Strangers at Dawn

By: Elizabeth Thornton

Her own father had never spent much time with his motley crew of children and stepchildren. He’d been too busy amassing his fortune, then too busy trying to climb the social ladder.

“A title for you, Sara,” he’d told her jubilantly when she was just out of the schoolroom. “And why not? Money can buy anything. And you’ve had the education to make you a lady. Yes, a titled son-in-law would suit me very well.”

He’d found his impoverished aristocrat for her to wed, but he could not buy her compliance. Samuel Carstairs was to discover that his eldest child was as stubborn as himself.

If her father could see her now, if he only knew how far she had fallen, he would turn in his grave.

She shivered, as though someone had just walked over her grave, and turned from the window, She began to wander aimlessly around the room, a slender girl of medium height whose calm, unhurried movements gave no hint of the inner turmoil of her thoughts. Her large dark eyes and chestnut tresses, scraped back from her face in a severe knot, added drama to finely sculpted bones and a surprisingly fair complexion. The drama was deliberately tempered, however, by Sara’s mode of dress. In her scrupulously plain, high-waisted gown that buttoned all the way to her throat and at the wrist, and with a demure lace cap on her head, she could have passed for a governess, which was exactly the effect Sara wanted to create. She had, unjustly, earned a reputation for sexual depravity, and was determined that she would never be mistaken for a woman of easy virtue again.

A mirthless laugh escaped her. She had more to worry about than the false charge of sexual depravity. The charge of murder had made the greatest difference in her life. It had forced her to change her name, separated her from her family, and kept her moving from place to place whenever it seemed that her past was about to catch up to her.

And it had all been for nothing, nothing, for her past had caught up to her with a vengeance.

When the faint sound of the door knocker came to her, she turned to face the door. A few moments passed, then her companion-housekeeper, a stately woman in her late forties, entered.

“The boys are here,” she said.

Sara smiled at Miss Beattie’s choice of words. Her younger brothers, stepbrothers, in fact, were university men, but to Miss Beattie, who had been with the family since Sara’s birth, Simon and Martin Streatham would always be “the boys,” just as Sara and her sister, Anne, would always be “the girls,” and Lucy, the youngest Streatham, would always be “the baby” of the family.

In years past, Miss Beattie had been nurse to all the children at Longfield, Samuel Carstairs’s palatial home near the village of Stoneleigh, and when the children no longer needed her, Miss Beattie had retired to a small house in Salisbury. After the trial, when Sara had decided that it would be better for her family if she moved away, Miss Beattie had offered to go with her.

She was so glad now that Bea had overridden all her objections. Sara felt tears of affection stinging behind her eyes. It was a lonely life, much lonelier than she had imagined it would be, but Miss Beattie had never voiced any regrets for choosing to accompany her. Sara did not know what she had done to deserve such loyalty.

“Then show them in, Bea.”

The two fashionable young gentlemen who entered the parlor practically pounced on Sara. She was hugged and kissed, first by one and then the other, as they exclaimed how well she looked, how tiny her new house was, how time passed, and how glad they were to see her again. Though Sara’s greeting was more restrained, her pleasure was genuine. The Streatham side of the family was much more demonstrative than the Carstairs, but she and Anne were used to it. Their father had remarried when Sara was nine, and their new stepmother had brought into the family two rambunctious boys who were still in leading strings and their baby sister, a perfect child who’d since turned into a difficult adolescent.

“Sit down, both of you.”

The first flush of pleasure dimmed when Sara remembered why she had sent for her brothers. As they were all aware, she had in her possession the numerous bills they’d run up in the last several months, bills they expected her to settle, and this was the day of reckoning. But worse by far in Sara’s eyes was the fact that, because of their wild conduct at Oxford, they had been expelled for the rest of the term. “Rusticated” was the word her attorney in Stoneleigh had used in his letter, but that was just a polite way of saying “expelled.”

Simon Steatham grinned disarmingly as he flopped into an armchair. At eighteen, he was a year older than his brother, Martin. “I see by the look on your face,” he said, “that Prissy Primrose has got to you before we’ve had a chance to explain ourselves. Now don’t get your bowels in an uproar, Sis. All the fellows get rusticated at one time or another. It doesn’t mean anything. We’ll be back at Oxford next term.”

Once, Simon’s charm would have softened her, but that was a long time ago. Her experience of charming men, limited as it was, had taught her a harsh lesson. The devil, she was sure, would appear as Prince Charming himself.