The Lady and Her Secret - Excerpt


She came home to find her locket, the symbol of their love and 
found herself on a journey of self-discovery and reconciliation.

Lady Rachel Emerson comes from a prominent Sommer-by-the-Sea family and leads a charmed life. Her fiancĂ©, Pryce, Earl Somerset is more than just tall, dark, and handsome. He’s everything a woman could want. But before they send out the wedding invitations, the betrothal is canceled.

After fifteen years, Rachel returns to her beloved Emerson Manor on All Hallows Eve, the day before the manor is turned over to the local historical society. For years, she mourned the loss of her locket, her only connection to Pryce. Rachel has one day and one last chance to find it. Her search leads her to a cache of old newspapers that rekindle memories and lead her on a journey of self-discovery and reconciliation. But will she find her heart’s desire?

The Lady and Her Secret is Book 4 of The Return of the Ladies of Sommer-by-the-Sea

Chapter One


October 1829

Sommer-by-the-Sea, England

Lady Rachel Emerson drew her treasured brown shawl close and fisted the wool at her neck to block out the damp mist from stealing what little warmth she had. Foolish, that’s what she was. Who in their right mind goes out at 8:00 a.m. on a Northern England beach road in late October? Really? No one would describe her as compulsive, but what else could explain her uncontrollable urge to come here? Now. Before the house was gone and nothing was left.

Rachel reached into her pocket and pulled out a folded, tattered note once again. If she read it once, she read it a hundred times. Meet me tonight. R. She put the unsent note away and continued on her way.

A breeze teased the tendrils of Rachel's long, raven-black hair, releasing them from the chignon at the nape of her neck. The striking contrast of her dark tresses against her fair, porcelain-like complexion created an undeniable aura of ethereal beauty.

Slender and graceful, Rachel was much more than a beautiful woman. It took only one glance at her mesmerizing azure eyes to see her keen intelligence and authenticity and why people were drawn to her.

She made her way down Coach Road, where the road split in three directions. There, she was greeted by the village sign, Sommer-by-the-Sea. Against the setting of an overcast sky, fingers of fog roiled at the sign’s base and made it appear as if it hung in midair.

She glanced down the middle road, Queen’s Promenade, and then the road to the right, King’s Way. Both were grand names from a different time when royalty once inhabited the Sommer-by-the-Sea Castle. It had been over a century since the last royal occupant. Queen’s Promenade skirted the edge of Baycliff Forest with evergreens that thinned and gave way to the trimmed and shaped grounds of the grand manors near the beach.

Rachel let out a breath as she glanced to the right, King’s Way. This road led directly into the village and was almost wide enough for two wagons. Rather than move on, she remained fixed in place, listening to the cadence of crashing waves in the distance, creating a familiar, soothing rhythm. The breeze picked up and sent sand and dust up the road from the beach. She shivered and pulled her shawl closer. For a moment, she regretted starting her journey so early in the morning.

“My own fault,” Rachel muttered, “for putting this visit off.” At midnight, the Historical Society would take ownership of the estate property and its contents. She had to be gone by then. Nothing like leaving things to the last minute.

“Come on, Rachel, one foot in front of the other,” she said to no one.

Today was her last chance to walk through Emerson Manor and find what she lost a long time ago. It was precious to her then and even more so now. Deep down, the comfort of home called to her. Finding that feeling again warmed her soul. Finding anything else would be a miracle.

She squinted down Queen’s Promenade. Visibility was poor. There wasn’t any way anyone could make out the cemetery a quarter mile away—or the entrance to Emerson Manor on the hill a mile past that—not with this mist.

As a seasoned village resident, she knew the watery morning sun struggling through the clouds would make it difficult for the haze to clear.

Another look at the gathering mist sent a chill up her back. Rachel rubbed her arms, unable to be soothed. Easy. Stay calm. She cast a quick glance from the short shrubs at the edge of the road to the thickening mist around her. Anyone could hide in this fog, and she wouldn’t know until they stood nose to nose.

“Breathe. Nothing’s there. It’s your overactive imagination.”

The tall grass twitched. Rachel’s chest pounded. She dared not make a sudden move. She sniffed the air and caught the tangy order of brine, seaweed, and mucky sand. Another sniff. Some people were concerned about the foxes that roamed the area. Not Rachel. It was skunks that terrified her ever since she was five.

