In the English village of Kurland St. Mary, few things are worse than having one’s reputation besmirched. A struggling marriage is one. Murder is another…
Three years have passed since Major Sir Robert Kurland and Lucy Harrington, the rector’s daughter, became husband and wife. Having established a measure of contentment among the gentry of Kurland St. Mary, the couple lately have found an unsettling distance grown between them. But when the small-village peace is disrupted by the arrival of an anonymous letter accusing Lucy of witchcraft, her as yet unfulfilled desire to be a mother becomes the least of her worries, especially after she learns she is not the only one to have received such a malicious letter.
Speculation in the village only escalates when the local schoolteacher, Miss Broomfield, is discovered murdered at her classroom desk. Was the unlikeable teacher the letter writer, and if so, who killed her and why? Despite her husband’s objections, Lucy offers to help out at the school until a replacement can be found, hoping the schoolchildren might inadvertently reveal a clue, but by doing so she may be putting her own life at risk…
Kurland Hall, England December 1820
After three years of marriage, Lucy, Lady Kurland, was used to Sir Robert’s rather ill-tempered demeanor at the breakfast table. He hated to chat, which often frustrated her, because there was usually much to discuss about the upcoming day. Unfortunately, her husband had a tendency to hide behind his newspaper and offer only the occasional grunt to any conversational effort she attempted.
Such was the case on this particular winter’s morning, but for once, Lucy had little interest in engaging him in conversation. Despite having slept heavily, she was tired and somewhat cantankerous herself. The yuletide season was fast approaching, and although her duties no longer involved managing the rectory, and her father, there was still much to be done.
“The post, my lady.”
“Thank you, Foley.”
Lucy accepted the silver tray the butler offered her, and sorted through the collection of letters and bills, separating her correspondence from her husband’s.
“There’s a letter for you from your aunt Rose, Robert. She appears to be in London.”
“Hmm?” A hand appeared around the side of the newspaper, and Lucy placed the thick letter in it. “Thank you.”
Lucy tapped her fingers against the stack of letters. She didn’t want to open any of them. They would be full of sympathy for her health and well-being, and she really didn’t want to think about it anymore. Not because she was unappreciative of the concern, but because she didn’t need to feel any more miserable than she already did.
She sighed, her gaze shifting outside, to the dark clouds and barren landscape of Kurland Hall home park. The trees were stripped bare of leaves. A slight frost made the spiked grass glint in the occasional strip of sunlight that managed to filter through the greyness. There was also a wind blowing, which made her reconsider her plan of walking into the village. She had promised to visit her father at the rectory and was expecting several of the village ladies to call on her at the hall in the afternoon for tea.
There were plans to be made for the festive season that would require the assistance of everyone in the vicinity. Lucy bit her lip. She had no stomach for marshaling the forces of the local gentry, who sometimes required delicate handling in matters of precedence. She held the highest social rank in their small community, and many looked to her to set the tone. Usually, such battles energized her, but today …
She placed her napkin on the table and picked up her letters, pushing her chair back.
“Damned incompetent government,” Robert muttered to himself behind the wall of his newspaper. He still had ambitions to become a member of Parliament but had not yet found a viable seat.
Still hovering beside Lucy, Foley cleared his throat. “Are you quite certain you have finished, my lady? You’ve eaten only half a piece of toast.”
“I’m not hungry.” She offered him a brief smile as he pulled back her chair. “Can you make sure the fire in my sitting room is alight, and can you ask Mr. Coleman to bring the gig around in half an hour?”
“Certainly, my lady.” Foley bowed low. “And maybe a fresh pot of tea? I know Cook has just baked some scones, which would be just the thing with some strawberry jam and cream.”
“The tea would be lovely.”
