London, November 1945
Eve Dawson bolted upright in bed. Someone was pounding on her door. Sirens wailed outside, growing louder. Approaching. She leaped up, her instincts screaming for her to run to the air-raid shelter. But no. The war was over.
The pounding grew frantic. She shoved her arms into her dressing gown, her limbs clumsy after being jolted awake. Her flatmate, Audrey, sat up in the narrow bed beside hers. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” Eve wove through the jumble of mismatched furniture in their tiny flat and opened the door.
A police constable. Breathless, as if he’d just run a race. “You need to get out. Straightaway! They found an unexploded bomb in the rubble across the street. Come on, come on!” He waved his hand in frenzied circles, gesturing for them to follow him into the hallway and down the stairs.
“I’m not dressed,” Audrey said from behind Eve. She would say that. Always the proper lady.
“There isn’t time!” the constable said. “If that thing explodes, it will take out the entire block. You girls need to get out! Now!” He left them standing in the doorway in their pajamas and pounded on their neighbors’ door with the same urgent message.
Eve grabbed her coat, shoved her feet into the first pair of shoes she could find. Audrey moved in her slow, deliberate way, picking through the pile of shoes by the door as if deciding which pair matched her pajamas. “Come on!” Eve said. She pushed Audrey’s coat into her arms. “I don’t want to die today, do you?” She towed her down the hall toward the stairs.
They were almost to the bottom floor when Audrey halted. “Wait! My purse! It has my ID badge and ration coupons.” She turned back.
Eve yanked her forward. “Forget it. Not worth dying for. I, for one, would like to live!” She remembered the tiny baby, growing in secret inside her, and for the first time she wanted her child to live, too.
A blast of cold air struck Eve when she opened the front door, blowing through her unbuttoned coat and thin pajama pants, making her shiver. The dawning sun peeked below the clouds, offering no warmth. Across the street, a team of soldiers moved through the rubble of stones and bricks as if walking on eggshells. Workers had been clearing it for the past week, starting early every morning. Eve shivered again. The UXB could have exploded anytime.
“This way . . . this way,” the constables urged. “Quickly, now. Keep moving.” They herded everyone down the street, away from the bomb site. Bewildered people poured from neighboring buildings to flee alongside them. Eve recalled those terrible months of the Blitz. The panicked sprints to air-raid shelters while sirens wailed. Stumbling along in the dark of the blackout. But the war had ended three months ago.
“I thought we’d never have to run from bombs again,” Audrey said. “I thought we didn’t have to fear for our lives anymore.” She was winded, slowing down.
Eve slowed her pace to match, even though she longed to sprint. She had always run faster than Audrey. “Well, it seems we were wrong.”
“The Nazis destroyed this block a year ago. I can’t believe that bomb has been lying there all this time, just waiting to explode.”
“Shows how fragile life can be.” It was one of the many lessons Eve had learned during the war. Loved ones could be alive one moment and gone the next. And didn’t this fragile child inside her deserve a chance to live, too? As soon as they allowed her to go home, she would throw away the address for the back-lane doctor willing to do the procedure. Or maybe the UXB would incinerate his name along with everything else. Maybe this was a sign from God—or whoever directed things—that this was what she should do.
They reached the end of their block. Another constable pointed across the street to a church that had served as a shelter during the Blitz. They scrambled down the stone stairs, huddling inside the crypt with hundreds of other people in pajamas and dressing gowns, waiting for experts to defuse the bomb. Eve had plenty of time to think of all the things she wished she’d rescued. Audrey was right about needing her purse. It was going to be a huge bother replacing all her ID cards and ration books.
“What time is it?” Audrey asked. “We’ll be late for work. Do you think the church will let us use the telephone so we can call and explain?”
Eve looked at her watch, a present from Alfie. “It’s too early to call. Not even seven yet. Honestly, Audrey, you worry about the dumbest things.” Eve wore the watch all the time, even to bed at night. If the UXB did go off, at least she had one thing to remember him by.
Audrey inched closer, leaning in, lowering her voice. “Eve, listen. I need to tell you a secret.”
Eve hid a smile. It was so like Audrey to be so serious, so dramatic.
“Should I cross my heart and swear on my life not to tell?” Eve asked.
Audrey didn’t smile. “I think I’m pregnant.”
Eve barely stopped herself from saying, I’m pregnant, too. They had done everything else together these past six years, so of course, why not have babies together? Except that Audrey had a husband and Eve didn’t. “Congratulations,” she managed to say, hugging her.
“I haven’t written to tell Robert yet. I’m afraid to. It was an accident. We took precautions . . .”
“He’ll be happy, just the same,” she said, squeezing Audrey’s hands. “Especially if it’s a boy. Doesn’t every man want a son?” She remembered, too late, how Audrey’s father doted on his son, ignoring his daughter all these years. She wished she had bitten her tongue.
Audrey didn’t seem to hear her as she continued on. “This morning, with this bomb—I realized how badly I want to stay safe from now on. We risked our lives so many times during the war, and it didn’t seem to matter because nobody knew what tomorrow would bring, whether we would live or die, or if the Nazis would pour across the channel and murder us. But the war is over and Robert is safe, and I want to stay safe, too, until it’s time to move to America to be with him. I want our baby to be safe.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I’m leaving London. I’m going home to Wellingford Hall.”
Eve took a moment to respond. “What about your job? And our flat?”
“I’ll give them my notice. Today, even. You won’t have any problem finding a new flatmate.”