“Dear Lord, Rachel, what were you thinking?” Her father’s voice had a nasal twang, probably caused by the handkerchief he held to his nose.

“I wanted to pet Brenna’s kitty. It was a gift from her uncle. He brought them back from his voyage to America.”

“I thought as much.” Her mother sounded annoyed. “Who gave you the kitty to pet? Brenna?”

“Yes. A boy kitty and a girl kitty.” Rachel turned to her father. “I asked first, and Brenna said yes. Why are we going to the boathouse now? Doesn’t the party start soon?”

“I’m telling you, Edythe. That Hutchington girl will come to no good.”

“She is just a child, playing children’s games.” Her mother gave her a big smile and then turned back to her father. “They will be the best of friends. You’ll see.”

“At Rachel’s expense.” Father wagged his head. He didn’t believe Mother for a moment. Still walking toward the dock, he glanced at her.

“You’ll have to be brave, my little princess.” His words were somber, but his eyes twinkled as they reached the water. In minutes, he had a fire blazing in the pit, and Mother had supplies on the outdoor table.

“Brave?” Rachel asked.

“Yes.” Her mother pulled off her costume and gave it to Father.

“My costume,” she cried, reaching for it. Shiny beads covered her beautiful costume and made it twinkle in the firelight. “You don’t let anyone into the party without a costume.”

“Hmm… not in this costume. Unless you want to go as a very smelly fairy,” her father said, holding the pungent mess at arm’s length. Five-year-old Rachel watched in horror as he tossed it into the fire.

“Farewell, little princess and brave handkerchief.” He ceremoniously tossed the handkerchief into the fire pit as well. “Life is not always comfortable. There are also some unpleasant movements. Sometimes it’s even stinky.”

“Oh, Father. Don’t be silly,” she said with a laugh. He always made her laugh.

“Thank goodness,” her mother said, sniffing her like a puppy, making her laugh even more. “I can’t smell anything.”

“Can I be a witch like you, Mother?” Rachel glanced from her father to her mother.

“I’m not sure.” Her father turned away from tending the fire and gave Rachel a thoughtful gaze. “You have to be pretty special to be a witch like your mother.” He returned and raked the fire to ensure nothing remained of the costume or his handkerchief.

“Don’t give her any ideas.” A particular look passed between her parents. “You know Rachel must be at least six before I can teach her spells. I think the first one will be eliminating odors.”

Her mother washed her down for good measure and wrapped her in a soft towel while her father put out the fire.

“We’ve completed our task,” he announced. He sniffed around Rachel. “You smell sweet as a rose. I’m sure Janet will have something special for you to wear to the party.”

“In the future, Rachel—”

“Edythe, she’s learned her lesson” Her father turned toward her. “Haven’t you… Hmm. I can’t call you my fairy princess. How about… my little ballerina?” Her father picked her up. “I want you to have only happy ever afters. No matter their size or who says you can touch them, Rachel, wild animals are not safe. Promise me you won’t go near them again.”

“I promise, Father.” He carried her back to the manor and brought her to her room, where Janet waited.

He put her down, and Rachel ran inside.

“Oh, Janet. You made me another costume.” On her bed was a lilac gown with a fitted bodice with beads in a pretty pattern. It had short, puffed sleeves trimmed with lace and a flowing gauze skirt with silver embroidery that made the skirt sparkle. There were black ballet slippers, but her eyes went to the small glittery crown.

“I thought you would be a princess ballerina.” Janet handed her the crown. “It completes your costume.”

After that encounter, she had a healthy respect for Brenna’s skunks. Especially when her friend got tired of the black and white creatures and let them out into the wild. The pair of skunks made their new home in an abandoned badger burrow at the base of the town sign.

Her father was just as happy. There were few people like him. Sheldon Emerson, the Duke of Harrington, was an imposing and dignified man. Handsome beyond doubt, his dark blue eyes were captivating, complementing the roguish charm of his wavy dark hair now streaked with silver, and a brilliant smile that charmed everyone. Unlike the fathers of her friends, the duke was a remarkable man. Embracing free-thinking and possessing an insatiable thirst for knowledge, he was always engrossed in a book, which he eagerly discussed at the dinner table, drawing even a young Rachel into the conversations.

His playful sense of humor and quick wit endeared him to all who met. While he fulfilled his duties as a responsible Duke and managed his affairs adeptly, his heart belonged to his beloved wife, Edythe, and to their precious daughter, Rachel.

