Release Date: October 15, 2013
National Readers Choice WINNER, Best Historical Romance of 2013
A shocking betrayal…
Riches. Power. An ancient heritage of pride. The Earl of Druridge wanted only for an heir. So when he learned that his wife was carrying another man’s child, he was filled with a thirst for vengeance.
But he wasn’t the one who caused Katherine’s death. Or was he? To his horror, he remembers nothing of that dreadful night, when their last confrontation ended in scorching flame and cold blood.
A forbidden love…
Rachel McTavish, the beautiful daughter of a coal miner, knows something about the fire that took Lady Katherine’s life. In secret, the strong-willed girl strikes a bargain with the desperate earl: he must send his physician to help her dying mother or he may go to the devil—and the scaffold. He agrees, but she is still unsure that her revelation will be enough to save him when so many wish him dead.
Passionately drawn to the nobleman, despite all the doubt and mystery that shrouds him, Rachel wonders if he can really be a murderer. Or if he is the only man who will ever own her heart…
“Novak’s dark and brooding tale of love, passion, and obsession will curl your toes and warm your heart!”
—Sabrina Jeffries, New York Times bestselling author
“Novak has drawn us into a maze of peril that page by page draws us closer and closer to what we hope will be a happy ending. But, clearly Novak wants to keep us guessing till the very end. Once again Novak has a cast of great characters [and] a compelling storyline … as we have come to expect.”
“You know that phrase ‘It transcends the form’? That. Holy mother of God, how to do this justice? This book is gothic and creepy and unnerving and suspenseful and enraging and completely enthralling. From the very first pages it wrapped around me like a cold wind, raising goose bumps on my arms and the hair on the back of my neck. I finished it an hour ago and that chill is still gripping me. FAVORITE HISTORICAL ROMANCE EVER.”
~Litchick’s Hit List
“Novak has woven a story that will thrill the lovers of Regency romance. With rich detail and elegant plotting, she serves up a provocative, sexy novel with an outstanding mystery at its heart. Without telegraphing her moves, she manages to reveal the layers one by one. Her lively descriptions will have readers smelling the smoke of the fireplace, ducking the mine’s low ceilings and feeling the cold of the winter snow. For romance lovers, mystery lovers and Brenda Novak’s legion of fans, “Through the Smoke” marks an exciting new step in her writing career.”
“Novak (Home to Whiskey Creek) delivers a pulse-pounding tale of a disgraced earl and the shopkeeper he falls for, set against the backdrop of labor organizing in 1840 England… This compelling tale delivers many surprising twists on its way to a solid conclusion.”
“Novak sets out to create an unforgettable romance and succeeds with flying colors. Readers will find her story oozing with passion, captivating and next to impossible to put down…a phenomenal ending.”
~ RT Book Reviews Magazine, 4 Stars
“Through the Smoke swept me off my feet! I am a big fan of Brenda’s other work already, the Whiskey Creek series especially, but haven’t had a chance to read any of her historical fiction before now. And this is a true honest-to-goodness sweeping historical romance that was a joy to read. The characters were well defined and very engaging. They drew me in right away. There were some that I loved to hate (Mrs Poulson) and some that I fell in love with instantly (Rachel). The writing style also flows nicely and is elegant, certainly befitting the mid-1800s setting quite nicely.”
~Harlequin Junkies Top Pick
“From the very first page; from the very first sentence, my interest was caught; ensnared in a not so pretty world, with oh so pretty words – and held, knowing that I needed to see this through to the very end. I was captivated by the beautiful and vivid writing. The picture she was able to paint with her writing and descriptions of this dark, dreary and cold setting in not-so jolly old England in the early 1800′s, literally chilled me to the bone. Her words a hit to the chest that made me ache so many times throughout my reading that I couldn’t help but think: This woman is blowing my mind with this story.”
“I love ‘Jane Eyre’ so once I read the blurb of this novel, I knew I had to read it. To me, this only had shades of that classic story, but in no way was anything like it. And that is a very good thing. I may have even liked it better! It’s a romance with flawed and complex characters who are trying hard to fit in within the community they both in some way value.”
