Ohio, January 1878
It was a perfect day for a funeral. The gray sky heralded an approaching winter storm as cold wind whistled through the elm trees marking the entrance to the family plot. Icy snow flakes began to fall over the dirt and onto the pine box as Aunt Pheobe's body was lowered into the ground beside the man who had made her life miserable for over twenty years.
I stood by the carriage, trying to hold my tears at bay and ignore my step-cousins who ringed the mound of dirt. I saw not a single sign of grief on any of their faces. They were so much like their father.
I didn't miss the gleam of satisfaction on Opal's face, Aunt Phoebe's oldest daughter, as she glanced my way. I looked at Tom Harrow, now Opal's husband. He had once been the man of my dreams but Opal had somehow learned I thought my heart entwined with his. It was not to be. A confirmed spinster, at two and thirty. Opal made a play for him, securing her future with my pain. Or so I thought at the time.
Now, I felt nothing for Tom except sympathy. The poor man looked much like a whipped dog, as he stood behind Opal, their two small daughters hanging on to his trousers.
I turned my attention to Grace, newly married despite her advanced age of five and thirty, but married to a man twice her age. She was so obviously pleased with herself, repeatedly stroking the velvet cloak and matching dress, a smile on her face. She was smiling as they laid her own step-mother to rest! How very callous.
I glanced at the last of Aunt Phoebe's stepchildren. Clarence at least carried a somber expression, but his wife paid no mind to the cleric who held his tattered bible and read from the psalms. She was conversing with everyone, those to her side, those behind.
Oh, Aunt Phoebe, am I the only one who will miss you and your wise ways?
My uncle's influence marked this group of ingrates. But Aunt Phoebe had been like a mother to me after my own mother had died of consumption. They took me in, despite my uncle's objections and over the years, she had saved me countless times from the mean pranks of his children who wanted me gone from their home at any cost. Now the dear lady was gone and I had to face the world on my own.
I waited until the family had left the grave site and climbed into my borrowed carriage. I shivered thinking about the days before me.
First I'd have to endure the meals at Hastings Hall, before I could pack my things and arrange to leave the house that had been my home for these past sixteen years.
Of course, I was certainly old enough to begin my own life. At six and twenty, I could make my way. I could find a position caring for someone else, of that I was sure. Had I not cared for Aunt Phoebe for the past two months? None of the step-children she'd done her best to raise wanted anything to do with her failing health.
When I asked about finding employment, the pastor of our small church suggested a number of places where my services would be appreciated. Of course, the monetary remuneration they offered could not meet my barest needs. But, employment with an individual, perhaps as a companion might be possible. For now though, I had to get through the next day or two.
The three story brick house came into view. Oh, how I hated this house and the memories it held. I raised my chin and strengthened my spine, preparing for the confrontations I knew would occur when the family joined me at the hall.
I stepped from the carriage, smoothing the skirt of my worn black gown and hurried up the path toward the front porch.
To my surprise, Grace blocked the steps. Her husband, Harold stood at her side.
"Servants use the back entrance," she said, her voice ringing in challenge. I glanced at Harold Smyth. He was smiling and nodding at her words.
"I am not a servant. Servants receive pay for their labors, and I have never been paid." I pushed past her knowing as I did Grace would find a way to retaliate.
Inside, the other two siblings and their mates glared at me. Opal stepped forward into the entrance papered in dark green.
"Now that the funeral is over, I moved your things to a room on the third floor, the servants' floor. My girls need the room you occupied."
I held a groan and started toward the stairs. My cloak which was wet from the falling snow needed to be removed and I wanted to make certain my things had not been distributed. I had taken the precaution of locking my personal possessions in a travel trunk and the key rested in my pocket.
A number of neighbors arrived to offer their condolences to the family. One of those stepping through the door was Doctor Burton, the new young physician who had seen to my aunt the last month of her illness. I nodded in his direction and received an acknowledging smile.
His smile warmed something deep inside me. During his care of my aunt, his attention affected me in the same way. I tried to ignore the feeling, knowing if Opal suspected an interest, she would make matters worse than they already were.
"By the way," Opal said, her gaze on the doctor. "We expect luncheon to be served in the dining room in an hour. Ellie will see to it."
I turned on the stairs and smiled at the gathered group.
"Feel free to help yourselves." Fighting to continue up the staircase in a calm manner I ignored the noises of disagreement my statement had caused.