Chapter 1: Cara 1 CARA
Barlow, Gloucestershire, England, September 2017
It was the discovery Cara loved most: digging through the forgotten, the memorialized, the tossed-aside, and the cherished. Uncovering the treasures and trinkets left behind and making sure they had the chance to tell their stories.
At Wilson’s Antiques & Curiosities, it was her job to find out the where and when of every object that came through the shop’s doors. But it was the why and the what that intrigued her most. When she answered those questions, she could give once-treasured possessions a new life with new owners.
When Cara couldn’t unearth the history of a piece, she spun stories for herself. It was easier than thinking about her own mistakes and the regrets she carried. While she worked, she could escape into the comfort of someone else’s life for a few hours.
Gravel crunched under her well-worn flats as she stopped to study the formidable house rising up before her. The Old Vicarage was a grand mansion of yellow Cotswold limestone, standing arrogantly against the dual ravages of weather and time, and punctuated by a pair of columns on either side of the white front door. A light wind rustled through the ivy that crept lazily between the first and second floors. Someone had pushed one of the third-story windows open, probably hoping to air out the house that had lain unoccupied since its owner had died almost six weeks ago.
The front door opened with a creak, and Cara’s boss, Jock Wilson, stepped out with a blond woman in her early forties. Dressed in pale blue and white, all elegance and softness, the woman was a stark contrast to Jock’s stiff tweed and polished leather brogues.
“Miss Hargraves, you’re finally here,” said Jock.
Cara glanced at the antique gold watch that Gran had given her upon her graduation from Barlow University years ago. It was nine o’clock on the dot, the exact time Jock had instructed her to arrive—unless she’d misread his email.
A flush of panic heated her cheeks. She couldn’t have gotten the time wrong. She’d been so careful since her first day two months ago. She’d had to be. This job was her chance to start again.
“Mrs. Leithbridge, this is my assistant, Cara Hargraves.” Jock’s hand swept out as though Cara were an early-nineteenth-century Limoges teapot he was presenting at auction.
She swallowed around her worry and crossed her hands behind her, hoping the gesture conveyed both deference and regret. “My condolences for your loss, Mrs. Leithbridge.”
The client gave her a minute, dismissive smile. “Thank you. Let’s get on with it then. I have a tennis lesson this afternoon.”
As the lady retreated through the front door, her high-heeled sandals clicking on the mosaic tile floor, Jock raised his brows to Cara as though to say, She’s one of the types I warned you about.
“I can’t imagine how I got the time wrong,” Cara whispered in a rush as they followed their client.
“You weren’t late, but you weren’t early either,” said Jock.
Her step hitched. “What?”
“Better to be early and sit in the car than to leave a client waiting. Now come on.”
Cara forced her shoulders down and breathed deep to soothe the sting of her boss’s prickliness.
Focus on the job. Show him what you know.
The air in the entryway was cool and stale. It might’ve been unsettling except she could almost hear the echoes of children long since grown scuffing the floors as they tore through the place in their eagerness to play outdoors. It wasn’t hard to imagine past proud owners standing at the huge white door greeting friends with two kisses and a warm smile each.
This was someone’s home, not just a job site, she reminded herself, taking in the pale green paneling that climbed up a third of the wall before giving way to a familiar wallpaper of bold acanthus leaves on a deep-blue background. Immediately, her mind zipped through the categorization Jock had taught her.
William Morris. British. Mid-1870s.
When she’d first started working at Wilson’s as an eighteen-year-old student, she’d thought she would have a natural advantage having grown up surrounded by antiques in both her parents’ and grandparents’ homes. But Jock had been quick to show her just how little she’d known. Now that she was back more than a decade later, he’d made it clear that he expected her to become as knowledgeable as him in short order. That meant any time not spent visiting Gran in her nearby retirement village was taken up reading about the styles of furniture Cara would most likely encounter on the job. But, standing next to him on her first trip into a client’s home, she’d known the Morris wallpaper without the crutch of her books, notes, and Google searches. She could do this.
“Your brother mentioned on the phone that your great-aunt was a collector,” Jock said.
Mrs. Leithbridge lifted a shoulder. “Great-Aunt Lenora was a pack rat. The whole house is jammed with clutter.”
“Miss Hargraves, do you see anything of interest in this room?” Jock offered Mrs. Leithbridge a strained smile. “Miss Hargraves is currently training after some time away from the antiques trade.”