Northeastern Coast of England
He’d kill her. Just as soon as he could get his hands around her delicate neck, he’d stop the black heart that beat beneath all that misleading beauty and put an end to his own misery.
Although Truman Stanhope, the Earl of Druridge, had come all the way from London to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and had a bit farther north to go before he reached his home, blind fury caused his pulse to pound as fast as the hooves of the horses that were pulling his coach. His driver had been pushing the poor beasts so hard it’d been necessary to stop and change them out at every opportunity. But he was determined to reach Blackmoor Hall in record time, to confront his wife as soon as possible.
“How dare you?” he muttered over and over. It wasn’t enough that he’d lost his beloved parents to a terrible carriage accident shortly after he’d married Katherine? That the child she bore him had lived only six months–and died under mysterious circumstances, circumstances that made him suspect she might have had something to do with it?
He glared down at the letter she’d sent him, at all the lies written in her perfect penmanship. Did she really think he was so addle-brained? So terribly gullible as to believe the child from this new pregnancy could be his?
My Dearest Husband, I am pleased to share this good news with you, so pleased, in fact, that I dare not wait until your business has concluded in Town and you have returned home. Knowing how eager you have been to have a child!
He noticed that she did not refer to their firstborn. She never did, never had. Since the moment little Jeremy entered the world, she’d ignored him, and Truman feared it was his love for the child that had given her the incentive to do what he believed she did. She’d seemed singularly determined to destroy him, no ma! er how far she had to go.
Think of it, she wrote. Now, if God grants us a son, you will have an heir to your lands and title. At last our prayers have been answered.
“Prayers,” he growled, feeling the rage boil up again. “Prayers?” He’d long since quit asking God for any type of a child–boy or girl–with Lady Katherine. He didn’t think she was stable enough to be a mother. There was something wrong with her, something vital that was missing. He’d seen it time and time again in that odd, blank stare of hers. In her spiteful, cutting words. In the way she laughed at anything that brought him misery.
The letter went on to say she must have gotten pregnant that night nearly three months ago, when he was intoxicated and, although she’d represented it differently, desperate enough that he nearly took her back into his bed. He’d started to kiss her, to touch her–his body had demanded a release after the many months he’d remained celibate–but he hadn’t finished the act. He’d thought of Jeremy and been unable to finish. As drunk as he was, he had not been so drunk that she could rewrite history.
So what was this really about?
He wished he couldn’t answer that question, but it was all too obvious. He’d left her alone long enough that she’d grown desperate for a way to cover her betrayal. After three months, or maybe longer, she was probably beginning to show and knew she had to explain the pregnancy to him somehow. Waiting until he returned and found her big with child would look too suspicious. So she’d penned this letter full of false excitement, hoping to disarm him with her “good news” and hope of an heir.
Instead her words had brought all the hate he’d begun to feel for her rushing to the surface.
“Are you well, m’lord?”
It was his driver, calling out to him from the box on top. Truman had been so silent on the trip that William kept checking on him.
“Fine,” he responded, but his mind wasn’t focused on his answer. He was wondering who the father of this child could be. The way Katherine flirted and fawned over every man she met le” him with so many possibilities. She’d spent a great deal of time in London, both with and without him, and loved nothing more than inciting him to jealousy. . . .
He crushed the letter in his hand. “Damn her!”
“Did you say something, m’lord?”
He hadn’t realized he’d spoken out loud. But he didn’t bother to explain. They were already passing through the black-iron filigree gate and charging up the drive to Blackmoor Hall. It was Sunday morning. With any luck, the servants would still be at church and he’d have the chance to speak to his wife alone. Katherine had mentioned that she had “taken to her bed lest she risk the well-being of their child.”
The irony of her being so careful, after what he believed she’d done to little Jeremy, made his muscles bunch. Heaven help him. He was finished, he promised himself, and he’d tell her so. He would get a divorce, no matter the consequences to either of them. He would not live with her another day. Or maybe once the baby was born, he’d have her committed to Bedlam.
