“Are you stealing
at a second-story workhouse window, Chastity Somers swallowed a
scream and gathered the little ones close. The moonless night,
perfect for her scheme, became her foe. She could discern nothing,
no one, save darkness in the alley below.
The owner of the
deep, disembodied voice seemed to linger, but she dare not.
She must get her new and unexpected brood to safety, or fail her
husband’s young cousins the way she had failed William, himself.
With no choice but
to brazen it out, Chastity nodded her hood further forward and
readied her best English accent. “Do not be ridiculous. You cannot
steal what is already yours.”
The intruder made no
reply, so she lifted the last of the four children out the window
and shut the sash.
version of her name echoed loud and alarming as he tugged at her
sleeve. “You are stealing us.”
“It’s all right,
Sir,” Matthew called down. “We wanted stealing.”
Galvanized by the
boy’s defense, Chastity shook herself. “Mark, take Bekah’s hand.
Stay by the window, all of you, and hold the sill.”
They would not be
taken away from her, again, Chastity vowed, as she lowered herself
from the attached shed’s eaves and dropped the remaining distance to
land on her bottom in the dirt.
Amid a discord of
giggles, a hand grasped her upper arm, racing Chastity’s heart,
trapping a scream in her throat, but her captor must sense her fear,
for he gentled her, somehow, with the same touch that alarmed her in
the first place.
His nearness, his
scent—horse, leather, and man—put her in mind of ... rescue and ...
sanctuary, as William had once done, except that her sense of
well-being seemed stronger now than it had ever been with—
Chastity shook off
the foolish notion. “I did not hear your horse approach,” she said,
seeking the ordinary in an extraordinary situation.
“I call him
Stealth,” the man said. “He served me well at Waterloo.”
Relieved by her
fancy that the military man meant no harm, Chastity allowed him to
help her stand. She should be afraid, she supposed. He had fought
her people at Waterloo, but her sheltered convent background—hardly
conducive to a judicious caution—taught her that all men were all
Besides, she’d judge
him as trustworthy by the tone of his voice alone.
“The children are
not afraid of you,” he said, revealing his surprise.
“Of course they are
not. How do you know?”
Neither lonely ones,
Chastity knew from personal experience, hoping she employed the same
faultless instincts as the children, where this man was concerned.
unnerved, by his hand on her arm, Chastity nevertheless regretted
the loss of human contact when he released her. But she had no time
to regard it, for Bekah’s cough urged their removal from this
unhealthy place, and fast, lest the children be incarcerated, again.
Fact was, she would
bargain with the devil to keep her little ones safe. “I have to get
the children down,” she said. “Thank you for your help, but we can
manage on our own.”
The devil had the
impertinence to laugh.
“Be quiet,” Chastity
“You are sixpence
short a quid,” said he, “and will get exactly what you deserve for
this night’s work. Children are nothing but trouble.”
“Children are gifts
some vexation in the man, but no real threat.
For all his curious
notions, he seemed of a mind to let her and the children go. “We
shall be fine. Truly. Thank you for stopping, but you may be on your
way without further concern for our welfare.”
“‘Tis not concern
detains me, but astonishment. Why would anyone seek the encumbrance
Shaking her head,
Chastity turned toward the four atop the workhouse shed. “All the
world and his wife would step over a dead body in the middle of St.
James’s,” she snapped. “But I do something the least ... uncommon,
and am observed by someone who investigates. Matthew, lower Bekah to
As she received the
littlest one, Chastity hugged her close. “Good. Now Mark, then
“Kitty, I’m hungry,”
Luke said, as she set him on his feet.
“I know, darling.
Deep within the
bleak bowels of the parish workhouse, a bell began to toll. “Jump,
Matt,” Chastity ordered, thrusting Luke into the stranger’s arms.
“You’ll have to help,” she said, scooping Bekah into her own arms.
Reed Gilbride heard,
rather than saw, the woman hasten away, her stolen brood hard at her
heels. Then he realized that if he failed to follow, he would be
stuck with the urchin dangling before him. “Damn.” Reed slung the
lad under his arm like a sack of grain and gave chase, his horse
Despite being carted
off by a stranger, the lad’s giggles over his tumbling ride
testified to the rare joy in his short life.
Reed had to give the
woman credit, pluck to the backbone, she was. Either that or daft,
he thought, as he followed her through noisome village by-ways,
dodging running steps and reeling vagrants, all the while wondering
why he’d got involved.
