Chapter One

Elisabeth stared out of the carriage window dismally. Grey clouds shrouded the sky, giving the landscape a somber look. She decided it was quite all right, for it matched her feelings perfectly. She sighed and rested her head against the seat, watching fields and hills pass by in a listless manner.

Her former governess and now friend, Jane Ives, who had accompanied Elisabeth everywhere since she was fourteen years old, looked up from her sewing project and patted her hand, hoping to comfort her charge.

"Not much longer 'til we reach your uncle's place, Elisabeth. After some rest and a good meal, your spirits will improve considerably I'm sure."

Ah yes, her uncle. She hadn't seen her father's brother, William Miller, since she was two years old and, reportedly, he had not got on well with her parents at all. She couldn't think of a worse place to be and yet, after her parents' demise, there was nowhere else to go.

She still puzzled over the letter she had received a fortnight ago. He regretted terribly not having made amends before now, said he, and bade her come live with him as soon as she could. He'd even sent her a small sum of money with the envelope, to help with living expenses or travel, should she accept his offer. This kindness from him had nearly overwhelmed the seventeen-year-old and yet, she had also wondered, why had he not written sooner? Mr. and Mrs. Miller had been cold in the ground for months before she'd received one word from him.

Her mouth screwed to one side. "With a name like Blackcombe Ridge, I'm certain you are correct."

Jane's gaze was flat. "Now, Elisabeth, you need not be sarcastic. I was merely trying to help."

Elisabeth was instantly contrite. "I know, Jane, and I am sorry. I don't mean to snap so. I just simply don't see how any good can come of this."

Yet there are no other options left for me but this. She blew out a frustrated breath. Why was he so suddenly concerned about his niece's wellbeing, when he had not made any attempts to communicate with her beforehand? She did not know what to think.

Jane sighed. She would not admit it to Elisabeth, not wishing to frighten her more than she already was, but she'd had much of the same doubts herself. However, she once more put on a brave face.

"Well, we won't know until we get there, won't we? You uncle, by all accounts-and disregarding that business with your parents-seems like a pleasant man and I've heard the countryside is gorgeous, not like London at all. I'm certain there will be quite a few things to like there."

Elisabeth managed a weak smile. "Perhaps, perhaps not. Like you said, we shall see."

She turned her head toward the window again, effectively ending any further conversation. Jane sighed again and picked up her sewing which had been dropped in her lap. It had proved to be a tedious project, even for her, and not for the first time she wished that she'd brought a book or two with her. Gulliver's Travels would be vastly preferable to this.

Later on, as the sky grew dark, they came to a sudden halt. They had reached their destination. Elisabeth, who had been napping, rubbed her eyes as she slowly climbed out of the carriage.

The place didn't look bad. It wasn't at all like many of the mansions she'd seen in or around London, with their obnoxious, ornate displays of one's wealth and place in society. This structure was instead a mere two stories tall, coated in a bright shade of white. For decoration, there were a few scattered bushes and ivy creeping along the sides of the abode, giving a delicate, almost ancient, air to the place. It's rather charming, actually, she thought begrudgingly. She itched to see what was inside. They walked toward the front, clutching their valises in a nervous manner. Nobody had run outside to greet them yet. Had the driver made a wrong turn, perhaps? Elisabeth bit her lip. Maybe they should knock. . . Almost as if their minds had been read, the door swung open and a tall, dark-haired man walked out, followed by an older, plainly dressed man. The latter looked as if he were in the middle of some protest.

"Nonsense!" the dark-haired man was saying, "You are busy enough as is, and an old man now, to boot. Do take a short rest, I pray you, and I shall deal with my guests."

The older man-evidently the butler from the sounds of it-had no choice but to obey.

"Very well, sir," he acquiesced, looking equal parts reluctant and grateful. He gave them both a polite bow and disappeared into the house.

"Elisabeth! It is you? How good to see you again after so long!"

