In 1792, the village of Hadley Green executed a man for stealing the Countess of Ashwood's historic jewels. Fifteen years later, questions still linger. Was it a crime of greed--or of passion?
When Declan O'Connor, Earl of Donnelly, arrives at Hadley Green to meet with Lily Boudine, the new countess of Ashwood, he knows instantly that the lovely woman who welcomes him is not who she pretends to be. In an attempt to avoid an unwanted marriage, Keira Hannigan has assumed her cousin's identity and is staying at the estate while Lily is abroad. When Declan threatens to expose her, Keira convinces him to guard her secret, then enlists him in her investigation of the missing jewels, for she now believes an innocent man was hanged.
Unable to deny the beautiful, exasperating Keira--or their simmering passion--Declan reluctantly agrees. But neither is prepared for the dangerous stranger who threatens to reveal Keira's lies . . . and Declan knows he must protect Keira at all costs, for she is the woman who now owns his heart.
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October 01, 2010
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Excerpt from The Year of Living Scandalously by Julia London
West Sussex, England
Each summer in the village of Hadley Green, the residents looked forward with eager anticipation to two significant events: the first was the week in June in which the vicar put his gout-ridden body into a borrowed coach and took leave of his flock to call upon his aging sister in Shropshire. That was the only week of the year the pulpit could be pried from the vicar's bent hands, and the young, visiting clergyman's delivery of the gospel was markedly more succinct.
The second event was the annual gala at the end of summer given by the Earl of Ashwood. It was a celebration of a good harvest and good tenants, and an opportunity to raise funds for the poor orphans of the St. Bartholomew Parish. It was a day-long festival, replete with enough food and ale to feed the king's army, as well as goods for sale made by the more industrious villagers. There were games for children and adults alike, and a small band that entertained the happy guests who elected to sit under umbrellas at tables festooned with streamers and flowers from the earl's enviable hothouse and gardens. There was a small lake with a pair of boats that young men employed to court young women as they rowed them about.
Traditionally, members of the Quality came down from London to attend the gala and stayed on as the guests of the earl and his lovely--and strikingly younger--wife, Althea Kent, Lady Ashwood. The Quality partook of the crafts and food and ale alongside the residents of Hadley Green, although perhaps less of the crafts and more of the ale. Inevitably, late in the day, the legs of lords and common men were lashed together for three-legged races, the winners promised a kiss from the countess herself.
Given Lady Ashwood's uncommon beauty, most mortal men were keen to try.
It was likewise tradition that when the sun began to slide behind the towering elms, the village residents wobbled home in their carts and their wagons, and the lords and ladies retreated inside the earl's colossal Georgian home to settle in for a night of debauchery.
Those evenings were the stuff of legends. More than one marriage had been threatened by the evening's activities, and more than one marriage made on the heels of compromising events.
In 1793, a torrential late-summer storm ended the outdoor festivities in the early afternoon. The villagers and the orphans were hurried home to meaner shelter than Ashwood, and the earl's illustrious guests were hurried inside to waiting servants who handed them towels and stoked the hearths in their rooms.
A steady rain continued to fall throughout the day, cooling the air and filling the rooms with a damp scent. The guests, trapped inside like well-groomed beasts, began to seek entertainment. They were modestly diverted by drink, gaming, and flirting through the long stretch of afternoon into evening. But as evening fell, the stakes at the gaming tables grew dangerously higher, as did the number of men and women disappearing from the salon, only to return a half hour later with wigs askew.
Above the gambling and assignations in the darkened rooms of the main floor was a nursery, and in that nursery was Miss Lillian Boudine, Lady Ashwood's ward and niece. Lily was an eight-year-old orphan who had been adopted by Auntie Althea when her parents were taken from her at the tender age of five, both of them succumbing to a wasting fever within a fortnight of each other. One might have hoped that the lord and lady of Ashwood would have changed their ways to accommodate the moppet of a girl, but that was hardly the case. Their soirees and balls and gatherings continued, and Lily grew accustomed to seeing shadowy figures embracing in darkened stairwells, and the sound of doors being shut and locked. She'd heard many feminine giggles and the quiet hush of masculine voices. She could detect the scent of women's perfume lingering in the corridors amid the smells of beeswax candles and blazing hearths.
