find such an arrangement singularly lacking in romance.”
Helena didn’t doubt it. She’d have balked at the prospect herself once. But much had changed in the past year—and in the past months, especially. Any girlish fantasies she’d harbored about true love were dead. In their place was a rather ruthless pragmatism.
“I don’t seek romance, Mr. Boothroyd. Only kindness. And Mr. Finchley said that Mr. Thornhill was a kind man.”
Mr. Boothroyd appeared to be surprised by this. “Did he indeed,” he murmured. “What else did he tell you, pray?”
She hesitated before repeating the words that Mr. Finchley had spoken. Words that had convinced her once and for all to travel to a remote coastal town in Devon, to meet and marry a complete stranger. “He told me that Mr. Thornhill had been a soldier, and that he knew how to keep a woman safe.”
* * * *
Justin Thornhill cast another brooding glance at the pale, dark-haired beauty sitting across from Boothroyd. She was slight but shapely, her modest traveling gown doing nothing to disguise the high curve of her breasts and the narrow lines of her small waist. When first he’d seen her in the taproom, he thought she was a fashionable traveler on her way to Abbot’s Holcombe, the resort town farther up the coast. He had no reason to think otherwise. The Miss Reynolds he’d been expecting—the plain, sensible spinster who’d responded to his matrimonial advertisement—had never arrived.
This Miss Reynolds was a different class of woman altogether.
She sat across from Boothroyd, her back ramrod straight, and her elegant, gloved hands folded neatly on her lap in a pretty attitude. She regarded the curmudgeonly steward with wide, doelike hazel eyes and when she spoke, she did so in the smooth, cultured tones of a gentlewoman. No, Justin amended. Not a gentlewoman. A lady.
She was nothing like the two sturdy widows Boothroyd had interviewed earlier for the position of housekeeper. Those women had, ironically, been more in line with Justin’s original specifications—the specifications he had barked at his aging steward those many months ago when Boothroyd had first broached the idea of his advertising for a wife.
“I have no interest in courtship,” he’d said, “nor in weeping young ladies who take to their bed with megrims. What I need is a woman. A woman who is bound by law and duty to see to the running of this godforsaken mausoleum. A woman I can bed on occasion. Damnation, Boothroyd, I didn’t survive six years in India so I could live like a bloody monk when I returned home.”
They were words spoken in frustration after the last in a long line of housekeepers had quit without notice. Words that owed a great deal to physical loneliness and far too many glasses of strong spirits.
The literal-minded Boothroyd had taken them as his marching orders.
The next morning, before Justin had even arisen from his alcohol-induced slumber, his ever-efficient steward had arranged for an advertisement to be placed in the London papers. It had been brief and to the point:
MATRIMONY: Retired army officer, thirty-two, of moderate means and quiet disposition wishes to marry a spinster or widow of the same age. Suitable lady will be sensible, compassionate, and capable of managing the household of remote country property. Independent fortune unimportant. Letters to be addressed, postpaid, to Mr. T. Finchley, Esq., Fleet Street.
Justin had initially been angry. He’d even threatened to give Boothroyd the sack. However, within a few days he’d found himself warming to the idea of acquiring a wife by advertisement. It was modern and efficient. As straightforward as any other business transaction. The prospective candidates would simply write to Thomas Finchley, Justin’s London attorney, and Finchley would negotiate the rest, just as competently as he’d negotiated the purchase of Greyfriar’s Abbey or those shares Justin had recently acquired in the North Devon Railway.
Still, he had no intention of making the process easy. He’d informed both Boothroyd and Finchley that he would not bestir himself on any account. If a prospective bride wanted to meet, she would have to do so at a location within easy driving distance of the Abbey.
He’d thought such a condition would act as a deterrent.
It hadn’t occurred to him that women routinely traveled such distances to take up employment. And what was his matrimonial advertisement if not an offer for a position in his household?
In due time, Finchley had managed to find a woman for whom an isolated existence in a remote region of coastal Devon sounded agreeable. Justin had even exchanged a few brief letters with her. Miss Reynolds hadn’t written enough for him to form a definite picture of her personality, nor of her beauty—or lack thereof. Nevertheless, he’d come to imagine her as a levelheaded spinster. The sort of spinster who would endure his conjugal attentions with subdued dignity. A spinster who wouldn’t burst into tears at the sight of his burns.
The very idea that anything like this lovely young creature would grace his table and his bed was frankly laughable.
Not but that she wasn’t determined.
Though that was easily remedied. Folding his paper, Justin rose from his chair. “I’ll take it from here, Boothroyd.”
Miss Reynold’s eyes lifted to his. He could see the exact moment when she realized who he was. To her credit, she didn’t cry or faint or spring from her chair and bolt out of the room. She merely looked at him in that same odd way she had in the taproom when first she beheld his burns.
“Miss Reynolds,” Mr. Boothroyd said, “may I present Mr. Thornhill?”