Could losing everything be the best thing to happen to Annabelle Thorley?
In the fallout of her deceased father’s financial ruin, Annabelle’s prospects are looking bleak. Her fiancé has called off their betrothal, and now she remains at the mercy of her controlling and often cruel brother. Annabelle soon faces the fact that her only hope for a better life is to do the unthinkable and run away to Fellsworth, where her estranged uncle serves as the school’s superintendent. Upon arrival, Annabelle learns that she must shed her life of high society and work for her wages for the first time in her life.
Owen Locke is unswerving in his commitments. As a widower and father, he is fiercely protective of his only daughter. As an industrious gamekeeper, he is intent on keeping poachers at bay even though his ambition has always been to purchase land he can call his own. When a chance encounter introduces him to Annabelle Thorley, his steady life is shaken. For the first time since his wife’s death, Owen begins to consider a second chance at love.
As Owen and Annabelle grow closer, ominous forces threaten the peace they thought they’d found. Poachers, mysterious strangers, and murderers converge at Fellsworth, forcing Annabelle and Owen to a test of fortitude and bravery to stop the shadow of the past from ruining their hopes for the future.
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A Stranger at Fellsworth
By Sarah E. Ladd
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2017 Sarah Ladd
All rights reserved.
Wilhurst House London, England, 1819
Annabelle gasped at the sight that met her eye as she passed the parlor door. Her steps slowed. Her eyes focused.
A strange man, clad in workman's attire of dirty linen trousers and a shabby tan coat, hoisted her mother's teak writing desk.
Annabelle balled her fist at her side. "You there. Stop this instant!" she ordered from the corridor, employing her most authoritative voice.
But the massive man paid her no heed. Once the desk was balanced on his shoulder, he reached for the matching carved chair.
Her shoulder clipped the door's frame when she marched into the bright parlor. "I said stop. Put that down immediately!"
As she drew closer to the man, he turned to face her, annoyance evident in the firm set of his wide jaw. "You say something?"
Heat rose to her cheeks at his irreverent tone. "Yes, I said something. I demand you return those items to where you found them before I call for the magistrate."
The man's low, gritty laugh ignited her anger further. He shifted his weight, and his dirty boots squeaked on the polished floor. "You? And who are you?"
Annabelle jutted her chin up. "I am Miss Annabelle Thorley, and I will not be spoken to in such a manner. Now do as I say and leave my home at once."
"Are you Mrs. Thomas Thorley?" he demanded.
"I am not. I am Mr. Thorley's sister. But that is my mother's desk, so return it to where you found it."
His bushy eyebrow lifted in amusement. He lowered the chair, pulled a piece of paper from his faded waistcoat, extended it out as if reading it, and then crumpled it in his thick fingers before he returned it to his pocket. "My orders come from Mr. Thomas Thorley, and he says this desk, and the rest of the furnishings in this chamber, are all to go to auction."
Without another word he pushed past her, leaving the scent of brandy and filth in his wake.
As the meaning of his words sank in, dread trickled through her. Thomas intended to sell their late mother's belongings. Annabelle had known her brother was in financial distress, but this?
Sensing she was fighting a losing battle, she scurried to a cupboard while the man was out of the room and scooped personal belongings from it. A book of verses. A miniature portrait Mama had painted of Papa. The odiferous man might be a barbarian, but she would not allow him to leave with her mother's letters. Irritation blurred her vision as she clutched the precious mementos to her chest and rushed from the room.
Annabelle marched down Wilhurst House's narrow hall to the back of the home. There was no question in her mind.
Thomas needed to answer for this.
Annabelle found him in his study, as expected, but instead of sitting at his desk, he reclined on the settee beneath the window with his arm over his eyes.
She discarded her treasures on a small side table, stomped toward him, and poked his arm. "Wake up, Tom. Merciful heavens, it is late morning and here you are, sleeping."
He grunted but made no movement. "I don't recall asking for your opinion on how I spend my time."
