Prickly Hawthorn Village #1

Secret at Dark Castle

by Karen Dean Benson

Secret at Dark Castle

Early 1800s Ireland

Orphaned as an infant and left on convent steps seventeen years earlier, Mairéad lives a cloistered life. She has been taught to illuminate manuscripts as a way to earn money for the convent.

When she is hired to illuminate a manuscript for the lord of the local manor, he expects her to take up residence in Rockmore Hall for the summer. She experiences life beyond the convent walls for the first time.

The powerful and unprecedented discovery of how families live overwhelms her. If she can unravel the mystery of who she is, where she came from, a bold new life may be in her future.


Release Date: June 9, 2020
Genre: Historical Romance


Chapter One

Late September 1799

County Waterford, Ireland


Shanna O’Key, known for her damaging gossip and bitter tongue, made her way on the well-worn path past the hulking ruin called Dark Castle. The shadowy entrance faced west, and the last rays of the setting sun caught a cloaked figure scurrying from the gaping entrance.

She froze, thinking of the ghosts said to haunt the castle. Specters were silent, however, and this one disturbed the eventide quiet with his rush to leave. Moments later, she recognized the second man—Lord Darnley’s son, Lord Rutledge. Hardly over her shock, a woman obscured by a cloak, scuttled out of the ruin with a babe in arms.

At fifteen years of age, Shanna knew the makings of a good tale when she saw one and squinted into the growing darkness. As the woman flitted around the corner, Shanna damned the babble about hauntings and stalked to the passageway. The scent of beeswax drew her to a far chamber. The thick candle she found was warm to the touch.

Picking off the lid of a jar, fragrance of pine and wood musk swirled in the air. Sacramental oil? Frankincense? A babe in arms? The Anglican lord’s son? And, most likely, a Catholic wench?

Shanna’s breath caught in her throat with the realization that she might have just witnessed an illegal, papist baptism.


Spring 1816

County Waterford, Ireland

Rockmore Hall


Witham, Rockmore Hall’s butler of thirty-four years, yanked on the lower drawer of a chest, unable to dislodge it, and concluded that something was wedged against the side rails. Muttering, he straightened, hands on hips, and glared at the inert piece of mahogany. As far as he knew, other than dusting, the drawers had not been touched since the demise of Lord Rutledge thirteen years previous.

Unwilling to allow a piece of furniture to get the better of him, he attacked the six-drawer chest as if an adversary. Bracing the toe of his leather shoe against its leg, he grasped the handles and yanked with vigor. A mere creak, it instantly gave up the drawer, sending the butler flat on his derrière, the coffer landing on his outstretched legs. A box within, its lid askew, held letters, brown with age, that scattered.

Long ago, every item of Rutledge’s personal effects had been removed and stored. This discovery caused Witham to bite the side of his cheek with uncertainty. Reminding Lord Darnley of the great loss of his only son, and heir, might not be prudent.

He returned the letters with the wispy penmanship to the box and clasped the lid. Brushing off the backside of his worsted wool, he made his way down two flights to Lord Darnley’s library, a sanctuary where his lordship resided at this time of day.

After knocking lightly, he entered waiting to be recognized.

* * *

Lord Darnley looked over the top of his spectacles. “What?”

“This was in a drawer in Rutledge’s old room.” Witham stepped forward and placed the box on the desk. “Apparently, we weren’t entirely thorough in the cleaning.” He glanced apologetically at his lordship. “It contains letters to his lordship.”

Lord Darnley returned the quill to its inkwell. “What do they say?”

“I would not have intruded, my lord.”

“In Rutledge’s old room, you say?”


Settling into his chair, hands clasped over his waist-coated belly, his lordship asked, “Whatever made you look there?”

“Lady Duncamden’s arrival. I considered putting her up in a room with a view of the fountain and gardens.”

“She would enjoy that.” His gaze on the box, he speculated. “These must have been written before Rutledge left for university.” His interest fell to the crossed fingers on his belly. Witham appeared uneasy, and Lord Darnley clearly understood why. “You needn’t think I’ll slip into despair, Witham. Lord knows these past years have brought me peace and distance.”

He couldn’t help but think of his namesake and heir, the beloved son lost in a storm on the stretch of water where St. George’s Channel meets the Celtic Sea. He’d been sailing from Wales back to County Waterford and Rockmore Hall. Shortly after his death, Mr. Franklin Hagadorn, the family solicitor, delivered a life-changing packet.

The lightning bolt of news contained a certificate of marriage between his son and a woman whose name was initialed F.O., signed and stamped with a Roman Catholic priest’s seal. A letter explained Rutledge fathered a child with this woman, whom he secretly married. The woman was unable to keep the child, and Rutledge placed him with the Molloys, cottiers in the village on land owned by Lord Darnley. Rutledge compensated them handsomely for raising the boy, whom he named Ayden.