“I see,” said Mrs. Leithbridge as though she couldn’t have cared less.
Determined not to be intimidated by her boss or by their apathetic client, Cara’s gaze settled on a small bench pushed against the wall next to the front door. Its finish was worn where countless people had paused to pull on wellies and clip on dog leashes over the years. It would’ve been unextraordinary except for its back and legs, which were carved in an intricate geometric pattern.
“That oak bench,” she said, pointing.
“Movement?” Jock tossed back.
“Arts and Crafts, likely constructed in the later half of the mid-nineteenth century.”
“American or British?”
She walked over to the piece and ran a hand over the back, feeling for the smooth joins that held it together without the aid of nails. “The wood is in good condition, but there are a few dings and nicks. The finish is only fair.”
“And what of the country of origin, Miss Hargraves?” Jock pressed, his formality making her feel like she was back in grammar school.
She stared hard at the bench. It was likely British, but people traveled, and collectors bought from abroad.
“Without searching for a maker’s mark, I can’t be certain,” she finally said.
“Are you sure you don’t want to hazard a guess?” asked Jock.
Her boss gave a small nod. “Very good. Better to be right than to guess.”
“This is all fascinating, I’m sure, but is it worth anything?” Mrs. Leithbridge asked.
“With the right buyer, everything has value, but let’s hope for pieces that are in better condition,” said Jock. “Perhaps you could show us the drawing room?”
“Through here,” said Mrs. Leithbridge, guiding them with a flick of her hand.
Always start in the drawing room, Jock had said when briefing Cara yesterday. It’s where people show off their best. And remember: F-S-P.
Those were the two governing principles of his business. Furniture, silver, paintings. Find, sell, profit. F-S-P.
Yet for Cara, there was more to it than that. When she’d been at university, Wilson’s had been a haven of sorts, a place to lose herself in the past. As she’d methodically catalogued each item in the storeroom, she’d felt like participant, witness, and confessor to little slivers of other people’s lives. Now, thirteen years later, she’d finally have the chance to glimpse a fuller picture of the connection between antique and owner.
Jock stopped short in the drawing room doorway, nearly causing Cara to crash into him. But then she saw why he was rooted to the spot. The room was packed with furniture, with only little walkways weaving across the huge handmade wool-and-silk rug. There were at least five sideboards dotting the space, including two pushed flush against the backs of a set of massive roll-top sofas. A Gothic-style grandfather clock ticked away in a corner, and paintings were hung in the Victorian style over nearly every inch of the oxblood-painted walls, while a mess of photographs, vases, candy dishes, and other curios covered almost every surface. Yet it was the wood-and-glass monster opposite the wide, tiled fireplace that caught Cara’s attention.
“A Collinson and Lock,” Jock finished.
They approached the piece carefully, as though it were a skittish animal that might bolt at any moment. Gingerly, Cara grazed her fingers over the edge of the cornice punctuated by a white scroll pattern.
“It’s rosewood, and the inlay is ivory. The crosshatching is there,” she said, thankful she’d just read about the furniture-making firm of Collinson & Lock that weekend.
“Very good, Miss Hargraves. The glass-fronted doors are also a key feature of the makers. But we won’t have confirmation until we find the stamp.” He opened the central cabinet door and made a show of craning his neck to look inside. “Not here. Would you look underneath? My knees are aching today.”
Jock’s knees seemed to be acting up quite a bit since she’d rejoined him, meaning it’d been up to her to do the crouching and bending around the shop. Nevertheless, Cara knelt on the floor and twisted to look up at the unembellished base of the cabinet’s lower level.
Shifting to pull her penlight out of her back pocket, she clicked it on and illuminated the words “Collinson & Lock.”
“It’s here,” she announced, pulling her head free. “Serial number 4692.”
“What is it?” Mrs. Leithbridge asked as Jock jotted the numbers down in a small leather-bound notebook he kept in his breast pocket.
“A very fine piece, and a good indication of your great-aunt’s taste. Perhaps,” said Jock, turning on his most brilliant smile, “you might consider rescheduling your tennis lesson. We have a great deal of work to do.”
Later that afternoon, Cara and Jock were in the dining room sorting through the contents of the late Lenora Robinson’s china when Cara’s phone rang.
Jock, who had been examining an Adams sugar bowl they suspected was from the 1850s, shot her a glare. “Miss Hargraves, will you turn that infernal thing off?”
