London, Spring 1892
"I've come to a decision."
Millicent Fairweather clasped her hands together at her waist and waited in silence for her boss to continue. The clock in the far corner of the dim study ticked loudly.
"My daughters are of an age to expand their horizons. A change is in order. Therefore, I've located a place for them."
"A place?" Millicent couldn't help echoing his word. A frisson of fear shivered up her spine. At eight and six years old, Audrey and Fiona were still little girls. Surely he couldn't mean ---
"A young ladies' academy." He paced the length of the oak bookshelves. Chinese silk carpet muffled each step, and an opulent gem-encrusted globe glinted as a reminder of all the riches Mr. Eberhardt amassed on the travels that made him a stranger in his own home. He nodded to himself. "Education, deportment --- my daughters shall have the finest of everything."
The air froze in her chest. "Mr. Eberhardt, your daughters are both of tender ages yet. Perhaps if you spend a little time with them ..."
"No!" He wheeled around. "The decision is made. I've directed Mrs. Witherspoon to pack their things. A coach will be here by five."
Five? Millicent glanced at the clock --- a quarter past noon. Struggling to control her emotions, she rasped, "We'll be ready."
He made a dismissive gesture. "I've arranged for someone to accompany them. Your services are no longer needed. I've written a letter of recommendation for you. Alastair will see to it that you receive two months' salary to tide you through until you find another position."
Millicent drew in a deep breath. A governess served at the whim of an employer. She had no recourse; but how could he do this to his daughters? "Fiona and Audrey will want to see you. Luncheon --- "
"I have things to accomplish." He pulled a book from the shelf and studied the frontispiece.
He snapped the book shut and shoved it back in place. "No. Do whatever you like with the girls until five. That is all."
Shaking, Millicent left the study.
Mrs. Witherspoon, ruddy cheeks streaked with tears, met her at the head of the stairs amidst a collection of trunks. "The girls shouldn't see me like this."
Millicent pulled the housekeeper into her own bedchamber. "This is going to be so dreadfully hard on them."
Mrs. Witherspoon buried her face in a sodden hanky. "We're the only family those children know. They don't remember their mama at all, and I can count on one hand how many days he's spent here each year for the past five."
Tempting as it was to gossip, Millicent quelled the urge. She picked up the picture she kept at her bedside. It had been taken the day before her parents died, and every time she looked at it, memories of an unforgettably fun day washed over her. Resolve straightened her spine. Mr. Eberhardt might separate them, but she could give Fiona and Audrey one very special last day.
"Mrs. Witherspoon, after lunch, I'll take the girls outside so you can be alone to pack. Please ask Cook to give us ten more minutes before bringing up luncheon." Once the housekeeper nodded, she put down the picture. "Also, please ask Alastair if Billy can go to town. I'd like Mr. Braston to come take photographs. I want him to bring whatever's necessary so he can leave the pictures here with us."
"Oh! That's a lovely idea."
Before opening the door to the nursery, Millicent took a fortifying breath. Lord, it'll be so hard to let go of them. All these years, I've somehow thought of them as my own. Please guard and protect them and let them find love.
She barely started to open the door when the maid hopped up, along with the two girls. "What happened?" the maid asked.
Millicent straightened her shoulders and smiled. The muscles in her face felt strangely stiff, but she refused to dwell on that. She didn't want to say anything about Mr. Eberhardt, either. He didn't want to see his daughters, so Millicent wouldn't let them know of his presence. Children deserved to be cherished, not rejected. "Thank you for keeping the girls company. It's almost time for luncheon, so I'd best see to washing up with them."
Wearing a pout, Jenny dawdled out of the room. Since the day she'd arrived a few months ago, she'd shown a penchant for gossip. Millicent refused to fan the flames of her habit.
Once the door clicked shut, Millicent knew she needed to use every single moment to prepare "her" girls. Sinking onto a small chair, she announced, "I have something surprising to tell you girls."
Fiona galloped over. "You do?"
Audrey followed at a slightly more sedate pace. "Jenny said there was a rabbit in the vegetable garden. Is that what you're going to tell us?"
