It was a cry for help. “Barr’s in trouble. In the library. Oh, do come, quickly!”
The great house lay quiet about them. Waiting. Watchful.
Minty was fond of Barr, and couldn’t refuse to help. “Of course I’ll come.”
The two girls passed swiftly back through the silent rooms, switching off lights as they went. When they reached the library, one girl stepped back to guard the door.
Shadows stole down from the ceiling and darkened the corners of the room.
It was a trap. Barr wasn’t there. Instead there was the man Minty feared most in the world. He said, “At long, long last.”
Minty balanced on her toes. “Do you really mean to rape me?”
“Who said anything about rape? You’re going to come to me willingly, my lovely girl. I suppose you’ll put up a token defence, but we both know that’s just for show. Don’t fight too hard, or I may well have to mark your face. I’m going to teach you enough so you won’t want to marry anyone but me.”
He lunged at her and she darted around the desk.
She felt her self-control slip and screamed. There was a listening silence. Nothing happened.
He laughed. He darted around the desk and caught her from behind as she fled. “Stop struggling, you little fool!”
He was holding her fast from behind, with both arms clamped to her sides.
She breathed rapidly, trying to snatch back her self-control. She was helpless. She couldn’t do anything to save herself.
“There, now! You see, it’s all going to be so easy.”
throw back the curtains. Kneeling on the window seat, she lifted the thick, fair hair from her neck and tossed it back around her shoulders.
Two storeys below her window, a great swathe of lawn sloped down to a man-made lake. On this late September morning the water—and the park beyond—shimmered through mist.
The sun tipped up over the horizon, bringing a flush of colour to the world. The mist over the lake thinned and parted. There hadn’t been a hard frost yet, so only the topmost leaves of the trees in the park were touched with gold.
The lawns sparkled as the first rays of the sun reached them. The sky was pale blue, washed clean by heavy dew, with not a cloud in sight.
Did all this really belong to her now? And her own true love Patrick, too? Oh, Patrick! Are you out of bed yet? Is it too early to ring you?
There was no photograph of him by her bedside. She grinned, thinking how he’d react if she wanted to take a photo of him.
He’d say, “Do you want to break the camera?”
Ah well; Patrick Sands wasn’t anyone’s idea of a pretty boy—his nose was too long for that—but he was tall, dark and elegant, and completely unaware how attractive he was to the opposite sex. He was a good man, though he’d have been embarrassed if anyone had said so, and Minty loved him as she’d never loved anyone before.
So many childhood sweethearts never find one another again. Thank you, Lord, for bringing us together again.
Yesterday she’d started the day as a poor relation and ended up as mistress of the vast Eden Hall, its surrounding acres of land and the village at its gates. Patrick had said she could do better than marry a poor country solicitor, but she’d refused to listen and now they were engaged.
She wanted to turn cartwheels. She shouted “Yes!” and punched the air. She looked over her shoulder as if her aunt had scolded her for shouting. Then laughed aloud. Aunt Agnes belonged to the past and had no more power to hurt her.
Excitement made Minty restless. She longed to explore, and why shouldn’t she? The Hall was now hers, at least till noon when it would be opened to the public and tourists would start to trickle through the State Rooms.
Well, there were certain parts which were off limits, occupied as they were for the time being by her father’s second wife Lisa and her children, but she could avoid them. Below her the great house slept.
Minty had the odd fancy that she could waken it to life again by visiting every room. Like Sleeping Beauty in reverse, she thought, smiling.
When Sir Micah’s second wife Lisa had decided to open the Hall to the public, Sir Micah had reserved the top floor of the south wing for himself, bringing in a designer to furnish and decorate his suite.
These were now Minty’s own rooms. Unfortunately Minty’s father had gone for the traditional-in-brocade look and the result—to Minty’s mind—was a showpiece: stiff, dated and not particularly comfortable.
Her father had left Minty a great deal of money, so wouldn’t it be possible to turn Eden Hall back again into a family home?
She glanced at the cheap watch she was wearing. She must keep an eye on the time, because she did have one important engagement that morning. Sir Micah Cardale had been an international financier who’d poured money into the Hall during his marriage to Minty’s mother.