Her grip reflexively tightened around the heavy stack of eighteen dessert plates she’d been pulling out of the butler’s pantry. “I’m so sorry.”
She slowly made her way to the dining table to set the plates down as the phone rang again.
“Miss Hargraves,” her boss said again, crossing his arms.
She ripped the phone out of her back pocket, her stomach sinking as she saw Simon’s picture filling the screen.
“Are you going to answer it or simply stare?” Jock asked.
She cleared her throat. “It’s my ex-husband.”
“Then I suggest you take this very personal call somewhere else. Far away.”
“Yes, of course.” She hurried out and picked up the call as soon as she was in the corridor. “What is it, Simon?”
His voice, as polished as it was judgmental, filled her ear. “Why are you whispering?”
She strode up a narrow flight of stairs that must’ve once been for the servants of the house. “Because I’m at work.”
“With the antique owner of the antique shop?” He snickered.
“Yes, and Jock needs me, so if you’d just tell me why you called…”
Glancing around for Mrs. Leithbridge, she slipped into the first room she came to, kicking up a cloud of dust that swirled in the light from a single window. When she shut the door, an old, battered armoire creaked open.
“Come now, it isn’t like you’re performing surgery,” he said.
God forbid he think her job was important.
“You should go back into events,” he continued, his tone overbearing and snobbish. “I’m sure your old boss could find a spot for you, or you could start your own consultancy. Then you could make real money.”
Of course Simon didn’t think working for Jock was good enough, and it grated on her that, even though they were divorced, he still felt his opinion should matter.
“Simon, I hated working events and I should’ve quit long before I did.”
“And I suppose that’s my fault,” he said, his voice sharpening.
“Part of it is, actually.”
All at once, Simon’s self-righteous bluster left him. “I’m sorry, Cara. I ruined everything. I’m going to get help, I just…”
She squeezed her eyes shut, waiting for the wave of guilt to come. Only now it had been long enough that it didn’t crash down on her but rather lapped at her feet. They’d been down this path before. He’d first promised her when she’d told him she wanted a divorce that he would seek help, but he’d never gone. It had taken her considerable time with her own therapist to understand that her shoulders weren’t broad enough to carry the full weight of her husband’s narcissism, insecurity, and addiction.
“Why did you call?” she asked.
He cleared his throat. “A bill was forwarded to me by mistake. It was for your parents’ storage unit.”
She slumped against the wall, the memory of the late-night phone call stealing her breath. It had been a police officer, telling her with clinical dryness that a drunk driver in a Range Rover had hit her parents on a one-track country lane. They were being medevaced to a hospital in Cumbria. She hadn’t arrived in time to say goodbye.
“Apparently the annual fee was paid out of our joint account. Since we closed it, it came back declined,” Simon continued, oblivious or uncaring as to how his words hit her.
“Please forward it to my new address. I’ll take care of it,” she said, her voice cracking a little.
“You should clear it out and sell the lot. They’ve been dead for almost two years, Cara. You need to stop wasting money on this.”
His callous disregard for the way she chose to mourn her parents’ deaths might’ve felt like a slap once. Now it just left her with a deep, soul-aching sadness. “Send me the bill. I’ll handle it.”
“I’m only trying to help,” he said.
“No, Simon, you’re not, and one day I hope you’ll see that.” She swiped to end the call. Her divorced friends had told her that there’d be times when she’d be so angry at her ex she’d want to rage, but all she felt was weary to the bone. She could hardly remember why she’d fallen in love with him all those years ago.
She tucked her phone away, determined to focus on whatever Jock threw at her, but before she could, a glint of gold from inside the partially open armoire caught her eye. She moved to shut the door that had fallen open, but hesitated. Great-Aunt Lenora had proven canny about hiding things away in nooks and crannies. Who knew what was squirreled away inside?
The old hinges creaked in protest as she opened the door wide. Compared to the clutter of the house, the shelves were disappointingly bare. The gold turned out to be a hand mirror with an elaborate fleur-de-lis back, and next to it lay an old Scrabble set that looked to be at least two dozen letters short.
Not feeling particularly hopeful, she turned her attention to the two drawers on the bottom. Nothing in the first but a couple of dead moths. But when she opened the second drawer, she saw a biscuit tin molded to look like a shelf of upright books. She’d seen tins like this full of buttons and other odds and ends in Gran’s house when she was a child. If she had to hazard a guess, against Jock’s wishes, she would’ve said it was from the 1940s, possibly the very early 1950s.
