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Unquiet Hearts

Unquiet Hearts by Kathy Lynn Emerson
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When Thomasine Strangeways returned to Catsholme Manor, the scene of her unhappy childhood, things were not as they had once been. Nick Carrier, who had been her friend and protector then, was now a moody widower who could encourage her passion and spurn her kisses. To fulfill her mother’s deathbed request was proving dangerous—and loving Nick perhaps even more so.

Historical Romance by Kathy Lynn Emerson; originally published by Harper Monogram

Belgrave House; June 1994
241 pages; ISBN 9780061081095
Read online, or download in secure PDF format
Title: Unquiet Hearts
Author: Kathy Lynn Emerson

Catsholme Manor, 1547

The girl was seven years old and well aware she was disobeying her mother. She had been told not to stray out of the pleasure gardens, but the fish pond drew her like a sorcerer’s spell. Nick had said it was stocked with roach and bream. She wanted to see what a bream looked like when it was still alive and swimming.

From the pond it was only a little way to the hay house and straw house and all the other outbuildings that served Catsholme Manor’s demesne farm. Taking one last look over her shoulder to make sure her mother wasn’t watching, Thomasine Strangeways continued the forbidden journey, exploring every nook and cranny that interested her until, rounding a corner, she came face-to-face with the flapping wings and sharp talons of an enormous rooster.

She was nowhere near the hen house, but the bird seemed to take exception to her presence. He flew at Thomasine, filling her with stark terror. She turned and fled, and in her panic climbed right to the top of the only safe haven she could find.

Heart racing, breath coming in ragged gulps, she looked back toward the ground. It was a very great distance below. The rooster was nowhere in sight, but now she trembled at the thought of falling. She’d escaped her tormentor only to be trapped atop an enormous hay rick.

Thomasine closed her eyes. She wanted to be found, but not by Mother. Miraculously, her prayer was answered, for when she looked again Nick Carrier was there, smiling his gentle smile as he approached the hay rick from the direction of the barns.

Nick was eight years Thomasine’s senior, at fifteen almost a man grown. Secretly she thought him the most handsome youth in the village. He had a long, straight nose and light blue eyes, and though his hair was mostly brown there were strands of it that gleamed gold in the morning sun. He had the barest hint of fuzz on his cheeks, showing little inclination yet to turn into a fashionable beard.

“What are you doing up there, Thomasine?”

“The rooster chased me.”

Any other boy would have laughed at her, but Nick just looked sympathetic. Then he climbed partway up the hay rick, clamped both hands about her waist, and lifted her off. Moments later she was standing safe and secure at his side.

With adoration in her eyes as well as her voice, Thomasine gazed up at him. “You are my hero, Nick. When I grow up I shall marry you.”

His face crinkled into a smile, but again he sup­pressed his mirth. “If you turn out to be half as pretty as your mother, no doubt I will want to remind you of your pledge. But you are of gentle birth, Thomasine, and I am not. You’ll look for someone with land and money when you come to wed.”

Thomasine’s chin shot up and tilted at a stubborn angle. “I do not want a gentleman. I want to marry you, Nick.”

“If you say so, Thomasine.”

He threaded her arm through his and, as gallant as any knight, escorted her back into the pleasure gardens. They had barely reached the fountain at the center when Thomasine’s mother came looking for her.

Lavina Strangeways looked years younger than she was, and she was in truth no aged crone. She moved with sensual grace through the geometric designs of flowers and shrubs, a tall, slender woman dressed in vibrant burgundy, a widow who flaunted propriety with that color and by wearing her hair loose beneath her headdress. The lappets ended halfway down her back, but the thick tresses, in a brown so dark it appeared black, extended well below her waistline.

Mumbling that he had chores to finish, Nick made haste to leave. Thomasine’s mother stared after him, a speculative gleam in her bright eyes. “That Nick’s grown into a handsome fellow,” she murmured, “near as well-made as his sire.”

“I am going to marry Nick when I grow up, Thomasine declared.

