BOOK DETAILS

The North Wing

The North Wing

by Susan Butler

ASIN: B00GS979II

Publisher Susan Butler

Published in Literature & Fiction/Historical, Mystery & Thrillers/Mystery, Romance, Mystery & Thrillers, Literature & Fiction

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Book Description

Dreary, desolate, shrouded, forbidden. Such was the bizarre circumstance surrounding the north wing of Rochester Manor, as Abigail Parker was about to discover.

Late in the summer of 1887, shortly after her 19th birthday, Abigail’s life took an abrupt turn when a twist of fate sent her down a road she hadn’t envisioned. While no journey is without its share of pitfalls some cannot be anticipated, and circumstances aren’t always what they seem. Nothing could have prepared Abigail for the challenges she would soon face, and the staggering secret waiting to be revealed in the north wing.

Sample Chapter

Abigail awoke to a dreary morning, which seemed fitting given her equally dim mood. On her way to breakfast she happened upon Mr. Phillips. She thought this was fortunate, for if it was him playing she could make amends quickly. If not, he could likely acquaint her with whoever it was.

“Good morning,” she said.

“Good morning, miss,” he replied.

“We haven’t been formally introduced.”

“My apologies, miss. I’ve been visiting relatives, and returned late yesterday evening. I am Mr. Phillips, the footman, at your service.”

A tall man of average build in his late forties, his engaging smile expressed a kindly disposition.

“Yes, I remember you ushered me the day of my arrival.”

“It’s a pleasure to have you at the Manor.”

“Thank you, Mr. Phillips. Everyone I’ve met has been graciously accommodating. And I’ve discovered there’s talent here as well. I adore music, particularly the piano. It’s my understanding you play beautifully.”

“Whoever claimed this was far too kind on my behalf. I began recently and my play is poor, even for a novice.”

“Perhaps I misunderstood. With continued practice you should improve.”

“I’m not overly optimistic, miss. I don’t seem to have any natural aptitude for it. Any improvement will take a long while.”

“Could someone offer you their assistance; perhaps another staff member who plays well?”

“Regrettably there isn’t. One of the maids is more accomplished than I, although slightly at best. We haven’t much time for practice, or the means to obtain adequate instruction.”

“Such a pity. I do wish you the best of luck.”

“Thank you, miss. Is there anything else you require?”

“Nothing at the moment.”

He bowed to take his leave.

She placed her fingers to her mouth, her brows furrowed in perplexity. Obviously it wasn’t Mr. Phillips playing last night, or any of the servants. Darrell must know none of them play well. He’s hiding someone’s identity again, likely the person he wouldn’t reveal the other night, but for what conceivable reason?

Doubtful it was appropriate or wise to accuse Darrell of deception, she suppressed her concern before entering the dining room.

“Good morning, my love,” Darrell said.

His cheerful mood and tender kiss indicated he didn’t harbor any lingering annoyance. Once he’d pulled out her chair he prepared their plates, which had become his habit. “Were you able to sleep well after we parted?”

She assumed he referred to the cessation of the music. “I did, thank you,” she lied to conceal her qualms.

“You appear subdued this morning. Is anything the matter?”

“Nothing, other than I fear I’ve created trouble for the servants. I hope you didn’t chastise them harshly.”

“No, no; I merely explained the situation, nothing more.”

Sorely tempted to ask “explained to whom?” she resisted the urge. “That’s a relief to hear.”

“My dear, I need excuse myself directly after breakfast. I have several critical business matters I must attend, which may engage me until dinner.”

“Of course,” she said.

“I regret Catherine has not yet become a companion for you. How will you occupy the hours?”

“I’m not certain. Likely I’ll read for a while. Later on I’ll take a walk, if the rain holds off.”

“An agreeable enough plan. Luncheon won’t be possible for me; I’ll have a tray in the study. If I complete my work early, I’ll join you for tea.”

“That would be lovely.”

In truth, Abigail preferred to have time alone. It was as though she’d been presented with a puzzle, one that would be difficult to solve with many of the pieces missing. She was certain her attempt to collect them would anger Darrell, and any activity to this end must be covert. Although reluctant to go against his wishes, she believed she couldn’t help anyone while the mystery persisted. She contemplated how to proceed, without running the risk of arousing hearsay.