It would happen, eventually. Eve knew that once the mountains of paperwork were sorted, Audrey would leave England and follow her GI husband to his home in America. This bomb that had dropped into their lives was an omen of change. For both of them.
“I’m going to miss you, Eve,” Audrey said.
“Me, too.” Eve would be alone again. Alone to cope with all the decisions and changes that a fatherless baby would bring. Why had she dared to believe that Audrey would always be by her side? That Audrey would always need her?
Three long hours later, they climbed the stairs from the crypt, the UXB safely defused, the area searched for more hidden dangers. “I feel like a fool wearing only pajamas,” Audrey said as they emerged onto the street.
“We aren’t the only ones.” Eve gestured to the other shivering people scurrying home beneath gray November skies.
Audrey hurried inside their building as soon as they reached the front door, but Eve paused for a moment to stare across the street at the familiar pile of rubble. The police and soldiers were leaving, and workmen climbed among the bricks again with their shovels and barrows. It chilled her to think that something so deadly lay hidden while she went about her everyday life. The UXB might have exploded any second, obliterating her and everything she owned. How many more hidden dangers lay ahead in her path?
Audrey would go home to Wellingford Hall and then make a new home in America with her husband and child. But where was home for Eve? If she kept her child, where would they live? How would they survive? Eve knew what it was like to grow up without a father.
One day at a time, she told herself. She had survived the war that way. One day at a time.
She lay in a lounge chair beside her mother-in-law’s swimming pool, reveling in the warmth of the summer sun. The clear water reflected blue sky and cottony clouds—until four-year-old Robbie leaped into it with a shout, shattering the tranquil surface and splashing her with icy droplets. “Come in, Mommy. The water is warm!”
“Not right now, love. Maybe later.” She wiped her sunglasses and opened her Life magazine, content to lounge in the sun’s drowsy heat.
Someone called her name. “Miss Audrey?” She swiveled to see her mother-in-law’s maid hurrying from the house. “Miss Audrey? Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but you better come on inside.”
“What’s wrong, Nell?”
Robbie leaped into the pool again with another resounding splash, showering them both. The maid didn’t seem to feel the cold spray.
“There’s a woman at the door, says she’s you. Even talks like you. Has a little boy and a whole pile of suitcases with her.”
“What?” She scrambled up from the lounge chair, wrapping a towel around herself as if it could shield her.
“Yes, ma’am. She says she’s Audrey Barrett and the little boy is the missus’s grandson. Says we’re expecting her.”
Oh no! No, no, no! Fear tingled down her spine and raised the hair on her arms. The same stunned feeling that came seconds after a bomb detonated. She opened her mouth but nothing came out.
“Didn’t know what to do,” Nell said, “so I say for her and the boy to come inside and wait.”
Her heart hammered against her ribs. She swallowed and finally found her voice. “I’ll talk to her, Nell. Will you get Robbie out of the pool and bring him inside?”
She hurried into the house barefoot, a fist of dread punching her stomach. It can’t be. Please, God . . . this can’t be happening. She halted in the hallway and peered into the foyer—and there she stood. Her best friend. Her worst fear. She held a small, dark-haired boy by the hand. She had been peeking into the home’s formal living room, where Nell had been vacuuming, but turned and saw her. Her friend’s eyes widened with shock. “Eve! What in the world are you doing in America?” She took a step forward as if they might embrace, then halted.
It shook Eve to hear her real name spoken again. Her heart thudded. How she wished she could shove this intruder out the door and return to a quiet afternoon beside the pool, to the life she had lived for nearly four years. Instead, she planted her hands on her hips, pretending to be brave as she had so many times before. “What are you doing here?”
“I brought my son to America to meet his father’s family. . . . They live here, don’t they?” She looked at the envelope in her hand as if to be sure. “This . . . this is their address . . .”
The back door slammed. A moment later, the maid came in with Robbie, still wearing his plastic floating ring, dripping water on the parquet floor. “Everything all right, ma’am?” Nell asked, looking from one to the other.
“Everything’s fine.” She led Nell toward the living room, speaking quietly. “We were flatmates during the war.”
“Why she saying she’s you?”
“I think you may have misunderstood. I’ll fix my friend a glass of iced tea and then she’ll be leaving.”
“What about all them suitcases? You want Ollie to fetch them inside for her?”
“Never mind about the luggage. Please, continue with your vacuuming, Nell.” She waited for her to go, then turned to her son. “Robbie, please take this little boy to your playroom for a few minutes.”
“But I wasn’t done swimming.”
“We’ll go back in the pool after these people leave.” And they had to leave. She watched him trudge off to the first-floor playroom, battling to control her panic, then gestured for her former friend to follow her into the kitchen. The boy clung to his mother as if they were glued together. Eve fetched two glasses from the cupboard, pulled an aluminum ice cube tray from the freezer, and yanked on the lever to release the cubes. Her damp fingers stuck to the cold metal. She remembered the day the workmen found an unexploded bomb across the street from their London flat, how it had lain there in secret for months, waiting. That was the power of secrets. Even the most carefully hidden one could explode when you least expected, demolishing the wall of lies you’d constructed around it. But she would find a way to defuse this bombshell. She wouldn’t let it destroy the life she’d rebuilt, the home she had found for her son.
She poured tea into the glasses and sat down at the kitchen table, studying her friend for a moment. She was still pretty at age thirty-one with porcelain skin and amber hair, still trim and shapely. Her friend had been born with a silver spoon in her mouth, as they said, but the war had tarnished all those spoons. What mattered now was how to get rid of her. She had barely taken a sip of her iced tea or calmed her fears enough to devise a plan when Robbie slouched into the kitchen again, his baggy, wet swimsuit still dripping.
