Chapter One

Grace flicked hopefully through the envelopes arranged on a silver tray. Glimpsing foreign stamps and her brother’s familiar scrawl her heart leapt as she seized it. Thank God. She sped up the wide staircase and along the galleried landing to her mother’s room.

Propped against lace-edged pillows fragrant with lavender Louise Damerel, lily-pale in frilled peach gauze, was sipping tea.

Grace held up the envelope. ‘At last, Mama. A letter from Bryce.’

Thrusting the cup at her daughter Louise held out a fragile hand. ‘Quick, give it to me. Dear Lord, I’ve been so worried.’

Moving a water glass and three enamelled pillboxes Grace set the cup on the bedside cabinet, then sat at the foot of the big bed and smoothed faint creases from her long skirt.

‘They did warn us about the primitive postal system,’ she reminded gently.

‘Yes, but it’s been five months. Five months. I know they’re grown men and very busy. But they are still my sons. If you had children you would understand.’

Grace looked down at the tight cuffs of her cotton blouse pretending to re-fasten a pearl button. If you had children. Oh how she wished… But she was three years from thirty and didn’t even have a gentleman caller.

Zoe attracted admirers like jam attracts wasps. Seven years older and lacking her sister’s beauty and sparkling talent she did not. But resenting Zoe would have been as foolish as resenting a shooting star.

For a while she had cherished hope. Occasionally she had been sought out. Her heart opening like a flower in sunshine when her callers brought flowers and accepted with gratifying enthusiasm her shyly offered invitations to tea. The painful and mortifying realisation that she was simply a route to Zoe had eroded then demolished her self-esteem.

Granny Hester had shown neither surprise nor sympathy. ‘Look at you. Men like to see a young woman in pretty dresses that show off her figure, not plain skirts and mannish blouses. Fair hair and grey eyes are no help either, unless you want to be invisible. You should learn from your sister, make a bit of effort. Zoe knows how to flatter men and make them laugh. No wonder everyone loves her.’ Shaking her head in disgust as Grace’s lack of such basic accomplishments she had retired upstairs to her sitting room.

Patting her hand her mother had confessed relief. ‘Darling, I’m so sorry you’ve been hurt. I know it’s dreadfully selfish of me but I’d hate to lose you. I don’t know how I would manage. You take such wonderful care of me.’

After the last time three years ago, and to spare herself further pain, Grace had buried her dreams of a husband and children of her own. Instead, burdened with guilt because her difficult birth was the cause of her mother’s fragility, she channelled all her energy into running the house and taking care of her mother, helping at the school and chapel and doing charity work in the village. In this busy demanding life she had rediscovered a sense of worth.

Then Reverend Peters died. A few weeks later, after consultations between the chapel elders and the circuit superintendent, a new minister was appointed. Within days the whole village buzzed with the news that the Reverend Edwin Philpotts had left mission work in India to return to his native Cornwall.

He had been standing in the vestibule with Mrs Nancholas, the chapel organist, when Grace arrived for her turn on the cleaning rota. Tall and thin, with straight brown hair that flopped over his forehead, he had a sallow complexion and dark shadows of strain beneath his eyes. Deep creases bracketed his mouth.

‘Ah, Reverend,’ Mrs Nancholas beamed. ‘This here is Grace. Miss Damerel, I should say. I dunno what we’d do without her and that’s a fact.’

He turned. As the soft brown gaze met hers Grace’s heart leapt into her throat and she averted her eyes. But courtesy demanded she offer her hand. His grip was warm and firm and her entire body tingled.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Damerel.’

‘How do you do? Will you excuse me?’ Hot from her toes to the roots of her hair Grace had fled down the aisle to the back room where she leaned against the door, breathless and trembling.

She watched her mother fumble with the envelope. Edwin Philpotts had been in the village three months one week and five days. Every time Grace saw him she was torn between hope and terror. His duties and her voluntary work brought them together often enough