Lavina Strangeways fixed her daughter with a fearsome glare. “He’s not for you, girl. You will abandon such a foolish idea this very minute, and then you will explain to me why you left this garden when I told you that you were not to wander off.”

Chapter 1


At the faintest sound of stirring behind the heavy bed hangings, Thomasine came to her feet. She hurried across the chamber, thrust aside the faded velvet curtains and bent close to her mother, tears brimming in her eyes. It was futile to hope, and yet Thomasine looked first for some sign of improvement.

“You are awake,” she said.

Lavina Strangeways’s bright blue eyes upbraided her daughter for making such an unnecessary observation. When she attempted to give voice to her thoughts only an agonized gasp emerged from her trembling lips but that fulminating glare spoke volumes.

For two days Lavina, who had lost the use of her legs years before, had suffered the gradual weakening of every remaining muscle. Intense pain now accom­panied any movement. Each breath hurt and her pulse raced at the slightest exertion. Her sight was going, too, but her mind remained clear. There was something she had to tell Thomasine before it was too late.

“The pain will ease soon,” Thomasine promised.

Lavina’s contempt became almost palpable in the silence that followed. The agony would stop only when death took her, and both of them knew it.

Thomasine struggled for composure. This one last thing she would do for her mother. She would stay at her side until the end. No one deserved to face death alone, no matter what they had done in life.

Lavina had forbidden her to send for either physician or clergyman. She had treated her earliest symptoms herself, before she became too weak to mix nostrums. A chill shuddered through Thomasine’s tall, slender body, in spite of the stifling heat of the bedchamber. Had her mother done this to herself? Had the potions and powders on which she’d come to rely become the means to end her own life?

In a hoarse whisper that was almost inaudible, Lavina Strangeways managed one word. “Help.”

Thomasine blinked and stared. The raspy sound was nothing like her mother’s voice and although Lavina’s eyes were open she did not seem to see Thomasine.

“Mother? I am here at your side. I will help in any way I can.”

“Help . . . your. . . sister.” Lavina got the words out in gasps that underscored the enormity of the effort it took.

The command made no sense to Thomasine. She took Lavina’s cold hand in her own, willing her mother to speak again, to clarify the remarkable statement, but the older woman had already lapsed into unconsciousness.

Fighting a new torrent of tears, Thomasine rested her forehead against the smooth side of one of the thick, square posts that supported the tester. Her dark brown tresses fell forward. She had forgotten to secure the long, unruly locks under her white coif.

For a moment, when Lavina had first started to speak, Thomasine had thought she might be lucid, but she was not. The delirium continued.

Yesterday she had been raving about a dog. They’d kept no dog since coming to London nine years earlier.

And Thomasine had no sister.

Lavina lay very still atop the feather bed and linen sheets, her head supported by a thick down pillow. A light coverlet had been cast aside, baring her emaciated limbs and shrunken body. Once she had been accounted very beautiful but only a shriveled shadow of her former self remained.

The sound of her ragged breathing seemed to fill the chamber and then, abrupt as a flame extinguished by the wind, there was no sound at all.

Thomasine clung a moment longer to the bedpost. Slowly, her movement stiff and uncoordinated, she lifted trembling fingertips to touch one side of her mother’s neck, affirming what she already knew deep in her heart. Lavina’s pulse had ceased to beat, and life’s blood no longer flowed through her veins.

Blinded by tears, Thomasine stumbled from the bedchamber. She gulped in great breaths of air as she made clumsy swipes at the rivulets coursing down her cheeks. Within, her turmoil intensified. A searing sense of loss warred with a sensation of relief. Guilt assaulted her next, only to be followed at once by a panic so strong that she barely reached the open windows before she collapsed in a heap.

In the summer heat this room was nearly as oppressive as the one from which she’d just fled, but here a slight breeze stirred and the distinctively spiced aroma of Bucklersbury wafted in. It was so strong it could obscure the foulness of other city odors, even those that issued from the apothecary’s shop just below, and it was also powerful enough to diffuse the lingering miasma of sickness and death.

