Discover the uplifting new Backshaw Moss series by bestseller Anna Jacobs, with book 1 – A Valley Dream.
1935. At thirty-six, Bella Porter is dependent on her abusive cousin, acting as an unpaid servant. When a kind relative leaves her a house in the village of Backshaw Moss, Thomas tries to take it from her, but she defies him and grasps this chance of a new start in Lancashire.
It is not going to be easy, though. The house is on the edge of a slum and in a state of disrepair, let out as flats. As kind people help her find her feet, however, her confidence grows and when she meets struggling, widowed father-of-three Ryan, she begins to hope she may find the happy family she’s always dreamed of.
She’s offered partial help with her renovations by the local council who are planning to clear up the slums, but other landlords will do anything to avoid costly improvements and protect their profits. And when Thomas follows her, still after the inheritance, not only is Bella’s newfound happiness threatened but also her life. Can her new friends help her rid herself of her tormenter once and for all and finally achieve her valley dream?
James Beaton stared at his godmother’s lawyer in shock. He’d just been told that he’d been appointed sole executor of Sarah Jane Chapman’s estate.
To his surprise the lawyer added, ‘You are apparently the only relative of hers whom she felt she could trust to carry out her wishes, sir.’
‘And she was – well, in her rightful mind?’
‘She may have been old, but there was nothing wrong with her brain, I promise you. She asks that you read her diaries to gain a clearer insight into why she’s chosen these relatives to inherit and why the bequests have been made in such a way. In summary, it’s to nudge those who inherit into finding the courage to make changes to their lives.’
‘Well, well.’ James sat thinking for a moment or two, then shrugged. He had no pressing reason to go straight back to London. In fact, he’d been rather bored lately. ‘Then I shall stay here as she requested and find the best way to carry out her wishes.’
‘I’ve had her house prepared for you to live in. Her house keeper and maid are happy to stay on for a while.’
James ended up spending longer in Rivenshaw than he’d expected to – several weeks, in fact. It was a pleasant little town and he’d never visited the Lancashire moors before.
During this time he went through every cupboard and drawer in his godmother’s house, finding it unexpectedly intriguing to see in intimate detail how someone else had lived, having been a reclusive bachelor all his life.
He found Sarah’s diaries and read them all. She had a telling way with words. She’d been concerned that while the employment situation had improved in the south and Midlands in recent years, in Lancashire times were still hard. Not only were the poor struggling to put food on the table, but even those who normally would have made an adequate living were struggling.
He explored the area of the valley she had felt needed support. Much of the hamlet of Backshaw Moss was a slum, but the part near the larger village of Birch End was much better, and he chose to make a start on doing as Sarah had asked there, combining her wishes with his own desire to leave the world a better place.
As the train rattled its way back to London, James couldn’t help thinking about his own situation. He wasn’t in good health so could no longer travel, and sorting out Sarah’s bequests had made him look at his own will again.
From then on he surprised his family by attending most of their social functions, and he was distressed to find out that the nephew he’d once thought a decent chap and worthy heir was anything but.
As a consequence, Thomas Beaton was no longer going to inherit anything, and the first person to benefit from his own and Sarah’s legacies would be his great niece Arabella Porter, who went by the name of Bella. Why hadn’t he noticed what a miserable life the poor woman had been leading since the Great War, thanks to his nephew, on whom she was totally dependent?
James trusted his lawyer enough to tell him the truth. ‘It must be impossible for my nephew Thomas to overturn my will. He is not a good man.’
The slight smile Albert Neven couldn’t quite hide suggested that he was already aware of this fact. ‘It’s entirely your choice who inherits, Mr Beaton. He has no claim on you.’
As he sat sipping a glass of cognac the evening after he’d signed the will, James wished he could be there to see what the beneficiaries made of their legacies.
He’d asked for Bella to be dealt with first, because she was the one he knew personally. He hoped she wouldn’t give way to Thomas’s bullying. He was quite sure his nephew would try to take her legacy from her, but he trusted Albert Neven to prevent that.
He raised his glass in a silent salute to her. Only time would tell whether his bequests would achieve their aim. He was at least giving Bella and the others a chance for a better life, and that thought gave him great satisfaction.
In the end, it was up to them what they did with it.
The lawyer shuffled his papers and cleared his throat and the small group of family members sitting in the drawing room fell silent, looking at him expectantly. Albert Neven, who had drawn up the last will and testament of the late James Beaton, studied the group, frowned, and looked at his host.
‘Mr Beaton, I particularly requested that Miss Arabella Jane Porter be present today, since she is also a beneficiary of your uncle.’
All heads turned to Thomas Beaton, now head of the family. ‘I’m representing her.’
‘Did she ask you to do that?’
As Beaton harrumphed, his elder son gathered his courage together and said loudly, ‘No, she didn’t. When I spoke to her a short time ago, she wasn’t even aware that she was a legatee.’