Kneeling on the floor, she slipped her short nails under the top to rock it back and forth. It was slow work but finally the thin metal gave way. Her heart kicked up a beat at what she saw. On top lay a small fat notebook bound in red-cloth-covered cardboard and held together by a band. When she tried to open it, the elastic disintegrated in her hands.
“Damn,” she cursed softly. She should probably set the book aside, but the damage was already done.
The notebook’s first page was blank, but the next was covered in looping script written in faded blue ink. The date at the top read “14 October 1940.”
The bombs fell again yesterday night. I’d just gone to sleep when the explosions started. They sounded so close I thought the ceiling might fall in. Dad says the Germans dropped six bombs on RAF St. Eval. We don’t know yet how much damage was done.
I suppose that’s why I’m writing in this diary. Dad has been saying for ages that I ought to keep a record of this war and of what happens to me.
Just last week Mum was horrid about the idea, saying, “What’s she going to write about? Her job at Mrs. Bakeford’s shop?”
Well, something has happened and I have to write about it, even if it is simply to spite Mum.
It was a diary. A World War II diary. Cara skipped ahead a dozen or so pages.
21 February 1941
For months I felt as though I didn’t have anything to record in these pages. Everything stays the same here, but now things are different. Now it seems as though I can’t stop writing.
Paul took me to the pictures in Newquay yesterday afternoon to see Freedom Radio. I told Mum I was helping Kate knit socks for the war effort, but instead I ran to the bus stop to wait for him. He was a perfect gentleman, buying my ticket and helping me to find my seat. We arrived at the theater just as the film was starting, and as soon as the title card came up, he took my hand and didn’t let go the entire time. I don’t think I paid attention to a thing Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard were saying on the screen!
24 February 1941
Two days until I see Paul again.
I never thought I would be the type of girl to become all swoony over a man, but today at the shop I dropped a glass jar of boiled sweets. By some miracle it didn’t break, but Mrs. Bakeford scolded me for having my head in the clouds. I wanted to tell her it wasn’t my head but my heart.
With a smile, Cara flipped forward to a random section midway through.
25 September 1941
I said goodbye to Paul this morning. He tried to talk me into staying in bed, but I told him that would be desertion.
Cara paged through the rest of the diary, looking to see how far it went. The writing stopped abruptly with a single line.
5 January 1942
Everything is over. I thought I loved him.
Guilt tugged at her as she closed the cover, but sitting with her hand still touching the journal full of another woman’s most intimate thoughts, she couldn’t deny that she was curious. Who was Paul and what had happened? Why was everything over, seemingly in less than a year? And whose diary was this in the first place?
When she tipped the rest of the tin onto the floor, out tumbled a tiny compass with a bent edge, a locket, a photo, a few pieces of paper, and a scrap of cloth. The cloth was easy enough to identify: a man’s handkerchief, plain and serviceable, with a “P” stitched in one corner. One of the papers was bright coral and dry with age. She flipped it over. A cinema ticket to the Paramount Theatre in Newquay dated 20 February 1941, the day before one of the diary entries she’d read.
She set the ticket aside and examined the other scraps of paper. A small flyer with a torn corner for some sort of Valentine’s dance at the generically named Village Hall on the fourteenth of February. An unused tube ticket for the Central line.
She picked up the photo next. A woman wearing a uniform was looking over her shoulder, her hand raised to the cap that sat perched atop her swept-back, pageboy hairstyle. Her smile was bright and brilliant, as though the photographer had caught her in a moment of pure joy.
But that wasn’t what made Cara pause. It was the uniform—she’d seen it before. Gran had been issued the same one when she’d joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1943, and Cara recognized it from the two photographs Gran kept in her sitting room. One was a formal portrait taken on Iris Warren’s first day of leave from the women’s auxiliary branch of the army. In the other, she was lined up with four other uniformed girls, all linking arms and smiling.
“I met your granddad at a dance at the NAAFI,” Gran had explained to her once. “Every few months, something official would be put on in the canteens with as good a band as they could scrape together, but more often we’d dance to music played on a gramophone. The Americans had brought the jitterbug with them, and we were all mad for it.
“Your granddad was an American GI, with his hair cut short and his sharp uniform. He did his best to woo me with chocolates and the promise of silk stockings.”