Millicent wound her arm about Audrey's waist and pulled her close. "No, but that was a good guess."
"Are we guessing?" Fiona perked up. "Is it a pony? I want a pony. A white one."
While Fiona sighed in dismay, Audrey guessed, "Are we going to town? For ice cream?"
"You're going even farther than that. You, my dearlings, are going on a trip. A nice friend of your father is going to take you, and you'll be leaving this evening!"
"You are such fine little girls, your father decided you should be allowed to go to a special school where they teach girls to be elegant young ladies."
Audrey frowned. "But you're teaching us that."
"I've started. You'll have teachers at the academy, but there's something more. At school, you'll have several other girls as your friends. You'll be with them every day."
"You'll have friends, too!" Fiona gave Millicent a toothless grin.
"I suppose," Millicent said, trying to make her voice sound light when her heart weighed a ton, "I will have an opportunity to make new friends, too. But ..."
Audrey's little hand suddenly clutched Millicent's sleeve. "You're coming with us, aren't you? You have to. I want you to."
"Yes, we do!" Fiona chimed in.
Sounding as stricken as her little face looked, Audrey kept babbling, "We'll have lots of fun together. We always do. And you can teach our friends how to be fine ladies, can't she, Fiona?"
Fiona's head bobbed.
Drawing the girls snuggly against her, Millicent closed her eyes. This is so hard, Lord. How am I to answer them when I don't know what to say?
Audrey nestled against her, the lace of her collar crinkled and snagged. "Miss Fairweather, don't send me away. I'll be good. I will. I'll be better. I won't put my elbows on the table anymore. I won't --- "
Millicent's eyes flew open. "You've not done anything wrong, sweetheart. This isn't a punishment; it's a special gift."
"A present?" Fiona brightened.
"Precisely!" Millicent rested her forehead against Audrey's. "I'm proud of you. You're a wonderful girl." Audrey's blue eyes swam with tears, and Millicent strove to keep from weeping. In an unsteady voice she promised, "You'll always be close in my heart and thoughts and prayers."
"You're crying." Audrey's lip quivered.
"They're happy tears." Fiona wrapped her short arms as far around them as she could and squeezed. "Just like when we drew the card for her."
Latching onto that lifeline, Millicent smiled. "Oh, how I adore that card! It's such a treasure to me. Just think how happy you'll make me when you write and tell me all about your school and new friends!"
Audrey burrowed her face into Millicent's neck. "Will you write back to me?"
"Of course I will!" The immediacy and certainty in her response caused Fiona to wiggle with joy.
Audrey pulled away just a little. "But I make ugly blots."
"Occasionally, I do, too. Once you practice more, you'll be making beautiful swirls and loops. Between now and then, I promise I'll be so happy to get your letters that I won't even notice if you have blots."
Finally, Audrey managed a smile.
"Before you go, I thought it would be fun to set aside all the ways we usually do things and have an extraordinary afternoon. Wouldn't you like that?"
"What will we do?" Fiona asked.
A fond memory popped into her mind. Millicent smiled. "To begin with, we're going to have a different luncheon --- a special one. Come to the table, and we'll get ready." By the time Cook arrived, both girls sat at the table --- but in a rare breach of etiquette, they'd turned their chairs around backward and straddled them. Millicent didn't try to brave that position, but she'd turned her chair sideways. The girls seemed satisfied with that. Eyes pleading with the cook to keep the atmosphere light, Millicent announced, "We're having a backward lunch. If you please, we'd all like dessert first."
The girls' eyes bulged.
Cook managed a wobbly, yet knowing, smile. "What a very interesting idea."
Millicent smiled at Audrey. "This way, we won't be too full to enjoy it!"
"Aren't we going to pray?" Fiona asked.
"Yes, of course we are." It warmed Millicent's heart how the girls loved to recite their prayers. "But since this is a backward lunch, we say our prayer at the end."
So the meal went, until they finished. Fiona clasped her chubby hands together. "Jesus, it is you we greet and thank you for the food we eat. Make us good and strong and kind, and help us have pure hearts and minds."
Audrey then prayed, "Jesus, help me be brave at my new school."