His father glared at him and said scornfully, ‘I didn’t need to discuss it with her. It’s only fitting, since she is totally dependent on me, that I take care of whatever this legacy is. Women do not understand business.’
At least two of the women present glared at him and the lawyer ignored him completely, inclining his head towards Stephen Beaton. ‘Thank you for clarifying this, sir. You will appreciate that I am legally obliged to carry out the wishes of your late uncle.’
Bella was standing outside the small side door of the drawing room, which was usually used by servants entering and leaving. Over the years she’d found it a useful place to find things out when excluded from a family gathering. It had saved her a lot of trouble.
Unfortunately she’d been totally dependent on her cousin Thomas ever since the death of her parents a few years after the Great War ended, and still was at thirty six, sadly.
The slightly open door gave her only a limited view of the room, but she had heard clearly what the lawyer said and was now feeling angry. Why had she not been told about this legacy?
How much had she been left? Could it be enough to live on independently? No, independence was too much to hope for. She not only didn’t have a penny to her name, but lacked any skills that could earn her a wage.
Thomas had deliberately kept her helpless over the years, not even allowing her to do a typewriting course, claiming it ‘unladylike’. In reality, she was sure that was because he found it useful to have another pair of hands around the house without needing to pay her any wages.
Even if she had found a job, women were always paid far less than men, anyway. The ladies she met at church worked as clerks or typists, earning wages of a mere twenty five or thirty shillings a week. That was not enough to live on decently. One of them had gone hungry last winter, missing lunches for a month in order to buy a new winter coat.
At least by living with Thomas she got enough to eat and was warm in winter. And best of all, she’d had the pleasure of helping to raise his children, something he’d had little interest in.
As if in answer to her prayers, she heard Mr Neven say, ‘Your uncle specifically asked that Miss Porter be present to hear the details of her legacy. I cannot therefore continue to read the will without her.’
‘Why did James do that?’
‘I can’t tell you his reasons, I’m merely carrying out his orders. If Miss Porter is not able to be here today, I shall have to come back and read the will another time when she is at home.’
‘I think I heard her come in a short time ago,’ Thomas’s wife Muriel said hastily. ‘Shall I go and fetch her?’
Thomas sighed irritably. ‘If we must. But warn her that she had better not interrupt.’
Bella didn’t need to see his face to know he would be glaring at the lawyer.
She could see dear Stephen’s face, though, and he was scowling at his father from across the room. They clashed regularly now that Stephen had got a job, married a wife with a little money of her own, and left home.
Bella realised Muriel was standing up to come and fetch her so hurried off to the small parlour at the rear of the house where she spent most of her days. She only had time to go and stand by the window before her cousin’s wife came into the room.
‘Idling again, Bella.There is always the mending to be done, you know.’
She didn’t attempt to defend herself, simply waited in silence.
‘Your presence is required in the drawing room at the will reading. James has apparently left you some trifling bequest. You need not say anything except to express your gratitude. My husband will deal with it for you, since it’s family money.’ She turned without waiting for an answer.
Bella followed her into the drawing room and took the seat Thomas pointed to, a hard chair at the back of the main group. Only the lawyer nodded a greeting.
Mr Neven began to read the will and list the bequests. There was nothing for Cousin Thomas except James’s wishes for a long and happy life.
Thomas glared at the lawyer. ‘I can’t believe he would have left me out. You must have got it wrong.’
The lawyer breathed deeply. ‘I can assure you, sir, that our accounts are quite accurate.’
‘I suppose he spent a lot when he was gallivanting all over Europe in his younger days. A fool and his money are soon parted.’
The lawyer ignored this and went on in a chilly voice. ‘To continue, apart from minor bequests to his servants, the rest will be divided between three family members. Two recipients are not to be named here, only Miss Arabella Jane Porter.’
‘But surely this is—’
Mr Neven interrupted Thomas without hesitation. ‘Please allow me to finish, Mr Beaton. Miss Porter, my client has left you a cottage in a small village called Backshaw Moss, which is in Lancashire.’
Thomas interrupted before she could ask what sort of property, speaking loudly and slowly. ‘I don’t understand, Mr Neven. How could he own property there?’
‘The cottage was left to him by his godmother, I gather. It would, he thought, provide Miss Porter with a little pin money of her own. It upset him to see her so shabbily dressed. He felt it didn’t reflect well on the family.’
James had told his lawyer to say that, if Thomas quibbled. He’d tried to cover every eventuality in his verbal instructions before he signed the will, sure that his mercenary nephew wouldn’t willingly accept Bella receiving money from his uncle, when she was only a distant cousin.
‘I must insist that you name the other two beneficiaries. I now have a duty to ensure that James’s wishes are carried out.’ ‘No, sir, I have that duty, and you can be sure I shall carry it out faithfully.’