Annabelle ignored his snide remark and pulled the curtains open, allowing the bright summer sunshine to spill into the chamber. "There is a man in the parlor removing furnishings. He said you instructed him to do so, and I told him there must be some mistake."
Thomas heaved a bothered sigh. "No, no mistake."
Frustrated at his lack of interest, Annabelle poked him again. "Get up and make them stop."
Thomas eased his bloodshot eyes open and pulled himself up from his reclining position. He swung his boots to the polished floor, yawned, then tugged at the snowy-white cravat hanging around his neck. "I can't stop them from taking what belongs to them."
"What belongs to them?" Annabelle shook her head. He was not making sense. "Tom, those are Mama's things."
He held out his hands, as if to display the fact that he was out of options. "It's quite simple. I owe money, but I don't have any money. I am paying them in kind and then they will leave me be."
Annabelle pressed her lips together while choosing her words. Crossing her brother on such a topic would only lead to more arguing. "Wilhurst House is my home too. This is the home our parents shared. Perhaps if you were to include me in some of the decisions, I could —"
"Include you?" He snorted, his pinched face reeking condescension. He jumped to his feet. "Belle, this home, and everything in it, is mine, not yours, as are all the debts, the unprofitable business dealings, and the plethora of problems Father created before he died. So no, Sister, I'll not include you. Not until I somehow manage to work my way out of this monstrosity of a mess."
He was correct. The home and everything associated with it now belonged to him. She had no right to them — not her mama's desk, not the paintings in the hall, not even the trinkets in her bedchamber.
She eyed Thomas as he lifted a glass of amber liquid to his lips and tossed it down his throat. Reprimanding him for indulging at this time of day would do more harm than good, regardless of how wrong they both knew it to be.
After several moments, he filled his lungs with the study's stale air and forced his long fingers through his dark, tousled hair. He fixed his hazel eyes on her with the same intensity that their papa used to, and she braced herself for the hurt that would inevitably follow. "In the future you will remember that these are my issues to solve. Not yours. I do not need, or want, your interference."
The sharply hurled words stung. Annabelle swallowed, her anger shifting to discouragement. She softened her voice. "I am concerned, 'tis all."
He pointed his finger at her. "All you need concern yourself with is the ball at the Baldwins' this night. Cecil Bartrell will be in attendance, and I expect you to encourage him. If you do as you are told, hope might exist for us yet."
Annabelle's stomach clenched. The mere mention of the man's name was enough to send her into a panic.
Wealthy, ancient, obnoxious Cecil Bartrell.
She rested her hands on the back of a nearby chair and fiddled with the fringe. "You know how I feel about him."
"Feelings are nothing more than silly feminine whims. He is the only man of worth to show interest in you since Goodacre, and fortunately Bartrell doesn't care about the scandal surrounding our family name. Mark my words: Bartrell is your only — and last — chance to marry. If you rely on your heart and the fickle feelings found there, you will end up worse off than you already are."
How she wished she could speak the words poised on her tongue, ready to lash forward. But she knew better.
Thomas reached for the cotton tailcoat on the back of his chair and punched his arms through the sleeves. "We are having company tonight. I suggest you leave the workers alone to see to their tasks so they can depart by the time our guests arrive."
"Guests?" Annabelle jerked her head up. "This is the first I have heard of guests."
"Friends from south of here — Treadwell and McAlister. They are to attend the ball with us tonight, and they will spend the next few days here."
She recognized the names. They had both been frequent guests. Wilhurst House might be but a shell of its former glory, but at least the bedrooms were still intact, and her brother did most of his entertaining in the billiards room or the library, just as their papa had before him. The guests would likely never even see the parlor and the pitiful lack of furnishings.
But it was still a shame. At one time she would have relished a home full of friends and activity, but recent events had made it necessary to retreat from such entertainment. Besides, now that her brother had married, she was not even the hosting mistress — just the lamentable spinster sister.