Jumping out the moment the horses came to a stop, he ran into the house and shouted her name.
Something tickled. Rachel McTavish squirmed, trying to reach the spot just beneath her left breast that itched so mercilessly, but the layers of her shift, corset and wool dress nullified the efforts of her fingers.
Perched on a ladder propped against the shelves of her mother’s bookshop, she glanced around the empty shop and through the front windows. It was early yet. No carts or carriages rumbled past. Plunging one hand down the neck of her dress, she closed her eyes and scratched. Ahhh . . . blessed relief!
The bell tinkled over the door. Rachel’s eyelids flew open to find a man standing just inside the entrance, staring up at her with a mocking smile on his lips. Only it wasn’t just any man$it was the Earl of Druridge. Although Rachel had never seen him at such close proximity before, she would have recognized him anywhere. She had feared he might come to call. His solicitor had visited her thrice already.
Her scalp tingled with apprehension and embarrassment as she extricated her hand from inside her bodice.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Miss McTavish.” His voice was a deep baritone, thicker and richer than honey. “I can see you are quite busy, but I think you know why I am here.”
Ignoring the subtle taunt, Rachel descended the ladder, half-wishing she could stay where she was, well out of his reach. She felt like a bird unwisely abandoning the safety of its cage to ‘ it about the nose of a cat.
But she knew the relative security of the ladder was an illusion. The earl was nothing like his small, bespectacled solicitor, in looks or in manner, and would not be so easily routed.
“I have nothing to say to you, sir. I’ve told Mr. Lewis and your butler, Linley, so before, and on more than one occasion.”
“So you have.” He smiled but no kindness entered his amber-colored eyes. “Perhaps they didn’t mention that I am willing to make your cooperation well worth the effort.”
Lord Druridge possessed a full head of dark, wavy hair and stood several inches taller than most men. Once on an equal footing with him, Rachel had to tilt her head back to look into his face, a visage hard and lean enough to remind her of the hungry wolves fabled to have roamed the countryside. Although he had probably just shaved, the shadow of a heavy beard darkened his jaw. And he was wearing gloves, but she’d heard that scars from the fire at Blackmoor Hall two years ago marked his left hand, extending as far up his sleeve as one could see.
“Your man mentioned a large purse, but I am not interested. My father is dead. I have nothing to say to you.”
“Your father may be dead, but by the narrowest of margins, I am not.” The earl took a step toward her, his face losing all pretense of civility. “I won’t rest until I learn what happened the day the % re killed my wife and the child she carried–”
“Someone else’s babe, by all reports.” Rachel uttered the words before she could check them, but once they were out, she refused to feel the least penitent, despite the sudden clenching of Lord Druridge’s jaw. Most likely no one had ever dared say such a thing to his face, although the villagers, even his own servants, gossiped about his late wife’s many dalliances and anything else that had to do with him or his family.
“Already I see you know more than you led my solicitor to believe,” he said, catching her in her own words. “Please, continue to speak freely.”
“I know nothing. Only that you had as much reason to set the fire at Blackmoor Hall as anyone,” she said. “Mr. Lewis told me what Linley claims to have found, but I don’t believe it. And I am not so impressed with your power or your money as some might be. I will not let you intimidate me.”
The earl’s hand snaked out to grab her elbow. “If you are not intimidated, you should be,” he said. “I hold the lease on this building as well as your home. I could turn you and your family out, and will do so if I must. I will have my answers, one way or another.”
Fear raised the hair on Rachel’s arms as she tried, unsuccessfully, to pull away. She wanted to put some distance between them, to escape the subtle smell of soap that clung to his body. “Isn’t it enough that you had my father sacked when you knew$had to know$he was dying?”
He released her, but his body remained taut, like a tightly coiled spring. “I sent your father away from the colliery because he was a blustering drunk with a penchant for starting trouble. He’d been warned before.” The earl made an impatient gesture with his hand. “But I haven’t come to justify my actions. Believe what you will of me, Miss McTavish, only speak the truth. What do you know about the fire at Blackmoor Hall?”
