Straw in the Wind Online - Janet Woods

Prologue

1835

Harbour House, Poole, Dorset.

Dawn was creeping over the horizon. The woman’s tortured groans had ceased, her dying breath expelled in a long, defeated whimper. Her body had been washed and her long, dark hair brushed and spread about her on the pillow. Now dressed in a long nightgown, her hands were pressed together in prayer.

Caroline Honeyman looked like an angel instead of an unfaithful wife.

The infant had her face turned towards the man. She was pale and limp, blue around the lips and wrapped loosely in a shawl. If she could have seen through those darkling, newborn eyes, she would understand why he didn’t want her.

‘I’m sorry,’ the midwife said. ‘The birth was too much for them.’

‘You can go. I want to spend some time alone with my wife.’

The man crossed to the infant when the woman left the room. He gazed at her, his eyes maddened by grief and the impotent fury he felt. There was no mistaking the resemblance. She was Thornton’s daughter! He lashed out, thumping the side of the cradle with his fist.

As if she’d suddenly decided to put up a fight for survival, the infant’s chest expanded and she hauled in a breath of air. Her face screwed up, as though she’d smelled something unpleasant, and she gave a loud, demanding cry.

No! This couldn’t be. He wouldn’t allow it, not while he had the power to stop it! Taking a cushion from the chair he gazed down at the infant and whispered, ‘I’ll see you in hell first, you Thornton bastard,’ and a tear rolled down his face as he slowly lowered it.

One

Somerset 1853

Sara Finn walked along a short carriageway that curved slightly upwards towards Leighton Manor. The evening sun came from behind, pushing her shadow tall along the ground. It was twice her length, which was five feet and four inches from head to heel.

Eighteen years old, and although Sara had suffered hardship in her short life, she was still young enough to enjoy the beauty nature had to offer and the optimism to hope that her lot would improve in time. Today she was taking her first step into the future, and what a blessing the day was.

The air was golden and warm, drenched with the drifting scent of roses carried on a faint breeze. When Sara rounded the bend her eyes widened because the overgrown grass in front of the house was a mass of dancing poppies, harebells and mayweed. To her right was a spreading oak, and to her left a cobbled yard with a small stable block. Behind the house a gentle downward incline of meadow was divided by a stream at the bottom, then it rose gently upwards towards a copse leaning against the skyline.

She stopped, and placing the bag she carried on the ground she shortened her gaze to Leighton Manor. It was a modestly sized manor built of stone, one easily managed by five servants – at least, that’s how Mrs Pawley had described it. Sara absorbed the sight; the house was larger than she’d expected, about the size of the rectory she’d just left. It glowed a soft pinkish yellow in the late afternoon light. The windows were large, and designed to frame the views so they could be admired. The glass sent back gleams of orange. Three steps led up to frosted-glass panelled doors, which stood open for anyone to walk inside.

‘My first position,’ she said with some satisfaction, because she couldn’t count her childhood on the farm in Gloucestershire as a position even though she’d worked there from dawn to dusk from the age of eight through to twelve. Nor could she count the time in the workhouse, where she’d packed pins and picked oakum until her fingertips were blistered and raw and callused. And neither could she count the three . . . no – it was almost four years since she turned fourteen. She’d spent them as a maid to Reverend Pawley, his eight children from his first marriage and their stepmother, Elizabeth, who’d once been the children’s governess.

The reverend had never paid Sara a penny piece for her labours when he’d given her notice to leave, saying he’d taken her from the workhouse for her own good, that he’d fed, housed, clothed and educated her along with his own children. She should be grateful for that, and be happy that his wife had given her a reference after what had taken place.

‘The cheek of him to accuse me of enticing his eldest