That first marriage had led to tragedy, but Sir Micah had always been fond of Eden Hall and used it as his base in Britain, even during his later years when he’d been setting up a national charity for educational projects in deprived areas. In all his financial dealings Sir Micah had relied on a competent middle-aged woman called Annie Phillips.
Annie Phillips had been kind to the penniless Minty when she’d returned to the Hall a month ago. Annie had helped Minty to see her dying father, had found her a place to live in the village and a part-time job. Minty might now be mistress of the Hall, but she was grateful to the older woman and somewhat in awe of her. Ms Phillips had asked to see Minty at eleven, so she must keep an eye on the time. Until then she could do what she liked.
Minty pulled on a blue sweater, jeans and trainers. She didn’t have many clothes and those she had were nearly all from charity shops.
Autumn was coming and she’d need to buy some more. This time they would be brand new. Wowee!
Suddenly she felt hungry. There was no sign of her father’s housekeeper, Serafina, who slept at the back of the suite, so Minty raided the kitchen for a chunk of bread and jam and a mug of coffee.
First things first. She would start her day and her new life with God in the Eden family chapel.
She slipped out of the door at the end of her father’s suite into the tower . . . and came face to face with her stepbrother, Simon.
Despite herself, she recoiled. He was the last person she wanted to meet, especially in such an isolated place. He was Lisa’s son from a previous marriage. And it was Lisa—previously Sir Micah’s secretary—whose lies had led to the death of Minty’s mother. In a shockingly short time Lisa had become his second wife and he’d adopted Simon.
Thoroughly spoilt, Simon was always in debt. He’d assumed he’d inherit everything, and had been furious when he’d learned the property was entailed on Minty. He hadn’t given up; first he’d tried to seduce her, and then offered marriage. When that had failed, he’d organised attempts on her life.
Simon moved in close. “Dearest not-quite-sister, I was just coming to find you. We must talk, you and I.”
His face was that of an angel, his eyes as blue as hers, his hair as fair.
All the Edens were fair and blue-eyed but Simon was not an Eden, and there was a twist to his mind that came from his mother Lisa, and not from the straight-forward Edens.
Minty knew better than to trust him. Her heart was beating too fast. They were all alone in the tower. Even if she cried out for help, no one would hear. He was so close she could smell his aftershave and feel the warmth of his body.
He ran his fingertip down her cheek. “Loosen up.”
She blurted out, “Patrick Sands has asked me to marry him and I’ve accepted.”
His eyes deepened in colour and the lines of his mouth hardened.
“You marry me, or no one. Understood?” He bent and kissed her, hard.
He’d moved so quickly that she was taken by surprise. “There,” he said, smiling again, very sure of himself. “Can your lukewarm lover match that?”
“How dare you!”
“Or else? There’s no one here but . . .”
The door from the chapel clicked open and there stood her father’s housekeeper, Serafina, in a quilted dressing gown, with her grey-streaked black hair in a long plait over her shoulder. Serafina folded her arms and looked at Simon as if he were a bottle of milk that had gone off.
Simon released Minty. “Another time.” He ran lightly down the stairs.
“Thank you, Serafina.” Minty drew in a deep breath. Despite her pretence of calmness, she was trembling. “Simon doesn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘no’, does he?”
She went into the chapel and leaned against the door, telling herself that it was useless to get upset. Simon might think what he liked.
It didn’t mean it was going to happen.
Eden Hall had been built in a square around the Fountain Courtyard.
To solve the problem of the wings having been built at different times and on different levels, a tower containing a staircase had been built at each corner. The top of this particular tower housed the chapel which had always been a place of refuge for the Eden women—not least for Minty’s own mother through her short-lived marriage to Sir Micah. The chapel had windows on three sides and this morning was glowing with the light of the rising sun. It had a calming influence.
The white Michaelmas daisies Minty had placed there yesterday still looked fresh. She’d chosen daisies in memory of her unhappy mother and of the pact she and Patrick had made as children.
Patrick, aged ten, had been showing Minty how to make a daisy chain. She liked him better than anyone else in the whole world, except her mother and father. Patrick was an only child, like her. He’d taught her to read and write.
Minty, nearly five years old, announced, “I’m going to marry Patrick when I grow up.”