"You'd best start preparing for the evening." His words snapped her back to the present. "Wear the green gown."
Annabelle crossed her arms over her chest and pivoted on her heel to leave the study. Several unanswered questions might exist in her life at present, but one thing she knew for certain: she would not be wearing the green gown to the Baldwins' ball.CHAPTER 2
How I dread this ball tonight." Annabelle squinted in the bright early afternoon sunlight and groaned as she adjusted the red feather on her straw bonnet to keep it from bouncing against her face with each step.
Crosley, Annabelle's lady's maid, shifted the brown package in her arms and lengthened her stride to match her mistress's. "Do not fret, miss. Tomorrow this time it will just be a memory. 'Twill be over soon enough."
"That's just it." Annabelle lifted her lace handkerchief to her nose to avoid the unpleasant, pungent scents as they passed two vagabonds near an alley. "I don't think it will be over anytime soon. Thomas is determined that I should marry Mr. Bartrell, and he'll not soon forget it. I am determined that I should not marry him. You can see the predicament."
"It will work out in the end, I am sure of it."
Crosley's confident tone did little to squelch the escalating apprehension building within Annabelle. "You are always optimistic."
The lady's maid shrugged. "It can always be worse, miss. Always. As long as you remember that, anything is bearable."
Annabelle raised her voice to be heard above the clatter of a passing carriage and horses' hooves. "I suppose you are right. But in the meantime, if I must attend this ball, it would be more tolerable if I had a new gown to wear. Everyone will be there, and I have attended ever so many events in the yellow silk."
Crosley nodded at the package she was carrying. "I'll sew a lace overlay on the bodice, and these new gloves will breathe new life into it. Just wait and see."
Annabelle opened her mouth to respond, but a sudden, sharp tug on her right wrist jerked her entire body. Someone — or something — pulled the silk reticule looped on her gloved wrist, the force of the action nearly wrenching her from her feet.
The ribbon securing the small bag gave way, and her reticule snapped free. A cry escaped her lips, and she whirled her head around to assess the source.
A haggard beggar woman clad in a frayed, dingy gown with wild auburn hair clutched Annabelle's reticule to her chest and turned to run, but the man next to her captured Annabelle's attention. He must have witnessed the act of thievery, for within seconds he had a firm grip on the woman's arm. His much larger size easily prevented her escape.
Annabelle's heart raced as the scene unfolded before her. The woman thrashed and kicked in an attempt to free herself. The man remained steady. Onlookers paused to watch the spectacle, but no one intervened.
The man's broad back was to Annabelle. Their positions shifted, and the man seized the reticule from the woman with his available hand. After several minutes the woman ceased her squirming, and once he could free his hand, he extended the bag to Annabelle. "I believe this belongs to you."
She stared at the reticule in his hand with hesitation, as if it were a snake that might strike. She reached out and accepted it. "Yes, it does. Thank you."
The man casually adjusted the wide-brimmed slouch hat that had nearly fallen from his head in the skirmish. "Shall I call the magistrate?"
Annabelle shifted her attention to the woman who had tried to rob her. A spark of recognition flashed. It burned slowly at first and then flamed.
Annabelle was looking at none other than Miss Henrietta Stillworth.
Clearly Miss Stillworth recognized her too, for tears pooled in her cornflower-blue eyes — lovely eyes that had been the envy of every young woman and the object of desire for every young man not but two years prior.
Shock stole Annabelle's speech. She'd heard rumors that Miss Stillworth had fallen into ruin after her parents died, but was it possible she had been reduced to such disdainful circumstances?
The man's deep words jerked her back to the present. "Would you like me to call the magistrate?"
Annabelle gave her head a little shake, as if doing so would dislodge the confusion settling in her mind. The idea of summoning a constable for a lady of Miss Stillworth's station and upbringing was preposterous. Annabelle cleared her throat. "Um, no ... no. That will not be necessary."