She left the breakfast parlor and headed toward her sitting room, where, despite her concerns, the new maid had already lit the fire, warming the frigid space. Sitting at her desk, she sorted the stack of letters, putting the one from her brother, Anthony, who was currently stationed overseas, aside to read later. He at least would have no idea what had befallen her, and was refreshingly concerned only about his prospects of a glittering career in the Prince of Wales 10 Hussars, and how to achieve them on a somewhat limited budget.
She broke the seal on a bill from her dressmaker in Hertford and perused it. She had sufficient funds to pay the amount out of her quarterly pin money, which she managed meticulously to avoid having to ask Robert for additional funds. Not that he wasn’t already a generous provider. Unlike a lot of the gentry, he had derived the bulk of his fortune from the industrialized north and that inheritance had only multiplied during the years of conflict and the current political turmoil.
She studied the last letter in the pile. It bore no postmark and had no signature scrawled across the corner to frank it. The paper was cheap, and the handwriting uneven.
Lucy frowned as she opened the single sheet and attempted to read the labored script.
You will die alone and childless. None of your heathenish spells will work. The Turners have cursed you forever.
Lucy blinked and reread the single line. There was no signature. Who would send such a thing, and why? She fumbled for her handkerchief, afraid that someone would see her crying, and mortified at her own weakness.
She’d come to consider the local healer, Grace Turner, a friend. Was it possible that behind her affable mask, Grace still blamed Lucy for what had happened in the past? Lucy forced herself to take a deep, steadying breath.
“This ridiculous urge to cry at anything must stop,” Lucy told herself out loud. “You are a very lucky woman who lives in a beautiful house, with a man who …” She paused. “Who didn’t even notice you’d left the breakfast table.”
But why should he? She’d done nothing but snap his head off every time he’d attempted to speak to her over the past few months. No wonder he’d retreated behind his newspaper.
“Your tea, my lady.”
She hastily straightened and hid the letter under the pile.
“Thank you, Foley.”
“And the gig will be ready for you at eleven, if that is convenient.”
“That will be perfect.”
She kept her bright smile on her face until the butler had left, and consulted her daybook as to the tasks that awaited her. She would speak to Cook and Mrs. Cooper, the new housekeeper, then would trek upstairs to change into warmer outdoor garb. Sitting around moping was not her way, and there was plenty to do. Her twin brothers were due home from school at the end of the week, which was probably why her father was desperate to speak to her. Keeping them occupied and helping others would at least make her feel like a useful member of society.
* * * * *
“What is it, Foley?”
Major Sir Robert Kurland lowered his newspaper and stared at his elderly butler, who was regarding him with a distinct lack of approval.
“Do you wish me to start clearing the table?”
With a sigh, Robert folded his paper and looked around the breakfast room. “Where the devil is Lady Kurland?”
“She left the table about a quarter of an hour ago, sir.” Foley’s accusing stare intensified. “She barely ate a thing.”
“What are you? Her nurse? If she isn’t hungry, she isn’t hungry.” Even as Robert said the words, he was aware that he might have erred. The fact that he hadn’t noticed what was going on around him was remarkably remiss of him. “Did Lady Kurland ask you to speak to me about anything in particular?”
“No, sir. But I thought she looked a little tired. We’re all so worried about her below stairs.”
“I’m fairly certain the last thing my wife would want is to cause concern to anyone. She is simply intent on regaining her strength.”
“By not eating, sir?”
Robert raised his head. “Foley, I have a great deal of respect for your opinion, but please do not suggest that I am unaware of the state of my wife’s health.”
“I would never presume to stand between a man and his wife, sir.” Foley raised his chin. “But —”
Robert heaved himself upright and grabbed his cane. “Where is her ladyship?”
“She was in her sitting room, but I believe she has gone upstairs to change, Sir Robert.”
Robert made his slow way upstairs. His mended bones were always stiffer in the morning and especially in the cold of winter. The more he walked, the easier it became — until he overexerted himself and had to start all over again. He could at least ride a horse now, even though fear lingered like sourness in the pit of his stomach every time he mounted up.
