Chatsworth, England 1825
Jenny, Countess of Dowding, had a promise to fulfill the day she arrived at Mrs. Rutley’s School for Young Women—an oath sworn by her and her closest friends beneath the old oak tree that grew at the front of the school’s property. A vow that said they would heed the call from any of her “sisters” who were in need of aid, no matter where they were at the time. And that call had come, in the form of a letter two weeks earlier, stating that her former headmistress, Mrs. Agnes Rutley, was deathly ill.
Jenny had not hesitated. Mrs. Rutley’s time on this earth was limited, and Jenny made a point of dropping everything—including an important gathering with other women of society in the Newcastle area, hosted by Lady Edith Rainskin. Lady Edith had not been pleased that Jenny would be absent, yet the marchioness found disappointment with even the simplest of changes to her usually well-thought-out plans.
Well, Jenny had more important matters to attend to at the moment.
Removing a glove, she ran a hand over the coarse bark of the tree trunk, pausing to trace the nine sets of initials scratched into the large smooth area from where a limb had been removed.
“May we carve our initials into the trunk of this tree as a reminder of our pledge?” Miss Ruth Lockhart had asked that day so long ago. “It can be our way of signing an agreement.”
Mrs. Rutley had readily agreed.
Once each student had added her mark, they shared one secret about themselves. One they had not told anyone before. A new bond was formed between the girls and their headmistress, all known from that day forward as the Sisterhood of Secrets.
Despite their pledge and how close she and her sisters had become, life had sent each friend down different paths. Jenny had not spoken to most of her friends for many years; a regret she would remedy when all the others arrived.
But she had no time to dwell on the past. Mrs. Rutley was waiting for her.
The school looked exactly as she remembered it, only the ivy allowed none of the white paint to show between its vines. The black-trimmed windows needed a fresh coat of paint, but otherwise, the house had not changed in the least.
Before she reached the portico, the front door opened, and a familiar face greeted her.
“Well, if my old eyes don’t deceive me!” portly Mrs. Shepherd said. “You’re a sight for sore eyes. I’m so glad you’re here, Miss Jen… erm… my lady.”
With her heart soaring, Jenny embraced the elderly cook. “You’ve no idea how pleased I am to see you, Mrs. Shepherd. You look simply amazing.”
The cook reddened. “You’re just being kind,” she said, chuckling. “But don’t stop on my account! Just look at you. You haven’t aged a day. What’s your secret?”
Jenny looked first left, then right. “Your pea soup,” she whispered. “My cook has used only your recipe for the last twenty years.”
“As well she should!” Mrs. Shepherd replied, making both of them laugh.
After Mrs. Shepherd had taken her coat and hat, Jenny closed her eyes and listened to the past. In the parlor, Unity Ancell and Theodosia Renwick were laughing about something they were reading together. Above her, Julia Wallace was scolding Ruth Lockhart for an unknown infraction. Diana Kendricks, Emma Hunter, and Louisa Dunston whispered about the handsome gentlemen each had seen during an excursion to the village. Even the shrill voice of Abigail Swanson and her two lackeys, Margaret Tranter and Lydia Gilstrap, brought back a plethora of memories, theirs less pleasant than the others.
With a sigh, she opened her eyes and was greeted by Mrs. Shepherd’s smile. “It’s all right, love,” she said, patting Jenny’s hand. “I can hear the echo of you all in the silence here, too.”
“I waited far too long to visit,” Jenny said, tears filling her eyes. “I’ve not written to anyone in years, and with my daughter, Annabell, marrying next month and my son… well…”
Mrs. Shepherd wrapped an arm around Jenny. “You’re here now. That’s all that matters. Now, go on up to Mrs. Rutley’s bedroom. Several of the others have already arrived. Not all, but some…”
Jenny studied the cook. Why had she flinched? “Is something wrong, Mrs. Shepherd?”
“You’d best get going before I have you scrubbing pots as punishment,” Mrs. Shepherd replied, but her tone lacked the sharpness it might have had twenty years earlier.
Mrs. Agnes Rutley’s bedroom was located on the upper floor at the end of a long corridor. Jenny gently opened the door and peeked inside, her eyes widening in delight. Julia, Emma, and Diana sat huddled together, all looking very much as she remembered.
Tapping lightly on the open door, Jenny grinned when her friends looked up at her.
“Oh, Jenny,” Diana said in a hushed cry. “It’s so good to see you!” She threw her arms around Jenny. “Mrs. Rutley is resting, but soon, she would like you to tell her a story. And I know I’m not the only one who wishes to hear it.”
Emma led Jenny to the bedside, and Jenny took Mrs. Rutley’s hand in hers.
The headmistress slowly opened her eyes. “I knew you would come,” she said so quietly that Jenny had to strain to hear.
“We made a promise,” Jenny said. “Nothing could have stopped me from coming.”