As the village of Reabridge in Cheshire prepares for the first Harvest Festival following Waterloo, families are overjoyed to welcome back their loved ones from the war.
But excitement quickly turns to mystery when mere weeks before the festival, an orphaned child turns up in the town—a toddler born near Toulouse to an English mother who left clues that tie her to Reabridge.
With two prominent families feuding for generations and the central event of the Harvest Moon festival looming, tensions rise, and secrets begin to surface.
Nine award winning and bestselling authors have combined their talents to create this engaging and enchanting collection of interrelated tales. Under the Harvest Moon promises an unforgettable read for fans of Regency romance.
Under the Champagne Moon by Alina K Field Fleur Hardouin’s heart longs for Captain Gareth Ardleigh, but she needs an advantageous marriage. Gareth has promised to find Fleur—on behalf of another man. Now he must choose between honoring a promise and trying to win the hand of the woman he loves. A Quiet Heart by Elizabeth Ellen Carter Widowed at Waterloo, where she also nursed the wounded, Veronica Petersham promised a dying man to bring his effects to a family in Reabridge. She falls ill just short of her goal, in the milking shed of kind and stoic Martin Bromelton. Perhaps there is hope for the future after all and the opportunity to find love once more.
Under the Champagne Moon
On this glorious summer’s day, Gareth Ardleigh reveled in the riches of Sherington Manor. Fish begging to be caught, small game fattened by summer’s bounty, and trees promising climbers wide vistas. He and his school friends, Thaddeus and Laurence Sherington, skirted the edge of the park, guns and rabbits in hand when they came upon an altercation. Two boys and a girl loomed over a thin little waif with hair so pale it was almost white.
“Say summat in French,” the bullying girl lisped. Limp hair straggled over dirty cheeks to a lank, dingy pinafore, drawing the eye down to bare brown feet.
In fact, only the biggest bully wore footwear—scuffed, holey boots at least one size two big.
“She can’t,” the shorter boy sneered, leaning in on his quarry. “As dumb as that tree over there, she is.”
Inside the circle of dirty, ill-dressed tormentors, the specter bristled, her brows drawn together in a defiant glare that was bigger than her small self.
“That’s Flora,” Thaddeus said. “She lives at Bicton Grange.”
“She doesn’t speak,” Laurence said. “That other lot are the Haskells, up from lower Reabridge to help with the haying.”
“Croak for us, Froggie.” The big Haskell stepped closer and the other two sniggered.
The one thing Gareth couldn’t abide was bullies. He handed Laurence his gun, dropped his game, and winked at Thaddeus.
He and Thad had battled their way through Rugby School together, and neither would back away from a fight.
“Leave off.” Gareth snatched the ringleader’s shirt and yanked him back. Cloth ripped, and three shocked faces turned his way.
Their shock turned to anger, followed by a fist. Gareth ducked, and Thaddeus flew into the fray, taking on the shorter boy.
“Stop it,” their sister squawked, and then shrieked. When Gareth spared a glance, the dirty chit had curled up on the ground, spluttering curses, while her would-be victim kicked at her.
He laughed and tossed the ringleader down. “Get you gone, all three of you. If I see you bullying again, I’ll do more than bloody your noses.”
“She’s a bluidy French—”
“Watch your mouth.” Thad slapped the younger lad.
“Take the king’s shilling and join up if you want to fight,” Gareth said. It was what he and Thad were doing at summer’s end. “But don’t pick on babies.”
The baby in question glared at him, and while he swallowed a chuckle, all three Haskells tucked tail and ran.
Thaddeus clapped Gareth on the back, laughing. “Bang up to the mark, Gare,” he said. “You planted a solid facer. Looks like he clipped you one though.” He tapped Gareth’s chin and held up a bloody finger.
Gareth touched the wound. “So he did.” Laughing, he dabbed at it with his neck cloth.
“Use a handkerchief, man,” Laurence scoffed.
“Don’t have one.” Gareth’s gaze caught the imp watching him. There was no look of gratitude at their chivalry. She still glared.