This winter had been particularly hard on him, leaving his temper as uncertain as his gait. He tapped on the door of their shared bedchamber and went in to find his wife about to put on her bonnet in front of the mirror. She wore a dress in his favorite blue and had styled her hair in a braided coronet on the top of her head.
“I thought Dr. Fletcher told you to rest.”
“He told me to rest if I felt tired.” She didn’t look directly at him, her attention fixed on tying the ribbons under her ear. “I am perfectly well.”
“You look tired.”
She turned then and allowed him to help her into her pelisse. “I’m going down to the village to speak to my father. I shall return at noon.” She picked up her gloves and her basket. “Is there anything else you require of me?”
He scowled at her. “More than a moment of your time?”
“I spent half an hour with you at the breakfast table, and you barely noticed I was there.”
“I … Damn it, Lucy. I was reading, and I forgot the time, and —”
“And now I have to go out. I’m sure you wouldn’t want me to keep the horse standing in this weather?” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Sophia is coming to visit Anna at the rectory to talk about the Christmas festivities.”
“She and Andrew have returned from London?”
“Yes, and will be celebrating the season with us.” She hesitated. “I believe I asked you about this in September.”
“And much has happened since then to make me forget,” Robert countered. “I look forward to seeing them both.”
“As do I.” Lucy smoothed down her skirts. “I must go.”
“Are you sure you don’t wish me to accompany you?” Robert tried again. “I have a book to return to your father.”
“I could take it back for you.”
“Or I could meet you at the rectory after I’ve spoken to Dermot.”
She nodded as she pulled on her gloves. “I’m sure my father would be delighted to see you.”
He bowed and stood back, then opened the door to allow her to sail past him. As soon as she had disappeared down the stairs, he raised his eyes heavenward.
“You’re a bumbling fool, Robert Kurland.”
Why had he hidden behind his newspaper? He knew she was unhappy, and yet he couldn’t seem to put his concern into words or break through her reserve. Or mayhap it was because she wouldn’t even accept that he was worried about her. It was like attempting to pet a tightly rolled-up hedgehog in the palms of his bare hands.
He would talk to his friend Dr. Fletcher again and would see if he had any suggestions, although Lucy dutifully took every pill and potion the doctor offered her. But she looked tired and drawn and … sad. Her indomitable courage and boundless optimism had seen him through some of the worst moments of his life. The least he could do was attempt to help her through her own crisis.
As he turned to leave, he thrust his hand into his pocket and his fingers brushed against the letter from his aunt. He took it out and studied the neat handwriting. Lucy was very fond of his aunt Rose.
Perhaps there was something he could do, after all. …
* * * * *
Lucy sipped her tea and nodded as Anna detailed her plans for the Christmas services. Her sister was in remarkably fine spirits, considering she had to deal with their father on a daily basis. But Anna had always been the rector’s favorite child, and despite dropping the odd hint about her inability to find a suitable husband despite the expense of her London Season, he seemed remarkably content to be managed by her.
The notion of her beautiful sister sacrificing her chance of a husband and family simply to keep house for their father bothered Lucy immensely. If it wasn’t for the fact that Nicholas Jenkins was a regular and faithful visitor to the rectory, and still unmarried, she might have attempted to persuade Anna to let her chaperone her into local society — such as it was — and mayhap even take her back to London for another Season.
“What do you think, Lucy?” Anna was looking at her expectantly, and Lucy scrambled to collect her thoughts.
“I do apologize. I was woolgathering.”
Her sister reached out to pat her hand. “Your head is in the clouds today. It is so not like you. Are you sure you are feeling quite the thing?”
“I am perfectly fine.” Lucy attempted to quell her sister’s concern. “What do I think about what?”
“The notion of having the children who attend the village school sing at the evening church service the week leading up to Christmas.”
“I think that is a wonderful idea. Have you spoken to Miss Broomfield about the matter?”
