Pride of the Peacock (1976) by Victoria Holt
Jessica Clavering always knew there was a mystery in her past. Most people might put it down to the fact that her family--once landed gentry with sufficient means--came down in the world just before her birth. For hundreds of years Claverings lived in Oakland Hall, but after her grandfather and father both succumbed to the gambling bug the family fortunes never recovered and her father was forced to sell the family home to one of the new rich, Mr. Ben Henniker of Australia. After the family moved to the Dower House (still pretty fine in the grand scheme of things), they refused to have anything to do with Mr. Henniker and Jessica's mother never failed to point out how far down in the world they had come and how they owed their life of penury to her husband.
But Jessica knows there's more wrong with her circumstances than simply being poorer than the family used to be. There's also the fact that she's not supposed to go near the stream that runs through the woods. And the hidden grave in the "Wasteland" area where no one goes...except for someone who puts a small bundle of flowers on the grave once a year. Every time she asks a question the family and servants tell her it's better that she not know. Jessica isn't satisfied with that, but it seems she'll never find out what everyone is keeping from her....
Until Ben Henniker returns to the Hall after an accident at his mines in Australia. He's out in the grounds alone in his wheelchair and Jessica runs to the rescue when it careens out of control down the hill. The two strike up an unlikely friendship and Jessica begins to learn a bit about her past--both from Ben and from the servants who stayed with the Hall when her family had to downsize. She has a few shocks in store...not least that Ben plans to arrange her marriage to his son Joss Madden. Ben hasn't exactly painted a rosy picture of Joss. Oh, sure, he's a fine figure of a man, but from what Ben tells her Joss is headstrong, stubborn, and full of pride--just like the peacocks Ben's Australian home is named for. Will she and Joss be able to resist the offer Ben makes them, contingent upon their marriage? And if Jessica does say yes, will she survive in the wilds of Australia? Because there's someone...maybe Joss himself?...who wants to make sure she doesn't.
So...once upon a time I read a lot of Victoria Holt and Phyllis A. Whitney novels. And I liked them a lot. But I'm not entirely sure this sort of book is my sort of book anymore. I'm just not really into these "oh we hate each other...he's so full of himself...he doesn't like me at all...she's the worst...she treats me like I've got the plague..." stories which turn suddenly (once we find out he's really not the brooding ogre we thought) into "Ooooh, I adore you. I can't live without you!" and let's live happily ever after.
Holt is a lot better at the mystery portion of the plot than the romance portion (at least in the opinion of my 50-something self). Not a lot of clue-planting, but good build-up and an interesting twist at the end. I don't think my previous paragraph is much of a spoiler--anyone who reads much in this line must know that the brooding "ogre" of a husband is never behind all the evil things happening to our heroine. ★★★
First line: I was quite young when I realized that there was something mysterious about me, and a sense of not belonging came to me and stayed with me.
Last line: "I can," I retorted. "And I will."
Deaths: 7 (one natural; one broken neck; one fell from a horse; one drowned; one buggy accident; one shot; one fell from balcony)