Minty’s mother and Patrick’s father had laughed. But Patrick—six years older—had said, “I’ll wait . . .”
Minty knelt on the cushion before the altar and discovered that she was still holding her mug of coffee and half a piece of bread. Oh dear! She hadn’t meant any lack of reverence. She thought God might even be amused that she’d brought bread and a drink when she came to His place on her first morning as owner of the Hall.
She gave thanks. For everything she’d received. For friends, especially for Patrick, who was the best friend she could ever have. She thanked God for the understanding, the forgiveness and the love that had finally come about between her father and herself.
She asked for protection from Simon. She tried not to think about what he might have done if Serafina hadn’t been there.
She prayed for guidance. Patrick had been a wise counsellor since her return to the village, but last night he refused to advise her any more, saying she was a lot stronger and wiser than she thought. Surely he was mistaken? She was only a green girl. He was older than she and surely it wasn’t wrong to rely on him when he knew so much more about, well . . . everything . . . than she did?
The only advice he’d given her—and she ground her teeth remembering what the infuriating man had said—was “Have a look at the books.” What on earth had he meant by that?
The morning sun was warm about her. She relaxed. Dear Lord, give me wisdom and understanding. You know the problems I have to face, the difficulties in the family . . . my stepmother Lisa . . . Simon’s greed and ambition.
My poor half-sister drifting through life. Everything about the house and estate is run down, everyone is looking to me for work and money . . .She remembered that Solomon had asked for wisdom when he succeeded his father David and felt comforted. Perhaps God would grant her a little wisdom, too.
She left the chapel cautiously, but there was no sign of Simon. For years he’d milked the estate to support his extravagant lifestyle, and when that crock of gold began to fail, he’d planned to lease the Hall to an American consortium to be run as a health farm, with himself as director of the company that was to run it.
Minty had to admit that she was afraid of Simon, not only because he thought she could still be his for the asking, but also because he was desperate for money and didn’t care how he got it.
She pushed thoughts of Simon out of her head.
This was her first morning as Lady of the Hall, and she was going to make the most of it. Running down the stairs to the first floor, Minty opened the door into the room in which she’d been born. The four-poster bed stood against the inner wall, as it always had done. As a child she’d played on and in it with her mother. Even, sometimes, with her busy father.
The “bouncy” bed, they’d called it. This was not the great State Bed which the tourists would come to marvel at, but a lighter Victorian reproduction. The heavy cream curtains were not those embroidered by Eden women generations ago with green and blue flowers and fantastical birds on the important Jacobean bed, but were patterned in a William Morris design of willow leaves. When the curtains were let down, the bed made a private “house” in which to play.
Minty released the blinds at the windows which kept the room in shadow, and put her coffee mug down on the window-sill before unhooking the red rope which kept visitors away from the furniture. She smoothed the whitework counterpane only to discover it had been covered with a sheet of plastic.
She pulled the plastic off and climbed onto the bed to see if it still bounced. It didn’t. It was unyielding and quite horrible. Yuk. She supposed it was historically correct to have a flock mattress on the bed, but it wouldn’t be possible to sleep on it.
She wondered if Patrick would be amused by the idea of sleeping in the four poster—if she had a good mattress put on it—or if he would think it old-fashioned and inconvenient?
Patrick owned a red-brick, virginia-creepered Georgian house in the village High Street nearby. His office and reception rooms were on the ground floor with his living quarters above. His furniture was antique but intended for daily use. You could flop into deeply cushioned chairs and put a mug of coffee on the floor without feeling like an intruder. Unlike life in her father’s suite.
Minty had imagined she’d move into Patrick’s home once they were married. Now she’d inherited the Hall, she didn’t know what they’d do.
She looked at her watch. Half past eight. Was it still to early to ring him? She unhooked her mobile from her belt and at that moment he rang her.
“Minty . . . ?” No endearments, no enquiries after her well-being.
“Have you any idea why the awe-inspiring Annie Phillips wants to see me this morning?” There was a clatter of cups in the background. “Your father’s driver’s just brought me a note, asking if I could spare her a few minutes at ten this morning. I’m quaking at the prospect.”
He didn’t sound as if he were quaking, but Patrick would crack a joke if he were facing a firing squad.