Thoroughly investigating the whereabouts of the priest, Darnley discovered he passed away three years previous. Before that, a fire destroyed the rectory where the documents were kept. He also discovered that Fr. Damien went about Ireland performing many such marriages between Protestants, and Catholics, seeing it as his duty to make sure innocent children were not born illegitimate, and therefore providing them with an acceptable place in Ireland’s society.

Children born of a mixed marriage would hardly be acceptable if not illegitimate. The realization that he’d an heir, a grandson, was beyond anything he could have desired. The preparations he carried out before meeting the four-year-old involved the entire staff of Rockmore Hall. He provided a room on the second floor with southern exposure, in the same wing as his grandfather. His living conditions improved with indoor plumbing, a fireplace in each room, and marble floors to mention a portion of a long list of conveniences. Darnley did not want his grandson deprived of social regard befitting his title and station. He was not a snob, but his grandson hailed from a long line of Englishmen who, over generations, evolved into Irish noblemen, descendants of title and land awarded in 1541 by Henry VIII.

Now, thirteen years later, the handsome young Lord Rutledge, renamed Garrett III, was a man of seventeen. Nearing the end of his education at Eton and usually visiting Rockmore Hall on holidays with a few friends adding to Darnley’s delight.

Stirring from his memories, Darnley leaned away from the small chest, casting a forced smile at Witham. “I’ll let these sit a day or two. It shouldn’t matter, considering how long they’ve been stored.”

* * *

Witham bowed and closed the door, worried if perhaps he should have read them before handing them over. After all, he had been with his lordship since 1773, a time when the nobleman came into his inheritance at the age of twenty. Forty-three years passed since then.

He made his way below stairs in search of Mrs. Atkinson. Either talking about his concern with the housekeeper would make him feel better or he would rue the fact that he confided in her and feel miserable.

It was nearing luncheon, and Witham found the slender, salt-and-pepper-haired housekeeper in the linen room showing a new maid how to fold and store sheets. He breathed deeply of the scent of lavender before interrupting the instructions.

Mrs. Atkinson glanced up, humor crinkling the corners of her gray eyes. “What can I do for you?”

“I’d have a minute of your time when you are free.” He glanced at the housemaid, who ran an open palm across the fold of a newly ironed sheet with what looked like a great deal of pride. Perhaps her first time to iron.

Mrs. Atkinson nodded to the maid. “That will be all, Olive. Mrs. Hill will have luncheon prepared.”

The maid curtsied and left. Mrs. Atkinson turned her attention on him, an eyebrow raised in question.

“I found a packet of old letters and gave them to his lordship. The look that came over him had me doubting my decision,” he gushed, clearly seeking approval.

“Isn’t it a little late to ask what I think?”

With a sheepish shrug, he nodded.

She set the hot iron in a metal plate for safekeeping. “You could do no less. They are his property. Where did you find them?”

“In Lord Rutledge’s old room.”

“Ah, you are expecting to have it cleaned for Lady Duncamden?”

He nodded. “They tumbled out of a stuck drawer.” He ran a fingertip across his brow as if smoothing the furrows. “I could tell looking at his lordship he fell to momentary sorrow.”

“We feared Rockmore Hall would never climb out of the crushing loss. You are a good man, Witham. You lead with your heart.” Her calm voice was reassuring.

Embarrassment over the flattery, he cleared his throat as he glanced at the highly polished tips of his black shoes.

“Are they from that time, could you tell?” Mrs. Atkinson asked.

“Yes, that’s why I doubt my actions. I’m afraid of what they hold.”

“Ah, well, that might change things a wee bit. We’ll keep an eye on his lordship, then.”

Witham nodded. “That I’ll do. He did mention his intention to set them aside for a while.”

A loud bang, followed by a screech, came from the direction of the kitchen. Witham stepped aside to allow Mrs. Atkinson’s quick strut toward the upset.

* * *

As Darnley reached for his quill, his gaze caught the wooden cask Witham left on his desktop. His heart beat fast and he could no longer finish the letter to his cohort in Dublin. The quill returned to the inkwell, he reached for the box with an unsteady hand, curiosity getting the best of him.

Passing the box under his nose, he breathed deeply, hoping for the scent of his son but found only the musk of old wood. His fingers slid over the surface as if touching his small son’s cheek. Remembering their years together, he turned his head toward the giant hawthorn outside the leaded windows and the rolling hills beyond. The tree would bud soon. His son always delighted in the pink blossoms against the blue sky.

With the reservoir of untold memories in his lap, he resigned himself to the inevitable and flipped the lid to reveal a small stack of history. What news did these letters hold? What earth-shattering, heart-wrenching information would they reveal? Of a certainty, his son would not be returned to him. That, more than anything else in the world, was what he wanted.


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