Willow Grove Abbey Online - Mary Christian Payne

PROLOGUE

1917-1935

LADY SOPHIA SOMERVILLE

When I shared a room at The Ashwick Park School with Edwina Phillips, she often referred to my years growing up at Willow Grove Abbey, my family’s ancestral home, as a Cotton Candy existence. At that time, it seemed senseless to compare my life to a sweet confection. Later, as I compared the milieu of my upbringing to other young women at Ashwick Park, I realized that I did, indeed, live a privileged life. However, that was valid only when viewed from afar, which was Edwina’s vantage point. She saw the Somerville family and its’ seemingly charmed circle exactly as my parents had so carefully planned. Outsiders were unaware of our family’s deeply held secrets. The tidy flowerbeds, expanses of manicured lawns, beautifully appointed rooms, and priceless objects d’art at Willow Grove Abbey disguised the tumult and discord that often reigned within those stone walls.

While persons who knew me casually envied what appeared to be my idyllic lifestyle, and spoke of my family in reverential tones, the truth was much less appealing. Because of my family’s diligent attention to appearances, there was no chance that anyone would have believed the truth. My father, Nigel, the Earl Somerville, considered the quintessential English Lord, was genteel and soft spoken, with a kindly word for everyone. More than one wife throughout the countryside wished that her husband could be like my handsome, revered father. People said that he did not have an enemy in the world, and that was undoubtedly true. He’d learned early in life that reputation was of prime importance. Armed with the esteem of his fellow man, and the power that comes from being extraordinarily wealthy, Nigel Somerville was free to follow his own devices, and to do so without a conscience.

Alternately, my mother, Pamela, Countess Somerville, thought to be an exemplary Lady, was a dual-sided puzzle. None of us understood her. She kept her strange personality traits well hidden from the public. Tall and slender, she carried herself with regal bearing and was the epitome of well-mannered decorum. On the other hand, she displayed periodic eruptions of abusive rage, which were ghastly scenes of carnage. Once ended, the family never spoke of them again. One moment, she would be in an expansive mood, seemingly happy and content. Then, in the blink of an eye, her mood deteriorated into explosive anger, followed by despair. During those times, she hurled vicious words at whomever happened to be in her path. Her words were like arrows, piercing hearts and leaving scars, just as real as if they‘d penetrated flesh. The wounds took a long while to heal. Many never healed at all. Words spoken during rages significantly altered the course of all of our lives. And words were not the only things she hurled. When in the midst of a rage, anything within her reach was fair game for what we children termed a ‘smash fest’. The term was spot on accurate. She threw and smashed everything within her grasp. Those wretched scenes never took place in any sort of public arena, at least not until much later in my life. To those outside of the family, Mummy was grace and charm personified. However, inside of the ‘charmed circle,’ she was often a guttersnipe.

From the time I was only fifteen years, Mummy began to harp about my finding a husband immediately upon turning eighteen. Whether I found a gentleman attractive, or even kind, had no relevance. She frequently taunted that I was no great beauty, and that I should never turn a man away because of his appearance. Supposedly, she did not believe in marrying for love. However, that was confusing because she consistently maintained that she’d adored Papa from the moment she set eyes upon him. The primary factors I was encouraged to consider in my search for a prospective husband were heaps of money and social status. There was no question that my future spouse was to be from a noble family. He would preferably be a Duke. I was often reminded that I did not resemble Mummy in any way, and that she had been a sensational beauty when my age. The truth is that I was really quite attractive... Some even said beautiful... but, I had a highly distorted image of myself. How could I not have?

Upon the death of his father, Papa learned, to his great dismay, that my Grandpapa had squandered nearly all of the family fortune. Papa enjoyed his bachelorhood well into his thirties,