That evening, Lily was relegated to the nursery with Nurse. Nurse had sampled the earl's ale in great quantities, and could not keep her puffy eyes open. She slept noisily in a chair near the hearth.
Lily was rather eager to leave the nursery and have a peek at the adults. She stepped past her sleeping nurse and into the corridor, taking care to shut the door quietly behind her. She ran lightly to the stairwell and hurried down to her perfect hiding place, where she could watch the comings and goings of the adults.
But when she reached the first floor, she found it darker than usual. The rainy weather had led to a shortage of candles, and only two were lit in the long hallway. It was so dark that Lily did not, at first, detect the embracing couple until one of them whispered low. The sound startled her, and Lily quickly stepped behind a console table and crouched down.
She could just make out the shadowy figures through the legs of the console. They were kissing. Lily leaned out a little to see better, but in doing so she lost her balance. She caught herself with both hands before tumbling onto the carpet, but panicking, she gasped softly and quickly pushed back, pressing her back to the wall, stifling her breath with one hand.
Several moments passed before Lily dared to look again. She was disappointed to find that the couple had evaporated into the darkness. Lily stood up, carefully looked about, then darted down the corridor toward her hiding place.
But as she reached the top of the very ornate, curving dual staircase that led to the floors below, a hand clamped down on her shoulder. Lily cried out with alarm as she was twirled about and forced to look up into the lovely face of Aunt Althea.
Althea was none too pleased. The ruby of her lips matched the ruby of her velvet gown, and the color in her cheeks was quite high. "What do you think you are doing, Lily?"
"Nothing, Auntie! I meant only to see the ladies' evening gowns!" Lily had used that excuse before with success, but tonight, Althea would not accept it. She put both hands on Lily's shoulders and gave her a gentle shove into the corridor. "Honestly, what am I to do with you, darling? Go back to the nursery! You know very well I am to Scotland on the morrow. I must be able to depend on you to be good whilst I am away."
"I will!" Lily promised earnestly.
"No, Lily, no more of your empty vows," Althea said sternly. "There is nothing that will displease the earl more than your bad behavior, and if he grows weary of you, what will become of you then?" She sank to her knees, so that she could look Lily in the eye. "Your mother, my dear sister, is dead. Another sister is ailing. That leaves only my youngest sister in Ireland to take you in. Do you really want to be Irish, Lily? I'll be gone for an age, and when I come back, it had best not be to my husband's complaints and demands that you pack your bags. You really must stop this spying and skulking about!"
Lily felt frightened and guilty. "Yes, Auntie, I promise with all my heart." She was very sincere. She never meant to be bad; it just seemed to happen.
Her aunt softened and smiled, cupping Lily's chin. "My, how you remind me of Maria," she said, speaking of Lily's mother. "She was an imp, just like you. Not as pretty as you, I think, but just as spirited. I miss her so. And I shall miss you desperately." She smiled and kissed Lily's cheek. "Now show me how good you shall be and go back to the nursery and stay there." She came to her feet, ran her hand over Lily's crown. "Go before the earl sees you."
Lily ran down the corridor and up the servants' stairs to the second floor. She walked into the nursery and shut the door behind her. Nurse started, but then shifted in her chair and snorted in her sleep. With a roll of her eyes, Lily climbed onto the window seat. It was dark and wet outside; the only light was that which came from the house. She traced a line down the cold, wet pane, leaving a fat trail like that of a snail.
The nursery was never warm. It was far too big for the single fireplace, and Lily was always cold here. She thought it would be lovely if she had a companion, someone to share these interminably long and boring nights.
A movement outside caught her eye. Lily pressed her face to the window and peered out. It was a rider; she could see him trotting past by the light of the house, moving away. Lily suddenly sat up. She knew the rider--or rather, she knew the horse. It was the big gray with black spots on his rump that belonged to Mr. Scott, the woodcarver. Lily had seen him here many times before tonight, as he had crafted the dual staircase that curved up and around the main entry to the first floor.
