When Lauren Moore is left penniless by the death of her mother, the invitation to live with distant relatives in Cornwall seems like the answer to her prayers. But Falconridge, perched on the edge of a steep cliff, waves crashing onto the rocks below, is a place of shadowed halls and locked doors. Why does the housekeeper warn Lauren to leave and never come back? What secrets does the house hold?
Most intriguing of all is Norman Wade, Lauren’s cousin by marriage and heir to the brooding ancestral mansion. The devilishly handsome playboy warns her of the perils that could befall her at his home. More determined than ever to stay and unlock Falconridge’s mystery, Lauren begins to suspect that the greatest danger comes from the seductive Wade himself. Then tragedy strikes—and no one is safe.
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About the Author
Jennifer Wilde is the pseudonym under which Tom E. Huff (1938–1990) wrote his groundbreaking New York Times–bestselling historical romance novels, including the Marietta Danver Trilogy (Love’s Tender Fury, Love Me, Marietta, and When Love Commands). Huff also wrote classic Gothic romances as Edwina Marlow, Beatrice Parker, Katherine St. Clair, and T. E. Huff. A native of Texas who taught high school English before pursuing a career as a novelist, Huff was honored with a Career Achievement Award from Romantic Times in 1988.
Read an Excerpt
By Jennifer Wilde
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 T. E. Huff
All rights reserved.
It had been raining all day. It was a steady, pelting rain that drummed on the roof and splashed noisily on the pavements. Standing at the windows, I could look down at the school courtyard, enclosed by a high stone wall. The trees were dark green, barely visible through the rain, and the drive was a sodden gray mass. Across the street, the church was like a tall sandstone mountain, incredibly ugly. As I stood there, the bells tolled. The sound had an eerie quality heard through the pounding noise of the rain.
An atmosphere of tension had been building up in Mrs. Siddons' School for Young Ladies all day. The young ladies were ordinarily well behaved, perfectly bred in every respect. Life within the confines of the school was usually placid, content, smoothly ordered. Mrs. Siddons believed in organization. Her young ladies were much too busy to misbehave, but today rain had made the ordinary activities impossible—no archery, no lawn tennis, no trips to the museum with sketch books.
There had been a quarrel at breakfast. One of the girls refused to eat and was promptly sent to spend the day in the infirmary. During the morning, when I was conducting French lessons with the younger girls, they had paid no attention to passages from Moliere. They had whispered, passed notes, made faces at one another. All the while the rain pounded, streaking the leaden windows of the classroom. It had been hard for me to concentrate, too, and I had not scolded the girls. I, too, felt the atmosphere that hung over the school.
Something was going to happen. I had known it. I had sensed it all day and when the summons from Mrs. Siddons came it had been no surprise. I knew what she was going to tell me. There were no more funds. Mr. Burton, who had been my mother's lawyer, had written me a letter earlier in the month. The money was all gone. There were only a few pieces of jewelry left, and they were of no real value. Did I wish to sell them?
I had written Mr. Burton a polite letter, thanking him for his kindness and requesting that the jewelry be kept in its box at the bank. I was helping out at the school, I informed him, and would manage nicely. Then I went to my room and cried. I knew it would be the last time I could afford to cry, and I unleashed all the pent up emotions that had tormented me since my mother's death. When I was finished, when the last tear had dried on my cheek, I sat for a long time in the darkness of the room, wondering what I should do.
I had been at Mrs. Siddons' for four years. Before that there had been a number of other schools, and before that a long line of governesses. My mother had been a ravishingly lovely woman, full of vitality and zest for life. She had not wanted to be bothered by a daughter. She was always on her way to someplace exciting, usually with an attractive man beside her, and what little affection I got was hastily given between engagements. She was a frivolous creature, radiant, and I remembered her silvery laughter and her flushed cheeks. No one dreamed she had consumption until the end. Even then she had retained her zest.
"Lauren, my dear," she told me that last day, "smile, darling. I do want to see you smiling."
I tried, but my lips trembled.
"You must smile, dear," she said. "And you must enjoy. Life is not very pleasant—unless you fight it. I have fought it, ever since your father died. You don't remember him, do you? He was a lot like you, so serious, so resourceful. You have all his best qualities. And I hope you have a few of mine, too. I haven't been a good mother, have I? But I have provided—" She coughed violently and clasped the lace handkerchief to her lips.
The doctor came into the room and nodded to me. I started to leave, but mother seized my hand.
"There is plenty—all those stocks. You can finish at Mrs. Siddons' and then find some nice husband. Be wise in your choice. Be careful. It is very important—" Her eyes sparkled like blue sapphires, her blonde hair clung in damp ringlets about her head, and it seemed to me that she had never been lovelier. "You will manage, Lauren. You're so much like your father in that respect. You'll not make a mess of things as I did and Helena...."
"Helena?" I said.
"My sister. You don't remember her. Dear Helena—and that ghastly old mansion...."