He felt a stab of—well, not guilt. Recognition—that was it. His name-calling had wounded her pride.
The best remedy for wounded pride was the schoolboy’s solution—a good fight. Perhaps with enough goading, she’d kick him.
“Are you alone?” he asked. “Where is your nursemaid? Ought we to take you home?”
“Oh, she’s alright,” Laurence said. “Move out of our way, Flora.” He nudged her aside and he and Thaddeus walked on.
Gareth studied the chit while she stared back, her gaze far too steady for one so young. She couldn’t be more than five or six with the palest of hair, the lightest of gray eyes, and skin as white as a ghost’s, all wrapped in a white gown. Aside from a fringe of mud on her hem, a touch of light brown in her eyebrows and lashes, and some pink in her lips, the scrawny young stick had no more color in her than a skinned rabbit. His scrutiny wasn’t even raising a blush.
“Flora?” he said in the same teasing tone he applied to his infant cousins. And most other people as well, come to think of it. “You ought to be called Daisy, or Daffy.”
The pink bow of her lips thinned.
“Or,” he snapped his fingers, “Petal. Just Petal. I shall call you that.”
She drew her tiny self up, as haughty as Headmaster Ingles before he took out his strop. “My name,” she said in perfectly accented English, “is Fleur.”
Fleur? Flora, Daisy, Daffy, Petal… but Fleur? The ridiculousness of it made him laugh as he picked up his gun and rabbits and ran to catch up with his friends.
Thereafter, Petal seemed to appear everywhere he and Thaddeus went fishing, hunting, tree-climbing. She’d even attended the end of summer picnic at Sherington Manor with her guardian, still not speaking, except in the frowns and grimaces she showered upon him when he called her Petal.
The day he departed for a visit home to farewell his family before joining the regiment and taking up his ensign duties, he made one last walk savoring the peace he’d found at Sherington Manor. The little chit tracked him down and handed him a square of white cloth.
It was a man’s handkerchief; golden petals straggled around the edges in clumsy, uneven stitches.
A handkerchief. His new messmates in the regiment would think he had an amour. Would he look like a fool if they knew this came from a mere baby?
A laugh bubbled up and spilled over. Despite himself, he was touched. But when he looked up to thank her, she’d disappeared.
On a brisk early autumn morning the day after his arrival in Cheshire, Captain Gareth Ardleigh rode past fields swarming with laborers harvesting corn. Back-breaking labor it was, as he well knew from his days growing up on his gentry father’s modest estate. In bad years or good—especially in good—gentleman or not, all hands were needed. Returning to school for the Michaelmas term had always been a blessed reprieve, and he’d made good friends there, Thaddeus Sherington and to a lesser degree Thad’s older brother Laurence. Gareth had been warmly welcomed for visits by George Sherington and his lady wife. Those had been good times. Sadly, Mrs. Sherington died a little over a year ago. And Thad…
He reined up and gazed down the long drive to Bicton Grange, a square stone manse with a filled in moat and overgrown hedges. Tall grass had overtaken the lawns too, except where wheel tracks carved crescents around a crater-sized hole in the bumpy lane.
The Bicton-Morledge family had fallen on hard times. It was unfortunate, but not something he could help with. He had a small—very small—income from his late uncle, and somehow, he would live on it. His elder brother had not demanded Gareth’s return to the family fold; had been grateful, in fact, for one less mouth to feed.
He’d come to Reabridge first to visit the Sheringtons, and then… Well, once he finished here, if roaming around the country as an officer on half pay became boring, he could return to active duty and risk dying of a fever in either the East or the West Indies. He was, at least, alive now, as Thaddeus wasn’t, having fallen, finally, after so many battles, at Quatre Bras.
Laurence might be an annoying complainer, but he’d accepted Thad’s personal effects with almost as much grief as his mournful father and his watery-eyed widowed cousin, Mrs. Esther Smythe, who served as the Sherington chatelaine since Mrs. Sherington’s passing. They’d invited Gareth to stay on through the harvest, and longer, if he wished.