Minty pushed back her hair with one hand. “I’ve no idea. She asked me to meet her at eleven but she didn’t say anything about seeing you. Can you fit her in?”
“With a bit of juggling. I’ve got an early bird in the office with me now—just making her a coffee. I’ll ring when I’m finished, right?”
“Yes, but Patrick . . . what did you mean about looking at the books?”
He laughed and disconnected. Infuriating man!
Minty glanced at her watch and hurriedly inspected the other rooms on that floor. Each was beautifully presented, but somehow lifeless.
There was no trace of the Eden family, whose home it had been for centuries.
The last room had been her grandfather’s study. She remembered that in her childhood it had retained the scent of his tobacco though he’d been dead for some years. She’d often played hide and seek there, crawling into the cubbyhole of his great desk. His study was now just another bedroom, and she couldn’t spot his desk at all. Perhaps it had been put into storage? She knew there was a great jumble of family bits and pieces in the east wing.
She couldn’t see Patrick living in these rooms. Or herself, for that matter.
She retraced her steps and took the stairs down to the ground floor and the Long Gallery. This was where she’d danced with Patrick in a charity shop dress at the Ball. She lifted her arms and waltzed around, imagining herself still in his arms. She sang, “I could have danced all night . . .” Then laughed at herself.
In childhood this was where she’d run and played on rainy days.
Could she still hear the echo of childish voices? Patrick had played with her, of course. Simon and his side-kick Miles had been the same age as Patrick, but they’d scorned to play with a little girl. There’d been other children? From the Manor?
Had they had a badminton net set up here? Had it been Patrick who’d taught her how to keep her eye on the racquet, never to take your eye off the shuttlecock? She grimaced. Hadn’t Simon broken her racquet and lied that she’d done it herself? He’d been a nasty small boy even then, though so handsome that grown-ups never suspected what he was really like.
The sun had gone in and the oak floorboards looked dusty and neglected. She pulled up some of the window blinds and went to renew her friendship with the family portraits grouped over and around the two carved marble fireplaces.
Sir Ralph Eden had always been her favourite, swaggering away in his slashed doublet, the velvet cap on his head adorned with a fine red ostrich plume. Opposite him was the fair-haired heiress he’d married, in her stiff ruff and hooped skirt. Above the fireplace was her greatgrandfather Edward Eden, who looked bad-tempered but apparently had been the gentlest of men. He’d been an Ambassador and died of typhoid in Constantinople.
She traced the family portraits down through the ages, as Eden followed Eden until at last the male line died out with her grandfather Ralph, who’d left the Hall to his only daughter, that pale butterfly Millicent Eden . . . who in turn had brought the wealthy financier Sir Micah Cardale into the family.
Millicent’s portrait was not here. It had probably been banished to an attic, just as Minty had been banished to live with her uncle and aunt in the city. Sir Micah’s portrait hung in the library opposite that of his second wife Lisa, but everyone else was here, including some relatives she didn’t remember at all. But then, she’d only been five when she left.
The Edens were all fair of hair and blue of eye, with a strong chin—like Minty. None of them were spectacularly handsome or especially beautiful, but neither did they simper as sitters often did.
“You’re terribly alike,” said a voice behind Minty.
Minty whirled around. The girl behind her also jumped, blushing from high forehead to plump neck. She was more than a trifle overweight, had wispy fair hair inadequately held back with an elastic band and was dressed in a droopy black jumper and skirt. Her feet were encased in blue slip-ons and she was clutching a clipboard to her chest, which could have done with a better bra.
Minty held out her hand. “We met last night when I was introduced to everyone. You’re in the Estate Office and your name is . . .”
“Tessa. Ms Phillips said you might need a personal assistant to help you with correspondence and would I report to you.” She darted her eyes around. “You couldn’t know, of course, but Mrs Kitchen—that’s the housekeeper—will be furious that you’ve opened the blinds and let the light in. The cleaners are waiting to come in to make the place ready for opening time and Lady Cardale wants to see you, and Simon and your sister Gemma and oh, lots of people. And your father’s housekeeper says you were expected for breakfast half an hour ago.”
Minty knew which of those summons was important. She also decided that although she might need someone to help her, Tessa hardly looked bright enough for the job.