“My father had nothing to do with it.”
“More than one man has pointed me in his direction.”
“Because Lewis and Linley go around plying various miners with their insidious questions, and my father is a likely scapegoat. He had just lost his job; he was angry. He said some things he shouldn’t have, but that doesn’t make him a murderer.”
The earl’s eyes seemed to glow with an inner light. “Neither does it give him much to lose.”
Rachel lifted her chin. “He had his family. He wouldn’t have wanted us to suffer because of his actions–”
“From what I know of Jack McTavish, he rarely took the suffering of others into consideration,” he broke in. “Regardless, I am not looking to falsely accuse anyone, even a ghost.”
“Then look elsewhere for your murderer, my lord.”
“I will go where my questions lead me. Unfortunately for both of us, they have brought me here.”
“A waste of your time, surely.”
“Not if you hope to retain your home.”
She swallowed hard. “More threats, my lord? Well, consider this: If you turn us out, you will never get your answers.”
Rachel looked past him through the window, hoping someone would enter the shop so she wouldn’t have to be alone with him any longer. But she saw, for the first time, that a liveried footman stood outside. No doubt he worked for Druridge and had been set there to ensure his master’s privacy, as if the presence of the Druridge carriage wasn’t enough to discourage all but the boldest of souls from entering.
“It would seem we have reached an impasse,” he said.
Feeling helpless in the face of his persistence, Rachel eyed him. The earl could send his solicitor or his trusted butler to press her or appear any number of times himself, and he could stay as long as he liked. She could do nothing about it. To make matters worse, her mother was bedridden with a raging fever. If he turned them out, they’d have nowhere to go.
“Please, let us be,” she said, lowering her voice. “My mother is ill, I have a young brother to care for, and I have much to do here. I cannot help you.”
He skewered her with a pointed stare. “Believe me when I say I am sorry for your misfortune, Miss McTavish. But I think you can help me, and if you know what is good for you, you will. You may have no interest in money, although it appears you sorely need it”$his gaze ranged over her simple dress, making her doubly aware of its threadbare state– “but I have something of much greater value to offer.”
“I don’t care what you have, my lord. You can evict us if you want, but my answer will not change.” Brave words, for a coward.
“Even for a competent physician to attend your mother?”
Rachel’s breath caught and held. A physician? Besides an old drunk called Smedlin, Creswell had no expert in the healing arts. And thanks to the terrible weather over the previous two weeks, she had been unable to convince anyone more capable to traverse the long road from Newcastle.
“I doubt a doctor could do anything more than I have–”
“You don’t know that, do you?”
She’d been bluffing when she’d thumbed her nose at his threat to toss them into the street. She could never allow him to do that. The promise of a doctor baited the hook better still. . . .
“Dr. Jacobsen is a fine physician,” the earl continued as though sensing her weakness. “He is staying at Blackmoor Hall this very instant. I need only send my carriage to bring him to your cottage.” He raised his eyebrows while absently massaging his left hand–his scarred hand.
Fleetingly, Rachel wondered if it pained him. Any scarring would be a pity, considering it blemished a manly form as close to perfection as she had ever seen. Maybe Druridge’s face was a bit too exaggerated in its planes and angles, a bit too hard-edged to be considered handsome. But a woman could never complain about the rest of him. Thanks to his broad shoulders, lean waist and long legs, she couldn’t help feeling a bit . . . dazzled in spite of her feelings where he was concerned. It didn’t help that he wore his expensive clothing$a calf-length, green cape, beige trousers and a black coat with matching waistcoat–with an indifferent air that suggested he’d just as soon be garbed in something simple as something so obviously rich. His physique, and how fluidly he moved, set him apart from any other man she’d ever met, especially when she compared him to the stooped miners that comprised the better part of the village.
“No.” Ignoring the raw magnetism that emanated from him like steam rising from a lake, she crossed her arms in a decisive manner. “My mother will be fine. She merely needs her rest.”