Millicent took her turn. "And grant the children a safe journey."
Fiona added, "And thank you for giving us new friends! Amen."
As they left the table, Millicent's mind whirled. No doubt, the school would use pieces from The Book of Common Prayer. She'd taught the girls the bedtime prayer her mother had taught her. She'd also made up the beginning of their mealtime prayer, and each of them always took a turn adding something more. Father, I wanted them to talk to you not from rote, but from their hearts. Everything will change for the girls, and I haven't prepared them.
A knock sounded, and the nursery door opened. To Millicent's amazement, the butler stood in the aperture. "Miss Fairweather, Billy's returned. The photographer will arrive shortly."
"Thank you, Alastair."
He cleared his throat. "If I might be so bold, I'd like a picture of the girls, myself."
Twenty minutes later, the girls stood in the center of two lines of household staff. Everyone had hands at their sides, eyes focused on the camera. Poof! The flash exploded, and Millicent blinked. When she could see again, Mr. Eberhardt slinked past the open parlor door. She opened her mouth to call him back, but at the last second she stayed silent. A lady never raised her voice, hired help never summoned the master, but most of all, he'd ordered them not to tell the girls he was home. She consoled herself by thinking she'd spared the children the sting of his rejection.
She turned to the photographer. "I beg your pardon?"
"I suggested you sit on the chair, and I'll pose the lasses with you. I can make two copies so you can have one and they can take the other."
"Thank you, but I'd like three copies of this one so each of the girls may have her own." Millicent sat as he directed and gently tamed Fiona's curls, then straightened Audrey's bow.
"Girls, you must hold still." The photographer squinted, then scowled at Fiona as he tacked on, "And don't smile."
Fiona not smile? Unthinkable. Millicent adored her sunny disposition. "Fee, you must hold very still," she said, "but I'd love for you to smile."
Audrey looked at her, somber as could be. "Are you going to smile, Miss Fairweather?"
"Let's all smile. That's what we always do, and it'll make us happy to look at the picture and remember the wonderful time we had together."
While the photographer took over the upstairs bath to develop the pictures, Millicent took the girls out for a walk. A brook bordered one side of the garden. Impulsively, Millicent allowed the girls to wade. She committed the sight to memory --- wanting to recall every giggle and delighted squeal. With no towel, she glanced about to make sure no one could see her, then used her eyelet-edged petticoat to dry their feet.
Watching Millicent tie up her sister's shoes, Audrey asked, "What shall we do next?"
"Why don't we gather a bouquet for Mrs. Witherspoon?"
Fiona clapped. "I'll make one for Alastair!"
"Silly, boys don't like flowers."
Millicent rose. "It would be nice to make a nosegay for each member of the staff." What would it matter if they stripped the garden bare? Mr. Eberhardt wouldn't stay long enough to enjoy the garden, let alone entertain or escort a lady out for a stroll.
By the time they'd tied ribbons about the small bouquets and delivered them to the staff, Mrs. Witherspoon was directing the livery boys as they carried down the girls' trunks.
Grief slashed through Millicent at the sight.
"Where's Flora?" Panic lent a shrill edge to Fiona's high voice. She adored the rag doll Millicent had made for her.
"In the trunk." Mrs. Witherspoon sounded overly cheerful.
"The trunk!" Fiona burst into tears.
"Don't worry, Fee." Millicent knelt down and took Fiona's hands in hers. "Flora's having fun riding down the stairs."
"Can I ride down the stairs, too?"
Throwing all caution to the wind, Millicent answered yes. A few minutes later, Millicent stood at the bottom of the stairs. "Slowly, now."
"No, go fast!" Fiona bounced inside the blanket-lined wooden crate on the landing. The boys lifted the box onto a large sheet of pasteboard, and Alastair held fast to the length of clothesline tied to the box.
"Wheeeeee!" Fiona shouted as the box sledded down the flight.
"It's my turn!" Audrey looked down from the banister.
"I want to go again!" Fiona scrabbled out of the box and raced back up the stairs.
"Millicent, you've succeeded in taking their minds off what's to come." Mrs. Witherspoon blotted at her eyes. "Bless you, I --- "
"The pasteboard's all hooked up," one of the boys said, holding the bedraggled piece aloft for inspection.