Now, a grown Rachel took one step backward and another before turning and quickly marching toward town. Better to wait for the fog to lift so she could see what was in front of her before going to the manor.

“Coward,” Rachel mumbled. “You didn’t come this far to run away. Hush,” she said, as if a self-reprimand would quiet her mind.

Rachel followed the double row of ruts cut deeply into the ground by the heavy carriages and wagons and trudged down King’s Way into the village. She danced around the puddles and deep mud patches caused by the early-morning rain.

It would take her another thirty minutes to reach the village. By the time the buildings on the West Heath on the outskirts of town were in sight, the sun had made its way through the clouds and took the edge off the chill.

Rachel continued down King’s Way, past the merchant quarter. It hadn’t changed at all. It still was a community of hardworking people. Stone and brick houses with steep roofs and gabled fronts lined the streets. Carts stood in front of the houses. Clothes hung on the rope lines to dry. People hurried about doing their chores.

Rachel entered Westmore Commons and stopped at the village’s public notice board. She smiled when she read the notice about Emerson Manor and the Historical Society. The announcement was one among many others: a farm to be let, a position open at one of the clothiers in the village, the availability of gentlemen's and ladies’ undergarments, an advertisement for fine writing papers, and another advertisement specifically to ladies—autumn novelties, an excellent way to identify whalebone stays. That made Rachel chuckle.

Rachel crossed the commons. Nannies were pushing carriages or sitting on benches chatting with each other. Other people hurried along, determined to reach their destination. She looked around at old landmarks, the castle and the church on the hill, Mrs. Bainbridge’s Female Seminary, and the town hall opposite the village square. She headed toward the center of the commons.

Seasonal decorations made of leaves, gourds, and seasonal flowers dressed the town square and the business district.

The large white pavilion, built on a mound in the center of the town commons, provided a broad look of Sommer-by-the-Sea. Rachel climbed the steps, something she’d done hundreds of times for a view of the harbor. Masts swayed in the wind as the boats waited in the water.

Rachel let out a deep breath. Things looked the same but different. Places and people move on. Did she think they would stay the same for her? How foolish not to realize Sommer-by-the-Sea would change. She turned away from the harbor as if ignoring progress would make it stop and tried to swallow around the knot in her throat. What else had time changed?

From where she stood, she noticed new businesses were sprinkled among the old storefronts. The Tearoom occupied the far corner where the milliner used to be. Large flowerpots brimmed with bright yellow and red flowers and brown leaves in front of the shops created a festive look. Rich colors and trappings of autumn were all around. Yes, fall was her season. Sommer-by-the-Sea was her home.

Emerson Manor,” a voice whispered in her head. Half in anticipation and half in dread, she walked down the gazebo steps headed toward North Wickham Road and passed Mrs. Bainbridge’s Female Seminary.

The aroma of freshly baked bread caught her attention. She imagined the taste of warm bread slathered with fresh butter—or better, raspberry jam—and she licked her lips. Her mother’s baker, Anthony, made the best morning rolls and pastries. Anthony’s father, Gaspar, was the village baker. She and her Brenna stopped at his bakery almost every day after their classes at the seminary. Theirs was a slight diversion that went unnoticed as long as they brought Mrs. Bainbridge back a treat. Her mouth watered as she strolled down the street toward the Gordon and Langley Bookshop. Gaspar’s Bakery was across the way, determined to satisfy her sweet tooth.

She stopped across from the bookshop, now called Dunston’s Books. Disoriented, Rachel looked up and down the street. Rachel stood in the correct place. She searched for the large white building that housed Gaspar’s bakery. It should be on the corner. She tilted her head as she stared at a pale-blue building with window boxes filled with bright yellow flowers. Yes. That was Gaspar’s, but now the space was occupied by a modiste’s shop.

She jumped at a soft, playful bark from a small dog that sniffed her feet. Before she could bend to pet the pup, the dog, an Aberdeen Terrier, rolled on its back, begging for a belly rub.

“McDuff, what are you doing rolling around like that?” A woman approached the dog. “Come, we’re off to the milliner. Then get tickets for the masquerade ball.”

“McDuff. That’s a wonderful name.” Unable to resist the brindle coat, Rachel bent to pet the dog. McDuff rolled on the ground, his tail beating the ground this puppy would melt anyone’s heart. Masquerade ball? Had she heard the woman correctly? Her mother used to host one every year at the Manor.