This must be her Uncle William, then. He was almost exactly like her father in appearance, except instead of brown eyes, his were a dark shade of blue. He was beaming as he strode forward, like he was truly happy to see her. Elisabeth bit her lip and looked at her former governess, hoping that Jane would speak for them. No such thing seemed forthcoming. In fact, Jane appeared to be momentarily struck dumb, it seemed, her eyes darting back and forth from Elisabeth to William with a strange look upon her face. What on earth's gotten into her? Elisabeth wondered. She'd ask her later, when they were alone. She'd ignored the proper rules of greeting one's relatives long enough.

To her absolute surprise and shock, she found herself being squeezed into a tight hug.

"I-yes, hello uncle. It is good to see you too, I suppose," she all but squeaked. To her relief, he set her back down. She stepped back a bit, glancing back at Jane as she did so. Her eyes were a bit wide, but she had a tiny smile plastered onto her face, as if forced there. Jane was truly a strange creature at times. Her uncle spoke again, drawing her attention back to him.

"Just look at you, child! It has been forever since I've seen you last-you were, what? Four years of age?"

"Two," she supplied dryly.

"Even longer. Time passes by so quickly, one scarcely knows what to do with it." Elisabeth could have swore she saw an odd, almost regretful sort of look, pass across his face but it left so quickly, and the dark haze of evening so difficult to see through, that she dismissed the thought.

"But no use laying out past faults here in the yard. It looks as if it will rain any moment! If you will follow me, I have refreshments laid out in the parlor."

"Thank you, sir. You are very kind," Miss Ives said.

Oh, now you speak?

"Yes. Thanks," Elisabeth echoed, not quite sure what else to say. What did he mean by 'past faults'? Most likely whatever quarrel he and her parents had gotten themselves in, though she sensed that there might be more to it than that. Her uncle was proving to be a strange sort of man already, that was for sure.

Within the space of fifteen minutes, her uncle had managed to ask at least a thousand questions, or so it seemed to Elisabeth. Jane, he presumed, was the companion she had mentioned in the letter she'd written back? Had their journey been safe and the weather good? Had the people along the way been friendly? Had their every comfort and request been seen to, as he'd instructed? And so on, so forth.

As talk drew on, Elisabeth found it increasingly difficult to keep up a polite, pleasant demeanor. Being of a more reserved temperament, and prone to bouts of reclusion at the best of times, she had refused to keep any company at all in the months following her parent's accident, and so was now unused to any extended form of conversation with anyone save for Jane. This shyness, combined with an exhaustion which had settled deep in her bones, threatened to put her in a foul mood.

Jane had apparently noticed the weary expression upon Elisabeth's face, for during a lull, suddenly said,

"My dear sir, I don't suppose you would mind us being shown to our rooms now? It has been quite a long journey from London and I believe my charge begins to show signs of exhaustion."

Elisabeth could have hugged her right there. Her uncle almost looked startled, but he sprung to action quickly, ringing a bell for one of the servants to come.

"Of course, I'm a dolt! You must forgive me, Miss Ives, Elisabeth, you both must think me a terrible host."

They both protested; Elisabeth more out of not wishing to be seen as rude than anything else, for she still didn't know yet what to think of him.

"Oh no, uncle, it's quite fine really!"

"Of course, one could hardly blame you for wishing to speak with your niece after so many years!"

He smiled. "You are both far too kind. Even so, I have been dreadfully ill-mannered, not even considering that you might wish to be shown to your rooms." He looked past them towards the door. "Ah! I see Alice has arrived to escort you there. If you require anything, do not hesitate to make a request."

"Thank you, sir."

Elisabeth mumbled a 'thank you' as well. It was becoming incredibly hard to keep her eyes open. When Jane rose from her seat, Elisabeth followed suit quickly, relieved that she had not decided to tarry any longer over formalities.

"We shall take our leave of you now then, sir," Jane said. "We shall be down again when supper is ready."

He bowed. "I shall see you at supper then."