“I’m hot, Mommy. Can we go back in the pool now?”
“I’d like you to play with your new friend for a few minutes.”
“He won’t come with me.” Eve took a good look at the boy’s thick, dark hair, his coal-black eyes, and the tiny cleft in his little chin, and her heart raced faster. Anyone with two eyes would be able to see how much he resembled his father. She needed to get him and his mother out of this house before Mrs. Barrett returned. Eve pushed back her chair and stood.
“I have ice cream in my freezer at home. Would you boys like some?”
“No, I want to swim in Nana’s pool!” Robbie stomped his bare foot for emphasis.
“Later. We’ll swim later. After we have ice cream. Come on, let’s all go to our house.” Maybe if Audrey saw how happy and settled they were here in America, she would go back to England and leave them alone. “Put on your shirt, Robbie. And your shoes. Give me a minute to get dressed, too.” She ducked into the powder room where her clothes hung and struggled into them, hampered by her sweaty skin.
Once dressed, she opened the front door to lead the way outside and nearly tripped over the mound of suitcases piled on the front step. “Are all of these yours?” she asked. How long was Audrey planning to stay? It looked like forever, judging by the amount of luggage. Eve hefted two suitcases and hauled them to her car. “Let’s hope everything fits in the boot. Get in the car, Robbie.”
“Wait . . . why . . . ? What are you doing?” Audrey sputtered. “I’m here to visit Mr. and Mrs. Barrett.”
Eve didn’t reply as she shoved in the rest of the suitcases. They had to leave before Mrs. Barrett returned from her tennis match at the country club and the world Eve had created began to implode. “Just get in the car, Audrey. I’ll explain later.”
“But they’re expecting me.”
Eve squared her shoulders and willed the fear from her voice. “No. They’re not expecting you. Get in the car.” She held the passenger door open.
“But . . . I still don’t understand what you’re doing here in America. When you left Wellingford Hall, you vanished into thin air. I had no idea where you went or what became of you. And now you’re here in my mother-in-law’s home? You owe me an explanation, Eve.”
“I saved your life, remember? You would be dead right now if it weren’t for me, so please, just get in. I’ll explain on the way.”
Eve could see that her words had shaken Audrey.
Audrey climbed into the front seat and settled her son on her lap. Tears slipped down her face. “We used to be friends, remember? We looked out for each other. What happened?”
“The war happened, Audrey. It changed us. And we’re never going to be the same again.”
Eve backed her car into the street, then sped away. They drove in silence for several minutes before Audrey spoke again. “What’s going on, Eve? I want to know what you’re doing here with Robert’s family.”
Eve’s heart thudded faster. “You decided not to come to America, remember? You made up your mind to stay in England. You said Wellingford Hall was your home and you didn’t want to leave it. Ever.”
“Well . . . things changed. . . . But that doesn’t explain why—”
“How did you get here? Boat, airplane?” Eve floored the accelerator, driving as if racing through London in her ambulance again, delivering casualties to the hospital. She barely paid attention to traffic as panic fueled her, and nearly drove past a stop sign. She slammed on the brakes so hard that Robbie tumbled onto the backseat floor. Audrey, still holding Bobby on her lap, had to brace against the dashboard. “Sorry . . . ,” Eve mumbled. “You were saying . . . ?”
“We came by ship to New York City, then by train, then taxi—the same way you did, I presume. What does it matter how we—?”
“How is Wellingford Hall? I want to hear all about Mrs. Smith and Tildy and Robbins and George . . .”
“They’re gone. All the servants are gone. Father sold Wellingford Hall. It’s no longer our home.”
Wellingford Hall—sold? Eve slowed the car. She needed a moment to absorb that bombshell. She had always imagined that she and Robbie would return for a visit one day, and it would be exactly as she remembered it. She would gather around the table in the basement with her fellow servants and talk about the past. And Mum.
The London town house was also gone, so where would Audrey live? Not here. Please, not here! Eve downshifted, glancing around at the traffic, barely aware of what she was doing.
“So you decided to come to America? But surely you . . . I mean, it’s very different here. Not at all like home . . .”
“The Barretts are the only family I have left. I’m moving here with Bobby.”
This can’t be happening.
“I wrote and told them I was coming. I don’t understand why they weren’t expecting me.”
The letter. Eve had intercepted a letter from Audrey a month ago. She often fetched the mail for Mrs. Barrett whenever she visited because Robbie liked to chat with the postman. When she’d seen the return address, Eve had slipped the letter into her purse. She hadn’t bothered to read it before tossing it into her rubbish bin at home. Now she wished she had. She could have told Audrey not to come, that the Barretts were getting on with their lives and didn’t want a war bride they’d never met barging in.
Eve’s panic subsided a bit as she steered her car into her neighborhood, passing rows and rows of identical bungalows. She’d thought the community looked very American when she’d first seen it, with its tidy green lawns and white picket fences. Now the neighborhood seemed stark and boring. The land had been a cow pasture before the war and the streets still looked naked with only a few spindly trees, struggling to grow. She had a fleeting image of the lush, formal gardens at Wellingford Hall, remembering the rainbow of colors, the gravel walkways, the comforting clip-snip of George’s pruning shears.
Before the war. Before everything changed.
Audrey leaned forward to stare through the windshield as they turned in to her driveway. “This house . . . it looks like the one Robert was going to build for me.”
Eve couldn’t reply. She remembered the brochures and floor plans Robert had sent, remembered Audrey’s anxiety and uncertainty. “The house seems so small . . . only two bedrooms!”