Thomasine breathed deeply of the reviving smell. It originated in the dozens of grocers’ shops that lined the sunlit street below. Lavina Strangeways had chosen to take lodgings in this neighborhood because of these purveyors of medicinal herbs, which she had required in large quantities.

From her position on the floor between the two tall narrow windows, Thomasine had a clear view of the corner Lavina had used as her stillroom. The pierced screens had been pushed aside, revealing a long, low oak table strewn with the paraphernalia necessary for distilling and decocting, drying and grinding, mixing and blending. A mortar and pestle vied for space with a brazier and an alembic. On the shelf above were glass bottles and vials and clay pots and tubs, all filled with the results of Lavina’s experiments, and drying plants hung from the rafters. Some were harmless enough, setwall and lark’s heel and garden madder, but others were suspect even to Thomasine’s untutored eyes—mugwort and eringo root and wild poppy.

With a strength she had not realized she possessed, Thomasine surged to her feet and crossed the room in swift strides. She pulled down the drying herbs and ground them beneath her heels. The entire shelf came free of the wall when she tugged at it, spilling its contents onto the table. Then all it took was one sweep of her hand and apparatus and vessels alike shattered in a series of small crashes that blended together to make a great cacophony. In that fleeting moment, when she truly believed she had destroyed her mother’s evil legacy, Thoma­sine felt a tremendous rush of satisfaction.

* * * *

Catsholme Manor, some one-hundred-and-eighty miles north of London, celebrated the first day of August with a great feast. Boys ran foot races and pipers piped and morris dancers danced and maidens made promises. The revelry lasted all day until, at dusk, most of the participants sought their own hearths. On the morrow, nearly two months of backbreaking work would begin to bring the harvest home. Sensible men and women were all abed by ten of the clock.

In the small, windowless room allotted to the manor’s steward, Nick Carrier worked until long after dark. A guttering candle illuminated his long, slender fingers and the quill with which he entered one last name in his thick ledger.

He pushed back the three-legged stool he’d drawn close to the old, much scarred worktable and stretched, lithe as a big cat, to ease the stiffness in his neck and shoulders. He rubbed tired eyes with the backs of his knuckles, then yawned hugely, well satisfied with what he had accomplished. His tasks had taken longer than he’d expected, and Nick felt the effects bone deep but he knew such careful preparations would keep the harvest running smoothly from Lammas to St. Michael’s Day.

In the flickering candlelight Nick cast a giant shadow but in truth he was of only average size. What set him apart from his fellows was an air of self-confidence. He was good at what he did and he knew it. For the harvest, everything had been thought out in advance and all was in readiness. The threshers had been hired. The customary tenants had been assigned both work days and specific tasks that ranged, according to age and skill, from reaping to muck-spreading to cutting stubble.

Nick’s only regret was that he could not alter the course of the other events that were set to take place at Catsholme during the weeks ahead. He reminded himself that it did no good to brood about what he was powerless to change. Taking up what was left of the candle, he went out into the kitchen yard.

It was much later than he’d realized. For a moment he was tempted to claim a bed at the manor house, but his own cottage in the village was no more than a quarter mile from Catsholme’s front gate. The prospect of a little time in the bosom of his family far outweighed the appeal of an extra hour’s sleep.

Nick was not nervous about venturing out into the open after dark. He never had been, though he knew many who swore that evil lurked in the very air at night. Aided by the light of a moon that was just past the full, he made his way from the shadowy kitchen yard into the main courtyard. He had just begun to cross it to the gatehouse when an angry voice startled him into stillness.

“Hold! Who goes there?”

Richard Latham, wrapped in an ivory-colored robe of the finest brocaded satin, stood at the top of the outer stairs that led from the courtyard to the family lodgings. He held a branched candelabra high, revealing more of himself than of the open space below him.

