Chapter One

Near Leipzig, Saxony

Damn you, grim reaper! Sophia, mused, missing her father and hating that she’d never see him again. Her life had lost meaning since the passing of Lord Dedrick Baldemar. She reclined in an azurite armchair in her father’s Yellow Chamber—more of a library than an office—waiting for the solicitor to speak. The interior seemed dour, devoid of laughter and gentle teasing, too silent without her father’s booming voice. It didn’t matter that a spring breeze whispered through an open window, or even that the sun sparkled brightly beyond the windowpanes. Not even the birds chattering in the leafy trees outside lifted her spirits.

Life had stopped, sullen as death inside this room—but she didn’t suffer alone. Numb, she endured the ugly pauses and suffocating presence of her stepfamily.

She glanced at her hands in her lap, perused her stepsister, Alisz, sitting on the opposite chair, but couldn’t bring herself to even look at her stepmother, Lady Wendeline, an iron poker wedged between them, heavily veiled in black.

A full week had passed since the night Father had died, and she likened the horrible eve to a dream she couldn’t awake from. The days passed at a snail’s pace, and the nights; a hellish reliving of tragedy. She recalled Father’s sea-blue eyes as he clutched at his chest, struggling to breathe.

You’ll be all right, Father…

But she’d been wrong. Good had not come to pass. Instead, a family’s solemn vigil had taken place, followed by a man’s burial. Life pressed on, the world whirled in motion, even though silence, grief, and disturbing utterings permeated the manor house. Seven days had sifted through the hourglass and still, she felt numb. Sadness gripped her, constricted her heart; she couldn’t stop crying.

Father, I’m not ready to be without you, or to face what is to come, alone…

And now before her father was cold in his grave, his attorney arrived to read the Will. He sat at her father’s walnut desk. It wasn’t right. It was too soon.

Sophia wasn’t ready for estate disclosures, but her stepmother had insisted: “We must soldier on, present a brave face to the world. After all, Dedrick would want his dependants to press forward without delay, or sad afflictions of the heart.”

The woman had made it sound clinical, but perhaps she was right. Father had never been one to postpone business.

Alisz was quieter than usual. It was perplexing to see her attempt at gravity. Her stepsister enjoyed getting the better of Sophia as often as was possible. Minor jokes and biting jabs, but perhaps grief had fashioned some respect. After all, Alisz had lost a father, too.

“We’ve gathered together to read the Last Will and Testament of the Right Honorable Lord Dedrick Baldemar,” Sterling said with a sigh. “If you’re ready, ladies, I will share the disclosure.”

“You may continue,” Lady Wendeline stated, showing no emotion. “We’re ready.”

Sterling glanced at them, raising his eyebrows, tapping thick fingers on the parchment. “This is the last Will and Testament of Lord Dedrick Baldemar. I, Sterling Richter, his legal authority and executor, do hereby declare that the statements so listed are true, and are his intent and his alone.”

Sophia swallowed when he paused. “Carry on,” Lady Wendeline said.

“The estate of Baldemar Manor is bequeathed to Lady Wendeline, but at her death, the property and all physical assets shall be deeded to his sole surviving daughter…” He paused, scrutinizing the document. “This is strange. I don’t recall this stipulation?”

“And why would you remember the legal assignments?” Lady Wendeline asserted, “given that you’re new to the file.”

“Yes, but my father apprised me of the estate before he retired, but perhaps he was mistaken as the Will clearly states that Alisz is the sole surviving daughter.”

“What of me?” Sophia asked, perplexed at the news. “There are two surviving daughters, not one.”

He looked directly at her. “You’re to be given a yearly stipend of one hundred and fifty thalers. Should you marry, this sum will become your dowry and you’ll receive no further allowances from the estate.”

“Something must be wrong. I’m the first-born child. Surely I should inherit the estate in the event of my stepmother’s death. Not Alisz.”

“You can’t possibly,” he said with a frown, appearing concerned. “As you’re not the natural born daughter of Lord Dedrick.”

“What are you talking about?” Sophia rose from her armchair. “Of course I am.”

“According to this Last Will and Testament, you are not. I’m sorry, Lady Sophia, you must brace yourself for it appears that you’re not of legitimate birth; for all intents and purposes, you’re a bastard.”

“Preposterous!” she yelled, stepping forward, placing her hands on the desk. “I most certainly am not.”

“Shocking,” Alisz said with a smirk. “Who would have thought?”

“I don’t believe it,” Sophia cried out, stepping backward, tears filling her eyes. “Lies! A cruel joke is afoot here.”

“Thank you, Sterling,” Lady Wendeline breathed, her serious-minded facial expression never changing. “Is there any more?”

“Some minor allocations to the servants.”

“We don’t need to hear of these allowances. The relaying has been quite shocking. I think I need to lie down.”

Sophia turned to her stepmother, only slightly able to see her stony glare through the black netting. “Did you do this? How did you manage it?”

“Sophia, I’m shocked at your behavior, but don’t embarrass yourself with accusations when the truth has been exposed.”

“I can’t believe this. What will I do?”

“Stripling,” Lady Wendeline remarked, disguising her irritation, “just because your mother didn’t comport herself as a proper lady should, doesn’t mean we’ll force you into the street. You still have a yearly stipend and a home at Baldemar Manor, despite your illegitimate heritage. Dedrick was very fond of you, as you know.”

A tear slipped from her eye. She wiped it away. “But it can’t be true.”

“I’m new to the file,” Sterling mused, scrutinizing the paperwork, “but the Will appears to be authentic,” he relayed dryly, closing the file. “However, I’ll need to investigate to ensure there’s been no tampering.”

“The Will was kept at your firm, so how could such an undertaking be possible?”

“Indeed,” Alisz said, uttering a nervous chirrup. “I’m sorry, Sophia.”

“So it’s true?”

“I’ve only just realized that we’re not sisters,” Alisz winced, her lip quivering. “This is the saddest part.”

“Oh please, as if you’ve ever cared about our relationship,” Sophia retorted, standing her ground before a rotten seed. “You treat me abysmally.”

“Now, girls,” Lady Wendeline chastised. “None of that. I’m sure Dedrick had his reasons for keeping this secret, but he wouldn’t want discord in his house.”

“He loved my mother,” Sophia murmured, tears continuing to fall. “I know that’s true.”

“It appears so,” the dowager acknowledged, gazing at her wrinkled fingers, “since he was quite prepared to care for you, even with the stain.”

“I can’t bear this any longer.”

Sophia strode across the space to the outer hallway, rushing from the room. She needed to escape this calamity. Her only thought was to retrieve her horse, Maraclese; the mare her father had given her on her sixteenth birthday.

Her father, he wasn’t her father…

The fact that she wore a sumptuous lead-tin yellow mourning gown and was not dressed appropriately to ride didn’t slow her down.

“A lie,” she sobbed, crossing the reception hall and soon passing through large oaken doors to the south-facing portico. “My life is a lie!”