Why should he be at Ashwood tonight? He was not Quality. What woodcarving would he be doing on the day of the gala? And why was he riding away in the rain across the park instead of the main road? Had he not left when the other villagers were instructed to go home?
But ride away he did, disappearing into the dark night.
Lily wrote her name in the condensation on the glass, then realized she was shivering and found her bed.
She was awakened sometime later by a lot of shouting, the cries loud enough to wake even Nurse. "Glory, it must be fire!" Nurse cried, and rushed Lily downstairs--Nurse, in her nightclothes, Lily still in her evening frock--to the main floor.
They were greeted by general bedlam, as the guests were all shouting at one another, and at least one lady was crying. The earl was scowling at the lot of them and Althea was pale.
Nurse nudged a footman and whispered loudly, "What is it, what has happened?"
The footman, an eyewitness to the tumult, was eager to deliver the news. "The Lady Ashwood was playing loo, but the earl refused to give her a purse, for he'd warned her not to carry on, but you know the Lady Ashwood, she did all the same. She lost a bloody fortune. When it came time to pay her debt, she went to fetch the Ashwood jewels to put up as collateral. But they come up missing."
"What? The old ones?" Nurse asked, horrified.
Even Lily knew of the Ashwood jewels; everyone knew of them. They were large, priceless rubies, given by King Edward IV to the first Earl of Ashwood for his loyalty during the War of the Roses. The rubies--set in a heavy necklace; in big, teardrop ruby earrings; and the largest in the coronet--were kept under lock and key in the earl's private study.
"Aye, the old ones," the footman grimly confirmed.
It was at this moment that Althea spotted Lily and Nurse in the crowd and began moving toward them.
"'Twas one of them, I'd wager, what with all the carrying on behind closed doors," the footman quickly added, for he, too, saw Althea approaching. "But mark me, Annie, 'twill be one of us who is blamed for it."
"Annie, are you mad? What if the earl sees you?" Althea whispered harshly. She glanced anxiously over her shoulder at the earl, almost as if she feared him. Lily didn't blame her--he seemed very mean. Her aunt looked back at Lily and she smiled thinly. "Go," she said to Annie.
Nurse grabbed Lily's wrist in a painful grip and dragged her up the stairs, but Lily struggled against her, turning back to watch until she could see the adults no more.
The next day dawned bright and blue. There was a lot of commotion around the countess's planned departure for Scotland--everyone knew that she and the earl had argued about the missing jewels until the sun rose.
While the guests were suitably occupied with breakfast or heavy sleep, the servants were assembled in the servants' dining room. Lily had sneaked in through the kitchen and saw her aunt leaning against the sideboard, pale with exhaustion.
The earl was standing between his secretary and solicitor, his neckcloth tied crookedly and his thick brows uncombed. His hands were clasped behind his back as he informed the staff of twenty-four that he would find the thief, and the thief would hang.
The servants watched the three men warily.
The earl's secretary, Mr. Bowman, conducted the interrogation. Lily's governess, Miss Penhurst, so dear to Lily, was shaking. Nurse was crying. When Mr. Bowman asked Miss Penhurst how he might possibly trust her word that she had not taken the jewels when she was sleeping just below the study where they were kept, Lily could bear it no more and rushed forward. The earl tried to shoo her away, but Lily would not go, clasping his hand. "I think I know who took them!"
All eyes turned to her. Lily's knees began to quake. The earl grabbed her elbow, his fingers digging painfully into her flesh. "Is this one of your tales, lass?" he snarled.
Lily shook her head.
"How could you possibly know who took the jewels? Did you see the thief in the act?"
"No, my lord." Her voice was shaking now and her breath had deserted her.
He made a sound of disgust and pushed her away.
"But I saw him riding away," she gasped as tears burned her eyes.
The earl and Mr. Bowman slowly turned to look at her. Aunt Althea stood as still as a statue, staring at her.
"It was the woodcarver. M-Mr. Scott," she added, in case the earl didn't know who the woodcarver was. "I saw him last night, riding away from Ashwood in the park, long after the villagers had gone."