“Certainly the three of you will rest easier once Dr. Jacobsen has taken a look at her. . . .”
Not if Jillian knew what she had to trade for the visit. And her mother would guess at first sight of a gentleman doctor. Accepting help from the earl, the one man Jillian blamed for the death of her eldest son and, less directly, her husband, would be enough to send her to the grave. Besides, after all Rachel had secretly done to unite the coal workers against Druridge, her sense of honor wouldn’t tolerate any kind of alliance with him.
“You have received my answer. She will recover,” she said and prayed she spoke the truth.
The earl studied her for several seconds. Then he said, “I will allow you some time to think about my offer. I ask only that you answer a few questions in exchange for Dr. Jacobsen’s visit.” He gave her a stiff, mocking bow. “I hope you will reconsider before it’s too late,” he added. Then he strode through the door and disappeared into the dark interior of his large coach.
Rachel hovered over her mother’s bed. “How do you feel?” she whispered.
The wasted figure that was Jillian McTavish nodded weakly. Her skin was as waxy and pale as a yellow moon; her eyes looked like huge pits in her sunken face. “Well enough, daughter.”
“I’ll see ye in the mornin’,” called a soft feminine voice from the other room, and Rachel realized that she hadn’t said good-bye to Mrs. Tate, the neighbor who sat with her mother and younger brother while she minded the shop.
She caught the older woman as she was stepping outside. “Thank you. I know it’s not an easy thing,” she said, her voice faltering.
“’Tis better me watchin’ it than ye,” Mrs. Tate responded. “You’re sufferin’ right along with ’er, that ye are.”
A tear trickled down Rachel’s face, but she swiped at it. “We cannot always choose what happens to us. But we can choose how we handle what does.” She echoed her mother’s o” -repeated words with more conviction than she felt. At the moment, she wondered if she could bear to be alone with Jillian. Surely it was only a ma! er of time. How much longer could her mother cling to that gossamer strand of life that kept her among the living?
Mrs. Tate lowered her voice as she clasped Rachel’s hands in her own. “She will likely pass tonight. Ye need to be prepared, luv. She’s been like this for nearly a week.”
“Part of me prays that she can be released from the pain,” Rachel whispered. “Watching her suffer is . . . it’s so terrible. But the other part . . .” She hesitated, and Mrs. Tate spared her the effort of continuing.
“I know. We’ll all miss ’er. She’s been a pillar of strength to this village for years, teachin’ so many of us our letters.” the rotund woman shook her head and, with a squeeze of Rachel’s hands, let go. “You should know that Geordie tried to wait up for ye, but sleep got the better of ’im, poor lad.”
She’d seen her brother curled up in his bed by the far wall; they all slept in the same room. “I had some accounts I had to go over at the shop. My mother has always taken care of the books, and I’m having a devil of a time trying to figure out what she’s done.”
“Ye can’t be everywhere at once.”
“Rachel? Is that you?” her mother called from the other room.
“Go to ’er before she wakes Geordie,” Mrs. Tate said.
Rachel felt little concern that she’d disturb Geordie. He slept too deeply.
But she didn’t want to put her mother to a lot of effort. “I’m on my way.”
“Let me know if ye need anythin’, child,” Mrs. Tate said as she left” .
Rachel forced a brief smile before closing the door and hurrying to the bedroom. Dipping her hands into the bowl of cool water on the washstand, she brought up the rag that floated inside and wrung it out so she could dab away the beads of sweat that glistened on her mother’s forehead.
“I can’t take much more.” As Jillian tossed on the sweat-soaked sheets, a spasm gripped her frail frame, and Rachel held a bowl while she vomited a clear liquid flecked with blood.
The Earl of Druridge and the physician he’d offered came immediately to mind. Could this Jacobsen help? Or was Rachel, tired of carrying the heavy burden of her mother’s illness alone, turning coward?
Eventually Jillian sank back on the bed and lay without moving, leaving Rachel to stew in frightened indecision. Was Mrs. Tate right? Would her mother die this night? Or was the worst of it over?