“Fewer rooms for you to clean,” Eve had told her. Eve parked beneath the carport and was just opening her kitchen door for everyone when a familiar pickup truck pulled up and tooted the horn. Tom. He called to Eve from his open window. “Hey, Audrey!”
Eve and Audrey both turned and answered at the same time. “Yes?” Could this get any more complicated? Eve hurried to the truck, where Tom sat with his arm on the windowsill. “Hi, Tom. What brings you here?”
“I stopped by to see if you and Robbie wanted to come out to the farm with me. We’re bottle-feeding a new baby lamb.”
“Thanks, but we have company,” she said, gesturing to them. “Maybe another time—”
“Uncle Tom! Uncle Tom!” Robbie called as he scampered down the driveway. “Can I go out to the farm with you?”
“Not today,” Eve said, catching him before he reached the truck. “We’re going to have ice cream, remember?” She lifted Robbie into her arms and turned to say goodbye to Tom, but Tom wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at Audrey and her son, studying them. “An old friend of mine from London stopped by for a visit,” Eve said, backing away from him, inching toward the house. “We have a lot of catching up to do. Cheers, Tom! Toodle-oo!”
“Yeah, bye.” He didn’t move his truck. He was still staring at Bobby and Audrey.
Eve hurried back to the carport and herded everyone into the house. She pulled Popsicles from the freezer and tried to send the boys into the back garden to eat them, but Audrey’s son refused to leave his mum’s side. “Would you like one?” she asked Audrey. “Everyone in America eats these when it’s hot outside. There’s a month’s worth of sugar rations in each one.”
Audrey didn’t seem to hear her. “Wait! Was that Tom?” she suddenly blurted. “Robert’s friend, Tom? One of the Famous Four?”
Eve could have lied and said no, but the pieces of her life were quickly slipping from her grasp like a fistful of marbles and she couldn’t seem to catch them fast enough. She nodded.
“I would have loved to meet him.” Audrey peered through the window in the kitchen door as if she might run down the driveway to stop him. Thankfully, Tom had driven away. “The last we heard he’d been wounded . . . somewhere in Italy, wasn’t it?” Audrey asked.
“Yes. He survived, though.”
“The four friends . . . ,” Audrey mused. “Robert, Louis, Tom, and . . . who was the fourth?”
“That’s right. Robert was so distraught when he learned that Arnie had a nervous breakdown. He used to tell me stories about how the four of them grew up together and played on the same sports teams.”
“Mostly basketball. It’s very popular over here. Do you want one of these Popsicles?”
“How did Tom know who I was? Or . . . was he talking to you? Was he calling you by my name?”
“Well, I . . . He . . .”
“What’s going on, Eve?” She looked puzzled, but Eve could tell the pieces were starting to fall into place. “He called you Audrey—and you answered him!”
Eve couldn’t draw enough air to speak.
“You stole my place, didn’t you? That’s why you were at the Barretts’ house!”
“You’re posing as me and saying that Harry is Robert’s son. You keep calling him Robbie, but his name is Harry.”
“I can explain—”
“You’re even living in my house—Robert’s house!”
Eve stared at the floor. She didn’t reply.
“How could you deceive all these people, Eve? Why would you do such a terrible thing?” Audrey looked as shell-shocked as she did after the V-1 rocket attack.
At last, Eve’s fear exploded in a burst of anger. “You didn’t want this life, Audrey! You were too scared and too stupid to take it after Robert died. You tossed it into the rubbish bin, so I grabbed it! This is the only home my son has ever known. I won’t let you waltz in here now and steal it away from him.”
“Steal it away from him? You’re the one who has stolen my son’s family! Bobby has a right to his grandparents’ support. He has a right to know his father’s family.”
“It’s too late to change your mind. They’re my family now. This is my home, my son’s home—not yours. You can’t take it back.” Eve didn’t care how shocked or angry Audrey was. It was too late to change things now.
“But we have no other place to go!” Audrey cried.
“Neither do we!” Eve struggled to breathe as they stared at each other in silence. Their sons gazed in wide-eyed confusion at the drama taking place, the Popsicles forgotten. “Listen, Audrey. For as long as we’ve known each other, you’ve had all the advantages and I’ve had none. You’re Audrey Clarkson—the spoiled rich girl, the aristocrat! You went to a fancy school to learn how to marry a wealthy husband, so surely you can find a man in London who’d be willing to marry Alfred Clarkson’s rich little daughter. A man who could buy you a house twice as big as this one—twice as big as Wellingford Hall!”
Audrey closed her eyes as if trying to shut out Eve’s words. Then she bent forward and covered her face as she began to weep. Great, heartbreaking sobs shook her slender body. Eve remembered how those cries had moved her to pity when they were children. She had crept upstairs to the forbidden part of Wellingford Hall to offer Audrey strawberries and sympathy. And friendship. But not this time. No, not this time.
Wellingford Hall, England, 1931
“You can’t send Alfie away!” Audrey’s voice sounded tiny in the enormous lounge. Father glanced at her, then continued as if she hadn’t spoken.
“It’s the finest boys’ school in England,” he said. “I know you’ll make me proud, Son.” He stood with his hand on her brother’s shoulder as if in blessing, his expression stern yet proud. Father’s dark hair had become sparse, with gray hairs at his temples. He ignored Audrey’s outburst. She was invisible to him. She always had been.