Latham had seen forty summers and had the streaks of gray in otherwise black hair to prove it, but he had not lost his powerful build. Those he could not command by law or by the persuasiveness of veiled threats, he forced into obedience with brute strength.

Nick identified himself and waited, regretting that he had not left the manor sooner. He disliked and mistrusted Latham, and always did his best to avoid the older man.

“There are lights in the orchard. I saw them from the oriel window in my closet,” Latham said.

The master’s closet. Nick’s resentment simmered. Latham had only recently usurped the privilege of living and working in Catsholme’s best chambers, including the small, private room set aside for study and the conducting of business.

“Someone has gotten in.” Latham’s voice revealed a petulant mood and warned Nick to tread carefully. “The garden gate should have been locked. Did I not give orders to keep it secure?”

“It was locked. I saw to the matter myself just before dusk.”

“It is open now.”

Nick held back an angry retort. “I locked the gate hours ago, as you instructed.”

“It must be seen to at once,” Latham insisted. “I’ll not stand for any more thievery.”

He had been grumbling for days because some of the local lads were robbing Catsholme’s orchards. They filched and ate the succulent early pears, against the prevailing wisdom that said raw fruit was unhealthy to consume, but they had another use for the hard little wind-dropped apples, which were not yet fully ripe. Those they flung at one another, and at carts that passed by on the roadway. They could stay hidden behind convenient hedgerows and were rarely caught. Nick, who had engaged in similar sport in his own youth, saw no harm in it.

“I will investigate.” Nick made the offer to silence Latham before he woke the entire household with his complaining. In truth he suspected Latham had imagined the lights. Exhausted by the day’s festivities, the village boys must all be fast asleep by now.

Latham’s hard eyes seemed to bore into him. “See that you do.”

Nick turned back toward the kitchen yard. Its far side gave directly onto the herb garden and the first of the orchards was just beyond. He’d not gone two steps before Latham’s querulous voice stopped him a second time.

“I mean to review your account books tomorrow morning.”

Nick’s reaction was hidden by the shadows beneath the stairway. Latham did not see his hands clench into tight fists or suspect the effort it took to keep his voice level.

“They will not be ready for inspection until Michaelmas.”

“I say I will see them on the morrow.”

“Michaelmas is the customary day to present the year’s accounts, and only Mistress Roundlea has the right to demand access sooner. With all respect, Master Latham, she inherited Catsholme when her father died, not you.”

“You forget, steward, that I was John Blackburn’s lawyer and now advise his widowed daughter. She will do as I bid her and so, steward, will you. If you do not see fit to bring the books to me in my closet tomorrow morning, you and your family will be homeless by Michaelmas.”

The threat was not an empty one. Latham was growing bolder now that he’d moved in. Carefully unclenching his fists, Nick looked up at the other man. In the dancing candlelight the cruel gleam in Latham’s eyes promised that he meant what he said.

“I will be pleased to deliver the ledgers to Mistress Roundlea,” Nick said carefully.

Latham did not blink. “Be prepared to help me determine which tenants are likely to be late with their rents.”

This is not the time to make a stand, Nick warned himself. Not yet. Not when so much is at risk.

“As you wish,” he muttered.

“Excellent. You may go now.”

Nick moved quickly into the kitchen yard, before he could give in to the temptation to speak his mind. This had been a difficult year for certain yeoman farmers, who had to eke out a living from a single oxgang of land. If Latham persuaded Mistress Frances Roundlea to demand prompt payment of rents, many would not be able to comply. Some would be evicted from the only homes they had ever known.

As steward Nick often used his powers to alleviate small troubles among the tenants, but more and more Richard Latham was making the major decisions. Once he was married to Mistress Roundlea’s daughter, Constance, he’d meddle even more.

Deeply troubled by that prospect, Nick blew out his candle and began to walk through the moonlit orchard. The rich, pungent scent of ripening fruit surrounded him as a gentle breeze stirred the smaller branches. He barely noticed. Neither did he devote any particular thought to the reason he was taking this longer route home, until he reached the garden gate.

