Isabel Hart is afraid of two things, the maze at Trencarrow where she got lost as a young child, and the lake where her brother David saved her from drowning in a boating accident.
With her twenty-first birthday and the announcement of her engagement imminent, Isabel decides it is time for her to face her demons and ventures into the maze. There she sees something which will alter her perceptions of herself and her family forever.
Isabel’s widowed aunt joins the house party, where her cousin confides she is in love with an enigmatic young man who surely cannot be what he pretends, for he is surely too dashing for homely Laura?
When Henry, Viscount Strachan and his mother arrives, ostensibly to use her ball as an arena for finding a wife, Isabel is determined not to like him.
As more secrets are revealed, Isabel doubts she has chosen the right man, although her future fiancé has more vested in this marriage than Isabel realizes and has no intention of letting her go easily.
Will Isabel be able to put her preconceptions of marriage behind her and take charge of her own life, or is her life destined to be controlled by others?
The long case clock in the entrance hall worked its way to chime the hour with a clunk and mechanical whine. Isabel slid her hand over the newel post, large as a man’s head at the bottom of the stairs; patting the carved wood three times to banish evil spirits, a childhood ritual her siblings raced each other to perform first.
The fragrance of lavender overlaid with the tang of vinegar permeated the hall; a combination used by the servants to bring life to rooms that had lain empty since winter.
A murmur of raised voices from behind the green baize door to the basement sent Isabel scurrying into the morning room. Crossing the marbled floor, she pushed through the casement door onto the terrace; the route to the outside with the quietest hinge.
A smoky mist rose from the meadows in a blue haze of early morning as her feet skimmed the stone steps onto cropped, spongy grass that leached dampness into her thin soles. Strutting fantails scattered at her approach with indignant squawks.
Tucked into a corner of the grounds, the maze sat behind a railed enclosure. Squat and menacing in geometric perfection, two stone lions stood sentry on either side of an entrance which gaped - black, beckoning.
The loamy earth and damp leaf smell propelled Isabel back to her sixth birthday, when she had become lost in a dark labyrinth of strange noises. No matter how much her siblings teased her since, she had never come near it again.
In two weeks, she would be twenty one; far too old to be frightened of a few hedges. Time to banish the monster forever. While the rest of the family slept off their fatigue of the previous day’s journey from London, this post-dawn silence offered a perfect opportunity. The lush green foliage looked anything but threatening now, and yet she still had to force herself over the threshold and onto the path.
Her shoes crunched on fine gravel as Isabel crept to the end of the first corridor and turned left into a straight tunnel. The waxy leaves on an untrimmed hedge brushed her cheek as she rounded a corner. A shadow at the edge of her vision darted away in a scurrying of either claws or wings. Halting, she ran her hands down the sides of her skirt and fought the urge to turn back.
The statue of a boy on a stone plinth changed her mind. Sightless eyes gazed straight ahead, the folds of his breeches buckled below the knee. He looked smaller than she remembered, a French horn held in dimpled fingers, and a mass of short curls like thick worms carved in stone.
Reciting the route she had worked out a hundred times from her bedroom window, a burst of confidence sent her through the next gap into a small clearing where white colonial roses covered a wrought iron ornamental arch, its ivory blooms exuding a sweet, cloying fragrance.
Their unexpected beauty stilled the moment and Isabel paused, entranced. Had she got this far on that long-ago birthday, how different her childhood might have been without the insidious fears the maze always engendered. Her foot raised to move forward, a movement caught her eye. She turned, and sucked in her breath.
The scene before her made no sense.
Tall and imposing in his ubiquitous charcoal grey tailcoat, his dark hair touched by silver wings at the temples, Father stood with his arms wrapped tightly around her mother’s nurse.
Amelia clung to him, her head tilted to receive his kiss; her long, white fingers entwined in his hair. Fingers that messed the pristine order in a way he would never have tolerated in a hug from Isabel.
Pressed close, he held his broad hand spread across Amelia’s back, while with the other. . .
Isabel backed away, pressing against the hedge where sharp privet scratched the base of her neck. Like a small child caught in a misdemeanour, she waited as the seconds passed, each loaded with anticipation of her father’s voice raised to summon her back.
Apart from a low rustle and a murmur of wind, the maze remained still and silent.
Isabel bounced onto her toes and ran. Her heart pounded in rhythm with each step as she pleaded with the fates she had chosen the right path. The statue of the boy flashed past and giddy with relief at the sight of the entrance looming ahead, she burst between the hedges into bright sunlight.
Her skirt threatened to wrap around her ankles, but she reached the far side of the lawn without mishap. The arched wooden gate in the wall at the bottom of the garden stood open and hurtling through, she shouldered it shut. The click of the latch sounded over loud and the old wood cut into her shoulder through the fabric of her blouse.
Her hand clutched her chest to massage away a sharp pain. Her eyes snapped open, and she gasped. That’s where his hand lay, on Amelia’s. . .
A lump formed in her throat and indignant tears welled.
Slowing to a walk, she propelled her feet along the pathway through an avenue of trees, whose overhead branches formed a canopy to shelter walkers from the sun.
Beneath a gnarled oak that had stood witness to the sighs and laugher of generations, she slumped down on the weather-beaten slats of a curved bench; a favourite spot for childish dreams and sulks.
Her unbound hair tugged by a breeze, she stared unseeing at quiet beauty that was Trencarrow Lake. Bulrushes grew in clusters at the shoreline on one side; an untidy row of birch trees bordered the other. A squat, blue boathouse on stilts reached over the surface like a painted toy on a carpet of water lilies.
Surrounded by parkland, the main house lay a quarter of a mile back from the coast, tucked behind a rise and protected from the worst of the west winds blowing in from the sea.
Each year carved its own memories of Marazion, where Isabel’s family spent their Cornish summers. Some were happy and sun-filled, re-lived best on cold winter evenings; while the demons of others ambushed her when she least expected. In spite of everything, Isabel loved it here.
A rush of dismay brought a choked sob to her throat, and her eyes filled again, blurring the landscape into a swirl of green.
How could Papa behave so? And with Amelia, of all people. How long had their liaison been going on? Since Mother became sick? Before? Had he brought Amelia into their house to care for Mother, when all the time . .?
An image of their bodies locked together invaded her head, and she bit her lip. The intimacy of Father’s touch convinced her this morning was not the first time they had been together in that way.
The rattle of a mower sounded in a distant field, and the tang of hay filled the air. Her thoughts swirled and tumbled, until anger replaced misery, and a headache threatened.
A startled blackbird burst from a nearby bush, and the branches overhead creaked and collided in a sudden gust of wind to spray her skirt with drops of water.
“What are you looking so miserable about?” Isabel jumped at the familiar voice.