Mary, she thought. She’s already proven to be a trustworthy confidant. Even so, I don’t know her well enough to reveal my predicament. I don’t think she would gossip, yet I’ll approach her in a casual way, just to be sure.

*****

As she prepared for dinner, Abigail posed her questions to Mary in the context of small talk. “Have you been in service here a long time?”

“No, miss. I came only a few days before you did. I lived nearby, and was offered the post when it was announced the master had become engaged.”

“I see. Were you at all familiar with the family prior to your arrival?”

“Not terribly; mine had no connections here. It was a mutual friend of Mrs. Williams and my mother who recommended me. Why do you ask, miss?”

“I’d like to learn more about the household where I’m to be mistress. I’ve discovered so little I feel at a disadvantage.”

“You might seek out Mrs. Williams. She’s been here since before the master and his sister were born.”

“That’s good to know.”

“There, miss, you’re all ready.”

“Thank you, Mary.”

Abigail wondered about Mrs. Williams. Did she dare speak with someone close to Darrell? Mrs. Williams had been kind and forthcoming during their introduction, and she could think of no one else to consult. She decided with careful wording it would be safe to proceed. To obtain answers, she believed she had no choice.

*****

In the morning following breakfast, Abigail entered the kitchen in search of Eleanor. She found her in the middle of frantic activity.

“Mrs. Williams?”

“Abigail, dearest, how are you this morning?”

“Very well, thank you. You on the other hand appear overwhelmed.”

“Indeed we are. We’ve much to do in preparation of Easter.”

“I’d forgotten Easter is approaching. Darrell hasn’t informed me how the family celebrates holidays. Do they engage in large celebrations?”

“The immediate family celebrates all religious events privately, here in the house.”

“They don’t attend church, or participate in any functions?”

“No, not since…the accident.”

“I suppose that’s to be expected given their grief. And the staff?”

“While some return to their families, many remain. On Easter day we set out a large feast in both the servants’ hall and the dining room. Part of the staff has already left, and we’re shorthanded.”

“Goodness, it’s a small wonder you’re busy.”

“Was there something you required this morning, my dear?”

“Nothing of any urgency. Perhaps I could be of assistance to you.”

Eleanor chuckled. “It’s kind of you to offer, but I can’t have you pitching in with the staff.”

“Truly, I wouldn’t mind; I’d enjoy helping.”

“Darrell would never permit an activity so unseemly on your part.”

“Why should he object if the suggestion is mine?”

“In his eyes it won’t make a difference.”

“Then I’ll leave you to it, if I’ll only be in the way.”

Eleanor smiled, and cupped her cheek. “Such a lovely young lady you are.”

Abigail left the kitchen even more bewildered. From what Darrell indicated, their year of grieving should have ended. How strange they still elect to spend their holidays alone. I must discover the reason their disruption has continued. Unfortunately, I’ll have to wait for things to return to normal before I speak with Eleanor. Normal; that’s not a word most would use to describe this household.

*****

Holidays, such as Easter, which oftentimes bring families together, did nothing to alleviate the tension at Rochester Manor. It had in fact escalated, and temperaments had become raw. Catherine’s animosity was obviously mounting; at times she seemed on the brink of disclosing the issue Darrell insisted be held in confidence. He’d come to lose all patience with his sister. As a result they’d squabbled incessantly.

With the added commotion Abigail’s frustration had reached a peak, to the point she’d been tempted to consult with Catherine. In the end, she thought better of it. If Catherine wanted to be rid of her, snooping behind Darrell’s back would provide her with the perfect opportunity.

Shortly after Easter, Darrell informed Abigail Catherine had been invited to visit friends who reside in the adjacent county, and expected her to remain at least a fortnight. Although his sister appeared pleased to be leaving, Abigail considered it likely he’d had a hand in this invitation.