The earl's eyes narrowed.
"It was too late for him to be working," she added.
The earl's black gaze shifted to Aunt Althea. "Working? Working on what?" he asked.
"A repair," Aunt Althea said coolly. "To a wardrobe."
Mr. Bowman eyed Lily skeptically. "How can you be certain it was him, Miss Boudine?"
"It was his horse," Lily said, and instantly feared she was mistaken. "It was the gray, with the black spots around his tail," she said aloud, to convince herself.
"Oh no, darling--" Aunt Althea said, but was silenced by a look from the earl.
And then the earl suddenly smiled at Lily and moved to her side. "Let us have a spot of tea, shall we, Lillian?" he asked, and Lily tried to remember if he'd ever uttered her given name before that moment.
Within hours, Mr. Joseph Scott was taken from his wife and three children to an outbuilding on the Ashwood estate, where he was held until the magistrate could be summoned.
Word spread quickly through Hadley Green and whispers soon followed. Did a thief live among them? Hadn't Mrs. Rollingwood recently reported the theft of her chickens? Hadn't Mr. Clark complained of several bags of flour taken from his dry goods shop? And wasn't it really unsurprising that it was Mr. Scott? Everyone knew his wife was desperately ill, but the doctors in London were not free, were they? And why should he be so silent as to his whereabouts that evening? He said he did not take the jewels, but he would not say where he was the night of the theft. His poor wife was pressed to tell the truth lest they interrogate her children: her husband had not come home until after midnight.
The magistrate, a man with a reputation for swift and stern justice, arrived in Hadley Green within the fortnight. The trial was held in the village commons hall. Mr. Scott, the woodcarver, most likely knew before he was brought before the magistrate that he would be found guilty, for he could not offer a satisfactory answer for his whereabouts on the night the jewels went missing. Nevertheless, a procession of his friends and neighbors tried with all their being to convince the magistrate of his good character. They were followed by a string of witnesses to the events of the night of the crime.
The entire village gathered outside to hear the case of the missing jewels put before the magistrate's bench. Just after noon, two ornate Ashwood coaches appeared: one, for the earl's convenience; as the injured party, he'd attended Mr. Scott's trial all morning. The second carried Lily and the countess, whose trip had been postponed indefinitely. Lily did not know why.
She looked out the coach window at all the people gathered, many of them clamoring for a look inside the coach. "There are so many people," she said nervously.
"Not so many," Althea said reassuringly. "They only seek diversion. They mean no harm. And there won't be so many people inside."
Lily was not convinced of that; she suddenly felt light-headed and clammy. "I don't want to do it, Auntie," she said, shrinking back against the leather squabs. "Can't the earl tell them what I saw?"
"No," her aunt said with a sympathetic smile. "You must tell them in your own voice, darling."
Lily's stomach twisted uncomfortably. "But I don't know what to say!"
"You need only tell the truth," Althea said, then suddenly leaned forward and put her hand on Lily's knee. "But you must be very certain of the truth, Lily. That is the most important thing--you must be certain about what you saw that night. Are you? Are you quite certain?"
Lily thought back to what she'd seen. So many things had been said since that night, so many people had come and gone from Ashwood. Still, she'd seen Mr. Scott's horse, and the figures in the hallway. She nodded solemnly. She meant to please Althea, to assure her she could repeat what she'd seen.
But Althea seemed strangely sad. She shifted back, her hands in her lap once more. "Entirely certain, dearest? It was so dark that night, and there were so many people at Ashwood. Are you certain you saw Mr. Scott?"
There had been a lot of people about. But Lily felt as if she were the cause of all this ruckus, that the people were gathered here today because of what she'd said, and she didn't want to embarrass Althea or make the earl angry by being afraid to say it now. "I'm certain," she said again.
Her aunt smiled at Lily, but her eyes glistened with tears.
The coach halted; Lily felt the jostling of one of the coachmen climbing down. A moment later, the door swung open, and people crowded in, craning their necks to see inside. Althea reached across the coach, gathered Lily in a hug, and held her tight. "Remember to speak only the truth, love. And don't be afraid--no one wishes you harm." She kissed her cheek and let her go. "Go on, then. Mr. Bowman will see you in."