She glanced at Geordie, sleeping peacefully in his bed. Maybe their mother would begin to improve. . . .
Rachel embraced that last glimmer of hope as the long hand of the mantel clock swept inexorably toward midnight. The welcome respite of sleep washed over her soon after, but she dreamed of her father’s funeral: the wooden coffin, the overpowering scent of roses, the aging church, the weedstrewn graveyard.
The clock chimed one, waking her with a start. The wind had come up. Outside, tree branches clawed at the house, creating an eerie sound. A flurry of snowflakes fell, those close enough to the window luminescent in the light of the tallow candle that sat, flickering, on the pane.
Rachel shivered. Tomorrow all the world would be white and cold . . . but hopefully not so cold as now. She rose to draw the drapes and stir the dying embers of the fire in the hearth. She had been raised in this small, two-room, wooden house. Still, late at night it could be a foreboding, lonely place.
Her mother groaned, and Rachel whirled to face her bed.
“Come sit with me, dear. I don’t have long.” Jillian’s voice cracked as she struggled to sit up.
A lump congealed in Rachel’s throat as she rushed to prop a pillow behind her mother’s back. “Don’t talk. Rest. You need to conserve your strength.”
Jillian’s hand clutched at Rachel’s. “You have been a good girl and made me proud. We might be poor since my father died, but no one could tell it from your carriage or your speech.” She gasped for breath, winded by the effort of communicating. “There isn’t a man around, even a gentleman, with a better head for numbers and letters. You would have made your grandfather proud.”
The foreboding Rachel had felt all day grew stronger. Her mother’s words sounded suspiciously like a farewell. “Mum, listen to me. # e Earl of Druridge came to the shop today–”
“What?” Her eyes flew wide, shining with the false luster of sickness. “Oh Rachel, you mustn’t speak to him. Promise me you won’t–” A bout of coughing rendered her speechless, and Rachel took advantage of the opportunity to interrupt.
“He only wants the truth, Mum. Perhaps he has a right to know, at least as much as we can tell him–”
“No!” Her mother’s fingers curled into the flesh of Rachel’s arm. “You don’t understand . . . I have feared this day”–she swallowed hard–“tried to protect you, all of us, against it–”
“Hush.” Feeling guilty for having broached the subject, Rachel patted her mother’s hand. She had hoped to achieve release from a promise made years ago, but she now feared her mother wasn’t strong enough to withstand such a flood of emotion. “Forget I brought it up. We can discuss it in the morning, when you’re feeling be! er. For now, you should rest.”
Jillian ignored her protests. “If Lord Druridge has turned his attention on you, he will not leave things as they lie,” she wheezed. “He is a determined devil, that one. But you mustn’t tell him, Rachel.”
“No! It was wrong of Jack to leave us with such burdens, but I will not betray him. . . . What was a woman to do? . . . Whoever thought it would come to what it did? . . . Such nasty business . . . I told him, but he wouldn’t listen. . . .wouldn’t light the fire in this cold house . . .”
Rachel grew more worried as her mother’s words became unintelligible. When she merely grunted and moaned, tossing in agitation, Rachel feared Jillian was losing her mind. She gripped her mother’s hand with a ferocity that belied her calm demeanor.
“Don’t leave me, Mum.” The howl of the wind echoed the wail of pain in her heart. “I don’t want Geordie and me to be alone. First Tommy, then Father, now you . . . Please try to relax. Forget I said anything about the earl. I can take care of things; you know I can.”
She fell silent. Her mother’s eyelashes rested on her paper-thin cheeks as Rachel watched the barely perceptible rise and fall of her chest, waiting, hoping and praying that she would survive. But then the truth crystallized in her mind, lending her fresh determination, and she accepted what she had known deep inside from the beginning. So long as there existed the smallest chance to save her mother’s life, she would do anything, sacrifice anything, promise or no.
Releasing her mother’s hand, Rachel rushed to the coat rack to retrieve a heavy, wool cape.
“Rachel . . . ?”