Alfie lifted his chin, his shoulders straight. “Yes, sir.” He had grown nearly as tall as Father. If the news that he was being packed off to boarding school alarmed him, he didn’t reveal it. But then her brother always had been more courageous than Audrey. He was her best friend. Her only friend. The only person who made her life bearable.
“You’ll make friends with young men from the finest families, Son. It’s an opportunity I wish I’d had.”
A sob escaped Audrey’s throat. Mother rolled her eyes and leaned forward to tap the ash from her cigarette. Her ruby lipstick stained one end of the long holder. “Kindly take Audrey away until she can compose herself, Miss Blake,” she said, addressing their governess.
Audrey swallowed and swiped at her tears. “I’m . . . I would like to stay, please.”
“No more outbursts?”
Audrey shook her head, then caught herself. Mother hated empty-headed nodding and shaking of heads. “No, ma’am.”
Father was still talking to Alfie as if the rest of them didn’t exist. “We’ll head up there a few days before the fall term starts so you can get settled. Williams can drive us. It’s a fine school, a very fine school.”
“May I come, too?” Audrey asked.
Mother huffed. “It’s a boys’ school, Audrey.”
“I mean when Father takes Alfie there.”
Mother drew on her cigarette, then spoke through the cloud of smoke as she exhaled. “You’ll be getting ready to leave for your own school by then. That’s the other news we were about to share before you started fussing.”
“What school?” Audrey looked at Miss Blake, who had tutored her and Alfie until now. The governess averted her eyes, studying the contents of her teacup.
“I’ve arranged for you to board this fall at the same girls’ school I attended,” Mother said. “You’ll like it there.”
Neither Mother nor Father would look at Audrey. Alfie offered her a weak smile. Hysteria bubbled up inside Audrey like a fizzy drink that had been shaken. Knowing the reaction her tears would receive, she asked to be excused and fled to her room to weep alone.
She didn’t know how long she’d wept when she heard a soft knock on her door. Her pillow was damp, her eyes swollen and sore. “Who is it?” It wouldn’t be Mother or Father. She prayed it wasn’t Miss Blake.
The door opened and Alfie stuck his head inside. “May I come in?”
She scrambled off her bed and ran to hug him. “Isn’t it awful how they’re sending us away?” she asked.
He gave her a quick squeeze, then wriggled free. “Don’t take it so hard, Sis. We knew this day was coming.”
“I’m nearly fourteen, Audrey. That’s a bit old to take lessons in the nursery with a governess, don’t you think?”
“But you’re my best friend!”
“Listen, you’ll make plenty of new friends in no time.”
The thought of making friends frightened her. She didn’t know how to do it. Father had recently turned sixty, and none of the men who came to Wellingford Hall for his shooting parties had children her age. Mother’s friends, all in their early forties, never brought their children when they visited from London. “I don’t want to leave and go away to school,” Audrey said. “I refuse to go.”
“I really don’t want to, either,” Alfie said. “But Father is quite set on it. He wants me to have all the advantages he never had. All the upper-crust boys go to this school. And he donated a lot of money to get me admitted.”
Audrey sat on the edge of her bed, exhausted after crying so hard. “I’ll miss you, Alfie. It’ll be so quiet around here without you.”
“I’ll be home on holidays. And we’ll still vacation by the sea every summer and sail on Father’s boat. I’m old enough to captain it myself now. I’ll take you out, just you and me. I’ll even teach you how to sail it. Would you like that?”
“I would!” The idea terrified her, but she wanted him to think she was brave.
“Good,” he said with a grin. “That’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?”
Alfie left for boarding school a month later. It was the worst day of Audrey’s life. She watched him climb into Father’s automobile, piled high with trunks and suitcases, then couldn’t bear to watch him drive away. She fled up the curving stairs to her room without looking back.
The school she was to attend didn’t start for another week. She’d had a month to adjust to the idea but Audrey still didn’t want to go. And yet Wellingford would be unbearable with only dreary Miss Blake to talk to all day. She stared out her bedroom window at the settling dust cloud from the auto. The distant woods at the far edge of the lawn beckoned to her. She would run away.
Audrey tiptoed down the stairs and into the lounge, careful to listen and look in all directions. The French doors stood open to let in the late-summer breezes, and she hurried outside, avoiding the crunching gravel walkways in the formal gardens and crossing the lawn to the woods as if chasing a ball that had gotten away. They would find her too easily if she took the road into town, so she would simply vanish into the woods. Anger and sorrow propelled her steps at first, but the deeper into the woods she walked, the harder she struggled to make her way through the tangled underbrush. The trees grew closer together, their branches snagging her clothing and scratching her bare arms and legs. Her flight halted when she came to a brook, the water gurgling like a fountain as it rushed over rocks and dead limbs. She had no idea how to cross it. Tears of frustration welled and overflowed.
“Hello down there!”
Audrey cried out, startled. She clutched her heart as if to keep it inside her chest as she looked up. A girl in a faded cotton skirt and blouse sat on a tree branch above her, bare legs swinging.
“You frightened me!” Audrey said.
“I know!” the girl said, laughing. “You should have seen your face. You jumped straight up in the air like a scared rabbit.” Audrey watched her climb down, as strong and nimble as a boy. She landed in front of her, grinning as she brushed moss and bark from the front of her clothes. Her gray eyes danced with amusement. Freckles covered her nose and cheeks like gold dust. “You’re Audrey Clarkson, aren’t you?”
“How did you know?”
“I know everything about you.”
“You do not.”
