Strangers at Dawn

By: Elizabeth Thornton

“Well,” said Miss Beattie hopefully, “it may come to nothing. Perhaps you won’t find a man who is willing to take you on your terms.”

“I have it on my father’s authority,” said Sara, “that money can buy anything.” She was opening drawers and lifting cushions, obviously looking for something.

Miss Beattie hastened into speech. “But why burden yourself with a husband at all? You have only a year to wait, less than a year, then you can do as you like with your inheritance.”

“You know why.”

They’d had this conversation before, and Miss Beattie swallowed the long litany of arguments she’d marshaled to demolish Sara’s harebrained scheme. Sara wanted her inheritance now, not next month or next year, and the only way she could get it, under the terms of her father’s will, was by marrying before her twenty-fifth birthday. But Sara didn’t want a real husband. This was to be a business arrangement. Once the wedding ceremony was over and she’d paid off her husband-in-name-only, she never wanted to see him again.

The reasons she’d put forward for this rash enterprise were unconvincing in Miss Beattie’s opinion. She’d come to the end of her tether, Sara said. She wanted to get on with her own life. Moreover, if anything happened to her, Anne would inherit everything, and if William Neville ever turned up, then where would the family be? As Anne’s husband, William would have control of everything. Whereas, when she married, she’d make sure that her prospective husband signed an ironclad marriage settlement that would divide her father’s fortune equally among his five children before she had the ring on her finger.

Had Sara put forward these arguments three years ago, right after the trial, Miss Beattie might have been more inclined to accept them. But why now? That’s what she kept asking herself. Something had happened recently, something to upset Sara, and she had no idea what it was.

She chanced a quick look up, dropped a stitch, and muttered something under her breath. She’d been looking after Sara ever since the first Mrs. Carstairs had hired her as a nurse for her newborn baby. If Sara were to confide in anyone, it would be her. But that was Sara’s greatest failing. She was an intensely private person and kept things to herself. She rarely allowed her emotions to show. Most people thought Sara was cold, and most people couldn’t have been more wrong. It hadn’t been easy to be Samuel Carstairs’s eldest child. Only Sara had had the gumption to stand up to him. And if the younger children had fared better, it was only because they’d always turned to Sara to be their champion.

But where was Sara’s champion? A husband-in-name-only did not fit the bill at all.

“Bea, where is it?”

Miss Beattie dropped another stitch and glared furiously at the work in progress, a lacy bed jacket for a married sister who lived in Folkstone. Without looking up, she said innocently, “Where is what, dear?”

“Today’s edition of the Courier,” replied Sara gently.

Miss Beattie was on the point of pleading ignorance, but one look at the determined set of Sara’s chin made her stifle the impulse. “I don’t know why you would want to read that trash,” she said crossly.

“Yes, you do. Where is it, Bea?”

Miss Beattie sighed. Of course she knew. This was the third anniversary of Sara’s acquittal for the murder of William Neville, and on each anniversary, the Courier carried a summary of the story. It had become a tradition with the Courier now, as had the increase for the reward offered by Sir Ivor Neville for information leading to the discovery of William Neville’s whereabouts or final resting place.

With another resigned sigh, she dug in the knitting bag at her feet, withdrew the tightly folded newspaper, and handed it to Sara.

“What does the reward stand at now?” asked Sara.

“Five thousand pounds.”

Sara’s brows shot up. “I see.”

She took the paper to the candle on the table, smoothed it out, and began to read. Her expression remained neutral, but that didn’t fool Miss Beattie. Sara would have had to be made of stone not to be upset. The whole story had been gone through in lurid detail. Sara’s name appeared on every other line. The innuendo-that Sara had been a selfish, calculating jade who was acquitted only because William Neville’s body had never been found-was sickening. But what was truly frightening was the Courier’s declared intention of pursuing the story until justice was done. In her opinion, it wasn’t justice the paper was pursuing, but a vendetta against Sara.

Sara said softly, as though to herself, “Whoever wrote this article must really hate me. He’s never going to let the world forget my name. But who is he? ‘Special correspondent’ … that doesn’t tell me anything.”

When she paused, Miss Beattie said, “What difference does it make who he is? He’s a nasty piece of work, and I hope he rots in hell.”

Sara folded the newspaper and said crisply, “He’d stop hounding me if he could find William’s body.”

“Of if William turned up,” added Miss Beattie.