It was, against all logic, standing open, just as Richard Latham had insisted it would be.

Nick examined the heavy oak panel, which was set in a high stone wall. He had locked the gate himself and taken the key, as much to protect the boys from Latham as to preserve the fruit. There was no way it could have been opened from the outside. Someone within the manor, someone who had access to a key, had unlocked it and gone out.

Puzzled, Nick stared through the opening and across the gently sloping pasture beyond. On the far side of the field was Gorditch Wood, a small but ancient forest in which oak and ash trees predominated. Just short of the tree line he spotted a bobbing light. By squinting, Nick could make out a flutter of movement. For just a moment two separate figures were visible in the moonlight. Both were hooded and cloaked, which completely concealed their identities. As Nick watched, they crept into the woods and vanished. Seconds later a third shadowy form materialized, this one much larger than the first two but just as easily swallowed up by the greater darkness of Gorditch Wood.

With extreme care, Nick went through the gate and closed it behind him. He turned his face away from the shapes and shadows and made his way along the wall toward Gore Brook instead.

It is unwise, he told himself as he crossed the bridge that separated manor and village, to inquire too closely into what goes on in Gorditch Wood on Lammas Night.

* * * *

Margery Carrier was waiting in the kitchen of the cottage she shared with her son and granddaughter when Nick reached home. She had been too restless to sleep. At the first sound of his booted feet on the stone-flagged floor behind her, she poured out a ration of ale and turned to offer it to him. He took the pewter mug from her and drank deeply.

With a mother’s pride Margery admired the picture he made. He wore a plain leather jerkin over a dark wine-colored shirt, which was open at the collar and had sleeves rolled up to reveal his strong, sinewy forearms. Below, his muscular thighs were encased in comfortably snug breeches. His hose, which Margery had knitted for him herself, in the fashionable color known as maiden’s blush, showed his well-formed calves to advantage. Her fine, strapping boy had grown into a man who could start a woman’s juices flowing.

Margery had not been a widow so long that she’d forgotten the joys of the marriage bed, nor was she so old that she could not appreciate what her son had to offer some young woman. The waste of it offended her deeply, and ever since Nick’s young wife’s death in childbed she had been determined to remedy the situation. Thus far she had met with little success, but not for lack of trying.

“I am glad to find that you, at least, stay by your own hearth,” Nick said.

She did not answer. She could guess what he had seen on his way back from the manor, as she had been watching herself, from the doorway, when Dorothy Gerard crept out of the cottage down the road, leaving behind a warm bed and a sleeping husband and six small children. It took courage, as Margery well knew, to make the journey to Gorditch Wood in the hour before midnight.

Nick rubbed the bridge of his long, straight nose. The feature dominated his face and to Margery the gesture was a familiar one. Nick was unaware of his habit but his mother had noticed that he always put knuckle to nose when he was fretful. “There’s evil out there tonight,” he muttered.

Margery knew, as Nick did not, where the women from village and manor were going and why they went, but she made no attempt to enlighten him. He was a man, and men, poor creatures, were too narrow-minded to understand. “The greatest evil,” Margery said instead, “is within Catsholme’s walls. The evil is Richard Latham.”

Nick set his mug down with a thump and turned to meet his mother’s intense scrutiny. “There is trouble brewing,” he admitted. “If he demands the rents early a number of tenants will not be able to pay. Some few may choose to slaughter their pigs for market before the animals have had the chance to be fattened up. Gerard’s only option will be to sell off the family cow.”

Margery’s indignation grew with each word he uttered, but the last was too much to bear silently. “He cannot do that,” she protested. “It would deprive the family of its sole source of butter and cheese. You must do something, Nick.”

“What would you have me do? I cannot alter the accounts. Father prided himself on his honest man­agement of the estate and his careful bookkeeping. I can do no less.”

“What of the money you have saved? We could share that with our neighbors.”

“A pittance. It would not go far enough, and if we ever hope to buy land of our own and leave Catsholme we must hoard every penny.”