Previous to finding
them, he had reached Sennett’s office hours too early, and gazed
about, thinking to find a light at an inn, when in the alley across
the way, a cloaked form in the window, silhouetted against the dim
interior of the workhouse, had caught his attention. A matron of the
asylum, he thought, until he noticed the children’s profiles atop
the attached shed roof. A curious sight, yes, but he should never
have stopped. What cared he for a flock of raggle-taggle street
brats and their provoking protector?
The bell from the
workhouse faded in the distance, and when the woman slowed, Reed set
the lad in her path. “Here, you snatched him, you take him. I’ll not
be left to foster somebody’s brat. I’ve had enough of children to
“You need to have
that ice chipped away.”
Birds called their
first good mornings. Too bad it needed an hour or more ‘till full
light, for he conceived an urge to see her face, discern her age and
examine her features. Her words and manner contradicted his
impression of her as a matron of any kind. “What did you say?”
“The ice around your
heart,” she repeated. “You should have it removed.”
If he owned a heart,
her honey-warm voice might melt said ice on its own, Reed mused,
before stifling the maggoty thought. “What the devil are you about?”
“Watch your language
around the children. We were running because ... because of a—”
To his surprise, she
laughed, the sound a balm to his senses. “I was rescuing
He damn near laughed
with her. “What a whisker.”
“Oh, no, not at all.
Telling falsehoods would set a bad example.”
children would not?” He winced at her gasp. “Pardon my lack of faith
in your mothering,” he added by way of reparation.
“Kitty ain’t our
“Hush, Luke.” She
ran a hand through the rag-mannered lad’s hair and brought him close
for a quick hug—not the action Reed expected of a reprimand.
Even if he managed
to peel away her hood, as he itched to do, dawn was still too far
away to make a glimpse worthwhile. Yet something about her, with her
odd accent, and odder notions, called to him, which he liked not a
whit. “Where are you bound?” he asked.
does that make?”
“None, make no
mistake, but it will matter to someone before long. You have money,
She hesitated a
fraction too long. “Of course.”
Reed shook his head.
“Of course not!” He took her hand and slapped a guinea into it.
“Feed them. If you scuttle down back alleys, you’ll get pinched, but
if you stroll hand in hand, as if you haven’t a care in the world,
no one will notice you.”
They would not come
looking, Chastity knew. Fewer mouths to feed would trouble no one,
not in that hellhole. “Why should I take your advice, and why would
you give a perfect stranger money?”
“Perfect, no. Daft,
more like, stealing children in the middle of the night. Damned if I
know why I bother, or you should listen, except that you seem to
care about them.”
“While you care
care if I got tossed into Newgate with you. Nevertheless, if you
keep from getting pinched, I think you might do right by the brats.
Good-bye,” he said, “and good luck.” Reed saluted, grabbed Stealth’s
reins, and walked away.
children,” he heard the daft woman say.
That their footsteps
kept time with his, Reed found alarming. He stopped.
Shaking his head, he
turned. “Are you following me?”
“Of course not.”
“Yes we are, Kitty.”
Luke. Which way are you going?” she asked. “Toward Eastgate or the
“Which way are you
going?” he countered.
“Ah, well then, I am
going toward The Island.” In truth—as directed in his odd, anonymous
note—he was returning to see Mr. Sennett, the solicitor whose office
sat diagonally across from the workhouse. “Good day to you.”
“God go with you,”
the woman said, “whoever you are.”
Reed stopped and
turned with a laugh. “Sorry, Kitten, God and I do not keep company.”
A moment of dismay
held Chastity as the stranger’s chuckle faded, and she resisted an
urge to call him back. An enigma was he, that faceless man who
professed to dislike children but would foster a lad rather than
until dawn broke over the horizon, and he disappeared from sight,
his benevolent guinea warming her palm.
her four exuberant charges, she began the seven-mile trek from
Gloucester to Sunnyledge in Painswick.
As they walked,
Chastity thought back to her previous day’s meeting with the
solicitor to whom William had been directed in his anonymous note.
“Where did you get
this?” Mr. Sennett had asked after he finished reading the note.
“It was sent to my
husband, William,” she said. “And it prompted us to travel here from
France. He wanted to settle an injustice, which I assumed amounted
to claiming the inheritance due him, except that he was taken by a
wave in a channel storm on the way, and drowned.”
“Please accept my
condolences, Mrs. Somers.” Mr. Sennett shook his head in dismay.
“While I am the executor of the Barrington Estate, I have no idea
what this note means or who might have sent it.”
“I had hoped it
meant that Sunnyledge belonged to my husband, and now to me.”
