ALL GEMMA KNEW for sure was that she wanted the job so much she would have murdered to get it.
Well, maybe not killed anyone, but certainly broken a few arms or legs.
She stood beside Mrs. Frazier and stared at the storage room full of dirty old boxes stacked neatly on new wooden shelves, and knew she’d never seen anything so beautiful in her life. “Original sources” screamed in her head. She was looking at containers full of documents that no one had touched in hundreds of years.
Mrs. Frazier, tall and majestic-looking, was gazing down her nose at Gemma and obviously waiting for her to say something. But how could Gemma put what she was feeling into words? How could she describe her lifetime fascination with history? Could she tell of the adventure of discovery that these documents represented to her? Or the excitement of the hunt to find new information, new—
“Perhaps it is all a bit overwhelming,” Mrs. Frazier said as she flipped off the light switch, a sure sign that Gemma was to leave the precious boxes and their mysterious contents. Reluctantly, Gemma followed her into the cozy living room. Even the guesthouse that was to be used by whomever got the job was lovely. It had a large living room with a kitchen at one end, a big bedroom with a private bath, and the storage room they’d just seen. At the front of the house was an extraordinarily beautiful and spacious office with double French doors that opened out onto acres of lawn and flowers. Outside, just beyond a covered carport, was a three-car garage that was filled floor to ceiling with many more boxes full of uncataloged documents.
Gemma’s mind was reeling with the enormity of the task the job entailed. When her adviser for her doctorate in history e-mailed her that he’d managed to get her an interview for a temporary job in the tiny town of Edilean, Virginia, Gemma had been pleased. But then he’d explained that their university was the alma mater of a woman who wanted to hire someone to go through her family’s papers and write a history. Gemma had scoffed at the idea. What did that mean? Great-granny and Ellis Island? Too, too boring.
Later that day she’d stopped by his office to give him the courtesy of a personal reply. Gemma told him sorry, but now that her course work was done, she needed to work on her dissertation so she could finish her Ph.D.
“I think you should look at this.” Her adviser handed her a letter printed on expensive, heavy vellum. It said that Mrs. Peregrine Frazier had purchased from her husband’s family’s estate in England several hundred boxes full of documents that dated back to the sixteenth century. She was offering a job to someone to catalog them and write a history from what was found.
Gemma looked across the desk at her adviser. “Sixteenth century” and “several hundred boxes” weren’t exactly the normal genealogy. “Who else has seen these papers?”
“Rats, mice,” her adviser said as he held up a fatly stuffed envelope. “It’s all in here. The papers have been in the attic of a house in England since the place was built back around Elizabeth the First’s time. The family—” He pulled a page from the envelope and glanced at it. “They were the earls of Rypton. They sold the house about the time of the American Revolution, but a generation later the family managed to buy it back. Just recently the old place was sold again, but this time the house went to a corporation that wanted the attics cleared, so they held an auction.”
Gemma sat down. Actually, she half collapsed onto the chair in front of the man’s desk. “So this Mrs. Frazier . . .”
“Went to England and bought every piece of paper that had been stored in the house over the centuries. It doesn’t say exactly how much she paid for all of it, just that it was ‘multithousands.’ Seems there was a bidding war at the auction, but Mrs. Frazier came away with everything. I get the impression that she’s a rather formidable woman. If she wants it, she gets it.”
Gemma looked at the letter she was holding. “And no one knows what’s in there?”
“No. The auction house hauled everything downstairs and divided it into lots. That they didn’t open anything was part of what caused the bidding frenzy. For all anyone knows they could all be just household accounts and of little interest to anyone outside the family. How much beef the earl bought in 1742 would probably fascinate his descendants but no one else. Certainly not the Ph.D. committee.” He paused. “But then something of a more universal interest could be in there,” he added with a smile.
Gemma was trying to digest this information. “How long does this woman think it will take one person, with no staff, to go through these documents and piece together a family history?”
“She’s offering two years to start, and that includes free housing on her family’s estate, the use of a car, and twenty-five grand a year salary. If it isn’t done in two years . . .” He shrugged. “I think the deal is that it’ll take as long as it does. If I didn’t have a wife and kids I’d try for the job myself.”
Gemma was still trying to grasp the facts. If this information was legitimate, she might be able to write her dissertation from something she found in this massive amount of data. As it was, she hadn’t even come up with a subject to write about, much less begun her research. She looked back at her adviser. “So what’s the catch?”
“You’re up against some stiff competition.”