Margery took up the abandoned mug and drank the dregs herself. She thought of the golden-haired child sleeping in the upper chamber. “Land alone cannot give Jocasta a secure future. She needs a loving family, too.”

Braced against the stone wall that contained both hearth and bake oven, Nick did not move or change expression but his mother sensed his sudden wariness. His stubborn refusal to listen to her advice had never stopped her from offering it before and it did not deter her now.

“I am no longer young, Nick. I have cared for your daughter since the day her mother died but I cannot promise I will always be here.”

“A doddering old hag, are you?” Nick almost smiled. “I vow you are in better health than women half your age and I am certain Jocasta could not have a better mother than the one God gave to me.”

Exasperated, Margery did not waste time with subtle hints. “You should remarry, Nick,” she told him outright, “for your own sake as well as for Jocasta’s. It is not natural for a man of your years to be without a woman.”

“There is no one I wish to wed, and even if there were, I would hesitate.” He glanced pointedly toward the small high window set in the opposite wall. In daylight with the lattice set wide they could see clear across Gore Brook to the chimneys of Catsholme and the tops of the trees of Gorditch Wood beyond.

* * * *

Three days after Lavina Strangeways’s death the debris had been cleared away and the floor scrubbed with water Thomasine herself had carried from the Great Conduit in West Cheap. Her mother had been given a proper funeral at St. Mildred-in-the-Poultry and buried in an overcrowded churchyard. When all that had been done, Thomasine faced the daunting prospect of creating a new life for herself.

They had lived in London on Lavina’s annuity, an income that she’d told Thomasine would cease upon her death. Without money. Thomasine could not afford to keep the lodgings above the apothecary shop and could barely find the wherewithal to continue to buy meals from an East Cheap cookshop. Eating at a tavern, where a hot meat dish, bread, cheese, and ale could be had, was out of the question. When she had paid the bills they’d so blithely acquired in the weeks before Lavina’s death there was almost nothing left and Thomasine regretted having spent eight shillings for new strings for her lute.

She set about making preparations to leave London in a practical manner, by selling almost all of her possessions. The bed went first, with its supply of wool blankets and sheets and pillows. Then a haberdasher’s wife bought the food cupboard, with its perforated doors. The wardrobe and the oak table followed quickly, purchased by a newly-wed cloth merchant, and then the screens and stools, and Lavina’s special wheeled chair, and finally the cedar chest.

All that remained, aside from Thomasine’s lute and the book in which Lavina had recorded her herbal recipes, were the contents of the wardrobe and chest. Made fragrant by sachets and sweet bags, they were now piled in the middle of the floor.

The apothecary’s youngest daughter Joan, a pretty but rather simple-minded girl of twelve, came upstairs from her father’s shop and watched with blatant curiosity as Thomasine began to sort the clothing. “Must you dye everything black?” Joan asked.

“It is the custom.” The prospect of wearing mourn­ing for the next three years was not a pleasant one. Thomasine loved bright hues and was vain enough to know they suited her unusual coloring. “She was my mother,” Thomasine made haste to add. “I owe her that sign of respect.”

Joan burrowed deep into the pile of clothing and pulled forth a kirtle intricately embroidered with silver thread. She sighed with pleasure as she examined it. “This blue is the exact color of your eyes.”

“It matched my mother’s eyes, too.” Thomasine took the garment and folded it carefully. Lavina had purchased it just after their arrival in London. “Lapis lazuli, it is called. Mother said ordinary blues were fit only for common servants, but this shade was one even a noblewoman could wear.”

The kirtle had been well constructed and was richer by far than anything either Lavina or Thomasine had acquired since. Joan had a thoughtful look on her face as she reached out to finger the material one last time before Thomasine packed it away. She was young, but she knew the value of goods.

“Had you a great fortune when you first came here?” she asked.

“Enough to live in comfort.”