“Even if your
husband was the Barrington heir, which I doubt, the claim would now
be that of his son. Is there a son?”
sighed. “I wanted the estate for a children’s home, Mr. Sennett.” If
she had remained a nun and taken vows, she would have opened such a
home at the Abbey. Now, for the sake of William’s young cousins—the
children God had surely placed in her keeping—she must make it
Chastity raised her
chin. “Though an inheritance would have helped, I will open a home
for orphans. Workhouses are a disgrace, you see, and no child should
be raised without love. Perhaps you can direct me to someone with a
philanthropic nature? The sisters who raised me care for the sick
with such contributions. Or perhaps one of your clients has a
Mr. Sennett frowned
as if startled. “Fancy Barrington’s estate coming to light, now. And
fancy you having the one argument in the kingdom that could move
He sat forward.
“According to the will, if no heir is found, twenty years from the
date of the Earl of Barrington’s death, which is three months from
now, I am to award the estate to a charity of my choice.”
settled into his big leather chair. “Tell me about your children’s
home, Mrs. Somers, every detail.”
So she did, his
interest encouraging her to elaborate. “The opportunity to love, and
have that love accepted and returned, is essential to all of us. My
home will be special, as my children will feel wanted. They will
have a sense of belonging by working toward its upkeep. The older
children will care for the younger. In that way, they will become
“Family members are
not always close, my dear. As a solicitor, I have seen many a family
“Do you not think
that abandoned children would be more inclined to appreciate
At his approving
smile, Chastity opened her reticule. “I listed the cost per child,
per week, month, and year, for food and clothing. I have added a bit
for dolls and— I do not know what little boys play with.”
“Tin horns, toy
drums.” He smiled. “Boys are noisy.”
“I—” She almost said
she knew—she had learned as much at finding the children in
William’s aunt’s cellar. “I imagine so.”
“Your ideals make me
fear for your practicality in this matter,” Mr. Sennett said. “You
have listed nothing for a caretaker, a housekeeper, nursemaids,
“I will do what must
be done. The children will help.”
“I haven’t seen a
child yet who could run a house. Listen to me in this. If I allow
you to have Sunnyledge....”
Chastity thought her
heart would leap from her chest.
“On a trial basis,”
the solicitor cautioned. “You must hire the necessary help. The
caretaker left about a fortnight ago; hire another. As you will no
doubt set the house to rights, I will pay you a housekeeper’s wages
and give you a monthly allowance for upkeep and maintenance. You
will need supplies, though the house should provide much in the way
“I cannot believe
you would— Are you a philanthropist?”
Sennett chuckled. “Hardly, my dear, but there is little likelihood
that an heir to Sunnyledge will be found at this late date. I must
find a worthy charity soon. Who knows? Your children’s home might
prove to be the very one. As a boy whose mother drowned in gin, I
met the worst and best of men. Helping to fund a children’s home may
be the way for me to repay the gentleman who took me in and raised
The solicitor sat
forward. “In asylums, in workhouses, everywhere, there is greed,
cruelty, evils I will not name; I doubt you know of their existence.
But I occasionally come across a person of caring and compassion.
The man who raised me was such a man. I believe that you are such a
He held her gaze.
“But you must understand what I want, nay, demand of you, and why.”
“I am listening.”
“You must know,
clearly, right from wrong, and teach those precepts to the children.
Only in that way can you nurture them properly.”
the workhouse, where children died daily. She knew right from wrong,
and leaving Matt, Mark, Luke and Bekah in that workhouse would have
“If I find that you
have acted in other than a moral, conscientious or lawful manner,”
Mr. Sennett had continued. “You will lose Sunnyledge, and I will see
that you never open a home for children, anywhere, ever.”
Chastity’s heart had
raced as he spoke those words.
It raced now an
entire day later, but she buried her guilt and worry. She had acted
conscientiously and morally by telling the parish beadle she would
raise the children. Taking them would have been legal, but for him,
a corrupt church elder who sent them to the workhouse because she
would not pay his wicked price.
All would be well,
she reassured herself as they continued their trek toward
Sunnyledge. No man, save one, knew what she had done, and that man,
she would never see, again.
time, clustered cottages gave way to sprawling farms. Grasslands,
divided by dry stone walls, became hilly uplands. Hillocks grew
forested; roads narrowed.
By the time the
valley before them revealed the jaunty jumble of structures,
requisite to bustling village life, dusk streaked the sky with
lavender. “This is it,” Chastity said, her sense of destiny so
intense, a frisson of alarm stepped on its heels. “Painswick.”
virtue of the steep cobbled track descending into the village, the
children gamboled headlong hand in hand, Luke laughing all the way.