“You’re twelve years old, like me, and you live in Wellingford Hall with your father, Alfred, your mother, Rosamunde, and your older brother, Alfie.” She ticked off each item on her fingers as she spoke. “Your father didn’t have to fight in the Great War like everyone else’s father because he was rich and—”
“No, his job was too important. He owns coal mines and railroads and things. That’s why he didn’t fight.”
“Oh, right.” Her mocking tone told Audrey she didn’t believe her. “Your ‘important’ father stayed home while mine fought and died in the Battle of Amiens. I never even got to meet him.” Her golden-brown hair was coming loose from her braids and had bits of leaves and pine needles stuck in it. It had a reddish glow when the sun shone on it.
“I’m sorry about your father,” Audrey said. She couldn’t imagine such a terrible thing. “I hardly see my father—” she began, by way of apology.
“But at least you have one.” The girl crossed her ankles and sank to the ground, as graceful as a wood sprite. She took off her shoes and socks. Audrey had never seen such worn footwear before, or socks that had been patched and darned so many times. “Your mother is the daughter of a duke or an earl or some such title,” the girl continued, “but she married your father for his money, even though he’s ages older than she is. And now she’s a socialite who stays in London most of the time and loves parties and dancing.”
Audrey’s cheeks grew warm at such an unkind summary, yet she couldn’t deny that the gist of it was true. “Who told you all this?”
“My mum. She works for your family in Wellingford Hall. She wanted to stay home and take care of me after I was born, but she had to go to work because my daddy was dead. Granny Maud looks after me. The only time I ever see my mum is on her day off.”
“Where do you live?”
“In a cottage in town. Your father owns it—along with everything else in town. His man comes to collect our rent, rain or shine. I saw your family in church last Christmas. I go every Sunday with Granny Maud. I’ll bet you never even noticed me, did you?”
Audrey shook her head, embarrassed. She wanted to change the subject. “What are you doing way out here in the woods?”
“I’m about to have a picnic.” She stood again, leaving her shoes and socks beneath the tree. “It’s a beautiful day for one, don’t you think? But it’s not going to be like one of your picnics.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your servants lug tables and chairs and fancy white cloths and china out to your lawn so your maids can serve tea.” She gave a mocking curtsy, then shook her head. “That’s not a real picnic!”
“What’s a real one like?”
“Come on, I’ll show you. Take your shoes off so you can wade out to that little island in the middle of the brook. It’s the perfect place for a picnic.”
Audrey hesitated, then dusted dirt off a rock before sitting on it to remove her shoes and socks. “I suppose I may as well accept your invitation. I’m leaving home, you see.”
“Really?” The girl smirked. “Where are you going?”
“I’m not sure yet. But they sent my brother away to boarding school, and now they want to send me away, too. I won’t go! I just know I’ll be dreadfully homesick.”
“Won’t you be homesick if you run away?”
Audrey hadn’t thought of that. She felt tears brimming again. “I just don’t know what else to do to make them listen to me.”
“Well, while you’re deciding, let’s have our picnic. Come on.” She skipped across the stream, hopping from one stone to another as if she had wings on her feet, then turned and beckoned to Audrey from the tiny island, midway across. “Come on!”
Audrey couldn’t do what the girl had done. The stones looked slippery, and besides, some of them teetered when the girl stepped on them. The water didn’t look very deep, so she decided to wade across. The shock of the ice-cold water made her suck in her breath. The girl laughed. “Cold, isn’t it?”
After two steps, Audrey wanted to retreat. The current tugged at her ankles and the tiny stones on the streambed bit into her feet. But she kept going. She wanted to impress this girl for some reason. She took a few more steps, shivering in the chilly water, and then she was there.
“You made it! Sit down.” The girl gestured to a patch of weeds and dirt and sat down on the ground, cross-legged. She unfastened a napkin that was pinned to her waistband and opened it to reveal a plump sausage roll and a scone. She carefully broke each treasure into two pieces with her filthy hands and laid them on the napkin. “Help yourself,” she said. Dirt rimmed her bitten fingernails.
Audrey didn’t want to seem rude. And the food did look good, the sausage roll golden and crispy, the scone studded with plump currants.
“This was supposed to be my lunch but I skipped school today.”
“Because the sun is shining for the first time in days, and I needed to be outside.”
Audrey bit into the roll. She couldn’t identify the spices but it tasted delicious. “Won’t you get into trouble for skipping?”
“I don’t care,” she said, lifting her shoulder in a shrug. “I already know as much as the teacher does.”
“You don’t really.”
“It’s true!” She laughed and leaned closer. “If I tell you a secret, will you give me your solemn promise not to tell anybody?” Audrey hesitated before nodding. “No, no, no,” the girl said, laughing again. “You can’t make a solemn promise like that! Don’t you know anything about sharing secrets?” Audrey shook her head. “You have to put your right hand over your heart, like this, and say, ‘Cross my heart and hope to die. I swear by my very life not to tell.’” She scooped up a handful of leaves and crushed them in her fist, letting the bits drift to the ground.
Audrey swallowed. Her heart drummed very fast. A thrill of fear shivered up her spine as she covered her heart. “Cross my heart and hope to die,” she said. “I swear by my very life not to tell.”
The girl inched closer. “My mum borrows books from your father’s library. She brings different ones home for me each time she comes and then returns them. I’m very careful with them. But that’s how I know as much as my teacher.”
“Don’t you have books at your house?”
“Ha! We don’t even have books at my school!”
“I can’t imagine a school without books.” Audrey swallowed the last bite of sausage and wished she had a serviette to wipe her hands. It had been delicious but a bit greasy. The girl wiped her fingers on her skirt.