But that was where Gran’s reminiscences ended. The last time Cara had tried to ask about the war when she was just sixteen, Gran had abruptly clammed up and gone to lie down, claiming to have a migraine. Mum had scolded her, saying, “There are some things your gran doesn’t want to talk about. Don’t push her, Cara.”
She traced her finger over the strong sweep of the woman’s jaw before flipping the photograph over. On the back, in a different handwriting than the diary, someone had written “L.K. on the Embankment.”
Setting the photo down, she picked up the simple gold heart locket and eased her thumbnail between the clasp to open it. One side was blank but the other held a tiny photograph of a dashing man in a fleece-collared bomber jacket with a pair of goggles perched on top of his head. A pilot.
“Miss Hargraves!” she heard Jock shout from somewhere downstairs.
Quickly, she gathered the things into the tin and rushed to find Jock in the study with Mrs. Leithbridge.
“What have you there?” he asked with a raised brow.
“I’m not entirely sure.” She set the tin down on a table. “Mrs. Leithbridge, did your great-aunt serve in the ATS during the Second World War?”
The lady lifted her brows. “I don’t know what the ATS is.”
“It was the women’s service that supported the army.” When Jock looked over the top of his glasses, she added, “My gran served.”
“Great-Aunt Lenora used to drone on about being a volunteer ambulance driver in London during the Blitz.” Mrs. Leithbridge rose and click-clacked over to a desk near a pair of tall sash windows. Her hand wove through the air before plucking up one of the photographs that lined its edge. “Here.”
There was no way the woman who stared out at Cara was the one in the ATS uniform. Even in black-and-white it was easy to see that Lenora Robinson, all sharp angles with high cheekbones and a thin, small nose, bore no resemblance to L.K. on the Embankment’s youthful features and strong jaw.
Still, Mrs. Leithbridge’s great-aunt shared a first initial with the inscription on the back of the photograph.
Cara opened the tin and pulled it out. “Are you sure this wasn’t her? The back reads ‘L.K.’ Maybe it was taken before she was married. What was her maiden name?”
Mrs. Leithbridge barely glanced at the photo. “Great-Aunt Lenora never took her husband’s name. Quite modern, really.”
“Oh.” Cara glanced at Jock. “There was a diary too.”
“There’s a market for World War Two paraphernalia and diaries, but since it doesn’t appear that Mrs. Robinson wrote it, we’d have to authenticate it and identify the writer,” said Jock.
“I have a broker coming to look at the house in two weeks. Everything that can’t be sold will be cleared out by a junk-removal company,” said Mrs. Leithbridge.
“But shouldn’t we do something with it?” Cara asked, holding up the diary. “Perhaps return it to the woman who wrote it?”
“Where did you find it?” Jock asked.
“In an armoire in a small room off the back stairs.”
“The box room?” Mrs. Leithbridge laughed. “No one’s been in there for years. Throw it out.”
“No!” Heat crept up Cara’s neck as two pairs of eyes bored into her, but she refused to look away. She felt strangely protective of the diary, drawn in by the happiness and heartbreak she’d read, and was now more determined than ever to get the answers she needed from Gran about her history.
“I’d like to keep it and try to figure out who it belonged to.” Cara paused. “If that’s okay with you.”
“I don’t care,” said Mrs. Leithbridge. “I’ll be in the drawing room if you need me.”
When they were alone, Jock pinned Cara with a stern glare. “Miss Hargraves, we do not argue with clients.”
“She wanted to throw it away,” Cara protested.
“And that’s her right. Mrs. Leithbridge can haul all of this to the back garden and set fire to it if she likes, but I’d rather persuade her to sell it and earn my commission. It would be helpful if my assistant didn’t scold her.”
“Aren’t you the least bit curious as to who wrote it?”
“Given that I’m working and using up my client’s valuable time, I’m far more interested in this writing box,” he said, gesturing to a Victorian lady’s lap desk that lay open on a table. “Or any other number of things that will actually turn a profit. F-S-P, Miss Hargraves.”
She squared her shoulders, but before she could say anything, Jock sighed, took off his glasses, and rubbed them on a handkerchief from his pocket. “If it’ll stop you from looking at me like I’m a philistine trying to destroy history, you can take the diary home. Go put it away, but hurry back. This is proving to be a larger job than I expected.”
Cara kept her head down as she rushed to her car, but she couldn’t help the little smile that touched her lips. She and Gran would have quite a bit to talk about after work.