Those were her last words to me. The doctor ordered me out of the room. My mother died that night. I went through the funeral in a trance and for weeks afterwards, back at school, I could not believe that she was gone. Then Mr. Burton began to correspond with me. The stocks were mere paper, valueless, and there was barely enough to keep me in school for another year. Now a year had passed, and the money was gone. I stood at the windows watching the rain and holding Mrs. Siddons' note in my hand.
Clarissa came down the hall, looking for me. She was frowning, her light blue eyes filled with concern. Clarissa and I had been friends for four years, ever since we both arrived at Mrs. Siddons'. We shared a room, and I did not know how I could have managed without her gaity and her undeviating companionship. We were like sisters, and what problems one had the other shared without question.
"Siddons is waiting," Clarissa said. "She sent me to look for you. She's in a dandy mood, too. All smiles and gentle tones. When she's like that you know not to cross her."
"I suppose I had better go," I said, my voice low.
"You look so downcast. Have you been crying?"
"You know I don't cry," I replied, stiffening my shoulders.
"I know—it's a pity. Lauren, what will you say to her?"
"I don't know. I am at her mercy."
"Surely she won't throw you out."
"I am merely facing the truth. I must."
"Term ends in two weeks. You'll surely stay till then. Then we can make plans...."
"I must hurry, Clarissa. She hates to be kept waiting."
"I'll be in our room. Oh, Lauren—do be nice to her. Don't show your temper, and—don't be so proud. You know how the old hag loves to put people in their place. Don't give her a chance to humiliate you. She can be terrifying."
"No one terrifies me," I said.
I walked down the hall, inwardly bracing myself. I was afraid, but I was determined not to show it. I had learned long ago not to reveal any of my emotions. They made one vulnerable, I thought, and I kept mine closely sheltered. I was certainly not going to give Mrs. Siddons the satisfaction of seeing how I felt.
There was a long mirror in the hall next to her office, and I stopped to arrange my hair before I went in. My face was drawn, too serious, and I looked very pale in the dim light. I patted my cheeks to give them some color. My hair fell in rich auburn curls about my shoulders, and I pushed it back, examining the reflection. I was not at all like my mother. She was all cream and pink and gold, whereas I took after my father. There had been a portrait of him once, and I remembered the enormous brown eyes with their long curling lashes, the fine arched brows and firm pink lips. He had been a dashing, handsome fellow, and I was glad I was like him. I had color and character, if not my mother's ethereal beauty.
I knocked quietly on the office door. After a moment I heard a calm voice bidding me come in. Mrs. Siddons sat behind her desk, a smile on her lips. She was playing the benevolent lady today, I noted, and I was on guard.
"Good afternoon, Miss Moore," she said.
I nodded, my lips tight.
"This rain," she remarked, "it's terrible. And the fog. Sometimes London is unbearable. I often long for the country, the open air." She made small talk for a few moments, her shrewd eyes narrowing. I was reminded of a cat toying with a mouse. Mrs. Siddons was enjoying this. She had me at her mercy, and it gave her a great deal of pleasure.
She was a large woman with two huge coils of red hair braided on top of her head. The vigorous color of her hair seemed to drain her face of color, giving her complexion a dead white look. This she augmented unwisely with too much rice powder. Her black eyes were lined with pencil, the heavy lids shadowed with blue, and her thick lips were painted blood red. She would not allow any of the girls to use cosmetics, and her own bizarre application of them made us happy to comply with her rule. I had never liked the woman, and as I watched her now prolonging the thrust, I felt complete loathing.
"The term is almost over," she said.
"Yes," I replied.
"Have you any plans for the Easter vacation?"
I shook my head, waiting.
Mrs. Siddons smiled. It was the smirking smile she ordinarily saved for parents of the girls. There was a silver paper knife on her desk and she picked it up, playing with it. I stood in front of the desk with my hands behind my back, my chin high. Outside the rain still poured. The window behind her desk was streaked with gray rivulets.
"You could stay on here," she suggested. "There is a great deal of work to be done while the girls are away. Inventory to be taken, cleaning to be done, supplies to be laid in." She looked up, her black eyes glittering. "I should be glad for you to help, my dear."
"You wish to employ me?" I asked.
"In a manner of speaking."
"I don't think I would be interested, Mrs. Siddons."
She put the paper knife down and folded her hands on the desk. Her nails were painted a bright red, and they looked like claws, I thought. All the girls despised her, were intimidated by her cold manner, yet she ran a perfect school, one of the best in London, with only the most select pupils.
"I may as well be blunt, Lauren," she said. "You are not in any position to refuse my offer. Mr. Burton has written me a long letter. It was most specific about financial conditions. Your tuition is paid for until the end of this term, and after that there will be no more money."
"I am aware of that, Mrs. Siddons."
"And what do you intend to do about it?"
"That is my concern."
"Don't be snippy, Miss Moore. It doesn't become you. Let me continue. Mr. Burton also sent a letter to your aunt in Cornwall, explaining your situation. There has been no reply from her."
Mother had mentioned her sister Helena. The woman was a stranger to me. She had not come to the funeral, had not sent a wreath or a card. She might just as well not exist as far as I was concerned. I knew nothing whatsoever about her and did not care to. There were no other relatives. I was alone. Mrs. Siddons knew this, and she felt it gave her more power over me.