“Well, I’m sure the fancy school you’re going to will have plenty of books.”
The reminder dimmed Audrey’s delight with the picnic, as if the sun had crept behind a cloud. “I don’t want to go away and leave Wellingford Hall. I miss being home even when Alfie and I are on holiday at the seashore.”
“Then why are you running away?”
Audrey didn’t reply. She didn’t know.
“They’ll come searching for you, you know.”
“Here, eat your scone.” The girl handed it to her. Audrey took a bite. It was as good as Cook’s scones. Maybe better. She wished she had a cup of tea to go with it.
“Why don’t you go to day school, like I do,” the girl asked, “and then go home at night? I walk to my school, but you could ride in your father’s automobile.”
Audrey stopped eating. “That’s a very good idea.”
“Don’t look so surprised. I’m just as smart as you are. I’m just not as rich.” She shook the crumbs off the napkin and repinned it to the waistband of her skirt.
“I feel bad for eating half your lunch.”
“Well, the next time you decide to run away, you can bring your lunch along to share with me.”
“The next time?”
The girl rolled sideways on the ground, laughing. “You’re so thickheaded! It’s a joke, Audrey Clarkson. You aren’t really going to run away this time, and so there won’t really be a next time. And they aren’t going to invite me to a picnic on your lawn, are they?”
“I’m sorry. I would like very much to invite you.”
The girl stood in one smooth movement and brushed off her skirt. “Come on, let’s wade to the other side and I’ll walk you as far as your lawn. You can tell them what you decided about school.”
Audrey waded through the icy water again, the stream tugging at her steps. The back of her dress was damp from where she’d sat on the ground. She would be in trouble with Miss Blake but she didn’t care. They put on their shoes and the girl led the way down a path that Audrey hadn’t noticed. She halted at the very edge of the woods as if hesitant to step onto the thick, manicured grass. “Bye, Audrey Clarkson. Good luck!”
“Thank you. And thank you very much for the picnic.” She turned toward home. The sun lit up the windows on the west wing of Wellingford Hall as if setting them ablaze. Audrey took a dozen steps, then turned back. “Wait! You never told me your name.” But the girl had vanished into the woods.
Eve followed the narrow path through the woods, her excitement building. Wait until Granny Maud heard about her picnic with the girl from Wellingford Hall! The ninny had been running away from home. Imagine! Who would ever run away from a fairy-tale place like Wellingford Hall with dozens of servants to grant her every wish?
Granny would be waiting with a pot of tea brewing beneath the tea cozy and a bite of pastry, warm from the oven. She would fold Eve into her soft arms as if it had been ages since she’d last seen her instead of just this morning. She would tut-tut over Eve’s rumpled dress as she picked bits of leaves from her hair with her knotted fingers and then ask about her day. Granny wouldn’t care that she’d skipped school, but she would be very surprised to hear that she’d met the rich girl from Wellingford Hall. Granny read the Bible aloud to Eve every night before bed, and it seemed like Jesus had a lot of grim things to say about rich people who didn’t share what they had with the poor.
A blue jay scolded Eve from the treetops as she emerged from the woods to cut through the cemetery. Granny was teaching Eve the names of all the birds and the songs they sang. Granny talked to the little wrens who nested in the back garden as if they were her children.
Eve ran the last few yards to their cottage and burst through the door calling, “Granny Maud! I made a new friend today, and you’ll never guess who it was. Never in a million years!” Her granny was asleep in her chair by the range, her knitting limp in her lap. She didn’t stir, even when the wind slammed the door shut behind Eve. Granny’s hearing, like her eyesight, was becoming worse and worse. Eve crossed to the range to put the kettle on for their tea, but the fire was barely warm.
“Granny!” she said, speaking loudly enough to wake her. “You let the fire go out.” She still didn’t move. Eve knelt beside her chair and shook her shoulder, gently at first, then harder and harder, shouting her name. “Granny Maud! Wake up!” Her knitting needles and half-finished sock fell from her fingers. Something was very wrong.
Eve scrambled to her feet and raced to their neighbors’ cottage, her legs like clumsy logs. She didn’t knock. “Mrs. Ramsay! Come quick! Something’s wrong with Granny. She won’t wake up.”
Mrs. Ramsay wiped her hands on her apron as she hurried after Eve. “Wait out here, child,” she said when they reached the cottage door. Eve shook her head and followed her inside. Mrs. Ramsay crouched beside the chair and covered Granny Maud’s wrinkled hands with her own. Tears filled her eyes as she gently stroked Granny’s face. “She’s gone, Eve. I’m so sorry.”
“No! She . . . she can’t be! She wasn’t even sick!” Eve’s heart tried to squeeze out of her throat, choking her.
“She passed on peacefully, dear.”
“But she was fine when I left this morning!” Eve’s thoughts whirled like windblown leaves. She longed to start the day over again and do everything differently so it would have a different ending. This was her fault. “I—I should have come home sooner! I shouldn’t have left her all alone!”
“I don’t think it would have mattered. It was her time, Eve.” Mrs. Ramsay reached to take her hand but Eve pulled away. She dropped to her knees in front of the chair, resting her head on Granny’s lap as she loved to do. It no longer felt soft and warm. Eve buried her face in Granny’s skirt and sobbed.
Mrs. Ramsay stroked Eve’s hair. “I’ll send Charlie up to Wellingford to fetch your mum. Come to my house and I’ll fix some tea.”
Eve shook her head. “I need to stay here with Granny Maud. The fire went out. I need to take care of it.”