Her heart ached as a tear slipped down the lady's flushed cheek. A million questions balanced on the tip of Annabelle's tongue, ready to spill forth, but another glance at the man, a stranger, silenced her.
"Very well." The man released his hold on Miss Stillworth's arm. "You are free to go."
Miss Stillworth rubbed her arm where her captor's hand had been and turned to leave.
"Wait." Afraid Miss Stillworth might leave before she had a chance to address her, Annabelle stepped closer. She opened her reticule, scooped out all of the coins in her gloved hand, and extended them to the woman, who at one time she had considered a friend. "Take these."
Initially Annabelle thought Miss Stillworth was going to reject the gift. She made no motion. But after several seconds, her chin trembled and fresh moisture filled her eyes. She accepted the coins, took two slow steps backward, whirled around, and disappeared into the swarming crowd.
Annabelle did not look away from Miss Stillworth's retreating form until the tiny woman had been swallowed by the street's business and her bright titian hair was no longer visible.
Annabelle did not understand. How had someone who had been as prominent as Henrietta Stillworth found herself in such a deplorable situation?
She turned her attention to the man who had rescued her reticule. He, too, was staring after Miss Stillworth.
The man had a strong, handsome profile, with a fine, straight nose and square jaw. He was a full head taller than Annabelle, and he carried himself well, yet his fawn buckskin breeches were smeared with dried mud, and it must have been ages since his riding boots last saw the polishing cloth. Despite this lack of refinement, he boasted a commanding figure — just the sort of man who would rescue a lady in distress.
It surprised her that a stranger would rush to her aid. Pickpockets carried blades, or so she had been warned. He could have been stabbed.
She did not realize she was staring until he spoke.
He set dark eyes on her, gave a little chuckle, and shook his head. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone do anything like that before."
Annabelle frowned, a little shocked at the stranger's response. "Are you laughing? I cannot say I find anything amusing about this encounter."
He adjusted his felt hat, and his expression sobered. "I find no amusement in it either. Far from it. I only meant that it was an unusual gesture. You gave the woman the object she attempted to rob you of. Most people would be eager to see an action like that punished."
"She apparently needs the money more than I." Annabelle handed the damaged reticule to Crosley as nonchalantly as if it were nothing more than a handkerchief. "But regardless of the outcome, it was kind of you to intervene."
The directness of his gaze unnerved her. "Think nothing of it."
Determined to fully regain her composure, Annabelle straightened her posture and lifted her chin. "I would gladly compensate you for your trouble, but I gave all of my money to the lady."
The man shook his head. "I require no reward, miss."
"Of course you do. I am certain my brother would be more than happy to repay you for your service."
"Again, it is not necessary. You must be eager to be on your way. I'll take my leave."
He bowed, and now that the fog of confusion had cleared, Annabelle's interest in her rescuer grew. A breeze unsettled his curly black hair, and the sunlight brightened his chestnut eyes.
It was highly improper for her, a lady, to speak with a strange man on the street, regardless of the service he provided. But she had to at least know something about him. "Please, if you would be so kind, to whom do I owe this debt of gratitude?"
"My name is Owen Locke, from Fellsworth in Surrey." The corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. "At your service."CHAPTER 3
Owen had never witnessed anything like it. He turned to glance at the beautiful lady with the red feather in her bonnet walking in the opposite direction, the skirt of her gown swaying with each step in the muggy dampness. Her somberly clad servant followed close behind.
He shook his head. The lady had fallen victim to a pickpocket, and in a surprising turn of events, she gifted the thief all the coins in her possession. Astonishing.
Perhaps it did not pain the wealthy to part with such a sum, but the action was rare. What was even more curious, the lady had not seemed frightened by the incident. If anything, she seemed to pity the criminal as one would pity a wounded animal or a frightened child.
Excerpted from A Stranger at Fellsworth by Sarah E. Ladd. Copyright © 2017 Sarah Ladd. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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