Which served Gareth’s needs quite well. For, much as he was honored to perform the task, delivering Thad’s things wasn’t his only reason for visiting Reabridge. He had a debt to repay, and to do so, he must find a female whom he’d last seen here.
He’d start looking in earnest tomorrow. Today, he’d ride back to Sherington Manor and open another bottle of champagne.
“Mr. Sherington won’t have you, gel. I’ll wager you a quid on that.”
Fleur Hardouin sent the snowy-haired lady next to her a haughty look. Lady Dulcinea Ixworth, the granddaughter of a duke and widow of a long-deceased viscount, perched perilously on the seat as Fleur handled the lines, making no move to clutch the siderail of Bicton Grange’s rickety gig. Dulcinea was, as usual, fearless, and full of vinegar.
“If either of us had a quid to spare, madame,” Fleur said, “I would take that wager.”
She suspected she might lose, of course, but that would be fine. No one in her life had been more generous than Dulcinea Ixworth in sharing small bounties.
“Perhaps he won’t see us, as ill as he’s been,” Dulcinea said, pressing her lips together.
Fleur glanced at her companion. Fearless Dulcinea might be, but Fleur sensed a heightened tension in her employer. Dulcinea had donned her newest gown, lavender half-mourning trimmed in intricate silver embroidery at the neckline and hem by Fleur’s own skilled hands. With her carefully coifed hair and newly trimmed bonnet, Dulcinea looked magnificent for this call on an old acquaintance.
Providing that Mr. George Sherington was able to receive them. Just months earlier, the fever that had taken Mr. Bicton-Morledge to the grave had struck Mr. Sherington. Mrs. Knollwood, the housekeeper at Bicton Grange, who’d been a beloved housemaid when Fleur was a child there, had learned that the local doctor said Mr. Sherington ought to have come out of his Bath chair weeks ago.
The doctor apparently had returned from Waterloo with a penchant for drink that sometimes loosened his tongue too much.
“The son will be more likely for you,” Dulcinea said, interrupting Fleur’s revery.
“But not more manageable.” Fleur urged the horse onto the lane leading to Sherington Manor. While one son had gone off to the army, Laurence had been home for school holidays, and she remembered him well. Unless he’d changed, he’d be bossy and careless of a wife. One could tolerate a bossy man for a few years, but Laurence would likely live another thirty.
She glanced at the small smile turning up her employer’s rouged lips. “I would have liked one more day of rest after our journey, but I suppose we must strike while the iron is hot. Today Sherington Manor and tomorrow—”
“Yes, yes.” Interrupting was rude, but Fleur’s nerves were on edge. She’d never pursued matrimony before. “Since this visit to Reabridge was your idea in the first place, madame.”
Dulcinea snorted, something she only did in private with Fleur. “Rife with prosperous older men, it is. A better hunting ground for you, gel than any other place we might have chosen.”
Or been able to afford.
It would at least be a new one. Ten years before, she’d left Reabridge, naught but a scrawny girl of twelve, cast off by her frustrated guardian to serve as the companion of an aging relation who lived with a scholarly cousin in Staffordshire.
She’d grown to be a woman there, one not allowed to indulge in sulking. From the very first day, Dulcinea had poked, prodded, and even laughed at her silent stubborness. Until the damn broke and Fleur talked, shouted, screamed back.
Dulcinea had allowed it. She’d listened. She’d drawn out the hurts, the resentments, the sadness. She’d made Fleur talk. She’d paid attention, pushed her to learn from books and intelligent conversations, taught her to manage a household.
As Fleur reached womanhood, Dulcinea shared more—naughty stories from her youth, lessons about men, about how to deflect the unsavory suitors an attractive young woman with no dowry or male relative might expect.
Dulcinea had saved her.
They’d reached Bicton Grange the previous evening, a visit arranged by Dulcinea, fortuitously since the two of them had just been put out of their prior home by the death of Basil Quidenham, Dulcinea’s cousin. Such were the vicissitudes of fate for widows and orphans.