"I'm sure it will last for at least Audrey's turn." Millicent couldn't bear to cheat Audrey out of a ride. Audrey was always the serious, sensible one who asked for nothing and felt everything deeply. But she'd wanted a ride.
Alastair inspected the pasteboard and shook his head. "This won't do. No, it most certainly won't." He looked down at the head housekeeper. "Mrs. Witherspoon, I do believe the trays need a good buffing."
Millicent couldn't believe her ears. Even at that distance, though, she could see the grin tugging at the oh-so-proper butler's mouth.
"Which one?" Mrs. Witherspoon called back.
Straightening himself and sounding absurdly dignified, Alastair said, "Every last one, Mrs. Witherspoon."
Over the next half hour, Fiona and Audrey rode square, round, oval, and rectangular trays down the stairs. Citing a concern that the box might dent the trays, Alastair took to tying the clothesline to a belt he buckled around the girls. All the servants abandoned any pretense of working and came to cheer for the fun.
Millicent noticed the butler down on his knees, whispering to the girls. From the day she'd taken her position in the household, Millicent had liked the stately old man. He possessed a sense of propriety and managed the entire manor with finesse. Watching him shed his stateliness and grin at the girls, Millicent blinked away tears.
"Miss Fairweather." He rose and suddenly took on the full mantle of his authority. "A word, please."
Lifting her skirts ever so slightly, Millicent mounted the stairs. "Yes?"
Audrey handed him a tray. Well, at least she tried to. The piece measured at least a yard long. "This one?"
"Indeed, Miss Audrey." Alastair lifted the piece, then poked his nose into the air in an officious manner. "Miss Fairweather, Miss Audrey and Miss Fiona have determined that you've not done your share of polishing the silver."
Disbelief shot through her, but the twinkle in the old man's eyes told Millicent she'd have to do some fancy talking. "The girls are right, Alastair. But governesses don't ... polish silver."
"Yes, but those are ordinary governesses. You are an extraordinary governess."
"Thank you. How --- "
"Quite simply," he interrupted before she could finish her sentence. "This is sufficiently long for you and the girls to ... ahem ... work on together."
Denial sprang to her lips, but Millicent looked into Audrey's hopeful eyes. Tugging on her sleeves, Millicent nodded. "Never let it be said I shirked my chores."
A few seconds later, Alastair tested the rope he'd secured about her waist. "Safe and secure, Miss Fairweather. I'm sure this will be a smashing success."
"That was hardly a reassuring choice of words," she muttered. To her relief, Alastair and the boys looked away as she sat on the tray. The only way to keep from having her skirts fly up was to gather her narrow hoops high and spraddle in the most unladylike way imaginable, but with the girls in her lap, all ought to be ... passable. "Audrey ..." Once the elder girl sat before her, Millicent beckoned, "Fee."
With the girls in place, Millicent glanced down at how her boots hung off the tray. "I'm afraid this simply won't do."
"Ah, but this will." Alastair popped a small, round chafing dish beneath her heels.
"Here you go!" One of the boys heaved against Millicent. As they started careening downward, Millicent suddenly realized they were going far too fast. Alastair doesn't have hold of the rope!
Thumpthumpthumpthump. How could anything drag and bump, yet move with such speed? Dear God, don't let anything happen to the girls. Terror sucked away any breath she'd use to scream, but in the few seconds of the dizzying descent, Millicent prayed a million words. Everything blurred, then they sent a shower of larkspur, roses, and fern in all directions and came to a skidding stop in the center of the marble foyer --- directly beneath the massive oval table.
"Girls! Are you hurt?" Millicent's dry mouth made the words come out in nothing more than a croak.
Laughter bubbled out of Fiona, and Audrey shook with a fit of giggles. With her skirts beneath the girls' weight, Millicent couldn't move. She patted them, desperately trying to reassure herself they'd come through unscathed.
From the parlor door, an ominous voice rumbled, "What is going on here?"
Excerpted from WHIRLWIND © Copyright 2011 by Cathy Marie Hake. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.