"Let's be realistic," she said. "You are eighteen years old, and you have no one to turn to. You've been at this school for four years, Lauren, and you have been an asset, if I may say so. The girls adore you, particularly the younger ones. You helped conduct the French classes during Mademoiselle Delong's illness and that was appreciated. I would be glad to have you take over completely in that department, as well as in embroidery and deportment, as I doubt that the Mademoiselle will be returning. Her health—or so she claims."
I made no reply. I stared at the window behind her desk, watching the rain streak the gray glass.
"This in return for room and board, with a few pounds for spending. I think this arrangement would be splendid for both of us. Of course, a few changes would have to be made. You could not continue to share a room with Miss Neville, but there is a fine room in the attic annex, small but nice enough I should think."
"Thank you, Mrs. Siddons, but—no."
"That's right, Mrs. Siddons."
"You ridiculous girl—what shall you do?"
"I will manage."
She did not say anything for a few moments. I could hear the ticking of the clock over the mantle and the monotonous sound of the rain. My face felt flushed, and I was trembling inside, but I held my composure. I was not going to let this woman know how her suggestion affected me.
"You are a foolish girl," she said, finally, "very foolish. I will tell you now that I had a great many reservations about accepting your application to this school. Your mother was not exactly my kind of person, you know—not the proper background, to say nothing of her appearance. But I was persuaded—she had influential friends. That kind always does."
I could see that she was trying to make me angry. I braced myself. I would not let her get the best of me in this way. I listened to her words objectively, as though she were talking about the weather.
Mrs. Siddons stood up. She was a formidable figure in her dark black taffeta. She pointed a finger at me.
"And you—you stand here like a duchess, head high, as if you were too good to work on the staff here."
"Perhaps I am, Mrs. Siddons," I replied quietly.
"Who are you, may I ask? Nobody. Penniless. The daughter of a Captain in the regiment and a woman no one ever heard of. Don't be so grand, Miss Moore. I have offered my help. It shall not be offered again. That I can assure you."
"Very well, Mrs. Siddons."
"You have no one else to turn to, no one to help you. I don't think I need go into detail about the fate of young girls alone in London. The newspapers are full of stories. Even Queen Victoria has expressed her concern about the sordid traffic that exists in this city."
"Are you trying to frighten me, Mrs. Siddons?"
"I am trying to make you see things sensibly."
"Are you quite finished?"
"Not quite. The best you could do would be work in one of those foul sweatshops. Even that would be preferable to anything else that might happen. You're a stubborn girl, much too willful. Only a miracle will save you—"
"Then I shall wait for that miracle," I said.
I turned and left the office without waiting for her to dismiss me. It was an unthinkable thing for one of the girls to do, and I heard her gasp as I closed the door. She was not accustomed to being crossed, and it gave me satisfaction to know that I had had the last word. I was not by nature rude, but Mrs. Siddons brought out the worst in me. She ruled the girls with an iron hand, crisp, cold and condescending with them, only to simper with fawning humility when their parents came to visit. I could not abide hypocrisy, and Mrs. Siddons was a glowing example of that.
She had succeeded in her purpose, though. Her words had brought home the desperation of my situation, and the sheer folly of my refusal. It would be humiliating to work here in the school I had known for four years as a student, to be relegated to a shabby room in the attic, yet it would mean security. As it was, in two weeks I would literally be on the streets and at the mercy of the world.
I could find work of some kind, I told myself. Surely I could. There were any number of things I could do well, yet most of the jobs were given to men. A woman's place was in the home according to our Queen, and there was very little employment a woman could take and remain respectable. I thought of the sweatshops Mrs. Siddons had mentioned. I remembered reading about them in one of Mr. Dickens' novels, and I shuddered. As for the other thing she had mentioned, I tried not to think of it.
Clarissa was in our room, curled up on the sofa in front of the window. Her yellow skirts were spread about her like the petals of a buttercup, and her light blonde hair was caught up with a blue ribbon, the curls spilling down her shoulders in a shiny cascade. She was a lovely girl with delicate features which belied her robust health and saucy temperament. Her pranks had caused many a headache at school, and her liveliness made her a favorite with the other girls.
"Was it awful, Lauren?" she asked.
"Oh, dear. I was afraid it would be. Is she going to let you stay?"
"She wants me to work here. She wants me to take a room in the attic. Mademoiselle Delong probably won't be back, and Mrs. Siddons wants me to take over her duties."
"How outrageous!" Clarissa cried. "You refused?"
"The old dragon—what nerve. What shall we do?"
"I don't know. My tuition is paid until the end of the term. Then I must leave. I'll find something...."
"You will go to Paris with me. My parents are dragging me off to the continent for the Easter holidays. They'll be delighted to take you, too. We'll go to all those dreadful museums and art galleries and it will give us time to think of some permanent solution."
Excerpted from Falconridge by Jennifer Wilde. Copyright © 1969 T. E. Huff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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