Reluctantly, Rachel retraced her steps as far as the door to the bedroom.
“Where are you going? We must discuss this.” Jillian gasped for breath. “Just give me a chance to recover my strength.”
“We will have all the time we want in the morning, Mother,” Rachel gently insisted, steady now that the decision had been made. “I am going out, but I will get Mrs. Tate. She will be here if you or Geordie need anything.”
“Wait,” her mother called.
But Rachel had no time to spare. She had wasted far too many days and hours already, holding herself to a promise she could not keep. “I love you, Mum. Just rest. I will be back shortly.” She tossed the last of her words over her shoulder as she rushed to the front door, where she raised her hood and plunged outside, into the biting cold.
The fire in Truman’s study popped and crackled, a singularly comforting sound as he bowed over the ledgers strewn across his desk. The servants had long since gone to bed. Even Linley had retired. Only Wythe was up; at least, Truman assumed he was up. He wasn’t home. Although his cousin never said how he spent his evenings, Truman had heard enough to know he frequented Elspeth’s, the village brothel, on a regular basis. He guessed Wythe was there now. Newcastle was too far away to visit more than once a fortnight, and country society offered little by way of late-night entertainment.
Setting his quill in its brass and marble holder, Truman flexed his fingers and stretched his neck. He was exhausted but he fought the weariness that threatened to overtake him. Sleep had become his own personal hell, fraught with memories and contortions of events he would rather not revisit.
Almost involuntarily, his gaze strayed to the painting of Katherine hanging on the wall in front of him. It was one of the few pieces of art, of anything, the villagers had salvaged from the cinders of Blackmoor Hall and, ironically, the only item that hadn’t sustained considerable damage. The blaze that had claimed Katherine’s life had le” her portrait untouched to haunt him in its perfect likeness–as if he could ever forget her. And he was just stubborn enough to hang her picture where he would see it most, an unspoken challenge to unmask her murderer, even if the face behind that mask turned out to be his own.
He pulled his gaze away from her beauty and forced his mind back to the colliery accounts. Another twenty minutes passed before he finished checking his bookkeeper’s work. Then, shoving the heavy ledger away, he stared into the small frame that danced atop the candle on his desk. What other business awaited his attention?
The grandfather clock in the hall beyond his closed door chimed one thirty. He scrubbed his face with his hand. Nothing remained pressing enough to keep sleep at bay for long, he feared, riffling through the papers at his elbow.
The engraved, mahogany box sitting on the corner of the desk sheltered his personal correspondence. He opened it and set aside the ugly, accusatory letters from Katherine’s parents. The Abbotts were growing angrier as time passed. At first he’d questioned whether the fire could have happened accidentally. But with all the servants at church and the fires well banked, there was little chance of that. The fire had broken out in the empty room next to the library, a room that was hardly ever used and hadn’t seen a fire in the grate for months. The timing worked against him too, considering that he’d just learned of her infidelity. The Abbotts pointed to all these things, over and over, but he wouldn’t deal with his in-laws now, not until he could say with some certainty how their daughter had lost her life.
Tonight he craved a simpler diversion, like sorting through the myriad social invitations he had failed to answer over the previous months.
The first of the rose-scented cards received his attention, but his chin soon bumped his chest.
Sliding his chair back so he could lay his head on his arms, he decided to let himself rest for a few moments. But as soon as his eyelids closed, he was riding through the streets of Creswell when an old woman harangued his coach, sounding as though she stood at his side. “Murderer!”
He twitched but couldn’t wake as her rotten apple thumped his coach, followed by another and another until the sky seemed to be raining refuse. Calling to his driver to stop, he got out and opened his mouth to deny her words. But the instant he laid eyes on the old lady, her straggly hair turned into bright, golden tresses, her eyes into icy, blue pools and her rotting teeth into Katherine’s accusing lips.
“Murderer!” Her fingers grabbed for him, clawing the air in desperation–and suddenly they were in the library together at Blackmoor Hall, surrounded by fire.