Amid hawkers’ songs
and hot, spicy scents, Chastity admired a bonnet placed in a shop
window by a barrel-bellied, frock-coated merchant. “Two pounds,
three? That’s highway robbery,” she said.
Luke shifted the
satchel that contained their clothes and William’s medical bag, and
tugged at her sleeve. “I’m gonna buy that for you someday, Kitty.”
As she bent to kiss his cheek, he ruffled her hair, freeing the
powder she’d used to disguise and drear its chestnut hue.
After buying food
and supplies, she bought her giggling band each a ha-penny pie and a
peppermint stick for a thruppence. They ate while they watched
village children roll misshapen hoops in the wheelwright’s dooryard.
sought directions to Sunnyledge.
“Oh my, no,” said a
buxom matron, all agog. “Not that God-forsaken place. It’s haunted,
don’t’cha know. Many’s the night they’ve heard her pitiful wail,
that lost soul searching for her missing babes. They died with her,
some say, but their wee bodies were never buried.” She whispered
the last part.
Chastity held Bekah
closer. “If you could direct us.”
The matron shook her
head. “If you insist.” She pointed. “There it is, top ‘o the hill.”
A honey-gold manse
stood guarding the valley, its chimneystacks straight as parade
soldiers at full attention. Mullioned windows—as tall as the first
floor, and wide as they were tall—reflected the sun, bright as that
off the stone itself.
“It’s a bloomin’
castle,” Matt said.
Mark snorted. “Where
our dreams will come true.”
“It is splendid,”
Chastity said. “As if it’s made of gold.”
“That’s the sun on
the stone—Painswick stone. The old Earl’s dead. That’s his house.
“If you could tell
me how to get there.”
“Go left at the yew
row and take the hill straight up. Been abandoned for years. Except
for a daft caretaker, now and again, most won’t go near the place.”
Chastity gave her
thanks and they went on their way, the villager following. “It’s
farther than you think. You got a key? Can’t get in, if you don’t
have a key.”
“You’re braver than
I,” the tenacious woman called from a distance.
Luke blew the
shepherd’s horn Chastity had saved for him. WARRONNK!
Mr. Sennett was
right. Boys were noisy. She would never be able to thank the
solicitor for giving her the use of Sunnyledge—though if he ever
learned that she rescued the children after he set down his
rules— Well, just imagining the consequences of her actions made
Chastity shudder, even as Rebekah began to wail.
“How old is Bekah?”
she asked the boys.
“Three ‘cept we
dunno’ when we’re gonna’ be the next number,” Luke said.
“Don’t mind that
noise she makes,” Matt said. “She does that lots. Wish she would
“That will be
enough, Mark,” Chastity said, coming to a faltering stop with a
Sunnyledge may have
looked warm and inviting from the vale, but up close, after dark, it
looked decidedly bleak, forsaken, and forbidding.
The key was useless.
A mere nudge opened the door, the wind taking it the rest of the
way. With the children attached to her skirts, Chastity stepped
inside, stifling a nervous urge to giggle. “Hello? Is anyone here?”
The sound made
Chastity shriek and fall against the door, a hand to her
fast-pumping heart. “That will be enough, Luke. Anyone here has
expired from fright by now.”
Chastity tried to
lock the door, but the keyhole turned with the key, so she pushed a
chair against it, cutting off the last sliver of moonlight. “Bother,
I am such an idiot. I do not even have a candle.”
“I can see in the
dark,” Matt said. “We hid in Aunt Anna’s cellar so long after she
died, we never saw the sun.”
“Do you think you
can find the kitchen?”
“I’m good at finding
things. Be right back.”
Chastity sat on the
floor, Bekah, Mark, and Luke, cozy and warm, nesting in her black
wool skirts. For once, she was glad William had not seen fit to
replace her religious habits during their short marriage. She had,
however, removed all symbols of her religious life, so that her
gowns looked more like widow’s weeds.
“Found the kitchen,
Kitty. And candles,” Matt called.
A short while later,
the children ate some of the bread and cheese she’d bought, as
exhaustion overtook them, and a sense of destiny, profound and
peaceful, enveloped her.
Settled for the
night with Zeke, their lame rabbit, on a mattress plumped with
Chastity’s aprons and nightshifts, one old habit and one Sunday
best, Luke said they hadn’t been so comfy since Mum left.
“I worried,” Matt
said with a yawn. “That you wouldn’t come for us at the workhouse,
like you promised.”
Mark scoffed and
rolled to his side, presenting his rigid back. “We would never have
gone to that horrid old place, if you hadn’t turned us in.”