From his hesitation, Gemma knew it wasn’t going to be good news. “Who?”
“Kirk Laurence and Isla Wilmont.”
Gemma’s face showed her surprise. The three of them were the same age and were all finishing their doctorates, but other than that, there was no resemblance between her and them. “Why would either one of them want a job like this? A little town in Virginia, living in somebody’s guesthouse? Years of researching? That doesn’t sound like either of them.”
“I hear there are three grown sons. Unmarried. Rich.”
Gemma groaned. “That takes care of Isla, but what about Kirk?”
“From what I understand, the trust fund his late father set up supports him as long as he’s in school. All he has to do is charm Lady Frazier into hiring him, and he might be able to postpone graduation for years. I heard that if he can’t get a job right after he finishes, he’s expected to go into his family’s business of making windows and doors.” He looked at Gemma. “These papers could be a good chance for publication.”
Gemma drew in her breath. Publication—the kind past a dissertation—was what could make or break an academic’s future career. Being published could mean that Kirk got out of having to go into the family business, and Isla might not be so desperate to marry someone who could support her.
When Gemma thought of the suave sophistication of Kirk and Isla, she could easily imagine their charming some small town woman. But even if Gemma didn’t have a chance of winning over them, that wasn’t going to keep her from trying. “How did this Mrs. Frazier get my name?”
“Seems that the president of the university is an old friend of hers. A couple of months ago he asked everyone in the history department to send him some recommendations of students for the job. All of us sent a few, and Mrs. Frazier narrowed it down to three people she wanted to interview, and you’re one of them. By the way, I wrote a glowing reference saying that you’d do the best job that could be done.”
“And I’m sure someone—or probably half a dozen others—wrote the same about Kirk and Isla.”
“No doubt they did,” he said. “The difference is that mine is true. You will go to the interview, won’t you?”
“Of course. If nothing else, I’d like to see the stash.” Gemma opened the door to his office, then turned back to look at him. “You realize, don’t you, that if this Mrs. Frazier has an estate, that means country clubs with golf courses and dinners with three forks. Kirk and Isla are the kind of people she’ll want living nearby, not Gemma Ranford who—”
“Who works harder in a week than those two butterflies do in a year.”
“Thanks,” Gemma said as she hoisted her heavy bag onto her shoulder.
He was glad she was going to try for the job. If anyone deserved a break, it was Gemma. He’d never had a student who worked harder than she did. “So where are you off to now?”
He grinned. “Punching the boys?”
“You got it. I have to do something to make sure they learn.” As she left his office, she tucked the envelope into her satchel.
That night Gemma closed her bedroom door, got into bed, and started going through the packet of papers that Mrs. Frazier had prepared. Gemma read about the auction in England, about the town of Edilean—which was ten miles outside Williamsburg and William and Mary College—and thought about all of it. At eleven one of her two roommates returned amid a cacophony of giggles and stumbles over the furniture. She and her latest boyfriend went into her bedroom, and other sounds soon started.
Gemma pulled the covers over her head and used her book light to continue with the papers. There were photos of the Frazier estate. It was a large house on twenty-five acres, with two guesthouses set amid the trees. The Fraziers owned four huge car dealerships in Virginia, and there was a brochure from the one in Richmond. Biggest was the word that was repeatedly used to describe the place.
But Gemma wasn’t interested in the sales leaflet. What held her attention was the thought of going through the old documents and seeing what no one else had looked at in centuries.
There was a thud in her roommate’s room, as though someone had fallen off the bed. “And the peace and quiet to give my full attention to it,” Gemma said aloud.
As the sounds of intimacy grew louder, she put a pillow over her head. She couldn’t afford an apartment of her own. The money she earned from tutoring what sometimes seemed to be most of the members of the athletic teams at the university went to her studies. That she’d made it so far on so little was a marvel even to her.
Now she was facing some serious study as she began to work on her dissertation—and she was worried about money. Deep research cost a lot. If she chose a subject that dealt with some aspect of history that happened far from school—and of course it would if she wanted fresh material—expenses would include travel, which meant food and lodging. Then there were books, supplies, even photocopies. For the last year she’d worried how she was going to pull it off. But finishing her Ph.D. would make the difference between obtaining a job teaching in a community college or at a top university. If she could get her dissertation from the Frazier documents, most, if not all, of these problems would be solved.
The noise across the hallway increased and Gemma held the pillow closer over her ears to drown out the sounds. “I’m going to try,” she whispered. “I’ll probably lose out to the butterflies, but I am going to give it my best shot.”
