By Liz Harris
By Liz Harris
Publication Date: 1st October 2021
Publisher: Heywood Press
Page Length: 365 pages
Genre: Historical Romance
After eleven years in school in England, Charlotte Lawrence returns to Sundar, the tea plantation owned by her family, and finds an empty house. She learns that her beloved father died a couple of days earlier and that he left her his estate. She learns also that it was his wish that she marry Andrew McAllister, the good-looking younger son from a neighbouring plantation.
Unwilling to commit to a wedding for which she doesn’t feel ready, Charlotte pleads with Dan Fitzgerald, the assistant manager of Sundar, to teach her how to run the plantation while she gets to know Andrew. Although reluctant as he knew that a woman would never be accepted as manager by the local merchants and workers, Dan agrees.
Charlotte’s chaperone on the journey from England, Ada Eastman, who during the long voyage, has become a friend, has journeyed to Darjeeling to marry Harry Banning, the owner of a neighbouring tea garden.
When Ada marries Harry, she’s determined to be a loyal and faithful wife. And to be a good friend to Charlotte. And nothing, but nothing, was going to stand in the way of that.
Charlotte Lawrence stood on the short drive leading up to her family’s home and stared in surprise at the silent house.
All around her, the harsh squawking of parrots vied with the repetitive call of the brainfever bird and with the ceaseless high-pitched chatter of the small, brightly coloured birds that circled restlessly above the corrugated-iron roof of the house, just as they’d continued to do in her mind since the day, eleven years before, that she’d been sent from Sundar to go to school in England.
But the house itself was silent and still.
Puzzled, she ran her gaze from one end of the lower verandah that spanned the width of the house to the other, seeking any movement behind the screen of plant-covered bamboo trellises that shielded the verandah from the full glare of the sun.
But there was none.
She raised her eyes to the glass-fronted upper verandah, but there was no sign of anyone there, either.
Instead of the normal bustle of late-morning activity that she’d expected, an air of lethargy enveloped the house.
Taking a step back, she glanced to her right, and squinted against the strengthening sun in an attempt to see past the well-tended lawn and potting-sheds to the brick-walled area where the servants had their quarters, and to the stables beyond them. But there was no one to be seen. Or to be heard.
How strange, she thought.
Her eyes returned to the house, and she frowned slightly, a sense of unease growing within her.
She’d assumed that her father would work at home for a day or so to be sure of being there when she got back. Or that if he’d been called away, her mother would have been there.
And the servants, too. Why weren’t they around?
In all the years she’d been at school in England, she hadn’t returned to Sundar so much as once. That was a long time to be away. She knew that her ayah had left some years ago, but she’d rather thought—rather hoped, if she were truly honest—that all the servants would run out of the house the moment they heard the cart, eager to see as soon as possible how their little burra baba had grown.
She swallowed the lump of disappointment that rose in her throat.
A dull thud behind her made her jump, and she turned towards the sound. The first of their trunks had landed in the reddish-brown dust on the ground, dropped there by the elderly driver of the bullock-drawn cart which had bumpily conveyed her and her chaperone from the small railway station in Sonada.
Dust billowed up around the trunk and drifted towards her.
She coughed, and turned back to face the house before the second trunk could strike the ground. She heard it land heavily, followed by the light thump of someone jumping the short distance from the cart to the ground. A moment later, she sensed her chaperone come to her side.
‘I wonder where everyone is, Ada,’ she said, her eyes still on the house. ‘The place looks completely deserted.’
Ada followed the direction of Charlotte’s gaze. ‘I expect they’re inside and haven’t heard us.’ She raised her arm and adjusted the angle of her blue straw cloche.
Charlotte turned to her. ‘What! With the noise the axles made? They squeaked horrendously at every turn of the wheel. They must have heard us from miles away.’
‘Of course,’ Ada said quickly. ‘I wasn’t thinking, I was too busy admiring the house and its setting. It’s lovely here, Charlotte. You’re lucky to have such a home.’
Charlotte gave her a warm smile. ‘And you’ll have such a home, too, with your Mr Banning.’