“I didn’t realise it was so late.” For a moment Minty was disorientated.
“Which is the quickest way up to my father’s rooms?”
Tessa led the way to the tower at the far end of the Gallery, where a modern lift had been installed beside the stairs for the benefit of disabled tourists. She pressed the button to summon the lift, her eyes twitching to Minty and away. “Everybody’s afraid you’re going to make a lot of changes, but you’ll be guided by Simon, won’t you? After all, he’s been running the place for ever, and knows what’s best.”
So this was someone else who thought Simon was perfect. “Surely you don’t want the Hall turned into a health farm?”
Tessa was beginning to relax. “The Hall is losing money, so why not? Someone said you were marrying Patrick Sands, but of course I didn’t believe that.”
“Why not?” The lift arrived, and they stepped inside.
“He’s not at all good-looking or even rich, so you can’t be serious about him.”
Minty was amused. No, Patrick wasn’t particularly good-looking, though she never thought of him in those terms. If you compared him to Simon, then Simon won in the looks department, but lost in any other.
“Patrick’s my kind of man,” said Minty, reducing Tessa to silence.
“Well, Tessa, I’ve got a lot to learn and I’m sure you can be a great help. I need an office, a large diary, a telephone, a computer with access to the Internet. I need to make a list of all the people I ought to speak to . . .”
“Oh dear, I don’t know if . . . I mean, I’m not sure how to . . .”
Minty gritted her teeth. Her first impulse was to blast this incompetent girl to smithereens but pity stayed her hand. Tessa couldn’t help it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked you. May I borrow your clipboard with the list of everyone who wants to speak to me? Thanks.”
They reached the top landing. “Simon’s rooms,” said Tessa, pointing to the oldest, Jacobean wing. “The Estate Office is on the ground floor and if you don’t need me, I’d better get back or someone will get into a terrible state.”
She pointed to a door on the opposite side of the tower. “That’s the east wing, with the Long Gallery on the ground floor and your sister Gemma’s rooms above it. There’s nothing on this top floor except junk but if you follow the corridor, it’ll lead you back to the chapel and from there you can get into your father’s rooms.”
Minty raced along the dusty corridor, glancing at the collection of Victorian silhouettes of past Edens that hung between the windows.
Some hung askew and one had fallen to the floor. She picked it up to replace it on the wall but found the wire was broken. She propped portly Sir Piers against the wall and glanced down into the Fountain Court below. She thought it was typical of Simon’s reign that the superb fountain, brought back from Rome by one of her forebears, no long worked.
Crossing the landing by the chapel, she slipped back into her father’s rooms. Serafina was waiting for her in her daytime black, hair neatly pinned into a chignon, fingers tapping on crossed arms. The glass topped dining table was elaborately laid for one person.
Minty’s first reaction was to apologise for being late, like a naughty child. Then she straightened her back. Serafina, Annie Phillips and Minty had sat through long hours together, nursing Sir Micah when he was dying. Minty respected Serafina but didn’t fear her. Come to think of it, she was actually very fond of her.
So instead of an apology, she gave Serafina a hug. “I forgot the time, and now I’m ravenous. How long have I got before Annie wants to see me?”
“Long enough to eat.” Serafina poured orange juice and opened a hostess trolley to display a full English breakfast.
Minty gulped juice, talking through it. “That girl Tessa. Apparently Annie thought she could be my personal assistant, but . . .”
“You won’t want that one. Simon only took her on to please her grandmother who’s got money, and Tessa adores him. Mrs Kitchen does, too. She’s the housekeeper. Says she’s ‘going to put you in your place’. Best get rid of both while you can.”
Minty dived into scrambled eggs and bacon. “I must give them a chance. I do need somewhere to work, though. I need to make phone calls. I want to get hold of the brochures for the Hall, and oh, a dozen things.”
“Micah’s sick room used to be his office. I’ve had it put back for you.”
Minty grabbed toast with one hand and a coffee with the other. “Serafina, I love you!” She kissed the older woman’s cheek. “Oh, before I go . . . do you know why Annie Phillips went to see Patrick this morning?”
“She didn’t say. I’ll bring you some more coffee in a little while.”