If she failed to
breach that barrier Mark kept erected around his heart, Chastity
feared it would become as hard as the stone in these Cotswold Hills.
How could he be so
angry, yet cuddle his baby sister so lovingly? Perhaps this child,
who professed to need no one, needed her even more than his brothers
and sister did. One thing was certain; Mark would never forgive her
for trying to gain their custody through the proper channels first.
After she arrived on
Britain’s shore, she had gone on to William’s Aunt Anna’s as
planned. There, she found that his aunt had died, leaving his young
cousins, abandoned at her passing, hiding in her cellar to keep from
getting separated or going to the workhouse.
Chastity had marched
them to the Vicar to say she would take them. The Vicar passed her
to the Curate, the Curate to the Beadle.
remembering the Beadle’s lustful suggestion as to how she could
purchase them. Since she refused to pay his price, however, the
Beadle had relegated her children to the parish workhouse
with nary a blink.
much for following the rules, Chastity thought, unable to forget Mr.
Sennett’s words, “If I find that you have acted in other than a
moral, conscientious or lawful manner, you will lose Sunnyledge, and
I will see that you never open a refuge for children anywhere,
At the workhouse,
children younger than hers, died. She thought about the baby girl
born the week she worked there, while trying to get hers back. How
she’d wanted to take that babe as well. She thought of Matt’s
protectiveness, Mark’s anger, Luke’s trust, and Bekah’s cough.
In taking them, she
had acted conscientiously and morally. Except for the
Beadle’s lust, her guardianship would be lawful as well.
Mr. Sennett said he
tried to bring the conditions of asylums and workhouses to the
notice of people who could improve them, and their lack of interest
“Do you never get so
incensed,” Chastity had dared to ask, knowing she planned to rescue
William’s cousins the next day, “that you wish to take matters into
your own hands?”
“We cannot give in
to such,” he said. “To have lasting effect, reform must be
undertaken in a lawful, orderly manner. There is never an excuse to
Chastity sighed. Having been an orphan, the solicitor lauded her
wish to open a home where children without parents would be loved.
She only hoped that he would come to understand that taking these
few had been necessary.
bent to them now—warm, safe, unafraid, bellies full—covered a
shoulder, stroked a brow, and prayed, for their sakes, that all
would be well.
Then found a chair
in which to take down her hair, and examined the kitchen, aglow from
a fire in the old stone hearth.
haven—someday perhaps, a home.
* * *
hell of it was, Reed Gilbride thought, rubbing the back of his neck,
looking up at Sunnyledge, the house was so damned big, he could
search for years and never find the truth of his birth. As for
secrets, the place fairly reeked of them.
the cryptic note he had received added to Sunnyledge’s aura of
mystery—a note that roused an anger, tempered oddly by hope. Such
anger, he usually reserved for the people who gave him life and
threw him away. And the hope? Well, that just made him madder ...
until Sennett killed expectation by saying the note must be a hoax.
The solicitor said he’d seen more than one, worded exactly the same
way. He also suggested that a Barrington by-blow had no claim, here.
Still, Reed could
not give up. As a child, he would have settled for knowing who his
parents might have been. Now he bloody well wanted to know why he
had not been good enough for them to keep. Who gave a helpless babe
to the Gilbrides, of all people?
He led his horse
around back to find it shelter.
Why did the woman
who raised him—if you could call it that—refuse to talk about
Sunnyledge? Why act as if the devil would swallow her whole, if she
did? Could this place hold the key to his past? Him, the Earl
of Barrington, as the note suggested?
Reed mocked himself
with a chuckle, raised his collar against a cold drizzle, settled
Stealth in a rickety old stable, returned and picked up his satchel.
He might be a
bastard in more ways than one, but with or without Sennett’s
approval, he needed to find out.
Now that Boney had
been defeated, and he’d retired from the Guards, Reed looked forward
to a life of peace and quiet, and the occasional willing woman. But
first he must search for his roots, this being the place to start.
“Damn, it’s cold.”
As if fate heard, a blast of wind and rain smacked him in the face
and opened the door with a flourish—the thunderous crack of it
hitting the wall loud enough to wake the Sunnyledge ghost herself.
Reed saluted and
stepped inside, a sense of inevitability filling him, as if he had
arrived after a thirty-year sojourn, turned an invisible corner, and
could not return the way he had come.
What was more, he
did not want to.
In the kitchen,
Chastity jumped at the thunderous sound, and shot to her feet. After
a frozen heart-pounding beat, arms and legs prickling, she located a
meat cleaver in a kitchen drawer and closed her trembling fingers
around its smooth bone handle.