‘Yes, I’m sure I will. As for your father, maybe he had to sort out a problem with the tea bushes. And the servants might be doing what they ought to be doing, but so often aren’t if they’re anything like English servants, and that’s working.’ She squeezed Charlotte’s arm. ‘Don’t worry, Charlotte dear. There’ll be a good reason why no one’s in, or if they are in, why they haven’t come out yet.’
Charlotte nodded. ‘You’re right, of course. And since Father managed to get to England twice only in all the time I was there, and I rarely saw Mother more than once a year, it’ll hardly hurt me to wait a little longer to see them. All the same … .’
She shrugged her shoulders, and glanced back at the cart. ‘As soon as the driver’s unloaded the luggage, we’ll go in and have some refreshment. I don’t know about you, but I’m absolutely parched. And the smell of tea in the air is only making it worse. Also, it’s getting quite hot.’
Ada gave Charlotte a light push. ‘You go on in. I’ll take care of everything out here.’
Charlotte looked back at the house. ‘That’s very kind of you, Ada. I think I will, thank you. I must admit, I’m excited to be home at last. I’m longing to see Father again.’
Ada assumed an expression of mock amazement. ‘You don’t say! I’d never have guessed. Not even though you started counting down the hours to Sundar from the moment we sailed out of Southampton.’
Charlotte laughed. She pulled off her felt cloche, shook free the auburn hair she’d pinned with a comb on top of her head, and went up the path to the wooden steps that led to the verandah, swinging her hat at her side as she walked.
When she reached the top step, she glanced back at Ada, gave her a smile of excited anticipation, and then went up to the front door, pushed it open and stepped into the house.
Pausing in the cool of the hall, she looked around her. Then she closed her eyes, and inhaled the musky scent of sandalwood, turmeric and cardamom. Her breath escaped in a sigh of deep happiness—she was home at last, back in the place she loved, the place that part of her had never truly left.
For a minute or two she stood there motionless, her head tilted back, her eyes shut, drinking in the moment and letting delight flow through her.
Then she opened her eyes, walked along the hall to the door at the far end and opened it, half-expecting to see her father sitting in his favourite chair in the morning room.
But the room was empty of everything except the rays of the sun and the shimmering particles of dust that were trapped in the columns of light. And there was no one on the verandah outside, either.
Her anxiety returning, she went to the foot of the teak wood staircase that led to the upstairs rooms, put her hand on the newel post, and called up to the landing, ‘Is anyone there?’
The air was weighted with silence.
She let go of the bannister, went across to the far right-hand corner of the hall and pushed aside the flimsy screen made of split bamboo that concealed the opening to a small kitchen and pantry. But the kitchen, too, was empty.
Biting her lip, she went quickly across the kitchen to the back door, pushed it open and stared along the covered walkway to the main cookhouse, which stood at the entrance to the servants’ compound.
But there was no activity anywhere: not around the cookhouse; not in front of any of the houses in the compound; not on any of the small vegetable plots she could see from where she was standing.
Her heart beating fast at the strangeness of the situation, she returned to the hall, and stopped abruptly in front of the sliding doors leading to the drawing room.
A wave of relief swept through her, and her hand flew to her head.
Of course! That’s where her father would be—he’d be in his office!
His office led off the far end of the drawing room and was on the back of the house. Being in there, he wouldn’t have heard her arrive. How stupid of her—she should have gone there before anywhere else.
She went to pull aside the doors, but stopped sharply at the sound of footsteps in the drawing-room. Someone was coming towards her. It’d be her father. Her relief deepened and she moved back and stood still, waiting, a smile on her lips.
The doors opened and a tall lean man in a dust-coloured safari suit came out into the hall.
She froze. Her smile faded. ‘Who are you?’
Born in London, Liz Harris graduated from university with a Law degree, and then moved to California, where she led a varied life, from waitressing on Sunset Strip to working as secretary to the CEO of a large Japanese trading company.
Six years later, she returned to London and completed a degree in English, after which she taught secondary school pupils, first in Berkshire, and then in Cheshire.
In addition to the ten novels she’s had published, she’s had several short stories in anthologies and magazines.
Liz now lives in Oxfordshire. An active member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association and the Historical Novel Society, her interests are travel, the theatre, reading and cryptic crosswords. To find out more about Liz, visit her website at: www.lizharrisauthor.com