Anna grimaced. “I was hoping you might do it for me, Lucy. As you and Sir Robert founded the school, she might be more willing to speak to you. She is somewhat intimidating.”
“I’m more than happy to ask. I haven’t met her yet and was planning on seeking her out. I’ll call on my way back to Kurland Hall. How is your new kitchen maid settling in?”
“She is very eager to please and gets on well with Cook and all the other staff. I couldn’t ask for anyone better.”
“I’m glad to hear it. She’s Mr. Coleman’s oldest granddaughter.”
“I know. She was busy chatting to him in the kitchen when I was just out there. It is nice to finally have a well-settled staff.”
A bell sounded in the distance, and Anna rose to her feet. “That might be Sophia arriving. I’ll order more tea.”
“It might also be my husband,” Lucy called after her. “He thought he would visit Father to return a book he borrowed.”
“Then I’ll make sure we have plenty of hot water, or perhaps the gentlemen will forgo tea for something stronger.”
Despite Lucy’s earlier fears, the rectory appeared to be running smoothly under Anna’s sunny command. Her father seemed happier, too. He had a curate willing to devote long hours to the spiritual welfare of the parish, which allowed the rector to follow his passions for horseflesh, hunting, and the pursuits of a country gentleman.
Sophia Stanford came into the small parlor and rushed over to embrace Lucy. She wore a bonnet with tall pink feathers and a luxurious fur-trimmed pelisse in a dashing shade of green.
“I was so disappointed that you didn’t come to visit us in London in September,” Sophia scolded as she drew her arm through Lucy’s and settled them both on the sofa. “We were all looking forward to it, and then I received Sir Robert’s note that you were not well enough to travel. I reminded the children that we would be spending the Christmas season here in Kurland St. Mary, which helped alleviate some of their disappointment.”
“Did Mr. Stanford accompany you today?” Lucy asked.
“No. He’s at my old home, interviewing my mother’s land agent and keeping an eye on the children.” Sophia smiled. “He really does take remarkably good care of me and our family.”
Anna returned with a tea tray and had barely set it down before there was another arrival.
“Mrs. Fletcher and Miss Chingford,” the new maid announced just as Penelope and her sister came in the door behind her.
“There is no need to be so formal, Fiona. We are practically part of the family,” Penelope said as she curtsied. She took off her bonnet, revealing her blond ringlets and perfect complexion. “Good morning, Mrs. Stanford, Anna, and Lucy. We saw the Stanford carriage and decided to step in and pay our respects.”
Anna raised her eyebrows at Lucy behind Penelope’s back and then moved forward. “Please join us for some tea. It is always delightful to welcome you both here.”
Lucy had always thought it was a pity that Anna had not been born a man. She would’ve made an excellent diplomat.
Within moments, Dorothea Chingford excused herself to search out the curate on a matter of spiritual guidance, leaving Anna and Lucy to deal with her older and far more outspoken sister.
Penelope took off her gloves and settled into a seat. Despite her limited budget as the village doctor’s wife, she always looked like she had just stepped out of a fashion plate. “It seems my sister has set her cap at Mr. Culpepper, the curate. What do we know about his family? Are they wealthy?”
“I believe his father is a vicar in the west of England and has several other children,” Lucy offered.
“Then probably not wealthy at all.” Penelope wrinkled her nose. “What a shame.”
“You realized that marrying for love rather than wealth was an excellent idea, Penelope. Why should your sister not follow your example?” Lucy asked.
“Because she isn’t as foolish as I am.”
“Are you not happy in your marriage?” Lucy raised her eyebrows.
“I am very content with my choice, although if my dear Dr. Fletcher suddenly inherited a fortune, I certainly wouldn’t regret it or turn it down.” Penelope turned to Anna. “Has Mr. Culpepper said anything to you or your father to indicate his intentions toward Dorothea?”
“He hasn’t said anything to me,” Anna said cautiously. “Would you like me to ask Father to speak to him?”