The woman bent down and picked leaves off McDuff’s coat. “There, that’s much better. Sorry, we have no time to play.”

“That’s all right,” Rachel said, straightening. McDuff went obediently and stood at the woman’s feet but kept his eyes on her.

The woman went into the shop. McDuff looked back and gave Rachel a soft woof.

“I’m sorry, too, but I have to go, as well.”

She turned and crossed the street to get a better look at the bookshop window and stared at a poster.


The Duchess’s Annual Masquerade Ball

October 30 at Emerson Manor

Nine to midnight (if you dare to stay to the witching hour)

Costume required.

Hosted by The Duke and Duchess of Harrington

The Women of Emerson Manor, available at Victoria’s Cottage


An arrow pointed to the right.

It would be wonderful to go to the ball. Rachel looked at the sign. The Women of Emerson Manor.

She glanced through the window at Victoria’s Cottage and saw pots of creams, baskets of crystals, small packets of herbs, incense, and candles—a metaphysical shop. Edythe Emerson was a guest lecturer at The Seminary: Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion and Witches, Myth, and Reality. Her mother would enjoy this shop.

Rachel stepped inside. With her first breath, the familiar woodsy fragrance of bay, earthy mint, and the aromas of sage and rosemary greeted her. Other scents drew her farther into the shop. Lavender, honeysuckle, and rose mixed and created a floral bouquet of fragrances. She didn’t stop; instead, she passed the lotions and jars and followed an overhead sign directing her to the rear of the shop. There she found a large empty table against the wall with a sign: We regret that the book, The Women of Emerson Manor, is sold out. But it was the picture next to the sign that caught her attention. She stared at a formal family portrait of her as a young girl with her mother and her grandmother.

A wave of loss rolled over her. She hadn’t realized how much she wanted to hear her mother’s voice, feel the touch of her hand, and snuggle into the warmth and safety of being home.

Her emotions gradually subsided until a sense of calm washed over her. Rachel turned to leave and stared into the eyes of a woman wearing a purple scarf.

“You’d better hurry if you’re going to Emerson Manor,” the woman said softly and turned to leave.

How did the woman know that was where she was going? What else did she know? With her emotions in turmoil, Rachel followed the woman out the door and looked everywhere. She found the street deserted in every direction but one. Rachel rushed toward the crowd of people by the town square.

Small groups, mostly women, congregated in a knot and chatted. Rachel walked through the crowd and searched for the purple scarf.

“May I have everyone’s attention, please?” A woman holding papers commanded everyone’s attention.

“Hush. Ina’s speaking,” someone called out. Rachel kept moving through the crowd as the group quieted. She fisted her hand and smashed it into her thigh. Had the woman with the purple scarf vanished into thin air?

“Thank you for your patience. The carriage to Emerson Manor will be here shortly.”

Rachel spun around. Emerson Manor? Were these people all going there?

“We will be let off at the front door. When you arrive, go directly to the assignment table in the Great Hall. Today, it is just the finishing touches. You’ve all done a wonderful job of making this masquerade ball a success. Edythe Emerson would be proud.”

“Ina, what about getting back into town?” someone in the crowd asked.

“That’s a very good question.” Ina rummaged through her papers. “The carriage will return promptly at three and bring us back here to the town square. That should give everyone plenty of time to get ready for the evening. Please remember to stay on the first floor when we get to the manor. We’ve closed the upper floors for this event. If there are no other questions, please get in line.”

Rachel gave one last look at the crowd. She stood in the back of the line deciding the carriage ride was better to ride than walk to the manor.

The clattering noise of a large carriage grew louder as it approached. Finally, the old French Omnibus that the carriage maker, Mr. Wheeler, had in his shop pulled up. Once or twice a year, he dusted the large carriage off, harnessed the two-horse team, and took people for a ride. Now, the women filed in. She stood by, watching and searching for the woman with the purple scarf.

“Hurry, ladies,” the groom called. Ina and a few latecomers took their seats. Rachel gave one last look for the woman and had to admit she wasn’t anywhere to be found. Finally, Rachel entered the carriage and found a seat in the back.

Mr. Wheeler closed the door and pulled away.

The woman must have thought she was someone else. Rachel was sure no one cared that she had returned. Going to Emerson Manor was purely voluntary, or was it?

Rachel gave the waterfront a last glance, then looked down the aisle.

She saw the profile of Brenna Hutchington.

* * * * *

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