Mrs. Ramsay opened her mouth as if she might argue, then closed it again. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
Everything seemed unreal. Mum arrived home and it wasn’t even a Sunday afternoon. She cried with Eve and rocked her in her arms. For as long as Eve could remember, Granny Maud had taken care of her while Mum worked up at Wellingford Hall. Granny kept house, cooked Eve’s meals, darned her socks, mended her clothes, took Eve to church, and made sure the cottage was warm all winter long. Granny told Eve how much she loved her every day of her life. How could Eve live without her?
Everyone came to Granny Maud’s funeral in the village church. They loved her as much as Eve did, and they talked about how quick she’d been to help anyone in need, even if it meant going without herself. The sun shone as they buried her in the graveyard, and it seemed unfair that the sky didn’t rain down tears. She was laid to rest beside her husband, the grandfather Eve had never met. Mum picked up a fistful of dirt and dropped it onto her coffin but Eve couldn’t do it.
The villagers gathered in Granny’s cottage afterwards, sharing food and stories. “You’ll always have us as your family,” the vicar said. But nobody’s hug was as wonderful as Granny Maud’s. When the last person left and Eve and Mum were alone, the cottage felt dark and empty, as if Granny had been the source of light and warmth.
“Do you think she’s in heaven, Mum?” Eve asked.
“Of course she’s in heaven. She loved Jesus—you know that.”
“So she’s with my daddy now?”
Mum nodded. “Yes. And they must be so happy to be . . .” Tears choked her voice before she could finish. She sank down in Granny Maud’s chair as if she lacked the strength to stand. Eve lifted the framed photograph of her mum and dad from the dresser and sat on the floor with it beside Mum’s chair. Mum looked young and pretty, Daddy handsome in his uniform. “You get your love of the outdoors from your father,” Mum said. “You’re so much like him. You have the same color hair and freckles just like his.” Mum brushed her fingers across Eve’s face as if she could feel them. Granny Maud said each freckle marked a spot where an angel had kissed her. Pain twisted through Eve’s stomach. Granny was gone. Gone! Just like her daddy.
Eve often dreamed of what her life would be like if he hadn’t died. She would live on the farm with him and Mum and Granny Maud. Daddy would tend his sheep and cows and Mum would stay home with Eve instead of working at Wellingford Hall. She would sing as she worked in the kitchen the way Granny used to do.
“We need to decide what to do next,” Mum said. “You can’t live here all by yourself while I’m working at Wellingford or staying up in London with Lady Rosamunde.”
Eve knew her childhood in this little cottage had ended. And even though she couldn’t imagine leaving the only home she’d ever known, Eve didn’t want to live here all alone where every sight and scent reminded her of Granny. “I want to work at the manor house with you.”
“Oh, Eve. No.” Mum pulled her into her arms and held her tightly. “I never wanted you to go into service. Never. So many things changed after the war, and now there are much better jobs for smart young girls like you besides being maidservants. I had dreams of you taking a typing course someday or maybe working in a shop. But you’re only twelve—still too young for either of those.” She released Eve again and stroked her hair. “I hoped to leave Wellingford Hall myself someday, but there was never enough money left over after paying the rent.”
“We’ll have more money now that we aren’t living here. We can save up.”
“That’s true, but—”
“Besides, I don’t mind going into service. You’ve done it all these years, so I can, too.”
“Maybe for just a few years. And we’ll save all our money for your future.” Eve saw the sadness in Mum’s eyes despite her attempt to smile.
“I’ll get to see you more often,” Eve said. “And I won’t have to wrestle with this cranky old stove anymore.” She gave the range a kick.
“They’ll make you work very hard up at Wellingford until you prove yourself. And you’ll have to take orders from Mrs. Smith, the housekeeper.”
“I know. Just until I’m sixteen, right? Just until we save enough money.”
Tears filled Mum’s eyes again. “All those years that I spent downstairs in that dark servants’ hall, I was able to imagine you running outside, climbing trees, and playing in the woods. You’re so free-spirited, Eve, and I never wanted you to work in that cold, dark manor house. Now you won’t even be able to go to school . . .” She couldn’t finish.
“I don’t mind, Mum. Really, I don’t. Granny Maud used to say, ‘Rain or shine, just take the day the Lord gives you.’ Remember?”
Mum nodded. She wiped her tears. “I suppose we’d better start packing. We don’t have very much, do we?”
“Our job will be easy.” Eve swallowed the tears that were trying to escape and lifted the framed picture of Jesus from the nail in the wall. He carried a lamb on His shoulders, and “The Lord is my shepherd” was printed across the bottom in gold letters. Granny loved telling stories about how Eve’s daddy used to tend his flock of sheep on the farm. Sometimes, one of them would squeeze under the fence and wander away. And Daddy would go looking for it, bringing it home just like the shepherd in the story Jesus told.
“You remember these words, Eve,” Grandma would say, pointing to the picture. “You may not have a father here on earth, but you have a heavenly Father. And the Lord will always be your faithful shepherd.” Eve wrapped the framed picture in one of Granny’s afghans to take with her to Wellingford Hall.
She awoke in her bed in the cottage the next morning for the very last time. Outside, the gray clouds hung so low Eve could almost touch them, as if they offered misty tears in sympathy. She closed the cottage door with a silent goodbye, and she and Mum started up the long road to Wellingford Hall carrying everything they owned.
Just as the great manor house came into sight, they were halted by a flock of sheep, blocking the way as they straggled across the road and through the pasture gate. The shepherd greeted them with a tip of his hat.
Eve knew then that the Good Shepherd would watch over her in her new home.