It had, however, been clear upon their arrival that Mrs. Helena Bicton-Morledge positively needed them. She’d aged considerably in the years since Fleur last saw her, and was now immensely with child—twins, Mrs. Knollwood suspected. Plus, the Bicton-Morledge girls, three misses ranging from sixteen to four years of age, were running amuck, and the remaining servants were stretched thin.
Fleur would take the young chits and the household in hand this very day, as soon as she’d begun this campaign to see to her own future.
Twenty minutes later, she excused herself from the stiff settee and the overly warm drawing room of Sherington Manor where their hostess, Mrs. Smythe, poured tea and made excuses for the Sherington men. Neither of the Sheringtons was at home for the ladies, but the cousin was more than happy to have the likes of Lady Ixworth, the granddaughter of a duke, visiting.
While Dulcinea probed Mrs. Smythe about Sherington’s health, Fleur decided to act. She waved off the offer of a guiding hand to the retiring room. She’d visited Sherington Manor on one or two occasions as a child and knew where to find the water closet.
Her quest, however, was the location of the male voices echoing from another part of the house. Laurence would be there, maybe with his steward discussing the harvest, and perhaps even his father would be present. The men must be in high spirits for their voices to carry all the way to the drawing room, and wasn’t that interesting? They were probably happy to pawn their guests off on their middle-aged cousin.
She arrived at a paneled door that fairly quivered with masculine vibrations. As her hand touched the knob, a man’s laugh made her pause. She pressed her ear to the painted wood.
The Quiet Heart
Reabridge Cheshire North West England
Martin Bromelton made his way through the markets with single-minded purpose. He used his imposing size to press his way through the Wednesday crowd on the green, knowing without a second glance that his collie remained at heel.
He also knew without looking at the sky that rain would be on its way by afternoon and he had much to do at the farm before it came.
The lambs were growing apace and this year’s crop of wheat looked good. Then there was the small herd of cows he kept. Cheesemaking had become a new enterprise on his farm and one championed by his sister Rose and her husband, Stanley Templin.
Rose had been very specific in what she wanted from his journey into town—plain muslin, undyed—a whole bolt of it with which to strain the curds, or something like that. Martin had to confess to taking in only part of the detailed explanation she insisted on giving him over breakfast this morning.
“Marty, have you listened to a word I’ve said?” she asked in exasperation at his apparent lack of enthusiasm.
“One bolt of plain muslin,” he answered as he devoured a breakfast of sliced fresh ham and three boiled eggs, washing it down with scalding hot tea from a large earthenware mug, the size of a tankard.
In truth, Martin had only caught every other word his sister had spoken—not that he’d ever let her know that. Still, he had listened to Rose sufficiently and had even looked up from his breakfast to make note of the open weave of the cloth from a scrap she held in her hand.
He was spreading himself thin and knew it. He did what needed to be done—and there was so much that needed to be done—for the farm and those who relied on him.
The hard-won success of his freehold had not come without cost. To his regret, it was a sight his father had never lived to see. Even now, Martin recalled the days where the farm couldn’t even manage to feed the family let alone bring in an income.
There had been more than one night in his youth that he’d gone to bed hungry. He didn’t intend to do it again as an adult.
They would have had a much easier time of it, he was sure, if their family had been wealthy and connected like the Earl of Barlow, with whose farm the Bromeltons shared a border.
Martin made the observation without rancor. It was what it was. There was no point in being envious of another man’s fortune. He didn’t have to go off to foreign shores to fight the French, unlike Stafford Barlow.
Also, not the man’s fault that he had lost his two elder brothers and was now, unexpectedly, the Earl.
Lord Barlow was a good man. And he was a good farmer. Now the man had the responsibilities of his title, Martin would miss sitting down with him over a pint at the Bell and Book Inn to discuss animal husbandry and how to get the best yield from the soil.