Once Catherine had departed, the condition of the house improved immensely. Without the continual aggravation Darrell’s disposition relaxed, giving Abigail pause to risk up heaving the placid conditions. On the other hand, she thought it probable when his sister returned the tranquility would as quickly end. Since a temporary solution was hardly preferable to none, she decided to go forth with her plan to confer with Eleanor.

A week later, her chance arose when Darrell was to be away from the house until evening on matters of business. Abigail sought out Eleanor during a quiet time of day. She discovered her alone in the kitchen.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Williams.”

“Abigail, my dear, come right in. Would you care for a cup of tea?”

“Thank you, Mrs. Williams; I’d love one.”

“Now there will be no more of this Mrs. Williams formality. I’m sure you’re aware Darrell and Catherine call me Eleanor. I want you to do the same.”

“Eleanor then, thank you,” she obliged as she sat and was handed her tea.

“You’re welcome. Darrell and Catherine are as a son and daughter to me. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to attain another daughter.”

“It’s kind of you to say, Eleanor. Speaking of Darrell and Catherine, I’ve noticed a good deal of tension exists between them. Oftentimes they’re at odds with one another.”

“Regrettably, this is true.”

“Does their quarrel stem from the tragedy?”

“The tragedy; yes, it does. It’s a dreadful shame, for there was a time when they were all happy children, and as close to each other as one can imagine.”

Abigail raised her eyebrows. “All?”

“Did I say all? I meant to say both, of course. I’m afraid my age is becoming apparent.”

The lapse in Eleanor’s composure gave Abigail the impression she’d attempted to cover a faux pas, rather than explain a misuse of terminology.

“They suffered a horrible misfortune, yet such trials may unite family members,” Abigail suggested. “In their case, I sense a marked disagreement pertaining to their ordeal.”

“There is a great deal of controversy.”

“Does it involve the north wing? They seem very troubled in its regard.”

“You’re most perceptive; it is the source of their dispute.”

Eleanor began to wring her hands, apparently uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation.

“I hope you don’t think my intention is to pry,” Abigail said. “I want to learn more, only so I may attempt to ease the strain between them.”

“I understand. I dare say no more, other than I hope you will be able to help, someday.”

To avoid losing her trust Abigail moved on to new topics. For the time being she was satisfied with the confirmation of one pertinent point; the north wing was the root of the problem.

*****

Abigail received word Darrell had returned in time for dinner. She met him in the dining room, startled to find he was excessively wan.

“Darrell, are you unwell?”

“I am well, dearest, although it’s been a trying day. Problems have arisen with my latest venture I’d hoped would be resolved by now; instead they’ve become far worse. I must leave in the morning for London to rectify them. I hate to abandon you, since it may require days to hash the mayhem out.”

“While it’s thoughtful of you to consider me, I’ve settled in comfortably here. You’ve no need for concern on my behalf.”

“My sweet Abigail. I knew you’d be tolerant, yet without companionship I fear you’ll feel adrift.”

“Being an only child I’m accustomed to entertaining myself. Have my assurance I’ll be fine, particularly since you’ll return in a few days.”

“This is a relief to hear. I can think of no one else who possesses your patience and generosity.”

“You possess the same qualities. In light of the patience and generosity you’ve shown me, how could I offer you less in return?”

He smiled and caressed her hand. “Unless it would press the matter, I need request another indulgence. I’ll be departing at an early hour, long before breakfast. I should retire directly after dinner.”

“Don’t consider for a moment I view your measures as any sort of neglect. You’re overly burdened as it is. You mustn’t add to it with undue concern about me.”

“Bless you, my dearest Abigail. I love you.”

“As I love you. You’ll grant me a favor by taking good care of your health.”

Dearest Darrell, she thought. I cannot explain, but I’ll have no difficulty whatever filling my time. Your absence will in fact be most opportune. I’ll be able to continue with my search, which is precisely what I intend to do.

*****

Abigail finished her breakfast tray quickly, and then instructed Mary to hurry with her preparations. This morning, with Darrell gone, she was in no mood to dilly dally. Likely she had ample time for her pursuit; nevertheless, she didn’t want to waste a moment of her opportunity.