Lily realized that Althea was sending her in alone. "Aren't you coming, Auntie?"
Her aunt shook her head. "Not this time."
"But you must come!" Lily cried, truly frightened now.
"I cannot," Althea said, and a tear slid down her cheek. "I am so sorry, darling, but my husband ..." She looked down, and Lily heard something that sounded like a strangled sob. Althea looked up and smiled at Lily. "My sister needs me now and I have been too long delayed. Go on, Lily. It will be over before you know it, and I will come back to you as soon as I can, I promise."
"Miss Boudine!" It was Mr. Bowman, standing at the door of the coach with the curious throng behind him. "Come along, girl, the magistrate is waiting."
Lily looked at Althea, desperate for her aunt's arms. But her aunt smiled and turned her toward the coach door. "You are a brave little girl. You can do anything. Now go."
Lily reluctantly stepped through the opening and was instantly surrounded by footmen who shepherded her through the crowd.
"Let us have a look at the lass!" someone shouted at them, and the bystanders pushed against each other for a better view. The footmen kept moving, guiding Lily into the commons room behind Mr. Bowman.
Inside, it was terribly crowded. Those people who could not find a seat were pressed against the walls. The ceiling was low, making the room seem even more cramped. The footmen had to clear a path through the crush of bodies. Frightened, Lily shifted so close to the Ashwood footman that she could smell the wool of his livery. He clamped his hand on her shoulder, holding tightly, steering her forward.
She was led to the front of the room to stand before a thin, wiry man. He was seated behind a table in his judicial wig and robe. He peered at Lily over the tops of his spectacles, assessing her and frowning as if she were not to his liking. The earl was seated in an ornate chair to the magistrate's right, and to the magistrate's left, in what looked like a hastily constructed box, stood the accused. Mr. Scott's clothes were unkempt and he had the growth of a beard on his face. Lily could smell him--he looked and smelled as if he'd been living in a cave.
She avoided his gaze.
"Come, come," the magistrate said, gesturing for Lily to come closer. Mr. Bowman pushed her forward. The magistrate pointed to the edge of his table, where Lily supposed she was to stand. She was directly across from Mr. Scott, and behind him sat his family. His wife held their youngest child in her lap, and she was weeping. Her daughter sat glumly, and beside her was Mr. Scott's oldest son, Tobin, who stared darkly at Lily.
Lily had seen the Scott family when Mr. Bowman had driven her to Mr. Scott's cottage to identify the horse she'd seen the night of the gala. They'd all spilled out of the cottage to look at her then, and Mrs. Scott's eyes had been red and swollen, just as they were now. Lily was acquainted only with Tobin, as he often accompanied his father to Ashwood to assist him in the construction of the staircase. On a few occasions, Tobin had been sent outside to watch over Lily when Althea desired to speak to Mr. Scott in private.
Tobin was a few years older than Lily, perhaps as old as thirteen, and he'd always been very kind to her. Today, however, his dark brown eyes were staring at her as if he would very much like to strangle her.
"Miss Boudine, do we have your solemn vow that what you will say here today is God's honest truth?" the magistrate asked.
Lily made the mistake of glancing to her right, and saw all the faces peering intently at her. She swallowed hard and nodded.
"Yes, my lord," she said. Her knees were shaking. She feared she would faint in front of all these people. The earl would be so angry with her--he would make her be Irish. She could feel the old man's gaze boring through her back, just as Tobin's gaze was burning through her front.
"You may proceed," the magistrate said, and suddenly, Mr. Bowman was standing before her.
"Miss Boudine," he said, gazing down at her. "Please tell his lordship what you saw the night of the summer gala."
It was a wonder Lily found her voice at all. She scarcely realized she was speaking. Her voice trembled almost as hard as her knees as she told the magistrate about the shadowy figures in the hallway, the rider on the gray horse with the black spots.
"Have you identified this horse?" the magistrate demanded.