The early days had been exciting, Thomasine remembered. They’d had many callers, surgeons and physicians among them, and Lavina had insisted upon dressing in the latest fashion, even though she could neither stand nor walk. She’d been certain the use of her legs would one day be restored to her and although none of her visitors had been able to perform that miracle, they had frequently returned to enjoy Lavina’s cheerful company.

Sometimes they had brought presents, and a select few had spent hours closeted with Lavina to dis­cuss herbs and potions and possible cures, or so Thomasine supposed. She had usually gone on outings with Jennet on those occasions but Jennet, the one servant they had brought with them to London, had been an elderly woman. She had not lasted out Queen Mary’s reign.

Thomasine herself had taken over the maidservant’s duties. By then repeated disappointments had begun to take a toll on Lavina’s health. She stopped seeking the opinion of medical men and experimented instead with her own remedies.

“Do all of your mother’s clothes fit you?” Joan asked.

“They should. I grew to the same height she had and have much the same figure.” Thomasine continued to shake and fold and pack.

“Where will you go?”

“I leave for Yorkshire tomorrow, to find my mother’s family. I hope to have a welcome there, but it is by no means certain.”

“What? Would they turn you away?”

“They might indeed.”

“But then what would you do?”

“Starve,” Thomasine told her.

Joan’s eyes grew big as sovereigns.

In truth, Thomasine did not know what she would do if that happened. A woman alone and without money had few options.

“How could your own kin fail to welcome you?” Joan sounded outraged at the very idea.

Fingering a soft velvet sleeve, Thomasine abandoned the sorting to answer the young girl as honestly as she could. She knew Joan well enough to be sure she would not stop asking questions until she’d satisfied her curiosity.

“My mother had long been estranged from her family,” she said. “She was a gentlewoman by birth and her father disinherited her for eloping with a man of inferior station.”

Joan clapped her hands together. “A runaway marriage. Oh, wonderful! This is better than a ballad.”

“Not wonderful at all but merely foolish. My father was a soldier. He left Mother before I was ever born and she never saw him again. If we had not been given shelter in the home of an old friend, we’d have had no place to live at all.”

“He deserted your mother?”

Thomasine shrugged. “He never came back. War was more to his liking than marriage. He died when I was still a very little girl.”

Joan thought that over. “Your mother’s relatives should have forgiven her then and taken her back, and you with her.”

“She never communicated with them after she left Yorkshire.” The continued estrangement had been, Thomasine suspected, as much Lavina’s doing as her family’s. She remembered the sardonic tone of voice her mother had always used when she spoke of the Darcys of Leyburne. Not a trace of filial devotion had survived.

“Surely they will welcome you now with open arms, like the prodigal son.” Joan handed her a folded stack of linen. “I am certain that after all this time they are sorry they turned your mother out.”

Thomasine had her doubts. She picked up a fur-lined cloak and gave it a hard shake, taking her pent-up emotions out on it. It was just as likely that her kinfolk would slam the door in her face. A second sharp jerking loosened a piece of paper that had been caught in the garment’s thick folds and it fluttered slowly to the floor.

“Why, it is a letter,” Joan said. She plucked it up and held it so that Thomasine could see the writing on the outside. Since Joan could not read, it was upside down, but Thomasine was still able to make out Lavina’s name.

“Odd,” she murmured as she took the single, thrice-folded sheet. She could not recall having seen it before and yet the arrival of a letter should have been the cause of much excitement. Lavina had been able to read and write and cipher and had taught those skills to Thomasine, but few of their recent acquaintances had such knowledge. Fewer still would have gone to the expense of hiring a clerk.

Thomasine looked first at the date at the top of the piece of parchment, noting with surprise that it had been written only a few months earlier. Her gaze dropped next to the signature and abruptly Thomasine rocked back onto her heels. Her hand clenched, crumpling the letter.

“Thomasine? What is it?”

“Is it possible?” she murmured. Had Lavina’s last words been more than the raving of a dying woman?

“Franke,” Thomasine said aloud. “Franke Roundlea.”