She bustled down the stairs as though the house was on fire. When she reached the foyer she stopped short, and stared alternately down the hallways. Anxious to start; she hadn’t exactly considered whom or what she sought. She didn’t think Eleanor would divulge much more, and Jake was not one to chat. To spy seemed her only option.

She roamed without direction, until she happened upon one of the maids at the entrance of the east wing carrying bed linens and cleaning implements. It seemed probable the young woman could tell her if someone had been residing there.

“Hello,” Abigail said.

The girl halted. “I beg your pardon, miss. I didn’t see you were there.”

“It appears you’re to tidy the east wing. Have guests stayed with us recently, or are we anticipating someone’s arrival?”

“No, miss, I’m attending to my regular duties.”

“Then I suppose Mr. Lewis wants these rooms maintained for unplanned visitors?”

“We don’t receive many guests. The master insists the rooms his parents occupied are kept in perfect condition. I tend to them each and every week without fail.”

Abigail quavered, but managed to maintain her composure. “Oh, of course…I do recall him mentioning this. You’re headed there now?”

“Yes, miss. If you’ll excuse me I’ll get right to it.”

Abigail reeled as she watched her enter one of the rooms. Scarcely able to think she bumbled her way to the conservatory, and plopped onto a lounge.

“If the north wing isn’t where his parents resided, he lied to me about the reason it’s forbidden,” she spat aloud.

Whoever or whatever he was hiding, Abigail was convinced the circumstance was appalling. She was determined to discover the truth. If she couldn’t before Darrell’s return, she’d confront him with her findings.

She walked purposefully to the north wing. She heard a noise, and was about to investigate when the passageway doors began to open.

“Oh, my God!” she blurted out. She sped to the adjacent wall to crouch behind a chair.

Soon she heard the sound of a lock being secured, followed by footsteps. Whoever it was reached the end of the wing, and turned in her direction. She found it was Eleanor, who passed by without spotting her.

Once she was out of view Abigail slipped down the corridor. She positioned her ear against the door; however, detected nothing.

She heard someone’s approach from another part of the house, and lurched upright. Panic swept through her when she realized the person was too close and the hallway too long for any chance of escape.

With no furniture or alcove to provide shelter, her only option was to plaster herself to the wall closest to the direction of the sound. With each forthcoming step her breathing became increasingly labored. Her shoulders constricted painfully as she pressed her body ever firmer to the wall. She shut her eyes in anticipation of what seemed inevitable.

The person neared the entryway. Abigail gathered her nerve to take a peek. It was Jake, who strode by via the same route as Eleanor. He was apparently focused upon his destination, and took no notice of her.

When his footsteps could no longer be heard she peeled away from the wall, faint to the extent she steadied herself to prevent a tumble. On rocky legs she made her way down the hall, and out the back door.

She collapsed onto a bench, her breath coming in heaves. That was a close call; too close. If I’m to continue I must be more careful, although there’s no if about it.

Considering her limited alternatives, she determined the only feasible course was to keep tabs on the north wing. She crept cautiously there, and hid behind the same chair she’d used previously. A few servants walked by; however, an hour later no one else had entered or exited the north wing. For the time being she relinquished her vigil, but repeated her surveillance that afternoon and evening, only to be disappointed with the same result.

The routine continued for several days, though nothing more of significance had transpired. It seemed she wouldn’t learn anything new prior to Darrell’s return, until one night when she was again awakened by the sound of a piano. Abigail was convinced this was the same masterful performance she’d heard previously. “There’s no possibility it is Mr. Phillips who’s playing,” she harrumphed.

She tiptoed down the stairs. Unable to pinpoint the sound’s location, she headed towards the servants’ quarters to confirm her presumption. When the music became softer she changed direction. Suddenly, she froze dead in her tracks. She’d arrived at the north wing, aghast to hear the music was coming from behind the doors.

Continues...

Excerpted from "The North Wing" by Susan Butler. Copyright © 2013 by Susan Butler. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Author Profile

Susan Butler

Susan Butler

Susan Butler was born and raised in Saint Louis, Missouri. She divides her time between nearby Saint Charles county and Tampa, Florida with her husband, Brian and dog, Toby. Her second novel is underway, and she hopes to have it published sometime within the next year.

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