Before Martin knew it, he found himself fronting up to the haberdashery three doors up from the tavern, more than aware of his large frame as he stepped inside a store selling feminine fabrics, ribbons, buttons and other fripperies to which he never before paid any heed.
With that one word, his faithful dog Bennett stopped still, just shy of the door. He cocked his head to one side and then another, silently asking why a man like him would be in a place like this, no doubt.
In one graceful movement Bennett dropped on his haunches and rested his head on his paws.
Martin smiled to himself. If only people were as straight forward as dogs.
Inside the haberdashery, Martin looked about at the bolts of fabric and reels of ribbons. He waited while the man with the reddish hair behind the counter spent an inordinate amount of time ‘assisting’ a pretty miss with her selection of ribbons.
The sound of barking caught his attention. Martin turned and looked at the street through the window. A scruffy dog, chased by a couple of boys, galloped down the street with a string full of sausages in its mouth.
Bennett had raised his head to take in the scene, but stayed exactly where he was.
“Good morning Bromelton, is there anything I can help you today? Silks? Satins? Stuff?”
Two girls who lingered in the shop giggled behind their hands.
He heard the mockery in Randall Clark’s voice and acknowledged the man with a curt nod of the head.
“A bolt of muslin, Clark, good enough for cheesemaking.”
The man’s expression looked crestfallen—this was not going to be the day’s biggest sale.
“Was there anything else?”
Martin shook his head, handed over the coins, took hold of the bolt and headed back outside just as two women deep in conversation stepped right in front of him. Martin reared back and pulled his arm away to prevent the women colliding with the bolt of fabric.
“The babe showed up on vicar’s doorstep two days ago,” he overheard the woman say to her companion.
“Well, who does he belong to? No one around here has given birth that I know of,” asked the other.
“No, no, no, the child is older than that. A couple of years at least. The boy has been well cared for up until now—that’s for certain and—”
The woman leaned in closer to her friend and Martin heard no more—not that he was eavesdropping. Village gossip meant nothing to him.
He reached the end of the markets and looked up at the sky on this warm August morning. It was still blue, but large billowing clouds touched with grey filled the sky to the west as they had not done in the morning.
Worse than rain.
It would be a storm.
There was no satisfaction in being right. It was what it was.
Martin glanced across at the Bell and Book. He would have loved to have lingered for one of Mrs. Pownall’s hot pies and a pint or two, listening to the plans for the Harvest Moon Festival. His neighbor, George Lyne, was taking charge of the Morris dancers for the first time this year, since old man Cooper died last spring.
A glance down revealed Bennett was not at his side. Martin let out a piercing whistle. A moment later, the large dog trotted up to his side to be rewarded with a tickle behind the ears.
The animal appeared to look past him to the pub then back to him, knowing his master’s customary habit.
Martin shook his head.
The final mile back to the farm was strenuous. The wind had got up something fierce, and he wanted the sheep penned before the weather hit. Even now he could smell the scent of rain carried by the breeze.
After placing the bolt of muslin safe in his sister’s hands, Martin headed out to one of the furthest fields and let out a sharp set of piercing whistles.
Bennett set to work, running down the left flank of a flock of sheep, getting their attention. The bellwether, the brightest of his breed, seemed to know what was wanted. He trotted toward an unlatched gate, a small mob followed, but not enough of them quickly enough.
Another set of whistles brought two pups Bennett had sired. They were too young to be trained directly but they were old enough to watch their elder and mimic what he did. It was good enough for now.
With the job complete and the sheep penned safely, all three dogs trotted behind while Martin made a brisk pace to the brow of the ridge that overlooked the paddocks where the cattle grazed. They’d be safe enough there. And, if they feared the weather too much or the River Reas begin to flood, they would make their way to the milking shed for shelter.
Satisfied, Martin turned up the collar on his jacket against the sudden chill wind. He looked in the direction of the storm and watched the grey towering clouds advance as a streak of lightning cut through its inky blackness.
It’s going to be a bad one. God help anyone caught in it.
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