Bella was grateful to be left anything, of course, but her heart sank at the words ‘pin money’. Not enough to make her independent, then. And the remark about her shabbiness would infuriate her cousin, who would no doubt blame her for not paying more attention to her appearance. As if she had any choice about what she wore. She dressed mainly in handmedowns from other family members.
‘How much exactly is this property worth if I sell it?’ Thomas demanded.
‘That is not up to you.’ The lawyer looked across at Bella. ‘I’m not sure of the property’s value, Miss Porter, but it is rented out in three separate flats and brings in a total income of around £200 per annum. Your cousin called it a cottage, not a house, so I doubt it’s very big. Oh, and the legacy also includes a few trinkets that belonged to Mr James Beaton’s godmother. There is nothing particularly valuable, but he thought you might like to have some jewellery to wear. He had noticed when he saw you at church that you seemed to have none, and the other ladies did.’
Bella’s breath caught in her throat and hope began to rise in her. She could live in one of the flats, and even two thirds of £200 would be enough to live on if you didn’t need to pay rent and were frugal in your ways. And the trinkets might be worth something, too. Even a small amount of money in the bank would be a comfort.
It gradually sank in that she would be able to leave here, she really would. Only, did she dare do it? Because she was very sure that Thomas would try anything – including force – to stop her.
Before she could say anything, Thomas turned to her. ‘You can be sure that I’ll manage the money very carefully for you, Bella. It’ll give you a little more pin money if carefully invested.’
Which meant he intended to keep most of it, she was sure. All the years of humiliating and patronising treatment suddenly boiled over, and she jumped to her feet. ‘I would prefer to manage it myself, thank you, cousin. I shall go to Lancashire and look at this cottage. If it’s suitable, I shall move into part of it and continue to let out the rest.’
There was a very brief silence, then Thomas stormed across to stand over her, dominating her five foot two inches with his six foot of generous flesh. ‘You will do no such thing! I’m not having an unmarried female relative of mine living on her own in such a ramshackle way. Goodness knows who the other tenants might be. Why, they might even be men, which would not be at all respectable. Besides, you have a perfectly good home here.’
She took an involuntary step backwards and it took all her courage to say, ‘I’m grateful for that, Thomas, but I’ve always longed for a home of my own, even though it might only be a cottage.’
If the kitchen cat had got up and done a dance, Thomas could not have looked more astonished. For a moment he gaped at her, then he shouted, ‘I will not have it! I warn you now, Bella, that if you leave this house and go to Lancashire, you will not be welcome to come back here again, what ever you find there.’
Mr Neven moved quickly across to stand beside her. ‘Mr Beaton, please. I’m sure you don’t mean that.’
Thomas glared at him. ‘Oh, but I do! I always insist on being obeyed in my own home. Besides, what does a foolish spinster know about managing money? She’ll only waste it and end up as a burden on me again.’
He thumped his clenched fist down on a nearby side table, setting the ornaments rattling. ‘Go to your room at once, Bella! And don’t leave it till I send for you.’
The lawyer gaped at him in utter amazement.
That gave Bella the courage to say, ‘No. I shall only go there to pack, and then I shall leave the house for ever.’
She was proud that she’d not let her voice wobble, but she was shuddering with fear inside and guessed she’d need help
to actually get away. ‘I’d be grateful if you could wait for me, Mr Neven. I, um, need to ask you about some of the details.’ Mr Neven was shorter than Thomas, but somehow his self control made him seem more powerful as he turned to Bella and said gently, ‘If that’s what you truly wish to do, Miss Porter, you are of course free to leave at any time. You are certainly not a prisoner here.’ He didn’t even look at Thomas as he added, ‘Go and pack all your things, my dear lady. I shall be happy to wait for you and take you somewhere you can spend the next few days till we can finalise the financial details and make arrangements for you to go to Lancashire.’ But even then, Thomas had to add insult to injury. ‘Go with her, Muriel. We must make sure she doesn’t take with her anything to which she is not entitled.’
This time the shock on Mr Neven’s face at such an insult was echoed on the faces of the other family members. Stephen even took a hasty step forward, then stilled as the lawyer spoke loudly and clearly to his elderly clerk.
‘Penscombe, please go with Miss Porter and make sure that she isn’t bullied or coerced as she packs. Fetch me at once if anyone attempts to do that. And you’d better make a list of everything she takes with her in case anyone claims afterwards that something is missing.’
Bella’s voice came out as a shaky whisper. ‘Thank you, Mr Neven.’
Muriel stood up and led the way out without a word. Bella and the clerk followed her.
Bella felt sick with disgust at how Thomas had treated her. No one except Stephen and the lawyer had spoken in her defence, and she knew she couldn’t expect any help from the rest of the family later if things went wrong.
But to treat her like that! And in public, too. Shame upon him.
She wasn’t staying here one second longer than necessary after such insults, let alone pleading to be allowed back if
things went wrong. She’d throw herself off a cliff first.
Publishing in ebook and hardback editions May 13th 2021, and paperback October 2021