And that’s how she came to be standing in the guesthouse with the autocratic Mrs. Frazier. It was 11 A.M. on a beautiful spring morning, she’d driven in from the airport just a few minutes ago, and Mrs. Frazier had told her that Isla and Kirk were already there. Gemma realized that she should have anticipated that they’d arrive a day before the scheduled interview, as they were very competitive people. And by now Mrs. Frazier was probably in love with both of them, Gemma thought. After all, Kirk and Isla were known for being charming. “Those two are the lights of the history department,” she’d heard a professor say at a faculty-student party. “Intelligent and well read. You couldn’t ask for more,” had been the reply. Gemma had heard all this because she’d been carrying a tray of drinks—yet another of her side jobs.
“My ride is here,” Mrs. Frazier said as she looked out the living room window. Outside was one of those little utility vehicles with a truck bed in back. Driving it was a large, handsome young man. “Would you like to meet my son?” Mrs. Frazier asked.
Gemma knew that by all rules of courtesy she should go outside and meet the son, but she hated leaving the guesthouse and its treasure trove.
“Or would you like to stay here by yourself for a while?” Mrs. Frazier asked in a soft voice, as though talking to a child.
“Here,” Gemma managed to say.
“All right, then,” Mrs. Frazier said as she went to the door. “Lunch is at one and it takes about ten minutes to walk to the house—or would you like for me to send someone to pick you up?”
“I’ll walk,” Gemma said, then watched as the older woman got into the little truck and left. Gemma let out a sigh of relief and nearly tripped over her own feet as she ran to the big office. From the smell of fresh paint, the room seemed to have been newly redone. Three walls were lined with beautiful cherry bookshelves, with cabinets along the bottom. In front of the French doors was a big old desk with brass fittings along the edges. Gemma wasn’t an expert on furniture, but it was her guess that the desk was purchased at the same auction as the papers. The floor was carpeted in some modern, off-white fabric that was supposed to look like it was handwoven. On top of it was a huge, nearly worn-out old Oriental rug that looked as though people had been walking across it for centuries. The two pictures on the walls by the door were of men on horses, their hunting dogs looking eager for the chase to begin.
To Gemma’s eyes, the room was heavenly. With the garden clearly visible through the glass doors and the shelves full of untouched documents, she wanted to stay there forever.
She turned about the room, looking at everything. On the shelves were wooden and cardboard boxes, baskets that were about to fall apart, a couple of metal tubs, and bundles of papers that were tied together with old ribbon. On the floor were two leather-bound trunks, a wooden bench with a hinged lid, and several small chests, one with nail studs all over it.
Gemma had no idea where to begin. Tentatively, with hands that were close to shaking, she pulled down what looked to be a hatbox, probably from the 1920s—and she dearly hoped it didn’t contain a hat. Costume history was not her first love.
When she saw that letters were inside, Gemma drew in her breath. Letters and diaries had to be two of her favorite things in life. There was a pretty, comfortable-looking chair by the doors, but Gemma ignored it as she sat down on the rug and pulled out the first batch of letters. They were tied with dark grosgrain ribbon, and she slipped out the first letter and unfolded it.
Part of the letter was missing, but what was there was written in an angular, spidery hand that was difficult to read. It seemed that someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to save the last part of the letter.
Even though I’m an old woman now and have seen more than anyone should, especially that odious war that nearly divided our country, what I remember most vividly, and with the most heartache, is what happened to dear Julian and Winnie. I never believed that woman’s tears when she said that Julian’s death was an accident. Worse, I don’t think Ewan believed her either. I will tell you a secret that I thought I’d carry to my grave. Remember the hysteria when the Harewhistle disappeared? I searched as much as anyone, but I knew it wouldn’t be found because I took it with me when I went to England that long ago summer. I wanted its magic for selfish reasons but I ended up wishing on Winnie’s behalf. I’ve never before told anyone, but I believe that the Stone gave them that extraordinarily beautiful child. Last week I wrote the story and put it where it will be safe. I hope that all the Fraziers read it and find out what their relative by marriage did to the Aldredge family. I hope that someday that woman’s descendants lose that estate. They do not deserve it! I must go now. My old, aching joints don’t let me write for long.
With love, Tamsen.
“Wow,” Gemma said aloud. She’d already stumbled on a mystery and a romance. She glanced at her watch, told herself she had plenty of time before lunch, then stretched out on her stomach and began to read in earnest.
© 2011 Deveraux