In her own tone of voice Thomasine recognized the echoes of a long-held resentment.

“Who is she?” Joan tugged on Thomasine’s sleeve to recapture her attention.

The words came slowly as Thomasine sought to remember details she had not thought about in years. “Mother became Frances Blackburn’s lady governess when I was just a baby. Franke must have been nine or ten then and her mother had recently died.”

She hesitated, a faint frown creasing her forehead. She’d always supposed that Mistress Blackburn had been the old friend who’d taken Lavina in, but that could not be. She realized now that Franke’s mother had been dead before Lavina entered the Blackburn household.

“We were treated almost like family,” she continued when she saw that Joan was eagerly awaiting further details. “So much so that even after Franke married Philip Roundlea, when she was fifteen, we continued to live at Catsholme. That’s the principal estate of the Blackburn family.”

Thomasine felt a moment’s shame as she remem­bered the details of Franke’s marriage. Once she’d been bitterly jealous of the bond between Franke and Lavina. In hindsight she saw that Franke had never deserved her resentment, but in truth was much to be pitied. Not only had Franke lost her mother when she was still a child, but her young husband had died within a year of their marriage. Then she’d returned to Catsholme to give birth to twin girls and one of them had failed to survive, being of weaker constitution than the other.

“You have the most peculiar expression on your face, Thomasine,” said Joan.

“Mother’s last words were ‘Help your sister.”’

Joan wrinkled her brow. “But you have no sister.”

“When it suited her, Franke was wont to call me her little sister.” Thomasine’s frown returned. “Mother must have meant Franke. I can think of no other explanation. She must have wanted me to return to Catsholme.”

For days Lavina’s enigmatic words had been tormenting Thomasine like the throbbing of a sore tooth. Where, then, was the sense of relief now that it had been drawn? She had a sensible explanation at last and yet an ache of doubt remained. Thomasine placed the letter she had crumpled flat on the floor and tried to smooth it out again.

“Where is Catsholme?” Joan asked.

“In the north, in the county of Lancaster.” She skimmed Franke’s letter. John Blackburn had died the previous year. “There is to be a wedding soon, between Franke’s daughter, Constance Roundlea, and a man named Richard Latham. She writes to tell Mother of the betrothal.”

“Why, then, all your troubles are over,” Joan declared. “You will go to Lancaster instead of Yorkshire. You will find a welcome at this Catsholme. Were you very young when you left?”

Thomasine shook her head. “I was just your age.” She tapped the refolded letter against her chin and wondered why she was suddenly plagued by such a reluctance to return to her childhood home.

“You must remember the people there very well,” Joan said.

And that, Thomasine realized, was the problem. Most of her memories of living at Catsholme were vague, and vaguely disturbing. She could not even recall the accident that had crippled her mother.

The name Richard Latham seemed familiar but Thomasine could not call up any clear picture of the man. Isolated moments with Lavina and some few with Franke surfaced as she tried to remember her earliest years. The rest of Catsholme’s residents, all of whom she must have known well, remained a blur, with one exception.

“I remember Nick,” she said aloud.

Nick Carrier, the steward’s son. He had always been kind to her. If Franke had sometimes reluctantly played the part of sister, Nick had cheerfully filled the role of elder brother in her life.

Joan leaned forward, eager for details, but Thomasine, transfixed by a fragment of memory that had just materialized, scarcely noticed. Nick Carrier had come to her rescue on that day long ago, and she’d told him she meant to marry him.

A rueful smile lifted the corners of her mouth. Only a few years later, shortly before Thomasine and Lavina had left Catsholme, Nick had broken her childish heart by wedding a buxom village lass named Alys.

“Will it be Lancaster or Yorkshire?” Joan’s insistent question brought Thomasine back to the present.

The last of the bittersweet memory faded. Nick Carrier was not for her, not as husband, but he could be her friend again. An older brother’s advice was something she would welcome now.

“I am going to Lancaster,” Thomasine answered. “I will obey my mother’s dying wish and return to Catsholme.”