Smoke filled Truman’s vision and burned his nose and throat. Despite the pain that seared his le” hand as if he had thrust it into a cauldron of boiling water, he could think of nothing besides Katherine’s betrayal. The baby. Someone else’s child.
I’ll kill her for this. He uttered the words over and over until they sounded like an incantation. Katherine screamed, as if in answer, and Truman jerked again. She wasn’t far; he could hear her panicked movements not two feet away.
Strangely, her suffering brought him no pleasure. He reached out, but whether to pull her to him or push her away, he didn’t know. Before he could touch her, everything went black and he didn’t come to until his cousin Wythe hefted him over one shoulder.
With a start, Truman raised his head and blinked at the wood paneling of his study, the dying embers of the fire and, finally, the small pointy face of Susanna, one of his maids.
Shaking his head to clear his mind of the sounds that echoed there, he forced himself to return to the present. It had only been a dream, a slight variation of the nightmare that constantly plagued him. No doubt the storm raging outside, making the trees knock against the windows at his back, had been the apples that thundered upon his carriage.
If only that knowledge could ease the torment inside him.
“Can I bring ye anythin’ before I retire, m’lord?” the maid asked, bobbing in a curtsy.
Truman took a deep, cleansing breath. “You’re still up, Susanna?”
“I told Mrs. Poulson not to have anyone wait up for me. I certainly cannot expect my servants to keep such hours.”
“She didn’t charge me ter wait, m’lord. I”–Susanna glanced at her feet–“well, ye seem a bit troubled of late. An’ I thought per’aps ye might ’ave need of”–her gaze lifted, then darted away the moment her eyes met his–“some female companionship, m’lord.”
Was this shy, young maid offering herself to him for the night? He had taken no one to his bed since Katherine. For all his wife’s accusations, he had remained loyal to her for fidelity’s sake alone. Since her death, the fear that he would wake in a cold sweat, as he had just done, kept him from letting anyone get too close$that and the doubt he saw in so many women’s eyes, the doubt that mirrored his own.
But this girl seemed so unassuming, so eager and so safe he was almost tempted.
“Master Wythe says I can ease a man like no other,” she added. Her words were meant to entice, but they doused any desire her initial offer had kindled.
“He would know.”
“Beg yer pardon, m’lord?”
“Nothing.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “Thank you for your kind offer, Susanna. Please forgive me if I say I am too tired . . . tonight,” he added to soften his refusal.
Looking like a child whose bedtime kiss had been rejected by a parent, she nodded and turned to go.
“For your own sake, I would let Wythe ease himself somewhere else. A babe is no small burden for a woman alone.”
“Aye, m’lord.” She flushed to the roots of her dark hair and quietly shut the door.
When she was gone, Truman dropped his head into his hands. He had to speak to Wythe about dabbling with the servants. But with his cousin still out he couldn’t do it now.
It wasn’t long before his mind returned, inevitably, to his most recent dream. Why couldn’t he remember what happened the day Katherine died? He could recall, in minute detail, the events leading up to the fire: Katherine’s letter informing him of the babe she carried, his mad dash from London, the frightened look on his wife’s face when he confronted her in his anger.
But what, exactly, had followed their first heated words?
Closing his eyes, he grappled with the remaining wisps of his dream, opening himself up to all sensation, anything that might have made an imprint on his brain, both real and imagined. And suddenly, almost too simply, too easily, it was there: a slight but important detail he had never noticed before.
The realization of what his discovery could mean brought him to his feet. “My God! Could it be true?”
He rounded his desk to pace in front of the fire, examining the vision in his head until he felt quite certain of it. Then he penned a letter to an acquaintance in London.
When he finished, he looked at Katherine’s portrait again, only this time he smiled. He wouldn’t let her win. In life, she had tried to destroy him, had hated him for knowing the leprous character beneath her pretty face. In death, she was more vengeful still. But he would persist, and when he could eventually see through the smoke that clouded the truth, he would know, at last, whether his soul had been worth the fight.
National Readers Choice Awards: Best Historical Romance of 2013